Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Khomeini's visit

This morning, I listened to a fascinating interview of Mohsen Sazegara by Fergal Keane on BBC4.  Sazegara was at the heart of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime from the moment the spiritual leader returned to Iran from exile.
Throughout the 1970s, he had been a student activist agitating for the overthrow of the Shah. In 1979 he became Khomeini's press attaché. He also helped found the now feared Revolutionary Guard, originally established as a defence force against possible attack from Israel or the United States.
As the Islamic state was established, dissenters were executed in their hundreds. But then factions within the regime began to turn against Sazegara who was pressing for greater co-operation with opposition groups.
It was a path that would lead to his imprisonment - and eventually to exile in the West. But not before he witnessed for himself what really happened inside Tehran's Evin prison, as he explains to Fergal Keane in Taking a Stand.

The programme made me think of a powerful epic poem I've read recently. The poem, called "Khomeini's visit", vividly describes some of the events Sazegara talked about in his interview and more generally, the history of Iran over the past four decades. It is written by the Iranian poet Majid Naficy. He too was active against the Shah’s regime in the 1970s. After the 1979 Revolution, as the new regime began to suppress the opposition, his first wife Ezzat Tabaian and his brother Sa’id were amongst the many to be executed. He fled Iran in 1983, eventually settling in Los Angeles with his son Azad.

The poem is very long, but try to read all of it (click on "read more") . It is well worth it!

Khomeini's Visit

                     by Majid Naficy

My father never told us

That Khomeini had visited him

For medical treatment many years ago

When Khomeini was only a "Khomeini"

And not yet the Deputy of God. (1)

The patient, perhaps, complained of heart palpations

The father looked at his tongue and eyes

Took his pulse and listened to his heart.

The patient removed his black turban and amber sandals

And took out his light cloak and long tunic. 

He laid down on the bed unmasked

And surrendered himself to a competent physician.

Did the father ask about Journeys written by Sadra of Shiraz (2)

And the patient about Commentary by Nafis, son of Evaz? (3)

Did the patient recite some of his own mystical ghazals,

And the father from free verses of his own son?

Did the patient speak of raising the banner of religion

And the father of kindling the lamp of reason?

No! No! The doctor's office is not a place for chitchat

With so many patients waiting behind the door.

The patient put on his clothing

The father handed him a prescription

And walked him to the door.

Ten years later, in the seventies

When my younger brother Said

Was in the Shah's prison for two years,

Because he had read a pamphlet,

And Khomeini was in exile, in Iraq

I listened to "Voice of the Revolution" in the basement.

One evening, the father came down the stairs

To listen to his old patient

Who spoke of the Shah's torture chambers

And foretold the day of justice.

At that time, no one knew that he

In less than five years,

After the uprising of home-builders in "off-limit" zones

And gathering of intellectuals at Goethe's nights of poetry

After marches of the clergy in Qum, and bazaaris in Tabriz

Strikes of petroleum workers and newspapers

And rallying cries from rooftops at night,

With rising fists and slogans

And falling fears and statues

And the hand-over of prisons and garrisons

Would sit on the throne of the "divine" state;

And after driving out the nationalists from the stage 

He would wrestle with the "Great Satan"

Amidst the hoorays of a Soviet-led left

And the boos of an independent left

Behind the walls of the American embassy,

And with the "export of revolution" to Iraqi Shiites

Saddam's invasion of Iranian land

And the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war

He would energize with "war blessings"

And gather the "flock" behind the "shepherd";

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Run for Congo - follow up

As a freelance journalist, I don’t often receive feedbacks about my stories, but my last piece for the Guardian about Chris’s running to raise awareness of the brutal conflict in the DRC seemed to have resonated with readers.  Many said they had no idea there was even a war there; many were so touched by Generose’s story and by Chris’ dedication that they circulated the story on Twitter, Facebook and donated money. Helen Ashley of Women for Women International said that in just three days readers had donated £2000 to help support women in their programme in the Congo. Amnesty International also said the article generated money and the story was picked up by publications all over the world.

Chris’s last marathon in Luton was cancelled last weekend because of bad weather, so he is now trying to figure out where else to run and what else he could do to keep the issue in people’s minds and on the political agenda. He is thinking of running the marathon des sables in April.

I also got a note from a thriving group of Congolese women in London who are well-organized and desperate to get the right sort of publicity for their cause - not just 'oh the poor victims', but a more active approach, trying to publicize the role of the Western multinationals and Governments who are exacerbating the situation. So I am planning to meet up with them. Stay tuned…

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Congo - Because Saying Sorry Was Not Enough

Chris running in the Congo/Fjona Hill

I spent an evening in a bar a couple of weeks ago, listening to Chris Jackson explaining why he felt compelled to run 12 marathons in 12 months – including one in the Congo, one of the most dangerous places on earth.  He was running, he said, because “saying sorry was not enough”. He had met a woman who had been violently raped in a refugee camp in Goma, eastern Congo, and all he could tell her was “sorry.”  He knew she was just one of thousands of women being routinely raped, tortured and killed in this region. He felt he couldn’t just walk away and do nothing. So he did the only thing he could think of: running.  

 “Running 12 marathons in 12 months was a conversation-starter. I wanted to do something that made people sit up and take notice so that more people were aware of the Congo and those who have and continue to suffer in silence.”   

More than 5.4 people have been killed in the brutal conflict in eastern Congo and more than 2 million people have been displaced. Sexual violence in the Congo is the worst in the world, according to the UN.

While running in the Congo, Chris met women who had been attacked by soldiers and rebels, as well as men who had raped, and recorded their stories on his blog and Twitter, and they formed the basis for a BBC World Service report and Channel 4 documentary.
 I had been trying to place stories about the atrocities in the DRC for a long time, but editors were not too keen: it was not something many readers wanted to read and, because the war has been raging there for so many years, the story was not topical enough. Chris’s challenge provided a way to engage the readers. And the fact that he is running his 12th and last marathon this Sunday, offered editors a perfect news hook for the story.

I approached The Guardian as they were the most likely to want the story. The editor was interested, but had reservations. “He isn’t Eddie Izzard, is he?”  the editor said.  But to me, the story is stronger precisely because Chris isn't a celebrity. He is just an ordinary guy who was so touched by a woman’s plight on the other side of the world, that he was willing to put his life on hold and push his body to the extremes. I find this incredibly beautiful and inspiring. And it gives me so much hope.

 The Guardian did commission the story and gave it nice play on Friday (Dec 3). You can read it here.

To read Chris’s blog, click here or/and donate to a programme helping women in the Congo rebuild their lives and regain their dignity, click here. For more information, click here

Monday, 22 November 2010

Sakineh's Forced Confession

Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani is still alive; she has apparently confessed "sin of adultery" to Iran TV.

Appearing on TV for the third time since her case caught the world's attention, Ashtiani reiterated her previous televised "confessions" that she was involved in the murder of her husband. "I am a sinner," she said. Her face was blurred and the interview, conducted in her native Azeri language, was subtitled in Farsi.

During the interview, Ashtiani also accused Mina Ahadi, an activist of the German-based International Committee Against Stoning (Icas), who has been successful in bringing her case to the world's attention. The broadcast, on Iran's Channel 2, portrayed Ahadi as "a communist dissident exiled in Germany", who had taken advantage of Ashtiani 's case for her own benefit.

There were also alleged confessions from her son Sajad Ghaderzadeh, her lawyer Houtan Kian and the two German journalists detained while interviewing Ghaderzadeh and Kian last month.

The programme stated that her lawyers, Mohammad Mostafaei and Kian, promoted her case because "they were looking for excuses to claim asylum in western countries".  Mostafaei, Ashtiani 's first lawyer, was arrested and subsequently forced to leave Iran after giving interviews to foreign press. He is now in Norway. Kian, who represented Ashtiani after Mostafaei, has been jailed since October and claimed that Ashtiani was beaten and tortured before appearing on TV for the first time.

Forced TV confessions, especially of political prisoners, are common in Iran.   I have met many Iranian former political prisoners and all said they have been tortured so that they would publicly confess their “sins” and recant their allegiances and beliefs.

 In his disturbing book “Tortured Confessions",  historian Ervand Abrahamian explains that the use of systematic torture in Iran’s prisons is not conducted to obtain information, but a public confession and ideological recantation. For the victim, whose honour, reputation and self-respect are destroyed, the act is a form of suicide.

In Iran, a subject's "voluntary confession" reaches a huge audience via television. The accessibility of television and use of videotape have made such confessions a primary propaganda tool, says Abrahamian, and because torture is hidden from the public, the victim's confession appears to be self-motivated, increasing its value to the authorities.  Similar public recantation campaigns have been led in Maoist China, Stalinist Russia and by the religious inquisitions of early modern Europe.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Iran - Save Sakineh!

Having just written about defiance in Iran in my last entry, I have to mention a case where resistance and action are urgently needed.  Sakineh Ashtiani’s life is still in danger today, despite massive global outcry.  We all need to raise our voices to stop her killing and inhumane treatment.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, is held on death row in Tabriz Prison, northwest Iran. She was accused of adultery and condemned to being stoned to death. The Iranian government had to revoke the sentence after her children generated a worldwide outcry against the farcical trial -- she could not speak the language used in court, and the alleged incidents of adultery took place after her husband's death.

Then her lawyer was forced into exile, and the prosecution came up with a new charge for which she would be executed -- the murder of her husband. Despite this being double jeopardy, as she was already serving time for alleged complicity in this crime, Sakineh was tortured and paraded on national television to 'confess', and was found guilty. Since then the regime has arrested two German journalists, her lawyer and her son, who has bravely led the international campaign to save his mother. All remain in prison and Sakineh's son and lawyer have been also tortured and have no access to lawyers.

Following international protests, in July the Iranian embassy in London announced that she would not be stoned to death, but she could still be executed by hanging. An execution order has apparently been delivered to her last week, so her execution might be  imminent.
In Brazil, Turkey, France, the UK and US, high profile politicians including presidents have urged Iran not to execute her.  Now, foreign ministers in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland have followed suit and called on Tehran to commute her death sentence.

 Amnesty International is also calling for the release of Ashtiani's lawyer and son, indicating that they have been seized solely because they were willing to release pertinent information.

Join your voice to the global action to save Sakineh and sign these petitions:  Amnesty International petition and Avaaz petition.  

Hey, Ayatollah, Leave Those kids Alone!

Have a look at this exciting remake on Pink Floyd’s classic “Another Brick in the Wall” – still so relevant today in too many places around the world.  In this version by Canada-based band Blurred Vision, the singers have slightly reworked the lyrics  to produce a new cry for defiance of the authoritarian regime of Iran. “Leave Those Kids Alone” has become an underground anthem in Iran, where young people are breaking the Internet blockade to watch it.

Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters gave Blurred Vision,  two exiled Iranian brothers living in Toronto, permission to tinker with the song for use as an anthem for young Iranians. He said in a statement that he sees the band as playing a vital part in "the resistance to a regime that is both repressive and brutal” and encourages artists to use the song to resist all forms of oppression elsewhere in the world.

The Blurred Vision brothers — 28-year-old Sepp and 35-year-old Sohl — hope the song will elicit solidarity for Iranians fighting for freedom. They haven’t made their last name public because of concern for the wellbeing of family members in Iran.

The video for the song, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Babak Payami, includes footage from the 2009 Iranian “Green Revolution”, the mass uprising which followed the contested presidential election. At least 36 people died during the protests, thousands were arrested and hundreds are still in prison today – many being tortured.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Like a Magic Cup - Vital Communities

Vital Communities is a bit like a magic cup

Art is radical. Art can prevent children from turning into bored, alienated, aggressive teenagers. It can break down barriers between generations and ethnic groups, provide new skills, improve self-confidence, expand horizons and help rebuild communities.

That’s what Vital Communities, a unique five-year arts and research project has achieved and demonstrated.

My friend, filmmaker Dominique Chadwick has followed the project over the past five years and produced “Spotlight” - a film analysing the workings and effects of Vital Communities upon children, their families and communities. She presented her film at the Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas last week.
 Vital Communities brought film, dance, drama, visual arts, literature and other creative activities to children in primary schools in ten diverse communities across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. It then extended the activities to the children’s families and communities.
“Spotlight” shows that Vital Communities has increased participating children and families’ enjoyment and engagement with the arts.  It has helped them develop new skills, increased their self-confidence and given them a sense of well-being.  And the project also acted as ‘social glue’ in the community, creating links between different generations and diverse ethnic groups. These results were found in all ten locations, regardless whether rural, urban, affluent or deprived.  Vital Communities also had a strong 'ripple effect', in which participating children, parents, teachers and artists passed on their skills to those not involved and encouraged them to join in the activities.


"Vital Communities is a bit like a magic cup. When you take a drink, you can do anything!"  Year 1 child, Peterborough.

"Parents, teachers and more crucially the children themselves said they became happier and more creative as a result of taking part in Vital Communities," says Susan Potter, the project manager. "Working alongside people of different ages and diverse cultural backgrounds encouraged these children to be more imaginative, responsive, open and tolerant towards others."

The project, which attracted the attention of UNESCO and other national and international organisations, was originally planned over 15 years, but had to stop this year for lack of funding, sadly.

For more information on Vital Communities and links to the progress and final reports, click here.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Tunnel People – Living underground in Manhattan

This week I took my journalism students to a fascinating and thought-provoking talk by award winning photojournalist and author Teun Voeten at the Frontline Club, the media club near London’s Paddington. 

Dutch photographer and cultural anthropologist, Voeten has covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza for Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and National Geographic, among others, as well as for organizations such as the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

In the mid-nineties however, he took a break from war reporting. For five months he lived, slept and worked in a tunnel underneath Manhattan's posh Upper West Side. He lived alongside an eclectic mix of outsiders: Vietnam veterans, hippies, crack addicts, Cuban refugees, convicted killers, computer programmers, philosophical recluses and criminal runaways.

His book on this community, Tunnel People, published in the Netherlands in 1996, describes their daily work, problems and pleasures with humor and compassion. It also tries to reconstruct people’s past and describe how they became homeless.

The tunnel people were evicted in 1996, but Amtrak and homeless organizations offered them alternative housing. Some succeeded in starting again above ground, while others failed. In his 2010 updated version of Tunnel People, Voeten tracks down the original tunnel dwellers and describes what has happened in the thirteen years since they left the tunnels. 

The book is written both as a journalist and anthropologist with the insight of someone who has actually lived there among the rats, collected cans and firewood and scavenged for food. It is an honest, direct and unsentimental account of the mean, grimy misery underground. Yet, in many ways, the tunnel people were doing better than the homeless people above ground. As Voeten points out, they have created their own environment, showing a level of self-confidence and planning beyond the day-to-day that is rare among street people. In fact many don’t even consider themselves homeless.

The book makes you think of the thousands of homeless above ground – in full view, yet still invisible. Since the first version of Tunnel People, there has been a huge increase in the number of the homeless, especially families, as the economic crisis has caused lay-offs and foreclosures on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.  It is not only the poor who have been pushed over the edge – and still are – but also the middle classes. Voeten hopes his book will shed some light on the complex problem of homelessness.

Monday, 11 October 2010

No Women, No Peace – UK coalition calls for women’s participation in peacebuilding

All over the world, women are prime targets during conflict. Rape, displacement, torture and kidnap are common experiences of women. Whilst women are highly resourceful and are actively building peace in their communities, this is not recognized in formal peace processes. Despite international promises, women made up only 1 in 40 peace agreement signatories over the past 25 years.

No Women, No Peace is a campaign run by 14 human rights and development organisations in the UK,  calling for women’s participation in peacebuilding.  The campaign marks the 10-year anniversary, on October 31, of UN Resolution 1325, the pioneering UN Resolution on women and peace and security.  The resolution recognises the devastating impact of conflict on women and states that women must be involved in building peace from the earliest stages. 

Yet, 10 years after Resolution 1325, the international community is still failing to protect women. Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) continues to be used as a strategic weapon of war.  SGBV, which includes rape, forced impregnation, forced abortion, trafficking, sexual slavery, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV/AIDS – is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary armed conflict.

No Women, No Peace campaign recognises that unless women participate in all stages of building peace, the issues faced by women can’t be addressed and peace will fail to meet the needs of 50 per cent of the population.

Wazhma Frogh, an activist with the Afghan Women's Network said: "If a reconciliation and re-integration plan is about bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan, half the population should not be left out. Bringing peace is not just about the end of fighting, but has to be an enabling environment for men, women and children of this country to access education and rebuild their country.”

The UK, as an international key global player and major donor, has a key role to play in supporting women to participate in decisions made about peace and security.  No Women, No Peace wants to use this 10th year anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 to create the momentum necessary to move the issue up the public and political agenda and call on the UK Government to honour commitments made to women in conflict.

 No  Women, No Peace is a campaign by Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS UK), a network of peace, human rights and development organizations, including ActionAid UK; Amnesty International UK; CARE International UK; IANSA Women's Network; International Alert; Widows for Peace through Democracy; WOMANKIND Worldwide; Women for Women International UK.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Fashion model gives back to Congo

Noella Coursaris Musunka/Maerzinger Photography

Born to a Congolese mother and a Cypriot father in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Noella Coursaris Musunka is a super model whose image graces billboards and magazine pages (Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Arena etc) all over the world and represents brands such as Agent Provocateur, Apple ipod, Virgin Mobile and Barclays.

But Noella is a model in other ways too. The 27-year-old, who started her modelling career through a competition for Agent Provocateur in London and lived there for several years (she now lives in New York), has founded a non-governmental organization to advance girls’ education in Lubumbashi,  where she was born.  She is also a human rights activist, advising the UN, politicians, celebrities and corporations on the situation in her country.

Noella is coming to London on October 2nd to host “Creatives Unite For Congo”, a fashion show in profit of a school her NGO is building in Lubumbashi.  The show will showcase work by Congolese fashion designers IJO and Modahnik, the London brand MF Couture, as well as clothes made by girls from an orphanage supported by her NGO.

Noella’s father died when she was five and her mother, who didn’t have the resources to raise her on her own, sent her to live with relatives in Belgium, then Switzerland where she studied business. The silver lining to this traumatic event was a good education and a modelling career, which allows her to travel all over the world.

When she returned to the Congo to visit her mother 13 yeas later, she felt in love with the country. “The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt at home.”  The visit changed her forever. “From that moment I said to myself that one day I will do something back for my country. Even if I didn’t have my parents, I had been fortunate to have an education. I thought the best thing to do is pass on to others the same opportunity.”

So in 2007, she set up the Georges Malaika Foundation in New York in memory of her father. “His name was George and  “Malaika” in Swahili means angel.”

Noella and her team of non-profit and private industry professionals are building a sustainable school for 300 girls outside Lubumbashi and have already sponsored 16 girls with tuition, uniforms, meals and school supplies. The design for the school was donated by Studio MDA, the architects for Madonna’s Raising Malawi school, and the first stone was laid down in February by Khaliah Ali, the daughter of Mohammed Ali.

Over the last few years, she has addressed the DRC Parliament on violence faced by women of Eastern Congo and spoken at the UN and universities across the US about the war, which as been waged there for the last 10 years and killed more than 5.5 million people, and about rape being used as a weapon of war. But she also wants to focus on the beauty of the DRC, its culture and its people.

Creatives Unite For Congo: October 2nd at 8pm at The Penthouse, 39-43 Underwood St.  N1 7LG London, for tickets or more information:  rsvp@gmfafrica.og

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Neighborhood Mosque

Here is a beautiful poem my friend the Iranian poet Majid Naficy wrote to stress the need to separate state and religion in Iran. “I have come to this realization that for me as an Iranian it is not enough to request separation of religion and state, but I should also show how this tragic fusion had taken place,” he told me.

Majid was born in the ancient city of Isfahan and became a published poet at the young age of 13. He was politically active against the Shah's regime. After the 1979 Revolution, the new regime began to suppress the opposition, and many people, including his first wife and brother were executed. He fled Iran in 1983 and settled in Los Angeles where he lives with his son. He has since published eight collections of poems, including Muddy Shoes and Father & Son.  

Here is his poem:

The Neighborhood Mosque

                  by Majid Naficy

In our neighborhood

There was a tiny mosque

Which had a dome, but no minarets,

And as a child I thought

That Ali had been stabbed there. (1)

The man who called us to prayer

Was a chubby laughing janitor

Who dyed his hair, and beards

Hands and feet with henna,

And the big toe of his right foot

Stuck out from his torn shoe.

Every day early in the morning

I awoke to his harsh bellow

From the rooftop of the mosque

And thought of the shivering boys

Who with sleep around their eyes

And copper bowls in their hands

Passed by the empty mosque

To buy brains and tongues

Ears and cheeks

From the lamb cookery

At the entrance of the alley.

The Revolution gave the mosque two tall minarets

With loudspeakers on their balconies

Blasting days and nights.

The mosque was filled with bearded men carrying rifles

And veiled women standing in line

Collecting their monthly ration carts 

From the state head of prayer

Near his pulpit or prayer niche. (2)

But the laughing muezzin had gone

And instead of him,

The son of the local lamb chef

Sat on the balcony of one of the minarets

Keeping an eye on the neighborhood.

From then on, I would cover my ears

At the sound of the call to prayer,

And never pass by the mosque again

Fearful that the bearded young men

Would jump on top of me

And butcher me in the prayer hall,

Then wash their dirty hands

AT the ablution pool

Without asking themselves:

Is it lawful to shed the blood of a "warring infidel"

In the confines of the neighborhood mosque?

          September 16, 2010

1. In 661, Ali, the first Imam of Shi'a muslims was fatally stabbed in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq.

2. Prayer niche (Mihrab) is a niche in the mecca-facing wall that marks the direction of prayer in a mosque where the leader of congregational prayer stations himself.