Focal Points Blog

Algeria’s Trappist Monk Massacre: The Case That Won’t Go Away

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

The Case That Won’t Go Away

G.I.A.-Habib Souaidia-Marc Trévidic-Mohammed Samraou-Tibhirine-Armed Islamic GroupIt’s the case that won’t go away, that of the Monks of Tibhirine (Algeria), killed and then beheaded in March, 1996. Among the most gruesome killings in recent times, no U.S. administration in the past 17 years has deigned it important enough to press either Algeria or France to investigate.

To the contrary, the brutality of the Algerian government during the 1990s seems to have greatly impressed Washington policymakers. Washington might talk the talk of human rights and democracy, but the U.S. has a long and sordid list of close allies who specialize in various and demented forms of mass repression, from Pinochet in Chile and the Argentinian generals, to Mobutu of the Congo, Mubarek of Egypt, Sharon of Israel, the Shah of Iran and the ‘Kings’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, just to name a few of the usual suspects.

Now add the Algeria to the list.

Downplayed, but no secret, since 9/11, the United States has entered into a growing, if not solid strategic partnership with Algeria. It’s a curious alliance given the public political feuding between a North Africa government that publicly considered itself ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘anti-colonial’ and the behemoth of modern neo-colonialism since World War II’s end, the United States.

How else to explain the silence this side of the Atlantic concerning the beheading of the seven gentle souls, by all accounts deeply appreciated by local Algerians who knew them? It could undermine the strategic hand-holding, upset the relationship vital for U.S. growing interest and strategic control of northern Africa, from Algeria to Nigeria with its extensive deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium and the like. In the same manner and for the same reasons, here in the US we tend to hear little of the Nigerian government’s human rights violation. Funny how that works!

The US-Algerian “Deal”

In today’s world, Algeria and the United States are nothing less than birds of a feather and they most definitely flock together. The US opens doors for Algeria internationally; Algeria opens doors for Bush and Obama regionally. For the United States, Algeria has become its eyes and ears in northern Africa – the Magreb, the Sahara, the Sahel – regions where frankly despite U.S satellite and drone intelligence, Washington hardly has a clue as to what is going on, on the ground. For its part, Algeria gets some communication and high-tech weaponry toys in return, but actually something far more important – international credibility, credibility that its government was fast losing as the country’s civil war of the 1990s drew to its bloody close.

Part of ‘the deal’ includes downplaying the growing voices, allegations of government crimes against the Algerian people during the 1990s and unexplained gruesome incidents like the Tihirine killings. The Algeria civil war was very low on the U.S. media radar and was hardly reported in the United States while it was transpiring. What news that did filter in reflected the Algerian government’s version of those events. Still there is something about war crimes – they don’t go away, not like their perpetrators hope. Ten, fifteen, fifty years later, the voices of victims from their mass graves, torture chambers, those dropped from helicopters into the oceans, still percolate back to the surface.

The Tibhirine Monk Massacre

So it is with the monks of Tibhirine, who were, truth be told, a tiny part of a much more extensive horror story that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, victims of Algeria’s dirty war. Virtually unknown in the USA, the case of the Tibhirine monks refuses to die in France and continues to haunt the ruling circles of Algeria as well, the latter dominated by the military and the country’s powerful security apparatus.

But then ‘it’ – the kidnapping, slaughter and decapitation of seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine – was one of the more gruesome acts of Algeria’s ‘Dirty War’, the civil war which wracked the country during most of the decade of the 1990s. The Trappist monks were among the 250,000 or so killed, although the exact figure will probably never be known. Only the heads remain; neither the bodies nor their possible whereabouts have been identified. What in French is called the Groupe Islamique Armee (the Armed Islamic Group) or G.I.A claimed responsibility.

Questions remain, especially concerning the possible infiltration of the G.I.A. by the Algerian security apparatus who very well might have actually run the group and directed its activities pressing the G.I.A. to commit a series of gruesome acts, including the massacre of the Tibhirine monks, in an effort to discredit the opposition movement, make them appear like monsters that need to be exterminated, as political dialogue is out of the question.

To what degree was the Algerian government complicit in the Tibhirine killings? Did they actually direct the operation? To what degree was French intelligence that had close ties with their Algerian counterparts at the very least aware of this gruesome operation (as well as many others)? These are the questions that do not go away, and once again, emerge in the public sphere.

As reported recently in the Irish Times, in France, seventeen years after the seven Trappist monks were kidnapped and killed, their decapitated heads left smiling by a small country roadside, families of the victims have asked French President Francois Hollande to fulfill a campaign promise to press the Algerian government to cooperate with the investigation. There is an ongoing investigation of the case in France, headed up by an anti-terrorist judge, Marc Trévidic, but it has been stalled for years due to lack of cooperation from both the French and Algerian governments.

Trévidic wants to interview some 20 Algerians, among them members of the government in power at the time of the murders; he also is asking for an autopsy to determine whether the decapitations took place either at the time of the killings or afterwards. To date, Algiers has been less than enthusiastic about replying, although the ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised to cooperate although nothing has happened since.

Up From the Grave They Arise…Again and Again

Both French and Algerian government circles would like the case to simply run out of steam and disappear. Not likely. Besides the families of the victims, still unsatisfied with the explanations given by the Algerian government, the Order of the Friars Minor – known more commonly as the Franciscans – continue to pursue the case. There have been several documentaries and books, mostly in French but also in English. Doubts continue to grow that the official version of events reflects what actually happened.

The most damning evidence – evidence that implicates both the Algerian government of the time and to a lesser degree, France – comes from two former members of the Algerian intelligence apparatus, the Departement de Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS). Habib Souaidia was an officer in the DRS’ special forces unit charged with countering Islamic terrorism who now enjoys political refugee status in France.

The other intelligence officer, Mohammed Samraoui, became the No. 2 man in the DRS’s counter-intelligence unit. He quit and sought political asylum in Germany after being asked to organize the assassination of an Algerian Islamicist living in Germany, whom Samraoui knew had nothing to do with the Islamist guerilla movement.

Of the ruthless methods the DRS would use against its opponents, real and imagined, Samraoui would write:

At least from 1994 onward, I was able to confirm that the leadership of the DRS habitually tortured and killed their fellow citizens, as if they were simple insects. Once committed to this cycle of violence, it became perfectly logical that the generals would use massacres as a tactic to regulate the political problems that befell them in 1997 (1)

In a book published slightly earlier, by Decouverte Press in 2002 (in French), La sale guerre (The Dirty War), Habib Souaidia claims that many, if not most, of the Islamic terrorist groups in Algeria in the 1990s were both infiltrated by the DRS as well as literally run by them, prime among them the G.I.A. mentioned above. Running the G.I.A. operations from his Algiers office was Smail Lamari, Deputy Director of the DRS and in charge of operations of its military wing, known as the Securite Militaire, or SM.

Many of these ‘operations’ were ‘false flag’ operations, operations secretly conceived and implemented by the Algerian government itself, with the knowledge of the ruling clique to make the country’s Islamic movement look far worse than it was in actual fact. Committing acts of brutality, in actual fact carried out by the government, but in the name of Islamic militants helped to isolate the Islamic movement at the time from its popular base, provoke intense fear among a population that would then ask for stronger security measures, i.e., a more repressive hold on the country by the state.

At the time of the Tibhirine murders, Souaidia was serving a four-year sentence on trumped-up charges of having stolen automotive material from avmilitary warehouse, but it was because of his refusal to continue to participate in the Dirty War which was the more probably cause of his incarceration. La sale guerre does not discuss the Tibhirine murders but it cast doubts over the Algerian government’s official explanation of the murders, suggesting that, like so many others, that this was some kind of false flag operation manipulated by the Algerian state itself through the DRS, in this case with the goal of undermining talks of a political settlement then taking place in Rome.

While none of this directly implicates the Algerian DRS in the Tibhirine murders, still it is suggestive of the lengths to which the Algerian counter-intelligence operation was willing to go. In the decades since other suggestions challenging the government’s official version of the Tibhirine events have surfaced, among them French intelligence complicity with their Algerian counterparts, certainly enough ‘smoke’ to suggest that somewhere there is a fire and to merit a serious investigation.

Consequences of Tibhirine

If all the details of the Tibhirine massacres remain under wraps, the consequences are not at all ambiguous. As Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire wrote of the Tibhrine tragedy in Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats:

In attacking Christianity in its very heart and soul, the assassination of the monks traumatized France, still ‘the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’,(1) discredited the Islamicists that much more, re mobilizing the West (France, USA, UK, Germany etc.) in support of a harder anti-Islamicist position(2) at a time when a negotiated settlement between the warring parties was being considered in Rome’.(3)

What Algeria’s generals feared most at the time was a negotiated settlement with Algeria’s Islamicists that would threaten their hold on power and the oil wealth that comes with it. Aggoun and Rivoire’s analysis, while not proving Algerian DRS management of the Tibhirine killings, still gives a viable political explanation for why the Algerian government might have acted as it did.

As has been the case, frankly for decades, a fierce, under the surface power struggle in Algeria, is unfolding, ‘the battle of the clans’ as it is often referred to although in this case, the ‘clans’ as they are called in French are more accurately called in English ‘interest groups’. The DRS and the military (although there are some differences between the two) have held the reins of power for decades, their power consolidated just before the Dirty War began and continuing until today.

On the other hand, there is the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his circle who have, rather unsuccessfully it appears, tried to wrest power from the security- intelligence apparatus. Other presidents who tried were either assassinated (Boudiaf) or unceremoniously pushed aside (Zeroual) when their usefulness had run its course, or when they decided to challenge the powers that be. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Tibhirine monks’ massacre could emerge as an issue in this power struggle as the power struggle gets dirtier. It already is pretty intense.

Regardless, the case of the Tibhirine monks is essentially only kept alive due to popular pressure especially in France and Algeria. It is time the U.S. human rights movement adds its voice to the chorus demanding an explanation, justice in this case. That it might embarrass the U.S. government some, the French government more and the Algerian government most of all should have little bearing on case.

_____________

1. Mohammed Samraoui. Chronique des annees de sang. Algerie: comment les services secret ont manipule les groupes islamistes. Denoel, Paris: 2003. Back cover jacket.

2. ‘la fille ainee de l’Eglise’

3. Referred to in French as ‘l’option eradicatrice’ – or the ‘eradicating option’ – i.e., the need for the total physical destruction of political Islam in Algeria.

4. Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats. La Decouverte. Paris, 2004. p.474

U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons More an Irritant Than Deterrent

The B61 dial-a-yield bomb

The B61 dial-a-yield bomb

You’ve heard of planned obsolescence — tactical nuclear weapons are a case of deferred obsolescence: a weapon that has long ago worn out its welcome in the U.S. arsenal. On June 6, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Steve Andreasen, a consultant for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, wrote:

“Throughout the Cold War, thousands of tactical nuclear weapons — short-range nuclear artillery shells, missiles and bombs — were deployed by the United States to deter the Soviets from exploiting their advantages in Europe to mount a lightning attack. … After the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H. W. Bush ordered the return of almost all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, leaving only a few hundred air-delivered gravity bombs — the B61 — in European bunkers.

“… Politically, however, there are still voices that argue that even a bomb with no military utility is ‘reassuring’ to certain allies, and that storing this artifact in European bunkers and maintaining allied aircraft capable of dropping this bomb is a valuable demonstration of NATO ‘burden sharing.’ Moreover, these proponents are prepared to pay — or rather, have the U.S. pay — $10 billion to modernize and store the B61.”

But to a state such as Pakistan, tactical nuclear weapons present an exciting new addition to their arsenal for which they may have big plans. At his Foreign Policy blog Best Defense, Tom Ricks interviews Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. He said that Pakistan is

“… now are looking at tactical nuclear weapons.” [Their fear, Armitage said, is that if there is another Mumbai-like attack, India will respond with a corps-sized attack on Pakistan.] “Tactical nukes is what you’d use against a corps.” [This might provoke India to escalate further.] “But Pakistan would say that its tactical nukes would deter that.” [Brackets are Ricks’s.]

In a recent post titled Would Pakistan Respond to India’s Use of Conventional Weapons With Tactical Nukes?, I excerpted the Times of India’s Indrani Bagchi, who quoted Shyam Saran, the convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board. The latter said that Pakistan (according to Indian policymakers) hopes, by developing tactical nuclear weapons,

“ … to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to … cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack on Mumbai. What Pakistan is signalling to India and to the world is that India should not contemplate retaliation even if there is another Mumbai because Pakistan has lowered the threshold of nuclear use to the theatre level. … This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail.”

What Pakistan is “signaling” to me is that it doesn’t want to feel compelled to stay the hand of its Islamist militants, who it’s long viewed as its wild card. (That’s making the generous assumption that the army and/or ISI won’t be complicit in a future militant attack on India.) Instead, Pakistan is making contingency plans for the retaliation from India that it expects. But, is the luxury of keeping militants around worth developing and maintaining tactical nukes to clean up their messes? That’s some skewed calculus.

To give you an example of the problems this created, consider Ricks’s remark “This might provoke India to escalate further.” Saran says (emphasis added):

“India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. … “A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level.”

In other words, not only wouldn’t India be deterred from retaliating by Pakistan’s tactical – once called “battlefield” – nukes, it would retaliate with strategic – your garden-variety, apocalyptic – nukes! This whole business is riddled with opportunities for miscommunication that could result in an all-out nuclear war. In October 2012, George Perkovich explained in a Stimson Center report, about which I posted a month later.

Many worry about Islamist militants acquiring proprietorship of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But the greater risk, according to Perkovich, is the confusion that India experiences in situations such as when its parliament was attacked in New Delhi in 2001 and during the Mumbai 2008 assault. Thus the nuclear deterrence model, which, according to conventional thinking, worked for the United States and Russia, may not be universally applicable. Why?

Perkovich writes that, “when it comes to … initiating and managing warfare between nuclear-armed states, it is generally assumed that a tight, coherent line of authority” is S.O.P. Otherwise “the implications for deterrence stability are profound.”

For example, if

… India is attacked by [Islamist militants] emanating from Pakistan and with ties to Pakistani intelligence services, [India] naturally infers that such actions represent the intentions and policies of Pakistani authorities. … If Pakistan does not … detain and prosecute the perpetrators … pressure mounts for India to demonstrate through force that it will [retaliate].

Perkovich presents this scenario.

For example, while India could perceive that the terrorist attacks it attributes to Pakistan signal Pakistani aggressiveness, Pakistani leaders [may only have intended the] initial terrorist attacks as a signal that the Pakistani state does not seek a wider conflict but [merely seeks] to press India to make political accommodations, in Kashmir or more broadly.

… This signaling process becomes all the more difficult and precarious if the Pakistani leaders who are presumed to be the authors of Pakistan’s signals and actions deny that the [terrorists] actually do manifest the policies of the state.

In that case …

Indian leaders then face a highly unstable dilemma. They could act as if the initial violence reflects the intentions of Pakistan’s chain of command, and send … signals of retaliatory action according to normal models of deterrence.

But this might only confuse Pakistan. Perkovich explains (emphasis added).

… if Pakistani leaders believe or claim that the perpetrators were not carrying out state policies, and India does escalate, Pakistani leaders will feel that India is the aggressor.

It becomes obvious that not knowing on whose authority an Islamist extremist attack on India was mounted

… produces dangerous confusion and ambiguity that interfere in the management of deterrence. Who is sending signals through violence that is perceived to be emanating from the state and/or its territory? What is being signaled?

In the end

… disunity erodes the rationality on which deterrence is predicated.

Returning to Ms. Bagchi and tactical nukes, she writes that another reason Pakistan developed them is

… to keep its weapons from being confiscated or neutralized by the US, a fear that has grown in the Pakistani establishment in the wake of the operation against Osama bin Laden.

In a recent ebook, historian Agha Humayun Amin, a former major in the Pakistani Tank Corps, confirms this.

The Pakistani military perception right from 2001 was that the USA was a threat for Pakistan’s nuclear program and US arrival in Afghanistan had more to do with Pakistan and less with the Taliban. Therefore the Taliban had to be supported. As long as the Americans were busy with the Taliban, Pakistan or Pakistani nuclear assets were safe.

Or, reports Elaine Grossman for the National Journal (emphasis added):

“When the U.S. says that they are worried about the security [of] Pakistan’s nuclear arms, it means it fears that these might fall in the hands of such elements as the extremist Taliban,” said a commentary published by Pakistan’s Frontier Post in late 2011. “However, when [former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood] Qureshi says so, he means that these are in danger of being whisked away by the U.S. armed forces.”

Update on the B61 from Arms Control Now:

But today (June 27), the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding for the B61 by $168 million, or 30 percent below the request, to $369 million.

Germans Shocked That Obama Allowed NSA Free Rein

The former East Germany’s Stasi used similar justifications as the U.S. for total surveillance.

Stasi detention facility

Stasi detention facility

If recent revelations have led Americans to question how the United States defines freedom, Germans are questioning how the United States defines friendship. Turmoil surrounding PRISM’s overseas snooping has pushed the protection of privacy to the front of Germany’s agenda, imperiling German-U.S. relations. The American National Security Agency has been able to access data clouds in Europe for the last five years, which is news to most European citizens, although the European Parliament has known since 2011. In Germany, outrage is boiling as many begin to reassess the German-American relationship.

Since the end of World War II, Germany and the United States have enjoyed a relative closeness and codependency and are often described as a partnership, marriage, or friendship. But over the last decade, political rifts over the global economy, the war in Iraq, and America’s civil rights violations have caused this transatlantic love to fade. PRISM’s direct invasion of Europeans’ privacy provides further cleavage between the two Western superpowers.

German government officials, political parties, and news sources have been openly critical of the Obama administration, demanding information and justification. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger linked the security issue to one of democracy’s fundamental predicaments, explaining that “the more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is.” She called on Washington to be completely transparent about its motivations for such excessive surveillance in order to resolve the conflict.

During President Obama’s visit to Berlin on June 19, Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the president for specifics on the NSA’s role in Europe. While Obama’s outline of the NSA’s restricted domain and assertions about its role in terrorism prevention in Germany seemed to reassure Merkel, he’ll have to do much more to win over the rest of the country.

One reason that many Germans aren’t taking the bait is that former East Germans, including Chancellor Merkel herself, liken the invasiveness of PRISM’s techniques to Stasi infiltration. The all-too-recent horror of the German Democratic Republic’s repression hovers in German minds, giving a particularly sinister gleam to the NSA’s operations. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany justified Stasi actions as efforts to preserve state security, a frighteningly similar goal, when taken at face-value, to that of our own security agency. European Parliament member Mark Ferber reported that he “thought this era had ended when the DDR fell.”

With no comparable national experience in the popular American imagination, it seems that the U.S. government is less constrained to value privacy in the same way. The disparity is even embedded in law—the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide protection of citizens’ privacy, whereas Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects Germans’ lives, homes, and correspondence from interference by public authorities. The threat that PRISM poses to Germany’s guarantee of privacy protection is frightening to Germans on a deep level that perhaps even the most concerned Americans can’t fully comprehend.

Although Merkel and Obama used the term “friendship” liberally throughout their joint press conference, the term may no longer describe a unity of ideals with regard to human rights. “Is [Obama] a friend?” asks Jakob Augstein at Spiegel Online, observing that “revelations about his government’s vast spying program call that assumption into doubt.”

It is obvious that the German people will not readily sacrifice the privacy that they fought to have, and the United States can either take a page from the German book or retain its current security agenda. But even if the latter becomes agreeable to the American people, NSA persistence overseas may discolor the German-American friendship with pigments of mistrust and reluctance.

Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Surveillance State Is Only New to Whites

baltimore-surveillance-nsa-edward snowdenThe past three weeks have been a bombardment of information regarding the US Surveillance State. I was tempted to say “a bombardment of revelations,” but that would have implied it was surprising, and to anyone paying attention for the past decade, that would have been disingenuous. It’s not surprising that the NSA has been collecting metadata on our communications, and it’s equally unsurprising that they’ve been lying about it. It’s not surprising that the FBI has been using drones to spy on US soil, that the US hacks Chinese computers and cell phones, or that the British had spied on foreign diplomats at the G-20. But it is groundbreaking that this information is now confirmed.

Disregarding my own cynicism (I know I should be shocked, shocked!), there is something deeply insidious about the outrage being expressed. Not just the hero-worship or vilification of Edward Snowden. Despite this author’s opinion that, sunlight being the best disinfectant, these leaks are good for the American people, Snowden and the leak process is not the story. The story is the confirmation of an unconstitutional surveillance state to which Americans never consented, never even got the opportunity to debate how many of our civil liberties we’re willing to forgo in the name of security. No, the insidiousness is in the outrage over the surveillance state itself. Now it’s a big deal, now that they’re spying on us. But where was the outrage over Stop And Frisk or any of New York’s other recent surveillance and anti-whistleblowing excesses? Oh, that just happened to Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims. Where was the outrage when we were openly intercepting the e-mail and phone communication of all non-Americans regardless of probable cause? Oh, that just happened to foreigners, they’re not protected by our laws. These inherently xenophobic reactions, which of course are nothing new, highlight our problem: the surveillance state stops being ok when it goes from racist to all-encompassing.

The surveillance state is not a new problem; it’s a new problem for white people. The surveillance state has been a daily thorn in the lives of New York’s minorities for years, but it’s not just inconvenient. The surveillance state as a racist institution has been destroying the economy of majority-black cities and non-white neighborhoods for decades.

“I Believe In A Better Baltimore,” then-Mayor Martin O’Malley told the city in his 2002 re-election campaign, asking Baltimore to “risk action on faith” as he so eloquently put it. And the city bought his hopeful, inspiring rhetoric. but never asked for a plan, and so voted for the BELIEVE campaign, a multi-million-dollar press bonanza that put O’Malley’s administration in very comfortable approval numbers. By the time he left Baltimore for the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis, however, the city’s murder and violent crime rates were back to their horrific mid-90’s levels, as were drug and STD rates, the campaign having changed nothing. Well, almost nothing.

Today, the streets of Baltimore are littered with the tattered remnants of the BELIEVE campaign: scratched stickers on newspaper stands and mailboxes, torn banners on the sides of buildings. In fact, aside from the politicians who pepper their speeches with the word, the only aspect of BELIEVE left intact are the blue light boxes that continue to degrade the economies and self-esteem of Baltimore’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. For those not familiar with the blue lights, their purpose is as purportedly noble to city safety as PRISM is to national security. Officially known as Portable Overt Digital Surveillance Systems (PODSS), the flashing camera system was intended to improve security by filming the actions on the corner. The always-on surveillance cameras track sound as well as image, and can identify a resident’s walking patterns and run a program to calculate the likelihood of their criminality. In minority neighborhoods from Baltimore to Chicago, Big Brother is always watching. The best description of their use and impact comes from John Duda at the Indypendent Reader:

… the streets monitored by these cameras have been marked as permanent emergencies, as territories distinct from the “normal” or “good” areas of the city. Rather than addressing these territories as communities of fellow citizens, the cameras address entire blocks as potential criminals, feeding into a logic in which extraordinary regimes of policing and incarceration appear justiï¬ed. The City of Baltimore has installed at least one camera which illustrates this point perfectly: a camera is equipped with a motion detector and a taped recording connected to a loudspeaker; when anyone walks past the apparatus, their picture is taken, and the recording informs them both that they are a criminal and that they have been photographed.

What a blue light on a lamppost means is that you’ve stumbled onto a problem corner. It has come to mean that, if you regrettably find yourself on such a corner after dark, you should lock your doors and not stop at stop signs or even stop lights if possible due to the imminent threat of carjacking or worse. But as gang rates spike with non-violent offenders caught by the POD cameras seeking protection in prison, what the blue lights really mean is that no business will ever enter these areas. While dealers move over one street to evade the camera, no significant investment or purchase will be made here and the legitimate economy of the neighborhood will continue to spiral downward. And as the blue lights destroy Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the potential of their residents, they pay fitting homage to the bluff that crushed a city’s hope, as underneath them are little black boxes labeled very visibly: “BELIEVE.”

It’s worth noting that in San Francisco, a nearly-majority white city (48%), outrage sparked by the implementation of POD systems brought legal changes to curb their impact on civil liberties. Similar challenges in Chicago (35% white) and Baltimore (31% white) have yielded no results and no media attention.

Non-white Americans have been under surveillance, subject to the violence of a police state, their constitutional rights trod upon, for decades. But now white people know that their e-mails are being read, their phone calls recorded by the government. Now the constitutional rights of people with “nothing to hide” are being infringed upon, now it’s a crisis. Welcome to your first glimpse of the America of forty percent of your countrymen.

Zachary Gallant is a Fulbright Fellow in Post-Conflict Redevelopment with an M.A. in International Politics from the University of London, and a recovering Baltimore City political operative. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacharyGallant.

“World War Z”: Israel’s Best Foot Forward?

World War Z“A Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt posits a right of return for Arabs and Jews?” asks blogger levi9909 at Jews sans frontieres. An anonymous poster at 1971 Productions blog provides some background on World War Z (with emphasis added and, where applicable, sic):

According to the novel [by Max Brooks, Metropolitan Books, 2006] a key occurance near the beginning of the zombie pandemic takes place in Israel. While every other nation dismisses the zombie threat as a ‘non-news’ item, Israel takes proactive steps with the closing of its borders to everyone except uninfected Jews and Palestinians.

The book details how the state takes steps to protect itself via the building of “The Wall”, turning the nation into a literal prison state. All Israeli, non-Israeli Jews, and Palestinians and descendants of pre-1948 Palestinians who lived abroad, are allowed to return to Israel to live behind this wall after being screened for the disease. Also in order to scale back on the amount of land it has to secure, the government unwillingly pull back from the West Bank and most other areas they had seized, before sealing themselves in.

… the Palestinians and The Jews ‘live happily ever after’ in peace and unity.

An anonymous commenter replied (again, sic):

I’m pretty certain that if zombies were attacking the Middle East, Israel will only let Jews inside its boarders and let the Arabs and the rest of the world die. They will NOT save the Palestinians. Max Brook’s tries to make the Jews the only civilzed nation on the planet, while all the Muslim nations act crazy and die.

In a trailer scene reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s poignant Zone One (Anchor, 2011), zombies overrun an enormous wall. I had read Brooks’s dazzling novel, but forgot the details, and was wondering where the wall World War Z’s zombies were scaling was located. Upon watching the movie with my son and learning that it was outside Jerusalem, one couldn’t help but draw a comparison with Israel’s West Bank and two Gaza Strip barriers. Nor the obvious analogy of, as some Israelis see it, hordes of Arabs in the form of Palestinians overrunning their country. Meanwhile, evocations of Christians invading during the Crusades made it especially unsettling to see Jerusalem thus ravaged.

I then watched closely to see if those admitted into the walled compound that Jerusalem had become included Arabs. The fast-moving action and dialogue slipped by me and I was unable to pick out Arabs or hear references to their admittance. In any event, it seemed to have underplayed, as opposed to Brooks’s novel, in which the crisis seems to bring out the best in Israelis.

In his novel, however, either to advance the narrative, reflect his political concerns, or both, Brooks took the opportunity to eliminate two “existential” threats to Israel.

From the 1971 post:

… a threatened yet ironically safe Tehran takes a less than proactive step to quell the sudden influx of Pakistani refugees crossing Baluchistan into Iran. With India all but destroyed by the zombie virus, many Pakistanis who cannot fly out of the country see Iran as the next best alternative. Launching a misjudged nuclear strike against Karachi, Pakistan responds to Iran in a likewise manner, ensuring the annihilation of both countries in the process.

Finally, some brief observations about whether the film works. The case can be made that it’s the zombie film to end all zombie films. Whether all those in the interim since George Romero’s 1978 horror classic Night of the Living Dead – which cashed in on a trifecta of powerful drama, genuine shock, and a social conscience – were even necessary is a moot point. World War Z features the revved-up variety of zombies, which amps up the action, but forfeits the suspense inherent in zombies’ traditional slow gait.

Nevertheless, World War Z is an exciting and moving. Furthermore, the much criticized ending might seem tacked on, in part because it’s scaled down from a cast of skatey-eight million. In a Vanity Fair piece about the problem-plagued making of the film, director Marc Foster said of the final scenes: “The maximum amount of actors or human beings on that set were 20.” Some movies start small and end big; others start big and end small, an arguably more satisfying strategy.

Russia and China Fail to Meet Minimum Standards in Human Trafficking

They had been on the State Department’s watch list, but were further downgraded in this years’s Trafficking in Persons report.

Secretary of State Kerry at the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report event.

Secretary of State Kerry at the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report event.

As a country that will celebrate February 2, 2014 like a national holiday, the United States has cause for some self-evaluation. Super Bowl XLVIII is expected to be responsible for the trafficking of 10,000 prostitutes into New Jersey to meet the influx of fans looking to pay for sex. Yet despite this dark underbelly to one of America’s favorite and most celebrated pastimes, the United States awarded itself a sterling Tier 1 grade in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons report, which was released on June 19.

Less fortunate were China and Russia, both of which were downgraded this year to Tier 3 after a respective nine and eight years on the Tier 2 “watch list.” A Tier 3 designation means a country does not comply with any of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards and is not making any efforts to do so, whereas a Tier 2 county has made significant efforts to comply with those standards. A Tier 3 ranking also comes with sanctions, which could include withdrawing non-humanitarian and non-trade aid and halting U.S. participation in any cultural and educational exchange programs, though President Obama has the power to waive these sanctions.

Prior to its release, there had been some discussion as to whether Washington’s political and economic agenda would sway the findings of the report. These speculations are grounded in the government’s decision two years ago to save India — “the demographic epicenter of human trafficking” — from a Tier 3 ranking, which, according to former director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Mark Lagon, likely had more to do with politics than anti-trafficking efforts. This year, Secretary of State John Kerry demonstrated a commitment to fighting modern day slavery by standing behind fact and no longer delaying the decision to downgrade several major powers to their deserved ranking.

This is not to say that the Trafficking in Persons Report has been without criticism. Representatives from both Russia and China have been extremely outspoken against their country’s demotions. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman for China disregarded the State Department’s findings, countering that China “has achieved remarkable progress in fighting domestic and transnational trafficking.” She went on to attribute the Tier 3 ranking to Washington’s arbitrary and biased view of China.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also dismissed the report, characterizing its findings as the result of “unacceptable methodology.” It continued on to mock the idea of following the dictates of another country in combating organized crime and trafficking in Russia. The report, however, describes Russia as lacking “any concrete system for the identification or care of trafficking victims.”

Russia and China, in addition to other Tier 3 countries, have 90 days before non-trade and non-humanitarian related sanctions come into place to prove their commitment to combat trafficking and protect victims.

Also worth noting is that Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, and Malaysia were notified that without any significant changes, they would be downgraded next year to Tier 3 as well. Several countries, such as Iraq and the Congo, were promoted from the watch list to Tier 2 as recognition for significant strides made this past year.

Lizzie Rajasingh is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Hydrofluorocarbons: Finally, Something the U.S. and China Can Agree On

Obama, JinpingPresident Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t reach much consensus on cyber hacking or other divisive issues during their recent two-day summit in Rancho Mirage, California. But they made huge strides forward on a decidedly wonkier front by agreeing to reduce the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioning units, HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and are therefore known as “super greenhouse gases.” They were introduced to the market as refrigerants after the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, in which nearly 200 countries agreed to phase out the production of ozone-depleting compounds. Although ozone-friendly, HFCs could account for as much as 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Their production has soared in developing countries like China and India, as demand for refrigerators and air conditioning explodes among the middle class.

In 2009, the United States, Canada, and Mexico submitted a joint proposal calling on other parties to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and replace them with new, safer compounds. According to the Center for American Progress, this amendment to the protocol would eliminate the equivalent of 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and avert a half-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature by the end of the century. Over 110 other countries support the proposal, but strong objections from China, India, and Brazil—who argue that the phase-out would slow development and saddle them with high costs—have prevented the proposal from taking effect.

Therefore, China’s about-face on HFCs at the Sunnylands summit, as leading environmental advocates have pointed out, is a really big deal. In an astonishing gesture of superpower cooperation, Obama and Xi signed a pledge stating that their countries would “work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches,” including the Montreal Protocol, “to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.”

There’s now renewed hope that the world could see a substantial reduction in HFCs in the near(ish) future. However, it’s uncertain whether China will support the proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol or pursue other multilateral approaches, which might take a lot longer. China’s powerful chemical companies, which are heavily invested in the production of HFCs, will probably do everything they can to delay the phase-down until they determine that investing in new refrigerants is more lucrative.

Nevertheless, the joint pledge signed by the United States and China has given a much-needed jumpstart to the global movement to reduce HFCs. It’s also a promising indication that the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” will give rise to further joint efforts to tackle climate change. It’s about time that the world’s two largest polluters take more initiative in cleaning up their own mess.

Cindy Hwang is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Finally — Pride of Place for Drug Policy at the OAS General Assembly Meeting

Cross-posted from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Originally posted by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

OAS drug reformThis year’s annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, marked a milestone in the Latin American drug policy debate. For the first time, the drug policy issue was the primary theme of a hemispheric meeting and, in a closed-door meeting of the foreign ministers, a process was laid out for continuing the discussion, culminating in a Special Session of the General Assembly to be held in 2014. The significance of this meeting should not be underestimated. Drug policy has long been a taboo topic in official Latin American circles, given the traditional U.S. dominance in defining drug policies in the region. As one official noted, “Even two years ago I would not have imagined that we would be having this discussion today.” The General Assembly meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, from June 4 to 6 illustrated that there is growing recognition across the region that present drug control policies are failing and that some countries in particular have paid a very high social, economic and political cost for implementing those policies, hence the need to consider alternative approaches. However, the Antigua meeting also showed a lack of consensus on the way forward.

The declaration agreed to at the end of the meeting, “For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” calls for countries to initiate a multi-layered process of consultation in a variety of national and regional forums, taking into account the recently-released OAS drug policy studies and the outcomes of this General Assembly meeting and concludes by entrusting the Permanent Council to call for a Special Session to be held no later than 2014. From the declaration’s first draft, the United States, among other countries, opposed the Special Session. U.S. officials, while apparently agreeing to the Special Session in the closed-door meeting of foreign ministers, sought until the bitter end to water down the language (allowing for the Permanent Council to decide whether or not to convene a Special Session, among other caveats), ultimately allowing for the declaration to go forward with a footnote laying out U.S. concerns. (As in the case of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the OAS operates by consensus.) The process laid out in Antigua ensures that drug policy will remain at the top of the hemispheric agenda and provides greater opportunity for Latin American countries to influence the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to be held in 2016.

The Guatemalan government—and in particular Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera—played a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the Antigua meeting. However, it is important to note that the next two major hemispheric meetings will be in places with governments less inclined to put drug policy alternatives on the agenda: The next meeting of the General Assembly will take place in Paraguay in 2014 and the next Summit of the Americas will be in Panama in 2015; both countries have remained firm U.S. allies on drug policy issues.

Another positive outcome of the General Assembly meeting was growing recognition of the importance of the May 2013 OAS report on “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and the complementary scenarios study. In contrast to the tepid if not outright hostile reaction to the reports in the bi-annual CICAD meeting last May, in Antigua numerous government delegations highlighted that these reports provide an important tool for the regional drug policy debate. The OAS report lays out various alternative drug policies that could be considered by member states, including decriminalization of consumption and legal, regulated markets for cannabis. Of particular significance, it calls for giving countries greater flexibility in implementing drug policy and the need for drug law reforms at both the national and international levels. In other words, the OAS report points to the possibility of reform of the international drug control conventions—an issue some countries would like to see on the agenda of the 2016 UNGASS.

However, in Antigua few governments endorsed any of the alternative policies suggested by the OAS report and how many countries will actually promote the national-level debates mandated in Antigua remains to be seen. It was clear from the individual country speeches on the topic that the “reformist” countries are far out-numbered by those which appear wedded to present policy. And support for or against an alternative approach does not break down on ideological lines. The hardest-line speech supporting a “war on drugs” approach came from Venezuela. Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador, among other countries, also spoke out in favor of the status quo. Neither Brazil nor Argentina articulated a reform agenda. Colombia’s foreign minister gave a very diplomatic statement that supported the OAS reports but for the most part focused on Colombia’s “achievements” in coca eradication and cocaine interdiction and what the country is doing to export its security-oriented model to the rest of the region. The Mexican government supported the Special Session, but continued to play its cards very close to its chest.

In terms of countries advocating reform, in the opening ceremony Guatemalan President Pérez Molina gave an impassioned speech on the need for drug policy reform. Ecuador’s foreign minister also criticized the U.S. “war on drugs.” And as was to be expected, the Uruguayan government gave the most articulate speech advocating a public health and human rights-based approach to drug control. It also pointed to the need to discuss the international conventions so as to improve effectiveness and ensure respect for individual and collective rights. In another welcome development, gender issues were highlighted by several delegates and Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and one of the two roundtable discussions organized by the OAS was on “Women and Drugs in the Americas: A diagnosis in the making.”

Given these continued divisions between countries, what can be expected from the drug policy debate in Latin America? While press headlines prior to and during the Antigua meeting speculated about legalization, if one thing is clear it is that any regional consensus in favor of moving toward legal, regulated markets for all drugs is a long way off. More realistically, three possible advances are most likely to emerge from this debate. First, more emphasis on treating drug dependency as a public health issue and growing support for decriminalization of carrying small amounts of drug for personal consumption. Already, numerous countries in the region do not criminalize possession for personal consumption (though the United States remains a major exception) and it is not mandated by the drug control conventions. Second, more emphasis on reducing violence rather than the scale of the drug market, a point highlighted in the OAS report. And third, growing regional tolerance that allows for more flexibility at the local and national level to experiment with policies that are appropriate for individual countries, states and cities. Ultimately, reaching consensus on drug convention reform will be a long and difficult process. In the meantime, reforms will come from below—from the local and national experimentation with alternative drug control policies—and should help guide the regional and international drug policy debate. Allowing such experimentation to flourish is a necessary step forward in developing and implementing more humane and effective drug control policies.

Coletta A. Youngers is an Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

The Empire’s New Clothes: “Humanitarian Intervention” Stripped Bare

Cross-posted from the Black Agenda Report.

Assad-Syria-humanitarian intervention-president obamaSome critics from the left and the right characterized my recent article “Syria and the Sham of Humanitarian Intervention” as an unnecessarily harsh indictment of a policy that provides a necessary tool for the international community to protect human rights and save innocent lives.

But the recent decision by the Obama Administration to “up the ante” in Syria with more direct military involvement only confirmed my original thesis that humanitarian intervention has nothing to do with humanitarian concern, and instead is a propaganda tool that affords “the U.S. State the perfect ideological cover and internal rationalization to continue as the global ‘gendarme’ of the capitalist order.”

Look at the stage-managed drama leading up to the announcement on U.S. policy toward Syria that took place last week in Washington. In a surreal replay of the process leading to the illegal war on Iraq, it became clear that while everyone had been waiting to learn the results of meetings among high level officials of the Obama administration, who, we were told would be debating the next phase of U.S. policy on Syria, we learned instead that the decision to increase its open involvement with the civil war it fomented in Syria had been made weeks earlier. So the meetings last week were just political theater providing the Administration the stage to announce its’ “findings” on the use of chemical weapons by the government in Syria. As an official said the chemical weapons findings offered “fresh justification to act.”

Revising the “weapons of mass destruction” deception, the government “confirmed” that Syrian forces used chemical weapons that caused the deaths of over a hundred people out of the over 90,000 estimated to have died in the conflict. With no evidence or independent confirmation, the Administration announced that it is now compelled to involve itself more directly in the conflict to save the Syrian people from their murderous government.

However, in a telling and hopefully positive sign of the times, significant segments of the U.S. public are not falling for this ploy, at least not for now. And perhaps because of the recent revelations of governmental attacks on the press, some U.S. media outlets are not serving as aggressively as mouthpieces for the government in the obsequious manner they did in the run-up to and subsequent attack on Iraq.

This might also explain why some mainstream media outlets in the U.S. are finally allowing some minimal information and analysis of the conflict in Syria to be presented to the U.S. public from a more critical perspective. This includes information that has been regularly covered throughout the world but barely receives a mention in the U.S. press, like, for example, the fact that the Syrian government still receives majority support, including from significant numbers of Sunni Muslims, who are terrified of the religious fanatics who have poured into their country to “liberate” them. Instead of the continuing framing of the ballooning numbers of people killed in the conflict as the result of genocidal government actions, some outlets have actually presented evidence indicating that Syrian soldiers and pro-government militias make up 43.2% of the deaths.

Another small but significant example of the slight change in the slant of information is a recent opinion piece that was allowed to run in the New York Times that was highly critical of Administration policy in Syria. In that piece, it was argued that President Obama, lacking a grand strategy for Syria and the Middle East, has become a victim of rhetorical entrapment “from calling on foreign leaders to leave (with no plan to forcibly remove them) to publicly drawing red lines on the use of chemical weapons, and then being obliged to fulfill the threat.”

However, as important as it is to have a more critical perspective in a major publication, it would be wrong to believe that the Administration lacks a specific strategy for Syria with concrete objectives. The implication that the Administration does not have an agenda in Syria and that misguided but benevolent rhetoric has trapped it into making the decisions it is making is a familiar claim of innocence that liberals often evoke.

More than rhetorical entrapment, the Obama Administration has consciously and consistently maneuvered from the very beginning of the Syrian crisis to reconfigure the reality on the ground to the advantage of its strategic objective. That objective is to alter the balance of forces in the region against Iran by either subordinating or destroying the Syrian state.

When the opportunity presented itself, it was this strategic objective, informed by the U.S. National Security strategy position for the Middle East region, that was embraced and executed with devastating effect by the Obama Administration in the form of the manufactured civil war in Syria. What the New York Times opinion piece confused and conflated is “absence of a strategy” with tactical decisions based on shifting conditions, like the decision to openly supply the “rebels.”

The U.S. saw a strategic opportunity to execute its plan for regime change in Syria using the fictions of the so-called Arab Spring, the “successful” Western war on Libya, and the ideological fig leaf of humanitarian intervention.

Unfortunately, anti-war, anti-imperialist and people-centered human rights activists have not developed effective strategies to counter the push for war. So today we confront a situation in which the Obama Administration has not only blown the dust off of what should be a completely discredited playbook from Iraq on how to manipulate the public into supporting war, it has also added the new play of humanitarian intervention to confuse opposition. Instead of the imminent threat argument, used to make the absurd charge that Saddam Hussein might turn over WMDs to Al-Qaeda, with Syria the need for intervention is strictly “altruistic.”

That is why the immediate priority for anti-war, anti-imperialist, human rights activists in the U.S., for countering the government’s effort to normalize war is to strip away the moral pretext of humanitarian intervention and expose its ugly, imperialist reality. No other group has the power and the responsibility other than us to do this. We must boldly point out that while strutting around the globe clothed in the fiction of humanitarian concern, imperialism is actually naked, and the sight is offensive.

Ajamu Baraka was the founding Director of the US Human Rights Network. Baraka is currently an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is editing a new book on human rights in the U.S. entitled “The Struggle for a People-Centered Human Rights: Voices from the Field.” He can be reached at Ajamubaraka.com.

Finding a Normal Path in Serbia

Many ethnic Serbs fled — or were expelled from — Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Angelina Jolie and Serbian refugee

Angelina Jolie and Serbian refugee

Even today, the country in Europe with the largest population of internally displaced persons (IDP) is Serbia. More than a decade after the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia, more than 200,000 people remain in limbo in Serbia. Many ethnic Serbs fled – or were expelled from — Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during those conflicts of the 1990s. All of the IDPs are from the Kosovo conflict, a significant minority of them Roma. The vast majority will not likely return to where they once lived. Since 1999, according to one estimate, only 3 percent of the IDPs from Kosovo have achieved what’s been called “sustainable return.”

For her book With their Backs to the World, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad visited the refugee camps that house the IDPs and reported on the squalid conditions where so many of them live: the substandard housing, the health problems, the lack of employment opportunities. And rather than being treated with compassion, most of the IDP community continues to be viewed as second-class citizens.

“‘They’re more like Albanians than Serbs,’ is a commonly held sentiment,” Seierstad relates. “‘They speak Serbian worse than Albanians do,’ people say of the Kosovo-Serbian dialect, ‘They act like Albanians, speak too loud, park wherever they feel like it. They sell their humanitarian aid at the market, they’ve got money that they hide so they can beg for more, they have as many kids as the Albanians, their kids are noisy and vandalise the schools.’”

A major challenge for Serbia is “refugee fatigue.” The society already worked to integrate the earlier wave of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, and that was not an easy process. And the Serbian government still harbors the hope of sending many of today’s IDPs back to Kosovo, even if most of them don’t want to return.

Daria Gajic’s family was relatively lucky. They arrived from Croatia before the huge influx of refugees later in the decade, and they had family connections in Serbia. But it was still a culture shock for her. “It was difficult because I didn’t know Cyrillic,” she told me in an interview at her workplace, a radio station for the Orthodox Church in the Serbian city of Nis. “It was also difficult psychologically, I guess. We didn’t have any place to live. We lived with relatives who really didn’t want us there. I think I also had problems in school. I was shut down.”

The ethnic Serbs coming from Croatia encountered fear and hostility. “When a number of people came to Serbia in 1990 when the crisis started, people here were thinking, ‘They will take our jobs and we will have even less than what we have,’” she told me. “I remember in 1995 during Operation Storm, my relatives came from Krajina to Serbia. A friend of mine said, ‘Can you imagine, in those trailers, I saw that they have some things from their households. When did they have the time to pack those things? And why did they pack an umbrella?’ Those people, two days before, lost everything they owned in their lives. They had only two hours to pack everything in their lives into a car or a trailer or to hide it on the train.”

Daria Gajic does not dwell on her time as a new arrival in Serbia, and our conversation did not focus exclusively on this issue. Having worked at a radio station in the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo and now working with the radio station of the Orthodox Church, she has a unique perspective on the role of religion in Serbian society and the importance of Kosovo for Serbian identity. We also talked about the Serbian nationalist organization Dveri Srpske, the image of Europe, and the Gay Pride march.

The Interview

Tell me about how you first got involved in this work at the radio station of the Orthodox Church here in Nis.

In 2005, I married a priest. A year before that, I finished university. I’m a journalist. But I never believed that as the wife of a priest I would be a journalist. Also, I have some problems with my character. I’m not aggressive sometimes. I don’t know if I can be objective enough. But it was natural when this radio station opened that they offered me this position.

What kind of work do you do here?

I’m a journalist here. I’m a radio host of certain programs.

And the topic is connected to the Church?

We have a morning program here. It’s very rarely connected to the Church except when it’s a holiday or an important saint day, and then the program is about that. Usually it’s about the weather or traffic. When something really important happens with the Church, then we’ll cover that. But the Church is not the kind of organization where something new and big is happening all the time.

You mentioned that in 1991 your family came here from Zagreb. I know that this was a difficult time. Was the decision to leave Croatia voluntary?

It was not voluntary. There was pressure in our neighborhood from the community and at the workplace on my parents. We didn’t feel that we were safe. It’s better to sleep peacefully at night then to stay in your house.

Did you feel any pressure in school as a child?

Yes. For example, we had geography in fifth grade, in 1990, when Yugoslavia was still a country. The teacher said we had to write down the names of the republics. Everyone in the class said, “We’re going to write Serbia last.” Me as a Serbian, and everyone knew that I was Serbian, I couldn’t do that. At the same time I couldn’t write Serbia first. So I started from the beginning: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, then Serbia.

I felt pressure also in September 1991. That was the month when we came to Belgrade. In my neighborhood, the children didn’t want to play with me any more.

Were you the only Serbian child in your school?

In my class, yes, I was.

That must have been very difficult.

It wasn’t too bad. Class was only for two weeks that September and then we went to Belgrade. For the kids who stayed longer, it would have been more difficult. It would have been more difficult for me if we had stayed.

Did you keep in touch with anyone from that period in your life?

I was in Zagreb in 2001 and I saw many friends from my neighborhood. And they asked, “Why did you leave? You didn’t have to leave! Nobody would have touched you or hurt you.”

What did you say to them?

I pretended that it wasn’t my decision, that it was the decision of my parents. I didn’t talk about how it felt in 1991, about what was really going on.

When you arrived in Belgrade was it difficult to adjust?

Yes, maybe for the first four months or more. It was difficult because I didn’t know Cyrillic. It was also difficult psychologically, I guess. We didn’t have any place to live. We lived with relatives who really didn’t want us there. I think I also had problems in school. I was shut down. From that period to now, I have exhibited certain behaviors. So, for instance, it’s really important for me to feel accepted. When we arrived in Serbia, I changed school maybe three times in six months. Every time it was a stretch for me. Finally, in the third school, when I felt accepted, I said to my parents, “I don’t want to leave any more. I want to stay here.” Before that, I pretended I was sick so I didn’t have to go to school.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?

When I finished high school. It was not really a big wish for me. I just knew that mathematics or physics was not for me, and I thought journalism could be for me. I like to talk. I’m good with words sometimes. The problem was, when I enrolled I realized that maybe it’s not really for me. You have to be a certain type of personality, which I wasn’t.

Not aggressive enough?

For example.

Before you married the priest, what was your relationship with the Church?

It didn’t exist, almost. I was in fifth grade, in 1990, when my father gave me a bible for young people. That was my first encounter with God. That’s when I realized that I need to believe in something. But I was still afraid to come to the church and talk to the priest. In my family, we were not even baptized, nobody: not my parents or my brother or me.

I wanted to come to church. But I was thinking that if I come to church, I wouldn’t know anything, not even the right questions to ask. I wouldn’t even know how big my ignorance is!

In 1998, I met my husband. He was studying theology. He was still in high school. And maybe a year later, he asked if I would come to church. And I said I would, but I was afraid. And that’s when it started.

What would you say the role of the Church in Serbia is?

I’m not sure that it is as huge as maybe some people think it is. I think that it should be more than it is. The Church is not doing enough when it comes to certain questions that are important to the Church. And maybe it is interfering in some things that maybe it shouldn’t waste its time with.

For example?

For example, I think that the Church has many problems within itself. And the Church is not paying enough attention to what people are saying. Anyone from the Church can go out and say whatever they want, and it’s considered the opinion of the whole church even when it isn’t. The Church has lots of problems with certain organizations that are active within it. Those people are believers, but I don’t think that everyone shares their point of view on every single topic.

When you say “organizations inside the church”…?

They’re not organizations inside the church. They represent themselves as such. I think the Church is not doing enough to distance itself from those people. The Church is a community, and everyone in this community can have different opinions on different matters that are not religious. But some people are louder than others, and some in society consider these people to be the true representatives of the Church.

Can you give an example?

Dveri, for example.

I had hoped to interview a representative from Dveri today, but they cancelled the interview.

This is something very personal for me. I don’t agree with everything they say. And It bothers me when they say something in public and then it seems to people as if I also have their opinion. People think that everyone in the Church is extremist and narrow-minded.

In many religious traditions, there’s a tension between the more conservative branch and the more reformist branch. Is that the case here as well?

Yes, I think so.

Where does the struggle take place? Publicly? In the media?

I’m not sure. Because I think I’m not objective enough. Because my husband is a priest and I know more about what’s happening inside. Sometimes the Church is a closed structure. I’m not sure how people who are not religious perceive this.

The reformers in Catholicism originally pushed for the mass to be conducted in English and not in Latin. They continue to push for a more liberal interpretation of birth control. But I don’t really know what it means to be reform-oriented inside the Orthodox church. Can you explain that to

Those who call themselves reformists or are considered that way do not try to reform attitudes of the Church toward certain social questions like contraception. It’s more inside questions like how many times should people take Holy Communion, for example. Half the Church is obsessed with the idea that the Catholics are all trying to convert us to Catholicism and that they have spies on the inside. And the other half think that this is not a threat any more. It was, but it’s not any more.

I understand that the number of people who come to church has increased in Serbia over the last 20 years.

Yes. The statistics are that 97 percent of people in Serbia say they are religious and are Orthodox. And only 3 percent come to church.

Wow, that’s quite a dramatic gap! When you say only 3 percent come to church, is that regularly or at all?

Regularly. Some people come in the afternoon just to be in a peaceful place. I wouldn’t put them in the 3 percent.

What is your sense of nationalism here in Serbia today?

In Serbia, everyone goes to extremes. It’s very hard for us, in reacting to what happens, to find a normal path. You have extreme nationalists and then you have the other side who thinks that “nation” is totally unimportant. Neither of these positions is particularly healthy. There are not many people in Serbia who have a normal sense or understanding of what nationalism really is. For me personally, I love the fact that I am a Serb. I’m proud. At the same time, my religion for me is more important than my nationality. The first thing in my life is that I’m an Orthodox Christian, and then I’m a Serb.

Do you think the majority of Serbs would reverse that?

Yes. I think even people who come to church, very often it is more important to them that they are Serbs. And especially the 97 percent that declare themselves Orthodox, it’s not a sign of religion but an equation of “I’m Serbian and I’m Orthodox.” People here don’t understand that you don’t have to be Serbian to be Orthodox.

Do you think that there has been an increase in extreme nationalism in Serbia?

No, it’s been the same since the war. I think that there are more people since the war ended who are on the other side. They are fed up with everything: with war and questions that are important for the Serbian nation. They don’t want to deal with any of it any more.

For instance, they’re just focusing on joining the European Union.

Yes.

And what’s your attitude about joining the EU?

I wouldn’t have anything against that. But from what I know, the EU also has problems, especially economic problems. I’m not really totally excited about becoming a part of the EU. There will be many benefits, but I think there will be some downsides. I would like if we could preserve the lifestyle we have here and at the same time to have the living standard of the people in Europe.

When you say preserve the lifestyle you have, do you have a feeling that other members of the EU have not been able to preserve their lifestyle when they became members, like Bulgaria or Romania?

I don’t think that Bulgaria and Romania have achieved the standards of the EU. I don’t think that the minute that Bulgaria and Romania became members of the EU, many things changed there. I also think that the decision to become a member is mostly a political decision — and not just about achieving certain EU standards.

When you said to preserve the lifestyle, what were you thinking about?

Working only six hours a day!

That’s an excellent lifestyle! I would like to join any place that allowed me to work only six hours a day.

I was never outside of Serbia, so it’s an opinion based on what I’ve seen on TV and maybe what some people told me about life outside Serbia. I feel that Serbia is in some ways safe. I feel like I can let my kid, who is only six, go out and play. I have friends in Canada where it’s against the law.

…to let their kids go out and play?

Yes, if the parent is not present to supervise the child.

I have relatives in Germany — we don’t see each other often but we are friends on Facebook so that I can see what they are doing — and when I see the Love Parade in Germany…

I don’t know what that is.

It’s in Berlin.

I can imagine what it is, given the name.

I wouldn’t like to see that in Serbia. I think that I would like us to be sometimes more conservative. I think weare conservative. But I wouldn’t like us to be so open to everything as people are in Europe, especially young people.

One of the things planned for tomorrow in Belgrade is the Gay Pride march, unless it’s been cancelled.

It’s been cancelled.

Ah. So, what’s your opinion about the march?

I’m against the march. It has to do with the fact that I’m Orthodox and I’m part of the Church. I’m not sure how objective I can be because there are so many people around me who are against it. So I listen to what they tell me. I’m not against gay people or a society in which they have all the rights that other people have. And I think that maybe tomorrow my child will come to me and tell me that he’s gay, and I wouldn’t like my child raised in a society that treats him in a wrong way because of his orientation. At the same time I pray that my child is not gay.

I have a problem with how it affects children. I think there are some psychologists who also agree. When you are very young, certain images that you see can affect you very much. I’m not sure that all gay people are born like that. Maybe some are, I don’t know. Sometimes it has to be the environment where you grow up and what happened to you in certain parts of your life. If you grow up in a society where your parents are two fathers or two mothers, I don’t know how that will affect you as a child. That’s one of the reasons why I’m against the march.

You said that most people around you who are against the march. Is there anyone around you who is for the march?

Maybe my friends from high school. But we haven’t talked about that. I’m guessing because they’re all in Belgrade and they’re all liberal.

Is Belgrade considered more liberal than Nis?

Yes, I think it is.

Because it’s the cosmopolitan center of Serbia?

Yes.

The big issue in terms of European integration is, of course, Kosovo. The Serbian government refuses to recognize Kosovo, and the EU says that there has to be negotiations, and Kosovo says that it won’t agree to partition. It seems to be a deadlock. What do you think about this?

I think the situation is political, and it makes no sense to me. Why should not recognizing Kosovo stop Serbia from entering the EU?

I don’t have a clear stand on this. One thing is the reality in Kosovo. The majority of the people there are Albanians. So if Kosovo were part of Serbia, then we would have even more Albanians in Serbia and it would be an even bigger problem. The other thing is that there are still Serbs in Kosovo and their lives are hard enough as it is. If Serbia recognizes Kosovo and there is a clear border, their lives would be even harder.

As a Serb, I cannot be objective. I can’t forget that the majority of Serbian monasteries were in Kosovo. I can’t forget that the first state that Serbians had was actually in Kosovo. So history does play an important role. And I think that the EU has a double standard. I think it’s just a game for them that they’re playing. I heard a few years ago that Turkey has to fulfill certain standards to become a member of the EU. But basically Turkey will never fulfill those standards. Because Turkey is a Muslim country and if Turkey becomes a member they’ll have even more Turks inside Europe. Even if Turkey becomes a great state to live in with great standards and all that, it will still not become a member of the EU.

I think it’s the same with Serbia. I don’t think that Serbia fulfills the standards right now. But I don’t think the biggest problem is Kosovo. Why wouldn’t they allow Serbia to enter the EU and then recognize the decision of the Serbians not to recognize Kosovo? But with or without Kosovo, we still have a long way to go.

Have you been to Kosovo?

Yes. I worked there. For maybe a year in KFOR at a radio station in the northern part, the Serbian part. I was a radio host and a translator.

Which towns?

ZveÄan and Leposavić.

What was your experience there like? Did you have any contacts with ethnic Albanians?

I didn’t have any contacts with ethnic Albanians. I didn’t want to have any contact. I was afraid. I was too afraid to go in my car to the Albanian part of Kosovo.

What were your fears exactly?

That they would kill me. That I would become a slave. I also know that people go and nothing happens to them, of course.

But it’s not just that. I was in Croatia in 2001, and it happened to me also that I was afraid: not that people would kill me in the street but that when they realize that I am Serbian, because now they can hear I’m from Serbia, they would say something bad to me or yell at me. I think that there are people in Croatia who still remember the war and are very passionate about those times.

Do you think the relationship between Serbia and Croatia has become normal more or less?

In some aspects, yes. I don’t know how many years will have to pass before it becomes truly normal. There’s a lot of history. The war between Croatia and Serbia didn’t start in 1991. My mother was born in Croatia, and her ancestors who were also Serbs were also born in Croatia. And they remember in 1941 the problems they had with their Croat neighbors, not with the Germans. In the First World War, also. After the wars they became friends, but it stays in the collective memory, and it’s not easy to erase those memories.

There are people in Serbia who now go on holiday in Croatia. Personally I would never go. But some people go. And there are Serbs who live and work normally there. There are mixed marriages again. And singers from Serbia go there and vice versa. I do think we should have normal relations, but I don’t think that everything is normal.

To go back to Kosovo for a moment, Kosovo is often referred to as the cradle of Serbia. I know that there were a lot of monasteries and churches there that were destroyed. I’m wondering what Kosovo represents for the Church. Is it just the history, going back to the battle of Kosovo, as well as the monasteries and churches there? Or is there something else that is important about Kosovo?

I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Let me give you an example. I was reading a memoir from 1913 by an English woman who came here to Serbia and wrote about the oral poems. I didn’t realize that these poems were so much about Kosovo. They were so much part of the culture.

I’m not sure how it is for each and every individual in the Church. I don’t think that for young people in Serbia Kosovo is a big issue. Most of them have never been there or imagine that they will ever be there. But for me personally, I would say that we only have ourselves to blame for the situation in Kosovo. Yes, I know that the Kosovo Albanians were having seven or eight children while we were only having one or two. And they were buying the land from Serbian people and most of the land was sold for quite a sum of money. So I can’t go there and defend something that is actually not mine any more.

But at the same time, there is the problem of the people who are still there, and they are not safe. The people living in the Serbian enclave together with their children are living their lives like caged animals. I don’t think it’s normal. I don’t think that they should live like that. I don’t think that they are the ones to “save” Kosovo. I don’t think that they have the responsibility for that, especially kids. For the Church, the question of the people who are there and who are Orthodox Serbs is number one, followed by the question of the monasteries and churches.

What do you think the ultimate solution will be?

I don’t think about that. It’s beyond me!

I’ve read accounts of the large number of Kosovo Serbs who came to Serbia as refugees. I’ve read that there is often a prejudice against Serbs from Kosovo, that many of the prejudices against Kosovo Albanians are applied to Kosovo Serbs. That they don’t speak Serbian well. That they are more like Kosovo Albanians than Serbs. That they are second-class Serbs. Have you encountered those stereotypes about Kosovo Serbs?

Yes, I have. Like they all stick together. Or that they all have now a lot of money because they sold their land. Some of them did, but some of them didn’t and they’re just refugees. Yes, there are stereotypes and not just about people from Kosovo. There are stereotypes about people from Nis, probably! And for those living in Belgrade also.

Did you encounter any stereotypes when you came to Serbia from Croatia?

Yes, but I also encountered stereotypes from people who came from Croatia about people in Serbia.

What were those?

They thought Slovenia and Croatia were always closer to Europe and with higher standards than Serbia. They thought that people here didn’t have the same standard. They thought that Zagreb would be cleaner than Belgrade, which has Gypsies and is filthy. They didn’t understand how they could make sarma without potatoes.

When you arrived in Belgrade, how many of those stereotypes turned out to be true?

Those stereotypes were created when we arrived not before. Before that, we didn’t think about those things. It was a way for those people to defend themselves from what they encountered here. Most of them were not welcomed. It was normal but they couldn’t understand that. When a number of people came to Serbia in 1990 when the crisis started, people here were thinking, “They will take our jobs and we will have even less than what we have.”

I remember in 1995 during Operation Storm, my relatives came from Krajina to Serbia. A friend of mine said, “Can you imagine, in those trailers, I saw that they have some things from their households. When did they have the time to pack those things? And why did they pack an umbrella?” Those people, two days before, lost everything they owned in their lives. They had only two hours to pack everything in their lives into a car or a trailer or to hide it on the train.

Or I remember when people from Croatia came to Belgrade and the women were wearing fur coats. And people said, “They have fur coats and they are refugees?” Yes, that’s what they had, but they didn’t have places to live! They had their coats. At least they were warm. But they couldn’t bring furniture.

You’re right: you can’t wear a couch or a chair. On another topic, it’s very popular in Europe and the United States to have ecumenical dialogues between churches. Is there something similar here?

Yes. The Orthodox Church has a discussion with the Catholic Church. We had a schism 1,000 years ago. And there are efforts in both churches to overcome the differences. There are also some people in both churches — but I only know about people in the Orthodox Church — who are against this dialogue. They think that we have nothing in common with them or that if we talk with them they’ll try to convert us to Catholicism. Or that it’s okay to have a dialogue with them if they change everything and we don’t change anything and they admit that they are wrong.

Those who participate in this dialogue are also aware of the many differences and opinions on both sides. So it will take maybe another 1,000 years to overcome the schism! But it’s very important to have the dialogue to have a friendly relationship and respect each other. Because I think we have more in common than the differences that we have.

On the topic of big differences, is there any discussion with Islam, perhaps in the Sandzak region?

I think not. The Church participates in certain meetings, like the World Council of Churches, and that includes all churches and Catholics and Muslims.

What’s your feeling about Islam in general? Do you see it as a threat? Or do you see it as another monotheism?

I have a problem with Islam in Serbia because there are Islamists in Serbia who are actually politicians.

In Belgrade?

In Sandjak. I don’t believe that people running the Church should be politicians, whether Orthodox or Catholic or Muslim.

Do they want an independent Sandjak or do they want to join Bosnia?

I’m not sure. I think they’re just using Islam to win people over to their own idea and that idea is an independent Sandjak. I’m not sure that Serbia has the standards that it should have for Muslims, for example. I’m not sure how fair we are as a country. I don’t think about those things.

Do you support a strict division between church and state?

I don’t know if it can be strict. For example, I am part of the Church. I have a job here at the Church radio station. But I can also do other things. I am part of this society. And I do want Serbia also to value my opinion. And since 97 percent of the people in Serbia are Orthodox…

It’s difficult to have a strict separation when 97 percent of the population is Orthodox.

Yes. The prime minister and the president of this government and the last one visited the patriarch in Belgrade and had a conversation with him. It seems to the public that they are getting his blessing. I’m not sure for someone in the church whether this is necessary.

I guess now the prime minister was criticized because people think he banned the march in Belgrade because the Church is against it. I don’t think he did it because of the Church. I think he did it because he believes that the majority of people in Serbia are against it, and those people are voters. When the Church stands for something that the majority believes in, then the government can hide behind the Church.

Finally, some quantitative questions. When you think back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since that time, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied.

5

Same period of time and same scale, but your personal life.

8

And how would you evaluate the near future, on a scale with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Today it’s 3.

And yesterday?

Well, each day is different.

Did something happen between yesterday and today?

A lot of people in Nis over the last year went abroad. And there are people in my family who think that I should do the same. And maybe until a few days ago I was saying it was good here and it will be good. Sometimes when I think about pressure and work and home, I feel that nothing will change here and things will just get worse and worse. If something nice happens today, then maybe I’ll feel differently and tomorrow it will be 5.

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