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

A dying shame: ‘Too little and too late’ in Syria, Save the Children warns

The world should feel ‘ashamed’ for failing to aid the Syrian people in the worst humanitarian crisis for three decades, a leading charity chief has declared.
Global leaders and United Nations chiefs have let down millions of people in Syria and surrounding regions, according to Save The Children UK chief executive Justin Forsyth.
Only Britain can claim some credit for backing a relief response that is still £1.3billion short of UN targets, he added.
He also called for an overhaul of obstacles preventing aid from reaching the most needy.
Mr Forsyth described the Syrian crisis as the worst since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the world was also guilty of failing to intervene until too late.
Mr Forsyth, who previously worked for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Downing Street, told Metro: ‘After seeing conditions this weekend, I feel even more strongly the world should be really ashamed of its response to Syria.
‘So many families rightly feel neglected, let down and alone.
‘Even though we can provide some aid, they feel the world has done too little and too late.
‘The Rwandan genocide was terrible and worse, but this is the worst humanitarian crisis since then - and it’s on our watch.’
A UN appeal for funding from world governments has now reached just 59 per cent of its £3.2billion target, leaving £1.3billion still to find.
Britain’s international development secretary Justine Greening this weekend announced an extra £52million.
The UK has so far handed over £124million this year, with another £168million promised - and the Foreign Office says the spending will be £400million covering both 2012 and 2013.
Mr Forsyth praised Ms Greening and David Cameron for ensuring Britain - both the government and the public - was ‘an honourable exception’.
Still, aid delivery is hampered because UN-led supplies must go through government-controlled Damascus - meaning large swathes of Syria are out of bounds.
Mr Forsyth wants a UN Security Council resolution demanding unfettered access for humanitarian workers across all parts of the country.
He admitted: ‘We’re struggling against the odds and can feel overwhelmed - there are so many unmet needs.
‘Refugee families are at least receiving some help and not being shelled anymore, but in Syria there are still hundreds and thousands getting no aid while still coming under attack.’
‘Surely even if the world can’t decide what to do about military strikes, they can at least agree to allow aid across all areas, which would make a massive difference?’
Despite sweltering summer heat in the region now, concerns are growing that temperatures are starting to drop ahead of a winter expected to prove lethally freezing in northern Lebanon - where many refugees camp in threadbare tents.
UN programmes offer £17 each month to refugee families who register with them, though some aid workers believe many more are refusing to sign up for fear they will be traced by the Syrian regime.
Save The Children’s efforts include funding schools in Lebanon, so far reaching 7,000 Syrian children whose schools have been destroyed.
Shelter kits have been given to more than 2,000 refugee families, cash-for-work schemes are being set up to provide money as well as purpose, and the charity is also backing two health centres in Bekaa and one in Akkar.
Aid workers are also concerned to help not only Syrian families arriving in the country, but also deprived Lebanese - especially to help ease rising resentment amid the refugee influx.
The new Save The Children appeal aims to raise £150million, to help in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

United Nations appeal target: £3.2billion
Amount of aid so far donated: £1.9billion (59 per cent)
Shortfall: £1.3billion

United States: £518million
European Commission: £392million
Kuwait: £205million
United Kingdom: £124million (plus a further £168million announced by ministers)
Germany: £104million
Various (details not yet provided): £101million
Private individuals and organisations: £68million
Canada: £54million
Japan: £52million
Australia: £41million

Lebanon: 716,284 (officially registered with United Nations agencies - though unofficial estimates suggest there may be as many as 1.3million)
Jordan: 522,000 (including 120,000 at the Za’atari camp)
Turkey: 440,000
Iraq: 196,000
Egypt: 110,000
Elsewhere in North Africa (including Algeria, Morocco, Libya): 15,000

Estimated population still inside Syrian needing assistance: 6.8million (including 3.1million children)
Estimated number of people forced from their homes inside Syria: 5.1million
Estimated deaths since the start of the Assad crackdown: 100,000+ (including 7,000 children)
Schools destroyed or closed down: 4,000

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syrian civil war as well as refugees spilling into Lebanon

Both civil war and a growing humanitarian crisis are already spreading from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon, provoking a backlash while threatening to engulf the wider Middle East.
Rocket attacks across the border into Lebanese territory are gaining in frequency, as are targeted bomb blasts within key cities such as Beirut and Tripoli.
As tensions heighten between Alawite, Sunni and Shia sects on either side of the Lebanese-Syrian divide, the country ruled by a fragile caretaker government is also troubled by a growing refugee influx.
Some 720,000 Syrian refugees have been registered with United Nations agencies in Lebanon, but credible estimates suggest as many as 1.3million may be spreading across a 4million-population nation.
Many are hesitant to make themselves officially known, for fear they could be traced by vengeful forces from Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
While Jordan’s 120,000-strong – and expanding – Za’atari refugee camp has compelled much attention, Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population is scattered much more disparately.
Some making it across the frontier – despite ever-encroaching Syrian military presence on Lebanese land – are paying rising rents for cramped basements or garages.
Many more are pitching makeshift tents in improvised campsites, many in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar or even closer to the border in hinterland Wadi Khaled.
The 40,000-population Wadi Khaled area has become a popular refuge for recuperating Free Syrian Army rebel soldiers – perhaps explaining the increasingly-regular bursts of border-crossing gunfire.
Tensions are rising not only among Assad loyalists keen to infiltrate neighbouring land, however, but also among Lebanon’s own deprived communities witnessing mass Syrian arrivals – and aid agency input, however limited.
The Lebanese government is now responding by ordering border officials to impose tighter controls on those flocking to flee Assad’s brutal 21-month crackdown.
Officers have been told only to allow across those with not only proper paperwork but also proof they are coming from towns and cities recognised as under-fire – despite the fact many refugees have been desperately shifting from area to area for months.
Canny landlords in regions such as Wadi Khaled have been hurriedly building extensions or new properties to accommodate refugees desperate for shelter – with rents rising all the time in response.
Yet those not fortunate enough to have property to let are suffering knock-on effects, with competition for jobs now more intense – and wages falling.
Newly-arriving Syrians anxious to afford shelter and food are said to be accepting wages of $1 per hour for tasks such as labouring or toiling in the fields – compared to the previous Lebanese average of $4.
Tensions have been exacerbated still more by the bursts of border shelling by Syrian forces and terrorist attacks carried out by brigades from both countries but on Lebanese land.
Shia militant group Hezbollah, which controls southern areas of the Lebanese capital Beirut, has thrown its weight behind the Assad regime – making it both a perpetrator and target of inner-city attacks.
There are even fears that Hezbollah could retaliate against any US-led air-strikes on Syria with attacks on arch enemy Israel – although such action could well provoke an even more fearsome response than the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.
Two almost-simultaneous mosque bombings on August 23 killed more than 40 people and wounded at least 500 in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli – now home to the deported extremist, ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ Omar Bakri.
Later that night a sniper stationed 50m from a school in Wadi Khaled opened fire – but the time of day meant no pupils or staff were present or injured.
That day’s attacks came a week after a car bomb in a Shia district of Beirut killed 27 people, with Syrian rebel forces cast under suspicion.
No wonder one anxious aid worker admitted to Metro: ‘There’s no house in Lebanon without a pistol, an M16 or a Kalashnikov. People are scared.’
Save The Children’s Lebanon director Sonia Zambakides said: ‘Lebanon has been very overlooked – it’s very much a crisis in its own right.’
Her charity is keen to direct what resources it has – and amid this week’s newly-launched £150million aid appeal – not only to struggling Syrian refugees but potentially-aggrieved Lebanese communities.
The constant chorus from Syrian refugees in Lebanon has been the desire to be able to go home.
For now, the main benefit of being in Lebanon is its relative safety – though that too looks increasingly uneasy and endangered.
Save the Children

The families divided by Syria's civil war

A teenage boy has fled the Syrian civil war without his kidnapped parents - while another mother and father were forced to abandon a son in their own chaotic escape.
These despairing refugee survivors told their stories after emerging from the Bashar al-Assad-led bloodbath tearing apart families just as it divides a nation.
Two 13-year-old boys are among the latest arrivals in neighbouring Lebanon, a country itself suffering not only from an influx of refugees but also increasingly-frequent outbreaks of violence.
Mahmoud Al-Halabi made it across the border on Sunday last week, but without his parents Ahmed and Manal, abducted and missing presumed dead.
While Mahmoud sleeps in a cramped stone garage in border town Wadi Khaled with 15 relatives including an uncle and a grandfather, fellow 13-year-old Ramy Dawwdi lies in a makeshift tent in Akkar.
Ramy competes for sparse space on begged and borrowed rugs with his parents and four siblings - yet without his elder brother Bilal, 15, somehow lost in an panicked escape from Syrian military forces.
Despite their distress, parents Fadi, 40, and 30-year-old Ruba deemed it too late and dangerous to go back - but are now traumatised by the thought of Bilal's fate.
The two families are among up to 1.3million refugees now seeking shelter in Lebanon, while at least 520,000 do so in Jordan, 440,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in Iraq.
The Assad regime's 21-month crackdown on rebel groups plotting to topple his autocratic reign has so far led to at least 100,000 deaths - with aerial bombardment of villages, towns and cities stll only gaining in ferocity.
The plights of the Al-Halabi and Dawwdi families, as well as thousands more, have attracted pledges of help from charities including Save The Children, who this week launch a major new appeal for donations.
The Dawwdi family's district on the outskirts of Homs was set alight by pro-Assad forces invading from a neighbouring area, demolishing with bombs each property in turn during their rampage.
Mr Dawwdi said: 'We were running because of the shelling and he just got lost - to this day, we have no idea what happened to him.'
Ramy, sitting beneath tarpaulins and even scraps of billboard adverts draped over wooden poles, told Metro: 'Because of the chaos when the bombing started, everyone was running in different directions.
'In the end, when we finally felt at a safe distance, about 20 people gathered together and we realised he was missing - we couldn't find him anywhere.'
He could only bow his head in sombre silence when asked how he felt about his missing brother.
Mrs Dawwdi said all her children remained traumatised by the experience, adding: 'Any noise at all can scare them these days. My little girl always wakes up in the night shouting because of her nightmares.'
Similarly sombre was Mahmoud, who described witnessing the slaughter of a family of five just days before his parents went missing - and on the same stretch of road.
He said: 'They went off one day to work in the fields - they went but they didn't come back.
'No one's heard anything of them. This happens a lot.'
Just ten days earlier Mahmoud and his parents had been walking along the same road when they saw a couple and their three children abducted by an armed gang - and later found the bodies stabbed to death and dumped in shallow graves.
He and other family members finally managed to flee the besieged city of Qusair, despite coming under intensive artillery fire while part of a 500-strong group of escapees.
Mahmoud's uncle Fadi Al-Rifaee is also now looking after another six nephews and nieces, whose father was arrested and mother abducted.
He said: 'Before all this, our children were going to school and keeping active.
'Now all they can think about are knives, weapons, killing and death.'

Save the Children

Syria: So many questions, so few - if any - solutions

‘If you dare give those to Bashar al-Assad, I swear I’ll find you and beat you up.’
They’re growing up quickly these days in Syria and surroundings - both the adults ageing faster than they should, and the children looking somehow much younger than their years. And traumatic ordeals.
The threat above came not from a Kalashnikov-toting militant but a knee-high three- or four-year-old, taking umbrage at an aid worker taking time out to take a few photos.
Such is the suspicion. Such is the desperate aggression. Such is the politicisation - however simplistic, if authentic - of everyone, anyone, embroiled.
Another line sticking in the memory from a memorably intense few days in Lebanon and on the Syrian was delivered not in anger, but despair, by a local guide and activist: ‘So many questions - no answer.’
Not to the posers of how to stop Assad’s remorseless bloodshed; whether much-mooted and - here - much-wanted air-strikes would help; whether Hezbollah might attack Israel and thus provoke vengeful destruction on Lebanon; which extremists might emerge; and could any future Syrian regime prove acceptable let alone desirable?
Certainly a sense of helpless despair could easily envelop, whether looking on from the outside or exploring not only Syria but those surrounding countries facing humanitarian crises of their own.
Lebanon is the nation now taking the heaviest influx of Syrian refugees, almost 720,000 officially registered with the United Nations - yet with almost as many again thought to be concealed, whether supporting themselves or fearing betrayal back home.
And still they keep coming, whether pouring into Jordan’s 120,000-strong-and-expanding Za’atari camp or spreading more disparately in basements, garages or in ragged campsites across Lebanon.
The only comfort such starving, soon-shivering refugees can feel is to have escaped Syria, an achievement that may be denied many more as Lebanese border officials are ordered to turn sterner with new applicants.
Those crossing over are no longer being shelled - for the most part anyway.
And yet the war is already spilling into Lebanon as well, with increasingly-frequent bursts from across the border and bomb blasts in major cities especially tense Shia/Alawite battleground Tripoli.
‘There’s no house in Lebanon without a pistol, M16 or Kalashnikov,’ revealed another warning testifying to the nation’s ‘tinderbox’ nature.
Meanwhile, more than one arriving refugee pointed out, ‘Everone in Syria has been affected somehow’ - made clear by the gruesome tales of terror, murder and kidnap slipping from every interviewees’ lips. Often delivered in jarringly matter-of-fact fashion.
Take, as momentous and yet also mere examples, three 13-year-olds.
Majed, who saw his best friend shot down while attending a funeral for 15 victims of a massacre both had barely survived.
Mahmoud, forced to flee from Syria without both his parents following their abduction - and presumed murders - on the same stretch of road where he found a family of five’s tortured bodies.
And Ramy, whose family managed to flee as their village came under fire - only to somehow only later realise elder brother Bilal was lost along the chaotic way.
All harrowing ordeals, among so many, to long-haunt here at least.
Widespread Syrian anger at the word’s lack of action - and only, two-and-a-half years on, much talk yet still prevarication - is understandable, however more divisive the benefits of military strikes might be.
Much of recent discussions back in the West, however, have suggested military strikes as the be-all-and-end-all as far as intervention goes.
All the while £1.9billion - or 40 per cent - of UN-targeted donations go begging, while what aid has been delivered to the region too frequently gets blocked or swallowed up by Assad-regime dominions.
Save The Children are among the organisations not only striving against immense odds to get what help they can to some of those millions in agonising need - yet also imploring UN members to unite at least on not only boosting aid but expanding access.
Foreign policy has been described as the art of choosing the least-worst option of all bad ones available. Few examples might prove so defining as Syria right now.
And yet some small solutions should prove easier than others, at least improving the lives of many more than the few.

Syrian refugee families: "Why has the west abandoned our children?"

Families bombed out of their homes in Syria have accused Britain and the West of abandoning them to Bashar al-Assad.
Mourning mothers and fathers attempting to shelter traumatised children say the UK and allies should share the blame for Syria's unrelenting bloodshed and spreading humanitarian crisis.
Speaking in hideouts or tattered tents across the Syrian border in Lebanon, fleeing casualties urged Metro readers to help ease suffering as a new Save The Children appeal launches.
But they also demanded pressure on world leaders to speed up intervention, as US Congress voting on possible military strikes look likely to drag on into next week.
Syrians speaking to Metro expressed disbelief not only that US president Barack Obama would delay military strikes, but would do so having suggested in advance military action was likely.
US and UK talk of airstrikes to come not only raised hopes among Syrian refugees, but also allowed the Syrian ruling Assad regime to relocate key military bases and supplies.
Those close to Syrian opposition groups now fear any eventual strikes may well miss their chemical weapons targets - while leaving even more vulnerable residents still stuck in the capital Damascus.
Among those furious at the West is 33-year-old labourer Adham Al-Hamwi, who set up camp  last week in a tent on the outskirts of the northern Lebanese town Akkar.
He, his 27-year-old wife Nour and their six children have been constantly on the move in recent months, forced out of their home in Homs before taking temporary shelter in Hama and then Damascus.
Now jobless and penniless yet safe in Lebanon, he cast most blame on Assad as 'behind the whole war', while also accusing Iranian forces fighting inside Syria.
But he added: 'There must be airstrikes - the rest of the world must stop Assad.
'Obama says he's ready for the strikes, so why are they waiting?'
David Cameron had wanted Britain to be part of military action, but has now ruled out any involvement after losing a vote in Parliament.
Mr Al-Hamwi urged the prime minister and British politicians to think again, saying: 'If they were in our shoes, and experienced what we have, they would want to strike Assad.
'Just let them try to imagine our lives - they must then decide to hit Assad, and not with limited strikes but with mass destruction like he is doing.'
'What have these children done, to deserve to be left abandoned like this?'
Parents of Syrian children at Save The Children-backed El Bedawwi school in Lebanon's second city Tripoli were also full of scorn for Western prevarication.
Ebtisam Sabbagh, a 38-year-old widow and mother-of-four from Homs, said: 'For two and a half years, all anyone's done is talk and talk, without taking any action - it's unbelievable.
'I'm almost at the point where I want to pick up a gun and go back and fight, if no one else will.
'We've lost our homes, we've lost our country, we've lost everything - we're left as nothing right now.'
Rama Hallab, 32, who covered her three injured children in their bombed Baba Amr home for three days before escaping, added: 'It does feel like the rest of the world doesn't care about us.'
Syrian opposition activists, unwilling to be identified, suggested the disparate groups and brigades opposing Assad were now more united than at any time previously in the 21-month uprising.
They believe Mr Obama's promises of airstrikes have encouraged greater teamwork - and detailed preparations to pummel the heart of the Assad empire in one 'death or glory' push as soon as US rockets fall.
But they tempered any optimism with fears for the future even if the ruling regime is toppled, with extremist groups - including al-Qaeda militants - among those most organised and likely to jostle for supremacy in any post-Assad Syria.
The Save The Children appeal aims to raise £150million to help 1.5million victims of the Syrian crisis.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has received just 40 per cent of its own appeal target - leaving a £1.9billion shortfall.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Strange days indeed - most peculiar, mama..."

We may not quite all be Thatcherites now but the ‘iron lady’ so incessantly described this past week as ‘divisive’ managed yesterday to unite friend and foe in posing together for pictures at least.
Rival groups gathering in Paternoster Square bearing placards variously declaring ‘Our greatest PM’ and ‘Our thoughts are with the victims of Thatcherism’ stood side by side, each trying to Photobomb the other.
Curious onlookers captured snaps, just as many did throughout the day - whether peering across the procession route at Baroness Thatcher’s coffin or the St Paul’s steps for any famous faces.
The hoisting high of so many cameraphones and iPads called to mind the Kinks’ ‘People Take Pictures Of Each Other’ - say, ‘just in case someone thought they had missed it, and to prove that it really existed’. 
One of those jostling amid the squeezed middle of the pack outside St Paul’s wondered: ‘So who d’you think’s won: those coming to pay their respects, or the nutters?'
While less-than-PC about those others dubbed ‘protesters’ - and a few gave rather more scathing labels - he left out all there not necessarily as Thatcher admirers or enemies, but simply keen on an occasion.
Workers glad to take a few hours out of the office mingled with miners sacked in Lady Thatcher’s 1980s heyday as well as businessmen and women crediting her for their better fortunes.
Her coffin initially set off from the Palace of Westminster, outside which some enthusiastic fans had been camping since the previous evening to ensure a good view for her send-off.
Crowds were rather sparser along Whitehall and The Strand, with almost as many police officers apparent - and their main role seemed to be less about security than directing people to the nearest still-open road crossings.
An incongruous sight and sound on a traffic island opposite Trafalgar Square was an Irish jig danced by kilt-wearing, defrocked Catholic priest Neil Horan.
The eccentric cleric who previously disrupted the 2004 Olympics marathon carried a banner bearing the message: ‘Margaret Thatcher was courageous and patriotic - but she was flawed, like all politicians.’
Margaret Pearce, 74 and from Shepherds Bush in west London, was more strident, saying: ‘I’m here to pay my respects to a great lady.
‘She was the most marvellous prime minister - and she was a woman who wasn’t afraid of any man.
‘The people protesting are disgusting. They’re mainly youngsters who weren’t when she was in power and the cost is only so high because of what they’re threatening.’
Two young women there less from anger or acclaim were secretaries April Robinson, 24, and 27-year-old Charlotte Bury - prompted by curiosity and convenience, thanks to an office around the corner.
Ms Bury, from South Kensington in west London, said: ‘We were a bit too young to really be aware, but she seemed to do some good.’
Ms Robinson, from nearby Tottenham Court Road, added: ‘She was a big part of history so I wanted to check out the atmosphere. But I’m a bit shocked how un-busy it is.’
Space on pavements proved trickier to seize towards St Clement Danes, however, especially as the coffin approached for handover into a military-led gun carriage.
‘Is that it?’ - ‘Yes, that’s it’ was one rather nonplussed exchange, as the coffin approached to the soundtrack of non-Big Ben bing-bongs from the RAF chapel.
After Westminster’s Great Bell was silenced in Lady Thatcher’s honour, her cortege also managed to remain out of earshot from St Clement Danes’ custom of chiming ‘Oranges And Lemons’ on the hour.
But despite a rousing rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ as she passed, this section of the journey did strike some notes of discord.
There were angry exchanges outside the Royal Courts of Justice as ex-miners unfurled a flag declaring ‘Rest In Shame’.
A workman wearing a high-visibility jacket as he wandered past described the scene to someone on his mobile phone, adding: ‘I hope they die.’
Smartly-dressed old gent Brian Glynn, also making his way along, provoked protests by telling one flag-bearer: ‘Shame on you, you piece of s***.’
The 69-year-old office equipment company manager had travelled to London from the Isle of Man to honour the woman he first voted for back in 1979.
He said: ‘Those protesters should be deeply ashamed. Apart from everything else, she was an elderly lady and she deserves to be honoured.
‘This is a free country - but I too exercised that right and told them what I thought, and 99 per cent of the people standing around would’ve agreed.’
Paul Birch, 45 and from Manchester, said: ‘She did a lot of things, some good and some bad - but it looks like a few here just want an excuse to kick off.’
Among those beneath the ‘Rest In Shame’ flag was 53-year-old Stephen Tugman, who both went on strike and was sacked while a miner in Scotland in the 1980s.
He travelled down from Bathgate in West Lothian yesterday, saying: ‘This is the woman who ended the family allowances for miners and now we’re paying £10million for her funeral. It’s offensive to the working classes.’
Sue Losh, 52 and from Liverpool, said: ‘The communities she wrecked have never been the same since.’
Other pockets of dissent could be found along Fleet Street - eagerly pressed upon by the Press - as they called out ‘Shame’ and turned their backs, while others craned their necks, on the passing carriage.
A half-hearted attempt at a chorus of ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ faltered, though the wannabe song-starter merely grinned when told: ‘You’d faint at seeing a bar of soap.’
But all raised were voices rather than fists, while the only items thrown on to the road were flowers instead of milk or other missiles.
Some demonstrators’ fears that those not pre-arrested could be ‘kettled’ by police appeared to prove unfounded.
Why, one helpful officer even had to correct himself when telling a lost-looking protester: ‘The main aggressive, sorry, “anti” group is down that way.’
There were indeed many chanting angry slogans in the streets and squares around St Paul’s - plus solitary preachers promoting religious fervor, alleged miscarriages of justice and or threatened local hospitals.
Most spectators, however, had at least more nuanced views - uniting in applause for the military personnel marching by while pointing and cooing towards familiar politicians and TV presenters.
That anti-’nutters’ onlooker may have wanted a final scorecard - perhaps in keeping with Lady Thatcher’s own winning spirit.
Yet in the disparate hubbub as crowds quickly drifted away, respects or grudges duly paid, the atmosphere in both city and City felt neither sombre nor seething - merely returning to business as usual.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Thatcher found Finchley perfect fit as MP and PM, deeming it 'one of us' enough

Growing up in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher appeared inescapable and inevitable – growing up in the 1980s in Finchley, even more so.
Way back when, in callow childhood days even before forming the righteous – if juvenile – opinions of youth, the fact she was Britain’s first female prime minister meant little.
More significantly, she was not only prime minister – but, well, the prime minister.
Most often, that formidable personality came not only via TV screens – on BBC1 at Six or Nine O’Clock, on BBC2 otherwise – but often in front of pale blue walls. 
(Just imagine the CGI effects modern-day movie directors might apply.)
Then that Spitting Image monster loomed even more terrifying than Terrahawks, and only more convincing for competing with June Whitfield’s rather more anaemic impression on Radio 2’s Huddliners.
This North London boy never had the pleasure – sorry, disgrace – of being told off at school for pelting snowballs at the visiting prime ministerial limousine, a younger brother indulging instead.
Little time went by, though, without wandering through Finchley and noticing rings of steel suddenly surrounding a school or church hall no other MP could even dream of needing.
Yet ‘only’ seven years after Mrs Thatcher’s resignation as prime minister – and five after her succession in Finchley by prim, personality-free, researcher-pursuing Hartley Booth – somehow the constituency just about turned red.
Not only did Finchley fall in the most unlikely – and indicative – of gains for Tony Blair’s New Labour that was admittedly in thrall to Thatcher, but to an old-leftie lecturer in Dr Rudi Vis, who turned up to the count with no victory speech planned.
The Thatcher shadow still loomed, even if she no longer made local engagements with the assiduity of 1959 onwards and regularity even when loftier calls of state demanded.
Grantham may dominate the eulogies, Orgreave – and many similar others - the excoriations, but this stolid and respectable, stealthily aspirational North London suburb feels a suitable fit too.
Why, the current incumbent MP Mike Freer, returning the constituency to true blue after 13 years of the late Dr Vis, previously led Barnet council with a privatising – and, among local authorities, pioneering - zeal of a very Eighties flavour.
The so-called ‘easyCouncil’ approach seeks to shred social services and libraries to barely minimal efforts – and cost – so long as council tax increases remain low or even non-existent.
Mrs Thatcher may have found, in Finchley and far beyond, electoral prospects boosted by playing on patriotism, homeliness and alleged rectitude - yet also self-interest and greed.
For all the shrill hysteria of those who opposed, she did prove equally and expansively popular as well, perhaps thanks to many motives ambitious even if others might be more ambiguous.
Now this ‘Thatcher’s child’ suspects she would waste little time worrying about all those offending her admirers by celebrating her demise.
After all, one of her most striking and telling inquiries tended to concern whether anyone she met could be classed as ‘one of us’.
(And if not - ah, who cares...?)