Monthly Archives: February 2014

Roads to Damascus

This photograph, taken on January 31 and released by UNRWA on February 26, shows the grim reality for those trapped inside the neighborhood of Damascus' Yarmouk Refugee Camp. Photo courtesy United Nation News Centre via Facebook. Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/portrait-of-despair-thousands-queue-for-un-food-parcels-in-yarmouk-damascus-20140227-hve0b.html#ixzz2uX0i9hoh

This photograph, taken on January 31 and released by UNRWA on February 26, shows the grim reality for those trapped inside Damascus’ Yarmouk Refugee Camp. Photo courtesy United Nation News Centre via Facebook.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers were met with the faces of deprivation, misery and despair when they were finally able to arrive at Yarmouk Refugee Camp just 5 miles from the center of Damascus recently. The camp had been under a month-long blockade by the Syrian government, claiming the food and supplies would benefit the opposition.

Forces loyal to Syria’s president killed at least 175 Islamist rebel fighters, most of them foreigners, in an ambush in insurgent-held eastern outskirts of Damascus, state media said on Wednesday, in a report from Eye Witness News in Beirut. The attack was carried out by Hezbollah forces, working with supporters of the Asaad regime.

In Raqqa, an extremist jihadist group has declared an open war on Christians, passing local laws requiring them to pay a tax in gold for their safety or face death.  In a report from BBC, revealing a statement from ISIS, additionally “Christians must not make renovations to churches, display crosses or other religious symbols outside churches, ring church bells or pray in public. Christians must not carry arms, and must follow other rules imposed by ISIS (also known as ISIL) on their daily lives. The statement said the group had met Christian representatives and offered them three choices – they could convert to Islam, accept ISIS’ conditions, or reject their control and risk being killed. “If they reject, they are subject to being legitimate targets, and nothing will remain between them and ISIS other than the sword,” the statement said.”

The now 3-year civil war has claimed over 140,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless or fleeing. The struggle began in March 2011 with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform, but turned into an armed uprising after security forces used violence to quell the protesters. There are three distinct groups at war; the Assad regime which represents Iran, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and the Free Syrian Army, which is considered the only hope for a united and acceptable Syria. The triangulation of these forces has caught the people of Syria in the crossfire.

Image by User:NordNordWest [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, updated Jan. 2014 by Spesh531.

Image by User:NordNordWest [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, updated Jan. 2014 by Spesh531.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), in simplistic terms, sprang up as a protection army at the beginning of the conflict. At first, the combination of various factions coming together resulted in some actions by FSA that were seen as possible war crimes. In August of 2012, the FSA announced that, in response to international concerns, FSA units would follow the Geneva Convention’s guidelines for the treatment of prisoners.

Northern Syria is home to a population of Kurds. These people have also been persecuted beyond belief.  Syrian Kurds are part of what has been identified internationally as the world’s largest population with absolutely no country to call home. Syria, to the Kurdistan people, is called Rojava, or western Kurdistan, as distinct from northern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Turkey; southern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Iraq; and eastern Kurdistan, the Kurdish area in Iran. There are approximately 15 million Kurds living in these areas combined.

Occupy World Writes reaffirms our solidarity with the Syrian people, the Kurdish people throughout the world, and all those who seek democratic change. We support non-violent actions leading to change whenever possible, and we recognize self-protection and preservation as legitimate and acceptable means while rejecting assertive, aggressive acts of violence against anyone.

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Puppy Love

Puppies sported their cuteness in Sochi, winning hearts instead of medals. Photo courtesy Facebook.

Puppies sported their cuteness in Sochi, winning hearts instead of medals. Photo courtesy Facebook.

When the world arrived in Sochi for the Olympic games, they were met with much fanfare – and puppies. Sochi is home to stray dogs, a population that was not brought under control through an extermination program before the games began.

But athletes, like everyone else, welcomed the puppies into their hearts, then their hotel rooms. When the games concluded, many of the pups were adopted and paperwork filed for the bundles of cuteness to go back with the athletes to new homes in far away places.

In the United States, the dogs need to clear a 30 day quarantine before venturing onto the American landscape. Once completed, the puppies are free to play and be loved by their new American owners.

This little guy is at a makeshift dog shelter on the outskirts of Sochi set up by animal rights activists. Photo courtesy Tumblr

This little guy is at a makeshift dog shelter on the outskirts of Sochi set up by animal rights activists. Photo courtesy Tumblr

While I find it admirable that man’s best friend continues to warm our hearts, we actually treat our furry friends better than our fellow humans. I have never heard that an immigrant can file the right paperwork, sit in quarantine for 30 days, and – tah dah! – you can legally live in America. Even if you have a host family, you will not get the streamlined process afforded to dogs.

Is it just me, or should the people who oversee the program for letting these puppies come to America also oversee our immigration department? Maybe then the children of immigrants will get regular meals and not have to fight for scraps of food like a dog on the streets of Sochi.

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The High Price of Education

By ClosingTime (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ClosingTime (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Their throats were slit, some were shot, and bodies burned to ashes early Tuesday morning, February 25th, in a massacre at the Federal Government College boarding school in Buni Yadi, Yobe, northern Nigeria. Approximately 60 students met their deaths at the hands of an extremist militant group, Boko Haram.

This follows two attacks last week. In one incident, militants destroyed a whole village and shot terrified residents as they tried to escape. Last September, 40 students were killed in an attack similar to this morning’s raid.

Last May, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan ordered offensive campaigns to bring the violence under control that have been blamed for triggering reprisals by militants against civilians. He defends his decisions and that of his military, saying that the militants have been contained to a small area near the border of neighboring Cameroon.

Since 2009, the group is responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 people and the displacement of over 90,000 civilians attempting to escape the violence the group uses to enforce its views in the regions controlled by Bokko Haram.

Education in Nigeria is more prevalent in the southern cities and population areas of the country. Less than 20% of the population in the north receive education, where these attacks are taking place.

Formally known as the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad, Boko Haram tends to attack schools that teach Nigeria’s national curriculum, which the militants consider to be Western. The group follows an extremely strict version of Islam, including sharia law, and its name means “Western education is sinful” in the northern Hausa language, a report from the BBC said.

Boko Haram supports traditional Islamic education systems that educate only boys and involve teaching prayers and memorization of Quranic texts used in worship. Skills for trades are to be taught by village elders or family members, all male. Women are not educated in this system. Nigeria, in fact, is home to the world’s largest practicing population of indoctrinated FGM (female genitalia mutilation) known today. Researchers and scholars say there is absolutely no scriptural text in any world religion, including Islam, that condones such an atrocity.

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Lean, Mean, Hungry Machine

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Being a lean, mean, fighting machine takes fuel – lots of it. Well-balanced, nutritional and wholesome foods are the order of the day for most troops as they move through basic training and become active in their military roles.

In 2013, commissaries across America saw over $104 million dollars in food stamp purchases by the enlisted personnel using the commissary’s already discounted prices for basic food supplies. This is almost double over the amount spent in food stamps by military members in 2012.

While it is concerning that our troops are not paid well enough that they qualify for food stamps to begin with, it becomes even more alarming when considering the recent actions by Congress that will directly affect these enlisted men and women as well as their families.

The recent budget passed in Washington limits pay increases in the military to 1%, while current inflation trends are at 1.5% and rising.

President Obama has signed the new Farm Bill into law, which eliminates over $4 million in food stamps, to be taken from recipients in 14 states, with 40% of those people being military families. This is in addition to the cuts to the SNAP program that were taken as part of the not-to-be-realized-but was sequester following the debt ceiling debacle last year.

Because the military requires enlisted personnel to transfer to various service locations, the unemployment rate of military spouses is currently at a staggering 30%, making supplemental income to the military paycheck all but impossible for most struggling military families. For those spouses who qualify for unemployment benefits, the payments cease when the enlisted person is transferred, as the unemployment benefits are administered through a state payment system, not on a federal level.

Have you ever dined on the luxurious quality of an MRE?

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But Wait! There’s MORE!

 

Ometepe Isle in Lake Nicaragua. Popular tourist destination. Picture taken by Jose Carlos Manuel Hugo, Enero 2005

Ometepe Isle in Lake Nicaragua. Popular tourist destination. Picture taken by Jose Carlos Manuel Hugo, Enero 2005

Last June, the Nicaraguan government announced a deal granting 50 year rights to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND) for building a competitor to the Panama Canal across Nicaragua. The project’s cost is estimated to be $40 billion, and the Nicaraguan government claims that the canal would: 1) raise the country’s GDP 11% annually, and 2) create a million new jobs. While this sounds good on paper (Nicaragua’s the second poorest country in the Americas), what they aren’t saying should be what’s being discussed.

Both the Nicaraguan government and HKND bypassed any environmental review of the proposal. When you see what would be impacted by the proposed canal, you’ll understand why they wouldn’t want those pesky treehuggers to have any say in the matter.

First of all, with all the proposed routes, the canal would go through Lake Nicaragua. The lake is the primary source of drinking water for the whole country, and in addition to the pollution that would be created by the ships themselves, the proposed industries along the lake would add to the decline in drinking water. There’s also the obvious salt water contamination; you’re connecting to the ocean on both sides, after all. And then, there’s the sludge. The lake would be dredged to double its current depth of 15 meters to accommodate larger ships, and all the sludge would need to go somewhere. But wait- there’s more!

Panama Canal “mule” used to guide ships. Stan Shebs [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Panama Canal “mule” used to guide ships. Stan Shebs [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Building the canal would lead to the destruction of 400,000 hectares (almost one million acres) of rainforests and wetlands. Furthermore, the canal would endanger the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor, which incorporates the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, and the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve, all of which are homes to many endangered species of plants and animals. But wait- there’s still more!

The canal’s entry and exit would be right in the middle of the sea turtle nesting grounds on both coasts- you guessed it; another endangered species. It would also destroy the coral reefs and mangroves that act as a buffer protecting inland Nicaragua from tropical storms.  And, then there’s the impact on the indigenous communities. Hundreds of villages would need to be moved as they’re in the canal’s proposed path. Were they asked? Silly question- of course not. But wait- there’s still more!

As bad as all of this sounds, we need to add to it the rather sketchy history of the man behind HKND; a man named Wang Jing. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega cited Wang Jing’s wireless communications company as a reason why he was awarded the contract. However, in the twenty foreign countries where Xinwei (the company) is supposedly expanding, they’re either woefully behind schedule or (even more telling), trade officials in the country have never heard of him or his company. Just the kind of person who I’d trust with 40 billion dollars. But wait- there’s still more!

The really crazy part of the story? The canal’s redundant. The Panama Canal is 1/3 of the length of the Nicaraguan proposal, and it’s in the process of being widened and deepened for larger ships. Plus, the canal handles only a small fraction of world shipping; why would we need another canal a couple hundred miles north of the current one?

“Sure, we destroyed the planet- but we earned our shareholders a profit!”

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Dismissed!

Photo by Andrew Kravchenko/REUTERS

Photo by Andrew Kravchenko/REUTERS

February 22nd was a day of reckoning for Ukraine and the Yanukovych government. The Washington Post reports that after the bloodiest week in three months of protests over Yanukovych’s desire to strengthen ties with Russia instead of gravitating towards the EU, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from office on the grounds of gross human rights violations and dereliction of duty, and to hold new elections in May. The vote was 380 – 0, with Yanukovych’s supporters either absent or abstaining.

They also voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and head of the opposition to Yanukovych, from prison, where she had been since 2011. She had been sentenced to seven years on charges that many both at home and internationally decried as being politically motivated. Tymoshenko, who is suffering from a back injury, was wheeled onstage in Independence Square, where she addressed a crowd estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

She said that Ukraine would not be truly free until “everyone bears a responsibility for what they have done… If we don’t prosecute, we should be ashamed.” She also told the crowd “You changed everything — not the politicians, not the diplomats, you changed the world.” She also described the ousted government as “a cancer.”

Yanukovych appeared on television Saturday afternoon in a prerecorded interview to say: “I am not planning to leave the country. I am the legitimate president, and I am not going to resign.” He said the opposition politicians in parliament were “bandits” and their actions  were “illegal,” and called the protesters “hooligans.”

He further went on to say “What we witness now resembles Nazi occupation,” and that he had talked to Vladmir Putin, who had told him that “We will negotiate.” However, the other party supposedly in the negotiations (the US), released a statement of support for the parliament’s decision, and urged “the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity.”

While the people in Kiev seemed to be happy with the changes, leaders of the ousted government, especially those from southern and eastern Ukraine, said they would oppose the new measures.

Only time will tell what Ukraine will look like a week from now, much less the two months until the elections. At one point in her speech, Yulia Tymoshenko said, “I am coming back to work. I won’t waste a minute to make sure you are happy in your own land.”

Occupy World Writes reaffirms our commitment of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and we wish them the best as they go through the growing pains of creating a more truly representative government.

THIS is what democracy looks like.

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North of the 38th Parallel

A North Korean family mourns their murdered father. Author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A North Korean family mourns their murdered father. Author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kim Jong Un is making quite a name for himself as he steps onto the international stage as Supreme Leader of North Korea. So much so, in fact, that he is now the recipient of a letter from the U.N. Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry.

After a year long investigation involving interviews, photographs and other clear evidence, the Commission released a 400-page report detailing crimes against humanity so horrific they are compared to the worst of Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report said.

The letter to Kim Jong Un was to inform him of their referral of the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This was “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity referred to in this letter and in the commission’s report.”

Confirmation of no less than four prison camps were identified. The camps have reportedly diminished in size, but further investigation found this to be due to starvation, torture and execution of the inmates held there. The report added: “The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the ‘kwanliso’ political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian states established during the 20th century.

Citizens of North Korea live a daily life of fear. Torture, rape, beatings, starvation and disappearances are everyday occurrences. In addition to being forced to drown their infants, citizens have also been “given forced abortions and forced to dig their own graves before being murdered with hammers by guards,” the report said. “The institutions and officials involved are not held accountable. Impunity reigns.”

The report also warned China that it may be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” with its policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans who fled across its borders.

China has a vested interest in opening trade to gain access to rare earth minerals that are abundant within North Korea and that have largely not been utilized in the general world market. Rare earth minerals are used in the manufacturing of high-tech products such as cell phones and electronic devices.

North Korea said it “categorically and totally rejects the report,” which it claims was based on faked material.

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A Few Unruly Students?

Photo credit Imgur

Photo credit Imgur

On February 18, in “Venezuela: Playing the Blame Game,” we talked about the protests taking place in Venezuela’s capitol, with concern of demonstrations spreading. Today, Al Jazeera reports “Venezuelan security forces and demonstrators have faced off in streets blocked by burning barricades in several cities in an escalation of protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.”

Opposition leader Lopez surrendered himself to the authorities in a dramatic show with cheering crowds of thousands of supporters witnessing the event. Held on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a massive February 12 rally, a judge ruled today there is evidence to hold him. Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, could face up to 10 years in prison.

Maduro, refusing to compromise or negotiate with the protestors, says that Lopez is in league with the US government and they would like to see a coup in the country.

Photo credit Imgur

Photo credit Imgur

Journalists have been arrested, beaten and tortured, and their equipment destroyed. The government now controls all broadcasting within Venezuela. “It’s important we have foreign media here. Our media is censored; we learn about our own country from outside sources,” a student at an opposition rally, Gauber Venot said.

At least six people have died since the unrest turned violent last week, with scores of injuries and arrests.

Occupy World Writes reaffirms our steadfast commitment of solidarity with all people who exercise peaceful assembly to protest grievances against their governments who have failed to address their most basic of needs.

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The Crime of Assembly

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, then 23 year-old student Cecily McMillian found herself being sexually assaulted, beaten, and denied medical treatment by the New York City police department during a visit to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Manhattan.

Her trial, currently underway in New York, is the last of the trials remaining for over 700 arrested protestors in the OWS movement from over two years ago. McMillan is charged with assaulting a police officer when she reacted instinctively by throwing up an elbow when she felt her breast being groped. She did not realize the perpetrator was a police officer until he began beating her in retaliation. Other officers joined in, continuing to beat her until she went into seizures. Officers then denied street medics access to McMillan while she lay on the sidewalk, waiting over 25 minutes before calling an ambulance. At one point, they did administer oxygen to her. No officer was ever charged in McMillan’s case. Photographs taken at the time of the incident show bruised ribs, arms, chest and facial injuries on McMillan.

A graduate student, she is currently in her first year of studies at The New School for Social Research. If found guilty, she faces up to seven years in prison.

Writer Chase Madar takes note of widespread local ordinances and heavy-handed police tactics like aggressive surveillance, “kettling” protestors with movable plastic barriers, arbitrary closures of public spaces and the harassment and arrest of journalists who would tell the tale. Some have enacted assembly ordinances limiting groups to four or less. To be sure, most major municipalities in America have become “militarized” in their equipment, weaponry and training as public rallies continue from various groups and organizations throughout the country.

Occupy World Writes calls on the judicial process to understand the true offenders in this case. We stand in Solidarity with Cecily McMillan and all those exercising their basic civil liberties. We believe that this court ruling will provide a clear window into whether public assembly stays a basic right or has become a criminal activity.

The United States government decries foreign governments for suppressing demonstrations and protests of the people in other nations. Ukraine, Thailand, Syria, Cambodia and the Phillippines are just the most recent examples that come to mind. Yet when the same forces are used on American soil against her citizens supposedly protected with constitutional rights, the administration and government close their eyes and tighten their lips.

In a report from The Guardian covering McMillan, an examination of the reaction of police departments within the United States to demonstrations like those of the Occupy movement reveals an evisceration of the basic right to peaceful assembly. When compared to other developed countries, America’s statistics belie the perception. “The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2012, the incarceration rate in the United States (707 per 100,000) was about one and a half times that of Russia (472) and over triple the peak rate of the old East Germany (about 200). The incarceration rate for black men in the US is over five times higher than that of the Soviet Union at the height of the gulag.”

Welcome to the Prison Industrial Complex. Enjoy your stay.

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Deadly, Violent Struggle for Peace

By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/http://www.unframe.com/photographers/102-mstyslav-chernov.html (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/http://www.unframe.com/photographers/102-mstyslav-chernov.html (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Independence Square in Kiev had a few days of peace, but then saw a resurgence of violent clashes with police, resulting in at least 25 deaths and over 240 seriously injured, according to the Health Ministry. The clashes began escalation Monday as parliament tried to table debate regarding reform and changes to the constitution, an agreed upon condition that had led to a compromise of sorts between the opposition and the government of Ukraine, erupting into even more deadly clashes on Wednesday morning as police attempted to clear the tightly held encampment.

A crowd of over 10,000 protestors moved from Independence Square toward parliament to pressure the government to include their proposals in the discussion, as was previously agreed to by both sides. Police blocked the opposition from submitting their proposal for debate, with demonstrators accusing the government of not meeting the agreed upon compromise as a result. Inside, some members of parliament could be heard decrying the maneuver as illegal and calling for reasonable debate. By Tuesday evening, the crowd had grown to 20,000.

It is unclear who started the violence on Tuesday, with both sides blaming the other for the escalations. Talks are to resume on Wednesday between the opposition leaders and the president, according to a statement from the speaker from parliament, Volodymyr Rybak.

BBC reports “The entire Kiev metro has been shut down, and police have converged on the edges of Independence Square, the site of the main protest camp since November. Protest leader Vitaly Klitschko urged women and children to leave the square, saying they could not ‘exclude the possibility of use of force’.” Al Jazeera reports the demonstrators have been given a deadline of 11 am Wednesday to clear the square.

The draft for changes to the constitution proposed by the opposition calls for a return to the 2004 constitution that would shift key powers from the president to parliament, stripping President Yanukovych of his ability to appoint the PM, cabinet members and regional governors. The 2004 constitution was repealed in 2010, shortly after Yanukovych came to power.

Sanctions are being threatened from the European community, as well as Vice President Biden, Secretatary of State John Kerry, , UN Security Advisor Catherine Ashton and German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier have all contacted Yanukovych and cautioned restraint and a political/peaceful resolution to the protests.

Meanwhile, Moscow has issued another $2 billion tranche payment to the Ukraine, and Putkin greatly influenced Yanukovych toward clamping down on the protestors when he was visiting Putkin in Sochi. Perhaps the vested interest in influencing Yanukovych comes from the fact that the country purchases its oil and gas from Russia, while Russia imports the majority of Ukraine’s major commodity: food. A rather convenient arrangement Moscow would like to see continue while the PEOPLE of Ukraine would like to see other options considered.

Move pawn to king’s rook. Checkmate.

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