“My journey into a nightmare war”

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.

How did a young British man with no combat experience join the Free Syrian Army?

In a piece for the Guardian, I interviewed a London student of Syrian origin who went to join his cousins to fight in Damascus. Now back in the UK, he gave a vivid insight into the bloody reality of war.

I don’t know how to feel. Part of me is relieved that I made it back alive, but I feel guilty that my relatives and my people are dying. I have only minor physical injuries, but the mental scars are still there. I don’t sleep well at night and I often wake up screaming. Most people in Syria don’t have the option of running away like I did. But I am glad to be alive.

You can read the full piece over at the Guardian, and the cutting is below.

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Tragedy in Peshawar

Christians in Peshawar protest after the bomb attack.
Christians in Peshawar protest after the bomb attack.

On 22 September, a huge bomb attack at a church in Peshawar killed more than 80 people. It was the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history. I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the attack, giving some background about the persecution of Christians in the country:

It is these major incidents that make international news, but a low level of discrimination is a fact of life for many of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Christians make up around 1.6% of the population and number around 2.8 million. Generations ago, in pre-partition India, many were Hindus, subsequently converting from the very lowest caste (of dalit, once known as “untouchable”). Pakistan – a largely Muslim state – does not have a caste system, but its shadow can be seen in the treatment of Christians today.

On the same day, I wrote a piece for the New Humanist magazine, recalling my experiences of researching the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan (a subject I’ve done a lot of work on – notably with this feature from 2011).

In various interviews with Christians in different cities of Pakistan, I have been struck by the lack of anger. Most quietly accept their lot, aware that they lack the political clout to agitate for change. “We are very few in a big nation, so we try to stay out of trouble,” one young man, working as a domestic servant, told me in Karachi. “Politicians don’t give us any importance.”

I also appeared on the BBC World Service radio show World Have Your Say on 24 September, speaking about the attack in Peshawar, the siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, and whether there has been a rise in global terror.

An equal playing field?

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Ahead of the general election, I wrote a feature for the Guardian’s G2 about Pakistan’s female election candidates. While there is a long history of female representation in the subcontinent, these women generally hail from political dynasties. Is that starting to change? The piece looks at the challenges faced by female politicians, and the progress that has been made.

“It is difficult for women,” says Anis Haroon, a caretaker minister for human rights and women. “It’s non-traditional ground to tread, and women still bear the responsibility of home and children. Character assassination is easy in a patriarchal, conservative society. Women must work twice as hard to prove their worth.” Last month, an election official in Lahore told the husband of prospective candidate Sadia Sohail that if she were elected, “the arrangements at your home will be ruined and no one will be there to attend your children”.

You can read the full piece at the Guardian website.

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Political violence in Pakistan’s election

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.
Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.

As the 11 May election date approaches, the campaign of violence in Pakistan has increased drastically. I’ve been speaking and writing about the subject. Here are a few links.

Pakistan’s deadly democracy (Guardian)

Upcoming elections have been called the bloodiest ever, as political killings on a dizzying scale fuel mistrust and insecurity. I’ve written about the issue for the Guardian.

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, chief prosecutor in Benazir Bhutto assassination, murdered in Pakistan (New Statesman)

On Friday 3 May, the lawyer leading the inquiry into Bhutto’s death was gunned down on his way to a court hearing. I blogged on it for the New Statesman.

BBC World Service

The same day, I appeared on the BBC’s World Service, both radio and television, to discuss the upsurge of political violence.  The podcast of the radio discussion is here and will be available until Friday 10th May.

How the Taliban is having a chilling effect on the Pakistani election (New Statesman)

In late April, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman which looks at how the secular, liberal parites have been intimidated into silence.

The causes of the Karachi factory fire

The death toll for the dual factory fires in Pakistan currently stands at more than 300. In large part, this heavy loss of life was due to corruption and a failure to implement labour laws. I wrote about this for the Guardian last week:

Pakistan is a country with an enormous gulf between rich and poor, and an undue amount of influence wielded by a small number of industrial families. The country functions on a deeply entrenched web of patronage and vested interests, meaning that there is little interest in workers’ rights and little motivation to change the status quo. Corruption exists at every level, from bribing local officials to overlook an illegal building, to influencing government policy. The civilian regime is weak, and according to labour activists, regulation has deteriorated even further in the past few years along with a general decline in governance.

It was one of the most-read pieces on the site over the weekend. You can read the full piece at the Guardian.

This week, I’ve also reviewed Antony Lerman’s book “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist”. The review is over at Middle East Monitor.

Paralympics, defectors, and… virginity cream

Fireworks explode at the Paralympics opening ceremony.

Just for clarity, the title of this post refers to three topics I’ve covered separately, rather than all at once (although that sounds like a great, if unlikely, piece). Thought I’d share some links to some of the things I’ve been working on over the last couple of weeks.

First up, continuing the sex and morality theme of my last post, I’ve fulfilled a lifelong dream by writing an article for a national newspaper about vaginas. It’s for the Guardian and discusses the controversy caused by the launch of a “vaginal tightening and rejuvenation cream” in India. You can read it here.

Last week, I also co-produced a second show for NTS radio, this time focusing on the Olympic athletes who defected and are seeking to stay in the UK. The podcast isn’t online, but I wrote an article on the same subect for Alternet. Somewhere between 12 and 21 athletes and delegates are still in the UK. While some of them have voiced their intentions to claim political asylum, such as the Ethiopian runner Weyney Ghebrisilasie, other cases are less clear cut.

While most of the Olympic athletes have returned home, the Paralympians are just getting started. My interview with Paralympian and cross-bench peer Tanni Grey Thompson appeared in last week’s New Statesman. She talks cuts to disability living allowance, changing attitudes to disabled sport, and why she never wants to forget anything.

Have also been blogging both for the NS and for Middle East Monitor, including this post on the decision by an Israel court that no-one should face charges for the death of activist Rachel Corrie. She was killed in 2003 by an Israeli army bulldozer, and her parents have pledged to appeal the decision and continue their fight for justice. In my post, I argue that this verdict is problematic in more ways than one. Not only are there questions over the procedure followed in the original investigation, but the judge’s decision sits uncomfortably with Israel’s commitments under international law.