Europe: democracy, or barbarism?

An open letter to Angela Merkel.

Dear Madam Chancellor,

Yours, more than any other country, bears the responsibility for the crimes of national socialism. Yours, more than any other country, has confronted the tasks of history and memory, providing younger generations with a keen understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism and racism.

As we draw upon the 80th anniversary of the accession of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, you have reiterated the principles of responsibility and vigilance which have guided Germany for almost sixty years. They resound evermore in a Europe which, in recent years, has experienced a rise of racism, anti-Semitism and the far right.

All those across our continent who fight for a Europe of fraternity, who build the European identity called for by the philosopher Husserl from 1935 as the only means of overcoming the dangers of nationalism during the rise of Nazism, need your support.

The voice of Germany must be clear and audible, because people are listening. You bear the responsibility conferred on you by your influence and the place of your country’s history in that of Europe.

To move from the ethic of conviction that you proclaim to an ethic of responsibility, Germany, like all countries in the EU, must put the development of democracy, and above all the fight against racism and anti-Semitism, at the very heart of its stance. Decisions on the financial, economic and institutional problems of Europe, crucial as they are for the future of the EU, must be measured against the strength they bring to democracy in Europe. The order of priorities as it stands must be reversed, and the central question of European democracies must be thus: “How are we to give life to Europe’s project of civilisation, based on peace, democracy, equality and the priority of the collective, plural and diverse above the identity of individuals?”

In this respect, the persistence of Roma ghettos in Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the anti-Semitic murders in France, that of the Roma in Hungary and those of Turkish origin in Germany, the annual demonstration of the past SS in Latvia, the Utoya massacre in Norway, the stigmatisation of Muslims and the rise of racial discrimination are unacceptable cases, which much be denounced with vigour.

In particular, the decay of the constitutional state in Hungary and the authoritarian trend in the Orban regime must be fought with the same energy as the burial of national debt.

Above all, the policies of Germany and Europe regarding Greece will not be solved by endless austerity, which deepens every day the social hopelessness instrumentalised by the neo-Nazis, Golden Dawn.

Germany cannot disregard the development of racist and anti-Semite positions and the increase of racist murders on its shores. It cannot ignore the permissiveness of part of the political establishment towards those who have a growing influence on our continent because they are regarded as the success story of the far right in Europe, capable of combining legal and illegal actions, of being elected to Parliament and of using physical violence against immigrants in the street.

In particular, the democratic vigilance of Germany should push you to demand that Prime Minister Samaras respect his commitment to remove neo-Nazis from the Greek parliamentary delegation in the Council of Europe, which is possible, legal and a democratic necessity. Although he firmly made this commitment in December, following an exceptional mobilisation in Athens of European civilians with the support of notable intellectuals and Nobel Prise laureates such as Elie Wiesel, Bernard Kouchner, Serge Klarsfeld, Adam Michnik and Dario Fo, in January he quietly sent a delegation including the neo-Nazi Eleni Zaroulia.

Because your country has a particular responsibility in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism you cannot remain silent in the face of this inacceptable double game, which reinforces neo-Nazism, and you must demand that the Prime Minister respect his democratic commitment.

It consists in the protection of the weakest against violence on two fronts, social and racial, and in the duty of democracy to oppose its inflexible enemies. In a word, it consists in the fundamental values of Europe and of its civilising project, without which it loses sense and will fall inevitably into barbarism.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement

Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood