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Tragedy, ferment and revival

It's that time of the year again ... . Looking back at 2002, which was dominated by cynical demagoguery and a manipulation of popular emotions, RANJIT HOSKOTE focuses on four piquant situations too small and of `yesterday' to hit the headlines ... in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia.

Suffocating restrictions... back to square one for Afghanistan's women

THE year 2002 will be remembered as the one of heightened threat perception, verging on security paranoia across the planet. It was the year in which the luckier among us only had our shoes inspected for hidden weapons at airports; the less fortunate were bombarded from the air on suspicion of conspiracy. The world entered 2002 in a state of shock induced by the attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center last September, but the unending weeks of elegy for the victims of 9/11, the apocalyptic pursuit of the perpetrators, and the hate wave against Arabs and South Asians had the effect of provoking a new awareness in the embattled West. Asking themselves what had provoked such violence, many Westerners became conscious, for the first time on such a large scale, of the nameless and unsung victims of Western neo-imperialism in the rest of the world, especially in the House of Islam.

September 11 became a pretext, however, for the U.S. establishment to reinforce its global dominion: over 2002, its `war against terror' has become a game of shadows and proxies. In a sighting spree reminiscent of the UFO craze of the 1950s and 1960s, al-Qaeda operatives are now reported from every corner of the globe; their supposed manifestation provides local elites the opportunity to crack down on local resistance in the name of assisting the righteous war of Bush the Younger. With China and Russia coping with internal crises of social transformation, the world today is dominated by the U.S. cosmology: the primacy of Bush's decree over Annan's authorisation has been codified, as has the seigneurial right of powerful states to use force at a distance, overriding the sovereignty of weaker states.

The global mass media have played a significant role in promoting this cosmology, by reiterating, without much interrogation, the pronouncements of West-approved politicians, diplomats and demagogues. The newspapers and TV channels claim to render reality visible, but in fact, they diffuse a version of reality in which some events and trends are projected, while others are programmatically edited away. The more they cover, the more they cover up; the most powerful effect of today's tidal news coverage is amnesia. While news of Jihad, Conspiracy and Invasion has washed over us, we have forgotten the larger mosaic formed by the lives of people who are too small or too `yesterday' to be noticed at headline level or to merit telecast. We will touch only on four such piquant situations here: the tragedy of Afghanistan's women and Iraq's children, the ferment among Iran's youth, and the revival of Somalia by entrepreneurs working in an anarchic environment. These situations remind us that people do not vanish because their stories are no longer newsworthy: they continue to suffer, or to find means of survival, even in the harshest circumstances.

Afghanistan's Women: A Tale of Betrayal

AFGHAN women disappeared from the global agenda during the Loya Jirga, the grand council held this June to constitute an Afghan national government. Their predicament had briefly interested the mass media in early 2002, but Western commentators assumed that the fall of the Taliban had automatically liberated them from patriarchalism, and that they would assert themselves in the new polity. Knowing their society better, activists of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who had worked at great personal risk during the Taliban period to alleviate the suffering of Afghan women, had pinned their hopes on an outside intervention. That trust was betrayed.

America's 'war against terror'... its keywords are Jihad, conspiracy and invasion.

Heralded as a forum where progressive forces would be heard, the Loya Jirga was stage-managed by the U.S. to put Hamid Karzai in charge, and reward the warlords who had helped unseat the previous regime. The women delegates were the first to snap out of the euphoria, when they realised their fate would depend on the whims of the same corrupt and brutal satraps they had long resisted. Symptomatically, the former minister for women's affairs, Sima Samar, was charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death, in June. Vilified as an "Afghan Salman Rushdie", she was publicly threatened by speakers at the Loya Jirga; they also threatened Masooda Jalal, the woman who challenged Hamid Karzai for the presidency.

A recent Human Rights Watch report, "We Want to Live As Humans: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan", details the mounting harassment that Afghan women have suffered during 2002, focusing on the harsh restrictions imposed by Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat, a beneficiary of U.S. military and financial aid. While allowing many women and girls to return to school, university and work, the governor has "censored women's groups, intimidated outspoken women leaders, and sidelined women from his administration ... Restrictions on the right to work mean that many women will never be able to use their education." As the year draws to a close, it has become amply clear that Afghanistan's women are back to square one.

Iraq's Children: The Massacre of the Innocents

WHILE the mainstream media concentrates on troop movements in the Gulf, and the rhetorical passages between the U.S. and Iraqi leadership over weapons inspection, Iraq's humanitarian crisis has been pushed into the background. Iraq's once-flourishing public health system has been broken by the most stringent sanctions ever imposed on any country in modern history. Medicines and life-saving supplies scheduled for import under the U.N. `oil-for-food' deal barely trickle in, and the Government's drug stocks run low. By mid-1997, the blockade had killed more than 1.2 million Iraqis, including 750,000 children below the age of five.

Much mainstream Western reportage treats this tragedy as a piece of Saddamite propaganda. Time magazine, for instance, writes that many in Iraq "are bitter over the 12-year-long U.S.-supported embargo, which Baghdad claims has led to thousands of infants and elderly people dying from preventable diseases." (November 25, 2002). Is Time, perhaps, under the delusion that international organisations such as UNICEF and WHO are departments of the Iraqi Government? An August 1999 UNICEF report notes that one in 10 Iraqi children do not survive beyond their first birthday, a dramatic reversal of the decline in infant mortality achieved by the Iraqi public health system over the 1970s and 1980s. Those who survive their first year risk being permanently impaired by chronic malnutrition. And while education has been compulsory and free under the Ba'ath government, attendance has declined. Worse, during the 1990s, there has been a 125 per cent rise in the number of children between nine and 15 who require treatment for depression, anxiety or behavioural disorders.

Iraq... a humanitarian crisis no one talks about.

The blockade against Iraq is an epic-scale human rights violation, a legislated genocide. The starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited by international law; commentators point out that, even according to the U.S. legal code Title 18 2331, this constitutes an act of international terrorism. Who, then, is really a rogue state?

Iran's Youth: Revolution within the Revolution

WITH an entire generation of young men wiped out during Iran's disastrous war with Iraq during the 1980s, the country has a vast green population: two-thirds of all Iranians are under 30, and they are uncomfortable under the socially and politically restrictive system of governance promulgated by the Islamic Revolution. The possibility of a revolution taking place within the revolution during the next few years is now strong. Commentators judge the growing openness of Iranian society by the indices of its youth subculture: the rise in young women's hemlines, the mushrooming of satellite TV dishes, and the emergence of underground rock bands. The population of Internet users is growing, and newspapers that have been officially banned have gone online.

More pertinently, the 69-per cent majority that elected Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in May 1997 vocally expects him to deliver on his promise of reform. Over 2002, the reform process has been stalled by influential conservatives, and Khatami is engaged in an intricate balancing act between the opposed parties. Last month, the simmering confrontation between reformists and conservatives exploded again, over the sentence of execution passed against the dissident academic Hashem Aghajari, accused of apostasy for questioning the dominance of the ecclesiarchy in public life. Iran has not witnessed public protests on such a scale since the beginning of the Revolution.

Iran is poised at a threshold moment, with progressive student leaders refusing to be placated by President Khatami's argument for reform within a `religious democracy'. The influential Teheran merchants, who supported the 1978-1979 Revolution, are also dissatisfied with the slow pace of economic progress in Iran, and blame this on the government's reluctance to engage with swift-changing global realities. Should these currents of discontent find expression in a threatened movement of civil disobedience, the guardians of the Revolution may well be forced to re-consider their position. The alternative is a post-Revolutionary Iran, whose contours can scarcely be imagined at this time, although several cartographers have offered their services, improbably including the U.S.-based heir to the erstwhile Pahlavi throne.

Somali Entrepreneurs: A Phoenix Economy

Hope in Somalia... revived by its people.

THE region that used to be Somalia slipped off the mainstream media map after October 3, 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers and more than a thousand Somalis died in a battle in Mogadishu, after the Habr Gedir clan repelled a U.S. attempt to seize or assassinate their leader, the diplomat and soldier Mohammed Farah Aidid. The forgotten country came briefly back into public memory with the release, earlier this year, of Black Hawk Down, a puerile cinematic hymn to the U.S. troops involved in this sordid episode. Fragmented into rival territories and with no functional central state, this posthumous nation should have been a breeding ground for crime and terror.

But, in fact, it has risen phoenix-like from the shambles left behind by the dictatorship of Siad Barre (1970-1991) and the factional warfare that followed his exit. This miraculous revival has been achieved by a network of entrepreneurs and expatriates, who run a vibrant informal economy on the Horn of Africa.

Unfettered by a formal polity, these players regulate their own dealings in a manner that suggests the millennial trade linkages that bound North Africa to the Indian Ocean. An informal banking system enables financial transactions from almost anywhere in the world, allowing the global Somali diaspora, dispersed as far west as Minnesota, to channel between $200 million and $500 million home annually. The competition among private telephone companies has given the former Somalia one of the world's cheapest telecommunication systems. While Barre had controlled the Somali clans through a system of uneven preferences, generating resentment and provoking the belligerence that erupted in civil war, the new entrepreneurs have learned better. The fragile successor states in Somalia have crystallised around trade rather than policy; and while the agrarian and pastoral sectors are still male-dominated, thousands of small-scale enterprises in the informal sector are run by women whose men perished in the civil war.

Looking back at the year that is slipping away, a decade from now, we may well remember it for these courageous people at the margins, who wrestle creatively with the problems of a locality permanently marked by the spectre of the global, rather than for the cynical demagoguery and brutal manipulation of popular emotions that have occupied centre-stage during this cataclysmic year.

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