Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Camilo Mejia, Ending the Occupation, and Regaining Our Collective Sense of Humanity

The story of Camilo Mejia is recognized by many in the anti-war movement as a story of one man standing up against the injustice of war. Mejia was the first conscientious objector of the Iraq War and has been a leading voice for the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) where he was named Chair of their Board of Directors in 2007. Mejia has been traveling to cities as part of the Resisting the Empire Tour and this tour is what brought his story to the University of Cincinnati's campus last week.

Camilo Mejia was stoplossed in January 2003, only months away from graduation from the University of Miami. He was shipped out to Iraq in April 2003 and returned in October on a two week furlough. It was during this time away from the battlefield that Mejia was able to collect his thoughts and listen to his conscience. When his plane took off to go back to Iraq, Mejia was not aboard. He decided that he could no longer take part in fighting an unjust and illegal war and he decided that he could not take part in abusing the Iraqi people anymore. Mejia laid low for several months while he worked on putting together a case so that he could file for conscientious objector status and in March 2004, he turned himself in and submitted such an application. He was charged with desertion, convicted by a military court, court marshaled, and sentenced to one year in prison. From prison, Mejia wrote a piece entitled "Regaining My Humanity" in which he stated:

Today, as I sit behind bars I realize that there are many types of freedom, and that in spite of my confinement I remain free in many important ways. What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow our conscience? What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity. Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.

Mejia has been listening to the higher power of his conscience ever since and feels that it is a privileged to be a part of the growing anti-war movement. During his talk at the University of Cincinnati, he shared with us stories of frustrated soldiers, torturous interrogation techniques, and the provoking of civilians. Mejia told the story of when he first arrived in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. There was little resistance from the population at first, but Mejia said that they would often "fish for missions". In one instance an 8-10 year-old boy threw a rock at a Lieutenant and the Lieutenant told his soldiers, "I'm going to make an example of him". The Lieutenant proceeded to grab the boy and begin to take him with the group of soldiers. "Me no Ali Baba mister" the boy would yell as some soldiers tried to convince the Lieutenant to let the boy go. An old man came running from a near-by house, Mejia gathered that this man could have been the boy's father, and passionately tried to communicate with the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant asked the man "What are you going to do? This kid threw a rock at me." The old man slapped the kid in the face. This did not satisfy the Lieutenant as he kept the child in his grasp and continued to move along. The old man continued to plead his case as the Lieutenant demanded more of a punishment for the child. The old man then began to beat the child in order to show the Lieutenant that he was being taught a lesson and it was only then did the Lieutenant let the child go. "This is the reality of an occupation," Mejia said to us, "this is how you win the hearts and minds."

After this incident the attacks increased on the U.S. soldiers in the area and Mejia stated that they responded by purposely conducting missions around mosques, hospitals, schools, and public squares. "We were doing things in a way that led to the killing of civilians," he stated. He spoke of instances in which he was ambushed and though he was opposed to the war, Mejia says that his survival instincts took over and he shot in any direction from which gunfire was coming. "You don't have the luxury to think morally when you are thinking, how do we get out of this place alive." he stated.

Mejia did make it out alive and when he returned home in October of 2003 for a two week furlough, he began to try and justify his participation in a war in which he didn't believe. Often times his justification would be that he was doing it for the man sitting next to him in Iraq, but when he dug deeper within himself he couldn't justify the broader question of why. It was then when he decided to speak out and take a stance despite the fear of a court marshal and being labeled as a deserter. After Mejia turned himself in and was sentenced to a year in jail, Amnesty International labeled him a Prisoner of Conscience and he was supported by many organizations through the website

As he travels around the country and continues his work with IVAW, he stresses the importance of building a larger anti-war movement. He speaks of the importance that antiwar organizations on college campuses join with groups like IVAW to not only give speakers like himself a platform, but to build a broad coalition from coast to coast to pressure leaders to end the occupation of Iraq. This task, that of ending the occupation, is an uphill climb to say the least. From the invasion, to the implementation of torture, to the scores of civilians killed, the task of repairing what has been so badly damaged can seem insurmountable. It is almost as if we, as a nation, must reclaim our own humanity much like Camilo did during his own personal journey. It was this thought that led me to ask Mejia this question:

"In interviews and in your piece that you wrote from jail in 2005, you often speak of the dehumanizing factors of war and of your personal journey to regain your own humanity. Considering we live in a society in which war is very profitable for various sectors of society and corporate interests and government are becoming more and more aligned, do you feel that the United States has sold or lost its collective sense of humanity and if so, how do you think we can get it back?"

Mejia responded:

"I don't think that we have lost our humanity, we just haven't been able to experience it. Think back to Vietnam and the iconic images of the little girl who was burned and running away from the napalm. Now it is different, we are not allowed to see it. If people don't experience the pain then they won't be as willing to change it. We haven't lost our sense of humanity, we need to reclaim it."

We stand at a moment in time where there is an opportunity to reclaim our collective humanity. The people of this country have voted for a change and we must continue to demand that such change is implemented. We need to think outside the box in our organizing efforts in order to continue to join together and turn this hope into momentum. Camilo Mejia's journey to reclaim his personal humanity was not easy just as the journey to reclaim our collective humanity will not be easy. To undertake this challenge, it was imperative for Mejia to listen to the higher power of his conscience and for the rest of us, it is going to be essential.

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