Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Ghosts of Assad

Children in Aleppo with a pile of burning tyres behind them, which they are setting alight to create a smokescreen against the bombing runs of the Assad regime and Russian planes. Photographer unknown.

The Ghosts of Assad

A Review of Francesca Borri's Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War

By Michael Deibert

The blood-spattered, dust-covered face of Omran Daqnees, pulled from the rubble of his family’s home after a bombing in the Syrian city of Aleppo, wrenched the world’s collective conscience last month. Once the flourishing capital of Syria’s most populous region, Aleppo has been in a state of war since July 2012. The so-called barrel bombs of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad - fiendish contraptions filled with explosives, shrapnel and sometimes chemicals - have killed thousands of people in the city, and have now been joined by more technologically advanced though no less lethal air assaults by the jets of Assad’s Russian backers.

This year, the relentless carnage of Syria’s five-year old civil war - pitting the Assad government and its allies in Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah against a flailing panoply of rebel groups including the so-calles Islamic State (ISIS), the until-recently Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army (now believed to be all but defunct), various Kurdish militias and others - continued under the world’s impotent gaze. Death rained down on cities like Aleppo and Daraya (the latter finally falling to the government in late August) as ISIS-inspired attacks fanned out to Bangladesh, Belgium, Turkey and elsewhere, building on the horror of last year’s assaults in Paris. 

But in so many ways, and not just in young Omran Daqnees’ traumatized, terrified gaze, Aleppo, broken, bleeding Aleppo, has remained the centre of it all. And Syrian Dust (Seven Stories Press), the excellent book by Italian journalist Francesca Borri recounting her reporting from the city between 2012 and 2013, presents a vital primary source recounting a siege that has over time became one of the 21st century’s great crimes.

Who would defend the people of Aleppo after their government began killing them four years ago? In Borri’s account, the Free Syrian Army is depicted as something of  a joke of flip-flop wearing teenagers and regime defectors. Al Nusra is better-armed,  but consisting of so many foreign nationals, their lingua franca is English. And thus a terrible dynamic develops, whereby a disparate armed insurgency fights a seemingly endless stalemate with a dictatorship capable of any atrocity. 

“In theory, there are four fronts,” Borri writes. “But the truth is that there is only one front here: it’s the sky. And those who have nothing but bullets to use against the fighter jets haven’t got a chance. Without intervention from the West, as in Libya, the Syrian Free Army can’t win.”

That intervention never came, at least not in the way that Borri means it, but plenty of people did find opportunity in Syria’s agony.

There are the cynical exile opposition politicians who appear in squalid refugee camps to seek support and “distribute a few biscuits like a tourist feeds the pigeons at Piazza San Marco.” There are the Saudi rebels backers who appear and literally buy child brides from starving refugees huddled along the Turkish border. There are Borri’s own journalistic colleagues who, for the most part, far from being united by idealism, mostly appear driven to seek out the most garish and bizarre elements (“find me a drunken child soldier!”). Reporters level misogynistic advice with one hand (with one self-mythologizing reporter informing her Aleppo is “no place for a woman”) and engage in potentially lethal backstabbing with the other, with Borri allegedly once being directed towards snipers, and another time being ratted out to rebels by an ostensible colleague envious for a scoop.

And in the meantime, “you wait and you die in Aleppo, that’s all,” she writes, going on to pen that for those remaining in the city beneath Assad's planes

These are the cruelest moments, because the mind is still lucid. And as the pilot chooses his target, while maybe it will be you, all you can do is huddle there, your back against a damp wall, and stare at the floor along with everything you’ve left undone in your life, everything you put off, as you look around, now that maybe your number’s up, and even if you had something to say, here among these strangers, anything you could utter, any name, any wish, any regret whom could you say it to?

The book has its weaknesses, both in its sometimes meandering digressions into the author’s previous life working in Israel and Palestine, and in its one big omission in the lack of an real discussion of the rise of the Islamic State (there are a number of references to Al Qaeda but almost none to ISIS). But this is perhaps the result of the book’s being published first in Italian in May 2014, just as the terrorist group was becoming the major player in the conflict

But Syrian Dust’s true strength is its depiction of the terrified, terrorized lives of the Syrians living under the Assad regime’s brutal and relentless barrage. Borri tells us the story of a 25 year-old mother reduced to living in a drainage pipe with her 3 children who ventures out to buy bread with her youngest and is shot by a sniper, leaving her other two offspring “wasted away in poverty until a mortar pulverized them.” In Moadamiya “only six miles from the centre of Damascus...where bankers play tennis at their looks like Somalia, with those bodies that are all bones.” During the siege of Al-Qusayr, she receives frantic texts from those inside the city: “Where are you? They’re killing us all!”

At the end of the book, comparing the city to Dresden after World War II, she writes simply and devastatingly “Aleppo no longer exists” and that “everything I may write, no matter how good, whatever life I may risk, this war and every war will go on.”

And go on it does.

There was another child pulled from the rubble in Aleppo the same day as Omran Daqnees: Omran’s brother, Ali.

He had been playing with friends in the street when the bombs began to fall. Like most of those in Aleppo’s agony, there was no photo to mark that moment or aftermath, nor did the world’s news sources and social media rouse themselves to a cri de cœur to mark his short life.

And like so many in Aleppo, as the world stood by, he died.

Michael Deibert is the author of the forthcoming Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History (Zed Books).

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Panama Papers is the least of Central America’s woes

The Panama Papers is the least of Central America’s woes

By Michael Deibert



Corruption, resignations, drug wars: the Mossack Fonseca leak – known globally as 'the Panama Papers' – may have made headlines, but Central America has far more pressing problems to address if it is ever to regain investor confidence.

(Please read the original article here)

When 11.5 million documents were leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in April, a host of politically connected international figures – and some politicians themselves – were revealed to be hiding their assets by sometimes dubious means. The impact was particularly strong in Latin America, especially on the isthmus of Central America, where several countries have been rocked by violence and allegations of shady business practices.

In recent years, Panama itself has worked hard to shed itself of the reputation as some sort of economic 'Wild West', which it acquired in the 1980s. During the 1983 to 1989 rule of dictator Manuel Noriega, Panama became known as a hub for laundering drug money profits for groups such as the Medellín cartel, the Ochoa family and others. Mr Noriega was arrested following the 1989 US invasion of Panama and served 17 years in prison in the US on drug-trafficking charges. He was subsequently extradited to France where he was also convicted of narcotics-related offences, and is now in a Panamanian jail.

Though Panama’s economy stabilised enough for several ratings agencies to boost its sovereign debt rating to investment grade, former president Ricardo Martinelli, who served from 2009 to 2014, ended up in exile in Miami on the run from embezzlement charges back home.

Slow-moving Nicaragua

North of Panama, Nicaragua is these days is ruled as a personal fiefdom by Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, in office since 2007 and showing no signs of leaving any time soon.

Mr Ortega’s ambitious plan to one-up Panama’s inter-oceanic canal with one across Nicaragua – which were announced with great fanfare in 2013 with an estimated cost of $50bn – have thus far come to nothing. Ostensibly the brainchild of Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, chairman and CEO of Beijing’s Xinwei telecoms company (an entity that had never before had any involvement in infrastructure projects of this magnitude), ground was broken for the canal’s construction nearly two years ago.

Today, however, amid howls of protests from environmentalists, human rights leaders and others, work on the canal is virtually non-existent, as is any explanation for when it may be continued.

El Salvador violence

In neighbouring El Salvador, a 2012 truce organised between the government of then-president Mauricio Funes and the country’s two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, saw murder numbers cut in half the following year. But Mr Funes’ replacement – former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén, like Funes a member a member of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – abandoned the truce upon taking office in 2014, resulting in open warfare across the country between the gangs and the security forces.

Last year, El Salvador’s murder rate rose by a shocking 70% compared with the previous year: 6657 people died in what was by far the most deadly year since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.

All this in a country with a population of just 6.4 million.

This year’s figures look set to surpass that, and Mr Sánchez Cerén’s government has taken the additional step of arresting some of those – including former government officials – who had negotiated the original truce. One long-time observer of the country described the government’s current policy as “madness”.

Guatemalan uncertainty

In Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy, three close confidants of former presidents Álvaro Colom, Alfonso Portillo and Otto Pérez were named in the Panama Papers, adding more uncertainty to what has already been an unsettled 12 months in the country.

Last autumn, then-president Mr Pérez resigned and was arrested the following day, following the apprehension of vice-president Roxana Baldetti, who had stepped down in August. Both are charged with running a criminal network known as la línea (the line) while in office.

Though the arrests of the country’s two most powerful politicians took place following massive street demonstrations throughout Guatemala, many believe they would not have happened but for the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-mandated body that has operated since 2007, charged with investigating criminal organisations and exposing their connections to the state. Led by Colombian judge Iván Velásquez Gómez, the swiftness with which CICIG, along with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público, brought about the downfall of the government was startling, especially given that Mr Pérez had only weeks left in office after 2015’s presidential election.

No consultation

Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, was elected on the ticket of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional, a party founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s political spectrum. Both before and after Mr Morales assumed office, foreign investment in Guatemala has been marked by controversy. Projects such as the Escobal silver mine, owned by Canadian company Tahoe Resources, in the department of Jalapa, have sprung up with little to no consultation with indigenous communities (Guatemala has the highest indigenous population in Central America) and little transparency, and have frequently resulted in violent clashes.

More worrying still, in April a video surfaced from the Guatemalan department of Huehuetenango showing armed men claiming to be from new rebel group the Fuerzas Armadas Campesinas, vowing to oppose by force a hydroelectric project in the town of Ixquisís.

At the turn of the millennium many might have hoped that endemic corruption and violence were on the wane in the region, but events of recent months, among which the Panama Papers leak is only one, may well have investors thinking twice about Central America.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Friday, May 06, 2016

Et voilà...

The cover for my new book, Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History, out from Zed Books this autumn.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A few thoughts on Puerto Rico's debt crisis

Make no mistake: The terms set up for Puerto Rico's $422 million payment to its debtors this week were ones that no one - including the creditors - believed that Puerto Rico could meet (nor do they have any chance of meeting the $2 billion - yes, billion - payment due in July).

How much more could the island reasonably cut by way of services as cuts have already pushed it to the brink? In the last two years, the island has laid off tens of thousands of employees, raised its sales tax to 11.5%, closed 10% of the its schools, shuttered dozens of hospitals and clinics, watched 
84,000 of its sons and daughters depart for the mainland United States last year alone and seen nearly half the island's population descend into poverty.

The logic behind this is similar to the austerity package that was pushed on Greece, the one that Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis resigned over last September. It is all about punishment. The hedge funds and vulture funds such as BlueMountain Capital Management that own a significant chunk of Puerto Rico's debt (and their front organizations, such as the
Center for Individual Freedom and Main Street Bondholders, pressuring Congress) are sending an unambiguous message not only to Puerto Rico's citizens but to those of other countries in which they operate: Fuck with us and we'll make you scream. If this is how we treat U.S. citizens, imagine how we will treat you?

It is a scandal that 3.5 million Americans are being subjected to the economic equivalent of waterboarding, and Congress should act to reign in the island's usurious creditors and bring some relief to its citizens. Having colonies comes with responsibilities, too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Talk: "Haiti Will Not Perish" with Michael Deibert

Here is the video of my talk on Haiti at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Thank you so much to Severine Autesserre for making it happen.