The Iron Fist Of Guatemala

“I pray to God for a true reconciliation. I pray that my generation is the last of war and the next one is the first of peace.” – President Otto Perez Molina, inauguration address.

I wish I had changed my shoes. We had managed to grab fifteen minutes with Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina for Al Jazeera. He was due to meet President Calderon of Mexico that evening. We were to be his last interview of the day. Doors opened, a lush apartment. A cacophony of ornaments adorned a fireplace. An ivory parrot perching atop a gilded shelf caught my eye. I sat facing his empty chair waiting. ‘What do I call him,’ I thought out loud,  ‘Mister President perhaps?’ – ‘No,’ came an answer,  ‘just General Molina – he’s not President yet.

Even still, these shoes had no place among such finery.

Notes December 15th 2011

Mano Dura

A grim story had led us to these dusty climes. We were in Guatemala City to shoot a piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post strand. A journalist, Lucia Escobar had gone into hiding after receiving death threats from those she had named as complicit in an article about the disappearance of a man in Panajachel, a town in the department of Solola. We arrived a month after General Otto Perez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) had won an election for Guatemala’s Presidency. His tanned, silver haired effigy could still be spotted across billboards in Guatemala City. An ex-military man who had run on a security ticket, made promises of a sweeping ‘iron fist’ or ‘Mano Dura’ to tackle Guatemala’s horrific crime rate and the increasing penetration of Mexican drug cartels.

A skim through any number of publications, Time, NYTimes, Guardian will yield howls of disapproval. Why would Guatemala have chosen a military figure when its past was so littered with grotesque episodes? A bloody history, filled with ‘iron fists’ that had summarily choked the country of its freedoms. Indeed, the last time a military man was in office was during a military dictatorship. Efrain Rios Montt fell in 1986 after what the UN, in a 1999 truth commission report claimed, was a period where 93% of atrocities during a 36 year old civil war were carried out by the military, police and paramilitary groups. A period which the same report found that a systematic genocide against Mayan peoples took place, where at least 200,000 people were killed, over 4,000 people disappeared, more than 600 massacres took place and over 1,000,000 people were forcibly displaced. Otto Perez Molina – a high ranking military official at the time – was in charge of Nebaj, Quiche military base during the worst atrocities. Is this the kind of ‘mano dura’ Guatemalans had elected to highest office?

Yes, 57%.

Guatemala falls into that dark fringe where impunity pervades a society that refuses to look back. The veins of violence run deep under the canopy of corruption which runs back toward time immemorial. The battered body of Guatemala has in turns been raped, pillaged and consumed by conquistadors from one century to the next, Gringo ventriloquists turning it’s head this way and that, a gasp of freedom in the 1950’s when Jacobo Árbenz assumed his brief Presidency until ousted by a CIA backed coup, a Marxist uprising surged for its throat in the 1980s but were crushed by stronger fists. Military dictatorships followed all but suffocating the last breaths of democracy until the 1990’s. Its face lies now, tongue flailing, gurgling, diseased by brutal drug cartel violence pummelling it from beyond the Mexican border. Guatemala has a history that reads of passive, unequal, bordered societies, apathetic to powers manipulating its whims. A phantom state now exists, sucking up all its limited resources, a funnel in full view, siphoning moneys into pockets unknown. Everyone knows, no-one speaks, only shrugs of malcontent. After so much subjection is it no wonder small voices calling for democracy, accountability and fundamental institutions are swatted away by bullies, drug-lords and jack boots while lawmen look the other way?

Small Voices

There is a name here, besides Lucia, that we hear about constantly. A woman with an echo for a name; Claudia Paz y Paz, the thorn in the sides of the crooked. Guatemala’s first female Attorney General is doing something unprecedented. She’s putting people away, lots of people. The week before we touched down at Guatemala City, Paz y Paz had successfully convicted among the most imposing of names; General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, an intellectual author of genocide against the Ixil people during the civil war. Another, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, head of military intelligence accused of genocide was also arrested in October. Yet another, 70 year old former military head of state, Oscar Meijia Victores is now in military hospital under evaluation for his ability to stand trial. In a country where memories are silent, hers is a voice that hollows the hearts that hide. However, despite his pronouncements of reconciliation, Molina has yet to publicly admit that a genocide even took place – it’s a position that has protected him until now but one that looks ever more vapid given that his contemporaries have now been convicted of the same.

Molina himself does not escape Paz y Paz’s sights. U.S military documents from the mid-90’s show him disappearing or ordering the disappearance of leftists guerilla leader Efraim Bamaca during the civil war. Bamaca was married to a Harvard-educated lawyer Jennifer Harbury. Harbury initiated a case against Molina in March 2011 on behalf of her long thought dead husband. There is also a story that refuses to go away; another report, this time conducted by the Catholic Church in 2008 put forward a raft of further allegations against the military of its conduct during the war. The night before this report was due to be released, Bishop Juan Gerrardi  who was head of he investigation was bludgeoned to death. Two military officers were sentenced for the assassination at the end of last year, yet there are conflicting reports that place Perez Molina himself at the scene of the crime. Time will tell. These reports provide compelling reading and episodes inherent make grim portents for the future.

Indeed Molina might find it difficult to keep his past buried. Here is a clip of from a remarkable documentary by a Finnish filmmaker Mikael Wahlforss. Skip to 7:55 and you will see a young Perez Molina, in fetching red beret, speaking to journalist Allan Nairn. Bloodied corpses are on display behind them:

Further Cycles

Human rights organisations are concerned that Molina’s inauguration heralds a new cycle of state sponsored violence. Those who pry open the passages of Guatemala’s history risk pulling threads that lead to powerful enemies. Much depends on how far the new President is willing to extend his iron fist. For example, Molina could choose to fire Attorney General Paz y Paz as soon as he begins his term, but doing so would mean alienating allies he can ill afford to lose. The indomitable human rights lawyer enjoys considerable international support and Molina has already extended a hand to the U.S for aid in his fight against the cartels. He has to keep them onside. Paz y Paz herself was awarded the Stephen J. Solarz award for Commitment to Peace, Justice and Security from the International Crisis Group in December. Awards provide precious cover, time and a reputation. If she were to disappear, she would now be missed.

The ‘Mano Dura’ this time, takes its lead from other nations in the region who have chosen to fight fire with fire. Both El Salvador and Mexico have experimented with repressive policing with varying degrees of success. But it is when we view Guatemala through the prism of transshipment that the complexities of this narrative begin to reveal themselves. Frank Smyth, a journalist who has spent years covering the region claims that:

“…every government since the military regime fell has been marked by two trends. 1) The on-going influence of different, sometimes rival cliques of military intelligence officers, 2) The endemic lawlessness that has given rise to violence and Guatemala’s increasing role as a transshipment point and now also a production point for U.S bound illegal drugs.”

According to a disclosed Wikileaks cable, Molina is identified as part of the “Operators” clique who together with the another group calling themselves “The Brotherhood” have “developed their own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition, relationship and loyalties.” Molina has already claimed that he will use the notorious Kaibil forces to help tackle the drug cartels, and has installed former Kaibil commanders as heads of the military and police. The Kaibiles are Guatemala’s elite forces and have in the past been linked to one of the nations grisliest episodes where 200 civilians were slaughtered at Dos Erres, Peten in 1982. That these groups are to be entrusted as Guatemala’s vanguard against the cartels should give us real cause for concern. Molina’s iron fist might well resemble a vice come the end of his term. Those voices for truth, accountability and the promotion of civilian institutions might wake up one day finding themselves as collateral in an ever tightening grip.

Amplifying Dissent

“He appeared from the curated garden, hands in pockets, deep in discussion. He gave us a wave and apologised for keeping us waiting. Okay, I thought, trepidation pierced, let’s do this. Sometimes what a man is willing to broach on camera reveals what he intends to get away with. I took my seat, smiled at my shoes. – Notes 15 December

Heidi and I were here to paint a picture of media freedom in Guatemala. The consequences of the transition of power to a regime governed by a mano dura was to be the canvas. The questions I asked in the fifteen minutes we had with the man were in relation to journalism. Al Jazeera’s air date forbids me to enter into specifics of his answers here. But beyond our narrative, beyond the story of Lucia and those other small voices being trampled upon by the megaphone of collective interests, we were there because we knew that after we had finished telling the story we wanted to tell – further chapters laid await. But this time, for the time, this particular iron fist has many eyes watching him. Our eyes act as binders. We live in a world where the ubiquitous nature of social media is merging with the voices of the many. Previous iron fists has never had to deal with this. The very act of being there, asking these questions, demanding his answers means that President Molina cannot enjoy the canopies of the past. The price of democracy and liberty is eternal vigilance and for the first time because of people like Lucia Escobar, Claudia Paz y Paz and our ability to be connected to stories worth telling, there are less dark corners of the world to hide dark acts. The power we have is that we can shine spotlights upon those places that still remain dim. With this documentary for Al Jazeera we had the chance to ask questions of Molina, questions that had him state – on camera – that fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression will remain un-encroached under his presidency.

Both Lucia and Claudia are on Twitter. Here are their handles: @liberalucha@Mpclaudiapaz. Follow them and give them a message from CODOC; Their new President pledged to protect them. They are not alone and we will help them make sure he keeps his promise.

CODOC’s piece for Al Jazeera’s Listening Post will air in early 2012. Subscribe to this blog or visit http://www.codoc.org. The content of this article is my own and not that of any of my employers.

Freedom Of Speech In Guatemala

“This sardine-can cab ride back from Pacaya is jeopardy. It’s all I can do to not look down to see pebbles ricochet off the wheels of our jalopy and skip down into the abyss below as we skate along a snaking dirt track to Antigua. The ink above scattered with stars are all that staves my heart from jumping into my mouth. Those stars above are a drug – distracting me from the brain chatter. Heidi snoozes on my shoulder, deservedly. No wonder the Maya looked up for solace. ” – Notes December 17th 2011

At it’s initiation CODOC had a mission which transposed two inter-dependent dynamics at it’s heart. To combine smart, direct storytelling with a distinct aesthetic together with an honest, transparent approach to journalism. Our first film, a feature documentary on Sri Lanka’s civil war had just won us an award and by the end of the year we were given the opportunity to take our concept to an international broadcaster.

Finding Lucia’s Story

 

We first heard of Lucia from one of our contacts at Amnesty International in London, England. During a meeting he had pulled out a brief pertaining to the stories of two journalists in Guatemala, one of whom we heard had fled her home town of Panajachel after receiving death threats because of an article she had written for elPeriodico, a Guatemala City-based daily. In her article, Lucia points to the disappearance of a local man named Luis Tan. Tan had ‘suspected links’ to one of the local drug cartels currently ravaging the rural north and east. Because of Guatemala’s lack of an effective police force, various ‘citizen-security’ forces had been springing up in rural villages to fill the void. One of these ‘Safety Commissions’ – essentially vigilante groups dispensing justice as they saw fit – were allegedly behind Tan’s disappearance. He is still missing.

In her article, Lucia brazenly calls out the members of the Safety Commission and accuses them of using extralegal measures to enforce their own code of conduct. She goes on to claim the town mayor and state authorities as being complicit with the Safety Commission by their indifference. It was a striking story and one my producing partner Heidi felt we could tell. Guatemala had recently elected a former military general to the office of President, Otto Perez Molina. This would be the first time the country had elected a former army-man since the military dictatorship fell in the 1980’s –  a time when the regions human rights record was at an all time low. A compelling canvas to tell an emotive story.

Two months later we were pitching to Al Jazeera’s news magazine show The Listening Post. We would have Lucia as the central figure, through which we could talk about the broad state of media freedom in Guatemala and what it would look like once General Perez Molina takes office in January. The Listening Post commissioned a six minute piece from us and two days after we were given the go-ahead we flew out to Guatemala City. It happens that fast.

Process Matters

We had learnt early on that the process by which you produce stories is just as important as the content. When Heidi was interviewing formerly abducted child soldiers in Pader, Uganda – this became clear. As filmmakers, journalists we parachute into a story, capture what we can – what we need – and leave. Those are the mechanics of the job that at times hides an inconvenient truth. Which is that when we leave, lives continue. The stories we elicit have further chapters long after we lose interest. We learnt this in Uganda with those children. They had one too many times told the same stories, shed the same tears to the same cameras. Our cameras. When the day came for us to interview Lucia we remembered this lesson and our responsibility.

My notebook went everywhere with me. It drew in scribbles on the road. Random thoughts, conjecture, interview questions and more. Every so often these snatches of words would form themselves into something cogent. This is what I wrote the night before our interview with Lucia:

“In Lucia’s last e-mail she wrote something that has stuck with me:  “Yo también soy periodista … mi voz, mi palabra es lo único que tengo para expresarme y hacer mi trabajo.” It roughly translates: “I am also a journalist. My voice, my word is the only thing I have to express myself and do my job.” This is courage. For some there are ‘jobs’ for others there are vocations. I look forward to meeting her tomorrow.” – Notes, December 13th 

Lucia’s Voice

Lucia was dressed in a Guatemalan textile – one of those rainbow coloured hand made fabrics that we had seen market sellers trade. She had a pierced right eye-brow and a notebook much like my own. Around her neck she wore a garland made of soda can openers. Hippie-cool, a free bird confined to a cage.

She sat where the best light could be found. Through our translator she told her story at great depth, with great heart. She told us she had crossed a line that journalists in Guatemala seldom cross. She named names. This was her crime according to threats she had received. What had compelled her to do so? Some sense of duty or justice? Did she feel anyone would hear her, would anybody care? No, she said, she did so out of frustration. She did so out of sorrow at seeing her home town disintegrate around her.

She spoke honestly, with a set jaw. Stern, fixed eyes. She also thought she would have been protected. A naive sentiment as it turned out. “That’s how come I’m here at my ‘refugio temporal'” she says, “instead of with my children.”

Indeed, no help came from the authorities. There was no public outcry. Then she showed us the YouTube clip. It’s a chilling piece of theatre, a hurried scrap of rage. Shot, we were told, by a woman with an iPhone and later posted up on online. It shows a recording of a televised rant by Juan Manuel Ralon and Victor Anleu the very same members of the Saftey Commission that Lucia had named in her article. The pixellated clip shows Ralon speaking directly to camera, clutching his microphone, jabbing a finger at the lens accusing Lucia directly of being a drug-trafficker. He is saying all this on a talk show which, she tells us, is hosted by the other man she named as being complicit; Panajachel Mayor and public personality Gerardo Higueros. These are twelve minutes that capture explicitly the braided twine of violence and impunity that has Guatemala in a choke hold.

Below, as if speaking directly to Lucia, Ralon claims that she is ‘trash that should end up at the bottom of a heap.” This was in direct reference to Lucia’s article, the last line of which reads: “If the next person to rest at the bottom of the world’s most beautiful lake [Lake Atitilan] with rocks holding them down is me, you will know who to blame.” Ralon, it seems, felt the lake was too good for her, offering the ‘trash heap’ as an exchange.

Here is another YouTube clip. Some sinister mash-up of a television appearance Lucia had made shortly after her case went public. An attempt to ridicule her, make her look ‘crazy’ as Lucia says. It plays like an absurdist regurgitation made all the more creepy when Lucia tells us that she suspects the Safety Commission as being behind it. There is venom in this comedy.

There are other YouTube clips. She clicks through them on her laptop as we record her responses. At turns she scowls, grimaces at the words spoken about her. We ask her what she feels when she watches these back – she sighs. That these lies are spread about her, of her cartel links, of her being a trafficker – on television, now on YouTube. The lies have become international, she says, a tear escapes her eyes as she speaks about what would happen if her children heard these words. It’s a poignant moment, I heard the whirr of the camera as Heidi’s eye’s peered through the viewfinder to capture it.

Lucia spoke about why she wrote but also admitted regret at having done so. She felt it was rash, perhaps somewhat irresponsible on her part. Her’s is a voice though that refuses to be extinguished and the flip-side of these YouTube videos is that the clip of Ralon had contributed toward his arrest. If Lucia’s case reaches a conclusion, however, it would be without precedent.

Hearing Lucia speak of her children has sown a few telling glances between Heidi and I. We have no children yet to be concerned with on our jaunts. We have chosen this profession and have committed to it so far. Hearing her talk about her regret, her irresponsibility – it’s the shade of courage we don’t see – the self-criticism that seems to have nurtured her into a mother and perhaps now a better journalist. There will always be a pinprick of doubt when you write, tell these stories. It is the same for us when we shoot, capture these sad tales. How far would we go? What story would be worth your life? – Notes December 14th.

[On Guatemala: Documenting El Mano Dura]

2008 Elections In South Africa: In The Shadow Of Mandela

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Living up to the Legend

The narratives of nations are often told through the biographies of great men. The annals of history channeling the trials of men who dared to draw lines in the sand, those who chose not to merely sit but to stand, and in doing, drew straying eyes to relevant truths. Those who dared to dream, standing firm against indignity. Those who wished it so, and in doing so changed the game through will and testament.

Tomes are written about such men. And in legend writ their legacy. But there are chapters being written, in the here and now, which will deem whether the singular promise of a unified South Africa will ever make it to reality. Today South Africans live under a government that is in political turmoil, divided down ever increasing  ethnic lines. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) have seen many senior members leave after publicly announcing that they want nothing to do with controversial leader Jacob Zuma or the party that he has tarnished with his premiership. Tomorrow these dissatisfied few will formally announce the formation of a new party; Congress Of The People or COPE. What this means is that for the first time since its first democratically held elections in 1994, there will be a viable challenge to the ANC and the dominant-party system that it holds reign. This, the unwritten inheritance of Mandela’s South Africa, is to be tested.

The Heirs to his Legacy – Key Players:

An almost Shakspearean history lies behind these three faces. The complex narrative of the political and personal give an indicator as to how South Africa has descended into the mire of madness. Where next the country is headed could equally be mined from the actions these three men dare to take from here.

Jacob Zuma (left) is a populist who has rallied support within leftist constituencies and has maintained support from the youth league and among Zulus, the tribe form which he originates. He was dismissed from his post as Deputy-President in 2005 after allegations of corruption. In the same year a 31 year old daughter of a former ANC member came forward and accused Zuma of rape. During the course of the hearings Zuma confessed to consensual sex with the girl having known that she was HIV positive at the time. He attempted to fend off criticism by claiming he had a shower afterward to ‘reduce the risk of infection’. He spoke these ludicrous words while he was the head of the National AIDS Council in South Africa. In the end both charges were dropped however, and Zuma retained his strong support within the ANC and remained popular among South Africa’s young and less well off. His past as an aggressive ANC activist during the apartheid era has stuck even during the darkest of times. He has been the target of lampooning for his comments during his trial and was hit with harsh criticism from all sides but in the fallout following his acquittal, his stock would rise in contrast to his critics.

Thabo Mbeki (centre) has had his critics also. He is at the ideological middle ground in policies and has from the very beginning of his tenure been dogged by his aloof presidential style; an apparent tendency to be an elitist in the party of the people will always be a problem.  He is seen as the diametric opposite of Zuma in personality and policy and they are now seen by many as sworn enemies. His political critics aim squarely at his acquiescence to big business at the expense of the poor and the unions as another contrast between him and the socialist leaning Zuma. After Zuma’s acquittal Mbeki got hit the hardest publicly. His decision to ‘go after’ Zuma with corruption charges painted the picture of political maneuvering with Mbeki ruthlessly snuffing out threats to his power by wiping out Zuma politically. It had almost worked but he had failed and now he was not to be trusted even by those nearest to him. Power had deserted him and at the 52nd ANC national convention leadership elections he was beaten by his nemesis and resigned shortly after.

Mosiuoa Lekota (right) and Mbeki seem to have more in common than not. Both were former inmates of Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, and both were at the heart of the resistance movement with Mandela during the 1980’s.  Lekota had from the start outlined himself as a ‘conviction’ politician. He made his name popular with the media by calling out corruption and immorality even within his own party. This made him a threat to Mbeki early on. During the tentative years of the ANC’s first administration, they soon became fierce rivals and as Mbeki became heir apparent to Mandela’s leadership, Lekota became more and more sidelined. By 1999 he was marginalized into obscurity and the ‘left’, after he so vehemently criticized Mbeki’s allies, saw him as somewhat of a martyr. It was not until the furor over Zuma’s corruption and rape allegations where Lekota once again returned to stake his moral claim on decency, that the left quickly turned on him too.

Roots in Division

Many this time last year saw events in South Africa as a watershed moment in its history, the election results saw incumbent and President Thabo Mbeki lose to a man who only two years before had been sacked after being embroiled in corruption and rape charges. Jacob Zuma and his political allies were swept into power of the ANC party in December 2007. Many across the world looked at South Africa then and asked; how on earth did they go from Nelson Mandela to a man like Jacob Zuma? The consternation within his own party was such that almost immediately high ranking members followed Mosiuoa Lekota’s resignation and left themselves. The reasons for the split stem from three main factors:

  • Tribal allegiances
  • Economic left and right policies
  • Democratic succession

The defeat of Mbeki by Zuma in 2007 made clear the stark differences between the two sides emerging within the ANC. Such was the nature of the allegations against him that pro-Zuma and anti-Zuma factions emerged as a result. These divides could be easily be judged to be tribal, Zuma has a large base among Zulus and Mbeki by default has the Xhosa tribes support. But it is important to look beyond narrow tags and see this apparent divide as systematic of broader social concerns within South Africa as a whole. During Mbeki’s premiership he was responsible in driving a development policy using conventional, conservative strategies that resulted in unprecedented economic growth. But after advocating commitments to open markets and privatization, whilst continuing GDP growth, unemployment actually dramatically increased between 1996 and 2006. This unemployment negated any capacity to develop the state and in turn has resulted in the crime rate at an all time high. South Africans know there is something wrong when they win to bid the World Cup 2010 while the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Pro-Zuma factions have used this and used it well, they have allied with the trade unions and have championed re-distribution of wealth, by default this puts the ANC back to the left and COPE to the centre.

Perhaps it is too early to analyse the party before it is officially exists. But the very fact that there is a choice at all is welcomed by many. Without a Mandela as the figurehead of the ANC, the ANC is not the searing beacon of justice and hope it once was, and now with Zuma as its leader, some would say it ensures the necessity for an alternative. Mosiuoa Lekota, who has been at once within and without the ANC on many occasions, is now planning a democratic coup to recapture South Africa, accusing the ANC of ‘eliminating democracy from within’. During those years on Robben Island Lekota acquired the nickname ‘Terror’ for his prowess on the football field. Whether Terror Lekota will emerge from Mandela’s shadow and assume the weighted reigns of the leadership of South Africa, and do what Mbeki couldn’t, makes for an intriguing next chapter.

Unfinished Chapters

South African politics has been going through a self-perception crisis since Mandela departed in 1999. Come the next election early next year, they will try and place the first decade without Mandela in its historic context both economically and socially. The catastrophe of its handling of the AIDS epidemic looms large, poverty and crime adds to the sense of frustration. Any democratic gains seem modest next to these deplorable failures. Looking forward it will have to take stock and account for these failures and speak to the disconnected and disenfranchised and learn to heal once again. Internationally too, whether it is the ANC or COPE, when ethnic tensions spill over into neighboring nations (Rwanda and DRC) especially with their dealings with Mugabe, it is essential that South Africa set their stall out on the global debate once and for all.

This July Mandela turned 90. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that we, from the outside looking in, hold him to such a standard that we demand his countrymen to  posess that same aura of affirmation. The Mbekis and the Zumas will never do for us. We hold them to a mirror of a living legend. We dare to dream of more Mandelas but there are none. And there hasn’t been for a while.

Instead dare to act. As he dared to act on the day he took those first steps to freedom, a clenched fist shading his eyes from the glare of a new dawn, believing that one day his Africa would heal and finally begin to testify to his promise.

 

Advocacy In The Digital Age: The Hub Launches

The camera follows three men laying down the limp body of a man. His feet are bare with dirty soles, he wears orange shorts and a crumpled shirt. His arms stricken and lifeless. The three men place him on a white cloth, a machete tied to each of their belts. In the distance we see a young boy, skinny, curly hair following the men, staring at the body.

We focus in on the young boy.

The man was his father, murdered in front of him by the men with the machetes. As we focus further on the boy, we see him trying to interpret what he is seeing. Too scared to say anything, too confused to cry. He shuffles his feet and looks to the camera.

We stare back.

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The power of the digital camera in the arena of advocacy is that it empowers the witness with the tools to transform what they have just seen into a powerful method for promoting change to seek justice. Today I got wind of a new online portal called The Hub that allows individuals, organizations, groups to upload their videos from around the world for global attention. It is an ambitious project set up by Witness.org to present a forum to help fight human rights violations through community led advocacy using uploaded video as key force. The idea being that anyone anywhere can use video as a launching pad for activism, so that instantly a witness can upload their video to educate and perhaps inform a movement in combating violations. Ten minutes browsing through its library I have seen child soldiers in DR Congo, Burmese protesters under fire, Palestinian farmers getting shot by Israeli settlers,  Chinese soldiers firing at Tibetan pilgrims in the Himalayas and even police brutality in L.A.

Still in its beta stage, The Hub intends to expand its user capabilities but there is potential right now for this to make a huge impact:

The Hub is organized into three Main Sections:

SEE IT: This is the source. Users can browse uploaded videos from other users as well as collaborating agencies working together with Witness for content. You may view content by key word search or categories such as “highest rated”, “most viewed”, “most recent”, “by issue”, or “by region”. An invaluable resource for material that will only be readily available on the web due to reasons obvious.

SHARE IT: Any visitor to The Hub can upload human rights related footage onto the website whether through camera, laptop or mobile phone. There are manuals to guide the user through the stages of uploading and reviewing.

TAKE ACTION: Community is at the core of what The Hub represents. It is a network of people and groups who are urged to create profiles and with every uploaded video are encouraged to provide a synopsis about the context of the content. They are invited to create or join groups, start petitions, organize events and share links with members who share similar concerns on particular issues. This is to make sure videos are not only seen but are used to a higher potential; to actually change things.

For the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Witness.org through this new enterprise asks the question:

“What Image Opened Your Eyes To Human Rights?”

In an introductory video people from around the world in many languages describe an image, fleeting footage, a vision that seared its meaning into their memory – one of whom speaks of the young boy with curly hair trying to come to terms with his fathers murder. All these people work to promote human rights in some fashion and were moved to do so by an image or video of reality.

There are many reasons why this blog exists. There are many reasons why I chose to pursue a career in current affairs journalism and documentary filmmaking. In regular filmmaking you get the chance to construct a vision in pursuit of the beautiful image or to spin a great story. To use every trick in the book to elicit a tear from every dry eye watching on. But when you take your eye away from the viewfinder and look around, you see another way. When you do that you get to see reality in all its incendiary ugliness carving out the world around you. Its fascination. Its authenticity and truth. I myself hope to spend my entire life bearing witness and capturing images to inspire others to simply give a fuck. Hearing all these people recount the moment they became aware and sought to advocate, is inspiration enough for me. To pin point in my mind what led me to want to advocate is difficult.

But if there was one image recently, that re-affirmed my belief that images have the power to delve into the soul of the witness and move them to speak for the speechless, it would be this one here:

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Spend half an hour on The Hub and know better.

CLICK HERE

Azam Amir Qasab And The Pakistan Connection: The Mumbai Bombings Part II

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“I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera” Sebastian D’Souza the man who took the photo that has dominated the world’s media, has transposed the fear and anger of a nation onto one fresh-faced young man. Azam Amir Qasab is the lone gunman involved in the Mumbai attacks to be captured alive. His arrest and subsequent disclosure of how the most strategic and successful terrorist plot in India’s violent history was carried out has implications of the highest magnitude, perhaps even that of 9/11.

Qasab’s Testimony

According to unverified claims by police, it is now apparent that Qasab interrogation has yielded information that has led the government of India to charge elements within Pakistan with the responsibility of planning and orchestrating the attack. The organization that the police claim that Qasab is thought to be affiliated with is a familiar name within the region but of which little is known beyond the immediate hemisphere of British and American commitments to the war on terror. The group named call themselves Lashkar-e-taiba. Having had its roots in Afghanistan pre-9/11, its parent organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, decided to move its base to Pakistan. They are one of the most active terrorist organizations within South Asia and are known to run several terrorist training camps inside the disputed region of Kashmir. 21 year old Azam Amir Qasab is thought to have been trained at one of these camps.

According to The Times of India, when found he played dead for several minutes until found out, upon capture he appeared to break down after seeing the dead body of his colleague. He pleaded for mercy begging hospital staff to save his life and that he wanted to live. He is understood to have later revealed the extent of strategic planning that stretched back a year having been trained by Lashkar-e-taiba in Kashmir for three months before being handed the mission. They were asked to ’cause maximum casualties’ and to kill to his ‘last breath’. It is his boyish face that has dominated the front pages, his youthful, decidedly westernized appearance forgiving his murderous actions. He and his accomplice Abu Ismail Dera Ismail Khan, 25, headed for the CST Railway station soon after arriving having conducted a reconnaissance mission a month before.

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An account of the journey based on testimony. Click for larger view.

Did The Terrorists Win?

The testimony itself raises a number of important questions. Questions that have brought down several prominent state officials including top security official and Home Minister Shivraj Patil. The unpopularity of the government has pushed support the way of the opposing BJP party, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite doing his best to appear determinately steady, has suffered by the perception of his office being unable to protect Indians from those who wish to harm them. This notion has ramifications beyond the immediate ludicrous media debate about whether hotel security was adequate. These assault teams were heavily armed and were quite obviously under no orders to undertake sneak attacks. No bombs were planted so the mission was in short a suicide attack from beginning to end, all guns blazing. No amount of checks at entrances and hotel security personnel would have been able to constitute any credible resistance to the amount of bullets being sprayed about so barbarously. What should be in contention is the apparent amount of consideration that had been put into how to maximize the global value and international impact of what these extremists were trying to achieve. In so commanding the eyes of the world’s media upon the spectacle over four days, the organizers of the attacks declared the first victory.

This attack is more important than the initial shocking manner in which it was carried out. We must look beyond that at the grander ramifications. If indeed Lashkar-e-taiba were the ultimate perpetrators, it is worth looking at the political motives of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s organization and ask what they would gain from staging such an attack at this particular time. Timing is the key to the apparent reasoning.

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Prime Minister Singh and former President Musharraf

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Prime Minster Singh and President George Bush

The last five years has seen an unprecedented improvement in the relations between India and Pakistan. In Kashmir, trade routes have re-opened and commuter services between the two sides are running as normal for the first time in years. This has had a major impact in relation to troop numbers in Kashmir. Both Pakistani and Indian troop levels have eased mirroring a return to civil relations between the two countries but in the face of the United States involvement in Afghanistan this is not all that surprising.

As the U.S’s involvement in Afghanistan drudges on, they face an open front at the border with Pakistan in an area called the North West frontier province. In direct consequence it would be in the U.S interest to broker a detente in Kashmir at least for the time being as to urge a re-committal on behalf of Pakistan for a military redeployment of troops from Kashmir to the North West frontier to shore up security in the region. Now with President-elect Obama having also shown urgency in pursuing an ease in relations, a severe jolt to the diplomatic landscape could be far reaching. Obama has long touted a military re-calibration toward the conflict in Afghanistan away from the debacle of Iraq and in doing so probably hoped to gain as much support, militarily or otherwise, from the surrounding countries as possible. This attack has now thrown those plans into disarray.

Map of Kashmiri region with the Afghanistan border on the left.

Map of Kashmiri region with the Afghanistan border on the left.

Beyond Kashmir

Since establishing a base in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-taiba have used violence in the past in order to challenge the legitimacy of India’s sovereignty over Kashmir. A regression into old tensions between the two countries would be of great significance to Lashkar-e-taiba’s cause. As Prime Minister Singh’s pledge to strengthen his anti-terrorism sector will no doubt result in a rise in troop numbers in Kashmir, it would also provoke a response from Pakistan in terms of their own troop levels. But in an interview with Siddharth Varadarajan, the organization’s founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed elaborated on what exactly the ultimate goal of Lashkar-e-taiba is:

“…the restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of South Asia, Russia and even China.” It also “…seeks to bring about a union of all Muslim majority regions in countries that surround Pakistan.”

They have also declared Hindus and Jews to be the enemies of Islam and India and Israel the enemies of Pakistan. Lashkar-e-taiba has long been suspected of aiding the Taliban against the U.S backed Northern Alliance in 2002. Now it is widely known that the remnants of the former Taliban regime has sought and received refuge in Quetta under the discretion of Lashkar-e-taiba and indeed, Pakistan’s powerful secret service: the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI. The ISI have tolerated various terrorist organizations because of their usefulness against India. Whether or not funding and strategic help was ever given to these groups via the ISI is also an area that should be scrutinized by any intelligence gathering from India’s perspective as this is an issue that is gathering a disconcerting level of interest. The motive for this attack might well be grounded in a regional conflict but the complexity of the political and geographical context of the region itself makes this a global event.

It seems to this writer, that India has two options. To be comsumed by the reactionary responses that those who are wronged understandably feel or to handle the procedure with bi-lateral co-operation. India is a proud country, and one who reveled in the positioning of would-be superpower. To be maimed on such a global stage will hurt and shame them. The knee-jerk response to this would be to act without seeing beyond the immediate, and there in lies the danger.

When America was attacked on 9/11 it led to war on two fronts, an economic downward spiral and inevitably lead to the capitulation of its national unity and international isolation.  If India were to lash out at Pakistan it would pit two nuclear armed nations against each other. In the end, this is exactly why men like Asam Amir Qasab were sent to die. The ultimate goal; to destablize a globally significant region with a bloody history and plunge it back into the darkness witnessed a few days ago just when it seemed they were beginning to peak over the precipice of normalcy. The challenge will be for India to maintain a level head and instead of falling into the worn tracks of reactionary politics, reach for unity and co-operation with Pakistan against a common threat. If anything is true today it is that this threat has become global. So now, for the sake of us all, this time: no new war.

Amidst Chaos A New Era Emerges: The Mumbai Bombings Part II

25970114As the bloody aftermath unfolds and the echoes of grenades and gunfire can be heard behind western journalists reporting from the streets, the world watches as the death rattle of Wednesday’s assault heralds a new era for urban terrorism in India. As I write armed militants are still, two days after the initial attack, holding out against India’s special forces. Slowly, as the chaotic fog of misinformation dissipates, the question of what happened begins to transform into why it happened and who in fact is behind all the chaos. Such was the global attention that initial suggestions pointed inevitably toward the pre-eminent global threat – Al Qaeda. Three days on however and it becomes less and less clear who it was that was behind such a sophisticated and coordinated attack. As the media focus wasin full swing and the 24 hour rolling news channels across the world were looping pictures of hotels ablaze and panic stricken faces, a group calling itself Deccan Mujaheddin claimed responsibility. However, who this group are and if they even exist at all is under dispute. They may very well be a front for a larger more established militant organization. The truth is no-one will know until the shock subsides and the assessment begins in the wake of what many are calling India’s 9/11.

As it seems is the tragic staple of terrorism the world over, the perpetrators were said to be young and carried out their mission with fervor. They came hidden on board a merchant ship and disembarked at the dockyards of India’s financial hub. As they fanned out across the district, they left a wake of merciless bloodshed, indiscriminately opening fire on crowds as they went. The crowd itself were of a particular type  and that, it seems is a message that rings louder than any other factor in this mess. India is a nation in transition, of a growing economic and political standing on the world stage. That abounding growth has had a fundamental impact on India’s entrenched segregated classes. An affluent and wealthy crowd are native to Mumbai, it is a look-at-me city of silver spoons and the well-to-do elite. The result of Wednesday’s attack is that for the first time in India’s history terrorism has hit the class of the touchable.

The attacks spanned across part of Mumbai in six separate locations:

TAJ MAHAL HOTEL

The Taj is at the heart of Mumbai’s financial district and a popular destination attracting affluent foreign travelers and business people. Gunmen stormed in as residents sat down to dinner targeting in particular American and British tourists.

At least one gunmen is still suspected to be hiding out in the hotel and about a 100 special forces are on the hunt after confirming 30 bodies found so far. Fire broke out on a number of floors and it remains to be seen when operations will end.

OBEROI-TRIDENT HOTEL

This hotel is located in Naraim Point a place popular with business people as it is near the Bombay Stock Exchange. Security forces took control of it after gunmen rounded up patrons and tourists. The hostages were brought to safety but in the end 24 of the 100 hostages were found murdered.

CHHTRAPATI SHIVAJI TERMINUS

Armed with rifles and grenades gunmen killed 10 and maimed 30 in an unrelenting attack at this, one of the busiest railway stations in the country. It was crowded with passengers who were in close proximity of each other, the ones who escaped with their lives intact were lucky they made it at all.

CAFE LEOPOLD

Witnesses who were present at the attack at the popular cafe described the attackers as ‘young boys’. The restaurant cafe is somewhat of a Mumbai institution. It is famous for being a the favoured hangout of Australian author Gregory David Roberts who authored Shantaram which is also set in Mumbai.

NARIMAN HOTEL

Another indicator toward the intentions of the assault, this residential complex housed a Jewish outreach centre called Chabad Lubavitch. It attracted many of Mumbai’s Jewish quarter and after one of the longer stand-offs between the gunmen and special forces, it was only until Friday that the area was secured. The attack resulted in the confirmed deaths of 6 people including a rabbi and his wife.

CAMA & ALBLESS HOSPITALS

These were hospitals that cared for women and children and there is a suggestion that this attack was carried out by the same group that attacked the nearby railway station. Indiscriminate drive-by shootings were also reported around the same area.

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The strategic and specific nature of this attack as a whole shows that the one constant in all the targeted locations is that they were places that attracted western foreign nationals thus maximizing its global profile. It might be pertinent to point out that large scale attacks on Indian cities are not without precedent. Most incidents have stemmed along the lines of ethnic tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. As recently as 2002 the western state of Gujarat saw the revenge killings of Muslims after an arson attack on a train left 59 dead, all of them Hindu. India also of course shares a border with Pakistan and the continuing dispute over Kashmir means that relations between the two ethnic groups on a national and civil level will always appear fragile.

But in the context of terrorist attacks within India, November 2008 is an important exception. The difference is that planted bombs on trains and market stalls kill the working class and the poor of India, not the elite classes and wealthy westerners. Wheras previously the target was a message of an eye-for-an-eye reflecting ethno-religous tensions, the motive and intentions behind these atatcks could well have been international. This time, the front pages of The Times of London and New York has had the Mumbai attacks on the front page for the past three days. This time, the message is louder and it calls to the likes of us watching worldwide. India’s response to these attacks as a nation and as an international burgeoning superpower will be no less as impactful.

Next:

[On Mumbai: Part II – The Pakistan Connection]

On Sri Lanka: A Poisoned Legacy

February 4th 1968. The Kenyan government had just passed a law denying Asian Kenyans the right to work in their country. Great boats set sail, trains over-packed and heaving, leather beaten shoes left the dry sands of Nairobi as Indian and Pakistani Kenyans set off on a musky uncertain future. They like many burdened eyes across the world looked to Britain whose gateway had creaked open, awaiting was the promise of a hammer and a shilling. On the same day 20 years previous on the tip of the Indian subcontinent, drums could be heard, celebration was in the air. Across the Gulf of Mannar, The British Empire had relinquished its jewel, February 4th 1948, Ceylon had won independence. The pearl of the Indian ocean had gained nationhood, a nation of many peoples, many religions, many differences bound together under one mandate; Sri Lanka.

Today is February 3rd 2008. Tomorrow my mother country celebrates its 60th year as a nation under one name and sovereign. It also mourns it’s 25th year of civil conflict and faces the possibility of being a nation held together in name only. The word ceasefire ceased to be relevant this new year, the words amicable compromise are hardly uttered anymore. The 2008 independence celebrations may be the last time we celebrate in a year that promises more bloodshed and violence the likes of which threaten to finally bring our countries economic viability to it’s knees.

My father came to England during the first stream of Asian immigrants, much like the Kenyan Asian workers, as a 17 year old boy in the 1960’s. He hoped to get lucky, score an idea that he heard about in those paradise stories that he heard from his friends back home. That idea of ‘A Living’. A working, viable living, where money was a means to mark a place in the world, for a grounding and a foundation for a family. When my father left his country was called Ceylon and it was a country that was undoubtedly his. He was Sinhalese and Ceylon was very Sinhala.

The civil conflict in Ceylon emerged during the wake of independence. The celebrations were over and the country stepped boldly into the new light as a new nation. At least that was the idea. There are some who say that Ceylon even under the British had been two nations and was never a part of a whole. Much of this comes from the divisions between the ethnic make up of the people and it is this notion that has entwined itself into the bitter struggle for the Tamil people of the north and eastern part of Sri Lanka who lay claim to Tamil Eelam, an area constituting the north and eastern part of the area. The Tamil people are mainly Hindu and Roman Catholic while the majority Sinhala population were devout Buddhist and spoke Sinhala.

It seems colonialism is the root from which many of the prevailing worldwide conflicts stem from, as it is with this one. After the British won control of the island in 1815, they started to bring Tamil laborers from Southern India to work in tea, coffee and coconut plantations. After independence was granted however these plantation workers were disenfranchised as a majority Sinhala parliament gained control. Furthermore Soloman Bandaranaike who was elected on a wave of nationalism went on to implement measures that bolstered Sinhalese and Buddhist interests. Sinhala was made the sole official language and Buddhism was placed at the centre of the countries national religion. In 1958 more than 100 Tamils were killed in wide spread violence after parliamentarians had protested against the new laws and when Soloman’s wife Srimavo took over the mantle she extended the nationalization programme further. In 1972 Ceylon became ‘Sri Lanka’ a name that has a context in Sinhala history and folklore. The Tamil minority became restless and the disillusionment gave way to resentment; how could a Tamil mother send her son to a school where he didn’t speak the language that was being taught and was overlooked in higher education and thus in the workplace. The government in response said that it had merely sought to redress the imbalance where under British rule the Tamil’s were given a disproportionate amount of top jobs and were felt to be favored by the British over the Sinhala.

The Liberation Tigers Of Tamil Eelam or LTTE were formed in 1976 as the anti-Tamil sentiment intensified in the northern part of Sri Lanka. The group was led by a military leader named Prabhakaran and they used violence for the means in pursuing a separate Tamil state which was by now a real demand that groups like the LTTE would stop at nothing to achieve. As the fires of unrest amongst the distinctive Tamil population began to gather, the flames were something the government could no longer dismiss and marginalize. Anti-Tamil sentiment was rife and the country was on the brink of full scale war when in 1981 a group of Sinhala policemen were accused of burning down the Tamil Public Library in the northern city of Jaffna. Suddenly it became tit for tat. The rule of an eye for an eye has been the mainstay to this day and it began in 1983 when in response to the burning of the library 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed by LTTE rebels which inevitably led to anti-Tamil riots where estimated thousands of Tamils were killed. Some Sri Lankans felt that the large population of Tamils concentrated in southern India were lending considerable support to the LTTE. As the situation deteriorated the then Prime Minister Jayawardene invited talks with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and as negotiations were brokered with India as a mediator the government made a number of concessions to the Tamils and the official status of the Tamil language together with some devolution of power stayed the bloody hand of civil strife for a time.

I was born in Westminister, London in 1984 the son of a Sinhala Sri Lankan immigrant. I was raised among a tight knit Sinhala community based in North West London where Buddhism and mutual respect was what kept what I imagined a group of first generation settlers together in those first tentative years on foreign soil. Now these uncles and aunties had families and children like me, the second generation, and were still close and firmly held together by a sense of mutual belonging. The first memory I have of a sense of conflict in the country my parents talked about was when in 1993 my father came home to my mother shouting from the living room from in front of the television: ‘They killed Premedasa!’ she called. Long days in front of the Six O’Clock News ensued. President Premedasa had been killed by a suicide bomber, it had been more violent backlash. After Indian-Sri Lankan relations had soured after India disapproved of the humanitarian violations on both sides, Premedasa had sent the Indians and their troops home. Gandhi himself had fallen at the hands of an LTTE suicide attack in 1991 and the group had now been tagged a terrorist organization commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

It was another case of coming so close but failing due to intermittent ignorance and short sightedness on both sides of the barbed wire fence. On the ground, brutality of the suicide bombings were countered by the unrelenting surges by the army into the northern provinces. Politically however any concessions to the Tamils gained mass disapproval by the Sinhala majority. This was yet another trend in the struggle that would continue until early in the next century. By 2002 the conflict had amassed thousands of deaths and millions of displaced families. It appeared that without any mediations, hope of peace was false and fading. Enter Norway; another mediator and hope sprung again in the paddy fields of a blood soaked island. A ceasefire was signed, de-commissioning of weapons began and the road to Jaffna was re-opened. The rebels dropped it’s demand for a separate state and autonomy and the acknowledgment of a right to exist was something. And it would do, for now. Passenger flights to the north took to the air and people around the world began to remember that the Pearl in the Indian Ocean although now slightly cloudy and had less of the innocent splendor it once charmed, had lost none of its beauty and wonder. Tourism boomed. The economy showed signs of recovery, yes, everything it seemed after nearly 20 years of civil war, was getting better in 2002.

Yet I write now on February 3rd 2008 a day before the 60th Sri Lankan Independence and things seem more dire than they ever were. Last month the government and the rebels had officially pulled out of the 2002 peace accords although a steep incline of violence during the last 2 years meant that this ‘official’ pull out was a formality after the fact. There are whispers of 2008 being the year war ravages this nation. I, myself, am surprised that the nation still stands to be ravaged or that there is anything to ravage at all. The few years of peace and prosperity after 2002 gave way and again it seems, we were so close yet so far. But what consistently brings this writer to a utter dismay was not the futility of the 2002 peace agreement but it was an event on Boxing Day 2004 after which I stood with many a political commentator at the time with real hope that this one thing, if anything, would bring the country together; it was the Tsunami. 30, 000 Sri Lankans were killed that day when massive tidal waves ripped through the coastal communities of the island, not just Tamils, not just Sinhala, nor Buddhist or Hindu, Sri Lankan’s lost their lives and loved ones that day. I held the firm belief that looking at the devastation caused, perhaps those that make the decisions in Colombo and Jaffna would have gained a new perspective. That maybe it would take this, enormous, heartbreaking tragedy for Tamil and Sinhala men and women alike to set aside their differences and work together rebuilding their one nation. Never were we so close, not in ’85, not even in 2002 with the Norwegians did we stand on the very threshold of facing a common disaster and thrust forward to face it together. This was the opportunity needed, I felt, to show the world we could do this. In London, England, Sri Lanka suddenly became a charity case; send your clothes, send your money send your food. We became one of those stories. Aid was send from many nations around the world to help Sri Lanka rebuild and fight through. Let us show them, I felt. Let us share the burden.

$3 Billion was sent to Sri Lanka in the coming months. And in July 2005 what did Sri Lanka do? We rowed, we quarreled and wouldn’t let go. $3 Billion was sent to us and we couldn’t share $3 Billion. We took up the arms of ignorance and distrust and aimed it squarely at our feet. And then again, inevitably, we aimed it at each other. In August 2005 the Sri Lankan foreign minister was killed in a suicide bomb which led to renewed fighting in the northeast. Tit for tat, an eye for an eye once again. For the past 25 years over and over we reached the point where opportunity was brokered, sought and fought for and then on one morning in December opportunity was handed to us by an act of a merciless God, and even then we failed and we fell into the same old design. The same old ways that bring us to February 3rd 2008 on the eve of the celebration where we are reminded of the birth of our great nation. I for one do not see anything worth celebrating, I for one feel let down. For all the pride I have in my father and the generation that swept across continents to build lives worth living, braving new worlds in endeavour, why do I not feel as proud when looking back at the history of the country from which they hailed? Tell me what we, the second generation, should be proud of? What hope have you left us for the future?

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