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After months in Afghanistan, 70 trips to Iraq, she deserves to be heard

Kathy Kelly 2008 | Jerry Daliege for Sun-Times Media

Kathy Kelly, in 2008 | Jerry Daliege for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:24PM

Kathy Kelly walked into town early Friday on the last leg of a 180-mile trek from Madison with activists trying to build support to stop the war in Afghanistan.

On Sunday she will be among the keynote speakers at the big NATO protest rally in Grant Park — her work on behalf of the affected citizenry in far-flung war zones making her perhaps the most credible voice at the microphone.

Then on Monday, it will be back on a plane to Afghanistan, where she will spend the next month living and working in Kabul with a multi-ethnic group of young Afghans seeking non-military paths to peace for their troubled nation.

Somewhere in between was to be a reunion of other activists who joined her for 70 trips to Iraq between 1996 and 2003 to deliver medical aid in defiance of U.S. economic sanctions.

Despite her busy schedule, Kelly took a short break Friday to chat at her home: the modest second-floor apartment of an Argyle Street two-flat that also serves as the office of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a group she helped found.

It’s from this neighborhood that Kelly and friends have long based what they call their campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare. Just don’t drop by expecting to find Kelly.

“I don’t usually spend more than two weeks at a stretch here actually,” said Kelly, who was living in Kabul for most of December through February because of her project with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. “The people here are very tolerant of me. I move in and move out.”

The last time I had spoken with Kelly was in March of 2003 on the eve of the U.S. military’s promised “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign that was to be the kickoff to the war in Iraq.

Kelly, a Southwest Side product and Loyola grad, was in Baghdad waiting for the bombs to fall. I was here on the safe end of a phone line.

Kelly’s self-appointed mission with other members of her group, then called Voices in the Wilderness, was to serve as a witness to the war and its effect on Iraqi civilians. It struck me then as a very courageous thing to do, perhaps even more so because it was quite unpopular to speak ill of the war at that time.

I haven’t changed my mind about her courage. What did change, I was reminded by rereading that 2003 story, is how many of us lost heart and stopped speaking up during that long war — whether beaten down by the futility of doing so or by uncertainty over the correct course, wars always being easier to start than to stop.

It also reminded me how important it is to have individuals like Kelly among us who challenge our consciences even when we’ve grown tired of listening.

Kelly, 59, obviously survived the bombing of Baghdad and in the intervening years has covered a lot of ground doing things that would undoubtedly endear her to some Americans and outrage others.

The following year she spent three months in prison for trespassing on a military training base. It was her second prison stretch for an act of civil disobedience — the first resulting from planting corn on the site of a nuclear missile silo.

Just last year she was a passenger on the “Audacity to Hope,” part of a flotilla challenging the Israeli blockade of Gaza by attempting to deliver aid.

In between were more missions to Afghanistan and Pakistan, always living among the local populace to better understand the consequences of U.S. foreign policy while writing about her experiences on the Voices website.

Now she’d like to convince Americans to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan now — foregoing President Barack Obama’s recent agreement to keep a military presence there for another 10 years beyond the projected pullout by the end of 2014.

Based on her experiences, Kelly believes a continued U.S. — or NATO — military presence will only perpetuate Taliban attacks and prolong the conflict.

In this cause, she considers herself a voice for the Afghan people.

“Nobody consults the Afghans. They have no say. Occupiers and invaders dictate their future,” said Kelly, who scoffs at the notion of a humanitarian purpose behind the U.S. mission.

Whether you agree with her or not, Kelly has earned the right to have her Voices heard.

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