Wearing a red baseball cap, he sits at a table in the empty coffee shop inside the bookstore, soft blue eyes examining the store and the person across the table.
“Where should I begin?” he asks, having told his tale many times in the past few weeks, including at the Langley Friends Meeting Jan. 30.
Springfield resident Tom Fox recently spent four months in Baghdad, living outside the Green Zone controlled by American troops, with a group from the Christian Peacemaking Teams working to provide a nonviolent solution to complex problems that have been plaguing the nation for centuries.
“Christian Peacemaker Teams [CPT] has been around since 1985,” he said. “We are a non-government organization (NGO), a violence reduction group. We are invited in to help resolve conflict.” The group was founded by what have traditionally been called the “peace churches,” the Mennonite, Brethren and Quaker Friends organizations.
Currently, there are CPT groups in Palestine, Colombia, Canada and Baghdad, he said, always invited in by a country, and never staying longer than they are welcome.
“We were invited into Baghdad by Saddam’s regime so they could see the process. We’re not sure what their motives were,” Fox said.
Once he and his partner were settled into an apartment across the river from the Green Zone, they established contact with the Human Rights Association of Iraq and the Human Rights Watch of Karballah.
“We tried to meet once a month with them, to update them on what we’re doing to benefit the people of Iraq,” Fox said.
When the first team was sent to Iraq in November 2002, the goal was to “see if there was any way to avoid what seemed to be an armed march toward conflict” between Iraqi and American forces, he said.
THE SECOND PHASE of CPT’s work came after the war started, when Iraqis began stopping by the apartment Fox was living in, worried about relatives that were missing or possibly imprisoned, or that had been taken prisoner and beaten upon release.
Eventually, the group compiled the information about abductions and beatings and presented a report to Paul Bremer, director of the provisional Iraqi government under President Bush.
“We told him of the abuses we heard about in places like Abu Ghraib, but it wasn’t until after the pictures came out last spring that people talked about it,” Fox said, referring to the horrific images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured, images taken of and by American soldiers.
Another facet of his job in Baghdad was working with Human Rights Watch of Karballah to organize a Muslim peacekeeping group that is similar to CPT.
“It’s college kids that seem to be the most interested in keeping it going,” Fox said.
A Quaker himself, Fox was part of the Marines for 20 years, working with government officials in different situations. As a member of the Marine Band, “Our job was mostly playing music for the White House,” he said. After Sept. 11, he, like most Americans, found himself looking for answers to questions he could not understand.
“It seemed there had to be an alternate way, something other than violence” as a response to the terrorist attacks, he said. It was then that he joined CPT, participating in a month-long training process in Chicago before being sent, voluntarily, to Iraq to begin his work.
The situation in Iraq is more complex than has been widely presented, Fox said.
“Saddam kept a lid on a lot of tensions in the region, and when we took him out, the lid blew off, and now it’s all over the place,” he said. “People are fearful to go outside. They just want to be able to live their lives. It’s a very difficult situation. They had 30 years of repression and British rule before that. There’s been no self-determination in Iraq for 1,000 years.”
As for the American presence in Iraq, Fox believes the Iraqi people are torn: not wanting anarchy to rule the country once American forces leave, but also not wanting the presence to continue longer than needed.
“From what I understand, we’re building military bases there, which seems to imply that troops will be staying there,” he said.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY, Fox is optimistic the tide will turn toward peace and stability in Iraq.
“Already in Karballah there’s been a change. People are getting two to three hours of electricity every day. They’re still waiting overnight for gasoline, and there’s 45-percent unemployment. Their infrastructure has been destroyed, but these are all problems that need to be addressed,” he said.
The U.S.-led embargo against Iraq not only kept goods and services out of the country for a decade but also contributed to the weakening and deterioration of the infrastructure, made worse in recent months by the bombing by insurgents.
“The Iraqis are suffering significantly because of the damaged infrastructure. They couldn’t import anything even after the embargo was lifted,” he said.
Currently, the main focus of CPT is fostering a relationship with the fledgling Muslim peacekeeping group, while staying in contact with Sunni and Shiite clerics, who Fox said serve the purpose of social workers, counselors and teachers.
“They understand that we’re there to support nonviolent conflict resolution, and we try to listen more than we talk,” Fox said. “The clerics know we’re not there to convert anyone to Christianity. There’s a mutual respect.”
There is also a common goal for CPT and the clerics, he said.
“People are not being served by violence. It doesn’t help anyone. There is always going to be conflict, but it’s a question of how we deal with it. Do we settle problems with words, or do we bring out the clubs and act like cavemen,” he said.
In a few weeks, Fox will return to Baghdad to continue his work with CPT. But while he was back in Virginia, he told his story to several Quaker meetings and the Northern Virginia Mennonite Church in Fairfax, groups that had become his friends and support system while he was overseas.
“ONE OF THE things that’s rather astounding is that people ask me if he’s crazy,” said Paul Slattery, who organized Fox’s talk at the Langley Friends Meeting on Jan. 30, one of his first presentations.
“Tom’s not crazy at all. He has a strong purpose that this is his life, and he’s sticking to it,” he said.
Slattery has a tremendous respect for what he considers Fox’s ability to make something positive come out of hardship and use difficulties to move his life in a new direction.
“He’s very purposeful. He has the ability to see that these situations provide him with opportunities. I’m amazed with what he does,” he said. “His work with the Muslim peacekeeping teams is incredible. It goes beyond the limits of the Christian Peacemaking Team. Tom knows this is the way we need to live.”
As a member of Fox’s support system at home, Slattery has concern for his friend’s safety in such a dangerous area but also has confidence that Fox knows what he’s doing.
“His purpose is to promote peace. It’s a personal quest he’s on. He’s not a dreamer about this, he knows the risks,” Slattery said. “The kind of peace Tom is promoting is not the absence of conflict, real peace is much more than that.”
Prior to his trip to Baghdad, Fox attended a few services at the Northern Virginia Mennonite Church, where he met Jan Swartzendruber, one of the parishioners.
“It became very clear to me that Tom’s an honest person. I was so impressed that someone would volunteer to go to Baghdad. It’s not a safe place to be,” she said.
Considering the enormous amount of information coming in through the Internet, newspapers and television, Swartzendruber said although it is difficult to know who and what to believe from the mass media, Fox is someone she trusts and believes.
“What you see is what you get with him. He went to live with the local communities and partner with local organizations. He works and prays for peace by getting to know people and communities on a personal basis,” she said.
“People like Tom Fox, who believe with their whole heart in peace and nonviolence, truly are the salt of the earth. They are the ones who can make the changes,” Swartzendruber said. “He believes that this is where God wants him to be and this is the right organization for him to be with. He believes that nonviolence can make a difference … that’s what we all need for hope.”
One of the most disheartening events for Fox in Baghdad was the kidnapping and execution of Margaret Hassan, a British CARE worker, last year.
“He had been in regular contact with her, and when she was killed, it shook him to his core,” said Hoyt Maulden, a friend of Fox’s. “He was absolutely devastated. He re-evaluated everything. I think it took all of his Quaker calmness to get through it and not come home.”
Reading Fox’s blog while overseas, Maulden said some of his imagery was intense and vivid.
“He mentioned being on the roof of his apartment in the evening, Iraqis sometimes go up on their roofs to cool off, and he was able to look across the river to the Green Zone,” he said. “There was the center of United States power in the Middle East, and he was overcome with a sense of evil emanating from that place. I know he’s patriotic and proud to be an American and he loves his country, but I was startled by how he described it, all the problems and killing that comes from the Green Zone.”
He doesn’t believe the passage was meant in a negative tone or critical toward the work American troops are doing in Iraq, but it gave Maulden a better sense that the work Fox and his group are doing is balancing out the destruction.
I really appreciate the way he is, so off the cuff and uncritical of what the U.S. is doing over there although he does disagree with some of it,” he said. “He’s focusing on the people of Iraq and doesn’t get carried away with being a war critic. It seems it would take a lot of self-discipline to do that.”