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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
On Remembrance Day 11.XI.2012 10:41

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae

There's a solemnity to Remembrance Day that makes it to me one of the few public holidays worthy of its subject; the shared minute's silence of an entire nation echoes louder than the entire year's triumphant marches, rattling sabres and beating drums of war. The Vimy Memorial, a tribute to the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is in my opinion one of the most beautiful in the world. It features no triumphal arches, and the only sword it depicts is being broken on the ground. It shows the nation at war as it should be seen: not as a brave general leading his men into battle, but of a weeping mother mourning her sons.

The only proper emotional response to war is revulsion. Revulsion at its horrors, revulsion at the fates of its victims, and revulsion at its indisputable necessity. There is a tendency now to sanitise war - indeed, to sanitise death - in a way that makes it seem distant, that dehumanises the dead. This is why our strikes are 'surgical', our bombs are 'smart' - it is not a coincidence that the 'operating theatre' now shares its name with a room in a hospital. And when this is the way we wage war, we no longer weep, we no longer turn away in horror - we merely count the numbers, the deaths in a far away land, and return to our lives unaffected. It was this horror that united our soldiers with their victims - or our victims with their soldiers - and kept us, sometimes, from the brink. To remember our soldiers in a way that minimises the horrors of how they fought and how they died cheapens their sacrifice.

There is a dangerous conviction in some corners of the Western world that war is good for the soul, that of the nation and that of the soldier. That it is a display of power, that it can be entered it into lightly, that the homeland is enriched and purified by this spilling of blood and treasure, that to stay strong it must prey upon the weak. This is not only wrong, but it goes against the immense progress that we, as a race, have made away from the brutality of our past. War disfigures the soul, scars it in a way that often does not heal. We have an obligation to remember not only the dead but those individuals who bear those scars for us. To celebrate our soldiers as returning victors without mentioning the gas and the trenches and the jungles and the IEDs is to betray their memory as much as forgetting would be.

And what will be the nature of modern war? Now armies of drones fill our skies, raining destruction down from miles above - faceless men in faraway offices murdering faceless into whose eyes they will never have to look. And all such victims are now enemies just by virtue of being killed - any man of military age is declared a militant. And why not? After all, one of their 180 million compatriots shot a girl for the crime of demanding her right to education. Surely all these men must be our enemies! But we do not know if they are like the man who murdered her, or the man who helped raise his daughter to demand that right in the first place. In the past, it was our sacrifices that stayed the hand of our bloodlust - the tears of the widows and the orphans and the fathers and the daughters. What will happen when war has no more role for heroes - only bureaucrats and victims.

War is hell, and heroism is retaining ones humanity when surrounded by it. The most celebrated military figure in Canada, justly, is Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN forces during the Rwandan genocide, whose humanity left him haunted about his impotence in the face of wanton carnage. His antithesis are those now in the international community who are beating the drums of war to Iran, many of whom know nothing of war themselves, of the costs it will impose not on both the soldiers who are asked to die for some craven political purpose, and the inevitable victims who will not be asked anything at all, whose deaths will become mere statistics. To remember is a moral obligation, because to remember those who have fought and died in our wars is to remember the solemnity, sadness and regret that must be felt before we send men and women to fight and die for us again, lest we forget that there is no greater dishonour to a man's memory than to have needlessly sent him to his death.

Amman, Jordan Jo

The Killing Fields 23.IV.2012 07:25
It is written in the book of Isaiah that to all God would give 'within mine house and with my walls a place everlasting name.' This was the inspiration for the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, for those who meet their ends in mass graves often die twice: once when their lives are taken from them, and again when their identities rot away until their bones cannot be separated from those who met their ends beside them. At the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, the best-known of Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, these bones are piled 17 levels high, the skulls of thousands of these victims staring out at you at eye level, testifying wordlessly to Man's inhumanity to Man.

And though they can never return to their families, their survivors work tirelessly to prevent this second death - to preserve, as in Jerusalem, at least a shred of the identity of each person, so that the very last of them does not disappear from this earth. For it is all but impossible not to be dwarfed by the enormity of the crimes committed during the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and thus to reduce its victims, as in Stalin's famous dictum, to a mere statistic. One cannot conceive of even the 17,000 victims of Choeung Ek, yet that was but one of many execution sites, which together claimed more than one and a half million sacrifices to the cause of 'revolution'. Even here, the remains of only 9,000 have been recovered, and each rainy season the ground, endlessly churning, swells and casts up yet more skulls, teeth and bones: no rest for these men, women and children, even decades on.

The only consolation that, like so many totalitarian regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, preserving the name of each man trucked here to meet his end. As in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bureaucratic process belies an institutional awareness of the enormous moral outrage being committed, so full of small lies ostensibly to deceive the victims, but partly to allow the criminals to deceive themselves. As people were hacked to death in Choeung Ek - bullets too precious to be wasted on such tasks - the sounds of revolutionary songs and diesel motors played to drown out the screams of the dying, to keep up the pretence that this was, perhaps, merely a military base. To allow all but those present to keep up a denial, willing or subconscious, of what was truly happening. And even if it happened here, perhaps it was just one - not one of hundreds of such sites that destroyed almost a third of the country's entire population.

And, as one looks upon the empty pits, and at the bones and shreds of cloth, and the undisturbed ground that has yet to reveal its victims to the light, the most disturbing thought occurs: that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, not the guards but the ones who gave the orders, thought of themselves as on the side of good. How can you separate out the lust for power in the mind of a man who believes he is assisting in the birth of an ideal society? And, conversely, how many of those we know personally that think of themselves as 'moral' are simply following a system of rules that happens to lead to the fulfilment their own desires? It is not evil to think this way - merely human - and the greatest achievement of civilisation is to take us away from this bloody patrimony. Its extreme, the terrible utopian visions of men like Pol Pot, claim to encompass humanity but deny the human - and the Khmer Rouge slogan expressed this perfectly in its attitude to each of its victims: 'to keep you is no gain; to kill you is no loss.'

Louis XIV famously said "l'état, c'est moi" - I am the state. But the utopian dictator claims an even larger authority - he does not rule over the people, he is the people. His interests, or the Party's, are the people's, and if one of the people should oppose them, well he was really opposing his very self, like a cancerous cell destroying its own body. And so, such a polity fights constantly against the very human beings it claims to be saving; every revolution devours its young. And this remains true of every power that tries to shape a society: the Americans trying to remake Vietnam in their own image said 'we must burn the village to save the village' - that if their lives did not confirm to the ideal vision, they were meaningless, and therefore forfeit.

And speaking of the same Americans, thanks to them, China, the UK and others, Pol Pot and his murderous regime held a United Nations until 1993, for 14 years after Cambodia itself was free of them. Why? Because Cambodia had been liberated by the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, and put "People's Republic" in its name. The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split are far more important than the lives of some insignificant peasants. How can one mere life compare to the glorious society being created by the Khmer Rouge? How can one mere life compare to the struggle against global Communism which threatens to engulf us all? And Pol Pot died comfortably under house arrest, and only now are some of his associates being prosecuted for their crimes, immune for years from prosecution because we did not like those who might prosecute him. And as for the human beings caught in the middle - well, what could be more human than to deny others their humanity?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia Kh

Weekend protestacular! 29.VI.2010 09:26
Each Friday, there is a demonstration in the Palestinian village of Bil'in, which is cut in half by the Israeli 'security fence.' They have been going on for so long that their course has become almost ritualised, a weekly tradition which recurs with only minor variations. The protesters - a mix of Palestinians, activists and what can only be described as tourists - advance on the gate in the wall that has cut the farmers off from their fields, while Israeli soldiers wait on the other side. Though the protest is essentially peaceful, the true objective is to provoke the inevitable Israeli reaction; tear gas, first as warning shots, and then directly at the protesters. You wait as long as you can, watch the harmless warning shots sail over your head, though the urge to panic is fierce because others are doing so, but then you run - though if you've left it too late, the tear gas canisters will hum by your head and land at your feet as you try to dodge them or, at least, not inhale. Inevitably, the exploding canisters spark fires; you grab olive branches and try to put them out as close as possible, so that the field lost behind the wall is not matched by one lost to the flames. The police charges in - if you can't run fast enough, you're arrested - though this week it seemed that their hearts weren't in it and they stopped charging right away.

Each Saturday, there is a march through the streets of Hebron protesting against the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have decided to settle in its centre - the most indefensible and most aggressive of the settlements that dot 'Judea and Samaria', Israel's claimed province in the West Bank. Israel has closed off the streets that lead to the settlers' houses, and while the settlers have no shortage of running water, Palestinian homes must for the most part do without. The march assembles first at the gate of the closed street, chanting slogans that more-or-less rhyme while the IDF soldiers stand by, clearly bored to have to watch all these random white people for yet another week - though they also have a man taking photographs so they have records of all us troublemakers. Then, the soldiers block one street down which the demonstration passes - the group of protesters tries to push through, the most hardcore of the activists - Anarchists Against the Wall, especially - pushing right against the protesters, others pushing against the whole group from behind. As someone who's never protested before, never really been in a fight, the physicality of the moment was incredible - three soldiers against fifteen people pushing as hard as they could, and yet we slid back no matter how hard we tried to dig in; this was, however, the only moment of the protests that felt like resistance, a genuine exertion of all one's strength against an opposing force and, somewhat poignantly, a futile one. As the march winds its way past the settlers' houses - perched high above the Palestinian market - they throw eggs and beer bottles at you, protected, of course, by the IDF - and they also throw water in what has to be a slap in the face to remind Palestinians of their lack of it. Eventually, the march dies down, the chants fade away, the activists prepare for next week's or tomorrow's demonstrations, and the protest tourists put away their cameras. The street remains closed.

Though I'm likely to participate in more protests in the coming months, I didn't come to Israel to be an activist, and I don't plan on making tear gas something my lungs have to deal with regularly - one unexpected thing about tear gas is that it hurts the throat more than the eyes; in fact, it was highlighted at the pre-protest briefing that the Israeli tear gas is 'more concentrated than what [we're] used to in the United States or Europe'. That sentence really drives home why I could never really be here as an activist - because it's not just about opposition, which I share very strongly, to Israel's policies here, but about being part of a movement, or even a subculture. Many people here are veterans of anti-globalisation protests like the ones in Toronto, and many have an anarchist or left-wing view of the world that I simply don't share. At the Hebron protest, the most common slogan was '1-2-3-4, occupation no more!', but its corollary was '5-6-7-8, Israel is a fascist state!', which are words I simply cannot say, because I don't believe them. Israel is an oppressive occupying power, yes, but for Israeli citizens - even Arab ones - it protects far more rights than the average government. But for many people I've met here, Israel is just the most shameless part of a larger, undifferentiated, evil Zionist-American-corporate juggernaut trampling on people wherever it can, the proverbial boot stamping on a human face. It's commonplace to hear that Zionism is racism, or that Israel should simply cease to exist; Helen Thomas' comment that the Jews should 'get the hell out of Palestine' is far from controversial here. I believe Israel does have a right to exist - though I probably wouldn't have in 1948 - though I oppose its policies in Palestine as vehemently as any activist. But the culture of activism here is one I feel I'd be unlikely to feel comfortable in.

Which is of course one of the strangest things, because my English friends and I were near the front of both protests, chanting loudly and advancing, while many of the activists (at Bil'in - at Hebron they were very passionate) hung back. If I'm perfectly honest it's probably because we're all easily bored and don't like to do things half-assed - if we're at a protest, we're gonna protest damn it - but this also means that when we took a cigarette break we spent most of it making fun of the protest itself. Our behaviour - and the fact that we hid our faces behind black-and-white keffiyes, making us look more than a little like militants - made most people assume we were a hardcore activist group (hell, one girl asked me if I'd organised the protest), but in point of fact, it's really hard to say where we are on the spectrum between protest tourists and actual activists. On the one hand, we were all invested in the issues, we all have clear ideas on the conflict, and none of us would protest for something we didn't believe in. On the other, though, we didn't really take it all that seriously, and I can't claim not to have done it out for the thrill, the adrenaline rush - excitement and adventure and really wild things - which puts us firmly in the protest tourist camp. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves - though if I had to it constantly, as the ISM does, I'd be likely to burn out - and in fact joked that we should form a freelance protest group (suggested name: 'Drunkards against x'.

Coming home, too, you can't help but feel the addiction of action, of being someone who does something and even risks his safety to do it. We never felt really endangered at the Bil'in protest, and our exposure to the tear gas was two volleys which we avoided for the most part (my eyes and throat stopped hurting within an hour or so). We weren't arrested, and the only physical violence we experienced was at our own instigation, pushing against the IDF soldiers. But talking afterwards with people, you couldn't help but embellish the excitement - people assumed we were proper activists, and we did little to dispel the impression (though one girl we were with, Hari, genuinely is one). The rush is undeniable, the fear as the canisters fly around you, surrendering to the 'flight' instinct as you run away from the soldiers and, ultimately, the satisfaction of telling others of the adventure they wouldn't dare to have. Protest tourism - and the larger phenomenon, conflict tourism - is hard to assess, because while on one level it just feels wrong, the fact is that international observers at the protest who come home and tell people what happened is one of the best things that could happen, especially average people and not those already involved in the movement. The tourists definitely outnumber the activists - at Bil'in, my friends and one anarchist guy who was clearly extremely committed were the only internationals helping put out the fire, even though the Palestinians were specifically calling to them - but the fact is that an international who does nothing is just as valuable simply because he's there, keeping Israel in the world spotlight which, for all its arrogance, it clearly doesn't want to act badly in. It's easy to be disdainful of someone who protests just to get some cool pictures - but I don't think that, deep down, our knowledge of the conflict makes us that much better.

On a final note, it's also fascinating to see some of the media coverage. On the left here, the presumption is that since the pro-Israeli media is so incredibly biased (and it is - the Jerusalem Post is beyond parody), the underground media must be the only one bringing real news. But the only two pieces I found about the Hebron demonstration - this and this, both from Palestinian sources - both claim Israeli aggression against the protesters, which as an eyewitness I can say is categorically untrue. The IDF did not shut down the protest, nor did it attack the protesters. It did prevent the demonstration from going down a Hebron street, but meeting that with resistance was precisely the point of the protest, and both sides understood this. Overall, I though the IDF soldiers very professionally, not using excessive force in any instance - in fact, their main screw up was failing to shoot over their own barrier and tear-gassing themselves, which was absolutely hilarious. My favourite soldier even had a clear sense of humour about the whole thing - on being screamed at as a 'fucking fascist', he simply casually said watch your language - though admittedly as this was happening his colleague was pointing his rifle at an 8-year-old Palestinian boy who was too close to the barrier, and whom the adults had to pull off. The protests have an established dynamic that, in a way, is sort of a balance between the two sides' objectives, and there's no need to accuse Israel of aggression where there isn't any, especially when it already commits so many aggressive acts as well; frankly from what I've heard the Toronto Metropolitan Police have acquitted themselves much worse in a much less dangerous situation.

I will be going to more protests because I believe in the cause, and that the settlements and the dividing wall are among the worst and most oppressive policies being practiced by any first-world nation. I'll do it because I hope for a two-station solution, even though i don't think it's possible anymore. And I do think that the protesters against these policies are doing more than anyone else to curtail the excesses of Israeli power in the West Bank, and that the current economic improvement in the West Bank is largely due to the international pressure they help bring to bear. But, like all encounters with an ostensibly idealist movement, one can't deny a certain disillusionment, a certain shallowness, a preponderance of slogans over analysis and of good vs. evil narratives over attempts to understand. I've also been on a visit to the settlements, which I've been meaning to write about for weeks but haven't done, and if there's any lesson from it all, it's that there's absolutely no substitute from seeing these things first hand, as it is really drives home how ill-formed your previous opinions (and boy, did I have them) have been.

Hebron, Palestine Ps

Colonia Primigenia 10.IV.2010 05:20
I've never been so shocked when entering a country as I was at Asmara International Airport in Eritrea's capital. After filling out the usual myriad forms, declarations and what have you, and exchanging money at a rate that can only be described as extortionate, we made our wait out of the airport building. There was, as they always is, a gaggle of people gathered awaiting passengers. But when we got there, no one took any notice of us at all. Not one taxi driver tried to convince us to get immediately into his cab, not one person yelled at us about rides to downtown or cheap hotels - nothing of the sort happened at all. In fact, even as we were clearly confused, having been mentally prepared to fend off aggressive drivers left and right, not one person volunteered information as to how to get to the capital. And when we found the taxi stand, the taxi drivers observed the order of arrival scrupulously - they all called over to the next driver in line to take us rather than jumping ahead for the extra fare. Honestly, I can't imagine a single place in the world where the airport is like that.

Eritrea is one of those countries that's often forgotten even by the relatively well-informed. One of the world's youngest - it broke away from Ethiopia in 1994 after a bloody and prolonged war of independence - it rarely makes the news, and has an isolationism about itself that doesn't make for easy foreign engagement. Like so many countries in Africa, it is essentially a European creation - it was the centrepiece of Italy's efforts to establish an empire to rival those of its neighbours, and the jewel in the crown of Mussolini's Second Roman Empire. Colonia primigenia they called it, the mother country's first-born child. Whereas Ethiopia's never having been colonised is a huge part of the national identity here, conversely, the Italian influence is omnipresent and unmistakeable, with Asmara showcasing some of the finest fin de siecle and modernist architecture in the world.

The country is actually sort of a mirror-universe Ethiopia, with just enough familiar elements that you know you're in a country with a shared heritage, but with everything else completely switched around. Whereas Addis Abeba is a sprawling village, where even a slight deviation from the main road leaves you wondering if you're in a city at all, and dust and garbage dominate the sidewalks, Asmara is immaculate - walking through it feels more like a European city than a third-world capital (though not a real European city - more like the kind seen in a Fellini film). The awareness that you're in Africa revolts against the art-deco and futurist buildings that line Asmara's streets, incredibly well preserved from Colonial times before the second world war. A walk down Asmara's gorgeous high street leads you past such landmarks as the Cinema Imperio, which would not have looked out of place at all in an establishing shot in Roman Holiday.

In a perverse sense, though, Asmara's time capsule quality is a testament to Eritrea's tragedy. For history's greatest enemy is development - the sometimes slow but inexorable encroachment of the modern world over the old - and there has been precious little of that here. No UNESCO money has been needed to preserve the buildings here, because no money was available to build something on top of them, and so no ruthless developer schemed to tear them down. Liberated by the British during World War II it was promptly given over to Ethiopian dominance, as Emperor Haile Selassie, Elect of God and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, decreed it his country's inalienable right to have an outlet to the sea. For many Eritreans, whose long separateness under Italian oppression created their nationality identity from nothing in much the same way that the Palestinian nation has come into being since the founding of the state of Israel, Ethiopian rule was just another form of colonisation; and so began a war of independence that outlasted the Empire itself as Haile Selassie's Stalinist successors, the Derg, carried on his policies in Eritrea. Only when they were overthrown by the Tigray rebel leader Meles Zenawi (now the Ethiopian prime minister) did Eritrea, where the Tigrays are the dominant ethnicity, gain independence.

It was supposed to have been a new dawn for Africa. Isaias Afewerki, the Ethiopian rebel leader turned president, was held up by many as an example of the enlightened African ruler, and his friendship with Zenawi promised good relation between the country and its former master. Alas, it was not to be. Eritrea got into several border disputes with countries such as Yemen, and a full out war broke out between them and neighbouring Ethiopia that remains unresolved to this day - the border regions in both countries are off-limits to tourists. Slowly, the government tightened its grip on the country. Elections have been scheduled almost a dozen times since independence, but never held, and the ruling party suffers no opposition to its rule. On Transparenty International's index of journalistic freedom, it ranks not only lowest in Africa - which is an achievement in itself - but lowest in the entire world, its isolationism earning it the sobriquet 'the North Korea of Africa,' which can hardly be considered flattering. The unbelievable cleanliness of Asmara's streets testifies to the government's control of every aspect of life - third-world cities are dirty because people who are surviving day-to-day have better things to do than sweep sidewalks and mow lawns, things we considere chores in the west without realising the level of luxury such chores represent.

What makes this so galling is that it's hard not to immediately fall in love with the country. For something like the first time, as tourists we're not even an object of curiosity; we're simply ignored as people go about their daily business. Whereas walking down an Ethiopia street is essentially a constant siege of people trying to get your money - including such shamelessness as charging for pointing to a hotel you can see from where you are - here you're left alone and never charged anything but the local price. The atmosphere in the bars is European as well, just a few groups of people hanging out and having a few beers (groups of men, of course - one aspect that is familiar from Ethiopia is that any woman in a bar is either a waitress there or a prostitute.)

As a matter of fact, I cannot overstate what a relief it is to be able to just go out and have a beer. In Yemen, where all alcohol is smuggled and beer is near-impossible to come by, a dynamic comes about not unlike that of underage drinking - you have to put a lot of effort into doing it, so when you do, you do it hard. There's no just having one or two drinks - you almost invariably get trashed and go out to the one nightclub, the so-called 'Russian Club', which is exactly as sketchy as it sounds. Here, we definitely intend to spend quite a few nights over a couple beers, just relaxing and soaking in the wonderful atmosphere of the city. I really think we couldnt've picked a better place to take a break from Yemen - it's different in all the right ways. I'll be spending the next ten days here, travelling over as much of the country as the government will allow (read: a small portion of the country) before, no doubt somewhat reluctantly, heading out and back to Sana'a.

Asmara, Eritrea Er

On terrorism in Yemen 13.VIII.2009 13:26
Yemen, in which I'm currently living, makes the news for pretty much only one reason - violence (with the occasionally human interest story about child brides thrown in). There's the kidnappings, the terrorist attacks, the Shia rebellion, the civil war - a never ending stream of destruction. As I write this, the top story on al-Jazeera reads 'Yemen warplanes pound rebel strongholds' which, it must be admitted, is exactly what's happening. The paradox of it all is that, on a day-to-day basis in the capital, Sana'a, I'm safer than I would be in any Western city, even Toronto, because of the total absence of street crime and, although foreigners have been targeted elsewhere, the capital is perfectly secure. The reason for this counter-intuitive state of affairs is, as always, that the country is far more complicated than the label it's assigned in the media: in Yemen's case, that of a potential failed state and new headquarters for al-Qaeda.

Broadly speaking, there are four sources of violence in Yemen: tribal kidnappings, the Houthi rebellion in the North, 'al-Qaeda' terrorist attacks such as the one on the USS Cole, and the Southern independence movement. The first, targeted at foreigners like me but paradoxically less threatening, is kidnappings. Headline-grabbing though they are, these are essentially harmless: all the laws of the traditional host-guest relationship apply, so you sit around eating and drinking tea with the mild inconvenience that you're not allowed to leave (this being a notoriously hard thing to do at Middle Eastern households anyway). After the government caves in and gives your kidnappers the money/weapons/what have you, you simply go home, as did a Dutch couple kidnapped a few months back. All this started in the 80's or 90's, when the government tried to resolve a few kidnappings quickly by giving into demands, and the tribes realised that this was an effective tactic. It's not at all about harming the foreigners, but about tribal relations with government - and it must be remembered that loyalty to the tribe and family still means a lot more than loyalty to the state, and the central government's control over many of the tribes ranges from loose to non-existence, the former mostly through bribes and appointments. Nevertheless, if you ever see 'Polish-Canadian, 25, held hostage in Yemen' on the BBC, it's almost certainly nothing to worry about.

The second conflict, and the big one right now, is the war against the Houthi rebels in the North, specifically in Saada province, in which hundreds of people have died over the past decade or so. The Houthis are a tribal group occupying the mountains reaches of the north of the country, near the borders of Saudi Arabia, and belong to the Zaidi sect of Shi'a Islam. Until the revolution in 1962, Yemen was a theocracy, ruled by a Zaidi Imam, and the government accuses the Houthis of wanting to reinstate such rule. However, this is far from clear: most everyone I talk to says that no one really knows what the Houthis want, and many express dismay that the government and its well-funded military haven't crushed them already, wondering at some secret motives. This is the conflict that's really serious, and it was in Saada that nine foreigners - Germans, Brits and a South Korean - were kidnapped some months ago. Three have been found dead, and rumours continue to swirl about the fate of the other six.

Though I said above that kidnapping poses no threat to foreigners, this case was altogether different, and calls up an aspect of foreign aid work that is very rarely commented upon: missionaries. The nine who were kidnapped were operating in an area known for violent conflict, and it's said that, in addition to running a hospital, their organisation was also trying to win a few souls for Jesus on the side. We always assume that people who are attacked are either gold-hearted aid workers (as a sidebar, through my travels I've discovered that many aid workers are in fact assholes) or innocent tourists at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, one has to remember that in many places, especially among Muslims, proselytising is deeply, deeply resented; this is not to say that the missionaries deserved to be killed, but one has to remember that engaging in such activity - and bringing your family to help do so - is putting yourself at risk. Similarly, there were a few attacks against Koreans during the beginning of my stay here, and though at the time it just seemed random, but I suddenly remembered a similar incident years back in Afghanistan and the country's large and fervent Christian population and suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Third on our list of Yemeni terror threats we have that symbol of evil incarnate, Islamic terrorism, mostly under the guise of al-Qaeda. This is the one that gets the most play in the press, for obvious reasons, and it's the reason that great swathes of the country are inaccessible to tourists. This includes the Sabaean ruins at Ma'rib, which I would love to see, but unfortunately can't because an attack killed seven Spanish tourists there last year; groups like this were also the ones responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. As in many Arab countries, this is the reason American funds flow to a government that has, otherwise, fairly little public support and even less actual democratic legitimacy. Nevertheless, there is a genuine movement of attacks in Yemen roughly in line with the broader Islamist one

The more interesting phenomenon, however, is that every attack is perpatrated by al-Qaeda. While this is theoretically possible, the fact is that it is in both the government's and the terrorists' interest to say that it was no matter the circumstances. The word 'al-Qaeda' is the 'open sesame' to American foreign aid coffers, its mere mention getting the instant attention of the State department; and point out the fact that if the central government were to lose control, the whole country could become al-Qaeda's new base, thereby negating the so-called 'good war' in Afghanistan, well, that's a nice fat paycheque for the ruling party. On the other hand, say you're some random terrorist, maybe Islamic, or just anti-Western, or both - imagine the instant prestige you get when your successful attack becomes a certified 'al-Qaeda'™ attack. So the government calls it al-Qaeda to get the Americans' attention, and it's not really in anyone's interest to rebut the claim, and so bin Laden's terror network appears to get more and more firmly established in Yemen. That's the problem with the whole treatment of al-Qaeda now - if it ever was an actual network (ie with funds flowing and chains of command), now it's just become something people say to get attention. Of course, it's a brush with which it's hard to tar a Shi'a group like the Houthis - which may be one reason that war hasn't been resolved - but the Saudis have solved that problem by invoking the other Great Evil, Iran, who is supposedly sponsoring them. Nevermind that the Zaidis have a form of Shi'ism no Iranian would recognise - they must be behind it anyway. That'll get the money coming in.

The idea of al-Qaeda ties is one that the government has used sporadically against our fourth and final 'terrorist' group, Southern separatists. Yemen used to be two countries from 1962 until unification in 1990 (which a civil war in 1994 tried, and failed, to undo), the communist South being generally more permissive than the standard Arab dictatorship of the North, centred economically around the port of Aden. Now (as ever in regions with some sense of identity, cf. Quebec), they claim that the north is oppressing them economically and culturally, and demanding more rights. A few people on the fringe want full independence - and of course the government has seized on such 'traitors' to shut down news papers, take political prisoners, and kill protesters for the freedom of said prisoners, as happened a few weeks back. There's really almost no danger from the 'separatists' - perhaps the ludicrous Chinese term for Tibetans, 'splittists', would be better? - and the occasional flare-up, as so many things here, certainly has more to with tribe than nation. However, the government will always use the spectre of civil war and failed state to clamp down, with international approval, on the most likely source of an effective and reasonable opposition in the country.

Yemen is not, by any standards, a calm country, and it's no stranger to violence - a walk down the main streets will see plenty of vendors with clips of ammo, and an AK-47 apparently costs approximately $150. And though the capital is quite far from the conflict areas, apparently last summer you could hear the bombardments of a nearby stronghold from downtown. However, in my view, Sana'a remains perfectly safe, and I in it, and I have the greatest violence I've experienced here was stupid little kids yelling at me about my tallness and long hair. The problem is, of course, that for all the real disasters here - education, poverty, women's rights - the media simply report on the war, the terrorist attacks, the kidnappings and the 'separatists,' without any detail, nuance or sense of the complex way in which all these things differ and fit together, painting a picture that, from my current seat at Abu Ali's teashop staring at the gorgeous buildings of Old Sana'a, is anything but.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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