The power of ordinary solidarity


Ordinary Courage: My Journey to Baghdad as a Human Shield
By Donna Mulhearn
Pier 9, 2010
254 pages, $32.95 (pb)

STRONG>Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman who Helped to Hide the Frank Family
By Miep Gies & Alison Leslie Gold
Pocket Books, 2009
302 pages, $24.99 (pb)

When Donna Mulhearn heard a former US marine on Triple J radio in January 2003 appealing for "human shields" to protect humanitarian sites in Baghdad as the US-led invasion of Iraq loomed, she did not hesitate in "that one sacred and defining moment" to join up to "obstruct the aerial bombing campaign of a great world power".

A former media adviser to a minister in the NSW government, Mulhearn had abruptly changed course to "connect more deeply with the humanity of others" through Christian meditation and, as a human shield, she would bring a "message of peace from ordinary Australians to ordinary Iraqis to counter the hostile message from my government".

Courage, "just ordinary courage", helped her to confront the fear of hideously powerful bombs.

In Iraq with hundreds of other human shields from more than 20 countries, Mulhearn was overwhelmed by the kind hospitality and friendship of ordinary Iraqis to strangers whose leaders plan to bomb them. "I am offered the choice of five sons to marry" by one eager father, she tells us. Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, she notes, were well able to distinguish between the ruled and the rulers — in Australia as much as Iraq.

Although the human shields got on each others' nerves and bickered, as any collection of people with different backgrounds and philosophies do when thrown together, there were no fans of Hussein among them, contrary to what the Western media and governments alleged.

To say that opponents of the war were automatically supporters of the dictator is childish and insulting, she writes.

When the bombing began, the reality of war, and its criminality, hit Mulhearn hard — it meant innocent people dying without medication in hospital wards, blood soaked into concrete, the loss of family and friends.

Mulhearn herself was traumatically stressed by the hellish fury of bombs but the six sites the human shields were protecting (power stations, water treatment plants, food silos, oil refineries and communication centres) were spared, probably to avoid a potential PR disaster for the invaders. Mulhearn said her "body, my white, Western body" was "considered more valuable" than an Iraqi body.

Certainly, the Western corporate media see Mulhearn as more newsworthy, seeking to denigrate her by harping on the pain and distress she allegedly caused her family while not showing such concern for the pain and distress of the bombed Iraqi families.

Mulhearn, and all the other human shields, survived but many of "our Iraqi friends" did not.

Neither, 60 years ago in Holland, was another courageous woman in her early 30s, Mies Giep, able to save her friends, the Jewish people she hid from the Nazis for two years in the annexe above Otto Frank's food products business. The price for turning in a Jew in hiding was seven and a half guilders per Jew and many were betrayed. Arrested, only Otto survived Auschwitz.

Edith, Anne and Margot Frank, Hermann, Auguste and Peter Van Daan, and Dr Fritz Pfeffer the dental surgeon, all perished horribly in the death camps.

Born Hermine Santrouschitz in 1909 in Austria to "ordinary working people", Miep Gies grew up with adoptive parents in Amsterdam. After the Nazi invasion of Holland, Gies met each challenge to her humanity with quiet courage. She refused to join the Dutch Nazi Girls' Club, she broke Nazi laws against sheltering Jews and she went to Gestapo headquarters to try to buy the freedom of her arrested friends.

Her husband, Jan Gies, was a member of a resistance group.

Giep, a Christian who lost her faith because of the Holocaust, continued to write and speak on what it meant to be a Jew in hiding until her death in January, aged 100.

Mulhearn retained her religious faith (and her down-to-earth, cheeky sense of humour) and her passion for helping Iraqis by organising a charity for Iraqi children traumatised and made homeless by the war.

"My story", said Giep (and it is Mulhearn's, too) "is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinarily terrible times … It is for all us ordinary people all over the world to see to it that they do not come again".

To show the way against bombs and hate, there are few better examples than Mies Giep and Donna Mulhearn, two ordinary women of far from ordinary courage.


IN CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE PASCOE: The Climate Emergency & Indigenous Land Practice


Zoom panel featuring Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Australian writer and editor, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

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