Remembering Greenham Common

Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, recalls her first trip to Greenham Common.

Twenty five years ago this week, on 12th December 1982, I got up very early, and went by coach with other bleary-eyed women, from Islington to Greenham Common. Our intention was to surround the nine mile perimeter fence of the US air force base, where 96 US cruise missiles were to be delivered a year later.

Thirty thousand of us made it there that morning, and we did link arms and embrace the base. I remember it as a chaotic day, much of it seemed spent in darkness, not knowing where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. Above all I remember that enormous fence, decorated with all manner of things – often symbols of life, children’s toys and pictures.

But we all knew why we were there. The US was planning to put a new generation of missiles in Europe. These would be a massive escalation of the arms race, because they would greatly reduce the time it took to hit Soviet cities such as Moscow from bases in western Europe, without also putting state-of-the-art missiles closer to the population centres of the US.

The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for introducing the new missiles, but the SS-20s did not have the capacity to strike the US. This raised the spectre of a "limited nuclear war" in Europe, with western and eastern Europe, and the European parts of the Soviet Union in the battleground. US territory would not be involved. This produced a reaction of extreme alarm, not only from the inhabitants of the countries where the war was likely to take place, but also where the missiles were to be deployed. They would be obvious targets.

Outrage at these plans led to the largest mass protests since the second world war, anti-missiles groups grew up all over the country, and CND, which grew exponentially, organised massive demonstrations.

Other forms of protest developed too. In August 1981, a group of 36 women, called Women for Life on Earth, together with a few men, walked from Cardiff to the base at Greenham Common. When they arrived, they demanded a discussion about nuclear weapons with the government. But it wasn’t forthcoming, so they decided to set up a peace camp at the base.

In 1982, the camp became women only, with a strong feminist emphasis. In the following months and years, thousands of women settled at Greenham at various times, blocked the gates, pulled down parts of the fence, danced on the missile silos, and creatively expressed our opposition to the missiles.

That creativity often left the authorities nonplussed. In February 1983, the first major trial of the women took place at Newbury, and Sarah Benton reported it in the New Statesman at the time:

The magistrates had left the court to consider their decision. Inside, 44 women were on trial; at the back of the room sat a score of women supporters. As the magistrates walked out, 30 police officers unexpectedly filed in and, standing shoulder to shoulder, lined up in front of the supporters, preventing them from seeing the defendants and, presumably, from engaging in one of those wilful and anarchic gestures against authority which have been the women’s hallmark so far. Reacting in unspoken accord, defendants and supporters rose, stood on their chairs and, leaning over the police officers’ heads, held hands. Then they began to sing, and continued to sing after the magistrates had returned, banged their gavels and cried in exasperation "Ladies, please".

Such was the spirit of the Greenham women, which continues to inspire peace activists around the world. The missiles were finally removed in 1991, under the terms of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major disarmament treaty signed in 1987, by Reagan and Gorbachev.

There can be little doubt that the extent of popular opposition to the new missiles helped shape their decision to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. As we remember those struggles and celebrate them, now is the time to make that popular opposition overwhelming once again.

10 December 2007.

Dexter Dalwood's "Greenham Common", shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010. Photo: Getty.
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood