Matt Chandler adopts a nonviolent approach to eradicate injustice in Iraq
The remnants of war — of fear and loss — melted into the parched Middle-Eastern landscape. Weeks ago, an improvised explosive device targeting the Iraqi police detonated in front of a small video shop in Baghdad. Businesses surrounding the shop were brutally damaged by the force of the explosion. Like bone-deep scars, severe cracks were permanently scribed into the stone walls and storefronts that lined this once busy street. Slowly and steadily, the foundation of the video shop crumbled into the pale brown silt of the Iraqi earth.
A blackening sky began to fall on the war-torn country of Iraq, signaling the end of another day of conflict. For thousands of Iraqi and American families, the closing of the day brought another sleepless night without a loved one and another morning of uncertainty, danger, and heartache. Beneath the night sky, a man in a red baseball cap walked along the wounded street. He approached the video store with caution until he saw a friend inside. The Iraqi video shop owner embraced his American friend with one arm. His right arm, which was injured by gunfire near his home in Sadr City, was bound in a makeshift sling. It had been an important day for the twenty-three-year-old American, Matt Chandler, and the two men had much to discuss.
That was Thursday, September 30, 2004. After hundreds of interviews with Iraqi victims and their families, Chandler had spent the day finalizing reports detailing the abuse of Iraqi detainees. According to these documents, military actions designed to ensure the short-term security of the American guard, such as strict control of detention camps like the Abu Ghraib prison, actually compromised the long-term security interests of Iraqis. The reports of extended abuse and the work of Chandler’s human rights advocacy would soon spread to media outlets around the world. It would ignite the emotions of both pro- and anti-war proponents. The September Report on Detainees, published in 2004, would become one of the milestone achievements for Chandler and his ongoing work with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).
Matt Chandler participates in a human rights demonstration for detainees. CPT workers held regular demonstrations with family members of detainees before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal first surfaced.
Four months after his college graduation, Chandler made his first trip to Iraq as a full-time member of CPT’s Iraq Project team. Inspired by the idea that peacemakers must be willing, just as soldiers, to die for their cause, Chandler has completed four round trips to Iraq since September 2003 as a volunteer with the non-profit human rights organization. The group strives to serve as a watchdog of military actions in conflict zones throughout the world. CPT workers hold peace activist training groups for Iraqis and conduct face-to-face interviews with detainees to understand their perspective. On May 11, 2005, Chandler returned to his Springfield, Oregon, home following his fourth, but not final, peacekeeping mission.
The walls and ceiling of Chandler’s street-side apartment were cracking. The effects of the war had shaken this building too many times to count. But Chandler called this rundown apartment home. On September 23, 2004, he stood in front of the apartment’s window overlooking a row of businesses. At 10:30 p.m., there was little to observe on this darkened street.
But, suddenly, gunfire ripped through the still air. The loud and rapid shooting lasted for three long minutes. Pressing his hands to the glass, Chandler watched civilians flee as several armed men barged out of a building directly across the street from where he stood. Impulsively, Chandler thought to race out and help a wounded man lying face down on the ground. Before he turned, the armed men carried the wounded man to a nearby van and drove away. Then, as it was before, the air became still, marred only by the memory of this short, violent episode.
The next day, Chandler’s landlord arrived and explained that the previous night’s shooting was unrelated to insurgent activity; it was only street crime. He urged Chandler and his five CPT coworkers not to worry — the apartment’s security guard had plenty of “machine guns to keep us safe.” Somehow, Chandler and the team found little solace in the idea of more firearms at the ready. In a conversation with a neighbor and friend, Chandler explained that the current level of danger might not subside until after the January 2005 Iraqi elections — still four months away.
Chandler couldn’t seem to shake the memory of the shooting. The recent violence and its emotional after-effects seemed too familiar to the Thurston High School graduate. When gunshots rang out on the Thurston campus on May 21, 1998, Chandler was eating breakfast off school grounds with friends from his church youth group. During his absence, piercing screams ricocheted across the campus as fellow classmate Kip Kinkel opened fire on the student body. Just as Chandler witnessed unarmed Iraqis fleeing the building across the street, he remembers arriving at school and seeing hundreds of terrified students flooding from the cafeteria.
Chandler gives blood at a Baghdad hospital a day after witnessing the bombing of the Kadhum shrine in the city’s Al-Kadhamiya district.
During the weeks and months that followed the Thurston shooting, Chandler and his community grieved the death of two Thurston classmates. He saw the city of Springfield unite in support of the twenty-two students who were injured, and he sensed the underlying dismay of his own friends and the general public because of this unjust act of violence. As a witness to the effects of the shooting on both the individual and the community at large, Chandler began to develop a deep personal ethic to resist violence at all costs.
In the fall of 1999, Chandler enrolled in George Fox University, a small Quaker-run college near Portland, Oregon, to study Christian ministries and philosophy. His classes led him through deep religious, political, and philosophical discussions that helped shape his emerging views on the nonviolent approach. “Violence didn’t seem to square with Jesus’ teachings about mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love for friends and foes alike,” Chandler says. This spiritual conviction became the foundation for Chandler’s ongoing work in Iraqi war zones.
On the morning of Friday, April 4, 2004, Chandler tied the laces of his worn brown shoes but left his signature red cap, embroidered with “CPT” in black thread, at home. He and his teammates only wear their hats to signal the organization’s presence while conducting human rights work, but not for personal business. On this day, he had been invited to the house of Musa, a good friend of the team. When he arrived, Musa welcomed Chandler through the front door and into the sitting room. A curious four-year-old girl peeked at Chandler from around the corner. Fatima, Musa’s daughter, walked cautiously toward him as she attempted to tame her thick, black hair with a small comb. Because of the language barrier, the two did not share any words.
Musa walked into the sitting room carrying a pot of hot liquid and ushered Fatima away. The stories he was about to tell Chandler were not suitable for the innocent ears of his young daughter. He began to talk about his work as a stationery and map printer, but soon the discussion delved into Musa’s experiences under Saddam Hussein. “He told me that he spent thirteen months in prison between 1999 and 2000 for reasons of which he is still unsure,” Chandler remembers. “Then he demonstrated how he was forced to hang from the ceiling by his hands tied behind his back for long hours.”
Even five years later, Musa felt the effects of Hussein’s dictatorship — he still suffers from intestinal problems from the poor prison conditions. “I give thanks [to] my God I am alive,” Musa says with a small smile.
“When they saw the retaliation and abuse of American soldiers toward detainees, they asked us … ‘This is democracy?’”
According to Doug Pritchard, codirector of CPT, Musa’s story is all too common among the Iraqis whom team members interview. “The people in Iraq had horrible experiences under Saddam Hussein,” Pritchard says. But there is another side to the story, which CPT members learned through their interactions with the locals. “When they saw the retaliation and abuse of American soldiers toward detainees, they asked us … ‘This is democracy? We knew this kind of treatment under Saddam, but we didn’t expect it from you [the U.S. troops],’” Pritchard explains.
Pritchard says that CPT members travel only into regions where Iraqis will welcome their human rights work. On January 27, 2005, volunteers conducted a training session for Iraqi peace activists in the city of Karbala. The day began as nine Iraqis and four CPT workers stood in a small circle discussing their traumatic experiences. A red piece of construction paper, neatly trimmed into the shape of a heart, passed from hand to hand around the circle. Each individual was to tell a memory about trauma and then tear a small piece from the heart. Looking at the red paper, one Iraqi said, “The heart isn’t big enough to show all the pain we have experienced.”
Slowly, the stories unfolded. Tears flowed freely as Iraqis shared memories of life under Hussein and of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A young man named Assad shared this: “In the Iraq/Iran War, people died all around me. I slept with dead bodies until they were carried away. I helped bury the bodies after the 1991 resistance [against] Saddam Hussein. In this war [the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq], I watched a friend explode before my eyes as he defused U.S. cluster bombs.” As his words slowed, his fingers ripped a corner from the heart and pushed the small piece of paper into his pants pocket.
At the conclusion of the day, Assad reflected, “I am an angry person, easily agitated.” As he looked at the training team, he said, “I am a different person because of you. I want to participate in a CPT action.” The volunteers smiled. Assad’s comment was the highest form of praise.
“The heart isn’t big enough to show all the pain we have experienced.”
The team often works with the U.S. military in its peace-building efforts, enabling workers to balance their anti-war conscience with the military’s perspective. In January 2004, CPT suggested that the U.S. military demarcate unexploded ordinance zones with brightly colored tape to warn civilians of possible danger. Army Captain Matthew Wheeler’s rejection of the idea angered several of the volunteer workers and spurred a small conflict between U.S. troops and the CPT unit. In a letter, however, Wheeler proposed that the group use its resources as a non-governmental organization to train and assist Iraqis with cleaning up the bombs.
In his letter to CPT, Wheeler explained that he understood the team’s anger and frustration over his unwillingness to compromise, but drawing attention to the peacemaking cause did not include attacking “low-level officers (and fellow Christians).” He wrote, “We do not set national policy, and often we are torn between a trichotomy of what are orders, what is best, and what is ethical.” Wheeler recognized that CPT could have significant influence on the peacemaking cause by simply employing “a warm smile with demonstrated action.”
Understanding the military comes somewhat naturally to Chandler, who hasn’t always been surrounded by pacifists. Chandler’s father was raised in a military family and his grandfather served in Vietnam. His parents, Bill and Brenda Chandler, say that there are just some conflicts that require military action. When Chandler announced his decision to join CPT, dissent bubbled in the family’s home. His parents, particularly his father, had difficulty showing support for their son in light of the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq. “It’s been hard because we all love him,” Brenda Chandler says of her son, “but we are just different.”
Chandler stands with the family of a detainee in Abu Sifa, a village just north of Baghdad.
Because of this family tension, Chandler and his parents rarely discuss the detainee abuse situation. Since he’s been serving in Iraq, however, both Chandler and his parents have learned to set aside their differences. The safety of her son is, above all, Brenda’s main concern. “I spend each day wondering what he’s doing and worrying about him.” Her warm voice shakes as she speaks.
Three weeks before Chandler was scheduled to return to his Springfield home in October 2004 for a short leave of absence, insurgents intensified retaliatory strikes against the U.S. presence. Kidnappings of both soldiers and foreign aid workers increased. The country was distraught with the ongoing violence by both the U.S. troops and the anti-Western insurgents. Chandler knew that it was too dangerous for the entire CPT team to be in the country at this time.
As Iraq Project Coordinator, Chandler advised Pritchard and the other CPT directors to reduce the team size to two individuals. Soon after this decision, several volunteers packed their meager belongings into small suitcases and boarded planes to return home. Chandler and coworker Tom Fox locked themselves inside their apartment for several days as kidnappings became more frequent.
Chandler remembers a discussion he had with a Shia cleric and an accompanying translator during the somber period. The cleric told Chandler that Iraqi terrorists wouldn’t know the difference between the intentions of armed and unarmed Americans. “Don’t be victims,” the cleric told Chandler and Fox. The simple words stuck with the two men during their quiet three-week stay in Baghdad.
Chandler listens as a man identifies the family members of an Iraqi detainee in a photograph.
When the time came for Chandler to leave Iraq and return to Oregon on November 6, 2004, his flight was delayed at Baghdad International Airport. A bomb had exploded nearby, and all flights were postponed. He escaped the incident without injury but was emotionally traumatized and exhausted. He had seen similar violence on innocent victims before — both at home and in Iraq. And, though anxious to return to his family and friends, the terrified expressions of those at the airport and the shards of broken glass that littered the front entrance sent a clear message: Chandler’s work in Iraq was not complete.
Shortly before Chandler left for Iraq in January 2005, he gathered with a group of Oregonian peace activists in the small sanctuary of the Eugene Friends’ meeting house, where the local Quakers gather to hold silent worship every Sunday. The audience attentively listened as Chandler, the evening’s guest speaker, shared his experiences as a Christian peacemaker in Iraq. His hands gestured easily as he described his interactions with the Iraqi men, women, and children he had met.
As Chandler read quotations from his interviews with detainees, photos of him in Iraq circulated the room. In one, he stands beside the Sunni imam Sheik Moayed — often said to be the most influential Sunni imam in Iraq. In other photos, the effects of war are more vivid. One depicted CPT workers lining a busy but dilapidated street corner holding poster-sized images of missing detainees. The photos aroused a sense of urgency concerning the Iraqi detainee situation, but Chandler’s stories also spread hope to pacifists seeking to end the war.
Chandler doesn’t know where he’ll go after CPT. Shortly before he left for his fourth trip to Iraq, Brenda Chandler overheard her son telling his younger brother that he’d like to write a book about his work as a peacekeeper. That might be years away — there is still much work to be done in order to bring peace to the Middle-Eastern country. For now, Chandler continues to make his footprint in the war-torn Iraqi soil for four months at a time, inspired and comforted by the experiences of his brave, spiritual journey.