Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anna, Stanislav, Natalia: Who's Next?

"Grozny was a wasteland, physically, morally, psychologically. Ms. Estemirova was almost otherworldly. She inhabited a separate Chechnya, a region where dignity might prevail." (CJ Chivers)

When I read last week of the brutal death of Natalia (Natasha) Estemirova I was transported back to the northern Caucasus and the violence that still breathes its stinking breath there, gloating in its own impunity, and stalking protectors of the unprotected.

My mind, without prompting, immediately conjured up the terrible scene that likely unfolded for Natasha. The early morning snatch which would have been clinical and swift leaving her in no doubt that her hour had come. The calculating brutality as she was dragged from from the car, the pumping of bullet after bullet into her head and torso as she lay there defenceless.

In those last seconds did she regret her dedication to human rights? Did she doubt if it had all been worth while? Did she fear for her young daughter’s future? The thugs that pulled the trigger wanted silence. It is in their interests to spread a cancer of fear through torture, abuse, crime and the cold blooded murder of innocents. To rid the area of neutral observers is the tactic.

Just as it had been in Novi Atagi, Chechnya, back in 1996.

For aid workers of a certain generation the name ‘Chechnya’ can have ominous undertones. It was here on the 17th of December 1996 that six Red Cross workers were killed as they slept in the bedrooms of the hospital they worked in. A hospital dedicated to tending the war wounded victims of Chechnya's conflict.

The six were assassinated by gunmen who still roam free and unpunished. I had just joined our team in the Russian Federation at this time and the trauma that it sent through the aid community, but in particular our organization, was deep and lasting.

Essentially, overnight, everything changed. We went from an organization that embraced risk and excelled at operating in war-torn regions, assisting and doing our best to protect the victims of conflict, to an organization that was forced to put its own safety first – even when that meant abandoning conflict-ridden communities desperately in need of an independent organization to advocate in thier interests in the uphill struggle to reduce the suffering of war.

Tributes followed by Impunity

The tributes that poured in for Natasha from her Chechen neighbours, from her human rights colleagues all over the world, and from the many journalists she had come to know, is a testimony to the remarkable woman that she surely was.

In one such tribute, from journalist CJ Chivers of the New York Times, who knows the region better than most, he summed up Chechnya in a few words: "Chechnya is a tiny spot on Russia’s big map, home to only several hundred thousand souls. But its past two decades offered lenses into factors driving modern war: nationalism, oil, religious intolerance, racism, tribalism, blood codes that demand revenge, irregular fighters and ill-disciplined conventional units, outright banditry, poverty, official corruption and, for good measure, traveling Islamic mercenaries and a government rooted in a personality cult."

Estemirova's death is the latest in a series of attacks and murders of human rights workers seeking justice and accountability for violations, particularly in Chechnya. In January, Umar Israilov was shot and killed in broad daylight in Vienna, where he was living in exile. Less than a week later, Stanislav Markelov, a prominent human rights lawyer who represented numerous victims of human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot to death on the street after leaving a Moscow news conference. Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist who was with him, was also killed. No arrests have been made in either case.

Most famously, investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment in October 2006, after writing numerous articles critical of the human rights situation in Chechnya.

Tanya Lokshina, a colleague of Natasha, recalls how she came to town for her friend Markelov’s funeral earlier this year : "We sat at my kitchen table talking into the wee hours about Markelov and Politkovskaya and speculating about who would be next. Now I know."

Open Season on Human Rights workers in Chechnya?

In an article Tanya wrote for the Washington Post she says: "We don't know who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Natasha, but responsibility for the climate of impunity in Chechnya goes straight to Moscow."

These sentiments were echoed by Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch: "The Russian authorities should take every possible step to bring Natalia Estemirova's killers to justice. It seems to be open season on anyone trying to highlight the appalling human rights abuses in Chechnya. It's high time the Russian government acted to stop these killings and prosecute those responsible."

If Natasha did have doubts as she faced her assassins I hope that time will prove that its not so easy to quench the flame of humanity. Natasha's dignified, selfless and courageous fight for the rights of the voiceless many cannot be in vain.

I leave the final word to her friend, journalist CJ Chivers: "She was, improbably, a one-woman parallel government, providing services that the real government was unwilling to offer. She found the incarcerated. She hunted for hidden graves. She built cases against perpetrators, even when she found, as she often did, that they wore government uniforms."

(The title of this post is taken from a banner at the Moscow march held in honour of Natasha and in rememberance of her fallen colleagues).

Also - worth a read from the Guardian UK.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Zimbabwe: Where Cops are Robbers

The demise of the all-but-worthless Zimbabwe dollar and its replacement with foreign currency is being mirrored by a rise in violent crime, perpetrated particularly by police officers.

Rampant inflation, unofficially estimated at trillions of percent annually, saw the local currency withdrawn from circulation in April 2009 and officially replaced by foreign currencies, such as the South African rand, Botswana pula and US dollar.

A serving Zimbabwe National Army officer reported (anonymously) that junior soldiers and police officers were being driven to crime by desperation, as they suffered the same economic hardships as most of the population. However, unlike non-uniformed Zimbabweans - 94 percent of whom are thought to be unemployed - soldiers and police, like all public servants, benefit from a US$100 monthly wage.

"They have observed how senior security officers drive luxury cars, get free fuel for their multiple farms, and other benefits. Soldiers and police officers have no other skills which they can use to raise extra money - all they can do is to use guns, but when they get used to that lifestyle, they can easily become warlords," the army officer said.

"From a security point of view, what this means is there are underground armies, which can even be a danger to national security because nobody knows how many there are, and how many weapons are in their hands," he commented.

In late 2008, at the height of hyperinflation, soldiers embarked on a looting spree in the capital, Harare, over poor pay and non-payment. They were being paid in local currency, but maximum daily bank withdrawals were pegged at Z$500,000 (US$0.25). Soldiers also attacked Roadport, a regional bus station in Harare used by money changers, and robbed them of local and foreign currency.

Expensive goods

Political journalist Dumisani Muleya says that since the beginning of 2009, local newspapers have been awash with headlines like: "Four detectives face robbery charges", and "Bank Heist: Two cops in court", which illustrated the trend among security force personnel to resort to crime.

The dollarized economy has made goods and services more freely available, but at high prices, which was "causing some rogue elements within the security ... [forces] to use armed robbery as a way of raising extra income ... and that creates a climate of insecurity and instability," he said.

The numerous wars fought in the region, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Mozambique, have made it easier for criminals to access weapons, as have the policies instituted by President Robert Mugabe's government prior to the power-sharing deal that led to the formation of the unity government in February 2009.

Giles Mutsekwa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who heads the home affairs ministry with a counterpart from ZANU-PF as part of the deal, claims that rogue elements are using government-issue guns to commit armed robberies, but the government was "getting on top of the situation, and there is no need for the population or visitors to get worried".

Handing out guns

During the violent 2008 presidential election period, guns were issued to government security personnel to intimidate people into voting for the ruling ZANU-PF.

"We have started a process to ensure that all guns that were issued are brought
back, and that a complete inventory of the guns in the country is carried out. We believe that when all the guns are surrendered, then we will be able to manage and control the upsurge of armed robberies involving serving and ex-servicemen and -women.

Mutsekwa said there were also concerns about National Youth Service graduates, a pro-ZANU-PF youth militia who received "national values" education and military training, which was believed to include firearms instruction.

"We long identified the potential danger posed by former members of the youth service to communities if they continue to be unemployed while living in abject poverty, and those are areas that we are also looking into as a security ministry."

Source: IRIN

Monday, July 20, 2009

Minority Plights

Countries on the front line in the "war on terror" are using the battle against extremists as a smokescreen to crack down on minority groups, according to an international human rights group. While this may come as little surprise to some seasoned observers it is rare enough to find a report that methodically documents the evidence and puts a convincing case forward.

For the fourth straight year, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan topped an annual index compiled by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) of countries where minorities are most at risk of genocide, mass killings or violent repression.

"You see governments who have faced a genuine threat, but the point is the actions they have taken against the wider civilian population, including minority civilians, has been justified as part of the 'war on terror,'" according to MRG director Mark Lattimer.

"It has included disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions." A two-year insurgency in Somalia led by al Shabaab militants, who have links to al Qaeda and include foreign Islamists among their ranks, has killed some 18,000 civilians.

The insurgency has put historically oppressed minority groups such as the Bantu, Gabooye and Yibir at particular risk, the chairman of Somali Minority Rights and Aid Forum, Mohamed Hassan Daryeel, said.

"If the Yibir go with the government, they will be attacked by the radical Islamists. At the same time, if they go with the Islamists, they will be considered terrorists, and if they are neutral they'll be targeted by all sides."

Daryeel said recent amputations carried out by al Shabaab fighters were performed on child soldiers forcibly recruited from minority groups. "They are at the bottom of society, the most disadvantaged," he said.

Despite a decline in violence in Iraq, the report said civilian deaths from violence were still estimated at 300-800 a month over the past year. It said minorities continued to bear the brunt of the violence, especially in the Nineveh area, home to the Shabak people.

"The Shabak community has suffered a lot at the hands of the terrorist groups and at the hands of the Kurdish 'Assayish' (secret police)," says head of Iraq's Minorities Council, Hunain Al-Qaddo. He said around 10,000 Shabak families had fled parts of Mosul to their homeland in the Nineveh plains for fear of being killed because of their ethnicity.

The rest of the top 10 list was comprised of Myanmar in fifth place, followed by Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Israel/Palestinian territories.

Pakistan rose on the list due to an escalating conflict against different Islamist groups, combined with growing violence in national politics and suppression of dissidents.

Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen were assessed as under greater danger than a year ago with their governments' involvement in regional conflicts compounding the risk of repression at home.

African states make up half the report's top 20 list.

Source: Alertnet

Go here to access the full report: Peoples Under Threat 2009


Friday, July 17, 2009

Jakarta Bombings: on the spot report

Bob McKerrow, head of the International Red Cross operation in Indonesia, and a good friend of Head Down Eyes Open, shares with us his experinces from Jakarta in the wake of the hotel bombings there this morning.

This morning I got a phone call at 07.43 a.m. from my colleague Javier, saying, " I heard an explosion and just looked out the window and I can see smoke pouring out of the Marriot Hotel.

Within minutes the Indonesian Red Cross Society had deployed seven ambulances and 42 disaster response volunteers and paramedics. Those volunteers have been providing first aid and other humanitarian support at both locations, as well as at hospitals where the injured have been transported.

"Our medical team evacuated five injured people from JW Marriot Hotel to the hospital," says Rukman, a senior disaster management officer with the Indonesian Red Cross Society, which is known domestically at Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI).

Two teams to reunite families separated as a result of the bombing are working with hospitals to identify those who were lost or injured so that families can be informed. PMI also responded to requests from hospitals for Rhesus A-Negative blood for survivors, and is coordinating with the expatriate emergency blood donor committee to be ready in mobilizing volunteers with Rhesus A-Negative blood type if required.

As soon as I arrived at work this morning I switched on the TV and watched the drama unfolding while dealing with international media from Australia, Bangkok, London and Oslo.

I met the Chairman and Secretary General PMI and offered help.

Later in the day our Disaster Management Coordinator Wayne Ulrich de-briefed the brave PMI emergency teams when they returned to HQ. It is no easy task attending to the injured and removing dead bodies after a bomb blast. They desribed gruesome scenes to Wayne. Adding to the pressure and uncertainty is always the chance of another blast. I really admire these gutsy volunteers.

I was saddened to read that one of the foreigners killed was a fellow New Zealander, Tim Mackay. He is one of nine people killed when bombs went off at the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels in Jakarta. Mr Mackay, 62, had gone to the Marriott Hotel for a business meeting.

It was reported that thirteen other foreigners were among 50 injured in the blasts. The facade was ripped off the Ritz in the powerful blasts. A further unexploded bomb has since been found at the Marriott Hotel, Indonesian police said.

Bob's blog can be found here.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Brezhnev's Eyes Of Stone

How many times in my sorrowful separation,

In my wandering fate,

Have I thought of you, O Moscow!

Pushkin probably noticed it when he came back after a long time away too. The fact is, Moscow, like most of us, has gotten a little more orderly as the years pass. The last time HDEO spent a night in the stolitsa, and had time for a good stomp around was five years ago when Russiana was kinda cool, Ta-tu were shocking and life was gas gas gas.

It’s all a bit cookie cutter now, the wild east. Yes, you can see flathead no-neck gangsters tooling around in their 200,000 buck cars (we are driving on the ring road as I type and a blood-red Jaguar Cabriolet just growled past). You can check out the booty (in both senses of the word) in Gum, that Palace to consumerism that nuzzles Red Square, and you can chug James Bond Martinis and dance to the best NY club sounds next to chillingly bored androgynous teenage billionares glued to their iphones. But it’s all too passé.

The centre of Moscow is almost neat. It no longer terrifies, or awes. Yes, it’s massive, and snarled up with the worst jams this side of Bangkok. People are rattled of course, by the sudden shrivelling of the power of their Rouble. But the arrogance that made Moscow so cool, so tragically hip, has gone. If you find a few grams of it, it’s not the pure sort that fuelled the boom.

Around the huge new suburbs – shiny with happy high-rises - mega malls dominate. DISKONT SENTR. MEDIA MARKT. EVRO PARK. KROKUS EKSPO. And IKEA IKEA IKEA everywhere. People seem world-weary, shuffling, tired.

So where to go to get inspired, to feel the fine butterfly flutter of that first bump onto the tarmac in Sheremetevyo? Where to go where Moscow feels awesome, terrifying, the heart of the Imperium? Avoid Red Square which feels like a theme park with its myriad Lenin lookalikes, Cossacks with ipods, and the Onion domes a-weeping. Don’t bother with the Bolshoi, clad in chipboard with its gorgeous statues hidden from view.

Head Down into the metro, and Eyes Open at the most amazing underground station in the world bar none. Hundreds of soviet realist statues of the proletariat chasing the communist dream throng Revolution Square station. They seem hewn into the stone arches, bending under the weight of the USSR.

Brandishing Kalashnikovs and sheaves of wheat, toiling with hammer and sickle and pneumatic drill, poring over books, singing, reciting, operating machinery and on people. You can spend half an hour walking underground between Ploshchad Revolutsii, Teatralna and Okhotni Ryad and the architecture, designed to move the masses (again in both senses of the verb), is beautiful and stunning (but do spare a thought for those who perished during its construction).

And if you have time for nothing else, the best way to travel back in time is to follow the Maskva, down to Gorky Park (had to slip in the Scorpions reference somewhere, didn’t I?). Cross over and veer to the right of the big white warehouse that is actually the New Tretyakov gallery.

Part with 20 roubles (try and look local – big mirror shades and/or grunting will do it – you’ll get in cheaper) and you’re in the sculpture garden. It’s a trip. Look, there’s the towering statue of Dzedzhinski, founder of the hated KGB, complete with the anti-communist graffiti it wore when the glasnost gangs ripped it, plinth and all, from outside the Lubyanka.

Who’s that? Stalin himself, set among dismembered heads in barbed wire cages, chillingly honouring those the dictator banished to the gulag. His marble nose is smashed, again from the toppling he took in those perestroika-charged times.

And most poignant of all, for a child of the 70s, when the Russian bogeyman, the Cold War chill, was personified by the man with those eyebrows, Leonid Brezhnev. His bust stands on a plinth, head-height, in a quiet corner.

Here’s where it becomes magic. Walk up to him, and stand in front of him. Closer. Go eyeball to eyeball. The weight of history is palpable. You’re looking into the stone eyes of Brezhnev, doing as he surely did when he approved the original monument. For a moment the trees scream, the sky spins and you feel yourself falling towards a terrible force.

Then you see its just a lump of stone. Cold, dead stone. No terror there, not any more. But you shudder, despite the summer heat.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Blast the Blasphemers

My dear auld sod, Erin go bràgh, seems to be loosin' the run of itself these days. You would think that navigating a country out of its worst sudden-onset recession on record was challenging enough without conjuring up needless distractions. Maybe that's it - maybe our politicians are driven to distraction with the impossible extrapolated percentages they are confronted with these days. Maybe the financial crisis has reignited our fundamentalist streak (Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, right, lighting candles in the holy city of Jerusalem).

In any case, in their collective wisdom, the Irish government is today -- I kid you not -- planning to introduce blasphemy legislation. Maybe it's in solidarity so that folks from Kandahar and Kerbala will feel right at home in Kilalla or Kilorglin. Well, that's one of the few possible reasons I can think of because the government itself doesn't seem to think it needs a reason and as such acts without any real motive - other than the fact that no such law exists.

Hardly a pressing legislative priority one would think (not least at a time when people throughout the country are rightly blasting the clergy off their high pulpits over the recent horrific revelations about child abuse).

Roy Brown, free thought champion and chief representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Geneva, opined that it was “totally mind-boggling that a European government should even consider such a dangerous idea given that EU countries — now supported by the United States — have for years been fighting tooth and nail at the United Nations in Geneva and New York against almost identical proposals from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to get a global ban on ‘defamation of religion’.”

Dermot Ahern, one of the sharper pins in the government pack I would have thought, is the minister responsible for pushing through the legislation and argued some weeks back in an oped in the Irish Times that under his proposals, blasphemous material would be prosecutable if it is “grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion,” causes actual outrage among followers of that religion and if there is intent to cause outrage. “Such intent was not previously required;” he noted in his article.

The Cork-based Irish Examiner (best sports journalism in the country as it happens), true to Corkonian introspection, choose to quote its own homegrown political strongman, Micheal Martin, our foreign affairs minister.

It noted that Ireland voted with all other EU countries against a resolution on “combating defamation of religion” at the UN last December. Explaining that vote, Micheál Martin said: “We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.”

So how come such a swing (and why choose blasphemy for a policy swing in the first case?) in the space of a few months? Though, truth be told, that's not my main concern. I wonder now if some of our best native comedic talent will be curbed in their enthuasiasm for the genre. Tommy Tiernan in particular, has long been a thorn in the proverbials of the Irish clergy: "We used to grow priests in Ireland. We used to grow them from bits of people that we didn't like. But we over-planted. We had an epidemic."

And the Irish Examiner must be thinking along the same lines coz it wound up its editorial plainly and simply: “One man’s blasphemy is another man’s comedy classic.” I'd wager they were thinking of one of Tommy's many hilarious rants against the Catholic Church (see embedded video for a typical stand up Tommy gem -- the jury is still out whether this type of fare could now be considered unlawful or libelous under the new draconian measures).

Good luck to Ahern and company trying to gag Tiernan and fellow travellers. That might be one battle too far even for a minister who wants to tackle Ireland's gangland head on with more emergency legislation that, among other things, will empower the tax collector and security forces, to monitor all mobile phone and email traffic within Ireland. While the reaction to this is understandably fervent in its opposition the blasphemy laws will be the benefactor and probably sneak in unopposed under the Céad Mile Fàilte welcome mat of the highest court in the land.

God help us all (now I didn't mean that in any blasphemous way you understand) but the Celtic Tiger is well and truly slain, if proof were needed!


Somalia: World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis

More than one in 10 Somalis has been forced out of their homes by conflict as Islamist insurgents who ruled the country briefly in 2006 battle against the government. Years of anarchy since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, combined with frequent drought, conflict and rampant inflation, have turned Somalia into the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

  • More than 3.2 million need aid
  • More than 1.1 million displaced
  • Infrastructure in tatters

Somalia's Transitional Federal Government has been unpopular and virtually powerless in a country where warlords, Islamist insurgents and troops clash almost daily. Aid workers say Somalia has more than 1.1 million internally displaced people.

Six months of strict rule by the Islamists in 2006 brought relative peace to Mogadishu. That rule ended when troops from Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally, helped restore the transitional government. Foreign occupation fuelled opposition locally and internationally and appeared to boost support for the Islamists, with some analysts saying U.S. accusations of al Qaeda involvement became a self-fulfilling prophesy. The last of the Ethiopian troops left in early 2009, having failed to stem the insurgency.

Violence has killed some 10,000 people since the beginning of 2007.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Mogadishu since the end of 2006. Aid agencies say the 15 km (10 mile) stretch of road between the capital and the town of Afgoye is probably the largest concentration of displaced people on the planet. At the end of 2008, an estimated 200,000 people were camped along the side of the road, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

Somalia is the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world - even worse than the crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region. The UN said in October 2008 that 3.2 million people needed humanitarian aid. The shortages are caused by conflict, high inflation and frequent drought. But food distribution is further hindered by pirate attacks on sea deliveries, roadblocks, and armed attacks on aid convoys.

Aid agencies rank Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world to work, and few organisations base international staff there. The African Union has deployed troops to replace the Ethiopian soldiers, but they complain they are under-funded and under-staffed.

In 2009, parliament voted in a moderate Islamist president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who has promised to forge peace with neighbours, tackle rampant piracy offshore and rein in hardline insurgents (taken from a report on


Some Key Facts

Total population (2006)8.4 million
Life expectancy (2006)47
Internally displaced people1.1 million (September 2008)
Refugees from Somalia (2007)457,000
People in need of humanitarian aid3.2 million
Doctors per 100,000 people4
Population with access to safe water (2004)29 percent
Children under five under height for age (2000-2006)38 percent
Children under five underweight (2000-2006)36 percent
Under-five mortality rate (2006)145 per 1,000 live births
Children attending primary school (2000-2006)Boys - 24 percent; Girls - 20 percent

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Eugenio Vagni is Free!

Great and Breaking and Welcome news - Eugenio Vagni is Free after being released by Abu Sayyaf in the early hours of July 12th (the Philippines being six hours ahead of us here in Geneva).

"Mr Vagni regained his freedom in the early hours of July 12 Manila time. He is tired after 179 days in captivity, but given the circumstances is doing remarkably well.

"The ICRC is relieved and happy that Mr Vagni will soon be back with his family and friends, who have been living a painful nightmare for almost six months and cannot wait to see him return home," said Jean-Daniel Tauxe, the head of the ICRC's delegation in the Philippines.

"We would like to express our profound gratitude to all those who have worked so hard in recent months to secure the release of Mary Jean, Andreas and Eugenio," he added. "In particular, we would like to thank the Governor of Sulu, Abdusakur Tan, the Vice Governor of Sulu, Nur-Ana I. Sahidulla, and the Task Force Comet Commander, Major General Juancho Sabban. The tremendous efforts of national and local authorities, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police have contributed greatly to the resolution of this long crisis."


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mind the Gap

You know when sometimes you come across something or someone you never heard of before and then, serendipitously, you keep coming across the issue or the person? This has happened to me recently linked to an incredible and inspiring guy called Hans Rosling.

Hans, if he must be pigeon-holded and labeled, is a global health professional. But he is also a data visionary. Someone who has the power and touch to bring dry data to life, to give it meaning and to act as a catalyst for solutions to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. Hans has started his own NGO in Sweden called Gapminder (apparently inspired from the London Underground's 'mind the gap') where he and his team are busy exploring the world anew, demolishing myths and changing the way we understand and use data.

On top of this Hans data crunching and analysis is dispelling common myths about the developing world, which (he points out) is no longer worlds away from the west. In fact, most of the third world is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the west did. This perspective therefore - through freeing and better understanding data - is portraying a much more positive and healthier take on the world, especially the so-called developing world - and I think we can all use a dose of myth-busting in this instance.

The embedded video, from the inspirational Ted talks website - one of the best of the web for sure - is some 20 mins long but stick with it. Hans will open eyes and provoke debate and, at the very least, bring dry data to full-fired life.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Bouncing back from the Tsunami: 5 years on

Eric Porterfield, a communication officer with the American Red Cross, visited Sri Lanka recently to see the progress made by communities who were hardest hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. He and his team have put together a great video and stills clip showing how the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans have benefited from Red Cross support, five years down the line after one of the world's worst natural disasters. I really like the simplicity and lightness of this report with a full focus on the communities and individuals themselves. It's a good example of the creative ways that non-profits can report back to donors - in this case the general public - on how thier generosity and funding is making a real difference and bringing about positive change where it's most needed. Chapeau AmCross!

I first stumbled across this clip on


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Untill the sun shines out of your ....

Those boys and girls at Greenpeace are at it again! 45 seconds of sheer joy. This is not the first time a greenpeace campaign has caught our attention - another recent campaign inspired action for change worlwide -- keep it up, we love it.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Ethnic Violence in Western China

This Guardian online report includes rarely seen scenes of ethnic violence in the Uighur province of Western China. It is mainly comprised of Chinese TV footage of a protest that turned deadly in Urumqi, Xinjiang province. At least 140 people died. The Guardian's Tania Branigan reports as the only western journalist on the scene. Great reporting from the Guardian on yet another simmering revolt within China's border.

For a good historical background to the tensions check this out.


Non Profits and Social Media

Here is an example of an excellent social media strategy model from our friends at the American Red Cross who have been busy developing social media guidelines. The Amcross rule of thumb is to encourage and guide rather than to control and command - a sensible strategy.

The report and guidelines are based on Amcross's own experiences but also incorporates best practices from a range of other organizations who agreed to share thier policies. The cool google slideshow (which I failed to embed in this post but will keep trying) is fully of useful tips and steps, please share it widely with those who might be interested. There is also a report carried by leading non-profit social media guru, Beth Kanter, on her blog.

If you are interested in this topic you might also like this.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Upping the Blogging

Last November I read a piece called "Why I Blog" in my favourite magazine - the Atlantic - by journalist Andrew Sullivan. In an instant I connected and got off my hesitating ass and decided to start blogging. What I liked about Andrew's piece was his updated take on not taking yourself too seriously. Yes, blogging has a power of potential but it is also a place of imperfections - and so what? Spontaneity is the opposing thumb of Editing and can provide more insight and revealing truths than any carefully crafted text. In its essence blogging should be considered as 'live' writing rather than 'publishing' - in fact, it is arguably closer to broadcasting than publishing.

After a quick chat with my Head Down Eyes Opener-in-arms last week, Joe Lowry, we have agreed to up the flow of HDEO. We will start to include more random ideas, opinions, pictures, captions, quotes - all in the HDEO spirit of course, while continuing with the same rthymn and rate of posts. Till now, most of the content has been fully original but to keep things hopping we need to pull from many pools and inject more frequent shots of espresso (and stronger) into the conversation. And, on the cusp of the second half of the year, all feedback and content welcomed dear friends. And visit often to sample the new improved HDEO nugget flavors.

For now, I hand you over to Andrew Sullivan himself as he waxes lyrical about blogging at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by the Atlantic.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

War and Flood: Living with a Double Disaster

The Sri Lankan village of Sallitheevu in Vaharai, Northern Batticaloa, has been affected by a double tragedy in the past few years - devastated not only by the armed conflict but also by the tsunami that destroyed the east coast of the country on Boxing Day 2004.

Sivaskaran Shirani, 27, is one of the many affected by both disasters. She has four children - two boys aged 11 and five, and two girls aged ten and eight.

”Our house was completely destroyed in the tsunami, but we all escaped,” she says. “We received a new house under the tsunami reconstruction programme. Before the conflict came to our village, we had a good life. My husband was a fisherman and even had his own motorized boat. We made a good living.

Fighters in black masks

”Then during the battle for this area, fighters came to our house and ordered us to open the door. “They searched the house and found him. They dragged him into the house and executed him in front of me and the children. We were married for 12 years.”

Shirani wipes a tear as she continues her story. “After my husband was killed, we escaped the fighting in our boat and went to Valachchennai. I sold the boat there and we lived as internally displaced people (IDPs) for a while. When the fighting ended and we were allowed to return, I came back here, although we had nothing left.”

Restoring livelihoods

The Red Cross began to work in Sallitheevu to help widows and other vulnerable members of the community to restore their livelihoods after the tsunami and the conflict. Shirani received fishing nets and seeds for home gardening as well as a household grant that she used to buy a fiberglass paddle canoe, which is currently being used by a relative who gives her a percentage of his catch, bringing in a small income. She has also taken up British Red Cross sewing training.

Shirani explains the importance of this. “Fishing is seasonal and sometimes there is no catch at all. That is why I took up sewing. I hope it will help supplement our income. Before this project I didn’t know how to sew at all but I was interested in learning as I have four children to support.

“Now, after two months of training, I have the basic skills necessary to make most garments. This project will go on for couple of months more, so I expect to be able to make any garment well by then. I hope we will be able to make clothes we can sell on the market by the end of this project.”

Make a difference

Shirani is also a member of the local village committee. ”I joined the committee because I wanted to make a difference in the village as this is where my children will grow up,” she says.

Shirani is desperate to do whatever she can to help her children. “I want to go abroad and earn some money for my children. I want to go to Saudi Arabia and work as a housemaid. I hear the money there is good. I can’t watch my children suffer like this any more, so I have pawned all my jewellery and borrowed some money for the trip.

“I would have gone already, but I lost my birth certificate in the tsunami and am still waiting for them to issue a replacement. I plan to go as soon as I get it. I know the risks, but this is my last chance. If something happens to me, my children will be orphans and I can’t bear to think of that, but I can’t bear to listen to them cry with hunger either.

Educate our children

‘We have a lot of financial difficulties, but all four of my children are still in school. It was my husband’s dream to educate our children, and I will do anything I can to make sure that happens. But although the education is free, there are many expenses such as books, pencils, shoes and bags.”

As if on cue, her eight-year-old daughter walks into the house just back from school. The bottom of her school bag is in tatters, forcing her to wear the bag upside down so that the books will not fall out.

Shirani looks at her daughter’s bag and sighs. ”Some days I am not able to provide a meal or even some tea. We live very difficult lives. I am hopeful that things will continue to improve as they have since the Red Cross arrived in Sallitheevu.”

This story originally appeared on and was penned by Amanda George from the British Red Cross.