'Getting in the way': Christian peacemakers from the West Bank to Iraq

About the author
Andrew Mueller is an author and journalist.

It is not something that many would consider as a retirement option – for ourselves, our parents or our grandparents. British citizen Norman Kember is, at time of writing, in his tenth day as a hostage – along with two Canadians (James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden) and an American (Tom Fox) – of a hitherto unheralded gaggle of Baghdad militants trading as the Syouf al-Haq (“Swords of Truth Brigade”; the imagination can only boggle when it considers the names these yahoos must discard).

For information about the three hostages held with Norman Kember, click on the links:

Tom Fox, 54, American

James Loney, 41, Canadian

Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, Canadian

Norman Kember is 74 years old. Most people reading this will have relatives that age, and most people reading this will want nothing for those relatives but comfort, rest and good health, and probably nothing from them bar a pair of socks at Christmas. Few of us, unless we were really keen to inherit the hall clock, would want or expect them to embark on a mortally hazardous voluntary mission to the most dangerous city in the world – and if they expressed any such desire, we’d be pretty likely to send for men equipped with butterfly nets and a van that locks on the outside.

I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Professor Kember, though I hope, as every sane person must, that this will remain a theoretical possibility for some time to come. He seems an admirable man – a doctor with a particular expertise in the effects of radiation on bone growth, and a prolific campaigner and volunteer for various charities. I have, however, met someone with whom Norman Kember shares an approximate age, a fondness for peace, a willingness to put himself on the line for his beliefs, and membership of the organisation founded in 1988 on whose behalf Kember travelled to Baghdad – the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

A Hebron tale

In January 2005, I was writing a story about a British company called the Olive Co-Op, who run guided tours of the Palestinian Territories. Our small group was visiting the West Bank city of Hebron, and walking the edge of the old city’s market – once a vibrant Arab souk housed in pretty winding alleyways, now a ghost town mostly deserted by its shopkeepers.

Also on the politics of hostage-taking in openDemocracy:

Mary Kaldor, “How to free hostages: war, negotiation, or law-enforcement?” (September 2004)

Douglas Murray, “What al-Zarqawi knows” (September 2004)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Hebron’s population of Israeli settlers, perhaps 500 or so, had moved into the buildings overlooking the market, and stamped their authority on the place with a peculiar campaign of vandalism – daubing the Star of David on the green shutters of the abandoned shops, dropping household rubbish out of their windows (steel nets strung across the alleys caught most, but not all, of it). More than 2,000 Israeli Defence Force soldiers were also stationed in Hebron, protecting the interlopers. Hebron, final resting place of Abraham, is a tense and depressing place. However, we bumped into someone determined not to be depressed by it.

His name was John Lynes, he was 76 years old, and he was sporting a grey beard, walking with the aid of a stick, and wearing the distinctive bright red cap of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. He invited our group into the CPT headquarters in Hebron – the roof terrace offered a splendid view of the city, which from overhead was very pretty, the sun glinting against the arched windows of its block-shaped houses of Jerusalem stone.

Back downstairs in a shady room whose walls were covered in maps of the region, the former university lecture in architecture explained the CPT’s ethos. “We believe”, he said, “in taking the same risks, and making the same sacrifices, as soldiers”. In Hebron, this had included helping construct clinics, attempting to discourage Israeli demolitions, and escorting Palestinian children to school. The details of CPT missions around the world varied with local conditions; aside from Palestine and Iraq, there are CPT teams operating in Burundi, Congo and Colombia, among other places. But the common element, said Lynes, was what the CPT calls “violence reduction”, essentially projecting themselves into unreasonable situations and trying to be reasonable – in accordance with the CPT’s motto, “getting in the way”.

John Lynes was born into a Jewish family in 1928, but had been a committed Quaker for more than fifty years. In Hebron, he said, the CPT was acting as both a witness to the conflict, and a go-between for anyone on either side willing to talk to the others. Lynes conceded that in Hebron such people were not always in ready supply. “The settlers have called me a Nazi”, he smiled, “and I’m old enough to remember what a real Nazi was”.

Also by Andrew Mueller in openDemocracy:

“Don’t stop the war” (March 2005)

“Taiwan in a Chinese overture” (May 2005)

“’Guerrillas without guns’: Albania’s activism festival” (June 2005)

“Recognise us! The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation” (July 2005)

“Abkhazian futures” (August 2005)

“Arrested in southern Cameroon” (November 2005)

The job was hazardous. CPT volunteers accompanying Palestinian schoolchildren and shepherds had been attacked by settlers. “They cover their heads with ski masks”, said Lynes, “and tend to speak English with American accents. They use chains and clubs”. He said, however, that he generally got on okay with the Israeli soldiers. “On the whole”, he said, “they respect us. They can respond to an individual. And to be honest, I think the age thing, the beard and the walking stick all helps. There are a lot of things that a young man doesn’t want to be seen doing by his grandfather.”

A question of duty

Including, one would hope, murdering old men who evidently mean no harm at all. The Swords of Truth Brigade have said that they will kill Norman Kember and his colleagues this coming Thursday, 8 December, unless all prisoners in American and Iraqi detention centres are released. It may happen that they, like the kidnappers of Guardian journalist Rory Carroll, can be talked out of it.

It would probably be hoping too much that they contemplate the example of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and have a bit of a think about what calm, considered resistance can accomplish. Whatever happens, there will be a great deal of muttering that Professor Kember and his colleagues have been naive, foolish, the authors of their own misfortune. All of which is true to an extent, but it is hard to believe the world would be a better place if every 70-something as smart, decent, passionate and engaged as Norman Kember and John Lynes resigned themselves to a retirement of gin and dominoes.

When I asked John Lynes what he was doing in a place as odd, uncertain, and sometimes frightening as Hebron, he looked at me like I’d just asked the silliest question he’d ever heard, and perhaps I had.

“Because”, he said, “this is all one can do.”