Mr. Quandt Goes to Baghdad
By Glenn Weiser
Oct 3, 2002 - Metroland

As war rhetoric heats up, a local performer plans to become a human shield in Iraq.



(Joe Quandt, left, holding placard. He returned home safely)
As an actor with the New York State Theater Institute, a singer and harmonica player with various local R&B bands, and an Albany taxi driver, Joe Quandt has long been a familiar figure here in the Capital Region. But Quandt, 51, is now a man politicized by what he sees as an inhumane policy of United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq, and he's willing to take drastic steps to protest it. On Oct. 6, he will leave his more comfortable roles to go to Baghdad as a member of a Chicago-based group called Voices in the Wilderness (VitW) to try to raise awareness among U.S. citizens of the harsh effects of sanctions on civilians there. Moreover, he is undertaking his monthlong trip at what could be enormous personal risk-in addition to its primary goals of providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis and speaking out against the sanctions, the group intends to act as a human shield to non-military Iraqi infrastructure such as bridges and power plants in the event of U.S.-led air strikes. And even if Quandt, who has made out his will, were to survive abombing, he could face criminal charges for his actions upon his return.

The sanctions that lie at the heart of the controversy have been in place since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Critics charge that they have deprived the Iraqi population of essential foods and medicines, and according to UNICEF estimates, 1.5 million of the most vulnerable Iraqis-the elderly, the ill, and the young-had perished as a result by 1998, the last year for which figures are available. Of these, a third were children under 5, and 5,000 children are still dying per month. France and Russia, who are among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have been sharply critical of the sanctions, as have been many of the 15 nonpermanent members. The United States, however, has vetoed all attempts to lift them.

Quandt acknowledged that Saddam Hussein is "a brutal dictator," but feels that the sanctions will never dislodge him. Innocent civilians, he asserts, are therefore being punished for Hussein's sins.

Voices in the Wilderness ( was founded in 1996 for the purpose of using nonviolent civil disobedience to spur a confrontation with the U.S. government over the sanctions, which they see as illegal and immoral. That year, they notified Attorney General Janet Reno of their intention to violate the sanctions by bringing medical supplies into Iraq. In response, the Office of Foreign Assets Control sent them a letter warning them to refrain from any such activities. VitW has since defied the government by sending several delegations to Iraq, and has also mounted several high-profile U.S. protests against the sanctions, for which several demonstrators have been arrested. Quandt, the only member from the Capital Region, will travel to Baghdad with about three dozen others from various parts of the country. He hopes to enlist the aid of local activists to help him report on the situation in Iraq through news outlets in the Capital Region, and he also plans on teaching English during his stay.

Asked if he thinks the United States would knowingly bomb its own citizens if members of the group were to act as human shields in Iraq, Quandt said he doesn't believe so, explaining that similar tactics have been used successfully in Bosnia (Serbs tied U.N. peacekeepers to posts to prevent threatened Western air strikes). Asked if he was sure the U.S. and its allies would afford the volunteers the same consideration in the event of an attack on Iraq, he said, "No. There's no guarantee. There's never any guarantee." Attempts to reach group cofounder Kathy Kelly for comment were not successful, but according to news reports, she has warned the activists that they could be facing death.

Questions of possible death and injury aside, members of the group may find themselves in legal jeopardy for their relief efforts and their attempts to act as human shields. For example, according to Quandt, it is illegal to bring pencils into Iraq (graphite can be used to make airplanes undetectable by radar), or vitamins, or toys. Reflecting on the risks, Quandt said, "When you decide to do something like this, you have to make the decision that you are going to potentially place yourself in any number of dangerous situations, including fines and imprisonment by your own government. But if the United States is going to try to dictate to me where I can do humanitarian work, then there's something vastly wrong with my government."

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.


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