A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
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Jeremy Bowen: I know there’s trouble in the Middle East when I need my flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar pants

The BBC’s Middle East editor on John Kerry striking the wrong tone over Ukraine, and remembering the Aleppo souks.

I saw someone looking on sympathetically as my attempt at running for the train turned into a hop and then a hobble. It was the kind of sympathy no middle-aged person needs or wants and I didn’t turn around to look for any more when the doors of the carriage came together with a smug hiss, leaving me on the platform. At the moment my left knee, calf and Achilles tendon have various injuries, all caused by sport. Some go back to the late 1970s. The most recent was self-inflicted during a rash attempt to ski off-piste a month or so ago.

Journalists in the Middle East need to be mobile. Visits to presidential palaces, foreign ministries and embassies all matter but being on the streets is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. My physio tells me I will stop limping fairly soon. Then I’ll be able to cycle and, after that, run.

Perhaps getting my left leg to work properly will be a mixed blessing. In the past year or so, two good legs have taken me to any number of Egyptian riots and have stumbled, nervously, as I tried to wade through streets full of rubble in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. And they have trudged through the snow in miserable informal  refugee settlements for Syrians in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Informal” means their inhabitants are barely supplied, burning pieces of plastic to keep warm and melting snow to get water.

 

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Sometimes the challenge of covering the misery and complexity of the modern Middle East is almost overwhelming. Since the Arab uprisings started at the end of 2010 the region has been in a profound process of change, which looks likely to go on for at least a generation.

Its consequences have turned millions of lives upside down and in Syria alone ended more than 100,000. Journalists have been extremely busy.

I always have a big flight case packed in my garage. It contains a flak jacket, a ballistic hel­met, vivid yellow and black Kevlar-woven “blast boxers”, assorted dressings and first-aid kits, along with a riot helmet, a gas mask and shatter-proof protective glasses. The case is my personal index of Middle Eastern trouble. I needed it all only rarely before 2011, usually because of a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians or Lebanese. Now I take the case to most places.

 

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The international news reporting machine has turned its attention to Ukraine. I would never wish the attentions of a pack of journalists on anyone. Yet the world is in a time of trouble and bad news is going to happen somewhere. The Middle East is still pumping out stories, but for now Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin are getting top billing.

It is a relief, in a strange way. I have been travelling for more than half of the time since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began in January 2011. It’s refreshing to be able to hobble for the train in London.

 

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I watched a live broadcast of the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Ukraine. The way he mocked the Russians at his news conference sounded as if he was trying to win a debate, not help settle a crisis. I think that Russia should not send its troops on to the territory of its neighbours. However, it is hard to listen to an American official talking about sovereign territory, international law and invasions without thinking about what happened in Iraq in 2003.

I am not proposing a reprise of the row over UN Security Council resolutions or whether or not the United States, the UK and their allies were acting legally or illegally but it is important to remember that many countries did not buy the west’s version, so it has to expect a sceptical response when it scolds others.

 

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If Middle East politics was a lake, it would always be turbulent. The US and UK threw in a big rock in 2003 and the waves it made are still washing up, from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from the obscene amount of death in Iraq since 2003, the worst consequence of the invasion was the way it heated up sectarian tensions.

The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims make up one of the world’s oldest religious and political quarrels. Yet the invasion’s reordering of the regional balance of power brought the conflict stretching and snarling into the new century. Events since then have made it much worse.

 

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In early March, I will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The organisers have invited authors to bring a guest. Mine is my 13-year-old daughter, Mattie. It’s not her first time in the Middle East. In 2010, with my mother, we travelled through Lebanon and Syria.

We couldn’t do that now. Mattie loved the Old City in Damascus. She would still be able to recognise it. Physically it has barely been touched by the war, though foreigners are rare and foreign tourists extinct. Most of all she loved the old heart of Aleppo, its alleys, khans and mosques and the great citadel. Friendly traders sold us dried fruit, freshly roasted nuts, soap made from olives, embroidered cotton and a slimy nylon football shirt in Syrian colours.

Every time I see pictures of the devastation, the deserted, burnt-out souks, the toppled minarets and punctured domes, I think of the people who used to buy and sell in Aleppo’s narrow streets, of the way they smiled at my mother and daughter, and wonder what happened to them. l

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Olivia Acland
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The closure of small businesses in Calais is punishing entrepreneurial refugees like Wakil

We meet the Afghan refugee who purchased a plywood shelter, painted it with blue hearts and green flowers, and stocked it with basic supplies. The police have just destroyed his makeshift shop.

French police have returned to the Calais migrant camp, known as the “Jungle”, to continue dismantling the businesses there. Last Friday was the fourth consecutive day that they had been in the camp seizing stock from shops, restaurants and barbers.

They have arrested at least 13 proprietors and accused them of running illegal businesses without authorisation, sustaining an underground economy, and not having the required health and safety measures in place. The majority of the “Jungle” businesses have now been dismantled.

Many small enterprises have cropped up in the Calais camp over the last year, and a mud road lined with plywood shacks has been nicknamed “the high street”. Here you can find Afghan restaurants, Pakistani cafes, hairdressing salons and small convenience shops. 

The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Boucher, recently announced that the camp is to be demolished imminently, and closing down its micro-economy seems to be the first step in realising this plan.


The authorities enter the Calais camp. Photo: Juliette Lyons​

The makeshift town – which is home to more than 4,000 people – has been cowering under the threat of demolition since January, when attempts were made to bulldoze its southern stretch. Most of the people living here have come from war-torn Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Syria, and a lot of them have been on the move for years. The shops and restaurants were bringing a degree of normality back to their lives.

The businesses were mainly run by refugees who had given up trying to cross the border into Britain and were seeking some stability within the makeshift world.

Wakil, the owner of a small convenience store, was one of these people. He left Afghanistan four years ago, where he worked first as a journalist, and then as lorry driver for the US military. He tells me that he misses his old life and job greatly: “I studied at university for four years in order to become a journalist, I am passionate about that work and I dream of doing it again.”

Forced out of his hometown after writing articles that criticised the Taliban, he moved to Kabul and found work as a lorry driver for the US Army. When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, Wakil deemed it too dangerous to stay and set off on a journey to Europe.

He travelled over land through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, and then made it to Italy in a flimsy boat. With very little money, he was forced to sleep rough until he managed to find work in a restaurant where the owner was willing to overlook the fact that he did not have the right papers.

He started to establish a life in northern Italy, taking classes to learn the language and renting. Then, when the restaurant changed hands and the new owner refused to employ anyone without a work permit, he was once again jobless and without prospects. 

“After this happened, I decided to go to England,” he says. “Back home I had met some English people and they told me that life is good over there.”

Wakil then travelled by bus through France, and ended up stuck in Calais. He says: “I tried to cross the border but a policeman caught me in the back of a lorry – he beat me and sprayed me with pepper spray. After that I was frightened and I stopped trying. I decided to stay here for a while, and I set up this business to give me something to do.”


A view of tents in the camp. Photo: Olivia Acland

After just ten days in the Jungle, Wakil managed to purchase a plywood shelter off another Afghan refugee for €370. Smuggling building supplies into the camp had become very difficult, so “property prices” within the micro-economy were on the rise.

He painted the shack with blue hearts and green flowers, and stencilled the words “Jungle Shop” onto the side in mauve. When his improvised store was ready, he borrowed a bicycle and headed into Calais to buy basic supplies from cheap supermarkets.

He filled the shelves with tomatoes, fizzy drinks, milk cartons and biscuits. Each time a customer came asking for something that he didn’t have, he’d note it down and incorporate it into his next shop. In this way, his business grew and although the profits were small (around €250 a month), Wakil was relieved to be busy and working again.

Wakil’s business wasn’t raided the first day that the police came in, but after watching other shops being emptied of stock and the owners being taken to prison, he became extremely anxious. On the evening of the first raid, he invited friends to his shop to eat or take away as much of his supplies as they wanted.

“I was too worried to eat,” he says. “But I knew that the police would come for my shop in the next days and I didn’t want everything I’d bought to be wasted.”

Fearing arrest, Wakil then went to hide in Calais and returned at the end of last week to find his shop empty. 

“The police took everything,” he tells me. “When I came back and saw it all gone I felt terrible. Many more of my friends had also disappeared – I’m told they were taken to prison.”

When I express my sympathies, he replies: “Don’t worry about me; others from the Jungle are in worse situations. This has happened to many of us.”

Most of the businesses that were providing some kind of stability for displaced people like Wakil are now just empty shells. A volunteer at Care 4 Calais (a charity distributing aid in the camp) Alexandra Simmons says, “the businesses were giving independence to refugees who had lost everything. They were extremely good for people’s mental health.”

The bare shops now serve as stark reminders that it is just a matter of time before the camp is emptied of its people too.