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Matthew Vickery is a political activist, former journalist in the West Bank, and freelance writer who specializes in issues regarding the Middle East, human rights, and feminism. He can be contacted via twitter: @mmvickery

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@mmvickery
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Matthew Vickery is a political activist, former journalist in the West Bank, and freelance writer who specializes in issues regarding the Middle East, human rights, and feminism. He can be contacted via twitter: @mmvickery

Iraq’s displaced forced to flee militant group for a second time

Refugees at Khazir camp

Children venture out into the midday heat at Khazir IDP Camp. The camp now stands abandoned after recent Islamic State gains. © Matthew Vickery

The UNHCR-branded tarpaulin was no match for the sweltering 50 degree Celsius heat in Khazir IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, yet for Subha Ali Khlaeyf and her five children it was the only form of protection they had had for weeks. Now they have had to leave even that behind, just like their home in Mosul.

The camp, sitting on the Iraqi side of the border between Iraq and Kurdish Iraq, was abandoned last week, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew, leaving the camp and its residents vulnerable to takeover by Islamic State, the militant group previously known as ISIS.

Last week the camp was over-capacity, bursting at the seams. With over 5,000 IDPs, the camp was so full that people like Ali Khlaeyf and her family had no tent to sleep in.

‘I am not sure how long we will stay here,’ Ali Khlaeyf said at the time, her eyes locked on her two youngest children sitting on the dirt-caked ground. ‘If someone gives us a place we will go; if they give us a tent here we will stay here. We don’t have a tent here, we have to sleep and live under this sheltered tarpaulin. But life is so bad now in Mosul, because of Daash [the Islamic State] and the airstrikes, what else can we do?’

The camp now stands abandoned, and residents like Ali Khlaeyf have scattered, looking for safe haven elsewhere in the unstable region – running again from the militants who displaced them to begin with.

The 5,000 residents of the camp were told that protection could no longer be provided, and they should evacuate as quickly as possible

On Thursday 7 August, Islamic State militants began advancing towards Khazir after a spate of successful and swift victories over Kurdish Peshmerga forces, particularly in the Christian communities of Qaraqosh, Tel Kayf and Bartella. The Peshmerga unit stationed at Khazir told the 5,000 residents of the camp that protection could no longer be provided, and they should evacuate as quickly as possible.

Manar Hamad was one of the many that found herself a two-time refugee within a matter of weeks. Hamad originally sought refuge in Khazir after the Islamic State started to implement draconian laws in the city of Mosul, including public lashings and executions. She and her family left Mosul after her husband was shot. He staggered into their house one day, having ventured out into the street to get bread. He was shot in the back by an Islamic State militant; the bullet remains lodged there, as he was advised that taking it out would leave him permanently paralysed.

‘After this [shooting] we knew we had to leave,’ Manar Hamad explained. ‘People are being arrested, hit, kidnapped and killed; they are going missing. Life there [in Mosul] is like hell. The Daash are coming to all the houses in the morning, evening and afternoon – at any time. Where I live in Mosul they have been going to people’s homes, they are whipping men, they have taken girls in the street. I have seen this for myself, with my own eyes, and those girls are still missing.’

Seeking shelter

Hamad and the thousands of others who, having originally fled to Khazir, were forced to leave the camp when threatened with Islamic State rule again, are now dispersed around Kalak and the Kurdish capital of Erbil, according to Mohammed Bahaldin of the Barzani Foundation – the Kurdish NGO that helped operate Khazir. Families are now desperately searching for shelter and safety, with the spectre of the Islamic State still looming large in their current predicament and in their recent memories.

In Ankawa, the Christian town on the outskirts of Erbil, several refugee camps have now been set up in parks, churches and other public spaces in order to house the influx of families seeking sanctuary from persecution – particularly within the last few days, as the Islamic State began a new offensive, taking over swathes of previously Peshmerga-controlled land. The camp at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral houses around 1,000 Christians, many of whom were told by Islamic State militants that they had a choice: either they convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. Now whole families sleep outside under trees; others have secured a space in the crowded church, while the newest arrivals sleep on benches, pathways and in a nearby park.

‘People are being arrested, hit, kidnapped and killed; they are going missing. Life in Mosul is like hell’

The city of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, was seized by Islamic State militants in the early hours of Thursday morning. The city was previously protected by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and armed volunteers from the city; however, when the Islamic State made a move on the city the call was given by the Peshmerga to abandon Qaraqosh’s ancient walls. Some 50,000 residents fled – the reason why Ankawa is now overflowing with Qaraqosh families seeking sanctuary.

‘We ran at 4 am. There was shooting and we heard the shouts of Allahu Akbar from Daash as they marched towards the city,’ Asad al-Sakt, a refugee from Qaraqosh, explained. ‘The Peshmerga told everyone to leave, that they were leaving as well. Now we are here. We had to leave; maybe they would have killed us, and they would have kidnapped women and girls as they have done before. What sort of life is this? I want my family to have a new start, to start from zero again. We can’t be Christians in Iraq. I feel things like this will always happen to us.’

Like all the camps now set up in the Kurdish region, water and food is scarce in Ankawa. Food has run out and water is limited. Tents have not arrived, so shelter is a luxury, yet more refugees keep streaming in. They are living in limbo, and very few in Ankawa believe that this state will be temporary.

‘I will never be able to return to Qaraqosh, I am sure of this,’ al-Sakt said. ‘Life is more than just food and water. It is about being able to live. I don’t feel like I will ever have this in Iraq, and I will never have this here in Ankawa, living like this. I don’t know what we will be able to do. I fear I won’t have my life back for a long time.’

‘Every protest is crushed by the great brutality of Morocco’

Shadow of person in Western Sahara

YoTuT under a Creative Commons Licence

Western Sahara is the forgotten region of the world, its people the forgotten inhabitants, and its refugee population the forgotten homeless.

It is a nation crippled by an aggressive Moroccan military occupation supported, in essence, by the impotence of the international community. Moroccan settlers now outnumber native Saharawi inhabitants. Yet unlike the Palestinians’ or the Tibetans’, the Saharawis’ aspirations for self-determination are largely ignored. To many people, they are simply unknown.

This collective punishment of a whole nation – stretching not just to those who live in the territories occupied by Morocco but also to the extensive refugee population – ensures that Saharawis are unable to live as individuals with political and human rights in a nation of their own. Individuals who speak up against this injustice are brutally silenced. Aminatu Haidar, a human rights and self-determination activist, has over the years spent prolonged periods in prison, being systematically tortured and threatened with rape. The mass arrests and injuries carried out by the Moroccan security forces against individuals involved in the Gdeim Izik protest camp are another example of what individuals face when they refuse to stay silent. As Saharawi Agaila Abba told me:

‘Every attempted protest on the side of the Saharawis is crushed by a great brutality on the side of Morocco. Most Saharawi activists are now jailed, and those who led the protests last year were put on trial in a Moroccan military court and given a life sentence. The brutality of Morocco’s human rights violations against the Saharawi is not getting better; they have just started.’

Mohammed Wered describes the many techniques that Morocco uses to find and silence activists in the occupied territories:

‘There’s a wide and complicated network of security forces, military soldiers, secret agents, Moroccan civil informants... [Activists are subjected to] intimidation, beatings, imprisonment, torture, forced disappearance, fabrication of confessions, and the threat of rape, especially against male activists.’

The control that Morocco exercises in the resource-rich occupied Western Sahara is overwhelming. Imagine having to get approval from Moroccan authorities before you can name your child, or knowing that wearing traditional clothes could result in punishment. Imagine trying to stop yourself from speaking your own dialect, aware that if caught, this too is a punishable act, or being unable to raise the flag of your nation or participate in peaceful demonstrations for fear of being beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed. This is the reality of living in Western Sahara.

Activists around the world must start to foster an understanding of the situation in Western Sahara, learn and raise awareness about it. In particular, those already active in other self-determination movements and human rights issues, such as Palestine, should recognize the parallels and be vocal about them.

Those parallels do not just exist with regards to military occupation and its consequences, but also to the words, thoughts and desires of the individuals who bear the brunt of international impotence, and the colonial actions of an aggressive state. Echoing similar sentiments of freedom and hope around the world, Saharawi refugee Kamal Fadel writes:

‘I have a strong and constant longing to breathe the fresh air from the sea breeze of the Atlantic Ocean on the Western Sahara coast, and to walk barefoot on the dunes of a free Western Sahara.’ 

‘O little town of Bethlehem’: A world of collective punishment

Banksy Bethlehem

As refugees, the biblical Mary and Joseph would face difficulties going in or out of Bethlehem today. Kodjo Deynoo. Artwork originally by Banksy under a Creative Commons Licence

It is a city that many people know very little about in a modern context, yet as Christmas Day approaches, pictures of this seemingly idyllic, peaceful place adorn many mantelpieces.

Modern day Bethlehem is surrounded by a concrete wall which at its highest point is over eight metres tall – twice the height of the Berlin Wall – with three crowded refugee camps within it. Where Christmas all over the world is an opportunity to visit family, this is not guaranteed for those who live in Bethlehem at any point throughout the year. Permission must be sought from the Israeli authorities, even if individuals wish to travel just six kilometres to visit friends or family in Jerusalem.

Such permission is hard to come by, if not impossible. Life here is not one full of optimism. Rather, it is a world of collective punishment, implemented merely for being born in the ‘wrong’ place.. A geographical lottery, which denies simple freedoms and rights to many. Indeed the bullet holes seen dotted on buildings around the city are a reminder that the limbo of occupation at the hands of one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries can be fragile. Occupation here and elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories is crippling, yet it is largely ignored by the wider world.

The freedom of movement restrictions in Bethlehem, implemented on Palestinians in general, are not just draconian but fundamentally violate human right conventions. A person should not be discriminated against on the basis of their nationality, religion, ethnicity or geographical birthplace; this is a fundamental right.

Yet, in Bethlehem at every turn, there is a story of violated human rights, of the crushing hand of military occupation. The mother whose son has been jailed without trial under the administrative detention law (a law used by the Israeli government to jail Palestinians without charge for two years at a time without trial, an incarceration which can be renewed at the end of the period). The two young children who saw their mother killed as she went to open her door in Aida refugee camp and was blown up by an impatient Israeli military unit who preferred to continue their patrol through the overcrowded homes of refugees rather than the road going through the camp. The olive farmer who has to watch his family’s entire livelihood being dug up for a Wall that happens to expropriate half his village’s land as well. The young couple who watched their new-born child die because they were refused permission through a military checkpoint to get to a hospital.

These stories are not made-up, they are real, and they are not isolated; they have all occurred in and around Bethlehem in recent years.

For those of us who celebrate Christmas and support people living under oppression, we must start to use the festival as a platform to talk about the plight of Bethlehem and the wider Palestinian population.

After all, to decorate our homes this month with pictures of Bethlehem without showing awareness of its reality is an injustice to Palestinians and their suffering, as well as a rejection of their fundamental right to enjoy the same freedoms and security that we will enjoy, and may take for granted, this Christmas.

‘The olive tree is the foundation of the home’

Old olive tree

The trunk of the Al-Badawi tree, claimed to be the oldest olive tree in the world. Stop the wall under a Creative Commons Licence

I was first told this phrase by a farmer in Al-Walaja village in the West Bank two years ago, while we attempted to make our way towards the village’s fields and olive trees. They had been stolen by the Israeli government to make way for a nearby illegal Israeli settlement. Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers predictably stopped us and pushed us back, preventing us from going any further. During this year's olive harvest, this scene is being repeated time and again in the occupied Palestinian territories, often with dangerous aggression from IDF soldiers and Israeli settlers, or through the settlers directly destroying the trees.

The olive tree is the symbol of Palestine, of sumud (steadfastness): the ability to hold on and stand your ground against all odds. Indeed, olive trees have the potential to live for thousands of years and it is Al-Walaja where arguably the oldest olive tree in the world resides. Named Al-Badawi (The Old One), it has been dated to an age of between 4,000-5,000 years.

The olive trees that dot the West Bank have provided an income to Palestinians, generation after generation, and as such, they are valued members of the family.

It is during olive harvest that this phrase always comes back to me, kick-starting my thoughts about the olive trees’ relationship with the foundations of the Palestinian home and family life, often both built on the steadfastness of the olive tree. The olives that are sold from the tree, which survives harsh winters and dry summers, provide when economic times are tough, when other income channels have failed. It is a tree, a simple and, by itself, rather straight-forward tree, yet the relationship between it and the families living in the West Bank is special.

Yet my optimism is always cut short – as happens frequently when I think about issues regarding Palestine. My mind may wander among the trees for a few minutes while passing the olive groves on shared services (shared taxis) in the West Bank, yet suddenly the olive trees stop and the stumps begin. Trees cut down because of the separation wall, a part-wall, part-fence structure created by the Israeli government citing ‘security’ reasons; yet hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain on the ‘Israeli’ side.

In many cases, trees that were uprooted could have been given back to Palestinian families and replanted, but companies involved with the Wall project and financed by the Israeli government instead decided to sell a huge quantity of them.

Olive trees unfortunate enough to grow near illegal Israeli settlements or the Wall continue to be routinely uprooted by the army. It is not unusual for Israeli settlers to burn the olive trees near their settlements that have survived the gaze of the military; anyone who has watched the Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras  may well be aware of this.

It may be just a tree, but the olive tree is a metaphor for Palestinian resistance, for their steadfastness and their generosity despite their situation (a situation which neither the UN nor the ‘international community’ seems to have the will to truly and fairly resolve). But just like the olive trees in the West Bank, Palestinians are rooted to this small part of the world, and often only to their own small districts; they are subject to the axe of an aggressive military, one that reduces trees to stumps, and people to ashes.

Responsibility for rape is a male issue

2013-08-27-women-590.jpg

Creative protest Devon Buchanan under a Creative Commons Licence

I am a feminist – and male. Thankfully, a few of us do exist. Yet the idea of a ‘male feminist’ still seems to confuse many men. Indeed, after my blog post exposing a sexist pub quiz went viral last month, I received many tweets and comments from men who seemed not just confused by the term, but also angered that a man would identify as a feminist.

Our society has created, and maintains, an atmosphere in which men are placed above women. Sexual harassment, violence and rape have been normalized and, because of this, the crimes themselves are committed more often. I believe that, in order to complement the current fight by women against misogyny and patriarchy, and to rid society of violence against women, all men need to realize that they too have a responsibility in changing this atmosphere.

From an early age, boys are given mixed messages regarding what is acceptable and what is not. Teachers, for example, are more likely to condone boys’ misbehaviour than girls’; after all, ‘boys will be boys’. The boys may be punished, but their behaviour is still regarded as something to be expected. This attitude develops throughout childhood: misbehaving becomes a ‘badge of honour’ and a way to impress other boys.

It is within this context that sexism, misogyny and jokes that normalize sexual violence appear as the boys grow up. Male bonding is made easier through the creation of an ‘other’: the sexualized, stereotyped female. When a woman questions this, the result is further sexism, rape threats, even bomb threats.

When women are portrayed as objects of male gratification, men are more likely to accept sexual harassment and everyday sexism against women. The National Union of Students (NUS) has published two independent reports (2010, 2012) showing how sexism and the normalization of rape through male bonding and ‘banter’ in British universities have encouraged sexual violence against women.

A man who tells a sexist joke to gain approval from his male buddies may not want to encourage sexual violence, but he is helping to create an atmosphere which does encourage such actions.

Longer jail-terms and more convictions for perpetrators of sexual violence are important, but they will not solve the problem in the long term on their own. All of us must challenge the way men behave towards and speak about women. Some men do this, but most do not. Silence becomes complicity.

When individuals in one group (in this case, women) face daily harassment and potentially dangerous situations because of the behaviour of another group (men), arguments of free speech are no longer valid. No-one would, or should, argue that racism in the southern states of the US after the American Civil War was an issue of free speech; neither is today’s atmosphere of sexism an issue of free speech.

This is an issue of collective responsibility, and all men are responsible for stopping the perpetuation of these crimes in society.