Who is ISIS afraid of? Popular outrage in Afghanistan sees the Islamic State avoiding responsibility for beheadings of families

Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.

In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.

Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan’s minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban’s persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.

So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country’s government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.

The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.

Writing in the Swedish Feministiskt Perspektiv, Dr. Farooq Sulehria, a journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan, described the mass protest of November 11, in which Kabul “erupted” on a scale seen “for the first time in three decades”, with a “30,000-strong rally” that “stretched over 15 kilometres.” The protest was remarkable not solely for its size: “While Hazara dominate numerically, every ethnicity is visible in the rally... Women in their thousands, sometimes carrying coffins on their shoulders, are marching at the vanguard.” The protests, Sulehria writes, sidelined the traditional Hazara leadership. “Muhammad Mohaqiq, a warlord and second deputy to CEO, as well as Karim Khalili, former vice president, were not spotted at the rally.” The Afghan diaspora also mobilized, with rallies in many cities at Afghan embassies all over the world. Among the chants there was one notable for its simplicity: “death to the Islamic State”.

And even though since November there have been more abductions of Hazaras along the highways and more people found beheaded, there are signs that the protests may have shaken both perpetrators and the government. To date, no one has taken responsibility for the murders, even though everyone holds ISIS-Afghanistan responsible.

The scale of the protests took the Afghan authorities by surprise. The protests had several new features: solidarity across Afghanistan’s Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups; their grassroots nature, sidelining the traditional warlord-type authorities; and their militancy. After a long period of official silence, Afghanistan’s president promised to take action.

Afghanistan has many traditions. Yes, some of these are conservative and religious. But one that is rarely remembered is the tradition of nationalism that united the country’s ethnic groups in the struggle for sovereignty and development – there were many mass protests on that basis in the 1970s.

Another tradition that is rarely remembered is the tradition of women’s struggles. In the spring, I wrote about the massive outpouring of rage and protest after the murder of a woman named Farkhunda outside of a mosque in Kabul. That outpouring, which also surprised both the murderers and the authorities, forced the government to act to arrest and jail some of the perpetrators.

It is too early to know if the protests of 2015 are the beginning of something bigger in Afghanistan. But there is certainly potential. Maybe enough potential to scare those who are most comfortable terrorizing others. Large numbers of people that are militant, hard to scare, and hard to divide on sectarian lines are a formidable force, one Afghanistan may see more of in 2016.

First published on TeleSUR English December 23, 2015

2015 in review (at this blog)

A report on 2015 activities for readers of this blog.

I spent a fair amount of time working on a couple of books, that I am hoping you will be able to read in 2016. Although I type fast, and write fairly fast, I haven’t got the knack for getting books done fast. The truth is that the Demands of the Dead was started in 2000, and published in 2014, and Haiti’s New Dictatorship was started in earnest in 2006, and published in 2012. The two books I am working on now have start dates around 2010 and 2014. There’s a first draft of one and a half a draft of the other.

Always trying to improve my writing, so I took a MOOC at the University of Iowa on How Writers Write Fiction. It was a good time.

The Ossington Circle, Season 2, did not come out in 2015. It is in the works, and we do have plans to get the show going again in 2016. We’re going to try to raise our game on the show, with better equipment and a different style. We’ll see how we do.

I taught a course on online anonymity – how to encrypt your email, protect your chats, etc. at WISC. I also met the good people at toronto crypto in 2015, which was a good connection to make.

Mostly I focused on writing my TeleSUR columns, which covered the conflicts that I have studied and written about here: Iraq/Syria, Palestine, the DRC and neighbours, Colombia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and India. If I had something to say about an issue in North America, I also did a column about it.

Here are the TeleSUR columns:

Escalating violence in Burundi TeleSUR English December 14, 2015
Elections theater TeleSUR English November 26, 2015
The end of universal jurisdiction TeleSUR English November 13, 2015
Silent Compromises on Israel TeleSUR English October 28, 2015
Syria and Iraq: The Limits of Bombing TeleSUR English October 19, 2015
The Uses of ISIS TeleSUR English September 25, 2015
A breakthrough in Colombia’s peace talks TeleSUR English September 23, 2015
Modi’s Decline and India Dangers TeleSUR English August 31, 2015
The Dominican Republic Deportations TeleSUR English August 16,2015
The US State Murder of an Activist TeleSUR English July 25, 2015
#HackedTeam & Colombia TeleSUR English July 20, 2015
The Beginning of the End for Kagame? TeleSUR English June 26, 2015
Israel’s battles in sports, law and science TeleSUR English June 17, 2015
ISIS is the child of chaos, not religion TeleSUR English May 29, 2015
We are all Farkhunda TeleSUR English May 13, 2015
Profiting from Egypt’s Dictatorship TeleSUR English April 29, 2015
The Filimibi Affair and #Telema TeleSUR English April 14, 2015
The North American, All-Administrative University TeleSUR English March 24, 2015
Online privacy is worth the extra work TeleSUR English March 2, 2015
The Rojava Revolution: Interviewing Sardar Saadi TeleSUR English February 13, 2015
Taylor Swift’s Millions Aren’t Worth a Single Prison Term TeleSUR English Jan 30, 2015
#IStandWithPanzi TeleSUR English Jan 12, 2015

I also did a few columns for Ricochet, which had a great 2015 that I was proud to be part of. Usually Canada-related, of course, but the last one was more on ‘the world for readers in Canada’.

For Venezuela’s Bolivarians, victory even in defeat Ricochet Media December 7, 2015
NDP Purge of pro-Palestine candidates plays into Harper’s hands Ricochet Media August 25, 2015
Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul – critically Ricochet Media May 21, 2015
York strikers show the way – now let’s build a truly public university Ricochet Media Mar 30, 2015

Thanks for stopping by and reading in 2015, and hope to have interesting things for you to read in 2016.

Escalating violence in Burundi

Even when there are constitutionally mandated term limits, many leaders try to hold on to power. In Central Africa (where the small country of Burundi, with its population of 10 million, is located) there are several leaders that have tried, or are trying, to bend the rules to stay in office. The DR Congo, Burundi’s giant neighbour, is currently the site of a democratic movement to try to uphold the Constitution and stop President Joseph Kabila from changing the rules to stay in office. Rwanda is sometimes called Burundi’s ‘twin’: it has about the same land area. It has about the same population (slightly higher), which has the came ethnicities in the same proportions (Tutsi minority, Hutu majority, and Twa). It was once jointly ruled with Burundi by the colonial powers. In Rwanda, too, the president, Paul Kagame, has recently made all the necessary moves to stay in power beyond his term limits – a special exception to the Constitution, just for him.

The current round of political violence in Burundi began in April when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he intended to seek a third term in office. In May, a military coup was attempted against him, and failed. In July, Nkurinziza was re-elected with 69% of the vote, after months of heavy-handed tactics. The opposition did not recognize the legitimacy of the result. A major crackdown on the opposition by the government began in November – hundreds killed, hundreds of thousands displaced to neighbouring countries. Now, after the failed coup and the disputed election, Nkurunziza’s government is facing an armed rebellion.

Rebels attacked military bases on December 11th with 87 deaths before the attacks were repulsed. The next morning the capital city, Bujumbura, woke up to find 34 murdered bodies in the streets, probably extrajudicial executions. The UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide, quoted in the journal Foreign Policy, raised a dire warning: “I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi, but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such a civil war, anything is possible”.

Some context: Burundi has lived through civil war before, as well as dictatorship and genocide. Scholar Rene Lemarchand has called Rwanda and Burundi “genocidal twins”. Had Burundi’s post-independence ended up a little bit differently, the whole region may have seen a lot less anguish. Immediately after independence in 1959, a multi-ethnic unity party led by a massively popular young leader, Prince Louis Rwagasore, was set to take power electorally. Rwagasore was assassinated by a European in 1961. Within a few years, a group of Tutsi military officers seized power and proceeded to rule an ethnically exclusive state with an iron fist.

In 1972, in the context of a Hutu rebellion, the establishment organized a genocide against Hutu, killing hundreds of thousands, targeting intellectuals and potential leaders. There were new massacres against Hutus in 1988. In 1993, when a Hutu leader, Melchior Ndadaye, won a democratic election, he was assassinated by the army. More massacres followed, and a civil war began. These events, and the refugees of these massacres, influenced events in Rwanda, including the 1990-1994 civil war and the 1994 genocide that occurred there.

Burundi’s civil war ended through a negotiated settlement in 2006, with a UN force installed (its mandate ended at the end of 2014). Analyst Patrick Hajayandi describes the arrangements agreed upon in the settlement:

“The armed and security forces of Burundi are composed of 50% of Hutu and 50% of Tutsi, in line with the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accords, and the Global Ceasefire Agreement…

In the current national and local government, as well as in both the Parliament and the Senate, officials are also composed of Hutu and Tutsi, at a rate of 60% and 40% respectively. Unlike in previous pogroms that afflicted Burundi, in 1972 and 1993, the integrated nature of social and political life significantly diminishes the prospect of an unraveling genocidal conflagration.”

Hajayandi advocates a cautious approach based on dialogue, and argues that warnings of imminent genocide and talk of foreign military intervention will inflame a situation that could be kept at a low-intensity and resolved through negotiation. Burundi’s citizens, he writes, are “war-weary”, and have shown “great resistance against efforts by war mongers and ethnic entrepreneurs”.

These “war mongers” may include Rwanda, Burundi’s “twin”. Former UN official Jeff Drumtra told journalist Ann Garrison that, working in the Mahama refugee camp for Burundian refugees in Rwanda, he saw a Rwandan rebel recruitment (perhaps better described as conscription) effort. The rebels would be conscripted and then sent into Burundi. In a letter to the Washington Post, Drumtra cited an al Jazeera story from July about the recruitment of Burundian rebels in refugee camps in Rwanda.

If Drumtra is correct and the “hand of Rwanda” is at work here, it would not be the first time. Successive waves of rebellions in the eastern DR Congo, most recently the M23 rebellion, were conducted by Rwandan proxies. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame fought in a war in Uganda, came to power in a war in Rwanda, and ran one war after another in the DR Congo. It would be an obvious observation to note that he favours military solutions over other kinds.

If diplomatic efforts are going to succeed in de-escalating Burundi’s conflict, they may have to apply some pressure on Rwanda to stand down as well. This was done successfully with M23 in the DR Congo, and could be done again.

First published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Escalating-Violence-in-Burundi-20151212-0018.html

For Venezuela’s Bolivarians, victory even in defeat

What preceded this 17-year Bolivarian era? A corrupt power-sharing electoral machine (resulting from the Punto Fijo Pact, signed by the country’s main political parties and effectively keeping them in power) ruled Venezuela after a period of dictatorship ended in 1958. From 1958 to 1998, Punto Fijo administered poverty for the population, enforcing it through limiting press freedom, police violence, and even state-sponsored murder and disappearances. I went to a very moving event in Caracas in 2004 in which survivors of the “dirty war” of the 1960s and 1970s commemorated their lost loved ones.

The beginning of the end for Punto Fijo was the 1989 riots — known as Caracazo — that were sparked when people woke up to doubled bus fares. The army was called. Hundreds of people were killed. In 1992, a group of army officers, among them Hugo Chavez, tried to overthrow Punto Fijo. When the coup failed, Chavez went on television to call on the soldiers to stand down, took responsibility, and went to jail. When he got out, he advocated an electoral and constitutional path to change. Twenty successful elections later, the Bolivarians have lost the legislature.

Why did they lose? From 2008 on, and especially since the oil price drop in 2014, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy suffered, as did the Bolivarian social programs and the people that benefited from them. Macroeconomic mistakes by the government in an already difficult situation fed the black market in dollars and the smuggling economy (see analysis by Greg Wilpert), which led to major suffering, frustration and a loss of support for the government.

Continuing problems of corruption within the state, as well as crime, also hurt. Both of these problems preceded the Bolivarians, but the revolution was not successful enough in dealing with them. The opposition earned points campaigning on both.

The Bolivarians accomplished much since arriving on the scene. Massive barriers to health care and education were removed. Social services were built where there had been none. Before it became the target of smugglers, a program guaranteeing affordable prices for staple grocery and other items was very successful.

But here is the Bolivarian accomplishment to celebrate after Dec. 6: The opposition, who look nostalgically on the days of Punto Fijo, were only able to win by using the fair electoral system and constitution established by the Bolivarians.

The opposition had tried a military coup in 2002. They had tried a national strike and sabotage of the country’s oil infrastructure from 2002 to 2003. They tried a recall referendum in 2004 and made false claims of fraud when they lost. They tried sabre-rattling and foreign threats. They tried skirmishes on the border with Colombia, and they tried infiltrating paramilitaries across the border to carry out acts of destabilization.

Most recently, there were violent opposition actions in the streets and another Venezuela-Colombia border problem. Day in, day out, for the entire 16 years of Bolivarian rule, virulent, false, anti-government broadcasts have been on Venezuelan television and in the Western media. The Bolivarian movement survived it all, always forcing the contest onto the democratic field of elections and winning. And when they lost on that field, they conceded defeat.

Much remains to be seen: how the Bolivarian president and the opposition legislature will manage, the extent to which the opposition will respect the democracy and the constitution that brought them into the legislature, whether the movement can regroup and find a way to resolve the country’s economic problems.

In the meantime, it is worth remembering at this time that Venezuela’s democracy is an achievement of the Bolivarians. Even in losing, they have won, at least for now.

First published on Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/804/for-venezuelas-bolivarians-victory-even-in-defeat

‘The Butterfly Prison’ reignites hope for a better, more just world

The Butterfly Prison
by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books, 2015; $20.65)

Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.

In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.

Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi’s deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella’s political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.

In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.

Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.

In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.

In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.

The central metaphor of the book, which gives the book its title, is that each person has invisible butterfly wings, and that the system clips these wings and denies people their chance to fly.

Paz’s plot line, and the vignettes of the first few hundred pages, are unrelentingly bleak, violent, and overwhelmingly hopeless. Small acts of kindness, gestures of mutual aid and solidarity, pervade the lives of the characters around Paz, but they are ultimately all overwhelmed by the violence of the system.

Through Paz’s journey and his attempts to do everyday things like make rent, get paid at work, get from one part of town to another, or make a phone call in prison, we are shown in detail the evils of racism and the destructive absurdities of bureaucracy as they play out in Paz’s life and death, and those of his friends.

Mella’s plot line and the sketch of the post-revolutionary society presented in the last 30 pages breaks the hopelessness, presenting some of the possibilities as the “army of the poor,” the revolutionary force awakened at the end of the book, rises. A series of more hopeful vignettes of examples of resistance accompany this late turn in the plot.

Unlike Paz and his friends, who are overwhelmed by the system and can only try to cope, Mella and the group of activists around her are able to act, not solely react.

When Mella fell in with the activists, I had a moment of fear that this would be yet another disillusioning experience, that they would be rigidly and inhumanely ideological, or exploitative in a new way, or cult-like (like the similar group presented in Doris Lessing’s book The Good Terrorist) — but no, this group stays true to their principles. Mella finds education, love, and ultimately, the revolution.

In both plot lines, the author presents us a different way of looking at familiar spaces. We see department stores and shopping malls, poor people’s subdivisions, a refugee detention centre, a prison, an activist office, an activist house, and street protests of different sizes. Most of the book consists of complex images wrought in long, poetic sentences, invented compound words, and original metaphors.

Showing the underside of a first-world city, the novel implicitly critiques the invisible privilege inherent in most fiction today (David Wong’s list on Cracked.com, “5 Ways Hollywood Tricked You Into Hating Poor People,” comes to mind, as The Butterfly Prison falls into none of these traps).

The Butterfly Prison isn’t perfect. It seemed to me that the author tried to encompass every issue, every destructive aspect of capitalism, in the chapters and the inter-chapters. The characters’ dialogue sounded very similar to the author’s voice and weren’t differentiated from one another. More could be done with plot, dialogue, and voice, to match the excellent work done setting the scene and providing description.

A few notes on the character, Paz, are in order. I had hoped that Paz and Mella would cross paths, that they might actually meet and do something together.

And while Paz’s plot line could be read as a parable of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people in Australia (and Canada, and the U.S., among other places), I thought it unfair that there should be no hope for Paz while there was hope for Mella.

Leslie Marmon’s 1977 book, Ceremony, presented an Indigenous person going back to tradition in order to heal. Books by Indigenous authors from Canada don’t shy away from the violence of the colonial situation, but find strength and possibility in Indigenous traditions and spirituality: Richard Wagamese’s 2012 book Indian Horse, Tomson Highway’s 1998 Kiss of the Fur Queen, Lee Maracle’s 2014 Celia’s Song, all offer examples.

None of these books were easy reads, but I found the horror of Paz’s death after everything he went through in The Butterfly Prison especially deflating and demoralizing.

If the theme of the book is wasted potential, then perhaps Paz’s character is an example of wasted potential. The last 30 pages or so, after Paz’s death, are dedicated to showing some elements of the future society, which has a 15-hour work week, a sprawling education system, participatory councils deciding on production and distribution, and the chance to love, dance, and be close to nature.

Given all this, it is clear the book isn’t devoted solely to brutal realism, but is able to speculate about a better world. Couldn’t some of that speculation have encompassed Paz’s story? Couldn’t Paz have made it here, couldn’t he or other aboriginal characters have contributed to the decolonization of this new world? And what happened to the deported Rafi? Was there no chance of reconnection after the revolution?

A reader reading for plot, or to watch the journey of these characters, will find these loose or cut threads disappointing.

A reader who is looking for descriptions, images, and views of the world from a too-rarely represented political and aesthetic perspective, however, will not be disappointed.

Even in its most painful moments, The Butterfly Prison is a book of hope by a sensitive observer, deeply invested in the world and its people, who wants us to soar, who feels the pain of our clipped wings, and who writes in a way to ensure that we feel it too.

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto.

Published on the rabble book lounge: http://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2015/12/butterfly-prison-reignites-hope-better-more-just-world