Faction: my mystical journey into Syria

I would like to invite everyone to read Faction, a short story I published through the Voice of Kurdistan about the Syrian Civil War. Prior to putting this together it had been a while since my last effort at fiction, but I felt compelled to act over the Summer when my desire to actually visit Syria in person proved too difficult to materialize. The result is what you will read in the text and link below, something I’ve come to describe as a mystical experience since I wrote it without leaving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kurdish civilians rally in northern Syria

Kurdish civilians rally for independence in northern Syria

August 21st, 2013

Aleppo, Syria:

22-year old Ruken Qadir Shah woke up to the feeling of a cold cement floor on the side of her face. The rest of her body ached, making her wonder how long she had been lying in this position for. When she got up and opened her eyes, she was jolted by a rush of panic as she realized she was was looking through the metal bars of a small jail cell. Outside, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling flickered over a desk, emitting a slight buzzing sound as it mustered the last of its power. Papers and folders were strewn all over the place, along with the splintered remains of a bookshelf. I guess this is supposed to be a police station

Ruken tried to swallow her fear. As a member of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – known by its acronym as the YPG militia – she needed to be brave. For the past two and a half years, civil war ravaged her country, Syria, and the YPG had been fighting to secure the rights of the Kurdish people. Long marginalized by the ruling Assad family, the Kurds had many legitimate reasons to protest for more freedoms, and Ruken had been one of them since the first days of a rebellion that began in March of 2011, when massive street demonstrations were erupting in cities and towns all across the country.

Things had taken a turn for the worse though. With peaceful protests crushed by the vast security apparatus employed by President Bashar Al-Assad, those seeking change resorted to armed conflict by joining anti-government militias. The largest and most prominent of these was an umbrella organization that became known as the Free Syrian Army, a group founded and commanded by soldiers who defected from Assad’s regime. Alongside them, and sometimes mixed in, were brigades of Islamic extremists feared by western governments over their perceived links to international terrorist organizations. Then there were the Kurds: inhabitants mainly found in Syria’s north who activated the YPG units when government oppression and civil unrest threatened their homeland and desire for democratic reform. Distinct from Syria’s main Arab population with their own language and culture, many Kurds hoped to eventually form an independent state in the broader Middle East, something that provoked the ire of other rebel groups who preferred to fight for a united Syria.

Ruken had come to the conclusion that she was being held in detention at the hands of the regime when she heard the thud of ametal door open. Sunlight flowed into the dark compound, forcing her to squint. When the door slammed shut again, heavy footsteps came down the corridor and two men brandishing AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles were standing before her, both bearded. One had a fierce look on his face, while the other seemed a little more relaxed and less aggressive. Ruken grabbed hold of one of the bars confining her and met their gaze with her own.

Continue reading the story here on VOK’s website. Now that I am focusing on fiction writing again, feedback is essential, which means I look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have.

Gun control is unlikely to secure the Philippines

A Column I have been working on while aid efforts remain underway in wake of the storm, Haiyan:

Typhoon chaos is only the latest blunt reminder that the government cannot always protect citizens. So why have anti-gun measures gained so much traction?

Not long after President Barack Obama was handed a crushing defeat by his opponents in an effort to institute new gun control laws, the debate that had roiled the United States came to the Philippines and ended in way that must have made him envious. In the final week of May, the country’s own president, Benigno Aquino III, signed into law Republic Act 10591, or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act. His administration and other government figures in Manila describe it as an undertaking to combat crime after some areas of the archipelago witnessed a spate of horrific gang-related killings and mass shootings.

One of these incidents involved an enraged man who went on a rampage in Cavite, slaughtering eight people with bullets, including a pregnant woman and her family, and maiming a dozen others. Another saw a 7-year old girl accidentally shot in the head and killed by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve in Caloocan City. Appealing to national emotions in light of these deaths, the new law, among other things, focuses on drug and psychological tests, proofs of income and tax payments, police clearance, criminal history checks, and stricter enforcement of firearms confiscation if gun registrations and licenses are not regularly renewed.

On the surface, this generates good headlines that the government is taking action and, understandably, it can be hard to go against the grain of policy initiatives when they are wrapped around the grieving families of innocent victims, but it must be highlighted that such emotional appeals are often deceptive and misleading. For this reason, restraint on the issue of gun control in the Philippines, just as it was in the US, is essential. With the American template, gun control unraveled in part because congressional supporters tried to guilt the people into submission after the Sandy Hook shooting while whitewashing the misdeeds of the state, the entity in charge of drafting and enforcing any new laws. This includes the rapid growth of the federal government in the last 10 years, the militarization of police forces, and massive ammunition purchases by government agencies, all of which reveal a dark hypocrisy that goes far beyond a need for public safety. Add to that efforts by various members of the US Congress to exempt themselves from gun control measures and hopefully the picture here can be realized. Camouflaged in good intentions, the main aspect of “gun control” is usually the latter word.

The American people seem to get this, having booted two local Democrat senators from office in the state of Colorado after they attempted to press on with a gun control agenda despite their party’s failures in Washington DC. With this debacle unfolding in view from the other side of the Pacific, Filipinos would be wise to look around at their own predicament and reconsider if gun control measures that top even what President Obama has laid out (so far, at least) are going to solve anything. Crime, terrorism, and insurgencies are all rampant in the Philippines, but the new laws do little to confront any of these, instead picking on the common citizen with a barrage of threats and hoops to jump through – none of which the most ferocious criminals and terrorists will be hindered by.

In fact, as the Philippine National Police were preparing to implement Republic Act 10591 in September, hundreds of Islamist rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front stormed the southern city of Zamboanga, where they killed security forces and burned down thousands of homes. Terrorized residents fled for their lives and were holed up in refugee camps while repeated pronouncements by the government that the situation was concluding fell flat. When the siege finally did come to an end three weeks later, many Zamboangans had lost everything, a tragic reminder that the police and other public officials cannot always be there to protect the law-abiding citizens. A similar situation has been playing out in the typhoon-ravaged central city of Tacloban these past few weeks, where survivors in the once-bustling metropolis were initially left to fend for themselves amidst food shortages and the breakdown of law and order. Hundreds of police and soldiers have since been airlifted in from around the country to alleviate the chaos, but even President Aquino has criticized the slow response.

It gets worse though. Historically, governments in the Philippines have turned against their own citizens after becoming awash in corruption. The regime of Ferdinand Marcos may be the most ominous illustration of this: a dictatorship memorialized in tyranny, disappearances, and a long rap sheet of human rights abuses that still haunt many Filipinos to this day. Then there is currently-incarcerated former leader Gloria Arroyo, who is on trial for plundering national funds and maintains a legacy that saw the Philippines become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. On a lower level, the police remain susceptible to corruption. Just four days after the Cavite massacre, thirteen people were killed in Quezon City during a shootout involving law enforcement on both sides of the exchange. The victims, shot to death in a convoy of SUVs that sped through a checkpoint, included police and soldiers said to be involved in a gambling racket. For their part, the families of the deceased insist they were innocent, and that the government is covering the incident up. Regardless of who was at fault, it does not raise a high standard of confidence in the authorities as they come down on their own citizens for letting a gun registration lapse or failing to pay a tax.

Still, there are even greater threats to the public on the horizon. Philippine history also contains an unfortunate saga of invasion and occupation by foreign powers, precisely the kind of heritage that exemplifies why free people deserve a right to self-defense. It ranges from centuries of Spanish rule and forced conversions by the Catholic Church to an American colonization that spanned over 40 years, followed by an imperial Japanese conquest that eventually left Manila as one of the most devastated cities in the Pacific theater during World War II. Now, in the 21st Century, a growing, power-hungry China has its sights set on the vast natural resources possessed by the Philippines. Given the Obama Administration’s inability to assert itself on the international scene and its tendency to abandon allies, Filipinos should not hedge everything on the United States coming to their rescue if an island or a portion of their country falls under the tyranny of the Chinese military in the future.

The economic growth the Philippines is experiencing and its increased standing in the world have given President Aquino strong popularity and trust. However, the underlying issues of corruption and abuses of power that remain in the country as a whole almost demand that the public reconsider the troubled background of their government, along with the intentions of their hostile neighbor across the sea and the continuing threat of crime and terror before fully acquiescing to proposals that empower the state and weaken the individual. 

Locals organize against Delta tunnels

My investigative series in the Brentwood Press continues:

Aerial view of the Sacramento Delta via thepress.net file photo

Aerial view of the Sacramento Delta via thepress.net file photo

In August of 2009, Jan McCleery was out on the water with her husband Mike. Anchored at Mildred Island, between Bethel Island and Discovery Bay, they were taking advantage of the sights and pleasures many East County residents enjoy when a bass fisherman approached and handed them fliers about something called the “2 Gates Fish Protection Project.”

The fisherman described it in detail to the McCleerys, alleging that wealthy agribusiness owners in the Central Valley were pushing a program to install dams in the Old River/Connection Slough segments and would be using environmental concerns as a ruse to infringe on Northern California water rights. The concern at hand was for Delta smelt, a small fish native to the salty components of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that has often found itself at the center of the most intense water politics.

“It sounded like a tall tale to me,” said Jan. “The fisherman also had stories that the real end goal was to flood all the islands in the Delta in order to obtain the water rights.”

Little did she know the dam gates project would eventually fold into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the initiative that aims to construct two massive tunnels underneath the Delta and exchange water transfers down south for a dramatic environmental restoration of the rivers.

At least, that’s what it calls for. So far, its rising costs and uncertain results have attracted criticism, mainly among regional political leaders and biological stewards who have raised red flags. On the other side of the aisle, supporters remain adamant that a concrete, thorough plan is necessary to improve overused and outdated statewide water resources while preserving natural habitats.

“I started calling around and found out that no one knew about these gates,” Jan continued. “Long story short, the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), who were running the project, agreed to hold a meeting in Discovery Bay explaining it. We got the word out and when the USBR showed up…they were met by 400 concerned citizens.”

It was at this meeting where Jan and the other activists met lawyer Michael Brodsky, an environmental law expert who shared their same apprehension. Shortly afterward, the Save the California Delta Alliance (STCDA) was formed.

The group’s reaction to the gates was swift and effective as members collected more than 2,000 comment cards outside local Safeway supermarket protesting the proposal that were driven up to the USBR offices in Sacramento. Ultimately, the 2 Gates Fish Protection Project was withdrawn, but there are concerns that it will reappear under the current BDCP.

Read more: thepress.net – Locals organize against Delta tunnels

The tug of war for the Delta

This is an investigative series I am working on for the Brentwood Press, centered around proposed construction in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Brentwood Delta

A tributary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via thepress.net and the California Department of Water Resources.

Next month I will follow up with several new articles. For now, if you live in the area or are concerned about the environment, it would be a good idea to get up to speed on what’s happening:

Throughout California’s history, the reservoirs and water resources generated by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been the lifeblood of the state’s economy – the largest in the country and a global leader in innovation. Without the aquatic transfers that move throughout the state, agricultural operations as far south as San Diego would be left to wither under inhospitable conditions. No matter the region or city, the Delta is arguably the common denominator that connects northern and southern California.

Today, as the state continues to grapple with its myriad challenges, a new chapter is being written in the halls of Sacramento and Washington D.C. Under the radar of the public eye these past few years, a proposal known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is gaining steam, and with it comes concern as its potential for environmental destruction and rising costs tumble out into the open.

Supported by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to unclog some of the knots in state water systems, create jobs and restore endangered ecosystems, the BDCP includes two large tunnels – built under the Delta – which would siphon water from the East Bay to parched communities in Southern California. Designed to be more than 35 miles long and nearly 40 feet wide, the funding required to build the twin tunnels and their potential ensuing impact recently prompted several Northern California congress representatives to write a letter to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Led by Representative John Garamendi of California’s 3rd congressional district, they distanced themselves from Brown’s initiative, sought clarification on how much federal funding would be involved and expressed fears that environmental ramifications are being sidelined.

Read more: thepress.net – The tug of war for the Delta

Western China violence comes to Beijing

I have been following the low-level insurgency in China’s western Xinjiang Province for years, from the chaos that coincided with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 riots to the recent disturbances earlier this year…but this was surprising. It appears to be some semblance of a suicide car bombing, but the details are still murky and unable to fully get through China’s advanced media censorship.

From BBC:

Security appears to have been increased in China’s Xinjiang region, a day after police said they had detained five suspects over the Tiananmen crash.

Security levels are raised and police are visiting “sensitive religious families”, police in Xinjiang say.

A car crashed into a crowd and burst into flames at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday, killing all three in the car and two bystanders.

The car occupants appear to have been Uighurs, from China’s Xinjiang region.

Police say that the jeep was driven by a man who was with his wife and mother. They were said to have ignited petrol inside the car.

The five suspects – all from Xinjiang – were arrested 10 hours after the crash and are thought to be connected to the incident, according to the police.

Uighurs living in Xinjiang province have resorted to violence as their culture recedes due to Chinese expansionism.

People’s Square, Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province. 


Syria, Iraq, and false conclusions between them

Column I wrote that was published in the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s largest English-language newspaper:

The consensus last week seemed to be that democracy prevailed in the West because the will of the people was carried successfully. It goes something like this: against a grain of rogue politicians with their own agendas, a war-weary public in both the United States and the United Kingdom stood up through their representatives to decisively say no to any involvement in Syria’s civil war. Across political lines, majorities everywhere came together to merge in opposition. Iraq became a key talking point, with social media taking a harsh tone in reminding the politicians what happens when Western countries get themselves entangled in another nation’s problems. God forbid, they say, if US President Barack Obama or British Prime Minister David Cameron were to order a strike on Syria, the country could end up being another Iraq: destabilized along sectarian lines and wrought with unimaginable carnage.

This all makes for good measure if you have not been following events in Syria since early 2011, as the above fears and predictions have already come and gone without any kind of intervention from either leader. Knowing that, it must be said that there is something ironically and tragically wrong in the self-congratulatory praise Western democracy won from its adherents while the fate of untold thousands in Syria who have stepped up to ask for those same basic rights hangs in the balance. It is especially cruel because so many people fail to even solemnly respect this in light of a fair debate, including the British parliamentarians who erupted in scorn and laughter after they defeated the motion to intervene put forward by Prime Minister Cameron.

Still, there is even more irony. Protesters have gathered together to form “Hands Off Syria,” a group that insists through street demonstrations and their social media banners that confronting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad will turn the country into Iraq 2.0. The outrage though, as genuine as it seems and for reasons I will explain, is actually quite selective. Beyond the expected reactions to intervention that have for the most part been engineered out of the shadow of the Iraq War, there are two points that desperately need to be made. First, that the egregious situation in Syria which now includes hundreds of children slaughtered by toxic gas should forever put to rest the post-Iraq conclusion that a “strongman” – a dictator – like Assad or Saddam Hussein helps to maintain stability in chaotic parts of the world. There is practically nothing left that supports such an argument, not that there ever really was. The media, for its part, shoulders responsibility for promoting this because their reports out of Iraq from 2003 to today, have extensively portrayed it as a country thrown into chaos and violence, despite the fact such a way of life is all Iraqis have known for decades.

Read the full article here and then let me know if you agree or not.

Revenge murders highlight failure of justice in Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez had a troubled past even before the wave of drug-related killings that engulfed the border metropolis from 2008 to 2011. In the 90′s it gained notoriety for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women — mainly destitute migrants struggling to make ends meet — who were tormented in some of the most graphic ways imaginable. The movie “Bordertown” is a good start to understanding what went on in there if prefer not to visit  yourself.

A street in Ciudad Juarez during the height of the drug cartel bloodshed in June 2010. Note the heavily armed commandos in the police truck.

A street in Ciudad Juarez during the height of the drug cartel bloodshed in June 2010. Note the heavily armed commandos in the police truck.

With the drug violence receding and fading out from the news for the most part, things have taken an interesting turn in Juarez. The emphasis has gone back to the missing women:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) – Half of the drivers who work a bus route on which two colleagues were shot to death last week, possibly by a woman seeking revenge for purported sexual abuse of female passengers, didn’t show up for their jobs Tuesday.

Only 10 of the 20 drivers assigned to the 4A bus route in this border city took the wheel, “because they are afraid,” a dispatcher said.

“There were a lot fewer passengers, too,” said the dispatcher, who refused to be quoted by name out of fear of being targeted. “Everyone is afraid something could happen,” he added.

Officials said plainclothes police officers were aboard some buses and conducting weapons searches to prevent further killings.

Mexican prosecutors released a police sketch of a female suspect drawn from the testimony of at least 20 witnesses. It shows a woman wearing a sun visor over hair pulled back on her head.

They said they were looking into claims made over the weekend in an email from the self-styled “bus driver hunter,” who said she is seeking revenge on behalf of fellow women who she alleged had been abused bybus drivers in Ciudad Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

The claims echoed deeply in Ciudad Juarez, which has a grim history of sexual violence against women aboard buses.



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