Friday, February 24, 2006

Profile Mario Galvan

Introduction: Companero Mario is a leader with the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition and a dedicated Peace Activist!

Inside Najaf: A Sacramento peace activist reports from an Iraqi city under siege
By Paul Ferrell

Inside the perimeter: Mario Galvan, Pfc. Perez and Brian Buckley bond in Najaf.
Photo By Peter Lumsdaine {goto link}

Days before U.S. forces resumed intense fighting in Najaf last week, Sacramento schoolteacher Mario Galvan described the situation on the ground to SN&R by telephone from the city that’s become one of the latest flashpoints of Iraqi insurgence. “Najaf is one of the holy cities in Southern Iraq,” explained the 57-year-old activist during his second week in Iraq as one of five American citizens calling themselves the Najaf Emergency Peace Team. “This is where [Muqtada] al-Sadr’s guys are holed up, and the U.S. Army is all around just trying to grind them down. They’re exerting gradual pressure from different sides of the city. Al-Sadr is threatening to issue a fatwa, to call for a general uprising against the U.S. if they come into Najaf.”

The young, radical cleric al-Sadr and his militia seized Najaf and the neighboring city of Kufa on April 4. Najaf’s moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has the largest following among Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims, has supported al-Sadr, and negotiations to end the crisis have stalled. The Najaf Emergency Peace Team went in with three goals: to witness the current situation and convey its observations to the world, to confront the U.S. military and to promote solidarity with the Iraqi people.

The peace team’s members--Galvan, Trish Schuh, Meg and Peter Lumsdaine, and Brian Buckley--hail from California, Virginia and New York. Representing a variety of peace, justice, religious and human-rights organizations, the group has received scant media coverage in the United States. “When we had a press conference the other day, it was just all Arab reporters, as far as we can tell. I think there was a Reuters person there and maybe one other,” said Galvan, who has sent out his own e-mails on a daily basis. “Friends write back and say there is nothing coming out in the states in the media over there about us, but we came out in 12 different stations here in the Arab world. So, we’re getting really good coverage among Arabs, but back home, nobody knows about us there.”

The group entered Iraq from Jordan, traveling by car to Karbala. It arrived during an attack on an American military convoy in downtown Karbala. “At first, we were nervous, and we ducked into the first hotel we saw, thinking that there might be some reaction against us as Americans, but there was none,” said Galvan. “Later, we went out and got something to eat, and nobody said a thing, and everyone was very polite to us. The next day, we were walking around through town. Nowhere where we have been has there been any gesture of anti-Americanism against us as citizens of the United States--I’m amazed.” He added, “We didn’t see any American soldiers on the street; they’re all holed up in their bases.”

After a day in Karbala, the group traveled south to Najaf, where it met with representatives of al-Sistani and al-Sadr. Regarding popular support for the radical al-Sadr, Galvan said, “I get mixed messages: A lot of people support him, and a lot of people don’t. We hear conflicting stories. It depends on who you talk to.” Al-Sistani “is very well respected,” said Galvan, noting that the ayatollah’s support for al-Sadr appears to be somewhat at arm’s length. “There’s no real love lost between the two.” The moderate ayatollah and radical cleric do share common ground in their mutual desire for a negotiated settlement to the current standoff, and both want coalition forces to stay out of Najaf and Kufa. They also want democratic elections this summer, whereas the Iraqi Governing Council doesn’t plan to hold elections before January.

The peace group turned down an offer of bodyguards from al-Sadr’s militia. “We didn’t want to have men with guns following us around--it would be an odd peace delegation,” said Galvan with a laugh. He explained how the group actually felt less threatened in the city because of the lack of American military presence: “We’re a lot safer here than in Baghdad or Fallujah. Where the Americans go, they are targets, and that’s where the fighting is. Because the Americans can’t come into town here, I think there’s less fighting.” Galvan said most explosions and gunfire were heard at night, and “the next day it almost goes back to normal; it’s kind of incredible.” The warfare he described was “high-tech against low-tech. The guys here don’t have the firepower to stand up against the U.S. military, so they’ve got to sneak around it. It’s kind of a guerrilla type of warfare going on here.”

Galvan says the group was well-received by the local people, and he described the danger level as “no more than for anyone else in town, due to the sporadic violence.” While the two women in the group wore headscarves and the more-traditional clothing typical of women visiting the holy city, Galvan says, he and the other men wore their regular Western clothing. “Actually, people here tell me I look like an Iraqi,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not sure if it’s my Mexican blood or what.”

After its first day in Najaf, the

delegation went to confront American soldiers at a local military base at edge of the city. Delegation member Meg Lumsdaine had called the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad the day before and notified it of the delegation’s intention of visiting the base. Despite the notification, guards fired a warning shot as the group approached the front gate of the base, located at a college near the city. The delegation continued its approach, carrying a white flag and a two-sided banner that read “Don’t be the new Saddam” in English on one side and “No U.S. Occupation” in Arabic on the other. Two Salvadoran soldiers met the group at the perimeter gate. Later, an American soldier came out to meet them. Only Meg was allowed inside the base. Galvan and others remained just inside the perimeter gate.

“We really only got to talk to one American soldier,” said Galvan. “It’s interesting that he was a Cuban from Florida. He’s not a U.S. citizen, but he’s serving in the military.”

Their exchange, he said, wasn’t at all hostile. “I don’t think he’s overjoyed being there. They’re getting shot at all the time,” said Galvan. “The soldier out there was telling us that they just can’t trust anybody. They say that little kids will throw grenades at them. I said, 'Sounds like Vietnam, doesn’t it?’ and he said, 'Yeah, that’s kind of what it feels like.’” During the activists’ talk with the soldier, a mortar attack began, and they took cover in a bunker until it passed.

On a second visit to the base, the delegation was able to speak with several American soldiers. Embedded Associated Press reporter Denis Gray also came out to the perimeter gate and talked with the group. “Here was the only U.S. reporter we had met in our entire trip, reporting on the situation in Najaf ... from inside the barbed wire and defensive walls of the U.S. camp,” Galvan noted in a subsequent e-mail. “He had never walked freely down the streets of Najaf, as we did every day, and seen the people going about their daily routine. He had never gone to the Internet café to file a report, or stopped in at a neighborhood store for a bag of chips or some cookies. What kind of view did he have of Najaf? What can he tell the American people about what is really happening in Najaf?”

Gray later filed a brief report about the peace delegation on April 30. He quoted Galvan as saying, “The U.S. military can level this town in one day. I hope the U.S. has the sense to recognize what a firestorm they would unleash. I just have this intuition that the U.S. recognizes that this is a tinderbox.”

Perhaps Galvan’s intuition was correct: About the same time that Gray’s report was published, Marines announced they would pull back from the siege of Fallujah and allow an all-Iraqi force, commanded by an Iraqi general, to police the city. Iraqis celebrated the pullback as a victory, and political pundits in the United States called it a major shift in American military policy. It may mark the beginning of a gradual withdrawal from Iraqi cities and then from Iraq itself. When asked whether chaos would result if America were to withdraw, Galvan said, “I think there is chaos now. I think that definitely the country needs help getting back on its feet, but I think the U.S. has poisoned the atmosphere here. I think it would be much more likely to succeed if someone else came in, like maybe other Arab countries or possibly the United Nations or something like that.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Najaf remains a stalemate. Galvan told Gray, “I think the whole town would breathe a sigh of relief if everyone with guns would leave the city -- both al-Sadr and the Americans.”

After about two weeks in Iraq, the delegation returned to Jordan. When asked about the impact of the trip to Iraq, Galvan said, “We had some impact in terms of showing another side of the American people to the people of Najaf.” As for the group’s impact in the United States, he said, “I doubt that we would have an impact. Our presence here is largely symbolic, unless, of course, people in the U.S. get tired of letting their government bully other countries around--that’s a long shot, I guess.”

Letter from the Najaf (Iraq) Peace Team

Dear friends,

Yesterday we carried out a very successful action at the largest military base here, on the outskirts of Najaf on the road to Kufa. We were able to get a considerable amount of media, which no doubt contributed to the success of our action, and helped insure our safety.

We held a press conference at the al-Najaf Sea hotel at 1:00 pm. There were almost twenty video cameras trained on us, and more still photographers. The crowd of media was perhaps 30 altogether. We unfurled the banners we would carry to the base: one said "Peace" in arabic, english, and spanish. One said "U.S.A.: Don't Be The New Saddam. Come Home" in English (addressed to the U.S. soldiers). One said "No U.S. occupation" in Arabic. A third banner read "Peace" in Arabic, English and Spanish (Salaam in Arabic letters, Peace, Paz). Each member of the delegation made a brief statement, and then we left in a cab for the base, which was just a kilometer or so down the road. On the way, the press followed us on all sides, with their cameras following us through the windows. Later we heard that the footage of our event was carried on twelve different stations. There press here is largely from the Arab world.

Stopping about 200 yards or more before the base, we unfurled our banners, and spread out, with Peter in the middle carrying a white flag, to indicate our peaceful intent and unarmed, nonviolent approach. Our greatest fear was of snipers, for we had heard many stories of people being shot without warning, and of shots fired at cars that just slowed down on the road passing the hospital/military base. As we approached, a flock of cameramen came with us, both ahead and behind.

We had trouble identifying the entrance to the camp, as it was behind a large concrete barrier. We crossed the street to a gravel road that went around the barrier, and just as we stepped off the sidewalk onto the gravel, a shot rang out. A flock of birds flew up from inside the base, and we stopped and raised our free hands, continuing to hold the banners. It was a tense and frightening moment, but a relief also, in that because none of us had been hit, it showed that it was only a warning to stop.

We talked as we stood there, trying to decide whether to go ahead, or to the side, as we were standing in a spot partially blocked by trees, and felt it would be better to be in the open. We were careful to stand with the banners to one side, not blocking a view of our bodies, so that it would be clear that we were unarmed. We had left all bags and packs behind for the same reason. A few anxious minute passed, and just as we were going to begin moving forward, we saw some soldiers appear to our right from behind the concrete barrier (the barrier was about 12 feet tall!). They motioned us to come ahead, and we did so, careful to walk slowly and keeping our hands raised. Three of the four soldiers remained crouched behind trees, weapons pointing out toward the road, and one approached us.

PFC Lopez was courteous and professional. He invited us to come in behind the shelter, saying that we were in great danger standing there in the open. It seemed somehow ironic, after all of our travels, but then we realized that HE was in great danger standing there with us. We moved ahead to the cover of the concrete wall, then stopped to debate whether we should accept his invitation to come inside. We had previously decided not to enter their perimeter, fearing that the US military authorities might try to detain us. They said that Meg, who had made the initial contact with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, would be the only one allowed inside to speak with the officers, but that the rest of us could come inside the first defensive position, which consisted of two sandbagged bunkers flanking a road that was blocked by a parked dump truck.

Meg went ahead while we talked it over, and we soon decided that it would be better to go inside. We wanted the chance to talk with the soldiers inside, which would have been impossible from where we were. It was a wise decision, because we were able to talk at length with PFC Lopez, a Cuban from Florida. He had been sent to meet us because the gate was defended by troops from El Salvador, and he was the only Spanish-speaking soldier in his unit. The other soldiers who had come out to meet us were El Salvadoreans, as were the men in the bunkers. Lopez spoke good English as well as Spanish, and responded to our questions in a warm and human, if slightly guarded way.

We asked him how it felt to be in Iraq, and for any impressions he might want to share with us. He replied that he was a soldier, and that he was doing his job. His unit was moving in to replace the Spanish troops that were leaving. He was a medic, and was preparing the clinic. We pointed out to him that the military base was set up in the largest hospital in Najaf, and that it contained 400 of the 900 hospital beds in all of Najaf. He replied that resistance fighters had attacked the base from the hospital, and that they had simply "secured" the hospital. When asked why the military base had been set up next to a hospital in the first place, he said he didn't know. The base, he said, was here when he arrived, and had been there for some time.

We spoke about how many Iraqis had told us that they were glad the US had invaded and deposed Saddam Hussein, but how US behavior and insensitivity had gradually turned them against the US. He gave us the US soldier's-eye-view of the situation. They are targets every time they leave the base, and even within the base are attacked regularly (every night, he said) with mortars. He told of children of 10 throwing grenades at them, of soldiers stopping to help a woman whose car had broken down along the road, only to discover, as the woman fled and the car exploded, that it was a trap for them. "No soldier likes war," he said, "but it's our job."

A highlight of our visit was a mortar attack. Explosions began to sound as we lounged in the shade of a covered area behind the bunkers facing the road. He directed us to a concrete shelter just a few feet from where we had been talking. We scrambled inside, and as we did, were amazed to see just outside, one of the guys from El Salvador, standing out in the open, look up at the sky and, raising his arms, call out "Here I am! Come and get me!" An interesting act of bravado, perhaps for our benefit.

The mortar attack was brief, but as we sat in the bunker waiting for the "all clear," we were joined by Lt. Col. Francisco Flores of El Salvador. Like Perez, he was friendly, and the conversation went on. Perez came in and we talked. As we had not brought any bags with us, none of us had our notebooks. Too bad we didn't have a tape recorder with us! No doubt we will be able to report on all of this in more depth later, but in general, the two soldiers were warm and human with us, and we were glad that we had decided to come in and talk with them. They were frank, and answered our questions candidly. However, they made it clear that they followed orders (Nuremburg flashed through my mind), and that they had no control over decisions that were made above their heads. Nor would they offer opinions on the wisdom, legality, or morality of those orders.

I think it's safe to say, on behalf of the delegation, that our interaction with these men only strengthened our conviction that peace, if it is ever to come, must come from the peoples of the world. We can't expect it from the governments, who sit safely in comfortable offices making decisions that force the hell of war on soldiers and civilians alike. Both the soldiers we met inside this base, and the people of the resistance we met in Najaf, are playing out a tragedy being written by powerful men far away from the suffering and pain they are causing. The people of Iraq, as exemplified by the people of Najaf, of Fallujah, of Baghdad, are caught in between; their wishes for a normal life sacrificed to the quest of a small handful of men for power and control.

Why do we become soldiers, closing our minds and allowing others to think for us; giving our lives... and taking the lives of others... to further the ambitions of men who have no regard for the lives of others? Brian, one of our members, pointed out to the soldiers that every human being has a moral responsibility to an authority even higher than their governments: a divine authority that, speaking through the voices of all religions, calls on us to love one another, to be kind rather than cruel, to help one another rather than hurt each other.

After maybe an hour or so, a hummer drove up, bringing Meg back to join us. They said we were free to go when we pleased, but before leaving, we formed a circle of prayer there between the bunkers and shelters, and offered our prayers for the safety of everyone in Najaf and all of Iraq. The soldiers standing around us seemed somehow embarrassed, and gradually backed away, leaving us alone in the hot sun.

I don't remember right now what the others said (I'm sure that they will all eventually share their versions of all this with the list), and not even exactly what I said, but it was something about my impression of the army base as an expression, not of strength and power, but of weakness and fear. Our human heritage of thousands of years of war should teach us that war is not the answer to war; it demonstrates a failing of our society. We must look instead to an awakening of the spirit of humanity within us.

Only love will open the door inside each of us that enables us to see that every other human being is just the same as us, deserving of respect, yearning for love and connection, and wishing only... as PFC Lopez so eloquently put it... to be with his family, to go to the beach and play with the kids, to have a barbeque on Sunday, mow the grass in the back yard, to laugh and be safe at home.

A great work await us, the peoples of the world, if we truly want peace. We must escape the grip of the men who have taken control of the governments of the world. We must learn to see ourselves not as American or Iraqis, but as human beings, brothers and sisters, one human family.

When shall we begin?

By Mario Galvan

Mario Galvan is a member of the Najaf Emergency Peace Team, "Peace Between Peoples". The team comprises a handful of determined volunteers from several well-established peace/global justice/human rights and religious organizations, working in Najaf, Iraq, to place themselves "nonviolently, symbolically and physically" between the U.S. armed forces and the civilian population of the ancient holy city.

Their goal despite the dangers involved, is to try and contribute to peace and justice for the people of Najaf and Iraq. The group's perspective is that "only when peacemakers are willing to shoulder some of the same risks that soldiers take in war, can we begin to move away from the cycle of violence that grips human society at the dawn of the 21st century."

Mario Galvan is a high school teacher and national board member of Peace Action, with 100,000 members throughout the U.S. He is also a founding member of the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition.

April 29, 2004

War Resisters League
339 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 228-0450
fax (212) 228-6193
WRL homepage

Believing war to be a crime against humanity, the War Resisters League, founded in 1923, advocates Gandhian nonviolence as the method for creating a democratic society free of war, racism, sexism, and human exploitation.
Note: Interview with Mario on Zapatista ~ PSL

15 Minutes: ¡Viva la revolucion!
July 17, 2003
By Chrisanne Beckner

Photo By Larry Dalton

Mario Galván is a member of the local Zapatista Solidarity Coalition, a small group of dedicated supporters who raise money and donate their time and energy to improving schools and other social services in the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico. For a man who jokingly calls himself the office “flunky,” Galván sure knows a lot about Mexican history.

How did the coalition get started?

The coalition has a history of almost 10 years now. We organized on January 3, 1994. That was just a couple days after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up against the Mexican government, which was on January 1. That, incidentally, was the day [the North American Free Trade Agreement] went into effect. There's a connection here, not only to human rights but to trade agreements that are impoverishing Latin America for the benefit of transnational corporations. It's interesting to just tie it into what happened here with the summit on agriculture and the U.S. push to move genetically modified foods into the arena of common trade. I don't know if you're familiar with the fact that genetically modified corn has been shipped to Mexico from the United States, and it's actually being planted in some areas. And it's been shown that the genetically modified corn is spreading and contaminating other crops, so the Zapatista communities are creating food banks of their own corn to protect it against contamination.

What are they worried about?

Contamination means that the corn you're growing that's contaminated has the gene that's patented by a corporation so that what you're growing actually belongs to them. These corporations hire detectives, and if they trace their gene in your corn, they'll file a lawsuit against you.

Has that happened in Zapatista communities?

It hasn't happened to Zapatista communities, but it's happened in the United States. In the Zapatista correspondence that we get, we had already heard about the threat of what they call bio-piracy, where people come to the Indian communities, and they study the traditional medicinal cures that people have been doing there for hundreds or thousands of years. Then they come back, and they get a patent on the active ingredient. So, what indigenous communities have studied and learned over thousands of years is being stolen away.

When the Zapatistas rose, they rose for democracy?

The Zapatista motto that they have on their banners and all their literature is democracy, liberty and justice. They picked those themes up from the Mexican revolution of 1910. The original [Emiliano] Zapata was a full-blooded Indian. He was actually elected. It's kind of interesting as revolutionary heroes go, that Zapata was elected by his tribe, his village, to protect their lands. When the revolution began, they were fighting against sugar plantations that were taking over the land of the Indian people. There was no food because the land that Indians had been growing food on for centuries was being taken over to grow sugar to send to England.

What’s the status of the Zapatista movement now?

On January 1, 1994, they made a declaration of war against the government, and they actually attacked. That fighting phase only lasted for two weeks, and after that, there was a cease fire. And since then, the Zapatista movement has been transformed into a social movement. In Chiapas, there have been years of negotiations that culminated in what are called the San Andreas Accords, signed between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, I believe in 1997. Unfortunately, the president of Mexico put them aside.

Are things better now with President Fox?

Actually, Fox did reach back, and he took that accord out of the wastebasket of history, and he brought it up. So, in 2001, he submitted that to the Congress. To me, that was Fox's greatest moment. What happened is that Congress disemboweled the legislation. They modified it and took out all of the things that would have given indigenous communities legal status and a degree of autonomy, and, most importantly, control over the resources in their own territories.

What brought you personally into that movement?

Well, my family came from Mexico, so my father was a student of Mexican history. I grew up hearing stories of corruption and crookedness in Mexico, and we would often discuss the revolution, the various struggles for justice and democracy. And I would ask my father, you know, "Why don't the people have another revolution? Obviously, things have gone wrong." Most of his life, he said, "Well, people are just fatalistic. They're afraid of change." It was interesting. Just before he passed away, which was actually just two weeks before the Zapatista rebellion, he said to me, "You know, Mario, I think there is going to be a revolution in Mexico." So, he was feeling the pulse, too, and if he'd lasted a few more weeks, he would have seen it.

If your office could do whatever it wanted to help ...

We would change our U.S. foreign policy. We're supporting these governments that are persecuting their own people. We're providing the weapons. U.S. foreign policy supports a government that is at war with its own people, denying its own people democracy, justice, liberty.

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