United States

THEY have only just started, but already signs suggest they are reopening political wounds. I’m talking about the series of landmark public hearings that began last Thursday overseen by the US congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

For Americans it was the moment that further polarised a nation that was ­already at political loggerheads long ­before the mob stormed this symbol of US ­democracy in Washington DC, to ­prevent congress from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election victory over Donald Trump.

Pulling few punches, the ­congressional committee last Thursday laid out what they described as Trump’s efforts to lead an “attempted coup” against the US ­Government that was months in the ­planning and only stopped with the help of some of his top officials.

Given the nearly 100 subpoenas and more than 1000 interviews, it’s anyone’s guess what other stark revelations will come to light as the committee delves into different aspects of what they believe to have been a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

But time is of the essence here not least given the impending November US ­mid-term elections. Few doubt that should the Republicans win – as signs suggest – they will do all they can to draw a line under the whole affair, one of the darkest in modern American history.

Already the committee have ­suggested they possess evidence that multiple House Republicans, including ­Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, had sought presidential pardons after the January 6 riot for their efforts to challenge and ­overturn the election.

“Representative Perry contacted the White House in the weeks after Jan 6 to seek a presidential pardon,” ­Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and the vice chairwoman of the committee, said. “Multiple other Republican congressmen also sought presidential pardons for their roles in attempting to overturn the 2020 election.”

Add to this the fact that since then Trump and many of his former associates have so far refused to collaborate with the hearing or done all they can to obstruct or resist it and you get some idea of the ­challenges the investigation faces let alone efforts to hold conspirators and perpetrators to account.

Some US commentators have expressed bafflement too at what they see as the committee’s inexplicable decision not to issue subpoenas for former president Trump and former vice president Mike Pence.

“Trump and Pence are the marquee and best witnesses regarding the subject ­under investigation,” observed Bruce Fein, author of Constitutional Peril: The Life And Death Struggle For Our Constitution And Democracy.

“To hold committee hearings ­without Trump, Pence and others previously identified would be like holding the ­Senate Watergate hearings without President Nixon’s Chief of Staff HR ­Haldeman, ­Domestic Policy Advisor John ­Ehrlichman, Attorney General John Mitchell, and White House Counsel John Dean,” insisted Fein, writing for the US political newspaper and website The Hill.

“It would trivialise the monumental importance of the exercise to remaining a government of laws rather than of men,” added Fein, who believes the committee “should vote to imprison and fine every person who has defied a subpoena.”

Republicans of course have meanwhile sought to frame the hearings as partisan and a Democratic party witch hunt, even if the hearings are anything but partisan with two Republicans on the committee.

Some within the GOP gain succour too from polls like that of the Pew Research Centre at the start of this year that showed that 32% of Americans say Trump has “no responsibility” for the riot that day.

That’s a marked change from just over half of US adults who in the wake of the riots said the former president bore a lot of responsibility for the violence and destruction committed by some of his supporters.

The bottom line here is that many Americans remain deeply divided about the events of that day and the ongoing congressional investigation into what happened.

All eyes now then are on whether the remaining sessions of the hearing can change views yet again not least before the mid-terms.

If there is any certainty in all of this, it’s that the threat to US democracy is far from over. America simply cannot afford to bury accountability for what happened that day in 2021. To do so is to risk its ­repeat in the future.

Ukraine

The National:

THERE’S a long-established saying that one person’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter”.

Those that try to dissect what exactly is meant by this often find themselves getting tied in philosophical or ideological knots.

But sometimes the debate usually settles somewhere along the lines of while both resort to violence, terrorists differ in that they target innocent victims, a violation of human rights and a form of oppression in which freedom fighters would not engage.

I couldn’t help thinking of the debate again recently considering Russia’s war in Ukraine and both sides use of foreign fighters.

“Volunteers”, “mercenaries”, “terrorists”, depending on whether it’s a Russian, Ukrainian or their allies speaking, the nomenclature varies. What’s hard to ignore is that each side has settled now into a pattern of framing the justification of having foreign fighters within their ranks through differing prisms.

Nowhere was this more starkly illustrated than in the decision these past days by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) breakaway region of eastern Ukraine which has issued death sentences on two British citizens and one Moroccan national.

Identifying the men as “mercenaries”, Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun were charged with violating four articles of the DPR’s legal code, including attempting to “seize power” and “training in order to conduct terrorist activity”.

While DPR authorities said their actions had “led to the deaths and wounding of civilians”, the families of both British men meanwhile, have repeatedly stressed that they are not volunteers nor mercenaries, but officially enlisted soldiers serving with the Ukrainian Army.

Throughout this conflict the Russian military has argued that what it considers to be foreign mercenaries fighting for Ukraine are not combatants. But what then to make of Russia’s own extensive use of what might be deemed “guns for hire”?

According to some military analysts this could account for as many as 20,000 fighters from Syria, Libya, Chechnya and elsewhere alongside the Russian “mercenary” company or “security contractor” the Wagner group.

There is nothing new in this kind of deployment of course. The use of military “contractors” was a component of US and British engagement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has been a feature – often troublesome – of numerous global conflicts these past decades.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine however we have witnessed what can best be described as hybrid forces engaged in the fighting on both sides. As for the individual motives of the combatants themselves, that is something else again.

In a war in which the aggressor and defender seem clear cut, few would question the premise that those fighting on the Ukrainian side do so for what they perceive to be their homeland, their country’s freedom or defence of its democracy. Among Russia’s ranks on the other hand such ideological distinctions are less obvious or in some cases play no part at all. This, ultimately, is what really matters whatever name either side gives its own foreign fighters or that of their enemy.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The National: Blue helmet members of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo credit should read Alain Wandimoyi/AFP/Getty Images).

WE all remember certain books be they fiction or non-fiction that made an impact on us. Some years ago, while working as a journalist in Africa I was given a copy of one such book.

Written by the American author Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story Of Greed, Terror And Heroism In Colonial Africa, is a searing account of Belgium’s exploitation of Congo free state between 1885 and 1908.

It was a time when European leaders were carving up Africa into imperial holdings a process from which many parts of Africa continue to be hobbled to this day.

Some 10 million Congolese are estimated to have died from the violence, famine and disease under Leopold II’s direct rule, and gruesome accounts emerged of the dismemberment of children in villages that did not produce enough rubber to satisfy their colonial overlords. In short, Belgium has much to answer for in what today is known as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

It was of great significance then that Belgium’s current monarch King Philippe visited his country’s former colony for the first time last week, in what both capitals hoped would be a new chapter in their relationship.

In what too was a much-anticipated speech, Philippe reaffirmed his “deepest regrets” for the country’s actions in the Congo and admitted that Belgium’s rule under his great-great-uncle King Leopold II had inflicted pain and humiliation through a mixture of “paternalism, discrimination and racism”.

“Even though many Belgians invested themselves sincerely, loving Congo and its people deeply, the colonial regime itself was based on exploitation and domination,” Philippe told a joint session of parliament in the capital Kinshasa.

But even as the king and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi both sought to frame the visit as a way of turning the page, activists and humanitarian organisations said the king could have gone further by issuing a formal apology.

“I salute the speech by the Belgian king. However, in the face of the crimes committed by Belgium, regrets are not enough,” Congolese opposition Senator Francine Muyumba Nkanga wrote on Twitter.

“We expect an apology and a promise of reparations from him. That is the price to definitively turn the page.”

Nadia Nsayi, a political scientist who specialises in Congo, said she sensed “a lot of nervousness in Belgium regarding a formal apology as Congo might use it to demand financial reparations”.

And there’s the nub of the matter, money. Yes, King Philippe’s visit was undoubtedly a milestone, but it’s still hard to ignore the fact that it failed to “exorcise” King Leopold’s ghost.

Afghanistan

The National: Taliban fighters stand guard at the site of an explosion in front of a school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 19, 2022. An Afghan police spokesman says explosions targeting educational institutions in Kabul have killed at least six civilians and

IT’S over 35 years since I first set foot in Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan’s central highlands.

The country was at war then too back in the 1980s as mujahideen guerrillas took on the might of the Soviet Red Army occupiers.

Always on the move, the Afghan guerrilla fighters I accompanied would rarely sleep in the same place twice, but on more than one occasion I found myself bedding down in one of the many caves that sat around the base of the giant Salsal and Shahmama Buddha statues carved into Bamiyan valley’s cliff face.

Where those wonderful monumental, figures once stood only gaping holes exist today after the Taliban in their rise to power declared them “idolatrous” before blowing them up in 2001 under a decree ordered by then Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, who called for the elimination of all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

It made no difference then or now to the Taliban that Bamiyan valley is classified by Unesco as an endangered world heritage site “of importance for humanity as a whole”.

Today, after coming to power in August 2021, the Taliban have once again stepped up their plundering of Afghanistan’s rich pre-Islamic heritage by looting archaeological artefacts and undertaking excavations on listed grounds.

Many artefacts too are reportedly again being sold on the illegal market.

Experts say the Taliban cultural onslaught doesn’t stop there, with signs that the group are targeting Bamiyan’s ethnic Hazara community as part of their “cultural cleansing”.

The Taliban regard the Hazaras who are Shi’ites and who account for about 10% of Afghanistan’s population as apostate. For years the Hazaras have borne the brunt of Taliban persecution.

“We are witnessing a silent explosion in Bamiyan and across Afghanistan. The Taliban will not use explosives to destroy the cultural heritage sites, what they are doing is worse,” says Laeiq Ahmadi a former head of the archaeology department at Bamiyan University.

“They are allowing the gradual demise of the Bamiyan valley and other heritage sites, changing the education system so that history and culture are not taught objectively and arts that are against their beliefs are being stored in museum basements and erased from memories,” Ahmadi told The Art Newspaper recently.

With many local experts who worked for the previous government having been forced into exile or are in hiding from the Taliban, the global campaign to protect Bamiyan is being conducted from afar with the Twitter hashtag #SaveBamiyanHistoricalHeritage.

Time though is running out to protect this most astonishing location from the Taliban’s cultural predations.