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February 2016

Gideon Levy

Aleppo is our Guernica — and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe

Imagine Guernica. On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town was bombed for three hours by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in support of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, leaving over 1,600 people dead. Picasso immortalized the episode in a celebrated painting, Neruda wrote poems about it, and it became an enduring metaphor for people’s suffering in war.

Now imagine a different response to Guernica. Imagine people applauding the bombings, reproaching the victims, and slandering the witnesses. If you can imagine that, then you know Aleppo.

Aleppo — one of the last major rebel strongholds — is on the verge of collapse. Backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Lebanese Hezbollah, and US-equipped Iraqi militias, the Syrian regime army is advancing from the south; from the east, the Islamic State (IS) is rampaging ahead; and, exploiting the stretched rebel defences, the Kurdish YPG is sneaking in from the north. All have been assisted, directly or indirectly, by the relentless attrition of Russian bombs.

But as the conflict moves toward a grim denouement, its mounting toll has elicited a curious response. Many in the west, including prominent liberals, have used the logic of lesser-evilism to welcome this outcome. But to sustain this argument, they’ve had to battle the stubborn resistance of facts.

The balance of atrocities could not be clearer. Consider these facts:

The UN has stopped counting the dead in Syria. But even before the regime’s August 2013 chemical attack, which killed more than 1,400 civilians, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, had found the regime responsible for eight of the nine massacres perpetrated until then; a year later, even after the rise of IS, the equation remained unchanged. Despite IS’s extreme violence, Pineheiro noted, the regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”. Since its entry into the war, Russia has surpassed the regime’s kill rate; it has also helped ISIS expand its territory by targeting the rebels fighting it.

But if the balance of atrocities is clear, their moral implications have not been as acutely felt. This in part has to do with the muddled way the story has been reported. On Sunday, when one of Hollywood’s most politically active and humane figures weighed in to condemn the media for “misleading the public on Syria”, one could only welcome the intervention.

Except, Mark Ruffalo, the Oscar-nominated star of Spotlight, was not indicting the media for failing the people of Syria; he was condemning it for being insufficiently sympathetic to the regime and Russia. He was recommending to his 2.23 million Twitter followers an article by Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer in which he alleges that the “American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening”; that it unfairly describes everything Russia and Iran do as “negative and destabilizing”; and it fails to report that in the Assad regime and Russia’s assault on Aleppo, its inhabitants are “finally see[ing] glimmers of hope”. Kinzer’s basis for these claims? A comment “on social media” and the opinion of a “Beirut-based analyst” (in reality a pro-Hizbullah activist who is a contributor to the Russian news outlet RT and the Iranian supreme leader’s personal news site).

To compensate for its fact deficit, Kinzer liberally sprinkles his article with straw men. He claims that journalists are misleading the public by describing Jabhat al-Nusra, as “moderates,” not as “the local al-Qaeda franchise”. As a matter of fact, no one refers to Nusra as “moderates”, and a Nexis search of major newspapers reveals virtually no article that doesn’t refer to it without mentioning its al-Qaeda affiliation.

This article was a sequel to another, published three days after Russia started a series of attacks on MSF-run hospitals, which was boldly titled: “On Syria: Thank you, Russia!” In it Kinzer prescribed that “Russia’s policy should be ours: prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, craft a new regime that would include Assad or his supporters, and then work for a cease-fire.” However, to accede to the opposition’s demand for a cease-fire, he insisted, would be to “guarantee continued war”. In a subsequent TV interview, Kinzer lauded the foreign policy wisdom of Donald Trump. (Similar sentiments have also been expressed by his Irish counterpart, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent).

Ruffalo wasn’t the only one promoting this nonsense. Beyond the agoraphobic netherworld of internet conspiracists, it was also warmly received bybestselling authors, Daily Show producers, liberal academics, Pulitzer Prize-winners, and think-tankers.

Why do bien pensant liberals like Ruffalo fall for such dross? Ideological blinkers? Or has dissent become all about aesthetics? It seems at any given moment maintaining an adversarial posture is more important than substantive engagement with an issue. Why bother with details when one can derive them from general principles? And if the reality of an issue contradicts one’s preconceived notions, then reality itself must be brought into question. Shooting the messenger is always a reliable option. But dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”, even a full-throated defence of fascism acquires the sheen of fearless truth-telling.

There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one has no need to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering. (Kinzer, unsurprisingly, resents the media’s “obsession with daily suffering”.)

Trapped in the vortex of these paranoid fantasies, these anti-humanist do-gooders have failed to notice that what they consider a brave dissent is actually official US policy. A hint of the administration’s thinking on the subject is offered by two of Obama’s former advisors on Syria — Philip Gordonand Steven Simon. Both have penned op-eds showing their preference for Assad. The administration’s record confirms this. Since the beginning, the administration withheld meaningful support from the Syrian opposition, but now it has explicitly acceded to a Russian plan to preserve Assad. And Assad is winning.

Courage used to mean the ability to stand up for something, regardless of the consequences. It now means standing down from principle and letting others bear the consequences of one’s “difficult” decisions.

Aleppo is our Guernica — and too many are cheering on the Luftwaffe.


Love During The siege/ حب في الحصار

People and Power Syria ; Russian bombings

Private Prisons Are Cashing In on Refugees’ Desperation

The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Berlin — IMMIGRATION and Customs Enforcement calls the detention site in Dilley, Tex., a “family residential center.” But to the 2,000 migrant children and mothers who live there, it’s something else: “People who say this is not a prison are lying,” Yancy Maricela Mejia Guerra, a detainee from Central America, told Fusion last year. “It’s a prison for us and a prison for our children, but none of us are criminals.”

The Dilley center holds people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a government agency, but it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, America’s largest private prison and detention company. It is one part of a worrisome global trend of warehousing immigrants and asylum seekers at remote sites maintained by for-profit corporations. The United Nations estimates that one in every 122 people on the planet is displaced. This is a crisis that requires a humanitarian solution; unfortunately, some people view it as a business opportunity.

In recent decades, many Western governments have increasingly outsourced prisons to private companies, claiming that doing so saves money. As the number of migrants and asylum seekers has grown, governments have found a new use for the private-prison model.

It has become a multimillion-dollar industry. The company Hero Norway runs 90 refugee centers in Norway and 10 in Sweden, charging governments $31 to $75 per refugee per night. Australia’s government has contracted the company Broadspectrum to manage two detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum seekers. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government awarded the security firm Serco a seven-year contract in 2014 worth over $100 million for running the Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention center.

These private companies are too often plagued by scandal and accused of abuse. The Corrections Corporation of America has a long history of ignoring detainee safety and federal laws. Serco has been accused of inadequately training its guards and overcharging the British governmentfor substandard work. One doctor who worked at a site run by Broadspectrum in Nauru told The Guardian that the detention center was “reminiscent of Guantánamo Bay.”

The global flows of refugees are unlikely to abate anytime soon. Wars in the Middle East continue, as does the epidemic of gang violence in Central America. Climate change will send millions more people fleeing their homes in the years to come. Governments must accept that for-profit detention centers are not the way to deal with this issue.

State-run detention centers don’t necessarily guarantee more respect for human rights, but there is evidence that government control brings improvements: A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, found that private immigration detention centers in the United States were more crowded than state-run ones, and detainees in them had less access to educational programs and quality medical care. And public centers, while still flawed, are more transparent

Opacity is a common denominator in the privatized detention system around the world. In Australia, Europe and the United States, journalists have less access to private prisons than they do to public ones; governments maintain less oversight. That’s not a coincidence. As Matthew J. Gibney, a political scientist at Oxford University, told The New York Times: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.”

Advocates of private immigration detention claim they are saving taxpayers money. But that seems unlikely. The American government spends more on immigrant detention today than it did 10 years ago, when the number of border crossings was higher. The Corrections Corporation of America and other companies have lobbied politicians to keep more people behind bars rather than deporting them. Congress requires that at least 34,000 people be housed daily in detention centers — a so-called detention bed mandate.

Making a profit doesn’t just require keeping beds filled, it can often lead companies to skimp on services. This means mental health care, outdoor activities and healthy food are far less available in private detention centers than at those run by the government. Last year, the United Nations described a camp for refugees in Traiskirchen, Austria, that is run by the Swiss firm ORS Service, as “inhumane” because of overcrowding. Similar reports are common not just on Europe’s frontiers but across the world.

Governments that receive migrants and asylum seekers must reverse their reliance on private companies. The current practice is a short-term fix that in the long run will cost governments more and subject refugees to worse conditions. In the meantime, governments from Canberra to Vienna to Washington should institute independent cost analyses to ensure that private centers give taxpayers the best value for their money. They should encourage more oversight of these sites, from government agencies and from the news media. And the 34,000-bed quota must also be done away with immediately.

In its 2014 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America worried that changes to American immigration policy could cut into the company’s bottom line. Many other such contractors might have similar fears. Let’s hope they do. Unless governments make drastic changes now, these corporations look likely to get richer and richer as more people around the world flee their homes, desperately seeking safety.


Obama Signs Executive Order Relocating Congress to Guantánamo





WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Making good on one of his key campaign promises, President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday relocating the United States Congress to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The President seemed to relish signing the order, calling the relocation a “win-win for America,” and indicating that Congress could be moved to its new headquarters “immediately.”

“We don’t envision doing any renovations to the facility down there,” he said. “It is ready to house Congress right now.”

The President did not specify what the current U.S. Capitol building would be used for in the future, but he hinted that it could be the setting for historic reënactments in the manner of Colonial Williamsburg.

“I think it could be fascinating to school groups,” he said. “It could really take them back to the olden days when it was a real, functioning place.”

Minutes after the President signed the order, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called it “an outrage” and “grounds for impeachment,” but Obama appeared to take such howls of protest in stride.

“If Congress believes that this executive order is illegal, they can take it up with the Supreme Court,” he said. “Oh wait—we don’t have a Supreme Court.”




The American Who Quit Money To Live In A Cave


Meet Daniel Suelo. He’s been living without money since 2000. When our paths crossed synchronistically in Moab, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn from this wise man. I interviewed him and found his philosophy and way of living inspiring and visionary.

For more about Daniel and his experiment of living without money, check out

There is also a book about Daniel’s life by the same title “The Man Who Quit Money” by Mark Sundeen.

Voices from the road




She likes it when her friends call her Jano.
Aged 53, Jano comes from Aleppo, one of Syria’s most war-ravaged cities. She is now waiting for her asylum request to be processed at a refugee camp in Nijmegen, in the east of the Netherlands.
She spends her days knitting woolly scarves and hats, and gives them out as gifts to the children in the camp. There is no warmth without love, she says. And whenever she sees a child cry, she walks up to him to hug him, and says: “Don’t cry, we’ve cried enough.” 
Jano talks a lot about what happened to her on the way to the Netherlands, along the migrant trail. 
“In Serbia, I had to get through a forest. It was after midnight, and there, in the dark, I fell into a muddy swamp. I was stuck there for three whole hours. I was travelling alone, so there was no one with me to help me out,” she said.
One of the things that Jano remembers most about being on the journey to the Netherlands is the silence. “Any sound can give you away, and create problems for the others travelling the route,” she says.
“I got stuck in the swamp, and I was sinking deeper and deeper, until I saw the shadows of two men. ‘Help me,’ I whispered. And they pulled me out, but I lost my boots in the mud. I walked in the forest for several more hours, barefoot, all night long. When I reached a town, I managed to buy shoes and treat the wounds on my feet,” she recalls.
Jano also thinks back to another moment on her journey. “I was climbing a steep hill one night. I was very scared. The smuggler told us that we might slip and die if we weren’t careful. And I realised that if any of us fell, he wouldn’t just die, he would also cause trouble for the others, because the police might notice us. At one point I was about to fall, and a man helped me. He said in a deep voice: ‘I’ll hold you, I won’t let you fall.’” 
For the rest of that climb, she kept on relying on him. And he relied on her too: at one point he was about to slip, and she helped him up. He held her hand and thanked her. They were then separated, just before dawn. “I never knew his name, or found out what he looked like,” she says.
Jano talks about Aleppo like a sorrowful husband who has lost his widow, or a mother grieving her children, or a bride who has become separated from a groom on the eve of their wedding day. She also remembers how people had to live without electricity and running water for many months before she finally decided to flee.
She also tries to think of the future. She wants to learn to ride a bike, she is learning how to use a smartphone, and is picking up some words in Dutch. She doesn’t want to rely on others to get around. 
Jano wants a new life.
Story and photo by
Ola Shams

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