One cold, wet night in February of 2003, I sat on the steps of a church on Náměstí Míru (the Square of Peace) in Prague. I was half frozen and almost ready to cry. Two years earlier I had been a rising star as a young journalist, but 9/11 had put an end to journalism as we knew it and my career was as good as over.
The war in Afghanistan had already killed several of my journalist friends and the drums of war were beating a frenzy again in the media. This time the target was Iraq. The pretext was clearly fabricated and the results were easily predictable to those of us who had been through conflicts. I couldn't go there and write heartbreaking accounts of this war because this was a new sort of hyper-technological war, where only journalists with big budgets could hope to survive. I had the deaths of friends who tried to cover the war to prove it.
So, instead of being a journalist, I was sitting on those church steps by a line of candles in the freezing rain. I was an American expat in Europe - in a country politically beholden to the US. The media was gung ho for war. None of the journalists I knew who still had jobs were saying anything dissenting. But I was out of a job, so I could speak my mind... not in print, not to any sort of audience, but to the night.
Throwing bombs at a problem will only make it worse. I'm not a pacifist on absolute principle. There are times to fight - when aggression is clear. And this was not one of them. I was against the war in Afghanistan and against the looming war in Iraq. I had spent the entire previous winter going to frigid candlelight vigils with a small group of hard-core peace activists--an Egyptian carpenter, a German lawyer, a female Czech-Syrian business professional, a Romanian teenager and a handful of fellow American expats.
I wasn't doing it for the Afghans or the Iraqis. I cared and I knew what war is. I had seen a small war in Kosovo and Macedonia. But I was there more for my own country than for theirs. I may be an American living outside America, but I care what happens to my country. I could see no good could come from a continued reliance on the economy of the military budget and fossil fuels. Beyond that the very politics of war would poison us and our much touted freedom.
And I didn't want my friends who were soldiers to come back in body bags. I also didn't want them to come back with PTSD and nightmares about the horrors they would have to participate in with such a war. Little could I imagine over 120,000 veteran suicides at the time, but that was in the mix of reasons.
But I knew that there was no turning the media and political direction of my country and I was in despair that night. I sat apart from the small group of activists at the vigil with my head in my hands, until someone came and sat down beside me.
I looked up, forcing myself to be polite. I hadn't seen him before. He was brown-skinned with long curly black hair. We got to talking and he turned out to be a refugee from Iraq. He wasn't a Muslim or into religion at all. He understood my perspective on things and he agreed that war would solve nothing.
Smiling sheepishly--obviously self-conscious but braver than me--he started to sing the old American spiritual "We Shall Overcome" there on the steps of an ancient Czech church in the rain. I'm not brave enough to start such a thing, but I did have the gumption to join him. And soon we were both singing for all we were worth and hanging onto each other's shoulders.
"Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall live in peace some day."
It was corny and it was incredibly deep at the same time. That one moment probably gave me half the strength I needed over the next four years of antiwar activism. We didn't win. None of us won. Not the peace activists and not the soldiers who went to war and not the people whose homes were ripped apart by the war that we couldn't stop. Sometimes you don't win.
It's been more than ten years. The friends of that night are scattered to the winds. And this week started on Sunday morning with a horrific article and series of photos from the beaches of Lesvos, Greece where thousands upon thousands of refugees from the destroyed nations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are landing in tiny rubber boats. They are so desperate to avoid being sent back that when people in motorboats approach them to try to rescue them, many of the refugees throw themselves into the water in a panic.
They are fleeing certain death, whether by violence or starvation. Local people say they see drowned people - including the bodies of children - in the water every day. It is a massive humanitarian crisis but the media and the large international aid organizations are largely silent about it. No one wants to touch this political hot potato.
This is what came of those wars that we protested. The brochures I formatted for Czech anti-war organizations on my clunky computer warned about the inevitable waves of refugees, about the deaths by violence and hunger that would drive them. And very unfortunately those scenarios are being born out.
Climate change has played a role in spurring on the current wave of refugees. On top of war, the region has been hit with several years of drought and what little ability to recover there might have been has been swept away by hunger and economic desperation. And that desperation has fueled the violence begun in 2001 and 2003.
Even here in Prague, I'm close enough to randomly run into people who describe scenes of terror and grief as adults and children alike drown or splash onto the rocky shore of Greece. And as I write about it, I am often asked by people back in the US and Western Europe what we as individuals can do to help. They want to know which aid organizations are credible and where they can send donations. And this once I had few answers.
What I hear from eye witnesses is that many of the volunteers - many of them doctors, nurses and swimming lifeguards from other countries - are simply individuals. Many of them have taken unpaid leave from work to go to Lesvos to pull people from the gray water and try to revive them.
A group of sea rescue workers from Spain called Open Arms, who have bought rescue boats with small donations and use them to pick up drowning refugees
Refugee Child: a Facebook group with members who are volunteers in Lesvos
What can we do? Realistically? Some may be able to leave their everyday lives and homes behind and go to Lesvos, if they have significant resources and the necessary skills (mostly medical and boating). There are a few places to send donations. But these activities are tiny against the mountain of this problem. Even those refugees who reach land in Greece have a long road ahead of them, often walking across entire countries to places where they might be able to get asylum.
Meanwhile, both the wars and the drought continue and there are tens of millions of others teetering on the edges of this disaster. Another flare up of conflict or another year of drought and the next wave of refugees could easily be ten times this flood. It's a situation that breeds hopelessness, among ordinary people and political leaders alike - a problem so enormous it defies all logical problem solving. This is the result of those wars.
I can't predict exact events. What I know is that people in history have stood at such moments before and their words have helped us avoid disaster, when we listened. And that is why I say that sending a donation is good and volunteering is necessary, but these things are not enough. When I feel the despairing pull of depression over these issues, I recall the primary thing we have to do. We have to tell our friends and neighbors why we should oppose the next war, even when we war met with hostility and patriotic fervor or ridiculed for holding unpopular views.
We owe this because we are warm and dry and not starving. Tell others what the inevitable wages of war are. Waves of refugees are simply the echoes of too much silence.