One of the people I most admire is Jo Wilding. Realizing the Iraq Iraq invasion was drawing near, she went to Iraq to relay the voices of ordinary people swept up in the delusions of world leaders, only to be expelled during the war by the Iraqi government. After the war she decided to do something concrete to help Iraqis: she created and brought a circus to entertain poor Iraqi children trying, somehow, to survive the difficult times.
At one point, when I still had a fantasy of helping Iraqis deal with their mental health needs, I was put in touch with Jo. She offered to conduct some surveys on the mental health needs there. But, alas, events interfered.
When the four American mercenaries were brutally lynched in Fallujah in March 2004, the United States decided to lay siege to the city. Jo, and several other Westerners decided to make sorely needed medical supplies into the besieged city and take Fallujans to makeshift medical facilities. In the process they were fired upon by US troops and captured by guerrillas. I remember seeing, upon my morning scan of the night’s news from Iraq, an account in a local British paper of Jo’s phone call to her mother upon her release. If my memory serves me, in the article her mother was quoted as saying Jo described her captors as “lovely” or something similar.
When Jo returned to the UK she said to a reporter:
“They were really good to us, they fed us and told us to not to worry…. One of my colleagues was sick and lying on the floor when one of them tucked a pillow under her head and put a blanket over her.”
The story of Jo’s time in Iraq was told in the marvelous film, Letter to the Prime Minister. Like all Jo’s work, the film tries to humanize Iraqis for a Western audience. I loved the film and was disappointed that, after a viewing, my local peace group did not want to put on a public viewing, saying it was too hard to understand. Jo has also written of her experiences in Iraq on her blog and in her book, Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a circus to the children of Iraq.
Today’s Guardian has an article — Send in the Clown — by Emine Saner relaying some of Jo’s story:
How to describe Wilding? She’s 32, a mother and a newly qualified barrister, who lives in Brighton with her partner. But she is also an activist, blogger, unembedded journalist, documentary star, human rights worker and a clown with a talent for making balloon animals. “Jo was the only one of us foreigners in Iraq who I was absolutely sure was doing something useful,” says Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo. The journalist and film-maker John Pilger is another fan. “Living with families and without a flak jacket, she all but shamed the embedded army of reporters in her description of the atrocious American attack on an Iraqi city,” he wrote last year. He said her dispatches from Iraq, posted on her blog, were “some of the most extraordinary I’ve read”. The writer, director and academic Jonathan Holmes has written a new play, Fallujah, which draws heavily on Wilding’s experiences, among others.
Even though my contact with Jo was fleeting, I can say that to interact with her is to experience a direct connection with that which is good in human beings.
May 17th, 2007