Category Archives: South Sudan

Embellishing Crime: Melbourne’s “African Gang” Problem

Always trust the handy anecdote to overwhelm reality with force and false persuasiveness.  The taxi driver irate at the latest opportunistic scribble in a Rupert Murdoch rag is bound to regale you with a story as you speed to the airport: “Those bloody gangs.  And the police didn’t even bloody mention they were African!”  A vital canon of reactionary politics is extolling the supposed reality of a phenomenon that does not affect you.  All that matters is its existence, however modest its effect.

Forced difference matters in the politicisation of crime.  Certain offenders command more attention than others.  Saying that a good deal of crime is done by Caucasians in a still dominant Caucasian country or state is a fairly valueless exercise, a commonality that will, at best, induce a yawn.  Let those felons be.  Attention should be paid, rather, to acts that can be underscored as spectacular.  Besides, it sells papers, however poor the copy.

Take such headlines from The Australian, calculated to chill the blood and curdle compassion: “Melbourne is most liveable city for gang members and bully unionists”.  Another: “Streets of menace: gang violence in the suburbs.”  This is entertaining stuff giving the impression that going out on a Melbourne street would be akin to strolling in an unlit part of fifteenth century London.

Over the course of the last Australian summer, the Turnbull government was gifted gold. Its least imaginative minister, an unreformed member of the police, all growl and snarl, pounced on a spate of violent attacks featuring South Sudanese youths.  But Peter Dutton was attempting to outdo his predecessors.

In 2007, the murder of South Sudanese Melburnian Liep Gony became the basis of moves by then immigration minister Kevin Andrews to restrict refugees from settling in Australia, ostensibly on the basis of non-integration.

More recently, Dutton made a good deal of the death of a South Sudanese teenager.  (Deaths supply excellent currency in the market of fear.)  Nineteen-year-old Laa Chol had given the pretext to Dutton to suggest that Victoria had become the badlands of Australia.  “There is a major law and order problem in Victoria and more people are going to be hurt until the rule of law is enforced by the Victorian Government.”  New South Wales and Queensland, by way of contrast, were spick and span on the issue, while the Andrews government in Victoria had “created this problem”, a result of “pathetic bail laws.”

Dutton’s untutored meddling in the Victorian policing scene is spectacular, claiming that he is on to something others in Victoria are not.  “Andrews can’t even admit Sudanese gangs exist so how can he hope to fix the problem.  He is out of touch and more people will get hurt or worse until the problem is fixed.”

For a Home Affairs minister to be using the rule of law as a point of execration for Victoria must be another one of life’s curious ironies, given the utter incapacity on the part of the minister to comprehend the term.  Under Dutton laws suggest weapons rather than shields.  During his troublesome reign, liberties have been clipped, scraped and accordingly eroded in what is becoming an amateurish police state.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has convincingly dispelled any notions of being moderate during his tenure, seconded his minister on July 17 during a visit to Melbourne, claiming that “there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.”  You can sense the acrid smell of elections around the corner.

The Victorian police have thus far resisted joining in, much to the angst of the crime-seeing fantasists.  “Absolutely there’s some problems we have to tackle,” admitted Victoria Police Commander Stuart Bateson on radio 3AW with eminent sensibility, “but we also have to be aware of what happens as a result of over-exaggerating, and targeting them and tarnishing a whole community.”

Each incident triggers a fear that clouds an otherwise engaged, integrated majority of African residents.  They, in Bateson’s careful words, “feel they are excluded from lots of things because of this feeling that everyone is looking at them thinking they’re a gang and out to assault [people].  Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation AU while fully admitting to the existence of those community fears about gang violence, “based on real experiences of violent criminal behaviour” was adamant.  “What we are seeing is the most shameless opportunism dressed up as leadership.”

Melbourne, typical of other cities with a cosmopolitan core, receives groups with uneven success.  By in large it does fairly well. Over time, individuals find their feet; others will be consumed by the beast, lost in the crunch of urbanisation and its depredations.  South Sudanese Kuon Gido, profiled in a news report for the ABC in February, is one example: angry, impulsive, testosterone in search of a purpose.  “Understanding Kuon’s story is the key to understanding this summer’s heated debate about African-Australian youth crime: the push factors are disadvantage, education, employment and cultural clashes.”

That particular account is of interest on several levels, complex, nuanced.  South Sudanese parents conceded struggling with disciplining their children, hampered by the attractions of social services which provide housing and assistance to them.  Home becomes a place to avoid, while the memory of the refugee camp, ironically enough, features as a curiously mixed blessing: the security of the gate.  “We came here for freedom,” an unnamed community leader notes, “but this is too much freedom.”

This could be seen in medical, therapeutic terms: youth dislocation, the trauma of war, the disturbances of adjustment.  As Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews asserts, “enormous efforts” are underway to engage the youths in question, their families, community leaders, emphasising training, education and moving into the job market. It could also be seen as an Australian youth problem: some of the offenders are actually Australian born, a point easily missed by the law-and-order heavies.

Another reaction, easily undertaken by the politically desperate, is condemnation, isolation and expulsion, applying the heavy, often insentient arm of the law. This might just as well be called the politics of disintegration.

Great Hunger

Earlier this year, the Sisters of St. Brigid invited me to speak at their Feile Bride celebration in Kildare, Ireland. The theme of the gathering was: “Allow the Voice of the Suffering to Speak.”

The Sisters have embraced numerous projects to protect the environment, welcome refugees and nonviolently resist wars. I felt grateful to reconnect with people who so vigorously opposed any Irish support for U.S. military wars in Iraq. They had also campaigned to end the economic sanctions against Iraq, knowing that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children suffered and died for lack of food, medicine and clean water. This year, the Sisters asked me to first meet with local teenagers who would commemorate another time of starvation imposed by an imperial power.

Joe Murray, who heads Action from Ireland (Afri), arranged for a class from Dublin’s Beneavin De La Salle College to join an Irish historian in a field adjacent to the Dunshaughlin work house on the outskirts of Dublin.

Such workhouses dot the landscape of Ireland and England. In the mid-19th century, during the famine years, they were dreaded places. People who went there knew they were near the brink of death due to hunger, disease, and dire poverty. Ominously, behind the workhouse lay the graveyard.

The young men couldn’t help poking a bit of fun, at first; what in the world were they doing out in a field next to an imposing building, their feet already soaked in the wet grass as a light rain fell? They soon became quite attentive.

We learned that the Dunshaughlin workhouse had opened in May of 1841. It could accommodate 400 inmates. During the famine years, many hundreds of people were crowded in the stone building in dreadful conditions. An estimated one million people died during a famine that began because of blighted potato crops but became an “artificial famine” because Ireland’s British occupiers lacked the political will to justly distribute resources and food. Approximately one million Irish people who could no longer feed themselves and subsist on the land emigrated to places like the U.S. But seeking refuge wasn’t an option for those who couldn’t afford the passage. Evicted by landowners, desperate people arrived at workhouses like the one we were visiting. Our guide read us the names of people from the surrounding area who had been buried in a mass grave behind the workhouse, their bodies unidentified. They were victims of what the Irish call “Greta Mor”—”The Great Hunger.”

It was recently, as I tried to better understand the migration of desperate and starving people now crossing from East Africa into Yemen, that I began to realize how great the hunger was.  During that same period, in the latter half of the 19th century, there were 30 million people, possibly fifty million, dying of famine in northern China, India, Brazil and the Maghreb. The terrible suffering of these unknown people, whose plight never made it into the history books, was a sharp reminder to me of Western exceptionalism. As researched and described in Mike Davis’s book, The Late Victorian Holocaust, El Nino and La Nina climate changes caused massive crop failures. What food could be harvested was often sent abroad. Railroad infrastructure could have been used to send food to people dying of hunger, but wealthier people chose to ignore the plight of the starving. The Great Hunger, fueled by bigotry and greed, had been greater than any of its victims knew. And now, few in the prosperous West are aware of the terror faced by people in South Sudan, Somalia, northeast Nigeria, northern Kenya and Yemen. Millions of people cannot feed themselves or find potable water.

Countries in Africa which the U.S. has helped destabilize, such as Somalia, are convulsed in fighting which exacerbates effects of drought and drives helpless civilians toward points of hoped for refuge. Many have chosen a path of escape through the famine-torn country of Yemen. The U.S. has been helping a Saudi-led coalition to blockade and bomb Yemen since March of 2015. Sudanese fighters aligned with Saudi Arabia have been taking over cities along the Yemeni coast, heading northward. People trying to escape famine find themselves trapped amid vicious air and ground attacks.

In March, 2017, Stephen O’Brien, head of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, traveled to Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Northern Kenya. Since that trip, he has repeatedly begged the UN Security Council to help end the fighting and prevent conflict-driven famine conditions. Regarding Yemen, he wrote, in a July 12, 2017 statement to the UN Security Council that:

Seven million people, including 2.3 million malnourished (500,000 severely malnourished) children under the age of five, are on the cusp of famine, vulnerable to disease and ultimately at risk of a slow and painful death. Nearly 16 million people do not have access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, and more than 320,000 suspected cholera cases have been reported in all of the country’s governorates bar one.

This number has since risen to 850,000.

Ben Ehrenreich describes famine conditions along what the Israeli theorist Eyal Weizman calls the ‘conflict shoreline’, an expanding band of climate change-induced desertification that stretches through the Sahel and across the African continent before leaping the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. He notes that this vast territory, once the site of fierce resistance to colonial incursions, is now paying the heaviest price, in disastrous climate conditions, for the wealth of the industrialized north. As the deserts spread south, ever more dire conflicts can be expected to erupt, causing more people to flee.

Of a drought-stricken area of Somaliland, Ehrenreich writes: “People were calling this drought sima, ‘the leveller,’ because it affected all of the clans stretching across Somaliland and into Ethiopia to the west and Kenya to the south.”

“The women’s stories were almost all the same,” writes Ehrenreich, “differing only in the age and number of children sick, the number of animals they had lost and the number that survived. Hodan Ismail had lost everything. She left her husband’s village to bring her children here, where her mother lived, ‘to save them,’ she said. ‘When I got there, I saw that she had nothing either.’ The river and streams, their usual source of drinking water, had gone dry and they had no option but to drink from a shallow well at the edge of town. The water was making all the children sick.”

In 1993, at the Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit,” delegates conveying the views of then-President George Bush Sr., voiced a refrain of the statement, “the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation.” U.S. demands of the summit incalculably restricted the changes to which it might have led. Representing President Bill Clinton six years later, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended planned bombardment of Iraq, saying “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

There is danger that must be recognized.  The danger is real and the danger is spreading.  Violence spreads the famine, and the famine will spread violence.

I find myself repulsed by assertions voicing U.S. exceptionalism, yet my own study and focus often omits histories and present realities which simply must be understood if we are to recognize the traumas our world faces. In relation to conflict-driven famines, it becomes even more imperative to resist the U.S. government’s allocation of 700 billion dollars to the Department of Defense. In the U.S., our violence, and our delusions of being indispensable stem from accepting a belief that our “way of life” is non-negotiable. Growing inequality, protected by menacing arsenals, paves a path to the graveyard: It is not a “way of life.” We still could acquire a great hunger: a transforming hunger to share justice with our planetary neighbors. We could shed familiar privileges and search for communal tools to preserve us from indifferent wealth and voracious imperial power. We could embrace the theme of the Irish sisters at their Feile Bride gathering: “Allow the Voice of the Suffering to Speak” and then choose action-based initiatives to share our abundance and lay aside, forever, the futility of war.

At Every Door

I come and stand at every door
But none shall hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen

— Nazim Hikmet, I Come and Stand at Every Door


On July 18, 2017, at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing focused on “The Four Famines: Root Causes and a Multilateral Action Plan,” Republican Senator Todd Young, a former Marine, asked officials present if ongoing war in Yemen could fail to exacerbate the catastrophe developing there – one of four countries, along with Southern Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, set to collectively lose 20 million people this year, one third the death toll of WWII, from conflict-driven famine. Yemen is being bombarded and blockaded, using US-supplied weapons and vehicles, by a local coalition marshaled by U.S. client state Saudi Arabia.  Yemen’s near-famine conditions, with attendant cholera outbreak, are so dire that in Yemen it is estimated a child dies every 10 minutes of preventable disease.

At the hearing, Senator Young held aloft a photo of a World Food Program warehouse in Yemen, which was destroyed in 2015. Senator Young asked David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, to name the country responsible for the airstrike that destroyed the food warehouse. Mr. Beasley said the Saudi-led coalition blockading Yemen had destroyed the warehouse, along with the relief supplies it contained.

A July 2016 Human Rights Watch report documented 13 civilian economic structures destroyed by Saudi coalition led bombing between March 2015 and February 2016, “including factories, commercial warehouses, a farm, and two power stations. These strikes killed 130 civilians and injured 171 more. The facilities hit by airstrikes produced, stored, or distributed goods for the civilian population including food, medicine, and electricity—items that even before the war were in short supply in Yemen, which is among the poorest countries in the Middle East. Collectively, the facilities employed over 2,500 people; following the attacks, many of the factories ended their production and hundreds of workers lost their livelihoods.”

Asked about the Saudi coalition’s destruction of four cranes needed to offload relief supplies in Yemen’s port city Hodeidah, Mr. Beasley clarified that the loss of the cranes has vastly impeded WFP efforts to deliver food and medicines. Senator Young read from Mr. Beasley’s June 27th letter to the Saudi government, only the latest of multiple requests, asking that the WFP be allowed to deliver replacement cranes. Mr. Beasley said the Saudis had provided no reply. Senator Young noted that, in the three weeks since this last letter had been sent, more than 3,000 Yemeni children had died of preventable, famine-related causes.

Medea Benjamin, of the antiwar campaign Code Pink, was at the “Four Famines” hearing, and later thanked Sen. Young for rebuking the Saudi government’s imposition of a state of siege plus airstrikes that prevent delivery of food and medicine to destitute Yemeni civilians:

One day later, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on a July 19th coalition airstrike in Yemen, which killed 20 civilians—including women and children—while they were fleeing violence in their home province. The report claimed more than two million internally displaced Yemenis “fled elsewhere across Yemen since the beginning of the conflict, but … continue to be exposed to danger as the conflict has affected all of Yemen’s mainland governorates.”

On July 14, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would potentially end US participation in the Yemeni civil war. In the past, the White House has provided refueling and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led coalition without congressional authorization. Since October of 2016, the US has doubled the number of jet refueling maneuvers carried out with Saudi and United Arab Emirate jets. The Saudi and UAE jets fly over Yemen, drop bombs until they need to refuel, then fly back to Saudi airspace where US jets perform mid-air refueling operations. Next, they circle back to Yemen and resume bombing.

In the summer of 2006, I joined peace campaigner Claudia Lefko at a small school she helped found in Amman, Jordan. The school served children whose families were refugees, having fled postwar chaos in Iraq. Many of the children have survived war, death threats, and displacement. Claudia had worked with children in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, to prepare a gift for the Iraqi refugee children at the Jordanian school. The gift consisted of strings of paper origami cranes, folded in memory of a Japanese child, Sadako, who had died from radiation sickness after the bombing of her home city, Hiroshima.  In her hospital bed (the story goes), Sadako occupied her time attempting to fold 1,000 paper cranes, a feat she hoped would earn her the granting of a special wish, that no other child would ever suffer a similar fate. Sadako succumbed too rapidly to complete the task herself, but Japanese children hearing of her folded many thousands more cranes, and the story has been told for decades in innumerable places, making the delicate paper cranes a symbol for peace throughout the world. The Turkish  writer, Nazim Hikmet, wrote a poem, since set to music, about the story. Its words are on my mind today, as I think of the malnourished children from the countries of the terrible Four Famines, and from other conflict-torn, US-targeted countries such as Iraq, and Afghanistan. I think of their months or years of terrible hunger. Their stories may have ended already during the first half of 2017.

I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead

The song about “The Little Girl of Hiroshima” imagines a child who comes and stands at every door, unheard and unseen. In reality, we the living can choose to approach the doors of elected representatives, of our neighbors, or stay at home. We can choose whether or not to be heard and seen. Robert Naiman at Just Foreign Policy points out that many people don’t know yet that the House has voted to prohibit US participation in the Saudi war in Yemen. We can focus on progress made, publicize the House votes on social media, push for a House roll call vote on the Davidson-Nolan prohibitions on Defense Appropriation, and push the Senate to pass the same provisions as the House.  I personally oppose all defense appropriations (I have refused all payment of federal income tax since 1980). I recognize that legislative activism, at the heart of an empire addicted to war, is a tool of limited use; but considering the arriving disaster for which, as too few yet understand, 2017 may be hereafter remembered as the worst famine year in post-WWII history – we have no luxury to reject any tools presented to us.

Billions, perhaps trillions, will be spent to send weapons, weapon systems, fighter jets, ammunition, and military support to the region, fueling new arms races and raising the profits of U.S. weapon makers. But, we can choose to stand at the doors of our leaders and of our neighbors, honoring past sacrifices and the innocent lives we were unable to save, as we redouble efforts to stop war makers from constantly gaining the upper hand in our lives.

We can never reverse the decisions to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we cannot prevent all of the dying that is set to come, this fateful summer, in the countries of the Four Famines.  In the song, lost Sadako, long beyond saving even as she folded paper in her bed, doesn’t ask us to erase her own terrible loss, but to achieve the change we can, and to lose no more time in achieving it:

All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play

It’s Time to Reawaken the Spirit of Occupy for the Starving Millions

How is it possible that so many people still die from severe malnutrition and lack of access to basic resources in the 21st century? The time has come for a huge resurgence of the spirit that animated Occupy protests from 2011, but now focused on the worsening reality of mass starvation in the midst of plenty.

*****

The world is now facing an unprecedented emergency of hunger and famine, with a record number of people requiring life-saving food and medical assistance in 2017. Since the start of this year, the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war has continued to unfold, while the international community has failed to take urgent commensurate action. The extent of human suffering is overwhelming: more than 20 million people are on the brink of starvation, including 1.4 million children – a conservative estimate that is rising by the day. Famine has already been declared in parts of South Sudan, and could soon follow in Somalia, north-east Nigeria and Yemen.

In February, the UN launched its biggest ever appeal for humanitarian funding, calling for $4.4 billion by July to avert looming famines in these four conflict-ridden regions. Yet not even $1 billion has been raised so far, leaving little hope that these vital minimum funds will be raised on time. Last week the UN also sought to raise $2.1 billion for the funding shortfall in Yemen alone – described as the single largest hunger crisis in the world, where two thirds of the population are food insecure. But even this appeal remains barely half funded, which will almost certainly leave millions of neglected Yemenis facing the prospect of dying from starvation or disease.

How is it possible that so many people still die from severe malnutrition and lack of access to basic resources, in a 21st century world that is wealthier and more technologically advanced than ever before? It was only six years ago that East Africa suffered a devastating drought and food crisis, with over a quarter of a million people dying from famine in Somalia (including 133,000 children), and millions more left with a legacy of chronic poverty, hardship and loss of livelihoods.

In the wake of this appalling human catastrophe, the Charter to End Extreme Hunger was drafted by NGOs from across the world, calling on governments and aid agencies to prevent hunger on such a scale ever happening again. But the underlying principle of the Charter to take early and large-scale preventative action has essentially remained unheeded. Early warning signs for the latest crisis were visible months ago, yet the international community again failed to respond in time to avert an entirely predictable and avoidable famine. So much for the “Grand Bargain” struck at the World Humanitarian Summit last year, which agreed to a package of reforms to the complex international emergency system under the empty slogan: ‘One Humanity, Shared Responsibility’.

This fact should be emphasised, as we always have the power to avert and end famines, which are largely man-made and preventable if sufficient resources are redistributed to all people in need. To be sure, the challenge is now historic with increasing “mega-crises” becoming the norm, mostly caused by conflict and civil war rather than natural disasters. Far from stepping up to meet urgent funding appeals, however, donor governments have not even met half of requirements in recent years, leaving many crises and nations pitted against each other for resources. Meanwhile, wealthy nations are recycling old aid pledges as new money, and the purported annual increase in overseas aid is failing to reach the least developed countries. The Trump administration has pledged no new funding to the emergency famine relief appeals this year, instead announcing plans to dramatically cut foreign aid expenditures and voluntary contributions to UN programmes like the World Food Programme (WFP).

The tragic consequences on the ground are inevitable, as demonstrated in Somaliland where the WFP is providing emergency food aid for a few thousand people at a time, when the need is upwards of 300,000. In South Sudan, nearly one out of every two people are in urgent need of food assistance, yet only $423 million has been received out of a requested $1.6bn. Across North-East Nigeria, where 5.1 million people are food insecure out of a population of 5.8 million in the three affected states, the response plan still remains only 20% funded.

Of course, aid alone is not the solution to extreme poverty and hunger. In the long term, the answers for avoiding hunger crises lie within developing countries themselves, including supporting local food production, enhancing community resilience, and guaranteeing social services and protection for the poorest – all measures that rely on effective national governance. Beyond the need for material resources and financial assistance, there is also a need for long-term approaches towards conflict prevention and peace-building, placing the politics of famine at the heart of any international efforts. A huge part of the battle is not only raising vital funds, but also devising the correct response strategy and securing necessary access in complex, fragmented war zones.

At the same time, addressing the root causes of today’s escalating food crises depends on a turnaround in the foreign policy agendas of competing nations, which are either directly or indirectly responsible for many of the wars across the Middle East and Africa that have led to a record high of global forced displacement. The deadly conflict that is ripping apart Yemen continues to be facilitated by the UK and US governments, who are propping up the Saudi-led bombing campaigns through extensive political and military support, including billions of dollars’ worth of weapons sales that dwarf the amounts pledged in aid.

This is clearly the opposite of policies that can make countries like Britain and America “great” again. The world cries out for a new strategy of peace and generosity to replace the self-destructive policies of “national security through domination”, which urgently calls for a modern global Marshall Plan for investment in education, health, water, sanitation, agriculture and infrastructure across the world’s most impoverished regions. Fully-funded aid shipments in place of arms shipments; an end to drone attacks and military “special operations” within countries like Yemen; the spearheading of much needed diplomacy in all war-torn regions; massive transfers of essential resources from North to South – such is the only way to show true political leadership in the face of entrenched global divisions and escalating human suffering.

As STWR has long advocated, an intergovernmental emergency programme to end life-threatening poverty is the very first step towards achieving a more equal and sustainable world. It must be remembered that the four countries grouped together by the UN as a food security emergency are, in fact, only the worst instances of a wider crisis of hunger and impoverishment. Millions of other marginalised citizens are also suffering from soaring food insecurity worldwide, not only across Africa but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Haiti, the Oceania, and so many other regions. According to the UN’s official statistics, there are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of North America and the European Union. Every day, around 46,000 people needlessly die as a consequence of life-threatening deprivation, the vast majority in low-income countries.

The reversal of government priorities that is needed to ameliorate this immense crisis may never be achieved, unless world public opinion focuses on the worsening reality of poverty in the midst of plenty. Never before has it been so important for an enormous outpouring of public support in favour of sharing the world’s resources, thus to guarantee the long-agreed socioeconomic rights of every citizen, no matter where they live. Against a backdrop of rising nationalist sentiment, anti-immigrant rhetoric and huge funding gaps for humanitarian causes, it is up to ordinary people of goodwill to stand in solidarity with the world’s suffering poor majority.

The time has come for a huge resurgence of the spirit that animated Occupy protests from 2011, but now concentrated on one simple and unifying cause: for the rapid implementation of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nowhere in the world are these long-agreed rights guaranteed for everyone – concerning adequate food, housing, healthcare, social services and social security for all. But there can be no greater example of the lack of these basic entitlements for a dignified life, than the fact of millions of people dying from hunger across vast neglected and conflict-ridden regions. Hence the need for endless global protests to begin with a united call for wealthy countries to redistribute all necessary resources to those at risk of starving to death, above and beyond the UN’s modest appeals for humanitarian funding.

The situation today is potentially even more catastrophic than in the 1980s, when Bob Geldof and Live Aid were at the forefront of a public funding campaign for victims of the Ethiopian famine – eventually resulting in the loss of almost one million lives. To stop a repeat of this tragedy occurring on a potentially even greater scale, it will require much more than one-off public donations to national charity appeals. It will also require countless people on the streets worldwide in constant, peaceful demonstrations that call on governments to massively scale up their efforts through the UN and its relevant agencies. Is it not possible to organise a huge show of public empathy and outrage with the plight of more than 100 million people facing acute malnutrition worldwide? For only a grassroots response of this exceptional nature may be enough to awaken the world’s conscience – calling for food and medicines, not bombs; standing for economic sharing as the only way to justice. Surely there can be no greater cause and priority at this critical hour.

Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About the “Ecology of War”

Dr. Gus Abu-Sitta

Dr. Gus Abu-Sitta is the head of the Plastic Surgery Department at the AUB Medical Center in Lebanon. He specializes in: reconstructive surgery. What it means in this part of the world is clear: they bring you people from the war zones, torn to pieces, missing faces, burned beyond recognition, and you have to try to give them their life back.

Dr. Abu-Sitta is also a thinker. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, he studied and lived in the UK, and worked in various war zones of the Middle East, as well as in Asia, before accepting his present position at the AUB Medical Center in Beirut, Lebanon.

We were brought together by peculiar circumstances. Several months ago I burned my foot on red-hot sand, in Southeast Asia. It was healing slowly, but it was healing. Until I went to Afghanistan where at one of the checkpoints in Herat I had to take my shoes off, and the wound got badly infected. Passing through London, I visited a hospital there, and was treated by one of Abu-Sitta’s former professors. When I said that among other places I work in Lebanon, he recommended that I visit one of his “best students who now works in Beirut”.

I did. During that time, a pan-Arab television channel, Al-Mayadeen, was broadcasting in English, with Arabic subtitles, a long two-part interview with me, about my latest political/revolutionary novel “Aurora” and about the state of the global south, and the upsurge of the Western imperialism. To my surprise, Dr. Abu-Sitta and his colleagues were following my work and political discourses. To these hardened surgeons, my foot ‘issue’ was just a tiny insignificant scratch. What mattered was the US attack against Syria, the Palestine, and the provocations against North Korea.

My ‘injury’ healed well, and Dr. Abu-Sitta and I became good friends. Unfortunately I have to leave Beirut for Southeast Asia, before a huge conference, which he and his colleagues are launching on the May 15, 2017, a conference on the “Ecology of War”.

I believe that the topic is thoroughly fascinating and essential for our humanity, even for its survival. It combines philosophy, medicine and science.

What happens to people in war zones? And what is a war zone, really? We arrived at some common conclusions, as both of us were working with the same topic but looking at it from two different angles: “The misery is war. The destruction of the strong state leads to conflict. A great number of people on our Planet actually live in some conflict or war, without even realizing it: in slums, in refugee camps, in thoroughly collapsed states, or in refugee camps.”

We talked a lot: about fear, which is engulfing countries like the UK, about the new wave of individualism and selfishness, which has its roots in frustration. At one point he said: “In most parts of the world “freedom” is synonymous with the independence struggle for our countries. In such places as the UK, it mainly means more individualism, selfishness and personal liberties.”

We talked about imperialism, medicine and the suffering of the Middle East.

Then we decided to publish this dialogue, shedding some light on the “Ecology of War” – this essential new discipline in both philosophy and medicine.

Ecology of War

(The discussion took place in Beirut, Lebanon, in Cafe Younes, on April 25, 2017)

Broken Social Contract In The Arab World, Even In Europe

GA-S: In the South, medicine and the provision of health were critical parts of the post-colonial state. And the post-colonial state built medical systems such as we had in Iraq, Egypt and in Syria as part of the social contract. They became an intrinsic part of the creation of those states. And it was a realization that the state has to exercise its power both coercively, (which we know the state is capable of exercising, by putting you in prison, and even exercising violence), but above all non-coercively: it needs to house you, educate you, and give you health, all of those things. And that non-coercive power that the states exercise is a critical part of the legitimizing process of the state. We saw it evolve in 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. So as a digression, if you want to look at how the state was dismantled: the aim of the sanctions against Iraq was not to weaken the Makhabarat or the army; the aim of the sanctions was to rob the Iraqi state of its non-coercive power; its ability to give life, to give education, and that’s why after 12 years, the state has totally collapsed internally – not because its coercive powers have weakened, but because it was robbed of all its non-coercive powers, of all its abilities to guarantee life to its citizens.

AV: So in a way the contract between the state and the people was broken.

GA-S: Absolutely! And you had that contract existing in the majority of post-colonialist states. With the introduction of the IMF and World Bank-led policies that viewed health and the provision of health as a business opportunity for the ruling elites and for corporations, and viewed free healthcare as a burden on the state, you began to have an erosion in certain countries like Egypt, like Jordan, of the non-coercive powers of the state, leading to the gradual weakening of its legitimacy. Once again, the aim of the IMF and World Bank was to turn health into a commodity, which could be sold back to people as a service; sold back to those who could afford it.

AV: So, the US model, but in much more brutal form, as the wages in most of those countries were incomparably lower.

GA-S: Absolutely! And the way you do that in these countries: you create a two-tier system where the government tier is so under-funded, that people choose to go to the private sector. And then in the private sector you basically have the flourishing of all aspects of private healthcare: from health insurance to provision of health care, to pharmaceuticals.

AV: Paradoxically this scenario is also taking place in the UK right now.

GA-S: We see it in the UK and we’ll see it in many other European countries. But it has already happened in this region, in the Arab world. Here, the provision of health was so critical to creation of the states. It was critical to the legitimacy of the state.

AV: The scenario has been extremely cynical: while the private health system was imposed on the Arab region and on many other parts of the world, in the West itself, except in the United States, medical care remains public and basically free. We are talking about state medical care in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

GA-S: Yes. In Europe as part of the welfare state that came out of the Second World War, the provision of healthcare was part of the social contract. As the welfare state with the advent of Thatcherism and Reagan-ism was being dismantled, it became important to undergo a similar process as elsewhere. The difference is that in the UK, and also in countries like Germany, it was politically very dangerous. It could lead to election losses. So the second plan was to erode the health system, by a thousand blows, kill it gradually. What you ended up in the UK is the piece-by-piece privatization of the health sector. And the people don’t know, they don’t notice that the system is becoming private. Or in Germany where actually the government does not pay for healthcare – the government subsidizes the insurance companies that profit from the private provision of healthcare.

AV: Before we began recording this discussion, we were speaking about the philosophical dilemmas that are now besieging or at least should be besieging the medical profession. Even the social medical care in Europe: isn’t it to some extent a cynical arrangement? European countries are now all part of the imperialist block, together with the United States, and they are all plundering the rest of the world – the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia – and they are actually subsidizing their social system from that plunder. That’s one thing. But also, the doctors and nurses working for instance in the UK or Germany are often ‘imported’ from much poorer countries, where they have often received free education. Instead of helping their own, needy people, they are actually now serving the ageing and by all international comparisons, unreasonably spoiled and demanding population in Europe, which often uses medical facilities as if they were some ‘social club’.

GA-S: I think what has happened, particularly in Europe, is that there is a gradual erosion of all aspects of the welfare state. Politically it was not yet possible to get rid of free healthcare. The problem that you can certainly see in the United Kingdom is that health is the final consequence of social and economic factors that people live in. So if you have chronic unemployment, second and third generation unemployment problem, these have health consequences. If you have the destruction of both pensions and the cushion of a social umbrella for the unemployed, that has consequences… Poor housing has health consequences. Mass unemployment has health consequences. Politically it was easy to get rid of all other aspects of the welfare state, but they were stuck with a healthcare problem. And so the losing battle that the health systems in the West are fighting is that they are being expected to cater to the poor consequences of the brutal capitalist system as a non-profit endeavor. But we know that once these lifestyle changes are affecting people’s health, it’s too late in terms of cure or prevention. And so what the European health systems do, they try to patch people and to get them out of the system and back on the street. So if you have children with chronic asthma, you treat the asthma but not the dump housing in which these children are living in. If you have violent assaults and trauma related to violence, you treat the trauma, the physical manifestation, and not the breakdown of youth unemployment, or racism that creates this. So in order to sustain this anomaly, as you said, you need an inflated health system, because you make people sick and then you try to fix them, rather than stopping them from being sick. Hence that brain drains that have basically happened, where you have more Ghanaian doctors in New York than you have in Ghana.

AV: And you have an entire army of Philippine nurses in the UK, while there is suddenly a shortage of qualified nurses in Manila.

GA-S: Absolutely! This is the result of the fact that actually people’s health ‘happens’ outside the health system. Because you cannot get rid of the health system, you end up having a bloated health system, and try to fix the ailments that are coming through the door.

Collapse Of The Health Care In The Middle East

AV: You worked in this entire region. You worked in Iraq, and in Gaza… both you and I worked in Shifa Hospital in Gaza… You worked in Southern Lebanon during the war. How brutal is the healthcare situation in the Middle East? How badly has been, for instance, the Iraqi peoples’ suffering, compared to Western patients? How cruel is the situation in Gaza?

GA-S: If you look at places like Iraq: Iraq in the 80’s probably had one of the most advanced health systems in the region. Then you went through the first war against Iraq, followed by 12 years of sanctions in which that health system was totally dismantled; not just in terms of hospitals and medication and the forced exile of doctors and health professionals, but also in terms of other aspects of health, which are the sewage and water and electricity plants, all of those parts of the infrastructure that directly impact on people’s lives.

AV: Then came depleted uranium…

GA-S: And then you add to the mix that 2003 War and then the complete destruction and dismantling of the state, and the migration of some 50% of Iraq’s doctors.

AV: Where did they migrate?

GA-S: Everywhere: to the Gulf and to the West; to North America, Europe… So what you have in Iraq is a system that is not only broken, but that has lost the components that are required to rebuild it. You can’t train a new generation of doctors in Iraq, because your trainers have all left the country. You can’t create a health system in Iraq, because you have created a government infrastructure that is intrinsically unstable and based on a multi-polarity of the centers of power which all are fighting for control of the pie of the state… and so Iraqis sub-contract their health at hospital level to India and to Turkey and Lebanon, or Jordan, because they are in this vicious loop.

AV: But this is only for those who can afford it?

GA-S: Yes, for those who can, but even in those times when the government had cash it could not build the system anymore. So it would sub-contract health provisions outside, because the system was so broken that money couldn’t fix it.

AV: Is it the same in other countries of the region?

GA-S: The same is happening in Libya and the same is happening in Syria, with regards of the migration of their doctors. Syria will undergo something similar to Iraq at the end of the war, if the Syrian state is destroyed.

AV: But it is still standing.

GA-S: It still stands and it is still providing healthcare to the overwhelming majority of the population even to those who live in the rebel-controlled areas. They are travelling to Damascus and other cities for their cardiac services or for their oncological services.

AV: So no questions asked; you are sick, you get treated?

GA-S: Even from the ISIS-controlled areas people can travel and get treated, because this is part of the job of the state.

AV: The same thing is happening with the education there; Syria still provides all basic services in that area.

GA-S: Absolutely! But in Libya, because the state has totally disappeared or has disintegrated, all this is gone.

AV: Libya is not even one country, anymore…

Intifada Gaza

GA-S: There is not a unified country and there is definitely no health system. In Gaza and the Palestine, the occupation and the siege, ensure that there is no normal development of the health system and in case of Gaza as the Israelis say “every few years you come and you mown the lawn”; you kill as many people in these brutal and intense wars, so you can ensure that the people for the next few years will be trying to survive the damage that you have caused.

AV: Is there any help from Israeli physicians?

GA-S: Oh yes! Very few individuals, but there is…

But the Israeli medical establishment is actually an intrinsic part of the Israeli establishment, and the Israeli academic medical establishment is also part of the Israeli establishment. And the Israeli Medical Association refused to condemn the fact that Israeli doctors examine Palestinian political prisoners for what they call “fitness for interrogation”. Which is basically… you get seen by a doctor who decides how much torture you can take before you die.

Gaza Shifa Hospital – wounded by Israeli soldiers

AV: This actually reminds me of what I was told in 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa, where I was invited to participate as a speaker at the International Conference of the Psychologists for Peace. Several US psychologists reported that during the interrogation and torture of alleged terrorists, there were professional psychologists and even clinical psychiatrists standing by, often assisting the interrogators.

GA-S: Yes, there are actually 2-3 well-known American psychologists who designed the CIA interrogation system – its process.

AV: What you have described that is happening in Palestine is apparently part of a very pervasive system. I was told in the Indian-controlled Kashmir that Israeli intelligence officers are sharing their methods of interrogation and torture with their Indian counterparts. And. of course, the US is involved there as well.

Conflict Medicine

GA-S: War surgery grew out of the Napoleonic Wars. During these wars, two armies met; they usually met at the frontline. They attacked each other, shot at each other or stabbed each other. Most of injured were combatants, and they got treated in military hospitals. You had an evolution of war surgery. What we have in this region, we believe, is that the intensity and the prolonged nature of these wars or these conflicts are not temporal-like battles, they don’t start and finish. And they are sufficiently prolonged that they change the biological ecology, the ecology in which people live. They create the ecology of war. That ecology maintains itself well beyond of what we know is the shooting, because they alter the living environment of people. The wounds are physical, psychological and social wounds; the environment is altered as to become hostile; both to the able-bodied and more hostile to the wounded. And as in the cases of these multi-drug-resistant organisms, which are now a big issue in the world like the multi-drug-resistant bacteria, 85% of Iraqi war wounded have multi-drug-resistant bacteria, 70% of Syrian war wounded have it…

So we say: this ecology, this bio-sphere that the conflicts create is even altered at the basic DNA of the bacteria. We have several theories about it; partly it’s the role of the heavy metals in modern ordnance, which can trigger mutation in these bacteria that makes them resistant to antibiotics. So your bio-sphere, your bubble, your ecological bubble in which you live in, is permanently changed. And it doesn’t disappear the day the bombs disappear. It has to be dismantled, and in order to dismantle it you have to understand the dynamics of the ecology of war. That’s why our program was set up at the university, which had basically been the major tertiary teaching center during the civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion. And then as the war in Iraq and Syria developed, we started to get patients from these countries and treat them here. We found out that we have to understand the dynamics of conflict medicine and to understand the ecology of war; how the physical, biological, psychological and social manifestations of war wounding happen, and how this ecology of war is created; everything from bacteria to the way water and the water cycle changes, to the toxic reminisce of war, to how people’s body reacts… Many of my Iraqi patients that I see have multiple members of their families injured.

AV: Is the AUB Medical Center now the pioneer in this research: the ecology of war?

GA-S: Yes, because of the legacy of the civil war… of regional wars.

AV: Nothing less than a regional perpetual conflict…

GA-S: Perpetual conflict, yes; first homegrown, and then regional. We are the referral center for the Iraqi Ministry of Health, referral center for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, so we act as a regional center, and the aim of our program is to dedicate more time and space and energy to the understanding of how this ecology of war comes about.

AV: In my writing and in my films, I often draw the parallel between the war and extreme poverty. I have been working in some of the worst slums on Earth, those in Africa, Central America and Caribbean, South Asia, the Philippines and elsewhere. I concluded that many societies that are in theory living in peace are in reality living in prolonged or even perpetual wars. Extreme misery is a form of war, although there is no ‘declaration of war’, and there is no defined frontline. I covered both countless wars and countless places of extreme misery, and the parallel, especially the physical, psychological and social impact on human beings, appears to be striking. Would you agree, based on your research? Do you see extreme misery as a type of war?

GA-S: Absolutely. Yes. At the core of it is the ‘dehumanization’ of people. Extreme poverty is a form of violence. The more extreme this poverty becomes, the closer it comes to the physical nature of violence. War is the accelerated degradation of people’s life to reaching that extreme poverty. But that extreme poverty can be reached by a more gradual process. War only gets them there faster.

AV: A perpetual state of extreme poverty is in a way similar to a perpetual state of conflict, of a war.

GA-S: Definitely. And it is a war mainly against those who are forced to live in these circumstances. It’s the war against the poor and the South. It’s the war against the poor in the inner-cities of the West.

AV: When you are defining the ecology of war, are you also taking what we are now discussing into consideration? Are you researching the impact of extreme poverty on human bodies and human lives? In this region, extreme poverty can often be found in the enormous refugee camps, while in other parts of the world it dwells in countless slums.

GA-S: This extreme poverty is part of the ecology that we are discussing. One of the constituents of the ecology is when you take a wounded body and you place it in a harsh physical environment and you see how this body is re-wounded and re-wounded again, and this harsh environment becomes a continuation of that battleground, because what you see is a process of re-wounding. Not because you are still in the frontline somewhere in Syria, but because your kids are now living in a tent with 8 other people and they are in danger of becoming the victims of the epidemic of child burns that we now have in the refugee camps, because of poor and unsafe housing.

Let’s look at it from a different angle: what constitutes a war wound, or a conflict-related injury? Your most basic conflict-related injury is a gunshot wound and a blast injury from shrapnel. But what happens when you take that wounded body and throw it into a tent? What are the complications for this wounded body living in a harsh environment; does this constitute a war-related injury? When you impoverish the population to the point that you have children suffering from the kind of injuries that we know are the results of poor and unsafe housing, is that a conflict-related injury? Or you have children now who have work-related injuries, because they have to go and become the main breadwinners for the home, working as car mechanics or porters or whatever. Or do you also consider a fact that if you come from a country where a given disease used to be treatable there, but due to the destruction of a health system, that ailment is not treatable anymore, because the hospitals are gone or because doctors had to leave, does that constitute a conflict-related injury? So, we have to look at the entire ecology: beyond a bullet and shrapnel – things that get headlines in the first 20 seconds.

AV: Your research seems to be relevant to most parts of the world.

GA-S: Absolutely. Because we know that these humanitarian crises only exist in the imagination of the media and the UN agencies. There are no crises.

AV: It is perpetual state, again.

GA-S: Exactly, it is perpetual. It does not stop. It is there all the time. Therefore there is no concept of ‘temporality of crises’, one thing we are arguing against. There is no referee who blows the whistle at the end of the crises. When the cameras go off, the media and then the world, decides that the crises are over. But you know that people in Laos, for instance, still have one of the highest amputation rates in the world.

AV: I know. I worked there in the Plain of Jars, which is an enormous minefield even to this day.

GA-S: Or Vietnam, with the greatest child facial deformities in the world as a result of Agent Orange.

AV: You worked in these countries.

GA-S: Yes.

AV: Me too; and I used to live in Vietnam. That entire region is still suffering from what used to be known as the “Secret War”. In Laos, the poverty is so rampant that people are forced to sell unexploded US bombs for scrap. They periodically explode. In Cambodia, even between Seam Reap and the Thai border, there are villages where people are still dying or losing limbs.

GA-S: Now many things depend on how we define them. It is often a game of words.

AV: India is a war zone, from Kashmir to the Northeast, Bihar and slums of Mumbai.

GA-S: If you take the crudest way of measuring conflict, which is the number of people killed by weapons, Guatemala and Salvador have now more people slaughtered than they had during the war. But because the nature in which violence is exhibited changed, because it doesn’t carry a political tag now, it is not discussed. But actually, it is by the same people against the same people.

AV: I wrote about and filmed in Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, on several occasions. The extreme violence there is a direct result of the conflict implanted, triggered by the West, particularly by the United States. The same could be said about such places like Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Haiti. It has led to almost absolute social collapse.

GA-S: Yes, in Jamaica, the CIA played a great role in the 70’s.

AV: In that part of the world we are not talking just about poverty…

GA-S: No, no. We are talking AK-47’s!

AV: Exactly. Once I filmed in San Salvador, in a gangland… A friend, a local liberation theology priest kindly drove me around. We made two loops. The first loop was fine. On the second one they opened fire at our Land Cruiser, with some heavy stuff. The side of our car was full of bullet holes, and they blew two tires. We got away just on our rims. In the villages, maras simply come and plunder and rape. They take what they want. It is a war.

GA-S: ICRC, they train surgeons in these countries. So the ICRC introduced war surgery into the medical curriculum of the medical schools in Colombia and Honduras. Because effectively, these countries are in a war, so you have to train surgeons, so they know what to do when they receive 4-5 patients every day, with gunshot wounds.

Med Experiments in Haiti

AV: Let me tell you what I witnessed in Haiti, just to illustrate your point. Years ago I was working in Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They say it is the most dangerous ‘neighborhood’ or slum on Earth. The local wisdom goes: “you can enter, but you will never leave alive”. I went there with a truck, with two armed guards, but they were so scared that they just abandoned me there, with my big cameras and everything, standing in the middle of the road. I continued working; I had no choice. At one point I saw a long line in front of some walled compound. I went in. What I was suddenly facing was thoroughly shocking: several local people on some wooden tables, blood everywhere, and numerous US military medics and doctors performing surgeries under the open sky. It was hot, flies and dirt everywhere… A man told me his wife had a huge tumor. Without even checking what it was, the medics put her on a table, gave her “local” and began removing the stuff. After the surgery was over, a husband and wife walked slowly to a bus stop and went home. A couple of kilometers from there I found a well-equipped and clean US medical facility, but only for US troops and staff. I asked the doctors what they were really doing in Haiti and they were quiet open about it; they replied: “we are training for combat scenario… This is as close to a war that we can get.” They were experimenting on human beings, of course; learning how to operate during the combat…

GA-S: So, the distinction is only in definitions.

AV: As a surgeon who has worked all over the Middle East but also in many other parts of the world, how would you compare the conflict here to the conflicts in Asia, the Great Lakes of Africa and elsewhere?

GA-S: In the Middle East, you still have people remembering when they had hospitals. Iraqis who come to my clinic remember the 80’s. They know that life was different and could have been different. And they are health-literate. The other issue is that in 2014 alone, some 30,000 Iraqis were injured. The numbers are astounding. We don’t have a grasp of the numbers in Libya, the amount of ethnic cleansing and killing that is happening in Libya. In terms of numbers, they are profound, but in terms of the effect, we are at the beginning of the phase of de-medicalization. So it wasn’t that these medical systems did not develop. They are being de-developed. They are going backwards.

AV: Are you blaming Western imperialism for the situation?

GA-S: If you look at the sanctions and what they did to their health system, of course! If you look at Libya, of course! The idea that these states disintegrated is a falsehood. We know what the dynamics of the sanctions were in Iraq, and what happened in Iraq after 2003. We know what happened in Libya.

AV: Or in Afghanistan…

GA-S: The first thing that the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan or the Nicaraguan Contras were told to do was to attack the clinics. The Americans have always understood that you destroy the state by preventing it from providing these non-coercive powers that I spoke about.

Afghan kid – is he at peace?.

AV: Do you see this part of the world as the most effected, most damaged?

GA-S: At this moment and time certainly. And the statistics show it. I think around 60% of those dying from wars are killed in this region…

AV: And how do you define this region geographically?

GA-S: From Afghanistan to Mauritania. And that includes the Algerian-Mali border. The Libyan border… The catastrophe of the division of Sudan, what’s happening in South Sudan, what’s happening in Somalia, Libya, Egypt, the Sinai Desert, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, even Pakistan including people who are killed there by drones…

AV: But then we also have around 10 million people who have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo, since the 1995 Rwandan invasion…

GA-S: Now that is a little bit different. That is the ‘more advanced phase’: when you’ve completely taken away the state… In the Arab world Libya is the closest to that scenario. There the oil companies have taken over the country. The mining companies are occupying DRC. And they run the wars directly, rather than through the Western armies. You erode the state, completely, until it disappears and then the corporations, directly, as they did in the colonialist phase during the East Indian Company, and the Dutch companies, become the main players again.

AV: What is the goal of your research, the enormous project called the “Ecology of War”?

GA-S: One of the things that we insist on is this holistic approach. The compartmentalization is part of the censorship process. “You are a microbiologist then only look what is happening with the bacteria… You are an orthopedic surgeon, so you only have to look at the blast injuries, bombs, landmine injuries…” So that compartmentalization prevents bringing together people who are able to see the whole picture. Therefore we are insisting that this program also has social scientists, political scientists, anthropologists, microbiologists, surgeons… Otherwise we’d just see the small science. We are trying to put the sciences together to see the bigger picture. We try to put the pieces of puzzle together, and to see the bigger picture.

AV: And now you have a big conference. On the 15th of May…

GA-S: Now we have a big conference; basically the first congress that will look at all these aspects of conflict and health; from the surgical, to the reconstruction of damaged bodies, to the issues of medical resistance of bacteria, infectious diseases, to some absolutely basic issues. Like, before the war there were 30,000 kidney-failure patients in Yemen. Most dialysis patients are 2 weeks away from dying if they don’t get dialysis. So, there is a session looking at how you provide dialysis in the middle of these conflicts? What do you do, because dialysis services are so centralized? The movement of patients is not easy, and the sanctions… One topic will be ‘cancer and war’… So this conference will be as holistic as possible, of the relationship between the conflict and health.

We expect over 300 delegates, and we will have speakers from India, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, from the UK, we have people coming from the humanitarian sector, from ICRC, people who worked in Africa and the Middle East, we have people who worked in previous wars and are now working in current wars, so we have a mix of people from different fields.

AV: What is the ultimate goal of the program?

GA-S: We have to imagine the health of the region beyond the state. On the conceptual level, we need to try to figure out what is happening. We can already see certain patterns. One of them is the regionalization of healthcare. The fact that Libyans get treated in Tunisia, Iraqis and Syrians get treated in Beirut, Yemenis get treated in Jordan. So you already have the disintegration of these states and the migration of people to the regional centers. The state is no longer a major player, because the state was basically destroyed. We feel that this is a disease of the near future, medium future and long-term future. Therefore we have to understand it, in order to better treat it, we have to put mechanisms in place that this knowledge transfers into the medical education system, which will produce medical professionals who are better equipped to deal with this health system. We have to make sure that people are aware of many nuances of the conflict, beyond the shrapnel and beyond the bullet. The more research we put into this area of the conflict and health, the more transferable technologies we develop – the better healthcare we’d be allowed to deliver in these situations, the better training our students and graduates would receive, and better work they will perform in this region for the next 10 or 15 years.

AV: And hopefully more lives would be saved…

• All photos by Andre Vltchek

Angry, Desperate, Rejected

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his boldest and perhaps most defining speech. It alienated liberal allies in the North and the Northern press, plus many in King’s own civil rights movement, and prompted President Johnson to withdraw King’s secret service detail. Exactly one year later, forty-nine years ago on April 4, he was assassinated. He said, “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems … Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” It was his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

Today, the 100th anniversary of the US entry into World War I, billed as “the war to end all wars,” wars rage and conflict-fueled hunger crises have culminated in potential famines hitting almost simultaneously in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

Three former UN officials with many decades of experience as diplomats recently wrote a blunt appraisal of the US role in undermining UN efforts and promoting wars, noting the President continues “embracing a toxic form of messianic nationalism” with exclusionary policies “illustrative of a regressive and Islamophobic outlook.” Yet in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) have been welcoming Voices US and UK delegates, one or two at a time, over the past several months. This followed a five month stretch where, for security reasons, the community was unable to receive visitors. I’ve been very grateful to be with them for the past two weeks.

On my first full day there, we traveled by bus to a small village where relatives celebrated the marriage of Abid and Zahro. They were married in the Herat province the week before. The wedding party was Disneyesque! Our group of women from Kabul sat with the village women in a large tent. Abid’s sisters and cousins, wearing brightly decorated gowns, looked exotic and beautiful. Young, and not so young, women took turns dancing and singing. “Wedding culture” remains quite popular in Kabul and throughout the country, but families experience severe financial strains trying to meet the expense, often with serious and long-lasting consequences.

For me, travel to a small village was welcomed as our movements have been restricted during recent visits in Kabul. The villagers tend almond and mulberry trees as well as grape vines. When the bus driver realized a foreigner was on board, the rate was suddenly doubled. The APV responded by saying, “OK. We’ll walk.” I was exhilarated, walking downhill alongside orchards with mountains looming on all sides. The bus driver soon found us and negotiated a more reasonable price.

The arrival of spring results in family gatherings, with opportunities to plant and recreate. It represents the beginning of the Afghan New Year. This past winter, for the fourth consecutive year, the APV supported seamstresses and provided a living wage to sew warm duvets for distribution to refugee camp families. Efforts were likewise redoubled on the “Street Kids’ School”.  Child street vendors are provided the opportunity to make up months or years of schooling they missed while supporting their families. Rations of rice and cooking oil are provided in trade for their attendance in school and participation in weekly classes at the Borderfree Center. The kids, and a growing circle of neighbors, also learn about the history and practice of nonviolence.

Today was my last full day in Kabul. Six of us went to the Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War to donate blood. Courageous workers there have faced innumerable crisis situations following attacks in Kabul. Their healing touch includes provision of well-tended lawns and gardens for their patients to rest in while recovering. Patients who can be mobile emerge from full wards, on crutches or in wheel chairs. We see them converse softly. And always there are a few children in wheelchairs racing down the cement walkways. The Emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah operates under full war zone conditions and still manages to run clinics and ambulance services.

Afterward, Nematullah took me to a refugee camp to visit a class he teaches to girls aged 5 – 14. With 25 students, we sat on uneven, rocky ground in a primitive room. For two hours, the girls were easily engaged in stories, activities, grammar exercises, and writing assignments. I felt grateful and hopeful as they bade us farewell.

Like the people in the refugee camp, people throughout Kabul cope with contaminated water and air, shortages of food and electricity, and a disastrously inadequate sewage and sanitation system. Hakim observes that among the dozens of young volunteers at the Borderfree Center, every family is dealing with severe traumas. In my short ten-day visit here, Barath Khan traveled to his home province of Paktia for the funeral of a cousin killed by an unknown assailant. Meanwhile young Bismillah’s family was mourning the recent death of his 28 year old brother who was killed in action serving with the Kabul government’s army. Nawid learned that his young cousin living in a neighboring province runs to hide every time he hears the sound of an armed US drone flying overhead.

Three days ago, the Center hired two buses to take Street Kids and Volunteers to a high hillside for their Fly Kites not Drones celebration. The children turned a cause for frightened hiding into a day of togetherness in the open, of solidarity, perhaps some healing, returning a message to the Afghan sky (and to its current US masters) that they do not want to fear it any more.  The following day, Ali and Qasim carefully loaded 90 saplings, plus shovels, pickaxes and buckets onto a bus already filled with eager young people who volunteered to plant trees at two different schools.   The APVs have planted more than 600 saplings since they first started the Bamiyan Peace Park.

This morning, Hakim and I talked about linking with communities in other war zones, being perhaps more deliberate about eventually bringing a joint message from those living under the tyranny of war to the General Assembly in NY or some other public forum. Early in my stay Hakim had given the APVs a slide show detailing antiwar resistance as far back as WWI – it was crisp, moving and inspiring. He contrasted the scientific advances that had allowed the first lunar landing with the use of technology to develop the weapons of mass destruction the US and weaker nations precariously stockpile. The slides covered a century of war resisters, some reminders of war’s wide-reaching costs, and even the effect wars have had on Hakim’s own family. Faced with unemployment and a dire lack of solutions to their own financial hardships, teams at the Borderfree Center have developed presentations about global poverty, worker’s rights, far-off famines and the ecological crisis. Their alternative education currently reaches many dozens of young people in Kabul. A small team now meets weekly to design an Institute of Peace for older students.

Shortly after returning to the US, I’ll head to NYC for a week of fasting and action at the UN regarding starvation and war in Yemen. Since my arrival in Kabul two weeks ago, the conflict-driven crises in Somalia, South Sudan and North Nigeria have accelerated further toward famine, making up, along with Yemen’s nightmare, what is being called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in seventy years. Trump’s slashing of US contributions to UN relief agencies must be condemned as the exact opposite of what the US can and should do: as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the US should make famine prevention and feeding those at risk of starvation a top priority. But we should also resist continued US military buildup in Yemen, African countries, and any other part of the world. To give humanitarian aid while continuing US military strikes and US support for the Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports is like giving money to the local fire department on one’s way between setting different arson fires.

We recall the horrible suffering and death in Iraq under economic sanctions. Efforts to alleviate the suffering were always too little and too late. Voices witnessed US aerial terrorism and invasion afflicting Iraqi civilians on a massive scale in 1991 and 2003. The US military menace gave rise to ongoing chaos, displacement, and bitter civil wars.

Fifty years ago Dr. King risked his life to tell us that “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” that a nation focused on military defense more than social uplift “is approaching spiritual death,” and that we still had a choice: “nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.”  How much longer will that choice be extended to us? It’s an open question. But the time is always ripe to start making the right choice. We cannot look the other way as military and economic warfare destroys lives, communities and cultures. We cannot lose ourselves in trivia and fantasy while the foundation of our real lives is the inescapable misery and suffering of others. We must persistently ask how US people will ever find the ingenuity, skill and resources to solve critical problems facing US communities when perennially panicked into working to satisfy the bloated and obscene needs of the US military industrial complex.

I’ve had the extraordinary experience, in Kabul, of walking among and learning from angry, desperate, and rejected young men, and young women. I have seen them working for peace, for their neighbors, and for a brighter future. That has to be a good start.