Pressing on with Tragedy Tourism

If the loss of one life is a tragedy, then what are we to make of the deaths of thirty-three people, all in the prime of their lives or at the top of their fields? Lost is the wisdom of a Holocaust survivor, the potentially life changing breakthroughs of biomechanical researcher, and the thousands of accomplishments that would have had a far reaching impact, if only a couple of dozen college students were not at the wrong place at the wrong time.

In an era of 24 hour news channels, the media has a lot of time they need to fill. If they can find a way to say “Nappy headed hos” every ten minutes for a week, then they will inevitably find a way to discuss the shootings at Virginia Tech for much longer, and they should. The media has an obligation to inform the rest of us what is going on in the world. Like a good story teller, they should do this in an engaging way that provides us with the information we need to know what happened, or at the very least, enough pieces of information to explain what happened to ourselves.

The media also has an obligation to not be the story and instead to be a vehicle through which the story can be told. However, once Oprah arrives, this can no longer be the case. By now every television station in the country has arrived on the Virginia Tech campus, including stations that have difficulty covering local news in a respectable manner. Talking heads have taken it upon themselves to prove that hind sight is 20/20, while pseudo-anchors have taken it upon themselves to put words into the mouths of young people still trying to comprehend what will hopefully be the worst thing they every experience. Meanwhile Meredith Viara is doing all she can to turn herself into a victim, letting the world know just how difficult it is to be a journalist on the scene of a tragedy. While it may be difficult, it is certainly no more difficult than losing a friend or family member, your sense of well being, or what innocence you may have had left.

This is media frenzy is nothing new, and unfortunately is not going anywhere. The predictable patter of covering the story, trying to create more stories, and covering the media will play out again and again until something changes. As I said earlier, I have no problem with the media covering this story, but I do wonder where this media frenzy has been when it could have made a difference. The events at Virginia Tech are horrible, but they are over. Across the world thousands of people die every day of preventable diseases, a genocide rages half a world away, and in our own back yard people sleep under bridges because they have no where to go. Millions died in The Congo, and the media didn’t notice. Thousands are dieing in Darfur, but where are the reporters on the ground? Over 8,000 people died each day during the Rwandan genocide. Eight thousand people each day for more than three months. Where were the talking heads and Oprah and pseudoanchors then? Where are they now? The problem may not be the 24 hour new cycle; it may be what we consider news.

War in Sudan? Not Where the Oil Wealth Flows

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Oct. 20 — To understand Sudan’s defiance toward the world, especially the Western world, check out the Ozone Café.

Here young, rich Sudanese, wearing ripped jeans and fancy gym shoes, sit outside licking scoops of ice cream as an outdoor air-conditioning system sprays a cooling veil of mist. Around the corner is a new BMW dealership unloading $165,000 cars.

“I tell people you only live this life once,” said Nada Gerais, a saleswoman.

While one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises continues some 600 miles away in Darfur, across Khartoum bridges are being built, office towers are popping up, supermarkets are opening and flatbed trucks hauling plasma TV’s fight their way through thickening traffic.

Despite the image of Sudan as a land of cracked earth and starving people, the economy is booming, with little help from the West. Oil has turned it into one of the fastest growing economies in Africa — if not the world — emboldening the nation’s already belligerent government and giving it the wherewithal to resist Western demands to end the conflict in Darfur.

American sanctions have kept many companies from Europe and the United States out of Sudan, but firms from China, Malaysia, India, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are racing in. Direct foreign investment has shot up to $2.3 billion this year, from $128 million in 2000, all while the American government has tried to tighten the screws.

“Khartoum is hot — in all ways,” said Hashim Wahir, chairman of Petronas Sudan, a branch of the Malaysian national oil company.

It was 115 degrees outside, but Mr. Wahir was also talking about business.

As long as Asian countries are eager to trade with Sudan, despite its human rights record, the American embargo seems to have minimal effect. The country’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, keeps demonstrating his disdain for the West by refusing to allow United Nations peacekeepers into Darfur, despite continued bloodshed and pressure from the United States to let the peacekeepers in.

“The government knows it doesn’t need America,” said Abda Yahia el-Mahdi, a former finance minister, now in private consulting. “The only people who are being hurt by the sanctions are the Americans, who are missing out on this huge boom.”

The wealth is hardly evenly shared, and much of Sudan, like Darfur, remains desperately poor. Indeed, the nation’s per capita income was only $640 in 2005, at market exchange rates, according to the World Bank.

But the country’s G.D.P. grew 8 percent in 2005, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is predicted to increase by 12 percent this year. Cotton and other agricultural products have traditionally been the engines of the economy here, but the new growth comes largely because Sudan has substantially increased its crude oil production to 512,000 barrels a day — a drop compared with Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s, but enough to bring billions of dollars to a country that until recently was one of the poorest on earth.

“Oil and real estate investment, primarily in urban areas, is really what’s driving the economy,” said Michael Kevane, an associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The boom is also strengthening the government’s hand at home. Over the past few years, Mr. Bashir has been on an infrastructure binge, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into roads, bridges, power plants, hospitals and schools, projects that tend to boost any government’s popularity. Mr. Bashir seems to desperately need it, with many people across the country, not just in Darfur, openly rebelling against his rule.

Mr. Bashir, an army general, seized power in 1989 through a military coup, and among the biggest beneficiaries of these boom times have been his troops. Ms. Mahdi said more than 70 percent of the government’s share of oil profits is spent on defense. A government priority is to manufacture guns and ammunition domestically, in case external supplies are cut off.

Despite all the new materialism, Sudan still marches to a martial tune. Army officers enjoy special status, foreign visitors must register with the police and schoolchildren are required to wear camouflage uniforms to class. But the boom is changing much about society, from the careers people pursue, to the music they listen to, even what they eat.

The traditional meal of ful, a bean stew eaten for breakfast and lunch, is giving way to kebabs, yogurt, hamburgers and hot dogs.

“We even have Pringles,” said Mohammed Abdelwahab Salih, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who recently started a business in Khartoum designing Web sites.

Mr. Salih remembers the days, not so long ago, when he used to have to wait in line for hours for a single loaf of bread.

“And it wasn’t even good bread,” he said. “When we got home, we had to pick out the flies.”

For years, the Sudanese economy was a disaster, with triple-digit inflation, moribund industries and war. Ever since Sudan’s independence in 1956, Christian and animist tribes in the south have rebelled against Muslim rulers in the north.

Oil had been discovered here by Chevron in the 1970’s, but the oil fields straddled the north-south divide and were essentially unworkable while the fighting was going on.

The American government imposed a trade embargo in 1997, freezing Sudanese government assets in the United States and cutting off its exports to and imports from Sudan, with a few exceptions. The reason: human rights abuses connected to the north-south war and Sudan’s links to terrorists. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum in the 1990’s.

But by 1999, when the first trickle of oil began to flow out of Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, Sudan’s economy was turning around. A small cadre of Western-educated technocrats had followed the I.M.F.’s reform programs to the letter — cutting spending, privatizing state-owned businesses, lowering inflation and pushing infrastructure.

“It was classic, conservative economic policies,” said Safwat Fanous, chairman of the political science department at the University of Khartoum. “And it worked.”

Even World Bank economists have been impressed.

“These are very good people managing the economy and would rate among the best anywhere in Africa,” said Asif Faiz, country manager for the World Bank in Sudan.

But, he added, they need to do more to spread the wealth to rural areas and focus on the poor.

Sudanese living abroad began to drift back, drawn by new opportunities — and other realities.

“If you want to open a bank account in America these days, it’s not difficult, it’s impossible,” said Ahmed Amin Abdellatif, a 33-year-old Cambridge-educated businessman who drives a Porsche SUV through the dusty streets of Khartoum and runs an empire of electronics shops. He argued that antiterrorism laws in the West had made it very difficult for him as a Sudanese citizen to do business. “Why go through the headache?” he added. “Why not put your money somewhere where it’s welcome?”

In 2002, Sudanese investors opened a new Coca-Cola factory, with Coke syrup legally exported to Sudan under an exemption for food and medicine. The $140-million plant churns out 100,000 bottles of Coke, Sprite and Fanta per hour, and factory owners have even adopted liberal employment policies, giving jobs to deaf women along the assembly line.

All this new investment is literally redrawing Khartoum’s skyline. Four years ago, the Libyan government began building a 24-story, five-star hotel on the banks of the Nile. The hotel is nearly finished and boasts a level of luxury unknown in Sudan until now — it has an indoor pool, squash courts, an espresso bar and spa.

In 2004, the first proper mall arrived in Khartoum, brought by a Turkish company, complete with a Wal-Mart-size megastore called the Hypermarket. It is place where men in white robes and women covered in black head to toe pluck toilet paper, dates and Pepsi from the shelves as Sudanese elevator music plays in the background.

In 2005, many people here hoped the American sanctions would be lifted and the economy would hit warp speed after Sudan’s leaders, coaxed by American mediators, made peace with southern rebels. But by that point the conflict in Darfur was raging, and relations with the United States only turned frostier.

“We felt like the Americans betrayed us,” said the Sudanese foreign minister, Lam Akol.

Still, Sudan had already learned to rely on the East, and because of oil exports, the economy had gained a stable momentum of its own. Inflation is now 6 percent; investment and development are reaching beyond downtown Khartoum to Sudan’s central agricultural belt and to Juba, the main city in the south.

But Sudan is a huge country, Africa’s largest, at nearly a million square miles. Enormous swaths of territory are still neglected, and growing class differences could sow the seeds of further unrest. Rebel groups in Darfur and other areas, eager for their share of oil profits and power, pose another problem.

Business leaders say the biggest danger would be if the United States succeeded in persuading Sudan’s Asian and Middle Eastern trading partners to join the boycott.

“The Americans are not a threat, but if the international community lines up against us, ahh, that is a different issue,” said Osama Daoud Abdellatif, chairman of the DAL Group, a conglomerate that owns the Coke factory, the Ozone Café and a number of other businesses. “Everything has been going so well, but Darfur could spoil the party.”

Link to this story

Israel Comfirms Use of Banned Weapons

Israel confirms use of phosphorous bombs

October 22, 2006

JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli army dropped phosphorous bombs on Hezbollah guerrilla targets during their war in Lebanon this summer, an Israeli Cabinet minister said Sunday, confirming Lebanese allegations for the first time. Until now, Israel had said it only used the weapons – which cause severe chemical burns – to mark targets or territory, according to Israeli media reports.

But Cabinet Minister Yaakov Edri said Israel used the weapons before an Aug. 14 cease-fire went into effect, ending its 34-day war against Hezbollah. Edri said he was speaking on behalf of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, according to his spokeswoman, Orly Yehezkel.

“The Israeli army holds phosphorous munitions in different forms,” Edri said. “The Israeli army made use of phosphorous shells during the war against Hezbollah in attacks against military targets in open ground.”

The Lebanese government accused Israel of dropping phosphorous bombs during the war. Edri did not specify where or against what types of targets the bombs were used.

White phosphorous is a translucent wax-like substance with a pungent smell that, once ignited, creates intense heat and smoke. The Geneva Conventions ban using white phosphorous against civilians or civilian areas.

The United States acknowledged last year that U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgent strongholds during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004, but said it had never been used against civilian targets.

Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. The Israeli military said in July its use of weapons “conforms with international law” and it investigates claims of violations based on the information provided.

Overall, more than 1,200 civilians were killed on both sides during the conflict, which started with Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in July.

Both Israel and Hezbollah have been accused by the United Nations and human rights groups of violating humanitarian law during the conflict.

Israel has been accused of firing as many as 4 million cluster bombs into Lebanon during the war, especially in the last hours before the cease-fire. U.N. demining experts say up to 1 million cluster bombs failed to explode immediately and continue to threaten civilians.

On Sunday, a cluster bomb exploded in a southern Lebanese village, killing a 12-year-old boy and wounding his younger brother, security officials said. At least 21 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded by cluster bombs since the end of the war, the U.N. Mine Action Center said.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, has been criticized for failing to distinguish between Israeli civilian and military targets. Human Rights Watch also said the militant group fired cluster bombs into civilian areas of northern Israel during the fighting.

Britain’s Veil Controversy

England is the latest country to deal with a veil controversy. Readers may be most familiar with the French controversy, in which obvious symbols of religion were banned from schools in order to preserve the secular nature of France’s public school system. Now England is discussing the role of the veil, more specifically the full face veil known as the niqab.

Jack Straw, leader of the British House of Commons, has been opining for several weeks that niqabs are harmful to society. Now Tony Blair, the eventually outgoing Prime Minister has more or less agreed, stating that the veil ” is a mark of separation”. While neither Straw or Blair has explicitly stated that veils should be banned, one must wonder what they are so afraid of.

Stating that the veil is a mark of separation ignore the Britain’s history as a multicultural nation. Britain’s diverse population was an accident, the result of a deeply flawed series immigration legislation. However, Britain has still been able to successfully integrate immigrants into British society, so that turban, veil, and dreadlocks wearers are just as British as the WASP at a polo match or a soccer hooligan, or anyone else born in Britain.

In a society that has benefited so much from different cultures, what is wrong with a mark of separation? Why are other groups able to wear clothing and symbols that identify their ethnicity or religious identity?

Islamophobia has been spreading in western Europe in the wake of terrorist attacks and high profile terrorism related arrests. Also, no one wants to relive the rioting and social discord in France’s predominantly Muslim suburbs. The French incidents were blamed on the lack of integration of French Muslims into mainstream French Society. If this is the case, and similar incidents may be in the cards for Britain, then talk of veils being a problem is the exact wrong strategy to improve relations between muslims and mainstream British society.

The British government should open its arms to Muslims, not push them away. If anything, an already alienated minority will feel even more alienated and separate itself even more from mainstream society if certain fundamental parts of their culture are seen as a problem. Muslims will not stop wearing the veil, but may close themselves off from mainstream society so that they can continue their cultural practices without criticism or provocation.

British Muslims may identify more with being Muslim than being British. If they are forced to choose, they will choose their religion. It is far better that they identify both with their religion and their country, even if they identify more with their religion.

The Picture of the Week

A monk walks past the reflection of a tank outside a Buddhist temple in Bangkok September 26, 2006. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (THAILAND)

A monk walks past the reflection of a tank outside a Buddhist temple in Bangkok September 26, 2006. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (THAILAND)

Stability, but at what cost?

Something resembling stability has returned to Somalia in the last several weeks as various Islamist militias have taken over most of the country. After nearly two decades of chaos, and no central government, this east African country may soon become a nation-state again. A failed state is bad, but is an Islamic state worse? Regardless, various militias plan to join forces as a single army, and we will soon learn which is more peaceful, chaos, or extremist calm.

On Hiatus…

Its the end of summer. I’m moving, and its gorgeous outside!

Once I am settled in, early September at the latest, The Rest of the World will be back and at least as good as before.

Until then, enjoy the rest of the summer (or winter depending on where you are in the world).