Monthly Archives: May 2015

War, what is it good for?

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A handicapped man working at a polling station during Afghanistan’s 2009 election. Photo: Tony Cross

In principle, I’m not a pacifist. Faced with the brutality of those in power, of state terror, of armed occupation, one has the right, even the duty, to resist.

But, when you see the results of armed conflict, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Of course, the vast majority of wars are not just. They are fought for the sake of privileged minorities and justified by lies. They are declared – although nobody seems to formally declare war any more, they just go ahead and do it – by old men who have lived full, if not honourable, lives and fought by young people, who, in general, think they are immortal, although I imagine a few hours on the battlefield strips them of that illusion.

Wrecked ordnance overlooks the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan 2005. Photo: Tony Cross

When we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 (see earlier post) we were greeted by women in burkas begging – their husbands had been killed in the wars, they had been banned from working under the Taliban.  Liberation for them meant the right to go out on the street and ask for money to support their kids.

And then there were the hundreds, thousands, of people – men, women, children – missing limbs; some were former combatants, many the victims of bombardments or landmines. Some had been lucky enough to have been fitted with artificial replacements by the Red Cross. Many more had not, were unable to work, some in permanent pain.

On a training course for working in war zones, I and several other journalists were taken to a French army centre for training in demining.

A young, working-class bloke showed us the best way to get out of a minefield if you find you’ve stumbled into one. And he showed us the various types of mine and cluster bombs, including small explosive devices that are dropped from airplanes and left lying on the ground. They look like toys and children often pick them up. Of course, they’re killed or maimed for life.

“I’m a soldier and I have to accept discipline,” he told us. “But, if anyone ever tells me to lay one of these saloperies, I’ll refuse, whatever the consequences.”

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Jordanians dig the grave of a young man killed when a US jet fired on the bus in which he was travelling out of Iraq, 2003. Photo: Tony Cross

Arriving in Baghdad in 2003 (article to be posted), we saw bullet casings lying on the roads, crowds looting shopping malls, US soldiers guarding the oil ministry but not much else. A man outside the Red Cross headquarters told me he urgently needed medicine to stay alive and was disgusted with my useless and evasive reply.

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Israel’s separation wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah; Photo: Tony Cross

In the Palestinian Territories I saw an Israeli tank point its gun turret at an old man and a toddler, barking orders through a loudspeaker system (kids later stoned the tank), a roadblock where every Palestinian man was lined up in a field as if the Israeli soldiers on the road above them were about to open fire, men and women queueing at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers questioned their right to move around their own land, the separation wall – a scar across the landscape.

Shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, our colleague at Johanne Sutton had been killed entering the country from the north.

In 2013 Ghislaine Dupont, whom I had known since I had started work at RFI, and Claude Verlon, with whom I had worked in Pakistan, were killed in northern Mali.

Shortly before that Claude had sat near me in the canteen. “When are we going to work together in Pakistan again, Tony?” he asked. I said I was going there soon to cover another election.

A week later he and Ghislaine were dead from a bullet to the back of the head.

As I and my colleagues stumbled through an Afghan valley, believing that we were going to be shot, I thought of the people who loved me and asked myself how I could have been so irresponsible towards them. I’ve since heard other people who have been in similar situations describing the same reaction, so I suppose that it’s a kind of psychological defence mechanism.

Anyway, afterwards you’re unbelievably happy to be alive and determined to get what you can out of life. And death doesn’t seem so abstract any more – yours or other people’s. It’s the end. Not so easy, when you don’t just know that intellectually but feel it in your being, to risk your own life … or think of taking someone else’s.

So, should you be thinking of starting a war, please think of all the individual lives that it will end. The people who die will not enjoy the benefits you say will come from the conflict – not just the soldiers who are, after all, combatants, not just the journalists who’ve chosen to go where the story is, but also the local civilians who are caught in the crossfire, who step on a landmine or are hit in a drone strike.

And this is a challenge for all of us who would like to see the world radically changed.

The rich and powerful are ready to do anything to hold onto power and they infect their opponents with their own brutality. Anyone wishing to change systems, overturn states, topple ruling classes has to be ruthless, ready maybe to sacrifice a generation or two for a better world. Those who die along the way will never know that better world. And the liberators risk becoming corrupted by the struggle – by the absolute power that flows from the barrel of a gun, by learning to live with the injustices they or their comrades are bound to commit sooner or later, by the fear of traitors and spies that can become the fear of all critics.

I realise none of this is any more original than the headline I’ve chosen for this posting. And maybe I’ve known it all along. But, now I’ve seen the effects of war, I feel it, too.


Eyewitness: Afghanistan 2001 after the fall of the Taliban

After waiting in the northern Pakistani town of Peshawar for a couple of weeks, I was part of a convoy of hundreds of journalists who crossed into Afghanistan as the Northern Alliance and the US toppled the Taliban.  We crossed countryside littered with the refuse of war and, on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, were robbed at gunpoint in an isolated valley. Kabul itself was tense and under curfew as new masters took over under the watchful eye of the West. Here’s what I wrote on my return.
The royal palace outside Kabul, in ruins after decades of war. Photo; Tony Cross

Torkham frontier post, 16 November 2001

It’s six nights after the Taliban quit Kabul. Pakistani border officials have taken a break in the middle of stamping the passports of hundreds of journalists who arrived in convoy this afternoon.

It’s ramadan and they must pray … and break their fast.

Darkness has descended and we buy our first, but by no means last, meal of kebab from a scruffy restaurant in the village that surrounds the post.

Finally the formalities are over and the convoy lines up in front of the huge black metal gate that closes the frontier.

Just as we’re about to leave, camera flashes go off a few hundred yards away. The Taliban have released the last journalist they’ve been holding, a Japanese who’s received little publicity in the West.

Thanks to our driver, Assad, who is always keen to be ahead of all other cars, we’ve actually paid a guard to let us be first out of Pakistan. Now we find ourselves at the head of a convoy about to enter a country at war. And I’m in the front passenger seat.

A week ago, Radio France Internationale’s Johanne Sutton was killed, along with two other journalists, when they were caught in fighting in northern Afghanistan.

The gate slides open. In front of us is a mojahed on the back of a pick-up truck, aiming a rocket-launcher straight at our windscreen. Around him are 20 or 30 others, armed with Kalishnikovs.

“Boom!” he says and laughs.

Fortunately, they’re on our side. They’re our guard, supplied by Jalalabad’s new security chief, Haji Zaman, whose representative in Peshawar, Engineer Mohammad Alim, has organised the convoy.

As we drive gingerly across the line, more mojaheddin appear, mostly young and apparently stoned.

There’s a long wait, as a TV crew transfer equipment from a lorry to buses and cars. Photographers snap the mojaheddin, journalists interview them. I file a report. Then we’re off along a well-maintained road (“The Taliban built this,” says our interpreter Kamal) past newly-built petrol stations whose pumps glisten in the headlights. They’re the last modern ones we see in Afghanistan and must have been built to service the powerful smuggling operations whose bosses backed the Taliban in the hope that the ultra-fundamentalist militias would impose some degree of unity on the country.

Jalalabad under new rulers

After the fall of Kabul and a couple of days of tension, four rival Pashtun warlords have just reached agreement to share power in Jalalabad.

The new governor is Haji Abdul Qadeer, the man who in 1996 handed the city over to the Taliban, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of as much as ten million dollars cash plus a guarantee that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan wouldn’t be frozen. The deal was reportedly brokered by Islamabad and Saudi intellligence boss, Prince Turki al Faisal, now retired from his post after failing to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.

In the warm Jalalabad night, some journalists are welcomed into the Governor’s palace. Others, including ourselves, go on to the only known hotel, which is already overbooked, thanks to a convoy which arrived two days ago, and which is raising the prices of its grubby rooms by the minute. We get a room, thanks to a Danish TV journalist, who’s moved to a better one but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to hand back the keys to the one she has vacated.

Jalalabad is a city stuffed with guns. Truckloads of mojaheddin circle the space in front of the Governor’s palace, piles of rocket-launchers and ammunition resting on the tailgates. Others walk around in the morning sunshine, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

Inside the palace guards in Soviet-style uniforms and US-style trainers slouch at the doorways, making no effort to stop anyone enter.

A delegation of tribal elders have arrived to congratulate the new incumbent. Mohammed Dulah, from Chapathar village tells us that he used to be a commandant in Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He’s calm but venomous when he pronounces the name of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who’s still officially recognised as President by most of the world and who has been making portentous declarations about the future of the country since the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.

What right has Rabbani to promise elections in two years time? Dulah wants to know.

If Rabbani remains in power, the Northern Alliance will make the same mistakes as it did in the early 1990s, he says, referring to the period when mojaheddin factions waged a bloody internecine struggle for power, at vast cost to the population in terms of lives and living conditions. Dulah wants a leader who is “a true Muslim who will work for Afghanistan” and who’s chosen by the whole country.

And, now that the rest of the world is again discussing Afghanistan and US President George W Bush has declared war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, what should foreigners do for the country?

“We want them to reconstruct our country and then go back to their own country.”

Engineer Mohammed Alim also wants the Americans to help reconstruct Afghanistan, although, when asked if that means paying for the process, he says, “Not necessarily.”

Alim, who organised the convoy from Peshawar, is a handsome man, with the classic Afghan aquiline features and thick, black beard, laughlines around his eyes and a smart Western jacket worn over his shalwar kameez.

He speaks fluent English, which helps in the new role that he has assumed of spokesperson for Jalalabad’s new Security Chief, Haji Zaman.

Earlier a rickshaw driver had told us that Afghans are sick of seeing armed men on the street.

“The Taliban were bad but at least there was security under their rule,” is a refrain that we’ll hear again and again from Afghans who remember the chaotic early 90s and fear that they will return.

Engineer Mohammed Alim smiles charmingly and reassures us that security is already improving.

“It will be controlled in one or two days. Yesterday was good, today is better and by tomorrow will be best.”

Robbed at gunpoint

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul must be one of the worst in the world. We had arranged to travel this gritty, bumpy wreck of a route with another car containing a Polish TV crew but, on one of the rare stretches of tarmac, they left us behind.

Now we are bumping slowly along a surface ravaged by two decades of war, listening to our driver, Assad, tell us how he fought the Russians from the mountains alongside the road.

I’m in the front passenger seat. Jean Piel, who works for RFI’s French service and other French-language news-media too numerous to mention, Médard Chablaoui, our sound engineer, and Kamal Nassar, our interpreter, are in the back.

There’s plenty of evidence of the war: bomb craters, twisted wrecks of military vehicles and checkpoints.

Five young men run out of one of these, waving their arms for us to stop. We do so. They seem very agitated and four of them are carrying Kalashnikovs.

As I open the car door, I hear the sound of a gun’s safety catch being taken off.

They wrench open the other car doors and pull us out of the car. Then, encouraging us with shouts and blows from their gun-butts, they drive us across the road. All except Assad, that is. They keep him by the car with a gun to his head.

We are taken into a shallow ravine, across rocks, over a stream.

When faced with probable death, you think at 1,000 knots a minute. Is this the real and definitive end ? You can’t kill me, I’ve got a mother who loves me! How can I have put my family in such a situation? Or are they taking us hostage ? I don’t think I could survive many Afghan winter nights in the mountains.

You realise that they’ve known nothing but war all their lives and that to them your death would be as banal as the change in the seasons. But you remain strangely calm. You don’t panic.

I can’t move as fast as the others, thanks to the after-effects of being run over on a Paris street a year ago. At one point I stumble on a rock. At first I think that I’m going to suffer the fate of the weak and be shot for my physical shortcomings. But the boy beside me, he can’t be more than 18-years-old, stretches out his hand and helps me up. In doing so, he finds my wallet and takes it. I reach out to him, thinking that I could say “Take the money but leave my papers,” but realise that I don’t have the language skills and that he has a Kalashnikov.

They take us well away from the road, behind a huge rock which completely conceals us from view. At that point we’re all sure that we’re going to die. Jean Piel tells me later that he will always remember my face, pale and drawn.

Then they frisk us. A boy frisks me and, when he finds nothing, I think that I’m going to be killed because the little bastard who’s already taken my money wants to keep it all for himself. I point at him. The frisking ends. We find ourselves up against the rocks that lead up into the mountain, the robbers between us and the way back to the road. The one with no gun is doing a shuttle between us and the road.

Through Kamal they tell us to stay here, that if we move they’ll kill us, and turn to run away. As they go, the one who appears to be the leader, turns, rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says : “Paise, Paise.” Money, money. Is this to sneer at us or to reassure us that we won’t be killed if we do what we’re told.

There’s silence once they’re gone. Then we start to discuss how long we’ll stay there, if we should resist if they come back to kill us.

After ten minutes, we hear Assad shouting from the road.

We run towards the car, me the slowest again. This time I don’t regret my slight disability, since I still half-fear that we will shot as we approach the road.

Once in the car, we start telling each other what we’ve lost, money, cameras, Méd’s mobile phone. Jean has suffered worst, they’ve taken his bag and it had his contacts-book in it.

Then we realise that we’re still alive.

Assad didn’t tell them that we were journalists; he told them that we were with an NGO. With amazing courage, if not foolhardiness, he said that he didn’t have the keys to the boot and so saved our clothes, some of our money and all our working material. Although he had the worst experience, he seems the least shaken up.

Assad flags down a carload of Afghans and asks them to stay with us on the road, which they do. We stop at the next checkpoint and the armed men there tell us that they’ll go after the robbers if we pay them. We decline the offer.

Further along the road, on a large bend, a pick-up truck full of men is parked, with one man standing beside it, like a vulture perched on a branch.

Once we’re past them, our Afghan friends pull up beside us and tells us that those were robbers, too.

We pull into a village and are mobbed by kids, some of whom throw stones at the car.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive into Kabul passes in a state of shock mixed with paranoia. Méd thinks the Afghans who are with us want to rob us. I thought that we would be killed at the checkpoint. Every figure at the roadside seems menacing.

Kamal seems particularly shaken by the experience. Later he tells us that this is the second armed robbery he’s been through. The last time the robbers opened fire, killing his friend and putting him in hospital with two bullets in the leg. Kamal is 22, the same age as the fighting.

Night falls as we climb up into the mountains that mark the border of Kabul province. The descending sun picks out the pock-marked surface of the rocks, throws long shadows from high peaks, fails to reach all the way into deep valleys. It’s a  landscape created by an angry god; a suitable backdrop for trauma.

Bad news in Kabul

The next day at the huge but shabby Intercontinental Hotel, I overhear people saying that four journalists have been killed.

I ask one of them, who’s with the BBC, about it. He says that the killing took place today on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. I tell the others. They’ve heard the same from French journalists.

It sounds strangely like a distorted account of our own experience. I stick my mike into a crowd and record a man, speaking English with a slight but unplaceable accent, saying,  “… he came towards us saying, ‘Go back to Jalalabad, the Taliban are shooting journalists’ … we decided to go further, towards Kabul. On the way to Kabul, three youngsters, around 20-25-years-old, wearing camouflage jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs, they stopped us, they pointed guns to our heads, they taked all our stuff, our cameras, our passports, they dragged my driver outside, they pushed another journalist outside of the car, they checked all of our pockets and everything, then they were pushing us …. ”

The four who were killed were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, who worked for Reuters, Maria Grazia Cutuli, of Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes, of El Mundo. They were beaten, stoned and shot at close range. It was at Sorubay, where we were robbed.

The gloomy reception area of the Pearl Continental is the place to pick up the latest rumours and, sometimes, a bit of the truth. The first journalists to arrive are staying here and the UN holds twice-daily press conferences, in an unsuitably laid-out room, in front of whose entrance stand three plastic buckets collecting the water that  leaks from the ceiling. At the hotel door a man in uniform gives the revolving door an encouraging push when foreigners enter but is less welcoming when it comes to his compatriots.

Yesterday evening we were met in the crowded carpark by France Inter journalist Fabienne Sintes who had left Jalalabad ahead of us. Her interpreter, Abdul, had found a house for us to rent.

Our temporary residence belongs to a doctor who’s fled to Germany, leaving an old man in charge. Like the houses around it, it is modern, spacious, with marble floors, the home of a typical Kabul bourgeois, although a litle down-at-heel after being uninhabited for so long. On our first night many of the windows were missing, thanks to an American bomb which fell in the next street. They’re replaced the next day but that, and the primitive heating we buy, only does a little to make the cold Kabul night more tolerable.

The first filmshow for seven years

The day, on the other hand, is sunny and the sunlight shines on a big crowd outside the Cinema Bakhtar in the centre of town. The morning show is already underway. It’s the first for seven years, cinema having been one of the sinful practices repressed by the Taliban’s religious police under the guidance of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The 700 places were quickly sold and the crowd is waiting for the next showing. Some will have to wait for the one after that.

Foreign journalists are allowed to queue-jump, although the theatre is so full that we can only catch a glimpse of the film, a tale of mojaheddin heroism in the struggle against the Russians. The term Commandan features prominently in the soundtrack.

Sound engineer Hasem Qarim explains, at length and in a roundabout Asian style, that he kept the spools hidden from the Taliban, that he managed to keep the studio open with a skeleton staff, that there had been censors before the Taliban and that he hopes there will be a democratic and broad-based government now so that there can be free media for people to explain their lives. He also wants to show foreign films “which will teach people how to live”.

Kamal seems puzzled when I ask him what the cinema’s name means.

“In the West cinemas’ names often mean something other just the name,” I explain.

“It’s just the cinema’s name,” he says … but later he adds, “It’s the old name for Afghanistan.”

There’s dust everywhere, lodging in your throat and making everyone cough. Kabul city centre is full of Soviet-style official buildings, a scruffy street-market, a corner whose railings are covered with traditional carpets for sale (a blur of maroon as you pass in a car), oily shops selling hardware, electrical goods or car and bike parts, the compounds of UN agencies. In one square  money-changers clutch huge wads of the nearly-valueless Afghani. A modest meal for three at the hotel costs over a million, waiters and shop-owners can count dozens of Afghani notes in seconds with a lightning counting technique which looks like a card-trick. All buildings of any importance have at least one armed guard. That includes the cinema.

As the fact that the Northern Alliance has won permanent control of the city sinks in to the Kabuli consciousness, pictures of Ahmed Shah Masood appear everywhere. A poster-sized one placed on an easel greets you as you enter Intercontinental’s dingy foyer, like a flash of colour pasted onto a black-and-white photo. Soon practically every vehicle in town has a picture of the commander praying tacked inside its windscreen or attached to its bonnet.

A fighter for women’s rights

Stay on the street for any length of time and you’re approached by a beggar, often a child in rags with skin darkened by dirt, malnutrition and the effect of living outdoors, or a woman, who is probably one of the thousands of widows left in charge of a family after her husband died in the fighting, or after stepping on a landmine, or just from hunger and poverty.

Under the Taliban she was forbidden to work. She was also ordered to wear the burqa which she still wears. It covers her whole body down to the calves which are covered by trousers; her face is covered by a lattice, a cloth version of  the screens over harem windows; all you can see of her is her hand, a claw protruding from a bundle of rags that says something in a language that you can’t understand. It’s relatively easy to refuse to give when you can’t see the beggar’s eyes.

Word gets round the press corps that there’s been a demonstration  of women to reject the burqa. Very few journalists knew it was taking place. Now everyone wants to find the woman who organised the rally.

Soralya Parlika is being interviewed by a televison crew when we arrive at her flat. We don’t have an appointment but we are ushered into a room to wait to see her. There’s a woman in attendance, who I believe is a servant, and an old man with a complicated turban, bright blue eyes and a white beard. He’s Soralya’s father, Mohammed Harif. He’s deaf and his face has the uncomprehending look of those who don’t hear the hubbub of everyday life.

As we wait, some American journalists arrive and join the queue.

The flat is not very spacious, in a building which is relatively modern but scruffy on a housing estate which resembles cheap municipal housing in Britain.

But this is, or at least was, housing for the privileged. Kamal tells us that the flats were built for civil servants and officers “under the Communists”.  As we approached, we had to drive round a huge hole in the road, the result of a US-British bombing raid. There’s a playground on the other side of the road.

Parlika eventually appears. She’s 57 but, unusually for Afghanistan, looks younger than her age. She wears a headscarf, but leaves her rather pale-complexioned face uncovered. Despite her welcoming smile, she gives the disconcerting impression of gazing anxiously at a spot just over her interlocutor’s shoulder. She’s the second or third Afghan woman I’ve seen who isn’t wearing the burqa.

Kabul’s new rulers had refused to allow the demonstrators to march through the streets, saying that they couldn’t guarantee their safety, an assertion which excites a certain amount of scepticism on Parlika’s part. Between 100 and 200 women turned up nevertheless and held a rally, where they lifted up their burqas, most of them baring their faces but keeping their hair covered.

Parlika insists that the rally was not about the burqa and that there was no obligation on participants to remove it. The real aim was to demand that women be allowed to play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan: that they should be allowed to work and to be educated, and that they should be represented at meetings about the country’s future and in any new government.

Her own history goes back to the late 1970s, when, after studying economics at Kabul University, she started working for the women’s section of the Democratic Party of Afghanistan. That led to a one-and-a-half-year jail term under Hafizullah Amin (“a brutal man”), the second president from the Khalq Communist faction who was killed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

She went on to head the Afghan Red Crescent but gave that up in 1992 when the mojaheddin rolled into town. Liberation from Russian rule didn’t mean women’s liberation. During the ’70s women in Kabul, at least, had access to education, employment and, if they wanted, Western dress. But in 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who at the time more or less controlled the capital, publicly recommended that Kabuli women wear the burqa. Parlika established an underground women’s movement.

I ask if women are rejecting an Afghan tradition when they reject the burqa. She concedes that some Afghan women have always worn it. “But women who were educated, women who were going to school, university and who were working, they didn’t wear burqas. It was only women whose husbands were fanatics or chose to do so voluntarily.”

So why do so many women continue to wear it now that they don’t have to?

She replies that many would feel unsafe without the burqa, that it’s warm and that, after years of being forbidden to work, they are poor and don’t want to expose their shabby clothes.

As yet, most of the women who are ready to work with Parlika are from what’s left of the educated middle class, the women who would fill the jobs that she’s demanding in education, healthcare and the administration of the country.

One of the Americans asks if she believes she could have accomplished as much as she has if she had been married.

Parlika talks generally about the condition of Afghan women.

The journalist insists and Parlika generalises again.

Someone suggests a different phrasing for the question and Parlika generalises again.

Try as they might, my colleagues can’t get a straight answer. Is the question too personal ? Is there something we’re not allowed to know? Or is it just easier to confront male prejudice in California than in Kabul ?

The Intercontinental’s antique television can now show the broadcasts of Kabul Television. The pre-Taliban presenters, a man and a woman, have been brought out of their forced retirement. The woman wears a headscarf but, fortunately from a televisual point of view, no burqa. The content is principally news – there’s plenty of that – and landscapes with accompanying music.

The Kabulis want more than the two hours a day that Kabul TV offers, however. Satellite dishes knocked together from old tin-cans appear outside shops, their repeated logos adding an Andy Warhol touch to street-life.

Other vices that Kabulis can once again indulge in after a five-year ban are getting a shave, listening to music, flying a kite and keeping pigeons.

And girls can now go to school again. The Taliban ban was never fully effective. Soralya Parlika was among those who ran secret schools where girls could pick up some education.

Gul Mohammad Ahamdi is the president of Sorbach, an NGO which runs 95 schools in Kabul. They teach over 7,000 children one of the local languages, maths and the Koran.

Kulhana Chadi school, in a battered area of Kabul mainly populated by the Hazara ethnic group, isn’t easy to spot. It’s a mud building like the houses around it. You open the door, which has been cannibalised from a goods-container, and you enter an empty store-room. Steps at the back of the store-room lead up to a landing with three dusty rooms off it.

They’re the classrooms, all packed with girls who stand up and sing out a greeting in unison as you enter. The nine teachers are all women – scarves not burqas, a bit of make-up, even – the teaching techniques seem to entail a lot of reciting by rote. The girls sit on the floor, some have cheap notebooks, others slates. They won’t be learning computer skills any day soon.

Outside a woman in a burqa draws water from a well. Inside a teacher explains that classes have been operating for about a year. The building is provided by a relative of one of the teachers. The immorality that it sheltered  had to be concealed from the most zealous Taliban but some local commanders knew about the schools and tolerated them, if the area that they controlled was far enough away fom the religious police headquarters.

Ahamdi himself was often taken in for questioning. He says that he received many threats to his life under the Taliban. “I gave my son the name of the person he should contact if  one day I didn’t come home.”

And to what use will this education be put ? When asked, virtually all the girls say that they want to be doctors.

If war has scarred Kabul, leaving whole swathes of the city as rubble, it’s also marked many Kabulis for life. 97 per cent of Afghan children have lived through violence. Unicef officials say that the majority of under-16s have been traumatised by the war. 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative.

In every street you come across men and boys on crutches, or, the lucky ones, with artificial limbs. Their agility is remarkable, though never remarked on in a country where such an accomplishment is commonplace. Whole hospitals are devoted to trying to repair the damage done by left-over ordinance, especially the landmines that have been planted all over the country. Demining experts say that 735 square miles of land is dangerous.

And then the US and Britain launched a bombing campaign. In the formerly wealthy area of Wasir Aqbar Khan, UN demining expert, Ross Chamberlain, stands in front of a wreck of concrete and twisted metal and tells the assembled journalists, “We brought you here to show you a good example.”

Chamberlain says that the building that stood here was the headquarters of  a Taliban police commander. It suffered a direct hit, although nobody knows if  the principal target was home. A building next door was partially destroyed. A number of pro-Taliban Arab volunteers are reported to have been inside. They all died.

In a wry Australian accent, Chamberlain tells us to look behind us. A line of trees partially conceals the Indira Ghandi hospital. “So they had to be spot-on, if they were wrong there was going to be a big problem.”

But, he adds, there were more bad examples than good ones.

It seems that death discriminates against the poor. There’s no rubble at the second site we visit, just piles of dirt and dust, leaving a perfect view of the mountains that overlook the city. A bomb has obliterated the home of a family of ten, who were in it at the time. Only the mother survived and she stands on the site weeping and recounting her story to the microphones.

“The bomb was probably aimed at the military post on the hill,” says Petere Lesueur, who’s technical adviser to Afghan Ordinance Consultants which is working with the UN. “A possible last-minute malfunction of the guidance unit and it’s probable that that ‘s what happened.”

Ross Chamberlain estimates that 30 civilians have been killed in Kabul by US bombs, a non-combattant death-toll which he considers to be fairly low compared to other military campaigns. He’s found no evidence of the use of  cluster-bombs in the city, although these packages of death and injury have been used elsewhere in the country.

“But there’ve been lots of 500-lb bombs,” many of which have yet to explode.

The mines and bombs left behind by successive campaigns kill ten to 12 people every day.

What fighting?

Kabul’s electricity is cut off, causing the price of generators to soar as journalists comb the city for the power they need to file their stories and keep warm at night.

The current remains off for over 24 hours and it’s soon reported that this is no ordinary power-cut. It appears that a key power-station has been hit during heavy fighting between the Northern Alliance and tribal fighters at Sorubay after the Alliance sent 200 troops from Kabul to secure the road to Jalalabad. Roadblocks at the outskirts of Kabul prevent reporters visiting the scene.

Pashtun chiefs, who have have each taken control of their small parcel of territory, are defending their right to make the law on their own patch, especially against the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

The local chiefs’ power was curtailed under the Taliban to please the transport mafia, which objected to paying countless tolls as they travelled through the various fiefdoms along their way. Now, as we found out, robbers and other toll-collectors are reappearing. Ordinary Afghans fears of a return to lawlessness and faction fighting are being realised.

The following day, with power returned, I ask Northern Alliance spokesman Abdullah Abdullah whether the fighting has ended.

“What fighting?” he asks.

Check in your weapons at the door

One evening I go with Assad and Kamal to their favourite restaurant, which is a converted cinema. As we wash our hands by the entrance, a pick-up pulls up in the dark outside. About a dozen armed men in pakool hats and combat fatigues jump off it and lope past us into the restaurant.

Most of them leave their weapons at the door, as if they were checking in their hats and coats. The visitor can inspect a pretty array of arms, including a machine-gun with a bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. It looks strangely home-made, as if it had been cobbled together out of tin-cans like an African toy. Kamal says with distaste that this must be the party of “some commander”.

The evening meal starts early because it’s ramadan and the Afghans are desperate to break their fast. In any case, you can’t linger over your meal because curfew begins at 9 pm.

A television crew which has paid a security official to accompany them at night says that there are roadblocks, manned by nervous youths, at very regular intervals. The guide knows the password, which changes every night, and whispers it to whoever’s in charge of the road-block. There not always sure that the jumpy militiamen are ready to wait for this formality to be enacted.

Kamal and I walk down our street in the sunny Kabul afternoon. He stoops and picks up a small lump of blackened metal. “Mortars,” he says. Recognising ordnance is one of those handy skills that young Afghans have all managed to pick up.

We pass a group of men in khaki uniforms that look as if they’ve been left over from the Russian occupation. They’re police. We talk to the officer, a plump man squeezed into an undersized uniform decorated with colourful regalia.

He tells us to be careful at night; that there are still Taliban hidden in the city, or, to be precise, foreign volunteers whom the Taliban didn’t tell about the withdrawal. They woke up Tuesday morning to find themselves in a capital controlled by the enemy. The Northern Alliance reportedly shot some of them on the main street as soon as it arrived, but others have managed to find householders who hide them for money.

They try and sneak out of the city at night and there are sometimes shoot-outs with Northern Alliance fighters. Occasionally we hear a shot at night.

The next day, AFP reports that Kabul residents have spotted a group of American or British soldiers occupying a house in the city. They reportedly only go out at night, to hunt down Taliban or Al-Qaeda members.

When we unsuccessfully try and see Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunas Qanooni, we ask the advisers who receive us about this story.

There are no US or Bitish soldiers in Kabul, they say, but, when pressed, say that “American security experts from the Pentagon” are “collaborating with the Northern Alliance against terrorists here and throughout the country”. It would be “difficult to say whether they might be in Kabul”.

Are there any Taliban left in Kabul ? I ask.


So why is there a curfew ?

“For reasons of security. We haven’t collected in all the arms yet. Besides, we’ve had a curfew here for the last 22 years.”

Why break the habit of a lifetime ?

A Taliban defector

Mollah Alhaj M Khaksar glances nervously over his shoulder at a Northern Alliance minder as he responds to our questions. He wears a black and yellow turban, a western suit-jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, and a gold watch which can’t have come cheap. His bushy beard only partially conceals a chubby, boyish face. Bearded men in turbans sit around the walls, watching the interview, which is videoed for posterity, or maybe so that Kabul’s new masters have a record of what the mollah is saying.

At ten o’clock last night Abdullah Abdullah presented Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister, to the press and announced that he has defected to the Northern Alliance.

Khaksar himself claims to have been in contact with the Alliance for two to three years, although he is vague as to whether those contacts were in a ministerial capacity or, as I think he would like us to believe, because he was an agent of Ahmed Shah Masood.

Before seeing the mollah, we were ushered through a garden decorated with spent Russian mortar-shells into one of Wasir Akbar Khan’s spacious modern houses, where we waited in the company of men who claimed to have been prisoners in Kandahar, where the Taliban are still holding out.

For the interview we had to cross the road to another house. While two Northern Alliance leading lights haven’t bothered to turn up for appointments with us, Khaksar is, so to speak, on tap, since his primary function is to be publicised.

He has appealed to other Taliban to come over to the Alliance and says that, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, defectors should be offered places in a new government or, at least, at the forthcoming conference in Bonn on the country’s future.

Khaksar says that he split with the Taliban over their conduct of the war and calls for an end to the influence of foreigners on the country’s politics.

He is referring are the Arab fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden, whose influence over the Taliban leadership and alleged arrogance in their dealings with local people has created massive resentment.

It also meant dissent in Taliban ranks. Some journalists have tried to find differences among “moderate” and “extremist” Taliban but the movement showed no signs of disunity when it came to mistreating  the Afghan people.

One could perhaps distinguish between those who opportunistically went along with Taliban policies in order to keep administrative jobs or positions of influence and those who sincerely wanted to impose their own interpretation of Islam on the country. But who is more morally reprehensible, someone who imposes the burqa, illiteracy for women, amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, execution for homosxuality and so on because he thinks that it will lead humanity to paradise, or someone who collaborates with these practises in order to stay out of  trouble? Is it worth making the distinction?

There is another division in the Taliban ranks.

It’s between those who back the foreign fundamentalists’ project of imposing Taliban-style rule on the whole Muslim world and those who are only concerned with what happens within the borders of Afghanistan.

Naturally, the latter view would appeal to pragmatists and careerists, but also to commanders who are realistic enough to know that they can’t beat the US’s military might and to those who believed that the Taliban could bring unity and stability to Afghanistan, a view which was apparently shared by Islamabad and Washington at one time.

My guess is that Khaksar falls into the pragmatic category, especially if he’s been secretly backing both horses for a couple of years. Today he plays on the hatred that much of the population has for the foreigners who came to pursue jihad in Afghanistan. Although they have come from all over the world, they are now all referred to as “the Arabs” and are loathed to such a degree that our sound engineer Méd, who’s of Moroccan origin, doesn’t dare let on that he speaks Arabic.

“These foreigners were the main reason that our country has been destroyed,” says Khaksar.

Khaksar doesn’t refer to Pakistan, whose secret services set the Taliban up in business, or to the CIA, which backed this policy and encouraged the arrival of the first foreign jihadis during the war against the Russians. Nor does he mention Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose wealthy citizens provide the finance for the Islamic NGOs which became more influential as the Taliban became increasingly isolated internationally.

In the light of his distaste for foreign influence here, I ask him if US influence over the Northern Alliance worries him, especially since Washington is currently bombing Afghanistan.

The US says that it only wants to wipe out the “terrorists” in Afghanistan, Khaksar replies.

“When the terrorists are finished, we will see what we will do.”

Rebuilding a shattered capital

The mayor of Kabul, Bahawi Mohaiuddin, tells us that bombings by “our American friends” have added to the accumulated rubble that he needs to clear up in order to reconstruct the capital.

We meet Mohaiuddin, a slim, genial man in his 40s who speaks slightly eccentric English, on the morning that he takes over the post.

“I haven’t even had time to resign from my old job with the ICRC,” he tells us.

Mohaiuddin was Deputy Mayor in the early 90s and left the post when the Taliban took power. He inherits a city in ruins.

The city’s power comes from areas which are not fully controlled by Kabul, as we all learnt during the power cut. Many of the poorer areas don’t have power or water.

Some of the poor areas don’t even have buildings. In the early 90s rival factions of what’s now the Northern Alliance fought it out for control of the capital.

Stand among the ruins in the Hazara area in the west of the city and people will point to the mountains on either side and say, “Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s guns were on that side and Ahmed Shah Masood’s were on the other and the shells fell here.”

The figthing lasted from 1993 to 1995 when Hikmetyar allied himself with the Hazaras to try and seize control of the country. The revenge exacted by Masood’s men is said to have been brutal.

Warlords have also reduced an attempt at town-planning dating from the early 1990s to a distant memory.

The plan forecast a population of two million people. But over half the population has fled – the poor to refugee camps inside Afghanistan, or in Pakistan or Iran, the better-educated to Europe and the US. Meanwhile, they’ve been replaced by refugees from the fighting in the central Shomali plains. Mohaiuddin puts the present population at a million. Its transitory nature, added to the destruction of war, means overcrowding.

“In my own house only 35 per cent of the people who slept there last night actually lived there,” he says.

Kabul used to have a park. No more. Various commanders took a fancy to the area and built homes on it. The possession of guns ensured that there were no problems with planning permission, nor with the supply of water and elecrticity. Other people hired gunmen to be present during the city engineer’s visit.

“Now the muinicipality has the problem, how to destroy that. If we destroy it, that is a lot of money to waste. If we do not, we cannot do our plan.”

Despite the urgency of the tasks that he faces, Mohaiuddin has to run the city without money or trained personnel. The Taliban emptied the coffers when they left town. Many city employees hadn’t been paid for months before that.

Those that were left, that is. The madrassa graduates mistrusted anyone who had been through higher education. One by one, the city’s qualified personnel found themselves accused of being communists and driven out of the country because, like most of Afghanistan’s elite, they had received some of their training in Russia.

What do the Afghans expect of the future?

“The future depends on what the people do. But the point is now that there is a little bit of liberty for the people, before people couldn’t talk freely,” says Abdul Fatah, who has a stall in front of Kabul’s cinema. He writes official letters for the illiterate or semi-literate.

Although there’s guarded optimism, it’s difficult to find anyone who has much confidence in the Northern Alliance. Everyone looks back nervously at the infighting  and anarchy of the early 90s.

Sayjun, an unemployed Pashtun, says that he wants a multi-ethnic government. But would he have said that when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power ?

Most people seem to hope that foreign pressure will keep their new leaders in order and that the Americans, when they’ve finished bombing them, will help reconstruct the country and then go away and leave them in peace.

It’s difficult to fthink of any occasion in Afghan or American history which justifies such optimism.

Hopes for peace, fears for the future

Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor whom we meet in the hotel car park in Jalalabad, seemed more independent-minded. He complained about the lack of equipment and medicines at the hospital where he works (“we don’t know how to help people”) and told us that he hasn’t been paid for four months.

“They [the country’s new rulers] came before and they did the same thing before. They will give us nothing … You will have a new king and he will do his thing and then you will have another.”

So who can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan ?

“I think that no-one can do that, just the people of Afghanistan … The British and the French and the Americans, they built their countries by themselves, no Afghan was there to work for them. The Afghans have to make their country by themselves. No-one will help you.”

A deserted prison

Kabul prison is several kilometres out of town, in country that is practically desert. You turn off the road to Jalalabad, pass through a mud village with shops housed in old goods-containers, the cast-offs of the transport mafia.

The car kicks up more and more dust and, as we cross a flat plain, Kamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“This is the first time I’ve been here. This is where my father was killed,” he says.

He’s mentioned before that his father was executed “under the communists”, to be precise under the second Khalq President, Hafizullah Amin.

Now I venture to ask why he was killed.

“Because he had political ideas.”

What political ideas ?

“He was a Maoist.”

Kamal says that thousands of political prisoners have been buried in the ground over which we are driving. Sometimes so many were buried at the same time that bulldozers were used to dig the graves.

A bunch of armed men meet us at the prison. They’re the guards but they have no one to watch over now. The  gates are wide open. When the Taliban left town, they let all 12,000 prisoners go free.

“They were our own people. They lived where we live,” says the guard who shows us around, a man in his 30s with scruffy clothes and a friendly face.

Given the fact that many of the prisoners were political allies of Kabul’s new masters, the altruism may have been born of the instinct of self-preservation.

There are seven cell-blocks, all surrounded by a wall with gun-turrets looking out onto the dusty nothingness around the jail.

We go into one block. Rubbish is strewn all over the place, papers, broken desks and plastic gloves. There’s an exercise yard, with a small garden in the corner. Inside are the large cages into which the common law prisoners were packed.

Upstairs there’s a corridor with individual cells off it. Their occupants had decorated the cells with huge graffiti of sayings from the Koran or quotations from poets. On the pink-painted walls of one cell, there are idyllic tropical seascapes, an open Koran and a squadron of fighter-planes attacking a convoy of motor vehicles. This is the political prisoners’ wing.

Around the corner the bottom half of a leg is lying amid the rubbish. An artificial one. A landmine victim or wounded fighter was in such a hurry to leave that he left his artificial limb behind.

Through the windows we can see walls pocked with bullet-holes. They date from the factional fighting of the early 90s, when the rival militias came into the prison to fight. The guard says that this happened many times.

Two rooms are clean and painted white and bright, like a surgery.

“This was where they tortured people,” the guard explains. The tortures including beating people with metal-wighted cable and emasculating them by crushing their testicles.

Many thousands of people were executed here, says the guard, and many died under torture.

Was this just under the Taliban, or under all régimes ?

“It was the Taliban … We don’t see anything like this in the world before.”

Leaving via Bagram

Thanks to the US-British bombings, it’s not possible to leave via Kabul airport.

The UN agencies run flights from Bagram on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re much in demand, despite the fact that insurance costs have put the price of a seat up to 2,000 dollars. God help the freelancers! Places are not available to Afghans, so Kamal and Assad have to drive back to Peshawar along the road on which we were robbed.

“Take the new road,” the ICRC officials told us. “The old one’s mined.”

There’s more dust, more desert along the route and walled homesteads without a sign of life. In the distance, there’s a larger town, whose mud buildings are difficult to distinguish from the countryside. The mountains brood at the side, dry and brown except for small patches of snow right at the top.

At one point the car veers off the road ahead of a bombed-out bridge going over a stream. We go down a twisted track to the side of the stream, where the shell of a tank lies half in the water as if it had been demobilised earlier this morning. The car goes under another broken-up bridge, across the stream and back onto the road.

There doesn’t seem to be much left of Bagram. An empty foxhole by the airport gate with an escape path leading back into what’s left of the village. We wait outside the locked airport gate and a  group of Western soldiers appears on the other side, a few metres away. They won’t answer when I ask who they are. A man from the BBC says that their Americans and that the Brits who were reportedly here have already left.

There are two small aircraft on the runway, waiting to take us out of Afghanistan. Our plane has to circle above the airport six times to gain the necessary height. It turns on its side and we see the wreckage of the airport itself, then the leathery sides of mountains lurch towards us, then away as we pull up and head for Islamabad.

For more on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009, click here.

Aceh 1999 – Indonesia’s dirty war against separatists in the Gateway to Mecca


Aceh was the first war zone I visited and I wrote this account at the time. Although the dirty war that had lasted a decade or so was winding down in 1999, villagers were still fleeing soldiers and guerrillas, rights groups were uncovering mass graves and it seemed unwiste to go out at night. Following the 2004 tsunami, the government and Gam reached a peace agreement that has meant a higher degree of autonomy for Aceh than for other provinces. That has meant enforcement of a stricter form of Islam than in the rest of Indonesia – no more flirting now, according to reports. Aceh is known as the “Gateway to Mecca”, both because it is the westernmost tip of the archipelago and thus a good starting point for the hajj and because of its long association with Islam. Ismail, the Gam representative, vanished a couple of years after we met him, apparently a casualty of the war. Lawyers involved in a case against Exxon Mobil recently contacted me about this piece, which I posted on a now defunct site some time ago. So it appears it may be cited in court one day.

With Gam members, and our interpreter, in a village they used as a base

A crescent moon and a single star shine in the sky above the mosque at Kandoeng. Evening prayers are finishing. We’ve just driven through a village whose wood, corrugated iron and bamboo shacks are empty, apart from just one home. The villagers are camped out at the mosque. They fled 12 days ago because the army arrived on their doorsteps and they feared that they would be killed. During the day, the men go and hide in the jungle to avoid being questioned by the army.

Their fears aren’t unfounded here in Lhockseumawe, a coastal town in the Indonesian province of Aceh, on the north-western tip of the huge island of Sumatra. Throughout 1999 tens of thousands of refugees will leave their homes, caught in a struglgle between the Indonesian army and a guerrilla group which has been fighting for an independent Aceh since 1976. The army has just ended a particularly intense decade-long counter-offensive, known as the Dom, in which thousands of people have disappered.

French journalist, Marie-Pierre Vérot and I have already visited two other refugee camps. We stumbled upon the first as we drove through Peureulok on the way from Medan, a major town which is down the coast from Aceh.

On 12 June they fled their homes in Alue Nireh, because the tyre of an army vehicle burst as it was passing the village. At least, that’s what they say happened. The soldiers believed they were being fired on by Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) guerrillas. They leapt to the ground and sprayed the village with bullets.

A moustached and denim-shirted man called Hosseini tells us that his young son, Jurmadil, ran into the house to avoid the shooting. But that didn’t save him.

Somebody brings us a pile of photographs. In one of them Hosseini is leaning over his son’s small body, lifting it slightly so that the camera can see a gaping red hole in the boy’s right shoulder. Another shows an even younger girl laid out on a bed. She too was killed, as were three adults, two of them women.

The refugees seem clean and well-fed. Children play happily around the mosque and cooking pots prepare a meal under an improvised tent. We walk through what appears to be the living quarters, where hammocks containing babies hang from the struts that hold up the cloth roof.

A young woman wearing an Islamic headscarf has welcomed us to the camp. She’s from the host village and is in charge of the Islamic solidarity that is feeding and housing the villagers of Alue Nireh. Later a man who speaks a little English arrives. He tells us that everyone here is for Aceh Merdeka, which is a phrase we’re going to hear a great deal over the next few days. We ask if the Free Aceh Movement guerrilla group, often known as Gam, is active in the area.

“You want to meet with Gam?”

We say yes and there’s an uneasy giggle.

When we stop for coffee in another village, we’re soon surrounded by villagers, as those who can speak a little English tell us that they hate the Indonesian army and want a separate state. The word “exodus” keeps leaping out of Acehnese sentences. It refers to the villagers who have fled their homes.

At the refugee camps, a commonly-agreed spokesperson is always summoned and he or she finishes almost all his answers with a call for “Aceh Merdeka”. It begins to seem too well-rehearsed. But at Utenkot Cunda a woman whom Marie-Pierre picks from the crowd does the same, even though she seemed unwilling to speak at first. There’s a rustle in the crowd, as Marie-Pierre gets out her camera, and suddenly a flag appears. It’s red and white with a crescent and star, the Islam-inspired flag of the Free Aceh Movement. The refugees press close to be photographed with the flag. In front of it stands an old woman whose face … high cheekbones, gold-brown skin, no teeth, a sudden silly grin … is framed by a delicately sown white shawl.

The province has the reputation of being Indonesia’s most strictly Islamic area. In neighbourung North Sumatra province, Guinness signs hang outside the many wood-shack coffee-shops. When you reach Aceh they disappear and alcohol is difficult to find except in hotels. Your progress is often slowed down by oil-drums in the middle of the road and young men and girls in headscarfs collect for the local mosque, a practise which takes place throughout Indonesia on Sunday but seems to take place on more than one day per week here. The usual Indonesian greetings are replaced by “Salaam Alekum”.

Every village has a banner calling for a referendum on independence, a call which has been launched by the separatists since Jakarta conceded that East Timor could vote on its future. The same slogan is painted in huge letters on the roads but less so by the population. When asked if they want a vote, most reply that they just want merdeka.

One name often crops up. It’s that of Hassan Di Tiro, the historic leader of the Aceh Merdeka movement who lives in exile in Sweden. Relatively obscure outside his homeland, he’s known throughout Aceh.

According to local journalists, his movement now has about 20,000 guerrillas under arms, mostly hiding inland in the jungle. When the army’s counter-insurgency campaign supposedly ended in August 1998, many leading rebels returned, apparetly mostly from Malaysia or Libya. Gam spokespeople won’t admit what states are backing them, apart from saying that they receive support from the Middle East, but they’re believed to receive arms and money from Tripoli and from sources in Afghanistan.

The separatists are credited with wanting an Islamic state. But the Acehnese seem more laid-back about their Islam than their reputation would suggest. Most women wear headscarves but they’re otherwise colourfully dressed. A great deal of flirting seems to go on wherever young people gather. Although we arrived at Kandoeng at prayer time, a fair number of people paid no attention to the muezzin and suffered no apparent censure from the faithful when they finished their worship.

There’s a pattern to our visits, whether to refugee camps or just to villages. We start asking questions. A small crowd gathers and swells to a large one. Someone who speaks a certain amount of English turns up. Then maybe another person arrives, who has a certain air of discreet authority, and sets about finding out who we are and why we’re asking questions. This person is usually pretty insistent on Aceh Merdeka.

Once arrived at the cavernous and almost empty Lido hotel at Lhoksemauwe, we call Gam’s spokesperson, Ismail.

He says he’ll meet us later. We have to drive to a village outside the town, stop at a road-junction and his men will meet us. By the way, what sort of car are we driving?

The afternoon sun is scorching when we reach the junction. Villagers sitting at a road-side stall and in scruffy workshops watch us pull up.

A man in a white shirt  asks: “Where are you going?”

Impressed by the elaborate security arrangements, I don’t answer him.

A minute later he comes up again and says: “I know where you going. Follow,” and jumps on a motorbike with another man.

We set off down a dusty road out of the village and through paddy-fields. Afer a while, another bike approaches and our original guides pull off the road. We follow the second biker to a hamlet, where, in the shade of a giant tree, a sort of monument stands, surrounded by a metal fence. It appears to be a tomb.

As a crowd of men gather around, Ismail arrives. With his glasses and whispy beard, he has an educated look and a boyishly charming manner. His English is very good, with a delicate, slightly sing-song, accent. His LAPD baseball cap seems inappropriate for an Islamic freedom-fighter. He also has a mobile phone, which rings as he leads us into the enclosure that surrounds the tombs.

When he finishes a conversation in Acehnese, he says: `So you know Mr Basri?’

We are mystified.

`Mr Basri at Peureulak.’ This is the village at which we met the refugees from Alue Nireh and it emerges that the helpful man who met us there is a Gam member and has phoned to pass on the information that we’re in the area.

That impressive organisational capacity again.

After the grubby town and the busy villages, the place where Ismail is to explain the pinciples of civil war is calm. Birds sing. The tree shades us from the equatorial heat.

The graves belong to Sultan Malikusaleh, the first man on the Indonesian archipelago to convert to Islam, and his son.

The Acehnese are proud of their history. As a maritime kingdom, they did deals with England’s Queen Elizabeth I, controlled the west’s gateway to the Moluccas Spice Islands, were converted to Islam by Arab traders and were the last of the so-called East Indies to hold out against Dutch colonialism.

Would an independent Aceh be an Islamic state? we ask.

“First we want Aceh to be free then we will ask the Acehnese,” is the reply. But Ismail seems to want his movement to follow the example of other independence movements in calling in the big powers to broker a deal with the enemy. The analogies with which he predicts Gam’s final victory are a mixture of traditional liberation-speak and anti-communist Islam.

“How strong the Americans are but they lose with the Vientamese guerrilla. And how strong the Soviet Union but they lose with the Afghanistan guerrilla. And how strong the Indonesian military, maybe they will lose with the Acehnese guerrilla.

Ismail’s at pains to distance himself from Islamic regimes which get such a bad press in the west and says that Acehnese Islam is relatively relaxed and tolerant: “We have to respect other religions in the world.”

An independent Aceh may be democratic, too, he adds, since democracy works well in countries like the United States.

“May be?” I ask.


On the road through the Sumatra jungle

There’s another player in the Acehnese conflict, whose presence is, at first sight, surprising.

On the outskirts of Lhokseumawe lies a vast compound, where lush green lawns are protected by long, high fences and well-guarded gates. Its staff have their own sleeping-quarters, their own restaurant and their own recreation facilities.

This is the Mobil Oil compound. Or more accurately, it belongs to PT Arun, a partnership between the American energy giant (35%) and Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, PT Pertamina (55%).

PT Arun has exploited the vast natural gas reserves in the area for the last three decades. These reserves make Aceh rich … but not the Acehnese.

Lhokseumawe people grumble that even PT Arun’s Indonesian employees aren’t recruited in the area. Naturally, Mobil plays to capitalist rules and takes its share of the profits home. PT Pertamina’s share helps swell the Jakarta bank accounts of a company that was ordered to crack down on nepotism and corruption as part of the International Monetary Fund’s deal for Indonesia.

Most controversially, during the 32 years of deposed President Suharto’s highly-centralised rule, only 17% of income from local taxes stayed in the provinces. That meant resource-rich regions like Aceh provided a vast subsidy to the Indonesian state, not to mention the Suharto family and cronies who plundered it.

After the trauma of East Timor’s independence, the two post-Suharto governments have desperately tried to keep Indonesia from falling apart. They’ve proposed autonomy for some provinces, especially Aceh, and say that they’ll allow them to keep more of the wealth that they generate.

Predictably, that’s not enough for Gam.

‘The reserves in Aceh belong to the Acehnese,’ says Ismail. ‘When we get independence, all our own reserves will go into our own pockets, not to the Javanese.’

He goes on to accuse Mobil of complicity in the murder and torture which the army has practised in the area.

“They give land to the military to condemn us. For example, they give land to the military and make detention camp there, Rancong military detention camp. So many people, thousands of people, have been killed by the military in that place. The Mobil Oil Company still cooperates with the Indonesian government. Last week they gave 10 cars to the Indonesian military to make oppression in Aceh.”

Technically the land and all that is on it belongs to PT Arun and not to Mobil. But such niceties don’t convince Ismail, who says that he’s ready to forgive the company but only if it packs up and leaves right away.

“If Mobil stop their operation now and leave this country, we will invite them when our country becomes independent. If they don’t stop now and still cooperate with the Indonesian government and if they have  brought the military to guard the company, we will make war and we will fight the Indonesian military. If they put the military to guard their company, if Mobil Oil employees are working there, we cannot avoid stray bullets and we aren’t responsible if someone dead or hurt.’

Would Gam attack Mobil installations?

“No, not exactly … I can say not now.”

The interview over, Ismail says that he’ll take us to another historic site and climbs into our car. As we pull out of the village, one of our escorts drives into the village with a chubby child of about three in his arms. “My son,” says Ismail and takes the kid into the car. “He was born in Malaysia.”

We drive past fields and shrimp-pools to an enclosure, looking out onto water.

Here is a larger graveyard, including a fair-sized tomb carved with Arabic lettering and fronted by an exquisitely decorated marble slab.

“This was the Sultan’s queen,” Ismail says. “The stone was imported from Turkey”

As children arrive from who-knows-where to stare at us, he points out other graves, including that of the alleged nine-foot man, marked out by stones at a considerable distance from each other. Unsurprisingly, the occupant played a military role in the sultan’s entourage.

“They tried to move it once,” says Ismail. “But it moved back …Yes, it’s true!”

Fauziah Ibrahim still weeps when she recounts how the army shot her son, Saddam Hussein, dead. He was among at least 41 civilians killed when troops fired on a demonstration near Lhokseumawe on 3 May 1999.

Fauziah’s account of her son’s death begins like an Arabic poem: “I still have pity on Saddam Hussein … He was born on a Monday and he died on a Monday … “

We sit on rattan mats in her wooden house, whose blue paint long ago faded and parts of whose walls are papered with old newspapers.

Eight-year-old Saddam sold cakes to add to the family’s income.That must have been reduced by the fact that his father had left his mother, although the man’s picture still hangs on the wall. Both Fauziah and Saddam, whose name apparently has nothing to do with the Iraqi president, were at the demonstration.

Neither of them seems to have known why they were. A mysterious “somebody” went round the area telling people to go and they did.

Soldiers fired on the crowd as they got to a crossroads known as Simpang KKA, after a company which owns the land there. The military say that the demonstrators were heading for a base where a missile is kept and that they intended to seize the weapon.

Fauziah wasn’t with her son when the shooting took place. She went home afterwards and someone arrived to tell her that Sadddam was in the hospital.

She starts keening again and wipes her eyes with her shawl.

When she arrived at the hospital, her son was already dead.

By this time a dozen or so people have joined us in watching Fauziah’s distress. It’s difficult to know what to say. My foot is getting cramps from sitting on the floor.

Yacob Hamzah is short and square, a box of dynamism. He walks with a crutch and one of his legs dangles above the ground.  He looks older than his 32 years.

Hamzah runs the Lhokseumawe Legal Aid Foundation from a small office in front of his home on a noisy street.

On the walls a photo of President Yusuf Habibie, for appearances, and a banner depicting former president Sukarno with former US president John Kennedy, for sentiment. Also photos of him receiving an award in the US from the executive director of the Human Rights Watch super-NGO, Sidney Jones, whom he regards as a friend.

Having worked with the widely respected Legal Aid Foundation in Jakarta, Hamza returned to Lhokseumawe to do the same kind of work here.

There was plenty to do. He has been among the first to make public the existence of mass graves in the area. He says that two that he has visited this morning contain up to 2 ,000 bodies.

Who’s responsible? He doesn’t hesitate to blame the Indonesian military, known as Abri.

“Violations in this area are done by Abri,” he says. “Abri kills people by shooting them in front of us, in front of our eyes. That’s one characteristic form of human rights violations in Aceh. Then the second is the illegal arrest of people without any legal papers. Once someone is arrested, he or she can vanish forever. They never return home.”

“There are many more examples, if you want a very long list,” he adds.

The graves he visited before seeing us are some distance from the town at Bukit Tengkorak and Bukit Sentang.

The people buried in them were arrested between 1990 and 1993, he says. The army arrested anyone suspected of involvement with Gam or campaigns against the Indonesian state.

“These people were interrogated and then transported to Bukit Tengkorak and Bukit Sentang. In these two bukits (hills) they were shot and buried in mass.”

He says that he’s had eyewitness reports of Mobil’s complicity.

“We heard that too and it was confirmed by eyewitnesses that Mobil Oil lent tractors and bulldozers to Abri for digging the mass-graves for the Acehnese.”

Hamzah says that he has evidence of 8,139 people killed by the military during the Dom security operation. Since the military declared the end of the operation in 1998, he says about 200 more have died; 60 in Idicut”‘killed and thrown into the Arakundo river”, 53 in the Dewantara sub-district, 12 in Manasablang … and so on.

There were more deaths before 1998, he concedes. “But now we can see with our own eyes that people are being killed. Can you imagine the people’s terror with the killing being done in front of their eyes, as it is practised now by military men? Before there were no people fleeing their own villages but now there are more and more refugees. They take the mosques as places of security and protection.”

Hamzah sees no solution unless the army is withdrawn from Aceh and he believes that soldiers of non-Acehnese origin can’t understand the area’s culture or its religious outlook. “Their presence on Acehnese soil will only bring the Acehnese genocide.”

Colonel Syafnil Armen – correct military bearing, haircut and uniform – is all smiles when he meets us. He took over command of the army here two days ago. The colonel says that he would like to see development here on three fronts: political, cultural and social. Social conditions are “relatively good”, he says, compared to the impression he had received from the Jakarta press.

He also believes that the security situation has improved and is not unduly worried by the ever-present graffiti demanding a referendum on whether Aceh should remain part of Indonesia.

He believes that Mobil’s activities are an asset, but, because he’s just arrived, he can’t comment on the charges of cooperation with atrocities. Nor does he know what happened six days ago in Alue Nireh. Nor can he give an opinion on the number of deaths over the last 10 years or the last few months, although he does seem to accept that all has not been as it should be.

As we turn to leave his office, we’re faced by a huge display cabinet. On it his predecessor, Colonel Johnni Wahab, has left a plaque … donated by Mobil Oil.

Mobil’s press officer, Bill Cummings, is heading for a helicopter when I call. He, too, has just arrived in Lhokseumawe and he’s having trouble with the side-effects of malaria tablets.  He has to put the phone down at one point in our conversation because of a short blackout.

Despite these difficulties, he manages to tell me that the company has no comment on what he calls “insinuations” about Mobil’s activity here.

In the building next to Colonel Syafnil’s office there are more refugees. But they’re not Acehnese. These are peasants who have been moved here from Java under the government’s “transmigrasi” project and they have thrown themselves on the army’s mercy because they believe that Free Aceh guerrillas want to burn their homes.

The Gam say that they are tools of the government’s plans to “contaminate the Acehnese, in other words to water down their identity. They also say that they’ve stolen Acehnese land.

“The Javanese must leave this country by free means, peacefully,” Ismail told us when we met him. But it seems that, like Mobil,  the transmigrants could suffer from stray bullets. “We don’t responsible if they are hurt or dead because of our fighting between Indonesian military and the national liberation front. So before that we have to inform them that better they leave this country for their safety.”

Assembled in a disused assembly hall under the watchful eye of five or six young soldiers, these people look poorer than the Acehnese refugees. Although they too are Muslims, the charity of the mosques is not for them.

They show us a letter which purports to be from somebody called Darwis Jeunies of the “Islamic State of Aceh Sumatra”.

It tells them they are pawns of former president Suharto and his notorious son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, who used to be head of the Kopassus special military force.

For all the apparent threats, they seem most resentful of the government in Jakarta … which has sent them to a land which doesn’t want them and which doesn’t want to be part of Indonesia.


Street-kids, poverty, pollution … Jakarta after the 1997 financial crisis


Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.

Jakarta, not in 1990. Public domain

A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.

Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere  and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city,  for consumption at a later date.

For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling  fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup,  meatball soup,  fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton,  durian,  papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.

The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.

A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.

Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.

Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings,  a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers,  turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.


A feeling of liberty – Jakarta votes after Suharto’s fall

Jakarta Photo: Open access/Ume momo

In 1999 I watched Indonesians in Jakarta’s red-light districts, Chinatown and other areas cast their ballot in a mood of elation – for many, at least – after the fall of Suharto, the corrupt repressive president who had staged an anti-communist coup in 1965. Here’s what I wrote at the time.

It’s 8.20 am on Monday 7 June 1999 and the first voter in Prawabungga steps forward.

Watched by a hundred or so other residents of this Jakarta shanty-town, he picks up ballot-papers with the names and symbols of 48 parties on them, goes into the booth to make his mark, comes out, holds the papers above his head with a flourish and places them in the urns.

Then, with a shaking hand  … thanks to the unaccustomed public attention, or is it just the close contact with officialdom? … he dips his finger into a bowl of ink, so that he is marked as having voted and can’t go round for a second shot.

For the next couple of weeks, about 100 million Indonesians will walk around with that brown-black stain on one of their fingers, a sign that they participated in the historic first election since the fall of President Suharto.

The elaborate voting procedure involves queueing until your name is called out and tackling ballot-papers as big as maps for parliamentary, provincial and district elections. It’s taking place at 320,000 polling stations throughout the vast archipelago of Indonesia, which has more than 7,000 inhabited islands and over 112 million registered voters. It’s difficult not to get carried away when quoting figures about Indonesia. They’re usually large: number of languages spoken (over 300), total population (about 203 million),  amount of money salted away by the former president’s family (US$ 73 billion, according to Time magazine).

Prawabungga’s residents probably don’t have much in the way of savings. They are street-stall-holders, pedicab-drivers or just plain unemployed.

Many of them are sex workers, and there’s evidence of the district’s raunchy night-life in the lurid film-posters that hang just above the polling-station, which appears to be in front of the local cinema.

Our party of three foreign journalists is guided by Indonesian journalists  Rin and Has. As we leave the area, I ask Rin if the prostitutes’ clients are Indonesians or tourists.

“They’re mostly lower class Indonesians,’’ she says, “lorry-drivers and the like.’’

We cross the main road and walk along the side of  a scrubby piece of waste-land in a fork in the roads. ‘That’s where they go to play,’’ she says, indicating inverted commas around ‘play’ with her fingers, Hillary-Clinton-style.

Next stop is another red-light district, although this one obviously aims for wealthier customers. Kramat Tunggak’s bars (Marco Polo, Valentinos, Adam Ayem) are closed. A few girls loiter with the cats behind the iron-work, which is painted lime-green, mauve and other catchy colours. Over 100 are dutifully queueing to vote. Others have got to the head of the queue and have the privelege of sitting under the canvas roof of the polling station, along with official observers and local dignitaries. The local dignitary in charge of the urns, decked out in flashy shirt, chunky ring, baggy trousers and pointed shoes, looks suspiciously like a pimp.

The play-hard architecture can’t disguise a pervading stink that rises from open sewers full of a thick black liquid which run alongside the dirt streets. The girls queue dutifully, most of them in tight jeans and colourful tops. There’s a scattering of older women and men. A name is called and an old woman in a shabby dress starts to shuffle across the floor, more or less in the direction of the polling booth. Her eyes are milky with cataracts. One of the observers helps her. An old man, with another of those chunky rings on his finger, waits for her outside the ropes that mark out the polling station. They shuffle off together down a grey lane.

A girl who has just voted tells us this is “Mega” territory and that during the campaign the whole area was covered in red, the colour of  the Democratic Party of Struggle, PDIP. Mega is PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founder and first president Sukarno, who has become an idol for millions, especially the urban poor.

Just as I’m beginning to fear that our guides suffer from brothel-fixation, an impression which is backed up by Has’s dubious jokes about coming back when the voting’s over, we’re off to another district. This one’s a strongly Muslim area, not far from Tanjung Priok where soldiers shot up to 200 people during a riot in 1984, turning it into a stronghold of the United Development Party, the PPP, which was the officially-created Muslim opposition party under Suharto. But now, a young observer tells us, this area too is Megawati territory.

And in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where voters wait in order in a well-swept schoolyard with a cock crowing somewhere nearby,  businessman Jun Han switches from bahasa Indonesia to English to tell us that the vote is free and then back to say that he has voted PDIP.

A mob destroys ethnic-Chinese property in Jakarta in 1998 Photo: Public domain/Arsonal

The Chinese have special reasons for voting for a party that is seen as secular and nationalist. Along the main road scores of buildings still have all their windows smashed, like empty eye-sockets which allow a view in on scrubby boards or  smoke-blackened walls. And one large space is almost flat, apart from the broke skeleton of a concrete structure. It’s the site of a commercial centre which has been razed to the ground.

Other shops nearby are untouched. Anxious owners have often painted ‘Muslim’ and ‘pribumi’ (literally son of the soil – a “native” Indonesian) on their shutters.

Glodok was the scene of anti-Chinese riots, shortly before Suharto fell. Riots that may not have been as spontaneous as they at first seemed. Suharto’s son-in-law. Prabowo Subianto, is widely believed to have sent members of his Kostrad units to guide the outraged pribumi citizens in their destruction. Prabowo has fled this and other controversies concerning him,  reportedly to represent his brother-in-law’s firm in the Middle East. He is based in Amman, where he can always pop in to visit his personal friend, King Abdallah of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

That’s just part of the Suharto legacy. A legacy that means that Golkar, the party that the former president founded after the army seized power in 1965, is despised in Jakarta and the big cities of Java. A legacy which is sweeping Megawati into the lead, mainly because she was one of the old régime’s best-known enemies.

I arrived in Jakarta on the Thursday before polling-day. It was a day of action in support of the PDIP, so it was a bad choice from a transport point of view. But a good one for atmosphere.

I knew something was up when I met that old reporter’s standby, the taxi-driver who drove me from the airport. This one wasn’t the garrulous know-all of caricature, perhaps that was just because his English wasn’t up to communicating with me.

But his vehicle was pretty communicative. A red pennant fluttered from the aerial. A red flag with buffalo was draped on the back. And during the journey the driver took a PDIP T-shirt and fixed it the window beside him.

As we entered Jakarta, I realised that our vehicle was not the only one that was flying the flag.

Thousands of other cars, pedicabs, vans and lorries sported the party’s colours. Convoys carrying shouting and singing youths clogged up the city’s streets. Mopeds sped by in a blur of red. As on the two previous days of action, the city’s traffic moved a crawl all day. Young party supporters took over traffic duty, as the police looked on.

At one point we  trailed a lorry bearing a huge model of a buffalo,  as hundreds of people chanted the name of their heroine … “Megawati, Megawati!”

There were perhaps a million people on the streets of Jakarta,  feeling that for the first for decades someone thought they mattered. There was passion; there was sincerity; and even if there were also illusions, it was still refreshing after the stage-managed blandness and generalised cynicism of a rich-world election campaign.

There was passion again when Golkar’s cavalcades hit the streets the following day. It shared its day of action with two other parties but their combined efforts came nowhere near the PDIP on the traffic-disruptionometer.

To add to the humiliation, residents of one poor area pelted a cavalcade with stones, attacked Golkar supporters, tore their banners from them and burnt them. Previous incidents of this kind had already made party leaders loath to appear on the city’s streets.

The woman they want to be president comes from a very different background to that of most of her supporters. She is the wealthy heir to the Sukarno dynasty, who has the charisma to reduce a crowd of thousands to silence … but is reported to be haughty with her collaborators. Megawati’s party is way out in front so far. But it will have to form a coalition, probably with two reform-minded Islam-based parties.

Indonesia’s people have reawakened to politics. The residents of Prawabunga feel that at last they have a chance to make their voice heard. But how will they vent their disappointment, if Megawati lets them down?

Maybe the official election commission is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a poll which must collect in results from sprawling cities, jungle villages and far-flung islands . Maybe it’s the unaccustomed outbreak of democracy which is proving too much. Under Suharto there were only three legal parties and one of them was wrecked by a government-engineered split, because Megawati became its leader.

But many Indonesians fear that the Golkar party, through which Suharto ruled for 32 repressive years, is up to its old tricks, bullying and bribing voters to back its ticket and stuffing or losing ballot-boxes where that doesn’t work.

Most foreign observers say that the election has been relatively free and fair, although there has been a successful boycott in Aceh, orth Sumatra, where there are calls for a referendum on independence.


Eyewitness: Indonesia 1999 – a chaotic return to democracy

Indonesia – big isn’t it?

Massive demonstrations had toppled toppled President Suharto – the man who had led the 1965 Western-backed anti-communist  military coup in which hundreds of thousands were butchered –  and activists were demanding the end of cronyism and corruption when Indonesians went to the polls in 1999.

I covered the election for RFI and stayed on for two months, touring Java and visiting Aceh, at the time the scene of a dirty war against separatist guerrillas. I was fascinated by a country was so unknown to me and forced to reexamine many of my attitudes to the world outside Europe.

Accounts of what I saw, written at the time, will follow, the first of my accounts of my visits to Asia and the Middle East as a reporter.


Spam and a can of worms

Some Spam (the healthy variety, apparently), Open access/Cypher789

One of my aims in starting this blog was to provoke debate on the questions I’m writing about.

So you can imagine my delight when the comments started rolling in … Some 85 have been posted at the time of writing!

Unfortunately, not one of them was in any way relevant to the content I had posted.

Of course, I’d love to believe that Jade meant it when he or she wrote, “That is really fascinating, You’re an excessively professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and sit up for seeking more of
your fantastic post. Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks.”

But the conclusion – “Here is my site … car dents (Jade)” – would seem to cast some doubt on his or her sincerity.

Similarly, I’d be flattered by the comments “Hello! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for your great info you’ve got right here on this post. I am returning to your site for more soon” from cache Dresses and “You could definitely see your expertise in the article you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe” from White And Black Dress were it not for the fact that they appear to be in the rag trade, leading me to believe that their comments were really intended for my fashionista almost-homonym  and somehow ended up appended to a piece of politico-economic pessimism.

But rest assured, White And Black Dress, I will “always follow [my] heart”, even if it’s brought me nothing but trouble so far.

I also had trouble seeing the pertinence of “Patches of red, scratchy skin, normally followed by small sores, which full of a clear fluid as well as eventually damage open,” from…x or “By the way, I still could not find out my type in between baritone and also bass (perhaps bass-baritone?” from to an article on the rich grinding the faces of the poor, although perhaps the former was related to aftercare.

How do these things get here? Have these people even looked at my blog or do they have algorithms that randomly scatter their comments across the blogosphere?

Perhaps, like some world-wide-web Dr Strangeloves, they fire off their comments from time to time … but not at the appropriate moment or in the appropriate direction.

All of which opens up a whole can of worms (or part of one, anyway).

What should I do with these comments?

Should I Spam | Restore or Delete Permanently? Should I publish the ones that say nice things and pretend I haven’t noticed that their authors obviously haven’t read what they’re praising (I did think of it, which I suppose is the point of the flattery)? Should I publish what my spam filter, on what appears to be a completely arbitrary basis, judges not to be spam?

On the one hand, a large number of comments looks impressive.

On the other, the fact that they bear no relation to what I’ve written undermines  the effect somewhat.

Actually, as an acquaintance said when a New York shop assistant ordered him to have a nice day, I’ve made other plans.

I’m writing about them.

So there you are, Jade, Cache Dresses and Black and White Dresses, you’ve had your links and I hope that the sale of dresses and car dent treatments go through the roof thanks to the vast public you’ve reached through my blog.

As for the rest of you, please write some comments on the actual content.

I’ve had some feedback on Facebook and to my actual, physical face but they don’t start a dialogue and that’s what I’d really like to happen.

So comment away … but be gentle!

PS I won’t be publishing any more links to spammers, so don’t get your hopes up.


Austerity – the new normal

José Guadelupe Posada: 20th century Calavera

Greece – is it really about debt?

In January 2015 Greek voters rejected the austerity policies imposed on them for their previous governments’ sin of accumulating billions of euros of debts. Democracy, whose defence is so often evoked as the reason for wars and restrictions of civil liberties, did not prove so dear to European leaders’ hearts when it resulted in the election of a left-wing government in the country of its birth.

The Syriza government has proved not quite as far left as some predicted, ready to negotiate, its ministers assuring their counterparts they don’t want to leave the euro, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis telling the world that he wants to save Europe from itself.

But Europe’s leaders, the “moderates” of mainstream-media labelling, have insisted it is austerity or nothing.

After Varoufakis visited the European Central Bank in February, the ECB responded to his conciliatory tone by effectively cutting off Greek banks’ access to short-term loans, doing all it could to bring speedy confrontation.

In March the European Commission opposed the government’s “humanitarian crisis bill”, telling it that helping the poor, the aged and the homeless would be “inconsistent with the commitments made”, as would its proposal to facilitate collection of the country’s massive tax arrears by allowing them to be paid in instalments.

Greek tax evasion is estimated to have been worth 20bn euros a year and has been going on for many decades, so pursuing it should provide a tidy sum for the government – France collected 1.8bn euros in 2014 and expects a further 2.2bn euros in 2015 after a number of tax evaders ‘fessed up, motivated both by the fear of exposure thanks to the Swissleaks revelations and a promise of clemency to those who came forward. It could have been far more since tax collectors complained that they did not have enough staff to deal with all the cases in reasonable time.

But collecting tax dodgers’ cash appears to be a low priority for the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

The creditors’ conditions “are political”, comments Roman Godin in La Tribune, “the acceptance of ‘reforms’ of the labour market and pensions, which are not urgent economically speaking but which politically ‘cancel out’ the essential points of Syriza’s programme and message”.

Who really believes that Greece can clear its debts if government income is slashed by austerity policies that have led to a 26% fall in production, 26% unemployment and a 33% fall in wages, it is obliged to take out more loans with interest rates attached and, on top of that, it is discouraged from chasing up tax income it is already entitled to?

Anyone would think that for the EU and IMF leaders balancing budgets was less important than destroying what’s left of the welfare state!

French-bashing – the hidden agenda

In France we hear an awful lot about the need to reduce the debt – in fact, it has dictated the Socialist government’s economic policy since its election.

Following the French media is like having a friend who is given to self-flagellating criticism but takes violent exception if you agree with them. On the one hand French commentators get prickly about “French-bashing” (yes, that’s a real Franglais word now), on the other editorialists, analysts, politicians and business leaders insist that the country is locked in a spiral of decline with the working and middle classes frolicking in the sun of unaffordable privilege while employers, big and small, are weighed down by the twin burdens of bureaucracy and taxation.  Adding its voice to the chorus of cutters, the European Commission has ordered the government to slash a budget deficit of 4.3 per cent of GDP in 2014 to 3.0 per cent in 2017, although France has gained no less than three extensions, unlike the poor Greeks.

The Socialist government has obeyed orders, drawing up plans to cut 50 billion euros from public spending over the next three years, on top of previous cuts and rises in VAT.

First among France’s autoflagellants is the main bosses’ organisation, the Medef. Of course, it is not really indulging in self-criticism as much as criticism of the state insofar as it is perceived to be indulging the lower orders. The Medef and its cothinkers latch onto what the French annoyingly call “Anglo-Saxon” critiques of the French economy, defending France from the French-basheurs with about as little enthusiasm as their forerunners defended la patrie at the end of the 1930s. But then patriotism, like taxes, is for the little people.

International comparisons don’t always bear out the image of the French being especially idle or particularly privileged, especially when one takes into account productivity, which in some sectors was actually boosted by bosses compensating for the 35-hour week by investing or changing working practices.

But the really puzzling question, for me at least, is how it is that France can’t afford to pay for improvements in social conditions conceded since the end of World War II when GDP, despite declining in the post-2008 crisis, has not just risen but soared in the past 100 years.

GDP per capita:


French total GDP in 1950 was 15.5bn euros. In 1990 it was 1 058.6bn and in 2013 it was 2 113.7bn.

Inflation has taken a chunk out of that, of course, but, if I’ve worked the online calculator correctly, 1950’s GDP was 284bn and 1990’s was 1,566bn in 2013 prices. So we are more productive and vastly wealthier than we were 50 years ago, especially if you bear in mind that wealth has not only been created but also accumulated over the years.

True, public spending has risen – from 40% of GDP in 1947 to 56% in 2011. But, although the current crisis has cut government income and increased expenditure by raising unemployment, this is not a result of the government throwing money at the disadvantaged, in fact, according to social campaigners le Collectif pour un audit citoyen de la dette publique (CAC), government spending  has actually fallen two points of GDP over the last 30 years.

Where does the deficit come from?

CAC finds three main causes:

  • Tax cuts – tax breaks, mainly for businesses and top income brackets, have cost the state 488bn euros, reducing its income by five points of GDP, over 30 years;
  • Interest payments – borrowing on financial markets, whose rates have fluctuated violently, has proved 589bn euros more expensive than borrowing from households or banks at a 2.0% interest rate;
  • Tax evasion – if wealthy tax dodgers with secret accounts in tax havens had paid their share the debt would have been 424bn euros lower in 2012, CAC estimates.

CAC cites author Gabriel Zucman’s estimate that tax evasion cost France 17bn euros in 2013. Since then SwissLeaks has shown that HSBC alone helped 3,000 customers hide more than 5.7bn euros in tax havens.

A symptom of France’s unbearable tax burden, perhaps?

Not really, in the tax avoidance stakes the country comes behind Switzerland, the UK, Venezuela and the US, none of whom have higher income tax levels than France – Bolivarist Venezuela actually having the lowest at 34%.

In the space of a few months a total of 180.6bn euros went through HSBC’s Geneva branch to be salted away in tax havens. The money came from all over the world with no apparent correlation between the top rate of income tax and rich people’s inclination to tell the truth to the taxman. The blunt truth is that no matter how much you cut tax, the rich – whether they’re arms traffickers, comedians, politicians, surgeons or heirs to family fortunes – will never be satisfied.

On top of which, they’re  good negotiators – it’s a lot of what bosses do for a living – so they’re unlikely to say “Thanks, guys, that’s enough!”

“As long as you’re winning, keep playing,” comments Luc Peillon in Libération newspaper, when reviewing yet another set of demands put forward by the Medef last year.

Having already won “a historic reduction in labour costs” of 40 billion euros during the life of François Hollande’s government, the bosses’ union drew up a new shopping list that included cutting two public holidays, more exemptions for businesses on taxes and social security contributions, creating a loophole in the minimum wage, extending Sunday working and that old chestnut ending the 35-hour week, all under the pretence that it wants to create jobs.

After examining the Medef’s claim that their proposals would create up to 600,000 jobs, Peillon found that the real figure would be about 30,000. Except it wouldn’t. That last proposal would probably destroy jobs by expanding overtime working rather than creating new employment.

This medicine doesn’t work … have some more!

Given that right-wing parties the world over continually advocate “reducing the tax burden” and supposedly left-wing parties habitually cave in to the demand, you’d think that bribing the bosses to invest has a proven track record of job creation.

Except it hasn’t, has it?

Despite all those billions of give-backs, France now has record unemployment and it has risen even as Hollande’s government signed deal after deal that swapped real tax cuts for hypothetical new jobs.

But in France, as in the rest of the world, the pressure for more tax cuts goes on.  The wealthy are cancelling their subscription to the state, while still calling on its services when they prove useful.

So where has the money gone?

Into investors’ pockets. Dividends have risen from 12-13% of French companies’ operating income in 1980 to 30% in 2013, according to state statistics unit Insee.


In 2013 the amount of dividends paid out soared by 200bn euros, a documentary by Edouard Perrin on France 2 TV showed.

And whoops! There goes investment (it’s the grey line at the bottom of the graph below profit margins and self-financing rates from 1984 onwards):


Sums paid in dividends in France were half those invested in 1980. They are 2.5 times more today.

And it’s not just in France. All over the rich world companies are stuffing their shareholders’ pockets as if there were no tomorrow.

“Global dividends soared 10.5% to $1.167 trillion in 2014, a new record,” the Henderson Global Dividend Index (HGDI) reports with considerable satisfaction. “Underlying dividend growth – which adjusts for currency movements, special dividends, the timing of big payments and index changes – was still robust at 8.8%.”

Commenting on the international trend, investment fund boss Larry Fink is shown in Perrin’s documentary, Cash Investigation, warning of a threat to companies’ long-term survival if they carry on as they are now.

Here’s how investments has fared in the US and the UK:


The pressure to pay out not only means cutting investment in plant but also in training, one of French industry’s real weaknesses. While right-wing economists compare France unfavourably to Germany on many economic fronts, they rarely mention one crucial difference – in 2012 Germany spent 90bn euros on research and development while France could only rustle up 51bn euros.

Maybe French employers should be getting tax breaks for research. Well, actually, they already are. It’s CIR,  the purple line in the graph, produced by the campaign Sciences en marche and it shows that they have pocketed nearly six billion euros this year. The blue line shows the number of jobs created in research. Yes, it’s actually falling as the payouts rise. What a scam!


And, as Cash Investigation shows with stories of employee suicides, boot-camp-style training programmes and factory closures, human capital is squeezed to boost the bottom line.

This search for immediate financial gratification is all part of the tendency to growing inequality, noted by Occupy campaigners, Russell Brand, Oxfam, Thomas Piketty (I’m on page 183 – apparently better than most ebook readers who don’t seem to have got much past page 26 – how far have you got?) … anyone with eyes to see, really.

According to Piketty, the trend in Europe and America is a reversal of a trend that lasted from 1770 to 1990.

The ideological justification for this, the self-serving greed-is-good rhetoric of the political right, has, as can be seen in the ex-troika’s dealings with Greece, become the dogma of the global elite, whether represented by the “Socialist” Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the Sarkozy-worshipper Christine Lagarde.

Today we see the same tendency to the reduction of public spending, stigmatisation of the poor and their increased impoverishment, rising inequality and a rise in the share taken by profit all over Europe and the US.

All this is accompanied by an ideological war on taxation – coopting the middle and working classes into the destruction of social solidarity – and social engineering – privatisation of social housing and the encouragement of home ownership, employee-shareholder schemes and other forms of non-salary pay, hierarchies in the workplace and career structures that pit workers against each other, all of which have the effect of undermining the concept of the collective.

But an ideology only becomes dominant if it suits those who call the world’s political tune.

The rich are reverting to type because they no longer fear revolution

The limited income redistribution that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries was no more an ideological decision than is its current reversal.

Nor were today’s “democratic values”, living standards and social welfare systems handed down by an enlightened elite, reared on a benign Western cultural tradition, as claimed by the political successors of the men who ordered the troops out at Peterloo, had union organisers murdered in the US, butchered the Paris communards and Lyon’s Canut insurrectionists and embarked on the “civilising mission” of colonialism.

Every social and political advance was bitterly resisted, usually with the same brutality that reappeared in the Thatcher government’s showdown with the British miners in 1984.

The modern social welfare state was the product of class struggle, its precursors created primarily by trade unions and other working-class organisations and adapted to capitalism’s needs when it proved necessary to take the edge of the class struggle.

But, according to Piketty’s graph, all this went into reverse in 1990. Why would that be?

To start with, and I know I’m not the first to say this, the labour movement in Europe and the US isn’t what it used to be.

I live in what used to be known as the ceinture rouge, the red belt around Paris, a bastion of the French Communist Party, whose political and trade union base was to be found in big factories like Renault Billancourt, now closed, its site now apparently destined to become an “isle of all the arts”. The factories are no more, the Communist Party has about 70,000 paid-up members, compared to 800,000 in 1946, and the unions, while still pretty shouty in that famous French way, are divided and weakened.

The British unions are similarly weakened and the Labour Party has had its class content surgically removed – no longer one half of a two-party system that reflected the struggle between capital and labour but a competitor in a political game show with an ever-expanding number of players.

Both in Europe and the US the unions have seen their power greatly diminished. The nature of employment in the most advanced economies has deprived them of the means to inflict serious financial damage on major employers with a few exceptions. The conditions that Marx said made the proletariat the gravediggers of capitalism – the collectivism that arose from the industrial process – have been substantially changed in these countries both by accident and design.

In the US today, according to Piketty, 18% of the workforce is employed in manufacturing and 80% in services, while in France the figures are 21% and 76%. Even if the big shift has been the decline in agricultural employment, manufacturing employment stood at 33% in both the US and France in 1950 and services at 50% and 35% respectively.

Of course, the working class has not been abolished. The “knowledge economy” is a fantasy dreamt up by people who apparently haven’t noticed that they are sitting in glass, concrete and steel offices, typing on computers manufactured from steel, plastic and rare earths. But the proletariat does to a large extent seem to have moved east and, even there, is more dispersed and more at the mercy of the movement of globalised capital than its predecessor of a century ago.

Here’s the trends on a world scale, according to MSS Research:


And more and more labour is going to be replaced by computerised technology, as John Lanchester indicates in The London Review of Books.  He cites an Oxford University study that estimates that 47% of US jobs are “potentially automatable” . So it’s bye-bye telemarketers, insurance underwriters, mathematical technicians, sewers (hand) and title examiners, abstractors and searchers. It will be mainly low-wage, low-skilled jobs that will go, the study finds.

“So the poor will be hurt, the middle will do slightly better than it has been doing, and the rich – surprise! – will be fine,” comments Lanchester.

Given that Le Monde newspaper recently used a computer programme to produce some of its coverage of departmental election results and that Lanchester himself reproduces an article written entirely by computer, I find his prognosis a trifle optimistic so far as my own trade is concerned and the list of skills that are likely to vanish indicates that the middle is likely to be increasingly squeezed worldwide.

Of course,  the replacement of human labour by machines, the squeezing of wages and the destruction of the welfare state will all vastly reduce markets and be against the long-term interests of capitalism as a system. But those markets were for the most part created by processes that the capitalists themselves resisted, both individually and collectively, and are being destroyed by the immediate concern for the bottom line that is the motor force of private enterprise.

Piketty attributes some of the 20th century’s redistribution of wealth to the effects of two world wars and the 1918 flu epidemic but I doubt if any of us are hoping for similar cataclysms to create labour shortages and disperse inherited wealth.

In my view the key constraint on capital’s unrestrained greed in the 20th century – the principal reason why the welfare state and the social-democratic compromise was conceded – is overlooked or understated by most commentators.

It was fear of revolution.

And, although its full implications are taking time to filter into the bourgeois brain, that fear is no more.

From 1918 to 1989 an alternative economic system to capitalism existed. It turned out not to lead to the liberation of humanity, to put it mildly, but, ironically, it did oblige capitalism to render itself more acceptable.  The US’s propagandists even enrolled abstract expressionism and avant-garde theatre in their efforts to portray the West as the home of freedom but, above all, some of the massive wealth that was being created was invested in providing the mass of the people in the rich, metropolitan democracies with higher living standards than their Russian, east European or Chinese counterparts.

Those days are over. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and China’s conversion to capitalism there’s no need to do that any more – hence austerity as dogma.

Although the 2008 crash brought an end to the post-1989 ideological euphoria, it has not stopped the austerity onslaught.

And why should it?

Consciously or unconsciously, the ruling elite does not feel that its hold on power is under threat, either ideologically or materially.

So maybe Marx’s theory of increasing misery – of all his predictions the one that seemed to be most definitively disproved by the reality of the 20th century – was not so daft after all.

I hope I’m wrong. If I am, please prove it.


The Raving Reporter


We’re all doomed and here’s why

Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (detail)

A man walks between the cars, caught in a traffic jam on the road to Karachi airport. The skin and some of the flesh has been torn away from the left-hand side of his face, leaving the eye almost totally exposed, thanks to who knows what accident? A fire at his home? An accident at work or in the street? In any case, now he’s no longer working, he’s begging. He does well. His misfortune is his fortune in a country with virtually no functioning social services, where compassion is a private affair and not a collective responsibility administered by a welfare state.
I was visiting Pakistan as a reporter. I could hardly bear to look at the man. Most of the motorists gave him money.
Life is more than usually cruel without a welfare state, regardless of the charitable instincts of individual citizens. But such is the natural order of class society. And I fear that, contrary to our expectations during most of the 20th century, those countries without a social safety net are not going to follow the example of those who have one but vice versa. I believe this will be the case for one principal reason – the ruling class is no longer afraid that it might lose power and will, by the logic of its own system, take back all the concessions made to the mass of the population over the last 100-150 years.


Having spent the first two decades of my adult life as a Trotskyist activist and the following two decades as a journalist – fortunate enough to catch glimpses of the Afghan and Iraq wars and travel, mainly in Asia – I find my hopes of progress towards a just world confounded , indeed I can see no reason to regard the future with anything other than pessimism.
Here are the three main reasons not to be cheerful that I see facing the world today:
1) The improvements in living conditions of the mass of the people achieved in the wealthy countries in the 19th and 20th centuries are going to be reversed and there will be a return to massive inequality;
2) The United States will at some point provoke a war with China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony;
3) Effective action against climate change will be prevented by vested interests who will be able to mobilise populist movements to that end, if needs be.
On this blog I intend to show why I think these are likely perspectives, although, if my researches turn up any mitigating factors, I promise to let you know. I will have other things to say, as well, and may publish some of the accounts I wrote up of my reporting trips, if anyone is interested.
If anyone out there is reading this and has arguments that can lighten the mood, I invite you to do so. The human ego being what it is, I may not admit that I’m wrong. But you may enlighten other readers and a dialogue would be nice, if not entirely consistent with dominant trends of behaviour on the worldwide web.
I’m aware that I have reached an age where it is rare to heartily endorse the way the world is going and some of this may strike the reader as grumpy-old-gittery with graphs. Do feel free to point out the glimmers of hope breaking through the clouds of austerity , self-interest and egotism.
So here goes.