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Lucky women
Cover of the NI Issue 263 Your report on the growing socio-economic and environmental problems experienced in some East Asian countries (NI 263) reflected my own observations. As a civil engineer I have spent 30 years working in or visiting the area. Full marks for highlighting this darker side of the ‘Pacific Rim’ economic coin.

But it is a pity that in reporting Singapore’s brutal caning laws you did not make clear that they relate only to men. Women are exempt from judicial caning. Similar caning laws apply in Malaysia, though as yet to a lesser degree.

In contrast, where women and girls suffer in disproportionate numbers from disaster or adverse conditions, you appear to be at pains to make this clear.

Surely in the interests of fairness and equality you should also point out where men are the main or only victims of discrimination or injustice?

David Yarwood
Berkshire, England

UN shudders
On two occasions your issue on the UN (NI 262) gave me the shudders. When Mahbub ul-Haq, whom you rush to label as a kind of visionary, expresses the belief that the application of market principles would favour developing countries, one is left almost speechless. Is it possible that enlightened opinion has yet to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘free market’ but only a web of deceit and disinformation devised to cover up the exploitation of the poorest and to support the unchallenged domination of business?

In another article Mohamed Sahnoun suggests, apparently without irony, that personalities such as ex-President Jimmy Carter could be entrusted with the most delicate matters on behalf of the international community, forgetting how his administration supported unflagging champions of democracy such as Somoza and the Shah of Iran, as well as its involvement in major terrorist enterprises like the US-backed Indonesian aggression on East Timor.

The above lapses by no means mar the NI’s overall approach to the realities of the world order, which remains refreshing and unconventional. But if one is prepared to accept such statements, one might as well subscribe to the Economist instead.

Claudio Sacconi
Torino, Italy

All is not lost!
On 15 December 1994, hope was revived that through the UN the South could success-fully challenge the existing world order (NI 262). Despite frantic countermoves led by the NATO nuclear cartel, an historic resolution sponsored by the General Assembly asks for a World Court judgement on the legal status of use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

For the first time since the creation of the UN, the legality of the unwritten qualification for permanent membership of the Security Council has been challenged. Moreover, the voting patterns suggest that the days of ‘nuclear might is right’ are numbered.

The resolution was won by 73 votes to 43. There were 38 abstentions and 25 not voting. Even the nuclear weapons states split, with China not voting. Ukraine abstained and the Western caucus collapsed. By abstaining, Canada and Norway broke ranks with NATO, Japan and Australia with the US and Ireland, Sweden and Austria with the European Union.

The most serious insubordination, however, was that Aotearoa/New Zealand voted for it – the only Security Council member and the only Western state to do so. Public pressure forced the conservative Government to side with other South Pacific and Asian States who bore the brunt of threats to trade and aid.

Nuclear deterrence will now stand trial at the Hague and the prosecution case is damning. All is not lost!

Katie Boanas-Dewes
World Court Project International Steering Committee
Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Silent churches
In early December 1994 it was announced that Christian Aid had complained to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that their so-called aid to the developing world was of little help to the many millions who were most poor. It is a pity that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope and leaders of other religions did not add their voices to this criticism.

Christian Aid is an active charity and risks being told by the British Government to confine itself to charitable works. Our church leaders do not speak out because they are liable to be told by the Government to confine themselves to things spiritual and to stay out of politics. Yet Archbishop Tutu in South Africa said: ‘For the church in any country to retreat from politics is nothing short of heresy. Christianity is political or it is not Christianity.’

If the church would accept and act on this truth it might lead to the huge ethical changes which must come if we are to be saved from ourselves. An increasing number of people are beginning to realize this. With action we might also save the deprived millions in the developing world.

Arnold Fullerton
Devizes, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Technology costs
In response to your letters about the Internet, I would like to say that we are closing our eyes to the facts if we do not realize that the technology remains so immensely expensive that it will remain out of reach of at least two-thirds of the world’s population for the next 50 years at least. And with the strategy of the information-technology industry to phase out all cheaper computers and software, it will probably remain elusive for even longer.

With all these technologies, we keep on forgetting that there are billions of people who still cannot read or write and who have no food or other basic amenities. We also forget that because so much money is spent on such developments, food is going to remain elusive for a large proportion of the population for a long time to come.

I have access to the Internet occasionally and use it. It is a very useful tool, but it shakes me up to think of the direction that these things are taking...

Gujarat, India

Canada’s complicity
I was pleased to see NI’s exposé of the weapons trade (Arms Trade, NI 261), but would like to make a few constructive criticisms.

I was disappointed that there was no mention of Canada’s complicity. One of the biggest obstacles facing the Canadian peace movement is the widespread myth that our country is a great contributor to peace and that we are not involved in the weapons trade or militarism. The truth is that Canada was the world’s seventh-biggest military exporter in 1991. Between 1990 and 1993, we were the eighth-largest exporter of weapons to the Third World.

The use of the word ‘defence’ conjures up all sorts of illusions that these industries are somehow ‘defending’ the rights and freedoms of the public. However, the main rights and freedoms being defended are those of transnational corporations (TNCs). Military exports allow TNCs to continue their unbridled exploitation of the natural and human resources of the planet, regardless of the brutality and destruction which results.

Finally, I would like to make a correction – COAT stands for Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade and our address is 489 (not 484), Metcalfe Street, Ottawa.

Richard Sanders
COAT, Ottawa, Canada

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   C H E C H N Y A

Walnuts and sunflower seeds
The bombing of Grozny by the Russians destroyed not only buildings and lives but the traditions
which lay at the heart of Chechen society. Olivia Ward searches for signs of rebirth.

Mud again. Muddy skies, muddy buildings, mud underfoot. The endless misery of it penetrates to the bone, as the dirt invades every exposed core of the body.

I’ve learned that living in the ruins of a city requires a special kind of endurance, the sort the great Russian poet Anna Akhnatova knew when she wrote: ‘So much to do today: kill memory, kill pain, turn heart into a stone, and yet prepare to live again.’

I would like to look for signs of spring in this trampled place without heat, light or water. Instead I watch the people I know by sight, by name, in their bomb-blasted apartments. They are moving toward nothing. Everything is behind them. Each night of the war, as the rockets exploded, their reward for survival was a black hole in their lives.

Last Fall we used to chat in the central square where the men leapt and whirled in their wild Muslim dances, gold teeth gleaming and Chechen knives flashing in the frost. They were defiant, but I was afraid for them. Watching the Russian war machine cranking up in the distance, I could predict what was to come.

‘Hello, have you eaten?’ old Magomed would ask, pressing some walnuts and sunflower seeds into my hand no matter what the time of day.

‘What she needs is real food,’ Rosa would scold. There’s no point hanging about here talking to you without some good shashlik under her belt.’

Guests in Chechnya are part god, part captive. To refuse hospitality, no matter how inconvenient or unaffordable, is an impossibility. A guest who is not fed within 40 minutes knows she or he is unwanted, I was regularly reminded. That, in any decent household, was a disgrace.

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES

But as the weeks wore on, and charred Russian corpses replaced the lively crowds in the square, the people in the centre depended on the hospitality of others. I retreated with them first to the outer edge of the centre, then to the suburbs.

The foibles, the vanities, the flamboyant humor began to fall away. Stripped of their eccentricities, people began to resemble each other. Life at the cutting edge of necessity peeled away individuality in a way that surprised me. Even I felt myself reduced to a body with freezing feet.

But I had money that would allow me to drive away, and no lifetime of possessions to abandon in the city. Visiting those who had no choice but to stay, I watched the daily routine become smaller and more desperate – a battle against hunger, cold, homelessness and the omnipresent mud that sucked at our boots as though trying to pull us down into some foul pit of Hades.

Magomed and Rosa went to a village with relatives but the war found them there too. Their punishment for heaven knows what imaginary crime was to move from house to house in their old age, adding to the burden of poor families.

Mine was to watch ordinary people mutate into survivors. Each morning there was the trek to the reservoir and the usual rumors that the Russians had poisoned the water in some final, genocidal gesture. At noon perhaps the trucks of free bread from the villages would arrive. Women who were used to shopping had learned to beg.

‘As for me,’ said language professor Tatyana, ‘I learned to loot. It really doesn’t take much skill. You just have to swallow your code of ethics.’

She faced me squarely, her watery and bloodshot eyes locked on mine.

‘What do you think? Is it better to ask for handouts, or help yourself? What would you do in my place?’

But there are no answers here in limbo, this place of being and non-being, where happiness, in so far as you can remember it, is the absence of pain. As Tatyana lost her morality, so the normal boundaries of civilized life have collapsed. People weep in front of strangers as they would ordinarily be ashamed to do, their heads thrown back, their mouths open in a mask of misery. Like lunatics from an old bedlam scene they wander aimlessly, accosting unknown people in the street, telling them stories from the depths of their anguish.

In a city without calendars, we have forgotten spring. Traces of green nibble at the fringes of the mud. Rebirth and hope – one day they will mean something to us. A day when flesh prevails over bone. When the skin has grown back over the exposed nerves. When Magomed finds me in the square and holds out his hand, full of sunflower seeds and walnuts.

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

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