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January 27, 2010
News from the Middle East: Obama, football, and intifada

Mohammad Al-Kassim writes about what’s in the Middle Eastern media this week.

The topic on Al Jazeera Arabic’s controversial yet highly popular talk show “Opposite Direction” this week was the Obama presidency, one year later.

The host questioned the sincerity of President Obama’s outreach to Arabs and Muslims. Faisal al-Qasem, the Syrian host of al-Itijah al-Mo’akis, likened President Obama to a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.

Al-Qasem accused Obama of speaking from both sides of his mouth and alleged that the Arabs’ problem was believing Obama’s sugar-coated words:

Al Arabiya news channel reported on the upcoming African Cup football match between Egypt and Algeria. Egypt beat Cameroon 3-1 to set up a repeat of the intense World Cup playoff against Algeria.

The last time these two teams faced each other was in Khartoum, Sudan, which was followed with violence and enormous tension across the Arab world.

Today’s lead headline in Israeli center-left newspaper Haaretz was about Israeli president Shimon Peres’ speech to the German parliament. Speaking on the anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp’s liberation, Peres called for the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust to be brought to justice.

Abdel al-Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, published in London, wrote an op-ed yesterday on the stalled Middle East peace process — in light of U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s recent visit to the region.

Atwan, who was born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, is an outspoken critic of many Arab governments. He attributes Mitchell’s lack of progress to:

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to retain Jewish settlements in the West Bank and keep complete control of those areas.
  • The refusal of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table again without an Israeli commitment to a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama giving in to Israeli pressure on the settlements.

Atwan argues that another intifada is likely because of the stalemate in the peace process. He also thinks Fatah and Hamas may be forced to reconcile if progress is not made.

– Mohammad Al-Kassim

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January 14, 2010
Haiti’s poor infrastructure accelerates heavy death toll

Haitian children at the water’s edge. Photo: Ara Ayer

Worldfocus correspondent Benno Schmidt writes about navigating Haiti’s dilapidated infrastructure while reporting there last year.

Driving in Haiti is an experience unlike anywhere else in the world, with roads haphazardly crisscrossing one another, one- and two-way interchanges clogged with patched together cars and buses, dilapidated trucks limping along on fewer than two working axles, taxis and horse- or donkey-pulled carriages breaking down randomly or changing direction suddenly.

Simple trips of only a few miles in length turn into a half-day adventures as private construction or home improvement attempts (underscore attempts) spill into streets with no warning — trapping vehicles and blocking key arteries.

There is no ‘normal’ in getting around Haiti — international efforts in the wake of the earthquake will be hobbled by a country that doesn’t have functioning roads — much less interstate highways — and can’t support large trucks or construction equipment/bulldozers under ideal conditions, let alone after a horrific natural disaster like the recent earthquake.

There are no patterns of traffic, no recognizable right of ways, no sense of order to the mass chaos in and around the capital Port au Prince — the epicenter of the massive quake.

Driving approximates scenes straight out of ‘The Road Warrior’ (if vehicles had room to speed, or functioning mechanics to attain speed!) coupled with a spirited game of chicken.

Traffic halted along nominally one-way streets?

No worries!

Drivers violently reverse or turn around. What was once one-way is suddenly two ways.

Planning a day around well-intentioned meetings is a vain exercise if any time inside a car is required. Best to agree on an afternoon meeting time — which can quickly morph into an evening or next day rendezvous should accidents or breakdowns occur: probably the only constant while driving around Haiti.

These conditions will make international aid efforts more difficult as large trucks and earth moving equipment—so central to search/rescue/rebuilding efforts will not be able to even move initially.

Simple SUVs are often mobbed in the slums of Port au Prince when UN patrols police areas. SUVs in Haiti have a distinct otherness, a build quality and functionality quotient that screams money, food, drinkable water or work.

They are easy targets for kids and adults looking for company, water, food or work. In desperate times they will be mobbed, surrounded and halted.

In 2009, Worldfocus visited much of Haiti by car and helicopter and found medieval conditions widespread — roads abruptly dead-ending into forests or standing water with no evidence of state run public works or sanitation efforts.

This is what the international community faces when sending aid to Haiti.

Worldfocus documented flooding in the western port city of Gonaives a year after heavy mud slides left 80 percent of the city homeless or under water.

Roughly a 100 miles, the drive from the capital to Gonaives took six to nine hours depending on traffic and road conditions.

A spontaneous political demonstration devolved into a massive block party and kept us motionless for several hours on the way back as we approached the outskirts of the capital…

One year later entire areas of Gonaives were still digging out — by hand.

The hands of elderly men — 70- and 80-year-olds stood proudly with shovels outside city hall offering hourly labor to homeowners deluged with mud — again a year after tropical storms flooded Gonaives.

The odd dump trucks available were slowly moving dirt outside the city, but most of the ‘progress’ was by hand.

There weren’t enough large trucks available in all of Haiti to dig out and move the mud — so a year later people abandoned their first and second floors to standing mud that expands with moisture and brought down so many homes with folks inside.

Haiti’s sorry transportation state is further hampered by cronyism, cheap chicanery, generational corruption, political corruption, squabbling and payoff schemes that keep public projects mired in delay and argument.

Corruption in Haiti is the norm.

Aid workers will have to bring their own communication infrastructure and equipment, and treat the entire area around Port Au Prince as a mass undeveloped area in crisis dotted with broken roads, busted homes and numerous other hazards.

Getting equipment and workers into Haiti will be a lot easier than affecting change once on the ground.

– Benno Schmidt

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

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January 12, 2010
Controversy flares over use of the word ‘Allah’ in Malaysia

Church of the Holy Rosary in Kuala Lumpur.

Photo: Flickr user BernardoH

Gizem Yarbil, a producer at Worldfocus, writes about the controversy over the use of the word “Allah” in Malaysia.

Malaysia has long had a reputation for being a secular Muslim nation. But recent events are threatening its moderate image.

Nine churches have been attacked with Molotov cocktails or vandalized since last Friday following a court ruling on New Year’s Eve that overturned a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

The court was ruling on a lawsuit filed in 2007 by the Catholic newspaper The Herald. Authorities told the newspaper it could no longer use the word “Allah” to refer to God as it was specifically a Muslim term. The government and many Malaysian Muslims contend that the use of “Allah” by Christians could cause confusion among Muslims and encourage them to convert to the Christian faith.

Many critics of the ban accuse the government of inflaming this controversy for political purposes to gain the popular support of the majority ethnic Malay Muslims. The population consists of 62 percent Muslim Malays, while Christians make up nine percent.

Critics argue that the word “Allah” predates Islam and Christians had been using the word for generations, long before the Muslims even existed. The word is Arabic and has been used by various cultures and societies where Arabic is the main language.

In his post “Allah – The Word” on the New York Times “At War” blog, Anthony Shadid writes about how the word is commonly used by non-Muslims in the Arab world in daily cultural exchanges:

“Inshallah, God willing, everyone says about everything in the future tense, from an appointment the next day to the sun rising in the east. The same goes for In Allah rad, if God wills it. The word Allah infuses virtually every salutation, greeting and condolence, spoken upon departure and arrival, and at birth and death, a centuries-long refinement of mutual social exchanges that ensures almost no moment is awkward. Kater khair Allah, a Christian in Hikmat’s town would say to his Muslim neighbor.

To him, a shared God, the God of Abraham, has a shared name, Allah.”

In a wide-ranging article written for The American Muslim in 2008, right after the word “Allah” became a controversial subject, Dr Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian, writes that Malaysians did not even refer to God as “Allah” when they first converted to Islam:

“The Minister’s remark not only demonstrated his shallow understanding of Muslim culture and the clear distinction between Arab culture and Muslim theology, but it also demonstrated his own lack of understanding of the history of the Malays, who, like many non-Arabs, only converted to Islam much later from the 13th century onwards. Among the earliest pieces of evidence to indicate Islam’s arrival to the Malay archipelago are the stone inscriptions found in Malay states like Pahang where the idea of God is described in the sanskrit words ‘Dewata Mulia Raya’. As no Malay spoke or even understood Arabic then, it was natural for the earliest Malay-Muslims to continue using the Sanskrit-inspired language they spoke then. Surely this does not make them lesser Muslims as a result?”

– Gizem Yarbil

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January 7, 2010
Kurdish activists and politicians detained in Turkey

A poster produced by Diyarbakir Human Rights Association.

Born in Turkey, Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil recently reported, along with Bryan Myers, the Signature video Turkey’s Kurds Seek Justice for Unsolved Murders.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Turkey woke up to a newspaper photo of a line of handcuffed Kurds in detention. Among them were several prominent Kurdish elected officials and human rights advocates.

On the same day, in early morning raids conducted in eleven cities in the southeast of the country, Turkish police arrested dozens of members of the recently banned Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), including at least seven local mayors and other politicians. Their alleged crime was to be part of a civil and urban network of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

According to press reports, two of the arrested were prominent human rights workers in the region. One of them was Muharrem Erbey. He is a lawyer and the chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association in Turkey.

I never met Muharrem Erbey in person but talked to him several times on the phone. He helped me on a Signature story producer Bryan Myers and I were working on last May which centered around Diyarbakir and a paramilitary group with links to the Turkish state that were suspected of involvement in kidnappings and killings of Kurds in the region in the 90s.

A former member of this paramilitary group, who now resides in Sweden, came out a few years ago and confessed to taking part in some of the kidnappings and murders in the region. Last summer, he led state authorities to sites that may hold the remains of people who went missing in the 90s. Several sites have been excavated and hundreds of bones have been dug up and sent for DNA testing.

Erbey was deeply involved in these excavations. He was one of the few people allowed on the sites by the authorities when the bones came out of the ground. He was well regarded and respected by the local people, gave voice to those who couldn’t speak up for themselves,  and fought bravely for their rights.

So what did Muharrem Erbey do to make state authorities think that he was involved in an urban network of a militant group? According to the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association and confirmed by Erbey’s lawyer, as evidence, authorities pointed to his participation in a workshop to discuss constitutional amendments and a Kurdish Film Festival in Italy; speeches about Kurds in Turkey before the parliaments of Belgium, Sweden and England; and advising the mayor of Diyarbakir, who actually is not among those detained.

I recently spoke with the lawyer for Erbey and other detainees, Sezgin Tanrikulu, who is a human rights advocate himself. He said that the authorities did not give him any firm evidence that these people had any connections to the PKK in any way and that some of the “evidence,” such as in Erbey’s case, participating in a film festival, could apply to thousands of people.

When I was in the southeast of Turkey last May, it was hard not to notice the change the region has been through since the tumultuous days of the 90s when the conflict was at its peak. There was a more peaceful atmosphere and the Kurds here seemed to have real hopes for peace and reconciliation with the Turkish state. The government of the leading Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been engaging in an initiative that opened doors to more reforms and rights for Kurds.

But the latest events in Turkey are reversing this positive trend. On December 11, the Constitutional Court banned the only Kurdish political party in the parliament, which instigated unrest and riots in the region between Kurdish demonstrators and the police. And the same government that has engaged in the reform process for the Kurds has undoubtedly initiated the arrests of these dozens of elected officials and human rights advocates.

The detention of human rights workers and elected officials for being part of an alleged “urban network” of an armed, militant group without any real proof except for speaking in parliaments and participating in film festivals, is an outright abuse of democracy and will undoubtedly stall the peace process in the region.

Gizem Yarbil

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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January 6, 2010
Yemen enters media spotlight after terror links exposed

Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Photo: Al Jazeera

Mohammad Al-Kassim is a producer with Worldfocus.

It took an incident like the Christmas day failed bombing of the Delta/Northwest airliner to bring Yemen to the forefront of the news in the U.S.

It was Yemen where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allegedly trained by al-Qaeda. Currently Yemen offers al-Qaeda the perfect environment to reorganize and reinvent itself, and that’s precisely why the world’s focus is now shifting to the small Arabian Peninsula nation.

It’s not news to many that Yemen has been a safe haven for al-Qaeda for many years. Yemen has a weak centralized government, tough terrain and rugged mountains — and a severely fragmented tribal population with little loyalty to the government.

Also, let’s not forget that Osama Bin Laden’s family was originally from Yemen, and the al-Qaeda mastermind still enjoys wide support there.

Last week, General David Petraeus visited the Yemeni capital of Sana’a for a meeting with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Petraeus delivered a message of support from President Obama to the Yemeni president and told him the U.S. is pledging military aid to Yemen.

Meanwhile British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a conference on terrorism to be held in Yemen at the end of this month. Officially, the Yemeni government is a close ally of the U.S. And it’s one of the world’s poorest countries despite being a neighbor to Saudi Arabia, which is the world’s largest oil exporters and among the region’s richest.

Internally, the weak central Yemeni government has its hands full. For the last six years, the Yemeni army have been engaged in a de facto civil war in the North with a Shi’a rebel group called the Houthis. Yemen’s government accuses the group of being loyal to Iran and receiving weapons from them. Fighting has escalated since last August.

Saudi Arabia’s army was sucked into the conflict when the Saudi government accused the Houthis of crossing the border and attacking a Saudi patrol. A short war ensued between Saudi Arabia and the rebels. Some experts – including Worldfocus contributing blogger Dwight Bashir – argue that Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

The government also faces a strong secessionist movement in the south over perceived northern exploitation of its resources, as I reported last fall. Another problem facing Yemen is the influx of African refugees, mainly Somalis, who cross the Gulf of Aden to escape the failed Somali state. Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia have also threatened to join with al-Qaeda in the impoverished Arabian country.

The failed Christmas day bombing brought Yemen and its myriad problems forcefully to the forefront of the world’s headlines. Unfortunately, the Western media was reacting to events rather anticipating them. Hardly any Western news outlets had a real presence there until the Christmas attack.

It’s disturbing that it took such an event to shine the spotlight on Yemen. The crucial country should have been on the radar long ago.

– Mohammad Al-Kassim

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December 31, 2009
Iran protest coverage reflects spectrum of Arab media bias

A screenshot of Al Arabiya’s homepage showing Iran protesters.

Worldfocus’ Mohammad al-Kassim writes about bias in the Arab media’s depiction of events in Iran.

The post-presidential election demonstrations in Iran have been closely monitored by U.S. and Western media outlets, and the coverage is sympathetic with the reform movement.

But the coverage in the Middle East — especially the Gulf region — is conflicted.

Middle Eastern news outlets’ coverage of the events in Iran generally reflects the political ideology of the companies’ owners.

The Arabic-language satellite channel Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari government, is the most influential channel in the Arab world — with an average of 45 million daily viewers. Al Jazeera continues to operate from Iran because of its favorable coverage of re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Qatari government is Iran’s only ally in the Gulf.

Al Jazeera’s main rival satellite channel is Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai and partly owned by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Al Arabiya has been very aggressive in its coverage of events in Iran, which led to its ban on reporting from there and the closing of its offices by the Iranian government

In Lebanon, the pro-Iran Hezbollah news web site Al-Manar is clearly in support of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government. On its website, it reported on remarks made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during which the Iranian supreme spiritual leader said that the protesters were a tool of the West and that opposition leaders were responsible for Iran’s problems.

Al-Manar also reported positively on the tens of thousands of government supporters who turned out for state-sponsored rallies.

Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper based in London, reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister said yesterday that if Britain doesn’t stop its support of the demonstrators, “it will be slapped on the mouth.”

That quote was the paper’s headline.

We can expect more of the same in the coming months, as Arab media organizations vie for political influence.

– Mohamad al-Kassim

For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

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December 28, 2009
Martin Savidge anchors Worldfocus until January 4th

Home for the holidays

Alright so maybe it’s a little after the holidays… but it feels like home as I will be spending all week with you on Worldfocus.

It’s always nice to know you are missed and I get lots of mail whenever I return to the program. Thank you for that. Even when I’m not here, I’m watching like many fans of the show since we all know there is nothing like Worldfocus to be found anywhere on American television today.

I hope all of you had a safe and wonderful season of giving and being with loved ones.  And here’s wishing all of you an enriching New Year full of good news.

As I walked in the newsroom today I have to say it brought a smile to my face. It was like the feeling you get after having been gone for a while and you finally turn into the old familiar driveway of home.

See you tonight.

– Martin Savidge

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December 24, 2009
Reflections on Yegor Gaidar: Russia’s ‘shock therapist’

Kostroma Market

Kostroma Market. Photo: Flickr user Michael Clark

One of the architects of the so-called “shock therapy” economic reforms that dismantled post-Soviet Russia’s state-controlled economy died last week.

Yegor Gaidar, who served as deputy prime minister in charge of economic reform and later as finance minister and acting prime minister, passed away outside of Moscow at 53.

Gaidar presided over one of the most transformative periods in Russian history, ushering in the basic elements of a market economy: free prices and free trade. In the aftermath of his decree allowing free trade, people rushed to sell their goods.

With the abolishment of price controls, prices skyrocketed and hyperinflation swept the country, wiping out the life savings of millions of Russians. This, along with the subsequent mass privatization of state industry, did not make Gaidar a popular man.

Whether he “saved the country from hunger, civil war and collapse,” as his compatriot Antaly Chubais noted, or brought Russia to the brink of ruin, remains a matter of debate.

Worldfocus researcher Christine Kiernan spoke with Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at the New School in New York City, about Gaidar’s legacy.

Worldfocus: You say you’re not really a fan of Yegor Gaidar’s. Why not?

Krushcheva: Well how many fans do you know? I think his intentions were good, as Yeltsin’s were at the time. I’m just not sure he knew what he was doing. Russia has never been a democracy. And Russia certainly was not a truly capitalist country. Pre-socialism it was to a certain extent a feudal economy still.

Gaidar went into this in the most ideological way possible, probably with good intentions in mind. Everything and anything he knew about capitalism and how it worked came from American books. But Russia is a big country, and from Gaidar’s standpoint it was a lab. From Yeltsin’s standpoint, they needed to do it all fast. That ended up being a serious problem, a serious disaster. Although his intentions were good, he had no way of knowing what capitalism is. He’d never tested it. He had a completely crazy belief in the markets.

Moscow shopping area. Photo: Flickr user Melvin T. Schlubman

Worldfocus: In an interview, speaking about the time, Gaidar said, “It was clear that if nothing were done, and everyone was afraid to act, that there would be a catastrophe.”

Krushcheva: Gaidar’s argument was that we couldn’t do it slower, in an evolutionary way, that it needed to be done in a revolutionary way. But we know from Russian history that revolutions never work… I can’t dismiss the possibility that it was partly because of this all or nothing approach that Putin came in. Perhaps if it had been a slower process people wouldn’t have gotten so disillusioned or wanted a great Russia back at any cost.

Worldfocus: What kind of legacy does he leave behind?

Krushcheva: He and Anatoly Chubais [another member of Yeltsin’s team who oversaw the privatization effort] are blamed. There was an expression in the 1990’s: “Gaidar i Chubaitsy” – a plural and hyphenated name to describe those who brought that completely unruly, irresponsible capitalism to Russia. Their legacy was very tainted.

He was certainly very bright. No question about it. And very privileged. He was the grandson of a very prominent Soviet writer of children’s literature. Yet he made his own name, which was difficult. That is what I respect him for.

Gaidar was one of those 1990s tragedies – those people didn’t fit into the country and the country didn’t fit into them. He presided over a historical period where, as his successor [Prime Minister Victor] Chermordyn put it really well, “we wanted to make it better but it turned out to be like always.”

That’s a formula for Russian life.

For more on how Yegor Gaidar and his reforms will be remembered:

  • A commentary by economist Anders Asland, expert on economic transition who served as advisor to the Russian government
  • A New York Times opinion piece on Gaidar’s mixed legacy
  • An editorial in Russia’s The New Times in which he is characterized as a “great politician, because he made the only decision necessary for the country”
  • Yegor Gaidar shares his reflections on Russia’s economic and political changes in the PBS series Commanding Heights

– Christine Kiernan

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December 16, 2009
Ruling threatens reconciliation between Turks and Kurds


Kurdish women in traditional dress. Photo: Gizem Yarbil.

Gizem Yarbil is a producer at Worldfocus and recently reported, along with Bryan Myers, the Worldfocus signature video Turkey’s Kurds Seek Justice for Unsolved Murders. Gizem grew up in Turkey and writes of her experiences covering the story of Kurdish grievances, which remain a polarizing political issue in Turkey.

It was a blistering morning in early June and we were driving in the southeast of Turkey. Worldfocus producer Bryan Myers and I were traveling to Diyarbakir for a story about the Kurds and the latest developments in their often tragic plight.

We had already shot and produced two stories around Turkey, but this one was especially important for me. Surrounded by golden fields that were illuminated by the scorching southeast sun, I was traveling to a region, which, up until a few years ago, was a no-go area in my country.

The southeast of Turkey is a predominantly Kurdish region, which has witnessed a three-decade long armed ethnic conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatists. The separatists have been fighting for the region’s independence from Turkey since the early 1980s, although now they claim they would accept basic cultural and political rights. According to many sources, the conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives, most of them Kurds.

I didn’t know what to expect from the trip in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Turkish southeast and the capital of Kurdish political and cultural life. I had heard stories about journalists who had had their tapes confiscated and erased, and been subject to aggressive behavior from the Turkish police. The local journalist who accompanied us said that the situation was slightly improved from the time when the conflict was at its most intense a decade ago, but he also warned that filming police, military personnel and official buildings was out of the question.

When I was growing up, everything I heard from Diyarbakir involved death and tragedy. Turkish media has covered the conflict extensively through the years, but generally only from the Turkish military’s point of view. Visuals of crying mothers of dead soldiers, coffins and military funerals on the evening news often accompanied our family dinners. But I don’t remember ever seeing a crying Kurdish mother or anything about the other side of the story on the news. For many of us, Kurds were the enemy, the “Other” that existed to destroy the Turkish people and the nation.

But, later in life, as I dug deeper into the subject (and especially during our trip to the region) everything was very different from what I’d been told growing up in Turkey.

The story we’ve produced in Diyarbakir is about two men, whose family members went missing in the 90s, during the height of the conflict. They long suspected that their loved ones have been kidnapped and murdered by a secret paramilitary group that is directly connected to the State security forces.

A former member of the paramilitary group, who now lives in Sweden, came out a few years ago and confessed to taking part in some of these kidnappings and murders. Now, he is leading state authorities to find the sites that may hold the remains of some people who went missing in the 90s. So far several sites have been excavated and hundreds of bones have been dug up and sent for DNA testing.

These developments would have been a quixotic dream for many Kurds only ten years ago. But now things are changing. Several government and military officials have been arrested and put on trial in connection with human rights violations in the region among other crimes.

These positive developments certainly had an impact on the people of the region. Before we left, we went to eat at a beautiful restaurant with a view of an ancient bridge just outside of Diyarbakir. As we were admiring the view, our driver pointed to the landscape spreading out before us and whispered into my ear. “A lot of bodies used to be dumped around here,” he said. When I asked him how Diyarbakir was nowadays, and how people were feeling, the waiter serving our table immediately jumped in, “Everything is great in Diyarbakir. Everything is perfect!” he exclaimed.

To my eyes, there was a more peaceful atmosphere, and people seemed to feel more hopeful and more secure. There was more investment in the area, especially in tourism. I even heard Hilton was planning to build a hotel very soon.

But that was several months ago. Recent developments have stirred up the region once again, reminding us of the turbulent days of the 1990s. After a top Turkish court banned the main Kurdish political party from parliament, violent clashes between frustrated Kurds and the Turkish police erupted across the southeast including in Diyarbakir.

This move by the judiciary will undoubtedly stall the reform process the leading political party initiated. Without more concrete steps to make peace with the Kurdish minority, tranquility will continue to elude the region.

– Gizem Yarbil

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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November 20, 2009
North Korean economy sandwiched by the dragon and tiger

A banner promoting North Korea’s 150-day economic production campaign in August. Photo: Ben Piven

Part 6 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about the contrast between the North Korean economy and the booming economies of South Korea and China.

“Why does South Korea produce Samsung, LG, and Hyundai?” I asked Jong, our 25-year-old North Korean tour guide.

She said that North Korea will manufacture sophisticated goods once the essentials — electrification and rice production — are covered. But the blank look on her face suggested that she better not discuss the issue.

Then, she perked up when someone asked about her own ideal job. She replied matter-of-factly, “I’d be a businesswoman.”

Jong’s 5,000 KPW (Korean People’s Won) monthly salary is equivalent to around $1.67. The official rate for the North Korean won is 142 per U.S. dollar, but due to severe inflation since the mid-1990’s, the black market rate is over 3000 KPW to $1.

Housing, health care and education are free in North Korea. But with her meager salary, Jong on her own could never afford the television or computer which her family of four (including her mother, father and grandmother) possess. Euros, dollars and Chinese yuan are needed for major purchases.

In North Korea, tourists are not permitted to enter non-tourist shops or purchase the local currency, since a negligible amount of foreign currency could buy out an entire store. Opening up shops and currency to the market would cause economic humiliation.

North Korea’s GDP is $1,700 per capita, 1/15 of South Korea’s, according to the CIA Factbook. Tied with Cote D’Ivoire and just a tad wealthier than Chad, North Korea is poorer than Laos and Cambodia. North Korea went from one of the most prosperous East Asian countries in the 1970s to the least prosperous today.

A Yalu River bridge once connected North Korea with China but was bombed out by the U.S. during the Korean War. Photo: Ben Piven

It wasn’t always this way. Having relied on the Soviets for economic inputs, North Korea developed faster than South Korea in the aftermath of the 1953 armistice that concluded the Korean War. The country’s infrastructure was mostly built from the late 50s to the early 70s, when the Soviet system was strong.

But by the 1980s rural South Korea had transformed into a tech-savvy urban tiger, and the stunted north turned more repressive after a number of aborted attempts to liberalize the economy.

The Juche state ideology — which emphasizes economic self-reliance  — intensified around 1982, almost certainly in response to South Korea’s explosive economic growth. Today, the paradox is that North Korea may be isolated,  but it’s not self-reliant. The authoritarian state relies heavily on food and fuel aid from abroad — as well as, some say, criminal activities.

David Rose explains in Vanity Fair how the Office 39 slush fund supplies Kim’s personal coffers, his inner circle and the missile defense program. Annual revenues from decidedly un-Juche activities, including crystal meth sales and human trafficking, may surpass $1 billion.

North Korea suffers economically from a strict economic embargo. Photo: Ben Piven

According to Rose, the D.P.R.K. is also the world’s top producer of “supernote” counterfeit $100 bills. Since the government cannot legally borrow cash, military sales and criminal rackets generate enough hard currency to keep the regime from collapse.

Since Kim Jong-il implemented songun (military-first budget policy) in 1994, the nuclear program has propped up the regime but stunted the people’s health and welfare. And economic sanctions have further impoverished ordinary Koreans.

On our officially-sanctioned tour, we gawked at workers burning rubber shoes to pave roadways and saw only one functioning crane in five days. Like the country’s infrastructure, corn and rice plots were orderly but dilapidated. Peasants worked in large groups, then napped individually in tiny wooden shacks.

Except for one rainy day, our bus was lonely on the roadways. Endless queues of people waited for antique Soviet trams and buses, while government officials drove fancy German cars. The only billboards advertised Pyonghwa Motors, co-owned by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and under license from Fiat.

Officially, 2012 (Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday, known as Juche 100) will mark the completion of several projects, including the pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel, begun in 1987 but halted in 1992 due to severe shortages. Though the country’s tallest structure, the 105-story building is absent from tourist maps.

A North Korean phone on the country’s only cellular network. Photo: Ben Piven

The top two floors are being renovated as an office for Egyptian telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris, whose Orascom employees are also installing the nation’s first cell service, KoryoLink. The company has already enlisted over 50,000 subscribers at $25 per month. Sawiris also recently launched Ora Bank, another joint venture with a North Korean government partner. (North Korea’s ties with Egypt date back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In return for air force squadrons, North Korea later received scud missiles).

Some Americans believe that more economic engagement is the best way to bring North Korea in from the cold. There are some signs that the Juche nation is slowly bending to Western commercial pressures – witness the Taedonggang beer ad, Pyongyang pizza craze, and a new Singaporean-owned fast food restaurant.

But for now, despite the rapid globalization on its borders, North Korea remains in an economic deep freeze.

– Ben Piven

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