from The Nation
by Noura Erakat
Israel has killed almost 800 Palestinians in the past twenty-one days in the Gaza Strip alone; its onslaught continues. The UN estimates that more than 74 percent of those killed are civilians. That is to be expected in a population of 1.8 million where the number of Hamas members is approximately 15,000. Israel does not deny that it killed those Palestinians using modern aerial technology and precise weaponry courtesy of the world’s only superpower. In fact, it does not even deny that they are civilians. Continue reading
from the Electronic Intifada
by Ali Abunimah
from the Electronic Intifada
As academics, public figures and activists witnessing the intended genocide of 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, we call for a ceasefire with Israel only if conditioned on an end to the blockade and the restoration of basic freedoms that have been denied to the people for more than seven years.
Our foremost concerns are not only the health and safety of the people in our communities, but also the quality of their lives – their ability to live free of fear of imprisonment without due process, to support their families through gainful employment, and to travel to visit their relatives and further their education.
These are fundamental human aspirations that have been severely limited for the Palestinian people for more than 47 years, but that have been particularly deprived from residents of Gaza since 2007. We have been pushed beyond the limits of what a normal person can be expected to endure.
A living death
Charges in the media and by politicians of various stripes that accuse Hamas of ordering Gaza residents to resist evacuation orders, and thus use them as human shields, are untrue. With temporary shelters full and the indiscriminate Israeli shelling, there is literally no place that is safe in Gaza.
Likewise, Hamas represented the sentiment of the vast majority of residents when it rejected the unilateral ceasefire proposed by Egypt and Israel without consulting anyone in Gaza. We share the broadly held public sentiment that it is unacceptable to merely return to the status quo – in which Israel strictly limits travel in and out of the Gaza Strip, controls the supplies that come in (including a ban on most construction materials), and prohibits virtually all exports, thus crippling the economy and triggering one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the Arab world.
To do so would mean a return to a living death.
Unfortunately, past experience has shown that the Israeli government repeatedly reneges on promises for further negotiations, as well as on its commitments to reform.
Likewise, the international community has demonstrated no political will to enforce these pledges. Therefore, we call for a ceasefire only when negotiated conditions result in the following:
- Freedom of movement of Palestinians in and out of the Gaza Strip.
- Unlimited import and export of supplies and goods, including by land, sea and air.
- Unrestricted use of the Gaza seaport.
- Monitoring and enforcement of these agreements by a body appointed by the United Nations, with appropriate security measures.
Each of these expectations is taken for granted by most countries, and it is time for the Palestinians of Gaza to be accorded the human rights they deserve.
- Akram Habeeb, Assistant Professor of American Literature, Islamic University of Gaza (IUG)
- Mona El-Farra, Vice President and Health Chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society
- Ramy Abdu PhD, Chairman of the Euro-mid Observer
- Abdullah Alsaafin, Palestinian Writer/journalist
- Ali Alnazli, Businessman
- Adel Awadallah, Head of the Scientific Research Council
- Hanine Hassan, Graduate Research Assistant
- Sheren Awad, Journalist
- Yahia Al-Sarraj, Associate Professor of Transportation, IUG
- Tawfik Abu Shomar, Writer and political analyst
- Hasan Owda, Businessman
- Ibrahim AlYazji, Businessman
- Walid Al Husari, Chair, Gaza Chamber of Commerce
- Nael Almasri, Dentist
- Wael El-Mabhouh, Political researcher
- Rami Jundi, Political researcher
- Ashraf Mashharawi, Filmmaker
- Mohammad Alsawaf, Journalist
- Hasan Abdo, Writer and political analyst
- Kamal El Shaer, Political researcher
- Omar Ferwana, Dean of Medicine Faculty, IUG
- Iyad I. Al-Qarra, Journalist, Palestine newspaper
- Musheir El-Farra, Palestinian activist and author
- Khalil Namrouti, Associate Professor in Economics, IUG
- Moein Rajab, Professor in Economics, Al-Azhar University – Gaza
- Basil Nasser, Planning advisor
- Hani Albasoos, Associate Professor in Political Science, IUG
- Arafat Hilles, Assistant Professor, Al-Quds Open University
- Imad Falouji, Head of Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations
- Moin Naim, Writer and political analyst
- Yousri Alghoul, Author
- Mohammad Jayyab, Editor of Gaza Journal of Economics
- Mousa Lubbad, Lecturer in Finance, Al-Aqsa University
- Iskandar Nashwan, Assistant Professor in Accounting, Al-Aqsa University
- Shadi AlBarqouni, Graduate Research Assistant
- Adnan Abu Amer, Head of Political Department, Al-Umma University
- Wael Al Sarraj, Assistant Professor in Computer Science, IUG
- Said Namrouti, Lecturer in Human Resource Management, IUG
- Khaled Al-Hallaq, Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering, IUG
- Asad Asad, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs, IUG
- Hazem Alhusari, Lecturer in Finance, Al-Aqsa University
- Shadi AlBarqouni, Graduate Research Assistant
- Deya’a Kahlout, Journalist, Al-Araby newspaper
- Raed Salha, Assistant Professor in Geography, IUG
- Sameeh Alhadad, Businessman
- Tarek M. Eslim, CEO, Altariq Systems and Projects
- Sami Almalfouh PhD, Senior engineer
- Fayed Abushammalah, Journalist
- Fadel Naeim, Chairman of Palestine Physicians Syndicate
- Zeyad Al-Sahhar, Associate Professor in Physics , Al-Aqsa University
- Iyad Abu Hjayer, Director, Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution
- Wael Al-Daya, Associate Professor in Finance, IUG
- Younis Eljarou, Head of the Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip
- Donia ElAmal Ismail, Head of the Creative Women Association
- Zeinab Alghonemi, Head of Women for Legal Consulting Association
- Amjad AlShawa, Palestinian Nongovernmental Organizations Network (PNGO)
- Mohsen Abo Ramadan, Head of Palestinian Nongovernmental Organziations Network (PNGO)
- Abed Alhameed Mortaja, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, IUG
- Talal Abo Shawesh , Head of Afaq Jadeeda Association
- Zohair Barzaq, Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip
- Marwan Alsabh, Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip
- Ghassan Matar, Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip
- Rania Lozon, Writer
- Ashraf Saqer, IT Specialist
- Samir AlMishal, Mishal Cultural Centre
- Jamila Sarhan, Independant Commission for Human Rights
- Jalal Arafat, Union of Agricultrual Work Committees
- Khalil Abu Shammala, Addameer for Human Rights
- Jamila Dalloul, Association Head of Jothor ElZaiton
- Maha Abo Zour, Psychologist
- Psychologist Ferdous Alkatari
- Yousef Awadallah, Health Work Committee
- Yousef Alswaiti, Al-Awda Hospital Director
- Taysir Alsoltan, Head of Health Work Committees
- Taghreed Jomaa, Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees
- Imad Ifranji, Journalist, Alquds TV
- Jehal Alaklouk, Activist
- Adel Alborbar, Boycott Committee
- Hatem AbuShaban, Board of Trustees of Al-Azhar University – Gaza
- Saleh Zaqout, Secretary of the Red Crescent Society for the Gaza Strip
- Mohammed Alsaqqa, Lawyer
- Nihad Alsheikh Khalil, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, IUG
- Mohsen Alafranji, Lecturer at Media Department, IUG
- Nedal Farid, Dean of Business Faculty, Al-Aqsa University
- Salem Helles, Dean of Commerce Faculty, IUG
- Ahmad Ali PhD, Economic Analysis
- Raed M. Zourob PhD, Head of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Ministry of Health
- Mosheer Amer, Professor of Lingusitics, IUG
- Moheeb Abu Alqumboz, Lecturer
- Fatma Mukhalalati, Supreme Court judge
- Fahmi Alnajjar, Supreme Court judge
by Anand Gopal
Abu Malek was pacing back and forth in the hospital parking lot, muttering to himself and firing off phone calls. “Don’t say ‘How are you’ to me,” he told one caller, “because I am not fine, I am very, very, very, very bad.” The hospital was in the Turkish town of Antakya, and the staff was treating several rebels who had been wounded in the fighting across the border in Syria, about ten miles away. The Syrian army was in the midst of a major offensive, sweeping through one northern town after another with tanks and heavy artillery, trying to kill as many rebel fighters as possible before April 12, when a ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan would go into effect. The revolution had been grinding on for more than a year, and as many as 10,000 people had died already.
From Turkey, Malek had followed events closely and stayed in contact with his family in the northern town of Taftanaz. (Malek’s name and those of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.) Soon after he learned that the army had surrounded Taftanaz, phone lines were cut, so he sent a friend to retrieve his family. The friend returned with the news that Malek’s mother was missing, his cousins were missing, and his house had been razed.
The government had lost control of Taftanaz near the start of the revolution, and an intricate system of popularly elected councils called tansiqiyyat had been created over the past year—“like miniparliaments, a government for us,” as Malek put it. He had been chosen to represent Taftanaz in Turkey, where he raised funds and cultivated contacts with the international community. He was proud of the rebel councils—they were proof that Syria did not need President Bashar al-Assad—but he worried that the other council members had been captured or killed.
Malek agreed to help me get to Taftanaz, but he demanded information in return: “I want to know if my family survived—and I want to know if my revolution survived.”
Traveling with me from the Turkish border to Taftanaz was Wassim Omar, an acquaintance of Malek’s whom I would see several times during the week I spent in Syria. He had access to a network of revolutionaries along the way, almost all of them friends he had made during the uprising. Our driver avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads; with the mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.
Omar had been studying Arabic literature at Aleppo University before the revolution began. Now he traveled between Turkey and Syria often, smuggling rebel propaganda and supplies. This was his first trip back over the border since reports of the army’s campaign in Taftanaz had reached Antakya.
The roads were empty, and in the tiny mountain towns the shops stood shuttered and padlocked. The rebels once maintained checkpoints openly in daylight, but now they confined their activity to the nighttime. “If you could have seen this place before the fighting,” Omar told me. “It was alive.”
We had yet to come across any villages touched by violence. But then, as we pulled into the town of Killi, about ten miles south of the border, we saw a multistory granite house with a collapsed roof, yawning holes in its façade, and rubble everywhere. Omar gasped.
According to locals, Syrian aircraft had circled overhead for days, taking reconnaissance photos as almost all civilians and rebels fled the village. Then, on April 6—four days before we arrived—tanks came and fired from close range at this house and more than a dozen others. Soldiers had a list of those who had gone to protests or were involved in the rebel movement, and they went from house to house hunting them. Because most of the townspeople had left, however, there were very few arrests or casualties.
On the outskirts of Killi, I found one of those who had stayed behind. Nizar Abdo lived in a housing complex built around a central courtyard. When the soldiers arrived, Abdo hid in a neighbor’s house. He watched through the shutters as a tank wheeled in front of his property, took aim, and fired. Afterward soldiers bulldozed the remains.
Standing where his house had once been, Abdo admitted that he had attended a few protests during the start of the revolution. He said he had never been political; more basic frustrations drove him: “You have to pay money to get a job, otherwise the government won’t help. . . . You have to pay bribes.”
Now homeless, he was unsure where he would go. But, embittered as he was, he still tried to see an upside. “At least,” he said, “we aren’t Taftanaz.”
The 15,000 residents of Taftanaz are mostly farmers and traders: rows of olive trees stretch outward in every direction, although in recent years drought has browned patches of them. The town is typical of northern Syria; there are dozens like it nearby, an archipelago of villages known for their Babylonian cuneiform tablets and preserved sections of Roman road. Life there is slow, conservative, and pious.
Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria has been ruled by an alliance between Assad’s mainly Alawite military and wealthy Sunni businessmen from the cities. The government provides food subsidies, jobs programs, and funds for rural development for the people of places like Taftanaz, but in return demands absolute fealty. Businesses favored by the regime win no-bid and below-market contracts, creating what Syria scholar Bassam Haddad called “a crony capitalist state par excellence.”
When Bashar al-Assad became president after his father’s death in 2000, he tried to liberalize the country’s economy. The government eased price controls on basic goods like fertilizer and animal feed. It reduced subsidies to the oil sector, leading to a 42 percent jump in the price of fuel. Meanwhile, a vicious drought dried up the countryside, prompting thousands to flee to provincial towns like Homs and Idlib, or to smaller communities like Taftanaz, which did not have the capacity to absorb the influx.
“There were no jobs, and if you found one, you had to see the mukhabarat,” the secret police, for permission to work, Omar said. “If you wanted to buy a house or travel outside the country, you needed to see them.” Office workers moonlighted as cab drivers. Farmers doubled as scrap dealers. In every corner of society, but especially in the countryside, the social contract holding the Assad regime together was failing.
On March 6, 2011, a group of adolescent boys, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, painted antigovernment graffiti on walls in the desert town of Daraa. After word spread that the boys had been arrested, Daraa’s streets filled with protesters. In Binnish, a few miles down the highway from Taftanaz, Omar and his friends watched the news in amazement. Later that week, fifteen of them gathered late at night at a mosque to plan a protest, making signs with anti-regime slogans.
The following day, they stepped into the town’s main square for the first protest of their lives. Omar was terrified: he knew the price of his actions would be imprisonment, and that the regime could target his family. But, to his surprise, the people of Binnish joined in. They came from all over town, shouting, “Daraa, we are with you! We in Binnish are with you!”
By April 2011, demonstrations were popping up all across the country. The Syrian army tried to cut them down, firing on and killing scores of civilians, only to inspire further protests. The mukhabarat, meanwhile, targeted the core activists in each town. One afternoon, agents showed up at Omar’s door. “They treated me like a toy, throwing me here and there,” he recalled. He said he was kept in captivity for two months, frequently strapped to a gurney, electrocuted, and beaten. A general finally released Omar after he promised to stay away from politics. When he left prison, he went straight to a demonstration.
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian elite remained glued together in the face of the protests. But the conscript army started to buckle, and some soldiers found they could not fire on their countrymen. I had met one of them in Turkey, a twenty-seven-year-old named Abdullah Awdeh. He was serving in the elite 11th Armored Division, which put down protests around the country, when one day he was directed to confront demonstrators near Homs. Their commander said that the protesters were armed terrorists, but when Awdeh arrived he saw only men and women with their families: boys perched atop their fathers’ shoulders, girls with their faces painted in the colors of the Syrian flag, mothers waving banners. He decided to desert.
By June 2011, there were hundreds like him; nearly every day, another uniformed soldier faced a camera, held up his military identity card, and professed support for the revolution for the entire world to see on YouTube. These deserters joined what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army. (When I met some of them just after I crossed the border, they told me, “Welcome to Free Syria.”) Awdeh, with his aviator sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana jeans, assumed command of a group of nearly a hundred fighters.
Many activists worried about the militarization of the conflict, which pulled peaceful protesters into a confrontation with a powerful army that they could not defeat. But in small towns like Taftanaz, where government soldiers had repeatedly put down demonstrations with gunfire and thrown activists in prison, desperation trumped long-term strategy. Abu Malek likened the actions of the rebels to those of a mother: “She may seem innocent, but try to take away her children and how will she act? Like a criminal animal. That’s what we are being reduced to, in order to defend our families and our villages.”
In Taftanaz, fighters from the FSA started protecting demonstrations, quietly standing in the back and watching for mukhabarat. For the first time, the balance of power shifted in favor of the revolution, so much so that government forces could no longer operate openly. Party officials and secret agents vanished, leaving the town to govern itself.
This created new problems: courts stopped working, trash piled high on the streets, and the police stayed home. To fill the vacuum, citizens came together to elect councils—farmers formed their own, as did merchants, laborers, teachers, students, health-care workers, judges, engineers, and the unemployed. In some cases, the councils merged with pre-existing activist networks called local coordinating committees. They in turn chose delegates to sit on a citywide council, which in Taftanaz and surrounding towns was the only form of government the citizenry recognized.
Syrian authorities repeatedly sent tanks in to Taftanaz and neighboring villages, targeting the new council members. After every intrusion, the rebels would reassemble. But on April 3, the Syrian forces returned to Taftanaz, this time to end the insurgency there once and for all.
When I reached Taftanaz on April 9, the air in the town stank of manure, hay, and gunpowder. The smell of smoke grew more powerful near houses, and once inside you found your eyes watering and your throat burning. Many of the locals who were left had taken to wearing surgical masks.
Every fourth or fifth house was completely destroyed; many of those still standing had black streaks climbing outward from the window frames. Boys were scrubbing graffiti off the walls: ASSAD, OR THE COUNTRY BURNS, signed by THE ASSAD DEATH BRIGADE 76.
For three days I explored the gutted town, speaking to everyone I could about the battle. I spent my nights in a neighboring village—government soldiers conducted raids in the evening—but each day I returned to learn more.
On the first day, I sought out Abu Malek’s relatives—almost everyone knew him—and found Abdullah Rami, a young man with sunken cheeks and a hard stare. He had been a university student, but “the revolution makes choices for you,” he said, and now he was a rebel sniper. He described for me what had happened on April 3.
It began early in the morning, when helicopters appeared above Taftanaz and fired into the town center. Then, around 7:00 A.M., the mortars started. (A farmer named Muhammad Abdul Haseeb was at home at the time. “I got all the children and women together and ran out,” he told me later. “One of the shells dropped really close by, but I couldn’t see where it hit. Later I learned that it killed my brother.”)
Most of the residents escaped. By around 9:00 A.M., tanks had arrived at the outskirts of town, and they shot at anything that moved. A plump forty-six-year-old man named Massous had loaded dozens of relatives into his truck and was about to turn onto the main highway when he saw a tank about a thousand feet away. It fired and hit his truck, killing his father and mother and injuring his ten-year-old daughter.
Around the same time, nearly a hundred men gathered inside a house near the town’s center to decide whether to retreat, as rebels elsewhere had done, or stay and fight. A few dozen chose the former, but most stayed. “We didn’t want to end up like other cities, crawling back after the army leaves,” Rami said. “Our neighbors needed something to believe in.”
As the army shelled the town, the men spread throughout the warren of low-slung concrete buildings, onto rooftops, into homes, and through alleyways. Rami went to the main road through town and helped bury I.E.D.’s, most of them assembled in Turkey and smuggled into the country, and rebels hid nearby with the detonators.
Around noon, a tank approached the building where Rami was hiding. A second pulled up alongside it and swung its turret slowly around. Then Rami heard a deafening boom and saw the tank pop up in the air—an I.E.D. explosion, which he had captured on video and later showed off proudly. After a few minutes, the second tank was also struck as it tried to retreat.
Across town, another rebel group was in a firefight, and Rami could hear the reports from their Kalashnikovs. The rebels used civilian houses as cover and, at one point, trapped soldiers in an alleyway and shot them all.
By late afternoon, though, the advantage had shifted to the army. Soldiers left their tanks to circumvent the I.E.D.’s and fought their way to the center of town. They surrounded a house full of rebels, a few of whom climbed to the roof to signal surrender. The troops responded with heavy fire, killing almost everyone inside and out.
By sunset, soldiers returned to their tanks or were billeted in homes (both sides, lacking night-vision goggles, avoided fighting after dark). The rebels regrouped in a house on the town’s edge. There Rami learned that his brother had been killed.
A short while later, his mother sent word to him that soldiers had found the shelter where Taftanaz’s women were hiding. They threatened to take revenge on the women if the fight continued. Dejected and cornered, the men voted to retreat. By sunrise, there were no rebels left.
Saleh Ghazal, a member of Taftanaz’s large Ghazal clan, was a stubborn man. After a sniper’s bullet struck his grandson Muhammad, a medical volunteer who had tended to wounded fighters, his family decided to flee. But the old man insisted on staying behind. He would mourn in his own way, he said, in the home he had grown old in, in the town his grandson had died for. And besides, he figured, the army would have no interest in an eighty-two-year-old.
On the morning of April 4, soldiers from the 76th Armored Brigade returned to town. They came with officials from the Military Intelligence Directorate and armed Alawite civilians referred to as shabeeha. When soldiers burst through Saleh Ghazal’s front door, he hid upstairs in his bedroom. They raced from room to room, shouting out the names of his family members, loudly enough for neighbors to hear. When they found Ghazal, they shot him, then lit his corpse on fire. As it burned, they went downstairs and wrote a message on the wall in silver paint: NOBODY CONTROLS SYRIA EXCEPT BASHAR. Then they doused the floors with gasoline and set the place ablaze.
The soldiers visited every house in the neighborhood. As they neared Mustafa Ahmed Ahad’s place, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Soldiers ransacked the house and set it on fire. A few days later, Mustafa’s eighty-seven-year-old father, Ahmed, returned to find his house a pile of blackened rubble and his son missing. Eventually he found Mustafa’s charred remains buried under slabs of fallen concrete. “He was poor, he was a worker,” the elder Ahad said. “He was a grandfather, he didn’t go to demonstrations.”
A large number of women, the elderly, and aid workers had taken refuge in the basement of Rahim Ghazal’s centrally located home. “They broke into the house and found the door to the basement,” one of the women told me. “The gunmen ordered everyone upstairs and took the men with them for questioning. They ordered us to go back downstairs, and then we heard gunfire.”
Government forces dragged nine men and boys outside, lined them up against a wall, and executed them. The soldiers came back to the basement and selected five additional men, then took them to a nearby shop, where they were lined up and executed. Two volunteers for the Red Crescent were shot in the yard outside Ghazal’s house. By the time Syrian troops left that evening, there was not much left of Taftanaz. In each house, the story was the same: any male who was found was summarily executed, and his house was burned.
At least forty-nine civilians were killed in the massacre, and nearly 500 houses were destroyed. On my second day in town, I saw a crowd of wailing women surrounding a pickup truck. In the back, flies swarmed around a tar-black decomposing body. The missing flesh above the mandibles exposed what looked to be a set of gold teeth. A group of men pushed a teenage girl toward the truck; upon seeing the teeth, she crumpled with a shriek of recognition. It was Jamil Setoot, an office worker who had been heading to his job in Aleppo on the morning of April 3. As he waited by the highway for a taxi, soldiers were moving into Taftanaz. They shot him and tossed him into a field, then killed the cows and sheep in the area for good measure. When the property’s owner returned days later he found Setoot’s body lying among the animal carcasses.
I went to Abu Malek’s home and found that it, too, had been burned to the ground. After relatives cleared the rubble, they found a body too badly disfigured to identify. They added it and about thirty others to a mass grave on the town’s edge. Many of the tombstones there mark the remains of Malek’s relatives. At some point during the killing, locals watched as a Syrian soldier refused to carry out an order and was executed. They retrieved his body later and interred him in the mass grave, marking his tombstone simply as SOLDIER.
A second mass grave sat on the opposite side of town, where more corpses are buried, rebels alongside civilians. Next to it, a large hole had been dug. A little boy was playing nearby, and when he saw me peering into the hole, he pointed to it and said, “For when they come back.”
Ibrahim Matar served in the army unit that put down the early protests in Daraa. He didn’t believe the government’s assertions that the protests were organized by Al Qaeda, but he felt it was too dangerous to desert. When he finished his service, in November 2011, he came home to a transformed Taftanaz: ordinary people were running the town. “It was like a renaissance,” he said, “a new look at life.”
During the massacre, he fought alongside the rebels and then abandoned the town at night. When he returned to his scorched home, he headed straight for his prized library. “I saw the burned paper,” he told me, “and tears came to my eyes.” He had been studying for a master’s degree in English translation and had maintained the library for years, collecting books by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. “Some say Godot is God,” he said, “but I say he is hope. Our revolution is now waiting for Godot.”
Matar brought me to a mosque that sits next to one of the mass graves. Inside, there were heaps of clothes, boxes of Turkish biscuits, and crates of bottled water. An old bald man with a walrus mustache studied a ledger with intensity while a group of old men around him argued about how much charity they could demand from Taftanaz’s rich to rebuild the town. This was the public-affairs committee, one of the village’s revolutionary councils. The mustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.” He turned to me and explained, “We’ve gone to every house in town and determined what they need”—he pointed at the ledger—“and compared it with what donations come in. Everything gets recorded and can be seen by the public.”
All around Taftanaz, amid the destruction, rebel councils like this were meeting—twenty-seven in all, and each of them had elected a delegate to sit on the citywide council. They were a sign of a deeper transformation that the revolution had wrought in Syria: Bashar al-Assad once subdued small towns like these with an impressive apparatus of secret police, party hacks, and yes-men; now such control was impossible without an occupation. The Syrian army, however, lacked the numbers to control the hinterlands—it entered, fought, and moved on to the next target. There could be no return to the status quo, it seemed, even if the way forward was unclear.
In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”
It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.
“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)
Most opposition towns elect a delegate to one of the fifty or so district-wide councils across the country. At the next level up is the Syrian Revolution General Command, the closest thing to a nationwide revolutionary institution. It claims to represent 70 percent of the district-wide councils. The SRGC coordinates protests and occasionally gives the movement political direction: activists in Taftanaz told me that they sometimes followed its suggestions concerning their publications.
The SRGC sends representatives to the Syrian National Council, the expatriate body based in Turkey that has been Washington’s main interlocutor, but the relationship between the two organizations is complicated, and many in Taftanaz expressed their disdain for the SNC. “Who are they?” Omar asked me. “What have they done? They are busy talking to foreigners but they don’t know the situation inside Syria.”
I asked Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst who studies the Syrian opposition at the Institute for the Study of War, about the U.S. approach to these two different rebel organizations. She said she doubted the usefulness of “supporting a group like the SNC, which on paper pays tribute to all the Western ideals we hold dear but has absolutely no legitimacy on the ground.”
Washington officials, however, have said they prefer to deal with known quantities like the SNC rather than the grassroots opposition, which operates deep inside the country and whose leaders usually stay anonymous to stay alive. To complicate matters, some towns have competing councils. The various bodies have only recently begun to formalize their vision of a post-Assad society, even if their constituent elements are already carrying this vision out in practice.
The village of al-Fua runs right up against Binnish. The two look almost indistinguishable—the same shabby buildings, the same patches of drying olive groves. But whereas Binnish is a town mobilized from top to bottom in support of the revolution, al-Fua is a Shia village, a rarity in the swath of Sunni countryside around Taftanaz, and its residents support Assad’s government.
Many Sunnis see the Shia and Shia Alawites as inseparable from the regime; the Shia and Alawites, for their part, fear Sunni reprisals. Revolutionaries in Binnish told me that their town had escaped the army’s northern offensive because they promised to massacre al-Fua if they were touched. Even Matar, with his talk of the French Revolution and equality, told me, “I have relations with everyone, with Christians, with Druze, with all kinds of people—but not with Shia.”
Liberal activists from Syria’s cities are dismayed at this divide, but theirs is a revolt so different from that of the conservative countryside that they seem, at times, like two different uprisings stitched together. The revolutionaries have failed to make significant headway in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, where, despite a few recent bombings, the alliance of the industrialist aristocracy and the Assad security apparatus remains firmly in place, and where the well-heeled see the countryside awash in chaos (a Bloomberg headline from April read: “Syria Elite Dance to Dawn as Risk of Assad Collapse Fades”).
Rebels in rural communities have been pulled deep into asymmetric warfare, which has opened the uprising to more radical influences. Omar told me that Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who have operated underground for years, have openly joined the revolt in Binnish, although “they keep to themselves.”
On the way back to the border, our driver celebrated the Sunni fighters and sang songs poking fun at the Shia, Iran, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Omar had arranged for his comrades to take me back to Turkey while he stayed on in Binnish to prepare the next issue of Revolutionary Words. Darkness had fallen, the army offensive had given way to a shaky ceasefire, and rebels thought they had the roads to themselves. But when we approached a checkpoint, it wasn’t clear whether it was controlled by rebels, by the army, or by the Alawite shabeeha. The driver swerved abruptly onto the shoulder and sent one of the passengers into a nearby village to fetch another vehicle, which carried me onward via side roads while the first car headed through the checkpoint as a decoy.
We reached the border just after dawn. I ran across a field with a Syrian refugee family at my side, heading toward a barbed-wire fence. We found a gap and crawled through to Turkey.
When I handed Abu Malek my notebook filled with the names of the Taftanaz dead, he fell silent. After a while, he said, “I feel like I am about to burst.” He pointed to the names: “He was just a teacher; he had a small piece of land, that’s all; I had spoken to him just last week.” Nineteen members of Malek’s family had been killed.
Later that day, another relative from Taftanaz made it across the border to report that seven more bodies had been found, some of them apparently executed in a lineup. “Before, I just wanted to kill Bashar al-Assad,” Malek said. “But now I must kill all of his family.”
Had it been wise for the guerrillas to try to defend Taftanaz rather than retreat, as they had in other towns? It was a question that Malek said Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, had put to him at their headquarters in a Turkish border camp. “I shouted at him, ‘Who are you to ask me anything?’ ” Malek recalled. “ ‘You sit here and eat and sleep and talk to the media! We’re inside, we aren’t cowards like you.’ ”
Malek called the Free Syrian Army a “fiction” meant to give Western governments an impression of unity. When I asked Ibrahim Matar’s commander in Taftanaz about the FSA leadership, he answered, “If I ever see those dogs here I’ll shoot them myself.” The Turkey-based commanders exert no control over armed rebel groups on the inside; each of the hundreds of insurgent battalions operate autonomously, although they often coordinate their activities.
The ceasefire barely held up for a day, and in June a U.N. official described the conflict as a civil war. In Turkey, Malek continued to raise funds and buy weapons for the Taftanaz rebels. Once, I went with him to a tiny office in a working-class section of Antakya, where he haggled with a man over the price of roadside-bomb detonators, the use of which Malek said he had learned from “a friend in another country.”
Some of the rebel groups had contacts with the United States, which was helping to coordinate the flow of money from the governments of the Gulf states. Others were developing their own patrons, a sort of privatization of the armed movement similar to what took place in Libya. Malek received a steady stream of visitors, mostly wealthy businessmen, from the Gulf. He knew that such pacts were dangerous, but he believed the exigencies of war demanded them.
Still, in Taftanaz the revolt felt intensely local. On my last afternoon there, as the muezzin’s noon call to prayer sounded, I walked through the town’s central square. It was Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Muslim world. You could feel everywhere the heavy atmosphere of defeat: the town had been reduced to heaps of rotting trash and broken concrete, and not much else. And yet after the prayers were over, men and boys left the mosques and headed toward the square. Waving the old pre-Assad Syrian flag, they chanted, “God loves the martyr! God is the greatest!”
The Syrian army’s helicopters buzzed overhead, watching. Protesters climbed atop the ruined buildings surrounding the square and waved their banners. This was the first demonstration since the massacre. Here and there in the melee men burst into tears as they saw friends and relatives for the first time. The protest was a ritual of survival, part of a revolution that seemingly can’t be won yet somehow refuses to be extinguished. On a mound of twisted metal and concrete shards that had once been a house, a group unfurled a banner that read, EVEN FROM THE RUBBLE, WE WILL FIGHT THE REGIME.
In 1988, just a year before the end of the U.S.-Russian proxy war in Afghanistan, Sher Zaman Taizi, a well-renowned Pashto writer authored The Field, a short story that laconically summarizes the past four decades of war in Afghanistan:
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.
by: Maya Mikdashi
When the revolutions began in March of 2011, I was envious. It is not easy to admit this. Back then, before the revolutions turned bloody, before Libya and Bahrain and Syria and before the continuation of a military state in Egypt, the possibilities seemed contagious. But even then, while in the fever of January, beneath a desire for revolution, I understood that I would not see a similarly broad based and successful uprising in Lebanon. Watching the swell of people in Tahrir Square on television, I was envious of the memories they would have of that moment. Where were you the night Mubarak was finally overthrown? What were you doing when Ben Ali finally boarded that plane? These “lightbulb memories,” translated into Lebanese, usually refer to political assassinations, invasions, and outbreaks of civil violence. Watching a million people celebrate in Cairo, I understood that we in Lebanon can never emulate the Tunisians or the Egyptians for two interlinked reasons: (1) the Lebanese state is not authoritarian or brutal; and (2) instead of coalescing against a common enemy, Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future. These different pasts, each inviting a different desire for the future, are old. But they are potent.
When the war began in 2006, I was swimming laps at a beach in North Lebanon. My phone was beeping incessantly as I exited the pool and walked towards my towel and towards my friend. The first text message I received read: “Israelis in Lebanon!” Minutes later, we were watching Israeli tanks rumble through South Lebanon on television, churning the ground as they moved centipede-like into the country. Lebanon was being invaded. A war had begun. We were not surprised, but for a few minutes, watching Israeli soldiers cross a border they had last fled in 2000, I felt I was sleepwalking, dreaming another Israel-Lebanon war. I called my father and asked him if we should return to Beirut or wait for a few hours in a beach club that suddenly felt like a compound to me. He said a sentence that I remember from my earliest memories: “This is nothing. There is nothing to be scared of. You will see.” My siblings and I describe my father as cold blooded and for us, it is a compliment. During the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War it seemed as if ice water ran through his veins as he shrugged off nearby violence to his three young children and their American mother. Two weeks into the 2006 war, our roles would be reversed. Hearing rumors that a bridge near my childhood West Beirut home would be bombed, I packed a bag for my parents and herded them into their car, promising to follow them soon to our rented summer house in a mountain overlooking the city. I think they knew I was lying, but they allowed themselves to believe that I would follow them. They left me on the road, waving at the windows of their passing car. I felt like an adult that day.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Memory is not linear. Instead, it folds against, moving through time and space gracefully, revealing the past, present and future to be the feedback loop that is. Less gracefully, memory also stumbles across the five senses. A vision of a memory is closer than its taste, smell, feel or sound, yet it takes all of these senses to be there, or here. Memory shares the impossibility of repetition, this sense of incompleteness, with the medium of film. I remember, three weeks into the war, walking through the ruins of Beirut’s Southern Suburbs (Dahieh) with a camera connected to a microphone connected to a friend. I can see myself now, standing with a camera, but perhaps, now as I write, I am actually remembering myself on camera, on a screen somewhere in New York City before an audience assembled for a “panel” on war. As we walked, then, through roads lined with the insides of fallen buildings, it was the smell that most effected us and those few that were around us. During one scene, I was standing on a pile of concrete entrails filming an interview with a man standing on the street. He waved my friend towards where I was standing and spoke of his neighbor who was (probably) rotting silently below my dusty puma sneakers. The smell, flesh and garbage and death and sewage and burning-the inescapable scent of the human and the nonhuman mixed together in their decomposition- was everywhere in Dahieh. When I think of the war, I think of that smell and can see myself fighting the urge to wretch in front of people looking for loved ones within the ruins of a life world. But I cannot smell that stink of war, here as I sit on my desk in Beirut and write these words five years later. Words can only point to what cannot be said, seen, heard, smelled, or touched. And so we write and we remember and we speak, knowing that we can never convey this presence of absence that is the past. Memory and film are both desires for recapture, and through them we try without hope to defeat the impossibility of being there ever again.
The Lebanese civil war ended when I was eleven years old. Back then, downtown Beirut was still a frightening place filled with rabid dogs who had, it was rumored, perhaps liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes, the city still stunk of garbage, the streets were still veined with cracks, and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today, and I remember being surprised by all these people who were suddenly coming back, many of them now fleeing to Lebanon from the war in a different country, Kuwait. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As Downtown Beirut was remodeled into a living postcard, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction to not remember, just as it was difficult to resist the desire to fill a nation-wide scar with promises of a shiny new future that would come to us if we would just blame “outsiders” for the war and above all, remember to buy things, things, and more things. But writing this essay, I remember the first time I travelled with my friends (and without my parents) across what used to be the “Green Line” separating the warring “East” and “West” Beiruts in order to go to the cinema. I now live in an apartment on that Green Line, but now, instead of being shorthand for “Christian-Muslim” tension, my section of the green line is riven with Sunni-Shiite tension. I am skipping ahead of myself again. In 1991, it was the first time I had been to a cinema in Lebanon. As the car, filled with twelve-year-old girls and owned by an expatriate family that had returned after the war, entered Jounieh, I remember being silenced by how clean everything was. I was shorter then, with long blonde hair, and I can see myself now feeling like a stranger then, unrelated to the shops and the roads and the people around me. I was angry, seeing these shiny shops and restaurants and clean streets pass by my window. Even then, I knew what the price of Jounieh’s relatively peaceful existence had been for the past fifteen years. I was a foreigner there, and it was not until much later that the strength of this feeling abated and I knew that in 1991 “West Beirut” produced just as much of a child’s anxiety for others as “East Beirut” did for me. But as a child, I felt that the country was an interlocking and shifting terrain of places where I was safe and where I was not safe. These places mapped easily into where I felt I belonged and where I did not. In 1991, I did not belong in Jounieh.
Twenty years later, as the uprisings succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia, a group of Lebanese citizens came together under the slogan “For the Fall of the Sectarian Regime in Lebanon: Towards a Secular Regime.” Soon their enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over their Facebook page and onto the streets of Beirut. Thousands of people walked through the city demanding an overhaul of political sectarianism in Lebanon. Inspired by the broad based uprisings that were happening across the Arab world, Lebanese of all ages, genders, classes and regions came together to try to at least force a debate on the Lebanese political system. However, this movement had a fatal flaw; in order to preserve a broad coalition the group decided to ban any discussion of either the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) or the question of Hezbollah’s arms. With this decision, a group that was dedicated to highlighting and changing the political and economic injustices endemic to the system of political sectarianism censored debate on the two most salient political issues in Lebanon today. Any discussion of the STL or Hezbollah, it was said, might splinter the group into the polarized (and overtly sectarian) camps of March 14, headed by the Mustaqbal Party, and March 8, headed by Hezbollah. In addition to this crippling self censorship (and finally, the coalition did implode when established political parties infiltrated it and there was no common political mandate to meet this infiltration with), many of these activists ignored what is perhaps the biggest lesson of Lebanese history: the individual does not alone determine her identity. We cannot ignore the roles played by other people, institutions, and histories in the formation of who we are. We can not “choose” to unbecome these classes, genders, and sectarian identities that have been forged through law, life, and the liminal space between killer and victim that saturates the war scape of Lebanese history. At least, we cannot expect to succeed at this unbecoming, particularly if we keep trying to forget and suppress all that tears us apart in order to imagine a horizon that appears at the edges of a mirage where the only causal factor in life are one’s autonomous “choices.” We cannot change the political system in Lebanon if we refuse to explore and understand how the breakdown of that system is fought, lived, and remembered differently by Lebanese citizens.
When the 2006 war began, I was with someone who had helped me put the pieces of this country together. We had grown up on opposing sides of the “Green Line” in the 1980s (back when that line denoted a Christian-Muslim divide) and met in the United States when I was eighteen and she was nineteen. I would often visit her family in Lebanon and there, I came to feel at home. We traded stories and were for years each others’ memory keepers. Stories of being children in a war, of the joys and eventual complications of having missed so much of our grade school education (bad spelling for me, less than perfect grammar for her), and stories of what life was like back then “for me” and “for you” “on this side” and “over there.” We sutured our memories together, and I felt the country whole for the first time. Her words and wounds enfleshed people, places, hopes, and fears that I had never truly, and honestly, wanted to feel. Driving to my family home in Beirut after having watched Israeli tanks on a black and white television in a beach chalet, we thought about other friends who had grown up in South Lebanon or in Beirut as refugees of southern Lebanon. We talked about how different memories of the wars had formed their childhood, and how children living in South Lebanon then would have a wholly different vision of the past, and thus the future, than their counterparts in other areas of the country. I thought of her nephews, who lived in the north and who were surely watching this invasion from the comforts of their living room. I realized that I was happy that the war was not likely to reach where they lived. I did not want them anywhere near war, and I was thankful that they were not from the south. Again, it is not easy to admit this because even then, one hour after watching Israeli tanks on television, I felt stronger knowing the war would not come to them in “their area.” The war would be elsewhere.
In Beirut that night, when it was certain that the aerial bombardment of southern Beirut would come, I was anxious. I did not want to leave this balcony that had been destroyed in 1987, until I heard the first bomb and felt its vibrations rubbing against the windows that had been replaced in 1989. I stood by the railing, craning my neck past other buildings and southwards, until the first announcement of fire. I then walked down the hallway and stared at my mother sleeping until she woke up, and together we watched the rest of the bombardment on television. Throughout 2006, this pattern would be repeated. No matter what I was doing during the day, working in displaced centers or filming, at night I would watch the war taking place one kilometer away on television. When there was electricity, of course. After the lights went out we would sit, my friends and my siblings and I, weaving fragments of information gathered from different sources into a Frankenstein of possibilities. We would talk about how different this war was from those past, guess the type of war machinery that was the author of the latest sound, and we would talk about who had left, to a different country or to a different part of this country that was still offering all of the promises of a summer in Lebanon. Our cellular phones would beep with the arrival of text messages, their information shaking our phones with urgency. When I was younger my father used to carry with him a red transistor radio. It was always in his pocket with its antennae peeking out, and he would press it to his ear to hear reports of what was happening around us as we slept in hallways and make shift bomb shelters/parking garages. And this is also how memory works, not only through incompleteness but also through time travel. Thinking of what happened five years ago will take you back twenty years. Sometimes it will you bring you forward, to two years ago or to the “mini” civil war of 2008. Sometimes a memory will even lead you to guess the future. One memory leads to another, and in Lebanon, one memory of war leads you to yet another memory of war. This impossibility of disentangling the history of the Lebanese nation state from a history of violence is precisely what inspires many activists to try to change the system of political sectarianism. However, it is important to remember that wars are fought for many reasons, by different actors, and for a plurality of incommensurate interests and ideologies. Sectarianism is not always the engine of violence in Lebanon, but it is (along socio-economic class and gender) one of the conduits through which violence is articulated, understood, planned, and executed in Lebanon.
One night in 2006, I was sitting on my favorite chair on my balcony. I was watching, and listening, to the Israeli war machine. I was not afraid. I knew that I-living in a middle class West Beirut neighborhood, was not their target. Once again, I was reminded of the lack of control one has over both their identity and their safety. I knew that despite the fact that I was an agnostic supporter of Hezbollah in 2006, I was being “read” by the Israeli war machine, the international community, and even the Lebanese government as a “Sunni Beiruti.” Moreover, I knew that this metaphysically violent misrecognition was in fact keeping me safe from the direct violence of yet another war. I had never felt so implicated in the violence wrought upon others. And yet, despite the intent to fragment and target particular sections of Lebanese citizens, there was a countermovement led by what a political scientist would call “civil society.” People from all classes, regions, and socio-economic communities raised money, bought supplies, distributed food, blankets, diapers, baby formula and sanitary napkins. They worked through days and nights trying to provide for the quotidian needs for the quarter of the Lebanese population that had fled their homes and lived in crowded apartments, schools, community centers, and public gardens both in and outside of Beirut. But this solidarity was fleeting. Soon political arguments took root, different groups refused to work together, international aid groups came in with resources that we could only dream of, and finally, the state was shamed into acting. People fought about the war, its causes and its consequences. People worried about the strain these displaced people would have on them financially, morally, and spatially. Memories of past refugees fleeing the destruction of South Lebanon to Beirut and building lives there made people anxious in 2006. Would they go home? Would they leave “our city”? Was this another form of invasion, a poor horde that would change the city’s demography and blemish its image as an open, fun, and well dressed playground for the rich? Finally, when a cease fire was declared, in Beirut the war ended. But in South Lebanon, the war continues until today, with Israeli mines still killing and maiming people and separating people from their homes and their lands. In 1990, when the civil war ended, I remember being happy. It was later that I realized that as my life moved into what others told me was “normalcy” the war continued in South Lebanon until 2000. Peace had not come to the whole of Lebanon until the Israeli army withdrew from the occupation zone. And today, the 2006 war continues, as long as Israeli weapons of destruction lie in wait under the ground, concrete and grass. Sometimes they achieve their purpose and destroy. Most of the time they lie there, smirking in the sun as the world says that the war is over.
When you have been through several wars, it is no longer cause for much excitement. Only later is there time to be still, to be afraid, and to question the way that one’s autobiography is interlaced with a history of violence. You can find evidence of the interstitial nature of autobiography and violence in the unthought mechanics of a reflex. One night in Beirut, I was in a deep sleep when an Israeli plane dropped a four-ton bomb less than a kilometer away. My friend was awake, reading next to me in bed. I shot up, pushed her to the ground and shouted non-sensically, “go go go.” I pulled her down the hallways and into the apartment’s foyer, the scene of many nights spent as a child because my parents believed (or perhaps they wanted us to believe) that the lack of windows there made it safer than a bedroom or living room. After she was in that windowless room, I went back to my brother’s bedroom and with one hand lifted his queen sized mattress (I am not, by any account, a large woman) over my shoulder, dragged it to the foyer, lied down on it, and fell fast asleep. The next day I asked my war partner why my shoulder was sore, and she gave my sleepwalk a memory, a consciousness.
During a war, it seems impossible that life will ever go back to being normal, but there is also the bitter knowledge that it will and that it must. That life will go on, and all of this will one day be a memory that will always be failing to capture what happened, and how it felt, to be there, to be here. It seems impossible that you will again chat lazily with your neighborhood baker on a sunday morning, to feel a freedom of movement around the country, or to go out for food and laughter with friends and not feel the nagging of guilt. But somehow, beneath this subcutaneous layer of thought, you know that when wars end, routine returns to the living-that this will be the past one day. You also know that you are not alone in this, that in fact you live in a country full of people whose biography is also a history of war, of being sometimes victims and sometimes perpetrators, and of being afraid of both foreign states and Lebanese militiamen of all political persuasions. These stubborn pasts pose challenges to people working towards a common future. If the the project is to fashion a common future, then what do we do with the weight of all these different pasts, different historical injuries, and different memories? Do we shrug them off and hope than the next generation will somehow be immune to them? Do we dwell on the past and pick at our scabs until they bleed catharsis? These are questions that have not been publicly debated yet, and yet these are the debates that determine the field of possibility for an alternative Lebanon. And so from here, writing from my room in Beirut, the “Arab Spring” does not marshall images of revolution. Instead, in my room in Beirut, I wait, listen, and feel lethargic. It has been five years since I wrote some of these thoughts in a black notebook that I put in a drawer when the 2006 war officially ended. It has been a year of hope, of possibility, and of disappointment throughout the Arab world. But sitting at my desk in 2011 and trying to remember war and trying to separate one war from all the others that came before and after it, I think of the way you cannot smell death on film or in memory. I think of how these words can only gesture at what I cannot say. I think of how my memories, the archive of my life, are implicated in the violence wrought against others. I think of how the memories and archives of friends and lovers are implicated in violence wrought against me. I think of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, I listen to the news spilling over from Syria, and my body, that once felt envious, now feels heavy. Too tired to experience jealousy.
About 6 million fled as Afghan refugees to Pakistan and Iran, and from there over 38,000 made it to the United States. and many more to the European Union. Faced with mounting international pressure and great number of casualties on both sides, the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Their withdrawal from Afghanistan was seen as an ideological victory in America, which had backed some Mujahideen factions through three U.S. presidential administrations to counter Soviet influence in the vicinity of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The USSR continued to support President Mohammad Najibullah (former head of the Afghan secret service, KHAD) until 1992.
In response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration in the U.S. increased arming and funding of the Mujahideen who began a guerilla war thanks in large part to the efforts of Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos. Early reports estimated that $6–20 billion had been spent by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but more recent reports state that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia provided as much as up to $40 billion in cash and weapons, which included over two thousand FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, for building up Islamic groups against the Soviet Union. The U.S. handled most of its support through Pakistan’s ISI. Saudi Arabia was also providing financial support.
Afghan leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud received only minor aid compared to Hekmatyar and some of the other parties, although Massoud was named the “Afghan who won the cold war” by the Wall Street Journal.
Massoud’s part in the driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan earned him the nameLion of Panjshir. His followers call him Āmir Sāhib-e Shahīd (Our Beloved Martyred Commander). He strongly rejected the interpretations of Islam followed by the Taliban,Al Qaeda or the Saudi establishment. His followers not only saw him as a military commander but also as a spiritual leader.
In April 1992, the Islamic State of Afghanistan was created, following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government.
Afghanistan was in a state of unsettled transition, with an interim government. Atrocities were committed by individuals of the different factions while Kabul descended into lawlessness and chaos, according to Human Rights Watch.
In 1994, the Taliban developed in Afghanistan as a politico-religious force, a movement originating from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run religous schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In 1994 the Taliban took power in several provinces in southern and central Afghanistan.
The Taliban started shelling Kabul in early 1995 but at that time were defeated by forces of the Islamic State government.
“This is the first time in several months that Kabul civilians have become the targets of rocket attacks and shelling aimed at residential areas in the city.”
Amnesty International 1995 report
On September 26, 1996, as the Taliban with military support by Pakistan and financial support by Saudi Arabia prepared for another major offensive and the next day the Taliban seized Kabul and established the established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They imposed on the parts of Afghanistan under their control their political and judicial interpretation of Islam issuing edicts forbidding women to work outside the home, attend school, or to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.
“To PHR’s knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment.”
Physicians for Human Rights, 1998
According to a 55-page report by the United Nations, the Taliban, while trying to consolidate control over northern and western Afghanistan, committed systematic massacres against civilians.
Upon taking Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, about 4,000 civilians were executed by the Taliban and many more reported tortured. The documents also reveal the role of Arab and Pakistani support troops in these killings. Bin Laden’s so-called 055 Brigade was responsible for mass-killings of Afghan civilians.
Meanwhile, Ahmad Shah Massoud served as military commander and political leader of the United Islamic Front (Northern Alliance) from 1996 until his assassination in 2001. When the Taliban seized Kabul, Massoud and his troops retreated to the northeast of Afghanistan.
From the Taliban conquest in 1996 until November 2001 the United Front controlled roughly 30% of Afghanistan’s population in provinces such as Badakhshan, Kapisa, Takhar and parts of Parwan, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Samangan, Kunduz, Ghōr and Bamyan
Human Rights Watch cites no human rights crimes for the forces under direct control of Massoud for the period from October 1996 until the assassination of Massoud in September 2001. As a consequence many civilians fled to these regions.
In the areas under his control, Massoud set up democratic institutions and signed the Women’s Rights Charter. in these regions, women and girls did not have to wear the Afghan burqa by law. They were allowed to work and to go to school. Massoud personally intervened against cases of forced marriage in favour of the women to make their own choice.
The Taliban repeatedly offered Massoud a position of power to make him stop his resistance.Massoud wanted to convince the Taliban to join a political process leading towards democratic elections in a foreseeable future.
In early 2001 Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Brussels asking the international community to provide humanitarian help to the people of Afghanistan. He warned that his intelligence had gathered information about a large-scale attack on U.S. soil being imminent. Massoud also stated that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had introduced “a very wrong perception of Islam” and that without the support of Pakistan the Taliban would not be able to sustain their military campaign for up to a year.
On September 9, 2001, two Arab suicide attackers, allegedly belonging to Al Qaeda, posing as journalists, detonated a bomb hidden in a video camera while interviewing Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Commander Massoud died in a helicopter that was taking him to a hospital. The year following his assassination, in 2002, Massoud was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The date of his death, September 9, is observed as a national holiday known as “Massoud Day” in Afghanistan.
“He was the only one, ever, to serve Afghanistan, to serve Afghans. To do a lot of things for Afghanistan, for Afghans. And we lost him …”
Afghan journalist Fahim Dashty
Two days after Massoud’s assassination, 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and notoiously crashed two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
When the Taliban refused to hand over bin laden to U.S. authorities and refused to disband Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, the U.S. and British air forces began bombing al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Afghanistan.
From 2002 onward, the Taliban began regrouping while more coalition troops entered the escalating US-led war with insurgents. Meanwhile, NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003 and the rebuilding of Afghanistan began. he European Union, Canada and India also play a major role in reconstruction.
By 2009, a Taliban-led shadow government began to form complete with their own version of mediation court. According to a report by the United Nations the Taliban were responsible for 76 % of civilian casualties in 2009.
In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama deployed an additional 30,000 soldiers over a period of six months and proposed that he will begin troop withdrawals by 2012.
At the 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he intends to reach out to the Taliban leadership. Supported by senior U.S. officials Karzai called on the group’s leadership to take part in a loya jirga meeting to initiate peace talks.
Many Afghan groups believe that Karzai’s plan aims to appease the insurgents’ senior leadership at the cost of the democratic constitution, the democratic process and progess in the field of human rights especially women’s rights.
Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest countries due to the results of 30 years of war, corruption among high level politicians and the ongoing Taliban insurgency from Pakistan.
Gender equality is an issue which is never far from the minds of many young Afghans, both women and men.
There are concerns that, in efforts to ‘reach out’ to the Taliban leadership, President Hamid Karzai may be forced to severely compromise on issues affecting women in particular.
It is hoped that such fears will be addressed at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, will take place on 5 December 2011.
Wikipedia: History of Afghanistan
Wikipedia: Ahmad Shah Massoud
Amnesty International Document: Afghanistan: Further information on fear for safety and new concern: deliberate and arbitrary killings: Civilians in Kabul
UNHCR – Refworld – Afghanistan: Situation in, or around, Aqcha (Jawzjan province) including predominant tribal/ethnic group and who is currently in control
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder – Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition
Chicago Tribune – Taliban massacres outlined for UN
The Telegraph – Afghanistan resistance leader feared dead in blast
The Last Interview with Ahmad Shah Masood – Hoja Bahauddin- conducted by Piotr Balcerowicz
North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO’s role in Afghanistan
ABC News – Pakistan Accused of Helping Taliban
The Telegraph – Wikileaks: Pakistan accused of helping Taliban in Afghanistan attacks
The Weekly Standard – UN: Taliban Responsible for 76% of Deaths in Afghanistan
The Washington Post – Taliban establishes elaborate shadow government in Afghanistan
Scotsman.com – Karzai’s Taleban talks raise spectre of civil war warns former spy chief
NPR – Abdullah Abdullah: Talks With Taliban Futile
Afghan News Centre – Afghan FM Welcomes More NATO Peacekeepers
University of Missouri – CIA – The World Fact Book – Afghanistan
Law.com – Despite Obama Ban, Official’s Lobbyist Past No Obstacle
Canada in Afghanistan – The War So Far – by Peter Pigott
AMY GOODMAN: It was ten years ago today when then President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against out, terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime
AMY GOODMAN: Ten years later, the Afghan war rages on. It has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. There’s no end in sight. The Taliban remains in control of major parts of the nation. Peace talks have collapsed. Civilian and troop casualties continue to mount. There have been a number of major setbacks in just the past few weeks. On September 13, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy and the NATOheadquarters in Kabul. A week later, the Taliban claim responsibility for assassinating former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan Peace Council. Just this week the Wall Street Journal reported Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given up on negotiating with the Taliban. In a recent interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal said the U.S. and NATO were only 50% of the way towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American progress.
BRIAN KATULIS: If you look at the main metric, the measure for success, in the counterinsurgency strategy, it is, how safe is the local population? 2011, this year, will be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. More than 80% of those deaths are caused by the Taliban insurgency. But the key metric of whether we’re succeeding on a counterinsurgency strategy — are we keeping the local population safe? — the answer is, no. The number has gone up
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Afghanistan, we are joined by two guests – first, we go to Afghanistan, to Reena. She’s 19 years old, a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Reena is a pseudonym, her face concealed since all RAWAmembers maintain anonymity for security reasons. Welcome toDemocracy Now!, Reena. Describe what is happening now – ten years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. REENA: Thank you so much, Amy. It is a pleasure to be on your show. Ten years ago when U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they made promises of democracy, women’s rights, and a general improvement in the lives of people. But ten years later, today, the situation is clearly getting worse for our people. Everyday life has not improved. Women’s situation has gotten worse. There is no sign of democracy or freedom or peace anywhere. In fact, civilian deaths have reached 10,000 on this anniversary. And it’s going to continue to rise with the surge of troops and increase in assaults, this will obviously be continuing. AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, we’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was a great deal of attention to the young people who grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, both specifically and also just in this age metaphorically. You, Reena, or 19 years old. You were nine when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. Where were you born? What are your thoughts growing up in the Afghan War? REENA: At that time, I was in Pakistan, in a refugee camp, but I do remember a lot of people who were there at that time, like our close relatives. We lost some people that we knew, some friends, in the bombings of the U.S. So I did not exactly witness the deadlier Civil War of 92-96. I have vague images of the Taliban regime of 96-2001. But this ten year war has definitely had a very deep impact on this generation. The civilian casualties, the fear that people live with these days, the terror that there is in the streets everywhere for the IED attacks or other kinds of threats, it is increasing day by day. It has just made everyone extremely insecure and bad for the people. AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined here in New York by Anand Gopal. He reported for The Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan then for the Wall Street Journal. Now he is writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. Your thoughts ten years later — the longest U.S. war in U.S. history. ANAND GOPAL: By any metric we look at, the war has gotten worse. Security has gotten precipitously worse every single year. 2011 has seen the most civilians being killed of any year since the war started. We’ve seen the most number of attacks – suicide bombings, roadside bombings, since the war started for any year. The amount of territory the Taliban controls has been undiminished, despite the fact we’ve seeing a major troop surge in the last year or two years. We’ve seen a fragmentation within Afghanistan where the people who we are aligned with are starting to arm themselves and thinking about a post-American scenario where they want to all fight against each other. Really we’re at a knot here in Afghanistan in the last ten years. AMY GOODMAN: Listening to the talk shows on the cable networks, it is quite remarkable to see how things are turned on their heads. The Republicans talking about Obama presiding over the longest war. The issue of what it means if the U.S. pulls out, and the mantra often repeated that the Taliban will take over. I want to get both of your thoughts on that beginning with Anand. ANAND GOPAL: The Taliban already have de facto control of almost half of the country in the countryside. Beyond that, what we’re doing in Afghanistan is we are arming militiamen, warlords, strong men, we’re actually going into the countryside and giving them weapons, giving weapons to all sorts of human rights violators and abusers. These are people in many cases who have been disarmed after 2001 and we’re rearming now because we need help in fighting the Taliban. So what that’s actually doing is creating the conditions in which the civil war is more and more likely. In fact that I think the longer we stay and continue this policy, a civil war becomes more likely. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, your thoughts on the issue of the Taliban? REENA: Yes, I absolutely agree with him. The U.S. has armed the most dangerous warlords and is continuing to arm and support them. If they were drawn out, yes, a civil war may be inevitable. But again, we have to remember that, as we always say, this war is part of the problem. It is not going to solve anything for us. If the troops withdraw and if they give Afghanistan a chance to decide its own fate, I think things will work out. If they do not support these warlords, as he said, and the U.S. and its allies pressure the other countries not to support the Taliban, then I think maybe a civil war will not take place. It might not be as bloody as it will be if they continue supporting or if this war goes on. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, a reason often given for staying in Afghanistan — it was one that Laura Bush put forward, it was one that was picked up again, things all turned around, the kind of feminist reason, particularly put forward by the Republicans but many Democrats also support this and Democratic women — that it is about saving the women of Afghanistan. Your response? REENA: Yes, these claims were all extremely false. If they have brought to power the misogynists, the brothers and creed of Taliban into power, who are the exact copies of Taliban, mentally and have just been physically changed, then I do not think the feminist situation can improve. Today, there are slight improvements in women’s lives in urban areas, but again if you look at statistics, Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women. Self-immolation, suicide rates, are extremely high – it has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They do not have healthcare. It has the highest mortality rate in the world. There are, as I said, some improvements. And in some aspects, it might have been a little better for a handful of people, for women, but it has definitely has gotten worse for others. There is insecurity, there are threats. They always say that there are six million girls in schools and the schools have opened, but nobody looks at the dropout rates. Nobody looks at the attacks, the threats that the Taliban makes to the girls. And they do not dare go out again. Nobody looks at the quality of the schools. All these things — there have been slight changes. It has been very widely used, and to just highlight a few positive things, but overall, things have gotten worse. AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking earlier this week about the Haqqani network threat, blaming the ISI for orchestrating attacks on U.S. targets inside Afghanistan.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: A second but no less worrisome challenge is the impunity with which certain extremist groups are allowed to operate from Pakistani soil. The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable army of Pakistan’s internal services intelligence agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.
AMY GOODMAN: Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Anand Gopal, your response? ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely the case that Pakistan is in some way supporting the Haqqani network and the rest of the Afghan insurgency. But I think it is important to have some historical context in all of this. We once, the U.S., once supported the Haqqani network, back in the ‘80s when we were fighting against the Russians. We poured millions, in fact billions of dollars into Afghanistan to fundamentalists, to Islamic radicals and we’re getting the blowback of that now. And also that has fundamentally changed the dynamic within Pakistan, where we helped create, in a sense, the way that the ISI, the Pakistani Security Agency, acts today. They have been pretty much consistent in the last thirty years in their position. We just changed our position ten years ago. AMY GOODMAN: And the role that Pakistan — if you could talk further – plays in Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan has been supporting or in the past supported the very forces that they’re fighting against, that the U.S. is fighting against in Afghanistan, and helped to establish the ISI, which it now is critiquing. ANAND GOPAL: Well, there is no doubt that the insurgent leadership, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and other groups, they have a safe haven in Pakistan. There is no doubt that elements of the ISI, the security apparatus, is giving advice and support to the insurgent leadership. Pakistan is planning a double game. On the one hand, they are aligned with the U.S. and getting millions of dollars in aid for military, on the other hand, supporting insurgency. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, you are 19 years old, you are a young woman who goes back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How do you function? Reena is not really your name, you’re not saying where you are in Afghanistan, you’re with the organization RAWA. Explain what your group does and how you get around. REENA: RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was established in 1977 by a martyred leader, Mina, and a group of other young women. It is an anti-fundamentalist group, women’s group, that fights for freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. Because we are the only women’s group that speaks against fundamentalists — the warlords in power today — we have any security issues and we cannot be open in our activities. So we are underground and semi-underground. We function mostly in Afghanistan, but a small part of our activities are also based in Pakistan. AMY GOODMAN: Malalai Joya make a statement this week where she said, let’s see if I can find it, “we’re at a point today when Afghanistan is at its most violent since war started and the government at its weakest. Civilian casualties higher this year than any previous year, the territory Taliban controls more or less the same as last year, there’s no progress toward making a political solution.” Anand Gopal, what if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow? ANAND GOPAL: I think if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow, it would be very likely that we would see a civil war. When you talk to Afghans, and particularly in the countryside where the war is being fought, what many of them say is, we want the U.S. troops to pull out and we want there to be some sort of peace settlement from all the sides. This never really happened, even from day one in 2001. The Afghan state was not constituted on a broad-based system. It was a deal between a certain set of warlords and the U.S. You want to include civil society, groups like RAWA, other groups, and try to come together to tell Afghans to configure their state in some way, which they’ve never had a chance to do until now. So I think a peace settlement of some sort, together with the troops pulling out, would be the only way we can forestall a Civil War. AMY GOODMAN: Would you say, Reena, that each day of this war increases hostility toward the United States? REENA: Absolutely. Absolutely, it does, as it has increased from 2001 until now. Because in the start, the people were very hopeful. They had some hope that the U.S. would actually help them, that their situation would improve in the last ten years. But the U.S., unfortunately, supported the war lords, like Sayaff, Abdullah Abdullah, Ismail Khan, Khalili, and they recently killed Burhanuddin Rabbani. So all this has increased the People’s hostility, in addition in the countryside and in provinces other than Kabul and some other urban cities, the U.S. airstrikes and night raids are increasing day-by-day. This itself is drawing a lot of hostility from the people toward the U.S., and they want them to leave our country as soon as possible. AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Anand Gopal, for people to understand and as you both lived in Afghanistan for years covering the war and you come back to the United States and see how generally it is covered as you write your book? ANAND GOPAL: It is covered very poorly. I think a lot of the discourse about the war in Afghanistan is that it is a series of mistakes. And it is a mistake. But I think at the core underneath those mistakes is a fundamental wrong policy, which was the war on terror, going into Afghanistan and thinking that the occupation of a country can solve the problem of terrorism. I think that everything that we are seeing in Afghanistan today, you can relate it back to that fundamental core issue. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, I don’t know if you heard the Nobel peace Prize was just announced. It is going to three women from the Arab world and from Africa. Two from Liberia, including the current president of Liberia, and one brave Yemeni activist, the youngest ever to receive the Nobel peace prize. Had you heard about that? Does this matter at all to in Afghanistan? REENA: Yes, I did read about this. I would like to say that the Nobel Peace Prize is, I do not think, it is a very big prize in the opinion of our people. Because every time there is usually a political motive behind giving it to somebody. And the actual real people who struggle for something or who are trying to get something are never considered for this prize. For example, last year, a warlord woman from our country, Sima Samar, was on the list of these people. She almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. That woman is in the Warlord Party. If not directly, is an agent of other countries. If you can consider giving this prize to such a woman, then it does not mean anything for our people. Anybody else can win it for political reasons or whatever is behind it. AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts in that, Anand Gopal? ANAND GOPAL: I think also more importantly, from the point of view of the Afghans, Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s the person who increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and increased the violence in fact in Afghanistan. A lot of my Afghan friends question with the value of the Nobel Peace Prize is if it leads to more war in Afghanistan. AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, now the U.S. engaged in the longest war it has ever been involved with in U.S. history. Anand Gopal, independent journalist, writing a book Afghanistan, previously with the Christian Science Monitor and then the Wall Street Journal. AMY GOODMAN: And Reena, not her real name, speaking to us from Afghanistan, her face covered. She is anonymous for her own protection. Tonight, _KPFK_’s Uprising host, Sonali Kolhatkar. KPFK is the Pacifica Station in Los Angeles—-will be leading a conversation with Reena via live video stream and taking questions from the viewing audience. You can see it at afghanwomensmission.org, we’ll put a link there on our website at democracynow.org.
by: the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers
August 9, 2011
‘The world doesn’t have to choose between the Taliban and the US government.
All the beauty of the world—literature, music, art—lies between these two fundamentalist poles.’
War Is Peace, by Arundhati Roy, October 18, 2001
We need clarity. The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers reject the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration. We reject such declarations made by politicians who do not know us, nor care for us. We want the freedom to solve our own problems. In case you haven’t heard of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration, here is how it is being described in the international press.
We need to listen
‘The United States should maintain a long-term military presence in Afghanistan as a “tenant” on bases jointly occupied with Afghan forces, rather than on permanent U.S. bases, after its combat mission ends, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates……the administration is negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with the Kabul government for the longer term.’ — U.S. wants ‘joint bases’ in Afghanistan, Gates says, Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, 8th June 2011.
‘So this is a mutual document of interests,’ President Karzai, Press Briefing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul, 5th June 2011.
‘The Iranian interior minister made a rushed visit to Kabul, followed shortly by the national security advisers of India and Russia. The Russians, though generally supportive of NATO’s role in Afghanistan, were alarmed at the prospect of a long-term Western presence. “The Russian side supports the development of Afghanistan by its own forces in all areas — security, economic, political — only by its own forces, especially after 2014,” said Stepan Anikeev, a political adviser at the Russian Embassy here. “How is transition possible with these bases?”’ Talks on U.S. Presence in Afghanistan after Pullout Unnerve Region, Rod Nordland, New York Times, 18th April 2011.
‘Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani…bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both…Mr. Karzai should “forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country…,” Mr. Gilani said. Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally.’ Karzai Told to Dump U.S., Matthew Rosenberg, Wall Street Journal, 27th April 2011.
‘The US has been bankrolling the effort with up to $100bn (£61bn) a year and is negotiating a new strategic partnership with President Hamid Karzai. “December  is not a campaign end date but a waypoint – a point at which the coalition security posture changes from one that is in the lead to one that is mentoring and advising, but is still here.” General James Bucknall, 2nd in command of International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).’ Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, 10th May 2011.
‘Because of deep concerns over militant groups in the region, (U.S. officials) want some kind of launching area … to go after individuals and training camps. They see few other basing options in the region. So, the U.S. government will push hard for this.’ Caroline Wadhams, a security expert at the Center for American Progress, 3rd June 2011.
‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit ( SCO, a mutual-security organisation which was founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan ) adopted a statement calling for an “independent, neutral” Afghanistan (read: free of foreign occupation). Nurusultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, who hosted Karzai, put it on record, “It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.”’ Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, Asia Times Online, 21st June 2011.
‘In a statement, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Party of Hezb-e-Islami described establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan as an eternal occupation of the country. The statement said establishment of permanent US bases in Afghanistan would mean the war never ends.’ Tolo News Afghanistan, 19th July 2011.
What is described is the framework for Great Game 3.0, demonstrating the world’s militarized inability to resolve distrust and human conflict in a sensible manner, and the ineffectual silence of the international community and the United Nations.
We need to ask questions
Our leaders, the Afghan and American elite, don’t want us to be concerned about the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration. They want us to be appropriately upset by news of suicide bombings and I.E.D.s, and sufficiently curious about the Taliban, the 2014 draw-down, and peace.
What’s more, the ‘debt crisis doom’ will not allow us to look at the big picture, which is the consistent abuse of the people’s interests by global governments determined to maintain the status quo of Power-and-Wealth-dictated inequalities. Yet, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers are committed to recovering their values. This is difficult because such values have been de-humanized, as we ourselves have become disconnected from other human beings and distracted by material OBJECTS. This happens to us and it happens more so to ordinary Americans who face even greater distractions and may not want to bother with this ‘agreement.’ After all, Americans have enough troubles of their own.
Or can we expect her citizens to break out of their cold, lonely bubbles? We need an urgent global debate about this. The US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration will perpetuate ‘terrorism’ and bring it to everyone’s doorsteps. The ‘partnership’ will allow permanent joint US-Afghanistan military bases to launch and project hard power. The ‘extreme’ Taliban would conveniently ‘use’ these bases as a stand-alone reason for their ‘holy jihad.’ We cannot forget that one of Osama Bin Laden’s reasons for attacking the US on September 11th was the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia.
This Strategic Partnership Declaration would kill any chance for our madness to slow down and our violence to calm down. It will doom ordinary Americans and Afghans to permanent terrorism. Why can’t we quiet our nerves, look deep inside humanity, and begin healing? The reality is that Afghans are not only very angry but also tired, while US/NATO citizens are essentially unaware, so are neither concerned, nor angry.
We need options
As Arundhati Roy said, Afghans don’t have to choose between the Taliban and the US-Afghan Government…these two fundamentalist poles. Just like Americans don’t have to choose between ‘feeding’ the rich or ‘feeding’ the rich.We can choose normal, decent lives, based on respect for life, on valuing life.
We can connect our aspirations with those of human beings elsewhere:
‘When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day … the slavery chains must be broken.’ Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasem Al-Shabi (Schebbi)
‘Hurriya! Hurriya! Hurriya! – Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ Egyptian Tahrir Square protesters
‘We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers! We are not slaves!’ Spanish Indignados, Real Democracy Now
‘The world is no longer dignified enough for words… This is my last poem, I cannot write more poetry. Poetry no longer exists inside me. No more blood!’ Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and the Caravan of Solace
‘The people demand social justice. This is Egypt.’About 300,000 Israelis marching through the streets in central Tel Aviv
‘Tell the world not to send their money,’ says Abdulai, a 15 year old Afghan boy. ‘I don’t need their money. I need to live without wars.’
At a Press Briefing in Kabul on the 5th of June 2011, President Karzai addressed Robert Gates as ‘His Excellency’ and gave him a medal, which Gates self-proclaimed as ‘an award’ presented to him ‘on behalf of the Afghan people.’
If the Afghan public knew that Karzai had given Gates an award on their behalf, they may have fumed. But then, most rural Afghans don’t even know who Gates is. This proud and exceptional self-praise by the rich and powerful is ugly; the People of the world should expose and disempower this imposition of values. There ARE other options, especially since there ARE other deeper values.
We need an equal conversation
No Power today represents the people. Today, ordinary Afghans are denied the basic human dignities, living in a country that Save the Children said was the most dangerous place on earth for mothers, and that UNICEF said was the worst place on earth to be born in, and to be a child.
Moreover, the country that is pushing to sign this Strategic Partnership Declaration with Afghanistan, namely the US, has neither ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women nor the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
These indicate the ‘human regress’ which the Afghan government/Taliban/US/NATO have been responsible for. We mustn’t ‘just watch and do nothing’ about our glaring socio-economic inequalities; 20% of the earth’s population is hoarding more than 70% of the total income.
It is an unsustainable inhumanity. Why not listen, as human beings are capable of doing? Why not grieve? Why not have decent and equal conversations? Have we all become incapable of perceiving the ‘beauty of the world – literature, music, art…?’
For the sake of Abdulai and billions of ordinary people like him, why not join the rising masses across the Middle East & Africa, Europe, South & Central America and more, under the same blue sky, to end our slavery to the status quo values?
We need to at least have conversations about the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Declaration, before it is signed in betrayal of ordinary Americans, Afghans and global citizens.
We have little left to lose anyway.
The Powers have been laughing at us, right from the very beginning.
The US coalition was dropping 26,000 bombs on an already destroyed Afghanistan from October 2001 to March 2002, when these words were recorded: ‘By the second day of the air strikes, US pilots were returning to their bases without dropping their assigned payload of bombs. As one pilot put it, Afghanistan is “not a target-rich environment.” At a press briefing at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, was asked if America had run out of targets. “First we’re going to re-hit targets,” he said, “and second, we’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is…” This was greeted with gales of laughter in the Briefing Room.’
Gandhi had said, ‘Our slavery is complete when we begin to hug it.’
When the Strategic Partnership is signed, peace groups will still be working hard to demand complete withdrawal. Unawares, the rest of the world will be repulsed by but still admiring how ‘intelligent’ politicians are ‘Mafia-ing’ the economic crisis. But, there will then be at least 5 permanent US military bases in Afghanistan, and ‘gales of laughter in the Briefing Room.’ Brutality Smeared in Peanut Butter, Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, October 23, 2001
Next the statesman will invent cheap lies, putting the blame on the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception…Mark Twain.
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 Hamid Dabashi
(originally published on al-Jazeera)
Hassan Nasrallah is in trouble. This time the troubles of the Secretary General of Hezbollah, which were hitherto the source of his strength, are not coming from Israel, or from the sectarian politics of Lebanon. Seyyed Hassan’s troubles, which this time around are the harbingers of his undoing as an outdated fighter, are coming from, of all places, the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring, the transnational uprising of masses of millions of people from Morocco to Oman, from Syria to Yemen, is making the aging warrior redundant – his habitually eloquent tongue now stuttering for words. Two years ago, he thought he got away with rejecting the democratic uprising in Iran (whose brutal ruling regime is his principle patron and financier), as a plot by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. And he did – aided and abetted by the moral and intellectual sclerosis of a segment of Arab intellectuals who thought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic theocracy were the vanguard of “resistance” to US/Israel imperialism in the region and thus should be spared from criticism. And then Tunisia happened, and Egypt, and Libya, and Bahrain, and Yemen – and then, Hassan Nasrallah and Ali Khamenei’s nightmare, Syria happened. It is a sad scene to see a once mighty warrior being bypassed by the force of history, and all he can do is to fumble clumsily to reveal he has not learned the art of aging gracefully.
When Hasan Nasrallah came to the defence of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, signs of frailty were all over the old fighter’s countenance. He asked Syrians for patience. He admitted mistakes had been made by Syrians in Lebanon. He promised Assad would do reforms. He pleaded for time. Deja vu: For an uncanny moment the Hezbollah fighter sounded and looked like the late Shah of Iran days before his final demise early in 1979: desperate, confused, baffled by the unfolding drama, worriedly out of touch with what was happening around him.
“Hassan Nasrallah,” according to an Al Jazeera report on 25 May 2011,“has called on Syrians to support president Bashar al-Assad and enter into dialogue with the government to end weeks of ongoing protests across Syria.”
This is a far different cry than when the democratic uprising in Iran started in June 2009 and Nasrallah readily dismissed and ridiculed it as an American plot. These were Arabs up against their corrupt and cruel leaders, not “them Persians” whose money was good but their historic struggles for their civil liberties a plot by the Saudis, the Israelis, and the US.
“Bashar is serious about carrying out reforms,” he was now pleading with his audience, “but he has to do them gradually and in a responsible way; he should be given the chance to implement those reforms.” When Nasrallah made these remarks more than 1000 Syrian civilians had been gunned down by Bashar Assad’s army and security forces, serving the Assad dynasty for about forty years.
More criminal atrocities were to follow, forcing Syrians to abandon their own homeland and flee to Turkey. The cruel and gruesome torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb was still in the offing, where “in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces,” as reported by Al Jazeera, the 13-year-old boy’s “humanity [was] degraded to nothing more than a lump of flesh to beat, burn, torture and defile, until the screaming stopped at last.”
Nasrallah, who could not care less for such revolting behavior by his patrons, now for second time in a row, was siding with brutal, vicious tyrants and their criminally insane security forces against the democratic aspirations of their people – once in Iran and now in Syria. A “freedom fighter”? Really? What kind of a “freedom fighter” is that? Forget about the Shah, Hassan Nasrallah now sounded more like President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) who once famously said about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (1896-1956) that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Hassan Nasrallah too did not care if Khamenei and Assad tortured and murdered their own people – so far as they kept him in business.
“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!
“Peaceful Syrian citizens,” declared a statement by hundreds of Syrian filmmakers and their colleagues from around the globe, “are being killed today for their demands of basic rights and liberties. It is the same oppression and corruption that kept Syrians prisoners and swallowed their freedom, properties and lives for decades, that is assassinating their bodies and dreams today.” Hassan Nasrallah would have none of this, as he had no patience or sympathy for the kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered bodies of scores of young Iranians during the civil rights uprising of 2009. A belligerent segment of Arab and American intellectuals (ignorant or indifferent to the historic struggle of Iranians for their civil liberties) sided with him in dismissing the Green Movement in Iran as a Saudi-CIA plot. Shame, everlasting shame on them!
The only language that Hassan Nasrallah understands is the language that keeps him in power, condemning the US, the EU, Israel, and the Saudis – all hitherto truisms that have, thanks to the Green Movement and the Arab Spring, lost their grip on reality even more than Nasrallah.
Nasrallah’s predicament with Syria had been moving towards him apace. He has been dillydallying since the commencement of the Arab Spring as to how to calibrate his positions. When Tunisia happened he said,“we must congratulate the Tunisian people on their historic revolution, their struggle, and their uprising.”
He thought this was happening only to European allies, and he thought this was good. When Egypt happened, he said, “in Tunis and Egypt, tyrants have gone away… we call on the people of Egypt and the people of Tunis to unite, because division could be a prelude to the resurrection of the ruling regimes.” This is when he thought these were happening only to the US allies. Nobody was watching him, but he was already in trouble. How come he never sent any encouraging word to “the people of Iran,” when they did precisely what Tunisians and Egyptians had done – rising up against tyranny?
He (and he had his allies on this matter among the leading Arab and non-Arab “left”) categorically denounced the Iranian uprising. He sided with identical tyrants like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. He said Iran was in the capable hands of his friend “Grand Ayatollah Khamenei”. He did not even blink on al-Manar when he said that. It was payback time for him.
When Libya happened, Hassan Nasrallah said, “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets; war was imposed on the popular revolution. What is taking place in Libya is war imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change; this people was forced to defend itself and war broke out in the east and the west, with warplanes, rocket launchers, and artillery. It brought back to our memory the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and all of Israel’s wars. Such serious crimes should be condemned and the revolutionary people of Libya should be helped so as to persevere.” How splendid!
But what is the difference between Iranian or Syrian and the Libyan people? In Iran and Syria too: “a group of young men and women rose and they were faced with bullets.” Were arbitrary arrest, torture, and even rape not “imposed by the regime on a people that was peacefully demanding change” in Iran and then Syria too? Is Iranian or Syrian blood any thinner than Libyan blood in the mighty warrior’s estimation? Is there a word for this barefaced hypocrisy in any language? What sort of “resistance” is this – and resistance to what? Resistance to Israeli expansionism by a band of militant thugs maiming and murdering their own people in Syria and Iran? Is this the choice that our people must make?
When Yemen happened, Nasrallah said, “it is not possible to keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators. We praise the steadfastness of the Yemeni people and their commitment to their peaceful movement, although we know that Yemen is full of weapons.” But how come it is possible to “keep silent about killing and oppressing the demonstrators” in Iran? No, sorry, he was not silent at all about Iran. He was positively elated and quite verbose that his dear friend Ayatollah Khamenei had managed to oppress those identical demonstrators. As masses of millions of Iranian were pouring into streets calling the presidential election of 2009 a charade and a fraud, Hassan Nasrallah was quick to congratulate Ahmadinejad, calling the result a “great hope to all the mujahedin and resistance who are fighting against the forces of oppression and occupation”. As even more millions of people took to streets risking arrest, incarceration, torture, and even cold-blooded murder, Nasrallah assured the world that “Iran is under the authority of the Wali Al Faqih and will pass through this crisis.” He never praised “the steadfastness” of the Iranian people “and their commitment to their peaceful movement.” Why? What’s the difference between Iranians and Yemenis?
When Bahrain happened, Nasrallah said, “why is the movement [in Bahrain] condemned and the injured accused? Just because they are Shias?… We’ve always been with the Palestinian people, but the sect of the Palestinian people was never an issue for us. Nobody asked about the confession and sect of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples; we have an obligation to stand by the downtrodden. Iran stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya; was this based on secular considerations? I find it very weird to hear some people calling on Egyptians to take to the streets, Libyans to kill Gaddafi, but when Bahrain is involved, their ink dries out, and their voices dampen.”
This was indeed very ecumenical of the Hassan Nasrallah. But was his own ink dried and his own voice dampened when Iranians were being clubbed to death, tortured, and even raped by the security forces of his friend “Ayatollah Khamenei?” How come he did not feel obligated to stand by millions of human beings for whom spoke two bona fide Shias, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi? Were they not Muslims, Shias, human beings? And yes, Iranians have “stood by the people of Palestine, Tunis, Egypt, and Libya” – but not because they are Muslim, or Sunnis, or Shias, but based on their shared aspiration for a free and democratic future. Will Hassan Nasrallah have a place in that democratic future, with this kind of record, of siding with criminal thugs that deny and seek to prevent it?
And then Syria happened, and Hasan Nasrallah began stuttering. “First, we should be committed to Syria’s stability, security and safety.” Syrians’ security and safety – or Bashar al-Assad’s? Scores of Syrians are being gunned down, tortured, and killed. There is a massive humanitarian crisis on the Syrian-Turkish border, finally forcing Turkey to sever its ties with Syria. Syrians are fleeing their homeland en masse, fearing for their lives from Bashar al-Assad’s murderous army. What about their security and safety?
“Second,” he said, “We call upon the Syrian people to maintain their regime of resistance, as well as to give way to the Syrian leadership to implement the required reforms and to choose the course of dialogue.” Really? Isn’t that what Clinton also says about Bahrain? How come if Clinton says it about Bahrain it is bad and imperialistic, but if Hassan Nasrallah says it about Syria it is good and revolutionary – while both Bahrainis and Syrians are being slaughtered by identically corrupt ruling regimes? The magnificent aspect of the Arab Spring is that it exposes the identical hypocrisy of both the US (on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) and Hassan Nasrallah (on Iran and Syria).
“Third, we as Lebanese shouldn’t interfere in what is going on in Syria, but let the Syrians themselves to deal with the issue.” Truly? How come “you as Lebanese” interfere anywhere from Morocco to Iran, from Bahrain to Yemen, but not about Syria? Why? Aren’t Syrians humans? If you shoot them do they not bleed? If you torture and mutilate them do they not suffer and die? “Fourth, we should reject any sanctions led by US and the West asking Lebanon to abide by them against Syria, which is the most important goal of [Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey] Feltman’s recent visit to Lebanon.” Why? How come UN resolutions against Israel are good, but UN resolutions against Syria are not good? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Right?
There is an old expression in the film industry, “continuity clerk”, which refers to a member of the crew responsible to ensure that there is continuity and consistency – especially in matters of dress, make-up, etc. – in successive shots of a film, particularly when these shots are filmed on different days. The grand Hezbollah leader badly needs a “continuity clerk”. You cannot wear a revolutionary garb one day and then a pathetically apologetic disguise another.
That Hassan Nasrallah is not altogether aware of what is happening around him is also evident in the fact that it seems just to have dawned on him that the US is “seeking to hijack the wave of pro-democracy popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.” Of course they are – but what is Hassan Nasrallah doing to safeguard and promote it, siding with Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei? Hassan Nasrallah is now outmaneuvered, checkmated, made redundant by history, by, of all things, a magnificent Arab Spring, in which he has no role, no say, and no decision. Nothing. He could and he did dismiss Iranian uprising and he got away with it. Syria and the rest of the Arab Spring are doing away with him. He has failed the test of history—of knowing when to abandon tyrants benevolent to him for their own reasons but abusive and criminal to their own people.
It is not accidental that Iran’s Ahmadinejad is on the same page with Hassan Nasrallah in defending the Syrian regime – for they are all made of the same cloth. What is happening in Syria, Ahmadinejad believes, is a plot by a number of countries in the region, “because Syria is in the frontline of resistance and the Islamic Republic is standing shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian state and nation”? Not so fast. The Syrian state is now murdering the Syrian nation. You cannot be on both sides. Siding with the regime is endorsing its murderous record of killing its nation, as indeed the Islamic Republic, on Ahmadinejad’s own watch, has done against Iranians, with Nasrallah’s approval.
Ahmadinejad’s protestations in support of the Syrian regime, however, should not muddy the clear conception of why the Islamic Republic supports Hamas or Hezbollah. In defending the allocation of funding for Hamas and Hezbollah, the military strategist of the Islamic Republic make no bones about why is it that they support the Palestinian and Lebanese causes. “The Palestinians are not fighting for Palestine,” one leading Iranian military strategist is seen recently explaining to a captivated audience, “they are fighting for Iran; the Lebanese are not fighting for Lebanon; they are fighting for Iran. To have the courage to say this and the courage to demonstrate this means to provide a strategic conception [of what we do].” Does Hassan Nasrallah know this, or is he taking advantage of the Islamic Republic the way the Islamic Republic is taking advantage of him. And what do millions of human beings caught in this massive hypocrisy have to do with these political and strategic machinations?
During protests in Iran, when scores of young Iranian men and women were being brutally tortured and killed in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic, Nasrallah was not keeping silent. He was voluminously loquacious in siding with tyranny, exposing his utter and pervasive hypocrisy.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
(originally published by BBC News Europe)
by: Zlata Filipovic
Among the charges levelled at General Ratko Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army awaiting extradition to The Hague, are those relating to the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo. Zlata Filipovic, who was growing up in the city at the time, gives her reaction to his arrest.
The overwhelming view on the detention of Ratko Mladic – finally caught 16 years after he was indicted – was that those who had suffered through his battles must be elated, celebrating the end of something.
For those less acquainted with the war in former Yugoslavia, the line of thinking is: You wanted this, you got it, now let’s finish this chapter and turn the page.
I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers could see running across the bridge in front of my house ”
“Closure” is a word that trips off the tongues of those who ask what I think.
I wish I had leapt from a chair when I heard the news, or that this arrest would represent some sort of closure for me.
But at the risk of disappointing people, while I consider the arrest good news, the effect of the bloody and warped military campaigns waged by Gen Mladic (and I feel uncomfortable calling him a general, as it indicates an element of respect) is something that remains and defines my life, and the lives of so many.
‘Hopeless and broken’
Darko Mladic, the general’s son, has said that the siege of Sarajevo was a legitimate military operation.
But I lived in Sarajevo for almost two years of a siege that lasted 44 months. It was the darkest, most hopeless, broken, dangerous, deprived period of my life.
I was that 11-year-old girl that some of Gen Mladic’s 18,000 soldiers and snipers on the hills around Sarajevo could see running across the bridge in front of my house.
Ratko Mladic played a leading role in the 44-month-long siege
My father was the one carrying plastic containers from the pump that was providing drinking water for a city of half a million. My mother is the one who was on her way to stand and wait in a bread queue that soldiers bombed from the hills, killing 19 civilians and wounding more than 150.
I was also one of the lucky ones who survived, and avoided becoming part of the grim statistic of 10,000 dead – including 1,500 children – victims of bombs, mortars, snipers and the lack of food, water and medication.
We lived through apocalyptic times, shelled heavily on a daily basis regardless of our nationality or ethnicity.
We were being killed because we were civilians in a city that Gen Mladic and his henchmen hated – for everything multi-ethnic and multicultural that it represented.
Gen Mladic is one of those who has given Serbs a bad name, even those like our friends and neighbours who stayed in the city and shared every dark reality of Sarajevo siege along with everyone else.
He will hopefully be extradited and tried in The Hague for all the crimes for which he is indicted.
But for me personally, his responsibility lies in the fact that his soldiers killed my 11-year-old friend Nina in a park in front of our house, that my mother’s cousin is dead, that my uncle almost lost his leg and that my city and all the lives in it were broken and still suffer the consequences of the bloodthirsty hate and madness of the siege.
A trial, whatever the outcome, will never provide full satisfaction.
I always use the analogy of a minor crime. If someone steals your handbag, and they are found, and tried, this is correct and proper.
But the handbag your boyfriend gave you for your birthday, and the only picture of your family from a holiday that was hidden in the wallet, will never be found.
Some things are lost forever, and law and the courts will, alas, never be able to reverse that.
What can be said about Gen Mladic? His deeds speak for themselves.
All that I and the other citizens of Sarajevo and Bosnia who needlessly and unjustly suffered can do now is watch international justice be carried out.
He may survive or pass away, he may fight in the court or stir nationalist sentiment on the ground in the former Yugoslavia.
But whatever happens, may he and people like him never feature in our lives again.
Zlata Filipovic is the author of Zlata’s Diary, her account of the siege of Sarajevo.