International relief worker finds humanity abroad

Graham Webster

Scott Kerr was in Baghdad when the bombs started dropping.

A few days later, while shopping for junk food and other necessities, he found himself without enough cash, in one of the only stores still open.

At first the Iraqi storekeeper said Kerr should pay for what he could and that the rest could be sold on credit. Then the shopkeeper reconsidered and told Kerr to keep his cash — he would need it, after all — and gave him credit for the whole purchase.

“The Iraqi people are so amazing,” said Kerr, in an April 1 phone interview from Amman, Jordan. “He was willing to give me — an American, a complete stranger — credit.”

Kerr, 27, of Downers Grove is an international relief worker applying to study at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He arrived in Iraq in early February as part of a delegation of the Christian Peacemakers Team.

He and other self-titled “CPT-ers” left Baghdad March 31 for Amman, after the Iraqi government told part of their group to leave.

“It was a difficult decision for us,” Kerr said. “A lot of us have a lot of friends in Baghdad.”

The peacemakers group left in a three-vehicle convoy that carried U.S. and Irish citizens, Japanese journalists and a Korean peace activist.

During the trip to Amman, the left rear tire on the last vehicle in the convoy exploded while traveling at 80 mph. The driver lost control, and the taxi careened over an embankment into a 10-foot ditch, where the taxi landed on its side. All five passengers were hurt, incurring head wounds and broken bones.

“They received amazing medical care from Iraqis in the area,” Kerr said.

The Americans in the crashed taxi were taken to a hospital in Rutbah, Iraq, about 230 miles west of Baghdad, said Doug Hostetter, a sociology lecturer at Northwestern, during a phone interview from Beit Sahour, a small town in the West Bank just outside of Bethlehem.

Hostetter also works as a Middle East correspondent for the Human Face of War project run by the American Friends Service Committee.

Since the U.S. military was actively bombing at the time, the cars spread out to distinguish themselves from an Iraqi military convoy, which planes could mistake them for, Hostetter said.

“Many civilian vehicles have been bombed on that road, as I saw yesterday, ” Kerr said.

The two other peacemakers’ vehicles were out of sight when the accident happened, Kerr said, and when they went back to look for the crashed vehicle, they found it locked and empty in the ditch.

The peacemakers didn’t know where their injured companions were until a group of Somali students directed them to Rutbah, Kerr said. The Somalis had been helping other vehicles get gas from a station that had lost electricity, using their car battery to power the pump.

Hostetter, who is also a pastor at Evanston Mennonite Church, 736 Dobson St., flew to Amman just before President Bush issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave his country or face war. Hostetter writes dispatches from the Middle East intended to “help Americans to see and understand what really happens in war.”

“If the American people knew the extent of the innocent lives that are taken in wars fought in our name, they would not support it,” Hostetter said.

He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and started his foreign service career working for a relief agency in the country. Since then he has worked for several international service organizations and traveled twice to Afghanistan during the U.S. bombardment that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m sitting in a Palestinian home now, and I just ate one of the best meals of my life here,” Hostetter said.

He said people in the Middle East want to be friends with Americans and differentiate between the actions of people and those of U.S. leaders.

The peacemakers team allied with the Chicago organization Voices in the Wilderness to insert its people into Iraq. Hostetter said members of that group remained in Baghdad on Friday.

A U.S. State Department travel warning makes U.S. passports invalid for travel to Iraq. Unless citizens have passports from another country or travel without a passport, it is a crime for them to enter the war-torn country.

“There have been cases in the past and there have been penalties,” said Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman.

If a U.S. citizen enters without using a U.S. passport, they “technically have not violated the law,” said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the Consular Affairs Bureau.

Journalists on assignment in Iraq are exempt from the travel ban, according to the State Department.