By Irene Kuan
On this mild February night, the War Resisters Support Campaign is gathered in a cramped borrowed space on the top floor of the United Steelworkers building in the Annex.
The usual meeting is about to start, but this week the mood in the room is different and the resisters obviously notice the flood of unfamiliar faces present. “There’s even a reporter from the Wall Street Journal here tonight,” says Michelle Robideux, one of the organizers, pointing to a tall man in a brown suit standing by the door, holding a notepad and recorder in his hand.
There is a lot of media here tonight as they discuss a landmark court appeal that will determine the fate of two ex-American soldiers, and the attention couldn’t have come at a better time as the third anniversary of the U.S-led war in Iraq quickly approaches. The meeting begins and Jeffry House, Canadian lawyer for the War Resisters, starts talking to the supporters and reporters.
A young man in a puffy black coat and black cap scurries in late and quickly slumps into a chair next to Robideux. Christian Kjar is the newest face for War Resisters. It is because of stories such as his that War Resisters exists.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I knew I had to get the hell out of the military.”
This was when he came across War Resisters. He contacted House before leaving, said good bye to his girlfriend (who is still in the military), boarded a bus with $1,200 in his pocket and a pack with a few belongings, and left the base. The trip to Buffalo, where his girlfriend’s family lives, took a day and a half. He then called her sister to drive him to the Canadian border because he was too afraid to cross it on the bus.
“I didn’t start to get really paranoid until I was at the border. I only had my pack and my military ID, but somehow I got through,” he says. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be in Iraq right now. “And my girlfriend? Well, she’s now my ex-girlfriend, she’s already there, and I don’t know if she’s dead or alive.”
Although the experience didn’t seem funny then, he laughs as he talks about it now. He also remembers the ridiculous 8,000-calorie meals they served him during training to bulk up his skinny frame, and the uniform, which he thought helped him with the ladies. The only thing that marks Kjar as a Marine now is his buzz cut, hidden under a black baseball cap. He’s ready to start his new life in Canada fighting for a different cause.
In March, Kjar will join War Resisters in a worldwide demonstration to protest the wars in the Middle East. It will also be an opportunity for them to publicize the stories of these ex-soldiers, who are no longer proud to serve their country and believe the wars to be immoral and illegal. They also hope Canadians will realize this isn’t just an American problem anymore, as Canadian troops are being deployed to Afghanistan and we increasingly hear about casualties every day.
“The government is sending Canadian troops into Afghanistan so they can free up American troops to go to Iraq” says Lee Zaslofsky, who founded War Resisters in 2004.
Zaslofsky is a war deserter who fled the U.S. more than 30 years ago to after being drafted into the Vietnam War. As more American soldiers flee to Canada, the group helps many of them seek legal advice to gain permanent residency here. According to War Resisters, the group is aware of at least 20 U.S. soldiers in Canada. An article in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News estimates there may be as many as 200 hiding in the country.
However many there are, these soldiers were aware that, when they abandoned their military duties, they would be guilty of desertion. Article 85 in the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that any solider found guilty of desertion during a time of war will be tried by court martial and punished. The severity of punishment ranges from imprisonment to the death penalty, although execution is rare.
The last U.S. soldier known to have been executed for desertion was Pte. Eddie Slovik in 1945 during the Second World War.
“I feel bad because I’ve had to call home and ask my mother to wire me money lately.” Ironically, one of the reasons he joined the military was to get away from this dependency.
When he turned 18, he knew he wanted to be on his own after he graduated high school. College was not an option because he didn’t have the money, so he decided to see what the military had to offer. The military recruiters convinced him that joining the armed forces would give him everything he needed, including medical coverage, retirement benefits and the opportunity to be a policeman, which is what he’d always wanted to do.
“They make you feel like they understand what you’re going through, and that they’ve been there, too. They’re very good at their jobs.” Now Kjar feels manipulated by the recruiters as he thinks about the unchallenging minimum wage work he does now. He’s been working as a salmon smoker at a store on Bloor Street West. Anyone who goes near him can tell.
“I stink, don’t I?” It’s true — his entire body smells salty, smoky, sweaty, and fishy. He’s well aware of it, and hates it, but this is the only job he can find right now. As we stroll along Baldwin, he looks at the cramped rows of old houses along the street and the bustling crowds gathered inside the restaurants and bars, listening to the blaring music. “I can’t wait until this is all over so I can get out of here. Go somewhere small with no people.”
He’s been moving around, and has recently settled in with the Catholic Workers Society of Toronto in Parkdale and volunteers for them. He looks over to a fellow protester holding up a picture of American Tom Fox, the Christian Peacemaker who was killed in Iraq. “If I ever do go to Iraq, I would like to be a religious peacemaker there,” he says. His social life has also been active. He has a new girlfriend, although he plans to break up with her soon.
He has quit his salmon-smoking job and is now working as a busboy in a popular salsa club, the name of which he does not want to disclose. “I’m working there illegally because I don’t have a work visa yet,” he says. “But the owners are very supportive of War Resisters. There are actually two or three of us working there.” But most importantly, Kjar received some good news from back home. “I found out my ex-girlfriend just got back from Iraq. Thank God she’s safe, and I hope we can meet up soon.
“She’s coming to Toronto, of course, because I can’t go back to the U.S.” Around the corner, Kjar sees Robideux of War Resisters shouting into a megaphone.
“Go Michelle!” he shouts back, as supporters cheer her on. Suddenly, four young men carrying American flags push into the crowd, and hit Robideux with a sign that says “Support our troops.”
What was meant to be a peaceful demonstration quickly turns ugly as police rush in to stop the mass of people from trampling each other. Kjar suddenly jumps off the bench and runs towards the group to help, but the cops have already separated the troublemakers. “Ignorant Americans!” Kjar shouts to the men, who are being escorted across the street by police officers. “Why don’t you go and serve and see how it’s like?”
Sammy Katz, one of the anti-resisters, later says he did not hit Robideux but was defending himself, and points out he is not American. Kjar hears this, and just shakes his head, looking puzzled. “Then what the hell are they doing… pro-America?” he says as he rolls his eyes. A little past 2 p.m., the rally prepares to head toward city hall to continue its demonstration, but Kjar decides to skip the last leg of the protest to go home before work.
As he walks away from the crowd, he says his lawyer has filed a refugee claim for him with the Immigration and Refugee Board. He’s not sure how long it will take but he’s positive he wants to stay in Canada. “I don’t want to go back to the States. There’s nothing for me there.”
“Jeremy didn’t get to present his case fairly,” he says. Zaslofsky also predicts that a U.S. stop-loss policy, which forces soldiers to stay on active duty after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan, will fuel the growing list of war resisters who continue to head north of the border. As we speak, Zaslofsky excuses himself and tells me he’ll call me back. “Sorry, but we had one arrive today,” he says, as he reads the profile.
“He’s a Marine from California, stationed in Hawaii…”