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Saying no to war

KALPANA SHARMA

AP

Peace ... loud and clear from across the world.

OLD, young, fat, thin, men, women, children, many colours, many creeds — tens of thousands of them were out on the streets of over 400 cities in 60 countries last week. In freezing weather, under sunny skies, they spoke many languages but their message was the same in any language: a big "No", a total rejection of war as the only option to settle differences.

You would have to be deaf, or blind, or both not to register the strength of these worldwide protests. Yet, it is amazing how many people are both, people who run the mightiest country in the world, people who run the most powerful media organisations in the world, basically people who hold the key to whether the world will be plunged into another war, or whether the vocabulary of civilized negotiation will prevail.

In India, we did get a flavour of these demonstrations, but only a whiff, not the full story. Here are excerpts from two accounts that illustrate the nature of the demonstrations. Euan Ferguson of The Guardian wrote about the London march: "There were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society. Archaeologists Against War. Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Women's Choir and Notts County Supporters Say Make Love Not War (And a Home Win against Bristol would be Nice). They won 2-0, by the way. One group of SWP stalwarts were joined, for the first march in any of their histories, by their mothers. There were country folk and lecturers, dentists and poulterers, a hairdresser from Cardiff and a poet from Cheltenham."

An American academic who went for the New York march wrote in an e-mail: "It was a very good natured crowd, mostly made up of people in the 30-70 bracket. I never heard a cross word spoken, despite the cold and the clear fact that the police didn't know what they were doing and, thanks to the court order forbidding a march down First Avenue, were faced with a nearly impossible task of crowd control. The police too were pleasant and calm. Unlike the big Vietnam era mobilizations in DC, this march had no central organisation and no marshalls to direct and assist participants. People simply took responsibility for themselves and spontaneously helped one another, passing information along about directions and conditions. Mainly, everyone there seemed astonished at the number of people who'd turned out. There was a general feeling among those of us who are horrified by Bush's domestic and international policies that we weren't isolated cranks — that, in fact, there are millions of Americans who share our concerns who have been kept in ignorance of one another by a right wing media conspiracy."

So why has President Bush's threat to bomb Iraq provoked such a universal reaction? Why have these demonstrations attracted even those people who normally do not participate in street protests? Why should Americans, the British, Europeans, the Japanese, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Indians, South Americans and other nationalities be bothered whether a dictator like Saddam Hussein is forced to step down and hand over the reins of power in Iraq to an American-backed leadership? Why should they be concerned about a war that will be contained within one region of the world that is a very long way from where they live? Why should they care?

The reason, I think, is quite simple. People all over the world are tired, tired of the conflicts that will not subside and the new ones that keep raising their heads. They are fed up of television images of war, terror, bombs, refugees, broken people, arrogant leaders that are beamed into their homes day in and day out. People are weary of talk about using force to settle disputes, or arguments that hold that you must first pulverise your enemy, demonstrate your strength and then talk. Of leaders like Bush who say, "Today, the greatest danger in the war on terror, the greatest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons", but who fails to recognise that his own country systematically defies international conventions, possesses all these weapons and yet would have us believe that others are "outlaws" and he is within the law.

You don't have to hate America not to buy Bush's argument. The Americans who are rejecting it love their country. People from all over the world who have made the United States their home also value the freedoms that it offers. Yet, they reject the patent hypocrisy that underlies the arguments of the U.S. establishment justifying its desire to wage war against Iraq.

And what of Iraq? The voices of people from that country are rarely heard. An International Study Team visited Iraq recently and released a devastating report about children in that country titled "Our Common Responsibility: The Impact of a New War on Iraqi Children" (full report available on www.warchild.ca). Ten-year-old Aesar asked them to send this message to President Bush: "A lot of Iraqi children will die. You will see it on TV and then you will regret." And 11-year-old Shahad said, "I do not expect them to kill so many. It is not acceptable. Maybe American people have some sympathy with us since we are peaceful and do not want to attack them." And saddest of all, five-year-old Assem said, "They have guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much."

In the 1991 Gulf War, over a period of six weeks, more than 90,000 tons of explosives were dropped on Iraq. According to one estimate, between 50 to 70 per cent of them missed their intended targets. All told, 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and between 40 to 80,000 civilians. Since then, a destroyed infrastructure, a lack of food and medical supplies resulting from sanctions, has guaranteed the death of tens of thousands of children, women and men. This is the country that Bush projects as the number one threat to the world, and these are the people who will bear the brunt of another round of American bombs. How many more will "burn very much", as little Assem put it?

Can any sane person accept that a civilized world should function in this way? Can anyone say anything but a big No to war, to the insanity of justifying force, to the immorality of using economic and military superiority to bludgeon inconvenient nations into falling in line? Last week demonstrated that there are still millions of sane people in the world.

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