Archive | January, 2010

Ethiopian Airlines flight “crashes” off Beirut coast

25 Jan

This morning I was woken up by the roar of thunder. The weather here often seems to carry messages. Minutes later I checked my mobile phone to find this  message: Ethiopian Airlines flight crashes off Beirut, 82 passengers and 8 crew missing.

Lebanese aviation officials reportedly lost contact with the plane about five minutes after its departure from Beirut early Monday morning, with eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a ball of fire explode in the air before the plane crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Families of the missing have begun gathering at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport to wait for news as rescue teams are dispatched. Several bodies have already allegedly been recovered.  Plane wreckage appears to have been found 20 kilometers south of the Beirut coast line. Stormy weather will no doubt hamper rescue efforts.

A list of the passengers (names and date of birth) can be found here (in Arabic):

According to early reports, the wife of French Ambassor to Lebanon Denis Pietton, Marla Sanzhez, was among those aboard the plane.

A message on the Ethiopian Airlines website reads:

T-409 Incident – 25 January, 2010

Ethiopian flight ET-409 scheduled to operate from Beirut to Addis Ababa on January 25th lost contact with the Lebanese air controllers shortly after take off. The flight departed at 02:35 Lebanese time from Beirut International Airport.

Flight ET-409 carries 82 passenger plus 8 Ethiopian Crew members. Out of the total passengers 23 are Ethiopian, 51 Lebanese, 1 Turkish, 1 French, 2 British, 1 Russian, 1 Canadian, 1 Syrian, 1 Iraqi nationals.

A team is already working on gathering all pertinent information. An investigative team has already been dispatched to the scene and we will release further information as further updates are received.

For more information please contact our emergency call center at:

+251 11 517 8766, +251 91 150 1248, +251 91 125 5577, +251 91 120 3412 or our toll free number +251 11 662 0062

AUB project aims to instill sense of appreciation for biodiversity

19 Jan

Initiative helps communities share benefits of reforestation
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, January 19, 201

BOIRE, Metn: The Lebanese are traditionally a people who pride themselves on their ties to the land. Their flag depicts this through its symbol of a Cedar tree and their diet through staples like thyme, dandelion and other wild greens handpicked from the mountain side. But in an era of climate change, urbanization and desertification, the Lebanese are quickly losing sight of their country’s once enviable biodiversity.
In an attempt to reinvigorate grassroots interest in Lebanon’s native flora, the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures (IBSAR), with help from the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, each weekend invites volunteers to participate in its “Power of Planting” project. Planting in different locations throughout Lebanon, the volunteers join IBSAR experts and local residents in reintroducing a few of the country’s estimated 50-80 indigenous species.
The idea was born after massive forest fires wreaked havoc on Lebanon’s dwindling forests in 2007, explains Khaled Slim, IBSAR field coordinator and agricultural engineer. “We thought that we had to do something, and since we are a biodiversity research center, we decided on planting native trees,” he says.
The planting is achieved in partnership with the local municipality, who decide where to plant. So far, 40 villages have benefitted from some 10,000 trees or shrubs suited to the area’s soil type and terrain. IBSAR plans to plant about 40,000 more this year to coincide with the international year of biodiversity.
“There is a need for this kind of landscaping initiative,” says IBSAR outreach coordinator Arbi Sarkissian. “I’m calling it landscaping because we’re not [undertaking] reforestation. We’re planting within villages, not necessarily in rural and remote areas.”
Slim is more comfortable with the link to reforestation than his colleague, but notes it has to start at the grassroots level, with community involvement, rather than through government-led initiatives. “We are trying to decentralize reforestation activities to local villagers and inhabitants because they know their land,” he says. “If the people living in a place are not convinced that nature has to be protected, no one can protect it.”
With Lebanon’s forests today in dire straits, there has never been a better time for the IBSAR project. In the 1960s, forests covered more than 35 percent of the country.
Environmentalists now estimate that woodland stands at less than 12 percent, and with more people moving from rural areas to urban centers each year, further decreases look inevitable. As a result, more than 60 percent of the country is threatened by desertification, experts warn.
But ultimately, “it’s not just about planting trees,” Sarkissian says. “The power of planting is a concept about being aware of
nature in its dwindling state.” This is partly achieved through simply reconnecting volunteers, many of whom are city dwellers, with the land they are so dependent on, but so far removed from. IBSAR is also doing something government-led reforestation projects are not: planting native vegetation, such as judas, sweet almond or crabapple trees, rather than simply pine and cedars or introduced species like eucalyptus.
“There are five or six different species that are at the forefront of reforestation and a whole realm of other species that are left out of the picture,” Sarkissian says.
“If their populations dwindle even more, chances are they’re going to go extinct.”
Diversification is especially important, Slim notes, because it helps to create a natural protective barrier against fire.
This weekend, IBSAR was in the quiet Metn village of Boire, adding some much-needed green to the municipal hospital’s parking lot. After a few hours of weeding, the land was ready for the myrtle shrubs, carob, stone pine and maple tree saplings. After they were put into the earth, large rocks were placed around them to keep in the moisture and for protection, a process known as “mulching.”
The idea, Sarkissian says, is to eventually have the trees serve as natural seed banks for future planting projects. “We are looking to when these trees get big and bear seeds, to work with the communities who planted them in order to establish micro-nurseries,” he says.
The tree saplings planted in Boire are already one year old, and will start producing seeds in two or three years.
They, in turn, will be planted at the micro-nursery to be sold and replanted.
“We’re trying to help communities understand the importance of diversity and planting natives, and giving them an opportunity to partake in the economic incentives that come with it,” Sarkissian says.

No help for those battling addiction in Lebanon

17 Jan

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 15, 2010

BEIRUT: Maher (not his real name) had been arrested more than 32 times and was constantly in and out of prison on drug charges before finally receiving help for his addiction problems.

“I started using [drugs] in 1985 after being influenced by some friends,” he said. “I didn’t know about the dangers.” What started as casual use of hashish quickly turned into an addiction to heroin.

Although the 1998 narcotics law stipulates that those with drug addictions are to be considered to be suffering from an illness, and not criminals, this provision is rarely upheld. The law says people like Maher should be sent to government-run rehabilitation clinics, but because of the dearth of such facilities, they usually end up in prison.

Incarceration is a lonely place for those battling addiction. Drugs are widely available and there are no provisions for those experiencing withdrawal. “In jail I can honestly tell you I wished I was dead,” Maher said. “If you’re a drug addict, your calls for help fall on deaf ears. I wasn’t offered any treatment.”

During one spell behind bars, Maher said he was visited by a psychologist once a week but it didn’t help much. “Prison breaks your spirit. Even if your body is drug free, your problems don’t disappear.”

On top of run-ins with the law, those with addiction problems in Lebanon also have to contend with considerable social stigma. Recognizing this, addiction rehabilitation organization Skoun on Thursday organized a workshop with religious figures to try to communicate that shunning drug addicts was more damaging to society than helping them.

Souha Bawab, a psychologist in Skoun’s prevention department, said the targeting of religious figures was important because they helped shape popular opinion in Lebanon. “We are trying to decrease the stigma surrounding addiction, so that people with addiction problems don’t hesitate as much to seek healthcare services, because this is what the stigma is doing,” she said. “At the end of the day, people with addiction problems are staying stuck in their addiction, which increases their suffering, the suffering of their families and the suffering of the entire community that they belong to.”

Lana Captan Ghandour, project manager of the peace building project at the United Nations Development Program, which is funding the project, said the workshop comes amid growing awareness of drug and other addictions among the general population. “The problem with drug addiction in Lebanon is escalating,” Ghandour said. A few years ago, “people with family members who had drug addictions wouldn’t want the community to know about it … Now there is a movement … to combat the challenges of drug addiction. Now people want to talk about it because they are being touched by it.”

Religious figures could play an important role in this growing dialogue through spreading messages in their sermons “to better deal with drug addicts rather than isolating them,” Ghandour added. Statistics about drug use in Lebanon are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests widespread availability and consumption. Skoun has said field workers estimate the number of drug abusers to be between 10,000 to 15,000 people, although it is likely an underestimation. Relatively cheap prices – heroin costs around $20 per gram and cocaine about $100 per gram – means that almost anyone can buy something.

“Many of my friends at university smoked hashish,” Maroun [not his real name], a graduate of the Lebanese University, said. “Now I know that four of them take heroin and most of the others are always using [ecstasy] pills or cocaine at the weekend.”

Those working with addicts say drug use is an issue that has long been neglected by the authorities. While those with addictions in Lebanon face several difficulties, Maher is proof that it can be overcome with support. “I am very happy now,” he said. “I’m actually working and smiling. There was a time when I couldn’t even smile but things are looking up today.” He added: “Few people have compassion for drug addicts but thanks to non-governmental organizations, things are beginning to change.”

Robert Fisk: Western media fails to report ‘real horrors of war’

14 Jan

Journalist’s lecture slams bias in American journalism
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BEIRUT: Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, as he notes in one of his books, has lived a “charmed but dangerous life.” He has been a resident of the Beirut seafront for 34 years, covering the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and its numerous atrocities, most memorably the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias and their Israeli Army allies. The British-born journalist has reported on 10 other wars, several insurgencies, Iran’s bloody 2009 elections, and has interviewed Osama bin Laden no less than three times.

Over the years, Fisk has provoked as much anger as admiration, enduring two kidnap attempts and a beating by a group of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. His critics dismiss his writing as lies and embellishments, and his numerous awards and books, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are a source of some jealously for other correspondents in the region. No one in the world of journalism, it seems, is quite as divisive as Robert Fisk.
Kicking off a series of “Distinguished Journalists” lectures at the Lebanese American University of Beirut on Tuesday, however, he was firmly among friends and admirers.
Speaking to hundreds of journalism students, Fisk was quick to condemn “the lethal way in which [Western] reporters support war,” manipulating language to change meaning and historical context. Editors were also to be criticized for avoiding shocking photographs of war victims, an act which he said sterilized and hid the consequences of conflict.
One example of this was a newspaper that published a photograph of an Iraqi father carrying his supposedly injured daughter. The girl, Fisk said, was in fact already dead and her feet, which had been blown off in an explosion, had been tidily cut out of the photograph. “I’m against all violence, but because we protect our own readers from it, we produce a clean war,” he said. “For all the criticisms I have of the Arab press … at least your pictures in your newspaper … tend to show the real horrors of war.”
“A lot of journalists do not see their job as a vocation,” he continued. “Many journalists regard their job as the same as working in a bank, driving a truck or becoming a lawyer  … But I think journalism should have responsibilities over and above just earning a salary to pay off the mortgage.”
His strongest criticism was reserved for the American media, where there was an “osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power.” Since the Bush administration, for example, Fisk observed US newspapers had followed on from Washington’s example in referring to the occupied Palestinian territories as the “disputed territories” or “the so-called occupied territories.”
Such glaring bias and half-truths have led, Fisk argued, to the “normalization of war” among Westerners. An additional reason for this was journalist’s obsession with reporting “50/50” from all sides of a story. “But the Middle East is not a football match, it’s a bloody tragedy,” Fisk said, adding journalists had a “duty to be unbiased and neutral on the side of those who suffer.”
Though he is best known for his reporting on Arab countries, Fisk avoided discussing the problems faced by the region’s journalists or the political woes of the Middle East, dedicating only a few closing lines to the subject.
But does Fisk, with over three decades of experience in the region tucked under his belt, see any prospect for peace? “I have no optimism about the Middle East. The chances of a Palestinian state are less by the day,” he said. And as for Lebanon, where Fisk calls home, it is a “Rolls Royce with square wheels” that won’t be a modern state until it has secular governance.

Circus leaders sent packing after activist alert

10 Jan

This lion cub faces negligence and mistreatment (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)

Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, January 09, 2010

BEIRUT: For two weeks, a lion cub has sat in a small cage in Beirut with dirty bedding and no natural light, nursing its swollen paws.

 The lion cub was brought to Lebanon with five other lions, three tigers, two snakes and a number of domesticated animals to perform at the Monte Carlo Circus in the Beirut suburb of Dora. But in a rare victory on Friday, the animals’ owner was ordered to leave Lebanon within 24 hours.

Lebanese Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan declared the circus illegal and ordered its immediate closure after animal welfare campaigners alerted his office to the circus’s mistreatment and incorrect paperwork.

“I would have preferred for the animals to be confiscated and the minister indicated that’s what he would have preferred to do, but the legal framework just isn’t there,” Jason Mier, Executive Director of Animals Lebanon told The Daily Star.

Although Hajj Hassan seems keen to advance animal welfare legislation, there are very few such policies in Lebanon. Lebanon and Bahrain are the only Arab states who have not signed up to the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), to which 175 states are a party.

While Lebanon is not a signatory to CITES, it is required to monitor any trade of animals between countries who have ratified the convention. But in this case, border officials failed to notice that the animals were “in a terrible state,” Meir said.

Animals Lebanon was first alerted to their plight after the Princess Alia Foundation in Jordan raised the alarm on December 24, when it contacted the organization to say the animals were stuck at the border and hadn’t been fed or watered for days. The animals spent a total of six days in transit, finally arriving in Lebanon on December 27.

In addition to “serious concerns about paperwork,” Meir and veterinarians have accused Monte Carlo Circus officials of inhumane treatment of the animals. An independent vet appointed by Animals Lebanon to examine the animals wrote in a report addressed to Hajj Hassan that they were visibly neglected, dystrophic and malnourished. Only two tigers and two lions had access to water in their cages, but the quantities were insufficient and “filthy,” said Ali Hemadeh, who is also the Beirut Representative of the Lebanese Veterinary Syndicate.

While the lion cub is receiving medicine for infected paws following a declawing operation, Hemadeh noted that “none of these treatments have been prescribed by a vet, and no vet is currently overseeing this treatment – it is being done by one of the circus employees.”

A second opinion also highlighted serious concerns for the animals, calling the declawing of the lion cub “barbaric.” John Knight, an independent zoo veterinarian and senior veterinary consultant to the Born Free Foundation, described the condition of the cub as “appalling” and suggested its owner “fundamentally lacks an understanding of the management” of such animals.

The family of circus owner Hussein Akef, which has operated circuses for the last 100 years, has in fact been investigated in several countries over concerns for animal welfare. One such investigation in Mozambique led to the family having their animals confiscated in 2007 and re-homed.

At Friday’s meeting with Hajj Hassan, Akef and his Lebanese business partner Suheil Obeid reportedly attempted to resist the minister’s ruling and “tried to use their connections” to have it overturned, Meir said. Attempts to reach both men were unsuccessful.

“This shipment could have been stopped long before ever entering Lebanon, but now is the opportunity for the [Lebanese Agriculture] Ministry to make a strong statement that Lebanon will no longer be used as a hub for smuggled animals,” said a statement on the Animals Lebanon website. Although Lebanon currently allows animals to be used in circus performances, Meir said he hoped the ruling would push Lebanon to ban the practice and pursue serious legislation.

In September, an abandoned lion cub was discovered in a Beirut alleyway. The starving animal, which had been kept illegally, died shortly after. Elephants and chimpanzees have also been smuggled in and out of Lebanon.

The lion cub's paws are infected and painful after a "barbaric" declawing operation (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)

Lebanon’s death row inmates plead for second chance

8 Jan

Gathering at Roumieh prison urges government to abolish capital punishment
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 08, 2010

ROUMIEH: Long-time death row inmate Ahmad lives in such constant fear of execution, he’s almost rotting away alive. “I’m suffering depression, sorrow and remorse. I can’t hear or see anymore, I’ve lost my strength and my teeth have fallen out.” Ahmad, which is not his real name, says he has learned from his actions and hopes the Lebanese authorities can show mercy by sparing him from the gallows. “I did what I did at a time of ignorance and I was misguided, but today I fear God and know my boundaries,” he said.
His plea came at a gathering held Thursday inside Lebanon’s largest prison, Roumieh, urging the Lebanese government to move toward formal abolition of the death penalty.
“It’s true that in Lebanon there are, for the time being, no executions, but there is no [official] moratorium,” said Tanya Awad Ghorra, communication officer at the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights (LACR), which organized the gathering.
The current de facto moratorium was not put into place because of humanitarian concerns but rather was politically motivated, she told The Daily Star. “It could turn upside down tomorrow, like it has done before,” Ghorra warned. “If I want to do something to scare people, let’s take five or six of them and execute them.”
A de facto moratorium on use of the death penalty has been in place since 1998, after the European Commission pushed Lebanon to ban the practice following the public hanging of Hassan Abu Jabal and Wissam Nayif Issa in Tabarja. The men’s bodies were left on display for around an hour, with their executions broadcast on Lebanese and international television channels.
The moratorium was violated in 2004 with the hanging of Ahmad Mansour, who was found guilty of killing eight people in Beirut. On the same day, Badieh Hamadeh was executed by firing squad. The executions reinvigorated the movement against capital punishment, with seven MPs proposing a draft bill which would see the practice abolished. The bill, however, was forgotten amid a serious of high-profile political assassinations in 2005, war with Israel in 2006 and ensuing sectarian violence.
Today there are 37 men on death row in Roumieh, as well as seven in Tripoli, all of whom come from impoverished and uneducated backgrounds, Ghorra said. One woman and a number of foreigners are among those on death row. They live in a schizophrenic state between life and death.
“Some of them have only gone to court once.”
One Lebanese citizen also currently faces the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for “witchcraft.” Television psychic Ali Sibat, who was arrested at his hotel room in Medina in May 2008 while in town for religious pilgrimage, was sentenced in November 2009.
Ghorra said renewed calls for an abolition of the death penalty are especially urgent as some judges have been demanding the death penalty for those found guilty of spying for Israel or belonging to the Islamist militia Fatah al-Islam, which fought the Lebanese Army in 2007.
“The death penalty kills, it’s as simple as that,” said Dr. Ogarit Younan on behalf of Walid Slaybi, who with Younan has pioneered the campaign to eradicate capital punishment since 1998. Slaybi urged Lebanon to sign up to the 2007 UN resolution calling for a moratorium on the practice, and to work toward a gradual abolition.
“The authority to kill should not be given to anyone, not to individuals, not to governments, not even to God,” Younan said.
In August 2009, the Justice Ministry launched a campaign to gain support for several draft amendments, including the formal abolition of the death penalty. Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar proposed removing articles in Lebanon’s Penal Code that allow courts to issue death sentences, saying the maximum sentence should be life with hard labor. Death sentences need the approval of the president, prime minister and justice minister.
Since Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, it has executed 51 people by hanging and firing squad. Capital punishment was frozen during the country’s 1975-1990 Civil War, and was relatively rare until 1994, when the practice was increased in a supposed effort to deter serious criminal activity.
Following lobbying by anti-death penalty campaigners, the Lebanese Parliament in 2001 voted to do away with the “the killer is to be killed” law. Nevertheless, abolition of the law did not remove capital punishment from the Lebanese penal code.
Joseph, another Roumieh prisoner on death-row, said he’s become numb since his sentencing and maintains he is innocent. “Every human being deserves a second chance.”
Agreeing with him was Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud,  who said: “We don’t want prison to be only a place of punishment, we want it to also be a place of rehabilitation.”
He and Yunan then visited three death-row inmates who had originally been expected to participate in the gathering. Their attendance was cancelled at the last minute because of “security reasons,” officials said.

Filipina worker cuts arms, jumps 7 floors, left on street more than hour

6 Jan

The first Monday of the new year was a grim day here in Lebanon. My friend and fellow journalist Matthew Cassel tweeted about a commotion (warning: graphic photos) near his house in Sanayeh, Beirut. Without even seeing what had happened, he said he already knew: a migrant domestic worker had killed herself. Sadly, this is all too common- since October, at least 30 migrant women (and one man) have reportedly died, mostly by suicide.

Following Cassel’s tip-off, I traveled to the scene, where more than one hour and a half later after jumping to her death, the crumpled body of 28-year old Filipina Theresa Otero Seda was still lying face-down on the pavement, covered with a thin white plastic sheet. It had taken an ambulance around one hour to reach the scene, where a crowd of curious bystanders, four officials from the Philippine Embassy and three policemen had gathered. According to Cassel, the street of the incident wasn’t cordoned off for some time, with cars speeding along the street and almost running over Theresa’s corpse, unaware of what lay under the bag (though of course if they respected the speed limits it would have been clear). One woman driving a school bus apparently stopped almost next to the body to ask for directions. “Someone’s just died here,” she was told. “Huh,” she replied. “So how did you say I am supposed to get to destination X?”

Theresa landed on a slight incline, and her blood had trickled down the pavement. Her right hand poked out from under the sheeting, slightly curled inwards. In full view of the public, the forensic team removed the plastic sheeting and turned her over. Her face had been smashed into an unrecognizable collection of bone and blood: a sickening sight that seems to have been burnt into my mind. Forensics let her lie on the road for a while, taking photos and allowing photojournalists to take a few snaps and giving the public a good look. I felt humiliated for her.

After a while the ambulance staff placed her crumpled, tiny body on a stretcher (without wheels) and carried her towards the entrance of the building, I’m assuming to investigate in a more discreet environment. They reversed the ambulance into the area to try to block off the site. But as they put Theresa on the ground and began to remove her shirt and trousers, I could see everything. I watched with horror as they wiped her face and arms down with Kleenex tissue, and I saw more than I should have been allowed when they turned her over and removed her bra. Again I felt humiliated for her: even in death, she wasn’t treated with due respect . She was practically stripped naked for the world to gawp at.

I managed to speak to her employer, who was standing around at the scene fiddling with his mobile phone. At times he seemed concerned, but at one point he shared a laugh with another man. About what, I don’t know. After telling me the insurance and embassy would take care of everything (aka, repatriating Theresa’s body), he said:  “This is the point- I used to leave my two children with her.” What does that mean, I thought. “So, you won’t be doing that again with future employers?” I asked him. “No way,” was his response.

Unfortunately, it appears Theresa arrived in Lebanon illegally (please excuse the error in first sentence), defying a deployment ban by Manila to work here. “Responsibility will have to be borne by those who brought her here,” Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Gilberto Asuque told me later, mentioning the Lebanese agency that recruited the young woman.

Theresa arrived two months ago and leaves behind a partner and three young daughters. Even though she had no dignity even in death, I hope she now has the peace she deserved in life. Let her miserable and wholly avoidable demise be the long-awaited wake-up call to the Lebanese authorities that they must protect women like Theresa from the isolation, desperation and, in many cases, the rights abuses that push them over the edge.