Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What we carry

---------Please note that this blog discusses graphic violence, and may be disturbing----------

I met a man last week who lost his mother, his two young brothers, his two-year old sister, his aunts, his grandmother, and the rest of his family in the 1974 war in Cyprus. To say 'lost', actually, is a polite euphemism. More than thirty members of his family were murdered by extremists. Some were shot – executed. His two brothers were decapitated. They were just young boys, still children.

During the July1974 Greek military coup in Cyprus, this man's village was rounded up by Greek Cypriot soldiers and herded into makeshift prisons. The men of the village asked that the women, children, and elderly be released and allowed to return to their villages. The people holding them consented, and the groups were separated. He and his father, along with other men from his village in Cyprus, were moved to a prisoner camp in Lemesos, in Cyprus' south, where they were held for a little over two months. In the prison camp, he began hearing stories that something terrible had taken place in one of the Turkish Cypriot villages near his home, where an entire village of women, children, and elderly were murdered and buried in pits. When he asked for details, his fellow-prisoners would fall silent.

Not having heard anything from his family for the entire period of his detention, this man – then a boy of sixteen – returned home to find his village empty. 'Only the dogs were left in the village', he said. The village the men in the prison camp had spoken of was his. The entire village was rounded up and murdered. Many women and young girls were first raped. He does not know if his brothers had their heads cut off before or after they were killed. 'To know this is important', he says. I understand why. I have two brothers, and I cannot banish my horror.

Thirty five years later, the man is sitting next to a much younger Greek Cypriot man whose father was abducted by Turkish Cypriots, and along with six other men, brutally murdered and their bodies thrown into a well. On the other side of them sits an even younger Greek Cypriot woman whose uncle, an eighteen year old conscript due to finish his military service the day the war began in 1974, was also killed and his body 'disappeared'. Next to her is a Turkish Cypriot man whose father, a bank manager, was taken from his workplace, killed, and his body hurriedly buried. Beside them is a Greece Cypriot man who lost eighteen members of his family, killed by Turkish Cypriot paramilitaries. Between them, these five people carry more pain than is conceivable.

They have formed an organisation called the 'Bicommunal Initiative of Relatives of Missing and Tortured People and Victims of Massacres'. In very stark contrast to a great deal of Cypriot society on both sides of the political divide, they are asking to uncover the details of atrocities committed in Cyprus between the decade of 1963-1974. Thanks to the resumption of work of a long-stalemated UN-led committee mandated to find the remains of the some 2, 000 people killed during that period, some of the relatives of these victims have recently had the remains of their loved ones returned to them. The UN committee's mandate, however, is very narrow: find the bodies, establish their identity, return the remains. There is no answer for what happened to these people, or why.

Many people in Cyprus know that in the war both side committed atrocities both against the other community but also within their own community. A prominent Greek Cypriot politician, for example, was publicly accused recently of being a torturer for an extreme right-wing organisation called EOKA-B by one of his (Greek Cypriot) victims. The claim was documented and published by a Greek Cypriot journalist. The politician took the journalist to court for libel. The politician lost the case; the court found that the journalist had sufficient evidence for his claim – in other words, the court found sufficient evidence to support the claim that the politician had been engaged in torturing people in the early 1970s. Despite the first public finding (albeit accidentally) of a criminal case from 1974, no criminal prosecution was forthcoming, despite the fact that it is required by Republic of Cyprus law. The man remains in politics.

Very few people in this country are willing to talk openly about the past. No one, except for this victims' group and a small collection of other people, is interested in a systematic public examination and accounting of what has happened to us in the past. At the same time, Cyprus remains an unresolved conflict. Forty years of negotiations have failed to find a resolution to the political dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and the continued Turkish military presence (numbering some thirty-odd thousand soldiers) on the island. In 2004, a complete reunification package, negotiated behind closed doors, was rejected by the Greek Cypriot community, which felt that the proposed solution was not an adequate remedy to the consequences of the 1974 war. In honesty, I think neither community feels safe with the other.

The primary reason the families of these murdered people are asking a public examining of the past is not only because they seek to uncover the stories that have remained hidden in society for so long, and for the exposure of those people who murdered their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, parents, and friends, but so that, in publicly uncovering those stories and those people, society can never say 'we didn't know' or 'it didn't happen'. Their hope is that in entering these terrible experiences into the public truth, society can guard against it ever happening again.

Today I am in Beirut, and again I am listening to people talk about the forced disappearance of people they love. Before me sits a Lebanese man who in 1987 was given over to the Syrian army and taken across the Lebanese border into Syria, where he simply 'disappeared' for thirteen years. The man next to him was disappeared in a similar way for twelve years. For the first six years, his family had no idea of his whereabouts. In his seventh and eighth years, his family found him. They were allowed to visit him once a year, for those two years. They were not sure, when they went to see him, whether they would be turned away at the gate, whether he had been moved, or whether he was still alive. The situation improved over the next four years to the point where in the last year of his captivity they could visit him four times. The Lebanese government, in so far as one existed, insisted for many years that there were no Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails in either Syria or Lebanon. The Syrian government simply refused to reply when confronted with the question. So it was quite a mysterious thing when he, and the other men who shared his prison, were released unexpectedly one day some six years ago and simply re-appeared at the Lebanese border. Those men left behind compatriots who, if they have not since been killed, will have remained in Syrian prisons for more than twenty years. A president closed his eyes and pointed to a number from a list of prisons laid before him, and so these men were freed.

There are between 2000 and 17000 people in Lebanon who are the immediate victims of enforced disappearance. I mean to say that this number of people were actually disappeared. The number is so broad because no-one has conducted a proper, thorough and comprehensive study into the numbers of people missing; it does not seem to be in many people's interest here in Beirut, because, like in Cyprus and in many other places, yesterday's perpetrators are today's politicians and power-elite. Unlike in Cyprus, in this country no-one has even bothered to systematically excavate or protect suspected mass burial sites. Those sites which are dug up are bulldozed, and the bones which are by some miracle removed, have not yet made it back to a single family. In Beirut, you can walk over mass graves and you wouldn't even know.

Some years ago a law was passed in Lebanon which would allow the families of disappeared people to declare their loved ones dead so that they could clear up issues of inheritance and etcetera. The families to whom this law would apply reacted with outrage and deep hurt. 'In other countries, people are presumed alive until proven dead', said a man whose son and brother were both taken, on separate occasions. 'In this country, we declare them dead without even knowing where they went'. Another woman, whose teenage son was taken when he went out to buy bread, repeats over and over again how her son, missing now for fifteen years, will come home alive. 'He is handsome', she says, 'my boy is so handsome, you will see how he has grown into a beautiful man'. Another woman lost her three teenage children – sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, all at once. They too, were taken randomly during the Lebanese civil war. In this country you trip over stories that are individually unbearable. A woman talks of her father, a professor, who was disappeared when she was eleven years old. 'I did not even get to share my adolescence with him'. She learned him, she said, through the eyes of his friends and his students, people who loved him. She has heard stories, rumours about the terrible things that might have befallen him, but she does not know for sure.

I watched a video at an NGO here in Beirut tonight alongside some of the families of disappeared people, and next to one of the men who were detained in Syria. As a point of fact, we are sitting in Hezbollah territory and the buildings around me are bullet-riddled and scarred by Israeli fire from 2006. The film was a documentary which followed the story of a man in Morocco, whose father was also disappeared. When his father was disappeared, the man in the documentary was eleven days old. Eventually the mass grave where his father was buried was uncovered, and the Moroccan authorities re-buried his father's bones, near the prison where he died. They tell this to the man, who quietly, with deep deep pain replies 'it's just that I would have liked to have been there for his burial. I have never seen my father, you see. It was important to me.' Two government men, presumably, look at him blankly from across the table.

At this point I can't bear to hear any more because I am thinking of my own father. I am almost thirty, and I have been blessed to have been brought up by two loving parents who are still young and vibrant people. I have so many memories with my family; trivial, important, sad, ridiculous, every-day beautiful moments that have stretched over twenty nine years that, for me, have been short. I couldn't collect them all together if I tried to. Just the thought of my father being tortured and killed, and thrown into a pit with thirty other men to rot under the sun because of his political affiliation, his ideological belief, his religion, or simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is overwhelming and I cannot endure the imagining with any kind of calm. I cannot begin to imagine how this man feels who lost his father before he even knew him, who wanted only to be present at his father's burial.

I say all of this because Kate’s blog, below, prompted me to think about how peace is built. In societies with vastly different experiences and traumas, is there a single principle that can be drawn out?

In Australia, we live in an established and stable democracy at the national level. And yet, young people are asking how to build peace in their communities. And not long ago our then-prime minister John Howard ordered the Australian military into aboriginal communities because he, and his policy makers, believed that this was the best way to combat communal violence. Stability, peace, democracy, and safety is not something which all Australians enjoy. And before we distance ourselves too far from countries like Lebanon and Cyprus, whose stories are bloodied and violent, please remember that Australian Aboriginals in remote communities have life expectancies which are on par with the developed world.

And we have our own stories which are not told, our own truths which are silenced.

When my family first emigrated to Australia, it was to the Northern Territory that they went. My great-uncles moved to Darwin in the late 1940s. One of these uncles told a story to my father once that I now tell you. In those days, in the late forties and early fifties, my uncles were butchers. One day, I think it was a Sunday, they were working in the shop when someone they knew pulled up to the back door and invited my uncles to go hunting with them. My uncle asked what they were hunting. 'Boongs' was the answer. My uncle thought the man was joking. If this story is true, there were people who went hunting with the intention of shooting other people – Aboriginal people – as late as the 1950s. I have no way of verifying this story, it was a story told to my father many years ago, and if I asked my elderly uncle now, I don't know what he would say. I would be interested to know if anyone else has heard anything similar. If other people have heard similar stories, then why are we not talking about them? If I am alone, then I hope I will be forgiven. The obligation to tell this story was greater to me than the obligation not to.

I am thinking about the question Kate has tried to answer. I will add only two simple remarks. I think that empathy and a culture of debate and openness are key to building and sustaining peace in any society. Empathy because without being able to feel another person's pain, you can do terrible things, or accept the doing of terrible things to people. I live in a society where people do not relate to other people's suffering because their own traumas have not been addressed. You find in many post-war societies that have not confronted their past that people tend to be quite numb. When you are focused on your own victimhood, and your own wounds are festering, there is no space inside you to acknowledge another person, or community’s, pain. Abuse is easier to justify when you are angry, vengeful, or emotionally removed from another person's suffering. And a culture of debate and openness because without it, misunderstandings grow into prejudices, which have the potential to grow into racism, sexism, and bigotry, and to be manipulated by demagogues for their own gain. We need strong people in society who can think and question assumed truths and feel and grow. As for how to build this kind of culture in societies or communities which are deeply wounded, I have no answer.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ask Aunty Bluestocking - Creating Community Cohesion

At the recent Really, Really Free Market, my colleague Sky took questions from visitors who wanted advice on a range of issues - hence 'Ask Aunty Bluestocking.' The question I have taken came from some young Aboriginal people who wanted to know how to bring and build peace in their community. Sky asked that this be elaborated to include advice on how non-Aboriginal people could help Aboriginal people to do this. The views below are my own, and not necessarily those of my colleagues, and can apply to all communities.

A lot of academic and political research has been done on this topic in the UK, where the government has been keen to implement social cohesion strategies to tackle escalating inter-ethnic and inter-communal violence. Whether rightly or wrongly, for there is a great deal of criticism of the government's approach and the media's response to these issues, some areas of these initiatives have merit and could be transposed to any social context. At the heart of it is recognising that community dislocation is rarely a function of race, religion or ethnicity, but of the meta-narratives of history, economics and politics; in short:power.

For the young people, and others, who want to bring peace to their communities, there are a number of steps to take and things to consider. First is to define key operational concepts.

1) Community: Which community is being referred to? The simple working concept/definition of community is a group unified by a common interest: people belong to multiple communities that might overlap or could be completely distinct. Determine which community you are thinking of because this will make it easier to strategise. One paper from the UK talks of the features and feelings of a community: there is a two way relationship between the individual and the community that looks something like the following:
  • Identity - community gives an individual a sense of belonging, and therefore identity and dignity, recognition and respect.
  • Responsibility - members of a community have a responsibility toward the wellbeing of other community members, and to the community itself.
  • Gratitude - This can be expressed in many ways and could include affection, love, sacrifice, positive criticism, and critical questioning.
  • Quarrels - Even in an harmonious community, differences of opinion occur: this in itself is not a problem, but the way in which a community responds to these quarrells is a sign of its health. A healthy commuinity will look for solutions through compromise and accommodation.
  • Symbols - symbols and ceremonies with shared, understood meaning.

2) Peace:

  • What is it about the community that is unpeaceful? Violence, disputes, disharmony, lack of respect for self and others, crime, unsettledness, differences of opinion?
  • What kind of peace are you trying to achieve? Remember that differences of opinion are healthy and learning to deal with them in a constructive manner are important to the growth of the community.
  • Who can help you bring peace? Is it something that can be done within the community or is a broader issue? i.e. is it a law and order issue that should involve mediators or the police.
  • Who is the conflict between? Is it between members of the community or between one community and another?

3) Peace building/conflict resolution: A three pronged approach were there is a circular relationship between all of the elements:

  • Actions to change attitudes and assumptions - recognising that conflict is often based on false attitudes and prejudices.
  • Action to reduce violence - remembering that this could be physical, verbal, mental and involve a range of actions including disrespect towards others and their property, criminal activities and actual physical harm.
  • Action to resolve or at least manage conflict.

The following are some strategies that I have come up with building upon the above;

  • Start by finding like minded people within your defined community. Talk to them and find out their concerns and come up with a positive plan for community cohesion.
  • Think about the types of action that you could use and whether you can acheive these independently - discussion groups, barbecues, festivals, letter writing, door knocks.
  • If you need help, start by identifying individuals and groups who could help you. It might be a person respected by the whole community, outside independent mediators, a government or non-government agency.
  • Develop networks of trust within and without the community? Who could you trust to help?
  • Devise a communication strategy to talk about these things within your community.
  • Do you know people in other communities who have been through this process? they could provide advice and guidance.

The second part of the question was on ways the non-Aboriginal community could help. My personal feeling is that the 'white' community in particular has approached this in both paternalistic and maternalistic ways, generally well meaning, but often coming off patronising: We need to break this mould. Our role should be to use our postion within the power structure to empower Aboriginal people to navigate these: think along the lines 'give a man a fish and he eats for a day; give him a fishing pole and he can eat for life.' My opinion is this:

  • We have to recognise and acknowledge the intelligence of Aboriginal people and share our knowledge and experiences with them.
  • Through this, we empower them to make their own decisions based on their own needs and experiences.
  • Accept that Aboriginal, and other disadvantged communities, face hurdles that are economic or power based - we should help them to overcome these not through handouts but by sharing resources and information: offer access to internet and other useful technologies, share research and other useful information, help establish contacts with useful people and groups.
  • Join them in fighting racism and prejudice; counter negative stereotypes and assumptions where and when you can.
  • Acknowledge our shared humanity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Peace and Activism

Some of you might be interested in a new training program on peace and activism. Read on...The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University will be teaching an exciting new training course in the theory and practice of peace activism this year. The course will be taught in May-June over five intensive sessions (Fridays 10am-5pm). It will also include a 6 day trip to Queensland in July to participate in the Peace Convergence at the time of the 2009 Talisman Sabre US-Australian war exercises. Registration fee including travel from Sydney to Queensland is $500. For enquiries and registration contact or (02)9351 7686.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Meltdown: How to save jobs and the environment

Lately, Bluestocking has been discussing projects that explore positive community responses to the economic crisis. Hopefully we'll have something in the works soon, but until then we're going to try to keep you abreast of other events and projects that explore the issue. Meltdown is a forum run by Perth's Socialist Alliance:

How to save jobs and the environment

The economic crisis sweeping the globe raises the spectre of mass unemployment on a scale we haven’t seen for a long time. Already people are losing their jobs in WA. At the same time we face an environmental emergency that demands urgent action.

This forum will discuss pro-worker and pro-environment solutions.

Sam Wainwright (Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle)
Adele Carles (Greens candidate for Fremantle)

6.30pm Wed April 22
Fremantle Education Centre
Cantonment St (next to Clancy's)
Entry by donation.
Ph 0412 751 508 or

Friday, April 3, 2009

Stampede in New York and across the globe

On a cold November morning in 2008, hundreds of shoppers crowded outside of a Wal-Mart store in Long Island, New York, anxious to get the best deals in the post-Thanksgiving sales. When the doors opened, the crowd surged ahead desperate for a bargain. In the chaos and confusion that ensued, Jdimytai Damour, a security guard was trampled to death.

While the rest of the global economy is crashing, the discount giant is doing just fine. In fact, Wal-Mart sales exceeded US $374 billion in 2008. This is more than the combined GDP of Portugal, Malaysia, Venezuela, Pakistan and Egypt. Perhaps it is stretching the analogy too far, but Wal-Mart's power in the global economy (even in times of economic crisis) looks like a global stampede to me.

The Wal-Mart website touts all it is doing to make goods more affordable for (American) families hurt by the economic crisis. The International Labor Rights Forum is organising a campaign focused on Wal-Mart with its 60,000 suppliers worldwide. It’s worth checking out. It seems to me that now more than ever it’s time to address the power of large multinational corporations like Wal-Mart to drive prices – and wages - down and the impact this has on workers worldwide.