Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts on the Bombay municipal elections

Proving that bigotry and its oft-handmaiden of poor sartorial flourishes don’t respect geographic boundaries, George Wallace’s spiritual successor here in Bombay, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray , informed Bombay’s voters that “the city will burn if it is taken away from Maharashtra," this week, days before a civic poll to pick the new members of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) and other posts in the city.

Readers may remember that Thackeray is the political leader that the author (and native Bombayite) Suketu Mehta memorably described as "the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in."

The Shiv Sena (or Army of Shiva, referring to Shivaji) was formed by Thackeray in 1966, promoting themselves as Bhumiputra or "sons of the soil," while propagating that native Maharashtrians (those born in Maharashtra state and speaking the Marathi language) deserved greater rights in their eponymous state (of which Bombay is a part) than "foreigners," which in this case meant basically Muslims (the Shiv Sena also promoted the rather exceptionalist Hindutva philosophy) and "southerners" (those from south India). Following the destruction of Babri Mosque in northeastern India by Hindu extremists in December 1992, Bombay was engulfed in ghastly rioting that left over 2,000 dead , many of them Muslims targeted by Hindu mobs. The Srikrishna Commission Report on the violence, released in 1998, stated unequivocally that “from January 8, 1993 at least there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders,’ singling out Thackeray for special condemnation.

Yet another example in the world of an individual and a political current promoting that idea that for one group to be uplifted, another group must be crushed.

“In the Bombay I grew up in,” Mehta writes in his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found “being Muslim or Hindu or Catholic was merely a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. We had a boy in our class who I realize now from his name, Arif, must have been Muslim. I remember that he was an expert in doggerel and instructed us in an obscene version of a patriotic song, “Come, children, let me teach you the story of Hindustan”, in which the nationalistic exploits of the country’s leaders were replaced by the sexual escapades of Bombay’s movie stars. He didn’t do this because he was Muslim and hence unpatriotic. He did this because he was a twelve-year-old boy.”

“Now it mattered.,“ Mehta concludes. “Because it mattered to Bal Thackeray.”

And now, for reasons I haven’t quite figured out yet, despite guiding one element of Bombay’s citizenry in an attempt to ethnically purge another element of this great mosaic, Thackeray is still a free man to make statements such as the one above.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Letter regarding Amnesty International release

(I sent the following note to Amnesty International after reading their press release Amnesty International condemns murder of journalist. I received a thoughtful response to my concerns, but believe that some of the issues raised in the original message itself might be of interest to readers. MD)

Greetings. My name is Michael Deibert and I am a journalist who has been visiting Haiti since 1997 and served as Reuters correspondent there from 2001 until 2003. In addition, I have written extensively about the country over the last decade for publications such as Newsday,
The Miami Herald and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In its most timely and necessary release following the murder of Jean-Rémy Badio, Amnesty International condemns murder of journalist, Amnesty International states the following when chronicling the murders of journalists in Haiti over the last seven years:

Jean Léopold Dominique along with Jean Claude Louissaint, murdered in Port-au-Prince on 3 April 2000;
Brignol Lindor, found dead in Acul (near Petite Goâve) on 3 December 2003;
Abdias Jean, allegedly extrajudicially executed by police officers on 7 January 2005;
Jacques Roche, found dead on 15 July 2005.

I think I am not alone in worrying that, while Jean Léopold Dominique Jean Claude Louissaint and Abdias Jean are quite correctly listed as having been "murdered" and "allegedly extrajudicially executed by police officers," respectively, the journalists Brignol Lindor and Jacques Roche are simply listed as having been "found dead," with no further elaboration as to the circumstances of their murders.

Around this time five years ago, in my capacity as the Reuters correspondent in Port-au-Prince, I reported on the murder of Brignol Lindor by a gang named Domi Nan Bwa (Sleeping in the Woods), who were loyal to then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

On December 3, 2001, Lindor, the news director of Radio Echo 2000 in the provincial town of Petit Goave was macheted and beaten to death by Domi Nan Bwa members following a similar though non-lethal attack against Domi Nan Bwa member Joseph Céus Duverger (in which Lindor had no involvement). Lindor's radio program "Dialogue," which often featured speakers strongly denouncing the Aristide government and local officials, had drawn the ire of Petit Goave's mayor, Dume Bony, a member of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party, who had held a press conference immediately preceding the killing and, seated next to Domi Nan Bwa's leader Raymond Jean Fleury, called for the application of "zero tolerance" to be directed at Lindor. I recall that, shortly after the killing, in his capacity as the secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists, Reuters' current correspondent in Haiti, Joseph Guyler Delva, spoke to the leaders of Domi Nan Bwa, who freely admitted their role in the murder.

Thus there is no mystery whatsoever as to how, when, where, why and by whom Brignol Lindor was murdered.

Likewise in the case of Jacques Roche, there is no dispute as to what befell him, be there as it may dispute over the culprits. An editor at the newspaper Le Matin who had worked extensively to protest the brutal treatment of Haiti's peasants on the country's Maribahoux plain and hosted a television program where members of political parties and civil society groups -- frequently including members of a civil coalition that helped drive Aristide from power in 2004 - would discuss the issues of the day, Roche was kidnapped in July 2005 and his body then found on a road in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, his wrists handcuffed, his arms broken and the coup de grace having been administered with a bullet to the head .

Amidst the violence that is still afflicting Haiti today, putting these crimes in the proper context, I would argue, is a very important contribution to the world's larger understanding of how to help end them. It is not a mere matter of semantics, but rather a decision to provide the full information for concerned citizens abroad who seek to genuinely help Haiti in its hour of need, irrespective of political parties and ever-mindful of the worth of every life lost and the need for a full accounting by those in power for their roles, in any, in taking those lives.

I am sure that you share these concerns.


Michael Deibert

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Corruption in Haiti’s senate?

Haitian senator Gabriel Fortuné has leveled a charge most grave that his colleagues in the Haitian body politic were bribed in exchange for voting (18 in favor, 16 opposed) for a negotiated resolution to a complex financial squabble between the Banque de la République d'Haïti (BRH) and the Société Caribéenne de Banque S.A. (SOCABANK). Fortuné, a senator from the Union party, stated that several senators were bribed by SOCABANK officials to vote in favor of the resolution and that, as he has already apprised senate president Joseph Lambert of the situation, he will produce proof of the corruption this coming week.

Fortuné, it may be recalled, while serving in Haiti‘s Chamber of Deputies, survived an attack that killed deputy Jean-Hubert Feuillé in 1995, and was jailed without trial by the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide for two weeks during the latter's second term in office in 2001, Last month, he charged that the former president and sectors of his Fanmi Lavalas party were behind much of Haiti’s plague of kidnappings,

The BRH, readers will remember, is the Haitian state financial institution that was left in a shambles following Mr. Aristide’s 2001-2004 turn as Haiti’s president, with the nation’s public deficit measuring 3% of the country’s GDP and the government having defaulted on two separate contracts designed to provide the Haiti with electricity, totaling $12m.

As Haiti is at such a sensitive place right now, with president René Préval looking to conclude his first full year in office (in May) with some tangible benefit to be shown to Haiti’s long-suffering people, the accusations of corruption are particularly worrisome. One hopes a full, thorough and transparent investigation into the matter will soon follow.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ailing Health System Defies Easy Fix

With travel and all, it has taken me a little while to post this, but here please find a link to my recent story for the Inter-Press Service titled Ailing Health System Defies Easy Fix, which examines the hurdles faced by the U.S. healthcare structure. As one of the 48 million Americans without health insurance, it is an issue near and dear to my heart.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Haiti: Champions of the Caribbean

It's been a long time that I've been waiting to write those words and Haiti's football team has finally made it possible. Haiti won the Caribbean Cup this week after defeating hometown favorites Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 in the final, which goes down as Haiti's best result in the tournament's 18-year history. Haitian media reports that thousands of deliriously happy fans swarmed the team as they landed at Haiti's Toussaint Louverture airport in Port-au-Prince yesterday evening.

Haiti, which has beset by so much trauma and which only last week witnessed the senseless murder of photojournalist Jean-Rémy Badio for simply doing his job, needed a reason to celebrate something, anything. The Haitian national football team has given them one.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sir Vidia and Shalimar

The critic Namita Bhandare has a very interesting article in today’s Hinudstan Times looking at the differences and similarities between two of India’s most lauded literary sons, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipual.

Rushdie, Bhandare writes, “even though he held a British passport, was married to a Brit, lived in London and had a family that was based in Pakistan, (he) claimed to be determinedly Indian." Perhaps Rushdie’s best regarded novel, 1980's Midnight’s Children, features the city of Bombay extensively, and during that time “Rushdie pleased us by finding virtues in India. He raved about the Baroda School of Painting, praised our democracy (as distinct from Pakistan’s record of military rule) and even said the right things about Indira Gandhi (he didn’t like her, a sentiment shared by the urban middle-class).”

By contrast, V.S. Naipual, author of one of my favorite novels of all time, A Bend in the River, “missed no opportunity to tell us how much he hated us. He may have hated his birthplace (Trinidad) even more but the land of his ancestors was — in his view — a complete failure. It was, in the Sixties, an area of darkness. And by the Seventies, it had become a wounded civilization.”

Of course, that was over twenty years ago, when both writers were regarded in the prime. Midnight's Children was in that era, The Satanic Verses (which earned Rushdie a fatwa death sentence from the ossified, Koran-thumping theocracy in Iran) arrived some eight years later. Mr., Naipaul’s first book of renown, A House for Mr. Biswas, went even further back, to 1961, the interesting if often unpleasant In a Free State to 1971, and A Bend in the River itself to 1979.

A decade ago, Rushdie was the speaker at my graduation from Bard College in upstate New York, and he spoke about his time in seclusion, and at the demands for adherence to this or that hierarchy that had been made of him throughout his life. It was an address whose words have stayed with me ever since.

"It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods," he said that day. "The message of the myths is not the one the gods would have us learn - that we should behave ourselves and know our place - but its exact opposite. It is that we must be guided by our natures.""Do not bow your heads. Do not know your place. Defy the gods. You will be astonished how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Be guided, if possible, by your better natures."

For his part, Naipaul's A Bend in the River remains one of the great portraits of post-colonial Africa and the alternating absurdities and horrors of a quasi-fascist cult-of-personality state, but Naipaul himself was the subject of a rather distasteful campaign, although one with far less mortal implications, when former friend and vastly inferior writer Paul Theroux lambasted him in a rather ill-considered memoir some years back.

In today’s Hindustan Times article, however, Bhandare notes that, through a strange confluence of events, the lives of Rushdie and Naipual have become in some ways mirror images of one another. Bhandare cites as examples that both authors are now better known for their non-fiction and their political views than for their novels (a conclusion I take issue with), that “both men have hit the social circuit thanks to glamorous and ambitious wives from the subcontinent” (something I couldn’t care less about), that they both continually revisit the subcontinent as a mine for material for their fiction (an astute observation), that they both cast a very skeptical eye over Islamic extremism and that, in Bhandare’s estimation, their respective levels of arrogance are meeting on some high misty plane of self-regard these days.

Bhandare finally speculates about “what is it about being an Indian writer abroad (to the extent that Trinidadians and Pakistanis are part of a greater India) that turns both men into clones of each other? Could it be that they have lived too far away from home for too long? And that they now occupy an imaginary homeland?”

Imaginary homelands? Now there's a sobering and intriguing thought for any expatriate.

Othwerwise, in very sad and decidedly non-literary news from Haiti, it was revealed today that freelance photographer Jean-Rémy Badio was murdered in the southern Port-au-Prince district of Martissant Friday by some of the same gangsters who have been terrorizing that neighborhood since this past July. Badio’s apparent crime? He had photographed the gunmen a few days before. Far from being imaginary, the violence in Haiti continues to be all too real.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Salaam Bombay

I saw them from the taxi on the ride back from Bandra last night, as we were passing through Worli and getting ready to make the arc out onto Marine Drive, where the city meets the sea. Among the estimated 100,000 people in Bombay that are officially designated as homeless (as opposed to the 7.5 million people that live in the city's slums), they had taken refuge for the evening on a traffic island amidst a swirl of motor cars that was cacophonous in its noise even at this late around (around 10:30pm) on a Sunday night. The tableaux was jarring in its intimacy and familiarity: Two small children stretched out, a man who appeared to be their father tucking them both in with blankets, tousling their hair, entreating them to sleep well. But this was no child's bedroom, the pallet was concrete in a public space set amidst the glare of headlights and noise of strangers. There was no pillow for their young heads

These are the people that, in the words of the Times of India group's rather asinine estimation, "are the leash," keeping the country from reaching its development potential. Last evening, they certainly did not appear to have the power to restrain anyone but rather that, as with the 700,000 citizens of the Dharavi slum, they were in fact the ones who had been roundly failed by successive governments here in India and that now, sixty years after independence, some in the country wished nothing more than they would go away so as not to detract from the pockets of affluence here, in New Delhi or in Bangalore (where riots erupted this weekend). I think not.

The day before, I received in the mail a copy of , Asia Society Associate Fellow Mira Kamdar’s upcoming book Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy is Changing America and The World (Scribner). Along with some books by Amartya Sen, Suketu Mehta and Humra Quraishi, among others, it should make an interesting literary companion on my travels.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Haiti's Mythical Man

I'm not usually the type to make more than one posting in the course of a single day, but the Miami Herald published my review of novelist Madison Smartt Bell's new biography of Haiti's independence hero Toussaint Louverture today.

I mostly liked the book with one or two reservations, and I particularly enjoyed the skill with which Bell countered the misconception that the leaders of Haiti's revolt were ''a gang of supposedly ignorant, illiterate and generally uncivilized blacks,'' Bell brilliantly evokes the bitter eloquence of the writing of Haiti's revolutionary leadership, as is evidenced in a passage from a July 1792 letter signed by the rebel generals Jean-Francois and Biassou (as well as, curiously, Louverture's 14-year-old nephew Belair) to the representatives of the French government:

Under the blows of your barbarous whip we have accumulated for you the treasures you enjoy in this colony; the human race has suffered to see what barbarity you have treated men like yourself -- yes, men -- over whom you have no right except that you are stronger and more barbaric than we are. For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity, and which only tends to subject one's fellowman to slavery, must come to an end, and that end is yours.

Read the full review here.

Adivasis, Naxalites and the future of India

I attended a very interesting lecture at the Nehru Centre in Worli by the noted Indian writer and academic Ramachandra Guha on the subject of adivasis, naxalites and the future of India. For those unaware, the adivasis are the “tribal” people of India, making up some 70 million members of peninsular India's population

Guha's talk centered on the eastern adivasis, centered on the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, as opposed to their northern counterparts, and on the relationship these groups have with both the Indian state and the Naxalite Maoist insurgency here that is presently thought to contain some 10,000 regular fighters and several hundred thousand supporters in 13 of India's 28 states. Violence from conflict between the Maoists and the Indian government - both of whom stand accused of arming young adivasi men and boys to fight - claimed over 700 lives - including dozens of adivasi villagers slain by the rebels this past spring -in the last year alone.

Among Guha's most poignant observations were that "adivasis have gained least and lost most in six decades of Indian independence "as a result of exploitation and dispossession at the hands of successive Indian governments. Likewise, he said, the Naxalites offer "no long-term solution" to the plight of the tribes.

An important subject and one I will revisit in the future.

On another note, there is a highly interesting article by Bill Berkeley on Persian blogging in the Spring edition of the World Policy Journal.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A shabby little affair

As a progressive journalist who seeks to hold governments of all ideological stripes accountable for their actions towards their citizens, I pretty much assumed at some point MediaLens and NarcoNews (a bit like MediaLens' more unwashed, ayahuasca-dabbling cousin) would get around to elevating me to the level of Guardian writer Peter Beaumont, New York Times Bogota correspondent Juan Forero and the Miami Herald Caracas scribe Phil Gunson, by adding my colleague and friend Jane Regan and I to their ever-expanding list of enemies. I can only hope that salary considerations will soon follow suit. The choice of a "graduate student" named Jeb Sprague and some of his fellow travelers to recently print the texts of their email exchanges with Inter-Press Editor Katharine Stapp on the MediaLens website without first obtaining her permission or informing her of their intent to do so, a rather large violation of netiquette, is not surprising. My personal criteria for publishing private emails has always been to get the author's explicit permission (see my response to Dominican diplomat Roberto Alvarez), except in the case of abusive emails, in which case I will publish - if the moment seems appropriate - the author, the email and the author's contact information. The present moment is such a case.

In November 2005, shortly after the publication of my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), to the general public, I received the following email (unsolicited) from Sprague (whom I had never met or corresponded with) along with a graphic picture of the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked bodies of a Haitian mother and her children (bad punctuation in the original):

From Jeb Sprague
Date Nov 22, 2005 4:26 AM
Subject Haiti - read your book

Wow. Just finished reading your book. I got it at a library so I would not have to pay for
it. =-)
I thought it was horribly written with numerous factual errors. A very biased and elite look at the situation in Haiti. It looks like the World Bank funded Inter-American dialogue will provide a good place for you to promote this smear campaign of the elected government of Haiti.
Maybe USAID or the NED could take some of its yearly $3 million "democracy enhancement" program in Haiti away from the GROUP 184 grantees to promote your book tour??
But well I guess since the embargo has been lifted, since we have a pro-u.s. dictatorship now in Haiti things are great for you.
HEre is a photo of the suffering you cover up in this slanted propaganda. Thousands of dead in Haiti while Michael Diebert profits off the misery.
The Photos can't be covered up. You can't stop the truth...
-Jeb Sprague
Graduate Student, Long Beach CA

I was left shrugging that perhaps Sprague suffered from some sort of mental illness, as he viewed the dead mother and her toddlers appropriate material for the smiley--face emoticon he placed in his message, easy game for the cheap joke. Writing for various fringe publications, Sprague later went on to attack, in chronological order:

-Batay Ouvriye, one of Haiti's most militant and effective labor unions, for receiving funds from the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center after the departure of the government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. In truth, my attitude has always been, with things as dire as they are in Haiti, any Haitian governments should accept help from anywhere they can get it, whether it be Brussels, Caracas, Havana or Washington. Batay Ouvriye has consistently sided with the Haitian working class, whereas siding with the nouveaux riche class politique that Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party came to typify would have paid them much better (it certainly paid well for the government's lobbyists in the United States, who made millions over the years from a desperately poor country).

-The press solidarity group Reporters sans frontières (RSF), for supposedly receiving money from the International Republican Institute (IRI). When Sprague was unable to produce proof of this claim, RSF News Editor Jean-François Julliard, responded succinctly "We do not receive any funding from the International Republican Institute. This is a pure figment of the authors' imagination. Your readers can check our certified accounts on our website, "

-The Haiti Support Group, a London-based solidarity organization that has been working at a grassroots level in Haiti since 1992. In an article co-authored with one Joe Emersberger and which appeared in the magazine Counterpunch, Sprague by all accounts falsely and libelously claimed that Haiti Support Group head Charles Arthur (who I have often been at odds with) encouraged people to harass an apparently bogus "researcher," who published a highly questionable human rights study in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Arthur later wrote that "The statements about me in the Counterpunch piece are pure fiction. "

Of course, Sprague like his cohorts like Emersberger and Diana Barahona, residing comfortably in North America, would seem rather ill-suited to lecture groups of impoverished peasants and factory workers on where they are and are not allowed to accept aid from. At the same time, in the face of such campaigns, grassroots organizations like Batay Ouvirye, the Plateforme haïtienne de plaidoyer pour un développement alternatif (PAPDA) and Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA), with little money on hand and few tools to defend themselves (not to mention, often, a shaky grasp of English), are left to deflect time from their work on behalf of Haiti's poor majority in to respond against a small, bitter, delusional, virulent elite, one that has shown repeatedly that it has precious little original thought to occupy its time, so it must instead rely on attacking the work of others. There is, sad to say, an amount of professional jealousy here which should inspire only pity, no doubt, when they look with envy at the work of someone like Jane Regan who, in addition to proving her mettle as a correspondent (especially a female correspondent) over many years and in many harrowing situations in Haiti, wrote In Bondage to History? an article which I and many others think is probably the single best piece written on the inferno of violence that consumed Haiti following September 30, 2004, for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) .

In conclusion, to say that this small group are liars would mean that one was convinced that they indeed still had the ability to discern between reality and the ever more-multilayered fantasy world they have constructed for themselves and I, for my part, am not at all convinced that is the case. But what has always been a characteristic of weak and feeble minds, whose arguments are so fragile that they can barely support their own weight let alone that of an informed dissenting voice, is the desire to not only to make sure that their own voices are heard (fine with me), but to silence the voices they disagree with. Unfortunately with this current of thought from mostly well-off, white progressives, Haitians are interesting only insofar as they can either be lauded as heroes or damned as villains, with no acknowledgement for any of the grey areas in between, and with no appreciation that, particularly in a society as impoverished, and wracked by violence as Haiti, human beings are creatures of complex motivation, not easily summed up by the empty sloganeering this current is reduced to for lack of any real understanding of the country.

The Haiti I know and love is full of people who, in their everyday struggles, display twenty times the heroism that any politician I have seen in the country ever has: A man working late hours at his media support group despite the danger of being kidnapped if he is late returning home; a father, out of work for three years, who dutifully gets up to pound the pavement every day in order to search for a job to support his family and restore his sense of dignity, and his wife, who braves strikes, demonstrations and the daily threat of violence to go teach school at a facility often lacking the basic instruments for education such as books, pens and paper; the woman fleeing a gang war sheltering in the parking lot of a Baptist mission who has nothing in mind more than keeping her children safe from the struggle for miserable power. These are the real heroes of Haiti, not the politicians.

Of course, there are people engaging in those everyday struggles all around the world, and I, for one, have to go out and report on them today.

L'Union fait la force.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sunrise in Colaba

Having made the decision to shift my accommodations from the colorful but filthy and almost dizzyingly polluted Fort Area to a flat in the southern tip of Bombay, I am treated to the sound of waves splashing against my rocks beneath my window at night, and views like this one when I wake up come morning, which, I must say, goes a long way to re-charging one's batteries following long-term stints in the Dharavis of the world. Likely off to either Panaji (aka Panjim), the former capital of Portuguese Goa, and supposedly the repository of some fine colonial architecture, or perhaps the hill station of Matheran, which will no doubt make a nice change from Bombay's often rather gritty air.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Saddam to the gallows, more troops to Iraq and more maximum city

I am a bit late getting around to talking about it, of course, but, for anyone who has been living under a rock for the last several weeks, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein - former Reagan administration client, author of the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign campaign that killed up to 180,000 Iraqi Kurds from 1986 until 1989, and instigator of the brutal repression that killed a similar number of Shiites following a 1991 revolt centered on the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah - was hanged by the neck until dead on December 30th, bringing an end one of the bloodiest histories that any modern ruler has written upon the face of the earth. While I am in principle opposed to the death penalty (even in this case), I must say that I shed no tears over the end of this appalling tyrant who, along with his two maniac sons and his quasi-fascist Baath party, had ruined the lives of so many millions of people for so long, and left his country that shattered, divided inferno that it currently is (helped along by the arrogant hubris of the Bush administration in the latter count).

As if to underscore the man’s moral turpitude, recordings have recently surfaced where Hussein discusses the Al-Anfal Campaign in great detail with subordinates, dispensing, among other pearls of wisdom, that "Yes, in areas where you have concentrated populations, that would be useful," in reference to plans to have Soviet-built aircraft carry containers packed with 50 napalm bombs each to the be rolled out of the cargo decks and dropped on Kurdish towns. Later in the same set of tapes, Hussein praises the merits of chemical weapons - such as those that decimated the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 - while speaking with his vice-president, the fugitive Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.

If any regrets may be voiced about Hussein’s exit, as with that of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet earlier that same month, it is that the deed was done before Hussein was made to answer for the full measure of his crimes and the manner of his death - as a Sunni taunted by partisans of the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's "Mahdi Army”militia while on the gallows - will only serve to further inflame the scorching ethnic violence that is currently making Iraq such a hellish place for its citizens. In the final analysis, it is also appalling that Hussein was executed for the killing of 148 Shia Muslims in the town of Dujail and then, post mortem, charges against him stemming from the Al-Anfal Campaign were dropped and those from the 1991 campaign against the Shia shunted aside. Hussein should have been on trail for the rest of his life for his crimes against the Iraqi people and now, for all of those victims, there will probably never be a full accounting of the state machinations that lead to such ghastly excess. As my friend Sutton Stokes observed, “The saddest thing about his execution is the way the amateurs running it allowed him the final victory of seeming like the only civilized person in the room, when in fact…”

Amidst all of this, my country’s president - who hopefully one day will have to face a trial or two of his own - has announced his plan to send 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq, including five brigades deployed to Baghdad. While completely distrustful of Bush’s motives and not at all convinced that he has learned the lessons of a presidency that has thus far been a tragedy for America as it has been for the world, it does seem that it would be the height of irresponsibility and callous self-interest, having unleashed the poltergeists of ethnic cleansing on a civilian population, for the U.S. to leave Iraq before we have done something to try and halt the violence there.

On this issue, where it seems like the only choices are bad and worse, I must say that I largely agree with The Economist’s 7 December observation that “What will not help is scuttling from Iraq before exhausting every possible effort to put the country back together.”

“The Baker-Hamilton group is right to say that America should neither leave precipitously nor stay forever.,” the editorial goes on. “Leaning harder on Iraq's politicians is an excellent idea. But setting an arbitrary deadline of early 2008 for most of the soldiers to depart risks weakening America's bargaining power, intensifying instead of dampening the fighting and projecting an image of weakness that will embolden enemies everywhere.”

Bhenchod, this isn’t over yet.

As for me, following a great dinner with author Dilip D'Souza and his charming family and an even better Bandra party, I again spent the day today in Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, home to some 700,000 souls, intervieiwng people who make their living by breaking apart plastics and recylcing bags which are then melted down and sold as raw material. For their effort they make 60 rupees a day (about $1.20). I am still feeling the effects of inhaling all that pollution this evening.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Train to Bandra

Yesterday, visiting an Indian journalist, I ventured out to Bandra, an increasingly chic Bombay suburb that is worlds away in look and feel from the urban rush and pollution of my own Fort Area neighborhood. Passing through the somewhat hallucinatory Indo-British fusion that is Victoria Terminus (renamed Shivaji Terminus by Hindu zealots in the mid-1990s in honor of a 17th century Maratha king), I hitched a ride on the sweltering working-class commuter train for the 45-minute journey.

As we sped by, hot wind blasting through the cars, leaving the Fort’s Victorian-via-Bollywood buildings in various stages of decrepitude and bazaars behind, the poverty on display from the railcar, even by Haitian standards, even following my visit to the Dharavi slum (Asia’s largest) in my first hours in Mumbai, was staggering. Amidst the engine of India’s economic success story were lean-to shacks with tin roofs built right up to the edge of the train tracks which shuttered as we rode by, vast ponds of fetid, mosquito-breeding still water amidst hundreds of fragile human dwellings and the overwhelming smell of raw shit that flooded the car at regular intervals despite the speed at which we were traveling.

And everywhere: people, people, people. One can only really appreciate the idea of a city of 20 million people when you realize that one can never venture into the street without their eyes immediately taking in 500 other souls going about their lives.

But still amidst the want, as has been characteristic since my arrival in India, color burst forth from all sides: Advertisements for Indian soap operas, multi-colored washing hung from windows, garlands of flowers hung out of the windows of trains passing in the opposite direction by Hindu religious pilgrims. And, such a change from much of Latin America, peacefulness. Despite the crush of people, despite the poverty, there is a strange calm that pervades things. Going back to the train station in Badra last night, through the twilight streets, on an auto-rickshaw, or walking home through the Fort Area, despite the night and the inequity, there was no charge of menace, no feel of impending potential violence such as I have felt in certain sections of Port-au-Prince or Rio de Janeiro at various moments. Of course, I am writing this here in Bombay the same week that separatist militants from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) killed at least 71 Hindi-speaking migrants in attacks across Assam state in India's north, and the conflict in Kashmir continued to grind onwards. And of course my driver to Dharavi - a supporter of the xenophobic Shiv Sena political party - treated me to a long discourse in fractured English about how Bangladeshis, Muslims and “southerners” (those from South India) were to blame for the poverty that I was witnessing. But, nonetheless, in terms of examples of urban tolerance, Bombay thus far seems to be an interesting example.

A word on etymology: Bombay was in fact first called Bom Baia by early Portuguese explorers. In recent years, the Indian author Suketa Mehta wrote in his very interesting book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, that the re-naming of the city “Mumbai” was “not just a process of decolonializaion but of de-Islamicization. The idea is to go back not just to a past but to an idealized past, in all cases, a Hindu past…Bombay was created by the Portuguese from a cluster of malarial islands, and to them should go the baptismal rights. The Gujaritis and Maharastrians always called it Mumbai, when speaking Gujarati or Marathi, and Bombay when speaking English. There was no need to chose. In 1995, the Sena demanded that we chose, in all our languages, Mumbai.”

In deference to the extraordinary tapestry I have encountered here in the last week - long-bearded kufi-chapeaued Muslims, Kashmiris with their wares spread out before them on the streets of the Fort, serious and industrious Paris still practicing the Zoroastrian religion of the forbearers - I will refer to the city as Bombay in conversation and on this blog but, in a nod to an unfortunate political reality, as Mumbai in my articles.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

First posting from Mumbai

Saffron, incense, sewage, exhaust and sundry spices have never blended in such an intoxicating aroma.