Bandannie knows that this too is old news; but she was there at the time and just came across this article

'Human shields' in MilanKen O’Keefe (C) and the “human shields” en route to Baghdad

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In March 2003, a group of international activists staged one of the most high-profile protests against the invasion of Iraq. With the world’s media watching, they drove in a ramshackle convoy of buses to a power station near Baghdad.

“The streets were absolutely rammed with people,” says Joe Letts, now 62, an anti-war campaigner from Dorset. “It was like a carnival atmosphere – I had never experienced anything like that before.”

Mr Letts had driven from Big Ben in London all the way to Baghdad, picking up “human shields” – peace campaigners from about 35 different countries – along the way.

They had arrived on three buses – two of them red London Routemasters owned by Mr Letts and usually hired out at West Country music festivals.

On the three-week journey from northern Europe, the activists had braved steep mountain roads and treacherous snowstorms while cooped up inside the cramped double-deckers in sleeping bags.

Saddam Hussein’s regime welcomed the human shields with open arms when they reached Baghdad on 15 February, timing their arrival to coincide with huge anti-war demonstrations around the world.

“The Iraqis had been told on TV who we were and why we were coming,” Mr Letts says, “so there were crowds of children waving. It was an extraordinary day!”

They were put up in comfortable hotel suites in the centre of the Iraqi capital.

“They fed us really well,” says Mr Letts. “There were aspects of it that were almost like being on holiday.”

The activists were planning to fan out to key sites around Baghdad, taking state-of-the-art cameras, satellite phones and computers with them.

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Nobody was in favour of Saddam – we were there to stop a repeat of the damage and suffering that followed the first Gulf War”

Joe Letts

If they had been bombed, the shields would have tried to get their footage around the word instantly, causing what Mr Letts calls a “political catastrophe” in Western capitals

But as soon as the campaigners had settled in, the Iraqis announced that they had different ideas about how the operation would work.

Many in the group were expecting to be deployed to sites such as hospitals and schools, but their Iraqi liaison officer, Abdul al-Ashhemi, said Saddam Hussein’s regime wanted them to defend six key infrastructure sites instead.

The sites included an oil refinery, a power station and a food depot, where, Mr Ashhemi announced, the shields would be given special Westernised accommodation – including proper toilets.

The meeting was fraught – some of the activists were shocked, feeling they had travelled thousands of miles to save lives, not to protect Iraqi industry.

Mr Letts admits there was “dissent in the ranks”, but he spoke in favour of the Iraqi plan and eventually carried the day.

As a former disaster relief worker who had been to Iraq in 1991, he says he could see the sense in keeping Baghdad’s power and electricity going after the bombing. And he accepted, too, that these – and not schools and hospitals – were the sites that had actually been targeted during the first Gulf War.

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My buses are all we had in the world and they were there in the middle of a war zone”

Joe Letts

“When we eventually turned up at Baghdad South power station, it had four big towers and a large picture of Saddam Hussein,” Mr Letts says.

“There was a large room that they had turned into a dormitory for us, they’d found a television from somewhere and they’d built us modern showers and loos.”

The group painted “Human Shields” in huge letters on the roof of the power station and settled in.

But in the following days there were tensions within the group – and with their hosts.

The Iraqis expelled one of the more militant activists – a former US marine called Ken O’Keefe – and several others.

Mr Letts says Mr O’Keefe had “a passionate heart” but was a “divisive leader” and too confrontational with the Iraqis.

By the start of US bombing on 20 March, others had left too – either because they were unhappy about the choice of sites or simply because they wanted to go home.

After spending a week at the electricity plant, Mr Letts also left. He felt he needed to protect his buses – they were, after all, his livelihood.

“My buses are all we had in the world and they were there in the middle of a war zone,” he says.

“I had to come back,” he says, “but I got the people there and that was my crowning achievement. I didn’t leave until we had made sure everything was working.”

Estimates of how many human shields stayed in Iraq throughout the bombing vary from 25 to just above 100. None of their sites were hit and Mr Letts thinks they did made a difference.

He returned to Baghdad later in 2003 and visited the electricity plant, where the manager told him the shields had protected the site until a wave of looting broke out immediately after the US-led invasion.

At that stage, the power station was still working and Mr Letts understands that there was a “broadly similar experience” at the other five installations.

The human shields did not even come close to stopping the war in Iraq, but Mr Letts says it was a “massive achievement” to help keep enough of the infrastructure going for Baghdad to be “survivable”.

Mr Letts says members of the RAF and other sources have told him the human shields were very much a talking point in the high command.

“The Brits and Americans were very much worried about wiping out large numbers of them,” he says.

The human shields were widely criticised in the West for being pawns of the Iraqi regime. Mr Letts says they discussed all their key decisions at length with Iraqi officials and then took a democratic vote among themselves.

“Nobody was in favour of Saddam”, he says. “We were there to stop a repeat of the damage and suffering that followed the first Gulf War.”

And for the Dorset bus driver, the trip to Iraq turned out to be as much of a personal odyssey as a political one.

He had been struggling for years to share the Christian faith of his wife, Thea, and on the way to Iraq he was inspired by seeing the biblical sites visited by Saint Paul.

“It was the most incredible journey,” Mr Letts says. “I’m a different person because of it… and I think I’m a better one.”

Simon Watts interviewed Joe Letts for the BBC World Service programme Witness. Listen back via BBC iPlayer or browse the Outlook podcast archive.


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