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“We’re looking to get funding from the European Union, because the US has withdrawn from northwest Syria,” Lilia Wassef, one of the activists representing Radio Fresh and other civic schemes in Idlib, told TRT World, after meeting officials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


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.

Trump’s refugee talk misses realities in the US

Away from political debates about refugees, some previously run-down cities are being rejuvenated by their arrival.

BUFFALO, UNITED STATES // When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a halt on Muslims entering the United States, he was probably not thinking about Nadeen Yusuf, a hard-working Iraqi refugee who lives in Buffalo with her family.

A year after coming to the US, Yusuf already speaks decent English. She wakes at 4am each day for her shift in a supermarket bakery before heading to run her craft market stall. Down the line, she wants to buy a house and manage a home-making school for teenage girls.

Not only is she living the American dream of upward mobility, but families like the Yusufs are credited with breathing new life into crime-ridden parts of Buffalo and helping a rust-belt city turn the page on decades of decline.

That is why it stings doubly hard when Trump and others say she is unwelcome.

“Even when it’s only 1 percent of people who say something to make you upset, it will hurt,” Yusuf, 44, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m glad I’m here. If I was in my country, I would never get this job or my kids would never have a school like this. We are doing well, but I can’t say I am happy. Because you leave all of your life, your memory, your parents, your sisters, everything.”

The Yusufs fled Baghdad by car in 2006 during the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of 2003. Syria proved just as dangerous; they finally passed the US’ stringent security checks and gained refugee status while in Turkey in 2014.

Now she talks about growing her business by learning macrame and other skills via YouTube. Refugee agencies have helped her “too much” with English classes, handouts, cheap rent and other support, but not everyone has rolled out the red carpet, she said.

“They don’t say anything directly but they don’t trust us,” Yusuf explained.

“Some people think because we are refugees we are poor, did not go to school and came just for benefits. We came because we did not want to lose our life, not for money or welfare.”

Buffalo has become a refugee hub over the past decade. The surrounding county absorbed 1,380 of the 4,085 refugees to settle in New York State in 2014. Many had fled war, hardship and persecution in Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, Congo and Bhutan.

Nowadays, 8.4 percent of Buffalo’s population were born overseas and 15.6 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census Bureau, which counts refugees, immigrants and other newcomers together.

Like Yusuf and her craft business, refugees are linked with industriousness. They open shops, restaurants and other small businesses, often on the city’s West Side, where locals can now dine on delicacies from Burmese black rice to Ethiopian injera.

A few decades back, it was a run-down hotbed of vice and crime. Now it boasts supermarkets, eateries and mobile phone sellers. Once-dilapidated buildings sport new paint jobs and property values are climbing.

“It was like a war zone. Abandoned houses, drugs, prostitution,” resident Karen Greenspan told Al Jazeera. “There’s a really neat resurgence because of refugees and immigrants. They’re ‘rehabbing’ houses, opening restaurants, stores. It’s bringing life back to the city.”

More than 16 percent of high-street businesses in the Buffalo area are owned by foreign-born entrepreneurs, according to a 2013 report by the Americas Society and the Fiscal Policy Institute, called Bringing Vitality to Main Street.

Buffalo needs it. The city’s heyday has long passed.

Despite its harsh winters, Buffalo grew rapidly after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which linked the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, New York City and the Atlantic for a lucrative trade in wheat and other goods.

Shipyards, iron and steel mills, meat-packing plants, flour mills, and railway industries followed. In the 1890s, engineers gave the city another boon by harnessing waterpower from the nearby Niagara River and the world-famous waterfalls.

But as trains and lorries replaced barges in the 20th century, Buffalo was increasingly sidelined. Its population fell from a peak of 580,000 in the 1950s to about 259,000 today as factories closed and left the region a forsaken rust belt.

Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, says that downward trend could be over. The city is witnessing a renaissance thanks to refugees and immigrants, as well as empty nesters moving back from the suburbs and millennials opting for cheaper places such as Buffalo over New York City and Chicago.

“In 1950, we were as big as the city of Boston, for example. Every decade since we have lost population. It is finally projected that for the first time since the 1950 census we might see our first population gain in 2020,” Brown told Al Jazeera.

Buffalo has also been the centrepiece of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s effort to revitalise the upstate economy, with a $1bn pledge – the so-called “Buffalo Billion” – for creating 14,000 jobs via a solar panel factory, a drugs research complex and other schemes.

Brown, the grandson of Caribbean migrants, holds up Buffalo as a model of integration. While Republican politicians across the US call for undocumented Latinos to be kicked out or the door closed on Syrians and Iraqis, such divisive rhetoric carries little sway in Buffalo, he said.

“We haven’t had protests. We haven’t had buildings burned. We haven’t had a house of worship defaced. But we don’t want to get to that point,” Brown said.

Sean Mulligan, a staffer in the city council, says there have been grumbles in public meetings, with residents complaining that newcomers cannot speak English, but that Buffalo is mostly living up to its nickname as the City of Good Neighbours.

Buffalonians are “closely connected to their own history”, Mulligan told Al Jazeera.

Sited on the land of Seneca Indians, Buffalo has received German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and Latino migrants, among others, as well as blacks fleeing the south via the Underground Railroad, a slavery-era web of escape routes and safe houses.

“Buffalo was losing jobs way before the refugees arrived,” Mulligan added. “The fact that people are willing to come and live here is really appreciated.”

Not all officials toe the mayor’s line. After the November attack in Paris claimed 131 lives, county politician Joseph Lorigo said Syrians should not be welcomed to Buffalo, warning: “The risk to our community is far too great.”

Last year, Arafat Nagi, a Yemeni-American from nearby Lackawanna was arrested after buying night-vision goggles, a machete and body armour and travelling overseas to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria.

His town, home to many Yemeni immigrants, has been closely watched since the so-called Lackawanna Six were arrested in 2002 for attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks.

Last month, two Iraq-born Palestinian men who lived in the US as refugees were arrested in Texas and California on terror-related charges.

Rights groups say they were isolated cases and that most refugees eschew groups such as ISIL. But while their narrative of diligent workers reviving run-down towns is compelling, it is not the whole story.

Many refugees cannot speak English, which makes it hard for them to find jobs. And qualifications gained overseas can be worthless in the US, with the result that refugees with PhDs sometimes end up driving taxis.

Adolphe Chebeya, 35, has been in the US for only three months and is daunted by his new home. He fled Congo after government forces killed his brother and threatened him. He spent four years in Uganda before landing a US visa.

Now he studies English and gets $350 each month, food stamps and free housing. He is worried about his benefits drying up, and wonders why his experience in a university in Africa has not lined him up for a good job in the US.

“They’re not interested in me. I did university. I worked with many international organisations, but they put me back to live on zero, to learn the ABC. I’m obligated to do it. If I don’t go, they won’t give me food, they won’t pay my rent,” Chebeya told Al Jazeera.

Buffalo’s largest refugee contingent hails from Myanmar. It has been plagued by a spate of burglaries that is widely believed to be the work of teenage refugees. But victims, fearful of the police shakedowns they experienced back home, seldom dial 911.

Some have lived in jungles without electricity, leading to mishaps with appliances and burned-out kitchens. Many fall victim to crooked landlords or estate agents seeking to unload shoddy properties at premium prices.

Adapting to the US can be tough for people who are traumatised by having lived in squalid camps for years, enduring torture or persecution at the hands of government officials or seeing loved ones get blown apart by rocket fire.

According to Lamin Tamang, a Bhutanese refugee who reached the US in 2012, most of his compatriots suffer “some kind of mental illness” after bearing the brunt of a government deportation of ethnic Nepalese in the 1990s.

“People struggle with the challenges of a new country,” Tamang told Al Jazeera.

“They are scared of being shot, afraid of the presence of guns in America. They see terrible crimes on television and think the same could happen to them. After they stay a couple of years, they get to know what is real and go outside without fear.”

Back in Nepal’s refugee camps, Tamang taught schoolchildren for five years. In the US, he works as a translator for Bhutanese refugees with mental health issues and spends his evenings at college studying for a US teaching qualification.

US refugee agencies target cities such as Buffalo for their relatively low rents. This also means they send newcomers to poor areas with high unemployment and overstretched social services. Buffalo’s poverty rate is 30.7 percent.

“When I imagined America, I imagined New York City or Boston, like in the movies. But I was put somewhere in the junk, I would say. Where there are less people and the housing isn’t comfortable. I consider myself in kind of a slum area,” Tamang said.

Refugee children have their own problems, often getting low grades in schools where teachers struggle amid the dozens of languages in use. Beset by abysmal graduation rates, Buffalo’s Lafayette High School is set to close.

The challenges and opportunities faced by Buffalo’s refugees are replicated across the country.

According to the Americas Society report, refugees and other immigrants are a driving force in regenerating run-down areas. Nationally, they own 61 percent of petrol stations, 58 percent of dry cleaners and 53 percent of grocery stores.

Immigrants give a “critical population boost” to declining areas, says the 42-page study. Cities such as Philadelphia, St Paul and Nashville have pro-immigrant policies. Shrinking cities such as Baltimore, St Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago might do well to take note.

Others highlight the cost of resettling refugees, not the payback.

Jessica Vaughan, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, says that the five-year resettlement of each Syrian refugee costs $64,000, which could “break the bank” of the often-poor neighbourhoods where they are typically sent.

The US is the world’s most generous host of refugees, admitting three million since 1975. In that time, the number of those in need has risen. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warns that 60 million people globally are currently displaced by conflict.

As the European refugee crisis of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis, Afghans and others made headlines last year, US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, raised the annual US refugee intake to 85,000, to include 10,000 Syrians displaced by civil war.

His decision was welcomed by some, but also prompted fears of Paris-style attacks on US soil. Trump called for banning all Muslim travel to the US. His lead rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, said some resettled refugees should be sent back home.

In November, a Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53 percent of Americans wanted to turn away Syrian refugees. Pew Research Center describes similarly lacklustre support for welcoming Hungarian refugees in 1958, as well as Indochinese in 1979 and Cubans in 1980.

Right-wingers are likely to debate the issue up until November’s presidential election, but efforts by some congressional politicians and state governors to limit refugee numbers and boost security vetting are not being implemented.

None of this seems to bother Yusuf, back at her craft stall in Buffalo. She is too busy with her children’s education and devising new macrame products – from key rings to baby gifts and wall hangings.

She embodies many trademark Republican values: a strong work ethic, devotion to her four children and social conservatism. Yet her religion and war-ravaged homeland put her at odds with much that Republicans espouse.

Nevertheless, she remains upbeat. Her macrame wall decorations feature colourful pictures and pithy maxims to lift the spirits. One of the adages is particularly fitting for the challenges facing Muslim refugees in the US.

“Let your smile change the world, not the world change your smile,” it reads.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Crazy Town: mental illness in Mogadishu

After decades of civil war, Somalia is awash in mental illness and without a single trained psychiatrist. That the folk cure for PTSD involves being locked in a room with a hyena isn’t helping.

MOGADISHU // Mohamed Abdulla Hersi reclines on a foam mattress in the Habeb Rehabilitation Treatment Center’s crowded mental ward. His eyes are glazed over from antipsychotic drugs, probably some combination of chlorpromazine and haloperidol, but we can’t be sure. His medical files, in a bundle in the facility’s office, do not list his drug regimen.

Hersi doesn’t even bother to swat away the flies gathering on his face and body. Loose-fitting combat fatigues, emblazoned with the light blue and white-star emblem of Somalia’s tattered army, expose his chest and two bullet-sized scars — evidence of the battlefield violence he has suffered since joining one of the country’s myriad militia groups as a boy.

That was back in 1991, when the toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre plunged Somalia into more than two decades of chaos. Subsequent fighting under clan warlords and Muslim hard-liners drew in the United States, Ethiopia, U.N. blue helmets, and a coalition of African forces. Now that African Union troops have dislodged al-Shabab militants from most major cities and a new government is shining a dim ray of hope over parts of the country, the battle-scarred Hersi serves as a reminder to the many challenges Somalia has yet to overcome.

“Where is my M-16? My Kalashnikov?” he murmurs, seemingly unaware that he is miles from the front lines, where his fellow soldiers fight an enemy with links to al Qaeda and ambitions to overthrow the U.N.-backed government. Hersi speaks in a muddled stream of consciousness about gunfights, explosions, and mangled comrades from his years serving under various militia leaders, generals, and presidents. He mumbles about a car-bomb blast he survived in Kismayo, about Osama bin Laden, and about his father, who apparently died in Minneapolis.

“I was 7 when I joined the soldiers. My life has been for fighting only,” he says. “I fought for all the warlords. In Jubaland, Puntland, Mogadishu. I grew up with the war. I joined Somalia’s national forces. I killed al-Shabab, but I do not know how many.”
The 29-year-old calls himself a general — though his fatigues suggest he is an ordinary foot soldier — and yearns to exit the locked compound and return to his comrades in arms. “I have more experience at the bad things,” he says.

Somalia has among the highest rates of mental illness globally, affecting at least one-third of its estimated 10 million people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Rates are higher in Mogadishu and the turbulent south, where civilians have endured harsher stresses of war, drought, and instability. Many witnesses of bloodshed and atrocities face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without treatment, sufferers can experience depression and maniacal, violent fits, and they are more prone to substance abuse — often of the khat plant that sends chewers’ minds and pulses racing. A psychosis, such as schizophrenia, can follow, though the number of Somalis who have been formally diagnosed pales in comparison with the number who are afflicted.

After decades of civil war, Somalia has virtually no capacity to cope with widespread mental illness. The country’s only trained psychiatrist died last year in a car crash; the better-trained staff members at mental health clinics like the Habeb Rehabilitation Treatment Center have only three-month diplomas in basic psychiatry from the WHO. Most are untrained volunteers.

Abdirahman Ali Awale, who founded Mogadishu’s first mental clinic in 2005, has been working feverishly over the years to improve and expand care. The energetic father of nine, known locally as Dr. Habeb — despite his lack of formal medical training — is now one of Somalia’s main mental health-care providers, running half a dozen centers across the country. Relying on paying relatives, private donations, and drugs from the WHO, he has provided care to some 14,000 patients over the last eight years.

“War and conflict is the biggest problem causing mental disorder,” says Habeb, his vocal chords straining from the combination of a birth defect and near-constant yelling. “Nobody supports the mental ill people in Somalia.”

At the Mogadishu facility where Hersi lies, vacantly staring into space, mattresses are strewn across floors, squeezed into storerooms and onto porches. Patients while away the hours in idle gossip and argument, hunkered down under flimsy steel roofs. A few years back, many patients were chained to their beds, but they have since been freed after WHO officials intervened.

“I speak English in many different dialects, but I’d rather speak Latin,” says a young male patient, who claims to have lived in London but whose actual identity remains unclear. “Latin is a general word for English. A word for Latinos. Now the World Cup is Latin. Brazil is hosting the World Cup next year. And I wish you all the best,” he says, wandering out of the overcrowded ward.

To hear Habeb tell it, curing mental illness is cheap and simple — just a case of drugs, know-how, and some rest. Most patients stay for between a few days and several months, though some have been locked up for years. Once his patients are discharged, however, there is little follow-up to assess whether they relapse. Patient records are barely four pages long, and on many documents, most sections are left blank.

As limited as the care is for patients in Habeb’s clinics, however, the situation for the majority of Somalis suffering from mental trauma is far worse. In much of the country, modern medicine is not the first approach to curing mental illness. Because conditions ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia are widely believed to be the result of possession by spirits or djinns, cures are often sought in faith and folklore. Mullahs routinely tie sufferers to trees and flog them with branches in order to exorcise demons. In rural areas, according to WHO officials, the mentally ill are sometimes locked indoors with a hyena for three-day stretches. Local legend has it that the arched-back scavengers possess mystical powers and can eat the evil spirits that poison the mind. Uncontrollable victims of mental trauma have simply been beaten to death by villagers.

Even in downtown Mogadishu, it is clear that few of the city’s wild-eyed denizens receive treatment. On one street, a dreadlocked woman pulls down her dress and exposes her breasts. Locals say her husband and seven children perished from disease. Elsewhere, a man grimaces by the roadside. In his hand is a bunch of khat, a socially accepted but addictive stimulant. Under a nearby bridge, unemployed homeless men with bloodshot eyes rest on flattened cardboard boxes after a night’s leaf-chewing.

These sufferers roam free. Others are locked down, out of sight. Abubakar Mohamed Sheikhow, 23, was chained by his wrists and ankles in a metal shack in southwest Mogadishu for 12 months before one of Habeb’s rescue teams located him last year. Neighbors had restrained him after he violently attacked his mother.

Dowlay Hassaney, a 27-year-old schizophrenic, was chained to a bush in Eel-Adde, some 55 miles southwest of Mogadishu, when health workers found her in 2011. Her husband had been apparently undeterred by her mental state: She gave birth three times during eight years spent shackled in the sun, according to Habeb. Mobile teams from Habeb’s mental-health facilities have saved roughly 2,500 mentally ill Somalis from chains in the southern part of the country, but Habeb guesses that another 5,000 remain shackled by their families in Mogadishu alone.

Bethuel Isoe, a psychologist with the Italian charity Group for Transcultural Relations who has spent 25 years aiding Somalis in refugee camps in Kenya and Somaliland, says that PTSD and other mental disorders may be feeding back into the cycle of violence. Those bearing psychological scars are often willing volunteers for extremist militias, he says, providing the cannon fodder for attacks. The problem is compounded by the fact that a whole generation of young people has known nothing but turmoil since 1991.

“I wish the Somali government understood the importance of this,” says Isoe. “The country cannot move forward, economically, politically, or even socially with such a large number of mentally ill patients. If nothing is done, security will remain a challenge.”
For his part, Habeb says he struggles to get attention from Maryan Qasim, the minister for human development and public services, whose portfolio covers health, education, youth, sports, women, and labor — or the global charities that have increased their presence in Mogadishu.

“International agencies are only interested in diarrhea, TB, HIV, and malaria,” he says, echoing a widely held view among mental health workers that infectious diseases secure a disproportionate amount of global health funding. While mental illness accounts for 14 percent of medical problems, it receives less than 1 percent of health spending in poor countries.

Dr. Zeinab Ahmead Noor, head of Somalia’s mental health unit, says officials support Habeb’s work by sourcing drugs through the WHO, though she admits that the health ministry is more concerned with re-opening Mogadishu’s Forlanini Hospital.

“We help him as much as we can but we are more focused on the opening of a public hospital,” she said. “There [are] many people who suffer from mental health. Every family has some problem, and, because of 20 years of lack of resources, there is a lot of suffering in the country.”

In his ward in Mogadishu, Habeb’s telephone rings throughout the small hours as new patients are admitted — some of them kicking, screaming, and violent. The morning brings a new arrival, the 28-year-old son of a parliamentarian, whose ankles and wrists were bound with television cable after he trashed the family home.

Habeb looks exhausted and stressed. His son, Mohamed Alrahman Ali, worries that his father is overworked, that his diabetes, weight loss, and quick temper are worsened by helping Somalia’s mentally ill. “I cry seven or eight times a day. I don’t have any support. I am alone,” says Habeb, his left leg jittering restlessly in a manner that resembles many of his patients.

There is debate over what proportion of Somalia’s population suffers from mental trauma. Many describe the WHO’s estimate of one-third as conservative. Some believe it is closer to two-thirds. For Habeb, the answer is simple. “All,” he says, not even bothering to exclude himself.

This article first appeared on Foreign Policy.

Trafficked apes strive to return to the wild

Rebel groups illegally poach apes to fund their attacks as conservationists complain of lax enforcement of regulations.

NANYUKI, KENYA // When Amisero was rescued, the young chimpanzee was standing in a pool of vomit and diarrhoea, close to death after spending her childhood locked behind bars in the home of a private collector in Burundi.

Believe it or not, she is one of the lucky ones. Conservationists say that growing numbers of chimps are dragged from West African forests each year and shipped abroad to spend their lives performing crowd-pleasing stunts.

In Asian zoos, illegally imported chimpanzees swing their fists in clumsy boxing matches or dress up in bridal gowns for mock weddings. Others complement the secret menageries of wealthy sheikhs in the oil-rich Gulf.

While the black markets in rhino horn and elephant tusk attract global media attention, guardians of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans say the great apes face a similar existential threat but are largely forgotten.

“It’s a serious problem. In 50 years, chimpanzees could be extinct,” said David Mundia, the keeper of Amisero and other members of the human-like species at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya’s central highlands.

“When Amisero arrived, she was dehydrated, on brink of death and had to be drip-fed to keep her alive. She’s doing well now, but chimpanzees are like humans. They suffer from post-traumatic stress and can take many years to recover.”

Spike in trafficking

This month, the United Nations and the Great Apes Survival Partnership (Grasp) released a provisional estimate of the scale of animal losses. They said almost 3,000 great apes are removed from the wild each year, two-thirds of which are chimpanzees.

For decades, the animals have been hunted as jungle food and lost their canopies to loggers, miners, oil drillers and ranchers. But researchers have uncovered a worrying spike in great ape trafficking in the past five years.

“Traditionally it was a by-product of the bush-meat trade. Now, poachers are entering forests because they have standing orders for chimpanzees and other great apes from clients in China, the Far East and the wealthy Gulf states,” said Doug Cress, coordinator of GRASP.

Chimpanzees typically fight off gun-toting poachers, meaning about 10 animals are killed for every baby chimp that is captured, often wiping out whole communities. Many orphans suffocate in cramped packing crates.

Researchers describe smart criminal networks underpinning the trade, bringing together wildlife hunters and the traffickers who bribe park wardens and corrupt customs men to sneak their quarry across borders.

In Africa, home to most of the world’s half-million great apes, there is growing evidence that the Lord’s Resistance Army and other militia are cashing in on the lucrative animal trade to finance their rebellions.

Poachers sell live baby chimpanzees for as little as $50. Middle-men multiply that price fourfold. At the top end of the market, orangutans fetch $1,000 at re-sale while trophy animals like gorillas carry a $400,000 price tag.

Once chimps outgrow their photogenic infancy, they become too strong, unpredictable and dangerous to handle and have been known to savage keepers. This perpetuates the demand for new chimp orphans from the forest.

All great apes are endangered and protected under the toughest rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Listed animals can only be traded internationally if they were bred in captivity, rather than from the wild.

Legal loopholes

But there is a loophole. Traffickers in West Africa falsify CITES permits to describe animals as captive-bred. Importers “turn a blind eye to the details because they have so many standing orders in their zoos, amusement parks and private collections”, said Cress.

Only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia from the great ape trade from 2005-11, said Cress. He calls for anti-corruption probes, better policing of CITES rules and the confiscation, DNA-testing and repatriation of all trafficked great apes.

Action is being taken. On the eve of this month’s CITES meeting in Bangkok, the 177-nation group slapped sanctions on Guinea because the West African state had issued fraudulent permits for great apes and other beasts.

But discussions in Thailand focussed more on the conservation of elephants, rhinos, sharks and manta rays than on boosting protection for chimps, gorillas, bonobos and the long-haired orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra.

“We’re late to the party,” said Cress. “The black market for elephants and rhinos has been analysed for years, much longer than for great apes. We had to catch up with other flagship species and put them in the same debate about illegal trade, crime and enforcement.”

Other conservationists are less sanguine about the animals’ survival. The wildlife activist Karl Ammann, who goes undercover to expose West Africa’s primate trading rings, describes sluggish global protection efforts.

“CITES is a toothless body. They want a smooth-running operation where everybody pats each other’s back and everybody has skeletons in their closet. I don’t expose yours. You don’t expose mine. That’s how it works,” he told Al Jazeera.

“You have to remember who has these animals. Influential people in the Middle East who are too powerful to be prosecuted. Zoo owners in Asia will continue making thousands of dollars from exhibiting chimps because they know the chances of being caught are so slim.”

He calls for tougher curbs on the so-called “gang of eight” countries that are behind much wildlife trafficking. They include the supply states of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and consumers in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

‘Ticket back to the wild’

Conservationists highlight some gains, such as the growing numbers of mountain gorillas in Rwanda thanks to cash-flows from wildlife tourism, anti-graft efforts and national pride in the charismatic primates.

Things are different across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rangers are often blocked from their gorillas by clashes between government and rebel forces. Silverbacks have even been killed in the crossfire.

Peter Jenkins, a primate conservationist in Nigeria and Cameroon, describes pervasive corruption across West Africa combined with a rampant demand for farmland, homes and logging in booming economies with growing populations.

“In the worst-case scenario, we lose the vast tracts of forest that are home to large populations of wild animals and are left with pockets of wildlife in national parks, where they are protected and monitored, but little more than drive-through zoos,” he said.

Researchers also warn of a hidden threat from trafficking primates without proper medical checks, pointing to their genetic similarity to man and the inter-species migration of the Ebola virus and HIV/Aids.

“Every time a chimp is captured, we risk cross-species transmissions,” said Ammann. “Epidemics like HIV cost us billions and tens of thousands of lives. If that isn’t incentive enough for the world community to monitor relations with our closest animal relatives then I don’t know what is.”

Back at central Kenya’s chimpanzee sanctuary, wardens fling bananas through an electrified fence as 42 rescued primates shriek and bounce towards the fruit on all fours, propelled by their powerful forearms.

That is, except for Poco, one the saddest stories from Sweetwaters. He walks erect on two legs, his anatomy conditioned from spending nine years dangling in a cage that was so cramped he could only squat or stand upright.

For Cress, ill treatment of our closest animal relatives shows that mankind has “crossed a very sinister line”. His thoughts go with the great apes that languish in zoos where welfare is not a priority.

“It’s a living hell,” he said. “They’re a million miles from home. They’ve had their family slaughtered right before their eyes. They’ve been shipped in inhumane circumstances, where many die of thirst, illness or neglect. It takes years before they recover from their ordeal. They have nightmares.

“And only a tiny few wind up in sanctuaries or get a ticket back into the wild.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.