2016: not such a good year (part 1: Iceland, Syria)

‘Your turn, doctor’

I had a lovely time last year, but for many, 2016 was not such a good year,[1] even if they were fooled by propaganda and fake news into thinking it was. If you want to see how the other half lives, check out Médecins Sans Frontières’s photographic recap of 2016.

Pulses It was a great year if you were an Australian chickpea grower though. The excitement of living through the International Year of the Pulse is unlikely to be repeated during anyone’s lifetime, but the record harvest must have really pumped our growers’ yams. They harvested a million tonnes of chickpeas, and had a record breaking million hectares under cultivation, about the size of Sicily. Who knew? Production was very poor in the sub-continent and prices for pois chiche / gram / chana / hummus / garbanzo bean / falafel precursor, cultivated these past 7,500 years at least, skyrocketed to more than $1,250 a tonne. There are a lot of sub-continentals, (more about that later), and they eat a lot of chickpeas because (some people estimate) India alone has half a billion vegetarians: more than the rest of the world combined.

As we will see, the real pulse was that of the underdog and the white working class. Or at least so the conventional narrative goes, since it remains to be seen whether Trumpland will see factory workers making large American cars again and whether the grandchildren of Kentish publicans will take back the real English ale taps from the Poles and Czechs.

Not in Iceland, though, where following remarkable elections in the wake of the Panama Papers’s revelations, the Pirate Party, with their unique mode of populist appeal, was invited to form government but couldn’t manage it. So the conservatives are back in power notwithstanding that the Prime Minister was the most prominent scalp of the Papers.  Bet you didn’t know that Birgitta Jonsdottir who would be its leader if the Pirate Party had a leader used to live in Forest Hill but quit Australia in light of the indignities associated with the application for citizenship.

The Panama Papers were interesting: nothing like 11.5 million privileged documents of a law firm with lots of clients in tax havens to excite the Australian Professional Liability Blog.  We learnt that Bashar al-Assad probably funded his war against his own people by having Mossack Fonseca set up up front companies in the Seychelles through which international sanctions were evaded. And that he purchased £6million worth of luxury London real estate while his people endured one of the agonies of the millennium.

And nor did the underdog prevail in Syria either, after ISIS corrupted the purity of the Arab Springers and Russia rushed in to defeat ISIS, whatever the collateral cost. The rebels were crushed, providing for a historically unsatisfactory maintenance of the status quo after the slaughter and displacement and economic obliteration of an entire state.  Remember, it all started when Dr Assad’s world-class goons tortured some schoolboys for scrawling ‘Your turn, doctor’ in red paint on a Daraa wall at a provocative point in the falls of middle eastern despots in the Arab Spring.  According to the foundation lore of the rebels, ‘They forced [one schoolboy] to sleep naked on a freezing wet mattress, they strung him up on the wall and left him in stress positions for hours, and they electrocuted him with metal prods.’ When one of the kids’ dads objected to Dr Assad’s cousin, he was told to ‘forget about their sons, and consider having new children’ and if that failed, he was supposedly told, then the fathers should send their wives to the police station to be impregnated by the security forces.  These events are part of the narrative of the excellent re-telling of of the story of Doaa Al Zamel, a girl from Daraa who fled to Egypt and thence to Sweden on a smuggler’s boat on which hundreds drowned: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea.  I commend it to you as a personal experience of the Syrian uprising, the precursor to today’s more complicated civil war and of the decision to flee by smuggler and of the horrific passage.

Syria  I am so glad I was not in Syria and not a Syrian in 2016. The great powers other than China played out a proxy war with Russia ramping up its cowboy intervention, a war which, it is estimated, has produced about 11 million refugees — 6 million inside Syria and about 5 million who have fled to neighbouring countries. Since the US was supporting the anti-Assad forces which are not ISIS, that means that despite everyone pretending to be battling ISIS, Russia and the US were in fact at war with each other last year.

Australia kept bombing Syria and Iraq (641 bombs by March 2016) as part of the the anti-ISIS coalition with the United States, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE and the United Kingdom.  Regrettably, some Aussie planes were involved in a sortie that took out 90 fighters on our own side as they were battling ISIS. Bit of a mix up as to who was who. ‘Shit happens’ as Tony Abbott would say.  The Assads said it proved that US and the Australians supported ISIS which brought to mind the absurd propaganda of Tariq Aziz during the Australian invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Turnbull government said they couldn’t possibly discuss the detail of the regrettable incident while a coalition review was underway and that boo-boo drifted off into the mists of time unresolved.

There was in fact a bit of a ceasefire in the first half of the year, but it did not last. During another ceasefire arranged between the Americans and the Russians in September, a 31 truck convoy of aid prominently marked with the symbols of Red Crescent (the middle-eastern version of the Red Cross) travelling under the aegis of the United Nations was bombed for hours, killing 21 civilians and depriving desperate civilians of basic necessities.  Ban Ki-moon said it was a ‘sickening, savage and apparently deliberate’ war crime. The New York Times said it was ‘a new low in a spiral of depravity that has killed nearly half a million people, displaced 20 times as many and stranded hundreds of thousands in besieged areas.’ There does not even seem to be much of a media consensus as to exactly who did it.

Then there was the annihilation of the 5,000 year old city of Aleppo, long a Timbuktoo-like place of mythology, culture and beauty. The last words of Othello (1603) before the Moor plunged a knife into himself are:

‘Set you down this, And say, besides, that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian, and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog, And smote him—thus.’

More recently, it was an urbane, multicultural city of good food and tourists. Do you remember how Vogue famously published a badly timed front-cover hagiography of Mrs Assad in 2011 (‘a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement’)? Those were the days:

‘Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings.

… intoxicatingly close to the dawn of civilization, where agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, where the wheel, writing, and musical notation were invented. Out in the desert are the magical remains of Palmyra, Apamea, and Ebla. In the National Museum you see small 4,000-year-old panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl that is echoed in the new mother-of-pearl furniture for sale in the souk. Christian Louboutin comes to buy the damask silk brocade they’ve been making here since the Middle Ages for his shoes and bags, and has incidentally purchased a small palace in Aleppo, which, like Damascus, has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years.’

Asma, Mrs Assad, came out of her shell again in 2016, a sign of the Assads’ confidence about their future. This time it was the Russians fawningly interviewing her as she explained in her plummy British accent to her adoring interlocutor how (while her husband had been out gassing, raping and barrel bombing his own people), she had throughout her years of post-Vogue comparative media silence been plugging away at empowering the disadvantaged (‘what could I do’, she said she asked herself, ‘to make my country stronger, and fairer?’): microfinance schemes, a science Olympiad.  As her husband’s website proclaimed, ‘The humanitarian and welfare of the First Lady of Syria, Mrs. Asma Al-Assad, has been non-stop, and even increased during more than 5 years of the war by the foreign-backed terrorists, backed by some Western states!’

The in fact utterly grotty first lady from Hell looks set to stay with a bit of help from their Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese friends who besieged rebel-held areas once Russian arial bombardment had cut off the rebels’ supply lines. In Aleppo, there was no food, no medicine, no hospitals, no way out. But there was the internet intermittently. A seven year old girl and her mother tweeted the whole thing (8/12: ‘Good evening my friends. What are you doing today? I am happy I lost two more teeth’; 10/12 ‘Our new house is hit with a rocket. This is the worst bombing I have ever seen.’ 11/12 ‘The army is so near now. I don’t know what to do. only way to flee is to regime side which I fear coz they will kill me.’; 12/12 ‘My dad is injured now. I am crying’; 16/12 ‘Please save us now’). Trolls in armchairs elsewhere tweeted messages of smug abuse in response.

The Siege of Aleppo was one of the longest in modern military history. An estimated 31,000 people died, many of them presumably ghastly deaths: not too many fewer than the number of Australians who died in combat in the Second World War. The photo of a dusty, bloody, confused 5 year old boy sitting in the back of a particularly orange ambulance after being pulled from the rubble of his just-bombed shortly-to-collapse block of flats went viral. Here is the video from which it was a still.

SBS called it the largest slaughter of non-combatants since the 2003 genocide in Darfur. In a roughly five month period in the second half of 2016, it is thought that 22,633 people died in Aleppo (an average of 151 per day for 150 days), almost one in five of them kids, and three out of four of them civilians.

The beautiful world-heritage listed old town which was held by the rebels was reduced to a post-apocalyptic ghost town: see the then and now pix here. But the government held western side of the city was always comparatively peaceful and verdantVice, which continues to commend itself to me for unflinchingly bearing witness to bad stuff, embedded itself with the rebels in Aleppo for a couple of weeks in 2014 and their report is here.

The rebels and civilians remaining in what remained of the besieged eastern part of the town after it was pulverised by Russian jets surrendered and were allowed under an internationally-arranged deal to relocate to rebel-held parts of the country, 34,000 of them, but there were reports of old-fashioned victors’ massacres too.  With the election of Donald Trump, it’s all over for the rebels whose Arab Spring protests started the snowball which turned into the war.

[1] Call me a curmudgeon, but know that I read the happy clappy hope-vibe reviews 0f 2016 (e.g. this blog post and the cover story of the last Guardian Weekly for the year). Very little of what follows represents original thought. It’s mostly just notes of readings. Most of the sources are linked to somewhere, but I relied heavily for yet to be published parts of this blog post on this Age article.

See also:

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