Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Between Mud and a Hard Place

The following is an article I recently wrote about the Rohingya, Muslim refugees from Myanmar living for decades in southern Bangladesh. A final (considerably re-written) version appeared last week in The Economist (http://economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10214763), but since some people were wondering what of if was mine, here's the original:

Between Mud and a Hard Place: Muslim Refugees Left With Nowhere Good to Go

As international pressure mounts against Myanmar’s repressive military regime, a community of long-suffering refugees in Bangladesh are glued to their radios hoping that any whiffs of democracy could give them the chance to reclaim their land and their dignity. Sadly, they may be waiting in vain. For unlike the political exiles hovering in Thailand, the Rohingya, an impoverished Muslim minority chased across the border decades ago, have never been very welcome at home.

State-sponsored persecution of Burmese Muslims may have reached its pinnacle in recent decades – the 1997 attacks on Yangon mosques were led by military intelligence officers thinly disguised as Buddhist monks, according to Human Rights Watch’s Myanmar consultant – but the hostility is nothing new. Anti-Muslim sentiments have been simmering for centuries in Burma. The dark-skinned Rohingya of the north, who have more in common physically and culturally with Bangladeshis than with most Burmese, have always been singled out for abuse.

Since their ascension to power, the junta have ostracized the Rohingya by refusing to recognize them as Burmese citizens, calling them only “Residents of Rakhine State.” An estimated 97% today have no nationality. The military regime routinely presses them into slave labour, severely restricts their rights to travel and marry, and denies them access to medical care and education.

The Rohingya have been fleeing systematic violence and repression in Myanmar by crossing into Bangladesh since 1978. But the Bangladeshis have been reluctant hosts. Citing overpopulation and land scarcity, successive governments have forcibly repatriated the refugees. 250,000 were expelled between 1991 and 1992, and an additional 230,000 since then.

For the past 15 years Bangladesh has steadfastly refused to grant the Rohingya refugees status. Only two official UNHCR camps now remain in the southern division of Chittagong. But most of those repatriated, finding themselves thrust back into the same conditions they had fled, trickled steadily back to squat in makeshift shelters and communities just across the border. Today around 8,000 live in an unofficial camp called Tal, while another 200,000 have settled in the surrounding area.

Tal was born out of Operation Clean Heart, the ominous code name for a 2002 crackdown in which thousands of Rohingya were rooted out of communities across southern Bangladesh. “I guess they had a look at how the Nazis did it”, speculated Médecins Sans Frontièr’s Frido Herinckx , describing how police threatened local Bangladeshis with imprisonment unless they reported on their Burmese neighbours. But instead of returning to Myanmar, thousands of suddenly homeless Rohingya regrouped and settled on a 30-meter-wide stretch of mud along the banks of the Naf River.

The residents of Tal live in abysmal poverty, with as many as 12 people crammed into flimsy shelters patched together from reeds and plastic tarps. Floods regularly leave up to 80% of the riverside camp underwater, and hostility from the local community often leads to violence. Still, most are convinced that life there is an improvement over the daily humiliations suffered in Myanmar. “If I can’t even say ‘this house is mine,’ how can I live there?” said one 32-year-old man. “The government in Burma made us give them everything, so we left.”

But life in Bangladesh may be on the upswing. The government has recently shown signs of softening its policies, including plans to re-locate Tal to a drier and more permanent location. The humanitarian community hopes the Rohingya will eventually be granted Bangladeshi citizenship, as was recently the case with thousands of Urdu-speaking Biharis, although such a move could be decades away.

Most Rohingya insist that if democracy is established in Myanmar, they will go back. But whether democracy will grant them their long-awaited rights as citizens is another matter.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blood, Diamonds and Amateur Anthropology

For those of you who were wondering what I was doing in Sierra Leone and what on earth WFP has to do with Blood Diamond, here is the article I recently wrote for the website (www.wfp.org).

But first a little background: earlier this month, I spent about two weeks in Freetown helping to screen the movie Blood Diamond for the World Food Programme, the first official public screening in the country. We managed to attract quite a lot of interest from the international press -- Reuters, AP, BBC -- but the experience was enlightening for other reasons as well. I was fascinated at the way people reacted to the film, shrieking out loud at scenes of violence, completely missing jokes that would have been funny to Western audiences and laughing at the men who went to such lengths to capture diamonds. There was one scene at the end that consistently got the biggest laughs each night: Leonardo DiCaprio is dying on a mountainside, and right before he gives it away he takes his first long, loving look at the pink diamond for which he had sacrificed everything. In the West we find this either touching or cheesy; in Sierra Leone, it's bloody hilarious. After all, why on earth would all these crazy white men kill each other over a rock?

I suppose that's the conclusion we're all meant to reach. We just reach it from very different directions.


Bringing it Back Home: WFP Screens Blood Diamond in Freetown
By Hilary Heuler

He knew Blood Diamond was an action film, and like any 15-year old boy, Mohammed likes action. When the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled, the Sierra Leonean teenager was there with his friends, anxiously awaiting his first glimpse of the film that had opened the world’s eyes to the suffering endured by his countrymen during a decade of civil war.

But these boys sat apart, propped in wheelchairs or leaning on crutches. Like many members of the audience, they had lived through the violence on-screen, and they could still feel the terrible wrath of conflict in the limbs they had lost to the rebels.

Mohamed was a young boy when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) raided his village and chopped off his right leg, a punishment meted out to thousands of innocent civilians during the war. Now he spends his days lurking outside a popular Freetown restaurant in his wheelchair, begging from passers-by. But when the World Food Programme held the first public screening of Blood Diamond in the country, Mohamed and nearly 1,000 other Sierra Leoneans poured into the halls to watch.

From May 8-10, WFP Sierra Leone organized three screenings of the film, all free to the public. The agency worked closely with Warner Brothers to make the on-screen aid operations as realistic as possible, and the result are scenes that brought home to millions of viewers the indescribable humanitarian tragedy that defined one of West Africa’s most vicious civil wars.

Yet until now, the film had never been shown in the country whose bloody history it portrays, a country without real cinemas of its own. “We wanted to give the people at the very heart of the story a chance to see this film,” said County Director Felix Gomez. “We hope Sierra Leoneans will look back and take pride on everything they have achieved since the end of the war.”

This was no placid Western audience witnessing the faceless violence of far-off continents. In Freetown, the viewers owned the story, cheering enthusiastically when the good guys won, roundly abusing the South African mercenaries when they appeared on-screen. As Sierra Leonean journalist Idriss Kpange told me, the movie really did show what life was like during the war. He only wished it had been shot in Sierra Leone.

For Mohammed, production details were incidental. The film made him remember the years of brutality that ripped his country apart and changed his life forever. But as the lights came up and people began filing out of the hall, the boy in the wheelchair had a wide grin on his face.

Yes, he insisted, it was a really good show.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Talking About a Revolution

Since its independence, Guinea has been a country of almost extraordinary peace. Despite its bellicose neighbors – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau all border – Guinea resisted all temptation to plunge into civil war, and even its token military coup was pulled off in 1984 with a minimum of bloodshed and comparatively few bruised egos.

Which isn’t to say that Guinea hasn’t had problems: its people are among the poorest in the world, the government has long squandered a vast wealth of mineral resources and the country was recently declared by Transparency International to be the most corrupt in Africa. Electricity doesn’t work, running water is nearly non-existent, the price of rice has skyrocketed over the past year and the roads are of the type that swallow trucks whole. The currency has been in freefall for years. It is one of the few countries in the world that seems to be visibly deteriorating over time, like an abandoned city left to rot. Yet the president has been re-instated over and over in a series of laughably fraudulent elections, and each time the population grumbles but does nothing. Some call it passivity, others call it patience. But for whatever reason, Guineans, for the past 49 years, have always just sat there and taken it.

Until now.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit Guinea again about a month ago, less than two weeks before the current strike began. A friend of mine is a Peace Corps volunteer there, as was I four years ago, and we ended up spending several days in the Peace Corps training house in the village of Forekariah. Crossing into the country from Sierra Leone delighted me, as it always does. I couldn’t suppress a grin as I argued with the familiar, pig-headed Guinean gendarmes, sucked on cheap Guinean oranges and began tossing Malinke exclamations into my speech. That dinner’s rice and sauce was, I would have sworn, the best I had ever had.

But the biggest thrill was when, sitting alone at the house, I suddenly found myself face to face with Makan, one of my own Peace Corps trainers from 5 ½ years earlier. Not only did he remember me, but he remembered my name. Immediately. Later we were joined by Daffe, another old trainer of mine, and the three of us reminisced about days gone by, shared news about other volunteers I had known and gossiped about life in Guinea. A new training group was on its way, a volunteer turnover was about to occur and yet another new cycle was beginning. Le plus que ça change . . .

Or so I thought. On January 10, the unions in Guinea declared a general strike, the third one in a year. However, this time the demands went beyond the usual lowering-the-cost-of-rice and removing-the-tax-on-fuel. Conte had personally released a friend of his from prison, Mamdou Sylla, also the richest man in Guinea, who was being held on corruption charges. It wasn’t a particularly surprising move, but it was enough to push an already strained population over the edge. This time the unions wanted blood, and even the political opposition parties stood aside to let them go for the kill. They demanded that Conte step down, and 16 days, 49 lives and tens of thousands of demonstrators later, they are still holding fast. The Guinean people, they say, are tired of empty promises.

We Guinea-philes working in Dakar followed all of this eagerly, amazed at the sense of national unity evident in the demonstrations and a little bit stunned that Guineans were finally rising up against everything that had been so wrong for so long. But most of all, we were proud. Wouldn’t it be amazing, we speculated, if after all this time, Guinea ended up being the West Africa country whose people succeeded in overthrowing a dictator through popular uprisings? It would just go to show that what we’ve always maintained is true: the government is appalling and nothing in the country works, but Guineans themselves are some of the most wonderful people in the world.

Two days ago I met my friend Karen at her house, and was alarmed to find her in tears. She had just had word from a friend of hers, now a Peace Corps director in Guinea, who had been sent to Bamako. Karen played me the voice mail message: “I needed a good cry tonight . . . you never think it’s really going to happen . . . the cars have already been sent out to evacuate the volunteers, and they’ll be here on Thursday. If they get sent home it’s going to break my heart.” Karen had been evacuated years earlier from Cote d’Ivoire, and was re-living painful memories. I just sat and stared at my hands. I pictured the white land cruisers pulling up next to volunteers’ huts, ten minutes to pack, hurried goodbyes to those who could be found, plans and project and friendships uprooted, a country receding into the distance.

But the picture that really stuck in my mind was of sitting in the Forekariah Peace Corps house several weeks earlier with Daffe, joking about other volunteers we had both known. Suddenly he vanished into the office and appeared again a minute later, brandishing several sheets of paper with little passport-sized headshots stuck all over them. The pictures were of us, my entire training group, taken when we had first arrived in Guinea. I was 21 years old. “I have them all hanging above my desk, so I will never forget any of you,” Daffe assured me. Our faces peered up at me through water damage and fly spots, still looking fresh and naïve after all these years. And I thought about how wonderful it was that here, in a forgotten corner of West Africa, we would live on forever as the idealistic youngsters that we once were.

All I can say is that I wish the best for Guinea, with Peace Corps’ help or without.