Jim Foley, IS and what I learned from being kidnapped

Aug 29, 2014 by

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We sat on mats in a traditional sitting room in a remote village of northwestern Iraq. One of our captors guarded the door with his assault rifle at the other end of the room. We prayed, we sang silently and we talked to each other so that the fear we felt would not become paralyzing panic. This is what you learn to do when you are kidnapped.

Since I’d started working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad in 2002, I’d known that being abducted, or even killed, was a possibility. Tom Fox, who was kidnapped in Baghdad with three other members of a CPT delegation to Iraq was killed. At the advice of our Iraqi partners, we moved north from Baghdad to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Six months later, a team member and I, along with our driver and translator, were stopped and abducted along the road.

No one wants to die doing this work. None of us wants to cause grief for our family and friends or to spread fear among others taking risks to work for peace and reconciliation in places of conflict around the world.

As I’ve watched the news about the gruesome death of Jim Foley — a truly horrible act — I can only imagine the pain this means for his family, for others currently kidnapped who may meet the same fate, and for reporters who are still risking their lives to tell the truth about what is happening in conflict areas of the world.

I also think about the Yazidi people who have fled the violence and terror of the Islamic State. We are not able to physically stop IS, but along with local people, we are nonviolently resisting what their actions mean for the people of Iraq. IS forces are killing, abusing and fostering hatred toward people who do not conform to their beliefs.

Local leaders here are resisting IS nonviolently when they make public statements and come together to protest and advocate for those who feel most powerless in their society. Muslims have been protesting IS’s efforts to force Christians to flee their villages. Christians, Muslims and secular persons have been protesting and advocating for the Yazidis and displaced people from other minority ethnic groups. Yesterday, our team took part in a demonstration and march in Erbil, protesting the violence against the Yazidi women IS forces have taken as sex slaves and calling on officials to do more to find and help the women.

The nonviolence work being done in this situation is that of advocacy, accompaniment, reconciliation and seeking to build safe and caring communities where all these ethnic groups can live.

I am grateful for a positive ending to my kidnapping in 2007 which allows me to continue my work In Iraq. I say this with full respect for those who do not feel called to do this kind of work. Many don’t have the life’s circumstances that allow them to do this. For me, it has been a privilege that has made real Jesus’ call to embrace his way of nonviolent suffering love. It has made his words about loving enemies (so much that you are willing to live with them and even risk your life for them) come alive.

What have I learned in my work in Iraq and through my kidnapping experience? (I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any other kidnapping survivor.)

1. I believe that God wants people to be present to, care about and walk with people who are suffering war and oppression. We should come to this work with humility concerning our weakness, but also knowing that God can use and multiply our small actions and allow us to do what may seem impossible.

2. Nonviolent action and reconciliation work isn’t always “successful.” If I had to guarantee that everything I do would be safe, I would not take on this kind of work. At any time we could become the victims of the violence, desire for revenge, or power grabbing unleashed in war and situations of oppression. In Iraq, we have experienced only a small piece of what Iraqis face every day.

3. We need to make wise decisions in dangerous situations, but I want to base such decisions primarily on our calling to act in ways that speak the truth. I want to confront and find alternatives to evil structures rather than base my decisions on fear. If I am not afraid to die, I can live boldly and respond to God’s callings.

4. Love doesn’t take away all our fear, but it really does help us deal with it so that we can walk ahead in spite of fear. In difficult and dangerous situations, I pray more for love than for courage.

5. Even in the most frightening situations, we can know that we do not walk alone. It is not easy or comfortable. The kidnapping experience pushed me to the limits of my faith. Even when I couldn’t always feel it, I knew God was giving me strength, wisdom and love for those around me. Even if it had ended in death, I knew God was with me.

6. Of course, violence can kill or crush us. Trauma can leave scars on our spirit. I could not have kept returning to Iraq had I not personally experienced that when we are hurt while doing such work, we can heal and through our pain be given greater compassion and strength.

As I said, it has been a gift to be able to do this work. Here, I have had some of the most difficult experiences in my life, but also some of the most rewarding and growth producing. Courageous and creative local people, taking more risks than I do for reconciliation and justice, have taught me so much and given me gifts of love. And in so many situations I have experienced the power of love to break down barriers of hostility and fear among peoples we are told are enemies.

Peggy Gish has been working in Iraq with CPT since 2002, and was in Iraq before, during and after the 2003 war. Gish is a grandmother, farmer, community mediator, conflict management trainer, and former co-director of the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network in Athens, Ohio. She is the author of Iraq: a Journey of Hope and Peace (Herald Press, 2004) and Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation (Cascadia, 2013). This post is provided thanks to our partnership with Red Letter Christians.


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  • Berry Friesen

    Thank you for publishing Gish’s reflections. She speaks with hard-won integrity and courage.

    We need to ask ourselves Gish’s question about “resisting IS nonviolently.” What can we do?
    For starters, MWR could publish analysis of the sudden emergence of IS, before they so “unexpectedly” marched into Mosul, grabbed the billions left so conveniently there and collected all the abandoned armaments of the Iraqi army.

    To me, IS looks a lot like al-Qaeda, which means “database” and originally consisted of a list of Muslim fighters (the mujahideen) who had been recruited, paid, equipped and trained in Pakistan using U.S. money for the purpose of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. After its collaboration with the U.S.A. in Afghanistan ended successfully, al-Qaeda went on to fight with NATO and the U.S.A. in Kosovo and Chechnya. Then it jumped the fence and went after U.S. embassies in East Africa. We all heard more about it then, and much more later with 9/11.

    This time, the Muslim fighters were recruited, paid, equipped and trained in Turkey and Jordan using money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the purpose of fighting the Syrian government. After this collaboration with the U.S.A. was partially stymied by the resilience of the Syrian army, IS went on to fight in Iraq where the Shia president (Malaki) was not following U.S. direction to step down and Iran was enjoying far too much influence. Everything has gone very well so far: Malaki has stepped down, Iraq is divided into three parts, and Iran’s influence has been restricted to the southern one-third of what used to be Iraq.

    The only problem so far is that IS has jumped the fence by trying to grab territory of Iraqi Kurdistan, something the U.S. backers of IS will not tolerate.

    For those of living in the U.S., the most riveting part of this twice-told story is what IS will do in the U.S. to make us afraid and fuel another binge of government spending on behalf of the military/security complex that is the backbone of our economy. That was an integral part of al-Qaeda’s contribution to the morality tale we live by in the West, and now it is IS’s turn to take the myth another step “forward”.

    None of this is meant to diminish the importance of what CPT is doing in Iraqi Kurdistan (when can we drop the “Iraqi” and just call it Kurdistan?). The suffering there is real and the danger too, even though its leaders are highly favored for the time being by empire’s schemes, because nothing serves the empire’s interest better than chaos and violence. So I hope to hear more from CPT workers there as events unfold.

  • E. Daniel Riehl

    Thank you Peggy for sharing about your experiences in CPT in Iraq.
    Also, I thank Berry for his comments about “What can we do?”
    Hopefully, the Anabaptists in America will do their part in nonviolently resisting the “Empire” and it’s military/industrial complex and find and promote alternatives to these evil structures in our own society, which have been responsible for the mayhem and bloodshed in Iraq and many other countries.