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Bread and bullets
Acute malnutrition increases

No work means no food for Palestinian families.

The road to the village of Irihiyya threads from Hebron through Al-Fawar refugee camp where children tussle, stirring up dust in the road, and out past fields of wilted sunflowers. In a lumbering van that struggles with the gentle hills of the southern West Bank, Aida Abu Laban arranges the papers in her lap expectantly and pulls a shawl over her short, chic curls.

Abu Laban is a health educator for Terre des Hommes, a Swiss aid agency running a nutrition programme in the villages around Hebron and in the Gaza Strip. In Irihiyya she clambers down a hill to the home of the Tobasi family, squats on the concrete floor, greets them with affection and asks to see her patient.

She undresses the youngest of the ten Tobasi children, Ahmed, and settles him on her scale. He is a little more than a year old. He has third-degree protein-calorie malnutrition and is 60 per cent below weight for his age. The three youngest children are all abnormally small and suffer from chronic malnutrition.

It is the children born after the closure of the Occupied Palestinian Territory in March 1993 who are stunted. It was at that time that their father was refused a permit to work in Israel and could find no other work. Since then the Tobasi family has been supported by relatives and neighbours.

‘You know, it’s not just that family,’ says Abu Laban, gesturing to a crowd of children assembled to watch her departure. ‘All of these kids, they’re all the same. Nobody has enough to eat.’

Dr Adnan Al-Whahadi, medical supervisor at the Terre des Hommes clinic in Gaza, is quick to point out that malnutrition is not a new problem for the Palestinians.

‘I’m not going to blame everything on the Israelis,’ he says. ‘Before 1948 [when the State of Israel was founded] we were not rich.’ Poverty, traditional child-feeding and weaning practices, short birth intervals and a lack of health education have made chronic malnutrition a common problem in Gaza and the West Bank,’ he says.

What is new is the level of acute malnutrition, which has been accelerating since the 1993 closure. ‘In the past the Israelis used guns and bullets against us,’ he continues. ‘Now they are using different methods. Now it is insidious, a new way to punish us.’

‘The mothers have the education, they know what to feed their children,’ says Etidal Khatib, the clinic manager. ‘But there is nothing in the house to give them. No-one is working.’

The Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Rebuilding (PECDAR) estimates unemployment at 35 per cent in the West Bank and 60 per cent in Gaza. Before the closure more than 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, while today only 25,000 hold precious work permits. PECDAR estimates the loss to the Palestinian economy, in wages and sales, at three million dollars a day.

‘Even in the Intifada, things were not so bad,’ says Amna Bidair. Her husband has been unemployed for eight months. Rocking her youngest child, who has the wizened monkey-face of severe malnourishment, she recalls that they used to get help from the ‘social help people’ – the welfare wing of Hamas. But when the Palestinian Authority assumed control of Gaza a year ago, they forced Hamas to stop its alms-giving. For seven months the Badair family has been eating rice and grape leaves.

Aida Abu Laban, back in the clinic in Hebron, isn’t optimistic. ‘We know that giving them food is not the solution,’ she says. ‘We have to find them a job. But there are no jobs; there are no other sources of income.’

The Palestinian Authority is promising better days when it assumes control in Hebron after the Israelis pull out of the West Bank. What will that mean for the children of Irihiyya? Aida Abu Laban laughs and turns away: ‘Have you been to Gaza lately?’

Stephanie Nolen

Cold footage
One day, the cinematic exploits of Mel Gibson, Peter Finch, Errol Flynn and other Australian film stars could be kept on ice in Antarctica. Film deteriorates unless it is kept in cold, dry conditions, and Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra believes there is no better spot for it than the world’s coldest and driest continent. The archive would like to store historic footage – dating back as far as 1896 – in insulated shipping containers at one of Australia’s four research bases in Antarctica. Australia’s oldest footage was filmed at the Melbourne Cup in November 1896.

New Scientist, no 1987

Price of life
A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the social cost of global warming has valued the lives of people in rich nations up to 15 times higher than those in poor countries. The valuations are based on assessments of a community’s willingness and ability to pay to avoid the risk of death. Delegates to the IPCC from India, China, Brazil, Cuba and elsewhere vetoed a summary of the work. It was to appear as a chapter in the Second Assessment Report, the IPCC’s first full report on the science of climate change for five years.

New Scientist, no 1991

The Government of Indonesia has promised to remove a stigma from the identity cards of former detainees. At the last count – in 1992 – 1,352,896 people had their cards stamped with the letters ‘ET’, short for Eks-Tahanan-politik, or ‘former political prisoner’. They have been subject to restrictions and discrimination. The concession may, however, be cosmetic. Soesilo Sudarman, the security minister, insists that ‘everybody will be monitoring them...We will always be watching out against the latent danger of communism.’

The Economist, vol 336, no 7927

Isolation and sanctions have left South Africa’s business élite even more in-bred than royalty. Through a tangle of pyramids and cross-holdings, five conglomerates together control no less than 78.5 per cent of the Johannesburg stockmarket. More than half is controlled by just three families: the Ruperts (the Rembrandt Group), the Gordons (Liberty Life) and the Oppenheimers (Anglo American, De Beers, Minorco).

The Economist, vol 336, no 7927

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America’s Peregrine Falcon is about to be struck off the endangered species list, a move that will mark the dramatic recovery of the species that was almost wiped out by the pesticide DDT. Today there are 1,300 nesting pairs across the country. The Fish and Wildlife Service says this is the first example of a species recovering after almost becoming extinct. Announcing the move, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit criticized efforts in Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act, a law which he says, is primarily responsible for the falcon’s recovery.

New Scientist, no 1987


Population Minister Maher Mahran vowed at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development that ‘Egypt is going to work on the elimination of female genital mutilation’. Draft legislation was prepared, but the Grand Sheikh of Cairo issued a fatwa, or edict, stating that mutilation is a duty for all Muslim women, and if women refuse it they should be challenged ‘as if they had renounced the call to prayers’. As a result, plans to submit a draft Bill to the Egyptian parliament have been ‘put on hold for two or three years’, according to Health Minister Ali Abdel-Fattah.

People and the Planet, vol 4 no 3



Vital step
Havana gay scene comes to life

Gay life in Cuba: stepping out.

Gay life in Cuba is changing. Until recently the security forces were known to jail people for ‘looking homosexual’. Police swoops and beatings at gay haunts were not uncommon. Though gay intercourse is not illegal, Castro’s 1959 revolution failed to quash homophobia and machismo. Persecution occurred because of the clandestine – and therefore potentially counter-revolutionary – nature of gay gatherings.

But the film Strawberry and Chocolate, directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, appears to have broken the ice. Nominated at the 1995 Academy Awards in the US for Best Foreign Film, the story of growing trust between a gay artist and a state informer is now showing all over the country.

‘I think all gay people could agree it was a vital step forward for us,’ says 28-year-old Willy Licourt Garcia. ‘People used to think of gays as evil. Now they see in the film that we know how to love – indeed, that perhaps we understand love better than most, after what we’ve been through over the years.’

The gay scene in Havana is alive with parties. It’s common for people to rent out their house to a group of gay people for the night for a ‘Ten Peso’ party – ten pesos being the agreed rent.

Cuba had its first gay festival this February and there was an historic confrontation with the police. ‘They tried to use force to disperse us,’ remembers participant Arnaldo Sanchez, ‘but we held our ground and eventually they went away because they could see we weren’t causing any trouble.’

Cynics might suggest that the new tolerance by the regime is simply a ploy to encourage more foreigners to spend more dollars. The US Congress is tightening the noose of an economic embargo around Cuba’s neck. Yet Cubans are as advanced as any capitalist society in their development of medicine, including drugs to treat AIDS. There is now an austerely named Department for Sexual Orientation in Havana, where an advice centre dispenses free condoms and runs safe-sex classes in schools. The second international AIDS conference was hosted in Cuba in May.

De rigueur for Havana chic is the annual drag-show at the AIDS sanatorium in Los Cocos, about nine miles south of the capital. Pretty, whitewashed, red-roofed bungalows scattered among the trees house around 200 people with AIDS. As in all Cuban hospitals, the emphasis is on community involvement. Couples or families are encouraged to live together as freely as they like, with a community theatre, swimming pool and cinema ‘on campus’. Most people go home for the weekend.

‘There is no homosexuality in Cuba,’ insisted a doctor drily to a group of visitors to a medical school. It’s the old, official line. A gay poet I met, who’s having his first volume of poems published by the State this year, still has to pretend that his love poems are written to women.

The first, tentative steps are being made to form a gay organization in Cuba. A lesbian told me the group will soon approach the authorities for official recognition. But she was still too frightened to tell me her name.

Catherine Adams

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Chlorophyll by Sacha [image, unknown]
Cartoon by Sacha Cartoon by Sacha Cartoon by Sacha Cartoon by Sacha [image, unknown]

Cyberspace accommodates the Grim Reaper

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Cartoon by JIM NEEDLE Cartoon by JIM NEEDLE [image, unknown]

Internet surfers now have a ‘Garden of Remembrance’ of their own. Immortalized in cyberspace, their obituary can be kept online for as long as they want and available to be read by anyone in the world with access to a computer and modem. The commemoration can be in a multimedia form, including excerpts from home videos, letters, diaries or their favourite music.

The Internet Garden of Remembrance ( http://www.islandnet.com/-deathnet/garden.html ) is the main winner of the Natural Death Centre Awards for 1995. The London-based Centre runs, among other things, a ‘Natural Death Salon’ where participants can discuss ideas for imaginative funerals, unusual preparations for senility, Living Wills and the like.

Other Award winners include The Box, a collapsible coffin from Zimbabwe. The coffin does not have wooden sides or a wooden top, just a wooden base which folds down into thirds, and a shroud which is attached to the base. All this fits into a bag which can be slung over the shoulder and carried home on a bus. Unlike wooden coffins, The Box is allowed onto buses in Zimbabwe, thus reducing the transport costs of funerals. The same may apply in Britain, where British Rail also bans wooden coffins.

Heaven on Earth in Bristol, England, is another Award winner and sells the ‘Embodiment Chest’. This made-to-measure coffin serves as a bookcase, coffee table or wine rack until the call comes for the final storage of its owner. The shop helps customers to arrange ‘green’ funerals, selling everything from cardboard coffins to painted caskets in the shape of motor cars. Heaven on Earth plans to expand into every British city until it rivals what it claims are much less creative death-supermarket chains in France.

David Ransom

The Natural Death Centre, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA, England.

Ruiz: rescued by the Internet.
photo by


When a mob of 200 conservative opponents of Bishop Samuel Ruiz attacked the cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, an urgent plea by Father Pablo Romo went out on the Internet. ‘People in the US who got the message called Mexican consulates,’ recalls Romo. ‘The consulates called Mexico City; Mexico City called the State Government in Chiapas. Within two hours the police, who had been standing around, were ordered to stop the riot.’

Mother Jones, July 1995


Babies can drive you mad
A new gift concept has arrived. It is a doll which shows you just what it is like to have a baby. It cries at regular intervals and if it receives any physical abuse it yells even longer and a light flashes. The only way to keep it quiet is to cuddle it or feed it via a wristband which the surrogate parent must always wear.

It is designed to demonstrate that babies can drive you mad. The Family Planning Association have got one and schools have shown an interest. More expensive than a condom, but for about £155($250) ‘Baby Think it Over’ is a lot cheaper than real life.

Everywoman, September 1995


‘I did not over- or under-estimate the response [to France’s nuclear tests
in the Pacific] because I knew I was dealing with a question of national security.
You don’t consult the polls or consider the foreign response in that case.’

President Jacques Chirac of France

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 273 magazine cover This article is from the November 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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