My life as a human shield in Iraq
Donna Mulhearn was at the height of her career in early 2003, as a press secretary to NSW Labor MP John Aquilina after being a successful journalist. Then she heard a radio interview with a former US marine turned peace activist Ken O’Keefe. He made a startling call for western volunteers to go to Baghdad to act as human shields in an effort to stop the Iraq War. In that moment, Mulhearn’s life changed forever.
“There’s a prayer I used to read from St Francis, who was my mentor. The first line of this prayer is: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.’ It’s a very radical prayer,” reflects Mulhearn. In 2003, she was on a Catholic religious pilgrimage and was thinking about this prayer. At the same time, the combined forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland were preparing to invade Iraq to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein.
“I heard the call, which was not an angel appearing in a dream, but it was Ken O’Keefe talking about this thing called the human shield movement. He said: ‘Why don’t we as Westerners go to Iraq, because it seems the government and media think our lives have more value and we would make it the first item on the news if we were killed. What would happen if we stood there? What would they do? Would they bomb?’ I knew as soon as I heard that call, that I had to go because it was what I was seeking.”
"I saw Baghdad, not in its glory, because under sanctions it was worn down. But I saw the resilience of the people."
– Donna Mulhearn
As it became increasingly clear that the US would invade Iraq, the human shield movement, instigated by O’Keefe, began sending western volunteers to place themselves at strategic sites to make bombing these sites politically untenable. On 25 January 2003, 30 human shield volunteers left London for Iraq, picking up volunteers, like Mulhearn, throughout other countries on their way. At their peak in Iraq, they numbered about 500.
“One goal was to be at particular sites, such as power stations and water treatment plants, and let the Pentagon know our location. Maybe they wouldn’t bomb that site because it would kill 20 white people with names like Donna, John and Mary rather than names like Rehab or Yousef. That was the strategy. That’s what we did. One of my other main goals as a journalist was to bear witness. I wanted to witness the war first hand and then report back to my friends and my community in Australia.”
As Australia’s most high-profile human shield, Mulhearn’s decision polarised the Australian public. Some called her a hero, while others labelled her as a careless traitor. Mulhearn said the movement and its ideology caused polarisation both at home in Australia, as well as among locals when she arrived in Iraq.
“At first they were a bit perplexed, to be honest. They would say to us: ‘You have a choice, you don’t have to be here. We have to be here. We’re going to have to go through this.’ I think some people were suspicious. When they realised we were there for the long haul and the bombs started dropping and we were still there, they were very moved and quite emotional.”
Mulhearn says after that after initial hiccups, she established very close relationships with the Iraqis she met along the way.
“When the invasion began and where we were staying at a water treatment plant, the locals were driving every day to bring us food. In the lead-up to that, we were stopped on the streets. People would ask us questions and they were curious and very educated. They’d invite us to their house for tea and we’d be there for hours. The two common questions I got asked was are you married, and how’s your mother. So I realised family is everything for them. I enjoyed that insight.”
Mulhearn stayed in Iraq for two months in the early stages of the Iraq war, seeing how the fear of dictator Saddam Hussein still lingered.
“There’s the shadow of Saddam always, and it was hard to have conversations because people were always so nervous. I saw Baghdad, not in its glory, because under sanctions it was worn down. But I saw the resilience of the people. Under the sanctions, the Iraqis had to be really creative. For example, a little guy had a stall on the street and his business was repairing cigarette lighters. They had to be creative.”
The second time she went back and stayed in Iraq for six months, where she along with other volunteers built a shelter for street kids and orphans and set up tents for displaced families.
“Those six months were amazing. We created arts schools, arts and theatre. I lived in Karada, the Baghdad suburb where 300 people were killed in a bombing in July this year. The last couple of months, I’ve just been numb,” says Mulhearn.
She was in Fallujah in Anbar Province during the US’s assault against the city in 2004.
“I entered the city while it was under attack. We got a phone call from doctors in Fallujah and they said: ‘You’ve got to come and see this, they are shooting at children.’
“We saw the snipers on the roofs of buildings and mosques and we saw children with gunshot wounds to the head. We tried to aid a pregnant woman in the city who needed help and that’s when we got shot at. I had four bullets shave over my head. It was one of the most terrifying nights of my life. I thought I was going to die.”
During the battle of Fallujah, the US later admitted they had employed toxic weapons such as white phosphorus as well as other munitions. In an attack where the impact has been called worse than Hiroshima, it left a legacy of high rates of infant death and cancer in the region.
Donna recalls her trip to Baghdad, before the war, “I met children in hospital who were dying of leukaemia. That was my introduction to uranium exposure. There were so many kids, including one girl named Arian, who was dying as she couldn’t access medicine because of the sanctions. These were sanctions that Australia supported. So I committed myself to raising awareness about this issue. In 2012, I went back to Fallujah and my role was to meet the women and children impacted by the new rounds of depleted uranium. I was in the room as babies died with their mothers there. It was hard. I cried a lot. It was depressing. It was 10 years on and nothing had changed. I saw just destruction and pain,” she says.
Mulhearn’s 2012 trip to Iraq was a turning point.
“It was devastating. I wanted to see that things were better. And they weren’t. I was devastated that I couldn’t see improvement. There were pockets of improvements and places where people were getting on, such as Najaf. But there was still this shadow over the country and there were a lot of politics and there were a lot of accusations of corruption. None of the Iraqis respected the government. There was still this feeling of instability. That upset me. Baghdad, I couldn’t even recognise it. It was just concrete blast walls. Where there were parks, there are now garbage dumps. Where there were soccer fields, now there are refugee tents. Where there were fountains and music, now there is barbed wire and concrete. I could barely recognise it,” she says.
In July this year, the British government published the Chilcot report, an inquiry that found that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had exaggerated the threat posed by the Iraqi regime in the build-up to the 2003 invasion. It also found that US President George W. Bush failed to listen to advice on post-war planning, describing the whole invasion as a strategic failure.
Says Mulhearn: “Millions of people around the world marched against the war on Iraq and that’s been validated by the Chilcot report. I would like to see tribunals and investigations here in Australia. People are wondering what Prime Minister John Howard knew and what our role was. I’m heartbroken that a community has had to endure so much. The next stage is healing.
“I look at Iraq today and see a direct lineage back to events in 2003. I could see the rise of Islamic State. I could sense this in Anbar province in 2013. [Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki needed to do something. We predicted this. I was angry. ISIS had moved into Fallujah. Tribesmen didn’t want Islamic State to be there. When they overtook Mosul and other parts of Iraq, I wasn’t surprised. The political vacuum created in 2003 allowed for ISIS to evolve. The Americans didn’t plan; they didn’t think about after the occupation.”
Mulhearn says she would like to see an investigation into Australia’s role in the Iraq war and into how much former Prime Minister John Howard knew.
“Australia has a lot to answer for. We were part of this situation. We’re right in this. We need an inquiry. Iraq needs Australian aid. Next is healing. Let’s get ISIS out and let’s have reconciliation. This is going to take a long time. Australia, the UK, US and the coalition of the willing need to apologise and should admit it. Acknowledgement would mean something.”
When asked if she wants to return to Iraq, Mulhearn smiles.
“I would love to but I’m afraid of how I would deal with it emotionally. I want to see hope. I don’t know when that’s going to be… I would love to walk to streets of Karada and enjoy those fruit juices and have the black tea in little glasses and I’d like to be able to walk around without the fear that everybody has.”
She adds wistfully: “I want to see Iraq in all its glory…”
Donna Mulhearn was an Australian journalist who made a life-changing trip to Iraq to become a ‘human shield’ in the war zone.