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A soft target

She likes Yanni and cats. She cries easily and travels the world. She went to Iraq as a human shield, and now won't say she's sorry.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published August 31, 2003

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[Times photos: Bill Serne]
At her Sarasota home, Faith Fippinger, 62, closes her eyes to contain the tears as she recalls scenes from the U.S. bombing of Iraq.
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“The propaganda machine that swayed people to this war did a lot to hurt anyone who disagreed with that. We want to have faith, trust and belief in our government, and it’s shaking when we’re betrayed almost at every turn.”
— Faith Fippinger

SARASOTA - Explaining this again and again is hard. She is not a public person, just a 62-year-old retiree, a former teacher for the blind. She'd rather be gardening. She has never been in trouble like this before.

On the Internet, they are calling Faith Fippinger a "treasonous hippie" and a "peacenik bitch." A "no-good dictator-supporting, mass-murder abetting loser." A "barking moonbat."

They suggest leg irons, hanging, bulldozer, exile, Riker's Island, firing squad and the lash.

Talking about it could make things worse, and will almost certainly make her cry, but she can't bring herself to say no.

So she smiles, and says: "Orange juice? Diet soda? Water? Ice?"

She settles into a wicker chair in her impossibly tidy living room. She wears a flowered dress and no shoes. She's thinner than she used to be.

She knows she broke the law. She got a scary letter from the government, and she knows what people say about her.

Most people she hears from call her a hero, but the mean ones call her a traitor.

"F--- traitor," she says, "to be exact."

A letter from Treasury

This is a woman who went to Iraq and put herself in the path of U.S. missiles, on purpose, as a human shield.

She didn't stop the war, but she rocked Iraqi babies, comforted Iraqi mothers, fed stray Iraqi cats. She volunteered in hospitals, flipping bloody mattresses and holding wounded children.

She was there to help the people, she says, not Saddam Hussein.

Then came the newspaper stories and the phone calls and letters. Then came the letter from the Treasury Department.

It said that she could face up to 12 years in prison and $1-million in fines for violating sanctions against travel and commerce in Iraq.

It's a routine letter, said Treasury Department spokesman Taylor Griffin. It goes to anyone who travels to a prohibited country. In Fippinger's case, the penalty is likely to range from a warning to $10,000. He insists it doesn't have anything to do with her politics.

But it did not seem routine to Fippinger, who lives in a villa assessed at $41,000 and drives a 13-year-old Geo with a broken air conditioner.

So far, no one has assured her she won't lose her retirement savings or her Social Security. The government offered to settle for $10,000 if she cooperates, she said. She told them she'd rather go to jail than give them money to buy more weapons.

The government does not plan to put her in jail, Griffin said, even if she wants to go.

But Fippinger meant what she said. While she waits for the government to decide what she owes, she imagines what jail might be like, wonders whether she could do the world any good from there.

"It all goes, I guess, to believing what you believe," she says.

She might cry now. She cries easily, always has. Only now people call it "theatrics" and say she's crazy. Crying is healthy, though, she says, so if she cries, she hopes you'll understand.

Her voice is soft, and a little tired.

"I know who I am and what I did and why I did it," she says.

Little Gypsy

She's not unpatriotic. She grew up in Sunday school and Girl Scouts. She still knows the pledge: "On my honor I will do my best to serve God and country," she says. She holds two fingers to her forehead, in salute.

Her father called her Little Gypsy because she loved to travel, even if it was just to Brownie camp. Her dolls wore costumes from other countries.

After college she taught blind elementary school children for 33 years at schools in Colorado, California, Alaska, Australia, Hawaii, Hong Kong and Fiji. She worked in an Aborigine settlement and an Eskimo village.

She filled at least four passports. She spent 13 months circling the Earth in a sailboat, strapping herself to the helm in a gale off of South Africa. In Calcutta, India, she volunteered at Mother Teresa's home for dying destitutes. She traveled on the cheap, using Lonely Planet travel guides to get around.

When she retired about nine years ago, she borrowed a Gold Rush-era cabin from an Eskimo family, so far out on the Alaskan tundra it was nine hours by dogsled from the closest village. She took eight huskies and dared herself to last a year without electricity, running water or neighbors.

"An experiment in solitude," she says.

She net-fished, gathered driftwood and drank from a river. When the river froze she chopped ice and melted it.

She flew in some food, because she couldn't bring herself to kill the animals.

She brought tapes, but decided music was an intrusion. She studied Buddhism and read a lot of Ghandi, by candlelight or kerosene lantern.

She stayed an extra year. She learned to live with herself and thought about dying. She might fall through the river, get lost on the endless tundra, or upset a grizzly bear. No one would even know. She accepted that.

"I might die today, but that's all right," she says. "Part of life is death. Everything is impermanent, anyway."

Waiting for bombs

She still lives without television. Its noise invades the quiet of her little villa, where she surrounds herself with books and candles and listens to the same Yanni CD over and over.

She meditates on a pillow on the floor and visits the Buddhist center on weekends. She takes the elderly shopping and visits the sick.

She married once, but it didn't last. She never had children. She would like to have a pet, but she's never home.

On her last trip, she spent almost a year trekking through sacred places in Tibet, Nepal and India, while America prepared its case for war. She spent a month in a monastery outside Kathmandu, and a week listening to the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

She planned to return to America to protest in the usual way. She had never been radically political, never burned a flag, but she had carried signs and marched at Berkeley during the Vietnam War.

In Sarnath, India, the place where the Buddha gave his first teachings on the four noble truths, she learned about the human shields.

She read about them on the Internet and knew right away. She could be more effective protesting the war from Iraq than from the United States, she decided, and that was that. She didn't wrestle with the idea of dying.

"My life is no more important than the lives of all innocent civilians," she says.

The hardest part was calling her brother in Sarasota.

"Please come home," he said.

She went to Amman, Jordan, met about 30 human shields from around the world, and took a bus to Baghdad.

She stationed herself at the Daura oil refinery, which had burned for 45 days after it was bombed in the Gulf War in 1991. She chose it because it had a community of 400 homes with a nursery, a school and a clinic. It would be bad PR to have peace activists among the "collateral damage," she says.

She rocked babies to sleep at the nursery, taught a little English at the school, and visited children with leukemia at Saddam Central Hospital for Children.

Nearly every day someone would ask her: "Why this war?"

She wanted them to know some Americans wanted peace. Many Iraqis thanked her for being there. One American soldier thanked her too.

Many of the 200 or so shields in the country left when they knew the war would not be stopped. Fippinger and the others who stayed told the U.S. government where they were, painted "Human Shields" on the rooftops, and waited for the bombs.

March 19, she knew they were coming, so she got dressed and waited. The first missile came screaming over the rooftops at 5:30 a.m. Then they just kept coming.

When it got quiet, they would run outside to check on neighbors or go to the rooftops to see the smoke. Then it would start again. Every time she heard the whistling overhead, she thought of people dying.

No sites with human shields were hit, and the closest bomb hit 2 miles from Fippinger's oil refinery. But she saw war up close, in the community where she lived and while volunteering in the hospitals after the bombing.

She cleaned blood, piled up amputated limbs and helped families searching for children in vans full of bodies. Every time she thinks of it now, she starts to cry again.

When she sees a bride, she thinks of the Iraqi brides she saw the week before the war, and she cries.

When she sees pregnant women, she thinks of an Iraqi woman who lost both arms and delivered a baby she could not hold.

When she sees children playing, she thinks of babies riddled with shrapnel.

It never stops.

She saw a man in a hospital standing at his dying wife's bedside. Their six children were already dead from a missile blast that killed 140 people. He looked at her when she walked in the room.

"Where are you from?" he asked her.

Remembering it, her eyes start to well up and she stares at the ceiling until it goes away.

"Foolish" laws?

The answering machine clicks on. A radio host from a "progressive" station wants to put her on the air.

It's been like this since she returned to the United States in May. The phone rings and rings. She tries to keep a list of the calls, but the pages fill up. Six single-spaced pages of media calls alone.

She knew about the sanctions. She blamed them in part for Iraqi schools without paper and hospitals without supplies, for malnourished and dying children. They added to the cruelty of an evil regime.

She didn't realize what the government could do to her.

"Not 12 years in prison and a million dollars," she says. "Not at all."

The sanctions ban "virtually all direct or indirect commercial, financial or trade transactions with Iraq," according to the letter she received from the Treasury Department in March. It asked for a complete account of her transactions there.

She bought rice, pasta, eggs, dates and a little cat food for the strays that came to her back door. She had an occasional chicken kabob or glass of Iraqi tea. She didn't spend much.

She took a backpack, a change of clothes and a little blanket. She didn't donate any U.S. goods. She didn't bring home any souvenirs.

"We went to help people caught between the horrors of their evil, evil leader and the ambitions of the U.S. government," she says. Her voice is stronger now. She sounds angry, but with manners.

She loves her country, she says. She cries about American soldiers dying. She stood in line to give blood after Sept. 11, 2001. She does everything she can to help people right here.

But America has changed since she learned the Girl Scout salute. She thinks the government is wrong to spend money on weapons instead of schools and health care. She thinks the war was built on hollow propaganda. And she thinks it doesn't make her a traitor to feel that way.

"The propaganda machine that swayed people to this war did a lot to hurt anyone who disagreed with that," she says. Her stare has hardened and her eyes are dry. "We want to have faith, trust, and belief in our government, and it's shaking when we're betrayed almost at every turn."

She is not being accused of treason or being punished for protesting the war, despite what the people on the Internet say.

Personally, Treasury Department spokesman Griffin is fond of the First Amendment.

"Unlike in Iraq under Saddam Hussein," he said, "the freedom to protest and disagree with the government is a cornerstone of American democracy.

"But free speech does not constitute a license to break U.S. or international sanctions, or to choose which laws to abide by and which to ignore."

The sanctions were put in place around the time of the first Gulf War, not to stifle free speech but "to compel a rogue government to behave better," he said.

They don't work unless they are enforced. About 11 corporations and a handful of civilians are facing penalties for business with Iraq, he said.

Fippinger doesn't get to choose her penalty, but it will depend on the severity of the offense, and there is an appeal process through federal courts.

If the government isn't making this about patriotism or the First Amendment, her supporters and her detractors will.

She gathers up some of the dozens of letters she has gotten, the supportive ones and the angry ones. A 16-year-old girl wrote one - she cries when she reads it.

"I admire your courage in standing up against the U.S. government and their foolish laws and regulations," she wrote. "You and others like you give us students hope that there are others out there who care for peace and are actually doing something against the wars America so constantly wages against innocent life."

Most of the letters are like that.

A disabled veteran writes that after fighting in the Gulf War, she felt guilty until she returned to apologize to the civilians. "If the government puts you out of your home and takes everything you have," she writes, "my home is your home."

A local political group started a letter-writing campaign supporting her. Peace organizations and church groups and people from all over the world have asked how they can help.

But the mean ones are out there, too. Maybe she should screen her calls, but she feels compelled to answer if she can.

She had a dream someone rode a red motorcycle through her window, poured gasoline into her living room and attacked her. Some callers have suggested she stay in at night. She doesn't forget to lock the windows anymore.

It has gotten dark in the living room and the answering machine is filling up. Someone wants to get her out to play tennis. Someone wants to bring her some stir-fry.

She has run out of ways to explain herself, anyway. There's nothing to do but wait for an answer from Washington, so she will go back to worrying about other people, for now.

"I have bananas," she says. "Grapes?"

She doesn't know if she said too much, or what people will think of her now.

But she can't take it back and would not want to.

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 29, 2003, 09:10:09]


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