Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tony Blair's Syria intervention seems more measured than his scarred record suggests

Yet a vociferous earthbound verdict on his record has greeted with brickbats – if potentially tainted with confusion – his latest intervention on, well, intervention.

Instinctive cries of ‘war criminal’, understandable as they may be to many, threaten to mask what at heart was a surprisingly conciliatory if unsurprisingly pragmatic speech on Wednesday morning.

Far from outright urging Britain and others to drop bombs on or arm rebel fighters in the likes of Syria, Iran or – even more, anyway – Libya, his encouragement of mere ‘engagement’ was strikingly vaguer.

Why, he might even have startled sympathisers and critics alike by recommending at least some acceptance, if not necessarily appeasement, of ruling regimes in Iran and Syria.

Bashar al-Assad’s too-durable reign in Syria – strengthened by recent skirmishes and likely to be enhanced by newly-called elections – looks a realpolitik reality for the time being at least, Mr Blair suggested.

Yet he did seem to also scorn the Tory-Lib Dem coalition for threatening dire consequences for Assad and his allies, and hinting at support for rebel fighters, while providing little action accompanying those words.

Of course, David Cameron and his own backers can – and will – point the finger at Ed Miliband, among those whose stated concerns about military strikes helped see them struck down in Parliament.

And yet the prime minister’s immediate response, a disavowal of even considering any similar action, felt counter-productively melodramatic and not what even Labour’s Syria doves were expecting.

Mr Blair’s apparent acceptance of not only Assad’s ongoing rule but also those of Iran’s dubiously-progressive Rouhani and Egypt’s military coup-hoisted SIsi contrast with previous hurtles towards toppling Afghan and Iraqi regimes.

Both wars, however devoutly and sincerely he felt the causes, have unleashed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of deaths, many more life-transforming injuries while leaving both nations suffering further, if different, miseries.

Yet such Western intervention was more warmly welcomed in the Nineties in the Balkans, when atrocities such as Srebrenica cast shame on the complacency – or corruption – of those most eager to look away.

Mr Blair remains a hero to many in Sierra Leone, where schools are named in his honour when his Britain finally, if belatedly, backed Nigerian-led African Union forces in helping end a 11-year civil war.

Personal travels in Syria last autumn found many tormented refugees desperately pleading for Western-led military action aimed at ousting Assad, anguished at being seemingly teased by recedingly-hawkish Britain, Barack Obama and the United Nations.

Why, even in Zimbabwe when reporting undercover in the midst of the hyper-inflation and cholera crisis of 2008, brave opponents of Robert Mugabe were disappointed to hear his feverish forecasts of British invasion were outlandish.

Yet while Assad – and his Russian and Chinese loyalists – have played a canny game in stalling peace talks while making chemical weapons the central issue and concession, his regime goes on punishing his people with conventional rockets and bombs and arrests and torture.

Targeted airstrikes at any remaining chemical depots would now be so long-delayed as to be ineffective, while no-fly-zones pose problems in enforcing.

Yet even without sending in troops, tanks or bomber-planes, the international community has settled for the hot air of a Blair without direct effects such as sanctions or – most grievously – secure and entire access for aid agencies.

Our former prime minister’s speech today was more measured than much of the critical reaction.

Yet the wait goes on for some useful space to be found between jaw-jaw and war-war.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Afghanistan in limbo looks like suffering even more as time in limelight fades away

afghan3 - 60-year-old Niaz Bibi has no sight in her right eye (Picture: Shaista Chishty)
Kabul refugee camp inhabitant Niaz Bibi, 60, has no sight in her right eye after a Nato bombing (Picture: Shaista Chishty)

Thirteen (years), unlucky for some? For one, the 447 dead British troops - and their families - and the thousands more now living with life-changing injuries.

For another, the literally countless hordes more Afghans also killed.

And not forgetting - even if many will or have - the multitudes left surviving rather than thriving in a so-long-benighted nation, staging Western-waged war since 2001, plenty more conflicts during preceding centuries, and sure to be haunted for generations to come.

Metro recently undertook Afghan travels, witnessing the country’s travails, from increasingly-insecure capital Kabul to spectacular, still anxious, mountain setting Bamyan to drug-addled Uzbek-facing border province Balkh.
Abdarahim Mutar, main character in heroin addiction story To go with feature by Aidan Radnedge MUST CREDIT:  Shaista Chishty
Recovering addict: Abdurahim Mutar sold his sister to pay for his drugs habit (Picture: Shaista Chishty)

Afghanistan may no longer feel like some promised land, but promised aid is already notably shrinking even as the middle-sized-city-shaped bases at Camp Bastion and Kandahar begin to be dismantled.

United Nations donations for the country have slipped from £542million in 2011 to £308million last year and £246million this time around.

The phrase ‘cut-and-run’ may feel insubstantial for what has actually been a drainingly long-drawn-out retreat, but Barack Obama’s apparent eagerness to put the whole Afghan thing behind him risks more than merely brief embarrassment.

Modern-day Afghanistan may benefit from a fair few more schools open for all, some stability in the hotels and palaces of the Kabul elite, and literal bridges built in Helmand by the British army’s handiest soldier-workmen and women.

And yet, as Islamic Relief UK’s study published last week put it, the country remains ‘in limbo’ ahead of presidential elections next month and a full Allied military pull-out promised by the end of this year.

On average, there are 16,000 Afghans to every one doctor, 101 children for each qualified primary schoolteacher, 1.5million nomads among a 27million-strong population and 36 per cent people living below the poverty line.
eight-year-old daughter Farida To go with feature by Aidan Radnedge MUST CREDIT:  Shaista Chishty
Sold by her family: An eight- year-old girl who was traded in Kabul to feed her father's drug habit(Picture: Shaista Chishty)

And Kabul, like the rest of Afghanistan, remains dangerous: a Lebanese restaurant was blown up, killing 21 in January, while a British-Swedish journalist was shot dead when visiting there this month and an AFP reporter and his family were shot dead last week by Taliban intruders somehow infiltrating a smart hotel.

The typically-uninhibited Taliban have vowed throughout to do all they could to disrupt what will surely prove disputed elections for quite some time beyond polling-day itself.

The very deliberateness of the Western pull-out seems certain to provoke at the very least a scattergun flurry, as in Iraq where the British forces’ last days in Basra were pockmarked by nightly rather than weekly or even monthly rocket-fire raids.

Well, why not, while you still can, and your enemies are – just about – still in the vicinity?

Picturesque images can still linger - snow spattering over Kabul, United Nations helicopters soaring into the skies and scything through snow-streaked mountain slopes - yet few Western intruders feel much wiser nor assured about controlling those sprawling, eclectically-isolated areas.

Toddlers firing toy pistols, newly-literate mothers passing on embroidery and entrepreneurial tips, or damaged former mujahedeen fighters now reduced to picking up scraps – this country feels like it should feel safe by now, and yet few folk here do.

No thanks, in part, to our dragged-out yet still-limited and strange sort of Western security.

Which, now approaching its end, could leave an already-accursed country left largely alone.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

‘I sold my sister to fund drug addiction’ - the awful hold of Afghanistan's heroin habit


Addict parents in the world’s most drug-affected Afghan region are feeding their own children opium to keep them quiet and selling off relatives to fund their own heroin habits. Metro has found.

Worst-hit is the town of Shortepa in the Afghan province of Balkh, not far from the Uzbekistan border and along a trafficking route taking freshly-farmed opiates from source out into the rest of the world.
Such is some sufferers’ desperation to fund their habit, almost any money-making ruse will do – which is why 36-year-old Abdurahim Mutar admits trading in his own sister Tazagul, then 18 and now 22.
Meanwhile, his wife Seema, 22, was forcing some of her stash upon four-year-old daughter Madina and son Zabihula, two – and Abdurahim’s mother Zarghona, 58, and brother were indulging as addicts as well in a toxically-grim family affair.
Afghanistan is responsible for farming 90 per cent of the world’s opium and has 1million addicts of its own, more than any other country.
Yet only an estimated 10,000 each year are being treated, with only 21 of the country’s 34 provinces offering rehabilitation centres.
Abdurahim says he was addicted for 13 years – long enough, perhaps, but dwarfed by many here counting back at least two decades – and blames his mujahedeen days in the mountains.
Army colleagues apparently urged him to try opiates they felt necessary to get through their arduous days, but blue-collar workers here claim their drudgery duties picking plants make drugs tempting as well.
Yet Abdurahim also confessed: ‘When my daughter was one, we’d give her opium because she was crying a lot. She’d reject eating it but we’d give her the drugs by force.
‘We just weren’t aware it was dangerous or it would create health problems. If anything, we thought at the time it would be beneficial. It’s very common here.’
He had spent many hours since marrying trying to persuade his wife his drug habit was purely to treat a long-standing stomach-ache, only to find her unconvinced yet also tempted to try what he was taking.
It was only, ultimately, when he was pushed into Islamic Relief UK-supported treatment – in-house in Shortepa, while his wife like other women was treated at home – that he acknowledged the costs involved: not just 400 Afghanis each day but the obvious family neglect.
His sister Tazagul was traded away for $6,500 (£3.950) - sold to someone living in a distant region to help prop up the family finances and afford food as well as drugs.
Abdurahim said: ‘She accepted this. I was happy to get a lot of money for her, spending it without really thinking about where it came from.
‘Now I wish I’d used it better - for a vehicle or some property, perhaps.’
He also fatefully hesitated when asked to recall his baby son’s own name – as did 53-year-old recovering addict Mohammad Qul when asked to identify his own children.
Elsewhere, Kabul-based refugee camp resident Shah Bibi, 24, told of the dark secrets she only belatedly discovered about her heroin-addicted husband Ghafoor.
Only after his death last year did Shah realise his debts of 350,000 Afghanis (£3,770), accrued while working in the United Arab Emirates, had prompted him to promise elsewhere his daughters Farida, eight, and six-year-old Parwina.
Shah’s brother managed to intervene and cancel the deal for poor Farida, though only on the promise she be married off to someone from his sister’s own clan.
Dubious as such morals may seem, clinic staff in Balkh try to play upon religious devotion – or guilt – in their attempts to wean patients off drugs.
Posters above lines of men’s beds in the wards declare: ‘Every intoxicant is khamr [Arabic for liquor] and every khamr is harmful.’
Staff such as director Dr Mohammad Ehsan Hamrah take pride in a relapse rate of ‘only’ 50 per cent – meaning half of all supposedly-cured addicts fall back into the habit.
Then again, he points out other areas typically find as many as seven in ten patients are unable to remain drug-free once discharged.
Since opening in 2000, the 14-bed Shortepa centre has treated more than 1,500 people and the addiction rate across the province is said to have fallen.
While precise figures remain elusive, Dr Ehsan insisted: ‘Back in 2006 most families had addicts in them – not most families are without any addicts. This is our biggest achievement.’
And yet an estimated 99 per cent off addicts nationwide remain without formal help - often to their own families’ cost and loss.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Even hearing their name is enough to frighten us' - the caves haunted by the Taliban

Bamyan may be one of Afghanistan’s safest, if neglected, regions right now – yet its mountain cave-dwellers remain in fear of a Taliban return, symbolised by two huge scars of sentimental and historic significance.

A fundamentalist reign of terror ten years ago brought torture and mass killings to this spectacular setting 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul.
Speaking to Metro from the lofty mountain cranny from which she was temporarily driven, 32-year-old mother-of-six Zahra Nazari recalled cradling her stricken father in her arms as he died from gunshot wounds.
Even the merest mention of the fearful T-word can trigger upset and panic in many people here, while a recent volley of bullets into the sky during a celebratory festival convinced some the Taliban were invading again.
This is one of the rare provinces in Afghanistan where, despite their previous occupancy, Taliban sympathisers are now said to be scarce.
Yet two stark reminders of that earlier gory rule remain in Bamyan: the towering, keyhole-shaped chasms in the mountains where two sixth-century Buddhas proudly stood until being blown by the Taliban for being ‘un-Islamic’ in 2001.

Many families still remain, whether in basic homes constructed in earthbound villages or in even more ramshackle nooks along snow-streaked mountain resembling huge slabs of Viennetta.
Islamic Relief’s Martin Cottingham said: ‘This place shows the potential of what the rest of Afghanistan could ideally be like – but also the risks there are of returning to the bad old days.’

Zahra Nazari’s family have lived in the peaks for years, their residence only interrupted by the Taliban reign when they sought shelter in nearby Behrud – though not before falling victim to the religious insurgents.
Her brother, a mujahedeen fighter, was shot dead in the northern region of Mazar-e-Sharif, while her father Jomakhan Hussain was gunned down while still here in Bamyan.
Zahra recalled: ‘He was shot at here in the mountains and died right in front of me – in my arms.
‘I can’t really remember anything more from that time except how I cried for more than 40 days and nights – more than that, probably. I just couldn’t stop.’

Yet she and her surviving relatives did ultimately manage to make their way, gradually, to safe refuge in Iran – only returning to Bamyan once they felt sure Nato forces had driven their tormentors away within a year.
Her husband Mohammad, 40 – who served a Taliban-imposed prison sentence before eventually being freed – now works as a police officer, a role that still brings its own specific dangers.
He was caught in a landmine explosion four years ago, leaving him with lingering leg injuries,
Harrowing ordeals live long in the mind, prompting Zahra to admit: ‘Even hearing the Taliban name is enough to frighten me. We hope they never come back again but who can say for sure?
‘I don’t understand much about Nato’s role here but I do worry enough about what might happen when they leave.
‘At least, I do hope my children can get to live somewhere else when they grow up.’

Between 400,000 and 600,000 people are believed to live in Bamyan province, some on the ground – some
in an estimated 200 mountain caves, two-thirds of which are occupied by internally-displaced refugees.
The main town of the same name, some 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul, rises as high as 800m in altitude.
Among the success stories of the 36,000-population town – and London-based charity Islamic Relief’s education programmes there – is 32-year-old Uzra Lali.
She was taught to read and write by Islamic Relief’s inaugural literacy classes introduced in 2011 and now employs another 48 women helping her to embroider bags, rugs and other furnishings.

Uzra and her family originally lived in neighbouring Wardak province, running a grocery store and guesthouse until their village was attacked by the Taliban in 1998 and they were forced to flee.
Her husband Abdul Hamid was jailed for alleged offences against Islam, while Uzra escaped to Pakistan for three years before finally the couple could be reunited and settled with their five children in newly-liberated Bamyan.
Yet many problems afflicting Bamyan remain: the remote setting can deter investors, while a private clinic that recently opened its doors shut them again after mere months due to poorly-paid locals’ inability to afford the fees.
The widespread presence of Afghans from a Hazara heritage is also felt to contribute to the region’s neglect by Afghanistan’s predominantly-Pashtun political elite.

Transport links are largely restricted to sporadic United Nations aircraft and treacherous highways, while the province’s first electricity supplies were only introduced three months ago – and even then, only patchily.
Local health worker Khalil Rahman Anwari admitted: ‘Central government’s attention isn’t equal or just – there are no serious plans nor follow-ups.’
For the tentatively-hopeful locals, whether down on the ground or shivering above, the region does at least feel comparatively peaceful and secure enough. For now, anyway.

The Taliban has resumed control of large parts of Afghanistan and their power is only likely to expand as disputed presidential elections loom, security experts fear.
The Islamist fundamentalists dominate large swatches of southern and eastern Afghanistan and are merely ‘biding their time’ for Western troops to withdraw later this year, it was warned.
Vote-tampering claims and disputes over the outcome of the April 5 polls are widely expected, following similar rancour when Hamid Karzai was elected president four years ago.
Recent terrorism outbreaks in the capital Kabul - including last week’s assassination of an AFP reporter and his family - are also undermining faith in peace-keeping efforts.
Some nine people were killed when insurgents bypassed security checks at the upmarket Serena hotel in Kabul last Thursday, shooting dead nine people including four children.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for a double suicide bomb attack outside the offices of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission on Tuesday morning.
Four insurgents then stormed the building, close to the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, in the latest fulfilment of Taliban promises to disrupt the election campaign.
The latest attacks follow the bombing of a Lebanese restaurant in the capital in January, killing 13 foreigners and eight Afghans.
Polls suggest the candidate most likely to emerge victorious next month will be either Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani - though none is the clear favourite.
Omar Hamid, Asia head for London-based analysis consultancy IHS Country Risk, expects three-way tussles for power between Taliban forces, re-emerging ‘old warlords’ belonging to the likes of the Northern Alliance and ‘weak central government’.
Mr Hamid said: ‘We are already in a situation where there is a very weak central government while the Taliban is in the ascendant while waiting for the international forces’ withdrawal.
‘The Taliban are already powerful in southern and eastern parts of the country, while the security situation is worsening - including in Kabul.
‘Many people will feel if the government can’t guarantee security in the capital, then they’re hardly likely to do so elsewhere.’
Warlords such as Dostum, Khan, and Atta Muhammad Nur are increasingly intervening in trade agreements relating to ‘potentially lucrative ventues such as mining or energy,’ he added.

"We can't afford our own coffins" - the Afghan refugees clinging to hope amid terror and tragedy


AFGHAN refugees are pleading with Western troops not to abandon them once more to the resurgent Taliban, while yet cursing the Nato bombs that forced them from homes and killed family and friends.
Survivors of 13 years’ conflict since the Allied invasion are terrified of a return to persecution once US- and UK-led forces complete their long-planned pull-out by the end of this year.
Starving families crammed into refugee camps across the capital Kabul, cramped in wattle-and-daub hideaways, told Metro they fear being left even more vulnerable in the months and years ahead.
Yet there is also bitterness at how the war waged by the West since the 9/11 terror attacks and the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden has devastated so many native lives too.
One father-of-six, 67-year-old Dadmola, weighed up the progress made since the Taliban’s overthrow – for example, widened school access for both sons and daughters – with the damaging impact of Nato warplane raids.
He and his family were forced to flee their home in the Gereshk province village of Habib Khan by attacks from above that left 45 neighbours dead, including a brother and a daughter.

Also now living in eastern Kabul’s sprawling Nasaji Bagram refugee camp is 60-year-old grandmother Niaz Bibi (above), left without sight in her right eye following a Nato bombing of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province two years ago.
She lost not only her husband in that clash, but also a daughter, two grandsons and two granddaughters.
A study today published by Islamic Relief outlines how many basic needs remain unmet across Afghanistan, despite best efforts of, say, Britain’s Department for International Development and David Cameron’s optimistic claims.
On average, there are 16,000 Afghans to every one doctor, 101 children for each qualified primary schoolteacher, 1.5million nomads among a 27million-strong population and 36 per cent people living below the poverty line.
And Kabul, like the rest of Afghanistan, remains dangerous: a Lebanese restaurant was blown up, killing 21 in January, a British-Swedish journalist was shot dead there this month and an AFP reporter and his family were killed last week in an upmarket hotel.
Dadmola does appreciate how these spartan IDP camp homes are not subjected to regular midnight searches he came to expect in Gereshk, when villagers would be caught in the crossfire.
He recalled: ‘Taliban troops would rush into the villages targeted by Nato and the Afghan National Army and take shelter in our own homes.
‘That would typically be around about midnight, only they’d manage to leave just in time before the shooting began – and Nato or the ANA would arrive asking us where the Taliban were.
‘Of course, in the end, it would only be us losing our family members in the fighting.’
He insisted he saw ‘no difference between the Taliban and our government – they’re all fighting for power’, but did beg: ‘Every Afghan, every human being, just wants a normal way of living after all this – no more fighting, no more killing.’

Presidential and parliamentary elections next month are shrouded in uncertainty, however.
President Hamid Karzai cannot stand again after serving his two turbulent terms, dogged by corruptuion allegations yet also signing off with a signed agreement with the US and the UK to maintain at least some oversight and peacekeeping presence.
Few seem sure just who might emerge as the country’s new powerbrokers, however, nor indeed whether the polls and their aftermath can escape being tainted by disputes over legitimacy and fresh outbreaks of violence.

Samar Gul (above), professed ‘camp leader’ of a nearby refugee sprawl at Gulbata, declared: ‘In all my 31 years on this earth I’ve seen many regimes and many presidents and none of them brought any positive changes to my life. No one’s even come here canvassing for votes.’
Niaz Bibi simply pleaded: ‘I’d like to ask Nato to stop bombarding us, stop the conflict.
‘At the moment we don’t even have the money to die – why, we can’t afford so much as coffins.’

Scrabbling for much-needed money on Kabul’s frenetic streets can be a dangerous business, especially for the young children pressed into desperate service.
Many youngsters are happy to scavenge for scraps of paper and plastic which they can either sell for meagre amounts or else bring home for their own families to use as kindling.
Others insistently tout packets of cigarettes or jars of pure smoke.
Even babies are put in harm’s way, held precariously by parents sitting in the middle of the highways and holding out arms for hand-outs – even as traffic hurtles past, for some reason invariably Toyota Corollas.

One shrapnel-hoarder, Niaz Bibi’s ten-year-old grandson Rahman, still bears scars across his knees and ribboning his scalp after being hit by a car a year ago while collecting paper.
He admitted to still feeling the pain and can often by heard screaming in the night, whether from his lingering wounds or stinging nightmares.
Another member of the family, Niaz’s 15-year-old daughter Familu, has been fortunate enough to be offered a place on a tailoring course - and must pass on the tips to dozens more at the camp.
Other cash schemes can provide a few more fringe benefits – such as the careful nurturing of pet quails kept in cages.
Camp members feeding them on seven different types of seed can choose to sell the birds either after one month of care, for about 1,500 Afghanis (£16), or hang on for a few more months and potentially pocket up to 4,000 AFN (£43) per quail.
In the meantime, more money can be pocketed by taking bets on quail-fighting bouts – while 28-year-old Ahmad Shah more cheerily added: ‘We also get to enjoy some nice singing while they’re still here.’
Stonemasonry, street-cleaning and laundry services can also raise a little more to buy water or food, especially with aid agencies often offering some provisions one month then not re-emerging for several more.
Epileptic fits frequently hinder the efforts of 18-year-old Afsal to make a living as a shoe-shine boy, to help fund food and medicine for his family – including 20-year-old wife Palwasha, also epileptic, and their three young children.

Palwasha (above), now living at the Gulbata camp after they were forced from flashpoint town Jalilabad, described how it costs 100 AFN (£1.07) per day to treat one or the other of the couple for their epilepsy. 
Afsal can only really hope to make between 30 and 50 AFN (32p-54p) per day, however, and that only if he avoids falling over in the street amid his explorations of the city streets.
Palwasha told Metro: ‘Our main priority is to make sure our children can eat each day, so often my husband and I will go hungry – several times each week.’

Monday, March 03, 2014

Syria failures didn't cause Ukraine crisis - just make it look even more dismaying

Amid so much uncertainty this past week way out east – and in the western world, responding – there has at least been one political truism to which many have solemnly nodded along.

That is, that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must be heaving, even enjoying, a mighty sigh of relief.

Then again, such a consensus assumption would suggest he even felt much to fear from the West even before latest developments kicking off in Kiev and Crimea.

Russia and Vladimir Putin have won many grudgingly-admiring arguments from over here, congratulating him for not only playing a blinder but also playing just so the US and the UK over Syria.

Why, he managed to not only buttress against any United Nations military intervention – along with presently-neglected obstacle China - he also managed to negotiate as no other nation could a dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons armoury.

Perhaps even more impressive, mind, was how he seemed to collude in a medio-political consensus that those chemical weapons were pretty much the be-all-and-end-all.

Viscerally horrific as those much-publicised chemical attacks in Syria were, they did become a little too much of a handy global shorthand for the country’s troubles.

Meanwhile, rockets and bombs continue to shell cities, towns and villages across Syria on a daily basis - the cause of so many millions of people being forced out of their homes, forced to watch loved ones die or forced to suffer life-changing wounds themselves.

Yet the public stance of unburdening his specifically-chemical stockpiles has bought Assad time, time only too happily eaten up by UN bodies who have only just got around to staging their much-touted second round of peace talks.

‘Geneva II’, for all the invariable difficulties bringing disparate warring sides together across the same table, even managed to massively disappoint by only really paving the way for, say, a 'Geneva III'?

(A trilogy-closer which threatens to invite just as much disappointment as that The Godfather conclusion.)

All of which is to suggest that the intractable problems the West faces in Syria are hardly simply transposed to Ukraine, notwithstanding that Mother Russia has dug her heels in on both.

Some Conservative ministers have even been briefing that Ed Miliband’s concerns over British-backed military strikes on Syria last summer have helped embolden Putin in Crimea – as if he hardly had any Soviet-style ambitions beforehand.

The very idea – as suggested by the coalition's financial secretary Sajid Javid – that a vote against war is a strike against peace seems somehow a little 1984-esque, regardless of either side of the argument’s merits.

For the moment, Putin and Russia look in the aggressive and alarming ascendancy, as they did when stalling not only Syria intervention but aid-related sanctions.

Yet as recently as a week ago this alleged string-puller seemed taken aback by the pace of the Ukrainian demonstrators’ uprising and the flight of his protégé Viktor Yanukovych, who has since been reduced to Black Knight-style pleas of defiance.

Meanwhile, Assad of course must be looking on with some delight at being yesterday’s news.

Yet, even for the UN as for us, he has been (un/)safely so for ages already.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Peace talks and funding summit should urge world to try fixing past failures in Syria

World leaders meet in Kuwait on Wednesday for a second annual fund-raising summit for Syria - an event that might evoke some pessimism for its prospects and despair it should even need to have become a yearly event.

As Syria continues to resemble a textbook example of a mishandled country in crisis, the 307,000 new packs of reading material now promised by Britain to refugee schoolchildren in Lebanon may look the lightest of relief.

Yet international development secretary Justine Greening is justified in pointing the finger at other nations whose own input falls far shorter.

Almost half of the £300million in much-needed aid promised so far this year comes from Britain - although at least £900million more should be pledged in Kuwait.

Yet the UN is now appealing for £4billion this year, having received only about 70 per cent of the £3.2billion deemed necessary in 2013 - not to fritter but to provide necessary shelters, food, water and indeed education.

Even as the Assad regime destroys chemical weapons stockpiles, relentless rocket attacks have continued to pulverise towns and cities such as shattered Homs.

An estimated 6.3million people have been displaced within Syria, while Lebanon will soon be home to 1million refugees.

In contrast to the sprawling Zaatari camp in Jordan, those in Lebanon are scattered more disparately across tented camps, crammed basements and garages.

Britain was last year’s third largest donor, offering £231.2million - almost £6million more than Germany, France and Spain combined, and behind only the US (£694.4million) and the European Commission (£356.2million).

Meanwhile, Assad allies Russia and China respectively provided a meagre £9million and £1.9million.
Ms Greening, speaking from a pre-conference visit to Lebanon, told Metro: ‘This summit is massively important.

‘We’re really keen to see other countries around the world play a bigger role in helping those caught up in this crisis through no fault of their own.

‘There are countries not only in the Gulf but also in Europe who could be offering more - we really do need them now to step up to the plate.’

She also demanded safe and free access across Syria for aid workers, amid concerns both the Assad regime and rebels are restricting supplies to their own territories.

The Refugee Council and celebrity backers this week called for Britain to welcome in many Syrians left homeless.

Amnesty UK insisted the UK has not resettled a single Syrian refugee, though foreign secretary William Hague claimed 1,100 were granted asylum between January and September last year.

Yet Ms Greening, like Metro during travels in the region last September, found most refugees desire one thing above all: to go home. Their own homes.

Long-stalled ‘Geneva II’ peace talks are meant to begin next Wednesday.

They may even make some progress, slow as that would be and unlikely as it still seems.

But the least that should be done is as much as the world can do, to ease some of the turmoil borne by so many Syrians as they wait and hope one day to be homeward bound.

Monday, January 06, 2014

RIP Phil Everly, 1939-2014

Global grief at the passing of Phil Everly was aptly soundtracked in more ways than one by the music he and elder brother Don made together, for the Everlys were the – sweet – sound of sadness.

Don’s voice may have been a bit more of a drawling caw, and occupying more of the solo stretches, but it was ideally complemented by Phil’s plaintive high harmonies prettying up the upbeat songs or turning even more winsome the almost-unbearably tender ballads.

The pair were not the first to bring such close-knit harmonies into then-emerging rock’n’roll, following in the countrified footsteps of, say, the Carter Family and later the Louvin Brothers among several.

Yet they provided a mainstream pop snap – and success – that would inspire future artists, such as their future touring partners Simon and Garfunkel or a young Lennon and McCartney.

That Everly influence can be heard resonantly on, for example, The Beatles’ intimately intricate "If I Fell" or – a few long years on - their swansong-album track "Because".

Don and Phil were also an early prototype for rock’n’roll’s feuding-brothers narrative, waging wars of words – or decade-long silences – to make Ray and Dave Davies or Noel and Liam Gallagher resemble the Jonas Brothers by comparison.

And yet their special chemistry was such as to produce, say, their chillingly instinctual revisit of “Let It Be Me”, at a 1983 Royal Albert Hall reunion gig following ten years estranged.

Perhaps that sibling tension, simmering beneath the surface of those perfectly-blended voices, actually enhanced their harmonies – inspiring each to conjure intriguingly-divergent melody lines that nevertheless sounded so right together. 

Like John and Paul, Phil and Don gifted each other - and us - through harmonious rivalry.

Growing up the son of a folk music fan dad and a rock’n’roll-loving mum means remembering an Everly Brothers greatest hits cassette being among those most-played on long car journeys way back when in the, er, Eighties.

Back then much of the appeal here came not necessarily from those interwoven vocals, but the choppy yet chiming steel-string guitar chords, the high school hi-jinks of “Bird Dog” or “Wake Up Little Susie” and the rat-tat-tat-tat of “Claudette” or “Donna Donna”.

But there were also those chirpily catchy hooks, delivered so precisely, as well as the lovelorn ballads that even at their most potentially lachrymose – say, “Ebony Eyes” – remained just about gently earnest enough.

Those simple melodies with their to-the-point sentiments and deftly-constructed cadences came from and spoke of love, to all aspiring towards or affected – even, or especially, afflicted – by it.

Love at its most hurt or unrequited, rueful or bitter, joyful or yearning.

Few singers tug at the heartstrings, while shuddering shivers down the spine, like Phil and Don, and their music to woo to, cry over or simply, bittersweetly wallow in.

The irresistible middle of their take on "Love Is Strange" has Phil asking his older brother how he might convince a lost lover to return, prompting a swooning: ‘Baby, oh sweet baby, my sweet baby, please come home.’

"Yeah, that oughta bring her home, Don", admiring Phil warmly replies.

If only the mourning elder could now do the same for the missed younger, allowing him once more to, well, walk right back

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Anatomy of a scam: how banks and police help fail to fend off hefty fraud

File photo dated 29/01/13 of a branch of the bank Santander in London as around 30,000 mortgage customers with Santander could be in line for compensation after the lender did not make it clear enough that they were free to move elsewhere. PA Wire/Press Association Images
Santander: aware of, while obviously not responsible for, spreading scams (PA Wire/Press Association Images)
What sort of a police force would send an anxious fraud victim an apologetic bouquet of dying flowers – and then a letter whose envelope window displays to the watching world not only name and address but crime number?
What kind of a bank would boast on one hand of knowing about a scam gang nearby, moments after staff had admitted ignorance – and then compliment the fraudsters as ‘very clever’?
And, yes, what kind of a person would follow the instructions of a self-proclaimed police officer on the phone and not only withdraw £5,000 from their bank account but then feel a sense of relief handing it all over to a stranger courier?
These bemusing questions cannot help but be pondered, over and over again, having learned from a Finchley local over the past week – while hearing of similar scams attempted in the surrounding area, stretching across the borough of Barnet to that of Camden.
What police and banking documents dub ‘courier fraud’ appears to be on the rise – yet those documents seem to be for very few eyes only.
To quote one case, with no family or friend link declared: one victim was phoned on Thursday last week by someone claiming to be a detective at a local police station, claiming to have evidence of fraud at Finchley Central’s Santander bank branch.
He went on to persuade the – dazed, for various recent family and health reasons – dupe that that Santander branch was flagged up as an inside-job crime-scene.
As a result of which, this Santander customer would be helping the cause of justice – and trying to repair her allegedly-compromised account, plus others even more vulnerably – by withdrawing cash from a phony account to try to draw out those Ballards Lane scamsters.
This particular victim, woozy from recent invasive health checks and bombarded by various existing family difficulties, could not help but feel willing to help the ‘authorities’ – especially when urged to check credentials by dialling 999, unaware that such conmen can keep telephone lines open.
The apparent veracity of those calling her was boosted when they suggested there would be ‘activity’ at this particular Finchley branch, coinciding with the victim arriving to find what transpired as a power cut was keeping the office closed.
Only then, once she got in to face staff well-used to talks with her going back decades, was the fatal transaction made – no questions asked, let alone cautious warnings broached.
What has followed since has included an incessant bombardment of silent phone calls – whether from the police, Victim Support, Santander or the fraudsters themselves – leaving no member of the victim’s family at ease. Quite the reverse, the already-chastened victim now feeling watched on top of daft.
And also, confessed regrets from the police for a series of botched – ever-insensitive – communications.
And, from the police, criticism for blasé Santander. And, from Santander, sympathy yet little apparent will to appear more outgoing.
A Santander spokeswoman insisted: 'We are extremely sorry to hear of this experience. Unfortunately as she personally withdrew the monies we are unable to refund her.
'We have taken steps to raise awareness and help educate customers about this type of scam.
'We take every precaution we can to help protect our customers' funds and will always provide every assistance to the police to support their investigation.'
Warnings about this particular fraud appear in an anti-scam booklet printed online - yet distributed nowhere beyond that. No wonder staff members, and the customers with whom they deal, feel in the dark.
No matter how clued-up their managers might feel, when dispensing words of sympathy … yet rebuke.
Ah, but it's only money - or, even more so, trust. Lost.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Framed mum 'tortured and raped by troops' rallies backers for UN Human Rights Day

A mother of four allegedly tortured and raped by soldiers trying to frame her for drug crimes is among millions of abuse victims hoping this week's UN Human Rights Day might bring some solace - and even long-awaited justice.
Miriam Lopez and supporters are urging Metro readers to help finally win an investigation into the gruesome attack she suffered in February 2011 - and also many more human rights crimes, especially against women and children.
Amnesty activists say not only Mrs Lopez’s homeland of Mexico, but also Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Syria and Sudan are failing female victims.
Next Sunday will mark the two-year anniversary of 30-year-old Mrs Lopez filing a complaint about her treatment to the Mexican Federal Attorney General’s Office.
Many more are feared to have suffered similar ordeals in a country where torture and ill-treatment allegations rose by 500 per cent between 2006 and 2012.
Amnesty's ‘Write For Rights’ campaign is part of ‘16 Days of Activism’ running from International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day.
Other targeted countries include Bangladesh, where victims include activist Kalpana Chakma - abducted by security personnel in 1996 and missing ever since.
Amnesty is also highlighting DR Congo, where human rights defenders face intimidation, and Sudan, where women can be sentenced to public floggings for wearing trousers or having hair uncovered.
Mrs Lopez wants police action against her alleged attackers, both of whom she has identified - though still no one has been officially questioned.
Her nightmare began just after dropping three of her children at school on February 2, 2011, near their home in the northern city of Ensenada.
Two balaclava-clad men suddenly seized her, bundled her into a van and drove her to a military barracks in nearby Tijuana where she was held for a week.
She has described how she spent the next seven days being tortured with electric shocks and water poured over her face - and also repeatedly raped.
The soldiers detaining her wanted her to confess to trafficking drugs through a military checkpoint.
Mrs Lopez was not released from custody until September 2 that year, when her case collapsed due to a lack of evidence.
Despite filing her complaint on December 15, 2011, and submitting to medical tests which showed evidence of torture and sexual assault, she has heard nothing more.
She said: ‘I try to live normally but I’m always scared - for me, for my family - that something is going to happen to them.’
'Write For Rights' is urging people to pen letters not only to comfort abuse victims but also to authorities to demand action.
Mrs Lopez told sympathisers: 'It is a source of strength to receive so many messages of support.
'I truly thank all of you who are supporting my cause so much.
'I know each signature, the campaign and your support will help achieve what I want so much - justice.'

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Haiyan aid agencies merit support, sympathy - and, with respect, future scrutiny

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan roam the streets ‘like zombies’
Residents gather coins and other salvageable materials from the ruins of houses after Haiyan battered Tacloban (Picture: Reuters)
So far, so standard. A horrific humanitarian disaster strikes, aid agencies rush what workers they can in the right direction as hurriedly as possible while appealing for donations, then the British public (and government) generously obliges.
And, next, the odd cynic on the sidelines wonders not only how such money should be spent, but whether. Then, what then?
The wrenching scenes from the Philippines after the onslaught of typhoon Haiyan can hardly help but tug at the heart- as well as the purse-strings.
As ever, the donations pouring in via the Disaster Emergency Committee’s umbrella appeal are heartwarmingly impressive, as is the £10million pledged swiftly by David Cameron’s government plus another £5million matching DEC bids.
Comparisons have been raised, however, with previous catastrophes and what followed – especially in Haiti, following that already-impoverished nation’s 2010 earthquake.
For all the aid offered by so many dedicated agencies out there, easy and obvious criticism followed the cholera outbreak blamed on United Nations staff and the perception  that charities withdrew within privileged compounds once the worst disorder reigned.
Yet without wishing to encourage any complacency or misdirected indulgence, to witness aid work on the ground in some of the world’s worst-off settings is to appreciate the value of any pound donated and spent.
Of course, proper scrutiny should be applied to where and how resources are distributed, perhaps demanding greater transparency from charity accounts and especially over-arching government authorities.
Among the many strengths of Britain’s international charity sector is its breadth, and willingness to work together – for the most part – within such auspices as the DEC or else the Enough Food For Everyone IF campaign.
Yet sceptics may well feel a little bemused by the contrasting – if not quite competing – appeals for funds, and activist interventions, publicised by so many agencies especially over recent days.
At best, one issue appears to involve so many vitally-effective and affecting individuals offering their own insights, from nearby, on such distant miseries – suggesting not so much who to believe, but who to back, if and when more than any other?
Beneficiaries should or could be one of the bigger beasts – no, beauties – of the aid industry, such as Oxfam, the Red CrossSave The Children or Medecins Sans Frontieres -  or more modestly mid-ranking institutions including Tearfund or Islamic Relief, any or all meriting admiration and support.
Recent experiences on the Lebanese-Syrian border taught – at least, even more than before – that in or around warzones everyone has a tragic and harrowing tale to tell while still welcoming  any support whether food or shelter or ‘merely’ practical advocacy.
There are many helpers there – and yet, with an estimated 6.5million Syrian refugees and 9million in need while aid remains blocked by Assad-ruled regions, any gains still feel insubstantial. And yet life-changing for those fortunate few happily affected while afflicted.
Again - amid the wasteland conditions within which many in the Philippines are now attempting to stagger on - prospects look bleak, pathways seem narrow and challenges appear intense, both short- and long-term.
Yet let’s just - still - hope all and any aid not only manages to get through, but gets properly followed through.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Learning to eye the future: Syrian children attempt to rebuild their lives

Death continues to stalk Syrian children even as they mourn already-lost friends and neighbours at funeral services.
Majed Al-Saati not only narrowly escaped being gunned down during a neighbourhood massacre, he then saw his best friend shot through the stomach and die at his feet.
What made the scene all the more poignant was that the pair were part of a funeral procession, paying tribute to 15 fellow villagers struck down in a killing spree days earlier.
The death toll rose yet higher just two days later when a brother of Majed's friend was shot dead outside a mosque where relatives were already praying in grief.
Yet Majed appears both sprightly and defiant, with childlike features seeming younger than his 13 years even as he speaks eloquently - at times gravely - about his ordeals growing up.
Among his classmates is fellow 13-year-old Jamilah Maalouf, with her own gruesome memories of seeing her cousin and uncle dead when a neighbouring field hospital was demolished.
Majed and Jamilah are among thousands of traumatised Syrian children who have endured not only personal tragedies, but gruelling and dangerous escapes across the border.
Some 52.5 per cent of the 716,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children, with 200,000 of them thought to be outside school.
Even those who are offered an education in their new surroundings often struggle, since Syrian children were taught in Arabic and English back home yet Lebanese schools prefer Arabic and French.
Yet the Save The Children-backed El Baddawi school in Lebanon's second city Tripoli is dominated by Syrian pupils, many appearing to gradually regain some confidence despite their experiences. 
Majed made it across with his mother Ahlam, 38, and six siblings, though only after the family had endured a series of tragedies.
Two of his uncles, and two great-uncles, were abducted by pro-regime fighters, tortured - with one having a leg cut off - before being left to burn to death in a flaming car.
Majed became accustomed to snipers stationed in nearby buildings, taking potshots at people venturing out of their homes - but the worst violence came on a day tanks arrived.
A lieutenant who accused residents of poisoning local water supplies advanced his tank slowly down the street before opening fire on all around him.
Some 15 people died that day, though Majed managed to take shelter in a neighbour's house - and watched as one of his brothers was shoved to the ground just as a bullet whizzed by.
Majed said: 'He hid for two-and-a-half hours under a car - we thought he was dead, but he later said he didn't call out when we were shouting for him because he didn't want to be caught.
'For the next few days he refused to eat or drink, or do anything - and one night he woke up screaming and trying to attack my father.'
The victims' funerals sparked even more violence, when the graveyard was surrounded by more tanks.
Majed said: 'When I turned my back and started walking away, I heard shouting - then I saw the tanks were shooting at the graveyard and people started falling on top of each other.
'Suddenly a bullet came through my friend's back and through his stomach - one second he was talking, then I saw the blood.'
Majed and his father dragged the body to their nearby home but were unable to save him, before having to break the news to the boy's sobbing mother and father.
Their pain was intensified two days later when the victim's older brother was taken out by a sniper while outside the mosque where the family were praying.
Majed said: 'He didn't see the shot - he was hit in the head from behind.'
He was more fortunate, at least, though his family's decision to flee meant several days sleeping in the fields without any cover on their way to the border.
While wishing he could return home, Majed added: 'There's no Syria right now - it's all destroyed. What's happening is so horrific.
'The people there are suffering from a lack of food and basic needs and the army are even cutting down trees and taking away anything that could be used for heating.'
Schoolmate Jamilah has only been attending lessons for a week - but is tentatively starting to reawaken her dream of becoming a teacher.
Still, she remains haunted by images of carnage the day, five months ago, a neighbouring field hospital in Baba Amr was hit by a rocket.
She said: 'We were sitting in our house when we heard a very big explosion. My dad ran to see what was happening and I followed to the sound of the screaming.
'I knew my uncle and my cousin had been helping doctors at the hospital. 
'As soon as I stepped in, I saw many bodies - we couldn't recognise my cousin and uncle at first because of all the blood, but they were there in pieces.'
Her father swiftly sent her home, where she spent the rest of the day sitting in silence - or occasionally praying - with her brothers and sisters until their parents arrived home.
'My mother was crying and in shock while my father was so upset he wasn't talking to anyone,' she added.
The family moved to her grandfather's house two streets away before making the decision to leave Syria - though her father was arrested before the escape and was unable to join them.
Jamilah added: 'I wish we could be back home with both our parents - that this violence stops. That's what I wish.'
* Some names have been changed to protect the safety of relatives still in Syria.
Save the Children