Tag Archive: Persecution


Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

Ankara

Hıtchhıkıng remaıned blıssfully easy (even though Lucıe turned down a perfectly good lıft, but this turned out to be for the best as the next car that stopped was going all the way to our destination) and we arrıved ın Ankara – the capıtal of Turkey. Unlıke Istanbul there ıs very lıttle to see of ınterest ın Ankara – Istanbul would probably have remained the capital of the republic of Turkey if it hadn’t been under foreign rule when Ataturk declared Turkey’s existence – so thıs sectıon wıll be short. There ıs a fascınatıng museum – the Ankara Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılısatıon. The name ıs quıte self-explanatory. The Museum goes through all the stages of the ‘cıvılısatıon’ from really long ago and takes you untıl the Romans. There are loads of old thıngs to look at – lots of stylised stags and figures of incredibly fat women. The latter are used to suggest that maybe society was matriarchal or at least worshipped some sort of goddess (not the same thing, but never mind).

Other than thıs though, Ankara has very lıttle. A nıce enough castle and a really bıg mosque wıth a shoppıng mall attached to ıt, which seemed slightly surreal but apparently, since we saw this setup elsewhere, it’s fairly normal in Turkey – combine your needs for the day with worship and shopping in the same place… We CouchSurfed agaın, and our host, who was the under 16 chess champıon of Turkey, introduced us to Rakı whıch Lucıe lıked and Josh dıdn’t and gave us a potted hıstory of Turkey from the 16th century tıll now.

Movıng swıftly onto Cappadocıa whıch ıs out of thıs world!

Cappadocia

Once upon a time in far-off history there were volcanoes in this part of Turkey, and their ash settled after eruptions and became a very flaky type of rock. Over the years the wind has sculpted the rock into astonishing shapes such as the ‘fairy chimneys’ – tall thin points of rock, often topped with a chunk of a different type of rock which does not erode so easily, leaving ‘hats’ or toadstool-shaped caps on the stalks of rock. The larger rock formations look like sand dunes (or massive dildos) – ripples made by thousands of years of wind and rain. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. One rock is shaped just like a camel, so there was the obligatory riding the camel photo –

Because the rock is so soft, it is possible to carve out 1 square metre in a few hours (apparently), and so there are many dwellings and also churches carved into the rocks. Our hostel had rooms carved into the rock face. Much more cave-like than the caves in Qikou in China! At the Goreme Open Air Museum there are many well-preserved churches and homes – you can tour around the eating halls and wine-squelching holes, chapels and caverns, although there is an onslaught of tour groups unfortunately, who pack out every available space… In some places you can escape the masses, climb up ladders or even the rungs cut into the rock and head up several storeys to look out over the area.

We felt very smug watching all the expensive package tours in their air-conditioned coaches as we hitched and walked our way from sight to sight – we hiked through unique valleys and wandered from strange rock to strange rock.

One day we hitched out to a tiny village to explore an underground ‘city’ – we decided to avoid the tour groups and the high charge and head to a lesser-visited one off the beaten track. It paid off as we were able to take our torch and explore past the lit areas (which were not very extensive) and feel much more adventurous than if everything had been well-lit and cordoned off. No one knows how many underground networks there are in Cappadocia – some say there is one for each village. At least 40 have been discovered and six are open to the public. Originally the dwellings were created to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions and protection from wild animals, but they were expanded into whole cities with homes connected to one another by tunnels by Christians who would use them to escape persecution by the Romans. Air vents were disguised as wells so attackers would not notice them – maybe they would pour poison in the ‘well’ to try to destroy a water supply, but this wouldn’t bother those hidden below. The earliest source about the cities is from the 4th century BC – it’s quite amazing to be able to wander around in a tunnel network past kitchens and store rooms that have been there for thousands of years.

If you’re headed to Cappadocia and decide to stay in Goreme like us, when you go to restaurants – where you can sample kebabs cooked in terracotta pots and cracked when served, or many different kinds of pide, which gets called ‘Turkish pizza’ in some places – ask for discount! ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, as the old saying goes, and in Goreme you get if you ask. You can blag at least 10% in lots of places for being a ‘student’ or even because you’re staying in a hostel where the owners are friends!

Following in the theme of religion, from here we hitched to Konya – spiritual home of Rumi.

As some of you might have seen in the news over the past few weeks, the verdict from the G20 Climate Camp kettling case was given a few weeks ago. I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian, but it was thought that it would be too radical, so it has ended up with the Index on Censorship http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/05/illegal-tactics/. Lucie is also insisting that I mention that she helped write it…

As Hannah McClure and I celebrated our legal victory over the Metropolitan police
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/kettling-g20-protesters-police-illegal?INTCMP=SRCH] we sımultaneously struggled with the medıa’s emphasis placed on
possible compensation claims [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/sue-police-kettling-g20-protests?INTCMP=SRCH]. Our goal ın brıngıng the case against the Met was not damages. In fact, the idea that serious infringements of protest rights can be properly compensated for with money is pretty offensive. People protest to draw attention to what must change for the benefit of everyone in society. Making a police force’s insurance company hand over money to those whose rights have been compromised changes very little.

Our goal was to brıng the polıce to account. Whıle the polıce have a long hıstory of vıolence agaınst protestors such as Blaır Peach back ın the 1970s [http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/23/newsid_2523000/2523959.stm], I found ıt dıstressıng how they were able to detain thousands of climate change protestors and passers by for five hours and then make a orders that force could be used to compress the protest into a much smaller space and ultimately end it. Much of the force used, especially the use of shields as weapons, was filmed and is disturbing to watch even two years on. The court certainly thought so and was highly critical of shield strikes. That senıor polıce offıcers could make these decısıons and hand down these orders wıthout beıng reprımanded was, to me, obscene. Thıs ‘over-zealous’ approach can be seen ın the current Ian Tomlınson ınquest
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/series/ian-tomlinson-inquest-live-blog?INTCMP=SRCH].

In response to the questıon “Does your traınıng tell you ıf someone ıs not a threat to you or any other person ıt ıs acceptable to baton them? Is that your traınıng?’” PC Harwood, the offıcer who struck Tomlınson before he dıed, replıed “Yes.” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/06/ian-tomlinson-inquest-g20-officer?INTCMP=SRCH]. Thıs kınd of unaccountabılıty had to be challenged. Kettling, a tactıc that has become so much part of the everyday protest experience, similarly had to be challenged.

Our case was not sımply about the G20 camp. It was about protest ın the UK as a whole. The polıce should not be able to treat clımate change protesters, or anyone else, however they wısh and get away wıth ıt. However, Sır Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police
Officers (ACPO), seems to thınk otherwıse. In early 2011, after prevıously claımıng that the Met had learnt ıts lessons after the G20 Clımate Camp protest, Orde stated that the polıce could use more extreme tactıcs agaınst protesters. He defended kettlıng and claımed
that horse charges could be “very useful”. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jan/27/hugh-orde-police-protest-tactics]. Thıs was ın response to the wave of protests that grıpped the country followıng the savage cuts by the Con-Dem coalıtıon.

In the course of these protests there were multıple examples of unreasonable uses of polıce force, accompanıed by an apparent belıef on the part of the polıce ın theır own ımmunıty. In December 2010, Jodı McIntyre, a cerebral palsy sufferer, was dragged
from hıs wheelchaır by polıce offıcers on two occasions [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/15/jody-mcintyre-protester-dragged-from-wheelchair?INTCMP=SRCH]. An offıcer justıfıed havıng done so, claımıng that ıt was “for
[Jody’s] own safety’”[http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/16/wheelchair-protester-investigation-ipcc?INTCMP=SRCH]. The prevıous month had seen tuıtıon fee protestors, as well as chıldren and pregnant women, charged by polıce on horseback. Despıte the Met’s claıms to the contrary, a vıdeo was posted on Youtube clearly verıfyıng that the crowd had been charged [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/26/student-protests-police-under-fire?INTCMP=SRCH].
.

After the Kıngsnorth Clımate Camp ın 2009, ministers claimed that 70 police had sustained injuries at the hands of protestors and used this evidence to justify the operation. It later emerged from polıce records that the injuries comprısed sun stroke, bee stıngs and gettıng hands stuck ın car doors. In realıty, four polıce offıcers were ınjured through contact with clımate change protestors, categorised at the lowest level of seriousness. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/16/kingsnorth-environment-police-inquiry-injuries]. Subsequently, parts of the police operation at Kingsnorth were found by the courts to have been unlawful [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/12/climate-camp-police-unlawful?INTCMP=SRCH].

Durıng protests, polıce do not and wıll not act ın the ınterests of the people. They are there to maıntaın the status quo. To do thıs, the polıce wıll use and manıpulate any power they are gıven to ıts very lımıts. The polıce may claım to have ‘learnt theır lesson’, but such
statements are undermıned by the fact that they have already decıded to appeal thıs most recent judgment [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/14/kettling-g20-protesters-police-illegal]. The polıce learn theır lessons not out of choıce, but because they are forced to do so. Thıs ıs why I was part of the team whıch took out thıs case agaınst them.

It is safe to say that there is very little to do in Bhopal. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Bhopal is a truly horrible place, which is only made palatable by the Sambhavna Clinic, and a surprisingly good book shop (though the organisation inside is rather lacking).

Flicking my eyes across the books, from Harry Potter in Hindi to Lonely Planet Hong Kong, I suddenly saw ‘Noam Chomsky & Ilan Pappe’. There was no title, but when these are the two authors, the title becomes of secondary importance. When I excitedly pulled the book out, I found it was titled Gaza in Crisis – Reflections On Israel’s War Against the Palestinians.

After reading Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and knowing that India is a favoured relaxation spot for post-compulsory military service Israelis, this book was a must-read.

Having now finished the book, I feel all the wiser. Even though much the material pre-dates the Israeli attack on the peace flotilla, the content is still highly up-to-date, with the cut and wit expected of Chomsky, and the historical grounding Pappe always provides.

While the overall message of the book is rather simple and obvious – Israel is a brutal colonialist nation and is only able to hold the position it does due to its unprecedented support by the Western nations, the US in particular – it still provides highly useful information and evidence to add feathers to anyone’s bow in the fight against Zionist myths and propaganda.

Of particular interest to me were the discussions over the desirability of a one-state vs two-state solution, as well as the merits and flaws of boycotts (the latter discussion is further assessed in an interesting article in a recent International Socialist Journal – http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=680&issue=128). While neither author favours a two-state solution as the desirable end goal, Chomsky clearly believes that it is only through this process that what he terms ‘a binational state’ can be created.

While the overall impression of the book is of a rather ramshackle collection of related articles and interviews, Gaza in Crisis still gives an excellent analysis (several, in fact) of the situation in Palestine today, and dispels the cynical hypocrisy of Israel and its supporters.

Firstly, Happy New Year. We have now completed our outward journey to the Sambhavna Clinic (thank-you for all the donations) in Bhopal, which is where we spent NYE – we arrived to an invitation to a party. What a way to be introduced to the staffing body!

We have about a week to catch up on and then we’ll move onto blogging about Bhopal for the rest of the month.

On a totally different issue, if you have an interest in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict you should really read Ilan Pappe’s ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’. Lucie has already recommeded it, but we would now like to quickly state why we found the book so useful. Pappe seeks to document the methods of establishment of Israel, through a highly detailed account of the end of 1947, and more particularly 1948, the year of the Nakba.  His account in fact counters (although he never explicitly states this) the term ‘Nakba’, which means ‘catastrophe’. The depersonalisation of a faceless ‘catastrophe’ is exactly what did not happen. Using material from the Zionist founding-fathers, especially Ben Gurion, he demonstrates how to counter the Zionist myths that Israel was founded in a barren land, where those that did live there voluntarily left. Instead, he presents the clear facts that it was always the intention of the Zionist movement to de-populate Palestine as extensively as possible reaching their ends through extreme violence, intimidation and lies.

He documents dozens and dozens of villages that were foricbly expelled, and the brutal techniques for doing so. Often, the population would be gathered together, the men (those aged 10+) would be seperate from the women and children, those involved in any anti-Israeli activities (including the 1936 uprising against the British) would be identified and shot. After hounding the remaining people from the village, the houses would be looted and then destroyed. Finally, mines would be planted amongst the debris to prevent people from returning.

The title of this book comes from the fact that Pappe argues that similar to later ethnic cleanings, such as in Serbia, the creation of the Israeli state is another example.

It is understandable that Pappe wishes to document as many villages as possible, but at times it is overly detail heavy. Nonetheless, a fascinating book that anyone should read who wants to get historical understanding of the current conflict.

For a better review read: http://www.isreview.org/issues/57/rev-pappe.shtml

Browsing facebook you might stumble across a group called ‘The Kathmandu Indian Visa Line Club’. While it only has 26 members, all of them are united in having experienced the embassy from hell.

After returning from our trip to Dhulikhel we hoped to pick up our Indian visas. Retrospectively, this seems a rather silly thought, especially given our initial encounter with the embassy.

We arrived at the embassy at just before 8.30am – our first mistake – and took the obligatory ticket. We were A16. This didn’t seem too bad, given we thought there must only be 15 people ahead of us since there were about that many other people also waiting. However, 4 hours later we had discovered that the system is not that logical. As are also randomly interspersed with Fs, and Cs.

Eventually, at just before 1pm, we joined another mini-queue in front of the ONLY counter (by this point there were at least 60 people in the waiting room!). We paid our 300rs to Telex our forms to England and left, being told to return in 5 working days.

6 working days later, returning from our blissful trip, we hoped for a relatively hassle-free pick-up. We arrived earlier this time – around 7.45am – and were almost at the front of the queue. We again took our ticket, this time being C13, which seemed very unreasonable given that there were only 5 people ahead of us, and, already clued up about this process, went to go and get drinks and investigate jabs. We returned an hour and a half later, checked the number on the board and left again for half an hour.

When we were finally seen, we were told that the Indian Embassy in London had not confirmed that we aren’t mad terrorists (or whatever it is that they do) and so we could only get a 3 month visa. After a little dispute, we filled in the Telex form again (not having to pay this time) and were told to come back 2 working days later.

So we did, having called the embassy in London ourselves to make sure they would reply. This in itself was not as easy as expected as I had to explain to the man on the other end of the phone that I wasn’t “in the pool” as he thought, but “in Nepal”. Luckily, we’d found a mind-bogglingly cheap phone. We went through the whole morning rigmarole (see above), this time being told we had been granted a 6 month visa. Brilliant. Of course we then had to join another queue in order to pay.

One would think that an embassy taking tens of thousands of rupees each day, would have the fore-thought to have some change. No. The annoying man told me to go away (this being after queuing for a total of over 10hours) and get change. I think it was not unreasonable to try and rip his head off…it worked. Well his face certainly changed shape and colour, and I left with change and a smile.

The smile withered in the next queuing process we had to endure. After being told to return at 5pm, we started queuing at about 4.30pm. 5pm came and went. 5.15, 5.30, 5.45…the end of the queue in the mean time was almost out of sight. After asking what the problem was, we were told that the passports had not arrived yet! Eventually, once it was dark, an old man in a wooly jumper took two suitcases out of the embassy and around the corner. It was after 6pm before we were even let into the insane asylum. However, the arbitrary ticket system was this time not even in use, so the 2 and a half hour, carefully collected queue dissolved as people took their seats.

It was another 20mins until the old man (who happily hadn’t been mugged) returned and Lucie fought her way back to the front of the “queue” where we had begun. Finally, finally, we picked up our visas, never again to return.

Lesson of this story: If it is possible, get your Indian visa anywhere other than the Kathmandu Indian Embassy!

China is communist, right..?

In many discussions or arguments about the merits and flaws of communism, China is dragged into the frame as a classic example of how it doesn’t work (second only to the USSR). Such arguments are not exclusive to the right, but are often found amongst the left, especially from so-called anarchists. While we were not under the same illusions even before we entered the country, experiencing life in China has both confirmed our preconceptions, and also helped us develop more material and tangible examples of how China is not communist.

Before going to China I would try and explain to people through theory how China was at best an example of state capitalism (in that sense similar to the USSR). Such arguments are still crucial, but now I simply want to say “have you been to China?”. More than any theory, the reality in China demonstrates how far from communism it is.

So what would make a country communist? I could bang on about this for hours, but to keep it brief: a classless egalitarian society, where the means of production were in the hands of the workers, where production was run according to need not profit, where people gave according to their ability and received according to their needs. More than that, it would be a sustainable society that did not create and accentuate divisions between society and nature. It would be internationalist and support the right to self-determination whether on an individual (the way people express themselves) or state level (the right to self-governance). This last point is probably the most controversial even amongst socialists – who have been arguing about this for over a 100 years – but from my perspective this is a crucial tenant of communism. China fails from our experience to tick any of these boxes.

Is production in the hands of the workers? No! This in itself undermines any claims to it being a communist society. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to discuss the situation faced by workers with anyone, and this blog is really about our experience of China, so maybe we should simply remind you about the conditions in Foxconn factories (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/27/foxconn-suicide-tenth-iphone-china). One thing this Guardian article doesn’t really draw out is that instead of dealing with the material reasons why people are jumping to their deaths, they have put up “safety nets”. Does this really sounds like workers’ control?

While egalitarianism is clearly intertwined with ownership of production, our experience of the inequalities in China were a lot more banal. Beijing, like many large cities, obviously highlights this inequality. Grand glass structures, built for the rich and for tourists, stand side by side with hutongs (tiny back alleys), where people wash their clothes on the street outside their tiny, corrugated iron-roofed, concrete houses. Such inequality is not unsurprising, and similar though less stark scenes can be seen across the capitalist Western world, but China is meant to be communist and therefore such scenes should not be part of the landscape. Unless, of course, we understand that the similarities between all these countries are far greater than their differences.

Another example of evident class divide is the organisation of the trains. While in the UK there are 2 classes (first and second), China’s trains have a much more nuanced class categorisation, running from  soft sleeper (which is the best of the best) through hard-sleepers to hard seating. The latter can seat people for up to 18 hours and there are never enough seats for everyone, so some people simply sit in the alleys. Even within hard-sleeping class there is a triple-tiered system, where the lower your bed the more space you have and therefore the more you pay. Egalitarianism..?

The train system also highlights the individualistic mentality implanted in people. “If you get there first you win”, explained an English immigrant to China. This is demonstrated in the mad dash for the trains, which serves no obvious purpose other than to get your bags in a better place. But, trains are not the only space in which this occurs. Queuing generally follows this rule, as does driving. While no communist society has ever existed for long enough to test the mentality of the inhabitants, this competitive individualism is generally associated with a society which places such principles at its core, i.e. capitalism.

The rift between nature and society again highlights China’s lack of communist credentials. People might refer to the USSR and claim that they were communist and their environmental policy wasn’t all that great, but all I have room to say is “No soviets, No unions”. The West, especially the USA, obviously uses China as its scapegoat for not cutting its carbon emissions and I in no way wish to support this argument. Per person China pollutes significantly less than the West which is the only fair way to measure emissions. However, China is still incredibly destructive to the environment. If they continue on their current path of development, by the end of the century they will be producing significantly more CO2 per capita than the USA (the largest emitter by far in the world).  For an interesting discussion on Marxism and the environment check out J.B. Foster.

Finally, in terms of what we experienced, The Big One. Tibet. An interesting topic, not least because some members of the left (including the maverick Slavoj Zizek) still seem to support China’s occupation of it – something to do with “development”, one of the core reasons for the split in arguments over self-determination. However, the arguments of development  in relation to Tibet are farcical. Moreover, I challenge anyone to go to Tibet and then argue the Chinese occupation is a positive thing for Tibetans, regardless of what little infrastructure has been put in place.

The Tibetans are an oppressed people economically, practically and culturally.  Since the occupation began, similarly to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there has been a massive influx of ethnically Chinese people (of course what is meant by Israeli is rather more controversial). This was increased by the construction of the Beijing to Lhasa railway. Now two-thirds of the inhabitants of Lhasa (Tibet’s capital city) are Chinese. Again similarly to Israel, the settlers are given an economic incentive to move and live there. As a result, unlike in British India, where the Indian elite were used as puppets by the British (holding positions in government administration), if you are Tibetan it is extremely difficult to get any sort of well-paid job. A significant cause of this may be that exams at university can only be taken in Chinese. We met people who spoke perfect Chinese, but had been unable to finish their degrees (after several years of expensive tuition [another example of the unequal realities of China – universities are prohibitively expensive for anyone but the rich])  because their written Chinese was not good enough. There is, by the way, a 54% illiteracy rate in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” which rises to 59% when including the Tibetan regions incorporated into China.

A further consequence of the new railway is the increased militarisation of Tibet, particularly after the unrest of 2008. Armed police officers stand on every street corner in Lhasa holding massive guns (with live ammo) or just big sticks. They patrol up and down in groups, taking up the whole of the pavement and expecting you to move out the way. They oversee the squares both from the ground (where they have “PR” friendly resting spots for pilgrims) and from the rooftops. If anyone was to kick off they would probably simply be shot.

We met one person who told us that if you murder someone, you can buy off the officials (presumably they weren’t talking from experience!), but if you are arrested for “politicals”, your life is over. Moreover, you can look forward to torture which the UN called “widespread and routine” in Tibet in 2008. Not only your life will be affected, in fact, but that of your entire family. Given that you can’t even get a passport if one of your family members lives in India (to which the Dalai Lama fled in 1959), you can imagine the extent of ruin that this would cause. By the way, getting a passport standardly takes 3 years for Tibetans – they could go to China, but of course everything is too expensive for them to do that.

Unsurprisingly, there do not seem to be any political organisations that are not affiliated with the Chinese government. We heard that sometimes “Free Tibet” posters turn up in public toilets, but that seems to be the extent of the resistance. In fact, the main form of resistance against the Chinese comes from the Tibetan monks.

Protests by monks are what sparked the 2008 unrest and this is not the first time the monks have led the resistance. From  the perspective of the Chinese administration therefore, the repression of Tibetan religion was crucial. Obviously, the initial onslaught of violence against Tibetan monks and nuns in particular was prompted by the Cultural Revolution, in which thousands of monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns killed or imprisoned. Yet even now, the majority of political prisoners in Tibet are monks. There are police stations either inside or directly next to most monasteries. The Chinese authorities run programmes of “patriotic reeducation” which involve monks being “taught” pro-Chinese lessons at the end of which they have to pass an exam, write a self-critical essay, and denounce the Dalai Lama.

The “cultural genocide”, so called by the Dalai Lama, stretches even to eating implements. Whereas traditionally Tibetans used knives and spoons, now using chop-sticks is the norm, at least in public. During special festival times, people will still use spoons, but otherwise the Chinese influence dominates.

Does any of this sound like an autonomous, or even semi-autonomous region to you? This may be in line with Stalin’s idea of communism, but it certainly isn’t in line with mine, or any true revolutionary socialist. A simple reading of Lenin’s accessible pamphlets should demonstrate this.

So overall, no. China isn’t communist. It may not take the same form of capitalism which the Western world takes, but we know that while capitalism’s form can change its core principles and objectives cannot, and China certainly holds these close to its heart.

******

For more information on Tibet see http://www.freetibet.org, or see http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=457&issue=119 for a decent history of Tibet post-1949

Polish Transport sucks

There were many lovely things about Poland, including Wroclaw and our couch surfing host in Warsaw. However, my last memory of it is one of a ridiculous, irrational and often inaccessible transport system. So that is what this blog will be about. Feel free to save yourself for our next blog if you don’t fancy a rant about the Polish transport system.

Let’s start where we started: the always-constant battle between cars and pedestrians, which in Poland the cars are seriously winning. As a pedestrian you are not allowed to cross the road unless there is a ‘green person’ allowing you to. In other words, jaywalking is illegal. On its own this is highly annoying, but my temper was further enhanced by the fact that cars are allowed to skip traffic lights so long as there aren’t people crossing. Not even about to cross, but actually crossing. Basically, this translates as ‘cars have absolute rights’, while pedestrians have very few if any. This of course ends up placing the power even more firmly in the hands of drivers, with pedestrians increasingly marginalised and made second class. A driver can’t generally be blamed for running an individual over, because the individual shouldn’t have been crossing the road in the first place. All power to the car!

On top of this, bicycles are allowed to cycle on the pavement, which while not nearly as annoying as the cars, isn’t hugely convient. But given the state of driving in Poland (and also the state of the pothole-riddled, rickety roads themselves), you begin to understand it…

Then there is the trams. Even before you board the tram you encounter the problem that there is nowhere to buy your ticket. The best method I found to work out where the ticket place would be was to think of every rational place to put the ticket booth and then look somewhere else. That normally worked. Once you had your ticket and were waiting for the tram, you then had to run, often across a road, for the tram as the drivers seemed to make a point of not stopping at the station. Finally, if you ever made it onto the tram, you had the bizarre situation of noticing that there was enough space down the middle of the tram to let a wheel barrow with a really fat person in it pass, but there is virtually no seating on either side. There were only single seats down the side and so logically the vast majority of people had to stand.

All of this was topped by utter irrationality of the train stations. Despite all the aesthetic flaws of Soviet architecture, one thing that normally could be said for them was that the buildings were highly functional. Clearly no-one told this to the person who designed the Polish train stations. Instead, the designer scores full marks in highlighting the bureaucracy of the Soviet system. There was no main hall, central departure/arrival board or as there are in virtually every other European country, nor for that matter any signs. Instead there is just a maze of platforms. Buying tickets is no easier. For each different type of journey you have to go to a different ticket office. In other words, each different private company has its own ticket office. Plus, once  you’re finally on the train, I recommend that you bring a good and long read. Our journey from Warsaw to Vilnius is just over 450km, yet took us…wait for it…10 hours. This is an average of 45km/h (about 30mph)!

I think that is my rant over for now.

Auschwitz

We have just hammered out three blogs in a row, so do please have a look at the few beneath this one (otherwise Lucie will get upset that no-one is reading what she writes)!

Given we seemed to be engulfing ourselves in the the tragedies of WW2, we felt we should go to what is often termed ‘the largest graveyard in the world’ – Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was the largest concentration and death camp, consisting of Auschwitz I, III and Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which was the main death camp). Over a million people were killed here, of which 900,000 of them were defined as Jewish. The first prisoners to be brought here were Polish dissidents. Other prisoners included Roma, Sinti, political prisoners and Soviet soldiers.

I found the whole experience rather surreal, which was exacerbated by the perfect cold weather (blue sky, slight breeze etc, ) – everything was so still. While I didn’t know what to expect before I went there, and while I’m glad I went, I’ve been left questioning why people go to Auschwitz. This is not to mean that people shouldn’t go there or that it being kept open is useless. I strongly agree with a quote repeated throughout the place, ‘if you do not learn from history you are doomed to repeat it’. Of course, bizarre as this may sound, history in itself is subjective, but that’s a discussion for another blog.

However, I wonder whether a significant reason why people go there is out of a morbid curiosity. Throughout the exhibition you are told, ‘this is the real table that x sat at’. Or ‘this is the real crematorium in which they burnt x amount of people’. When they tell you that’ this is a reconstructed x’, you feel slightly let down.

Maybe I have no imagination, but I didn’t really feel like by being there I got a sense of what it was like to live and die there. Of course I didn’t. I don’t believe I could ever begin to imagine what those people had to go through. Yes, I saw the terrible conditions in which they slept, washed and ate. And there were the more distressing exhibitions of all the hair that was cut off the women and all the clothes etc taken from them (another reminder that these were really people not just statistics). How far do people go to such exhibitions to learn about what happened (which could equally be done from a couple of history books) and how far is the underlying reason a morbid curiosity? Not that everyone goes for this reason. While on the tour (which you have to do between 10am and 3pm) our tour guide told us that sporadically people who were prisoners in Auschwitz come back to visit the place. And then there are people that want to visit the sites were their friends and family were murdered – at various points around the site there are flowers laid and candles lit in remembrance.

Another interesting point I drew from the tour was how much emphasis was given to everything the Nazis kept. I’m obviously walking a thin line here, but the suggestion was that the Nazis were even more barbaric, cruel and inhumane for keeping all this stuff – i.e. clothes, shoes, rings etc. But I fail to see why this is. They were certainly barbaric, cruel and inhumane and more. But I don’t see why them reusing shoes, material etc makes them moreso. Of course for the loved ones, thinking that their dead friend/lover/etc shoes were being worn by a Nazi soldier must be horrible, but in reality its quite resourceful to reuse what can be reused, especially in a time of scarcity. I find it a weird cultural norm that the impersonal possessions of a dead person somehow become sacred and of more significance after their death. The dead person is not going to mind (or for that matter know) if their shoes are worn once they are dead. They are not going to go through any more pain or fear is someone is using their toothbrush or hairbrush. The pain and fear is endured when they are slowly starving and freezing in a concentration camp, in the knowledge that the next round the doctor does may be the one that sends them to their death as they are really too weak to work. With regards to people’s hair, I think this position might fall down as hair can be a highly personal thing. But then again as long as this is taken once the person is dead, what extra harm does it do to the dead person? The Nazis were monstrous disgusting people, but I do not see how taking the possessions of people adds to this or why we should look down on them further for this.