Global Voices

Subscribe to Global Voices feed Global Voices
Citizen media stories from around the world
Updated: 3 min 25 sec ago

Harsh Prison Terms for Video Journalist and Blogger as Vietnam Cracks Down on Free Expression

Fri, 2017-12-08 10:22

Video journalist and digital security trainer Nguyen Van Hoa. Source: Facebook page of Nguyen Van Hoa

A court in central Vietnam sentenced video journalist Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in prison on November 27, 2017, for reporting on environmental protests in central Vietnam as part of an ongoing crackdown on citizen journalism.

Only three days later, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, widely known as Me Nam or Mother Mushroom, saw a court uphold her 10-year prison sentence for Facebook posts about human rights and environmental issues involving the police and other state forces.

Hoa, 22, was accused of “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. The charge was related to his reporting on protests that followed an environmental disaster which led to tonnes of dead fish washing up across Vietnam’s central coast in April 2016.

Hoa was the first person in Vietnam to use a flycam drone to broadcast live footage of protests outside the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant which was revealed to be the cause behind the toxic spill. His footage of more than 10,000 people outside the Formosa gates went viral across social media.

A security trainer and regular contributor to Radio Free Asia, Hoa was detained in January 2017 and initially charged with “abusing democratic rights to infringe upon the interests of the state”. The charges against him were changed in June without reason, according to his family.

Human rights and digital groups signed a statement calling on the Vietnamese government to release Hoa in time for the World Press Freedom Day in May. The joint statement said:

Repressing citizen journalists is not only a violation of human rights but also a major impediment to Vietnam’s aspirations to become a tech and innovation hub.

When local police originally arrested Hoa, they physically attacked him and confiscated his equipment while he was on assignment in November 2016, according to Radio Free Asia spokesman Rohit Mahajan.

Video journalist and digital security trainer Nguyen Van Hoa. Source: Facebook page of Nguyen Van Hoa

His family informed Loa, an alternative news podcast that reports about Vietnam, that they were only told of the trial a day before the public trial.

(Editor's note: Loa, a partner of Global Voices, is a project of a political organization called Viet Tan that promotes democracy in Vietnam. The author of this post is also a Viet Tan organizer.)

In a deal with the Vietnamese government, Formosa agreed to pay 500 million US dollars, which many have criticised to be insignificant relative to the damage caused. Thousands of affected fishermen have continued to protest the unfair compensation despite authorities trying to stop the demonstrations.

Citizen journalists and bloggers who reported on the Formosa disaster have also faced lengthy sentences. One of them is blogger Mother Mushroom, who was arrested in October 2016 and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state”.

In June 2017, she was ordered to spend 10 years in prison for her writings, a sentence that was confirmed on November 30 in an appeals trial that lasted only a few hours.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (center) attends her appeal trial at a court in Nha Trang, Nov. 30, 2017. Photo courtesy of Radio Free Asia.

One of her lawyers, Vo An Don, a prominent human rights lawyer, had his law license revoked by the Phu Yen Bar Association on November 26, four days before her trial. He was barred from representing her during the appeals trial.

Lawyer Vo An Don ̣(fourth from the right), with a group of people waiting outside the courtroom during Mother Mushroom’s appeal trial. Source: Facebook page of Vo An Don.

Vo An Don spoke out against the decision on his Facebook:

This decision is effective immediately, ends my dream of being a lawyer defending the poor and leaves many unjust cases open.

The two cases are part of the Vietnamese government’s wider crackdown on free expression. More than 25 activists have been arrested, issued arrest warrants or exiled since January 2017. The harsh prison terms handed down by the courts to activists like Hoa and Mother Mushroom are troubling signs for the state of human rights in Vietnam.

What Future for the ‘Wikipedia Seagull’ on Kazakhstan's Brand New Banknotes?

Fri, 2017-12-08 09:44

Photo by Marcel Burkhard (User:Cele4). CC 2.0.

When representatives of authoritarian Kazakhstan's central bank are batting away copyright infringement claims with ornithological explanations it is a sure sign something has gone awry.

Marcel Burkhard, a Swiss photographer, is arguing that a seagull that appears on the latest version of a 500 tenge ($1.50) Kazakh banknote is a carbon copy of one he photographed over a decade ago. That photograph appears on the Russian-language Wikipedia article for “gulls” and is labelled as “an ordinary gull”.

Officials in the land-locked Central Asian country where Russian is widely spoken have failed to acknowledge copyright infringement despite a social media-driven outcry. But tellingly they have belatedly suggested that “with time” the design of the banknote will be changed.

Mock-up of the gul photographed by Burkhard and the image that appears on the 500 tenge banknote. Image published on and other Kazakh media.

On December 4, according to Kazakh media, Burkhard wrote on Facebook:

В пятницу я получил сообщение от казахстанского пользователя, что на новой казахстанской банкноте есть чайка, которая похожа на мою фотографию. Я посмотрел на банкноту и действительно, она выглядит так, как будто это была одна и та же чайка. Для сравнения, я вырезал чайку с моей фотографии и приложил её над банкнотой. Каждая деталь совпадает, поэтому я на 100% уверен, что это одна и та же картинка

On Friday I received a message from a Kazakh social media user, [who said] that on a new Kazakhstan banknote there is a seagull similar to my photograph. I examined the banknote and, truly, it seems to be one and the same gull. To compare, I cut out the seagull from my photograph and inserted it onto [a copy of] a banknote. Every detail matches and for that reason I am confident that the image is one and the same.

Burkhard has called on the Kazakh central bank to admit to lifting the image of the black-headed gull, or Larus Ridibundus, and provide him with some form of compensation.

Global Voices did find at least one image online of a gull in a similar pose, albeit facing in the opposite direction to the one photographed by Burkhard.

But none of the birds that appear as top responses to a Google image search for the Larus Ridibundus resemble the 500 tenge gull quite as closely as Burkhard's.

A ‘characteristic’ pose

In the weeks since the 500 tenge banknote was first presented to the public, central bank officials have provided several responses to the allegations of copyright infringement.

Back in November spokesman Alexandr Terentyev called the clamour around the gull “absurd” and accused Facebook users of making something out of nothing.

He also promised journalists the opportunity to “disassemble this gull, its origins, wing span, the angle of its head” at a future meeting with experts and the central bank's team of designers.

Another official at the bank opined that “the position and pose of the birds depicted on the banknote are characteristic of all representatives of this species of birds.”

By December 5, with accusations of plagiarism still doing the rounds on social media, the bank said the design of the banknote would change “with time” and that symbols for the banknote would be exclusively hand-drawn to prevent possible falsification.

There was no immediate confirmation that the seagull would be removed from the note, however.

Although it was largely the troublesome bird that caught the eye of Kazakh social media users, many were even more bemused to find out that a business centre called Moskva (Moscow) in Kazakhstan's capital Astana had found its way onto the same 500 tenge banknote.

Murat Abenov, a former deputy education minister fumed:

Почему МОСКВА стала нашим национальным символом?
Как это изображение оказалась на новых купюрах 500 тенге?
Ведь национальная валюта это символ нашей государственности …
Как НацБанк РК допустил что частный бизнес-центр “Москва” принадлежащий гражданам РФ попал на купюру?

— Мурат Абенов (@MuratAbenov) December 4, 2017

Since when is MOSCOW a national symbol of ours? How did this image end up on a 500 tenge banknote? National currency is a representative of our statehood…How did [Kazakhstan's central bank] allow this private business centre that belongs to citizens of the Russian Federation to end up on our currency?

The furore over the new banknote in some way recalls massive opposition to an unpopular land reform bill in 2016 and disagreements over the new Latin alphabet introduced to replace its Cyrillic counterpart earlier this year.

While these three separate scandals differed in terms of their causes and consequences, they all highlighted the pathological inability of authorities to conduct public consultations before steaming ahead with controversial actions.

With an aged leadership and an autocratic system that offers few mechanisms for citizen feedback, more of the same should be expected.

Jailed Bahraini Rights Defender Nabeel Rajab Faces Additional Fifteen Years in Prison

Thu, 2017-12-07 12:51

Nabeel Rajab (right) and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja at a pro democracy march in Bahrain in 2011. Photo by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries.

Prominent Bahraini human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, has been in jail for his human rights work since 13 June 2016. He is currently serving a two-year prison term for speaking to the media about the human rights situation in Bahrain. He also faces additional prison time for expressing himself on Twitter.

Rajab is the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the founding director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Deputy Secretary-General of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), and a member of the Advisory Board of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In July 2002, he founded the BCHR with his colleague Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence for his human rights activities. The BCHR continues to operate to this day despite a decision to close it by authorities in November 2004, and the jailing of its two founders.

When the popular uprising started in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, Nabeel Rajab was at its heart as a human rights leader. When the authorities arrested most of the uprising leaders, he became the only remaining voice outside of prison, which was heard by tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and the rest of the world, attesting to the grave violations committed by the government that oppressed the entire population solely based on their demand for freedom, equality and social justice.

For his engagement with the Bahraini uprising and human rights activism, Rajab is paying a heavy price. He was arrested and imprisoned several times and subjected to various types of threats, judicial harassment, abusive media smear campaigns, torture, and travel bans.

On 10 July, he was sentenced to prison for two years after being found guilty of spreading “fake news”, over TV interviews in which he spoke about mounting human rights violations in the Gulf kingdom. In those interviews, Rajab talked about journalists and NGOs being prevented from entering Bahrain, and a lack of judicial independence. On 22 November, a Bahraini appeals court upheld the two-year prison sentence.

In another case, Rajab faces up to 15 years in jail for criticizing Bahrain's participation in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and for speaking out about torture in Bahrain's infamous “Jaw” prison on Twitter. Rajab was scheduled to appear again in court on 31 December 2017 for this case. However, the hearing was unexpectedly held on 5 December, four weeks earlier than the date originally scheduled by the court. On 3 December, Rajab's lawyers were informed by the court the hearing would take place on 5 December, under the pretext that a key witness in the case would be unable to attend the hearing on 31 December. Although, Rajab's lawyers protested this decision, the hearing took place on 5 December and was adjourned to 7 December. Rajab was unable to attend the hearing for health reasons.

- Due to health problems,Nabeel Rajab was not able to attend the hearing

- His lawyers were not given enough time for preparation, only 2 days informal notice

- Court rejected the lawyers request for postponement

- Rushing the case, raises fears of imminent sentence#Bahrain

— Nabeel Rajab (@NABEELRAJAB) December 5, 2017

On 7 December, the hearing has once again been adjourned to 15 January.

Today, the 20th Court hearing against @NabeelRajab was adjourned to 15 January for the defence to submit their final argument.

• Charged for comments condemning the Saudi bombardment in #Yemen, & exposing torture in #Bahrain

• Facing 15 Years imprisonment

— Nabeel Rajab (@NABEELRAJAB) December 7, 2017

Rajab faces additional prison time for charges related to two letters he published in the New York Times and the French newspaper Le Monde, while in prison.

In the NYT letter, published in September 2016, Rajab described the conditions of his detention and called on the Obama administration to ”use its leverage” to end the conflict in Yemen, and work ”to secure the release of people who call for peace, and are trying to build democracy in the region”. For this piece, Rajab was charged with “undermining the prestige of the kingdom.”

In the letter published in Le Monde in December 2016, Rajab called on France and Germany to re-assess their support for the Arab Gulf monarchies. Following the publication of this piece, he was charged with “spreading false news and statements and malicious rumours that undermine the prestige of Bahrain and the brotherly countries of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], and an attempt to endanger their relations.”

Several organizations and human rights groups have repeatedly called on Bahraini authorities to release Nabeel Rajab. In May, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) expressed particular concern over Rajab’s solitary confinement and called for his release. Numerous others have called for his release, including European Parliament officials. On 27 June 2017, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights Pier Antonio Panzeri issued a statement calling for the rights defender's release:

Rajab’s detention violates his right to freedom of expression. I call on the Bahraini authorities to grant lawyers and family members access to Nabeel Rajab, to drop all charges against him and to free him immediately

Despite these calls, Rajab remains in prison. He is not the only one in Bahrain to be jailed for his human rights and political activism, or for peacefully expressing himself. In the small island kingdom of just 1.4 million people, there are more than 4,000 political prisoners, according to rights groups.

Ashraf Ghani Gets Thumbs Down After ‘Anti-Women’ Headscarf Gaffe

Thu, 2017-12-07 11:59

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Creative Commons.

A sexist remark made recently by Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has highlighted a powerful political culture of chauvinism pervading the national government while revealing cracks in Ghani's own self-image as a progressive.

Ghani has since been moved to apologise to women for comments comparing opposition politicians to women wearing a chaadar, the traditional Afghan headscarf.

During a long–winded speech on December 2 the president blasted opposition politicians that have accused high-ranking members in Ghani’s administration of collusion with the Islamic state.

The politicians must provide evidence, Mr. Ghani said, or “go home and wear the chaadar”.

The large crowd of military officers that formed Ghani's immediate audience applauded him, but on social media — which up to a sixth of the country uses according to some estimates — the reaction was far more mixed. Afghan women backed by male and female representatives of civi society, urged the president to apologize, branding his remark sexist and anti-women.

In Afghanistan, the insult “to wear the chaadar” is often used as a means of shaming men.

Pride in headscarves

Fawzia Koofi, a member of Afghanistan Parliament and Chairperson of the Women, Civil Society and Human Rights Commission, wrote against the remark on both her Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Why wearing scarf z regarded an act of shame among so called elite politicians our political literature is still man dominated I was surprised to hear from @ashrafghani inviting those who can't proof their claim wear scarf as an act of shame.Am proud of my scarf as part of my ID

— Fawzia Koofi (@FawziaKoofi77) December 2, 2017

Nahid Farid, a prominent women rights activist, also pointed out that wearing headscarf was no shame.

در پيوند به چالش پوشيدن چادرِ رئيس حكومت وحدت ملي:
در افغانستان زنانِ چادر به سر نماد غيرتند. استفاده از ادبيات زن ستيزانه در سخنراني هاي شخصي كه ادعا ميكند٤٠ درصد راي دهندگانش زنان بودند، مايهء شرمساريست. طبق قانون منع آزار و اذیت زنان و کودکان، هر نوع نگاه جنسیتی و مثال زدن بخاطر تحقیر کسی با استفاده از نام زن، خشونت عليه زنان محسوب مي شود. از منظر تاريخي هم، تا حالا چادر هیچ زنی هيچ نقطهء اين كشور جنگزده را به آتش نکشیده است.

Regarding to latest remark of the President, Afghan women who wear headscarf are symbols of honor and dignity. It’s shameful to see such anti-women speech from a president who sourced 40 percent of his votes from women… Historically, it has been men, rather than those who wear the headscarf, who have put Afghanistan in flames.

The public backlash pushed Ghani to apologise in a statement released on Dec 3:

The president is a very prominent advocate of women’s rights and has taken unique steps to strengthen and preserve their position since his tenure as the president of Afghanistan…The use of the word Chaadar—scarfs in English—had been misinterpreted by oppositions to disturb public opinion. It never aimed to offend the highly valuable place of women in the country. Despite this, if emotions of Afghan women have been made regretful, the president apologizes to them.

Bahar Sohili, an Afghan woman, criticised the statement as insufficient:

معذرت خواهی روی حساب فیسبوکی و شخصی شاه حسین مرتضوی توام با توجیه و متهم ساختن میزان درک و شعور مردم از سخنرانی رئیس جمهور به معنای نادیده گرفتن زنان است .
پیشنهاد من : چه معذرت بخواهند و چه تحقیرآمیز توجیه کنند این نگاه تبعیض آمیز، تا زمانیکه پوشش نابرابر دارید تغییر نخواهد کرد. جستجوی برابری تلاشی بیهوده است زیرا همان چادر روی سر نشان دهنده ی بسته بندی تفکر و درجه ی دوم بودن است و نشانگر اینکه هنوز نتوانسته اید با خود در مورد گناه آلود بودن موی سر کنار بیایید .

Apologizing to women on Facebook is itself insulting Afghan women…I suggest we take off our headscarves to end gender inequality, because as long as women wear the headscarf, they will be treated as second class.

Ghani may also have faced censure from his own wife, Rula Ghani, a vocal champion of women's rights in the country.

Rula Ghani caused a stir shortly after her husband won a tightly contested presidential election in 2014 when she gave an interview to French media claiming she supported the ban on the fully covering niqab, or burkha, in France.

Ms Ghani, who speaks five languages and studied at the University of Columbia as well as in France, later said her critics had “taken the remarks out of context” and pledged her support for “family values`” in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz Children's Author Remakes Old Fables, Drives New Narratives

Thu, 2017-12-07 00:15

An illustration from the ‘Square Country’ fairy tale drawn by Natalia Ni. Permission to use granted by Altyn Kapalova.

The following is a version of a partner post from originally titled ‘Kyrgyzstan: Children’s Literature Taking Fresh Look at Old Fables’. Republished with permission.

Esal, a seven-year-old girl, was born in a country where everything is blue and square-shaped. One day, an alien object, pink and spherical, turns up close to her house. When it offers her the chance to leave behind the hard edges of her homeland and travel through a world of different forms and colors, she seizes it.

The journey takes Esal at first through a country full of people and buildings that resemble the strange pink ball. Then, she travels to another one inhabited by green triangular types. At the end of the book, she and her new friends unite to build a new multi-colored, multi-shaped space all of their own, dissolving the borders that once divided them.

“When my son first read the book, he said that it was all about shapes,” said Asel Abdyrakhmanova of her ten-year-old’s reaction to Kyrgyz author Altyn Kapalova’s “Square Country” fairytale.

“Then we read it again,” recalled Abdyrakhmanova, an education specialist, who works for an international development organization. “The third time we read it, he said: ‘Oh Mom, it’s about how people are different and how that is a good thing!”

Kapalova’s stories turn up in the most unexpected places, such as the in-flight magazines of Kyrgyz air carriers taking passengers from Bishkek to Moscow. There, sandwiched between advertisements for watches and Dubai resorts, one can read of a beautiful underwater creature, Suluusu, who lives at the bottom of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul and dislikes the tourists who pollute her environment with their noise and rubbish.

Suluusu, whose tale is embellished by the eye-catching and identifiably Kyrgyz illustrations of artist Dinara Chokotayeva, is far from the goodie-two-shoes heroine typical of children’s literature.

She takes revenge on the holiday-goers by capturing the jewelry they lose when they are swimming, and hoarding it in a private corner of her deep blue kingdom.

“This is why jewelry lost in Lake Issyk-Kul is never found,” Kapalova’s tale concludes.

Kapalova, an anthropologist by training, writes books in both Kyrgyz and Russian under the pseudonym Altyn Aman. She might sense a kindred spirit in Suluusu.

The author admits to sourcing inspiration for her storytelling from her academic field trips into Kyrgyzstan’s regions, where books are scarce but oral tradition is rich.

“When I go to villages and meet people there, I take things from their speech, their thoughts and their mannerisms. I am a terrible thief!” she laughed.

Image from ‘Bugu Ene’, illustrated by Dzum Gunn. Permission provided by Altyn Kapalova.

But while her books have brought her recognition and no shortage of personal pleasure, she can scarcely afford to give up the day job.

The book market in Kyrgyzstan is weak and stories like “Square Country” vie for room on the shelves of Bishkek’s bookstores with Russian children’s stories, and Western translations of popular tales. Her competitors are supported by substantial publishing machines.

The fact that her stories are being read beyond the capital owes much to the international organizations that have distributed them as part of donor-funded projects.

During the Soviet era, favored writers received comprehensive support from the state. That enabled a few writers, including Kyrgyzstan’s most famous literary export, Chingiz Aitmatov, to raise their literary profile through the vigorous promotion of Communist authorities. After gaining prominence in Kyrgyzstan, and then across the Soviet Union as a whole, his books were translated into dozens of different languages and read across the world.

But nowadays Kyrgyz writers “lack opportunities to forge contacts with international publishers,” said Dalmira Tilepbergenova, president of the PEN center for Central Asia, which is seeking funding to train writers in basic English in order to help them reach international markets. “Some seek private sponsors, some donor organizations, while others put their own money towards publishing costs.”

Spreading internet use has enabled a fourth group of authors to reach a wider audience without having to source money for their hobby.

Polad Suleimanov, a veterinarian, has developed a loyal readership by publishing his short stories on Facebook, and has also been published by the website of a local newspaper.

Suleimanov said he writes in the tradition of popular British vet-turned-author James Herriot and his American equivalent John McCormack. But he admits he has never seriously considered writing a book. “I don’t keep count of how many short stories I have written. Maybe 100, or maybe 200,” he told

Suluusu, perhaps Kapalova's most famous tale has been translated into Korean, with new illustrations. (Altyn Kapalova)

Kapalova uses Facebook to promote her work, but sees the children’s book as an essential medium to encourage reading more generally.

“When I travel outside of Bishkek, what I find is there is a hunger to read that is not being satisfied,” she said. “In the capital, we are too saturated with information through the internet and struggle to find the time to read books. In villages, the problem is that reading material is not very available at all.”

As Kapalova hones a reputation as a national author, she has faced questions over her lack of traditionalism.

Some readers of her adaption of the famous Kyrgyz fairytale “Bugu Ene” (literally “Deer Mother”) queried why she did not set the story in the Siberian Yenisei region, which occupies a founding role in national mythology. Others asked why there was no wedding in the story.

“I took the things I liked in the original story and left out the things I didn’t need,” said Kapalova of “Bugu Ene,” which she describes as “essentially an eco-tale focused on humans’ relationship with the natural world.”

Moreover, the author, who identifies as a feminist, makes no apologies for departing from the “airy worlds” created by classical children’s authors such as Hans Christian Anderson, whose style of writing she still admires.

“It’s true that there are no fairytale weddings in my stories and there is no handsome prince,” she laughed. “None of my characters are especially waiting for him, either.”

Animal Carcasses, Tires, and Medical Waste: A New Report Highlights Health Risks of Lebanon's Trash Crisis

Tue, 2017-12-05 15:24

Bassam Khawaja (Right) and Nadim Houry (Left) present the study of Human Rights Watch regarding Lebanon's open burning of waste. Photo by Hassan Chamoun.

Global Voices’ Hassan Chamoun attended the conference launched by Human Rights Watch as part of our ongoing coverage of Lebanon's garbage crisis. 

Lebanon's ongoing garbage crisis was the subject of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) study entitled “As If You're Inhaling Death: The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon” released on December 1.

HRW's study included 104 interviews with stakeholders as well as field visits to 15 different ‘open dumping’ sites that do not take environmental or health concerns into consideration.

HRW also spoke with 53 residents, some who lived close to the dumps, and produced a short video report on the situation:

This type of open burning of waste is linked to severe impacts on human health, from heart conditions and cancer to skin diseases, asthma, and respiratory illnesses.

The crisis attracted international attention in 2015 with the ‘You Stink’ Movement, a loosely-organized protest movement that started as a response to the government's inability to replace the Naameh landfill that received waste from Beirut and the Mount Lebanon's region (roughly half of the Lebanese population).

See Global Voices’ Special Coverage in 2015: Lebanon's ‘You Stink’ Protests

While the international community learned about the crisis in 2015, it dates back much further and is not limited to Beirut and Mount Lebanon regions. As HRW pointed out, the crisis revealed severe structural problems in the country:

pattern of poor government planning and management, inadequate support to and oversight of areas outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon; overuse of landfills, open dumping and burning […] and a lack of transparency.

A clash between environmental health and politics was therefore inevitable, which is why the 2015 protests soon included a wide range of demands, from the resignation of ministers viewed as directly responsible for the health crisis to government reforms. Some even called for overthrowing the government, chanting “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam” (“The people want to topple the regime.”)

The movement's name, ‘You Stink’ from the Arabic ‘طلعت ريحتكم’, referred to both the smell of trash piling up on the streets and to the political system itself.

A widely-used sign held up in a protest in Lebanon during the You Stink protests shows various Lebanese politicians as trash bags on August 22, 2015. Photo: Hassan Chamoun

“We can't breathe.” 

A 2016 survey by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Lebanese Ministry of Environment reported that Lebanon had a total number of 941 identified open dumpsites compared to 670 in the 2011 survey.

Using an UNDP map along with data from the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, HRW showed that more than 150 open dumps are burned on a weekly basis. The Operations Room of the General Directorate of Civil Defense (Lebanon's fire department) reported that they have responded to 4,426 reports of open burning of waste since the beginning of 2015. According to this report, the number of open burning cases reported in Mount Lebanon alone rose 330 percent in 2015 and a further 250 percent in 2016.

Mohamed, who lives next to a dump in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon's East, told HRW:

When they burn we can’t breathe […] We’ve had to go to the hospital because of this. My wife has gone four or five times [since burning began], my son and I went two times. All because of breathing [problems]. We usually stay two days to a week. The hospital said it was an infection in the lungs because of the smoke.

Mohammed added that this has significantly increased the economic hardships of his family:

They would give us pills, they were very expensive. They also gave us oxygen masks…We’re not even able to fix our house because of how much we spend on medical care…In the summer we can’t sleep because of all the smoke, we kept waking up trying to breathe.

Links between poverty and health hazards

Because Beirut and Mount Lebanon are two of Lebanon's wealthiest provinces, the closing of their landfills mobilized citizens and grabbed international headlines. Yet the rest of the country was just as impacted but less recognized.

For example, Beirut and Mount Lebanon's waste is collected, treated and disposed of by Sukleen and Sukomi, two controversial private companies. In contrast, in the remaining regions of Lebanon, municipalities are responsible for their own waste.

Municipalities theoretically receive funding through an “Independent Municipal Fund” fueled by taxes collected by the central government. In practice however, the Fund's disbursements have been irregular and, at times, delayed for months. A lack of effective funds has driven municipalities to find quick solutions such as open dumping and burning.

Open burning of waste in Majadel, South Lebanon. Photo by Human Rights Watch. Used with Permission.

In March 2016, the Lebanese cabinet adopted a waste management plan calling for the use of waste-energy-technologies starting in 2020. Until then, Beirut and Mount Lebanon will rely on two sanitary landfills constructed to receive garbage for four years: one in Bourj Hammoud (Greater Beirut area) and one in Costa Brava (near Beirut's airport).

The Costa Brava landfill, as Nadine Mazloum reported for Global Voices, has been deemed unsafe and threatens both the environment and air traffic. The rest is supposed to go to Sidon, a city 40 kilometers south of Beirut.

The report highlights a correlation between the burning of waste and income levels. Of the 100 open dumps in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, just nine are being burned while the rest of the country (where the other half of the population lives) has nearly 150 open burning dumps.

Map showing a moderate correlation between the burning of waste and income levels. The darker the map, the higher the percentage of the population below middle-class income levels. Source: HRW Report

Whose responsibility?

Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), which it ratified in 1972, and therefore legally bound to improve the standard of living of its population.

Under the Covenant, Lebanon also has an obligation to recognize

“the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living…and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

In addition to international law, open burning violates Lebanon's own environmental protection laws “which prohibit the emission of pollutants into the air, including harmful or disturbing smells,” explains Habib Battah, a Lebanese journalist and blogger at The Beirut Report. Battah recently warned:

Contrary to government claims, the waste crisis is far from over. Will we be tasting garbage in our wines and vegetables next harvest?  Where is the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Public Health or Ministry of Tourism?

In China, Skepticism Surrounding Police Investigation of Kindergarten Child Abuse Is Censored

Mon, 2017-12-04 20:28

Parents gathered outside the RBY nursery. Photo from China state-owned

Child abuse at a private nursery in Beijing and the accompanying censorship of news and commentary surrounding the case has many Chinese criticizing authorities and skeptical of police conclusions.

On November 22, eight parents filed a complaint with Beijing police that their children were being harmed by staff at a kindergarten run by an education group called Red-Yellow-Blue (RYB).

According to local media reports, the parents found needle holes in their children's bodies. Some of the children said they were fed white powder by the teachers, and one child claimed that they were bought into a room for body inspections performed by a naked doctor. Allegedly, at least three children were punished with standing naked in class, and one showed physical marks that could imply sexual molestation.

The news was explosive on social media. On November 22 and 23, a group of enraged parents gathered outside the kindergarten demanding explanations and surveillance videos. The police then started the investigation.

Censorship soon followed. The once hot topic all but disappeared from social media. Netizens, however, continued to discuss the case in more private channels such as chat rooms, with many expressing concern that the police would not dig deep while investigating the established education group.

This is not the first time the education group has faced accusations of child abuse. In 2015, needle spots were found on the bodies of at least 17 toddlers in another kindergarten run by RYB in Jilin province. Four teachers there were subsequently arrested.

Censorship, “false” accusations and rumor-mongering

On November 25, Beijing Chaoyang district police announced on Weibo that they had arrested one 22-year-old teacher — as well as a Beijing resident who commented on social media about the connection between the headmaster of the nursery with a military clan stationed near Beijing.

On November 28, the district police further reported that there was no evidence of drugs being fed to children nor of sexual molestation. The parents, police said, admitted to making false accusations or coaching their children to provide false testimony about standing naked as punishment or drug consumption.

However, the police also said that the hard disk of the surveillance footage from the kindergarten was broken because the electrical supply to the video surveillance set had been unplugged frequently for a lengthy period of time. The police managed to recover 113 hours of recorded footage.

Under the police updates posted on Weibo, the majority of the comments praise the work of authorities and condemn rumormongers.

Nevertheless, despite the censorship, critical remarks about the investigation continue to pop up on Weibo. One netizen summed up the message of the police updates in a few bullet points:

Cartoon of a hard disk hanging itself. Viral image from Weibo.


1. The kids are OK; 2. Teachers are mad [they needled the kids because they refused to sleep]; 3. The surveillance camera's hard disk is broken; 4. Parents are using the kids to create a mess; 5. Netizens and the kids were both tricked by the parents; 6. Netizens should stop spreading rumors or they will be arrested.

China introduced the online rumor law in 2013. Netizens who distribute unverified information would be arrested and charged with spreading rumor if their posts have been viewed for 5000 times or shared for 500 times. The maximum jail time is three years.

Another Weibo user slammed the police report and censorship of online comments:

短短几分钟,评论上千,全是质问,一眨眼功夫 ,评论全部被删,关闭评论!!这样就会没有质疑的声音了吗?

Sina just reported on the investigation of Chaoyang district police. I read the report immediately. So the result of the investigation is that the abuse was fabricated by parents? This is so terrifying. Maybe this is a reflection of our society, that invisible power rules?
In a matter of a few minutes, thousands of questions popped up underneath the report. Then in a matter of a few seconds, all the comments vanished and the comment function was closed.
Criticism can be erased like this?
The police have taken away all the CCTV footage. Just by saying that the hard disk was broken, [you can] conclude that everything did not happen? This is such a joke.

To highlight the inconsistencies within the police report, “broken hard disk” became a hashtag on social media.

A technical piece pointed out that all the kindergarten surveillance cameras were connected to a central system which would alert the government education authorities if the surveillance cameras were not functioning. But the article was censored.

Another censored piece put together all available news reports on other unrelated cases in which police investigations reported that surveillance cameras or their associated hard disks at the scene of the alleged crime weren't working. Inevitably, majority of the cases ended up with the same conclusion that there were no evidence supporting the allegations.

Netizens made jokes about the hard disk and one widely circulated cartoon showed a hard disk hanging itself (see image on the right.)

Education business is booming, but who's looking out for the children?

The welfare of children in kindergarten has become a hot issue in China, where a string of abuse cases has revealed loose regulation and supervision in the childcare and early learning industry.

This time, the kindergarten involved is run by RYB, a high-end private education group that went public in the US stock market in September 2017. It targets China's emerging middle-class families and features school fees as much as 5,000 yuan (750 US dollars) a month for bilingual education. Yet, the incident reveals that spending that much money doesn't guarantee that children are protected from abuse.

Massive capital has poured into China’s early education industry; it's projected to be a 348-billion-yuan market by 2020 with 20% average growth annually, after China abolished one-child policy in 2015. However, rapid expansion has led to cutting corners — such as hiring unlicensed teachers — to increase profit or overstretched budgets.

RYB is a typical case of the expanding sector. Founded in 1999, the group opened its first private kindergarten in 2001 and has built a reputation as the leading education institute providing the best quality early education. After obtaining a franchise license in 2013, by June 2017 the group owned 853 play and learning centers and 225 nurseries, and planned to further operate 724 pre-school institutions all over the country. RYB's revenue mainly comes from franchise fees.

It doesn't seem like any of the industry-wide problems are getting much attention following the latest case, as the focus has been placed on the individuals involved. As Twitter @wyjaaa sarcastically commented:


— 王亚军北京 (@wyjaaa) November 28, 2017

Hard disk broken, no more surveillance tapes. The unlicensed teacher admitted the crime and the security guard admitted [that he had unplugged the surveillance system ]. The parents stop complaining. The rumormongers will soon appear on China Central Television confessing their guilt. Congratulations, the stock price of RYB has bounced back and the low-end population [including the unlicensed teacher and security guard] continues to celebrate the prosperous era…

Weaving Objects of Loss and Memory With Hayv Kahraman

Sat, 2017-12-02 10:00

Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman. Image provided by Kahraman.

When she was 11-years-old, Hayv Kahraman’s family fled the Gulf War in Iraq with only one suitcase. Among essential items, her mother packed a mahaffa, the Iraqi hand-held fan made by weaving the fronds of palm trees. It traveled with Kahraman as she made the journey from the Middle East to Europe, and decorates her family home in Sweden today. “Mahaffa for me is a nomadic object because it’s something that brings me back to the past,” Kahraman tells me at her latest exhibition, “Re-weaving Migrant Inscriptions,” at the Jackson Shainman Gallery in Manhattan. “A different life that doesn’t exist anymore.”

As in her previous exhibitions—“How Iraqi Are You” (2015) and “Let the Guest be the Master” (2013)—Kahraman’s new work is a masterful exploration of the issues of identity, personal struggle, and human consciousness. But this time she has embraced new methods of incorporating objects which carry generations of history into her pieces. Kahraman’s latest exhibition also reveals the evolution in her expression of the images and memories that haunt refugees living in the West.

From her collection, “How Iraqi Are You?” an oil on linen piece called “Kachakchi”. Image from and used with permission.

Kahraman’s use of female bodies in different poses, inspired in part by the Persian and Japanese miniature, could be seen as a celebration of memory, femininity, and liberation. This multi-layered, sophisticated presentation of various complex perspectives, combined with a vivid yet soothing color palette, provides a smooth finish to her method of storytelling. Kahraman’s new work is not only touching, but it provokes lasting thoughts and feelings in any one — no matter their background.

Kahraman’s new exhibition has excelled her art into the territory of excellence in expressing some of the crucial issues of our time through consistently aesthetic and emotionally powerful paintings.

Omid Memarian (OM): Why did you choose to name your exhibition, “Re-Weaving Migrant Inscriptions?”

Hayv Kahraman (HK): I think this whole body of work centers around the idea of memory and how it impacts immigrants and people within the diaspora, like you and me. When I first came up with this way of cutting the linen, it was very intuitive. I didn’t think of mahaffa at the time. I was puncturing the surface. And cutting it was very cathartic.

‘Mnemonic artifact’ one of Kahraman's piece's from “Re-Weaving Migrant Inscriptions”. Image from artist.

OM: The mixing of mahaffe with your art integrated well with the bodies and souls of your paintings.

HK: It was a struggle. I talked to a lot of conservators prior to doing this and I was having so much trouble, because when you cut the linen, it wants to sway and I want to make sure it’s perfectly flat. How do you repeat the surface, the cuts, in order to maintain the integrity of the structure? I did a lot of tests. As you can see, I have two studies that are hanging. In two of the works, I wove actual palm tree fronds from California. And I found out the other day—or maybe it’s a known fact and I didn’t know about it—that California imported the seeds from Iraq and the Middle East from the palm tree. It was a very interesting parallel for me.

OM: You focus on mahaffa in different forms and shapes in your current show. It’s one of the items that your family put in your luggage when you left Iraq. It seems to me that by incorporating it into your work, you are injecting something from the past and making it eternal.

HK: Exactly, I think that’s the whole point of it, that as an artist I archived these memories that I feel I’m kind of losing, and in a way, those memories are supposed to identify who I am. Which is also really problematic because, who am I? I’m not Iraqi. I am, but I’m not. I’m not American, but I live here. I’m not Swedish but I have a Swedish passport. So it’s really problematic. It marks that point of displacement for me. That was the time when my biography, my identity was interrupted: when I fled. I’m no longer that person. I’m somebody else. So, if I were to apply a word to it, the mahaffa, it would be “displacement.” 

OM: How do you convey the nostalgic relation between “things” and “objects” that attach migrants to their past and roots?

HK: Language would be one of the ways. Calligraphy is a medium through which you can access language or the loss of language; forgetting about your mother tongue, recovering it and trying to access a connection to it somehow. Because I don’t speak Arabic anymore, and I don’t have any family here in the United States. I have a daughter, but she was born here. I think the main thing is that notion of loss, the trauma of that loss, and manifesting that through a painting becomes the struggle. For me, personally, in my studio, how do I make this come across? With the technique of cutting the linen and the weaving and connecting it to an actual object like mahaffa…

This piece illustrates the ‘weaving’ of materials that Kahraman incorporated into her work.

OM: Female hair has a strong presence in your work. What does hair symbolize for you?

HK: I think you know more than anyone, it’s such a contested thing, especially in the Middle East. You like your hair and all those associated feelings. Women being hairless. Not being a hairy Arab, which I am. Hair was a very natural thing for me to work with. I didn’t necessarily think about what it represents. It was very intuitive. When I think about it now, after the fact, it’s because it is such a contested bodily thing in my culture, and even all around the world.

OM: The images in your paintings of disfigured female bodies and faces are very powerful in depicting the experiences of women. What’s your thought process in defining and drawing female bodies?

HK: It starts by posing with my own body; I pose in various positions in my studio. The poses then transform into sketches and then they become paintings. There is always some sort of performance that’s happening.

They [the women] are always doing something on the linen, performing something. For this show, I really wanted to let go of control… That’s the origin of how they come into being…

OM: You have spoken about the connection these bodies have to a “painful journey.” What’s underneath all these different poses?

HK: It’s funny because I started painting when I was in Florence, Italy. And I was really in that mode of renaissance painting, going to museums and making copies, and I felt and believe that this is what I was striving for. That’s when she was born. That’s when I started painting her. It came from that colonized space. A space where somebody was brown, was thinking that these white figures are what I want to aspire to, to paint, in order to succeed. When I look at them now, I am reminded of that. That’s why they have that white flesh. And that’s why I’m in constant dialogue with them, or at least feel like I am.

On the painful journey, I was born during the Iran-Iraq war, I lived through the first Gulf War. These are permanent scars on your body. You carry these memories. That definitely comes through in my work and I deal with it every single day. It’s like you are in this PTSD mode and you are trying to figure out how the hell you can survive.

Women walking around with sacrves with the texture of the “mahaffe” from “Re-Weaving Migrant Inscriptions”.

OM: There is a very close connection in your work between the faces that embody so many details and Persian miniatures. Even the colors on the faces are more distinct and alive. First, how do you describe or understand sexuality and femininity in Persian miniatures, and why use this form of expression?

HK: That’s a good question because the faces are the most fun part to paint. The Persian miniature is definitely an inspiration in terms of the color scheme. For me, when it comes to the body and expression of the face, I’m more connected to Maqamat Al-Hariri [13th century Arabic manuscript]. In Maqamat, you don’t have the beautiful elaborate backgrounds that the Persian miniatures have. The focus is on the figure and the face and expression. That’s where I draw inspiration from in terms of depicting the faces.

OM: There is a sense of freedom and liberation in the way women interact with each other in your paintings, the way they touch and look at each other or look into space. How much of that is from your personal experience?

HK: My earlier work was overtly violent. You have female genital mutilation, you have women hanging themselves, really violent, even like didactically so in your face. It reflects what I was going through at that time in my life, particularly in my personal relationship. I was in an abusive relationship at the time. The work was an outlet for me to investigate what I was going through. And I didn’t realize what was actually happening then. That’s the crazy part. It was very therapeutic. It probably started as a therapy or an outcry. And it was years later, when I got out of that relationship, that I could look back and say, that’s why I was doing what I was doing.

OM: What connects you to the root you belong to?

HK: I struggle with that, to try to find those connection. I think the only thing is either going back to the Middle East, physically traveling there, or just being with my family. Food with my family (laugh) And of course research based stuff.

#DemocracyDefeated: How Indian Right-Wing Groups Stalled A Bollywood Period Drama

Wed, 2017-11-29 12:27

Digital art of Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone, the lead actor of the movie ‘Padmavati‘, who has a US$772,500 bounty on her head by a right wing politician. Image by Raheel via Pixabay. CC0 Creative Commons.

India's culture wars and vandalization from right-wing groups have wreaked havoc one of Bollywood's most awaited movies, ‘Padmavati‘, by Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This movie is estimated to be worth 1.9 billion Indian Rupees (29.3 million US$) and the producers of the historical saga have been forced to defer the release date owing to threats of physical assault, and an alleged bounty placed by a member of the country's Hindu nationalist ruling party seeking to behead the lead actress Deepika Padukone.

Suraj Pal Amu, a member of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the same party Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to —  put a $1.5 million bounty on Deepika Padukone's head, asking followers to behead her and the movie's director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Other threats included chopping off Padukone's nose, burning her alive and beating up other actors in the movie. All the anger and protests are based on rumors which state the movie may show a relationship between a Hindu queen Padmavati and a Muslim ruler Allaudin Khilji, a rumor which has already been quashed by the film's production units and Padukone herself.

The chief Minister of the Indian state of Karnataka tweeted:

I condemn the culture of intolerance & hate perpetuated by @BJP4India .

Karnataka stands with @deepikapadukone .She is a globally renowned artist from our state.

I call upon the CM of Haryana @mlkhattar to take strict action against those holding out threats against her.

— Siddaramaiah (@siddaramaiah) November 20, 2017

Actress Deepika Padukone, who is at the centre of this row over “Padmavati”, has pulled out of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), an event whose inauguration on 28 Novermber will have US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance.

Who is Padmavati?

According to common belief and widely-accepted history, Padmavati was a character in the poem called Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Padmavati was a Rajput queen of Chittorgarh (which is currently situated in the state of Rajasthan, in the west of India). The queen was thought to have been beautiful and the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji had requested a meeting with her where she simply showed her reflection through mirrors. The king of Chittorgarh, Raja Ratan Singh later fought a battle with the Sultan and lost, after which Padmavati immolated herself.

Poster of the movie Padmavati. Image via Wikipedia.

The current objection to the film is taken by Shri Rajput Karni Sena, a Rajput caste group at the forefront of those who condemn the content of the movie. Their argument against the film is that Padmavati, who was considered to be a Rajput queen, would be portrayed in a bad light and that would mean deferring from the historical account of her description. Additionally, this would distort the culture and religious practices and could possibly indicate a romantic relationship between the Rajput queen and Sultan Alauddin Khalji. Ironically, after the release of the trailer of the movie, only the Rajput and the Hindu have taken to the streets to contest the release of the movie while the Rajputs in the movie have been shown as regal and royal, and Sultan Alauddin Khalji has been portrayed as somewhat barbaric in nature. If the extreme criticism is to be believed, then it should be a reflection on the overall content of the period drama and not just certain aspects of it.

Suraj Pal Amu, the BJP leader who was responsible for the alleged bounty, mentioned in an interview with Indian Express that his ancestors hail from the state of Rajasthan and that he is not ready to compromise on Rajput pride.

The movie was due to open on December 1 but its producers postponed the release. Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan states, all ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, banned it outright which was followed by protests and street revolts in the northern state of Haryana by Shri Rajput Karni Sena to get the movie banned there too. The filmmakers have provided tight security for Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, owing to concerns over these threats.

The issue and the divide in the political parties and the demand for the movie to be banned are somewhat reflective of the voters’ bank in the state of Gujarat and appeasing them, as the State elections lie just ahead of the release of the film.

The Government of Gujarat will not allow #Padmavati – a movie hurting sentiments of Rajputs – to get released in the State. We can’t allow our history to be distorted. We believe in freedom of speech & expression but any foul play with our great culture is not tolerated.

— Vijay Rupani (@vijayrupanibjp) November 22, 2017

Raja Sen writes in NDTV:

How else can we explain this baffling situation? A film has been made about a Queen we know through an epic poem. She is, in all likelihood, entirely imaginary, yet a film that shows Freedom of expression by the artists her dancing has angered some hate groups who demand that the film be banned and those who made it be harmed. This makes no sense. Dancing is what all of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's heroines do, regardless of historical appropriateness and context, and his operatic circus-ry has been hugely successful with audiences of late. Now, however, he has ‘hurt the sentiments’ of some idiots who unforgivably assaulted him on his set and have now, sadly, imperiled his massive December release.

The issue has gone past a mere debate of freedom of expression by the filmmaker and the artists involved and now has a larger applicability since the Indian filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has faced additional criticism for his earlier movies, one of which was also a period drama. The Bollywood fraternity and friends in Hollywood openly supported the filmmaker and actors of the movie.

I am in shock at reading what my dear friend is going through but in absolute awe of her strength and courage. Deepika you are one of the strongest women I know.

— Ruby Rose (@RubyRose) November 18, 2017

On 20th, Hindi cinema’s finest will gather for the @IFFIGoa inauguration. I hope someone has the courage to bring up #Padmavati. After all, what is the point of celebrating cinema at festivals if our artists can be threatened and bullied with such impunity?

— Anupama Chopra (@anupamachopra) November 18, 2017

Cartoonist Sandeep Adhwaryu tweets:

#cartoon @timesofindia #Padmavati

— Sandeep Adhwaryu (@CartoonistSan) November 21, 2017

Many condemned the protests and pointed out that there were much deeper and larger issues to be highlighted. This criticism was thrown on the religious groups, political parties and the media involved in the reporting.

I truly cannot fathom how #Padmavati and the role of a queen have enraged people to such an extent as if female feticide, massive amounts of rape and child marriage are lesser issues. Take a step back from your traditions and castes and look in the mirror.

— Lilly Singh (@IISuperwomanII) November 24, 2017

How #Padmavati row helped BJP to divert people's attention from these issues….

● Rafale deal scam
● Winter Session
● CBI Judge murder
● BJP's u-turn on Separatists
● EVM fraud in UP civic polls
● Hafiz Syeed release
● Pollution
● Attack on Muslim clerics

— Salman Nizami (@SalmanNizami_) November 24, 2017

However, many filmmakers and actors find themselves at the centre of protests and are subject to threats which have increased, not only with Bollywood movies but also Marathi movies and international movies facing similar criticism, most being rejected or removed from the screening list of International Film Festival of India (IFFI). The Padmavati issue not only highlights freedom of expression, but also extreme pressure from certain sects of society and how religion, caste and emotions are considered to be brownie points by political parties even in a secular country like India.

Contrary to Social Media Claims, Serbia's President Has Not Named a Street After War Criminal Ratko Mladić

Wed, 2017-11-29 09:33

Screenshot from a news item about 2007 event in support of Ratko Mladić, involving current Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, 10 years before he assumed office. In the photo, he is gluing a poster reading ‘Ratko Mladić Boulevard.’

Ten-year-old photos had been used to mislead social media users into believing that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has named a street after convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić.

After a United Nations tribunal sentenced former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić to life in prison for genocide in the 1990s Bosnian war, some Balkan social media users started reminding the world about his links with the current Serbian political establishment — and spreading misleading information.

One such meme falsely claims the current president has recently named a street “Ratko Mladić Boulevard” and utilizes photos showing Vučić posting a street sign with the name. The following tweet is a typical example:

Ratko Mladic was just sentencted to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The sitting President of “European” Serbia named a street after Mladic.

— Admirim (@admirim) November 22, 2017

The photos are not photoshopped, but are presented out of context, making the overall claim false. The “street sign” is not a metal plaque, but a poster glued with sellotape. In reality, no street had been named after the notorious Mladić.

On 26 May 2007, Vučić, as general secretary of the far-right, ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), took part in a protest against renaming a Belgrade street after the slain Serbian liberal Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, who was assassinated in 2003 after starting a cooperation with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This cooperation lead to extradition of former President Slobodan Milošević, the main sponsor of Ratko Mladić.

At the protest, Serbian nationalists confronted liberals who supported the new name. The nationalists carried banners and posters in support of Mladić, who was a fugitive from justice at the time.

As member of the SRS, Vučić served as Milošević regime's minister of information from 1998 to 2000. In 2008 after its pro-European Union wing split from the Radical Party and formed the Serbian Progressive Party, Vučić joined them.

In 2014, after Vučić become prime minister, the Serbian fact-checking site Truth-o-meter presented the following archived footage from 2007 event as part of their efforts to advance the public record.

While in power, Vučić has toned down any nationalist rhetoric, trying to build himself an image of a pro-European politician who mends fences with the neighbors. In 2015, he paid two visits to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the site of genocidal massacre perpetrated in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladić. While paying respect to the victims and condemning the act “a terrible crime,” Vučić has also maintained an official line that refuses to allow use of the word genocide in relation to Srebrenica, in spite ICTY judgments.

His statement after the ICTY verdict on Mladić didn't express open support for the war criminal. While asserting that no one but the Serbs cares about the Serb victims of the 1990s wars, he stated that instead of delving in the past “we have to go to the future and think where our children will live… We must not choke ourselves on the tears of the past, but soak ourselves in the sweat of efforts for creating a common future.”

The footage and photos from the 2007 protest are now used by various critics to haunt Vučić about his alleged hypocrisy, from at least two sides. The opponents of Serbian nationalism use them to present him as closeted radical, while some of the more extreme Serbian nationalists criticize his attitude, considering it too meek.

‘The Blind Captain’ Aims to Kayak Solo Across the Bosphorus With the Help of New Technology

Wed, 2017-11-29 03:00

Ahmet Ustunel, who is blind, paddles his kayak solo on San Francisco’s Lake Merced. His goal is to kayak across the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey, his home country.
Credit: Adam Grossberg/KQED

This story by Laura Klivans originally appeared on on November 7, 2017. It is republished here as part of a partnership between PRI and Global Voices.

Ahmet Ustunel remembers his daily commute to high school well. He'd wake up at home, on the Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey, a city that straddles two continents. Then he would take a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait to the European side of the city.

After boarding the ferry, Ustunel liked to buy tea and sesame bread, and take it outside on the deck. He’d stand at the railing, feeling the spray of the water on his face and listening for nearby boats. Ustunel has been blind since he was three years old when he lost his sight because of eye cancer — but that never kept him away from the water. He spent afternoons fishing with his father and summers swimming in the Black Sea, where his grandmother had a house.

“And I used to think one day, this strait, Bosphorus, should be more accessible to blind swimmers, blind surfers or sailors,” Ustunel said. “People should be able to see blind people using boats.”

For the last 11 years, Ustunel has lived in the United States, and he's finally making good on that high school aspiration. He plans to return to his homeland next summer to kayak solo across the Bosphorus Strait.

Now, he’s 37 and still loves being on the water. But instead of going out in another person's boat, Ustunel wants to go out on his own.

Ustunel first became inspired to captain his own boat in high school, while studying Greek mythology. Ustunel remembers one myth about a blind navigator.

“There was this blind king called Phineus, and he used to live on the north side of the Bosphorus,” he recalled. “His mission was guiding sailors in the dark safely to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.”

Phineus, although mythical, became a role model.

When he was in college, Ustunel met an American woman whom he eventually married. After moving to the US so the couple could be together, they decided to leave his wife's Midwestern hometown and settle in San Francisco, in part because of Ustunel's love of the ocean.

The pair started kayaking in a two-person boat, and his wife would steer. Sometimes, Ustunel would kayak solo, but he'd go along with a group and ask a sighted friend to wear bells so Ustunel could hear and follow as they paddled across the water. But his desire to kayak independently persisted.

Earlier this year, he saw an opportunity that could make this possible: A nonprofit launched a new award to fund blind and visually impaired people undertaking adventures. The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition offers grants of up to $25,000 to accomplish a bold project.

The organization behind the prize, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, received over 200 applications from 27 countries. They finally whittled down the winners to three individuals. In addition to Ustunel, the other prize recipients were a Ugandan beekeeper hoping to expand job opportunities for other visually impaired people, and a British baker hoping to travel with her prize money and connect people across cultures through food.

LightHouse has been able to fund these creative projects after receiving an unexpected gift of $125 million from a Seattle businessman upon his death.

For Ustunel, the money will help him buy the right kind of kayak and the instruments he will use to navigate. He's documenting his training process on his website, where he calls himself “The Blind Captain.”

So, how do you kayak if you can't see?

Ustunel says the first thing is to use your other senses, which can convey lots of information. When he nears the shore, Ustunel smells plants or flowers. If it's rained recently, the land produces an earthy scent from the soil, called petrichor. If Ustunel is out on the open water, he will sometimes sense a smell similar to watermelon. He thinks this might be a kind of seaweed scent.

Ustunel also uses his ears to locate people, construction or cars. These sounds mean he's close to shore. When he's out farther in the water, he mostly just hears birds.

But to cross the Bosphorus, Ustunel will need more than just his senses. His journey will be just over 3 miles, but the strait is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. The waters are dangerously crowded with huge freighters and tankers, alongside small ferries and fishing boats — and the currents are strong.

So Ustunel will need gadgets that can tell him exactly where he is and what’s around him.

Ahmet Ustunel sets up his kayak.

To prepare, Ustunel is training in a variety of waterways around Northern California, including Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay and Lake Merritt in Oakland. And he's testing new technology every time he goes out.

On a recent Tuesday, he launched on the calm waters of San Francisco's tiny Lake Merced. He got there by taking a public city bus for people with disabilities. Once at the lake, he rolled his suitcase to the end of the dock and popped it open. Inside he had a black-and-yellow kayak, neatly folded up.

After inflating the boat, Ustunel took his white-and-red cane and stuck it on the back, like a flagpole. This cane is a symbol, he said.

“I’m a blind guy kayaking, raising awareness,” Ustunel said.

With his red life jacket zipped up, he climbed into his boat and pushed off.

On the other side of the lake, there was a loud road, which Ustunel used as a landmark, steering toward the sound.

Then he pulled out his smartphone. Like all his devices, he has it set to play at double speed for maximum efficiency. In a fast, robotic tone, the GPS device on his phone told him his coordinates, and Ustunel decided to head south.

In addition to the GPS on his phone, Ustunel placed another on the back of his kayak, just behind his seat. He refers to that one as “Mr. Beep.” It beeped slowly and steadily when Ustunel was correctly following a pre-programmed route, and quickly to alert him if he drifted.

Ustunel's kayak is powered by foot pedals, which allow him to keep his hands free.

On the water, he also tested a sonar used by fishers to find fish. Ustunel instead used this to scan the water in front of him for objects or debris.

And when he wanted even more information, Ustunel opened an app on his phone called “Be My Eyes.” It connected him to a sighted person, a volunteer who could be anywhere in the world, who could look through the camera on his phone and see for him.

This particular volunteer was in Texas.

“Hello?” a female voice said.

“Hi,” responded Ustunel. “I am on a kayak on a lake and I want to know what’s around me. I hear a street on my right. Can you see the street?”

The tools Ustunel uses are prototypes. He is providing feedback to engineers who will tweak the devices so that other people who are blind can use them, too.

Ustunel is not a stranger to helping other blind and visually impaired people access opportunities. This is what he does in his day job as a teacher of visually impaired students in San Francisco public schools.

On a recent school day, he met privately with Ethan, a 15-year-old whom Ustunel was helping write a letter to the city about an intersection that's not accessible for blind people. Together Ustunel and his student went over a draft of the letter. A computer program read it out loud. The pair made tweaks and spellchecked the document. Then, they agreed, it was ready to send.

In part, Ustunel says he teaches because when he was young, he had trouble finding role models. He took whatever he could get — even mythological Greek kings.

Now times have changed, and it’s much easier to find blind heroes because they’re walking around us every day. Or maybe they're kayaking on a nearby lake. Just look for the white-tipped cane jutting out the back.

After 10 Years of Legal Battles, Mozambique's Only LGBT Organization Takes a Step Closer to Legal Recognition

Tue, 2017-11-28 12:49

Members of Lambda at an event in 2013. Photo: Lambda/Flickr, published with permission.

Lambda, Mozambique’s only organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, took an important step towards legal recognition, which it has struggled with for over a decade.

The Constitutional Council of Mozambique – equivalent to the Supreme Court – ruled that the status of Lambda did not violate the republic’s constitution, as had been alleged by government officials.

Since 2008, Lambda had successive applications for formal registration as an association ignored by the Ministry of Justice, the body responsible for the registration of civil society organizations.

According to the activists, government officials had said informally that the request could not be processed because it went against a clause of the 1991 Law on Associations. That particular clause blocked the registration of organizations which pursue aims that are contrary “to the moral, social, and economic order of the country and offend the rights of others or the public good”.

On 31 October, the Council declared the clause to be unconstitutional for contradicting the constitution’s Article 52, which says that “armed organizations which are military or paramilitary and those which promote violence, racism, xenophobia, or which pursue aims contrary to the law are prohibited”. The Council ruled that those are the only kind of associations prohibited from registering.

The Council’s decision did not mention specific associations, but according to Lambda’s executive director, Danilo da Silva, the ruling finally opens the door for the organization’s legal recognition. He told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle:

“Este posicionamento do Conselho Constitucional vem de alguma forma desarmar esta justificação que informalmente era-nos passada”.

This stance of the Constitutional Council to some measure disarms this justification which was given to us informally.

LGBT rights in Africa

The legalization of Lambda adds to the gradually more favourable environment for Mozambique’s LGBT population, one of the few countries in Africa where homosexuality is not a crime. For example, in Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty, and life imprisonment in Uganda, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone.

The former Portuguese colonies are among the most tolerant countries for LGBT people. Cape Verde, for example, was the second to decriminalize homosexuality, in 2004, and one of only six African countries to sign a document in 2008 from the UN’s General Assembly condemning violations of sexual minorities’ rights.

Some Cape-Verdean jurists also argue that parts of the Civil Code that restrict marriage to only people of the opposite sex are unconstitutional because they predate the constitution’s promulgation. The documentary “Tchindas”, which told the story of Tchinda Andrade, a prominent transgender activist in the country, won various international awards in 2016.

However, even in less restrictive countries, the LGBT population is not free from prejudice and violence. In Angola, where the law is vague when in comes to homosexual activity, the LGBT community lives anonymously and faces discrimination in access to healthcare and education, according to Carlos Fernandes, director of Associação Iris Angola.

Generally, the decision of Mozambique’s Constitutional Council received pushback from some sectors of society. On a much-commented online post by journalist Ericino de Salema, for example, many spoke out against Lambda’s recognition and homosexuality itself.

Danilo da Silva, Lambda’s executive director, responded in a post to those comments:

Vejo muito ressentimento naqueles que querem usar do poder coesivo do Estado para fazer valer os seus preconceitos. É uma pena pois viver em sociedade é saber respeitar os outros, mesmo que não simpatizemos com as suas escolhas de vida, desde que estas não nos afectem.
Direitos fundamentais são direitos de todos os moçambicanos, não são privilégios para alguns.
Vamos tod@s aproveitar a oportunidade para aprender com aquele acórdão que não é só uma vitória para as pessoas LGBT, mas para todos que são e tem ideias diferentes. Aquele acórdão é um ode à igualdade, a paz e a harmonia social.

Hoje estou muito orgulhoso de ser moçambicano.

I see a lot of resentment in those who want to use the coercive power of the state to enforce their prejudices. It is a shame since living in a society is knowing how to respect others, even if we do not sympathize with their life choices, as long as they do not affect us.
Fundamental rights are rights for all Mozambicans, they are not privileges for some.
Let us all take the opportunity to learn from this ruling that it is not only a victory for LGBT people, but for all who are different and have different ideas. That ruling is an ode to equality, peace, and social harmony

Today I am very proud to be Mozambican.

As Syrian Government Trumpets Military Wins, Fear Continues to Grip Locals in Damascus

Tue, 2017-11-28 10:21

Photo of a regime military checkpoint. Used with permission.

Salma was scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed when an unverified piece of news struck her as bizarrely funny: Halloween celebrations have been banned in public places in Syria.

”Apparently they have taken pity on us. Our lives here are already a never-ending Halloween,” she tells Global Voices, smiling.

In a country gripped by a devastating conflict like the Syrian war, Halloween's flippant, playful quips contrast with serious, gruesome horrors that have become part of the Syrians’ macabre reality. Although the capital city Damascus has been spared the worst of fighting, different shades of fear diffuse the lives of the Damascenes.

Salma, 29, lives in a squalid neighborhood with a heavy military presence in southern Damascus. Armed, bearded men dressed in military outfit affiliated to the so-called National Defense Forces, a pro-government militia, man checkpoints.

”I have to run this gauntlet every day on my way to work and back home,” she says.

One might assume that after more than six years of military checkpoints, set up to tighten the Assad regime's grip on the capital since protests first flared up in 2011, locals would have reconciled themselves to their presence. The case is far from it, according to many, including Salma.

”They have made our lives difficult, causing delays and congestion. They are choking our city”:

I hate it when I have to return home after sunset. My pulse races under their fixed gaze. I feel ill at ease to say the least. Sometimes they are tipsy, laughing out loud and carousing.

‘They can do anything and get away with it. Who is there to protect us after all? There is a state of chaos and lawlessness everywhere. The state is busy coping with the consequences of war

Salma fumbles for the right words to describe how she feels. ”You feel naked, unarmed and powerless in the presence of this heavy-handed arrogant military prowess.”

Doaa, a university student at the Faculty of Dentistry, echoes her thoughts:

I have long stopped wearing makeup or revealing clothes, although I have always been a free girl, just to avoid getting myself into trouble.

Soft catcalling or flirtation in the street used to be a stroke to a woman's ego. But during war, you can only find men dressed in military outfit, usually armed, in the streets. It makes me jittery. They are arrogant about the power they have over the locals.

‘If my name is found, I will be dispatched to one of the front lines.’

For military-aged men, checkpoints continue to be a constant source of horror.

The government has been using these checkpoints to conscript new soldiers to the Syrian forces, which are depleted from a protracted conflict. Fear of arrest and conscription has prompted many between the ages of 18-42 to flee the country in waves of undocumented immigration to countries next door and in the European Union.

Those who have stayed behind grapple with daily difficulties, pushing many to shut themselves in.

”My permit to postpone military service is about to expire. I am not going out unless on urgent errands,” says Hisham, who has a law degree from Damascus University:

They would search databases saved on their computers. If my name is found, I will be dispatched to one of the front lines.

Every time I passed one of these checkpoints was an outright nightmare. I would wait with bated breath for the military man to beckon to the driver to move on.

You can be arrested for evading military service, for having a similar name with a wanted man. Everything is possible.

Hisham relates the story of what happened to his friend: He was on his way to his own wedding party when he was stopped by a checkpoint and summoned to military service. The friend had to pay a hefty amount of money to postpone it for a few days.

This has made men thin on the ground. Women often joke that in the near future, they will not need to don a hijab, for there will be no men on the streets.

”Damascus is a testosterone-free city,” a pithy Facebook post reads.

‘Everything smacks of war. Look at the people's weary faces.’

Ruba, an English literature student, tells Global Voices that she ironically recalled an article she read lately listing the most romantic cities in the world when she passed by a military vehicle in her densely populated neighborhood.

”Damascus used to be called city of Jasmine, which symbolizes purity, romance and love. Now look at the situation on the ground. Everything smacks of war. Look at the people's weary faces.”

Fear extends to the use of social media. A pro-opposition activist based in Damascus who asked to be identified as Osama already goes by a fake name on Facebook to engage in solidarity campaigns with areas under government siege.

He says fears of arrest are now more pronounced than ever:

It was unthinkable when the revolution started seven years ago that today we will be fearful to express our thoughts on social media. Unfortunately it is happening.

Osama anticipated a wave of arrests and score-settling by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against opponents, emboldened by a military superiority on the ground.

These accounts belie regime attempts to project an impression that life is back to normal following recent military wins, the latest of which was the recapture of al-Bukamal city in Deir Ezzor that sealed the fall of Isis in Syria. These attempts have included the holding the Damascus International Fair after a six-year hiatus, celebrating much-vaunted achievements of the Syrian football team which came close to qualifying for the World Cup, and the restoration of basic services, mainly electricity.

However, these so-called pessimistic perspectives receive pushback from those who see a clear improvement in the situation, as the regime has managed to claw back significant swathes of territory from opponents.

”There is a predominant sense of relief in Damascus compared to previous years,” says Salem, a government employee. ”Some checkpoints have been removed. Electricity is back 24 hours a day, the prices of some basic commodities have gone down. I believe that this is very promising.”

Others will find these wins too little and hollow.

”It is ridiculous to assume that war is over and the locals’ woes have come to an end just because some services are back and prices have slightly dropped. Rocket and mortar attacks continue on near daily basis. Just yesterday, there have been eight deaths,” Hisham says.

‘Fear in Damascus ebbs and flows, but is always there.’

Rocket and mortar shells continue to hit the city, with a recent spike in the death toll after a brief lull that followed the establishment of de-escalation zones in the Damascus countryside, shattering a temporary sense of relief that prevailed in the Syrian capital. This came on the heels of a government offensive in eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave under government siege near Damascus.

”The thunder of artillery and rockets hitting Ghouta echoes all across the city. Buildings here are literally shaking,” says Samar, who lives in Bab Sharqi neighborhood. ”We have not heard these sounds in a while.”

”Incoming or outgoing?” People ask in jest when they hear a sudden boom, wondering whether it is a rebel rocket hitting Damascus or the sound from the army's artillery pounding opposition-held areas.

Clearing this kind of ambiguity is part of what a Facebook page called Diaries of a Mortar Round in Damascus does.

The page, originally set up to track rebel rocket attacks on Damascus city, occasionally tells people in Damascus not to worry because the source of the noise is the Syrian military's shelling of opposition areas. Many in the comments express relief and urge the Syrian army to do more to eradicate ”terrorism” and restore security to Damascus.

But others criticize what they consider a chilling lack of sympathy for the tragedy unfolding in their close vicinity.

”Few mortar shells can disrupt life here. The sounds of artillery cause panic, especially among children. I find it impossible to imagine the horror visited on those on whose heads these rockets are falling,” says Manar, a teacher at an elementary school in old Damascus.

Asked if the Damascenes feel more safe after seven years of war as the regime touts new military wins, she says ”fear in Damascus ebbs and flows, but is always there. Many years will pass before the Syrians can feel safe and secure again.”

Fashion, Faith and Culture Come Together Through the Global Art of Head Wrapping

Mon, 2017-11-27 03:00

Model Aliyyah Abdul-Raul wearing designs from Ohio-based designer Chimiwear poses in front of the camara at a past Beautifully Wrapped Headwrap Expo. During the event, fashion shows take place every hour and features different looks from designers. Credit: Courtesy of Felicia Tolbert

This story by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang originally appeared on on October 27, 2017. It is republished here as part of a partnership between PRI and Global Voices.

There’s no shortage of glam at a yearly fashion show in the US state of Michigan where men, women and children glide down a runway while music booms in the background. But what sets this catwalk apart is the celebration of modest and “fly” looks. The models, wearing colorful headwraps or headscarves, are showcasing sleek and stylish clothes without showing skin. Near the runway, there’s a cacophony of color as vendors display fabrics, art and jewelry from around the world.

At the center of it all is Zarinah El-Amin Naeem. The native Detroiter and anthropologist created the yearly event bringing together groups with traditions of covering one's head. This includes Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Black Hebrew Israelites, Orthodox Christians and African Spiritualists.

El-Amin Naeem says the Beautifully Wrapped Headwrap Expo brings people of diverse backgrounds under one roof to share ideas and learn from one another.

“Real people talking face to face, not just reading about each other, is key to our moving forward as a society,” says El-Amin Naeem.

Anthropologist Zarinah El-Amin Naeem wrapped her head as a young woman for style and later as a way to express her religion. After extensive traveling, she realized that there are many cultures around the world that traditionally cover the head. Credit: Courtesy of Felicia Tolbert

She herself wraps her head in bright fabrics and her signature is the “tall tower” look, which can add as much as a foot to her height. When she was younger, El-Amin Naeem wrapped her head off and on simply because she liked the styles. But after her junior year of college at Howard University in Washington, DC, she began wrapping every day as an expression of her Muslim faith.

It was, she says, “a way to visually identify as a Muslim woman. There were a lot of Muslim women who covered and I enjoyed the fact that people were able to see they were Muslim at a glance.”

People, she found, began to treat her differently. While traveling outside of the US during college and while working in international development in Egypt and Sierra Leone, El-Amin Naeem discovered how many cultures around the world wrap their heads and the great diversity in headwrapping styles. Her headwraps became a way of opening the door to conversations with other people.

“As an African American Muslim woman, and a traveler, I noticed the curiosity in my wraps,” El-Amin Naeem says. “People would stop and ask me how to tie them, where I got the fabrics, why I wore them and more. I started doing little impromptu workshops in bathrooms, and that grew into formal workshops at libraries.”

El-Amin Naeem eventually created Beautifully Wrapped, an international and interfaith organization with the goal of building love and humanity through the global art of headwrapping.

Since 2013, El-Amin Naeem has organized the annual headwrap expo, which attracts hundreds of men and women around the US. This year's event will be on Oct. 29 at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Broadening the understanding of the practice [of headwrapping] is important because women's dress, and in particular Muslim women's dress, has been politicized so much in today's world,” says El-Amin Naeem. “Many Muslim women feel like it is a burden that they and only they bear. However, when you see the full scope of the head covering practices, it causes you to wonder why one group — Muslim women — have been the focus of this debate.”

For many, according to El-Amin Naeem, the expo is a chance to learn something new — from unique textiles to fresh looks. There are tutorials, an artisan’s market for fabric and the hourly fashion shows featuring about a dozen designers.

“For some, it is their first time wrapping. For others they feel stuck and just want to try a new style,” she says.

The expo is also a place for groups to ask questions of one another and build relationships. Last year, Princess Anne Oluwaseun Besimen-Akinfenwa with the Odua Organization of Michigan gave a presentation about the Yoruba culture in West Africa.

“I took away so much from other panelists,” she says. “I got a better understanding of head covering in the Sikh tradition.”

During a Headwrap Expo, a Sikh man is showing the crowd how to wrap a dastar or turban. Credit: Courtesy of Felicia Tolbert

Aside from learning about differences between traditions, there’s also an opportunity to relate to one another — especially because covering one’s head today can sometimes spur suspicion or criticism.

“In a way, covering for many affords you the opportunity to express yourself, but it can also make just traversing life a bit more difficult,” says El-Amin Naeem. “I always say that to cover your head in a society that does not value the practice, you must have a bit of backbone. You are no longer invisible.”

Andrea Grinberg is a professional cellist and owner of Wrapunzel, a website for women who cover their hair. Grinberg is Jewish and remembers one year at the expo when a Muslim man approached her after a presentation saying he was surprised by the many similarities between Grinberg’s faith and his own.

“I’ve never even met a Jewish person before,” the man told her.

Grinberg calls the interaction amazing.

“And that’s really what it’s about,” says Grinberg. “I know Zarinah really aims to facilitate conversations.”

Cellist and Jewish hair wrapping instructor Andrea Grinberg is pictured in the Beautifully Wrapped annual calendar. Grinberg runs an online community called Wrapunzel, where women who wear headscarves can connect with one another. Credit: Courtesy of Yonatan Grinberg

During another year, after the Nation of Islam performed a stepping routine, there were some concerns from members of the Jewish community that the performance seemed military and political in nature. But the two groups spoke, Grinberg says, and learned that the movements were supposed to empower women and were meant to be done in private rather than as a public performance.

“If these [different] sorts of people can really come together and have such a great time together, then anything is possible,” says Grinberg.

As a vendor, Grinberg says she appreciates the opportunity to engage with people directly, along with learning about different styles of headwraps.

“There’s a real feeling when you go to the expo, that it’s fashion, it’s culture, it’s fun, it’s beautiful, and everything, but there is really something deeper going on. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that when I walk there,” says Grinberg.

Every year, Beautifully Wrapped publishes a wall calendar featuring images of  women from different backgrounds who cover their heads. El-Amin Naeem also created Niyah Press, which helps people disseminate stories not normally heard in the mainstream, and Enliven Your Soul, which takes groups of women on cultural tours to places like Morocco and Indonesia. For her next act, she's raising money to create a traveling mixed-media exhibition that will take conversations about fashion, faith and culture out to communities across the US.

“We have to consistently build up our community armor and as a whole say we care about each other's well-being, we love each other, and we are going to have to work through our differences,” says El Amin Naeem.

Hippos Mysteriously Die in Droves at a Namibian Natural Park

Mon, 2017-11-27 01:30

Screenshot of a Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) report on YouTube showing lifeless hippos in Namibia.

Namibia's Ministry of Environment announced on October 10 that about a hundred hippopotamus carcasses had been discovered in Bwabwata National Park, in the northwest of the country.

The hippo hecatomb represented a loss of more than 8% of hippos living in this Namibian national park, in a country that heavily relies on its biodiversity and ecosystem to attract tourists. From available data, tourism contributes to 16% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 17.7% of the total number of jobs.

The news caught the attention of the world's press and made the rounds on social media. Joe Bauwens, who has worked in tourism and is specialised in fauna, mineral exploration, development, conservation, education and environmental chemistry, posted on his blog Sciency Thoughts about the leading theory on the cause of the deaths:

Authorities in the Bwabwata National Park in northeast Namibia have reported a suspected outbreak of Anthrax that has killed over a hundred Hippopotamus in the last week. Tissue samples from the animals have been sent for testing, and the cause of the disease has yet to be confirmed, but no other disease is known to be able to rapidly kill large numbers of Hippos in this way. Concerns have also been raised that the disease may have affected other animals in the park, particularly Crocodiles that are likely to have fed on any dead animals in or close to a river.

Photos and video from local news outlets showed the carcasses lying in the water, many belly up.

According to science journalist Stéphanie Schmidt at Trust My Science, the consequences could be more severe if anthrax really is the culprit, because other animals and even local people living in the area surrounding the park might have been exposed:

S’il s’avère qu’il s’agit réellement de la maladie du charbon, qui aurait provoqué la mort de tous ces hippopotames (retrouvés couchés sur le flanc et dans les eaux fluviales), alors il se pourrait qu’ils ne soient pas les seuls à être les victimes de cette maladie. Un certain nombre de buffles d’eau morts auraient également été découverts. De plus, les crocodiles qui se nourrissent d’hippopotames morts pourraient également être infectés par la bactérie Bacillus anthracis.

Les habitants locaux et les autorités namibiennes soupçonnent les épidémies de fièvre charbonneuse comme étant responsables de la mort de 300 personnes en 2004 (après qu’elles aient bu de l’eau contaminée), ainsi qu’un autre incident moins grave, survenu en 2010. « Il s’agit d’une situation que nous avons déjà vue auparavant.Cela est déjà arrivé en Zambie, et cela se produit principalement lorsque le niveau de la rivière est bas », a expliqué Colgar Sikopo, directeur des parcs et de la gestion de la faune de la Namibie.

If the cause of death for all those hippos (found belly up in the water) is really anthrax, they might not be the only victims of this illness. A number of water buffaloes have also reportedly been found dead. Moreover, the crocodiles feeding from the dead hippos might also be infected by the Bacillus anthracis bacteria.

The locals and the Namibian authorities suspect an epidemic of anthrax was behind the death of 300 people in 2004 (after they drank contaminated water), as well as another less serious incident in 2010. “This is a situation that we have seen before. It happened in Zambia before and it mainly occurs when the level of the river is so low,” explained Colgar Sikopo, the director of the parks and responsible of the fauna in Namibia.

The article added:

Hormis les épidémies de fièvre charbonneuse, les scientifiques ont également, récemment, enquêté sur une autre souche mystérieuse et hybride de l’agent pathogène, liée à la mort de chimpanzés, de gorilles et d’éléphants.

Cette souche serait responsable de près de 40% des décès d’animaux du parc national de Taï, en Côte d’Ivoire, au cours de la période d’étude des scientifiques. Cependant, il n’y a aucune preuve que cette souche particulière soit à l’origine des décès des hippopotames. […]

En plus de la faune sauvage, il y a environ 5500 personnes qui vivent dans la région du parc national de Bwabwata. Actuellement, les autorités les avertissent de se méfier de la zone touchée et surtout de ne pas consommer de la chair d’hippopotame. « Nous conseillons fortement de ne pas consommer cette viande. Nous faisons de notre mieux pour brûler chaque carcasse afin de prévenir la propagation de la maladie, mais aussi pour nous assurer qu’aucune personne n’atteigne ces animaux et n’exploite leur viande », a déclaré Sikopo New Era.

In addition to anthrax outbreak, scientists have also recently investigated another mysterious, hybrid strain of the pathogen, linked to the death of chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants.

This strain is responsible for about 40% of the death of the animals in the National Park of Taï, in Côte d’Ivoire, according to scientific studies. However, there is no such proof showing that this particular strain has caused the death of the hippos. […]

Approximately 5,500 people cohabit with the wild fauna in the region of the Bwabwata National Park. At the moment, authorities are advising them to beware of the contaminated area, and mostly not to consume hippos flesh. “We strongly advise that they must not consume this meat. What we are doing is we are trying our best to burn every carcass to prevent further spreading of the disease, but also to ensure that no person gets to these animals and starts feeding on the meat,” Sikopo told New Era.

Anthrax is caused by a bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, whose spores can lay unnoticed in nature for years or even decades, waiting to be eaten by humans, other mammals and some birds.

Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD, writing for says the bacteria strikes in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, South Europe, Americas and Australia.

What's in a Scarf? A Robot Restaurant in Bangladesh Serves up Controversy

Sun, 2017-11-26 14:05

A robot wearing a scarf is serving in a restaurant. Image via Sharif Saladin Sarkar. Used with permission.

A restaurant in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka has been in the headlines recently for employing robot waiters. Now, it is in the news for another reason — one of the robots has been spotted sporting a scarf.

Many have questioned the motives of the restaurant owners for scarfing up the “female” robot, spurring a debate about the boundaries of conservatism in the South Asian country.

Gendered bots

In a video, citizen journalist Nazmul Shahadat explained the functions of the robot waiter. Note that the robot with breasts is not wearing a scarf in the clip made soon after the cafe opened.

According to the report, there are two robots bringing food to customers at the restaurant called simply Robot Restaurant. One is a male robot and the second is a female robot. Each robot weighs about 30 kilograms and they are both 1.6 meters in height. Each robot costs the equivalent of $9,750 and can run on batteries for around 18 hours.

But Bangladeshi social media channels were in no mood to hail technological achievements, focussing instead on news the female robot had been seen wearing an “orna” or scarf, which is worn by devout Muslim girls after puberty in Bangladesh.

The “orna” is part of the purdah system, a religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim and Hindu communities in South Asia. It serves multiple purposes — segregation, identifying the female sex, and fulfilling the requirement women cover their bodies to conceal their form.

Ishrat Karin Eve wrote on Facebook:

অবিশ্বাস্য! আমরা এ কেমন সমাজে বসবাস করি। নারীর প্রতি কোনো ধরনের সম্মান নেই। তারা একটি রোবটের গলায়ও ওড়না তুলে দেয়।

পিতৃতান্ত্রিক সমাজের জন্য এটা লজ্জাকর।

Incredible! What a society we live in! There is no respect for women. They even put a scarf on a robot.

This is the shameful act of a patriarchal society.

Earlier this year, a revision in Bangladeshi primary textbooks fuelled controversy as “orna” was introduced as exemplifying the Bengali letter “o” (“ol,” or vegetable, was the prior example).

An opinion piece in the New York Times cited the switch as representing creeping Islamism in the South Asian country.

Representatives of the restaurant confirmed to local media that the scarf was deployed to distinguish the female robot.

Mayesha Arefin railed on Facebook:

আমাদের সমাজে রোবট বেচারাদেরও ওড়না পরিধান করতে হয়!ওড়না এর আগে রোবট নিশ্চয় একটা সাধারন উন্নতমানের যন্ত্র ছিল তবে ওড়না পেচানোর পর এটা মেয়ে রোবট হয়ে গেছে,তারমানে রোবটের লিঙ্গ নির্ধারণ করা হয়ে গেল শুধু মাত্র ওড়নার কারনে…

তবে কি সমাজের চোখ রোবটের বক্ষেও যায়?? /

In our society, even the female robots have to wear “orna”! What they are saying is that the robot is an intelligent machine, but has changed its gender after wearing a scarf. Does that mean the scarf is the primary means of female identification?

Is that because people have been leering at the robot's bosom?

Shahana Hanif commented on Mayesha Arefin's post:

We all know why that robot has a scarf/orna around the chest. In patriarchal society this is what happens #modestrobot #bukdhakarobot #sarcasm

Some also defended the act. Sheikh Tanjim Ahmad wrote on Facebook:

এ কেমন কথা? একটা মেয়ে রোবট (রোবট তো রোবটই) ওড়না পড়েছে তা এতে ‘রোষানল'এর কী আছে? ওড়না না পড়ে বিকিনি পড়লে কি প্রগতিশীল রোবট হয়ে যেতো?

Why such fuss? One female robot (a robot is a robot) has put on a scarf so why are we “offended” by it? Will it be seen as progressive if the robots are in bikinis?

In majority-Muslim Bangladesh, girls and women are strongly encouraged to keep in line with purdah. Popular Facebook pages such as “Hey Girl, Where Is Your Orna?” engage in moral policing, telling women to wear the orna to hide their form.

Journalist Ishrat Jahan Urmi wrote on NTV Online:

তাই রোবটের গলায় ওড়না পেঁচানো নিয়ে কেন জানি খুব বিস্ময় কাজ করেনি আমার। এইটা কেন স্বাভাবিক নয়? যে দেশে পাঠ্যবইয়ে ‘ও’ তে ‘ওড়না’ পড়ানোর নিয়ম চালু হয়, যেদেশে গর্ব করা জিডিপি গ্রোথে অর্ধেক সমান অবদান রাখার পরও প্রতিনিয়ত কর্মক্ষেত্রে, গণপরিবহনে নারীকে হয়রানির শিকার হতে হয়, নিজেকে ‘কাভার্ড’ করতে করতে যে দেশের গ্রামের, শহরের মেয়েরা ক্রমাগত মমিতে পরিণত হয়, সে দেশে রোবটের গলায় ওড়লা নিয়ে কী বলার থাকতে পারে আমি জানি না।

I was not surprised to see that the robot had to wear a scarf. Isn't that normal here? In a country where texts have been changed to teach [children] that “o” means “orna”, a country where women and girls get threatened and abused on public transport and in workplaces, even though they contribute to half of GDP growth, where women and girls in rural or urban areas turn themselves into mummies by putting on layers after layers of clothes to cover their forms. What to say if a robot is covered by a scarf?

Anna Nasrin commented on the Women Chapter blog:

রোবটের গায়ে ওড়না জড়ানোতে দেখতে পাচ্ছি আমাদের অনেকেরই টনক নড়েছে; আমাদের নৈতিকতার মানদণ্ডে এটাকে খুব আপত্তিকর বলে মনে হয়েছে। তাই অনেককেই দেখছি, রেস্টুরেন্ট কর্তৃপক্ষকে বিকৃত মানসিকতার বলে দাবি করছে। অথচ রক্ত মানুষকে যখন এই বাড়তি কাপড়ের টুকরোয় মুড়িয়ে সংরক্ষণ করা হয়েছে যুগ যুগ ধরে, যা চলছে এখনও তখন কিন্তু আমাদের মনেই হয়নি বিকৃতি, মনে হয়নি এভাবে মানুষকে অসম্মান করা হয়।

I see that people have woken up after the scarf on robot incident. We find it morally abhorrent. Some even commented that the restaurant owners have twisted thoughts. But when women and girls are covered in layers of clothes (in the name of purdah) for ages, which still persists, people do not think of it as a perversity. Nor do they think they were disrespected for all these years.

Rice Fields and Carabaos: A Glimpse of Rural Life in the Philippines

Sun, 2017-11-26 12:24

Listen, can you not hear the song of a new life coming from the fields and the mountains? Photo and caption by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Veteran photographer and activist Lito Ocampo has been making frequent visits to his hometown of Pampanga, located in the central part of Luzon Island in the Philippines, to escape the noise and dirt of the capital region Manila.

His visits allowed him to recall his childhood while enjoying the quaint beauty of his birthplace.

Through photos he shared with Global Voices, Ocampo captured not just typical scenes in a lowland farming village, but also, perhaps unintentionally, the state of Philippine agriculture.

For example, the continuing prevalent use of carabaos reflects the backward condition of the country’s agricultural sector in general. The use of roads for drying crops indicates the lack of facilities available to farmers.

Beyond highlighting idyllic countryside life, Ocampo reminds young photographers to take in the plight of rural residents, especially farmers, who are among the country’s poorest people and suffer health risks due to the backbreaking work they undertake in the fields.

With urbanization continuing to spread, many farming villages and green habitats like the hometown of Ocampo can be instantly converted into commercial land or tourism centers. Thus, Ocampo’s photos can also be used to educate the public about problems regarding land use, the status of the land reform program and the pressing need to protect the environment.

Take a virtual tour of Sta. Rita town in the province of Pampanga:

Next to fisherfolk, farmers belong to the poorest sector in the Philippines. Photo by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Tagak (heron or egret) on top of a carabao. Photo by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Farmers are forced to use the roads to dry their crops because of lack of facilities. Photo by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Bathing is important for carabaos before they are used in the fields. Photo and caption by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Maya birds on electric wires, waiting to attack the grains of palay (rice) in the rice fields. Photo and caption by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Maya birds at the rice fields. Photo and caption by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

‘Car’ parking. Carabao shed. Photo by Lito Ocampo, used with permission

Photographer Lito Ocampo at an irrigation canal.


A Student's Suicide Prompts Demands for Higher Education Reform in Afghanistan

Sun, 2017-11-26 02:54

Photo of protest mach by Baqi Samandar. Used with permission.

The recent suicide of a female student at a university in Kabul has triggered outcry and led to calls to end corruption and discrimination in Afghanistan's rotten higher education system.

Afghan students stormed social media and mobilised for a march at Kabul University in the days after a female student committed suicide, reportedly because her final thesis had been failed multiple times on November 19.

The suicide and subsequent protest were widely covered by local media. 

Friends of Zahra Khawari, a senior student of Veterinary Science department of Kabul University have told journalists that she committed suicide aged 25 after her thesis was rejected for third time by her supervisor, Gul Mohammad Tanin. Police have confirmed the suicide and launched an investigation that has already seen her supervisor arrested on unspecified charges.

Ms. Khawari was living in a dormitory at Kabul University. She came from Daikundi province, a deprived province in the mountainous central part of the country. She allegedly poisoned herself at breakfast and died some time later in her room.

The scandal appeared to force the resignation of Afghanistan's acting minister of Higher Education. Abdul Latif Roshan stepped down November 22 and was replaced Najibullah Khwaja Omari.

Social media outcry  

As soon as the news of Zahra Khawari's death broke, Afghan Twitter and Facebook accounts were full of images of the student, along with messages of condolence and stern condemnation for her supervisor.

Zahra Joya, a journalist, poured out her anger in a post of few words on Facebook.

بشکند دستی که انسانی را مجبور می‌کند تا به زندگی‌اش نقطه پایان بگذارد

Break down the hand that pushed a person to kill herself.

Asif Ashna, a liberal-political activist, posted a widely-shared photo of Zahra converting a steel container into a chicken coop at her own expense and on her supervisor's orders.

In his Twitter post he said he regretted not using his time as a student at Kabul University to push for serious reforms:

وقتی تلاش و سرسختی #زهراخاوری را کنار خودکشی معترضانه اش می‌گذارم، بیشتر از پیش گیج می‌شوم. تجربه‌ای شخصی دانشجوی ام را مرور می‌کنم. چشم‌دیدها و وضعیت که شاید ما از کنار اش ساده گذشتیم و برای تغییر اش تلاش چندانی نکردیم. مبارزه و جدال‌های را که سرکوب و سبوتاژ شد. گیج تر می‌شوم.

— Asif Ashna (@AsifAshna) November 22, 2017

Mulling Zahra’s efforts [at university] and suicide protest, I feel confused. I review my own personal experiences and the things we ignored. There were so many changes we should have pushed for.

Many young Afghans, are hoping Zahra's death can become a focal point to modernize higher education, at least at the capital's flagship university.

A national newspaper opened a column, encouraging students to share their experiences and make suggestions for reforms. Many commented on the hurdles they had had to surpass to get heir diplomas. 

Kabul University students march

The day after Khawari’s death, her fellow students called a march. Flooding the Kabul University campus they spoke out against discrimination and the “dictatorial” behaviour of lecturers towards students, who had struggled through difficult entrance exams and financial difficulties to enter the country's top university. Kabul University, they said, was a “dasher of dreams”.

Tahir Qadiry summed up the mood of protesters on Twitter:

What happened to #Zahra at #Kabul University is a small example of rampant corruption & chaos at state-run universities. Zahra committed suicide to rid of the mess & injustice. It recalls Bollywood movie #3idiots. Academic areas must remain academic

— Tahir Qadiry (@tahirqadiry) November 21, 2017

Zakiiiieh, an Afghan twitter user, claimed that Zahra — a member of the long-suffering Hazara minority — may have been a victim of ethnic discrimination.

درد دارد.. تبعیض.. حذف سیستماتیک.. #زهراخاوری میتوانست نخبه، دانشمند، مخترع و آینده ساز این خاک باشد اما امروز زیر همین خاک با آرزوهایش باهم…

— Zakiiiieh (@zakrii09) November 21, 2017

It is so painful. Discrimination… Zahra could have been a genius, scholar, inventor and builder of this country. But she passed away with her dreams.

Perhaps most remarkably, some staff at the university joined in the calls. Younus Toughyan, a lecturer at Kabul University, posted on Facebook:

این بار نخست نیست که فضیحتی نا بخشودنی در پوهنتون کابل صورت می گیرد. در همین پوهنتون استادان هستند که بر شاگردان (فرزندان خودشان) تجاوز کردند و به جای تحذیر تقدیر شدند و به مقامات عالیه رسیدند. استادانی بودند و هستند که رشوه گرفتند و می گیرند و این مسئله به فیسبوکها رخنه کرد، هیچ کس آن را ندید و نشنید و نپرسید. سالهاست که در پوهنتون تعصبات ملی، سمتی و زبانی اعمال می شود. واقعن می شرمم که در کنار افرادی متجاوز، زانی، رشوت خوار و متعصب قرار دارم.
روان زهرا خاوری شاد و یادش گرامی باد. در کنار معترضین تا آخر دادخواهی می کنم. ننگ و نفرین بر وجدانهای بیمار

This is not the first time an unforgivable scandal happens at Kabul University. At this university, many lecturers raped their students and were reprimanded instead of being dismissed. They received bribes, evidence of which was shared on Facebook, but none of them were arrested. For years, lecturers have engaged in prejudicial behavior based on language, race and ethnicity. I am ashamed to work with them…I stand with the protesters till to the end. Death to the sick people.

A tragedy that ended with indifference?        

The story of Zahra Khawari has resonated strongly with Afghan students because it embodies the personal sacrifices that so many of them have made to secure a diploma in a system riddled by graft and dicrimination.

Zahra's thesis, which initially focussed on methods of feeding sheep, was the final hurdle she faced before graduation. But according to her roommate, who was the first to find her after she took the poison with her breakfast, Zahra's supervisor Gul Mohammad Tanin found reason after reason to fail her, even after she changed topic:

Zahra went through a hard time working on her project, and spent so much money. Not once, but multiple times her dissertation was simply dismissed. She was no longer able to spend time working on the project because she is from a poor farming family. She came under too much pressure and finally killed herself.

Not that supervisor is the only alleged villain in Zahra's sad tale. According to some media reports, after she was found poisoned but still alive, the head of Zahra's dormitory did not immediately authorise her transfer to the hospital. Instead, the woman enquired with her friends and her aunt as to whether or not Zahra had a dormitory card to prove residency.

By the time her aunt was able to take her from the dormitory to the hospital, it was already too late.

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

Russian TV Backs Down After Calling Armenian Hero ‘Fascist Collaborator’

Sat, 2017-11-25 03:45

“Nzhdeh” by Avo. Public domain image.

The following is a partner post from written by Joshua Kucera. Republished with permission.

A Russian state television station has apologized after airing a segment about an Armenian war hero's collaboration with Nazi Germany.

TV Zvezda, a station affiliated with Russia's Ministry of Defense, ran a feature on November 19 about Garegin Nzhdeh, a controversial Armenian nationalist figure. Nzhdeh fought against the Bolshevik takeover of Armenia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and then later allied with Nazi forces in World War II against the Soviet Union.

The hostess of the program, Veronika Krasheninnikova — a senior official in the ruling United Russia party — noted that a statue of Nzhdeh had been erected in Yerevan in 2016, and connected his valorization with Armenia's growing ties with the European Union.

“The association with the European Union is not the only thing Armenia is doing like Ukraine — it's difficult to believe, but Yerevan also is valorizing fascist collaborators,” she said.

Krasheninnikova referred to Nzhdeh as “Armenia's Bandera,” referring to the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who also collaborated with Nazis and also has become a hero to many in Ukraine today. And she compared the insignia of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) to that of the Nazi Third Reich.

This is just the latest in a series of historical disputes between Armenia and Russia, which have also touched on the Stalinist purges of 1937 and an effort to remove the names of Bolshevik heroes from Yerevan's streets.

But the comparison of Armenia with Ukraine is especially explosive coming from Russia, which has relentlessly exploited contemporary Ukraine's heroization of nationalist, and occasionally fascist, figures as justification for its multi-pronged attacks on Ukraine.

But Armenia is no Ukraine — it is one of Moscow's closest allies, and hosts a Russian military base.

Armenian officials quickly responded.

“Garegin Nzhdeh is one of the greatest heroes of the Armenian nation and monuments to him should be erected not only in Yerevan, but also in different parts of Armenia,” Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the RPA, told RFE/RL. “Armenia is a sovereign country and will decide itself whose monuments to erect.”

Sharmazanov added that the comparison of his party's logo to Nazi symbology was “ridiculous and politically blind.”

TV Zvezda quickly backed down, apologizing and removing the segment from its website.

“In a segment devoted to relations between Armenia and the European Union, hostess Veronika Krasheninnikova provided incorrect formulations and assessments with respect to Armenia,” Zvezda's president wrote in a letter to Armenia's ambassador to Moscow, Vardan Toghanyan. “We offer our apology for the mistake.”

A spokesman for the embassy, Levon Torgomyan, said the television station leadership told them that “it was an error and a misunderstanding” and expressed hopes for “neighborly relations going forward.”

Krasheninnikova has in the past appeared to be a booster of Azerbaijan, Armenia's foe. Last year she gave an interview to the website Vestnik Kavkaza in which she fawned over Azerbaijan's successes under President Ilham Aliyev. “Azerbaijan will be a prosperous country with a close military-political and economic alliance with Russia,” she predicted.

Azerbaijan has followed the controversy over Nzhdeh with evident glee; the Azerbaijani media closely covered the story of the TV Zvezda report and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev has spoken at length on it. “Nazi propaganda has become a state policy in this country [Armenia],” he said in an interview with “Armenia's national ideology based on racial chauvinism formed by Nzhdeh Garegin is today the ideological trend of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and, ultimately, the Armenian government.”

Geopolitical cynicism aside, Nzhdeh is widely considered to be a questionable figure to lionize. And historians do place his legacy, and recent rehabilitation, in the same context as Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.

“All post-Soviet countries are rewriting their history at the moment. Those who were heroes are now enemies; former enemies, even fascists, are now heroes,” said Armenian-American historian Ronald Grigor Suny in a recent interview. “This is happening in the Baltics, and in Armenia. Some people who collaborated with the Nazis, such as Garegin Nzhdeh, are now considered heroes.”

And Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, objected to the statue Yerevan erected to Nzhdeh last year.

“The fact that they built the statue is quite outrageous,” Zuroff told the Jerusalem Post after the statue was put up. “We must object to any glorification of individuals who fought with the Nazis or extended any assistance to the forces of the Third Reich.”

Zuroff connected the statue of Nzhdeh with “roblematic phenomenon in Eastern Europe at the moment in which history is being rewritten to minimize local collaboration with the Nazis,” the Post reported.

“This is therefore an unfortunate mistake and is an insult to the victims of the Nazis and all those who fought against the Nazis,” Zuroff said.

An Affordable University Education Is at Risk in Post-Hurricane Puerto Rico

Fri, 2017-11-24 08:51

University of Puerto Rico. Photo: Alan Levine. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Long before hurricanes Irma and María utterly devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, the most important public higher education institution on the archipelago was weathering a storm of its own: austerity. And some are now sounding the alarm that these natural disasters have given authorities an excuse to push through even more draconian measures at the University of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, a US territory, currently struggles under the weight of a $74 billion debt, and $49 billion in pension obligations, the likes of which are a product of a decades-long recession, illegal bond issuances and trades, and an overly advertised tax haven. The legal framework that made these practices possible and established Puerto Rico as an exception to the US tax code was enacted by the US Congress. This has lead many to argue that Puerto Rico’s debt is inherently colonial. 

To try to deal with Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, US lawmakers passed legislation called PROMESA, which, among many things, created an unelected oversight board and a process for restructuring the debt. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in June 2016, and thus, the Fiscal Control Board was imposed on Puerto Rico — with very little say from the people of Puerto Rico, who, despite being US citizens, do not have voting representation in US Congress and cannot vote for president.

The Fiscal Control Board's reign has been characterized by austerity, and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) figures among the public institutions it has singled out for steep budget cuts, campus and academic program eliminations and consolidations, tuition spikes, and payroll reductions — recommendations that UPR's administration and the local government seem largely intent on following. With rumors regarding the privatization of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority (PREPA) making their rounds as well, fear emerged that UPR could eventually head in the same direction.

A considerable portion of UPR's student body and faculty, however, were resisting these measures, a two-month-long student strike earlier this year an example of this struggle.

The hurricane ‘paved the way for them to finish implementing their plans’

But then hurricanes Irma and María hit the archipelago with tremendous force, and the UPR campuses, all 11 of them, suffered considerable damage. After hurricane María, UPR assessed more than $118 million in losses system-wide; UPR-Humacao registered as the campus that suffered the most devastation, having been the closest to the area through which the eye of the hurricane entered Puerto Rico. Between hurricanes Irma and María, all campuses were closed for almost a month to more than five weeks.

Before UPR decided to reopen its campuses, a number of universities stateside, such as Tulane University and Brown University, as well as private universities in Puerto Rico, started hurricane-relief programs, offering students an opportunity to continue their academic semester and studies. When UPR finally reopened, campuses were still plagued by fungus infestations, power outages, non-potable water service, closed libraries and research centers, and damaged classrooms, offices and public spaces.

This combination of forces could represent a problem for UPR: it could lose a significant portion of its student body, and that could put UPR at greater risk than before of falling victim to what Canadian journalist Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine: a “brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock […] to push through radical pro-corporate measures”. Faculty members, like professor Maritza Stanchich from UPR-Río Piedras, argued as much on Facebook:

OJO, while perhaps for some this is well-intentioned, initiatives to offer students in hurricane-affected areas in-state tuition in states such as Florida might also embolden further shock-doctrine-style shake ups at UPR. Tulane, after all, was not in the same boat, so to speak, pre Katrina. Entiendo el impulso positivo de estas iniciativas estudiantiles, pero creo que sería ingenuo pensar que no se podía utilizar de manera nefasto para la UPR. [Editor's note: This was a public Facebook post uploaded on September 29, and there have been many exchanges about this since.]

CAREFUL, while perhaps for some this is well-intentioned, initiatives to offer students in hurricane-affected areas in-state tuition in states such as Florida might also embolden further shock-doctrine-style shake ups at UPR. Tulane, after all, was not in the same boat, so to speak, pre [Hurricane] Katrina [which devastated the US Gulf Coast in 2005]. I understand the positive intention of these student initiatives, but I think it would be naive to think that they couldn't be used in a disastrous way for UPR. [Editor's note: This was a public Facebook post uploaded on September 29, and there have been many exchanges about this since.]

UPR found itself in a lose-lose situation. It could decide not to continue with the semester because proper recovery would take time, but watch as a portion of its student body was snatched away by universities stateside and by private universities and colleges on the island itself. Or it could decide to reopen (which it did), but watch a portion of its student body leave anyways, due to the fact that the university hadn’t (and hasn't) been fully and properly rehabilitated.

But in the view of many students and staff, the hurricanes only exacerbated the situation. UPR was already in trouble thanks to years of corrupt and inept government administrations and the debt crisis, as Verónica del Carmen, a student from UPR-Río Piedras, noted:

Este semestre no estoy matriculada en la universidad. Así que no me toca regresar el lunes. Pero las leo, los escucho y me siento angustiada, triste, nerviosa, pero sobretodo me siento encabroná, porque si estuviese matriculá me tocaría elegir entre trabajar o estudiar. Entre comer o coger guagua. Probablemente estaría planificando con alguna corilla cuál será el refugio con agua y el mejor espacio pa descansar y poder ir a “estudiar”. Pienso en las posibilidades y me encabrono más. El gobierno y la administración universitaria tienen excusas demás pa continuar privatizando la UPR y el acceso a la educación. El paso del huracán María les abrió el camino pa terminar de implementar sus planes. Cerrar recintos, aumentar costos de estudio, disminuir ayudas económicas, dejar perder edificios y residencias para estudiantes, en fin, que la UPR sea pa quienes puedan pagarla.

I'm not registered at the university this year, so I don't have to go back on Monday. But I read you, I hear you, and I feel anxious, sad, nervous… But mostly, I feel pissed, because if I were registered I'd have to choose between working or studying. Between eating or taking the bus. I would probably be planning with friends which would be the shelter with water and the best space that we could go to rest and “study”. I think of the possibilities and get even more pissed. Both the government and the university's administration have more than enough excuses to continue the privatization of UPR and the access to education. Hurricane María's passing paved the way for them to finish implementing their plans. Closing campuses, increasing the cost of tuition, cutting grants and financial aid, letting buildings and student residences fall into ruin, in other words, that the UPR can only be for those who can afford it.

‘They're taking advantage of the tragic moment’

Recently, UPR’s Governing Board instructed that all deans should review all academic programs with the intention of substantially reducing the number of required credits, and present curricular alternatives so as to offer two-year programs of study (associate degrees).

At UPR-Mayagüez, where the rector was quick to implement the board's resolution, professor Jorge Schmidt and many other faculty members worry the decision prioritizes profit over academic excellence, and would debilitate UPR’s role as a leading academic and research center:

“Se aprovechan del momento trágico que vive el país para neutralizar la posible oposición a sus medidas anti-académicas que pretenden convertir a la UPR en un centro de adiestramiento para empleos técnicos.

They're taking advantage of the tragic moment the country is going through to neutralize any possible opposition to their anti-academic measures that intend to convert UPR into a training center for technical jobs.

UPR is the most important public higher education institution in Puerto Rico. A total of 46.1% of the population lives below the poverty line (and the numbers will increase post-hurricane María), and economic accessibility is already a problem for many who study at or want to attend the University of Puerto Rico. If UPR is privatized, a considerable sector of the population may find that they no longer have access to an affordable education on the archipelago.