From war in Syria to bombing in Somalia, we are witnessing the division of humanity
- 21 Oct 2017
The West continues to throw gasoline on its fires.
News comes like a hurricane. Iraqi forces take Kirkuk, while Syrian Democratic Forces seize Raqqa. Ai Weiwei releases a film about refugees, while refugees continues to trek across the Sahara Desert and across the lip that divides Myanmar from Bangladesh. Puerto Rico still has no power, while a cyclonic storm hits Ireland. U.S. troops die in Niger, a massive bomb kills hundreds in Mogadishu (Somalia), the Taliban attacks in Paktia and Ghazni (Afghanistan). A sensation of dread fills the air over the potential of another illegal American war, this time against Iran or North Korea or both.
It is difficult to digest. There seems to be too much sorrow, too much pain, too little understanding of how to turn these stories from tragedy into hope.
It would seem obvious that the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa should allow for celebration. But even here, for those who follow this story, there is hesitation. That ‘victory’ comes paired with the events in Kirkuk, showing that the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS is going to be as complex and difficult as the war against ISIS. Borders are shifting, States are consolidating their territory. Will the Syrian Arab Army now move north towards Raqqa and clash with the Syrian Democratic Forces, just as the Turkish Army might move south to dampen the ambitions of the Kurds who are the dominant power in the Syrian Democratic Forces? Will the Kurdish Question—so long suppressed—be the next power keg to explode across fragile West Asia?
What to make of the deaths in Somalia and in Afghanistan, shocking numbers dead, shocking that they have made so little dent in the consciousness of the West. It is hard for the West to acknowledge the bare humanity of the dead Somalis and the dead Afghans. Their names have not been noted, their lives difficult to understand. It is as if there is wall that separates our human species being, those who live in zones of great war and tragedy are separated from those who live with the illusion of peace, in countries that produce the conditions for war but deny that they have a hand in it. So easy for the Western public to ignore the bombings in Afghanistan, a country wrecked most recently by a Western war.
Even easier to ignore Somalia, whose descent into warlordism is fundamentally linked to overfishing of corporate trawlers inside Somalia’s territorial waters and interventions by foreign powers (including the United States). None of this complicity matters. All that one registers is that there were deaths there, a passivity that suggests that there will always be death there and that they have cultural problems that they have to sort out.
There will never be hashtags for these Afghans and Somalis, nor indeed will their flags fly anywhere (what do their flags even look like?). It is easier for a Western consumer of the news to imagine themselves at a café in Paris or on the Ramblas in Barcelona; attacks there cut to the core, reflect the humanity at one side of the division. Harder to imagine being in central Mogadishu or at the district administration building in Ghazni. Those who are there are on the other side of the international division of humanity.
What to make of the refugee crisis, the flood that will continue to grow and bedevil the West? These refugees are again anonymous bodies, huddled together, desperation as their motif. There is something timeless about Salah Jaheen’s poem on a Palestinian refugee, ‘Caging his suffering within his ribs/Withered and starving/Sitting around doing nothing.’
But this futility is not enough. Jaheen looks at the refugees and writes, ‘and in the line, there are a thousand families/and five hundred thousand sorrows’. Sorrow is what strikes the poet, but surely there is more there, as any of us who have written stories about refugees know. There is expectation and anticipation, for if these did not exist in the minds of the refugee, then the refugee would not have bothered with the long trek.
The fact of the refugee migration and of war is undeniable. But what is bewildering is why the refugees are on the move and why there are wars. It is always convenient to rest the blame on culture: the Shias and the Sunnis do not get along or the Turks hate the Kurds or that Islam has a violent streak that cannot be moderated. These are the reflexive, and racist, explanations for a reality that should be understood not only through cultural explanations, but also through explanations that are available and yet ignored.
On Monday, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) celebrated its founding in 1945 with World Food Day. Last month, the FAO released a sobering report that has received far too little attention. In its report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017, the FAO showed that global hunger has risen for the first time in a decade, with its figures showing that 815 million people around the planet suffer from hunger. That’s more than 1 in 10 people. The figure has risen by 38 million from last year. The UN’s World Food Program called this report’s findings an ‘indictment of humanity’.
Buried in the report is an astounding number: that 489 million of those who are chronically food insecure and malnourished live in countries affected by conflict. That means the vast bulk of those who are starving live in conflict zones. Three quarters of children who are stunted by age five, who suffer from acute malnutrition, live in these same areas, mostly West Asia, North Africa and Central Asia in a belt of dry land that has been susceptible to climate change as much as to the seemingly endless war.
Indeed, the FAO finds that the increase in hunger is ‘largely due to the proliferation of violent conflicts and climate-related shocks’. In Iraq, for instance, two districts, Ninewa and Salah al-Din, used to produce a third of the country’s wheat and 40 percent of its barley. Today, thanks to the illegal US war on Iraq in 2003, the food production in the region is severely compromised. In Ninewa, up to 68% of the land used for wheat cultivation has been compromised, while up to 57% of the land for barley is no longer usable. Famines in South Sudan and Yemen are a direct consequence of war, with Somalia itself experiencing famine as a result of war and drought, with six million people of its fourteen million in dire need of food. Boko Haram’s growth in northern Nigeria and around the Lake Chad basin is directly linked to the desertification of the region.
War certainly produces hunger, but hunger in turn produces war. The pressure on the world’s agriculture from climate-change is now an acknowledged fact. But this is not enough. The descent of agro-business firms, with the advantage of intellectual property rights behind them, has struck against small farmers with a vengeance. There are any number of reports that show that the crisis of hunger can only be solved by the encouragement of small farms, whose farmers are themselves victims of the hunger crisis (three quarters of the world’s hungry live in rural areas). Even Bill Gates has suggested that the solution to the hunger crisis—and therefore to some of the instability that has led to so many wars —is the small farmer. But how can the small farmers emerge as the saviors when they are under immense pressure from capitalist agriculture that has produced ‘efficiencies’ along the global commodity chain that advantage what they do over what the small farmer does? These capitalist agricultural firms process food beyond nutrition and are thereby responsible for the obesity crisis in the West, the mirror image of the hunger crisis in the Global South. Will there be a spotlight shone on their activities?
The West always imagines itself to be the most benevolent. But it was not western countries that hastened to send assistance to Mogadishu. Medical staff rushed from Djibouti and Turkey, with a Turkish air ambulance ferrying the most injured back to Istanbul for treatment.
The West’s benevolence is now measured in the destructive force of its agro-business and arms sales. The moral compass revolves around Monsanto seeds and Sikorsky helicopters. Trump will send more troops into Somalia. That will be the Western contribution to the hurricane that is sweeping across the planet.
Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books (leftword.com) and the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of 20 books, the most recent being The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution(University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.
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