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.


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Chief Prosecutor of ICC Gives Damning Statement on Darfur to UNSC

Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, made a statement to the United Nations Security Council on the situation in Darfur last week. In her speech she gives a damning indictment of the lack of international response to the ongoing situation in Darfur.

Link: ICC: Twenty-second Report of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to the UN Security Council pursuant to the UNSC 1593 (2005) [Hague Justice Portal, 15 December 2015]

I observe with great regret that the adoption of each Resolution has, in practical terms, amounted to no more than an empty promise. Year after year, victims' hopes and aspirations for justice and a durable peace have been dashed

Despite the overall negative tone of her statement, she reiterates the determination of her office to tackle these crimes but notes that the victims require action not words.

The victims of Darfur will no longer find solace in our words. They deserve tangible justice, and they deserve to see justice is being done. What is required is concrete and joint action by this Council, the States and the Court to achieve real progress.

Bensouda noted that justice has been served in the case of Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone and in those situations, peace and reconciliation is only possible once perpetrators of atrocities are held accountable for their crimes. She insists that the same is true of Darfur.

In her closing, Bensouda calls for a commitment by both individual states and the United Nations Security Council to act for Darfur.

Ending impunity for the world's most destabilising and gravest crimes is not the prerogative of one single institution. It is a collective responsibility with humanity as a whole as its beneficiary.
Read the full statement on Hague Justice Portal.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

#ZumaMustFall, White Privilege and the South African Spring

The 16th of December is a public holiday in South Africa. It used to be a racist Apartheid holiday marking the Day of the Vow when Afrikaners swore to God that they would forever commemorate it if He allowed them victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Today the 16th of December is the Day of Reconciliation, a day dedicated to healing South Africa's fractured past. Or to sitting in the sun and drinking in the hot African summer. 

Today, the 16th of December was marked by protests around the country for the #ZumaMustFall movement. It was a day that made me proud to be South African and which I thought might finally be the start of South Africa's Spring. I don't expect the crime to suddenly end but I do live in hope of an end to the poverty and corruption (which I see linked). More on that later. 

There was a very good article in the RDM today.

This is an interesting article. In many ways he is right - we expats have all had awkward moments when we've had to explain to other South Africans that we don't share their racist views. You will not believe the racism amongst South African expats and the white middle classes. Or maybe you will. 

 And he's not wrong when he observes that "[i]n focusing singly on Zuma, white South Africans expediently ignore the role of unsurpassed privilege — and their refusal to relinquish those alienable components of it — in explicitly marginalising black South Africans". 

The problem is that he is ignoring that Zuma is hugely flawed, that he laughs in the faces of his corruption. And he is ignoring that something is seriously wrong in a country that hasn't begun to tackle abject poverty twenty years after the installation of 'democracy'. Compare Britain in 1965 and South Africa in 2015 and tell me again that it's impossible to put a roof over people's heads in the aftermath of devastation. 

Mzimhlophe Hostel, Front Door
Every day South Africans of all colours land up on the streets but a vast majority of black South Africans still live in shanty towns and slums with no running water, no sanitation and communal washing facilities (if they are lucky). In December 2014, I visited Mzimhlophe Hostel in Soweto where some of the worst violence took place in the 1990s. After all this time there was no running water or sewerage and one set of latrines and washing facilities for every six to eight families. There were also no plans to improve the lives of the residents there.

In October, a friend of mine died, leaving his wife and child in utter poverty. They have nothing now that the breadwinner has gone and there is no safety net, no social security and nothing to stop them landing up on the streets. There are so many South Africans in need that there is simply no charity that will take on their case. That falls to their friends and employers. 

Compare this to a R246b upgrade on the President's private residence. Move beyond the corruption, nepotism and cronyism to the wealthy elite who drive past homeless people in cars worth more than they will earn in a lifetime. Heck, some of those cars are worth more than I'll earn in a lifetime. 
Mzimhlophe Hostel Soweto
There is something very rotten in South Africa, a seemingly insurmountable discrepancy between rich and poor and I don't see anything being done about that. 

Apartheid caused what is happening in South Africa today but South Africa today is sustaining that legacy. 

So is the #ZumaMustFall movement solely the domain of white privilege and racism? Today I didn't witness my fear-mongering, often racist Facebook pals at the #ZumaMustFall marches, but the most liberal, forward-thinking and genuine of people. I know that smacks of "not all whites" but the truth is that South Africa cannot be free until all South Africans are free and if the movement does smack of privilege then it needs to move beyond that. 

Three years ago, I was reading The Battle for the Arab Spring by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren and I was blown away by the similarities by the situation in Egypt prior to the Spring and that in South Africa. Massive youth unemployment and poverty were paired with massive state corruption, embezzlement, cronyism, nepotism and gerrymandering. I remember remarking to myself that the only factor that set Egypt apart from South Africa was that the latter had not moved electoral borders. Yet. 

Is the time right for a South African Spring? Yes, I think it is. I think that a massively popular movement needs to be played out across social media and in the streets and that South Africans need to demand housing, education, jobs, adequate healthcare and poverty alleviation. Those were the basic promises of the ANC in 1994 after all. It's one thing to support a party that liberated the country but if the ruling party has lost their way then the population needs to guide it back on track. 

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Warriors (2015): Maasai Cricket Warriors Take on FGM and HIV/AIDS

Warriors film - Sonyanga standing by river

Hunters. Warriors. Cricket players. Maasai culture is fiercely guarded, beautiful and distinctive from the outside yet like many cultures, rigid and opposed to change on the inside. In a world of change, the Maasai adopt a strong cultural identity and adhere to age-old traditions, beliefs and values.  Recently, a wave of change has moved through a remote region of Kenya and at its centre is the Maasai Cricket Warriors team.

With an estimated one million cricket teams in over 106 countries, there is but one team made of Maasai warriors. Warriors is their story. Directed and produced by Barney Douglas and produced by Michael Elson, Warriors is a powerful documentary that tells not only the story of this group of young Maasai warriors, the formation of their team and negotiation with tribal elders for a patch of training ground, but also the astounding way in which they challenged beliefs about female genital mutilation (FGM) and HIV/AIDS.

Warriors film - Daniel batting

Illustrated by sequences of brilliant animation, we learn that the principles of hunting and fighting are not all that different to cricket and so it is that the Maasai Cricket Warriors play in their warrior clothes and connect their sport and culture. This is a team that emerged out of nothing yet somehow convinced tribal elders to donate a patch of land which the British Army helped level and develop into a cricket training ground. For these young men, nothing can stand in the way of their dreams.

If you try to awake the lion sleeping in you then you can do whatever you have ever dreamt of doing.

If young Maasai men can smash through cultural boundaries and realise their dreams, it is another story altogether for young Maasai girls. Circumcised and married off from as young as 8, 9 or 10 years old, young Maasai girls have little access to secondary education and even less say in their own lives. Even worse are the prospects for girls who conceive before FGM – they are considered disposable and worthless to their fathers, incapable of earning them a dowry.

While many cultures would see boys triumph on the repression of girls, the Maasai Cricket Warriors are different. Determined to include girls in their sport and spread the word about both the dangers of FGM and its links in the transmission of HIV / AIDS, the team is one cog in the wheel of progress that is bringing change to this remote region.

Warriors film - Francis

In an incredible tale that sees the team visit London to participate in the Last Man Stands cricket finals we get to see Maasai warriors on the Tube, in Trafalgar Square and on the London Eye. Their performance in the tournament isn’t as successful as they’d hoped but their experience helps to open the eyes of tribal elders and earns them a new found respect.

The Maasai are very skilled people and there are a lot of things that white people have seen us do. But there are some things that spoil us, like circumcision of girls.

Warriors is a visually stunning film captured primarily in the dusty plains of Kenya. It is a tale of hope and determination and the power of dialogue in bringing change. The film is accompanied by an energetic and eclectic soundtrack featuring “Falling Down” by Oasis, “Heaven, How Long” by Mercury Prize nominated East India Youth and “Neon Citied Sea” by Cosmo (the solo project of Felix White from UK number one band The Maccabees). Kenyan artists Jimi Mawi & Afro 70 are also featured. The animation in the film forms a powerful connection between the mysticism of the Maasai warrior and the achievements of the team – my favourite sequence was the soaring of the eagle as the team’s plane embarked for London.

Powerful and inspirational, I have no hesitation in recommending Warriors to crickets fans, activists and other interested human beings.

Warriors is available on DVD and iTunes from 25 January 2016.

Warriors Film Website | Twitter | Facebook | #WakeTheLion


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Malala Retells Her Story in New Teen Edition

I Am Malala - Teen

It was a story that resonated around the world. In October 2012, 15-year-old Pakistani blogger and activist Malala Yousafzai was targeted for assassination by the Taliban for her work in re-opening local schools for girls. She was flown to Birmingham, England for treatment and on recovery, went on to work tirelessly for the rights of women and girls. She worked with Christina Lamb on her memoir I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, notable for its rich insight into the Taliban and Pakistani treatment of women and girls. In 2014, Malala was joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in defending the right of all children to an education.

What people often forget is that Malala is still just a teenager and now she has retold her story for her peers. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World begins with those fateful words:

After 15 January, no girl, whether big or little, shall go to school. Otherwise, you know what we can do. And the parents and the school principal will be responsible. 

I Am Malala (Teen Edition)Working with National Book Award finalist Patricia McCormick, Malala takes us from the very first Taliban announcement regarding girls’ schooling, through to her activism, assassination attempt and recovery in the United Kingdom. Targeted at young people Malala’s own age, this retelling is less rich in detail and background but gives the reader more insight into the events as they unfolded, from the public’s initial disbelief at the Taliban’s pronouncement to the dawning realisation of their deadly intentions.

Malala talks about girls being banned from school, of seeing explosions, fear and repression in her homeland and she speaks about it in a format that will be more easily accessible by middle-graders and early teens. We learn that Malala is a teen just like any other. She loves cricket and gossiping with her friends. On the day of the shooting, Malala notes how normal everything seemed.

I was late, as usual, because I’d slept in, as usual. I’d stayed up extra late after talking to Moniba, studying for my year-end exam in Pakistani studies.

The last thing Malala remembered that was was thinking about her exams then darkness.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World is available to buy on paperback in the UK from Amazon.co.uk from October 2015. The book is currently available on hardcover in the US but will be released in paperback on Amazon.com in March 2016. i would highly recommend this edition to younger readers who might have found the initial memoir too advanced to read.


Friday, 24 July 2015

From Lynchings to Police Brutality: The Words of W.C. Handy ResonateToday

I'm reading a book called Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs.

In the book, author Richard Polenberg describes the effect of a particularly brutal lynching on American composer W.C. Handy and his subsequent decision to leave the South.

Handy reported his reaction, a mixture of horror, anger and depression: "All the savor had gone out of life. For the moment only a sensation of ashes in the mouth remained." - Richard Polenberg, Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

In a later incident, recounted by Polenberg in the book, Handy recalled appealing to a law enforcement authority for protection, whereby he was scoffed at and his attacker was assisted instead.

Handy moved to New York in 1918, almost a century ago, but I'm struck by the significance of these events today and the similarities to the Sandra Bland case. Black and brown people in America, the UK and around the world are still being subjected to racial violence; they continue to witness these attacks on fellow citizens (through the medium of film and social media, if not in person); and they continue to suffer a form of post-traumatic stress due to the relentless nature of these attacks.

Just as Handy described his devastation, so people today are overcome by the pervasive, racist and violent attacks in our society today.

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs is published by Cornell University Press and will be released in November 2015.


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Living the Lessons of Srebrenica (Event at Wiener Library)

Tonight we attended the "Living the Lessons of Srebrenica" event at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide in London. It was one of hundreds of events taking place across the UK this week to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. 

Munira Subasic

We first heard from Munira Subasic, president of Mothers of Srebrenica. Ms Subasic spoke through a translator but I'd like to record some of what she said. 

On the continuing struggle to locate, identify and bury the remains of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide: 

If a human being doesn't have a place to show where they lived, it doesn't show that they existed. 

Ms Subasic talked about reaching out to other mothers' organisations but those who did it won't admit it, won't admit there was a genocide. Without admission, there can be no reconciliation. 

"Many women who were abused are not able to have their own children or have relationships with men. A whole generation is disappearing". 

Ms Subasic mentioned that the people who committed the crimes are still there, still abusing them. 

"People say things are moving forward but Mothers of Srebrenica wish they had two lives: one for waiting and one for enjoying our lives". 

When asked whether it would help if lower level perpetrators admitted their guilt, Ms Subasic explained that after the Holocaust, it was accepted that it happened. With Srebrenica, they are dealing with such total denial that no one is admitting it happened. 

"They found only two bones of my son. It is very difficult to move on not knowing how he died. They dragged him from my arms". 

"Those who committed genocide think they are national heroes. I am very happy with who I am today. I'd rather be a victim than a war criminal".  

The next speaker was Dr Gill Wigglesworth who spoke about the lessons from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She gave a fascinating overview of the legal situation and the different levels of proof required by the ICTY and ICJ when hearing genocide cases. 

Dr Wigglesworth mentioned a different level of justice, restorative justice if you will, whereby Serbia or Croatia issues an apology for the crimes. Serbia has done so but that was only because they want EU membership whereas Republika Srpska have no such impetus and therefore there is very little chance of an acknowledgement or apology. 

Alex Buskie

Alex Buskie of the United Nations Association UK spoke next on the responsibility to protect.

She examined how the United Nations learned from their mistakes in the 90s and 00s and how the Responsibility to Protect doctrine came to be adopted in 2005. 

She mentioned that failures in the past stemmed from inattention, indifference and misjudgment or a perceived contradiction between the desire to protect a population vs the desire to protect a group of individuals. One concept that Ms Buskie reiterated several times was that the UN is a meeting of nation states, that they have no specific power as an organisation and they can only go so far as their members allow them. 

Ms Buskie then took us through the three pillars of responsibility to protect and what we are protecting against (ethnic cleaning, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity)

Finally, Ms Buskie admitted that the UN is struggling and that the R2P has only recently been adopted. Having watched the UN reaction to Syria and the continued yet fruitless motions, I found this especially frustrating. Ms Buskie dis highlight how the security council should have briefings earlier on in future and how the organisation needs to adopt a company-wide commitment to upholding human rights but they have a long way to go. 

Finally, Jasvir Singh of City Sikhs UK spoke about his own visit to Sarajevo and Srebrenica and how moving the experience was for him. 

He spoke of the parallels to be drawn with the Sikh genocide and how friends and neighbours turned on each other. Mr Singh had an important message about how easily a situation can deteriorate and he hinted that such a situation is not impossible even in the UK. He highlighted the role of interfaith organisations in establishing commonality and ensuring that communities can maintain their faith while living in peace with those of other faiths. 

The event was then wound up with a very interesting discussion. I was most impressed with how we tackled some controversial topics with respect and consideration.

This event was organised by Remembering Srebrenica, City Sikhs and the Wiener Library. We received a copy of the excellent “Remembering Srebrenica” publication which I was very pleased about.


Remembering Srebrenica


Saturday, 4 July 2015

A discussion with Stephanie Hepburn, author of Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking

The reality of human trafficking is often so horrific that it remains one of the most difficult subjects to discuss with children.  How does one get into a conversation with children about how individuals are tricked, extorted and enslaved without exposing them to ideas that may be too mature for them, such as sexual exploitation, rape and the murder of their loved ones? How do we impress upon them that this is not just something that is happening in a far away country but something that is happening in our own city?

ConversationwithdaughterThese are questions that Stephanie Hepburn was confronted with. After a decade of working in the realm of human trafficking and releasing the book Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, Stephanie had a conversation with her daughter about human trafficking and realised that other parents would no doubt have this conversation too.

In Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking, beautifully illustrated by James Guthman, Stephanie takes us through some of the questions that her daughter asked and the answers that she gave. The book is an excellent starting point for discussions on this difficult topic and will be of great use in classrooms and homes to get children talking and thinking about human trafficking and how they can identify, understand and prevent this phenomenon in their own environments.

We caught up with Stephanie to discuss the book and her experience in the field of human trafficking.

How did you become interested in human trafficking?

The impetus was my move to New Orleans in February 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and Gulf Coast region. The infrastructure was destroyed and there was a sudden demand for low cost labor, which allowed opportunity for unscrupulous people to step in. This was compounded by the decrease in law enforcement in the city and also federal under-enforcement of temporary work visas. 

I saw red flags of exploitation and human trafficking all over the city and it made me realize that it can happen anywhere, not just somewhere far away. I began digging deeper and adding more nations as I went along. I ended up compiling my findings in Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight, which was published by Columbia University Press in 2013. 

How did the idea for your book Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking evolve?

After pulling my head out of the research world and talking to people about my book, I was able to learn what everyday people think about the issue of human trafficking. Adults are often wary of looking uninformed so these conversations, while useful, often seemed indirect. Eventually, I would figure out the piece (or pieces) of the puzzle they were missing and I could address it, but it took a while to get there. 

Children are the opposite. They are unabashed in their curiosity and they say what they think and aren't overly concerned about seeming informed, so misunderstandings and areas of confusion are easier to identify. Kids are also awesome little people who are our future, so figuring out how to talk to them is essential for the future of humanity. Getting them to understand what to look out for and what red flags to identify in traffickers and victims creates an entire generation of eyes and ears that are way ahead of where we are now. 

In your experience, which aspect of human trafficking is the most difficult for children to comprehend?

I think for my daughter the challenge is understanding why someone wouldn't just run away. Physical chains are something she can understand but the concept of psychological chains is more difficult. 

How do you envisage that the book should be used?

I hope that parents read it and, when they think it's right, share the topic with their children. It's a difficult topic and my objective was to create an easy how-to guide on how to talk about it. The language is written in a way that parents can read it to their children. The graphics were created for that reason as well. That way parents can use it in multiple ways, whether as a tool for ideas on how to approach the topic or as a book to read with their children. 

What feedback have you received so far?

The feedback has been overwhelming and positive. I have come to a point where preaching to the choir (advocates and others involved in the anti-trafficking realm) just isn't enough. Real impact will happen when your average person has a greater understanding on the topic. That said, reaching your audience is always the challenge. In this case it has worked and people are reading it and passing it along. I feel extremely happy about that. 

The book is beautifully illustrated by James Guthman. Can you tell us a little bit more about his illustrations and how you came to work with James?

A colleague recommended him and sent a few pictures of his paintings and illustrations. He's very versatile and was able to capture the look I wanted for the book. It was important to me that the book contains a universal feel to it since human trafficking happens everywhere. So often this issue is unintentionally represented as happening to people in only a few parts of the world, based on the visuals used in tandem when the issue is reported. As a result, we chose a color pallet that does not indicate a specific race or region of the world, and to create vignettes when people are depicted in the story. The color pallet also had to mirror the tone of the book without being too visually depressing. It's a hard subject, so striking the tonal balance was important, and he did a really great job with it. You can check him out on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamesguthmanart

Are there plans to release the book in paperback or hardcover or will it remain an ebook?

For now it will just be an ebook. I don't know what the future holds. Paperback would be fantastic!

Together with Rita J. Simon, you've written another book about human trafficking Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I talked a bit about the impetus above. The book took exhaustive research and time. In many ways it was my education on how to get one-step closer to communicating with the mainstream population on this topic. It contains narratives, which I find essential because people relate to stories. It also contains meaty statistics, which help to create perspective on the prevalence of human trafficking. It really is a great book for those who have been introduced to the topic and want to know more. I would say it's step two in reading after Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking

This was actually your second book with Rita, the first being Women's Roles and Statuses the World Over (Global Perspectives on Social Issues). That sounds really interesting. Can you tell us a bit about the issues you covered in that book?

This book was a turning point for me. I was in law school at the time and sick of my female peers having a negative knee-jerk reaction to the term feminism. Many of my friends would start off a conversation with "I'm not a feminist or anything but..." They worried they wouldn't be taken seriously if they were thought to be a feminist, which somehow has become synonymous with extremism. It isn't. It just means that the person believes women and men to be equal. That's it. Anyhow, I decided to write a paper, for one of my law school classes, that was just based on law and empirical data to illustrate where women actually stand in the U.S. My professor Rita J. Simon asked me if I wanted to turn it into a book. I did and I added on 25 other nations. It was eye-opening for me as I hope it was for readers. We have a long way to go. 

What are you up to next?

My objective to bring awareness on labor exploitation and human trafficking to the mainstream world triggered me to open Good Cloth, an online ethical clothing shop, this past October. During the media junket of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight I quickly realized that people wanted to know how to purchase ethically and to ensure that no one was harmed in the process. They, in essence, wanted to vote with their dollars for ethical change and corporate responsibility. Fashion is an ideal arena for informing people about human exploitation and positive changes they can make. People don't like feeling helpless, which is easy to feel when you hear about the horrors of human trafficking. This is a way for people to make positive decisions in their day-to-day life that actually make an impact. It makes the customer feel great and does a great deal for starting the dialogue about corporate responsibility and spotlighting designers who are taking excellent measures to protect workers and the environment. 

Through the shop and my journalistic pursuits I will continue to try to reach the mainstream audience about this important topic. 

About Stephanie Hepburn

Stephanie HepburnStephanie Hepburn is an independent journalist whose work has been published in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Americas Quarterly and the journal Gender Issues. She is a weekly and monthly contributing writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Washington College of Law at American University, she integrates her legal and journalism backgrounds to create pieces that are highly informative and have a human tone. Her book with Rita J. Simon, Women's Roles and Statuses the World Over, was named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice. Her second book Human Trafficking Around The World: Hidden in Plain Sight was published by Columbia University Press in 2013.

Conversation With My Daughter About Human Trafficking is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.


Sunday, 28 June 2015

Book Review: Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation (edited by Vijay Prashad)

Letters to Palestine cover - Vijay Prashad - banner

Gaza, 2014. Following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli youths, the IDF embarked on a seven week campaign against Gaza. In that time, over 2,000 Gazans were killed, most of them civilians and most of them children, while tens of thousands were injured. Hospitals, schools and houses were demolished and half a million Gazans were displaced.

The Gazan conflict divided people like no other conflict. Across social media, timelines were filled with people trying to draw attention to the devastation and destruction in Gaza while pro-Zionists asked what else they could do in the face of continuing Hamas aggression. 

With access to Gaza notoriously controlled and restricted, there was limited reporting on the ground, scant consideration of everyday Palestinians who were living in a state of terror. 

Edited by Vijay Prashad and featuring a host of writers, poets, essayists and activists, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation attempts to give a human face to that struggle. 

Reading this collection with a desire to learn more about the conflict from a Palestinian point of view, one might expect little more than anti-Israeli propaganda and rhetoric. Letters to Palestine is nothing of the sort. It is an earnest collection of essays, poems and diary excerpts that seeks to understand both the conflict and history of Palestine. 

In his essay 'Bad Laws', Teju Cole talks about how what he terms 'cold violence' is exacted through a series of laws, by-laws and regulations that are all perfectly legal under Israeli law. Based as they are in restrictions on freedom and movement, he notes that these laws are in contravention with international standards and conventions. He mentions Sheikh Jarrah where Palestinians are slowly losing their permanent residency in East Jerusalem, where the right of return applies to Jews in East Jerusalem but not Palestinians. 

"The historical suffering of Jewish people is real, but is no less real than, and does not in any way justify, the present oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews" – Teju Cole, ‘Bad Laws’, Letters to Palestine

In an excerpt from her 'Travel Diary' Noura Erakat begins by describing her anger and anti-Israeli sentiment but over the course of her journey to Palestine begins to develop a more nuanced position. She brings up the subject of privileged Palestinians, those who have done very well out of occupation and observes that not all Palestinians are good-hearted, not all Israelis 'evil'. While capturing the atmosphere in Palestine during her visit, Erakat mentions the work of Zochrot, an Israeli non-profit organisation whose aim is to raise awareness of the Palestinian Nakba and of New Profit who work towards the demilitarisation of Israel. Spanning over eleven days in May 2013, the diaries give a unique snapshot of a moment in Palestinian time.

"Israeli settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation should not cease because Palestinians are good and Israelis are bad"- Noura Erakat, ‘Travel Diary’, Letters to Palestine

Nalja Said shares her 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014' as a Palestinian living in America during the conflict. Intimate and painfully honest, Said's entries show her worry and despair for her loved ones in Gaza. 

"If you think that Palestinians all hate Jews and are rejoicing in the deaths of those three boys (Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah), then you are a racist. That's all I have to say. As my dad used to say, ‘No one has a monopoly on suffering’" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

"The boy who was killed was a cousin of my dear friends... You who are reading this are now two degrees from the murdered Palestinian - a child killed in revenge" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

In 'Below Zero: In Gaza Before the Latest War', Ben Ehrenreich reminds us of the appalling conditions of loss, devastation, poverty and wretchedness in Gaza even before the war. 

Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of heart-breaking, eye-opening poetry. Poems tell of Kafkaesque experiences of denied entry and the soul-destroying set up of the checkpoints. Notable entries include 'Until It Isn't' by Remi Kanazi, 'Afterwords' by Sinan Antoon and 'Running Orders' by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. 

"Prove you're human/ prove you stand on two legs/ Run" - Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, 'Running Orders', Letters to Palestine

The last part of the collection is dedicated to an examination of the Palestinian liberation movement in America and its links to the civil rights movement. For the most part, this was too US-centric to be of specific interest to foreign readers but there were some interesting parallels to be drawn to the South African and worldwide anti-Apartheid movement. 

In 'Yes, I Said, "National Liberation"', Robin D G Kelly notes the intersection with Black rights and Ferguson, how the black civil rights movement moved from supporting Israel to recognising the injustices there. 

It would be impossible to capture the scope of this collection here.  Vijay Prashad has done an excellent job in curating a collection of short, powerful pieces that is each powerful in its own right. I would highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking to know more about the situation in Gaza both before and during the conflict last year.

Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation is published by Verso Books who currently have a sale of 40% off on paperbacks and 50% off on eBooks. The book is also available to purchase from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Film Review: Regarding Susan Sontag (2014)

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was iconic but she was an icon who warned against the entitlement of the observer and the assumption of a right to observe. She was renowned for being brilliant yet confoundingly difficult. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Sontag refused to be pigeon-holed as a female or feminist writer. 

Directed by Nancy Kates, Regarding Susan Sontag tells the story of Susan's life from her childhood to her last days and death from cancer. The film received the Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and was nominated for Documentary of the Year at the 2015 Dorian Awards. 

Regarding Susan Sontag posterRegarding Susan Sontag is first and foremost a biography. It is a film about Susan Sontag, not about her works. Director Kates remarks that it would be impossible to attempt a critique of Susan's writings through the medium of film but the truth is you can only gain an intense familiarity with a body of printed works by actually reading it. 

In a viewing at the Frontline Club in London, the question was asked of Kates why she chose to focus so closely on Sontag's sexuality to the detriment of her works. I think it is rather a question of why the Frontline Club chose to screen the documentary - in a meeting of journalists regarding a woman who commented so poignantly on the role of the media and photography, it was only to be expected that viewers would want a greater insight into Susan's thoughts. The film does not provide an in depth critique of Susan’s thoughts and opinions nor does it delve too deeply into her major works. 

Nevertheless, the film does not focus only on Sontag's sexuality and the film made use of an impressive series of montages and techniques to blend together archive photography, film footage and interviews with voice overs from Patricia Clarkson who narrated Susan's diaries. 

Nancy Kates remarks that Susan's own son David Rieff wanted nothing to do with the documentary and all footage of him in the documentary was archive footage. It is hardly surprising given that Susan chose not to inform her direct family of the terminal nature of her illness. Once he made his decision, Kates had to consider whether to carry on with the film at all. She decided to go ahead on the basis that there was no shortage of archive footage of Susan and her papers and diaries were released into the public domain after her death. 

When I went to see the film, I anticipated an insight into Sontag's works and the situations she wrote about but I didn't demand it. Regarding Susan Sontag made want to be a better me, a better activist but it also reminded me not to make the same mistakes that she did, to connect with people and to dive right in to human relationships. It demystified the icon for me and reminded me that while talented, Susan Sontag was fallible and human. The film certainly made me want to go out and read all her works in one sleepless, caffeine-fuelled sitting. 

Would I recommend Regarding Susan Sontag? Absolutely. From a film-making point of view, the documentary is superb in its use of archive footage and montage techniques. The narration of Susan’s diaries provides an insight into what she was thinking and feeling in a way that she never publicly revealed during her lifetime.  I would recommend the film for people interested in the human being behind the brilliant public facade but do feel that viewers seeking to connect to Susan on a critical, intellectual level might be left feeling a little disappointed.


Sunday, 7 June 2015

Theatre: Guillem Clua's Skin in Flames at the Park Theatre, London

Skin In Flames

Last night we caught the final performance of Guillem Clua’s Skin in Flames at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. We sat in the smaller Park 90, an intimate setting with seats on three sides of a tiny stage. On the stage, two parallel stories play out in a hotel room in a post-conflict society.

In the first, a local reporter interviews a foreign photojournalist who is in the country to receive a peace award. Twenty years earlier, in the depths of the conflict, he took the photo that would launch his career. It is of a young schoolgirl flying through the air after a bomb explosion, her body engulfed in flames. Photojournalist Frederick Salomon (Almiro Andrade) never did find out the girl’s name but then again, neither did he stop to find out whether she had lived or not. As the conversation continues, the audience gets the unsettling feeling that reporter Hanna (Bea Segura) knows more about the incident than was reported in the papers.

In the next room, a young mother meets with a UN doctor to enquire about the health of her child. With her child desperately ill and in need of medication, it emerges that the mother has been trading sexual favours with Dr Brown (David Lee-Jones) for months to secure the necessary medication for her child. Not happy with with how the events of the day have played out, the doctor steps up his manipulation of Ida (Laya Martí) and subjects her to the ultimate betrayal.

Skin in Flames is harrowing yet excellent. Catalan playwright Guillem Clua wrote the play La Pell en Flames in 2004 and the English version of the play has been performed across America before making its UK première during this run at the Park Theatre. The most notable achievement of the play is Clua’s use of one physical space to bring together several overlapping stories. Ultimately we learn that it is just one one story that began during the bloody conflict twenty years earlier and continues to this day.

Laya Marti (Skin in Flames)

The cast of Skin in Flames was superb. It was quite something to watch four people occupying the same small space, telling two, three stories at once and somehow managing to deliver one powerful, coherent message.  Spanish actress Laya Martí was superb as Ida and her reading of the child’s tale of the pig and the snake will haunt me for some time (as will the unspeakable horrors which happen on and off the stage). Likewise, David Lee-Jones was so convincing in his portrayal of the manipulative doctor that I felt quite physically revolted at times and could not bear to look at him.

Bea Segura (Skin in Flames)

It was fellow Spaniard Bea Segura that held the cast together in her role as Hanna, taking the story deeper and deeper into the murky past of the country’s civil war and the terrible events of that day. Finally, Almiro Andrade was utterly convincing in his role as Frederick Salomon, a sad figure who has made a living out of telling himself he did enough that day, he told the world what happened and that was enough.

David Lee Jones and Almiro Andrade (Skin in Flames)

I’m almost sad that I only saw this play on the last night. My friend Liz was so impressed with it that she came to see it again with us last night and I can see that I might have been tempted to see it again too. You can read Liz’s review at London Theatre 1. I would highly recommend that you see the play if ever it is on at a theatre near you.

Photo Credits: Andrew H Williams


Friday, 22 May 2015

Joanna Lipper interviewed in The Atlantic, "The Feminist Who Could Change Nigeria"


Link: The Feminist Who Could Change Nigeria [The Atlantic, 8 October 2014]

In a discussion about her documentary The Supreme Price, director Joanna Lipper talks to Chris Heller about her relationship with Hafsat Abiola, daughter of late Nigerian president MKO Abiola, and the reasons for making her award-winning film.


When I set out to make the film, I had a very broad audience in mind. I wanted, first and foremost, to make a film that honored Nigerian history for Nigerians who knew the characters and knew their political history well. I also had in mind younger generations of Nigerians, who maybe had heard this story from their parents or grandparents, but did not know all the details. And then, a huge target was an international audience that did not know a lot about Nigeria. They needed some context to understand how a leader like M.K.O. Abiola emerged, what made him unique, what his objectives were, and what the opposition to his leadership was. How did a female leader like Kudirat Abiola emerge after her husband was incarcerated? How did she transition from being a wife and a mother to a leader?

Read the full interview in the Atlantic or read my review of The Supreme Price.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Film Review: The Supreme Price (2014)

Hafsat Abiola-Lagos-Nigeria 01

The mourners are bewildered, suspicious and angry

It is a uniquely African situation: mourners gather at a funeral to commemorate yet another suspicious, unexpected and fathomless loss. The quote above describes the situation at the funeral of Chief Moshood Abiola, the democratically elected yet uninaugurated president of Nigeria who died in suspicious circumstances in 1998. Two decades later, the killings continue and it is estimated that there have been at least 160 political assassinations in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1998.

Directed by Joanna Lipper, The Supreme Price is a film about the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and the struggle to end military rule. It focuses primarily on Hafsat Abiola, the daughter of Chief Abiola (known as MKO Abiola) and his second wife Kudirat Abiola.


Expertly combining historical footage and present-day interviews, the film follows the rise of MKO Abiola to power and his bid for the 1993 presidency of election. Though elected in a democratic election, the presidency was stolen from Abiola when the election was annulled. Following a successful campaign overseas, Abiola returned to Nigeria to fight for his mandate but was subsequently charged with treason and put into solitary detention. He later died in suspicious circumstances days after meeting with UN officials.

Kudirat for Web

During his detention, his wife Kudirat Abiola began to fight for his freedom and became a tireless campaigner for the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria. Once she realised that the West was not willing to sanction or boycott Nigerian oil, she convinced Nigerian oil workers to go on strike for 12 weeks. Kudirat was assassinated in 1996 and her killers were later acquitted of all charges.

Hafsat Abiola - Lagos - Nigeria 02

Any society that is silencing its women has no future

Hafsat Abiola was a student at Harvard when her mother was assassinated. In fact, Kudirat had been scheduled to fly to the US for Hafsat’s graduation on the day that she was killed. Hafsat realised that when confronted with a society that was silencing its women, there was no other option than for her to continue her mother’s work. And so from the exile, corruption and poverty in Nigeria, Hafsat works to unite women and give them a voice. Through her organisation KIND, she connects women across the numerous regional, religious and language barriers in Nigeria and teaches them the power of collaboration.

The Supreme Price is superb and Joanna Lipper has done an incredible job in weaving together a film that tells the modern history of Nigeria in 75 minutes. This is no dry documentary, the film has an almost feature film-like quality in its use of haunting music, dramatic editing and heart-rending reveals.

I would highly recommend The Supreme Price to anybody who would like to gain an understanding of the recent history in Nigeria and the effects of years of military rule and corruption. This is an important film and especially relevant today. It provides a vital backdrop to the recent Nigerian election and an understanding of the relief of a nation in finally voting out Goodluck Jonathan. It describes the poverty and injustice of a society that produced Boko Haram and how that society will struggle to overcome these extremists unless real social change is brought about.

The film was featured in several film festivals in 2014 including the Human Rights Watch film festival and the 2014 Raindance festival. The Supreme Price directed by Joanna Lipper is screening internationally and in cinemas from Friday 22 May 2015.


The Supreme Price - Extended Trailer from Joanna Lipper on Vimeo.


About the Director

Filmmaker_Joanna_Lipper_colorJoanna Lipper is an award-winning filmmaker and Lecturer at Harvard University where she teaches Using Film for Social Change in the Department of African and African-American Studies. Her work as a documentary filmmaker has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, ITVS, Britdoc Foundation, the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, Women Make Movies and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Her latest documentary, The Supreme Price, received the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Award and won Best Documentary at Africa International Film Festival.   An extended trailer from the film was commissioned to launch Gucci’s Chime for Change Women’s Empowerment Campaign at TED 2013. Previous films Lipper has produced and directed include Inside Out: Portraits of Children (1996), Growing Up Fast (1999) and Little Fugitive (2006). Lipper is the author of the nationally acclaimed book Growing Up Fast. Her photography has been published and exhibited in the US and overseas.


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Guantanamo and Genocide: Upcoming Events in London


It’s a new year and now that the close down of our financial year end is in sight, it is time to start thinking about where I’m going with this blog and what work I intend to do this year. Without putting too fine a point on it, the answer to that is simply to do much more than I did last year.

There are a couple of events coming up in London which look very interesting. I’m going to these two events:

Banned Books of Guantánamo –  The Mosaic Rooms, London SW5 0SW- 19/02/2015, 7pm

Featuring a host of guest speakers including Andy Worthington, Ian Cobain, Cori Crider and Jo Glanville, this event will focus on the list of banned books in Guantánamo as well as wider issues such as censorship and indefinite detention.

The event is free to attend but you do need to register. Link.

Carl Wilkens “I’m Not Leaving” screening and Q&A – Centre for Holocaust Education, Central London – 04/03/2015, 6pm

Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Carl Wilkens and Jean-Francois Gisimba speak about their experiences during the Rwandan genocide at the Aegis Trust event Rwanda – Strengthening Society Through Genocide Education. I picked up a copy of Carl’s incredible book I’m Not Leaving and am beyond pleased that a documentary has been filmed based on the book. The documentary will be screened at this event following which there will be a short Q&A with Carl.

Once again, the event is free but you do need to register. Link.

The Wiener Library – ongoing

The Wiener Library also has a full calendar of free talks and events but I’m not sure if I will be able to fit any in over the next month. Most notably, they are also beginning a ten week course on “Understanding the Holocaust” with Professor Philip Spencer that will run every week from Tuesday 24 Feb 2015 to Tuesday 12 May 2015 and will cost £160. Link.

My determination to continue researching and writing in this blog is as strong as ever and to this end, I’ve rolled out a new blog design this weekend. Time will tell whether that was another unforgiveable act of procrastination or whether I will in fact be inspired to write more now that I have a pretty blog. Whatever the case, I am comforted by the knowledge that I am almost half way through my ACCA qualification and that my dream of working as an accountant in post-conflict or emerging economies will one day come to fruition. In the meantime, if Business Taxation doesn’t defeat me next semester, I’ll be blogging about events, books and films as well as occasionally posting more thoroughly researched articles.

Image credit: The entrance to Camp 1 in Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta by Kathleen T. Rhem (Public Domain)

© A Passion to Understand

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