Friends in Iraq | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Politics

Friends in Iraq

Local Matters


Published November 10, 2004 at 7:38 p.m.

When Rick McDowell and Mary Trotochoud left Baghdad in July, they only intended to take a vacation. The husband-and-wife team had been in Iraq just over a year, managing the Iraqi office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The couple had been living in a neighborhood outside the fortified Green Zone and had grown accustomed to danger, waking often to the sound of explosions. But shortly after they left the city, the security situation worsened, and the two American aid workers decided not to return.

That decision may have saved their lives. Several foreign-aid workers have been abducted in Iraq in the past few months, including Margaret Hassan, a close friend of McDowell and Trotochoud. Hassan is being held hostage, her tearful pleas to the British government broadcast on television screens around the world.

But for every hostage like Hassan, McDowell says, thousands of Iraqi civilians are suffering because of the war. To give this tragedy some human faces, he and Trotochoud have embarked on a speaking tour entitled "Challenging the Policy of War: The Human Cost." They'll appear at the Round Barn in Waitsfield this Thursday, November 11, at 7 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Green Mountain Global Forum.

Talking from his hotel room in Philadelphia, McDowell says that by speaking about their experiences in Iraq, he and Trotochoud hope to motivate other Americans to mobilize for a change in U.S. policy. "We need to make our concerns known," he says. "We need to work against this war."

Antiwar work is a familiar occupation for McDowell and Trotochoud. Both of them have participated in the movement to close the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, now known as "The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation." Troto-choud even went to prison for a year for participating in an act of civil disobedience opposing it. And both aid workers have traveled extensively in the Middle East -- McDowell has led or accompanied 15 delegations to Iraq since 1996.

The AFSC, the organization that sent them to Iraq, is a Quaker group founded in 1917 to give conscientious objectors an opportunity to serve people in need rather than fight in World War I. As its representatives, McDowell and Trotochoud interacted directly with Iraqis working to create civil society organizations. The activists helped secure aid money for projects such as women's centers, health-care facilities and computer literacy classes.

But they don't accept aid from everyone. "We will not take money from the U.S. government," says McDowell, explaining that many Iraqis would refuse to work with them if they did. "It's the first question they ask. They don't want to be seen as collaborating with the occupation." Despite their suspicion of U.S. government funds, McDowell says the Iraqis he's met have had no problem accepting funds, and assistance, from American civilians.

One of the activists' most important tasks has been to witness and report on life in Iraq outside of the Green Zone. For months they documented their experiences in a series of journal entries and personal stories at the AFSC website, The site offers a rare window into the daily lives of Iraqis, presenting stories both heartwarming and tragic.

McDowell and Trotochoud profiled a family of nine living in an 11-by-16-foot apartment. They reported on a group of women graduating from an art school. And they published a story by Wendy Univer about 26-year-old Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar, who calls his online journal, "Raed in the Middle: Lost Between the East and the West." The site can be found at

McDowell's most recent story, "Art Helps Amal to Survive," describes a woman with three children. Although she has a Bachelor's degree in economics, she can't find work. Her husband, who has a degree in Islamic law, is also unemployed. Amal supports herself and her family by selling her paintings on the street.

McDowell documents the violence Amal deals with on a daily basis. "I watched a man shot dead and another wounded by police as they ran from their bomb-laden car," she tells him. "People were running and screaming. I tried to run, but my legs wouldn't work. You can't imagine this moment."

Though Americans might not be able to relate to the experiences described on his blog, McDowell says, a staggering number of Iraqis can. He cites a study that found one in four Iraqi families had lost someone in the escalating violence. And he refers to a report released by the British medical journal The Lancet late last month, which estimated more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the start of the occupation. "If you were to juxtapose those numbers," McDowell says, "in the U.S. that would represent over a million people." This number will only increase, he says, especially as the U.S. prepares to once again attack Fallujah.

Statistics and stories like these are what led McDowell to conclude that the U.S. has made a terrible mistake invading Iraq. "We have lost the war," he says quietly, then adds, "but so have the Iraqis. Everyone has lost. To suggest that we can now win the war... it can't be done."

When their speaking tour is over, McDowell and Trotochoud plan to return to the Middle East to run the AFSC Iraq effort from an office in Amman, Jordan. McDowell hopes to change some minds here before he goes. "We need a change," he says. "People of conscience need to come together and speak out as never before."

Though his words are full of outrage, his tone is subdued. Less than a week after Americans voted to re-elect the president who started this war, Rick McDowell sounds tired, beleaguered, and just a little skeptical.