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Can Libya's refugee nightmare get any worse?

Campaigners point fingers at the fragile Libyan government and its international partners.

NEW YORK // Observers inside Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees use words like “nightmarish,” “inhuman” and “hellish” to describe the dirty, over-crowded facilities where torture, rape and other horrors have taken place.

Detainees, mostly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who got caught in Libya on their way to Europe, complain of hunger, disease and forced labor. Thuggish guards allegedly beat and flog them, amid the chaos of Libya’s spiraling civil war.

Despite repeated pledges to shutter Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees, they remain open, in what campaigners describe as a collective failure of Libyan officials, the United Nations and the European Union.

On July 2, a detention center on a military base at Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, the capital, was hit in a double military strike that left 53 detainees dead and more than 87 others injured.

On the day of the attack, scared detainees tried to flee the carnage, but guards kept the doors locked, blocked windows and shot at those who tried to exit. The second, deadlier strike came minutes later.

After the Tajoura tragedy, officials from Libya’s United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) promised to shutter detention centers. The European Union and the United Nations agreed that it was time to close them once and for all.

Authorities moved the 600 Tajoura detainees to a UN migrant processing facility in Tripoli, but within weeks, some 200 detainees were again locked up. Little changed at the other 18 facilities nominally under GNA control, housing a total of about 5,000 refugees and migrants.

Tajoura’s new inmates include migrants picked up by Libya’s coast guard after their vessel capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on July 26 — a disaster claimed the lives of 150 passengers when they drowned.

“These are awful warehouses for stocking commodities, not human beings,” Vincent Cochetel, the special envoy for the Central Mediterranean situation at UNHCR, told The World.

More than 600,000 refugees and migrants are currently in Libya, with about 5,000 held in GNA centers. Detainees are not technically criminals and no formal charges have been brought against them, but they were caught entering or exiting Libya without legal papers.

Some 3,800 of them are close to the front lines of fighting in Libya’s civil war. Inmates frequently say they can hear heavy caliber guns firing nearby. A tragedy like Tajoura could happen again tomorrow, Cochetel said.

The strikes on Tajoura occurred after renegade military chief Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which gets support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and others, launched an attack in early April to seize control of Tripoli.

While pro-GNA forces weathered the initial LNA attack, fighting has ground to a stalemate on the outskirts of Tripoli, with both sides resorting to air attacks in recent weeks. The GNA blames the LNA for the Tajoura strike and consequent deaths, a charge the LNA denies.

“Enough is enough because people can just die from bombing those detention centers,” Cochetel said by phone from Tunisia. “Let’s assist those people out. It’s doable. We do it in other countries — so why not in Libya?”

A UNHCR plan involves the “phased and orderly” release of batches of inmates from detention centers and resettling them in western Libya’s towns and cities, with support from aid groups, Cochetel said.

Women and children would go to a new, open facility in Janzour, west of Tripoli.

The UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, floated the plan to the UN Security Council on July 29, urging envoys to press Tripoli to “take the long-delayed but much-needed strategic decision to free those who are detained in these centers.”

The Security Council has yet to act. Some GNA officials may be taking steps anyway. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has announced plans to close lockups in Tajoura, Misrata and Khoms in what Cochetel calls a response to international censure.

“This is a source of embarrassment and condemnation for the country and some authorities take the view that there’s too much bad press from these detention centers and there are other ways to manage migration pressure,” Cochetel said.

Still, progress will be slow, he added. Some detention centers are run by local militias who do not always follow Bashagha’s orders. Some guards and managers have financial stakes in keeping detention centers open and pocketing cash from forced labor schemes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has uncovered rings of smugglers, militiamen and criminals who run kidnapping, ransom and slave rackets, with networks stretching inside detention centers.

HRW researchers highlighted the case of Abdul, a teenage refugee from Sudan. Guards at al-Karareem detention center, near Misrata, beat him on the soles of his feet with a hose after an attempted breakout by other inmates, they said.

HRW also bashed the European Union for funding a scheme that sees Libya’s coast guard intercept migrant boats at sea before returning those found onboard to the turbulent North African country, and holding them in places like Tajoura.

EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said that caging migrants was “completely unacceptable” and that Libya’s lockups should be shuttered, but that the bloc would continue funding a coastguard scheme that stops migrants from reaching Europe.

“Our priority is saving lives at sea and putting an end to the cruel and inhumane business mode of the smugglers,” Kocijancic, the bloc’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told The World.

“We engage with the Libyan coast guard and provide training, including on human rights, to enhance their capacity to save people’s lives and make Libyan territorial waters more secure for everyone.”

But Judith Sunderland, a director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, said the EU should go further and take responsibility for search-and-rescue sea operations and ensure that no rescued migrants are sent back to Libya.

The bloc should “press Libyan authorities to release all arbitrarily detained migrants” and strengthen UN schemes to evacuate migrants and refugees out of Libya, including settling more of them in European cities, Sunderland said.

“We hoped that the tragedy at Tajoura would have given some real impetus to pledges that were made, but we haven’t really seen that,” Sunderland said.

“There’s no excuse for not coming up with viable plans to release refugees and migrants and evacuate them to safer places, including Europe.”

Still, getting anything done is a challenge in Libya, which has seen little but chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed president Muammar Gaddafi and saw the country spiral into a civil war that continues today.

Addressing the council, Salame called for a truce despite the fact that neither side looked like it was going to “silence the guns.” With arms still flowing, he warned of a “full-blown civil war with serious, potentially existential consequences for Libya and its neighbors.”

Article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.

Obituary: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe

Love or despise him, Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders.

At his best, Robert Mugabe could rank beside such revolutionaries as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. In the 1970s, he was Africa’s teacher-turned Marxist rebel against white rule who declared: “Our votes must go together with our guns.”

He remains a Zimbabwean liberator who defied the West but Mugabe, who died on Friday aged 95, will also be remembered by some as an autocrat who butchered opponents, rigged votes and gobbled up cake at lavish birthday parties while his people went hungry.

“Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders. He remains highly regarded by many for his leadership role in the insurgency against white minority rule,” Brett Schaefer, Africa analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“But the violence and chaos resulting from his struggle to hold on to power led to thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and economic impoverishment. Mugabe’s legacy will forever be stained by his destructive and murderous acts.”

Mugabe was born under British colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia in 1924, the son of Bona and Gabriel, a carpenter. Despite poor school and job prospects for most black people, he gained a Jesuit education and thrived in academia.

Frustrated by racism and white-settler rule, Mugabe embraced socialism and grew more hardline. He spent 11 years in jail, waging a rebellion from behind bars via his resistance movement, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

The fierce bush war brought white settlers to the negotiating table and led to a British-brokered accord in 1979.

By the end of the following year, Mugabe was elected prime minister of the newly-founded Republic of Zimbabwe.

His early socialist reforms brought teachers and medics to rural backwaters and boosted grain harvests.

But Mugabe also launched a crackdown on political rivals in the Matabeleland region that claimed the lives of some 20,000 Ndebele civilians.

After serving two terms as prime minister, he abolished the position and became president in 1987, a post he held for 30 years.

“He was a ruthless authoritarian, not burdened by democratic practice. But don’t mistake him for a much larger machine that operates in Zimbabwe – the ruthless ethos Mugabe represented is deeply-embedded in his political party, ZANU-PF,” academic Stephen Chan told Al Jazeera.

“They believe that those who fought in the Liberation War, from the beginning, against all odds, deserve to rule. Now they have entrenched modes of financial practice within Zimbabwe’s economy that they don’t want to give up.”

Zimbabwe had begun to recover from conflict, but a land reform policy that saw black farmers take over white-owned farms sparked domestic chaos and global outrage. Western nations slapped sanctions on the country and it was suspended from the Commonwealth.

For Mugabe, land grabs corrected colonial-era injustices and his defiance of Western “imperialism” resonated across the continent.

“The land is ours, we give it to who we please, it’s not the business of Britain to tell us who to give land and who not,” he told Al Jazeera in 2000.

This won Mugabe loyalty from war veterans, cronies and others who seized land; but it also led to an exodus of white farmers, hyperinflation and shortages of foodstuffs that slashed 40 percent off the economy, according to World Bank figures.

“Getting rid of white farmers was one of his biggest mistakes – it led to sanctions and economic collapse,” Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador, told Al Jazeera.

“It was catastrophic. The people couldn’t feed themselves any more, while Mugabe’s inner circle was high on the hog.”

In the maelstrom, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged as a political rival. In 2010, Tsvangirai told Al Jazeera that the president had squandered his legacy and “betrayed the liberation that he fought for”.

Mugabe intimidated voters and rigged election outcomes, both the opposition and Western powers have said. Operation Restore Order saw the destruction of the homes or businesses of 700,000 mostly poor backers of the opposition in the capital, Harare, in 2005.

“The way he ran roughshod over the rule of law was an unmitigated disaster,” John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, told al Jazeera.

“If ever there was a continent that desperately needs rule of law, it’s Africa. It’s crucial for development and political security. But, for his supporters, it was all about land: Mugabe’s expulsion of whites cancels everything else.” 

While Tsvangirai won more votes in the 2008 election, Mugabe fought back with violence and the threat of greater bloodshed to broker a power-sharing “government of national unity”, in which he held on to the presidency.

“He had no sentimentality at all,” added Chan, author of Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence.

“He could feign normal, human feelings for public consumption; but if Mugabe needed to make a political corpse out of somebody and put a knife in their back, even if they had been a long-standing comrade, with him through thick and thin, he would do it.”

Once a charming pan-African visionary, Mugabe had dropped his socialist ideals and become a petty dictator, clinging to power and lavishing some $250,000 on his 85th birthday party in 2009, while Zimbabweans died of cholera.

In increasingly-erratic public appearances, he railed against Africa’s former imperial overlords. Britain was using “gay gangsters” to undermine him.

Only God – and not “the MDC, not the British” – could unseat him.

The father of four children from two marriages had become a pariah – the “Hitler of the time”, he said.

As economic hardship bit ordinary Zimbabweans, Mugabe was forced to step down by the military in November 2017 following nationwide mass protests.

After his resignation, he continued to live at home in Harare, visiting Singapore multiple times for medical treatment.

Despite his ignominious exit from the political scene, Mugabe’s legacy as a liberator was recognised by his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, when he announced his death on Friday.

“Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

War is hell. Try doing it in a wheelchair.

Disabled people struggle particularly hard when conflicts erupt. Getting the issue on the international agenda is about as tough as navigating through war-ravaged streets on crutches.

NEW YORK // When military helicopters were buzzing in the skies above her apartment in Aleppo, Syria, Nujeen Mustafa, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, felt like a burden on her family.

Exiting the home involved carrying her down five flights of stairs. Better, they thought, to hide out in the bathroom and hope that barrel bombs dropped by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not come crashing through the ceiling.

“I knew that I was a dramatic disadvantage for them when it came to the need to escape,” Mustafa, now 20, said.

“It would have helped for me to know there was a way to get out without endangering my family and slowing them down.”

Mustafa’s story is one of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. In January 2014, the family fled from Aleppo to southern Turkey. In August 2015, she said goodbye to her parents and began a month-long, 3,500-mile odyssey to Germany, with her sister pushing at the rear.

They crossed eight borders, including miles of wheelchair-pushing along gravelly tracks, nights spent in the wilderness and a risky sea crossing on a dinghy alongside dozens of other Syrians who were escaping the conflict.

Now a student in Wesseling, near Cologne, with an infectious smile and an unbridled sense of optimism, Mustafa is campaigning so that people with disabilities get more help when bullets start flying in the world’s hotspots.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted, Mustafa said. A deaf evacuee might not hear dangers just around the corner.

The problem goes beyond Syria, said Shantha Rau Barriga, an expert on disabilities with the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

From Rohingya villages in Myanmar to the battlefields of South Sudan and eastern Ukraine, people with disabilities have an extra set of problems to deal with when towns and cities come under attack.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities — 15% of the world’s population. An estimated 10 million people with disabilities have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.

Conflict is the cause of 16% of all disabilities. As wars drag on, the number of people with missing limbs or other permanent injuries adds up. In Syria, after eight years of carnage, almost one in four people have a disability.

In Cameroon this year, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by a separatist conflict in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions that has forced half a million people from their homes.

Families have been forced to make heart-wrenching choices between leaving behind relatives with disabilities or exposing them to week-long journeys through bushland, said HRW’s central Africa researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi.

Those abandoned face abuse when government forces reach their towns. In Cameroon, one woman was mocked by government troops and told to remove her prosthetic leg and crawl around on the floor, forcing her to collect money from nearby rooms that they demanded as a payoff, said Allegrozzi.

Such cruelty is not uncommon, said Vladimir Cuk, executive director of the International Disability Alliance, a campaign group. People with disabilities are at greater risk of rape, abuse and starvation once family members have fled, he said.

Emina Cerimovic, one of HRW’s researchers on disability, saw harsh conditions peak in Greece during the global refugee crisis, when people with disabilities were among the masses from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere seeking new lives in Europe.

There, refugees with disabilities crawled on muddy floors to enter toilets that were not wheelchair-friendly, she said. In one camp, bathroom access was so bad that the parents of an 8-year-old Afghan boy with mental and physical disabilities had to put their son in diapers.

At a camp in Thessaloniki in Greece, Amin, a Syrian refugee who was deaf, languished in his tent alone for nine months. His hearing aid had gotten soaked while he crossed the Aegean Sea. Unable to converse, Amin was cut off from the world, Cerimovic said.

European Sea crossings are notoriously risky for refugees. For those in wheelchairs, the voyage likely involves leaving one’s chair at the shore, as human traffickers free up space to accommodate more paying passengers.

This happened to Ali, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee with disabilities, whom Cerimovic met in the squalid Moria camp in Lesbos. During his first two months there, without a wheelchair, Ali could not use the showers or toilets.

“How would you feel if someone took your feet away? My wheelchair is my feet.”

There is no quick and easy fix to this problem.

Aid workers are usually overstretched when refugees start fleeing war zones in large numbers. There is seldom enough of the basic necessities — water, food and medicine — to go around, let alone find time to track down hearing aids and crutches.

Still, securing more prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices for refugee hubs could help ease the lives of people with disabilities. When camp staff hand out food parcels, a line that folks with disabilities can access makes life easier, Barriga said.

Campaigners are lobbying donors, humanitarians and the systems through which they operate, such as the European Union. The UN Security Council should make more legally binding references to disabilities, they say.

Upcoming UN resolutions on South Sudan, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic could add language around disabilities that nudge aid chiefs to think harder about the services they provide, monitor the results and report back afterward, Barriga said.

“It’s not just words on paper,” Barriga said. “It’s a binding commitment made by the UN Security Council which has a ripple effect on UN agencies and the way that humanitarians operate on the ground and at many other levels.”

So far, it has been a case of three steps forward, two steps back.

The annual UN resolution on CAR for 2015 obliged UN officials to “monitor, help investigate and report on violations and abuses” against people with disabilities. But that reference was scrapped in subsequent documents.

In April, Mustafa made a landmark speech to the UN’s top body in New York. She told diplomats that people with disabilities were “invisible” and said more of them should be hired to help run camps and aid programs.

She called for a “world that protects, respects and values” people with disabilities.

To that end, campaigners also want to change how people talk about the issue.

Rather than describe individuals as “disabled,” “handicapped” or “wheelchair-bound,” referring to them as a “person with disabilities” stresses their dignity and humanity, said Barriga.

It goes doubly for Mustafa. While her campaign highlights the plight of people with disabilities in wartime, Mustafa recalls how life with cerebral palsy in Syria was a slog even before fighting broke out in 2011.

Leaving her apartment involved being carried downstairs before the war, too — something only attempted for the annual Persian New Year party. The other 364 days were “like house arrest,” she said.

In Syria, her prospects were dim, even in peacetime. In Germany, where schools and movie theaters often have wheelchair ramps, Mustafa eyes a world of possibility and plans to study psychology at university.

“It’s not just being able to get elevators up and down buildings,” Mustafa said. “The mentality is different here. There’s no underestimation. No pity. No undervaluing a person just because he’s disabled. They push you to reach your full potential.”

This article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.

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.