Monday, February 18, 2013

This Year In Palestine: Review of "5 Broken Cameras"

In 2003-04,  after Israel began construction of its 425-mile security fence in the West Bank,  a Middle East Affairs listserv I belonged to at the time, started circulating news tips, alerts, and sources for those of us interested in developing stories. 

One news alert  was a catalog of hardships faced by Palestinians as a consequence of the fence, culled from various news sources.  Farmers on the West Bank were angry that they could not lead their sheep to pasture or harvest their olive and guava trees because Israel's new fence separated them from their land.

There was a quote from a Palestinian farmer that burrowed under my skin. "Can somebody intervene here? We cannot get through the Israeli fence to our land. All the sheep owned by the village are going to starve. Many of our ewes have miscarried. We cannot bear to watch. You know when birds get stuck in oil slicks or whales get beached, everybody rushes to help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated. But if the world could help the sheep, that should be simple ..."

As easy as that seemed, we in America didn't have "the bandwidth" to take this on. We were trying to make sense of our own confounding adventure in Iraq--bomb a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 to avenge 9/11, and seed democracy there, for freedom to bloom like cactus flowers--in the manure of 48 hour mushroom clouds and loamy yellowcake from Niger.

In the face of international media indifference, the Palestinian people decided to start telling their own stories of living under occupation. One of those stories, a film, has been nominated for an a Academy Award this year for Best Documentary Feature. 5 Broken Cameras is an astonishing film by a Palestinian farmer from Bilin, a village in the West Bank.

In 2005, the farmer, Emad Burnat, bought a video camera to record the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel. He soon became the village videographer and chronicler of Bilin's communal life. From 2005 to 2011, he began filming Bilin's non-violent weekly demonstrations against Israel's wall construction with a succession of five cameras. Each became a casualty of war--collateral damage--broken by angry Jewish settlers, by the Israeli military, with fists, bullets, and tear gas canisters. This is a David and Goliath story where David doesn't have a slingshot or a stone and Goliath has the full arsenal of gleaming military hardware.

Doe-eyed Gibreel is a new born at the beginning of the film. By the end of it, he has witnessed more violence, pain, and loss than any six year old should ever have to endure.  "The only protection I can offer him is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes so he can confront just how vulnerable life is," Mr. Burnat says at the end of the film,  as Gibreel grieves the death of someone he loved--Baseem Abu Rahme, aka Phil, the village's gentle giant.

Phil was killed by an Israeli soldier while the people of Bilin, joined by Israeli and international peace activists, were testing the experiment of non-violent resistance started by Mahatma Gandhi, continued by Nelson Mandela, and carried on by Martin Luther King Jnr.

My Huff Post Review of John Wood's "Creating Room to Read"

"Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books." The words were uttered in 1998 by the headmaster of a grade school in Bahundanda, Nepal -- that had a library, but no books -- to John Wood, a stressed out American senior executive at Microsoft, who was trekking the area's famed Annapurna Circuit. "...maybe if you went high enough into the Himalayas, you could not hear Steve Ballmer (CEO of Microsoft) screaming at you," Wood had told a friend before the trip.

The headmaster's remark, less a Jedi mind trick than the formal vernacular of British English spoken in the East, would irrevocably change Wood's life and eventually the lives of impoverished children and girls in Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia.

Wood's just released book, "Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy," a sequel to his stellar, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, is a riveting memoir, an inspirational handbook for social innovators, a career guide for young people, a witness for children in faraway places who could go under if we turn away, and alternative policy for the architects of American foreign policy and expensive wars.

Bahundanda was only the third stop of the three week trek through one of the great natural wonders of the world, a perfect setup conspired by the forces of the universe to initiate Wood into his life's calling. This was Jungian synchronicity at work--at high altitude, on the roof of the world, on behalf of children in peril in the developing world.

Wood was living the expat high life in Australia at the time while leading Microsoft's push in Asia. At 35, he was by every definition a Master of the Universe living an enchanted life. He lived in Sydney in an apartment overlooking the harbor, had a a company car and driver at his disposal, and a glamorous girlfriend with a dueling resume. Within a year, Wood gave up his old life to join the long line of idealistic fools enamored with the Quixotic enterprise of trying to change the world.

Gary White, co-founder with actor, Matt Damon of --which funds clean water projects in Africa and India -said that he was inspired throughout his career in water engineering by a particular notion. "Your life should be about finding the intersection of the world's greatest need and your greatest passion." Wood recalls reading as the most significant experience of his childhood. "It is impossible for me to imagine a childhood that wasn't filled with books."

With a motivated team of co-creators and zealous 'boots on the ground' country leaders who yearned to see their nation's children educated, Room to Read grew at hyperspeed. Since 1998, Room to Read has impacted the lives of millions of children in the developing world stretching across two continents. It has built more than 12,000 libraries. Nearly 10 million books were checked out by children from Room to Read libraries. Girls who desperately want to be educated receive scholarships, books, backpacks, school uniforms, and women mentors to keep them in school.

Wood, a classic obsessional workaholic, took his executive coach's words - "Figure out what you want to say on your deathbed, Then work backwards from there." - literally. Everything was sacrificed to his cause to bring books and education to children the world had found easy to ignore.

Creating Room to Read is the second book in a planned trilogy. Read it, as well as Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, if you wake up Monday mornings tempted to send a "take this job and shove it," email to the boss, or if you're a young person wanting to know what to do with your life, or if you want to find a way to help the dispossessed become possessed of their own worth and dignity, or if you just want to read about risk and self-actualization. "The pearl is the oyster's autobiography," Fellini once wrote. Wood's books compel you to think about the nature of work and right livelihood, risk and consequences, service to others as a key to happiness, and money and the meaning of life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I'm going off the journalism grid for a while to focus on my social enterprise Rainworks Omnimedia and to finish Liberty Landing, my big, spidery multicultural fictional web. The most memorable thing I read recently is singer, Fiona Apple's letter to her fans about her dying dog.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I am Migrating to Blogger

Moving to a new country in blogosphere from old Serendipity platform to Blogger. Please ignore  large scale archivist dump of all my posts in seemingly illogical,  non-chronological order.

President Obama's "Spock" Rationale On Iraq War Investigation Untenable - 5/30/2009

First published in Huffington Post

In a recent interview with Newsweek, President Obama mentioned seeing the latest Star Trek movie and that everybody was saying he was Spock. In another interview a while ago, the First Lady said, "The President is a very rational man."

This explains a lot. The President's refusal to investigate the Bush Administration's policies and actions relating to the Iraq War is the embodiment of Vulcan logic, free from messy human emotions and moral obligation.

The President has said he wishes the country to move forward instead of looking back--a nice mantra for our collective denial. Let's nail that to the wall, next to Bush Labor secretary, Elaine Chao's call to Iraqi women after their lives had been reduced to rubble by 'Shock and Awe': "In a democracy, the most important factor is energy." Taxidriver husband in Abu Ghraib? Daughter raped in US custody? Teenage son sodomized with a truncheon? Never mind all that. The cure for your blue funk, citizen of Iraq -- whom we saved from Saddam, (ignore that pesky photograph of your Lion with our Fox, Donald Rumsfeld) - is to move forward, without looking back ... with energy.

Other countries have seen the necessity for truth and reconciliation. In Congo and elsewhere, where perpetrators and victims of human rights violations and atrocities are often known to each other--frequently they're neighbors--truth and reconciliation forums are seen as a necessary instrument, one that allows perpetrators and victims to continue living in the same community.

"Taking into account collective memory and the inadequacies of the justice system, one must set up a mechanism which will help people to express themselves, giving truth its proper place. It would help people to freely discuss, as though in a family, those events in which they were the perpetrators or the victims, thus creating an atmosphere for reconciliation," said Gilberta Tandia, a human rights activist in Congo.

There are those who wish President Obama to release the remaining photographs that show, according to General Antonio Taguba, "torture, abuse, rape and every indecency." I am not one of them. I have lived and traveled in Muslim countries long enough to know that strong notions of modesty, shame, communal and familial judgement, and the fear of honor killings of women believed to have been raped in US custody, would prevent most Muslim men and women from supporting the release of these photographs.

But the Pentagon's recent denial that photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse do not include images of rape and sexual abuse is a confabulation. Following Donald Rumsfeld's testimony on the Abu Ghraib hearings in 2004, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R. South Carolina) said, "The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder here." Press Secretary Robert Gibbs can thrash the British media and disavow information all he wants, but this isn't 1990 and this isn't Myanmar. There's this hardly worth mentioning, insignificant little archivist and global memory keeper that can call you a liar in less than a New York minute.

Accounts of these atrocities have already been reported in news outlets around the world including Guardian UK and Australia Age, and the images of rape have already been published in various online news outlets such as La Voz de Aztlan and Jihad Unspun, and posted on porn sites including the Norwegian based Sex and War. According to a 2004 article in La Voz de Aztlan, which was accompanied by photographs of the rape of a young girl in US custody, "It is now known that hundreds of these photographs had been in circulation among the troops in Iraq. The graphic photos were being swapped between the soldiers like baseball cards ... Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Mexican-American soldier told La Voz de Aztlan, 'Maybe the officers didn't know what was going on, but everybody else did. I have seen literally hundreds of these types of pictures.' 'Many of the pictures was destroyed last September when the luggage of soldiers was searched as they left Iraq,' he said."

Vice-President Dick 'We have nothing to apologize for' Cheney, and in the last few days, President George 'I will yield when my gut does' Bush, have made their case, with passion free from logic and legality, about the rightness of the Iraq War and US sponsored torture. We may continue to tolerate their justifications for the biggest American foreign policy blunder of all time, with the bewilderment we reserve for incoherent, delusional people. And we can keep lulling ourselves into a stupor with objective American journalism: "President Bush and VP Cheney say sun rises in the west, others disagree," and unquestioning American patriotism that makes no distinction between the honorable men and women who serve in the military, and the thugs and criminals among them.

But, the longer we wait to investigate how and why our government went to war on false premises, and why our military suspended fundamental American rules of war and violated international laws in the process, the more our national security will be compromised by those who are enraged by our actions and conduct.

The American people may not have the stomach for a lengthy war crimes tribunal to assign guilt and mete out punishment in these precarious times, but we should care enough to at least demand the truth. We ought to support a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Iraq War that includes Americans and Iraqis. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) has made such a proposal.

The model for truth and reconciliation work and its success is the commission that was established in South Africa to address the horrors of apartheid. According to South Africa's Justice Minister then, "it was a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation."

President Obama promised transparency as the bedrock of his administration. He would do well to consider Captain Picard's words in Star Trek: "With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably." President Obama's failure to address Bush policies and actions in Iraq makes his administration complicit in the Iraq War, and keeps us from doing repair with each other, with Iraqis, and with the wider world. 

Hold Your Fire: Children and Civilians In Gaza - 1/7/2010

First published in Huffington Post

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag's meditation on images depicting the atrocities of wartime, she cites Virginia Woolf's lacerating indictment of war, written in 1936 as the Spanish Civil War was unfolding. Woolf's polemic was a response to a lawyer who had engaged her on the issue of war.
She opened her argument by declaring that the lawyer as a man and she as a woman could not possibly see war in the same way. Woolf proposed reconciling the disparity by looking at some images of war together. "Let's see whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things," she wrote, for she believed, according to Sontag, "that the shock of the images could not fail but unite people of good will".
Many people around the world, looking at the same photographs together--of bloodied, broken, mangled bodies of civilians and children killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since December 27th--have felt the same things. And they have united in compassion for the Palestinian people.
No matter which side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue we stand on, we ought to feel empathy, and pain, and sorrow for the people killed in Gaza--not because we're pacifists, or weak, or pro-Palestine, or anti-Israel, or pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic, but because they were unarmed civilians in a blockaded war zone, who had nowhere to run and no place to hide.
"One body can hold all the suffering the world can feel," wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American, another polemic about war. Upon seeing the photographs from Gaza-- of babies with war wounds and third degree burns, children with missing body parts, screaming toddlers with blood pouring from their sides, tiny corpses turned blue in death, silent and still as no child ever ought to be--should the proper response from our government and leaders be the morally feeble talking point: "Hamas is to blame"?
According to the latest reports, more than 149 children have died in Gaza since Israel began its attacks on December 27th.
In Zeitoun, one of the poorest sections of Gaza, Masouda al-Samouni, 20, was preparing food for her baby when Israeli warplanes launched missiles in her neighborhood; one of them struck her house killing her baby, her husband, and her mother-in-law. "He died hungry," she said of her infant.
In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, a missile killed three Palestinian children, aged 8-12, as they played on a street. One boy was decapitated; another had both his legs blown off. Madth Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor working in a Gaza hospital said, "These injuries are not survivable injuries."
Protection for civilians in wartime is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law set in the Geneva Conventions of 1949--ironically, established as a response to the Holocaust--and in the treaty's Additional Protocols of 1977. Unarmed civilians not engaged in war must be spared and protected, and may not be attacked. In situations not covered by the specific laws of the Geneva Convention, civilians are protected by the fundamental principles of humanitarian law and human rights law.
In the face of international outrage over the killing of unarmed civilians, Israel defends itself by saying that Hamas is using children and civilians as human shields and hiding among civilians. If this is true, Israel and its military need do only one thing to inoculate itself from charges of wanton disregard for human life and war crimes: hold their fire until civilians have been cleared from the area.
There are lies we tell ourselves, delusions we adopt, just to get through each day with our political convictions intact. But our leaders unleash something close to immoral into the geopolitical incubator, when they and our allies embrace norms that they deem barbaric or monstrous--in other circumstances and when practiced by others.
If the killing of unarmed civilians by terrorist groups is wrong, Israel's killing of unarmed Palestinian civilians and our defense of Israel's conduct cannot be right. Hamas may be guilty but Israel is not innocent, and neither are we when our leaders defend the slaughter of innocents. The situational ethics our government chooses to practice in this matter can only come back to haunt us.
"Sooner or later one must choose a side if one is to remain human," Greene wrote in The Quiet American. Since December 27th, people of good will everywhere have stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people because they believe intuitively, emotionally, and intellectually in the preeminent rights of unarmed civilians and children in wartime. The Geneva Convention treaties, humanitarian law, and human rights laws are in place to remind governments of the same.

Wars Made Real: Photography at Dover Air Force Base - 3/10/2010

The Obama administration's decision to reverse the 18-year Pentagon ban on photography of soldiers' caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base is an important one for the public. Leaving the decision to military families to accept, or reject, public recognition of the service of their deceased is a respectful, Solomon-esque decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Anyone who was not on Mars during Captain Sully's recent heroic aqua landing on the Hudson knows how exemplary acts of courage, altruism, and heroism touch us all. In 2005, I wrote an article for Intervention Magazine comparing the way Italy honored its returning war dead from Iraq to the way America treated its own fallen military.
I cited the case of Nicola Calipari -- the Italian intelligence officer who rescued a kidnapped journalist from Iraqi captors, only to be gunned down by jittery American soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad.
I wrote then: "Calipari's return to Rome was a national event that united all Italians, merging their raw sorrow with the singular grief of his widow and children. It was the second time Italy pulled out all the stops for its Iraq War dead. In November of 2003, it staged an elaborate state funeral for nineteen of its citizens, killed in a suicide truck bombing in Nasiriyah.
In both instances, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his ministers, President Carlo Ciampi, and an honor guard in full-dress uniform stood with grieving families on the tarmac of Rome's Ciampino military airport to receive their dead. There were national days of mourning and public visitation hours to the reposed, and at night, the Coliseum's lights were dimmed in a mark of respect.
All Italy watched, on television, as officers from Italy's civil services carried the flag-draped coffins past honor guards representing every branch of the military. The Carabinieri (paramilitary corps), in their regal uniforms and blue-and-red plume hats, stood guard while lone buglers played the Last Post and other laments. Stricken Italians lined the routes of the funeral cortege to pay their respects, before the bodies were entombed in Rome's war memorial.
I suggested that the participation in these last rites, "symbolized a shared sacrifice between those who prosecute wars, those who must fight them, and those who grieve and honor them-not just the dead and their families, but the entire nation. The pageantry on display was no more excessive than the heroism of the fallen, for surely there can be no greater excess than surrendering one's life for one's country."
At the time I wrote those words, it had been one year since ABC's Ted Koppel had presented, The Fallen, his Nightline tribute to the soldiers who had died in Iraq. Mr. Koppel read the names off camera while the photographs of the dead men and women were projected on the screen. It was an elegy, remarkable for its quiet, sobering grace. Supporters of the war and George Bush naturally cried foul; any story that didn't fall into the Jessica Lynch mold of heroism (later learned to be void of key features of heroism, such as oh, heroism) was viewed as unpatriotic by the Pentagon's media machinery. Several broadcasting companies, including those owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, accused Mr. Koppel, a distinguished newsman who was/is no one's tool, for disseminating political propaganda.
There were 70,000 hits to my story on Intervention Magazine. Most readers agreed that we ought to honor our fallen soldiers, if not with the full pageantry, as seen in Italy, at least through media coverage, so that all American citizens would understand the cost of war. "The trouble is, I support the war as long as it doesn't cause me grief," wrote one poster.
The rest of my readers, Iraq War supporters all, spewing Mr. Bush's straight-jacket, postlogical logic -- we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here; so there were no WMD, so?; since Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11, we must bring them freedom and democracy so they don't perpetrate another 9/11 -- let me know that the Italians were excessive. They were adamant that we didn't need to show our war dead, and that the ban on photography at Dover Air Force Base did not need to be lifted.
They offer the same argument today, as they criticize Secretary Gates decision. Perhaps they're right. Instead of giving military families the choice to accept or reject public awareness of the return of their loved ones, similar to protocols for funerals already in place at Arlington National Cemetary, let's keep things the way they are. Yes, let's all pat ourselves on the back for being American patriots: let's fire up the grill, get plastered on booze, eat ourselves into a stupor, watch television, go shopping and call it Memorial Day.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 18:20