Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.


The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

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By Khaled Diab

If Arabs could have voted, Angela Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right.

Monday 25 September 2017

Unlike the ‘Hussein’ in Barack Obama’s name, Angela Merkel Muhammed is not related to a conspiracy theory that the German chancellor is a secret Muslim. Born in August in Münster, the Angela in question is the daughter of a grateful Syrian couple who fled the danger and desolation in their devastated homeland and were granted asylum in Germany in 2015.

Prior to this, like many Arabs on the progressive or leftist end of the political spectrum, I had not been impressed by Merkel’s destructive neo-liberal policies and economic nationalism, most notably demonstrated in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. But Merkel’s willingness to gamble her political future to defend the weak and vulnerable strengthened her image in my eyes.

Although unaware of it herself, Baby Angela embodies the admiration her adult namesake has earned in the Arab world since Merkel defied a sceptical and hostile Europe, and her own conservative and far-right opponents at home, to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Merkel was being booed by far-right protesters in Germany, Syrians and Arabs were sending her messages of love and admiration on social media. “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Mecca and Muslim lands were closer to them,” one Facebook user reportedly wrote in an expression of gratitude.

Merkel’s principled stance on refugees in the face of stiff opposition and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks earned her a great deal of respect and numerous Arab commentators showered her with praise. “Despite all this, Ms Merkel courageously refused to ‘shut the door’ in the face of any/all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees,” wrote London-based journalist Faisal J Abbas in July 2016, while urging Syrian refugees to become more adept at “cultural diplomacy” and “to show more keenness to integrate and respect the culture of their new home countries”.

However, Merkel has subsequently flip-flopped on the issue of refugees, supporting the much-criticised EU-Turkey deal and pursuing similar ‘one in, one out’ deals with North African countries. This may have shored up her support among conservatives at home but has damaged her image somewhat in the Arab world.

The EU’s efforts to block the migrant flow from war-torn Libya, where the central state has completely collapsed, has helped fuel what many witnesses and observers, including the UN, have classed as the emergence of a modern-day slave trade.

Although many Arabs echo the western praise of Merkel as the new ‘leader of the free world’ due to her willingness to stand up to Donald Trump, Arab pro-democracy and human rights activists, as well as opposition figures, are perplexed and critical of Merkel’s willingness to collaborate with dictators and despots to deal with the flow of refugees, to combat terrorism… and to do lucrative business.

While lauded and applauded in the pro-regime Egyptian press, Egyptian President Abdel-fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in 2015 and Merkel’s visit to Egypt in March of this year, drew condemnation from human rights groups and Egyptian opposition figures. “After Merkel’s visit, Sisi is full of confidence that the big hitters have got his back, that they will turn a blind eye to his human rights crimes, with the excuse that he is fighting against terrorism,” wrote Wael Kandil, a journalist and liberal politician who went from opposing ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to supporting him, becoming an outspoken opponent of Sisi in the process.

Some go even further and see Merkel as not only maintaining a cynical silence in the face of Sisi’s human rights abuses but of being a “tyrant” in her own right. “When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, [it] is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention,” wrote Walid el-Houri of Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in 2015. “The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit.”

Despite such harsh criticism, Angela Merkel received generally glowing coverage ahead of the forthcoming elections in the Arab press. In the run up to the elections in Germany, many Arabic-language newspapers ran admiring profiles of the chancellor, focusing on her unusual path to power, her early life as a scientist in East Germany, and her apparent frugality and modesty.

Despite my own personal reservations about her economic policies and convenient embracing of certain dictators, this generally positive image resonates with many ordinary Arabs I know. “I like, respect and trust her,” said Marwan El Nashar, an Egyptian comic artist. “As someone who was a minister of women, youth and environment and with a scientific background, she’s [been] able to find a balanced formula in Germany and Europe,” echoes Nancy Sadiq, a Palestinian peace activist.

Judging by such reactions, if Arabs could have voted in this weekend’s federal election, it seems Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).


A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September 2017.


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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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Israel declares war on peaceful activism

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By Khaled Diab

The Israeli government fears and combats peace and rights activists with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 October 2016

Anyone who has met the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Brigitte Herremans, the Middle East policy officer at Belgian Catholic charities Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi, would be confounded to hear her labelled as a threat to public security and order.

But that is exactly how authorities at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport described her as they deported the Belgian peace activist and charity worker –while the founder of the pro-Israeli right NGO Monitor called her a “radical leader of political warfare”.

Like so many times before, Herremans had landed in Israel, earlier this month, to take a group of Belgians on a familiarisation tour of Israel and Palestine, where they would get the opportunity to see, first hand, the situation on the ground and to meet local Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

But this time was to prove to be different. Following a three-hour detention, including a brief interrogation, Herremans, who had refused to divulge the names of her Palestinian and Israeli contacts, was put on a plane back home and banned from entering Israel for a decade, while the group she had been leading was allowed into the country.

“Unfortunately, I was aware that I might be refused entry to Israel, this time,” Herremans told me following her return to Belgium [see full Q&A here], citing “the Israeli government’s growing animosity towards NGOs and the increasing attacks by groups such as NGO Monitor”.

Established in 2002, NGO Monitor claims to “promote accountability” and “informed public debate” of the activities of international and local NGOs.  But “accountability” seems to mean accepting the narrative and policies of Israel’s extreme right government unquestioningly and uncritically.

NGO Monitor’s charge sheet against Herremans and Broederlijk Delen includes providing miniscule funding to a number of NGOs promoting human and legal rights and allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which Broederlijk Delen does not actually do, according to Herremans.

Other presumably insidious and heinous acts exposed by NGO Monitor include organising an expo on the terrifying theme of ‘Peaceful resistance in Palestine and Israel’.

This is something that has long miffed me. The Israeli right repeatedly and harshly criticises Palestinians when they engage in violent resistance and terrorism and claim that their enemy only understand the language of violence.

Yet when Palestinians use the language of peaceful activism and non-violence, a process of deep-seated distrust and paranoia, combined with wilful distortion and twisting, translate these actions into the lexicon of terrorism and warfare.

This is because hitting someone who refuses to hit back exacts a heavy burden on human conscience and makes the hitter look and, deep down, feel like a thug and a bully. In contrast, rocket attacks from Gaza or knifings in the West Bank make it far easier to justify violence and oppression to oneself and the world.

That explains why the Israeli government, like many regimes in the region, fears and combats critical elements of civil society, especially leftist and rights groups, who are armed with little more than their consciences, with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Even uncontroversial charities, which actually indirectly help Israel by cleaning up the mess caused by its wars and improving the lives of Palestinians have fallen foul of this growing paranoia. For example, America’s largest Christian charity, World Vision, has been forced to suspend its operations in destitute Gaza because its manager there is accused of having funnelled funds to Hamas which are more than double the organisation’s budget there.

On the legislative front, the Knesset recently passed the contentious and controversial “NGO law”, which appears to single out left-wing and rights groups as treacherous agents of insidious foreign powers, rather than expressions of internal dissent and opposition to an unjust and unsustainable situation.

“These efforts are aimed at crippling the activities of and silencing the voices of organisations dedicated to critiquing Israeli government policy and actions,” notes Nadeem Shehadeh, a lawyer with Adalah, the first Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel.

In addition to Jewish-Israeli anti-occupation groups, Palestinian civil society and political parties have been a central target of these efforts, points out Shehadeh, referring to a spate of legislations in recent years, including the so-called “Nakba Law” of 2011 and the raising of the Knesset voting threshold in 2014. This was meant to sideline Arab parties but had the unintended effect of forcing them to unite under the conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh.

“The current political environment in Israel suggests that these efforts are not about to subside but are rather enjoying a distinct upswing,” observes Shehadeh. And as Palestinian activists, and their Israeli and international allies, increasingly resort to what has been dubbed “lawfare”, Israel’s clampdowns and crackdowns are likely to intensify over the coming years.

Moreover, years of demonising and stigmatising anyone who criticises or opposes Israel’s occupation and the abuses it leads to, no matter how benignly done, has created an extremely toxic atmosphere in which right-wing radicals and fanatics feel justified in using or threatening violence.

Targeted groups include the internationally respected human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which collects the testimonies of Israeli soldiers with the aim of exposing the reality of the occupation.

Palestinian rights groups, such as Al Mezan in Gaza and Al Haq in the West Bank, have also been receiving an alarming level of threats targeted at staff and their families, which have included photos of their houses to flowers delivered to their homes.

Despite the increasing dangers involved, brave Palestinian and Israeli activists continue their efforts to oppose the occupation peacefully and to advance efforts to build a robust and resilient peace, no matter how far off and elusive it seems from where we stand today.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 September 2016.

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Ayman Odeh: “We reject the equation that it is all Jews against all Arabs”

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By Khaled Diab

As the Israeli Knesset declares war on its Palestinian members, Ayman Odeh believes the only way forward is through a joint Arab-Jewish struggle.

The march for equality and peace is a long and difficult one.

The march for equality and peace is a long and difficult one. Image:


Thursday 4 August 2016

In a move billed as defending democracy but actually undermines and compromises it, Israel’s Knesset has passed a law that enables parliamentarians to gang up on a member and expel him or her, effectively ignoring the will of the electorate.

Critics have described the new legislation as threatening the “very building blocks of democracy” and encouraging the “tyranny of the majority”.

The new legislation allows Knesset members to act as judge, jury and executioner in cases where they perceive that a fellow parliamentarian has incited to violence or racism, supported armed conflict against Israel, or rejected Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Although many on the ultranationalist and religious right express racist views and incite against Palestinians, the wording and timing of the new law is seen by politicians across the spectrum and human rights groups as expressly targeting Arab Knesset members – not to mention Jewish leftists.

“The Expulsion Law is the latest expression in a disturbing national tendency over the past several years,” said Adalah, a legal centre representing Israel’s Arab minority, “intended, via varying means, to silence the Arab public.”

Ayman Odeh, the popular and widely respected head of the coalition of Arab-dominated parties in the Knesset known as the Joint List, did not mince his words. “Netanyahu doesn’t want Arabs to vote; he doesn’t want us to be a legitimate political force,” Odeh was quoted in the Israeli media as saying. “That’s why he systematically incites against the Arab public and against its elected officials.”

Not long before the vote, I visited Ayman Odeh in his office at the Knesset. Even after years of interaction with Israel, wandering through the corridors of Israeli political power felt almost unreal.

When he greeted me, the charismatic leader who, in 2015, led the Joint List to the most significant victory ever scored by an Arab party, looked weary and troubled. Asking me to excuse his state, he explained that he’d been working very long hours on a number of important files.

One of the issues preying on his mind must have been the ongoing concerted effort by the far-right ruling coalition to find a mechanism for removing the “rabble-rousers” among the Arab representatives, especially the Palestinian nationalist Balad party’s Haneen Zoabi.

“Our presence here [in the Knesset] is a daily challenge to the racists who want a Jewish-only state,” Odeh told me. “Our enemies want us to isolate ourselves and not to participate. This is what Netanyahu wants. He wants a pure Jewish state.”

The entire idea behind the Joint List – which is an unlikely alliance of secularist, Arab-Jewish leftist, Palestinian nationalist and Islamist parties – was to challenge previous attempts to isolate and marginalise Palestinian-Israeli voters and their representatives, including the controversial law raising the threshold for Knesset entry.

And the Joint List was spectacularly successful in this regard. By joining forces, the Arab parties managed to become the third largest bloc in the Knesset, even though Binyamin Netanyahu maintained his velcro grip on power and cobbled together an ultranationalist ruling coalition.

“During the elections, we achieved three unprecedented accomplishments: 88% of our people voted for us, we became the third power, with 13 seats,” Odeh recalls. “All these matters are unprecedented, since 1948 to this day.”

And with the Israeli left weakened and in disarray, the Joint List has found itself not only playing the role as the main line of defence against the rightwing campaign to further sideline Palestinians in Israel and salvage the prospects for peace, it is also acting as one of the last bastions defending Israeli democracy against an authoritarian rightist takeover.

Although Odeh is a veteran of local politics in his hometown, Haifa, he has been dropped in at the deep end during his first term at the Knesset. But his charisma, political adeptness and fresh, inclusive discourse has meant that this baptism of fire is actually redefining Israeli politics and helping to rewrite the rulebook of Israel-Palestinian engagement.

Long a member of the leftist Jewish-Arab Hadash party, which he now heads, Odeh is committed to co-operation with sympathetic Israeli Jews and in engaging with Israeli mainstream society. “We reject the equation that it is all Jews against all Arabs, or all Arabs against all Jews,” he emphasised. “This is a joint struggle between Arab and Jewish democrats against racist policies.”

This has worked to the Joint List’s advantage and Odeh has become something of a sensation among progressive and liberal Israelis. “We have opened up new horizons and extended bridges to segments of Jewish society, to challenge Netanyahu’s government,” he said.

“I can say confidently that the Jewish public has debated the status of Arab citizens this past year more than at any time since 1948,” Odeh insists.

Although Odeh’s idea for a 10-year programme to develop Arab areas of Israel forced the government to unveil a five-year, $3.9-billion development plan for these underprivileged areas, other concrete successes are few and far between.

The onward march of the far-right seems, for the time being, unstoppable, and the peace process is in tatters. But in the longer term, Odeh believes optimistically that equality and peace are both achievable.

“Nobody is saying that our struggle is easy or that life is easy,” Odeh admits openly. “This struggle, which proposes a democratic alternative and is made up of both Arabs and Jews, will ultimately be the victorious one.”


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 31 July 2016.

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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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Giulio Regeni is the tip of Egypt’s police brutality iceberg

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By Khaled Diab

Many Egyptians find the allegation that the Italian student was killed by Egypt’s notorious security apparatus chillingly plausible. Italy must shed its former enthusiasm for the Sisi regime.


Thursday 12 May 2016

During a rambling and at times bewildering speech responding to accusations that his regime had “sold” two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudis, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seized the opportunity to defend his government’s record on the Giulio Regeni case.

“We Egyptians started circulating these allegations and lies, we made this problem ourselves, we made this problem for Egypt,” he said, sounding like a cross father scolding his children. “I’ve told you before – there are evil-doers among us who are accusing us [of responsibility].”

Following Egyptian assurances of a thorough and independent investigation, Sisi’s comments are bound to provoke dismay and anger in Italy, which has already recalled its ambassador over Egypt’s perceived obstructionism and its failure to hand over vital evidence.

Despite the denials from many segments of officialdom and in the echo chamber of the pro-regime media, I and many, many Egyptians, especially activists and independent journalists, find the working theory that Regeni was killed by one of the many tentacles of Egypt’s notorious security apparatus entirely plausible, not to mention chillingly so.

For me, as an Egyptian, the only surprise is that this happened to a foreigner from a wealthy, developed country. In an unofficial revival of the dual legal system that Egypt used to have during colonial times, Westerners, given the likelihood that their governments will make a stink, have generally been off-bounds to the guardians of the state’s insecurity.

In a sad indictment of the ill regard in which Egypt holds its people, even having dual citizenship affords one more protection than solely possessing Egyptian nationality. This, along with the fact that I don’t write in Arabic and live abroad, is, I am convinced, one of the reasons that I have not yet got into serious trouble for my critical journalism. I believe that the eight-hour interrogation to which I was subjected last time I visited Egypt potentially could have ended much worse were I only an Egyptian.

That is why I feel understanding for Egyptian activists and journalists who have gone into de facto self-imposed exile, after fighting a losing battle for seemingly no returns. As for those who, against all the odds and at the risk of their freedom or even their lives, have stayed to continue the struggle, I feel nothing but immense awe and admiration for their courage: from relatives and friends, to journalists and rights defenders like Hossam Bahgat, who continues to expose the concealed workings of the regime despite harassment and the decision to freeze his assets, or Aida Seif Eldawla and her team at the Nadeem centre who continue to support victims of torture and violence, despite repeated attempts to shut them down.

Though almost all the regime’s victims are Egyptians, over the past five turbulent years, during which xenophobia has grown due to the portrayal of the 2011 revolution as a foreign conspiracy, foreign journalists, activists and aid workers have become more of a target, as the Al Jazeera trials and the earlier American NGO crackdown attest.

But, as far as I’m aware, no Westerner has ever been tortured or killed by the security services. The only case that comes close is that of the French resident of Cairo, Eric Lang, who was reportedly beaten to death by inmates in a holding cell. The Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was shot dead while covering the violent, bloody dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adaweya sit-in in support of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

My personal suspicion is that Regeni’s death was an “accident”, caused by the lawlessness which now governs Egyptian law enforcement. One plausible scenario is that the researcher, who confessed to colleagues that he was being watched and feared for his life, was picked up to be interrogated. Once detained, he may have refused to answer questions or talked back too much, leading them to get rougher and rougher, until he died in their hands.

I personally doubt that any orders came from high up, especially as the embattled regime needs all the overseas allies it can get and Italy is Egypt’s main trading partner in the EU.

But little restraint exists when it comes to Egyptians, who have few defenders from the current “reign of terror”.

To give a taste of the magnitude, Corriere Della Sera recently published a list of 735 Egyptians who have been disappeared over the past eight months, while tens of thousands have been detained over the past three years. In addition, 7,420 civilians have been tried by military courts, many in summary mass trials, since October 2014, according to the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms.

Regeni’s death and the rot within the Egyptian regime which it has exposed should give certain Italian politicians and journalists pause for thought over their previous enthusiasm for Sisi. Some have described Sisi as “courageous” and “enlightened” because he was mounting a “revolution” within Islam.

To Egyptian secularists and intellectuals, many of whom are rotting behind bars, the notion that our incoherent, iron-fisted leader is some kind of enlightened reformer will come across as a cruel joke. Sisi is not a revolutionary, he is a counter-revolutionary.

That is why it is important for Italy and the wider EU not to fall for the regime’s disingenuous “warnings” that not supporting it would “endanger the whole of the Mediterranean and Europe”, as Sisi warned in an interview with La Repubblica, by delivering Egypt to radical jihadists.

Human rights are supposed to be a central pillar of Europe’s relationship with Egypt and the rest of the region. It is high time for Italy and the EU to start seriously demanding from Egypt and its other Med partners respect for these fundamental principles and to implement serious democratic, social and economic reforms. These are the true safeguards against radicalisation and terrorism.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extendedversion of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere Della Sera on 16 May 2016.

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This is not a refugee “hotspot”. It’s a prison!

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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Following the EU-Turkey deal, refugees in Greece are being held in so-called “hotspots”, which are actually prisons, and many are now on hunger strike.

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Thursday 5 May 2016

Following the closing of the Balkan refugee route and the sealing of the deal between the European Union and Turkey, some 55,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in Greece. Many of them are being kept inside detention centres, where the living conditions are well beyond disastrous.

The worst of it can be observed on the Aegean island of Chios. On the island, the EU directed the Greek authorities – who had little say in the matter – to seal the fate of tens of thousands of refugees by opening up the VIAL hotspot, where around a thousand people are currently awaiting their fate.

All of them have arrived in Greece since 20 March 2016, when the deal between Brussels and Ankara entered into force. The ruthless bargain prevented the refugees and migrants from pressing on further into Europe, instead cramming them into a number of what are effectively jails.

These institutions are located both on the Greek mainland and on its islands. But the so-called VIAL “hotspot”, which is actually a prison, was soon to attain a special notoriety for becoming the metaphor for the xenophobic and racist European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies. The strategists in Brussels had decided to turn the already politically, socially and economically ransacked country of Greece into a sort of human wastebin, thereby exacerbating the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

In these times of spreading hatred, racism and growing neo-Nazi parties, it seems especially important to call things by their proper names. The “hotspot” I am currently reporting from is nothing less than the concentration camp of our day.

The camp – located a 20-minute drive away from the island’s capital – presents the visitor with a frightening picture. The refugees and migrants I have been talking to all related stories and experiences that should make the whole of Europe shudder in shame. Yet the very capacity for shame seems to have been driven from the continent by a narcissistic self-obsession and a highly aggressive drive to keep oneself permanently within the comfort zone.

In the early evening, I got to talking to an Afghan girl named Geza who spoke perfect English. I met her next to a hole in the camp’s fence. Many of the refugees were using the hole to get in and out of the camp, especially since the police presence was startlingly light on account of the holidays.

“We are being treated like garbage – as if we had the plague or something,” Geza told me: “We can no longer bear this. There are worms and caterpillars inside our food. There is not enough water, and a lot of what we get isn’t even drinkable. There is not nearly enough medicine, and many of us have grown severely ill. The children have had the worst of it. Almost half of everyone here is underage. We have no idea what we’ve done to be treated this way. All we wanted was to live in peace.”

Geza told me she and her husband Farhan had fled both the Taliban and the Islamic State. “Please tell everyone what’s happening to us here. This is a crime. We are all so hungry. And we are being humiliated. Me and my husband, we have been here for 40 days. Right after we arrived, we put in an application to be granted asylum. We were supposed to get a response 10 days ago, but nothing happened. No one in this camp was given a reply. And so we are waiting. We have no information to go on. We are cut off from the world. Both me and Farhan are very scared they will send us back to Afghanistan.”

This is a common, virtually universal fear among the residents of the VIAL detention centre. As recently as a week ago, the entire institution was hermetically sealed – until the exhausted and severely traumatised refugees decided to stage a protest. A certain threshold seemed to have been reached, and the local authorities made the tactical decision to permit their wards at least a modicum of free movement.

Yet the prison is located far from both the town and the port, which is why most people opted to search for food in the nearby villages, where all the shops were closed on account of Orthodox Easter. One enterprising local set up a vending stall right in front of the hotspot. The prices were about three times what one would pay in the town, yet the vast majority of the refugees and the migrants had already spent what money they had to get to Europe.

Most of them were also not at all eager to stray too far from the prison. One can hardly blame them for not feeling safe. The last few weeks saw a number of far-right groups attack both the refugees and the volunteers helping them. After 18 months of an open-door policy, the impoverished and economically ravaged island has finally refused to welcome the influx of fresh refugees. From what I could see, the islanders did this more to appease Brussels than from any genuine feelings of resentment or enmity. Be that as it may, the island which has been turned into a prison is one of the key images for envisioning our fast-approaching common European future.

“It is impossible to live here. There are as many as 20 of us inside a single container. During the day the whole place gets unbearably hot. I am sick to my stomach all the time – all the time,” I was told by a very dignified lady named Batul Rahim, standing at the front door of the modern concentration camp. “We have no privacy, we’re hungry, and our children are exhausted. Most of them have no idea what is going on, and I think it is really better that way… I fled Mosul because of the Islamic State – they would have killed us for being Christians. All Christians were forced to escape, and a lot of them lost their lives.”

With a tearful break in her voice, Rahim told me she was a mother of a two-year old boy named Samuel and a three-year-old girl, Sonia, who were hiding behind her legs. “The world has forgotten about us. Some of our relatives managed to reach Germany and the Netherlands, while we have been thrown to rot in this jail.”

The grief-stricken woman also expressed her mortal fear that the European bureaucrats were about to send her back to hell. Had I decided to soothe her worries, I would have been forced to lie to her face. Virtually all the Syrians I encountered were telling stories of a devastated homeland and their bankrupt illusions about Europe.

Koda, a 57-year-old Iranian from Esfahan, told me he had arrived in Greece a mere four hours too late – on the very morning of 20 March when the bargain between the EU and Turkey raised the drawbridge, the bargain that seems certain to wreck hundreds of thousands of lives.

Ironically, the deal between the European Union and Turkey has been hailed as a great coup for European diplomacy, as if it has somehow solved the refugee question rather than exacerbated it. After the Balkan refugee route got closed and the Turkish authorities set about fulfilling their well-rewarded new array of tasks, the number of refugees and migrants reaching the Greek islands experienced a huge drop.

Most of those who had already been to Greece only to be thwarted by the closing down of the Macedonian-Greek border ended up in the so-called hotspots. At an improvised tent settlement in Idomeni, some 11,000 people are still waiting for the border to open. But they are waiting for a miracle that is simply not on the horizon – short of an actual miracle. Some 3,000 people are currently residing in the port of Piraeus, waiting for the holiday’s end when the Greek authorities are set to cart them off to prisons. Precious few of them are likely to reach the desired goal of their journey – meaning Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. They have made an investment of a lifetime in gathering both the gumption and the resources to flee the ravages of their war-torn lands only to be thrown in jail. And one thing is certain: they shall remain there for much longer than only a few weeks.

“Europe has her mouth full of human rights. If I remember correctly, your soldiers came to Afghanistan in the name of human rights as well, true? Well, I have come to Europe and I am certainly human. But where are my rights?” asked a 27-year-old Afghan named Hekmetulla Hakani, as he stood in front of the VIAL hotspot. “Me and my wife and my daughter have been trapped here for 40 days. My daughter is only 10-months-old. This is so horrible. I simply want to go home and die there.”

Hailing from the city of Helmand, Hakani had worked as a translator on NATO’s ISAF mission, which earned him enough credible Taliban threats to force him to flee for his life. “They have imprisoned us here like terrorists. It is as if they don’t think we’re even human. We are suffering so hard, we have no idea what will happen to us. The policemen are telling us to simply wait – the ones that will even talk to us, that is, because most of them won’t. A lot of the children here are seriously ill. And we have no money left. There is nowhere for us to go,” Hakani insisted.

“Why does it have to be this way? What have we done? Why does Europe hate us so much?” the former NATO translator asked in frustration and bewilderment.

Since my encouter with these inmates, the situation at the VIAL prison camp has gone from bad to worse. Today, Wednesday 4 May, many of the refugees went on hunger strike, with some going as far as to sew their lips together. “I’m going to kill myself. I will cut my throat with the razor-wire. I will bleed slowly. It won’t hurt … I can’t stand this any more. I’m sick. Everything hurts,” screamed Hamid, a distressed Palestinian-Syrian from Yarmouk camp who is now among the hunger strikers who have sewed their lips together. “We know what will happen to us. I can see my future it the eyes of the policemen. Or in the eyes of local people. They hate us. We are not people to them. I want to die.”

Something must be seriously wrong when someone who has risked their lives to escape death in the hopes of finding a safe refuge decides that life is not worth living anymore.

Extra police have been deployed to deal with the situation. But the answer does not lie in finding better ways to keep the inmates locked up, but to set them free. After all, these refugees have committed no crime, save to believe that Europe could provide them with a humane shelter from the hell they have fled.

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War crimes v thought crimes

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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

While war criminals walk free, Florence Hartmann landed in solitary confinement for her insider leaks on the politicisation of the Yugoslav tribunal.

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Florence Hartmann – a journalist, author and human rights activist – was recently imprisoned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for whom she had worked as a spokesperson between 2000 and 2006. For six days, she was kept in solitary confinement in a cell where the light was on 24 hours a day while every 30 minutes she was checked up on by a prison guard because she was a supposed “suicide risk”.

Hartmann’s only crime had been to tell the truth. In her book Peace and Punishment (Paix et châtiment), published in 2007, she revealed that the Hague-based tribunal, heeding the wishes of Serbian authorities, intentionally neglected to take into account the documents linking the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević and the Belgrade establishment to the Srebrenica massacre. Charging Hartmann with contempt of court, the ICTY fined her to the tune of €7,000, which the court maintains she never paid, but Hartmann claims the opposite: “I paid the fine in France in order to  seek remedy through the French judge who would have been appointed to authorise the ICTY to transfer the money.  the €7,000 is still in the dedicated bank account and will be used to pay the translation and the fees for the upcoming legal actions.”

The court, nevertheless, changed Hartmann’s sentence to seven days imprisonment in 2011. She was arrested on Thursday, 24 March 2016, when she dropped in to witness the historical sentencing of Radovan Karadžić. Thus far, the tribunal has financially sanctioned four journalists while sentencing one to a month in prison.

Word criminal

Having met up with the Mothers of Srebrenica activist group, Hartmann arrived on the square in front of the tribunal’s headquarters to await the reading of the sentence of one of the most infamous war criminals in the Balkans. The time has come for the final act of a long-lasting judiciary procedure, which – among other things – conclusively demonstrated Karadžić’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide.

Suddenly, a number of police officers with UN insignia burst onto the scene. In a manner described as “rough” and “humiliating”, they seized Hartmann and transported her to the nearby Scheveningen prison. The arrest distracted the public eye from the sentencing of a war criminal.

“To me it came as a total shock. I absolutely did not expect it to happen. They simply stomped in and basically kidnapped me. And this in front of a crowd of Bosnian war victims, who had come to see justice being served,” a confounded Hartmann said. “For them, it was yet another in a long line of humiliations. I saw a woman being shoved to the ground… I myself was pushed and pulled around and lost my glasses,” she added, her voice more disappointed than angry.

In her years as the ICTY’s spokesperson she had encountered numerous cases of war criminals escaping justice, as the tribunal was barred from arresting them on foreign territory.

“There are many cases where the tribunal was well-informed of these people’s whereabouts,” Hartmann says. “The prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, managed to set up a tracking system. But we were unable to go in and arrest them, since the UN hadn’t been given the madate for such a course of action. Apparently, it didn’t matter that these people were responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history. Yet now it is entirely unproblematic for the UN to arrest me in a foreign country? The ICTY has no mandate to do so, as it was my duty to explain to the press about a million times in my years as the tribunal’s spokesperson.”

Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that the tribunal did not sanction her in her capacity as a former spokesperson but as a journalist. “They say I broke the code of silence, yet I wrote my book as a journalist, not as the spokesperson for the tribunal. To claim otherwise is sheer manipulation, though one that is now being repeated as a mantra by many members of the press.”

Solitary Confinement

Florence Hartmann, 53, is an intrepid and level-headed journalist who reported on some of the most savage attrocities of the Balkans conflict. As the Karadžić sentence was read out to the public, she was already in solitary confinement in the notorious prison which, over the years, housed numerous war criminals from the Yugoslav wars.

Her lawyer Guénaël Mettraux immediately sprang into action, but almost instantly hit a wall. As soon as the Karadžić sentence had been read out, the tribunal’s personnel departed for the Easter holidays. Mettraux placed call after call, yet no one was there to answer. At least not until the morning of 29 March, when the staff returned to their desks and Mettraux was finally able to put in an official request for her release.

During the time of her incarceration, the sole visitor permitted to Hartmann was the French consul who brought her newspapers. Yet in the end, even the consul – the ICTY requested Hartmann to be handed over five years ago, yet Paris refused – proved powerless to help.

What was it like waiting for assistance in her permanently lit-up solitary confinement cell? With a smile, Hartmann replies she felt much safer than while reporting from war zones. She was the only resident of her part of the prison, and she was never let out of her cell – unlike a number of convicted war criminals. “I was never let out in the open air for the one hour of activities to which other inmates are entitled. This was denied to me – a measure that was never justified to me or to my lawyer. I was watched over by guards around the clock, during the night only by men. They treated me well. They even offered me some reading materials. I told them I don’t much care for novels or love stories or anything of the sort,” Hartmann laughs in reminiscence. Her wish was to read Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail, a book detailing the Karadžić hunt she had saved on her laptop.

“Never again”

Hartmann endured her prison sentence stoically. She now claims to feel perfectly fine.

Yet she also feels she has been through one of the weirdest experiences of her life, which is saying something. “Perhaps the most painful experience for me has been the eruption of mass violence in Europe at the end of the twentieth century. My generation had been brought up never to expect that sort of thing again. How many times have we heard the sentence ‘Never again’ being spoken,” she reflects. “Yet it is happening all over again. The Geneva convention is no longer in effect. In these past few months, some 30 hospitals have been bombed all over the globe. Merely the suspicion that a hospital may be harbouring suspects is enough for them to murder doctors and patients in the building. The Saudis, the Russians and the Americans are all doing it – and with absolute impunity. Also, torture has returned to the democratic countries,” the visibly exhausted author of many books explained in her Parisian apartment, adding that the 21-st century has also seen journalists imprisoned in the heart of the privileged European Union.

“ICTY failed to do its job”

Two days after Hartmann’s release, the ICTY judges reached the decision that Vojislav Šešelj, one of the key figures of the Great Serbia project and steadfast ideologue of its crimes against humanity, would get off scot-free.

Things could hardly get any more ironic. The distinguished arbiters were quite clearly communicating from a place where Franz Kafka had met Monty Python to write one of the most poignantly Orwellian stories of our time.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993. This was two years before Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were massacred. It was also six years before the end of the Balkan wars, two and a half years before the signing of the Dayton agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, by legitimising the Republika Srpska, also helped legitimise much of the ethnic cleansing.

Time went on. The historical record was slowly eroded, and the Balkan conflicts were soon forgotten. With the exception of Readovan Karadžić, the ICTY failed to pass sentence on any of the major culprits behind the wars. Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that even the case against Slobodan Milošević, who died in detention, was built on very shaky ground, mostly due to political machinations and outside interests. The acquittal of the Chetnik duke Šešešlj is thus set to put the final nail in the coffin of the catharsis of the Serbian society. The Serbs had certainly failed in their attempts to complete the process of de-nazification, and the ICTY’s sluggishness and incompetence were a major contributing factor.

Slobodan Milošević wasn’t toppled for having started wars. He was toppled for having lost them. All of them.

Today, Hartmann can barely control her outrage. “At the end of the 20th century, we set up a system designed to bring punishment on those responsible for the genocide. But a few judges sabotaged the project. As far as the ICTY was concerned, Vojislav Šešelj was free to bay for war and remain unpunished,” she laments.

Hartmann’s arrest brought on a fierce response from European intellectuals, many of whom signed the petition for her release. According to the French journalist, the impunity bestowed on many of the key figures in the Balkan conflicts is utterly unacceptable. A system of swift supervision should be put in effect, she says, yet she is also afraid that by now this is no longer possible.

“We are living in a time and place undergoing a crescendo of barbarism. And the only response to barbarism we’ve managed to come up with is more barbarism,” Hartmann observes. “National and the international law should be synchronised to prevent future conflicts. To get justice, I intend to use every legal resource at my disposal. I’m proud to say I never faltered when they told me to stop and keep my mouth shut about their illegitimate secrets.”


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