Tag Archives: The Independent

Johann Hari: Are there just too many people in the world?

This is a column I don’t want to write. Its subject is ugly; it makes me instinctively recoil. I have chastised people who bring it up at environmentalist meetings. The people who talk about it obsessively have often been callous about human life, and consistently proved wrong throughout history. And yet… there is a grain of insight in what they say.

The subject is overpopulation. Is our planet over-stuffed with human beings? Are we breeding to excess? These questions are increasingly poking into public debate, and from odd directions. Phillip Mountbatten – husband of the British monarch Elizabeth Windsor – said in a documentary screened this week: “The food prices are going up, and everyone thinks it’s to do with not enough food, but it’s really [that there are] too many people. It’s a little embarrassing for everybody, nobody knows how to handle it.” He is not alone. A strange range of people have voiced the same sentiments over the past few months, from the Dalai Lama to Hu Jintao, from Conservative mayor Boris Johnson to Democratic Governor Bill Richardson.

They start by listing the sums, which are indeed startling. Every year, world population grows by 75 million people – equivalent to another Britain and Ireland whooshing fully-populated from the oceans. At the turn of the 18th century, there were 600 million people on earth. At the turn of this century, there were 6.6 billion. By the time I am in my sixties, there will be more than nine billion – at which point there will be more people alive simultaneously than in the first 17 centuries after Christ combined.

The overpopulation lobby say this will inevitably leave more and more people chasing after a diminishing amount of resources on an ecologically-ravaged planet. At their most pessimistic, they say human beings will, in the long sweep of planetary history, look like a big-brained version of a locust cloud. They eat everything in sight and multiply fifty-fold – until they have consumed everything, when they turn in desperation on each other, munch off their siblings’ heads, and then fall out of the sky dead.

They say with a frown that this global swarming is driving global warming. How can you be prepared to cut back on your car emissions and your plane emissions but not on your baby emissions? Can you really celebrate the pitter-patter of tiny carbon-footprints?

Yet this subject seems to leech out all the dark toxins of environmentalism – a movement I believe is the most urgent and important in the world. There has always been an element of green thinking that viewed humans as a parasitic infestation, wrecking the Eden of planet earth. The philosopher John Gray calls our species “homo rapiens”. The founder of Earth First!, Dave Foreman, called us “Humanpox” and wrote: “The Aids epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population… If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].”

If environmentalism sounds – or is – misanthropic, we will lose the argument. Most human beings will never think the world would be better off without us. Nobody thinks they are the surplus human being who should not have been born. These strident arguments hand a huge gift to the anti-greens, who always said we were anti-human beneath the surface.

It also looks like displacement. The places where population is growing fastest – sub-Saharan Africa, rural China and Bangladesh – have virtually no carbon emissions, and pitiful food consumption rates. The gap is so huge that to be responsible for as many gas emissions as one British person, a Cambodian woman would need to have 262 children. Can we really sit in our nice homes, with a fridge-full of food we will mostly chuck away and an SUV in the drive, and complain that she is the problem?

Once this gut-reaction has kicked in, I then think of the horrible history of overpopulation predictions. Most famously, the 18th century demographer Thomas Malthus said mass starvation was inevitable because population increases geometrically while food production grows arithmetically. He didn’t anticipate the coming of the Industrial Revolution. His successors in the 1960s, like Paul Ehrich and the Club of Rome, similarly didn’t see the Green Revolution that was galloping around the corner of history.

So it is tempting to say now that the overpopulation argument will smack into some new technological development. It’s not quite true to say there is a diminishing amount of resources, because the genius of human beings is to find new ways to use what is there. Two centuries ago, nobody could have conceived that the sun’s rays or the waves in the ocean were a resource to be used – but solar and tidal power make it so.

And yet, and yet … why do my own arguments leave me echoing with doubt? A dark voice in my head says: you would accept that, to pluck an absurd number, 100 billion people would be too many. You don’t think human genius is infinitely expansive; there is a limit to what it can solve. So isn’t the question just where you draw the line? If 100 billion is too much, why not nine billion?

Hmm. You should always take on the best arguments of your opponents, not the worst. There are good people – a world away from the British royals or the human-hating fringes – who are sincerely concerned about population levels: people like Professors Chris Rapley and John Guillebaud. They argue that although the swelling billions are not now emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, they will see that we are doing it and will (totally understandably) want to join in the carbon bonfire.

But if this is a problem, is there a solution that isn’t abhorrent? Some people seem to reach instinctively for authoritarian answers. The government of China has bragged that its “greatest contribution” to the fight against global warming has been its policy of punishing, imprisoning or sterilising women who have more than one child. Some environmentalists – a small minority – eye this idea jealously.

There is a far better way – and it is something we should be pursuing anyway. It is called feminism. Where women have control over their own bodies – through contraception, abortion and general independence – they choose not to be perpetually pregnant. The UN Fund For Population Activities has calculated that 350 million women in the poorest countries didn’t want their last child, but didn’t have the means to prevent it. We should be helping them by building a global anti-Vatican, distributing the pill and the words of Mary Wollstonecraft.

So after studying the evidence, I am left in a position I didn’t expect. Yes, the argument about overpopulation is distasteful, often discussed inappropriately, and far from being a panacea-solution – but it can’t be dismissed entirely. It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for nine or 10 billion – and we will only get there by freeing women to make their own reproductive choices. To achieve this green goal, it’s necessary to mix some oestrogen into the environmentalist palette.

* j.hari@independent.co.uk
* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-are-there-just-too-many-people-in-the-world-828254.html

1 Comment

Filed under Blogroll

Robert Fisk: ‘You become accustomed to the smell of blood during war’

I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook. Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys – Palestinian boys – were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn’t bring himself to write the details on the page.

But I understand Hoyland’s picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk’s Fires – a title I could have done without – in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes – and which they could then see with theirs.

But John Hoyland’s Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we – be we photographers or writers – look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.

I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war – at the apogee of the casualties – and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice’s hospital delivery rooms…

I’m not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles – one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war – than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince – just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.

I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain’s First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts – the desert dogs – tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots – God bless them – refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs – undoctored – can tell you what we see.

Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago – the irony of my father’s trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me – and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?

When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it’s at times like this that we need John Hoyland.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Politics

Johann Hari: Israel is suppressing a secret it must face

When you hit your 60th birthday, most of you will guzzle down your hormone replacement therapy with a glass of champagne and wonder if you have become everything you dreamed of in your youth. In a few weeks, the state of Israel is going to have that hangover.

She will look in the mirror and think – I have a sore back, rickety knees and a gun at my waist, but I’m still standing. Yet somewhere, she will know she is suppressing an old secret she has to face. I would love to be able to crash the birthday party with words of reassurance. Israel has given us great novelists like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, great film-makers like Joseph Cedar, great scientific research into Alzheimer’s, and great dissident journalists like Amira Hass, Tom Segev and Gideon Levy to expose her own crimes.

She has provided the one lonely spot in the Middle East where gay people are not hounded and hanged, and where women can approach equality.

But I can’t do it. Whenever I try to mouth these words, a remembered smell fills my nostrils. It is the smell of shit. Across the occupied West Bank, raw untreated sewage is pumped every day out of the Jewish settlements, along large metal pipes, straight onto Palestinian land. From there, it can enter the groundwater and the reservoirs, and become a poison.

Standing near one of these long, stinking brown-and-yellow rivers of waste recently, the local chief medical officer, Dr Bassam Said Nadi, explained to me: “Recently there were very heavy rains, and the shit started to flow into the reservoir that provides water for this whole area. I knew that if we didn’t act, people would die. We had to alert everyone not to drink the water for over a week, and distribute bottles. We were lucky it was spotted. Next time…” He shook his head in fear. This is no freak: a 2004 report by Friends of the Earth found that only six per cent of Israeli settlements adequately treat their sewage.

Meanwhile, in order to punish the population of Gaza for voting “the wrong way”, the Israeli army are not allowing past the checkpoints any replacements for the pipes and cement needed to keep the sewage system working. The result? Vast stagnant pools of waste are being held within fragile dykes across the strip, and rotting. Last March, one of them burst, drowning a nine-month-old baby and his elderly grandmother in a tsunami of human waste. The Centre on Housing Rights warns that one heavy rainfall could send 1.5m cubic metres of faeces flowing all over Gaza, causing “a humanitarian and environmental disaster of epic proportions”.

So how did it come to this? How did a Jewish state founded 60 years ago with a promise to be “a light unto the nations” end up flinging its filth at a cowering Palestinian population?

The beginnings of an answer lie in the secret Israel has known, and suppressed, all these years. Even now, can we describe what happened 60 years ago honestly and unhysterically? The Jews who arrived in Palestine throughout the twentieth century did not come because they were cruel people who wanted to snuffle out Arabs to persecute. No: they came because they were running for their lives from a genocidal European anti-Semitism that was soon to slaughter six million of their sisters and their sons.

They convinced themselves that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land”. I desperately wish this dream had been true. You can see traces of what might have been in Tel Aviv, a city that really was built on empty sand dunes. But most of Palestine was not empty. It was already inhabited by people who loved the land, and saw it as theirs. They were completely innocent of the long, hellish crimes against the Jews.

When it became clear these Palestinians would not welcome becoming a minority in somebody else’s country, darker plans were drawn up. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.”

So, for when the moment arrived, he helped draw up Plan Dalit. It was – as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it – “a detailed description of the methods to be used to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; and laying siege to and bombarding population centres”. In 1948, before the Arab armies invaded, this began to be implemented: some 800,000 people were ethnically cleansed, and Israel was built on the ruins. The people who ask angrily why the Palestinians keep longing for their old land should imagine an English version of this story. How would we react if the 30m stateless, persecuted Kurds in the world sent armies and settlers into this country to seize everything in England below Leeds, and swiftly established a free Kurdistan from which we were expelled? Wouldn’t we long forever for our children to return to Cornwall and Devon and London? Would it take us only 40 years to compromise and offer to settle for just 22 per cent of what we had?

If we are not going to be endlessly banging our heads against history, the Middle East needs to excavate 1948, and seek a solution. Any peace deal – even one where Israel dismantled the wall and agreed to return to the 1967 borders – tends to crumple on this issue. The Israelis say: if we let all three million come back, we will be outnumbered by Palestinians even within the 1967 borders, so Israel would be voted out of existence. But the Palestinians reply: if we don’t have an acknowledgement of the Naqba (catastrophe), and our right under international law to the land our grandfathers fled, how can we move on?

It seemed like an intractable problem – until, two years ago, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted the first study of the Palestinian Diaspora’s desires. They found that only 10 per cent – around 300,000 people – want to return to Israel proper. Israel can accept that many (and compensate the rest) without even enduring much pain. But there has always been a strain of Israeli society that preferred violently setting its own borders, on its own terms, to talk and compromise. This weekend, the elected Hamas government offered a six-month truce that could have led to talks. The Israeli government responded within hours by blowing up a senior Hamas leader and killing a 14-year-old girl.

Perhaps Hamas’ proposals are a con; perhaps all the Arab states are lying too when they offer Israel full recognition in exchange for a roll-back to the 1967 borders; but isn’t it a good idea to find out? Israel, as she gazes at her grey hairs and discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit pumped across Palestine, needs to ask what kind of country she wants to be in the next 60 years.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-israel-is-suppressing-a-secret-it-must-face-816661.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Politics, Resistance

Sarah Churchwell: The big issue in America is not race, it’s class

They’re calling it bold, audacious and risky, a political milestone and the most important speech on American race relations since Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that his children might be judged by the contents of their character, rather than the colour of their skin. But according to the pundits, the power of Barack Obama’s epochal “race address” will be gauged by “white males, especially working-class males”.

“Will it win over the blue-collar white males who have been trending toward his opponent, or drive them away?” wondered Newsweek. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted “a top pol” who felt that the controversy over Reverend Wright’s sermon had transformed Obama “in the minds of some working-class and crossover white voters from ‘a Harvard law graduate into a South Side Black Panther'”. It sounds like the set-up to a joke, but it’s all too serious. Question: what is the difference between a Harvard Law grad and a South Side militant? Answer: class.

Everywhere Obama is praised for “telling the truth about race” – but the success of his “race speech” is incessantly measured along class lines, because Obama actually charted a course through the crisscrossing lines of race and class, a complex social web that he described with great delicacy, but never came out and named.

What was most remarkable about this speech to my mind was not that Obama confronted race “head-on” (although that has certainly become uncommon in recent years) but that he repeatedly, and correctly, called race “a distraction,” on both sides of the colour line, from class issues: “Just as black anger often proved counter-productive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favour the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognising they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide.”

In one sense, Obama’s point couldn’t be clearer: race is a distraction from class-based inequities. And if we dismiss working-class resentment as camouflaged racism, we will continue to be distracted by the spectre of race. So why has no one noticed that the much-vaunted “race speech” is also a class speech? The answer to that is very complicated, but its roots may be traced in large part to what Obama referred to as the nation’s “original sin” of slavery. In order to tell the truth about race in America, we need to tell the truth about slavery: which is that slavery was not racially motivated – it was economically motivated, and justified by means of race.

Race was invented in order to rationalise slavery: if black people are inferior, they deserve enslavement (or so went the logic). Racism is an effect of slavery, not the other way around. Once slavery was abolished, not only did racism not disappear, neither did the economic system it upheld. Slavery was simply replaced by a new feudal system known as sharecropping, which Jim Crow helped sustain. The legacy of slavery comes from the sustained political, legal and economic effort to link permanently an entire group of people to poverty – and to mystify that systematic disenfranchisement by making up something called race, which could serve as a distraction.

Black people in America remain, to a large extent, an underclass. But they are not co-extensive with the underclass. There are rich, powerful black people (take a bow, Condoleezza). And we have a significant white underclass, too, one which has been given different names, in different colours – white trash, rednecks, blue-collar. What they all share is the experience of economic deprivation, which is why 10 years ago Toni Morrison could call Bill Clinton “the first black president,” because, she said, he showed all the signs: “single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”. The only sign he doesn’t show is colour: because race in America is overwhelmingly defined by economic conditions.

To be absolutely clear: I am not saying that race per se doesn’t exist, or isn’t a problem in America. On the contrary. But we will never solve the problem of race in America until we do exactly what Obama suggests: see it for the distraction it is. It was invented to deflect attention away from economic, legal and political inequalities. And the longer that the Democrats ponder the complexities of identity politics, the more distracted they will become from the issues that are actually driving voters – including their utter disillusionment with the current administration and its catastrophic policies.

Democrats need to keep their eyes on the prize – beating McCain in November. The irony is that Obama’s speech urging us not to be distracted by race has so far had quite the opposite effect. Obama now needs to confront with equal candour the lesson we were taught by that “first black president”: it’s the economy, stupid.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/sarah-churchwell-the-big-issue-in-america-is-not-race-its-class-800223.html
* Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Politics

Robert Fisk: Silenced by the men in white socks

Shut them up. Accuse them. Imprison them. Stop them talking. Why is it that this seems to have become a symbol of the Arab – or Muslim – world? Yes I know about our Western reputation for free speech; from the Roman Empire to the Spanish inquisition, from Henry VIII to Robespierre, from Mussolini and Stalin to Hitler, even – on a pitiable scale – to Mr Anthony Blair. But it’s getting hard to avoid the Middle East.

When Egyptian women cry “Enough!”, they are sexually abused by Mubarak’s cops. When Algerians demand to know which policemen killed their relatives, they are arrested for ignoring the regime’s amnesty. When Benazir Bhutto is murdered in Rawalpindi, a cloak of silence falls over the world’s imams. Pontificating about the assassination in Pakistan, Shaikh es-Sayed, who runs one of Canada’s biggest mosques, expressed his condolences to “families of beloved brothers and sisters who died in the incident [sic]”. Asked why he didn’t mention Bhutto’s name, he replied: “Why? This is not a political arena. This is about religion. That’s politics.” Well, it certainly is in Syria. George Bush – along with M. Sarkozy – has been berating Damascus for its lack of democracy and its human rights abuses and its supposed desire to gobble up Lebanon and “Palestine” and even Cyprus. But I always feel that Syria had a raw deal these past 90 years.

First came the one-armed General Henri Gouraud, who tore Lebanon off from Syria in 1920 and gave it to the pro-French Christians. Then Paris handed the Syrian coastal city of Alexandretta to the Turks in 1939 – sending survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide into exile for a second time – in the hope that Turkey would join the Allies against Hitler. (The Turks obliged – in 1945!) Then in the Six Day War, Syria lost the Golan Heights – subsequently annexed by Israel. Far from being expansionist, Syria seems to get robbed of land every two decades.

On the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 – it’s extraordinary how, like Sharon now that he is comatose, we come to like these old rogues once they’ve departed – we were told there was to be a “Damascus Spring”. I always thought this a bit dodgy. I’d experienced the Lebanon Spring and read about the Ukraine Spring and I’m old enough to remember the Prague Spring, which ended in tears and tanks. And sure enough, the Damascus Spring presaged no golden summer for Syria.

Instead, we’ve gone back to the midnight knock and the clanging of the cell door. Why – oh why – must this be so? Why did the Syrian secret police have to arrest Dr Ahmed Thoma, Dr Yasser el-Aiti, Jabr al-Shufi, Fayez Sara, Ali al-Abdulla and Rashed Sattouf in December, only days after they – along with 163 other brave Syrians – had attended a meeting of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change? The delegates had elected Dr Fida al-Hurani head of their organisation. She, too, was arrested, and her husband, Dr Gazi Alayan, a Palestinian who had lived in Syria for 18 years, deported to Jordan.

The net spread wider, as they say in police reports. The renowned Syrian artist Talal Abu Dana was arrested up in Aleppo, his studio trashed and his paintings destroyed. Then on 18 February, Kamel al-Moyel from the lovely hill town of Zabadani, on the steam train route from Damascus, was picked up by the boys in white socks. A point of explanation here. Almost all Middle East Moukhabarat men – perhaps because a clothing emporium has won a concession for the region’s secret policemen – wear white socks. The only ones who don’t are the Israeli variety, who wear old baseball hats.

Needless to say, the Syrian prisoners were not ignored by their regime. A certain Dr Shuabi, who runs a certain Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Damascus, appeared on al-Jazeera to denounce the detainees for “dealing with foreign powers”. Dr al-Hurani suffered from angina and was briefly sent to hospital before being returned to the Duma jail. But when the prisoners were at last brought to the Palace of Justice, Ali al-Abdulla appeared to have bruises on his body. Judge Mohamed al-Saa’our – the third investigative judge in Damascus, appointed by the ministry of interior – presided over the case at which the detainees were accused of “spreading false information”, forming a secret organisation to overthrow the regime, and for inciting “sectarian and racist tendencies”. The hearing, as they say, continues.

But why? Well, back on 4 December, George Bush met at the White House – the rendezvous was initially kept secret – the former Syrian MP Mamoun al-Homsi (who currently lives, dangerously perhaps, in Beirut) with Amar Abdulhamid, a member of a think thank run by a former Israeli lobbyist, and Djengizkhan Hasso, a Kurdish opposition activist. Nine days later, an official “source” leaked the meeting to the press. Which is about the time the Syrian Moukhabarat decided to pounce. So whose idea was the meeting? Was it, perhaps, supposed – once it became public – to provoke the Syrian cops into action?

The Damascus newspaper Tichrine – the Syrian equivalent of Private Eye’s Rev Blair newsletter – demanded to know why Washington was showing such concern for human rights in Syria. Was not the American-supported blockade of one and a half million Gaza Palestinians a violation of the rights of man? Had not the Arabs seen all too clearly Washington’s concern for the rights of man in Abu Ghraib and Guanatanamo? All true. But why on earth feed America’s propaganda machine (Syria as the centre of Hamas/ Hiz-bollah/Islamic Jihad terror, etc) with weekly arrests of middle-aged academics and even, it transpires, the vice-dean of the Islamic studies faculty at Damascus University?

Of course, you won’t find Israel or the United States engaged in this kind of thing. Absolutely not. Why, just two months ago, the Canadian foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, discovered that a confidential document sent to Canadian diplomats included a list of countries in which prisoners risked being tortured – and the names of America and Israel were on the list! Merde! Fortunately for us all, M. Bernier knew how to deal with such pernicious lies. The document, he announced, “wrongly includes some of our closest allies. It doesn’t represent the opinion or the policy of the (Canadian) government”. Even though, of course, the list is correct.

But M. Bernier managed to avoid and close down the truth, just as Mr Mubarak does in Cairo and President Bouteflika does in Algiers and just as the good Shaikh es-Sayed did in Toronto. Syria, according to Haitham al-Maleh, a former Syrian judge, claims there are now almost 3,000 political prisoners in Syria. But how many, I wonder, are there in Algeria? Or in Egypt? Or in the hands – secret or otherwise – of the United States? Shut them up. Lock them up. Silence.

* La Jornada
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-silenced-by-the-men-in-white-socks-796359.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Human Rights, Religion, Resistance

Patrick Cockburn: This is the war that started with lies, and continues with lie after lie after lie

It has been a war of lies from the start. All governments lie in wartime but American and British propaganda in Iraq over the past five years has been more untruthful than in any conflict since the First World War.

The outcome has been an official picture of Iraq akin to fantasy and an inability to learn from mistakes because of a refusal to admit that any occurred. Yet the war began with just such a mistake. Five years ago, on the evening of 19 March 2003, President George Bush appeared on American television to say that military action had started against Iraq.

This was a veiled reference to an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein by dropping four 2,000lb bombs and firing 40 cruise missiles at a place called al-Dura farm in south Baghdad, where the Iraqi leader was supposedly hiding in a bunker. There was no bunker. The only casualties were one civilian killed and 14 wounded, including nine women and a child.

On 7 April, the US Ai r Force dropped four more massive bombs on a house where Saddam was said to have been sighted in Baghdad. “I think we did get Saddam Hussein,” said the US Vice President, Dick Cheney. “He was seen being dug out of the rubble and wasn’t able to breathe.”

Saddam was unharmed, probably because he had never been there, but 18 Iraqi civilians were dead. One US military leader defended the attacks, claiming they showed “US resolve and capabilities”.

Mr Cheney was back in Baghdad this week, five years later almost to the day, to announce that there has been “phenomenal” improvements in Iraqi security. Within hours, a woman suicide bomber blew herself up in the Shia holy city of Kerbala, killing at least 40 and wounding 50 people. Often it is difficult to know where the self-deception ends and the deliberate mendacity begins.

The most notorious lie of all was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But critics of the war may have focused too much on WMD and not enough on later distortions.

The event which has done most to shape the present Iraqi political landscape was the savage civil war between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad and central Iraq in 2006-07 when 3,000 civilians a month were being butchered and which was won by the Shia.

The White House and Downing Street blithely denied a civil war was happening – and forced Iraq politicians who said so to recant – to pretend the crisis was less serious than it was.

More often, the lies have been small, designed to make a propaganda point for a day even if they are exposed as untrue a few weeks later. One example of this to shows in detail how propaganda distorts day-to-day reporting in Iraq, but, if the propagandist knows his job, is very difficult to disprove.

On 1 February this year, two suicide bombers, said to be female, blew themselves up in two pet markets in predominantly Shia areas of Baghdad, al Ghazil and al-Jadida, and killed 99 people. Iraqi government officials immediately said the bombers had the chromosonal disorder Down’s syndrome, which they could tell this from looking at the severed heads of the bombers. Sadly, horrific bombings in Iraq are so common that they no longer generate much media interest abroad. It was the Down’s syndrome angle which made the story front-page news. It showed al-Qa’ida in Iraq was even more inhumanly evil than one had supposed (if that were possible) and it meant, so Iraqi officials said, that al-Qa’ida was running out of volunteers.

The Times splashed on it under the headline, “Down’s syndrome bombers kill 91”. The story stated firmly that “explosives strapped to two women with Down’s syndrome were detonated by remote control in crowded pet markets”. Other papers, including The Independent, felt the story had a highly suspicious smell to it. How much could really be told about the mental condition of a woman from a human head shattered by a powerful bomb? Reliable eyewitnesses in suicide bombings are difficult to find because anybody standing close to the bomber is likely to be dead or in hospital.

The US military later supported the Iraqi claim that the bombers had Down’s syndrome. On 10 February, they arrested Dr Sahi Aboub, the acting director of the al Rashad mental hospital in east Baghdad, alleging that he had provided mental patients for use by al-Qa’ida. The Iraqi Interior Ministry started rounding up beggars and mentally disturbed people on the grounds that they might be potential bombers.

But on 21 February, an American military spokes-man said there was no evidence the bombers had Down’s. Adel Mohsin, a senior official at the Health Ministry in Baghdad, poured scorn on the idea that Dr Aboub could have done business with the Sunni fanatics of al-Qa’ida because he was a Shia and had only been in the job a few weeks.

A second doctor, who did not want to give his name, pointed out that al Rashad hospital is run by the fundamentalist Shia Mehdi Army and asked: “How would it be possible for al-Qa’ida to get in there?”

Few people in Baghdad now care about the exact circumstances of the bird market bombings apart from Dr Aboub, who is still in jail, and the mentally disturbed beggars who were incarcerated. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that al-Qa’ida is not running out of suicide bombers. But it is pieces of propaganda such as this small example, often swallowed whole by the media and a thousand times repeated, which cumulatively mask the terrible reality of Iraq.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/patrick-cockburn-this-is-the-war-that-started-with-lies-and-continues-with-lie-after-lie-after-lie-797788.html

2 Comments

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Human Rights, Politics, Projects, Resistance

Robert Fisk: Seduced by the power of historic books

There is nothing to match the smell of old books. “Musty” is the cliché that comes to mind but there is something more attractive, more refined about the perfume of ancient volumes. It’s the same kind of smell you find in Anglo-Saxon churches, the smell of wood pulp, of trees.

That we should still use the great forests of the world to disseminate our wisdom in the age of the internet is somehow appropriate, our love of books linking us to the prehistorical age of dinosaurs and pterodactyls, when the planet really was green.

I don’t care if the books are “foxed” – if pages are brown-stained by the damp of ages – and that’s just as well because Beirut is a dirty city, and in my seafront apartment, a mixture of exhaust fumes, industrial grime and the damp of the Mediterranean “foxes” even my newest books within a year. I once thought of moving them to Europe, then realised that their deterioration was part of their story, that they would always wear their history of Lebanon on their covers.

That’s one reason why I love the old second-hand bookshop that Habib Aboujaudeh runs on Bliss Street. It’s seen hard times – just like 75-year-old Habib. During the civil war, thieves stole thousands of pounds’ worth of books from his store in west Beirut. “I lived in Ashrafieh in the east and my books were being sold on the streets of Hamra,” he tells me. “I don’t know why they took them. They can’t have made much money.” In Khayat’s Bookshop – Habib inherited the name of previous owners – the smell of wood mixes with the odour of old stones. The store was once stables for the horses of the American University of Beirut, which still stands across the road, an academy founded by a 19th-century Quaker called Bliss.

Unlike Lebanon, Habib’s shop is a cocktail of religions and literary style. There are Bibles and treatises on Islamic jurisprudence, tawdry romances from the 1950s, science lectures and the works of Ayatollah Khomeini and children’s books and postcards of pre-war Beirut in which large American cars motor past 1930s hotels. Here you can find Alistair MacLean’s Guns of Navarone in French, and Albert Vulliez’s account of Churchill’s destruction of the Vichy French fleet in Mers el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. “A hateful decision,” Churchill called it in his own history of the Second World War (also in Habib’s shop), “the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.”

Several shelves contain paperback volumes of mathematics conference lectures. It would probably need a mathematician to understand them, but the visitor may browse through Homotopy Invariant Algebraic Structures on Topological Spaces by Boardman and Voigt (1973) or the minutes of the Romanian-Finnish Seminar on Complex Analysis (Bucharest, 1976) or even Commutative Harmonic Analysis (Marseilles, 1974), which just might be the ancestor of a more modern paper on Geometric Properties of Musical Rhythms. Alas, my favourite title of a mathematics paper – Deflating the Pentagon, which must have caused missing heartbeats in the US Department of Homeland Security – is nowhere to be found in Habib’s shop.

But he does walk over to me with a massive volume, printed in 1890 and entitled Architectural Studies in Italy, number 49 out of only 150 copies, authored by William J Anderson, president of the Glasgow Architectural Association. “The Photo-Mechanical-Process and the printing are by Messrs McLure and Macdonald & Co Glasgow,” the reader is solemnly informed, and by God, they knew how to print. Not in the glossiest of architectural volumes have I seen such fine and detailed drawings. “How much do you think it’s worth?” Habib asks me quietly. I express my total ignorance. “Sometimes I sell a book and I regret selling it,” he says mysteriously. “The person who loves a book – I sometimes sell it to him at half price. If I don’t like him, I don’t sell it to him for any price.”

Habib sells me Ordeal in Algeria for £28. But written by Richard Brace, an American professor, and his writer wife Jane, two years before France’s frightful colonial war came to an end in 1962, it’s a snip for the wisdom it dispenses. It’s amazing how much the Bruces got right. They emphasised the shamefulness of torture – utilised by the French with the same scientific enthusiasm as the Americans have shown in “waterboarding” their own Muslim victims.

And here is the author’s prescient conclusion, in which readers may care to substitute America for France and think of another, even bloodier conflict: “Freedom from fear is the only environment in which people, particularly one lacking in breadth of political maturity, can express an honest voice. And how can this be obtained if one enemy … refuses to negotiate with the other? How, on the other hand, can the rebels lay down their arms? One solution seems as impossible to the philosophy of the partisans as the other. And France will not recognise the international voice, the world sentiment rising against her …”

Habib hopes, I think, that I will part with many more pounds for a far older and more precious tome which he hands to me. A View of the Levant: Particularly of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt & Greece by Charles Perry (dedicated to “the Right Honourable Earl of Sandwich, etc, etc”), was printed in 1743 for “T Woodward between the Temple Gates in Fleet Street and C Davis, near Middle Row in Holborn”.

I prowl through its parchment pages for the city in which I live today. And of course, I find it. “Bayrut (which in the Time of the Romans was not wanting, but rather abundant in magnificent Buildings, as appears from the great Quantity of Granite Pillars, which lie dispersed up and down) is delightfully situated by the Sea-side, at the South Point of a spacious Bay; and ’tis encompass’d to the Landward with delightful Gardens which extend Three or Four Miles from the Bank of it; which are intersperss’d with most delightful Avenues… and pleasant Rivulets of Water in different Directions.”

I am still considering a bid on this memory of a safer, greener Middle East. There is today only one garden left in Beirut and the “most delightful Avenues” are now canyons of traffic. True, the Roman ruins can still be seen downtown and my own flat is indeed “delightfully situated by the Sea-side”. But I bet that books never “foxed” in those days.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-seduced-by-the-power-of-historic-books-780232.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Projects

Robert Fisk: The curious case of the forged biography

It arrived for me in Beirut under plain cover, a brown envelope containing a small, glossy paperback in Arabic, accompanied by a note from an Egyptian friend. “Robert!” it began. “Did you really write this?”

The front cover bore a photograph of Saddam Hussein in the dock in Baghdad, the left side of his head in colour, the right side bleached out, wearing a black sports jacket but with no tie, holding a Koran in his right hand. “Saddam Hussein,” the cover said in huge letters. “From Birth to Martyrdom.” And then there was the author’s name – in beautiful, calligraphic typeface and in gold in the top, right-hand corner. “By Robert Fisk.”

So there it was, 272 paperback pages on the life and times of the Hitler of Baghdad and selling very well in the Egyptian capital. “We all suspect a well-known man here,” she added. “His name is Magdi Chukri.”

Needless to say, I noticed one or two problems with this book. It took a very lenient view of the brutality of Saddam, it didn’t seem to care much about the gassed civilians of Halabja – and it was full of the kind of purple passages which I loathe. “After the American rejection of the Iraqi weapons report to the UN,” ‘Robert Fisk’ wrote, “the beating of war drums turned into a cacophony…”

Dare I suggest to readers that this kind of cliche doesn’t sound like Robert Fisk? The only war drums I could hear were those of my own astonishment. For I never wrote this book. It wasn’t plagiarism – a common practice in Cairo, which is why I ensure that all my real books are legally published in Arabic in Lebanon. No, this wasn’t plagiarism. This was forgery.

And it was clearly the moment for Detective Inspector Fisk to hunt down “The Mystery of the Cairo Forger”. Elementary, my dear reader, which is why I boarded Middle East Airlines flight ME304 from Beirut to my least favourite Arab capital, the bureaucratic, traffic-snarled, bankrupt, wonderful, lawless, irredeemable, spectacular Cairo.

I had called an Egyptian journalist friend, Saef Nasrawi, to be my Dr Watson and – a few metres from the front door of the Marriott Gezira Hotel – we found our faithful driver, Yasser Hassan. “Make sure you put my family name in your newspaper,” he announced. I have now done so.

It’s always been my theory that a taxi driver – especially in Cairo – will be more helpful, more friendly and altogether more enthusiastic if he knows why you’re in the back of his cab. So, when I showed him the slim paperback, he raced off at once to what we all hoped was the office of the publisher, clearly printed on page two. “Ibda” the company was supposedly called and the Egyptian telephone operator had traced the name to an address in Old Cairo, No 953 Corniche el-Nil.

Through the downtown morning traffic, we ground, canyons of black and white taxis like our own; vast, single-storey buses packed with Galabiya-clad and bearded men; 4x4s carrying Cairo’s demimonde of jewelled ladies and young men with shaving problems – the bewhiskered chin-for machismo is as much a problem in the Middle East as it is in London.

No 953 was a tall tenement block into which Saef and I could not penetrate without the permission of a black-cowled lady whose child was playing in the dust of the roadway. She listened as we called upstairs. Yes, a woman’s voice said. We could take the elevator. On the wall beside the lift was a sign: “Ibda – the house of creativity for journalism, publication and distribution”. I could believe in the “creativity” bit.

But the veiled and polite lady on the 11th floor was all ignorance. “We never published such a book,” she said, and called her female boss, who was at the Cairo Book Fair. She called us back on our mobile and insisted – quite truthfully – that Saddam Hussein was not her work. Not only did she deny all knowledge of the forgery – her assistant weighed us down with her own genuinely produced books of literary endeavour.

Saef and Yasser debated our problem. The publishing details in the front of the book were clearly wrong. But the frontispiece announced that the book had been registered for circulation with the Egyptian government – in other words, it has been cleared for sale by the official censor. So, Detective Inspector Fisk decided that a visit to the Dar al-Kutb – the official “House of Books” attached to the Ministry of Culture – was our next destination. Had the forger, the so-called Magdi Chukri, been smooth enough to legalise his illegally produced book with the oh-so-law-abiding Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak?

“This is not good enough!” our driver, Yasser, roared at me. “Mr Robert, the people of Egypt will think you wrote this book. You must go to the British embassy, you must go to the Egyptian government, you must go to the police, you must go to our intelligence services.” I had been through this kind of trust curtain before. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Egyptians still evince a blind confidence in Ottoman authority.

The Brits wouldn’t care a damn about this forgery and the Egyptians even less – always supposing “Magdi Chukri” hadn’t slipped the civil servants a few piastas for registering a book by “Robert Fisk”.

We arrived at the Ministry of Culture, a bleak Stalinist office block next door to which we found “House of Books”. On the first floor was an emporium – I hesitate to call it an office – of books, a vast atrium of volumes and manuscripts. They lay feet high on desks, metre high on shelves and – so it seemed – miles high from the floor. Hundreds, nay thousands, of books were stacked in Dickensian rows, floor to ceiling, bodice-rippers and Arabic fiction and treatises on Islamic jurisprudence and physics textbooks. Two veiled ladies and two bearded men sat at a desk amid this forest of literature, one of them – there is always a miracle in Cairo – in front of a grimy, faded-yellow desktop computer.

I asked if my favourite volume had been approved by the Egyptian government for sale. “By Robert Fisk?” the man asked.

“The very one!” I shouted.

“Yes, it was registered with us on 30 May 2007.”

“Is there a name for the man who wanted to register it?”

“No, only an address. 13 Hassan Ramadan Street in Dokki.”

Within seconds, Detective Inspector Fisk was bounding down the stairs, his faithful Dr Saef Watson on his heels. “To Dokki!” we demanded of the delighted Yasser. Now, surely, we were hot on the trail of the Forger of Cairo. A chance at last to confront Mr Magdi.

The problem – which all three of us realised – is that Magdi Chukri is about as common in Cairo as John Smith is in Britain.

There must be hundreds of thousands of Magdi Chukris in Egypt – one of whom is a former Egyptian foreign minister, a man of great probity who would never forge a book –which is probably why the writer chose the name.

We turned left into an evil-smelling alleyway – Hassan Ramadan Street – and stopped outside No 13. It was an underground mosque. Not only was it underground but, when Saef and I tried to enter the building, the wailed prayers of a funeral ascended from the basement.

A helpful bo’ab – all Egyptian buildings possess a doorman – arrived to insist that no publisher lived in the leaning, mud-brick tenement behind the mosque. “I know all these people,” he said, pointing to each heavily-hung washing line. “These are the Wassiss, there are the Salmans …”

At which point an elderly lady in spectacles, dressed in a smart black and white business suit, emerged from a stairway. No, she told Saef, there were no publishers here. “But there used to be that nice Mr Magdi Chukri.”

“Magdi Chukri?!”

“Yes, but he moved out a year ago [before he registered his false address with the government, the Detective Inspector’s computer brain worked out] and now he works at the branch of Mgboulli’s bookshop around the corner.”

Neither Holmes nor Watson ever moved so fast. Saef, Yasser and I hooted and screamed the wrong way out of Hassan Ramadan Street, donkey riders tight-eyed with hatred as we tooted them off the road. Only one thing mattered now. Number 45 Al-Batal Ahmed Abdul-Aziz Street, the local Mgboulli bookshop.

And there it was, its window packed with paperbacks, the “G” and “U” of Mgboulli having long ago fallen to the pavement.

There was a slim, cigarette-smoking Egyptian in a yellow smoking jacket with black velvet lapels blocking the doorway. “I want to buy a book,” I said softly, the winning smile – I’m afraid – of an undercover policeman suffusing my face. There were two tough, beefy men inside, shop assistants as you’ve never seen them before. I asked for a well-known volume on the life of Saddam Hussein.

“By Robert Fisk?” I was asked.

“Why yes, the very one!”

I followed one of the beefy men upstairs to the “Saddam Hussein biography” section. At which point, he darted back downstairs and retrieved the book from a secret pile behind the counter. “Thirty Egyptian pounds,” he said. I paid. Yes, I paid the equivalent of £2.86 for a book with my name on it which I never wrote.

The man in the yellow jacket – he now introduced himself as “Mahmoud” – asked me why I wanted to buy this particular tome. “Because this is my name on the cover,” I said. “And here is my business card. I never wrote this book.”

“Mahmoud” and the two beefy men burst into laughter. So did Saef. So did I. For this was a ticklish moment. Did “Mahmoud” know “Magdi Chukri”, I asked?

“Yes, he is a good friend of mine. But he left us some time ago and now he lives in 6th October City. Here is his number.” I called it. Switched off. There was another number. A woman answered, refused to give her name or address and hung up. “Mahmoud” shrugged.

“How many copies of this book have you sold,” I asked.

“Mahmoud” drew on his cigarette. “At least 100 so far.”

“So you owe me 3,000 Egyptian pounds!” I was enjoying this.

“But, no, Mr Robert, we don’t owe you this,” “Mahmoud” said with a cringing smile. “Because you have just told me you didn’t write this book. How can we pay you for a book you did not write?”

Why did I like “Mahmoud”? Why did I love this moment?

Was it possible to find Mr Chukri in 6th October City? Could we perhaps go street by street to hunt him down?

Saef leaned over my shoulder. “Mr Robert, about nine million people live in 6th October City.”

I got the message. Clutching my second copy of “Robert Fisk’s’ biography of Saddam Hussein” – Yasser was delighted to receive it as a gift – I left Mgboulli’s and returned to the Marriott. That night, I sat upon my hotel balcony and looked across the fume-encrusted minarets and the black tide of the Nile to the twinkling lights of 6th October City.

Far out there in the darkness, “Magdi Chukri” must be working on another historical volume.

What will be its title, I wondered? And which author’s name will grace the front cover in gold?

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-the-curious-case-of-the-forged-biography-776775.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Essay, Politics

Robert Fisk: Torture does not work, as history shows

“Torture works,” an American special forces major – now, needless to say, a colonel – boasted to a colleague of mine a couple of years ago. It seems that the CIA and its hired thugs in Afghanistan and Iraq still believe this. There is no evidence that rendition and beatings and waterboarding and the insertion of metal pipes into men’s anuses – and, of course, the occasional torturing to death of detainees – has ended. Why else would the CIA admit in January that it had destroyed videotapes of prisoners being almost drowned – the “waterboarding” technique – before they could be seen by US investigators?

Yet only a few days ago, I came across a medieval print in which a prisoner has been strapped to a wooden chair, a leather hosepipe pushed down his throat and a primitive pump fitted at the top of the hose where an ill-clad torturer is hard at work squirting water down the hose. The prisoner’s eyes bulge with terror as he feels himself drowning, all the while watched by Spanish inquisitors who betray not the slightest feelings of sympathy with the prisoner. Who said “waterboarding” was new? The Americans are just apeing their predecessors in the inquisition.

Anther medieval print I found in a Canadian newspaper in November shows a prisoner under interrogation in what I suspect is medieval Germany. In this case, he has been strapped backwards to the outer edge of a wheel. Two hooded men are administering his agony. One is using a bellows to encourage a fire burning at the bottom of the wheel while the other is turning the wheel forwards so that the prisoner’s feet are moving into the flames. The eyes of this poor man – naked save for a cloth over his lower torso – are tight shut in pain. Two priests stand beside him, one cowled, the other wearing a robe over his surplice, a paper and pen in hand to take down the prisoner’s words.

Anthony Grafton, who has been working on a book about magic in Renaissance Europe, says that in the 16th and 17th centuries, torture was systematically used against anyone suspected of witchcraft, his or her statements taken down by sworn notaries – the equivalent, I suppose, of the CIA’s interrogation officers – and witnessed by officials who made no pretence that this was anything other than torture; no talk of “enhanced interrogation” from the lads who turned the wheel to the fire.

As Grafton recounts, “The pioneering medievalist Henry Charles Lea … wrote at length about the ways in which inquisitors had used torture to make prisoners confess heretical views and actions. An enlightened man writing in what he saw as an enlightened age, he looked back in horror at these barbarous practices and condemned them with a clarity that anyone reading public statements must now envy.”

There were professionals in the Middle Ages who were trained to use pain as a method of enquiry as well as an ultimate punishment before death. Men who were to be “hanged, drawn and quartered” in medieval London, for example, would be shown the “instruments” before their final suffering began with the withdrawal of their intestines in front of vast crowds of onlookers. Most of those tortured for information in medieval times were anyway executed after they had provided the necessary information to their interrogators. These inquisitions – with details of the torture that accompanied them – were published and disseminated widely so that the public should understand the threat that the prisoners had represented and the power of those who inflicted such pain upon them. No destroying of videotapes here. Illustrated pamphlets and songs, according to Grafton, were added to the repertory of publicity.

Ronnie Po-chia Hsia and Italian scholars Diego Quaglioni and Anna Esposito have studied the 15th-century Trent inquisition whose victims were usually Jews. In 1475, three Jewish households were accused of murdering a Christian boy called Simon to carry out the supposed Passover “ritual” of using his blood to make “matzo” bread. This “blood libel” – it was, of course, a total falsity – is still, alas, believed in many parts of the Middle East although it is frightening to discover that the idea was well established in 15th century Europe.

As usual, the podestà – a city official – was the interrogator, who regarded external evidence as providing mere clues of guilt. Europe was then still governed by Roman law which required confessions in order to convict. As Grafton describes horrifyingly, once the prisoner’s answers no longer satisfied the podestà, the torturer tied the man’s or woman’s arms behind their back and the prisoner would then be lifted by a pulley, agonisingly, towards the ceiling. “Then, on orders of the podestà, the torturer would make the accused ‘jump’ or ‘dance’ – pulling him or her up, then releasing the rope, dislocating limbs and inflicting stunning pain.”

When a member of one of the Trent Jewish families, Samuel, asked the podestà where he had heard that Jews needed Christian blood, the interrogator replied – and all this while, it should be remembered, Samuel was dangling in the air on the pulley – that he had heard it from other Jews. Samuel said that he was being tortured unjustly. “The truth, the truth!” the podestà shouted, and Samuel was made to “jump” up to eight feet, telling his interrogator: “God the Helper and truth help me.” After 40 minutes, he was returned to prison.

Once broken, the Jewish prisoners, of course, confessed. After another torture session, Samuel named a fellow Jew. Further sessions of torture finally broke him and he invented the Jewish ritual murder plot and named others guilty of this non-existent crime. Two tortured women managed to exonerate children but eventually, in Grafton’s words, “they implicated loved ones, friends and members of other Jewish communities”. Thus did torture force innocent civilians to confess to fantastical crimes. Oxford historian Lyndal Roper found that the tortured eventually accepted the view that they were guilty.

Grafton’s conclusion is unanswerable. Torture does not obtain truth. It will make most ordinary people say anything the torturer wants. Why, who knows if the men under the CIA’s “waterboarding” did not confess that they could fly to meet the devil. And who knows if the CIA did not end up believing him.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-torture-does-not-work-as-history-shows-777213.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Human Rights, Politics

Robert Fisk: A lesson in how to create Iraqi orphans. And then how to make life worse for them

It’s not difficult to create orphans in Iraq. If you’re an insurgent, you can blow yourself up in a crowded market. If you’re an American air force pilot, you can bomb the wrong house in the wrong village. Or if you’re a Western mercenary, you can fire 40 bullets into the widowed mother of 14-year-old Alice Awanis and her sisters Karoon and Nora, the first just 20, the second a year older. But when the three girls landed at Amman airport from Baghdad last week they believed that they were free of the horrors of Baghdad and might travel to Northern Ireland to escape the terrible memory of their mother’s violent death.

Alas, the milk of human kindness does not necessarily extend to orphans from Iraq – the country we invaded for supposedly humanitarian reasons, not to mention weapons of mass destruction. For as their British uncle waited for them at Queen Alia airport, Jordanian security men – refusing him even a five-minute conversation with the girls – hustled the sisters back on to the plane for Iraq.

“How could they do this?” their uncle, Paul Manouk, asks. “Their mum has been killed. Their father had already died. I was waiting for them. The British embassy in Jordan said they might issue visas for the three – but that they had to reach Amman first.” Mr Manouk lives in Northern Ireland and is a British citizen. Explaining this to the Jordanian muhabarrat at the airport was useless.

Western mercenaries killed their 48-year-old Iraqi Armenian mother, Marou Awanis, and her best friend – firing 40 bullets into her body as she drove her taxi near their four-vehicle convoy in Baghdad – but tragedy has haunted the family for almost a century; the three sisters’ great-grandmother was forced to leave her two daughters to die on their own by the roadside during the 1915 Armenian genocide. Mrs Awanis’ friend, Jeneva Jalal, was killed instantly alongside her in the passenger seat.

The Australian “security” company whose employees killed Mrs Awanis and her friend – “executed” might be a better word for it, because that is the price of driving too close to armed Westerners in Baghdad these days – expressed its “regrets”. The chief operating officer of Unity Resources Group claims that she drove her car at speed towards the company’s employees and that they feared she was a suicide bomber.

“Only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle,” Michael Priddin said. “We deeply regret the loss of these lives.” He refused to identify the killers or their nationality. Westerners in Baghdad – especially those who kill the innocent – are once they are known, rich in regrets. But they are less keen to ensure that the bereaved they leave behind are cared for.

Karoon was sick and had papers allowing her to enter Jordan; the family assumed that her siblings would be permitted to enter the country with her. Mr Manouk, an electrical engineer in Co Down, said that he went to the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees in Amman and that they told him that the sisters had to come in.

“I also sought visas for them at the British embassy but the visa section said that the three had to be in Amman before they could do anything to help them. Karoon was told by the Jordanians she could come into Amman but that her other sisters could not. She would not leave her sisters. So all three went back to Baghdad the same day.

“I just could not believe this. At the airport I pleaded with the Jordanian security people to let me spend five minutes with my nieces – just five minutes only – but they refused.”

Mrs Awanis had two sisters in Iraq, Helen and Anna, who are looking after the girls until Mr Manouk – or anyone else – finds a way of rescuing them.

“I have a Jordanian friend who had at first arranged to enrol the two eldest girls in the university in Jordan, but it was of no use,” Mr Manouk says. “I had an awful evening at the airport. In my distress, I am writing to King Abdullah for his help. We are trying to get a settlement for my nieces with the Australian company whose people shot their mother. But they are not liable under Iraqi law. I want a proper settlement by law – through lawyers – not just a cash handout, which is the way Americans do things in Iraq.”

Like so many Armenian families, the Manouks are overshadowed by a history of mass murder. During the Armenian genocide of 1915, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks, Paul Manouk’s grandfather – the three Iraqi orphans’ great-grandfather – was taken from his family by Turkish policemen in a line of other men and never seen again. His father, then just six years old, survived along with his mother. “But my father’s sister, we believe, was taken by a Kurdish man as his wife,” Mr Manouk said.

“My grandfather’s two other sisters had a terrible fate. Their legs had swollen on the long march south from their home in Besni, near Marash, and they could not keep walking, so my grandmother took the decision to leave them on the roadside and keep the son so that our ‘line’ would survive. The two little girls were never seen again.”

The family had almost reached the border of the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – on the long march of ethnic cleansing when, like tens of thousands other Armenians, they lost their loved ones through exhaustion and starvation. A million-and-a-half Armenians died in the genocide.

After the British occupation of Iraq in 1917, British troops escorted the remains of the Manouk family to Basra where one of the aunts looking after the three Awanis sisters still lives.

Their father, Azad Awanis, died after a heart operation in 2004. Mrs Awanis was driving her Oldsmobile taxi through the dangerous streets of Baghdad to earn money for her family after her husband’s death, little realising that her new job – and a bunch of trigger-happy mercenaries – would orphan her children.

Paul Manouk met his British wife in Edinburgh in 1974, when he was studying for a PhD in medicine. A normally imperturbable man, he describes himself as still being in a state of shock at the killing of his younger sister.

“I wonder what her face was like when she died. She wasn’t in a bad area. Marou was coming back from church when she was shot, along with her friend. Another woman, in the back of the car, was wounded.” A 15-year-old boy survived. According to Mr Manouk, his sister was “riddled with bullets from the chest upwards”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogroll, Columns, Human Rights, Politics