Iraq

Iraq Body Count: Another Year Of Relentless Violence In Iraq.

dia-azz/art by Dia Azzawi/

Iraq Body Count issued their annual report of civilian deaths in Iraq. 2016 has been another year of relentless violence in Iraq.

This has been most significant this year in the northern city of Mosul and surrounding areas in Ninewa province under the control of Islamic State (IS), where it has carried out thousands of killings and executions. At the same time, the region has been under almost constant bombardment by US-Coalition and Iraqi government forces seeking to oust IS.

The annual total for civilian deaths in Iraq in 2016 was 16,361, which is within a broad range encompassing 2015 (17,578) and 2014 (20,218). These past three years are very much higher than the years 2010-2012, the least violent period since the invasion, when the annual numbers ranged from 4,167 to 4,622, and are also substantially higher than 2013 (9,852) which saw the beginning of the change from the pre-2013 levels to current levels.

Any serious public documentation of civilians killed will aim to record them as named individuals, as part of a record that establishes who was killed, not just how many. A recently-published companion piece to this report lists by name a sample of the individual victims in 2016 for whom further personal information has been made public, including in some cases photographs. This reflects IBC’s long-term goal to more fully humanise the victims of the war, through the forthcoming Iraq Digital Memorial project. IBC’s identified victims list now spans more than 500 pages listing 25 individuals each.

In 2016 (as in 2014 and 15), there were roughly the same number of civilians recorded injured as killed.

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Death by execution continues to account for by far the largest number of civilians killed in 2016 (7,170 killed, including victims of all ages) as it did in both 2014 and 2015.

Death by execution continues to account for by far the largest number of civilians killed in 2016 (7,170 killed, including victims of all ages) as it did in both 2014 and 2015.

2016 also witnessed some particularly shocking events, even by post-invasion standards. An example of that is the most deadly ground-based bombing attack in Baghdad, which was claimed by IS and hit a very crowded market in the central area of Karrada, on the 3rd of July just one day before Muslims’ Eid al-Fitr, killing 324, including women, children and members of entire families, according to the latest reports.

See the full IBC report here.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

(Interview) Judith Brown: Yemen Is A Mess & It’s Getting Worse.

24/photo © Josef Hoflehner/

The war in Yemen, with all of its tragedies, keeps on unravelling far from the media flashlights. In a recent horrific attack in Sana’a, when Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral, more than 200 people were killed, and more than 500 were injured.

A day after the attack in Sana’a, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who easily forgets his own mistakes (from 1978 till today), called for an attack on the enemy – Saudi Arabia. On the same day, the White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is hard to believe that there will be such a review, since this is not the first attack by Saudi Arabia, and it will probably not be the last one.

There have been numerous attacks – on schools, hospitals, markets – killing and injuring thousands of civillians. In August, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) withdrew their staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after a coalition airstrike on a hospital in Hajjah killed 19 people. Countless attacks on health facilities and services all over Yemen, happened despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals with the parties involved in the conflict.

In the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented 43 airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, which have killed more than 670 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.

The infrastructure in Yemen has been significantly devasted during the last couple of years, and humanitarian organisations have been sending warnings about the lack of immediate and unhindered access to people who urgently need food assistance. That fact, compounded by a shortage of funding, means that famine is a possibility for millions of people.

We’ve discussed Yemen with Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom, who started the page Yemen News Today, which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. She is now seventy years old and retired, but has recently started postdoctoral research into the media coverage of the Yemen war.

You’ve started the page Yemen News Today, trying to bring daily news from Yemen to the wider audiences, in English. How did that idea come to you, was it due to the lack of news from Yemen in the mainstream media?

I began Yemen News Today out of desperation because there was no news of Yemen in the media. I also know that I have a big Yemeni following now. My motivation was to tell as many people in the West as I could about the suffering, with the aim of increasing awareness and political pressure.

You’ve also worked as a manager at Refugee Health Project in Yemen, until 2001. What are your experiences like – how did the situation with refugees change over the last couple of years?

I left the refugee health programme in 2001, and this programme was for international refugees. Although I understand that since the Saada wars the UN had taken some responsibility for the displaced people – something they are not doing now simply because of the lack of resources.

For a time after the start of the war all the international employees were moved out of Yemen and many of the local staff were not able to function because they too were displaced, especially in Aden where the biggest refugee programmes are. I think the UN refugee offices are functioning now in Aden and Sana’a, but I am not sure exactly what their responsibilities are.

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In a recent interview with Status Hour, journalist Safa al Ahmad argues that there’s no longer a Yemen, that North and South are completely separate from each other. Would you agree with that?

The north and south are functioning as at least two separate parts for complex reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia and UAE have a difficult relationship and different aims due to the war and this has meant they have largely divided their sphere of responsibilities, with Saudi controlling the war in the north and UAE taking little responsibility for the south militarily, but it is developing commercial interests there.

There is also animosity in both parts, but especially Hadramaut governors made statements about a year ago that they would not accept anyone from the old North Yemen, and many people there have developed an intolerant Sunni position, but they also want to keep free of the effects of the Yemen war.

In Aden the secessionist movement is strong – though not supported by everyone by any means – and the secessionists have said they will not accept any people from the north or even southerners that have lived for a long time in the north, and it seems to be that Aden Lahj and Bab al Mandab operate as a separate entity. They are not keen on having people from east and central Yemen move to Aden either because of their fears of the militias from there taking control – such as Al-Qaeda but not limited to Al-Qaeda. Taiz is more or less on its own. And the old north (less Taiz) is under the control of the Houthis and the old Yemen army.

What is happening with the government?

What is true is that in effect there are two systems of government, one in Sana’a and one mostly in Riyadh (with a few of the Riyadh ministers in Aden). There are two Yemen armies – most of the original army support the Houthis, and the new army is paid for by Saudi Arabia and trained by UAE  (KSA are mostly in Aden). There now appear to be two banks as president Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi moved the central Yemen bank to Aden, with new staff, and the remaining central bank staff who were sacked by Hadi are still in Sana’a. So it’s a mess. As in all wars.

You’re constantly trying to bring attention to the issues of starvation and famine in Yemen. With food ships finding it hard to get into Yemen’s ports due to a virtual blockade, over half the country’s 28 million people already do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations. How does that look like on the ground, how do the people survive?

The famine is everywhere in the north, but worst in Hodeida and the north west. It is getting more and more difficult for families to cope – even middle class families who used to have money don’t know how they can afford food. People have used up their savings and there are few jobs and little humanitarian aid getting in. Those with homes and businesses destroyed are not able to get any compensation.

Some people have family and friends overseas who are helping them to survive. The rich Inside Yemen have been very generous – for example providing most of the free water in cities. But even their resources are strained now because there is so much need. Some are just very hungry and some are starving to death, especially the very young. There are very few resources for the displaced.

Where do we move from now, what can be done in this situation?

It is difficult to see how the situation will change unless USA and UK stop their unconditional support for Saudi Arabia. I really don’t know what can be done and I feel desperate sometimes. It is a situation even more complex than Syria and it is escalating as USA seems to have joined in the war and Iranian warships are now openly stating that they are in Yemeni waters. But this is still not in the Western media. I just feel I have to keep on trying to get the story out and do what I can. But it’s not enough.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail.

dunya1/Dunya Mikhail, photo via Vimeo/

Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail continues to amaze me. I recently read The War Works Hard, Mikhail’s first poetry collection translated to English (beautifully translated by Elizabeth Winslow). The War Works Hard was also the first translation of poems by a female Iraqi poet published in the United States (it was published in 2005).

The poems in this collection were written between 1985 and 2004, during the two decades of mainly sad and painful moments for Iraq and its people. Years of war working hard. In a poem I was in a hurry, Mikhail writes:

Yesterday I lost a country.

I was in a hurry,

And didn’t notice

When it fell from me

Like a broken branch from a forgetful tree

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Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965. While working as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, she faced increasing threats from the authorities and fled first to Jordan and then to the United States in the late 1990s. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.

When you first look at it, Mikhail’s poetry might seem very simple, but she manages to achieve so much with so little. Her writing is gentle, bare, unadorned, direct. The language is pointed, stark. There’s so much beauty, honesty and love in that – it’s moving, it’s thoughtful and respectful. It’s caring.

In a poem Prisoner, Mikhail writes:

She doesn’t understand

The prisoner’s mother doesn’t understand

Why she should leave him

Just because

“The visit is over”

I am thankful to Dunya Mikhail for continuing to write (Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea was published in 2009, Iraqi Nights in 2014), and to Elizabeth Winslow and Kareem James Abu-Zeid for translating Mikhail’s work and making it available for more readers everywhere.

I hope to read more of Mikhail’s new poetry, but I am also sure I will go back to The War Works Hard many times in the future. I’d go back, even if it was only for this verse:

You planted pomegranates and prisons

round, red and full.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

The French Intifada

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art of resistance, Pakistan

Tariq Ali: The Duel (excerpt).

The following is an excerpt from Tariq Ali’s book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (published by Simon & Schuster).

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“Books have a destiny. This is my third study of Pakistan. The first, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?, was written in 1969 and predicted the breakup of the state. It was banned in Pakistan. Critics of every persuasion, even those who liked the book, thought it was going too far in suggesting that the state could disintegrate, but a few years later that is exactly what happened. Just over a decade later I wrote Can Pakistan Survive? The question mark was not unimportant but nonetheless struck a raw nerve in General Zia’s Pakistan, where to even pose the question was unacceptable. The general himself was extremely angry about its publication, as were sections of the bureaucracy, willing instruments of every despotism. Zia attacked both me and the book at a press conference in India, which was helpful and much appreciated by the publisher’s sales department. That book too was banned, but to my delight was shamelessly pirated in many editions in Pakistan. They don’t ban books anymore, or at least not recently, which is a relief and a small step forward.

When I left in 1963, the country consisted of West and East Pakistan. Eight years later the East defected and became Bangladesh. The population of the Western wing was then 40-45 million. It has grown phenomenally ever since and is now approaching the 200 million mark. The under-thirties constitute a majority.

This book centers on the long duel between a U.S.-backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country. In earlier years the State Department would provide the seconds for the duel, but with U.S. troops now in neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. bombs falling on homes inside Pakistan, the conflict is assuming a more direct form. Were it to proceed further, as some have been arguing in Washington, there is a distinct possibility that serious cracks would threaten the much-vaunted unity of the Pakistan military high command. The relationship with Washington, always controversial in the country, now threatens the Pakistan army. Political commentators in the United States together with a cabal of mimics in Pakistan regularly suggest that an Islamist revolution is incubating in a country that is seriously threatened by ‘jihadi terrorists.’ The only function of such a wild assertion is to invite a partial U.S. occupation and make the jihadi takeover a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The most important aspect of the duel is not the highly publicized conflict in Waziristan, but the divide between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers. This duel is often fought without weapons, sometimes in the mind, but it never goes away. An important reason for the deep hostility to the United States has little to do with religion, but is based on the knowledge that Washington has backed every military dictator who has squatted on top of the country. With Pakistan once again a strategic asset, the fear is that Washington will do so again, since it regards the military as the only functioning institution in the country, without showing any signs of comprehension as to why this is the case. This book might help in this regard.

What explains my continuing interest in Pakistan? I was born and educated there. Most of my family still lives there, and in periods when I haven’t been banned from entering the country, I visit regularly. I enjoy running into old friends and acquaintances, especially now that most of them have retired from important positions and can speak openly and laugh again. I never feel alone in Pakistan. Something of me stayed behind in the soil and the trees and the people so even in bad times I am welcome.

I love the mountains. At least they can’t be skyscrapered and forced to look like Dubai. Palm trees, Gulf kitsch, and the Himalayas don’t mix, not that it prevents some from trying. The cityscapes are something else. They have greatly changed over the years; new unplanned and poorly designed buildings have wrecked most of the larger towns. In Islamabad, the capital, one of the U.S. architects who built the city in the late sixties, Edward Stone, was unhappy with the site because it sat on a geological fault line and had weak soil. He advised that no building higher than three stories should ever be built there. He was ignored by the military dictator of the day. When a massive earthquake hit the country in 2005, buildings trembled all over Islamabad. I was there during the aftershocks, which were bad enough.

It was not only the earthquake that hurt Pakistan. This latest tragedy brought other wounds to the surface. A deeper and darker malaise, barely noticed by the elite and taken for granted by most citizens, had infected the country and was now publicly visible. The earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people shone a light on a country tainted by corrupted bureaucrats, army officers, and politicians, by governments rotten to the core, by protected mafias, and by the bloated profits of the heroin industry and the arms trade. Add to this the brutal hypocrisy of the Islamist parties, which exploit the state religion, and the picture is complete. Many ordinary people on the street, unsurprised by tales of privilege and graft, viewed the disaster in this context. At a state school in Lahore, students collecting toys for the children who’d survived the tragedy were asked whom they would like to address them. They voted unanimously against any politician, army officer, or civilian bureaucrat. They wanted a doctor.

None of this, of course, explains the urge to keep writing about a country. The reason is simple. However much I despise the callousness, corruption, and narcissism of a degenerate ruling elite, I have never allowed that to define my attitude toward the country. I have always harbored a deep respect and affection for the common people, whose instincts and intelligence, despite high levels of illiteracy, consistently display a much sounder appreciation of what the country requires than those who have lorded it over them since 1947. Any independent-minded Pakistani journalist or writer will confirm this view.

The people cannot be blamed for the tragedies that have afflicted their country. They are not to blame for the spirit of hopelessness and inescapable bondage that sometimes overcomes them. The surprise is that more of them don’t turn to extremist religious groups, but they have generally remained stubbornly aloof from all that, which is highlighted in every election, including the latest, held in February 2008. Given the chance, they vote in large majorities for those who promise social change and reforms and against those in power. They are always disappointed.

Colin Robinson, my long-standing editor, first at Verso, later at the New Press, and now at Scribner, was strongly convinced that I should write this book long before I was. His persistence paid off. His instincts were better than mine. As I was working on the book, Mary-Kay Wilmers, stern janitor of the London Review of Books, plucked a lengthy extract from the work-in-progress on Benazir Bhutto’s return home. It was, as readers will discover, sharply critical. Two weeks after I delivered it, as I was working on this manuscript, Bhutto was assassinated. Sentiment dictated I soften the prose, but despite my sadness and anger at her death, I resisted. As the German writer Lessing once remarked, ‘The man who presents truth in all sorts of masks and disguises may be her pander, but never her lover.’ And truth usually visits Pakistan in whispers. We owe it to the people to speak our minds. The death of Benazir, whom I knew well over many years, was undoubtedly tragic. But not sufficient reason to change my assessment. That she handed over her party to her husband till her son came of age was a sad reflection on the state of democratic politics in Pakistan and confirmed my judgment. The country needs a break from uniforms and dynasties.

My thanks are due to numerous people in Pakistan from all walks of life, from peasants and trade unionists to generals, civil servants, and old friends, who spoke without inhibition during my trips over the last few years. Naming them would not necessarily be construed as friendly. Thanks also, as always, to Susan Watkins, my companion for almost three decades, a friendly but firm editor of the New Left Review, as many contributors (myself included) have discovered.

When I began to write this book a London friend asked, ‘Isn’t it reckless to start a book while the dice is still in the air?’ If I waited for the dice to fall, I would never have written anything on Pakistan.”

• • •

For more on this book, go to Simon & Schuster.

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Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan

Five For Friday: Costs of War.

This week, Five For Friday presents five charts and graphics concerning wars in Afganistan, Iraq and Pakistan. These exist thanks to the Costs of War project. First released in 2011, the Costs of War report has been compiled and updated by more than 30 economists, anthropologists, lawyers, humanitarian personnel, and political scientists as the first comprehensive analysis of over a decade of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The project analyzes the implications of these wars in terms of human casualties, economic costs, and civil liberties. Some of this data is from 2011 and 2012, so have in mind that these numbers are probably significantly higher today.

1. Iraqi IDPs and refugees.

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There are more than 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Fifty-eight percent of Iraqi IDP households are food insecure, consuming only cereals and carbohydrates on a daily basis. Approximately 500,000 people live as squatters in Iraq. For more on this issue, read the Costs of War report.

2. Afghan IDPs and refugees.

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As of 2012, there remained 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. There are an estimated 447,547 IDPs in Afghanistan (updated). Over half of all Afghans do not have clean water and 63 percent lack effective sanitation. There are an average of 55 health personnel—including doctors, nurses, and midwives—for every 10,000 inhabitants. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

3. Education in Iraq.

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Education is important. After the 2003 invasion, Iraqi universities were stripped of their cultural artifacts as well as basic equipment—such as books, lab equipment, and desks—that allowed them to function at all. As of 2006, an estimated 160 to 380 Iraqi professors had been killed, and over 30 percent of Iraq’s professors, doctors, pharmacists and engineers emigrated between 2003 and 2007. Up to one million books and ten million unique documents have been destroyed, lost or stolen across Iraq since 2003. The US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education received only $8 million dollars to reconstruct Iraqi universities, including the provision of basic supplies. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

4. Direct war deaths: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

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The tally of all of the war’s recorded dead — including armed forces on all sides, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers and civilians — shows that over 350,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and many more indirectly. 220,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict, and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as the violence continues. But most observers acknowledge that the number of civilians killed has been undercounted. The true number of civilian dead may be much larger when an adequate assessment is made. For more – see the full Costs of War report.

5. The impact of military spending.

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The increased military spending following 9/11 was financed almost entirely by borrowing.  According to standard macroeconomic models and evidence, rising deficits have resulted in higher debt, a higher debt to GDP ratio because debt has risen faster than income, and higher interest rates. There are many other reasons the debt has grown since 2001, including tax cuts, increases in other government spending, and the effects of the largest postwar recession and the policy response.  But military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised annual deficits by about 1 percent of GDP, a trend that the Congressional Budget Office expects to continue through 2020. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

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Previous Five For Friday:

Conversations With History

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

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art of resistance

The Book To Read: Anti-Arab Racism in the USA.

Steven Salaita’s book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today was published nine years ago and he has had his share of struggles over the last couple of years, but I think this book is worth mentioning over and over again.

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In the opening chapter of the book, Salaita reflects on his childhood days (in the USA), writing:

Things weren’t much better at school. I was sensitive about my brown skin as early as I can remember because it seemed to inspire fascination among other students, who, as they became more inculcated into American exceptionalism, gradually turned the fascination into scorn. Since my mother, a Nicaraguan of Palestinian origin, taught Spanish at the local middle and high schools, I was treated to continual insults about the Rio Grande, border jumping, refried beans, and laziness. The more knowledgeable students taunted me about riding camels, fucking goats, and bombing the school. By the time I reached high school I quit trying to fight back; the foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools.

I can’t remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting me. In fact, at times it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students. A first-grade teacher once reffered to the warag dawali (grape leaves) my mother had packed me as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of a laughing children. Another teacher once snarled, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you damn foreigner.’ Other examples are less explicit: being sent to the principal’s office an extraordinary amount of times; being suspended for actions that resulted in no punishment for others; being made into the token example of everything ‘foreign’ or ‘international’.

Since all kinds of racism are deeply present in the American society, it is hard to delineate the existence of an anti-Arab racism, because it is often ‘in the mix’ with all the other racisms (like in the childhood examples Salaita gives). However, Salaita links the anti-Arab racism and its special features directly to the moment when the American capitalist system came into contact with the resources of the Arab World. He examines the pre and post 9/11 experiences of anti-Arab racism in the USA with the broader historical patterns of racism in the USA.

Since 9/11, Salaita points out, anti-Arab racism is America’s elephant in the living room. It is very much connected to Islamophobia. In general, there seems to be a great dislike towards everything labeled as Arab, Muslim, Islam. But it doesn’t stop there. On this note, Salaita writes:

Finally, it is necessary to determine against whom Islamophobia is directed. The most immediate answer, of course, is Muslims, but Islamophobia, if we strictly examine its prejudicial functions, appears at times to be directed at non-Muslims such as Arab Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, or even Hispanics – i.e., anybody perceived to be a Muslim, which indicates that Islamophobia doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor.

A part of the book is also dedicated to the notion of Arab violence. Salaita writes:

My point is a simple one, and I say it with as much clarity as possible: in discussing Arab violence, you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.”

Salaita does a great job connecting his personal stories with various surveys and anaysis of anti-Arab racism, making this an easy and enjoyable read (Salaita, luckily, doesn’t have that off-putting need to show off the language of academia). This is a book one can relate to, but still makes you wonder and question yourself , your thoughts, your society (that’s the part that stirs you up).

Read it.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

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art of resistance, Iraq

Five For Friday: Iraq War Documentaries.

Twelve years later, it is quite obvious to everyone that the war in Iraq was a failure. Still, one may not grasp how big of a failure it was and what it did to the country of Iraq and Iraqi people. These documentaries are there to help you get an idea of that.

Body of War (2007) by Phil Donahue & Ellen Spiro

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The documentary follows Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran paralyzed from a bullet to the spine, on a physical and emotional journey as he adapts to his new body and begins to question the decision to go to war in Iraq. As Young’s paralyzed body is breaking down, his voice against war becomes stronger, truly powerful. Thomas Young died last year, leaving his last letter – The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran.

The letter ends with: “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.”

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) by Errol Morris

kinopoisk.ruIn this documentary, Errol Morris examines the incidents of abuse and torture of suspected terrorists at the hands of U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib (‘Father of Raven’) prison near Baghdad. The film shows the brutality of U.S. soldiers, their abuse of authority, horrifying methods of torture and absolute humiliation of Iraqi detainees. Morris keeps his influence to a minimum, and allows his subjects to speak for themselves. Disturbing and necessary – this documentary is a testimony of miserable, unethical, shameful times.

Iraq in Fragments (2006) by James Longley

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This film was made in 2006, and I think it was one of the first mainstream documentaries that provided viewers with an Iraqi point of view. Also, the work put in it is noticeable – three hundred hours of material was filmed in Iraq over a period of more than two years for this production. The story of Iraq in told in three acts, building a picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity. My favourite moment of the film is one of the last ones, where a Kurdish child talks about the idea of Iraq,  and separation and fighting all the adults are talking about (and witnessing it) – here’s the moment captured (I posted this GIF before, writing about Iraq in Fragments last year).

That is the biggest achievement of this documentary – diving into the into the everyday lives of Iraqis. Longley stays as neutral as possible with his narration, but his camera gets close and intimate with his subjects – and allows them to talk, to ask, to reveal, to be.

No End In Sight (2007) by Charles Ferguson

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This documentary offers chronological look at the fiasco in Iraq – backgrounds of those making decisions, incompetent teams, bad planning, lack of will – all of it. Reporters, soldiers, military brass, academics and former Bush-administration officials talk about the war and everything that went wrong. Nir Rosen, knowledgeable journalist and chronicler of the Iraq War, is a producer and talking head of the film. If you wish to go through the long list of brutal facts about the Iraq war – see this documentary. It’s all you need to know in 102 minutes.

Taxi To The Dark Side (2007) by Alex Gibney

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This is similar to Standard Operating Procedure. Using the torture and death in 2002 of an innocent Afghan taxi driver as the touchstone, the film examines changes after 9/11 in U.S. policy toward suspects in the war on terror. Soldiers, their attorneys, one released detainee, U.S. Attorney John Yoo, news footage and photos tell a story of abuse at Bagram Air Base, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. Not an easy watch, many people say. Of course it isn’t. It is not supposed to be easy, it shouldn’t be easy. That is why we need to (re)watch it. It shows the absolute lack of respect for humanity, international laws, transparency, justice – you name it.

• • •

Previous Five For Friday:

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

Lectures and Interviews on Middle East & Islam

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Bowe Bergdahl’s Truth: A Pill That’s Hard to Swallow.

Robert ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl is a US Army soldier  who was held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan from June 2009 until his release in May last year. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held for years at Guantánamo Bay.

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Last week, U.S. Army announced it plans to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and the rare charge of misbehavior before the enemy. Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s lawyer, said he can’t remember a case of an actual prosecution for that charge, and he has been a lawyer since 1969. He explained how “the charge entails things like dropping your rifle or running away from a battle, this kind of thing. What the Army seems to have done here, is gotten creative and turned it into a sort of catch-all where they can take any other offense, in this case an offense of desertion which they are also charging, and sort of escalate the whole thing into world war III by calling it misbehavior before the enemy.” If convicted, Bergdahl faces life in prison.

Bergdahl’s defense will probably center on an Army probe that found he walked off his post in an attempt to reach another U.S. base to report on wrongdoing in his unit. The investigation has not been released, but CNN cites senior defense officials who say Bergdahl claimed to be concerned about problems with order and discipline at his post in Paktika Province in Afghanistan and also had concerns about ‘leadership issues’ at his base.

In the final e-mail Bowe sent to his parents (on June 27th, 2009, published by Rolling Stone), he described how he had become disillusioned by the war:

The future is too good to waste on lies… And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”

The e-mail went on to list a series of complaints: Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.” His battalion commander was a “conceited old fool.” The military system itself was broken: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.

In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”

He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.

Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is America is disgusting.

In a short video made by The GuardianBob Bergdahl, Bowe’s father, said: “I don’t work for the military. I don’t work for the government. I don’t represent the American people. I’m a father who wants his son back.” He also talked about the need for a deeper understanding of the conflict and compassion towards the people of Afghanistan.

Bowe Bergdahl is not a man America should persecute. Still he is being persecuted. His bravery is not the kind of bravery America now rewards. It is just not that clean, not that exclusive, not that useful, not that one-dimensional. His truth is not the truth that is heard easily. It’s a pill that’s hard to swallow, but it just might be the only way to real healing.

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Yemen

Another One Bites The Dust: Yemen in Crisis.

Yemen is finally getting some media attention. The country is falling apart. One of the most beautiful countries in the world is falling apart (when it comes to beauty of the nature and architecture – Yemen is the shining jewel). Photos by the great Steve McCurry (throughout this post) are here to remind us of that beauty.

Yemen was for centuries the center of civilization and wealth on the Arabian peninsula. The Romans referred to the area as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia.” Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes in Yemen: The Unknown Arabia: “Yemen…had something of a Dictionary Land about it: as well as the talking hoopoes and dambusting rodents, men chewed leaves and camels lived on fish; they (the men) wore pinstriped lounge-suit jackets on top, skirt below, and wicked curved daggers in the middle; the cities seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread; Yemen was part of Arabia but the landscape looked like… well, nowhere else on Earth.”

00014_18.adj, Hajjah, Yemen, 1999, final print_milan

Unfortunately, Yemen is now not in the news because of its beauty. This week, Saudi Arabia and other regional allies launched a military campaign in Yemen targeting Houthi rebels. The Saudi-led airstrikes are intended to thwart the Houthis’ advance after seizing control of the capital Sana’a last year and deposing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi last month. Hadi called for international intervention on his behalf earlier this week. There are conflicting reports over his whereabouts as Houthis advance on his outpost of Aden. Unconfirmed statements say Hadi has fled Yemen by boat. The Houthi-run Health Ministry says the strikes have killed at least 20 civilians in Sana’a and wounded 30 others. The Saudi government says it has consulted “very closely” with the White House on its military campaign.

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In an apparent reference to Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the operation aimed to counter the “aggression of Houthi militias backed by regional powers.” Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that the kingdom was contributing one hundred warplanes to operation Storm of Resolve and more than eighty were provided by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.

This week, Democracy Now! hosted a discussion with Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. When asked how this crisis ocurred, Craig said it was something like  “a car crash in slow motion, to watch it.

She continued to say: “This has come after the Arab Spring in 2011. When Ali Abdullah Saleh signed over power, he was granted immunity from that point, and he was allowed to stay in Yemen. And so, he was allowed to still continue in politics, really, and keep manipulating as he always had done, but from then on from the side. And really, this was—then seemed to be a plan of action then to use the Houthis as a way of almost getting revenge against Islah, Yemen’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood, and creating this scenario that we are now in, in Yemen. And Hadi has been forced into a corner as a result of all of this. So it’s really as a result of events after the Arab Spring and the transition deal that was then signed, that didn’t address the grievances of the Houthis or the Southern Movement and others. And despite the international community pushing on with the transition, it was almost inevitable that this was going to come to a head at some point.

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Last week, a prominent Yemeni journalist, Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani, was assassinated in the capital Sana’a. He was reportedly shot dead near his home by gunmen riding a motorbike. “He was a Houthi supporter and activist, but he was much more than that… A very outspoken voice for a long, long time against the old regime and against Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for his assassination, but, really, it’s got to be viewed as a politically motivated assassination“, Craig said.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 before heading the united republic, has over the years spent most of his political capital consolidating his position rather than knitting together a stable state. In 2012, the Yemeni parliament passed a law that granted Saleh immunity from being prosecuted and he left Yemen for treatment in the United States. Saleh stepped down and formally ceded power to his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Saleh came back to Yemen after his treatment in the USA and continued his manipulative politics. All in all – poverty, corruption and the hopelessly weak rule of law form the backdrop to al-Qaeda’s entry into Yemen.

Last year, Vice News took a look at how Yemen’s embattled government is dealing with sectarian rivalries, CIA drone strikes, and one of al Qaeda’s most sophisticated branches. Here’s the video Yemen: A Failed State.

I truly hope there is a way for Yemen, its people, its natural beauty, its architecture and rich history – to stay safe, to stay in one piece.

/all photos © Steve McCurry/

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