In late 2015, I was interviewed on TRT World’s The Newsmakers program from London about Israel/Palestine and the one-state solution. My interview begins at 3:37:
Umm al-Nasr, Gaza Strip: Everybody in Gaza fears another war. After the 2014 conflict, which killed 2250 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, little has changed on the ground for the territory’s 2 million residents.
A local psychiatrist, Khaled Dahlan, recently told me in Gaza that Palestinians had multi-generational trauma, having been dispossessed and attacked for decades. “We have had so many conflicts” in the last 70 years, he said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the population has severe mental illness.
Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under former US president Barack Obama, recently warned that “the next war in Gaza is coming”.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, explained in late March that his country reacts “disproportionately” to rocket fire from the strip. “The reality in Gaza is volatile,” he said.
Eisenkot warned that the Hamas authority in Gaza was “continuing to dig [tunnels] underground and to build their abilities and defensive capabilities”. Israel claims Hamas has new heavy rockets with which to attack Israeli border towns.
Israel’s State Comptroller released a report on the 2014 war that found the Israeli government was uninterested in avoiding a military conflict. “There was no realistic diplomatic alternative concerning the Gaza Strip,” it stated.
Hamas recently elected a new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who reportedly opposes reconciliation with Israel. He served 22 years in an Israeli jail before being released in a prisoner swap in 2011. Tensions rose again after the alleged Israeli assassination in late March of a senior Hamas militant in Gaza.
Yet Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in late 2016 that his country would help rebuild Gaza – if Hamas disarmed.
“We will be the first to invest in a port, an airport and industrial areas”, he told a Palestinian newspaper in October. Israel’s Transport Minister Israel Katz proposes building an island near Gaza to service its people – but Israel would control its air, sea and land borders.
Hani Muqbel, head of the Hamas Youth Department, told me in Gaza that his group’s philosophy was different to Islamic State’s or al-Qaeda’s. “They’re destroying the image of Islam,” he said. In contrast, Hamas had built a “national liberation movement”.
He acknowledged the current difficulties in Gaza but blamed the “Israeli occupation, siege and the [rival Fatah-run] Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank]”.
Muqbel said that Hamas did not want another war but that its issue with Israel “wasn’t between Jews and Muslims. It’s not a religious war, it’s about land.”
He demanded that Western powers stop claiming Hamas “wanted to kill Jews because they’re Jews. We do not.”
The Israeli media largely ignores Gaza and Israelis are not legally allowed to visit. Yet former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo recently said that the occupation was the country’s only “existential threat“.
An editorial in the liberal newspaper Haaretz urged the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “immediately consider other ways of halting the deterioration in Gaza – first and foremost by alleviating the wretchedness of life there”.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha recently found that Israel had massively reduced the ability of Gazans to leave in the last months, dropping 40 per cent compared to last year’s average. In February, only 7301 people went through the Erez checkpoint, which connects Gaza to Israel and the occupied West Bank. It was the lowest number since the end of the 2014 war.
Countless Gazans haven’t left for years. Many told me that it was impossible to plan anything major in life, such as marriage or travel, with certainty because applications to leave Gaza were routinely rejected by Israel with no reason given. Often they were ignored entirely.
The effect of the wars and isolation has been dramatic on the domestic lives of men and women. The last years have seen an explosion of Western aid organisations in Gaza working with local NGOs on furthering women’s rights in a male-dominated society. Many women said that these courses gave them awareness of their legal and social rights along with the ability to resist and leave a violent marriage.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recently released a draft resolution that highlighted the status of Palestinian women. It expressed “deep concern” about the “ongoing illegal Israeli occupation and all of its manifestations”, including “incidents of domestic violence and declining health, education and living standards, including the rising incidence of trauma and the decline in psychological well-being”, especially for girls and women in Gaza.
A lawyer with the Gaza-based NGO Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection, Asma Abulehia, said that she met six to seven women every day who faced domestic abuse or economic uncertainty. However, many women couldn’t leave their houses to seek help, trapped by an abusive husband or family.
“The Israeli occupation is the main reason for these problems,” she told me. “The bad economic situation has worsened social problems, along with ignorance of Islam and unfair laws against women in Gaza.”
Due to the suffocating 10-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, support for Hamas has decreased. Many people long for a return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, though they aren’t convinced it would make much difference to their daily lives. Many said they wanted to leave and build a life elsewhere.
This month, Human Rights Watch released a new report, Unwilling or Unable, detailing Israeli restrictions on human rights workers entering Gaza to document breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. It accused Israel of severely curtailing the ability of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals to enter or leave Gaza and dismissed its reasons for doing so.
Human Rights Watch asked the International Criminal Court, currently investigating possible war crimes committed in Palestine including Gaza, to determine the “credibility” of Israeli domestic investigations and its restrictions of human rights workers in and out of Gaza.
In a 2015 report the United Nations voiced fears that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. It stated that the 2014 war had “effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid”.
“Hamas doesn’t care for the people,” Abulehia said. “They deny violence against women and drug abuse [of the opioid Tramadol] even exists.”
Abulehia said violence against women was worsening, though there were no reliable government figures. The Safe House, funded by the Hamas government and run by women in a secure location, is the Gaza Strip’s only women’s shelter, where up to 50 people can sleep overnight. The average stay is three months.
Many women I met at the Aisha office faced troubling options. Nineteen-year-old Noura al-Reefy married her husband three years ago and wanted a divorce. Her father-in-law sexually harassed her and her husband did nothing.
“He wanted to see my husband and me have sex in front of him and me naked without my hijab,” she told me. During multiple visits to Gaza, I’d never heard such graphic accounts of abuse from a woman.
Reefy had attempted suicide twice. She hadn’t finished high school but planned to complete her education after divorce. She was forced to marry her cousin “but it was a bad idea from the start. I wish it was easier for women to get divorced here..”
Buthaina Sobh, head of the Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care, told me in conservative Rafah, in the south of the territory, that sexual harassment at work, at home and on the streets was commonplace.
“In our society,” she said, “women can’t demand sexual pleasure, they’re considered a slut. Only men can. However, intellectual women now recognise that women have sexual desires and can ask for it privately.”
Sobh said the constant Israeli attacks made Palestinians “used to suffering”. She was pessimistic that women’s lives could change substantively until the siege was lifted.
Training facilities for women are still rare but slowly growing. In the conservative, Bedouin area of Umm al-Nasr in the strip’s north, I visited a multi-storey centre where women learnt tailoring and toymaking for local consumption. A showroom displayed the work for sale. Carpentry classes for women were initially resisted by traditionalist men in the village, but now the teaching of skills in a territory with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – at least 43 per cent – is being welcomed. The Hamas authority backs the centre and wants similar facilities established throughout the strip.
The centre also runs English courses and exercise classes. Working for the Italian NGO Vento Di Terra, project manager Sara Alafifi said that before the 2014 war many people thought that exercise for women was a waste of time but now healthy bodies were seen as a sensible way to manage stress.
There are alternatives. A group of Israeli and Palestinian economists recently released two studies with the World Bank that outlined a blueprint for economic development in the West Bank, Jordan Valley and Gaza. At the launch in Jerusalem, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch was blunt.
“There has been a deliberate Israeli policy to create deficiency,” he said. “The international community has to get involved – not as a donor, but to exert pressure.”
The constant threat of war against Gaza makes normality impossible. Hypertension, deep anxiety, increasing domestic violence and insomnia are ubiquitous amongst the population.
With hawkish Israeli commentators demanding another war with Hamas, and advocating the assassination of its leaders within days of any conflict commencing, prospects will only improve if the international community can put concerted effort into finding a new direction.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author.
My article in US magazine Truthout:
President Barack Obama’s drug war legacy is paved with partially good intentions. It differed greatly between his domestic agenda and around the world. The former showed signs of bravery, challenging decades of draconian and counterproductive policy toward drug users and dealers, reducing the number of incarcerated men and women across the United States.
The latter, however, mostly continued failed ideas of the past and consisted of funding and arming some of the most repressive nations in the world, including Honduras and Mexico, worsening apocalyptic gang and drug violence. Many refugees fleeing to the US are a result of these White House directives.
These experiences could shape the Trump administration in its drug agenda, but it’s already clear that they prefer re-fighting the lost drug battles of the past, pledging a “law and order” agenda that guarantees rising prison numbers (and higher profits for private prison corporations). This will have zero effect on drug use or the social issues associated with it.
The drug war was never about ending drug abuse, but a battle against people of color. A former top advisor to President Richard Nixon admitted that it targeted antiwar protestors and “Black people.”
Today, drug reform is possible with even some of the most aggressive drug war backers of the past advocating the legalization and regulation of many, if not all, drugs. It remains a minority, if growing, view.
In the waning months of his presidency, Obama granted clemency and pardons to over 1,700 Americans in prison for nonviolent federal drug crimes. He used this extraordinary power more than any president since Harry Truman and 1,927 individuals are now free due to his decision.
I recently met one of these men in Washington, DC. Evans Ray was 12 years into a life sentence plus 10 years for distribution of crack cocaine and crack while possessing a firearm when he received Obama’s commutation in August 2016. He told me that he wanted to thank Obama for “allowing me a second chance in life, for allowing me the privilege of spending time with my mom and my kids and for giving me the opportunity to be a productive citizen.” Ray plans to establish an organization to help recently released prisoners readjust into society.
Despite Obama’s important record, tens of thousands of clemency applications were rejected including from prisoners such as Ferrell Scott, who is currently serving life imprisonment without parole for marijuana offenses.
As the Trump administration’s domestic drug war agenda becomes clear — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to overturn Obama’s Justice Department 2009 directive not to prosecute marijuana users and distributors who don’t break state laws — it’s now possible to view the Obama legacy in plain view. Obama’s domestic drug policies were a combination of sentencing logic, pushing back against harsh prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, and gradual, sensible moves to transform the fight against drugs into a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue. People with opioid addictions were not acutely criminalized, though vastly more support is required. Many states legalized and regulated marijuana.
Globally, Obama was far more predictable in his drug war agenda. As one drug reform advocate told me recently in Washington, DC, there’s virtually no scrutiny in Congress (or the mainstream media) for US drug policy in remote corners of the globe.
Honduras is a notable exception. After the 2009 coup, backed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US military funding soared, along with catastrophic violence against civilians. The murder of famed environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 ledDemocratic Congress member Hank Johnson of Georgia to introduce a bill in Congress calling on the US to halt all funds to Honduras for their military and police operations.
Honduras and Central America are still key transit areas for drugs entering the US. Washington’s support for neighboring countries such as Mexico, along with huge US domestic demand for drugs, has inarguably fueled the soaring death toll across the region.
When I visited Honduras in 2016, I spoke to Laura Zuñiga Cáceres, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, in her hometown ofLa Esperanza. She demanded that President Obama “cut all funding to Honduras, not just military but to private companies. Funding their projects creates a culture of dispossession [for locals].” This message is equally relevant to Trump.
President Trump is likely to continue — if not accelerate — Obama’s aggressive drug war policies. The Obama administration increased counter-narcotic activities across Africa and Afghanistan, supporting dictatorships in the process, and success rates against drugs were minimal. Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest supplier of opium.
Ending the failed drug war at home and abroad requires bravery and a decision to put ethical priorities above a desire to sign lucrative US defense contracts with repressive states across the world. Will President Trump build on the work begun by Obama in dismantling an architecture of domestic drug policy that leads to mass incarceration?
Internationally, Washington has yet to recognize, let alone apologize for, a “war on drugs” that benefits cartels, organized criminals and dictatorships.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe and is researching the US-led “war on drugs.” Follow him on Twitter: @antloewenstein.
My article in The National newspaper in the UAE:
A group of old women sat outside in plastic chairs on a warm, Gaza day and sang traditional Palestinian songs. It was a happy mood at the Aged Care Foundation, the only community club for the elderly in the entire territory of two million people.
The head of the organisation, Nadia Alhashim, told me that there was a desperate need for her group because of social isolation in Gaza. “Old people are bored at home,” she said, “and we organise entertainment like dabke dancing, trips to the beach and exercise. It puts a smile on their faces.”
Men and women meet separately three times a week to share laughs and advice. Ms Alhashim said that the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed siege on Gaza, now 10 years old, deprived many Gazans of essential medication and care including cancer treatment.
Om Ali Suhayla Abdu Al Qader Abulalreesh, 63, who lives with her mentally ill son in dire conditions, sang joyously to forget her problems and please her friends. It was a brief respite from the desperate, humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The people of Palestine are often forgotten amid the calamities befalling the Middle East. Although the Israel/Palestine conflict was once a stated priority of successive American administrations, such attention only led to further misery and the entrenchment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Palestinian freedom would, probably, come sooner if Washington disengaged from the region entirely.
There are now at least 700,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nobody seriously believes that these people will be forced to leave, so the situation is relatively permanent. What this means for the future of the Jewish state is grim with endless legislation aimed at delegitimising free speech and association. I’ve lost count of the number of leftist Israelis who’ve told me that they’re looking for ways to leave the country, because they are disillusioned with the nation’s direction and have no hope that it will improve.
The Palestinian people, bereft of capable leadership, are dealt an awful hand. Former president Barack Obama, while speaking critically about Israeli colonisation, did nothing concrete to stop it. He granted Israel its biggest aid package in history – $38 billion (Dh140bn) over 10 years. Mr Obama is rightly seen in Palestine as a key enabler of Israeli intransigence. The Trump administration is partly following the Obama playbook. Rhetorically, Washington is showing a more permissive attitude to continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank, which is funded by Jewish Americans and evangelical Christian groups whose contributions are tax deductible. Donald Trump also appointed a hard-line, settlement backer, David Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel. And yet Mr Trump’s team still talks about the dead-on-arrival, two-state solution and curbing settlement activity. It’s no wonder that settler groups are questioning their initial excitement over Mr Trump’s win.
It’s easy to believe that the Israeli-Washington relationship is in fine shape. During the recent conference of Israeli lobby group American-Israel Public Affairs Comittee (Aipac) in Washington, speaker after speaker praised Israel’s thriving democracy and America’s commitment to it. Palestinians were ignored.
Although large protests were held outside the Aipac event, organised by the young Jewish group IfNotNow, with the message, “Jews won’t be free until Palestinians are free”, both Democrats and Republicans are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel.
With the Israeli occupation of Palestine now lasting 50 years, this is forcing advocates to consider alternative tactics. A Lebanon-based United Nations agency that recently released a report claiming Israel was practising apartheid is formulating a document that will investigate “the cost of the Israeli occupation” of the Palestinian territories by using examples from apartheid South Africa and slavery in America.
It’s an interesting approach considering there is virtually no discussion in Palestine or Israel itself about how the conflict could be ended. Would there be a formal apology, financial compensation and then a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Back in Gaza, the mood is dark. Israel refuses to allow out many of the Palestinians who want to leave the besieged Strip, for no discernible reason other than spurious “security concerns”. The Rafah checkpoint, controlled by Egypt, is also largely sealed.
The Israeli media is filled with ominous reports of another inevitable conflict between Israel and Hamas. Neither side would benefit from such a war. During my recent visits to Gaza, I saw the effects of the last battle, in 2014, and the many Palestinians who remain homeless or living in squalid conditions because Israel refused to allow in enough rebuilding materials.
I once thought that the status quo in Israel and Palestine wasn’t sustainable and that occupation couldn’t last for ever. I’ve changed my view. Today there is no international body willing to curtail Israeli behaviour, while Washington and the European Union largely support it. Without serious outside pressure, Palestinians will remain eternally under the Israeli boot.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author in Jerusalem
I’m now based in East Jerusalem as a freelance journalist and I was thrilled to recently secure the cover story in Newsweek Middle East (15 June edition) on Israel’s settler movement (+ here are my photos from the assignment):
Har Bracha vineyard is a Jewish business situated near Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Established in 2004, its location offers spectacular views. With an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jeep parked outside, owner Nir Lavi recently told me that he was proud of his livelihood cultivating grapes, because it proved that anti-Semitism would always fail.
“European anti-Semitism never dies,” he said. “Boycotts against us [Israel] show this.” He sells most of his products to Israelis and Jewish communities in the United States, “who have Shomron [greater Israel] in their hearts.” In response to growing global and local moves to boycott products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, Lavi opened a shop in Tel Aviv this year. He aimed to convince Israelis that the West Bank was a place of safety and legitimacy.
Last week marked the 49th year of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In 1967 Israel seized what is now termed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in an act of war. Soon after this war, illegal settlements—Israeli communities built on occupied ground—began to take shape, and some 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home to roughly 5000 settlers. During this period, settlements were mostly in the Jordan Valley and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, under a more right-wing Israeli government, that they began to expand in the West Bank. Now, nearly 700,000 settlers live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
On a daily basis, and in contravention of international law, Israel confiscates land and constructs settlements that run deep into Palestinian territory. Worse still, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other civilian structures, forcibly displaces and transfers Palestinian civilians and exploits the natural resources of the Palestinian land. Despite the widespread condemnations and calls for cessation, Israel continues its actions with impunity. The persistent confiscation of land, water, and other natural resources also violates The Hague Regulations of 1907, which prohibit an occupying power from expropriating the resources of occupied territory for its own benefit.
Earlier this year, U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro sparked unease when he noted that Israeli settlements have expanded; Israeli vigilantes murder Palestinians without fear of investigation or reprisal; and, in the occupied, Palestinian areas, Israelis enjoy civilian legal protections while Palestinians live under military rule.
Lavi told U.S. Jewish publication, The Algemeiner, in January that the aim of his shop was, “to show sympathy and patriotism at this time, and to connect to our fellow Israelis. We don’t mind where they come from, what their background is, or what’s their political agenda. We want us to be united.”
Har Bracha employee Alice Zeeman, a religious settler with seven children who was born in Germany and converted to Judaism in her teens, told me that the facility opened 20 years ago because “there was a prophecy.” After being evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, along with thousands of settlers in Gaza during the so-called “disengagement,” Zeeman was unequivocal about her Arab neighbours. “I shout at Arabs [because they kill Jews],” she said. “I don’t call them Palestinians. They’re our enemy. We cannot employ the Arabs here. In the vineyard, only Jews work. I don’t want to see Arabs dead but I just want them to live somewhere else in the Arab world. They can only live here if they accept Jewish rule. It’s in the Bible.”
Wearing a red headscarf and speaking with a slight German accent, Zeeman explained that one of her life missions was to have a large family. “I never listen to the news. I just keep on having children. One of the most important products of the settlements are children.” She disagreed with the idea of Arabs either working with her or building settlements. A common sight across the West Bank is Palestinians constructing Israeli homes, because they have few other job opportunities due to high unemployment and a traditional farming economy that has been crushed by the Israeli occupation. “Settlements should just be built by Jews,” Zeeman said. It was a view echoed by Lavi. “We only want to have Israelis build our community,” he said.
This is a story of how the settlers won. After nearly 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, its proponents have placed themselves in all levels of the Israeli state, guaranteeing institutional support for the continued expansion of settlements across the West Bank. It has rendered impossible any contiguous Palestinian state, the clear aim of the settlers and their enablers from the beginning. The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever possible.
I recently spent time traveling across the West Bank in the searing June heat talking to settlers, sleeping overnight in their houses and engaging on politics, daily life and Palestinians. I was given a unique insight into communities that mostly appear in the media as cartoon character extremists, blind ideologues or those seeking cheap housing (Israel encourages people to move to the West Bank by providing huge financial incentives and inexpensive accommodation). I witnessed all three, but also found people defiant in their beliefs, angered by what they perceived was global opposition to their lives fueled by anti-Semitism and confident that they were unlikely to be forced to leave their homes in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Jewish supremacy, the belief that Jews have the God-given right to control all the land in Israel and Palestine and the Arabs must submit to it, was ubiquitous throughout my travels. Paternalism merged with capitalism. Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the West Bank Barkan industrial park, told me that he hired 50 Palestinian workers because he gave “people hope. I need Palestinians and they need me.” He said that Europeans wanted to boycott his products and label them but today he was still able to sell freely across Europe.
There are around 1,000 Israeli companies operating in over a dozen industrial zones in the West Bank and about 25,000 Palestinians working in these facilities, usually making more money than if they were employed by Palestinian firms. Many Palestinian workers and unions oppose these jobs because they normalize the occupation and do nothing to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January criticizing Israeli discrimination for “entrenching a system that contributes to the impoverishment of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank while directly benefitting settlement businesses, making Palestinians’ desperate need for jobs a poor basis to justify continued complicity in that discrimination.”
“Europeans wanted to boycott my products,” Cohen said, “but they have a brain and see that I’m part of the solution and not the problem for the conflict.” One of his Palestinian workers, Abel, argued that, “if Europeans boycott us, it affects our livelihoods. We should bring Arab students here to see how co-existence is possible.” It was impossible to know if these were his real views—because his boss was standing beside him when he spoke.
In the company staff room, Cohen showed me a pin-board full of photographs where he said he took his Palestinian and Jewish employees on short holidays. He wasn’t overly worried about growing boycott threats against his factory from around the world because, as he told The Times of Israel in 2014, “If we let them [the Europeans] profit, in the end they’ll invest. The Europeans know one thing: Israel treats them well.”
At a briefing by the Shomron Regional Council, one of the largest in the West Bank, travel guide Boaz Haetzni proudly said that there were now roughly 430,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and appropriately 250,000 in East Jerusalem. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. “Settlements have negative connotations so we use the terms ‘towns’ and ‘villages’,” he said.
Haetzni was frustrated that Israeli outposts in the West Bank, mostly considered illegal even under Israeli law, “were not authorized because of American pressure. We live in an economically viable area but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to disturb this growth. Our area is the solution to Israel’s housing crisis but authorities are trying to stop us.” He attacked President Barack Obama for placing unfair restrictions on Israeli expansion and alleged that Netanyahu publicly praised the settlements—but in private instructed his officials to contain any new construction in the occupied territories.
Haetzni acknowledged that Arab residents lived in “parallel land and systems under a different economic system and often on different roads.” This form of racial and economic discrimination is why many critics of Israel compare it to apartheid South Africa. It’s also why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is rising in popularity across the world, especially on British and American campuses. A recent survey by Ipsos global market research found that one third of Americans and 40 percent of Britons backed a boycott of Israel, but problematically, many still viewed the tactic as anti-Semitic.
Over dips, vegetables and fresh bread, Haetnzi stated that the nearby Barkan industrial park was “the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are in peace—but we have still been boycotted by the Europeans and Palestinian Authority.” Like many settlers I met, Haetzni was obsessed with Jewish and Arab birthrates, proudly explaining that Jewish birthrates were soaring and could comfortably maintain a majority over Arabs in the West Bank for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics disagrees, having issued a report this year that found the number of Jews in Israel would equal the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories by the end of 2017.
It’s unsurprising that most settlers have no interest in leaving. They occupy some of the most fertile and beautiful parts of the West Bank. At the “Israel Lookout” in the Peduel settlement, the striking green and brown horizon included Tel Aviv through a heat haze and Ben Gurion International Airport. A young settler man serenaded his girlfriend with a guitar while sitting in a solitary wooden seat overlooking the view. The scene was tranquil and yet something was missing; Arabs were nowhere to be seen or heard. My guide Yehoshua Carmel, a friendly 30-year-old man born and living in Elkana settlement, acknowledged that it was “not normal to have Israeli soldiers around us all the time [for security]. I don’t want to live like this but it’s the only solution for now. If the IDF leaves here, it means that the government doesn’t want me to stay in this area. I would be very sad.”
I asked Carmel about settler violence against Palestinians, a constant threat and reality against Arab lives, farms and equipment, but he denied it was a problem and claimed the majority of attacks in the West Bank were by Arabs against Jews. “Maybe there are 50 fundamentalist Jews who want to use violence but most of us oppose violence,” he said. In July 2015, Palestinians in the village of Duma were firebombed by Jewish settlers and three members of the Dawabsheh family died including their 18-month old baby, Ali. Carmel questioned whether Jews could have committed such a grievous act. “It’s the wish of many around the world that the Duma murderers are Jewish,” he said. “It’s not terrorism if Jews did it; it’s murder. I won’t put the same terror label against Jews and Arabs. I’m religious and Duma was terrible. I’m praying it’s not Jews who did it.”
Israel’s settler movement has succeeded brilliantly in realizing its goals since 1967 due to a number of complimentary factors including decades-long persistence, Israel’s growing rightward shift, widespread distrust and contempt for Arabs and international support and complicity. The Jewish State’s backing of colonizing the West Bank has been prohibitively expensive, however. It was estimated by Israeli experts in 2007 to have cost US$50 billion since 1967 including security and civilian expenses.
Israel’s army has around 176,000 active duty soldiers and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has calculated that it takes nearly 100,000 soldiers to keep the West Bank under Israeli control. US$600 million is required to maintain the occupation every year. The World Bank says that the Palestinian economy loses US$3.4 billion a year due to Israel’s discriminatory practices.
After nearly five decades of settlement expansion, reversing the trend is currently impossible. Although American and European governments often issue stern criticisms of Israel when new settlements are announced, there’s no economic incentive or punishment for Israel to end the addiction to expanding its territory. According to a new report by the non-profit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Israel has destroyed US$74 million worth of European Union projects in Palestinian territory in 2016, but the Jewish state has received no more than a public rebuke. U.S. President Barack Obama was condemned throughout my travels across the West Bank as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, but his time in office has seen the greatest financial support for the Jewish state in the country’s history.
Yet another failed peace initiative was recently pushed by France. A meeting was held in Paris that resulted in a bland statement with vague intentions to pursue an international conference before the end of the year, and Israel dismissed it entirely. The Palestinian Authority, a corrupt and un-elected body residing in Ramallah that faces increasing opposition from its own people for decades of mismanagement and failure, welcomed the initiative but has no power to encourage it. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that faces a strangulating blockade from Israel and Egypt, are determined to hold onto power and avoid another devastating military conflict with Israel.
With Daesh, Syria, Libya and Iraq weighing the region down into protracted conflicts, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the key Middle East issue to be resolved. The ‘peace-process’ is dead, and Israel’s settler movement has capitalised on its demise; Netanyahu’s government has pro-settler politicians at every level including the recently appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
When resigning Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned in May of “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society,” his message was decades too late. Thousands of Israelis converged at a Tel Aviv rally in April to support a solider who had executed an injured Palestinian in Hebron and the mood of the crowd was extreme, with one sign copying the Nazi SS slogan, “My honour is loyalty.” Also attending were members of Jewish supremacist group El Yahud who often attack Palestinians and leftist Israelis.
This wasn’t a fringe crowd but accurately representative of Israel’s body politic in 2016 with prominent politicians attending the event, including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party. A headline in Israeli daily Haaretz recently read: “Neo-fascists Threaten the West. In Israel They’ve Already Arrived.”
The settlers are equally mainstream and cannot be dismissed as minor players. Supporters recently released a guide book for tourists, “Yesha is Fun: The Good Life Guide to Judea and Samaria” [Biblical names for the West Bank] that pushes a “new and unique type of boutique tourism…tens of years after the return of the People of Israel to the land of our forebears”. Israel’s Civil Administration, tasked with managing the West Bank, were recently exposed by Haaretz for secretly re-mapping large sections of the West Bank in attempts to massively expand settlements. Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, announced in late May that it would no longer file complaints to the IDF and Israeli police about Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, citing poor or non-existent investigations by Israeli authorities.
Although there are small moves within Israel to find possible solutions to the conflict—“Two States One Homeland,” a new, small group including left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and settlers, advocates two sovereign states with open borders—the general Israeli mood is one of defiance, and an acceptance of the status-quo. It’s why the settler movement is so comfortable with its position and has few fears for its future. A 2016 poll by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Israeli control over Palestinians was occupation.
It was a hot June afternoon when I reached Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements. Located near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I drove down a dirt track to find two Jewish families living in basic conditions in a partially cleared forest, with a simple campsite and two tipis for visitors. A website advertising the location said that, “putting it mildly, the Arab villagers in the area do not ‘like’ the presence of the farm. Hence there is round-the-clock security.” Herds of goats and sheep lived in large enclosures and I arrived to find a British, Jewish woman and her three children, all living in a nearby settlement, buying a few chickens as pets.
It was a peaceful environment. Head farmer Yair Ben-David, 38-years-old with four children, told me that he had moved to the area four years ago because the Israeli government only wanted Jews to protect the 2,000 donums of land. After the Jewish National Fund and mayor of Gush Etzion provided initial assistance to secure Jewish hold on the territory, Ben-David started developing the site. “It’s Jewish land,” he said. “Even if Palestinians have ancestors here, they don’t have a 2,000-year connection like us.” He was friendly with only one Arab man who lived in an adjacent village. “Sometimes it’s better to have no relationship [with Arabs] than a bad relationship,” he said. “Arabs know that Israel is the best place to live [in the Middle East].”
I joined Ben-David’s family and his related neighbours for a Sabbath meal inside a house made secure with water pipes and plastic sheeting. Hebrew blessings were given over the bread and the food consisted of salads, roasted chicken and vegetables, Shepherd’s pie, beans and quinoa. The children ate and then ran around the room, rendered freezing after the blaring air-conditioning could not be switched off during the Sabbath. Ben-David had timers to control the lights and hot plate for food, because he was religiously unable to do it during the Sabbath.
During the meal, we discussed relationships, the 2005 Gaza disengagement (“one of the saddest days in Israeli history,” one said), successive Gaza wars (I was told that the Israeli military was too cautious and overly worried about civilian casualties) and the boycott movement against Israel (it could only be explained as anti-Semitism, Ben-David said). The atmosphere was friendly and I sensed they welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics with somebody whose views opposed theirs.
After sleeping in a tipi, the following morning I accompanied Ben-David and two of his children to the gated outpost of Gevaot on a nearby hilltop to attend Sabbath prayers. It was held in a modern synagogue overlooking a playground paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey. A highly controversial outpost, in 2014 the Israeli government appropriated large tracts of private Palestinian land and illegally redefined it as Israeli state land. Today it houses around 35 families. Many of the residents were with special needs, including Down’s syndrome, and some of these men contributed to the gender-separated, morning prayers. A civilian, Jewish guard with a machine gun walked in and placed his weapon beneath him while he prayed. After the service, I saw four IDF soldiers relaxing near a settler home, playing with their caged animals, and enjoying ice-creams given to them by a settler woman.
The settlers have created an armed, garrison state with a frontier mentality. Defiant in their belief that God gave Jews the land and Arabs must submit to their rule or leave, their success over five decades of expansion is clear. Funded, insulated, protected and armed by the Israeli state, Israel’s present and future is being written by them. It’s a vision that guarantees ongoing racial tensions and Palestinian dispossession. The international community has known this for decades and done virtually nothing to stop it.
My feature in the Australian literary journal Overland:
Flying into Bentiu, a town in northern South Sudan, is unnerving. The front of a broken plane, cockpit windows smashed, sits close to the dusty airstrip; long green grass sprouts around the cracked fuselage. Soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a former guerrilla movement and now the country’s official army, live in tin sheds around the rocky runway. The young men, some in uniform and many not, are armed with AK-47s. They loiter, looking bored. Gunfire can be heard in the background. The sky is heavy with grey clouds.
Bentiu occupies a grimly unique position within recent South Sudanese history. In 2014, the town was the sight of a massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war. Rebel forces killed hundreds of civilians and used public radio broadcasts to encourage the rape of women of different ethnicities, later releasing a statement that boasted of ‘mopping and cleaning-up operations’.
It’s July 2015, just a month before the signing of the peace agreement. I have been living in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, for most of the year, working as a freelance journalist; my partner is employed by an international NGO. Juba is a challenging place to be based; our existence was defined by security concerns, a collapsing economy, nightly curfews and growing crime. Temperatures in summer are regularly over forty-five degrees and water shortages are common.
South Sudan is land-locked, sharing borders with Uganda, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Like its neighbours, the country continues to endure the after effects of colonisation, having been occupied in the twentieth century by British interests. Much of the land is swamp or tropical forest, and the country hosts one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world.
I travelled to Bentiu by a slow-moving Russian UN helicopter. From the air, burnt-out buildings dot the swampy land. Tens of thousands of cattle are scattered among them, guarded by locals. Cattle-raiding is endemic in South Sudan, a brutal tactic used by government forces and militias to starve various groups of people. Cattle are the heart of the nation – cattle is not only used for food, but also for cultural practices, such as marriage (as bride price) and compensation after disputes – but years of war have left many without this precious commodity.
The trip from Juba took three hours and I was accompanied by Indian and Rwandan peacekeepers. There are over 12,500 uniformed UN peacekeepers in South Sudan – from a range of countries, including Cambodia, Australia, Zimbabwe and Yemen – making it one of the largest UN missions in the world.
A single muddy road littered with abandoned trucks and cars leads from the airport to Bentiu town and onto the sprawling UN base for internally displaced persons. The number of people seeking protection at the camp has swelled over the last two and a bit years of fighting; now, around 120,000 civilians live in a site originally built to house less than half that number. Almost every imaginable UN agency, international NGO and humanitarian group is involved in feeding, housing, rehabilitating and providing medical care.
The UN camp was established in December 2013, soon after violence erupted in Juba between President Salva Kiir’s faction, drawn primarily from the Dinka ethnic group, and those loyal to Riek Machar, Kiir’s former deputy, mainly from the Nuer ethnic group. At independence in 2011, both sides had been publicly committed to the new nation. But it didn’t last: tensions escalated, with both Kiir and Machar wanting more power. South Sudan is suffering today because these military men – both of whom spent decades fighting for independence – are unable to transition from combatants to democrats. Since it began in late 2013, the conflict has engulfed vast swathes of the state, destroying any hope that was felt locally and internationally in the first years of independence.
Indeed, the world’s newest nation has collapsed. ‘There has been so much killing, abuse and destruction of property here. It’s immense,’ an anonymous senior UN official at the refugee camp tells me (few UN authorities in Bentiu are authorised to speak openly to the media). Tens of thousands have been killed, and millions have been displaced internally and externally. Of the around twelve million people who live in South Sudan, 70 per cent face severe hunger. The economy is in freefall, with government forces and rebels fighting regularly over desperately needed oil reserves. Education and healthcare facilities have been unable to cope under the strain of the conflict. In 2014, the government hired former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his new firm, Frontier Services Group, to help boost oil output, but there is little evidence it’s working.
Bentiu heaves with broken humanity. The camp looks similar to those that have sprung up in response to other African conflicts, from Central African Republic to Congo. But things were supposed to be different in this new nation. South Sudan was born nearly five years ago amid so much hope – something much of Africa can’t claim. Yet the country has disintegrated. Many of the refugees in Bentiu are exhausted and confused, unsure how their country is again unsafe for them and their children. They can’t plan more than a few days ahead, and their hopes of a better future have been extinguished by fighting and ethnic strife. But this time things are different: the tensions, I am told, aren’t historical or cultural, but rather fuelled by leaders with grim agendas.
The Bentiu camp stretches as far as the eye can see. Flimsy houses made of bamboo and plastic sheets are positioned near little stalls selling flip-flops, baby formula, dresses, broken mobile phones, bags of sugar and glucose biscuits. During the rainy season, April to November, vast parts of the camp overflow with mud and debris. In the camps early days, flooding was common; some residents lived in water up their waists, and children drowned in their own homes. The UN was unprepared for the sheer numbers of arrivals: one official says the situation was ‘unforeseen’ because few expected the war to escalate so quickly. The UN has also been accused by Canadian Megan Nobert of ignoring her rape and not taking responsibility for the attack at their Bentiu base in 2015. The alleged attacker was subcontracted by the UN, but agencies failed to properly investigate.
I have looked at photos of the early days of the camp and can see that much has changed. The UN and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours on improving conditions. There is clear evidence of raised land, water channels and new wooden structures that are incomparably less dirty and cluttered than the old ones.
In one of the homes I meet Julia John, a 25-year-old woman who shares the space with her husband and three young children, as well as with her sister, her sister’s children and her mother. Their tidy space has just two single beds, a small table and rug, plastic chairs and dresses hung as wall decoration. Julia tells me of her desire to return home, but also of her fear of living alongside her ‘enemies’. She fled the fighting in January 2014 and has been in the camp ever since. ‘I hope for peace, but am not hopeful,’ she says.
Julia’s old property is only a few kilometres from the camp, but to her it feels so much further away. Every day when she leaves the UN base to search for firewood, she faces the threat of rape; soldiers routinely abduct, assault and disappear women. Julia has asked the UN and NGOs to provide firewood inside the camp to avoid the treacherous journey – so far they have not complied.
As a result of ongoing fighting in the region, around 200 new arrivals flow into the Bentiu camp each day. I hear testimony from survivors of horrific acts of violence committed against the Nuer by government soldiers and its militias. There are stories of boys being castrated and of women and girls being publicly gang raped. Nyaduop Machar Puot, a mother of five, explains that she recently witnessed ‘women and kids [being] burned alive in their tukuls [traditional South Sudanese huts]’ in her area of Koch county. She had to flee with her family because her own house was burned down and her cattle stolen.
In July last year, Human Rights Watch released a report that featured interviews with more than 170 victims and witnesses of government and militia enforced violence in Unity (one of South Sudan’s twenty-eight states). The report concludes that the mass rape, beating, killing and dislocation were the result of ‘decades of impunity’ in the region and a lack of accountability, trials or proper investigation. It predicts that this legacy will continue to fuel further crimes in South Sudan.
Back in Juba, the crowds gather for South Sudan’s fourth anniversary celebration. Locals sing and dance in colourful dresses and formal suits that glisten in the sun. Some listen as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the only major international dignitary to attend, ominously warns of ‘outsiders’ meddling in South Sudan’s affairs. He blames former colonial powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, for African woes and argues that ‘tribalism [and] sectarianism are wrong ideas’ that should be dismissed.
Uganda has provided thousands of troops to back the South Sudanese government since the 2013 conflict erupted. Most of these were withdrawn in 2015, though a handful remain. Israel and China also arm and back government forces, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir assists the opposition. South Sudan has become a proxy war. Sudan continues to destabilise a nation it never wanted to be independent (much of the valuable oil sits within South Sudanese borders), Israel has a long history of supporting African dictatorships and China wants access to South Sudan’s resources. Everybody has dirty, meddling hands. This is the modern face of imperialism. Foreign troops don’t need to occupy a nation for it to be controlled by outside forces.
Museveni’s speech is followed by President Kiir thanking his ‘fellow citizens’ for their years of struggle. He offers few practical solutions to the problems now facing the nation.
The mood at the event is muted – there is little to celebrate. People look forlorn, perhaps unsure why they have come, apart from loyalty to the independence cause. Not even the marching band can rouse the masses. I am looked at with suspicion; zealous security guards in sunglasses ask foreigners wearing sunglasses to remove them. Entrepreneurial women sell nuts and national flags, many of which wilt in the sun. Thousands of discarded, plastic water bottles litter the dusty ground.
South Sudan’s current crisis is entirely man made and yet the nation’s international backers chose to ignore the warning signs. There was a gaping democratic deficit at the heart of the liberation movement; its leaders’ known corruption was overlooked for geopolitical reasons.
Sovereignty wasn’t simply given to the South Sudanese by benign powers. The South Sudanese spent decades fighting for independence against an oppressive northern neighbour, and did so with international backing. I haven’t met any South Sudanese who don’t support separation from Khartoum. Decades of blood and pain were spent gaining freedom and this is why so many South Sudanese are today despairing at their country’s disintegration. ‘Everybody’s a loser in war,’ one man tells me when I visit Bor, in Jonglei state. ‘We’re all losers. We want peace.’
Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, but subsequent decades saw Khartoum’s leadership apply a similar mindset to its southern section as its former colonial rulers. In his classic 1966 novel on colonialism Season of Migration to the North, Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih eloquently encapsulates this attitude: ‘They have left behind them people who think as they do.’
There were decades of civil war between Khartoum and its southern population over land, oil, dignity and prestige. Between 1983, when then President Jaafar Nimeiri introduced Sharia law, and 2005, when a peace agreement was finally signed, two million people died and four million were displaced. Both the SPLA and the Sudanese forces committed widespread abuses. Human Rights Watch released a report in 1994 that was eerily prescient in its predictions, warning that ‘the leaders of the SPLA factions must address their own human rights problems and correct their own abuses, or risk a continuation of the war on tribal or political grounds in the future, even if they win autonomy or separation.’ The SPLA and its backers never undertook this necessary accounting.
Today, due to the war, some South Sudanese survive on a diet of roots, water lilies, grass and leaves. Whole families have been forced to hide in dirty marshes, sometime for days, to escape violence. While in Bentiu, a number of women recount to me the brutality of militias, describing how babies were killed before their eyes. These women don’t expect justice or compensation, though they want both. I ask whether they dream of soldiers facing trial for war crimes when the country eventually finds peace – the idea is dismissed as fanciful.
Last August’s peace agreement includes provisions for a hybrid court staffed with South Sudanese and African nationals. It’s a bold initiative that shuns the more traditional route of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body treated with suspicion across Africa because it rarely investigates crimes by Western nations. But there is little political will to establish this court for South Sudan because the organisation tasked to deliver it, the African Union, is made of leaders who are themselves facing warrants for arrest. This includes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with alleged genocide in Darfur.
In a tragic historical irony, South Sudan’s leaders are now mimicking its northern neighbour’s fraught relationship with the UN, the West and humanitarian groups. Government forces are stealing food from civilians, blocking the delivery of aid and studiously responding to allegations of abuse by claiming a Western and African conspiracy against their sovereignty. It’s an absurd suggestion, not least because the nation is only independent on paper; without foreign aid, the country and its population would not survive.
It’s an uneasy time for free speech in South Sudan. At least seven reporters were murdered in the country last year. None of the culprits have been found. In 2015, President Kiir threatened journalists critical of his leadership with death. Francis, a Juba-based reporter, tells me that he has to self-censor his work or he would not have a job. He doesn’t fear for his life, but knows his ability to be a critical journalist is severely curtailed.
As a state, South Sudan struggles to function in any capacity. Habib Dafalla Awonga, Director General for Programme Coordination at South Sudan’s HIV/AIDS Commission, explains to me how the war has hampered his ability to get reliable data on infection rates. He estimates that around 2.7 per cent of the population are HIV-positive, but has no way of sourcing definite numbers. It’s probably way higher, especially among soldiers sleeping with sex workers. Despite these concerns, Awonga accuses the West of ‘pushing a gay agenda’ because international HIV/AIDS bodies demanded protections for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.
This view that Western films, music and popular culture lead people towards sins such as homosexuality and sex work is commonly held across the continent. There are no publicly known gay groups in South Sudan, and being openly gay is impossible. Edward Emest Jubara, Acting Director General for Culture and Heritage in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, told a local newspaper in July that ‘a relationship between a man and a man is unacceptable in our society’. He was responding to comments made by President Obama during his July visit to Africa, when he urged the continent to abandon anti-gay discrimination. These attitudes are why American evangelical churches view South Sudan, as they do neighbouring Uganda, as prime territory for spreading their anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda. Though exact numbers are unknown, a growing number of American evangelical groups are operating in South Sudan, and they’re finding a receptive audience to their message.
South Sudan’s issues manifest in a range of other hurdles, too. Only 2 per cent of the nation’s roads are paved, making it near impossible to access remote communities in the rainy season (aid groups are forced to rely on expensive UN flights). This year the UN is trying to raise US$1.3 billion from governments for humanitarian efforts. It’s a tough call when there are so many other pressing crises. Because Africa is largely ignored in the international media unless there is an Ebola outbreak or genocide – Black lives don’t matter here – South Sudan can’t compete with a sectarian, proxy war in Syria or post-US invasion chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa is still easily framed as the dark continent: uncivilised, violent, savage. Yet South Sudan joins a long list of dysfunctional African states, from Burundi to Guinea-Bissau, that are crying out for peace.
Being based in South Sudan has forced me to examine the uniqueness of the country’s crisis and how it compares to other, equally horrific situations in nearby countries. The most media-savvy citizens in Juba know that their nation is mostly ignored by the international media, that the conflict is not deemed important enough to warrant serious attention – the victims are non-people, nameless and disposable. But they have learnt that the ‘international community’ – a generic term that usually means what Washington and its allies want – has been unable and unwilling to pressure the warring factions. They also know that President Obama’s focus has been on the various conflicts in the Middle East. And while no South Sudanese express a desire for American military intervention, many wish for Washington to be more assertive in resolving the current conflict.
There is no doubt that the level of brutality in South Sudan is worse than almost any other conflict I’ve reported; depraved attacks against Palestinians and Afghans are not uncommon, but the scale and intensity in South Sudan is particularly harrowing. The remoteness of the conflict and the lack of accountability for war crimes has exacerbated extremism against civilians. I hear again and again vivid descriptions of rape and murder that shock me to my core.
South Sudanese leaders and military chiefs understand little about governance and that has led to endemic corruption. Between the 2005 peace agreement with Sudan and independence in 2011, Juba obtained over US$13 billion in oil revenues; a significant amount of this went to security expenditure and salaries. Development was largely forgotten.
But what is often ignored in the just-ified criticisms of state officials is the complicity of self-interested outsiders. For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation was keen to establish firm ties with Juba both before and after independence, in order to become a major political player in East Africa. But flowing oil has done little for the local population.
In 2015, to protect its economic interests, China deployed 1051 combat-ready troops to bolster the UN mission in South Sudan. The other, less publicly discussed agenda was to protect its financial posit-ion in an unstable nation. This signals a significant shift in Beijing’s thinking towards Africa. There are now at least 3000 Chinese soldiers, sailors, engineers and medical staff stationed across the continent.
According to Eric Olander, chief editor of the China Africa Project, China’s long-held ideology of non-interference is being tested in South Sudan. ‘At what point,’ he asks, ‘does a peace process where China is actively immersed in Juba’s domestic politics along with Beijing’s first deployment of combat-ready troops in Africa cross the line from peacekeeping to intervening in another country’s internal affairs?’
These geo-strategic manoeuvrings have no relevance for the millions of South Sudanese civilians suffering due to the conflict. In Wai, for instance, around 25,000 people live under trees and in a few mud shelters. There are no tents. Women and children sit on the ground almost motionless, mosquitoes buzzing around them, waiting for basic medical care and food handouts of oil and sorghum. It reminds me of the infamous images from Ethiopia in the 1980s. There are tens of thousands of others like this across South Sudan: communities left to fend for themselves because they cannot be accessed by aid groups. Nobody knows how many have died in the last few years due to starvation. No-one is counting the numbers.
These gruesome realities are at least condemned by the Obama administration, though it’s mostly lip-service. During Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia in July, he accused Kiir and Machar of dragging their nation into the ‘despair of violence’. But the Obama years have seen significant – largely ignored – expansions of the US’ military footprint across Africa, including deepening relationships with some of the continent’s most brutal dictators. This has contributed to instability and abuses in Libya, Mali, the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere.
In his book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Nick Turse notes that at least forty-nine of Africa’s fifty-four countries have had some US military presence or involvement in the last decade. It’s arguably one of the greatest colonisation projects of the twenty-first century and virtually nobody knows about it. South Sudan was supposed to be central to this plan: a reliable client state in the heart of Africa, a base from which the US could challenge China’s growing military and political power on the continent. Its strategic importance for Washington, after years of losing influence to Chinese infrastructure and funding projects, has withered since the outbreak of the civil war. The failure of the US to assist in building infrastructure or to respond to human rights violations and state corruption has been critical in South Sudan’s ongoing instability.
But almost as soon as conflict erupted in 2013, Washington was distracted by the civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Uncritical praise for the South Sudanese regime soon became more circumspect, despite the billions of dollars being spent on propping up the government. One unnamed US official was recently reported as saying that ‘the parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify’.
Accountability for this catastrophe is difficult to find, especially from the high-profile American backers who spent years pushing for South Sudan’s independence. Few questions were asked on the suitability of South Sudanese leaders, their human rights record or their ability to manage a new state. This is hardly unsurprising: Beijing and Washington traditionally prefer partnering with reliable autocrats.
In the mid 1990s, a small group of American activists and officials began a campaign to push for South Sudanese independence. The three key individuals were Susan Rice (then assistant secretary of state for Africa, now Obama’s national security advisor), Gayle Smith (then at the National Security Council and now administrator of USAID) and John Prendergast (then at the National Security Council, soon the State Department and now co-founder of the Enough Project). Actor George Clooney later became active over Sudan’s abuses in Darfur. Arguably, South Sudan became a cause célèbre because helping build a new state seemed romantic and justified in a post-September 11 world.
Very few of these individuals looked too closely into who they were backing in South Sudan. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a leading Sudan expert, tells me that ‘South Sudan’s leaders believed that they had the backing of the US administration, with celebrity activists as their enforcers, to defy the rules of that club. The SPLA was permitted to get away with murder because they had a chorus of supporters who would unfailingly chant that the other side was worse.’
Thankfully, some have recognised the need for change. Last year the Enough Project launched ‘the Sentry’, a project targeting the financial enablers of violence in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa.
Meanwhile, in the southern town of Yei, near the borders with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an illusion of tranquillity. Many refugees fleeing Darfur and the Nuba Mountains reside here, and the dusty streets feel relatively peaceful. American and Australian evangelicals operate His House of Hope – Bet Eman Hospital for Women and Children and the Reconcile Peace Institute. Both organisations do important work, but nowhere is safe for long because of the sporadic outbreaks of violence. Civilians are scared, not trusting the words of politicians.
In South Sudan more generally, the hope that went with independence has largely evaporated. There is currently no indication that a comprehensive and sustainable peace deal will completely stop the violence and allow the country to develop its infrastructure and resources. A UN report from earlier this year concludes that both Kiir and Machar should face sanctions for their roles in the war. Without concerted international pressure to cease the violence and to establish accountable trials and a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, South Sudan is destined to remain mired in conflict. Its determined people deserve far better from the major global powers that, just a few years ago, promised them the world.
My investigative feature in The Nation:
efore its failed occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union discovered that the country was rich in natural resources. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts drafted maps and collected data that would lay dormant in the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban. These charts documented a vast amount of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium.
Fearing what the Taliban might do with this wealth, a tiny group of Afghan geologists hid the maps in their homes until the arrival of American forces in 2001. By 2007, the US Geological Survey had undertaken the most comprehensive study of the mineral deposits below the country’s surface. An internal Pentagon memo claimed that Afghanistan could develop into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the mineral that is an integral component of laptop and smartphone batteries.
Washington was ecstatic about the findings and in 2010 claimed that at least $1 trillion in resources was up for grabs. “There is stunning potential here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, speaking to The New York Times. US officials said that the deposits could sustain the Afghan economy and generate thousands of jobs, reducing corruption and reliance on foreign aid. Currently, with 60 percent of the country’s budget provided by foreign donors, outside investment is crucial. Acknowledging the inability of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to handle a burgeoning resource industry, the US government pledged to help implement accountability mechanisms. However, regulations like the mining law—revised in 2014 to bring greater transparency—have had little effect on illegal mining and the non-payment of royalties.
The warning signs were there. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” Jack Medlin, a geologist in the US Geological Survey’s international-affairs program, told the Times. During my visit to Afghanistan in May, I often heard from locals that the resource industry was never going to provide enough money to support the economy once foreign aid dried up. Afghan mining expert Javed Noorani told The Nation that President Ashraf Ghani is “more constrained in his actions against the criminal networks operating in the mining sector than President [Hamid] Karzai was. Today there is open plunder of gemstones by the partners in his government, and his silence and passivity puzzle me, like many others.”
Mining and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba told Iranian mining officials in October that only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s mines had been identified, indicating that the US mineral survey perhaps wasn’t as comprehensive as claimed. In 2015, according to Saba, the government will earn only $30 million from resources for the third consecutive year—far less than the projected $1.5 billion. “Unfortunately, we have failed to well manage and well control our mining sector,” the minister told Bloomberg News in October. “With the current fragile and messy situation, it’s really hard to say when Afghanistan should expect any profits from it.”
* * *
The facts on the ground explain the troubles. Logar Province hasn’t seen peace for decades. Situated close to Kabul, the country’s capital, the area was a main supply route for the American-backed mujahideen as they poured in from Pakistan in the late 1970s and early ’80s during the Soviet occupation. Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist visited the province in 1982 and commented that “the most common sight, except for ruins, are graves.”
By 1995, the Taliban controlled Logar, and today, all sides of the modern Afghan conflict intersect there. Insurgents rule large swaths of the area, and suicide bombings kill civilians and Afghan security forces. The locals are caught between the Taliban, a small but growing Islamic State (ISIS) presence, and Afghan troops.
Logar is also home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, at Mes Aynak. The Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) controls the $3 billion mine, having obtained rights to the area in 2007, but operations haven’t commenced because of security concerns and the discovery by archaeologists of ancient Buddhist relics dating back to the Bronze Age.
Local and international archaeologists have spent years finding, cleaning, and preserving the relics, and they remain opposed to the mine. Nor do they have much faith that the security situation would allow the mine to operate successfully. One Afghan archaeologist working at the site, Aziz Wafa, told Reuters in April that “for the Chinese [violence] is a problem, but not for the Afghans. I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and I will die in a war.”
When Ghani visited Beijing in October 2014, he was asked by the Chinese government to cut the royalty rate from 19.5 percent to roughly 10 percent, which would cost the Afghan government an estimated $114 million annually. Chinese frustrations with the project, especially regarding the lack of security, were behind the demands.
MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, and the Afghan government has few if any other companies willing to take over the contract in such a volatile region. Global copper prices have dropped 40 percent since 2011; there’s no reliable transportation route for taking the metal out of the landlocked country; and MCC withdrew its workers from the site in 2014. The firm claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be indirectly created if operations commenced. MCC refused my requests for comment.
Logar Province is dangerous, unfriendly to outsiders, and only marginally safe to visit before the afternoon fades into night. I drove there in May with Noorani—who is also a founding member of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting mining-affected communities across the country—and the American filmmaker Thor Neureiter. The journey from Kabul took us over paved roads and past lonely gas stations, chicken sellers, men in salwar kameez and beanies, and many burqa-clad women. Closer to Davo, a village near Aynak, the landscape became lush, with vast green fields, mud houses, and a skyline hazy from heat.
On the ground in Logar Province, civilians are angry, frustrated, and scared. Mohammed Nazir Muslimyar told me that “life is no longer normal here because of the mine. There’s too much hardship. There are engineers in this community who are doing very low-level jobs.” The advertised benefits of Afghanistan’s mining boom had not reached Davo.
I arrived at a mud compound as American helicopters flew overhead and was quickly ushered into an open room with red rugs on the floor. Ten men with long beards, white turbans, salwar kameez, and brown waistcoats were waiting to share their stories, and chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan said our presence could result in the insurgents intimidating them after we’d left. Over piping-hot tea and biscuits, Mirjan told me that the Chinese had confiscated his family’s property and never paid compensation or explained what they were doing. There was an information vacuum filled with rumors spread by scared locals, corrupt officials, and the Taliban.
“People have been displaced, and there’s been no incentive or employment offered to local people,” Mirjan said. “When the roads are built for the mine, water in the area will be affected. When extraction begins, it will get more polluted under the ground, in the air and the soil. There’s been no good intention on the part of the government and the company. If there were, the small village where I come from would have had some peace over the last five years. We feel like we’ve been invaded.”
Mirjan explained that the police we saw stationed near his home “were to protect the company, not us. They will never come to defend us.” The Taliban attacked these forces almost daily. Meanwhile, the police insulted and beat up the local shepherds, who weren’t allowed to graze their sheep around the mine site. Mirjan and some other elders weren’t absolutely opposed to the MCC’s mine; they would accept its presence if the revenues were spent on developing the local infrastructure, including dams, canals, and electrical service. “We want to turn this into a sustainable economy,” he said. “If the mining elite spend the money on building villas in Kabul, it’s not going to be any benefit to us.”
Despite years of protest by civil-society activists and international NGOs, the contract between the MCC and the Afghan government was never released publicly. Finally, Kabul posted the contract online this year with very little fanfare. The document proposed only lax environmental protections as well as a feasibility study that was never undertaken. According to public comments by Saba, the MCC didn’t consider the social costs of its proposed operations (although the Afghan government was also neglecting its responsibilities when it signed the deal).
During my visit to the country in May, Saba refused to speak to me about his ministry’s work, despite repeated requests for an interview. The Ghani administration was just as secretive and as unaccountable as its predecessor under Karzai. After trying for weeks to obtain an interview with Saba, I spoke to his chief of staff, Shafiqullah Shahrani, who repeatedly assured me that the Aynak mine would go forward and that the local residents were being consulted about how it might benefit them. When I informed him that I had just visited the area and been told the exact opposite, he defended his government’s commitment to raising revenue.
President Obama’s recent announcement of an indefinite continuation of US military presence in the country—9,800 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of private contractors—will result in no meaningful change to this reality. In fact, it may even worsen the insurgency with the expansion of militias under the Afghan Local Police, as such groups have become notorious for heinous abuses across the state. Village elders in Logar Province have said that their livelihoods are increasingly threatened around the Aynak mine because of these lawless militias. In Davo, Mirjan said that the international community—especially the United States—has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan since 2001 and that “it was stolen. Very little of it came to the people.”
* * *
In April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government body, released a report noting that Washington “did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries.” Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries, supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.
This money, SIGAR explained, did nothing to build a viable and well-regulated mining industry in Afghanistan. Instead, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum lacked “the technical capacity to research, award, and manage new contracts without external support,” while the US government—including USAID and the Defense Department—had failed in its mission to help create “self-sustaining Afghan extractive industries,” which “still seems a very distant goal.”
Take one project central to US government strategy: the Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline in northern Afghanistan. Originally built by the Soviet Union, the pipeline is just one example of how US resource strategies—in this case, to help Afghan engineers repair and maintain aging and damaged equipment—led nowhere. SIGAR found in 2014 that rampant corrosion had left the pipeline in poor shape, and the $33.7 million invested by the US government between 2011 and 2014 had not contributed to its stability. A SIGAR official told The Nationthat this project was now viewed by USAID and the State Department as a “liability…due to safety concerns, lack of sustainability, and other problems.”
The SIGAR official pointed out that the “development of mineral resources is a long-term endeavor and not a quick fix for Afghanistan’s budgetary challenges…. Unfortunately, US assistance in this area does not appear to have [made] much of a difference, and the sector shows virtually no signs of measurably improving in the immediate future.” The SIGAR official also admitted that the Defense Department had offered no response to the April audit and that USAID had “not yet implemented any of [our] recommendations.”
Illegal mining is also rampant throughout Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 such sites raising money for warlords and the insurgency. Historically, Pakistan has been a major recipient of these illicitly obtained minerals. A SIGAR report found that illegal mining has been costing the state up to $300 million annually since the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Insecurity in eastern Nangarhar Province and elsewhere prompted Saba to warn Afghan lawmakers in 2015 that monitoring the thousands of mines around the country was impossible and that the complete and unrestrained looting of local resources could happen in the absence of a peace deal with the Taliban.
A senior source at the US embassy in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told me that mineral revenues today were barely enough to support the operations of the mining ministry itself. He claimed that although Ghani now recognizes that natural resources won’t resolve the country’s budgetary problems, no alternative solutions have been proposed. “China is absolutely waiting in the wings, with many transport corridors and investment options [contingent on] improved Afghan security,” he explained. “They take a longer view and will be players in time, but for now they’ve been burned over copper [at Aynak], so they’ve stepped back.”
Yet mining remains a key plank of the Ghani administration’s economic plans as international aid dwindles. Stephen Carter, the Afghanistan campaign leader at Global Witness, told The Nation that after meeting with Ghani this year in Kabul, he sensed a new “sensible, strategic approach from the government—they have said they do not want to do any large-scale mining” (Aynak is the major exception), “and even small-scale is doubtful until they get stronger oversight and management capacity.” But, Carter added, “the government will inevitably be judged on actions, not words, and the next six months will be crucial. If there is not progress in substantive reforms in this time frame, it will be very worrying.” Six months after those comments were made, the signs are ominous: There is no evidence that the Ghani government is willing or able to eradicate the massive mineral theft by the Taliban or to institute a regulated resource sector.
Whether Afghanistan should actively pursue a mining industry or ignore its vast mineral wealth is a contentious issue. Pajhwok Afghan News journalist Ahmad Zia Rahimzai told me in Kabul that “many Afghans believe that our resources should stay in the ground until laws and accountability in the country are stronger.” Arguably, the risks incurred by leaving resources in the ground are both fewer and less severe than those posed by rampant exploitation. Noorani has argued that the Ghani administration should “leave the resources underground” because warlords control today’s industry. Indeed, minerals are the Taliban’s second major source of funds, after narcotics.
Global Witness’s Carter concurs, arguing that only in the long term should the country pursue mining: “It is too important a source of revenue and growth to ignore, given the desperate need, [but] be ready not to mine for however long it takes to put in place the right structures.” At this point, Afghanistan is years away from such a resolution.
* * *
The hazards posed by climate change and environmental degradation appear nowhere in the US government’s assessments of the Afghan resource industry. Mining without environmental safeguards guarantees worsening air and water pollution. Countless residents of Kabul visit hospitals every day because of health complications caused by poor air quality. Open sewers and the burning of dung only add to the problem. The illegal and uncontrolled extraction of coal happens daily across the city. In addition to low-quality fuel, Afghanistan is already suffering seasonal shifts in its rain and snowfall, and many farmers complain of declining agricultural yields due to climate change. A huge mining industry in vulnerable parts of the country would only exacerbate these issues.
Carter pointed to the increasingly international initiative to leave resources in the ground to reduce global temperatures. “Afghanistan should be first in line for compensation in return for nonexploitation,” he said, “which might also provide a chance to get the money out of the hands” of local warlords.
President Obama, during his announcement in October of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan, claimed that US troops “could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve.” He was against fighting an “endless war,” he said. But that’s exactly what Afghanistan has become: the longest war in American history. In terms of civilian casualties, 2014 was the deadliest year for the people of Afghanistan since the United Nations started compiling figures in 2009. Today, nobody is seriously talking about a viable resource industry funding the country’s future. Indefinite occupation is the preferred solution.
My feature in Foreign Policy:
BENTIU, South Sudan — Every day, some 200 people stream into Bentiu, the site of South Sudan’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Women trudge past armed U.N. peacekeepers while carrying large pots and bags on their heads and tiny children in their arms. They sit on the cracked brown earth in the blistering sun and heat, sometimes for hours, waiting to be fingerprinted. Camp workers photograph children for identification purposes, while the World Health Organization and other medical groups vaccinate them against measles and cholera. Nearby, hundreds of camp residents gather as World Food Programme workers distribute basic food rations such as sorghum and oil.
Bentiu, in Unity state near the border with Sudan, sits at the center of South Sudan’s never-ending storm. The United Nations established the camp in December 2013 after a violent power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir’s ethnic Dinka forces and Nuer-majority rebels under the command of Riek Machar, his former deputy. More than 43,000 lived in the camp at the end of 2014, according to U.N. figures. Its population has now ballooned to 100,000, while 60,000 more live in similar, smaller facilities around the country.
Ruon David Kuol, a tall, 33-year-old man sporting a pressed purple- and white-striped shirt, arrived at the Bentiu camp from nearby Bentiu town in January 2014 with his wife and four children. But after five months, his family set off on foot for the Sudanese capital of Khartoum — some 580 miles away — leaving him behind. They did not feel safe at Bentiu, a place where women are often raped and killed by soldiers when they leave the camp for firewood and charcoal, Kuol said. It’s a problem across South Sudan. On July 21, Human Rights Watch issued a report implicating soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s military, and militias in mass rape, looting, the burning of homes, and spreading widespread destruction across Unity.
“Living here is not like home. But my house was burned down by government troops. I cannot leave the camp, even [for] Bentiu town [just] down the road. I’m too scared,” said Kuol, who now serves as a liaison between his community and the camp authorities and who wants the “war crimes” being committed in his country to stop. “The guilty must be held accountable,” he said.
Such justice seems a dim prospect here, a country of 11 million where tens of thousands have died in the fighting between Kiir and Machar. Already dilapidated infrastructure, schools, and medical facilities have collapsed, and the economy is in free-fall, as some 7.8 million suffer from food insecurity; this year, South Sudan topped the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. According to U.N. figures from this July, there are now some 1.6 million IDPs in South Sudan, and nearly 608,000 South Sudanese refugees live in neighboring countries. Currently, some 11,500 overstretched U.N. peacekeepers are stationed across South Sudan.
With the government and international community both unable or unwilling to broker peace, the desperate plight of IDPs like Kuol and his family will grow only more dire. “The country is different shades of shit,” one senior U.N. official in the capital, Juba, said.
Flying this month into Bentiu on a U.N. helicopter, one could see abandoned, burned-out buildings, as well as tens of thousands of cattle gathered near the center of town. The heavy rains had left behind lush, green fields.
The International Organization for Migration says it has registered 6,000 civilians in the area, but the government claims there are 15,000 people in Bentiu town, mostly IDPs. The discrepancy is hard to explain. But the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an independent humanitarian organization tasked with camp management in Bentiu, said that government officials could be exaggerating numbers to receive more supplies for their own men — a pervasive but tough-to-prove allegation heard across South Sudan. “It should be the job of the government to help its own people,” DRC’s Gilbert Ogeto said.
Nature also seems to be conspiring against those in the camp. When the rain pours in Bentiu, it’s like a torrent of gray and red mud turns everything into porridge. Shopkeepers selling cell phones, flip-flops, sugar, clothes, and other basics navigate the onslaught.
During the rainy season in 2014, thousands of people lived in makeshift shelters in Bentiu’s U.N. camp, where they waded through waters reaching to their waists. Conditions were abominable, with the camp flooding and children drowning in their own homes. Roughly four children under age 5 were dying every day due to disease and malnutrition.
Determined not to face a repeat of this situation in 2015, U.N. officials used the dry months to begin raising land and installing water channels. In 2015, the U.N. and the International Organization for Migration oversaw the expansion of the camp to accommodate the influx of civilians. The new, stronger houses, built from bamboo and plastic sheets, are more resistant to the natural elements. Many IDPs are excited about living in these structures, though weary of war and uncertain when they’ll be able to return home.
But few observers expected the surge of IDPs at Bentiu, a surge largely due to the increased fighting in surrounding areas, Ogeto said. “There were plans to expand the facility in early 2015 for an additional 40,000 people. Now there are over 100,000, and we [are] planning for 120,000,” he added. A U.N. official also said that the facility couldn’t manage the “projected” IDP numbers, and many NGOs worry about being able to fund their activities if the numbers greatly exceed 100,000.
While officials are impressed with improvements to the camp, they know that ensuring its total security is impossible. Gunmen, allegedly SPLA troops, have sneaked into the Bentiu camp this year and killed residents. Armed government soldiers stalk its periphery, whose protective barriers and fences are easily breached. Barbed wire to fully secure the expanded areas is also in short supply. “Secure means different things to different people,” one U.N. security consultant remarked, acknowledging the impossibility of completely securing a site with over 100,000 people.
James Madut Ruei, a 50-year-old community elder, has lived in the Bentiu camp for 18 months and has witnessed the worst of the atrocities — including those by the SPLA. In April, government forces began an 18-month campaign against the rebels in Unity. On June 30, the U.N. issued a report alleging that the SPLA has engaged in major human rights abuses. Ruei spoke of a particularly grisly incident, also detailed in the report, of soldiers, reportedly fueled by ethnic hatred, raping women and girls before pushing some of them into huts and burning them alive. “It’s too much. It’s genocide. Only God knows when things will improve,” Ruei said. He often feels helpless in the face of the conflict, he said, and wants the international community, especially the United States, to pressure South Sudanese leaders to broker peace.
None of the horrors of Bentiu were inevitable. They rose, instead, only after the United States and the rest of the international community turned its back on South Sudan.
For decades, Christians in the United States had championed the cause of Christian-majority South Sudan in the region’s bloody fight with Muslim neighbors to the north. They found a strong backer in then-President George W. Bush, whose administration pushed for the peace talks that led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan. In 2011, President Barack Obama welcomed a newly independent South Sudan as a strategic asset against a resurgent China in Africa. But when the conflict between Kiir and Machar exploded in 2013, Washington was distracted by other things, like the rise of the Islamic State and the war in Syria. Key U.S. posts, including ambassador and special envoy to South Sudan, sat empty for many months as weapons and support flowed to both sides of the conflict from China, Uganda, Sudan, and Israel.
In the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence, through media appearances and meetings with U.S. and U.N. officials, high-profile Westerners like actor George Clooney and John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, campaigned vigorously for South Sudan’s independence, with seemingly little thought for the bloody consequences to come. Fortunately, Clooney and Prendergast are now demanding that the United States, South Sudan, and its neighbors pursue a new peace process, one with “biting consequences for those South Sudanese government and rebel leaders who continue to fan the flames of war and who are completely insulated from the suffering of their people,” as they wrote with a colleague in a recent article. Clooney and Prendergast have also launched a campaign to target the money fueling Africa’s worst conflicts. “With billions in oil revenues missing from state coffers, hundreds of acres of land bartered away for pennies on the dollar, and currency speculation running rampant, South Sudan was hijacked by violent kleptocrats long before it became an independent state,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, in congressional testimony on July 10.
In an interview earlier this year with Foreign Policy, Princeton Lyman, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan in 2010 and 2011, said that Washington’s use of contractors instead of the U.S. military to work alongside South Sudan’s military was a key failing. He argued that the split between Kiir and Machar might have been avoided with deeper U.S. military engagement. “We would have seen the cracks that occurred in December 2013. We might have been able to anticipate it more and do something more about it,” he said.
As the months wore on through 2014 and into this year, Juba felt forgotten by Washington and the international community. The government’s relationship with U.N. officials, in particular, deteriorated sharply, imperiling those at the Bentiu camp and others like it. Speaking off the record, countless U.N. officials at the camp said that Kiir’s government has grown less tolerant of public criticism of its actions. Toby Lanzer, the former top U.N. official in the country, was kicked out in June by the government for being overtly critical of the regime, and other U.N. officials have been threatened with expulsion for placing blame for the endless fighting and abuses on the military and government. South Sudan’s government is also currently blocking passage of a U.N. food barge on the Nile, the latest restriction on civilians getting much needed supplies in rebel-controlled areas. As a result of the growing acrimony, U.N. sources say, the organization now rarely publicly challenges official actions by South Sudan’s government. The U.N. also stands accused of turning a blind eye to a Canadian aid worker who was raped in 2015 at its Bentiu camp.
The U.N.’s patience with the South Sudanese government is wearing thin. While there is no indication that the U.N. will leave South Sudan or be kicked out anytime soon, a senior U.N. official in Bentiu was exasperated with the war’s escalation and the apparent lack of urgency by the government to end it. “Even if the U.N. leaves tomorrow,” he said, “civilians would flee to Sudan, and the South Sudanese government still wouldn’t feed its own people.”
South Sudan seems to be mimicking Sudan’s fraught relationship with the U.N., but “they’re not as clever,” one senior U.N. official said in Juba, “but getting better. They believe they can militarily defeat the rebels or its leader, Machar, will die or be killed. I don’t think the government will yet kick out the U.N. entirely because they still crave international support and legitimacy.”
U.S. policymakers are finally signaling a shift toward accepting reality. On July 9, the four-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, criticized by many Africa watchers as being too close to the continent’s dictators, issued a statement congratulating South Sudan on its independence, while ripping into Kiir and Machar “and their cronies [who] are personally responsible for this new war and self-inflicted disaster.” She promised that the United States, “along with the international community, will punish those determined to drive South Sudan into the abyss.”
Calls from activists in the United States and Africa for Obama to strongly engage the South Sudan issue during his visit to Africa were strong. On July 27, the president and regional officials met to discuss the creation of a regional intervention force and the potential for harsher sanctions against South Sudanese leaders. He condemned both Kiir and Machar during his speech to the African Union in Ethiopia. The International Crisis Group released a report on July 27 that argued that a regional solution to the war is “the best — if imperfect — chance to end the conflict and prevent further regionalisation.”
Things in Bentiu, meanwhile, are unlikely to change anytime soon. Nyamai Marko Liah, 27, and Nyawai Puot Chuol, 30, arrived in Bentiu in early July, each with four children. They wore clean, colorful dresses. They’re both married to the same man, Nyak Nong, who escaped to Sudan at the outbreak of the conflict. They haven’t seen him since, but occasionally speak to him via satellite phone. “If I could meet President Kiir and rebel leader Machar,” Liah told me, “I’d ask them to negotiate.… But we don’t see any sign of peace in this country.”
My weekly Guardian column:
Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.
Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.
Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.
After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.
This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.
In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.
The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.
Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.
Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.
The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.
The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.
How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.
Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.
But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.
Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.
When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.
I’m happy to have recently signed this statement on Washington’s unprovoked aggression against Venezuela (via Telesur):
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has added his name to a growing list of Australian journalists, academics, politicians, trade unionists and solidarity activists calling on U.S. president Barack Obama to revoke his executive order against Venezuelan .
On March 9, Obama issued the order which imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan state officials and deemed Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
In response, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (Melbourne), with the support of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network, initiated an open letter to Obama.
The letter has over 70 signatories, including Assange, renowned journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, two socialist local councillors, officials from four different trade unions, academics from ten universities, and representatives from a range of political parties and solidarity organisations.
The letter urges the U.S. president to revoke the executive order and “stop interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and cease making reckless public statements regarding Venezuela’s democratic processes.”
It also encourages Obama to “demonstrate to Latin America that the U.S. is capable of establishing relations based on the principles of peace and with respect for their sovereignty.”
Obama’s recent actions have seen relations continue to sour between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Panama April 10-11, numerous regional heads of states expressed their support for Venezuela and called on Obama to revoke the executive order.
My weekly Guardian column:
The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.
This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.
Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”
In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.
Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.
While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.
Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”
A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.
The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.
The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.
The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”
When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?
Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.
The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.
Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.
My weekly Guardian column:
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.