What are the atrocities of our time?

Every period of history spits out its horror stories in retrospect: the murder of six million Jews, the abuse of children at the hands of priests and the institutionalisation of political dissenters. We’ve got used to documentaries exposing the trauma of war, neglect and corruption. We expect them like we do the next episode of a soap. It’s a sign of progress of course – though it makes me think about the abuses of today that will make it into the documentaries of tomorrow.

Today it was revealed that a criminal gang in Bedfordshire has been operating a twenty-four men slave work camp at a caravan park. According to British media reports, victims were lured from soup kitchens, benefit offices and hostels. Nine of them (presumably those of slightly higher standing or those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome) have refused to co-operate with police investigations. According to the Guardian, one traveller said that “Plenty of men who were here wanted to be here and they were getting paid”. As if the volition of plenty justified the slavery of a single other.

Last week the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by British army officials was relived in grotesque detail with the publication of the full report.

Tonight the second part of the RTE investigation into the practices going on behind closed doors in state mental institutions was broadcast.

I work in a not-very-nice area of town. Sometimes I see the faces of future documentaries gazing blankly past me, as they cower terrified at the knees of abusive parents, or bend their weary, wizened faces over pint glasses at 8 am, when the early license pubs are ready for their next order.

Last week I watched two families staggering about on the luas platform. Dirty beer cans in hand, the parents drunk and drugged, yelled at each other as they stumbled against empty buggies from which their toddlers wandered aimlessly away. One little boy with huge brown eyes looked at me and I stared back at him, knowing my inevitable complicity was failing him.

The luas doors opened and his parents endeavoured, with clumsy futility to secrete their multiple beer cans at the bottom of their buggy. The injustice of bad parenting – and the audacity to pass judgement on the nuclear family unit – this I believe is the stuff of next generation’s documentaries.

What else, from where you’re standing?

What’s happening in Kurdistan?

This is what I asked myself earlier today when I passed a small group of men gathered at the GPO. Some were holding flags featuring a yellow sun on a backdrop of green, white and red stripes while others carried banners urging the Irish Government not to ignore Turkish war crimes in Kurdistan.

Kurdish flag (image via Wikipedia)

It was a tiny, peaceful demonstration that made its way down O’Connell Street and past Trinity College. A single man had a loud speaker and from it all that I could make out was the word “Kurdistan”.

The leaflet I took from one of the demonstrators is a double-sided photocopy and includes four photographs of dead bodies buried amongst rubble. One is of a 6-month old baby. The leaflet claims that “Turkish warplanes have been repeatedly bombing Kurdish villages since Wednesday 17th August” and that this is an example of “Turkish state terrorism against the Kurds which has been ignored by the international community and the European Union in particular”.

On the BBC website- updated just a few hours ago- a headline reads “Turkish airstrike campaign killed 160 Kurdish rebels”. According to the BBC, “The strikes follow a deadly attack by the separatists in mid-August that killed nine Turkish troops and injured 14 in the district of Cukurca, in Hakkari province close to the border.”

Kurdistan is wedged between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia and is neither a politically independent state nor a clearly-defined region (though its geoographical description encompasses small parts of all the countries which surround it). Its people speak a distinct language (Kurdish, not Arabic) and consider themselves to have a separate identity from that of any of their neighbour states. While Iraqi Kurdistan gained the right to self-governance in 1970, the Iranian province of Kurdistan is not autonomous.

In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has been waging war against Turkish rule for 26 years. To date, the conflict there has claimed over 40,000 lives.

Last May the Guardian reported that Sherko Moarefi, a member of a proscribed Kurdish group is at “imminent risk of execution” in Iran. A huge Amnesty International campaign is urgently calling for his release. I’ve been unable to find any up-to-date information about his condition or status online.

Sherko Moarefi

While I couldn’t find anything up-to-date on Aljazeera or the BBC, I did stumble upon this excellent Kurdish blog from last May, which describes how reporting of the death of Bin Laden overshadowed the case of Sherko Moarefi, whose execution happened to be postponed on the same day as the assassination.

I was inspired by this article by Dan Hind on Aljazeera English which calls for the media to prioritise explanation over emotion in its reporting, particularly in the case of humanitarian crises, where public contributions can make a huge difference, particularly when the sources of problems are adequately understood.

I’d like to thank the little group of men gathered at the Post Office for their double-sided photocopy and for the isses it has brought to my attention. Their voices resonated from a tinny megaphone and from two pages of broken, passionate English prose. I don’t know enough about the issue to make a judgement right now, but at least I’ve started to think.

One Thief, one Casanova, two Carphone Warehouse Sales Assistants and a Citizen’s Arrest : Grafton Street, 2 pm

A round, red, sad, brutal, 40-year-old face charged by me in a blur. I turned, he stumbled and somebody in an orange carphone warehouse t-shirt caught up and grabbed him from behind. The thief struggled, kicked out and wrenched his arms free but out of nowhere, three more men appeared. While they were thrashing about, a Brown Thomas gift bag fell from the thief’s grip and tumbled strangely, prepostrously to his side.

He was pinned to the ground and fell silent. An enormous crowd had gathered about. Camera phones came out. A little boy held his father’s head and said again and again “Is da real, da?” “It is yeah”, the father replied. “That man was stealing and he’s been caugh’ and he doesn’t like everyone watching him now ’cause he looks like a muppet… ‘Cause he is one”. “Is it real though, da?”. “It sure is, son. The Police are gonna get him and he’s gonna go to jail”.

It was an uncomfortable scene. I wasn’t proud of myself for not being able to leave. I heard a woman remark that the man’s hands were turning white and a lady from the other side of the crowd approached the group and asked them to loosen their grip on his wrist. Suddenly the man let out a roar. “ASSAULT. I’m being ASSAULTED. HELP. HELP. HELP”

“He’s not being assaulted”, the Brown Thomas doorman muttered and asked me politely to stop blocking the entrance to the shop. The man let out another roar, and raised his head. A strong black hand pushed it down again.

The thief managed somehow to hurt the smallest of his captors, who hopped about in pain and blurted out “you scumbag”.

“I can’t breathe!” the man shouted, “I can’t fucking BREATHE. Would you let me breathe!”

At this point, something rather strange happened next to me.

A boy of about fourteen, a Casanova with a country accent, led a group of his friends through the throngs towards three similarly-aged girls who were standing beside me and grinning rather stupidly at the whole scene. “Hey you girls”, he drawled in his not-yet-broken voice. “These are some of my frinds here. Would you ladies be able to show us where Stephen’s Green is?”
The girls stared at him and pointed behind them. “Would you be able to show us like?” the boy continued.
They shrugged. “Stephen’s Green is right up there”, one said, shyly.
“Come on, would you not just show us like?” He smiled.
“I dunno..”.
“Ah go on..”

I was nearly going to offer. But there was a new arrival on the scene.

A younger, dosed-up man I recognised from hanging about town staggered up to where the men were holding down the thief. He looked confused.
“Hey! Leave him be”, he said beginning to tug at him for possession. “He’s not done nothing!” he slurred. “He was shoplifting”, one of the carphone warehouse sales assistants told him, still pressing down on his chest. The thief let out another roar. “I paid the bleeding money didn’t I?”.

Twenty minutes later the Police arrived and made a no-frills arrest. I watched the thief’s silouete disappear as the Garda car drove away. I wondered about what was in that Brown Thomas bag and about the day that abject, addicted, ageing man was born a baby in his mother’s arms.