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October 12, 2009
U.S. mulls military options in Afghanistan

An Afghan villager in late 2008. Photo: Flickr user RugNug

S. Azmat Hassan is a career diplomat and former ambassador of Pakistan, where his postings have included Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco, and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University.

On how to proceed in Afghanistan: Obama should make haste slowly. He is being pulled in different directions, which is not unusual in American politics. Kennedy was pressured by his senior military commanders to preemptively attack Russian missile sites in Cuba, which he rejected. Instead, he wisely chose diplomacy. He averted a possible nuclear holocaust in the aftermath of which the living if any would have envied the dead. Truman dismissed MacArthur, a general with a big ego, who advised him to nuke China to stop their advance in the Korean War.

Obama should strictly order the US commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal, to observe military protocol by not courting the media to publicize his recommendation for 40,000 additional troops. He should go through the military chain of command instead of trying to become a military prima donna. The buck stops with Obama- the Commander-in-Chief.

Since time immemorial, no foreign army has won in Afghanistan. Alexander, arguably the greatest military commander of all time, and more recently the mighty British and the Soviet armies, all experienced humiliating reverses in Afghanistan. The US Army supported by some NATO forces, has been trying for 8 years to defeat a ragtag militia calling itself the Taliban. They have failed. One does not have to be a military genius to figure out that when the combination of the forces opposing you is in the ascendant; it is time to give up the military option. The Taliban have the advantages of geography, history and resolve to attenuate and outlast the US forces-whom they consider foreign invaders.

Throwing in more troops is not likely to alter the current military equation. In today’s world where asymmetric warfare has demonstrated that a $20 improvised explosive device can destroy humvees and armored personnel carriers costing millions, the military calculus is weighted in favor of the local resistance. It is a resistance, moreover, which is hugely reinforced by an apparently inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers who can wreak havoc among both the military and civilians.

Those who recommend military escalation are still hoping for a military victory. Their rationale for pursuing the military option is the wrongheaded conflation of the Taliban with al-Qaeda. No such partnership is discernible today in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was overthrown by the US in 2001 for being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. They are unlikely to make the same mistake twice. American analysts themselves admit that al-Qaeda is down to around 100 adherents in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda is thus highly unlikely to be in a position to launch another 9/11 or any operation approaching it. Mullah Omar has publicly proclaimed that his fight is not against the West. It is against foreign military forces and the ineffectual and corrupt Karzai regime which stands further delegitimized in the eyes of many Afghans as well as many in the international community, for blatantly rigging the recent general election. Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. It would be prudent for Obama who is considered an astute politician, not to fall further in this bottomless pit like the others before him.

So what can be done? The US must initiate a dialogue with the Taliban beginning with their leader Mullah Omar. A senior British diplomat whom I had invited recently to lecture to my class told them that at the height of the British conflict with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the British kept up contacts with them. When the IRA was ready to talk with the British authorities, they utilized an already established channel of communication.

Today the centuries old Anglo-Irish problem is largely resolved. Regrettably, the US has not evolved politically to set up such mechanisms with its antagonists such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hizbullah and Hamas. They have forgotten British Foreign Secretary’s Lord Palmerston’s sage advice tendered 150 years ago: in international relations there are no permanent friends or enemies- only interests. Today it is patently in America’s interest to explore the diplomatic option in Afghanistan as the military option has failed. It is the road to a dead end.

– S. Azmat Hassan

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October 7, 2009
Japan’s new leader axes plans for manga museum

Cosplay, short for “costume roleplay.”

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer for Worldfocus, is now an international news editor at a Chinese newspaper.

To save some money for the Japanese people, Yukio Hatoyama, the new Prime Minister of Japan, has made a decisive cut that might break many comic fans’ hearts.

One month after beating the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party, Hatoyama vowed to end extravagancy by rolling back several policies implemented by Japan’s former leader, Taro Aso. For example, Hatoyama abolished one of Aso’s most ambitious plans — the establishment of the “National Center for Media Arts,” a $32 million-budget museum that demonstrates art forms such as manga and animation.

Yukio Hatoyama said Aso’s idea about the museum is naive, calling it a “giant manga cafe.”

Aso is well-known for his zeal for manga, the Japanese term for comic books. When he studied in Stanford, he had his family send manga magazines from Japan. In 2003, he described reading up to 20 manga magazines every week, and complained that his work had prevented him from reading more.

However, not many people appreciate his passion. Even the animation guru Hayao Miyazaki, director of the Oscar winner “Spirited Away,” told Aso to “keep his interest personal.”

Miyazaki said in a press conference that Aso’s manga propaganda is the “great shame of Japan.”

But before you make any judgment about Aso, consider this:

According to research, manga constituted an annual $3.6 billion publication-industry in Japan by 2007 — and it is still expanding rapidly to the global market, as distributing companies license and reprint manga in various languages.

Real manga fans not only read manga — they practice it. These people build up discussion groups, hold cosplays and publish their amateur comic works. Wandering between the imaginary world and the real life is truly a cherished lifestyle for many.

If you go to Harajuku or Akihabara, the pop-culture capitals in Japan, you would understand such philosophy. There are so many people — young and old, male and female (sometimes with their pets) — simply dressing and acting like manga characters. Unlike New York’s Halloween parade, these year-round carnivals are taken seriously by manga followers. And once you witness the spectacle, it is hard not to get shaken.

Leaving the politics aside, I do feel sorry for Aso and his museum. After all, at this gloomy time, holding on to one’s passion would be blissful.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ehnmark under a Creative Commons license.

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October 6, 2009
Child labor in Ghana: More than a million children at work

The following article was published by PEARL World Youth News, an initiative of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) and the Daniel Pearl Foundation. Matthew Ewusi Nyarkoh filed this story from Ghana.  You can see the original post and more about the project here.

ACCRA, Ghana.
Several thousand children live and work on the streets here, and their numbers are growing. Increasing urbanization in the capital city and increasing poverty in the surrounding countryside are making more children vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and abuse, including a higher risk of exposure to HIV.

Amina is 11, an orphan who works as a porter in the suburb of Nima. Porters like Amina, known in Accra as kayayei, carry heavy loads in a basin balanced on their heads. She said in an interview that she came to Accra two years ago, when she was 9, after her parents were killed. They were returning home from their farm field on a bicycle when they were hit by a car and killed, she said.

Although she has aunts and uncles, they not only declined to take in the orphan but also accused her of causing her parents’ deaths, she claimed. Since she had no other family to run to, her only option was to head to Accra to find work and take care of herself. So now she carries loads for shoppers in the Nima market.

She charges 70 pesewes ($ .50 U.S.) for a small load and 1 cedi ($ .68 U.S.) for a bigger load. After the day’s work, she waits for a shop to close so she can sleep in front of that shop, she said, adding that she has been robbed a few times of the money she made that day.  She asked that her full name not be published because she feared for her safety if her relatives should learn of her whereabouts.

The minimum age when children can work legally in Ghana is 16. However, more than 26 percent of children between 5 and 14 work illegally, according to the Ghana Statistical Service. The service’s report indicates that children in rural areas work in fishing, herding and farming, and as domestic servants, porters, hawkers, mine and quarry laborers, and bus conductors. In urban centers like Accra, street children work mainly as truck pushers, head porters, and sales workers.

Jalal Mohammed, a program officer at Moslem Family Counseling Services in Accra, said in an interview that child laborers are not only denied access to education but also some are held in indentured servitude, forced to work off their families’ debts. According to his agency, more than 1 million underage children work in Ghana. Of those, more than 242,000 are engaged in the most dangerous and exploitive work and over 800,000 are not in school.

Mohammed said many child traffickers in Ghana have been publicly exposed but authorities have failed to prosecute them.  He added that the government would not act and traffickers would not be deterred unless aid workers, human rights activists, and journalists continued to apply pressure.

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October 6, 2009
Diplomatic victory with Iran staves off preemptive attacks

Ambassador Azmat Hassan

Azmat Hassan is a career diplomat and former ambassador of Pakistan, where his postings have included Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco, and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University.

The outcome of the recent Geneva talks between the P5+1 and Iran is good news. The international community is rightly concerned at the ambiguity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s agreement to turn over the enriched uranium fuel from its reactors to Russia represents a significant concession. But more significantly, it is a victory for diplomacy. It staves off, at least temporarily, the hawkish option of preemptive attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States.

The latter course would be disastrous as it almost certainly would unleash more bloodshed and uncertainty in the Middle East — and probably tilt Iran toward joining the nuclear club. Iran feels hemmed in by the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel; by the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and by nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The Geneva talks open up the possibility of diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran.

The U.S. and Iran have not spoken to each other for 30 years. They have to reengage to serve their mutual interests. Normalization would enable American diplomats on the ground in Tehran to better gauge the dynamics of Iranian politics. Ditto for Iranian diplomats in Washington. If matters proceed well, it might enable Obama to have a direct channel to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Pakistan helped the U.S. and China to reconcile forty years ago, and it would be a possible mediator between Washington and Tehran.

I vividly remember accompanying President Leghari of Pakistan in a meeting with Khamenei, when the former was on a state visit to Tehran in 1994. Khamenei sat on the floor, and so did the Pakistani delegation, on exquisite Persian carpets interspersed with cushions. Far from the West’s caricature of Iranian clergy as a bunch of scowling mullahs in black robes, Khamenei appeared both genial and worldly.

I did not detect any fire and brimstone in his remarks. Engagement almost always softens the rough edges of animosity and misperception among adversaries. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the U.K. said that a real hero is one who turns an enemy into a friend.

Diplomatic engagement between the U.S and Iran is imperative if we desire a more peaceful Middle East. This will be good for all actors. Iran is just too important and powerful to be intimidated or isolated. Nixon’s opening to China showed the enormous benefits of bringing China into the world’s mainstream. The same can happen with Iran. Diplomacy means putting oneself in the shoes of one’s antagonist. It means viewing intractable issues from a different prism. Ultimately, it means searching for accommodation. If the U.S. were to open up and normalize with Iran, it could open the way for a broad-based rapprochement between Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab countries and Iran. It could unlock the gridlock in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could thus be win-win all around — instead of the zero-sum game that the hawks want us to play.

– Azmat Hassan

For another perspective on the responsibilities of the P5+1, read contributor Dwight Bashir’s thoughts: Amid Iran nuclear talks, don’t forget human rights.

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October 5, 2009
Amid Iran nuclear talks, don’t forget human rights

Should the P5+1 stand in solidarity with Iran’s reformers?

For the past 15 years, Dwight Bashir has worked on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom issues. He is a senior advisor for an independent U.S. commission focusing on international religious freedom. The views expressed here are his own personal views.

Now that the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russian, China + Germany) have embarked on multilateral negotiations with the Iranian government, it is time to look forward, not backward. The one-day talks in Geneva held last week will resume after an October 25 visit to Iran by representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess Iran’s newly-declared nuclear facility.

As expected, international attention has focused on Iran’s apparent willingness to send most of its enriched uranium out of the country and to allow the IAEA to inspect its latest facility. What has not received adequate attention is what happened on the fringes of the formal talks –- separate discussions between American and Iranian diplomats on human rights.

Here’s how the U.S. State Department spokesman characterized these conversations: “In addition to the focus on the nuclear program, they also had a frank exchange on a number of other issues, including issues of human rights. And we also raised the issue of American citizens who are being held in Iran…”

Understandably, the United States government asked about American detainees in Iran, but what other human rights issues were discussed? Unfortunately, there has been no further explanation.

Did anyone inquire about the hundreds of Iranian citizens injured or killed while peacefully protesting the contested outcome of the June 12 elections? Or the scores of dissidents and reformers who have been beaten by Iranian security and militia forces and unlawfully detained for weeks? What about before the elections, and the thousands of brave women’s rights activists, journalists, bloggers, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders and others who have been unjustly imprisoned?

For that matter, did anyone raise specific cases such as the seven Baha’i leaders, in jail since early last year, who could be sentenced to death on October 18 on baseless espionage charges? What about the status of two Christian women, Maryam and Marzieh, who reportedly have serious health concerns yet continue to languish in prison — now for more than six months — without charge and facing the death penalty for apostasy?

Let’s also not forget that just two weeks ago, President Ahmadinejad arrived in New York on very shaky international standing with internal turmoil alive and well in Iran. Nevertheless, he still felt confident enough to spew anti-Semitic rants and anti-Western vitriol during his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

All is not lost. There is a way forward.

In addition to holding the Iranian government to account for its nuclear ambitions, the P5+1 should use its new platform to raise substantive human rights issues, and not just behind closed doors. The Iranian government has already agreed to “embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations,” so human rights are fair game. In particular, the P5+1 should publicly express its genuine concern about the plight of Iranian citizens, as well as raising specific cases (a similar method was used successfully by the United States during the 1970s when it raised human rights effectively during arms talks with the Soviet Union). This message must emerge in future deliberations, otherwise the morale of Iran’s reformers and — of advocates of freedom and democracy globally — will have suffered a major blow.

The P5+1 can cite Iran’s obligations under international human rights law; in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Iran is a party. Not only would this present a unified front among P5+1 partners, but would also demonstrate solidarity with the Iranian people. If Russia and China balk, the four Western partners can still take a powerful stand. The Iranian people need to know that the international community cares about their fate and will not trade away 30 years of transgressions for potential nuclear concessions.

The U.S. Congress can also play its part. Both the Senate and House are moving forward on providing the Obama administration with a new set of targeted economic sanctions should Iran fail to produce tangible results in a timely fashion. Current legislation under debate identifies nuclear proliferation and support for international terrorism as justification for imposing new sanctions. Final legislation should add international human rights violations to the list. This inclusion would demonstrate that the Iranian government’s poor human rights record is on equal footing with other security concerns.

Even if symbolic, Congress should also consider triggering a targeted sanction under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). Iran has been on the U.S. blacklist of religious freedom violators for 10 years, yet no new sanction has been imposed. In addition, the State Department has a statutory requirement under IRFA to identify foreign agencies and officials responsible for violations of religious freedom and can bar individuals from entry into the United States.

This requirement remains unfulfilled.

Ideally, the ultimate goal would be to get international agreement among the P5+1 on any new sanctions. Although this isn’t a must. Again, if Russian and/or China hold out, the four Western allies can still work together. Since late 2006, the U.N. Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions penalizing Iran’s nuclear program and imposing travel bans on those individuals involved. Why not do the same for Iranian officials involved in human rights abuses? It’s high time to identify Iran’s human rights violations as a justification for tougher sanctions. This act alone would bolster Iran’s reformers to play their part inside Iran.

– Dwight Bashir

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Plug 1 under a Creative Commons license.

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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October 1, 2009
Patriotic Chinese film stirs passions on nation’s anniversary

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer for Worldfocus, is now an international news editor at a Chinese newspaper. She describes a recent film that has Chinese patriots buzzing.

The other day, my friends and I were having a serious discussion: Should we spend our money on “Final Destination 4” or “The Founding of a Republic,” a Chinese film that commemorates the 60th anniversary of China’s Communist revolution?

While struggling between Hollywood sensation and Beijing propaganda seems a little awkward, I did find something interesting when I examined the movie reviews for “The Founding of a Republic.”

Watch the trailer of “The Founding of a Republic”
:

This state-funded movie is magnificent in many ways, and here is why:

The two-hour film is clogged up with 176 famous movie stars, including some Hollywood faces like Jackie Chen, Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi. Many of them volunteered for cameo appearances, only to deliver a few words, which helped keep the budget under $9.6 million.

The cast traveled to 90 settings across mainland China, with eight directors working one after another to put the scenes together.

And to get the job done, it took only 120 days.

Such efforts have inspired many people. Chinese blogger “Yu In” urged on CRI, an online news portal, “Let this movie go to the Oscars!”

“Do you think Hollywood could get so many superstars for […] Independence Day?” she doubted. “Only China can achieve this “mission impossible.'”

Probably too agitated by patriotism, some people are “hugely disgusted” by those movie stars who hold American passports.

Blogger “Crystal” asked on Sina.com, another popular portal site, “Why are there so many ‘foreigners’ appearing in our movie?” She said that she felt “ashamed and embarrassed.”

It is true that for many Chinese, disregarding where you are from suggests that you are a bastard. And once you abandon your nationality, there is no way back.

However, as Taiwanese, my friends and I don’t even know if we abandoned Communist China or if it abandoned us. “The Founding of a Republic” might give us some clue — but perhaps “Final Destination 4” might be more substantial.

My friends and I haven’t decided which one to watch. Still, it’s a nice thing to know that there is so much a movie can reveal.

– Hsin Yin Lee

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September 30, 2009
Liberians weigh jobs against preserving rare forests

Liberia’s forests fall within one of the world’s threatened biodiversity “hotspots.”

But as Worldfocus contributing blogger Myles Estey describes, for many Liberians looking to earn a living by logging, environmental preservation is not always a top priority.

Liberia turned down an interesting offer last week. Basically, a consortium of Western ‘partners’ offered to pay Liberia millions of dollars to not ratify several forestry contracts, themselves worth millions. The Liberian speaker of the house was reported to have called the offer a joke, saying, ultimately, that Liberians need jobs, not money.

This may be a fair assessment, but it did not seem like the full purpose of the offer was really considered.

[…] Despite being a country known for its ‘blood timber’ during the war, Liberia holds a massive share of the largely untouched Upper Guinean Rainforest, a precious, and increasingly rare commodity around the world.

This is valuable in a way that is difficult to sometimes rationalize in a country with an unemployment rate of 85%, and a desperate need for jobs: telling rural workers that they cannot have a job because of a global crisis involving the a substance in the air does not translate.

Of course, as UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness raised in a report last week, these jobs offer a lot [more] shorter term benefits than virgin forests, and almost always, provide significantly less (in jobs, pay, and local benefits such as schools, clinics and infrastructure) than promised in their contracts.

Looking at other international companies involved in natural resources within Liberia, its not hard to see the dangers. Firestone, the largest employee, had to be dragged kicking and screaming last August in order to raise wages to $3.78 / day, plus a modest bonus for production, and to reduce their hours and quotas that were encouraging child labour until 2008. […]

International forestry companies will offer similarly meager salaries for the dangerous, grueling work of equatorial forestry, and, many fear, will avoid responsibilities to the impoverished local communities.

Along with concerns raised by Global Witness and others about the track records of the companies involved in the proposed operations, and the legitimacy of some of the contracts, ample questions remain.

Does providing $5 / day jobs to hundreds of Liberians actually outweigh the benefits of preserving a virgin rainforest? Will the Liberian government be able to hold the international companies to task on their promises? How much of the proposed millions of dollars per year will actually remain in Liberia?

USAID has been working hard with the FDA (Forest Developmental Authority) to create truly revolutionary regulations for forestry here, including barcoded trees and logging strategies that look towards long term forest health. Making sure this happens will be another story of navigating bribes, failed promises and assessments (that may or may not have taken place).

Weighing environmental benefits against the need for economic growth is never easy. And this problem gets magnified in a country routinely exploited by the international companies they depends on for the capital and overhead needed to even start these operations in the first place.

With virgin forests becoming an increasingly rare resource around the world, greater debate should occur regarding the importance of both the forest and the trees, and how they can offer the maximal, long-term benefits to Liberia.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Advocacy Project under a Creative Commons license.

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September 25, 2009
Hundreds of thousands remain displaced in Sri Lanka

Months after Sri Lanka’s government declared victory over the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, nearly 300,000 people remain displaced by the civil war that lasted 26 years. President Mahina Rajapaksa claims the displaced will be able to return home by the end of January.

Amidst mounting criticisms about conditions, a United Nations human rights expert visited camps in the northern part of the country on Friday.

Bart Beeson, a freelance journalist and campaign organizer, and Annalise Romoser, a freelance journalist focused on human rights and rural development, describe the predicament at World Politics Review.

A displaced person in Sri Lanka.

Everywhere in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, posters featuring smiling soldiers holding rocket launchers and machine guns celebrate the recent end to the nation’s 26-year civil war. But in the government-run camps that still house more than 250,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the war’s fighting, the mood is far from celebratory.

In late August, heavy rains at the largest camp, Manik, flooded tents and led to unsanitary conditions. According to aid worker K Thampu, “The situation was heartbreaking. Tents were flooded and mothers, desperate to keep their children dry during the night, took chairs and tables from school facilities for them to sleep on.”

Rains also caused toilets to flood, with worms covering large swaths of ground near latrines, says Thampu. At stake, according to local experts, is not only the immediate welfare of camp residents, but chances for long-lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

Most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have been living in the camps since May, when they fled the intense fighting that marked the final battle between government forces and the insurgent group known as the Tamil Tigers. Publicly, the Sri Lankan government has committed to returning IDPs to their homes by November of this year, and several thousand people have been released from camps to live with relatives. But the government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa also maintains that others must remain in camps until the area around their former homes is cleared of mines. At the same time, government representatives are slowly screening camp residents to identify former combatants.

Aid workers and local experts agree that the government must move quickly, for several reasons. The most urgent among them is monsoon season, which starts at the end of September and will only exacerbate the already difficult camp conditions. More tents and toilets will flood, increasing the risk of communicable and mosquito-born diseases.

“We saw how bad things got after the recent rains, which only lasted 3 or 4 days,” says Thampu, who works for the Baltimore-based humanitarian organization Lutheran World Relief. “Imagine how bad they will get once the monsoons are upon us.”

In addition to the rains, long-standing tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese-led government remain, even if the armed insurgency has been defeated. Many worry that if the government does not act quickly to return people to their homes, it will lead to new problems in northern Sri Lanka.

Thampu says that many teenagers in the camps are already frustrated. “Young people have told me, ‘We have no freedom to talk, no protection, no education, no recreation and no employment! Everything looks like hell in our life. What do we have to live for?'”

Despite living in a warzone, many teenagers were able to pass the university entrance exams. But now they cannot leave the camps to begin their studies. Thampu adds, “Victory has been declared, but what does that mean for them? It is important to give them a new start in life.”

According to T Thevathas, another aid worker in Manik Camp, “Peace and security in the north is the most important thing to consider. People have been waiting 30 years for this, but IDPs in the camps feel no security and have no peace of mind despite the government’s victory.”

Thevatas notes that for real advances to be made in the north, it is crucial for Tamils in the camp to feel that the national government is working on their behalf. “At this point,” he says, “IDPs have placed all their hopes for return on local governments and the international community.”

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user springm / Markus Spring under a Creative Commons license.

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September 21, 2009
Q&A: A Saudi woman’s perspective on polygamy

Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” system requires women to receive permission from their husbands to perform a host of daily activities.

Women in Saudi Arabia often face discrimination and violence, and the country’s “guardianship” system requires women to receive permission from their husbands to perform a host of daily activities.

Women also face obstacles when trying to obtain divorces. Islam allows men to have up to four wives at a time. A Worldfocus contributing blogger at the “American Bedu” blog speaks with a divorced Saudi woman now living in the United States for her perspective on polygamy.

Q: Your mother was a second wife. What was that like for you growing up? Did you and your siblings have any contact with your father’s first wife and children?

A: Yes, my mother was the second wife. We stayed in a different house, but same area, so I met Khala’s children regularly; also we go to school together. They are same as my brothers. We didn’t have much contact with Khala except when we went on trips or Eid’s or marriages. My step-siblings also came to my house with father sometimes. But my mother and Khala don’t talk much to each other. It was like any other family, I guess, except that my father had two wives.

Q: In your view, how accepting was your mother of being a second wife?

A: My father is from a well-known family. He was in a good position so when his sister/mom approached my mother’s father, they agreed, she has no choice. This is what I hear from her. She is sad always but initially, she says, it’s tough and then she adjusted by praying a lot and accepting that it’s only Allah’s wish. She always told me never to become anyone’s second wife.

Q: Because your father had two wives, two families, do you feel this impacted on the amount and quality of time he spent with you?

A: Father was busy so he didn’t spend [time] with us children too much except maybe vacations and holidays, on a daily basis our mother only took care of us a lot. I wish he had only one family, some days he comes home, but [the majority of time] he spent in Khala’s house as that’s where my grandmother also stays. So yes, we missed him a lot. So many days we were alone and to be fair so many days Khala and my step-siblings were alone. I sometimes felt why have a father when he’s there only 50 percent at best.

Q: Growing up as a child of polygamy, how did it affect your own views of marriage? And what about your siblings, did any of them also elect to have polygamous marriages?

A: I know Islam permits having four wives, but I wish it were not so. I have seen my mother suffer and I have suffered; my mother was not very happy with her married life. When she was young she said she had dreams of marriage and they were all gone. I did not want to accept polygamy in my marriage but again Allah has his plans for us. One of my brother[s] and one step-brother has two wives. The others all have only one family. I wanted to put in my marriage contract that I did not want a co-wife but that did not happen.

Q: […] Tell us about your marriage. Was it arranged?

A: Yes, I had big dreams of studying to become a doctor, but that was not to happen. We got a proposal from a well-known family and my father does business with them also so it was arranged. I [told] my father I wanted to finish university and do some more studies, but he refused. I wanted to contact my two brothers — we were very close — but I couldn’t and they were not told also (since they both lived outside the country). My mother told me it is best not to go against the wishes of my father. […]

Q: What can you share about your own personal experience and feelings when your husband chose to take a second wife?

A: I was broken. WeIl, I could not accept that happily — all my life I did not want that one thing in my marriage and it had to happen to me. We were married for such a short time and he said he fell in love with her and wanted to marry her. If I could I would have left the marriage. I could not agree to polygamy and that’s when the abuse started. I wish I had the courage then to stand up to him, but there are no options, everyone tells you to work it out and accepts Allah’s will , but it was hard, his family knew how I felt yet they never saw my side, we had arguments about polygamy, his rights, Islam etc., and then always it would end with it being permitted in Islam and my disobedience and hitting. I did everything he asked just I couldn’t get to accept a co-wife. I prayed and I was no one to deny him his right but my heart did not agree. But he married again and she came to live with us. I cried to my brothers here and mom but unfortunately he had taken a second wife by then and they told me to pray and try to be a good wife, but did not support me.

Q: Was it easy to get away from your husband and obtain a divorce?

A: No, it was very hard. I don’t wish it on anyone. I was afraid to tell anyone about the abuse for the shame; I was not permitted to go on my own. Even if I did where could I go. Luckily my step-brother and his family had moved to Riyadh and he heard about my marriage from Khala (I thank her for that). My father had suffered a stroke by then. My brother came to see me one day and saw my face all swollen –- my husband always never hits on my face but happened that time. [He] yelled at my husband, I think it was the first time a woman has questioned him and his faith […] my brother simply told my husband that he will take me to stay with them and in [the] future my ex-husband will have to deal with him. This caused such a bad rift in our family to this day we are all not one. After that it was a nightmare; I don’t know where to begin or end, but my other brother came from England and together they both paid a large amount of money and got me a divorce and also [a] visa to another country where my aunt/uncle stayed. From there I came to the U.S. and have since settled here.

For more, see the “American Bedu” blog.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user letsbook under a Creative Commons license.

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September 18, 2009
Bullet holes, grief remain for Gaza family after war

Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, writer and human rights activist who recently returned from Israel and the Gaza Strip, where she was doing research for an upcoming book about a Palestinian family.  While there, she met with a father who lost two sons during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. This week, the United Nations released a report condemning the actions of both sides during the conflict. This is the story of one family’s loss.

Abu Absal Shurrab stood in front of his red jeep  and waved energetically when he saw me. I walked towards him. “Salaam aleikum!” we greeted each other warmly, and Abu Absal indicated that I should get into the jeep.

Abu Absal stands next to the car that he and his sons were shot in.

My heart stopped momentarily as he stepped out of the way and the vehicle became fully visible. The windshield was splattered with bullet holes. This was the car Abu Absal was driving the day he was shot and his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, were killed.

I climbed inside the passenger seat, trying to discreetly count the bullet holes as Abu Absal guided the car onto the road. Twenty that I could see, including the semi-shattered rear-view mirror. Abu Absal noticed my preoccupation.

“Kassab was sitting exactly where you are now,” he told me. “Ibrahim was in the back seat, directly behind him. When the shooting started, I shouted for them to crouch down low. But the bullets went through the front of the car. I tried to replace the windshield, but because of the siege, there is no glass available anywhere in Gaza Strip.”

The final days of 2008 and the first weeks of 2009 saw a large-scale Israeli military bombardment and invasion of Gaza Strip. Israel termed the incursion “Operation Cast Lead,” saying it was intended to protect the citizens of the southern community of Sderot, 24 of whom had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza over the past eight years.

According to a recently released report by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, 1,387 Palestinians were killed during the 22-day attack, over half of them civilians, including more than 300 children. Several thousand more innocent people were injured, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 were damaged. United Nations schools, clinics and other humanitarian facilities were bombed.

On January 16, 2009, towards the end of the onslaught, I received an email with the horrifying subject line:

“Help me save my dad’s life.”

It was from Amer Shurrab. I’ve known Amer for 10 years, since he was 14 years old. Amer is from Khan Yunis, Gaza, but had recently graduated from Middlebury College and had just moved to Washington, D.C.

With dread, I opened the email. Amer wrote:

“My father’s car was bombed today, he was in it with two of my brothers. My older brother 27 was killed while my dad 64 and my little brother 17 have been bleeding for over 14 hours and Israeli troops blocking ambulances access.  Please contact any media outlets, your congressmen, senators, any international organizations and try to get them help.”

Several hours later, I got another email from Amer with more details about the incident and an update. The morning of the attack, his father and brothers had gone to check on their farm during the daily three-hour humanitarian “ceasefire.” On their way home, his father’s red jeep was bombarded by a hail of bullets from IDF troops who had commandeered a house approximately fifty meters away. Amer’s older brother, Kassab, was shot in the chest and stomach 18 times and died on the spot. His father was shot in the arm and his younger brother, Ibrahim, was shot below the knee.

Abu Absal shouted to the soldiers that he and his sons needed medical attention. They shouted back for him to call an ambulance. He did, via cell phone, but was told by the Red Crescent that the Israeli army would not permit them access. Abu Absal managed to contact media and human rights groups, who launched an immediate campaign to pressure the army to allow medical care to reach the wounded civilians. Nearly 24 hours later, the IDF permitted an ambulance to reach Abu Absal and his sons. By then it was too late for Amer’s younger brother. Ibrahim had already bled to death.

Abu Absal parked the jeep outside an apartment building in Khan Yunis. “Here’s where we live,” he told me. “Any time you are in Gaza, you should make this your home!” We climbed the steps and entered. Abu Absal introduced me cheerfully to his wife and his two daughters. Heaviness and grief was palpable in the home, especially in the eyes of Amer’s mother and sisters. Nevertheless, Abu Absal was determined that my visit be an occasion for happiness. He instructed me to sit in an easy chair, next to his.

“We must speak of many things!” Abu Absal said brightly. “Your visit is like a breeze of fresh air to the family. Only…” He leaned towards me and adopted the tone of a fatherly scolding. “You are not staying long enough! So early tomorrow morning we will visit the farm, before you have to return to Gaza City!”

“Do you go to the farm often?” I asked his university-aged daughter, hoping to engage her in the conversation.

“Not really,” she replied, barely making eye contact.

“The girls no longer like the farm,” Abu Absal explained. “They blame the farm for the death of their brothers. After all, if we hadn’t gone that morning…” He didn’t complete the sentence.

Abu Absal shows off his farm.

The sun was just beginning to rise the next morning when Abu Absal and I climbed back into his battered jeep.  The sandy roads of Khan Yunis were bathed in golden light and early morning silence. We turned off the main road after passing the European Hospital. Less than a minute later, we approached an intersection. Abu Absal slowed down. “This was where they were killed,” he said. “You see that brown house?” he pointed. “That’s where the soldiers shot from. I didn’t know they were there. If I had known, I could have taken another route…”

Amer had told me how close the hospital was to the scene of the killings, but seeing it for myself felt like a punch in my gut. Kassab could not have been helped, but Abu Absal and Ibrahim, even with their injuries, could have made it there, walking or crawling or both. But the soldiers had threatened to shoot them if they moved.

Ten minutes later, Abu Absal was giving me a tour of the farm, pointing out with love and devotion each fig and citrus tree, every pepper, the collection of bee hives. From the window of the elevated farm house, he asked me if I could see the fence and the military tower in the distance. I could. “That’s the border with Israel,” he told me. “I watched dozens of tanks roll into Gaza from there. I must guard the farm every day to make sure no one uses it to launch rockets. I don’t want the Israelis to have any excuse to destroy my farm.”

The destruction was not always related to rocket fire. The day before, I had filmed the remains of a school bombed by fighter jets, a clinic that had been shelled and a residential neighborhood reduced to rubble. I had also seen a mosque sprayed with bullets from a recent shootout between Hamas and an Islamic militant group. But in the midst of this destruction, I also witnessed resilience and ingenuity. I saw tent-dwellers whose homes were destroyed tap into a main power line, providing their families with electricity. I watched a youth soccer tournament and broke the Ramadan fast with families at sundown. Though people were going about their daily lives, loss and pain in Gaza still run very deep.

Abu Absal tenderly showed me his baby eggplants nestled in rich soil. He offered me a ripe pomegranate dangling temptingly off a tree. A warm light glowed in his eyes.

“Your farm is beautiful,” I said, hoping my appreciation would further boost his spirits.

A cloud passed over Abu Absal’s face. He fingered the rubbery leaves of his olive tree silently. Finally he spoke, echoing, it seemed to me, the sentiment of thousands of Gazan civilians. Those who lost loved ones, their homes, their schools. Those who saw crushed in front of their eyes whatever hope they still nurtured, whatever shards of a normal life they had managed to preserve throughout decades of occupation and years of escalating violence.

“It is very beautiful here indeed. But the beauty means nothing since my sons are gone.”

– Jen Marlowe

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.


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