June 17, 2014

Brave Irish historian demands dignity for 796 dead babies of Tuam


Ireland is once more in a mess. After numerous scandals revolving around revelations on abhorrent conditions in orphanages, industrial schools and similar institutions have rocked the Irish society in the last decades – with a hard to read Ryan Report only out in 2009 – new discoveries two weeks ago on 796 children who died in a mother-and-baby-homes in Tuam without getting a proper burial have caused again ripples that by now turned into huge waves. The Irish government, reluctant at first, has decided to establish a full scale investigation into not only this case but all similar cases of mother-and-baby-homes in Ireland, and it is feared that discoveries made there might bring even more shocking news.

The mother-and-baby-homes had the concept of locking away young girls who had become pregnant without being married. Society regarded them, not least due to the harsh teaching of the Catholic Church, as sinful and a shame to their families. For this reason such 'fallen' women were literally dumped by their families at mother-and-baby-homes run by religious Orders, where the girls were hidden away from the curious looks of the neighbours, who were told the girls had gone overseas.

In the homes, the girls, who were not permitted to leave the premises, were kept like slaves, working hard without any pay. They gave birth there, and almost always had to give up their children a year later for forced adoption. Something that the sisters seemed to have made a lucrative trade of, selling the babies off to as far as America, promoting them like a commodity to prospective buyers, as a letter by a Reverend Mother of Roscrea's Sean Ross Abbey shows. The dealings of the nuns was nothing short of human trafficking, consented by society and families who seemed to care less what became of these so called 'illegitimate' children.

Harrowing accounts of maltreatment in these mother-and-baby-homes have come up, of the authoritarian rule by the nuns – in the case of Tuam the Sisters of Bon Secours – and how they deliberately inflicted pain and humiliation on the fallen girls to punish them for their sin. Long times of complete silence or prayers were demanded from them while at the same time doing hard labour in the house or in the gardens. Some of these girls were as young as 15 years and had no understanding of sexuality or the concept of pregnancies that resulted from something where the boy had told them: "Don't worry, it's ok." When however they became pregnant, the boys turned their backs on them, their families discarded them and the nuns had a free hand to punish them in every way they wanted. It is reported that painkillers during birth were deliberately refused so that the women would feel the pain of the sin they had committed. Other witnesses report that babies, when in need of food, were by order of the nuns breast-fed by other women while the original mothers had to scrub floors somewhere else in the building. Another attempt to humiliate and punish the girls for what a deeply conservative society and a Church regarding sex before marriage a crime deemed to be their unforgivable sins.

At the same time, the young men who had had their fun and were the root problem of all this went unharmed and retained their respectable lives in their families.

A story of skeletons

The cause for all this to surface now, decades after these horrific conditions were forced upon 'fallen' girls and their offspring, is the determination of a local historian from Tuam, a small town north of Galway on the west coast of Ireland. Catherine Corless, who, as she herself says, has always led a quiet secluded life, never anticipated that her persistency on getting to know the truth behind the fate of children who died in Tuam would ever lead to a world-wide media storm and a governmental investigation.

It was hearing a story back from 1975 that led her on her path of research. At the times two young boys from Tuam had played on the grounds behind the – by then torn down – mother-and-baby-home of the Bon Secours Sisters, had as so often hopped over the wall to play in a small patch of grass, when they discovered concrete slabs that seemed to hide a secret. As the slabs were broken, the inquisitive boys did their best to push them aside – and froze. Beneath them, in a pit of approximately 3 metres depth, skulls and bones of little children were chaotically piled up right to the top. Scared, as eleven old ones would be at such a sight, they ran off and informed their parents. Other children came to check what the fuss was about, and in the end, the two boys, now grown men and still living in Tuam, report, a priest from the Parish came and held mass over the open pit. Then the slabs were put back in place and no one ever spoke about it anymore.

When local historian Catherine Corless heard this story, at the time not knowing the two boys were still around as grown men to be interviewed on this, she wanted to find out the truth behind the pit "filled to the brim with bones". She contacted the local registrar and asked how many children had died in that mother-and-baby-home of the Bon Secours Sisters, that existed from 1925 to 1961, when it was finally shut down, later bulldozed and replaced by a housing estate now on its grounds.

The registrar needed a week to check up on Catherine Corless' request, but the news she had when she came back for her, was a shock. Almost 800 children had died in the care of the nuns of the Bon Secours Sisters in the time from 1925 to 1961, meaning in average one child died in the home almost every two weeks throughout its existence.

The investigations

This in itself disturbing news, Corless however wanted to know more. She wanted to research the reasons for such a high number of deaths and she wanted to know where these 796 recorded children had been officially buried, seeing that there was a pit behind the home filled with children's skeletons. She asked for copies of the death certificates to these children and learned that each official copy meant a fee of € 4. "Do you really want them all?" the registrar inquired doubtfully.

Corless did. It took her two years until finally, in September 2013, she had spend a considerable sum of money but held all 796 death certificates to the – today on social media dubbed – #tuambabies in her hand.

The reading was hard to take. Most of the often only months old babies had died of infectious diseases, others were said to have been 'idiots' or 'mentally defective' or born with disabilities in numbers, that seemed dubiously high. Besides that, the death certificates listed measles, mumps and other illnesses, that, given the cramped space the children were subjected to, spread like wildfires in the home and led to horrible, painful deaths. A local health board inspection report from April 1947 described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs” leading to impressions of malnutrition, which even given the hard times Ireland had been through, could only be considered gross neglect by the nuns. After all they received considerable amounts of payments from the Irish state per child in addition to the lucrative income achieved through selling the babies off later to adopting parents. This malnutrition had no doubt a disturbing impact on the immune system of the babies and in itself needed urgent research.

All in all the causes for deaths made for a disturbing read. Yet the most troubling question of all remained: Where were these 796 dead children?

Corless set out to the Tuam graveyard, situated conveniently across the road from the plot, where in former times the Bon Secours Sisters home was situated. She asked to see the cemetery register and compared all names at the given times to the 796 names she had with her. To no avail. None of the babies had been buried there. Catherine Corless is still bitter about this.

"These babies were not buried in the main Tuam graveyard across the road, where they should have been buried in an angels plot in consecrated ground. Why? - They were just illegitimate babies.  Illegitimate children don't matter, do they?"

But the historian did not give up easily. With her list of dead babies she travelled around the region, visiting many graveyards around Tuam in other villages, hoping to find something there. But at the end she had to accept that, but for one boy who she could trace to having been laid to rest in a families plot, 796 babies of the Bon Secours Sisters had vanished without a trace of a decent, proper burial anywhere.

The Archbishop apologises

In January 2014 Catherine Corless wrote an essay about her findings on her Facebook page. She was so engaged with this case by now that she searched for old maps of the Bon Secours Sisters home, only to find that the place, where the boys had discovered the children's remains, was used as a septic tank by a workhouse originally located there and then still in the early years of the home. When public sewage came to Tuam in the late 1930s, the septic pit, just behind the grounds of the home, was no longer needed. Placing the old maps over the current ones shows that the area of the old septic tank was where the skulls and bones of the children had been discovered in 1975 by the two boys.

The findings were reported by local newspapers without stirring any public reaction. Something, that still puzzles the historian to this day. Only when the Irish Mail on Sunday picked up the story at the end of May, did heads shoot up and people started to take notice. And before Corless knew what was happening, the story made headlines all over the world and had been published more than 2000 times in just over a week.

The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, responded swiftly with a strong statement, the honesty of which Corless finds "admirable".
"I am horrified and saddened to hear of the large number of deceased children involved and this points to a time of great suffering and pain for the little ones and their mothers." Neary said.
 "I can only begin to imagine the huge emotional wrench which the mothers suffered in giving up their babies for adoption or by witnessing their death. Many of these young vulnerable women would already have been rejected by their families. The pain and brokenness which they endured is beyond our capacity to understand. It is simply too difficult to comprehend their helplessness and suffering as they watched their beloved child die."
Neary welcomed the decision of the government to establish an investigation about the fate of the Home Babies in Tuam and noted that, "regardless of the time lapse involved this is a matter of great public concern which ought to be acted upon urgently."

The Archbishop pointed out that as the diocese did not have any involvement in the running of the home in Tuam it did not have any material relating to it in its archives but went on to say: "While the Archdiocese of Tuam will cooperate fully nonetheless there exists a clear moral imperative on the Bon Secours Sisters in this case to act upon their responsibilities in the interests of the common good."

In accordance with the statement of the Bishop the archivist of the Archdiocese of Tuam has tried to find anything relating to the Babies Home that was run by the religious order of the Bon Secours Sisters. To little avail, as Fr. Fintan Monahan, Secretary to the Archbishop, points out.

"In our archives - the only thing we have in my knowledge is a letter from the head of the Bon Secours asking the Bishop of the time to open a separate foundation which turned out to be the Grove Hospital in Tuam. That hospital closed down over 10 years ago to the sadness and disappointment of Tuam people. The only other item we have in the Tuam Parish that might be of assistance to the commission is the baptism register and the death register."

So far at least, no notes have been found by the priest who back in 1975 was said to have held mass over the opened pit containing unknown children's remains. "I have asked the older priests and they genuinely have no knowledge of this as the priests that ministered in Tuam then are now deceased." says Fr. Monahan, ensuring once more that the Archdiocese of Tuam will assist the governmental investigation in all points "and support the memorial committee in whatever way we can."

The Archbishop of Dublin, who is also the Primate of Ireland, put out a statement demanding a full investigation into all mother-and-baby-homes, as in his opinion "there's no point" in just investigation Tuam. "It probably happened in other mother-and-baby homes around the country,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said, acknowledging that "there was collusion between church and State institutions.” The Archbishop added: "We need to investigate exactly what happened... to try to identify the areas of culture that were there, and to make sure they’re all gone."

A few days later Archbishop Neary on his part directly addressed the victims:
"As a minister of the church, I apologise to the people who are hurt and have suffered and who are pained by this. We must think about them at this time. This is a time for transparency. Our diocese is committed to transparency and for that reason, all who have been involved in the management of those homes throughout the country have a responsibility to contribute to the inquiry and ensure that the truth comes out."
The reaction of the Bon Secours Sisters to the revelations so far however have been limited. In a statement the Sisters had said that they welcome an investigation into the matter without letting out, what their position was on the allegations. A little later however, when the media storm grew in intensity, the Bon Secours Sisters made use of one of the best PR firms of Ireland only to let journalists know that from now on the Sisters would not say anything anymore.

A troubling reaction seeing that the Bon Secours Sisters, in whose home these 796 children died without a burial recorded anywhere, have a lot to explain. Credible testimonies have been given to Catherine Corless by mothers who gave birth in the Tuam Homes who state that their babies have been baptised by the local Priest when he came by for holding daily mass at the Home each morning at 7 a.m. The mothers, as they recounted, were not allowed to attend the baptising of their own children, another disturbing aspect of the inexcusable way the nuns treated the 'fallen' women. No governmental inquiry would be needed for the Sisters of Bon Secours to open up on this dark chapter of their own Homes and explain this inexplicable treatment of young mothers during the sacred act of baptising of their children. All it would take is the courage and decency to face the past, in order to help those that were victimised to find healing after all they have been through.

The rejected Home Babies

From "Christ's life in us. Workbook." Dublin: CJ Fallon, 1970s
For Catherine Corless, finding the truth and restoring the dignity of those who perished in the home with no tombstone to their name has become a matter of huge importance. As a child she herself had been in school with children from the home, called by all the Home Babies and subjected to maltreatment and rejection. The Home Babies were considered unclean and fruits of sin. In school they had to sit separately in class and had to leave early when school was over to make sure they would not mingle with the decent children who were encouraged by the nuns not to be nice to the outcasts.

Corless had played a trick once on one of the Home Baby girls, offering her a little stone wrapped in candy paper. She had seen this done by a friend of her and found the reaction of the poor girl on discovering she had been fooled funny at the time. The idea that that girl would never have seen a kindness in her life and the unfairness of the trick haunts her to the day. “Years after I asked myself what did I do to that poor little girl that never saw a sweet? That has stuck with me all my life. A part of me wants to make up to them.”

For this she has gone to great lengths, has been tireless in her research and persistent in trying to find out the truth. She even build a model of the Bon Secours Sisters home using the old plans of the workhouse she had found.

"Building the model kept my mind focused on the mother-and-baby-home and I felt that it might help those who spent time there to see and remember and perhaps find a healing of some sort," says Corless.



The model shows where the mothers dropped off their unfortunate girls in the front house, handing them over to a stern Reverend Mother who would hold them in her possession and at her continued disposal from now on. The horrific insults and accusations hurled at those poor girls on such occasion one can only imagine.

For all this to be known, the historian made huge personal contributions, especially in her attempt to obtain all the records of the 796 dead children. The Irish state should reimburse Catherine Corless for her expenses. Had it not been for her  willingness to invest such a lot of private money and time, Ireland would not know what it knows know and urgently needed to know about. Especially as the mother-and-baby-home in Tuam was only one of many. And even the Archbishop of Dublin fears that this is only the beginning to more gruesome discoveries.

A story of the battle of the Faiths

Not everyone naturally is pleased about the revelations of the historian in Tuam. Denialists in the Church, the media and on social media were quick to refute all findings, denying such atrocities ever happened. Some, calling themselves "Catholic militant" refused to acknowledge the existence of dead babies in the pit or took great efforts to explain that the pit was a burial ground as used in medieval times and not, what the maps showed in fact, a septic tank. Some called it a 'hoax' or spoke of a fake story invented to tarnish the image of the Catholic Church.

The story of the 796 vanished Tuam babies is after all also a story of the not yet buried war of Faiths in Ireland and a troubled relationship with the British. Having gained independence in 1922, everything connected with the former colonial power, including their Protestant belief, was strictly rejected. Many girls were taken up in the homes so to ensure they would not leave for England, while others were brought back from Protestant homes in England under great troubles to make sure they remained in the realm of Catholicism. The war of beliefs over which church is the right one, ignoring the valid question if God cared for such quarrels, has been waging ever since, and even the Ireland of today, having officially a non-religious government, still shows the rift when emotions run high on the comment section of newspapers or on social media where the Catholic Church is defended blindly despite all the scathing reports of the past, or the call for finally separating the Church from the state can be heard loud and clear.

After all, since the Irish Constitution of 1937, the draft of which the then government send twice to the Vatican for reviewing, "the State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens", a right that is not reserved for the Protestant Church seen as closely connected with the former colonial ruler. And so the battle wages on with every new finding from the past shedding a light on the dubious system of the state paying the Catholic Church to put up institutions, including the mother-baby-homes, where the 'fallen', shameful girls of society could be put away and out of view. The one – the state representing the society – paid and the other – the Catholic Church – offered gladly to do the job. Both will now once again need to come to terms with their horrible past and their collusion on any wrongdoings against children where welfare of the vulnerable should have been the dutiful concern for the parties involved.

The Archbishops with their strong worded statements and demands for full investigations they promise to be part of have set the tone for how the Catholic Church of Ireland has to deal with this new crisis. Stepping back from this would be a great failure. As Archbishop Martin pointed out in response to earlier scandals already in 2009: "There is always a price to pay for not responding. The church will have to pay that price in terms of its credibility. The first thing the church has to do is to move out of any mode of denial." What the denialists in contrast don't see is that with their militancy denying even the facts that are proven they do damage to the very Church they pretend to protect.

Little bodies stacked in shelves

In the meantime more revelations have come up. A media company financed a subsurface radar examination of the plot where the boys said they had found the skeletons in a pit. The results showed two 'anomalies' in the ground of that area – a rectangular shaped plot A and a plot B resembling the former septic tank. At the same time a new witness came forward supporting Catherine Corless and her research.

Mary Moriarty, who lives close to the area, told an Irish reporter that in the mid-70s a child had played with a children's skull and, startled, she had gone to investigate the matter with her neighbours. On crossing the area that contains the two anomalies, the ground over todays plot A suddenly caved in and allowed her to enter what she describes a huge vault with shelves stacked from bottom to top with over 100 children's bodies wrapped in clothes. The witness recalled the conversation afterwards with a woman in her late 70s, called Julia Devaney, who said that she had worked at the Bon Secours Sisters home at the time and repeatedly had helped the nuns carry dead babies through a tunnel to this vault.

Such a tunnel, Catherine Corless had found out in her research, had indeed been build. The Co. Galway Homes and Home Assistance Committee had decided to prepare it as a shelter in case of possible air raids, as was reported by the Tuam Herald in July 1940. The story of Mary Moriarty seemed to make sense against this background, presenting not only for the former septic tank, found as plot B in the subsurface radar examination, but now in addition also for the marked plot A an explanation and a story of a grim discovery of babies' bodies.

How many children indeed are buried in these two places and if all 796 babies who have no burial record are to be found here, only an excavation could establish. As things stand, there are testimonies of witnesses so far and subsurface radar results but no view of the skeletons yet, giving those who want to fight or defend the Catholic Church enough room for heated arguments and accusations in public forums, often coldly ignoring the fate of the children who lost their lives in the Tuam mother-and-baby-home. 

She won't give up

To Catherine Corless the battle of the Faiths and their followers matters little. She demands justice and dignity for the 796 children that died and simply vanished. "All that matters is the truth", the undeterred historian says. "796 children must be accounted for." Surely, she argues, the children had a right to a proper burial, to dignity and respect. In her opinion, the fact that they vanished without an official trace of having been laid to rest is an inexcusable failure of the nuns of the Order of Bon Secours, the Catholic Church and the conservative society of Ireland that needs to be fully investigated. And before anyone should get any doubts on her determination, she insists: "I will not give up on them."

It is not hard to see, the babies of Tuam, wherever they might be buried, have finally in death found a friend they clearly didn't have in their short, suffering life. It can only be hoped that the governmental investigation into the fate of those that perished in mother-and-baby-homes will finally uncover the full truth about sadly yet another dark chapter of Ireland's haunting past. If so, Ireland has no one to thank but a stubborn local historian from Tuam who just wouldn't give up.

May 01, 2014

Why Do The Good Die Young? - R.I.P. Bassem Sabry

Busy with a strenuous move of both house and offices this last week and thanks to a telephone company that mucked up, I was left without both phone and internet. Cell phone connection is slow, so surfing social media sites is not exactly tempting in the middle of such an endeavour. It is for this reason that I had not been on twitter for days when last night I felt a calling that there was something urgent I was missing. Today I could no longer take it and took  the enduring cellphone road to twitter – only to read the shocking news, that Bassem Sabry had died on Tuesday at the age of 31 years and was buried yesterday evening in Cairo. It was a blow. The idea that he won't be around anymore, that I won't see him on my twitter timeline or read his well phrased thoughts in articles ever again, is hard to bear. The devastating side to the word death is the forever. It is this which we cannot take.

I can easily think of how, whenever I applauded him for some excellent writing, he always reacted with thankful surprise, as if he could not believe that anyone could be so impressed by his words. I had yet to see vanity in Bassem Sabry. And I remember when under SCAF's transitional rule that hideous video was published, showing an alleged foreign spy enter a café in Cairo only to be embraced by smiling young Egyptians who innocently fell for his evil tricks – it was Bassem who publicly pointed out that this piece of revolting propaganda was already flawed in that no Egyptian would warmly embrace a stranger like that in a café. "We Egyptians just aren't that friendly, it's a fact", Bassem said. When it came to being honest about Egypt and the Egyptian way, Bassem was the one. My parody of that video he found so amusing, that he asked for permission to put it up on his blog, which he did. He had humour and the ability to accept that one should laugh about oneself too, when necessary.

All these are just bits of memories that linger in the mind and heart but won't alter the fact that he is gone. Egypt has lost a voice of reason, of modesty and responsible contemplation and a great political analyst above all. In times of incredible division and polarisation, Bassem Sabry was a comfort to listen to. As many others, he became less vocal on twitter in the last months, perhaps needing time of quietness amidst the growing insanity, but he became more active again in the last weeks. And his last tweet two days ago was the call to help a girl who was in need of a blood donation.

Now he himself is gone and sorely missed by those who liked and loved him. And while hardly any death in Egypt in the last years – and there were many – ever seemed to make sense, his death seems to be the most senseless of all.

What strikes me heavily, besides trying to come to terms with his irrevocable disappearance, is the age at which he died. 31 years is horrifically young to go and inexcusably unfair to a man who had so much to give, who was willing to invest so much in making a human existence worthwhile. As always the unanswered questions arise: Why does life deal such blows? Why is hope so often crushed? Why do the good die young but the tyrants are never struck by lightning? Is it really too much to ask of life to just once reverse the order and let those who are evil at heart go early and leave us the ones we so badly need to make this world a better place?

Apparently so. Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, who killed his people in the tens of thousands, is spilling his hate still at 90. Bassem Sabry, who never hurt a soul, had to die at 31. If ever we had been in doubt if there was injustice in life, here's a new update. Thanks very much.

So what is left is devastation, loss of hope, fatalism. All the things Bassem would not have wanted us to have. His way, while not denying the negative realities, was optimism. The unshaken determination and belief that Egypt would one day have a future worth experiencing, worth living, and that the road was thorny and full of unexpected backlashes but needed to be walked to finally one day reach a better life for all.

His legacy

When the good die young, our hopes seem to crumble. For the young are the future, the chance for progress, the inspiration for a change for the better. When Bassem Sabry was laid to rest yesterday, to many of those who attended his funeral it must have felt as if hope and future of Egypt received one more heavy blow and died with him. So many wonderful people Egypt so badly needs for her future were either killed or jailed or left the country in the last three years. With such a brain drain, who is still left to do the job? When a voice like that of Bassem Sabry falls silent too, it might feel as if no hope is left anymore.

If Bassem could talk now, I am sure he would tell us that he did not want to go this early. But at the same time he would quickly pass over his personal feelings on this and tell us that losing hope is the last thing that should be on everyone's mind because of his demise. After all – he might have left, but his thoughts haven't. His words are still there to read, his ideas for a better future of Egypt still valid and to be found, his voice of reason still carries on and was not silenced by his death. Would Egypt lose hope now and believe that he was silenced forever, it would say unfavourable things about how serious we took him when we read his words. How can we believe they don't exist anymore? How could we not see that his thoughts, the tools for a better future, are still within our reach? No, Bassem has left, his way hasn't. He left us his legacy of 31 years to hold on to, and hold on we should. The point is not that he died. The point is that he lived. In just mourning his loss we might forget the blessings he gave while he was around. There is so much to remember, so much to think about, so much to contemplate. He left more than one could ask for in such a short time of life. He did not go. His body did. His spirit didn't. If Egypt wants it, it is still there to have and to hold and to make the best of it, as Bassem would have earnestly wanted.

As H. A. Hellyer put it in his very personal tribute to his friend: "If you want to honor his memory, I suggest you do what he did: Start building something beautiful and just put the hate away."

Bassem would have loved this.

Come, stop the mourning. And take the cue.

March 05, 2014

The Bitter Truth about Reeva Steenkamp's Death

For 13 months I have refrained from voicing any public opinion or passing judgement on the killing in South Africa of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. As is known, he shot his girlfriend around 3 a.m. on the morning of Valentine's Day 2013 with four bullets fired at a toilet door behind which she had been. Three of the four bullets hit her and led to her death.

From the morning of February 14 when the news broke that the famous 'blade-runner' had killed his girlfriend, a well known model and reality TV celebrity of her own in South Africa, the speculations about what happened in the night at the Silver Woods Estate where Pistorius has his house went wild. Had he shot her deliberately after a quarrel or, as he described it, had there been a terrible mistake on his part? Pistorius gave a statement to the effect that he had thought there was an intruder in his bathroom, had grabbed for his gun, which he always has at his bedside, went to the bathroom, panicked and shot at the door while believing his girlfriend Reeva was lying in bed sleeping.

The story, with which Pistorius managed to achieve bail and thus freedom, sounded incredulous for many reasons, yet as a jurist I know that only facts laid down in proven evidence can lead to truth and justice needed in a criminal case. And for that reason I thought it wise to not publicly voice my opinion on his version of the story but wait for the trial to show what really might have happened that night between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.

Two days have now gone into the long awaited trial that is taking place in Pretoria's High Court, and the two days with three witnesses testifying to what they heard that night have been nothing less than a shock. For never would I have thought that the hard to bear truth of that night would be exposed so quickly in what has been planned to be a several weeks long trial.

Pistorius account of the night

The story Pistorius had almost immediately told to the police after his arrest had been that he had woken up and gotten out of bed to close the sliding glass balcony doors. It was then – in pitch darkness of the bedroom as he says – that he had heard noises from the bathroom area, had – again in total darkness – grabbed his gun next to his bed, had run on his stumps to the bathroom, had felt vulnerable as he did not have his blades attached, and for that reason started to fire at the toilet door, not enquiring who was behind it. Since it had been, according to his account, so dark in the bedroom, he could not see if his girlfriend was lying in bed but simply took it for granted that she was sleeping and thus not expecting it to be her behind the toilet door. Killing her was thus not intended and when, after the shots were fired, he called out to her in bed and got no reaction he realised it must be her in the toilet, got a baseball bat and bashed in the locked door to find Reeva seriously wounded. He then screamed for help, called security, family and a friend and carried his girlfriend downstairs to the hall where she died. The police were on the scene shortly after and the known events took their course.

There were many aspects of this story that seemed hard to believe.

It had to be noted with surprise that while Pistorius – living in a gated community with almost zero crime incidents – said he thought there was an intruder in his bathroom and because he was on his stumps felt vulnerable and in panic shot at the toilet door, the same man that so lost his head in the fear of a possible intruder slept peacefully without closing the sliding glass doors of his balcony. After all he had said he had gotten out of bed to shut them before allegedly hearing a noise.

The argument of Pistorius that South Africa was a troubled country with many burglaries – "I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering the home with a view to commit crime, including violent crime." – which according to him explained his irrational, fear-stricken, immediate shooting reaction, seemed odd at best coming from a man who, instilled with such fear, at the same time saw no problem in sleeping with the balcony wide open – which he hardly would have done had he truly been afraid of burglars climbing into his home.

The narrative that in the pitch darkness of the bedroom he never once thought of waking and alerting his girlfriend to the alleged intruder, and thus the imminent danger lurking only metres away in the bathroom, again was hard to take.

The door leading to the stairways to the hall, down which, after the shooting, Pistorius immediately carried the dying Reeva, was just adjacent to the bed. Any man with normal reactions on apparently hearing an intruder in the bathroom would have immediately and quietly woken up his girlfriend, probably holding his hand over her mouth so she would not make any noise, would have whispered to her that there was an intruder in the bathroom and told her to silently slip out the door down to the hall and call security and police. Only then, after knowing the girlfriend to be out and safe, would any normal person have taken the gun and walked off to the bathroom area, normally not to randomly shoot at a closed door not knowing who was behind it and what injuries such a shooting could cause, but to ward off the apparent intruder until the police would arrive.

After all, there was only the one door as exit out of the toilet cubicle. The intruder could not have stepped into the bathroom area other than by opening that door. Covering it with a loaded gun and voicing the willingness to make use of it should the intruder dare to open the door would have been a unfailing safe way to keep the intruder at bay until the upcoming arrest by the arriving police.

None of this, according to Pistorius account, however happened. Not one of these normal reactions one would have expected were part of his story. Instead he said he let Reeva continue sleeping while walking on his stumps with his gun to the bathroom area where he immediately opened fire at the locked toilet door – as he felt so vulnerable on his stumps that he lost his head.

What, besides everything else, one wondered at the time, kept him from putting on his blades before tackling an unknown, supposedly deadly dangerous intruder, when being on stumps scared him so massively? Something he surely must have known after decades of living with this disability?

Pistorius, confronted with interpretations of what really might have happened that night, rejected that any argument between him and Reeva had preceded the shooting. The blade-runner had a reputation of turning aggressive at times, both in speech and with guns, so the accusation of the prosecution ran that Pistorius and Reeva had quarrelled that night, that Pistorius had run into a temper and grabbed for his gun, that Reeva had fled into the bathroom and locked herself in the toilet cubicle at which Pistorius in rage then shot, killing her with three bullets to her side, her shoulder and her head.

Pistorius denied that anything like this had happened. Yet next to the fact that his version to the story seemed hardly believable, there were other questions arising to which he could not give a satisfactory answer. Because in the bathroom on the floor, in front of the shower next to the toilet door, the cell phones both of Reeva and him were found lying, when the police entered the house.

Why would Reeva, had she, as Pistorius alleged, gone to the toilet at night, have taken her cell phone with her and then dumped it on the bathroom floor? At 3 a.m. in the morning? And why, if no quarrel or fight had taken place, had his phone too fallen to the floor?

It remains one of the unsolved questions so far what those cell phones were doing on the bathroom floor as it also still has to be seen whether the bullet trajectories will show if Pistorius indeed was on his stumps when shooting – which would have led to the bullets going up into the toilet door – or, as the prosecution believes was in fact on his blades – which would have led to the bullets going down into the toilet door. These questions the trial on the second day has not tackled yet. But after what one has had to listen to in these two days makes these questions almost irrelevant.

The witness testimonies that crush Pistorius' story

On day one of the trial, Monday, March 3, the first witness, neighbour Michelle Burger, testified to what she heard the night Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead. According to Burger she and her husband woke up around 3 a.m. to terrified screams of a woman clearly in fear. "I sat upright in bed." Her husband rushed to the balcony while the screams of the woman continued.

Burger: "She called for help. She screamed terribly and shouted for help. Then I heard a man also call for help. He called for help three times."

Burger said she had believed she was hearing the sounds of a robbery next door, had taken her cell phone and dialled for security, then her husband had talked security guards and asked them to investigate.

"Then I heard her screams again," said Burger. "It was like a climax. I heard her anxiety. She was very scared."

Then she heard the shots, with a pause between the first and second shot, rapidly followed by two more.

"It was bang... bang, bang, bang," Burger said.

Then she heard a voice and all went silent.

On being aggressively cross-examined by Pistorius' defence lawyer Barry Roux, who tried hard to get Burger confused or tarnish her credibility, the witness remained unshaken, even when Burger insinuated she could not know if she had heard a woman scream or a man.

Burger insisted that it had been a woman she heard and that it was the "fear from her voice that startled" her, and added: "It was very traumatic for me. You could hear blood curdling screams. It is something that leaves you cold."

On day two, Tuesday, March 4, Roux once more cross-examined Burger and questioned her testimony with regard to the alleged help screams of a man, which in Roux's eyes made no sense. Burger insisted that she had heard a man also scream three times for help – "perhaps out of mockery? I don't know. You must ask Mr. Pistorius why, not me." – and again did not deviate from her previous testimony. She insisted on having heard the petrified screams of a woman clearly in fear and said to the presiding judge: "My lady, you only shout like that when your life is in danger."

When asked what impact on her life this experience had, Burger, who had defied four hours of grilling by the Pistorius' defence lawyer, got emotional for the first time.

"When I'm in the shower I relieve her shouts," Burger said battling with tears, "her terrifying screams."

Her husband confirms her statement

Later in the day, Charl Johnson, husband to Michelle Burger, confirmed her version of events of the fateful night.

According to him he too woke up to the screams of a woman. He got out of bed and walked out onto the balcony and heard clearly the screams of a woman in "extreme distress". The woman was at one point shouting for help and then afterwards a man too was shouting three times "Help!"

Johnson went back in, took the phone from his wife who had dialled security, and he related to two different guards that apparently a couple nearby was under attack and needed help. Then he discovered that his wife had mistakenly called the wrong number of guards at the security complex where they had lived previously. He therefore ended the call as he realised he was speaking to the wrong persons.

Johnson said he ran back to the balcony where he heard the woman scream again. He said the intensity and fear in her voice escalated, making it clear to him that her life was in danger.

Then he heard gunshots, some more screaming with the last screams fading after the last shot. Then silence set it.

A first conclusion

After these two statements of Michelle Burger and Charl Johnson, whose bedroom was only 177 metres away from the scene of the crime, the shock set in that indeed Pistorius could not have told the truth with his statement.

No matter what Roux tried, he could not erase the fact that both, husband and wife, were awoken by horrific screaming of a woman clearly in death fear, that the screaming went on and on, turned into help calls and then went silent when four gun shots rang out.

From this it is clear that prior to Pistorius shooting at the bathroom door, Reeva Steenkamp had been screaming in fear for her life, something that Pistorius could not possibly have missed, seeing that even neighbours 177 metres further down the road heard it clearly.

Especially Johnson's account gives a time impression to the event that can easily been reconstructed:

Waking up to the screaming of a woman in itself takes about one or two minutes until a person is able to understand at 3 a.m. what exactly woke him or her up.

Then Johnson went out onto the balcony to listen to more screaming, which easily must have taken up at least another two minutes.

On getting back in he took the cell phone from his wife and then talked to two different guards one after the other – only to discover that he was talking to the wrong people at another complex. Such a conversation is expected to again take up two, perhaps even three minutes.

Johnson then terminated the call and rushed back to the balcony to hear even worse screams from the woman.

By this time, from waking up to her screams to entering the balcony once more, anywhere between five to seven minutes would have passed, in which the woman – Reeva Steenkamp – could be heard screaming.

Then the gun shots rang out – and the screaming stopped.

This course of events can not be disputed anymore after these very clear cut, unwavering testimonies of two adults who would have no reason to give such detailed accounts of something that had not taken place and who were so consistent in their testimony even under the most heavy questioning in the cross-examination. The story makes sense in every way – but in confirming Pistorius incredulous version.

How could Pistorius say he believed Reeva had been silently asleep in bed when he went on his stumps with a gun to the bathroom area when clearly his girlfriend had screamed for at least five to seven minutes, as the neighbours clearly heard? It is impossible and leads to the frightening conclusion that Pistorius is not telling the truth about the course of events that night when saying there was no quarrel and he thought his girlfriend was quietly sleeping when he shot through the toilet door.

But if Pistorius lies about what really happened, why would he? And why had Reeva Steenkamp been in such death fear that night that she screamed in the most terrifying way?

The final clue

The answer to this last open question too came far quicker than could be expected. Witness number three – testifying in the morning after Burger's repeated cross-examination as testimony number two in the courts run – another neighbour, Estelle van der Merwe, told the court what she heard that night.

According to her, Mrs. van der Merwe was awoken already at 1:56 a.m. – an hour prior to the killing – by loud voices of a man and a woman clearly having a serious argument. The voice of the woman was signalling distress, going "up and down". While van der Merwe could not make out the content of the dispute, it was clear that it was heated. At one point, she said, she pulled the cushion over her ears in the hope of getting some sleep, as her son was writing an exam the next morning and she badly needed to rest. But the quarrel was too loud to be dampened by the cushion and went on "for about an hour". Then four gun shots could be heard and ended the argument.

The bitter truth to face

With this third testimony in only two days, the question burning on the minds of family and friends for 13 long months as to what really happened that night at the house of Oscar Pistorius and why Reeva Steenkamp, a bright, young woman and in short to be lawyer, was killed, was answered in the most bitter form. A quarrel between the two for reasons unknown, lasting an hour, ended in a fatal shooting of Reeva by her boyfriend Pistorius who, again for unknown reasons, was so tempered up that he drew his gun on her. Reeva, fearing for her live, was petrified and screamed for help, then must have rushed to the bathroom perhaps in the hope to still call help via her phone, and then, when seeing Pistorius approaching with a gun, locked herself in the toilet in the hope of evading his wrath. It was then that the bullets penetrated the door and hit her as she was crouching behind it. She had no chance.

For the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp this disclosure of the events of the fateful morning of Valentine's Day 2013 only two days into the trial must be a shock. The hope, albeit slim, that Oscar Pistorius would somehow come up with a version that was credible and make it possible to believe Reeva had lost her life due to a tragic, panic instilled mistake on his part, has not been fulfilled. The accounts of three witnesses to the happenings of that night at the Silver Woods Estate have given a consistent insight into the course of events that led to Reeva's death. A mistake on his part can not only not be deducted from it, on the contrary the accounts show clearly that Pistorius, in the hope to get off the hook and bail out to temporary freedom, gave a narrative that in no way possibly could be the truth. And the fact that the blade-runner lied as to the quarrel and the subsequent screaming of his girlfriend just prior to him shooting at her through the toilet door leaves no room for interpretation other than that he lost once more his nerves in high-tempered rage and shot her dead. The tragedy in this revelation for Reeva's family and friends can not be described in words.

The last hope

Perhaps one day, in realising that his story does not hold after these witnesses testified, Oscar Pistorius will have the courage to tell those who intensely loved Reeva Steenkamp what the cause was for this deadly argument – the suspicion that they fought over his jealous believe she had been untrue to him with a mutual friend had already made the rounds immediately after his arrest, as he had shown such traits before – and why he lost his control so much that he got a gun and shot at Reeva behind the toilet door. For the family and friends of Reeva had wanted nothing more from this trial than to learn the truth about what really happened to their daughter, sister, niece and friend, who held so much love for life, carried a warming smile and a compassionate heart.

Ironically, the witnesses Burger and Johnson, who gave such a clear account of the happenings that night, confided to the court that initially they had not wanted to get involved once they found out who had been shot that night and by whom. They kept quiet hoping other neighbours would step forward who must also have heard the screaming. But when the bail hearing took place, the couple realised this was not so and the description of the night given by Pistorius in no way fitted with what they had witnessed. It was then that they contacted the police via a lawyer friend and testified to what they had heard.

Had Burger and Johnson not waited but contacted the police right after the killing and informed on the real course of events it can be safely assumed that Oscar Pistorius would not have come free on bail at the hearing, would not have been able to live in the plush home of his uncle in Pretoria and enjoy the freedom of living that Reeva Steenkamp was robbed off by him on February 14, 2013.

Undoubtedly, due to the timid reaction of the witnesses, Pistorius was once lucky. As the trial develops in only two days, the chances luck will come his way a second time seem more than slim. If only in the interest of Reeva's family and friends he might find the strength to now tell the truth, this might have an effect on the verdict. Contemplating however on how consistently he lied for 13 long – and for her family and friends gruelling – months, it is hard to see him fulfil the hope that the truth and nothing but the truth will be finally known at the end of this trial.

May the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp have the strength to see this through. Next to the terrible loss they endured and feel to this day, the continued silence of Oscar Pistorius might be the worst yet for them to have to bear. Whether they suffer more still or not is now entirely up to him.


February 14, 2014

The legacy of Reeva Steenkamp

Today, a year ago, on what the world calls Valentine's day, the day of love, a beautiful woman in South Africa lost her life. The beauty she held is documented not only in the good looks the world talked about, but in what she said and wrote and what family and friends recount in loving memory. Reeva Steenkamp to many was the model, the TV personality-to-be, the girlfriend of the so called blade-runner, Oscar Pistorius. In November 2012 she had first appeared publicly at his side and her words to the camera about him where carefully chosen, as makes sense at the beginning of a new relationship. After all, Reeva, whose strikingly warmhearted smile had become a trademark, had not only positive experiences in what is deemed love. She had suffered for years in an abusive relationship and had come to Johannesburg to reshape her life.

On Valentine's day 2013, barely four months after the relation had started, Reeva wanted to make the day special for her new boyfriend and for herself. But as she was not only about herself, as some might have thought, Reeva had also intended to make this a day for others, to speak about her struggle against life's odds and domestic violence to pupils at the Sandown High School in Johannesburg. She wanted to be honest about the abuse she knew and encouraging to young people and especially girls to become proud adults who would not ever be humiliated by anyone, let alone by male violence.

She never got to speak at Sandown. While staying the night at her boyfriends house she was shot dead by him shortly after 3 am in the morning, locked in a toilet cubicle where four bullets that her boyfriend shot at the door took her life.

Much has been written about this fatal moment, about how or why Oscar Pistorius drew the gun on her, on whether, as he states, this was an accident, or as the state prosecution in the charges say it was murder. The trial is set to begin on March 3. And no matter what is written or said, the answer to this will only – hopefully – come to light in the hearings. To the family and friends who loved her dearly it will be the hardest time to endure after 13 months of feeling the loss.

The woman who cared for victims of domestic violence

Reeva Steenkamp was blessed by nature with looks which made it to the cover of magazines and she knew how to strike a good pose. She was starting to develop a promising career as a model and her smile and blonde hair made everyone believe that this was what she was all about: modelling, beauty, the feminine touch. Few knew that the woman behind the poses was a hard working law-graduate about to engage in her Bar exam. With 30, a birthday to come up in August last year, she wanted to have reached her goal of being a qualified legal advocate defending the rights of those who couldn't defend themselves.

When in the Cape Province 17-year old Anene Booysen was brutally gang-raped and slashed to death by her rapists and on February 9, 2013, the teenager was laid to rest, it was Reeva who remembered her on her twitter account:


she wrote, ignoring that such a topic was not the in-thing to care for in a world of glamour and bright lights.

But the model who was the star of scene parties and always a good shot for high-key photography didn't keep in those circles in her mind. While she was fashionable and for many simply a symbol of good looks, there was a serious thinking person behind the cover the others wanted to see only. Her troubling experiences in her own relationship many years ago had made her lose her self-worth heavily. She did a lot of soul searching to remind herself of her value in the world, started to get back on her feet and work hard in a business formerly unknown to her, and while her fame rose and the offers came rolling in more and more, she never forgot that there was more to life than just good looks, fashion and partying. There was a message for the students at Sandown High that she spelled out in writing, but never got to tell them in person:
"Be brave. Always see the positive. Make your voice heard. Your physical seen. And the presence of your mental you felt. It's that culmination of your person that will leave a legacy and uplift."

A day after the funeral of Anene Booysen, on February 10, Reeva Steenkamp, once more ignoring who her followers could be on social media, wrote on her instagram account:


Little could she know that only four days later she herself would fall victim to male violence and the comfort of the happy safe home was exchanged for death.

“Reeva held a passion for women’s abuse issues and frequently spoke out against domestic violence. She intended to one day open an establishment where abused women would be cared for", her parents said in a statement a few days ago. Once the trial is over they intend to start a foundation "honouring Reeva’s passions”.


The trial is about truth and justice

After the funeral - candles in the sky
For those who loved her the trial is both a promise that the terrible time of uncertainty about what exactly happened that fateful night at Pistorius' house will finally come to an end, as well as the hope to find closure in a loss that one way or the other will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It will be a troubling time of battling emotions, and the press will take any chance to show a crying mother or a bereaved friend. That Reeva was killed is no news to them anymore. It has been reported numerous times now and fails to capture the imagination of editors who want new points of interest to catch their readers and viewers. And while to the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp the trial will be all about her, the burning pain of having lost her and the love they forever hold for her, others will see it only as a chance to get headlines and news stories to serve a never ending hunger. It is, sadly, the way the media world works.

And yet – thinking of Reeva Steenkamp and the compassion she held for others, the hope goes out that just this time the media will tread softly and value the pain over a loss that to this day for many cannot be understood. They want this trial to happen, yes. But they don't want the frenzy that will go with it. For the family and friends this trial is about truth, about knowledge and about justice served for a woman whose smile and heart went out to so many and could have still done so much good, had her life not been cut short.

Those who loved her will do so long after the trial is over and the flashlights have found new objects of interest. Getting through it is a tribulation they endure for her and for her only. The intimacy of grief they still posses to this day is theirs, and it gives way to a vulnerability that should never be exploited. The world and the media must respect this at all costs and thus honour the legacy of Reeva Steenkamp.

The woman who showed compassion for Anene Booysen while others only wanted to see glamour deserves nothing less.


February 03, 2014

Letter to my Avatar – My dear little Omar Salah ...


one year ago to this day you were selling sweet potatoes on a street in Cairo near the U.S. embassy. It was not something you did out of choice, but because your family is poor and needs you to help secure an income. There was nothing special about this February 3rd, 2013, Cairo was calm and sunny, and nothing prepared you, when you left your home in the morning, for what was to come.

It was about noon, when a soldier came up to your cart and demanded from you to sell him two potatoes. You urgently needed to go to the bathroom at that moment and told him you would attend to him right when you would be back. The soldier did not accept this and threatened you with his gun saying he was going to shoot you if you didn't serve him immediately.

You were just a 12 year old boy. What could you know about the defects of human minds or the willingness of adults to be vicious? You did not believe him and in the innocent mind that was your right to have with 12 years of age you replied: "But you can't shoot me!"

To this the soldier replied: "I can't?" And then he pulled the trigger and shot you twice in your little heart. You were dead immediately.

The shock this had on those who witnessed it around you, was profound. The other children street vendors cried out and emotions ran high while your blood was spilling onto the street of Cairo. Amongst the soldiers, heated discussions started and the whole situation quickly became a mess.

The U.S. embassy tweeted that there had been an 'incident' in front of their gates but gave no details. For quite some time no one was aware what horror had just happened under the sunny sky of Egypt. And with the first shock subsiding that you indeed were dead right there on the street and for all to see, the military and police started frantically to do anything they could to cover up this horrific crime against you.

While your mother and father sat at home unaware they had lost you forever, the army took your little body to a morgue and covered you hoping that no one would find you and no one would find out. For accepting that one of theirs had killed you in cold blood and take responsibility for this action is not on the mind of the army of Egypt.

You must know, little Omar, that you are not the only one they killed, and not the only one they did not care for after he was dead. Over a year before you left us they had shot dead many protesters at Maspero and ran others over with heavy APCs. Again, later, they killed many at the Cabinet clashes. And so it goes on and on until today, for killing someone is the job of an army, they think. And they don't differentiate between borders or cities, it doesn't matter where they use their guns, they always think that they are in the right to kill. For no other but them has any right to a life. Only a right to be disrespected when – in the eyes of the army – the situation calls for it.

Of course, on that day one year ago, your killing had nothing to do with defending anybody. The soldier who killed you did not feel threatened or feared for the safety of Egypt. He simply expressed what he had learned as a conscript: that you as an Egyptian human being were not worth anything and that your life was cheap enough to be destroyed.

After your father had frantically tried to find you, aided by friends and NGO workers, your little blood stained body was finally found in the morgue. At first again the army tried to deny it had anything to do with this. But as pressure mounted and more and more witnesses spoke up to what they saw that day, the spokesperson felt it would hurt the army more to stay cowardly quiet than to come out with it and he put a statement on their Facebook page declaring your death an "accident" for which he offered your heartbroken parents his "apology".

The story goes that the soldier did not really mean to shoot you. He had thought that his gun was empty – because apparently Egyptian soldiers don't learn how to find out if their gun is loaded or empty and never load them themselves. It must be some hidden force that either loads their guns or not and then falls silent on the matter so that a soldier who carries his gun through Cairo is never aware whether he can actually use it or not. It seems an odd way to run an army or a disturbing way they play games, but then, my little Omar, there are so many odd things surrounding them that one does not wonder much anymore these days. Of course, after the soldier fired the first shot into your heart realising the gun was loaded after all, he had to fire a second time into your heart just to make sure he wasn't mistaken. That we understand. The army is a responsible body and what must be done must be done to make certain that facts are facts. Even in accidents.

Shortly after the world learned what had happened to you on that wonderful sunny February day in Cairo, a video surfaced on YouTube showing you only a few weeks earlier when you were interviewed on the street by an organisation helping needy children, checking whether you might be eligible for their projects.

You were humble and well-mannered but a little shy and uneasy what they would come up with and whether you would be good enough for what they were looking for in you. You told them quietly that you had to sell sweet potatoes because your family was poor and your father had wanted you to support the family. And in all shyness you disclosed into the camera that you would love to go to school and learn to read and write.

When the interviewer asked what you're dreams were, you looked away and were uneasy on this. And then you answered him. You said: "I cannot afford dreams, Sir." And you looked into the camera and then down again as if you were ashamed for this that was none of your fault.

Seeing this video of you, dear little Omar, broke many peoples heart. Hearing that you could not afford to dream, which is a basic human right for a child, and knowing you were not even allowed to live, was unbearable to witness. Seeing your wonderful eyes, your look of modesty, shyness and subdued hope, your life might one day, just might perhaps change for the better in some far-away future after all, teared us apart. It was then that I took your picture and made it my avatar on twitter. I wanted to give you your face back that had been left so sad and soiled and empty of life after the soldier had shot you dead.

There was no justice for you after all this. On public pressure of human rights activists and your family that the army tried to silence with money, a military trial was finally staged that we all never had any witnessing to. Only afterwards we were told that the soldier who shot you dead – just like that, on a sunny day in a street of Cairo – received a sentence of three years by the military judge.

Imagine that, Omar, three years for killing you and destroying your life forever. Do you know that Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, activists of the January 25 revolution, got just the same sentence of three years for allegedly staging a protest without a permission? So killing you, in the eyes of the army, apparently was not worse than going out to protest without requesting a permit. You see what I mean when I say, we do not understand the ways of the army, but we trust they know well what they do?

One year on, my dear little Omar, I have thought long and deep over whether I would let you rest now in your little grave and put a shroud over your wonderful eyes that I see everyday on my twitter timeline. On twitter people have not a very long attention span, you must know. They easily get bored seeing the same avatar over and over for months and need changes a lot to be easy. And many times when I write critical tweets, some tweeps who do not know me or you come and slam me with words like: "Shut up, kid" – actually thinking, I was you and not a grown up man with 35 years working experience. They don't take my words seriously, because – just like the soldier – they think, a young boy has no value and no meaning and must not be respected. l cringe sometimes when I read their "kid", knowing they mean you, and feel the pain of your death they are unaware of and don't understand, and then I tell them to read my profile and come to the conclusion that whoever has no heart for you in his reaction is not worth thinking about anyway. And leave it at that.

It would be so much easier now to let you rest, my little friend, after this long year of tears and pains and death that has sweeped Egypt empty of so many hopes for a decent life, for justice and freedom and bread. On twitter they would jubilate to see a fresh face. The army would love to not have to see you anymore in the public sphere. The tweeps I criticise would not be able to slam me anymore with calling me 'kid'. We would all be so much happier, dear little Omar, if we forgot about what happened a year ago and that we can't change what happened to you after all.

But then, Omar, what can we change if we don't remember? What possibilities will we manage to create if we fall silent and look away and pretend it is all not as sad, not as bad, not as tragic as it actually is? Since your death more than a thousand Egyptians were killed, and they give us many reasons why that, different to you, was not an accident but needed to happen. But apparently they can 'live' with it just as easily. A strange tale has crept into the narrative that pretends that destroying Egyptian lives is inevitable and must be accepted, as if death more than life was the natural thing of the world that one can shrug off to return to the daily pleasures and chores. With every death of human beings falling bloodied in the streets of Egypt we are told to believe that nothing of this can be changed because it is the way of the world. And when we look away and shut our ears to the cries of the mothers and fathers of Egypt who, whether they agreed with their children or not, break down over losing what was precious to them forever and think they just cannot go on anymore, we change the world for the worst, where dying becomes the natural thing and living is just a luxury granted by some in power – whether we are lucky or not.

It must not be luck, little Omar, whether we live. It must be a right, a birth given right that no one must be allowed to take from us. Not with any form of being deliberate, calling it an accident to fool us or an inevitable need to fool us twice. If we don't insist on this, that life is the right and death is the wrong, we have lost everything that makes it worth existing on this planet we call the earth.

You had no dreams, Omar, because we did not allow you to be able to afford them. On that already we all failed you miserably. Your parents to this day cry over your death and will not forget the pain in their heart. Your eyes look at me on my avatar with all the shy innocence that was you in your modest way and I think of the narrative that all this has to be, is inevitable and not worse than going to a protest and forgetting to get a permission. So your killing has the value of a petty crime and your death is worth as much as not filling out a form. And I look at your eyes and mine fill with tears.

Let them laugh about it, for all I care. The other day I saw your picture on the internet, just the one that is my avatar that I see every day. But when I saw it, my little Omar, my heart stopped still. Like yours did on that fateful February 3rd a year ago, when a soldier thought you were worth nothing and could be done away with. When I recovered from this shock, that did not seem to make any sense, I knew I would not fail you and not leave you until justice is served. To you, Omar, who could not afford to have wishes and were not allowed to have hope – and to all the others that have lost a life that was dear to them when others decided it was not.

You will stay my avatar, my little Omar. I will tell you when Egypt is ready that we can part. Just now is not yet the time. Be patient. It will still take a long time. But where life is at stake, you know it well, time and patience means nothing. Life means all.

January 31, 2014

How the Harper government fails Canadian journalist in Egyptian jail

On December 29, 2013, three journalists working for Al Jazeera English channel in Egypt – the Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, Peter Greste, a renowned Australian journalist, and the Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed – were arrested in their rooms of the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, their equipment was confiscated, and they were taken to the high security prison Tora, were high-profile leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared by the Egyptian government to be 'terrorists', are currently held.

For weeks no charges were laid against these journalists and Egypt refused to give any legal explanation. The Cairo Bureau Chief Fahmy was reportedly treated the worst of the three detained. While all had to suffer under solitary confinement, Fahmy got a 'special' treatment by not being allowed medical treatment for a broken shoulder and having to sleep on the cold cement floor in a cockroach-infested cell with no daylight.

On the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, January 25, 2014, almost a month after the arrest, the treatment got even worse: the prison guards took away his watch, his jacket and the only blanket he had for sleeping on the floor. Medical treatment to his broken shoulder, four weeks into the injury, was further denied. For over 20 hours he was denied food and to go to the bathroom. The guards explained this treatment as a 'punishment' for a bomb attack the day before in Cairo – to which the journalist Fahmy in his solitary confinement plainly and clearly could not have had any connection.

On January 29, the Public Prosecutor of Egypt suddenly came up with charges against 20 Al Jazeera journalists, amongst them the three detained at Tora. Widely broadcasted on Egyptian State TV under the banner "Fight against terrorism" the prosecution accused the journalists to have supported a terrorist group (aka the Muslim Brotherhood) by inventing false news about the situation in Egypt, thus shaming Egypt in the world and 'harming national security'. Fahmy was in addition accused of being a member of the Brotherhood (which he is not) and charged to be a 'terrorist'.

International demands to set them free

Accusing and charging a Canadian-Egyptian journalist to be a terrorist just for interviewing members of a political group or reporting on clashes between the state security and this group was a harsh attack on the freedom of media in Egypt and seen by many as a deliberate warning sign to other foreign journalists to not report the truth about the unrest situation in the country.

On January 13, more than 40 editors and correspondents from international media organisations signed an open letter to the Egyptian government demanding the release of the journalists. Many international NGOs like amnesty international, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists or Reporters Without Borders protested against the treatment of the Al Jazeera journalists and especially those detained under the extreme conditions in Tora and demanded for the charges to be dropped immediately and the journalists to be freed. Amnesty international adopted Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed as 'prisoners of conscience', imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.

As Fahmy was treated the worst in prison, punished for things he clearly could not have any doing in and kept without medical treatment for a broken shoulder for four weeks – violating a prisoner like this is breaching international and Egyptian laws and called torture – it was expected that the Canadian government would issue some statement, expressing at least concern over the abhorrent treatment of a Canadian citizen and journalist. Yet, the only thing that came out of Ottawa (and only on demand) was a diplomatic thin-lipped wording saying that 'consular services' were provided and that officials had 'raised this case with senior Egyptian officials'. Something that the family of detained Fahmy could not confirm for weeks, as Fahmy repeatedly was dragged to interrogations without any representative of the Canadian embassy being present.

Contacting the Harper Government

Shortly after the prosecutor had finally let the cat out of the bag that the journalists were considered to be supporters or, in the case of Fahmy, even members of a terrorist group, I wanted to know from the Harper government in Canada their position expressively on the plight of their Canadian citizen Fahmy. The only statement by Canada issued before was empty of any reliable acknowledgement of his situation or the willingness to speak out in his favour.

I contacted the Canadian Departement of Foreign Affairs and spoke to Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, who is the spokesperson for Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, regarding 'Middle East' and 'Human Rights and Democracy'.

When I asked about the position of the Canadian government on the fact that a Canadian citizen and journalist had now been kept in a dark cell without treatment for a broken shoulder for four weeks, Baird's spokesperson read to me the earlier published statement:
“Consular services are being provided to the Canadian citizen who has been arrested in Egypt.
Officials are in regular communication with and providing assistance to those family members that the subject has provided authorization to speak with.
Canadian officials have raised this case with senior Egyptian officials and local authorities continue to be engaged."

M:    Well, that I know already, it is not new. But that does not say anything.

V:    What I have provided is really the extent of what we have to say on this issue.

M:    Today things have escalated, as you are aware, due to the fact that charges are now being laid against all those who have been implicated in this, including the Canadian. There must be more from the Canadian government with regard to a political stance on this, because this is an attack on press freedom which in Canada is actually very protected?

V:    Yes, well Mr. Moremi, as I said, that is the extent of what I have to provide at this stage. But don't hesitate to be in touch with us tomorrow and in the coming days and hopefully we have more to say on this, but today that is the extent of the statement I can provide.

M:    But that would be a bit odd to tell the world that that is all Canada has to say if a Canadian citizen and journalist is detained under such circumstances. I would just like to point out that US Senator Cain on the weekend has spoken up and demanded from Egypt to free these journalists, and there is not even an American citizen or journalist involved. And the world is still waiting on something clear from Canada, because as you well know your Canadian citizen has now been in jail exactly for a whole month. So I would not be quite sure, what would be different tomorrow?

V:    Ok, well I'm not going to comment on what other countries have said. But I have given you the extent of the Canadian statement on this issue at this stage and I'll make sure to be in touch and don't hesitate to be in touch with us as well.

M:    Mr. Villeneuve, the colleague who is currently incarcerated in Cairo is incarcerated under conditions that both Canada and other countries, even under the laws of Egypt, are clearly seeing as a violation of human rights. He is not getting medical treatment and your talking to officials is not helping him. He has a broken shoulder, he has not been attended to for four weeks. It was supposed to be attended to on Sunday. Again it has not. The only blanket he has has been taken away from him. If you research what a broken shoulder means if it's not tended to that should trouble the Canadian government immensely. So this surely can't be the only thing Canada has to say to this? You spoke up for John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, why the silence on Mohamed Fahmy?

V:    Again - consular services are being provided and the statement is all we have to say at this stage.

M:    Does that mean that the Canadian government is not willing to say anything with regard to the fact that a Canadian citizen has now for four weeks been in jail with a broken shoulder and without any medical treatment?

V:    I gave you my opinion on this ...

M:    No, I'm asking you. You're not even mentioning the shoulder that is broken, I mean, just imagine you would be in jail with a broken shoulder for a whole month and your government would not even say something to that. Why is that so? The world does not understand it. No one understands why Canada on this is the only country that does not say anything. Why don't you at least demand that he is treated like a prisoner should be treated according to international treaties that are also valid for Canada?

V:    I cannot comment on personal and private information, as is the case, as you can appreciate ...

M:    No, I can't appreciate it because this is not a 'private' information if a Canadian citizen for a whole month now has been in an Egyptian jail with a broken shoulder and no medical treatment, that is not a private information. This is a human rights violation of a Canadian citizen and the world is asking why Canada's government is not saying anything on this?
Are you demanding from the Egyptian government to at least give him the rights that a prisoner in Canada and everywhere else in the civilised world has? Is this a demand the Canadian government makes or not?

V:    Ok – "Canadian officials have raised this case with senior Egyptian officials and will continue to be engaged with local authorities" – and that's all I have to say on this at this stage.

M:    But you are aware that even if you have spoken to officials this has not bettered his situation but it has made it worse after a whole month? I mean, how long does the Canadian government think a person can survive with a broken shoulder in solitary confinement lying on a floor with not even a blanket?

V:    I really ... I really have provided all I have to say on this ... And I'll make sure we'll be in touch with you when we have more to say, thank you ...

M:    So that means the Canadian government is not saying anything on the lack of medical treatment of a Canadian journalist in an Egyptian jail, is this correct?

V:    I will send you the Canadian statement ...

M:    Yes, the Canadian statement I know. You're not saying anything about this in the statement. I'm asking you, is the Canadian government not saying anything with regard to the fact that a Canadian journalist is subjected to something that is called 'human rights violation'?

V:    (hesitates) Well ... I'm the spokesperson for this issue and I'm providing you with our statement. Thank you very much.

M:    Well, you know I'm not satisfied. – And you know I can only then report that the Canadian government ignores the fact that a Canadian journalist is lying in a jail cell with a broken shoulder. – And there is nothing you say to this?

V:     Sir ... I have ... I have given you the extent of what I have to say at this stage, but I'll be in touch, ok ...

M:    We are both professionals. I have been working in this profession for 35 years. You are trying to ward me off. But this man has been under these conditions for a whole month now. When is the Canadian government, that was able to say something on John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, willing to say something against the human rights violations of a Canadian journalist? This is a very simple question. And you can only answer that with saying the Canadian government does not care and will not say anything to that or you can give me any reaction of the Canadian government.

V:    Ok, a) I didn't say that ...

M:    No, you didn't. But then, what do you say?

V:    Well, I provided you with our statement, Sir.

M:    But in your statement it doesn't say anything about the fact that this man has now been subjected to human rights violations for four weeks! The man has a broken shoulder! Surely the Canadian government is absolutely aware of the fact that a broken shoulder needs medical treatment? No prisoner in this world – and this is Canadian law – may be subjected to this treatment not getting medical treatment for four weeks! So surely, if this happens to a Canadian citizen, the Canadian government must have something to say to this other than "we're not saying anything"?

V:    (pause) I really ... I really have nothing further to add ... So, I'm gonna hang up now. And I'm going to send you the statement by email. And ... I'm sorry it is not satisfying you. I can appreciate why ... But ... that's the extent of what I have to say at this stage. Thank you.

M:    Seeing the fact that this has now been going on for four weeks, is there any idea on your part that the Canadian government will come up with something more than just this statement in the future?

V:    (long pause) I don't have any such information on this at this stage. But if, why and when we do I will make sure we'll be in touch, ok? Thank you very much ...

M:    And you can also not explain why you said something on John Greyson and Tarek Loubani? John Baird said something there.

V:    Ah ... I provided you with our statement on this, Sir, and now I'm gonna hang up, ok? Thank you very much ... (waits) ... Good day ...

(Hangs up.)


Australia's Foreign Minister acts

At the same time that I was having this rather amazing conversation with the spokesperson of the Canadian Foreign Minister, as I learned later when contacting Canberra, in far away Australia the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, was alarmed at learning of the charges now made public.

She had summoned the Egyptian Ambassador into the Foreign Office on January 16 and asked that a meeting would be arranged between the Australian Ambassador in Cairo and the Public Prosecutor to discuss the fate of Australian journalist Peter Greste. This was promised, but nothing had happened. When on January 29 instead the Public Prosecutor announced charges against Greste for supporting a terrorist group, Australian Minister Julie Bishop picked up the phone and called her Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting System she explained, that this had been a "very candid" discussion with Fahmy and that she had raised her serious concerns on this matter and on the abhorrent prison conditions Greste was subjected too. Apparently the Egyptian Foreign Minister was willing to accept her protest and assured her to do anything in his power to be of help.

A day later, last night, a meeting between the Australian Ambassador in Cairo and the Egyptian Public Prosecutor finally did indeed come about and the Australian government for the first time was officially informed on the exact charges laid against their citizen Greste. The charges, as Bishop points out, are now under legal review by the Australian government, and she made it very clear, that she will keep engaging for Peter Greste to try to ensure he receives both due process and from now on humane prison conditions. 


The U.S. State Department is "alarmed"

Shortly after my conversation with Canada's Foreign Ministry spokesperson and Australia's Foreign Minister Bishop's conversation with her Egyptian counterpart, the U.S. State Department's spokesperson Jen Psaki commented in unusually strong words on the attacks against the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. Even though no American journalist was implicated in the case, the Obama administration found it important enough to publicly criticise what was happening to press freedom under the military rulers of Egypt and said:
"The government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms."

Psaki added that the U.S. was
"alarmed by reports today of additional journalists facing charges, including the Al Jazeera journalists. Any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation, or politicized legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt. We remind the Egyptian Government publicly and privately that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we urge the interim government to implement its commitment to this freedom. We strongly urge the government to reconsider detaining and trying these journalists, and reiterate that they must be afforded all accordance of the due process under the rule of law."

Another attempt in Canada

The next day, January 30, I found it vital to confront the Canadian Foreign Ministry with this very outspoken and clear critical statement of the U.S. government regarding the attacks against journalists in Egypt.

When the sun was up in Ottawa yesterday, mid-noon Cairo time, I contacted the spokesperson of Minister Baird once more, send him the clear worded statement of the U.S. State Department, expressing "alarm", and asked:
"How alarmed is the Canadian government in the light that a Canadian journalist is among those wrongly targeted?"

It took a while for a response. Late in the afternoon Villeneuve in a friendly but slim-lined reply once more send me the known statement regarding consular services and this time added the line:
"To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further details cannot be released at this time."

This was both unsatisfactory as nonsensical, as I pointed out in my return mail:
"In how far does the protest of a country (Canada) over an attack on press freedom (compare US State Dept. statement) have anything to do with "privacy of the individual concerned"?

The question was if Canada is as "alarmed" on the "targeting of journalists" in Egypt and considers this too a "disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms"?

This has nothing to do with privacy issues.

Is there a political position of the Canadian government on this or not?"

The sun had already set over Tora prison in Cairo last night when the reply from Baird's spokesperson finally arrived. It read:
"Hi Jon,

I don't have anything to add to what I provided you with.

Thank you.

JB"


UK Foreign Secretary raised his concerns

In the meantime, the British Foreign Office in London today has supplied me with a statement saying that they are aware of the situation that two British journalists have also been charged with supporting terrorism and they are seeking further information from the Egyptian authorities. The statement went on to say:
“We were concerned by the closure of political space for opposition groups in the run-up to the referendum and the arrest and sentencing of human rights activists. We are also concerned by continuing restrictions on freedom of expression and the press. The Foreign Secretary raised these concerns in a conversation with Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy on 7 January.”

Apparently only Australia, the UK and the U.S. seem to find fault with the attack on press freedom and journalists in Egypt. While all three governments voiced their concern both in public expression and direct contact with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmy – in Canada, whose citizen and journalist Mohamed Fahmy has languished under inhumane and torturous conditions for more than four weeks now in a dark cell with being refused medical treatment for his broken shoulder, Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird, still does not seem to see any reason to pick up a phone.

It is at this point that I know that I could never be tempted to become a Canadian citizen.

For only a country in need, is a country indeed.



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The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has issued a statement today saying the UNOHCHR is
"extremely concerned about the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on media in Egypt."

Pointing to a deterioration in the last months the statement continues:
"Wednesday’s announcement that the Egyptian Prosecutor-General intends to bring to trial 16 local and 4 foreign journalists alleged to have worked for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera, on vague charges including “aiding a terrorist group” and “harming the national interest”, is of great concern. ... There are also reports of journalists in detention being subjected to ill-treatment or being held in conditions that are not in line with international human rights standards. 

We urge the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities in exercise of their fundamental human rights. It is the State’s obligation to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is respected, and that journalists are able to report on diverse views and issues surrounding the current situation in Egypt."