Activist Had Soft Spot for Underdogs

Times Staff Writers

At 23, Rachel Corrie was the kind of person many people dream of becoming someday: passionate, creative, giving, courageous to the point of risking her life for a just cause. One-on-one, friends say, she was as soft as a petal.

Which makes the circumstances of her death -- crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer on Sunday -- all the more brutal for the stunned circle of family and friends she leaves behind in this liberal patch of woods known as Washington's capital.

Although her supporters stop short of calling her a martyr, some said her death will only fuel the peace movement at a time when war with Iraq looms.

Corrie was outside the town of Rafah, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, acting the part of a human shield. She stood in the way of a bulldozer that was about to wreck a Palestinian home. Depending on whose version you believe, the bulldozer was either digging out bombs (Israel's version) or razing neighborhoods for a new wall that Israel wants to build (the Palestinian version).

Corrie and other peace activists from a group called the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led group, believed that the bulldozer would stop.

Just as military vehicles did in Manila when, during the 1986 "people's revolution," nuns handed out flowers to the machine-gunners. Just as the column of tanks did in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when a lone man, broadcast worldwide on television, stood in the path and brought the war machines to a standstill.

On Sunday, the armored, super-sized bulldozer, called a D-9, did not stop. It inched forward, lurched and caused the ground to give way, causing Corrie to fall into the path and underneath the vehicle. The bulldozer, witnesses said, moved forward and then backward over Corrie's body. Her head and chest were crushed.

The Israeli military called it "a regrettable accident," but blamed the activists for behaving recklessly in a dangerous zone. The U.S. government has asked for an investigation.

Fellow activists in the hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil Sunday night, and again Monday afternoon at a downtown park to honor their fallen colleague, and to rally the community to continue the work that Corrie died for.

"Rachel was filled with love and a sense of duty to her fellow man," said her parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, in a statement. "She gave her life trying to protect those that are unable to protect themselves."

Friends describe Corrie as athletically slender with blond hair and thoughtful, intelligent eyes. She was attractive in a plain-spoken way, the opposite of flashy, not working to call attention to herself. She was reserved in large crowds but intimate one-on-one. She played soccer, gardened and loved the poems of Pablo Neruda.

She was a leader not from charisma but quiet doggedness. In the peace organizations around Olympia, she was known as the organizer behind the scenes, the "heart and soul," said friend Phan Nguyen, of an umbrella group called the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace.

Corrie had a playful side -- one childhood photo shows her mugging with a cigar in her mouth -- but she was profoundly serious about helping the people she viewed as the underdogs of the world.

Those who have known her the longest say Corrie was one of those rare people who was born with an altruistic heart. Linda Young, a cousin, remembers one night at the family dinner table when Corrie was in third grade:

"She kept talking about hungry people," Young said, "and how we need to figure out a way to feed them. She was in elementary school and she was worried about world hunger."

Much of it, Young said, had to do with being part of a family that was creative and generous and viewed itself as citizens of the world rather than simply Americans. The Corries, in Olympia since 1975, hosted a number of international students and supported exchange programs. Corrie traveled to Russia on a school exchange program.

Her father, Craig, is an insurance executive; her mother, Cindy, a volunteer in schools and an accomplished flutist. The parents moved to Charlotte, N.C., a few years ago. Corrie, the youngest and who family members called the most idealistic of three children, was said to have a dreamer's ambition.

John McGee, a computer specialist at Evergreen State College, said his daughter went to elementary school with Corrie. He has known her since she was six. McGee said in the fifth-grade yearbook, everyone in class listed what they wanted to be when they grew up. All the other kids named one or two things.

Said McGee: "Rachel had a list of at least 20 things."

According to her closest friend, Colin Reese, who shared an apartment with her for the last four years, Corrie wanted most to become a writer and artist. He said all over their apartment lay journals of poems and reflections, and sculptures she was working on. She wasn't the most punctual or tidy person in the world, but when it came to peace work, she "would work harder and longer than anybody else."

She was a college senior, needing only one quarter to graduate from Evergreen, where she focused on International Studies and Art. She left for the Gaza Strip at the end of January and was scheduled to return at the end of this month to enroll for the spring quarter.

"No amount of reading, attendance at conferences, documentary reading and word of mouth could have prepared me for the reality of the situation here," Corrie wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail to her friends and family.

She got involved with the International Solidarity Movement in the last year. The group is devoted to stopping, through nonviolent means, Israeli encroachment on Palestinian territory. Her main mission was to create a sister-city relationship between Olympia and Rafah, a town of 140,000 Palestinians, mostly refugees.

According to her e-mails, she had laid the groundwork for a pen pal program between children in both cities. She was there with five to eight fellow peace activists, all of them Americans or Europeans. The group increasing took to being human shields for Palestinians who were, she said, constantly being harassed, fired upon and even bombed.

One of her most basic jobs entailed walking with Palestinian children to and from school to protect them from gunfire. Israeli soldiers, she said, would go far out of their way not to harm an American or European.

Nguyen, who is active in the International Solidarity Movement and who has twice traveled to Israel, said Corrie was most urgently concerned about the fresh-water wells in Rafah. Corrie said the Israeli army had destroyed three out of the four wells and was using bulldozers to clear out entire neighborhoods to create a wall separating Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees.

In another e-mail, Corrie described an earlier standoff in which an army bulldozer made lurches toward protesters, even using the front of the machine to push the activists aside. She seemed acutely aware of the danger involved in the tactic.

"She had a heart too big to hold," said her former high school advisor, Carolyn Keck. "A lot of us think of doing the kinds of things she did, but she actually did them. I'm sorry that she's gone. I'm sorry for the world, because we need people like her."

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