//all images © Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images//
I met Aida Baghdadi* in Beirut, at a conference we were both attending. She was one of the first people I noticed, standing confident, with long beautiful hair and determined look in her eyes. Baghdadi is a feminist, a lawyer working with Syrian political prisoners and abused women in refugee camps and shelters. She is well educated, passionate and strong.
I can see it in her face, the way she talks, how excited she gets when we discuss the situation in Syria and possibilites for a change. It is not easy developing civil society under the regime’s ever-present watch, but she and her fellow activists already got used to it – they meet in private apartments, basements, and sometimes – in other countries, like here, in Lebanon.
I tried to catch her to take away some time from her busy schedule and managed to spend some hours talking to her last couple of days. She tells me she has been a lawyer since 2007, and is working for the Equal Citizenship Center in Damascus.
“We work on many things, like the projects with EFI Initiative, but also different workshops and trainings. We try to educate people in Syria, talk to them about international and human rights, and build a new base, a platform for civil society. I provide legal opinion and also defend people, primarily women, in courts, informing and empowering them, to know about their rights and ask and fight for their rights”, Aida tells me.
Her eyes are fixed on an inivisible point ahead of her, like she’s remembering all the people she works with and trying to bring them to life in our conversation. She tells me how it is particularly hard to work in refugee camps inside Syria, because there’s often wrong information from the regime about the number of camps and people in them.
Women have it really hard, they are not only exposed to violence, but also discrimination in laws and the constitution. For human rights organisations it is hard to do any activity at all, human rights and women’s rights remain unimportant issues under the regime’s control or/and under the control of armed Islamist groups.
“That is what we really want to change – our laws and our constitution, because they are the basis of our society. We are working on new, better laws, for men and for women. I hope we’ll get a chance to implement them one day”, Aida explains to me.
She describes how some places in Syria have left women totally deseperate: “Women are the biggest losers of this war, and all wars, I think. Young men die, or they fight or leave the country, all that is left in some places now are women wearing black. These are women that lost their children, their husbands, women who try to do anything, work were they can and how they can – to survive and provide for themselves”.
She explains how these issues demand changes on all levels. Her association is focused on the separation of the religion from the state – secularism and democracy, and in relation to that they work hard to introduce the concept of citizenship to Syrian people. I aks her about cooperation with religious leaders, and her answer begins with a deep sigh. “Cooperation with the religious leaders is almost impossible, it doesn’t exist. It is because they don’t want to change the situation, this is good for them, it is an envinronment in which they prosper”, she tells me.
Regime already arrested some of the people from her team, but she was lucky so far. Still, there is a constant fear that haunts her. “I am scared every time I am giving a passport at the border control – I might get arrested and just disappear and nobody will know what happened to me”, she explains.
The situation is the same for a lot of activists in Syria, and many of them are in even worse situations – at risk of arrest and murder cover-ups, not just by the regime but by Islamist groups. Comparing life in Syria now and before, she insists that good life for all people was never a reality, good life was a reality only for people with special connections, religious background, or lots of money.
She asks how it is possible that during the last ten years of Assad’s rule there were outside impressions that the economic situation is good, when there were more than two milion people below the poverty line. Talking about economy, she reflects on the economic sanctions EU imposed on Syria.
“Those sanctions did nothing to hurt the regime, it was left standing strong, because it has found other resources. But sanctions did have an impact on regular people, the poverty spread out, people were suffering, in many hospitals there was no medicines. There was a big pressure on people in their everyday life, it’s hard to even imagine how some of them managed to survive”, Aida tells me.
She tinks that the control and support of individuals, certain groups and privileged parts of society, is what saved the regime all these years. When mentioning Daesh, she says Assad is to blame because dictators bring problems, they allow the space in which terrorism is born, and that is when the money flows in and weapons flow in.
“Daesh is a complicated web, a lot of foreigners fight for Daesh, they have good financing and, among other things, they control a substantial amount of oil. But, you know, I don’t think it is the main problem. Keep in mind that many of their supporters are recruited from the outside, so if there is a real intention to get rid of them, it could be done.
But why is that not happening? Let’s start from 2011, when the revolution started. People went out to the streets, and the regime sent the army on the streets. As time moved on, we realized that there are rebels and radicals provided with money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and citizens who really wanted changes found themselves between them and the regime, between two evils, two fires.
And now all of these countries joined in – Iran, Russia, Turkey, US, France – all of them with their particular interests in Syria. US and Russia mainly kill civilians with their strikes, they barely did any harm to Daesh. All of these interests are what frightens me. Even when the war ends, there is a possibility that Daesh will stay, less powerful but present, like a destabilizing factor many are counting on, like a match that can be lit up when necessary.
And all of this war, it’s all profit for the military–industrial complex, and it’s a profit many our counting on and will not be willing to let go of it. It’s also about showing off power and establishing power relations between countries, so – we have to consider so many things and not look at one thing isolated, like Daesh”, Aida explains.
She compares the situation with Iraq, saying both countries have a lot in common and might go through the same process – Syria could also have decades of instability and crippling conflicts, even after the war ends. She thinks political solutions might solve the war, but they will not heal the country, and the big question is – what will remain off the country after the war.
When talking about healing the country, she emphasizes on the issue of political prisoners Syria had for many decades (and still has), and the massacre in Hama (1982) that is still unresolved. “Hama is important in the collective memory of the Syrian people, taking responsibility for the massacre is an important step in moving forward in our future”, she says.
In her work, she met many political prisoners. It made her realize that many people no longer find meaning in life in Syria, they feel completely helpless, and it pushes them to the edge. “Some of them may have done some bad things, but you realize that in many cases they actually had no way out, their choice was total blackness, no matter where they turn. When you realize that, it just breaks you”, she tells me, her voice quavering. It’s hard for her to talk about all this without getting emotional.
She tells me about her friend’s husband, Bassel Safadi, a prisoner who was held captive for three years. His wife Noura knew where he was and she could visit him from time to time, but almost three months ago “somebody” came to the prison and took him away – nobody knows where he is now. His wife was told only that he was deleted from the list of prisoners in the prison in which he was before.
/Waiting by Noura Ghazi Safadi/
She and Bassel’s friends started a petition, wrote to the UN, made hashtag #freeBassel and a facebook page, in order to put pressure on the Syrian government to get an answer about his disappearance, but all efforts have so far been unsuccessful. Bassels’s wife Noura, human rights lawyer, is still relentlessly searching for answers. During the waiting period she has written a wonderful book of poetry Waiting, in which she writes, lifting her voice and recording their love story and the story of Syria.
Aida continues explaining the situation: “People get taken away and you don’t know where they are… People are leaving the country, this is like a big fire that is spreading out, all over the country, with every new country involved and fighting in Syria. You can take a couple of years of war maybe, but more than that, I don’t know.
With every new year, it gets harder and harder. There’s only as much one can take. Civil society is losing people every day, and that is why it is important to work with the young people, but you cannot insist or ask of anyone to stay in the country. People’s lives are at stake, their future is at stake. You have to understand when they say that they want to leave. That is why it is so important to stop this war”.
Her complaint is that nobody deals with the main issue, with the source of the problem. If Europe really has issues with the refugees, she says, if they want to stop refugees from coming to Europe, they need to do one thing and one thing mainly – stop the war. Syrian people will stay in their country, Syrian people will come back to their country – if there is future, Aida is sure about that.
Her special hope are the women – a lot of women, strong women, women that still have some resources and are engaging in civil society efforts, but also women who are unprotected, poor women without anything and anybody – those barely surviving, but still fighting.
She wants to continue studying international law and will go for an exchange programme to Italy to study for five months, and then come back to Syria and continue her work. Finishing our conversation, she takes a deep breath. We both have tears in our eyes.
“Time goes by, with every new hour and day more people die, their lives are destroyed… I don’t want to see anyone die, not ‘regular’ people and not the regime people. I just want to work and live without the constant fear, without thinking of me or my family going to prison or dying, I want to be able to think and talk about Syrian future without sadness”, Aida concludes.
*Name changed due to security issues
• • •
This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.
Turning on the TV, browsing through the news on the internet, even walking on the street… So much repetitive talk about ISIS, all over the place. And yet, so often, I feel like nothing (new) is being said. Like nothing (new) is being learned. What do we even know about ISIS?
In his recent talk with Democracy Now! Patrick Cockburn tried to talk about some of those things we don’t know, and don’t hear about in the mainstream news. Cockburn discussed the funding of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He said it seems like the Islamic State has much more money than it ought to have. “It’s raised certainly 100,000, and getting on over 200,000, soldiers. They’re all being paid. It’s introduced conscription. It recently lowered the age of conscription below 18. If you join up, you don’t get much. You get $400 a month. If you’re a foreign fighter, you’ll get $800 a month and your keep. But this is a pretty large army they’re putting in the field, and they don’t have many sources of revenue. They have some oil. They have some taxes. So, there’s a great big gap there, which senior Kurdish officials and officials in Baghdad have told me they’re convinced come from private donors in the oil states of the Gulf. That’s the only real explanation for that,” Cockburn said.
/Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution/
In his recent article for The Independent ‘Private donors from Gulf oil states helping to bankroll salaries of up to 100,000 Isis fighters’, Cockburn writes: “There are two further developments to the advantage of Islamic State. Even in the face of the common threat, the leaders in Baghdad and Erbil remain deeply divided. When Mosul fell last year, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the Iraqi army had been stabbed in the back by a conspiracy between Kurds and Isis. The two sides remain deeply suspicious of each other and, at the start of last week, a delegation led by the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani failed to reach an agreement in Baghdad on how much of Iraq’s oil revenues should go to the Kurds in exchange for a previously agreed quantity of oil from Kurdish-held northern oilfields.”
In the interview with Democracy Now! he also talked about the atmosphere in Mosul, saying: “But one should also say two things. One, that the Sunni Arabs in Mosul are very frightened of ISIS, what they call DAESH, of ISIS, but they’re also very frightened of the idea of the Iraqi army or the Shia militias capturing Mosul. So, they don’t really know which way to go. I was talking this morning to some people in a refugee camp here in Erbil who had left Mosul because their parents had been in the Iraqi police force. And what happened was that they had fled Mosul, but then ISIS goes to their houses and blows them up and then puts the video of the explosion on the social media, so the—saying this is a message to even people who have fled, that they’re blowing up their houses (…)
And there’s one other point, a very important one, I’d like to make, which I don’t think people have taken on board. As you know, that the U.S. government, the Pentagon and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, have said there’s going to be an offensive to capture Mosul. But the major relief organizations, the World Food Program, believe that if there’s an attack on Mosul, there’s going to be an exodus of up to a million refugees, of basically the Sunni Arabs who live in Mosul, that they’re going to flee the city when airstrikes intensify and they believe it’s going to come under attack. At the moment, they couldn’t get into the Kurdish region. They’re banned. So they’re all going to be on the road. So, they’re pre-positioning supplies for one of the biggest exodus of refugees that we’ve seen, I don’t know for how long. But it’s going to be massive. There’s going to be terrible suffering, and many will die.”
Cockburn briefly reflected on Turkey’s (possible) role in the ongoing conflicts: “Yeah, I mean, there are about or said to be 20,000 foreign jihadis who have gone to the Islamic State. One of the amazing things is that they’re still quite easily able to cross the Turkish frontier into Syria to—into the Islamic State, despite the fact that Turkey is meant to be part of the coalition to eliminate the Islamic State. But there’s a 500-mile border between Syria and Turkey, and it still seems to be generally open.”
What I find as one of his most important points is that the Islamic State is very obsessed with the idea of dominating the news agenda, and it doesn’t really matter how they do it. After months of seeing videos of executions, libraries burning and statues smashing in prime time news hours, we can all agree with that point. “So they know that if you have a Japanese hostage and you demand $200 million ransom, that that’s going to be leading the news. For a long time, cutting off people’s heads led the news. Then that—people became used to that, so they burn to death this Jordanian pilot in a cage, knowing again that will dominate the news, will be assertion of their strength. And they do that particularly when they’ve had a military setback. When things aren’t going too well on the battlefront, they want the news to be dominated by some assertion of power on their part, which may be a hideous atrocity, usually is, but they feel they’ve achieved their aim if that’s what everybody’s talking about. They said at one moment on their social media that media is half jihad. So it’s something they do very consciously, and it’s something they use, particularly foreigners entering the Islamic State, as a method of publicity,” Cockburn explained.
It makes one think – should media stop covering ISIS stories, stop covering them the way it did so far? Because, so far (with some great and notable exceptions like Democracy Now!, Independent’s Cockburn and Fisk, just to name a few), media coverage suited ISIS’s agenda. Showing videos of executions. Statues smashing. Libraries burning. People burning. And that would be it, maybe a sentence or two of comment (with words like outrage, brutality, evil), a sentence or two about the references made to the prophet and Islam, sentence or two of some superficial analysis of the situation, a sentence or two of some additional ‘facts’. We get to know so little about the general situation on the ground, about the funding and the organizing of the fighters, about the various interests tangled in this story, about the background stories and issues. I don’t know if that is intentional, it might be. One thing I am certain of – the mainstream public, the average viewers, the ‘regular people’ – we get to know only the things ISIS serves us. Is that journalism? No, it isn’t. Our main media outlets are basically ISIS PR teams.
• • •
For more on ISIS, I recommend reading Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. I hope to review this book and write more about ISIS sometime soon.
Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He did so in protest over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq; first in 2004 and 2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.
He’s the former Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. Hoh’s articles were published in The Huffington Post, Guardian, Washington Post and USA Today (to name a few) and he also runs his website, were he often writes about the torments he went through during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly – about the despair he faced upon his return to USA, facing an everyday life as a veteran. I think his voice is truly important in times when, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: „War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday.“
In the following interview, Matthew and I talked about war, Middle East, veteran suicides, resistance, and the paradoxes of our (Western) governments.
This month, all over the USA, people are marking Veterans Day. You write a lot about your personal experience and hardships you went through after your second deployment to Iraq, when PTSD and severe depression took over your life. Alcohol was your weapon of choice at the time, but it couldn’t kill the thoughts of suicide. How are you today, how did you manage to go through that period? Did the strength of purpose coming from you activist work help you in that period?
I appreciate you asking me about this. I am doing much better today, thanks to the help of family, friends and many talented and compassionate mental health professionals. I must also say that I have received help from strangers. Fellow veterans who have spoken openly and publically about their difficulties, PTSD, alcohol, suicide, etc, have been of tremendous assistance. Their testimony has given me the courage to confront my problems and the strength to continue an often difficult and turbulent recovery.
My activist work helps me now, because as you describe it gives me a strength of purpose. However, I actually found that I needed to distance myself from the wars for a while and I needed to concentrate on myself. I needed to make my health and recovery my priority. I think this is an issue for many veterans, as veterans, so proud of being leaders and team players, often put others first and diminish their own sufferings and hardships to their own detriment.
Talking about suicide – we don’t have full data from all the US states, and as you said in some of the interviews you did – only a couple years ago the Veterans Administration (VA) started tracking veteran suicides on a national level. The estimates are that more than two veterans who kill themselves every day are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. It actually means that more veterans have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan than have been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Could you tell me more about that – the numbers and the dreadful presence of these demons of suicide?
Yes, that is the case. It was not until 2013 that the VA published suicide data on veterans that included data from the states rather than data only solely collected by the VA. This data is incomplete of course, as less than 40% of veterans are enrolled in the VA, and for the most recent data collected by the VA from the states, less than 30 states provided information. So we don’t really know how many veterans are killing themselves each day and this understanding, that the VA only recently began to estimate the total number of veterans suicides, belies the notion that the VA and the federal government were doing everything possible to assist veterans. This article from August in the USA Today does a good job explaining the deceit and deception that is ongoing in the VA’s handling of veteran suicides.
With regards to the numbers we do know, yes, based upon those figures, more service members have killed themselves after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed or died in those countries. We estimate two Iraq or Afghan veterans kill themselves each day, that is 730 a year. Even taking into account latency for the suicides to begin to manifest and occur in the first few years of the wars, we still have a greater number of suicides than we do numbers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan (currently 6,841 Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, even if we stopped our role in the wars today, and brought all of our troops home, we would still be coping with the suicide problem of veterans for as long as this generation lives. The suicides are not going to stop because the wars stop.
There is one other number that is startling and very foreboding and that is the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among service members. TBIs have essentially tripled since 2000. There is a well known connection between TBI and suicide. This may be most well known in the American public because of the relationship that has been seen between American football players and suicide later in life. With TBIs, onset of symptoms and problems often experience a delay in emerging. Additionally, for many years during the wars, there was a requirement for service members to self report in order for a TBI to be recorded and care to be provided; self reporting is something service members are notorious for not doing, ie admitting they are hurt, weak or sick. So I believe that TBIs are under-reported and that what we know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of future issues with veterans’ mental health needs and care.
Barack Obama recently talked about the increased troop deployment to Iraq, saying it marks a new phase against Islamic State militants. He said “we” need ground troops and it is time for an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The language of “striking back” and “hitting harder” is ever-present, and it seems that we are stuck in a circle of associating courage with warfare, agreeing on a change achieved through violence. You fought in Iraq and served in Afghanistan, and you’ve seen war firsthand. What do you think about the latest news about increased troops on the ground?
I think this is a massive mistake and will lead to the widening and deepening of the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. It is a foolish decision by the President and I think it has more to do with assuaging his critics in the US than it does with dealing with the wars in Iraq and Syria.
We are seeing that the American bombing campaign has pushed Sunnis into further alignment with the Islamic State and this was to be expected while not providing any incentive for the governments in Iraq or Syria to make political concessions or pursue any line of negotiation with the insurgents and the populations they represent in order to bring about a ceasefire or political settlement. Further, American involvement plays right into the propaganda and recruiting messages of the Islamic State. We have seen an increase in young men (and some women) heading to Syria and Iraq in order to defend their faith, their lands, and their people from Western attack. The same recruitment messages the United States used to enlist young Muslim men to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now being used to provide recruits to the Islamic State.
Finally, along with the counter-productive and short-sighted nature of the folly of introducing American troops into Iraq and Syria, there is also a moral component to this that is very, very important. The United States, under President Barack Obama, just as it did under President George W. Bush, is killing thousands of people in Muslim countries throughout the broader Middle East out of a fear and panic still emanating from the attacks of September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by an exceptionally small group of terrorists in retaliation for American policy and presence in the Middle East. Over the course of the last 13 years, American hysteria has led to the death, maiming and displacing of millions of people from North Africa to Afghanistan. This is a stain on the soul of America that has not even begun to be addressed by the US.
Returning to the previous question and the language charging politically-driven violence, being aware of the power of language and media presentations, I feel we (the public) are very often sure we know what Iraq war (and other wars too) is all about, but we are actually fed with very well selected and often distorted fragments of a broad story. Our knowledge, if we stick to mainstream media, is reduced to always repeating phrases uttered by politicians. That is how panic is created, and fear is born. I see that as a great danger for every society.
You talked about the dissonance, the disconnect between the policy that was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., statements that were being made, and the reality of the war on the ground in Iraq. The same narrative was present in Afghanistan in 2009 and that was when you decided you could no longer take part in it. Could you tell me more about that dissonance, which is, I believe, a formative tissue of all the wars we are seeing in the Middle East? And, in relation to that, how do we communicate those discrepancies to the mainstream public?
There is a tremendous dissonance between the narrative of those conducting the wars in the Middle East from the outside, the US and NATO, and those actually experiencing the wars in their homes, villages, cities, etc. To those in the West the wars are about protecting the West from terrorism, however to those in the Middle East these wars are about sectarian violence, whether it be religious or ethnic based, that has created a cycle of violence that builds on itself in a manner uncontrollable by any individual, group or nation. This has culminated in the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein, thought to have been an organization that outside powers could use for their own purposes, the destruction of the Assad regime in Syria, and it is a parasite of war, it gains strength and purpose as the cycle of violence spirals, recruiting outsiders with its propaganda of defending the Muslim community from outside attack, while gaining alliances with Sunnis who find no other alternative than aligning with the Islamic State.
These wars have many causes, but for those of us in the West, we cannot and should not ignore our responsibility and culpability. For decades the West, led by the United States, has pushed sectarian differences to keep dictators in power or to foster revolt and revolution in an attempt to create a power structure and political order amenable to Western interests. This culminated with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which has set forth the cataclysm that the broader Middle East finds itself enduring. Interestingly, the only nations that appear to be without the instability and violence characteristic of the Middle East are those Gulf Kingdoms that are despotic, but in line with US political interests and goals in the region. This understanding and discussion of the causes of Middle East violence is completely absent from US and Western discourse. Rather, the discussion is focused on terrorism or a line of belief that goes “those people have been killing each other for thousands of years”. Both these narratives, about keeping ourselves safe from terror or that the people of the Middle East are just crazy and full of bloodlust, are two narratives that fail to measure up to the actual ongoing wars, tragedies and events.
In one of your articles for Huffington Post, writing about recent events in Iraq, you write how “Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time? Oil.” Could you tell me more about that, about the issues of U.S. involvement at this moment in time?
The reference I was making in that article was to the decision by the United States in August to begin attacking Islamic State and Sunni forces, with the attendant and inevitable killing of innocents, as a result of Sunni incursion into Kurdish territory, and, importantly, Sunni threatening of Kurdish oil and gas fields.
In June, this year, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq, Sunni and Kurdish forces filled the void left behind. Most attention in the West was devoted to the Sunni capture of key cities along the Tigris and a push towards Baghdad, and little acknowledgement was made to the fact that Kurdish forces expanded Kurdish controlled territory in northern Iraq by 40%. This included Kurdish capture of a majority of the oil and gas fields in the north of Iraq, as well as the Kurds gaining complete control of Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish capital (at least according to the Kurds), and the oil capital of North Iraq.
Control of the oil and gas in the north by the Kurds was not just a gain to the Kurdish Regional Government and their many western benefactors, but was also a serious economic threat to the Sunnis, hence the push by the Sunnis and the Islamic State to capture oil and gas fields.
The threatening of Kurdish oil fields alarmed many in the West, including members of the US government and Congress, who besieged by policy experts supported by the oil and gas industry, as well as a $1.5 million annual Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington, DC, panicked at the threat posed by the Islamic State and the Sunnis. Alongside this push for the oil fields, the Islamic State publically beheaded American hostages and began a murderous campaign against the Yezidi minority. These two later “humanitarian” concerns were the focus of much media attention and public statements for the need for America to go to war again in Iraq. However, I believe it was the threat posed to the Kurdish oil fields that posed the impetus for American involvement. I think this is proven by the location of most of the targets struck by American bombers in August and September and their relation to the oil fields as opposed to the location of humanitarian concerns or atrocities.
Veteran Thomas Young died two weeks ago. He finished his last letter (The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran) writing: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.” Do you think Bush, Cheney or Obama will ever be held responsible for what they did and what they do? Is there a way to redeem ourselves from all the moral outrage that was and is done?
Sadly, no I do not think Bush or Obama will be held responsible in any formal way. I do think history will judge them and that the folly of their actions, along with the moral failing of American policy in the Middle East, will be recognized. Whether or not that keeps the United States from perpetuating such madness and horror in the future is another matter.
The way we redeem ourselves is to fight for acknowledgement of the truth of these wars and to put ourselves in positions to speak against not just the current wars, but future wars. If for no other purpose we do this than to give a voice to the millions of the voiceless men, women and children who have suffered, horrifically and unjustly, in these wars, than that is purpose enough.
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For more on Matthew Hoh and his activism, visit his website.
* Tariq Ali interviews Patrick Cockburn about ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War. Great interview published on CounterPunch.
THE RISE OF ISIS AND THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW MIDDLE EAST WAR
by TARIQ ALI and PATRICK COCKBURN/ COUNTERPUNCH
Tariq Ali: I’m in conversation with Patrick Cockburn, who can only be described as a veteran reporter and courageous journalist who has covered the wars of the United States in the Middle East since they began with the invasion of Iraq, and was reporting from the region a long time before on the sanctions against Iraq, the Gulf wars. We’re now at a critical stage where a new organisation has emerged.
Patrick has written a new book, The Jihadis Return, which is an extended essay on the emergence of ISIS and its links to the Sunni population in Iraq and the likely consequences of this for the region. Because there’s absolutely no doubt that what this opens up is yet another front in the unending war that has become a total misery for the people who live in the Arab world today. Patrick, let’s begin by sort of inquiring about the origins of the Islamic State group, ISIS as they call themselves, where do they come out from and when did this start?
Patrick Cockburn: Well they come most immediately from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was at the height of its influence in 2006 [and] 2007 when it was an element–but not the only element–in the Sunni resistance to a Shia government and the American occupation. Ideologically, it comes out of the Jihadi movement and actually its religious beliefs are not that much different from Saudi Wahhabism, the variant of the Islam which is effectively the state religion of Saudi Arabia with its denigration of Shia as heretics, [along with] Christians and Jews. It’s just carrying these beliefs to a higher and more violent level but it’s very much in the context of the Jihadi movement,
Tariq Ali: Can I just interrupt you there? This Jihadi movement did not exist in Iraq as such prior to the American invasion and occupation.
Patrick Cockburn: No, it didn’t. And Saddam arrested anybody who was an obvious Jihadi. I mean, it was always an absurd pretence at the time of the invasion of Iraq to say that Saddam had any connection with the Jihadis or 9/11. Though such was the volume of propaganda at the time that 60% of Americans believed that somehow Saddam was linked to 9/11
Tariq Ali: So following through on this, we have the American occupation, we have a Shia government, which they have effectively put into power, and we have the beginnings of an uprising in the early days of the occupation, which involved not just Sunnis but also Muqtada al-Sadr who was very hostile to the occupation. What happened to break up this sort of resistance, which was initially a combined resistance, such as Shia groups like Muqtada sending medical aid and help to the besieged Fallujah? Why did that break up?
Patrick Cockburn: The unity between the Sunni and Shia resistance to the Americans was always tentative, although taken very seriously by the Americans. I mean, the memoirs of American generals at the time said they were really worried that these two groups would unite in resisting the occupation. And it’s perhaps one of the many disasters to have happened to Iraq that they didn’t unite, that they remained sectarian, in fact remained more sectarian, on the Sunni side.
Tariq Ali: And so, if we come down to the speed with which this particular organisation swept through parts of Iraq, which you yourself talk about in the book, how do you explain the total collapse of the Iraqi army, Patrick? Is it in that sense not too much different from the army created by the West in Afghanistan, the fact that they are not prepared to fight and die for the United States?At that time it was, al-Qaeda and Iraq was only one of a number of serious resistance movements to the occupation but it was very evident in Baghdad at the time when I went to American briefings that anything that happened was attributed by the spokesman, the military spokesman, to al-Qaeda. Of course this played well back in the US, but in Iraq it had quite the contrary effect which people who were against the occupation think, oh it’s al-Qaeda who’s doing all this resisting, let’s go an get a black flag and join them…
Patrick Cockburn: Yeah, and even more so. I mean I think this is, it’s difficult to think of another example in history, where there are 300 or 350 thousand men in the Iraqi army, they’d spent 41.6 billion dollars on this army over the last three years. But it disintegrated because of an attack by maybe a couple of thousand people in Mosul. Why did it happen? Well, the army was rather extraordinary. I mean one Iraqi general I was talking to who’d been forcibly retired said at the beginning of the disaster was the Americans, [who] when they set it up, insisted that supplies and things like that should be outsourced, privatised.
So immediately a colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition… At the time of the fall of Mosul there are meant to be 30,000 troops there. In fact, it’s estimated that only one in three was there. Because what you did was: you joined the army, you got your full salary and then you kicked back half that salary to your officer, who spread it among the officers. So I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said look: the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked. I said surely some will fight, he said: no no no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors!
They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about 20,000 dollars, more recently it cost you about $200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about 2 million. Of course, there are other ways of making money. Checkpoints on the roads act as sort of customs barriers and a tariff on each truck going through would be paid. So that’s why they ran away, led by their commanding officer, the three commanding generals got into a helicopter in civilian clothes and fled to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. And that led to the final dissolution of the army.
Tariq Ali: It is one of the most astonishing events in recent history, Patrick. I mean can you think of any other equivalent, even in the last century?
Patrick Cockburn: I can’t think of any of such a large well-equipped army disintegrating. You could say that Saddam’s army disintegrated in ’91 when attacked by the Americans, and again in 2003. But then it was attacked by the largest military force in the world and was being bombed. So it’s not a parallel. It of course shows that ISIS was quite effective in spreading terror through social media, by films of it decapitating Shia captives. So the soldiers were terrified of ISIS.
And also the whole Sunni community, about 20% of Iraqis, maybe 6 million in the Sunni provinces, were alienated by the Nouri al-Malaki’s regime. They were persecuted, they couldn’t get jobs, collective punishment, young men in villages around Fallujah – sometimes there aren’t many young men because they’re all in jail – and some were on death row going to be executed for crimes which somebody had already been executed for. It was completely arbitrary. So not surprisingly to this day it’s one of the reasons that ISIS still has support, that for all its bloodthirstiness, for a lot of the Sunni community it’s better than the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Shia militias coming back.
Tariq Ali: I mean this is something which apart from yourself and possibly one other journalist in the entire Western media is not being reported at all, that however violent and brutal this group seems and is, it does have some support among the population…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, ISIS has a number of different kinds of support. It has support of the alienated Sunni community in Iraq and also in Syria. That at least their victors, after all these people have been defeated – they were defeated in ’91 by the Americans, they were defeated again in 2003, they were marginalised, persecuted – so victory is important to them. I think also they appeal to jobless young men, I mean sometimes referred to as the underclass, but actually just the poor, poor young men.
Tariq Ali: Poor and unemployed.
Patrick Cockburn: Poor, unemployed young men with nothing in front of them: this does have an appeal for them. And the alternative is pretty bad. I mean, the few successful counterattacks made primarily by the Shia and Kurdish militias, that they’ve immediately driven out the Sunni from areas were ISIS had driven out the Shia. So from the Sunni point of view, they don’t have much alternative but to stick with ISIS.
Tariq Ali: And is there no alternative Sunni organisation, which at least offers a different political programme apart from this sort of fanaticism shown by ISIS. I mean, what about the Association of Sunni Scholars?
Patrick Cockburn: Many sort of went along with ISIS trying to sort of ride the tiger. And … it was believed in Baghdad, and I think really until about a month ago, that, yes, ISIS had appeared to have won these great victories but in fact they were simply the shock troops of the Sunni community. And there were tribes and there were former army officers and there were others like the scholars who would displace them once the Sunni had got what they wanted.
Tariq Ali: And we thought this was wishful thinking because ISIS tends to monopolise power just as soon as it can, even when it took power in an area in combination with others. It’s also extremely paranoid, so it’s going to kill anybody whom it thinks is preparing to stab it in the back or rise up against it. In Mosul for instance, they seem to have taken hostage about 300 people. But former generals, sort of Sunni dignitaries, the sort of people who they suspect might lead that sort of resistance. And in Syria, in Deir ez-Zo province, one tribe sort of rose up against them, they crushed it immediately and executed 700 of its members. So I think it’s just wishful thinking to imagine that ISIS is going to be displaced in the areas it has conquered.
Let’s come to the next point. A lot of people have speculated that the Saudis in some form or the other, if not the government directly, people close to the government in Saudi Arabia, were partially responsible for creating, helping and funding this force as a sort of proto-Saudi intervention against Shia domination in Iraq after the occupation. To what extent is this true, if at all?
Patrick Cockburn: There’s some truth in it, but you want to avoid a conspiracy theory that the Saudis are the sort of master who moves the pawns on the board, which is sometimes believed in parts of the Middle East. The Saudis have always been behind the Jihadi movement in general, above all abroad, not within Saudi Arabia. And generally they will support those who oppose Shia governments, and don’t really distinguish or didn’t really distinguish who they were supporting. But it’s also pretty clear that a lot of their support did go to ISIS, did go to other groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, this was all through private donors, not just Saudi Arabia, but Kuwait and Qatar, and Turkey.
The US and Britain would [try to] distinguish between the moderate Syrian opposition in this corner and the Jihadi extreme opposition in the other corner. But actually the two were together, I mean there was a report this very week by a research organisation itemising various weapons in the hands of ISIS that appear to have been supplied by Saudi Arabia last year to the supposedly moderate Syrian opposition, but were immediately transferred because the gap between the two is much more limited than you’d imagine…
Tariq Ali: Yeah. And there’s a report in, I think, in the newspapers today as we speak, that Steven Sotloff was sold to ISIS by a supposedly moderate Syrian organisation who captured him.
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, his family are saying this. And it’s also interesting that immediately the American spokesmen say: no no no that didn’t happen, because they can see how far this undermines what may be their policy to be announced today by Obama of building up a moderate opposition, a third force, which is going to supposedly fight Assad and fight ISIS simultaneously
Tariq Ali: It’s pure fantasy
Patrick Cockburn: It’s fantasy … in that form. But I mean it’s interesting that the commanding general of the Free Syrian Army says that the Free Syrian Army commanders in Syria, now get their orders directly from the Americans. He said he and the other officers in Turkey were meant to be the headquarters and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. He said I think it’s 16 commanders in northern Syria and some other, about 60 of the smaller groups in the South, now get their equipment, advice and instructions directly from the Americans
Tariq Ali: But Patrick, this again is pretty astonishing. That here we had, not so long ago, the entire Western world led by the United States determined to get rid of Assad, arming all these people, and as you’ve pointed out arms flowing from one group to the other in the battle against Assad. And now we are facing a situation where the United States might actually be bombing ISIS sites inside Syria. Is this possible?
Patrick Cockburn: Well I think so. I think they’ve gone so far down this road to suggesting this that I think it’ll certainly happen at some point. One of the strengths of ISIS is being able to operate in Iraq and Syria
Tariq Ali: At the same time…
Patrick Cockburn: At the same time. And in fact its potential constituency in Syria is bigger than Iraq, because only 20 percent of Iraqis are Syri, are Sunni Arabs and 60 percent of Syrians are Sunni Arabs. So potentially they could dominate the Syrian opposition and not all of course of Syrian Sunni Arabs support the opposition, quite a lot support the government. But they can have a far bigger reach there and they are still expanding. I mean they are 30 miles from Aleppo. They inflicted some of the biggest defeats, in fact the biggest defeats, which the Syrian army has suffered in three years. [These] were inflicted in Raqqah province within the last month by ISIS.
Tariq Ali: Okay, now let’s come to the third factor in the situation, not discussed seriously but often referred to. The Kurdish parties in Syria and in Iraq are clearly opposed to all this and are fighting ISIS as best they can.The Kurds in Syria are under siege from them, the Kurds in Iraq are determined to fight them. To what extent is this effective and why was the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq not capable of dealing with them in a tougher way at the very beginning?
Patrick Cockburn: I think probably the reputation of the Peshmerga in Iraq was exaggerated anyway. They haven’t fought anybody apart from their own [separatist] war and that was in the 90s, for many years. They were always good at mountain ambushes and at public relations, but otherwise it was always a bit exaggerated. I mean maybe it’s not their fault, they were fighting Saddam’s enormous army. But that was exaggerated. And also it has become an oil state…many Kurds are just interested in making money and so forth. Now they say they weren’t properly equipped.
Well, you know, you can buy arms … it doesn’t all have to come from America. Why are there all this big hotels in Erbil their capital, and why didn’t they have some heavy machine guns? And they also have got a 600 mile border to defend. And also they took advantage of the fall of Mosul to extend their territories into territories [that are] disputed with the Arabs. This made the Arabs in these mixed areas much more anti-Kurdish than they had been previously. So there was acceptability to what ISIS did in advancing among the Arabs, and one of the many toxic effects of this is that the populations are now separating. First of all the Yazidis and the Kurds and others fled, and now the Sunni Arabs are fleeing these areas to avoid revenge attacks
Tariq Ali: And what about the Syrian Kurds?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, that’s different because they are 10% of the population in Syria. They’re in enclaves mostly in the North East and the North.
Tariq Ali: And Assad has given them autonomy, this is true?
Patrick Cockburn: Not quite, but they’ve sort of [made an] opportunistic withdrawal, because he knows that … ISIS is going to attack them … and actually you know, the people that are attacking them are not just ISIS but Jabhat al-Nusra. All the other opposition groups suddenly come together to attack the Kurds in these areas. I mean it also undermines that idea that there is a moderate opposition and a Jihadi opposition. That the Free Syrian Army and all these others come to attack the Kurds. The [dominant] Kurds there are … the PKK which is basically the Turkish Kurdish opposition. But they are much more effective fighters than the Iraqi Peshmerga. In fact, they rescued quite a lot of the Yazidis in Sinjar in Western Kurdistan
Tariq Ali: The Syrian Kurd state….
Patrick Cockburn: The Syrian Kurds, yeah. Somewhat to the embarrassment of the [Kurds] of Erbil
Tariq Ali: Yeah. So, coming to the key thing now. You’ve written that the Skykes-Picot agreement has probably finally finished. This was the agreement after the First World War whereby Ottoman lands in the Arab world were divided up between France and Britain. But Patrick, you may be right. In 2006 I felt that there was no future for Iraq as a state because of what had happened and you’d probably have a Shia state and a pro-Saudi Sunni state and a Kurdish state. Do you think this is going to happen now in some shape or form over the next five years?
Patrick Cockburn: In some shape, but not exactly, you know I don’t think map-makers are going to sort of have the borders of their new states there. But I think you’ll effectively have three sovereign states in Iraq. And you do have that already. I mean, you’re a Shia in Baghdad. If I’m in Baghdad, I can’t go an hour North of Baghdad without having my head chopped off. Likewise a Kurd in the North and likewise any Sunni who tries to come through any checkpoint in Baghdad or into Kurdistan is likely to be arrested…
Tariq Ali: Well you’ve been visiting Baghdad for years, Patrick. Are you telling me that effectively there are ethnic borders now in Baghdad and you can’t move from one part of the city to the other?
Patrick Cockburn: No. Between Baghdad and the rest of Iraq you can’t. I mean there are Sunni parts of Baghdad, but you had a sectarian civil war 2006-7 in which the Sunni basically lost. So they have quite small enclaves in Baghdad. There aren’t many mixed areas left, the Shia dominate the city. Now these Sunni areas could rise up, but they’re also vulnerable to counterattack from the Shia majority. There could be a battle for Baghdad but the Sunni in the city are likely to lose it, which is one of the reasons why they are terrified.
Tariq Ali: And there’s a Kurdish population in Baghdad too, let’s not forget…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, but a lot of them are, have melted into the local population.
Tariq Ali: Intermarriages?
Patrick Cockburn: Intermarriages…. There’s never been sort of hardcore Kurdish areas or enclaves in Baghdad with their own militia, which is true of the Shia, and in a covert way is true of the Sunni as well.
Tariq Ali: If we just move to Syria for a bit. What is your impression of the current state of play with the sort of emergence of ISIS, not just the emergence but the successes of ISIS, with the Americans in NATO now trying to work up some sort of a plot or, not a plot, but openly debating how to destroy the organisation. Surely this is going to, I mean, immediately strengthen the Assad regime, regardless of what is intended or not…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. And that’s of course what has put them in such a muddle. I mean ISIS controls about 35, 40% of Syria. In eastern Syria, they control the oil fields. They’re very close to Aleppo, which was the biggest city in Syria. They could take over the rebel held part and then maybe they could take over the whole city. This would be more significant than taking Mosul in Iraq. Jihadi organisations, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, but also ISIS, are close to Hama, the fourth biggest city in Syria. So they’re in a strong position. It wouldn’t take much for ISIS to reach the Mediterranean there, where they were before they did a tactical withdrawal earlier in the year.
So it’s rather an extraordinary situation that you have America and the other Westerners and powers saying we’re going to intervene against ISIS but we’re not going to do anything to help Assad. But Assad is the main enemy of ISIS and if they’re trying to weaken Assad then they help ISIS. And it’s the result of their, to my mind, catastrophic policies over the last two years. It has been evident since the end of 2012 that Assad was not going to go, previous to that there was a presumption that in 2011 and 2012, in the Western capitals and elsewhere, that he was going to follow Gaddafi–he was going to go down. But they’ve sort of pretended that he was going to go. [In] negotiations in Geneva earlier this year it was said … that the only thing worth talking about was transition, Assad going.
But Assad obviously wasn’t going to go, because there are 14 provincial capitals in Syria and he held 13 of them. So if you said that, in fact, you were saying: well, then the war will go on because he wasn’t going to go. And I think for a time, they – Washington, and the others, and the Saudis – were not unhappy with this. It was something they could live with because he was there but he was weak and was probably going to stay there. And then the Jihadis were there, but they were involved in their own civil war. But the great miscalculation was that on the Jihadis side one group would win out, which was ISIS. And secondly, this wasn’t going to remain Syrian on Syrian, or Iraqi on Iraqi, or even Muslim on Muslim, that after all the new caliphate claims the allegiance of all Muslims and claims the allegiance of the world. So its ambitions….
Tariq Ali: Are global…
Patrick Cockburn: Are global.
Tariq Ali: And its prospectus, which is very similar to the NATO prospectus, if you see both organisations’ prospectuses together, it’s obvious that ISIS has copied the NATO model. They have pictures like that one in their prospectus saying this is what we do, this is how many people we killed here, there. There’s no shame at all about what they are doing. So in a weird way, despite the ideology which is Wahhabi and sort of born-again Muslimism, literalism, they are quite modern in their approach in some ways are they not?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I mean rather amazingly so. You know, at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011, blogging, new Twitter, YouTube, were considered progressive instruments that would erode the power of police states and authoritarianism and so forth. But in fact, the people that have put them to greatest use have been Jihadi organisations, and ISIS in particular, to spread their views, to spread terror, very effectively. The families of an Iraqi soldier in Baghdad, you know, a soldier’s wife, his mother, they’ve all seen this stuff so, they say: don’t go back to the army, you’ll be killed. So this is pretty effective
Tariq Ali: Patrick, what is the United States going to do now, what are its options? I mean do you think they can have any success in wiping out ISIS, which seems to be their plan. I mean how the hell are they going to do it without ground troops and all the available reports suggest that the Pentagon is opposed to putting in ground troops. I mean are they going to find some Arab countries to act as their auxiliaries?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, yes, … auxiliaries. I don’t think they’re going to commit troops. I mean look what happened: the Iraqi army fled, the Syrian army fought, it still lost. It lost an important air base in Raqqah province a few weeks ago although it fought very hard. So I think they’ll be very nervous of fighting ISIS. The US is looking, Obama says, for local partners. It’s a bit unclear what this means. Local partners in Baghdad, the parties have sort of come together because they’re all terrified of ISIS but when you look more closely the Kurds have agreed to nothing. The Sunni leaders have taken some jobs in Baghdad, but these are Sunni leaders who dare not go back their own cities and towns because they’d get their heads chopped off. So it’s still very disorganised and divided and has only sort of happened under pressure from the US and Iran who have parallel interests there.
Tariq Ali: Well they know exactly the obvious ally in this, were they looking for serious allies in the region, would actually be Iran. Which they’re not prepared to consider because they’ve demonised Iran to such a level and the Israelis would probably be hostile to any such notion. Because the Iranians could use any alliance with the Americans now to get a bomb quickly like General Zia did during the war against Afghanistan. But apart from Iran, who else is there with the firepower?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, and also this applies to Syria as well. the Americans and the others are sort of refusing to make a choice … Say we put a coalition backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These people have money, they have influence on the Jihadis maybe, on the Sunni community, but they’re avoiding changing relations or ending confrontation with Iran and in Syria Russia matters a lot. They’re still hostile to Hezbollah … and the Kurds in Syria who are fighting ISIS rather effectively. So what is it? It’s really a recipe for a very long war in a very confused situation.
And, you know, what are they going to do if ISIS advances into Aleppo? Are they going to bomb it there at the same time as the Syrian Air Force is bombing ISIS? How do they know that Syrian Air Force planes are not going to try to shoot down American planes? Of course, what they will do, I think, is have covert relations with the Assad government. In fact, I’m told they already do–not to do a public U-turn but have a sort of an understanding with them, as to some degree happened in Iraq after 2003… Iraqis always used to say that Iran and the US wave their fists at each other over the table, but they sort of shake hands under the table
Tariq Ali: Which they did.
Patrick Cockburn: Oh absolutely.
Tariq Ali: Without the Iranian green light it would have been difficult for them to take Iraq just like that.
Patrick Cockburn: Oh yes. Why did we have Nouri al-Maliki as the disastrous Prime Minister of Iraq for eight years and then reappointed in 2010? And I remember an Iraqi friend of mine, a diplomat, rang me up when Maliki … basically got back as Prime Minister and said, you know, the great Satan America and the axis of evil Iran have come together with … catastrophic consequences for Iraqis.
Tariq Ali: Exactly. So Patrick, overall the situation is pretty grim and likely to remain so?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, it’s grim because there are so many players involved. There are so many different crises entangled with each other that this is now likely to go on for a long time. There might have been a moment two years ago when they could’ve prevented ISIS taking off. Because really the war in Syria that changed the fortunes of ISIS. Previously in Iraq, it benefited from the alienation of the Sunni community, but suddenly the war in Syria relaunched ISIS, because it destabilised Iraq. It reignited the war in Iraq which had died down, but never quite ended. And Iraqi politicians, I remember Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister saying to me at that time, if the West allows the war in Syria to go on, that will inevitably destabilise Iraq and that is what has happened.
Tariq Ali: On that pessimistic note, we end this conversation. Thanks very much Patrick and we will talk again no doubt.
Patrick Cockburn: Great, thank you.
Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
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