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TFI Daily News

World News for World Changers

Apr 20


Militants Kill 11 Algerian Soldiers in Ambush
(Reuters) Islamic militants have killed at least 11 Algerian soldiers in an ambush on a patrol in mountains east of the capital Algiers, a security source said on Sunday, in one of the deadliest attacks on the military in years.

On Easter, Pope Calls for End to War, Condemns Waste Exacerbating Hunger
(Reuters) Pope Francis, in his Easter address before a huge crowd, on Sunday denounced the “immense wastefulness” in the world while many go hungry and called for an end to conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Africa.

Palestinians, Israeli Police Clash at Jerusalem Holy Site
(Reuters) Israeli police arrested 16 Palestinians at one of Jerusalem’s most revered and politically sensitive holy sites on Sunday as they dispersed protesters opposed to any Jewish attempts to pray there.

Deadly Gun Attack in Eastern Ukraine Shakes Fragile Easter Truce
(Reuters) At least two people were killed in a gunfight early on Sunday near a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, testing an already fragile international accord that is supposed to defuse Ukraine’s armed stand-off.

South Africa’s ANC Set for Two-Thirds Majority: Poll
(Reuters) The African National Congress (ANC) is on course to win nearly a two-thirds majority in May 7 elections, a poll showed on Sunday, confounding analysts who had predicted a fall in support for South Africa’s ruling party 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Prosecutors Extend Korea Ferry Captain’s Detention as Death Toll Mounts
(Reuters) South Korean prosecutors investigating last week’s ferry disaster said on Sunday they wanted to extend the detention of the captain and two other crew as they try to determine the cause of an accident that likely claimed more than 300 lives.

Malaysian Plane Search in 44th Day, Sea Bed Scans Could End in Days
(Reuters) The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 entered its 44th day on Sunday as Australian search officials said a crucial series of sonar scans of the Indian Ocean floor could be completed within a week.

Germany’s Steinmeier Urges Focus on De-escalation With Russia, Not Sanctions
(Reuters) German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he wished as much emphasis would be placed on preventing an escalation of tensions with Russia over Ukraine as there is at the moment in threatening economic sanctions.

Ukraine Rabbi Seeks End to Anti-Semitism Row
(Reuters) A Ukrainian rabbi whose congregation was the target of an anti-Semitic leaflet that drew global media interest and condemnation from the U.S. government believes it was a hoax and wants to put the matter to rest.

Thought of the Day

“If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”—Jaroslav Pelikan

Living under a broadband monopoly

CS Monitor, April 19, 2014

People in London may choose from as many as eight different high-speed Internet providers. However, Rachel Margolis in Brooklyn, N.Y., has one. Time Warner Cable services her apartment building—period. If her connection speeds slow to a crawl, Ms. Margolis has only two recourses: go without cable Internet or move to a new place.

“We actually know the exact day that [the United States] chose to go down this path,” says Zoe Chase of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. “March 14, 2002.” Back then, the Federal Communications Commission needed to decide, What is the Internet? Is it essentially an extension of our existing phone network, or is it something different? Under US law, phone companies must rent out their lines to anyone that wants to reach a customer’s home. The FCC decided in 2002 that Internet providers do not need to follow this rule. Critics of the decision say large swaths of the US must now live under a broadband monopoly. This was not the intent. The FCC wanted companies to compete with each other by building ever-faster Internet connections, but lobbying, future policy decisions, and the huge expense of building out a better network largely derailed these good intentions.

160 miles of gridlock: Traffic fuels concern for Brazil’s World Cup

By Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO—Highways and bus transit ground to a halt in parts of Brazil early Friday, and flights were delayed as Brazilians launched on their long Easter holiday weekend.

Brazil’s transportation system has been the subject of heated debate recently. Some worry that it will buckle under the pressure of thousands of visitors who will descend on the country in June for soccer’s World Cup tournament. The country is struggling to finish transportation facilities and stadiums. Others say its experience hosting major events such as the annual Carnaval or last year’s visit by Pope France make it uniquely prepared to handle huge crowds.

In the largely Roman Catholic country, many families travel over the extended Easter holiday, putting pressure on already crowded highways, airports, and bus terminals.

The state of Sao Paulo, the country’s largest, set a new traffic record Thursday with more than 160 miles of roads frozen in gridlock. Salvador, another World Cup host city, reported jams into Friday. On Thursday, 11% of flights in the country were delayed, according to official data reported by local media.

Bottlenecks have become something of a yearly tradition, meaning some Brazilians prefer to stay put.

Sergio Velazquez, a 42-year old financial analyst, said he scrubbed plans to travel outside of Sao Paulo after checking a traffic website. “For five years now I’ve given up on visiting [beach city] Ubatuba due to traffic. I’m not sure which way things will go during the World Cup, but maybe with everyone home from work and school things will flow better.”

In Rio de Janeiro, people trying to leave by bus faced chaos and long delays. At least two fights broke out early Friday as waiting travelers braved long lines or slept in hallways. Security guards dragged one man out by his arm. Those arriving for a bus to Sao Paulo had to wait 15 hours for one.

Outside, makeshift transportation providers emerged, with men offering seats to Sao Paulo for a premium. After being led through the dark to dirty vans under a freeway bridge, many of the passengers changed their minds.

Since the turn of the century, tens of millions of Brazilians have risen out of poverty, increasing the demand for cars, tourism, hotels, and bus and plane tickets. But infrastructure investments have lagged, economists say, often leading to breakdowns and hampering growth.

“It’s getting worse every year,” Velazquez said.

Why one Polish MP is working as a handyman in London

By Sara Miller Llana, CS Monitor, April 16, 2014

London—A migrant newly arrived in a foreign country, with little money and fewer contacts, is a busy man—certainly not one with free time for a journalist.

So it’s not surprising that Artur Debski, who arrived in London from Warsaw last weekend, failed to respond to the dozens of calls I placed to his cellphone during his first week in his new country.

Except that Mr. Debski is actually a Polish politician, only here to experience what the typical Pole goes through when he or she first sets foot in Britain, as hundreds of thousands have done since Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

On May 1, Poland and nine other central and eastern European countries mark their 10th anniversary as members of the EU. But not everyone is celebrating. Movement of poorer Europeans within the bloc has become a political lightning rod as they’ve gained access to much richer markets, as well as their education, welfare, and health systems. Meanwhile, politicians like Debski lament a lack of opportunity at home that sets the stage for exodus in the first place.

Debski has been condemned in Poland for seeking publicity. But no one can accuse him of not taking his role seriously. “I’m sorry,” he wrote, when he finally replied to one of a half dozen emails I had sent him. “I’ve been very busy looking for a job. I can meet with you tomorrow evening about 6 p.m.”

When we finally did meet, on a Saturday evening after he’d spent six hours helping his new boss do renovation work, Debski, dressed in a hooded blue sweatshirt and jeans, says his intent is to understand why Britain has drawn an estimated half million Poles in the course of a decade, many of them young. “This is a big problem for my country, we are losing the young people who are our future,” he says.

New waves of European migration have also come to be seen as a problem for receiving countries like Britain, which was taken off-guard by its own underestimation of how many Poles would arrive once the EU expanded from 15 to 25 members in 2004 (and now counts 28).

At the start of this year, when all restrictions were dropped for EU members Romania and Bulgaria, fresh fears of mass migration and so-called “welfare tourism” surfaced across Europe. British Prime Minister David Cameron chimed in with an opinion piece in the Financial Times ahead of the Jan. 1 date, writing: “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free.”

Krzysztof Nowak, a chef who had been out of a job in Warsaw for a year when he arrived in London in 2006 and got a job four days later, says Mr. Cameron has angered tax-paying Poles who put more into the British economy than they take away in welfare. “His last speeches about immigrants, people are very upset about this,” says Mr. Nowak, who connected with Debski via Twitter and met him at the Greenwich Pensioner last Saturday.

Despite the hostile rhetoric coming from the political class, Debski says life in Britain is still more alluring than in the post-Communist state that he says is too burdensome and bureaucratic, despite its recent economic success, particularly during the height of Europe’s debt crisis.

Debski, a businessman who has been a parliamentarian for the opposition Your Movement party for 2-1/2 years, arrived in London on April 5 on a budget airline, and plans to stay until April 22.

He slept on the floor of an acquaintance’s home his first night, got rejected from his first attempt at opening a bank account, and finally landed a one-week contract through the Polish community in a tax and accounting office that caters to Polish transplants. It’s worth 267 pounds ($450) a week. His commute is 43 minutes door-to-door from the apartment he’s staying in for free in East London, the home of a man visiting Poland for Easter.

“The first three days were crazy,” he says. Among the biggest challenges: his less than perfect English and steep prices, especially for public transport. He tried to maintain a 100-pound ($168) budget per week, like many of his compatriots are forced to do, but it was too tight.

Still, with a job, and persistence, he says opportunities abound in Britain—and will continue to draw young Poles, he says, until his home country offers the same possibilities. “Young people come here first for money,” he says. “And second for freedom.”

Twin Shocks Shake Foundation of German Power

By Alison Smale, NY Times, April 18, 2014

BERLIN—If there are two qualities prized by modern Germans, they surely are Ruhe (peace and quiet) and Ordnung (order).

So the past few months have been profoundly unsettling. First, the United States—the very power that helped Germany to its feet after 1945 and instilled democracy in the ruins of Hitler’s Reich—was found to be a less than transparent ally. The National Security Agency, riding roughshod over concepts of privacy and individual freedom treasured by Germans, had collected huge amounts of electronic data from ordinary citizens and had even spied on the chancellor, Angela Merkel.

That shocking news—“snooping among friends, that just doesn’t work,” as Ms. Merkel put it—is still reverberating through the political elite and most recently spurred Parliament to appoint a committee to look into the case.

Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor lionized by many here for having exposed the extent of American intelligence operations, may even testify by video link from his temporary exile in Moscow.

Even as anti-Americanism surged, however, the Germans faced a second, more profound shock: The crisis over Ukraine proved that Russia, the giant to the east that Germans know so well from centuries of doing business and waging war, was no longer playing by what Berlin considered the established rules of the 21st century.

By replacing the currency of modern diplomacy—global cooperation, a wariness about using force, a shared trust and belief in agreements—with the swift, forced annexation of Crimea, Russia threatened the very foundation of Germany’s modern power.

As mighty as its economy—the largest in Europe—may be, Germany does not, unlike the United States, Britain and France (or Russia, for that matter), have the military clout of a conventional power.

“If push comes to shove,” Ulrich Speck wrote in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Britain and France “could defend themselves. Germany could not.”

“Germany needs a world order in which basic principles are respected by all key players,” he added. “The attack on Ukraine is an attack on the very order that underpins Germany’s freedom, security and prosperity.”

Mr. Speck argued in a separate paper for Carnegie Europe, where he is a visiting scholar, that Russia wants to replace the concept of nation-states, having clearly defined borders and interests, with a notion of empires, which “consist of centers and peripheries without such clear delineations.”

In a four-hour televised question-and-answer session on Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia seemed to confirm that thought. Mr. Putin, for the first time, repeatedly invoked “New Russia,” a historical term whose vaguely defined territory includes much of eastern and southern Ukraine, spilling even into neighboring Moldova.

At the same time, hours of more conventional diplomacy in Geneva produced the first agreement between Russia and Ukraine since protesters drove Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, from power in February.

Germans’ relief was audible. Finally, said Sabine Rau, a prominent commentator on the country’s most watched state television channel, Mr. Putin was being rational and was ready to talk.

The foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has traveled and talked ceaselessly since the Ukraine crisis erupted, weighed in from an Easter vacation in northern Italy to caution that the Geneva talks were just “a first step, and many others must now follow.”

But, he emphasized, diplomacy at last had a chance. Germany was back on familiar terrain—represented in Geneva, notably, not by its own diplomat but by Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the 28-nation European Union, a partnership so often gently mocked in Washington, but hallowed in Berlin as the real, if cumbersome, governing body of Europe.

As Mr. Steinmeier acknowledged, if violence in Ukraine did not subside, the pressure on the West to impose much tougher sanctions on Russia would rise.

But behind the scenes, diplomats say, there is a wariness to act, perhaps because of strong German business ties to Russia—but also because of popular ambivalence.

While Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer in Dresden, is unpopular here—65 percent of Germans view him as dangerous, according to a survey conducted this week by the Allensbach Institute—68 percent view Russia as a world power, up from 38 percent when Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008.

Detailed questioning of 1,006 people polled by telephone on March 31 and April 1 showed that those from the former East Germany—but also young, educated Germans in the west—supported negotiation over sanctions, and were inclined to think Germany should steer clear of the whole imbroglio in Ukraine.

As Jan Fleischhauer noted in a column for Spiegel Online, Germans view Mr. Putin as they might the brash Russians strolling along the glamorous Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. “We laugh at the cult of masculinity and the bling-bling,” he wrote, “but in the contempt there is also a grudging admiration for a way of life that we no longer have the confidence to strut.”

Religion builds bridges in ethnically split Cyprus

Associated Press, April 19, 2014

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus—An unexpected moment during the Good Friday service in a long-abandoned church in Cyprus’ breakaway north illustrated how religion is helping to bring together Christian Greek Cypriots and Muslim Turkish Cypriots on this ethnically divided island.

It came when Turkish Cypriot Umit Inatci handed the key of the church of Agios Georgios Exorinos in the medieval center of Famagusta to the city’s Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Vasilios, saying: “This is not gift, it’s something that is surrendered to its owner.”

Rapturous applause greeted the announcement by Inatci, who helped make possible the first Holy Week service at the 14th-century church in nearly 60 years.

Among the hundreds of faithful there was Mikis Lakatamitis, who was baptized at the church eight decades ago. Tears welled up in his eyes as worshippers lined up nearby to kiss an embroidered cloth depicting Christ’s preparation for burial.

“I want to live in this moment because I don’t know if I’ll relive it again,” said Lakatamitis, whose family abandoned their nearby home at the start of ethnic strife in the late 1950s.

Cyprus was divided along ethnic lines in 1974 into a Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north after Turkey invaded following a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece.

For decades, there was no contact between the religious leaders of the two communities. In the north, about 500 churches and monasteries—many hundreds of years old—were left to ruin, looted or converted for other uses. In the south, only eight of about 110 mosques still operate.

But that changed in 2009 with a kind of faith-based diplomacy that has quietly been conducted between the leader of the island’s Greek Orthodox Christian Church Archbishop Chrysostomos II and Turkish Cypriot Muslim Grand Mufti Talip Atalay.

“We have to give a good example to the Middle East,” Atalay told The Associated Press. “This is our gift to the Middle East.”

The Good Friday service was the result of a grassroots initiative by ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots seeking to chip away at the wall of mistrust built up over decades.

“Perhaps we all understood that being constantly at odds with each other is getting us nowhere,” said Nikos Karoullas, a member of the citizens’ movement that spawned the initiative. Karoullas said Turkish Cypriots warmly embraced the idea of the church service. Abandoned since the late 1950s, the church was later used as a cultural center by a nearby university.

“This helps us to understand that we share the same country,” said 35-year-old Xenia Constantinou. Katerina Mina, whose parents hail from Famagusta, said she’s hopeful for a permanent peace that make such services routine rather than the exception.

Although the island’s conflict was never about religion, clerics have played an outsized political role in the past. The conflict that has left Nicosia as the world’s last divided capital boils down to power sharing and territorial control between the majority Greek Cypriots and minority Turkish Cypriots. But the Good Friday service is viewed as an example of how religion can help mend the island’s ethnic division in a part of the world where it has often been used to drive a wedge between people.

The archbishop has historically wielded great influence over the Greek Cypriots as the guardian of their ethnic identity—a vestige of the island’s Ottoman-ruled past. That culminated in the 1960 election of Archbishop Makarios III as Cyprus’ first president after independence from British rule. The charismatic Makarios held on to power until his death in 1977 effectively ended a blurring of lines between church and state.

The church’s influence over political matters has faded to the point where it can no longer sway public opinion, University of Nicosia Law Professor Achilles Emilianides said.

But Chrysostomos, a firebrand who famously told Pope Benedict XVI on a 2010 visit to Cyprus that Turkey seeks to conquer the entire island and erase Greek and Christian culture from the north, remains a force.

A recent poll showed most Greek Cypriots view the Orthodox Church as the only credible institution in the wake of the country’s recent near-bankruptcy.

The faith-based meetings have produced small—but symbolically significant—steps. Last October, they agreed on lifting bans preventing Atalay and an Orthodox bishop from crossing into the south and the north respectively. Chrysostomos for the first time accepted Atalay’s invitation to a meal at his office in the north.

Equally significant was an unprecedented, united call of support for renewed reunification talks between Nicos Anastasiades, president of the south’s internationally recognized government and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.

Anastasiades hailed the religious rapprochement as proof of “the positive role that religion can play in resolving political and other differences.”

The positive vibes from the religious leaders’ meetings have also helped the work of a joint Greek and Turkish Cypriot committee tasked with restoring places of worship and other monuments across the island, including starting work on the highly revered but crumbling Apostolos Andreas monastery.

Atalay said meetings can help break down “psychological barriers” such as extremist views which obstruct peace, just as long as religious leaders refrain from making political remarks.

“We as religious leaders are obliged to use a different language than the politicians, otherwise a solution will never come,” he said.

Russia promises support to ending Ukraine crisis

By Jim Heintz, AP, Apr 19, 2014

MOSCOW (AP)—Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday promised it would offer strong assistance to Ukraine to overcome its crisis, but emphasized that the ultimate responsibility for reducing tensions lies with Ukrainians rather than outsiders.

The comments in a statement came two days after top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union issued a statement calling for an array of actions including the disarming of militant groups and the freeing of public buildings taken over by insurgents.

Those terms quickly became a heated issue as pro-Russian armed groups that have seized police stations and other government buildings in eastern Ukraine said they wouldn’t vacate unless the country’s acting government resigned.

The insurgents say the Kiev authorities, who took power after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of protests, aim to suppress the country’s Russian-speakers.

Ukraine’s turmoil has sparked the most severe East-West tensions since the Cold War. Washington and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month following a referendum that overwhelmingly approved Crimean secession.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that deputy minister Grigory Karasin met with Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russia candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election that is to take place on May 25.

“The Russian side noted that the questions of resolving the internal political crisis should be decided by Ukrainians themselves in close cooperation with a special monitoring mission” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said a statement summarizing the meeting. “Russia is prepared to show the most wide support in this.”

The statement did not specify what that support would be, and it was not clear what it can do or would be willing to do. Russia denies claims that it has agents in eastern Ukraine directing or encouraging the insurgents.

The emphasis on Ukrainians’ responsibility echoed a ministry statement a day earlier which said the first step should be the disarming of members of the ultranationalist Right Sector group, whose activists are occupying buildings in the capital Kiev.

Right Sector’s activists were key elements in the three months of protests that preceded Yanukovych’s fall.

Novorossiya Is Back from the Dead

By Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, April 17, 2014

A few days ago, during my stay in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, I found my way to the modest tent encampment in a park that has now become the spiritual center of the local pro-Russian movement. There, I met 39-year-old Yegor Kvasnyuk, a bespectacled lawyer who is one of the coordinators of what is widely known in Odessa as the “Anti-Maidan.” As the name suggests, the Anti-Maidan forces strongly reject the current interim government in Kiev, born as it was from the Euromaidan uprising that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych in February. (Kvasnyuk hastens to add that he never liked Yanukovych, and claims that he has often run afoul of the ex-president’s political party, which remains a big force in Odessa politics.)

Kvasnyuk insists that successive Ukrainian governments have repeatedly failed to take the legitimate desires of the Russian-speaking population into account. Russian is by far the dominant language in Odessa (though many there speak Ukrainian as well). Yet Kvasnyuk says that he and other pro-Russian activists spent years trying to get official recognition for teaching Russian in schools and allowing the use of it on government documentation. The Anti-Maidan activists also cite the deep cultural and political divides between Russian-speaking easterners, many of whom feel considerable nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian nationalists from the western parts of the country, who regarded Soviet power as their mortal enemy. “There are very few of those people here,” says Kvasnyuk. “But there are a lot of them in the West, and they want to rule us.”

All of which is why, Kvasnyuk says, that he and his colleagues have joined the push for wide-ranging “federalization,” meaning extensive autonomy for Odessa and its surrounding province. If that sounds similar to the primary demand issued by the insurgents who have now taken control of several key government buildings in eastern Ukraine, it’s no accident: Kvasnyuk wholeheartedly approves of their actions, which, he says, are simply a “defensive response” to repressive policies pursued by the revolutionary government. He claims, without offering specifics, that the Kiev government violently suppressed pro-Russian demonstrations in the East, prompting the current revolt there.

Kvasnyuk stressed that his movement isn’t ready to give up on the idea of Ukraine altogether. “Right now we hope that we can solve our problems ourselves, without help from Moscow,” he told me. But what if the government in Kiev doesn’t offer quite as much autonomy as the pro-Russians want? “If we don’t get federalization,” Kvasnyuk told me, “then there won’t be any way to preserve the integrity of Ukraine.” So, in effect, secession. But what about after that? Would Kvasnyuk want to join Russia?

It was here that our conversation took a rather unexpected turn. No, he explained. It would make more sense for the other Russia-oriented parts of Ukraine to join together to form a new country of their own—a country he referred to as “Novorossiya.” His eyes sparkled. “A population of 20 million, with industry, resources.” With advantages like that, who needs to become a part of Russia? “By European standards that’s already a good-sized country.”

“Novorossiya.” I’d heard the term before—but mainly in history books that described the 18th-century Russian wars against the Ottomans that resulted in the Russian Empire’s expansion to the coast of the Black Sea. The newly conquered territories were dubbed “New Russia,” a name that was still being applied to southern Ukraine right up until the late 19th century. My conversation with Kvasnyuk, however, was the first time I’d heard the term invoked as a possible state-building scenario in the 21st century.

But it will certainly not be the last. A few days later, on April 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less, suddenly began using the word during his annual televised question-and-answer sessions with the nation. “Under the tsars, this region was called Novorossiya,” he said. “These territories were passed on to Ukraine in the 1920s. Why the Soviet government did that, may God judge them.”

So how seriously are we take all this? Was Putin’s choice of terminology merely a bit of psychological theater on the same day that Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the European Union were trying to work out an agreement in Geneva to prevent further escalation in Ukraine? Or does Putin regard this as a realistic scenario?

There have long been rumors of maps of a correspondingly divided Ukraine circulating in the Kremlin. Or is that simply clever disinformation, designed to keep the West anxiously guessing?

It’s worth noting that Russia has already rehearsed the Novorossiya option on a much smaller scale—in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (inside Georgia), and in the separatist enclave of Transnistria (in Moldova), which borders on Ukraine. In each of these places, disgruntled minorities seeking greater control over their own affairs have fought wars against their national governments, with Moscow’s encouragement and support.

In the case of Transnistria, Russia ended the 1992 civil war there by introducing troops designated as “peacekeepers.” Those troops are still there, ensuring that the territory—which is inhabited largely by Ukrainians and Russians who have little interest in subjecting themselves to the rule of the Romanian-speaking Moldovans who mostly run the country today—remains a “frozen conflict.” Transnistria claims for itself the status of an independent state, though not even Russia recognizes it as such. (On April 16, the Transnistrian government once again emphatically declared its desire to join Russia, something it has done many times before; so far Moscow has declined to answer in the affirmative.)

That may be because little Transnistria—despite its population of a mere 350,000—remains quite useful to Moscow as it is. The Russians have used the existence of the enclave to cause all sorts of trouble for Moldova, which the Kremlin would like to keep in its orbit. To name but one example, Russia allows the Transnistrians to swipe natural gas from the Russian pipeline that crosses their territory. But Moscow sends the bill for the gas to the Moldovan government, which is left to deal with the debt.

An independent Novorossiya may not need to engage in such tomfoolery, though. Merely by coming into being, this new entity would, at a stroke, reduce Ukraine’s population and economic power by around half. Rump Ukraine would lose all access to the sea, as well as much of its heavy industry. Skeptics point out that much of that industry is largely obsolete and starved of investment, while eastern Ukraine’s population is rapidly ageing—all of which are good reasons why Moscow probably wouldn’t want to assume the direct burden of dealing with such problems by annexing the territory outright. (The bill for absorbing the much smaller Crimea—population 2 million or so—is likely to be quite high already.)

Theoretically speaking, then, one can imagine that Russia might be happy to leave Novorossiya on its own (perhaps under the de facto control of some of the Moscow-friendly oligarchs who already control a disproportionate share of eastern Ukrainian industry). In any case, it’s not only the gun-toting “little green men” in eastern Ukraine who seem to be keen on the idea. Earlier this week, pro-Russian activists announced the creation of an “Odessa Republic,” potentially a first step toward realizing the Novorossiya idea. So far, though, this new entity remains more a creature of the Internet than a political reality. (As far as that goes, Novorossiya also has its own Twitter feed, as well as the odd website devoted to the idea.)

In any case, says Kvasnyuk, snuggling up too close to Russia isn’t desirable: Having Moscow as a good friend is already enough. If the government in Kiev tries to intervene, the government of Novorossiya would need only to ask the Kremlin for help: “And then they’d send in the peacekeepers.” And why not? It’s been done before.

How the U.S. Made Its Putin Problem Worse

Reuters, April 18, 2014

WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK—In September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vladimir Putin supported Washington’s imminent invasion of Afghanistan in ways that would have been inconceivable during the Cold War.

He agreed that U.S. planes carrying humanitarian aid could fly through Russian air space. He said the U.S. military could use airbases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. And he ordered his generals to brief their U.S. counterparts on their own ill-fated 1980s occupation of Afghanistan.

During Putin’s visit to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch two months later, the U.S. leader, speaking at a local high school, declared his Russian counterpart “a new style of leader, a reformer…, a man who’s going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States.”

For a moment, it seemed, the distrust and antipathy of the Cold War were fading.

Then, just weeks later, Bush announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that it could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect NATO allies and U.S. bases from Iranian missile attack. In a nationally televised address, Putin warned that the move would undermine arms control and nonproliferation efforts.

“This step has not come as a surprise to us,” Putin said. “But we believe this decision to be mistaken.”

The sequence of events early in Washington’s relationship with Putin reflects a dynamic that has persisted through the ensuing 14 years and the current crisis in Ukraine: U.S. actions, some intentional and some not, sparking an overreaction from an aggrieved Putin.

As Russia masses troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. Experts said he is also promoting “Putinism”—a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism—as a global alternative to Western democracy.

It’s also a dynamic that some current and former U.S. officials said reflects an American failure to recognize that while the Soviet Union is gone as an ideological enemy, Russia has remained a major power that demands the same level of foreign policy attention as China and other large nations—a relationship that should not just be a means to other ends, but an end in itself.

“I just don’t think we were really paying attention,” said James F. Collins, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the late 1990s. The bilateral relationship “was seen as not a big deal.”

Putin was never going to be an easy partner. He is a Russian nationalist with authoritarian tendencies who, like his Russian predecessors for centuries, harbors a deep distrust of the West, according to senior U.S. officials. Much of his world view was formed as a KGB officer in the twilight years of the Cold War and as a government official in the chaotic post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, which Putin and many other Russians view as a period when the United States repeatedly took advantage of Russian weakness.

Since becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Putin has made restoring Russia’s strength—and its traditional sphere of influence—his central goal. He has also cemented his hold on power, systematically quashed dissent and used Russia’s energy supplies as an economic billy club against its neighbors. Aided by high oil prices and Russia’s United Nations Security Council veto, Putin has perfected the art of needling American presidents, at times obstructing U.S. policies.

Officials from the administrations of Presidents Bush and Barack Obama said American officials initially overestimated their potential areas of cooperation with Putin. Then, through a combination of overconfidence, inattention and occasional clumsiness, Washington contributed to a deep spiral in relations with Moscow.

Bush and Putin’s post-2001 camaraderie foundered on a core dispute: Russia’s relationship with its neighbors. In November 2002, Bush backed NATO’s invitation to seven nations—including former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—to begin talks to join the Western alliance. In 2004, with Bush as a driving force, the seven Eastern European nations joined NATO.

Putin and other Russian officials asked why NATO continued to grow when the enemy it was created to fight, the Soviet Union, had ceased to exist. And they asked what NATO expansion would do to counter new dangers, such as terrorism and proliferation.

“This purely mechanical expansion does not let us face the current threats,” Putin said, “and cannot allow us to prevent such things as the terrorist attacks in Madrid or restore stability in Afghanistan.”

Thomas E. Graham, who served as Bush’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, said a larger effort should have been made to create a new post-Soviet, European security structure that replaced NATO and included Russia.

“What we should have been aiming for—and what we should be aiming for at this point,” Graham said, “is a security structure that’s based on three pillars: the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia.”

But Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John McCain and other conservatives, as well as hawkish Democrats, remained suspicious of Russia and eager to expand NATO. They argued that Moscow should not be given veto power over which nations could join the alliance, and that no American president should rebuff demands from Eastern European nations to escape Russian dominance.

Another core dispute between Bush and Putin related to democracy. What Bush and other American officials saw as democracy spreading across the former Soviet bloc, Putin saw as pro-American regime change.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, without U.N. authorization and over the objections of France, Germany and Russia, was a turning point for Putin. He said the war made a mockery of American claims of promoting democracy abroad and upholding international law.

Putin was also deeply skeptical of U.S. efforts to nurture democracy in the former Soviet bloc, where the State Department and American nonprofit groups provided training and funds to local civil-society groups. In public speeches, he accused the United States of meddling.

In late 2003, street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, known as the Rose Revolution, led to the election of a pro-Western leader. Four months later, street protests in Ukraine that became known as the Orange Revolution resulted in a pro-Western president taking office there.

Putin saw both developments as American-backed plots and slaps in the face, so soon after his assistance in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.

In 2006, Bush and Putin’s sparring over democracy intensified. In a press conference at the first G-8 summit hosted by Russia, the two presidents had a testy exchange. Bush said that the United States was promoting freedom in Iraq, which was engulfed in violence. Putin openly mocked him.

“We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq,” Putin said, smiling as the audience erupted into laughter, “I will tell you quite honestly.”

Bush tried to laugh off the remark. “Just wait,” he replied, referring to Iraq.

Graham said the Bush administration telegraphed in small but telling ways that other foreign countries, particularly Iraq, took precedence over the bilateral relationship with Moscow.

In 2006, for example, the White House asked the Kremlin for permission for Bush to make a refueling stop in Moscow on his way to an Asia-Pacific summit meeting. But it made clear that Bush was not looking to meet with Putin, whom he would see on the sidelines of the summit.

After Russian diplomats complained, Graham was sent to Moscow to determine if Putin really wanted a meeting and to make clear that if there was one, it would be substance-free.

In the end, the two presidents met and agreed to ask their underlings to work on a nonproliferation package.

“When the Russian team came to Washington in December 2006, in a fairly high-level … group, we didn’t have anything to offer,” Graham said. “We hadn’t had any time to think about it. We were still focused on Iraq.”

Graham said that the Bush administration’s approach slighted Moscow. “We missed some opportunities in the Bush administration’s initial years to put this on a different track,” Graham said. “And then later on, some of our actions, intentional or not, sent a clear message to Moscow that we didn’t care.”

Bush’s relationship with Putin unraveled in 2008. In February, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia with the support of the United States—a step that Russia, a longtime supporter of Serbia, had been trying to block diplomatically for more than a decade. In April, Bush won support at a NATO summit in Bucharest for the construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

Bush called on NATO to give Ukraine and Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan, a formal process that would put each on a path toward eventually joining the alliance. France and Germany blocked him and warned that further NATO expansion would spur an aggressive Russian stance when Moscow regained power.

In the end, the alliance simply issued a statement saying the two countries “will become members of NATO.” That compromise risked the worst of both worlds—antagonizing Moscow without giving Kiev and Tbilisi a roadmap to join NATO.

The senior U.S. official said these steps amounted to “three train wrecks” from Putin’s point of view, exacerbating the Russian leader’s sense of victimization. “Doing all three of those things in kind of close proximity—Kosovo independence, missile defense and the NATO expansion decisions—sort of fed his sense of people trying to take advantage of Russia,” he said.

In August 2008, Putin struck back. After Georgia launched an offensive to regain control of the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, Putin launched a military operation that expanded Russian control of South Ossetia and a second breakaway area, Abkhazia.

The Bush administration, tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly protested but declined to intervene militarily in Georgia. Putin emerged as the clear winner and achieved his goal of standing up to the West.

After his 2008 election victory, Barack Obama carried out a sweeping review of Russia policy. Its primary architect was Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and vocal proponent of greater democracy in Russia who took the National Security Council position previously held by Thomas Graham.

In a recent interview, McFaul said that when Obama’s new national security team surveyed the administration’s primary foreign policy objectives, they found that few involved Russia. Only one directly related to bilateral relations with Moscow: a new nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The result, McFaul said, was that relations with Moscow were seen as important in terms of achieving other foreign policy goals, and not as important in terms of Russia itself.

“So that was our approach,” he said.

Obama’s new Russia strategy was called “the reset.” In July 2009, he traveled to Moscow to start implementing it.

In an interview with the Associated Press a few days before leaving Washington, Obama chided Putin, who had become Russia’s prime minister in 2008 after reaching his two-term constitutional limit as president. Obama said the United States was developing a “very good relationship” with the man Putin had anointed as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and accused Putin of using “Cold War approaches” to relations with Washington.

“I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new,” Obama said.

In Moscow, Obama spent five hours meeting with Medvedev and only one hour meeting with Putin, who was still widely seen as the country’s real power.

At first, the reset fared well. During Obama’s visit, Moscow agreed to greatly expand Washington’s ability to ship military supplies to Afghanistan via Russia. In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a new START treaty, further reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Later that year, Russia supported sweeping new U.N. economic sanctions on Iran and blocked the sale of sophisticated, Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Tehran.

Experts said the two-year honeymoon was the result of the Obama administration’s engaging Russia on issues where the two countries shared interests, such as reducing nuclear arms, countering terrorism and nonproliferation. The same core issues that sparked tensions during the Bush administration—democracy and Russia’s neighbors—largely went unaddressed.

In 2011, Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of secretly organizing street demonstrations after disputed Russian parliamentary elections. Putin said Clinton had encouraged “mercenary” Kremlin foes. And he claimed that foreign governments had provided “hundreds of millions” of dollars to Russian opposition groups.

“She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work,” Putin said.

McFaul called that a gross exaggeration. He said the U.S. government and American non-profit groups in total have provided tens of millions of dollars in support to civil society groups in Russia and former Soviet bloc countries since 1989.

In 2012, Putin was elected to a third term as president and launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent and re-centralization of power. McFaul, then the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, publicly criticized the moves in speeches and Twitter posts.

In the interview, McFaul blamed Putin for the collapse in relations. McFaul said the Russian leader rebuffed repeated invitations to visit Washington when he was prime minister and declined to attend a G-8 meeting in Washington after he again became president. Echoing Bush-era officials, McFaul said it was politically impossible for an American president to trade Russian cooperation on Iran, for example, for U.S. silence on democracy in Russia and Moscow’s pressuring of its neighbors.

Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that clashes over democracy ended any hopes of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, as they had in the Bush administration.

“That fight basically vaporizes the relationship,” said Weiss.

In 2013, U.S.-Russian relations plummeted. In June, Putin granted asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama, in turn, canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow that fall. It was the first time a U.S. summit with the Kremlin had been canceled in 50 years.

Last fall, demonstrators in Kiev began demanding that Ukraine move closer to the European Union. At the time, the Obama White House was deeply skeptical of Putin and paying little attention to the former Soviet bloc, according to Weiss. White House officials had come to see Russia as a foreign policy dead end, not a source of potential successes.

Deferring to European officials, the Obama administration backed a plan that would have moved Ukraine closer to the EU and away from a pro-Russian economic bloc created by Putin. Critics said it was a mistake to make Ukraine choose sides.

Jack F. Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, said that years of escalating protests by Putin made it clear he believed the West was surrounding him with hostile neighbors. And for centuries, Russian leaders have viewed a friendly Ukraine as vital to Moscow’s defense.

“The real red line has always been Ukraine,” Matlock said. “When you begin to poke them in the most sensitive area, unnecessarily, about their security, you are going to get a reaction that makes them a lot less cooperative.”

American experts said it was vital for the U.S. to establish a new long-term strategy toward Russia that does not blame the current crisis solely on Putin. Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center, argued that demonizing Putin reflected the continued failure of American officials to recognize Russia’s power, interest and importance.

“Putin is a reflection of Russia,” Rojansky said. “This weird notion that Putin will go away and there will suddenly be a pliant Russia is false.”

Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador, said it was vital for Washington and Moscow to end a destructive pattern of careless American action followed by Russian overreaction.

“So many of the problems in our relationship really relate, I would say, to what I’d call inconsiderate American actions,” Matlock said. “Many of them were not meant to be damaging to Russia. … But the Russian interpretation often exaggerated the degree of hostility and overreacted.”

U.S. Plans Military Drills in Eastern Europe

By Michael R. Gordon, NY Times, April 18, 2014

WASHINGTON—The United States plans to carry out small ground-force exercises in Poland and Estonia in an attempt to reassure NATO’s Eastern European members worried about Russia’s military operations in and near Ukraine, Western officials said Friday.

The moves are part of a broader effort by NATO to strengthen the alliance’s air, sea and land presence in Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s new assertiveness in the region.

The land-force exercises the Obama administration is planning are extremely modest.

The exercise in Poland, which is expected to be announced next week, would involve a United States Army company and would last about two weeks, officials said. A company consists of about 150 soldiers.

The exercise in Estonia would be similar, said a Western official who declined to be identified because he was talking about internal planning.

Although the exercises would be short, the United States is considering other ways to maintain a regular ground-force presence in Eastern Europe by rotating troops and conducting training there.

This week, NATO’s top military commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, gave members of the alliance a range of options for strengthening its military posture in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, along with his own recommendations.

The measures include immediate, midterm and long-term steps. One option, General Breedlove said in an interview this month, is to move the 4,500-member American combat brigade from Fort Hood, Tex., to Europe. But Obama administration officials have not publicly supported such a step.

The United States has already sent 12 F-16 fighter jets and 200 support personnel to Poland.

NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said this week that the alliance would fly more air patrols over the Baltic region and that allied ships would deploy to the Baltic Sea.

Mr. Rasmussen left open the possibility for additional deployments, including on land.

Deadliest Day: Sherpas Bear Everest’s Risks

By Ellen Barry and Graham Bowley, NY Times, April 19, 2014

NEW DELHI—The Sherpas always go first, edging up the deadly flank of Everest while international clients wait for days in the base camp below.

They set off in the dark, before the day’s warmth causes the ice to shift. They creep one by one across ladders propped over crevasses, burdened with food and supplies, all the while watching the great wall of a hanging glacier, hoping that this season will not be the year it falls.

On Friday, however, it did.

Around 6:30 a.m., as the Sherpas were tethered to ropes, a chunk of ice broke off, sending an avalanche of ice and snow down into the ice fields on the mountain’s south side and engulfing about 30 men. The toll, at 12 dead, was the worst in a single day in the history of Everest, climbers and mountaineering experts said. A 13th body was recovered Saturday; three men were still missing.

The disaster has focused attention on the Sherpas, members of an ethnic group known for their skill at high-altitude climbing, who put themselves at great risk for the foreign teams that pay them. Among their most dangerous tasks is fixing ropes, carrying supplies and establishing camps for the clients waiting below, exposing themselves to the mountains first.

A Sherpa typically earns around $125 per climb per legal load, which the Nepalese government has set at around 20 pounds, though young men will double that to earn more, guides say. Raised on stories of wealth earned on expeditions, they also have very little choice, coming from remote places where there is little opportunity other than high-altitude potato farming.

Friday’s avalanche, which killed no foreigners, left many thinking about this calculation.

“All the hard work is done by Sherpas, that is the reality,” said Pasang Sherpa of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association. “The client will say, ‘I did the summit three times, four times.’ That is our guest, and we have to accept it. Our job is to make a good scale for the clients, to make this comfortable. We have to do that.”

“Normally our culture is like, we say, ‘The client is our god,’ “ he added.

The Sherpas were spread out at an elevation of about 19,000 feet when the avalanche hit, crossing a notorious area known by some locals as the Golden Gate because of the shape of its ice formations, Pasang Sherpa said. Climbers try to pass it as quickly as possible, but they have no choice but to edge across ladders one by one, stretching the crossing to 20 or 30 minutes, he said. Typically, he added, the teams try to cross before sunrise, when rising temperatures may cause shifts in the ice.

“This morning, our friends started a little late,” Pasang Sherpa said. “They arrived at quarter to seven.”

Tim Rippel, who is leading a group of mountaineers on the mountain with his company Peak Freaks, wrote on his company’s website that the Sherpas had been moving slowly, hauling “the mountainous loads of equipment, tents, stoves, oxygen and so on up to stock camps.” He was on the phone from base camp just before 7 a.m. local time when an ice chunk began to fall, causing the avalanche, said his wife, Becky Rippel.

The mountaineers were following a popular southern route up Everest from the Nepalese side, but this route means they have to pass underneath the western shoulder and its moving glacier. Mr. Rippel had been watching the glacier, which is a well-known problem, in recent days but did not think it looked as dangerous as it had in the past, Ms. Rippel said.

Between 350 to 450 Sherpas are hired above the base camp during the two-month season, said Richard Salisbury, who works on the Himalayan Database, a record of Everest climbs. Apoorva Prasad, the founder of The Outdoor Journal, an Indian lifestyle and adventure magazine, described it as “very dirty work,” laborious and dangerous.

“These are the guys going up the mountain every season in the least safe way possible,” he said.

Nima Nuru Sherpa, the first vice president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, said there was little question that Sherpas take more risks on Everest, mainly because they go ahead to fix lines and set up camp for paying clients.

“Today the incident happened, so we are just feeling sorry about ourselves,” he said. “The day-to-day life is very tense. We never know what will happen. So we are not at peace. It’s a scary profession, a scary job.”

Nima Nuru Sherpa said he knew all the men reported dead, but was closest to Ankaji Sherpa, who was a member of his association and a friend.

“It’s too terrible for us, it’s very sad for us, it’s sad,” he said. “I say God will take him to the right heaven.”

In Central African Republic, a town embodies the nation’s conflict

By Chris Stein, CS Monitor, April 19, 2014

Boda, Central African Republic—Three days after Saliou Yaya’s mother was abducted while escorting his wife into Boda’s Muslim neighborhood, she was hacked to death with machetes, her body left in the bush outside this wartorn community.

“Why are you talking to the Muslims?” Mr. Yaya says Christian militias asked his mother, a Christian, when they captured her. “Why did you go to the Muslim neighborhood?”

Once, the bridges that connected the Muslim and Christian communities in this southwestern Central African Republic mining town were busy with people going back-and-forth. Indeed, Mr. Yaya’s family crossed religious lines: His mother was a Christian who married a Muslim, and he is a Muslim who married a Christian.

But today, an attack from Muslim fighters loyal to the former Seleka government has leveled Boda’s Christian neighborhood, and vengeful Christian militias, known as the anti-Balaka, have encircled the Muslim community, cutting of food and medical supplies and preventing people from leaving.

The devastation here is just one example of the toll a year of bloodshed and animosity has taken on the social fabric of the Central African Republic, drawing religious, ethnic, and political battle lines between communities that once lived harmoniously.

No one knows how many have died, but more than a million people have been displaced, and France and the African Union have sent peacekeepers. The United Nations last week approved a peacekeeping mission that is aimed at quelling the ongoing ethno-religious conflict that shows little sign of ending peacefully.

But in towns like Boda, many Muslims are preparing to leave their homes for good.

“I was born here, I was raised here. If there was a way to leave, I’ll leave,” says Omar Djae, who bears scars on his back and welts on his stomach from a machete attack inflicted on him by militiamen as he fled into Boda. A former herder who kept 1,000 cows in the bush, he now has nothing but the blue robe he was wearing when he fled, and is one of the between 9,000 and 12,000 Muslims who can’t leave the neighborhood.

On the other side of the creek, nearly 10,000 people, mostly Christians, huddle under plastic tarps and the eaves of the buildings of the Saint Michel Catholic parish. Their old homes are down the street, reduced to rubble by Muslim fighters loyal to the Seleka government.

The Seleka were a coalition of rebels who last March succeeded in kicking out President François Bozizé and installing Michel Djotodia as president. But Mr. Djotodia was unable to control the myriad rebel groups and mercenaries that made up the Seleka, and the fighters wreaked havoc for 10 months, executing alleged Bozizé associates and killing civilians with impunity.

In response, Christians began arming themselves, creating the anti-Balaka. Fighting between the two groups grew fierce, spurring the African Union and France to deploy peacekeepers. In January, Djotodia was forced to step down in favor of Catherine Samba-Panza, mayor of the capital, Bangui.

Boda had seen violence from the Seleka before, but nothing like what happened after Djotodia stepped down. Seleka fighters fled through the town in January, and along the way, they stopped to steal a car from the Catholic church. The anti-Balaka fought back, so the Seleka leveled the Christian neighborhood, torching houses and reducing businesses to rubble.

“It’s here that the problem started between Christians and Muslims,” says Adelino Brunell, a priest at the Saint Michel parish who observed the violence.

The arrival of the French and African Union peacekeepers in February and managed to halt the killing. But the Christians are still bitter about the loss of their homes, while the Muslims are running low on food and fearful of attacks from anti-Balaka who sneak into their side of town.

But Muslims aren’t the anti-Balaka’s only target.

Yaya’s Christian wife was beaten by anti-Balaka when she tried to visit him in the Muslim community, so his mother decided to escort her across the bridge personally.

His wife somehow managed to get out of the neighborhood and back to safety. Yaya says he didn’t believe that the militia would kill his mother. But even with her gone, he’s not interested in revenge.

“To get the revenge, because I’m very angry, it’s not good,” Yaya says. “It’ll become a cycle, and go on and on.”

In Afghanistan, childhood is often a full-time job

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2014

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan—Sami Rahimi sleeps fitfully on a bread rack above the bakery’s cold concrete floor. He rises at 5 a.m., sweeps up, washes in a pan of chilly water, then prays.

Before the sun has risen, Sami is pushing a dented wheelbarrow through the dim streets, at 13 still a tiny figure among the vegetable hawkers and butchers slicing bloody flanks of sheep from carcasses hung on hooks. He gathers water from a public well and takes it back to the bakery.

By 6 a.m., the gas-fired stone kiln is glowing a fiery red, ready to bake the flat loaves known as khasa and the round loaves called kamachi.

Sami sweeps a platform where hot flatbread is stacked for sale. He then sits cross-legged to begin selling loaves for 10 afghanis, about 20 cents each, to customers who thrust bills through a window that he opens and closes with a long metal hook.

Working until dark six days a week, Sami earns about $80 a month, enough to support his entire family: disabled father, mother, three brothers and five sisters.

Sami has been at the bakery since he was 10, when he rode a bus from the countryside to assist his uncle, Yar Mohammed, who himself began at age 8.

“I’m happy I can support my family, but I would rather go to school and be an educated person,” Sami says. He shrugs as he flips over a steaming loaf with his hook, a weary gesture that makes him seem old and careworn.

Child labor is endemic in Afghanistan, despite vaguely written laws that prohibit children younger than 14 from working full time. The regulations, adopted in 2007 and last revised in 2012, allow those 14 and older to serve as apprentices and those 15 to 18 to perform “light work.” They prohibit children younger than 18 from work considered hazardous or dangerous to their health.

But the laws are widely ignored because of resistance from employers and from families who need the income, said Sami Hashemi, a child-protection specialist for UNICEF in Afghanistan.

Children as young as 6 work in brick making, carpet weaving, construction, mining and farming. Others resort to begging, collecting garbage or selling trinkets on the street.

Families scramble for any job to survive. “They must focus on today, not on a future for their children,” Hashemi said.

Aid groups that have poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan since 2001 are unsure how many children work. The best estimate is nearly 2 million between the ages of 6 and 17, or at least 25% of Afghan children, Hashemi said. The numbers are rising as growth in mining and construction, fueled by international assistance dollars, has lured more underage workers.

In a U.S. Labor Department report last year, the word “unavailable” is listed in a chart on the numbers of Afghan working children. The report tells of children maimed or killed in construction jobs and forced to work in extreme cold or heat, carry heavy loads, smuggle narcotics or serve as soldiers.

On the chaotic streets of Kabul, skinny kids dart among the vehicles in traffic. They tap at windshields and beg for money. They pester drivers to buy chewing gum, candy, maps, matches, scarves, toilet paper. They collect trash to burn for fuel, or pick through garbage heaps for rotting fruit or half-eaten kebabs.

At the downtown taxi ranks, drivers pay small boys about 10 cents for each fare they enlist. They are a manic and aggressive lot, competing and cajoling and jabbering. Sometimes they half-drag, half-shove fares into taxis already jammed with men whose knees are folded to their chests. They are more gentle with the burka-clad women, helping them into open taxi trunks.

Abdul Rafi’s voice emerges from his scrawny body as a croak. He’s only 9, but he has the coarse rasp of a lifelong smoker. He says he wore out his voice screaming at fares, an endeavor he began at age 6.

Abdul is the oldest of three brothers, and it has fallen to him to find work in this country whose traditions require that elder sons support their families. He is up every day at 5 a.m. for morning prayers. Then he hustles to the taxi rank amid a cacophony of donkey carts, creaky old Toyotas, Afghan military vehicles brimming with gunmen and black SUVs ferrying warlords. Most days, he barely earns $3.

“I would rather just go to school,” Abdul says, his eyes scanning the street for fares. “But my family needs the money, and I’m the oldest.”

He wants to be a soldier one day—a literate soldier. He takes off four hours for class on school days, then hustles back to catch the late-afternoon rush hour.

He’s still shouting for fares at dusk, until the shrill call from the muezzin signals evening prayers, and Abdul is off, lurching and weaving through traffic like a drunk, just another working stiff on his way home.

Across Kabul, in a warren of muddy dirt pathways at the edge of the teeming Ali Reza Khan metal market, a 12-year-old boy named Hekmat raises his hammer and slams it down on a sheet of metal. There is a sharp clang, clang, clang as the boy pounds the soft metal into shape. He has the sure stroke and effortless timing of a jazz drummer.

The metal will become a decorative cake tray in Hekmat’s swift and nimble hands. All around him, boys and men beat a steady ding, ding, ding to pound out tea containers, ladles and cookstoves.

Hekmat is small and slender, with hands stained gray from four years of pounding metal. He began when his father, a garbage picker, arranged the job through the shop owner, a family friend.

Hekmat earns $6 a week for part-time work that helps support his parents and three younger brothers. He takes off from noon to 3 p.m. to attend school. He wears clean school clothes under a wool coat, stained trousers and tattered sneakers.

“I like doing this job,” he says, still pounding as he speaks in a light, childish voice. “It’s fun to make things.”

He intends to keep at it until he graduates from high school. He hopes to become an engineer. “That will be a much better job than this one, so then I’ll quit,” he says.

His boss, Mohammed Zulmai, 25, began pounding metal when he was 10. He bought his own metal shop a few years ago. He says he knows there are laws against child labor but that he hired Hekmat as a favor to the boy’s impoverished father.

He doesn’t hire men, Zulmai says. Their hands are too clumsy.

“These boys have small hands, quick hands for this delicate work,” he says. “I train them, and they become experts.”

Zulmai has a dream for Hekmat and the other boys who work for him: “If they save their money, like me, they can one day own their own metal shop.”

At the bakery, the kiln is still glowing at dusk, and Sami Rahimi is selling fresh naan for dinner. Some customers buy on credit. Sami cuts a notch into a long stick to track each purchase; at the end of the week, he counts the notches and collects payment.

Yar Mohammed, his face glistening with sweat, laughs. “We live in the 21st century, but we still count on sticks,” he says.

Mohammed says he too supported his entire family when he started working in a bakery at age 8. After 20 years, he opened his own place.

“Young boys have always worked in bakeries. That’s our tradition,” Mohammed says, shrugging, when asked about child labor laws. And Sami isn’t working against his will; the boy considers himself fortunate that his uncle hired him as a favor to his father.

Mohammed blames Western aid groups for not doing more to find alternatives for poor families and their children.

“Billions of dollars have come to Afghanistan,” he says, shouting to be heard over the din of customers and the kiln. “Where did it go? Wasted. Stolen. The system is corrupt, and the Americans are part of it.”

Sami hasn’t been home in 45 days. About once a week, he speaks with his mother on a borrowed cellphone. He misses his family, he says, but the men in the bakery serve as his family for now.

Customers are thinning out, trudging home in the dark. Soon, Sami will hop down from his perch and help clean up the mess from the long day. By 10 p.m., he will curl up beneath a blanket on the rack and fall asleep beside the embers dying in the kiln.

In Syria’s capital, residents recall a sectarian tolerance gone by

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria—The thud of mortar shelling alternated with tolling church bells Friday as the Christians of this capital’s ancient Bab Touma district marked Good Friday amid extremely tight security.

The Easter Week processions that once featured tens of thousands walking the cobblestoned streets of the Old City now are confined to the close vicinity of churches. Soldiers and militiamen checked everyone coming and going on Friday; vehicular traffic was largely closed off as a precaution against car bombs.

Three years into its civil war, Syria is deeply wounded, its 23 million people in a state of shock at the magnitude of the destruction, incredulous that their nation, once known for its religious moderation and cultural tolerance, has become a sectarian killing ground.

Some express hope that major combat could be over by the end of the year, as President Bashar Assad has predicted. Others worry that the war could drag on for years, perhaps rivaling neighboring Lebanon’s 15-year sectarian conflict, which ended in 1990.

A wave of rebel mortar attacks that have struck Bab Touma and other districts of the capital in recent weeks has further eroded the muted optimism that was evident earlier this year. Authorities call the strikes on the government-controlled capital indiscriminate acts of desperation by opposition forces facing disarray and defeat in the battlefield.

Christian worshipers in Bab Touma were on edge Friday after a mortar attack this week that struck the yard of a nearby Christian school, killing a 10-year-old boy and injuring dozens of children. A banner hung on the neighborhood’s Roman-era stone gate memorialized the dead boy, Sinar Matanyos, as a “victim of the rotten crime they called revolution.”

At the other end of the Old City, at the landmark Umayyad Mosque, a shoemaker and grandfather who goes by the nickname Abu Bessam bemoaned the embittered state of his native land.

“We never thought about sectarianism; I never knew the word,” Abu Bessam, 71, said after Friday prayers, as others in the vast courtyard nodded in agreement. “We all used to live together and never care about sect or religion.”

Over and over, individual Syrians insist to visitors that they never knew the faith of their closest friends. Now, however, one’s sect has become a defining trait, something that can mean life or death, detention or freedom.

One young banker here says he lets his mostly Christian co-workers think he is a Christian, though he is in fact a Sunni Muslim. It eases suspicion, he explains. Similar stories abound.

“I used to go to cafes and sit with my friends—Sunnis, Christians, Alawites—it never mattered to me,” Abu Bessam said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never even asked where people came from. Those days are gone.”

Many can’t bring themselves to point the finger at their fellow Syrians. Militants from across the globe imported this toxic view to Syria, they insist

“It wasn’t Syrians—it was the Saudis, the Chechens, the ones who cut people’s heads off,” said a baker in a Christian town in Homs province, running his fingers across his neck in a throat-slitting motion.

Still, many on each side blame the other for the enmity.

The uprising against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, arose from the disaffected ranks of the nation’s Sunni majority, though many Sunnis remain aligned with the government and serve in the military. Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druze and other minority groups have generally remained on the loyalist side, fearing that the rise of Sunni Islamist militants to power could threaten their existence in Syria.

Opposition activists say the Assad government fueled hatred in a bid to portray itself as a defender of Syria’s suddenly vulnerable minorities. It is an article of faith among many opposition advocates that the government somehow facilitated the rise of Al Qaeda-style militant rebel groups, though no definitive evidence exists for the allegation, and the government dismisses it as absurd.

In largely loyalist districts, residents inevitably blame “terrorists” and foreign backers, from Riyadh to Washington.

“The West is practicing a double standard: Would they let these militants into their countries to destroy everything?” asked Father Gabriel Daoud, one of a number of Syriac Orthodox priests presiding at traditional Good Friday Mass.

A few blocks away, Rashed Gebara stood outside his home next to the Manar school, where the mortar shell struck early Tuesday as students were gathered there. He showed cellphone photographs of the bloodstained yard and a sneaker that he said belonged to a girl who lost a leg.

“We lived together for years—our closest neighbors are Shiites,” said Gebara, a Christian whose comments were seconded by Shiite residents listening from a second-floor window above. “For years we had many Jewish people and shop owners in this neighborhood. Their clients were Sunnis. No one cared. Now this…. What is it they want? To push the Christians out of Bab Touma? We have been here for thousands of years.”

Over at St. George’s Cathedral, Daoud prepared for the Good Friday service. Outside the church were the posters of Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo who were kidnapped a year ago near that northern city. Church officials suspect Islamic radicals were behind the abduction. There is no official word on the fate of the bishops.

“Easter is a time to celebrate resurrection,” said Daoud, seated in his office before the start of services. “Just as Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, we hope and pray that Syria, too, will be resurrected.”

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