Anglo Blog, June-July

Three Setbacks for autocracies (but they’re fighting back)

Istanbul, Turkey

This city, Turkey’s most important despite not being the capital, has long been a center of resistance to Recep Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule. In March this year, the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu seemed to have won the election by a slight margin, but the government alleged it was too close and scheduled another election for June. This was a major miscalculation by Erdogan, since the result of the June election was an overwhelming victory for Imamoglu.

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Ekrem Imamoglu, the new mayor of Istanbul

Erdogan has been running Turkey from 2003 onwards, first as prime minister and then as president from 2014 to the present. During this period, Turkey has grown impressively but also suffered democratic setbacks as Erdogan has sought to consolidate his power to almost dictatorial level and increase the role of religion in the society.

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The map shows how Turkey is a bridge between Europe and Asia. In Istanbul itself, there is an actual bridge linking Europe to Asia

After Turkey became a republic in 1923, one of the pillar of the new society was its secularism. This provided a unique role for the country as a bridge between the west and the east, Islam and Christianity, an example that an Islamic country can be democratic. Though it still is essentially democratic, Erdogan has sought to expand his power and has been relentless with his attacks on the press and journalists.

The future of the country is unsure, and it has had increasingly strained relations with the west, insisting on purchasing weapons from Russia and playing an ambiguous role, at leas tfrom the western perspective, in the Middle East conflicts. But the mayoral victory in Istanbul is a sign that the opposition is not completely marginalized.

Moscow, Russia

On June 9th, opposition journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested for among other things, marijuana possession. He had been investigating corruption, a notorious future of Russian life, and this had landed him in deep trouble. In a reaction that few foresaw, the Russian media, normally pliant and loathe to ever criticize President Putin, reacted swiftly to condemn the arrest. Two days later, Golunov was released, in a clear defeat for Putin.

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Russian journalist, Ivan Golunov, was released after outcry from even members of the oficial media

Putin first came to power in 2000 and has remained there until today. He remains popular and the general population credit him with having restored Russia’s global preeminence and with it a renewed respect. Many Russians felt that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was humiliated by a resurgent west that forcibly imposed a kind of casino capitalism and diminished the country’s role in world affairs. Nato’s expansion to include former Soviet Allies such as Poland and the Czech Republic contributed to the paranoia that the west was once again encircling Russia for nefarious purposes.

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Russia loves Putin, or so the official story goes

Putin reversed this, flexing his muscles abroad and restoring a kind of order at home. The culmination of this new stance was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine in 2014. This resulted in Russia being unceremoniously kicked out of the G-8 and having sanctions imposed against it. In 2016, Russia is alleged to have interfered in the US election which resulted in the victory of Donald Trump.

The release of the journalist may have been a pyrrhic victory as this week hundreds of protestors have been arrested a reassertion of state power and the limits involved in opposing Putin.

Hong Kong, China

Protests in Hong Kong have been going on for the past six weeks and are becoming increasingly violent and the end result could be ominous given China’s intention of bringing the former British colony to heel.

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It is not clear if Beijing is listening

The protests started in June, to oppose a law that China wanted the Hong Kong legislature to pass which would give the mainland the power to extradite whom it considers criminals. People in Hong Kong viewed this a clear ploy to thwart any opposition to its policies by subjecting them to Chinese justice, which has an almost 100% conviction rate.

These protests were in fact effective, and China postponed implementation of the law in a clear and rare policy reversal. This did not seem to placate the protesters who continued and even ransacked the local parliament in a clear act of aggression against the regime.

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China and Britian have a long, contentious relationship

From 1847 to 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony and administered as such as a result of the British defeat of China in the Opium wars. When power was handed back to China, it was agreed that British-era laws would continue in what was dubbed one country-two system arrangement.

China, being a totalitarian state, was never comfortable with having a part of what it considered its national territory under democratic rule and has been trying and succeeding to limit the powers of the population. This latest move was a catalyst for popular revolt. What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

Anglo Blog, April 15-May 20, 2019

The Venezuela Quagmire

On April 30th, newspapers across the world declared that a coup was underway in Venezuela which looked likely to depose current president Nicolas Maduro and replace him with opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaidó. As the day progressed, it became increasingly clear that the attempt to remove Maduro had fizzled as key members of the military remained loyal to the sitting president.

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Nicolas Maduro parades with loyal troops who thwarted a coup attempt.

This latest development was yet another manifestation of the extreme chaos through which Venezuela has been passing since Maduro took over the presidency after Hugo Chavez, the charismatic president who had led the “Bolivaran Revolution” succumbed to cancer in 2013. Since then, the country has been wracked by civil strife and its citizens have been reeling from insecurity and generalized hunger as the economy has essentially collapsed.

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Juan Guiadó with US vice-president Pence and Colombian president Márquez.

Defenders of the government claim the instability to be the cause of outside, “imperialist” interference, an attempt by the capitalist world to snuff out any attempts to ameliorate the conditions of society’s most vulnerable members. When Guaidó, the then president of the Congress, alleging widespread fraud in the 2018 election won by Maduro, declared himself president, he was recognized by over 50 countries, including the US and many Latin American nations. This fact is used by the government’s sympathizers as proof of a foreign plot to dislodge Maduro from power and install a regime more favorable to western interests.

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Despite being blessed with the world’s largest oil reserves, the Venezuelan economy is in tatters

Those opposed to Maduro claim that he has led this country, which has the largest petroleum reserves in the world, on a downward spiral towards penury and a breakdown of the social order. The Bolivaran Revolution, they allege, has resulted in a brutal dictatorship where dissention is violently stifled and the purported beneficiaries of this so-called revolution are bearing the brunt of the resulting hardships. The disintegration of Venezuela is causing regional instability as the millions fleeing the turmoil have spilled over into Colombia (over a million) and Brazil, straining the already overburdened social services of those countries. Any solution to this malaise, they posit, must involve Maduro´s removal from power.

A black and white analysis of this critical situation misses the nuances and offers simple solutions to extremely complicated problems.

The first is, why isn’t Venezuela a rich country? With a relatively small population for a large territory and massive oil reserves, there is no reason for poverty to exist. Hugo Chavez first came to prominence leading an attempted coup in 1992 after food riots and street unrest, provoked by the imposition of austerity programs mandated by the IMF, illustrated public frustration with the economic status quo. Chavez was put in prison but released before the 1998 election which he handily won and embarked on his Bolivaran revolution intended to ensure a fairer distribution of the country´s wealth.

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Venezuelans queue for food at a supermarket, rummage through garbage and amass at the border to leave the country

The first years of Chavez’s tenure were largely successful in the sense that for the first time in history, the poor were actually benefitting from Venezuela’s riches with greater access to food, health, housing and education; the Human Development Index for the country grew impressively. This rise in living standards was bolstered by rising oil prices and Chavez’s charisma and widespread projection in the country (he had a weekly radio program, Talking with the President, that lasted up to six hours) led to his re-election in 2000.

This was followed in 2002 by a failed coup attempt against him, widely believed to have been backed by the US, which gave Chavez the excuse to claim, as he drifted to ever more strongman rule, that all opposition to him was merely that of US lackeys intent on pilfering the country’s national wealth and transferring it elsewhere. He altered the Constitution to ensure there was no time limit to his rule and surrounded himself with sycophants to flatter him and henchmen to protect him.

It is difficult to maintain the momentum of revolutions by charismatic figures such as Chavez when their principal architect disappears from the scene. From the start, Maduro tried to emulate his predecessor and most would say failed miserably. Falling oil prices and widespread economic mismanagement fueled the current situation which has been deemed as unsustainable.

However, despite all the adverse conditions, the opposition has as yet been unable to get rid of Maduro. This is partly due to its demographic make-up, consisting as it does of the whiter middle classes whom many of the poor blame for never fairly sharing the economic pie. The latest failed coup attempt is yet another example of how the image of the opposition is besmirched by its supposed links to Venezuela´s enemies.

Something will have to give. It is clear, however, that unless key members of the military abandon Maduro and defect to the opposition. Nobody seems to be able to predict if and when that might happen.

The Abortion Divide

Abortion once again has emerged as an issue which hugely divides Americans. The Roe v Wade decision of 1973 legalized the procedure and has ever since created an arena where the “cultural war,” is being waged. This schism in US society over these issues, such as abortion, gun rights, gay rights/marriage, quotas for minorities, transgender issues, the role of religion in school among others reflects conflicting views of social values and behavior.

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For those in the US who favor a woman’s choice to have an abortion, these are trying times. The Georgia State legislature passed a law prohibiting abortions after a heart beat is detected. This usually occurs at around six weeks, a time at which a woman may have no idea she is pregnant. Alabama then passed a law outlawing abortion even in the circumstances of rape and incest. And Arkansas, another southern state, has given rapists the right to impede their victims from having an abortion.

In the case of Alabama, one of the motives of the state legislature was the certainty that this draconian law would provoke judicial resistance and the courts would eventually send the case to the Supreme Court. Then for the first time, Roe v Wade would be revisited, this time in a Supreme Court where the conservative bloc has a majority.
If the law were to be overturned by the nation’s highest court, the decision would go back to the states, and in more conservative states abortion would likely be banned, and in more liberal ones, it would remain legal.

Before 2000, President Donald Trump was in the pro-choice camp, but he realized that to be successful in the modern Republican Party, being pro-life (anti-abortion) is a prerequisite given the party’s reliance on the white, religious right.

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This group has turned a blind eye to Trump’s documented predatory sexual behavior, saying we are all sinners and deserve forgiveness, because Trump is giving them exactly what they want. The appointment of conservative justices for the Supreme Court (Trump has delivered two already and might have the chance to appoint more) who would overturn not just Roe v Wade, but a host of other laws conservatives find unacceptable, has buoyed the right. This has ensured that 90% of the religious right’s votes go to Trump. He has also appointed scores of extremely conservative judges to the lower courts, many of them who will be around for decades.

Trump’s other fulfilled campaign promises to his base include moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, revoking the Iranian nuclear deal, and getting tough with China. Just as Trump has said himself, he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and these people would still love him.

The controversy of abortion and other social questions has been fracturing the US society for decades and with a president who plays on resentment and prejudice, the chasm is widening. There are eerie parallels to the civil war period where inability to agree on fundamental issues caused the US’s mostly deadly conflict, known as the Civil War or War of Secession. Statesmen and stateswomen are needed, yet are apparently not abundant.

Anglo Blog, April 1-April 15, 2019

Benjamin Netanyahu wins again

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Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected prime minster of Israel. He wants to annex the West Bank, thus ending the idea of a two-state solution

Despite projections that he might finally be dislodged from power, Benjamin Netanyahu defied expectations and managed to squeeze out a victory in the Israeli election last week. He will form a coalition government with smaller parties, some of them considered extreme or even racist, and has become the longest serving Israeli prime ministers with 13 accumulated years in power, and five election victories.

Two days before the election, Netanyahu said he planned to annex parts of the West Bank, in what many critics describe as a deathblow to the two state solution. This idea, which is accepted by the great majority of the world as a way to one of humanity’s most intractable problems, involves Israel ceding the West Bank, or most of it, to the Palestinians. The problem is that over 600,000 Jewish settlers now are settled there, territory which the world community deems to have been illegally occupied since Israel seized it from Jordan in 1967. Uprooting these settlers is likely politically impossible, even if Netanyahu showed interest in seeking peace with the Palestinians, which doesn’t, anyhow, seem to be the case.

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For Israel, putting two million Palestinians under its direct rule would threaten the democratic nature of Israel and the country’s stated purpose of maintaining a Jewish majority. Others warn of a kind of apartheid will emerge where the Palestinians are permanently second class citizens in a greater Israeli state.

In the past, Israel has been restrained in proclaiming such intents with the West Bank, fearing censure from its chief ally and beneficiary, the United States, which has actively supported the two state solution in the past. However, US President Donald Trump has given the green light to Netanyahu, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights (which belong to Syria) as well as stopping funding for UN programs that helped Palestinians. One of Trump’s strongest bases are Evangelical Christians, fervent supporters of Israel though not necessarily Jews.

The failure to beat Bibi, as he is known, shows that running a campaign principally focused on defeating a controversial individual rather than offering ideas with popular appeal should serve as a warning to the many opponents of Donald Trump who think that simply pillorying him will result in his downfall.

The second Arab Spring

Popular revolts have been taking place in Algeria and Sudan, and in both cases leaders who had ruled these countries for decades were forced to cede power. This is seen as a triumph for “people power” although many caution that these positive outcomes do not guarantee peaceful transitions of power.

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Women made up large parts of the demonstrators in Sudan

Egypt’s trajectory after relentless street protests led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak after years in power, reflects the disappointment that comes after the initial euphoria of the triumph of popular will. A democratic election resulted in the election of an Islamist prime minister, Mohamed Morsi, who was later deposed by the military. Egypt today is perhaps less democratic than it had been with Mubarak.

Libya is another cautionary tale where after the assassination of Muammar Gadhafi, the country entered into chaos, from which it had never recovered and today is wracked by conflict and instability. Protests in Syria in 2011 resulted in the country descending into horrific carnage and a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Algeria, a country in North Africa with 40 million people, 70% of whom are under 30, has been experiencing street protests for the last month which resulted in the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who ruled the country with an iron fist for 20 years. The protesters are demanding political change and an end to the corruption of the entrenched elite. The professional prospects for young people are minimal and have resulted in frustration and widespread anger. The economy, despite significant revenues from oil and gas, has not been able to absorb an influx of young people into the workforce.

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Similarly, Omar-al Bashir, the president of Sudan, was forced to resign after street protests demanded he step aside. He had ruled this nation of 42 million people, 41% of whom are under 15, since 1993. He used terror to exert control, oversaw a brutal civil war that eventually led to the secession of South Sudan in 2013, and imposed Sharia Law in the country. Interestingly, many of the protesters were women, unhappy with the subjugation inscribed within Islamic law.

In both countries, the removal from power of dictators who have ruled uncontested for decades creates a power vacuum. It is the manner in which this power vacuum is filled which will determine the future outcome for the country. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started in 2010 with the removal of an entrenched dictator, has developed into a plucky democracy, in sharp contrast with its neighbor Libya, where civil strife continues after the death of its heinous dictator. The world should be looking closely.

Brexit Blues

Britain, once known for its pragmatism and common sense, has metamorphosed into the laughing stock of Europe, unable to solve the problem of how to leave the European Union without causing chaos.

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In 2016, after David Cameron then Britain’s prime minister, blithely called for a referendum about the UK remaining or not in the EU, mostly to appease the right wing of his party, Britain has been grappling with how to extricate itself from a club to which it has been a member for 45 years. The narrow victory of the leave vote has pulverized Britain’s political class and process, and exposed deep fissures in the national character and the very nature of what it means to be British.

Theresa May, who took over as prime minister after Cameron’s resignation, has been dogged in her pursuit of a deal, which has been voted down three times in the parliament and failed to deliver the result of the referendum, her professed desire. Two deadlines for the UK crashing out with no-deal have passed and at present, Britain has until October 30 to come up with a deal parliament will pass.

The issue has divided both parties, though May’s conservatives seemed to be wracked by division and May’s inability to coalesce her party around an acceptable exit strategy reflects this. Member of the so-called European Research Group, composed of Tory MPs whose sole purpose is to extricate Britain from the European Union at whatever cost, have helped to vote down May’s deal and even her cabinet is bitterly divided.

Labor, the other principal party, is also suffering from schisms, since the majority of its members would prefer to remain, but its leadership, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, have vacillated and historically been anti-EU, seeing it as a vehicle for neo-liberal economics that is harmful to workers. Corbyn seems more interested in becoming prime minister than ensuring the UK continue being within the EU.

What is most distressing, however, is that most of the politicians are putting their own careers in front of the good of the country. Many advocate another referendum, this time where voters would choose a deal that had been agreed upon by parliament, or the status quo of Britain remaining in the EU. Others are adamantly opposed, saying the public has already voted and shown its preference in the first referendum.

The divide reflects that occurring in many industrialized countries, where working class people feel that globalization has left them behind, and is exclusively serving an often urban elite. Demagogues and populists have played on this resentment, blaming foreigners for the plight of this class and stoking nativist fears about invasions from foreigners. Certainly Brexit and the election of Trump are emblematic of this general distrust of the political and economic elite.

Meanwhile, the Brexit drama continues without resolution.

The Bosnia Experience

The start of the trip did little to dispel the myth that Germans can be perhaps less than friendly. After arriving at the Munich central railroad station armed with the address of the hotel where I was to meet my father, I approached two men who were leaning against a building, smoking.

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“Excuse me,” I said sheepishly since it´s always awkward assuming someone speaks English when you don’t speak their language. “Could you?…” I said grasping the paper with the hotel´s street name.

“Pausa,” one of them said rather aggressively, and turned again to his colleague. I assumed this meant he was on break.

“You´re not going to tell me where the street is?” I said in amazement.

His friend, perhaps sympathizing with my consternation, pointed to a street diagonal to where we were as being the one I wanted. I found my father and we went out to eat dinner.

The central walking part of the city is delightful, full of people, cafés, bars and performers who would suddenly have to throw a tarp over themselves to protect against the continuous intermittent showers. We dined at a pleasant restaurant, looked into the beer hall where Hitler used to hang out and harangue and turned in.

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Monument to those killed in Srebrenica

Checking in for the flight to Sarajevo was slightly nerve wracking since this idiot of a travel agent managed to mangle my ticket by putting my last name as Gordon. The officious woman at the counter informed me that if the computer didn´t accept my passport I would have to pay for another ticket. If venomous thoughts about somebody could kill them over a distance, my travel agent would have been a dead man. Fortunately, the computer took mercy and all was well.

We were picked up at the airport by Kasey and her son Benjamin, and on the way back the streets were lined with posters of smiling yet wretched politicians, most of which are appealing to nationalism that might once again rip the precarious country of Bosnia apart. Having settled into her apartment, we headed towards the center of town.

We walked around the old town, which is almost equally divided between what was built during the Austro-Hungarian empire and the other half when the Ottoman Empire ruled. We went to a mosque where worshippers seemed unfazed by the hordes of tourist taking pictures and selfies while they beseeched Allah for his mercy.

The museum for Srebrenica was perhaps not the most sanguine place to start a tour but it seemed almost the respectful thing to do and we would be going to that fateful spot later in the journey. Names and images of the 9000 or so victims, men and boys killed over a three-day period, lined the walls, grim documentaries are played and re-played. It is a searing reminder of the world simply turning away from those in need where revenge spawned by an event that occurred five hundred years previously once again spewed evil.

This was really an indictment of the United Nations and the museum was selling tee-shirts that said United Nothing. It essentially caved into the Serbian general who threatened the Dutch peacekeepers who basically delivered the victims into their tormentor’s hands.

One leaves these kind of museums in a kind of daze, unable to comprehend humanity´s barbarity or the insouciance of the rest of the world in a time when professing ignorance is an untenable excuse.

The obligatory photograph was taken on the spot where Franz Ferdinand perished, unleashing misery for millions of young men in the four-year global carnage that followed.

Kasey has several stores in Sarajevo, and many of her clients are Arabs from the gulf states, Qatar and the Saudis. Western indifference about the fate of the Bosnian Muslims created a vacuum happily filled by Muslim countries, with the Saudis funding hundreds of new mosques around the country or the Malaysians building things like shopping centers.

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Anti-Muslim hate propaganda

Kasey told us about a new hotel/resort project spearheaded by the Saudi money was being set up just in the hills outside of Sarajevo. “No alcohol. It will be tough to get the locals to go,” said Kasey.

Dinner was traditional stuffed peppers which satisfied dad´s yearning for traditional “Yugoslav” food. Much wine was consumed (by me anyway) and Kasey and I talked about old times and people that I had long since forgotten about. We have known each other for 35 years and worked in many of the same places so memories are in abundance.

The next day we took the cable car up to one of Sarajevo´s surrounding mountains which gave us a spectacular view of the city. Benjamin and I walked down to the place where the toboggan race had taken place in the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, now unused and full of graffiti. When I wanted to go off the path as a short cut to the toboggan track, Benjamin yanked me back and said “be careful, there could be mines.” Just one of the many reminders that just twenty-five years ago, this place was in the midst of a bloody war.

Indeed, the geography of Sarajevo and all of the rest of Bosnia that I saw was such that whoever controlled the higher ground had a huge advantage. Since the Serbs seem to have anticipated the coming war more than the Muslims, they managed to occupy much of the higher ground, to the great detriment of those stuck in the valleys. More on that later.

For lunch we went to a shevap restaurant purportedly the best in the city despite it strange location net to the railway station. There were dozens of Syrian refugees milling about, some drinking, others smoking, all with a look of blank desolation. They are being housed outside the city though many prefer to sleep rough in the city itself.

We dined in a restaurant on the road that had been lined with Serbian snipers raining bullets down on the city. Again, the complete normality of the place today contrasts to the treachery taking place in the very same spot 25 years previously.

The next day we were introduced to Nihad, who was to be our driver for the next couple of days. He was short and extremely stocky, short-cropped thinning hair, gray eyes and a wry smile. He also liked to talk, which was good since what he said was very interesting.
Nihad, like many, has glowing memories of Tito and constantly harks back to the days when everyone, from the street sweeper to general, had a decent life.

“Take my father, he worked for the same company and after 15 years, they gave him an apartment!”

“Me, I work for company for 15 years and after 15 years, all they give me was the door.”

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The village of Sapna, tucked into the hills

We asked his opinion about the Serbs, rationalizing that any enmity was pretty justified given the suffering endured largely due to their perfidy and global neglect.

“I have nothing against the Serbs personally, just their leaders. My wife and I, we lived in an apartment owned by a Muslim. He treat us bad, so I say let´s go. We find another apartment, this one owned by a Serb. This man, he is like father to me.”

His family hadn’t been religious at all, with the commitment to organized aspects of faith restricted to weddings and funeral like many of their Christian brethren.

“But my grandfather one day ask me. When the last time you go to the mosque? I say I don’t remember, and my dad he hits my head, “what do you mean, we went the other day.” I know this is a lie, but I’m just a kid. When my grandfather go out, my father say, “sorry for that, I have to pretend sometimes.”

Nihad drove using his natsat, which mostly worked but got us confused around Tusla where we circled around lost for twenty minutes. We stopped to get gas and Nihad asked if he minded whether he smoked a cigarette. While puffing he lamented his habit.

“I can’t stop, no way,” he said sadly as if it might be the death of him. But for those who have seen death and suffered trauma, death by cigarettes might be a better way to go than being butchered by an ephemeral enemy.

In every town there were posters of politicians.

“With this lot,” Nihab said with derision pointing to the daughter-in-law of the former president Izbekovich, known for her graft and corruption, “sometimes I think it would have been better if the Chetniks had killed all of us.”

It is hard not to see cemeteries everywhere you go, either Muslim or Serb, with not all the dead coming from the recent conflict, but a good proportion occupying the space there.

Nihad dropped us at Ibrahim’s house in the town of Sapna, which was nestled onto a forested hill where still no one dares to go given the extensive presence of mines. He met us with his wife, a lovely and lively woman who wore a scarf, and their family of Iphram, their son, Nina and three children.

We sat outside in a covered veranda Ibrahim had built; bowls with apples, trays with three kinds of biscuits, walnuts, watermelon were thrust upon us, and being hungry and not sure whether this constituted lunch, ate merrily.

Conversation flowed between Nihad and the family, and he left with his hands piled with apples, honey and eggs. He had never met them before and this certainly gave credence to his earnest assertion, which I had considered with a hint of derision, that there was little poverty “because we all help each other.”

He would come back in two days to fetch us and I looked forward to spending more time with him.

Meanwhile, we were ushered inside for a huge lunch for which little room was left in my stomach. Being essentially a self-sacrificing sort, I managed to ingratiate myself to them eating heartily, a process that was continual throughout my time there. Their house was extremely comfortable, Ibrahim had been a builder, in fact had himself built this house and three others on the same road, of various family members who were now all working abroad.

He also praised Tito and the golden years of Yugoslavia, where he plied his trade throughout the country, and, he said proudly, was welcomed into many houses in Macedonia, Montenegro and the other four countries that make up that decomposed former country.

Communication was difficult with Ibrahim and his wife, limited to please, thank you, good, very good and I’m full. The only other words I knew were motherfucker and the like, so not necessarily useable in a pious Muslim household.

Pious in the best sense; never once was religion foisted on us or actually entered the conversation, except in the political sense of Bosnia as being Muslims or Serbs. Shortly after we arrived and were having inchoate conversations that all ended with smiles and laughter, Iphram quietly went to a chest of drawers, got a small rug and then next to the couch started praying. He was himself a man exuding calm, and as he prayed, he appeared in complete peace.

A walk was suggested and Iphram volunteered to show us around. We asked Ibrahim who declined with a chuckle. During the war, apparently, every two weeks he had walked 40 kilometers to Tusla, always having to avoid detection by marauding Serbs who would certainly have killed him, where Iphram and his siblings studied. He was done with walking.

Since mines lingered, the only real place to walk was along the main road in the valley and then up the other ridge. A Serbian town was about one hundred meters away and before crossing over a bridge, walked past a house owned by a Serbian. These people, who are ethnically the same and so look like each other, do the same professional things, eat the same food, have a shared history and still religion divides them.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we drove down through the tiny town of Sapna, up the other side of the ridge and to the farm where the family had spent the entire war trying to survive. The other side, where they now lived, had been occupied by the Serbs who were constantly targeting them with sniper fire.

Now it just seemed bucolic, existing in a kind of time warp where people live off the fortunately very fertile land. The plot had been in Ibrahim’s family for generations.

Before dinner, we exchanged gifts and the kids seemed to love the rubbery toys dad had bought. Nina was a wonderful host and also a calm mother. The kids were lovely, very well behaved, affectionate with both their parents and grandparents, giving us good night kisses without any awkwardness at all.

After dinner, during which we had discussed the Muslim duty to visit Mecca at least once in a life-time, the Haj, Iphram excitedly showed me the television channel that broadcasts 24 hours a day from Mecca of those people fulfilling this obligation.

“I will go, I promise you. It will be wonderful.”

I tried to show enthusiasm. But this didn’t diminish his.

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Sarajevo, and the plaque marking the place where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the catalyst for the first world war

“Look at all these hotels” he said as the camera occasionally focused away from the revelers going round and round the dome. It looked a little bit like Las Vegas, but obviously this impression was left unsaid.

Both my father and I had been wondering (and hoping to see) if any slivovitz would be served, but alas, only more and more food appeared.

On my way to bed, I almost didn’t notice Nina, who usually wore jeans and a tee-shirt, kneeled by the stairs in a kind of robe with her hair covered and whispered prayers. She smiled but didn’t look at me.

The next day we drove to a town nearby, passing intermittently between Serbian and Muslim towns, in most of which the only differentiating feature was a mosque or Orthodox church. We went to a castle that overlooked the Drina river and divided Republic Srpska from Serbia proper. The town itself was bustling though jammed with cars, so we left and were taken to a quaint fish restaurant where Ibrahim insisted on paying.

We stopped in Tusla for coffee, and visited the main plaza and the place where a Serb mortar had killed 70 people in one spot. Again, Tusla was surrounded by hills, and guess who occupied the high ground? It’s impossible to fathom the mayhem and despair that would have followed such an explosion. If you witness something like that, how do you recover? And if you didn’t witness it, unless you have experienced events of human savagery, it is simply impossible to imagine how it could be, or how you would react.

We walked over to a huge swimming complex with pools of various shapes and sizes. For no apparent reason, perhaps to show off who knows, I said that I swam 4000 meters every day. Iphram was stupefied.

“Why on earth would you do that?”

I had no good answer.

Arriving at the house, I decided to go for a walk and ventured to the other side of the valley, finally getting to the top of the hill after much effort. The further up, the poorer the people seemed, and a couple of gypsy families, their yards overflowing with broken equipment and dogs, lived up pretty high. On the ridge, a sign from the Norwegian-Dutch anti-mining squad testifying to their work and also alluding to the continued danger of straying too far into the woods.

I played soccer with the kids and later dad and I sheepishly said we were going down to the village to drink some pivo, hoping that our decadence was not being judged. The bar was empty but for a few locals who looked at us quizzically but soon lost interest. Dad was unable to finish a second glass of the wine. “If I can’t finish it, it must be really bad,” was his take on it.

Once more we left the table absolutely stuffed, basically unable to move, but as we sat watching a Turkish soap opera, more snacks were prepared for us to supplement the cake and coffee already on the table in front of the television. Iphram cut up sausage and cheese, surely not for us, I thought, but it was the case.

Iphram was not particularly sanguine about Bosnia’s future.

“How you say in English, one spark and everything explodes again.”

The way Bosnia was carved up into regions at the Dayton peace talks, apparently concluded late at night after huge amounts of alcohol was consumed, left many issues unresolved and the nationalism of the politicians from all factions does not bode well for the future.

Nihad turned up mid-morning and after many hugs and sincere proclamations of keeping in touch by Facebook, we departed. It is difficult to describe the generosity and warmth of these people. There is a strong desire to drag one of these Muslim-hating fools from the west into Ibrahim´s house to show that no, they don´t sit around eating children and preparing bombs in some eternal jihad.

“I bet you ate a lot,” was Nihad´s first and accurate comment.

The route took us back through some of the countryside we had seen before, and about two hours later we arrived in Srebrenica and the site of the horrors that had taken place 23 years ago. We toured the old car factory that had served as The UN headquarters and where 20,000 people had fled to after Serbian pretentions of annihilating the male Muslim population became evident. The Dutch peacekeepers, overwhelmed and probably feeling vulnerable, turned them away, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The factory itself was eerie and one of the exhibits is simply a huge factory floor where pictures of the atrocity line the walls and disused machines rotted in the middle of the room. Across the street is the cemetery commemorating, not the best word, the 9000 victims. Endless names were engraved into marble slabs. There was a souvenir shop at the entrance to the cemetery which seemed in rather poor taste.

Dazed and confused, overwhelmed by the depravity of humanity, we stumbled out toward the town to lunch. There among the posters of candidates for the Serbian position of president (it’s a tripartite presidency) was a smiling Vladimir Putin. That can´t be a good sign.

At the restaurant, we ordered a mixed-meat plate although Nihad said that they often snuck in pork without telling the customer so he ordered goulash. The town seemed slightly dead, the main pedestrian street strewn with empty shops and the ones open hardly looked thriving. As in other Serbian towns, Nihad seemed fidgety and on edge.

The journey to Vishigrad was not without incident as the Satnat routed us through the forest on a gravel track. Eventually we turned back and descended into Vishigrad on a spectacular road that passed through a mountain gorge and had 39 tunnels of various lengths. This road, which must have cost billions to construct, was built in 1989, just before the dissolution of Yugoslavia when the country was in dire financial straits. One wonders why there was this rush to have this direct link between Belgrade and Sarajevo. Well, actually the Muslims don’t.

The scenery was breathtaking though slightly marred by the fact that the river the road followed was pretty polluted, bits of debris strewn across its entire surface the whole way down. It was a reminder of the horrendous environmental record of the Communist countries whose pursuit of the socialist paradise did not apparently include taking care of the earth that would host it.

After finally arriving in Vishigrad, we pulled into a hotel resort which honored Ivo Andric, the 1961 Nobel literature laureate. It was a huge complex with bars, restaurants and a cinema. It was also almost completely empty.

“Maybe it’s Russian mafia money laundering scheme,” Nihad suggested not without some plausibility. The receptionist tried her best to dissuade us from staying (“she should be fired”, Nihad whispered) directing us to another hotel around the block. She relented only when she realized we didn’t mind paying the fifty-dollar charge.

We were shown to a huge block of rooms, all empty except the two we would occupy. There were two cafes but we quickly moved from one when we were told that they didn’t serve alcohol there, so shifted next door.

The place really was a shrine to Ivo Andric, a huge statue to him in one corner, quotations in Cyrillic lining the walls, although as Nihad wryly pointed out that he was in fact Croatian, where they use the Roman alphabet.

Dinner was at a small restaurant. Nihad talked about how Bosnia did attract some extremist Muslim fighters from other Arab countries during the conflict.

“These guys are crazy. They came here with their Kufis and daggers and their bombs strapped to their bodies. The Serbs, even if they were in a tank or had a machine gun, they run away. Once they hear Allah Akbar, they are gone, abandoning their weapons.”

We laughed a lot about this.

Afterwards Nihad and I walked over to the 500-year-old bridge that crossed the Drina, and there was an inscription in Arabic in the middle, a testimony to the Ottoman presence there, and then went to a bar to a night cap.

Nihad opened up about his days as a violent and rebellious teenager coming of age in a war zone. He had no water or electricity for three years (I thought of him the other day when our power went out for an hour and we were outraged and also totally unprepared) and ended up in the wrong crowd.

“Physical violence, fighting and stuff, seemed so tame since people never died from a fight, but there were dying everywhere else.”

He and his crowd listened to rap music and he knew all about the 1990s rap scene. They would fight people who listened to heavy music (“with their long hair, they look like girls!”) and anyone else who crossed their path eventually.

“But I realized that I didn’t want to disappoint my parents so I stopped.” Disrespecting parents was, in Nihad’s view, the worst transgression possible. “I tell my wife, your treat my parents bad, you go.”

To get to Mostar the next day, we had to double back through Sarajevo and meander through mountains and gorges until we reached this historical town. That’s a slight exaggeration as the historical part consists of basically three very quaint streets absolutely jammed with people. One could hardly move on the bridge and dad was rebuked when he asked which side of the bridge was Croat and which was Muslim.

“Here we don’t think in those terms,” said the dour tourist agent. Ok, we’ll take your word for it!

The bridge is indeed impressive but you literally have to fight your way through thick crowds to get over it. A young man in a speedo was perched on the top of the bridge collecting money for his impending dive into the transparent water below. We didn’t wait to watch him but at lunch speculated about what it would take to have us jump off.

“Definitely if there was one of those Muslim terrorists after us shouting Allah Akbar, I would,” said Nihad.

We left dad in Mostar and headed back to Sarajevo and arrived in the late afternoon. The radio station playing in the car had the most eclectic mix of music I’ve ever heard, from hard rock to rap to traditional music to opera, quite extraordinary.

Kasey, her two sons and I went out to a special beer hall for dinner with excellent food and drink and afterwards we once again spent hours reminiscing about the people and places common to us and our history.

On the way back to Brazil, I spent the night in Madrid, arriving at the hotel at midnight, which is just about when the night scene there gets started. The streets were packed with people though the excesses of the previous night in Sarajevo curtailed my energy for doing anything exciting.

The flight from Madrid to Salvador did not start out well as I was assigned a seat in the middle of the middle row, and when I had tried to change it this wonderful airline, Air Europa, said that I’d have to pay 40 euros. I was sitting next to a middle-aged woman, who was engaged in a political conversation with two women across from her and a man sitting in front.

The woman said they would not vote in Bolsonaro, the vile right-wing idiot who is likely to be Brazil’s next president but the man was proudly one of his supporters, and I simply scowled when he said this. They then went on to pillory the left-wing agenda, saying how certain social policies had made poor people lazy and uppity, declaring quotas for minorities the most unfair thing in the world, and saying how the youth had lost their values because religion was no longer taught in schools.

I tried to phase out the conversation but it was impossible as Brazilians, especially when talking about politics, tend to speak loudly. Coming back from the bathroom, the conversation had now changed to religion, and all of them were born-agains, the man actually himself a pastor.

For the next six hours, they talked about how amazing Jesus was. The pastor, who lived in Italy, spelled out his whole life story, his youth lost to drugs, alcohol and woman.

“I had a house, I paid 250,000 euros for in cash,” (an unnecessary detail I thought), “beautiful, right on the beach. I lost that too.”

He continued, his voice more and more dramatic and quivering.

“I’m not going to cry,” he said seemingly right on the verge of doing so. Please don’t or please do, I thought in my contradictory way. “But I ended up on the streets. Do you know what it’s like to beg for money?”

He took deep gulping breaths to stem any tears. Everyone professed somberly that no, they had never had to beg.

“But after Jesus came into my life, miracles continue to happen.”

As an example: “My car caught fire, everything was destroyed except for the bible. Doesn’t that show the power of god.” I guess it did.

They ended up great friends, created a whatsup group and vowed to go to the man’s wedding next fall to a woman he had saved from drugs through Jesus. They prayed with hands adjoined as we landed since obviously it was to God’s credit that we had arrived safely.

It was a really wonderful trip, a gift to be able to spend time with dad who was a delightful companion and Kasey, a great friend, and her charmingly boisterous son Benjamin!

Arriving home is always a treat, and with all its problems, Brazil is a nice place to come back to even if it will soon be ruled by a fascist.

Anglo Blog Post – September to October 2018

Famous opera soprano dies

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Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé belt out Barcelona. The soprano singer died this weekend

Montserrat Caballé, a world renowned soprano singer who participated in more than 90 operas and 4000 performances, died in her native Barcelona at the age of 85. She was considered one of the best soprano singers ever, although she catapulted to global fame after performing a semi-operatic duet with Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury – Barcelona, which served as the theme song for the 1992 Olympics in that Catalan city. Her reputation was marred slightly by her indictment for tax avoidance in 2014, although she paid back the more than US$750,000 she owed to the government.

 

Saudi journalist killed in country’s consulate in Istanbul

The Turkish government has alleged that the mysterious fate of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of his native country’s repressive regime, was in fact murder within the consulate building. This has major diplomatic implications and the already strained relations between Ankara and Riyadh, regional rivals in the conflict embroiled middle east, could plummet even more.

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There might be muted criticism from western governments but Saudi Arabia is too important economically for anything meaningful to be done

Mr. Khashoggi, himself from a prominent Saudi family, focused his fire on the reforms being promoted by Mohammed bin Salman, the young leader of Saudi Arabia, which the journalist claimed were tepid and didn’t go nearly far enough. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive countries, especially for women, who until June of this year were not even allowed to drive. The west, despite its apparent commitment to human rights, has largely ignored Saudi transgressions given that countries huge petroleum reserves and seemingly insatiable appetite for weapons, the sale of which generates billions of dollars for both the US and the UK.

Brawl at UFC fight besmirches the sport’s already volatile image

 

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Khabib Nurmagomedeov beats Conan McGregor but his victory is overshadowed by the subsequent brawl between the two fighter’s camps. A lucrative rematch is probably more likely now

A melee broke out in Las Vegas after the victory, by stranglehold, of Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov’s over Ireland’s Conan McGregor. This resulted in withholding the purse of the Russian boxer and a general deterioration in the relationship between the two camps. Nurmagomedov has since apologized, but the fracas tarnishes a sport which is trying to establish mainstream respectability. Ultimate fighting has largely eclipsed boxing in popularity but has been unable to shed its image of being a sport which highlights gratuitous violence and general thuggery. This latest ruckus will do little improve UFC’s reputation.

Mass murderer receiving university education from prison in Norway

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Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik gives the Nazi salute at his trial. From prison he is working towards a degree in Political Science

Anders Breivik, who in 2011 planted a bomb in Oslo and then went on a shooting rampage that claimed a total of 77 fatal victims, has been taking courses at a Norwegian institution of higher education towards a degree in political science. Many have disputed the appropriateness of this, arguing that the tremendous pain this individual has caused for the families of the victims preclude such a privilege as a college education, especially one financed by the state. Defenders claim that Norway’s tradition of tolerance and encouragement of civic responsibility and should Breivik ever get out of jail, an unlikely proposition, society would be better served if he had a diploma. They also argued that this serves as a kind of closure for an ordinarily peaceful country that was traumatized by the massacre and went through a period of self-examination to try and grapple with the possible motivations for such an atrocity.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, after a vicious partisan fight, is confirmed to the US Supreme Court

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Appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the supreme court after being accused of sexual assault, a charge he vehemently denied. In 1991, then nominee Clarence Thomas was also accused of sexual harassment but was confirmed and remains one of the court’s most conservative members

After a bruising confirmation fight, in which Donald Trump’s nominee for the nation’s highest court was accused by sexual assault, judge Kavanaugh, 53, was confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court. In the US, such a position is life-long (unlike Brazil there is no forced retirement age for judges) so there is a chance that Kavanaugh could sit on the court for 40 years.

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Who to believe in this he said, she said case?

The confirmation process, considered a low point for a senate whose reputation is already somewhat maligned, was bitterly contested between Democrats and Republicans and overshadowed by the questions of sexual violence and a new awareness of this in part due to the influence of the #metoo movement. Kavanaugh’s alleged victim, the university professor and psychologist, Christine Blasey Ford, gave a wrenching testimony about the events of the night during which she feared a drunken Kavanaugh was going to rape her. This, however, failed to convince enough senators. The US Supreme Court has nine members and currently is composed of four considered “liberal” and four considered “conservative.” The entrance of Kavanaugh ensures a conservative majority that could tilt future judicial considerations to the right for years to come. This has implications for women’s reproductive rights (particularly the right to an abortion) as well as policies towards minorities and education.

Bansky painting self-destructs

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The street artist Bansky, known for his controversial street art,  built in a shredder in one of his paintings that self-destructed after being bought for a considerable sum

A painting, Girl with a Balloon, by the enigmatic British street artist Bansky, known for his mysterious anonymity, self-destructed after an unidentified buyer bought it for US$1.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction. This stunned the art world due to the unprecedented nature of this act. The artist had built a shredder within the frame of the picture in case, in his words, “it ever went to auction.” The artists posed this quote from Picasso to justify his act: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” Nobody knows what will happen to the poor soul who bought the painting.

Hugging after a fight can make things better

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Hugging after conflict is good for us

Scientists have solid evidence that giving the person with whom a conflictual situation has arisen has positive psychological implications for both parties. It reduces any lingering negative feelings and according to the British psychological journal Prima, “that being affectionate with the people we love after a fight has a calming effect on us.” So get hugging!

Anglo Blog, August 30, 2018

Trump’s Predicament

There are two ways where Trump could be proven to have committed crimes that would almost impel impeachment. The first concerns Russian interference in the US election and whether Trump solicited it, knew about it or in some way associated with the Russians to influence the result. A special federal prosecutor, Robert Mueller, has been tasked with proving that.

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The other is whether Trump used campaign funds to pay for the silence of two women who allege to have had affairs with him and the dissemination of this fact could have affected the election. This case is in a being tried in a New York court, and revolves around the testimony of various government witnesses, including most explosively Trump’s ex-lawyer, whose testimony could prove key in implicating Trump in criminal activities.

The bad news for Trump this week was that these two investigations showed some result. His former campaign manager was convicted on eight counts, and although this does not directly affect Trump, more will be revealed about Trump’s business practices, something else that could undermine him. Michael Cohen was Trump’s lawyer for ten years, has intimate knowledge (backed apparently by evidence) of the president’s business shenanigans. It seems the walls are closing in.

Those who loathe Trump, and he is not one to generate neutral or indifferent sentiment, are elated and feel that perhaps the end of this nightmare is guaranteed at some point sooner rather than later. The president’s wholesale assault on anything Obama accomplished has been alarming and disheartening for those who oppose him.

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The president’s ardent admirers, about 40% of the population, scoff at these legal intrigues; in their view, all politicians are corrupt, so if Trump is no different so be it. It matters little to them, even the Evangelicals who profess great piety and condemn homosexuals, whether he cheated on his wife and repeatedly lied about it. He’s a human being, he makes mistakes, they say. And the more the establishment press reveal, the more his supporters are convinced it’s all fake news. His America first, white nationalism has, unfortunately, a very loyal following.

There is a consensus that Trump cannot be indicted as a normal citizen since he could not be judged by a jury. The only way he could be removed from office would be by impeachment, which in the US goes first to the House of Representatives and with a simple majority, it can recommend to the Senate that impeachment proceed. There, it requires a 2/3rds majority.

As the current Congress stands, where Republicans have majorities (a slim one in the Senate). But all that could change because in November, mid-term elections take place and there is a chance the Democrats could win back the legislature, making impeachment proceedings far more likely to be initiated.

The bad news for Trump detractors is that over 80% of Republicans support him, and those within the party who oppose him are afraid to act because it could cause an unravelling of the party. Traditional Republicans are avid free-traders, something Trump is not, and although they like Trump’s repeal of regulation and his tax policy, they are trying to expand the party to make it more inclusive to minorities. Since many Trump supporters are actively hostile to diversity, this chasm could break open completely.

Unless there is a revolt against Trump within Senate Republicans, even if the Democrats win both houses, impeachment is unlikely to succeed. The only way to get rid of Trump would therefore be to vote him out of office in 2020. It is not entirely infeasible that he’d win another election, with the rigged, indirect vote that is American democracy. But with the Democrats inability to put together a message that appeals to the white, working class, he could win by default, as he did the first time.

And that would be a shame.

Five Broken Cameras: A Review

Autor: Gustavo Oliveira

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The documentary “Five Broken Cameras” was filmed in 2011 and it’s based on true events which happened in 2005. It tells the story of the farmer Emad Burnat who bought a camera to film his fourth son, Gabreel. The farmer lives in Bil’in, a small village located on the West Bank, considered Palestinian territory. At the same time that his son is growing up, the Israeli Army (IDF) decides to build a wall to demark Jewish lands and, unfortunately, the place where the wall is going to be built might take some of Emad’s lands. The camera he bought and four others are used to film, instead of his son, the resistance of his people against the army.

“Five Broken Cameras” was nominated for an Oscar for best long documentary, the World Cinema Directing Award at the 2012 Sundance Festival, and all the charaters are represented by their real person. The firm is really well made and shocking, in the way that it represents, in a realistic way, the violence that happens in the regions of Israel-Palestine. The way Emad tells the story and how he relates how each camera was broken in violent ways by the army makes the film a must-watch, as it is touching and has deep social causes, showing anyone who’s interested some stories about the people who live like him. Anyway, a negative part of the documentary is the feeling that only one side of the story in being told, since there are no testimonies from anyone from the army, which could be shown, even if they had non-humanitarian reasons to do what they did.