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Dropping His Shield

A German student volunteered for duty as a human shield in Iraq. With war approaching, though, he decided to leave. But he still thinks the idea may be useful in preventing wars of the future.

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Trying to stop war: The 68-year-old Godfrey Meynell (left) from England was among the human shields in Iraq last month.

The idea came to the German student named Stephan while he was studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria. He would become one of the human shields who were heading into Iraq with the aim of preventing a U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein.

But by the time the cruise missiles began to rain down on Iraq early Thursday, Stephan was back in Damascus, from where he could follow the course of the war from a safe distance.

Still, he has no qualms about pulling out before the fighting began. "For us, it was clear from the start that we wanted to get out in time because we had told ourselves that the goal was to prevent the war," he said in Damascus. "And if we did not succeed, then it made no sense to stay because we cannot stop the bombs once they begin to fall."

South Africans head to Iraq

That was not the case for others, though. A group of 30 South Africans headed for Iraq on Wednesday as the United States' 48-hour deadline ran down. "We are very anxious to go, and we want to make it on time before the closure of the borders," said the leader of the group, Abu-Bakar Dawjee. "We are human shields, and we want to be there during the bombing." In addition,15 young students from the former Soviet republic of Moldova have arrived in Iraq, news reports said Wednesday.

As the conflict built over the past weeks, more than 100 people from around the world went to Iraq as human shields. But many of them eventually left, having objected to the Baghdad government's plans to deploy them at industrial and infrastructure sites instead of among the Iraqi people.

Stephan and another German student, Birte, were sent to a refinery that was bombed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. About 2,700 workers lived in the area with their families.

Rumors begin circulating

After staying at the refinery for a week and joining protests in downtown Baghdad, the two Germans became uneasy.

"There were these rumors that Iraq would shut the borders and would not let the human shields leave," Birte said. "We were also warned that the journalists would rent taxis so that they could quickly get out of the country when the conflict began and that the prices would shoot sky high. We would not have been able to afford a trip back."

The two then decided to leave, and they found a resourceful taxi driver to take them to the border.

"The driver told Iraqi border officials that we had been guarding a presidential palace in order to speed up the process," Stephan said. "That was all right with us because we were only able to breathe a sigh of relief once we were over the border. ..."

Once back in Damascus, Stephan was able to resume his study of Arabic. But he has not given up on the idea of using human shields to prevent war.

"There was a time that I thought that if thousands of people went events could really have taken a different turn," he said. "I still have a little bit of hope that a new type of movement is forming. Such a thing did not exist before in earlier conflicts, that people went directly to an area. It didn't work out this time. But maybe next time."

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