Crowds of people celebrated on Tuesday after Kurdish fighters declared victory over the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for control of the Syrian town of Kobani. It’s seen as more of a symbolic win than a strategic turning-point in the conflict, as the group still holds large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Primo Levi's account of his arrival at the death camp
Seventy years ago today, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied southern Poland where, from 1942 on, the Nazis killed at least 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 10,000-15,000 others. Most were killed in gas chambers designed and constructed for the purpose.
In February 1944, less than a year before the liberation, the Italian chemist Primo Levi arrived at the camp with more than 600 other Jews who had been deported from German-occupied Italy in sealed train cars. In all, some 10,000 Jews were deported to concentration and extermination camps from Italy after the German occupation in September 1943.
Following is Levi’s account of the selection process by means of which the Nazis determined who would be killed and who would be kept alive for slave labor, from Survival in Auschwitz, (Simon and Schuster):
The climax came suddenly. The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit up by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.
A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: ‘How old? Healthy or ill?’ And on the basis of the reply they pointed in two different directions.
Everything was as silent as an aquarium, or as in certain dream sequences. We had expected something more apocalyptic: they seemed simple police agents. It was disconcerting and disarming. Someone dared to ask for his luggage: they replied, ‘luggage afterwards’. Someone else did not want to leave his wife: they said, ‘together again afterwards’. Many mothers did not want to be separated from their children: they said ‘good, good, stay with child’. They behaved with the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day. But Renzo stayed an instant too long to say good-bye to Francesca, his fiancée, and with a single blow they knocked him to the ground. It was their everyday duty.
In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later…
This is the reason why three-year-old Emilia died: the historical necessity of killing the children of Jews was self-demonstrative to the Germans. Emilia, daughter of Aldo Levi of Milan, was a curious, ambitious, cheerful, intelligent child; her parents had succeeded in washing her during the journey in the packed car in a tub with tepid water which the degenerate German engineer had allowed them to draw from the engine that was dragging us all to death.
Thus in an instant, our women, our parents, our children disappeared. We saw them for a short while as an obscure mass at the other end of the platform; then we saw nothing more.
Gallery planned for Olympic park would be institute's first international location
The Smithsonian Institute is exploring opening its first international location in London.
The 40,000-square foot Smithsonian gallery would be part of “Olympicopolis,” a cultural center set to open in London’s revamped Olympic park, AP reports.
“We envision this as being a Smithsonian facility that really allows us to show the breadth and depth of everything that we do,” Smithsonian Acting Secretary Al Horvath said. “So it won’t be specifically focused on one topic but will allow us to run the gamut of things that we do — history, science, art, culture and the like.”
London’s mayor and developers for the park site have already secured $50 million to bring a Smithsonian site to “Olympicopolis,” which is set to open in 2021.
A weekend of fierce fighting in Ukraine's embattled Donbass region continued Monday+ READ ARTICLE
A weekend of fierce fighting in Ukraine’s embattled Donbass region continued Monday as pro-Russian insurgents encircled Ukrainian government troops in a new advance. The war of words heated up, too, as Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of relying on a “foreign legion” to wage war against the separatist militias. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Putin’s comments “nonsense.”
The former Cuban leader and lifelong revolutionary makes it clear that he won't stand in the way of diplomacy with Washington
The letter from Fidel Castro that surfaced on the front page of the state newspaper Granma on Tuesday served two purposes. The first was proof of life. When you’re the founder of a state and your physical condition is subject to almost constant rumor, you don’t arrange to be photographed holding up a copy of a current newspaper to prove that you remain alive. You remark on events that have recently transpired, and make that front page your own.
Which was of course the other thing the senior Castro, 88, accomplished: leaving his mark — however belatedly, guardedly and obtusely — on events that have largely been out of his hands since he handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2006, owing to failing health. Tuesday’s remarks were Fidel’s first since the momentous simultaneous declaration on Dec. 19 by Raúl and President Barack Obama that Cuba and the U.S. would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, and work together toward removing the more than 50-year-old American economic embargo.
In the meantime a senior State Department delegation had already come to Havana on Jan. 21 and left amid smiles and mutual avowals of continuing the rapprochement. In his public letter Fidel was less effusive, but made it clear that he wouldn’t stand in the way of new diplomatic ties. “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” Castro wrote, in remarks addressed in his name to a student federation at the University of Havana. “We shall always defend the cooperation and friendship between all people, among them our political adversaries,” the letter went on. “With this spirit, I have fought and will continue fighting until my last breath.”
The tones of skepticism, even amid the outpouring of enthusiasm with which ordinary Cubans received word of the rapprochement, shouldn’t be surprising. After reaching out in vain to the Eisenhower Administration after Fidel and his fellow rebels ousted the U.S.-backed Cuban government in 1959, no leader faced more persistent efforts by the U.S. to remove him and undo his revolution. There were direct military attacks, planned assassinations and a long string of assaults by U.S.-backed surrogates spanning more than a decade. Castro’s resilience and increasingly proud defiance of Washington gave him unique standing on the world stage — and made him ever more reviled by the Cuban exiles in the U.S. who loathed his socialist system and often brutal repression of dissidents and rivals.
Today there’s no disputing who is in charge in Cuba. Nearly a decade after taking power, Raúl has brought in his own people, and gradually but steadily pushed for pragmatic changes that have eased the economic hardships that defined Cuban life in the years after the Soviet Union abruptly withdrew its wholesale support at the end of the Cold War. Fidel said as much in his statement, noting that as President, the 83-year-old Raúl “has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba.” But opening to market forces also threatens the system of social equality that was a hallmark of the Castro regime — a risk that likely accounts for much of the wariness evident in Fidel’s missive.
Fidel, who hasn’t spoken in public in years, is clearly not well. He remains at home on his ranch on the western outskirts of the capital, his health widely believed to be fragile at best. After a flurry of rumors a fortnight ago that he had suffered a fatal stroke, he sent a letter to the soccer legend Diego Maradona, an old friend, saying he was very much alive. (The confusion was due in part to the very real death earlier this month of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of Kenya’s opposition leader.) But as the embodiment of the Revolution, the Bearded One retains the power of paterfamilias status, and perhaps a good deal more, among ordinary Cubans.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in my government,” said Caridad Alfonso, 43, at a beer garden along the shore after finishing her day as a general practitioner in Havana. “We are Fidelistas. We love Fidel even though he’s not the President any more and we follow Raúl.”
But she welcomed the opening to the U.S., especially as framed by both Raúl and Obama and their diplomats, who make frequent mentions of mutual respect and sovereignty, as well as “profound disagreements.”
“Now we’re equal,” Alfonso said. “It’s a good beginning.” And Fidel Castro may be around to see the end as well.
It would remain a challenge to be sure when and if they are fully de-radicalized
(BRUSSELS) — The European Union’s anti-terror chief called Tuesday for countries to rehabilitate rather than punish returning jihadis with no blood on their hands, saying that some prisons have become “incubators of radicalization.”
EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview with The Associated Press that “if we can avoid prison, let’s avoid prison.”
At a time when EU nations are still shocked by the attacks in France early this month, many are pushing for swift, repressive measures for anyone who has gone off to fight holy war in Syria or Iraq.
And even if true criminals among the returnees need to be punished with jail time, “I don’t advise to bring them all to court because it would be a mistake,” De Kerchove said.
Since the Jan. 7-9 Paris attacks that killed 20 people, including the three gunmen, dozens of people have been charged in France with defending terrorism. Several were almost immediately convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing. Inciting terrorism can bring a five-year prison term — or up to seven years for inciting terrorism online.
“We know how much jails are major incubators of radicalization. Much better, provided they accept to do that, they undertake major rehabilitation,” De Kerchove said.
France recently expanded prison terms for terrorism-related offenses, but the country was still caught off-guard when a member of a jihadi network worked in tandem with his brother and a former jailhouse acquaintance during three days of attacks in the Paris region.
“These people got radicalized in prison,” De Kerchove said.
And for those who are convicted, he suggests jails be designed “in a way that they are not in contact with petty criminals” and instead can meet with moderate imams. Belgium is already working on such plans.
A major challenge facing the authorities is to collect evidence against foreign fighters traveling to conflict-torn Syria that would stand up in European courts.
In many cases it’s virtually impossible to prove whether suspects have joined the Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad or joined the ranks of the Islamic State group.
De Kerchove looked positively on a program for returnees in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, which former political extremists and foreign fighters can voluntarily join.
On Tuesday, Denmark earmarked 60.9 million kroner ($9.2 million) over the next three years for programs to de-radicalize Islamic extremists, including those who have fought with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq.
Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen said about 7 million kroner ($1 million) will be spent on exit programs for former foreign fighters.
Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp stressed the program “is in no way a reward, a second chance on a silver plate. It is about protecting society, and avoid having people running around with a knife or an ax.”
“Many countries rely on repression but punitive methods are a recipe to create resentment toward the society,” Ranstorp said.
Whatever program returnees enter, it would remain a challenge to be sure when and if they are fully de-radicalized, but De Kerchove said it was “probably something achievable.”
Meanwhile, anti-terror raids in France and Belgium netted five more suspects on Tuesday as Paris urged its EU partners to step up the fight against terror financing with new measures to make transactions more transparent.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that raids in southern France detained five people and broke up “one more network” in a small town that has seen several youths leave to fight in Syria and Iraq.
In western Belgium, authorities detained three men in an operation linked to a terror threat but they were later released and not charged, said prosecutor spokeswoman Karlien Ververken.
A raid in the eastern town of Verviers earlier this month left two suspects dead and later put seven more behind bars. Belgian authorities said that raid had averted an imminent major terrorist attack against police and their offices.
At EU headquarters, European finance ministers endorsed an anti-money laundering deal and threw their weight behind French proposals to boost intelligence-sharing on terror financing, tighten controls on virtual currencies like bitcoins and crack down on anonymous money transfers.
“We have to stop this anonymity. It is really dangerous for our citizens,” French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told reporters.
The new money-laundering plan aims to ensure that the real owners of companies and trusts are listed in public registers in Europe, and to force banks, auditors, lawyers and others to be more vigilant about suspicious transactions. The measures will be debated by EU leaders on February 12.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this article
UNICEF calls it "one of the largest ever demobilizations of children."
Nearly three hundred children between ages 11 and 17 laid down their arms Tuesday, in the first step of an ambitious program to reintegrate some 3,000 child soldiers in South Sudan, according to UNICEF.
The children are members of the South Sudan Democratic Army Cobra Faction, a militant group in eastern Sudan whose leader, David Yau Yau, signed a peace agreement with the government last year amid ongoing violence in the country.
UNICEF, which helped broker the children’s release, said it would mark one of the largest demobilization of children soldiers ever. It expects the full handover to take weeks.
“These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience,” UNICEF South Sudan Representative Jonathan Veitch said in a statement.
Since fighting broke out between President Salva Kiir and supporters of Vice President Riek Machar in December 2013, the country—which broke off from Sudan, its northern neighbor, in 2011—has been embroiled in a conflict between the government and rebel groups that has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced some 1.5 million others.
But the conflict has taken a disproportionate toll on children, forcing some 400,000 students out of school and prompting a surge in the number of child soldiers, according to Ettie Higgins, the deputy representative for UNICEF in South Sudan. Since the fighting began, an estimated 12,000 children have been recruited to fight with armed groups on both sides.
Now UNICEF and other organizations, in conjunction with the government, are aiming to return those children to their families.
“They’re happy to give their gun up and they just want to go to school,” Higgins said in a telephone interview from South Sudan after the first group of 280 children were released. “That’s been the key message we’re getting.”
UNICEF and its partner organizations said they will provide counseling and health care to the children as they attempt to reunite them with their families. The aid groups are also working with local communities, which have agreed to welcome back the children recruited by the Cobra Faction, to prevent discrimination and limit the chances that the children are again recruited.
But UN officials stress that the program risks stalling if funding dries up. UNICEF, which is appealing for $10 million in funding, says the process of reintigrating the children costs roughly $2,330 a child over two years.
“At the risk of sounding like other conflict zones, we don’t want to lose another generation here,” Higgins said. “These children, despite everything they’ve gone through, they’re still looking to the future. We mustn’t let them down.”
Searchers have found 70 of the 162 bodies
Indonesia’s military suspended a search effort for a downed AirAsia flight in the Java Sea on Tuesday, drawing to a close a 30-day effort to retrieve bodies from the wreckage.
“We apologize to the families of the victims,” Rear Adm. Widodo said, according to Reuters. “We tried our best to look for the missing victims.”
Divers with the Indonesian military have struggled against strong currents and murky water conditions to retrieve bodies from the wreckage site, submerged some 100 feet below sea level. Officials said they had retrieved 70 bodies to date from the wreckage site, and no bodies were known to remain in the fuselage, the New York Times reports.
The plane had 162 people on board when it crashed last month.
The High Court in London opens a 10-week hearing into the 2006 death of the former Russian intelligence officer and MI6 informant Alexander Litvinenko
It took Alexander Litvinenko 23 painful days to die. It has taken another agonizing 2,987 days for the British government to open a public inquiry into his murder, a process that cannot deliver justice to the victim, his widow Marina or son Anatoly, but may at least provide an official account of events leading up to his death. As he lay dying after ingesting radioactive polonium-210, Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin. The Kremlin rejected blame. Britain for eight years dragged its heels, reluctant to push for answers that might complicate its relations with Russia.
Yet the evidence expected to unfold at the High Court in London over the next 10 weeks is likely to reveal not only an intricate web of relationships between spies and diplomats, Kremlin loyalists and dissidents, but also a startlingly simple truth. Russia, in the era of Vladimir Putin, has rarely proven susceptible to diplomacy.
That realization may finally have helped to sway Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May from her 2013 refusal to hold a public inquiry. An inquest into Litvinenko’s death had already been abandoned apparently for fear of causing a breach with Moscow. In a letter explaining her decision to block the inquiry the coroner had recommended in its place, May cited concerns over the potential impact on “international relations.” Last summer, however, May revealed a change of heart. Her announcement of a public inquiry came less than a week after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, an act Ukraine (and much of the rest of the world) attributed to pro-Russian separatists. Russia accused Ukraine. Whitehall sources told the BBC that the timing of the May’s announcement was “a coincidence.” That may be true, but Britain has substantially toughened its stance toward Russia since then, as have other Western countries including the U.S. where on Monday an alleged Russian spy was arrested in New York.
Litvinenko’s strange tale speaks to a world in which the public handshakes between country leaders count for little. In 1998 he broke ranks with his then employer, Russia’s spy service the FSB, alleging a state-sanctioned plot to assassinate the Kremlin-insider-turned-critic Boris Berezovsky (whose eventual death, last March, raised questions, attracting an open verdict). Litvinenko sought asylum in the U.K. in 2000 and forged close links with Berezovsky and other figures unpopular with the Kremlin, including the investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, slain just weeks before Litvinenko. But he also retained friendships with some of his former colleagues and during a meeting at a London hotel with two such men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, allegedly drank tea spiked with polonium-210. Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service named the pair as suspects in the killing, respectively in 2007 and 2012. Both men deny involvement and Russia has continued to refuse their extradition.
The polonium apparently left traces that enabled the Metropolitan Police to trace its progress around London. On the first morning of the public inquiry, Robin Tam QC, counsel to the inquiry, revealed that there may have been an earlier attempt to poison Litvinenko in October 2006 that failed. The inquiry will seek to reveal many other hitherto invisible trails and connections but key parts of the evidence will also be heard in secret. Britain may be more willing to risk Kremlin anger than it used to be, but details of Litvinenko’s later work as an informant to the British foreign intelligence service MI6 will not be publicly aired, and other matters deemed diplomatically sensitive will also be considered in private.
Despite these strictures, Litvinenko’s widow Marina, who campaigned for the inquiry, told broadcaster Sky News that she hopes the process will lead to the truth. The inquiry will weigh alternative theories: might Litvinenko have died at the hand of agencies other than the Russian state, such as organized criminals, Chechen separatists, Berezovsky’s associates, the British secret services or even by his own hand? Ben Emmerson, the counsel representing Marina Litvinenko, gave an opening speech to the inquiry forcefully rejecting these scenarios. “The startling truth, which is going to be revealed in public by the evidence in this inquiry,” he said, “is that a significant part of Russian organized crime is organized directly from the offices of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mafia state.” Marina Litvinenko told Sky News a key part of the truth is already clear: “I know my husband was killed, I saw how it happened. It was a torture. He died a long 23 days in front of me, in front of his son, in front of his friends.”
ISIS boasted about their control of Kobani last year but despite being expelled from the town they still hold land and resources
Kurdish fighters may have declared victory in a 134-day battle for Kobani and described it as the beginning of the end for the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) but the group continues to hold large parts of both countries and the countryside that surrounds Kobani.
The loss of Kobani is certainly a setback for the jihadists, who first targeted the strategic crossing point between Syria and Turkey last year, long before the town took on symbolic status as a focus of resistance against the seemingly unstoppable insurgents.
With the support of air strikes by the U.S. and its allies, and the backing of Iraqi Kurdish armored troops who joined the fight in November, the Syrian Kurds gnawed away at ISIS positions to secure the last occupied pockets of a shattered town whose civilian population mostly fled months ago.
The victory, like the four-month battle that preceded it, is more symbolic than strategic. That was reflected in a statement from the local Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia. “The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh [ISIS],” they declared. “It was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.”
As much as it was a symbolic victory for the Kurds and their allies, it was a symbolic defeat for ISIS, which has depended on the “propaganda of the deed” — a combination of lightning military victories and brutal terrorism — to rally recruits and to cow both its enemies and the civilian populations that have fallen under its sway.
In October, ISIS posted a video report from Kobani featuring John Cantlie, the British journalist being held by hostage by ISIS. The video boasts of ISIS’ control over Kobani and the failure of any of their opponents to dislodge them. On Tuesday, after the fall of Kobani, rather than boast about controlling a town, ISIS was reduced to threatening to kill a Jordanian pilot and a Japanese journalist that it holds.
It is debatable, however, whether the loss of Kobani marks the beginning of the end for the jihadists, who still hold wide swathes of territory and major cities in both Syria and neighboring Iraq.
“ISIS is still well-entrenched in the areas it controls and still has access to human and other resources,” says Dlawer Ala’aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil. “It’s not the beginning of the end in any schematic way.”
The positive news from the frontlines in Iraq is that ISIS has been contained and is no longer making territorial gains. Indeed it has lost ground to Kurdish and other Iraqi forces in marginal areas. “But ISIS is by no means reduced enough to retake the big cities,” Ala’aldeen tells TIME in a telephone interview from the Iraqi Kurdistan capital.
In the case of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that was captured by ISIS last June, “I don’t believe there is an imminent plan to liberate it because the Iraqis in general are not ready to organize the support of the local population,” he says.
There was also little prospect of Kurdish forces going it alone against ISIS in Mosul without first winning over the local Sunni Arab population. “It would be extremely difficult to recapture Mosul and, above all, to retain it,” Ala’aldeen says.
Until ISIS thrust itself into the international consciousness with the capture of Mosul, the declaration of a caliphate, and the widely diffused photos and videos of its beheadings, the threat it posed was largely overlooked.
When shortly afterwards ISIS began an offensive in northern Syria, the autonomous Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria sought vainly for outside support to save Kobani, which was virtually unknown and marked on most maps under its Arabic name of Ain al-Arab.
Turkish and Western governments were suspicious of the nature of the local Kurdish regime, headed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department.
By October, the game was almost up for Kobani’s embattled defenders when an 11th-hour intervention by the U.S. and its allies saw the first of a campaign of air strikes that helped slowly turn the tide against ISIS. Washington and its partners decided that the risks of intervention outweighed the prospect of another ISIS propaganda coup.
The PYD and its militia, along with other Kurdish groups, launched a massive and effective propaganda campaign that mirrored and contrasted with that of ISIS. The Kurds promoted their struggle as one of freedom and democracy and specifically highlighted the role of unveiled women fighters as a symbol of egalitarian secularity in the face of the jihadists’ perceived misogyny. “Save Kobani” became an internationally popularized slogan in the anti-ISIS struggle and dozens of Western volunteers traveled to join the Kurds.
It was not just about symbols. ISIS lost close on 1,000 fighters, having been forced to draft in reinforcements to try to avert defeat. The Kurds lost more than 300, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors events in Syria.
Kobani may not be the Kurdish Stalingrad, as some suggested at the height of the conflict. ISIS still hold the Kobani hinterland and the liberation of the town is not a strategic turning-point. But symbols are important in a war that will depend largely on undermining an image of ISIS invincibility which is popular among some of the local population and foreign sympathizers.