Tuesday, October 13, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, the assault on Iraq's LGBT community garners some press attention, the refugee crisis continues, the British government prepares to force Iraqis out of England, the water crisis in Iraq creates even more refugees, Nouri can't pay his bills and more.
Today on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth, Virginia Prescott spoke with Human Rights Watch's Scott Long and Matt McAllester about the targeting of Iraq's LGBT community. McAllester was noted in the October 6th snapshot on this issue, he's written "The Hunted" (New York Magazine) and he discussed the issue with Neal Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation (here for audio and transcript links).
Virginia Prescott: Well Matt, what's it like to be a gay Iraqi in post-Saddam Baghdad?
Matt McAllester: Well earlier this year it was fatally dangerous potentially and many of them were indeed killed. What happened in 2003 when the invasion happened is that the center of-of power and fear in Iraq in many arenas of life but especially for gay Iraqis shifted from the State which, under Saddam Hussein, was never friendly to put it mildly towards gay people in Iraq. It wasn't actually illegal to be gay in Iraq. You very much kept a low profile if you could. And shifted from the State to the mosque and to the militia -- as did so much in Iraq. And so the power bases were less controlled and more violent and more dangerous.
Virginia Prescott: We mentioned the uptick earlier this year, pretty much focused in February, attacks against gay Iraqis and police harassment of gay men reached a fevered pitch in that time. You've mentioned homosexuality is still not illegal in Iraq, so what prompted this uptick in violence?
Matt McAllester: Well strangely and sort of paradoxically, the down-tick in violence generally prompted the uptick against gay people. What I mean by that is that American soldiers are much less visible to the Iraqi insurgency and militias so there's one target that's all but disappeared. The government of Iraq is much stronger and so this civil war between Sunni and Shia militias that was raging, that's also pretty much -- I wouldn't say "over," but it's not so much a factor. In the course of that last year, one of the main militias, the Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, which is headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a very radical cleric with-with pretty much sidelined, politically and militarily and he seems to have, although there's no paper trail leading directly to his door, but it was clearly his guys that were doing this in the early part of this year, have decided that. he needed to increase his popularity by picking on the one population group in Iraq that no one likes. And they're-they're -- gays in Iraq are pretty much detested by every ethnic group, nationality, strata of society. So -- and so he thought this would cast his guys and himself as the moral arbiters of Iraq again.
Virginia Prescott: So it was -- it was a power grab mostly.
Matt McAllester: It was. And they -- gays in Iraq were used and manipulated in this way.
Virginia Prescott: Gay men and women looking to flee Iraq don't have many options. Homosexuality is illegal in most of the surrounding countries. The non-profit Human Rights Watch created an underground railroad to help gay Iraqis escape to safety. Joining us now is Scott Long. He's director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights program at Human Rights Watch. Scott, welcome to the program.
Scott Long: Thank you for having me.
Virginia Prescott: What inspired you to create this so-called underground railroad for gay Iraqis. This kind of direct action is a bit of a change for Human Rights Watch.
Scott Long: Well it was necessity really. I mean ordinarily when Human Rights Watch tries to do research on massive humanitarian violations, there are other groups that can provide direct support to people. But in this case, we're talking about folks in Iraq who have no one to defend them. The police won't protect them. Civil society is too weak to offer any effective assistance. They're basically alone and completely vulnerable to violence.
Virginia Prescott: There are, of course, Iraqi lesbians. Also not looked upon kindly but not being persecuted in the same way as gay men. Tell us a little bit more about the process here. How do you identify gay men looking to escape from Iraq?
Scott Long: Well basically we reached out to people through every means possible. Through the internet -- the internet has become a major social tool for men who want to preserve their anonymity and think they can preserve their safety. We reached out to personal contacts. And we just tried to evaluate the level of threat people were facing. But if people were, if people had been threatened directly, if there was reason to think their names were in the hands of the militia, we did everything we could to try to get them out.
Virginia Prescott: I know that you can't disclose the city that is now serving as a safe haven for gay Iraqis, but you have spent time there. Scott, how does it differ from Baghdad in terms of safety or openness for homosexuals?
Scott Long: Well there aren't militias roaming the streets with guns. That's the primary thing. But, as you've said, in all the surrounding countries there's still social prejudice and there's also criminal laws. In the last -- in the last six years, there have probably been more than two-and-a-half-million Iraqi displaced by the violence and of those people, the United States has accepted only about 20,000 as refugees. We're definitely hoping that the US will recognize that people aren't safe even when they flee to surrounding countries and that we have a responsibility to LGBT Iraqis to accept them to safety here as well as other categories of refugees.
Virginia Prescott: And that leads to another question. Matt McAllester, you spent time in this unnamed city as part of your reporting for New York Magazine. Many of the Iraqis living there hope to one day emigrate to the United States or Canada, Australia or Sweden but isn't it unlikely that they'd be accepted by Iraqi immigrant communities in those countries leaving them in a kind of state of limbo. .
Matt McAllester: You're -- you're absolutely right. The prejudice carries from Baghdad to-to Baltimore or where ever they end up. And that doesn't disappear. So they will be embraced, one hopes, by the mainstream gay communities in the United States or Sweden or Norway or Australia or where ever they end up. Some of them don't even want to meet other gay Iraqi refugees. They've been through such traumatic times there, there trust level is almost non-existent. And so they sort of want to disappear into society but I mean that's terribly difficult if your language skills aren't up to scratch initially and perhaps you don't have the work skills and you have -- and you are -- you can't even hang out, go to the cafes and drink tea and smoke shisa with your Iraqi friends.
Virginia Prescott: Many of them have returned to somewhat less dangerous parts of Iraq unhappy with how Human Rights Watch has helped them transition into their new lives as refugees. Matt, what's their complaint?
Matt McAllester: I think that it's terribly hard to be uprooted from your home.
and even if there are militias roaming the streets trying to kill you, it's terribly difficult to one week be living with your family -- albeit living a lie and a very scared lie -- and another
week to suddenly be sort of living in another city. And I think many of these guys have found that terribly difficult and understandably so. This is not specific to gay refugees, this is a thing I've seen happen in many countries -- refugees sort of leaving and moving back, albeit towards, back towards, danger --
Virginia Prescott: Scott. I'm sorry I have to interrupt because I want Scott, we have just thirty seconds for you to respond to that. How about you and other Human Rights Watch? What do you think?
Scott Long: Well it's not easy being a refugee. Being a refugee means being uprooted from everything you ever cared about. And that's, again, why I think it's really incumbent upon the United States and other countries that bear some responsibility for the violence in Iraq to start living up to their responsibilities by helping these folk make a new home.
Virginia Prescott: Scott, Matt, just one second please if you could, anything the Iraqi government could do to protect gay Iraqis or is it even on their radar?
Matt McAllester: They don't want to talk about it, to be perfectly honest. The ambassador in Washington gave me a written statement after -- after quite a long time of asking and it was impossible to get much more than that I'm afraid.
On the topic of Iraqi refugees, last week Human Rights Action and the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law Center issued [PDF format warning] a report entitled "Refugee Crisis in America: Iraqis And Their Resettlement Experience." It documented many obstacles for the small number of Iraqis granted asylum in the US. For example:
When researchers met Farrah, a former physical education teacher with a bachelor's degree, she said that all she and her elderly mother hope for is "enough help to get on [their] own two feet." After fleeing from Iraq to Syria in 2007, Farrah arrived in Detroit in June 2008 and has been trying unsuccessfuly to find a job and enroll at a community college to improve her employment prospects. "We don't want to depend on the government for everything," Farrah said; "we want a foundation to build our own future."
Unfortunately for Farrah, and other Iraqi refugees with whom researches spoke, the USRAP [US Refugee Admissions Program] does not devote enough attention to breaking down key barriers to employment for refugees. Employment services, provided by volags and state agencies, are seriously underfunded and unable to adequately help Iraqi refugees in their job search. Lack of transporation remains a significant barrier to securing and maintaining employment. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, generally inadequate in both equality and duration, fail to help Iraqis build marketable language skills. In addition, the opportunity to pursue education and re-certification programs, prerequisites for many jobs, is either unavailable or eclipsed by more immediate needs. Given these barriers, it is not surprising that the vast majority of Iraqi refugees interviewed were unemployed despite expressing a strong desire to work.
The report notes that despite the Refugee Act calling for thirty-six months of assistance, most Iraqi refugees are receiving only eight months. On top of that, there are delays in terms of appointments with case workers. There is a thirty-day delay of initial payment after the paper work has been completed appropriately. Along with economic issues such as not providing enough funds to the refugees, the USRAP has a problem when it comes to planning. The report notes, "When the U.S. government announced in 2007 that tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees would soon be arriving in the United States, there was little doubt that Iraqis would seek to be placed in cities with large existing Iraqi and Arab communities like Detroit and San Diego. Even those working in overseas processing predicted as much." So why, when the refugees began arriving, was this a 'surprise'? One of the report's recommendations is for the new procedures to be developed by the lead agency which "outline a common, consistent strategy for the placement of individual refugees, taking into account the needs of each refugee, state and volag resources, and recent trends prior to a refugee's arrival."
Vincent T. Davis (San Antonio Express-News) reports on Iraqi Khalid Ali who had to leave Iraq after threats were made (he worked with CBS News in Iraq). Shortly after his family arrived in the US, his wife Sundas died of breast cancer. He is now raising the children by himself (the youngest is three-years-old) and attempting to find work. Davis reports, "There are moments away from his children when he sits and stares. He misses his wife. Ali relies on the words of the Quran, saying, 'God will enlighten and show the way.' He dreams of his children prospering in their new country, but first he has to help them deal with their loss. 'They miss the tender kindness of their mother,' Ali said. He hasn't told his two youngest girls their mother has died, he can't find the words to tell them the truth; after many hospital stays, the girls think she's still there."
In England, Owen Bowcott (Guardian) reports, "The UK Border Agency is preparing to send the first, mass deporation flight returning failed asylum seekers to Baghdad and southern Iraq, according to a refugee organisation that monitors expulsions." The group is the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. They're calling for mass action tomorrow and they quote Iraqi refugee Yousuf stating, "Iraq's not safe for me. I am Shia'a and a Sunni group is after me. The same group has killed both my brothers and now they're after me. The government here won't let me work, and then they give me just [35 pounds] a week to live on, but I've got friends here and I'm safe. Why would they send me back?" Tomorrow in London, there will be a demonstration at 5:00 pm at Communications House: "The Stop Deportation network and the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees call upon all groups, organisations and individuals opposed to this brutal action by the UK government to stand with us in calling for all deportations to Iraq to be stopped. Join us on the first public demonstration against mass deportations to Iraq this Wednesday, at 5pm, at the local immigration reporting centre, where many deportees are first arrested without prior warning whilst signing on (Communications House, Old Street, London, EC1)."
Iraq isn't safe for anyone. Nouri strong-armed a man with the UN in Iraq into stating some parts were and, please note, that man is gone. But the damage he did continues. Iraq is not safe and no government should deport anyone back to Iraq.
Meanwhile Amnesty International's Turkish refugees affairs coordinator Volkan Gorendag speaks with Today's Zaman:
"There are almost 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and they are able cope with it. Iran has a similar situation. Even in Iraq, there are almost 10,000 refugees there coming from Turkey. A country like Iraq, which has been devastated by war, is able to cope with this. Is Turkey less powerful then these countries?" he asks.
He says that if he had the power to change anything about refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey, he would start by passing a law on asylum and migration.
"There is no law in Turkey in this field. There are only some articles in various laws regarding the issue as well as many regulations. This makes the situation even more complex," he says.
When talking about the history of international regulations regarding refugees, Gorendag says he is saddened by the fact that Turkey was from the very beginning part of these debates but later chose to exclude itself from them.
"When the first international convention on refugees came on the agenda, Turkey was one of the countries which campaigned very hard for it from the beginning. It is one of the authors of the 1951 Refugee Convention. It addressed the topic of refugees because of events taking place in Europe. In 1967 geographical and temporal restrictions were removed, but Turkey kept them," he says.
Violence is among the drivers behind Iraq's refugee crisis -- the largest refugee crisis on the globe. Violence continued today in Iraq . . .
Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) report a Kirkuk roadside bombing claimed the lives of 2 Iraqi soldiers and left four more wounded, a Mosul roadside bombing left two women wounded, another wounded a guard and a third left a police officer injured. Reuters adds that a suicide bombing in Buhriz claimed the life of the bomber and 6 other people with ten more left injured.
Simon Assaf (Great Britian's Socialist Worker) reports on Iraq violence and notes, "The country continues to be plagued by power cuts, high unemployment and ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Now a severe drought has destroyed the agricultural sector." Natalia Antelava (BBC News) notes the MidEast water wars and how the dams Turkey has built have negatively impacted Syria and Iraq. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today announced, "Over 100,000 people in northern Iraq have been forced to evacuate their homes since 2005 because of severe water shortages, a UNESCO study finds. Drought and excessive well pumping have drawn down aquifer levels in the region, causing a dramatic decline of water flow in ancient underground aqueducts, known in Iraq as karez, upon which hundreds of communities depend." UNESCO also identifies 36,000 more Iraqis who may flee their homes in the near future due to the current water shortages. Iran's Press TV reported Sunday, "Iranian ships have started delivering drinking water to Iraq, as a Turkish pledge seems to have had little effect in solving Baghdad's water shortage problem. Tehran has agreed to send 650 thousand liters of water to Iraq by ship two or three times a week to help resolve the water shortage problem in southern parts of the country, the Iranian Tabnak news website reported on Sunday." Iran is shipping for southern Iraq, UNESCO is zooming in on the crisis in the north, to be clear.
Meanwhile Lynne Minion (Brisbane Times) attempts to draw attention to Iraqis few bother to notice. She recounts her time working in Iraq:
And by day I would work with local journalists and edit an online publication that told stories about the conditions for Iraqis, not those of the Western occupying forces. And every now and again, a translator would come to my desk to say that a woman was waiting outside, that she wanted to speak to me.
In a place where many women can't talk to men about their personal struggles, they came to speak to the Australian woman journalist and they asked me to give them a voice.
They told me about the little girl who was dragged into a house and held down on the kitchen table where her clitoris was removed using a dirty knife, without anaesthetic. They told me about the woman who had burned herself alive to escape the shame of divorce, whose ex-husband had instructed her to make sure she did it out in the backyard. They spoke of women paying up to $US400 for backyard "hymen reconstructions" to protect them from honour killings. Meanwhile, the local women's rights campaigner, Ala Noori Talabani, would wear a bulletproof vest for protection.
So if the pen is mightier than the sword, could it help these women to have their experiences told to readers worldwide? Regardless of lofty intentions, can words achieve anything when the powerful won't hear?
This was no peacekeeping mission, after all. The occupying forces with their Humvees and heavy weaponry, whose soldiers were said to be there to liberate the population, did little to liberate the women, quite the contrary. In addition to the estimated 1 million killed since 2003, about 4.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes, while more than 1 million widows and 3 million orphans have been left behind. Desperate women now beg in the streets.
And what has Nouri al-Maliki done to help the refugee crisis? And what has he done to help Iraqi women? To help Iraq's LGBT community? What has Nouri done? Has he done anything? UPI and Official Wire report that he's "been systemattically amassing control of Iraq's intelligence and security services in the classic mold of Arab strongment." They go on to explain how Nouri's firing people he sees as rivals and controlling the National Security Ministry, how he's imposed a Baghdad curfew to allow for nightly mass arrests and he's "recruited tribal militias that are funded directly by his office." He is said to see Jawad al-Bolani, Minister of the Interior, as a political rival and some are saying "his next target will be Bolani, widely seen as a close U.S. ally." So Nouri's enriched himself. At least there is that. No comfort to anyone but Nouri but he's not just been sitting around slacking. Nouri likes to claim there's no money for public services. He likes to claim money is tight. The New York Times loves to enable and encourage his lies. Today , Timothy Williams informs, "The semiautonomous Kurdish region has reopened a rift with the central government after announcing that it had halted all petroleum exports from Kurdistan until Baghdad pays the international companies that are pumping oil in the region." That's cute. A rift? Reopened by the KRG?
Baghdad's not paying the monies they are supposed to pay to the KRG. Grasp that. Grasp that the KRG is saying no more oil through Baghdad until they're paid. It's amazing the way the paper 'reports.' You can be sure that no US business that said "no" to another company or government due to non-payment would be accused of causing a 'rift.' Nouri's the new Saddam indeed. Just as CNN kissed his ass to remain in Iraq back then (as Eason revealed in that embarrassing NYT column sometime back), NYT kisses Nouri ass to remain in his good graces. Don't mistake what appears for reporting. Williams even goes so far to vouch for Nouri: "At the same time, the [Baghdad] government needs all the revenue it can get to pay for a host of pressing needs." A host of pressing needs? Millions on weaponry? That's not pressing. They're not needed, get real. Who's going to attack Iraq?
The United States has done so twice. Who else?
Iran? While they're so tight with Nouri? While they're apparently providing Nouri with a plane to travel in?
They need all these costly weapons to protect them from whom?
They don't need these weapons and Nouri has not, in his nearly three year reign, provided Iraqis with potable water or any other basic services that a functioning society has a right to expect. Maybe part of the reason Nouri keeps attacking Syria is because he needs to create an external threat in order to justify the spending? A meeting of Iraq and its neighbors continues for the second day in Egypt. Mu Xuequan (Xinhua) reports the 'big' thing on Iraq's agenda was again insisting they had evidence. Meanwhile Today's Zaman notes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan begins a visit to Iraq on Thursday.
Nouri dug his own economic hole by throwing so much money at weapons. Strategy Page reminds, "Last year, Iraq ordered over $4 billion worth of of American weapons, mainly on the strength of high (over $100 a barrel) oil prices. The price of oil has since plummeted, and Iraq is seeking to get better payment terms. Many of the weapons ordered had to be paid for in advance, or on delivery. Now, many of these orders are at risk, because Iraq has a lousy credit score. Despite all that oil revenue, and a large chunk of global oil reserves, Iraq has very bad credit history with just about everyone. So the country cannot finance the huge weapons purchases. The U.S. weapons firms will not extend credit, and expect to be paid."
Ending with Sunday's DC rally. Democracy Now! is having some problem with the website currently. But this link should take you to their segment on Iraq War veteran Lt Dan Choi speaking at the equality rally Sunday. Choi is threatened with being drummed out of the military because he chose to tell. He chose not to live in a closet. In the segment, Amy Goodman and Sharif Abdel Koudous speak with Choi and they also play a segment of his Sunday speech. We'll note the speech:
Now, I know that there are many things that are worth fighting for, and I've fought for many of them, and I will tell you that some of those are very, very expensive. But of all those things that are worth fighting for, love is worth fighting for. Love is worth it. Love is worth it. Some of us have come from very far places to be here today. You've sacrificed a lot. But love is worth it. Some of us have just come out of the closet this year. Some of us are still in the closet. But I want to tell you that love is worth it. We've sacrificed so much. Some of us have been rejected by our families and our communities and our churches and our workplaces, but I will tell you that love is worth it. And many of us have been discharged from the service because we told the truth. But I know that love is worth it. We love our country, even when our country refuses to acknowledge our love. But we continue to defend it, and we continue to protect it, because love is worth it. Love is worth it.
If you believe it, say it with me, "Love is worth it! Love is worth it! Love is worth it! Love is worth it!" Like so many others, I joined the military because my country beckoned me. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country." But when we're telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, "Don't ask," and orders us, "Don't tell." Well I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore. I am telling. I am telling! I am telling! Will you tell with me? Asking is over. We will tell, because in the face of injustice and the face of discrimination, patience is not a plan. In the face of discrimination, silence is not a strategy. My plan today and my plan tomorrow and my plan forever is to tell, is to tell. And we will tell. We will tell! We will tell!