On May 29, 2003, a group of American peacemakers left Baghdad for Amman, Jordan. In the middle of the desert, they blew a tire and flipped into the ditch, injuring several of the passengers. Weldon Nisly, a Mennonite pastor from Seattle, was one of those injured. He recalls what happened next: “Some Iraqi men in a car speeding the other direction saw us and stopped to help us while U.S. bombers flew overhead. These Good Samaritans quickly put us in their car and took us to a small clinic in Rutba, where an Iraqi doctor and his medical team treated us.”
The Americans were in Iraq with the goal of “getting in the way of war.” Weldon says, “We wanted to help the world see the war through Iraqi eyes.” The medical care given by the people of Rutba, a dusty town in western Iraq, did both: their story of generosity is now the subject of an upcoming book and film, called “The Gospel of Rutba,” and their actions “got in the way” of the discourse of the Iraq War. Theirs is an alternative story involving Iraqis and Americans working for peace.
The Americans who were treated by the people of Rutba—Weldon, Shane Claiborne, Cliff Kindy, and others—were deeply moved. Besides working on a film and book, Shane Claiborne and “The Simple Way” raised money to purchase 12 chlorine generators for Rutba, a town with little access to clean water. In May of this year, Sami Rasouli, Director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams, traveled to Rutba to deliver the chlorine generators. Sami reports that the people of Rutba were happy and grateful for the gift of friendship.
After driving the seven hours from Najaf, a predominantly Shiite town in Iraq, to Rutba, a Sunni town, Sami was welcomed and hosted by local citizens and Mayor Qasim Mar’ie. Moved by the hospitality shown by the people of Rutba, Sami invited them to visit Najaf. A few weeks later the mayor and 4 others made the trip.
One of the Rutba delegation’s meetings in Najaf was with a committee preparing Najaf for 2012, when the city will be the “Cultural Capital of the Islamic World.” Throughout the year, Muslims from all over the world will visit Najaf and learn about its rich history and culture. Sami and others in Najaf do not want visitors to see Najaf as a “Shiite” town; Sami says it is “for all Iraqis.” To help make this a reality, the Rutba delegation and officials in Najaf are working together to encourage Sunni involvement in 2012 cultural events. They aim to use this major event in the community of Najaf to support reconciliation among Iraqis.
Leaders in Rutba and Najaf have also planned three series of exchanges between their two cities. First, the cities will host a soccer tournament and give it the name, “Fallujah Tournament” (Fallujah is the name of a predominantly Sunni town in Iraq). At the same time, Fallujah will host a soccer tournament with the name, “Najaf Tournament.” Winners of the two tournaments will later play a friendly match in support of national unity. Second, Najaf and Rutba will host art shows featuring Sunni and Shia artists from the two towns. The theme of the shows will be Iraqi unity. Third, Najaf and Rutba will send school buses of students to the other city, seeking to build friendship between their youth.
During Sami’s trip to Rutba, he also talked about the “Sister City” relationship between Najaf and Minneapolis, MN and about Rutba’s hope to become sister cities with Durham, NC. A sister city relationship is an official statement of friendship and a commitment to cultural and professional exchanges. Sami reports that the people of Rutba are working to form a delegation to visit Durham in support of the Rutba-Durham sister city initiative.
In these ways the story of Rutba is “getting in the way of war.” While the American government invades, occupies, and makes strategic agreements with the Iraqi government, American and Iraqi people work to build friendship and peace. They do everything they can to end the occupation of Iraq, but they also realize they can oppose war by building peaceful relationships on a personal level. Acting out of hope and optimism for a more peaceful future, they work to create an alternative story to that of war.