The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice

Women's Search For Peace

In 1979, NATO made the decision to deploy a new generation of weapons in Western Europe – the Pershing II, which had first strike capability, and the cruise missiles, which I mentioned earlier. Protests erupted across the continent and in the United States as well.

In 1982, I had occasion to visit Comiso in Sicily, where cruise missiles were to be deployed at a World War II air base. The deployment was opposed by many, but there had been no local discussion of this deployment. Rather, the edict had come from above – from NATO to the Italian government, and then to the local townspeople. There was great distress; over a million signatures had been collected from Sicilians opposing the deployment of the missiles, but all to no avail.

The Sicilians were concerned about more than just the presence of the missiles. Comiso and the surrounding area had for years had a land policy that discouraged the presence of the Mafia. There had been no incentive for the Mafia to come to Comiso, but there was fear that the rapid expansion and construction called for by the establishment of a missile base would bring the Mafia in. Comiso was a small village, little known even in Italy, but its fate was being determined by the policies of our country. I learned something about how it looks from below. Where nuclear weapons are involved, democratic processes and self-determination are the first casualties.

I left Comiso, but I returned the following March. En route to Comiso in March 1983, I stopped for a few hours in Greenham Common in England, an RAF base used by the United States. NATO had announced that it was to be a cruise missile base. A group of women were camped outside the base protesting the planned deployment of the missiles. A few months earlier, 30,000 women had joined the protestors. In Europe, much was being written about Greenham Common and the women protestors there.

I arrived as the sun was rising at Greenham Common on a miserably cold and wet day. It was a foreboding place. There were women of all ages, and they were getting up from a night's sleep. They had little only sleeping bags and plastic sheets for protection from the weather. They had already been arrested numerous times; and, each time, they had been enjoined by the court from using tents.

The mail came, an event that seemed to be a high point of the day. One woman began reading some of the letters aloud. Women were writing from all over the world, thanking the protestors at Greenham Common and wishing them well. Some of the letters enclosed money.

Many of their practices, rituals, and dances puzzled me then, but I was to learn that not only was their presence a protest, but many of their actions were life affirming and celebratory of life. As one woman said to me, they had to leave home to have a home. As another said to me, "Men have always left home for war. We have left home for peace."

I remember vividly seeing across the fence a young service woman in her pressed uniform with a red ribbon in her hair. Such a contrast to the weather worn protestors – one very much a part of the system, the others challenging it.

I was humbled by what I saw. Life for the women at Greenham Common was very difficult, and I realized that their deprivation was suffered for us all. Some of us will always remember Greenham Common. However, at the time of the signing of the INF treaty, the women of Greenham Common were not even treated as a footnote.

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For more on the peace camps at Comiso and Greenham Common, see the 1983: Peace Camps page.