The Weekend Blog Interview
6 months after being released from Iraq, I had the chance to blag with Harmeet Sooden on his experiences as a captive in Iraq and as a captive of the media.
TUMEKE: Harmeet, it is nearly 6 months since your release from Iraq with fellow peacekeepers Jim Loney and Norman Kember. One of your comrades, Tom Fox was killed. How did it feel being a media commodity? I have met you a couple of times, and you have always struck me as a very articulate and intelligent person, how did it feel knowing your story was now a media commodity, that networks were fighting over your story? TVNZ reportedly flew family members to you in the hope that would clench an exclusive – how were you able to deal with all of that after nearly 4 months of captivity?
HARMEET: Thanks, Bomber, for this opportunity. As hostages, we were perishable commodities. Upon release, we were disposable commodities at the hands of government agencies and media companies. Psychological mechanisms for coping with the associated trauma remained essentially unchanged.
My primary reason for going to Iraq was to bear witness to the suffering of Iraqi people living under a harsh military occupation, and to provide an alternative narrative, based on humanitarian principles, to the widest possible audience. The most efficient way to disseminate this information to the public is by allowing all communications bodies free and fair access to my stories. Therefore, rejecting the TVNZ deal, on principle, was straightforward.
I believe the narrative offered by profit-oriented corporate media (worldwide) is partially responsible for the crimes being perpetrated in Iraq. For example, the NZ Herald was lauding the NZ government's decision to deploy NZ army engineers to Iraq in 2003 to "work alongside" British occupying forces, which were, and still are, committing gross human rights violations.
TUMEKE: Let’s talk about your reasons for being in Iraq. I was astounded at some of the negative public reaction to your decision to go, and your capture. Me and Tim were running a Talkback show on Radio Live! during your captivity and one caller we had was effectively saying ‘you deserved to be caught’. I argued that if we in NZ were being invaded and bombed, then we would want global witnesses and be thankful for the solidarity. She mumbled that she hadn’t looked at it from that perspective before. In NZ we are a very laid back culture that seems a little embarrassed to express an opinion, let alone actively protest against something, what are your principals and where do you draw them from? How were they challenged in Iraq?
HARMEET: I think very few people, once the facts are explained to them (as you did), would advocate the incarceration, torture or execution of humanitarian aid workers.
I'm not sure what you mean by "laid back culture" or how this could be related to a lack of action to redress a wrong. I'm probably not the right person to ask questions about activism.
I used to work as a software engineer for Oscmar International, a company in Auckland that supplies armed forces (including the US army) with training and simulation equipment. I have, within reason, a responsibility for the consequences of my actions. I also have certain obligations to NZ, the community to which I belong. As a result, I chose to do volunteer work in Iraq. In this instance, I believe we should be considering what challenges the people of Iraq face - if not for sheer goodwill then for the fact that NZ is complicit in the crimes of the occupiers.
TUMEKE: So let’s talk about some of those conditions – what was the environment like in Iraq?
HARMEET: It's difficult for me to answer this important question. How do I convey the actual experiences of Iraqis who cannot simply relocate? I've just received an email from a friend who is still in Iraq. I think her words are more valuable than mine:
"The short answer is unbelievable. Who can imagine living in the middle of such bloodshed where it's not uncommon to see trucks with corpses in them heading off to the morgue? Or to have to think daily about the possibility of being caught in a bomb, or a random shooting, or kidnapped? I think it's been draining to their souls, because so many people feel that it's hopeless for them at least, and they really worry about what the future holds for their children."
I'd like to add that their everyday lives are very similar to our 4-month ordeal as hostages. That's how bad it is. And according to the recent news, it's getting worse.
TUMEKE: Which brings me to this question - how can individuals really change the decisions of the powerful. The abortion that has become Iraq leaves claims of democracy from a dictator hollow, replaced by the daily reality of horrific violence that America has sown since its invasion. What adds insult to injury is that millions of voices pointed out that the unrelenting destruction we are seeing now is exactly what we said would happen when America started beating the war drums right after 9/11. You personally went much further than many others did and put yourself in the line of fire, but that didn't stop the war. As a global citizen are you disheartened?
HARMEET: Well, the NZ government is the most powerful institution that we, the NZ public, have any influence over. Many NZers have worked (and, indeed, died attempting) to increase that influence to force the government to represent our values more fully. I think we should help them because there's much work to be done. We, like any people, should naturally have say in matters that affect or concern us, for example, when the NZ state perpetrates crimes or participates in the crimes of the US.
American citizens, too, struggle as we do.
Yes, I'm sometimes disheartened but no one has yet been able to show that there is no "solution" to the problems you describe in your question. I haven't been granted NZ citizenship yet but I am, of course, a member of the NZ community.
TUMEKE: There was one argument that was run in talkback land that I want to put to you, “Sooden is risking the lives of soldiers who have to go and rescue him, he is thus only making the situation worse”. Your idealism has been used against you, how do you respond to that?
HARMEET: First of all, there is no evidence available to me that shows we were rescued.
The soldiers were sent to Iraq on the basis of lies. They are at risk by virtue of performing any duty in a conflict zone. The soldiers should be at home and safe. CPT is in Iraq because of the horrendous environment created and sustained by the policies of the employers of these soldiers - an environment in which kidnapping is now rampant.
I was openly and officially opposed to any armed force being used to free me in the event of a kidnapping. My wishes were simply overruled.
The Iraqi people and Iraqi NGOs are in the best position to assess whether or not CPT's presence is having a positive effect on their lives. Their opinion is clear. Their overall opinion on the presence of foreign troops in Iraq is also clear. The people of Iraq should decide what form their future takes.
TUMEKE: What do you think of the ‘War on Terror’ and Iraq media coverage? Why is it that the support Saddam and al Qaeda received from America is never scrutinized when trying to contextualise the terrorist actions we see beamed into our homes every night? How much blame should the media take for this sense of mass memory loss?
HARMEET: As Noam Chomsky says: a war on terror is a logical impossibility. Terror is the principle means by which a war is waged. Secondly, countries like the US and UK are major sources of terror or terrorism. I can't use the term "War on Terror" seriously.
What is important for NZers is that NZ not participate in but oppose terrorism, for example, in Afghanistan. The NZ media, in fact, rather than suppress or ignore war crimes occurring there does sometimes report them - sometimes to celebrate them.
The World Tribunal on Iraq found much of Western corporate media guilty of deception and incitement to violence in its reporting on Iraq and also in violation of article six of the Nuremberg Tribunal.
TUMEKE: What do you think of the position of America at the moment? The debate now is, "We can't pull out as we will lose face and the situation will become worse" (interestingly that was the argument that kept America in Vietnam). What do you think should happen now? Would a US pull out lead to civil war? Is it civil war now? What is a victory in this scenario?
HARMEET: The story is not about American debates but about the Iraqi people.
An occupying army should comply with international law and remain only if there is strong evidence that shows the occupied people want it to stay. The evidence is quite to the contrary. A gradual and timed US withdrawal would remove the major source of violence in this conflict and also any rationale for an armed insurgency. There are many feasible scenarios of withdrawal.
I read an article by Media Lens dated August 17th, 2006: "The New York Times reports today that, of the 1,666 bombs that exploded in Iraq in July, 70% were directed against the American-led military force. 20% targeted Iraqi security forces, up from 9% in 2005. And 10% of the blasts struck civilians, twice the rate from last year." NYT report is based on a Defense Intelligence Agency study.
According to this data "insurgent attacks on US-led forces massively overshadow sectarian violence." Furthermore, this “sectarian violence” or “civil war” (or whatever people want to call it) is actually part of the US’s evolving strategy in Iraq which others have written about elsewhere.
TUMEKE: So you would favour an immediate American pullout?
HARMEET: I favour what the people of Iraq want which is a US withdrawal as soon as possible. The future is uncertain but it is certain that the US is a major source of violence in the country. We should not discount the indigenous ability to reconcile and rebuild.
TUMEKE: You were recently attacked for daring to question NZ foreign policy, which is strange because NZ domestic policy is one of free speech and open media, how do you respond to such criticism?
HARMEET: Well, my stance generated much hate mail but the only valid criticism (that I've found so far without looking very hard) was from the (NZ) Ministry of Defence. The criticism, which I found to be a useful learning experience, was centred mainly on one sentence:
"The NZ troops are mainly there to construct military facilities and repair military equipment..."
My appropriated words in recent NZ Herald and www.stuff.co.nz articles require clarification. "The NZ troops are...[in Iraq]" contains a typographical error and should read "The NZ troops were...[in Iraq]" The spokesman for the Minister of Defence is correct in stating that "army engineers...had been in Iraq for one year from 2003 to 2004." The NZ Press Association (the originator of the source article) did not contact me to verify the interview originally published in Craccum magazine accurately reflects my opinions. Nevertheless, it was my responsibility to proof-read the transcript before submission. The sentence, it seems, requires elaboration:
The spokesperson also correctly said that "[NZ troops] went after the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on member countries to support the rebuilding of Iraq." In addition to relating to "the humanitarian...needs of the Iraqi people", UN Security Council Resolution 1483 of 22 May 2003, in recognising the US and UK as "occupying powers," requires the occupiers "to comply fully with their obligations under international law including in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907." The catalogue of war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations committed by the US and UK in Iraq is widely available. (It is important to keep in mind that the UN is also, of course, an institution subject to criticism: a UNICEF study concluded that US-UK-initiated UN sanctions led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five.)
The NZ military and by extension the NZ government should be commended for participation in any "civilian infrastructure projects" that benefited or continue to benefit Iraqi civilians. Both, however, should be held accountable for participation in or association with any "civilian infrastructure projects" or actions that led to breaches of international law or otherwise disadvantaged the Iraqi population. Terminology, in this case, is irrelevant.
For example, many NZDF projects in Iraq were "focused on providing drinking water to the local population, a 'quick-fix' project" in conjunction with local companies because "one way for confidence [of Iraqi civilians] to be built up is to undertake high-value, high-visibility projects that can be achieved quickly." Taken in isolation, roles like this are certainly worthy of praise and did improve access to water for many local people (their faith perhaps not fully restored). According to various sources, NZ personnel ("embedded" or "dispersed" within the British units) were also required to assist the British forces in building military fortifications, maintaining military equipment, security tasks and general logistics work. One of these sources is a New Zealand Defence Update published by the Defence Public Relations Unit in April 2004. The Ministry of Defence interprets these activities as administering humanitarian aid: no confusion of roles could arise on the strength of "legal arrangements with the UK". Others call it: assisting the occupying force. The Rules of Engagement forced upon the troops were also unbecoming of a humanitarian organisation. However, this is not the main point.
More importantly, support of imperial ambitions comes in many forms. As a child, I enjoyed reading Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, however it is recognised as one of the means by which British imperialist ideology was propagated. Malcolm Kendall-Smith said after his court-martial, "The invasion and occupation of Iraq is a campaign of imperial military conquest and falls into the category of criminal acts." The deliberate actions of the NZ government - deploying the NZDF to Iraq (regardless of the official reasons) in lieu of standard civilian-based alternatives - lent an air of legitimacy to the immoral US-UK occupation, the motive being to preserve and foster NZ economic and strategic interests in the region and elsewhere. For its contribution, NZ received "international praise": its damage incalculable, its irony surely noted by those who are under occupation including insurgents and kidnappers. The best way to help the Iraqi people to "reconstruct" their country is to listen to them and to end this "destructive" occupation (of a military and economic character), so that they can take control of their own future.
Individual soldiers deserve as much respect as any other human being. Soldiery is a demanding and dangerous profession. A number of NZ soldiers were injured in Iraq. Many NZers, some ex-soldiers, are employed in Iraq as security contractors of various descriptions, one of whom, Mr. Ngamata, was tragically killed recently. I'm not exempt from scrutiny either: I used to work for Oscmar International (a US-owned "defence" contractor on NZ soil); before that, I had applied to join the NZ Army. I have a friend who is in the US Army working in a military hospital in Iraq. CPT's peace work in Iraq serves all these groups as well as Iraqi civilians.
There were many factors leading to the relatively swift return of the troops. According to the government, it was a planned 12-month deployment. Another concurrent factor, I feel, is NZ public opinion. It is imperative that we also question and examine our government's policy towards Afghanistan and other countries. Interestingly, the MoD spokesperson chose not to comment on the NZ SAS in Afghanistan.
The NZPA also misquoted me, surprisingly, from a paragraph in which I was trying to rectify a previous and similar misquote: "He had only said he believed a 'negotiated settlement' was reached." Nowhere is that implied in the original interview text. My position is that any negotiated settlement, including ransom, is just one of the many possibilities that led to our release. I have no evidence relating to our release other than what I saw personally.