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Aussie human shield: "They were shooting at everything"

Zoe Robert and Baldur Arnarson | 19.05.2004 01:27

The recent reveal of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S soldiers in Iraq has escalated concerns of further war crimes committed by the Coalition.

Ruth Russell in Iraq
Ruth Russell in Iraq

burnt cars
burnt cars

bomb crater in central Bagdhad
bomb crater in central Bagdhad

Ruth Russell caught the attention of the world media last year when she spent eight weeks in Iraq as a human shield. The Adelaide-based mother of two left her family to join 500 other human shields from around the world to try to prevent the outbreak of war. In Iraq Ms Russell witnessed what she describes as war crimes committed by U.S forces shortly after the capture of Bagdhad.

“The Americans were just shooting at everyone that came near because they´re not accountable. If you´re not accountable, you can do what you like,” she said.

These were young Americans in their mid twenties on foreign land shooting at everyone because they´re adrenaline was up and they were scared, she said.

“Theres no accountability and that is what is so wicked about all this.”

Ms Russell said the photographs of Iraqi civilian casualties on her web-page illustrate the attrocities committed by American soldiers.

“We saw bodies which the U.S. forces had burnt beyond recognition in order to prevent the Iraqi government from revealing their identity.”

Exercising her opposition towards the Howard Government´s support for the U.S. led campaign against Saddam Hussein, Ms Russell frequently expressed her outrage towards the proposed war in statements issued to the world media.

Her actions attracted a critical response from Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who accused her of being foolhardy and attention seeking.

“The trouble with Howard is that he is glorifying war. Everywhere he goes he tries to glorify war,” she said.

Celebrity journalist Derryn Hinch also criticised Ms Russell.

“He would ring me every week in Bagdhad and ask: ´aren´t you playing into the hands of Saddam’, and I would say: ´No, I’m here to represent the Australians who believe that our soldiers shouldn’t be here,” she said.

Amid warnings issued by the American and Australian governments that the human shields could be taken hostage by the Iraqi military, Ms Russell said she did not feel threatened by the Iraqi government.

“They knew that we had so much world media coverage that it would be a total public relations disaster if they would have taken us hostage. It was in their interest to let us protect humanitarian sites, ” she said.

“The Iraqi government said: ‘You are here at your own free will and we are not going to tell you what to do, you can go home any time you like.’ We didn’t feel threathened in any way.”

Ms Russell said the Iraqi government welcomed the human shields.

“They provided us with a hotel, a bus, international phone lines and computers. They even provided us with interpreters.”

Ms Russell was not surprised when the mis-treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers was revealed recently.

“Abuse and torture is something that is an ongoing systemic process with the U.S. These are not isolated cases. It has been going on for years.”

The scale of the current resistance by Iraqis against the Coalition is neither a surprise to Ms Russell.

“When the US troops arrived in Bagdhad there was no celebration in the Iraqi community we were in. They were as shocked and traumatised as we were,” she said.

NOTE: The article is based on an interview with the well known Australian anti-war activist Ruth Elizabeth Russell. The interview was conducted on Saturday 8 May 2004, at the annual Brisbane Social Forum, Australia. All photos by Ruth Russell - used with permission.

Zoe Robert and Baldur Arnarson