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Monday, 28 October 2013

If you read Judas Goat - The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery, by Patrick Brigham you will soon discover the 'Bad Guys!'

If you read the murder mystery Judas Goat - The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery, by Patrick Brigham, you will soon discover who the 'Bad Guys' really are! Is it a little twist to the tale of Captain Phillips, or a story about a curious English policeman and the British Special Boat Service in action?

www.patrickbrigham.co.uk







From out of the darkness, I heard chanting. From the cockpit, the Leader called out something in a droning voice and the other three – Tall Guy, Musso, and the crazy-eyed Young Guy – answered.
It was obviously some kind of religious ceremony. A few hours ago, these guys had been laughing and telling jokes.

‘What are you going to do now, kill me?’ I yelled up to the Leader. I could hear him laugh – I saw the flash of his teeth – and then he coughed and spat. I could hear the splashing of the waves again.

‘You have a family?’ The Leader’s voice was mocking, self-assured.  ‘Yeah, I have a family,’ I said. I realised with a feeling of panic that I hadn’t said goodbye to them.


‘I have a son, a daughter, and a wife.’ Silence. I heard some rustling up near the cockpit. Then the Leader spoke again: ‘That’s too bad.’

It’s a weird feeling, watching yourself being prepared to die. I felt a jolt of anger. These guys were not going to take me away from my family, from everything and everyone I loved.

I saw the Leader hand his pistol to Tall Guy, who came walking down the aisle toward me. So he’d been chosen to do it. He checked the 9mm clip, slammed it back in, and then played with the gun. It was like he was toying with me.

The Young Guy came over and grabbed my feet while Musso started tugging hard on my arms. They were trying to get me in the right position, I guess, for a clean killing. But I resisted.



Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips is pushed into a lifeboat by a gun-toting pirate in a scene from the film
Hostage: Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips is pushed into a lifeboat by a gun-toting pirate in a scene from the film
The Leader was shouting. No goddamn way, I said to myself. I’m not going to be your fatted calf. Musso was getting exasperated, his nostrils flaring.
The sweat was popping off  his face, and I started enjoying it –  this badass Somali pirate with the automatic weapon couldn’t get me to do his bidding.

We came face to face. ‘You’ll never do it,’ I whispered to him.

Nine days earlier I had settled aboard the Maersk Alabama as captain. And, as soon as I did, we started getting bulletins about pirates: mysterious blips seen on radar, gun battles, the works.

A great deal of the action was taking place around the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden, and this was exactly where we were headed.
 



We had to sail into Djibouti, unload our cargo and get back out before the bad guys could get a bead on us.

I was asleep on my bunk when the phone rang. It was the second mate, Ken. ‘Cap, I think you better get up here. Somali pirates,’ he said. ‘They’re talking on the radio.’
I hurried to the bridge and was about to say something when I heard a voice. ‘This is Somali pirate,’ it said. ‘I’m coming to get you.’ It was spooky.

There was a boat about seven miles away on our starboard, its lights blazing like a typical fishing boat. But I looked closer through the  binoculars and could see that it had a second boat tied to  its stern.

For 30 minutes, I kept an eye on the mystery ship. It didn’t attempt to follow us. Strange.

I went back to my room and collapsed into bed. There was another call. ‘Boat approaching, 3.1 miles out, astern.’

There it was, a white skiff, maybe 40ft long, with a powerful outboard engine. The seas were calm. I ordered the alarm to be sounded that told every man on the ship to head to his muster point.
I looked down over the stern and saw the spray from our ‘pirate hoses’ shooting out water. At 100lb of pressure per square inch, that stream would knock a man down.

I called into the radio, ‘Switch to Channel One,’ our emergency band.

The third mate, Colin,  started issuing orders. ‘Get the fire pump going, hit the lights, tell the bosun to bring his men in.’

I pointed to the pyrotechnic box. ‘Get ready to start shooting those flares,’  I called. ‘Fire when they get within a mile. Aim directly at them.’ 

Now I could see the top half of the men standing in the pirate boat, rocking with the bouncing of the vessel.


Colin called the UK Maritime Trade Organisation (the Royal Navy task force in the area), leaving the phone line open so they could monitor what was happening. I ran over to the secret security alarm, and pressed it to raise the alert.

Then came the sound of automatic fire. I could see the muzzle flashes from the pirate boat. They were strafing the ship from a quarter mile away.
I heard the slap, slam, of bullets ricocheting off the smokestack. Now just 150ft away, the pirates revved the motor and came around behind to our port side, still shooting.
The AK-47 makes a distinctive sound, a fast, deep tat-tat-tat-tat.

So I grabbed a few flares and started shooting them down. I ducked down and then popped right back up, spotting one Somali sitting in the boat cross-legged, firing up at me.

I could actually see his face, concentrating hard, trying to get a bead.


All the pirates needed to do was put their skiff parallel to our ship, toss a rope with grappling hooks on our deck, then shimmy up. I looked down at the water and couldn’t believe what I saw. The pirates were lifting this beautiful long white ladder into the air. It looked like something you’d get at a department store.

Within five seconds, a head popped up over the side, followed by a body jumping quickly to the deck. It was the guy I would come to know as the Leader. Goddamn it, I thought.

The Somali didn’t have a weapon in his hand, but he was bringing up a white bucket on a yellow line. That’s where his gun would be. Right behind the bucket was a second pirate. We were sliding down a slippery slope toward disaster.

I saw a shadow in the corner of my eye. I turned. The first pirate was outside the bridge door now, firing a battered AK-47 into the air. ‘Relax, Captain, relax,’ the pirate yelled at me. His face was tense. ‘Business, just business. Stop the ship.’

But there were only four pirates – and while Captain Phillips was taken hostage, so was the leader of the Somali raiding party who was held by the rest of the Maersk Alabama crew in another part  of the ship. A stand-off ensued.

The radio crackled. ‘We have your buddy.’ It was the voice of Mike Perry, the chief engineer. ‘You there, pirates? We have your buddy and will trade him for the captain.’

This sparked a round of intense dialogue in Somali. The pirate I came to know as Tall Guy looked at me.

‘We need money. We can’t leave without money.’

I nodded. ‘I have $30,000 in my room. You can have it if you leave the ship.’ They weren’t impressed. They were looking for a few million, not 30 grand. But a deal was coming into focus.

I went to my safe, spun the dial, pulled out the $30,000, and handed it to the one called Musso. He and Tall Guy counted the money and nodded.
All the while, the pirates were talking on the radio with Mike. They agreed that the crew would give up the Leader, and the pirates would hand me over at the same time.

But they had a problem – their own skiff had been destroyed by my crew, and their only means of escape was one of our lifeboats, an enclosed craft, bright orange, about 10ft high and 25ft long.
Raid: Crew members of the Maersk Alabama try to repel the pirates by spraying water in a recreation of the real events
Raid: Crew members of the Maersk Alabama try to repel the pirates by spraying water in a recreation of the real events
Somali pirates burst into the bridge of the Maersk Alabama in a scene from the new film
Somali pirates burst into the bridge of the Maersk Alabama in a scene from the new film
So I would get into the life boat with the pirates – and climb back on board the Maersk Alabama once the exchange of hostages was complete.

We launched the lifeboat, transferred fuel and supplies and eventually I saw two crew men escorting the Leader along the deck.

‘Let him come down and when I get a chance I’ll come back up,’ I said. We came alongside, bumped up along the ship.

I saw him descending the ladder down the side of the ship and then he jumped the last bit.

‘Pirate aboard,’ I radioed. I was grinning. I’d done my duty as a captain. Now all I had to do was save myself.

The Leader took the wheel of the lifeboat, turned it away from the Maersk Alabama and pushed up the speed. ‘What about the deal?’ I said, shocked.

‘No deal,’ the Leader said. 
My mistake.

By now, the American destroyer USS Bainbridge had arrived at the scene, but Captain Phillips’s ordeal was not over.
A tense stand-off began between the pirates and Bainbridge, and Captain Phillips soon realised his life was in very real danger. He tried to escape by swimming half a mile to the Maersk Alabama – but failed...

By the fifth day of captivity, the heat had become unbearable. It was 2am and the deck was too hot to stand on. My ribs and arms were aching from the beating the pirates had given me, furious that their million-dollar American hostage had almost got away.

I’d almost made it. If the moon hadn’t been so bright, the pirates would never have spotted me.

I could see the lights of a navy ship about half a mile astern. It appeared to be a destroyer, which meant they had enough firepower to blow a thousand pirate ships back to Mogadishu.
Why hadn’t they done anything? The whole atmosphere in the boat changed. Nobody said a word.
But when someone has a loaded AK-47 pointed at your face, you get to know his mood really well, believe me. If he’s happy or annoyed, if his nose itches, whatever. You know.

The pirates trussed me up like a deer in the middle of the lifeboat, the ropes pulled so tight I lost sensation in less than a minute.

My hands were starting to swell up like a pair of clown gloves. I could hear the creaking of the boat and the slap of waves against the fibreglass hull.

I could catch glimpses of what was going on, but mostly it was what I heard. The first thing was a click. The Leader was pulling the trigger of his 9mm. I felt a cold sensation creep across my chest.
Musso finally let go of my arms and whacked me in the face.

There was an explosion near my left ear. My whole body went slack. I felt blood spurting out between my fingers and running down my face. Holy s**t, he really did it, I thought. He shot me.

My vision was blurred but I looked up at the vertical and horizontal green struts on the bulkhead wall. It looked like cross.

Then I heard Musso. ‘Don’t do it!’ he shouted. ‘No, no!’ I looked up. I took a deep breath.

I didn’t know if I’d dodged a bullet or what had just happened. I really should have told the pirates: I’m too stubborn to die that easily. You’re just going to have to try harder. Then shots rang out.
Bang-bangbang-bang-bang-bang. What now?  I thought. What just happened?

I thought the pirates were shooting one another, and I was caught in the crossfire. They’d been arguing and it had escalated to gunfire.

And now, after days of heat,  punishment, and threats, there was complete silence.

‘Are you OK?’ It was a male voice, American.

‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘But who are you?,’ I looked up. Young Guy had fallen from his perch in the cockpit and his face was a foot from mine. His eyes were wide open and he was struggling for air.

Then I saw the outline of a figure in front of me. He was dressed in dark clothes. That’s all that registered.
It was a US Navy SEAL, I later learned. He checked the pirates. They were dead now.

The door was ripped open and another burly SEAL burst in. Behind him I saw the enormous bulk of the destroyer USS Bainbridge looming above us. I felt like I could reach out and touch it.

I thought, My God, it’s over. I made it. I’m out of there. I’m alive.
  • Abridged extract from A Captain’s Duty by Captain Richard Phillips, published by Bantam, priced £6.99. To order your copy with free p&p, call the Mail Book Shop on 0844 472 4157 or go  to mailbookshop.co.uk.


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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Greece and The European Union - Is Greece at The Tipping Point?


The very north of Greece might well be ‘The Yardstick’ by which we can measure the reality of living in a significantly indebted nation, whilst they enjoy a severe reality check. All this together with a boringly repetitious ticking off from the Germans, one wonders how one might characterize a country so often referred to in the past as ‘The basket case of Europe?’ But what is the truth?

Most of the verbiage seems to be coming from the memory sticks of mainly recumbent hacks whose laptops can be seen perched in their dilapidated ivory towers - or more likely - on the litter strewn desks in and about the capitals of the world.

These well distanced reporters - who no doubt think Greece to be about Diogenes, Euripides or even Feta Cheese - generally believe that a country can be described in terms of cartoon clichés from the past and the sound of smashing plates in a Holland Park Greek Restaurant.  A country visited far more these days – generally for a two week piss up in Mykonos – it seems to be turning the corner according to some Brussels pundits and the Greek leaders themselves. But let us just look at the sequence of events from where I live in Northern Greece.

The pain started over five years ago in Orestiada, the second city of Evros. Evros is the name of the river that separates Greece from Turkey, running south to the Aegean and the north to Bulgaria, where it is called the Maritza.

As you travel south from the Bulgarian border on the E95 towards Orestiada, you can see the city of Edirne on your left hand side across the river, with its many Minarets, Mosques and sprawling City buildings, pink and shining in the sun. It is here that the contrast between the two countries begins, and the story opens up our eyes, away from our media dominated world.

Sunday in Edirne - Monday in the Islamic World - is lively and alive with activity everywhere. Amongst the many shops there are mountains of affordable well designed clothes, stores stuffed with all manner of electrical goods and kitchen ware, and so many restaurants it often seems more like a holiday town. It is where you can eat anything you like, provided of course it is a Kebab!

By contrast and across the river, Orestiada it is practically dead, with rows of empty shops and very few people about, despite the fact that Sunday is traditionally a big day for the many Greek Orthodox Churches, for people walking the streets and Greek café life in general. Talk here is about the price of logs – we are coming up to Christmas - and the almost doubling in price of heating oil in recent times. The increase in VAT on food stuffs and the attendant hike in prices - generally unreasonably so – has left many unscrupulous food shops with a nice little earner. 

It is now at least 1000 Euro or more to fill the oil tank for winter heating, so most people are practically numb with worry. Stuck to the telly, they are served up a diet of political waffle – there are about six TV stations to choose from – from a bunch of wind bags and talking heads whose only wish is simply to be on the box. With impossible ideas and multiple choice alternatives, little of it makes much sense under the present circumstances. Spike Milligan once said – apropos the then prevailing Irish problem – that the best idea was to put a large post in the middle of the island and to tow it out to sea. This now appears to be one Greek alternative – a euphemism for the return of the Drachma - but how I wish these self opinionated foolish wind bags would just stop talking! But, aren’t we forgetting something?

The historical philosophy behind the EEC, EC, and finally the EU now seems to have been blotted out by us all and these days, it appears only to be about money and dodgy economics. Once it was about war, domination, political intrigue and of course the Germans. However, like the Bulgarians and to some extent the Romanians, the lure of EU money has always been an imperative – along with being in a rather shaky NATO – and this was surely so with Greece in 1981, when they became the 10th member of the European Community.

Since then the whole ethos of ‘Poor little Greece’ has changed and up until recently we have seen a cabal of political elite – mostly devoid of shame – who have sucked the Greek banks dry with a look of total innocence that completely baffles even an old warhorse me!

Asked to define the difference between Bulgarians and Greeks, I was surprised to find more things in common than differences. Finally it occurred to me that the difference was that Bulgarians wanted to do things, but couldn’t and that Greeks could do things, but didn’t want to! Maybe it is once more about an old stereotypical bon mot; the one about a Greek going into a revolving door last, but managing to come out first! However, this is no longer how Greeks define themselves, because unfortunately the revolving door has become somewhat jammed of late, and it is clear that there isn’t enough WD 40 to go round. So who are the Greeks and how do they see themselves?

Most Greeks would describe themselves as middle class. Even the guys who fix cars have always had a certain swagger about their self image, even moreso these days as - for a substantial price - they valiantly keep certain aging vehicles on the road that would otherwise have been scrapped and replaced by a brand new version, care of an easy bank overdraft. But alas this is no longer so, as Greece fast becomes a cash economy once more.

England was once described by Napoleon as a nation of shopkeepers – a bit of French humbug even then and something which equally applied to the French themselves – but that is how I would categorize Greece post 1981, because by then they had unquestionably become a nation of small shopkeepers. Aspiring to adopt the mantle of the affluent middle classes and more like Madam Bovary than Angela Merkel, modern Greeks have somehow managed to survive in the past though a variety of unsubstantiated bank loans and a penchant for overcharging one another.  Subscribing – often with glee – to a form of quasi socialism, they became heavily reliant on this very Greek  concept, of the redistribution of wealth. What is wrong with that?

Café society is where this aberration can be easily explained. With swathes of café’s in all directions, one wonders how many little cups of espresso are required to pay the burgeoning rents required? That is until you get the bill and then there is an outside chance, that you might understand and get the picture!

Greeks work in groups and in a way there is a little bit of common sense attached to their commercial philosophy – now lost to the crowds of British Multinationals littering our Town’s and City high streets – and it is this process that many shop keepers have previously relied on in Greece, for their continued existence. This is how it works!

I buy a coffee from you each day, and you buy your spoons from me. I go to a certain dentist or doctor and they come to your restaurant. I use a particular lawyer and they in turn buy their food from your supermarket. Roughly described as Brand Loyalty this has been the backbone of Greek business for years; each supporting the next and so on. The trouble is that since demand has been severely curtailed, even the friendly Greeks have found it increasingly difficult to stem the tide of commercialism and have been forced to look seriously at discount prices in order to attract more business and this has created total havoc, amongst the easygoing shopkeepers of Orestiada.

Secondary commercial streets are now gaunt with the dead faces of empty shops, vendors carry little stock and their tills remain silent in most cases, and especially for those who do not want to change with the times. Even the simplest request is answered by the edict ‘I will have to order that from Athens,’ or as in the Monty Python’s Cheese shop sketch, ‘we don’t get much call for that around here.’ How did it happen?

Most of the blame quite rightly sits on the shoulders of successive Greek Governments who have systematically overburdened the public sector with totally unnecessary manpower. With cushy jobs in most Greek Government departments, helping to keep unemployment statistics within acceptable boundaries and the absurd number of conscripted soldiers in the National Greek Army - keeping young people out of the labor market and off the streets - it has in the past served to help mask the obvious shortcomings of unemployment in the Greek economy.

Not to mention the ghastly Balkan word nepotism – which was rife in Greece prior to 2008 and probably still is, that - together with vast numbers of unsupported international bank loans by successive Greek Governments, companies and individuals - is why the Greek house of cards finally collapsed, introducing the whole world to the expression taking a financial haircut! But, is there any hope for the future?

Greeks are often accused of sitting on their own laurels if not their hands – The Iliad, Herodotus, Alexander the Great and all that – but we must not forget the history of Greek people in the 20th century nor their miraculous survival under the Romans, the Byzantines and finally the Ottomans. It is clear that they are a hardy lot and although they are not the best team players in the world, they may be the most resilient. So it is here that I see the future changing – more out of necessity than choice – and the metamorphosis of a Nation into a modern Western European Union member, without the word easy in its vocabulary and absolutely no WD 40!

Copyright © Patrick Brigham - November 2013 Rizia Evros Greece.

www.patrickbrigham.co.uk

 

 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Captain Phillips & The Somali Pirates.

Captain Philips' is the new Hollywood blockbuster staring Tom Hanks. It describes an attack by Somali pirates on an American container ship. In Judas Goat - The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery, precisely the same thing happens to a Taiwanese vessel which is carrying an illegal arms shipment. In my book it is the Chinese boat which is the villain. Surprisingly they are not real pirates - although they seem to be and look like Somalis - because in fact they are British Special Boat Service personnel who take control of the boat. Their mission is to dump the arms which are found on board. This is a subtle twist to the similar story of Captain Philips, the well heralded Tom Hanks film. My book explains how the arms business works, and asks the question of how it has somehow become a legitimate form of international trade. The fact that it kills thousands of innocent people each year, seems to have escaped most peoples attention, but not the readers of Judas Goat - The Kennet Narrow Boat Mystery!    

Meanwhile Hollywood films are made at considerable profit, using - in this case - the familiar subject of Somali Piracy as a platform for the estimable Tom Hanks to play out this drama. But will it change peoples minds. These Somali's are armed to the teeth with AK47's and the various derivatives including grenade launchers. In their most recent report on the subject of piracy in the Arab Sea  SIPRI has actually analyzed the whole subject as an economic fact. It tells us what the blueprint is for successful Piracy, and makes an interesting story.

www.patrickbrigham.co.uk


More trouble on the high seas: the real story behind Captain Phillips


Posted by Editor at Oct 23, 2013 09:00 AM |
Filed under: ,

(Author: Anja Shortland) Last week I was asked by the BBC to preview the film 'Captain Phillips', the true story of the failed hijack of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Critics had pointed out that, although brilliantly villainous, the Somali pirates were also portrayed as 'victims' of their circumstances, perhaps 'pawns' in a game not of their choosing. Did I think this was a fair depiction?


For the pirates in the film, the story starts on the beach in Eyl, from where a pirate organizer sends two crews off to sea. The captains choose their teams from a mob of young men desperate to get their lucky break. A bribe does not go amiss in the heavy competition, meaning that the young men in the boat start off their adventure in debt and are absolutely determined to risk their life in order to succeed.
Even more revealing, shortly later the pirate Captain Muse boasts to his hostage, Captain Phillips, about his past exploits, including the fact that not long ago he had hijacked a ship which was ransomed for $6 million! “So, why are you here?” asks Captain Phillip. Captain Muse has no answer.
However, the question is answered in the World Bank’s report on Somali piracy released earlier this year. In it we analysed the business model of Somali piracy, conducting detailed interviews with people in the pirate anchorages and drawing on a wealth of secondary material. Based on our research, it can be confirmed that the ‘beach scene’ in the movie - in which dozens beg to be taken on the pirate mission - has indeed been drawn from life.
So, if the pirate organizer faces a perfectly elastic labour market, how much does he pay the pirates? The answer is that he incentivizes his crew with ‘no win–no fee’ contracts and offers the risk-adjusted market wage. We calculated a ball-park figure: given the prevailing average wages, low life expectancy, a 5 per cent probability of death or imprisonment and an 80 per cent probability of return without prey, the pirate organizer only had to offer around $10 000 per pirate to fill his boats. This squares perfectly with the reported $10 000–15 000 offered to successful pirates in 2008–10. The first man on board received an additional premium in the form of a sport utility vehicle (SUV). This partially reflected the additional risk involved in being the first to put his head above the parapet, but also amounted to an ‘efficiency wage’ encouraging a particular kind of work effort.
A payout of $15 000 would effectively amount to one man’s expected lifetime earnings. But with a large, poor family in the background, an expensive drug habit (most pirates were addicted to khat) and quite possibly several creditors asking for a 'cut', it is not surprising that Captain Muse was back in the boat so soon after his successful hijack. So, how was the million-dollar ransom divided up: who made the money?
My work with Federico Varese shows that the pirates relied heavily on land-based elites to keep their ships safe during the ransom negotiations and after release. The hijack-for-ransom business model was based on hulls, cargo and crew being returned intact promptly after the payment of the ransom. Roving gangs of criminals violently contesting possession or the re-hijacking of recently released vessels would have made ship-owners reluctant to pay top-dollar for ransoms.
Protection theory shows that in the absence of a state, specialist ‘protectors’ (e.g. mafias) emerge to order markets and provide governance. In Somalia this role was played by clan, warlord and Islamist militias. Pirates had little choice but to pay them off to secure their prey in plain sight of the coast for periods of up to three years!
The World Bank’s business model shows that up to 86 per cent of the average ransom ended up being redistributed on land: as ‘anchorage fees’ to local militias, in bribes to regional elites, in inflated prices for supplies and hospitality in the anchorage, as well as in wages for a large number of local guards for the ships. The men in the boats and their financiers only received risk-adjusted returns.
We could stop piracy by permanently lowering the success rate of pirates on the high seas to below 3 per cent. Then, the risk-adjusted returns for financiers and pirates make up all of the average ransom. However, this is very expensive, requiring tight co-operation between merchant ships using ‘best management practice’ in self-defence and our highly professional navies patrolling the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden indefinitely.
Unfortunately, there is no realistic prospect of alternative livelihood projects outbidding the pirate organizers. We are not just dealing with the men in the boats but also with the hundreds of willing volunteers on the beach and those inland who have not yet made it to the beach. Even a doubling of average wages in Somalia would not make an appreciable dent in the pirates’ business model.
The World Bank therefore urged a paradigm shift from focusing on the men in the boat to the enablers of the crime, arguing that it would be better to engage with the protectors of pirates in the underdeveloped coastal areas of Puntland and Central Somalia and offer them a contract out of piracy: no hijacked ships in the anchorage in return for development money. This would require local elites becoming accountable and hence a federal Somalia with legitimate local and regional governance institutions.
The film ends with Captain Muse being sentenced to 33 years in a federal jail in the United States. There are too many brave and desperate young men in Somalia to solve the piracy problem this way. Pirate attacks in October 2013 on a super-tanker and a fishing trawler show that if we let down our guard the business model can be easily resurrected after the lull of late 2012 and early 2013. Let’s hope that this excellent film — do go and see it! — reminds us to redouble our efforts on the state-building project in Somalia.


Author

Anja Shortland, King’s College London
This blog post has been cross-posted at the International Network for Economics and Conflict blog, and is part of a collaborative series in partnership with Economists for Peace and Security (EPS) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

When Pope John Paul met Fidel Castro


THE SOFIA WESTERN NEWS GOES TO CUBA.     

By Patrick Brigham – 1998 and the Pope’s Visit to Cuba 

The old two engine Russian Antonov rattled, shook and then finally took off from Nassau airport New Providence, into the sunny Caribbean ski. On board were mainly Cubans returning from business trips abroad and a number of Bahamians most likely off to savor the delights of Cuban night life, and to no doubt return with copious amounts of cigars, to be sold in the Bahamas to visiting Americans. On the beaches of Paradise Island and elsewhere one sees countless US citizens striding through the sand, purposely puffing on large Havana cigars, perhaps a small symbol of individuality where little else exists.

We flew over azure waters so blue that even the romantic descriptions of Buzz Aldren - as he circled the earth in space - did little to truly describe the magnificent beauty which I could see through my grubby window. Over Andros and towards Cuba the sea begins to change colour slightly and becomes a deeper blue, over saltmarsh and Cays, the tips of marine mountains, poking through the surface of the sea to create lush natural gardens with protruding rocks and palm trees. It is no wonder that Pirates like Black Beard, Ann Bonney and Mary Read chose to spend their short lives amongst these islands before suffering an ignominious death.

Havana is a large sprawling city, and flying low over neatly plowed fields, we finally approached the end of the runway, disembarking with a cheery goodbye from our Cubana Air cabin crew. No problems with immigration, no stamps in my passport, and just the casual question; was I an American? My traveling companion had been in Cuba, on and off, for some twenty years, and was well organized. We were met at Jose Marti airport by a confident young man dressed in tee shirt and baseball cap, who took us to his awaiting Lada. Parked next to old 50’s American cars, in various states of disrepair, with animated conversation he confidently took to the bumpy Cuban roads. Making our way past very familiar Socialist buildings, bicycles, old Russian trucks, and people of all age’s types and colors, we drove into Havana.

The Pope had been there for two days, and to underline the sense of occasion, one only had to see the amazing number of posters of him, either by himself, or with Fidel Castro, on buildings in cars and finally when I arrived at my destination, on the glass door of the apartment in which I was to stay. It was Saturday, the sun was shining and looking out of my window, I watched the sea lapping the shores of what was considered locally as a prime location, next to the Cococabana Hotel.

Taxis are quite expensive in Havana, despite their often decrepit appearance, and I was able to find a private driver who agreed to be my guide for the next few days. Jojo, as he called himself was an older man, who not only had a clean Lada, but a sense of humour. That Saturday afternoon he drove me around Havana on a photographic expedition, which would have taken a gormless tourist a week. The Old Town is an architectural wonder, so full of Spanish History, so beautifully preserved, full of book shops and art galleries, museums and restaurants. When I asked Jojo what he had done for a living before retirement he said ‘I was an architect by profession, but first and foremost a soldier of the Revolution!’ With a bit of French, English, some Russian and Spanish, we got on very well, and he even took me for some coffee and insisted on paying.

Being an old traveller, Havana reminded me of Spain during the 60’s, although my recollection of Franco’s Spain, involved far greater signs of state security, of men wearing various uniforms, lurking around on street corners watching one another, and being watched in turn by men in leather coats. During the Popes visit, Havana had many uniformed policemen in evidence, but they were passive and unarmed - except for handcuffs, and batten - and were there, I suspect, mainly to tidy up the many professional ladies who widely inhabit the streets at all times of the day. These mainly young and friendly policemen seemed to want to create a good impression, and to help the large number of tourists - mainly from Europe and Canada - who now go to Cuba, and those like me who had especially come for this remarkable visit.

In common with many eastern Europeans I have met in the past; before the changes, Jojo took me to see some hotels in order that I might realize the strident changes which socialism had made in Castro’s Cuba. But I managed to steer him away to sights far more worthy of my meager photographic skills, and despite a fleeting visit to the Hotel Inglaterra - a beautiful portico’d period building full of charm, and a pianist who aptly sang ‘I did it My Way’ - followed by the pride of Havana; the Hotel National de Cuba, I somehow managed to look at the real world, and the Havana which I had come to see.

That night I went with Tchocho my traveling companion to the famous Earnest Hemingway restaurant called La Bodeguita Del Medio. The walls of the restaurant are covered with hundreds of well known signatures, and with two musicians playing traditional Cuban music, it was an evening to remember. The food was also good. We both started with black bean soup, followed by huge plates full of roast pork, sweet potatoes, and fried bananas. Washed down by plenty of the local beer, the bill only came to $30. Cubans love Earnest Hemingway, but apparently not the Americans!

What made Havana for me was the music, the architecture - Jojo was great - the food the sun, the people, and of course the great occasion of the Popes visit. There will be those who would like to reduce his visit to a political scam, but it was not true. In the great Boulevard of the Revolution, Sunday morning proved this to be a myth. Over a million people attended Pope John Paul’s final mass, which took place on a platform over which had been erected a canopy designed to appear like a white dove of peace, the backdrop to which was the flank wall of a massive office building, which had been painted with what must be the largest painting of Christ in the World. There was undoubtedly a great feeling of spirituality, neatly woven together with the kind of euphoria one might expect from a people who had been starved of what they must regard as the Mother Church.

There are Catholic Churches everywhere in Cuba, and many priests to officiate, but somehow there had been forty years in a wilderness, created by the sanctions which only politics can impose. Sunday proved to everyone - particularly to Cubans - that this was no longer the case; that they were unquestionably a part of a World society of Christian believers, and that they had a place in this new order, and a right to be there. On an adjacent wall there was also a large outline of Che Guevara, to remind us all of the ‘Continuing Revolution.’

The Pope blessed the people and the politicians and firmly told both the Cubans and the Americans to be more reasonable. Afterwards, the camera crews packed up their gadgets, loaded their vehicles and returned to their hotels, where they occupied whole floors for their studios, and editing rooms. In the Capri Hotel - reputed to have belonged to Al Capone - CBS reporters sat back gazing at TV screens wearing Bermuda shorts, tee shirts, and baseball caps; turned the wrong way round, with great identity tags swinging from their necks. To them it was, after all, just another World event amongst so many. But it had not only been a media event, it was far more than that!

Cuban National TV had transmitted the whole event live, and watching parts of the broadcast during the early afternoon, one could see in detail what had been missing from view in the crowded arena, so full of optimistic and occasionally rowdy people. It seems that the Pope attracts his own variety of football songs, which means that he also attracts the young. People of all ages went to see him - not as stated in the media by presidential decree - but by choice, and to support an aging President who had the guts to allow the occasion to unfurl with its own momentum.

Fidel Castro was as much moved as were all his people, and the so called ‘tyrant’ had the same look of supplication as many of those who took mass, and most of the attendant onlookers from the diplomatic missions who were very evidently supporting this historical moment. I will never forget the look of submission on the face of the President when he bid the Pope farewell; neither will I forget the look of firm resolve on the face of the Pontiff, as he left his huge and sublimely moved congregation, to return once more to Rome. This was real, and although the cynical and politically motivated might have their day on TV and in the press, the winds of change are blowing in Cuba, and for the best.

Sunday evening proved to be a musical occasion to remember. Having met some friends and visited a few more hotels. One in particular had a theme restaurant called The Havana Café which had two splendidly renovated old American cars, a suspended biplane, two old Harley Davidson motor bikes, lots of old sepia photographs of famous Cuban singers and film actors, old gramophones, and unbelievably a huge ships propeller. Then we went off for an early dinner to a so called Polynesian Restaurant.

It could have been any old state run restaurant in any east European country, and the Polynesian aspect was about a few old carvings, and the food? Well it was sort of Chinese, was a sort of expensive chicken with salad, and a bit of sweet and sour source. But my guests were delighted.

            That evening we visited a great underground jazz club called La Zorra y el Cveovo, and listened to the El Grego Sextet, which played the most exciting Cuban Jazz I have heard, complete with drums, bongo percussion, two pianos, and a front line including Jose El Grego’s brilliant flugle horn. You’ve got to go for that alone.

The Cuban Peso is currently pegged to the USD at 23 Peso/ $1 although four years ago it was 150 Peso/ $1, and an average income in Cuba is around $20/30 USD. But people are not short of food, because there is presently a rationing system, concerning the basic staple dietary requirements such as rice, oil, meat, sugar, and flour. All these items are sold at highly discounted prices where a good average comparison would be sugar at 30 cents per Pound (lb) - ration price - and $4 for the black market price. So people tend to live within their dietary perimeters, and with extended families can survive with ease, if not on simple fare. People claim that their life in Cuba is better than it used to be, mainly - as stated in the last issue of the SWN - because the Government has resolved some of its difficulties brought about by the final bust up with Russia and the ex Soviet Union. They have now managed to find some new markets, but, what about Helms-Burton?

Started in 1996, there is now a Spanish Businessman’s Association in Cuba, headed by a Mr. Rafael Garcia Aznar who also runs a firm called Bas y Pujol International S.A. He states that. ‘In spite of the attempt to establish and enforce laws such as the Helms-Burton in third countries, aside from political considerations, which are not part of our sphere, we believe it is unacceptable because of its extraterritorial character. What could happen, and indeed has happened is that - for lack of information - certain businessmen who have the intention of starting business relations with Cuba became discouraged. However to say that these investors withdrew because they feared this law is another matter. Our association came into being at precisely the same time as Helms-Burton was launched and in spite of all the importance given to the possible consequences of its application, we’re moving ahead; not as a challenge, but rather because our Association offers us greater guarantees of security and action.’

Back at the Jose Marti airport, there is a lot of action. It is Tuesday and the little Antonov has been replaced by a Topolev 154, to accommodate all the errant multimedia as it drifts back to various parts of the world via Nassau. Well known TV personalities punctuate the otherwise drab passengers, who hug heavy looking hand luggage jointly and severally containing thousands of USD’s worth of Havana cigars, there eyes glazed over by the memory of sultry nights spent with sultry Cuban beauties, albeit at a commercial rate!

I look at a week old copy of Granma International, one of the few but state owned newspapers in Cuba. On the font page it states ‘Colossal Victory. 98.35% voter turnout. The preliminary results of the January 11th elections for Deputies to the National Assembly of People’s Power….. President Fidal Castro and General of the Army Raul Castro were elected with more than 99% of the votes in their electoral districts….. The people say “Yes” at the polls.’

Later the Vatican reported as follows. ‘The secretary of state - Cardinal Angelo Sodano - has been informed that the Cuban government has freed a certain number of detainees, as an act of clemency and goodwill to mark the visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba… The Vatican is delighted with this notable step which represents a concrete prospect of hope for the future of this noble nation.’ In the end it is the old stories which prevail.    www.patrickbrigham.co.uk

Friday, 4 October 2013

Afghanistan - What Has Changed?


The Talabanis Turn Back the Clock - on Woman’s Rights 

By Patrick Brigham - published in the SWN during 1996

On September 27th 1996, an extremist militia seized power in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and other than quelling the ardour of the pro-Communist factions, it simultaneously plunged the occupied territories into a profound state of ‘Gender Apartheid’ by which term it is implied that women in Afghanistan have been stripped of all their normal human rights –  

‘If this was happening to any other class of people around the world, there would be a tremendous outcry. We must make sure these same standards are applied when it is women and girls who are brutally treated.’   - Elinor Smeal - President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. 

During the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, the cold war was virtually coming to its bitter end. Known at the time as Russia’s Vietnam, there was no way that the formal Russian Military could subdue certain elements in Afghanistan, and they left in 1989. After all, the British also gave up trying to colonise the Afghans in the last century, or least admitted a stalemate in their attempt! What the Russian presence did do, however, was to evoke the Che Guevara syndrome; the intervention of a number of pro Islamic factions - especially the Mujahedeen - who were  financed; at the time, by many countries - including the CIA - in its early days. Now, the only states to recognise the Taliban are Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Emirates. In a recent report by the US Department of State released on September 9th of this year, they too have made their position quite clear, and do not condone the present almost medieval state of affairs which exist, in most parts of this country. Now, the west only recognises the Rabani Government, and is actively against the present Islamic fundamentalist rule that exists, and the militia of Massoud Shah. Rule is now by religious decree.
 
Since 1996, women have almost been banished from the workforce, girls schools have been officially closed, and all women have been expelled from universities. By virtue of the non existence of women doctors in hospitals, women and young girls are no longer generally admitted to hospitals or allowed to be examined by male doctors, and because of the virtual prohibition of female working staff, they have been precluded from any normal medical care. Women are also forced to wear the Burka - a dress which covers their whole body, with only a mesh opening in the head dress, through which to see - and are prohibited to leave home unless accompanied by a close male relative. To cap it all, women have been frequently beaten, flogged and killed for violating these primitive Taliban decrees.
 
The consequences of these abnormal decrees are horrendous, despite certain minor changes caused by consistent international outcry. Some ‘war widows’ who had been reduced to begging in order to feed their children; in some restricted cases, are now allowed to work, and a small number of  hospitals now have segregated wards for a few women. But the education of girls remains taboo, although some clandestine home schools do exist. But what is the consequence of this reversal in time?
 
A woman, who dared to defy Taliban orders, by running a home school for girls, was shot and killed in front of her husband, daughter and students. A woman who tried to flee the country with an unrelated male, was stoned to death for adultery, and an elderly woman was brutally beaten with a metal cable; finally breaking her leg, because she accidentally showed her ankle from underneath her Burka. Many women, who are actually housebound, have attempted suicide, and according to a Physicians human rights pole, 97% of women suffer from depression. They cannot go shopping unless attended by a close male relative, so even the most mundane domestic duties are very difficult, in this fundamentalist, male dominated, society. In the report from the US Bureau for Democracy, and Human rights, it states -
 
‘Traditionally, Sunni Islam of the Hanafi School of jurisprudence has been the dominant religion. The Taliban also adheres to the Hanafi School, making it the dominant religion in the country. For the last 200 years Sunnis have often looked to the example of the Deoband Madrassa - religious school - near Delhi in India. Most of the Taliban leadership attended Deobandi-influenced seminaries in Pakistan. The Deoband School has long sought to purify Islam by discarding supposedly un-Islamic accretions to the faith and re-emphasising the models established in the Koran, and the customary practices of the prophet Mohammed. Additionally, Deobandi scholars have often opposed what they perceive as western influences. Much of the population adheres to Deobandi influenced Hanafi Sunnism, but a sizeable minority adheres to a more mystical version, generally known as Sufism. Sufism centres on orders or brotherhoods that follow charismatic religious leaders.’ It continues -
 
‘In the past, small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Christians lived in Afghanistan, but most members of these communities have left. Evan at their peak, these non-Muslim minorities constituted only one percent of the population. Almost all members of this countries small Hindu and Sikh population - which once numbered 50,000 people - have emigrated or taken refuge abroad.......... The very few Christians and Jews, who live in the country, are almost all foreigners, who are assigned temporarily to relief work by foreign NGO’s. There were press reports in June 1999 that the last known Afghan Rabbi, was detained in Kabul by the Taliban, and only released after several days.’

‘Women in Afghanistan enjoyed relative freedom until about 1996, before the darkness descended, and they were able work as they pleased, to dress as they wished, to drive, and to appear in public alone. Within reason Afghan women were at the time on a par with those in most of South Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria which one might almost term a matriarchal society, the plight of the Afghan woman must be perceived as pure anathema. South Eastern Europe, with all its shortcomings and confusion, especially in the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis, must at least concede that religious dogma has its footprint on this land. How often has one heard the term ‘Turkish Yoke;’ blame sitting without doubt on the shoulders of historic Muslim invaders. Or, in the case of Kosovo, who can doubt the calumny of ethnic cleansing, carried out in the name of nationalism, but in reality tinged with the wicked overtones of Christian fundamentalism.’

In an, Email which has now generated into a worldwide deluge of human indignation, an Australian Architect called John Hyland was concerned enough to send the writers colleague in London a synopsis of the plight of women in Afghanistan. In its edited form the last paragraph is redolent of all our feelings, and sums up the whole issue –

‘Everyone has a right to a tolerable human existence, even if they are women in a Muslim country. If we can threaten military force in Kosovo in the name of human rights, for the sake of the ethnic Albanians, citizens of the world can certainly express peaceful outrage at the oppression, murder and injustice committed against women by the Taliban. Should you wish to make you feelings known, and to support this international outrage then the following Email address is available to you.’               Patrick.Brigham@gmail.com     www.patrickbrigham.co.uk