Monday, December 29, 2008

Iraq War Coverage: Two Percent is Too Little

Reports that "the surge is working" in Iraq have given Americans permission to say, "Thank God. We don't have to worry about that anymore." And now the media, too, are off to fight the good war in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that the United States is fighting a war in Iraq, only two percent (often less) of all our news coverage is focused on Iraq. A new Columbia Journalism Review article does a good job outlining what's going on with our collective conscience.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Beyond Belief" Leadership Retreat in Los Angeles

A little late blogging on this... Last week I got back from our first official "Beyond Belief" Countering Terrorism Leadership Retreat in Los Angeles, organized by Americans for Informed Democracy. The all-day event took place on the USC Health Sciences campus and included a keynote speech from Suraya Sadeed, founder of Help the Afghan Children, a screening of "Beyond Belief", Q&A, panel discussion, and roundtable. More than 50 people attended, including high school students from Santa Monica and Compton, USC professors, a handful of college students, and local activists. Despite such a mixed crowd, it was great to see so many people engaged in a discussion about non-violent reponses to terrorism and America's role in the post-9/11 world. Particularly fascinating was a presentation from Ed O'Connell of the RAND Corporation on the importance of bolstering civil society organizations in the Middle East. A few pictures from the event are posted below... stay tuned for some video as well. Thanks to The Fledgling Fund for making this event possible and especially to Lynn Crandall, Laura Kavanaugh, and Vicente Garcia for all their hard work organizing.

Suraya Sadeed is the founder of Help the Afghan Children, which has been working on humanitarian projects in Afghanistan since 1993, during the civil war.

Students talking in the lobby during a break between sessions.

Ed O'Connell (RAND Corporation) telling stories from his time in the Middle East to some high school students from Santa Monica.

Post-screening discussion.

Monday, November 03, 2008

"House Bombs" Deter Iraqi Refugees from Returning Home

In another example of the dangers facing displaced Iraqis trying to return home, the U.S. News and World Report has reported on a new tactic insurgents are using in Diyala province:

The destroyed homes are the result of one of Al Qaeda in Iraq's latest strategies—converting homes into bombs, or "house-borne improvised explosive devices," as they've been dubbed. It's a tactic particular to this province, which is a combustible mix of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish residents... Over the past year, some 60 dwellings were destroyed by AQI. Many were demolished as fighters fled when U.S. and Iraqi Army units bore down on their positions. AQI fighters also conceal mines and IEDs in the lush palm and date groves around the area.

Efforts are being made to defuse these bombs and reestablish security as some refugees begin to return:

In response to the dozens of households moving back to the area, local Iraqi reconciliation committees have devised a new strategy. Iraqi and coalition teams will de-mine the areas where fighting has taken place so that residents can return. Then, some of the sons from returning families will be hired as security guards, with a guaranteed paycheck for several months. This has the dual impact of employing returning residents and making the area more difficult for [Al Qaeda in Iraq] to re-establish itself.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Christians returning to Mosul

Some good news from Iraq today... After a few days of calm in Mosul, a small number of displaced Christian Iraqis are beginning to return home. Flush with a budget surplus, the Iraqi government has tried to lure persecuted Christians back with payments of 1 million dinars ($865), a tactic it has also used to bring back refugees from Syria. Still, according to a recent report published by Refugees International, Iraq should not be encouraging refugees' return because it has not established "security and essential services Iraqis need to return and rebuild their lives."

When we attended a recent Rutgers Law School symposium "Iraq at a Crossroads," there seemed to be a consensus among the politicians, activists, aid workers and lawyers in the room that, while the "surge" has partially stabilized the country, Iraq is still a long way from achieving the kind of political stability and security that will allow refugees to return in large numbers.

Stay tuned for some video from the symposium, including a keynote speech from Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor for The Washington Post and author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Half of Mosul's Christians have fled the city

A lot of press has been devoted lately to the continued persecution of Iraqi Christians in the city of Mosul. CNN International reports today that an estimated 13,000 Christians have fled the northern Iraqi city amidst rising sectarian tensions in the area. There has been much debate in the international community about how to respond to this new wave of refugees, with Germany arguing back in April that the EU should give preferential treatment to Christians over other religions and groups. The proposal was rejected, but with this latest wave of violence, there have been renewed calls from Pope Benedict XVI for assistance to persecuted Christians, both in Iraq and India.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

George Packer's "Betrayed" airing tomorrow at 9pm on WNET New York

For those in the New York area, a performance of George Packer's acclaimed play "Betrayed" will air tomorrow night at 9pm on Thirteen/WNET. Packer is a writer for The New Yorker and author of The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, one of the definitive books on the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. His new play focuses on the plight of Iraqi interpreters and is an extension of a widely-read article he wrote back in March 2007. Both the article and the play are well-worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kirk Johnson profiled in the Chicago Daily Herald

The Chicago Daily Herald has written a nice profile piece of Kirk and the origins of The List Project. Kirk is one of the main subjects of our upcoming documentary The Promise of Freedom.

Here's a video profile we recently did on Kirk as a sample for the Pulitzer Center-sponsored YouTube contest Project:Report...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is Iraq losing it's youth?

Elizabeth Ferris and Navtej Dhillon wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian yesterday that explores the demographic effects of the Iraqi refugee crisis. Here's an excerpt from the article, entitled "Iraq's Missing Generation":

Youth, not oil, is Iraq's most precious asset in building a stable and prosperous future. In 2002, before the US invasion, around 60% of Iraq's population was under the age of 30 – many with high school and university education. Today, too many of those young people are among the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees living in countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

As Iraq takes important steps towards national reconciliation and economic development, no one is paying attention to young Iraqi refugees. Their plight is largely portrayed through a sectarian lens. But when the focus shifts to the age of those uprooted, it is clear that a large number are young men and women, struggling with displacement at the prime of their life. Rather than building their future careers and families, their plans are on hold and their hopes are in limbo.

Indeed, many of the Iraqis on Kirk Johnson's list are young, educated people in their 20's and 30's. In the face of death threats from radical militias, these Iraqis often have no choice but to flee the country, but questions remain about how Iraq's "brain drain" will affect the long-term stability of the country and it's capacity to rebuild. Is Iraq in danger of becoming another failed state like Afghanistan?

Friday, October 03, 2008

New Bill to Help Displaced Iraqis

From the website of Sen. Robert Casey:

WASHINGTON, DC- U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced legislation that would require the Secretary of State to develop a comprehensive regional strategy to address the mass displacement of Iraqis. To date, Congress has not passed any significant legislation addressing the needs of millions of Iraqis who have been forced to flee from their homes.

“The Bush Administration lacks a comprehensive regional strategy to address the mass influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring countries,” said Senator Casey. “We have a moral responsibility to help the millions of Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes. It is my hope that this bill will take the necessary first steps to develop a long-term strategy to address the needs of vulnerable Iraqis.”

“The lack of planning on the part of this administration and the absence of any long-term comprehensive plan to deal with refugees, threatens to destabilize the entire region and undermine security in Iraq,” said Senator Cardin. “We must act quickly and coherently. Too many of the 4.7 million displaced Iraqis remain stranded, jobless, and deprived of essential services with their conditions worsening by the day.”

The Support for Vulnerable and Displaced Iraqis Act of 2008 would:

Address the serious challenges facing Iraqi refugees, including: lack of legal status; inadequate U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations resources; limited access to education and healthcare; critical food shortages; and inadequate shelter, drinking water, sanitation and protection;

Address the responsibility of the Government of Iraq to help meet the urgent needs of its citizens in Iraq and in the region and steps the United States can take to provide support in this area;

Include an assessment of needs of vulnerable Iraqis in Iraq and an estimate of assistance required in order for the United States to help meet these needs;

Include the number of refugees from Iraq the United States plans to resettle in the United States;

Include an assessment of what conditions are necessary for the voluntary, safe, sustainable return of displaced Iraqis;

Include a description of the steps the U.S. Government has taken and will take to engage the international community to implement the strategy; and

Include plans to assess the impact of the strategy.

Since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it is estimated that as many as two million Iraqis have fled their homes to neighboring countries to avoid sectarian and other violence while over 2.7 million have been displaced internally in Iraq. The massive displacement of Iraqis in Iraq and the region has overwhelmed existing social, economic, and security capacities of countries in the region, particularly Iraq, Jordan and Syria. Increasing poverty and despair among displaced populations may provide fertile ground for possible recruitment by extremist groups.

To find out more about what you can personally do to help displaced Iraqis, visit The List Project.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A New Approach to U.S. relations with the Muslim world?

The New York Times yesterday highlighted a new report "calling for an overhaul of American strategy to reverse the spread of terrorism and extremism." Here's an excerpt:

The report recommends more diplomatic engagement, even with Iran and other adversaries, and a major investment in economic development in Muslim countries to create jobs for alienated youth. It calls on the next president to use his Inaugural Address to signal a shift in approach, to immediately renounce the use of torture, and to appoint a special envoy within the first three months to jump-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The report, “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World,”; was produced by 34 leaders drawn from religious, business, military, foreign policy, academic, foundation and nonprofit circles. The group included Democrats like Madeleine K. Albright, who was secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, and two former Republican congressmen, Vin Weber and Steve Bartlett.

This comes just 2 days before we are set to hold our first of five Beyond Belief student conferences in partnership with Americans for Informed Democracy, an amazing organization committed to "empowering young people in the United States to address global issues—poverty, health, climate change, peace and security—through awareness-raising and actions that promote just and sustainable solutions on their campuses, in their communities, and nationally."

These conferences, made possible by The Fledgling Fund, will be major part of our ongoing outreach campaign to bring the film's message of cross-cultural understanding and citizen diplomacy to a wider audience.

Here's a quick clip from Beyond Belief that demonstrates the power of dialogue to break down cultural boundaries...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bush: More Troops to Afghanistan

Thursday, Jul. 03, 2008 By AP/BEN FELLER

(WASHINGTON) — Grappling with a record death toll in an overshadowed war, President Bush promised Wednesday to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan by year's end. He conceded that June was a "tough month" in the nearly seven-year-old war.

In fact, it was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the conflict began. More U.S. and NATO troops have died in the past two months in Afghanistan than in Iraq, a place with triple the number of U.S. and coalition forces. In June, 28 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan. That was the highest monthly total of the entire war, which began in October 2001.

For the full U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan the death toll was 46, also the highest of the war. "One reason why there have been more deaths is because our troops are taking the fight to a tough enemy, an enemy who doesn't like our presence there because they don't like the idea of America denying safe haven (to terrorists)," Bush told reporters. "Of course there's going to be resistance."

Bush said it was a tough month too for the Taliban. But the once-toppled Islamist regime in Afghanistan has now rebounded with deadly force. He confronted the grim direction of the Afghanistan conflict during a sun-splashed Rose Garden appearance. The president used the event to tout his agenda for an upcoming Group of Eight meeting in Japan with world leaders, then addressed Iran, climate change and gasoline prices in a short Q&A session with reporters.

The Pentagon predicts the pace of attacks in Afghanistan by a resurgent Taliban is likely to rise this year, despite U.S.-led efforts to capture key leaders. "We're going to increase troops by 2009," Bush said, without offering details about exactly when or how many.

It amounted to a reiteration of a promised buildup of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by Bush. He said coalition forces have doubled in size over two years, and pledged that the twin strategy of fighting extremists and supporting Afghanistan's civil development "is going to work."

The Pentagon's top military officer said Wednesday that if security continues to improve in Iraq he is hopeful he will begin to have troops available to shift to Afghanistan by the end of this year. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more troops are essential to stem the violence. "The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate," Mullen said. He added that "there's no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix."

In terms of public attention, the war in Afghanistan has been obscured by the far costlier and deadlier one in Iraq.

But it is a matter of consensus within the Bush administration, and between the U.S. and key allies, that there are far too few troops in Afghanistan to fight the accelerating Taliban and to train Afghan soldiers and police.

Overall, roughly 32,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, including 14,000 serving with NATO forces and 18,000 conducting training and counterinsurgency, the largest U.S. presence since the war began.

Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

Monday, June 23, 2008

What We Want in a Newsman

A Columbia Journalism Review piece opines about what all the Tim Russert replacement talk says about what we as viewers are looking for in newscaster. I know I'm never looking for an anchor, but rather a reporter who just happens to be good in the anchor seat. And you couldn't ask for a better political reporter than Tim Russert. That's becuase he cut his chops as an indispensible news source - first as chief of staff to Senator Patrick Moynihan, then as counselor to NY governor Mario Cuomo. And unlike so many of today's entertainment newspeople, who won't let inconvenient facts get in the way of their "good story," Russert never tried to manipulate us. Tom Brokaw is a reporting legend, too, but still, when I watch my Tivo recordings of "Meet the Press" on Monday nights, I'll be sorry to see him sitting in Tim's seat...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Iraqi Refugees Struggle to Find Jobs in America

On Saturday afternoon forty-eight Iraqi refugees who have resettled in the U.S. arrived at Reagan International Airport. The men wore pressed suits and ties and the women had freshly polished fingernails and high heels. They were clearly dressed to impress. In their luggage they carried a most prized possession - resumes detailing their work with American companies, the American military and the American government in Iraq. While they are a unique refugee group -- all are college-educated professionals -- they face the most common refugee problem: continuing their careers in America.

"I helped Army soldiers understand the Muslim culture. I trained them. Why can't I do that same job here in the United States? Before the soldiers go to Iraq?," one middle-aged Iraqi man pleaded with a job advisor from Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that partnered with The List Project to organize a job search skills conference in Washington, D.C. this week.

Iraqis learned the hard truths about hunting for a job here: human resources managers spend an average of 20 seconds on every resume, personal stories (even the heart-wrenching ones they all have to tell) have no place in a job interview, the economy is terrible, resumes should be limited to a page or two (most of theirs are 3, 4 and 5 pages), and, most difficult for them to hear, don't expect their employers in Iraq to hire them in America.

"Iraqis are having a hard time coming to terms with the reality that while their education and skills were valued in Baghdad, Fallujah, and Basra, they are not valued here," says Jane Leu, Upwardly Global's founder and president. "These people were leaders in Iraq, and they will be leaders here if given the chance. The idea that all immigrants have to pull themselves up by their boot straps is outdated."

Titan Corporation, the single largest employer of Iraqi translators, has not hired even one single Iraqi who has has resettled in America. And while study after study shows how a lack of Arabic translators hurts national security, no Iraqis who worked for the government in Iraq have been hired by the State Department.

"I don't want focus on the negative. I need to move forward," says Emam Al-Timimi who worked for the State Department in Baghdad. Emam may not have her career back yet, but, she says, she does have a job: setting an example for Iraqis who come here in the future. "I want to show them that it is possible to succeed here. I know it is. I hope."

(Listen to NPR report "Iraqi Refugees Struggling to Rebuild Life in America.")

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kirk Johnson on CBS 60 Minutes

Kirk Johnson and The List Project are the focus of Principle Pictures' newest feature documentary. We have been filming with Kirk and the Iraqis on his list since August 2007.

When Kirk Johnson came home from Iraq after working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, he had a plan: get into the best law school he could. But that plan changed when Kirk heard about Ahmed*, an Iraqi colleague who was receiving death threats. Ahmed also worked for USAID, and although he had tried to hide what he did for a living, the militia werfe ollowing him. They branded Ahmed a traitor, left death threats on his door, and forced him to start a life on the run. "I asked my bosses at USAID to transfer me," he says. "I would go anywhere in the world - to any country. But they said, no, we're sorry. If you do not come back to work in Baghdad, you are terminated."

Ahmed would become the first person on Kirk's "List" which has become a huge database of Iraqis who believed in America's vision of building a democratic Iraq. Like so many of the other Iraqis who signed on as interpreters, drivers and reconstruction specialists, Ahmed had grown up watching Hollywood movies, practicing English, and hoping that one day Iraqis would be able to acheive their own version of the American Dream. In the Spring of 2003, it seemed that day had come.

But it didn't take long before the once coveted U.S. work badges became a symbol of "collaboration" with the enemy, and Ahmed and his friends began leading double lives. Ahmed told his family he had quit his job with the Americans, and pretended to go to work every day for an Iraqi company.

A year later the death threat came... punctuated by the severed head of a small dog. The message was - "You're next."

That day, Ahmed and his wife left their home and their country. Not long after, Ahmed and Johnson reconnected. They were two guys who had bonded in the frenzied excitement over Iraq's reconstruction. Together, they had set out to do their part in building a stable, democratic Iraq. And at the time, it hadn't seemed at all naive. Why should it have? At the time, everything seemed possible. But all that had changed. Johnson was back in Chicago after a devastating accident caused by his own post-traumatic stress issues. And Ahmed was running for his life.

Neither could have anticipated it at the time, but finding each other again meant an attempt to fulfill a new dream. Johnson started The List Project to help Ahmed and other Iraqis who have been branded "traitors" by the militias for aiding the U.S.-led war effort. Today, there are more than 1,000 names on Johnson's list. About 40 of them have been allowed into the United States... Ahmed is one of them.

*Ahmed's name has been changed to protect his safety and the safety of his family.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Where's Monica's Pink Ribbon?

When my friend, Monica*, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 30s, she expected to do what all breast cancer survivors are expected to do: fight it, stay positive, and, above all, never let down her peers by being diagnosed again.

But not long after her daughter was born, Monica's cancer came back. Every doctor's appointment brought more disappointing news about where the disease was spreading. And little by little the pink ribbons and chemo-comraderie that defined her first battle with cancer were gone. The word "survivor" was replaced with "tragedy," and a reporter told her that her story was too depressing for a drive-time audience. "I think it'd be better if you just stopped your story with the birth of your daughter," the reporter advised. Silence. "Is that out of line?"

Out of line? Perhaps. But whose fault is that? The "diagnosis-fight-happy ending" story is exactly the one audiences expect--and want--to hear. While feminism may have helped breast cancer surivors unite, fear continues to allow metastatic patients to be ostracized. And the universally upbeat tone of the breast cancer movement often fails to communicate the strongest message of all: breast cancer is a disease that kills. Indiscriminately.

(*Name has been changed to protect identity.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Beyond Belief Wins Best Documentary at Sonoma Valley Film Festival

It is no surprise that the Sonoma Valley Film Festival is considered one of the best destination film festivals around. I loved every second of my time there (even when it was 90 degrees on Saturday and finding a glass of wine was easier than tracking down water!). The festival is extremely well organized by people who really care about films and filmmakers. Particularly exciting for me was that my husband, Dennis, and 7-month-old daughter, Isabelle, joined me for the event, and two days before the Awards Ceremony Isabelle started clapping for the first time! So, when BEYOND BELIEF won, she was ready! Read the Sonoma News article here.

Freakonomics Blog Spreads Buzz

Read here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Congratulations, Ilir!

Ilir is packing his bags and heading to Boston to get his MA in Photojournalism at BU. I'm so proud of you, Ilir! (For background on Ilir's journey from Kosovo's ashes to college... see blog entry on Wednesday, January 16, 2008.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A United Nations Day

When I told my mother that BEYOND BELIEF was screening at the United Nations the day after Easter, she reacted with the kind of surprise and amazement that told me I had earned her respect in a new way. "Wow. Beth. The United Nations..." is all the formerly eloquent English teacher could muster. My mother-in-law had a similar reaction, and the next thing I knew the three of us were having our picture taken in front of UN Headquarters with the 179 Member State flags flying in an undulating row behind us and sharing stories about my family's Italian and Hungarian heritage and my husband's Irish ancestry.

At lunch when the waiter suggested the special turbot fish that had just been flown in from Holland, I couldn't resist. We were heading to the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, after all, and I imagined this high-end fish was just the kind of meal a Netherlands diplomat and former Secretary-General would eat during lunch breaks. Two hours later, I greeted UN staffers and special guests with a full belly and a new nickname: "Turbo" (which we decided was better than "Litte Miss Fifty Dollar Fish").

Every time I have an opportunity to connect with audiences I am grateful. But to do it at the UN was something truly special. The event was organized by Gay Rosenblum-Kumar for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the United Nations Development Programme, and Susan Koscis of Search for Common Ground. Together, Gay and Susan's sheer love of film and dedication to advocacy keeps a film series going on a shoe-string budget.

Following the screening, I joined Susan Retik (one of the 9/11 widows featured in the film) and S.K. Guha, a senior program specialist with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, for a panel discussion with the audience. A Norweigan woman in the front row made an astute observation about the Taliban's misrepresentation of Islamic law. An American diplomat wanted to understand how my own life had been effected by the filming experience. And an Iraqi refugee wanted Susan to share her thoughts about the politicization of 9/11 - "How do you feel about your husband's memory being used to fuel other acts of violence?" he asked.

As Susan began to answer, I looked up into the crowd, and all the way in the back row I could see my mother... snapping pictures...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Four Days with Ousted Afghan Parliamentarian and Human Rights Activist Malalai Joya

The action of evil-doers is better than the inaction of good people.
--Malalai Joya (March 17, 2008)

Although she is a marked woman at home and has survived numerous death threats and assassination attempts, Malalai Joya arrives at Logan airport alone, holding a rain coat a supporter in California gave her and a small black, leather pocketbook with a copy of "Three Cups of Tea" peaking out. All five-foot three-inches of me towers over her small frame, and I might have mistaken her for a foreign undergrad student if I hadn't spent the morning watching her fiery speeches on YouTube.

Joya is 29-years-old, but already she seems to have lived a thousand lives. She was four-years-old when her father lost his right leg during the Soviet invasion, and her family fled Afghanistan. It was in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan where her social activism flourished, and she returned home during the Taliban's reign of terror to help lead the underground fight for women's rights. She tells me that it was during this time that she fell in love with Langston Hughes poetry, opened an orphanage, and taught her mother to read and write.

The moment the word "mother" crosses her lips, a brilliant smile envelopes her face. "My mother is coming to meet me when I go home," she says as her voice giggles but her eyes turn sad. "I haven't seen her in over a year." It's nearly impossible for Joya to visit with her parents, six sisters, three brothers and friends. Because she is being hunted by anti-democratic forces in Afghanistan, she is constantly on the run, sleeping in different places nearly every night, and hiding under the burqa. She's even on a list of about 300 people who are forbidden to leave Afghanistan. Every border guard, airport worker and immigration official has her name. And to confirm her status as political prisoner, officials did one of the things she feared most: they took away her passport.

So, it's somewhat of a miracle that Joya is here now, sitting in the passenger seat beside me as we drive through downtown Boston. It seems to me that nothing scares her. Because nothing stops her: Not being threatened with rape by a fellow colleague in parliament (he was angry when she exposed his ties to the opium trade); not the bomb that exploded 5 seconds early, saving her from certain death; and certainly not the "loss" of her passport. Avoiding official channels, she asked her province to issue another passport, and even though her name is misspelled and there's no birth date or expiration date, she has now criss-crossed the globe with it.

Days later, as I watch a beefy Massachusetts State Police officer turn the passport over and over in his hands and stare at the pretty Dari script, I wonder if he'll be the one to put an end to this unlikely journey. But he hands it back to the Delta ticket agent, "Looks fine to me," he says as he walks away.

Joya is in Boston to participate in the International Women's Day celebration I helped plan for the International Institute of Boston. At this event--and at three others over the course of her stay--I hear her deliver the same damning message: the United States is helping to return fundamentalism to Afghanistan. (Click here for a trancsript of her speech.)

Although her English is broken, it is excellent, and she speaks like someone on borrowed time—-fast and with a sense of urgency. The current U.S.-supported Karzai government, she says, is just the latest corrupt regime to disappoint the Afghan people and suppress their human rights. For women, the dreams of equality anticipated after the fall of the Taliban and demanded in the new Constitution, have never been realized. In fact, life for Afghan women today slips further into darkness. “We are treated not like humans. We are treated like animals. Worse than animals.”

“Do you want some examples?” she asks the audience. Without waiting for an answer, Joya rattles off stories from every corner of the country: a 22-year-old woman whose husband cut off her hands and poured boiling water over her body; a 14-year-old girl who was gang-raped by three men, but because one of the men was the son of a parliamentarian, police did nothing; an 18-year-old who committed suicide after being sold to a 60-year-old man. “Do you want me to continue?” she challenges us.

Since I started writing this blog entry, two women have died in Afghanistan while giving birth (that’s one every 28 minutes). Depression and suicide rates among women—already alarmingly high—are growing. And forced marriages are still the norm, accounting for nearly 90% of all unions.

This is the reality, Joya says, of the War on Terror. The Afghan people have watched the United States pump $15 billion dollars into the country, yet still only 2percent of the people have access to electricity, and more than 60% of Afghans are unemployed. All the while, the Taliban resurgence gains momentum.

“This is not democracy,” she pleads. “This is only teaching Afghans to have a negative view of democracy. It is a mockery of democracy. The Taliban and the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance are now the leaders of our country. They are killers and criminals. And they may fool the rest of the world with their shaven faces and their neat ties, but they cannot fool the Afghan people.”

It was her reference to the parliament as a “zoo” on Afghanistan’s ToloTV that ultimately led to her ousting from the legislature. Stripped of her salary and bodyguards and wary to put family and supporters in danger by being seen with them, Joya leads an increasingly solitary life.

But it is a life infused with meaning. She was engaged on Afghanistan’s Freedom Day and married on International Women’s Day. She rarely sees her husband, but, as you might expect, their relationship defies any Afghan tradition. Recently, he told her he was ready to have a baby. “I told him no,” she confided. “I love babies. They make me so happy. But it’s not my time. I told him if he wanted a baby he could take a second wife and have one with her.” He told her, “I waited 8 years to marry you. I only want you as my wife.”

She has been called the “bravest woman in Afghanistan” but as I drive her to the airport before the sun comes up, I can’t help wondering if it is naive of her to go back. I have so many questions I want her to answer: Wouldn’t you be more effective outside the country? How can you accomplish anything inside Afghanistan when you’re running for your life? And, ultimately… What good is all this if you’re dead?

Her answer is a quote from The Little Black Fish, a children’s story by Persian writer Samad Behrangi’s. “Beth, My Ever-loving Sister,” she wrote to me on a beautiful note card embossed with Picasso’s Dove of Peace, “Death could very easily come now, but I should not be the one to seek it. Of course, if I should meet it and that is inevitable, it would not matter. What matters is whether my living or dying has had any effect on the lives of others.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Beyond Belief featured in the Boston Sunday Globe

Well, it's been a long road since our first festival screening at Tribeca last April, but at last the official theatrical premiere of Beyond Belief is just around the corner! We will be hosting a special advance screening this Saturday, February 16, 7pm at the Museum of Fine Arts. The screening will be followed by Q&A with director Beth Murphy and a reception with special guests.

On February 29, the film opens in New York at Cinema Village (tickets on sale Feb. 20), and regular screenings begin at MFA Boston on March 1.

In other exciting news, Beyond Belief was recently profiled in the Boston Sunday Globe.

I hope to see you at one of the screenings!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From Kosovo's Ashes... to College

Before 1991, Yugoslavia was one country made up of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia--with Serbia again divided into two autonomous regions: Kosovo and Vojvodina. When Slobodon Milosevic came to power in 1987 with a vision of a Greater Serbia, one of his first moves was to abolish Kosovo's autonomy. Martial law was imposed, and systematically, Kosovo’s Albanian Muslim minority was stripped of basic human rights. They were fired from their jobs, and denied access to health care and education.

Ilir Bajraktari was 11-years-old in 1990—the year teaching in his native language (Albanian) was banned, and all the schools were shut down—including the Albanian University of Prishtina, the region's only institute of higher education, where his father was a professor. For the next decade, while Kosovo's struggles were overshadowed by wars of independence fought by Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, Ilir studied in garages and basements, doubting he would ever have a chance to go to college. Today, Ilir is a college graduate, and he's applying for a masters program in photojournalism at Boston University. He asked me to write a recommendation letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am very pleased to provide these words of recommendation for Ilir Bajraktari who I consider to be an extraordinary human being. Not only is he an enormously talented photojournalist and artist, but he is also a person who understands what it means to truly suffer at the hands of evil while all the while dedicating himself to helping others who are also suffering. Rarely does a person have an opportunity to meet someone of such moral fortitude and strength of purpose.

I am a documentary filmmaker, and I first met Ilir in June 1999 while shooting a public television documentary about the war in Kosovo and the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces. Ilir is a Kosovar Albanian, and he and his family were victims of the Serb atrocities committed between March and June 1999.

As he told me then, “I had no family, no friends, no house, no hope. I had nothing worth living for. Although I had a new name: refugee. It felt like I was dreaming. But this was not a dream. This was not a Nazi movie. These people in front of me—my friends and neighbors—were not Jews chased away by Hitler. This was happening to me.”

Faced with this terrifying truth, Ilir (then only 20-years-old) could have turned inward. Instead, he extended himself to help other refugees. Forced out of Kosovo at gunpoint, Ilir crossed the border into Macedonia. A few days later he saw someone from his village who told him his home had been burned to the ground. But Ilir refused to succumb to the anger and sadness that were knocking on his heart’s door. He was skilled in English, had excellent communication skills, and was inherently smart. He was ready to get to work.

MercyCorp, an aid organization that was running refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania, hired Ilir as a driver and translator. In no time, he was working with foreign media—like me—helping us to document the stories of refugees and providing sensitive cultural education lessons.

When the peace accord was signed on June 9, 1999, Ilir was with us as part of the first convoy to re-enter Kosovo after three months of war. As we made our way through the war-ravaged province, Ilir wondered whether the friends he’d left behind were dead or alive: “I had to confront my ideas and everything I stood for,” he said. “Every once in a while I would get this image in my head where I would see corpses of people I knew laying all over the soccer stadium. Still to this day, I refuse to admit that in that pile of corpses I saw my closest friends and my family. But I did.”

While many of the Albanians arrived home intent on exacting revenge on former Serbian neighbors who attacked Kosovo Albanians or destroyed their homes, Ilir was not interested in vengeance. He wanted to go to school and study, something that had been denied to him as a member of Kosovo’s minority population.

A few years later, it was an honor for me to sponsor Ilir to come to the United States to attend college. Highly motivated, Ilir honed the skills I had witnessed when we first met. He excelled in the communications field, spent his spare time volunteering at the student paper, and reveled in being a “regular” college kid. Over the course of four years, I watched as his photographs—which from the beginning showed a raw talent—became stunning. He was able to capture creative, beautiful and emotive imagery while developing his own signature style that earned him accolades from the university and photography communities.

I felt like a proud parent when Ilir graduated from college two years ago, and was so disappointed when a shoot in Afghanistan prevented me from attending his graduation ceremony. But at least his parent would be there… or so Ilir had hoped. Haxhi and Rabije Bajraktari were denied their visas, told by the embassy in Skopje that their son’s graduation was not a good enough reason to visit America. They were even accused of wanting to flee. It was another harsh reminder that Kosovo Albanians continue to be discriminated against in society.

It is my deepest wish that Haxhi and Rabije will have the joy of watching their son receive his MA in photojournalism from Boston University. Ilir is a true inspiration and a talented photograher and journalist. I believe he will make a most worthy addition to the BU graduate program.

Ilir Photos 1
Ilir Photos 2

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Afghanistan: In Danger of Becoming Afghanistan Again

It has been almost two years since we were in Afghanistan filming BEYOND BELIEF, and from the moment we left, the situation has been steadily deteriorating. Just 24 hours after our departure in May 2006, anti-Western riots erupted in Kabul after a US military vehicle's brakes gave out coming down a hill and slammed into a line of cars, killing five Afghans. The incident ignited the worst violence in Kabul since America's invasion in 2001.

Rioters chanted "Death to America," and terrorized international aid organizations in a search for foreigners. The Naween Guest House, a B&B known for foreign guests—and where we had stayed for our entire visit—came under attack, as gunmen fired bullets at the front gate. The armed guard who was on duty outside the Naween was forced from his post, and Aziz Humraz, the manager who smoked shisha with us on our last night, hid under the reception desk. Just a few blocks away, the CARE International offices we had visited every day during our filming were ransacked and set on fire, and an Afghan toddler at the organization’s daycare center was pulled from her caretaker’s arms after being mistaken for a foreigner because of her light skin. Only when she cried out in Dari was she saved.

When the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 ended five years of barbaric Taliban rule, there was hope that a new democratic government would help liberate Afghanistan’s most oppressed population: the women. But many dreams have been dashed as fundamentalist restrictions on women take hold once again. As William Dobson, managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, told me, "Afghanistan is in danger of becoming Afghanistan again."

Disturbing trends include increasing arson attacks on girls’ schools, forced gynecological exams of women “caught” in public with men who are not their husbands or relatives, and the murder of a young female TV host who was condemned by conservative clerics for being “un-Islamic.”

In September 2007 a new burn unit opened up at Herat’s hospital to handle the dramatic rise in cases in which women set themselves on fire to avoid a forced marriage (60 to 80 percent of all marriages are believed to be forced) or end an abusive one.

And just last week Islamic clergymen in Tahkar province made it illegal for male tailors to measure women for fittings—a ruling reminiscent of the oppressive bans imposed by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.

Little by little the Taliban is once again gaining power and exerted influence across Afghanistan.

Yesterday, when the Serena Hotel—a favorite of foreigners and diplomats—was attacked by Taliban suicide bombers, Nato officials were quick to call it a “sign of Taliban weakness.” But this is a naïve description for such a brazen attack in Afghanistan’s capital. Eyewitness Lisa Gans who is an NGO worker in Afghanistan wrote in an email to friends and family after the attack: “I hope that this country will not go the way of Iraq, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one here who sees this as a dramatic event that will shift the security situation on the ground. This tragedy will have broader-reaching implication, not only for me, but for the country of Afghanistan.”

Unlike previous winters which signaled an end to fighting before a spring offensive, this year, Taliban leaders have begun a winter offensive in dramatic fashion. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed has put Westerners on notice: the restaurants you eat at and the guest houses where you stay are “not safe anymore.”

For more:
BBC News -- Little Hope for Afghans in 2008