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The dangerous ‘truth’ of The Kashmir Files | Cinema



A man wearing the saffron turban and robes of a Hindu preacher stands against the plush red interior of a cinema. In one hand he carries a shiny steel trident, a traditional weapon of Hindu gods, and in the other a mobile phone. As the music flows over the end titles of the film the bearded swami begins a chilling exhortation. “You have all seen what happened to the Kashmiri Hindus,” he says, gesturing towards the screen. “That is why Hindus must protect themselves against the treachery of Muslims and prepare to take up arms.”

“If a Hindu’s blood does not boil,” he raises his voice, prompting his audience to respond: “That’s not blood – it’s water!”

The video is emblematic of public life in the India of 2022, and it was only one of many that tore across the internet following the release of The Kashmir Files, a controversial Bollywood film that opened in an impressive 600 cinemas across India on March 11.

The film is set in 1990, amid the first stirrings of the anti-India rebellion that has roiled Indian-administered Kashmir for three decades, and persists into the present. It promises to tell the story of the flight from Kashmir of the Pandits, a small Hindu minority among the region’s predominantly Muslim population. Early reviews in the Indian media had found the film deeply Islamophobic, dishonest, and a provocation, and even before the film was released its trailer had invited public interest litigation on the grounds that its “inflammatory scenes are bound to cause communal violence”. In his defence, the filmmaker had insisted that “every frame, every word in my film is truth”.

A few days after The Kashmir Files was released, it received an unusual stamp of approval. “All of you should watch it,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a meeting of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary group. “The film has shown the truth which has been suppressed for years. The truth prevailed in Kashmir Files,” Modi said. This resounding endorsement of the film’s claim to the truth, as well as the suggestion that this truth had been suppressed in the past, was an early marker of the political capital that was being invested in the film.

As a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work has centred on Kashmir for almost two decades, I have always been confounded by the facts – or the lack of them – of the departure of the community in 1990. My community, I should say, for, I am a Kashmiri Pandit. There is little clarity about even the most elementary things.

What can we say with certainty? We can say that from the middle of 1989 onwards, Kashmir witnessed the targeted killings of several significant figures of its Hindu minority, leading to widespread panic and insecurity. In these same months, many Muslims were also assassinated in Kashmir – political workers, policemen, and government officials. All this was part of the wider political upsurge of this period, presaging events that were to soon upturn the established order of things. We also know that early in 1990 some Kashmiri Pandit families began to flee in fear. Their leaving was probably intended as a temporary move though it was to prove tragically permanent for most.

In the decade that followed, Kashmir continued to be racked by mass protests as well as a full-blown armed uprising that aimed at nothing less than freedom from India. The brutal counterinsurgency that followed was to overwhelm life for all those who lived in Kashmir, and the violence and continuing fear led to steady departures of its Pandit minority, and also of a significant number of Muslims. We know that the final waves of Kashmiri Pandit departures followed two horrific massacres – of 23 civilians at Wandhama in 1998 and of 24 men, women and children at Nadimarg in 2003.

We also know that despite all this, at least 4,000 Kashmiri Pandit families never left their homes. They have continued to live in Kashmir, not in secure ghettos, but scattered across the valley. Living in what often feels like a war zone, without extended networks of family and community, their lives are not easy. But nor is life easy for their Muslim neighbours, with whom they live in what has come to be recognised as one of the most militarised zones in the world.

Even as a large number of critics found The Kashmir Files filled with factual inaccuracies, propagandist, and frightening in its relentless targeting of every Muslim represented on screen, the film continued its blitz across the box office in India. Mobilised by the cadres of the right-wing, groups of men showed up at theatres waving the Indian tricolour. Screenings frequently ended amid sloganeering and speeches, with people competing in their provocations, with brazen calls for violence against all Muslims, not just Kashmiri Muslims. These highly visible reactions were amplified through the extensive social media infrastructure of the right wing, what is often derisively called the “WhatsApp University”. Through all of this, it was relentlessly underlined that The Kashmir Files is revealing a truth that had been suppressed in the past.

The assertion that this “truth” was suppressed was odd, given that the BJP and its cohort have aggressively promoted their version of events in Kashmir since at least the mid-1990s. In this version, the expulsion of the Kashmiri Pandits was dated to one day (January 19, 1990), accompanied by an insistence that their exodus was the consequence of widespread killings, the looting and burning of Pandit homes and temples, and a high incidence of sexual violence against Pandit women. The community were victims of a genocide, the argument went, and this was framed as part of the larger threat to Hindu civilisation that only the BJP and its cohort could counter.

Although my own interest was in the facts surrounding the flight of the Kashmiri Pandits, I was also curious about the truth that was being alluded to in the film. For everything around that period has long remained shrouded, not least because it never received any serious attention from journalists and scholars, and certainly not from the government, state or federal – not even when it was led by the BJP.

The simplest questions fail to yield reliable answers. How many Kashmiri Pandits lived in the valley prior to 1990? The figures conjured up by the right-wing fluctuate between 500,000 and 700,000, although considered estimates place it at about 170,000. How many of them left the Kashmir Valley after 1990? A recent response by the region’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner placed the figure at 135,426, although on inflamed television debates the needle again fluctuates between 500,00 and 700,000, and can inexplicably go up to a million. How many Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the conflict? In conversations around The Kashmir Files, the figure has hovered around 4,000, although the most recent figures provided by the region’s police department put it at 89. Earlier official estimates had said 270, while Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a Kashmir-based citizens group, had arrived at a figure of about 700. When did they leave? And that most vexed of all: what were the circumstances that made people leave? None of these can be answered with any degree of certainty.

It is through this fog of claims and obfuscations that The Kashmir Files has emerged, asserting for itself nothing less than the truth of the “Kashmir genocide”. The evidence offered is oral, arrived at out of interviews with “700 first-generation victims” its filmmakers insist, crosschecked with historians “with credentials”, academics and experts on Kashmir, as well as administrators and police officers who were posted there at the time. This is why the disclaimer discretely wedged in the film’s opening credits took me by complete surprise: “This film… does not claim accurateness or factuality of historic events”.

Presented as a work of fiction, The Kashmir Files is freed of the constraints that the facts gathered by its makers may pose. The film is therefore able to give a potent form to something that the right wing has been cooking for more than three decades, a singular version of what they call the truth of Kashmir. It is arrived at here by picking a few dreadful events from across a decade and a half of Kashmir’s recent history, and telescoping them into a gruesome narrative that spans what appears to be a year. This compression of tragic events is then heaped upon a single fictive family, and if that burden of sorrow was not already unbearable, embroidered with further acts of unspeakable cruelty such as when a diabolic “militant commander” forces a woman to swallow uncooked rice soaked in the blood of her just-murdered husband.

This incident references the brutal 1990 slaying of BK Ganjoo, a Pandit killed while hiding in a drum of rice in the attic of his home. The twist with the blood-soaked rice seems a more recent add-on. When asked about the incident some weeks ago, Ganjoo’s brother said he had never heard of it, and that his sister-in-law had never mentioned it either. Such egregious interpolations come along with more insidious ones. At a ration depot, a group of distraught Kashmiri Pandit women are denied access to food grain by their Muslim neighbours. Although this fact remains unverifiable, the extreme dehumanisation evinced in this unverifiable incident sets the tone for a more serious claim: that conditions in Kashmir in 1990 meet the definition of genocide.

This is a film that brutalises its audience with scenes of such extreme violence that it eventually silences the possibility of considering alternative narratives that we know to be true. I could think of few: although terrible tragedies did happen to many individuals, most Kashmiri Pandit families were not betrayed by their Muslim neighbours. While some properties were torched and destroyed, most temples and homes were not ransacked or looted, and many more have run to ruin over years of neglect. And although elements in the media, the bureaucracy, and the police may well have been neglectful of their responsibilities, not everyone – as the film suggests – colluded in the persecution of the Pandits.

Most critically, this myopic narrative succeeds in obscuring the fact that what happened in Kashmir in the 1990s was not centrally a conflict between Muslims and Hindus. It was an uprising against the Indian state. It did not arrive overnight either but had a past, which could be dated at least to 1947 and the vivisection of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, and it came with a history that included other massacres and large-scale movements of population.

In constructing the truth about Kashmir out of the carcasses of facts, in irresponsibly mixing these with inflammatory fictions, The Kashmir Files hints at the larger agenda. This is articulated most clearly in a long monologue delivered towards the end of the film by its central protagonist, Krishna. All of India’s greatness is tied in with Kashmir, the young man suggests, and that is where everything flourished in ancient times – its scholarship, its science and medicine, its theatre, grammar and literature. Kashmir was a special place – our own Silicon Valley he says, in a banal but probably accurate rendition of what he has in mind. The departure of the Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s signals the absolute nadir to which Hindu civilisation has been brought since, presumably by Muslim rule, and that shame must be corrected. The monologue suggests that the film is interested in more than setting right the truth about Kashmir in the 1990s. It is in fact positing a new one, this time constructed around the idea of the homeland, not just for Kashmiri Pandits but for all Hindus.

For over three decades, the BJP and its progenitors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) successfully energised a substantial Hindu vote bank around a promise. Their wilful destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was meant to obliterate the shame of a mosque built upon the exact birthplace of Lord Ram several centuries before. The campaign to construct a magnificent temple at its site provided the lifeblood to its politics for almost a generation, and swept the BJP to power in India. In the symbolic imagination of the RSS, and of the other progenitors of the BJP, Kashmir has long waited in the wings. With The Kashmir Files, it is being yanked centre-stage, as a symbolic space that the forces of Hindutva can draw upon in the coming decades. That is why the formulations provided by the film have already become sacrosanct, and any challenge to it, anything that suggests a different view of events, no matter how small, must be silenced. If this means denying space to the views of those few Pandits who actually continue to live in Kashmir, or to those Pandits who live in the squalid refugee tenements in Jammu, if it means ignoring their pleas to not further inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims, so be it.

Disapproval of the film is not being taken lightly. The only people criticising the film are those who support “terrorist groups”, the film’s director said recently. Would he like to respond to them? To this Vivek Agnihotri simply replied: “Why should I say anything to terrorists?” Meanwhile, the RSS came out openly in support of The Kashmir Files, calling it a documentation of “historical reality” and that “these are facts that must be presented to generations as facts”. On April 4, as Kashmiri Pandits celebrated Navreh, their new year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat ratcheted up support for the film – and for the Kashmiri Pandits. He asked them to take a pledge that it was not going to be long before there was a return home to Kashmir.

Eventually, The Kashmir Files is not about setting straight a historical record of Kashmir in the 1990s, or creating an environment that might ease the return home of a community in exile. Its narrative is instead powered by a visceral demonisation of the Kashmiri Muslim, one that renders reconciliation ever more difficult. And by connecting the return of the Kashmiri Pandit to the dream of a glorious ancient past, a political project that elides Kashmir’s complicated history of 700 years, it seeds the idea of a return to a Hindu homeland. This is an idea that is redolent with implications of dispossession and settlement. That is what makes its “truth” dangerous.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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For Russians, flying abroad is a difficult, costly affair | Aviation



When Russian academic Mishaa decided in March to flee his country amid rumours of martial law, his options were limited and expensive.

Cut off from Europe due to the European Union’s ban on Russian aircraft, Mishaa, who comes from the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, looked further east, where many former Soviet republics offer Russians visa-free entry.

“I booked a flight to Armenia because I have many Armenian friends, I was sure there’d be a community here, and you don’t need a visa,” Mishaa told Al Jazeera, who asked to use a  pseudonym. “Armenians generally think positively of Russians; there’s less historical tensions than with Georgia, for instance.”

Mishaa paid 40,000 roubles ($599), far more than usual, for his one-way flight to the Armenian capital Yerevan, a trip of less than four hours.

“When I bought tickets Russia was still in SWIFT, so I could still use my normal bank cards. The price was huge – I paid around 40,000 rubles [$599] for a one-way trip,” he said. “That’s nonsense, something I would never have done in peacetime. Not everyone could actually book flights at that price – not everyone has spare cash or a steady job – so it’s also a question of a certain privilege.”

Now working remotely from Yerevan, Mishaa transfers his wages to Armenia using cryptocurrency, but for the most part, survives on the cash he managed to take before he left.

INTERACTIVE International flights from Russia

Since Russia launched its war on Ukraine, international travel for Russians has become expensive, difficult and patchy.

Russian aircraft have been banned from European and North American airspace, while the country’s Boeing and Airbus aircraft face the threat of repossession by Western leasing firms if they leave the country.

“The Russian airlines were forced to ‘steal’ them by the Russian government,” said Viktor Berta, vice president of aviation finance at ACC Aviation in London.

AerCap, the world’s largest leasing firm based in Dublin, Ireland, has filed a $3.5bn insurance claim for more than 100 of its jets stranded in Russia, which account for about five percent of its leased aircraft by value.

Domhnal Slattery, chief executive of the Dublin-headquartered aircraft leasing company Avolon, said in a quarterly financial statement that his company was able to repossess four aircraft earlier this year and will make every effort to recover 10 more still in Russia. Meanwhile, the company acknowledged a $304m loss to write down to zero the value of 10 aircraft that it might never get back.

Even so, Russian airlines have been slowly clawing their way back into international operations to countries that will accept flights.

International flights originating in Russia dropped from 1,126 per week when the war in Ukraine began on February 24 to 181 two weeks later, according to FlightRadar24. By the last week in April, international flights recovered to 379 for the week. Of these, 103 were to Turkey, with most of the remainder to a half-dozen former Soviet republics, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

INTERACTIVE Where are Russians flying to?

Russian-built Superjets are using Sochi as a hub for departures to destinations including Turkey, Egypt and Israel on a regular basis, according to FlightRadar24.

The 500 or so Western-built aircraft leased by Russian airlines are mostly not leaving the country because they could be repossessed by Western companies that own them, a Russian aviation expert told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, the expert said that Russian airlines own some western aircraft outright and also paid off the loans on some others so they can be used in service outside of Russia. Russian airlines could also resort to grounding aircraft to harvest spare parts to keep other aircraft flying, he said.

Some older model Airbus A320s and Boeing 737-800s are being used in international service, according to FlightRadar24, even though Boeing and Airbus are no longer providing spare parts for aircraft based in Russia. Boeing and Airbus have also halted aircraft deliveries to Russia. Still, Russia’s Aeroflot has managed to keep some Boeing A330s in the air and, earlier this month, announced the resumption of regular flights to New Delhi, which has maintained warm relations with Moscow.

Marina, a 25-year-old IT professional from Moscow with a passion for travel, has managed to fly to Sri Lanka, Greece, Cyprus and the UK since the start of the conflict, although it has been far from straightforward.

Marina, who asked to use a pseudonym, had planned to go to Sri Lanka with her boyfriend on February 25, the day after Russia launched its invasion.

“At first we didn’t understand, but once we understood, we decided to go anyway, so if things got really bad, we’ll stay there,” she told Al Jazeera.

Boeing plane
Boeing and Airbus, the two largest suppliers of aircraft for Russian airlines, have ceased operations in Russia
[File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

While in Sri Lanka, Marina and her partner decided to move to Cyprus, which would require them to travel through Moscow.

Marina and her partner booked tickets to Cyprus, via Bulgaria and Greece, on the same day Russia was kicked out of the SWIFT international payments system, rendering their bank cards practically useless. After turning to a friend at a bank that had not been sanctioned for help, the couple managed to withdraw part of their savings. Since then, they have been carrying around thousands of dollars in cash.

“At the Greek border, they asked us in detail about where we would live and how long we would stay,” she said.

“In Athens itself, there were no particular problems, except for the impossibility of paying by card and walking with ten thousand bucks in your pocket in the dodgy neighbourhood where we were staying, which was not fun.”

Mike Stengel of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace industry management consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Russia’s aviation industry could end up like the one in Iran, “which has been able to maintain a fleet of Western-built aircraft using some back-end measures to keep them flying”.

“Russia has a commercially successful aerospace industry that still employs hundreds of thousands of people,” Stengel told Al Jazeera.

“It has produced aircraft in the past, so there is a history and infrastructure for designing and producing aircraft engines and aircraft components. It won’t be perfect and it would probably result in keeping a skeleton fleet of sorts, but they have a lot of the tools needed to make it work to keep western-built aircraft flying for decades.”

For Russians like Mishaa, who is opposed to the war in Ukraine, the country’s international isolation is at once understandable and troubling.

“The isolation was expected. What did they want? That all the European community will react modestly? I never believed that,” he said.

“I think that sanctions are fair in general, but of course I care about the economic conditions in my home country: how my parents will live there, my brother, my family. Of course sanctions will hit all of society, but it’s a kleptocratic, oligarchical mafia state, and the poor will suffer more.”

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Shireen Abu Akleh: Who said what in US Congress on slain reporter | Freedom of the Press News



Washington, DC – In a United States Congress that is largely unconditional in its support for Israel, many lawmakers have condemned the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces on Wednesday.

Still, few Congress members mentioned Israel by name as the perpetrator of the deadly incident, while some legislators who serve in leading roles on foreign policy and press freedom panels ignored the shooting altogether.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, has been the most outspoken.

The progressive lawmaker, who is of Palestinian descent, called for a moment of silence for the slain journalist on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday and condemned the killing in several statements and media appearances.

“An American journalist clearly marked with press credentials was murdered. Doing and saying nothing just enables more killings,” she wrote in a tweet directed at President Joe Biden, invoking US military aid to Israel, which totals $3.8bn annually.

“Whether you’re Palestinian, American, or not, being killed with US funding must stop,” Tlaib said.

In a TV interview with Al Jazeera later on Wednesday, she also called for a US-led probe into the incident.

“We need to investigate, ourselves, the killing of an American citizen. Somebody that was out there being a guardian of truth and doing her job was murdered by an apartheid government that we continue to fund with unconditional aid,” she said.

Abu Akleh was a US citizen – a fact emphasised by several American officials.

Congressman Mark Pocan, a key House progressive, also suggested restricting US aid to Israel.

“Restrictions on aid may be necessary if human rights and universally acceptable norms can’t be followed,” he wrote on Twitter.

The congressional statements on the killing of Abu Akleh came from Democratic Party lawmakers, most of whom are part of the party’s progressive wing.

Al Jazeera was not able to find any statement by Republican legislators denouncing the killing.

Ilhan Omar, a left-wing, Muslim-American member of the House, was unambiguous in blaming Israel for the Palestinian journalist’s killing.

“She was killed by the Israeli military, after making her presence as a journalist clearly known,” she wrote on Twitter. “We provide Israel with $3.8 billion in military aid annually with no restrictions. What will it take for accountability for these human rights violations?”

Omar’s fellow Muslim lawmaker Andre Carson also called on the US government to “hold the Israeli government accountable for this and all other acts of unjust violence it commits”.

Several top Democrats joined progressive members of the party in paying tribute to Abu Akleh and calling for an investigation, but they did not point the finger at Israel.

“The killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is an horrific tragedy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a staunch supporter of Israel, wrote on Twitter.

“A thorough, objective investigation is needed now. Congress is committed to the defense of press freedoms worldwide and protection of every journalist, particularly those in conflict zones.”

Senator Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat and outspoken backer of strong US-Israel ties, said he was “disturbed” by the killing of Abu Akleh.

“Abu Akleh’s death is an attack on a journalist who was wearing her press gear,” he said in a statement. “No journalist should be killed while simply doing their job. I strongly condemn her death and call for an independent and thorough investigation into the incident.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen also urged an independent probe into the incident.

So did Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “Veteran American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was simply doing her job when she was shot and killed early this morning,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Her heartbreaking death should be considered an attack on freedom of the press everywhere. There must be a thorough investigation and full accountability for those responsible.”

Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press, also called the fatal shooting of the Palestinian-American journalist a “terrible tragedy”.

“The Israeli military must conduct a thorough and objective investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, and be transparent about its findings,” Schiff said in a statement. “My prayers are with her family, with her colleague, Ali Al-Samudi, who was also wounded, and with members of the press everywhere who risk their lives to bring us the truth.”

Palestinian rights advocates have rejected calls by US officials for Israel to conduct its own investigation, arguing that the Israeli government should not be trusted to hold itself accountable for alleged war crimes.

Steve Chabot, the Republican co-chair of the Press Freedom Caucus, has not released any formal statement about the killing on his congressional webpage or social media accounts. His office did not return Al Jazeera’s request for comment by time of publication.

Congressman Andy Levin, a Jewish-American representative from Michigan, who is facing off in a primary against fellow Democratic incumbent Haley Stevens after redistricting, said he was “horrified” by the killing of Abu Akleh.

“Globally, in places as diverse as Palestine, Mexico and Russia, the international community must come together to defend the rights of the free press,” he wrote in a series of tweets.

Stevens, who is backed by numerous pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has said nothing about the incident on her social media accounts or on her congressional website.

Debbie Dingell, another Michigan legislator, who represents a large Arab-American community, said press freedom is “paramount in any democracy”.

The chairs of the House and Senate foreign policy panels did not address the incident in formal statements. The House Foreign Affairs Committee shared Pelosi’s post on the killing via its Twitter account.

The fatal shooting of Abu Akleh coincided with a busy week in Washington, which is preoccupied with domestic issues, including a baby formula shortage and a failed attempt to pass legislation protecting abortion rights.

Ro Khanna, a House progressive representing a district in California, wrote in a social media post, “The killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is devastating and a blatant assault on the freedom of the press.”

New York Representative Yvette Clarke said the killing is “yet another reason why we need a path to a two-state solution in the region”.

Congresswoman Marie Newman, who often criticises Israeli abuses against Palestinians, said she was “extremely concerned by reports that Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by Israeli forces while wearing a press vest and reporting in the West Bank”.

“We must protect the press and hold those accountable for this heinous crime,” she wrote on Twitter.

Congresswoman Cori Bush, a progressive supporter of Palestinian rights, condemned the “unacceptable attack”.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who has championed Palestinian human rights in Congress and introduced bills to restrict US aid to Israel, also said the killing must be “condemned and investigated”.

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‘Terrifying’: Days of terror under Colombia’s Gulf Clan cartel | Drugs News



Bogota, Colombia – “It was terrifying.”

That is how a resident of Tierralta, in Colombia’s northern department of Cordoba, described a days-long siege imposed earlier this month by one of the country’s largest paramilitary groups, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan.

From the morning of May 5 until midnight on May 9, the armed group enforced a self-declared “armed strike” across the country’s northwest in response to the extradition to the United States of its detained former leader Dairo Antonio Usuga, also known as Otoniel.

The Gulf Clan took control of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments over the four-day span. It imposed strict lockdowns, shuttered local businesses, closed off roads, disrupted transportation links, and warned residents to stay inside or risk being shot or having their vehicles burned.

Several towns ran out of basic supplies such as food and gas, while local hospitals faced staff shortages. Elsewhere, families were stranded at transport terminals, unable to get home due to blocked roads, local media reported.

“You live with the concern that it could happen again tomorrow,” said another resident of Tierralta, Raul, who also asked to use a pseudonym because of security concerns. “Because the Gulf Clan are showing that they have the power to create fear,” he told Al Jazeera.

Otoniel capture in Colombia
Accused drug trafficker and Gulf Clan leader ‘Otoniel’ was captured in October of last year [File: Colombian President’s Office via AP Photo]

Hundreds of rights violations

The Gulf Clan’s armed strike took place three weeks before Colombians will vote for their next president, raising concerns about the possibility of repeated violence as the population heads to the polls on May 29.

“The government response to this event leaves people more dissatisfied with their ability to express their political ideas or to participate in democracy. This event is very, very detrimental to the quality of democracy in Colombia and to the local perceptions of security,” said Sergio Guzman, director of the Colombia Risk Analysis consultancy group.

During the course of the “strike”, the Gulf Clan committed at least 309 acts of violence, according to the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP) tribunal, which also registered the forced closure of 26 roads, the destruction of at least 118 vehicles and the disruption of 54 transport terminals.

A total of 178 different municipalities in the country were under Gulf Clan control, with 138 of them under strict lockdown rules.

“They wanted to demonstrate their military strength to show that in many areas of the country they are the de facto authority and not the state,” said a JEP representative, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

The JEP was formed in the wake of a 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group and the government, with a mandate to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for the most serious human rights violations.

Twenty-four civilians were killed during the “strike”, the JEP also said, and a further 15 attempted murders were recorded. The Ministry of Defence reported six deaths, while NGO Indepaz recorded 18 over the course of the strike.

The JEP official told Al Jazeera that three social leaders – a term used in Colombia to describe activists, community representatives and rights defenders – were among those killed.

‘Robust failure’

The Colombian government hailed Otoniel’s capture in October of last year and subsequent extradition to the US this month as a success – and a definitive blow to the Gulf Glan’s operations.

However, last week’s armed strike proved the group, which local NGO Pares has said counts as many as 3,260 members, is by no means on shaky ground, analysts said.

Since the 2016 peace agreement under which the FARC demobilised, armed groups such as the Gulf Clan have taken advantage of the power vacuum in much of Colombia’s rural areas. The Gulf Clan operates clandestinely in approximately 109 municipalities across the country, according to rights group Indepaz, but most predominantly in the north. It controls numerous drug trafficking routes and cocaine processing labs, and uses violence to extort and intimidate populations.

“This event underscores how much the government underestimated the nature of the [Gulf Clan’s] threat. This is very complicated for the government to somehow spin this towards anything but a robust failure of their security strategy,” Guzman told Al Jazeera.

Despite the strike being announced early on May 4, no military response from the government was seen until May 7, when troops were deployed to the affected Bolivar, Sucre, Cordoba and Antioquia regions to accompany vehicles and secure the roads. According to Ministry of Defence figures, more than 19,000 troops were deployed across the area.

Colombian President Ivan Duque
Colombia’s President Ivan Duque said the Gulf Clan carried out ‘cowardly attacks’ [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

“They seek to generate intimidation through isolated events and cowardly attacks, which they seek to maximise online and in the media,” President Ivan Duque told reporters last Saturday. “They are desperately trying to show a strength that they do not have.”

But Guzman said the Gulf Clan will “likely be emboldened by the lack of confrontation with the military”.

“The government doesn’t want to contribute to the ‘we are back to war’ narrative, so escalating the situation could not just have very significant collateral damage concerns, but could also subtract significantly from the government’s narrative that they’re keeping order in the country,” he said.

“The Gulf Clan just ripped a hole through the narrative by making it difficult for the government to assert its authority over one-third of its territory.”

Colombia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, the JEP representative described the government’s response as “not very efficient” while residents subjected to the four days under Gulf Clan control were equally critical, saying they felt abandoned.

“The state demonstrated that it is a weak institution that does not have the capacity to confront an armed group that has proven to have control of national territory and a great strength at the national level,” said Jose David Ortega, a resident and human rights defender in the city of Monteria, which was besieged by the group.

Raul, the Tierralta resident, added, “What hurts the most is that the state never came out to defend the rights of its citizens.”

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