Abderramane Sissako’s Timbuktu Blues

I have nothing against cinema as recreational entertainment, or going to the movies for the sake of escapism.  Cinema has always served these purposes, and there is nothing inherently ignoble about them.   But such expectations also tend to produce an awful lot of mass-produced ephemeral dross and formulaic over-hyped blockbusters drenched in Dolby sound and  CGI effects, with emotions and messages pitched at the average 12-year-old with a full bag of popcorn.

2015, like most years, was dominated by films like this, whether it was the frenetic and vacuous inanity of Mad Max Fury Road or the new Star Wars.  But that wasn’t all there was to it.  As is the case every year,  a trickle of films continued to aspire to art as well as entertainment, and you.won’t find a better example of the former than Abderrahmane Sissako’s magnificent Timbuktu, which I saw last night.

Set during the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by the Salafist/Jihadist group Ansar Dine, Timbuktu is a beautiful, poetic and overwhelmingly powerful response to the fanaticism and dim-witted cultural reductionism practiced by Ansar Dine and so many other jihadist groups..

Sissako’s primary focus is the cultural repression inflicted on Timbuktu and northern Mali by Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, who imposed the most rigid and harsh Sharia law on the areas they occupied.  From the opening sequences of an antelope fleeing a group of armed jihadist hunters in the desert, followed by  a scene in which the same men riddle  wooden and clay sculptures with bullets,  Sissako depicts jihadism as a violent and alien intrusion into the rich cultural spaces of northern Mali and the Sahara.

Sissako’s jihadists are not depicted as monsters, even though their actions are monstrous.   They are clods, tyrants and fanatics, and also hypocrites.   They ban smoking while secretly smoking themselves.  They ban football and argue with each other over whether France really won the World Cup.   They fancy the same women who they order to cover themselves.  They attempt to dialogue with the people under their control and recruit them to their cause, but when  these attempts fail they impose their demands through coercion and the threat of violence.

The jihadists are mostly ignorant  of the societies they have taken over.  They don’t speak the local languages and don’t understand local traditions.  This ignorance is revealed in a number of  telling and sometimes comical scenes; when a group of jihadists enter a mosque where the locals are praying, the Imam asks them why they have come to a place of prayer with guns and boots on and orders them out.   In another scene, a despairing fishmonger berates the jihadists who order her to wear gloves when selling fish and points out that this restriction is completely impractical and that her honour does not need protecting.

Sissako is particularly concerned with the jihadists’ attempt to obliterate Mali’s world-famous musical traditions.   In one scene, a group of armed jihadists sent to stop some of the residents of Timbuktu from playing music discover that the musicians are singing songs of praise to God and the Prophet and are forced to call their superiors to ask what to do..  In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, armed jihadists interrupt a joyful domestic singing session and arrest its participants.

The female singer, played by the great Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, receives eighty lashes as a punishment, and in the middle of her brutal whipping she begins to sing.  Such resistance permeates the film.   Sissako shows the inhabitants of Timbuktu arguing with the jihadists and refusing to accept their restrictions or their forced marriages.  In one marvelously witty and beautiful scene,  a group local youths play football without the ball that has been confiscated.

In another episode the herdman’s wife Satima is washing her hair.  When  a jihadist who is clearly attracted to her orders her to cover it, she tells him to stop looking if it offends him and asks him why he always comes to visit her when her husband is not around.  There are so many great moments like this.    Some of them are deftly comical, but  if  Sissako is willing to mock the stupidity and the hypocrisy of the jihadists he portrays, he also shows their violence and cruelty in a film that acquires its emotional punch slowly and almost languorously before building up to its shattering conclusion.

At the core of the film is a tale of an accidental murder which unfolds as relentlessly as a Greek tragedy or a tale by Chinua Achebe, and which ultimately dooms its central characters, as it intersects with the wider tragedy of the jihadist occupation.  Timbuktu is not an indictment of Islam itself.  On the contrary, Sissako makes it clear that there many forms and expressions of Islam and that many of them are to be found in the ancient desert melting pot of Timbuktu itself.

His film is nevertheless an essential and unforgettable meditation on the global tragedy that we have all become so depressingly familiar with in the 21st century.  To have done all this with such lyricism, humour, compassion and understated insight is a really triumphant achievement.  Like every great film, Timbuktu is the sum of its parts.  From the music and cinematography, to the acting, script and direction, it is absolutely flawless.

In short readers, we are talking about an authentic cinematic masterpiece, which reminds us that cinema can still tell us vital stories about the world we actually live in rather than merely help us try to escape from it.

And if you see no other film from 2015, you really must see this, by any means possible.

The UN’s child rapists

In a world order that seeths with the most insolent corruption, inhumanity and injustice in   so many places, the revelations that French soldiers with the United Nations Minusca peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic were sexually abusing starving and homeless young boys in exchange for food is a shocking disgrace.

The acts in question allegedly took place between December 2013 and June 2014 at a centre for internally displaced people at M’Poko airport in Bangui, and they only became public after the Geneva-based UN aid worker Anders Kompass passed an internal report to the French authorities, because he didn’t believe that the UN were taking action to prevent them.

In response the UN has suspended Kompass – a man with more than 30 years involvement in humanitarian work, has been suspended from his post as director of field operations and placed under investigation. Kompass has also had his emails seized.

The UN has a long history of sexual abuse by its peacekeeper forces – and of covering up or failing to act on such abuse when it becomes known.   In 1996   the former Minister of Education for Mozambique Graça Machel produced a report for UNICEF on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, which studied the new role of children in global conflicts, as child soldiers and also as victims of rape and sexual abuse.

The report found that ‘In 6 out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict… the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.’

Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia and Kosovo, Sudan, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – in almost every country where UN peacekeepers have been deployed, their soldiers have been dogged by allegations of involvement in rape, sexual abuse of minors and prostitution.   The fact that such things take place in ‘post-conflict’ situations, or in conflicts in which the UN is supposedly protecting civilians who may already be traumatized and vulnerable is both a gross abuse of power and a violation of the principles the UN is supposed to represent.

On one level this isn’t entirely surprising. Such things tend to happen when armies are in a position of power over a civilian population or when an army remains in a foreign country for a long time – unless their commanding officers take steps to ensure that they don’t happen and punish the perpetrators when they are found out.

The persistence of such behavior amongst UN peacekeepers suggests that their commanding officers – and the bureaucrats who oversee these missions, are not doing either.   Even worse, the dangerous grey area of accountability, between soldiers whose behavior is supposedly regulated by the countries that send them on peacekeeping missions, and the control that the UN itself has over their behavior, may actually be facilitating such practices and enabling abusers to act with impunity.

Point 4 of the ‘Ten rules of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets‘ introduced by the UN in 1998 declares: ‘Do not indulge in immoral acts of sexual, physical or psychological abuse or exploitation of the local population or United Nations staff, especially women and children.’

Yet in 1999,   the American police investigator Kathryn Bolkovac working with the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia was sacked by her employer, the British company Dyncorp Aerospace, a subsidiary of the US-based DynCorp International, after she alleged that UN police officers and peacekeepers were involved in forced sexual enslavement of children and young women, sexual trafficking, racketeering, bribery and falsification of documents.

And in 2005 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told the Security Council that the UN would ‘leave no stone unturned’ in rooting out sexual abuse amongst peacekeeping forces.   Yet that year, an investigation by the UN’s Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) into the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that soldiers were using food to solicit prostitution from   refugees they were supposed to be protecting.

The OIOS also found that the UN’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards such practices was not being enforced, producing a situation of ‘zero compliance with zero tolerance.’   The allegations in the Central African Republic suggests that this has not changed.   Today the UN continues to insist that ‘ all peacekeeping personnel adhere to the highest standards of behaviour and conduct themselves in a professional and disciplined manner at all times’, and its website carries a quote from Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, which declares:

‘The United Nations, and I personally, are profoundly committed to a zero-  tolerance policy against sexual exploitation or abuse by our own personnel. This means zero complacency. When we receive credible allegations, we ensure that they are looked into fully. It means zero impunity.’

The treatment of Andreas Kompass   and the UN’s unresponsiveness to the allegations that he leaked, do not bear out these worth declarations.

This needs to change – and it needs to change now.   The French government has promised that will find the perpetrators and punish them.     Let’s hope it does, but it shouldn’t have taken a whistleblower to make this happen.     The UN shouldn’t be punishing the man who brought these horrific acts to light, and the fact that it is doing so is almost as disturbing as the acts themselves.



One, two, three viva l’Algerie

Algeria is not a country that has had much to celebrate recently.     In the 1990s, the Algerian government’s refusal to accept an imminent Islamist victory in national elections prompted a savage conflict between the ruling FLN and an array of Islamist groups.

An estimated 150, 000 Algerians died in a war of massacres and counter-massacres, state-sponsored ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial killings that traumatized Algerian society, which the government eventually won, with the tacit support of an ‘international community’ that was more concerned with the flow of gas than it was with democracy, legality or human rights.

Since then the mafia-like structures that Algerians call ‘le pouvoir’ have retained their deathly grip at the upper echelons of Algerian society,   and the terrible violence of the 1990s has largely left Algeria untouched by the ‘Arab spring’, under the rule of the sclerotic Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a politician who has long since passed his sell-by date and has ruled the country for 15 years.

In April the wheel-chair bound Bouteflika was re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote – a majority that many Algerians regard as a government-managed fiction, but Bouteflika is the system’s man, and Western governments see him as a guarantor of ‘stability’ – which means Algerian oil and gas and Algerian cooperation in counter-terrorism.   Meanwhile more than 50 percent of Algerians in the 16 to 29 age group are unemployed, and some 23 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

It would be ridiculous to assume that a football tournament can compensate for such events.     But the magnifcent performance of the Algerian football team has nevertheless provided millions of Algerians with a source of national pride for the first time in many years.

Against South Korea they put on a thrilling display of attacking football, winning 4-2 in one of the classic matches of the tournament.     Against Germany, the country that once contrived with Austria   to put them out of the 1982 world cup in Spain at Gijon, ‘Les Fennecs’ – the Fennec Foxes, were equally fluent, determined and occasionally dazzling, and at times threatened to run the torpid Germans ragged.     Had they actually finished their moves and taken their chances,   they might have pulled off an epic victory and gone into the quarter finals.

In the event they couldn’t do this, but they nevertheless warmed the hearts of many of their countrymen, both in Algeria and France, and millions who watched them.     And now, in a sport dominated at a professional level by overpaid egocentric millionaires who make more money in a week than some people make in an entire lifetime, the national team has taken the remarkable decision to donate all its $9 million prize money to ‘the people of Gaza’.

This decision was announced by Algerian striker Islam Slimani, who declared of the Gazans ‘ They need it more than us.’

Compare this to the squalid and mean-spirited attempts by Marine Le Pen’s Front National to impose a French version of the Tebbit ‘cricket test’, by condemning Algerian support for their team in France as a symptom of ‘immigration failure.’   Or the ban on ‘ostentatious’ foreign flags imposed by the Nice municipality when Algeria were playing.     Or the vile killings of world cup spectators by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab who have decided that watching and playing football is ‘against Islam.’

No wonder thousands of their countrymen celebrated their return.     Naturally the politicians that so many Algerians despise have attempted to benefit from their popularity, some of whom turned up to meet them at the airport.       In addition Algerian state television has broadcast a special programme about them called ‘ Thank you heroes.’

No doubt there are many Algerian policians who would like the population to think about football rather than more pressing matters.     Such manipulation is only to be expected, and cannot detract from the Algerian team’s beautiful gesture.       The team played as Algerians and also as Muslims.     Their donation is an act of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic soldidarity that carries the echo of Algeria’s more heroic period as a beacon of decolonisation and Third Worldism in the 1960s.

But it is also a simple gesture of humanity, in a world where such gestures are conspicuously absent.       And for that reason we should celebrate it too, and be glad that even in these dark times, a team of footballers has done something that is unselfish, splendid, and really quite noble.


Offshore asylum screening centres: towards a cordon sanitaire

Europe’s annual migrant ‘boat season’ is getting underway, and already the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are already showing a dramatic increase on previous years.     According to the European Border Agency Frontex, 42,000 people have tried to reach Italy this year,   compared with UNHCR figures of 3, 362 arrivals by the end of April last year.

In Morocco   hundreds of migrants have managed to breach the fearsome border fences erected around the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the last few months.       Now the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR has announced that it is prepared to contemplate the establishment of large-scale asylum ‘screening centres’ in Africa to process migrants trying to reach Europe.

That the world’s most prominent refugee organization should be considering such a possibility is a disturbing development.     Similar centres have been established by Australian governments in the South Pacific, with grim consequences for many of the migrants interned in them.     In Europe, the establishment of screening centres was first presented to a meeting of   EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers by that prominent humanitarian Tony Blair back in March 2003, as part of Blair’s ‘new vision for refugees.’

This ‘new vision’ envisaged the creation of ‘transit centres’ along the migratory routes to   Europe, where migrants could be screened and processed,   and then returned to their countries of origin if they failed to meet the required criteria.   Blair’s proposals also mooted a concept of ‘regional protection’, whereby refused asylum seekers who could not be returned to their countries of origin could be kept in these centres – and outside Europe.

Then, as now, thousands of rejected asylum seekers were living in the UK who could not be returned, but were not considered ‘legal’ – many of whom remained in this state for years.   Under Blair’s proposals, such migrants would have been kept in these ‘regional protection’ centres instead, which would be established in countries such as Morocco, northern Somalia, Ukraine or Turkey.

All this, Blair insisted, would serve to ‘deter those who enter the EU illegally and make unfounded asylum applications.’   At the time these proposals were   widely condemned by refugee organizations as a means of outsourcing Europe’s migration enforcement to countries that had no interest in refugee protection, some of which were not even signatories to the Geneva Convention.

Yet now UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochetel says that he would be prepared to accept such centres, providing ‘certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.’

What has caused this transformation?     According to the Guardian, it’s because frontline ‘border countries’ like Greece and Italy have been abandoned by Brussels in the face of a ‘collossal humanitarian crisis.’     There is no doubt that some countries, and some places, have been placed in an invidious position by Europe’s disastrous attempts to ‘manage’ migration, but ‘screening centres’ are not a solution to these problems, and UNCHR should not be supporting such proposals.

From the point of view of European governments, asylum has always constituted the weak link in their ongoing attempt to build physical and paper walls between Europe and the global South.   It has also presented Europe with a challenge: how to stop or at least drastically reduce the numbers of people seeking refugee protection in Europe without overtly rejecting the principle of refugee protection that has generally considered to be the cornerstone of the post-World War II   ‘rights-based’ international order, and which has been enshrined as a key principle of the European Union’s political identity.

European governments have attempted to resolve this problem essentially in two ways;   Firstly,   by preventing asylum seekers from reaching European territory, regardless of whether they are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded,’ through a constantly escalating series of barriers and an unacknowledged policy of deterrence that seeks to make migrant journeys as difficult as possible, and which tacitly accepts the enormous suffering and loss of life involved as a form of ‘collateral damage.’

Secondly, EU member states have attempted to quarantine and exclude asylum seekers who succeed in reaching Europe as far as the law allows, in the hope of rendering them more easily deportable.     These priorities are not concerned whether asylum seekers are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded’, but on reducing the numbers of asylum claims per se.

The case of Syria is a clear example of this.     This year, according to UNHCR, Syrians became the largest single nationality seeking asylum in industrialized countries.   Last year in the UK, Refugee Council statistics found that the number of Syrians seeking asylum rose by 69 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Just to recall, this is Syria: the country with the largest refugee crisis in the world – a crisis that was, until recently being used by a number of governments as a casus belli. According to what most European governments have said, all Syrian refugees should be considered genuine and therefore deserving of refugee protection.

But Syrians, it seems, are worthy of our bombs,   but not of a helping hand when they make it to our borders.     That is why the French police destroyed migrant camps in Calais last month, scattering a migrant population that consists increasingly of Syrians.   That is why no European government has shown any interest in proposals made by refugee organizations to establish safe routes across the Mediterranean or the Sahara. To do that would be to abandon the principle of deterrence, and neither the EU nor its members are prepared to do that.

Europe is already involved in a long-term attempt to enlist outlying neighbouring states as de facto European border guards, and the prospect of transfering the entire asylum screening process to countries outside the European Union is part of the same process.

Given these priorities UNHCR’s advocacy of ‘safeguards’ is disingenuous and meaningless.     Does UNCHR seriously imagine that appeals against refusals can be successfully mounted in fenced-in screening centres in the Ukraine, Libya or Puntland?   Or that centres like this will reduce the numbers of people trying to reach Europe by other means?   Or that poor countries with few resources will be able to process asylum seekers more effectively than the rich countries they are trying to get to?

It is difficult to imagine how any of this can be assured, and UNHCR would surely do better to stay clear of proposals that have nothing to do with humanitarianism or providing refugee protection, and everything to do with stopping Europe’s unwanted people from getting anywhere near the continent.