BAGHDAD, Iraq — Before she embarked on a recent bus trip across Iraq's dangerous Sunni triangle, Sheila Provencher meditated.
After a while she arrived at the calm of believing her life was worth giving to her cause.
"We have to be as willing to risk our lives for peace as soldiers are to risk their lives in war," she said of her decision to accompany 19 Palestinians on the long drive through the desert from Baghdad to the Syrian border. The Palestinian community in Baghdad has come under increasing harassment from Iraqi police and the group hoped to receive asylum in Syria.
"Our job as internationals was to help them get through the checkpoints. We talked to the soldiers," Provencher explained over tea in Baghdad last week.
Although the stretch of road through Fallujah and Ramadi is one of Iraq's most treacherous, Provencher was more worried about what lay beyond.
"After Ramadi, we were out in that open desert where we could be attacked by bandits. The [Palestinians] said to us, 'You get us through Ramadi and after Ramadi if anything bad happens we'll protect you, we'll use our bodies like human shields.' It was the most collaborative experience." she said.
Main protection – an abaya and trust
Provencher, a 33-year-old from Massachusetts, is a member of a small group of Americans and Canadians who have volunteered to live side by side with Iraqis and work to promote peaceful solutions to the daily deadly conflict here.
In contrast to nearly all Westerners in Iraq — who live in fortified compounds or the U.S.-patrolled Green Zone — the group rents a modest apartment on a relatively quiet Baghdad street.
They often share dinner, family celebrations and tragedies with their Sunni and Shiite neighbors. They try to keep a low profile, traveling with local drivers and without the contingent of armed security guards common to other Westerners.
Provencher's main protections are her scarf and abaya, the flowing dress of Iraqi women she wears to blend in with the crowd, and her relationships with local contacts.
"People ask us often, how can you travel without guns, where's your security, and I say very honestly our security is in our relationships, in our friendships,” explained Provencher. “Our neighbors look out for us in our neighborhood here in Baghdad, and have really risked themselves for us more than once."
A steady presence in Iraq
Provencher and her friends are part of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a U.S.-Canadian organization that places violence-reduction teams in crisis situations around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers.
CPT has maintained a steady presence in Iraq since October 2002, choosing to remain in Baghdad during the U.S. “shock and awe” military strikes in 2003 in order, they say, to support their Iraqi colleagues.
Now, more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion and amid a still-dangerous insurgency, volunteers pound the pavement every day, braving explosions, gunfights, and the threat of kidnapping to help families locate missing loved ones, document abuses in the U.S. and Iraqi prison systems, and to work to build bridges between the increasingly antagonistic factions of Iraqi society.
Bringing different groups of people together to forge understanding has been the most rewarding part of the work for Greg Rollins, a 32-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, who has been working in Iraq since April 2004.
“Seeing people's eyes opened here, and at home, has been the most meaningful for me," Rollins said. "Seeing friends or drivers not want to go to a neighborhood because they have preconceived notions, but then getting there and seeing that these are real people, not fanatics or militants or monsters."
Increased sectarian violence has made his work more difficult, however. "It's been harder to bring two sides together. They usually do come together in the end, but they've been a little more resistant and a little more hesitant," Rollins said. "We're on the doorstep of civil war."
Transcending religious differences
It's a seemingly hopeless task, but small victories make the volunteers believe they can have an impact.
Last year, for instance, a group of Shiites from the holy city of Karbala approached CPT for help in starting a partner organization called Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT).
In one of their first joint projects, the two groups traveled to Fallujah, the Sunni-dominated city that was the site of a major U.S. Marine assault in November 2004 aimed at clearing out an insurgent stronghold. More than 70 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed, and little has been rebuilt.
Fifteen Shiites from MPT and three CPT volunteers spent the day cleaning up rubble and garbage from bombed homes and mosques on the main downtown streets.
"We were out there in our abayas sweeping," said Provencher, who took part in the project. "We symbolically cleaned up an area to show that we wanted to help the city rebuild."
"People in Fallujah were surprised," said Sami Rasouli, the founder of MPT and an Iraqi-American who returned to his native country after the war to help rebuild it.
"We told them, ‘We are your brothers and sisters from Karbala and Najav, Canada, and the U.S., and we've come to express our solidarity with you and tell you that you are not alone.’ And we came to express our belief in Iraqi unity," Rasouli said in a phone interview from Karbala.
The Shiite visitors and Sunni hosts later worshipped together at the local Sunni mosque, an almost unheard-of occurrence.
"We agreed not to be dragged into a side fight and to focus on educating our people about the forces that try to divide us. We promised to work to avoid any civil, sectarian war," Rasouli said.
CPT and MPT visit Fallujah regularly to maintain friendships and work to help the city recover.
Anita David, a CPT volunteer who visited Fallujah with Rasouli just last week explained how people in the town are still suffering.
"There is a lot of anger there, they are still angry, because there is so much left to be done," said David.
Only a small number of homes have been restored and the town is further hurt economically by the isolation that its strict security cordon necessitates.
Much of CPT's work over the past two years has involved helping Iraqi citizens knock on bureaucratic doors and visit prisons to locate family members detained by U.S. troops.
With the handover of political authority to a new Iraqi government last year, the process for locating detainees has become even more complicated, according to David. CPT says it is also receiving reports of abuse and torture by the newly formed Iraqi security forces.
"Usually by the time the name gets to us, the family members have been to the morgue, they've been to hospitals, to their local police stations and to their local military base," David explained. "But now you have any numbers of prisons ... we don't know about, Iraqi bases where people disappear into."