Category Archives: Military

How far will Turkey’s post-coup purge go?

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Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?

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The road between the Turkish parliament and armed forces headquarters where civilians confronted soldiers during the coup atttempt Photo: Tony Cross

 

Ankara 27 July 2016

Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.

“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.

He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.

“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”

But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.

This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.

Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.

The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.

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Karuman Karaca of Egitim Sen Photo: Tony Cross

The union is no stranger to legal action, however.

Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.

The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.

Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.

“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.

Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.

He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.

Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?

It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.

The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.

To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here

Erdogan angered by purge criticisms

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Taxi driver Ahmet, who confronted troops and tool the wounded to hospital on 15 July Photto: Tony Cross

The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.

AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.

Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.

And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption,  prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.

His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.

Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.

But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.

The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.

Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.

Who defeated the coup and why?

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CHP vice-president Bülent Tezcan Photo: Tony Cross

“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.

Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.

So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.

Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.

Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.

As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.

“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”

The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.

“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.

For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

How far is the CHP prepared to go?

Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.

“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.

Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”

To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here

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Kazan distct mayor Lokm Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross

That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.

He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.

Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.

The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.

Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding”  in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.

“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”

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Turkey’s post-coup purge brings fear of media witch-hunt

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Turkey’s government has launched a purge of all institutions since the failed 15 July coup, including the media. But how do we know if it is pursuing genuine plotters or  witch-hunting government critics?

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Leman director Zafer Aknar with the offending issue of the paper Photo; Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 July 2016

The 15 July coup attempt came as a shock to everybody – including foreign journalists in Istanbul.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan, who’s lived in the US for some time. She promised her family she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan or any other war zone, so they went to Istanbul, only to find themselves in the middle of a coup.

Kiran Nazish is of Pakistani origin and has also lived in the US. Having reported from a few hairy places, she went to Istanbul to write in peace on the banks of the Bosphorus. Thar didn’t work out.

Forty-two journalists and 31 academics had a surprise of a different sort this morning when they found themselves on a prosecutors’ list of people to be detained in connection with the coup attempt.

The best-known appears to be Nazlı Ilıca, a 72-year-old reporter and former MP who lost her job in 2014.

I have no idea if she has anything to do with US-based Fehtullah Gülen, who the government says was behind the power grab, but the evidence against her, so far as internet trolls are concerned, seems to be that she reported corruption allegations against members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Those accusations arose during the earlier stages of the AKP’s feud with the Gülenists, now referred to by the AKP as the “2013 coup”, and led to a purge of prosecutors and police.

It also led to a crackdown on the media with papers having offending issues seized and some being taken over by the government, notably the Gülen-linked Zaman, whose English-language editor Abdülhamit Bilici was full of praise for Erdogan and the AKP when I interviewed him during the 2007 general election. How times change!

Media under attack since 2007

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Journalists’ union president Ugur Guc Photo: Tony Cross

In his office in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, journalists’ union president Ugur Güc is getting ready to defend any journalist who come to his organisation for help.

“Since 2007 many journalists have been arrested,” he says, although the union has lately had its hands full defending Kurdish journalists in the south-east, the scene of conflict between the military and Kurdish armed groups.

So the government’s record does not inspire confidence that the purge will be restricted to people truly implicated in the failed putsch.

“We will defend anybody who is a media worker,” he says. “We have many members who previously worked for Zaman newspaper and other newspapers and now are unemployed. For sure we will defend them!

“What they were doing was journalism. We are not interested in their connections.”

But he admits it won’t be easy to defend anyone who really supported the coup.

The problem is that the Gülen organisation really is a conspiracy, whose members keep their membership secret and aim to achieve positions of influence in the state and civil society.

The AKP knows this because it used its network to achieve power and fight the secularists, going along with prosecutions of alleged coup plots that are now being denounced as Gülenist set-ups.

Fear of a witch-hunt

The young man we meet in a café next to one of Istanbul’s many noisy major roads prefers not to give his name.

He is one of “six or seven” journalists who have resigned from Nokta magazine for fear of being caught up in a witch-hunt.

Nokta, which opposed the coup, has been fingered as a Gülenist publication and its chief editor, Cevheri Güven, is on the list of people to be picked up.

“Bringing journalists into line by forming such lists, not letting them sayl things we do not want is not a solution,” he says. “Because in a democratic regime everybody has the right of freedom of expression.

“We do not know what these lists are. They are taking some people, arresting them, then releasing some of them after a few days, and continuing to imprison some others. In my opinion this is not correct.”

Güven and a colleague were detained for two months last year because of a cover, showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffins of soldiers killed in the south-east.

Nokta has had to go 100 per cent digital because printing houses refuse to touch it.

Although Güven admitted sympathy for some of Gülen’s ideas, the journalist says he did not let it affect editorial policy and that the magazine took a different line to the Gülenists on questions such as Kurdish rights and democracy..

“I have not seen any connection to them. As far as editorial policy is concerned, our chief editor and coordinator said, we will try to make BBC-style journalism. I don’t think that a Gülen newspaper will try to do BBC-style journalism.”

Police seize satirical paper’s post-coup print run

“So you’re sort of Turkey’s Charlie Hebdo,” I say to Leman’s director Zafer Aknar as we sit down in the magazine’s cluttered office in central Istanbul.

And, indeed, there are photos of a visit by cartoonists and writers from the French satirical paper on the wall.

After the coup attempt Leman published a front page cartoon showing soldiers confronting anti-coup demonstrators, both groups pushed forward by huge hands, depicting the conflict as a “struggle for power between two groups”, as Aknar puts it.

“We prepared the magazine and sent it to printers,” he recalls. “Then we shared the front page on Facebook and Twitter as we have been doing every week. After this post, so-called journalists from the pro-government media launched a campaign against us and then Ak-trolls joined in. They shared the location of our office on internet and called people who were already on the street to go to the office.”

A mob gathered outside the office, although they missed the staff, who had already gone home.

When the police turned up they told the protesters to go home because they had everything in hand.

Which they did, in a way. In a scene that could have been satire itself, they went to the printers and seized the print run, even though they had not warrant to do so, then, when the warrant arrived, went into town to seize papers that had already been distributed.

That didn’t satisfy the trolls, who posted “thousands of messages” threatening the paper, “Didn’t you learn your lesson from Charlie Hebdo?” “Probably Isis was right,” “If you haven’t learnt your lesson, we will teach you,” “Sons of bitches, we will come, raid and burn,” ”‘Are you still alive?” were some examples.

Although none of Leman’s staff are on the present wanted list, Aknar, who is no stranger to the authorities’ attentions, drily comments “It’s not our turn … yet.”

To read my account of the media after the coup for RFI click here

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Two rallies and a purge – Istanbul after Turkey’s failed coup

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Patriotism was on show everywhere in Istanbul a week after the 15 July coup attempt, cars flying Turkish flags blasted out songs praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There were nightly rallies on Taksim Square, whose edifices were covered in huge banners declaring a victory for the nation. All parties had opposed the putsch … but there were fears that the ensuing purge could go further than supporters of Fehtullah Gülen, the US-based imam alleged to be behind the power grab.

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The sun sets behind the Atatürk statue on Istanbul’s Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 22 July 2016

“Erdogan, Erdogan …”

As the sun sets behind the Atatürk monument, Taksim Square fills with a crowd waving Turkish flags – street-sellers are doing a healthy trade – responding to an appeal by President Erdogan to occupy the centres of Turkey’s towns to prevent a repetition of last Friday’s coup attempt.

I’m just off the plane and haven’t met my fixer/interpreter yet, so have to find English-speakers, which rules out a large part of the crowd.

Those who do speak to me, apart from the Algerian woman who tells me in French she has come to see what’s going on, are Erdogan loyalists, proud that a popular mobilisation faced down the tanks and soldiers with deaths and injuries on both sides.

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Flag-sellers make the most of the patriotic mood Photo: Tony Cross

As a new hit song – chorus “Erdogan, Erdogan …” – blasts out, Mesut, an IT engineer, tells me “we are not supporting any party” but he has confidence in the government.

“Because we are living in 21 century, it shouldn’t be, this kind of thing,” he says. “We are supporting our democracy, that’s all.”

Turkey is a European country, he adds, “We are not Middle East any more.”

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Flagwaving in front of one of the big screens ahead of Erdogan’s speech Photo: Tony Cross

Neither he nor Songül, who has come back from Belgium where she lives and works, believe that Erdogan will abuse the powers he has assumed in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

“I think that the people now have the knowledge that Erdogan is for democracy, is not a dictator, which is said by many countries, she comments. “I think he is supporting democracy and the people love him. It is possible that he has more power now but he is not a dictator.”

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Young men pose for a photo during the rally Photo: Tony Cross

As the crowd swells, Erdogan appears on one of the giant screens that loom over the square, giving a speech, which is presumably broadcast to the crowds on the squares of towns across the country, to an audience that claps regularly, more regularly in fact than the crowd on the square.

The speech is long and is followed by music and more speeches that will last all night, as I find out when I return to my hotel, conveniently close to Taksim, inconveniently close to the noise.

I don’t imagine people staying on the luxury hotels that look onto the square, or residents of the streets that surround it, get any sleep at all.

To read my report of the rally for RFI in English click here

Saturday 23 July

Conscripts, cadets rounded up with coup-plotters

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The Istanbul Palace of Justice guarded by the police and army Photo: Tony Cross

There are few people on the vast esplanade in front of Istanbul’s maIn court house.

Barriers prevent access to most of it, behind them sit a couple of armoured cars, down the side of the intimidating structure, in the pompous pomo style, is a long line of buses commandeered to transport police to raids on barracks and military academies.

Amog the few people here – either in the cafés or leaning on the barriers in the blazing sun watching for signs of activity – are relatives of soldiers detained inside.

Most of them don’t want to speak, indeed one man denounces us as interfering foreigners who want to do down Turkey, but one man, who refuses to give his name, tells us that his son, a cadet, was one of 300-400 cadets detained at the air force academy four days after the coup.

Either he has a military family’s confidence in authority or he is anxious not to speak out of turn and jeopardise his son’s chances of being freed, as 1,200 soldiers were in Ankara this morning.

“The state will decide,” he says when asked what will happen to the boy. “The state will interrogate people and the guilty ones will be punished. That is it. But my son is not guilty. Because, he was a student and he was at the school and he was taken together with some 300-400 other students. They took him just to have his testimony.”

Other people we meet have limited sympathy for the detainees.

A couple who run a small restaurant say they were on the streets to oppose the coup.

“You are talking about the conscripts,” says Savas. “They are detained because they have to be interrogated. We saw what happened, they are doing this for the sake of the public. They wll be released after two or three days.”

“No-one will be able to divide this country,” his wife butts in. “We will fight together under this flag.”

“They planned to create panic and turn Turkey into Syria or Egypt,” is furniture-maker Turgay Dogany’s view of the coup-makers. Some innocent people have probably been detained, he admits, quoting a Turkish proverb that indicates a phlegmatic approach to potential injustice.

“For sure! Wet leaves may be burned with dry ones. You cannot choose. It is not all the military, just some gangs in it. It doesn’t mean that all 50,000 people are guilty.”

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Relatives of soldiers watch the court house for signs of activity Photo: Tony Cross

Many of the 7,423 soldiers detained are conscripts or even cadets of 14-16-years-old, according to Senaly Karatas, who we meet in the poky but centrally situated offices of the Human Rights Organisation in Istanbul.

The organisation is more used to handling the cases of victims of the military’s offensive in the Kurdish-majority south-east, where 100 soldiers are reported to have been detained.

Many families are scared to ask for help, she says. “We have written applications and 30 verbal applications.”

“Military service is obligatory in Turkey and it is not possible for a conscript to disobey orders,” Karatas points out, describing the young soldiers’ fate as “most tragic part of this situation”.

Many families have no news of their sons and don’t know how to find out where they are or how they are being treated.

“One family saw the photo of their son in the newspaper Posta, where it was clear that he had been subject to violence and was being detained,” she explains. “They went to his unit, they said he was arrested, but the family could not find him at places where he could be detained. In the end we found that he was in Silivri prison.”

He has been charged with involvement in the coup.

The family of one high-ranking officer did not dare file a complaint but told the human rights group that they were frequently insulted and obstructed as they trailed round police stations and courts searching for him.

“The declaration of the state of emergency greatly increases our concern,” Karatas says, citing official figures that show 10,410 people detained, 7,423 of them soldiers, 2,014 of them judges and prosecutors, 44,530 civil servants and other public-sector employees and have been suspended from their jobs, and 241 civilians and 24 coup-makers were killed during the coup.

The first measures of the state of emergency, announce today, were the closure of 15 universities and 600 other educational institutions and the extension of the limit of detention without charge from four to 30 days.

To read my report on Cadets and conscripts caught up in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown click here

“Terrorists in uniform”

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The mosque where prayers were said for Senol Sagman in Besiktas Photo: Tony Cross

Late in the afternoon friends of Senol Sagman gather at a mosque in Besiktas district to pray for him.

Two large wreaths of yellow flowers stand by the small cemetery next to the mosque, men perform their ablutions at the fountain in the centre of the mosque’s courtyard.

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Wreaths outside the mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Sagman’s friend Mustafa Gülenc, who ran a catering business with him, describes how his friend died.

“We went out into the streets, the soldiers were in front of us, we were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Allahu Akbar’, Gülenc recalls. We told the soldiers ‘Don’t fire on us. A Muslim cannot kill a Muslim!’ They said ‘Don’t say Allahu Akbar!’ First they shot in the air, then they shot at us. I lay down and when I got up I saw that my friend was dead.”

The soldiers were “terrorists in uniform”, he says.

To read my report for RFI on the mosque honouring Senol Sagman click here

Sunday 24 July 2016

“After this they will take us”

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CHP supporters march down Istiklal Caddesi Photo: Tony Cross

Taksim is packed again on Sunday. Coachloads from the provinces arrive, streaming down Istiklal Caddesi in the sweltering afternoon heat, one group in file carrying an enormous banner they will unfold when they arrive at the square.

This rally has been called by the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which like all other parties represented in parliament opposed the coup.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called for the national unity in defence of democracy to continue and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has responded by declaring its support for the demonstration.

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Women arrive at the CHP rally Photo: Tony Cross

There are no “Erdogan, Erdogan” songs this time, however. The last post for the victims of the coup attempt is head in perfect silence, then part of the crowd joins in with the national anthem.

There are many portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is the secular camp’s idol and apparently as few AKP supporters as there were CHP supporters on Friday.

Searching for English-speakers, I find a group of Afghans, Hazaras horrified by the Islamic Sate attack on a protest in Kabul that has killed 80 people and injured 230.

Abdurazzak, a Libyan, pays a heartfelt tribute to “the new face of democracy”.

“We are supporting Turkish people who face this army who want to take authority by force because in Libya we are still suffering from this,” he says. “We are still fighting to get our democracy.”

As for the Turks, none of those I speak to have been on the night-time rallies called for by Erdogan during the week.

Many are worried that Erdogan will profit from the boost in his support and the emergency powers granted to the state to clamp down on the secular camp.

“He is more powerful,” comments Hussein, a . “You know the extraordinary situation in Turkey now. They are taking everybody from this corporate [Gülen’s organisation]. But we know that after this they will take us.”

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The crowd listens to the national anthem at the start of the CHP rally Photo; Tony Cross

Turkey has the secularists to thank for its democracy, he argues. “We supported and established democracy in Turkey, not the other people.”

Hayri, a middle-aged man, says he has come to show that he is opposed to the coup but also because he fears Erdogan will take advantage of the situation to make “antidemocratic rules”.

The big powers should learn not to “play with the card of Islam, which they did in Syria”, he argues.

“Everything that is going on from Munich [scene of a recent shooting spree by a teenager] to here is because of this dirty game and Turkey is also partly responsible, with Saudi and Qatar.

“I also believe the European Union should think about Turkey in a very serious way,” he adds. “Because this is a very important moment for the future for the democracy of Turkey.”

The secularists feel threatened, political analyst Behül Özkan told me earlier in the afternoon.

AKP supporters drove through their neighbourhoods chanting Islamic slogans after the defeat of the coup. “The exact word is, the secular people feel trapped.“

To read my report Turkey’s secular opposition rallies for national unity click here

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Who was behind Turkey’s military coup?

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An attempt by part of the Turkish military to stage yet another coup has failed – ignominiously, judging by reports of fighting between troops and police, masses of civilians stopping tanks and seizing bridges, pustschists rounded up and officers asking for asylum in Greece. But who dunnit?

The Turkish military has staged several coups in the past, all of them more successful than this.

Past coups have been motivated by anticommunism, opposition to peace with the Kurds and, above all, the military’s vision of itself as the defender of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Who could have plotted this attempt to seize power?

  • Fethullah Gülen: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the exiled leader of a movement that has pursued a strategy of accepting secular democracy while infiltrating state institutions that suited Erdogan fine when he was on his way to power but turned into a rival network once he was had won a couple of elections. The AKP leader has been in a power struggle with the Gülenists since a split over their plans to expand their schools network and it has got really nasty – exposures and allegations of corruption by Erdogan allies and relatives, leading to purges of the police, the magistrature and the media, with plenty of non-Gülenists being persecuted as well. So this comes under the heading of “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Whether they were involved or not, Erdogan would have profited from the occasion to clamp down further on the movement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t. They might have wished to preempt further purges and repression of their network. Gülen’s movement in the US has denied it, however. One has to ask whether, after several years of attrition, the Gülenists had enough support in the military to put substantion numbers of tanks and troops on the streets.
  • The Kemalists: It wouldn’t be the first time, although we were beginning to believe it was the last, that the military has stepped in to stop a trend towards Islamism. Officers raised on loyalty to a secular state have plenty to worry them in Erdogan’s Turkey. The old AKP, which argued that its relationship to Islam was the same as the German CDU’s relationship to Christianity, is no more and the desire to Islamise Turkish society has advanced in tandem with the president’s growing megalomania. The putshcists’ statement apparently used Kemalist phraseology, although it also promised freedom of citizens, regardless of religion, race or language, an apparent reference to the rights of the Kurds and other minorities that is not classical Kemalism. But they seem to have neglected to warn the secularist parties, the CHP and MHP, both of which condemned the coup with their MPs going to parliament to defend it. In the past the “social-democratic” CHP has proved more committed to secularism than democracy, although it is in the process of revising its position, and the MHP is an authoritarian right-wing party that has openly collaborated with the military. It’s unclear how high up the ranks the conspirators were and whether they planned a classic military dictatorship along the previous bloodstained lines, although it’s probably what they would have ended up with, like it or not.
  • Erdogan himself: This being the Middle East, there has to be a conspiracy theory and, sure enough, social media are full of claims that the whole thing is a put-up job to strengthen the president’s power. If we follow the logic of cui bono, it has to be admitted that is where we end up. Millions have turned out to support the elected government, an increasingly dictatorial leader can now pose as a defender of the people’s will, there can be a further purge of the army, the rest of the state apparatus and, if needs be, the media and civil society. But it would have been a hell of a gamble wouldn’t it? Turkey’s internal divisions and instability have once again been advertised to the world. The government will reap short-term benefits but the long-term effects may be less favourable. Plus, are there really military officers so devoted to their duty that they are ready to risk execution by implicating themselves in a pseudo-coup to benefit the president?

My guess is that the coup was the work of a combination of Gülenists and Kemalists. But it’s a guess, made in France with limited information. So you might like to draw your own conclusions.

All the political parties, including the secular nationalists, left-wing Kurd-based HDP, opposed the coup. Sadly, they are unlikely to receive much thanks. With IS active in Turkey, as well as Iraq and Syria, the war in the Kurdish region in full swing and continuing attacks on freedom of speech and other basic rights, the future looks grim for Turkey.

Read my reports from the second Turkish election in 2015 for RFI here

There’s more on this blog Turkey, to start click here

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Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza – a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict

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With charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel flying in Britain and France, I’m publishing an account I wrote up going to cover Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza. It marked a new stage in the bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, a bitterness that infects the world’s politics, as we see today. I was in Israel and the West Bank because Israel prevented entry to Gaza, although colleagues managed to get in via Egypt just as I left the region. I found fear and distrust on both sides, a deeply divided Palestinian leadership and a demoralised and isolated Israeli left.

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War as a spectator sport – Israelis and journalists watch Gaza from a hill near Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

12 January 2009

On a small hill just outside the Israeli town of Sderot, the world’s press, and a few curious local people, are looking at Gaza. With the international news media banned from entering Gaza, photographers’ huge telephoto lenses point south, towards Israeli tanks, whose barrels point further south again. TV reporters record to camera with the territory in the distance and an Israeli information-gathering balloon floating above.

It’s the beginning of the third week of Israel’s offensive against the territory and, compared to the early days, the old hands say things are calm. Nevertheless, a tank lets off a shell, there’s some gunfire and a larger explosion lets off a large cloud of smoke which rises lazily towards the clear blue sky.

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A shell falls on Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

A convoy of land-cruisers flying Israeli flags pulls into the dirt car park behind the hill. All the drivers are women.

Ariela Geneger is one of them. She explains that they have been collecting for the troops and have put together packages of thermal underwear, gloves, socks and “some goodies” for 1,000 soldiers.

Geneger says that this is a gesture of support for the offensive but the women’s concern seems more maternal than geostrategic.

“Those are our children they’re fighting,” she says.

Her son is a pilot, she explains, and the son of the group’s organiser is in Gaza.

“It’s not this separate thing, army and civilians; it’s part of this … this country’s all bound together.”

The group has also collected supplies for the bomb shelters in Sderot, which has been one of the principal targets of rockets fired from Gaza. “These people live under attack, so it can’t go on like this,” Geneger says.

But she also expresses sympathy for the people of Gaza.

“A lot of sympathy. My heart breaks for them; it’s just awful. And I don’t know, I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t know if it can be stopped now or if it needs to go on in order for people to talk. Because eventually people have to talk, so why do we have to go through all this?”

Maybe fighting first and talking after is the way of the world, she says, but, as a professional psychologist, she knows that “everybody should talk”. And that includes the Israeli government talking to Hamas, although the politicians argue that the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza cannot be an interlocutor because it does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Will the offensive bring peace?

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I hope it will make it better. I really don’t know. I think too many people assume that they know too much but I’m afraid that we don’t know enough.”

Also on this blog War, what is it good for?

A kibbutz on the edge … and the missing Arabs

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Marlene Markovitch Photo: Tony Cross

There’s another anxious mother at Zikim, a kibbutz which lies just 400 metres from the Gaza border.

“Mothers in Israel can’t really think rationally,” says kibbutz secretary Ilil Burde. “I don’t think any mother can think rationally when it comes to this question. So don’t ask me.”

Two of her four sons may be called up to fight, so Burde, aware of her status as a representative of the kibbutz, is reluctant to express an opinion on the offensive.

“When you reach this point, I don’t think any mother in the world is a rational person. You get only emotion. At least, that’s the way I am,” she says.

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“If all the mothers around the world would be the leaders of the world, there wouldn’t be any war and we’d all be happy. So, if you want to see any declarations, let all the mothers of the world be the leaders of this world and we’ll stop all the wars.”

Meanwhile, she blames Hamas for the latest fighting and the civilian deaths in Gaza, which are now in the hundreds.

“In war there’s casualties,” she says. “And Hamas uses civilians as human shields.”

Burde, who sees herself as a left-winger, also blames Hamas for undermining the peace camp in Israel. Most of the kibbutz members supported the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, she says, but now they feel betrayed by the breakdown of the truce.

“We’re very, very deeply disappointed because we feel instead of going forwards things are just going backwards,” she says. “What happens here, with all the rockets that we suffer for years and years, we the more left-wing in Israel can’t convince the more right-wing in Israel that we have to go on with the peace process because we get the answer, ‘See what happens, we draw out of the occupied territories in Gaza and they shoot rockets on us.’ ”

The kibbutz is doing its bit for the nation by playing host to a group of soldiers, some of whom are playing basket ball on a tarmacked surface near Burde’s office.

Standing by a paddock where two white horses graze, Zikim resident Marlène Markovitvh points to a field between her home and the barbed-wire topped fence which surrounds the kibbutz.

“That was all on fire,” she says. On the terrace of her white-painted bungalow stands an improvised flower-pot – trailing plants grow out of exploded ordnance.

Rocket attacks reached the level of 50-70 per day before Hamas’s six-month truce with Israel, she says. The number was reduced during the Egyptian-brokered six-month truce but the attacks increased again when it ended.

No kibbutz members were killed, although some children were injured and a direct hit on the dairy killed six cows. Zikim is one of the biggest milk producers in Israel and has two small factories, which have also been hit.

The offensive drastically reduced the number of attacks but brought new disruption to the kibbutzniks’ lives. The sound of the military’s drones and helicopters frightened the children so much that they had to be evacuated.

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The kibbutz’s school Photo: Tony Cross

“They know that they are from Israel but it’s frightening when you hear them at night, the few last days it was horrible,” says Markovitch. “The few last days, we couldn’t sleep, we were scared. Everbody was scared.”

Markovitch speaks with a certain pride of her good relations with Gaza residents who worked on the kibbutz before the Israeli blockade of the territory.

“These were made by a friend from Gaza,” she says, inviting us to sit on metal chairs at her dining table.

She and her husband have phoned some of their Gazan acquaintances during the offensive but believe that they are not keen to talk for fear that Hamas will find out that they are in contact with Israelis.

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The abandoned Arab house on the kibbutz Photo: Tony Cross

Markovitch takes us up a gentle slope, past the neat bungalows and the school with its roof reinforced in case it’s hit by a rocket, to a half-ruined house looking onto the kibbutz on one side and onto Gaza on the other. It belonged to an Arab family who fled in 1948, after the state of Israel was founded.

“They were scared, they were very scared by the Israelis and they didn’t want to stay here. But, anyway, I think they didn’t have a choice, too. The Israelis didn’t give them any choice.”

The family came to visit not long ago, says Markovitch.

“We invited them and they ate here and it was very nice. They are angry because we are getting their place but it’s the eternal problem between Palestinian and Israeli – who owns what?

“But they have the right to be here, too,” she concludes with a laugh, which has perhaps a hint of embarrassment.

To read and hear my report from Zikim for RFI click here

West Bank Palestinians collect for Gaza, criticise Abbas

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Rezeq Barghouti, RFI colleague Eduardo Febbro, interpreter Steve Nasi Photo: Tony Cross

14 January 2009

In Ramallah the collections are for Gaza and the declarations of solidarity are with the 1,000-plus people killed there, the several thousand wounded or homeless.

Collecting aid has replaced dance and poetry as the principal activity of the Baladna Cultural Centre. Cardboard boxes are piled up the walls, bags of clothes and babies’nappies lie on the ground.

Rezeq Barghouti, who works for the Palestinian Authority’s farming section, explains that people have given everything from agricultural produce to blood.

“Here’s olive oil from the farmers in the West Bank,” he says. “And here we have blankets, you see, because they suffer from cold now in Gaza.”

An appeal to give blood got a big response, says Barghouti, “because you know that we cannot go to Gaza now. We cannot stand with our people there, so what can we do?”

Barghouti wants to see unity of the Palestinian leadership, after more than two years of often violent clashes between President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.

But he is critical of Abbas’s response to the offensive, as are, it seems, the big majority of people on the West Bank, which, until now, has been Fatah’s base of support. At the start of the offensive Abbas declared that Hamas was at least partly to blame because it had broken off the truce with Israel and resumed rocket attacks.

Most Palestinians point out that Israel’s killing of seven Gazans on 5 November last year was already a breach of the ceasefire and agree with Hamas that the blockade of the territory is another form of hostile act.

“All the Palestinians in Gaza suffer the same enemy and they suffer the same killing … Israel doesn’t distinguish between this and this,” says Barghouti. He is particularly critical of Egypt for closing the Rafah crossing and preventing Gazans from escaping the offensive and of Abbas for failing to criticise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite being a Palestinian Authority employee, Iman Nafeh, who is organising another collection in Ramallah’s main square, is even more outspoken in her criticism of Abbas.

“He is all the time saying he wants peace and he’s supporting the peace,” she says. “And he is even shaking hands with the people that killed the Palestinians and … they are not giving him anything.”

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Iman Nafeh with helpers Photo: Tony Cross

Nafeh, who is tightly wrapped in hijab and a long coat over a long dress, insinuates that informants are likely to report her words to people in power, even the president himself.

“I know he will hear me,” she says, adding that all Palestinians are under observation.

“I am sorry because he’s not going to be elected if we have another person who is stronger than him … People here, they are angry about what Mr Abbas is doing.”

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Palestinian activists thank Hugo Chavez for breaking off relations with Israel over the offensive Photo: Tony Cross

Outside a modern building on a windy street a kilometre or so outside Ramallah’s town centre stands a small but noisy crowd, mainly women, waving the Palestinian flag and shouting slogans in Arabic and English.

They are a delegation of Palestinian political parties, who have come to present a letter of thanks to the Venezuelan consulate, which is inside the building, because the Bolivarian republic broke off diplomatic ties with Israel over the offensive.

According to our interpreter, Steve, the move has made Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more popular than Abbas, with TV presenters asking why Arab countries, who are supposed to be the Palestinians’ allies, have not made such vigorous protests and why the Palestinians don’t have such resolute leaders.

Khitam Fahim, an activist in a women’s organisation linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, sees the Venezuelan leader as a comrade in the struggle.

“So, we are here to say Viva Venezuela! Viva Hugo Chavez! Viva every freedom fighter in this world!” she exclaims. Foreign politicians should stop calling Palestinians “terrorists, she says, “We are freedom fighters and we are struggling for our freedom and we are with the whole freedom fighters in the world.”

Fahim, too, wants Palestinian unity: “The Palestinian leaders should go to emergency negotiations, emergency unified leadership for their people.”

They should stop quarrelling and they should stop listening to the US, she says.

For all Fahim’s criticisms of the US, many Palestinians hope that an event in Washington will bring an end to the offensive.  They think that Israel may want to finish its operations before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president next week.

To read and hear my reports on RFI click here

Divided Palestinians bicker as Gaza burns

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Abdullah al-Frangi Photo: Tony Cross

15 January 2009

Abdallah Al-Frangi is a Fatah veteran and a member of the movement’s Central Committee. But, when he meets us in a capacious office in Ramallah, he doesn’t rush to defend Mahmoud Abbas.

Asked about popular criticism of the president, Al-Frangi sighs and shrugs. Nobody believed that the attack would be so intense when it started, he says, by way of a partial excuse.

But he believes that the Israelis were preparing the offensive for longer than eight months, a claim based on information which Abbas presumably also has access to.

“So I don’t believe that the Israelis came to Gaza because of the missiles of Hamas,” Al-Frangi says. “From time to time they want to show the world, and the Arab people, that they are strong and that nobody can touch them and nobody can fight against them and I think they used Hamas in this case.”

Al-Frangi’s family is from Gaza and he seems deeply moved by the effects of the offensive.

“It is too hard! It is too hard for me, it is too hard for everybody who is a human being,” he says. Basing himself on frequent calls to Gaza, he says that people are living without water or electricity and that many have been wounded or killed, mostly civilians.

“Surely I am suffering with them,” he adds.

Above all, Al-Frangi wishes to see en end to the split between Fatah and Hamas, which “is helping the Israelis more than this attack”.

Abbas’s priority is a ceasefire, according to Al-Frangi. He also wants to reopen Gaza borders and rebuild Palestinian unity.

But “it is not easy.” For the last two years the two sides have not spoken. Hamas is perhaps justified in its suspicions of Abbas, who dismissed an elected Hamas-led government two years ago, after Israel, followed by the US and the European Union, refused to deal with the movement.

For his part, Al-Frangi is suspicious of Hamas, which seized power in Gaza and drove out leading Fatah members after the dismissal.

He used to negotiate with the group and says that the Islamists are unreliable negotiators, prone to demanding radical revisions of already agreed points just when a deal seems close.

Al-Frangi is blessed, or cursed, with a name which means foreigner. His father insisted that it came from an ancestor who was the first to wear European clothes rather than from the family’s origins, but Hamas exploited it when he returned to Gaza from exile with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis.

Hamas members told him to “go back abroad” or even “return to your foreign religion”, he recalls.

Even now he is not optimistic.

“I have the feeling the Hamas people are not ready to make a step towards Fatah to make a common policy together.”

As we meet Dr Mustapha Barghouti in another spacious Ramallah office, the television shows footage of the Gaza press centre just after it has been hit by Israeli bombs.

Barghouti, who was information minister in a short-lived unity government, accuses the world’s news media of bringing this on the journalists reporting from Gaza, who are almost all Arabs because of Israel’s ban on reporters entering during the offensive.

“I think this is a result of the silence of the world media about the Israeli violation of every basic principle of free journalism and press,” he says.
There was “no serious protest” against the Israeli ban, he feels.

“This is the third time that they bombard journalists. Already three journalists were killed and now several others injured. They have now upscaled their attack to include not only Abu Dhabi channel and Al Arabiya channel but even Reuters offices and that’s because of the international community and the complicity of the international media, worldwide.”

“The time has come to stop treating Israel as if it is above international law,” Barghouti says.

The press ban is because Israel “is trying to hide the truth”, he says. “They’re trying to hide the fact that this is not a war on an army, it’s a criminal war against civilian population with a totally disproportionate power between the two sides and with the use of prohibited equipment and prohibited weapons.”

Barghouti considers it proven that Israel is using white phosphorous in Gaza. The Israeli army denies using the chemical and ICRC chief Jakob Kelleberger told a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday that he had seen no evidence of its use on a visit to the territory’s main hospital.

But several newspapers and a report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch agree with Barghouti. Human Rights Watch points out that its use in densely populated areas violates international legal requirements to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. Gaza has 75,000 people per square kilometre, compared to 25,000 per square kilometre in Manhattan, according to Kellenberger, who took care to declare that such a dense population means that “the choice of weapons is important”.

Barghouti, who is a medical doctor, claims that other, unknown chemicals are being put inside munitions, saying that they “seem to burn the whole tissue to the bone”.

“The only thing that is not burnt by these chemicals is the bone …. Doctors called me and said that when we find somebody with an internal injury we open it and we cannot do anything because this is not a bleeding we can stop. It’s a burn that goes on and on and on till the patient dies.”

Barghouti was once general secretary of the Palestinain People’s Party, the former Communist Party, but left the post and the party in 2002 to establish the Palestinian National Initiative, along with US-based academic Edward Said. He stood as an independent in the 2005 presidential election, coming second but winning only 156,000 votes to Abbas’s 501,000.

Like Al-Frangi, Barghouti calls for unity, although he is less indulgent towards President Abbas. Blaming Hamas rocket attacks for provoking the Israeli offensive was “a very big mistake”, he says. “And he’s paying for it.

“His credibility is very low today. It’s the lowest ever and I don’t know if he will regain any credibility after what he has done.”

Admitting that the divisions in the Palestinian camp are “very damaging”, Barghouti insists that there is also “very serious internal transformation”. Abbas’s Fatah, along with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is likely to be “the biggest loser from this war”.

The lack of internal democracy means that “most of the Palestinian forces that are struggling for Palestinian rights are outside the PLO now and most forces inside the PLO have become a bureaucracy, feeding on the Palestinian Authority”.

Forces that are “not Hamas and not Fatah” are “working very hard to find a way to go back to national unity and that’s what we need”, he insists, citing the government in which he served as proof that unity is possible.

Even though he is one of the most outspoken secular Palestinian politicians, Barghouti seems to believe that the immediate answer to his people’s problems is in foreign hands. The European Union should stop buying arms from Israel, he says, and “what will stop aggression is a serious change of the behaviour of the international community, which looks like either careless or complicit with Israeli aggression”.

Gaza day of anger in Ramallah

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Women on the day of anger demonstration Photo: Tony Cross

16 January 2009

Friday morning in Ramallah, the streets are unusually empty. Uniformed police gather on the central Manara Square, while groups of men loiter around its edges.

This is the third Friday since Hamas called on Palestinians to demonstrate their solidarity with Gaza after Friday prayers.

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Youths wait for the Gaza day of anger protest to start Photo: Tony Cross

Among those waiting is Faisal, a thin, dark, shabbily dressed man, with sunken cheeks and an intense stare. He is a member of Fatah and spent 12 years in Israeli jails. His faith in his leaders has been shaken and his patience with the peace process with Israel has run out.

“There is no other solution,” he says. “The only solution is resistance. First it was Jenin [the refugee camp where over 50 Palestinians were killed in 2002], now it is Gaza, maybe tomorrow it will be Ramallah, so the only solution is resistance.”

Faisal thinks that the Palestinian National Authority should be disbanded and armed struggle resumed. Like Hamas, he argues that Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate has run out since he was elected for four years in 2005. Abbas claims he should stay on until 2010 because the Palestinian Legislative Council has since decreed that presidential and legislative elections should be held together.

We discuss where it would be best to stand and which roads can serve as escape routes if teargas is fired. On the previous two “days of anger” the Palestinian Authority’s police have dispersed Hamas supporters in a manner unlikely to foster Palestinian unity.

As the call to prayer rings out a crowd fills the Jamal Abdel Nasser mosque, spilling out onto the street in front of a market which stops business as the imam begins his sermon.

Thousands have been killed in Gaza, he says. UN resolutions against Israel have not been implemented, while resolutions against Muslims are, so what’s the use of the international body?

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Prayers before the Gaza day of anger demonstration in Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

The preacher is as contemptuous of the leaders of Muslim countries as he is of the UN.

The unbeliever has declared war on Gaza and the leaders of Islamic nations watch and do nothing except count the killed and wounded, he says. Unbelievers attack believers all over the world.

In the mosque, in a passage down the side reserved for women and in the street, hundreds of the faithful join the prayer. Then the demonstration starts.

Or rather demonstrations, because, although this has been billed as a demonstration for Palestinian unity, the crowd splits in two – hundreds of Hamas supporters gathering on one street at the front of the mosque, while hundreds of others head down another street behind it, both marches heading for Manara Square.

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Hamas supporters brandish the Koran Photo: Tony Cross

Loudspeakers crackle slogans and orders, one of which is from Hamas leaders telling their supporters not to wave banners so as to avoid trouble. Some small groups of women wave the green flag nonetheless, but are quickly instructed to put them away and obey.

The Hamas contingent is segregated according to gender. The women, in hijab and long dresses and coats, brandish the Koran and shout shrill slogans, calling on the movement’s armed wing, the Brigades of Ezzedine al-Qassam, to fire Kassam rockets as far as Tel Aviv.

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The march heads for the centre of Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

Wahid Mansour seems a little out of place among the Islamists. Clean-shaven and in western dress, he says he is “just seeing what they’re doing” on his way home from the mosque. Unlike the Hamas women shouting right behind him, he is extremely supportive of Abbas.

“Mahmoud Abbas is the president of all Palestinians,” he says. “He is elected from Palestinians and he is one who express our Palestinian will.”

On the square the two protests come together without dispute. One young demonstrator, Rami, believes that Palestinians should “unite under one legitimate leader” but won’t commit himself on the question of whether Abbas is the man for the job.

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Mustapha Barghouti and supporters on the day of anger Photo: Tony Cross

As the different currents of the demonstration eddy around the lion monument in the centre of the square, Mustafa Barghouti and his supporters make a nosiy entrance, shouting slogans in support of Hugo Chavez. As the Hamas women pass them, they scream “Haniyeh! Haniyeh!” in support of the Hamas chief in Gaza who was deposed by Abbas as prime minister. In another corner, Fatah supporters shout their own slogans.

Unity doesn’t seem to be a done deal.

To read and hear my reports of the day of anger in Ramallah click here

Israelis on edge in Sderot and Ashkelon

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Israeli flags greet visitors to Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

17-18 January 2009

On Saturday in Jerusalem Hassidic Jews in their black hats and coats make reproachful signs at our taxi driver for driving on the Sabbath, on the hill outside Sderot secular residents spend their day off staring at the occasional explosion on the Palestinian horizon, late in the evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares a ceasefire and announces: “We won”.

Overnight the alarm sounds in Ashkelon, where we have found a hotel. On Sunday morning there are reports of six rockets being fired from Gaza. At the government press centre in Sderot, officials say that two landed near the town. When we ask to see them, we’re told that they fell in fields outside the town and there isn’t much to see.

“It’s another proof that Israel made the decision unilaterally that we would like to halt fire, unfortunately Hamas is responding, firing rockets into Israel again and again,” says Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Leo Vinovesky.

Israeli officials hold Hamas responsible for all attacks. If it’s pointed out that they could be the work of other groups, they reply that Hamas controls Gaza and should therefore control them. How it can do this after a three-week bombing campaign aimed at destroying their political and administrative apparatus is unclear.

So how long can the truce last?

“The fact is that Israeli forces are still there in the Gaza Strip, ready for any scenario,” says Vinovesky.

“We have the right to protect ourselves,” he adds “You witness here in Sderot – it’s not a life to rush into the shelters every five minutes, every 10 minutes. Imagine that happening to this population in the south of Israel for more than eight years, so enough is enough!”

The whole of Sderot is draped in Israeli flags and banners. Billboards depicting a heart pierced by a missile welcome you to the town. In the centre men sit around gossiping under a tree, as they would in any town around the Mediterranean.

Shopkeeper Sasson Sara hasn’t much confidence in the ceasefire. He gives it “maybe one month, that’s all” and says that the rockets won’t stop until the Israeli army has wiped out all of Hamas.

Two women passing through town also put all the blame on Hamas. One of them, Nama, is on her way home from a centre which helps people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of rocket fire.

“I think they should have stopped the fighting,” she says but adds that Hamas must stop firing rockets and shooting “their own people”.

“I don’t like the war,” she sighs.

The sirens sound as I arrive in Ashkelon in a taxi whose hitherto-lethargic driver is spurred into action. I don’t realise what is happening and he yells at me in Hebrew, jumps out of the car and leads me into a bank where a crowd of customers and passers-by is shepherded into a shelter. People talk calmly, there’s even a certain camaraderie. We hear no explosion.

Hamas announces a one-week ceasefire, calling on Israel to withdraw and open the border crossings. Its leaders, too, claim victory.

Israeli peace camp isolated and split

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Supporters of the offensive argue with peace campaigners in Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

In Jerusalem on Sunday evening Israeli leader Ehud Olmert receives European Union leaders, who have been in Egypt negotiating a truce, at a dinner in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

On the other side of a busy crossroads, a small group of protesters chants “War is not a game!” and “Peace yes! War no!”.

In the past their movement, Peace Now, has mobilised thousands to call for negotiations with the Palestinians and peace with Israel’s neighbours. Today, with a large majority of Israelis apparently supporting the offensive, they are less than 20.

“Maybe sometimes you have to use violence to defend your country,’ says one of the protesters, Devora. “But when you have to use violence, you have to make it pointed … you have to use the minimum violence to the maximum effect and I feel like we used the maximum violence to the minimum effect.”

Like so many Israeli women, Devora has sons in the army.

“I’m a mother and I would like the ceasefire to hold that people won’t be killed on both sides of the line but I’m not very hopeful.”

Three girls, armed with banners and the Israeli flag, stage a counter-demonstration, accusing the peace campaigners of supporting “terrorists”, who kill Israeli women and children.

“We want all the Palestinians – no, not all the Palestinians, Hamas – will die!” says one of them, Amara, struggling with her English but not her feelings. The two sides launch into an impassioned argument before the girls cross to the other side of the road to wave the flag and shout at the peaceniks.

Some Peace Now and left-wing leaders initially supported the Gaza offensive, believing it to be a justified response to Palestinian rocket attacks. But by the second week they had organised a demonstration of 1,000 to call for a rapid end to the attack.

“It’s very hard,’ says Peace Now member Yonatan, who admits that he feels isolated from most Israelis at the moment.

“Once you say you’re against the offensive … they take it as agreeing with Israel being bombed and I don’t think Peace Now agrees with Israel being bombed and it doesn’t agree with Israel bombing.”

In the chilly Jerusalem night, the protesters keep up their chants to an audience of police and passing cars. Several drivers sound their horns in disapproval as they speed past.

Israel denies using white phosphorous

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Lt-Col David faces the press on a hill overlooking Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

19-20 January 2009

Today the hilltop outside Sderot is serving as the venue for an Israeli army press conference. As a drone whines overhead, an officer presented to us as Lt-Col David tells journalists how his soldiers felt as he led them in combat in Gaza.

“The last eight years, when civilians here, just behind you, were targeted by Hamas terrorists daily with these rockets destroying homes and schools and creating a lot of disruption to civilian live, this is what we were trying to stop and I think, I know, that when my soldiers were in there this is what was in the back of their mind all the time.”

But official minders move in when he is asked whether Israel has used white phosphorous.

Military spokesperson Olivier Rafovitch, who speaks to the media in battle dress with a rifle slung over his shoulder, denies the charge and claims that Hamas used the chemical in one rocket attack on a village near Gaza.

According to the Israeli official line, the offensive is the fault of Hamas, the white phosphorous is the fault of Hamas and, says Rafovitch, the civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas.

“I believe that the ones who have to be blamed for the civilian losses of life are Hamas,” he says. “Hamas was using the people of Gaza as a human shield. It’s not a secret, it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, a report by Amnesty International says that its investigators “found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings” in Gaza.

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Israeli troops near the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

Yael Stein, Research Director at the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, finds the official denials incredible.

“Of course it came from the Israeli army,” she says. “There was one day they said Hamas threw one rocket to Israel and that was with a little bit of white phosphorus. They had such a report, but it can only come from the Israeli army.”

The question has not made the front page of the Israeli press, whose coverage of the offensive has drawn criticism from some NGOs.

One of them, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) wrote an open letter to the media to tell them that they weren’t exactly speaking the truth to power.

“What’s being portrayed right now is this ultrapatriotic rhetoric, where criticism is really shunned,” Acri’s Melanie Takefman told us last week. “We’re saying that this is a crisis but, look, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have freedom of expression and that there can’t be meaningful debate.”

You’re never far from the army in Israel and the office of Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel (Keshev) is just one floor above a suite guarded by soldiers and clearly closed to the public.

The close military presence doesn’t seem to inhibit Keshev’s Yizhak Be’er, who monitors press coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world and doesn’t like what he finds.

Sifting through a pile of copies of best-selling daily, Yediot Aharanot, he contrasts the prominence given to rocket attacks on Israel with no victims, while reports of the hundreds of Gazan civilians killed receive little attention.

Be’er accuses the press of buying into an official discourse which portrays all Israel’s conflicts as battles in a war to defend western civilisation.

“There is a confrontation that is depicted as war of the west against the terror, global terror, and against fundamentalistic groups of Islam,” he says.

Recalling the dictum “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting at you”, he points out that Israeli consciousness is formed by Jewish history and the present hostility of the country’s neighbours. But he thinks that the media-managers have made many mistakes in their handling of this offensive.

“First of all, the closure of the borders to foreign journalists, it is a stupid decision,” he says. “The foreign media have only one source now, the Arab cameras. Al Jazeera and Al Watan who give one side of the story.”

While officials have expressed satisfaction in the work of the newly-established National Information Directorate, Be’er believes that foreign reporters know when they are being treated like idiots and are alienated by officially-organised visits to hospitals with Palestinian patients admitted before the offensive which are meant to show Israeli generosity.

Ban – and Hamas ordnance – face the cameras in Sderot

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Israeli police show off rockets fired by Hamas at Sderot and its surroundings Photo: Tony Cross

 

Sderot’s press centre is closed for “reasons of security”, as Ban Ki-Moon heads for the town. The UN Secretary-General’s press conference is to be held in the town’s police station, allowing the cameras to film him against a background of showcases packed with used ordnance collected after Palestinian rocket attacks.

As we wait for Ban to arrive, corpulent police officers fuss around with flags, trying to hang them from twisted shells and other officials tell us that no questions will be taken after Ban’s statement.

Earlier in the day Ban was in Gaza, where he called for punishment for those responsible for the bombing of UN-run buildings in which a number of civilians died.

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Ban Ki-Moon with Sderot’s mayor Photo: Tony Cross

Here he meets Sderot’s police chief, who shows him what an exploded shell looks like, and its mayor, who accompanies him to the mikes.

Ban declares the rocket attacks “unacceptable” and expresses sympathy for the “trauma” experienced by local people.

But he also calls on Israel to open the border crossings, with “transparent, clear and effective border management” to stop weapons being taken into Gaza. And he says that there must be political action “or there will be an increased radicalism among Palestinians”.

Like almost everybody nowadays, it seems, Ban wants Palestinian unity. But, although he does take two questions which allow him to say a little more of what he wants to say, he doesn’t answer when asked if that unity would include Hamas.

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Alley, Jerusalem Old City Photo: Tony Cross

To read and hear my reports of the 2009 Gaza offensive click here

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Between Islamists and the military – two voices of the Pakistani left

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Left-wing activists face state harassment and threats from Islamists. When I met two of them during the 2008 election that put an end to President Pervez Musharraf’s rule, they pointed to creeping Islamisation of both the military and civilian life and seemed isolated as previous anti-Musharraf allies dropped calls for a boycott.

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Activists, including Pervez Hoodboy, protest at police brutality in Islamabad during the 2008 election Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 17.02.2008

As Shahbaz Sharif addressed several thousand people in Sheikhapura yesterday, an umbrella group set up by his party held a smaller rally in Lahore – to call for a boycott of the election.

The All Parties Democratic Movement, APDM, was never an entirely accurate name. The PML-N formed it along with the religious alliance, the MMA, and some secular parties when their previous alliance with the People’s Party broke down.

During the political turbulence that followed the firing of the Chief Justice and the declaration of the state of emergency, the APDM declared that the election couldn’t possibly be fair and launched the boycott call.

But PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif never seemed 100% committed to the idea, especially when the PPP refused to commit itself thus threatening to take most of the PML-N’s seats in a newly-elected parliament.

When the PML-N finally threw itself into the election campaign, its offspring turned Oedipal and expelled it, along with the Jamaat-Ulema-Islami, one of the two largest parties in the MMA, which also stood candidates. A revision of the group’s name seems in order, as the country’s three biggest parties devote all their energies to the election campaign. Among the relatively few parties left in the APDM, the best known are Qazi Hussein Ahmed’s Jamaat-e-Islami and former cricket star Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf.

Still, an alliance of left-wing parties came to comfort them in their solitude and this shell of an alliance managed to muster a couple of thousand at the Pakistan monument in Lahore.

Farooq Tariq Photo: Tony Cross

Farooq Tariq is the leader of the Labour Party Pakistan, a small group which is part of the People’s Democratic Movement, the AJT, a newly-founded coalition of former (?) Stalinists and Trotskyists who seem to be happily coexisting, for the moment at least.

Sitting in his garden in a quiet suburb of Lahore, he seems to be having second thoughts about participation in the APDM. Yesterday’s rally was smaller than expected, he says, and most of the movement’s activities have been dominated by the Jamaat-e-Islami activists. But he claims that there have been successful meetings in Baloochistan, where’s there’s a powerful, armed independence movement, and the APDM has been the only organiSation that has managed to hold meetings in all areas of the country.

There will be a successful boycott in Baloochistan, he thinks, and a low turnout elsewhere, except, perhaps, in Punjab.

“There is no enthusiasm in the election. It’s the most colourless election in my political life of 30 years. No mass meetings; no street meetings; only the media campaign, most like in the developed countries where the media is the main part and that has come to Pakistan in this election.”

There was no choice but to boycott, says Tariq, because the election was intended “to legitimiSe President Musharraf’s rule” and without an independent judiciary or election commission there will be no check on fraud and manipulation.

The left is already thinking of quitting the APDM, although he describes its platform as liberal and progressive and claims that the alliance is dominated by progressive nationalists.

“We can’t work with the fundamentalists, that’s very clear.”

His party has clashed with the Islamists on many occasions and he has received death-threats by SMS. One claimed to be from Osama ben Laden’s son, Hamza, and told him that “If Benazir Bhutto can be killed, the leftists must pay attention;” Musharraf’s régime hasn’t been too kind to him, either, arresting him 12 times and obliging to go into hiding for 18 days during the state of emergency.

Tariq expects the PPP to form the next government and PML-N to do well in Punjab. But “it doesn’t make much difference, only really the faces change.”

He says that representative of the three major parties all attended a seminar in Washington before the election, he says, and assured the US government and the International Monetary Fund that there would be no change in economic policy.

The PPP will be sharing power with Musharraf, “which is contrary to the consciousness of the voters who will go to the polls tomorrow” but was “Plan A of the Americans”, bringing Benazir Bhutto’s party together with the president to fight the fundamentalists.

Tariq and other left-wingers were invited to visit Bhutto shortly before her assassination. She asked for their advice but doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to it. Tariq notes that Benazir opposed the restoration of the judiciary.

To read my interview for RFI with a left-wing activist who infiltrated a jihadi training camp click here

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Pervez Hoodboy Photo: Tony Cross

Also on the secular left is Pervez Hoodboy, whom I met in his office at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad a week ago.

Hoodboy is a nuclear physicist who has opposed Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme, worked for normalisation of relations with India and taken up causes such as the campaign for the reinstatement of the sacked judges.

He believes that the election leaves Pakistanis with few choices and that it is unlikely to be free and fair.

“There’s a very strong opinion that these elections should not be held at all. On the other hand, there’s a very strong opinion that, unless these are held, the country will simply break apart and all hell will let loose.”

Hoodboy believes that the opportunities for rigging are limited because Musharraf and his allies are “deeply unpopular” but also that a coalition government would be divided, thus leaving great power in the president’s hands.

But it’s in his own field of expertise that Hoodboy is at his most gloomy. He doesn’t believe government assurances that the military’s professionalism and security safeguards keep the country’s nuclear weapons in safe hands.

“My concern is that technology ultimately is operated by human beings and soldiers over here in particular and the fact is that within the army there are a growing number of people who disagree seriously, severely, with the position the government has taken in fighting the Islamic militants.”

He believes that many soldiers are more sympathetic to the Islamic militants than to the people fighting them, so the “insider threat” is growing.

“Look at the fact that we’ve had numerous suicide-bombings done by insiders, guided by other insiders, and one cannot really be confident that these nuclear weapons can be kept out of the hands of the extremists.”

Earlier this month, he says, a convoy of ammunition and equipment were hijacked, just two days after the president claimed that it was impossible to steal even one rifle from the armed forces.

To the argument that Islamism has spread among lower ranks but not among higher offices, Hoodboy replies: “The lower matters more than the top because it’s the lower ones who have to do the fighting. We’ve seen hundreds of soldiers surrender without firing a shot in Waziristan, in the tribal areas.”

According to Hoodboy, the jihadists, who have been used as an instrument of foreign policy for a quarter century, have now infected the whole of the country’s culture.

Most female students at his university now feel obliged to cover their hair, he says, while photos on his computer show that this was not the case 20 years. About a million students now attend the country’s madrassas and even state education has been Islamised. As an example he produces pictures used to teach the Urdu alphabet. Knives and guns illustrate one letter, while kites and musical instruments are part of the image chosen for “an obscure Urdu word which not even I knew” – the plural form of the word “sin”.

To read about my visit to a madrassa run by Taliban supporters click here

To read and listen to more of my reports for RFI on Pakistan’s 2008 elections  click here

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At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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Liberated areas, military repression and Kurdish politics in Diyarbakir before Turkey’s 2015 election

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Diyarbakir is the largest city in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey. The region has seen the PKK’s guerrilla war and successive governments’ harshly repressive responses. I first visited the city during the 2007 presidential election and talked to political and rights activists who still had vivid memories of the dirty war, as well as the era when the Kurdish language and culture suffered severe discrimination. I returned in 2014, when a peace process was under way and the city seemed to be becoming a better place to live. Some of the improvements have lasted but this year the city has seen military repression of liberated zones and shootouts between police and the Islamic State armed group.

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Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir, a former caravanserai that now houses restaurants and coffee shops Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir, 28 October 2015

My work in Diyarbakir gets off to a slow start. I get up at 4.30am to catch the flight from Istanbul, only to find that it has been put back an hour and the airline hadn’t bothered to tell me. My SMS to my fixer, Tayfun, fails to go through, so he has been waiting for an hour when I arrive … not a good start

We land at Diyarbakir’s spanking new airport, which isn’t actually quite ready yet. No problems on the runway but when we go to hire a car they can’t give me a receipt because there is no electricity to run their printer.

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The café in Diyarbakir’s market area where I met Abdullah Demirbas and Kevin Miller Photo: Tony Cross

Once we start work we wait for ages in a charming courtyard café for Tayfun’s contact in the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to turn up. He is supposed to introduce me to the former mayor of this part of Diyarbakir, the historic centre, and that means even more waiting.

The café is playing distinctly unturkish music, accordions feature in some tracks, meaning that if I record an interview here listeners are liable to suspect I conducted it in Paris and am only pretending to be in south-east Turkey.

After chatting for a while it finally occurs that our contact would actually make quite a good interviewee.

He is a Kurdish-American who has a Turkish name but prefers to be known as Kevin Miller. He has served in the US military and is to stand for Congress, the first Kurd to do so, but has come to Turkey for the election and its aftermath.

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Kevin Miller with collaborators at the former Armenian house he is restoring Photo: Tony Cross

Kevin takes us to see a former Armenian house in the old city that he is restoring in order to establish a research institute. Concrete has been chipped off Diyarbakir’s dark basalt and lighter stone with Armenian inscriptions and traditional wood interiors are being constructed, although recent rainfall has done some damage.

Then we take a walk through Sur, Diyarbakir’s old city.

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A street in Sur where Kurdish youths dug trenches and erected barricades Photo: Tony Cross

A streak of rubble scars a narrow street that joins another one that is similarly disfigured.

This is where young Kurds dug trenches and erected barricades to keep police and other representatives of the Turkish state out of a two-kilometre-square “liberated area”, arming themselves with what weapons they could lay their hands on.

A Kurdish assembly was organised and sat in a historic building nearby.

Graffitied on the walls are the initials “PKK” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrilla movement that has been fighting first for a Kurdish state and later for autonomy since 1978 but also “YDG-H”, for the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, which a PKK leader recently admitted has escaped PKK control.

The YDG-H seems to have taken seriously a change in the line of the PKK and its Syrian allies, the YKD, that has meant renouncing Maoist-influenced centralism and encouraging bottom-up “administrative autonomy” in defiance of the state, establishing self-administer areas as the Syrian Kurds have done in the region, known to the Kurds as Rojava, that they have liberated from the Islamic State armed group and Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Turkish government responded forcefully.

Ten days ago it sent 4,500 special forces into Sur, deploying snipers and heavy weapons in the narrow streets and declaring a 24-hour curfew.

In five days of fighting 15 people are reported to have been killed and one wounded and dozens arrested.

The building where the assembly met is now a charred ruin, despite its Unesco-protected status.

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The former seat of the Kurdish autonomous area’s assembly after the military offensive Photo: Tony Cross

To read my account of my visit to Sur for RFI click here.

The government has used similar tactics, including the use of snipers who are alleged to have targeted civilians to enforce curfews, in the towns of Cizre, where 22 were killed, 21 of them civilians, and Silvan, parts of which are now reported to be in ruins.

We do finally get to meet the former mayor.

Abdullah Demirbas has been arrested three times, twice this year and once in 2009, and is late for the interview because he had to report to the police station.

He was in jail for eight months in 2009 and was finally released on health grounds. He spent two months in prison pending trial for “financing the PKK” earlier this year and was released after he suffered a stroke and a campaign for his release won the support of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But he doesn’t know the reason for the latest one because it was declared a state secret.

About 1,000 HDP members and 18 mayors belonging to its municipal wing, the BDP, have been arrested in the government crackdown that followed the end of the peace process with the PKK.

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Former mayor of central Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas Photo: Tony Cross

“The 7 June election result was a disaster for the government,” he comments. “They didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, there was a price to pay and the people have paid the price. It was the breaking of the ceasefire and the restarting of the military operation.”

Demirbas accuses the government of cheating when it agreed to join US-led airstrikes on IS because it also launched air strikes on PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Anyway, Erdogan and his friends have aided and supported IS in the past, he says, and are terrified that the areas liberated by Kurdish fighters in Syria will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to emulate them.

“In Rojava the Syrian Kurdish people making democratic autonomy by themselves is not something that is wanted by this regime,” he says. “Because they don’t want this, everyone knows this regime is supporting [Al Qaeda affiliate] Al Nusra and IS. Many people are coming through Turkey from Europe and the rest of the world, everyone knows that they are joining this group. Despite the decision that they were going to bomb and make operations against IS with coalition forces, Turkey has attacked the PKK but not attacked IS.”

To read more of my interview with Abdullah Demirbas on RFI’s website, click here.

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Eyse Gokkan of the HDP-aligned women’s group KJA Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier we drove out of the city centre to meet two HDP activists, Cüneyt Aslam, a youth leader, and Eyse Gokkan, of the women’s group, KJA.

They, too, accused the government of complicity with IS, Gokkan stressing that the Islamists – from the AKP to Boko Haram in Nigeria – share an anti-women agenda.

“There are documents showing that the Daesh terror organisation is being supported by the Turkish government, that weapons are being sent to this organisation by the government,” saidAslan, referring to IS by the Arab acronym Daesh. “The government is making an environment for this group to expand and kill us.”

As we drive past one estate, I noticed Turkish flags draped on the sides of several blocks of flats, a bit of a surprise here.

These estates are occupied by police officers and their families, Miller explained.

More on my visit to Diyarbakir during Turkey’s October-November general election campaign to follow.

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Kidnapped, tortured, sold to the Americans … Pakistan’s missing persons, casualties of the war on terror

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I visited Pakistan in 2007 as then-president Pervez Musharraf’s military regime was about to fall, locked in conflict with the main political parties and with the formerly compliant legal apparatus, in particular with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, whose judgements irritated Musharraf so much that he had him removed at one point.

One key point of friction between the president and the courts was “missing persons”, civilians who had vanished thanks to the attentions of the secret services, who kept them in secret jails or sold them to the US for a bounty, ensuring a regular supply of detainees for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

On a sweltering day in Peshawar I met a former Guantanamo detainee hiding from the police and the secret services and in Rawalpindi I met the wife of a man who had disappeared and a lawyer fighting his case and those of several others. Their testimony was both moving and shocking.

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Pakistani lawyers protest against the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who ordered security forces to produce missing peresons Photo: Tony Cross

You can only meet Badr Dost by appointment, since he is trying to avoid the attentions of the Pakistani security forces.

We meet him at the family home in the back streets of the city of Peshawar. But only after one of his nephews has checked that we haven’t brought unwanted company and summoned him from his hiding place.

Dost has been taking this sort of precaution since his brother, Muslim, was arrested a year ago.

Badr believes that the police would have taken him, too, if his nephews hadn’t warned him of Muslim’s arrest.

The family heard nothing from or about Muslim for eight months and the authorities denied that they were holding him.

An appeal to a Peshawar court finally forced police to admit that he was in jail in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies and bring him to Peshawar’s main prison.

They say that Muslim, an Afghan who has lived in Pakistan for 30 years, has broken an obscure law about residency in the country.

That was not the first time that he had been arrested.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Badr and Muslim, who don’t hide their Islamist sympathies, criticised the US-led operation.

Pakistani security forces picked them up and handed them over to US forces, who held them in two bases in Afghanistan, before flying them to the US’s detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

After a year, the brothers were told that the Americans had nothing against them.

But, along with other inmates in the same situation, they were kept for another year and a half before being sent home.

His account of his detention confirms the widespread reports of abuse and torture there.

“They were kicking us with their soldiers’ boots and hitting us with their fists,” he says. “We were beaten and we were kept up awake for a long time. They were not allowing us to sleep and we were kept in isolation.”

Inmates were held in extreme temperatures, he claims, and pornography was stuck on the walls of some religious prisoners’ cells as a form of “mental torture”. Dost believes that the guards went out of their way to offend the prisoners’ religious feelings.

“The American soldiers, the MPs, they were searching us every day,” he says. “They were searching the holy book as if we are hiding something inside, but that was not true because they have searched many, many times. They were desecrating the holy book. They were touching it, they were throwing it on the ground, they were stepping on it, they were tearing it to pieces and putting it in drums of shit in front of us.”

He says that the abuse of the Koran only ended after the inmates staged a hunger strike.

On their return, the brothers published a book, The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo.

If they were expecting an apology or compensation for wrongful detention, loss of business and disruption to their family life – they were to be disappointed.

The book appeared on 3 September. Muslim was arrested – again – on the 20th.

“After eight months he was produced in the tribal area and then he was brought to central jail of Peshawar,” he says. “So right now we are suing his case in Supreme Court and hopefully he will be released. But still there are head and hands who want to black him and want to put him in jail for a long time.”

The “head and hands” Badr Dost fears are elements in the Pakistani state apparatus, who, as well as carrying on a dirty war against armed Islamists, when it suits them, carry on a lucrative trade with the Americans, who pay money for supposed “terrorists”, who will be transferred to jails in Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Most feared of all are military intelligence, the ISI.

“It was a business,” he comments. “And they have announced if the local authorities are arresting any terrorists, so they will be awarded [for] a common man 5,000 [rupees] and a wanted man maybe millions. So even Americans were telling us that they have paid a lot to Pakistani authorities for arresting us.”

For a longer version of my interview with Badr Dost click here.

“When your dearest thing, the most precious thing in the world, is taken away, what is there left in life for me?” asks Amina Janjua, sitting in a dowdy office in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town that is practically a suburb of Islamabad – or perhaps it’s vice versa.

The last time she saw her husband, Masood, he was getting on a bus to Peshawar from their home-town, Rawalpindi.

He and the friend who was with him, Faisal Fawaz, never arrived at their destination.

Amina is convinced that secret policemen from the Inter-Securities Agency (ISI) spirited them off to a secret jail on suspicion of Islamist tendencies, taking their long beards as signs of fundamentalist tendencies.

Amina insists that Masood had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t want to live any more,” she says. “It’s just for my husband’s sake that I’m fighting and this is the hope that is keeping me alive. I’m going to get him back.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when a released prisoner said that he had seen Masood during his period of detention.

Amina and her three children have fought hard to locate Masood and get him released.

They camped out in front of the Supreme Court and contacted other families in the same situation.

They claim to have discovered ISI “safe houses”, dotted around the country, with families living on the ground floor, while prisoners are tortured in the cellar.

“I have come to know that there are safe houses in every nook and corner of this city,” she explains. “Every street is having a safe house, where apparently there is a house, normal, and a family living but underneath there is a secret house where these persons are kept and being tortured. For years now.”

For an audio report on Pakistan’s missing persons click here.

Over 400 cases are now going through the courts, 100 of them fought by Amina’s lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi.

Siddiqi, who is a member of the Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, recently won the release of Hafez Abdul Basit, who had vanished for three and a half years, detained because he has associated with someone linked to the 2003 attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s life.

“His beard was shaved off, third-degree methods were used on him,” he says. “Threats were also extended to him that ‘we will bring your sister, your mother and all your favourite members of your family, who will be raped in front of you – just listen to the voices from the neighbouring room, that we have already brought so many ladies in this connection’.”

For one month Basit was not allowed to sit, still less sleep, before being confined to a tiny, sordid cell, Siddiqi claims.

The police only admitted knowing his whereabouts after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry told the deputy inspector general of the CID that he would be jailed himself if he didn’t produce Basit within 24 hours.

The impunity with which Pakistan’s secret services operate has its origins in the country’s violent history and overspill from the Afghan war.

Many of the armed Islamists who would like to assassinate Musharraf were trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

But its latest manifestations are intimately linked to the US’s “war on terror”, which has led to bounties paid for prisoners, political support for Musharraf and a ten-billion dollar subsidy to the country since 9-11.

For my reports for RFI on Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here.

For some of my reporting from Afghanistan for RFI click here and here.

For Afghanistan in 2001 on this blog here and in 2005 here.

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Hamid Gul, the spy who went into the cold

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Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence died on Sunday. I met him at his home in Rawalpindi in 2007 and found a man who was bitter about having been declared an enemy by the West for his links to the Taliban and other Islamists after being hailed as a hero for sending many of the same people to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. History can be so cruel! I’ll post a fuller account of this visit to Pakistan on my blog at a later date.

Hamid_Gul_portrait
Hamid Gul, resplendent in his medals Source: Wikipedia

 

Rawalpindi, September 2007

There is evidence of the military almost everywhere in this city next-door to Islamabad, which is home to the military and secret service headquarters.

Serving and retired officers are housed in cantts, short for cantonments, and retired General Hamid Gul lives in a spacious and well-protected house in one of them.

Gul was head of the secret services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) in the 1980s. In collaboration with US and other agencies, he armed and trained the mojahedin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During his time as ISI chief there was an rise in jihadi activity in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But in September 2007, as politicians and lawyers face off against President and Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf, he says that it is time for the military to get out of Pakistan’s politics.

“This new-found freedom of the press and the judiciary, I think this is a gift to Pakistan,” he says. “This is going to lead to the empowerment of people. Now the military has got to go back to barracks.”

He is scathing about Musharraf’s allies. Today’s MPs are not independent, he says, “they’re under the shadow of the army”. But he hopes that “free and fair” elections will correct this state of affairs.

Gul is brutally frank in his criticism of Musharraf, whom he believes is on the brink of introducing martial law. “That’s the only option left to him. If he’s so greedy for power – and Americans are patting him on the back to go on and do it.”

“I’m quite amazed, really,” he says of Musharraf’s determination to cling on to both of his jobs. “It was my job twice to profile him because I was once his instructor in the staff college and second time he was my subordinate, when he was a major-general. He served under me and I wrote reports on him. And good reports, too.”

Back then Gul found the president-to-be pleasant and flexible. “I think it is fear that is driving him towards this and an unnecessary encouragement from the Americans.”

But the general, who has plenty of experience of Americans, believes they may be rethinking their strategy. “They’re very clever, they keep their intentions hidden,” he says.

Most analysts think that Washington is pushing Musharraf to reach agreement with Benazir Bhutto, who is apparently seen as secular and Western-friendly. Gul thinks they may plump for Nawaz Sharif, who, he says, has emerged as “almost unmitigated number-one political figure in the country”.

Gul is not against mixing religion and politics. Pakistan was born as a political-religious entity, he says. “They cannot be separated. In India and Pakistan, that is the lesson of history. If they [the religious parties] come to power, as long as they accept electoral politics, then there is no problem.”

The general advises the US to rethink its international strategy, especially its military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel that they will succeed,” he says. “Tell me, are they succeeding? If they are not succeeding, then they must change direction.”

The Taliban, who imposed a distinctly unsecular regime on Afghanistan, came out of madrassas and refugee camps in Pakistan, enjoying the patronage of the ISI. While criticising the Taliban’s dispensation of summary justice, Gul says they did some “very good things”, introducing “peace” and “justice” after the chaos of the civil war between themojahedin factions he had himself backed.

But, he says, that was all after his retirement, and he was only responsible for the mojahedin, whom everybody, apart from the Russians, loved back then.

“The Americans, and let me tell you, French, German and all the free world which was afraid of the red menace,” he says. “They were all helping us. If it was culpable and was a crime, then we were all together in that crime.”

There’s no mistaking Gul’s bitterness, as he points to a lump of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the German government “with deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow”. Now, says retired General Hamid Gul, the US and the European countries with whom he used to work won’t give him a visa.

First posted on RFI’s website: http://www1.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/101/article_320.asp

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