Beliefnet
It was Rev. Jerry Zawada's turn to stay awake. It was 4:30 a.m. and he was standing in the lobby of the Al Daar Hotel in Bagdad, talking to me on the phone, during a lull in the bombings.

The 65-year-old Franciscan Catholic priest from Chicago is one of seven American and Canadian Christians staying in Baghdad as human shields. The others were elsewhere in the hotel, taking turns trying to sleep.

The Rev. Jerry Zawada in Iraq
Jerry Zawada
in Iraq
The priest was awake but utterly exhausted. "I haven't slept for more than a half-hour the last four or five nights," he said. "I'm sure a lot of it is tension."

We spoke during a lull in the bombing, when it was possible to get a phone line to Baghdad. Even so, the connection was scratchy, and often we couldn't hear each other clearly. About six hours before, Zawada said, the bombing was intense, nearby--and scary. For more than a half-hour, they felt the building rattling and took "shelter" in the ground floor of the Al-Daar, whose windows are boarded.

While the bombs fell, they prayed. "We're praying for safety for us and for all the people here," he said. "The people are the victims, especially the children. It's incredible how much the children have suffered."

Across town, Cliff Kindy and Peggy Gish were camped out in tents near what is called Medical City, a complex of eight hospitals. I had assumed that staying in tents outside was risky, but Zawada said that, actually, the folks in tents are safer than those in the hotel because the hospital almost certainly won't be bombed. However, the same can't be said for the hotel.

Still, did any of them they expect they might die when they came to Baghdad?

Zawada didn't hesitate. "Yes, that was the understanding we had," he said.

Zawada-who is part of an anti-war called Voices in the Wilderness--told me he took part in a 40-day fast near the United Nations last year. Then he spent six months in Georgia's Crisp County Jail for protesting at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning last year. As soon as he got out last month, he flew to Baghdad.

Just before the war started at 4 a.m. Thursday morning (10 p.m. EST), the group gathered at the Al Daar, and he conducted a communion Mass. "It was wonderful," Zawada said. "We wanted to have prayerful moment as the war started--though we always have prayerful moments here. We always begin the day with a worship service."

Zawada said that, on some level, even though he had prepared himself to die, he also hadn't really expected to end up staying in Baghdad. "But I didn't want to leave once the threat became imminent," he said. "My call will be to get through this time and hope and pray the people will be safe and once again resume normal lives. They've been so gracious, even the soldiers. Everybody greets us warmly."

On Thursday, as usual, the group visited an orphanage run by Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. "They're severely handicapped and they get startled by the [bombing] noise," he said. Still, even the children seemed tranquil in the midst of great uncertainty.

"One of them scooted over and rubbed my back," said Zawada, "as if to reassure me."

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