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December 2, 2014

United Nations’ Food Program Halts Aid to Syrian Refugees

World Food Programme Cites Lack of Funding

A Syrian Kurdish woman walks in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province in Turkey, in October.
A Syrian Kurdish woman walks in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province in Turkey, in October. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The United Nations World Food Programme on Monday said it would halt its aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees on the cusp of winter due to lack of funding.

In a statement on their website, the WFP said the consequences of the decision will be “devastating” for the refugees and their host countries.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said in the statement.

The decision will impact refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, and comes at a time when temperatures have begun to drop in the region, raising concerns around how refugees will be able to endure the potentially harsh winter.

Many Syrian refugees, especially in Lebanon, where the majority of refugees reside, live in makeshift tents and camps and suffer from a lack of fuel, clean water, proper sanitation and warm clothing.

The U.N. agency warned in September it was running out of funds and that cutbacks were inevitable if additional support wasn’t received.

The inability to secure the $64 million needed for the program to continue also ends the WFP’s electronic voucher program. The e-vouchers allowed refugee families access to a prepaid credit card that could be used in participating local stores. The program had contributed $800 million to the economies of the host countries, the statement said.

If sufficient financial support is secured, the program will resume immediately, the statement said.

As the Syrian crisis nears the end of its fourth year, the WFP isn’t the only U.N. agency struggling to meet its funding appeals, said Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Of the $3.7 billion request made in June 2014 by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria’s neighboring countries and other humanitarian agencies, only 51% of the funds have been received thus far.

“As the number of Syrian refugees increases, 3.2 million now, the needs increase, and despite international attention diverted to other crises, Syrians are still very much in need,” said Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

There are several reasons contributing to the lack of sufficient aid to Syrian refugees, most notably the various humanitarian emergencies happening simultaneously around the world that have diverted the world’s attention and wallets away from Syria.

According to Joelle Eid, the WFP’s communication officer stationed in Amman, Jordan, the need for humanitarian aid has skyrocketed this year. The WFP is currently dealing with five high priority emergencies around the world, including the Ebola crisis, Eid said.

“If we don’t urgently get this assistance, get the $64 million for December alone, people will simply go hungry,” she added.

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Black Holes and Media Missionaries

A boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at rightA boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at right. Photo: Freedom House. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

The lights are going off in Syria. Peter Kassig is only the most recent witness that succumbed to the darkness. David Haines, Steve Satloff and James Foley went before him. They had all gone there to assist and bear witness. A measure of the Islamic State’s (IS) monstrosity is the nobility of the people it has killed. International media has rightly condemned these horrific murders.

For IS murder is a political act. But is also a performance–a spectacle as a means to amplify its message. The ritual act of murder, especially of a westerner, is certain to receive media coverage. IS uses this to rudely force attention.

The emergence of IS has been a godsend for the regime. IS is the monster that the regime always claimed it was fighting. Ideologues who echoed and amplified this regime line over the years have proclaimed IS the true face of the opposition.  Left unmentioned is the fact that until recently IS fought its biggest battles against the Syrian opposition. Indeed, earlier in the year, rebels had driven it out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, much of Aleppo and areas around Damascus. It was only after its successes in Iraq and its newly acquired arsenal that it returned to Syria in triumph. But for many western ideologues, IS is part of an undifferentiated radical opposition to the secular regime of Bashar al Assad.

In fact, IS has a lot more in common with the regime. It is a totalitarian force that uses terror as a means of control. The regime kills but is loath to take responsibility; IS revels in murder. The regime kills more, but IS better amplifies its acts. The regime’s audience is domestic; IS has transnational ambitions. Significantly, where IS proudly rejects the international order, the regime presents itself as its indispensable, if ruthless guardian. For the media, IS is a more exciting story.

The media is selective elsewhere too. Foley and Satloff aren’t the only journalists IS has killed: there have been many more—Iraqis and Syrians—whose names remain unknown to the world. And IS isn’t the only force in Syria killing journalists and aid workers: Bashar al Assad’s regime has been doing it far longer.

The Syrian nightmare has unfolded with such pace and intensity that each day’s horror displaces the one preceding it. With IS dominating the news it might be hard for audiences to remember that the killing of western journalists in Syria is as old as the conflict itself. It began long before any jihadi had alighted on Syrian soil.

Years before anyone had heard the name IS, the regime killed Marie Colvin of theSunday Times along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik when, in the first major escalation of the war, it used artillery on the Baba Amr district of Homs. A month before that it had killed Gilles Jacquier of France 2.

Since the beginning, Damascus has tried to control the narrative by making it too dangerous for journalists to report from Syria—unless they embedded with the regime. Some have embraced this arrangement; unwilling to compromise their objectivity, others have accepted the perils of independent reporting. But most have stayed clear, relying instead on stringers, activists, or citizen journalists.

Leaving aside the courage of the few who have risked much to report from outside regime-controlled Syria, reporting on the conflict has been gernally dismal. While some have used new technologies, including Skype, Youtube, Twitter, to gather material for reportage; others have forgone such exertions to deduce reality from pre-existing notions, ignoring the specificities of the situation in favour of ideological formulas that are impervious to time and place.

With multiplying dangers and fewer reporters willing to enter the killing fields of Syria, it is the ideological types that have come to dominate reporting. This type has also found it easier to embed with the regime. They visit Syria not in search of stories but bring stories to Syria in search of validation.

Beyond the ideological type, however, there is also the hack. If the ideological types are defined by their dogmas, the hacks are defined by procedures. All journalists aspire to be objective; and objectivity for most journalists is encoded in certain practices. To be objective is to be fair, impartial and balanced. But fairness and impartiality are harder to demonstrate; balance is measurable. For this reason, hack reporters use balance as an indicator of their objectivity. Balance is useful in many cases. But where there is a severe imbalance in the underlying situation, imposing balance distorts the picture.

In Syria, the hack reporter’s need for balance has created a misleading picture of the conflict. One often hears the bien pensant liberal lament how “both sides” in the conflict are just as bad as the other. But “both sides” in the conflict are not equal. One side is a state with its hierarchies, chains of command and coercive apparatus intact; the other side is a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition. The crimes of the former reflect policy; those of the latter only reflect on the group or individual perpetrating them. The regime’s crimes have been sustained and wholesale; the crimes of the opposition are retail and sporadic.

That is not to excuse any crime. All criminals—rebel or regime—must face justice. But one must be wary of false notions of balance that undermine a sense of proportion.

On September 11, 2013, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had perpetrated at least eight major massacres while the rebels had been responsible for one. The rise and extreme brutality of IS hasn’t changed this equation. In a report concluded a year later, Pineheiro noted that the despite IS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”.

This isn’t all that surprising if one considers that the Assad regime has a monopoly on airpower, armour, heavy artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons—and it hasn’t hesitated to use them against civilians.

But monstrous as the regime’s actions are, it has always managed to find people willing to give it the benefit of doubts. Refracted through ideology, each of the regime’s ruthless acts of repression becomes a strike against western imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism (the contradictions between the two notwithstanding). This is achieved by zooming out from actual events to an imagined context: Assad is not at war with his own people, we are made to understand, but against the proxies of an imperial force trying to undermine the “axis of resistance” of which he is a part.

Only such creative reimagining could allow a veteran journalist like Charles Glass to present Assad as the underdog and his most heinous crime—last year’s chemical attack on Ghouta—as something positive. Consider these words:

“The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side”

After using the benign “introduction” to describe a major escalation, Glass immediately retreats into the passive voice with “alleged to have been used” which doesn’t require him to identify the alleger. The UN and OPCW have alleged no such thing. The regime perhaps?

But things get worse: Glass next tells us that the attack “unexpectedly led to hope for a way out”, because the Russians compelled Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. Glass then goes on to laud Russian which “delivered President Assad” at Geneva, but condemns the US for being “slow to persuade the militias it funds” along with its allies.

By this reckoning when the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against its people, it is delivering hope; the real aggressor, it turns out, is the US.

Glass is not even the worst of them. The Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who has also chosen to embed with the regime,reported shortly after the chemical attack, that “information is now circulating in the city”—furnished by the Russians and corroborated by “a former Special Forces officer” operating with the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, who is “considered a reliable source” (by whom?)—that Assad wasn’t responsible for the attack. Fisk’s reliable source—the regime—tells him that it was indeed the rebels that were responsible for the attack.

Fisk’s credulity is matched by his ethics. In August 2012, after a massacre in Daraya had left between 400-500 people, Fisk rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier into the city to interview survivors and concluded that it was “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” that were responsible for the massacre. It somehow did not occur to this veteran journalist that people might not be very forthcoming being interviewed by a journalist “in the company of armed Syrian forces”. Indeed, Human Rights Watch came to very different conclusions after its investigation into the massacre. And when the veteran war correspondentJanine di Giovanni visited the town unaccompanied by regime troops, she received detailed testimony on how the Syrian military had carried out the massacre.

Patrick Cockburn, Fisk’s colleague at The Independent, is another veteran correspondent, a winner of many awards. His book, The Jihadi’s Return, is enjoying great success. For Cockburn, IS  has little to do with the Syrian regime; it is a by-product of the West and its Gulf allies’s decision to support an uprising against Assad. Cockburn finds it absurd that the West should try to strengthen the Iraqi government against IS while simultaneously trying to weaken the Syrian one. For Cockburn the Syrian regime is the only force capable of confronting IS. More controversially, he has portrayed the Free Syria Army as being in cahoots with IS, attributing this incendiary claim to an “intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighbouring Syria”. (Note that this is the only instance in which Cockburn doesn’t reveal the name of the country. His most frequent source is the intelligence service of Iraq—Assad’s closest ally).

Cockburn’s problems go beyond sourcing. Like Fisk, he also takes liberties with facts.

On page 76 of his book, he writes: “I witnessed JAN forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.”

If he witnessed this, then it would be major scoop. Since other than the regime, the only source to make this claim was the Russian state broadcaster RT. However, RT had used fake pictures to support its claim. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found no evidence of this alleged massacre.

However, when one looks at Cockburn’s original report on the incident in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, he attributes the story about rebels arriving through drainage pipes to “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”. In that version, Cockburn wasn’t a witness.

By far the most egregious incident of journalistic malpractice comes from one of the most celebrated names in journalism: the Pulitzer Prize-winner . In two frontpage articles for the venerable London Review of Books, he claimed that it was the rebels rather than regime that carried out August 2013’s chemical massacre. Hersh attributed this claim to an unnamed “former intelligence official”. Hersh’s theory was contradicted by extant data collected by the UN and OPCW (as I have shown in an extended investigation for the Los Angeles Review of Books). But the story that Hersh was retailing had already been circulating on the internet. It’s authors were a group of former intelligence officials, some of whom are Hersh’s frequent sources. Their main claims were attributed thus:

There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters.

The date was September 6. But on September 1, the Canadian conspiracy site Globalresearch.ca published an article by one Yossef Bodansky implicating the Obama administration in the chemical attack. It began thus:

There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — which makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

The intelligence officials had plagiarized. Their claim was the figment of a conspiracist’s imagination.

Syria has been a deadly conflict for journalists – it has claimed the lives of 70 so far. Few journalists are willing to venture there any longer—except as guests of the regime.  Those who have made this compromise in turn have acquired influence despite the compromised nature of the journalism that they are producing.  In turn they are shaping public opinion and even policy. We have to be wary of those who see Syria as an opportunity to settle old ideological scores.

An abridged version was first published in “die tageszeitung” on November 25, 2014

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Poet Mourid Barghouti on His Wife, Novelist Radwa Ashour (1946-2014)

The relationship between Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour — as traced through their literary works — is one of the twentieth century’s great love stories:182946_122926790673_2399930_nBarghouti and Ashour met as students at Cairo University in the 1960s, and he writes about the beginnings of their relationship in his second memoir, I Was Born There, I Was Born Heretrans. Humphrey Davies:“I read my first poems to her on the steps of the Cairo University library when we were not yet twenty. We took part together in literary gatherings at the Faculty without it occurring to us that a personal interest had developed, or was developing, between us. We were students and limited our conversation to ‘professional’ matters such as our studies and never went beyond these into any intimate topic. She would tell me, ‘You will become a poet,’ and I would reply, ‘And what if I fail at that?’ I’d tell her, ‘You will become a great novelist’ and she’d give the same answer and we’d laugh. This ‘fraternal’ language and collegial spirit continued between us until the four years of study were over and I went to work in Kuwait. I used to write regular letters about my new life in Kuwait to her and to Amina Sabri and Amira Fahmi, our best friends throughout our studies, with whom we’d made something like a small family. I realized, however, that my letters to Radwa contained nothing of my news or the events of my life and concerned themselves only with my unspoken feelings about that life.

“When I saw her on my first visit to Cairo during the summer holidays, we found ourselves talking like a mother and a father, and sometimes like a grandmother and a grandfather. We talked like a family of two that had been together for ages.

“It was out of the question to talk about ‘steps’ we ought to be taking.”

They married in 1970, and Radwa went to the U.S. for a time to study toward her PhD. Their only son, Tamim, was born in 1977. Barghouti writes about it in I Saw Ramallahtrans. Ahdaf Soueif:

“I do not know how men have stolen the right to name children after themselves. That feeling was not simply a temporary reaction to seeing a mother suffer during delivery. I still believe that every child is the son of his mother. That is justice. I said to Radwa as we took our first steps out of the door of the hospital, she carrying the two-day-old Tamim on her arm, ‘Tamim is all yours. I am ashamed that he will carry my name and not yours on his birth certificate.’”

37819_411548290673_1094883_nThat same year, 1977, Barghouti and many other Palestinians were deported from Egypt on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s controversial visit to Israel. Barghouti was prevented from living in Egypt for the next seventeen years. Also from I Saw Ramallah:

“And then the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, had a decisive role in defining our size as a family. His decision to deport me resulted in my remaining the father of an only child, Radwa and I not having a daughter, for example, to add to Tamim, or ten sons and daughters. I lived on one continent and Radwa on another: on her own she could not care for more than one child.”

On their continued years of off-on separation, from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“Radwa would pay for the policies of Sadat and his successor Mubarak in the coin of her own private life. She would experience the expulsion of her husband and dedicate her time to caring for her son without the presence of his father for seventeen years, except for short and intermittent periods. When she was obliged to undergo a life-threatening operation, she would be alone with Tamim, who was not yet three years old, while I was in Budapest and forbidden to put my mind at rest about her and be by her side. My mother flew to Cairo the moment she heard of the disease and that lightened the burden for me a little. Once more I had failed to be where I ought to be.”

Barghouti was later able to return to Egypt and later even to Palestine, a journey documented in his I Saw Ramallah. Later yet, he is able to bring their son Tamim. On a poetry reading in the square of Deir Ghassanah, in Palestine, from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“I wanted to speak of Radwa in the square of Deir Ghassanah and to the people of Deir Ghassanah because it wouldn’t be natural if Radwa’s almost total knowledge of everything about the village and its people — their names and life stories, the funny things they’re known for and their sorrows — were to remain one-sided. I wanted them to know her too.”

The two of them were married for forty-four years:radwa_ashour

Also from I Was Born There, I Was Born Here:

“Alone, between sky and earth, I think of Radwa.”

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