Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Longest Road (2016): A Journey To Help Yazidi Refugees

The Longest Road

In a world completely desensitised to images of violence and suffering, I suddenly realise that despite knowing about it, I haven’t seen much of what is actually going on in ISIS controlled territories. I’m watching The Longest Road, a documentary by Matthew Charles Hall and Jennifer Salcido, and a painter is showing his artwork to the camera. He has created incredibly detailed scenes of unimaginable horror and violence and somehow, perhaps because it has come from his memory and not a camera lens, it is all the more horrifying with the removal of that artificial barrier.

The Longest Road details the project that Matthew Charles Hall and Jennifer Salcido embarked on with a group of American veterans living on the other side of the world. Iraq War veteran Richard Campos had served in Iraq, trusting that he was working for the greater good without actually being able to see the fruits of his work. Now retired, he has committed himself to returning to Iraq and actually making a visible difference.

Gold Star father Kevin Graves joined him on his mission. Head of Some Gave All: The Joey Graves Foundation, he lost his son on a mission just outside of Baghdad. Desperate to see the land where his son paid the ultimate sacrifice, Kevin agreed to join Richard on his project.

What started as a basic mission to fund a hospital in Iraq turned into so much more when the team travelled to the frontlines and were able to witness the atrocities committed by ISIS. There they meet a Catholic nun and Dr Nemam Ghafouri, a Muslim heart surgeon, as well as scores of Kurdish and Yazidi refugees.


Filmed over a period of three years, on two continents and in four languages, The Longest Road documents encounters and conversations with individuals who have stared evil in the face and the efforts of the team to make the smallest difference in their lives. We witness the transformation that the team went through and the manner in which their project grew into a major humanitarian effort.

The Longest Road is incredibly powerful. For so long, politicians have hijacked the refugee crisis for their own means and the continuing atrocities in Syria and ISIS-controlled territories somewhat distract us from the fact that human beings, men, women and children, are suffering under appalling conditions in Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria. This documentary breaks through the disaster-fatigue to remind us that why we need to continue fighting. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

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The Longest Road posterScreening

The Longest Road will have its UK and Europe premiere at the Dalston Rio in London on Saturday 18th February at noon. There will also be a Q&A afterwards with the directors and Dr Nemam Ghafouri, a medic who helped the American veterans in their mission to aid the two million refugees trapped in camps in Kurdistan and who is featured heavily in the film.

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Book Review: Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring by John Esposito, Tamara Sonn & John Voll

Islam and Democracy - John Esposito

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the descent into war in Syria, one question that arises time and again is this: is Islam compatible with democracy? It is a question that John Esposito, Tamara Sonn and John Voll promise to answer in their book Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring

It is difficult to review a book and to rate it when it clearly doesn't do what it promises to do on the cover and while this book has a lot to do with Islam and democracy, it has little to do with the Arab Spring (with the exception of the final two chapters). One of the questions that most interests me is the events leading up to the Arab Spring, some of which I attempted to explore in the series Before the Spring

Events such as the Iraq war and the Second Intifada were pivotal in the development of a shared Arab consciousness that transcended national borders as was the rise of Al Jazeera and social media. 

In focusing on countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Senegal, I was hoping that Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring would continue in a similar vein - picking up those similarities and exploring whether those countries were also ripe for a Spring-like uprising. Or at least exploring similar factors in the various countries that so emboldened the Arab Spring protestors to take action and topple governments. 

Islam and Democracy After the Arab SpringIt doesn't quite manage that but what this book does do is take an in-depth look at the rise of Islamic governments in seven countries and how issues such as equality, democratic participation and the economy were shaped by world events and the relationship of each country to outside forces. 

The book includes a fascinating profile of Iran and the lasting impacts of US interference, such as in the 1953 coup. Likewise, the chapter on Turkey provides an insight into current political events and gives some background to Erdogan's political motives. 

As a series of essays on the rise of Islamic governments, it would have been more accurate had the book been titled A Political History of Islam in the 20th Century. Judging it on that basis, it's quite interesting and the difference in writing styles between the various authors keeps it so. 

As a resource further exploring the roots and enduring consequences of the Arab Spring, there are better volumes, such as Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren's The Battle for the Arab Spring.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievitch

I was 12 years old when the Chernobyl disaster happened and I remember being quite aware of the dangers of nuclear events - I'd learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the enduring impact of the atomic bomb. Chernobyl was something else. It was a catastrophic and unprecedented disaster; we didn’t immediately know what the lasting effect would be but we knew that they were in trouble.

It was little surprise then when the years passed and we learned that Pripyat and surrounding areas had become ghost towns, areas that would be unfit for human habitation for another 10,000 years (or so estimates go).

But people do live there. They cut through fences and snuck past military patrols to resettle in their homes or to make new homes, surrounded only by the ghosts of the tens of thousands of people that once lived in those towns and the ever-present spectre of radiation.

Svetlana Alexievitch, Belarusian investigative journalist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, spoke to those people and indeed, to people from all walks of life who were effected by Chernobyl. She spoke to widows and survivors, liquidators, contractors and military reservists who were called to Chernobyl in the days after the disaster. She spoke to families who had been evacuated from Pripyat and surrounding areas, to those who returned and to those who fled the war in Tajikistan to settle there because they had nowhere else to go.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster reads like a dystopian novel, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic survival story. First published in Russian in 1997 and expertly translated by Keith Gessen, Voices from Chernobyl is the fruit of hundreds of interviews that Alexievitch obtained over a three year period. It is an incredible and page-turning volume with accounts as fascinating as they are obscene.

It’s difficult to put into words how much of an impact this book has on the reader and any attempt will be nowhere near as eloquent as the accounts themselves. The lack of understanding of the dangers that people faced, coupled with a massive campaign of disinformation is perhaps most notable. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, they sent cranes from East Germany and robots intended for the Russian Mars exploration. Even robots from Japan made it to the site but the radiation interfered with all their workings and so they resorted to sending human beings in rubber suits instead.

There were 340,000 personnel despatched to Chernobyl but those working on the roof of the reactor got it the worst. They were wearing lead vests but the radiation came through their boots.

Voices from Chernobyl - Svetlana AlexievitchDespite the massive loss of life and how many disaster personnel succumbed to radiation poisoning or ‘Chernobyl cancer’ that took years to emerge and yet more years to eventually kill them, many of the interviewees displayed a nostalgia for the Soviet era and for the heroism of a bygone era. Time after time, interviewees would explain that they did not know the danger but they would have responded in the same way even if they had. It was their duty and they would have fulfilled it.

And then, throughout the book is the ever-present reminder that the Chernobyl disaster happened to a population less than 50 years after the Second World War.

Gulag, Auschwitz, Chernobyl. One generation saw it all.

What impressed me the most is that many of these people survived the Leningrad blockade only to suffer devastation again in Chernobyl. They spoke of the terrible winters during the blockade where people froze to death on the streets and one man mentioned, perhaps in jest, burning his belt so that the smell could stay his hunger.

Voices of Chernobyl is a study in the various shades of trauma. Some interviewees expressed that they couldn’t talk about the blockade, it was too traumatic, but Chernobyl they could talk about. Despite the catastrophic loss of life and livelihood, the events of Chernobyl still felt less traumatic to many of them than the blockade.

I cannot recommend Voices from Chernobyl enough and was so impressed that I have ordered Alexievitch’s latest book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets which was shortlisted for the 2016 Bailie Gifford prize for non-fiction.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Book Review: The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

Helon Habila author of Chibok Girls

On the evening of 14-15 April 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 female students from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. The girls became known the world over as the 'Chibok Girls' yet surprisingly little is known about who they are, what their families are going through or the context in which this crime occurred. To date, in December 2016, almost 200 of the original abductees remains missing and the little that we do know is that their lives with Boko Haram are ones of untold horror, violence and sexual slavery.

Helon Habila is a Nigerian born author and professor of creative writing at George Mason University, Washington, D.C. In early 2016, he returned to Nigeria to take a road trip to Maiduguri and Chibok to speak to people not only about the events on that fateful evening in 2014, but about the long wait for the girls to return home and the present climate of war and strife in the region.

The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila - coverHabila has produced a chronicle of his time in Nigeria in the short but incredibly insightful The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria.

The book begins with accounts of the events of 14 April 2014 from parents and relatives of the girls who were taken and those that escaped. The residents of Chibok had received warnings that the town would be targeted that day and they had every reason to believe it. Massacres, assassinations and terrorist attacks have become ever more prevalent in what locals have begun to call the war with Boko Haram.

Just 9 months before the abduction of the girls from Chibok, Boko Haram militants entered a secondary school in Mamudo, Yobe State and killed 42 people, most of them students.

After spending time in Chibok, Habila moves on to Maiduguri and the heart of Boko Haram territory. He speaks of the effects of the civil war and how a divide was created between Christians and Muslims as successive governments misused state resources, culminating in the declaration of Sharia law in the area in 1999. Perhaps most chilling is the description of the rise of Boko Haram from a modest force to one to be reckoned with following the Boko Haram uprising in June / July 2009.

Moving back to Chibok, Habila collects yet more first-hand accounts of the fears and devastation of a community who have lost their daughters, sisters and friends.

Woven throughout the book is the story of the girls and the accounts of those who have escaped. Perhaps to be expected with the youth of the girls and the horrors that they experienced, there is very little in the book about their time with Boko Haram. Indeed, with so few escapees (and being that the book was in production at the time 21 girls were released in October 2016), we are but depending on the narratives of a handful of very traumatised girls.

Confronted with their reticence in the face on ongoing questions about their experiences, Habila notes the following:

Hauwa, Ladi, and Juliana were ordinary girls, young enough to be my daughter, who had been raised to almost mythic status by their extraordinary experience – Helon Habila, The Chibok Girls

Insightful, powerful and intimate, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria is highly recommended for those interested in gaining a more in-depth perspective of the lives and people effected by Boko Haram activities.

The book is out in the States and will be released in the UK on 15 December 2016.


Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Review: My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd (2015 edition)



During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, most press correspondents huddled in the safety of the distinctive yellow Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, sending out second-hand dispatches to news outlets back home. Anthony Loyd was never going to do that. In his memoir My War Gone By, I Miss It So Loyd travelled across Bosnia and Herzegovnia during the war of 1992-1995 and spent time in Grozny at the height of the First Chechen War. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Agreement, a new edition of Loyd’s memoir has been released with an updated foreword.

The prologue of My War Gone By, I Miss It So begins at the end of the Bosnian war, in the hills near Srebrenica. Withdrawing from drugs and newly clean, Loyd stumbles through a landscape peppered with corpses, witness to the aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide. It is an interesting place to begin, at the very end of the war, but by the end of the memoir we will see that this was not the most disturbing thing that Loyd saw in his time there. Moreover, by the end of the war, we will see that Loyd has come full circle in his life.

Armed with just a camera and pen, Loyd travelled over to Bosnia during the war after a stint in the military. Landing first in Sarajevo, he befriended a local family and spent his days dodging sniper bullets and trying to overcome the relentless boredom of war. Eager to see the frontlines, Loyd later travelled to various towns and villages in central and northern Bosnia where he met up with other members of the press corps and began to eke out a living as a war correspondent.

Loyd’s writing is brutally honest and in many passages he describes scenes and photographs that many of us would look away from or avoid. That is not to say that I don’t want to know, I really do, but at times his descriptions were so intimate and graphic that I felt somehow wrong reading the passages, as if I had somehow violated someone’s privacy. Such is the power of Loyd’s writing.

At many times in the memoir, Loyd mentions his eagerness to support the Bosniak cause on a moral level, to view them as the underdogs, but even this explicit bias is tested from time to time by the atrocities he sees. The saying goes that all is fair in love and war but that is utter rubbish, and what Loyd witnesses proves that all is twisted and futile in war instead.

It was the scenes in Grozny that were perhaps the most shocking. I’ve read a fair amount about the wars in the former Yugoslavia and felt somehow familiar with the subject matter when Loyd described his time in Bosnia and Herzegovnia. The chapter on the conflict on the ground in Grozny was disturbing to say the least. Loyd travels to the Chechen capital days before the fall of Grozny in February 1995 and what he witnesses is the utter meaningless and futility of war. It is especially moving in light of the way that history ultimately played out for the Chechens.

Again, my view of events in Bosnia might be influenced by all that I have read about the war and history of the region in the past but the only aspect of Loyd’s memoir that concerned me was his tendency to takes sides in the conflict. It is true that history and the subsequent trials have pretty much confirmed what he wrote almost 20 years ago but throughout the memoir I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would have been preferable if he had maintained a slightly more objective position.

In the foreword to the new edition, Loyd remarks how young and angry he was at the time of writing. It is interesting because while I might fault his objectivity, I never would have faulted his perspective which was infinitely more nuanced than anything I would have written back in the mid-90s when I was roughly the same age as him.

Nevertheless, I was riveted by the book from cover to cover and would highly recommend it to those interested in accounts of war or in the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. Like the timeless photographs to which Loyd refers in his memoir, his book provides a unique glimpse into one of the most disturbing conflicts of the 20th century.

© A Passion to Understand

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