Last bus to Baghdad
On 6th July 2016, the UK’s public inquiry into the invasion of Iraq published its findings in the Chilcot Report – a damning 2.6 million-word assessment that described what many were all too aware of at the time: that the UK government did not do enough to avoid war with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Back in February 2003 a courageous few took matters into their own hands by travelling to Baghdad to stand as human shields against the allies’ bombs. Thirteen years later, Marcus Webb met members of the Human Shield Action campaign to find out about their extraordinary peace mission – and why they chose London buses as their weapons of mass disruption…
Additional interviews by Matthew Lee
6th July 2016 (Taken from: #24)
It’s an unlikely looking last line of defence. Parked outside a Somerset farmhouse, the 50-year-old double-decker bus gleams with a new paint job as its owner, Joe Letts, recalls some of its journeys. “My first trip in it was to take my wife’s church group to a concert in Wells,” he recalls. “A bunch of us used to go to Glastonbury in it. People hire it for weddings mostly; this Christmas it is going to be used as a pop-up bar in the centre of Bath, serving mulled wine to the shoppers… I guess none of them really compare to Baghdad.”
What could? In 2003, as the Western world geared up for war with Saddam Hussein, Letts and his Routemaster were taking a break from transporting wedding guests to undertake a 3,500-mile international peace mission conceived by a former US marine, Ken O’Keefe.
The idea was simple. The bus – along with two other double-deckers and a London cab also owned by Letts – would travel overland from London to Baghdad picking up anti-war protesters as it went. When the passengers reached Iraq they would volunteer as human shields, taking up residence in key civilian locations across the country. Relying on the assumption that Western lives would be valued more than Iraqi lives by the allies, the shields hoped to deter bombing by the coalition and maybe even avoid war altogether. The reality – logistical nightmares, mechanical failures, bitter infighting and condemnation by the press and politicians – worked out differently.
Among the unlikely envoys who found themselves in that convoy – which included a former Big Brother contestant, the then Miss Germany and a hairdresser from Croydon – Godfrey Meynell MBE, now aged 80, was perhaps the unlikeliest. A former High Sheriff of Derby and the son of a Victoria Cross-honoured veteran, he inherited a small rural estate at age eight, attended Eton then Cambridge, and spent his working life as a political officer in the Middle East and a civil servant in Westminster. He was part of the establishment which – at that point – seemed totally committed to war. Meynell felt differently.
Meynell retired in 1994 and by the time the prospect of conflict with Iraq loomed he had settled into what he describes as the “old cycle” at his estate – garden openings in the spring, school parties in the autumn and Christmas, “when the old house comes into its own”. It is on the estate that we meet to talk about his remarkable journey over roast lamb prepared by his wife, Honor May, a former priest. “Tony Blair did some jolly good things,” he says. “He saved the Queen [with his handling of the public’s reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales], which matters a lot to me, and he got smoking in enclosed public places banned. He got peace in Northern Ireland, but we all felt that he was swaggering around with Bush and was getting carried away with his own self-importance, thinking that he was saving the free world or whatever.”
Meynell shares with me his unpublished journals from 2002-2003. “We are being frog-marched into a second war with Iraq,” he wrote at the time. “Could a concrete demonstration of concern have an effect? I imagine a disciplined group, joining Iraqi civilians at strategic locations, and challenging the West to bomb them.” It turns out he wasn’t alone.
“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged and they should have been”
– The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, John Chilcot, 2016
In December 2002 the Observer published an open letter by former US marine Ken O’Keefe in which he set out his plans to occupy centre stage in the theatre of war. “What would happen if several thousand Western citizens migrated to Iraq to stand side by side with the Iraqi people?” wrote O’Keefe, who had served in the first Gulf War. “Along with, at first, just a few hundred people I will be going to Iraq to volunteer to act as a human shield in the interests of protecting human life… I would rather die in defence of justice and peace than ‘prosper’ in complicity with mass murder and war.” His letter made no mention of how they would get there. Enter Joe Letts, his taxi and his buses.
“I got a call from Richard Scrase, director of the London-based Human Shield Action, who was turning Ken’s idea into reality,” says Letts. Scrase had heard of Letts through the festival grapevine and phoned to ask if he’d be interested in hiring out his vehicles. He got far more than that. “I think the reason I was put on this planet was to drive those buses to Iraq,” says Letts.
It doesn’t matter what was threatened or what millions of others thought – I knew I was right and the war was wrong” — Joe Letts
“I went to Baghdad in 1991, it had been very badly bombed. Bridges, water-purification plants, electricity plants, food-storage and distribution facilities – they had been totally destroyed. There was a report that came out afterwards saying that over 500,000 Iraqi children had died from the bombardments and the following sanctions. When faced with that figure, [former US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright said, ‘It’s worth it.’ Having seen it first-hand I can promise you it is not. I knew I needed to do whatever I could to stop it from happening again.”
So Letts threw himself and everything he had behind the human shields project. “My family’s entire livelihood was wrapped up in those buses and that taxi,” he says. “And I was taking them into what was likely to be a warzone.” It was agreed that Letts’s fleet, accompanied by another double-decker bus painted black, would leave on 25th January 2003 from City Hall in London. “There wasn’t a list of people,” says Letts. “It was, ‘If you want to go to Baghdad be at Tower Bridge by 2pm.’ We had no idea how many would turn up.” Meynell read about the trip in his local paper three days before the buses were due to depart. He decided that this was “an older person’s job” and that, despite being 68 and recovering from prostate cancer, he would go. “I wasn’t very pleased [about the trip] at all,” says Mrs Meynell over apple crumble and cream 13 years later. “In fact I was very anxious. I didn’t try and stop Godfrey from going. I accepted it but I wasn’t pleased, and I wasn’t tempted to go myself.”
Meynell bought a sleeping bag and fleece, got himself inoculated, and three days later he was in London. What he found there did little to allay his family’s fears. “There was a black bus with over-the-top slogans on it,” remembers Meynell. Next to the bus O’Keefe was delivering speeches.
“Ken O’Keefe is a big, spare, handsome chap, lightly tattooed, with a ring in his ear,” Meynell wrote in his journal at the time. “He has made huge sacrifices and deserved respect… He had created the mission. Nonetheless his speech dismayed us. He suggested that 9/11 was a plot of the American leadership. My son said to me, ‘Must you go with these nutters?’” But for Meynell there was no turning back.
Letts estimates that 50 of these “nutters” left on the buses that day and that the supporters who waved them off were heavily outweighed by the critics who jeered them. “At that point I’d say that 85 percent of the country was in favour of the war,” he says. “They’d bought what Blair and the press had sold them without question.” The shields were also put under political pressure to cancel the trip. White House chief of staff Andrew Card released a statement condemning the action and there were reports that the volunteers could be tried for war crimes. “It doesn’t matter what was threatened or what millions of others thought – I knew I was right and the war was wrong,” says Letts. “Then again, I thought it would only take a couple of weeks.” Joe and his buses wouldn’t return for two months.
Having crossed the channel from Portsmouth – “a navy town,” says Letts, “not the warmest send-off” – the buses made their way to Paris. It was here that the cracks started to show between the shields, particularly Letts and O’Keefe.
The Americans dressed in black and thought every setback was the work of the CIA… We were more eccentric – we had a guy from Leeds who called himself Muppet Dave” — Joe Letts
“We had fundamental differences,” says Letts. “And it would annoy me enormously that he would go off-message. What have 9/11 conspiracy theories got to do with us trying to protect the city of Baghdad?” The pair would also clash over the best way to get there – O’Keefe wanted to detour via major European cities to drum up support, while Letts was determined to take the most direct route.
The group broadly split into two, with the Brits on the red buses and the more military-minded Americans on the black one. “They took themselves very seriously,” says Letts. “They dressed in black and they thought every setback was the work of the CIA or an infiltrator. [O’Keefe’s] whole thing was militaristic, he’d talk of being an enemy combatant. We were more eccentric – we had a guy from Leeds who called himself Muppet Dave. There were a lot of people on my side who thought our mission was simple. If we stand in Baghdad they are going to have to do some really hard thinking before they start dropping bombs.”
In Paris the tyres were slashed on one of the buses, causing the first of many delays. “O’Keefe had taken the taxi to Amsterdam and we got further word that he wanted us to pick him up in Strasbourg,” says Letts. “Then he wanted to go to Rome because he had plans to meet the Pope. I wanted to get to Iraq before the war started.” A compromise was reached whereby the group would reconvene in Italy, before getting a ferry to Greece and then down to Iraq through Turkey and Syria – but an antagonistic tone had been set.
The journey through Europe was tough. There were minor collisions – including one with a bridge – and breakdowns. Money was short for many onboard and the reality of spending weeks sleeping on a bus was tough. “Most nights the warmth seemed to trickle away and after a while I would be lying on ice,” Meynell wrote. “In the daytime there were the scenery, my books, interviews with the ubiquitous camera crews, sleep and the occasional conversation. On our bus most people travelled upstairs. I selfishly kept a double seat downstairs to myself. The group might swear, smoke, drink and get up late, but they washed like racoons. I did my best but fell well behind in that department. Perhaps that is what secured my double seat.”
“We’ve concluded that the UK chose to invade before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort”
– The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, John Chilcot, 2016
“The further south we went the warmer the reception,” says Letts. “I remember after a particularly perilous trip through the Greek mountains we arrived in Thessaloniki which seemed to be in the throes of a party. I couldn’t work out what was going on and was beeping my horn for people to get out of the way. Turns out they were our welcoming committee.”
Further warm welcomes were offered in Turkey and Syria. Finally they crossed into Iraq, arriving in Baghdad on 15th February 2003, the same day as anti-war protests occurred in cities across the world. “The main thing I remember about entering Iraq was groups of people running alongside the bus welcoming us, chanting pro-Saddam songs. Obviously they had been programmed,” says Meynell. “I cried that day, because there were children running with guns,” says Letts. “I thought about what might happen to them next.’”
In Baghdad they found a lot more shields. “Very few people realise how many human shields made it to Baghdad,” says Letts. “It was reported as 500, but I think that’s low. They came from all over – Italy, Australia, Japan… The Spanish had a sort of rolling system. They conceded it was hard for people to take an open-ended jaunt to be a human shield so they organised it that people did two-week ‘shifts’.”
“We were a heterogeneous bunch but we all thought the war was a bad thing,” says Meynell. “I think some of them were quite starry-eyed about Iraq. Some thought that Saddam Hussein wasn’t so bad and I never felt that way. He was a dreadful man.”
While all the shields had volunteered to offer themselves as a line of defence, there was never an agreement about what exactly it was they should be protecting. In Baghdad their Iraqi host was Dr Abdul Razak al-Hashimi, who was Saddam Hussein’s spokesman during the first Gulf War and head of the Friendship, Peace and Solidarity organisation, which was co-ordinating the activists under the authority of the Ba’athist government. Al-Hashimi presented the shields with a list of seven sites – including water-treatment facilities, power stations and food silos. Many shields objected, saying they would rather be deployed in schools, hospitals and orphanages.
I thought the bombs were falling and my time had come. I had a feeling of complete peace” — Godfrey Meynell
“I had no problem with the selection of sites,” says Letts. “They completely matched my experience of what needed protecting from the first Gulf War. The Americans weren’t going to deliberately bomb hospitals or orphanages and nobody is going to be going to school while war is raging.” O’Keefe was violently opposed to the choice of sites, however, and demanded that the human shields be able to pick where they went.
“I think the Iraqi authorities had great hopes for our group which were rapidly dissipated,” says Meynell. “I was in sympathy with the Iraqis over where the human shields should be. If we were going to be of any use the obvious place to go would be a power station. I thought all that [talk of picking your own site] was total nonsense.”
In the end, a handful of sites were agreed on and the shields moved to the first one – the Baghdad South power station. Meynell was among the earliest to take up his post. “We are given excellent meals in a building between us and the plant,” he wrote at the time. “Our own building is single-storey and flat roofed. During the week, we painted a huge sign on it, which might conceivably help deter aerial attack. The pace of life has dropped. Behind the site runs the Tigris, and some way beyond it a refinery emits clouds of thick black smoke. We sat a good bit on the bank, watching birds and pondering.”
It was at the power station that Meynell thought his number was up. “I awoke one night to a most tremendous crash,” he says. “I thought the bombs were falling and my time had come. I had a feeling of complete peace. I thought, ‘I haven’t cracked up, I haven’t failed.’ And then there was a whistling sound like a bomb dropping, but it wasn’t from the sky, it was from the bed next door. It was one of my fellow shields pulling my leg. It wasn’t a raid, it was a thunderstorm.”
With the shields deployed, and having spent a fortnight in Baghdad, Letts was preparing for the drive back. “I’d never intended to stay, my mission was done,” he says. Having failed to agree to the Iraqis’ terms, O’Keefe was ordered to leave the country shortly afterwards.
Meynell, meanwhile, was struggling with life as a shield. “When it was that I first felt real fear I don’t know,” he wrote at the time. “Some of our number had met a few of the UN inspectors just as they were leaving. It seemed they had no doubt whatever that the Americans would attack, come what might. Our minders were becoming more edgy.” Meynell made the decision to leave with Letts, concerned for his own safety should the bombs start to fall. “Cold fear is not a good basis for decisions,” he says. “I had made a song and dance about going to the site, and felt most ashamed of leaving.”
“In March 2003, Blair suggested that the US and UK needed an election-style media ‘war room’”
– The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, John Chilcot, 2016
In March the buses left Baghdad. They travelled overland to Damascus, where Meynell caught a flight home, and then on to Beirut where the buses were shipped back to the UK. Other shields followed and by the time the invasion officially began on 20th March, only 50 of the hundreds of human shields who had initially congregated in Baghdad were thought to have remained. Meynell believes he is still in their debt. “If we wanted the movement to have any credibility, somebody had to stay, or next time the aggressive power would be able to say, ‘They’ll scarper before the bombs drop,’” he says. “The fact I wasn’t one of those who stayed is something I have had to live with.” Both Meynell and Letts watched the invasion on television. “‘Shock and awe’, that was the phrase they used,” says Meynell. “I was just disgusted.”
Six weeks after the invasion began it was over. Baghdad had fallen and Hussein had been deposed. No shields died, and only one of the sites they had guarded was bombed – the day after the shields were withdrawn by the Iraqi authorities. Letts believes this proves the effectiveness of the plan. “I think it was the best peace action of the century,” he says. He returned to Iraq again shortly after the invasion. “While the war hadn’t been averted, key infrastructure had remained intact,” he says, “and the initial civilian casualties were much lower than in the first Gulf War.”
Still, the shields faced a largely hostile reception on their return. They had been mostly ridiculed in the press, including in an article in The Daily Telegraph by Charlotte Edwards, who had travelled with them from London, and accused them of living in a “deluded world”. “Charlotte was great,” says Letts. “I don’t believe for a minute that the article published was the same as she submitted.”
Thirteen years later and the media climate could not be more different. The press largely welcomed John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry and its damning verdict on the Blair government’s decision to commit to the invasion. Commenting on the report, the Telegraph agreed that “the Iraq war is an inglorious story of costly mistakes and misjudgments”. Having faced harsh criticism for their part in attempting to prevent it, both Letts and Meynell feel that the Inquiry proves that they were right to act. “I do think our actions have been justified,” says Meynell. “We were right to want to stop it, there’s no question about that.”
“I think Chilcot did a good job,” says Letts. “He gave everyone a voice and let the truth come out. The question is what we do with it. It’s fine to look back and say it was wrong but next time will the media stand up and challenge power? Will the majority of people? Or will we roll over again? The report, the war, the human shields, it will all be for nothing if we don’t learn from it.”
Meynell continues to be active in causes he believes in. He recently auctioned a family heirloom – a painting by Sir Joseph Wright which fetched £665,000 – to raise funds for Syrian refugees. I ask him if he still feels as ashamed to have left as when he wrote his journals. “I’d have liked to have hung in. I’m sorry I didn’t, but I’ve come to a bit more self-awareness I think,” he says. “I’m glad I went, but I’m really glad I came back.”
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