Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Comoros: 'Love Bombing' in the Never Ending Revolution.

Ok hands up who wants an education? 

Boats left the tiny island of Moheli at dawn on Tuesday 24th carrying 1300 African Union troops to back up the Comorian army. The opposition Anjouan forces numbered just 500, so why the need for so much backup? Well these 500 heavily armed rebels had successfully fought of the Comorian National army at least twice before in recent history. When the federal government attempted to invade in 1997 after Anjouan actually declared itself independent what followed was four tumultuous years of coup and counter coup, with the iconic presence of Colonel Mohamed Bacar, a French trained former gendarme, as the leader of the Anjouan people.

Local legends say that the three troubled islands that form this fragile union were born out of a massive under sea explosion when molten lava from the volcano Karthala spat out rebellious brother Anjouan and then little Moheli. Some even say the explosion was caused by a diamond, carried by a messenger from King Solomon to the Queen of Sheeba. The messenger dropped the jewel into the sea and from the passion it symbolised the volcano was created and so the crescent moon shaped archipelago was born, and has remained restless and volatile since.

Now we are told that the 300,000 population danced in the streets to welcome the invading or perhaps liberating AU forces, as Bacar supposedly fled clothed as a woman to escape via fishing boat to Mayotte.

I have to say I find the idea of him fleeing dressed as a woman a little hard to believe. This is not the sort of Islamic country where women walk around in Burkas. In Anjouan, especially the poor mountain villages, women wear lambas, a simple wrap of cloth, bright, colourful and wrapped around the body like a sarong. Not really much to hide under. But seeeing as the source quoted for this is the federal goverment's own spokesman, also the peacetime minister of education, I suppose it rubs salt in the wound of Bacar's defeat and serves as a handy way of removing any legacy of heroic opposition to an oppressive regime. How seriously will a military leader of an Islamic country be taken if the enduring image is of him hiding in a canoe wearing a dress. How seriously would we take Brown or good old Sarko if we were to be presented with the same picture.    

"Anjouan island is under total control of the army," Major Ahmed Sidi declared within hours of the invasion. It made me chuckle a bit when they heroically claimed possession of the island's airport. Anjouan's airport is a grass roof held up by sticks. It doesn't even have walls. Well the little restaurant next door has walls I suppose, but anyway.. Technically speaking fighting continues guerilla style in small pockets, but it is taken as read that the year long standoff is over and the big island has won.

It is hard to tell what this latest changeover in the corridors of power will mean for the population of Anjouan who seem to have been held hostage to rich men's ambitions for decades. What revenge will the big island exact on it's small rebellious brother? It doesn't seem likley that Bacar had no local support, though after the island was carpet bombed with love letters from President Sambi's camp advising them on how to behave until the rescue mission was complete, it seems people paid attention and stayed hidden away in their homes until it was safe to come out and celebrate.

These are people whos perseverence is astonishing. Civil servants work for a few hours a day to keep things ticking along, knowing that they might have to wait two or three years before the EU or some other foreign body steps in to actually pay them.

In country where almost everything is imported and therefore sold at prices out of the reach of most, somehow everyone finds a way to survive. Amidst this kind of poverty, you can go leave your wallet on a table in a small roadside cafe, realise a few minutes later, run back to find it still there. People are proud and kind and helpful. On the whole crimes happen in the corridors of power. That isn't to say this is a paradise of virtue. One of the first stories I ever covered in the Indian Ocean was the extent of abuse against young women, especially in the poorer mountain villages. The girls were so accustomed to being used that it almost wasn't shocking anymore. Their faces were hard and expressionless as they told me their stories, but their hands were shaking.

I met a 13 year old girl who had been raped twice and had become pregnant. She asked for the help of Fatima Bacar who runs the Cellule d'Ecoute, a children's safe house on Anjuoan. She wasn't hoping for justice, just someone to help her tell her mother, but Fatima is a formidable woman and has devoted her life to getting prison sentences for rapists or at least financial support for the girl. The later sounds like poor compensation but circumstances mean women worry more about survival than justice. About feeding the new little mouth than punishing the abuser. The more noise Fatima can make about the subject the more likely it is that this will change, still the ever present and overbearing burden of poverty seems to thwart everyones efforts to make a lasting difference.

The AU have scored an easy victory here and earned some international prestige to offset the struggles of its peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia. The tough AU stance on Anjouan also reflects its aversion to any secessionist movements. Sudan and Tanzania certainly have an interest in reinforcing the integrity of their borders from within which might have motivated their involvement.

For once maybe Mbeki has a point. "I think it is very unfortunate that the military action has taken place because it takes the Comoros back to this history of force instead of resolving matters peacefully."

...... more soon...

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Madagascar and Ivan the Terrible

I don’t often tell people this but cyclone season is my favourite time of year. 

For a few months I get to fly around the country in private jets and helicopters, take speedboat journeys up rivers that cut through mountainous tropical rainforests in the east, wade through waist high mud and ride dirt roads in a 4x4 across the flat dry plains of southern Madagascar’s dry deciduous forests, deserts and shrublands.

Last weekend I flew to the North East of Madagascar in a Ukranian helicopter to join a World Food Programme mission to drop food in areas cut off by damage to roads and bridges caused by cyclone Ivan. I was in the same make of helicopter that is currently being used by Grande Comore to invade the rebel island of Anjouan in the neighbouring Union of the Comoros (Union being more a sort of aspirational term for this troubled federation that has suffered 21 coups or attempted coups since independence in the 1970s).

Air operations for this invasion, or rather a series of toe dipping mini invasions (a sort of tedious, costly and long drawn out game of tag you're it!), are continuing under the watchful eyes of a band of Ukranian mercenaries who come thrown in with the hardware. We have some too on this trip but our Ukranians are pleasant and spend most of their time huddled in the cockpit or wandering around muttering and pointing at the bags of grain and cooking oil. 

Robert, the UN emergency specialist in charge of the air operations confirms that these machines and their operators are indeed very versatile and quickly adaptable. 

Ivan the Terrible, the moniker earned by the cyclone's category 4 hurricane winds, destroyed transport routes, killed nearly 100 people and flattened hundreds of thousands of homes. This is where I have to explain why this is my favourite part of being here. This time last year, whilst waist deep in mud with my camera bag on my head, was when I stopped feeling like an imposter and started feeling like a journalist. I got to do something useful, meet people, record their stories and tell the world, or whoever was listening, what was happening to them. 

Overland through the north of Madagascar is a spectacular journey. Most of Madagascar's countryside has been devoured by forest fires. If you were to drive directly south of the capital for 5 or 6 hours you can count the patches of trees you pass on one hand and all there is to see is endless stretches of bare red earth. Driving through the north is where you find Madagascar's last lost Eden of thick green rainforest, mountains, silver winding rivers and deep valleys. It is at once breathtaking and inhospitable. 

The region of Analanjirofo, which literally translates to the forest of cloves, is one of the main growing areas for the girofle tree from which cloves are harvested, primarily for export. 

The man in the top photograph, Benja, is standing in the branches of a girofle tree searching out what remains of his harvest in bunches of dry dead girofle leaves. He will find nothing he can sell. 

Of his three hectare orchard, this is the only tree that remains standing. Even if he can find the money to replant, his orchard will take 4 years to grow trees that can flower and fruit. His vanilla crop, which prior to the cyclone grew in vines that wrapped themselves around the trunks of these tall trees, has also disappeared and will take careful rehabilitation.

Madagascar is the world’s largest exporter of vanilla, producing over half of the world's supply, and second largest producer of cloves after Indonesia. Almost all of the country’s clove and vanilla crops are grown in Analanjirofo and the neighbouring Sava region. They grow litchis and coffee here too which are also valuable cash crops.

The harvest season for cloves lasts just two short months in October and November, but a good crop can bring in 6000 Ariary a kilo or 400,000 Ariary a month which is about $237 US. In a country where most of the population survives on less than $2 US a day this is enough to keep a family going until their litchi or vanilla crop is ready and makes this a relatively wealthy region.

Access to affected areas has been slow and complicated by the country’s varied terrain and limited infrastructure. After Ivan hit with a force comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005, roads and bridges were destroyed. People walk for miles through the mountains and swim across rivers to reach cities and ports, but bringing in food and supplies to replace those lost has been near impossible.

Despite a recurrent cyclone season lasting from December to April, Madagascar lacks the capacity to reach remote areas even in the dry season. A country larger than France it only has 5000 miles of viable road, viable meaning roads that don’t turn to rivers for half the year, and two working stretches of train line, only one of which can carry passengers and may soon be closed and sold off. The helicopter will be returned to Mozambique in one month. The goal is to have as many roads up and running by then as possible, at least until the next cyclone season starts again.

That's enough rambling for today.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Nepal, Kathmandu

I've tried this blogging business before and it constituted two enthusiastic entries and then silence.... I hope to do better this time. Before I start rambling though, here is a picture - December in Nepal.