Peace Activists Demonstrating at Ashdod Port to Protest Capture of Ship

by Adam Keller

Gush Shalom

Dozens of peace activists gathered on the beach near Ashdod port, to which the Jewish Peace Ship is being towed by the Israeli Navy, to protest the capture of the ship and the continued blockade of Gaza, which has turned it into a huge prison with no entry or exit. The activists held signs with the captions: "Medicines – A Security Risk?", "Let Gaza Live," The blockade and the construction on settlements destroy us all," "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies." Later the demonstrators moved to the gates of Ashdod Port where they currently remain.

The government does not miss any opportunity to present to the world the ugly, aggressive and brutal face of Israel. Israel's security would not have been damaged in the least – quite the contrary – if the peace activists on the ship had been allowed to reach Gaza as the respected guests of its Palestinian residents. The sailors who are now shackled and led to detention for their support for peace, save a small measure of the dignity of the State of Israel and of Judaism, whose name Binyamin Netanyahu bears in vain.

Phone numbers for contact at Ashdod Port:

Nurit Peled-Elhanan (wife of Rami Elhanan who sailed on the ship and is now in detention): 054-757 8703

Zvia Shapira (mother of Yonatan and Itamar Shapira who were on the ship and are now detained): 054-747 4994

Adam Keller, Gush Shalom spokesperson): 054-234 9750

Chagos people press to return to their island home

by Lorraine Mallinder


Removed 40 years ago to make way for a US military base, they still want to go back.

Mauritius has recently shown increasing support for the Chagossians, but its interest in the cause intermeshes with its own aspirations for sovereignty over the archipelago, an area it claims was illegally removed from its territory prior to its independence from the U.K. in 1968.

Vexed that it wasn’t consulted by the British on the marine protected area, it has been seeking support from other African states in its bid for sovereignty, threatening to take its case to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. It has also been lobbying Washington for access to negotiations on the renewal of the latter's 50-year lease on Diego Garcia, set to expire in 2016.

The Mauritian government has vowed that the Chagossians would be returned home were it to win back the territory, but Bancoult is skeptical. “We were sacrified for Mauritian independence,” he said, referring to the country's negotiations with the U.K. government of Harold Wilson at the height of the Cold War, a point at which the islands were already being cleared for the purposes of transatlantic military strategy.

“Up to now, we have been fighting alone.” He described the current situation as a “ping-pong game” and alluded to plans to eventually hold a referendum allowing Chagossians to decide by whom they wish to be governed.

As the politicking continues, the U.S. is ramping up its nuclear presence in the region, installing a maintenance platform for its so-called fast-attack and guided-missile submarines. But, the world’s policeman is increasingly unwelcome in the region. Last year, African states ratified the Pelindaba Treaty, an attempt to establish a nuclear-free zone across the continent, a domain which extends as far as Diego Garcia. Mauritius also signed up, though it is not yet clear how far it would take its commitment were it ever in a position to claim rent for the U.S. presence in Chagos.

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — Lisette Talate has a message for the British government: “Give me back my Diego, my land,” she says, her eyes flashing with a mixture of pain and anger.

In the early 1970s, Talate was one of about 2,000 people evicted by the British from the Indian Ocean archipelago of Chagos to make way for a U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia. Today, she is considered the soul of a decades-long struggle to return home to the islands, a struggle that persists despite the best efforts of the U.K. government.

Now more than 40 years later, she and others are waiting on a judgment from the European Union's court to allow them to return to their island home, despite the fact that it is a massive U.S. military base.

It is a well-documented story that has never lost its power. Expelled from 1968 to 1973 on the fictional grounds that they were merely temporary residents of their homeland, the Chagossians were shipped to Mauritius. Dumped in the slums of the capital of Port Louis, families that had previously led a simple life based on subsistence farming were confronted by urban problems such as poverty, depression and drug addiction. It was over a decade before they received compensation of less than $5,000 each.

Walking around the various shanty towns where they now live, past stray dogs sniffing rubbish on the sides of the roads and shops with bars in the windows, you can hear the countless tales of individual suffering.

In Pointe aux Sables, Talate recounts how two of her six children died of “sadness” soon after her arrival. In Cassis, Ansie Andre, who also lost three children, remembers how she fell into a heavy depression, losing her ability to communicate for four years. In Roche Bois, Julie Lem still dreams she is back home, crying out in the night when she realizes she is stuck in exile.

These are the original islanders, a stubbornly inconvenient human factor in the increasingly complex battle for control over the Chagos archipelago, which has served as a base for U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The law has been on their side in the past. In 2000, it seemed that they would finally be going home after a landmark victory at the U.K. High Court, which deemed their expulsion illegal, but the judgment was later crushed by royal prerogative, an arcane measures that bypasses usual rulings. Led by Louis Olivier Bancoult, an electrician, the Chagos people have now taken their struggle to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, where a judgment is expected in the coming weeks.

The ruling cannot come too soon, as a number of events conspire to once again frustrate their prospects of returning to their homeland. The most publicized of these are the U.K. government’s unilateral plans to turn the Chagos archipelago — one of the most unspoiled coral reef systems in the world — into a marine protected area, a move which would severely limit fishing and construction in the area, effectively scuppering the islanders’ hopes of going home.

It is a “condemnable way of ensuring the natives don’t return to their land,” said Cassam Uteem, a former Mauritian president, who has long championed the Chagossian cause.

“Enough is enough,” said Bancoult. “We are the real guardians of the environment.” He is particularly indignant that the conservation project would stand beside a U.S. military base, a hub for transits of nuclear material and an alleged source of fuel spills. “It’s hardly environmentally friendly. Where we have U.S. military activities, there is potential for pollution. The sea is the sea. If something falls in we can’t stop it.”

Back in Pointe aux Sables, Talate recounts the battles she faced as a young woman in Mauritius. Now in her late 60s, she cuts a painfully thin figure, the result of successive hunger strikes.

“Depis sa mo endan serre,” she says in her native Creole — ever since, her insides have “tightened,” making it difficult to eat. She has lived through the death of her children, confrontations with the police and spells in prison.

The islanders’ determination to return home still burns bright, but with each passing year, the original population is dwindling. Time is running out if their struggle is not to go to waste.

A Mental State of Their Own

by Mr. Fish



Uri Avnery's Column - Gandhi’s Wisdom

by Uri Avnery

Gush Shalom

SURFING THE television channels, I came across an interview with the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi on an American network (Fox – would you believe it).

“My grandfather told us to love the enemy even while fighting him,” he said, “he fought against the British resolutely, but loved the British.” (I quote from memory.)

My immediate reaction was baloney, the pious wish of do-gooders! But then I suddenly remembered that in my youth I had felt exactly the same, when I joined the Irgun at the age of 15. I liked the English (as we called all the British), the English language and English culture, and I was ready to put my life on the line in order to drive the English out of our country. When I said so to the Irgun’s recruitment committee, while sitting with a bright light shining in my eyes, I was almost rejected.

But the grandson’s words set me to thinking more seriously. Can one make peace with an opponent while hating him? Is peace possible at all without a positive attitude towards the other side?

ON THE face of it, the answer is “yes”. Self-styled “realists” and “pragmatists” will say that peace is a matter of political interests, that feelings should not be involved. (Such “realists” are people who cannot imagine another reality, and such “pragmatists” are people who cannot think in the longer term.)

As is well-know, one makes peace with enemies. One makes peace in order to stop a war. War is the realm of hate, it dehumanizes the foe. In every war, the enemy is portrayed as sub-human, evil and cruel by nature.

Peace is supposed to terminate the war, but does not promise to change the attitude towards yesterday’s enemy. We stop killing him, but that does not mean that we start loving him. When we reach the conclusion that it is in our interest to stop the war rather than to go on with it, this does not mean that our attitude towards the enemy has changed.

We have here an inbuilt paradox: the thought of peace arises while the war is still going on. It follows that peace is planned by those who are still at war, who are still in the grip of the war mentality. That can twist their thinking.

The result can be a monster, like the infamous Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. It trampled on the vanquished Germany, robbed her and, worst of all, humiliated her. Many historians believe that this treaty bears much of the blame for the outbreak of World War II, which was even more devastating. (As a child I grew up in Germany under the dark shadow of the Versailles treaty, so I know what I am talking about.)

MAHATMA GANDHI understood this. He was not only a very moral person, but also a very wise one (if there really is any difference). I did not agree with his opposition to resisting Nazi Germany by force, but I always admired his genius as the leader of Indian liberation. He realized that the main task of a liberation leader is to shape the mentality of the people he wishes to liberate. When hundreds of millions of Indians were confronting a few tens of thousands of Britons, the main problem was not to defeat the British, but to get the Indians themselves to want liberation and a life in freedom and harmony. To make peace without hatred, without a longing for revenge, with an open heart, ready to be reconciled with yesterday’s enemy.
Gandhi himself was only partially successful in this. But his wisdom illuminated the path of many. It shaped people like Nelson Mandela, who established peace without hatred and without revenge, and Martin Luther King, who called for reconciliation between black and white. We, too, have much to learn from this wisdom.

THIS WEEK, an expert on the analysis of public opinion polls appeared on an Israeli TV talk show. Prof. Tamar Harman did not analyze one or another of the polls, but the totality of the polls over decades.

Prof. Harman confirmed statistically what we all feel in our daily lives: that there is a continuous, long-term movement in Israel from the concepts of the Right to the concepts of the Left. The two-state solution is now accepted by a large majority. The great majority also accept that the border must be based on the Green Line, with swaps of territory that will leave the large settlement blocs in Israel. The public accepts that the other settlements must be evacuated. It even accepts that the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem must be part of the future Palestinian state. The expert’s conclusion: this is an on-going, dynamic process. Public opinion is continuing to move in this direction.

I remember far-away days in the early 1950s, when we first brought up this solution. In Israel and the whole world there were not a hundred people who supported this idea. (The 1947 UN resolution, which proposed exactly that, had been wiped from the public consciousness by the war, after which Palestine was divided between Israel, Jordan and Egypt.) As late as 1970 I wandered through the corridors of power in Washington DC, from the White House to the State Department, searching in vain for even one important statesman who would support it. The Israeli public opposed it almost unanimously, and so did the PLO, which even published a special book under the title “Uri Avnery and neo-Zionism”.

Now this plan is supported by a world-wide consensus, which includes all the member states of the Arab League. And, according to the professor, the Israeli consensus too. Our extreme Right is now accusing Binyamin Netanyahu, in speech and writing, of executing what they call the “Avnery design”.

So I should have been very satisfied, happy to view the news programs which speak about “two states for two peoples” as self-evident truth.

So why am I not satisfied? Am I a professional grumbler?

I examined myself, and I believe that I have identified the source of my dissatisfaction.

WHEN THEY speak today about “two states for two peoples”, it is almost always bound up with the idea of “separation”. As Ehud Barak put it, in his unique style: “We shall be here and they shall be there.” It connects with his image of Israel as “a villa in the jungle”. All around us are wild beasts, eager to devour us, and we in the villa must put up an iron wall to protect ourselves.
That’s the way this idea is being sold to the masses. It gathers popularity because it promises a final and total separation. Let them get out of our sight. Let them have a state, for God’s sake, and leave us alone. The “two-state solution” will be realized, we shall live in the ”Nation-Sate of the Jewish People” which will be a part of the West, and “they” will live in a state which will be part of the Arab world. Between us there will be a high wall, part of the wall between the two civilizations.

Somehow it all reminds me of the words Theodor Herzl wrote 114 years ago in his book “The Jewish State”: “In Palestine…we shall be for Europe a part of the wall against Asia, we shall serve as a vanguard of civilization against barbarism.”

THAT WAS not the idea in the minds of the handful of people who advocated the two-state solution from the beginning. They were animated by two interconnected tendencies: the love of the country (meaning all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan) and the desire for reconciliation between its two peoples.

I know that many will be shocked by the words “love of the country”. Like many other things, they have been highjacked and taken hostage by the extreme Right. We have let them.

My generation, which crisscrossed the country well before the state came into being, did not treat Jericho, Hebron and Nablus as abroad. We loved them. We were excited by them. I still love them today. With some, like the late leftist writer Amos Kenan, this love had become almost an obsession.

The settlers, who endlessly declaim their love for the country, love it the way a rapist loves his victim. They violate the country and want to dominate it by force. This is visibly expressed in the architecture of their fortresses on the tops of the hills, fortified neighborhoods with Swiss tile-covered roofs. They don’t love the real country, the villages with their minarets, the stone houses with their arched windows nestling on the hillsides and merging with the landscape, the terraces cultivated to the last centimeter, the wadis and the olive groves. They dream about another land and want to build it on the ruins of the beloved country. Kenan put it simply: “The State of Israel is destroying the Land of Israel”.

Beyond romanticism, which has its own validity, we wanted to reunite the torn country in the only way possible: through the partnership of the two peoples that love it. These two national entities, with all their similarity, are different in culture, religion, traditions, language, script, ways of life, social structure, economic development. Our life experience, and the experience of the entire world, in this generation more than in any other, has shown that such different peoples cannot live in one state. (The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Cyprus, and perhaps also Belgium, Canada, Iraq.) Therefore, the necessity arises to live in two states, side by side (with the possibility of a future federation).

When we reached this conclusion at the end of the 1948 war, we shaped the two-state solution not as a plan for separation, but on the contrary, as a plan for unity. For decades we talked about two states with an open border between them, a joint economy and free movement of people and goods.

These were the central motifs in all the plans for the “two-state solution”. Until the so-called “realists” arrived and took the body without the soul, reducing the living plan to a heap of dry bones. On the left, too, many were ready to adopt the separation agenda, in the belief that this pseudo-pragmatist approach would be easier to sell to the masses. But in the moment of truth, this approach failed. The “peace talks” collapsed.

I propose to return to Gandhi’s wisdom. It is impossible to move masses of people without a vision. Peace is not just an absence of hostilities, not the product of a labyrinth of walls and fences. Neither is it a utopia of “the wolf dwelling with the lamb”. It is a real state of reconciliation, of partnership between peoples and between human beings, who respect each other, who are ready to satisfy each other’s interests, to trade with each other, to create social relationships and – who knows – here and there even to like each other.

In essence: two states, one common future.


Truth unveiled about secret US base


More than 2,000 of Diego Garcia residents have been living in poverty since the US and Britain expelled them in the late 1960s to turn the island into a secret US military base.

American university professor David Vine has unveiled the truth about the secret military installation the US built near the remote center of the Indian Ocean.

The indigenous inhabitants of the island were forcibly exiled by American and British forces in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for the US military base.

In his latest book Island of Shame, Vine reveals the truth of how the Chagossians were deported to slums in Mauritius and the Seychelles, where most still live in dire poverty.

He chronicles the dramatic story of the Chagossians as they struggle to survive in exile and fight to return to their homeland.

The base was a little-known launchpad for the US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and is also believed to house a top-secret CIA prison where terror suspects are interrogated and tortured.

After several court cases, the islanders have still not been allowed to resettle their homeland.

Tracing US foreign policy from the Cold War to the war on terror, Vine shows how Washington has forged a new and pervasive kind of empire that is quietly dominating the planet with hundreds of overseas military bases.


Johann Hari: Suffocating the poor: a modern parable

by Johann Hari

The Independent

They democratically elected a president to stand up to the rich and multinational corporations - so our governments have him kidnapped

Today, I want to tell you the story of how our governments have been torturing and tormenting an island in the Caribbean – but it is a much bigger story than that. It's a parable explaining one of the main reasons how and why, across the world, the poor are kept poor, so the rich can be kept rich. If you grasp this situation, you will see some of the ugliest forces in the world laid out before you – so we can figure out how to stop them.

The rubble-strewn island of Haiti is now in the middle of an election campaign that will climax this November. So far, the world has noticed it solely because the Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean wanted to run for President, only to be blocked because he hasn't lived in the country since he was a kid. But there is a much bigger hole in the election: the most popular politician in Haiti by far, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He's not there because, after winning a landslide election, he followed the will of the Haitian people who demanded he take on the multinational corporations and redistribute enough money that their children wouldn't starve – so our governments had him kidnapped him at gunpoint and refuse to let him back.

But we have to start a little earlier if this is going to make sense. For over two centuries, Haiti has been effectively controlled from outside. The French enslaved the entire island in the eighteenth century and worked much of the population to death, turning it into the sugar and coffee plantation for the world. By this century, Western governments were arming, funding and fuelling the psychopathic dictatorship of the Duvalier family – who slaughtered 50,000 people – supposedly because they were "our friends" in the fight against communism.

All this left Haiti the most unequal country in the world. A tiny elite lives in vast villas in the hills, while below and all around them, the overwhelming majority of the population live in tiny tin shacks with no water or electricity, crammed six-to-a-room. Just 1 per cent own 50 per cent of the wealth and 75 per cent of the arable land. Once the Haitian people were finally able to rise up in 1986 to demand democracy, they obviously wanted the country's wealth to be shared more fairly. They began to organize into a political movement called Lavalas – the flood – to demand higher wages and higher taxes on the rich to build schools and hospitals and subsidies for the half-starved poor. This panicked the elite.

And nobody panicked them more than a thin, softly-spoken, intellectual slum-priest named Aristide who found himself at the crest of this wave. He was born into a bitingly poor family and became a brilliant student. As a priest he soon became one of the leading exponents of Liberation Theology, the left-wing Catholicism that says people shouldn't wait passively for justice in the Kingdom of Heaven, but must demand it here and now. (The current Pope tried desperately to stamp out this "heresy".) Aristide explained: "The rich of my country, a tiny percentage, sit at a vast table overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen are crowded under that table, hunched in the dirt and starving. One day the people under the table will rise up in righteousness."

On this platform, he was elected in 1990 in a landslide in the country's first free and fair election, taking 64 per cent of the vote. He kept his promise to the Haitian people: he increased the minimum wage from 38 cents a day to $1, demanding the multinational corporations pay a less insulting wage. He trebled the number of free secondary schools. He disbanded the murderous national army that had terrorized the population. Even the International Monetary Fund had to admit that over the Aristide period and just after, Haiti's Human Poverty Indicator – a measure of how likely your kids are to die, starve or go uneducated – dropped dramatically from 46.2 per cent to 31.8 per cent.

But why would foreign governments care about a small country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, with only ten million inhabitants? Ira Kurzban, an American lawyer based in Haiti, explains: "Aristide represented a threat to [foreign powers] because he spoke for the 85 per cent of his population who had never been heard. If that can happen in Haiti, it can happen anywhere, including in countries where the [US and Europe] have huge economic interests and extract natural resources. They don't want real popular democracies to spread because they know it will confront US economic interests." Oxfam called this phenomenon "the threat of a good example."

So after Haiti had experienced seven months of democracy, the US toppled Aristide. Ordinary Haitians surrounded his home, calling for his return – and they were fired on so indiscriminately that more ammo had to be sent from Guantanamo Bay on Cuba. Their bodies were left in the streets to be eaten by dogs as the advances were repealed one by one.

In 1994, the Clinton administration agreed to return Aristide to power – provided he castrate his own political program and ignore the demands of his people. They made him agree to privatize almost everything, freeze wages, and sack half the civil service. Through gritted teeth, he agreed, and for the remainder of his time in office tried to smuggle through what little progress he could. He was re-elected in an even bigger landslide in 2000 – but even his tiny shuffles towards redistribution were too much. The US and French governments had Aristide kidnapped at gunpoint and dumped him in the Central African Republic. They said he was a "dictator", even though the last Gallup poll in a free Haiti found 60 per cent supported him, compared to just 3 per cent backing the alternative imposed on the country by the US.

The human rights situation in Haiti then dramatically deteriorated, with a massive campaign of terror and repression. The Lavalas Party was banned from running again, with most of the country's democracy activists jailed. There were huge military assaults on the slums which demanded Aristide's return. A US Army Psychological Operations official explained the mission was to ensure Haitians "don't get the idea they can do whatever they want."

The next President, Rene Preval, learned his lesson: he has done everything he was told to by corporations and governments, privatizing the last remaining scraps owned by the state, and using tear gas to break up strikes for higher wages. The Haitian people rejected the whole rigged electoral process, with turn-out falling to just 11 per cent. Today, Aristide is a broken man, living in exile in South Africa, studying for a PhD in linguistics, banned from going home.

This is part of a plain pattern. When poor countries get uppity and tried to ask for basic justice, our governments have toppled them, from Iran wanting to control its own oil in 1953 to Honduras wanting its workers to be treated decently in 2009. You don't have to overthrow many to terrify the rest.

It doesn't have to be this way. This is not the will of the people, in the US or Europe: on the contrary, ordinary citizens are horrified when the propaganda is stripped away and they see the truth. It only happens because a tiny wealthy elite dominates our foreign policy, and uses it to serve their purposes – low wages and control of other people's economies and resources. The people of Haiti, who have nothing, were bold and brave enough to campaign and organize to take power back from their undemocratic elites. Are we?

j.hari@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/johannhari101

For further reading

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward (Verso, 2007)


How Peru's wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus

Felicity Lawrence

The Guardian

Industrial-scale production risks water tragedy, charity warns

Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the UK is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint.

The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.

The Ica Valley is a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth. The asparagus beds developed in the last decade require constant irrigation, with the result that the local water table has plummeted since 2002 when extraction overtook replenishment. In some places it has fallen by eight metres each year, one of the fastest rates of aquifer depletion in the world.

The UK is the world's sixth largest importer of "virtual water", that is water needed to produce the goods it buys from other countries, according to WWF. Much of the UK's thirst is directly related to the boom in high-value food imports in recent years. The market in fresh asparagus is typical; it barely existed before the end of the 1990s. Now the UK is the third largest importer of fresh Peruvian asparagus, consuming 6.5 million kilos a year.

Peru meanwhile has become the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, earning more than $450m a year from the trade. Around 95% of that asparagus comes from the Ica valley.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier in the region was made possible thanks to multimillion dollar investments by the World Bank from the late 1990s on. In just 10 years asparagus cultivation has exploded to cover nearly 100sq km of reclaimed desert. Some of the largest producers have received loans from the World Bank's commercial investment arm totalling $20m (£12m) or more over that period. The trade has created around 10,000 new jobs in a very poor area, contributing significantly to Peru's growth, but it has already provoked conflict. When a World Bank executive went to investigate complaints about the water shortages in April he was shot at.

"The water tragedy unfolding in this region of Peru should set alarms bells ringing for government, agribusiness and retailers involved in Ica's asparagus industry," said report author Nick Hepworth.

The report accuses supermarkets and investors, including the World Bank, of failing to take proper responsibility for the impact of their decisions on poorer countries' water resources. "We need action now to ensure water is used sustainably in Ica and beyond," said Hepworth .

Two wells serving up to 18,500 people in the valley have already dried up. Traditional small- and medium-scale farmers have also found their water supplies severely diminished.

Juan Alvarez's experience is typical. His family has farmed the Ica valley for four generations. He employs 10 people through the year, with up to 40 jobs for workers in peak asparagus season, but he says those livelihoods are under threat.

The wells on his farm used to hit water at 55 metres and he could pump 60 litres of water a second from them. Now some have dried out and where there is still water he has to drill down to 108 metres and can extract only 22 litres a second even at that depth.

Alvarez told researchers: "Agroexporters came with new government policies and tax exemptions. They bought water rights and started buying wells very far away. They have created jobs and that's important, but the reality is they are depleting the water resources and when the water is gone they will leave. But what future is there for us? We will never leave."

For smaller farmers the crisis is even more acute. Elisa Gomez and her family own a small farm next to one of the largest asparagus exporters and have to buy water for irrigation from the local canal, but the industrial production has made it hard to survive. "We pay for water for 15 days twice a year. But the soil is not as productive as before and dries out in just three days. Now the land is so dry the water drains away much faster."

The rights to the wells in their part of the valley have all been sold to the exporter. "Those of us who didn't sell land suffered water shortages, so many people were forced to sell anyway. The exporters just wait for people to get tired and sell them cheap dry land," she said.

The large-scale exporting companies are not immune from the crisis of overextraction either. They are facing rising costs for their water. They have been deepening existing wells, buying up old ones from neighbouring land and piping water across huge distances. Some are also alleged to have got round a ban on new wells by paying off officials.

One of the largest and most modern of Peru's fresh asparagus producers, which supplies 18% of exports to the UK, spoke to Progressio researchers anonymously. It has received loans from the World Bank's lending arm. Its chief executive said that the water levels in some wells were falling by as much as two metres a year. All its wells are licensed and legal but he said regulation was weak and there was no inspection of what people extracted.

"Peru provides the world with the best example of how to mismanage water. We desperately need to rationalise water use in the Ica. We are spending huge sums just to survive."

He argued that big businesses such as his were at the forefront of science to use water efficiently but traditional farmers used water carelessly.

Competition for diminishing global water resources is emerging as one of the most pressing concerns for business as well as development organisations. Leading retailers have told the Guardian privately water shortages in the areas where they source fresh fruit and vegetables out of season is top of their list of priorities when they check how sustainable their businesses are.

The water shortages on Peru's Pacific coast are expected to get worse as climate change shrinks the glaciers that feed the Ica river system.

Promoting food for export has been a key plank in World Bank policy for developing countries. Its investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, said in a statement that it aims to promote sustainable development through investment in private sector companies, which it requires to commit to minimising their water use: "We define sustainability as providing economic growth opportunities for the poor and protecting the environment and the rights of vulnerable communities."

How far the policy helps the poorest in those countries remains a subject of fierce debate among international development experts. Progressio is not calling for an end to the asparagus export business. "The area relies on asparagus for employment. We are not saying the trade itself is wrong but supermarkets and investors have to take responsibility for finding more of a balance," said Petra Kjell, an environmental policy officer.

We asked the leading UK retailers to comment but only two were able to do so in the time available. M&S said: "We have a range of responsible water use projects under way and have strengthened our farming standards to include greater focus on water efficiency."

Tesco said: "We are pleased that Progressio has highlighted Tesco's role in raising industry standards in water management in areas such as the Ica Valley.

"We have a strong record in this area and our Nurture standard is regularly reviewed and improved. We acknowledge there is more to do and so we are continually working with our suppliers to help them minimise their environmental impact, including water use."

Names of farmers have been changed.

Case study

Alicia Flores and her family live in the village of Callejón de los Espinos in Peru's Ica Valley. Each house in the village normally receives water for about one hour, three times a week.

They used to get two hours' water four times a week, but about four years ago the water pressure dropped off dramatically, as agricultural exporters extracted more and more groundwater. Then the 2007 earthquake exacerbated the problem by damaging infrastructure. Now, when the water is on, the family is only able to collect half the amount of water they used to, so they are reduced to 10 litres of water per person, per day. The World Health Organisation says a person needs five times that amount to maintain health.

Like most people in the village, Alicia's husband works for the asparagus exporters. They say the working conditions are good but pay and benefits have been cut since the global economic crisis.

"We have seen water pressure dropping in the past years since the agro-exporters came, but if the water runs out and they leave, we will have no work and no water. What will happen to our children then?" asked one villager.

Names have been changed


Western Sahara — the next desert storm

by Xan Rice

The New Statesman

Betrayed by Spain and oppressed by Morocco, the Saharawi people of Western Sahara compare themselves to the Palestinians or the black majority in apartheid South Africa. And they want the world to know their story.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco was visiting a hammam when a genie appeared.
“I can offer you one wish," the genie said.
“I'd really like to see my late father, Hassan II," Mohammed replied.
“That's a difficult request, bringing a person back from the dead," the genie said. "Have you got another wish?"
“Well, I'd like Western Sahara to become part of Morocco," said Mohammed.
“Hang on while I'll look for your father," said the genie.
Saharawi joke

In the far western expanse of the Sahara is the world's longest continuous wall. It starts in Morocco and slithers down through the desert for 2,400 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean. More than 130,000 soldiers line its perimeter. Made of sand and stone, it stands one and a half metres wide and between two and three metres tall, and has command posts every two miles. Motion sensors, barbed wire and several million landmines provide an extra layer of defence. For most of its course, it cuts across a sparsely populated region that Morocco regards as its southern provinces. On maps the area appears as Western Sahara. The UN calls it a "non-self-governing territory". It is Africa's last colony, where a near-forgotten liberation war lies dormant.

The wall is sometimes referred to as Hassan's Wall, after King Hassan II of Morocco, who annexed most of what was then called Spanish Sahara when Spain pulled out in 1976. About half of the indigenous population, the Saha rawis, who had been promised a vote on self-determination by Spain, fled across the desert to refugee camps in an inhospitable corner of Algeria in order to escape Moroccan rule.

They were assisted by the Polisario Front, a poorly armed but fiercely determined nationalist movement. Unable to prevent attacks on his troops by Polisario guerrillas, King Hassan ordered a series of joined defensive walls to be built around the main cities and installations in Western Sahara. Bulldozers bullied the barrier into place, eventually enclosing about four-fifths of the territory. Forced ever deeper into the Sahara, the Polisario was left with a ribbon of desert that it called the Liberated Zone.

The wall should have come down. In 1991, Morocco and the Polisario agreed to end their 16-year war. The UN was to oversee a referendum on independence for Western Sahara within nine months. Morocco first blocked the vote and then abandoned the poll altogether when it realised the result would not go its way. Eighteen years and nearly $1bn in UN expenditure later, the Polisario camps - and more than 100,000 refugees - are still there. So is the wall, though few outside the Maghreb know that it exists. I didn't until one day I saw it represented as a thick black line on a map of Africa I bought a few years ago. I was intrigued, and resolved to see the wall and hear the stories of the Saharawis living on both sides.

As I drove through the flat desert plains in the Liberated Zone, the wall appeared to me as a caramel stripe on the horizon. Two Moroccan soldiers on lookout ducked out of sight when they saw the Polisario Land Cruiser approaching. "Rabbits! Cowards!" The man cursing was a 39-year-old Saharawi journalist and independence activist, Malainin Lakhal. He had unbrushed hair, a goatee and silver-rimmed glasses. "The wall of shame," he spat out. He knew all about the wall - he had crossed it one moonless night nine years earlier. Back then, he was running to escape the Moroccan secret police, leaving behind his relatives, his future wife and the intifada brewing in the "occupied territories". Which was where my journey began.

On a cold and rainy night in January last year, I boarded a bus in the Moroccan seaside town of Agadir and headed down the coast. At dawn, we reached Tarfaya, a small settlement 60 miles across the water from the Canary Islands. Mist rolled in off the Atlantic. A few men ambled in the sand-dusted streets, ghostly in their thick, hooded djellabas. It was here, in late 1975, that 350,000 Moroccans gathered under the orders of King Hassan before setting off on the "Green March" into Western Sahara, in a show of intent during the last days of Spanish rule. In the afternoon, I caught another bus, following the marchers' route south through scrubland, crossing an invisible frontier. On the outskirts of Laayoune, the territory's capital, a policeman boarded the bus, checking the identity cards of all passengers. I handed over my passport, hoping he would not deduce my profession. Journalists are not welcome in Western Sahara; to question Morocco's "territorial integrity" is to break the law.

A military base guarded the entrance to the city, whose desert-pink buildings rose up beyond a wide green river. I checked in at a cheap hotel. My room looked out on to a bank of radar dishes and seven military jeeps in a sandy lot.

It was evening, and soldiers in peak caps and faded uniforms were cycling home. Moroccan flags flew on every block. The city had an orderly, if sterile, feel, different from the frenetic atmosphere of cities such as Fez and Marrakesh. There was another feeling, too. In the traffic and parked on the roadside was an inordinate number of police vehicles, mostly new sedans and minivans, painted white or dark blue, with metal grilles over the windows and headlights.

The city had eyes, as Aminatou Haidar, a petite woman in her early forties with brown-tinted spectacles, knew only too well. The "Saharawi Gandhi" to her supporters - and a dangerous traitor, according to Morocco - Haidar has come to symbolise the non-violent struggle for Saharawi rights. One evening she picked me up in her old black Renault sedan and drove me to a friend's apartment, as hers is under constant surveillance. Once the translator arrived, she told me her story.

Born in Laayoune, she was nine when Moroccan troops entered Western Sahara; relatives on both sides of her family fled to Algeria. Within months, hundreds of Saharawis with Polisario sympathies who stayed behind had been sent to clandestine prisons in Morocco. An uncle of Haidar's was one of the Disappeared. "My mother would often cry about her brother," she said. "My uncle had six daughters, and the strain on them was terrible. This made me understand that something was horribly wrong." In late 1987, while studying for her baccalaureate, Haidar was secretly involved in organising a pro-independence demonstration to coincide with a rare visit by a UN delegation to Western Sahara. At 3.30am on the morning before the UN mission landed, plain-clothes policemen swooped on her parents' house.

Still in pyjamas, she was bundled her into a van and blindfolded. As many as 70 other young Saharawis were seized at the same time. They were taken to a secret prison in Laayoune, where she was strapped to a plank, face down, with her hands and feet tied. Officers kicked and slapped her, threatened her with rape and gave her electric shocks. "We tried to move our blindfolds a bit to allow us to see out the bottom. But the police would shine lights in our eyes; if we reacted they knew that they had to tighten the blindfold."

Her "disappearance" lasted three years and seven months. She had been blindfolded most of the time. Years later she wrote in an online testimony: "19 June 1991 is the day of my liberation. The first day of summer and a music festival elsewhere. I am liberated, I was only a shadow of myself. A phantom, one of the living dead, a young girl out of a nameless hell."

By then Western Sahara had changed. Morocco had spent many millions of dollars on infrastructure projects - though just a fraction of its earnings from selling the territory's phosphate and fishing rights - while using subsidies and promises of jobs to entice tens of thousands of its citizens to move in. According to King Hassan, this was only fair; he told his people that Morocco had exercised authority over Western Sahara before Spanish colonisation in 1884 and that most Saharawis favoured integration. It was a lie. In 1975 the UN, which for more than a decade had been pushing Spain to hold a referendum on self-determination, sent a fact-finding mission to Western Sahara. It concluded that the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front, formed two years earlier, represented the most significant expression of Saharawi opinion, and that "the majority of the population within the Spanish Sahara was manifestly in favour of independence".

Morocco, meanwhile, had taken its case to the International Court of Justice. But, in a 14-2 ruling, the court found that the evidence did "not support Morocco's claim to have exercised territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara" before Spain arrived. A claim by Mauritania, made on similar grounds, was also rejected. Bizarrely, King Hassan interpreted the court's decision as a victory, and the next day announced plans for the Green March. Spain, in political disarray with General Franco on his deathbed, capitulated to Moroccan pressure; within a month a deal was struck to allow the king and the Mauritanian government to divide the colony between themselves.

Today, there are about 200,000 people in Laayoune - nearly a tenfold increase since 1975 - and close to 400,000 across Western Sahara. Most are Moroccans. Many of the Saharawi activists I spoke to described this influx using the Middle East lexicon of "creating facts on the ground". But a genial Moroccan who owned a car hire firm and who, after some persuading, drove me to see the port one day, saw himself filling an employment gap. "The problem with the Saharawis is that they are lazy," he said. "They are like the Saudis who get poor people from Asia to do all their work for them. They just want money from the government, and then to sit at home."

Staying at home was the only option for Haidar after her release, because Morocco had refused her a passport and banned her from going to university. After numerous appeals, she was finally allowed to study philosophy in Rabat - the location and course were of Morocco's choosing. If the intention was to get Haidar to understand King Hassan's point of view, it failed. She began to document human rights abuses against the increasingly frustrated Saharawis. The promised referendum had raised hopes for many that they would at last be reunited with relatives on the other side of the wall. But dubious attempts by King Hassan to classify more than 120,000 people living in Morocco as eligible Saharawi voters - and his decision to launch appeals after almost all were rejected by the UN referendum team - had stalled the process. In 1999, the year Hassan died and his son assumed the throne as Mohammed VI, patience snapped. First Saharawi students in Morocco launched small protests for better conditions, and then demonstrations spread to Laayoune. After a fortnight, the police moved in, beating and detaining hundreds.

The "first intifada" had begun. The taboo of public dissent had been broken for the first time since the occupation started. Six years later, when it became obvious that Mohammed had no intention of allowing the Saharawis a vote - autonomy is the best they can expect, he says - the second intifada erupted. Haidar, who by now had a young son and daughter, joined one of the demonstrations to show solidarity. A policeman attacked her with a truncheon. Blood streaming from her face, and with three broken ribs and a broken collarbone, she was rushed to hospital, where she was arrested.

As Haidar was telling me her story, Ali Salem Tamek, a stocky 36-year-old with a goatee, dressed in the traditional blue draa robe, arrived at the apartment. Tamek has been to prison several times and is famed for his hunger strikes, which, on one occasion, took him to the verge of death. A Moroccan magazine once put his face on the cover under the headline "Public enemy number one".

Shot glasses of tea and plates of dates were passed around, and Tamek nodded as Haidar continued her story. She went on hunger strike for 52 days in Laayoune's notorious Cárcel Negra ("black prison), losing 17 kilogrammes. Following pressure from the European Union and Amnesty International, she was released after seven months. "This time in jail was worse," she said. "Before, I had no children. It was just for myself. I had no feeling of motherhood. Now the suffering was double."

To escape the creeping paranoia of Laayoune - a stranger at a café had casually mentioned that he knew where I was staying a few hours after I arrived - I hired a car and driver to take me to Smara. The third-biggest city in Western Sahara and the only one of any size not on the coast, Smara was also the closest I was likely to come to the wall, about 30 miles away. Beyond the police post on the edge of Laayoune, we were in the open desert. After two hours we reached Smara, where we were stopped and questioned at two further checkpoints. The main street had a few cafés. Virtually all the customers were soldiers. There were several billboards of King Mohammed, and numerous riot vans parked on the roadside.

A policeman refused to give us permission to enter a poor and densely packed neighbourhood. "This is not a tourist town, it is a military area," he said.

Back in Laayoune, I called Brahim Dahane, another activist and formerly one of the Disappeared. He told me to meet him outside a travel agency on a busy corner. When I reached there, I heard a voice behind me.

“It's you?"


“Follow me."

His apartment was nearby. Dahane hurried inside and walked over to the window, pulling the curtain back slightly to look down the street. Just a few days earlier, one of his colleagues in the Association of Saharawi Victims of Human Rights Abuses had been arrested for meeting a delegation from the European Parliament, which, having been blocked by Morocco from visiting Western Sahara since 2005, had been allowed in to Laayoune for a half-day visit.

Dahane had opened a cybercafé at a prime location to serve as a kind of Saharawi cultural centre. But the police kept raiding it, customers stopped coming, and he was forced shut it down. Other activists had told me similar stories of harassment of anyone considered to have ideas of independence, no matter how young. While giving me a lift home late one night, Haidar pointed out a school that even had a permanent police presence to suppress any dissent. If people like her and Dahane were the second generation of Saharawis to strive for independence, there was now a third taking it on, spray-painting walls with the flag of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) - the state declared by the Polisario in 1976 - challenging teachers, shouting pro-independence slogans.

“We have a guarantee in our children," said Mohamed Fadel Gaoudi, a former political prisoner who later invited me to his apartment for dinner with several others. "Kids of ten or 12 now participate in demonstrations, which we never did. They say that there is no alternative to self-determination."

A note of dark humour drifted into the conversation. The Green March was the "Black March", the UN the "United Nothing": its mission in Western Sahara has an annual budget of $50m, but no mandate to monitor human rights. But when, at midnight, Haidar joined us, the mood lifted. I asked her if she had been tempted by offers of asylum in Europe. "I prefer to live in my home country, in effect in prison, but with dignity and determination. As long as Saharawis have not decided [their future] for themselves, we will not stop," she said.

The next time I spoke to Haidar was by telephone many months later. She was on hunger strike at an airport in Lanzarote, Spain, having been expelled from Laayoune for refusing to state "Moroccan" as her nationality on the arrival form as she returned from United States, where she had been awarded the latest of several human rights prizes. Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek were in jail again in Morocco and facing a military tribunal, having been arrested with other Saharawi agitators after visiting the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria.

If Western Sahara has a tourist draw, it is Dakhla, which sits on a finger of land pointing into the sea two-thirds of the way down the coast. In 1976, as part of the agreement with Morocco and Spain, Mauritania took over the city, but after three years of Polisario attacks it withdrew and renounced its territorial claim. Morocco moved in, and by September 1985 it had extended the wall from the north to protect the city. I caught the bus there one morning. A few camper vans passed us on the road.

I was in Dakhla to meet a Saharawi civil servant whom, for his own safety, I'll call Mustafa. I wanted to find out what life was like for somebody not actively involved in the struggle. We met on a side street near a busy plaza perfumed with the smell of flame-grilled camel sandwiches and drove to his apartment. We made small talk for a while, until his room-mate Abdallahi emerged from a bedroom with his girlfriend, who said hello and left. Abdallahi was Saharawi; she was Moroccan. Mustafa had waited for her to leave before speaking freely. "There are informers everywhere, guards, shopkeepers . . ." he said.

Mustafa had written a novel, which, if published, would be the first English-language novel written by a Saharawi, he said. I read the first few pages on his laptop; it was good, but it will never see print here. "Living in the occupied territories, when you are deprived of using the language that you want to give an opinion - not even a terrorist opinion - and to think freely, to write freely, you feel like you are living in internal exile," he said. A few nights later we sat watching television: al-Jazeera was reporting on the conflict in Palestine. "At least Israel allows Palestinians to publish their own books in Israel," Mustafa said. "It is better to be a Palestinian in Israel than a Saharawi here."

To one side of a quadrangle lined with captured Moroccan tanks, armoured personnel carriers and cannon stood a set of heavy metal doors. Pulling them open, the curator of the Polisario military museum in south-western Algeria flipped a light switch to reveal a scale model of Western Sahara, with a string of red lights tracing the path of the wall. Malainin Lakhal, the secretary general of the Saharawi Journalists' and Writers' Union who was my guide in the camps, pointed to the southern section of the wall, bordering Mauritania. This was the least well-defended section and it was there that he had crossed from the occupied territories in early 2000.

“It was a very difficult decision," he told me. "I had always been against people leaving the occupied territories to join the Polisario. I would say: 'They don't need you. They have fighters. We need you here.'"

He had been an independence activist since the early Nineties, working alongside Aminatou Haidar at times, and had already been jailed several times. Now the police were on his trail, forcing him to sleep in a different house every night. Besides his guilt at abandoning the cause within the occupied territories, there were personal relationships to consider. He had a steady girlfriend, and his father was getting old; Lakhal knew that if he left he might never see him again. His father sent him a message: "Whatever you decide, be a man about it." With the note was a commando knife. Approaching the wall late at night, Lakhal could see an army post, but scrambled across undetected.

I had taken a more comfortable route from Western Sahara, flying north from Dakhla to Casablanca, east to Algiers, and finally south to Tindouf, where Lakhal was waiting for me in the chilly early hours. We drove past the Algerian military post on the edge of town, into the darkness of the desert and the Saharawi state-in-exile, with its own elected government, justice system, number plates ("SH") and second language, Spanish having outstripped the French used in the rest of the Maghreb. In addition to the Liberated Zone, which runs along the eastern flank of Western Sahara, the Polisario administers four large refugee camps scattered over 100 square miles in Algeria. The camps are named after cities in the occupied territories - Laayoune, Smara, Dakhla and Awserd. We were heading for a fifth, much smaller, camp named Fevrero 27, after the day the SADR was founded by the Polisario.

My host family, a refugee couple with three young children, lived in a small house on a hillock. In the evenings I'd sit outside as the dropping sun turned into a gold coin that gave the western sky an aura of yellow, then orange, and finally, once it had slipped below the horizon, ivory white. The only sound was that of goats bleating in their pens.

One night Lakhal and I headed out in the darkness to the house of Mohammed Yeslem Beisat, the SADR's minister of African affairs. Just over 40, he is one of the youngest of the top Polisario officials. Over a dinner of camel meat and couscous, Beisat told the story of how, at the age of seven, he came to the camps from Western Sahara. He and his brother had spent their holiday in the desert with relatives while their parents stayed in Laayoune. Amid the panic when Moroccan troops moved in, the young boys were swept up in the exodus to Algeria. They never saw their parentsagain. "It was a huge trauma. You are no longer the same person after that," he said.

Even for a people used to living in the desert, the area around Tindouf is harsh; there are fierce sandstorms and little vegetation. Summertime temperatures are as high as 50°C and winter nights are harsh and cold. Food and water have to be trucked in by the Algerian government, whose support has allowed Morocco to claim to this day that the Polisario exists merely as a proxy for Algiers.

The Saharawi camps were clean and organised. The Polisario Front had adopted a socialist model, as much out of necessity as ideology. Everybody lived in the same-style tents and ate the same food. Livestock was owned communally. Tribal identities - the Saharawis are not a homogeneous group - were intentionally obscured. There was no money in circulation. Because virtually all the men were fighting on the front line, women ran the camps and played a leading role in society - rare in a Muslim country. Education, both for children and for adults, received priority. When the Spanish left Western Sahara the Saharawi literacy rate was under 10 per cent; in the camps it has risen to an estimated 90 per cent.

There were abuses, particularly against political dissenters who disagreed with the Polisario leadership, but few outside visitors to the camps left unimpressed.

By the time Beisat finished school the conflict was nearly over. He studied in Algiers before returning to the camps to work in the information ministry, the president's office and then the referendum committee. That the vote has never happened is the fault not only of Morocco, Beisat said, but also the western powers. The African Union and 80 countries, most of them in the developing world, have recognised the SADR, though 25 of them have since frozen or severed relations under pressure from Rabat. By contrast, no country has formally accepted Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Yet, despite the clear injustice and illegality of the occupation, Washington has refused to put pressure on Rabat to allow self-determination, because Morocco is an important ally in Islamic North Africa. France, which has large economic interests in Morocco, has proved even more one-sided, and the Spanish government fails to speak out for a people it betrayed.

“This problem in Western Sahara is not a Democratic Republic of Congo problem, with tribes and minerals," Beisat said. "It is not a Palestinian problem of religion. It is a simple, crystal-clear decolonisation problem that could be sorted out with five hours of voting. This feeling of humiliation creates a beast inside you."

One morning Lakhal and I drove east to Smara camp, where old artillery shells painted red and white served as traffic cones at the entrance. The refugees' tents have been long been replaced by mud-brick houses with roofs of corrugated iron held down with rocks, and today the camps resemble desert towns rather than refugee settlements. The more than 100,000 camp residents are still reliant on food aid, but there is now a small cash economy. Mobile phones and internet links allow people to communicate with relatives in Western Sahara whom some have not seen for more than three decades - because of the wall.

For young children, the camps are not bad places to grow up, compared to other refugee sites. Schooling, which is free and compulsory, remains at a good standard, and thousands of children are hosted abroad each summer by Spanish families. The challenge comes after school. Though males are still required to do basic military training "as freedom fighters, not soldiers", most are no longer retained in the army. But given that government jobs are scarce and low-paid, most young people must find other ways of earning a living and passing the time. Since the war ended in 1991, many thousands of Saharawi refugees have moved to Mauritania, northern Algeria or Spain - a pro cess that the Polisario does not encourage but is unable to prevent. One of Lakhal's colleagues, a twentysomething journalist who worked for the official Polisario magazine, told me that his mother, sister and brother all now lived in Spain. The brother travelled there on an official Polisario work trip and never returned.

“The young people will soon start to say that the Polisario can go to hell if nothing happens," Lakhal told me. "The leaders know what war is. Normally it should bring a solution. But we have had no solution for almost 20 years. The society is boiling. The boys born in 1976 are now fathers. They don't want to stay here. Can they suffocate their anger?"

After Lakhal crossed the wall he did 14 months' military training in the Liberated Zone near a town named Tifariti. As I wanted to see the wall, he agreed to take me there. We left early in the morning and soon we were driving across flat desert gravel. After about 30 miles, we breached an unseen frontier, leaving Algeria for the Polisario-controlled section of Western Sahara.

Soon we saw the first nomads' tents. During the winter months, hundreds of refugees leave the camps for the open desert, taking herds of camels and goats with them. Around mid-morning, at a place the Polisario calls the "Rincón", where the wall makes a 90-degree turn west, I saw it for the first time - and Lakhal cursed. Rubbish strewn by soldiers piled up against the barbed wire in front of us. The wall was less imposing than I'd imagined - quite literally a barrier of sand - but the landmines and the sheer number of Moroccan troops ensured that it was perfectly effective.

We parked a short distance away. Our driver, a thin, mischievous man nicknamed "El Macho", whose job during the war was operating a Katyusha rocket launcher, gathered sticks and made a fire. Lakhal cooked brunch: camel heart, kidney, liver and hump - a small, fatty piece of meat. It was late afternoon when we reached Tifariti, a tiny town with a few administrative offices and some bombed-out buildings. The landscape had changed; there were now craggy hills sprinkled with large boulders. At the top of one of the hills was the army command post, painted rust red; nearby was the wreckage of a downed Moroccan fighter jet. In the army mess was a poster of abuses in the occupied territories, including a 2005 picture of Aminatou Haidar with her face bloodied.

As Lakhal prepared tea, he spoke about the shortcomings of the Polisario's attempt to persuade the international community to take its side. "The mistake is ours. Why is our representation in the UK just one or two people? We have one person in Australia; it's a continent, not a country. Two people in New York and the UN and one in Washington. No one in China and one in Russia. But with us, you are talking mostly about nomads. We have centuries with our own system, an oral culture. The power of the world is still not understood here."

He told me a story about travelling to South Africa in 2006 to act as in interpreter for Haidar, who had just been granted a Moroccan passport, allowing her to travel abroad for the first time. South Africa recognises the Saha rawi Arab Democratic Republic, and so Lakhal could use his SADR passport. The journey required him to pass through Frankfurt, where police detained him. "They looked at my passport and said: 'This is not a country.' They took me to the police station. I asked if they had a world map, which they did, so I showed them Western Sahara on the map. But they said: "What is this SADR on the passport?' So I asked them to go on to the African Union website so they could see we are a recognised country. They were so surprised."

I asked Lakhal about his wife, Mariam, who works as a civil servant in Laayoune, and whom he married in Mauritania in 2007. He said he missed her and hoped he would see her again in a few months, perhaps in Algiers.

The following afternoon we drove to a Polisario military post, which consisted of a few simple barrack huts and a neat parade ground. A steady drip of soldiers filed into the reception room, wearing new uniforms and boots. Finally the commander arrived. Trained in Cuba, Habuha Braica was the Polisario's top artillery man, Lakhal said. Braica took us outside to view the four howitzer cannon that stood in a row next to two flatbed trucks used to move them around. There had been no fighting for more than 17 years, yet Braica said that his men remained on constant alert.

On my last night in the camps, Lakhal and I walked to the modest residence of Mohammed Abdel aziz, secretary general of the Polisario and president of the SADR since 1976. We knocked on the gate, which was opened by Abdelaziz's wife, Khadija Hamdi, who is also the minister for culture. She led us to a long dining room with pale blue walls, blue couches and a table covered by a blue plastic tablecloth decorated with flowers.
Two Spanish women, old friends of the Polisario, soon joined us, along with the Polisario representative in Galicia.

Abdelaziz strode in a little while later, barefoot, a solidly built man in a flowing blue robe. He introduced himself to each of us boisterously. One of the Spanish women was called America. "So, America, do you speak English?" he asked.


He laughed loudly, and so did she. I asked about the possibility of a new war. The last Polisario Congress, in December 2007, had covered that topic, the president said. The decision to resume war was made; it is only the timing that needs to be decided. "Of course we don't want war."

Yet Abdelaziz was not despondent. "Morocco is not sitting comfortably," he said. "It is still living the same military situation as in 1991. With this long wall, all these soldiers are paid double salaries. That's very expensive for a country like Morocco."

He said he saw hope in Barack Obama and a new US foreign policy, and in the economic downturn, too, which could only make things more difficult for Morocco. "Maybe it will take a long time, but in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as [the people did] in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor."

Food was being brought out; salad, camel, chips, chicken, bread, a kind of desert mushroom, fruit. Abdelaziz kept putting more food on his guests' plates. "Eat, America," he implored the Spanish woman.

After dinner I walked back to my host family's house. I thought about Abdelaziz's cheerfulness and measured words. The refugees have been robbed of their independence for 19 years since the 1991 ceasefire, but, because there is no fighting, the outside world seems not to care. There seemed to be no glimmer of a satisfactory resolution at the time of my visit, and there has been none since. Yet many people in the Polisario camps believed that, in their president's words, in the end the Saharawi people will prevail, as happened in South Africa, Namibia and East Timor.

Perhaps the refugees' faith had something to do with the paradox of the wall. They live in exile but at least they have a kind of freedom. On the other side of the wall, in Western Sahara, their relatives remain prisoners in their own homeland. Today, Aminatou Haidar, who was eventually allowed back home after 32 days on hunger strike in Lanzarote, is still under constant surveillance in Laayoune. And Brahim Dahane and Ali Salem Tamek have been in jail for many months.


Lord Bingham of Cornhill and the Chagos Islanders

by Sean Carey

New Statesman

The law lord spoke out for the rights of the exiled Chagos Islanders. His death must not detract from their cause.

The Chagos Islanders and their supporters in Mauritius and elsewhere will note with sadness that Lord Bingham of Cornhill died on September 11. According to Philippe Sands QC, writing in the Guardian, Lord Bingham:

"... was widely recognised as the greatest English judge since the second world war. Serving at the apex of the judiciary for an unusually long span, he was the first individual in the modern era to act both as master of the rolls, with the supreme remit for the civil courts for four years from 1992, and then as lord chief justice, running the criminal courts as Britain's highest-ranking judge. From 2000 till his retirement in 2008 he was senior law lord."

Lord Bingham of Cornhill was also one of the five law lords who heard the case in 2008 regarding the Chagos Islanders' right of abode in thir homeland. The Archipelago had been detached by the UK, in breach of international law, from the colony of Mauritius in 1965 before its independence in 1968, and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Between 1968 and 1973 around 2000 Chagossians, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers whose ancestors first arrived in Chagos in the late 18th century, were removed against their will and dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles by the British authorities in order to allow the US to construct its military base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Archipelago.

The UK government's narrow 3-2 victory in the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, undoubtedly surprised most observers, including it should be noted the then British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the civil servants and lawyers responsible for the overseas territories in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

In summary form, the majority judgement was that the royal prerogative was subject to judicial review, but that the Orders in Council banning the islanders returning to the outer Chagos Islands could lawfully be displaced for the time being in the interest of defence but that there was no reason why the ban should not be lifted if circumstances changed. (Note: they have changed under Obama). As Lord Hoffman controversially put it:

"The right of abode is a creature of the law. The law gives it and the law may take it away."

Hoffman went on to say that in the context of "good governance" Her Majesty was under no obligation to take the interests of the Chagos Islanders into account in a "non-self-governing colony". He thought that there were other, more important, factors that needed to be taken into consideration:
"Her Majesty in Council is therefore entitled to legislate for a colony in the interests of the United Kingdom."

In addition, Lord Hoffman said that the UK government was fully entitled to take into account the defence and military interests of its long-time ally, the United States. He was joined by two of the other four justices, Lord Carswell and Lord Rodger.

However, the minority opinion written by Lord Bingham and endorsed by Lord Mance, reiterated much of the criticism of the British government made in the judgements of the lower UK courts. In particular, he dismissed the British government's concerns about letting the islanders return, and poured scorn on the "highly imaginative letters written by American officials" who claimed that a "criminal conspiracy headed by Osama bin Laden was, or was planning to be, active in the middle of the Indian Ocean".

He also made it very clear that in his opinion the royal prerogative could not and should not be used to allow the UK government to "exile an indigenous population from its homeland". Tellingly, he wrote that the government's power to legislate through an order in council was "an anachronistic survival", and that Parliament ought to have been consulted.

Lord Bingham was also of the view that former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had undoubtedly created an expectation that the Islanders might return to the outer islands of the Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon. He wrote that the Chagossians "were clearly intended to think, and did, that for the foreseeable future and a right of return was assured. The government could not lawfully resile from its representation without compelling reason, which was not shown."

The case regarding the right of return of the Chagos Islanders brought by Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, is now before the European Court of Human Rights and a judgement is expected later this year. We already know which verdict Lord Bingham thought the judges in Strasbourg should come to.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.


One woman's nightmare, and a crime against humanity

by Robert Fisk

The Independent

Forced to marry her own rapist, Hanan now lives in terror of losing her son – and of being murdered by her family. Her case-history introduces a four-day series investigating a global scandal that destroys many thousands of lives every year

Call her Hanan. She sits in front of me, a red scarf tied round her long intelligent face, her wide, bright eyes sparkling as she tells her story, her two-year-old son Omar restless on the chair beside her. To save the "honour" of her family – and to avoid being killed by her youngest brother – she has married her own rapist. To save the "honour" of her family – to stay alive – she is now divorcing her rapist. Omar, drinking orange juice, jumping on his plastic chair, is the rapist's son.

Hanan is the victim of a vast, corrupt system of "honour" crimes that plagues the Middle East, and takes the lives of at least 5,000 women – perhaps four times that number – a year, a vicious patriarchal system of extra-judicial killings in which a chance conversation between an unmarried woman and a stranger, a mere rumour of extra-marital relations – let alone sexual relations – leads to death by throat-cutting, strangulation, beheading or shooting. These executions – usually by members of the women's own family – are almost always committed in secret. They are always brutal. They are a scourge on society. Policemen and judges often connive with the murderers.

Hanan is a Palestinian Sunni Muslim, raped in her own home in Jordan by another Palestinian, but "honour" crimes are neither a uniquely Muslim phenomenon nor a religious tradition. Christians practice the "honour killing" of women. So do Hindus. From south-east Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to Pakistan and India, in Egypt and Gaza and the West Bank – across an area far wider than the old Ottoman empire – women are shamefully murdered to "cleanse" their families amid the squalor of mountain villages, refugee camps and city slums. "Honour" crimes are the greatest taboo of the region which, through emigration, has spread to Europe and the Americas.

Hanan has been lucky – so far. She tells her story with courage, sitting beside the women who run a shelter in Amman for Jordan's potential "honour" victims. But 31-year-old Hanan is also frightened. Exactly a week after we met, a Jordanian man confessed to killing his 16-year-old niece to save his family's "honour" after she was sexually assaulted – Hanan's own tragedy – by a 17-year-old who took her virginity. The uncle fired 30 machine-gun rounds at his niece at Deir Alla, close to Amman, "to cleanse the family honour", although other members of his family had already married the girl off to a cousin in the hope of concealing the rape.

"My father is blind and I was living with him in a very small house, looking after him when he wasn't selling feather dusters," Hanan says. "The rest of my family – my mother, three brothers and two sisters – live elsewhere. All I did was look after my father. Then one afternoon when my father was at work, I went to take a nap. But I woke up to find a man on top of me. He was a thief who had got in through the roof and I couldn't get him off me. I could do nothing. I screamed and screamed but no one heard me and he raped me. He was a rough-looking man , with the scar of a knife wound on his cheek and tattoos on his arms. I think he was drunk because he smelled of alcohol. He was like a demon.

"I tried to commit suicide the same afternoon, so I wouldn't have to tell my father what had happened. I swallowed a whole pack of pills. Nothing happened – but I slept for two whole days. I wanted to tell my father, but I didn't tell him for another 10 days. When I did, he was very upset and he was crying. He got sick and at one point they were going to take him to hospital. Then he said to me: 'No one knows and no one needs to know, so we can keep it between us. But after a month and a half, I had symptoms like I was pregnant – still, I didn't tell my father this for another two months. I was too shy. But my period didn't come for three months. My father then told me to go to a doctor to have a check-up. He was sad and crying all the time." By the standards of other poor Palestinian families, Hanan's father was a remarkably kind man. Still Hanan's mother and brothers and sisters knew nothing of her plight.

"I discovered I was pregnant when I went to the doctor. Both my father and I were very fearful. Both of us were scared of my brothers and how they would react. I was most scared of the youngest, who is 24, a typical Jordanian guy, easily angered. So we left our place and moved elsewhere in Amman without telling the rest of the family. I tried to do an abortion by drinking anything I could find. I got many medications, but they didn't work. We tried to find someone who would do the abortion but we didn't know anyone. Days were going by – and it was obvious I was pregnant. All the time, of course, the family were trying to find us."

Hanan tried to travel to Egypt with the help a friend of her father's, a Lebanese man who was also blind and who suggested sending the young woman to Lebanon but there was fighting in Beirut. They wanted to obtain a passport for Hanan but the Lebanese man became ill and by then Hanan was six months pregnant. A doctor eventually came to her home and told her of the shelter run by the Jordanian Women's Union. She was immediately brought to the house where other women in fear of their families are cared for by volunteers and lawyers, a special section of the building cordoned off with a locked iron gate for those most in danger.

"I thought I would have the baby and then give it away," Hanan says. "The women helped me even though I wanted to give it away. But deep inside me, I wanted the baby. I couldn't say that to my father because we didn't know the identity of the man who raped me. But I knew this man was from the same neighbourhood and there was a neighbour of ours whose son knew the rapist's name.

"While I was in the shelter, the women tried to convince me to keep the baby. My mind was in conflict with itself. But when I delivered my baby, it was a different day to anything else in my life." Here Hanan's eyes lit up, independence amid adversity. "You know, you can say you don't want a baby, but you do. I was crying and scared that someone was going to say they would take the baby. And I was scared to say I wanted to keep my little boy."

Under Jordanian law, a women's shelter must inform the police if a child is born without the presence of the mother's family. When the cops arrived, they were polite but put a policeman on guard outside her door and grilled Hanan until six in the morning. "They made me feel like I was guilty," she says. Hanan told them all she knew about the rapist and about her father, who then told the police of the neighbour's son. When they showed the boy a set of photographs of criminals, he immediately identified the man who had raped Hanan. She recognised him too. The man, who had a long crime record, was already in prison for attempted murder. The police took Omar away to register his birth in a social services office but he was returned to Hanan who then moved to a government home. Yet her problems were far from over.

"The lawyers at the shelter knew of the danger to me and asked if I wanted to get engaged to this man – then I could get married and later divorce him – and tell my family that my 'honour' was intact. I could say I got married, had a child and then legally divorced my husband. The lawyers went to my rapist to arrange our marriage. He was still in prison and denied he had done anything to me. Then he agreed he had taken me – but said it was consensual! But eventually he confessed and signed a paper saying that I could do whatever I wanted with my baby. He also agreed to marry me.

"So a day came when my father and I went to court and we saw the rapist passing us with some policemen. But when we got married, on 20 October 2008, we didn't see each other. At this point I could keep Omar. I stayed in the shelter for a month after we were married. Everything was legal. So I went back to my father's place and we had a normal life. I kept visiting the Women's Union; they were trying to get a birth certificate for the baby and this took a year. The rapist – yes, the man I married – is now out of prison." Hanan has just told her mother and sisters of her ordeal. Her brothers still know nothing.

"I have told them I work in an orphanage, looking after children," Hanan says. "When I go to see the family, I take Omar with me and say he is a boy from the orphanage. They believe he is an orphan who is attached to me, but my brothers keep asking questions. Why is the boy with me all the time? Where is his family? They see him every two weeks or so and keep asking. Later, when I am divorced, I will tell my brothers the whole story. I think they will accept it. I will tell them that the union helped me and that everything is now legal. My mother and my sisters accept it, although they are sad. It was my father's idea that we should tell my brothers after I'm divorced."

Hanan smiles, more in hope than from conviction, I suspect. The women who helped her are also heroines, but they too are still concerned for her. "Without the Women's Union, if these people hadn't helped me, I would be dead – dead financially, dead psychologically and dead physically", Hanan says. "But God didn't want life to be unfair to me. Now the story has ended, thank God."

Hanan plans to tell her brothers – once she is divorced – that her former husband is in prison for raping her, that legal justice has been done, that she was married to him, that she divorced him, that "honour" has been preserved. But the brothers will know, of course, that she was raped before her marriage. Will this satisfy family "honour"? Hanan has fought her first battle – she decided to keep Omar – and now faces a much more serious one. Not that Omar would understand. The two-year-old struggles down from his plastic chair and demands chocolates. But given his mother's painful struggle, what world has he been born into?

The crimewave that shames the world

by Robert Fisk

The Independent

It's one of the last great taboos: the murder of at least 20,000 women a year in the name of 'honour'. Nor is the problem confined to the Middle East: the contagion is spreading rapidly

It is a tragedy, a horror, a crime against humanity. The details of the murders – of the women beheaded, burned to death, stoned to death, stabbed, electrocuted, strangled and buried alive for the "honour" of their families – are as barbaric as they are shameful. Many women's groups in the Middle East and South-west Asia suspect the victims are at least four times the United Nations' latest world figure of around 5,000 deaths a year. Most of the victims are young, many are teenagers, slaughtered under a vile tradition that goes back hundreds of years but which now spans half the globe.

A 10-month investigation by The Independent in Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank has unearthed terrifying details of murder most foul. Men are also killed for "honour" and, despite its identification by journalists as a largely Muslim practice, Christian and Hindu communities have stooped to the same crimes. Indeed, the "honour" (or ird) of families, communities and tribes transcends religion and human mercy. But voluntary women's groups, human rights organisations, Amnesty International and news archives suggest that the slaughter of the innocent for "dishonouring" their families is increasing by the year.

Iraqi Kurds, Palestinians in Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey appear to be the worst offenders but media freedoms in these countries may over-compensate for the secrecy which surrounds "honour" killings in Egypt – which untruthfully claims there are none – and other Middle East nations in the Gulf and the Levant. But honour crimes long ago spread to Britain, Belgium, Russia and Canada and many other nations. Security authorities and courts across much of the Middle East have connived in reducing or abrogating prison sentences for the family murder of women, often classifying them as suicides to prevent prosecutions.

It is difficult to remain unemotional at the vast and detailed catalogue of these crimes. How should one react to a man – this has happened in both Jordan and Egypt – who rapes his own daughter and then, when she becomes pregnant, kills her to save the "honour" of his family? Or the Turkish father and grandfather of a 16-year-old girl, Medine Mehmi, in the province of Adiyaman, who was buried alive beneath a chicken coop in February for "befriending boys"? Her body was found 40 days later, in a sitting position and with her hands tied.

Or Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, 13, who in Somalia in 2008, in front of a thousand people, was dragged to a hole in the ground – all the while screaming, "I'm not going – don't kill me" – then buried up to her neck and stoned by 50 men for adultery? After 10 minutes, she was dug up, found to be still alive and put back in the hole for further stoning. Her crime? She had been raped by three men and, fatally, her family decided to report the facts to the Al-Shabab militia that runs Kismayo. Or the Al-Shabab Islamic "judge" in the same country who announced the 2009 stoning to death of a woman – the second of its kind the same year – for having an affair? Her boyfriend received a mere 100 lashes.

Or the young woman found in a drainage ditch near Daharki in Pakistan, "honour" killed by her family as she gave birth to her second child, her nose, ears and lips chopped off before being axed to death, her first infant lying dead among her clothes, her newborn's torso still in her womb, its head already emerging from her body? She was badly decomposed; the local police were asked to bury her. Women carried the three to a grave, but a Muslim cleric refused to say prayers for her because it was "irreligious" to participate in the namaz-e-janaza prayers for "a cursed woman and her illegitimate children".

So terrible are the details of these "honour" killings, and so many are the women who have been slaughtered, that the story of each one might turn horror into banality. But lest these acts – and the names of the victims, when we are able to discover them – be forgotten, here are the sufferings of a mere handful of women over the past decade, selected at random, country by country, crime after crime.

Last March, Munawar Gul shot and killed his 20-year-old sister, Saanga, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, along with the man he suspected was having "illicit relations" with her, Aslam Khan.

In August of 2008, five women were buried alive for "honour crimes" in Baluchistan by armed tribesmen; three of them – Hameeda, Raheema and Fauzia – were teenagers who, after being beaten and shot, were thrown still alive into a ditch where they were covered with stones and earth. When the two older women, aged 45 and 38, protested, they suffered the same fate. The three younger women had tried to choose their own husbands. In the Pakistani parliament, the MP Israrullah Zehri referred to the murders as part of a "centuries-old tradition" which he would "continue to defend".

In December 2003, a 23-year-old woman in Multan, identified only as Afsheen, was murdered by her father because, after an unhappy arranged marriage, she ran off with a man called Hassan who was from a rival, feuding tribe. Her family was educated – they included civil servants, engineers and lawyers. "I gave her sleeping pills in a cup of tea and then strangled her with a dapatta [a long scarf, part of a woman's traditional dress]," her father confessed. He told the police: "Honour is the only thing a man has. I can still hear her screams, she was my favourite daughter. I want to destroy my hands and end my life." The family had found Afsheen with Hassan in Rawalpindi and promised she would not be harmed if she returned home. They were lying.

Zakir Hussain Shah slit the throat of his daughter Sabiha, 18, at Bara Kau in June 2002 because she had "dishonoured" her family. But under Pakistan's notorious qisas law, heirs have powers to pardon a murderer. In this case, Sabiha's mother and brother "pardoned" the father and he was freed. When a man killed his four sisters in Mardan in the same year, because they wanted a share of his inheritance, his mother "pardoned" him under the same law. In Sarghoda around the same time, a man opened fire on female members of his family, killing two of his daughters. Yet again, his wife – and several other daughters wounded by him – "pardoned" the murderer because they were his heirs.

Outrageously, rape is also used as a punishment for "honour" crimes. In Meerwala village in the Punjab in 2002, a tribal "jury" claimed that an 11-year-old boy from the Gujar tribe, Abdul Shakoor, had been walking unchaperoned with a 30-year-old woman from the Mastoi tribe, which "dishonoured" the Mastois. The tribal elders decided that to "return" honour to the group, the boy's 18-year-old sister, Mukhtaran Bibi, should be gang-raped. Her father, warned that all the female members of his family would be raped if he did not bring Mukhtar to them, dutifully brought his daughter to this unholy "jury". Four men, including one of the "jury", immediately dragged the girl to a hut and raped her while up to a hundred men laughed and cheered outside. She was then forced to walk naked through the village to her home. It took a week before the police even registered the crime – as a "complaint".

Acid attacks also play their part in "honour" crime punishments. The Independent itself gave wide coverage in 2001 to a Karachi man called Bilal Khar who poured acid over his wife Fakhra Yunus's face after she left him and returned to her mother's home in the red-light area of the city. The acid fused her lips, burned off her hair, melted her breasts and an ear, and turned her face into "a look of melted rubber". That same year, a 20-year-old woman called Hafiza was shot twice by her brother, Asadullah, in front of a dozen policemen outside a Quetta courthouse because she had refused to follow the tradition of marrying her dead husband's elder brother. She had then married another man, Fayyaz Moon, but police arrested the girl and brought her back to her family in Quetta on the pretext that the couple could formally marry there. But she was forced to make a claim that Fayaz had kidnapped and raped her. It was when she went to court to announce that her statement was made under pressure – and that she still regarded Fayaz as her husband – that Asadullah murdered her. He handed his pistol to a police constable who had witnessed the killing.

One of the most terrible murders in 1999 was that of a mentally retarded 16-year-old, Lal Jamilla Mandokhel, who was reportedly raped by a junior civil servant in Parachinar in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Her uncle filed a complaint with the police but handed Lal over to her tribe, whose elders decided she should be killed to preserve tribal "honour". She was shot dead in front of them. Arbab Khatoon was raped by three men in the Jacobabad district. She filed a complaint with the police. Seven hours later, she was murdered by relatives who claimed she had "dishonoured" them by reporting the crime.

Over 10 years ago, Pakistan's Human Rights Commission was recording "honour" killings at the rate of a thousand a year. But if Pakistan seems to have the worst track record of "honour" crimes – and we must remember that many countries falsely claim to have none – Turkey might run a close second. According to police figures between 2000 and 2006, a reported 480 women – 20 per cent of them between the ages of 19 and 25 – were killed in "honour" crimes and feuds. Other Turkish statistics, drawn up more than five years ago by women's groups, suggest that at least 200 girls and women are murdered every year for "honour". These figures are now regarded as a vast underestimate. Many took place in Kurdish areas of the country; an opinion poll found that 37 per cent of Diyabakir's citizens approved of killing a woman for an extramarital affair. Medine Mehmi, the girl who was buried alive, lived in the Kurdish town of Kahta.

In 2006, authorities in the Kurdish area of South-east Anatolia were recording that a woman tried to commit suicide every few weeks on the orders of her family. Others were stoned to death, shot, buried alive or strangled. A 17-year-old woman called Derya who fell in love with a boy at her school received a text message from her uncle on her mobile phone. It read: "You have blackened our name. Kill yourself and clean our shame or we will kill you first." Derya's aunt had been killed by her grandfather for an identical reason. Her brothers also sent text messages, sometimes 15 a day. Derya tried to carry out her family's wishes. She jumped into the Tigris river, tried to hang herself and slashed her wrists – all to no avail. Then she ran away to a women's shelter.

It took 13 years before Murat Kara, 40, admitted in 2007 that he had fired seven bullets into his younger sister after his widowed mother and uncles told him to kill her for eloping with her boyfriend. Before he murdered his sister in the Kurdish city of Dyabakir, neighbours had refused to talk to Murat Kara and the imam said he was disobeying the word of God if he did not kill his sister. So he became a murderer. Honour restored.

In his book Women In The Grip Of Tribal Customs, a Turkish journalist, Mehmet Farac, records the "honour" killing of five girls in the late 1990s in the province of Sanliurfa. Two of them – one was only 12 – had their throats slit in public squares, two others had tractors driven over them, the fifth was shot dead by her younger brother. One of the women who had her throat cut was called Sevda Gok. Her brothers held her arms down as her adolescent cousin cut her throat.

But the "honour" killing of women is not a uniquely Kurdish crime, even if it is committed in rural areas of the country. In 2001, Sait Kina stabbed his 13-year-old daughter to death for talking to boys in the street. He attacked her in the bathroom with an axe and a kitchen knife. When the police discovered her corpse, they found the girl's head had been so mutilated that the family had tied it together with a scarf. Sait Kina told the police: "I have fulfilled my duty."

In the same year, an Istanbul court reduced a sentence against three brothers from life imprisonment to between four and 12 years after they threw their sister to her death from a bridge after accusing her of being a prostitute. The court concluded that her behaviour had "provoked" the murder. For centuries, virginity tests have been considered a normal part of rural tradition before a woman's marriage. In 1998, when five young women attempted suicide before these tests, the Turkish family affairs minister defended mandated medical examinations for girls in foster homes.

British Kurdish Iraqi campaigner Aso Kamal, of the Doaa Network Against Violence, believes that between 1991 and 2007, 12,500 women were murdered for reasons of "honour" in the three Kurdish provinces of Iraq alone – 350 of them in the first seven months of 2007, for which there were only five convictions. Many women are ordered by their families to commit suicide by burning themselves with cooking oil. In Sulimaniya hospital in 2007, surgeons were treating many women for critical burns which could never have been caused by cooking "accidents" as the women claimed. One patient, Sirwa Hassan, was dying of 86 per cent burns. She was a Kurdish mother of three from a village near the Iranian border. In 2008, a medical officer in Sulimaniya told the AFP news agency that in May alone, 14 young women had been murdered for "honour" crimes in 10 days. In 2000, Kurdish authorities in Sulimaniya had decreed that "the killing or abuse of women under the pretext of cleansing 'shame' is not considered to be a mitigating excuse". The courts, they said, could not apply an old 1969 law "to reduce the penalty of the perpetrator". The new law, of course, made no difference.

But again, in Iraq, it is not only Kurds who believe in "honour" killings. In Tikrit, a young woman in the local prison sent a letter to her brother in 2008, telling him that she had become pregnant after being raped by a prison guard. The brother was permitted to visit the prison, walked into the cell where his now visibly pregnant sister was held, and shot her dead to spare his family "dishonour". The mortuary in Baghdad took DNA samples from the woman's foetus and also from guards at the Tikrit prison. The rapist was a police lieutenant-colonel. The reason for the woman's imprisonment was unclear. One report said the colonel's family had "paid off" the woman's relatives to escape punishment.

In Basra in 2008, police were reporting that 15 women a month were being murdered for breaching "Islamic dress codes". One 17-year-old girl, Rand Abdel-Qader, was beaten to death by her father two years ago because she had become infatuated with a British soldier. Another, Shawbo Ali Rauf, 19, was taken by her family to a picnic in Dokan and shot seven times because they had found an unfamiliar number on her mobile phone.

In Nineveh, Du'a Khalil Aswad was 17 when she was stoned to death by a mob of 2,000 men for falling in love with a man outside her tribe.

In Jordan, women's organisations say that per capita, the Christian minority in this country of just over five million people are involved in more "honour" killings than Muslims – often because Christian women want to marry Muslim men. But the Christian community is loath to discuss its crimes and the majority of known cases of murder are committed by Muslims. Their stories are wearily and sickeningly familiar. Here is Sirhan in 1999, boasting of the efficiency with which he killed his young sister, Suzanne. Three days after the 16-year-old had told police she had been raped, Sirhan shot her in the head four times. "She committed a mistake, even if it was against her will," he said. "Anyway, it's better to have one person die than to have the whole family die of shame." Since then, a deeply distressing pageant of "honour" crimes has been revealed to the Jordanian public, condemned by the royal family and slowly countered with ever tougher criminal penalties by the courts.

Yet in 2001, we find a 22-year-old Jordanian man strangling his 17-year-old married sister – the 12th murder of its kind in seven months – because he suspected her of having an affair. Her husband lived in Saudi Arabia. In 2002, Souad Mahmoud strangled his own sister for the same reason. She had been forced to marry her lover – but when the family found out she had been pregnant before her wedding, they decided to execute her.

In 2005, three Jordanians stabbed their 22-year-old married sister to death for taking a lover. After witnessing the man enter her home, the brothers stormed into the house and killed her. They did not harm her lover.

By March 2008, the Jordanian courts were still treating "honour" killings leniently. That month, the Jordanian Criminal Court sentenced two men for killing close female relatives "in a fit of fury" to a mere six months and three months in prison. In the first case, a husband had found a man in his home with his wife and suspected she was having an affair. In the second, a man shot dead his 29-year-old married sister for leaving home without her husband's consent and "talking to other men on her mobile phone". In 2009, a Jordanian man confessed to stabbing his pregnant sister to death because she had moved back to her family after an argument with her husband; the brother believed she was "seeing other men".

And so it goes on. Three men in Amman stabbing their 40-year-old divorced sister 15 times last year for taking a lover; a Jordanian man charged with stabbing to death his daughter, 22, with a sword because she was pregnant outside wedlock. Many of the Jordanian families were originally Palestinian. Nine months ago, a Palestinian stabbed his married sister to death because of her "bad behaviour". But last month, the Amman criminal court sentenced another sister-killer to 10 years in prison, rejecting his claim of an "honour" killing – but only because there were no witnesses to his claim that she had committed adultery.

In "Palestine" itself, Human Rights Watch has long blamed the Palestinian police and justice system for the near-total failure to protect women in Gaza and the West Bank from "honour" killings. Take, for example, the 17-year-old girl who was strangled by her older brother in 2005 for becoming pregnant – by her own father.

He was present during her murder. She had earlier reported her father to the police. They neither arrested nor interrogated him. In the same year, masked Hamas gunmen shot dead a 20-year-old, Yusra Azzami, for "immoral behaviour" as she spent a day out with her fiancée. Azzami was a Hamas member, her husband-to-be a member of Fatah. Hamas tried to apologise and called the dead woman a "martyr" – to the outrage of her family. Yet only last year, long after Hamas won the Palestinian elections and took over the Gaza Strip, a Gaza man was detained for bludgeoning his daughter to death with an iron chain because he discovered she owned a mobile phone on which he feared she was talking to a man outside the family. He was later released.

Even in liberal Lebanon, there are occasional "honour" killings, the most notorious that of a 31-year-old woman, Mona Kaham, whose father entered her bedroom and cut her throat after learning she had been made pregnant by her cousin. He walked to the police station in Roueiss in the southern suburbs of Beirut with the knife still in his hand. "My conscience is clear," he told the police. "I have killed to clean my honour." Unsurprisingly, a public opinion poll showed that 90.7 per cent of the Lebanese public opposed "honour" crimes. Of the few who approved of them, several believed that it helped to limit interreligious marriage.

Syria reflects the pattern of Lebanon. While civil rights groups are demanding a stiffening of the laws against women-killers, government legislation only raised the term of imprisonment for men who kill female relatives for extramarital sex to two years. Among the most recent cases was that of Lubna, a 17-year-old living in Homs, murdered by her family because she fled to her sister's house after refusing to marry a man they had chosen for her. They also believed – wrongly – that she was no longer a virgin.

Tribal feuds often provoke "honour" killings in Iran and Afghanistan. In Iran, for example, a governor's official in the ethnic Arab province of Khuzestan stated in 2003 that 45 young women under the age of 20 had been murdered in "honour" killings in just two months, none of which brought convictions. All were slaughtered because of the girl's refusal to agree to an arranged marriage, failing to abide by Islamic dress code or suspected of having contacts with men outside the family.

Through the dark veil of Afghanistan's village punishments, we glimpse just occasionally the terror of teenage executions. When Siddiqa, who was only 19, and her 25-year-old fiancé Khayyam were brought before a Taliban-approved religious court in Kunduz province this month, their last words were: "We love each other, no matter what happens." In the bazaar at Mulla Quli, a crowd – including members of both families – stoned to death first Siddiqa, then Khayyam.

A week earlier, a woman identified as Bibi Sanubar, a pregnant widow, was lashed a hundred times and then shot in the head by a Taliban commander. In April of last year, Taliban gunmen executed by firing squad a man and a girl in Nimruz for eloping when the young woman was already engaged to someone else. History may never disclose how many hundreds of women – and men – have suffered a similar fates at the hands of deeply traditional village families or the Taliban.

But the contagion of "honour" crimes has spread across the globe, including acid attacks on women in Bangladesh for refusing marriages. In one of the most terrible Hindu "honour" killings in India this year, an engaged couple, Yogesh Kumar and Asha Saini, were murdered by the 19-year-old bride-to-be's family because her fiancée was of lower caste. They were apparently tied up and electrocuted to death.

A similar fate awaited 18-year-old Vishal Sharma, a Hindu Brahmin, who wanted to marry Sonu Singh, a 17- year-old Jat – an "inferior" caste which is usually Muslim. The couple were hanged and their bodies burned in Uttar Pradesh. Three years earlier, a New Delhi court had sentenced to death five men for killing another couple who were of the same sub-caste, which in the eyes of the local "caste council" made them brother and sister.

In Chechnya, Russia's chosen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been positively encouraging men to kill for "honour". When seven murdered women were found in Grozny, shot in the head and chest, Kadyrov announced – without any proof, but with obvious approval – that they had been killed for living "an immoral life". Commenting on a report that a Chechen girl had called the police to complain of her abusive father, he suggested the man should be able to murder his daughter. "... if he doesn't kill her, what kind of man is he? He brings shame on himself!"

And so to the "West", as we like to call it, where immigrant families have sometimes brought amid their baggage the cruel traditions of their home villages: an Azeri immigrant charged in St Petersburg for hiring hitmen to kill his daughter because she "flouted national tradition" by wearing a miniskirt; near the Belgian city of Charleroi, Sadia Sheikh shot dead by her brother, Moussafa, because she refused to marry a Pakistani man chosen by her family; in the suburbs of Toronto, Kamikar Kaur Dhillon slashes his Punjabi daughter-in-law, Amandeep, across the throat because she wants to leave her arranged marriage, perhaps for another man. He told Canadian police that her separation would "disgrace the family name".

And, of course, we should perhaps end this catalogue of crime in Britain, where only in the past few years have we ourselves woken to the reality of "honour" crimes; of Surjit Athwal, a Punjabi Sikh woman murdered on the orders of her London-based mother-in-law for trying to escape a violent marriage; of 15-year-old Tulay Goren, a Turkish Kurd from north London, tortured and murdered by her Shia Muslim father because she wished to marry a Sunni Muslim man; of Heshu Yones, 16, stabbed to death by her father in 2005 for going out with a Christian boy; of Caneze Riaz, burned alive by her husband in Accrington, along with their four children – the youngest 10 years old – because of their "Western ways". Mohamed Riaz was a Muslim Pakistani from the North-West Frontier Province. He died of burns two days after the murders.

Scotland Yard long ago admitted it would have to review over a hundred deaths, some going back more than a decade, which now appear to have been "honour" killings.

These are just a few of the murders, a few names, a small selection of horror stories across the world to prove the pervasive, spreading infection of what must be recognised as a mass crime, a tradition of family savagery that brooks no merciful intervention, no state law, rarely any remorse.

Surjit Athwal

Murdered in 1998 by her in-laws on a trip to the Indian Punjab for daring to seek a divorce from an unhappy marriage

Du'a Khalil Aswad

Aged 17, she was stoned to death in Nineveh, Iraq, by a mob of 2,000 men for falling in love with a man outside her tribe

Rand Abdel-Qader

The Iraqi 17-year-old was stabbed to death by her father two years ago after falling in love with a British soldier in Basra

Fakhra Khar

In 2001 in Karachi, her husband poured acid on her face, after she left him and returned to her mother's home in the red-light district of the city

Mukhtaran Bibi

The 18-year-old was gang-raped by four men in a hut in the Punjab in 2002, while up to 100 men laughed and cheered outside

Heshu Yones

The 16-year-old was stabbed to death by her Muslim father Abdullah, in west London in 2002, because he disapproved of her Christian boyfriend

Tasleem Solangi

The Pakistani village girl, 17, was falsely accused of immorality and had dogs set on her as a punishment before she was shot dead by in-laws

Shawbo Ali Rauf

Aged 19, she was taken by her family to a picnic in Dokan, Iraq, and shot seven times after they had found an unfamiliar number on her phone

Tulay Goren

The 15-year-old Kurdish girl was killed in north London by her father because the family objected to her choice of husband

Banaz Mahmod Babakir Agha

The 20-year-old's father and uncle murdered her in 2007, after she fell in love with a man her family did not want her to marry

Ayesha Baloch

Accused of having sexual relations with another man before she married, her husband slit her lip and nostril with a knife in Pakistan in 2006