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Trying our best
Cover of the NI Issue 272 While you were right to point out in your issue on Medicine (NI 272) that in the end doctors can’t do much to help most sick people, many of whom will get better anyway, I do believe that most of us try our best and are only too aware of our limitations. Certainly there is no incentive for a National Health Service doctor like me to pretend to cure illnesses which are self-limiting and need no treatment, but patients are strangely reluctant to accept this and feel cheated if they leave the surgery without a prescription.

Dr John Hodgson
Sutton Coldfield, England

Printer’s devil
In your magazine on Medicine (NI 272) you state on page 29 that the number of children who die each year is 133 million. I suspect this is ten times too large. A recent copy of UNICEF facts and figures put this figure at 40,000. Call it 35,000 and the figure is around 13 million.

R H Eldridge
Kettering, England

Editor: Apologies, you are quite right! This figure is thankfully lower than we stated though any death statistic is always too high.

Factory Direct
Your articles in Coffee (NI 271) clearly state that most profits are still in the hands of the conventional processors. You also state that consumers are paying higher prices for coffee from fair trading organizations. It would seem that it is the consumer’s added costs which become the increased profits seen by the growers.

The issue seemed to imply that there are also a lot of intermediaries using social consciousness to subsidize change in the system. If meaningful change is to occur then the spread of profits of the middle persons need to be shrunk with the net savings passed back to the producers and forward to the consumers.

‘Factory Direct’ should be cheaper to the consumers and more profitable to the producer. Organic production, which uses fewer external inputs, should also be cheaper than chemically intensive production, yielding higher environmental returns and greater net benefit to both producers and consumers.

Tom Abeles
Minneapolis, US

Firm believer
Your issue on Coffee (NI 271) is an excellent example of how to provide information which can help people to make a decision on whether or not to boycott a product. Armed with such knowledge we are better equipped to explain to those around us why we refuse to drink Nescafé (for example) rather than resorting to ‘I don’t like it’.

Anyone who boycotts a product has their own reasons for doing so. But what made them start? It has to be an understanding of the wrong in question, or else the boycott is likely to be short-lived. We must remember that the reason we boycott a product is first and foremost the personal belief that it is the right thing to do. If others follow suit it is another bonus. It is a mistake to think that individual action is going to make a difference, though many individuals can make a boycott work, as we have seen in the Shell-Brent Spar incident. With more issues like Coffee those who boycott should be more effectual in explaining the cause and hopefully increase the boycotting ranks.

Mandy Meikle
Corrinshaw, Scotland

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Universal culprit
I am an expatriate Canadian citizen living in New South Wales. Since 1968 I have been deluding myself into believing I had settled for unacceptable racism, rather than an unacceptable climate. Now, after reading your shocker about the Cree Indians in Alberta (Update NI 271) I have to ask if there is any country free of this ongoing racial abomination?

The list of who or what is to blame for perpetuating the myth that primitive peoples are less than human must be both staggering and terrifying.

It would have to include most people and their institutions that traditionally have been considered inviolate: parents, schools, churches, governments. Patriotism, with its arrogance, flag-waving and appalling record of violence would I suspect, emerge as the universal culprit.

Lloyd Smith
Mullumbimby, Australia

Algerian women
Issues such as the Family Law of 1984 and shelters for victims of domestic violence have no part in ordinary Algerian women’s lives (‘Women on the Edge of Time’ NI 270). No change in the legal system is going to change society’s attitudes overnight.

The fundamental problems facing Algerian women today, aside from the civil unrest, are 1) Water rationing – four days without water is common in many parts of Oran, 2) Childbirth – appalling conditions in the maternity units and badly administered contraception and 3) Illiteracy – illiterate women know they are oppressed but lack the tools to express themselves in an organized way. Unfortunately the majority of literate women in Algeria are not campaigning for issues which really affect ordinary women.

Algeria’s big problem is not Islamic fundamentalists but rather the inability of individuals to assume responsibility for their actions past and present. It would be over optimistic to assume that the imminent Presidential elections will do much to change this or indeed the conditions endured by millions of ordinary Algerian women every day.

Frances Amrani
Cambridgeshire, England

Following the decision of the Zimbabwe Book Fair’s organisers to capitulate to the Government’s strong-arm tactics over gay participation (the theme this year being ‘Human Rights and Justice’), we now have the appalling scenario of the country’s President openly calling for homosexual Zimbabweans to be hounded out of the country or arrested.

The vicious bigotry involved defies imagination – except for those who still like to suggest that the ‘dark continent’ is full of uncivilised primitives. By scapegoating minority groups on a minority basis (the Ndebele in 1984; whites, just before the last elections; gay Zimbabweans at the moment) Mugabe gives nothing but credence to that suggestion. Maybe he should consider graceful retirement, and let younger and more capable members of his party take the reins. His hanging-on is proving more and more of an embarrassment.

Richard Flynn
Cambridge, England

Seeking solutions
I always find your magazine both uplifting and depressing. Uplifting because at least someone cares. Depressing because I suspect most NI readers already share your worldview.

What we don’t know – or at least don’t agree on – is what to do. At least communism had clearly defined visions of action and resistance. But what is there now? Buying organic vegetables at your local supermarket? Dropping out and getting into crystals? Should armed struggle still be on the agenda? Can there be such a thing as a green consumer or is consumerism the core of the problem?

Maybe you could devote an issue to ‘Solutions’. Or a regular section, with responses from readers and analysis of different strategies. Surely better than a review of Boy George’s latest album.

Mark Mann
Newport Pagnell, England

Fighting fund
NI readers will be aware of US Death Row prisoner Brandon Astor Jones (Endpiece NI 259). He has been granted a resentencing trial and has been appointed a legal representative chosen by the court. This person has failed adequately to represent Brandon and he is therefore seeking to appoint his own lawyer. I am setting up a fighting fund for him. Anyone interested should contact me by ringing (0)151-733-7691.

Lesley Worrall
Liverpool, England

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

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L E T T E R [image, unknown] F R O M [image, unknown] C H E C H N Y A

Mountains and miracles
Returning to Chechnya with friends in search of their home, Olivia Ward
understands at last why they love their country.

The scribbled sign on the city gate still says: ‘Welcome to Hell’. And I can read a pathetic note painted on an empty doorway in the pulverized city centre: ‘Lyosha, I’m still alive. Where are you?’

We drive swiftly because we don’t want to look at the wreckage. It’s too painful to remember that last winter of purgatory, to catch a whiff of the corpses that have merged with the sludge of scrapheaps and basements. The unidentified remains that just a year ago were the life and breath of the city.

On the eastern side of town I feel my hands clenching. My battered but stoical friends are returning for a look at what is left of their home. We have all been through the war, from the plains to the mountains. We expect the worst, and now hope is too violent to entertain.

But we find a miracle. There, surrounded by a shattered metal gate, is a neat brick house. A few late-blooming flowers sprout around the door, as though casting a fragile vote for life in the overwhelming presence of death.

The youngest children tumble out of the car, eager to find their rooms and play. But Hussein holds them back. ‘There might be mines.’ Gingerly he sweeps the pathway with a long-handled broom.

The house is windowless, as are most houses in Grozny after the reverberating blasts of the Russian bombs. But the bare interior is almost as it was, save for the droppings of birds. Gleefully we begin the cleaning operation. But as I throw my arms around Hedi her muscles tighten and I can sense the underlying anger she feels, the grief and futility of it all. In this house, where she spent 21 years building and polishing and raising her children, strangers have pulled apart her handiwork, her peace and her security.

Suddenly I remember my first trip to the Caucasus two years ago, and the look of anger on the face of my Russian guide when I asked who lived in the attractive single family homes flanking her dilapidated Soviet highrise.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY

‘Them,’ she said. ‘Those people.’

Her cold spiteful eyes spoke volumes. The envy that Russian settlers felt when they colonized the supposedly subdued people of the Caucasus, only to find that living well was the best revenge. The sad, sometimes dangerous gap in the two mentalities, played out across centuries of slaughter.

‘They have never understood us,’ said Hussein. ‘These are people who would rather pull down someone else’s house than build a better one of their own.’

That mentality, based on who knows what sense of powerlessness and insecurity, was the opposite of a Chechen’s head-on approach to life. A philosophy which at its worst led to tribal battles and banditry. At best, a sense of pride, not in towering monuments, but in the way one lived.

‘A man deserves the home he has,’ said Hussein. As a newcomer in the region I was struck by the welcoming human scale of the buildings. Their essential ingredients were air, space and light, more vital than the luxuries and gadgets which filled far richer places.

Used to the apologetic squalor of dingy Russian flats, I found it a revelation. In this tiny republic where great works of art had seldom sprung, a home was a life’s work in progress.

I was also struck by the visceral way in which Chechens were attached to their land, not as an abstract idea but because they saw beauty in it. Sitting on a lush hillside last spring while attack helicopters rocketed the nearby village, I heard a Chechen commander ask, almost comically: ‘What do you think of our place?’

And, he added, with contempt rather than hatred, wasn’t it too good for a people who spoiled and polluted every inch of their own vast territory?

I wanted to argue against this sweeping generalization, seeing the faces of Russian friends, and their struggle against all those centuries-old impulses of national self-destruction.

But I could only stare at the hillside, as bees played among the apricot blossoms and rockets blasted away decades of work and care.

Later, as I lay awake on the floor of a house under siege, political arguments melted away. In the laser-pierced darkness I could feel each tremor as it was absorbed by the house itself.

In my skin and bones, I understood.

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 274 magazine cover This article is from the December 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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