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"I can't go back to Iraq"

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Issue: 27 Section: Accounts Iraq Topics: social movements, migration

March 28, 2005

"I can't go back to Iraq"

American "deserters" seek refugee status

by Benjamin Witte

Darrell Anderson speaks to a crowd in Halifax. Photo: Benjamin Witte
HALIFAX--US Army Specialist Darrell Anderson hated his seven months in Iraq. He hated the people he was fighting against, hated the people he was fighting for. There was hate between soldiers. And hatred against the Iraqi people. Anderson hated facing death every day. Knowing people who died made him hate even more.

"You stub your foot, you're going to hit something. You ruin your life, you're going to kill someone," the stocky 22-year-old Kentucky man told a crowd gathered at Dalhousie University in early March.

In all likelihood, Anderson did kill people. That, after all, is what the US Army trained him for. In Najaf, he and his fellow soldiers in the 1st Armored Division fired hundreds of rounds. Of course people died. But that was combat at a distance. It was impersonal. Anderson didn't see his enemies fall. Najaf isn't what keeps him up at night.

What haunts the young American is a pair of incidents in which he came very close to killing innocent Iraqi civilians
What haunts the young American instead are a pair of incidents in which he came very close to killing innocent Iraqi civilians. Anderson says he is haunted in recurring nightmares by a series of "what-ifs". What if I'd pulled the trigger that day? What if I'd followed procedure and fired? Those are the questions he focuses on now, as he looks back on the recent chain of events and decisions that led him to flee the US Army and join a handful of other American war resisters in Canada.

"That's why I can't go back to Iraq," says Anderson. "You can't have a normal life after killing innocent people."

Anderson is hoping to find that "normal life" here in Canada. It won't be easy. Right now he's stuck in a frightening legal limbo. With the help of his lawyer, Jeffrey House -- himself a Vietnam War-era "draft dodger" -- Anderson has asked Immigration Canada to grant him refugee status. It's a process that could take several years. Even then, there's no guarantee the powers that be here in Canada will empathize with Anderson's situation.

Frankly, gaining refugee status is a long shot. In fact, the Immigration and Refugee Board to which Anderson is applying has just recently ruled against granting such recognition to a "deserter" named Jeremy Hinzman, another of House's clients. Hinzman, who's been in Canada since 2003, was the first U.S. citizen ever to apply for refugee status in Canada.

Although House says he will appeal the decision against Hinzman, it's clear the Immigration and Refugee Board's March ruling has complicated matters for Anderson and several other U.S. resisters who, with House's help, have gone public with their pleas for asylum in Canada. In addition to Hinzman and Anderson, House is also representing former U.S. soldiers Brandon Hughey, 19, David Sanders, 20 and Clifford Cornell, 24.

"Their legal case is plausible. It's not far-fetched"
In order to prove their refugee status, says University of Toronto Law Professor Audrey Macklin, Anderson and the others need to show a "well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a certain group." The key, she says, is to distinguish between persecution and prosecution. Desertion, according to the US military, is a crime, punishable by imprisonment. That's prosecution, and it's not Canada's job to protect foreign nationals from criminal prosecution in their home countries. However, if a foreigner can successfully argue that his or her liberty is being threatened for actions or opinions protected under Canada's list of Charter rights - political opinion is one example - that, says Macklin, might be deemed persecution and thus justify the granting of refugee status.

"Their legal case is plausible. It's not far-fetched," says the University of Toronto law professor. "Other deserters have won refugee status, just not from the United States."

Therein lies one of the problems House and his US clients are facing. "We don't tend to think of the United States as a refugee producing country," says Macklin. "It makes it so that the burden [of proof] is heavier."
Another problem is that unlike the so-called "draft dodgers" of the Vietnam years, all five of these current refuge seekers voluntarily enlisted with the US military. That raises an obvious question, namely, if they really object to the war on political or humanitarian grounds, why did they volunteer as soldiers?

Critics on both sides of the border cite the fact that these men enlisted to argue that Anderson and the other war resisters are cowards - "pussies" as one US-based right-wing Web site recently declared.

Hamilton Spectator columnist Claire Hoy criticized the former servicemen as "volunteer skedaddlers" in a December 4 op/ed. "At a time when thousands of people from some of the world's worst despotic nations are desperately seeking legitimate refugee status in this country, do we really want to welcome some Americans who are only here because of personal cowardice?" she wrote.
Conservative Fox News host Bill O'Reilly took the issue one step further, blaming Canada's "aggressively liberal" media for creating a media "circus" that "is insulting to America, and especially to those American soldiers who have lost their lives fighting terrorists and supporters of the brutal dictators Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein."

These criticisms aside, neither Audrey Macklin nor Jeffrey House see the enlistment argument as an insurmountable legal obstacle. These men believe in serving and defending their country. They don't object to war, per se, just to what they've come to recognize as an unjust war, Macklin explains.
That's exactly what House attempted to demonstrate during Jeremy Hinzman's Dec. 6-8 hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board. To present evidence of US-authored injustices in Iraq, House called former US Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmey Massey to the witness stand. Massey, 31, recently discharged following a 12-year career in the Marines, recounted how during one 48-hour period early in the war, soldiers in his platoon killed over 30 unarmed Iraqi civilians.
"I was never clear on who was the enemy and who was not," Massey testified before the Board.

"How would that lack of clarity affect your ability to comply with the Geneva Conventions?" House asked the former staff sergeant.

"It hindered our ability tremendously," Massey replied. "When you don't know who the enemy is, what are you doing there? What's the purpose of being there? When Marines go into battle they are designed, Marines are trained and designed for one thing, and that is to meet the enemy on the battlefield and destroy you. That is their mission. That is their purpose in life. If you have no enemy or you don't know who the enemy is, what are you doing there?"

Most of the civilian deaths Massey witnessed took place at a military checkpoint. Three times soldiers opened fire on cars that failed to stop in the checkpoint's "red zone." In each case, soldiers hits the cars with approximately 500 bullets. They killed all three drivers, plus one passenger, said Massey. After searching the wreckages, he went on to say, soldiers uncovered no evidence that any of the people in the vehicles were armed.

Darrell Anderson's recollections from Baghdad are similar. At one point, he and a group of soldiers were stationed in front of a roadblock near an Iraqi police station. For several hours they sustained enemy fire. Several soldiers had died. Then, for a while, it was calm. Suddenly a car drove toward Anderson's position. It had broken what soldiers call a "safety perimeter." Also the car was emmitting sparks, probably from bad brakes. Protocol in that situation is to shoot first and ask questions later, which is what Anderson's fellow soldiers were yelling for him to do.

"It's ok, it's ok, it's a family," he yelled back.

Anderson held his fire. He had assumed the driver was confused, that he was trying to flee the city. He guessed right. Before the car sped away Anderson could make out two children sitting in the back seat. A boy and a girl, he thinks.

"Why didn't you shoot?" some of the other soldiers asked him. "Next time you shoot," they ordered.

"They got their procedures," says Anderson. "Even if it is a family, you're supposed to open fire, cause they broke the safety perimeter."

Anderson has another combat memory he can't shake. A hot, Baghdad morning. There had been reports of people with RPG's [Rocket Propelled Grenades], he recalls. "They sent us out to confirm this, which basically means they were out there waiting for us." To investigate the reports, Anderson and about four or five other soldiers boarded a Howitzer tank. Several guys, including one of his best friends, were leaning out of the tank's portholes, guns in hand. Anderson and the rest of team sat inside, across from each other, eyes closed, "just calmly getting ready for what's about to happen."

The attack came suddenly. The deafening rally of machine gun fire drowned out all other sounds. "The next thing I know," Anderson recalls, "my buddy's falling, and he falls on to of me, 'cause I'm sitting down, and he's bloody, and he's spitting up blood thinking he's going to die. He's asking us if he's going to die."

"I turn it to fire, I point again, and it's a little kid, 14 years old. He's running for his life scared," says Anderson. "Just like me and my fellow soldiers."
Anderson looked around. Everyone was scared. No one wanted to take his friend's vacated spot atop the vehicle. So Anderson took it upon himself, moved into the porthole position. "I go up there, and I'm thinking, 'right, we're under attack. Shoot somebody!'"

Anderson lifted his gun, aimed, pulled the trigger. Nothing. He'd forgotten to switch the safety to off.

"I turn it to fire, I point again, and it's a little kid, 14 years old. He's running for his life scared," says Anderson. "Just like me and my fellow soldiers."

Again, if he'd followed procedure, he would have shot. In a firefight situation, procedure and training dictate that if you're shot at, you fire at anyone around. They're not innocent anymore, Anderson was told. If they're standing there when someone's done this crime against you, they're guilty.

"I joined the Army to serve my country," says Anderson. "I joined knowing there's a fact that we could fight wars. But the war in Iraq is an illegal war. There's no reason for these kids to be over there doing this, and thousands of innocent Iraqis are being killed.

"I started thinking about the insurgency they're fighting. And I remember seeing their faces and I remember being in combat against them. These were just regular people, there were elderly men, young men. And then I remember looking around Baghdad and seeing the blown up buildings, the people on crutches, the dismembered people, and thinking that these are just their family members. If someone blew up your house and killed a couple of your family, you're going to pick up a weapon and you're going to fight a war for it."

"So there's no way I could go back. It's my human right to choose not to kill innocent people," he says. "And there's no way I could go die for money and oil, rich people's investments. That's when I decided I couldn't go back."

Anderson made his decision while home on leave this last Christmas. Desperate for options, he turned to the Internet, through which he learned about Jermey Hinzman and Brandon Hugley and their efforts to gain refugee status here in Canada. He also tracked down a phone number for Jeffrey House. The lawyer assured Anderson he'd find people in Canada who would help him, give him a place to live, offer him some measure of protection. "It's the right thing to do," says House. "There's a criminal war going on in Iraq and thousands of people are dying. Anyone who doesn't want to be a part of that is a hero to me."
And so on Jan. 5, two days before he was set to report for duty in Germany - en route to a second tour of duty of Iraq - Anderson, accompanied by friends and family, left Knoxville, Kentucky in a rented car. Twelve hours later, after driving through the night and a blizzard, they reached the US/Canadian border at Niagara Falls.

"We just showed them I.D.'s and they let us go," he recalls. "We drove across Niagara Falls. We rolled the window down. It was a beautiful sight. Just a breath of fresh air - my freedom basically. For now, I was safe."
For now.

Just as Jeffrey House promised, Anderson has received a lot of support - and press attention - here in Canada. In Toronto, he meets regularly with Hinzman, Hugley and the other American refuge seekers. Through them he's also been involved with The War Resisters Support Campaign, a Toronto-based organization established last year specifically to help these US military "deserters." The Support Campaign, explains Michelle Robidoux, one of its founders, performs several basic functions. To start with, Robidoux and her colleagues provide day-to-day support for the young men, helping them find housing and jobs. The group is also busy lobbying the government to make a specific provision that would protect US war resisters from the whims of the Immigration Refugee Board. Robidoux says her organization has already gathered some 25,000 signatures, including those of several prominent Canadians - David Suzuki, Naomi Klein, Anne-Marie MacDonald and many others. Affiliated committees have also formed across in the country, in Victoria, Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax. "It makes me optimistic that we can build a campaign to oblige the government to act," says Robidoux. "I think we can win it."

So far, however, the government has shown little interest in coming to the aid of the young war resisters. In fact, through its attorneys, the government has actually made it more difficult for Anderson and his fellow American resisters to win refugee status. Going into Hinzman's Dec. hearing, Jeffrey House had originally planned to build his case on the "illegality" of the Iraq war. Justice Minister Irwin Cotler himself, House claims, once signed a petition of international lawyers, arguing that the war is illegal. Nevertheless, it's been government policy not to follow UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's lead and publicly classify the war as illegal. During the Hinzman hearing, government counsel urged presiding Immigration and Refugee Board member Brian Goodman not to accept the war's legality as a relevant issue in the case. Goodman obliged, much to House's dismay.

"For me it's hard to say a soldier should go to jail for refusing to participate in an illegal war," says House. "But if I can't even prove the illegality of the war, it's harder to make the argument."

The small group of resisters have caught the attention of a few sympathetic members of Parliament, specifically NDP MP Libby Davies of Vancouver. Davies met Brandon Hugley last year and was impressed and moved by the 19-year-old. She rejects the argument that Hugley and the other refuge seekers are cowards. "I think they're very brave to take it on," she says. "They're taking on the whole US Army and [U.S President George] Bush's agenda."

Davies admits, however, that neither she, nor NDP leader Jack Layton - who has also met with some of the war resisters - have any concrete plans to pressure the liberal government on the issue. "I think Canada should be helping them in providing some sort of sanctuary," she says, though she isn't "totally optimistic" the government will change its policy. "Paul Martin isn't the guy to go out and make a statement like that."

Still, Anderson says he's confident he'll be able to stay in Canada. "Look at Star Wars," he says. "Bush tried to bully Canada, and the people spoke up. I'm hoping this is the same type of situation... They're going to find a way."

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