A recent talk given at the annual Dublin Anarchist Bookfair, May 2012.
Editor’s Note: Marie Colvin was a reporter with the Sunday Times and died of wounds sustained from an IED less than 48 hours after authoring this article. She had defied the Syrian government’s prohibition against international journalists coving the protests in Homs, Syria – and ultimately that protest would cost her life. The following is her final transmission.
by: Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy
They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.
Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.
“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.
“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”
For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.
Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.
The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.
A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.
Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.
The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random
Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.
Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.
It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.
The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.
In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.
About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.
“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”
On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.
Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”
The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.
These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.
Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.
So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.
Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.
I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.
When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.
The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.
Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.
A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.
He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.
“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.
Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.
“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.
The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.
The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.
Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.
Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.
There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.
Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.
Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”
Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”
There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.
He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”
If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.
Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.
“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.
Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.
“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”
Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.
If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.
The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.
Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.
The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.
The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.
The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.
The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.
Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.
For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.
The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.
Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.
As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.
“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”
Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.
Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.
Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”
The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.
She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”.
In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.
In a neighborhood of northern Kabul once called little Paris after its famous patisseries and tree-lined avenues, a taxi driver drops me off in front of a 15-foot-high metal gate. The gate surrounds a large old house barely visible from the street. The street is really nothing more than an ominous dirt path marked by potholes, and a trench where sewage wafts up from an opening where pipes were never laid. Across the street is a makeshift refugee camp, homes built from dirt and materials gathered from nearby garbage heaps. The man who works security at the gate instructs me the refugees are from Pakistan, families fleeing the ongoing fighting and US air raids.
I am here to have a meeting with the director of the Afghan Women’s Skills and Development Center (AWSDC), a non-government organization working to enhance the basic skills and capacities of women and girls through education and training courses. The AWSDC is a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), “an umbrella association of over seventy women focused NGO’s,” according to its director Afif Azim.
I am here because both organizations have signed a report submitted by 29 NGO’s working in Afghanistan to the NATO Heads of Government called Nowhere to Turn. The report documents the NGO’s serious concerns over growing insecurity for ordinary Afghans, and cites a recent UNAMA briefing claiming a 21% increase in civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. Careful to outline that a majority of deaths are at the hands of armed opposition groups, like the Taliban, the report emphasizes that the current US/NATO military strategy including arbitrary detention, night-raids, drone bombing and financing and arming of militia groups are the most significant factors creating instability for civilians.
The Afghan Women’s Network and its partner organizations have been working since the fall of the Taliban to advocate for the implementation of international conventions and national legislation that would protect, and maybe in the future even benefit the status and rights of women across Afghanistan. All are starkly aware of the realities ‘on the ground’ for women, and this is why they speak passionately about the need to create security before any substantive work towards human rights can be accomplished.
Still, the issue of security in Afghanistan is as pressing as it is contested. The narrative of guaranteeing women’s rights in Afghanistan has served as the highly politicized accessory to the US’s 2001 invasion. And this objective remains a potent piece of the political puzzle in Afghanistan. Thus, while these two organizations were clear in their condemnation of US military strategy, they also advocated for the necessity of the troop presence due to the reality of violence women would face if there were a civil war.
However, other women stress that the US/NATO presence are contributing so significantly to insecurity in the country that there is no choice but to demand from the UN an alternative international force that would not act as occupiers. Zohra, a photographer and self-described feminist with a local arts collective Third Eye reasons that while cosmetic changes for women have occurred in Kabul and Heart cities since the fall of the Taliban, for the vast majority of women in the provinces this event held no significant political meaning. Zohra, like her colleagues from AWN, assert that whist many people in the West focus on the ‘need’ to challenge the gender norms of a cultural conservative society, it is the insecurities accented by war and occupation that remain the principle obstacle to securing women’s human rights.
As Zohra explains, “Your [US] leaders say they are here to secure Afghanistan, especially for the women. The reporters happily wrote stories about how the Taliban did not let women to go to school. And this is true; many of our women cannot even to read. But now girls cannot go to school, and where is the Taliban? It is not the Taliban who are stopping the girls. What mother would let her child to go to school if they think a bomb will drop on them? For the girls does it matter from which hand the bomb drops?”
I leave the AWSDC offices humbled by the work these women accomplish despite overwhelming challenges. Yet, I am most immediately struck by the faces that greet me across the way in the refugee camp. Whilst my colleagues and I discussed largely theoretical scenarios for possible solutions to the ‘women question’ in Afghanistan, the inhabitants of this camp have been scavenging a nearby trash heap, looking for materials to burn a fire and keep warm enough to survive the night. Their day-to-day existence depends largely on the generosity of what is discarded from the NGO offices that line this street. I tremble under this most cruel reality, and remind myself that across Afghanistan women weep for children who cannot survive the cold; women whose anger must grow as they send children to bed with pains of hunger, or who fear the terrorizing bombs that mutilate and murder loved ones without recourse to justice. These are the very women we seek to ‘help’, and I come to the conclusion that many in Afghanistan have stated over and over to us in our all too brief time here, “you cannot bomb people and then expect them to accept your aid.”
by: Sharif Abdel Kouddous
(originally published at The Nation)
Under Mubarak, state-owned media was a propaganda arm of the government, parroting party dogma while dismissing public criticism and political opposition. During the 18-day uprising that toppled him, state TV tried to downplay the size of the demonstrations, depicting protesters as funded, inspired or infiltrated by foreign elements ranging from Israel to Iran to Al Qaeda.
Television is by far the most important medium in Egypt. A recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute found that 84 percent of the population relied on TV as their main source of information during the revolution. While state TV acted as a government mouthpiece, under Mubarak, licenses for private-owned satellite TV stations were reserved for rich businessmen with varying degrees of closeness to his regime. Private channels were closely monitored by the State Security Investigations branch of the Interior Ministry.
The struggle for greater openness in the media under Mubarak came at a high cost. Outspoken journalists and bloggers were arrested, prosecuted and harassed for reporting on controversial issues. Police and plainclothes thugs beat and detained reporters, confiscating and destroying video footage and notes. Prison sentences were imposed on members of the independent media, including newspaper editors and reporters. Elements of the state security apparatus may have even posed as journalists to monitor civil society and opposition activists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
After Mubarak’s ouster, the struggle for press freedom is far from over.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which have been ruling Egypt since Mubarak stepped down, have actively clamped down on press freedom since taking charge of the country. For decades, the army was a taboo subject in Egyptian media. Laws dating back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser prevent local journalists from reporting anything about the military without permission. This ban became difficult to enforce during the revolution, with soldiers in the streets and daily debates about the army’s role and its handling of the country, but the Supreme Council has sought to reinforce the restrictions. In late March the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian Military sent a letter to editors of Egyptian publications demanding they obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication, including “any topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces.” The Committee to Protect Journalists described it as “the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”
Over the past four months, several journalists have been brought before the military prosecutor for interrogation after reporting on the army. In the most recent case, on June 19, Rasha Azab, a journalist with the newspaper Al Fajr, was summoned to the military prosecutor along with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Adel Hammouda. Azab was accused of “publishing false information with the potential to cause public disorder” after she penned an article detailing a meeting between the Supreme Council and activists campaigning against the widespread use of military trials against civilians. After a few hours of interrogation, she was released without bail but still faces a possible prison sentence or fine. This came on the heels of the case of Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and activist, was summoned to the military prosecutor on May 30, along with TV presenter Reem Maged, after the head of military police, General Hamdi Badeen, filed a complaint about El-Hamalawy’s comments on the private OnTV channel, in which he criticized abusive military police practices and held Badeen responsible for the torture of activists.
In the most serious case, a military court in April sentenced blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for “insulting the military” after he wrote an article criticizing the army for not being transparent in its decision-making.
State-run media is also continuing to censor dissident voices. Last week, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei said he was barred from a popular show hosted by Islamic preacher Amr Khaled and broadcast on Egyptian state TV. The Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was effectively banned from appearing on local television channels while Mubarak was in power; upon his return to Egypt in February 2010 after many years abroad, ElBaradei emerged as a leading reform advocate.
“Policy of censure and vilification continues,” ElBaradei wrote from his Twitter account after his appearance on state TV was cancelled. In response, ElBaradei’s supporters set up a Facebook page calling for a protest at the Egyptian Radio and TV Union headquarters, known locally as ‘Maspero.’
The pressure appears to have worked. Later that day, ElBaradei announced state TV had rescinded its decision and would allow him on. “I’m grateful to the youth who sent a strong message to Egyptian Television, which is financed by the people, that a revolution has taken place and freedom of expression is guaranteed for everyone,” he said.
ElBaradei isn’t the first presidential candidate to clash with state-run TV. Bothaina Kamel, a newscaster turned activist, is described as the first woman to run for president in Egypt’s history (some dispute this, pointing to the feminist and writer Nawaal El Saadawi putting her name forward for candidacy in 2005). In May, Kamel appeared on the state-run Nile Culture TV to speak about clashes in Imbaba, in which two churches were set ablaze, 15 people were killed, and over 240 injured. Midway through the live interview, management cut her off the air.
Kamel has also been kept from hosting her own TV program on the Saudi-owned Orbit network. According to the New York Times: “When she chose to do a program, following the revolution, on Hosni Mubarak’s hidden billions, station executives, expecting Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in transferring the fortune would come up, informed her a half hour before airtime that the show was not going to be broadcast. Her program has been in reruns ever since.”
Despite the crackdown, there is a burgeoning movement for press freedom in Egypt. Many of the revolutionary youth who helped lead the 18-day uprising are looking to create new, independent outlets in the post-Mubarak media landscape. The publication El Gornal recently printed its second issue, intentionally breaking Egyptian law prohibiting publishing newspapers without official permission. An independent media center called “Mosireen” (Arabic for “We insist”) has opened its offices in downtown Cairo, advocating for citizen journalism—so ubiquitous during the uprising, with protesters using cell phone cameras to document the revolution—and providing services like media training, camera rentals, filming workshops, and editing booths. Historian Khaled Fahmy is leading efforts to create a digital, accessible archive of the revolution in collaboration with Egypt’s National Archives. A new Egyptian Journalists’ Independent Syndicate has been established with the aim of defending the rights of journalists. Media advocates are also looking to reform the laws and regulations governing the traditional spaces for television and radio, to redraw the media landscape in Egypt.
“Truly independent media is going to be the only guarantee that we can really build a democratic society,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, when it come to the rights of religious minorities and the exercise of freedom of religion and when it come to social liberties and personal freedoms. We have to ensure that the media is a part of the struggle to democratize our society in parallel to our efforts the democratize the government.” In this critical transitional phase in Egypt’s history, the battle for freedom of the media is just beginning.
On February 27 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave his parliament 100 days to “reform” their sometimes totally nonfunctional ministries or face consequences, in response “to people’s demands” as he put it. Those demands have taken the form of some of the least noted events of the Arab Spring: large mobilizations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, mass acts of civil disobedience and a general strike in Mosul, and the resignations of several governors all over Iraq, including two Basra governors. The Iraqi state has responded violently; with curfews, live ammunition, and wide scale arrests (signaled by Iraqis calling March 18th, “The Friday of Prisoners.”) That deadline ended June 7th, and many Iraqi civil society leaders are preparing for renewed protests this summer, calling June 10th, the “Friday of Resolution and Departure.” One such organizer is Baghdad-based Uday al-Zaidi, leader of an organization called “The Popular Movement to Save Iraq” and the brother of journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who gained renown for throwing his shoes at then president George Bush.
The past three months have also seen a large shift in al-Maliki’s position on the presence of US troops in Iraq, from insisting on their scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011, to allowing for the possibility of singing a new agreement extending their stay after “a national referendum.” Iraqis have been discussing at length what they see as this double crisis of legitimacy of the present Iraqi government: an utter lack of ability or interest in providing the most basic of services, and obedience to both a deeply unpopular military occupation as well as regional forces. Grassroots organizers meanwhile have seen this as an opening to make their protests really have an impact. In the following interview, Uday discusses his brothers, what he thinks has been driving these protests, who is participating, as well as the most prominent demands. The interview was conducted and translated by Ali Issa on May 25th, and was edited and produced by Joyce Wagner.
(For more on organizing in Iraq, see http://iraqleft.wordpress.com/
It was a vivid autumn evening. Americans were still grieving from the stun of 9/11, and the only entity that dared punctuate the eerily quiet streets of New York were the lurid faces of the missing, plastered across a thousand white pages on everything that could still stand in lower Manhattan. It was under this tense and mournful atmosphere that first lady, Laura Bush, took to the airwaves. It would be the first solitary address of any president’s wife in U.S. history, and Mrs. Bush would use her airtime to bolster her husband’s military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom. Just six weeks after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush spoke with confidence and pride as she described the rejoicing felt across Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. ?Nearly a decade has passed since Mrs. Bush’s address. The military campaign Bush began in 2001 has become known as the War on Terror. Americans have long learned to swallow the irritating truth that the corporate media assisted the political elites of this country in financing its military aspirations by capitalizing on the deep grief of September 11th. And what of those fatuous geographical alignments of “evil” so prudently crafted in order to solidify American resolve for Iraq? Well, they’ve shifted to Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. But so has global solicitude, once ardently vigiling with slogans declaring “we are all Americans,” now shrinks and scowls embarrassed it was inveigled into believing “Enduring Freedom” meant something other than torture, bombing and occupation.
Of all the stories culled into existence in order to facilitate mass compliance and participation in the War on Terror, none has been as politically potent as Mrs. Bush’s initial November appeal. Her call dared all decent people of the world to join the US and its allies in freeing the women of Afghanistan from the “brutal terrorism” of Islamic fundamentalism. Almost ten years later this explanation continues to oblige the US government’s ‘feminist’ agenda in South Asia. Even Time Magazine weighed in with its July 2010 headline, What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan. Notice the punctuation, and picture a melancholic young Afghan woman, wrapped in a purple veil, her black hair framing her warm brown skin, her nose (according the article inside) savagely cut off by the Taliban.
Unfortunately for the young woman, and the millions like her in Afghanistan, the War on Terror has spiraled into a war of terror. And even those of us who smelled the dire stench of imperialism before a single boot fell to the ground in Afghanistan are nevertheless perplexed by why it goes on into perpetuity.
“Moral arguments do not work,” an old professor of mine stated emphatically when I posed the question to him of how we were going to end the wars. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a long, penetrating silence, then, “perhaps you, my dear, should write.” He slinks away to call for another drink, and I dare myself not to feel semantically ill-equipped to stop the hemorrhaging of innocent people caught in the cross hairs of a world gone mad on war.
Brushing aside my insecurities, I am resolved to address the contention that this war is a necessary step in liberating the women of Afghanistan. Despite Laura Bush’s optimism, I don’t believe the War on Terror has made anyone safer, not least the women of Afghanistan.
I contest Mrs. Bush’s assertion by taking notice of the dynamics of modern Afghanistan that make her promise entirely problematic. You see, firstly I am unconvinced that the majority of Afghans have much access to sources of international news. A recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development found that nearly 92% of men (women were not polled) in Qandahar and Helmund provinces knew nothing of the September 11th attacks. Further, they reported that nearly 40% of all those surveyed believe the war is being waged to “destroy Islam” and others, Afghanistan itself. If after ten years a majority of Afghanis from the most war-torn areas remain unaware of the US’s principle argument for the war, I cannot say that the 2001 invasion held significant political meaning for the majority of Afghan women.
Beyond this, Afghanistan is a country where the majority of its citizens, nearly 78% according to a 2008 UNICEF report, live in the provinces. This also means that a majority of Afghanis have extremely limited access to civil infrastructure like electricity, running water, roads or means for transportation. Poverty rates are among the highest in the world, and literacy among the lowest. In the case of women, statistics find that only 12.6% are literate, most of them residing in Kabul and Herat. Several surveys do demonstrate an increase in enrollment of girls in secondary schools in Kabul in comparison to ten years ago. They also find that provinces not involved in the heaviest fighting report improvements for women when it comes to freedom of movement outside the home. Still, many claim that these changes are only cosmetic, and that conditions for women have either stayed the same as they were under the Taliban, or have worsened as a direct result of insecurities caused by war.
This past November, twenty-nine non-government organizations in Afghanistan submitted a briefing to the NATO Heads of Government Summit at Lisbon. The briefing entitled Nowhere to Turn described the conditions under which most Afghanis were living and described the security situation within the country as “rapidly deteriorating.” The report also chronicles three major concerns the NGOs deem major factors causing insecurity: a marked increase in night-raids conducted by US Special Operations Forces, a failed counterinsurgency campaign that looks increasingly unable to prevent a civil war, and widely circulated accounts of the US going around the Karzai government and financing and arming any opposition group claiming to be fighting the Taliban.
In a situation where living is far from assured, liberation is unthinkable.
Laura Bush’s contention that Afghan women have benefited from the ‘liberation’ brought to them by the US military is problematic because it isn’t backed up by conditions “on the ground” in Afghanistan. But there are several other more insidious issues raised by the U.S. governmental and mainstream media propagation of this notion. The narrative about ‘freeing’ Afghan women only became politically expedient when the aim of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda proved harder to do than anticipated. So the Bush Administration asked Laura to polish off that erstwhile story of the savage East in need of an altruistic West, and they cleverly reinvented orientalism in the guise of “the woman question.” Though emotionally manipulative and strongly lacking in historical credibility (the US financed militia groups throughout the 1970’s and 80’s when it was more advantageous to beat the Soviets than to rally for women) the narrative has become one of the most widely used justifications for continued occupation. Whilst there is no novelty in inculcating historical amnesia at politically opportune occasions, neither are these narratives about ‘East’ and ‘West’ impervious.
As we approach a decade of war in Afghanistan we must confront not only the material conditions that make structural improvements in Afghanistan unlikely, but also those narratives that allow continued support for the status quo. For me this confrontation is best expressed in the crucial debates about strategies for resistance.
Many post-colonial theorists contend that discursive change must be a precondition for structural transformation. In other words a process of decolonization necessitates not only the transformation of the political and economic apparatus of colonialism, but also its legitimizing narratives. I see this issue of freeing the women in Afghanistan through war as nothing more than a narrative used to legitimize the apparatus of imperialism, and unfortunately it is not only the political elites who are recycling this story.
There was a great and sobering opportunity, following the September 11th attacks, for all those “meaning makers” (journalists, academics, artists, etc.) to seriously contend with the ideology of American exceptionalism that has kept much of the US public naïve about the injurious role US foreign policy has played in the world. Instead public discourse was concentrated on futile questions like, “why do they hate us?” and determined that the principle issue between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ were civilizational in nature – i.e. Samuel Huntingdon’s foolish “clash of civilizations” theory. Thus, it is no surprise that many people were persuaded that the U.S. must help the abject Muslim women in need of liberation. Notice the refusal by many leftists to critically reflect on the perils of bestowing cultural icons (e.g., the veiled Muslim woman) on serpentine historical and political realities.
Rather than seeking to ‘save’ the women of Afghanistan, with the superiority it implies and violence it affects, solidarity activists can critically engage by making a concerted effort to recognize their own responsibility to address the injustices that forcefully shape the world in which we live. Critical engagement also involves struggling to understand and manage cultural differences. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod specifies actions we can take , “What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts…that shape their desires and understanding of the world… I do not know how many feminists who felt good about saving Afghan women from the Taliban are also asking for a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that [other] women could have some chance of having what I do believe should be a universal human right – the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday right to having enough to eat, having homes for their families…have the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good live, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized.”
For me the issue of what constitutes ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ is something subject to historical context, and must be understood in the light of capacities and desires specific to the community in which one lives. If we wish to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from disembodiment and violence, what vision of life after liberation are we asking them to be liberated to? Nowhere on the planet have we yet been able to significantly challenge the male-centric social system of patriarchy that is at the heart of disparate power relations between the genders. Not in Afghanistan, and not here at home.
Similarly war and occupation have been the defining features between our society and Afghanistan. This unfortunate reality can also be the impetus for a commonality of purpose between our societies – either we all work to end the war or none of us will survive to benefit from liberation.