<![CDATA[World-affairs]]> <![CDATA[Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in jail]]> Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in jail for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He shot her three times through a door in their Pretoria home on 14 February 2013.

Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide in September, but cleared of murder.

His defence had argued for him to receive a sentence involving community service and house arrest, while the prosecution called for a minimum of ten years in jail.

Judge Thokozile Masipa said that sentencing must be a balance between retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation.

Both the prosecution and the defence have the right to appeal the verdict.

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<![CDATA[The great ebola scare]]> It is, according to the World Health Organisation director general, Margaret Chan, the “most severe acute health emergency in modern times”, one that is “threatening the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries”. Almost 4,500 people have been killed by the ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although most of the deaths have occurred in just three countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – where infection rates are still rising exponentially, western governments are preparing themselves for the arrival of the virus on their shores. The US and Spain have confirmed cases, and in the UK Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, expects ebola to be putting the National Health Service to the test by Christmas.

Amid the rising panic, a few calm voices are struggling to be heard. Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the House of Commons health select committee, has said that she expects the UK to get five cases in total, at the rate of roughly one a month. The NHS, she says, is perfectly ready and able to cope. Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, concurs: ebola is not a disease you have to fear when living in a wealthy country. “The likelihood of this causing a major epidemic in Europe or the US is very, very low,” he says.

The rapid transmission in West Africa is largely a result of broken civil structures and health-care systems. Sierra Leone and Liberia are recovering from decades of conflict that also sucked in neighbouring Guinea. The consequences are a dearth of medical resources and a mistrust of government: a perfect storm that leads the population to pay scant attention to advice from the state. Diagnosis of the disease has been slow and in some areas people have insisted on following local traditions, rather than best practice, when caring for – and disposing of – ebola-stricken relatives. This is what has cleared a path for the virus through the population of these countries. In the west, with highly responsive and respected health-care systems and no tradition of physical contact with the sick or dead, there should be little worry. The boring flu virus is more likely to get us, and yet we have let ebola, a somewhat self-defeating virus, become a major concern. It might be said that we are suffering from Ebola Panic Disorder.

Ebola is not an especially dangerous pathogen. It was first identified in 1976 but because it did not seem much of a threat a vaccine was never developed. Periodic outbreaks were fairly easily contained. A few hundred people died in Africa but no money or urgency was given to finding a cure. The US military paid ebola a bit of attention at first, in case it could be weaponised. That interest soon waned, however: bioterrorists would find it almost useless. It coexists happily with certain animal hosts – the current outbreak originated in fruit bats – but is so deadly to us that the virus is normally stopped in its tracks.

“It’s not airborne, and it kills its victims too quickly for them to pass it on efficiently: it just doesn’t spread fast enough,” says Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

The virus is carried in body fluids and enters through cuts in the skin or through mucous membranes. Infection can occur through sexual intercourse, ingestion of breast milk and through physical contact if protective measures are not taken. Once ebola takes hold, it disables its host’s immune system. Survival depends on certain factors. One is simply the strain of the virus (some are deadlier than others). Another is early and copious use of rehydration solution, replacing the fluids that the disease will cause to leak from the body. In some cases, a transfusion of plasma from a recovered victim has also assisted recovery.

 

The first signs of infection are fever and malaise; a few days later come diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Despite the frenzied reporting, bleeding from the eyes is not that common. However, the ebola virus halts the mechanism that clots blood, and gastrointestinal bleeding is a common symptom. Eventually, the mucous membranes (including those in the eyes) and any cuts or other wounds may ooze blood continuously. If you are going to die of the disease, you will usually know by about day six after the first symptoms show – the point at which most surviving patients’ condition has improved. The last stages of the disease are painful and horrific. The average time to death in West Africa, mostly through septic shock and multiple organ failure, has been just over a week.

It is what happens next that presents the greatest problem. Traditional funerals in the affected countries often require relatives to wash the corpse, in some cases multiple times over a few days. This provides an opportunity for the virus in the dead person’s leaking body fluids to make the leap into a new host. Disposing of the body while following strict protocols – using disinfectant while wearing full-cover protective clothing – cuts the risk of transmission to near zero.

This has been proven time and again in previous ebola outbreaks. The protective protocols are so straightforward, in fact, that rural communities in parts of Africa have been successfully implementing them for decades without outside help. Some of the flare-ups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been staunched rapidly without ever coming to prominence in the western media. Two other West African countries have had cases in the recent outbreak, but contained them by implementing stringent public health measures. In Nigeria, which has a population of 170 million and where roughly 15 million live in Lagos alone, eight people have died (of 20 confirmed cases) and there are now no residual infections. In Senegal, just one person has died.

So while we should be doing all we can to help West African countries deal with the disease, there is little reason for us to panic in the west – especially as a vaccine is in development. Two vaccine candidates have proved promising in animal trials, and human safety tests run by the University of Oxford began last month. If the vaccines perform as well as expected, and mass-production techniques are developed in time, 2015 might bring a huge effort to eradicate susceptibility to animal-borne ebola.

Seen in this light, both the tragedy playing out in West Africa and the panic besetting the developed world are actually a result of ebola’s lack of virulence. As Berkley points out, a vaccine is finally being developed, not because of the disease ravaging Africa, but because of a sudden realisation that, as a result of poor decision-making early in the current outbreak, the disease is not necessarily going to stay in Africa this time. “It’s more about fear of the disease taking hold in the west than it is about the disease in the south,” he says.

 

The threat has arisen because no one in charge realised that it would be so tough to implement even straightforward protection protocols in the broken health-care systems of Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular. The index case (that is, the first one) in the present outbreak was reported in December last year and attracted no response. “Then, very late, the international community started to get interested,” Melissa Leach says. “And the focus was on how we contain and control this.”

Leach sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which informs the government about risks and recommends strategies. The discourse has at last evolved, she says: the decision to scale up aid was well motivated, and the entire discussion about how we help stop the disease killing people in West Africa, rather than how to prevent it coming here. Nonetheless, motivating politicians to do the right thing did require some discourse about the threat to the UK, channelled through the media. And that’s when the silliness started.

There is a stark contrast between the calm, low-profile checks on NHS preparedness for ebola and the pointless but highly visible implementation of screening programmes at UK airports. The latter is only to allay public fears; it is close to impossible to spot ebola-carrying travellers. Yet in some senses the panic is predictably human, according to Wandi Bruine de Bruin, professor of behavioural decision-making at Leeds University Business School. One reason we are failing to assess the risk sensibly, she says, is that we hear stories of things such as people bleeding from their eyes; it is an upsetting mental image, and one that hampers our cognitive processing. “People use the emotions they feel about an event as a ‘mental short cut’ for assessing risk,” she says. “Horrific images of ebola are likely to evoke strong negative emotions, potentially leading to higher perceptions of risk.”

Another issue highlighted by de Bruin’s research is the human need for control. The two biggest threats in the developed world are stroke and heart disease. The problem is, stroke, heart disease – and cancer – are slow and steady killers. These are familiar, comfortable threats; it doesn’t feel as if they’re out of control. Ebola is different.

No matter how few deaths have occurred compared to other diseases, or what the likelihood of coming into contact with an ebola-infected person might be, if many people are being afflicted at once, in an unfamiliar environment, with a disease that evokes horror and has no cure – that is a frightening scenario, and our control-hungry minds are disturbed by it.

It’s easy to see this playing out in the US and Europe but it is also at work in West Africa, says Heidi Larson, an anthropologist who researches interactions with health-care systems at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “They are freaked out,” she says. “Look at the levels of panic and anxiety after one case in a western country: imagine how the people of West Africa feel.” It is almost certainly a desperate desire for control that is keeping people away from health centres, she argues. “Who would want to go to a hospital if you didn’t have to right now?” The same desire compels people to maintain customary burial practices, keeping infection rates high.

 

One consequence is that it’s not just ebola that is running rampant in West Africa. Now that the hospitals are no longer seen as places where you take control of a disease, malaria, pregnancy complications, pneumonia and dysentery will kill even more people than usual. Not that there would be resources to deal with these afflictions even if people did present themselves at clinics and hospitals. Health-care workers are consumed, sometimes literally, by ebola: there is no slack in the system.

Those who do seek care when ebola symptoms manifest are thrust into an environment that creates even more fear and loss of control. Generally in the west, we have little contact with the sick; we leave them in the care of professionals. In many West African hospitals, doctors and nurses are for diagnosis and treatment; everything else is the family’s responsibility. If your child or your partner is hospitalised, you take them food, give them fluids, wash them and meet all their basic needs. You touch them, hold their hand, reassure them it’s going to be all right. But not with ebola.

“They see a family member getting sick; they’re not supposed to touch them; they’re told that they are to be taken away to a place where they can’t be accessed, and that they may never see them again,” Larson says. The prospect is too much for many to cope with; hence the suspicion that Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are harbouring many unreported cases. “The panicked relatives are the real risk.”

These fears can be allayed. Health-care workers in previous outbreaks in the DRC became so concerned by the disengagement of families that they changed disposal routines. Bodies would be disinfected and bagged in front of relatives, who were given protective clothing. The bagged corpse was physically handed to the family, and family members put it into a grave. These rituals, performed 30 times a day at the peak of one outbreak, seemed at first to be a waste of precious resources. However, in the longer term, increasing relatives’ engagement with the health-care system helped stem the tide of new infections.

Implementing such measures requires trust in the authorities and donor agencies – a rare currency in West Africa now. Many developing countries have lost confidence in western programmes, says Didier Raoult, a disease researcher at Aix-Marseilles University. Several high-profile failures are to blame, he notes. In what he calls the “Haiti mess”, international aid workers imported cholera into the country following the 2010 earthquake and killed more than twice as many people as have died in the present ebola outbreak.

The CIA’s covert use of a vaccination programme in Pakistan to try to identify Osama Bin Laden’s children was, in effect, a subversion of essential aid programmes to protect a few westerners from the possibility of death in terror attacks. “That undermined our credibility,” Raoult says. It led to a long-standing boycott of vaccination drives and attacks on health workers, causing enormous setbacks to the effort to eradicate diseases such as polio.

Mistrust is also a problem in the UK, where the panicked reaction to ebola can be correlated with the public mood. Unpopular political leaders and a loss of confidence in the NHS are potent stimulants to overreaction. “People underestimate the amount that underlying political or social issues affect the public’s reaction to an event,” Larson says. “Think about the MMR [jab] scare. The panic around that was because it came hot on the heels of the poorly managed and frightening BSE saga.” The result was a severely reduced uptake of vaccines and an ensuing series of measles outbreaks. The west’s reaction to ebola, given our current economic and political gloom, will be similarly exaggerated, she suggests.

It is vital that we stem the panic, otherwise our reaction will be short-sighted and short-lived. During an outbreak of plague in India a few years ago, health-care workers went to the world’s premier plague labs for help and found none; the researchers had retired and hadn’t been replaced. “There was no capability almost anywhere to work on this disease,” Berkley says. “Because we don’t see these diseases commonly, we get hysterical, and then when it’s over we tend to move completely away from it.”

Stringent budget cuts at WHO and other agencies and a lack of political attention to global health challenges between outbreaks have exacerbated the crisis in West Africa, and heightened the wider panic, Berkley reckons. Contrast that with our preparedness for nuclear war. “The likelihood of that is pretty low but the UK has nuclear submarines going round the world, always available in case a nuclear attack occurs.

“Everybody accepts it’s OK to spend the money on armed forces and nuclear submarines, but when you say, ‘Let’s keep disease labs up to date, let’s keep a fast response team, let’s do the training necessary to prepare for an outbreak,’ people don’t respond. There’s no perspective.” 

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science correspondent. His latest book is “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise” (Profile, £12.99)

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<![CDATA[Islamic State can be beaten]]> You have to hand it to Islamic State. It’s not only good at capturing towns and cities, cutting off the heads of its enemies on camera, selling off 14-year-old girls into sexual slavery, carrying out mass executions with the efficiency and enthusiasm of the Reich’s SS Panzer Division and cutting videos to music; it has also managed to persuade us that it can’t be beaten.

“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.

How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?

More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.

Still, the inevitable victory of IS doesn’t look quite so inevitable elsewhere on the two-nation battlefield where it is fighting. In Iraq the other day, only 40 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, I was being driven towards the front line by the commander of the Iraqi national army’s 17th Division in his US-supplied Humvee.

Brigadier Jabbar Karam al-Taee is precisely the kind of officer the new Iraqi government is starting to promote: older, experienced and not necessarily Shia Muslim. Slightly built, with sharp eyes and an ability to charm, he fought the Iranians under Saddam Hussein, and possibly (though I was too tactful to ask him) the western coalition forces in 1991 and 2003.

How, I asked the brigadier over the grinding of the Humvee’s engine, did he rate the IS forces? “Not bad,” he said. “But they aren’t properly trained, and when you start to beat them they run away immediately.”

He should know. Like Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park of Fighter Command in 1940, Jabbar Karam is one of the few people who could lose the war in an afternoon. The 17th Division is all that stands between IS and the south-western approaches to Baghdad. Three weeks ago it took on a sizeable group of IS fighters gathered on the east bank of the Euphrates.

If the Iraqi army had failed, Baghdad would have come under attack and could conceivably have fallen. But an intelligent combination of US air strikes and action by Iraqi ground troops threw the Islamist fighters back across the river. They are still there, and for now they are showing few signs of activity.

 

So why didn’t we hear about the battle for Baghdad, when we have heard so much about the battle for Kobane, a relatively insignificant small town in Syria on the border with Turkey?

It’s mostly a question of access. Turkey is easy to get to, and dozens of journalists and cameramen have gathered on the heights overlooking Kobane to watch the street battles and air strikes. We all know from hour to hour what is happening there.

Baghdad is a lot more problematic to report from. It takes time to get visas, and only a few big news outfits such as the BBC or the New York Times have the infrastructure to protect their staff there.

If you were a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcaster with limited money and resources, you would be much more likely to use the services of one of the brave and adventurous freelance photojournalists who specialise in reporting on the Syrian side of war. You might even send one of your staff people to Turkey. You wouldn’t bother sending them to Baghdad, because it’s much too expensive and requires too great an effort.

For a news organisation working with a limited budget, Kobane is the natural place to report from. But it offers a skewed picture of the fight against Islamic State: in many ways, the picture that IS itself wants to promote.

Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective. The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.

It seems reasonable to assume that President Erdogan would actually welcome it if the Kurdish peshmerga in Kobane got a bloody nose – though they have done far better than he, and the gloomy duo of Kerry and Hammond, seemed to expect.

The reason Erdogan’s tanks have been sitting idly on the hillside overlooking Kobane, like Hitler’s tanks outside Warsaw in 1944, is that he regards the peshmerga as close allies of the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation that is Turkey’s bête noire. At some point after Kobane falls, if it does, Erdogan’s forces, infinitely tougher and better trained than IS, will no doubt move into Kobane on some pretext or other and take it over.

 

The battle of the River Euphrates, on the Iraqi front, is an altogether different story. After IS forces captured the village of al-Yusufiyah, US air strikes destroyed their heavy gun positions. Iraqi troops moved in fast and winkled IS out, building by building. Soon it was in full retreat, escaping across the Euphrates and destroying the bridges behind it.

The situation is immensely dangerous for the Iraqi government. Anbar province, to the west and north-west of Baghdad, has been increasingly infiltrated by IS fighters. They are not on the ground in particularly large numbers, but there are few government forces around and many of them are too heavily Shia to be effective in a largely Sunni region.

Can IS be beaten there? Senior figures in Baghdad believe it can, if people stop repeating the nervous talk about IS being unstoppable and air strikes not working.

First, it will require a change of attitude. IS has been remarkably effective, but that could be changing. Some of its western volunteers seem to be losing their appetite for the brutality they are witnessing. A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.

The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry. From time to time, it seems, foreign volunteers have been suspected of being plants for the western intelligence services. What happens to them after that isn’t known, but it is unlikely to be particularly healthy.

IS has 30,000 men at the very most, and there could well be fewer than that. Given that it is fighting on four or even five fronts across Syria and Iraq, it cannot be considered a big force.

Its strengths are twofold. First, it terrifies its enemies with the ferocity of its tactics, much like the Mongols in the 13th century. The downside of the IS practice of cutting the head off defeated enemies and gouging out their eyes is that it is a huge disincentive to surrender and a positive encouragement to fight to the last bullet. Initially, the Iraqi national army was so terrified by IS that it was paralysed. Now, the officers and men realise they have to fight fiercely if they are to survive.

IS’s second great strength lies in its commanders. Many are Saddam-era Iraqi army officers who used to fight for al-Qaeda and have now moved on to Islamic State. How they get on with wild men such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ferocious self-styled caliph of Islamic State, is unclear.

In the past, because it had captured so many American-made tanks, heavy weapons and missiles from the Iraqi army, IS often made the mistake of fighting out in the open, like a proper army. That cost it dearly in casualties when the US air strikes began. Now, it is acting more like a guerrilla force, and has reduced its losses accordingly.

On the other side, the Iraqi army is improving. Until recently, the sectarian, pro-Shia government under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would pack the army with young and inexperienced officers, chosen more for their Shia faith than for their fighting ability. They were easily intimidated by Islamic State’s reputation for aggression, and in June, when IS attacked Mosul, the biggest city in the north of the country, most of the Iraqi army officers there abandoned their men and simply ran for it. After Mosul fell, large numbers of Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered.

However, Iraq has a new prime minister: Haider al-Abadi, an engineer and businessman who lived for years in Britain. He has reversed Maliki’s Shia sectarianism by bringing Sunnis back into the army, and is negotiating with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, where IS operates.

If the tribes decide to support the Baghdad government, as they supported the Americans from 2006 in the so-called Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi army stands a good chance of recapturing Mosul. It won’t happen for a few months yet, but Iraqi generals are hopeful they will get it back next year.

Clearing IS out of Mosul and Anbar province certainly won’t be the end of Islamic State, any more than the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the end of al-Qaeda; but just as al-Qaeda no longer seems the threat it once was, IS would start to seem much more vulnerable.

Maybe the next stage for IS will be to bring its horrific, trademark murders to the streets of western towns and cities. Some people, like the former US vice-president Dick Cheney, think it will do worse things than that. Perhaps. But let us hope that this time the United States and other countries choose not to fight IS with its own weapons of torture and brutality.

Contrary to what you see in the television pictures from Kobane, and hear from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philip Hammond and John Kerry, Islamic State can be beaten.

And it’s even possible that the process has already started.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC

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<![CDATA[A voice for Kurdistan: an encounter with Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman]]> “It’s a very difficult thing, to ask a country to go to war,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman said wearily when we met in her London office in September. As high representative of the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to the UK, she had been lobbying for greater intervention against Islamic State/Isis militants in Iraq for months.

Ten days after we spoke, parliament voted to join the US in launching air strikes on Isis in Iraq. But Abdul Rahman’s mood was far from triumphant. “Eventually, Britain may have to join air strikes against Isis in Syria, too,” she told me. “Containing Isis isn’t enough. It has to be defeated. And to do that, it needs to be hit at its nerve centre, which is Syria.”

The jihadists’ rise has renewed the international attention on Iraqi Kurdistan. This semi-autonomous region enjoyed greater stability and prosperity than the rest of the country following the US-led invasion in 2003 but now it forms the front line of the battle against the militants. The crisis has exposed long-standing tensions between the Iraqi national government and the KRG. Abdul Rahman complained that although Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters are dying in battle, they “aren’t receiving their salaries from Baghdad, aren’t getting the weapons that they should, that America has supplied”. The Iraqi government has launched a series of lawsuits to block Kurdistan’s attempts to sell oil.

In July, KRG leaders promised to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, although no date has been set. How would Abdul Rahman vote? “There’s the head and the heart,” she replied. “The heart always says independence, because of the historic injustice against Kurdistan.”

She cannot remember a time when she wasn’t involved in Kurdish politics. Her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was the deputy prime minister of the KRG before his death in 2004. As a child, she lived briefly in Baghdad when her father was invited to join the national government as a minister. Then he fell out of favour. “There were other periods when we were living in the mountains. We were refugees; we lived in a deserted school for a while because we were on the run,” she recalled. “My parents never showed fear, never exposed to us that we were going through hardship. It might sound like a traumatic childhood but honestly I didn’t feel it.”

When she was 11, Abdul Rahman’s family moved to Kent and her father returned to the Middle East alone. She now speaks with a perfect Home Counties accent but Kurdistan never felt far away to her, even when she started work as a journalist. In 1993, she won the Observer’s Farzad Bazoft Memorial Prize for a piece she had written on Kurdistan for the Hendon Times. This felt fitting: “Saddam, Iraq, Kurdistan . . . It was always there, whatever I did.”

Years later, working for the Financial Times in Japan, she began discussing plans with her father to return to Kurdistan. On New Year’s Day in 2004, he told her that there was a job in the KRG for her. A month later, he was killed alongside her brother, Salah, in a terrorist attack in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. “When you lose someone through a terrorist attack, there’s another dimension – the horror of it,” she told me. “That’s why I genuinely feel so sorry for the families of those who’ve been beheaded,” she added, pausing to gather her emotions.

Abdul Rahman returned to the UK to support her brother’s widow and took an editing job at the FT. Around a year later, the KRG prime minister offered her the post of high representative. “I’m pleased that’s what I’m doing,” she said, “because my last conversation with my father was about doing something for Kurdistan in public service.” 

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<![CDATA[War without end: 12 years of US drone strikes in Yemen]]> Salem al-Taysi’s big brown eyes stared straight through me. I was trying to ask him about his father, who had been killed six days earlier in a US drone strike that had rocked this barren hillside in remote central Yemen. But Salem did not say a word. The boy, who appeared to be about ten years old, just gazed intently into the middle distance as his younger siblings huddled around him.

It is hard to forget Salem’s eyes. Every time the White House claimed that the 12 civilians, including his father, who were killed in a wedding procession on 12 December were al-Qaeda militants, I thought of him. I remember his brothers and sisters and the 17 other children I met that day who had lost their fathers. I think of the scores of people in the village, living without any support from the government, without electricity or running water, who had lost their main breadwinner.

This is the grim reality of the “Yemen model” touted again last month by the US president, Barack Obama, as he outlined his strategy for tackling the threat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It is 12 years since the first US missile strikes hit Yemen. The “Yemen model” is one of perpetual violence, war without end. It is an opaque conflict in which no one knows what qualifies an individual to become a target for US drones, for Yemeni, Saudi or US fighter jets, or for US-trained Yemeni counterterrorism groups. The limits of what can be done in the name of “counterterrorist” action often appear boundless.

Without American boots on the ground, Washington can maintain this never-ending war while facing few questions from the public at home. A YouGov survey on 4 September showed that only 16 per cent of Americans were aware that their government had carried out bomb attacks on Yemen in the previous six months. Washington never claims responsibility for its air or naval strikes. Under the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni politicians even lied to their parliament on behalf of Washington and claimed responsibility for US bombings.

In two years’ time, the problem of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) will pass on to another US president. Obama has managed to stave off an attack by Aqap on the US, though he came close to failure in 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a passenger jet. Had the explosives planted in his underwear detonated as planned, the Yemen model as we now know it might have looked very different, though undoubtedly the US focus would still be purely military.

Preoccupied by missile strikes and the training of counterterrorism troops, Washington has failed to tackle the underlying causes of al-Qaeda’s rise in Yemen. In the past five years, the number of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia supporters and militants has grown.

It is no coincidence that al-Qaeda was able to garner support from local people when it took control of towns in the southern province of Abyan in 2011. In a secessionist area, already hostile towards a northern government perceived as oppressive, residents of the town of Ja’ar (militants renamed it the Islamic Emirate of Waqar) welcomed the insurgents’ ability to maintain the electricity supply and provide security and a justice system where the state had failed.

As Samir al-Mushari, a farmer who was severely burned in an apparent US drone strike on the town, told me in May 2012: “Ansar al-Sharia solved many problems for us that the government hadn’t managed to do for 20 years.” Life was better for many under al-Qaeda until the US-backed campaign to remove the Islamists began in 2012.

Almost three years after the de facto ousting of President Saleh, the transitional government’s limited credibility has been eroded by the worsening humanitarian situation and the lack of security or law and order. A UN-backed political transition process, formulated in 2011, has flagged. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2003 and the social contract has expired. On 21 September, Houthi fighters (the Houthis are a Shia clan) took control of the capital, Sana’a, forcing an agreement that included the dissolution of the government.

Anti-US sentiment has soared in the four years since I first arrived in Yemen. The numbers of Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia fighters have grown. They are spreading across the country and the volume and scope of their attacks have increased. There is still no visible end for the “Yemen model”. For Obama, the endgame will come when he leaves office in 2017. But when will it end for Yemen? 

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<![CDATA[Shrien Dewani is on trial for murder, not for his sexuality]]> High on the wall of the South African courtroom in which a British man is being tried for the murder of his wife hangs a relic of a previous era.

An ornately carved wooden crest, with a unicorn and a lion rampant, and beneath it that curious motto of the British establishment: “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (roughly translated from Old French as “shame on those who think ill of it”).

That Britain’s royal coat of arms is still displayed in courtroom two of Cape Town’s High Court is most likely due to the debt of honour South Africa’s legal system owes its English progenitor.

But crest’s old-fashioned imprecation to trust in the righteousness of those who act on our behalf is one that, to my mind, could be as hopelessly out of date as the colonial attitudes which once subjugated this beautiful country.

For the past two weeks I have reported for various British media outlets on the opening skirmishes in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani.

Dewani, as some readers are likely aware, is the young British businessman accused of orchestrating the 2010 murder of Anni, his wife of just two weeks, in a spectacular hijack committed in the township badlands which fringe this stunning city by the sea.

To my mind, the most significant evidence we’ve heard in Dewani’s trial so far has been the witness testimony of a local gangster who – in return for a discount off his prison sentence and, perhaps, the prospect of more to come – claimed that Anni’s murder was her husband’s idea.

But beyond this there is one theme, above all others, that has dominated both court proceedings and the media’s coverage of it: Shrien Dewani’s sexuality.

Briefly, Shrien Dewani is bisexual.

“I have had sexual interactions with both males and females”, a statement read into court on Dewani’s behalf declared on the trial’s first day.

“I consider myself to be bisexual. My sexual interactions with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs; including prostitutes [...]

“My sexual experiences with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”

Dewani’s admission prompted lurid headlines, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

The confession was interpreted by legal experts as a clever move designed to take the wind out of the prosecution’s sails by conceding as true that which they might claim Dewani denies – and also by challenging the court to disagree with the proposition that a person’s sexuality should have no bearing on his or her guilt.

But if Shrien Dewani had hoped sexuality might disappear as a theme in this trial, he will have been sorely disappointed.

On Monday this week, the trial heard from Simon Johnson, a perky young British man from the gay dating website Gaydar – a website, Johnson claimed in court, for which “privacy is of the utmost importance”.

The court didn’t hear whether Johnson had been compelled to give witness evidence or whether he volunteered to do so, but what he told the court might seem at odds with this claim to privacy.

Shrien Dewani, Johnson explained, had been a member of Gaydar for six years at the time of Anni’s death. His online nickname was “Asiansubguy”. He described himself as “a single gay man” and “passive sub guy” who was looking for a “dominant active guy”.

The court heard more detail about Dewani’s sexual predilections, much of it likely to be extremely embarrassing to him. But that, I think, is enough for now.

What on earth, I wondered as listened to Johnson’s patter, has any of this got to do with murder?

The Gaydar man had an answer. He confirmed that, according to the website’s records, Shrien Dewani logged into the site once on the day before Anni’s death and three times two days afterwards.

Okay. But what did he do online?

Unfortunately, that Johnson couldn’t say. This information was not retrievable from the site’s servers, he explained. But it was possible, he conceded under cross examination, that Shrien Dewani may simply have used Gaydar to send or receive innocuous emails.

Things got worse on Tuesday.

Mark Roberts, from Britain’s National Crime Agency, appeared in the witness dock to explain how he had, at the South African police’s request, searched a laptop computer once used by Shrien Dewani.

The computer’s large disc size meant Roberts hadn’t been able to sift through all the data it contained, so the IT expert used keywords to filter his search.

Roberts searched for the names of various people, places and websites which he thought might yield incriminating information.

He also searched for the words “gay, fetish, rubber and water sports”, he explained in court.

Just as I was wondering what forensic point Roberts and his South African taskmasters hoped to achieve using these search terms, prosecutor Adrian Mopp moved on to what was clearly meant as the meat of Roberts’ witness evidence: a cache of 53 sexually charged emails sent to Shrien Dewani from an unidentified “an older man” over a year before Anni’s murder.

There was a moment of breathless anticipation on the court’s press benches as we waited for these emails to be read into the court record.

But before they could be, Dewani’s barrister Francois van Zyl was on his feet, complaining that they were irrelevant to the case against his client.

Yes, they may be from one man to another man, van Zyl argued, but so what?

“Mr Dewani communicated with a third party about the situation in which he found himself”, prosecutor Adrian Mopp countered.

“He was confused about whether to get married or whether to come out....the man expressed a conflict within himself”.

“And what does that prove, motive to kill?” a clearly doubtful Judge Jeanette Traverso fired back. “I am sure that’s true for many, many people, including people in this court”.

The judge’s putdown was brutal, but Mopp wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t the fact that Shrien Dewani was gay that was important, the prosecution lawyer explained to the court, but that he had described himself, at different times, as being either gay, bisexual and straight. Which one was true?

Then came the kicker: a succinct explanation of the binary way in which Dewani’s prosecution appeared to me to understand the complex realities of human sexuality.

“A bisexual person is attracted to both sexes”, Mopp informed the court. “A gay person is attracted to one”.

Judge Traverso rejected the prosecution’s attempts to introduce the email evidence, ruling that the messages were of no relevance.

Having flown half way across the world to give his evidence, Roberts, the IT expert, was sent back home to the UK.

But the issue of Dewani’s sexuality is still unlikely to disappear from this trial. The court is expected, in the coming weeks, to hear from “The German Master”, a male prostitute Dewani has admitted paying for sex.

As for the relevance of what the Master has to say, that we shall have to see.

Shrien Dewani’s murder trial is still in its early stages and has yet to hear some of the most important evidence against him. He could be convicted of his wife’s murder, in which case concerns about his private life will, most likely, be the least of his worries.

But Shrien Dewani could be found innocent. If that happens he may have good reason to be angry, not just at the police and prosecution service that would have falsely accused him of a crime he didn’t commit, but for the needless airing of the most intimate details about his private life – secrets he will never now be able to hide.

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<![CDATA[In America, fear is growing that the police are getting out of control]]> It should have been a routine traffic stop.

A motorist, who was not wearing her seatbelt, was pulled over. In less than 15 minutes the encounter ended with a police officer smashing an axe through the car window and using a Taser on the front seat passenger.

The incident would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that one of the woman’s two children in the back filmed the incident on his mobile phone.

This was just one of a series of confrontations between black Americans and white officers in recent months in which the police seem all too ready to respond with disproportionate force.

Unease about the police is not restricted to the liberal left.

Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican senator for Kentucky and a possible presidential candidate, warned about what he described as the militarisation of the police in Time.

He warned that towns were competing for surplus military equipment from the Federal government to build up their own small armies.

“When you couple this militarisation of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands,” he wrote.

“Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them.

“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”

Senator Paul’s remarks followed fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August. According to several eyewitnesses he had his hands up when the police officer opened fire.

Fuelled by the social media, the black community in Ferguson reacted furiously, triggering some of the worst riots seen in America for decades, with protests spreading to around 60 other cities.

This was hardly an isolated incident. New research by ProPublica showed an alarming racial disparity in the chances of being killed by the police.

Examining 1,217 fatal shootings, it found that black teenagers were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million and their white counterparts, 1.47.

Public opinion is swinging against the police with a Pew public opinion poll showing that the majority of Americans felt treated racial groups differently and did not use an “appropriate amount of force”.

Given events over the last few months, the results are hardly surprising.

Four days before the killing of Michael Brown another African-American, John Crawford, 22, was shot dead by police while talking to his girlfriend on a mobile phone. He was carrying a toy gun he had just bought at a shopping mall in Beavercreek, Ohio.

A grand jury refused to indict the two officers involved.

In July Eric Garner, a father of six, died after being arrested and subdued in a chokehold in New York – a tactic which is in fact outlawed by the city’s own police department.

Earlier this month, Ernest Satterwhite, 68, was killed in his own driveway in North Augusta, South Carolina following what local media described as a low speed nine-mile pursuit.

His offence was refusing to pull over for the police officer – something he had done on a number of previous occasions.

The officer said that Satterwhite made a grab for his gun, though apparently there was no evidence to back that up.

Again prosecutors tried to act, but as with the Crawford case, the grand jury refused to press a charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Other incidents may have not ended fatally, but have still been pretty horrific such as the repeated shooting of Levar Jones on September 4 in South Carolina.

Jones, 35, had just pulled into a filling station when he was confronted by a state trooper, who suspected that he was not earing a seatbelt.

Jones was ordered to produce his driving licence but was then shot repeatedly when he reached into his truck to fish it out.

On this occasion the whole thing was caught on film by the dashboard camera in the state trooper’s car and it is not pretty viewing.

The officer, Sean Groubert, has been sacked and is facing aggravated battery charges. His defence was that he saw something black in Jones’s hands – it was his wallet.

David Millward is a US correspondent for the Daily Telegrpah

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<![CDATA[How translators can help stem the ebola crisis]]> The international community has agreed that more must be done to contain ebola’s spread. Yet while people decry the shortage of funds for all the needed field hospitals and hazmat suits, there is one relatively low-cost, low-tech solution that is barely discussed: translation.

Ignorance about ebola can be as fatal as bodily contact with an infected person. People at risk need to know how to prevent infection and what to do if someone around them catches it. Communicating this information is a key strategy to halting the epidemic. Prevention has the added benefit of being much cheaper than the cure. The problem is that – unbelievable as it may seem – most information about how to prevent ebola is not available in the languages understood by the people most at risk.

The ebola communication failure was recently highlighted by UNICEF, Focus 1000 and Catholic Relief Services. In September the organisations reported that in Sierra Leone – one of three West African nations at the epicentre of the outbreak - nearly a third of the people believe ebola comes from mosquitoes, or the air. Almost two-thirds could not identify the ways to prevent the disease.

Clearly, the message is just not getting through to the people most likely to be infected and to become, in turn, carriers of ebola. Translators without Borders believes that the failed communication efforts in West Africa are directly related to language barriers.

In Sierra Leone, the use of English is limited to the educated minority. Similarly, in Liberia, despite its founding by freed American slaves, only 20 per cent of the population speaks English. Untranslated posters, flyers, banners and billboards that are aimed at educating the public are, in fact, educating the minority elite because they are the ones who speak English. For the vast majority of West Africans, English information is of no more use than Swedish would be in the UK.

The translation industry has been saying this all along. According to Gary Muddyman, CEO of UK translation agency Conversis and Advisor to Translators without Borders, “in order for any material to qualify as ‘information’, it must be produced in the language of the intended audience. Otherwise it serves no purpose at all.”

Besides the obvious benefit in promoting understanding, making sure information is in the culturally appropriate language also builds trust. Messages in English that “ebola is real” failed to convince a group of young men who raided a quarantined clinic in Monrovia in August, sending 20 infected patients into the community and stealing even the blood-stained mattresses.

Trust is also important when you want to change behaviour. Today, in the interest of public health, people in west Africa are being asked to abandon cultural traditions, such as bathing the bodies of their deceased family members. Addressing someone in a foreign language is not the best way to convince them to make profound changes in their customs and practices.

Fortunately, translation offers a solution to the language gap. The UNICEF report cited above singles out the use of local languages as a lead recommendation.

Admittedly, adapting to local languages is not as easy as it sounds. With over 2,000 languages, Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent on Earth. Translating and printing materials in all the relevant dialects would be prohibitively expensive. However, a relatively small number of regional African languages can provide decent coverage in the affected areas. For example, there are 522 languages spoken in Nigeria, but only three – Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo – will reach over 65 per cent of the population.

Cost as a barrier all but disappears when the Internet enters the equation. Mobile technology is ubiquitous. Over 65 per cent of the people on the African continent have access to a mobile phone, even the very poor. Besides translating printed Ebola information into some of the major local languages, Translators without Borders has also been translating online information accessible on mobile phones via Wikipedia. In the right languages, online information is not only effective, but provides a scaleable way of reaching large numbers of people.

In the coming days, weeks or months, it’s likely that ebola will come to the UK as it continues its march across the globe. In order to contain this epidemic while we still can, it's critical to empower people with the facts about prevention in a language that they understand.

Lori Thicke is the founder and president of non-profit organisation Translators without Borders, the world's largest translation charity. She also founded Lexcelera, a translation company with offices in Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Vancouver. For more information on the charity or how to support it, please visit: translatorswithoutborders.org

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<![CDATA[Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize]]> The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai:

At 17, Pakistani education rights activist Malala Yousafzai is the youngest-ever winner of the prize. She first came to global attention in 2012, when a Taliban gunman attempted to assassinate her on her school bus. After surgery and rehabilitation in the UK, she has become an international advocate for access to education, in particular for girls who are denied opportunities to learn.

Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi, who shares the prize with Yousafzai, is the founder of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan movement. The organisation, which Satyarthi formed in 1980, campaigns against child labour and human trafficking in South Asia.

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<![CDATA[Life as an orphan in a plastic tent city, bombing Iraq (again) and keeping my “Juslim” name]]> Zaatari camp in Jordan is a chalky pop-up city and temporary holding pen for the collateral damage from Syria’s civil war; 80,000 refugees, mostly women and children, existing in orderly limbo. Most left Syria on foot, in the dark, with only the clothes they were wearing and – if their house was not already pulverised – their door keys and documents.

I have met many refugees since I started working with Unicef 13 years ago and regardless of nationality, disaster or host country, they all share one thing in common – the knowledge that they are the world’s unwanted; bereft of home, hope, possessions and expression.

It was an encounter with a child refugee that first led to my involvement with Unicef. I was distributing tents to Afghan refugees who had fled civil war at the Jalozai camp in Peshawar, north-west Pakistan. It had been nicknamed “Plastic City” because its inhabitants were living in plastic bin liners during the monsoon season, with no shelter, food, water or sanitation. The Pakistani government, its resources already stretched and with resentment still high from the last influx of Afghans during the Soviet era, had refused to allow aid agencies access to the camp.

A small, emaciated boy in dust-coloured rags was bent double under the weight of a 25-kilogram tent. I told him to go and get an adult to help him. He explained that his mother had just died in the camp and his father had been killed in the fighting. He had no adult relatives and he was now the head of the household, responsible for the survival of his five younger siblings, including a small baby. He was seven years old, just a few years older than my eldest son at that time, who was still incapable of even running a bath unsupervised. His story, I learned, was far from unique.

At the Zaatari camp in Jordan last week, I met Adil, a gentle, serious, 17-year-old Syrian boy, the same age as my son now (it’s impossible not to make these comparisons), who desperately wants to finish school and to become an engineer but who has to work to support his family. One of Unicef’s goals – and it sounds like a trite corporate slogan until you meet a boy like Adil or see a toddler carrying a baby on its hip – is to try to give children in the camps their childhood back, through schools, playgrounds, activities, sports and safe areas. I was in Jordan in my capacity as Unicef ambassador so I could report back to donors on how the million pounds we raised last year for Syrian refugees has been put to use.

Wake-up calls

Since getting back, I have been trying to think up ways to raise more money this year. The daily running of the camp costs half a million dollars. I considered asking friends to donate money not to have to attend another dreary charity dinner, but have decided that the quickest way to raise money is through a social media campaign – to try to replicate the astonishing success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $100m for the previously little-known Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, and the “no make-up selfie”, which raised £8m in six days for Cancer Research UK.

I’ll be kicking off a new campaign for the refugee crisis, #WAKEUPCALL, a photo taken first thing (preferably against your wishes) and posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – or not, if you want to pay a forfeit to charity.

It’s a chance for the tabloids to print free photos of celebs not looking their best, for columnists to scoff at the absurdity of it all (I do find it weird that there’s more cynicism around well-meaning charitable campaigns than ill-fated military ones); and, with any luck, it will enable kids like Adil to stay in school.

US v the US

The definition of madness, I’ve been reminded by friends recently, is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome. On 26 September, a bewildering majority of British MPs voted to bomb the same people in the same place as in 2003, making this Britain’s sixth military intervention in Iraq in a hundred years. The difference is the target’s name – from al-Qaeda to Isil to Isis to IS or Daish, depending on whom you ask. Some Muslims have suggested “the Unislamic State”, although that would be confusing: the US v the US.

But isn’t it all a muddle anyway? Last year, the same British MPs were asked to vote for bombing the other side: to support the Syrian rebels (including Isis, whom we are now bombing) in their quest to topple the dictator Bashar al-Assad. That makes last year’s ally this year’s enemy. A large number voted in favour of both military campaigns.

The wrath of Khan

Speaking of name changes, my ex-husband, Imran, recently announced that he intended to get remarried soon, which made me think, as it’s been ten years since our divorce, it’s probably time to change my name back to Goldsmith.

I kept “Khan” originally as my children felt strongly about it, but now they’re grown up they don’t seem to care. With hindsight, I wouldn’t have changed my name in the first place (that said, at the time, I only just managed to hang on to my first name), but now I’ve been Khan for as long as I was Goldsmith and I last used my maiden name when I was a child (OK, 21). I quite like that my name represents my “Juslim” identity (Jemima being Jewish, Khan Muslim-ish). Anyway, I was just about to change back to Goldsmith when my brother happily announced he’d proposed to his girlfriend . . . which is great, except that she’s also called Jemima. I just don’t fancy being “the other”, “the big” or “the older” Jemima Goldsmith.

To make a donation to Unicef’s appeal for the Zaatari camp, visit: www.wakeupcall.org.uk or text SYRIA to 70007 to give £5 

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<![CDATA[A year of Mare Nostrum: political impotence has stranded hundreds of refugee children in Sicily]]> Last week I visited the Sicilian town of Augusta, one of the key landing sites for the Italian government’s Mediterranean rescue mission, “Mare Nostrum”. In the past year the operation, lead by groups of military, coastguard and customs officials, has processed over 130,000 migrants arriving from Libya, the majority of whom are fleeing war and poverty across north Africa. While Lampedusa caught headlines in the months following the Arab Spring, the Sicilian mainland now faces a prolonged refugee crisis which local communities are unequipped to deal with.   

The normal procedure for landings in Augusta is designed to minimise the impact of continental migration on the town’s community: the migrants arrive at the commercial port, are checked over by Médecins Sans Frontières and within 48 hours are moved to camps where some remain “indefinitely”, others are given work permits, and a few are sent home. The only exception to this are unaccompanied minors, who by Italian law are required to stay in the port of arrival until they are given an identity card or can receive institutional care. This is intended to remove them from the squalor of the main camps, the emphasis being on their wellbeing.  

In the case of Augusta, however, this benevolent regulation has backfired, causing a humanitarian crisis. Since April this year 5,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the small town. Most come with no money, few possessions and none have ID. The port authorities have been caught off-guard, with no idea and no way of knowing how many will arrive in the coming months. In the absence of an official strategy it has therefore been down to church groups, charities and individual families to lead the initial processing.

Among this chaos the response of the comune has been minimal, focusing predominantly on legal issues surrounding the conversion of disused buildings such as the “scuola verde”, an old school which is now being used as a refugee centre. The ominous fascist-era building, with a formal capacity of 200, is surrounded by a high black fence and guarded by caribinieiri though the day and night. At the time of writing it is home to 120, though visibly overcrowded. Dirty clothes hang from the windows and the smell of sweat and dirt is palpable well down the street. The space is managed by three full-time staff, only one of whom is one paid by the commune – the other two are volunteers. A local doctor visits once a day with two nurses in tow.

The government has labelled this a “temporary arrangement”, though many have been living here for as long as six months and several people I spoke to thought they would never leave. A week ago, on the back of pressure from the Sicilian president Rosario Crocetta, Rome pledged €2.4m to support unaccompanied minors in the country and Augusta is at the top of the list for funding. The general impression among the townspeople, however, is that this is too little and too late. In the words of one local student: “There’s going to be a war here. It can’t go on like this. I mean, you can’t blame the kids for coming here but the government has to do more than this for Sicily, we can’t take it alone and they can’t all stay here forever.”

More importantly, while sizeable, the proposed funds do nothing to address the more pressing problem of documentation. Augusta is at the frontline of the economic crisis and there are very few jobs in the town. The vast majority of those in the scuola verde want to work and their future plans depend on it. Sketches of “The North” adorn the walls of the dorms, of office workers, trees and rainbows. Of course, they cannot legally move anywhere until they have acquired work permits. Public administration is notoriously slow in Sicily at the best of times, and in the case of these children is further complicated by the mountain of false information. Many of those living in the school are running from debts in their home countries and have changed their names and ages in order to avoid these ties. 

Life is violent inside the school. Fights are common and many of the children sport bruises and bust lips. Yet scuola verde is not a prison. Since the spring around 2,200 of those who have arrived are now unaccounted for, having risked the journey alone. Most of these will have headed to Rome or Milan to meet friends and attempt to reach richer northern European nations. A recent study by the International Organisation for Migration has indicated around one in eight die during journeys of this sort. The resident lists on scuola verde’s dorm walls are covered in wonky lines, crossed out initials and new scribbled names flowing into the margins. This discrepancy between official figures and these chaotic squiggles is perhaps the most blatant indicator of political impotence in the face of this problem.

These young refugees see borders in Europe as liquid and passable, and they see themselves as having the right to cross them. This is something European citizens take for granted everyday. While right wing populisms have capitalised on primal fears about cultural contagion, such a perspective makes little sense to these new arrivals whose belief in democratic politics seems far stronger than that espoused by party politicians. In Augusta, things remain calm for now, though the atmosphere is tense and the fence around scuola verde feels charged with historic signifiance. A local journalist, Gianni, explained to me that the general attitude has been one of anger towards the political class and global elite: “People don’t hate these young people they see their difficulty but if arrangements aren’t made that could change. The EU should provide transport for these kids to distribute them among the member states.”

Mare Nostrum will soon run alongside a new operation funded by the EU. In contrast to the Italian programme early indications suggest that this new venture will turn a blind eye to ships sinking in international waters, such as those that many of the children of scuola verde arrived on. It is of course these very people that are most in need of assistance from wealthy nations. European budgets are enormous and while the Italian state struggles to set-up initiatives, transnational must take more of a lead in this mission, not dilute it and back down. For now, those fighting to help these children are confronted with a stark institutional truth: the EU is quite capable of finding funds to build walls and arm security forces but has little incentive to foot the long-term costs for supporting those who have been through hell.

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<![CDATA[How do journalists keep themselves safe in warzones?]]> “How do journalists keep themselves safe in war zones? They can’t. I was taught we should never think that we are either safe or qualified to recognise all potential dangers,” says Nenad Sebek, a former BBC war correspondent. Although at least when he reported from conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Chechnya, he knew he was prepared as any journalist could be. He’d had extensive training with ex-Royal Marines, had all the protective gear, and was fully insured. “Not only that,” he adds, “my salary was guaranteed. I didn’t have to continually sell stories like the freelancers, who are prone to take much higher risks.”

Sebek was speaking as a part of the expert panel on Open Journalism, arranged at the end of September in Vienna by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and drawing participants from across its member states, including Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, has expressed concern for how to safeguard journalism’s ever-growing pool of voices, particularly the untrained citizen reporters and bloggers. Trying to define who are the real journalists, she says, is getting us nowhere nearer to providing greater protection.

“More media companies are now relying on freelancers – both local and foreign. There’s less training, less responsibility, and some reporters are taking increasing risks through an eagerness to be in the news, which is not their job,” says Weiel Awwad, an India-based Syrian journalist and experienced war reporter. Awaad was kidnapped in Iraq in 2003 while embedded with US troops, but believes the situation for journalists in parts of the Middle East is now even more dangerous. “It used to be that you were with an army, but now you are embedded with militants, terrorists, guerillas – people who are indirectly using journalism to get what they want.”

Iona Craig, winner of the Martha Gelhorn Prize for her reporting from Yemen, writes in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine about the difficult moment when a freelancer has to decide to abort a plan for safety reasons and personally suck up the costs. She recalls one occasion when she had taken all the precautions of an experienced reporter – travelling in disguise as a Yemeni woman, leaving a false communication trail in the knowledge that her mobile conversations would have been tapped – but still feared detection while heading into a zone that all westerners were prohibited from entering. Her decision to flee was a sensible one, but left her paying costs for her driver and translator. $450 may be a small price to pay when life is in danger, but it’s easy to see how some freelancers can lose sight of that.

And it’s not just the immediate, physical dangers that journalists now need to be aware of. Craig also writes on surveillance risks: “Until encrypted mobile phone communication becomes affordable, we may have to go back to meeting in person rather than leaving a data trail behind us.” Stories such as the NSA exposé have highlighted these new threats. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald learnt from Edward Snowden to put their mobiles in the hotel fridge, as even taking battery out wasn’t enough to stop them being tracked. (Although it was later reported that alarm bells could also ring if a group of phones suddenly snap off at the same time.)

Certain NGOs have been stepping in to bridge the gaps in training. International Media Support works to extend backing to fixers and translators; Risc (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) starting offering freelancers first-aid training after photojournalist Tim Hetherington died in Libya in 2011 from a wound that needn’t have been fatal. James Foley had been on their first training course in 2012 and although no first-aid training could save him from the brutally of ISIS fighters, his death has sparked increased awareness, says Lily Hindy, Risc’s deputy director. “On both sides – freelancers and the news agencies – there is more discussion about preparedness. There are still plenty of people who are going in without the training and insurance, but they are more frequently now regarded as irresponsible by their peers.”

Indeed, in the wake of the journalists’ beheadings in Syria, it’s hard to imagine Vice publishing the following article now, as they did in 2012: “I went to Syria to learn how to become a journalist, and failed miserably at it by almost dying a bunch of times”. That headline was hard enough to stomach then – even with the hollow disclaimer (“Vice did not send him there; we found out about it after the fact”). The author, Sunil Patel, later spoke to another publication, WannabeHacks.co.uk, about his motivations going to war zone: “I was 24 and I didn’t feel like I had the time to actually go through traditional routes; do a degree, work for local newspapers.”

What we need to avoid is a situation where young journalists are heading to war zones looking for excitement in twisted, parallel history to that of the so-called young jihadis. More exposure is needed on what is going on behind the scenes, between the bylines, when the cameras stop rolling.

After Foley’s death, GlobalPost, who published his report from Syria, released a statement: “While we continue to send staff correspondents to Syria, we no longer accept freelance work from that war zone.” The Agence France-Presse (AFP) also released a statement saying that it would “no longer accept work from freelance journalists who travel to places where we ourselves would not venture”. But there are still plenty of risks outside of Syria. New media network ReportersUnited.tv sent out a call this week for “powerful”, “original” news videos, “for example filming in North Korea or a meeting with the Farc.” “The editor,” it noted, “will buy or commission the stories he likes.” If an inexperienced reporter then decides to go ahead, on spec, who is the irresponsible one?

Vicky Baker is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The autumn issue, looking at the future of journalism, is out now

 

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<![CDATA[Leader: On intervention in Iraq]]> The Conservative-led government, endorsed by the Labour Party, has returned to the scene of one of our worst foreign policy misadventures and British fighter aircraft are once again dropping bombs on Iraq. The 2003 US-led invasion, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the chaotic dismantling of the Ba’athist state were meant to be an exercise in enlightened “liberal intervention”. But today Iraq is a broken state, ravaged by sectarian conflict. Its border with Syria, fractured by perpetual civil war, no longer exists. Barbarous Sunni supremacists have flourished in the group formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. A self-declared caliphate has been established by Islamic State (IS) and its highly motivated and well-trained militants, many of them from Europe, are intent on genocide. Air strikes may have halted their advances in northern Iraq and parts of Syria but the militants will inevitably regroup, just as the Taliban has done in Afghanistan.

Ancient minorities – Yazidis, Christians, Kurds – are being persecuted, murdered or cleansed from their ancestral villages. Theirs is an existential struggle for survival.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the region festers and bleeds. President Assad and his fellow Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, hold on to power in what is left of Syria largely through the support of the Iranians and their Lebanese client Shia militia Hezbollah, which has sustained heavy losses fighting rebel groups in Syria.

The corrupt Gulf autocracies, which have been funding and arming the various anti-Assad groupings but now fear blowback, have joined President Obama’s fight against Islamic State. Saudi Arabia in particular looks both ways on terrorism: it does all it can to export and promote hardline Wahhabism worldwide while posing as an ally of the US and Britain, from which it buys fighter jets and other military hardware. In some ways, IS is a product of Saudi foreign policy – and what a monstrous creation it is.

President Obama was deeply reluctant to be sucked into another Middle East war. In August last year, the US and the British were preparing to intervene in Syria on the side of the rebels after the murderous Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Now, the US-led coalition is bombing IS and the Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, while remaining ostensibly opposed to President Assad. This is not a coherent strategy for the Middle East: this is something-must-be-done foreign policy.

So what is President Obama’s plan? What stamina does the US have for nation-building in the Middle East? How does it intend to defeat IS when its fighters are so adept at melting back into the civilian population and when the president refuses to countenance the use of US ground troops? How do the Americans propose to broker peace between Sunni and Shia tribes in Iraq? What of diplomatic relations with Iran, without which there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East? Turkey, too, needs to be fully engaged. The ultimate solution to the conflicts in the Middle East must come from within the region itself.

Does this mean it is better for the west to do nothing? Without our aerial support, responsibility for containing IS falls on Iraq’s weak army, overstretched Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the Assad forces and a ragtag coalition of secular Syrian militias. We should continue to support the Kurds diplomatically and arm their fighters, but this alone will not be enough to prevent the genocide of the Yazidis and other minorities. If IS is allowed to gain strength, its menace may well soon extend beyond the Middle East.

Britain is right to join the US air strikes in Iraq. The Baghdad government’s plea for help makes this war legal. Furthermore, the campaign has broad regional support, and is a last resort, given that you cannot negotiate with IS.

Our involvement is a small admission of culpability for the condition of Iraq. Parliament is eager to support the Americans but only in the most limited of circumstances – it backs intervention in Iraq but not in Syria – and has only contributed the use of six Tornados, based in Cyprus.

This all amounts to little more than symbolic support, but anything beyond it would be profoundly mistaken. No matter how willing Prime Minister Cameron might be to emulate Tony Blair, there is no desire and stamina among the British people for British involvement in a regional and intra-Islamic conflict that could last 30 years or more.

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<![CDATA[In Hong Kong, people have never had the vote – but that won’t stop them demanding democracy]]> The first day of October is a special holiday in Hong Kong: it’s National Day, the anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It is not a milestone that everyone wants to celebrate. On the eve of this year’s holiday, 80,000 protesters filled the eight-lane artery that runs through the middle of the city for over a mile. A Chinese idiom fits the sight: “people mountain, people sea” – a mass of people so huge that it had become the landscape.

This is Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the student-led pro-democracy demonstration that turned the polluted, traffic-filled roads of the city into an ocean of goodwill. Chants rippled through the crowd: “Go, Hong Kong!” “689, step down!” That “689” is the nickname for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, 689 being the number of votes he received to become chief executive, from a 1,200-member, overwhelmingly pro-Beijing election committee. He governs a city of seven million.

Hongkongers have never had the vote: not under Britain before the 1997 handover and not under China now, despite the constitution, or Basic Law, which specifies that Hong Kong’s leader should be chosen by universal suffrage. Occupy Central grew out of this problem. No one really thought the movement would take off until Beijing issued an unexpectedly draconian white paper laying out guidelines for the next election: yes, everyone would get to vote on the region’s next leader in 2017. But they would get to vote for any one of three candidates pre-approved by China.

Despite months of preparation as Occupy’s attempts to force negotiations failed, the police botched their response from the start. On 28 September they met unarmed student protesters with batons and pepper spray. The demonstrators raised their hands above their heads as they approached the police, who fired tear gas into the crowd – 87 canisters that night. The protests grew as Hongkongers joined the students in solidarity and anger. Since then the police have learned their lesson. Uniformed cops are now almost totally absent: the new tactic seems to be to sit and wait it out; but for how long?

The protest movement is becoming known as the Umbrella Revolution, named for the umbrellas that have provided protection from the sun, rain and pepper spray. Yet what is most striking about this revolution is not the brollies: it’s that everyone wants to help you protest. In the daytime you can’t walk ten metres without someone stopping to offer you a bottle of water, a cooling patch, a few crackers or a bun. Other volunteers walk through the crowds, carrying black bin bags and calling out for rubbish. One cries: “Chuck your rubbish, chuck CY!” There are volunteer safety wardens and recycling points. This is, above all, a civil protest.

For their part, the Occupy organisers say they are thinking about an exit strategy, though they also confess that they have lost control of the movement. It is possible that the protests will dwindle over the next week or so: the point has been made, and people have to return to work. For now, though, Occupy remains adamant in its demands: C Y Leung must resign and Beijing must reconsider its “universal suffrage” proposal.

No one really believes that Beijing will capitulate. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is a hardline leader who cannot afford to look weak. Nor can Hong Kong look overseas to its previous bosses, despite old promises. Premier Li Keqiang was on a visit to the UK to sign trade deals when Beijing released its electoral white paper. China has now warned the UK to stay out of “China’s internal affairs”.

Fears remain that Beijing will lose patience and begin a violent crackdown, but the most straightforward move for the government would be to remove C Y Leung and replace him with another loyal but more media-savvy face as chief executive. Then China can agree, at least ostensibly, to look into the question of universal suffrage once tensions have eased.

For the time being, the mood is mostly festive, if pragmatic. “I don’t think it will be as successful as we’d hoped,” said Sarah, a 25-year-old labourer. “But at least the world and the Chinese government will know what we want. We’ve made some noise to alert people to what we are fighting for.”

As a thunderstorm broke on the eve of National Day, the protesters’ umbrellas were raised once again. When the lightning passed, the sky lit up instead with thousands of mobile phones, raised high to the sounds of a protest song. They looked like a hundred thousand fireflies in a people mountain, people sea.

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<![CDATA[Despite western promises, these jihadists won’t be “squeezed out of existence” so easily]]> Where are you on air strikes? Brigadier Amir Ahmed is desperate for more of them. He watched a missile land in northern Iraq three days ago and tells me that the US-led coalition is hitting the right targets.

I am chatting with this Kurdish commander while hiding behind earthworks that have been dug along a canal, south-west of Kirkuk. All around us is the detritus of war – discarded plastic bottles, bullet casings, human faeces and burnt-out military vehicles. The black flag of the so-called Islamic State (IS) flutters like an Unjolly Roger across the canal from us, a mere 25 metres away.

It is awfully quiet on this western front. The jihadists have gone to lunch in the heat of the day. Brigadier Ahmed points to the village of Buwaitir and tells me that they are hiding there, using their fellow Sunnis as human shields against air attacks, and will reappear at their sandbags at dusk. I reflect that maybe they only turn up for the big set pieces, like extras in a film.

“The Arabs support them over there,” the Kurdish brigadier says bitterly. Western commentary deplores the evils of IS but it sometimes ignores how welcome the jihadists are in some places. The land that British Tornado fighter jets are now seeking to defend is a patchwork of settlements by Arabs, Kurds, Shias and Turkmens: groups that may be in conflict with one another long after IS has gone – if it ever goes.

David Cameron’s vow that the jihadists will be “squeezed out of existence” seems unlikely to be honoured. It is more likely that they will morph into something else. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t help the “caliphate of fear” fade away.

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The question is how to respond in what diplomats call a “calibrated” way. Everyone I have met in the Kurdish-controlled north welcomes foreign military intervention but some are anxious about their ability to complement it with concerted action of their own. How to develop a “joined-up” strategy for Iraq and Syria, when those countries are so disjointed?

Yet this is the plan – foreign air strikes, local ground forces – and the going is slow. On this, my third visit to Iraq since IS swept in to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June, the muddy berms along the front line have an air of permanence. Two months of air strikes have liberated Mosul’s dam from the dark side but not much else. Those villages that have been “liberated” are deserted, because the jihadists have booby-trapped cars and buildings as mementos of their brief reign. One half-mile stretch of road was found to contain 25 bombs.

“The air strikes make them think they are losing and make them feel exhausted,” the Kurdish brigadier tells me. “But if we had modern weapons and were trained how to use them, we could defeat them.”

Those weapons are on their way. However, it could take at least six months to train and arm local forces to take advantage of air cover and move forward significantly across a front that is 600 miles long. Much of the Iraqi army has disintegrated. Shia militiamen look to Iran. The fighting is perilously close to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Britain is sending weapons and ammunition to a Kurdish leadership seeking statehood and inspired by stirrings in Catalonia and Scotland. I found myself endlessly being photographed alongside Kurdish fighters, some of whom are good at striking a warlike pose and possibly not much else.

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I spent a day on Mount Zartak, watching the distant crump of shelling on the plains leading to Mosul below: a no-man’s-land of abandoned Christian and Muslim villages. The Kurdish fighters up there have only one piece of artillery and cannot “call in” air strikes in real time.

A major general told me that he had to drive two hours to Erbil to sit with US military planners. He gives them co-ordinates, they show him surveillance photographs (some possibly taken by British jets) and then they all discuss which targets to hit. By which time the men of IS could be long gone.

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If you want to know what a real lack of co-ordination looks like, look no further than Kobane. I recently spent several days there, peering at the besieged Syrian town through the razor wire of the Turkish border. That was until a crowd of sympathetic Kurds from Turkey knocked concrete posts down and stampeded across in solidarity.

The crowd was demonstrating because Kobane is not getting the arms, military advice or co-operation now afforded to Kurds in Iraq. That is presumably because it is defended by Syrian Kurds allied with the PKK, a group outlawed as a terrorist organisation in Europe as well as in Turkey.

You see, there are good Kurds and bad Kurds in western foreign policy: some we help and some we don’t. The US has launched air strikes near Kobane, though Kurdish commanders have complained that they weren’t warned in advance; and as the IS shelling there continues, the risk is that the air war may have encouraged the militants to move towards the town for cover, rather than away from it.

If Washington co-operates with these fighters, it might inadvertently sponsor a Kurdish state in Syria. This would also upset Turkey, a Nato ally that sometimes seems as if it can’t decide which neighbour it would dislike living alongside more – crazed jihadists or nationalist Kurds.

The demonstration I witnessed along the border was quickly beaten back with Turkish water cannon and tear gas. Even though Turkey says it has taken in over 140,000 Kurdish refugees within the space of a fortnight, Kurdish grievances inside Turkey are once again boiling over.

Jonathan Rugman is a foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”

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