Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Where hope is a cruel mirage

The queue stretches for miles. It consists of mainly women and children — all in different stages of death. The fortunate ones have not had food for day. The less fortunate ones can’t remember when they had their last meal. A mother holds her little one close enough to feel its heart beat. The child is severely malnourished. It has been reduced to an emancipated foetus with a swollen abdomen and glazed eyes. Probably the only way to ascertain a semblance of life is through the heartbeat. The mother hopes to make it to the head of the queue. Sometimes the child won’t make it or sometimes the mother. Maybe both won’t. If they are lucky both will make it alive. They are waiting under the blaze of the unforgiving sun to join the 3 lakh registered (and thousands of unregistered) refugees at the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya.

It is estimated that there are more than four million starving people in Somalia alone. Thousands (an exact count is impossible) have died and more than 7,50,000 are said to be ‘high-risk’ starvation groups, which means close to eight lakh people are at the risk of dying due to the non-availability of food and water. To put that figure in perspective — imagine the whole city of Kochi (which has an estimated population of around 6-7 lakh) starving without access for a square meal or reliable water to drink.

Over two decades of lawlessness and clan wars, a non-functional government coupled with the rise of Islamic terror — Somalia today is the stuff of what nightmares are made of.

But this was a tragedy that could have been avoided. The first red flags appeared 11 months ago when the October rains failed. When the rains gave a miss in April the UN and other agencies should have had a plan to tackle the situation. Instead, thanks to the uncompromising attitude of al-Shabaab (an Islamic terrorist outfit) and the grandstanding of the US, what the world literally did was to sit on its hands. Washington’s listing of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation in 2008 restricted more than 80 per cent of the aid that was flowing into Somalia because agencies aiding terrorist organisations in any form face penalisation. This meant that food that was until then reaching the starving thousands in southern Somalia stopped overnight.

The restrictions put on al-Shabaab crippled it to a certain extent. A great part of the aid was until then siphoned off by the militants and sold in the market. This stopped. They were being funded from the Middle East and other areas. This started to trickle and on August 6 they withdrew from Mogadishu, capital of Somalia. But in the process of restricting a few thousand al-Shabaab militants the United States choked millions of starving Somalis. Was that the only way?

Today Mogadishu is seeing people arrive in tens and thousands as al-Shabaab militants, who have ties with al-Qaeda, have retreated and left the city. This coming back of sorts is happening after almost five years in which the Islamic militants have been waging a war with the African Union troops who support a weak Transitional Federal Government, supported by Ethiopia who, in turn, are supported by the United States.

Terror in Somalia

The United Nations, African Union and other international watchers unanimously agree that the presence of terror groups has aggravated the humanitarian crisis. In other words the rise of extremism has a direct correlation with the famine. Al-Shabaab is the principle militant outfit in Somalia. In addition to spreading violence in Somalia and trying to establish its foothold in the neighbouring countries, al-Shabaab is causing numerous roadblocks in aid reaching the needy. Reports in July stated that al-Shabaab refused international aid in the regions under its control stating that there was no famine or crisis in those regions. It has stopped agencies from providing aid citing that aid is a means through which the West indoctrinates the people. Al-Shabaab leader Fuad Mohamed Qalaf in 2010 had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It should be noted that the almost negligible power of the Transitional Federal Government, in certain pockets in the country, has led to the thriving of extremist groups.

Neighbours React to Famine

Much before the media around the world picked up the crisis in the Horn of Africa, local media was pointing to the crisis that was unfolding. Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, all countries geographically close to Somalia, are feeling the heat of the famine. Kenya and Ethiopia seem to be the worst hit with Somali refugees pouring into the camps in these countries. Many of the people here believe that in addition to the failed harvest and drought, the lack of planning for such a scenario has led to the famine worsening. The Nairobi Star, a Kenyan daily, reported that “Kenyans are starving not because the land is infertile, but because there is total mix up of priorities.”

For many people around the world Somalia and the Horn of Africa might be a tragedy unfolding at a comfortable distance. But to ignore the crisis and move ahead will be wrong on two counts. First, it shows a lack of humaneness to walk past failing to sympathise with the innocent children suffering for no fault of theirs. Secondly, these conditions now unfolding in the region are fertile ground for extremism and lawlessness. It should be a surprise that sea piracy (which affects all major countries including India) is a thriving industry in Somalia.

Playwright and a pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd Eugene Ionesco said “Ideologies separate us, dreams and anguish bring us together.” It’s the dreams of the mothers and anguish in the eyes of the thousands queuing outside the various refugee camps that should bring the world together for a catastrophe that is of a magnitude not witnessed in the recent past.

(This article was published by The New Indian Express on Monday September 19, 2011. Link: http://expressbuzz.com/school/somalia-the-land-where-hope-is-a-cruel-mirage/315230.html

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Right-wing terror– An inconvenient truth

On Friday, July 22, 2011, Norway was shaken and with it the whole world. Two terrorist acts, carried out by the same person, became the worst attack on Norway since World War II. The first was a car bomb explosion at a government office which killed eight people and critically wounded many. The second was more drastic. A man, in the colours of a policeman, opened fire on innocent campers attending a youth camp of the Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utoya. He killed more than 70 and scarred many more for life. The toll has reached 93 and an equal number are undergoing treatment. Both attacks were brewed within the country by a well-educated, financially sound 32-year-old Norwegian, Anders Benring Breivik, from the majority community in Norway.

Fear Of The ‘Other’

To say that Anders Behring Breivik is a loner, i.e. his case can be seen as a rare exception, is to trivialise the issue and ignore the dangers it portends for society. For too long governments the world over have ignored, sidelined or rubbished reports of the growing presence of organisations that view immigration and assimilation of cultures, religions and race as a threat to the existing majority community in a country.

Though the initial suspicion in Oslo was that the attacks had links to a jihadist bombing plot last year or the prosecution of an Iraqi terrorist, it was soon realised that the terror had not come from foreign shores. This was the same mistake the US authorities made when they assumed that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of a group from outside the country. Only later did they realise a US Army veteran had blown up the truck in an act of revenge for the 1993 Waco Siege in which 76 people died, including David Koresh, leader of Branch Davidians, a Christian cult group.

This hatred towards the ‘other’ (as Edward W Said explains in his 1978 book ‘Orientalism’) cannot be seen in isolation and finds parallels in other places in Europe and the United States. A ‘right-wing Christian fundamentalist’, Breivik in an interview in which he asks and answers his own questions describes his ideology as “cultural conservatism, or a nationalist/conservative orientation known as the Vienna school of thought. As a political movement, I would describe it as a national resistance movement, an indigenous rights movement or even a right-revolutionary movement”.


People like Breivik are misled into believing that if things go on the way they are, with continuing immigration mainly from the Muslim-dominated parts of Africa and West Asia, it will lead to a clash of civilisations. They are indoctrinated to see it as is their job to ‘rescue’, ‘protect’ or even ‘cleanse’ their country. In his 1,500-page manifesto ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ Breivik mentions that his aim is to save “European Christendom” and help it prevail against the “Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom”.

Bourgeois, Redneck Politics

The economic slowdown and high levels of immigration have fuelled an anxiety among the majority population and given more room and acceptability to right wing forums and parties that have come to the front since the eighties. Even mainstream parties are going populist.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in October 2010 that “multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed” and this is the prod the Christian Social Union was waiting for to up the ante against immigration from West Asia. British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Merkel’s views in February. In France it seems that despite Front National leader Marine Le Pen lacing her comments with scorn for Muslims her public ratings are soaring, threatening to unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election. In the Netherlands the Party of Freedom won 15 percent of the vote share in 2010. Its leader Greet Wilder compares the Quran to ‘Mein Kampf’ and says, “I don’t hate Muslims. I hate Islam.” In Sweden and Denmark right-wingers are quick to attribute any and every problem the countries face to Muslims. In the US rabid-mouthed vitriol-spewing Republicans are getting shriller in their anti-Muslim rants and Christian pastors like Terry Jones, who proposed to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11, are bolder – and stupider – than ever before.

These politicians provide grist for the fundamentalists’ mill. A common thread in all these cases is the growing Islamophobia (which peaked after 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombings). But what is unfortunate is that just as European leaders have not done their part, Muslim rulers and leaders around the world have not done substantially enough to denounce the violence perpetrated by jihadists.

Camouflaged Easy Targets

The Fat Men and Little Boys can be used as political deterrents and for sabre-rattling between hostile nations. The unfortunate fact is that more casualties are caused by small-scale high-impact attacks by ‘loners’, sleeper cells and little known fringe groups around the world, which thrive because of a lack of effective surveillance.

A trait of these individuals/groups is that they do not show on the radar (suspect list or surveillance category) of the authorities as they do not come under the government classification of ‘suspects’.

Another trait of many people used by extremist groups, either through direct recruitment or through indoctrination, is that most of them are young, educated, from reasonably well-to-do backgrounds. More often than not indoctrination happens through local influence groups (like religious institutions or community-based organisations) or through the Internet (websites, chat rooms and networking sites) as in the case of Breivik. The Internet provides fundamentalists the manna that changes the world view of gullible people like Breivik. A fact, which many fail to see, is that most of the arguments and conclusions are based on specious arguments and discussions.

Shiver Down The Spine

Timothy J McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber whose act of lunacy claimed the lives of 168 people, commented thus on his deed, “Isn’t it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell?” McVeigh’s reflection of his work should send a shiver down the spine of every law enforcement officer. Imagine the many McVeighs and Breiviks who can be or are misguided. If July 22 has a message it is that no longer can any country afford to be naïve. While focusing on the trouble from outside it cannot ignore the rumbles from within.

(This article was published in The New Indian Express