Post-ISIS Mosul, pt 2: Home is where the hurt is

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Despite the destruction, pain, trauma and dread for the future, Mosul’s tough and long-suffering are returning to the ruins of their devastated city.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Read part 1

Thursday 21 October 2017

Before the offensive to seize back Mosul  from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), almost 2.5 million people had been living in Iraq’s second-largest city. Since then, over a million have been evacuated, especially from the western Sunni districts. A joint effort by the Iraqi security forces and local humanitarian organisations, this was  one of the greatest humanitarian evacuations in human history. The evacuation may have saved a huge number of lives, but hundreds of thousands still lost their homes.

Some 5.8 million Iraqis were driven from their homes after the Islamic State, in 2014, conquered huge and mostly undefended swathes of territory. As things stand, 3.2 million remain displaced, and 600,000 of them are from Mosul.

These people literally have no place to go back to, or they are rightly fearful of returning to the crater that used to be their city, dreading the next wave of violent vengeance – this time of the sectarian variety. During my travels across the refugee camps in northern Iraq, I met numerous people who were actively prevented from returning by the security forces and the Shia militias. In all this chaos, everyone agrees on one thing: Mosul is never going to be itself again.

The western parts of the city remain monstrously empty. Life may be flowing back into the eastern part of town, but west Mosul has been sacrificed. It was clear in advance it was going to be erased. It would be impossible to describe the sheer kinetic force employed to tear down this old and once proudly independent city. The immensity of the destruction can only be grasped first-hand.

Two boys are staring off into space amid the rubble. Not much beside the great absence of things that used to be is on display. It feels like even time itself has died here. The past has been erased, the present is a flat line going nowhere, and no one can imagine anything resembling a tolerable future.

Yet in spite of all this, some of the residents have decided to return. And like the trees that have sprouted up through the cracks in the concrete, these people are now subsisting on crumbs amid the wreckage of their homes. There are no stray dogs to be glimpsed around here. Even the smartest and toughest of alley cats seem to have been eliminated.

During the final weeks of the campaign, a great hunger had descended over west Mosul. People ate whatever they could get their hands on to survive. The Islamic State had confiscated most of the food. What was available was savagely expensive – a kilogram of sugar could set one back as much as $50. In many places, there was no electricity or drinking water. West Mosul, especially its old city centre, had been turned into a constantly bombarded, open-air concentration camp. Caught in the crossfire, the city’s inhabitants were slowly turned into yet another tool of war.

“We were very lucky. All of us survived. But we lost everything we had. My son used to have a shop in the old part of town. The entire family was dependent on that shop. Now it is gone. Everything is gone,” described Ahmed Haji Jasim, 70, who had spent the entire offensive here in Mosul. We were talking to him in the spacious and relatively undamaged guest room in his flat in the al-Rifai quarter. Jasim and his family managed to survive thanks to the bunker they had built in the building’s basement. During the worst of the bombardment, they didn’t leave their hideout for five days. They had to stay put even as they heard most of their belongings above them burning away.

“The worst of it was that we knew we could die at any moment,” the old and tired-looking gentleman told us, sitting under a giant busted clock. “It took such a long time for things to calm down. We were terrified all the time. The food was extremely expensive.”

Before the offensive, Jasim used to be a reasonably well-off man. Now he and his family are facing destitution. “But we’re set to remain here. Where else can we go? After 35 years of bloody conflict, I can no longer trust anyone. No, this was not a liberation. It is clear that the future for both Iraq and Mosul is going to be grim.”

Besieged by death

As if everything else they had done was not bad enough, ISIS fanatics, in a crime against the future, had purposefully worked to dismantle the local medical infrastructure. “What you see here is not rebuilding; it is reanimation,” said Hasan Ibrahim, the new managing director of the West Mosul General Hospital, the main hospital in west Mosul, flashing us a rueful smile. Our meeting took place in Ibrahim’s improvised office somewhere in the maze of charred walls and gutted recovery rooms, the consequence of the Islamic State’s decision to burn the hospital to the ground.

This badly damaged wonder of resilience is currently the only functioning major healthcare institution in the ransacked urban desert. As soon as the Iraqi forces took control of the district on 15 May 2017, the remaining hospital staff took to resurrecting the facilities. With the assistance of the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) and ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian agency, this stupendous project has managed to get off the ground.

“We’ve seen almost total destruction of the premises,” Ibrahim continued. “ISIS took out all our equipment. The demand for our services is staggering. As we re-entered the hospital, the fighting was still going on. Right here, very, very close to us. It was terrifying.”

The hospital’s managing director still serves as an active surgeon. In the past, he had been arrested four times by ISIS thugs. He had been put on trial twice. The first time because his trousers were too long, the second time, because they were deemed too short after he had dutifully shortened them. This is not a joke. But Dr Ibrahim still managed to laugh as he recounted the story. He was also quick to add he had been exceptionally lucky to escape unharmed.

“For the last two months, we functioned as an ER unit. It was horrible, just horrible… Even before all this madness, our staff hadn’t been receiving their paychecks for three years. I can tell you, they’re not receiving them now, but they’re still performing their duties with exemplary dedication.”

As things stood, 25 people were ’employed’ at the hospital. After our interview, the managing director led us up a flight of soot-streaked stairs for a tour of the hospital’s burnt-out upper floors. We ended up on the roof, from where one could survey the totality of west Mosul’s devastation.

The main and only hospital in west Mosul is doing what it can to help some life persevere amid the rubble. The hospital’s underground facilities may be in dire need of complete renovation, but that has not stopped the staff from using it as an improvised maternity ward. Opened at the beginning of June 2017, it was allocated a team of one doctor and two midwives.

During our visit, the modest premises, which were reminiscent of the field hospitals of yore, were a hive of lively activity. It wasn’t yet noon, and the world was already two infant souls richer. That morning, Suria Shaab Ahmad, 42, had given birth to the little girl she was now clutching to her breast on her bed.

It was her fifth child. “Five is enough,” Suria laughed merrily in spite of her apparent exhaustion, a mere two hours after the delivery. Then she told me she had been escorted to the hospital by her 62-year-old mother. Suria’s husband had simply disappeared – or, much more probably, been disappeared… Like hundreds of other Sunni men who had vanished without a trace.

“We come from the Bousefa quarter in west Mosul,” Suria’s mother informed, as she sat patiently next to her daughter and her tiny granddaughter. “Thirteen months ago when the offensive started, we were forced to run. Our house had been burned down. Everything we owned had gone up in flames. We moved to the old city centre.”

Grandma had, herself, brought six children into the world. Five of them are still alive – only her son Mohammed, a member of the Iraqi army, had been gunned down by the extremists. His family searched for him for a long time. He had been hiding in a hole under the house that Suria’s family had fled to. “It was horrible… They had killed my son and burned down that house as well. Following the liberation, we returned to Bousefa to live in a house where Daesh supporters used to live. Where else were we supposed to go?”

Suria’s mother spoke in a forceful, seemingly unruffled manner. But then she could hardly afford to seem ruffled. This robust matronly lady knew very well, as I was also aware, that the survival of an entire family hinged on her fortitude.

“Today is a nice day. We are happy. Life is starting over again. I’m trying to find a name for my little girl. Perhaps you’ve got a suggestion?” Suria Shaab Ahmad asked me.

Nur? Light?

“Ha ha, that’s going to be tough – we already have four girls named Nur in the family,” Suria smiled and kept stroking her precious newborn daughter.

Still and in spite of everything, let there be Light.

Read part 1

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A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

—–

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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Uganda’s refugee crisis, part 2: The world’s largest refugee camp

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Uganda’s open door policy has created Bidibidi, the world’s largest refugee camp, of which few outsiders have heard. The strain of housing so many refugee has placed an unbearable strain on this poor country, yet no help is forthcoming.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 20 July 2017

Read part 1

The Bidibidi refugee camp (some call it a ‘settlement’) is the world’s largest refugee camp, where just under 300,000 people are currently residing. As recently as a year ago, no refugees were settled here – and there were also not very many roads across the savannah. Instead, there was a plenitude of trees and at least some water. Now you have a great many roads, very few trees and no water. The wells have been sucked dry.

The camp – spread out across almost 250 square kilometres – gets its water supplies from incoming trucks. The cost is punishingly steep, and the logistics of servicing such a huge mass of people are staggering. Yet the camp’s perimeter, unlike the perimeters of similar camps around the world, is not fenced in with barbed wire and watchtowers. It is also not patrolled by heavily armed policemen or members of private security firms.

Last December, the Ugandan authorities decided they would stop letting additional refugees in. Half a dozen new refugee settlements quickly sprang up along the Western Nile area. In many places, the refugees now form the majority of the population. Relations with the local communities have grown increasingly strained, since not enough basic resources are available to meet everyone’s needs. This is especially true of water and arable land.

The Ugandan refugee policy seems to be nearing at breaking point. The authorities in Kampala insist the borders shall remain open for refugees, but they are also asking for help from the international community. Precious little of it seems to be forthcoming. “As people who suffered greatly in the past, we refuse to close our doors to anyone who comes to us fleeing war,” the government press secretary Shaban Banatriza explained to journalists. “Uganda will continue to do all in its power to help the refugees in their plight.”

The NGO budgets are now almost depleted. In the current crisis-riddled year, the UN has only secured 15% of the money needed to properly handle the situation. The organisation is in dire need of an additional €810 million for this year. Much the same is true for virtually every other key source of humanitarian relief. The European Union, for example, struggles to secure €20 million for the period up until 2020.

“The fact is that the situation in northern Uganda and, of course, Southern Sudan is growing worse. Yet the people – and the local authorities as well – remain very hospitable. They themselves have experienced war, and they know what suffering is like. Uganda is the Germany of East Africa,” claims Kristian Schmidt, head of the EU delegation in Uganda.

We sat down to talk to him in Kampala. While the European Union, with its half a billion citizens, is groaning under the burden of a few hundred thousand people, Uganda is struggling on. “Despite all its problems, Uganda persists in its open-door policy for refugees and daily takes care of 1.2 million people,” explains Schmidt. “This is something the Europeans should be made aware of. Uganda needs and deserves our help. We need to support this model of refugee policy – after all, it is also in our own best interests. Uganda is part of the solution.”

The European ambassador to Uganda is convinced the war in South Sudan will last for a long time. This means that the flow of refugees southward will continue as well.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for refugees, feels the same way. He believes Uganda will not be able to manage the world’s largest and most urgent refugee crisis on its own. “We are at a breaking point,” Grandi recently stated.

Uganda is being put under ever greater pressure. The resources are limited, while the country’s own population – officially the second youngest in all of Africa – is experiencing a rapid surge of its own. By 2035, the number of Ugandans is expected to double. This means that Uganda will grow ever more reliant on foreign aid. And there almost certainly won’t be enough of it to go around.

When there were fewer refugees, the Ugandan open policy actually functioned as a successful economic model. The country received substantial amounts of international funds, infrastructure was being built, the market was expanding, new jobs were created, the countryside was undergoing rapid modernisation. According to research, the refugees contributed much to the country’s economic progress.

Now things are starting to spiral out of control. Uganda is growing increasingly more isolated. This is a very dangerous development. Despite the robust fettle of the Ugandan security forces, the South Sudan conflict could quickly spread across the border. Memories of the blood-drenched Congo tragedy, the Burundi war and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda are still fresh in everyone’s minds. The expectation and fear of the conflict spreading out to the Great Lakes area is a menacing.

The growing tensions between various ethnic groups are also much in evidence all over the refugee camps. At the same time, rumours are spreading of different paramilitary groups, mostly organised along ethnic lines, recruiting young people en masse all over the refugee settlements. The young, jobless and desperate men are said to be easy prey for the paramilitaries’ fiery rhetoric. And there is certainly no shortage of arms in Uganda, the hub of the arms trade in Africa, both the licit and the illicit kind.

To sum it up, even greater trouble seems to be brewing. And the EU’s ambassador Kristian Schmidt is not one to mask his awareness of the fact: “The key to resolving this whole mess lies in Juba. The leaders of South Sudan have proved irresponsible. We should sit them down at the same table and give them a little push to start negotiating. But it’s not looking well. There is little political will to end the conflict. In reality, it is quite the contrary.”

In informal conversations a number of EU representatives let us know they were worried the Ugandan ‘open model’ might be on the verge of collapse. The number of incoming refugees is too great, and the relief programmes have been entirely dependent on foreign aid for quite some time. As already stated, these foreign funds are drying up – no matter how urgent the crisis. In the European Union of today, empathy for someone else’s pain is now officially no longer even a public relations bullet point.

War trauma

In front of her improvised dwelling at the Bidibidi camp, Gladys Win was making the local version of sweet fried dough. She told me she was 19 years old and hailed from the western part of South Sudan. The air all around her was growing rich with the fragrance of freshly prepared food. The aroma had already drawn in at least 20 starving children.

The nearby savannah road was filled with trucks and motorcycles stirring up clouds of red dust. In the middle of the afternoon, the equatorial sun was at its most excruciating.

“If I can get the flour for free, then I can actually make a little money,” Gladys smiled while her friend started breast-feeding her baby. Last autumn, the two friends arrived in Uganda together. After leaving home, they spent six months hiding in the bush. They now didn’t feel like remembering that period; they said it was simply too much to bear.

“All I wanted was to reach somewhere safe,” Gladys recalled: “Anywhere – anywhere at all. I had no idea where I was. We fled our village during a raid. I was able to get my four-year-old daughter and take her with me. There was no time to snatch anything else. My parents stayed behind. I haven’t heard from them for a long time. I have no idea how they are doing, no clue if they’re even still alive. My father told me to run away, he said things were about to turn very ugly for young women. What else could I do but listen to him.”

Gladys used to visit the primary school here in Uganda. Then, following the emancipation, she returned to South Sudan. Bad timing? “No one could begin to imagine something like that would happen. We should have known better, huh? Several generations in a row have been brought up during wartime. And our rotten greedy leaders betrayed us wholesale. The Dinka people want to have it all, so they started to murder us,” she said. Gladys violently shook her head before fully devoting herself to baking the cakes.

Her distant relative Remo Bulem quickly picked up the tale of recent atrocities. “As we were hiding in the bush, they at first killed us only with guns,” the 30-year-old schoolteacher winced: “Then, when they started to run out of ammo, they brought out their machetes. I’ve seen… too much. So much death, and why? The government soldiers murder everyone they catch. By now, it is no longer possible to separate the soldiers from the rebels and the criminals. A tribal coalition has been formed to fight the ruling Dinkas. Us civilians, well, we’ve become a burden to all the key players. We are very short on water, and there’s been almost no food for close to a year now. The people are dying of hunger all over the place.”

The words kept pouring out of the visibly traumatised schoolteacher. “I don’t think I’ll ever return to South Sudan. I have been informed they have burned down my house and looted the school where I used to teach. Our village has become deserted. They have also killed or stolen all our animals.”

Accompanied by seven of his close relatives, Remo eventually fled here to Uganda. He very much wants to teach again, but he’s been unable to land a job. The vast majority of teachers in both refugee and ‘normal’ institutions are locals.

***

“It is so hard for me to listen to the other refugees’ tales… I keep reliving my own traumas. They killed my uncle and my neighbour in front of my eyes. I have not been able to find any peace here. The women, we’re the ones who suffer the most. Many men escaped on their own, or they joined one of the armed groups. While we are always such easy prey,” says Stella Yunimba, 26, who managed to get a job in the camp as a translator.

“I realise how privileged I am,” she nodded. “I can take care of my daughter, Precious, here. But things get worse every day. I miss my husband – I haven’t had word from him for six months. I have no idea where he is, or if he’s even still alive. An incredible number of people have gone missing – an incredible number.”

A great many of the Dinka people are on the run as well. The South Sudan conflict is far from straightforward. The Dinkas have been caught in the crossfire. The authorities in Juba, the oil- and military-based rural oligarchy infected with the God complex, have been recruiting young men. The ones who prove unwilling to cooperate in ethnic cleansing have been persecuted. On the other hand, the Dinka villages are being raided by the members of other ethnic groups, especially the Nuer people, who – according to our information – have been supplied with weapons and instructions directly from Khartoum. The eruption of war in South Sudan is likely to have pleased Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, the war criminal that he is, who may well regard it as divine punishment for the breakaway region.

It was a textbook example of divide and conquer.

Hunger

“My fear is that we’ll die of hunger. We have nothing left. We’ve been starving for months,” sobbed Madame Yar from the city of Bor, where the South Sudanese war actually broke out.

I was talking to her in the huge Kiryandongo settlement in central Uganda. The emaciated lady with deeply sunk cheekbones and painfully bulging eyes could barely muster the strength for the next few sentences. “All we have known is hunger and disease. We have been staying here for two years. It gets worse every day. There is almost no help to be had. Us Dinkas, we can’t get any jobs. We’re trapped. There is nowhere we can go.”

Madame Yar was sitting on the hardened mud floor. Her relatives were gathered around her. All of them were rake-thin and exhausted to the limits of their endurance. A tall deaf-mute boy, Madame Yar’s cousin, kept staring off into space, completely lost. Heavy clouds were descending over the camp where some 52 000 people were currently residing – heavy clouds promising at least a modicum of rain. But it was not to be: the rain hasn’t fallen for a few weeks now, and it didn’t fall that day.

“On my every day off, I go and see my family. I was very lucky to have been accepted to the teaching school in Gulu. I’m staying at a boarding school, and my life is pretty good. I get free schooling, food and lodgings. But I am not able to help my family, which makes me so very sad. When I go to visit them at the camp, I can see they are getting worse and worse. I hope they somehow pull through, so we can one day return home together,” a tall teenager dressed in modern clothes whose name was Tir explained in perfect English.

As things stood, Tir was her family’s only hope. Her cultured, really rather lovely appearance seemed at odds with her decidedly dark thoughts. In her hometown of Bor, she had witnessed first-hand what the human animal is capable of doing. When she began to describe the images of utter dehumanisation, she began shaking like a leaf. “Back home, all we could hear were guns and screaming.”

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Uganda’s refugee crisis, part 1: “Back home, all we could hear were guns and screaming”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Northern Uganda houses more refugees than entered the European Union during the peak of the “refugee crisis”. And Uganda has only 8% of the EU’s population and a fraction of its resources.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Read part 2

Monday 26 June 2017

It was lunchtime at the Impevi refugee camp and registration centre in the Ugandan West Nile province. Hundreds of children had formed an orderly queue under the white tarps of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. The children were refugees from the horrendous war raging just a few kilometres away in South Sudan. Their eyes, sunk deep into their emaciated faces, were shining with anticipation. They were clutching one aluminium plate each and waiting for their first meal of the unbearably hot day.

The heat had long glued the atmosphere into a stifling, static soup. Now and then, one of the boys’ faces broke into a bashful smile. The mothers were standing nearby, dignified if a bit distracted while waiting in their own long queues. There were very few adult men around, barely enough to form a sample. This demographic metaphor of the world’s most urgent and also most under-reported refugee crisis could hardly be any more clear-cut. And any more telling.

Uganda, with its population of 39 million, is now host to more than 1.2 million refugees. Some 900,000 of them are from South Sudan.

Uganda is renowned for being the continent’s most hospitable country to refugees. Most of the ones currently staying here had arrived in the last 10 months. As many as 65% are under the age of 18 and 85% of them are women and children. Uganda is currently hosting more refugees than entered the entire European Union, with its affluent population of half a billion citizens, at the peak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015. According to estimates, by the end of this year, at least another half a million refugees are sure to arrive in Uganda, all of them fleeing the horrors of war.

The conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is only growing in scope. After the republic declared its independence in July 2011, it quickly descended into war: this time not against the north and the Islamist regime in Khartoum, but against some of its own peoples. Ethnic violence erupted near the end of 2013 following the clash between president Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar. This then exploded into an all-out civil war. This is a war marked by ethnic cleansing, unspeakable savagery, famine, pronounced disinterest from the international community and the western media – and of course by the endless columns of refugees furiously marching southward.

The thing is: south is the only direction for them to run. Their flight is in no way a bid for a better life but rather a desperate scramble for survival. As far as they are concerned, there can be no such thing as ‘a better life’: war is all they know and all they have ever known. Thousands of them are now refugees twice over, and many have fled to Uganda for the third time.

“They are murdering us – they’re killing us like flies! Help,” Bill Mahas, 19, called out from a cluster of exhausted teenagers in threadbare clothes, skirted by a number of half-naked toddlers. Hundreds of people were loitering about, waiting for the next stage of their desperate journey. The buses kept dropping off fresh loads of refugees, while trucks picked up the ones who had managed to get registered and transporting them onward to the camps.

“I have been here for three days,” the visibly tired youth told me: “They promised we’d be sent on to nice clean facilities within a single day. But so far we haven’t even been registered. We are so hungry and thirsty… We only get to eat once each day, and there is a chronic water shortage. We sleep outside – look, over there by the garbage. The whole place reeks, and we really want to move on.”

The journey from the South Sudanese city of Yei took Bill and a number of friends and relatives 60 days. Two whole months of beating their path through the bush while hiding from the government troops from the ranks of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). According to testimonies, these troops have been engaged in ethnic cleansing operations ever since July last year.

“If the Ugandans don’t want us here, let them just say so,” Tobias Data, 32, joined the conversation. “We’ll simply return home and die in our homeland. My wife and my son had already fled here a year ago. They first set out for the Democratic Republic of Congo, then they pressed on to Uganda. When it became too dangerous, I went on the run myself. The government troops started killing people left and right, while our villages have also been raided by the rebels and by various groups of criminals. I am determined to seek out my family, but they won’t let me move on.”

Tobias’ father had perished on the journey, which had taken four days. Tobias also had to watch a number of his acquaintances go under. The soldiers mowed them down with bullets and slashed their necks with machetes.

This was the second time Tobias has come to Uganda as a refugee. The first time was when he was a schoolboy, at the time of the civil war between the north and the south. He has fond memories of Uganda, which in 2006 adopted a special policy of awarding each refugee their own patch of land, the right to work and move freely, as well as the right to start a small business.

Yet predictably enough, history recently started repeating itself. South Sudan was engulfed by a new war, caused by ethnic divisions imposed from within and without, as well as by the unjust division of oil riches.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

War, famine, drought and climate change

The women were lugging plastic bags filled with water across the red dirt. They had been walking since early morning. The children dragged heavy suitcases and carried dry branches their mothers would later need to cook dinner. Local youths were weaving their way among them, trying to make a coin or two by turning their Chinese-made motorcycles into a taxi service. Near the end of the rainy season, when northern Uganda is supposed to be thoroughly water-logged, the ground was completely dry, and the wells were lethally empty. The results of climate change had joined forces with the wages of war – a fatal combination, if ever there was one.

At present, the lives of some 5.5 million residents of South Sudan are under existential threat from famine: 5.5 million out of the 9 million still left in this thoroughly cursed land. Things are a bit better in the refugee camps – mostly large villages or small towns all over northern Uganda… But the hunger is still reaching epidemic proportions. According to official UNHCR statistics, two thirds of all children are malnourished, a quarter of all children severely so.

“The people here have been caught in a vicious circle. Everybody knows that things are much worse in South Sudan, while Uganda is coming apart at the seams because of its humane refugee policies. And then you have to factor in the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Burundi. As always, it is especially hard on the children. Many of them had arrived here unescorted. Hundreds of families had got separated on the road,” I was told by Reika Farkas, a member of the UNHCR emergency team, as she showed me around the registration centre. On the day of our visit, 1,600 new refugees had poured in.

This was Reika’s final day at the camp – her three-month mandate was drawing to a close. She was clearly and bravely fighting off both her fatigue and her realistic pessimism. “This is one giant emergency ward,” she scowled: “The frontline of a truly colossal human tragedy. It’s hard work, and it never stops. There are so few of us here. And our budget has almost been depleted. All of us here, we’re nothing short of miracle workers. The refugees never stay longer than three days, and we manage to get them all registered – every single one. At its worst, more than 3000 people were passing through each day. It was unimaginably crowded and exhausting. But we’ve managed to set up a working system, and we’ve prevented chaos from breaking out. The only question is for how long.”

When asked about her own country’s refugee policies, the Hungarian humanitarian worker felt too ashamed to answer.

War instead of peace

When South Sudan gained its independence after decades of conflict with the Khartoum government, there was an air of optimism that the world’s youngest nation would be able to reap the fruits of peace. Instead, it rapidly descended into infighting and open warfare. “People in uniforms started to come to our village. I don’t know who they were. They came almost every day. They were killing men and raping young women. It all started very quickly, almost overnight. We used to lead such normal, peaceful lives. We tended our gardens, visited each other,” explained a 45-year-old lady named Estgha Tabu.

I got talking to her as she stood in front of her cabin on the outskirts of the Impevi camp. Her tarp-covered temporary residence had been patched together from wood and plastic. Like most refugees staying at the camp, she hailed from a village near the city of Yei. She reached Uganda after several weeks of walking and hiding in the bush along with her four daughters (Viola, 17, Suzan, 15, Ataz, 10, and Sara, 6). Her first husband had succumbed to AIDS, and the second one was killed during the escape.

The visibly ill and devastated Estgha is now all the support her four girls have left. She said she couldn’t really tell me how the five of them had managed to survive… And, what is more, to survive unmolested, unlike thousands of other women and girls. The bush is crawling with sexual predators. Rape has been turned into an instrument of war, sometimes even into a communication tool. “No, I don’t feel safe here. I have great trouble falling asleep. I’m so scared. I keep thinking they’re sure to come after us and murder us. Like they murdered my husband. There is a lot of very bad people around. The border is very close,” Estgha told me while sitting on a patch of canvas in the shade provided by a dry Savannah tree. Since she was a widow and quite ill, the camp’s managers let her set up her residence about a kilometre from the camp’s chaotic centre. Estgha and her daughters now reside near the new dusty road leading to the border with South Sudan. The Ugandan authorities granted them the use of a plot of land measuring 50×50 metres. In theory, such plots are available for tilling and are supposed to ensure the refugees need not fear going hungry.

Officially, Uganda has made it into a policy to allocate 100×100 metre plots to every refugee family. This was the case up until last summer’s exodus from South Sudan. Then the farmable land quickly began to run out – not unlike the funds in the local and international humanitarian budgets. The authorities took to awarding less and less land, and now there was virtually none left. “There’s not much I can grow here,” Estgha informed me: “The soil is full of rocks and stones, and it is also very salty. I would need an awful lot of water to get anything done, but there is not nearly enough to go around. The water has been rationed to 13 litres a day per refugee. This is meant to cover all our needs – from washing to drinking and cooking and farming. It is nowhere near enough. It’s tough here, very tough.”

Estgha Tabu is another refugee who had been here before. She had first escaped to Uganda for the period between 1994 and 2005 (when a peace treaty finally put an end to Sudan’s civil war). When she set out on the journey back home, she was overjoyed and firmly convinced she would never need to run again. “Then death came for us once more… I don’t even know how this new war started – nobody does. All I know is that I lost my husband and my home. There is never again going to be peace in South Sudan. Everybody is killing everybody else. It’s much worse now than 20 years ago. Things are also worse here, in Uganda. There are so many of us that they can’t take proper care of everyone. And so many more are sure to come.”

What Estgha missed most was her huge garden, along with her hens and her goats. Back home, she had everything she needed. She also missed her health and her youth, when she was “pretty, strong and full of energy – and now the end is coming.” She was very worried about her daughters, who stood by shyly listening in on our conversation. Every now and then, one would jump in to help with the translation. The older pair have been enrolled into the local school for refugees, but not the younger two. That would be too expensive.

Their mother’s days are much the same. She wakes up at sunrise, gets the fire going and fixes porridge for the girls’ breakfast. Since she is in such poor health (and also constantly afraid someone might oust her from her lodgings), she spends a large part of the day in front of the cabin. She washes the laundry and rests. She only strikes off to fetch some water and the wood for the next day’s fire. The latter is starting to run out. The sheer mass of the people here has meant a devastating drain on the environment. This is why the NGOs painted the younger trees in the camp’s vicinity with red lines, marking them as off-limits. And so the refugees now have to walk as far as ten kilometres to get their wood.

In the evening, Estgha Tabu usually makes another portion of porridge. Then she sits down with her daughters to enjoy the slightly cooler evening air. Another day in the refugee camp has drawn to a close. Such an existence doesn’t really lend itself to pondering life’s great existential questions.

All that matters is survival.

Read part 2

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Trapped inside Fortress Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO, Chios

The plight of the 63,000 refugees and migrants still marooned in Greece should give Europeans pause for thought.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Wednesday 31 January 2017

In a cave below the remains of a mile-long city wall, a small band of freezing and utterly exhausted men had manged to get a fire going. Outside, the wind was turning vicious. It felt like even the ocean was exasperated, splashing onto the cliffs as if trying to smash through the huddling men’s final illusions. Seeing how these fantasies were already so few and far between, it seemed a rather daunting task, even for an ocean.

Dusk was descending over the damp stone cave in Greece. True, it was somewhat less cold inside, but the men were still shaking like leaves. All of them were Algerian migrants placed at the bottom rung of the food chain here on the modern-day Medusa raft set afloat by the European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

In the moments of relative calm before the wind picked up again, no one much felt like talking. These men had long lost their flair for chatting, and most of their hope had been buried back in the Sahara, in Turkey and somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the metaphorical mortgage on their future had been foreclosed by the European bureaucrats. By now, the refugees’ stories had become etched on their faces, especially around the eyes. Gazing back at me were the hopeless, worn-down eyes of men who had played the game and lost so horribly they could no longer afford to admit it.

At the moment, some 63,000 refugees and migrants are marooned in Greece, unable to either forge on to the promised land or return to their respective conflict zones.

For months, thousands have been waiting for their first interview after applying for asylum. Many have already had their application turned down. In reaching that decision, the local bureaucrats had decided that Turkey – a country teetering on the brink of war – is a safe country for the refugees.

The bureaucratic apparatus is excruciatingly slow to act. Its members, almost without exception, are ‘only fulfilling their duties’ and ‘obeying the law’. Their collective actions form a perfect algorithm for the banality of evil that has already led to the birth of a new Europe, a morally bankrupt continent stripped of its last vestiges of shame and empathy.

Slogging through humiliation

The Eastern Aegean island of Chios has been described as the “magical Greek island which cures all wanderlust”. It is also one of the frontlines of Europe’s war against refugees and migrants.

For a long time, the local population on Chios distinguished itself with its exemplary and at times heroic care for the incoming refugees. Then last spring, after the EU-Turkey deal on refugees was struck and the Balkan route shut down, the Greek authorities under Brussels patronage set up the infamous “VIAL hotspot“. The first of many, the VIAL was a mix of prison and latter-day concentration camp – vile like its acronym.

In no time at all, similar facilities sprung up on many Aegean islands located near the Turkish coast. Some hotspots have also been set up on the mainland. Like the Moria camp on the Lesbos island, quite singular in its combination of inhuman living conditions and police brutality, the VIAL is by far the most notorious.

On my first visit last April, the entire camp seemed poised on the brink of an explosion. A hunger strike was underway, and the authorities were struggling to quiet things down by relocating hundreds of people to the Souda camp. The improvised camp was located by the sea and close to Chios town. It was run by a coalition of NGOs, whose activists brought food to the refugees and helped them with the horrendously intricate paperwork.

Nine months ago, the fresh arrivals to the island were still filled with hope, enthusiasm and the will to thrive. They had somehow managed to survive both the devastation of their respective homelands and the infinitely treacherous journey to what they thought was the civilised world. Slogging through endless humiliations while grappling with the fact their entire past had been erased, they whole-heartedly gave themselves up to the present to find a semblance of a future.

Today, with Fortress Europe closed off and most of its lustre as the land of refuge and opportunity trampled in the dirt, things are very different.

True, many of the refugees managed to strike on to Athens, and some of them even further on. But on Chios, hundreds of people have been trapped in such shocking conditions for months.

The depression epidemic

The mornings in front of the Souda camp see dozens of refugees come out to kill some time. The camp is situated right by the sea, beside a long canal along the ancient city walls.

The men are conversing quietly and without much enthusiasm. Most of them don’t even seem angry anymore. The muddy and bitterly cold camp has been ransacked by the flu. But even worse has been the epidemic of depression – the collective form of the disease, in firm alliance with the symptoms of what is so clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nine months ago, one could still discern much empathy among the locals, even though the refugee crisis had already deprived them of their tourist-based income. But since then, things have taken a sinister turn. Both empathy and hospitality have a limited shelf-life, at least when not actively cultivated. The masks of political correctness have now fallen, and long-dormant Nazi sleeper cells are stirring back to life.

As ever, the weak and the downtrodden are bearing the brunt of it. Less than two months ago, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the refugee camp. The message couldn’t have been clearer: the island is no longer safe for the refugees and the migrants.

In the nine months following his arrival at Chios, Mustafa E became one of the most recognisable faces on the island. His excellent English and distinct flair for companionship have made him the favourite both of his fellow sufferers and many foreign activists. Yet the robust 42-year-old’s fixed smile cannot fully conceal his pain.

After losing his wife and two children in an Aleppo air raid, Mustafa hasn’t really stopped moving. Even here, in the Souda camp, where he lives in one of the huge tents bearing the UNHCR logo, he gets frequent flashes of paranoia. He literally can’t keep still. When he tries to do so, he gets utterly crushed under the weight of his loss. His family is the one thing he refuses to talk about. Everything else he is all too eager to discuss in an often unstoppable and obsessive fashion.

Apart from flashes of his war-torn land, he is also haunted by the future. For what future can there be for one of tens of thousands of faceless refugees here? And in Greece, of all places – a country once again sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s opportunist agenda, conscripted to serve as the continent’s human waste dump?

The answer, Mustafa feels, is all to apparent.

“Nine months of humiliation was enough. I feel I am about to lose my mind. Everything here is wrong and stupid, everything. What a farce – we are worse off here than dogs without a master. We definitely get treated worse,” he asserts. “Enough already, enough! I will do everything in my power to get away from here. Where will I go? Anywhere, I don’t care. But it is now clear I won’t be allowed to do so legally.”

I was talking to Mustafa in his very poorly heated tent. The words kept pouring out of him like a feverish litany. This man so clearly and so badly needed to state his case.

Before the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed his entire existence, Mustafa Alkhtyibe was the head of a successful marketing firm in Aleppo. But as soon as he started describing his life back then, he all but fell apart with despair. From then on, all he could manage were short, sometimes almost completely unrelated sentences detailing his plight.

His most immediate problem right now was that the Greek authorities had denied his application for asylum. He had already appealed the decision, and had lost the appeal. After all, the European and Greek bureaucrats happen to feel Turkey is perfectly capable of providing safe haven. In Mustafa’s case, being single proved a further factor against him. The fact that the war robbed him of his entire family had made him even more undesirable than he would have otherwise been. And the local paper-shufflers were equally unswayed by the fact that his beloved city of Aleppo had been razed to the ground.

“It seems almost impossible now,” Mustafa winced as he recalled the not-so-distant past. “But before the trouble started, I was totally convinced that Aleppo would be spared most of the fighting. And let me tell you, I quickly lost all faith in the revolution! Why? Because all the smart people soon got arrested or escaped abroad, and were quickly replaced by extremists, criminals and idiots.”

Alternative routes

Mustafa patiently explained to me how he was always looking for alternative routes. “Each day, at least five of my mates here move on to Athens – totally illegally, of course. But the trucks, the traffickers, the false papers, all of that costs money… And I don’t have much left,” he explained. “I’m also counting on some help from my friends. I’m one of the few here ready to stay in Greece, no matter how horrible the situation. I have many skills; I know I can trust myself to survive. But first I need to get out of this awful place.”

Mustafa was serious about getting out. Every day I spent with him served up its own plan, each one more fantastical than the last.

One morning it struck him that his best chance for smuggling himself onto a ferry for Athens would be to bring a small dog. All the attention would be diverted to the dog, Mustafa reasoned, while he himself might go completely unnoticed.

When confronted with the fact that even dogs need their own passports to travel across the European Union, he was completely shattered. “Oh my God, oh my God… What I want more than anything is to go to Luxembourg. Ali Baba-style, of course, there is no other way. They have so few refugees there and so much money… But to get there you need at least €4,500, and I don’t have anywhere near that.”

Mustafa also told me the traffickers have an actual menu. Business is booming, and one can get anywhere one wants, as long as one provides the currency. Canada – €9,000, Germany – €3,500, France – €5,000, Great Britain, €7,000.

With a violent sneeze, Mustafa poured himself another coffee. It was possibly his tenth that day.

The problem is that he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so he broods and scours the internet for possible solutions. In the morning, he would give anything not to get out of bed. “As soon as I get up, I start losing money,” he winces and finishes the coffee.

“I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

A large crowd had gathered in front of the Souda camp. The men were lining up for food, focused on getting their daily rations and bringing them to the women and children waiting somewhere further back. These mealtime conflagrations have long become the emotional fulcrum of camp life, offering the only solace to a radically impoverished existence.

“I am trying not to lose my soul,” said Omar al Salem, 28, from the Syrian town of Deir er Zur. “I’m staying away from conflict. I follow the rules. I don’t stick my neck out for any reason. But it is no good. I’m never going to get out of here this way.”

Omar has been held in the island fort the past five months. What seems like a lifetime ago, he had been lucky enough to get into college just before the war started. He studied economics in the city of Latakia, a regime bastion and, therefore, untouched by most of the war. “Life was good,” Omar remembers. “If always a bit dangerous, since war-profiteering thugs had long taken over control.”

Omar was kept busy with his studies and with his job waiting tables at a restaurant. His greatest hope was for the war to end before he completed his university education. That would free him from the ever-looming prospect of getting conscripted into the army, where he would have to kill friends and neighbours in the vilest armed conflict of our generation. But it was not to be. When Omar graduated, the carnage had only just begun in earnest.

As a Sunni in a Shiia-dominated town, he felt much too exposed to even think about staying. He certainly didn’t feel like helping a thoroughly discredited regime butcher tens of thousands of its own citizens. His other option – to throw his lot with the extremist-controlled Islamic militias – seemed just as unappealing.

So he struck out for Quamishli, a Kurdish town next to the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even though his parents had been residing there for a while, the town wasn’t safe for him. The members of the YPG Kurdish militia, which controls a large part of northern Syria, weren’t exactly welcoming to a fighting-fit Sunni Arab. And so Omar opted to follow the lead of his two brothers who, eighteen months ago, had braved the gauntlet of the Balkan refugee route to reach Germany.

The expensive help of the local smugglers got him through the heavily guarded border, where dozens of refugees had recently been gunned down by the Turkish border patrols. Omar didn’t have enough money to purchase ‘the classic’ on the smugglers’ menu. So he was forced to make do. The smugglers got him a free place on one of the outgoing boats, but in exchange he was tasked with steering it himself all the way to Greece.

Little did he know that his assent could very easily have landed him in jail as a sub-contractor for the smugglers.

It was equally likely he could have proven unequal to the task of navigating the motor boat. He had never before attempted anything like it in his life. For the boat’s 35 passengers, the consequences could have proved fatal.

“We were about half an hour out. Suddenly, I noticed a Turkish coast guard vessel heading straight for us. The sea had turned restless, water was leaking into the boat, so I revved the engine to the max. No, I didn’t feel any fear. I was running on pure instinct. The Turkish boat chose not to follow. It was only after the sea started settling down that it occurred to me how easily we could all have died.”

Omar, too, is one of those dejected souls whose application for asylum has already been turned down by the Greek authorities. He is now awaiting the decision on his appeal, but the most likely outcome by far is that he, too, will soon be deported back to Turkey. This is all part and parcel of the EU-Turkish deal. Yet in the gathering dusk over the bitterly cold refugee camp, he told me he still refuses to lie down and accept defeat.

He had already risked too much to do so. He informed me he was the only person on his boat who had not yet managed to leave Chios. He takes this as proof that it is still possible to reach at least Athens if not the actual promised land. But reaching the Greek capital would set him back €500, and he has no money left. His parents are unable to help him. Perhaps the two brothers will be able to chip in if and when they make any money. Omar proudly informed me they had both been granted asylum in Germany and were doing very well.

Omar is convinced that once he reaches Athens, things are bound to get easier. “I tried several times to get myself to an Athens-bound ferry, but I always got caught. I once bleached my hair so they wouldn’t recognise me. But I still didn’t make it. The last time around, the policemen only gave me a kind smile and redirected me back to the camp. But I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

More than anything else, this young Syrian seemed terrified of losing hope. Hope, after all, is the chief driving force for the traumatised survivors in camps like these all over the Greek coastline. Small wonder then that the European bureaucracy has long been waging a monstrous campaign to confiscate every last shred of hope and rob the incomers of the will to press on.

Second-class refugees

“I could never have imagined I would witness such horrible things – such utter degradation of human life,” says Sharif Alimi, 28, an Afghan Hazara from the Gazni province. I got talking to him as he was boarding the ancient bus regularly transferring the refugees and the migrants between the VIAL hot spot and the Souda camp.

For the previous five years, Sharif had been living in Sweden. But in November he decided to return to Greece, which had served as the first European port of call on his long and arduous path to freedom. The reason for his recent return? Two months ago, his parents arrived to Chios after spending the last years as refugees in Quetta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for the brutally persecuted Hazara people.

This forced Sharif’s hand. “I simply had to act. I had no choice but to come here and help my parents. I knew what they would be facing. I was imprisoned in many European countries – all told, they put me in jail 17 times. And without a single conviction. The worst of it was in Slovakia, where I was imprisoned for six months. Trust me, I saw very well what Europe had become. How it chooses to treat our people.”

When he got word his parents had arrived in Chios, Sharif managed to put his good job in Sweden on hold and immediately departed for Greece.

After hearing less than half of it, I was convinced Sharif’s story was worth a trilogy of both books and movies. During the 11 years of being Europe’s plaything, he was deported to Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and twice to Iran. Giving up was not an option. He was treated to an insider’s view of the various flavours of Slavic policemen, the savageness of life on the Italian streets and the recent build-up of French racism. He was only accepted by Sweden a little over five years ago, and he says the Scandinavian country has been very kind to him. He was quick to get a job, which enabled him to get the rest of his life in order.

Today, this would no longer be possible. As reported, Europe is now repatriating Afghan refugees daily, declaring them safe in a land which has scarcely seen any respite from butchery for the past 40 years.

“See You In Sweden”

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

“I couldn’t let my parents share my fate,” Sharif nodded heavily. “So I came down here to help get them to Sweden. So far we have not been successful, but I have no doubt that we soon will be.”

Foregoing the option to sleep in a hotel, this dutiful son has been spending his nights with his parents inside the VIAL hotspot. Every single day he has to crawl in through a hole in the fence that is the best-kept secret around these parts. The VIAL hotspot is otherwise heavily guarded, but once Sharif manages to slip inside, no one finds him particularly suspicious.

Talking to him, it soon became clear he has little interest in comfort and is totally committed to his goal. He had been through everything and more; his pain threshold has been raised to a previously unimaginable level. Once you get to know him, you can so clearly see it written in his face, the scarred and grizzled visage of a true survivor.

In the days we spent together, Sharif and his Swedish girlfriend Zara did everything in their power to relocate the parents to a hotel. Omar was set on providing his mother and father with at least a modicum of comfort and dignity, even if it meant running the risk of himself being jailed again. He was both dignified and fearless in fighting off the policemen and fellow migrants out to humiliate his parents. Without his Swedish passport, Sharif would be quickly and literally vanished from the continent. As things stand, he could clutch this tiny piece of paper and keep fighting for that elusive and infinitely fragile thing called human rights.

“I have made my decision: we are all going to live in Sweden, and that is how it’s going to be,” Sharif told me as we got ready to part ways. “We Afghans, we’re second-class refugees, you know. Absolutely no one here has any time for us, and this goes doubly for the Hazara people. I mean, even in our own country we are mostly seen as foreigners. But what are you going to do? I know nothing can stop us now. So I guess I’ll see you in Sweden, huh?”

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Syria and freedom from death

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/Delo

Where once Syrians struggled for the ideals of freedom, equality and dignity, the liberty that most counts in Syria today is the freedom from the fear of death.

A Syrian refugee performs 'Ode to Joy' Photo: © Jure Eržen

A Syrian refugee performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 16 September 2016

Make peace, not love,” the great Jewish writer and humanist Amos Oz wrote a few years back, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Addressing both sides of the conflict in the holy land, his aim was to smash all the nationalistic, ideological, religious and historical myths that had been driving the existing political structures and their voters into a state of perpetual war of them against us.

I believe what Oz was trying to stress was that at the critical moments in history – during the shifting of the geostrategic fault-lines, when thousands of human lives get sucked into the breach – we need to do our utmost to help hit the brakes and prevent the escalation of tragedy.

We would do well to apply Oz’s sentiment, which mostly fell on deaf ears at the time, to Syria. Tuesday, 13 September 2016 marked the first day in the past five years when this broken and ravaged land saw no direct casualties of war. After a small eternity, it was the first time Death ran out of breath in this part of the world – albeit probably only temporarily. It was the day that proved that peace, the mother of all compromises, is still possible, even in Syria.

Have the masters of war grown tired? Has the international community got fed up with its impotent calls for accountability and, after five years of war and at least 300,000 fallen, decided to intervene? Does the strange deal struck by the Russians and the Americans conceal some as yet unguessed snag, which could smother the last embers of the Syrian rebellion? Will sanity prevail, or has the harsh Syrian soil already grown too blood-soaked for it to be washed off the rearview mirror, where things may notoriously seem closer than they actually are?

Is ideology finally to be replaced by realpolitik?

It is, of course, hard not to have one’s doubts about the deal that led first to a 48-hour ceasefire and then, hopefully, to the first short and laborious steps towards a semblance of a peace process. But in this eyeblink of a moment, when at least a glimmer of hope is still possible, we need to work hard to suspend these doubts for at least as long as the weapons on the Syrian battlegrounds remain silent.

“Let this war be over,” rings the appeal of a Syrian activist from Douma, the Damascene quarter that has seen 3.5 years of constant siege. He had spent the first year of war protesting in the streets. Then, hoping to survive the tenth circle of Hell, he withdrew behind his fragile four walls and continued his war against war from there. The man’s succinct message is a reflection of how his struggle for idealism has turned into a pure fight for survival.

The message, calling to mind the macabre images from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, is free of both ideology and what one may call the vanity of dignity – a rather deluded and very self-destructive state of mind, usually propelled more by ego than by any reasonable ethics. The only real freedom in these parts has long become the freedom from the fear of death.

Let this war be over!

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

 
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By Khaled Diab

We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 1 September 2016

Read Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

I launch out, under the cover of the dimming light, but after just a few minutes of swimming the toes of one foot curl up in an excruciating bout of cramp. I float in place for a time, waiting for the spasm to pass, as it often does. “Focus,” I urge my scattered mind. Overriding the numbness in my extremities, I search out the rhythm where my body seems to move in perfect counterbalance to the waves, where my limbs beat in perfect time to one another.

Like an aquatic Icarus, I swim towards the setting sun, as it appears to head towards its marine bed on the dark seafloor, where it illuminates the lives of those merfolk and mythical sea monsters of ancient mythology for a few hours while we landlubbers slumber.

Will the salmon pink sunlight evaporate my delusion like it melted the wax binding Icarus to his feathers?

Only half an hour in and my limbs are already feeling tired and sore, leaving me longing for the oasis of my room, which doubles up as my capsule for travelling through time and space, thanks to my laptop, books, music collection and a hard-disk full of movies.

Being a hermit is not just for saints escaping the world’s trappings, it is also for the young trapped by the world seeking escape in the only place left to them, within themselves. Had I been a monk, my beard would have grown long and unruly by now – instead, my hair has. Once, I maintained my hair immaculately. I used to love to restyle regularly as a kind of barometer of my mood and as an unspoken rebellion against the pressure to cover up – while stylish hijabi friends went for different coloured scarves to cover their hair, I was more daring and rebellious, going for different hair colours and lengths, raising eyebrows on the streets and the occasional ire of the Hamas police. Although I have stopped caring about and styling my hair, I still raise the same eyebrows which had grown accustomed to my bright, rainbowy presence, but now out of concern and worry.

Even those who disapproved of me preferred me as the bright, colourful rebel who floated past on the cloud of her own confidence, though it was actually bravado, than this wild-haired depressive who trudges past, increasingly rarely, under a dark cloud. But I have not become a complete recluse. For social sustenance, I have become part of the electronic cloud, connecting with others like me around the world. In the digital age, I have discovered that great minds link alike. I also go out to pursue my passion of long-distance swimming.

Very early in the morning, I often make it first to el-Sadaqa, Gaza’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, to do a couple of hours of laps, in peace, without anyone eyeing me up or commenting on whether or not my tight skinsuit is “appropriate”, to which I usually retort that it covers my entire body, even my hair.

I occasionally go swimming at a nearby club during the women’s afternoon hours. But I find that distracting. The better-off ladies who frequent the pool there come to flee the tedium of home and to socialise. This means I have to weave a beeline around the archipelago of clustered bodies standing in the shallower water or floating in the deeper parts like chattering, gesticulating islands in colourful burkinis, as they call them in the West. While I don’t begrudge them their precious moments of escape from their domestic routine, it does make it difficult, and annoying, to train seriously, especially when some of the older women seem perplexed by my constant to-ing and fro-ing, my changing of pace and stroke, but if they were soaking-pools, they’d be called that.

My true passion is training in the sea. Abu Halim, the fisherman who has been selling choice pieces from his catch to my family for as long as I can remember, was recruited by my father to help me train – and to compensate him a little for his inability to go out to fish like before. Abu Halim would take his fading turquoise and yellow boat out to a pre-agreed distance and wait for me to arrive. On the way back, he would row, instead of using the inboard motor, so we could chat like we did when I was a child and he would bewitch me with stories of his aquatic adventures, both true and imaginary. The way this gentle, almost mythical creature of the sea praised my swimming and stamina to the heavens made my heart swell with pride and my cheeks burn with embarrassment, even if he was exaggerating.

“Remember when I told you that you’d grow into a beautiful dolphin?” he once shouted as his boat accompanied me on a longer endurance swim. “See, now you’ve even grown dolphin skin,” he chuckled in his raspy way.

And with dolphins who routinely save humans and penguins who swim thousands of miles for annual reunions with their human friends, I sometimes feel that, despite its perilous reputation, the sea can be a friendlier and more welcoming place than land.

I try to conjure Abu Halim up now, to accompany me through the dark lonely stream to freedom. As my arms pound the water, my mind drifts towards his ageing boat, with his ageing face, weathered like an elephant’s and stubbled like a bandit’s, gazing over the starboard edge of his vessel.

“Don’t forget: swim like a dancer and dance like a swimmer,” I hear him giggle mysteriously, his face breaking into a tempest of wrinkles. “Ya eniee, ya leili (My eyes, my night),” he sings out repeatedly, in praise and to help me time my strokes and to help him time his rows. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…

But Abu Halim’s voice grows distant. It’s as if he has stopped rowing. Then his encouraging chant stops altogether. I’m all alone again.

I persevere. But after some time, I lose my rhythm and my arm and leg muscles suddenly feel on the verge of collapse. I realise that it is time to pause. I float in place and look back to assess the distance I’ve travelled. I estimate that I’ve done a couple of kilometres. “Only a few hundred to go, then,” I reflect grimly, as my heart sinks.

Gaza flickers in the distance like an electric eel on life support. A little to its north, I see Ashkelon, my ancestral home which I’ve never visited, and Ashdod burn bright like a fireworks display. Glowing in the distance, I see what I think is Tel Aviv. Israelis like to call it a “bubble” because it is disconnected and detached from its surroundings, and cushioned against the conflict. And as a Gazan, I am painfully aware of this bubble, this invisible screen, surrounding this city that makes many of its hip beach-loving inhabitants worry about the welfare of dogs they’ve never met but live oblivious to the bipedal feral dogs living amid the rubble and dodging missiles just 70km down the beach. But there are some Tel Avivites who try to escape the bubble and penetrate ours in Gaza, as the regular friend requests I get on Facebook show.

As I look back towards Gaza, I conclude that, yes, we too live in a bubble of sorts, albeit one made of concrete and barbed wire, not the silky, luxuriant chiffon surrounding Tel Aviv. Our bubble is stifling, suffocating, and binds our world tight, shrinking our horizons and minds. It is hard for me to conceive that older people were able to go freely to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Egypt, let alone to dare to imagine the world beyond them… except in my books and online.

Like a restless sleeper, I turn on my back. And what a star-studded gala awaits me. The sky is even brighter than in the darkened neighbourhoods of Gaza City during the rolling blackouts.

“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well,” involuntarily flashes in my head, “That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”

The feeling is mutual for the most part.

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

And we city dwellers have certainly learned to live without them, though in cities like New York, the stars seem to have fallen to the ground to illuminate the skyscrapers and Times Square.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

But floating here on my own, I promise myself never to forget these twinkling stars again and pledge to seek them out and admire them, whether I make it to freedom or through the figurative window of my metaphorical prison.

WH Auden is one of the goldmines which made choosing to study English literature feel like the best academic decision I had ever  made.

He even helped me to wallow in eloquent self-pity following my break up. “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,” I grunted, as Abdel-Halim Hafez sang Touba (“Never again”) in the background. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

“Pour away the ocean,” I was even willing to contemplate, despite my love of its mysterious depths, as the essence drained from my soul. “And sweep up the wood… For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

But it did come good, as my mother promised it would.

“You know, I’m not just a medical doctor,” she said, as if confessing to a secret vice. “At college, they used to call me Dr Ishq. And I had a cure for every broken heart.”

“Is that why you became a cardiothoracic surgeon?” I joked gloomily, my bloodshot eyes trying to smile.

“I like to mend every type of heart,” she quipped with her tongue, but her emerald eyes had lost their shine since the last war and looked like they’d been replaced by cheap imitations which were of the same colour but lacked none of the original’s lustre.

“Tell me what happened?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Mama is my confidante in everything… except boys. I suspected she’d understand and be cool, but I didn’t want to risk our relationship, especially as what use was a confidante if you couldn’t be entirely open and honest.

How could I tell her that I’d initiated sex? Well, tried to. After a lot of agony and soul-searching, I decided that I believed in sex before marriage. But like a secret convert, I was terrified to act on my new convictions. Because I was afraid. Of society. Of family. Actually, I wasn’t really scared of my parents. I was more afraid of what it would do to them. I didn’t want them to feel shame towards their daughter. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out or kill me to restore the family’s honour. But the wounded look of disappointment and disapproval I pictured would’ve killed me… a thousand times over… inside. And even if they turned out to be all right with it, I didn’t want them to be shamed by our neighbours and relatives.

But our bodies and rebellious souls move in mysterious ways. Just when I thought I’d contained my drives and urges, they somehow managed to break out of the siege I’d imposed and, like an insurgent army, brought me to my knees in a barrage of lethal hormones. Armed with the conviction that sex is my natural right, and prodded on by the unruly oestrogen masses dragging their testosterone partners to storm the bastille of my genitals, I mutated into a walking biological sex bomb who was bound to explode upon contact with my boyfriend.

Which I did. And despite the fallout, my lips couldn’t help but register a slight smile, puzzling my mother, who could not penetrate into my mind’s eye. Poor Faris, he didn’t know what had hit him. Reserved and just this side of shy, he’d only just started to surreptitiously touch my hands – discreetly, out of sight, during lectures. And I hadn’t a clue about what his views about sex were. But I was determined to find out.

But where? And when? We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me, and I found myself alone with Faris in a study room. Don’t ask me how, but it happened. It was as though the stars were aligned or something. Filled with trepidation and a sense of urgency, even emergency, that the moment should pass unseized, I seized him.

Faris initially succumbed to my kiss, but when my hand drifted to the rising mound between his legs, he was jolted as if I’d applied electric wires to his genitals. Even here in the cooling night water, feeling like a damp squid, my lips and body recall with pleasure the heat of that short-lived embrace.

What happened next was not what I’d expected or pined for. “Forgive me God,” he yelped involuntarily. “What are you doing? This is haram.”

I hadn’t realised he was so religious. I was hoping he’d jump at the chance. Then, he did the worst thing possible. He unsheathed his tongue and impaled me with his words.  “Only a slut does that,” Faris screamed at me. “I thought you were a decent girl from a decent family. How many men have you tried this on? I never want to see you again, you prostitute,” he spat as he stormed out.

“Mama, I’d rather not speak about it,” I said finally. “Maybe I should be more like dad. ‘Love is a bourgeois invention,’” I added in my best baba voice.

Mama laughed. “Your father may not believe in love, but, like his hero, Marx, he lives love and does love, and that is far more important,” she said matter-of-factly. “He may be an austere communist on the outside, but inside he is a hopeless, poetic romantic. Why else do you think I love him so? Why else do you think he does all he does for me and for you? Why else do you think he has stuck with his Marxist buddies, even as their movement died, people misunderstood them, and the Islamists treated them with suspicion and disdain?”

A distant droning sound rouses me from my night-daydream. At first, my land legs make me think the humming is a drone. Then I begin to feel mild vibrations under the water, and I realise what it must be just as I see a hazy phantom of a shadow, luminous in the moonlight, slicing through the water and hurtling towards me as if it can see me.

To be continued…

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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Turkey: “Everywhere I look I see fear”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/Delo

Turkey’s failed military coup has been a “gift from God” for Erdoğan, who is now cementing his grip on dictatorship

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Photo: Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: Boštjan Videmšek

“If you have no enemies it is a sign fortune has forgotten you,” a Turkish proverb has it. And on the day of the failed military coup, Fortuna certainly had her eye on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

If the official version of the events is to be believed, he certainly had no shortage of enemies. Had the special forces squad of the Turkish air force raided the Marmaris hotel where the president was holidaying 30 minutes earlier, or had the F-16 fighter jets pursuing Erdoğan’s plane fired a single missile, Turkish history might very well have been reset to year zero.

Yet it was not to be. The failed putsch, which is certain to exact a heavy price on the entire Turkish society, proved a miserable dud. Instead of a coup, what we are seeing is a swift and overwhelming counter-coup.

The keys to dictatorship

For the past few years, Erdoğan has been spiralling into authoritarianism while obsessively cultivating his cult of personality. But in an act of naive and ultimately unforgivable ineptitude, the rebelling officers of the Turkish army handed him the perfect alibi for everything that has happened in Turkey since. And also for everything that is to happen in the coming months and years.

Turkey has long been a bitterly divided society. Now it seems as if the failed putsch has handed Erdoğan the keys to outright dictatorship.

The Turkish president, gushing that the coup was a “gift from God”, certainly rose to the occasion. In the week following the failed attempt to unseat him and his party, some 60,000 people have been swept up in the vengeful purge. Military personnel, police officers, judges, prosecutors, intelligence personnel, state officials, journalists, school teachers, university professors and deans have been arrested, fired or suspended.

The purge seems determined to leave no stone unturned. The “cultural revolution” which has been gaining ground here for a number of years is now on steroids.

After declaring martial law, the authorities prohibited academics from leaving the country and suspended the European Convention on Human Rights. The quick succession of purges cut into the very heart of Turkish society. Its progressive secular components, most of whom have been all too passive during the twin rise of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish economy, have been backed into a corner.

More vulnerable than ever

Unlike during the Gezi Park protests three years ago, the streets were claimed by the conservative majority. Those parts of the working class whom Erdoğan’s economic policies have helped to gain back-door access to the middle ranks of society decided to throw their weight behind their champion. These were the people who did not hesitate to answer the calls from a hundred mosques in Istanbul. These were Erdoğan’s ultimate saviours who, chanting “God is great,” marched in defence of their president and their country.

Today, still chanting their explosive mélange of religious and nationalistic catchphrases, they control the Turkish streets.

Having grown up in a poor family, Erdoğan is thoroughly familiar with the Turkish working class’s infinitely complex and infinitely simple mentality. Indeed, he seems to have a direct line of communication to their very souls, unlike the generals and the admirals, who apparently got frozen inside their comfort zones some 30 years ago when both the country and the world still seemed as black and white as the shirts of the Besiktas football club.

Even before the failed attempt, the Turkish nation was sliding perilously close to a great conflict. At the moment, that conflict seems virtually unavoidable.

Turkey is currently embroiled in two wars, one with its Kurds in the forgotten southeast of the country, the other with the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) on the Syrian border. After Turkey did much to help it reach maturity, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has now turned on its former ally like a boomerang from hell. To complicate matters, official Ankara is still sending “aid” to certain insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Besieged Aleppo is about to fall, and all the barbed wire, reinforced concrete and machine guns along the Turkish border will be hard-pressed to stop tens of thousands of people making a panic-fuelled dash for their lives.

Now that Erdoğan has understandably lost confidence in his armed forces, where the chain of command has simply collapsed, Turkey seems more vulnerable than ever. And all this at a time when the maps of the Middle East are being redrawn to the beat of a global geostrategic war that will be anything but cold.

Waking into a nightmare

“It was like waking up into a nightmare,” says B, a foreign researcher at a prestigious university in Istanbul, who has lived in Turkey for many years. She was surprised by the attempted putsch, but not at all by the authorities’ reaction. “Immediately, it was clear to me that the attempt would be a failure. And I’m actually glad. When was the last time the army brought peace and stability, right? But the reaction to what happened is what frightens me the most. The control is sure to intensify all over our country. First from the top down, and then the other way around.”

I sat talking to B in a café near the Bosporus, next to the bridge blocked by the putschists’ tanks on that fateful night of 15 July. During the putsch itself, the young research fellow was at a concert. She was tipped off about the events over the phone. “When I got home, pandemonium had already broken loose,” she told me as the tankers placidly moved down the Bosporus as if nothing at all had happened. Thousands of Erdoğan supporters had answered the mosques’ calls and taken to the streets. “Things were very dangerous. It was a face of Turkey I no longer recognised. It was an anything-goes sort of night. All those men seemed to be driven by pure adrenaline,” B recalled. “And now both the authorities and their supporters on the streets have been given the perfect alibi for the purges they so craved. What is happening now is a consolidation of power. I hope things settle down soon – they always do here in Turkey after each storm. I guess we’ll simply have to learn to live with all the changes.”

In B’s view, a close scrutiny of the authorities’ actions is now needed more than ever. “We have to be particularly mindful of where the president is placing his priorities. Is it to be the economy? Foreign policy? Ideology? His ego? Religion? I believe the answers will prove rather depressing.”

“Everywhere I look I see fear”

All my Turkish sources seemed aghast by the scale of the authorities’ response. Not a single one anticipated the sheer extent of the purges, which seem determined to shake up a number of key systems and institutions.

“All of us are in shock. We are very afraid for the country’s future. The outcome won’t be good,” says  Professor Lucie Tungul. “The optimist in me expects to see all the important positions in the country taken over by the loyalists, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) seizes complete control. But the pessimist in me is terrified that the mob will take advantage of what happened to unleash a tidal wave of violence. I am afraid of pogroms. I am afraid for the minorities, the activists and the leftist…There is a great chance of escalating instability and the intensification of the conflict with the Kurds.”

A few months ago, Lucie Tungul and 49 of her colleagues were fired from a private university the authorities had linked with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s public enemy number one who is blamed by the regime for masterminding the failed coup.

“Everywhere I look, I see fear. People are no longer willing to speak out. Most are now silent, waiting to see what happens. Many are thinking of leaving the country, finally emigrating for good,” Tungul describes. “Everyone can become a target. We are living in highly unstable times and in a highly unstable environment. In a polarised country where the right is on the rise… The Turkish army has been severely weakened and destabilised. Enemies of Turkey are sure to try and take advantage of the situation.”

Tungul, who is a Czecg living in Istanbul fiercely opposed the attempted coup. According to her, its main protagonists should have been much more aware of the consequences likely to flow from their ineptitude and misguided brutality. Their basic motives still remain to be determined. Virtually all those in the know are keeping their silence, while the vast majority of those willing to speak out are merely guessing and more or less shooting in the dark.

***

“I am not a supporter of president Erdoğan’s policies,” Tungul explained. “But he was voted in in a democratic election… Regardless of the special conditions in place here last November during the repeated parliamentary election. I am against all military coups. They have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, and they are the very definition of violence.”

According to Tungul, it is obvious that many Turkish people are very fond of Erdoğan. “And not only because of his Islamist tendencies. Those sort of interpretations are plainly wrong. Turkey has other parties and groups which appeal to pious Muslims. The thing is, under his leadership the country has undergone tremendous changes. Many Turks believe that he has turned Turkey into a country of international prominence, while the quality of life has been much improved for many of them. They are convinced that Erdoğan has worked tirelessly to address the so-called little people, the poor and the dispossessed masses. They admire his rhetoric unmarked by fear of the global superpowers. They believe he is a leader the world envies them.”

Tungul is convinced that the president’s ruling party is very likely to retain its high levels of support – that is, if the economy recovers soon. Many of Turkey’s inhabitants are trapped by huge loans and are therefore desperate to keep their jobs and businesses running. Should the country hit the deeper recession many of the local experts had been predicting, Turkey could easily descend into a spiral of even greater social and political turmoil.

The worst-case scenario

The feeling on the streets of one of the most progressive and secular parts of Istanbul was one of mounting anxiety. As thousands of Erdoğan supporters flocked towards the rally at Taksim square, the shopkeepers, restaurant owners and guests eyed them with palpable disquiet. Some proprietors simply closed up shop and headed home. Just a few days after the putsch, at the height of the first wave of purges, hardly anyone felt safe.

tur2Brandishing a number of national flags, packs of young men were swaggering down the street, drunk on adrenaline and the sort of confidence found in numbers. Some of them were zig-zagging through the crowd on their motorbikes and cursing passers-by. It was clear they were the unchallenged masters of the streets. They were followed by bands of silent black-clad women, representing three different generations. Every single one of them was carrying a Turkish flag. The president’s name kept echoing down the street.

“What we’re seeing now is the worst-case scenario. The putsch attempt, which I’m still trying to wrap my mind around, only bolstered the most reactionary elements in the country,” said H, a software programmer who, like most of those brave enough to talk to me, preferred to remain unnamed. “Mind you, if things are this bad in Istanbul, can you imagine what they must be like in the countryside? I’m afraid Turkey is quickly sliding back into the past.”

At the café where I met H all the other patrons remained silent. Some of them even left their tables and went inside, just in case.

At Gezi park, the crowd was swelling up by the minute. At the exact same spot where three years ago the battle for one of the last parks in the district was waged, loudspeakers were now pumping out deafeningly loud patriotic music. An effigy of Fethullah Gülen had been hanged from one of the lamp-posts. A number of Syrian refugee children were selling grilled corn or panhandling through the crowd.

“A gang of soldiers set out to destroy our country. It was an attack on Turkey, on President Erdoğan, on each and every one of us,” said Nesrin, a high-school teacher from the Bagcilar working-class quarter. “I am convinced that the putschists were not alone in this. They were guided from outside. Fethullah Gülen used to work together with the CIA. His goal is to bring down a democratically elected government. I’m here to show my support for Turkish democracy.”

She told me she spent the night of the failed putsch out in the streets in the company of her friends and neighbours. They first bought some food supplies, to cover any contingency, and got some cash from the bank machines. Then they joined the crowd to “fight for Turkish democracy”.

But in her opinion, the purges have been too harsh. “The authorities should punish only the people directly responsible – for some of those, even the death penalty might not be inappropriate. But the soldiers ordered out into the streets by their superiors should be pardoned,” Nesrin nodded before disappearing in the crowd.

The young men were proudly jumping up and down, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and firing their Bengal torches. It was hard to shake the impression of being at a football match in which the home team was leading 6:0. In this highly urbanised surrounding, the rural-sounding vibes were clearly coming into their own again – the ominous soundtrack of Turkey’s past and its future on an apparent collision course.

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Eutopian nightmares

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

By raising the drawbridge in the face of desperate refugees and succumbing to bigotry and hatred, the EU’s utopian ideals are being abandoned for a dystopian reality.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

When Slovenia’s army began to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Croatia in November 2015, almost a decade had passed since that historic day when the former Yugoslav republic was admitted into the European Union. During this period, we had become accustomed to the wonderful fact that there were no borders within the EU – at least not of the visible kind. Despite the savage quickening of the economic, financial, social and political crisis, free travel all over Europe had become a matter of great simplicity. It was something one could count on, something that almost went without saying.

And so we only started to debate this entire business of borders, fences, barbed wire and “the strengthening of Europe’s external borders” when these outer frontiers were already in great peril. But contrary to popular belief, that peril didn’t really come from the refugees and economic migrants who started pouring in on a large scale in 2014 and 2015.

In fact, the refugees and the migrants were the ones who, by breaking through the physical frontiers, were making clear that Europe’s borders had never been truly eliminated. Quite the contrary. The more the old continent had been opening up internally, the more it had been beefing up its outer ramparts. And so, slowly but inexorably, a thing some of us like to call Fortress Europe had been born – this enormous yet infinitely fragile and self-obsessed ivory tower… And the more fragile and self-obsessed it became, the more removed from its lofty freedom-loving ideals its immediate future had become. And in 2015, that immediate future had finally merged with the present.

The discourse – both in private and in public – was soon radicalised beyond repair. The cankerous genie of the far-right had broken out of its bottle, and its twisted worldview soon became the norm. The differences between Europe’s high castles and “the streets” were soon dissolved. Instead of the alarm that should be ringing out in every house and every soul still clinging to a shred of human decency, all one could hear was a thunderous silence. The core of the entire continent has been radicalised with a ferocity quite unprecedented in modern times.

The people of Europe took to acting as if it was quite natural that the incoming refugees should have no names, faces, fates, stories and future. Even worse: we started treating people on the run from war zones as if they were so much nuclear waste; as if we had all been stripped of any semblance of historical memory; as if the entire continent had been living a giant all-pervasive lie, which had clouded our judgment and had left us quite satisfied with this vague and infinitely flimsy idea… An idea that – a quarter of a century after the collapse of the iron curtain – had been thoroughly humiliated by the construction of the two walls on the Hungarian-Serbian and the Slovenian-Croatian borders.

As hard as it is to state this out loud, the flood of refugees and terrorism Europe has witnessed in recent years is partly a consequence of its failed foreign, immigration and integration policies. Its neglect of its neighbours in the Middle East and Central Asia, and its neglected immigrant neighbourhoods at home, not to mention the active role a number of European countries have played in fuelling conflict, war and despotism in the Middle East, have blown back in the form of large-scale radicalisation.

For the European Union, the crises it is experiencing today are the consequence of decades of living in a bubble, of distancing itself from reality – both within Europe and in its neighbouring regions – while immersing itself ever further into the heartless algorithms of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. What happened was the consequence of decades of catastrophic delusions and of failed immigration policies and processes; of our being unable to grasp the realities, let alone confront them or respond to them in a constructive and proactive manner which could result in (at least) our moral distancing from the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Instead we fuelled them, through our indifference, ignorance, arms exports, ill-conceived military interventions, our favouring of trade over human rights and dignity, our support of dictators and violent, authoritarian regimes.

It is little wonder Europe was so quick to adopt the language of war: Europe, after all, had proven quite adept at starting wars while being absolutely awful at putting a stop to them. Given its historical legacy, it is hardly surprising the continent was so quick to renounce its ideals and keel over before the challenges of the present moment.

The post-terror developments in Europe are also tragic in their predictability.

First, the shutting down of borders, both inwardly and outwardly. Then the “Americanisation” of our security and the systematic creation of fear. The rapidly escalating division between “us” and “them”. The spine-chilling rise of private security firms. The radicalisation of policies, fomenting grave polarisation within society, increasing our internal frictions and fostering the rise of the far-right and even neo-Nazis, the European equivalent of Daesh. The outbreak of populism, the vanishing of what remained of our common European identity, the strengthening of both benign and malignant strains of nationalism. The crumbling of the masks dictated by our mostly feigned political correctness and the streamlining of both racism and xenophobia. The triumph of reflexes over reflection. The dehumanisation of refugees, who have left their ransacked homes fleeing the exact same demonic violence Europe had first faced in Madrid, then in London, then Paris and now Brussels.

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

These developments are something to be feared at least as much as the next terrorist attacks, which are at this point inevitable. We should be at least as afraid of these developments as we should be afraid of the thunderous silence created by our lack of reflection and the by now chronic absence of critical reasoning… That awful, inexcusable silence of our ever so comfortable European minds, the silence that will ultimately enable the extremists to shriek at the highest possible frequencies. This is what the so-called Islamic State could understand as their victory.

As early as 2004, the Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer told me that Europe is treading a dark and dangerous path. He went on to explain he felt that its grave mistake was to ignore some fundamental parts of human nature, and all under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance. Holland was, he said, the best example of that wishful thinking with (socio-economically) limited expiry date.  “We were passing each other by looking the other way so determinedly that we ended up colliding,” Scheffer opined at the time when Europe was facing its first major terrorist attack in Madrid and the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (the maker of Submission) was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The idea of the functioning multicultural society was for the very first time shaken to the bones. Even a dozen years ago, Scheffer was well aware of what was likely to happen to a continent steeped in a chronic lack of reflection in the times of growing open conflicts.

The tragedies were as awfully, inexcusably predictable as the future we are now facing – a future we have done virtually everything in our power to facilitate.

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