Huddled against the wall of a water-treatment plant in embattled Iraq in 2003, Donna Mulhearn didn't think she'd live to see the morning. "The bombs were raining down. Sometimes they were at a distance and there was rumbling and shaking, but when they came close, it was like having a gunshot go off near your ear," says Mulhearn, who was one of 13 "human shields" occupying the site in a bid to deter a US strike. "The noise of a bomb is inconceivable. You feel like your eardrums are going to explode or bleed. Then the building shakes and the windows shatter - it feels like an earthquake, and then another one, and then another one and then another one. You think, 'Will the next one hit us?' It's terrifying."
Yet amid the panic and dread, Mulhearn's thoughts would drift to an anonymous Baghdad living room and the horror unfolding within. "All I could think of was the kids. I'm a strong adult and this was traumatising me. What's a 6-year-old going through? What's a little girl thinking when shrapnel starts blowing through her lounge room?"
It was Mulhearn's empathy for the Iraqi people and vehement opposition to US president George W. Bush's "war on terror" that first drew her to Baghdad. What Sydney-based Mulhearn, 41, witnessed and endured over two months as a human shield would exact a personal toll on the journalist and former political advisor, as she documents in her book, Ordinary Courage (Pier 9, $32.95).
But Mulhearn has no regrets, because she has now fulfilled her goal of sharing the stories of human suffering behind military-speak such as "precision bombing" and "collateral damage." In the process, Mulhearn, who had wrestled with a sense of futility against the war machine, learnt self-acceptance. "What I realised is 'Know who you are and be that,' " says Mulhearn, who shares the sentiment in her talks at schools. "I didn't want to be brave, I didn't want to do anything heroic. I just wanted courage - ordinary courage - to be who I am, to respond to the call."
When the call came, Mulhearn was in the midst of a seismic life shift. On Jan. 21, 2003, the divorcee was listening to the radio at a friend's Sydney home, where she was planning a stint in an Egyptian monastery, the next leg of a year-long "pilgrimage" that had taken her to a Tibetan nunnery and the Alaskan wilderness in her quest for solitude. Six months earlier, Mulhearn had quit her high-stress job as media advisor to a NSW government minister and poured her savings into her spiritual travels.
"I put out this question: ‘What can I do?’ " says Mulhearn, who had embraced Christian meditation, a form of silent prayer. Her answer arrived on that sunny Sydney morning, when US peace activist Ken O'Keefe urged Triple J listeners to become human shields. Mulhearn's pilgrimage took a sharp detour. "It's what I'd been waiting for," says Mulhearn, who grew up in Maitland, NSW, with her three brothers and mother, Carmel. On Feb. 20, exactly a month before military strikes began, Mulhearn arrived in Baghdad and met about 200 other human shields from around the globe; their mission was to defend locations including a power station and a food silo.
Alongside her vignettes of the vibrant pre-war city, including being pulled into a wedding celebration one balmy night, Mulhearn is haunted by memories of broken people - especially the children. She has shed tears at orphanages and hospitals and sidestepped puddles of blood at a bomb-ravaged suburban marketplace, but Mulhearn will never forget a leukaemia-stricken girl called Arean. Mulhearn stopped by the 12-year-old's bed at Baghdad's main children's hospital, where her doctor explained that since the 1991 Gulf war, cases of leukaemia have skyrocketed - a rise attributed to the depleted uranium in US munitions. Arean, who was days from death, was voiceless, but her eyes spoke volumes. "I'd lost all hope in myself and the world, but she brought it back again," says Mulhearn. "I felt that she was saying, 'Hey, come on, what good can you do me like this?' " That day, Mulhearn vowed to tell Arean's story at every opportunity.
But before she could, she had to heal herself. Soon after returning from Iraq on April 11, 2003, Mulhearn was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, she was grappling with the possibility of infertility, due to her exposure to depleted uranium. "Pregnancy could be a risk,
not necessarily a disaster, but a risk," says Mulhearn, whose partner of four years is fellow humanitarian Martin Reusch, 54. "I made a decision that I would not take the risk." She has mourned the loss of her motherhood dream, but Mulhearn, who has since established a shelter for street kids in Iraq, is at peace with her future. "If I can't be a mother to my own children, I'll be a mother to others, and I'm happy with that."