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Backwater kids
Cover of the NI Issue 262 I read with interest and some amusement your end-of-term report (NI 262) on a number of UN agencies including the International Labour Organization (ILO). As with most headteachers, however, you have rather a selective view of what is going on in the classroom. School bullies and assertive middle-class kids get noticed but us quiet, diligent and clever working-class kids never manage to catch your attention.

So the ILO is an inconsequential backwater? Is this the same ILO that has just had a major debate within the UN system on the 'social clause'; that is at the centre of preparations for next year's UN Social Summit; that has the biggest programme in the UN on child labour; that is about to produce a report on the global crisis in employment; and which is also quietly getting on with putting into place international regulations on health and safety so that we have no more Bhopals? Perhaps the Headteacher ought to do a little homework?

Peter Brannen
Director of ILO UK
London, England

Liberia's war
There are no indications on the map in your issue on The Arms Trade (NI 261) of the civil war in Liberia which has been going on for nearly five years. One and a half million Liberians have been displaced or made refugees in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. There are approximately 60,000 combatants fighting on various sides of up to seven warring factions. Many belong to so-called 'small boys units'.

The sad fact is that Liberia is at the point of complete disintegration and collapse as a nation, and the war is spilling over into Sierra Leone.

Bernt Karlsson
Caritas Stockholm, Sweden

Evil gusts
I write to complain about the subtitle of Elizabeth Obadina's Letter from Lagos (NI 262). She describes quite objectively two examples of paranormal happenings and you say she 'reveals a new tendency to blame all ills on the supernatural' before we start to read.

I am no student of the paranormal but you have to be deaf and blind to deny its existence. Modern science is very dismissive of areas outside its scope.

Have you never been hit by a gust of pure evil? Not even a tinge of quite illogical abhorrence?

Please let us keep open minds and not prejudice our readers.

Lawrence Page
Bushey, England

Arms conversion
Whilst welcoming your magazine on The Arms Trade (NI 261) we believe that the industrial and economic arguments surrounding the issues were perhaps not given the same attention as the moral ones.

Cuts in arms spending are a reality and the reductions require proper management. While the global market for armaments is currently worth over $25 billion, it is expected to decrease by 20 per cent in the next five years. The defence industry in Europe is already decreasing at a rate of over 50,000 jobs per annum.

There is a possibility for diversification into new emerging civil products and markets such as the growing market for socially-useful and environmentally-friendly high-tech products. The Arms Conversion Project believes this possibility should become a reality. For more information write to the Arms Conversion Project, City of Glasgow, Town Clerk's Office, City Chambers, Glasgow G2 1DU, Scotland.

Ian S Goudie
Arms Conversion Project
Glasgow, Scotland

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Hard line
After reading your Update on the Nestlé baby milk scandal (NI 261), I thought you might like to know how Nestlé run their operations in England.

A patient of mine works at Macintosh's, which was taken over by Nestlé two years ago. She's worked there for years and always enjoyed it - before the take-over.

The new management stopped all talking on the line, banned 'toilet breaks' and limited tea-breaks to 15 minutes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It takes 15 minutes to get to the canteen. The women are all understandably depressed and would leave if there were any other work available.

Then one Friday, last month, a 50-year-old woman collapsed with a heart-attack while working on the line. An ambulance was called, but no other concessions were made - she lay on the stone floor for 20 minutes while the line continued. The woman ordered to take her place had to keep stepping over her until the ambulance arrived. The really disturbing thing about this was the way in which my patient related the tale, with a kind of resigned acceptance that this is the way things are now.

I shall certainly never buy any Nestlé product again, unless by accident.

Carrie Clare
Halifax, England

UK not OK
I am writing to ask you a question which has bothered me ever since I first started subscribing. Why if a letter-writer writes from Wales and Scotland is this followed by 'UK'? If a letter comes from England the place is just followed by 'UK'. Why is 'UK' necessary at all? Surely not because of some ethnocentric notion that everyone knows England's geography better than other parts of Britain?

Oighrig Park
Glasgow, Scotland

Ed: we have been deliberating this for some while and your letter has prompted a decision! We will from now on omit 'UK' from all letters.

Desert rain
I was taken aback by David Ransom's first keynote sentence: 'No rain ever falls on the starkly-beautiful Atacama desert of northern Chile' (Filthy Rich! NI 259). I travelled there in 1991 and woke up in the coach amidst a torrential rainstorm north of Copiapó. It certainly does rain in the desert, albeit rarely, for without the rain there would not be the beautiful but brief flowering of desert flora of which Chileans speak so fondly.

Such flowers, like the copper and nitrates to be found within the desert, are part of Chile's diverse range of resources and patrimonio nacional. Sold to (or stolen by) the British and the Americans in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, the national copper company Codelco sought to readjust the balance of ownership and production of these resources.

It is a sad return to Chile's dependent history that the current Frei administration is looking to privatize parts of Codelco, selling to the new Guggenheims. Plus ça change...

Jonathan Barton
London, England

Brandon 'gagged'
Your readers will know of Brandon Astor Jones, a Death Row prisoner in Georgia, US, who had two excellent articles published in the New Internationalist recently (NI 259 and NI 260).

They will be sorry to learn that as a result of these articles and others, the prison authorities of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center are currently withholding Mr Jones's mail and effectively 'gagging' him. The withholding of mail is illegal under US law.

Brandon would appreciate the help of your readers in writing letters to the Governor of Georgia, urging him to restore to Brandon the right to receive and send out personal mail. The address is: The Hon. Zell Miller, Governor of Georgia, 203 State Capitol, Atlanta GA 30334, US.

We need hundreds of letters, please.

Stephanie Wilkinson
Seven Hills, Australia

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

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L E T T E R   F R O M   R U S S I A

The honest Colonel
In the first of a new series of letters from the republics of the former Soviet Union,
Olivia Ward travels south with a colonel who paid the price of exile for his honesty.

The Colonel was proud of his American tape-player and he hummed to it softly as we lumbered along the dust-choked roads to a village not even the locals could identify. He spoke no English, but something in the song on his tape appealed to him. Above the wheeze of truck engines, a gritty American voice sang about freedom, the loneliness of the open road and the courage to strike out for the unknown.

In profile, the Colonel's rugged tanned face with its jet-pilot sunglasses was a mirror-image of the US military officers who inspire troops and win invitations to run for Congress. Their sports-clad blonde wives look at them with unflagging admiration. They live in glass houses and throw no stones.

Life has not worked that way for the Colonel. His home is half a one-roomed flat in a sleepy provincial town, his wife struggles for survival in another country and his only brush with politics was at the sharp end of a Russian Government tank.

It was there that the Colonel and I met, or narrowly escaped meeting, in October 1993. We stood on the embankment facing the Russian White House as tank fire blasted blazing holes in the masonry and bullets whined in the bushes.

I was waiting for the inevitable surrender of the rebellion leader to round up a long day's story. But the Colonel had come too late for the hopeless task of saving the Parliament, and was waiting for nothing.

Now, a year later, by a quirk of fate the two of us were face to face in the south of Russia in the Colonel's sturdy Lada. The officer who had commanded soldiers in every hot-spot of the former Soviet Union was driving a journalist to visit a remote army settlement for more money than he had ever seen in a military paycheque.

Three years after his discharge, one month short of his 25-year service, the Colonel was still wearing military fatigues. He could not separate himself from the institution that was his pride, his shame and his torment.

Illustration by ALISON MORETON

'One tried to be honest but honesty is not a requirement,' he said quietly. 'When they told me to take charge of a unit, to impose order, I thought they meant to apply human standards. I was always wrong.'

In the corrupt communist military establishment the Colonel, then a rising officer, refused to close his eyes to the bribes, the arms sales, the drunkenness and barbaric cruelty. He joined the Communist Party in the vain hope that tapping the ideological source would give him strength. When he found out the truth he was expelled for insubordination.

But he paid his dues to a system that existed as a shimmering mirage, always beyond his grasp. His honest reputation worked against him. He was thrown from the deserts of Mongolia to the barrens of Siberia. To Afghanistan, Central Asia, then Moldova, where his family was stuck with no money to move and nowhere to go.

The wounds of his service still smarting, the Colonel felt a great rage wash over him. Democracy had solved nothing. The days and months spent alone in the southern backwater, patiently waiting his turn for a military flat that always went to somebody with better connections, exploded inside his head.

He still had his strength, and a gun.

'I thought the country would have one last chance for justice,' he said. 'But when I looked into the faces of the people who were trying to take over, I saw the same old chronic sickness.'

Now he has locked up his gun. There is nothing to save or defend, he says. But his name has been put on a list of enemies of the Government and he is regularly questioned by local police.

'I'm fooling myself that I'll get an apartment,' he says with a wry smile. 'The only way is bribery and I wouldn't pay if I had the money. All I have left is my honor, the honor of a military man.'

That, he said, is worth the dust that was seeping in through the car windows. He twisted the switch of the tape deck.

'Do you mind if I play the song again?'

The American voice rose. 'Nobody understands me bein' so alone, but I know I'm headed home. Somewhere's the freedom road.'

We all sang.

Olivia Ward is the Moscow bureau chief of the Toronto Star.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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