Democracy Now (English)
In part two of our interview with Somali human rights activist and physician, Dr. Hawa Abdi, she describes how thousands of Somalis were killed in the 1993 attack in Mogadishu that is best known for killing 18 elite U.S. special forces. She also discusses her book, Keeping Hope Alive, which shares what has happened in the 22 years since the war broke out in her country, and the work she has done at her clinic to offer healthcare and emergency relief to thousands of Somalis. We also speak with her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you part two of our conversation with Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somalian human rights activist and physician, founder and chairperson of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and has written the book Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman—90,000 Lives Changed. We’re also joined by Dr. Hawa Abdi’s daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, who works with Dr. Hawa Abdi, with the foundation and with helping people in Somalia, tens of thousands of people.
Dr. Hawa Abdi, you were kidnapped by the Shabab in the 1990s. You convinced them to release you and, as well, issue a written apology for what they had done. And in the first part of our conversation, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, you referred to Black Hawk Down, what Americans understand is that moment in October, October 3rd, 1993. It was under President Clinton, when U.S. forces, elite forces, were sent into Mogadishu. Ultimately, 18 U.S. forces were killed, some of them dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, a very famous image. What is not as well known in that moment is that thousands of Somalis were killed in that attack. Can you talk about the effect of Black Hawk Down on Somalis, the way Somalis view it?
DR. HAWA ABDI: Because of that issue, we suffered. All over the world, they did not intervene our suffering for 22 years. Our people already—the society did not know what was happening in 1993. Maybe some administration and maybe that was after some administration at that time. And we all were happy when Operation Restore Hope come to us. In my camp at that time, I was burying 50 bodies per day, for starvation and gunshots. But after Operation Restore Hope comes, the mortality became less and less and less, so we were happy. We were not thinking that something like that could happen, but it happened.
DR. DEQO MOHAMED: I think the thoughts of Somali people and in the world in general were different, was way far apart, because as just my mom said, we have any hope. You know, we’re restoring the hope, and Somalis coming with food and peace, you know. U.S. government and rest of the governments came to restore the hope, but when it happened, Black Hawk Down, as you say, thousands of Somalis died. And every family, this pain entered into their homes. So they were devastated, and they didn’t know what to do. They have mixed feeling. You know, we were thinking they’re going to save us; now we’re losing our families, and the fight is continue. So it was very different feeling inside of Somalia than outside of Somalia. And I hope—we are still praying for people who lost their families to be strong. And the situation in Somalia, we hope it will improve.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hawa Abdi, talk about the project that you have engaged in for decades now in Somalia, the refuge for internally displaced people. What have you established?
DR. HAWA ABDI: Everything is written in my book, Keeping Hope Alive. This book I wrote because I want to share the rest of the world what happened for 22 years inside Somalia.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Deqo Mohamed?
DR. DEQO MOHAMED: Our project is mainly in healthcare. My mom started the hospital in 1983 to give the women in the rural area the healthcare they need, especially to giving birth and accessibility them to have a hospital to deliver, so to decrease the mother and child mortality. Since the war broke out and government collapse in 1991, the foundation increased, and we started doing emergency relief. We’re providing the water for the needy. We’re having a shelter. With the help of World Food Program, we’re providing the food. With the help of different NGOs, we’re trying to continue to provide a free healthcare to the community. It’s not only for mother and child now, for everyone who comes to our door. And now the goal of the foundation is for sustainability. We are also focusing on agriculture and fishing programs to improve people to have—take over their responsibility of their lives and to be sustainable and not dependent on aid or us and our foundation. So, we’re covering many different aspects of the work in the back of Somalia, and we are very excited to have slightly, what we thought, peace—but Sunday broke our hearts—and I hope it will continue. And my mom just mentioned, yes, in the book, a main goal of the book is not only to share her feeling in the society; it’s also to support the foundation, to continue to get the funds and spread the good word to the different people and different areas in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: You are also a real inspiration, both of you, to women. The course you have decided to take in your life as doctors, you are both some of the few women doctors in Somalia. Dr. Hawa Abdi, can you describe how you became a doctor? Tell us who your parents were, what inspired you and where you went for your education.
DR. HAWA ABDI: When I decided to become a doctor, I was very, very young, when my mother, her seventh child, became pregnant, and she was feeling terrible pain, and I could not know how to help her. And my mother died in front of my eyes, without knowing why, which diagnosis. So I decided to be a doctor. What has happened happened to me, but other children of my age, to prevent those pain that I felt.
So, when I finished my secondary school, I get a scholarship from Soviet Union. At that time, sending abroad a daughter in Somalia was very difficult, of course. All elder people were thinking, if you send your daughter, she will be spoiled. And my father, his friend came to him, and they said, "Don’t send your daughter abroad. Otherwise, she will be spoiled." But my father was educated man. He allowed me to go to Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1964. My study I finished in 1971. I was there seven years.
After I finished my colleague—my college, we finished together. Most of them, they went abroad; they do not come back. But I promised myself to save the other children the pain I was felt. I come back, and I began to work in a big hospital. At that time Mogadishu, in '70s, Somalia was the best city in East Africa, very beautiful, very peaceful, and people like each other. Love was more than hate. That's why I came—became a doctor.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you went back to Somalia, and you established this refuge for Somalis. How does the country operate without, for so many years, a functioning government? How did the country operate?
DR. HAWA ABDI: The life after our government collapsed, life was very difficult—destruction, killings, looting. Everything bad was happening to Somali families. When we heard African continent is tribalist, Africa is—to develop, it’s very difficult because of tribalism. That tribalism was inside in our country. The country was the best lion of East Africa, became destroyed, the worst country, become, because of tribalism, because of destruction, because of lack of law and order, lack of government for 22 years. It was—life was very disaster, very painful to see what was happening at that time in Somalia. But when I move in our capital and went to outside Mogadishu 21 kilometers from Mogadishu, I was just making—I wanted to help the rural women who has no road to come, no cars to bring during labor at night, late night. So I come near to them, and I began to help women and children at that time. It was 1983. I did not know that become—the government, our government, will be collapsed. But just I wanted out because to help those women and children at late time when they feel—when they need help, to help them, to be near of them.
DR. DEQO MOHAMED: People in Somalia were just—they are survivors for the last 22 years. They try their best to survive, and they just wake up every morning and do as much as they can, finding the food, trying to keep yourself secure, try to make—put your children and your family in a safe place. So it was in a surviving mood for 22 years. And it was chaos without the government, without order, without support. It was tough years. Now we are hoping the new government will establish the peace and prosperity to Somalia.
AMY GOODMAN: And for people in the United States and around the world, what do you think is the way people can be most supportive of peace and a functioning government in Somalia?
DR. HAWA ABDI: Somalia were a remote area for 22 years. International community did not intervene what was happening after Black Hawk Down. But now, thanks God, with the help of the [inaudible]—
DR. DEQO MOHAMED: Yeah, I think—so, international community should give, number one, skills, skills to the new government, to run the government, to know what governance means, and education. Also, finance—financially supporting to establish the government. We are far away from system. Twenty years, everything was broken. Twenty years, there’s no people know how to run the government. I think human resources is the key, number one. And second is development and finance to take care of the government to run properly. And as the moment of you’ve seen on Sunday the blast happen in the court, I think to build the government military strongly and police, that’s also a key, number one.
AMY GOODMAN: And can I ask, the effect of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia? What effect does that have?
DR. DEQO MOHAMED: It has in both sides, in a good and a bad way. It is—we don’t know details. They don’t share with the society. And we don’t know most about what is going on in the strikes. But we—third strikes, life was lost. Families in the village were died. So always trying to capture the good—the bad guys, the civil society also suffers. The poor people, innocent people, suffering, between midst of all that. So I hope next time it will be more effective, and there more no strikes in everywhere in the world.
DR. HAWA ABDI: In conclusion, it is not transparent for us what is happening between our government system and the other foreign international communities.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somalian human rights activist and physician, one of the few women physicians in Somalia, founder and chairperson of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. She was joined by her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, also a physician working at her side in Somalia. Dr. Hawa Abdi has just published the book Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman—90,000 Lives Changed. This Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
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Lawyers representing hunger-striking detainees at Guantánamo Bay have warned some of the protesters could soon die in the ongoing protest. Lawyers for the men estimate that of the 166 still indefinitely detained at Guantánamo, nearly all are on hunger strike. On Wednesday, 25 legal and human rights organizations signed an open letter to President Obama urging him to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo. The groups include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Our guest, Victoria Brittain, is a leading British journalist who has closely covered Guantánamo for years. She co-wrote a memoir by former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg called Enemy Combatant. She co-authored the play Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. Her latest book has just been published; it’s titled Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror. Brittain also worked as associate foreign editor at The Guardian newspaper for 20 years.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Guantánamo, where lawyers representing hunger-striking detainees have warned some of the protesters could soon die in the ongoing protest. Lawyers for the men estimate that of the 166 still indefinitely detained at Guantánamo, nearly all are on hunger strike.
On Wednesday, 25 legal and human rights organizations signed an open letter to President Obama urging him to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo. The groups include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Meanwhile, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, spoke in Washington, calling on the White House and Congress to resolve key issues about the future of Guantánamo.
PETER MAURER: It’s transfer out of Guantánamo to their home countries of those detainees which have been declared not anymore security risks. It’s the issue of periodic review of those who are held under the armed authorization of force directive. So, the issues are known; they are on the table. And if we are—if we see hunger strike today, we interpret this as a symptom, as an indicator about the lack of perspective that those detainees have, the impression of not follow—of an American government which does not follow up on promises, promises that have been made for transfers.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he backs President Obama’s call to close the military prison.
Our next guest is Victoria Brittain, leading British writer who has closely covered Guantánamo for years. She co-wrote a memoir by former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg called Enemy Combatant. She co-authored the play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. And her new book is just out; it’s called Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror. Victoria Brittain also worked as associate foreign editor at The Guardian newspaper for 20 years.
It’s good to have you in our studios in New York on this side of the pond, Victoria.
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: What are these shadow lives? Describe who you have spent the last decade with.
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, some of the women that I’ve written about are the wives of Guantánamo prisoners. One, in particular, who is like chapter one of the book, is one of my closest friends, and I kind of lived alongside her and her children through a very long period when her husband was in Guantánamo, and she had absolutely no information about why he was there, when he might come back, no contact with him whatsoever.
And a second woman, who I know very well, her husband is still in Guantánamo after 11 years. And he’s one of the 86 people who were cleared in that task force report that President Obama ordered very early on by very senior intelligence and military people. And those 86 people, which of course included a lot of Yemenis, but it also included this British resident, Shaker Aamer, who—having been cleared as innocent, everybody expected him to be released. The British government has also asked for him. But President Obama has not managed to release him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you know why?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, there are many reasons. There are the roadblocks put up by Congress. There’s these rules that the secretary of state has to certify the person will never do a terrorist act. Our government has to certify, which they have said they were certainly prepared to do. And I think it’s important to remember that we’ve had 14 people come back to Britain from Guantánamo Bay, and never any one of them has done any tiny infraction of any sort. And, in fact, they have all—including Shaker, who hasn’t come back, they have all had big payoffs from the British government, who didn’t want to be in court having to justify their complicity in rendition and torture of these men.
So, why don’t they want Shaker back? I mean, why don’t you people want to send Shaker back? One theory is that because he has been a leading figure in all the hunger strikes and a leading negotiator between the American authorities and the prisoners, he’s a person with tremendous personality and power. He was educated in the United States. He comes from Saudi Arabia. He lives in Britain and has a British family. So he covers all the bases.
AMY GOODMAN: How was he taken to Guantánamo? Where was he picked up and when?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: He is one of the many people who were picked up as a response to the Americans dropping leaflets offering bounties for any foreigner that Pakistanis or Afghans turned over. So Shaker was sold to the Americans. He had been living in Afghanistan with his young family, like Moazzam Begg—in fact, in the same house. And they had been building girls’ schools and digging wells. And it was as charity workers that they were there. And that’s completely uncontested by anybody. So, after being sold, he was then tortured—
AMY GOODMAN: Who was he sold by?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: He was sold by different groups. At that moment after the American bombing, there was a proliferation of different armed groups who picked up these different people as a money-making enterprise. And it’s not clear who sold him to who and how he ended up first in Kandahar, Bagram, and then in Guantánamo Bay.
AMY GOODMAN: And in Kandahar, that was when?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: This was in 2002.
AMY GOODMAN: So he’s been held for more than a decade.
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Yeah, he’s been held for 11 years, essentially.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you read the letter he has gotten out? And how did he get this letter out?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, this letter is particularly poignant now, when the hunger strike is going on, because he wrote this in a much earlier hunger strike and sent it to his wife, Zinnira, who’s chapter two of my book. And I always think of the impact of sitting in your very own living room with your little kids around you and receiving this letter from your husband. I’ll read the letter now:
"I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway. I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 pounds. I dropped to 150 pounds in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no 'help', no 'intensive assisted feeding'. This is my legal right. The British government refuses to help me. What is the point of my wife being British? I thought Britain stood for justice, but they abandoned us, people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. I hold the British government responsible for my death, as I do the Americans."
Now, since then, the British have asked for him many times.
AMY GOODMAN: That was 2006?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: This was 2006. But what I—one of the things I find so poignant about this letter and thinking about now, he thought then that he would be able to die. But because of the American medical personnel in Guantánamo Bay who force-feed people, this very painful process, through the nose, they are kept alive. So, I think the authorities’ preoccupation now is: Don’t let anybody die. And in Britain, of course, we have the experience of hunger strikers in Ireland who—we did not force-feed them, and Bobby Sands died. And this was a kind of political turning point. I think the Obama administration does not want that political turning point.
But judging by what the Red Cross is saying, he has had a team in there. He’s had doctors in there. He thinks that some of these people, who are of course very fragile after lots of hunger strikes, lots of torture and lots of beating up in this process they call "earthing," when they enter a cell and throw the man to the ground—and Shaker has had his back very seriously injured by this process on more than one occasion. So these people were in very poor shape when they made this dramatic decision to go on hunger strike.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, the—it was more than four years ago that President Obama, in his inaugural speech, announced that he was closing Guantánamo. We have the secretary of defense saying now he wants to close Guantánamo. And yet it remains open. And the impact on British law and on American law of this continued outpost of illegality and of torture existing as part of the war on terror?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, in Britain, the feeling about American justice, as displayed in Guantánamo, is very, very strong. And I know from other former prisoners or families of former prisoners in places like Kuwait—or, indeed, there are still some Kuwaitis in there—everybody who’s been caught up in this, the reputation of American justice has had such a total body blow. And it gets worse every day. It’s really like a running sore.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, U.S. State Department official Michael Williams testified on Guantánamo at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The senior adviser for Guantánamo policy said the Obama administration is working within restrictions imposed by Congress to transfer prisoners out of the prison as part of an effort to close the facility, one of the president’s original campaign promises.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The U.S. government continues to stand by its decisions to designate certain detainees for transfer subject to appropriate security measures. We have transferred 71 of those individuals, including the resettlement of 40 detainees in third countries in cases where the U.S. government identified humane treatment or related concerns in the individual’s country of origin. There are 56 individuals designated for transfer who remain at Guantánamo. Each potential transfer is individually assessed, as was the practice of the administration prior to the legislative restrictions, to examine whether appropriate security measures can be taken in the receiving country to mitigate the potential security threat the transferred individual may pose.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Williams also claimed during his testimony that Guantánamo prisoners do not face indefinite detention.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The United States only detains individuals when that detention is lawful and does not intend to hold any individual longer than necessary. For instance, in 2010, following the application of the suspension of transfers to Yemen, the U.S. government did transfer a Yemeni detainee from Guantánamo to Yemen after he was ordered released by a U.S. federal court pursuant to his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. government is acutely aware that the majority of detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni nationals, and recognizes the need to identify solutions for that population as part of our broader transfer efforts.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.S. State Department official Michael Williams testifying on Guantánamo. Victoria Brittain?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, I find it very hard to see how he can say, "We don’t hold people indefinitely," when these people, like—I’ll take the example of Shaker and perhaps of another man, Fouzi Al Awda, a Kuwaiti man. These are people who have been held for 11 years. These are people who, everybody knows, pose no threat whatsoever. The Kuwaiti government has been asking for Fouzi for—since the very, very beginning. The very first court case against President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, Fouzi Al Awda was the correspondent. They cannot possibly say that the British government is not able to assure them that Shaker does not pose any threat of any sort. The British government—William Hague, himself, the foreign secretary, has said it over and over again. So, I think there’s a bit of economical with the truth going on there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s on another hunger strike now. He was on, in 2006. Your book is about the families and the wives. Tell us about Zinnira and her family, her children. What effect does this have on the family, held for—and I hesitate to use the word—the U.S. government uses "detainee." For us in the United States, "detainee" means you’re detained for a small amount of time, as opposed to "prisoner."
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: We use "prisoner." I think if you’ve been in a cage for 11 years, you’re a prisoner. Let’s be quite clear about that. I think the use of words, you know, can be very effective, and you do minimize it by saying "detainee."
Well, Zinnira. I want to tell you first, the first thing about Zinnira, and one of the bits in my book that I love most, is the poem love letter that she wrote to Shaker after 10 years, on Valentine’s Day. And that chapter is called "He’s Still My Valentine." And for her, February the 14th is a special day. It’s not only the day that her youngest child was born, who Shaker has never seen—that’s little Faris, who’s never seen his dad—but it’s also the day, coincidentally, and she didn’t know it while she was giving birth, that Shaker was taken to Guantánamo. So, whenever this date comes around, it’s psychologically very stressful for her. But last year on this day, she wrote this amazing long poem called "Heart of Gold." And—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you read it?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: I can read a little bit of it. And I think it gives you an idea of the sweetness of the personality.
You are the roof over my head,
You are the shadow that can’t be lead,
You are my voice when the silence breaks,
Your hand I seek, your hand I hold,
Cause you have a heart of gold.
You show me light in the dark,
And you guide me when I am lost,
Your happiness is all I ask,
But your story remains untold,
Cause you have a heart of gold.
You know, it’s a very hard—sorry. But, you know, Zinnira, when she wrote that, she was in one of her up phases, and she was so pleased with the crafting of it, and she worked so hard on it to make it perfect to send to him. And she sends him photographs of the children and little stories and letters that the children write. But over these years, she has had some very serious breakdowns. And sometimes I’ve been with her when she’s been talking about wanting to go to paradise, because she has these bad dreams. Sometimes she dreams that Shaker’s dead. Sometimes she dreams that Shaker is divorcing her. And you have to reassure her over and over again, "The voices—don’t listen to the voices. You have to push the voices away." And sometimes she can, and sometimes she can’t. And she’s had some sad periods in mental hospitals, and she has periods when she simply packs the kids into the car and goes off to stay with her aged parents, and they look after her until she recovers.
And some of the time, you know, she’s a great mom. She runs her little house. She takes the kids to school. She does extra teaching after school. And she’s a wonderful, warm, outgoing mom, only concerned about her children. And always, always, when she talks about Shaker, it’s, you know, "Will he—will he think I’m a good wife?" And sometimes she, in a good period—she’s been learning Arabic on the Internet, because she wants to make him proud of her in every possible way. And when his mother’s been ill in Saudi Arabia, she calls the mom and talks to her. And she asked me recently, you know, "Do you think I should go to Saudi and pack up the children?" She wasn’t in a very good phase. I said, "No, you call your mother-in-law on the phone, and that’s the correct thing for a daughter-in-law. But your actual job is keeping your children and yourself ready for when Shaker comes back."
And, you know, President Obama is the most powerful man in the world. Sorry about your Congress and all the roadblocks it put up. Is it really impossible that he could take this one case, which the British are begging him for—the man was cleared by his own most senior people—and say, "Actually, we made a mistake with this one"?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me ask you, in terms of the families that you’ve dealt with, has there been any change whatsoever in terms of the government’s willingness to at least promote communication and contact or even visits on the part of the families to these prisoners while this indefinite detention is being resolved?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: No, no visits. There’s never been any visits. And the lawyers’ visits have recently become even more difficult. And now, not even journalists are allowed. I mean, they’re never allowed to speak to prisoners. But there have been—by great efforts of the Red Cross, there have been some efforts at Skype meetings. And Shaker has had a few talks on Skype with his family in Saudi and with his family in London, which was incredibly emotional when it first happened. But then the Skype failed. And there were two attempts when it didn’t work. And he then said, "This is worse than not doing it." So although there have been a couple of sort of great moments when they saw dad—and what the children told me was, you know, "My dad, he’s so funny. He makes jokes all the time." And it was great for the kids and great for Zinnira to have those little moments. But real visit? And no real prospect. I mean, your officials say they’re not held indefinitely. But, you know, if it’s not indefinite, it’s definite. So, aren’t they going to say 11 years is enough?
AMY GOODMAN: What is the justification, since the majority of these men have been cleared for release, the majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo, for not getting visits or for these kinds of calls or frequent visits from lawyers and journalists?
VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, one of the first things that President Bush and his team did was to say, "We don’t use the Geneva Conventions. They’re a quaint, World War II, European thing." And that took away from the prisoners the safeguards that were put in place by the world community after World War II. And they are one of the kind of pillars of our civilization. And to take those away at the stroke of a pen and with a scoffing phrase, I think was one of the deeply, deeply shocking things.
And I’m sure the Red Cross has been agitating for—well, for no torture, for a kickoff, and for much better facilities of all sorts for these men, and indeed for the release of the innocent ones. I mean, the fact that the—that half of the 86 cleared men are Yemenis, who were ready to go back, and then after the Christmas Day underpants bombing, where the man was trained in Yemen, the president said, for the foreseeable future no one will go back to Yemen. Well, what’s the foreseeable future? That was quite a while ago, and no criteria. All we know is that Yemen has been, since then, enormously destabilized, in part by the drone assassinations, including of two American citizens. And all the assessments are that al-Qaeda is stronger in Yemen today than it was at the beginning, and that has been largely to do with American policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Brittain, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist and author, associate foreign editor at The Guardian for 20 years, formerly served as adviser to UNIFEM on a report about the impact of war on women. She co-authored two plays about Guantánamo, and now her latest book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
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Israeli Journalist Amira Hass on Palestinian Resistance, "Peace Talks" and U.S. Role in Region (Pt. 2)
Part two of our interview with Amira Hass, the only Jewish-Israeli journalist to have spent almost 20 years living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank. Christiane Amanpour has described her as "one of the greatest truth-seekers of them all."
Amira Hass recently suffered a torrent of hate mail and calls for her prosecution after she wrote an article for Haaretz defending the right of Palestinians to resist violent occupation. In the article, Hass defended the throwing of stones by Palestinian youth at Israeli soldiers, calling it "the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule." In this web exclusive, Hass begins by reading her controversial article.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Amira Hass, well-known Israeli-Jewish journalist, the only Israeli-Jewish journalist to live in the Occupied Territories, in West Bank and Gaza, for about two decades. In 2009, she came to the United States because she was honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation. She was introduced by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Christiane Amanpour said that Amira Hass is "one of the greatest truth-seekers of them all."
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Amira monitors power by following the lives of average people caught in its machinations, and she’s on the ground listening and collecting their testimonies. And as I said, she is often providing the material for those of us who don’t know the story as well or who sometimes are not able to go where she goes to be able to follow her leads.
She writes what the Palestinian journalists think about their country’s leadership but dare not say themselves. She writes what she thinks citizens of Israel should know about their leadership but do not want to hear.
Some call her a traitor. It is uncomfortable to hear the truth; it’s very uncomfortable to tell the truth. Some say that she is the only voice of truth in a polarized conflict. For 20 years, she’s paid no attention to either of these camps, choosing instead to follow her own path. Amira knows what Irena just said, that dictators do not like journalists, but more than that, democracies often don’t like journalists either.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Amira Hass has come to the United States after writing a piece in her newspaper, Haaretz, in Israel, a piece that has led to a torrent of hate mail and calls for prosecution after the piece came out, defending the rights of Palestinians to resist violent occupation. In the article, Amira Hass defends the throwing of stones by Palestinian youth at Israeli soldiers, calling it "the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule." But we’re going to turn right now to Amira Hass herself.
And, Amira, welcome to Democracy Now! Could you read the article—
AMIRA HASS: All of it?
AMY GOODMAN: —that has caused such a furor in Israel?
AMIRA HASS: OK, if you want.
“Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance. Persecution of stone-throwers, including 8-year-old children, is an inseparable part—though it’s not always spelled out—of the job requirements of the foreign ruler, no less than shooting, torture, land theft, restrictions on movement, and the unequal distribution of water sources.
“The violence of 19-year-old soldiers, their 45-year-old commanders, and the violence of bureaucrats, jurists and lawyers is dictated by reality. Their job is to protect the fruits of violence instilled in foreign occupation—resources, profits, power and privileges.
“Steadfastness (Sumud) and resistance against the physical, and even more so the systemic, institutionalized violence, is the core sentence in the inner syntax of Palestinians in this land. This is reflected every day, every hour, every moment, without pause. Unfortunately, this is true not only in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, but also within Israel’s recognized borders, although the violence and the resistance to it are expressed differently. But on both sides of the Green Line, the levels of distress, suffocation, bitterness, anxiety and wrath are continually on the rise, as is the astonishment at Israelis’ blindness in believing that their violence can remain in control forever.
“Often hurling stones is borne out of boredom, excessive hormones, mimicry, boastfulness and competition. But in the inner syntax of the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, stone-throwing is the adjective attached to the subject of ’We’ve had enough of you, occupiers.’
“After all, teenagers could find other ways to give vent to their hormones without risking arrests, fines, injuries and death.
“Even if it is a right and duty, various forms of steadfastness and resisting the foreign regime, as well as its rules and limitations, should be taught and developed. Limitations could include the distinction between civilians and those who carry arms, between children and those in uniform, as well as the failures and narrowness of using weapons.
“It would make sense for Palestinian schools to introduce basic classes in resistance: how to build multiple 'tower and stockade' villages in Area C; how to behave when army troops enter your homes; comparing different struggles against colonialism in different countries; how to use a video camera to document the violence of the regime’s representatives; methods to exhaust the military system and its representatives; a weekly day of work in the lands beyond the separation barrier; how to remember identifying details of soldiers who flung you handcuffed to the floor of the jeep, in order to submit a complaint; the rights of detainees and how to insist on them in real time; how to overcome fear of interrogators; and mass efforts to realize or to materialize the right of movement. Come to think of it, Palestinian adults could also make use of these lessons, perhaps in place of their drills, training in dispersing protests, and practice in spying on Facebook posts.
“When high school students were drafted two years ago for the campaign of boycotting settlement products, it seemed like a move in the right direction. But it stopped there, without going further, without broadening the context. Such lessons would have been perfectly in tune with the tactics of appealing to the United Nations—civil disobedience on the ground and defiance of power in diplomacy.
"So why are such classes absent from the Palestinian curriculum? Part of the explanation lies with the opposition of the donor states and Israel’s punitive measures. But it is also due to inertia, laziness, flawed reasoning, misunderstanding and the personal gains of some parts of society. In fact the rationale for the existence of the Palestinian Authority engendered one basic rule in the last two decades—adaptation to the existing situation. Thus, a contradiction and a clash have been created between the inner syntax of the Palestinian Authority and that of the Palestinian people."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you, Amira Hass. Can you talk a little, now that you’ve read the piece, about what surprised you in the responses that you received when the piece was published, including from, as you said, Israeli liberals?
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, and also Palestinians. What surprised me is that I’ve been writing this—I mean, these kind of things, I’ve been writing in the past, as well, about the right to resist. So, we’ve—with some friends, we’ve come to the conclusion that usually they read it only—they read only the first sentence—I mean, that now the difference is that I wrote it on the first sentence and not in the middle of the article, which means that so far they have read only the first sentence, and not... Then—then I was surprised with my surprise, because, after all, you know, I know that any hegemonic group sees its hegemony and the violence it uses for the hegemony as self-evident, as a natural thing, and will do everything possible to protect this hegemony and the violence that is combined with the hegemony. So I shouldn’t have been surprised.
AMY GOODMAN: You say that Palestinians responded, as well as Israelis.
AMIRA HASS: No, I got many support, but some Palestinians neglected the fact that I make a distinction between, you know, targeting civilians and targeting soldiers.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
AMIRA HASS: They don’t—they didn’t relate to this distinction that I make between civilians and—
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
AMIRA HASS: Because—because many of this—because this needs more—making distinction needs much more planning, needs much more thought, needs much more effort, and this is more difficult. So people know that there has not been much of a distinction between civilians and soldiers, and different especially in the use of arms. So, others—others do mention it. I mean, it’s not—somebody—I just got an article today of someone who wrote we’re just not—I mean, "You are remaining an occupier and an imperialist or colonialist, whatever you say, whatever you do." So, also this is a reaction. But—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about the fact that you advocate nonviolent resistance?
AMIRA HASS: I don’t like the term "nonviolent resistance," yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what the exact phrase is in this.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, yeah, no, I’ll tell you why: because it puts the onus of being nonviolent on the occupied rather than on the occupier. And it has the ring of how we please the West in their demands of how to do.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How is it that you phrase it? Is it "civil disobedience"?
AMIRA HASS: I phrase it "unarmed."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: "Unarmed."
AMIRA HASS: And "popular resistance," "popular resistance." And as we saw with the Second Intifada, armed resistance—or, it wasn’t really resistance, in my eyes, but the use of arms always keeps away the majority of the population. So it’s only—it’s a very masculine, it’s a very macho phenomenon that is—mostly, I say, it is the competition over whose is bigger.
AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, you talk about schools should—in Palestine, should have to teach resistance.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain
AMIRA HASS: You see those kids going throwing stones, as I say, it’s their right. And then they’re being arrested by the hundreds every month. They should be equipped also with the knowledge how to face an interrogator, what are your rights, what lawyer to call when you are arrested. This should be part of the curriculum. Or, you know, going to the demonstrations against the separation wall shouldn’t be only the task of the villagers who suffered from the separation wall. Why not have one week or one day a month or one day in the week—I don’t know—each school going to work with the farmers who have land beyond the separation wall, insist on going—
AMY GOODMAN: You know, for most people who are listening to this—
AMIRA HASS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: They have no idea what you mean when you say the separation wall.
AMIRA HASS: Oh. Even 10 years after?
AMY GOODMAN: You live in it—
AMIRA HASS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But I would say most people don’t.
AMIRA HASS: It’s part of Israeli—as a response to the suicide attacks of the Second Intifada, Israel decided to build a separation wall between Israel and the West Bank—only that it is deep into the western Palestinian—Palestinian territory. In some places it’s a fence, very offensive fence; in some places it is a wall, a wall of concrete. Only that the idea to have a wall started or this barrier started from before the Second Intifada, so idea in June 2000, so before the Second Intifada started. Anyway, this was taken by most of the Israelis as the right thing, as the right way to respond to the suicide attacks. The thing is that it’s deep into the western West Bank and cutting away many, many—a lot of dunams away from Palestinians. It separates Palestinians from Palestinians, Palestinian communities from their land, Palestinians’ villages from cities, etc. So this is—but it’s not—and the separation wall actually materialized restrictions on movement that existed already from before.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you also suggest is that, as against what most people believe, U.S. support for present Israeli policies do not actually work for the benefit of Jews in the region. Could you elaborate on that, because I think that’s rather uncommon a view?
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, yeah. This is also one of the things that’s always astonished me, that people who say that they care for Israel actually assist Israel and Israelis to nurture what I call their suicidal—suicidal character or instincts, because if people think that we can live in that region—we are a minority in that region—so to live forever, for hundreds of years, as a society which is taken as a foreign outpost and as a messenger of another—of a big power, and only rely on our military superiority, I think this is real shortsightedness. This is what I call the suicidal—this is how I see Israel as suicidal. Palestinians and Arab peoples have shown over the past 20 years their willingness to accept this society in the region, but provided it is not a hostile society.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But there are many people who would argue against that, who say precisely that’s not the case, that the problem is that Arab states have not been sufficiently—
AMIRA HASS: No, there is the Arab—look, we are nearing a situation where many, many—when people start to withdraw from this. They say, "We have—there was a peace process or a peace accord. It’s the Oslo. And what did Israelis—Israel show? That they are only after more land, more colonialist endeavor, more confiscation of land." And actually, Israel built in the—under the guise of a peace process, what Israel managed to make is a group of bantustans, Gaza apart, and then now they work on making bantustans or consolidating the bantustans, the enclaves, or reservations, if you will, in the West Bank, separated from each other, or not separated but thinly connected to each other within an ocean of Israeli-controlled land. So, in the past 20 years, Israel has given many reasons to people—to those who always doubted Israel’s intentions, it has given them many reasons to continue in doubt it and say, "No, we cannot." But still, I just saw a poll today. Still, Palestinians, the majority of Palestinians, believe that—in a popular struggle against—popular, which means unarmed, struggle against this occupation. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a one-state or a two-state solution as the most likely outcome right now?
AMIRA HASS: Now, nothing is likely, neither-nor. So—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What’s a desirable outcome?
AMIRA HASS: I joked, and people take me seriously. I said, if to dream, then I would dream about the United Socialist States of the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re the daughter—
AMIRA HASS: If you want to know.
AMY GOODMAN: —of Holocaust survivors.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We talked about this a little in part one of this interview. You have written a book about your mother. Talk about how that shapes your view of—
AMIRA HASS: It was my mother’s diary, and I added two chapters to them, my mother’s diary in Bergen-Belsen, in the concentration camp, yeah. So that’s not—it was published by Haymarket. Look, the influence is—my parents were leftists, not only Holocaust survivors, and the two were clear—it was a natural combination that you can—what you conclude, that you are—that you resist—first, about the right of resistance. I mean, if I learned from anyone about the right to resist oppression, I learned it from my parents because of this, of their history—and without making comparisons. It doesn’t—it’s not important. But, I mean, the legacy of African Americans fighting against slavery, the legacy of South Africa, and also what I—the legacy of also people in the ex-Soviet Union, in the Soviet Empire, fighting against their oppression, this is part of the legacy. Not only—not just nationalist—our nation’s history is our legacy.
AMY GOODMAN: When you were honored in 2009 by the International Women’s Media Foundation, it was a very fancy banquet. Hundreds of people were there. I also was there. Christian Amanpour introduced you, talked about your courage, your truth telling. And you won the lifetime achievement award. When you got up, you responded to lifetime achievement.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, I said it was lifetime failure.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
AMIRA HASS: Well, writing for 20 years, and you realize that it doesn’t—these words don’t change and not—and the situation is only worse. And if I wanted to appeal to Israelis and to tell them—to be kind of a messenger and give them the facts, you know, not—it’s only lately that I started with op-eds—or not lately, but my main task is to give facts. And then you realize that people do not want to read. And I always say the problem in Israel is not institutionalized censorship. We don’t have censorship, or to a great—maybe some military, but not that serious. We can write whatever we want, and we have—we can exercise this right of information. But the people don’t have the duty to know. And that’s maybe the failure.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also said that 20 years ago there was still some shame in Israeli society, because there was some set of ethics and values that contradicted the occupation, but that has completely eroded over the years.
AMIRA HASS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain that? Why did that occur? Why did these values erode?
AMIRA HASS: Well, you know, you have new generations. You get used to the situation. You benefit from it. You see that there is no—the world is not shocked by it. That’s it. I mean, people—you know, the world is demanding Palestinians to be nonviolent, but it’s not demanding Israel to be nonviolent. You know, Obama came, and he spoke about Israel being threatened by Gaza, which is—this is such a—
AMY GOODMAN: When he last visited.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah. It is such a—how would I describe it? It’s absurd. It’s an absurd, to describe this, to accept this kind of balance, as that Israel is being threatened by Gaza. So, yeah, people have—you have new generations. You have youngsters who have no idea that there was a situation—a different situation 30, 40 years ago, 45 years ago, actually. I mean, 25 years ago, still, the majority of the Israelis lived—before all—yeah, you know, like they—without this occupation.
But let’s not—I mean, let’s not forget that it’s not only the Green Line that—I mean, it’s not only—the problem is not only in the West Bank. The problem is institutionalized discrimination against the Palestinians and a systemic dispossession of these people from their land and homeland. And with the years, it becomes clearer and clearer that it is this—a plan. It is not by accident. I mean, if it started by accident, if we had the benefit of the doubt at the beginning that it started because of certain circumstances, it becomes more and more entrenched in Israeli policies.
And this is what endangers the—it is what endangers the existence and the future of the Jewish community. This is what drives me mad. I mean, you know, people do not believe—but of course I care for my community. And maybe it’s time to—it’s what Palestinians very often ask me, a very similar question. They say—when they are stupefied by this Israeli blindness, they say, "Don’t Israelis think about their grandchildren?" And I think it’s a very compassionate and telling question, and valid.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re heading to Brazil, Amira Hass. Why are you going there?
AMIRA HASS: I was invited to give some talks to Jewish groups and Jewish youth, which I don’t know much about, so [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: And what—what is the message you will convey there?
AMIRA HASS: That if they care for the existence of a Jewish community in that region, they should not support Israeli policies.
AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, I want to thank you for being with us. I would like to talk to you when you come back from Brazil on your way back to Israel.
AMIRA HASS: Insha’Allah.
AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass is Haaretz correspondent from the occupied Palestinian territories, the only Jewish-Israeli journalist to have spent almost 20 years living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
- <li>Headlines for April 10, 2013</li><li>The Way of the Knife: NYT's Mark Mazzetti on the CIA's Post-9/11 Move from Spying to Assassinations</li><li>Israeli Journalist Amira Hass Sparks Furor at Home for Defending Palestinian Right to Resist</li>
As efforts grow to target activists who expose animal abuse, we speak to Andrew Stepanian, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2006 for violating a controversial law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Stepanian and several others were jailed for their role in a campaign to stop animal testing by the British scientific firm Huntingdon Life Sciences. They were convicted of using a website to "incite attacks" on those who did business with Huntingdon Life Sciences. Together, the group became known as the SHAC 7. He was held for part of his sentence at a secretive prison called a Communication Management Unit in Marion, Illinois. The highly restrictive prison holds mostly Arab and Muslim men. The environmental activist Daniel McGowan was also held at a CMU. In December, McGowan was released to a New York City halfway house after spending five-and-a-half years in prison for his role in two acts of arson as a member of the Earth Liberation Front. Last week, McGowan was briefly detained again just days after he published an article for The Huffington Post about the CMUs.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our next guest was sentenced to three years in prison in 2006 for violating a controversial law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Andrew Stepanian and six others were jailed for their role in a campaign to stop animal testing by the British scientific firm Huntingdon Life Sciences. They were convicted of using a website to, quote, "incite attacks" on those who did business with Huntingdon Life Sciences. Together, the group became known as the SHAC 7. Andy Stepanian was held for part of his sentence at a secretive prison called a Communication Management Unit in Marion, Illinois.
Animal rights activism is back in the news this week. A front-page article in The New York Times called "Taping of Farm Cruelty Is Becoming the Crime" notes that a dozen or so legislatures have introduced bills that target people who go undercover to expose farm animal abuse. These so-called "ag-gag" bills would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms or apply for a job at one without disclosing affiliations with animal rights groups. And Andrew Stepanian joins us right here in our New York studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about what is happening, the trend across the country and efforts to stop animal cruelty?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, well, I’ll let Will Potter expand upon this, but generally what’s happening is that we’re seeing groups, middle agencies, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, penning model legislation that behooves animal enterprises. So, if it’s a factory farm or laboratory or someone that profits off the use of animals, then there is designer statutes, designer legislation, that’s being written, introduced and passed, you know, fast track through Congress or through states, individual states—in this case, the ag-gag bills are mainly state bills right now—that are targeting animal rights activism and targeting undercover investigators.
Over the past 10 years, there’s been a bit of a shift in animal rights activism from some of the more radical tactics to relying on more legal approaches like using videography to expose cruelty inside factory farms and laboratories. And this is integral to some of the largest animal rights organizations in this country, like Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing and PETA. They rely heavily on this tactic to showcase that animal abuse is not only rare and not a marginal thing happening in these institutions, but it’s systemic. It’s systemic problems that need to be documented and need to be treated accordingly. This is causing these businesses a great deal of profit, and so they’re lobbying, in result, to create laws that will then cull the ability of either journalists or activists to document this cruelty and get it out to the public.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things that people are concerned about is that if you do an undercover video, you have to show it in like—within 48 hours.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, some—
AMY GOODMAN: What is the problem with this?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Some of the most recent legislation is saying that you have to release this within the first 24 hours. And this is problematic for the investigators because, you know, this is not—what they need to do is they need to be able to show the cruelty and then do a larger investigation that shows that the problem is systemic. That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to get widespread animal welfare and animal rights legislation that benefits animals in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning someone could say, "Oh, that was a rogue worker—
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —"who did that for one day.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: And that’s generally—
AMY GOODMAN: "And we stopped that."
ANDREW STEPANIAN: That’s generally the answers that we’re hearing, is that, "Oh, it was one mistake," or "It was one rogue worker, and this is not indicative of a systemic problem." The truth is, is that in—and this is in part because of capitalism, but capitalism is rewarding bad practice, whether it be in capital markets or it be in the way that animals are treated. And so, as a farmer—and you’re seeing this is—mom-and-pop farms are becoming more and more marginal and making way now for these larger factory farms, making up over 90 percent of the farms here in the United States are these factory farms, where they’re condensing the amount of animals per acreage, piling animals on top of each other. In the case of battery chickens, there are multiple animals that are in cages the size of television sets on top of one another, maybe seven tiers high, all with latticeworks of chicken wire between them. Some of the animals—and I’ve witnessed some of this myself—some of the animals on the lower levels are devoid of any feathers or fur or anything else, because the ammonia from the feces that drips down from the top levels actually just strips them of their plumage. And this is something that’s not rare; this is something that’s systemic. And it’s because they’re trying to crunch to make profit margins and also, you know, yield to whatever demand there is out there for these products. And so, what we need to do is we need to be able to show this is not a rare thing, it’s not a one-off thing. This is all the time. And we need to address these problems. Whether you’re vegan or vegetarian or you’re a carnivore, I think most people can agree that cruelty to animals is wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about your own case for a moment? What happened to you? What were you convicted of?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well, I was convicted of using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce for the purposes of causing more than $10,000 worth of damage to Huntingdon Life Sciences, which was a biotech firm that was doing testing on animals. They had a facility in New Jersey, three in the U.K. and a satellite office in Tokyo. What they alleged my personal involvement was, was that I organized demonstrations against the Bank of New York and Deloitte & Touche, both of which had financial involvement with Huntingdon Life Sciences. Both companies severed their financial relationships with Huntingdon Life Sciences. And I was unapologetic about being involved with those campaigns. In one instance, I was stopped by local police. They took my ID. And I was completely transparent about being involved with this demonstration. The local police didn’t find a reason to cite me with an infraction, and they let me go. But 18 months pass. The FBI finds a reason to say that I was guilty of conspiracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about why you were protesting Huntingdon.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: We were protesting Huntingdon Life Sciences initially because there were five undercover investigations, the first by a woman by the name of Michelle Rokke, who was wearing a hidden camera, that worked inside Huntingdon Life Sciences, depicting some of the worst cruelty to animals that was shown to date at that time. And—
AMY GOODMAN: What was that cruelty?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: It included things like punching beagle puppies in the face. It included—
AMY GOODMAN: For what purpose?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Nobody really knows. Apparently in the video, the beagle puppy is being punched in the face by one of these vivisector. The vivisector was frustrated because he couldn’t find a vein to inject the animal with, and the animal kept flailing. And so, in order to, you know, subdue the animal, he started punching the animal. All this was repeatedly shown in video footage that we then leaked to the press.
As a result of that, we had widespread support and this kind of groundswell of interest in getting involved with campaigning against Huntingdon Life Sciences. And so, for a lot of the animal rights activists at the time, they kind of saw a watershed moment where we could reach out to other people that weren’t necessarily vegan or vegetarian or identified as animal rights activists, because these are domesticated animals that people could identify with. And so, we said, "OK, here are dogs and cats. You know, people can start to get this, and they can start to understand why we think the way we think." And so, this was kind of a springboard for other campaigns. So, it started with an undercover investigation. It led into a campaign that was now in 18 different countries at the time of our indictment. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the grounds for the FBI? Police said no. Yeah, they got you at the protest. You had admitted you were involved with the protest. And since when does the FBI—
ANDREW STEPANIAN: All the FBI had to do, in the case of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, was prove that it was my intention, or at least it appeared to be my intention, to cause more than $10,000 worth of damage to Huntingdon Life Sciences.
AMY GOODMAN: And that damage was?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: And that damage was via, specifically in my case, the group Deloitte & Touche severing their auditing relationship with Huntingdon Life Sciences and a temporary delisting of the stock from the New York Stock Exchange, or at that time the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board. That cost them a certain amount of revenue in the time they were delisted.
AMY GOODMAN: And you went to prison.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I went to prison for 36 months, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about where you were held.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: So, initially, I self-surrendered to Cadman Plaza U.S. Marshals office. I served the beginning of my sentence at MDC Brooklyn, where the first 21 days of that sentence I spent in solitary confinement in the hole. They cited a media appearance—
AMY GOODMAN: In MDC Brooklyn.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: In MDC Brooklyn, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Metropolitan Detention Center.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: They actually cited my appearance—or, not appearance, but phone conversation with you as the reason for why they were holding me in the hole.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: That’s OK. It’s not your fault. They had—they had said that inmates that engage in media are subject to investigation because it might risk their safety in the prison populace. And it was kind of like this legalese boilerplate that they read off to me. But I interpreted it as they were doing this to me to penalize me for doing media in regards to my case.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, then talk about where you were moved to.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I was moved to North Carolina, where I served two-and-a-half years in North Carolina at the medium-high-security prison at Butner. From there, in May of 2008, I was then transferred to a high-security unit at the Marion United States Penitentiary called a Communications Management Unit.
AMY GOODMAN: High-security unit?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well—
AMY GOODMAN: Were you even convicted of a violent crime?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: No. Actually, at that point, because I was engaged in programming and didn’t have any ticketable offenses within the Bureau of Prisons that could lower my—or cost me good time, they had actually said to me that I was qualified now to go to a low-security prison instead of a medium-security prison. So I thought if I was going to get a transfer, I had hoped—what I had hoped, and the judge had agreed to, was for me to be designated to Fort Dixon, New Jersey, which was close to my family. And my goal was to get closer to home. I was actually 600 miles from home. It was very hard on my family to try and visit me in North Carolina. So my goal was to get to New Jersey. That’s what I thought was happening when they came to transfer me initially.
But once I saw the restraints and such that they put on me, I realized that I can’t be going to a low-security prison with these types of restraints. And when I got loaded onto an airplane, I was in the back of the airplane with a gentleman by the name of Ali Chandia. He was from the—what the prosecutors called the Virginia jihad network, a case involving paintballs sent to Lashkar-e-Taiba. I started to realize that us that were in the back of the plane were the inmates that were designated as terrorists and that we were going to a specialized unit.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were the grounds? What did the U.S. government say, why in fact you were not going to a low-security unit but a high-security unit?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well, here’s the interesting part about the Communications Management Unit, is that just prior to them building the Communications Management Unit, Marion USP was considered a maximum or the former supermax prison that was in the federal system. Currently that’s replaced by what’s called ADX at Florence, Colorado.
AMY GOODMAN: ADX stands for?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: ADX stands for Administrative Maximum. I don’t know why the X stands for "maximum," but that’s their abbreviation. And what they did, in order to designate inmates like myself that had low-security points, others that had medium, and others like some of these Muslim men that were held there—over 76 percent of the people that were held at the CMU are Muslim or Arab nationals. The men that were there, most of them had minimum-security points.
And in order to create this administrative unit that didn’t follow the guidelines of the larger Federal Bureau of Prisons, they had to downgrade this maximum security facility to what’s called a FCI, or a Federal Correctional Institution. What they did, however, on letterhead is keep the name USP. USP gives them a certain budget. This was under the guidance of Harley Lappin, who was the director of the Bureau of Prisons at the time. They kept the name USP, which give them a certain budget; however, they got rid of some of the staff in order to bring the staff down to the levels that would be otherwise an FCI. And in this like kind of financial play area, they took the money left over to build this specialized unit. This is how they were able to bypass the Administrative Procedures Act in building this unit, because initially Congress had said no to a specialized unit called the Counterterrorism Unit, or CTU. What’s ironic now is that, through some of these FOIA documents released through the Aref v. Holder case and some of the discovery in the Aref v. Holder case, they’re still holding onto letterhead that says "CTU." So they haven’t really scrubbed their own documents to say that this unit—they’re just building the unit that Congress said no to. And that’s where I was designated.
Most of the inmates there are considered either inmates of inspirational significance, whatever that means, or inmates that are terrorists. But to my observation, not everyone was of inspirational significance. More often—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "inspirational significance"?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: That’s their terminology, not my own. I don’t know if I agree with it. But that’s the Bureau of Prisons’ terminology for designation to the Communications Management Unit.
AMY GOODMAN: And you?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Myself? My interpretation was that it was a unit designed after 9/11 to house Muslims within the Federal Bureau of Prisons that they thought could possibly recruit or that they didn’t fully understand, and they wanted to vet their communications.
AMY GOODMAN: And you? Who were you in that spectrum?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: At that—at one point during my stay there, a guard referred to me as a "balancer." And he had actually—the way the conversation was phrased was he kind of said something to me along the lines of: "Keep your head up, kid. Don’t worry. You’re not like the rest of these Muslims." And I don’t mean this in a disparaging way; I’m just quoting the man. "You’re not like the rest of these Muslims. You’re going to go home soon enough. You’re only here for balance." And—
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t understand.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: It was my understanding that the law—the unit was a lawsuit waiting to happen—of which it is. It’s being sued right now for discrimination because of the overwhelming demographic of Muslims that are there. And it was my understanding that the first CMU—that was at Terre Haute, Indiana—that was built was almost 90 percent or 95 percent Muslim. They realized that this became problematic, so when they built the second CMU at Marion, Illinois, that they wanted to offset part of their population with individuals that could be designated to this terrorist unit, that fit a certain criterion, like myself, that could then create this balance to say, "We don’t only have Muslims here; we have other folks."
AMY GOODMAN: So, oddly enough, if you had converted to Islam, they might have moved you out.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I’m not sure. They had asked me—they had pulled me aside for interviews. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s interrogation, but the investigative forces within the Bureau of Prisons pulled me aside a few times to ask me about me growing a beard while I was there, asking me if I was converting to Islam. I didn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: Because you had grown a beard.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I had grown a beard while I was at the CMU.
AMY GOODMAN: But you would no longer be balancing them, so there would be no reason for you to be there.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: They actually went as far as to try and get me to sign an affidavit saying that I was a—give me a second—Protestant. They wanted me to identify as Protestant, because in the Bureau of Prisons designation for me, under religious affiliation, they just had "other." That was actually under the advice of my attorney, to say that I was Buddhist, that it might be able to help me get a vegan diet while I was in there. That was his theory. So we listed it as "other," and then we included this information from the judge to try and get me vegan food.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you succeed?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, I was able to eat while I was in there, generally. I got enough calories. It wasn’t good, but I got enough calories. But I believe in God. I am, I guess, a practicing Christian. I go to church with my family. But I knew, when they were trying to get me to sign that document, that was because they were hoping to have more men listed there as not Muslim, and they needed one more on record that wasn’t a, quote-unquote, "other," like myself.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you sign?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: No, I did not. I’m in the process right now of actually FOIAing for those documents to see if they actually signed for me.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andy Stepanian, animal rights activist, imprisoned at a high-security CMU, Communications Management Unit, in Marion, Illinois. He’s co-founder of The Sparrow Project. Do you think you would have been treated this way if you hadn’t released undercover video of animal abuse?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well, to clarify, that that undercover footage that was released is what inspired me to get involved myself, so I wasn’t the one that released it. I saw it, and it motivated me to get involved with the SHAC campaign. So, I don’t think they attributed that footage to me. I think they understood who released that footage. So I don’t think—
AMY GOODMAN: And was that person charged?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: That person had some legal consequences, but most of it was taken care of, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So now you’re out. What effect has your imprisonment had on you?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Mostly psychological. I mean, I have—I repeatedly have nightmares. I sleep not well. But it’s not nightmares of violence. It’s more just repeating situations that I was in, whether it be solitary confinement or, you know, this kind of urge to go home, that kind of thing, just revisiting moments in prison. So I don’t know if that would qualify as what people would normally consider post-traumatic stress disorder, because I’m not remembering, say, a stabbing or something that happened in prison. I’m remembering moments that I think were more emotionally upsetting for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened in Southern California at a slaughterhouse that McDonald’s used as a supplier and how animal rights activism led to them severing ties with this company?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: There was a group called Compassion Over Killing that sent an undercover investigator into, I believe it was called Central Valley Meats. It was a meat supplier for major fast food chains. And when that undercover investigator was there over the course of a few months, it showed systemic problems of egregious animal abuse. And while this egregious animal abuse was happening, there was actually members of the USDA or other auditing, you know, agents there, witnessing it happening but not reporting it.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at an Associated Press piece, and it says, "The suspensions occurred after an animal welfare group’s covert video showed cows that appeared to be sick or lame being beaten, kicked, shot and shocked in an attempt to get them to walk to slaughter. ... The video appears to show workers bungling the slaughter of cows struggling to walk and even stand. Clips show workers kicking and shocking cows to get them to stand and walk to slaughter."
ANDREW STEPANIAN: These are all examples of systemic problems that are happening not just at Central Valley Meats, but are happening all across the country. And I think factory farm industries and the lobbyists that represent them understand that. And these things happen in order to maximize their profits. So, as these lobbyists are defending their profits, and they hire middle agencies like the American Legislative Exchange Council, they start petting bills like these ag-gag bills, that Will will be able to describe in great detail, that will target undercover investigators. They’ll target photographers, videographers, that expose cruelty like this, and try to prevent it from seeing the light of day. In some cases, one of the laws—I believe it’s in Florida—will actually go as far as saying that a journalist that redistributes or syndicates this footage is subject to criminal charges, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that if you work at one of these companies, you have to reveal that you’re with an animal rights group, on penalty of being imprisoned, of being convicted, being indicted?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, they are trying to go one step further to try and stop these people from even getting in there to obtain this footage, by trying to have all employees disclose. And in some cases, some of the employees that have been caught doing this, there have been—even predating these ag-gag laws, there have been instances where they’ve tried to get them on false ID or breaches of terms and agreements with the company itself.
AMY GOODMAN: What does "ag-gag" mean?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I mean, ag-gag is a term that came up—it’s kind of like a trending tag right now—referring to agricultural gag laws. And what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to silence activists. They’re trying to gag them. And these laws clearly exist for the purpose of silencing and gagging what is First Amendment-protected speech and journalism that is showing systemic cruelty in order to try and make the world a better place for animals.
AMY GOODMAN: Andy, you are co-founder of The Sparrow Project. What is this?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well, Sparrow Project was kind conceived from my jail cell when I was in prison. I didn’t always have people on the phone to talk to or, you know, people to commingle with. But I often had pretty wonderful experiences with the birds that would kind of dance between the razor wire outside my cell. And they were symbols of freedom for me. And so, when I got out, through, you know, building relationships with penpals, I decided that I was going to create a kind of DIY or boutique PR agency that would represent activists and journalists, hopefully around the world. And I’ve kind of gotten off to a slow start, but I’m kind of happy with where I am now in life, because I’m trying to bring that inspiration that I saw in those sparrows and find the small things that inspire others and make the world a better place.
AMY GOODMAN: Now I want to ask you about Daniel McGowan, who was another environmentalist who was imprisoned for years but now is free—and then was just arrested on Friday. He was arrested—he was released Friday afternoon after federal authorities were notified they had arrested him under a regulation declared unconstitutional. McGowan had been taken into custody Thursday just months after his release to a halfway house following over five years in prison for his role in two acts of arson as a member of the Earth Liberation Front. In his case, the judge ruled that he had committed an act of terrorism, even though no one was hurt in either of the actions. McGowan was told he had violated a Bureau of Prisons rule for publishing an article decrying his treatment, an article that he published in The Huffington Post. McGowan’s attorneys say they won his release after pointing out the regulation in question had been declared illegal in 2007 and eliminated in 2010. Do you know Daniel McGowan?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, I actually knew Daniel McGowan before I went to prison. He was a friend of mine. And coincidentally, I actually ran into him at the CMU at Marion, Illinois. So, about for three months, we spent time together a couple cells away from each other while at the CMU Marion. He then was in the CMU Marion for about another year, was matriculated into general population at the Marion USP, and was quickly sent back to the CMU, but this time at Terre Haute, where he served out the rest of his sentence before qualifying for a halfway house. So he was in a halfway house for about three months, when—
AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Here in New York, in East New York, when this happened. He was working for a law firm, was getting back, you know, on track with his life, had no disciplinary reports, was always on time, was always doing the right thing, according to his probation officers and his case manager. But Huffington Post, even while he was at the CMU, gave him a space on their blog column. And he utilized that to talk about the lawsuit he’s filing against the Bureau of Prisons. The lawsuit is called Aref v. Holder, where he and Yassin Aref are co-plaintiffs in a case brought against Eric Holder and the Bureau of Prisons for their designation to the Communications Management Unit.
AMY GOODMAN: Aref is?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Aref is a man that was entrapped in upstate New York and charged with alleged involvement with material support to terrorists. He witnessed a bank loan happening between an FBI informant and a man who owned a pizzeria in upstate New York, wherein at the offices that he witnessed the loan happening, they said there was a weapon against the wall, and he didn’t report it.
AMY GOODMAN: And why would he have had to report it?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: I’m not exactly sure. I’m not a federal prosecutor. I don’t know the nuance that actually resulted in him being charged with material support. I do know, however, that he’s no longer designated to the CMU Marion as a result of this lawsuit. They actually let him go to a medium-security prison as a result.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, then continue to explain the lawsuit that McGowan is a part of.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: So, McGowan, along with Yassin Aref and Daniel McGowan’s wife, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the BOP and Eric Holder.
AMY GOODMAN: Bureau of Prisons.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Bureau of Prisons, I’m sorry, and Eric Holder for their designation to the Communications Management Unit. There’s a great deal of research being done by law schools and investigators and investigative journalists right now into what exactly gets someone designated to these units. At surface glance, it looks like it’s arbitrary. But if you take a step back away from it, and you see that 76 percent of the men designated there are Muslim, you could start developing other narratives from that.
Their lawsuit is in hopes to get clarity as to why they were designated, or that perhaps allege that they were misdesignated to this unit, and to challenge the legality of the units themselves, for discriminatory purposes and also for clamping down on people’s speech. For example, at the Communications Management Unit, you’re not allowed access to telephones and contact visits like normal prisons—like normal prisoners are allowed access. You are allowed a phone call by appointment once a week or perhaps twice a week by your case manager, but it has to be done through a live monitor being present, as well as run through a hub in Washington, D.C., or West [inaudible], Virginia. And they have to be done in English. They have to be done during certain business hours in accordance to Washington, D.C. So it really—it stands in the way of people trying to call home at certain hours when their family members might be at work. So, now you have that form of communication vetted and also kind of clamped down upon. Mail, general snail mail, is vetted heavily there, barely ever making it to the inmates.
And then contact visitation is entirely barred. So, for example, even at the maximum security prisons in the federal prison system, you’re allowed to have contact visitation with your family. And, in fact, psychologists that work with the Bureau of Prisons say that this is integral to the enrichment of prisoners and part of their rehabilitative process, is contact with family. So they’re denying this completely for these men, saying that they have ties to alleged terrorist groups, etc., and they can’t have contact visitation with their family. I can’t see how that is possibly useful to the BOP for any other purpose besides being punitive. And this is part of the argument that’s in that lawsuit.
Daniel McGowan wrote an article for The Huffington Post detailing his transfer and his notice of transfer to the Communications Management Unit and some of the elements of this lawsuit, also detailing why maybe he was designated to this unit. But inside the article itself is nothing new to the BOP and nothing new to the public, because everything that’s in that lawsuit is now public record. He also included his opinions, which is protected speech. And yet the Bureau of Prisons decided to penalize him—or attempt to penalize him for publishing this article.
AMY GOODMAN: By arresting him.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Well—
AMY GOODMAN: Or taking him back into custody.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, taking him back into custody into MDC Brooklyn. What’s tough about the halfway house system is that, for anyone who’s in a halfway house, you’re not fully free yet. Anyone who’s in—
AMY GOODMAN: Were you?
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah. I actually refrained from doing any media appearances while at the halfway house, or writing while I was at the halfway house, because I knew the amount of scrutiny that I was under. I don’t know if Daniel had that same type of scrutiny that I had. Also, I can’t judge him for writing about it. I applaud him for writing about it. That said, however, the bureau likes to say—the Bureau of Prisons likes to say that as long as you’re in custody, whether it be a halfway house or the Bureau of Prisons, you’re considered a ward of the state, and you’re not awarded the rights of normal citizens. So, things like freedom of speech kind of go out the window when you’re in the Bureau of Prisons. And that’s evident by the way that people are treated at the Communications Management Unit, and that’s evident by the way that Daniel McGowan was treated while in the halfway house.
AMY GOODMAN: But ultimately, he was freed within a day.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Yeah, and that was because what they used in what they call the shot, or the ticket, that was filed against him, the incident report, was a law or an infraction number that involved publishing under a byline, which a judge struck down as unconstitutional in 2007. And so, they quickly expunged the ticket against him, and they released him or furloughed him back to the halfway house, where he’ll serve time there between there and his job, and periodically getting visitation home to see his wife and his family, until June, when he’s finally done with his sentence, and he can go about his life.
AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stepanian, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
ANDREW STEPANIAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Animal rights activist, co-founder of The Sparrow Project. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Thanks for joining us.
- <li>Headlines for April 09, 2013</li><li>Undercover Activist Details Secret Filming of Animal Abuse & Why "Ag-Gag" Laws May Force Him to Stop</li><li>Debate: After Activists Covertly Expose Animal Cruelty, Should They Be Targeted With "Ag-Gag" Laws?</li>
Birgitta Jónsdóttir on Criminalization of Cyber-Activists, Bradley Manning & Iceland's Pirate Party (Pt. 2)
In part two of our conversation, Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir talks about why she decided to come to the United States at a time when a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, is investigating WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Jonsdottir, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, also talks about her support for whistleblower Bradley Manning and other cyber-activists. We also talk about Iceland’s response to the banking crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to part two of our conversation with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic Parliament who played a critical role in WikiLeaks’ release of the "Collateral Murder" video, which showed a U.S. military helicopter—it was July 12th, 2007—as it killed 12 people and wounded two children. It was the video made by the Apache helicopter itself, from the vantage point of, well, being in the helicopter, so it broadcast—it recorded both the voices of the soldiers, cursing, laughing, and you saw the target. The video shows the targeting of the people below.
This trip marks Jónsdóttir’s first to the United States since a secret grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, began its investigation of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Birgitta Jónsdóttir has also been the center of a closely watched legal case. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled the government can continue to keep secret its efforts to obtain information from Twitter about her and two others connected to WikiLeaks.
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, you’re just about to return to Iceland. How supportive have your colleagues in the Icelandic Parliament been of your attempts to stop the U.S. government from getting information about you through your various online accounts?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: They’ve been very supportive. The speaker of the Icelandic Parliament immediately sent out a request if the International Parliamentary Union would help us deal with this unprecedented probing into a member of Parliament’s privacy. And the Foreign Affairs Ministry was also very helpful, and particularly before this trip. And even the Icelandic president said that he would keep his eye on me while I was here in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned that something would happen to you here? And, of course, your trip isn’t over, because you’re sitting with me in New York. You’ve got to get back to Reykjavik.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: I personally wasn’t very concerned at this time point. I was maybe a year, year-and-a-half ago. It would have been much riskier to go, because there was just so much insanity around this whole WikiLeaks saga, and I think maybe because they didn’t know what to expect to come, like what else would come or what was coming, and so they went way over the top in relation to people that were affiliated with WikiLeaks. I did everything right. I prepared very extensively before I came here in collaboration with the Foreign Affairs Ministry. And I acquired a special visa so they would actually have to say no before I would come, if they didn’t want me. And the Department of Justice has said twice—not in writing—verbally that I am very welcome to come to the United States, I will not be a subject of involuntary interrogation, and there is not a criminal case pending on me. So, I was told by the Foreign Affairs Ministry that I couldn’t trust that, because in my change while I was flying over, and my lawyers here in the States advised me not to come. But I have family and friends in the United States, and I just, you know, felt—I just got this gutsy feeling that I had to go, not gutsy like this instinctive feeling that it was time to come and challenge it, because surely there are other more worrying things happening in the empire. And so, we actually—just to deviate a little bit, like we went to the Empire State Building to read from Bradley Manning chat logs, and we were filming it. And we were asked to leave. So, words are not welcome in the empire. I actually did say, "Will you compensate us?" to the guy, the officer that was trying to get us away. And he said, "Yeah." And then he never came back. So, you just ask them for capitalistic things, and then, you know—next time I go there, I’ll take the stormtroopers with me.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, it’s the empire.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, wait a minute. They didn’t want you filming atop the Empire State Building.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, but they were—
AMY GOODMAN: Did they say that’s their general policy?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, I think so.
AMY GOODMAN: I believe, when I go up there, almost everyone is filming.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, that’s exactly it. I mean, it’s in their cameras. I don’t know what it was. You know, we weren’t even like shouting or anything. We were just reading the words from the chat logs and a little bit from the Bradley Manning statement. And nobody seemed to be complaining. They are just—it’s this thing. Like I used to live here in 1991 and briefly in 1999, and things have changed so dramatically here. It has become such an incredible culture of fear. And I—one of the reasons I decided to go was that I wanted to challenge my own fear. Like I thought, what is the worst thing that can happen? OK, they might turn me around or do an interrogation at the border. I mean, that’s not too bad. I know that they don’t have anything. There is no case for them to send me to Guantánamo, like some people joke about. It’s no joke to be there, by the way. It is not funny.
AMY GOODMAN: Bradley Manning—you mentioned Bradley Manning. Talk about why he is so significant to you and who he is. You know, he may be more well known in Iceland than he is in the United States, when it comes to what the press says about him and the fact, of course, that you cannot hear his words, except for a surreptitious recording that was made when he went into court. For the last thousand days, he has been held incommunicado.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, when I discovered that there—somebody had been arrested, and who it was, in the news, I think it was in June 2010, and I started to get a little bit more information about who this person was, I felt, since I participated in getting the video out to the general public, somehow interconnected with this person. And that’s why I immediately decided to be a part of the Bradley Manning—I think it was originally called the advisory board. And I still maintain the Facebook account whenever I have time, which is not often, but, you know, I still—I’ve been a part of that since day one, because I feel, somehow—I mean, he’s about the same age as my older son, and I just have this sense of responsibility. He is in prison. He might never get out. And from what I’ve seen, like in particularly reading the logs—of course, I don’t know if it’s all his words, but it does sound like that after you listen to his statement—I feel that, from what I hear, he’s doing this all for the same motivation as if, you know, if I would do it. Information should like belong in the public eye, so that people can actually make informed decisions. And this is the line I take in my work as a politician.
And I think that the fact that so few people know about his courageous deeds in the United States is troubling, but then I heard that a whole range of people are banned from going and seeing anything from the WikiLeaks website, which is very troubling to me, as well, and is a big surprise. So, I think if I can raise awareness here, and other people can be inspired to do the same—and there are many great people who have done incredible stuff to raise awareness about Bradley Manning. And I think the only reason he eventually was taken out of the really severe condition in Quantico was because of direct action, a lot of pushing and a lot of information on, you know, news outlets like yours, for example. It’s played a very significant role that we speak about this on a very regular basis and push it. So, I think—like with Bradley Manning, if we can talk enough about what’s going on with him and his motivations, which were to keep the general public informed about what the government was doing in their name. But not only the U.S. government, Iceland was a part of the Coalition of the Willing, against the will of 99 percent of my nation, and many others. So this is our war. Everybody that was a part of the Coalition Willing list, it’s our war, and it’s done in our name. And I want to know what’s being done, and I want to be able to give that to the public so that they can make a decision before a next war that we don’t want it and to make that clear enough so it won’t happen.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re founding a new political party in Iceland as the elections in Iceland come up. How long have you been a parliamentarian there?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: For four years. I helped create a political movement that was not a party like ordinary party. It was a hit and run to get through certain legal changes that needed to happen in order for us never to be able to be in the same position as we were when we had the world’s third-largest financial collapse. And so, since we made an obligation to dissolve it, there were some discussions about maybe trying to pull together again a lot of grassroots groups, because my old—my movement was based on various grassroots groups. But it’s very hard—ask everybody that’s worked within the field of activism—to get many groups to work together. It’s a ticket to disaster. So, it’s just the way it is, because we are much more inclined to have independent minds, and we’re not willing to follow blindly some leadership. So that’s probably why the left always—even if I don’t really define my left or right—but the left has always said that they can’t sort of just stay firm behind some leadership and do whatever they’re told, so that’s why they sort of collapse and go into different directions. And I think that’s quite healthy, and I’m happy about that, in general. I’ve learned to accept it. So I helped actually—I’m a part now of a worldwide movement that’s growing so quickly all over the world, and they’re called the Pirate Party. So I’m now officially a pixel pirate. And—
AMY GOODMAN: A pixel pirate?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, to define myself from the other pirates, so I just thought "pixel pirate" sounds really cute.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the other Pirate Party?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: It’s the—they’re all called Pirate Party. So people in Iceland, in particular, are very upset we don’t translate it to Icelandic. So, I asked them, "Why don’t you translate Amnesty International to Icelandic?" And then they usually just stop—
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the actual term.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, yeah, because we’re not like in—in Icelandic it’s translated to "ocean robbers," like I’m not really on the ocean, and I’m not stealing anything. So, you know, I don’t want to be called that, you know, even if I really—I plan to get a parrot, like one day, so that I can walk around with my parrot.
It’s on a really exciting political platform, because it’s sort of looking at creating new systems. Like we all know our systems are really broken. They have overgrown sort of their role and responsibility. They were originally written or created when there was a lot less of us, and there wasn’t this sort of interconnection between corporations, people and goods. So, when our democracies were originally founded, it was around the time or around—took about 50 years to evolve after the first information revolution, when we started to print books. And that’s when we moved the kings away and the popes and the bishops and the princesses and the princes, and got representative government, or... But what happened in the meantime, like it’s been a long, long, long time. We had a new information revolution, where we came to understand, hey, it’s not only in my country that it looks like we have a dictatorship with many heads, where the politicians have become professional politicians, and they are so far removed from the reality of what most people are living in.
So, when we started to do these constitutional reforms in Iceland, I really started to analyze and look into what is really the system that we live in and why is it so difficult to be inspired or be a part of co-creating it, because, like, if we don’t participate in co-creating our societies, we will never be able to live in a society we want to live in. So, it’s been sort of a journey of exploring, you know, how the systems are and what can we do in order to create new systems, because I, after being a legislator for four years, have come to the conclusion that I respect law even less than I did before, because now I know how they’re made, and it is really undemocratic and unprofessional and a sort of serving process. And what people have forgotten that get into this serving positions, that they are there to serve but not to govern or get a good, cozy indoor job for the rest of their lives.
So I have helped build another political movement like the—very similar to my movement, but it’s a party. And we’re here to stay, because the pirates are sort of a political movement that one could define as the political arm of the new information revolution. And what we’re doing is we’re focusing very much on holistic approach to legislation, like I did with the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative in Iceland, where I sort of went on a quest to cherry-pick all the best possible laws from around the world in order to have really good freedom of information expression and speech legislation that could actually become a safe haven for others, because there are so many information refugees now from all over the world that go from one country to another with the information that needs to belong in the public domain. So I sort of wanted to create a law that would make the need for WikiLeaks redundant as a leaking platform, so you could just do it legally.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of—you know, I’ve just been thinking about how the crackdown on cyber-activists extreme—how extreme it is in the United States. It’s almost as if there’s this race, and the hackers, the cyber-activists, the hacktivists are way out ahead, and the legislators—it’s very hard to understand this new terrain, so they’re sort of lassoing them, dragging them back, simply because they—they’re behind the times. They have not created laws, and so they’re making examples of these people so that they—the people can’t get ahead of the so-called leaders.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But describe the crackdown that you see from Iceland and how other people in the Parliament and other people in Iceland see what’s happening in the United States. I mean, we’re talking about people facing life in prison, or at least being threatened with this. I mean, they say they will not give Bradley Manning the death penalty, but actually, according to the charges against him, he could face the death penalty if he was charged with treason.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, I mean, it is so alien to me to look at it, and I’m quite shocked, you know. And many of my colleagues simply don’t get this heavy sentencing on things that, you know, in other countries would actually—we’re trying to move—you know, and I can’t say other countries; some countries are just as bad. You know, Britain, for example, the interconnection between Britain and the U.S. when it comes to figuring out ways to entrap young people and criminalize them for sharing. Like now everybody—and they’re trying to push these laws, like SOPA, CISPA, ACTA—you know, all these legal zombies that come up again and again and again. And we can thank—thank you very much, big media corporations and copyright holders, for what nota bene is not actually the artists that hold the copyright but some big corporations that are trying to destroy the Internet. And they’re building a platform for, you know, government, totalitarian governments, to build on.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain why copyright destroys the Internet, for people who don’t understand—
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —because this is not discussed very much in the corporate media.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Of course not.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: I wonder why. Because the corporate media owns a lot of copyright. So, like, let’s say, they own—Disney now owns not only Disney-related stuff, but they have incorporated many great child writer—children writers into their empire. So you can’t—you extend the copyright for yet another 70 years. And like copyright would be fine if it would be—had anything to do with the reality we live in today. Like, how come somebody has a copyright for 140 years on something? And it usually goes all back to the corporations and Hollywood and so forth and the big musical industry. It’s all industry. Art is not industry. You know, I am an artist. I am a poet. I’m an artist. My mother was a famous musician in Iceland. I hold copyright to her stuff. But I share it. There is a CC on everything I do. Anybody can remix or, you know, reuse, as long as they give me credit. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say "CC," you mean Creative Commons?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And that means?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: It means that anybody can do and use it, as long as they give me credit, and they don’t start to make, you know, tons of money on it without giving me a little bit of a share of it. And those of us that are looking at copyright reform are worried that the large copyright holders have now created an example where you can actually go and put people into prison for sharing.
And then I’m particularly concerned about young people that are sharing files, like, you know, that go onto Pirate Bay and share games, and then they might actually buy the game because they like it. Like, we want to—there is a culture of people that simply wants to try stuff, and they’re not given permission to do that. Like whenever I have a book—let’s say I buy like a printed version of a book. Nobody can actually track whom I lend it to or whom I choose to give it to or if I take a page out of it, because I want to, and make a papier-mâché out of it. Nobody can control or track that. But with the books from Amazon or the other book publishers in ebooks, they actually have put in a destruction device, so they can actually destroy your library. Like let’s say I built up a library like in this studio. They can, if they think that you are sharing books, and they don’t like it, the copyright holders, they can actually just—poof—all the library is gone, because you are not doing things that we think are right.
And it was ironic with Amazon. So, they were selling 1984, and I hope that—
AMY GOODMAN: 1984.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, by George Orwell. And I hope your viewers all know what that is, and if not, you have to read it. So, they were selling this book, and many people had bought this book in an ebook format. And then, one day, poof, it vanished. 1984 vanished out of people’s books, because the copyright holder—there had been some infringement between him and Amazon.
AMY GOODMAN: And it vanished out of their computers.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, gone, of all books. It was just so—you know, isn’t that a wake-up call? Hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Out of their Kindles.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Amazon reached into everyone’s Kindle library, and—
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, yeah, and then went in their home, and they took a book. They went into every people’s person’s home and took a book from it and burned it.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you imagine if Julian Assange or Jeremy Hammond or Bradley Manning did that?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Oh, my god. They would like probably be executed with books being poured over them until they would be crushed. No, but it is so insane. And we need to have a reality check. That’s what we need—politicians, in particular. We need to have a reality check. And we need to hurry up to write good laws to protect the people that were elected to protect and serve, with all this online reality, like our privacy, our right to share and our right to have access to freedom of information and like—or to the files that belong to the governments that—because the government is us. John Lennon talked about this like when he did the project, "War Is Over," or him and Yoko Ono did the project together, "War Is Over! (If You Want It)." And in an interview around it, which I just found like a couple of years ago, it was really shocking to hear that he was saying exactly what I am saying, and nobody has sort of realized the fact that the government is us. We are the government. It’s not sort of an entity that is sort of free-floating, alien, that we can’t get hold of or can’t change. We can change it. Nobody else. And that’s what I’m interested in changing, the laws, so that we can actually have a much more direct influence on the lawmakers.
AMY GOODMAN: "The War Is Over! (If We Want It)" being that you can end the war.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Icelandic Parliament. I wanted to get away a little from the whole issue of the Internet and Internet freedom, communications and freedom of expression, though this might tie in, and that’s the issue of how Iceland has dealt with the banking crisis, which was catastrophic for Iceland, in a very different way than the rest of the world.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, so it was sort of—like, I want to change one myth. And one myth is that the government at the time had actually decided they were not going to bail out the banks. It wasn’t like that. They were scrambling. We had like a right-wing government with a social democrat, and they were scrambling to get—to borrow money from other countries to bail out the banks. But nobody wanted to lend us money. And I’m very thankful, because we would be in a very different situation. And so, I just don’t want to give credit to people that don’t deserve it.
But then, another incident happened that was very interesting for Iceland, and that is sort of a very clear sign that we actually did something like nobody else did. And that was when the U.S.—no, the U.K. government and the Dutch wanted us to take on—the nation, taxpayers—to take on responsibility on debt that some private people, private Icelanders, had created in their countries. They co—like owned a bank called Icesave. It was an online lending service with very good interest. Mmm, no bells ringing. But they were particularly upset because like many foundations and the police had actually put their savings in these high-interest accounts. No bells ringing. I don’t understand it, why they did it. But, you know, if it’s too good to be true, it’s never true. It’s just basically like that. But so they wanted us to pay this, you know, the taxpayers. And so, we said no. So we not only did say no, and like we don’t do it, the government really wanted to fork it down our throat, because there was so much pressure, from the IMF, from the EU countries, like in particular from—actually, what they did was a really dirty deal. So we are applying for an EU membership—or the government used to be. I don’t think we’re going to end up in it, because there have so many things gone wrong in the process.
So one of the things they did—the U.K. and the Dutch, you know, former colonists, of course—they were like threatening that we would not get an IMF loan if we would not agree to pay Icesave, and if that wouldn’t happen, nobody wanted to allow us to have credit lines again. So we were faced with, you know, food and medicine shortages if we didn’t agree to do this. So the minister that was there, like from little old Iceland with 315,000 people, is standing there in front of two empires. He had no other choice. I mean, it was either, you know, saying yes to this memorandum of understanding or facing food shortages. That’s what he thought. We could have talked to some of our friends in Latin America or something, and I’m sure that they would have helped us out, but that’s another story. So, then they brought like this contract. They sent off like a completely incompetent person to do the contracting, and he had no experience in this sort of contracting. So we got like contracts that was a complete secrecy around.
We—finally, somebody leaked them, so that the parliamentarians and the nation could see them. And around this time—I just heard in Bradley Manning’s statement—he was following this ordeal, and apparently he chose to do the first leak, because he felt it was like a David-Goliath—
AMY GOODMAN: A David-and-Goliath situation.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes. And so he chose the first leak with WikiLeaks would be based on Iceland. And it was very helpful. I had no idea that he had had this train of thought or there was this, you know, interest in Iceland at the time on his behalf.
So, anyway, so we had two national referendums where we used loopholes in our system to make sure that the president would say, "No, I’m not going to sign the law, because there is a breach between the nation and the Parliament," which it was, and had another precedent to build on. And then, actually, we said no. But there were many that said to us, "OK, you said no. We’re going to end up like the Cuba of the North and isolated, and nobody is going to do trading with Iceland, and so forth." They tried to put on all the fear mongering that was possible to think of.
However, we ended up like—many of us just wanted to take it to court and figure out, like, is it right that the nation is obliged to actually fork out money and look after the interest and put it on the shoulders of taxpayers to socialize private debt? Is that really so? Is the European law? We want to find out. So we were taken to court, and we won, because Europe would have just gone belly up if that would have been the case that all nations in Europe should privatize—socialize private debt. So, that, for us, was so important, because even if we would have lost in the court, we had recovered a little bit, because around the time, just to give you perspective how intense that that would have been, it would have taken 80 percent of all our income tax only to pay the interest. So, I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about, then, what happened with Iceland.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, we recovered, actually. Like, we—usually we never have any unemployment. So, like, the numbers are around 1, 1-and-a-half percent or something. It’s just sort of the runaround of people moving between jobs, or school and jobs. So, we—
AMY GOODMAN: And your healthcare system?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Oh, we—oh, my god. We’re terrible: We have social healthcare system. We are communist. Ooh! Actually, everybody has the same access to health and education. So even I, as an MP, ended up in a hospital in November, and I got exactly the same treatment as the woman working in the factory or in McDonald’s or Domino’s. And I like that. I love that. I think that is so important. And so, we pay just about the same amount of taxes as U.S. taxpayers. We don’t have to live in this insurance jungle. So we just, you know—and that was actually one of the first things they wanted to slash down, the IMF—no surprise. So our healthcare system is actually quite fragile, because it—when the right-wing government was in control, they were—they were in control for 18 years. They really tried to start the privatization, which is a trend everywhere where they go. They are such a menace.
And so, what happened is that we sort of got back on our feet. The credit ratings started to get up, and particularly after we said no to Icesave. Everybody said it would go down, but it actually went up. Unemployment, when we had the collapse, shot up like to two digits. It’s now down below. And I’m really pleased, even if I—I really don’t like to think of politics anymore as right and left, because I sometimes feel that it’s just used to distract us, because if I look at the U.S. politics, I don’t really see much difference. You know, really, if you look at it on a wider scale, you sometimes don’t know what left and what right is. And the names on the parties in Europe, like, "Oh, I thought that was like a left-wing party; I thought it was a Christian party; oh, it’s a fascist party. Oh, ah, interesting." So, if we would not have had a left-leaning government, we would be in much worse shape. And now they are, of course, getting punished for cleaning up the vomit after the right-wing party, that they are severely punished by their voters. It’s a trend. Like the neocons and so forth, they make all the mess, everything collapses, predictably, and then, you know, the left-wing people come and clean up, and then they get punished, when they are starting to build again. It’s depressing.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with your name. Why don’t you pronounce it for us?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: So it’s Birgitta Jónsdóttir.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re Birgitta Jónsdóttir.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: So it means that I am the daughter of Jón. So it’s Jónsdóttir.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is very interesting, because in the United States we have a lot of sons—you know, Johnson, Jacobson, whoever. But we don’t usually have Jacobdaughter, Johnsdaughter. How does it work in Iceland?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, we have this old Scandinavian thing, which hasn’t changed because we were isolated for a long time. So, we go by our first name. And then, like, because my father’s father was Jón, I’m his daughter. So, my brother is Jónsson. And—
AMY GOODMAN: So you don’t have the same last name.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: No. Nobody does, unless they have like your—like my sister would have Jónsdóttir, as well. And we—in the phone book, we are listed by our first name. And I even address the prime minister with her first name. So there is no—none of this "Sir" or "Miss" blah blah. It’s just you are who you are.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re under "B" for Birgitta.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it say about your culture?
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: I think that our culture is a little bit more sort of matriartic than it’s patriartic. And we actually had the first openly—well, we had the first woman president in Iceland, and we had the first openly gay female prime minister in Iceland. And when the election was going, the campaign last—before last election, nobody mentioned she was gay. It’s irrelevant.
AMY GOODMAN: They knew, but they didn’t mention.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, don’t care.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s not that she was in the closet, that just it wasn’t—
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: No, no, no. No, it’s openly—nobody cared. They were focusing on what she does.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, because in the United States you don’t usually see the adjective "heterosexual" before parliamentarians, but when it comes to gay or lesbian, that is considered more significant.
BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Oh, really?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Icelandic Parliament, played a key role in the WikiLeaks release of the "Collateral Murder" video, now forming a Pirate Party in Iceland, returning to Reykjavik tonight.
- <li>Headlines for April 08, 2013</li><li>"The Kissinger Cables": Three Years After "Collateral Murder," WikiLeaks Explores U.S. Diplomacy</li><li>Icelandic Lawmaker Birgitta Jónsdóttir on Challenging Gov't Secrecy from Twitter to Bradley Manning</li><li>Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): Tariq Ali on Late British PM's Legacy from Austerity to Apartheid</li>
Free Speech TV and Free Press will be livestreaming various conference sessions throughout the weekend starting on April 5 at Noon MT.
The livestream will include the opening and closing plenaries, the keynote, and selected panel discussions, including:
All times MDTFriday, April 5
1:30–3 p.m. MT
From Billionaires to Big Media: Democracy Up for Grabs
Opening Plenary: Learning from Our Past, Looking to the Future
Featuring Juan González
This Conversation Is Being Recorded
11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Independent Journalism on War, Conflict and Human Rights
Featuring Amy Goodman
Covering Race in the Time of Obama
Keynote: Celebrating Our Media Moment
Featuring Amy Goodman
Go Ahead, Laugh: Comedy for Breakfast
11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Closing Plenary: A Roadmap for Change
Democracy Now! broadcast live from the National Conference for Media Reform on April 5, 2013. Guests included Free Press CEO Craig Aaron and Founder Robert McChesney, Colorado-based journalist Susan Greene and filmmaker Jean-Philip Tremblay. More →
- Headlines for April 05, 2013
- At National Conference for Media Reform, Activists Hope to Stop Murdoch, Koch-Backed Consolidation
- Digital Disconnect: Robert McChesney on "How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy"
- Colorado Independent: Suspect in Killing of Prisons Chief Tormented by Years of Solitary Confinement
- "Shadows of Liberty": New Film Explores How Corporate Control of Media Erodes Press Freedoms
Forty years ago, on March 29, 1973, the "secret" U.S. bombing that devastated Laos came to an end. By that point, the United States had dropped at least two million tons of bombs on Laos. That is the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years — more than on Germany and Japan during World War II. The deadly legacy of the Vietnam War lives on today in the form of unexploded cluster bombs. Experts estimate Laos is littered with as many as 80 million "bombies" — or baseball-size bombs found inside cluster bombs. Since the bombing stopped four decades ago, as many as 20,000 people have been injured or killed as a result. To mark International Day of Mine Awareness, we speak to a Laotian bomb survivor and a leader of an all-women bomb clearance team in Laos. Thoummy Silamphan and Manixia Thor are speaking at the United Nations today and are currently in the United States on a tour organized by Legacies of War.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
It was 40 years ago that the "secret" U.S. bombing that devastated Laos came to an end, March 29, 1973. By that point, the U.S. had dropped at least two million tons of bombs on Laos. That’s the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years—more than was dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II.
The deadly legacy of the Vietnam War lives on today in the form of unexploded cluster bombs, which had about a 30 percent failure rate when they were dropped from American planes over large swaths of Laos. Experts estimate that Laos is littered with as many as 80 million "bombies," or bomblets—baseball-sized bombs found inside cluster bombs.
Well, since the bombing stopped four decades ago, as many as 20,000 people have been injured or killed as a result. This is the focus of our guests, who have come from Laos to raise awareness about this ongoing problem. Our guests are Thoummy Silamphan, a bomb accident survivor and victim assistance advocate—he was eight years old when a bomb exploded as he was digging in the earth. Manixia Thor is with us. She leads an all-women bomb clearance team in Lao. And Channapha Khamvongsa is the founder and executive director of Legacies of War.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Thoummy, I’d like to begin with you. Talk about what happened to you.
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: So, when I was eight years old—
AMY GOODMAN: Eight years old.
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yeah, and when I was eight years old, at that time I studied in primary school. So, one day, I needed to find some bamboo shoots for to feed my family, to make soup. So—and when I saw the bamboo shoots, and I tried to dig into bamboo shoots. After that, the bombie explode to me.
AMY GOODMAN: What you call a "bombie," like a bomblet, exploded?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yes, because at that time in my village or in those areas, we have a lot of the bombing, and we don’t know the bomb under ground. And when we’re digging for bamboo shoots, and then the UXO explode to me, yeah. And it get—I lost my left hand. And that time, it’s very, very difficult for me to continue my life. And—
AMY GOODMAN: How far up does your prosthetic go of your left hand?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: I think just over here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s just your hand.
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yeah, just my hand, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How did the bomb explode and destroy your hand?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: When I dig in the bamboo shoots, and then, because I don’t know the bombie underground, and when I’m digging, and then the bombie explode to me. And then I pass near the bamboo shoots. And I have the farmer who’s working around this area that has come to help me, to carry me to my house. And that time, when I arrived at home, my parents, they are very, very upset. And then they just sent me to the hospital. So I spent a time in the hospital for treatment, 28 days. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And again, this is when you were eight years old.
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Now I’m 26.
AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of use do you have of your hand?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: I want to say, now I use the prosthetic hand. And it’s very, very difficult for me to help myself. And I just can help type a computer or something like that.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk, Channapha, about the significance of this tour that you’re beginning?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Sure. So this is really the first unprecedented journey by those who are directly impacted by cluster munitions from 40 years ago. So, Thoummy and Manixia really represent the new generation. So, two generations later, people are still being hurt and maimed by these bombies. And Manixia, of course, is, you know, a female deminer. And so, really, this is the first time that voices from Lao, that were unheard from during the bombings, are now speaking about their lives and what they’re living with, what their families are living with and what their communities are living with. And so, we’re incredibly excited not only to talk about, you know, the history, but really the ongoing problems and ways that we can address this so that future generations can live on their land safely.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your own family background? And first, you say Lao or Laos?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: When I’m in country, I usually say Lao. When I’m around Lao people, they usually say Lao. But here in the U.S. context, it’s usually Laos, the country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your own family. You live now in Washington, D.C.
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Yes. I was born in Vientiane and came here when I was quite young. I went through refugee camp. And so, you know, part of—in trying to, I think, sort of learn about the history of why our family came here, of course that history included this dark part of our past, both as Lao and an American. And so, that sort of sense of identity has really led me to further understand the history, but also the ongoing problems of what we can do to bring a safer world to the children and the people of Laos.
AMY GOODMAN: Manixia Thor, you lead an all-women bomb clearance team. We’re talking about 80 million unexploded U.S. bombs in Lao soil. What is a clearance team? And what does it mean to be all women? Channapha Khamvongsa is translating.
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] So, every day, as an all-female demining team, we go out and we dig and try to find bomblets on land where people live and farm and work. So, she’s just emphasizing the importance of the job and the importance of clearance, because it’s people’s livelihoods and it’s people’s lives. If they don’t work the land, they don’t eat.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you choose to do this? This is an incredibly dangerous job.
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] It’s very dangerous. I’m afraid. Other people are afraid. And so this work is necessary, because there are so many bomblets, and it’s so dangerous for the people in the country. And so it’s necessary work.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe how you find these bombs and how you clear them.
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] There’s a metal detector. And if we come across one, we will carefully excavate it, see what kind of bomb it is, and if it’s large, then we will clear it and then detonate it. And so, for little bomblets, the one that you described, the 80 million that they come across, it will be brought, piled together, and then the villagers are cleared, and then they explode them.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you wear some kind of protection?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] No, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, on the 40th anniversary of the ending of the U.S. bombings in Laos, a bomb left over from the nearly decade-long bombing campaign claimed the life of a two-year-old boy and injured five others as they prepared their lunch over a fire. Thoummy, how common is this?
THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: So now, we want to say, as I think—you know, as the war is ended and stopped many years ago, but now the UXO continue to kill and injure people, until now. And that is why we want to involve for the Legacies of War. I think Legacies of War is very, very important for the Lao people, especially for the UXO clearance and for victim assistance in Laos, because now we have more than hundred town the UXO explode in Laos. And now we also have many survivors that are waiting for support and help.
AMY GOODMAN: You have come to the United States. This is some fact and figures from The Guardian newspaper. So far, the U.S. has contributed an average of about $3 million a year to bomb removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the U.S. spent more than $2 million a day—about $17 million in today’s dollars—for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place. Channapha, if you can talk about the significance of this, what the U.S. is doing now and what you want the United States to do?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Sure. So when we first started, and in—this issue was not even on the radar of most policy makers. And so, with support from congressional members and mobilizing the community around the country, we’ve been able to bump the number per year from $1.5 million when we first started to now $9 million. Obviously that’s been a significant increase. And the contribution—
AMY GOODMAN: Per year?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Per year. And the contribution from the U.S. has grown significantly. Obviously, it doesn’t match the scale of the problem. The fact is, less than 2 percent of what was dropped has actually been cleared. And so, every single province in Laos is still affected. And—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, should it even be Laotians who are doing this? Or do you feel the U.S. should be doing this?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: No, I—
AMY GOODMAN: They dropped the bombs.
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Right. I think that we can—we need to do this together. Those on the ground, those that—people like Manixia and Thoummy live with this on a daily basis, and they can help themselves. What we need is international support, support from the U.S., and resources to continue this work, because it’s not going to go away anytime soon. And so, it’s important to build local capacity. But at the same time, more resources are needed.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re about a half-hour’s drive from Honeywell’s corporate headquarters. Honeywell is the maker of many of these bombs that are left in the soil of your country. Have you spoken with Honeywell or any of the other bomb makers?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: We haven’t—we haven’t reached—we haven’t gone through that route. We know that there are many people from that era and that generation that were involved with either the bombings, the production of—and who never would have thought that, 40 years later, what they were involved in, whether it was the bombing, whether it was the production of these bombs, that it would still be killing and maiming people. And so, actually, many of those individuals have joined our effort to make sure that the next generations aren’t impacted by what was done 40 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Manixia, what were you taught, growing up, about where these bombs came from?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] She heard from her father during the wartime that planes dropped bombs on her—yeah, he actually never identified the country; he just said the bombies came from planes from above.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is your message here? Why have you come to the United States?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] This is very important. And, yeah, this is an opportunity to tell the American people about what is going on in my country and the problem of UXO. The war might have ended 40 years ago, but for the people of Laos, it really hasn’t. And it’s still very alive for many of us in Lao today. So the hope is that as people hear and understand the problems, that there will be more support, there will be more awareness, and that we will get additional support to do our work.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever worked with a U.S. bomb clearance team?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] No, because I would do work in Laos, so I haven’t done any work in the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: But they haven’t come to you to help you clear American bombs from your soil?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] There are a lot of international workers.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are they from, generally?
MANIXIA THOR: [translated] From Lebanon, mainly.
AMY GOODMAN: Channapha, how many people are like Thoummy, have been victims of the exploding bombies or bomblets or bombs, land mines in the ground now?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Yeah, so, since the end of the bombings, as the last bombs were dropped, about 20,000 people have been killed or maimed. And as you alluded to earlier, just on Friday, you know, six people were injured. Two—there was one death, the two-year-old. But the other deaths—
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: They were cooking around a fireplace. You know, we would go and microwave our food or turn on the stove. In Lao, they cook around a fire. And a little boy found a bombie, brought it into the circle, and it exploded. Of those that were killed or injured, the boy was two years old. The other three were another two-year-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. Forty percent of those that are killed or injured are children.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there education across Laos, in addition to the bomb clearance teams and efforts, for people not to pick up these bombs? Or how do you avoid inadvertently setting them off?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Right, no. The education happens, but they’re so profuse. They’re everywhere. And as you know, children are curious. And these little bomblets look like tennis-size ball toys. And so, they’re very curious. And I would imagine that this two-year-old thought he was picking up something that he could play with.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people live in Laos today?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: About 6.5 million.
AMY GOODMAN: 6.5 million. And there are 80 million bomblets, bombs, bombies still in the land in Laos?
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: Right. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That is something—that’s more than 10 per person.
CHANNAPHA KHAMVONGSA: The amount of bombs that were dropped equated to about a thousand pounds per person.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Thoummy Silamphan, for joining us from Laos, coming to the United States; Manixia Thor, who leads the all-women bomb clearance team; and Channapha Khamvongsa, who is head of Legacies of War here in the United States.
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