My investigation in US magazine The Nation (print and online) about Israel privatising its occupation of Palestinian land. It’s co-written with the great, London-based journalist Matt Kennard. This work continues my years-long research into disaster capitalism globally:
t’s 4:30 am with the moon still high in the sky, but Palestinians from across the West Bank are already disembarking from buses outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. They’re about to begin a day’s work on the other side of the separation wall, in Israel.
among the highest in the world, according to the United Nations), it’s always extremely busy at this early hour, because Palestinians need work, which is more readily available in Israel, especially in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.Qalandia is one of the busiest checkpoints through which Palestinians with the required work documents can travel from the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel. With unemployment around 26 percent in the West Bank (in Gaza, it’s far worse—
Roughly 63,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, though it’s estimated that 120,000 Palestinians work for Israelis; 27,000 of them are employed in illegal industrial zones in the West Bank that are operated and owned by Israeli companies, and 30,000 of them work illegally in Israel because they’re unable to obtain the necessary work permits. Permits to work in Israel are routinely revoked for spurious “security” reasons, and Palestinians are rarely given a reason for rejection. Since the so-called “knife intifada” last October, Israel revoked thousands of permits, citing fears of Palestinian terrorism, and the Israeli government is currently discussing a sizable reduction in the tax breaks granted to Palestinian laborers in Israel, which would make a significant dent in their already-meager wages.
In the early hours of the morning, Palestinian men (and only a handful of women) rush to beat the long lines and frequent Israeli closures at the checkpoint entrance. Such activity seems incongruous in the predawn hours, when the stark neon lights of the checkpoint are the only illumination for these harried workers. Many smoke cigarettes as they wait in line; one man wears a T-shirt with the words “Chicken Revolution” on the back.
The warehouse-like checkpoint looks like a cattle pen on the inside: Metal bars on either side and above form a narrow chute, enclosing and herding the workers—many of whom have traveled from villages more than an hour away—toward the point where their documents will be checked by Israeli officials. They then wait on the Israeli side for transport from their employers.
For years, these checkpoints were manned by personnel from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Border Police. But starting in January 2006, gun-toting private security guards joined the soldiers and police. Today, there are 12 checkpoints in the West Bank and two on the Gaza border that use such guards. Israel is slowly privatizing its occupation.
Many of the Palestinians we speak to are unaware of the changes. As far as they’re concerned, any Israeli with a gun and a badge is licensed to humiliate them. Day laborer Imad (like most Palestinians we interviewed, he didn’t want to give his last name) is standing in line at Qalandia and smoking a cigarette. He has slicked-back hair and wears a gray T-shirt. “If they are supposed to help, they don’t,” he says of the private security guards. “They are no different from the army.”
Just after 6 am, armed figures who initially look like Israeli soldiers start turning up; they’re wearing uniforms darker than the traditional olive green of the IDF, with a badge that reads “Ezrachi.” The company Modi’in Ezrachi is the largest security contractor currently employed by the Israeli government, and its personnel were among the first private guards the government used to staff its checkpoints. They can also be seen checking public buses in Jerusalem, protecting Jewish compounds in mostly Arab East Jerusalem (with the guards accused of terrorizing Palestinians and enabling settler violence), and standing watch at the city’s Western Wall plaza. Modi’in Ezrachi has repeatedly breached Israeli labor laws by underpaying its workers, along with other violations, but this has had no effect on its ability to get government contracts. This is a trend we’ve witnessed in many other nations, including Australia, Britain, the United States, and Greece, where governments and private security firms collude to avoid responsibility. (Modi’in Ezrachi did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its activities.)
When it comes to private security, the IDF, and the police, “we can’t differentiate between them,” says Reham, a 22-year-old medical and psychology student at An-Najah University in Nablus. Reham, who hails from Jerusalem, has six more years of study before she’s qualified to become a doctor. We speak to her and her friends just outside the chaotic Qalandia terminal.
“It’s miserable,” Reham continues. “Sometimes there are many people there, and you have to wait a long time. Sometimes you have to wait for an hour.” She was unaware that the checkpoints were being gradually privatized. “I haven’t noticed it. People take it [security] as a job.”
There’s a long history of humiliation inflicted on Palestinians at checkpoints. The Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem has released countless reports over the years documenting the abuse. The Israeli women’s organization Machsom Watch has been monitoring the checkpoints since 2001 and advocating on behalf of Palestinians whose work-permit applications are unfairly rejected.
Reham explains her own experience. “It depends on the individual soldier or policeman,” she says. “Sometimes they let you go; they don’t talk to you. Generally, girls are more mean than boys—I don’t know why that is.”
The Israeli NGO Who Profits, which tracks the private-sector companies cashing in on the illegal occupation of the West Bank, released a reportearlier this year that lifted the lid on this trend. “In recent decades,” the report stated, “many military responsibilities were handed over to private civilian companies, turning the private security industry into one of the fastest growing industries in Israel.”
PRIVATE MUSCLE IN THE LAWLESS ZONE
As the sun rises on another hot August day, its rays hit the separation wall near the Qalandia checkpoint; on it, one can see ads for apartments in Palestine. Coffee sellers do a roaring business among those waiting in line. A wall near the checkpoint features a large painting of men—“martyrs” to locals—from Qalandia village who have been killed by Israeli security forces.
On one level, it’s a mystery why Israel feels it needs more muscle at these checkpoints. Palestinians passing through already face a maze of confusion, and another level of security bureaucracy hasn’t helped. But even if more muscle is needed, why not just send more soldiers? After all, Israel has a captive security labor force in its large conscript army, which requires three years’ service for men and two for women (and reserve duty is obligatory for men until age 51 and for women until age 24).
Iyad Haddad, a 53-year-old field researcher with B’Tselem for the past 15 years, has spent his whole career investigating Israeli human-rights abuses against Palestinians. “Before, the Israeli forces were clear, with a clear uniform,” he tells us in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. “Sometimes, before the second intifada [which began in fall of 2000], they used undercover units by using civilian dress. But in that period, I don’t remember that they used private groups. But after the second intifada, I started to notice that there is a different type of tactic: using private Israeli forces and companies at checkpoints, guarding the barrier, doing security on the barrier and in the jails. Also guarding the settlements.”
“The Invisible Force,” which compared private security in Colombia, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, the International Institute for Nonviolent Action found: “Outsourcing began with the delegation of non-military services such as catering, transportation and other logistic services, then continued with the construction of military systems, including the separation Wall, and finally included the delegation of some of its functions of maintenance of public order and security in the [occupied Palestinian territories].”This move was part of a global trend, from Iraq to Colombia, in which private security and military companies increasingly began to assume state functions. Most companies started with more mundane operations but ended up carrying out those involving violence. In their 2016 report
It has become more confusing for Haddad to figure out who has committed violations, as many Palestinians aren’t aware that they’re dealing with private security forces. “Sometimes, Palestinians describe to me forces that I can’t recognize,” he says. He believes this is one of the main reasons Israel has turned to these companies. “They use them to escape accountability, especially because the people can’t recognize them, and it becomes easier for them to use force when they want [to do so] without accountability. Instructions regarding Israeli or international law are easier to escape via private forces.”
Haddad’s hunch seems to be correct. At the Qalandia checkpoint this past April, two Palestinians—Maram Saleh Abu Ismail, 23, and her brother Ibrahim Saleh Taha, 16—were shot dead by Modi’in Ezrachi guards. It was one of the first high-profile killings carried out by private security guards at a West Bank checkpoint. The siblings, who witnesses said didn’t seem to understand instructions in Hebrew, were branded “terrorists” by the Israeli police because one of them, Ismail, allegedly threw a knife at officers. Not long afterward, the justice ministry announced that it was dropping an investigation into the killings without charging anyone. The Israeli defense minister’s office, the IDF, and Modi’in Ezrachi all ignored our questions about the incident.
In theory, these private security guards could be prosecuted in Israeli courts since they’re not protected under Israeli law in the same way as police and soldiers. However, an Israeli court placed a gag order on the case (partially lifted in October), making it impossible to see footage of the shootings and prove the security guards were at fault. The family of the victims were given no recourse to justice. In this way, privatized occupation enforcement serves the interests of the Israeli state.
In its 2014 report “The Lawless Zone,” the Israeli nonprofit Yesh Din wrote that private security forces “are equipped with IDF weapons, undergo military training, and are empowered to undertake policing actions, such as searches and detentions, and to use force.”
At the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, which is surrounded by Israel’s separation wall, we witnessed Ezrachi guards checking the documents of bus and car passengers, taking on many of the roles that used to be done solely by state security forces or police. When we approached the guards, they scowled at us and told us to leave. Black smoke from burning rubbish, collecting near the separation wall, wafted through the air.
When we contacted the Israeli Ministry of Defense for comment about its matrix of control across the West Bank, we were told that “some of the crossings receive assistance from companies specializing in security and protection.” The ministry advised us to speak to the IDF for further details, because “the crossing points around Jerusalem” are its responsibility. But the IDF told us, “The Ministry of Defense is the appropriate body to speak with on this subject.” It was a Kafkaesque dead end that gave us a small window into the impossibility facing Palestinians who seek justice for loved ones killed or injured by private security contractors.
THE ETHOS OF PRIVATIZATION
From its founding in 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel was supported by much of the global left, which saw it as a socialist nation committed to social justice and equality. True, this was always a convenient myth that ignored the endemic and state-sponsored discrimination against the Arab minority (in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens lived under direct military rule from the end of the 1948 war until 1966). Until the mid-1970s, Israel had one of the smallest wealth gaps in the West (for Jews), with the welfare state providing decent support for its Jewish population. But by the mid-1990s, the gap between rich and poor had skyrocketed. Israeli academic Daniel Gutwein, who teaches at the University of Haifa, writesthat “Israel’s ethos of social solidarity has been replaced by an ethos of privatization.”
Of course, after Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the state never considered granting universal welfare coverage to Palestinians in the newly conquered territories. Palestinians under occupation were subject to military rule, a policy that continues to this day.
From the late 1970s, right-wing governments in Israel, led by the Likud Party, argued that dismantling the welfare state was the best way to liberalize the economy. Simha Erlich, Israel’s finance minister from 1977 until 1979, boasted that hardline economist and privatization zealot Milton Friedman was his economic adviser.
Shir Hever, author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation (2010) and a graduate student at the Free University of Berlin who specializes in security privatization, says: “In 1985, as the World Bank and the IMF imposed ‘structural adjustment plans’ on developing countries struggling with debt, the Israeli government voluntarily adopted such a plan. The Israeli ‘Stabilization Plan’ of 1985 was a transformative moment in the country’s economy, marking the shift from a social-democratic, planned market into a neoliberal one.”
Hever continues: “Actual privatization of large government-owned companies started in the 1990s, and privatization in the defense sector followed later, first with the sale of factories out of government-owned arms companies, and later with massive outsourcing of security operations to private companies during the second intifada.” Israel was following the model set by Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, the US military industry encouraged the Israelis to privatize their weapons industry.
Hever argues that privatization in Israel was driven by the same factors leading the charge internationally: “Private-sector investors used neoliberal ideology to claim that the government was inefficient in running businesses and were able to buy Israel’s telecommunications giant, its largest airline, its giant shipping company, oil refineries, and all but one of its banks at fire-sale prices.”
Health, labor, and education were targeted, and it wasn’t long before Israel’s middle class began to suffer from the brutal discipline of market forces. A calamitous drop in union representation and reduced regulations corresponded with falling living conditions. By the 2000s, membership in the Histadrut labor organization had dropped by two-thirds, from a figure of 2 million in the early 1990s. (Over the past decade, however, Israel has a seen a steady increase in union membership, as the country’s population struggles to survive financially.)
Today, the results of outsourcing are clear. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to selling off billions of dollars in state assets, a policy he’s proudly championed for years and one he started during his first term in office in the late 1990s. But the Israeli public is paying a high price. Israel now has the highest poverty level among the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to UNICEF, in 2016 Israel showed the highest level of inequality among children in the world’s 41 most developed states, with one-third living below the poverty line. In 2015, Israel’s National Insurance Institute estimated that there were 1.7 million poor people in the country, out of a population of about 8 million. The pay gap has also widened, and increases in the cost of living and high rents led to massive protests in 2011.
But not everybody is suffering. The country’s military establishment is both privatizing the weapons sector and selling this technology abroad. Israeli writer and activist Jeff Halper argues in his book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and the Global Pacification (2015) that the occupation isn’t a burden for Israel but a “resource,” because it gives the Jewish state the opportunity to test weapons and surveillance in the field on Palestinians, along with assisting other states in their military and intelligence needs. Growing numbers of European and US officials have been visiting Israel in recent years to learn about its security and defense systems.
Take the Israeli company Magal Security Systems, which surrounded Gaza with fencing, assisted construction of the barrier along the Egyptian and Jordanian frontiers in recent years, and is bidding to build a wall on the Kenya-Somalia border to protect Kenyans from Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks. The company’s head, Saar Koursh, recently told Bloomberg that “the border business was down, but then came ISIS and the Syrian conflict. The world is changing, and borders are coming back big-time.”
reconsider arm deals with Israeli weapons companies.” Indeed, Hever questions the viability of Israel’s defense industry. “The arms sector in Israel is larger compared to the size of the economy than in any other country in the world,” he tells us, “but its relative share of the Israeli export market is declining.” In 2015, Israeli military exports were relatively flat, at $5.7 billion.This is just one way that Israel’s vast expertise in occupation, from militarizing borders to surveilling unwanted populations, has become a huge financial boon for one sector of the Israeli economy. It isn’t helping most of the population—poverty is rife, after all—and according to economist Hever, it’s not enough to insulate Israel from potential economic headwinds from the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. “BDS is not about the size of exports but awareness of international law,” he says. “Recently, BDS activists have made some advances in regards to the arms industry itself, starting a debate in the EU about the funneling of research funds into Israel’s arms industry and convincing key Brazilian politicians to
Private companies have been investing for years in the settlement project. But that involvement, as well as the amounts of money being made, have increased dramatically in the past decade. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, “Occupation Inc.,” that detailed how “Israeli and international businesses have helped to build, finance, service, and market settlement communities.” It added, “In many cases, businesses are ‘settlers’ themselves.”
For Israelis, the West Bank has become a kind of special economic zone, where settlements often provide more profitable business conditions—low rents, favorable tax rates, government subsidies, and access to cheap Palestinian labor—than in Israel proper. It’s a draw for Israeli companies, but also for the international market, and a lot of money is being made. Foreign direct investment in the West Bank and Gaza spiked from $9.5 million in 2002 to $300 million in 2009, before plateauing back to $120 million in 2015. The American computing behemoth Hewlett-Packard, for example, developed the biometric ID cards used by Israeli security forces at West Bank checkpoints.
HRW reports that there are 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones in the West Bank, covering about 1,365 hectares, with Israeli settlers overseeing the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land. The researchers conclude that “by virtue of doing business in or with settlements or settlement businesses, [foreign] companies contribute to…violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses.” This knowledge is beginning to have an effect.
This is one of the contradictions of privatization. While Israeli state transgressions of international law are generally ignored by its biggest benefactor, the United States (President Obama just gave Israel its largest-ever military-aid package), the BDS movement has claimed some key victories in terms of pressuring the private sector over affiliations with human-rights abuses in Palestine. For example, the French infrastructure firm Veolia announced in April 2015 that it was leaving Israel, while the British mobile-phone company Orange said just a few months later that it would terminate contracts with its Israeli partner.
This poses the question of whether the privatization of the occupation is making Israel more susceptible to international opprobrium, including boycotts. The security company G4S, the biggest private-sector security employer in the world, announced in 2014 that it was leaving Israel within three years and terminating its contracts with the Israeli prison system. (BDS claimed a victory, but when contacted by The Nation, G4S said that while it still planned for a full pullout by June 2017, “the decision to not renew the contracts was taken for commercial reasons.”) That system now holds 6,295 Palestinians as prisoners and security detainees (including, at the end of 2015, 116 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 15). In 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that plans for fully private prisons were unconstitutional. But many of the systems and products used in prison—from cameras to doors to alarm systems—are made or managed by private corporations.
With the Middle East aflame, and Israel selling itself as an island of stability amid a region in conflict, there are few compelling reasons why the Jewish state won’t continue to market itself as a model in how to manage unwanted populations, with private companies the beneficiaries of this policy. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the colonization is increasing. Without massive international pressure, it’s impossible to see how the outsourced occupation won’t become a permanent nightmare.
, a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, is the author of Antony LoewensteinDisaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
I visited Guinea-Bissau in 2015 to investigate its role as a key drug smuggling hub.
My following essay appears in the African Arguments website:
Despite being as poorly governed as Zimbabwe and Angola, and having some of the lowest social development indicators on the continent, Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa’s forgotten states. With a population of under two million people and life expectancy of just over 50 years, the tropical West African nation barely makes international headlines, seemingly destined to remain a nation with little to export except for cashews.
However, if the former Portuguese colony is known for one thing, it’s for being a central hub in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to Europe. The nation has been labelled a “narco-state” by the United Nations, with its state institutions – both government and military – known to consistently enable South American drug cartels to sell drugs across its borders.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has even claimed that Guinea-Bissau is the world’s only example of a narco-state, with one official commenting: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state.”
Also unlike Colombia, where chaos has helped drug cartels, it is the relative calm in Guinea-Bissau that has benefited the industry though political dysfunction is ubiquitous. Since independence in 1974, an elected leader is still yet to complete a full term, and it has now been a year since there has been a workable government in place. In 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira and an army chief-of-staff were assassinated, and since then a litany of military insurrections have cursed the nation with five separate individuals holding the top job at different times.
Guinea-Bissau’s financial state is also dire. In the words of Finance Minister Henrique Horta this June, “The economic situation of the country is catastrophic”. This has contributed to a situation in which the woefully under-paid army has often been a key conduit for smugglers, while much of the cocaine snorted in Europe will have passed through the hands of poor fishermen in Guinea-Bissau looking to make a few dollars a day.
Guinea-Bissau has few viable industries and despite the natural beauty of the Bissagos Islands, for example, tourism is minimal. Instead, drug traffickers utilise the remoteness of the islands to store and transport cocaine. On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no paved roads but runways used by drug smugglers to bring in their product. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in business due to stronger policing, but previously, local men got a regular income from unloading cocaine from boats and small planes from South America.
In the hopes of encouraging economic development, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have routinely given aid or loans. But this has instead facilitated corruption and led to a situation in which Guinea-Bissau is dependent on foreign aid for 80% of its annual budget. Even so, the IMF announced this September that it was considering giving yet more funds to a country with no functioning government.
Economically-speaking, China does seem to be looking to increase its engagement, and other countries are offering tentative support, but at it stands, the investment required to build up other industries such as tourism are simply unforthcoming.
Meanwhile, attempts to stop the nation being a drug transit point through more enforcement or legal have had mixed results. Through its Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, the US has invested huge resources. In 2014, this led to Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, pleading guilty in an American court to importing narcotics into the US. But this high-profile case had little pay-off. Na Tchuto was sentenced to only four years in prison in October this year. With time already served, he was released back to Guinea-Bissau.
A Herculean task
With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time. Edited by two academics from King’s College London – Patrick Chabal (who died in 2014) and Toby Green – the chapters examine the country’s history, politics and foreign relations. From agriculture and migration (many of its citizens flee across Africa and into Europe looking for employment opportunities) to the legacy of colonialism, Guinea-Bissau aims to highlight the rich history of one of Africa’s poorest countries.
This involves covering many difficulties facing the country, but as Green argues in his introduction, hope is not lost: “Unlike some of [its] neighbours such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Casamance region of Senegal, the country has not slipped into a prolonged civil war or rebellion”, he writes.
“Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image, and people frequently cooperate and marry across projected ‘ethnic divides’…The people have retained some autonomy and strength even through the worst passages of the political melt-down.”
Nevertheless, as the volume’s contributors explain by examining both historical and contemporary dynamics, Guinea-Bissau’s recent story is largely one of hopes dashed after independence and low expectations today.
Central to turning this around, of course, will be tackling the drug cartels, which are deeply embedded in the country’s political system. As Gambian historian Hassoum Ceesay explains: “While the narco-traffickers did not seize power, they were indeed extremely close to the centre of power; and while drugs did not run the country, traffickers took advantage of the state’s inherent weakness and exacerbated it by their presence.”
According to Ceesay, the only way to take the nation out of this morass is to reform the military, noting that without this, “it will be a Herculean task to set the country on the path of stability and growth.”
In her home on the outskirts of the capital Bissau, Dr Carmelita Pires, the former Minister of Justice, echoed this sentiment when we met in late-2015. “Until we have the capacity to organise, to establish authority, we will have drug smugglers coming to my country,” she said. “We need a consciousness uprising, to work hard.” I heard this message from people across the state, though few believed the current crop of political leaders were up to the task.
As long as global demand for drugs remains high, the illegal trade around it is all but guaranteed. And in Guinea-Bissau, weak justice systems, harsh prisons and corrupt policing can exacerbate the problem or create new ones rather than addressing the issue. Furthermore, given the flexibility of drug cartels, even if Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia were to become less favourable, other routes would grow in prominence, whether in West Africa or elsewhere.
More enlightened ideas such as decriminalising drugs in an attempt to reduce criminality and violence – as was done successfully in Portugal – currently have few supporters in Guinea-Bissau. But it may grow in popularity especially as many nations in Latin America also increasingly recognising the futility of trying to stop the drug trade through law enforcement.
As Green concludes, as long as Guinea-Bissau lacks economic and political stability, it “will continue to be seen as an ‘external threat’”. This means that ignoring the country and leaving it misunderstood should not be an option. In that sense, Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State marks a small but invaluable step in the right direction.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian contributor and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
There are growing moves to privatise more prisons in New South Wales, Australia despite the disastrous experiences of outsourcing prisons and detention facilities in the UK and US.
I was interviewed today by Australian current affairs show, The Wire:
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, was released in 2015 (and it’s out in paperback in January 2017). It received many reviews and the latest is by Dr Jason Von Meding, an academic in Australia:
The US Presidential Election is in full swing. Over the next few months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will go toe-to-toe in what is already a less than clean scrap. In amongst the media and social media hysteria (on both sides), one could be forgiven for missing an intriguing narrative espoused by alternative voices that opts, rather than criticizing one candidate over the other, to reject both the neoliberal status quo and reactionary neofascist agendas that are the product of unfettered predatory capitalism.
In Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, acclaimed Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein turns his passion for justice to deliver a stunning critique of the thriving disaster capitalism industry, in its many forms; the profiteers of privatized detention, militarized security, the aid industry and multinational mining are relentlessly skewered with style and poise, and their predatory tactics exposed. According to his narrative, Hillary Clinton is exactly the kind of neoliberal hawk that enables neofascist demagogues like Trump to rise, and allows predatory ‘businessmen’ like Trump to prosper. Both Presidential candidates are indeed invested in disaster capitalism, but Loewenstein’s tale is arguably one that focuses on the Hillary’s of the world; the trusted and experienced hand; the status quo; the Establishment.
Disaster Capitalism is the story of Loewenstein’s journey into the belly of this particular beast. The book gives us an up-close-and-personal look at how corporations like Serco, G4S, Halliburton and their ilk profit from organized misery, perpetual conflict and the impacts of disaster, and how national governments and international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are willing collaborators. In Part I, he takes us to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Greece, exposing the various exploitative strategies employed to enrich the local elite and foreign interests, and the devastating effects on the majority of people in each country. In Part II, we visit wealthy Western democracies (Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom) that punish the most vulnerable in their societies while dictating economic conditions to the world, imposing taxpayer funded cruelty for private profit at home and abroad.
This is an absolutely enthralling read; a must for the revolutionary; the dreamer; the activist; the teacher; the learner. Loewenstein has compiled a treasure-trove of evidence on his travels. His dismantling of the social and economic myths that enable predatory disaster capitalism is robust and compels us to action. He offers a “challenge to cherished beliefs concerning aid and development, war and democracy, and in particular the modern, borderless nature of capitalism.” (p. 14) For this reader, 3 key themes emerge; a dialogue around crime and punishment; a critique of the idea of benevolent corporations; and the grim reality that this is all part of a plan, a rigged system that empowers and enables predator capitalists to flourish.
Crime and Punishment
As the prison-industrial complex has rapidly taken hold in Western societies, the public clearly favours an ideology of punishment over reform. In addition to highlighting issues around race and class, Loewenstein speaks to issues around the treatment of those in the care of the state, and how “lobbying, ideology and a punishment ethos have colluded to produce one of the most destructive experiments in recent times: mass incarceration.”
Judicial processes in the UK, US and Australia target the marginalized for what amounts to, essentially, punishment for being unable to escape their systemic disadvantage. Loewenstein unpacks the ideology behind this phenomenon and asks whether the poor man, the petty criminal, the asylum seeker or the drug user really deserve the punishments that are prescribed and who indeed benefits? What of the bankers that caused a global financial collapse? The CEOs of corporations that destroy the only planet we have? The heads of state that lied in order to enable the invasion and destruction of Iraq, leading to the destabilisation of the region and a current displacement crisis of epic proportions? Should not our justice system be designed to protect society from such individuals and the devastating consequences of their actions?
Over the past 2 months, we have witnessed a brutal crackdown on drug sellers and users in the Philippines, since the rise to power of President Duerte. Summary executions on the streets have shocked the world, yet few official condemnations are forthcoming. While it is not difficult to imagine that many politicians and indeed members of the public might secretly support these abuses of power and share the President’s disdain for Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights, as Loewenstein finds in Australia, America and the UK, there is an infinitely more ‘subtle’ way to enforce the harshest punishments: through private contractors.
The criminal justice system in Australia ensures sky-high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and, as the recently revealed abuses of the NT government demonstrate, the hateful punishment of those discarded by society is absolutely state sanctioned. In America, the black population is also disproportionately incarcerated. Loewenstein explores the roots of a system that enables this in the US and the corporations that profit handsomely at the expense of taxpayers, destroying families and leaving little opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. “Private prison corporations saw a unique opportunity” (p. 196) in America, Loewenstein writes, to do everything possible to ensure that more and more people were incarcerated. The prison population is thirty times what it was in the 1990s. The absolutely failed ‘War on Drugs’ has wreaked havoc on society. For all the posturing about market efficiency, private prison corporations are a spectacular leech off the government purse, with a rigged legal system providing financial and political benefits right down the food chain. All of this is possible, he tells us, due to a lack of “serious questioning of the harsh, punitive ideology underpinning US ‘justice’.” (p. 207)
In Australia, the UK, the US and Greece, Loewenstein exposes the fact that asylum seekers and migrants are also punished, most often without breaking any law. In Greece, he provides a rich cultural background of “not just economic harshness, but a culture that tolerated and celebrated exclusion.” (p. 69) In the grips of imposed austerity measures, the social fabric began to unravel and “Popular frustration was taken out on the most marginalized group in society: refugees.” (p. 72) The mandate for demonization of the vulnerable that was secured in Greece, as in Australia, was just one tactic used to ensure profit for human rights abuses across the countries that Loewenstein investigates.
Time and again, Loewenstein finds governments all too eager to enable those corporations in a position to cash in. He details how the EU has become central in “funding, encouraging and pressuring EU nations to isolate and imprison asylum seekers.” He discusses the industries that have sprung up and thrived, often with the EU leading “the charge in working with corporations that have been very willing to develop and hone methods for repelling the desperate hordes.” As ‘Fortress Europe’ closes her borders, deals like that done between the EU with Turkey are sealed without a second thought for the human cost. Corporations and corrupt governments profit; the vulnerable are turned away and suffer.
Loewenstein picks up where Naomi Klein left off in her 2007 bestseller Shock Doctrine. She pointed out that privatization of government has accelerated in the U.S., as private sector opportunities have been generated through the ‘war on terror’. She argues that, “now wars and disasters are so fully privatized, that they are themselves the new market: there is no need to wait until after the war for the boom – the medium is the message.” Loewenstein builds on this and adds that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that wars are often fought for the key reason of liberating new and willing markets – and with the war on terror likely to continue for decades, there will be no shortage of new business to secure.” (p. 16)
We often encounter the myth of the benevolent corporation. As much as it might be comforting to believe that the private sector simply goes about its business in a free market generating jobs and growth, from cover to cover Disaster Capitalism lays bare the impacts of a global privatisation bonanza. For Loewenstein, the US has played a pivotal role. He says that a “central plank” of U.S. foreign policy is “the US model of reducing the role of government while increasing the influence of largely private power has never been so rapacious, though the problem is global.” (p. 4)
Loewenstein is no admirer of market fundamentalism, saying that “wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today’s world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system guarantees unfairness and rewards greed.” (p.2) He shows us examples of open rebellion against this system from communities in Greece, Haiti and PNG, countries exploited long and hard by the status quo. As we have become more enslaved to the neoliberal project, Loewenstein argues “that the corporation is now more powerful than the nation-state, and that it is often the former that dictates terms to the latter.” (p.7)
In Bougainville, PNG, Loewenstein meets members of the resistance against resource exploitation, and explores the shady relationships between corporate and political interests. The memories of violence fuelled by greed and repression do not fade easily. The health of the community and the environment have also been terribly compromised. “Environmental vandalism should not be the price tag for ‘progress’,” he pleads.
In Afghanistan, we are introduced to Jack, the British MD of a private military company (PMC) who provides an inside look at a truly burgeoning industry. He is not shy to admit that his corporation “survives off chaos.” (p. 20) Jack anticipates perpetual war and opportunity. “If we can make money, we’ll go there,” he tells Loewenstein. He sees his industry in a purely positive light, providing “jobs for the boys leaving the army who can continue their trade.” In spite of the well documented abuses of PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq, military objectives continue to be dressed in humanitarian robes, government intelligence gathering has been privatized and mercenaries are ensured “a quick buck” (p. 21). Indeed, Loewenstein finds that the PMC industry hopes that the conflict and the profit will never end. When it does, they will be “looking for the new war.” (p. 61)
How often are we outraged at government spending on weaponry and conflicts that we deem unnecessary, but hesitate to question the relationship between corporate interests and government policy and spending. Loewenstein reminds us that the war on terror represents one of the largest wealth transfers in history, with 4 trillion dollars to date being spent, with much of it going to ever-grateful Western contractors. The privatization of prisons and security apparatus is incredibly expensive, while all evidence shows that incarceration does not tackle societal problems that lead to crime, but rather reinforces them.
The overwhelming message is that simply outsourcing your cruelty is a convenient way to avoid responsibility, transparency and accountability, while profiting corporations and manipulating the economy. Neoliberal governments would like us to accept the notion that corporations are ultimately benevolent entities that exist only to employ people, satisfy market demand and grow GDP. Loewenstein argues that “multinational corporations spent the twentieth century gradually reducing their obligations in the various jurisdictions in which they operated.” (p. 243) What we have now is unregulated, unaccountable and secretive private sector entities. Meanwhile, governments with dirty work to outsource are not left disappointed.Unfortunately, a willful ignorance of the sometimes devastating social impact of ‘business’ has allowed a mentality of self-righteousness to fester, completely detached from the suffering of people that stand in the way of profit, those targeted by governments for suppression and oppression, and the unfortunate citizens of countries outside of the US circle of trust, whose lives appear to hold so much less value than those of allies. Companies like DynCorp and Blackwater, despite having their abuses repeatedly exposed, thrive in this context.
A Rigged System
Loewenstein exposes, time and again, the fact that the global economy is dominated by anti-democratic and predatory forces that profit the wealthy and the ruthless. The revolving door between corporations, lobby groups and government is clear for all to see. This collusion between powerful actors fans the flames of crisis while selling market fundamentalism as the antidote and positioning ‘benevolent’ corporations to reap the benefits. In the U.S. the banks were bailed out while personal debt, and indeed poverty rates, soar. Loewenstein offers a stinging critique of a system rigged for the 1%, and the scandalous truth that in the US both major parties represent similar corporate interests while the media feigns ignorance. Indeed, liberal presidents have done little for the vulnerable other than make empty promises.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, Loewenstein describes an environment of “canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of a disaster, looking for business opportunities.” (p. 109) His narrative of this historically vulnerable nation describes the strong 20th Century American support for successive brutal dictatorships, enriching U.S. interests and a local elite. We see this model replicated again and again in Disaster Capitalism, and indeed around the world as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. The example, in chapter 3, of the “devoutly anti-Communist” ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier is particularly damning, who, “unlike the many African despots targeted by the Hague, remained a friend of the West and was therefore largely untouchable.” (p. 110) When the neoliberal agenda was challenged in Haiti by Aristade, the U.S. and local elite conspired to overthrow the government to restore ‘order’.
We are often presented with the assertion that the international community, led by U.S. humanitarianism, rescued Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Loewenstein paints a very different picture, and claims that “when Haiti had received lashings of ‘help’ this generosity had done little but enrich foreign companies.” (p. 115) The local reception to UN intervention was largely hostile. In the context of historical US interventions in Haiti this comes as no surprise, and the sentiment is well founded. As revealed by Wikileaks, the US ambassador to Haiti asserted that the UN military-style solution was “an indispensable tool in realizing core [US government] policy interests in Haiti” (p. 115)
In a similar vein, most development aid to PNG from Australia since its independence either found its way into the pockets of either the wealthy PNG elite or Australian corporations. Far from its claimed humanitarian ideals, Loewenstein says that the main goal of the Australian government in PNG was simply, “to ensure that Australian corporations had a ready market in which to turn a profit.” (p. 172) The denial of complicity with oppressors in the violent struggles of the 1980s and the patronizing attitudes displayed by Australian diplomats leaves a bitter taste.
Loewenstein reserves some of his harshest criticism for the mainstream media, and the “false construct of “balance” that permeates the corporate press, which merely pits one powerful interest group against another” and one that “views business and political leaders as far more important than the individuals and societies affected by them.” (p. 10) As an independent journalists that opposes the state of his profession, he laments the fact that “90% of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast and Viacom.”
Disaster Capitalism pulls no punches in calling out both profiteers and enablers. Loewenstein exposes a shady cabal operating in plain sight; corporations that will not blink at the thought of misery, death and destruction as part of business as usual. Governments that outsource their most distasteful projects to companies that have neither conscience nor boundaries. A complete lack of transparency and accountability allows whatever abuses that are uncovered to yield few consequences for the perpetrators.
The book is impossible to put down and rich with memorable lines. It will have the reader coming back to review the stories of friend and foe, of oppressed and oppressor. Loewenstein has skillfully articulated opposing positions, admitting his ideological bent where possible in the text and to those he meets in the field. It is sure to be a book both loved and hated, depending on the beliefs of the reader, for its honest storytelling. The accounts of his journalistic interactions give the book a very personal feel.
Loewenstein shows us how accepting something terrible (e.g. abuse of asylum seekers, mass incarceration etc.) out of a fear of personal harm, insecurity or loss gives a perceived legitimacy to profiteers (perhaps the American elections will be a case in point of this mechanism, on both sides). He wrote the book to “shock, provoke and reveal.” (p. 16) The question is; once we know all about the profiteers of calamity, will we just carry on or will we fight for justice?
My book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
South Sudan is a country that almost everybody shamefully forgets. Declared independent in 2011, and still the world’s newest nation, it was engulfed by war in December 2013 and has never recovered. The scale of the suffering is monumental, though nobody knows exactly how many have died or where. Nominally an ethnic battle, pitched between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, I witnessed this firsthand in 2015 when I was based there as a freelance journalist.
I’ve rarely heard more shocking horrors in all my years of reporting around the world from Afghanistan to Palestine. I took testimony from locals in remote refugee camps who told me about seeing women and children being burned alive in their tukuls (huts), mass rape against women from the “wrong” tribe, and people slaughtered in hospital beds. From the capital Juba to smaller towns such as Bor and Bentiu, joy at the country’s independence after decades of battling Sudanese forces soon descended into fear, misery, and carnage. Up to 100,000 people may have been murdered since 2013. Washington, a key advocate of South Sudan under both Presidents Bush and Obama, largely disengaged from the country when it fell apart.
With few reporters based permanently in South Sudan, it’s a country that receives relatively little media attention worldwide, not least because it’s easily framed as a brutal African war with little relevance beyond its borders. Western complicity in failed states, from Libya to Iraq to South Sudan, is rarely deemed important enough to warrant extensive investigation in the corporate media. There are notable exceptions, such as the recent New York Times feature on Hillary Clinton’s dismal judgment as secretary of state when backing the disastrous revolution in Libya, leaving a bloodied and broken state to this day.
It’s disappointing but unsurprising that vast swathes of Africa, and the world, are dismissed by the mainstream press. A combination of ignorance, racism, and parochialism renders billions of global citizens invisible. Thankfully there are independent reporters who refuse to solely report on the latest United States presidential campaign machinations and venture beyond the wire. Anand Gopal and Matthieu Aikins are just two fine examples of journalists who understand the term “embedding” to mean more than traveling with United States troops in a war zone; they spend months and years with the civilians caught up in the midst of hellish conditions.
United States journalist Nick Turse is equally committed to this mission. His 2013 best-selling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, detailing American atrocities during the conflict and military attempts to cover them up, revealed startling new information that had been buried or suppressed for decades. Turse’s chosen technique was to listen to Vietnamese victims and their American perpetrators.
In his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, he delivers a scathing and deeply reported account of South Sudan’s suffering since its collapse in December 2013. “I had landed in a place [unlike my work in Vietnam] where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim,” he writes. “This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons.” In the last two and a half years, roughly 200,000 South Sudanese civilians have lived under United Nations protection in camps around the country because they feared for their lives from marauding government troops and opposition fighters.
Turse operates like a detective, speaking to as many voices as possible (and thankfully, unlike many reporters, he mostly eschews official spokespeople because he knows they’re programmed to deceive). The culture of impunity that permeates South Sudan is richly explained. When Turse asks a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) judge advocate general about 100 soldiers arrested in February 2014 for involvement in targeted killings, and why they all miraculously escaped the following month, he’s simply told, “there was heavy fighting so everybody escaped.” A senior United Nations official tells Turse: “These guys are good. The South Sudanese are quite adept at the art of delay.”
After decades of ethnic cleansing and war, Turse writes that before the 2013 explosion,
South Sudan remained an infant state of submerged rage and deep suspicion filled with desperately poor people, lacking infrastructure, possessing only a sea of oil [the country is blessed and cursed with huge oil reserves] and too many men skilled in little beyond guerilla warfare. In other words, it was a powder keg with when, not if, stamped on it.
Turse rightly argues that little has changed since to avoid another bloodbath.
This is a fine book of reportage that meticulously details a catalog of horrors unleashed against civilians. He interviews Martha, a woman who was forced to flee with her children from Bor in December 2013. She recounts fleeing to the Nile River with armed Nuer rebels behind them. “I saw someone being shot,” she says. “First his head was there and then it wasn’t.” Martha survived after wading toward an overburdened ferry and keeping her children above water. Many were not so lucky and perished by gunfire.
Turse’s persistence in South Sudan is never rewarded with hard evidence of war crimes — “I take it as personal failure that I couldn’t verify even one site in or around Juba where corpses were secreted away” — but he skillfully describes a country on the brink of constant chaos. He challenges the United States to take responsibility for partially creating the mess but laments the likely option: “will [the United States] take an easier road — one that silences the guns of today only to have them ring out anew with even greater fury at the dawn of some distant tomorrow — or perhaps even sooner?”
The fracturing of South Sudan, along political, ethnic, and social lines, has led to an NGO-isation of the country. While the United Nations and countless humanitarian organizations provide essential services to the literally millions of civilians who need it — food, shelter, hygiene lessons, and basic education — the result is that international (and mostly unelected) bodies are taking responsibility for the running of a nation. If they all packed up and left tomorrow the situation would undoubtedly deteriorate on the ground, but too few people are asking what this situation says about modern state-making and who picks up the bill.
When a nation collapses, aid groups rush in to help and often provide lifesaving assistance (though this is routinely mismanaged). South Sudan is a grim example of a country that was given billions of dollars of United States support before and after 2011, and yet virtually none of those funds went to building sustainable institutions. Men with histories of violence (including Dinka President Salva Kiir and Nuer Vice President Riek Machar) were supported despite having no experience in running democratic institutions.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, successive Washington administrations, NGOs, and evangelical Christians began strongly backing the Christian South Sudanese against Islamic Sudan, a state that had received Iranian support and protected Osama bin Laden. They didn’t care about the human rights abusers in Juba who were just as brutal as those residing in Khartoum. The chances of South Sudan succeeding after 2011 were miniscule.
Turse travels around the country and hears civilians condemn both Kiir and Machar; their forces have been found by the United Nations and human rights groups to have committed horrendous war crimes, and yet nobody is held to account. A recent article in The New York Times, allegedly by both men, claimed to support reconciliation instead of human rights accountability, but it now appears the piece was written by a PR firm. I was constantly told by refugees in South Sudan last year that they hated how Kiir and Machar were feted in global capitals as peacemakers when they were war criminals.
With child soldiers a ubiquitous sight, the Obama Administration had a unique opportunity to respond. Instead, as Turse has reported for The Intercept and this book, the United States gave South Sudan a pass and chose to continue backing the new state politically and militarily. United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has avoided being asked tough questions on her central role in this mess. Today, journalists and civilians continue to suffer around the nation despite a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 and enacted this year.
With countless nations arming and training South Sudanese forces, including Sudan, Israel, and China, indefinite instability is guaranteed. The tragedy of South Sudan, apart from the constant suffering of civilians forced to survive a meager existence, is the lack of global concern. Success is far easier to support and 2011 independence saw an outpouring of well wishes. Today, however, Juba has squandered those positive feelings and created an autocracy where the voices of average men, women, and children are ignored and their pleas for justice shunned.
Turse’s book is a necessary and moving corrective to these silences.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian columnist, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
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 Guardian book review appears this weekend:
In October 2015 a Saudi prince was arrested at Beirut international airport accused of trying to smuggle nearly two tonnes of the amphetamine drug Captagon through the country. Two months later, Lebanese officials claimed to have confiscated 12 million Captagon pills heading to the Gulf. The synthetic drug, invented in 1961, has become a major recreational drug of choice in the Middle East and favoured stimulant in the Syrian civil war. Kurdish survivors from the Syrian city of Kobane reported Islamic State fighters being “filthy, with straggly beards and long black nails. They have lots of pills with them that they all keep taking. It seems to make them more crazy if anything.”
In this compelling book [Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare] about the history and prevalence of alcohol and drugs throughout the history of warfare, Lukasz Kamienski reveals in copious detail the countless ways “intoxication, in its various forms, has … been one of the distinctive features” of human life.
Rather than focusing on the draconian methods used by governments to restrict and regulate drugs in the modern age, Shooting Up examines how “warriors have always dreamt of gaining superhuman abilities that would bring them estimable victory, particularly when meeting their enemy in a decisive clash”. Without some tool to distract or mask the horrors of war, how can fighters tolerate the barbarity, fear, stress and intensity of combat?
Alcohol remains the most commonly used drug during and after war. Kamienski explains that the ancient Greeks and Romans probably went into battle drunk. The Roman method also involved getting their opponents inebriated before battle. By the late 19th century, the British army was regularly and proudly drunk. Its 36,000 men required 550,000 gallons of rum annually plus allowances for more booze to celebrate victory. Soldiers expected to be provided with alcohol by the army. Without it, their morale, determination and camaraderie would suffer. Japanese kamikaze pilots in the second world war were known to drink heavily as their final day approached.
American forces in Vietnam were given government rations of two cans of beer per man per day but the open secret was that destroying the Viet Kong should be rewarded. It’s a war that still remains mired in mystery; American journalist Nick Turse’s 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves made a rare departure from secrecy by highlighting the extreme violence unleashed on Vietnamese civilians by US forces. Kamienski powerfully shows how “alcohol was issued as a reward for proven proficiency in enemy kills. This largely explains why soldiers cut off the ears and penises of their dead enemy, because showing the trophies on their return to base camp entitled them to more reward – alcohol.”
This book details the Nizari Ismaili, founded in the 1080s as a radical group of Shia Muslims. Its members were accused of smoking hashish to claim supernatural powers, but it’s possible that their “truly powerful intoxicant was their deep religious faith, coupled with crazed fanaticism”.
In the 21st century many Islamic extremists are surviving thanks to the drug industry. The Taliban’s main source of income is from Afghanistan’s opium trade, the world’s biggest. Militants, child soldiers, narco-guerrillas and terrorists all often raise revenue while also using the product themselves.
But what turns some soldiers into monsters? Kamienski tries to answer this question with evidence that the use of intoxicants contributes to the propensity of extreme violence on the battlefield. However, it may not that be that simple – racism is a curious omission in the book’s argument. For example, there are countless examples of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan treating local people with contempt because of their different skin colour, religion or belief. This mentality was bred long before arriving for combat.
Nonetheless, the book questions the generally accepted belief in almost all societies that soldiers are brave warriors and act like “rabid dogs”. It may often be true, with magic mushrooms and marijuana being part of a soldier’s arsenal, but it’s also an effective myth different nations tell themselves about the invincibility of their armies.
During the cold war, many governments searched for the most effective use of increasingly powerful and disabling drugs. Washington considered the idea of dispersing LSD over enemy forces, “paralysing even the best trained and disciplined units without killing or injuring them”. After the second world war Army Chemical Corps Major General William Creasy imagined the use of psychoactive substances for a “war without casualties”. He told This Week magazine in 1955 that Washington should consider using chemical weapons, asking “would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded or paralysed by a chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?” It was a question that few Americans ever knew their government was considering at the highest levels.
From developing truth serums to elicit answers from enemies during the cold war and distributing stimulants during the Vietnam war, drug development, use and abuse have always been central to humankind’s pursuit of conflict. Kamienski details the devastating civilian toll that drug abuse by soldiers can cause. In Vietnam, amphetamine use “was to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against the civilian population”.
There’s no blatant anti-war message in this book, written by an academic and published here in a solid translation by the author, but its position is clear: that “soldiers are often doped by war in a twofold manner – not only can war itself be a true narcotic for them but an engagement in combat may also result in their becoming addicted to real drugs.”
• Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheis published by Verso.
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 essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” was recaptured by Mexican marines in January. It was the latest in a long history of farcical escapes and imprisonments that have dominated the life of the world’s most infamous drug boss.
His legacy is clear. Unmarked graves of mass killings are ubiquitous across Mexico, a product of both failed policies against cartels and complicity with them. The civilian death count in the last decade alone is estimated at over 100,000 people, with at least 25,000 missing — comparable to the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mystery still surrounds the drug trade. When the cartel head was recently interviewed by Sean Penn in Rolling Stone, veteran “war on drugs” chronicler Don Winslow condemned the article for its myopia, and bias. He called it a “brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer.”
Guzman’s capture, and the way it was covered, highlight a narrative about the “War on Drugs” that has dominated the media for years. It’s a myth that revolves around determined Mexican officials targeting drug bosses and successive American administrations funding a drug war to destroy the dealers, pushers, and producers. Anabel Hernandez exposed this narrative as a lie in her book Narcoland (2010), a massive bestseller in Mexico. In it, she detailed the intimate connections between every level of the Mexican state and the cartel run by Guzman, the Sinaloa. Washington was complicit in the game, according to Hernandez. Any real battle against drugs was an illusion, for show, she argued — and she named all the officials, including Mexican presidents, with ties to the narco trade.
The real Washington agenda in Mexico was compromised, and never about destroying the drug trade. In 2014, the Mexican newspaper El Universal found evidence in court documents that DEA agents had met Sinaloa cartel members between 2002 and 2012 and left its business free to operate in exchange for information on rival cartels. The DEA was willing to accept Sinaloa carnage to pursue another, apparently noble agenda, fatally breaking Washington’s publicly stated opposition to Guzman’s empire. It’s a tactic that’s been similarly used by the DEA, with equally devastating results, in Afghanistan and Colombia. In this worldview, civilian deaths are a necessary casualty.
Despite decades of narco killings, little is still known about the secretive “War on Drugs.” Journalist Ioan Grillo, author of the book Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, writes that both countries have wrongly pursued a “cartel decapitation strategy.” “While these kingpins rot in prisons and graves,” Grillo notes, “their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.” It’s an extreme form of cross-border capitalism that rewards groups involved in politics, mining, money laundering, fraud, and all forms of criminality. It’s arguable that these gangs would continue making money even if all drugs were legalized.
Narco History (OR Books, 2015) is a perfect backgrounder to the “War on Drugs.” In it, Mexican author Carmen Boullosa and American academic Mike Wallace uncover a century of failed drug policies that have only worsened the violence consuming Mexican and American communities. “We argue that the very term ‘Mexican Drug War’ is profoundly misleading,” they write, “as it diverts attention from the American role in its creation.” As they explain,
“Americans understandably view the blood-drenched bulletins from below the Rio Grande as dispatches from a different world. They are reports from a distant battlefield, limning a Mexican Drug War — presumably a conflict of Mexico’s making, hence Mexico’s responsibility alone. But we believe the term to be a misnomer, as the complex phenomena to which it refers were jointly constructed by Mexico and the United States over the last hundred years … What is perhaps less appreciated is how much the present situation dates to America’s long-ago coupling of a voracious demand for drugs with a prohibition on their use or purchase.”
Beginning in the 1910s, the authors explain, “Mexico was not a helpless, hapless victim. Powerful forces within the country profited hugely and happily from supplying gringos with what their government forbade them.” Prohibition, criminalization, and racism are early targets of the author’s wrath as key instigators of instability and corruption. They cite Southern American whites who believed that cocaine made black men rape white women. “It was not fear of drugs per se that drove the prohibitionists, so much as fear of the social groups who used them,” they argue. Henry Aslinger, the fanatical antidrug head in the US, was explicitly racist in his pronouncements. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said.
The authors clarify how the long and porous border between Mexico and the United States has contributed to the drug trade. In the early 1900s, “border crossing was a breeze because there were no official restrictions or quotas on Mexican movement north.” American agricultural companies wanted cheap labor and Mexicans were the solution (returning to their homeland in the winter). Drugs moved easily between the two countries, particularly opium.
Fearing an underclass that could challenge Mexico’s social and political hierarchies, Mexico launched a “war on drugs” that was essentially a war on the poor people most susceptible to the trade, mirroring the way Chinese and blacks were demonized for drug use in the United States. As Wallace and Boullosa write, “revolutionary elites associated alcoholism, opium addiction, and marijuana consumption with lower-class illiterates and (mistakenly) with indigenous Indians — ‘backward’ social sectors. Drugs were perceived as obstacles to forging a new model citizenry, one that could build a modern, progressive, and civilized Mexican nation.”
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in America pushed the drug onto the black market where it remains to this day, despite an increasing number of US states legalizing and regulating it. But even back then, voices of reason existed. Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, head of the Mexican Federal Narcotics Service, was a respected physician for his work at Mexico City’s Hospital for Drug Addicts. In October 1938 he published a prescient paper titled “The Myth of Marijuana,” in which he argued that it was a relatively harmless substance that didn’t induce criminal behavior or psychosis. He opposed Mexico’s prohibition of the drug and pushed for a government-sanctioned monopoly on drug distribution. America vigorously opposed the idea. Narco History doesn’t explicitly say it, but Viniegra’s report, had it been adopted by America and Mexico in the 1930s, could have saved both nations decades of violence, rampant corruption, and drug lords like Guzman.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox today claims that all drugs will be legalized in Mexico within 10 years, which may be one way to halt the apocalyptic drug-related violence that has wracked the nation for decades. Mexico’s Supreme Court approved in 2015 the growing of marijuana for recreational use, bringing the drug’s legalization one step closer.
By the mid-1970s, Mexico was supplying 75 percent of America’s marijuana, guaranteeing corruption on an industrial scale in both nations. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon declared an official “War on Drugs” that a new, more brutal phase emerged. “Not even Nixon still believed that marijuana drove people to rape and murder,” the book argues, “but he did believe, as did many cultural conservatives, that cannabis was doing something worse — undermining American civilization itself.”
Such a challenge required a monumental effort, and in 1974 Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At its inception, it had 1,470 agents and an annual budget of less than $75 million. Today, its budget is more than $5 billion annually, and it has offices in 62 countries. There are serious questions about whether the DEA, a government body that alleges clear connections between drug trafficking and terror plots, are stopping threats or just staging them against low-level drug pushers or innocent people, to prove they can effectively prosecute criminals. Although a senior DEA agent in Kenya recently told me that the “links can’t be shown [in court] because of the nature of the information,” hard evidence is mostly lacking.
Nixon’s legacy — an endless war against groups and individuals he believed were deviant —continued long after his resignation. Narco History artfully details President Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the drug war against the Mexican people (though it was never framed that way, the results were devastating for farmers and peasants who relied on the drug trade to make a pitiful living.) Marijuana, Reagan laughably said, was “probably the most dangerous drug in America.” Despite the American government pumping huge amounts of money into tackling Mexican drug barons, contraband continued flowing into America, a country with an insatiable appetite for illicit substances.
President Reagan wasn’t deterred. Perhaps the most egregious example of Washington’s hypocrisy in the “War on Drugs” involves the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The administration wanted to back the Contras, a paramilitary group aiming to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The cynicism and brutality of the policy is explained in Narco History:
“One idea they [the US government] hit upon was to covertly ferry arms to the Contras via Mexican drug dealers. Félix Gallardo, at that point running four tons of cocaine into the United States every month, provided ‘humanitarian aid’ to the Contras in the form of high-powered weaponry, hard cash, planes, and pilots. Indeed, a Caro Quintero ranch became a training facility, run by the DFS — the CIA’s faithful Mexican affiliate. In return, Washington looked the other way as enormous amounts of Mexican-processed crack cocaine flooded the streets of US cities, the super-addictive, mass-marketed drug wreaking havoc in poor communities, and triggering an Uzi-driven competition for market share that sent crime rates spiking.”
By the 2000s, drug violence was soaring in Mexico, a direct result of the US-backed, militarized “War on Drugs.” This led to a stream of Mexicans seeking shelter in America, millions over the years, and yet it was rarely explained in American political and media discourse why these individuals were coming in the first place. Drug and criminal gangs, such as the Zetas, were kidnapping, extorting, and killing the desperate souls fleeing for their lives (these stories are beautifully and painfully reported in The Beast by Óscar Martínez.) The Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land details how growing numbers of Mexicans are fighting back against the cartels and arming themselves for the battle.
There’s little evidence that either Mexico or America is intent on seriously changing its approach to drug gangs. Although Mexican towns like Juarez are less apocalyptically violent than a few years ago, Narco History concludes with a cautious tone. While noting large public acceptance in America for marijuana legalization, a massive shift since the 1960s, the authors argue that the “war on drugs” has always been a battle to subdue minorities — America’s culture of mass incarceration against Hispanics and African-Americans attests to this theory — and it continues to be the case in both Mexico and America:
“Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in ‘an era of clean thinking and clean living.'”
America’s role and responsibility in Mexico is contested. Despite many arguing for continued funding of Mexican political reform, a recent New York Times letter by Laura Carlson, Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program in the think tank Center for International Policy, questioned this morality. “As a political analyst living and working in Mexico for the last three decades,” she wrote,
“I have watched with horror how the United States-Mexico drug war strategy has led to the explosion of violence and criminal activity here. The deep-rooted complicity between government officials and security forces on the one hand and cartels on the other means that the training, equipment and firepower given in aid and sold to the Mexican government fuel violence on both sides […] Victim organizations that have organized throughout the country demand that the United States stop funding the drug war under any guise.”
Narco History, a timely, insightful, and passionately argued short volume, is essential reading to understand why both Mexico and America have been ravaged for over a century by cartels, politicians, and gangs. The authors aren’t starry-eyed about legalization (although they support it) because they fear that drug cartels, such as Guzman’s Sinaloa, could become corporations and sell marijuana or other drugs legally on the market. What’s required for a wholesome change in Mexico’s dysfunctional political structure is “a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime.” Tragically, at present, there’s too much money to be made for the war to stop.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author of many books including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
My book review in The Australian:
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is feted across the world, celebrated for rescuing his country after the 1994 genocide and bringing stability to a devastated nation. Kagame’s government has received billions of dollars in aid and weapons for more than 20 years from the US, Israel, Britain and the EU, not to mention the Clinton Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and many others. Just this year Kagame was invited to speak at the Harvard Business School, and feted in Toronto by its cultural and business elites.
Kagame rules over a country of spectacular beauty, rare mountain gorillas and streets of deceptive cleanliness. He feels protected, confident that his foreign donors will keep the money flowing while internal dissent is extinguished. Few questions are asked about his military forces killing tens — or perhaps hundreds — of thousands of people in the Congo after 1994. Nobody wants to hear about journalists and writers critical of the Kagame government, or military leaders, disappearing or being murdered in the capital Kigali and elsewhere. Grenade attacks against civilian targets are dismissed and rarely reported.
The revelations in this book, one of the finest works of reportage in living memory, reveal the depravity at the heart of modern Rwanda, backed and defended by guilt-ridden Western states. Author Anjan Sundaram, who lived in Kigali for years teaching journalism, funded by the EU and Britain, confronts an EU ambassador about his backing for state terror. “Aren’t you worried about giving money to a dictator?” Sundaram asks. “I have no problem with giving money to a director,” the man replies. “He runs one of the most efficient governments in Africa. I’m proud to be giving him money. By giving him money we influence their policies. We are for freedom of speech. We will influence the government in the right direction.”
Bad News dismisses this notion as wilful fantasy. Sundaram explains how Kagame and his cronies institute an “army of flatterers” to ask the President only softball questions at press conferences: “Your Excellency, I was asking myself the other day why our government is so capable and professional.” Loyalty is rewarded with favours, money and promotion.
Sundaram, whose fine first book, Stringer, reported on the largely ignored Congo conflict from the perspective of a young foreign correspondent, befriends Rwandan journalists in an attempt to understand why the country became an autocracy. He is told about how every part of the country is organised into administrative units to allow monitoring of citizens. There is no privacy. His friend Moses tells him that people want to please the state, fearing punishment if they do not, and will happily report anything suspicious to higher authorities.
Rwandans live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Gibson, a friend of Sundaram, says: “We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time. So you now see the truth in our country is hidden, you need to look not for what is there, but for what they hide. You cannot pay attention to what they show you, but need to listen to those who are kept quiet. You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear.”
This book’s strength lies in its ability to convey the nightmare of today’s Rwanda and the international community’s complicity in it. Sundaram cites the UN’s choice of Kagame as head of a high-profile committee on improving the welfare of citizens around the world. The group included Bill Gates, Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus and CNN founder Ted Turner. “[UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] said the committee would be a collection of development ‘superheroes’. A number of messages of congratulations for Kagame came in from foreign leaders and dignitaries. The President said in response that he was honoured. The more the President’s statements went unchallenged by Rwandan journalists and citizens, the more the world believed in their truth.”
The 1994 genocide permeates the book: for survivors, for outsiders who didn’t help, and for donors looking away once more in the face of repression. “Never again” in the case of Rwanda appears to mean tolerating a dictatorship because, were they to halt aid, donors fear being accused of ignoring a nation in need. Unquestioning Western aid is a justifiable target because Sundaram shows that building roads, schools and infrastructure is only one part of a nation’s rebirth. Without freedom of speech or movement, and civic life, Rwanda is almost guaranteed to face further serious violence.
Bad News offers no simple solutions to Rwanda’s descent into autocracy. Western states that offer almost uncritical backing of Kagame bear partial responsibility for creating millions of fearful citizens who know that obedience to the leader is essential for survival.
Antony Loewenstein is a Middle East-based independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
By Anjan Sundaram
Allen and Unwin, 240pp, $29.99