ShahidulNews

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Today in Gaza

You who are silent
You who leave it to others
You who do not hear the screams

Every bomb that falls
Every ‘call for restraint’
Every blood clot etched in the sand

Calls out in vain
Calls out in pain
Calls out your name

Remember you let it happen
Remember you turned away
Remember you were silent

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This letter arrived this morning:

Dear Shahidul

This is from my friend Selim, about yesterday’s aggression. As you know I worked on year in Gaza (as the head of the UNRWA health services that provides primary health care to 20,000 refugees daily. So far more than 200 dead and more than 700 wounded, many civilians as there is no “clean” war in urban settings and surgical strikes; The horror is there. And foreign governments recommend restraints on both sides as if it was a solution. Hamas respected the truce for many months and saw no improvement.

Thanks for doing what you can.

Pierre Claquin

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Today in Gaza

It was just before noon when I heard the first explosion. I rushed to my window, barely had I looked out when I was pushed back by the force and air pressure of another explosion. For a few moments I didn’t understand, then I realized that Israeli promises of a wide-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip had materialized. Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzpi Livni’s statements following a meeting with Egyptian President Hussni Mubarak the day before yesterday had not been empty threats after all.

What followed seems pretty much surreal at this point. Never had we imagined anything like this. It all happened so fast but the amount of death and destruction is inconceivable, even to me and I’m in the middle of it and a few hours have passed already passed.
6 locations were hit during the air raid on Gaza city. The images are probably not broadcasted in US news channels. There were piles and piles of bodies in the locations that were hit. As you looked at them you could see that a few of the young men are still alive, someone lifts a hand here, and another raise his head there. They probably died within moments because their bodies are burned, most have lost limbs, some have their guts hanging out and they’re all lying in pools of blood. Outside my home, (which is close to the 2 largest universities in Gaza) a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students, they’d been warned not to stand in groups, it makes them an easy target, but they were waiting for buses to take them home. 7 were killed, 4 students and 3 of our neighbors kids, young men who were from the same family (Rayes) and were best friends. As I’m writing this I can hear a funeral procession go by outside, I looked out the window a moment ago and it was the 3 Rayes boys, They spent all their time together when they were alive, they died together and now their sharing the same funeral together. Nothing could stop my 14 year old brother from rushing out to see the bodies of his friends laying in the street after they were killed. He hasn’t spoken a word since.

What did Olmert mean when he stated that WE the people of Gaza weren’t the enemy, that it was Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who were being targeted? Was that statement made to infuriate us out of out state of shock, to pacify any feelings of rage and revenge? To mock us?? Were the scores of children on their way home from school and who are now among the dead and the injured Hamas militants? A little further down my street about half an hour after the first strike 3 schoolgirls happened to be passing by one of the locations when a missile struck the Preventative Security Headquarters building. The girls bodies were torn into pieces and covered the street from one side to the other.

In all the locations people are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion, cell phones aren’t working, hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It’s truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically and people with injuries that aren’t life threatening are sent home. A relative of mine was injured by a flying piece of glass from her living room window, she had deep cut right down the middle of her face. She was sent home, too many people needed medical attention more urgently. Her husband, a dentist, took her to his clinic and sewed up her face using local anesthesia
200 people dead in today’s air raid. That means 200 funeral processions, a few today, most of them tomorrow probably. To think that yesterday these families were worried about food and heat and electricity. At this point I think they -actually all of us- would gladly have Hamas sign off every last basic right we’ve been calling for the last few months forever if it could have stopped this from ever having happened.

The bombing was very close to my home. Most of my extended family live in the area. My family is ok, but 2 of my uncles’ homes were damaged. We can rest easy, Gazans can mourn tonight. Israel is said to have promised not to wage any more air raids for now. People suspect that the next step will be targeted killings, which will inevitably means scores more of innocent bystanders whose fate has already been sealed.

This doesn’t even begin to tell the story on any level. Just flashes of thing that happened today that are going through my head.

Peace

Selim

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Identity Card, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish

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gaza-violence-attracting-people-to-citizen

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December 28, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Remembering December 1971

Winter, War and Refugee Camps

Julian Francis

“So, what were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.

After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer after a long day’s work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio’s English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis. Officially, this super flotilla – ‘the most powerful force in the world’ – was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.

As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.

We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.

As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.

These, then, are a few of my memories……..

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Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra

December 16, 2008 Posted by | 1971, Bangladesh | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Technician in the Establishment: Obama’s America and the World

By Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles and is presently with the University of California Education Abroad Programme in India.

Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly

Barack Obama is poised to become the 44th president of the United States. Many see in the ascendancy of a black man to the highest office of the world’s hegemon a supremely historic moment in American if not world affairs. Such is the incalculable hold of the US, in times better or worse, on the imagination of people worldwide that many are more heavily invested in the politics and future of the US than they are in the politics of their own nation.

There may yet be method to this maddening infatuation, for Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, among many others, known and unknown, the target at some point of the military wrath and moral unctuousness of America, may want to reason if their chances of being bombed back into the stone age increase or decrease with the election of one or the other candidate. The French, perhaps best known for the haughty pride in their own culture, were so moved by the events of September 11, 2001, which the Americans have attempted to install as a new era in world history, rendering 9/11 as something akin to BC or AD, that Le Monde famously declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains” (“We are all Americans”). One doubts that, had it been Beijing, Delhi, or Dakar that had been so bombed, the French would have declared, We are All Chinese, Indians, or Senegalese. That old imperialist habit of presuming the royal We, thinking that the French or American we is the universal We, has evidently not disappeared.

Obama vs McCain

There can be little question that Obama’s presidency would be much preferable to that of McCain. If nothing else, his presidency is not calculated to be an insult to human intelligence or a complete affront to simple norms of human decency. After eight years of George W Bush, it seemed all but improbable that America could throw up another candidate who is, if not in absolutely identical ways, at least as much of an embarrassment to the US as the incumbent of the White House. But one should never underestimate the genius of America in throwing up crooks, clowns and charlatans into the cauldron of politics. It is likely that McCain has a slightly less convoluted – or should I say jejune – view of world history and geography than Bush, nor is his vocabulary wholly impoverished, but he will not strike anyone with a discerning mind as possessed of a robust intelligence. McCain has already committed so many gaffes, accusing (to take one example) Iran of training Al Qaida extremists, that one wonders whether his much touted “foreign policy experience” amounts to anything at all.

In America, it is enough to have a candidate who understands that Iraq and Iran are not only spelled differently but constitute two separate nations. Obama seems so far ahead of the decorated Vietnam war veteran in these respects that it seems pointless to waste any more words on McCain. Obama writes reasonably well, and even been lauded for his skills as an orator; he is suave, mentally alert, and a keen observer of world affairs.

Far too many American elections have offered scenarios where a candidate has been voted into office not on the strength of his intelligence, sound policies, or moral judgment, but because the candidate has appeared to be “the lesser of two evils”. The iconoclast Paul Goodman, writing in the 1960s, gave it as his considered opinion that American elections were an exercise in helping Americans distinguish between undistinguishable Democrats and Republicans, and there are, notwithstanding Obama’s appeal to liberals and apparently intelligent people, genuine questions to be asked about whether this election will be anything more than a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Candidates with wholly distinct views have always been described as “spoilers” in the American system, and anyone who do not subscribe to the rigidly corporatist outlook of the two major parties can only expect ridicule, opprobrium, and at best colossal neglect. To this extent, whatever America’s pretensions at being a model democracy for the rest of the world, one can marvel at the ease and brilliance with which dissenters are marginalised in the US. The singularity of American democracy resides in the fact that it is, insofar as democracies are in question, at once both perversely primitive and advanced. In its totalitarian sweep over the political landscape, the one-party system, which through the fiction of two parties has swept all dissent – indeed, I should say all thought – under the rug, has shown itself utterly incapable of accommodating political views outside its fold; and precisely for this reason American democracy displays nearly all the visible signs of stability, accountability, and public engagement, retaining in its rudiments the same features it has had over the last two centuries.

A New Obama after the Election?

Obama’s most ardent defenders have adopted the predictably disingenuous view that Candidate Obama has had to repress most of his liberal sentiments to appeal to a wide electorate, and that president Obama will be much less “centrist” in his execution of domestic and foreign policies. (The US is one country where most hawks, particularly if they are “distinguished” senior statesmen, can easily pass themselves off as “centrists”, the word “hawk” being reserved for certified lunatics such as Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or blatantly aggressive policymakers such as Paul Wolfowitz. No one would describe Colin Powell, who shares as much responsibility as anyone else for waging a criminal war on Iraq, as a hawk.)

Of course much the same view was advanced apropos Bill Clinton, who then went on to wreck the labour movement, cut food stamps, initiate welfare “reform” that further eroded the entitlements of the poor, and launch aggressive military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and a host of other places. Moreover, unless one is to take the view that Obama thought of his candidacy overnight, it is equally reasonable to argue that, knowing how much he would have to appeal to the rank and file of not only Democrats but the large number of “undecided” voters as a candidate who would be markedly different from both the incumbent and the Republicans running for the presidency, Obama has been projecting himself as far more liberal than either his political record or views would give warrant to believe. Indeed, as a close perusal of his writings, speeches, and voting record suggests, Obama is as consummate a politician as any in the US, and he has been priming himself as a presidential candidate for many years.

Entry to the Obama World View

Obama’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope (New York, Crown Publishers), furnishes as good an entry point into his world view as any. Its subtitle, ‘Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream’, provides the link to Obama’s memoir of 1995, Dreams of My Father (1995). People everywhere have dreams, no doubt, but there is nothing quite as magisterial as “the American dream”: the precise substance of the American dream – a home with a backyard, mom’s apple pie, kids riding their bikes without a care in the world, a cute dog running around in circles after the kids, ice tea, a Chevrolet or SUV – matters less than the fact that “the American dream” signifies something grand and unique in the affairs of humankind. A politician who does not profess belief in the American dream is doomed, but there is no insincerity on Obama’s part in this respect. Leaving aside the question of how the American dream has been a nightmare to many of the most thoughtful Americans themselves, from Henry David Thoreau to James Baldwin, not to mention tens of millions of people elsewhere, Obama’s fondness for what Americans call “feelgood” language is palpably evident. Just what does the audacity of hope mean? Need one be audacious to hope? Obama’s pronouncements are littered with the language of hope, change, values, dreams, all only a slight improvement on chicken soup for dummies or chocolate for the soul.

The chapter entitled ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’, some will object, is illustrative of Obama’s engagement with substantive issues, and in this case suggestive of his grasp over foreign affairs. One of the stories that circulated widely about Bush upon his election to the presidency in 2000 was that he carried an expired passport; a variant of the story says that Bush did not at that time own a US passport. It is immaterial whether the story is apocryphal: so colossal was Bush’s ignorance of the world that it is entirely plausible that he had never travelled beyond Canada and Mexico, though I am tempted to say that illegal aliens and men born to power, transgressors of borders alike, share more than we commonly imagine. Obama, by contrast, came to know of the wider world in his childhood: his white American mother was married to a Kenyan before her second marriage to an Indonesian.

Obama lived in Jakarta as a young boy, and the chapter offers a discussion of the purges under Suharto that led to the extermination of close to a million communists and their sympathisers. Obama is brave enough to acknowledge that many of the Indonesian military leaders had been trained in the US, and that the Central Intelligence Agency provided “covert support” to the insurrectionists who sought to remove the nationalist Sukarno and place Indonesia squarely in the American camp (pp 272-73). He charts Indonesia’s spectacular economic progress, but also concedes that “Suharto’s rule was harshly repressive”. The press was stifled, elections were a “mere formality”, prisons were filled up with political dissidents, and areas wracked by secessionist movements rebels and civilians alike faced swift and merciless retribution – “and all this was done with the knowledge, if not outright approval, of US administrations” (p 276).

It is doubtful that most American politicians would have made even as mild an admission of American complicity in atrocities as has Obama. But a supremely realist framework allows for evasion as much as confession: thus Obama merely arrives at the reading that the American record overseas is a “mixed” one “across the globe”, often characterised by far-sightedness and altruism even if American policies have at times been “misguided, based on false assumptions” that have undermined American credibility and the genuine aspirations of others (p 280). There is, in plain language, both good and bad in this world; and Obama avers that the US, with all its limitations, has largely been a force for good. And since America remains the standard by which phenomena are to be evaluated, Obama betrays his own parochialism. The war in Vietnam, writes Obama, bequeathed “disastrous consequences”: American credibility and prestige took a dive, the armed forces experienced a loss of morale, the American soldier needlessly suffered, and above all “the bond of trust between the American people and their government” was broken. Though two million or more Vietnamese were killed, and fertile land was rendered toxic for generations, no mention is made of this genocide: always the focus is on what the war did to America (p 287).

The war in Vietnam chastened Americans, who “began to realise that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth” (p 287). One wonders why, then, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Gulf war of 1991 and the attack on Afghanistan, and why even the invasion of Iraq in 2002 had far more popular support in the US than it did in Europe or elsewhere around the world. The suggestion that the American people were once led astray but are fundamentally sound in their judgment ignores the consideration that elected officials are only as good as the people to whom they respond, besides hastening to exculpate ordinary Americans from their share of the responsibility for the egregious crimes that the US has committed overseas and against some of its own people.

Good Wars, Bad Wars?

Obama has on more than one occasion said, “I’m not against all wars, I’m just against dumb wars.” More elegant thinkers than Obama, living in perhaps more thoughtful times, have used different language to justify war: there is the Christian doctrine of a just war, and similarly 20th century politicians and theorists, watching Germany under Hitler rearm itself and set the stage for the extermination of the Jewish people, reasoned that one could make a legitimate distinction between “good” and “bad” wars. Obama has something like the latter in mind: he was an early critic of the invasion of Iraq, though here again more on pragmatic grounds rather than from any sense of moral anguish, but like most liberals he gave his whole-hearted support to the bombing of Afghanistan in the hope, to use Bush’s language, that Osama bin Laden could be smoked out and the Taliban reduced to smithereens.

Obama is so far committed to the idea of Afghanistan as a “good” war that he has pledged that, if elected president, he would escalate the conflict there and also bomb Pakistan if it would help him prosecute the “war on terror”. He has recently attacked McCain, who no one would mistake for a pacifist, with the observation that his opponent “won’t even follow [bin Laden] to his cave in Afghanistan”, even as the US defence secretary has all but conceded that a political accommodation with the Taliban, whose support of bin Laden was the very justification for the bombing of Afghanistan, can no longer be avoided. The casually held assumption that by birthright an American president can bomb other countries into abject submission, or that the US can never be stripped of its prerogative to chastise nations that fail to do its bidding, takes one’s breath away.

No one should suppose that Obama, blinded by the sharp rhetoric of the “war on terror”, has positions on Iraq and Afghanistan that are not characteristic of his view of the world as a whole. “We need to maintain a strategic force posture”, he writes, “that allows us to manage threats posed by rogue nations like North Korea and Iran and to meet the challenges presented by potential rivals like China” (p 307). This could have been the voice of Reagan, the Clintons, Bush, McCain, and countless others: there is such overwhelming unanimity about “rogue states” that almost no politician in the US can be expected to display even an iota of independent thinking.

No Change from Staus Quo

On the question of Palestine, Obama has similarly displayed belligerence and moral turpitude. At the annual meeting in June 2008 of the American Israel Political Action Committee, a self-avowedly Zionist organisation that commands unstinting support from across the entire American political spectrum, Obama was unambiguous in declaring that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided”. It would only be belabouring the obvious to state that, on nearly every foreign policy issue that one can think of, with the exception of a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Obama’s position can scarcely be distinguished from all the other advocates of the national security state.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that Obama’s election as president of the US will appreciably alter American debates on race. African-Americans make up 12 per cent of the population but constitute nearly half of the US prison population; one of three black males will, in his lifetime, have gone through the criminal justice system. African-Americans are, alongside Puerto Ricans, two ethnic groups among whom poverty is endemic, and repeated studies have shown that in every critical sector of life, such as access to jobs, housing, and healthcare, blacks face persistent racism and discrimination. Obama is fully cognisant of these problems and is likely to address them to a greater extent than any other candidate. But one can also argue, with equal plausibility, that his ascendancy will strengthen the hands of those who want to think of American democracy as a post-race society, and whose instant inclination is to jettison affirmative action and reduce the already narrow space for discussions of race in civil society.

It is immaterial, even if fascinating to some, whether numerous white people will vote for Obama to prove their credentials as non-racists, while others will give him their vote because he is not all that black – just as some black people will surely cast their ballot for Obama precisely because he is black. By far the most critical consideration is that the US requires a radical redistribution of economic and political power: Martin Luther King Jr had come to an awareness of this in the last years of his life, but there is little to suggest that Obama, a professional politician to the core, has similarly seen the light.

Establishment Candidate

In these deeply troubled times, when there is much casual talk of the American ship sinking, the white ruling class is preparing to turn over the keys of the kingdom to a black man. Imperial powers had a knack for doing this, but let us leave that history aside. Here, at least, Obama appears to have displayed audacity, taking on a challenge that many others might have forsworn. However, nothing is as it seems to be: with the passage of time, Obama has increasingly justified the confidence reposed in him as an establishment candidate. A man with some degree of moral conscience would not only have shrugged off the endorsements of Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, until recently among Bush’s grandstanding cheerleaders and apparatchiks, but would have insisted that Powell and others of his ilk be brought to justice for crimes against the Iraqi people. But Obama will do no such thing, for after all Powell and the master he served, like Kissinger and Nixon before them, only made “tactical” errors. Obama prides himself, moreover, on being a healer not divider: he will even rejoice in the support for him among previously hardcore Republicans.

When Obama is not speaking about values, hope, and change, he presents himself as a manager, representing brutal American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan as illustrations of policies that went wrong. He comes forward as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies, repair the system, and get America working once again. One can only hope that an America that is once again working does not mean for a good portion of the rest of the world what it has meant for a long time, namely, an America that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope.

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Perspectives from Sri Lanka

Nalaka Gunawardane from Sri Lanka comments on the role of new media in the campaign.
Groundviews –  – Sri Lanka’s award winning citizens journalism website

In Barack Obama: Hope for America, but not for the world? Nishan, who shares Obama’s alma mater, shares a simple insight, noting that nothing Barack Obama has done or promised will usher in the change needed in the world. Posing eight pertinent questions Nishan ends his article by noting that, ” For those who were listening, Barack Obama has in fact been threatening the world, by the trade, military and foreign policy positions that he has articulated consistently throughout his campaign – and there is no reason to think he didn’t mean what he said. Has Barack Obama offered “hope” for Americans? Resoundingly “Yes!” But the hope that President Obama offers Americans is not hope for the world.”

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, in Barack Obama: History’s High Note comes to a very different conclusion to Nishan, noting that “[Obama’s] natural tendency will be to be a great teacher, reformer and reconciler on a global scale; to be a planetary ‘change agent’, leaving the world better than he found it.”

November 4, 2008 Posted by | governance, New Media, World | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghosts

By Ian Buruma

Volume 55, Number 11 · June 26, 2008

The New York Review of Books

Two photographs, taken by digital camera at Abu Ghraib prison, on the night of November 5, 2003. The first picture shows a person in a ragged black poncho-like garment standing precariously on a tiny box. Hairy legs and arms suggest that this person is a man. His head is covered in a pointed black hood, his arms are spread, and his fingertips are attached to wires sticking from the concrete wall behind him. The pose hints at a crucifixion, but the black poncho and hood also suggest a witch or a scarecrow.

The second picture shows a young woman hunched over the corpse of a man. The corpse lies in a half-unzipped black body bag filled with ice cubes wrapped in plastic. His mouth is open; white bandages cover his eyes. The young woman grins widely at the camera. She holds up the thumb of her right hand, encased in a turquoise latex glove.

The photographs look amateurish, a crude mixture of the sinister and lighthearted. When they were published, first in The New Yorker magazine, we were provided with some background to them, but not much. The anonymous man in the first picture had been told that he would die of electric shock if he fell off the box. Hence the wires, which were in fact harmless. Information about the second picture was sketchy, but the woman seemed to be gloating over the man’s death. The bandages suggested serious violence. There were other Abu Ghraib photographs, published widely on the Internet: of terrified Iraqi prisoners, stripped of all their clothes, being assaulted and bitten by dogs (“doggie dancing”); of a naked prisoner on all fours held on a leash by a female American guard; of naked men piled up in a human pyramid; of naked men made to masturbate, or posed as though performing oral sex; of naked men wearing women’s panties on their heads, handcuffed to the bars of their cells; of naked men used as punching bags; and so on.

The photographs evoked an atmosphere of giddy brutality. The reputation of the United States, already tarnished by a bungled war, hit a new low. But interpretations of the photographs, exactly what they told us, varied according to the observer. After he was criticized for failing to apologize, President Bush said in a public statement that he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But he felt “equally sorry,” he said, “that people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” Donald Rumsfeld deplored the fact that the pictures had been shown at all, and then talked about charges of “abuse,” which, he believed, “technically is different from torture.” The word “torture” was carefully avoided by both men. President Bush, confronted much later with questions about a damning Red Cross report about the use of torture by the CIA, spelled out his view: “We don’t torture.”[1]

Susan Sontag, writing in The New York Times Magazine, had a different take on the pictures. She thought the “torture photographs” of Abu Ghraib were typical expressions of a brutalized popular American culture, coarsened by violent pornography, sadistic movies and video games, and a narcissistic compulsion to put every detail of our lives, especially our sexual lives, on record, preferably on public record. To her the Abu Ghraib photos were precisely the true nature and heart of America. She wrote:

Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.[2]


Many liberal-minded people would have shared instinctively not only Sontag’s disgust but also her searing indictment of modern American culture. One of the merits of Errol Morris’s new documentary on the Abu Ghraib photographs, and even more of the excellent book written by Philip Gourevitch in cooperation with Morris, is that they complicate matters. What we think we see in the pictures may not be quite right. The pictures don’t show the whole story. They may even conceal more than they reveal. By interviewing most of the people who were involved in the photographic sessions, delving into their lives, their motives, their feelings, and their views, then and now, the authors assemble a picture of Abu Ghraib, the implications of which are actually more disturbing than Sontag’s cultural critique.

At first no one knew the dead man’s name. He was one of the “ghost prisoners,” brought into the “hard site” of Abu Ghraib by anonymous American interrogators, dressed in black, also known to the MPs as “ghosts.” These ghosts belonged to the OGA, Other Government Agency, which usually meant the CIA. Ghost prisoners were not formally registered before their interrogation in shower cubicles or other secluded parts of the prison. They disappeared as swiftly as they came, after the ghost interrogators were done with them. All that the MPs heard of their presence were screams in the night. If the Red Cross visited, the ghost prisoners were to be hidden away.

The man who would soon die arrived in the night before the photographs published in The New Yorker were taken, with a sandbag over his head, and nothing but a T-shirt on. MPs were told to shackle his hands to a window behind his back in “a Palestinian hanging position” (a technique allegedly used but certainly not invented by the Israelis). The man was breathing heavily. Then the MPs were dismissed. An hour or so later, they were called back in to help. The prisoner was no longer responding to questions. They hung him higher and higher, until his arms seemed at breaking point. Still no response. A splash of cold water. His hood was lifted. The MPs noticed that his face had been reduced to a bloody pulp. He had been dead for some time. The ghosts quickly left the scene. Medics were called in to clean up the mess, bandages were put over his puffed-up eyes, and the corpse was zipped into an ice-filled body bag and left in a shower room until it could be removed. The officer in charge of the MPs at Abu Ghraib, Captain Christopher Brinson, declared that the man had died of a heart attack.

Meanwhile, in the same prison block, another torment was taking place. Another nameless prisoner had been brought in, suspected of having killed an agent from the US Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). He refused to divulge his name, so he was handed over to Specialist Charles “Chuck” Graner, an army reservist. Graner, a hulking mustachioed figure, seen laughing at the misery of Iraqi prisoners in many Abu Ghraib pictures, was not trained as an interrogator; nor did he have more than the vaguest idea of the rules and conventions that are supposed to guide interrogations. A corrections officer in civilian life, Graner enjoyed a “bad boy” reputation, with a taste for sinister pranks and an eye for the girls. He should never have been put in charge of terror suspects. He did not even have the security clearance to be a military policeman with custody over prisoners.

Nonetheless, Graner was put in charge of the nameless prisoner and told by CID agent Ricardo Romero to “make his life a living hell for the next three days and find out his name.” Graner did his best, aided by Sergeant Ivan Frederick and other members of their Maryland reserve unit who happened to be around and were equally untrained in interrogation work. The prisoner was stripped of his clothes, yelled at, made to crawl on the floor, deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a tiny box, hooked up to wires sticking from the wall and told he would die if he so much as moved. This last game lasted for about fifteen minutes, long enough for Graner to take his photographs.

Morris didn’t manage to interview Graner. He is still in a military prison. But other witnesses of what happened that night, such as Specialist Sabrina Harman, claim that not much harm was done to the prisoner they nicknamed “Gilligan.” She said that he ended up laughing at the Americans, and actually became a popular guy of sorts, being given the privilege of sweeping up the prison cells. “He was just a funny, funny guy,” she said. “If you were going to take someone home, I definitely would have taken him.”


Sabrina Harman also happens to be the young woman in the second picture, hunched over the corpse. Like Graner, she worked as a guard on the night shift at Abu Ghraib. Harman is described by other interviewees in Morris’s film as a sweet girl who, in the words of Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, “would not hurt a fly. If there’s a fly on the floor and you go to step on it, she will stop you.” The reason she joined the army was to pay for college. Her dream was to be a cop, like her father and brother. Not just a cop, but a forensic photographer. She loved taking pictures, with a special interest in death and decay. Another prison colleague, Sergeant Javal Davis, said: “She would not let you step on an ant. But if it dies, she’d want to know how it died.”

So when water started seeping out of the locked shower cell, and she and Graner uncovered the dead man in his body bag, her first instinct was to take pictures. She told Morris and Gourevitch that she

kind of realized right away that there was no way he died of a heart attack, because of all the cuts and blood coming out of his nose. You don’t think your commander’s going to lie to you about something. It made my trust go down, that’s for sure.

This is when Graner asked her to pose with the body. Harman adopted the pose she always did in photos, with her friends, with prisoners, in the morgue, and now in the shower: she grinned and stuck her thumb up.

Later, she returned to the same place alone, curious to find out more. She took off the gauze over the dead man’s eyes and “just started taking photos of everything I saw that was wrong, every little bruise and cut.” She realized how badly the man had been beaten up:

It looked like somebody had either butt-stocked him or really got him good, or hit him against the wall…. I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos. It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.

In her interview with Morris, Harman looks rather impressive: intelligent, articulate, plausible. The interviews are actually more like monologues, for with rare exceptions Morris’s questions are never heard. His genius is to get people to talk, and talk, and talk, whether it is Robert McNamara in The Fog of War or Sabrina Harman in Standard Operating Procedure. The fact that he paid some of his interviewees for their time has been held against Morris by some critics. It seems of little importance. There is no reason to believe that cash changed their stories. If only the film had stuck to the interviews. Alas, they are spliced together with gimmicky visual reenactments of the scenes described in words, which take away from the stark air of authenticity. But perhaps that is Morris’s point. Authenticity is always elusive. Nothing can be totally trusted, not words, and certainly not images, so you might as well reimagine them.

But I think we are meant to believe that Harman is telling the truth. Her letters from Abu Ghraib to her lesbian partner, Kelly, suggest as much. On October 20, 2003, she wrote about a prisoner nicknamed “the taxicab driver,” naked, handcuffed backward to the bars of his cell, with his underwear over his face:

He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on.


Two pictures, then. The first one, of Gilligan and the electric wires, was analyzed by Brent Pack, a special forensic expert for the CID. After much thought, he concluded:

I see that as somebody that’s being put into a stress position. I’m looking at it and thinking, they don’t look like they’re real electrical wires. Standard operating procedure—that’s all it is.

He was technically right. A memo drawn up by the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, on November 27, 2002, recommending authorization of interrogation techniques in Category II—which included humiliation, sensory deprivation, and stress positions—was formally approved by the secretary of defense. Donald Rumsfeld even scribbled his famous quip at the bottom of this memo, stating: “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.”[3]

And yet this picture, more than any other, including the ones featuring attack dogs and wounded naked bodies, became the most notorious, an icon of American barbarism, the torture picture par excellence, perhaps because, as Gourevitch writes, it left so much to the imagination. That, and its evocation of the crucifixion, Christ at Abu Ghraib. And Sabrina Harman? She was sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank to private, a forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a bad conduct discharge. None of the men who were responsible for her subject’s death were ever prosecuted. No one above the rank of sergeant was even tried. As Morris said in an interview to promote his film, Harman and her friends caught in the photographs

were punished for embarrassing the military, for embarrassing the administration. One central irony: Sabrina Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking pictures of a man who had been killed by the CIA. She had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing, she merely photographed the corpse. But without her photographs we would know nothing of this crime.

It was just another death of a ghost delivered by ghosts.

2.

Morris has been faulted for not pointing his finger more directly at people more senior than Harman, Graner, Frederick, or Lynndie England, Graner’s girlfriend at the time, who held the naked prisoner on a leash. But this is missing the point of the film. For it is not about Washington politics or administration lawyers, or at least not directly, but about a particular kind of concealment, the way photographs which seem to tell one story actually turn out to hide a much bigger story. Compared to what was really happening at Abu Ghraib, where men were tortured to death in hidden cells, where children were incarcerated with thousands of other prisoners, most of them blameless civilians, exposed to daily mortar attacks, living in unspeakable conditions of filth and squalor, where there was no way out even for men who had been declared innocent, where unarmed prisoners were shot dead by nervous guards—compared to all that, the photograph of Gilligan was just fun and games.

The first thing human beings do when the unspeakable becomes standard operating procedure is to change the words. Even the Nazis, who never seemed to have been unduly bothered by what they did, invented new words, usually of a cold bureaucratic nature, to conceal their crimes: “special treatment” and so on. In public, the US policy toward “security detainees” or “unlawful combatants,” to whom, according to White House and Pentagon lawyers, the Geneva Conventions did not apply, was couched in the kind of language favored by Vice President Dick Cheney: “We need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.”

The phrase “the gloves are coming off” gained currency. As in an e-mail, quoted by Gourevitch, sent to MI unit commanders in Iraq by Captain William Ponce of the Human Intelligence Effects Coordination Cell: “The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. Col. Boltz”— Colonel Steven Boltz, the deputy MI commander in Iraq—”has made it clear that we want these individuals broken.” The likes of Harman, Graner, England, and Frederick were at the very bottom of the chain of command. They were told to “soften up” the prisoners, to make their lives hell. They should “treat the prisoners like dogs,” in the words of Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the prison and interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay. He said this before the photographs were taken, during a visit to Abu Ghraib, where he felt the prisoners were treated too well. His methods, honed at Guantánamo, were soon adopted. One of Morris’s (or Gourevitch’s) more arresting ideas is that the photographs of the treatment meted out to the prisoners are evidence that the people who were ordered to take their gloves off, if you will, had not entirely lost their moral way. Gourevitch writes:

Even as they sank into a routine of depravity, they showed by their picture taking that they did not accept it as normal. They never fully got with the program. Is it not to their credit that they were profoundly demoralized by their service in the netherworld?

Credit is perhaps not the mot juste. Nazis who took pictures of naked women lined up in front of their own mass graves might not have considered the scene quite normal either, but this does not mean that they were not with the program. Heinrich Himmler was well aware that what he was asking from his SS men was not normal. That is why he told them to steel themselves against any feelings of humanity that would hamper them in their necessary task.

That Harman, for one, was often disgusted with what she saw at Abu Ghraib is indeed clear from her letters to her partner, Kelly. And even Graner, the baddest of the bad apples, was apparently taken aback when he was told by “Big Steve” Stefanowicz, a contract civilian interrogator, just how roughly prisoners were to be “broken.” Graner was reminded of 24, the popular television series, starring Kiefer Sutherland, about the necessity of using any means, including torture, to stop terrorists. Graner claims that he told Big Steve: “We don’t do that stuff, that’s all TV stuff.” Graner was surely unaware that 24 had actually been discussed in all seriousness at brainstorming sessions at Guantánamo led by the staff judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver. She recalled the mounting excitement among her male colleagues, including men from the CIA and the DIA, as different interrogation techniques were being bandied about. She told Philippe Sands, author of Torture Team: “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas.”


That was in Guantánamo, where ideas were hatched, noted on legal pads, recorded in memos, debated in air-conditioned offices. Now back to Graner in the filth, noise, and menace of constant violence in Abu Ghraib prison. As the authors point out, there is a kind of pornographic quality to many of the pictures which would indicate that Susan Sontag’s cultural critique was not entirely off beam.

The deliberate use of women, for example, in the humiliation of Arab prisoners is striking. Graner may have asked his girlfriend, Lynndie England, to pose for a picture holding a prisoner on a leash. This might have given him, and possibly her, an erotic frisson. And Sabrina Harman, too, is seen to have been a grinning accomplice in several of Graner’s pranks with naked prisoners. That is why she ended up being convicted. But in fact these games—some clearly staged for the camera as cruel photo-ops—were also part of the program. The women’s panties, the nudity in front of women, the poking of the genitals, the enforced simulation of sexual acts, were all part of the program. Graner was told in writing by his commander, Captain Brinson, that he was “doing a fine job.” He was told: “Continue to perform at this level and it will help us succeed at our overall mission.”

The MPs at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch rightly observes, knew little about Middle Eastern culture, but they were given “cultural awareness” training at Fort Lee, before being flown out to Iraq. They were told that sexual humiliation was the most effective way to “soften up” Arab detainees. A person does not have to be corrupted by the popular culture deplored by Susan Sontag to be vulnerable to feelings of pleasure when the sexual humiliation of others is officially sanctioned, even encouraged. Graner’s real sin for the administration was not that he went too far (which, measured by any moral yardstick, of course he did), but that he took pleasure in what should have been a grim job. As Dick Cheney said: “It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena.” Hard dicks should have been kept strictly out of sight, under conference tables. But Graner turned the dirty business into his own pornographic fantasies; and what is worse, he recorded them on film, for all the world to see.

Lynndie England played a walk-on part in these fantasies. She loved Graner. She would have done anything he wanted. That was her tragedy. England was sentenced to three years in a military prison for maltreating detainees. “All I did was what I was told to do,” she said, in the oldest defense of men and women landed with the dirty work. “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”

Harman, too, acted out her fantasies, of being a forensic photographer, of recording death. As a result, she made the program public, and forced the president of the greatest power on earth to issue a public apology. As Morris says, in his interview: “Under a different set of circumstances, you could imagine Sabrina winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography.” Instead, she was charged not only with dereliction of duty and maltreatment, but with destroying government property and “altering evidence,” by removing the bandages from the dead man’s eyes. She told Morris: “When he died, they cleaned him all up, and then stuck the bandages on. So it’s not really altering evidence. They had already done that for me.” Since her pictures revealed the truth of this statement, these particular charges were eventually dropped.

Both Morris’s film and the book based on it by Gourevitch are devastating, even without going into detail about the complicity, or indeed responsibility, of top officials in the Bush administration. The photographs embarrassed the United States, to be sure. But for the US government, this embarrassment might have actually helped to keep far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view. Preoccupied by the pornography of Abu Ghraib, we have been distracted from the torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film and from finding out who the actual killers were. Moral condemnation of the bad apples turned out to be a highly useful alibi. By looking like a bunch of gloating thugs, “Chuck” Graner, Ivan Frederick, et al. made the law-yers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.

And Gilligan, by the way, was probably not the man anyone thought he was after all, but an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like up to 90 percent of the men and boys locked up in Abu Ghraib.

June 17, 2008 Posted by | Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flowers on a Grave

He had been quietly playing by himself as his grandmother talked to the strangers. But we had made eye contact. He wanted to make friends, and a smile spread over his face as I approached. Suddenly he ran. I knew kids well enough to recognise that this was not a hide and seek game. There was fear in his eyes. He had seen the camera in my hands.

One of the witnesses, a grandmother in Sisak, who did not want to be recognisable. April 9, 2008. Sisak. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World

His grandmother had told us that she must not be recognisable in the photographs. Others we were interviewing had agreed to be photographed, but she didn’t feel safe. Her grandson also knew the danger of being recognisable in this war torn land.

Jasna Borojevic talking to Irene Khan in Sisak, She was a Croat. Her husband had been Servian. April 9. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World

Irene Khan talking to Jasna Borojevic. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World

It was my first trip to Croatia, and while I was hoping to meet my old friend Sasa, I hadn’t quite expected someone to sneak up on me at the main square in Zagreb. It was a long warm hug. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time. Excusing myself from my colleagues at Amnesty International, Sasa and I went out walking into the cool spring night. He had found love in Iraq, and she had followed him to Croatia. I had heard of Cyrille, but we had never met. She soon joined us at the restaurant, dragging two other friends along. “You two look like lovers” she told us with a disarming smile. Sasa and I had known each other for many years. We first met in Jakarta where I was running a workshop for World Press Photo. We had later met in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and he had even come over to teach at Pathshala, but we had never met in his home town. He had offered to drive me over when I had gone for a short trip to Belgrade, but visas for Bangladeshis were never easy to get. Even on this trip, Irene Khan the secretary general of Amnesty International had visa problems because of her ‘green’ passport. It had taken Sasa and I many years to find a way to walk together on the cobbled streets of Zagreb.

The conversation took us to his island where he now raised goats. To China where the two of them were going to teach photography. To his war wounds, and how his body was failing him. I had an early start for Sisak the following day and we parted reluctantly.
Vjera Solar in Sisak, with portraits of her Croatian daughter and her Serbian boyfriend. Her daughter was killed. April 9. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
Sisak brought the memories of “1971” flooding back. The disappearances, the not knowing, the guilt. Croat Jasna Borojevik would always wonder whether she should have asked her Serbian husband to leave her, knowing that he was in danger. Perhaps she should have risked losing him, knowing that he might have lived. Viera Solar moved the photograph of her daughter and her Serbian boyfriend to the wall where she was sitting. She wanted the photograph of the handsome dancing couple to be included in my photograph. She broke down in tears as she spoke to Irene, but steeled herself to serve us bread and cheese. The grandmother of the scared boy had lost a son. She had her grandson to look after, and while she was eager to tell her story, she was still scared. Being photographed was dangerous.

Stjepan Mesić president of Republic of Croatia. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World

Peacock in the gardens of the presidential palace. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
The trip through the wooded lanes to the President’s office in the morning and photographing him and the peacocks in his manicured garden, turned out to be more interesting than expected, but I rushed to go online to check if the Guardian piece on our “1971” exhibition, on war of liberation, had come out. That too had it’s share of killings, disappearances, de-humanisation. Dodi and Diana had bumped us off on Tuesday when it had been scheduled to come out. The mail from Mark at Autograph confirmed that we had four pages in the printed version. As I explained this to my Amnesty colleagues they asked me about the history of our war. David constantly asked what the motive had been. As we had dinner at Sasa’s parent’s house, I asked Sasa the same question. Yes he said. Some politicians won. Some opportunists made money. But the atrocities on both sides, meant homes were shattered. Lives broken. Nations destroyed. Minds fractured. I recall the woman who wanted to know what had happened to her husband “So I can place flowers on a grave and mourn”, she had said. I remember the fear on the little child’s face as he saw my camera, and wonder if one ever really wins a war.

April 11, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , , , , | 1 Comment