Room for One More; Reflections from a Privileged Struggle

photo_3_-_foret_de_haguenau_credit_p._jung_protection_faune_floreMarching through the wake of a shadowy sunrise my roommate and I embarked on a twenty-seven kilometer journey of masochist torture, also known as hiking through the French countryside. Something about pushing one’s physical limits and that particular quiet of nature compels some of us to do things that would be by any other definition unenjoyable. As we left the quiet of Sunday in the small village behind us, we were encouraged by seeing all manner of people utilizing some of the well kept trails and roads that run though le Forêt de Haguenau. This would change after we left our first stop, le Gros Chêne, a park built around the site of a 3,000 year-old oak tree, felled by lighting in the early 20th century. From there our route turned drastically from paved road to forest trail as we carried on with eagle eyes for the small trails markers, our only assurance we weren’t totally lost. With each passing hour the late August day seemed to claw its way back towards the heights of summer, rather than sharing a few whispering breezes with us which could foretell, as the falling leaves did, of cooler weather. Eventually we were shoulder to shoulder with the trees, dripping sweat, drowning in the melodious hum of insects. A pain grew in my right foot as I monitored the sock position to slow development of a ripe blister. The rough plastic straps of the back-pack that I was carrying our food and water pinched and twisted at my neck while I repositioned a sweaty t-shirt underneath my shoulders to alleviate some of the discomfort. Feeling deflated and overwhelmed, I reminded myself that this was my idea. I wanted to be here. Small luxuries–whether they were of the sandwich I would have at our next stop, or the cold shower I would take when I got home–motivated me to push one sore blistering foot in front of the other. This discomfort would be rewarded.

But I couldn’t help but wonder what this journey would feel like without the promise these simple luxuries. As most people are now well aware millions of refugees have fled the conflict in Syria and we currently facing a humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that 50% of Syria’s population has been displaced. Three million people have officially registered as refugees by early August and this extraordinary number still does not take into account many who have not registered with the UNHR. Europe’s high standard of living and close geographical proximity to the crisis has made countries like France, Germany, and Sweden strategic destinations for asylum seekers while Greece, Italy, and countries such as Bulgaria and Macedonia have become the gatekeepers. Many of these refugees have walked thousands of kilometers with little to no food and water, medicine, or other essentials. Many also attempted to make the dangerous passage by boat, where smugglers have been capitalizing on the desperate situation and collecting huge sums to send packed and decrepit boats into the Mediterranean. At last count 2,500 people have failed to survive this route. The body of a three-year-old boy recently washed up on the shores of Turkey has become the symbol for the crisis after he, his mother, and five-year-old brother drowned in an attempt to seek asylum in Canada; even though their sponsored application had already been denied. Between January and May 2015 the Turkish coastguard rescued over 42,000 people, and over 2,100 last week alone, trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos.

[They] may seem like mere political caricature, but they intensify and exploit very real fears and in the process people’s unfathomable and catastrophic struggles are turned into fodder for political rhetoric.

The perception of refugee issues has always been contentious and is often lumped together with arguments around immigration in general. On the one hand most industrially developed nations recognize the need for certain amounts of immigration, but when domestic situations become aggravated through economic downturns and security concerns like terrorism people have a tendency to dig in and become more polarized and nationalistic. Pegida in Germany, Le Front National in France, English Defense League and UKIP in the UK, are all examples in the extreme of this growing phenomenon of aggressive (if not yet violent) finger pointing. Donald Trump’s perspective on Mexican immigrants, Pamela Gellner’s unbearable anti-Muslim tirades may seem like mere political caricature, but they intensify and exploit very real fears and in the process people’s unfathomable and catastrophic struggles are turned into fodder for political rhetoric.

A migrant group walks between the railroad tracks near Roszke village of the Hungarian-Serbian border on August 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK
A migrant group walks between the railroad tracks near Roszke village of the Hungarian-Serbian border on August 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

And as I took a drink from my lukewarm Evian bottle I thought of those journeys being taken by millions of people right now. Of the entire families walking towards destinations not a few dozen kilometers away, but a few thousand. I thought of what it would take to motivate me to be able to do this, not just day after day, but month after month, to continue beyond all conception of physical and mental limitation. What it would take to pursue a destination without promise, nothing more than a glimmer of hope, which they can only assume lies in the distance. On that journey one’s only luxury is necessity. It isn’t about ‘looking for a better life.’ Even less so about committing crimes or ‘burdening the system.’ A refugee’s journey is one of survival, fed by the desperate will to live. As human beings we begin and end by this very need.

This remains forever a choice, an active, complicated and nuanced one, and one that we ‘collectively’ have to continue to make ad infinitum.

But do we have a responsibility respond? Does our relative capacity to assist others oblige us to do so? And if so, how and to what extent? The difficulty with these questions is that in reality there is nothing so fundamental that it obligates us incontestably to provide for each other a life of dignity in the face of horrifically unequal circumstances. This remains forever a choice, an active, complicated and nuanced one, and one that we ‘collectively’ have to continue to make ad infinitum.

There was a time when people fleeing persecution still had a borderless word to exploit. Entire continents were founded by refugees who have forgotten through the generations what it means to be one. At this moment in time we have a tremendous opportunity to restructure some very problematic relationships between ourselves and other parts of the world and to counteract some of the circumstances which lend themselves to violence and terrorism to begin with. Nothing builds bridges faster than an outstretched hand to someone in need. Not because we can guarantee that there will not be those who will take advantage of it, but because it builds respect when we do so. Those escaping extreme poverty and conflict need no more reasons to suspect that this world is nothing more than a violent, uncaring place from which there is no escape. They need no more reasons to try and fight invisible enemies wrapped up in the enigma of conflict. Nor is it sustainable to continue to fight violence with violence and securitize and prosecute refugees like criminals. And as I looked around at the endless undulating forest of this safe and prosperous place, I just couldn’t imagine arriving on it’s border, hungry and desperate, and believing for a second, that there wasn’t room for one more.

Changes, Challenges and Curiosity, a brief on Ros Atkins at LSE

News anchor for BBC’s Outside Source Ros Atkins was at the LSE Monday speaking with summer journalism students about some of the realities of broadcast journalism today, as informed by his wealth of experience from television and radio. Shedding light not only on how his program in particular adapted to change, but also how his job has been impacted by technology’s ability to provide ‘intimacy at a distance.’ Figuratively speaking of course, this means that we can get closer to an event while it is happening than ever before and has allowed for an unprecedented interactivity between journalist and the viewing public, to the degree that reporters can now engage and respond to viewers in real-time about what’s going on around them

On this point specifically Ros acknowledged how this drastically changes the dynamics of the relationship between the consumer and the media, with most of us now receiving our information in increasingly non-linear ways. The news today–at least as Ros is approaching it–is less didactic broadcast and more “real time collation,” where the best of the best from around the world, from journalist and non-journalist alike, is given equal opportunity to tell the news as it happens. The broadcast also becomes more participatory as the interests and concerns of viewers find direct agency through mediums like Twitter. The array of information available through the internet on any given topic means that it’s less about guarding the best scoop, as getting the best information to the public as quickly as possible; no matter who’s information it is.

With that said Ros also drove home the point that this opens up a greater need for the news to be transparent. Information is power, and therefore the news will always remain a powerful tool. How this power is used and towards which ends in particular has historically been a relationship defined by the ethical and moral considerations of the ‘journalist as gatekeeper.’ While the ability to source the best and most current content expands, the creation of that content also moves further away from the hands of the journalist. In this, and all cases where it might be applicable, Ros advocated verification as far as it will take you, transparency where it won’t, and honesty when it is still necessary to go there.

“Curiosity is the motor of everything. . . let it drive everything you do.”

While the format of journalism may change Ros advises that the best commodity you’ll have to bring to a story as a journalist is your objective curiosity. If you are genuinely and truly curious about the world and the people that inhabit it, that passion will translate to your audience more than anything else. “Curiosity is the motor of everything. . . let it drive everything you do.”

Copenhagen attacks; violence unfolds in Europe again

     Attendees of a talk entitled Art Blasphemy and Freedom and Expression were attacked with automatic weapon fire in Copenhagen on Valentine’s Day around 4:00pm CET wounding five police officers and killing one man, 55 year-old Danish filmmaker Finn Noergaard. The gunmen fled the scene in a vehicle which police later recovered about 8 km northwest of the scene of the shooting. Then in the early morning hours of Sunday 15 February, the attacker carried out another shooting at a synagogue where one security guard was also killed. Again he was able to flee the scene and remained on the run until he attempted to return to an address the police had under surveillance and was shot dead.

     While the suspects’ motivation remains technically unclear, it is widely reported that it was inspired by the shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Pairs last month and that his target was likely Lars Vilks, a Swedish satirical cartoonist. Vilks is no stranger to this kind of threat. He was one of the first to publish a caricature of the prophet Mohammed in 2007 which landed him a fatwa from al-Qaeda in Iraq which included six-figure reward. While Vilks condemned the violent act, he brazenly told the Associated Press that he was also unfazed; “I’m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least.”

“I’m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least,” states Lars Vilks.

     The suspect in both attacks was a 22-year-old Danish citizen Omar El-Hussein, who had a history of violence and weapons charges. While it is believed that he acted alone, and no known extremist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, this has not deterred strong language from Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt;

“We feel certain now that it was a politically motivated attack, and thereby it was a terrorist attack”. Adding, “there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty.”

     Condemnations also came in from many Western leaders following suit including Françaois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper who tweeted;

“Horrified by the act of terror in Copenhagen. Our thoughts and prayers are w/Denmark. We stand strong w/our allies against such atrocities.”

     The parallels between the Charlie Hebdo attack and this most recent one are almost unbelievable. Both attacks consisted of two shootings, one which aimed to attack an ideological precept, namely free speech, and the other an attack on the Jewish community. Both initial shootings in broad daylight with automatic weapons, both with targets of satirical cartoonists, both end in bloodshed for victims and suspect(s). Both were followed by sweeping ideological responses from powerful heads-of-state and calls from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for a “massive immigration” of Jews from Europe.

     The frustration and anger that mounted in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, now seems to have broken into exasperation. How do we respond to what seems unresolvable? How do we address these acts of violence in our communities? David Cameron had this to say;

“The shootings in Copenhagen are an appalling attack on free speech and religious freedom. Two innocent people have been murdered simply for their beliefs . . .”

     The problem is though, is it really? And what are the dangers in claiming it as one? Realistically this young man was a 22 year-old Danish national, he had never traveled to a conflict zone and there are still no connections support radicalization. So what is a terrorist act? If an attack is ideologically motivated? Does it have to be planned or orchestrated by a known terrorist group? Can an individual, acting on his own be considered a terrorist (versus a criminal) simply on the basis of the target of his crime? Furthermore, at what point does an attack warrant a grandiose ideological response and when it is simply criminal mimicry? While Danish police have not finished their forensic investigation, at this time it appears as though the suspect had no accomplices and no overtly declared motivation except what can be inferred from his targets. Does this merit a response which places this act of violence in opposition to the very foundations of Western society itself?

     In essence all violence is conducted from the same mixture of righteousness and desperation; even our own. Terrorism as violence works because it speaks to the possibility for violence that is innate within all of us. Violence cannot literally attack an abstract ideal. It cannot damage something held in the heart of a person or society, it can only slowly erode its’ integrity until they believe that’s all they are.

Four years

a paper bird

Today is the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. General Sisi’s regime has cancelled (“delayed”) any commemorations of a date it is indisposed to celebrate. Instead it is “mourning over the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz”: the corrupt mafioso who bankrolled the ongoing counterrevolution. Four years ago, Abdullah described Egypt’s liberation struggle thus: “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators, in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security and stability, and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition.” Now his Cairo acolytes anoint the foreign intruder a national hero.

Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck Midan Tahrir, January 25, 2015: Photo by @LELoveluck

Today, Midan Tahrir is immune to infiltration, shut off with iron gates. The Ministry of Interior has deployed its forces everywhere. All Egypt is a crime scene.

Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 4.17.04 PMAt the…

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Oubliez Charlie, qui sommes nous?

Updates and Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

“I just want to tell you that we are defenders of the Prophet. I, Chérif Kouachi, was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen. I was over there.  I was financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.”

These were the words spoken by one of the two Kouachi brothers responsible for the attacks at Charlie Hebdo on January 7th. Recordings of the telephone conversation between him and a BFMTV radio station host reveal him to have been calm, purposeful and clear in his justification for his actions (Lichfield).

“We are not killers. We are defenders of the Prophet. We are not like you . . .We can kill. But we don’t kill women. It is you that kill the children of Muslims in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria. That’s not us. We have a code of honour, us, in Islam.”

Some experts, however, argue that this direct connection with al-Qaeda may be bit of a stretch. Al-Awlaki, the man they claim financed the operation, was killed in September 2011, and despite a video by a top al-Qaeda commander claiming responsibility (Michael), Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, thinks the video may be more “aspirational” than anything else, explaining “ . . . terrorists groups do like taking credit for events that they may or may not have actually been responsible for” (Brennen).

It was shortly after that interview took place when in a small village north-east of Paris, Michel Catalano, the owner of CDT Printworks, saw the two men approaching dressed in combat clothing and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and a rocket launcher (Gardiner, Evans). The Kouachi brothers would make their final stand against police from his warehouse, eventually allowing Catalano to go free, while unwittingly leaving his one employee hiding under a sink, texting pertinent details to the police (Gardiner, Evans).

Two days later on January 11th, one of France’s largest recorded demonstrations took place, with approximately 1.6 million people gathering around the Place de la République (Paris). Many carried flags or signs which bore the now ubiquitous phrase Je Suis Charlie, while others upheld the pen, symbolic of how these attacks are being more broadly seen as an attack on “republican values” (François). Global leaders have been unanimous in their condemnation and in their likening it to an attack on free speech and the fundamental principles of “freedom-loving nations” (Francois). In a “show of solidarity”, many joined together at the demonstration to walk arm-in-arm including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and EU President Donald Tusk (Paris).

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It isn’t difficult to understand the need for such profound and sweeping reactions. Frustration at not being able to solve the problem of extremism, while reckoning with the realities of a seemingly uncontrollable threat to safety in a nation generally distanced from prosaic violence, has reasonably shaken many people. Much of the dialogue that has followed, along with the mobilization of so many people, is a necessary response to tragedy, and an important and valuable one in a democratic society. It is precisely at such times that we need to be wary of the line between genuine discussion and grandiose sentimentality, and of using our value statements as shovels for trenching in ideological warfare.

The real threat to our society’s principles, I would argue, is not terrorism, but frantic allegiance–be it to country, flag, leader or value–anything that would be seen as so sacrosanct, so irreproachable that to be ‘done in it’s name’ is, by its own definition, intrinsically good. We cannot fight fundamentalism on one side, with fundamentalism on the other, and we cannot have a discussion about the values of the democracy, let alone use them as a rallying cry, without asking ourselves what those values mean to us today, what kind of actions they justify, and to whom these values serve. In short, what kind of society are we fighting for?

Many have pointed out some of the hypocrisy of holding up Charlie Hebdo as a bastion of free speech. The magazine’s attempts at satire often skirted a fine line between satire and racism, while unequally applying such criticism amongst its targets (Samuel). For example, after taking an anti-Semitic jab at Jean Sarkozy, the son of Nicolas Sarkozy, the cartoonist known as Sine was fired from the publication in 2009 and later charged with “inciting racial hatred” (Samuel). Satire, when done well, is meant to attack and undermine the powerful and shake up systemic complacency. When used to reproduce stereotypical images of the powerless, however, it can also be racism masquerading as satire. The world is made up of fallible people, drawing important yet still arbitrary distinctions between right and wrong, and often where the line is drawn, depends upon the artist. If we want to have freedoms then we must choose them, carefully and deliberately, and be wary of easy feel-good sentimentality and subtexts of segregation; and we must ensure that we use these values as principles of action, not privileges.

Unexpected Lessons and the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

Early morning on January 7 a sombre tone took over the normally welcoming morning smiles of the France24 broadcast tv channel. The commonly sporadic international coverage shifted quickly and dramatically to a street in the 11th arrondissement, a neighbourhood in the southeast of Paris. While watching the news, I kept hearing the same word again and again: «fusillade, fusillade». What was this word? What was happening? They say experience is the best teacher. What I experienced that day, standing in my pyjamas, coffee in hand, was the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and a French lesson I will never forget.

Just before noon, Paris time, two masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs, later identified as brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, drove up to the front entrance of the offices of Charlie Hebdo–a French magazine which specializes in controversial satirical cartoons–and opened fire (Burke). First killing the guards stationed outside, they then entered the building and headed directly for Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief, murdering him along with his bodyguard. As the attack progressed the shooters called out more names of other employees and rampaged their way through the building (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping). In the end, a total of 12 people were killed and 11 injured (Charlie). Those killed included Jean Cabut, one of France’s best-known cartoonists, Bernard Maris an economist and journalist, and Georges Wolinski another well-known illustrator, along with other employees and police officers (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

Charlie Hebdo has already seen its fair share of controversy and tragedy. In 2006 they were one of the few publications to run the infamous Danish satirical cartoon of Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in two Muslim organizations trying unsuccessfully to sue for “incitement of hatred” (Chrisafis). Then in 2011 their office was petrol bombed, resulting in severe property damage and a follow-up issue featuring a bearded Muslim passionately kissing a cartoonist with the caption, “l’amour plus forte que la haine” (Chrisafis). There have also been a string of death threats and other harassments against many at the magazine, however there was no particular threat on the day of the shooting (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

After fleeing the magazine’s offices by car, the attackers abandoned the vehicle in the 19th arrondissement, near the Porte de Pantin metro station and stole another vehicle. The hunt for the gunmen continued while the French President, François Hollande, made his way down to the scene to issue a strong and unambiguous statement condemning the events not only as a terrorist attack but also as an attack against,  “… expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.” He continued, “France is in shock– the shock of an attack, because it’s a terrorist attack, there’s no doubt about that” (Lynch).

As news spread of the terrible events many began to gather together in show of solidarity, leaning on one another as we so often do during times of tragedy. Under the towering statue of Marianne, the allegorical figure of the French revolution, a crowd of about 35,000 gathered on Wednesday night at the Place de la République, which echoed with “spontaneous cries of, Je suis Charlie! (Overton). The phrase, which was tweeted millions of times throughout the night, became the rallying cry of those deeply moved by what had happened (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

For many, such an attack is clearly an attempt to silence dissenting voices and an issue of free speech, of violence versus the pen. Charlie Hebdo and the journalists who lost their lives are being held up for the ideologies of secularism, democracy and freedom in general. For others, this is an issue of nationalism, of immigration, and of a lack of forceful political action against what is being called a “war against Islamic fundamentalism” (Mosque). Warnings now come from many sides about an impending civil war (Meyssan) and of a threat, which is no longer ‘out there’ but between one another, sparked by a deep and unacknowledged hypocrisy and a pervasive disenfranchisement.

While the world comes to grips with the significance of the events, the hunt continues for the brothers, who are without a confirmed sighting in 24 hours at the time of writing (Leitchfield). US President Barack Obama as well as other key heads-of-state such as Angela Merkel and David Cameron, have offered not only their condolences but also assistance to the French government to support finding the fugitives (McCarthy, Phipps, Topping).

It is hard to say at this still early stage what the ongoing implications will be. However it seems that many are already very aware that such occurrences pose a much greater threat, if allowed to spur hatred and incite further violence. It is certainly reasonable to expect that many will feel frustration, confusion, and helplessness in the face of such a heinous crime. There will also be some who will choose to react to those feelings violently and who will want to use the highly charged emotional tension to reinforce a position of division. But this is where the real threat of terrorism lies, not in the destruction of lives or property, however tragic, but in the dismantling of our faith in one another in the hopes of securitizing ourselves against fear. Fear is the real commodity of terrorism not bullets—or bombs, or blood.

Ukraine Rising: Conflict and Confluence on the Streets of Kiev

Like Anti-government protests in Ukrainemany who have been watching the saga in Ukraine I have been moved by the gravity of the fighting, the stalwart position of the protesters, and the swift condemnation by many in the international community, including Canada’s own Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird. Admittedly prior the escalation I knew very little of the politics involved and will admit still, a relatively superficial understanding, but its significant was obvious, even before I attempted to understand why.

Ukraine has a long history of internal struggle between those with West leaning ideologies and favor closer relations with the EU, and those who would support stronger ties with Russia. Generally speaking, support for the latter arises largely from an ethnically Russian population within Ukraine, most notably in the Donbass and Crimea regions, where Russian is still the dominant language, along with other large cities in the East and South. Interestingly, it was in these regions where Viktor Yanukovych–the now disgraced Ukrainian president–received his strongest mandate to lead in the contested February 2010 election which saw him elected president. Yanukovych allegiances were confirmed when it was obviously his policies were to “perform a sharp U-turn on the policies pursued by his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko[‘s] . . . pro-west and pro-Nato stance”. In the years leading up to recent events however, it would appear that he chose more carefully, playing both sides of the political line. In an attempts to appease pro-western Ukrainians, Yanukovych undertook six years of negotiations with the European Union to create a widely supported co-operation agreement. While the EU has co-operation agreements with other non-EU countries, an agreement with Ukraine would be “the first agreement based on political association between the EU and any of the Eastern Partnership countries.” That is had it not been suspiciously abandoned on the day of expected ratification at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013. Admits a myriad of other allegations–including election fraud, political persecution and a string of early criminal charges which were suspiciously cleared prior to his election–Yanukovych’s out and out rejection of any intention to finalize ties with the EU was the spark, settling ablaze the first wave of major protests.

By the evening of November 21, 2013, estimates described tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooding the streets of Kiev to demand that the government ratify the agreement as promised. The central square in Kiev, known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), was an early point of occupation. Consequently, the term maidan and specifically euromaidan became popularized after its use as a twitter hashtag became synonymic with the protests in general. The protests, which had remained largely peaceful, would begin to escalate on the night of November 30, 2013, one week after they began, on orders that the Berkut (Ukrainian riot police) disperse the maidan occupiers.

Dissension grew as images of bloodied and beaten protesters circulated around the country and accusations of kidnappings and disappearances spread. No longer satisfied simply with the ratification of the EU agreement, the protesters demanded Yanukovych’s resignation. “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the hero’s!” they shouted at the Berkut. “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the hero’s!” they shouted as the rallying cry and as a funeral song for flower laden caskets of deceased protesters, marched through the city streets.

Occupation of central Kiev passed back and forth between government forces and the protestors, during which the Ukrainian opposition would try unsuccessfully, to broker several cease fires. As the protests continued into January of 2014, pressure mounted on Yanukovych to act; which he did on January 16, 2014, implementing draconian anti-protest laws, which only served to move the protesters from fitful, into an all out violent revolution.

The violence continued to rise into what some on the ground described as a “post-apocalyptic nightmare”. The death toll was mounting with one riotous day after another ending in bloodshed. Political lines blurred in the face of what were obvious human-rights abuses. While some groups were undoubtedly out to merely to add to the violence, for many others political ties were set aside, as pro-Russian, radical right-wing, and well known paramilitary groups joined the peaceful protestors to mobilize in the hundreds of thousands; occupying administrative buildings, building make-shift armories, delivering medical-aid, and erecting blockades, while rioting continued in the streets. The condemnations were swift and clear, with both US President Barack Obama and leaders from EU taking a stance against the use of force on the protestors. Finally, on February 22, 2014, after two days of particularly intense fighting and confirmed fatalities reaching upwards of 75, representatives of the EU managed to negotiate a difficult peacedeal, which included the resignation of Yanukovych–later formerly impeached –among other terms. While this has done much to quell the violence, as can be expected, tensions remain high.

But where there is victory for the protesters, there is only concern for Moscow. A successful overthrow of a Russian supported government on Putin’s backdoor can only be viewed as a loss. Many post-soviet states have experienced the indirect hold Russia continues to manage, as they struggle to define themselves autonomously away from the eye of the Kremlin. Russia has been known to exert considerable force in the past when confronted with ‘unruly states’ who threaten to undermine their hold on the region, as we saw in 2008 when tensions between Georgia and a Russian armed South Ossetia escalated, due in part to Georgia similarly seeking closer ties to the West in a bid for NATO membership.

The first and actual victory here is against the internal corruption in Ukraine. But will the end of Yanukovych also bring an end to his style politics? That will depend largely on who comes to power now and to the extent of the decay within the system. The second victory however, is much less certain. Effectively, it is Cold War politics all over again, as a new battlefield emerges from the vestiges of old ideological conflicts. Only in this case, democracy is no longer a weapon of the state, but a tool in the hands of the people. How it has been and will be used in Ukraine is no longer relevant to what it looks like in the West. For today, on the shoulders of victory in Ukraine, democracy carries a new name; euromaidan.

For the Love of Chocolate: A Rare Look into the Life of an Escaped North Korean Refugee

On December 15th 2013, a charismatic yet unassuming young man, Seongmin Lee, greeted a small room of eclectic listeners at York University with a wide and infectious smile. His English, tangled in a thick Korean accent, was nothing short of amazing considering that he was first introduced to the language only three years ago.

The entire event was informative, with representatives speaking from Han Voice, a non-profit working with North Korean refugees, as well as Susan McClelland, a well known Canadian journalist, speaking about the lives of North Korean refugee women victimized through sex trafficking. Brought to Toronto on a developmental scholarship funded by Han Voice, Seongmin spent 6 months working on bettering his English, gaining media skills and meeting politicians. At the event, Seongmin recounted his story, giving Canadians a rare look into the human experience of a North Korean refugee.

In a sense, Seongmin was fortunate to have grown-up in a North Korean border town directly across the river from China. Regardless of the fact that unauthorized movement between the two countries is still strictly forbidden, Seongmin began to cross back and forth as a young boy, exploiting weak security points. He recounts how, having made friends with a young Chinese boy, he was introduced to chocolate for the first time. This simple yet forbidden confection compelled him to search out his own items, things valuable enough with which to secure more of these delicious and forbidden goods. It wouldn’t take long for his innocent curiosity to turn into a full-time smuggling operation.With an innate acumen and the fearlessness which only a child can possess, Seongmin navigated the underbelly of cross-border smuggling between two of the most  tyrannical nations on the planet. Often he was able to do so undetected, though sometimes he would have to resort to bribery. Over time, he built his networks up on either side; through suppliers, buyers, and paid guards, he was able to grow his operation into a formidable enterprise, all before he had even left his teens.

Seongmin’s story brought us into the darkness of his bedroom, the night when the secret police raided his home in search of ‘Seongmin the infamous smuggler’. A detectable sense of satisfaction passed over his face as he described their disbelief when they pulled the covers off his sleeping figure to reveal nothing more than a young boy of twelve. Though he was spared that night, he would go on to be captured, jailed, beaten, and interrogated multiple times—and each time released, either from a bribe or because of his young age.

It was the darkness of his own city–illuminated by the taunting glow from the Chinese shore–which awoke Seongmin to the fallacy all around him. How could such comparative prosperity exist if North Korea was truly the better country? How could he experience such suffering and brutality in a country which was supposed to have the greatest government? Eventually, the hypocrisy of his experiences would prove to be too great, the lie too large. He knew there was no future for him, not in North Korea.  

Only a small land border exists between North and South Korea, though it is all but uncrossable, separated by a heavily guarded strip of land called the demilitarized zone (DMZ). North Koreans can receive citizenship if they make it to South Korea, but freedom, if one is brave enough to risk it, can often only be found in the hands of unscrupulous ‘brokers’. Acting effectively as human smugglers, these brokers offer to take refugees into China and occasionally onward towards Southeast Asia, in exchange for large sums of money. Refugees fleeing this way are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In many cases, women will be sold into multiple different marriages with Chinese men in a form of sex trafficking. Abuse, neglect, and forced miscarriages are common occurrences in these relationships. If caught, escapees are sent back to North Korea and are beaten, interrogated, and sent to forced labor camps. Even if refugees can make it safely to Southeast Asia, often it is only to be greeted by an extended prison stay.  

Even those North Korean refugees who are able to reach South Korea will still face a variety of obstacles. Seongmin describes experiencing a culture shock of unimaginable totality. South Koreans embrace North Korean refugees with a complex mix of scorn and indifference, acceptance and fear. For both North and South, their histories and current tensions run too deep and create a complex set of circumstances to navigate. South Korea is a highly competitive, pressurized society; the emerged and emerging middle class are bottlenecked in a competitive status struggle, one in which an underprivileged class of North Korean refugees stands very little chance.

Though Seongmin speaks of many struggles, he also speaks of the optimistic changes he sees in his own country. In the 1990s a massive governmental failure of the state-run food distribution system caused widespread famine, which estimates suggest killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans (Noland). This is defined by Seongmin as the tipping point, where serious doubts began to arise about the stability of the communist regime, where previously-held intolerances towards private enterprise were exchanged for seeing them as the only reliable vehicle towards supporting oneself and one’s family. While frustrations still cannot be safely launched directly at the regime, Seongmin also speaks of a self-aware and frustrated North Korean population whose publically discussed personal grievances are nothing more than thinly veiled allegories for their dissension. Even Seongmin will not speak ill of the government directly, but does tell of a corrupt and broken system which survives on the backs of a poor peasant class to support an antiquated aristocracy and a privileged “Pyongyang class” of loyal politicians, diplomats, and businessmen.

Seongmin’s experiences are remarkable, and bring us a rare and important look into life inside the secluded and misunderstood country–but the real story here is Seongmin himself. His youth, his insight, and his courage represent a will towards change that is making its way out of North Korea. His presence brings with it the hope of all North Koreans looking for a way out. It is through the struggles of people like Seongmin that we are reminded of the fact that, for millions of people across this Earth, countries like Canada represent not just a border to be reached, but a promise, a promise that is made through the privilege we possess. It is by that promise that hope is born and it is through hope that progress is made. We have a responsibility to that promise, and we have a responsibility to those in search of it: to recognize them as not just an obligation, but for the immeasurable value the discovery of people like Seongmin brings to our world.