The Olympic spirit?

Cyclists banned from Newham for the duration of the Games.

 

For your average left-winger (like me), grandiose patriotic events are usually characterised by post-imperial malaise, myth-peddling and latent racism – until Friday night. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony revealed a country forged in the actions of ordinary people; actions which to defined a new British spirit of compassion, diversity, irreverence, and audacity. As Anthony Painter so beautifully put it, "The orthodox view of the people as merely extras in a story of regal supremacy and a march to global domination now seems as peculiar as a gurn on the face of Mr Bean." In three hours, Boyle seemed to reclaim history for we, the people, from the royals and politicians who would otherwise own it.
 
But as I watched the Olympic flag being paraded around the stadium, something was happening outside. The police were arresting over 100 members of the cycling group, Critical Mass; a group which has been cycling on London’s streets for the last 18 years with no aim but to celebrate the joy of bikes. In the words of one cyclist who was arrested, "I can honestly say I had absolutely zero intention of disrupting the Olympics. I don’t think anyone did. It was about enjoying cycling – not hating the Olympics."
 
In 2008, the House of Lords ruled that Critical Mass was acting completely lawfully and that the Metropolitan Police were not allowed to obstruct the bike rides. And yet, at around midnight on Friday the police ushered cyclists into a cul-de-sac in East London, kettled them, and began forcing some off their bikes. Over 100 cyclists were then arrested under Section 12 of the Public Order Act. They were bundled on coaches, where they remained for over 7 hours without access to food, water or toilets. One of the arrestees was a 13-year-old boy.
 
Arrestees were later released with stringent bail conditions, including a ban from cycling in an entire London borough, Newham. Very little is written about how bail conditions are often used to essentially supress protest, but as Alastair, a cyclist present at the ride, summarised, "This is about taking a big chunk of potential activists out of the picture for the duration of the Olympics and using police bail to do it."
 
If the cyclists were simply doing what they have always done on Friday night, then so were the police. As the cyclists were being detained, the Olympics opening ceremony was lauding Suffragettes and trade unionists that were also oppressed and demonised for threatening the pageantry and power of the day. It was ever thus: "generations of people must fight the same battles over and over again," as Tony Benn once said – even if those people are simply cyclists deciding that a militarised sporting event will not change them.
 
Some of those who took part in the Critical Mass bike ride point out the juxtaposition of the ceremony’s themes with the oppression of civil liberties going on outside. But I don’t see the two as being in conflict. When Danny Boyle chose Shakespeare’s words "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises," he was recognising Britain as a troubled and frenetic country. He was acknowledging that Britain has often been a country of struggle, and of noise. Boyle reminded us that Britain’s greatest moments have been those where people stand up to the powerful. By refusing to abandon their tradition at the behest of the authorities, Critical Mass, in its own small way, was continuing the legacy of those the ceremony was celebrating.
 
The athletes will return home in a few weeks, and we must think about the sort of country that will be left behind. The sanctity of the Olympics has provided the police with powers that are likely to remain long after the corporate bunting has been taken down. I choose not to see Danny Boyle’s ceremony as bread and circuses; I choose to see it as a call to arms. We must defend our freedom of expression, as those who came before us did. We must defend it because it is the only weapon we have to ensure that we, the people, can write our own history.
Police corral cyclists from Critical Mass on 27 July (Photograph: Getty Images)
Getty
Show Hide image

“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.