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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Inside Iraq: Living with the enemy

By Arwa Damon

I first met Abu Wissam at the foot of his son's shallow grave. Never will he be able to erase the last image he has of his son's body.

Raed's mother holds worn-out photographs of her murdered son.

Raed's mother holds worn-out photographs of her murdered son.

"He was cut to pieces," he said. "His hands and feet were chopped off. And he was decapitated."

For a long time, Iraqis would say that it was "outsiders" that were carrying out such atrocities. The truth that is so hard to accept for many is that that often was not the case.

Iraqis turned on each other, neighbors slaughtered neighbors, friends betrayed one another. It was the sheer degradation of society on a shocking and utterly petrifying scale.

Abu Wissam's son Raed was a 25-year-old business school student. His fiancee says that one day he got a phone call from a college friend asking to meet him. Little did she know that it was a plot to lure him out of the house and that it would be their last goodbye.

They were childhood sweethearts. She says they knew that they would get married from the time they were six. "All I do now is cry," she sobs.

Raed's mother can barely form a coherent sentence. Her voice shakes with every word, uncontrollable tears pour down her face. Her hands tremble holding Raed's worn-out photograph. From time to time she caresses the image, the face that she will never touch again.

"I don't sleep." She stutters. "I take pills ... I live on pills."

"Nights aren't nights anymore, days aren't days. They cut his hands off, they cut his head off."

As the last words leave her mouth she can no longer speak, only cry.

The militia behind the kidnapping was the self proclaimed Mehdi Army, a Shia militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And the militiamen were once friends and neighbors.

For years my colleagues and I have reported on the atrocities committed by Shia militias, Sunni insurgents, and al Qaeda gunmen.

We recited the daily tally of unidentified, mutilated bodies found in the streets of Baghdad. We spoke of beheadings, kidnappings and torture. But little did we really know about any of it.

Now that there is a semblance of so-called stability, we can start to put a face and name to the victims and begin to try and understand and impart the horrors of what millions of Iraqis lived through and tens of thousands died from. It is only now that we can begin to comprehend the magnitude of what Iraqis went through.

Raed's body was found in the courtyard of a mosque not far from his home. Abu Wissam says that the militia accused Raed of being a spy for the Americans. They demanded $10,000 for Raed's corpse. Abu Wissam paid. The killers did not hand it over.

Nearly a year later, once the militia was forced underground by the "Sons of Iraq" -- a rival U.S. backed militia -- he found Raed's body. Twenty-seven other bodies were also dug up, including that of a teenage girl. We're told that the militiamen shaved her head before they slaughtered her. Her family is too petrified to speak to us.

Others clamor around our camera crew. Clutching photographs of their loved ones still missing. Desperate to grasp on to any thread that might lead them to those who vanished. They tell us about how they used to hear the victims' screams, how that sound still haunts them.

They tell us the killers are still out there.

The pain is palpable. So much sorrow and anguish, choking emotions, sheer helplessness, in just one location, one mosque in Baghdad with dried blood still streaking the walls.

How does a society just rip apart like that? How do families that have grown up together for generations suddenly turn on one another?

There are plenty of experts and analysts offering their opinions.

As for Abu Wissam, he doesn't know why the people he cheerily said good morning to for decades all of a sudden slaughtered his boy.

"They were our neighbors, they lived in the homes around us," Abu Wissam says.

He tells us how on hot summer days when ice was in short supply and power cuts were rampant, he would take a cold pitcher of water over to their house. He tells us these were the people who sold vegetables at the market.

Now murderers.

Can a father ever forgive his son's killers? Stop seeking justice?

The families of the victims often gather at Abu Wissam's house. They don't talk of reconciliation or forgiveness. They talk of wanting justice -- and that means the killers' detention and execution.

"The government has done nothing for us," one of the mothers gathered there says, her voice filled with anger and frustration.

"We will take our own revenge. I say that as a woman, I don't have a man who can stand up for me, I will take revenge with my own hands. I will booby-trap myself and head towards them, towards their families."

"I could hurt their families. But I am not like them, I am not like the Mehdi militia," Abu Wissam says. "They killed my son. I am looking for rule of law."

He has worked with the Iraqi security forces identifying the members of the militia, operating with them on raids. And he has come face to face with some of his son's killers. And he asked them why.

"They said, 'We had orders to kill. For each person we killed they gave us $10,000,' " Abu Wissam says. "Their families are still defending them, saying our sons didn't do anything."

The killers are now cab drivers, college students, entrepreneurs. They've melted back into society.

How can they live with themselves and the cold-blooded reality of what they have done? How can a society that has been so violently ripped apart come back together?


The political and military leadership speak in positive overtones. We're watching U.S. troops fulfill a timeline to "end the war," so desperate is America for some sort of ending.

But it is not over. For Iraqis it's far from over. In many ways it is just beginning.

Winning over one of the "madridistas"

By Eduardo Alvarez

I was born into a family of Real Madrid supporters. My mother's father, Joaquín, was a sociofor as long as I can remember. My father's father, Eduardo, not only rooted for Real Madrid but also detested Catalans. In my early years, the vast majority of my closest friends were also Real Madrid fans, with very few exceptions.

Guardiola was part of the Dream Team.

With such a background of family and friends, the thought of supporting any other team never crossed my mind. In 1982 I watched my first football match live at the Santiago Bernabéu (where else?), as Real Madrid played Ujpest Dosza in a Cup Winners' Cup tie. On a cold October night, Real Madrid prevailed, and would eventually go on to lose the tournament's final against an Aberdeen side coached by one Alex Ferguson.

In my adolescent years I often attended matches at the Bernabéu. As soon as I could afford it I became a socio and bought season tickets. This nurturing of the Real Madrid creed and its liturgy almost inevitably led to the hatred of all things Barcelona. The most exciting matches at the stadium were the "derbis" (never called "clásicos" back then) against the Catalans, a mixture of sporting rivalry and political competition that created an unparalleled atmosphere in the stadium.

Once Barcelona appeared on the pitch, we loved to hate them, and chose our targets carefully: at the Bernabéu, Julio Salinas was never allowed to forget his glaring miss vs. Italy in the 1994 World Cup; Hristo Stoitchkov was booed beyond belief; Luis Enrique, theblaugrana phase of Luis Figo's career, and Andoni Zubizarreta were also among our favourite villains to scream at. However, Josep Guardiola always commanded a great deal of respect among us madridistas.

Leaving aside his exceptional elegance on the pitch, Pep made his first impact on my short-sighted football beliefs after one of the best matches I can remember. In September 1993, Atlético de Madrid played Barcelona at the Nou Camp. The match had just started and Romário de Souza scored an amazing goal. Before I knew it I was hooked by the fantastic dynamism of that Barcelona side.

Guardiola was interviewed after that match. When asked whether Barcelona's offensive approach was too reckless, he answered: "We play to win, so we take risks. And I just can't imagine Real Madrid playing this way". Barca's attitude on the pitch was something premeditated and non-negotiable, and Pep was their foremost representative.

In fact, that Barcelona team changed the way I watched football. I started to enjoy the game played well, although that didn't alter my allegiances: I still wanted our dull Benito Floro side to beat the so-called 'Dream Team', no matter how. In the following years my admiration for Guardiola kept growing despite the bitter end of his career as a player and Pep's public appearances in the media were inspirational and entertaining whenever he spoke about football.

His appointment as Barça's gaffer last May was as suggestive as it was risky. Guardiola had no real coaching experience, but possessed a deep knowledge of the club and the right vision to leverage a handful of fantastic players. During the season I watched in painful delight each football lecture Barcelona gave on the pitch. Then we got to the point where the Catalans had pocketed both domestic titles and were going to play for the treble against Manchester United.

If I had grown fonder of Barça's brand of football over the years, that was not the case among my Real Madrid friends. Their opinion was unanimous: they wanted Barcelona to suffer an ignominious defeat. The best place to watch that happen would be at an English bar, so that they could root for "oonuit" (the Spanish media way of pronouncing United) in a friendly atmosphere. We chose a well-known pub that was already packed with English expats when we arrived, much to my friends' joy.

The opening ceremony, apparently taken out of "Asterix and the laurel wreath", was finishing. The teams were introduced and we got our first surprise of the evening: the pub cheered Barcelona's entrance. Most patrons were Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea fans who were following my friends' rational and wanted their arch rivals to lose. In the group next to us only Barry, a Gunner from Islington, was rooting for United: "You should support your countrymen, mate," was his reasoning.

At this point I had not yet decided who I would root for: the attacking flair of my domestic adversaries, or their conspicuously dressed-in-white opposition. A foul on Carlos Puyol in the third minute cleared all my doubts. Barry stood up and screamed: "(expletive) off, you Spanish fairy!" If it came down to it, I would have to support my countrymen indeed.

The match started with United looking the hungrier side, until Samuel Eto'o ended his barren spell in the tenth minute. He had been looking like a poor man's Andy Cole for a solid month, but took advantage of his first one-on-one chance and scored with ease. I celebrated discretely and got a few stares from my friends.

The next 15 minutes were balanced, with no clear chances. Then the real Barcelona started to play: they got hold of the ball and put together a marvellous string of almost 50 passes that finished with a free kick taken by Xavi Hernández. The Englishmen supporting Barça were brimming with excitement, in anticipation of an easy win.

Messi celebrates with his manager.

From that point until half-time, United barely saw the ball. Guardiola had positioned Lionel Messi in one of those "hole" roles instead of his usual right flank spot, similarly to the Madrid match. The Argentine, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta kept possession easily and controlled the midfield, although they were strangely soft in the final third.

Just when we expected United to come out strong after the break, Barcelona overwhelmed them with three glorious opportunities in just five minutes. "Good omen, they're wasting chances!" said the optimistic Barry. Then Xavi hit the post. "Great omen!" screamed Barry. But he was wrong. United were still chasing shadows, and a few minutes later Barcelona scored their second, after Xavi's umpteenth pinpoint pass this season was met by Messi (the shortest player on the pitch, no less) with an emphatic header. "This is awful, they're just too good", said Barry. "They are the best team and you know it", I told my friends. No response from a depressed bunch of vikingos.

The match finished and we decided to dash. Barcelona had just won the first Spanish treble in grand style, so there was definitely no reason for a few madridistas to stick around celebrating. We left as a few dozen Englishmen applauded Puyol holding the Cup, a surreal sight indeed.

"Now Florentino has to do something really big", uttered one of my mates. He will, but the impact is unclear. Guardiola is now reaping the rewards of an approach that started 20 years ago and today permeates all of Barcelona's youth teams.

It will be hard for Real Madrid to replicate that with a bunch of marquee signings. With the right motivation, the Catalans have everything to keep winning for a long time. I am just glad to be able to enjoy their brand of football and celebrate with them, even if it's only their international victories. Thanks, Pep.. and Barry.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

One Title closer to the Treble


By Eduardo Alvarez

It's is hard to imagine a better representation of the heterogeneous mixture of economic interests, political views and cultural identities that Spain has become than Wednesday's Copa del Rey final.

Seydou Keita (L) celebrates with Gerard Pique after winning the Copa del Rey

Well before kickoff it was evident that this year's deciding match would be unquestionably a great football encounter: the team with the most titles (Barcelona with 24) faced the second best (Athletic de Bilbao with 23, although they claim one more title won by their predecessor Club Vizcaya in 1902).

For Barcelona, this was the first match in a fortnight which could see them win a historical treble (Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles). For Athletic, it was their first chance to conquer silverware in 25 years, and judging by the difficulties of the team to recruit young talent, could be their last for several years to come.

While Barcelona were still busy trying (and failing) to win the Liga title last weekend, Athletic had been preparing methodically for this final. Although their team was the clear underdog, older Basque supporters vividly remembered a few Cup Finals of yore in which Athletic managed to upset big time favourites, such as Di Stéfano's Real Madrid or Maradona's Barcelona. The Catalans had already shown some tiredness in their draw against Villarreal last Sunday, and the absences of Thierry Henry and Abidal, among others, could have given Athletic a chance to surprise Guardiola's side.

The importance of the match went beyond its pure footballing aspects. Even though the State of the Nation debate was taking place at the Congress on Wednesday, most politicians got more airtime in the media to discuss the potential outcome of the match than to share their point of view about the endless quarrels between government and opposition. Journalists usually specialising in political matters thought the match was a nicer topic than the somewhat depressing state of the country, and understandably so.

Belonging to this last category, Patxo Unzueta, one of the most insightful observers of political matters in the Basque Country, wrote a delightful article in "El País" explaining the insurmountable challenge Athletic faces to maintain a Basque-only policy, in a time when the birth-rate in the region is one of the lowest in Europe. There's simply no Basque kids to keep the flame alive.

But the core theme of his piece was the fact that in these times of strong political controversy and economic crisis in the Basque Country, the people need something to bring them together, as the socialist Patxi López had stated back in March, and the Vizcaino Athletic could do that for them, even if it was only for the night of the Cup final.

It seemed to be the case on Wednesday in Valencia. The city appeared to be taken over by men and women in red and white shirts, despite the fact that most of them did not have a ticket to watch the match. The stadium looked as good as any Copa del Rey final I have seen, a beautiful feast of colour and chants hours before the match started. Barcelona fans also showed up, hoping to witness the first title of their team this season.

One subject had been conspicuously ignored in most pre-match analyses: Basques and Catalans would be playing for the Copa del Rey trophy in front of the king himself. Not precisely the ideal scenario for a quiet development of the usual Cup final proceedings... when the national anthem began to sound, a sizeable amount of both fan bases began to boo both the king and the anthem, an unjustifiable lack of respect and manners after more than 35 years of democracy. The Spanish TV muted the sound and pretended that nothing was happening, which is also hard to explain after those same 35 years of democracy...

But let's talk about football. Athletic started the match true to their promise: high tempo, direct football, no concessions. After a couple of good chances, the hard-working Toquero scored in the ninth minute, giving Athletic a deserved lead. Barcelona looked shocked for a few minutes, Athletic began to concede some space and then Xavi Hernández took over.

When this influential midfielder started playing for Barcelona's first team in 1998, Louis Van Gaal, at that time the team's gaffer, famously said that "Xavi is better than De la Peña". The Spanish media spent months mocking poor Louis (and his hilarious accent in Spanish), as it sounded like another attempt of Mr Van Gaal to appear smarter than anyone by comparing an unassuming, quiet youngster with the biggest midfield talent Spain had seen in a while.

Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is lifted by his players after the Copa del Rey victory.

Eleven years later, looking back at both players' careers, justice has to be made: the Dutchman was spot on. On Wednesday Xavi vindicated him even more with another spectacular performance. His passing accuracy and rhythm progressively got his team-mates involved, especially Daniel Alves and Lionel Messi, causing Athletic to feel the pain of running after the ball without getting much of it. Barcelona increased their pressure until Touré Yaya broke the deadlock with a beautiful solo effort. His ugly gesture towards the Basque supporters once he scored was unexplainable and will surely not go unpunished.

Barcelona kept control of the ball and missed a few chances (Eto'o will not be satisfied with his performance) until a terrific nine minute spell at the beginning of the second half. They scored three beauties almost effortlessly and made sure the title was in the bag. Barcelona's last goal was a fantastic free kick by Xavi that put a classy ending to the competitive part of the match.

The remaining twenty minutes were an extraordinary celebration of both teams on and off the pitch, with every single supporter chanting and enjoying a memorable evening. It truly seemed that both teams had won, if you were to judge by the behaviour of their fans. At the end of the match you could see the determination in the faces of the Barcelona players, as though this was just the beginning for them, while most of the Athletic players were in tears knowing that there won't be many more Copa del Rey finals awaiting for them in the future. The king delivered the trophy (no boos this time) putting an end to a great cup final full of contrasts.

Barcelona retained their unofficial Spanish "Rey de Copas" title and took their first step towards the treble. The Liga trophy should be in their hands this coming weekend, so actually there is only one more to go. Guardiola can now devote the next two Liga matches to decide the best way to cover for all the injuries and suspensions on the 27th of May. The role of their bench will be instrumental if they want to beat Manchester United in Rome.

It was an unforgettable football night in Valencia. The pitch was perfect, the atmosphere was top class and the teams gave everything they had to win the match. The whole country took sides and followed the contest with passion. Unzueta's recommendation for the Basque Country is actually the best possible medicine for the Spanish nation as a whole: we need more events like this Copa del Rey final, even if it is just to boo, suffer, argue and celebrate, as long as we do it together.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Fondness for Killing!!!

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday expressed deep regret for the deaths of civilians in U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan this week and promised to try to avoid these in future.

"We deeply, deeply regret that loss," Clinton said as she opened three-way talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Is that it? Is that what all those lives lost in the great Afghan land deserve. I agree it’s a war zone, but killing hundreds of civilians does not in any way justify US’s war on terror. OK, my post today is not to rant about USA or Terrorism, but to deeply understand the affinity that we Humans have for killing. Let me start off by drawing some parallels between civilian behavior in my home land, India.

India is a land of paradoxes. Sure we are peace loving civilized people, but on the other hand we had a mass of people branded Chaandaals. Even in modern times we hear about Narabali (human sacrifice). This is not sacrifice. People kill some body's child in the hope of getting something for themselves. Most barbaric and selfish. This happens only in India. We have traditions of learning, selflessness and general well being. We need to inculcate it. It is delusion to think that we are great. The concept of humanism can be found among us, but it is not essentially ours. We can burn or bury our daughters. We are brutal more than many societies.

Last week in Madhya Pradesh dacoits burnt a dozen villagers to death, because they suspected them of being police informers. In another incident in Jharkhand, villagers lynched four suspects to death and burnt another eight alive. They suspected them to be part of a gang of dacoits come to loot them. In Meerut, citizens in one poor locality brutally killed over a dozen stray dogs, because they had been attacking the local children. In Assam an MLA poaching in Kaziranga national sanctuary told the guards that an MLA is a king and needs nobody's permission to hunt, or words to that effect.

All these incidents force you to accept the shocking fact that we are actually a fairly violent species, notwithstanding all our boasts about being the world's most tolerant Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam ( the world is my family ) rationalists with a golden heart . Our assumption has simply been that we, the Indian people are basically live and let live types because we had figured out, ages ago that violence doesn't pay and that love conquers all . But are the above incidents a proof of rational behavior? What if, despite our claims to rationality, when push comes to shove, we are not all that reluctant to abandon rules, side step the law, and begin playing revenge games? We do it either verbally (like Varun Gandhi or Muthalik or Thakre) or physically, like the men in Chambal who had, a few decades ago, blinded a group of thieves by pouring acid in their eyes.

It would be too deterministic to say that we are wired for violence genetically. But both archaeological evidence and common myths show that both men and women , ever since they turned from prey to predators, have largely preferred fighting wars and attacking each other for acquiring power ; instead of sitting down and discussing things out rationally and amicably .

Question arises , if state sponsored violence in India is put on hold for reasons ranging from political to ideological , will individual and culture specific violence begin to replace it ? As states that cushioned capitalism's excesses for some two centuries collapse, democracy that dominates our era is beginning to fray too. In the age of diminishing resources and shrinking families will democratic states begin to be replaced with old empires repackaged, with politically correct labels of course .

The more I read of violence in India the more I believe it is only about survival and power. Both issues are two sides of the same coin which are intensified on a daily basis due to over population leading to more and more lack of space or opportunities or both. Two dogs are loving and loyal along with being territorial - a whole pack will turn territorial in a desperate way if they feel their area is being encroached upon. They will attack and mob out of sheer fear of losing their territory. The less space people have to live the more they will compete. Where space is not the problem - opportunity is. Space to grow mentally and emotionally is as frustrating as lack of space to sleep and even think. I believe culture is a process. It defines and is formed from the mental, economical, psychological state of the society. I know many may differ that the definition of culture is not just 'studied behavior patterns' as is with animals. But I do believe that when humans by and large are oblivious to issues of over population, how are they any different from the two rats in a cage who finally multiply to two dozen in the same cage and due to lack of space show anti social behavior patterns.