All posts by jamesreinl

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and world affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 35 countries and won awards for stories from Sri Lanka, Congo, Somalia, Haiti and Iran. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Policy, PRI's The World, Fox News, France 24, CBC, The Times, CBS News, dpa, RTÉ and APTN. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Sussex University and a postgraduate diploma in journalism.

Radio station of slain Syrian activist faces shutdown

The radio station founded by slain Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares faces closure amid death threats to staff members and financial crisis as western donors scale back funding.

NEW YORK // Only weeks after the murder of Syrian activist and satirist Raed Fares, the radio station that he founded faces closure amid ongoing death threats to staff members and a cash-flow crisis as western donors scale back funding.

Colleagues of Fares told TRT World they would work to keep Radio Fresh broadcasting a message of democracy and human rights across the northwest province of Idlib, but were struggling to plug a funding gap of an estimated $10,000 per month.

Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes, but the Trump administration scrapped funding earlier this year to northwest Syria, saying it’ll rather sharpen its focus on the northeastern territory.

“We’re looking to get funding from the European Union, because the US has withdrawn from northwest Syria,” Lilia Wassef, one of the activists representing Radio Fresh and other civic schemes in Idlib, told TRT World, after meeting officials in Brussels.

“We have now hit rock bottom after Raed’s death. But we must move forward. We must continue Raed’s message and his work. Syria’s democratic movement is an idea, and it will not die with Raed or any of the movement’s icons.”

Raed Fares founded Radio Fresh with US State Department cash in 2013 to broadcast news, music and warnings about incoming air strikes.

Fares, together with his colleague Hammoud Jnaid, was gunned down in his home town of Kafranbel on November 23. The attackers have not been identified, but Fares was previously threatened by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron and former US envoy Samantha Power mourned his death on social media, as did his 30 radio station colleagues and 520 others working on connected community projects, as part of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

Fares had planned to travel to Brussels last week to try and plug the US funding gap with meetings at the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, the European External Action Services and other parts of the EU foreign policy machinery.

Wassef, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, attended instead, and detailed the value of the radio station and women’s empowerment projects. Her colleagues have made similar requests to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ).

An EU official confirmed talks with Wassef’s delegation and said they supported radio station staff, who are widely viewed as a moderate voice amid Syria’s turbulence, but that they were not ready to replace US funding just yet.

The radio station, and other URB projects, were “presented as a successful example of the critical role that civil society plays in Idlib in countering radicalisation and in supporting the population,” the EU official told TRT World, under condition that his name was not used.

“No specific project proposal was discussed or figures presented but their demands were about the need to step up support to civil society and the work of civil actors on the ground. The EU has always been at the forefront of recognising the critical role that civil society plays.”

Importantly, the official noted that Fares was “tragically killed by HTS”. While it was widely assumed that the al-Qaeda-linked group was behind the assassination, it had not previously been confirmed by officials.

A US State Department official declined to comment on Fares. In May, the department said it had cut all funding to Syria’s extremist-run northwest. In August, Washington confirmed that $230 million for Syrian “stabilization projects” would be spent elsewhere.

Abdy Yeganeh, from the non-profit group Independent Diplomat, advises URB in Brussels and at other international confabs. He said the radio station, like other pro-democracy projects in Syria, was operating at a limited capacity and faced an uncertain future.

“Raed was such an energetic character on the ground and his death was no doubt a major loss at a difficult time for Radio Fresh, which, like other civil society groups in Idlib and beyond, has struggled as the US and Western donors have scaled back their stabilisation funding,” Yeganeh told TRT World.

According to Yeganeh, European donors had followed Washington’s lead, by cutting cash for groups that embodied the spirit of the 2011 uprising by rejecting both Assad and the religious hardliners that had gained prominence as the war dragged on.

Other civil society groups – such as The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Center for Freedom of Media and Expression and Baytna Syria – were also struggling to pay the bills as donors turned their backs on moderates, Yeganeh said.

“While donors may be adapting to the new realities in Syria and the greater likelihood of Assad’s survival for now, this is still a short-sighted policy step. Civil society actors on the ground, like Radio Fresh, remain the best illustration of Syria’s only credible alternative to tyranny and extremism,” Yeganeh said.

Fares, 46, became a prominent voice of dissent in the early days of the revolution, using videos, skits and protest placards referencing American culture that often went viral on social media to criticise the Syrian military, religious extremists and Western leaders.

In 2013, he produced a satirical video called the Syrian revolution in three minutes, in which Syrians dressed up as cavemen ridiculed the global community’s failure to protect civilians from bombings by government forces and chemical attacks.

In 2014, Fares survived being shot in the chest by armed militants. In June this year, he criticised the US government’s decision to freeze funding to humanitarian groups, saying it undermined efforts to combat extremism.

“Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions,” Fares wrote in the Washington Post, a daily US newspaper.

The plight of Radio Fresh comes as the war in Syria is winding down. Assad has retaken most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, although US-backed armed rebels and militias such as the YPG still hold significant territory.

Russia and Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels, agreed in September to create a demilitarised zone around the insurgent-held Idlib, but exchanges of shelling have been common since then and the first airstrikes since the deal hit the area on November 25.

This article originally appeared on TRT World.

Falling apart? UN peace deal for Yemen ‘too vague’, Oxfam says

Lack of specific orders results in continued fighting around Red Sea port city of Hodeidah as 21-day deadline expires.

United Nations // The UN’s peace deal for Hodeidah, in war-ravaged Yemen, is unravelling because the text lacked specifics on how rebel forces should vacate the Red Sea port city, the British charity Oxfam says.

Dina el-Mamoun, the aid group’s head of policy and advocacy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, said the UN’s Stockholm Agreement agreed last month between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government was “too vague”.

“There is an issue with the actual agreement, which is actually quite vague,” Mamoun told Al Jazeera.

“The UN should have made clear these basic issues that go to the heart of the agreement: who needs to hand over what and to whom.”

Under the terms of the UN-brokered deal, the Houthis were expected to hand over control of the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa, to “local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law”.

However, both sides have disagreed over the meaning of the text. The government says it means the ports should be handed over to the officials who ran the facility before the Houthis seized Hodeidah city in late 2014.

The Houthis, meanwhile, insist the deal refers to the officials currently running the port, who are their allies.

“How can the UN expect a vague agreement to translate, in reality, to what is intended without making it clear?” asked Mamoun.

“An agreement that leads us to a state of confusion over what was agreed is not what we needed.”

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met Houthi rebels and members of his monitoring team in the country over the weekend before heading for Saudi Arabia to ensure the peace deal is fully implemented.

Skirmishes continue in and around the Red Sea port city despite the looming 21-day redeployment deadline imposed under a UN Security Council resolution, which set a withdrawal target of Tuesday.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq did not directly answer Oxfam’s criticism, but said rebel and government leaders did not agree despite a “collective recognition of the urgency” of ending hostilities.

“Despite both parties consenting to the Stockholm Agreement, there is still a lack of common interpretation of the implementation and sequencing of the Hodaidah agreement,” Haq told Al Jazeera.

“This is of course driven by the lack of trust among the parties and their apprehension with respect to making operational concessions, outside of a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

Haq urged both sides to respect the ceasefire and redeploy their forces in accordance with the deal.

“Anything short of that goal could derail the fragile progress being made to address the situation in Hodaidah,” he added.

Both sides have been accused of violating the ceasefire agreement over Yemen’s port city Hodeidah, with the sound of missiles and automatic gunfire a near-daily occurrence for the thousands of civilians who still reside in the city.

The agreement, the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, was part of confidence-building measures intended to pave the way for a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations.

Under the deal, international monitors are to be deployed in Hodeidah and a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) including both sides, chaired by Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, will oversee implementation.

Cammaert’s team will not be uniformed or armed, the UN has said, but it will provide support for the management of and inspections at the ports, and strengthen the UN presence in the city.

Yemen has been wracked by violence since 2014 when the Houthis stormed south from their stronghold of Saada and overran much of the country, including the capital Sanaa where they toppled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.

The conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who accuse the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, launched a military coalition that began air attacks against Houthi positions in an attempt to reinstate Hadi.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Rocket man and Zionist penguins: The week in UN diplomacy

A look at key Middle Eastern moments from an engaging week of statecraft at the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS // Over the years, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has hosted some standout moments of political theatre. The key event this year was United States President Donald Trump’s debut speech, in which he threatened North Korea’s “rocket man” with annihilation.

Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the hermit Asian nation of 26 million people along with its missile-toting leader, Kim Jong Un, certainly made the General Assembly’s biggest headline, but the gabfest in New York was not lacking in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feeble “dad gags” from the marble dais to Trump’s signal that he would pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East Eye picked out the key events for the region from the diplomatic din.

Bibi’s penguin friends

It’s been a tough few months for Netanyahu. The corruption probe is closing in, his wife Sara faces an indictment over $100,000 of dining bills and, all the while, there are foes across Israel’s borders and within his coalition government.

The pressures of leadership may account for some of the screwball moments in a 25-minute UN speech that was loaded with quips alongside his more usual shtick of pro-Israel eulogies and censure of regional bogeyman Iran.

For starters, the Likud leader took delegates on a journey to Antarctica, for the improbable revelation that the flightless birds swimming in the southern hemisphere’s icy waters are “enthusiastic supporters of Israel”.

“You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognising that some things are black and white, are right and wrong,” he said.

He was wrong about the first part: the audience had not laughed.

Next, he showcased his exasperation at denunciations of Israel from UN agencies. Netanyahu cited US tennis legend John McEnroe and affected a half-plausible New York accent to recite the athlete’s trademark line: “You can-not be serious!”

Finally, Netanyahu regaled a shrinking crowd with a yarn about Israel’s holy sites.

For proof, they could look in the Bible, he said. The book is not just a “great read” that he studies weekly and recommends “highly,” but also one that gets “4½ out of 5 stars on Amazon,” an online shopping website.

For some delegates, it was not just Netanyahu’s jokes that were cringe-worthy. His fawning praise of the 45th US president raised a few eyebrows. It began by recalling Trump’s visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in May.

“When the president touched those ancient stones, he touched our hearts forever,” Netanyahu said.

He peppered his speech with venerations of Trump. The president’s words from the same podium earlier on Tuesday morning had been “bolder” and “more courageous” than any other he had heard uttered under the UN’s domed roof, he added.

He was not the only leader that gave admiring speeches regarding Trump.

Before talks with his US counterpart on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s commitment to Middle East peace would help yield the “deal of the century” in the region.

A good week for Qatar

The Gulf island of Qatar got a boost in its 108-day-old rift with four neighbours at the UN headquarters this week.

First, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani used his podium set piece to attack Saudi Arabia and its blockade colleagues. Later on Tuesday, his face-time with Trump was viewed as a signal that the US will not prioritise one Gulf ally over another.

From the UN rostrum, Sheikh Tamim accused his neighbours of using a boycott on food, medicine and other items to “destabilise” Qatar and extract policy concessions. “Isn’t this one of the definitions of terrorism?” he asked.

Early in the crisis, Trump had sided with Riyadh and called Qatar a “funder of terrorism”. But he has since worked to broker a way out of the impasse. Before his sit-down with Sheikh Tamim, he told reporters the dispute “will be solved pretty quickly”.

Sheikh Tamim said Washington’s “interference will help a lot”. That may be true. This week, a Bloomberg story said Trump had talked the Saudis and Emiratis out of their plans to use military force against Qatar earlier in the face-off.

“Those who oppose Qatar were obviously looking for signs that Trump would throw the emir under the bus. But it’s now clear that the US is trying to resolve the crisis in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one party,” analyst Sigurd Neubauer told MEE.

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, agreed. “Whatever Riyadh says, more countries worry about Saudi-spread extremism than they do about Qatar-funded terrorism,” he told MEE.

Iran nuke deal has a half-life

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran looked like it was decaying faster than an unstable isotope.

Trump called it “an embarrassment” during his speech to the 193-nation assembly and later tantalisingly told journalists he had already decided if he would move to pull the US out of the accord, but did not elaborate.

He is due to report to the US Congress by 15 October on whether to certify that Iran is upholding its side of the bargain, under which it accepted limits on its nuclear work. That could lead to Congress re-imposing sanctions and an unravelling of the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bit back, saying the internationally backed accord should not be upended by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” in a clear swipe at Trump.

Netanyahu, who has long railed against a deal that was brokered during Barack Obama’s presidency, urged leaders to “fix it, or nix it”.

Despite frantic diplomacy between the US and its co-signatories on Wednesday, including the first face-time between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it remains unclear which route Trump will take.

Doha up, Riyadh down

Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s heavyweights, typically plays a king-size role at General Assembly confabs. This year, its highest-ranking envoy has been Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as Riyadh kept a lower profile than usual.

Jubeir attended sessions on Rohingya bloodshed and Syria’s civil war and met with British counterpart Boris Johnson, among others. But the foreign policy jamboree did not make fertile ground for Saudis this year, UN insiders told MEE.

The row with Qatar has dragged out longer than expected, Riyadh faces growing outrage over civilian body bags from its coalition war in Yemen and it could soon be named on the UN’s “list of shame” of armed groups that harm children.

“Saudi Arabia cares about its reputation and has built a narrative that it is addressing concerns over civilian casualties during its war in Yemen,” said Dragica Mikavica, from the pressure group Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.

Shaming Riyadh for abuses in Yemen at the UN would be laudable, but may not affect real change, she added. “It would likely not seriously deter its backers and arms suppliers in Britain and the US,” Mikavica told MEE.

The kingdom is also in the crosshairs of a civil case in US courts – enabled by the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – which allows Americans to sue Riyadh over its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Terry Strada, who lost her husband on 9/11, said petrodollar lobbying potential has waned.

“The tide has turned and their money does not buy them the influence that it used to in Washington,” Strada told MEE. “You know why? It’s because they’re guilty. It’s not a secret anymore.”

Elsewhere at UNGA

There was plenty of other Middle East action at UN headquarters this week. On Thursday, the Security Council approved the creation of a UN investigation unit to collect evidence against fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq for future war crimes and genocide prosecutions.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at Facebook, Google and other social media giants, urging them to more swiftly remove “terrorist content” from the internet and aim to stop it being uploaded in the first place.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his podium slot to warn that a Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq this month could lead to fresh conflicts in the region. He later threatened to impose sanctions against the potential splitters.

Diplomats were unusually optimistic about Libya. UN envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled a roadmap to break a political stalemate in the North African country, which is ruled by three competing governments and has seen little but turmoil since a 2011 uprising.

Despite the scale of human suffering they produce, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen were notably absent from the lips of many envoys this week. With little prospect of diplomatic breakthroughs in either war, world leaders seemingly focused on more pressing headaches.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye.

 

Undocumented migrants await Trump’s next move

Cafes, churches and playing fields are quieter than usual, as undocumented immigrants lay low amid the crackdown

NEW YORK // With such slogans as “Resiste” and “No Deportaciones” emblazoned on the walls, there is little doubt that La Morada, a restaurant in a gritty district of New York, is more than your average taco-serving Mexican diner.

Sure, their Oaxaca-style tortilla, mole sauce and steaming hot chocolate delight locals. But the Saavedra family that owns and runs the eatery sees itself as a Bronx bastion against a revived immigration crackdown under United States President Donald Trump.

“There’s obviously a very palpable fear in our community and we want to be ready for the worst-case scenario,” Marco Saavedra, 27, a college graduate who serves dishes while fighting his asylum claim to remain in the US, told Al Jazeera.

“We’re still waiting to see how Trump does it, through courts or executive action. But we’ve got to be ready.”

Business has slowed since Trump’s inauguration in January as Latinos watch their pennies in uncertain times, said his sister, Yajaira Saavedra, 28. The bistro’s weekly civic meetings and “know your rights” workshops are, however, busier than before.

La Morada – which means both “purple” and “abode” – is not alone. Many taquerias, tamale bars and other Latino comfort food joints across the US have gone quiet. So have football pitches and churches where Sunday services ring out in Spanish.

The reason is simple. Many undocumented immigrants are less eager to risk driving a car and being stopped by police for a broken taillight, only for such routine violations to escalate into deportation proceedings.

“People are being cautious and more conservative due to the uncertainty of the Trump era,” said Yajaira, who benefits from former-President Barack Obama’s policy to defer action against some undocumented child migrants.

Fifty days into office, Trump, a Republican, is coming good on campaign pledges to deport undocumented immigrants in the US and build a wall along its 3,200km southern border.

Department of Homeland Security memos call for the hiring of 10,000 more Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents and 5,000 more Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, and tougher rules on whom will be targeted.

They would include recent entrants, failed asylum seekers, convicts and those charged with crimes. Trump has also moved to strip federal funding from the so-called sanctuary cities and states that limit cooperation with deportation teams.

In December, Pew Research Center found that, when asked, 58 percent of Americans highlighted the importance of deporting undocumented immigrants, while 62 percent stressed that some should be allowed to legalise their status in the US.

Among immigration experts, Trump has many critics. Steven Choi, director of New York Immigration Coalition, a civic group, blasted a “draconian enforcement agenda that wrongfully characterises immigrants as criminals and terrorises our communities”.

Others highlight the cost of Trump’s plans. The 15,000 new immigration officers must all be paid; a wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico could cost $40bn, according to the MIT Technology Review.

The Center for American Progress found that ejecting all undocumented immigrants would hurt the US economy by $4.7 trillion over a decade. Deportations may even be pointless, says Pew, as more Mexicans leave the US than arrive nowadays.

In part, Trump is living up to pledges that won him last year’s election, particularly among white voters in parts of Pennsylvania, Michigan and other rust belt states who have watched factories shutter and an epidemic of opioid abuse ravage once-prosperous towns.

“The liberal elite calls for immigration policies, but they don’t see their impact on many of their fellow Americans,” Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a right-wing lobby group, told Al Jazeera.

“Their kids don’t go to the same schools and they don’t live in those neighbourhoods that have to handle an influx of illegal immigrants. The liberal elite is so removed from that reality, it’s like two different worlds.”

For Ray, Trump’s tough talk is already working. The number of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico to the US fell by 40 percent between January and February, according to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

“Obama talked about an amnesty and minimal immigration enforcement and the borders were swarmed,” said Ray. “Trump talks tough on border control, removing criminal aliens and ending sanctuary cities and border apprehensions drop like a hot potato. Words matter.”

Aside from securing the border, FAIR says US labour laws should be enforced. Once undocumented migrants are sacked by farm owners, eateries and other bosses in the US, they will head back to their motherlands to earn a crust.

Against this backdrop, many undocumented immigrants are readying for a knock on the door by deportation squads. Mexico’s 50 consulates in the US have been deluged with requests for birth certificates, passports and other forms of identification.

Some seek to regularise their status in the US, some undocumented parents want Mexican passports for US-born children in case they get caught in an ICE roundup and their whole family has to head south of the border with them.

Others are getting co-signers authorised on bank accounts and applying for co-guardianship of US-born children so that, if a family carer or breadwinner were deported, it would be easier for their partner to carry on, said Marco Saavedra.

The Cabrini Immigrant Services centre in downtown Manhattan has been overwhelmed. Legal aid slots on Mondays can accommodate 15 clients, but queues of 80 or more applicants mean scores are turned away, said manager Javier Ramirez-Baron.

“People feel attacked and afraid, so they want to see what they can do,” he said. “We’re helping them with their legal cases, their documents and preparing plans in case they’re stopped by police, so they’re ready for any scenario.”

Back in the South Bronx, the Saavedra family gets ready for the evening rush of orders of stuffed Poblano peppers and other deep-fried treats. Chefs, some of them undocumented, chop cactus salads and squeeze limes for fresh guacamole.

They typify the struggles of many Latinos in the US. The parents crossed the border without papers seeking work in the 1980s. Marco and Yajaira joined them years later, but only Yajaira benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme.

Their youngest daughter was born in the US and has citizenship.

Because of this, deportation proceedings against one family member would force difficult decisions upon the rest. This, of course, has been hanging over their heads for years, but the West Wing’s latest occupants give fresh cause for concern.

As far back as 1992, the Saavedras purchased a house outside Mexico City as a potential retirement home. An uncle takes care of the place, but, in recent months, they have bought more furniture to make it liveable.

“I don’t want to entertain it, but we think we’re resilient enough that if we must start another life in Mexico, we can,” said Marco, while musing about what jobs a US education could get him down south. “We always have to have a backup plan.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Will the real Pocahontas please stand up?

The descendants of the prominent Native American shrug their shoulders at the anniversary of her death this week.

NEW YORK // She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

“For the Pamunkey tribe, it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn’t really amount to much,” says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

“We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it.”

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney’s 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children’s favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

A controversial past

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

This is not just because Pocahontas symbolises a union between native American tribes and colonisers that ultimately left the natives decimated. It is also because she offers a handy way for many white Americans to gloss over a brutal past and an unhappy present.

The anniversary of her death comes as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is losing a fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation, and US President Donald Trump uses the name “Pocahontas” as a term of abuse.

Raye Zaragoza, a musician descended from Arizona’s Akimel O’odham people, wrote a protest song, In The River, to support demonstrators in North Dakota and alert countrymen who, she says, neglect the struggles of Native Americans.

“They watch the romanticised Disney movie and dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween, but they don’t know the true story behind it or any of the real culture and customs,” Zaragoza says.

“They think that the abuse, colonisation and genocide against Native Americans are in the past. But it wasn’t only 400 years ago; it’s still happening today.”

The fact that scholars, Disney, Trump and the Pamunkey tell different Pocahontas stories is testament to the lack of records about her life. Even her name is elusive – she was also known as Matoaka, Amonute and, later, Rebecca.

Her most often-cited story is probably apocryphal. According to anecdote, Pocahontas, aged about 11, saved the life of a captive, John Smith, by placing her head over his as her father, the chief, raised his war club to execute the English colonist.

Scholars note that Smith only penned his romance-tinged version of events years after they happened. In reality, it may have been a stage-managed ruse aimed at adopting Smith and his fellow colonists as tribute-payers in the Powhatan confederacy.

Undisputed facts

But some facts about Pocahontas are not disputed. Colonists described the youth cart-wheeling outside their fort at Jamestown, living up to her nickname, Pocahontas, the “playful one”. She was involved in relations between colonists and natives that swung from friendly food-trading to open warfare and kidnapping.

She was kidnapped and held for a year, during which time she converted to Christianity. She took the name Rebecca and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower, in 1614. They had a son and travelled to England to promote the colony to investors at fancy London soirees.

The only known image of Pocahontas shows her decked out in a trendy lace collar, ostrich feathers and other fineries – the poster child of a “civilised savage” who advertised New World opportunities to everyone from plantation owners to Anglican ministers.

It was short-lived, however. On her way back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617. Back home, the Powhatan confederacy rapidly declined in the 1620s under the onslaught of English colonisation.

For Chief Gray, she is a character to whom many narratives can be attached, though her embrace of a foreign faith and culture that displaced her own people renders her peripheral to Pamunkey culture.

“Some people could say she was a victim, a hero, a traitor,” says Gray, who was elected chief in June 2015, one month before the tribe won federal recognition. “But there’s not enough documentation, we just don’t know what she was thinking back then.”

Her legacy among mainstream Americans is very different. Like the fable of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Disney-fied tale of inter-racial ardour and a harmony between two peoples offers a palatable version of early US history, says scholar James Horn.

“It’s a fantasy, and very much a white fantasy about two peoples uniting,” Horn, a British historian and president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, reflects.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the reality of repeated wars throughout not only the 17th century, but the establishment of a pattern of murders and dispossession in early Virginia that continued all the way down to the 19th century.”

By one estimate, the conquest of the Americas wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population. The guns and swords of Europeans were obvious causes, although smallpox and other bugs that accompanied them probably claimed many more lives.

Legacy of conquest

A legacy of marginalisation lives on in the US today. Some 5.2 million people – 1.7 percent of the US population – identified as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the most recent Census Bureau data from 2010. According to Pew Research Centre, one in four of them lived in poverty in 2012.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump tapped in to resentment among some whites that Native Americans unfairly benefit from tax-free petrol, casino-building rights and other breaks from Washington.

The Republican billionaire repeatedly mocked Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry by referring to her as “Pocahontas” while some of his rally crowds erupted in war whoops.

Since the inauguration, the White House web page on Native Americans has been removed and Trump has signed an executive order to clear the way for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.

While stoking fears of Middle Eastern refugees being terrorists, and of undocumented Mexican immigrants being “bad hombres”, scholar Jim Rice says Trump also feeds on antipathy towards Native Americans among his mostly-white fan base.

“There is a widespread and profound ignorance of Native Americans that often goes so far as to think that there are no legitimately native people left, because they drive cars and have cell phones,” Rice, from Tufts University, says.

“Many people feel that Native Americans have had centuries to get over it and should no longer have what are often termed as special privileges, but are in fact constitutional or treaty rights.”

In England, the Pocahontas story is different once again.

The life-size bronze statue of Pocahontas at St George’s church in Gravesend has had its entry on the national heritage list updated and the British Library hosted a “packed day” of screenings and debates on March 18.

For British writer Kieran Knowles, whose play, Gravesend, will be read aloud there on the anniversary, the four-century mark is a rare opportunity to spotlight a run-down town of “just pound stores and charity shops all the way down”, he says.

It is also worth noting that the Pamunkey were not always so aloof about Pocahontas. Chief Gray himself spoke in London about how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the tribe promoted an already-popular character to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

But that has given way to more recent efforts to “reinvigorate the language” and look back before Pocahontas to revive the pottery, shad fishing, hunting and farming skills that “have been lost from 500 years or so ago”, Gray explains.

By downplaying Pocahontas, the Pamunkey are “pushing back on the over-estimation of her importance by non-native people”, says Rice.

For him, Pocahontas is an ideal character for the nexus between historical fact, belief and present-day storytelling. Four centuries after her death, it seems that we have not yet exhausted the Pocahontas story trove.

“If we knew a little less about her, there wouldn’t be enough purchase for us to really talk and think about her so much,” Rice says. “But if we knew any more about her, we couldn’t so readily project our own concerns and preconceptions on to her.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

The seven biggest threats to Donald Trump’s presidency

The mass of protesters converging for Trump’s inauguration is not his only headache.

NEW YORK // US President Barack Obama’s inauguration shows featured the likes of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen. Country singer Toby Keith, who is perhaps the top name at Donald Trump’s welcome bash, does not come with quite the same stardust.

But, sadly for Trump, his kudos among pop stars is not his biggest problem. The president-elect will take the oath of office on January 20 amid widespread scepticism from the public and with ready-made enemies in US spy agencies, the business community and even his own Republican Party.

On the surface, Trump’s feisty use of Twitter and his bullish handling of reporters at a recent press conference make him look the alpha male. But his bravado masks vulnerabilities seldom seen by those about to enter the Oval Office.

Before the billionaire property magnate is sworn in on the steps of the US Capitol on Friday, Al Jazeera spoke to Washington insiders about the headaches Trump is likely to suffer during his first 100 days of rolling out plans to make America great again.

1. Public opinion
Trump lost the popular vote on November 8 by 2.9 million votes, only winning the election via a superior tally in the Electoral College. The latest CBS News poll showed only 32 percent of respondents had a favourable view of him, lower than George W Bush (44 percent) and Obama (60 percent) when they were first sworn in.

According to Pew Research Center, most Americans want Trump to publish his tax returns, worry about him using the Oval Office to line his pockets and think he has explained his policy goals poorly. Others fret about his impulsive behaviour, which was on show again with recent Twitter tirades against the actress Meryl Streep, and John Lewis, a civil rights icon.

Trump’s efforts to reopen factories on US soil are popular in mostly white rust-belt zones, but his appeal in these areas may ebb as he cuts healthcare plans for the poor. “Those who voted for him will soon see that his policies will impact them negatively as well,” Susan Smith, from the Muslim Peace Fellowship, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

2. Protesters
Not everyone heading to Washington on Friday will cheer the 45th president’s oath-taking. Officials have struggled to find enough space for protesters to stage some 25 rallies over the weekend. The biggest is the Women’s March on Washington, which will draw some 200,000 people decrying threats to abortion laws, affordable healthcare and equal pay.

Other groups will spotlight everything from ending war to legalising marijuana. Environmentalists are irked by Trump’s claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Big rallies will also take place in Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities in the US and globally.

Veteran protester Paul Kawika Martin, from the anti-war group Peace Action, was sceptical about the impact of rallies, which are not likely to match the scale of those against the Iraq War of 2003. “Big street protests are slowly going the way of dinosaurs,” Martin told Al Jazeera.

Others activists, such as Khury Petersen-Smith, praise recent gains made by the Black Lives Matter race justice movement and the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests.

“We cannot only put our faith in elected officials,” Petersen-Smith told Al Jazeera. “We need to harness grassroots power, keep immigration police out, turn college campuses into sanctuaries and work locally to create pockets of resistance.”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of others will head to the capital to root for the next commander-in-chief, including the motorcycle cavalcade Bikers for Trump and the attendees of the Deploraball shindig.

3. Republicans
Trump’s fans were always the grassroots folk who turned out in droves to his campaign rallies, not well-heeled apparatchiks in Washington. The latter would have preferred Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or another established Republican candidate to lead the party.

That said, members are broadly falling into line behind Trump in pursuit of nixing Obamacare and other bullet points on the right’s agenda. But troubles persist. Rubio and John McCain, an Arizona senator, kicked up a fuss during hearings for Trump’s appointees.

They worry about Kremlin-backed hackers swinging the election and Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others fear Trump’s antipathy to trade deals and his sniping at European and Asian allies. Pundits question whether members will tire of his excesses and pro-Moscow outlook, and point to soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence as a potential successor.

“Trump gives the far-right most of the policies that it wants, but he’s also deeply problematic,” Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “Pence will also deliver what they want, while also being a typical, bland, mid-western, far-right-leaning Republican.”

4. Democrats
The election effectively handed Republicans dominance of the White House, Congress and Supreme Court. Many Democrats are now second-guessing the choice of Hillary Clinton to run against Trump over the affable leftist Bernie Sanders, and wondering whether the party should swing left.

Dozens of Democrat politicians will boycott the inauguration as the Trump backlash begins.

“The Democrats went into post-election shock, but that will wear off as they retreat, strategise, get re-energised and return,” said Martin. “They won the popular vote in November and will look to make significant gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections.”

5. Liberal mayors
Democrats lost big in the election, but still hold sway in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other US metropolises. These hubs have track records for blocking federal government immigration crackdowns and have earned monikers as “sanctuary cities”.

Trump, meanwhile, has talked of deporting “bad hombres” among the US’ 11 million undocumented migrants, creating Muslim registries and re-introducing the “stop-and-frisk” policing tactic that can single out blacks and Latinos.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected such policies and said he would refuse to let Trump “tear families apart”. Other Democrat mayors agreed, and can limit cooperation with the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other deportation agencies.

“If mayors stand up, like so many have, we can block deportation forces from entering our cities, looking for undocumented people, kicking down doors and breaking up families,” Cathy Schneider, an urban politics scholar at American University, told Al Jazeera.

“Our cities must become bastions of protection for our citizens and immigrants.”

Washington can retaliate by freezing funds to defiant mayors, but the outcome would be unpredictable and messy. “It’s hard to say who would win, but the administration must pick its battles carefully,” added Martin.

6. Spymasters
Intelligence chiefs are doubtless bad people to irk.

Trump did just this when he said he was a “smart person” who did not need the daily intelligence digests that his predecessors received. This month, US spooks said Russia tried to sway the election outcome in Trump’s favour by hacking and other means.

Trump rejected their conclusion and slammed them for the bogus reports of mass-casualty weapons that led to the Iraq war. His links to Moscow faced renewed scrutiny after an unsubstantiated report that Russia had compromising evidence against Trump.

“We will see more leaks to the press about the ineptitude of the Trump administration and about Trump’s ties to Russia as time goes by,” said Cristol.

Washington bureaucrats are not likely to confront Trump directly, but have other weapons, said Martin. “They know the system and how to resist what they don’t like. We see this happening in the intelligence community already; and there’s more pushback to come.”

7. Corporations
So far, businesses are dancing to Trump’s beat. General Motors, Wal-Mart and others have announced plans for job-creation or re-locating factories to US soil. This is in line with Trump’s plans to create US jobs and build home-grown manufacturing by taxing imports.

They also fear his wrath: Trump’s criticism that drug firms were over-charging for medicines saw their stock tumble. It works for now, but executives may turn on Trump should his mooted trade war with China go awry, disrupt the global supply chains that enable much US business and ultimately hurt US workers.

“If Trump messes up the world economy, there’ll be lots of rich, powerful corporations with legions of lobbyists to resist him,” said Martin.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to plead guilty to destroying sacred sites in Mali. Will other sledgehammer-wielders take note?

NEW YORK // When the Roman Emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the Library of Antioch in the 4th century AD, there was nobody around to make him answer for what ancient Syrian culture buffs deemed a “barbaric act”, according to records.

Modern history is littered with cases of wartime razing, from the levelling of Dresden to the Taliban’s Buddha demolition at Bamiyan. Politicians have been slow to crack down on ruinous acts, but experts hope that this month the curve will bend in the right direction.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to plead guilty to war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after allegedly destroying holy and historic sites in Timbuktu as his al-Qaeda-linked group swept across Mali in 2012.

For heritage lovers, it is a watershed moment. The first ICC prosecution solely for tearing down monuments will deter other wreckers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, they say.

“The case sets an important precedent by demonstrating, once again, that these attacks on heritage are really attacks on people,” said Tess Davis, a director of The Antiquities Coalition, which seeks to end ISIL-style racketeering.

“We’ve seen it before, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban, and we must end impunity for these crimes.”

The ICC has probed the events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized chunks of the country’s northern deserts and desecrated mosques, shrines and monuments in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

French and Malian troops pushed them back in 2013.

According to prosecutors, al-Mahdi, a former teacher in his 40s, led an anti-vice squad called al-Hesbah, which acted for the Islamic court of Timbuktu, while he was a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg rebel group allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He is accused of directing attacks on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, a trade hub that became Islam’s “intellectual and spiritual capital” in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to UNESCO.

In broad daylight, pickaxe-wielding men tore down mud-brick walls in front of television cameras. Mahdi himself spoke on screen, using the alias Abu Tourab, to declare the structures “forbidden” under Islam.

Some 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or torched during the group’s reign. Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, decried an “irreplaceable” loss of history “felt by the whole of humanity, and at the expense of future generations”.

Al-Mahdi, from Agoune, 100km west of Timbuktu, the so-called “City of 333 Saints”, was later detained by officials in neighbouring Niger and handed over to the court in the Netherlands, where he is in custody.

He is expected to plead guilty at the start of a week-long trial, which can be seen online. It will hear from lawyers, expert and character witnesses and a representative of nine victims before its three judges retire to consider the outcome.

If convicted, al-Mahdi faces jail, a fine and reparation payments to victims. Lawyers contacted by Al Jazeera estimated sentences of between four to 10 years, but said it was hard to predict how the ICC would balance the needs of justice in its first plea bargain.

According to heritage buffs, the case is needed now more than ever.

The Middle East hosts many ancient and valued sites.

“In a matter of days, weeks and months we’ve lost entire chapters of history and sites and objects that had survived for millennia. We’re losing so much from the cradle of civilisation on our watch,” said Davis.

ISIL famously destroyed The Temple of Bel and other sites among the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, and smashed up many statues from the ancient Assyrian era after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015.

But less well-known strikes on buildings belonging to Shia Muslims and Yazidis – groups that ISIL views as heretics – are more worrying to Davis, who sees heritage-trashing as a “red flag of an impending genocide”.

According to Lisa Ackerman, an official of the World Monuments Fund charity, heritage destruction in the modern-day Middle East compares to Europe’s intra-Christian violence of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Back then, an “incalculable number of sculptures was destroyed for being the wrong expression of Christianity,” Ackerman told Al Jazeera. In both periods, religious puritanism led to blood and toppled towers, she added.

The ICC’s Bensouda has spoken of prosecuting atrocities in Iraq and Syria but is hamstrung by the court’s limited jurisdiction. Ackerman and Davis both said that global rules on preserving heritage lack teeth.

The ICC builds on national and international laws that mention protecting valued sites in wartime, such as the Lieber Code, signed by then US President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, and The Hague Conventions.

Laws accompany practical steps. In World War II, conservators removed statues from plazas and stained-glass windows from churches across Europe to save them from aerial bombing raids, said Ackerman.

Similarly, many relics were shipped from Mosul’s museum to Baghdad before ISIL rolled into town.

Not every effort has worked. In the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, “blue shield” markers on historic sites, used to discourage attacks, were instead used by commanders to target buildings that were valued by an enemy ethnic group.

“They were used for the exact opposite purpose for which they were intended,” said Ackerman.

The ICC treaty outlaws hits on “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments” and hospitals. But, in a crucial caveat, it permits acts that advance “military objectives”.

This is problematic. In World War II, Allied officials said bombing Dresden and other cities helped shatter German morale, slow the Nazi war machine and end the conflict. The same justifications are available to modern-day generals.

Meanwhile, historic sites are targets for other aims. The thick walls and high ground of Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress in western Syria, were as useful to rebel fighters in 2012 as they were to the Crusader force that built them 800 years earlier.

Syrian army generals knew this too, and bombed the castle’s chapel to dust.

The so-called “military necessity” waiver is among the toughest legal aspects of wartime conservation. Some examples of destruction are clear-cut – neither al-Mahdi’s mosque-trashing nor Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht served a military purpose.

But other examples are trickier. Did US troops err by toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue at the end of the Iraq War? Was Al-Qaeda’s Pentagon hit on 9/11 a reasonable target, given the group’s military goals?

And, hypothetically, if ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were holed up in a historic citadel, would US warplanes be correct to bomb the building – killing the leader but destroying a prized landmark in the process?

Experts are divided on such tough questions.

Tim Slade, the director of The Destruction of Memory, a movie on the topic, said he wanted generals to think twice before pulling the trigger, but acknowledged that they are “weighing up various factors” in split-second decisions.

Others take a tougher line. For Nada Hosking, a director at the Global Heritage Fund, a conservation group, there are no exceptions and buildings deserve similar protections to people. “It has to be a law across the board,” Hosking told Al Jazeera.

For Ackerman, the key is keeping better inventories of valued sites and objects, especially in poorer countries, and protecting them when fighting starts. For Davis, the ICC needs to be able to flex its muscles more easily.

According to Harvard Law School scholar Alex Whiting, progress is slow, but gains are palpable.

“When the US invaded Iraq, there was chaos, looting and the destruction of art and culture. No one had prepared for it at all,” Whiting told Al Jazeera.

“This process is about drawing attention to the importance of those things. Hopefully, more care will be paid in the future.”

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.