David Smith-Ferri loading contraband medicine onto a truck for delivery to hospitals in Iraq. July, 1999

David Smith-Ferri: Voice of experience for peace


In the beautifully descriptive forward to David Smith-Ferri’s newly released book, Battlefield Without Borders, Iraq Poems, Kathy Kelly, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, writes, “David Smith-Ferri’s creative intelligence focuses on insidious forces of war, forces that often cause people to shrink in fear. He appeals to our best instincts, urges us to overcome fear, and dares to offer trust and friendship as the basis for creating better social structures. In this sense his poetry is utterly useful and necessary, akin to a brilliant blueprint, beckoning builders.”

Smith-Ferri joined Kelly in December for three weeks in Amman, Jordan, where he spent time with Iraqi war refugees, NGO staff, and Jordanian nationals. “The trip was full of rich encounters,” he says, including several meetings with an Iraqi surgeon who spoke plainly of the challenges facing health care professionals in Iraq, and an Iraqi physicist who spoke about the targeting of academics and professionals. He also spoke with Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes and livelihoods because of death threats.

He is currently on a book tour to raise funds for those Iraqi victims, and will appear in Sonora on February 24 and Modesto on February 25 (see calendar page for details) to present recent video footage from Iraq, a slide show and report on his trip.

His book is dedicated to Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) and Barbara Lubin, director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (www.mecaforpeace.org) “for their steadfast and nonviolent opposition to war in the Middle East and the compassionate example of friendship and solidarity they’ve set at great personal risk.” It portrays his encounters with Iraqi people and the events that have shaped their lives over the last eight years. Many of the poems in his book were written in Iraq and are an attempt to “voice the longings of the perspective of people caught in the vortex of war” from Iraqi people to families of US soldiers.

He was influenced to become an activist in the Middle East following a presentation in December 1998 by activist Art Laffin. At that time Smith-Ferri says “the Iraqi people...had been living for eight and a half years under a crushing economic embargo, about which I knew next to nothing. What Art provided was a primer in horror and in a compassionate, hopeful response to it. From him I heard stories of doctors, trained in Europe and the United States, unable to treat diseases because of a lack of equipment and medicine. I saw pictures of young children dying of diarrhea, dying in their mother’s arms. And I wanted to do something constructive in response.

“I also learned about Americans who risked large fines and prison terms, because they violated federal law by traveling to Iraq and bringing medicine and clothing to Iraqi hospitals. These were ordinary Americans, who scaled the sanctions wall and returned with pictures, stories, heightened understanding, and new information not reported in the media.”

Smith-Ferri had a desire “to be able to speak from personal experience” and decided to visit Iraq for the first time in July 1999 as part of an eight-member fact-finding delegation organized by the Chicago-based group, Voices in the Wilderness, now Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The group gathered first hand information about the humanitarian crises caused by international economic sanctions and the terror caused by the policy and practice of “no-fly zone” bombings.

In September 2002 “in the frightening run-up of the invasion,” he returned to Iraq with three goals. “First,” he says, “I wanted to interview Iraqis, in some cases people I had talked with on the prior trip, about the threat of war. Surely, I reasoned, it should matter to us what people in Iraq think, how they perceive our possible actions and how they might respond. Second, I wanted to investigate the likely real life consequences of a United States military invasion on ordinary Iraqis. Last, there were a few families in Iraq with whom I’d maintained indirect contact, and I wanted to see them and talk with them and their children. I knew that if war did come, this might be the last chance I’d ever have to see them.

“During each trip, I visited people who lived at the edge of a precipice and whose point of view had the clarity that only comes with proximity to death. I met with a wide range of people - doctors, patients, clerics, lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers, waiters, shoeshine boys, shop owners, business people, UN program directors... I encountered anger and terror, to be sure, but also a remarkable depth of hospitality and warmth, intelligence and goodwill. The encounters were intense and emotionally charged, not only those which occurred at bomb sites and hospitals, but...ordinary meetings with people in a bakery or hotel lobby or restaurant.”

His visits engendered “a need to write, a need to process and give form to experience so I could share it and remain sane.”

Smith-Ferri, Poet Laureate of Ukiah, CA, is a winner of the Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. His poetry and essays have been published in Z Magazine, Yes! Magazine, The Other Side Magazine, the print edition of CounterPunch and numerous online publications.

David Smith-Ferri lives in Ukiah, CA with his partner. Sherrie, and their fourteen year-old daughter, Rachael, and he says none of his activism would be possible without their support. He earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Washington, Seattle, worked as a social worker, and currently devotes his life to parenting, writing and activism.

ACTION: Attend one of the presentations in Modesto or Sonora and buy his book. All proceeds, less $3 of the sale price, will go directly to Iraqi victims of this war. For more information visit http://www.battlefieldwithoutborders.org/or email the author at david@battlefieldwithoutborders.org.

Every Iraqi Knows

June-July, 2006

Every Iraqi knows
there are lions in the desert.
And by now, every Iraqi knows
the American soldiers stalked Abeer like lions,
in a pack,
the leaders among them taking the first bites
of her fifteen-year old flesh.

A U.S. official called it
a "crime of opportunity,"
but every Iraqi knows that –
crouching behind lies the size of boulders,
monitoring winds,
moving through a grassy savannah of misinformation,
certain of the entitlement of their sex, their race
their weaponry –
they stalked her
as Cheney and Rumsfeld stalked Iraq.

They singled Abeer out
as the neocons singled out Iraq,
for its vulnerability,
for the treasures hidden beneath the plain folds of its dress.

They raped her
as the Coalition Provisional Authority raped Iraq,
forcing its legs,
authorizing foreign capital to penetrate, to seed itself.

And after raping her,
after killing her parents and her younger sister,
they poured petrol
and set her on fire.
She burned just as Iraq burns,
blue and orange flames devouring its body,
thick, black smoke scorching the throat and eyes
of anyone who tries to watch,
who tries to scream for help.

Abeer means "fragrance of flowers." She was 14 years old. The soldiers noticed her at a checkpoint. They stalked her after one or more of them expressed his intention to rape her. On March 12, 2006, after playing cards while slugging whisky mixed with a high-energy drink and practicing their golf swings, they changed into black civvies and burst into Abeer's home in Mahmoudiya, a town 50 miles south of Baghdad. They killed her mother Fikhriya, father Qassim, and five-year-old sister Hadeel with bullets to the forehead, and "took turns" raping Abeer. Finally, they murdered her, drenched the bodies with kerosene, and lit them on fire to destroy the evidence. Then the GIs grilled chicken wings.
These details are from a sworn statement by Spc. James P. Barker, one of the accused.
--From an article by Robin Morgan. August 17, 2006

Standing There

After the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
June, 2006

Carried on radio waves,
news of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death reached me
with unexpected force and in an unlikely place:
a Buddhist monastery.
It is a place where violence, in any form, is forbidden entrance,
and where vast internal spaces are mirrored
by the boundless natural landscape.
Nuns and monks, in simple robes, walk and work.
Radiant peacocks and peahens strut.
Students, aged six to eighteen, study in a school
that emphasizes character
and asks How can you be of service to the world?
Above it all, like guardians, massive oaks and sycamores
spread their arms.

The news arrived as I fastened my safety belt
and suddenly I felt anything but safer.
Two five hundred pound bombs, a radio voice said,
enough explosive bite in their jaws to swallow a house
and leave a house-sized crater in a date palm orchard.
Like a meteor, I thought. Sudden, suicidal, alien.

Al-Zarqawi, the disembodied voice of terrorist threats,
his actual body, broken and bloody, now a war trophy.

Who doesn’t want to see an end to terror in Iraq,
an end to exploding cars and baby carriages,
to looking for missing relatives in morgues?

I stepped out of my car.
Standing there,
I more than half expected those great trees to swoon,
the ground to turn momentarily fluid.

Days before, Rachael had told a story.
It seemed simple then.
A bug flew into my eye while I played soccer.
For a full minute,
I stumbled across the field, half-blind, frantically blinking,
trying to free the bug,
holding my big, clumsy fingers at my side.
It was hilarious.
Teammates told me ‘Just kill it,’
but I laughed and blinked
and the bug broke free.

Standing there alongside the sycamores,
I could not reconcile the two images:
on the one hand, the Fighter Falcon and its ferocious bombs
finding their target
and on the other the foolish fourteen-year old, fumbling,
finding another way.

Standing there outside the Buddhist elementary
and secondary schools,
I couldn’t help wonder which image would flower,
which image would seed our future:
the grown men in the F-16 following orders to kill
or the girl-woman, following a voice only she can hear.

Anywhere USA

for Shelby West
May, 2006

A local resident, an American soldier,
died in Iraq yesterday
and now
no one speaks against the war.

An eleven year old girl is fatherless
but she cannot lay her grief at the culprit’s feet.
Her grief is a dead child strapped to her back.

She knows the creature who killed her father.
Every night it steps out of darkness
into the daylight of her dreams,
but she cannot curse it’s name,
she cannot exorcise it.

Her anger has no object,
no pointed purpose.
Her rage is a sword locked in its sheath.
The sharpest phrases die in her, unexpressed.

Adults speak dully of honor and service and heroism,
while the impeccable, honorable war,
like a mafia don,
snaps its cufflinks,
narrows its eyes,
and, flanked by body guards,
rides our streets in a limousine,
unseen behind dark and bullet-proof glass.

Shelby West is the daughter of Army Master Sgt. Robert H. West. She was eleven in May, 2006 when her father died in combat in Iraq. Thirty-seven year old Master Sgt. Robert H. West, from Elyria, Ohio, died in Baghdad on May 14, 2006 during combat operations when an improvised explosive device detonated next to his Humvee. Robert was a member of the U.S. Army, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Brigade, 78th Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C.

Cindy Sheehan

Look at me, George.
I’m the oncology lab report,
the malignant truth metastasizing
every time an American soldier is injured or killed.
I’m in your lymph nodes, your bone marrow, your lungs.

Look at me, George.
I’m the murky swamp you paddled into three years ago.
I’m the eight-inch gash in your canoe,
the crocodile stepping off the bank, sliding into the water,
disappearing beneath the surface.

Look at me, George.
I’m the Joshua tree, gnarled and spiked,
waving you into the Promised Land.
I’m the bristlecone pine two miles above sea level,
thriving on adversity: you can’t outlast me.
I’m the river you can’t dam,
the flood you can’t check,
the voice with ten thousand faces.

I’m the indelible blood on your hands, George.
Take your gloves off, and look at me.

I’m the pursuer, and you’re the prey.

The Unmistakable Imprint of Love

Saddam General Hospital, Amara – July 25, 1999

In this sad place, powerlessness is a voracious presence,
unappeased and pathologic. It eats flesh,
a bacteria consuming people from within,
emptying everyone who comes here,
leaving patients, their parents, the doctors like hollowed reeds.
When the air moved, we expected a mournful tune.

For three hours this morning,
stopping as planned at each cot,
we walked slowly through the pediatrics wards,
observing children caught in the swollen river of sanctions:
tiny bodies tossed by the tide,
hands groping for a root, a branch,
but torn downriver by the implacable current.
Taking measurements and securing water samples for analysis,
we calculated the depth of the river, its width,
the number of feet above flood stage.

At one bedside, I held Hassan, a featherweight, eight-month old child.
Dying there slowly, he slept in my arms.
His mother smiled; she spoke to me directly, in Arabic.
Turning for help, I felt on every side
the fixed, expectant eyes of other mothers holding me,
waiting for my response,
even as I waited for her words to come out of hiding.
Doctor Khammas came across the room to translate.
She said, ‘If you can heal my child, please take him with you.’
I struggled to breathe,
and the plain meaning of those words came from too far away,
came so slowly toward me,
as though swimming through a great depth of water.
I handed Hassan back to his mother,
who smiled graciously, without the least cruelty,
and the mothers’ eyes released me,
but the electrical surge of their desire
marked me forever:
the unmistakable imprint of love.

Bert Sacks

Mid-life, without fanfare or fuss,
as though it were commonplace,
he traded his engineering career
to become a tree,
and spreading his limbs
found he could span the globe,
Seattle to Basra.

Citing obscure agricultural ordinances, travel restrictions,
and traditional pest control policies,
federal government threatened to cut him down.
They cordoned off the space around him
and gunned their chain saws.
In response, he summoned wisteria and wild roses
to climb his trunk
orchids to hang from his limbs,
endangered species to nest in his branches.

Editors, journalists, and members of Congress
sip coffee in the shade of his ample arbor.
A steady shower of words like infinite leaves falls upon them,
configurations of leaves like runes directing them
to Baghdad, to Basra.

Iraqi children,
healthy or ill,
move in his branches,
climb on vines, clothe themselves in flowers.

Visiting Ahmed’s Family

Baghdad, September, 2002

In a typical, North American fireworks show,
a rocket will climb the night sky and, with a burst of light, explode.
Concussive sound will follow, noticeably delayed.
Here in Iraq, the opposite occurs:
the sound of war before the actual display.

War is the invisible presence when we gather here with friends.
We hear it howl, but who wants to throw a cloak on that specter
and give it form?
This afternoon, we sit on a bare concrete floor in Ahmed’s living room.
We are an odd collection of people,
arranged like furniture along the walls:
Ahmed and his four younger siblings, barefoot and brown-skinned;
his shy and quiet mother, unsure what to do with her hands and eyes;
Mohammad, a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, now working as a taxi driver;
and three Americans, recently arrived in Iraq and soon to depart.

A thirteen year-old shoeshine boy, Ahmed is the family breadwinner.
A small boy with large responsibilities, he is proud to have us visit.
Such power we have to please.
We give Haider and Jamal, eight-year old twins, a fistful of Iraqi dinars.
They return with soda sold in old Coca-Cola bottles.
Our throats tingle as cold, dark bubbles burst.
We savor the pleasure.
We savor the moments together,
a brief time out of time.

I step outside with Haider
to kick a deflated soccer ball in the rocky yard.
For half an hour we are two boys with a ball,
defying time, celebrating the present moment.
Beyond us, the Saddam City ghetto breaks like a wound,
oozing in every direction.
Somewhere in the Persian Gulf, battleships gather.
I cannot yet see how brightly Haider’s future will flash,
but as I put the ball down and prepare to leave,
I can hear its concussive blast.