Greek ““Hero of the Aegean” Who Saved Thousands of Refugees Dies

It seems to always be the case that the most heroic individuals remain obscure even at the height of their courage, let alone later in life. Of course, that speaks even more to their heroism: they do good for its own sake, not for fame, glory, or external validation.

Thus, I doubt that Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who died of a heart attack this past Thursday, would mind how little-known he is outside his native Greece and the global humanitarian community.  He was too busy being one of the thousands of unsung heroes that were conducting rescue operations throughout the Mediterranean following the “migrant crisis” that began in 2015.  During the peak migration flows from the Middle East into Greece, the Hellenic Coast Guard Captain, a 44-year-old father of two, feverishly conducted rescue operations aboard patrol vessel 605, saving over 5,000 lives in the waters between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey.

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For his dedication and selflessness, he was dubbed “the hero of the Aegean” or “the guardian angel of refugees” in Greek media, and was made the subject of an award-winning documentary about his efforts4.1 Miles (named after the short but treacherous distance between Lesbos and Turkey). It was at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 that Papadopoulos displayed his characteristic humility and compassion, as recounted by the English-language Greek newspaper, The National Herald:

Asked about the awards and honors, Papadopoulos noted that “the greatest honor is knowing we saved ​​a two-year-old child who was trampled in the boat, pulled unconscious, and brought back to life, and the two hundred and more unaccompanied children and the over five thousand refugees we rescued by the end of 2014 until today.”

In the documentary, Papadopoulos expresses sympathy for the refugees and being at a loss to help console them. He even alluded to the random luck of geography in explaining how his country remains relatively stable while neighbors endure bloodshed and chaos.

In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them …When I look into their eyes, I see their memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families … losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country because of the way they have to cross.

Greek Maritime Minister Fotis Kouvelis said Papadopoulos “showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, while the mayor of Lesbos tweeted that his city is poorer following the captain’s loss. All this comes amid the continuing struggles of Greece to accommodate its refugees, most of whom languish in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, or live on the streets of major cities.

Despite humanity’s failure to sort out the refugee crisis—and for that matter the conflicts and calamities that precipitate it—I can derive some solace from the many unsung heroes like Papadopoulos who are still on the ground doing all that they can to stem the tide of human misery.

 

The Judge Who Stood Up to the Nazis

KreyssigLothar Kreyssig was the only German judge to oppose the Nazi’s Action T4 euthanasia program, which targeted those with mental and physical disabilities and other “undesirables”.

Appointed a district court judge in 1928 during the Weimar Republic, Kreyssig opposed the Nazis from the start: he resisted pressure to join the Nazi Party—citing his need to maintain judicial independence—and joined the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazi-backed efforts to form a “Protestant Reich Church”. He consistently displayed contempt and insubordination toward the regime, including slipping out of a ceremony in his court when a bust of Hitler was unveiled; openly protesting the suspension of three judges who failed to enforce “Aryan laws”; and referring to Nazi church policies as “injustice masquerading in the form of law”. Continue reading

Climate Change is Reversing Progress in Malnutrition

About three decades ago, nearly one-fifth of the world was undernourished. By 2014–just a decade and a half later–that number halved, reflecting incredible progress in both food security and economic development.

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Unfortunately,  a recent U.N. report found an uptick in undernourishment, which rose from 750 million in 2013 to 821 million people in 2017, the level of 10 years ago. The main cause attributed to this sudden reversal was climate change, which has increased the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Secondarily, major conflicts–namely in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan–have led to a breakdown in food production and supply.

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The report also noted major geographical differences in the impact of climate change on hunger:

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Even more interesting for an international relations buff like myself are the geopolitical implications of this development:

The increase in undernourishment in Africa comes as China is challenging the international model of development aid by offering economic deals and loans for infrastructure projects rather than programs for capacity building increasingly favored by the West. While critics are accusing Beijing of exploiting resource-rich countries, supporters are pointing at promising growth numbers.

In Latin America — where slowing economic growth in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela has coincided with political unrest — China has challenged the more traditional Western aid system in a similar way.

But the more urgent task of preventing large-scale famines or disasters is still mostly being carried out by Western-led development aid organizations. Tuesday’s U.N. report suggests that their role will become even more crucial in the coming years.

Their vital role will also be more difficult in an increasingly fragmented world. But while humanity polarizes across nationalistically and ideological lines, the causes of both climate change and hunger remain too diffuse and transnational for any one country to resolve them. Greenhouse gas emissions affect the rest of the world no matter where they come from; lower crop yields in one country can lead to starvation in another. We must not lose sight of the global cooperation and innovation that helped us get this far in eliminating one of the greatest scourges of humanity.

Source: The Washington Post

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Mayan Civilization Continues to Amaze

I have been listening to this lecture series about the colonization of the Americas, and how the Mayans were unprecedented for being able to carve out an advanced civilization in an inhospitable, under-resourced jungle without the benefit of the wheel, plow, and draft animals (the lack of the latter is why the wheel never came to use as a tool to begin with).

Now, scientists using advance laser technology have revealed the incredible extent of the Mayans’ achievements: sophisticated urban complexes spanning tens of thousands of structures deep in the jungle. As IFLS reports:

Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 1,200 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Whether or not these structures existed at the same time, or represents different periods of development, it is still amazing that such large and well organized societies could have sustained themselves in environments that even today are challenging to settle and develop.

Nobel Peace Prize 2019 Highlights Sexual Violence and Those Who Fight It

Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2019 made my day, not only because it is extremely well deserved, but also because it brings attention to a sadly relevant problem. As the BBC reports:

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.

Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.

Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.

The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.

The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.

I learned about Murad years ago, when Islamic State suddenly swept through Iraq and Syria, stunning the world with its rise, brutality, and genocidal aims.  However, I had not appreciated how she persevered against the unfathomable suffering she endured, using it as a source of strength to motivate her activism:

Ms Murad did not just lose her mother in the genocide. She endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of IS militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

After escaping, she became an activist for the Yazidi people, campaigning to help put an end to human trafficking and calling on the world to take a tougher line on rape as a weapon of war.

Ms Murad described her escape in a BBC interview in 2016, detailing how the women who were held captive were treated by IS.

She was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016 and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by IS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg.

Ms Murad, the first Iraqi to win the award, was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

I am eager to learn more about this incredible woman, in particular through a documentary about her life and activism highlighted by the LA Times:

There are miles of mass graves, millions of refugees. Only some are heard. But Murad, whose power comes from a brokenness inside, will not let her people in northern Iraq be forgotten.

She is a reluctant heroine, a young woman of unflinching conviction and rustic grace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — sharing it with Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor — on Friday for her work to end sexual violence in war zones. Murad was kidnapped and made a sex slave when Islamic State fighters overran Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq in 2014. She escaped months later and made it to Europe.

The new documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is an evocative portrait of this unwitting activist who lost family, endured rape and torture and became the eloquent if at times overwhelmed voice of 400,000 Yazidis, a religious minority, driven from their homes. Hers was the poetry of witness in a land of atrocity, a tale carried by a seamstress to the world’s capitals.

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad for three months as she calls attention to her people’s plight, traveling from Berlin to New York to Canada. Her mother and brothers had been killed; at least 3,200 women and girls remained in captivity. This was her story, unfolded in weary persistence to politicians and ambassadors, many of whom praised and photographed her but could do little to stop the carnage.

The disquieting truth of “On Her Shoulders” is Murad’s gradual realization — as if layers of a bitter fruit exposed — that a village girl, even one with Amal Clooney as her lawyer, cannot quickly budge the world’s bureaucracy and cruel political designs. This point is crystallized when she is told that it will be a decade before destroyed Yazidi towns are rebuilt and refuges return home, a time when her village will be a place of no men and widows dressed in black. She cannot fathom this.

An incredible human being who is a testament to the courage and tenacity of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Dr. Mukwege is equally inspiring, prompting me to write a blog about him over four years ago, when he was still being touted as a potential prize recipient. I invite you to read more about his life and work, and to donate to his medical foundation (which now proudly displays a banner announcing his Nobel Peace Prize win).

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

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Whenever I find myself losing faith in humanity, I will just think of these two and the millions of others like them.

A Lost Civilization in India?

It is amazing how we are still uncovering signs of early civilizations going back tens of thousands of years, forcing us to rethink the span of organized and sophisticated human society.  From the BBC:

The sheer variety of the rock carvings have stunned experts — animals, birds, human figures and geometrical designs are all depicted.

The way the petroglyphs have been drawn, and their similarity to those found in other parts of the world, have led experts to believe that they were created in prehistoric times and are possibly among the oldest ever discovered.

“Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000BC,” the director of the Maharashtra state archaeology department, Tejas Garge, told the BBC.

The credit for their discovery goes to a group of explorers led by Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe, who began searching for the images in earnest after observing a few in the area. Many were found in village temples and played a part in local folklore.

“We walked thousands of kilometres. People started sending photographs to us and we even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them. We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information,” Mr Risbood told the BBC.

Although these mysterious people were likely hunter-gatherers–there are no depictions of farming or other agricultural activities–their ability to conceptualize art and abstract shapes is still quite impressive for the time period.

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Even more fascinating are those depictions of animals not known to have ever existed in the region:

Most of the petroglyphs show familiar animals. There are images of sharks and whales as well as amphibians like turtles,” Mr Garge adds.

But this begs the question of why some of the petroglyphs depict animals like hippos and rhinoceroses which aren’t found in this part of India. Did the people who created them migrate to India from Africa? Or were these animals once found in India?

The state government has set aside a fund of 240 million rupees ($3.2m; £2.5m) to further study 400 of the identified petroglyphs.

It is hoped that some of these questions will eventually be answered.

I hope so as well! I look forward to following up on this!

The Birth of Solidarity

On this day in 1980, Solidarity, a Polish trade union, was founded as the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country. It gave rise to a larger nonviolent and anti-authoritarian social movement that claimed over nine million members and ultimately contributed to the fall of regimes across the Soviet bloc.

Though Poland’s government attempted to destroy Solidarity instituting martial law in 1981, followed by several years of political repression, it was forced into negotiation by the sheer weight of union’s influence and popularity. The subsequent talks resulted in semi-free elections in 1989—the closest Poland came to democracy since the 1930s. Continue reading

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

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Wikimedia Commons

 

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading