Nepal

This is the Deadliest Day in Mt. Everest’s History

482165077
The Sherpas were out laying ropes for foreign climbers arriving in Everest's peak spring climbing season when disaster struck Best View Stock—Getty Images/Best View Stock RF

An avalanche near a base camp on Mount Everest has killed at least nine Nepalese Sherpa in the single deadliest day in the mountain's history. The local guides were preparing a trail for other climbers when they were struck

An early morning avalanche on the slopes of Mount Everest has killed at least nine Nepalese Sherpas and left several more missing in what is being called the deadliest day in the mountain’s history.

A wall of snow overcame the local guides at 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning near the mountain’s Camp 2 as they were preparing ropes on the route to the summit ahead of the spring climbing season.

“Rescuers have already retrieved four bodies and they are now trying to pull out two more bodies that are buried under snow,” Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told AFP.

Sherpas are famous for their ability to weather high altitudes and are widely regarded as some of the best mountaineers in the world. A Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary were the first people to summit the world’s highest peak.

Today, many Sherpa work under incredible pressure, pushing their bodies to their physical limits in order to maintain lucrative guide positions in the service of usually affluent foreign mountaineers, who climb in the Himalayas as a form of adventure tourism.

To date, more than 4,000 climbers have reached Everest’s summit. An estimated 200 have died in the attempt.

[AFP, AP]

South Korea

Despair Turns to Anger in South Korea as Ferry Death Toll Reaches 28

A family member, center, of missing passengers who were on the South Korean ferry Sewol which sank in the sea off Jindo cries at a port where family members of missing passengers gathered in Jindo April 18, 2014. Issei Kato—Reuters

Family and friends of passengers on the Sewol ferry are asking whether the captain could have saved lives by reacting quicker to the unfolding disaster. Lee Joon-seok, 68, was among 20 of the 29 crew members to survive.

As the confirmed death toll of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster rises to 28, and with 270 people still missing, fingers are being pointed at the captain and crew, even as rescue attempts continue amid the murky and turbulent waters.

Officials have admitted to focusing on whether a crewman’s decision to abruptly turn the 6,852-ton ship, bound for the southern resort island of Jeju, contributed to its sinking Wednesday. There were 475 passengers aboard, many of them high school students on a class trip. At present, officials say there are just 179 survivors, with the final death toll expected to climb considerably higher.

Divers have been continually buffeted by fierce currents, strong tides and bad weather, and have struggled to enter the now completely submerged hulk, with most recovered bodies being found floating in open water.

“We cannot even see the ship’s white color. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands,” Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives gathered nearby the port city of Jindo.

Comparing eyewitness testimony from survivors with a transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange indicates that the captain delayed evacuation for around 30 minutes after a transportation official gave an order to prepare to abandon the 20-year-old vessel.

According to Associated Press, at 9 a.m. — just five minutes after receiving a distress call — an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center instructed that lifejackets be readied in preparation for evacuation. But a crew member on board replied, “It’s hard for people to move.”

Near the site of the tragedy, anxious and frustrated family members huddle to observe the faltering rescue attempts. “I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, the 59-year-old great-aunt of missing student Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water … Anger is not enough.”

The Japanese-made ship was three hours from its destination when it began to list heavily and fill with water, despite following a frequently traveled 300-mile route in calm conditions. Repeated attempts were made to right the vessel, but failed even though it was apparently well within the 5% maximum list for such maneuvers to succeed.

Increasingly, relatives are venting anger at the authorities involved, and especially the ship’s captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, who was among 20 of the 29 crew members to survive, according to the coast guard.

“How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?” said Ham Young-ho, grandfather of Lee Da-woon, 17, one of the young confirmed dead, reports Reuters.

On Thursday, it the Wall Street Journal reported that some text messages, purportedly from survivors trapped within the vessel and saying “I am still alive” and “There are six of us in the room next to the dining hall,” were among many hoax messages that circulated in the aftermath of the disaster.

South Korea’s National Police Agency revealed said there were no records of phone calls, SMS or other messages received from anyone listed as missing after noon on Wednesday — one hour after the boat overturned — further dashing hopes that anyone still inside the sunken hull is still alive.

India

In India, 150 Million People Will Be Voting For The First Time This Year

Lok Sabha Elections 2014
Girls show inked fingers after they cast their vote at a poll booth on April 17, 2014 in Bhubaneswar, India. An estimated 150 millions will be voting for the first time this year Hindustan Times—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

With 50% of its population below the age of 30, India is one of the world’s youngest nations. In the ongoing general elections, youthful voters appear to be reversing the political apathy of their previous generations and taking a stand on a wide range of issues

It’s Thursday afternoon at the Youth Ki Awaaz (Voice of the Youth) office in New Delhi, and around ten young undergraduates are in deep discussion, brainstorming ideas for a voting drive known as the Youth Elect 2014 campaign. It’s been a busy month, with most of them putting in at least 35 hours a week – stolen from their social lives and impending examinations in May – to organize Google Hangouts, opinion surveys, and other initiatives to help young voters make informed choices for the elections, which began on April 7.

The 2014 elections will see around 150 million voters, between the ages 18-23, head to the voting booths for the first time. As a voting class, young Indians have traditionally been apolitical. This year, however, they seem unequivocal about change.

“One of the biggest demands by young people is their participation in governance,” says Anshul Tewari, the 23-year-old who in 2008 founded Youth Ki Awaaz, as a platform for young people to discuss issues important to them. “They want to be a part of the system that decides for them.”

Events of the recent past – anti-graft protests in 2011 and mass demonstrations against sexual violence, sparked by the horrific Dec. 16 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical intern in New Delhi — have transformed this one-time dispassionate generation into a politically sensitized group.

There have been other catalysts too. “Expenses are running out of hand,” says Azad Singh, a 23-year-old state gold-medal wrestler and first time voter from New Delhi. Rising inflation means his special athlete’s diet is bleeding him dry. We’re not talking about expensive protein shakes and supergreen food supplements, but a few kilograms of almonds every month and four liters of milk a day. Which is a lot of milk, but it ought to be within the grasp of somebody who self-describes as “middle class.” He says: “I want a leader who can fix all these.”

Young people want better security for women (“I am a young girl who is teased by lecherous men everyday on the roads,” says 20-year-old Anwesha Dhar, a student of English from Kolkata). They want a sustainable development model (“Small towns and villages grapple with poverty and ignorance every day,” says Mayank Jain, 20, final year student of business studies at Delhi University). They wnat basic human rights (“Child labor, malnourishment, trafficking are all pervasive and appalling and need immediate action,” says Meghana Rathore, 20, a political science student from New Delhi).

Issues like gay rights too, which hadn’t bothered young Indians much in the past, are important this year. The Supreme Court made gay sex a criminal offense in 2013, overturning an historical judgment by a lower court that had decriminalized homosexuality in 2009. “There has to be a change in the way society looks at us,” says a 20-year-old, gay student of fashion design, Shadwal Srivastava. “That can only come from raising awareness and stopping the comic and often trivial portrayal of gay people in television and movies.”

It is a heartening sign for the Indian democracy that first time voters like Srivastava are more forthcoming with their ideas on politics, politicians and their expectations. Wooed by political parties across the board as an important vote bank, they have been swayed equally by anger against the ruling Congress party, the rise of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and the emergence of neophytes like Arvind Kejriwal, a middle class Indian who claims to represent the common man with his anti-graft Aam Aadmi Party.

“A few years back I thought my vote didn’t matter,” Srivastava says. “Today I know better. If we want change, we will have to work towards it.”

 

exploration

The Reason We Can’t Find MH 370 Is Because We’re Basically Blind

Search For Missing Flight MH370 Shifts To Underwater Mission
Good luck finding anything with that. Bluefin-21 is craned over the side of Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 on April 14, 2014. Handout—Getty Images

We can see countless millions of miles into the blackness of space, but a 3-mile depth in the ocean is testing the very limits of our technology. Never mind finding a missing jet, we're incapable of establishing even the most basic facts about the ocean floor

Men have played golf on the moon. Images transmitted from the surface of Mars have become utterly commonplace. The Hubble Space Telescope can see 10 billion to 15 billion light-years into the universe.

But a mere three miles under the sea? That’s a true twilight zone.

As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 demonstrates, at that depth — minuscule compared with the vastness of space — everything is a virtual unknown. A high-tech unmanned underwater submarine, Bluefin-21, has been dispatched four times to look for wreckage from the jet, but the crushing water pressure and impenetrability of this void mean that only its most recent pair of missions were completed. Scrutinizing dust and rock particles on the Red Planet, tens of millions of miles away, is a breeze. Understanding what’s on the seafloor of our own planet is not.

About 95% of deep ocean floor remains unmapped, but that’s almost certainly where the most sought after aircraft in history is going to be found. “Our knowledge of the detailed ocean floor is very, very sparse,” Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME.

The reason for our ignorance is simple. Virtually all modern communications technology — be it light, radio, X-rays, wi-fi — is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which seawater just loves to suck up. “The only thing that does travel [underwater] is sound,” says van Sebille, “and that’s why we have to use sonar.”

Sound is formed by mechanical waves and so can penetrate denser mediums like liquids: but at a 3-mile (5 km) depth, even sonar starts to have problems establishing basic parameters. The waters in which the search for MH 370 is happening, for example, were thought to be between 13,800 and 14,400 ft. (4,200 and 4,400 m) deep, because that’s what it said on the charts that had been drawn up over time by passing ships with sonar capabilities. It turns out those seas are at least 14,800 ft. (4,500 m) deep. We only know that now because that’s the depth at which Bluefin-21 will automatically resurface — as it did on its maiden foray — when onboard sensors tell it that it’s way, way out of its operating depth. The problems with Bluefin-21, van Sebille says, show us that “even our best maps are really not good here.”

The other issue affecting visibility is the sheer volume of junk in the ocean. About 5.25 trillion particles of plastic trash presently billow around the planet, say experts, weighing half a million tons. There are five huge garbage patches in the world’s seas, where the swirling of currents makes the mostly plastic debris accumulate. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre measuring an estimated 270,000 to 5.8 million sq. mi. (700,000 to 15 million sq km). This refuse gets ingested by plankton, fish, birds and larger marine mammals, imperiling our entire ecosystem.

Flotsam debris has already impeded the hunt for MH 370. Hundreds of suspicious items spotted by satellite have sent aircraft and ships on hugely costly detours to investigate what turned out to be trash. (On Friday an air-and-surface search continued, with 12 aircraft and 11 ships scouring an area of some 20,000 sq. mi. [52,000 sq km] about 1,200 miles [2,000 km] northwest of Perth.) Officials are saying that such efforts are becoming futile.

For all we know, Bluefin-21 could also be confused by the sheer volume of garbage down there. According to a study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute published last June, based on 8,000 hours of underwater video, an unbelievable quantity of waste is strewn across the ocean floor. A third of the debris is thought to be plastic — bags, bottles, pellets, crates — but there is a vast amount of metal trash as well, including many of the 10,000 shipping containers estimated to be lost each year. “I was surprised that we saw so much trash in deeper water,” said Kyra Schlining, lead author on the study. “We don’t usually think of our daily activities as affecting life two miles deep in the ocean.”

That’s because we can’t see it. It’s tempting to say that MH 370 might as well have vanished into space — only if it had, we’d have found it by now.

South Korea

Divers Pumping Air Into Submerged S.Korean Ship

(MOKPO, South Korea) — Coast guard officials say divers have begun pumping air into a submerged South Korean ship 48 hours after it listed and sank. But it wasn’t immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation.

Strong currents and bad weather have so far prevented divers from searching for more than 270 people missing since the ferry listed and sank on Wednesday. Officials said Friday in a statement that divers were still trying to enter the ship.

There were fears that it may be too late. Officials say 25 have confirmed dead as of Friday.

Iran

U.S.: Forfeiture Deal Over Iran Assets Sets Record

(NEW YORK) — A prosecutor says plans to sell a 36-story New York office building and other properties owned by Iran will produce the largest ever terrorism-related forfeiture.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (buh-RAH’-ruh) says a federal judge Thursday approved a settlement with 19 holders of terrorism-related judgments against the government of Iran.

The settling creditors include families and estates of victims of the 1983 terrorist bombings of U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and terrorist attacks in Israel and elsewhere.

Besides the Manhattan tower, buildings will be sold in California, Maryland, Texas and Virginia.

Prosecutors said funds will be added to accounts formerly in the name of entities that served as fronts for the Iranian government. The properties’ estimated total worth wasn’t provided Thursday.

Ukraine

The 600 Years of History Behind Those Ukrainian Masks

An armed man stands next to a barricade in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk
A masked separatist stands guard outside a government building in Slavyansk. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

`Maskirovka’ has been a part of the Russian military since before there was a Russia

The reporter asked the masked pro-Russian separatist in the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk a simple question: why are you wearing a mask?

“I’m sorry,” he responded, “but it’s a stupid question.”

It sure is for anyone who pays attention to how Russia fights.

The mask-wearing militants who have appeared in eastern Ukraine and taken over government buildings represent the latest face of Russia’s tradition of maskirovka (mas-kir-OAF-ka). It’s a word literally translated as disguise, but Russia has long used it in a broader sense, meaning any military tactic that incorporates camouflage, concealment, deception, disinformation—or any combination thereof.

It describes everything from manufacturing tanks in automobile factories to shielding them under tree branches near the battlefield. It can be used to hide soldiers with smoke screens, and to build warships under awnings. It includes sending soldiers in white uniforms to invade snowbound Finland during World War II and creating mock weapons and bridges in hopes of drawing enemy fire away from the real thing.

The Soviets bought 100mm artillery pieces from Germany before the war. The Germans cranked the Russians’ use of those guns in their planning on how to invade Russian as part of Operation Barbarossa. But when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets surprised them with much more powerful 130mm guns. In a classic maskirovka move, the Russians had scrapped the guns they bought from Germany as they built their own bigger weapons.

Maskirovka (which is rooted in the English word, mask) is designed to sow confusion and frustration among opponents by denying them basic information.

A pro-Russia protester stands at a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk
A pro-Russian protester mans a barricade outside a government building in Donetsk. Konstantin Chernichkin / Reuters

The anonymous troops in eastern Ukraine say only that they’re “Cossacks,” but Ukrainian and Western officials believe many of them are led by Russian special forces. Yet the murkiness of their origin and sponsors inflates their menace, and makes it more difficult to figure out how to deal with them. Snipping puppet strings between Ukraine and Moscow may be easier than controlling indigenous separatists operating independently. A combination of both complicates matters still further.

Maskirovka may be conducted in any environment to deny information to sensors,” a 1988 Pentagon study of the technique said. What’s on display in Ukraine is maskirovka in its most basic form: physical masks, known as balaclavas (named for their use at the Battle of Balaclava, a Ukrainian town near Sevastopol, during the Crimean War) are designed to deny humans’ most fundamental sensor—the eye—critical information about the person on the other side (to complicate matters, some Ukrainian supporters also are wearing masks).

If the West won’t come to Ukraine’s aid even if columns of Russian tanks are streaming toward the capital of Kiev, they’re sure not going to lift a (trigger) finger against masked men operating in the shadows.

Think of it as a crafty way of getting your way. Russia is conducting a slow-motion invasion of Ukraine without thousands of troops riding hundreds of tanks. Instead, handfuls of Russian agents are whipping up nationalistic fervor among disgruntled eastern Ukrainians of Russian stock. Beyond the masks, the “troops” wear no insignia to betray under whose flag they’re acting.

It used to be that states waged wars. But since the end of the Cold War, so-called “non-state actors”—like al Qaeda—have loomed large. Now on the streets of Ukraine, non-state actors are acting on behalf of a state.

Maskirovka, Russian military texts say, must be seamless and complete. The Soviet Union used it to sneak their nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba in 1962. But the Soviets didn’t bother to conceal the construction of their launch sites, which led U.S. intelligence to figure out what was happening.

Some Russian scholars say maskirovka dates back to the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo Field, 120 miles south of Moscow. Russian Dmitri Ivanovich divided his mounted fighters into two groups: one stood in the open field, vulnerable to attack from the Mongols’ Golden Horde, while the second hid in a nearby forest. Seeing only the Russians on the plains, the Horde’s soldiers attacked, only to be overwhelmed when the second Russian force rushed from their hiding place.

The technique certainly got Ronald Reagan’s attention.

“The Soviet Union has developed a doctrine of `maskirovka’ which calls for the use of camouflage, concealment and deception (CC&D) in defense-related programs and in the conduct of military operations,” Reagan wrote in October 1983’s National Security Decision Directive 108. “Several recent discoveries reveal that the Soviet maskirovka program has enjoyed previously unsuspected success and that it is apparently entering a new and improved phase.” The Top Secret document, declassified by the U.S. government three years ago, didn’t detail those successes.

Fast-forwarding to today, how can the West combat Russia’s penchant for maskirovka in Ukraine? Seeing as some credit Reagan for prevailing in the original Cold War, perhaps his orders in that 1983 directive offer a clue. “The Director of Central Intelligence,” he wrote, “in cooperation with other Departments and Agencies as appropriate, will:”

The rest of the directive is blacked out.

Think of it as a bit of Amerimaskitovka.

 

Bad Weather Slows Search for South Korea Ferry Survivors

APTOPIX South Korea Ship Sinking
A relative of a passenger aboard a sunken ferry weeps at a port in Jindo, South Korea, April 17, 2014. Ahn Young-joon—AP

About 271 people are still missing as the military battles wind and waves to find survivors of the capsized South Korean ferry

Murky waters and strong currents hampered the search on Thursday for survivors of the South Korean ferry that capsized. Though 179 people have been rescued since Wednesday’s disaster, emergency services say 25 people have been confirmed dead and 271 people are still missing.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited the wreckage site and emphasized the need for speed in the search, saying every second was important, according to the BBC. The ferry was filled mainly with high school students on their way to Jeju island.

But more than 500 military divers have had to struggle against high winds and tumultuous waves as they try to reach the vessel. They can’t access any of the cabins, said Kim Soo-hyun, chief of the West Regional Headquarters of South Korea’s coast guard. The coast guard has been using floodlights and flares to continue to search the ship. Altogether, the military had deployed 171 vessels and 29 aircraft in the search.

“We carried out underwater searches five times from midnight until early in the morning, but strong currents and the murky water pose tremendous obstacles,” Kang Byung-kyu, Minister for Security and Public Administration, told the BBC.

Investigators still have not determined what caused the ship to tip over. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don’t know what to say,” said the captain of the ship, Lee Joon-seok. He was reportedly one of the first people to escape the capsizing ship.

The U.S. Navy has sent an assault ship to aid in the search.

[BBC]

Influx of Refugees Fans Xenophobia Among Some Lebanese

Yahta
Syrian refugee Yahya, speaks to journalists at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registration center in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, April 3, 2014. The teenager from central Syria became the one millionth Syrian refugee to register in Lebanon. Bilal Hussein—AP

With the conflict in Syria now in its fourth year, some Lebanese are growing increasingly hostile to the million Syrians taking refuge in their country

When Dima Wannous, a 32-year-old Syrian novelist and daughter of the renowned Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, hailed a taxi in Beirut on April 15 she did not expect her ride would end with the Lebanese driver assaulting her. Everything was going fine until a radio news bulletin mentioned that three journalists, working for Al-Manar, a TV station operated by the Shia militant group Hizballah, had been killed while covering the war in neighboring Syria. Wannous made a casual comment on the harrowing political conflict linking the two countries.

“The Sayed should not interfere in Syria,” said the driver, referring to Hasan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary-general, by his honorific title. “He should let the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group] grind you and your children to little pieces. Get out of here and go back to Syria, you dogs.” The driver then turned around and punched her in the face, according to her account, which she later posted on Facebook and confirmed in an email.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common in Lebanon with the rise of the Syrian refugee population, which many Lebanese blame for a recent rise in crime.

“The increase in numbers has increased xenophobia,” says Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We have definitely seen an increase in things like locally-imposed curfews.” He cautions that much of what is pinned on Syrians is based on unfounded rumors, and that local politicians had been blaming Syrians for the country’s problems long before the arrival of large numbers of refugees. “To date, I have yet to see any statistical evidence that the dramatic increase in numbers has had a large impact on crime. There are anecdotes and plenty of fear spreading, but little hard data,” says Houry.

Still, obscene graffiti exhorting Syrians to go home is a common sight. At least four mayors have imposed strict curfews on Syrian workers residing in small towns. Anecdotes abound of altercations between Syrians and Lebanese ranging from snide remarks to outright physical assault. The driver who lashed out at Wannous was pro-Hizballah, she claims. Passersby stood by watching in silence as Wannous was unceremoniously thrown out of the car marking a grim end to her brief visit to Beirut from Istanbul, where she lives.

Hizballah has sustained considerable losses in Syria while fighting alongside the Syrian government and against a largely Sunni insurgency. As a result, many in Hizballah’s mostly Shiite constituency in Lebanon harbor deep resentment toward Sunni Syrians, whom they have come to view as a dangerous threat to their very existence. A recent spate of car bombings targeting majority Shiite neighborhoods in Lebanon has further exacerbated existing schisms.

Some in Lebanon fear that Syrians will permanently implant themselves and compound economic woes. The constant trickle of refugees is putting a strain on a war-damaged infrastructure, stretching the country’s scarce resources and worsening its ailing economy. And as Lebanon struggles to cope, some prominent public figures have suggested that refugees be forcibly relocated back to “safe” areas in war-torn Syria.

“Why not install some camps for them in Syrian territory where there is security? The area of Syria is 20 times greater than that of Lebanon,” said Cardinal Beshara al-Rai, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Church, earlier this month at a press conference. “They take all the work from the Lebanese people.”

Some Lebanese politicians have expressed the same sentiment. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has argued against allowing Syrians to stay in Lebanon in the longterm, and has also proposed resettling them outside Lebanese territory.

But some Lebanese, more sympathetic to the plight of their neighbors, have accused corrupt politicians of fostering apprehension about Syrians in order to deflect attention from their own failures to remedy the country’s social, economic and political problems. Syrian refugees have become convenient scapegoats, they say.

The discrimination has become so pervasive of late that it has prompted sympathetic Lebanese citizens to rephrase offensive graffiti, create educational videos and launch a social media campaign to counteract the prevailing discourse that underpins negative perceptions of Syrians among some Lebanese.

In a video widely circulated by activists, young Lebanese people appear in succession, against a plain background, as they utter simple statements explaining why the country’s ills cannot be blamed on Syrians. “If my country can’t be self-sufficient, the fault lies with the authorities. It shouldn’t blame its failures on the refugees,” says one young woman in the video.

On a Facebook page called The Campaign in Support of Syrians Facing Racism, created earlier this month, a Lebanese man has posted a photograph of himself in which he’s holding a banner that reads: “I once met a Syrian who made us both proud.”

Houry thinks such campaigns send a strong message to both refugees and their host communities and should be amplified. “But, ultimately, Lebanon’s decision-makers need to develop a real policy towards refugees which would promote their rights while also objectively assessing the impact of the refugee crisis on host communities,” he said.

But not all of the anti-Syrian animosity can be solely attributed to economic and security concerns, sectarian tension or even politicians’ cunning statements. It is also deeply rooted in old grievances. Many Lebanese citizens have not forgotten the Syrian security apparatus’ violent interference in their political affairs, a meddling that lasted for nearly three decades following the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Damascus would often empower favored Lebanese politicians who in return facilitated Syria’s infringement on Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Violence periodically erupts in some overburdened areas. Last December, residents of Qsarnaba, a village in eastern Lebanon, set a tent encampment on fire after accusing Syrians of raping a mentally-disabled Lebanese man. The allegations turned out to be false. A doctor who examined the mentally-disabled man saw no evidence of rape, and a Lebanese local resident later told the press that the perpetrators had cooked up this pretext to chase out the refugees from their town.

With the Syrian conflict now in its fourth year, the situation could worsen as the influx of refugees continues. “There is not a single country in the world today that is shouldering as much in proportion to its size as Lebanon,” said Ninette Kelley, the regional representative for Lebanon for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, during a recent visit to Washington. “If this country is not bolstered, then the very real prospect of it collapsing and the conflict of Syria spreading full force to Lebanon becomes much more likely.”

Ukraine

Ukraine’s ‘Jew Register’ Either a Hoax or a Crude Extortion Scheme

APTOPIX Ukraine
A masked gunman guards combat vehicles with Russian, Donetsk Republic and Ukrainian paratroopers, flags and gunmen on top, parked in downtown of Slovyansk on April 16, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

A few anti-Semitic fliers in eastern Ukraine made global news after the U.S. Secretary of State spoke out against them. But on the evidence on display in Donetsk, the Jews of eastern Ukraine are in little danger

The news of pro-Russian thugs trying to impose a tax on Jews first appeared on Wednesday morning on a small, local news website in eastern Ukraine called Novosti Donbassa. Along with a photo of a neo-Nazi throwing the Hitler salute, the website offered the story of three masked goons hanging around a synagogue in the city of Donetsk and handing out anti-Semitic fliers to local Jews. The site even ran a photo of the flier, which demanded that Jewish residents of Donetsk show up to “register,” pay a fee of “50 American dollars,” and offer proof of any property they own in the region. It all looked like a crude joke.

But even though Novosti Donbassa is not the most reliable source even by the less than exacting standards of Ukrainian media, the story was apparently too scandalous to ignore. It ricocheted around the Internet on Wednesday before winding up in the Israeli press and, finally, on the website of USA Today. By Thursday evening, the article had reached U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who commented on it during high-level talks in Geneva. “In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” Kerry told reporters after talks meant to resolve the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. By that point, this flier was making news around the world.

But even if it looked like the start of some racist purge, the flier was more likely part of an ill-conceived extortion plot or a propaganda ploy against the separatists. For one thing, the sign-off at the bottom of the flier — “Yours, the People’s Governor of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin” — seemed off. This was a reference to the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which was formed a week and a half ago by a group of armed separatists who seized the headquarters of the regional government. Theirs is perhaps the smallest breakaway republic in the world, as its territory is confined to that one building and a small patch of the plaza around it. Since April 7, they have barricaded themselves inside with a cache of weapons and demanded a referendum on secession from Ukraine. At the bottom of the flier was a reproduction of the stamp these separatists use on the press badges they have issued to journalists.

Denis Pushilin, however, is not the man who calls himself the “People’s Governor” of this pseudo-state. That would be Pavel Gubarev, who bestowed that title on himself in early March, during a separatist rally in the center of Donetsk. Three days later, he was arrested on charges of separatism and taken to jail in Kiev, where he remains. The alleged author of the anti-Semitic flier, Pushilin, is his ally and comrade-in-arms. But he has never gone by the title of “People’s Governor.” (His preferred title is the “co-chairman of the temporary coalition government” that he and his allies declared inside that building.) For his part, Pushilin denied on Thursday that he or his organization had anything to do with these fliers. “In reality this is a fake, and a pretty unsuccessful one,” Pushilin told the news network Russia Today. “It was all done with Photoshop.”

In the past few days, he added, similar fliers have been handed around to businessmen and foreign students in Donetsk. So all of this seems to be part of rather sloppy extortion scheme. If any separatists are behind it, they have probably done more to discredit themselves than to earn any extra cash.

The separatists’ ideology rests on two claims that were hard to defend even without their new anti-Semitic label. First, they have said that Ukraine’s revolution in February brought fascists to power in Kiev, and second, they have insisted that armed separatism is the only way to keep those fascists from taking over eastern Ukraine. At the entrance to their “People’s Republic,” on top of a pile of tires, is a poster with a big, crossed-out swastika and the words “No Fascism.” So for them to be seen as anti-Semites is a particularly painful irony.

That was part of the reason suspicion fell on their political opponents as soon as the fliers started making the rounds online. Dmitro Tkachenko, who helped organize a large rally in Donetsk on Thursday to support the unity of Ukraine, called the flier “a brilliant piece of disinformation” against the separatists. Asked if one of his fellow activists for Ukrainian unity could have staged it, Tkachenko says it’s possible. “But this is a sophisticated trick, and to be honest, I don’t think any of our folks are that smart,” he tells TIME.

More likely, Tkachenko says, the fliers were the work of an opportunistic splinter group, from separatists who just want to make money from their newfound impunity. Over the past week, they have managed to seize numerous government buildings in Donetsk, most recently the city hall on Wednesday, without any resistance from the police. “But their movement is very divided,” says Tkachenko. It includes various groups of armed thugs who answer to no single leader. So it’s quite possible that some of the more entrepreneurial goons among them just felt like making a bit of extortion money on the side.

Instead, they seem to have intensified the backlash against all their fellow separatists. The rally on Thursday gathered at least two thousand people, not bad considering that the local police had warned locals to stay away, citing concerns of a separatist attack on the demonstration. As for the Jewish community, its members have no intention of showing up to register their property with the vigilantes of the People’s Republic or anyone else. “It looked like a pretty stupid provocation,” says Larissa Loyko, a representative of civil society organization the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine. She suspects the separatists may indeed have been behind it, because Jewish leaders openly supported Ukraine’s revolution this winter. “But this is not the kind of matter that can be turned into a prank,” she says. “Someone will have to answer for this.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser