Egypt Warns Media to Take Care in Coverage Amid Protests

Egypt’s media authority warned journalists Sunday that it was monitoring coverage to ensure they abide by “professional codes” amid a rare burst of protests against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The warning came hours after the latest small protest was dispersed by police in clouds of tear gas.

Dozens of people including children marched Saturday evening in the port city of Suez, calling for el-Sissi to step down, three witnesses told The Associated Press. Police “pursued the people in the streets … there was lots of gas,” one resident said. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

The protest came after rare anti-government demonstrations in several Egyptian cities late Friday. Those too were quickly broken up by police. But they marked a startling eruption of street unrest, which has been almost completely silenced the past years by draconian measures imposed under el-Sissi.

The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013 shortly after el-Sissi led the military’s overthrow of the country’s first freely elected civilian president in modern history. Since then, anyone who dared take to the streets was quickly arrested and received years-long prison sentences.

In its statement issued Sunday, the State Information Service, which accredits foreign media representatives, said it has “carefully monitored” the coverage of the protest.

It called for reporters to “strictly abide by professional codes of conduct” and for media to provide a space for “viewpoints to be presented in an equal manner and that includes the viewpoint of the State or who represents it.” The SIS has issued similar statements in the past surrounding sensitive events.

It also warned that “social media outlets should not be considered as sources of news,” because of the numerous “fake accounts and fabrications.”

False information about protests has appeared on social media, including videos of protests from years past presented as if they were happening live.

But social media have also been vital for getting out authentic videos of protests, since they are the only venue not dominated by the government. Nearly all newspapers and television channels in Egypt are under the sway of the government or military and have given almost no coverage to the protests. In recent years, Egypt has imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists.

In the wake of Friday’s protests, security forces have reportedly arrested dozens of people in Cairo and other parts of the country, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a non-governmental organization.

The new protests emerge from an online campaign, led by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who has presented himself as a whistleblower against corruption. His calls for demonstrations come at a time when Egypt’s lower and middle classes have been badly squeezed by years of economic reforms and austerity measures.

The businessman, Mohammed Ali, has put out a series of viral videos claiming corruption by the military and government. His videos inspired others — often wearing masks to hide their identity — to post their own videos relating experiences with alleged corruption or mismanagement.

Ali has alleged his contracting business witnessed the largescale misuse of public funds in military-run projects building luxury hotels, presidential palaces and a tomb for el-Sissi’s mother, who died in 2014.

El-Sissi has dismissed the corruption allegations as “sheer lies.” However, he said he would continue building new presidential residences for the good of Egypt. “I am building a new country,” he said.

El-Sissi and government officials have argued that the military is the only institution that can efficiently lead mega-projects aimed at stoking the economy. The president has repeatedly warned that protests and demonstrations risk causing chaos that would disrupt efforts at repairing the country.

Also Sunday, Egyptian prosecutors ordered the brother of a prominent Egyptian activist to remain in custody for 15 days, a rights lawyer told AP.

Wael Ghonim is in self-exile in the U.S. and led a Facebook page that helped ignite the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. He has recently been criticizing el-Sissi on social media, and says his brother’s arrest from their parents’ home in Cairo was retaliation for that criticism.

Mahinour el-Masry, a rights lawyer and notable activist from the 2011 uprising, was arrested Sunday as well.

Egyptian authorities have imposed heavy security in the capital, Cairo, particularly around near Tahrir Square. That was the epicenter of the so-called Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

El-Sissi is a former army general who has overseen an unprecedented political crackdown, silencing critics and jailing thousands. Shortly after the military took power in 2013, a sit-in by Islamists was broken up by security forces in an operation that left hundreds dead.

Egypt remains among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S. based non-profit.

Taliban Leaders Visit China to Discuss ‘Dead’ US Talks

A visiting Afghan Taliban delegation held talks with senior officials in China Sunday to discuss the Islamist insurgent group’s now defunct peace negotiations with the United States.

The insurgent visit comes two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump had abruptly called off his administration’s months-long peace talks, citing ongoing Taliban deadly attacks in Afghanistan.

The two adversaries were believed to be on the verge of signing an agreement to end the 18-year-old Afghan war before Trump declared the peace process as “dead.”

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the nine-member delegation has traveled to Beijing under the leadership of Mullah Baradar, the head of the group’s political office in Qatar, which hosted the U.S.-Taliban talks.

 

The visitors’ opened their tour with a meeting Sunday with Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, the Taliban spokesman said.

“The Chinese special representative said the U.S.-Taliban deal is a good framework for the peaceful solution of the Afghan issue and they support it,” Shaheen noted.

He quoted Baradar as telling the Chinese host the Taliban had initiated the talks with the U.S. and a “comprehensive deal” was also concluded.

“Now, if the American president cannot uphold his words and promises, then the responsibility for further destruction and bloodshed in Afghanistan rests on his shoulders,” Baradar said.

There were was no immediate comments available from Chinese officials about their meetings with the Taliban delegation.

On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman while addressing his regular news conference in Beijing had called for restarting the stalled U.S.-Taliban peace process.

“We stand ready to enhance coordination and cooperation with all parties concerned to contribute to the national reconciliation, peace and stability in Afghanistan at an early date,” said Geng Shuang.

Prior to their visit to China, the Taliban had sent its political representatives to Russia and Iran to discuss developments that had stemmed from President Trump’s cancellation of the talks with insurgents.  

Shaheen, who is part of the delegation visiting Beijing, said that Moscow and Tehran both have also supported the Taliban’s efforts for promoting peace and security in Afghanistan.

The insurgent group’s diplomatic efforts come as Afghanistan is set to hold its fourth presidential election later this week, amid allegations incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking reelection, is using state resources to run his campaign. Ghani’s campaign team has rejected the charges.

The Taliban has threatened to launch violent attacks on election-related activities to disrupt the September 28 vote. An insurgent suicide bomber targeted an election rally Ghani was addressing last week in the northern Parwan province that killed around 30 people and injured many more.

 

 

Travel Firm Thomas Cook Teeters on Edge as Talks Continue

More than 600,000 vacationers who booked through tour operator Thomas Cook were on edge Sunday, wondering if they will be able to get home, as one of the world’s oldest and biggest travel companies teetered on the edge of collapse.
 
The debt-laden company, which confirmed Friday it was seeking 200 million pounds ($250 million) in funding to avoid going bust, was in talks with shareholders and creditors to stave off failure.
 
A collapse could leave around 150,000 travelers from Britain stranded, along with hundreds of thousands from other countries. The company has sought to reassure customers that flights were continuing to operate as normal.
 
Most of Thomas Cook’s British customers are protected by the government-run travel insurance program, which makes sure vacationers can get home if a British-based tour operator goes under while they are abroad.
 
Thomas Cook’s financial difficulties also raised questions about the jobs of the 22,000 people employed by the company around the world, including 9,000 in Britain.
 
Unions and Britain’s opposition Labour Party urged the government to intervene financially to save jobs if the company fails to raise the necessary financing from the private sector.
 
If the company collapsed, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority would probably be ordered by the government to launch a major operation to fly stranded vacationers home, much as it did when Monarch Airlines went bust nearly two years ago.
 
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab gave assurances that British vacationers will not be left stranded.
 
 “I don’t want to give all the details of it because it depends on the nature of how people are out there,” he told the BBC. “But I can reassure people that, in the worst-case scenario, the contingency planning is there to avoid people being stranded.”
 
Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s business spokesperson, said the government “faces a simple choice between a 200 million-pound government cash injection to save the company now versus a 600 million-pound bill to repatriate U.K. holidaymakers.”
 
Thomas Cook, which began in 1841 with a one-day train excursion in England and now operates in 16 countries, has been struggling over the past few years. It only recently raised 900 million pounds ($1.12 billion), including from leading Chinese shareholder Fosun.
 
In May, the company reported a debt burden of 1.25 billion pounds and cautioned that political uncertainty related to Britain’s departure from the European Union had hurt demand for summer holiday travel. Heat waves over the past couple of summers in Europe have also led many people to stay at home, while higher fuel and hotel costs have weighed on the travel business.
 
The company’s troubles appear to be already affecting those traveling under the Thomas Cook banner.
 
A British vacationer told BBC radio on Sunday that the Les Orangers beach resort in the Tunisian town of Hammamet, near Tunis, demanded that guests who were about to leave pay extra money for fear it wouldn’t be paid what it is owed by Thomas Cook.
 
Ryan Farmer, of Leicestershire, said many tourists refused the demand, since they had already paid Thomas Cook, so security guards shut the hotel’s gates and “were not allowing anyone to leave.”
 
It was like “being held hostage,” said Farmer, who is due to leave Tuesday. He said he would also refuse to pay if the hotel asked him.
 
 The Associated Press called the hotel, as well as the British Embassy in Tunis, but no officials or managers were available for comment.

 

 

Trump Says He Did Nothing Wrong in Call with Ukrainian Leader

U.S. President Donald Trump said Sunday he did nothing wrong in a telephone conversation with the new president of Ukraine amid news report that Trump allegedly urged him to investigate the son of former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden.

Speaking to reporters, Trump described his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky as “absolutely perfect.”

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to newly elected Ukrainian parliament deputies during parliament session in Kyiv, Aug. 29, 2019.

According to news reports, Trump urged Zelensky about eight times during their conversation to investigate Biden’s son. Sources were quoted saying Trump’s intent was to get Zelensky to collaborate with Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani on an investigation that could undermine Biden.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko on Saturday denied Trump had pressured Zelensky during the call, telling the media outlet Hromadski that Ukraine would not take sides in U.S. politics even if the country was in a position to do so.

Trump and Guiliani have pushed for an investigation of the Bidens for weeks, following news reports this year that explored whether a Ukrainian energy company tried to secure influence in the U.S. by employing Biden’s younger son, Hunter.

Democrats are condemning what they perceive as a concerted effort to damage Biden, who has been thrust into the middle of an unidentified whistleblower’s complaint against Trump. Biden is currently the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Trump administration has blocked procedures under which the whistleblower complaint would have normally been forwarded by the U.S. intelligence community to members of the Democrat-controlled Congress, keeping its contents secret.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden puts on a Beau Biden Foundation hat while speaking at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, in Des Moines, Iowa, Sept. 21, 2019.

Biden said late Friday that if the reports are accurate, “then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country.” Biden also called on Trump to disclose the transcript of his conversation with Zelensky so “the American people can judge for themselves.”

When asked about releasing the transcript,  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News that  “those are private conversations between world leaders and it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so except in the most extreme circumstances.”

The intelligence community inspector general has described the whistleblower’s August 12 complaint as “serious” and “urgent,” conditions that would normally require him to forward the complaint to Congress. Trump has characterized the complaint as “just another political hack job.”

 

Al-Shabab Attack Kills 20 Somali Soldiers

At least 20 Somali government soldiers were killed and 18 others were wounded when al-Shabab raided a military base south of Mogadishu, security sources told VOA Somali.

The sources said militants detonated a suicide car bomb at the El-Salin military base followed by an infantry attack in the early hours of Sunday.

The militants briefly took over the base, a regional official told VOA Somali.

A spokesman for Somali special forces said the militants attacked the base “in large numbers.” 

Mowlid Ahmed Hassan said the fighting lasted about 40 minutes, insisting the troops ‘defended” the base. He said reinforcements have been sent to the base.

Hassan said the troops killed 13 militants, but declined to comment on the number of government soldiers killed in the attack.

Somali troops seized the El-Salin base from al-Shabab on August 6. It was one of four bases in Lower Shabelle region recaptured following an offensive by the Somali military.

Greek Police Arrest Suspect in 1985 TWA Hijacking, Killing of Navy Diver

Greek police said Saturday they have arrested a suspect in the 1985 hijacking of a flight from Athens that became a multiday ordeal and included the slaying of an American.

Police said a 65-year-old suspect in the hijacking was arrested Thursday on the island of Mykonos in response to a warrant from Germany.

Lt. Col. Theodoros Chronopoulos, a police spokesman, told The Associated Press that the hijacking case involved TWA Flight 847. The flight was commandeered by hijackers shortly after taking off from Athens on June 14, 1985. It originated in Cairo and had San Diego as a final destination, with stops scheduled in Athens, Rome, Boston and Los Angeles.

FILE – While holding carnations he carried off the plane, former hostage Victor Amburgy hugs an unidentified girl upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, July 2, 1985. Thirty former hostages from TWA flight 847 were greeted by President Reagan.

The hijackers shot and killed U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, 23, after beating him unconscious. They released the other 146 passengers and crew members on the plane during an ordeal that included stops in Beirut and Algiers. The last hostage was freed after 17 days.

Suspect from Lebanon

The suspect was in custody Saturday on the Greek island of Syros but was set to be transferred to the Korydallos high security prison in Athens for extradition proceedings, a police spokeswoman told The Associated Press. She said the suspect was a Lebanese citizen. The spokeswoman spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.

Police refused to release the suspect’s name.

In Beirut, the Foreign Ministry said the man detained in Greece is a Lebanese journalist called Mohammed Saleh, and that a Lebanese embassy official planned to try to visit him Sunday.

However, several Greek media outlets identified the detainee as Mohammed Ali Hammadi, who was arrested in Frankfurt in 1987 and convicted in Germany for the plane hijacking and Stethem’s slaying. Hammadi, an alleged Hezbollah member, was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled in 2005 and returned to Lebanon.

Germany had resisted pressure to extradite him to the United States after Hezbollah abducted two German citizens in Beirut and threatened to kill them.

Hammadi, along with fellow hijacker Hasan Izz-Al-Din and accomplice Ali Atwa, remains on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists. The FBI offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to each man’s capture.

News agency dpa reported Saturday that Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment on news reports about the case.
 

Fifth Death Linked to Storm That Walloped Houston Area

The widespread damage brought to the Houston area by one of the wettest tropical cyclones in U.S. history came into broader view Saturday, as floodwaters receded to reveal the exhausting cleanup effort that lies ahead for many communities and homeowners.

Hundreds of homes and other buildings in the region, extending eastward from Houston and across the Louisiana border, were damaged by Imelda, as the one-time tropical storm slowly churned across the region, dumping more than 40 inches (102 centimeters) of rain in some spots and being blamed for at least five deaths.

Officials in Harris County, which is home to Houston, were trying to determine if millions of dollars in uninsured losses were enough to trigger a federal disaster declaration, Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said Saturday.

FILE – In this photo provided by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, a family is rescued via fan boat by a member of the department from the floodwaters of Tropical Depression Imelda near Beaumont, Texas, Sept. 19, 2019.

Authorities raised the storm’s death toll to five, saying it was believed to have killed a 52-year-old Florida man who was found dead Thursday in his stranded pickup truck along Interstate 10 near Beaumont, which is near Texas’ border with Louisiana. Jefferson County spokeswoman Allison Getz said that although floodwaters seeped into Mark Dukaj’s truck, investigators didn’t think he drowned, though they did think his death was storm-related. An autopsy will determine the cause.

A section of the highway just east of Houston remained closed Saturday after at least two runaway barges struck two bridges carrying eastbound and westbound traffic. Nearly 123,000 vehicles normally cross the bridges each day, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The Coast Guard has said that witnesses reported early Friday that nine barges had broken away from their moorings at a shipyard along the fast-moving San Jacinto River.

Two barges stuck

Two barges remained lodged against the bridges, said Emily Black, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department.

“The current is really very strong right now, so it’s kind of pushed them up against the columns,” she said.

Inspectors hope that the water will recede and the current will slow down enough for the barges to be removed this weekend so that a better assessment of the damage to the bridges can be made.

Several schools in the Beaumont area were damaged by floodwaters and two are closed indefinitely as officials evaluate the extent of the damage, the Beaumont Enterprise reported. The closure of schools in two separate school districts could affect more than 3,000 students.

Counties in the region, meanwhile, imposed curfews to ensure motorists stayed off roadways that still have standing water.

Elsewhere, in Galveston County, officials said people along a Gulf Coast peninsula could be without fresh water service for a month because a water treatment plant was knocked out of operation by flooding, The Galveston County Daily News reported.

Q&A: Trump, Ukraine and the Whistleblower

Very behind the scenes, a whistleblower from the intelligence community voiced urgent concern about a matter involving a conversation between Ukraine’s leader and President Donald Trump. It’s so hush-hush that even Democrats won’t say all that they know, or suspect.

Very much out in the open, Trump is calling for an investigation that involves Ukraine and could help him win re-election if it breaks his way.

Trump’s interest in getting dirt from abroad on prospective Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden has been hiding in plain sight for months. His fealty to standards that other presidents have either lived by or pretended to — as when it comes to chats with foreign leaders, for example — is thin.

This is, after all, the man who openly encouraged Russia to snoop on Hillary Clinton’s email and much more recently said that, sure, he’d listen to foreigners who come to him with dirt on an opponent. Why not? he wondered.

As the contours of the episode roiling the capital begin to flesh out, here are some questions and answers at the intersection of Trump, Ukraine and the whistleblower.

Why the whistle?

Because someone in the government, who is under the umbrella of U.S. intelligence, saw or heard something that raised a credible and “urgent concern” about how someone else in government did or said something that “involves confidential and potentially privileged communications by persons outside the intelligence community.” That’s according to Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for intelligence.

It’s no more spelled out than that so far, because the complaint remains a closely held secret.

FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is pictured in a meeting with law enforcement officers in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 23, 2019.

But the complaint was based on a series of events, one of which was a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to two people familiar with the matter. The people were not authorized to discuss the issue by name and were granted anonymity.

What does Trump say about the complaint?

“Just another political hack job.”

“I have conversations with many leaders. It’s always appropriate.”

As for the July 25 phone conversation he had with Zelenskiy: “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.”

What do Democrats say?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says if reports about the complaint bear out, Trump faces “serious repercussions” and the U.S. will have “grave, urgent concerns for our national security.”

As the leader at the center of a months-long Democratic debate over whether to impeach Trump — she has resisted pressure from members to do so — Pelosi will find her every word on this matter scrutinized for signs of whether this makes her want to move ahead.

Where do Ukraine and Biden come into it?

Biden was vice president, with some influence over U.S. policy on Ukraine, when son Hunter was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian businessman. Trump for months has been calling for more scrutiny of that period and imputing corrupt motives to the business and government work of the Biden family, without putting forward evidence of wrongdoing.

“Someone ought to look into Joe Biden,” he said again Friday, undeterred by the revelation of the whistleblower complaint.

The question arising from this matter is whether Trump personally pressed Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens in that phone call or other times and, if so, whether seeking or accepting such help from a foreign leader to benefit his re-election constitutes a misuse of presidential power. That question can’t be answered with what’s known so far.

Is this Russia redux, just a different country?

There are some similarities to the episode investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller as he tracked an aggressive effort by Russia to tilt the 2016 U.S. election to Trump. There are also differences, as well as much that remains unknown.

FILE – Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, July 24, 2019.

The Mueller report informed or reminded everyone that it’s illegal for a political campaign to accept a “thing of value” from a foreign government. It could be argued that an investigation by a foreign government meant to harm a political opponent would be a thing of value, and pressing for one could be perilous for a U.S. president.

It could also be argued that it is not. The Trump administration has had longstanding complaints about corruption in Ukraine and asking for corruption to be investigated is, on the surface, different than the potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign that Mueller looked into.

One striking twist here is that pressure for a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens has come most publicly not from the government or the campaign, but from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani has been working for months to get Ukraine’s leadership to probe the Bidens.

How?

In May, Giuliani scrapped plans to take his case for a Biden investigation directly to authorities in Kyiv, when word got out about the trip. But he’s been talking to Ukrainians about it.

At the time, he tweeted: “Explain to me why Biden shouldn’t be investigated if his son got millions from a Russian loving crooked Ukrainian oligarch while He was VP and point man for Ukraine.”

Trump tag-teamed him on the Biden matter, telling Fox News, “I’m hearing it’s a major scandal, major problem.”

FILE – Rudy Giuliani, center, leaves Trump Tower, Nov. 11, 2016, in New York.

Asked Thursday on CNN whether he’d pressed Ukrainian leaders to probe the Bidens, Giuliani said: “Of course I did,” seconds after saying, “No, actually I didn’t.”

Where’s the complaint?

Under wraps. Only bits and pieces of information about it have emerged because the administration has balked at showing it to Congress, much less to the public.

The timeline is this: Atkinson, the inspector general, received the complaint Aug. 12, reviewed it, found it credible and urgent, and forwarded it two weeks later to Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence. Maguire’s office decided the complaint was outside the agency’s jurisdiction and not urgent, and informed Congress Sept. 9 of the situation without showing it the complaint. Atkinson said that was a break from normal procedure, which is to disclose the contents to lawmakers.

That’s when House Democrats began to suspect that Trump was the subject of the complaint and quickly followed with a subpoena, yet to be satisfied.

Atkinson appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to tell lawmakers the substance of the complaint. Maguire has agreed to give public testimony Sept. 26 and both are expected to talk to the Senate intelligence committee during the week.

‘Welcome Back’: A Reporter’s Fraught Re-Entry to Zimbabwe

The immigration officer lifted his stamp to put the visa into my passport and I heaved a sigh of relief. But then my passport was taken by a smiling woman who asked, “Have you been to Zimbabwe before?”

Through questioning she determined that I had worked as a journalist in the country from 1980 to 2003.

“Was your departure from Zimbabwe voluntary or involuntary?” she asked. I answered truthfully: It was involuntary as I had been expelled by the government.

“Please come with me to answer a few questions,” she said, leading me to a small room.

I knew that room well, as I had been detained there 16 years ago. That was after I was dragged from a news conference, slapped by a police officer, put in a car with a hood over my head and held in the airport basement for several hours.

FILE – The casket of former President Robert Mugabe is escorted by military officers as it departs after a state funeral at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 14, 2019.

‘Historic event’

This time I was questioned by the young woman and two other agents. They interrogated me about why I had been jailed, put on trial and acquitted but then forcibly ejected from Zimbabwe. Had my reporting been biased? I said that I had reported objectively and that I had been the last foreign correspondent based in Zimbabwe to be thrown out of the country. I told them I was returning to cover the burial of former President Robert Mugabe.

“It’s an historic event. Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years and had a huge influence on Zimbabwe and across Africa. I want to chronicle this final chapter of his life,” I told them.

“The international sanctions against Zimbabwe, why haven’t they been lifted?” I was asked, prompting a discussion about the economic penalties that were imposed during Mugabe’s rule and have been maintained.

Then came their verdict.

“Welcome back to Zimbabwe!” said one of the agents, telling me I would be admitted — and adding that they would be watching my work.

I walked outside and felt Zimbabwe’s unmistakable cool, consoling evening air. I was back. After 16 years in journalistic exile, I had returned to the country that had been my home and the core of my career. It felt surreal.

For the past week I’ve been on the beat, covering the mourning period for Mugabe, the viewings of his body, the state funeral attended by several African leaders, and the dramatic tug-of-war between widow Grace Mugabe and President Emmerson Mnangagwa over where, when and how Mugabe would be buried. I’ve interviewed Zimbabwean officials, academics and analysts and, best of all, Zimbabweans of all walks of life. One of Mugabe’s best legacies is a well-educated population that is the envy of Africa and the pointed, perceptive and often funny quotes from everyday citizens can liven up any story.

Repression, abuses

One of Mugabe’s worst legacies is repression and human rights abuses. Government critics and opposition leaders faced abductions, torture and sometimes death. The abduction last week of the leader of a doctors association who had criticized the government for the deterioration in Zimbabwe’s health care system is a reminder that this abuse is continuing. It was the latest in a string of such abductions by suspected government agents.

FILE – Children play soccer next to a defaced portrait of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Sept. 6, 2019.

It’s hard to remember that Zimbabwe, at its independence in 1980, captured the world’s attention as a country of positive achievements and promise. It had gone from a bitter, bloody war against white minority Rhodesian rule, to majority-ruled Zimbabwe. Guerrilla leader Mugabe won elections, espoused racial reconciliation and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Minimum wages increased, school enrollment quadrupled, health clinics sprang up and people’s lives improved dramatically. Zimbabwe’s success was a pointed challenge to neighboring apartheid-ruled South Africa.

That is the country that I had come to report on in 1980. It was exciting to write about Zimbabwe’s development and the country’s role in the struggle against apartheid.

But soon I found myself uncovering and writing about the government’s brutal campaign in the southern Matabeleland provinces, a center of opposition to Mugabe, during which an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Ndebeles, Zimbabwe’s minority ethnic group, were killed. Mugabe gave fiery speeches attacking the West and urging sanctions against South Africa. He publicly condemned gays, saying they had no legal rights. In 2000 he ordered the seizure of white-owned farms, which was often violent. When Mugabe was challenged by an opposition party that sprang from the trade union movement, his militia reacted viciously and 300 members of the new party were killed.

Arrest, acquittal, expulsion

The  abuses were harrowing, and in reporting them for the British newspaper The Guardian, I was getting these accounts out to the world, especially of the brave people insisting on good governance and respect for human rights at great cost to their own safety. The government began restricting the foreign press, and several of my colleagues were kicked out of the country. Then in May 2002 I was arrested and spent a night in jail. I was charged with publishing a falsehood, a criminal offense carrying a two-year jail term. After a grueling two-month trial, I was acquitted. But 10 months later state agents abducted me and forcibly expelled me from the country.

Mugabe loomed large throughout all of this, so it seemed fitting to return to report on his funeral.

Immediately upon my arrival, I felt back at home. At Rufaro Stadium, in the capital’s poor Mbare suburb, Mugabe’s partially open casket was put on view. I had always liked going there for concerts featuring musicians like Oliver Mutukudzi and Paul Simon’s Graceland tour with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. The stadium was also where Mugabe had given many incendiary speeches.

And now here was his casket. I got in the fast-moving line to view the body and soon found myself peering at it, his eyes closed in repose, small and not angry.

As I walked away a microphone was thrust in my face. “Andrew Meldrum, you have viewed Robert Mugabe, what do you think of his passing?” It was a well-known reporter from the state broadcaster. I said it was an historic occasion that I was pleased to be able to chronicle.

FILE – A woman walks home at sunset in Harare, Zimbabwe, Aug. 7, 2019.

Throughout a tumultuous week of reporting, I have noted the changes to Zimbabwe since my departure 16 years ago. Downtown Harare looks a bit run down but still orderly amid its bustle. It is in the outlying working-class suburbs where conditions have plummeted. The roads have deteriorated badly, power cuts are up to 19 hours per day and water comes on just once a week. By day, people line up at wells to pump water for drinking, washing and cooking; at night, these areas are dark. I used to go to friends’ homes for meals in these neighborhoods. Now few can afford such hospitality.

Natural splendor

It is when I am outdoors, taking in Zimbabwe’s unique subtropical climate, that I feel most at ease. The cycads and palm trees, the brilliantly colored bougainvillea, the jacaranda trees that have been coming into their purple bloom while I am here are more notable to me than shabby buildings that need a coat of paint.  When I heard the distinctive “tuk, tuk, tuk” call of the purple-crested turaco, I was immediately taken back in time to when I lived here.

Zimbabwe’s challenges and problems are more pressing than ever, which makes it even more satisfying to be reporting on the people struggling to get by and insisting on better living conditions. Even if it is only for a short time, it feels good and natural to be back.

At the airport, when I was questioned before my entry, the official asked me: “What is your mindset on coming back to Zimbabwe? Are you bitter?”

“No,” I said, smiling. “I’m not a bitter man. Returning to Zimbabwe and reporting on its challenges is gratifying.”

Medical Workers Increasingly at Risk in Syria’s Idlib

Rami Fares was carrying out his daily tasks as a medical worker at a local hospital in a rebel-held town near Idlib city in northwest Syria when several airstrikes and missiles hit the town.

As he was trying to call his family to make sure they survived the deadly raid, Fares’ workplace, Kafr Nabl Surgical Hospital, was targeted as well.

“Airstrikes hitting the hospital lasted for about an hour,” Fares, 30, told VOA, recalling the June attack, reportedly carried out by Syrian government warplanes on the town of Kafr Nabl, 50 kilometers south of Idlib.

“The hardest strike was when a barrel bomb hit the entrance of the hospital and the pressure of the explosion threw me to the floor. We had to evacuate the hospital that day,” he said.

Because the hospital had been built underground to protect patients from heavy bombings, no one was killed in that attack.

FILE – Damage is seen at a hospital after an airstrike in Deir al-Sharqi village in Idlib province, Syria, April 27, 2017.

Years of deadly conflict in the country has led Syrians to build structures that are able to withstand the constant shelling. That has led underground shelters and hideouts to become common throughout the country.

Fares said his family was also lucky to be in one of the nearby underground shelters when the bombing struck their home. Unsettled by the attack, he sent his wife and two sons to Turkey.

Syrian regime forces and Russian warplanes have been pounding Kafr Nabl and other towns in Idlib governorate since late 2015, claiming they are going after Islamist militants affiliated with al-Qaida.

Rights organizations, however, say civilian targets have been greatly affected, with airstrikes often targeting medical facilities and health workers.

According to UNICEF, there have been 25 confirmed attacks on health care facilities in Idlib since late April that have left at least six health workers dead.

In Kafr Nabl alone, bombings in May put the Hikma and Kafr Nabl surgical hospitals out of service, limiting access to health care for about 64,000 children.

“These attacks compound an already dire health situation in the country, where close to half of all health facilities are either nonfunctional or partially functional,” the U.N.’s children’s organization said in a June statement.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, more than 850 medical workers have been killed, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a U.S.-based group that supports medical facilities in rebel-held areas in Syria.

And despite a unilateral cease-fire in Idlib that Russia announced two weeks ago, Syrian regime troops have continued targeting civilians there, local sources said.
 

FILE – Destruction is seen around the Udai hospital following airstrikes on the town of Saraqeb in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, Jan. 29, 2018.

Humanitarian deconfliction

In a bid to prevent attacks on health facilities and workers, the U.N. has set up a humanitarian deconfliction system, requiring nongovernmental organizations in the war-torn country to share the locations of the medical facilities with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA, in turn, shares these locations with the warring sides, particularly those with air power.

Activists, however, say the system has proven ineffective as scores of medical facilities whose locations had already been given to the OCHA were subject to Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

“We provided the coordinates of the Kafr Nabl hospital to a U.N. committee to document its location and [those of other] health facilities in Idlib,” said medical worker Fares. “One week later, we were surprised that the hospital and other medical facilities were attacked.”

Documented attacks

New York-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said it has confirmed 578 attacks on 350 separate facilities and documented the killing of 890 medical personnel from March 2011 to July 2019 across Syria.

Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at PHR, said that Russia’s representative at the U.N. did not deny the attacks on medical facilities in Syria in a Security Council session in late July. Russia, however, insists that it targets “terrorist” groups who use medical facilities as hideouts.

“Russia also claimed that the targeted health facilities are not functioning ones, which contradicts the representative of OCHA, Mark Lowcock, who confirmed that they are functioning health facilities and they are supported by the U.N.,” Sirkin said.

‘Scorched-earth assault’

Syria is one of the signatory states to the Geneva Conventions, which prevent warring parties from attacking people, including aid workers, who are not part of the conflict.

FILE – Firefighters respond at the destroyed building of Nabd Al-Hayat hospital that was hit by an airstrike in Hass, Idlib province, Syria, May 6, 2019, in this still image taken from a video on May 9, 2019.

Sirkin said her group has documented attacks by all parties in Syria, but the Russian and Syrian regime’s warplanes carry out nearly 90 percent of those attacks.

“It is part of a scorched-earth assault to destroy civilian infrastructure and anything in its way. The Syrian regime is obliterating civilian infrastructure,” Sirkin said.

According the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), an estimated 4 million people in northwestern Syria need medical assistance, even as attacks on medical facilities continue to deprive people from getting lifesaving care.

“This pattern of continued forced displacement, and damage or destruction of essential civilian infrastructure such as health facilities, is a deeply disturbing reality in the Syrian conflict,” HRW said in a report published this month.