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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1083401 times)
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« Reply #6015 on: Apr 27, 2013, 07:38 AM »

In the USA...

US economic growth quickens but misses forecasts as cuts kick in

GDP grew at 2.5% in first quarter as consumer spending increased, but government cuts continue to hold back recovery

Dominic Rushe, Friday 26 April 2013 16.56 BST   

The US economic recovery gathered pace in the first quarter but fell short of expectations as government cuts countered a sharp rise in consumer spending.

The nation's gross domestic product (GDP) rose at a 2.5% annual rate between January and March, the Commerce Department said Friday. Economists had been forecasting growth of 3%.

The latest figure marks 15 consecutive quarters of growth and is substantially higher than the 0.4% GDP growth in the final quarter of 2012. But they come as widespread budget cuts – known as sequestration – come into effect. The average pace of growth is just above 2% annually, weak by historical standards. The numbers come after a disappointing news from the jobs market, which added just 88,000 new positions in March.

Consumer spending was the biggest driver of growth in the first quarter. Personal consumption expenditures grew 3.2%, the best pace since the end of 2010. Sales of durable goods – including cars and household appliances – rose 8.1%.

Government cuts continued to hold back GDP. Federal government spending and investment dropped 8.4% in the quarter, following a 14.8% fall in the last quarter of 2012. National defense decreased 11.5%, compared with a decrease of 22.1% at the end of last year.

Dan Greenhaus, the chief strategist at BTIG, said the government cuts represent the worst back-to-back drop in Federal spending since 1954.

"Government spending has now been a drag on growth in 11 of the last 13 quarters," he said. "Say what you will about government spending but its reduction, as we've seen, is a drag on growth – at least as computed in this manner."

Paul Ashworth, the chief US economist at Capital Economics, said the growth rate was still "impressive" given the "almost unprecedented fiscal squeeze" the US economy had suffered.

"The decline in government spending over the past two quarters is the biggest six-month contraction since the Korean war ended. Despite the decline in incomes, consumption growth accelerated to 3.2%, from 1.8%, although that means the saving rate fell to 2.6%, from 4.7%.

"Business investment increased by a modest 2.1%, after a massive 13.2% annualised gain in the final quarter of last year. The housing recovery generated a 12.6% jump in residential investment, which was the third consecutive double-digit quarterly gain," he wrote in a note to clients.

Ashworth warned that the next quarter, too, could see low growth. "With the sequestration spending cuts beginning to bite, we could see yet another contraction in government spending. We have 2.0% pencilled in, with growth accelerating modestly in the second half of the year as the fiscal squeeze begins to fade," wrote Ashworth.

The next test of the US recovery will come next Friday with the release of April's job tally.


April 26, 2013

A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up


ABBEVILLE, Ga. — Mareshia Rucker watched in frustration last weekend as several dozen classmates in tuxedos and gowns walked into an Art Deco theater for her high school’s “white prom.”

Like all black students at Wilcox County High School, she was not invited. The rural county in central Georgia is one of the last pockets in the country with racially segregated proms.

“These are people I see in class every day,” said Ms. Rucker, a senior, who hid in a parked car outside the prom. “What’s wrong with dancing with me, just because I have more pigment?”

But this weekend, after decades of separate proms for white students and black students, Wilcox County will have its first integrated prom.

Organized by students, it is open to all, at a ballroom in nearby Cordele. Nearly half of the school’s 380 students have registered, with roughly equal numbers of black students and white students.

A group of four female students — two black and two white — came up with the idea, and they have received an outpouring of support from across the country. Their Facebook group has 24,000 fans, and it has raised enough in donations to rent a ballroom and buy food and gift bags for every couple.

Disc jockeys from Texas and Atlanta volunteered to play music, a motivational speaker from Florida is delivering a speech, and photographers from New York and Savannah are taking pictures, all without cost. In response, the Wilcox County school board plans to vote this spring on making future proms official school events, which would prohibit racial segregation.

Although events sponsored by the public schools cannot issue invitations on the basis of race, the proms had been organized since 1971, when the schools were desegregated, as private, invitation-only events, sponsored by parents, not the school.

“Let’s face it: It’s 2013. Why are we even having this conversation?” asked Steven Smith, the schools superintendent. “It became an embarrassment long ago.”

Leaders of the Georgia N.A.A.C.P. have called for the state to ban segregated proms. And the all-white prom has been ridiculed on social media.

But locally, the separate proms have defenders. White residents said members of the two races had different tastes in music and dancing, and different traditions: the junior class plans the white prom, and the senior class plans the black prom.

Wayne McGuinty, a furniture store owner and City Council member, who is white, said he had donated to fund-raising events for both proms in past years and saw no problem with separate proms. They do not reflect racism, he said, but simply different traditions and tastes. When he was a senior in high school, in the 1970s, he said, there were separate proms for those who liked rock music and country music.

“This whole issue has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “Nobody had a problem with having two proms until it got all this publicity.”

Parents who organized the white prom declined to comment, as did students who attended.

Across the South, segregated proms have gradually faded away. In 2008, Charleston, Miss., held its first mixed-race prom after the actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up there, offered to pay for the event. In 2010, Montgomery County, Ga., stopped its segregated proms after they were featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine.

Paul Saltzman, who directed a film about Charleston’s desegregation, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” said he did not know of any other proms that were still segregated. He praised Wilcox County students for breaking with tradition.

“Young people see that the rest of the world doesn’t do things this way,” he said. “It’s hard to stick your neck out when you’re up against extreme belief.”

In Wilcox County, where 62 percent of the people are white and 35 percent are black, the effort to integrate the prom has grown far beyond the four students: Ms. Rucker, Stephanie Sinnott, Keela Bloodworth and Quanesha Wallace. Many others have volunteered, selling barbecue chicken to raise money and stuffing gift bags.

“The adults should have done this many, many moons ago, but it had to be the kids,” said Ms. Rucker’s mother, Toni.

Mr. Smith, the superintendent, wrote a statement of support for the integrated prom, saying he considered it “an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way.”

After the prom, the school will conduct a survey of students, and then a group of teachers and administrators will recommend a solution. Mr. Smith said he expected that the school would run the prom next year and open it to all students.

“I don’t even like to say ‘integrated’ prom,” he said. “I hope we’ll be announcing soon that there’s just one prom. The prom.”


The SEC Is In A Position to Deal a Major Blow to Citizens United

By: Rmuse
Apr. 25th, 2013

Most Americans embrace the idea of accountability in governance, and it is difficult to believe any taxpayer would not want to know exactly where and why their tax dollars are being spent, as well as what politicians stand to gain when they allocate funds. In the corporate world, shareholders and investors with any business or common sense would demand, and deserve, an accounting of where the corporation spends its money, and what stockholders can expect in return, because every expense reduces investors share of company profits. Over the past six months, there have been increasing calls for publicly traded corporations to start disclosing to shareholders where, and how much, of company assets are spent on political campaigns, and because of the secretive nature of corporate campaign spending, corporations, Republicans, and America’s largest trade associations are gearing up for a major battle to keep secret campaign donations secret.

In what could be a major blow to the unspeakably horrendous Citizens United decision, it appears it well may be the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that deals a body blow to secretive campaign donations that has polluted the electoral process in America. An alliance of shareholder activists and pension funds have swamped the SEC with calls to initiate a disclosure rule requiring publicly traded companies to report to shareholders all of their political donations. The prospective rule has united major business groups to oppose the SEC’s rule-making ability, and their Republican lackeys are already taking steps to halt any SEC action with legislation making it illegal for the SEC to issue regulations holding companies under their jurisdiction accountable to their shareholders. Three weeks ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable sent a letter to CEOs of Fortune 200 companies martialing support to oppose the SEC and wage war against shareholder and investor resolutions and proposals demanding to know where corporations are sending their investments.

The coming battle will test the S.E.C.’s chairwoman, Mary Jo White, who faces fierce opposition from Charles and David Koch’s organization, Americans for Prosperity, as well as Republicans and U.S. Chamber of Commerce on behalf of corporate leaders. It is another sign that America’s shadow government, corporate America, will not tolerate their dominion being challenged or their coup d’état thwarted by a government regulatory agency, and House Republicans made the pre-emptive strike introducing legislation prior to the SEC issuing a new ruling. The proposal is the result of a petition with over a half a million commenters calling for corporate accountability to their shareholders who argue they have a right to evaluate CEO oversight over a company’s resources, but Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, and Koch brothers will not allow it.

The law professor who assisted writing the petition said, “Shareholders have been demanding this information for some time. It’s a basic precept of American securities law that shareholders should be given the information they need to evaluate their companies,” and it is not out of the SEC’s purview because they already issued regulations requiring executive compensation disclosures to shareholders. One of the shadow government’s prime activists, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claims the SEC is impotent to impose rules and regulations, and claim that such a disclosure rule violates a corporation’s 1st amendment freedom of speech rights and damages shareholder values regardless it is shareholders demanding to know where their money is being spent.  A spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce said, “The Chamber believes that the funds expended by publicly traded companies for political and trade association engagement are immaterial to the company’s bottom line,” and added that the shareholders’ “apparent goal is to silence the business community by creating an atmosphere of intimidation under the cover of investor protection.”

Republicans claim the shareholders’ petition was an open invitation to regulatory overreach, and head of the House government oversight committee, Darrell Issa, demanded copies of all correspondence between the SEC and shareholders supporting the proposed disclosure rule as well as how  many hours SEC staff worked on the proposal. Another Republican who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the SEC said he co-sponsored legislation banning new disclosure rules after hearing complaints from the Chamber of Commerce and corporate leaders and stated, “The role of the S.E.C. is investor protection, not to engage in a political foray,” and ignores the simple fact that shareholders demanding accountability for their investment expenditures is a request for protection from the SEC.  The proposed rule will have no effect whatsoever on privately held companies which make up the lion’s share of contributions to Republican PACs that already accept and spend unlimited amounts of money on Republican campaigns.

As it is now, hardly any public corporations spend directly on political campaigns, a practice permitted under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but corporations are still banned from giving money directly to federal candidates. However, they do give freely to trade groups and tax-exempt organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, that spends on advertising campaigns on business’s behalf. The groups are tax-exempt because they claim their spending is educational in nature and therefore exempt from any disclosure requirements that normally apply to candidates, super-PACs, and the Republican Party.

The S.E.C. officials hinted they could propose the new disclosure rule by the end of this month, and with Republicans already proposing legislation banning them making rules that will transform the world of secret campaign spending, it is likely a major war is on  the horizon. The opposing sides read like a David and Goliath story with individual investors and pension funds going up against America’s powerful shadow government of the Koch brothers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Fortune 200 companies, and Republicans in the employ of corporate America. The very idea that CEOs and large companies will be held accountable to their shareholders is about as likely as Republicans being held accountable for crashing the economy and killing jobs, but shareholders and investors are undeterred and demand an accounting from companies they trust with their investments.

Any new disclosure rules will not spell an end to the insane Citizens United ruling, but it will inform shareholders and pension funds where their hard-earned investments are being spent and especially if donations are going to candidates vowing to block financial reform laws protecting their investments. Shareholders are already agitated they have been shut out of knowing where their money is being spent, but they should be incensed that Republicans, the Koch brothers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce claim they are protecting shareholders while they fight to conceal where CEOs spend shareholders’ money. Although Citizens United will remain a potent weapon against democracy for Kochs and big business, an SEC disclosure rule will signal to publicly traded companies that they will be accountable to their shareholders, and inform the Kochs and Chamber of Commerce that their Citizens United project is not invulnerable. It also is a sign that when it comes to their money, Americans are beginning to demand accountability and that prospect alone should frighten Republicans because today it is accountability to shareholders, and with an SEC ruling, Americans may demand Republican accountability to taxpayers.


Bernie Sanders Proposes Bill to Help End Veteran Homelessness By 2015

By: Jason Easley
Apr. 25th, 2013

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) along with Republican Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced a bill today that would end homelessness among military veterans by 2015.

The bill titled the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013 is an impressive piece of legislation. Despite the fact that veteran homelessness has declined by 17% since 2009, there are still 62,000 homeless veterans in the United States. The bill deals with expanding homelessness prevention programs, increasing the availability of legal services to homeless vets, keeping homeless veteran families together by allowing the VA to house children of homeless vets in transitional housing programs, reauthorization of employment and housing programs, and it expands eligibility for the homeless veterans dental program.

Sen Sanders said, “We must continue to invest in the progress that has been made and remove any remaining barriers to housing for veterans.” Sen. Burr added, “Our veterans served our country with honor and they should not be forgotten when they return home. Helping homeless veterans get off the street and back on their feet is our obligation, and this legislation is an important step in that direction.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs has established the goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by 2015, and the Sanders/Burr bill is designed to give them the resources needed to meet that goal.

This bipartisan proposal would go a long way towards eliminating the national shame of homelessness among those who have served our country. This legislation seems like a no brainer. However, last year Senate Republicans killed a bill that would have created 20,000 jobs for veterans because they thought it was too expensive.

The good news is that with the Democratic caucus holding a 10 vote majority in the Senate (55-45), only 5 Republican votes will be needed to pass the bill. Hopefully, Sen. Burr can round up four other Republicans who care enough about veterans that they are willing to take action against homelessness.

If Republicans in the House or Senate kill this bill, they must be held accountable for their chronic mistreatment of veterans. Many of these same Republicans who have voted to deny veterans the help and care that they have earned have the nerve to claim that they support the troops, and ask for the votes of those who served.

Washington has a chance to do something good for the nation’s homeless vets, and they’ll be held accountable if they again fail to do what is right.

The hypocrisy must end. If congressional tea party Republicans truly love their country, they’ll support helping America’s homeless vets.


Republicans Rush to Fix Airport Delays, But Will Let Sequester Make 140,000 Families Homeless

By: Jason Easley
Apr. 26th, 2013

Republicans rushed to fix the sequester airport delays that were about to impact them, but they refuse to reverse the sequester cuts that will push 140,000 low income families into homelessness.

The Senate voted by unanimous consent last night to restore funding that was cut by the sequester to the FAA, so that they could afford to bring back furloughed air traffic controllers, and the House quickly followed suit today by passing the Senate bill, 361-41. House Republicans are claiming victory, without acknowledging that they were wrong on two counts. They claimed that Obama was exaggerating the impact of the sequester, and they told America that the sequester would be painless.

It’s amazing how quickly Congress can act when something impacts them. (Another example of this was their stealth repeal of the Stock Act.)

Republicans in Congress refused to allow flight delays disrupt their then upcoming nine day long vacation, but they are happy to ignore the larger problems that are looming thanks to their sequester cuts. Meals On Wheels and Head Start are both facing drastic cuts, but the sequester could also mean homelessness for 140,000 low income families.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Most agencies will likely continue to shelve vouchers so long as their monthly housing assistance costs exceed their monthly renewal funding allocations from HUD, in light of the risk that the funding cuts could extend into 2014. As a result, we estimate that by early next year, agencies’ voucher programs are likely to shrink by approximately 140,000 households — primarily seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.”

Congressional Republicans are perfectly fine with pushing seniors, children, and low income families into homelessness, but they absolutely refuse to wait at the airport. (I am singling out Congressional Republicans here, because that is where the hypocrisy is. Congressional Democrats and the president have working for months to avoid/replace the sequester.)

Republicans voted to shift $253 million in the FAA budget to bring the air traffic controllers back, but they can’t find $938 million to keep 140,000 households from homelessness. Actually, it isn’t that they can’t find the money. They won’t find the money, because they don’t care.

The only message that can be taken from their selfish vote to fix the flight delay issues is that they could do something to help people, but they won’t.

It’s that simple. I am sure that many Republicans view these people as Democratic voters. They see the nation’s poor as a part of Romney’s 47% who vote Democrat because they want free stuff. If these people are homeless they may not be able to vote, so some GOPers might see this as a win/win for them.

Republicans want to sell their votes yesterday and today as problem solving, but the message they are really sending is that they don’t care about you.


FreedomWorks Gloats after ‘Embarrassed’ Boehner and Cantor are Forced to Pull GOP Bill

By: Sarah Jones
Apr. 25th, 2013

As Republicans struggle to rebrand their party as something other than the austerity for the 98% party, their own party members are obstructing them at every turn. House Republican party leaders tried to push an “alternative” to ObamaCare on Wednesday — “Helping Sick Americans Now” — only to be forced to pull the bill before the vote, after their own members wouldn’t support it.

The Koch founded FreedomWorks gloated about the “embarrassed House leaders”, after declaring that their purpose was patient centered healthcare (what?), “Embarrassed House leaders now have an unmistakable signal of just how badly rank and file Republicans want to take down the whole law, not just a key piece of its implementation machinery. If H.R.1549 had passed, it would have lent momentum to our effort to impede ObamaCare implementation. Now that it has failed at the hands of repeal advocates, the pressure for full repeal has gone up and power on this issue has shifted to those who want it all. Freedom fighters win. This is good. Let’s keep up the pressure.”

FreedomWorks supported “Helping Sick Americans Now” because it impedes the implementation of ObamaCare by “cannibalizing” it, “Enactment of the cleverly drafted bill would help impede the implementation of ObamaCare. Contrary to the assertions of some, H.R.1549 doesn’t “fix,” “expand,” or otherwise “improve” ObamaCare. Instead, it effectively cannibalizes ObamaCare to impede its implementation.”

But House Republicans complained that they didn’t want to replace one piece of “big government” with another. Reuters reported that several Republican conservatives were “openly opposing the bill and questioning” why their leaders would even offer up such a measure, “The issue I think many of us are having with this particular piece of legislation… you’re replacing one big government program with another big government program,” said Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho.

Here’s the problem: Republicans ran on “repeal and replace” ObamaCare. This failed. Then it was revealed that there was no “replace”, just repeal. In a desperate effort at rebranding, Republicans rushed to come up with a “replace”. Their alternative (H.R.1549 ) is one that the Senate won’t pass, and the White House said it would veto, but no matter. The House isn’t interested in actual policy or governing. instead, they spend the few days they work making showy but irrelevant speeches and show votes for their next campaign.

The “replace” is a bill called “Helping Sick Americans Now”. The problem with this replacement is that it is allegedly a replacement, and Republicans never had any intention of replacing ObamaCare. So, the House tea members rebelled, demanding that they should be allowed to vote simply on repealing ObamaCare – especially the first termers, who didn’t get a chance to vote in the more than 30 previous show votes the House has devoted to repealing ObamaCare.

Now, why would they want to do that when they know it’s going nowhere? Why waste more millions on show votes? It’s all about their reelection and appeasing the tea base. They don’t want to be on record actually voting to replace ObamaCare.

Conservatives threatened to score Republicans on whether or not they supported “Help Sick Americans Now”, with RedState declaring a jihad on “idiots in Washington, D.C.”:

    Frankly, the GOP should not be in the position of wanting to save the pre-existing conditions mandate in ObamaCare.
    In fact, the GOP should not want to fix ObamaCare at all.
    Only a bunch of idiots in Washington, DC in the Republican Party could look at the rising animosity of the American people toward Obamacare and all its costs and burdens and say, “By God let’s fix it!”

In other words, the base still believes all of the hysteria the GOP hyped up against ObamaCare, even though ObamaCare is based on the free market system of competition and was modeled upon the Massachusetts version, signed into law by Republican and failed 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They’re afraid that Republicans might actually “fix” ObamaCare. This is not something I would worry too much about if I were a conservative, as House Republicans haven’t demonstrated a propensity to fix anything – except to work less hours – since Obama took office.

The fact that Republican leadership had to pull the bill before casting their votes is yet another example of the real trouble Speaker John Boehner is in; he can’t lead the House because the House is full of conservative extremists hell bent on adhering to their alleged ideology, even when it makes no sense. It’s enough to make a person pity the Speaker, but then, he chose this party. An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Reuters that Republican leadership is confident they can bring the bill up for a vote after their next week long recess.

Remember this the next time Speaker Boehner tries to blame President Obama or Senate Democrats for not getting something done. Boehner can’t even bring up a vote on his own party’s bills, because House Republicans are too busy running for office to bother trying to actually legislate

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« Reply #6016 on: Apr 28, 2013, 05:50 AM »

Italian coalition government unveiled after weeks of deadlock

Enrico Letta forms new administration, with Berlusconi ally Angelino Alfano as deputy prime minister

Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Observer, Saturday 27 April 2013 22.12 BST   

Two months after inconclusive parliamentary elections left the country paralysed, a new Italian government, including one of Silvio Berlusconi's closest allies as deputy prime minister, will be sworn in on Sunday.

Enrico Letta, the prime minister designate asked by President Giorgio Napolitano to form an administration last week, unveiled a list of ministers on Saturday who he said would form a grand coalition government. They will be voted on by parliament on Monday.

Angelino Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi's centre-right Freedom People party (PdL), would be deputy prime minister and interior minister, said Letta – a victory for Berlusconi, the three-time former prime minister who just six months ago had been written off by many as being politically unsalvageable.

Alongside him in the new cabinet will be Fabrizio Saccomanni, the director-general of the Bank of Italy; Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner, as foreign minister; and Enrico Giovannini, the head of Italy's statistics agency Istat, as labour minister. The government, which brings together politicians from the centre-left, centre-right and centre, as well as technocrats, was described as the "only government possible" by Napolitano.

The elections in late February created a deadlock in the Italian parliament that had never been seen before, with a centre-left bloc of the Democratic party (PD) and its allies having a working majority in one house but not the other. Vying for control of the senate was a centre-right bloc led by the PdL, with Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement holding the balance of power. Pier Luigi Bersani, the then PD leader, refused to enter a grand coalition government with the centre-right. But he was forced to resign after weeks of wrangling and a disastrous presidential election. Letta, his deputy, took over the negotiations last week.

* Enrico-Letta-010.jpg (25.34 KB, 460x276 - viewed 68 times.)

* Angelino-Alfano-010.jpg (29.67 KB, 460x276 - viewed 67 times.)
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« Reply #6017 on: Apr 28, 2013, 05:58 AM »

François Hollande: from Mr Normal to Mr Weak

François Hollande, France's first Socialist president for nearly 20 years, has had a nightmarish first year

Julian Coman in Florange, Lorraine
The Observer, Sunday 28 April 2013   

The freshly cut inscription on the marble "tombstone" was savage and to the point: "Betrayal! Here lie the promises of F. Hollande which were made to workers and their families in Florange on 24 February 2012. From the steelworkers of Lorraine." With barely suppressed anger and bitterness, Frédéric Weber, a local union official, explained why it was sitting in his office: "When François Hollande was campaigning for the presidency, he said to me: 'I will be the president of change.' He came to Florange and he said that he would fight a war against the kind of finance that closed our steelworks. But he has bowed down before the markets and screwed the workers instead."

Few countries do gesture politics with as much panache as the French. But the anger last week in this picturesque corner of north-eastern France, close to the German border, was palpable. After hundreds of years of steel production in the region, the famous blast furnaces of Florange were shut down for good on Wednesday, no longer required for service by the current owner, the billionaire businessman Lakshmi Mittal. The long passionate campaign against their closure, enthusiastically backed by Hollande before he won the presidential election a year ago, was over.

In the autumn, as time ran out for the plant, there was a suggestion that the new man in the Elysée would nationalise it rather than let the town's steel-producing tradition die. That did not happen. Instead, the steelworkers of Lorraine became the latest section of the French population to become bitterly disillusioned with Hollande. "This tombstone is to testify that he let us down," said Weber. "Maybe we'll take it to the Socialist party headquarters in Paris to remind them."

All in all, this has been some inaugural year in office for France's first left-wing president in nearly two decades. Hollande is sometimes criticised for a Hamlet-like tendency to hesitate and, as with the Prince of Denmark, his sorrows have come not as single spies but in battalions which have arrived in Paris with ominous frequency.

Gérard Depardieu has taken Russian citizenship and left the country, in protest at a proposed 75% tax rate on those earning €1m or more. Peugeot-Citroën, the second-biggest carmaker in Europe, has announced its intention to close its plant in the Paris suburb of Aulnay – the first French car factory to shut down in 20 years. The new president, once hailed as a sober "Mr Normal", in contrast to the bling-focused excesses of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, has found himself embroiled in a highly embarrassing public feud between the Socialist politician and mother of his children, Ségolène Royal, and his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler.

Unemployment reached a record high last week and is up 11.5% from this time last year. Growth continues to flatline. The passing of a bill to legalise gay marriage and adoption split the country. And in a public relations disaster of staggering proportions for a government committed to cleaning up politics, the former French budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, confessed to squirrelling away millions of euros in a secret Swiss bank account to avoid tax. No wonder Hollande apparently told aides that his presidency resembled a "toboggan ride". In fact, the sheer speed of his downhill trajectory in the polls has become a source of wonder to academic specialists.

"We have all been amazed by the extent of the fall in his approval ratings," said Bruno Cautrès, a lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris's elite college devoted to political studies. "To go in less than a year from 65% approval to just 25% is remarkable." Hollande is already more unpopular than Sarkozy ever was. Indeed, he has the worst poll ratings of any president of the fifth republic, which dates back to 1958. And by way of a one-year anniversary present, the magazine L'Express has just devoted 15 pages to a withering dissection of his performance, under the damning headline "Monsieur Faible" (Mr Weak). Can any politician, whatever his mistakes, really deserve such a hard time after just 12 months in power?

"When you are on the left it's dangerous to sell dreams to voters at a time of economic crisis," says Cautrès. "Hollande did not make it easy for himself by the way he ran his campaign. He said that his enemy was high finance and that it was going to be possible to combine budgetary rigour with social justice. Then he found himself putting up taxes and cutting public spending. It doesn't look like your enemy is high finance then."

Sylvain Courage, the political editor of current affairs magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, agrees that, in seeking an emollient tone and reserving harsh rhetoric only for the very rich, Hollande paved the way for a savage backlash from voters. As France stagnates, swaths of the electorate now feel they were sold a pup: "At the beginning some of his advisers were telling him to take the Churchillian approach – you know, this is going to take 'blood, sweat and tears' to turn the economy round. But Hollande didn't want to be aggressive or alarmist like that."

After he was elected, he even told his prime minister [Jean-Marc Ayrault] not to be too gloomy in his first policy speech and then went on holiday. Then when the terrible growth forecasts came in and the mass layoffs in industry began, he was caught off-balance and has been struggling to catch up ever since."

Hollande certainly has his flaws. A deliberately unassuming style of leadership has allowed factions to flourish and, at times, confusion to reign. In deliberately avoiding the hyperactive approach to the presidency that characterised the Sarkozy years, he has often appeared too laid back, humble and sanguine for his own good.

Traits perceived as virtues when Hollande was running against Sarkozy are now seen as vices. In a television interview following the disastrous Cahuzac affair, the president of the republic referred somewhat quaintly to his "box of tools" for dealing with the economic crisis. In subsequent lampoonings he was cruelly compared to a plumber dealing with a tsunami.

Voters may have hated Sarkozy's brash, brazen style, but many are also coming to loathe his successor's seeming inability to put on any kind of show in the nation's hour of need. A belated display of presidential force, in the wake of Cahuzac's dramatic confession, when Hollande forced ministers to disclose their assets, failed to alter the impression of a man at the mercy of events. Hollande's current nickname in the corridors of the Elysée – pépère, or "grandpa" – says it all.

"The French are contradictory about leadership," says Courage. "They defy all kinds of authorities and yet at the same time they crave authority. We have killed our kings and yet we are are looking for a king."

In truth, though, when seeking an explanation for this vertiginous fall from grace, it is "the economy, stupid" that provides the answer. And when it comes to France's current economic woes, Angela Merkel may carry almost as much responsibility as her reluctant ally across the Rhine.

Last May, days after being elected, a plane carrying Hollande to Berlin, and a first visit with Angela Merkel, was struck by lightning and forced to turn back. The new president finally made it later that day, but as bad omens go this one was on the money.

One of the central pledges of Hollande's presidential campaign was a commitment to "renegotiate" the German-led European stability pact. Conceived as the eurozone stumbled from crisis to crisis, the pact inaugurated an era of deficit reduction and austerity that has all but flattened some economies, and even spelt trouble in countries such as the Netherlands.

Renegotiation and a greater emphasis on growth and investment would have given the fledgling socialist administration – the first major socialist government to be elected in the eurozone since the financial crisis struck in 2008 – some breathing space. But Hollande didn't even come close to getting his way.

Germany, having guaranteed the bailouts of eurozone countries overwhelmed by debt, called the tune, and the EU's centre-right governments had already signed up to a policy of austerity. "Hollande didn't even try," says Courage. "When he got in front of Merkel, he just saw there was no point."

Ever since, Hollande has laboured under the suffocating constraints of a draconian economic programme designed to reduce France's budget deficit to 3% of GDP this year. He tends to prefer the word "rigour" to "austerity". But nobody has been fooled by that. With growth negligible, the government is well off track and a further €5bn in cuts now has to be found. Hollande has started to talk of making "courageous choices". His critics take a rather different view.

The left has denounced a rise in VAT which will hit the poor hardest, citing Hollande's opposition to the same move by Sarkozy. "Why won't a 'left-wing' rise in VAT have the same [negative] effect as a 'rightwing' one?" asked Le Monde Diplomatique this month, in a coruscating attack on Hollande's "social-defeatism".

The "competitiveness and jobs agreement", allowing firms to extend working hours, lower salaries and move workers more easily from site to site, has also been condemned as an assault on hard-won workers' rights. And Hollande's mooted cuts to pensions entitlements is a toxic row waiting to happen. "Before he was elected, Hollande was never very precise about what he would cut and what taxes he would raise," says Cautrès. "One of the lessons for parties of the centre-left is have a plan and be honest."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, the Depardieu affair was just one in a series of confrontations for a president who unwisely admitted to not liking the rich very much. Bernard Arnault, the head of the luxury goods giant LVMH, eventually withdrew a bid for Belgian citizenship, denying that he was seeking to avoid the 75% tax rate. But the acrimony surrounding the supertax was summed up by a Libération front page, urging Arnault to "Fuck off, rich idiot!" Ruled unconstitutional by France's top court, the tax has now become a levy on employers paying salaries over €1m, but the rows surrounding it go on.

According to Pierre Gattaz, a businessman touted as a possible future head of Medef, the French equivalent of the CBI: "This class warfare has to stop."

So what now? A year into his five-year term, Hollande has admitted that he did not anticipate that the crisis "would last as long as it has, longer than expected". But, in characteristically reassuring mode during a recent interview, he also insisted that the labour market reforms and budgetary discipline he had put in place would allow France to turn the corner. Within Ayrault's government, others are not so sure. On the left of the Socialist party, influential ministers such as Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon are lobbying for an abandonment of the austerity which has so overshadowed this desperate first year in power.

"Only Merkel, supported by a few northern countries, believes it is working," Hamon told the Observer. "And Germany is the only country now that proposes austerity when it's clear there is no prospect of European unemployment rates going down. We have to finish with the politics of austerity in Europe. It's moving that way, and François Hollande is part of this movement.

"We have to accept that this will cause political tension with the Germans and cause political differences. The wave of opinion against austerity is in the majority now among leaders and economists. The only economy that is resisting, opposing, vetoing, is Germany."

In Florange, which was at the heart of the postwar coal and steel agreement between France and Germany that was the precursor to the European Union, there would be loud assent to that statement.

"This government could have made a stand on behalf of the other Europe, where youngsters are deserting Spain to look for work and where they'll soon be deserting France too," said Frédéric Weber. "They were elected on promises and hopes. Why did they allow us to hope if they hadn't got the courage to stand up to finance and the demands of the Germans? Hollande needs to remember that, if the left doesn't make that stand, behind it there is the extreme right, the extreme nationalists. Do we really want everything to unravel and for the borders of Europe to close again? François Hollande needs to start being a leader."

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The hunt for Ben Needham and the family that won't give up searching

British toddler Ben Needham vanished in 1991 on the Greek island of Kos. Now his mother has written a memoir and here she talks to the writer who has followed the case since the mid-90s and come to know the family well

Melanie McFadyean   
The Observer, Sunday 28 April 2013   

Kerry Needham is composed and glamorous, the worldly and articulate author of an autobiography out next week, almost unrecognisable, in fact, from the broken, teenage waif who first hit the news when her little boy Ben went missing on the Greek island of Kos in July 1991. The girl on the TV back then sat helpless and child-like between Eddie and Chris, her grief-stricken, guilt-ridden parents.
Chris and Eddie Needham and their sons Stephen, aged 17, and Danny, 11, had gone to Kos, abandoning their native Sheffield, for a future in the sun, and were living in a caravan in a place called, ironically, Paradisi. Eddie, a builder, found work renovating an old farmhouse on a remote hillside track above Kos town. Stephen was helping him. Kerry, then 19, and Ben, aged 18 months, joined them a few months later. She had been lonely in Sheffield without her family and unhappy in her relationship with Ben's father, Simon. On Kos she got a job at a hotel serving at the bar and round the pool, and she had a flat of her own. Suddenly she had it all – a job she enjoyed, a life in the sun with her beloved Ben and her family. She was in her element. She said recently that perhaps they'd have lived there happily ever after if it hadn't all gone so horribly wrong.

On 24 July 1991, Eddie, Chris, Ben, Stephen and Danny were at the farmhouse having lunch. Kerry was at work. Ben was running in and out, playing with water, amusing them. After lunch Stephen went outside and got on his 50cc motorbike to leave. Ben wanted a ride. "No," Stephen said, "go back inside." Stephen drove off. He was the last to see Ben.

A few minutes later Chris realised Ben had gone silent. They looked everywhere – up and down the track, across the fields. Nothing. No sign of him. He had vanished. All around was silent, apart from the wind and the creaking of the cicadas in the overgrown fields.

In the years since then the story has been in and out of the news, flaring up when there is a particularly striking "sighting" and compounded by Madeleine McCann's disappearance in 2007, when Kerry once again found herself the object of intense media interest.

The fear of losing a child is familiar to every parent. The year after Ben vanished, I was in Crete with my partner and our two-year-old son. Haunted by the story of Ben, I didn't let my son out of my sight. One day I saw a little blond boy playing outside a shuttered villa wearing a T-shirt with Kos written on it. My suspicions aroused, I took some photos.

On my return home, I took the photos to the Needhams at their home on a Sheffield estate. It was easy enough to find them – there were no gatekeepers or media go-betweens. I got their number from the phone book and rang them. They were living on one of the old Sheffield housing estates of red brick houses and generous gardens high above the city. Eddie talked but Kerry, bleached out, aspen thin, a hovering, agonised presence, didn't say a word. Chris stayed in the kitchen. She later told me she took refuge in domesticity to ward off the pain. My snaps offered no hope but drew me into a story and a family with which I am still involved 20 years on. Soon after, I wrote the first of a number of stories about them, for the Guardian.

Back then, Eddie was obsessive, continually reassessing every possible explanation. They have always thought that Ben was kidnapped, destined for the child-selling rings that Greek police have cracked, involving doctors, lawyers, Gypsies and social workers. In those early years Eddie kept the search going, following up every lead he could, despite having no money. There have been hundreds of sightings over the years and Eddie, sometimes with Chris, occasionally with Kerry, would go to check them out, sometimes backed by a newspaper or TV news team, other times on his own, sleeping rough if he had to. They raised funds selling bric-a-brac at car boot sales and rattling buckets outside rock concerts.

Over the years I have written several pieces about the Needhams, as well as being involved in TV and radio coverage of the case. The family were always grateful for publicity, as it kept the search alive. The media have been their greatest allies. A working-class family, the sympathy for them in the tabloids made Kerry and Ben household names. They have never got much help from the UK authorities until relatively recently, and none at the start, in the days immediately after Ben vanished. When, in despair, they asked to be repatriated two months after Ben disappeared, the UK authorities in Greece said they would have to be means tested, before paying up. They were so broke they sold Danny's toys to make ends meet.

In November 1996 I was associate producer on a Channel 4 documentary telling the story so far, and following new leads. We went back to Kos with Chris and Eddie to the farmhouse, reliving the moment Ben vanished. Our story followed the dramatic twists and turns in the investigation. We shot some of it in the town of Veria, near Thessaloniki on the northern Greek mainland. I got a sense of the pressures involved in their search when one night in Veria a man appeared from the shadows looking over his shoulder, saying he had seen Ben in the clutches of a Gypsy of whom he was so terrified that he didn't want anyone to know he had spoken to us.

I saw Kerry in December 1996. She hadn't come to Greece to make the film but agreed to be interviewed in Sheffield. She had increasingly retreated from the media glare. It was evident at a glance when she arrived at her parents' house that something was very wrong. Her daughter Leighanna, born in February 1994, was living with Chris and Eddie. The change in Kerry was astonishing, the atmosphere tense, a vivid anger coming off her like static. The dress she planned to wear for the film was disco chic – a minimal stretch of grey PVC with a jagged hem. Her mother insisted Kerry wear a frock. Kerry yelled at her: "You want me to look like little fucking Mary on the little fucking prairie."

The relationship between Kerry and her parents was in freefall and they were barely exchanging civilities. Kerry was in search of oblivion, working in a bar, her nights a blaze of amphetamine and ecstasy, taking refuge from states of mind few can fully imagine. I sympathised with Kerry but understood her parents' fury and alarm. Kerry couldn't articulate what was happening to her then. She told me three years ago what she had been going through at the time. When Leighanna reached the age Ben was when he vanished, Kerry felt at breaking point. Something had to give. The teenage single mother, bereft at 19 in a way too shocking to comprehend, had faced hope then despair over and over again for almost five years, with every supposed sighting and snapshot of little boys people thought might be Ben. One tourist even sent a strand of hair from a child's head, so convinced was he that this was Ben. Kerry sometimes followed up leads but she was too frail to cope. She cites the time she went to Bodrum in Turkey after a tourist reported seeing a blond baby boy who looked like Ben in a market. That turned out to be a girl. Someone else reported seeing a blond boy in a taverna in Greece with dark-haired parents. When the child appeared, he looked so like Ben that her heart missed a beat. "Every time it wasn't Ben it was like losing him again," she told me.

There were times when life felt impossible. "I wanted to end the pain," she says. "I thought nobody else could understand what I was going through. I stayed in bed day after day. The years went on and I thought, 'I'm never going to find him, so I might as well end it.' Without Ben I didn't want to live. I cut my wrists twice and took pills twice. I'd sat at home for four and a half years crying… I wanted out."

Having survived all this, she emerged feeling that nothing more could hurt her. "I had no emotions left and I decided to go out and enjoy myself." Cutting herself off from her family and daughter meant that she could opt out for a while. "In the bar I worked in, I was just a young woman out to enjoy herself. After work I'd go dancing with my workmates. I felt like a normal 24-year-old."

After about three months of a fast nocturnal life, Kerry had burned through her rage and despair and emerged stronger. Reunited with Leighanna and her parents, she picked up the pieces.

Fast-forward and there she was in her kitchen, the most recent time I saw them, in March this year, with her arms around Leighanna, her peaches-and-cream daughter, who she says has been her reason to go on.

It was the morning after a late night. They had been at a fundraising party for the search for Ben in the local working men's club near Kerry's home in Ecclesfield. There's no question of giving up the search and they always need funds. We sat in her living room where your eye is drawn to a picture of Ben, frozen in time at 21 months old, the gravitational pull at the centre of their lives. Despite her lack of sleep, she looked beautiful – she has a wise, sad stillness that comes to people who have endured and survived.

She was wearing very little makeup, which isn't her idea of looking good. She goes for hair extensions, Botox and fake tan, the full disco diva look. But in her it's not vanity, it's making up for lost time. "I never used to take care of how I look," she said. "I've just been 'missing Ben Needham's mum' – it didn't matter about makeup or clothes as long as you're presentable. But I reached 40 and realised I was getting older. I needed to reinvent myself. I have to be me. I haven't had a life. I've never been 20 and I don't remember 21, 22, 23…"

Chris and Leighanna joined us. They, too, had had a late night at the benefit. Kerry and Chris were talking about the evening, amazed by the kindness of some Facebook friends who had organised it. The conversation meandered into chatter about who would play them in a film of their turbulent lives. Leighanna was easy to cast – Scarlett Johansson. But it was the idea of Jodie Foster as Kerry, having difficulty with a Yorkshire accent, and Ricky Tomlinson playing Eddie that made them laugh. That laughter, a tribute to their survival, is hard won. Kerry and Stephen were on a bus in Sheffield three years after Ben vanished. They laughed at some joke. A stranger approached them saying she was shocked that Kerry could laugh when her son was missing. She hopes her book will set the record straight: "It will give people insight into us as family, what we've been through, how we've been let down, how much of these 22 years we've had to do everything ourselves with no multi-million-pound campaign, no major police investigation. I'd like all those officials and politicians who could have helped us in the past to read it and go, 'Oh my God, what have we done?' And more than anything it will show Ben that we have never given up."

I have thousands of words of interviews with Eddie, Chris and Kerry, and a lot with Danny and Stephen, material gathered over the years. I have known them through breakdowns, splits, disasters and upheavals. Some might think I have been too close for objectivity, too partisan. But when I have heard accusations against them, I have checked them out. I was told by a woman on Kos that they sold Ben; they neglected him; Kerry was an unfit mother; they lived like hippies and Gypsies; they pretended to be poor but had a lot of money and two houses. Had there been any evidence for these rumours and I had ignored it, my affection for them would have been seen as compromising my integrity. The family were at first prime suspects and interrogated for hours by the police in Kos. In 1996, the police showed me the Needham file. There was no evidence lending credibility to the gossip, although there was a statement made against Kerry by someone she thought of as a friend, saying she had been with him the night Ben vanished. I asked her about it. She was with her family searching all night – she had alibis proving what he said was a lie. Why he did that remains a mystery. Three years ago I was writing about the family for Granta magazine. A British journalist told me he believed Stephen had accidentally killed Ben on his motorbike that day, and Chris had hidden his body. I challenged Chris. She asked me with bitter humour if I could see her doing that and lying for 19 years to her daughter, her husband, the world, herself. I couldn't and there wasn't any evidence against her.

These days, Kerry is as ready to talk as she was once silent and is strikingly self-aware. "I'm strong, I'm independent, I don't need anybody," she said to me that day in Sheffield in March, reflecting on her single status.

Kerry's relationship with Simon ended when he went to jail shortly after Leighanna was born. She has had other relationships and more than her share of heartbreak – one man she loved was murdered just when they were about to get together. In 2006 she married Craig Grist, a builder, but they split up two years ago. "Craig has a heart of gold, he made me happy and we had good times, but he didn't get me. He didn't know how much I'd suffered. That's not his fault. I probably punished him in ways he didn't deserve. When it came to being serious and doing the things I had to do, he couldn't handle it. I don't think anybody could, that's probably why I'm on my own," she says, laughing. "Who could live with Kerry Needham and deal with the shit she goes through? You're having your tea and suddenly I have to go to London or Greece or the press turns up."

Kerry plans eventually to live in Turkey to get away from being stared at as Ben Needham's mother, or approached by strangers who ask her how she feels and whether there are any developments. Because of their good intentions, she feels bound to explain over and over again. "I am only doing what any mum would do," she says.

But in the supercharged world of instant global media and social networking she has a touch of celebrity status through hundreds of articles, YouTube clips of TV appearances and has been in Hello magazine and OK!.

The internet offers an infinity of possibilities. There are two Ben websites, a Ben Facebook page, Kerry's Facebook page, YouTube clips and many pictures of Ben on the web. Two young men have contacted Kerry on Facebook wondering whether they were Ben. They weren't.

There is a public investment in people whose fame is predicated on their suffering, and there are those who expect their suffering celebrities to behave like the Pietà – forever grieving, crushed, relinquishing identity and desire. On her Facebook page (4,109 friends), there are pictures of Kerry at parties and on holiday, wearing slinky dresses and bikinis. Someone sent her a Facebook message: "Look for Ben not going out." (sic) "How dare these people?" she fumed. "If I don't laugh and enjoy myself I'd die. Do they want me to die? It's the same when people say if it was me, I wouldn't be here. Should I feel guilty for being alive? I want to find my son and I will fight until the day I die to find him."

Nowadays she is in control of the search, liaising with Sheffield police who now have a team supporting her and assisting the Greek police on Ben's case. In February she and her mother invited me to accompany them to Thessaloniki and track down people the Greek authorities had failed to find after reports of sightings came in to a TV show she had appeared on last October. There were two people Kerry was determined to find: someone had contacted the TV channel giving the name of a Gypsy who she said was Ben. Another, a man from Veria, told Kerry via Facebook that he had seen someone in his local supermarket resembling the enhanced image of Ben. He named the man, also a Gypsy, who was married with two children.

One of her Greek Facebook friends, a young unemployed teacher, took us to the Thessaloniki police headquarters one evening and talked her way into the chief's office. He had the seen-it-all expression of the seasoned cop. Kerry was tense as she waited. Half an hour later he produced photographs of the two men. Kerry scrutinised them, shrugged slightly, showed them to Chris and me, and looked at them again. Neither looked how Kerry imagines Ben to look and bore no resemblance to the digitally enhanced photo fits of Ben as he might have aged, although one – a handsome young man with large, strangely bottle-green eyes – faintly resembled Simon.

Sometimes Kerry wonders if Ben has grown up in a Gypsy community and is reluctant to emerge or is under pressure not to, as the story of his kidnap would then come out. The police chief told her that's impossible. She's not convinced and suspects the police don't look in the Gypsy communities, which they say are no-go areas.

She was still holding out the faint chance that the handsome man with the bottle-green eyes might be Ben. Then she met him, accompanied by his father – the young man wasn't Ben. Kerry takes the disappointments with a sigh now, but it costs her emotionally every time. The blow was softened by the friendliness of the two men – the father had tears in his eyes. The other sighting remains unresolved but looks unlike the Needhams or the enhanced image.

People go on emerging, saying they have seen young men they think are Ben, often telling bizarre, disturbing stories. Kerry feels sure Ben is alive and that one day she will find him. "I may never have a proper relationship with Ben, but once I've found him I'll know he's alive and that will be enough," she says in her mellow, sad, wise way.


When Ben Needham disappeared from a Greek farmhouse in 1991, his close-knit family were almost torn apart

Eighteen years later, in harrowing detail, they reveal how they've coped with his loss, the criticism they've endured and why the McCann case has re-opened so many old wounds

Melanie McFadyean   
The Observer, Sunday 29 March 2009   

When Madeleine McCann went missing, in May 2007, from the bedroom of her parents' holiday villa in Portugal while they had dinner nearby, it started one of the biggest international media stories of recent years. The same photograph of Madeleine, a pretty blonde three-year-old with a distinctive black mark in the iris of one eye, was published day after day, as were pictures of her parents, Kate McCann, a GP, and Gerry McCann, a heart specialist, from Leicester, always close together, with Kate holding Cuddle Cat, Madeleine's favourite toy.

Around the world people watched as they were flown from the holiday resort of Praia da Luz, in the jet owned by billionaire retailer Sir Philip Green, to meet Pope Benedict XVI in Rome; as wealthy benefactors, Sir Richard Branson among them, donated time and money to their cause. They spoke directly to Gordon Brown on the phone. Diplomats supported them. Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC journalist, left his job in the government's

Central Office of Information's Media Monitoring Unit to run "team McCann" and act as gatekeeper to the huge press onslaught. The children's author JK Rowling, the footballer Wayne Rooney and pop entrepreneur Simon Cowell contributed to the £2.5m reward.

When Ben Needham disappeared from a farmhouse on the Greek island of Kos, in July 1991, while being looked after by his grandparents, the reaction was very different. He was 21 months old, as blond and photogenic as Madeleine McCann, but this was before mobile phones, the internet, the instant transmission of news; before Princess Diana's death legitimised the public emotion that accompanies so many catastrophes. And Kerry Needham and Simon Ward, an unmarried couple from a Sheffield housing estate, didn't have the same appeal as the professional, middle-class McCanns.

I met the Needhams in September 1993. By then, their story was only sporadically in the news. I had been in Crete that summer with my two-year-old son. Haunted by Ben Needham's story, I never let him out of my sight. One afternoon, in a small village, I was chatting to two old women outside a café when a child playing nearby caught my eye. He had tawny blond hair, pale eyes and a T-shirt with "Kos" written on it. He didn't look Greek. One of the women said he came from a villa a few yards away, but nobody knew the people who lived there.

I took a photograph of the boy and sent it to the Needhams via South Yorkshire Police. It wasn't Ben. In September, I went to see the Needhams in their council house in Sheffield to interview them for the Guardian. They were easy to find; journalists could ring them directly and go and see them. They've always hoped publicity will keep Ben in the public's thoughts.

In 1993, Kerry Needham, Ben's mother, was 21. She was thin, quiet and withdrawn. Her father, Eddie, did the talking. Her mother, Christine, kept out of the way; she let Eddie deal with the press. Since then I have stayed in touch with the Needhams. In 1996 I worked on a Channel 4 documentary about Ben's disappearance, and I have written about them periodically. Kerry Needham's was never a household name. In some ways this was a good thing - she didn't suffer the constant pressure of media scrutiny that the McCanns did - but it had its downside: the story slipped out of sight, she and Ben were almost forgotten. But when Madeleine McCann disappeared, the press remembered Kerry and bombarded her with calls. The attention brought a rush of emotions.

"I was devastated for the McCanns," she told me last July, "but it wiped me out to the point where I needed tablets again. One day I did 27 interviews. Watching them on television took me back - living that day again. And it made me bitter and angry because the official help that they got was unbelievable: the British ambassador gave a statement at a press conference, British police officers flying over, a visit with the Pope, phone calls from Gordon Brown..."

Gordon Brown was reported to have intervened when the McCanns were frustrated by lack of progress in the investigation. Encouraged by this, Kerry wrote to Gordon Brown. It took him three months to respond and his reply, when it came, gave her no hope. "He told me what the British authorities had done in all these years, but nothing about what could be done. I know what's been done and it's not enough. He wrote that the Greek authorities would reopen the case if there was a promising new line of enquiry." In her letter Kerry told him that a white car had been seen in the area the day Ben disappeared, and the police knew who owned it, but that there has been no conclusive investigation into it. She was surprised Brown didn't pick up on this.

She also wrote to her local MP, David Blunkett, in November, clearly spelling out the uninvestigated lead. He responded positively, saying he would approach the Home and Foreign Secretaries to contact Interpol and pressurise the Greek authorities to look at this "additional potential lead". Kerry then had a letter from the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, in which she said she had passed the information on to the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police.

"I've gone round the houses and been sent back to South Yorkshire Police. It still doesn't give me the answer I want, but I'll continue to push for Ben. They're still not telling me if this can be investigated or if Ben's case can be reinvestigated from the start."

In January 2008 Kerry was contacted by a television director, who was making a documentary about the McCanns. As Kerry remembers it, she was asked if she would like to meet Kate McCann; she said yes, as long as there were no cameras, no reporters, that they could meet as one bereft mother with another. But the meeting never took place. When I spoke to Clarence Mitchell in November 2008, he said that the film director hadn't asked Kerry if she wanted to meet Kate McCann, but whether she would appear in the documentary as the mother of a lost child. "Kate finds the idea of meeting a parent in that position quite daunting," he told me then.

"[Kerry] has been living with it for 18 years and the idea of facing it as long and stoically as Kerry has is a bit daunting. It's not that she doesn't want to meet her, she's sure she's a lovely person and maybe one day she will feel like it. But she doesn't want to face a lifetime without finding Madeleine."

So when a letter arrived out of the blue on 24 January from Kate McCann, Kerry was amazed.

"I thought it was sweet of her. I didn't think she'd ever get in contact with me. I was really moved, it's a really heartfelt letter. She'd wanted to be in touch with me, but had been scared of having to admit that Madeleine's disappearance might end up like Ben's. Nobody wants to think a child could be missing for years and years. If the boot had been on the other foot I wouldn't have wanted to get in touch with somebody whose child had been missing for all these years because it would give you no hope. You'd think, is that me in 18 years?"

As banal as it seems, this is the one question you have to ask: how have Kerry and her family endured the years without Ben? "We've survived," Kerry said. "We've all found a way. I don't know what way it is - but a way of coping with it. We've found the strength to live and cope and we'll never get over it even though we deal with it. But we can never understand it."

This is the story of how these 18 years have been for the family since Ben disappeared. There is never a day, Kerry says, that Ben isn't in her thoughts. If she believed he were dead it might be easier. There would be a focus for that grief, a conclusion. But her family is convinced that Ben was snatched, and Kerry's instincts tell her that her son is alive out there somewhere.

Ben, who in his absence is the epicentre of his family, would now be 19. In 2003 the Metropolitan Police released a digitally enhanced photograph of how he might look at 13: a smiling butter-blond boy who didn't resemble anyone in his family. A second digital photograph, in which he slightly resembles Kerry's brother Stephen, was made in 2007, when he would have been 18. It has the unsettling qualities of both a passport photo and a criminal photofit.

Ben was born in October 1989 when Kerry was 17. She had met his father, Simon Ward, when she was 15 and still at school. The Needhams come from South Yorkshire: Eddie Needham, a builder by trade, is from Chapeltown, near Sheffield, and Christine is from Thorpe Hesley, outside Rotherham. They met as teenagers and married soon afterwards. In the early 1980s, they moved to Chapel St Leonards, near Skegness. At first they lived on the caravan site; Eddie worked on a building site and collected scrap metal; Christine worked in a chip shop, then ran a café. They did well and bought a house.

In 1990, Christine's sister treated the family to their first foreign holiday - on the Greek island of Kos. Christine fell in love with the island and with life in the sun. At the end of that year, the Needhams sold everything, bought an old Land Rover and a caravan, and set off to live on Kos with their two sons, Danny, then 11, and Stephen, 17. Kerry stayed in Sheffield, where she had moved with Simon, missing her family and hating their dingy flat. Simon worked away from home and she was often alone. Eventually, in April 1991, she and Ben, then 18 months old, went to join them. She had never even been to London, let alone on a plane or to a foreign country.

On Kos, Kerry blossomed. She lived in a bedsit, shared the care of Ben with her mother and found work at a hotel serving snacks around the pool. She felt justified in leaving Simon behind. Kerry told me that Simon left when she was five months pregnant. "I had no money, living on bread and jam, no life whatsoever," she said. He didn't come back until Ben was born.

Christine, who had been working with Kerry at the hotel, gave up her job to take care of Ben. Kerry upgraded from the bedsit to a small holiday flat and Ben stayed with her or the rest of the family in the caravan which was parked in an olive grove in an area called Paradisi, near the beach, about 10 minutes' walk from Kos town.

Eddie and Stephen had found work renovating a small farmhouse a couple of miles outside the town in a hilly area known as Herakles. The owner had told them that if they did it up, the Needhams could live in the house rent-free, in return for looking after it when he was away.

On 24 July, Christine, Eddie, Danny, Stephen and the owner of the house, Michaelis Kypreos, were in the farmhouse eating lunch. Ben was playing on the terrace just outside the door. He was running in and out, pouring water over his head and messing about with a stick. They could see through the open door on to the terrace where Ben was playing. There was a tree on which they'd hung his wet shorts.

At about two-thirty, Stephen left on his moped to go for a swim, a beer and a shower at Kerry's flat. Ben wanted to go with him; he'd been on the bike before, and now he wanted to go with his uncle. A few minutes after Stephen left, Christine registered that Ben had gone quiet and went outside. He was nowhere to be seen. She, Eddie, Danny and Michaelis Kypreos searched up and down the lane, in the field by the house, in a nearby orange grove, calling for him, looking anywhere he could conceivably be. When they couldn't find him, they assumed he must have gone with Stephen; it was the logical explanation. They thought Stephen had taken Ben for a ride and would bring him back.

About an hour later, thinking Stephen had gone to the caravan instead of coming back to the farmhouse, or had gone to Kerry's flat, Christine walked back to Paradisi, while Eddie, Danny and Kypreos stayed working on the roof.

In the early evening Eddie went to the caravan expecting to find Ben with Christine. He wasn't, so Eddie went to Kerry's flat, thinking he'd be there. Stephen was there, but without Ben. Eddie raced back to the caravan to tell Christine and then went back to Herakles in the Land Rover. Stephen took Christine to the police on his bike and then joined his father. It was several hours since Ben had vanished by the time the police took Christine to the hotel to tell Kerry what had happened. Kerry had finished her shift and was sitting by the swimming pool when her mother arrived, sobbing, to tell her Ben had disappeared.

The police took them both to Herakles to join Eddie and the boys. They searched, going to places that Ben could never have got to, covering some 15 acres, through olive groves and pomegranate orchards, riverbeds and long grass. The next day Kos police began their investigation and their first questions were directed at the Needhams. They were immediately hostile to Kerry. "They banged their hands on the table," she told me. "They shouted, 'Where is boy? How can you lose a baby? Why do you go to work? You must not love your child.'"

She had been unaware of the image local people had of her. They had always seemed friendly, but, after Ben disappeared, island gossip found its way back to her - she was an unfit mother, a slut. Why wasn't she married? Why did she work and not look after her child? Her family lived like gypsies in a caravan. Kerry didn't love Ben, she'd given him away, she'd sold him...

The sightings started within 24 hours. The first was a child seen buying sweets at the airport, but news of it took three days to get to the Needhams. Over the next few years there were to be hundreds of reports of small blond children in situations perceived as suspicious. It took a few days for the news of Ben's disappearance to filter through to the UK press. The first to knock at the caravan door was a reporter from the Sun. In the next few weeks, reporters came from other newspapers, and from TV news stations; but there was none of the frenzied coverage that engulfed the McCanns.

The family stayed on Kos for two months after Ben disappeared. Then Eddie rang the British Embassy in Athens to ask if they could be repatriated. There had been no progress with the investigation and the strain on them was unbearable. He was told they would have to be means-tested and it might take a month.

So, desperate to get back to England, they sold everything and arrived home at the end of September, broke. They went back to Yorkshire, living with various relatives in Sheffield, before being housed by the council.

The second time I met Kerry was in 1996. I was working on a Channel 4 documentary about Ben. The silent, passive girl who had sat in the lee of her father's body three years before had become spiky and edgy. By this time, she had a daughter, Leighanna. She and Simon Ward had drifted back together and Kerry had got pregnant.

Leighanna was born in February 1994; not long after, Simon went to prison for five years, charged with robbery. It was a long time before Kerry had been able to articulate what those early months had been like after Ben went missing. She and Simon were living together again. "I used to get up in the middle of the night and it was like I was hallucinating that Ben was actually there. We'd decorated a bedroom for him and I used to go in there and pretend to rock him to sleep because I thought I could hear him crying. I had a psychiatric nurse who was wonderful, and she said that having the bedroom there was making it worse. Obviously I was dreaming that I could hear him crying and I was just automatically getting up in the night and going to rock the baby."

She made four suicide attempts. She overdosed on antidepressants and attempted to cut her wrists, but says she knows she didn't really want to die. It was more that edging around death brought temporary relief from the pain. It had been people close to her who suggested she have another baby. "They said those maternal instincts that woke me in the middle of the night would be of use if I had another baby."

She looked at photographs of her son and at snapshots tourists had taken of children they thought might be Ben, but never were. She wrote him letters. A few times she roused herself and went with television crews or journalists following up sightings of Ben. In 1992, for example, she went on a trip to Izmir, in Turkey. The photo of the child had been very like Ben, but the child was a girl. Kerry broke down. The child's mother passed her daughter to her, letting Kerry hold her.

There were hundreds of sightings, none of them Ben: BLOND BOY BEGGING ON ATHENS UNDERGROUND, BLOND BOY CLEANING CAR WINDOW IN ATHENS WATCHED BY DARK-SKINNED WELL-DRESSED MAN. The expectation and disappointment of these trips threatened Kerry's sanity. Eddie encouraged her to stay out of it and let him rove the world looking for Ben instead.

The arrival of a new baby, physically similar to the one who was lost, had brought Kerry out of her paralysis, but Leighanna couldn't replace Ben and Kerry found it hard to be her mother. She went through the motions of motherhood but it brought her no joy. "I couldn't be anyone," she says, "only Ben Needham's mum. But I couldn't be his mum because he wasn't there. I couldn't cope with being me, I couldn't be a real person. I couldn't cope with anything. It was tough on Leighanna and tough on me. I plodded on but it was a really awful time."

By 1996, Leighanna was living with Eddie and Christine. They were looking after their granddaughter but Kerry felt they were furious with her. "We have always been very close," said Christine, "the family has been entwined, the bonds are so strong, and we've cried and cried and hugged and hugged and been almost too close or hated each other." They were afraid it would appear as if she had abandoned her child and public perceptions of Ben's case would suffer as a consequence. They were horrified when a story appeared in the Sheffield Star: KERRY GIVES UP HER DAUGHTER. Two days later, there was another in the Sunday Express: "I DON'T WANT MY SON BACK," SAYS MOTHER AS SHE SHUNS NEW BABY. Kerry had spoken unguardedly to reporters. It was true that she couldn't cope with her new baby, but not that she didn't want Ben back.

For the past few months she had submerged herself in the Sheffield club scene and was working in a club bar. Her parents thought she was selfish and irresponsible. For Kerry it was an escape. But even there she was recognised: "I was in the toilets at the club and this woman was looking at me. 'You're Ben Needham's mum... I wouldn't be out if it had happened to me.' I said, 'What do you know?' I pinned her up against the toilet door."

At that time, she said, people found her cold and hard because she didn't cry when asked about Ben. Her grief had given way to anger: she was angry that he had been taken, angry because not enough was being done at an official level, angry that her life had been destroyed when Ben went missing.

In the spring of 1997, when Leighanna was three, Simon Ward's father died. Although she no longer felt close to Simon (by the time he came out of prison their relationship was over), Kerry suddenly felt a pang about her own father, her family, her daughter.

"It made me realise life is short and I wanted to be with them." She went to her parents' house, frightened she might not be welcome. As she walked in Leighanna glanced up from a book she was looking at and greeted her mother as though no time had passed.

Kerry sat reading to her. Eddie, Kerry says, "huffed and puffed for a bit".

She had to prove that she was capable of having Leighanna back. Kerry was lucky: her daughter came home willingly and they settled down. Even then, Kerry's life was not without drama. A three-year relationship ended badly, and another with a nightclub manager ended when he was stabbed to death in a street brawl. She had a brief holiday romance in Dominica with a man who conned her out of £500.

I'd heard bits of Kerry's story from Christine and Eddie in the years since I'd seen her, but I didn't know how she would be when I went to visit her in Sheffield in June last year. Kerry has always been slight; her face is narrow and delicate and she moves quickly and neatly. In her living room, my eye was drawn to two things: on the centre of the mantelpiece, the last picture of Ben taken before he vanished, and, to the right, a birdcage and a parrot. It screeched, "Shut up! Fucking hell Ziggy!" Kerry laughed. Ziggy the parrot came with Craig Grist, a builder, the man she married in 2006.

I asked Kerry how she feels now when she is interviewed. She said she hates being asked what she would say to Ben if she found him now. But she responds openly to most enquiries because every time a bit of her gets out there it might reach Ben, and it reminds people about him. Kerry has taken the lead in the search for Ben, although there are few sightings now.

Her efforts to have Ben's case reopened mean that she is anxious that all uninvestigated leads are followed up. One of them involved a trip to Kos in July 2000 when she went with her father, Stephen and Leighanna to collect Ben's case file. While they were there, Eddie asked the policeman in charge of the case about the white car seen in the lane in Herakles at around 2.30pm on the day Ben vanished. The policeman told Eddie who it belonged to. To the Needhams' amazement, it was someone they knew, but this was the first they had heard of it. "There may be a perfectly good explanation," said Kerry, but she'd like to know it has been properly investigated and feels it hasn't been. There are other unresolved leads, and Kerry's priority is for the authorities to investigate them.

In the years after Ben's disappearance, Eddie and Christine Needham restarted their lives. They had a friend who ran the local tip in Sheffield and in the late 1990s they started looking there for things to sell at car-boot sales. They graduated to the antiques fair at Swinderby in Yorkshire and from the local tip to bigger tips. For three years, until they left England again in 2004, they ran three tips. To their surprise they made enough money to buy a house in Cyprus.

They had been on a holiday to Turkish Cyprus. Once again they uprooted themselves. They bought a villa overlooking the sea on the side of a hill in the village of Alsancak on the north coast. They renovated the house and Christine made a garden. In June 2008, I flew to Cyprus to meet her. To my surprise she asked me to meet her several hours' drive away in Dipkarpaz, in the north east. She had left Eddie. He didn't know where she was and she was going to keep it that way: she was going to stay there, read and grow vegetables. I met her in a beach café. She looked tanned and her hair was bleached blonde. She was gazing out to sea.

I remembered being with Christine in Greece, in 1996, during the making of the Channel 4 film, and the way she had described what it was like when they first moved to Kos.

"It was sunny, peaceful, there was only the crickets," she said. "It was like living in a free world. Most people wouldn't say, 'Let's just go and live in Greece.' So we'd achieved something. We had money in the bank, not a lot, but we lived simply and had everything we needed... sea and olive trees and lemons growing on trees in the streets, like another world, a dream. And then Ben disappeared."

It was Christine who had taken Ben to the farmhouse that day, while Kerry was at work. In Cyprus she described again what happened; how they'd been sitting inside, eating lunch, and Ben was playing, in and out, and then after Stephen left she couldn't hear him. "I'm thinking - he's quiet. It's an instinct, you just know the quiet bit means trouble. God knows I never thought it would be that much trouble."

She told me how they had assumed Stephen had given Ben a ride on his moped.

"He was mad for that bike," she said. "We've got pictures of him on it. We were waiting for the bike ride to finish, then 10 minutes turned into half an hour and then you're thinking, 'He's a long time'." About an hour later she'd said, "It looks like Steve's not coming back. I'll get off now, get the tea on."

It didn't occur to her that someone could have taken Ben. But if someone had, wouldn't he have screamed? "It depends. If they'd got sweets, that would shut him up straight away. You trust people at that age if they're kind; they hold you by the hand and take you. Like Jamie Bulger [the toddler from Merseyside who was abducted and killed in 1993]. He didn't kick up a fuss. There's just no answer."

The eight weeks they stayed on Kos after Ben disappeared were a blur, she said. "I don't know how we kept alive, but in the first weeks you believe that the next day there'll be news, you're still hopeful and you're on automatic, survival kicks in." She said they wandered round aimlessly, searching, or sat together going over every detail again and again. In the first months back in Sheffield she hankered after the ordinary. The sound of the Hoover and the washing machine soothed her. Eddie was enraged by the domesticity that kept Christine sane. He was obsessed with finding Ben, never off the phone, unable to talk about anything else. His voice, she said, was like a drill in her head.

"All of a sudden life changes," she said. "We had a normal life, then Ben is lost and we are in another world, where people come out of the shadows at you and others talk of guns. All this madness. You can't believe it's happened because if you did you'd probably go insane. Sometimes I bury my head in the sand so I don't feel it.

"Perhaps that's how I deal with it, so it isn't as painful. It's like half-pretending, isn't it?

"We lost our grandson through our stupidity," she said some years ago. "Through not acting quickly, presuming he was all right; we've been irresponsible. It's our fault." Now she says her guilt came from a "failure to be on alert".

"It felt so safe, there was no traffic, no people. I have brought up my family haphazardly, maybe, but they are all safe, and then I get this one job to look after Ben one day and I don't do it properly. I relaxed. There seemed to be no danger. I wasn't vigilant.

"I've said to Kerry, 'Why didn't you shout at me?' And she said, 'Because I never blamed you.' I thought I ought to feel guilty, because if somebody had lost my child, I would be at them. But my feeling isn't guilt, it's more a - what if ? What if I'd done this differently? What if I hadn't gone there that day?"

One theory about Ben's disappearance is that he had somehow fallen into the hands of gypsies. In October 1996, Christine and Eddie appeared on a live Greek TV phone-in show about missing people. A prisoner in jail in Greece called in saying he had seen Ben in March 1992 with a gypsy family in Veria, in northern Greece. Several other people called in independently, also locating Ben in Veria.

In February 1997, I went to Veria with Christine to talk to some of the callers to the show. Most of them were scared, and didn't want to be identified. One woman said she and her husband had seen a striking blond child they thought was Ben in September 1996. She had overheard a conversation between the head of the gypsy family and another man. The gypsy had said, "The kid is here. If they want to take him let them have him." She hadn't gone to the police because she was afraid.

We also went to see a taxi driver who we had spoken to the year before. He'd told us then he was sure that Ben had been in his taxi in January 1994, with a female member of a gypsy family and some other children. When he had asked who the boy was, another child had told him it was Ben or Benzi, and the woman had threatened to smack him. When we saw the taxi driver again, he had been interviewed by the police and changed his mind.

We went to see the police. We were ushered into a room where a group of men were smoking and playing cards. One of them got up to speak to us. He said the prisoner was a "mythomaniac" whose story couldn't be taken seriously.

In Athens Christine met a senior official from the Ministry of Public Order. He told us the gypsy was a criminal, a drug dealer and a car thief and that the prisoner was a liar. Nothing more came of the prisoner's story. It was all disturbing, dispiriting and futile.

At the end of the day I spent with Christine in Cyprus in June last year, as the sun went down, she said, "We all cracked up in our own ways. And we've all tried to be someone else for a little while. But you take on this mother role, holding everybody up, especially Kerry, she was so delicate. I used to jolly them along. I didn't want my family to die. I thought everybody would commit suicide. Everybody thinks that I deal with it better than anybody else, but that is because I know they won't cope if I drop. If I go under, my family will die, I know they will, even now."'

After seeing Christine, I went to visit Eddie. I found him sunk into the corner of a sofa in the living room of their villa in front of a large flat-screen TV with the sound turned off. For years his whole being was concentrated on his crusade, as he called it, to find Ben. The night Ben went missing, Eddie and Stephen had driven to the port on Kos at 3am. There was a line of trucks and cars waiting to board the ferry. Eddie and Stephen peered into the windows. They couldn't believe there were no police checking the vehicles. The policeman who had said he would join them there never turned up.

When they searched the fields around the farmhouse, they heard noises in the dark, like a baby, but never a baby, perhaps lambs or goats. As soon as it was light, Eddie searched sheds and outhouses. He went through bins, pulling out plastic sacks, dreading what he might find.

During the police interrogations he banged his fists on the table, enraged by the suggestion that "our Kerry was a slut" He spent three days next to a digger as it excavated the rubble of a demolished house on the lane in Herakles, bracing himself for the possibility that it would disgorge his grandson's body.

The police told him they thought Ben was alive: if there is a dead body, certain birds flock to it, they said, but no such birds had been seen. A stranger in a taverna told him to get a gun and go to the back-alley bars in Athens. That was where the answer lay. That was where children were bought and sold for illegal adoption or organ transplants.

The police told him that gypsies sell babies and that little blond boys fetch the highest prices. In those first days and nights Eddie said he heard Ben's voice in his head, urging him on, telling him he was nearly there, to go on trying to find him. He remembers collapsing on the road outside the hotel where Kerry worked, weeping. When he walked through a gypsy camp with posters in Greek publicising Ben's disappearance, a woman thrust her pregnant daughter at him, offering her unborn baby for sale.

Eddie feels that his family was ignored by British officials. It still makes him angry. No British representative came to Kos in those first weeks after Ben vanished. Eddie says that when he called the embassy in Athens he was told that since none of his family was in jail they didn't need a lawyer, and since nobody was alone, and there were people around who spoke English, they didn't need an interpreter.

Back in England, Eddie kept up the search, losing count of the times he went to Greece, following sightings, sometimes with TV crews and journalists, sometimes with Christine, occasionally with Kerry, often on his own. He did it on a shoestring, dependent on the press paying expenses or on scraping up a fare by standing outside rock concerts with buckets or selling stuff at car-boot sales. He slept on beaches, or in cheap hotel rooms. He only spoke a few words of Greek and they were mostly to do with building. There were moments when, from a distance, the blond child they were going to see would look so like Ben they'd think they had found him.

At home, Eddie brooded, watched TV and waited by the phone. Unable to work, he signed on the dole. He found himself subject to fits of anger that he had never experienced before. He would listen to anyone - even to the dowsers, clairvoyants and seventh sons of seventh sons who said Ben was in Florida, California, a Scandinavian country, "taken by a man in a leather jacket with an Alsatian dog and he didn't go easily".

Only a few weeks before my visit to Cyprus, the Sheffield police in charge of Ben's case in the UK had been told of a sighting of a young man in Cyprus, thought by a tourist to resemble how Ben might look now. Eddie had been to meet him. "I wish it'd been my grandson, because he was a gentleman and I'd have been very proud of him," he said, "but he was Romanian. Hugged him, kissed him, checked the birthmark on his neck just to make sure, that's how close it was. He didn't have the birthmark."

Eddie seemed to me to be in that state of stupefied sobriety that comes after days and nights alone with the bottle. "I'm just an ignorant person," he said. "I haven't got the intelligence to put the past behind me. Can you understand that?" I said I didn't think it was a matter of intelligence. "Christine understands," he said. "She's got the brains, she can work it out and she knows it's too late, that I'm so thick and stupid I just carry on bulldozing through everything. The thought of Ben is there constantly. When I don't think about it I feel terrible, I feel guilty for not thinking about it."

When I left he was with his younger son, Danny, who lives in Cyprus. A few days later, I went back to see him. He was sober and unexpectedly sanguine about Christine's continuing absence and her insistence that she would never return. Their 39 years of marriage have been punctuated by Christine's intermittent departures, usually sparked by Eddie's occasional drinking. Christine had always returned within a week or two. Later, after Eddie had gone shopping, Danny got a call to say his father had collapsed in the street and been taken by ambulance to Kyrenia, 45 minutes away. He was on a drip and about to be given a brain scan.

I went with Danny to the hospital. He told me that his father had been advised to give up smoking, and that if he didn't he was going to be in trouble. "They said I'd got type 2 diabetes," Eddie reported on the way back, strapped like a sparrow into the front seat. "Got to reduce my sugar intake. Can't smoke in your car can I? Dying for a fag." Christine went back to Eddie a week after I saw them in June 2008.

Ben's uncle, Stephen Needham, lives in the Lincolnshire farm workers' cottage that was his parents' home until they moved to Cyprus. For most of his adult life he has worked on farms, on building sites, or for his father, helping to collect scrap metal. When I visited him last year, he was on disability benefit. He was born with Perthes' disease, a condition that causes the hip joints to crumble. In the last few years it has started to cause him trouble and will need to be operated on again. "So I'm on the scrap heap," he said, ruefully, "but I like pottering and gardening and decorating and drawing."

Stephen looks a lot like Kerry. He has the same blond hair, the same narrow slanting eyes, high cheekbones and slender build. He said his childhood couldn't have been happier. He loved the journey to Kos, when for two months the family and their Corgi made their way across Europe in the Land Rover, dragging behind them a caravan they slept in. "It was funny, it was fabulous," he said.

Stephen was the last of the family to see Ben. "He said: 'Bike, bike,' and I said, 'No chance, go to Grandad.'" Then Stephen got on his bike and didn't look back.

Because of this, when he was questioned by the police he was singled out. They said that his moped looked as if it had been involved in an accident. Stephen told them about a minor crash a few days before, when he'd swerved to avoid some tourists on quad bikes, which explained the lack of indicators and a smashed fairing. But they weren't satisfied. "You fall off, kill the child, bury him?" the policeman said. The questioning had gone on like this for days. "They tried to break him," was how Eddie had put it, "but there was nothing to break."

When the family returned from Kos, though, Stephen got back into a normal pace of life much sooner than his sister and parents did. Within two years he was living with a girlfriend and by the time he was 23, he had two daughters. He was working on a building site, had passed his driving test and was enjoying life. But his relationship with the girls' mother started to break down, and eventually he left. "I know nobody would understand someone walking away from their kids," he said. "It killed me. If I'd stayed I wouldn't have been able to carry on. I'd have given up. I was already going through emotional stress: it was either leave and get away from it or go down with the sinking ship. But I was bonded with my children and that's what nearly killed me."

Ever since the police questioned Stephen, their idea that he might have had a hand in Ben's disappearance has haunted him. "Did I take him, did I pick him up and put him on my bike, did I drive down that lane? I was questioning my own sanity. It was always there. How could a child disappear, how could he just vanish? Did I forget him somewhere or have an accident? Did I run over him or fall off my bike? I've asked myself that again and again."

In 2001, when another TV documentary was made, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ben's disappearance, Stephen was asked if he would be interviewed and whether he would undergo a form of hypnotherapy on camera. He agreed because he'd heard it might help to retrieve hidden memories. In the film he had to revisit the last moment he saw Ben and confront the doubt created by the police interrogation. It was traumatic but, when the filming was over, Stephen walked away sure that any suspicion that he or anyone else might have harboured that he could have accidentally killed Ben would be dispelled once and for all. Despite this, and although the film exonerates him, Stephen's fears were justified.

A year ago, he was out having a drink with his brother Danny and Kerry's husband, Craig. "One of my mates was half asleep, drunk on a sofa and a group of lads were threatening him, so I went over and said, 'Give up, he's drunk,' and one of them went, 'Oh, aren't you that uncle of that Ben that disappeared?' I said yes. 'You took him on your bike, didn't you?'"

It's taken him years to understand how the trauma of Ben going missing has affected him. "Our feelings were on hold when we were all trying to resolve Ben's case, so your own emotions get waylaid. And then when it starts to fade away, that's when you're left with yourself. If I hadn't been through that experience in Greece, I'd have been mentally stronger and more able to deal with the problems, to work through things." When I asked him how much he thought his adult life has been determined by losing Ben, he said, "It's been destroyed, hasn't it, really?" The one member of the Needham family who never knew Ben is Leighanna, his little sister. As a toddler she resembled Ben so much that they could have been twins. It was this resemblance to Ben that led Kerry to agree, when Leighanna was 21 months old, to go with Christine and Eddie to Kos, to take part in a TV reconstruction. Leighanna was the same age Ben was when he disappeared. Her hair, the same colour as Ben's, was cut short so she would look like him and the TV crew filmed her in Herakles, walking out of the house and on to the lane, to see if it could offer any clues.

She was nearly 14 when I met her last year, but her face still had a childlike quality. She said she remembered going to Kos, and when I asked whether it had felt like a sad experience, she said, "Yep. It was funny, though. There was a cameraman in front of me. I wouldn't go up the road so he told me to follow the duck. I had to follow a toy duck." She went further and faster than they had ever imagined Ben could have done, which chilled her grandparents as they looked on. Leighanna had started to ask questions about Ben when she was around five. "She used to look through the photographs and say, 'Who could be this?'" Kerry said. "Those were her words, 'Who could be this?'"

At school, her missing brother made her an object of special interest. Occasionally she was bullied. Other girls would say they knew where he was, and once, when a hearse went by, a girl said for all she knew Ben could be in it. Leighanna, who says she is "mouthy" like her mother, gave back as good as she got.

She feels protective of her mother. "I've got to look after her. Mum'll think I don't love her if I don't fight for her, or help her with things. I don't want her to get hurt more than she already is. Sometimes I can't tell her everything I want to - where it feels like Ben came first. Because there's been newspaper articles when my mum said she didn't know if she could love me as much as she loved Ben, because of what happened to him. I used to get really upset about it, even though I know Mum loves me as much as she loves Ben. I'd cry and it would make her cry. Sometimes the more we talk about things, the more upsetting it gets."

When I saw them months later, Kerry told me Leighanna had talked to her more openly of her feelings about Ben. She said she thought Leighanna had agreed to be interviewed because there were things she wanted to say to her mother and couldn't. "I think she knew she had to tell me things. I can't help her if I don't know."

Leighanna says even though she's never met Ben, she feels like a sister to him. She described a dream she'd had about him: "I was running, running and running, and he seemed to be getting further away every time I ran towards him. He was running towards me and I was running towards him but it seemed like a never-ending run and every time I would try and grab him he was always a couple of steps in front, so I couldn't, and then I woke up and it was maddening. It was horrible.

"It's the first time I've ever had a dream like that, although I've had loads of dreams before, waking up crying because I've dreamed we were in Kos and the police come to us and say they've found a body they think might be Ben's and we have to go and look at it and see if it is actually Ben's and then I look up just as we walk through to see if it is - and I never find out."

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« Reply #6019 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:13 AM »

April 27, 2013

Russians Go on TV to Say Sanctions Won’t Matter


MOSCOW — Just two weeks after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on about two dozen Russians accused of human rights violations, Russian officials organized a very public “so what?” on Saturday, gathering officials on the list and assuring them in televised meetings that condemnation by the United States government would not hurt their careers. The jocular tone of the meetings suggested, in fact, that it might help.

“Are your knees trembling?” Interior Minister Vladimir A. Kolokoltsev asked Oleg F. Silchenko, an investigator who was included on the American list.

“I don’t feel my knees trembling, because there is always only one truth,” replied Mr. Silchenko, who oversaw the detention of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in 2009 after accusing officials of embezzlement from the federal budget.

Other men and women on the list stepped forward to attest publicly that the American sanctions, which forbid them from traveling to the United States and freeze any assets held there, would have no effect on them at all. Col. Natalia Vinogradova, who oversaw the posthumous prosecution of Mr. Magnitsky, said the ban did not bother her because she had no desire to leave Russia.

“I don’t even have a foreign passport,” she said. “I have never once been abroad.”

Behind Saturday’s extravagant show of indifference, of course, is a deep vein of anxiety. The 18 Russians whose names have been made public (others are classified) are not high-ranking officials or people who stand to lose much if their foreign assets are frozen. But it is unclear how many other names will be added or how many other countries will adopt measures similar to the American government’s “Magnitsky list.”

Russia has taken a series of steps to express its sharp displeasure, among them banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans and issuing its own list of 18 Americans who will henceforth be barred from Russia. But the meetings on Saturday were aimed at a Russian audience and seemed to carry the message that Russia’s alienation from Western governments would have no real effect on citizens’ lives.

“Really, life goes on,” Mr. Kolokoltsev said. “No matter how many of these acts will be taken by the representatives of other states, no matter what matters they adjudicate with these acts, the citizens of Russia should not worry in any way.”

The Magnitsky Act came about after Mr. Magnitsky’s employer, William F. Browder, once a prominent investor in Russia, lobbied Congress to pass the sanctions. (Most of the people on the list are connected to the Magnitsky case.) It has proved a pivotal event in the bilateral relationship. Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin described the act’s passage as “imperial behavior.” Mr. Putin addressed the case again on Saturday, telling a television interviewer that Mr. Magnitsky’s death was accidental.

“There was no malicious intent; there was no negligence,” he said. “A tragedy happened. What, no one dies in American prisons? There was no torture, as some have said, and there was nothing else that required criminal prosecution of the responsible parties. The case is closed.”

His remarks had a note of finality, especially given that Dmitri A. Medvedev, who was president when Mr. Magnitsky died and is now prime minister, dismissed numerous prison administrators at the time and called for an investigation. Days later, a top prison official acknowledged responsibility in testimony to a Kremlin advisory council, saying, “There were clear violations on our side” and “We are not trying to diminish our guilt in this case; it obviously exists.”

Mr. Magnitsky, 37, had accused Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury; he died in pretrial detention nearly a year after his arrest. While in custody, he received a diagnosis of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease, and he wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, which were refused. The authorities said he had died of toxic shock and heart failure.

Mr. Silchenko, who oversaw Mr. Magnitsky’s detention, has made few public comments about the death, but on Saturday he dismissed the condemnation as “an attack on the part of William Browder,” who is wanted for tax fraud by Russian authorities.


Anti-Putin protesters detained in Moscow – video

Russian police arrest dozens of protesters in Red Square, Moscow, on Saturday as they take part in an anit-Putin demonstration. The protest was to call for another election process and to bring attention to jailed activists. Police moved quickly to arrest the activists, calling a halt to the unsanctioned protest

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« Reply #6020 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:16 AM »

April 27, 2013

Fleeing Pakistan Violence, Hazaras Brave Uncertain Journey


KARACHI, Pakistan — Stranded in a dingy hotel in the heart of this port city, waiting for the smuggler’s call, Hussain felt at once trapped and poised for freedom.

Behind lay his hometown, Quetta, the city in western Pakistan that has become a killing ground for Sunni sectarian death squads that hunt Shiites. So far this year they have killed almost 200 people, and Hussain was nearly one of them. Lifting a pants leg, he displayed an eight-inch scar from a bomb blast in January.

But great danger also lay ahead. Hussain was headed for Australia, where thousands of his fellow ethnic Hazaras, Shiites who have borne the brunt of the recent violence, have sought refuge. The illegal journey — across Southeast Asia by air, ground and sea at the mercy of unscrupulous human traffickers — would be long and perilous. Several hundred Hazaras had died on that route in recent years, most when their rickety boats foundered at sea.

For Hussain, it was worth the risk.

“I’d rather die in the boat than in a bomb blast,” he said, twisting a cup of coffee nervously in a restaurant near the hotel. “At least this way, I get to choose.”

Hussain, 25, is part of a growing exodus of young Hazara men who are fleeing Pakistan as it has become apparent that their government and military cannot, or will not, protect them from violent extremists.

In Quetta, where most Pakistani Hazaras live, the attacks are led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a fanatical group that views Shiites as heretics. With their distinctive Central Asian features and historical links to anti-Taliban forces, the Hazaras make an appealing target. After a decade of intermittent attacks, bloodshed is suddenly surging: two Lashkar suicide bombings this year killed almost 200 people, up from 125 in 2012.

That toll set off a long-overdue security crackdown, but the attacks resumed last Tuesday with a suicide attack on a Hazara politician that killed six people. To young men like Hussain, whose family runs a clothes shop, the next bomb is only a matter of time.

“We can live without the basics of life — gas, electricity and so on,” said Hussain, who asked to be identified by just part of his name in the hope of avoiding arrest on his journey. “But we can’t live with the fear.”

Hussain’s older brother was shot and killed by militants in 2008. His own brush with death came on Jan. 10, after a powerful blast ripped through a snooker hall near his house. As Hussain rushed to help, he was caught in a second explosion that killed rescue workers, police officers and journalists. He blacked out.

“I don’t remember the sound of the blast,” he said. “Just the feeling, like a sort of sonic pulse.” He awoke in the hospital with 36 stitches in one leg and learned that three of his closest friends were among the 84 dead.

It was becoming clear that the Lashkar killers could operate with impunity. “They take their time. They select. Then they shoot,” he said.

The final straw came on March 7, when the military summoned Hussain and other Hazara traders to a meeting in Haideri bazaar, a popular market. As soldiers stood guard outside, an army colonel offered the merchants some sobering advice: they needed to buy handguns, he said.

Some people reacted angrily, and began berating the military officers, demanding better protection, Hussain recalled. But he went home to make a phone call. Two years earlier, his younger brother had left for Australia, where he had gotten a job in a fast food restaurant. Now Hussain needed to hear his voice.

“Just come,” the brother said.

Three days later, Hussain had agreed to pay $6,000 to a trafficker and was on a flight to Karachi, on the first leg of a journey across Asia that would be as emotionally wrenching as it was sudden.

In the plane, he found himself comforting a weeping 16-year-old boy, also Hazara, who said he had been forced to leave by his parents. In the shabby Karachi hotel, he shared a room with “Master,” a 41-year-old shoe trader from Quetta, also bound for Australia.

With thinning hair and a quick grin, Master, who would give only his nickname, had an avuncular manner. But when conversation turned to the three bewildered daughters, aged 7, 9 and 13, he had left behind in Quetta a day earlier, the smile faded and his eyes welled up.

“I will bring them to Australia,” he said in a cracking voice. “This country is no longer for us Hazaras.”

As with many other Hazaras aiming for Australia — from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan — their starting point was Karachi. From there, the journey is arduous and uncertain. Refugees first fly to Thailand or Malaysia, often via Sri Lanka, after their agents bribe immigration officers and Pakistani border officials. The trek continues by land and sea across Malaysia and Indonesia, in cars and trains, dodging police patrols, overnighting at flophouses.

Some migrants are arrested by police officers and border guards along the way and deported back to Pakistan; others are extorted or abandoned by the traffickers, or robbed on the roadside. In many cases, they end up paying thousands of dollars more — in bribes to crooked border officers or supplemental fees to smugglers — so they can keep pressing toward Australia.

The last leg is the most treacherous. In Indonesia, migrants buy tickets aboard small, overcrowded boats bound for Christmas Island, a small Australian territory about 240 miles off the Indonesian coast, where they apply for political asylum. There, they join other boat people — Sri Lankans, Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis.

Safe arrival is by no means guaranteed. Between late 2001 and last June, 964 asylum seekers and boat crew members from various countries are known to have lost their lives on this passage, said Sandi Logan, a spokesman for the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Habibullah, a 22-year-old student from Quetta, was nearly one of them. Last October, he joined 34 Hazara men on a boat bound for Christmas Island. Within 24 hours, the boat had sunk in a storm. Mr. Habibullah, who has only one name, says he was the sole survivor, picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat after three days clinging to floating debris.

In a harrowing written account of those events sent by e-mail, and in a phone interview from Indonesia, Mr. Habibullah described a traumatic ordeal.

He spoke of long hours in the water, whipped by waves and fearing sharks, desperately calling out to distant passing ships. But most anguishing, he said, was the sight of fellow passengers slipping under the waves, some calling out to their wives or parents.

Mr. Habibullah, suffering extreme thirst and sharp kidney pain, sustained himself by thinking of his home in Quetta. “I remembered my past, surrounded by my parents,” he wrote. “And I realized they were with me.”

It is impossible to confirm Mr. Habibullah’s account independently. But Hazara community leaders in Quetta confirmed that several men accompanying Mr. Habibullah had died, and some of their photographs have been published on blogs.

Mr. Habibullah sounded despondent. Conditions at the government detention center in Indonesia were grim, he said, and he was struggling to gain an asylum hearing from the United Nations refugee agency. Nine months after leaving home, and having spent $15,000 on bribes, transportation and smuggler’s fees, he had not reached Australia.

Still, he understood why other Hazaras wanted to make the journey. “It’s worth it,” he said.

The Australian government has tried to deter the boat people. Last year, it began transferring asylum seekers to detention centers on two remote Pacific islands while their cases are heard. Human rights groups and United Nations officials have condemned conditions at the camps, and Australian news media have reported several suicide attempts there in recent months.Responding to the criticism, Australian officials say they have increased their humanitarian refugee quota to 20,000 this year, a 40 percent increase. At the same time, in countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the Australian government has started an advertising campaign seeking to persuade potential refugees to stay at home.

Yet still they keep coming. In the first weeks of April, according to official figures, the Australian Navy intercepted 10 boats carrying 760 people, most bound for Christmas Island. The majority of cases from Afghanistan and Pakistan were ethnic Hazaras, whose numbers have grown to about 25,000 people in Australia, officials say.

Before leaving Karachi, Hussain and Master took a stroll along the beach, dipping their toes in the Arabian Sea and meandering among the young families on the sand.

Hussain stressed that if not for the extremist threat, he would not be leaving Pakistan. Ten months earlier he had married his sweetheart, a local teacher, whom he had left behind. His family made a good living from its clothes business. And patriotism ran in the family — his grandfather had served in Pakistan’s army.

“This could be the last time I see Pakistan,” he said, staring out at the waves.

His younger brother had warned him of a daunting journey ahead — “Expect it to be hell,” were his words — and so he was relying on the religious items around his neck: a small leather pouch containing two folded Koranic inscriptions, from his father and his wife, and a black pendant inscribed with the words “Y’Allah Madaat” — “Oh God, help me.”

Over the following weeks, he sent several messages: from Bangkok, where he was staying in a cramped room with 16 other refugees (“Waiting, waiting, and so on,” he wrote), then, in late March, from Indonesia.

Master had been arrested in a car headed for a port in Malaysia, Hussain said. But he had managed to escape, and had arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where he would seek a boat to Australia.

This month, a boat carrying about 90 people, most of them Hazaras, sunk en route to Australia. Hussain was depressed, but undeterred. “I’m looking forward,” he wrote. Then he added: “May God help me.”

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« Reply #6021 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:18 AM »

April 27, 2013

Departing French Envoy Has Frank Words on Afghanistan


KABUL, Afghanistan — It is always hard to gauge what diplomats really think unless one of their cables ends up on WikiLeaks, but every once in a while, the barriers fall and a bit of truth slips into public view.

That is especially true in Afghanistan, where diplomats painstakingly weigh every word against political goals back home.

The positive spin from the Americans has been running especially hard the last few weeks, as Congressional committees in Washington focus on spending bills and the Obama administration, trying to secure money for a few more years here, talks up the country’s progress. The same is going on at the European Union, where the tone has been sterner than in the past, but still glosses predictions of Afghanistan’s future with upbeat words like “promise” and “potential.”

Despite that, one of those rare truth-telling moments came at a farewell cocktail party last week hosted by the departing French ambassador to Kabul: Bernard Bajolet, who is leaving to head France’s Direction Génerale de la Sécurité Extérieure, its foreign intelligence service.

After the white-coated staff passed the third round of hors d’oeuvres, Mr. Bajolet took the lectern and laid out a picture of how France — a country plagued by a slow economy, waning public support for the Afghan endeavor and demands from other foreign conflicts, including Syria and North Africa — looked at Afghanistan.

While it is certainly easier for France to be a critic from the sidelines than countries whose troops are still fighting in Afghanistan, the country can claim to have done its part. It lost more troops than all but three other countries before withdrawing its last combat forces in the fall.

The room, filled with diplomats, some senior soldiers and a number of Afghan dignitaries, went deadly quiet. When Mr. Bajolet finished, there was restrained applause — and sober expressions. One diplomat raised his eyebrows and nodded slightly; another said, “No holding back there.”

So what did he say?

That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West’s investment in it, would come to little.

His tone was neither shrill nor reproachful. It was matter-of-fact.

“I still cannot understand how we, the international community, and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 — elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this — whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started,” Mr. Bajolet said in his opening comments.

He was echoing a point shared privately by other diplomats, that 2014 was likely to be “a perfect storm” of political and military upheaval coinciding with the formal close of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.

As for the success of the fight on the ground, which American leaders routinely describe now as being “Afghan-led,” Mr. Bajolet sounded dubious. “We do not have enough distance to make an objective assessment,” he said, “but in any case, I think it crucial that the Afghan highest leadership take more visible and obvious ownership for their army.”

His tone — the sober, troubled observations of a diplomat closing a chapter — could hardly have been more different from that taken by the new shift of American officials charged with making it work in Afghanistan: in particular, with that of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new American commanding general here. This week, General Dunford sent out a news release cheering on Afghanistan’s progress, noting some positive-leaning statistics and praising the Afghan Army’s abilities.

“Very soon, the A.N.S.F. will be responsible for security nationwide” General Dunford said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. “They are steadily gaining in confidence, competence, and commitment.”

At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan’s government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said.

Several diplomats in the room could be seen nodding as he said that drugs caused “more casualties than terrorism” in Russia, Europe and the Balkans and that Western governments would be hard-put to make the case for continued spending on Afghanistan if it remains the world’s largest heroin supplier.

The biggest contrast with the American and British line was Mr. Bajolet’s riff on sovereignty, which has become the political watchword of the moment. The Americans and the international community are giving sovereignty back to Afghanistan. Afghanistan argues frequently that it is a sovereign nation. President Hamid Karzai, in the debate over taking charge of the Bagram prison, repeatedly said that Afghanistan had a sovereign responsibility to its prisoners.

His implicit question was, what does that really mean?

“We should be lucid: a country that depends almost entirely on the international community for the salaries of its soldiers and policemen, for most of its investments and partly on it for its current civil expenditure, cannot be really independent.”

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« Reply #6022 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:21 AM »

April 27, 2013

Rescues and Arrests in Bangladeshi Collapse


SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Rescue workers pulled 29 survivors from the rubble of a collapsed building here on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others, despite fading hopes.

At least 348 people are known to have died, crushed by blocks of concrete and mortar when the eight-story structure came down Wednesday morning. Many of the garment factories in the building were packed with employees who worked for $38 a month to produce clothing for top international brands.

The police said Saturday that they had taken five people into custody in connection with the collapse, including the wife of the building owner in an effort to force him to surrender.

Violent protests continued sporadically in nearby Dhaka, the capital, and spread to the southeastern city of Chittagong, where several vehicles were set on fire.

Subrata Sarker, a fire official, said that many survivors were still trapped amid the debris. Mohammad Sarwar Hossain, a rescue worker, said he saw 15 people still alive.

But other rescue workers admitted Saturday that the voices of survivors were getting weaker after four days of being pinned under the increasingly unstable rubble, said Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan, who runs the fire service.

The building site was the scene of frenzied activity all day with soldiers, police officers and medical workers in lab coats working nonstop. Rescuers passed bottles of water and small cylinders of oxygen up a ladder leaning against the side of the building to be given to possible survivors inside.

They used bare hands and shovels, passing chunks of brick and concrete down a human chain away from the collapsed structure.

A local government minister, Jahangir Kabir Nanak, put the death toll at 348. A military spokesman, Shahinul Islam, said that 2,429 survivors had been accounted for, including the 29 who were pulled out Saturday.

A garment manufacturers’ group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside when it collapsed.

“We will continue our operation for more survivors as long as it is required,” Mr. Islam said. “We are not thinking of wrapping up of our effort any time soon.”

The authorities shut down garment factories in Dhaka for fear of violence, which has persisted over demands that the police arrest the owners of the factories and the building.

Junior Home Minister Shamsul Haque Tuku said the police had arrested two executives of New Wave Apparels, one of the five factories in the complex. The executives, Bazlus Samad, the managing director, and Mahmudur Rahman Tapash, the company chairman, turned themselves in to the police early on Saturday.

Mr. Tuku said that the police had also detained the wife of Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, for questioning. The authorities are still searching for Mr. Rana, who has not been seen publicly since the building collapsed.

The police said they had also detained for questioning two engineers working for the municipality of Savar, Imtemam Hossain and Alam Ali. They did not say what role the engineers had played in approving the design of the building.


From PBS

Global Standards for Garment Industry Under Scrutiny After Bangladesh Disaster


The Bangladeshi garment factory collapse is the worst disaster ever for the country's booming clothing industry. Ray Suarez discusses the role of Western retailers in keeping foreign workers safe with Avedis Seferian of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production and Scott Nova of Worker Rights Consortium.

JEFFREY BROWN: And next to the Bangladesh building disaster. It's now the worst ever for the country's booming clothing industry, with more than 300 killed.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Wailing relatives tried to console one another as the death toll from Wednesday's collapse of an eight-story building kept climbing. This father was left weeping with his son's coffin at his feet. Others held up photos of loved ones still missing.

WOMAN: For the last three days, I have been looking for my sister, but no trace. I want get my sister back, alive or dead.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, rescue crews have pulled more than 80 survivors from the rubble. One government official said 41 of those were found alive in a single room overnight. At a nearby hospital, an 18-year-old worker described her ordeal.

WOMAN: First, a machine fell over my hand and I was crushed under the debris. Then the roof collapsed over me. I was rescued last night, but my hand had to be amputated.

RAY SUAREZ: And with high humidity and daytime temperatures reaching 95 degrees, there are fears that time is running out for those still trapped.

Meanwhile, a local television station released video showing police inspecting the site on Tuesday, a day before the deadly collapse. Large cracks were visible, but garment factories at the site continued running anyway.

Some of them make clothing for several major retailers in North America. Today, thousands of garment workers protested poor conditions and called for the building's owners to be punished. Some demonstrators clashed with police, but the rallies were mostly peaceful. This new disaster came just five months after a garment factory fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Avedis Seferian is the president and CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, or WRAP, an organization created by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, along with buyers and brands around the world. And Scott Nova is executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization.

Avedis Seferian, we saw the terrible carnage coming out of Bangladesh this week, coming right on the heels of that fire a few weeks ago that killed so many who couldn't get out of the building once that fire started. Is there a rule book, a code? Are there guidelines that everybody plays by? Are there standards that garment factories around the world are supposed to follow?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production: This really is an incredibly, incredibly sad tragedy, and our hearts go out to those who were impacted. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost loved ones. And we hope for quick recoveries for those who are injured.

The question on everyone's mind is exactly what you just asked. Is there a set of standards? And the answer is, there are internationally recognized minimum standards for operating manufacturing facilities, whether it be apparel or elsewhere. And organizations like WRAP, what we do is we promulgate those things. We try to foster those standards and we try to encourage factories to put in place the kinds of systems they need to make sure they do meet these standards.

We're out there providing them with resources through training mechanisms and obviously certifying them through audits to make sure they do meet these standards, all in all, trying to create, to your point, that rule book which all manufacturers ought to abide by to ensure that tragedies like this do not happen.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Scott Nova, there are best practices. Are they being complied with?

SCOTT NOVA, Worker Rights Consortium: They are not.

And, indeed, Bangladesh itself has reasonable standards on the books. They have reasonable labor laws on the books. They have a national building code. The problem is the national building codes in Bangladesh, the labor laws are works of fiction. They're completely ignored by the factories who are serving the relentless drive of Western brands and retailers for ever lower prices for apparel.

Bangladesh is the rock-bottom cheapest place in the world to make clothing, wages of 18 cents an hour, ruthless oppression of any attempt by workers to organize a union, and complete disregard for the safety of workers. And brands and retailers in the U.S. and Europe have rewarded Bangladesh for those practices by pouring business into the country, making it the second largest apparel producer on the globe, but at a tremendous cost to workers, as we saw this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Seferian, if retailers in the United States want to talk to the people who make the clothes that they buy, is it hard now because of the network of not only subcontractors, but even further down the chain, sub-subcontractors and so on, that sometimes mean there are three or four steps before a completed pair of pants or shirt makes it to the United States?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: Sure. The global supply chain is very complex and becoming even more so day by day.

From our perspective, when you -- however complex the chain may be, however many layers there may be, at the end of the day, what really matters is that the worker at the production facility be able to work in a safe, healthy, ethical environment. So, our work focuses on that level, on the factory level. Our trainings, our certification, our entire organization is geared towards working for the workers and making sure that the standards at the production facility are where they need to be.

RAY SUAREZ: How has that supply chain been for people who just don't want to know a convenient use of the opaque nature of these relationships?


Part of the purpose of the outsourcing strategy of brands and retailers is to distance themselves from responsibility for the conditions under which their clothing is made. It's a system that works very well for the brands and retailers. They get extremely cheap prices. They get incredibly fast delivery.

The result is factories striving to meet the demands of these brands and retailers by ignoring the rights of workers, by cutting corners on safety. And then when the inevitable disasters result, the brands and retailers throw up their hands and say, my lord, I can't believe that was happening in these facilities.

But the reality is, it's the brands and retailers who have the most power in the system. If they want to ensure their factories are safe, they have the power to ensure their factories are safe. They haven't chosen to exercise that power.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have got WRAP here in North America. In Europe, they have the Clean Clothes association, which is trying to do much of the same work.

Can you give us an example of a place or national industry where shining a lot on bad practices actually has improved conditions, actually has saved workers' lives?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: Well, I think a better example, especially in context of Bangladesh, which is the center of our conversation, is to talk about what efforts are ongoing now to prevent such tragedies.

And you mentioned it in the lead-in to this, the recent factory fires that have been happening. WRAP has been in Bangladesh now for a very long time. We opened our own local office there back in February of 2011. And as of September of 2011, we have had in place a very effective fire safety training program that we have rolled out to hundreds of factories in Bangladesh, with over 600 workers trained and managers trained.

And the idea there is that we don't want to just handle these by creating better escape procedures, better evacuation procedures. We want to train factories on preventing these things from happening itself. So, the kind of best practices that really will be impactful going forward are to get people to understand what are the things you need to do to not let happen in the first place, the management systems approach to ensuring that people understand the kind of working environment you have to create so that you prevent the tragedies, and not then have to deal with them happening after the fact.

RAY SUAREZ: As you mentioned, Scott Nova, there are pressures to lower unit costs, to keep costs of productions low. But are there incentives to play by Mr. Seferian's rules, regular recontracting, reorders? If you want to do well by your workers, can that be profitable to you as well?

SCOTT NOVA: Unfortunately, what the factories have been taught by the decisions of brand and retailers is that what matters to brands and retailers is price and delivery speed, not the rights of workers.

And I have to disagree and say I don't think this is an issue that can be solved by training. The fundamental reason that workers are dying in factories in Bangladesh is because the buildings are structurally unsafe. They do not have fire exists. They are not soundly built.

No amount of training can train a worker to walk through flames or to walk out of a building that is collapsing around her. We need a massive program of renovation and repair of the industry in Bangladesh, which basically consists of 5,000 extremely dangerous factories. And that program of repair and renovation has to be funded by the brand and retailers, who have the resources to pay for it. They have to demand it. They have to compel their suppliers in Bangladesh to implement it.

They have to cover the costs. Then and only then will we see an end to these tragedies.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, because we really are out of time, briefly, yes or no, practically, are American retailers ready to do what Scott Nova just described?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: I think we're exaggerating by saying that we have 5,000 dangerous factories in Bangladesh.

There are shining examples of good factories out there. We need to make sure that those examples are followed by all of the others, so the industry as a whole gets to where we need it to get to.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.

SCOTT NOVA: Thank you.


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« Reply #6023 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:23 AM »

April 27, 2013

Illegal Districts Dot New Delhi as City Swells


NEW DELHI — New Ashok Nagar is a typical crosscut of Indian urban chaos: Dust rises off battered, narrow lanes, tangles of telephone and electricity lines hang between poorly constructed, mismatched brick buildings. Sewage overflows from uncovered channels. And people are in the streets, in the doorways, everywhere.

What is also fairly typical about New Ashok Nagar is that it is not supposed to exist. The district, on the eastern edge of New Delhi, is an “unauthorized colony,” with an estimated 200,000 residents despite its lack of government approvals or full city services. Across New Delhi, as many as 5 million of the city’s 17 million residents live in unauthorized colonies, whether in slums, middle-class areas or even a few illegally constructed enclaves of the rich.

Now Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of Delhi, the state that includes the national capital, New Delhi, has promised what amounts to an election-year urban amnesty program. She has pledged that scores of unauthorized colonies, including New Ashok Nagar, will be granted legal status — which could lead to new or improved sewer lines, electrical and water connections, and better roads — a change that could move residents closer to modern standards of living.


“We are on the list of authorized colonies,” said S. P. Tyagi, who has lived in New Ashok Nagar since 1984 and seen the difference between political promises that are made and those that are delivered. “But it is not clear if it will happen or not. There are some doubts.”

India is often demarcated along lines of caste or class. But many of India’s rapidly growing cities are also delineated by the legal status of where people live. For years, as migrants have poured into Indian cities in search of work and opportunity, illegal settlements, often slums, have sprung up in the absence of available, affordable low-income or even middle-class housing. Many of these settlements have grown into bustling districts more populous than many American cities, yet lacking amenities and legal protections, and residents face the perpetual threat of eviction.

This month, government bulldozers flattened a small slum in New Delhi known as Sonia Gandhi Camp, named after the president of the governing Indian National Congress Party. At the edge of a road called Tamil Sangam Marg, not far from one of the city’s wealthiest districts, about 50 migrant families had lived there for two decades. Many had voting cards or government ration cards that listed their address as Sonia Gandhi Camp. One city agency had even built a public toilet, though the encampment remained illegal.

“They asked us to stand in front of our homes,” said one man, who gave only his given name, Ramesh. He said residents were told the land was needed for a road project. “We showed them our papers and cards. But they did not listen. They started on one side and demolished everything.” An elderly woman, Rama Devi, could not contain her anger as she stood in the rubble. “They have left us on the road,” she said. “I wish they would go to hell.”

This blend of demolition and rampant illegal construction is part of the rough, pell-mell process of an Indian megalopolis coming into being. New Delhi is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, adding 200,000 new residents every year, according to city officials. Yet much of the land in the city is controlled by the Delhi Development Authority, an agency under the national government that has been criticized for failing to develop enough housing, especially for the poor and the middle class.

“What happens to the people who come?” asked R. K. Srivastava, the secretary of urban development in the Delhi state government, who is critical of the national development agency. “There is no housing stock. These people are forced to live in shanties, unauthorized colonies and, shall I say, subhuman facilities.”

In the 1970s, the Delhi Development Agency took control of New Ashok Nagar, which was then farmland. The agency never took physical possession of the land, even as it doled out compensation to farmers, and residents say that some farmers simply resold the same plots to people looking to live in the capital. “I knew this was an unauthorized colony, but I did not have the money to buy in an authorized colony,” said Mr. Tyagi, the longtime resident. A public school English teacher, he bought a plot of about 1,000 square feet for 8,000 rupees, or $148. “At that time, even 8,000 rupees were too much for me,” he said.

Mr. Tyagi estimates that when he arrived in 1984, perhaps 5,000 people lived in the colony. “We used to live without electricity,” he said. “We made our own arrangements with candles or kerosene lights. For water, we built our own hand pumps.” To fend off the occasional demolition notices, residents began dabbling in politics. As the populations rapidly grew in colonies like New Ashok Nagar, local lawmakers realized that these colonies represented troves of potential voters and found ways to divert funds to provide rudimentary electrical connections, roads and other services.

Tapan Kumar Chowdhury, 62, a retiree now working as an activist in the colony, said legalized status would be likely to improve sanitation and local health standards through installation of a true sewage system. But he remained skeptical about whether the election-year promises would be carried out, noting that politicians preferred to keep colonies vulnerable so that residents remained more beholden to them for even incremental improvements. “They have a vested interest in keeping us illegal and unauthorized,” he said, “so they can use us as a vote bank.”

Or as a real bank. Merchants like Vinod Kaushik, who runs a small pharmacy, said petty officials routinely demanded bribes to allow new construction projects. Others said that the police routinely required payoffs, too.

Mr. Srivastava, the state urban development secretary, agreed that even those colonies like New Ashok Nagar that were listed to become authorized still had to navigate loopholes, like providing layout plans for official approval. Doing this would mean that every lane and building must meet city specifications, though code violations are common. He characterized the requirements as somewhat unrealistic but said the process was established under a 2007 national law. He said state officials were planning to seek the “relaxation” of certain code requirements, which could help illegal colonies like New Ashok Nagar pass muster but would also leave them with substandard housing.

“Where will the poor man go?” he asked. “That is the problem.”

Partha Mukhopadhyay, an urban affairs specialist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said politicians had made promises that were not fulfilled, but that this time the process seemed much farther down the bureaucratic track, a reason for cautious optimism. “Usually, it is promised and not delivered,” he said. “It is possible that this time they might actually go through with the regularization process.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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« Reply #6024 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:25 AM »

April 28, 2013

Iraq Pulls Licenses of Al-Jazeera, Other Channels


BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi authorities announced Sunday that they had revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a sectarian agenda as the country grapples with a wave of violence.

The move, effective immediately, comes as Baghdad tries to quell rising unrest in the country following clashes at a protest camp last week.

More than 180 people have been killed in gunbattles with security forces and other attacks since the unrest began Tuesday. The violence follows more than four months of largely peaceful protests by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority against the Shiite-dominated government.

Al-Jazeera, based in the small, energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, had no immediate comment.

The channel has aggressively covered the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the region, and has broadcast extensively on the civil war in neighboring Syria. Qatar itself is a harsh critic of the Syrian regime and a leading backer of the rebels, and is accused by many supporters of Iraq's Shiite-led government of backing protests in Iraq too.

Iraq and other governments across the Middle East have temporarily shut down Al-Jazeera's offices in the past because they were disgruntled by its coverage.

The other nine channels whose licenses were suspended by Iraq's Communications and Media Commission are al-Sharqiya and al-Sharqiya News, which frequently criticize the government, and seven smaller local channels — Salahuddin, Fallujah, Taghyeer, Baghdad, Babiliya, Anwar 2 and al-Gharbiya.

In a statement posted on its website, the commission blamed the banned stations for the escalation of a sectarian backdrop that is fueling the violence that followed the deadly clashes at the Hawija camp on Tuesday.

Iraq's media commission accused the stations of misleading and exaggerated reports, as well as of airing "clear calls for disorder and for launching retaliatory criminal attacks against security forces." It also blamed the stations for promoting "banned terrorist organizations who committed crimes against Iraqi people."

The decree states that if the 10 stations try to work on Iraqi territory, they will face legal action from security forces.

Signals of their broadcasts, however, remained available to Iraqi viewers Sunday.
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« Reply #6025 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:32 AM »

H7N9 bird flu spreads to central China’s Hunan province

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, April 27, 2013 10:14 EDT

China’s deadly outbreak of H7N9 bird flu has spread to the central province of Hunan, local health authorities said Saturday, the third announcement in three days of a case in a new location.

A 64-year-old woman in Shaoyang City, who developed a fever four days after coming into contact with poultry, was confirmed to have the virus, the Xinhua state news agency reported.

It follows the first confirmed cases in the eastern province of Jiangxi on Thursday and the southeastern province of Fujian on Friday.

More than 110 people in mainland China have been confirmed with H7N9, with 23 deaths, since the government announced on March 31 that the virus had been found in humans. Most cases have been confined to eastern China. The island of Taiwan has also reported one case.

A Chinese expert earlier this week warned of the possibility of more cases in a wider geographical area.

“Until the source of H7N9 avian influenza is… brought under effective control, sporadic cases might continue to appear,” said Liang Wannian of China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Poultry has been confirmed as the source of the H7N9 flu among humans, but experts fear the prospect of such a virus mutating into a form easily transmissible between humans, which could then have the potential to trigger a pandemic.

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« Reply #6026 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:34 AM »

American tourist faces death penalty in North Korea

Kenneth Bae charged with plotting to overthrow government after reportedly taking photographs of homeless children

Staff and agencies, Saturday 27 April 2013 11.38 BST   

North Korea has announced that an American tourist is to be tried on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, a crime that carries a possible death penalty.

The case against Korean-American Kenneth Bae, who has been imprisoned in North Korea since early November, could further stoke tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.

Responding to the development, the US State Department said the welfare of US citizens overseas remained a "critical priority" and that it was working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang - which looks after American interests in North Korea - in regards to the case.

Bae, 44, was arrested in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea's far north-eastern region bordering China and Russia, according to official state media.

The exact nature of his alleged crimes has not been disclosed, but North Korea accuses Bae, described as a tour operator, of seeking to overthrow North Korea's leadership.

"In the process of investigation he admitted that he committed crimes aimed to topple the DPRK with hostility toward it," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday. "His crimes were proved by evidence. He will soon be taken to the supreme court of the DPRK to face judgment."

South Korean rights workers said the authorities may have taken issue with some of Bae's photographs, including those of homeless North Korean children, Reuters reported.

There have been weeks of spiralling tension on the Korean peninsula following the tightening of UN sanctions after the North's third nuclear weapon test in February. The move led to the North threatening nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US and demands by Pyongyang to be recognised as a nuclear state.

The North is thought to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs and has an established uranium-enrichment capability that would give it another route to building weapons of mass destruction. But analysts and intelligence officials say the regime is not yet able to mount a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a missile, despite its recent threats to conduct nuclear strikes.

Noting the latest devlopment in the Bae case, the US State Department said it was "aware of reports that a US citizen will face trial in North Korea".

Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added: "Welfare of US citizens overseas is a critical priority of the Department of State. The Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang acts as our protecting power for issues involving US citizens in North Korea. We are working in close coordination with representatives of the Embassy of Sweden."

She added that a Swedish official visited Bae on Friday. "We have no additional information to share at this time," Psaki added.

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« Reply #6027 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:37 AM »

April 27, 2013

Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy


CAIRO — In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

This is the landscape President Obama confronts as he considers how to respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” he had set. More than two years of violence have radicalized the armed opposition fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, leaving few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.

Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States, but other groups share aspects of its Islamist ideology in varying degrees.

“Some of the more extremist opposition is very scary from an American perspective, and that presents us with all sorts of problems,” said Ari Ratner, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former Middle East adviser in the Obama State Department. “We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime — it must still go — but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels.”

Syrian officials recognize that the United States is worried that it has few natural allies in the armed opposition and have tried to exploit that with a public campaign to convince, or frighten, Washington into staying out of the fight. At every turn they promote the notion that the alternative to Mr. Assad is an extremist Islamic state.

The Islamist character of the opposition reflects the main constituency of the rebellion, which has been led since its start by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly in conservative, marginalized areas. The descent into brutal civil war has hardened sectarian differences, and the failure of more mainstream rebel groups to secure regular arms supplies has allowed Islamists to fill the void and win supporters.

The religious agenda of the combatants sets them apart from many civilian activists, protesters and aid workers who had hoped the uprising would create a civil, democratic Syria.

When the armed rebellion began, defectors from the government’s staunchly secular army formed the vanguard. The rebel movement has since grown to include fighters with a wide range of views, including Qaeda-aligned jihadis seeking to establish an Islamic emirate, political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code like that found in many Arab states.

“My sense is that there are no seculars,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War, who has made numerous trips to Syria in recent months to interview rebel commanders.

Of most concern to the United States is the Nusra Front, whose leader recently confirmed that the group cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged fealty to Al Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy. Nusra has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings and is the group of choice for the foreign jihadis pouring into Syria.

Another prominent group, Ahrar al-Sham, shares much of Nusra’s extremist ideology but is made up mostly of Syrians.

The two groups are most active in the north and east and are widely respected by other rebels for their fighting abilities and their ample arsenal, much of it given by sympathetic donors in the gulf. And both helped lead campaigns to seize military bases, dams on the Euphrates River and the provincial capital of Raqqa Province in March, the only regional capital entirely held by rebel forces.

Nusra’s hand is felt most strongly in Aleppo, where the group has set up camp in a former children’s hospital and has worked with other rebel groups to establish a Shariah Commission in the eye hospital next door to govern the city’s rebel-held neighborhoods. The commission runs a police force and an Islamic court that hands down sentences that have included lashings, though not amputations or executions as some Shariah courts in other countries have done.

Nusra fighters also control the power plant and distribute flour to keep the city’s bakeries running.

While many residents initially feared them, some have come to respect them for providing basic services and working to fill the city’s security vacuum. Secular activists, however, have chafed at their presence. At times, Nusra fighters have clashed with other rebels who reject their ideology.

In the oil-rich provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, Nusra fighters have seized government oil fields, putting some under the control of tribal militias and running others themselves.

“They are the strongest military force in the area,” said the commander of a rebel brigade in Hasaka reached via Skype. “We can’t deny it.”

But most of Nusra’s fighters joined the group for the weapons, not the ideology, he said, and some left after discovering the Qaeda connection.

“Most of the youth who joined them did so to topple the regime, not because they wanted to join Al Qaeda,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

As extremists rose in the rebel ranks, the United States sought to limit their influence, first by designating Nusra a terrorist organization, and later by pushing for the formation of the Supreme Military Council, which is linked to the exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.

Although led by an army defector, Gen. Salim Idris, the council has taken in the leaders of many overtly Islamist battalions. One called the Syrian Liberation Front has been integrated nearly wholesale into the council; many of its members coordinate closely with the Syrian Islamic Front, a group that includes the extremist Ahrar al-Sham, according to a recent report by Ms. O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War.

A spokesman for the council, Louay Mekdad, said that its members reflected Syrian society and that it had no ties to Nusra or other radical groups. “The character of the Syrian people is Islamic, but it is stupid to think that Syria will turn into Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s just an excuse for those who don’t want to help Syria.”

The Obama administration has said it needs more conclusive information before it acts on the Syrian government’s reported use of chemical weapons. It remains unclear whether such action would translate to increased support for the rebels.

In the past, United States officials saw the Islamist groups’ abundant resources as the main draw for recruits, said Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, which works with the State Department.

“The strategy is based on the current assessment that popular appeal of these groups is transactional, not ideological, and that opportunities exist to peel people away by providing alternative support and resources,” he said.

Mr. Heydemann acknowledged, however, that the current momentum toward radicalism could be hard to reverse.

The challenge, he said, is to end the conflict before “the opportunity to create a system of governance not based on militant Islamic law is lost.”

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, framed the rebels’ dilemma another way: “How do you denounce the Nusra Front as extremists when they are playing such an important military role and when they look disciplined, resourceful and committed?”

From the start, the Syrian government has sought to portray the rebels as terrorists carrying out an international plot to weaken the country, and the rise of extremist groups has strengthened its case and increased support among Syrians who fear that a rebel victory could mean the end of the secular Syrian state.

Many rebels and opposition activists complain about the Western focus on Islamist groups, some even dismissing the opposition’s ideological differences.

“We all want an Islamic state and we want Shariah to be applied,” said Maawiya Hassan Agha, a rebel activist reached by Skype in the northern village of Sarmeen. He said a country’s laws should flow from its people’s beliefs and compared Syrians calling for Islamic law with the French banning Muslim women from wearing face veils.

“In France, people don’t like face veils so they passed laws against them,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. It’s our right to push for the laws we want.”

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Aleppo, Syria.


April 28, 2013

Israel Minister: US Should Intervene in Syrian War


JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli Cabinet minister has called on the U.S to intervene in the Syrian civil war after intelligence reports of chemical weapons use there.

The U.S has warned such weapons cross a red line and last week said the weapons were probably used. Israel says they were used.

Environment Minister Amir Peretz said Sunday action should have been taken long ago due to the high civilian death toll. "We expect whoever defines red lines will also do what is needed, first and foremost the U.S. and of course the entire international community," he said. His remarks do not reflect Israeli policy.

The White House says it is still trying to pin down definitive proof of the use of chemical weapons.

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« Reply #6028 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:39 AM »

April 27, 2013

Who Rules the Street in Cairo? The Residents Who Build It


CAIRO — The telltale signs in post-revolutionary Egypt are not just the riots and rapes, the mega-traffic snarls and sectarian battles. There is also the highway ramp in Ard El Lewa.

After the revolution two years ago, working-class residents of that vast informal neighborhood, tired of having no direct access to the 45-mile-long Ring Road, took matters into their own hands. In the absence of functioning government, they built ramps from dirt, sand and trash. Then they invited the police to open a kiosk at the interchange.

Even for Cairo, do-it-yourself infrastructure on this scale is unusual. For years, the government of Hosni Mubarak turned a blind eye as millions of poor Cairenes built homes without permission on private plots of agricultural land in places like Ard El Lewa, greasing the palms of bureaucrats for basic services.

But since the revolution, the pace of illegal construction has only exploded, like so much else here. Along with the spread of graffiti and of street vendors clogging the sidewalks downtown, this explosion is either a sign of post-revolutionary populist empowerment or of chaos, depending on one’s perspective. Egyptians seem to be wrestling over which every day.

A struggle — and also a race — pits the forces of collapse against the halting emergence of a new urban class, born in the aftermath of the revolution. Egyptians have long been experts at fending for themselves in a top-down system where the president ruled by fiat and the government was unaccountable. But now they must improvise as never before.

This means that Egyptians are figuring out anew how they relate to one another and to the city they have always occupied without quite fully owning — figuring out how to create that city for themselves, politically and socially, as well as with bricks and mortar. Headlines have naturally focused on the macro-battles, but the bird’s-eye view does not always reveal what is happening at street level, on corners and in neighborhoods, where daily life today means navigating new relationships with fellow citizens and the spaces they share.

As Omar Nagati, a young Egyptian architect and planner, put it the other day: “This was always a revolution about unjust urban conditions and about public space. The ramp is just one example. People now realize they have the right to determine what happens on their own streets, to their own neighborhoods. So there’s a battle of ownership throughout Egypt: over whose space this is, and who determines whose space it is.”

Egypt, it’s clear on the ground, is not just Tahrir Square. Cairo is not everywhere, all the time, in turmoil. The city can surprise you. I recently visited Darb al-Ahmar, where I had been told an outrage was playing out as ruthless developers illegally demolished old houses to throw up cookie-cutter apartment blocks.

“There’s no law enforcement, and there’s so much drama now just getting through the day here, that most people can’t worry about such things,” lamented Yasmine El Dorghamy, the exasperated editor of Al Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review.

With a colleague, Mona El-Naggar, I went to see for myself. We found Muhammad Said hanging out on a street corner. A skinny 19-year-old in a T-shirt and flip-flops, slouching on a red scooter, he volunteered to show us what had recently been built. The neighborhood is a rabbit warren of many blind, dirt alleys. Mr. Said led us down one alley after another, past mounds of rubble and collapsing wood-beam-and-brick houses, historic but decrepit. Some other young men appeared. They seemed to know Mr. Said. They began to follow us. There were no police around.

Mr. Said headed down a narrow passageway that dead-ended in the courtyard of an old house, a sunless air shaft strung with drying laundry. Why are we here? I demanded.

Many families live crammed together, Mr. Said answered. The people tearing down old places have been known to offer residents money to leave and new apartments, he said. “When you live together in a tiny room and someone offers you something better,” he wanted to tell us, “who would turn it down?” That was his point. This was not an outrage, but an opportunity — and a clash of interests among classes in a society being forced to legislate and reinvent itself.

The sad truth is that little of architectural quality has been built in Cairo in decades, no useful lessons learned from other big capitals, no progressive approaches to city planning embraced under Mr. Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. Government officials promise urban improvements but peddle outmoded ideas about sweeping away informal neighborhoods: ridding the city of its poor while erecting skyscrapers to produce Dubai on the Nile for the well-to-do.

Many Cairenes who can afford it continue to flee to gated communities. Mr. Mubarak’s government built highways to speed the wealthy out of town. I visited an older one of these settlements, Katameya Heights, a golf resort with a little shopping village where the signs are in English and preposterous Roman villas hide behind walls of bougainvillea. Katameya Heights could be in Florida or Southern California. Since the revolution, real estate values have been rising in these gated developments, whose allure remains a life that is quiet, slow and green in a megalopolis that is none of those things.

At the same time, the protests in Tahrir Square, as Mohamed Elshahed, the young editor of Cairobserver, an online magazine, told me, “introduced thousands of people of different classes, from all over the city, to each other and to an urban alternative to the Cairo of suburban developments. The revolution was partly about rediscovering the city on foot,” he said.

“People came to Tahrir and wandered the streets of downtown,” he continued. “Most of the middle class had known it by driving through it.”

May al-Ibrashy, an architect, agreed: “What’s definitely changed is that, before, in Cairo someone always used to dictate where you were allowed to sit and walk, what you were allowed to do or say. This new right to express yourself in the street is not minor or a luxury.

“The street was not really public space,” she added. “Now it is.”

And so Egyptians are fighting over the rules of the road. Progressive young architects and planners may be needed here, but there are a few starting to demand the right things, talking not about demolishing informal areas but about learning from those neighborhoods, seeing them as resources and solutions — collaborating with residents, tinkering with construction methods and materials to allow for more light and air in apartments, wider streets to accommodate emergency vehicles. These forward-thinking Egyptians view the neighborhoods not as endless slums but complex cities in themselves, home to entrepreneurs, government officials and many young educated Cairenes; and they recognize that the future of Cairo will require grass-roots organization.

And patience.

It is happening, here and there. Imbaba, a neighborhood once nicknamed the Islamic Republic of Imbaba and more populous than Manhattan, has its upscale pockets. But it is mostly a sprawling metropolis of redbrick and concrete buildings on narrow, dirty streets navigated by speeding three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and overflowing with shops. The other evening, Khaled Atef, a round-faced, beefy lawyer, presided over a committee meeting in a closet-size basement room in Imbaba. He leads a neighborhood coalition of the post-revolutionary community groups called popular committees. Competitors complain he is a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood. But he and his committee have gotten things done since the revolution, occasionally with the Brotherhood’s help.

The committee got the Brotherhood to pay for fixing an impassable road, enlisted volunteers as traffic monitors, cracked down on black marketeers selling cooking fuel at extortionate prices. And it holds political education classes, which Mr. Atef insists are unaffiliated with any party — bottom-up initiatives, focused around urban change.

“If we get more involved at the community level, we can rise together,” Mr. Atef said, greeting neighbors after the meeting.

“We had much bigger dreams two years ago, and we are all disillusioned and demoralized now,” said Mr. Nagati, the architect, speaking for many Egyptians. “But there’s still an opportunity to set the terms for a new city, even if the efforts may have to be small scale and guerrilla style for the moment.

“Cairo is in a state of becoming,” he said. “We just don’t know what it’s becoming yet.”

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

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« Reply #6029 on: Apr 28, 2013, 06:44 AM »

Beirut bans award-winning Lebanese film shot in Israel

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, April 27, 2013 18:45 EDT

Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri said Saturday the Lebanese authorities have banned his award-winning film “The Attack” from cinemas in his home country because it was partly shot in Tel Aviv using Israeli actors.

“I regret to inform you that the Interior Minister of Lebanon, Minister (Marwan) Charbel, has decided to punish us and the film by banning it… claiming that the reason for the rejection is that I, Ziad Doueiri, had spent time in Israel filming,” the director said in a statement on his Facebook page.

“To set things straight, I did shoot part of the film in Tel Aviv because this is where part of the story takes place. I used Israeli actors because also these were the artistic choices that I have made. And I have no regret and no apologies whatsoever.”

Charbel told AFP the interior ministry had granted Doueiri a permit to film the movie but revoked it after receiving a letter of protest from the Israel Boycott Office of the Cairo-based Arab League.

“We had no problem with the movie but when we received the protest letter… we could not oppose” the request, he said.

The film, which at the weekend received three awards at the COLCOA french film festival in Hollywood — the audience award, the “Coming Soon” award and a special jury prize — is due for release in May in France and in June in the United States.

It was adapted from a novel by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra and portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of an Israeli doctor who discovers that his wife carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

Doueiri dismissed the ban as “foolish and unfair”, and noted that several Palestinian films shot in Israel with Israeli actors “and even with Israeli financing.. were allowed to screen in Lebanon.”

“Why them and not this film? Are the Lebanese supposed to carry the Palestinian flag higher than the Palestinians themselves?” Doueiri asked.

He added that banning the film portrays Lebanon “in a negative light and tells us, filmmakers, that if we think outside the box, we’ll be considered pariahs and outlaws.”

The interior minister also sounded confused by the Israeli boycott office’s decision, saying: “Although they had told me the film is pro-Palestinian.”

Doueiri, who also won awards for his film “West Beirut”, also criticised the interior ministry for having refused to allow his latest production to be included in a list of Lebanese films submitted to the Oscars.

Censorship is enforced in Lebanon by the interior ministry if an artist’s work is considered to incite confessional dissent, attacks morals or the authority of the state or reflects Israeli propaganda.

Filmmakers in Lebanon must also submit their scripts to the authorities for approval.

Watch the trailer for “The Attack,” posted online on Dec. 24, 2012, below.

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