2005 Archive of Blog posts

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Mothers of the Disappeared

Syria abducted Lord-only-knows how many citizens off the streets of Beirut and out of the green valleys of Lebanon and carted them off to dungeons in the desert across the border. The Lebanese government, good slave that it is, has not whispered a word about this.

Yesterday the mothers of the Lebanese disappeared went down to parliament and demanded the release of their children. A large group of people from the Martyrs' Square tent-city joined them. A list of their demands was printed on a single piece of paper which they wanted to deliver in person.

The ministers of parliament left the building and completely ignored the demonstrators. They got in their cars with their drivers and bodyguards and tried to drive away.

The demonstrators blocked the road. All they wanted was to deliver a piece of paper in person to their own government.

MP Adnan Araqgi's driver nearly ran over a demonstrator named George Badra. Badra jumped out of the way and hit the car with a Lebanese flag.

Then hell broke loose.

Araqgi's bodyguard leapt out of the car and pointed a pistol at Badra. Seized by the briefest flicker of reasonableness, he fired shots into the air instead of into Badra. Then he pistol-whipped Badra on the back of his head. Badra fell unconcsious to the ground. Blood pooled on the pavement.

Demonstrators charged Araqgi's bodyguard and a full-blown clash exploded in the streets between the demonstrators, the military, and riot police. Citizens were beaten in the streets with clubs and the butts of Kalashnikovs. The fight lasted twenty minutes.

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(Photo courtesy of the Daily Star.)

One of the tent-city residents, who prefers to remain anonymous, saw what had happened and walked up to one of the military officers at the scene. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he told me he said to the officer's face. "You have blood on your hands in the service of a foreign country."

The officer looked at his feet. "You are right," he reportedly said. "You are right."

At night back at the tent-city I talked to one of the injured demonstrators - Hady Souid - right after he was released from the hospital. He was in pain, but also in good spirits. He shrugged off the fight, laughed at his injuries, then said "ouch" as he sat in a chair at one of the tent-city's computers.

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Tough people here in Lebanon. They grew up with bigger problems than these and are not easily cowed.

Michael Totten
Spirit of America Field Rep.

School Partners Expands to Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq is home to many cultures, ethnicities and religions. The North of Iraq- Kurdistan is rich with history that reaches back to the beginning of civilization. The diversity of its customs and cultures makes for a very exciting and interesting partnership with American Schools. Therefore, Spirit of America is thrilled about expanding its School Partners program into this rich area. Our children in the United States will have the chance, for the first time, to have direct contact with children in Iraq's Kurdistan and learn of their culture, habits, history and many diverse ancient religions. The picture above is from an Assyrian wedding which I had the fortune of attending. Note the beautiful colorful folklore dress! If you would like your children to learn more about other cultures Click here.

Vaclav Havel letter to Lebanese independence movement

Following is a letter to the Lebanese independence movement and opposition from The Honorable Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic and co-Chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger. 

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The letter was arranged by Ambassador Mark Palmer a Member of Spirit of America's Advisory Board.

13 April 2005

Dear friends,

Let me convey my greetings, solidarity and support to all of you who are pursuing, by peaceful and democratic means, goals similar to the ones that we in Central Europe set ourselves more than fifteen years ago: the path of freedom and independence, complete withdrawal of the occupying troops and renewal of the democratic system. What we consider important is that all this was achieved by peaceful demonstrations; by open, quiet but firm civic resistance.

Today, the Czech Republic is a member of the European Union, gradually establishing itself as an open, democratic and prosperous European country. As such, it simply cannot ignore the state of democracy anywhere in the world. We have followed with great sympathy how the Lebanese, scarred by fifteen years of bloody civil war and post-war troubles, have set out to peacefully work for their country's freedom and independence. What makes this especially important is that an open democratic Lebanese society might become a major source of inspiration for the whole sorely tried region.

The tragic death of your former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a patriot and statesman whom I knew and respected, was not in vain. Thanks to your resolve, discipline and confidence in the future, the death has triggered off a process that nobody will stop now. By peaceful civic action you have managed to overcome not only fear and indifference, but also differences of opinion and religion, and to join hands for a better future.

On behalf of all freedom-loving people in the Czech Republic, let me convey to you our best wishes and hopes for the fulfilment of Mr. Hariri's legacy, for the victory of the freedom and democracy that you are pursuing with such patience, courage and self-sacrifice. Try to never forget these days full of solidarity, hope and common quest for freedom and truth.

Yours,

(Signed) Václav Havel

Shipment of gifts for Iraqi children distributed

Thanks to the help of the few, the proud, the United States Marines, the first shipment for 2005 of items for our Gifts for Iraqi Children project has arrived in Iraq to put smiles on the faces of local children and to encourage positive relations between US soldiers and local citizens.

Thanks to all the Marines in 2nd MarDiv who worked to transport, unload and distribute the items to the kids, your generous donations are making a difference. What is especially impressive is that this group of Marines have only been in-country a few short weeks and already they are working hard to improve the lives of the people where they serve.

Our heartfelt thanks to all of you who contributed to this project, including Timex, Champion and Elan-Polo. Remember, this is just the first shipment so look for more good news stories to come.

Why Lebanon Matters

Lebanon may be the only place in the world where you can buy a necklace with a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent moon fused together as one. What other country would even think of making something like this? I've never seen one before. But now I own two.

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Lebanon is approximately 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim - that is if you count the Druze as Muslims, something they themselves don't do. Most people who live here - but sadly not all - have had enough of hatred and sectarian violence. They desperately want to bury the past. They spent the last 15 years learning to tolerate one another without going on rampages. Now they are moving beyond mere tolerance and are learning to like each other. It's so easy to break a truce. Much harder to break a friendship.

Beirut may not be the only place in the world where you can find a church and a mosque right next to each other. But it's certainly a more common sight here than anywhere else. No other country has so Christians and Muslims living in the same place that you'll regularly hear both Christian church bells and the muezzin's call to Muslim prayer downtown at the same time.

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It's important to understand that the democratic opposition in this country not only wants Syria out, democracy in, and the remaining militias (Hezbollah and Amal) disarmed. Just as urgently they want to bury tribalism and hatred forever.

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Hate is and has been Lebanon's weapon of mass destruction. That weapon was not a gun pointing outward, but a suicide-bomber's belt strapped around Lebanon's very own waist.

Some of the tent-city residents have told me their goals are not only national. The goals of some of them (but not all of them) also are global. They truly believe they are resolving the clash of civilizations here in Beirut by proving that Christian and Islamic civilizations can co-exist in peace and in friendship. Lebanon has long been a bridge between East and West. In the future it may play the crucial role of a peace broker.

But it is not going to work if Lebanon cannot become a mature liberal democracy. Dictatorships notoriously use divide-and-rule tactics to pit their enemies against one another. Syria has been playing that game inside Lebanon - and on the world stage - for a long time. Terrorism is only one of the sinister byproducts of that. War is another.

Lebanon's civil war drew in four foreign powers: Syria, Iran, Israel, and the United States. Those four powers are still simmering in a state of cold war today. Naturally enough, the two that are ruled by dictatorships - Syria and Iran - are also state sponsors of terrorism.

A victory by Lebanon's democratic opposition will deliver a blow against Syria, a blow against Iran's Hezbollah proxy, a blow against dictatorship, a blow against terrorism, and a blow against hate. I've said it before and I'll say it again: These people are fighting not only for themselves and for their own country, but - sometimes consciously and sometimes not - on my behalf and for my country too.

Michael Totten
Spirit of America Field Rep.

Canvassing the Mountain

It was hot as a steambath in Beirut at 9:00 in the morning. Mount Lebanon and the Chouf range, which normally dominate the skyline over the city, were veiled by the thick sticky air.

I hopped in a car with Charles and Alaa (one a Maronite Christian, the other a Druze) and we drove out of Beirut and into the mountains to continue the week-long village campaign. Flyers, stickers, and mock ballots are being distributed to every single city and village in Lebanon. The tent-city activists are asking people to vote on whether or not they want to vote in a free and fair election on time in May.

Charles was born in Lebanon and lived in Sydney, Australia for 13 years. He speaks English - and perhaps even Arabic - with a Down Under accent. "Australia is a part of me now," he said. "But it's good to be home. I've never felt so much at home here in Lebanon as I do now."

Lebanese flags rippled in the wind out the windows of the car. Alaa played Arabic music at full blast on the CD player. A necklace with a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent fused together - Lebanon's unofficial new symbol of national unity - hung from the rearview mirror.

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"I'm a Christian at heart when I'm in my house," Charles said. "But when I'm outside I am first Lebanese. During the war we Christians and Druze fought each other. But looks at us now." He gestured at Alaa.

Alaa continued for Charles. "Now we're driving around in the same car to build a new Lebanon."

You have to drive up into the mountains for 45 minutes before you see any actual nature. One dense city is stacked on top of another for several thousand feet of elevation. When you finally break out of the climbing urban sprawl, villages are still spaced closely together on the sides of the mountains. "Villages" isn't even the right word, not really. These places are small clusters of apartment towers with shops at street level. Rural Lebanon looks and feels urban - and modern. They even have Starbucks up there.

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The air was cool, a refreshing change from the sauna below down at sea level. Small leftovers of snow clung for dear life on the highest peaks. The pace of human activity was dramatically reduced. I had a feeling few foreigners went up into the villages. There were no tourist hotels or resorts.

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I felt a bit cautious when I stepped out of the car with Alaa and Charles. How well would an American - even one who is only observing - be received when tagging along on a subversive political campaign?

As it turned out, I did not need to worry. I kept my distance and didn't actively participate in any campaigning. Some people ignored me. Others walked up to shake my hand and asked in the friendliest possible tone of voice where I was from. No one seemed to think it the least bit unusual that an American with a notepad and a camera was tagging along. If they did, they kept their feelings well to themselves. 

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We went to a medical school and a hospital in one of the "villages." When the students saw us getting out of the car with a ballot box, flags, and Independence '05 stickers they mobbed us. Every single person wanted to write his or her name on a ballot and stick it in the box.

"Doesn't anyone in these towns oppose what you're doing?" I asked Charles.

"Not this time," he said. "We're not asking people to vote for the opposition. We're asking them to vote on whether or not they want to vote in a free and on-time election. They all want to vote whether they'll back our candidates or not."

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It's a clever strategy, really. Even those who approve of the Syrian occupation (and yes, they do exist) support the opposition on at least this one point - free and fair elections must be held, and they must be held on time. Democratic culture is far deeper and more widespread in Lebanon that it appears from outside the country. There isn't much of an argument here about whether or not Lebanon should be a democracy. The arguments are over whether Lebanese democracy should be overseen by Syria (ahem), whether Hezbollah should be disarmed, whether Israel is an enemy, whether Lebanon is a united country or a divided country of factions, whether the so-called "war generation" should still be empowered or not, along with a whole range of smaller points of contention. But there is no serious argument about whether Lebanon should be a democracy or a dictatorship.

We went to the administrator's office at the hospital. Charles and Alaa wanted to ask if they could leave their ballot box in the waiting room.

"Come in, come in," the administrator said in perfect English.

He sat us down in soft black leather chairs.

"What do you want to drink?" he said.

"Nothing," I said. "I'm fine."

"I am the physician here," he said. "And I say you are not fine."

"In that case I'll have a coffee, please.

" A nurse brought me a small cup of strong Arabic coffee that tasted vaguely of oranges.

"The Syrians don't understand this country," the administrator said. "Nobody understands this country. We want democracy here. We want to put an end to the past. They can't just go around killing people. We're not going to put up with it anymore. The Syrians thought they could get away with it forever and they were wrong."

Of course he gave Alaa and Charles permission to leave the ballot box in the waiting room. Patients, hospital employees, doctors, nurses, and medical school students all lined up to put their signature on a ballot and drop it in the box. No one shied away from the voting. Everyone grinned with satisfaction when they were finished.

A TV in the corner with the sound turned off showed a live news broadcast from downtown Beirut. Demonstrators marched through the streets carrying Lebanese national flags. Soldiers armed with machine guns watched from the sidelines. It seemed so far away from this untroubled mountain village with its cool air, its dramatic vistas, and its peaceful ways. But it was not far at all. It was only 45 minutes downhill.

Charles, Alaa, and I climbed in the car and headed back down to ground zero.

Michael Totten
Spirit of America Field Rep.

Have you hugged a volunteer today?

As we come to the close of National Volunteer week, the team at SoA would be remiss if we didn't extend a big "THANK YOU!" to all of the loyal volunteers who help to make our mission a success. Thank you for donating your time, resources and energy to our projects and the people we support. We wouldn't be where we are today without you.

Sulaimniyah Schools participate in School Partners Program

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