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Nepal's Predictable Tragedy

Sun, 04/26/2015 - 22:48

Hours after a major earthquake wreaked havoc across his country, Nepal Information Minister Minendra Rijal appeared at a news conference on Saturday to announce that schools would be closed for the next five days. "We never imagined we'd face such devastation," he said.

But for geologists, Saturday's disaster—which has claimed over 2,400 lives—was sadly predictable.

"Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen," James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press.

Blessed with stunning natural scenery, Nepal is a popular tourist destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers each year. But the source of the country's beauty is what makes it vulnerable to earthquakes. Much of Nepal's population lives in a valley beneath the Himalayas, a mountain range formed by collisions between the Indian and Central Asian tectonic plates. These collisions—which occur when the Indian plate slides underneath its much larger neighbor—are what cause earthquakes. According to the Washington Post, a chunk of the earth measuring 75 by 37 miles shifted 10 feet in 30 seconds on Saturday, destroying much of what lied atop the surface.

Given its geological location, earthquakes are endemic to Nepal, and major tremors occur roughly every 70 years. But Nepal's socioeconomic situation is what made Saturday's quake so deadly. One of Asia's poorest countries, Nepal is also one of its most rapidly urbanizing—the population of Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, grows by 6.5 percent each year. Many of the newly urbanized Nepalis live in hastily-built structures that lack adequate protection from earthquakes, and much of the city's existing housing stock was constructed before building codes were established. The collapse of these homes are what drives up casualty numbers. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, an earthquake of similar magnitude in California, a developed region which enforces strict building codes, would be as much as 100 times less fatal.

Nepal has adopted some measures to educate its population about the risk of earthquakes. But political gridlock has prevented greater progress. A bill to set up a Disaster Risk Management Commission is stalled in Nepal's parliament and, according to the Nepali writer Kunda Dixit, emphasizes post-disaster relief instead of preventive measures. Building codes are only intermittently enforced, and developers often balk at paying extra for earthquake-proof materials. And in a country plagued by poverty and political instability, earthquake preparedness is not always a top priority—even if the government knows that a major disaster was imminent.

"They knew they had a problem but it was so large they didn't where to start, how to start," Hari Ghi, southeast Asia regional coordinator for Geohazards International, a group that works on worldwide quake risks, told Slate.

The scope of Saturday's disaster means that recovery, not preventiveness, will dominate Nepal's agenda in the months and years ahead. But as the country rebuilds, its mission will be to ensure that the next major earthquake—whenever it occurs—will be far less deadly.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Photos of the Week: 4/18-4/24

Sun, 04/26/2015 - 19:22

This week we have images of a Chilean volcano, migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, the "Blue Forest" in Belgium,  Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, the Boston Marathon, Orcas hunting on a Patagonian beach, Saudi attacks on Yemen, tule elk along California's coastline, and much more.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Updating Facebook to Say 'I'm Safe'

Sun, 04/26/2015 - 02:01

Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.

A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."

A screenshot of Safety Check

When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they're safe or to say that they weren't in the affected area. Those who choose "safe"  generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected.

The idea for Safety Check emerged after a devastating tsunami struck Japan in 2011. "During that crisis we saw how people used technology and social media to stay connected with those they cared about," Facebook wrote when introducing the service.

Saturday's earthquake in Nepal, however, revealed some of the limits to Safety Check. Smartphone penetration in the country—one of Asia's poorest—is low, and six Nepalese out of seven are not registered on the social network. Electricity in the country is unreliable even during normal times, and there were reports of extensive power outages throughout Kathmandu in the hours after the quake.

But for those who can and do use Facebook, Safety Check's existence could offer an easy way for people to tell their friends and family that they're okay.

"At this time of desperation and disaster, just knowing your loved ones are safe is just like a beam of light in the dark," wrote Facebook user Dinesh Gurung in a comment posted beneath Zuckerberg's.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Nepal After the Earthquake

Sat, 04/25/2015 - 19:57
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Devastation in Nepal

Sat, 04/25/2015 - 17:57

This post will be updated as news develops.

An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck western Nepal on Saturday, leveling buildings throughout the country and triggering deadly avalanches on Mount Everest. The Nepalese government placed the preliminary death toll in excess of 2,400 people, with 5,900 injured—but both figures are expected to grow. The earthquake is the largest to strike South Asia since 2005, when a tremor in Pakistan-administered Kashmir killed over 80,000.

Saturday's earthquake caused extensive damage in and around Kathmandu, Nepal's densely populated capital, and destroyed numerous historic structures. The Dhararara Tower, a famous 19th century tower in Kathmandu popular with visitors, completely collapsed. Nepalese police have pulled 60 bodies from the wreckage. The quake also destroyed much of Vasanthapura, a Kathmandu neighborhood noted for its 11th century architecture, and reduced Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO Heritage site, to rubble.

This is what we feared for decades -- that a massive earthquake is coming and we would be helpless. Devastated to hear about #Nepal.

— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle) April 25, 2015

On Mount Everest, the earthquake destroyed several base camps at the foot of the peak and unleashed a massive avalanche, reportedly killing 18. Media reports indicate that teams of hikers and guides remain missing on the mountain. Last April, an avalanche swept through Everest's Khumbu Icefall and killed 16 climbers it what was then the deadliest day in the mountain's history. Most avalanches on Mount Everest occur at altitudes between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, disproportionately victimizing Nepalese Sherpas hired to guide adventure-seekers.

It looks like the worst devastation and most deaths in Nepal came from brick buildings, as usual, and tragically predictable--and predicted.

— Kathryn Schulz (@kathrynschulz) April 25, 2015

A small Himalayan country wedged between China and India, Nepal's natural beauty has long made it a popular destination for tourists. But the country, plagued by poor infrastructure, is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Few Nepalese citizens live in retrofitted homes, and the government has struggled to prepare the population for such a disaster. According to the Wall Street Journal, Saturday's earthquake was the fourth measuring over 6.0 on the Richter scale to strike Nepal since 1980, and the largest since a magnitude 8.1 tremor killed thousands in 1934.

In addition to the many dead in Nepal, the earthquake also claimed 34 lives in India, 12 in China, and 2 in Bangladesh.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

After Rhodes Fell

Sat, 04/25/2015 - 16:59

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—By the time I arrived, Cecil John Rhodes had already been trussed up as if for a hanging. It was an autumn afternoon in April, and Rhodes’s statue hung in limbo at the entrance to Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town, canted to the right like a drunkard. His eyes were obscured by orange paint, and in the previous weeks he’d been pelted with everything from stones to human excrement. Hovering just above the plinth, graffiti read: “AFRICA LIVES, Fuck Rhodes.”

The British imperialist and former prime minister of the Cape had once written, “I find I am human, but should like to live after my death,” predicting his influence would persist for at least 4,000 years. Now, 113 years after his death, he’d been hoisted up for hauling to an undisclosed location.

Rhodes had become the chief target of student protesters at the university partly because of his sheer ubiquity; his name and likeness were stamped on everything from scholarships, memorial groves, and universities to cities, countless roads, and, once, even a nation. Mostly, though, he had brought it on himself, given his history as a crude race-baiter (“I prefer land to niggers”).

Just uphill from Rhodes, toward Table Mountain, I spotted a second, smaller plinth. On top of the pedestal stood a striking black woman, with her back to the statue and her face, obscured by a traditional beaded veil, angled down as if she was meditating. She wore a black leotard and had a quite untraditional pair of shiny stilettos on her feet.

The woman was Sethembile Msezane, an MFA candidate at the university and a Zulu-speaking performance artist from Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She’d made it her trademark on public holidays to juxtapose her young, black, female body with monuments of old, white, male colonial and Apartheid-era figures, and to turn up in silent vigil at sites of resistance to oppression.

Now, she raised her arms as wings fashioned from lace, brass rings, and human hair unfurled in a flourish—invoking the mythological figure of a fish eagle from Great Zimbabwe, once invaded and despoiled by Rhodes. He’d fetishized the image, keeping a statue of the eagle at his nearby estate. In Zimbabwe’s Shona culture, the eagles served as interlocutors between the living and the dead. For five hours, in the blazing sun, Msezane acted as a new interlocutor, in an interposition that was at once eloquent, mute, and overdue.

* * *

The row over Rhodes has inspired similar protests on other campuses across the country. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a statue of King George V was splashed with the slogan: “End white privilege.” At the university named for Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, demonstrations broke out to change the school’s name. The outcry amounts to a public rejection of the spirit of accommodation that marked the Mandela era. In the first 21 years of post-Apartheid South Africa, few statues were toppled. Now a new movement, rooted in pan-African rhetoric and assertions of black pride, has announced itself. The movement has been fueled, in part, by rising numbers of black students on campuses where the values of the country’s new, supposedly non-racial, non-sexist democracy has chafed against antiquated architecture that celebrates former oppressors.

In recent weeks, these debates over statuary and historical memory have coincided with a wave of attacks in South Africa against immigrant shopkeepers from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and several African countries. The surge of nationalistic, xenophobic violence, carried out by poorer segments of the population and aimed at so-called amakwerekwere, is a decidedly anti-pan-African counterpoint to the student movements. The twin developments expose just how unsettled the dream of creating a more egalitarian society in South Africa remains.  

* * *

The night before I saw Rhodes hang, there had been a nasty, loud confrontation in the chambers of the university’s governing council. An urgent meeting had been called at an off-campus research center not only to decide the statue’s fate, but also to respond to student demands for major changes in admissions, scholarship, faculty hiring, and curriculum. Student leaders had complained for years about testing and admission standards that translated into just over 20 percent of the student body being black South African when black South Africans constitute nearly 80 percent of the country’s population. Even worse was the proportion of black South African professors—only five out of 223 in 2013 according to university figures.

Outside the meeting, several hundred students and their supporters from the Occupy-style Rhodes Must Fall campaign hoisted a banner reading, “ALL RHODES LEAD TO COLONISATION OF THE MIND.” Others sang and performed the stiff-legged dance of resistance known as the toyi-toyi. The mostly black protesters drew a direct line from the legacy of figures like Rhodes to contemporary conditions. While millions of blacks have moved into middle-income status since 1994, a disproportionate share of wealth and land remain in white hands. Income inequality, among the highest in the world, continues to be color-coded.

Still, I was surprised by how few of the protesters’ chants and songs related to their particular demands, especially their emphasis on women’s rights, the needs of the disabled, and LGBT concerns. There were no lyrics capturing the circumstances of black students in a majority-black country arriving to study at an elite and previously white-dominated institution. Most of the songs were expressions of loss and struggle from the centuries-old fight against colonial oppression and the battle that began, in 1948, to topple that extreme form of racial segregation known as Apartheid.

References to the power of the bazooka alternated with a circling, frenzied mimicry of the sound of an AK-47: ka aka k aka ka. One broad-shouldered student with a comb stuck backwards in his Afro led a chant that dated back to the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, which operated during Apartheid with the explicit aim of driving whites out of the country: “One settler, one bullet! Two settlers, two bullets!” he shouted.

When I asked about the use of this old slogan, he replied: “In so many forums in this country it’s always been race. But we don’t want to say it’s about race.” In other words, using “settler” as code for “white” kept him on the legal side of race-based hate speech while still allowing him to assert race-conscious grievances. “Look, we want what’s ours,” he went on. “Our elders—ah! Nelson Mandela, personally I don’t like him. They sold us, you know? We’re trying to pave the way for the next generation. We don’t want democracy. We want freedom.” (A number of faculty members and older veterans of the struggle against Apartheid are worried about this apparent turn away from non-racial and democratic ideals, and the settler slogan is divisive among the student protesters themselves.)

Word spread through the crowd that the demand for removing the statue would likely be approved imminently by the council. When the iron gate in front of the research center opened, the crowd hurried into the courtyard, sweeping me and a few other journalists into the building, up the circular stairs, and into the council’s chambers, unannounced and uninvited. There, the stunned chairman, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane, welcomed the students as “ladies and gentlemen” but urged them to withdraw from the room so the council could vote.

The protesters, however, weren’t interested in polite conversation about procedure. “As far as we’re concerned, this meeting was illegitimate until we arrived,” one of the female protesters called out, pointing her finger around a table that, save for the archbishop and a few others, was mostly pale and predominantly male. “Where are the black women?” When Ndungane adjourned the meeting, a throng of protesters blocked him and other council members from leaving the room.

At that point, others mounted the tables, took off their shoes, and thumped them around the stricken-looking council members, periodically cocking their fingers and letting loose with more imaginary machine-gun fire. In decades of reporting on social movements around the world, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it: Just at the point when authorities were prepared to give in, they were peppered with insults—as if a long-suppressed need for catharsis trumped everything else. Eventually, Ramabina Mahapa, president of the Student Representative Council, negotiated a compromise. The protesters withdrew. And a vote was taken to cart the Rhodes statue away the very next day.

* * *

Back on campus one week later, I made my way past the rugby fields where black students were once prohibited from playing alongside whites and toward Jameson Plaza, which is dominated by a massive hall set off in colonial columns and named for Rhodes’s most notorious sidekick, Leander Starr Jameson.

Off to the side of the plaza, I met up with one of the organizers of the protests, a stocky, voluble black student named Lwazi Samoya. Raised in a township outside the city of Port Elizabeth by a single mother, he’d attended an elite boys’ high school before being admitted to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Despite these achievements, Samoya felt uneasy on campus. He thought of friends back home who couldn’t afford college and was painfully aware of the costs paid, by his own family, for the freedom he was enjoying. He venerated an uncle who was murdered by the police long before he was born and admired thinkers like Black Consciousness icon Steve Biko and former guerrilla leader Chris Hani, both slain anti-Apartheid icons.

Like others activists I interviewed, he’d been raised in the new democracy but felt deeply alienated by its social, cultural, and economic constraints. As an example, he cited artwork around the university that portrayed blacks in the nude—poverty-stricken and degraded—and butted up against depictions of whites looking triumphant and magisterial. “Not a single piece of art on this campus portrays a black person with dignity,” he insisted.

Now that the Rhodes statue had been banished, he and his fellow activists felt it was time to push even harder. (Last week, Mahapa, the student-body president, called on the governing council to audit other statues and artwork on campus that students found offensive and to attend to bigger questions like who belonged on campus, who should be teaching there, and what the curriculum itself should look like.)

“We need a curriculum that’s Afrocentric,” Samoya explained. “We’re sick of being taught Eurocentric ideology when there’s plenty of perfectly good Afrocentric scholarship on the continent. We don’t want a European university in Africa. We want a world-class African university in Africa.”

Artist Sethembile Msezane stands beside the Rhodes statue in Cape Town. (Douglas Foster)

The next day, I drove to the university’s administrative headquarters at the Bremner Building, which had been occupied by protesters in the preceding weeks. The protesters had since been evicted, though a big sign in the entryway still read, “Under New Management.” Inside, I was greeted by the school’s chief administrator, Max Price, a trim, gray-haired, middle-aged man who’d been in charge since 2008.

He looked exhausted and was battling a bad cold. And he’d been arguing with himself about whether his administration had ultimately struck a balance between responding promptly to student concerns and holding leaders of the protests to account for their behavior. Price knew that plenty of staff members and alumni thought that he’d caved in to student demands, while newspaper columnists and black members of his own faculty portrayed him as an empowered white man resistant to needed change.

He’d worked hardest, he said, to protect “the idea of [the university] as an argumentative place, where no view is so controversial or heretical that it can’t be expressed. We will not be bullied. We will not take down the statue just because people think it’s painful. We won’t allow people to say only black people have a right to comment on whether the statue should exist or not. We’ve protected that critical space for debate.”

Price believed the episode would accelerate changes at the university, partly because white students and faculty had been educated about the imperative for them. But change would not come easily. Altering the demographic composition of the faculty, for instance, was difficult to do quickly because post-Apartheid black students were only now entering Ph.D. programs. “This is our big problem!” he said.

As for calls for an Africanized curriculum, he agreed that the university should be a premier center of knowledge about the continent; after all, that was its “comparative advantage.” Where he would draw the line, though, was if demands for an Afrocentric curriculum encompassed the notion that “maths can be Afrocentric, physics can be Afrocentric. [That] would affect our ability to be a world-class university.”

* * *

When I stopped by her studio shortly after the Rhodes statue fell, Sethembile Msezane explained the rationale behind her performances alongside colonial and Apartheid-era figures. The series was intended as commentary about how young black South Africans still feel like aliens in their own country. “I had the question, ‘Where are my people in this landscape? Where is my identity? Why do my kind remain faceless and unnamed?” she said.

The wings Msezane had worn during her performance alongside the Rhodes statue were mounted on the wall behind her. They looked gigantic, and she seemed far smaller without her veil, plinth, and props, and a little less confident.

She reconstructed for me what had unfolded, from her point of view, as the monument to Rhodes receded from public view. Since Msezane had positioned herself with her back to the statue, she had only been able to catch glimpses of the action reflected in sunglasses worn by people observing her. The artist hadn’t even realized that the statue was gone until she heard the roar of the truck’s engine and wild cheering from the crowd.

“‘F-i-n-a-l-l-y,’ I thought. Finally,” Msezane recalled. Even then, she did not turn or move an inch. “I wasn’t suggesting the character I’d just performed should be like a new statue, erected on the spot,” she went on. She’d kept standing for another half hour, sunburned, aching, and dizzy, meditating on the historic moment and searching for deeper meaning.

How arrogant, she thought, to install monuments to powerful individuals across such a beautiful landscape in the first place. Permanent installations, even of heroes, eventually inflicted “the kind of pain” associated with the Rhodes statue. Cape Town, in particular, was choked with colonial- and Apartheid-era figures, she added. Their presence only encouraged a culture of narcissistic, bankrupt triumphalism. Did any of those statues really belong on a university campus—or in a new democracy, for that matter? “I don’t really understand why we should have any of them,” she mused. “Why do we ever litter a landscape like that?”

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Drones and the Myth of Precision

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 23:17

On Thursday morning, President Obama appeared before White House reporters to announce that a January drone strike had inadvertently killed two Western hostages held at an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. The tragedy, he said, would lead the United States to review its policy surrounding drone warfare.

"We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made," he said. "We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated."

A day later, however, there's little reason to believe that American policy will change. The existing done program has broad bipartisan support in Congress, reported the National Journal on Friday, and several of President Obama's most outspoken opponents refrained from criticizing the administration.

"We are not going to terminate the drone program," Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, said.

The United States has used drone warfare since 2004, but the program escalated since President Obama's inauguration in 2009. For a president eager to wind down America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the small, pilotless aircraft offered an opportunity to target specific enemy combatants without requiring U.S. ground troops.

But drone strikes often aren't as accurate as their proponents claim. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the 415 drone strikes launched in Pakistan since 2004 have killed between 2,449 and 3,949 people. Of these, between 400 and 1,000 have been civilians. Micah Zenko, an expert in drone warfare at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times that of the eight U.S. citizens killed by American drone attacks, seven were killed unintentionally—including Warren Weinstein, one of the two hostages who died in the January strikes.

Technology has improved in the decade-plus since the American drone war began. A second-generation armed drone called the Reaper, for example, can locate a target to a single room within a house. But drone strikes are only as accurate as the intelligence they're based on. The Obama administration admitted on Thursday that it did not know Weinstein or Giovanni Lo Porto, the Italian aid worker killed alongside him, were in the compound when it was struck in mid-January, despite months of video surveillance. The White House also did not know that Adam Gadahn, a California-born spokesman for al-Qaeda, was present when he died in a separate January drone attack.

Gathering reliable intelligence in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a rugged, remote area largely beyond the federal government's control, remains a formidable challenge. According to a report in Bloomberg, the U.S. is reluctant to send agents to the area. The nature of al-Qaeda itself—a fluid, stateless organization lacking a clear bureaucracy—makes it difficult for foreign spies to infiltrate. Terror groups have also learned how to minimize use of technology that could betray their location and activities.

Since embracing drone warfare in 2009, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to strike known terrorist targets—even when the possibility of collateral damage exists. The attacks on the compound holding Weinstein and Lo Porto—as well as that on the one holding Gadahn—were deliberate strikes on al-Qaeda targets, little different from hundreds of others launched since 2004. Dan Benjamin, a former State Department officer now at Dartmouth College, told Bloomberg's Josh Rogin that the accidental killing of hostages had simply been a matter of time.

"If you are taking kinetic action against terrorist targets for years and years on end, the law of averages is going to catch up with you and something terrible like this is going to happen," he said.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Winners of the 2014 Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 18:23

The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at to see all the winners and finalists.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

How the Beer Garden Came to Be

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 23:00

Bad news: Starting tomorrow, you won’t be able to brew beer for about five months.

That’s the deflating message that 16th-century Germans subject to the Bavarian Brauordnung (beer regulations) would have received. Fortunately, great innovations are borne of extreme limitations. From the Brauordnung sprung one of the world’s most hallowed warm-weather institutions: the beer garden.

The Brauordnung are often traced back to the year 1539, but Franz Hofer, who teaches German history at Cornell University and runs a beer blog, explained by email that the “decree limiting beer-brewing to the time between the feast of St. Michael [September 29] and that of St. George [April 23] wasn’t promulgated until 1553.” The decree came from Duke Albrecht V and applied only to Bavaria, the southeastern region that contains modern-day Munich.

There were two rationales behind this regulation. The first was that major fires were common throughout Europe at the time and Bavaria’s traditional wooden “fachwerk” architecture burned easily. Authorities feared that the coal fires used to heat breweries’ kettles might cause summer conflagrations.  

The second reason, Hofer told me, was that Bavarians had discovered that fermenting lagers at cooler temperatures—between 39 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit—yielded a purer beer than ales brewed in warmer conditions. The Brauordnung, in fact, marked the point at which Germans started emphasizing lagers over ales.

The government orders also encouraged breweries to expand pre-existing beer cellars and build new ones next to their factories along the Isar River. These cellars, which were typically about 40 feet deep, were used to store beer brewed during the winter so that people would have something to drink between the dry months of May and September. Down in these cellars, beer barrels were covered in ice; to further ensure cool temperatures, breweries planted broad-leafed chestnut trees above the cellars for shade. Gradually, breweries began to scatter gravel and place tables underneath the trees. These areas, in turn, became popular drinking spots.

By the early 19th century, these watering holes had become so trendy that they were poaching patronage away from innkeepers and tavern owners. In response, innkeepers and tavern owners petitioned the authorities to revoke the breweries’ right to sell beer directly to the public. On January 4, 1812, Maximilian I, Bavaria’s first king, signed a compromise decree allowing brewers to continue selling beer but prohibited them from selling any food beyond bread. Thus was the biergarten, or beer garden, born.

Since Maximilian’s decree didn’t preclude Bavarians from bringing their own food to the breweries, the gardens became popular spaces to picnic. Bavarian beer gardens were permitted to sell food to their patrons again in 1897, but by then showing up with food from home had become a tradition. According to Hofer, the Bayerische Biergartenverordnung, a law passed in 1999 governing the sociocultural character of beer gardens, “Permits patrons to bring their own food into beer gardens, something that sets current Bavarian beer gardens apart from their counterparts in other German regions and Germanic countries.”

A beer garden in Vienna in 1902 (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, many of the most popular beer gardens in Munich date to the early 18th century. Perhaps the most famous, Augustiner-Keller, opened in 1807, even before the 1812 decree, according to spokesperson Christian Vogler. Some of the tables there have been passed down through generations of customers, as have the stories associated with them. Vogler told me the legendary tale of one table belonging to the German writer Sigi Sommer, who would fill a leftover pickle bucket with charcoal, light it on fire, and place it under the table so that he could keep warm while drinking in the garden during the winter. One day, he had drinks with a priest, Prälat Betzwieser, who had a wooden leg. A few beers in, they realized that Betzwieser’s leg had caught fire beneath the table. “When he left he could not walk straight,” Vogler recalled, “and you cannot blame the beer for it.”

It was a scene that Duke Albrecht V, in issuing some seemingly banal regulations back in the 16th century, probably never would have predicted.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Hostages in America's Drone War

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 20:51

The United States drone war in Pakistan reached another grim milestone on Thursday with the announcement that drone strikes had inadvertently killed two hostages of al-Qaeda. The attack, carried out in January, struck a rural Pakistani compound concealing two Western aid workers—Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian. The White House also announced two American-born al-Qaeda militants, including Adam Gadahn, a high-profile spokesman for the terror group, had been killed by drones the same month, Gadahn in a separate incident.

In a statement delivered to White House reporters on Thursday morning, President Obama expressed regret for the attack and issued an apology to the families of Weinstein and Lo Porto.

"It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes—sometimes deadly mistakes—can occur," he said.

The deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto are likely to renew controversy surrounding drone warfare, which has served as a central plank of Obama's counterterrorism strategy since his 2009 inauguration. Small, pilotless aircraft controlled remotely, drones are reputed by their advocates to avoid the collateral damage associated with traditional airstrikes. Critics of drone warfare, however, allege that the strikes have killed far more civilians than targeted militants—a claim disputed by the Obama administration.

"The only people that we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level after a great deal of vetting that takes a long period of time," Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2013. "We don’t just fire a drone at somebody and think they’re a terrorist," he added.

But even at their most precise, drone strikes can only be as accurate as the intelligence they're based on. According to the Wall Street Journal, the CIA surveilled the Pakistani compound that held the two hostages for weeks prior to the January strike, monitoring every individual who entered or left the premises. But U.S. intelligence did not detect Weinstein and Lo Porto. In February, the U.S. received intelligence that the two men had died, and an investigation revealed that the drone strike—rather than an unrelated offensive by the Pakistani military—was responsible.

The 72-year-old Weinstein, a lifelong development worker, was kidnapped from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011 and taken hostage. Two years later, he appeared in a video released by al-Qaeda's media arm and pled for the U.S. to negotiate for his release. Washington, citing official policy against negotiating with al-Qaeda, refused. In a statement released on Thursday, Weinstein's wife expressed frustration with the U.S. hostage policy.

"We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families," she said.

In his remarks on Thursday, President Obama expressed his horror at Weinstein and Lo Porto's death and appeared open to reconsidering his administration's policy.

"We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made," he said. "We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated."

Throughout his presidency, Obama has defended drone strikes as legal, effective, and necessary. But whether this position remains tenable depends, as in all wars, on traditional intelligence gathering.

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Categories: News Analysis

The Eruption of Chile's Calbuco Volcano

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 18:16

Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted on Wednesday, spewing a giant funnel of ash high into the sky over a sparsely populated, mountainous area, triggering a red alert. Authorities ordered an evacuation for a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius around the volcano. Calbuco is the second volcano in southern Chile to have a substantial eruption since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava.

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Categories: News Analysis

One Hundred Years of Exile

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 17:37

On Inauguration Day 2013, a few minutes after 12 p.m., Raffi Hovannisian stood before a massive crowd at Liberty Square in the heart of Yerevan, Armenia. Thousands of Armenians had gathered in the capital to cheer on their leader: “Raffi! President! Raffi! President!” The man before them was tall and dynamic, his fist thrown into the air like a high-school football star. He drew himself to the microphone and thundered over the crowd: “Armenia! Armenia!” The people whistled and cheered. Many of them did not notice that they were being surrounded by riot police with red berets, reinforced by special units of the armed forces.

At exactly the same time, a few kilometers up a hill, Serzh Sargsyan was taking the oath of office for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The entire government was in attendance—all the church leaders, too. The official results had been clear about the incumbent’s victory, with 59 percent of the vote. The man on stage was short, with silver hair and the disciplined expression of a military commander. He spoke solemnly about the challenges still facing the country: unemployment, poverty, emigration.

It was a sunny day. The ancient circular city glowed gold and pink in the biblical valley of Mount Ararat.

That day, April 9, there were two ceremonies in Armenia; the country was divided, and we had to choose which Armenia we belonged to. For my part, I was standing with the man at the square.

I looked to my father. He had already raised his right hand. The other Armenians, too, had raised their hands. They were holding up the Constitution, apricot ribbons tied around their wrists, and repeating after my father:

I, a citizen of the Republic of Armenia,
Hereby dissolve my bonds with the current authorities.
I declare that I do not recognize false rulers,
I cannot submit to false laws,
I shall not obey false commands.
I am authorized by my natural rights,
Protected by the Constitution.
And I am not afraid.
And I cannot be bought.
And I shall not surrender.

Raffi K. Hovannisian was born on November 20, 1959, in Fresno, California, and from the beginning of his life, his grandfathers Kaspar and Hovakim predicted that he would have a special destiny. The Armenian word they used was jagadakir: “the writing on the forehead.” There were just a few problems standing in the way. The boy’s father, Richard, was only a history teacher at the local junior high school; his mother, Vartiter, was still a medical intern at the county hospital. And they lived in a little wooden house. Kaspar had bought it in foreclosure, lifted it off its foundations, and hauled it by truck to a vacant lot on Alta Avenue, which cut through a working-class neighborhood of Armenian refugees.

It was difficult to explain to the children why the Armenians had come to the San Joaquin Valley in the first place, and why they had built their schools and red brick church and even their cemetery. Many parents didn’t even try. The children were set free of their pasts and sent running into the vineyards and orchards of this new land: “the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world” dramatized by the Armenian American writer William Saroyan. He had already won the Pulitzer and an Oscar by the time my father was growing up, but he could sometimes be seen, with his big mustache and mischievous smile, riding his bicycle through the streets of downtown Fresno.

But still there was the secret fermenting underneath it all, and a boy could only guess at it. Sometimes, late into the night, my father would hear his grandfather Kaspar screaming in his sleep.

Turkish officials march Armenians toward the Syrian desert. According to a report relayed by a British member of parliament, quoted in The New York Times in August 1915, “the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death. ... It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people.” (AP)

Many people had nightmares on Alta Avenue. They saw burning villages and death marches. They saw their mothers being raped by foreign soldiers and their fathers hanging from the gallows. They saw themselves running through vast desert landscapes. It was my grandfather Richard’s destiny, even before it was my father’s, to come to terms with those nightmares. In 1963, Richard moved his family to Los Angeles, where he defended his Ph.D. at UCLA and eventually established an endowed chair in modern Armenian history. He became not only a pioneer of Armenian studies in the United States but also, in time, an internationally recognized authority on those secret events of 1915 replaying in his father’s subconscious: the Ottoman Turkish government’s efficient deportation and slaughter of a million and a half Armenians and the destruction of their ancient homeland.

For the time being, though, my father was living out a childhood unburdened by the history his father was writing. He joined the Boy Scouts and took piano lessons, lifted weights and wrote minimalist poetry. He played the line for the Palisades High Dolphins and became a firebrand member of the student council; he campaigned to get stalls put up in the boys’ bathrooms. He was ripped and mysterious and charismatic—“a golden boy,” according to his Pali High yearbooks, “a kind, thoughtful gentleman,” “a rare man with class and charisma,” “a hunk of man.”

But at home, in his father’s corner office, there was always the furious clattering of a typewriter and the clashing of Beethoven symphonies. Raffi understood that, through those long nights, a terrible history was coming to light—except this was not a dead history. It was a past that Turkey aggressively denied and, because of its well-funded efforts in Washington, a past that the United States and other allies refused to condemn. It was a past that inspired Armenian boys in the 1980s to kill Turkish diplomats in Los Angeles and blow up Turkish Airlines airport counters in Paris. On April 24, every year, tens of thousands of Armenians would march on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and converge upon Times Square in New York and surround Turkish consulates across the United States to protest the continuing denial and silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

It was a silence that had disastrous consequences not only for the Armenian people but for all the genocide victims who came afterwards. “It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak Western European civilization will say about me,” Hitler told his generals just before invading Poland in 1939—adding, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It was a past that was, in its own way, catching up to my father, too. At Pali High, he founded the Armenian Club. He founded other Armenian clubs everywhere he went after that: Berkeley, UCLA, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Georgetown Law. By day, he worked as an international lawyer in the high offices of downtown Los Angeles, but at night he was creating the Armenian Bar Association. He was helping draft the Armenian Genocide resolutions being submitted to Congress every year. He was conducting interviews with genocide survivors for his father’s oral-history collection at UCLA and teaming up with his father to testify before the State Assembly in Sacramento. Together, the two Hovannisians succeeded in getting a lesson on the Armenian Genocide into California’s public-school curriculum. In 1985, my father married my mother, Armenouhi, also the descendant of survivors. They named their children after the cities and villages of old Armenia, on the western side of Mount Ararat, which had been dismantled in 1915.

The first thing I remember about my father is his voice, singing songs of war and revenge. This was the beginning of my education. Every night my father told me stories of our ancient homeland. For thousands of years our kings had ruled over an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. It was a beautiful and mountainous land; according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark had landed upon Mount Ararat—which meant the world had ended in Armenia and then been given a second chance. Thousands of years ago, we had entered our own covenant with God.

Young Armenian Americans pose outside the Asbarez newspaper offices in Fresno during the 1930s. (Courtesy of the Fresno State Department of Armenian Studies)

Now we did not have a homeland anymore. Instead we had churches and private schools and community centers scattered across a vast diaspora. There were entire blocks on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles lined with Armenian bakeries selling melted-cheese boreg and honey-soaked pakhlava. Long before Kim Kardashian, we had the Las Vegas tycoon Kirk Kerkorian and the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. We’d had an Armenian governor in California, George Deukmejian. We could claim Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, if we wanted to, and half of Cher, Andre Agassi, and the chess champion Gary Kasparov. When my father took me to the movies, we would stay for the closing credits and cheer at the Armenian last names, with their “-ian” and “-yan” endings.

But all along there had been another Armenia, too. This was an alternative homeland, hidden behind the Iron Curtain on the eastern side of Mount Ararat. That Armenia, with its capital of Yerevan, had actually survived 1915. It had even enjoyed two years of independence—a brief miracle of democracy that was the subject of Richard Hovannisian’s sprawling four-volume magnum opus, The Republic of Armenia. Then its destiny had also turned. In 1920, the Red Army had advanced upon Eastern Armenia and slashed it into pieces; the territories of Artsakh, or Mountainous Karabakh, along with its majority Armenian population, had been transferred under Joseph Stalin’s seal to Soviet Azerbaijan. What remained was a rugged country of 30,000 square kilometers—a land-locked Communist republic under the control of the Kremlin.

Increasingly, though, it was Soviet Armenia that tugged at my father’s imagination. Armenians actually lived there. The Armenian language, an eastern dialect of it, was still spoken there. And one day my father read in the newspapers that hundreds of thousands of Armenians had flooded Opera Square in Yerevan to begin a powerful intellectual mass movement against the Soviet authorities. Except they were not chanting about the past—about recognition for 1915—as we were in the diaspora. The Armenians in Yerevan were chanting about their future. They wanted Mountainous Karabakh back from Azerbaijan. They wanted sweeping democratic reforms from the Kremlin. It seemed, at times, that they even wanted independence. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev learned of this, he immediately declared martial law and shut down the demonstrations. The movement appeared to be finished.

Then, on December 7, 1988, the day my mother was sworn in as a lawyer in Los Angeles, she and my father came home to find me sitting with the babysitter and staring at the television. I was mesmerized by the images of the earthquake: falling buildings, freezing bodies, the town clock stopped at 11:41. “Armenia is hurting,” I tried to explain; I was two years old. By the following day, my father was on board an emergency cargo plane belonging to the State Department—heading for the ruins of Soviet Armenia.

Raffi Hovannisian, then foreign minister of Armenia, shakes hands with U.S. President George W. Bush. (Courtesy of Garin Hovannisian)

The following year, my father quit his job and defied his parents by moving our family to Armenia. My mother and I were there to see the statue of Lenin come down at Lenin Square, which the people renamed Republic Square, and to join the new wave of protests at Opera Square, which the people renamed Liberty Square. We were there, too, for Independence Day—September 21, 1991—and then the inauguration of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the professorial figurehead who became Armenia’s first elected president. And we were there when my father received the phone call of a lifetime. The president himself was at the other end of the line, asking if my father would serve as the new republic’s first minister of foreign affairs. The job would pay 600 rubles, $143, a month.

That is how a family of American citizens came to unlock the doors of an abandoned Soviet building on Baghramyan Boulevard, which was to be our ministry. I ran out behind my parents as they walked the dark corridors, which opened up to rooms filled with stone statues and paintings of frightening men: the ghosts of Communists past. When we arrived at my father’s office, there was nothing there except a fax machine. My father smiled his deep American smile. He plugged in the machine and knocked on it with his fist until it came to life. Then he took out a pen and scrawled a few words across a white sheet of paper. We huddled around the fax machine and the transmissions began, to one foreign government after another: Armenia is free. Please recognize.

As I settled into one of the mansions in the government compound with my mother and my two younger brothers, my father began his ministry. We followed him mostly on television, as he traveled the world to negotiate diplomatic relations with every major democracy. At summits of international organizations, he was making the case for an independent Mountainous Karabakh, where Armenian guerrilla forces were fighting an improbable war of liberation against the armies of Azerbaijan. He was raising Armenia’s red, blue, and orange flag at United Nations headquarters in New York. Then, in September 1992, at a Council of Europe meeting in Istanbul, my father broke the genocide taboo and demanded justice for 1915 in the very heart of the Republic of Turkey.

That night there were celebrations in Los Angeles, Paris, Beirut, and other cities where Armenians had sought refuge after the genocide. The Los Angeles Times called Raffi “the most popular man in the newly reborn Republic of Armenia,” and reported that “a recent poll in the Armenian newspaper Epokha found that he enjoyed a mind-boggling 96 percent approval rating, more than President Ter-Petrosyan.”

While the public approved of my father, the president increasingly did not. Even before the Council of Europe meeting, Ter-Petrosyan and his foreign minister had clashed over ties with Turkey. The president wanted to normalize relations with Turkey and be more strategic on the Karabakh issue; he said that Armenia’s good standing with neighboring countries was necessary for Armenia’s security and survival. The way he saw it, Raffi’s performance in Istanbul was an act of sabotage against that conciliatory foreign policy.

A few weeks later, in a private meeting at the presidential office, Ter-Petrosyan accepted my father’s resignation. Overnight, my father became a dissident in the very republic he had spent his life dreaming about.

“Inch g’nenk hos?” The question was whispered late at night. It was the end of 1992 and we were covered in sleeping bags in a 10th-story apartment that smelled, as the entire city smelled at that time, of kerosene. These were the “dark and cold years,” as Armenians still call it, when breadlines wrapped around city blocks and starving dogs howled through the night and caskets with boys were delivered every morning to sleepless mothers across Armenia. Azerbaijan’s senior ally, Turkey, had sealed its border with Armenia, and grain shipments had stopped coming in. Our apartment hadn’t seen light or water for days. And so it was not at all unfair for my pregnant mother to be asking, “What are we still doing here?”

It’s a dangerous thing when survival becomes the defining instinct of a people. That is what happened to the Armenians: Within two years of achieving independence, they lost their hope, their cause, their national vision. They were not as generous as they used to be. Their newfound freedom began to rot. And the old Soviet symptoms surfaced again. On the streets of Yerevan, a generation of child beggars emerged. Policemen waved batons for $2 bribes. Teachers worked for bribes, too; many of them accepted money from parents in exchange for better grades. Adversaries of Ter-Petrosyan’s government were imprisoned. And the mass exodus began. In the next decade a million and a half Armenians would choose the path of voluntary deportation.

Eventually Ter-Petrosyan was forced to step down. Under the presidency of Robert Kocharyan, businessmen came to rule Armenia. One of them took the monopoly on gas, another the monopoly on sugar and flour. All of them had nicknames, armies of bodyguards, and fleets of luxury cars escorting them ostentatiously through the city to their offices in parliament. They were billionaires, although they had incurred great debts to the original oligarchs surrounding the Kremlin in Moscow, to whom we’d been outsourcing our security, selling our gold mines and electricity plants. In 1999, during a session of parliament, gunmen assassinated all of Kocharyan’s political adversaries.

These developments did not frighten my father; to him, they only proved the necessity of staying and struggling in the homeland. In 2001, he gave up his American passport for good. And he remained stateless until the authorities finally signed off on his papers, a full decade after he had submitted them. He founded Armenia’s first independent research center and, some time later, a political party called Heritage.

Starting around that time, my father and my mother stopped being invited to appear on Armenian television; their journalist friends told them the orders had come straight from the top. My mother ran an organization called Orran, a humanitarian center for impoverished children, and the Armenian authorities investigated it for financial misconduct. Heritage headquarters were shut down. Party members, especially in the rural regions of Armenia, were harassed and threatened with unemployment. It was in this atmosphere that Heritage entered the 2007 parliamentary race and narrowly cleared the minimum 5 percent of the vote needed to enter parliament. It did so again in 2012. These were important victories for my father, establishing him not only as a member of parliament, but also as the voice of the opposition.

When people spoke admiringly of my father, they often said that “his eye is full,” which meant he had seen the world and he wasn’t in politics for the money. But people also said that he would never make it in Armenia. He was too much of a romantic. And it was true. All around us, the authorities were growing richer and more powerful. Every day, the country slipped deeper into economic recession. Emigration rates soared. Things got so bad that, in the presidential elections of 2008, the people looked for salvation in Levon Ter-Petrosyan again. Instead, Kocharyan’s successor, Serzh Sargsyan, ascended to the presidency amid massive protests alleging that he’d falsified the election results.

So what kept my father in Armenia? Was he, as my grandfather in Los Angeles called him, an Armenian Don Quixote? Was he, as some government-run media outlets insinuated, an American spy? The Americans were just as puzzled by Raffi as the Armenian authorities. Cables from the U.S. Embassy in Armenia to the State Department in Washington, published by WikiLeaks, show successive American ambassadors grappling with the question of my father’s identity—and his fate in Armenia:

Hovannisian is an aberration in the rough-and-tumble politics of post-Soviet Armenia. While Armenian-born politicians run fast and dirty, Hovannisian has remained faithful to his decades-long goal of transforming Armenia’s deformed political culture. … It is widely assumed that the authorities will never permit the reformist Hovannisian a chance at the country’s top posts. One gets the impression in speaking with him that Hovannisian realizes his boat has sailed.

The Twin Minaret Madrasa of Erzurum, Turkey—formerly Garin, Armenia (Sarah Murray / Flickr)

In the summer of 2010, my father led our family through the lands of Eastern Turkey, which we know as Western Armenia. The ruined medieval kingdom of Ani had once been known as “the city of 1,001 churches.” Now, only the corpses of those churches remained. From the signs, in Turkish and English, we would not have known that Armenians had ever lived or prayed in this place. We peered into the waters of the Kemakh Gorge. In 1915, survivors tell us, these waters turned red from the tens of thousands of Armenians who were butchered there. But the nearby plaque recalled only the martyrdom of some Turkish soldiers. In Mush, we could not find the old church of St. Garabed. My father told me to look carefully at the walls of the city’s homes and their embedded orange stones with engravings of crosses and angels. The Muslim town was built of Christian rock.

A strange sensation began to dawn on us: We were not supposed to be here—we were not supposed to be alive. Whatever happened in 1915 had been intended not just to erase a people and a homeland, but to erase retroactively the entire history of their existence. They weren’t just planning to kill us; they were going to make it look as though we had never been born.

According to Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code, it is still illegal to “insult the Turkish nation,” and that includes any talk of the Armenian Genocide. Textbooks inform Turkish students that during the First World War, there were treacherous Armenians who sided with Russia and dead civilians on both sides of the conflict. Students don’t learn about the hundreds of thousands of deportees who were marched through the Syrian desert, the burnings of villages and mass drownings of children, the camps where people died of dysentery and starvation. Turkey’s own Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and many other Turkish intellectuals have been persecuted for writing about the Armenian Genocide.

So had Hrant Dink—the Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, who continued to write about the Genocide until he was shot and killed by a teenage assassin in front of his newspaper offices in Istanbul. In January 2015, two police officers were arrested in connection with the murder; according to Agos, the judge stated that “the suspects had had prior knowledge of the assassination and had not acted to take necessary precautions.”

The past was not entirely dead, and my father always knew where to find it. He told us to watch the veiled faces of Turkish and Kurdish women, to search for the sad hazel of Armenian eyes. In the dialect of the Hamshens, the descendants of Armenians who had given up their religion to survive 1915, we heard familiar Armenian syllables. In Vakif, the lone Armenian village of modern Turkey, we met the last survivor of Musa Dagh, an epic Armenian resistance in 1915. The writer Franz Werfel had written a bestselling novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and MGM had tried to make a movie of it starring Clark Gable. But the studio scrapped the project after Turkey pressured the U.S. government to shut it down.

Given Turkey’s history of burying the past, we were surprised to find, at least in these eastern provinces, that there was no denial about who we were or what we were doing there. Everybody knew there were Armenian bones in the soil. Town mayors received us with open arms. Kurdish rebels, whose ancestors had participated in killing ours, now embraced us as their brothers. And everywhere we went, little Turks and Kurds greeted us with the same inquiry: “Para? Para?” They were asking for money, but not for the usual reason. They believed we had returned for the buried treasures of our ancestors, who might have hidden them before leaving their villages a hundred years ago.

Toward the end of our voyage, we stopped in the city of Erzurum. The Armenian name for it is my name: Garin. My father took out a map and we followed it to a house built of gray and white stones. He knocked on the door and a thin, dark man with a mustache opened it. Behind him, an older woman vanished into another room.

“Hello,” my father said. He was polite, but firm. “This is my grandfather’s house.”

The man stood still for a moment, sizing us up. Then he placed his hand upon his chest and took a bow before us.

Raffi Hovannisian’s campaign poster on a street in Yerevan (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Back in Yerevan, my father would sometimes spend half a day on the balcony on his exercise bike. He would bite into a cigar as he peddled, and gaze out over the city and toward the mountains of Ararat. He could not get enough of that view. I sat at the coffee table beside him, trying to make sense of the man. He no longer seemed to be my father. I was working on a memoir called Family of Shadows, and in the course of it I had started to reflect upon Raffi not as a son toward his father, but almost as a novelist toward his own invented character. And it was now becoming clear to me that our book was in need of an epilogue—a final chapter wherein the hero risks everything to fight the battle of his life.

In September 2012, my father announced his intention to compete for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The term of the next president would include the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015.

For the record: Few people believed a successful campaign for the presidency was possible. The incumbent’s expected challengers—the ousted president Ter-Petrosyan and the beer magnate Gagik Tsarukyan—withdrew from the race in December, presumably fearing humiliation. Opposition parties and civil-society groups declared boycotts of the elections. There was no interest from the diaspora, either; the re-election of Serzh Sargsyan was a foregone conclusion, especially to Serzh Sargsyan. Shortly before the campaign started, a motley crew of Russian-speaking pollsters from Gallup International (not to be confused with the Gallup you’ve heard of) announced the results of one of its surveys: Raffi Hovannisian, 10 percent; Serzh Sargsyan, 66 percent.

Political experts offered ideas about what our strategy ought to be: exude power and confidence in victory. Dress your candidate in the finest suits. Surround him with bodyguards. No more stops in villages to plant trees and such. The Soviet psychology doesn’t respond to Western notions of childish compassion—only to fear, to power, to reality.

What these experts didn’t consider was that my father had no concern for reality. He would be campaigning against reality itself. He wanted to displace not just a president but also the entire culture of fear and cynicism that had taken root in his land. As his director of publicity, I wasn’t planning to run a political campaign, either. I wanted to present my father as a living embodiment of what it meant to be an Armenian—noble, defiant, emotional, even self-contradicting. We were determined, in short, to run a campaign of complete fiction: the first literary presidential race in history.

The other candidates, by contrast, were pragmatic; this was clear from their campaign slogans. Sargsyan emphasized caution: “Toward a safe Armenia.” Hrant Bagratyan, an economist and former prime minister, promoted his 100-point platform: “Only 100 Steps.” Paruyr Hayrikyan, a onetime dissident who had been imprisoned by the KGB, promised “Faith by Actions.”

The night before the campaign started, our billboards went up across the republic, featuring my father in a black knit turtleneck. He did not show his trademark smile, but instead looked out seriously across the highways of his homeland. Only two words, our own slogan, appeared with that image: “It’s possible.”

Sargsyan and his supporters had at their command the entire machinery of the government. We had the conviction that the orders—handed down through the ministries, barracks, and universities—would not be obeyed. They had vast budgets. We had our family’s life savings of $200,000. They had thousands of offices across the republic. We had 20 mobile offices—rented mini-buses full of young volunteers. They had massive rallies packed with state employees and schoolchildren. Our rallies looked more like football huddles.

The campaign lasted from January 21 to February 18. For 28 days, my father darted down the aisles of fruit bazaars and knocked on villagers’ doors and hiked up the hills to visit monks at remote churches. He said hello and shook hands everywhere. This might be viewed as commonplace campaigning in the West, but in Armenia these tactics bordered on the revolutionary. As the London-based publication Caucasus Elections Watch put it, “He conducted a campaign that verged on the surreal—avoiding controversy, shaking hands, talking of serenity and unity.”

On February 19, on television, the most astonishing numbers appeared: Raffi Hovannisian, 539,672 votes (36.75 percent); Serzh Sargsyan, 861,160 votes (58.64 percent). It was one of the best showings by an opposition candidate in the republic’s history. However, it was far less than we believed we had achieved.

Our election monitors had reported many irregularities including acts of bribery, multiple voting, and ballot-stuffing. But the larger problem was best captured by the government’s own numbers: unusually high turnout—sometimes 90 percent and above—in many rural precincts. According to a February 22 report by Policy Forum Armenia, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. the incumbent had swept those precincts clean, often leaving his challengers with no votes at all. The analysis concluded that, in precincts free of falsification, Raffi Hovannisian had actually defeated Serzh Sargsyan by at least four percentage points.

This was not the first time the incumbent had been accused of committing election fraud. In 2008, Ter-Petrosyan disputed the official numbers, which showed him winning 21.5 percent of the vote, and claimed victory over Sargsyan. The protests went on for days, Ter-Petrosyan was placed under house arrest, and 10 people were killed in the ensuing riots. And now, Ter-Petrosyan, who had clashed with my father years earlier, was publicly declaring that Raffi Hovannisian had been the real winner of the 2013 election.

Courtesy of Garin Hovannisian

On February 21, Sargsyan’s Republican Party canceled its scheduled victory celebration in Liberty Square, and thousands of Armenians gathered at the square to rally around my father. He defied police orders and led them to the iron gates of the presidential palace at Baghramyan 26. As people waited at the barricades, we were let into the building and escorted to the presidential chambers.

“You look kind of sad, Raffi,” Sargsyan said.

“No, no,” my father replied. “Rightful and righteous.”

On February 28, my father stood before a massive crowd at Liberty Square and announced the beginning of the Barevolution—a play on barev, the Armenian word for “good day.” It was a movement named after Raffi’s tactic of saying hello to his people.

Everywhere we went over the following weeks, thousands turned up at town squares, especially in cities such as Gyumri, where my father had recorded an official landslide victory. They did not seem to hear the voices of police bellowing through bullhorns: “This rally is illegal. All those who participate will be subject to criminal prosecution.” At night, in local taverns or farmhouses, we’d get drunk on home-brewed mulberry vodka, drinking to our forefathers and their dream of democracy.

The protests—the first in Armenia to be live-streamed online—caught the attention of the diaspora. Armenians in Los Angeles, Brussels, and Sydney camped out at their local consulates to protest the election results. People wrote poems on my father’s Facebook wall and uploaded original songs about the Barevolution to YouTube. Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the rock group System of a Down, wrote an open letter to Sargsyan to say that “the avalanche of people suffering under your rule due to corruption and injustice is tipping the scale for us all.” He dedicated his newly released song “It Is Spring” to “all those in Armenia fighting for positive change.” My grandfather, Richard, flew in from Los Angeles to confess at Liberty Square that he, too, had thought his son’s candidacy was an act of “political suicide.” The professor said he was pleased, at long last, to be wrong.

Most of the speeches at Liberty Square had this kind of confessional ring to them. From the podium, several opposition leaders admitted that they had not voted for Raffi since they had not believed he could win, but that they were there now to show their support. Before the tens of thousands of people who packed Liberty Square, my father’s own speeches were intense, enraged, shamelessly literary. I was responsible for a few of them. That is how the words of Bob Dylan (“Let us not speak falsely now / The hour is getting late”) and Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”) came to echo at Liberty Square. I was still enjoying my role as my father’s author. I was writing history—and he was making it.

More and more, however, my father broke free from his script. Sometimes, when he would pause to reach for a word, the silence would be filled by offerings from the crowd, which Raffi would accept. The back-and-forth made for truly democratic speeches, wherein a leader was creating a new language with his people. He aimed to give them their identities back—to restore their long-lost national vision. “A new flood is rising in the Valley of Ararat,” he declared. “It is a pure but powerful flood in which the fear, the fraud, and the hatred of all Armenians will perish. The flood, however, will pass—leaving in its trail a fertile land upon which a New Armenia will blossom.”

One night in early spring, I woke up in a little tent pitched at Liberty Square. Through the folds of the blankets piled on top of me, I could just make out my father’s silhouette. He was surrounded by Bibles and stone crosses and paintings of angels; his supporters had been delivering them day after day. Father Krikor, a priest with a long gray beard, was reading a sermon over my father’s body. He was the only clergyman in the republic who dared visit us in the square. We were now in the 20th day of my father’s hunger strike. He was getting weaker every day, shrinking into his black turtleneck.

In the daytime, my father sat on a green bench next to his tent, a smile on his unshaven face as supporters came by to sing songs and deliver poems they had composed for him. “Every leader,” he told them, “must feel on his own flesh the pain and suffering of his people.” It was clear by this time that his actions had very little to do with politics. This was a literary statement. In one final symbolic gesture, he chose to end his hunger strike on March 31, Easter Sunday.

The night before Inauguration Day, I was among a small group of supporters who gathered at our headquarters for a final meeting. My father refused to answer any questions about the details of his plan for the following day. The only thing he said is that we would be having an inauguration ceremony of our own, at Liberty Square, and we should be ready to take an oath. Then he looked directly at me and spoke about the relationship between father and son—between character and author. “The book ends tomorrow,” he said.

Courtesy of Garin Hovannisian

My father, mother, and I locked arms as we left Liberty Square for the last time. My father was wearing a dark blue suit and a blue-and-gold tie. He was clean-shaven, and his glance was firm as it fell upon the red berets lining the perimeter of the square. A diminutive police captain ran to catch up to us.

“You cannot leave the square, Mr. Hovannisian,” he said. “Respectable Mr. Hovannisian: Please reason with me! Mr. Hovannisian—no!”

But my father did not flinch. He stooped like the lineman he once was and then rose with a sudden surge of power, breaking through the wall of police. We could hardly believe it; during previous public marches, my father had been stubborn but always polite with the police. In fact, even as he called for revolution, he had instructed us to walk on the sidewalks and stop at all red lights. But now he spontaneously led the crowd onto Mashtots Boulevard and along the left curve of Saryan Park toward the presidential palace. At the intersection of Saryan Avenue, we were met by a formation of riot police, special military units, armored trucks, snipers on buildings—in short, a full showing of our state and its awesome power.

Still, we charged the barricades. And from somewhere deep inside the crowd a familiar chant began—“Armenia! Armenia!” I looked over my shoulder and saw the people my father had exalted all my life, locked in their eternal struggle. But these were not the noblemen of the ancient stories, or the heroic genocide survivors, or even the dissident intellectuals who helped take down the Soviet empire. These were the remnant citizens of a collapsing republic. Why had my father believed in them anyway? And how had they come to believe in him? Just beyond the barricade, Baghramyan Boulevard sloped up toward the courts and embassies, the parliament and the presidential office.

That afternoon, as we crashed into the shields of police—as people all around me were being arrested and smashed into the ground—I recognized the absurdity of what we were doing. It occurred to me that we were not actually going to get through to the other side. Of the two Armenias only one would survive that day, and it would not be ours. The fiction we had created would end; reality would rule this republic again. And that faith, which had suddenly erupted in Armenian hearts, would return again to its hiding places.

The evening ended at the Eternal Flame, the official memorial to the Armenian Genocide, on a hill above the city. My father led us there. It was dark when we reached the flame, which is surrounded by 12 stone slabs representing the lost provinces of Western Armenia. This was the Armenia that had vanished in 1915—the Armenia that was still pure in the heart of my father. We laid flowers, lit candles, and prayed together. My father said some hopeful words about unity and the great future we shared. And then he began the national anthem. He stared sternly into the orange and blue fire, and sang:

Everywhere death is the same.
Man will die only once.
But lucky is he, that this should be,
For his country’s liberty.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Saudi Airstrikes Intensify Yemen's Humanitarian Crisis

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 21:36

Claiming that it had "achieved its goals," Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would halt its air campaign against Yemen. But hours later, the bombing began anew. On Wednesday, Saudi planes struck a military base controlled by Houthi rebels in Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city, resuming a month-long campaign to uproot the Shiite group now in de facto control of the country. The stated goal of the Saudi campaign is to restore Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen's exiled president, to power.

Yemen has been in crisis since last September, when the Houthis overran the capital city of Sanaa and placed Hadi under house arrest. In the ensuing months, the Houthis' control over Yemen's government, military, and territory has only grown. The group has received help from an unlikely source: Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former president and Hadi's predecessor, whose government led its own war against the group beginning in 2004. Saleh had relinquished power in exchange for immunity during the Arab Spring in 2012. He has since thrown his support behind the Houthis in an apparent attempt to regain influence in the country.

Complicating this internal dynamic is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, the region's most important Sunni power, and Shiite Iran. Tehran claims that it has not provided military support to Houthis—but Saudi Arabia doesn't appear to be taking any chances and has implemented a blockade of Aden, Yemen's largest port city, to prevent Iranian ships from delivering weapons.

Yemen's fighting has displaced more than 100,000 people since last September; 944 people have died in airstrikes since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began in March. But these figures underestimate the true extent of the country's humanitarian crisis. The blockade—combined with Saudi airstrikes on oil-production facilities—has created vast fuel shortages in the country, preventing Yemenis who wish to flee from being able to leave their homes. Fuel shortages have also forced hospitals to curtail emergency and intensive-care services due to a lack of ambulances and unreliable electricity. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned that drastically reduced supplies of medicine have put Yemen's health services on the brink of collapse.

Saudi officials announced on Tuesday that its campaign—originally called "Operation Decisive Storm"—would enter a new phase called "Operation Restoring Hope," that emphasizes diplomacy, negotiation, and aid. But with the Houthis still in power, President Hadi still in exile, and more bombing on Wednesday, no relief seems to be in sight for Yemen's beleaguered population

“It’s come to the point that we in Yemen may die just trying to get gas,” Harazi, a minibus driver who lives in Sanaa, told the Washington Post.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

When Is a TV Channel a Foreign Agent?

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 20:39

Where do the limits of a free press lie? If one were to ask Ilya Ponomarev, a member of the Russian parliament and the only lawmaker to vote against his country’s annexation of Crimea, the answer might be at the doorstep of RT, formerly known as Russia Today. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Ponomarev—who currently lives in exile in California and was stripped earlier this month of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, thereby exposing him to criminal charges and likely expulsion from the Duma—proposed that the flashy, Kremlin-funded international news network register as a lobbyist. “It’s a great mistake that the west is doing, that it’s acknowledging [RT] as a media tool. I think it’s a lobbying tool and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media,” Ponomarev argued.

It was far from the first time that RT has been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Russian government. In fact, students at Columbia’s School of Journalism, under the direction of professors Ann Cooper and Linette Lopez, have an entire Tumblr dedicated to tracking the controversy surrounding RT’s reporting. But Ponomarev’s comments did suggest that a debate about how to respond to news outlets like RT, already well underway in Europe, has reached the United States, where the network is available via cable (mostly in and around major metropolitan areas) and satellite TV, and online. BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray notes, for example, that the network has been subject to official investigations and threatened with sanctions in the United Kingdom—where RT is the fourth-most-watched 24-hour news station—for alleged bias in its reporting on the crisis in Ukraine.

RT “started out in 2005 by telling positive stories about Russian history and culture—no one cared and ratings were terrible,” Peter Pomerantsev wrote last year in The Atlantic. “Gradually, RT changed its strategy, becoming a platform for Western conspiracy-theorists, far-right nationalists, and far-left radicals who sympathize with Russia. The formula works: RT claims that it now reaches more than 644 million people worldwide, and it can slip in messages about Kremlin policy between more popular programming.” Operating with a budget that, at an estimated $300 million, rivals the BBC’s, RT has translated that formula into a major online presence, including more than a million YouTube subscribers.

RT, for its part, claims that it “delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media” and “provides an alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaints an international audience with the Russian viewpoint.”

In the United States, designating RT a lobbyist would involve invoking the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law passed in 1938 to counter German propagandists operating in the United States prior to the Second World War. The statute’s scope is broad, but in its most general sense, it is designed to identify any individual or organization that engages in political or quasi-political activities on behalf of a foreign government or organization. “Political activities” are defined as attempts to “influence any agency or official of the Government of the United States or any section of the public within the United States with reference to formulating, adopting, or changing the domestic or foreign policies of the United States,” and include public-relations and publicity work.

With some exceptions, the act obligates organizations that meet this criteria to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. Registration requires, among other things, the semi-annual reporting of the foreign agent’s activities and funding, and a disclaimer on “informational materials” that “the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal.” Penalties for failing to comply can include a $10,000 fine or up to five years in prison (one of the more interesting applications of the law was its use in arresting Anna Chapman and 11 other members of a Russian spy ring in 2010).

Does RT fall under FARA’s auspices? The statute explicitly states that its definition of a foreign agent does not include news or press agencies, but then goes on to say that the exemption only holds if the company is at least 80-percent owned by U.S. citizens and “not owned, directed, supervised, controlled, subsidized, or financed, and none of its policies are determined by any foreign principal …” Given that RT is funded by the Russian government and appears to lack full—if any—editorial independence from the Kremlin, the channel may not be exempt under FARA. Still, by my count, only four media organizations are registered under FARA at the moment: two Asian television networks and the distributors for two Chinese dailies.

Ed Wilson and Andrew Bigart, a partner and counsel at Venable LLP, expressed surprise that RT isn’t registered under FARA. “We’re saying to each other, ‘Really, they’re not registered?’” Wilson said. “I’ve seen their ads on the street—I assumed they fell under subsection c.1.ii [dealing with publicity agents].” (Justice Department officials declined to comment on RT’s status in relation to FARA, and RT did not respond to a request for comment.)

Wilson and Bigart emphasized that FARA operates within an area of the law containing subtle yet significant distinctions, and that there could be a host of legitimate reasons why RT has not sought to register as a lobbyist and the Justice Department has not pursued the matter. Still, “looking at it on its face,” they added, “it is probable that [RT] should be registered.” Joe Sandler, a lawyer at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, agreed with Wilson and Bigart, saying that RT’s reporting “raises a real question as to whether they should be registered.” Based on his analysis, “the statute would appear to apply.”

It’s important to note that, were RT to be registered under FARA, the network would not be censored or banned in the United States. It’s also unclear how the act’s requirement of a disclaimer would affect the Russian outlet given that the network’s primary format is video. China Daily, for instance, provides its disclaimer on its Facebook page and About Us page. TV Japan, on the other hand, has received a waiver for the disclaimer from the Justice Department on the basis that the company has not engaged in political propaganda. Regardless, registration would define RT as a foreign agent in the United States—a distinction that could make a difference in the ongoing media and information war between Russia and the West.

It’s a struggle that Western leaders fear they’re losing—particularly since the onset of conflict in Ukraine. “We are being outgunned massively by the Russians,” John Whittingdale, chair of the British parliament’s Culture, Media, and Sport Committee has observed. “It is frightening the extent to which we are losing the information war.” In the United States, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce remarked, “Our nation is getting beat by Putin propaganda and our international broadcasting is floundering. It’s unacceptable.” Even NATO has expressed concerns about Russia “weaponizing” information.

In contrast to RT’s inroads in the West, Western news outlets have been significantly curtailed in Russia. The closest analogues that the United States has to RT are Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which are both government-funded news agencies broadcasting internationally, primarily via radio and online. Although both remain available online, the two networks’ radio services are barely operational in Russia today due to intense political pressure from the Kremlin, according to RFE/RL’s spokesman, Martins Zvaners.

The Russian government has increasingly tightened its grip on domestic and foreign groups that support the press through its own “foreign agents” law, and has extended censorship efforts to the web. Even CNN International, an organization in no way affiliated with a Western government, has been off the air in Russia for several months due to a foreign-media ownership law. (A spokesperson for Turner Broadcasting confirmed that CNN has yet to resume service in Russia, although the network will be returning to the country in the near future after complying with new regulations.) Only the BBC has maintained its presence in Russia, with its BBC Russian service reaching its largest audience since 2000, according to BBC spokesman Paul Rasmussen.

Ultimately, the central question for U.S. officials may be whether serving notice to Putin and his propaganda apparatus is worth sullying America’s commitment to freedom of the press. Fred Schauer, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told me that registering RT under FARA would not violate the First Amendment, mainly due to the Supreme Court’s Meese v. Keene decision of 1987, which established that since FARA and its labeling of certain materials as propaganda neither “prohibits, edits, or restrains the distribution of materials,” registration of media under the act is constitutional.

Even so, taking such a step could create an environment in which foreign media in the United States are, if not repressed, at least marginalized. Ann Cooper, the Columbia Journalism School professor who has monitored RT and was also formerly executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, rejected the idea of designating RT a lobbyist. “It’s still regulation. Somebody still has to sit there and make the judgment … [that] this is a lobbying organization,” she argued. “You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re trying to set up categories and define different news agencies and basically say, ‘These ones are good, these ones are not.’” Instead, Cooper said, the U.S. government should let all voices be heard—and permit the public to decide who they want to listen to.

Besides, given RT’s penchant for pointing out American hypocrisy, “U.S. Registers RT as Foreign Agent” is a headline that the Russian network would be all-too-proud to publish.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Establishing the Rule of Law in a Country Where Justice Hardly Exists

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 20:35

The president of the Haitian Bar Association, Carlos Hercule, knows that the rule of law in his country is tenuous, and that people have little faith in the justice system. "We have attorneys who [single-handedly] represent both parties in real-estate deals. We have people representing themselves as attorneys who have not been accredited. And we have judges and officials who accept bribes," he recently explained to me in French, through a translator.

His French is impeccable, but that’s another problem. French is the official language of the courts in Haiti, but as much as 95 percent of the population speaks only Creole, so most defendants—if they can even afford to hire a lawyer—can’t fully grasp what goes on during the court proceedings. There are no public defenders, and available legal aid is extremely limited. Adding to the disparity, as experts have pointed out, is the fact that many Haitian lawyers are typically invested in their own elite social status and rarely offer direct defense to the poor, which they perceive as debasing the profession. The result is that the vast majority of the country’s 10.3 million-plus people—roughly three-quarters of whom live on less than $2 a day—have no real access to justice.

Alleviating these deep-rooted structural problems, however, is all but impossible in a nation that’s still struggling to recover from its colonial legacy and the aftermath of the three decades it spent controlled by a brutal dictatorship—not to mention the catastrophic earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. So while the Port-au-Prince-based bar association is working to address those issues, it has decided that a more effective solution lies in training lawyers to uphold ethical standards and encouraging them to pursue public-interest cases. For many advocates, that the initiative is even happening—despite everything that Haitian society has suffered in the past—is remarkable.

Jérémie, a town of roughly 80,000 people in Haiti’s Western Grand’Anse province, is one community where this approach is being put into action, largely thanks to the local law school’s efforts to tackle the endemic problems plaguing the justice system. Jérémie was known in the early 20th century as an artistic enclave of the educated, biracial middle class that owned charming villas overlooking the Caribbean. Decades of escalating poverty, violence, and oppression under the Duvalier dictatorships eventually ravaged the area, but now the town is slowly regaining its regional prominence, in part because it wasn’t hit by the 2010 earthquake. A new partially built national road linking it to the country’s capital and support from religious organizations have also helped bolster the town’s development.

Still, it’s clear that Jérémie is situated within a developing country—one that last year received a ranking of 168 out of 187 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The dense town center is home to cement block structures holding up corrugated tin roofs and donkeys that trudge through the dusty streets alongside motorcycles and uniformed school children; raw sewage runs through street-side channels toward the trash-covered beach. Most households get their water from wells and only receive electricity during certain hours of the day—if at all.

The Catholic archdiocese operates a hospital and several elementary schools in town, and a cathedral is rising incrementally depending on when donations come in. In 1995, the town’s former bishop, Willy Romelus (who famously endured violent attacks for supporting former president Jean Bertrand Aristide), established a nursing school. That same year, he also partnered with Father Jomanas Eustache to found the École Supérieure Catholique de Droit de Jérémie (ESCDROJ), a law school that occupies the nursing-school property at night. Though Romelus is now retired, Eustache, who’s also a lawyer, remains an active clerical figure in the community and serves as the dean and chief fundraiser for the law school, on top of teaching several courses. Similar to his seminary classmate Aristide—who was the country’s first democratically elected president and recently created another law school in Port-au-Prince—Eustache is on a quest to strengthen the rule of law in Haiti through legal education. ESCDROJ is one of three or so accredited institutions conferring law degrees in the country (which is predominantly Catholic) and the first one to focus on training public-interest lawyers.

"We’re training lawyers to enter the court system, to maintain high ethical standards and advocate for the poor," Eustache told me. Citing the widely cited brain drain from Haiti of highly educated citizens, he went on to emphasize: "And we want our graduates to stay in Haiti."

In the absence of state support, priests like Eustache become enterprising, devoting their time to much more than supporting the spiritual life of their congregations. They establish schools, hospitals, and businesses, maintaining wide networks of donors to fund their institutions. Eustache, who is fluent in English (among other languages), regularly visits a number of communities in the U.S., maintaining relationships with the Haitian expats living there, as well as other Catholics supporting his mission.  

At ESCDROJ, 165 or so students pursue an undergraduate degree in law while also working to support themselves and, often, their families. To accommodate these needs, the law school holds classes during the evenings; students typically pull up on motorcycles around 6 p.m., arriving to Haitian konpa music blaring out of the open-air cement classroom. Still in their work clothes, the students sidle into wooden tablet desk chairs facing a laptop projector and speaker system—which like the rest of the facility’s electric-powered equipment have to rely on power from a generator in the evenings. The school’s library consists of a single, small room housing textbooks and a few computers with insufficient Internet. The heat remains even as the sun goes down, everyone visibly perspiring and clutching sodas or bottles of water. Mosquitoes start to hover.

Over eight semesters total, the law students work through a curriculum determined by Haiti’s Ministry of Justice. The curriculum has no elective courses, meaning that students’ exposure to topics like human rights and social justice depends on guest lectures—often from academics visiting from outside the country. Throughout the years, for example, the school has maintained partnerships with several American law schools: The Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, Seton Hall University’s School of Law, and the University of California Hastings College of the Law regularly fundraise and bring students and faculty to Jérémie to provide trainings in special topics. (I work for UC Hastings and heard about the Haiti initiative through the university; however, I traveled for and conducted my reporting independently, receiving no compensation or editorial direction from the institution.)

Curriculum aside, poor post-graduation outcomes present another problem. Though most ESCDROJ students graduate from the program, according to officials, the vast majority of graduates never become licensed attorneys because of significant obstacles at the last levels of training, often working instead as jurists (those who study and analyze the law but don't necessarily practice it). First, students must author an 80-page, originally researched dissertation, or memoire. This is a challenging task for many students, not least because Haiti’s education system and general culture prioritizes oratory skills. Plus, given that only half of all Haitians 15 or older are literate, Haitians are used to getting their information by word of mouth. And access to technology is scarce: Judith L’Amour, an administrator at ESCDROJ, guessed that at least half of the school’s students lack access to computers apart from those that they get on campus or at work, while half of Jérémie’s residents, according to estimates, don’t have regular electricity at home. It’s common to see students of all ages studying outside at night using the light from municipal street lamps.

Meanwhile, the memoire imposes a financial burden on students on top of the school’s $500 annual tuition. (Aside from a few scholarships, students have to pay tuition out of pocket because student loans aren’t available). Researching and writing the dissertation can detract as much as a year’s time from paid jobs, and students are expected to arrange for and pay a lawyer to advise them.

Then, after the memoire, students are required to work for two years, again under the supervision of a practicing attorney, in order to become licensed. Most of the time, these positions are uncompensated—even in the public sector; in fact, students often have to pay for any training received from senior lawyers in private practice, according to officials.

And though exact data isn’t available, it’s undeniable that attorneys in general are very rare in Haiti. Each year fewer than 20 lawyers are admitted to practice in the Haitian bar despite the hundreds of students who are estimated to graduate from law school annually. Lori Nessel, a law professor at Seton Hall who has close ties with ESCDROJ, explained that the overly rigorous requirements create a paradox of human resources: "In order to become a lawyer in Haiti, you have to have a lawyer supervise you," she said. "In a country with a shortage of lawyers, it is very difficult to grow new ones."

Eustache, noting that Haitian legal education focuses on classroom—rather than experiential learning—says he’s making it a priority to solve the serious lack of client advocacy experience for ESCDROJ students. And those efforts are starting to come to fruition. In 2008, Roxane Edmond-Dimanche, an ESCDROJ graduate, decided to organize a coalition of American and Haitian lawyers to establish Haiti’s first criminal-justice clinic as inspired by American clinical programs. After all, similar projects funded by private foundations and governments to create legal clinical programs at law schools in South Africa, Poland, and Chile have been cited as successful exports of this American educational model.

After years of fundraising and development, much of which was spearheaded by foreign law schools,  the ESCDROJ clinic is scheduled to open this summer in a building designed by the American architect Tom Zook, made of repurposed shipping containers and sitting on a parcel of Eustache’s property. Edmond-Dimanche and Gabrielle Paul, another ESCDROJ alumna, will codirect and supervise the clinic, which is also aimed at providing practical experience to all interested third- and fourth-year students. Several days a week, students are slated to offer legal counsel to indigent clients from all over the Grand’Anse region, specializing in representing victims in cases of sexual violence.  

Jérémie’s overcrowded jail, with its squalid, tiny cells, is another rationale for the clinic. According to an investigation by Edmond-Dimanche and Paul, 90 percent of the nearly 200 prisoners in the facility have never been arraigned, which is technically required within 48 hours of arrest, because Haiti lacks a bail system. And, because of the lack of resources, many prisoners serve years without ever seeing a judge—often much longer than they might have been officially sentenced, the two found. "We believe that the public defense offered by the legal clinic will help the problem of severe overcrowding of the jail in Jérémie," said Paul, who clarified that the clinic’s public-defense services will only be available in non-sexual violence cases to avoid situations in which they’d have to represent both an alleged rapist and the victim.

By offering legal assistance to victims of sexual violence, Paul said, the clinic will raise the status and legitimacy of these cases, which officially have only been prosecutable in Haiti for the past decade. "Victims, families, and communities have become desensitized to violence against women, and judicial impunity is the norm," said Nicole Phillips, an American lawyer with one of Haiti’s only public-interest law firms, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). Phillips, who recently guest lectured at ESCDROJ as the leader of a delegation from UC Hastings, pointed out that rape wasn’t established as a crime in the Haitian legal code in 2005.  

The BAI has filed dozens of criminal complaints on behalf of rape victims under the recent code update; 18 have gone to trial, of which 14 have been successful and two are currently on appeal. And the legal clinic aims to bring more perpetrators to justice. "These prosecutions demonstrate hope in the broken system—police, prosecutors, judges and Haitian lawyers are taking these cases seriously and bringing justice to poor Haitian women and girls," she said.

Phillips is also optimistic about the community-education efforts that the clinic plans to implement. She said that the BAI, which is based in Port-au-Prince, receives most of its cases from grassroots women’s organizations whose leaders are themselves victims of violence. Phillips said that the cases help build the capacity of the organizations and restore their faith in the justice system. The same can be done in the Grand’Anse region, which encompasses 400,000 people spread over 738 square miles. "The 80 percent poor majority also need to be trained about their human rights and the legal system to change the system," she said.

The clinic might also help shift attitudes among ESCDROJ students, which are still somewhat patriarchal, Paul said, despite the school’s progressive leadership. An exercise during one recent class provided instruction in various countries’ definitions of consent for sexual intercourse—a linchpin for convicting rapists. (Haiti lacks a law on consent, and police usually require the victim to produce a certificate from the state hospital documenting any injuries to open a case.) During the class I observed students were instructed to debate this question: If the wife doesn’t consent, has the husband committed rape?

"If my wife refuses me and she is not sick, then she has committed an offense against me," one male student stated in front of the class, which was 20 percent female at the time of my visit. Paul immediately jumped up to powerfully rebut his argument: "Are you claiming that your wife is your property? Because slavery is illegal!" she shouted, poignantly referencing the history of slave rebellion in Haiti and winning applause from the crowd. (Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, making it the only nation to be founded by slaves.)

Paul, who brought her American born 17-month-old daughter with her to class, is particularly passionate about fighting sexism. Paul said that the attitudes and behaviors of men govern her approach to parenting: No one but the most trusted family members are allowed to take care of her daughter. "I’ve seen rape victims who are babies who are 4 years old," she said.

While Paul is excited to codirect the legal clinic, she knows that its opening may be delayed, possibly for months. The fundraising isn’t complete, and the agencies tasked with managing supplies for the clinic have been slow to deliver. The three shipping containers that will make up the structure are awaiting placement on the foundation, blocked by trees that need to be removed before the forklift can drive through. Paul is also aware that the clinic’s location, far from the center of Jérémie, may present big transportation challenges to potential clients scattered across the large region. "We were supposed to get a vehicle so we can provide transport for victims, but I’m not sure we are getting it now," she said. Nevertheless, the partners supporting the clinic say that any delays are only temporary, and it’s possible for students to offer counsel in other locations if necessary.

Even without the clinic, ESCDROJ’s record of  promoting public-interest law is inspiring other Haitian law schools. The aforementioned Aristide Foundation’s law school in Port-au-Prince, which opened in 2011, is similarly promoting human rights and the rule of law in its curriculum and bringing in international collaborators to provide clinical training. ESCDROJ has demonstrated that this kind of training can significantly improve the legal culture in just a few years.

"I was struck on my last visit to see how many of the legal professionals in Jérémie were trained at ESCDROJ. Judges and prosecutors, the clerk of the court, the chief of police, and law professors are their graduates," Nessel said. "The school is fulfilling its initial mission to create lawyers educated with a real sense of justice and rule of law who will go on to change the system there."

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Earth Day 45

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 18:19

First organized in 1970, Earth Day is a day set aside to remember and appreciate the Earth's environment, and our responsibilities and roles within it. Today, April 22, we observe the 45th annual Earth Day, and though many things have changed for the better, environmental challenges remain. In the past 45 years, the population of the Earth has doubled—75 percent of the people alive today were born after 1970—and the increased demand on our limited resources makes sustainable solutions even more important. Collected here are 45 images of our world from recent years, each a glimpse into some aspect of our environment, how it affects and sustains us, and how we affect it.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

Making Perfume From the Rain

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 18:01

In India’s state of Uttar Pradesh, the village of Kannauj lies a dusty four-hour drive east of the Taj Mahal, the white-marbled wonder built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favorite wife. Empress Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631 giving birth to their 13th child. The Taj is Jahan’s grand paean to lost love. But he also mourned his queen in much more personal ways. For one thing, Jahan never again wore perfume. Fragrant oils—known in India as attars—had been one of the couple’s great shared passions.

Then and now, Kannauj was the place to fetch the fine scents—jasmine oils, rose waters, the roots of grasses called vetiver, with a bouquet cooling to the nose. Exactly when attar-making began there, no one is certain; archaeologists have unearthed clay distillation pots dating back thousands of years to the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. But today, Kannauj is a hub of a historic perfumery that draws much of the town to the same pursuit. Most of the villagers there are connected to fragrance in one way or another—from sinewy craftsmen who steam petals over wood fires in hulking copper pots to mothers who roll incense sticks in the shade while their toddlers nap on colorful mats nearby.

Along with their ancient perfumery, the villagers of Kannauj have inherited a remarkable skill: They can capture the scent of rain.

* * *

Every storm blows in on a scent, or leaves one behind. The metallic zing that can fill the air before a summer thunderstorm is from ozone, a molecule formed from the interaction of electrical discharges—in this case from lightning—with oxygen molecules. Likewise, the familiar, musty odor that rises from streets and storm ponds during a deluge comes from a compound called geosmin. A byproduct of bacteria, geosmin is what gives beets their earthy flavor. Rain also picks up odors from the molecules it meets. So its essence can come off as differently as all the flowers on all the continents—rose-obvious, barely there like a carnation, fleeting as a whiff of orange blossom as your car speeds past the grove. It depends on the type of storm, the part of the world where it falls, and the subjective memory of the nose behind the sniff.

City rain smells of steaming asphalt, in contrast to the grassy sweetness of rain in the countryside. Ocean rain smells briny like Maine clam flats on a falling tide. In the desert of the southwestern United States, rare storms punch the atmosphere with creosote and sage. In the southeast, frequent squalls leave the damp freshness of a wet pine forest. “Clean but funky,” Thomas Wolfe called the exquisite scent of the American South.

But nowhere is rain’s redolence more powerful than at the climatic extremes of the world—in India, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and parts of Australia—where great, dry swaths of desert are inundated with the most dramatic seasonal storms on Earth. In the otherwise dry places that depend on the downpours for most of their annual rainfall, monsoons shape everything from childhood to culture to commerce. And they arrive with a memory-searing scent. To Sanjiv Chopra, the Indian-American Harvard Medical School physician and author, the loamy smell of long-awaited rains soaking India’s dry soil is “the scent of life itself.” The earthy essence is strongest when rain quenches dehydrated ground. The scent can so tantalize drought-stricken animals that it sets thirsting cattle walking in circles.

In the 1950s and 60s, a pair of Australian mineralogists, Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas, set out to discover the source of that piquant perfume. Ultimately, they linked the scent to organic compounds that build up in the atmosphere, including heady-smelling terpenes secreted by plants. The major components in turpentine and resin, terpenes also put the essence in essential oils. They are the freshness in pine, the cool in peppermint, the spice in ginger. Rocks and clay absorb terpenes and other molecules from the atmosphere like sponges, and during hot, dry stretches, desert-like places build up great stores of the compound. When the humidity shifts ahead of monsoons, moisture loosens the material from its rocky pores and sends its pungency adrift on the wind. The aroma is more powerful in the wake of drought because the essential oils have had more time to build in the layers of rock.

Publishing in the journal Nature in 1964, Bear and Thomas proposed a name for the scent brought on by rain. They called it “petrichor,” a blend of the Greek words petra, rock, and ikhor, the blood of the gods in Greek mythology. But the scientists acknowledged that they were not the first to identify the stormy smell. They were not even the first to extract it. In fact, what they had dubbed petrichor was already a signature fragrance produced in Kannauj. Extracted from parched clay and distilled with ancient techniques, it is known as mitti attar—Earth’s perfume.

* * *

When I read the Australian scientists’ paper, I doubted that Kannauj’s villagers would still be crafting the rain perfume half a century later. But just in case, I tracked down Shakti Vinay Shulka, the director of India’s Fragrance & Flavour Development Centre, a government agency that supports the local essential-oil industry. I was thrilled to learn that not only were the villagers still making the mitti attar, but I could see the process for myself if I could make it to Kannauj on the eve of the monsoons. After flying 8,000 miles to India and taking a train to rural north-central Uttar Pradesh, I found myself in an ancient city holding tightly to the past.

On its outskirts, fields planted with aromatic crops stretched for miles, interspersed with the chimneys of hundreds of small-scale brick kilns for which the region is also known. Like the attars, bricks are manufactured in Kannauj today like they were centuries ago—red-clay earth cut from topsoil, then stacked and fired by men whose fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers cut, stacked, and fired bricks too.

In the crop rows, white jasmine flowers shaped like starfish bloomed in their ocean of waxy dark green. Twiggy trees called gul-hina were blooming too, their tiny flowers clustered into points of white flame. Ordinary on the tree, gul-hina leaves become the extraordinary henna that decorates women’s hands and feet for special occasions, or tints dark hair a spicy red. The tree’s flowers also make a delicate, sweet attar. It can take about 100 pounds of flower petals or herbs, infused into a pound of sandalwood oil—the ideal and purest base for essential oils—to make about one pound of pure attar. Extended families head out in the early mornings or cooler evenings to pick the fragile flowers. They pack their harvest in jute sacks, then rush, before the petals start to wilt, to one of two dozen steam distilleries in the town.

In modern times, Kannauj is also the name of a political district—a sprawling home to more than 1.5 million people. But the old city retains much of its aromatic history; an estimated 40,000 of its 70,000 residents are engaged in the fragrance industry in one way or another. When I arrived, I spotted small houses and perfume shops packed side-by-side on the streets. Colorful one-person Hindu temples were tucked here and there to honor gods. Cows wandered the road, and bicycles loaded perilously high with bundles of incense sticks wobbled by. Stretched across the main road, a brick archway announced the business of Kannauj in Hindi and Urdu: “Perfumes, Scented Tobaccos and Rose Waters.”

Kannauj's brick archway, erected in 1944 (Cynthia Barnett)

Shukla, a man whom colleagues described as a supersmeller (“the nose of all noses,” said one), served as my guide. He was trained in the European perfume industry and has been pained to watch his native country’s attar industry lose market share to modernity. When India opened its economy to foreign trade in the early 1990s, brand-conscious young Indians began turning to French perfumes. For the past decade or so, the industry has survived in part on attar’s popularity as a fragrance for tobacco products. But with many Indian states calling for bans on the cancer-causing materials, reliance on this single market may not be possible in the future.

Beyond the archway and down a dirt road, we arrived at the home of the Siyaram family, who sell scented earth from a pit behind their house to local perfumers. Covered with rainwater during the monsoons, the pit had dried out in the pre-monsoon summer. The Siyarams—mother, father, and their grown children—used wooden sticks to break the parched earth, and water from a nearby pond drawn through a diesel pump to help them shape the earth into disks, which they then baked in a primitive kiln. Some of these disks, called khapra, ended up at a perfumer named Munna Lal Sons & Co., which we visited next after following narrow, winding roads back through the old city of Kannauj. There, I met the third-generation leader of the company, Akhilesh Pathak, and a member of the fourth generation—his daughter, Swapnil, a 24-year-old engineering graduate who grew up at boarding school and had just returned to Kannauj to learn the family’s fragrant trade.

Each generation had built part of the eclectic complex where the extended family also lived in a row of well-appointed white houses. A content-looking herd of water buffalo lounged in the shade of a pair of massive Indian lilac trees that separated the homes from the perfume-making. Pathak told me his grandfather Munna Lal had made the rain fragrance ever since opening for business in 1911; Lal taught the techniques to Pathak’s father, who taught them to him.

If Kannauj felt last-century, the distillery where the company brews its essential oils, including the rain fragrance, was more last-millennium. There was no artificial lighting, no industrial machinery, no trace of modernity. Through the roof and open sides, natural light streamed onto craftsmen tending fires under copper cauldrons, called degs, which poked up from long rows of brick stills like giant fossilized eggs.

The ancient, painstakingly slow distillation practiced in Kannauj is called deg-bhapka. Each still consisted of the copper deg—built atop its own oven and beside its own trough of water—and a bulbous condenser called a bhapka (receiver) that looked like a giant butternut squash. When a fresh supply of flowers comes in, the craftsmen put pounds of rose or jasmine or other petals into each deg, cover the deg with water, hammer a lid down on top, and seal it with mud. They light a wood or cow-dung fire underneath, then fill the receiver with sandalwood oil—which serves as a base for the scents—and sink it into the trough. The deg and bhapka are connected with a hollow bamboo pipe that carries the fragrant vapors from the simmering pot into their sandalwood oil base.

The Munna Lal Sons & Co. perfumery in Kannauj (Cynthia Barnett)

Like the Siyaram and Pathak families, the distillery workers have inherited precise skills from fathers and grandfathers. They must closely monitor the fires so the heat under the cauldrons stays warm enough to evaporate the water inside to steam—but never so hot that it destroys the aroma. They must also keep the trough of water that holds the receiver cool enough for the vapors to turn back into a liquid, imbuing the sandalwood oil with their heady scent. Every few hours, they switch out the receiver, cooling down the deg with wet cloths each time to stop the condensation. A typical 100-pound batch of petals takes six or seven hours to distill.

On the day I visited, though, the distillers were brewing the only attar that doesn’t come from a plant, shoveling the Siyarams’ clay disks into the copper pots before pouring in the water and hammering on the tops. It would take six to seven hours before all of the aroma steamed out of the clay. At that point, the men would drain the receivers from a hole in the bottom, siphoning off the water that had condensed in the vessel until only the rich, fragrant oil that had pooled on top remained.

The mitti attar is not finished until it is poured into a special leather bottle called a kuppi and sealed inside. Attar not stored in the kuppi “is essentially ruined,” said Shukla, ever wary of modern manufacturing techniques, especially anything to do with plastic. “The moment you put it in the leather bottle is important, like the moment you put it on your skin. It allows the attar to release any remaining moisture and realize its true scent—in this case, the first rain on the ground.”

Our last stop on the mitti attar trail was a retail perfumery owned by a three-thumbed shopkeeper named Raju Mehrotra. Also carrying on the business of his father and grandfather, Mehrotra sat at a soapstone counter, the metal shelves behind him jammed with glass bottles and tins of every size filled with oils and attars of every type: jasmine, champaca, rose, kewda, three kinds of lotus, ginger lily, gardenia, frangipani, lavender, rosemary, wintergreen, geranium, and many more I had never heard of.

The mitti attar was in an inch-tall glass bottle on the counter. I twisted off the little gold cap, closed my eyes, and breathed in the scent of the Indian rain. It smelled like the earth. It smelled like the parched clay doused with pond water in the Siyarams’ backyard. The aroma was entirely different from the memory of rain I carried from my childhood and my part of the world—ozone-charged air, wet moss, Wolfe’s “clean but funky” scent of the south. But it was entirely appealing: warm, organic, mineral-rich. It was the smell of waiting, paid off: 40 years or more for a sandalwood tree to grow its fragrant heartwood; four months of hot, dust-blown summer in northern India before the monsoons arrive in July; a day for terra-cotta to slow-fire in a kiln.

I asked Shukla, the supersmeller, to tell me what the scent brought to his mind. “It is the smell of India,” he said. “It reminds me of my country.”

This post has been adapted from Cynthia Barnett's book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

What Does Europe Owe Fleeing Migrants?

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 17:32

In the aftermath of Sunday's sea disaster, which killed more than 800 would-be migrants off the coast of Libya, European officials were quick to blame traffickers for recklessly crashing the overcrowded boat.

Speaking about the smugglers in a joint statement on Monday, three European premiers, Britain's David Cameron, Italy's Matteo Renzi, and Malta's Joseph Muscat, offered that the "highest priority has to be action to disrupt their activities." The reality is a bit more complicated.

Almost 2,000 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe since the start of 2015, a staggering number when "compared to fewer than 100 deaths by the end of April last year, a period when a similar number attempted the crossing," reported Reuters.

What's changed? Mare Nostrum, the Italian search-and-rescue program that scanned the Libyan coast looking for smuggling ships, was scrapped last fall in favor of Triton, a comparatively meek (and cheaper) European Union program that patrols the waters near Europe. With traffickers sending migrants on boats not fit for sea and sometimes forcing passengers onto small rubber ships, the coasts of Europe rarely even appear on the horizon before tragedy strikes.

"We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean," Joyce Anelay, the British Foreign Office minister, wrote in October. In spelling out a policy that would cut funding to search-and-rescue operations, she cited "an unintended 'pull factor,' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."

The pushback was immediate. "People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life rings," said Maurice Wren, the head of the British Refugee Council. Human-rights organizations pointed out that Mare Nostrum had facilitated the rescue of roughly 150,000 people in just one year. "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery," implored Pope Francis in November.

Instability, war, and other violence are among the factors that have led thousands of asylum seekers and refugees to risk everything to reach Europe. According to a report by Arezo Malakooti, director of migration research at Altai Consulting, half of the migrant traffic to Europe last year came from Eritrea and Syria. Sunday's incident involved 350 Eritreans and a number of other people from sub-Saharan Africa as well as some Syrians.

Meanwhile, a renascent and destabilizing civil war in Libya has also catalyzed the movement of refugees. "A U.N. report in February cited Italian officials as saying that 85 percent of the 167,184 migrants rescued at sea in 2014 had originated from the Libyan coast," noted Borzou Daragahi at the Financial Times. An estimated 220,000 others made it to Europe by sea in 2014.

"I tell them its 95 percent sure that you will die," one Somali migrant who survived the journey said of his family members. But for some, those odds are good enough.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

<i>The Atlantic</i> Unbound

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 04:30

We've redesigned What do you think?

From the beginning of the project, we've had the fundamental question in mind of what this site is—which is to say, both what it's become (as regular readers know, a lot's changed here over time) and what we want it to be. Is it the website of a magazine? Is it a news site? Is it, as James Franco possibly once suggested, a blog?

The answers, we recognized, are all in one way or another yes. But we figured we'd try a thought experiment: What if we described as a direct, dynamic, digital extension of our core identity in journalism—as a real-time magazine?

That seemed to us both authentic and aspirational: an idea that captured what The Atlantic has been doing in new media for years and a framework that could bring the right focus to rebuilding now.

So here's what we did:

We created a site that makes a new priority of visual presentation, that offers a cleaner reading experience across digital devices, and that gives us the flexibility we need, both in our articles and on our homepage, to join the speed and urgency of the web with the noise-cutting and impact that have always been central to The Atlantic's ambitions.

The new homepage is composed of full-width modules each representing either one big story or a constellation of connected stories. We can move these modules up or down the page, allowing us, among other freedoms, alternately to lead with the urgency of our news coverage or the impact of a big feature, according to the needs of the moment.

It also allows us to give full play to the same urgency and impact below the top of the page. As you return to the site, you'll find different homepage modules in different orders with different kinds of stories in different combinations. What you won't find, we hope, is the impression of diminishing importance as you scroll down.

Neither should you find yourself disoriented. So rather than placing stories arbitrarily adjacent to one another, we're using each of these modules to display a single story or a group of stories that are in some way related. This approach is inspired by the emergent logics of scrolling and swiping in mobile media: The vertical axis of the homepage represents a logic of exploration (scrolling); the horizontal axis, a logic of connection (swiping). A good magazine should, after all, help us keep our bearings.

Our new article pages are likewise more visually engaging and flexible. We're using larger images, and better image integration, with a fuller range of options for bigger feature stories, as well as more controlled templates for quicker hits, which we'll sometimes need as The Atlantic moves fast in trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world.

We've thought about the logics of exploration and connection on the article pages too: Next to our stories (horizontally), you'll find links to related articles; below the stories (vertically), you'll find links to normally unrelated articles, or for that matter photo essays or videos, currently popular on the site.

Maybe most conspicuously, across, we've replaced our old nameplate and navigation bar with a simple new flag bearing our logo, options to subscribe or search the site, and an expandable menu. This treatment is influenced by the way the logo is set on our monthly covers; the minimalistic integration of the subscription, search, and menu functions is based both on extensive user testing and our guiding dedication to keeping signals high, and noise low, around our brand and our work.

Oh, and the typefaces are new. Hawk-eyed readers will recognize the display and text fonts, both Lyon, as the same ones we use in print.

I'll add, we've done this entire redesign in-house, with the commitment of more than a dozen people, from our product and edit teams, over more than six months. But we're looking at today's relaunch as an inception more than a culmination. We'll watch to see what works and how; we'll adapt to what we learn; and we're already at work building new things. An enhanced News section, drawing on and supporting all our topical sections, will be one. Our Projects section (the heir to our Special Reports), where we'll do ambitious series and other undertakings, will be another. A new suite of newsletters will be another still. In fact, we're debuting the first of them now, The Atlantic Daily. Please subscribe.

Meanwhile, we're planning to do more with reader engagement than we've been able to do in a long time. Which we'd like to take a first step toward here with the email address I linked to at the top of this note:

Hope to hear from you.

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis

A World Transfixed by Screens

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 04:25

The continued massive growth of connected mobile devices is shaping not only how we communicate with each other, but how we look, behave, and experience the world around us. Smartphones and other handheld devices have become indispensable tools, appendages held at arm's length to record a scene or to snap a selfie. Recent news photos show refugees fleeing war-torn regions holding up their phones as prized possessions to be saved, and relatives of victims lost to a disaster holding up their smartphones to show images of their loved ones to the press. Celebrity selfies, people alone in a crowd with their phones, events obscured by the very devices used to record that event, the brightly lit faces of those bent over their small screens, these are some of the scenes depicted below. [Editor's note, this photo essay was previously published here earlier this year.]

This article was originally published at

Categories: News Analysis