Harmeet the peacemaker
When I first saw Harmeet he was sitting across the table from me at the start of a non-violence training session in the West Bank town of Ramallah. It was December last year; we were both in Palestine as volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement, eager to learn more about the occupation of Palestine and how we could help the Palestinians in their non-violent resistance to it.
I remember thinking he had a beautiful face - like a pixie – a permanent grin and twinkle in his eye. I remember everyone having to ask him to ‘speak up’ because his voice was so soft, an expression of his amazingly gentle nature.
I remember how, when we shared our hopes and fears about working in Palestine, my fear was that I would lose my patience and get angry at soldiers and settlers. His fear was that he might not be forceful enough! I guess we figured we might complement each other so we stayed together for the rest of his time in Palestine.
Harmeet grew up in Zambia, studied in Canada and now lives in New Zealand where he is studying English literature at Auckland University. Next year he is planning to do a logistics course for engineers that will equip him with skills to work in areas of development, disaster, and conflict. His family is from Kashmir, where his grandparents still live. He is proud of his heritage and passionate about the Kashmir issue.
When he left Palestine he e-mailed me every few days with messages of support from New Zealand saying: “I still have the smell of Palestine on my blue shirt… and I won’t forget my duty while I’m here…”
When I got home we stayed in touch – he sent me all manner of interesting messages: various articles, Buddhist prayers, stories about his life, and once he sent me a picture of a kettle (yes a kettle), with the caption: ‘something to make you laugh’. Looking at the picture of an elegant, shiny old kettle sitting on a stove, and thinking of the care he took to take the picture, the simple beauty of it, his appreciation of it and then his desire to share it with me, all had the desired intention - it made me laugh all day.
Harmeet is the most gentle and sensitive guy I know. When I sent out the story back in May of my friend Marla Ruzicka, killed in Iraq, this was his response:
His peaceful nature is an inspiration to me and I recently found myself going to Harmeet for advice on dealing with difficult situations. He is an enlightened soul and wise beyond his 32 years. He sent me an e-mail from Iraq a day before he was taken in which he expressed more care and concern for me than for himself – typical.
In August I ended up over in Auckland to visit him. He organised speaking engagements for me and it was a busy time, but so nice to spend time with him. His small university apartment is cluttered with all manner of wonderful African art, masks and artefacts. His life is busy with his studies, his squash and with getting a Palestinian solidarity group established on campus. Despite his busy-ness he invests a lot of time maintaining his friendships with people all over the world. He speaks of his family and little niece with great affection. I left him feeling hopeful and invigorated.
But the last time I saw Harmeet was on the news last night. His face was pale, but calm, as he received sweets from his captors, the ‘Swords of Truth’ group that have held him and three others from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Baghdad since last week.
The kidnappers are accusing the four of being spies and yesterday threatened to kill them on Thursday if all prisoners are not released from US and Iraqi jails.
I worked alongside CPT during my trips to Baghdad and have always been in awe of their courageous and effective work there. While many aid and humanitarian groups left Iraq, CPT stayed, focusing on assisting Iraqi detainees and their families.
I know three of the four taken, and fondly remember Canadian, Jim Loney asking if he could spend time with our street kids. He would come to play soccer with them and just hang out and give them his time. As I shared all this at dinner tonight with my community, Father Ed rightly suggested the possibility of them being spies is as likely as he being a cat-burglar. Fr Ed is, well, a rather large man who could not fit through any window that I know of, making it rather impossible for him to be a cat-burglar.
These men, Harmeet, Jim, Tom and Norman are compassionate and caring peacemakers who are concerned about the oppressed and have taken action on their convictions, making it just as impossible for them to be spies.
So what we have is a misunderstanding.
Our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters have mobilised across the Middle East and around the world in a bid to correct the misunderstanding, show support for the men and appeal to their captors. Three of the four taken had spent time in Palestine in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Last week demonstrations were held in both Ramallah and Hebron where hundreds of people came onto the streets with messages such as this one from Mufti Ikrema Sabri, the Palestinians' top Muslim clergyman: "We tell them that these aid workers have stood beside Palestinian people and it's our duty now to stand beside them."
And as we pray for Harmeet, Jim, Tom, Norman and their families, I believe it’s crucial to pray also for their captors: for their transformation and the transformation of all of us to see beyond ‘us and them’ and recognise the humanity in the other.
It’s hard to think of anything we can do in this situation, but I urge those who are spiritually inclined to pray constantly. Vigils are being held around the world, and if you would like to organise a vigil you can get more information from CPT’s website.
There is also an on-line petition.
I can imagine what Harmeet might be thinking right now; he’ll be a little embarrassed about the attention on him, but he will be deep in thought as to how he might use this experience to further peace in the world.
As Harmeet lit a candle every night for the forgotten in the world, he would want us to remember those who he remembers - the Iraqis, the Palestinians, the Kashmiris, all who suffer - and to also ask ourselves how we can further peace in the world.