Monday, 16 July 2012

Vitaly Danilenko- Soldier in an alien land

A Russian soldier who grew up in the USA has deserted his conscript service in Siberia, reports Russia's channel 1.

Vitaly Danilenko had spent his first sixteen years in Alaska before moving with his parents to Russia’s eastern Altai region just two years ago. When he turned eighteen he was sent to be a conscript soldier in Novosibirsk in Siberia.

After just two weeks with the unit he deserted. He has apparently called his sister to say he is alright but that he won’t be going back to the army. Despite intensive phone calls and searches Vitaly’s number is unavailable and his whereabouts are unknown.

The main problem seems to be the huge language barrier faced by the eighteen year old. He had not learnt much Russian by the time he was conscripted. That meant, as his fellow soldiers said, that he couldn’t interact with his officers or other soldiers. When it came to his swearing in ceremony Vitaly had to painstakingly memorise each syllable of his oath. Some of his fellow soldiers tried to speak to him in English.

His parents had tried to explain to officers about his language barrier and requested that he be given some other duty. But they hadn’t been told that if they had wanted that they should have applied for it at least half a year before. They were informed that Vitaly had no way out and that Russian conscription law knows no concept of a ‘language barrier.’

Vitaly’s commander says that he struggled with his language barrier. He was given extra sessions with a psychologist but he was mostly silent in them. His commander went on to say that he didn’t understand why Vitaly couldn’t talk to him. His parents explained that he was shy but his commander says that, “other soldiers managed to talk with me, so why is Vitaly afraid? Apparently the language barrier still has an effect.”

There are no reports of problems or bullying at the base.

Thousands of conscripts reportedly flee their units annually due to bullying and poor conditions. In 2009 official statistics showed that 149 Russian soldiers killed themselves. Soldiers' families say that complaints rarely get anywhere. More soldiers die each year in reported accidents and incidents. The Committee of Soldiers Mothers, a group set up to try and protect the rights of soldiers, says many of these suicides and deaths are just cover ups for the fact that soldiers are beaten to death. In 2012 Ruslan Aiderkhanov, a conscript from Russia's central Chelyabinsk region was raped and tortured to death by his seniors. The lone witness who testified against the alleged perpetrators, Danil Chalkin was later found shot dead in his military base. A contract soldier, Alikbek Musabekov was later arrested in connection with the incident.

Unofficial figures put the number of Russian army deserters being searched for in 2011 as high as ten thousand. Russia's ministry of defence says the statistics relating to desertion are closed information. A criminal case is underway into Vitaly’s desertion. If found guilty he could face up to seven years in prison.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Russian Floods- An unnecessary tragedy

It is hot, and the room is crowded. Around the walls sit eight or so police officers behind desks, sweating as they shuffle papers. In front of them a stream of people move to sit, hunched over forms, trying to work out what to write in the heat and the noise.

It is July 2012, and these people are documenting the destruction of their lives.

On the night of Friday the 6th of July, about 1am, a surge of water swept into the town of Krymsk in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region, near the Black Sea coast. The next few hours were filled with terror for the residents of the town. Witness after witness described, not a steady rise but a wave of water spilling down streets and into houses. It reached up to the tops of first story windows, in some places much more, up to 7 metres high. It tore up paving slabs and traffic lights on the streets, lifted people from their beds up to their ceilings, flipped over cars and vans and strew debris through people’s gardens and homes.

By the time the waters receded on Saturday afternoon the true extent of the tragedy was apparent. Many houses in the town are built chiefly of wood. They collapsed completely under the weight of the water, soaking, smashing or carrying away everything they had inside. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands were damaged leaving thousands of people homeless. One lady, Lyudmila, told me of her ordeal-

“The water came up to the windows and the house started to fall apart. I dashed outside and, fighting to hold onto the fence, dragged myself along it until I reached a neighbour’s house with a fence tall and strong enough. I hauled myself on top of it and sat their all night as the flood water surged around me. I was terrified I was going to fall in as I would certainly have drowned.”

When she returned Lyudmila realised everything was destroyed. Outside in her yard her cooker, washing machine and TV were covered in the layer of mud which lay on the streets and floors all around. The roof was on the ground with the walls collapsed outwards. Her furniture had been smashed to pieces. All she had managed to salvage were half a dozen pots and pans.

Lyudmila Haralampidi's house collapsed around her. She only just escaped.

This was Lyudmila's living room.

This was her kitchen.

Everyone else, wherever I went among the lower lying parts of the town faced the same situation. One old lady came up to me looking completely bewildered. “Where can I find some food or some shelter?” she asked. She didn’t seem to hear the answer. Fighting back her tears she just said, “The water came within 2 hours. How many years is it going to take me to rebuild my house?”

But the most terrible losses weren’t belongings or homes. As of writing nearly 200 people died in the floods, mostly in Krymsk but also in nearby areas. Most of them were very old or young, too weak to escape when they awoke to the rising waters in the middle of the night. The terror of those terrible hours was etched on people’s faces. The force of the water meant front doors couldn’t be opened. No open spaces could be crossed without being swept away. One old lady, Ekaterina, spoke of waking to the sound of her dog’s crazed barking-

“He was tied up and as the waters rose he knew he was going to drown. As I put my foot over the edge of the bed I was knee deep in water. I have two dogs and six cats. I clawed at the dog’s rope, I don’t know how I managed to undo the knot. The cats were all on top of the wardrobe. I snatched them down and started getting them all up to roof. The water was rising so fast, up to my shoulders. I managed to get up there with them too. Only my chickens I couldn’t save.”

Ekaterina was lucky. Emergency workers were sifting through the wreckage of collapsed houses, picking out bodies. In the first day after the floods many bodies were left in the streets under blankets until authorities figured out what to do with them. The bodies of animals and livestock also lay about.

Bodies were loaded into ambulances which kept coming in convoy for the funerals.

Krymsk was left without gas, electricity, fresh water or landline telephone connection. There was hardly any food to be found. So where were the authorities? You would have expected people in Krymsk to be in despair, in shock, in confusion. They were certainly hungry, thirsty and exhausted. But the chief emotion that stood out more than any other was anger.

People queuing for food at one of the distribution centres. They were hot, tired, exhausted and angry.

Firstly they were angry about the lack of warning. The local authorities later mumbled something about a TV ticker announcement or some other half hearted attempts. People were asleep. They knew nothing of the oncoming waters. What later emerged was that the authorities had known about the surge of water a whole three hours before it reached Krymsk. When challenged by the townspeople, Krasnodar regional governor Alexander Tkachev lashed out at them, shouting, “What were we supposed to do? Go door to door!” No wonder people were so enraged.

Secondly people were angry at the slow response of the emergency services. With no food and water, and no way of getting any, people were in a desperate situation in the day or so after the flood arrived. Apart from a command centre there seemed hardly enough emergency workers out on the streets helping people. By the third day after the flood the operation had seemed to gain more momentum. People were grateful for the help they got, but it took too long to come they said, at the time when it was needed most.

A local church gathering and sending out food for people as fast as they could.

An emergencies ministry camp. People said they were grateful for the help in cleaning up when they did arrived, but that should have been a lot sooner.

Thirdly nobody that I spoke to believed the official line about what caused the flood. Officials said that it was just a natural freak after more than a month’s rain fell in just a few hours. It is true the region’s hydrology means some flooding here happens every year, but not like this, not with 7 metre waves with the water coming in and then flowing away so fast. Locals thought the Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir and its dam upstream opened its sluice gates. That could have been, they said, to protect bigger towns like the popular holiday resort Gelendzhik or the port of Novorossiisk. Local authorities deny that, with a variety of confused announcements from ‘the sluices did open but they wouldn’t release enough water to create a flood’ to ‘no sluices were opened, it was an emergency overflow system’ to ‘the reservoir had no sluices and released no water’ ending up in just ‘we rule this possibility out’. Nobody I spoke to was having any of it.

People were sceptical about other things too. Many believed there were far more dead than the official death toll of 171. Others told me that disaster money, 10,000 roubles (£200), was only being handed out if locals signed documents saying that they had been given a warning. That, even though there had already been an official admission, and a district chief had been fired, for the lack of warning. Even though it wasn’t possible to corroborate these stories the overwhelming sense is that nobody believed the authorities had done enough, and their anger was palpable.

Bodies were being kept in these refrigerated lorries. There was no space anywhere else.

A van with pictures of people's faces, bloated by hours under water, to try and identify them.

To see the true physical cost of the Krymsk flood I travelled to the town’s mortuary. There the bodies were being kept in refrigerated supermarket lorries because there was no refrigerated space inside. It was a disturbing sight, but must have been more so for the distraught relatives waiting outside. One by one the bodies were carried out of the back of the lorries, past pictures of bloated human faces used to try and identify the dead, and loaded into coffins. Tractors were hastily digging extra graves at the town’s cemetery.

The police room where people were coming to register all the things, or people, they had lost.

For the emotional cost I only needed to talk to one of the grieving. People who had a missing relative or who wanted to report someone dead also came to that same hot, stressful and claustrophobic police room. Sitting in an office above were Natalia Nesteryenko and Oksana Gorbunova. Quietly and solemnly they told their parts of the tale.

When the flood waters came Oksana’s husband, police officer Vyacheslav Gorbunov jumped straight into his car and drove to the lower part of the town. When the waters rose too high he abandoned the car and went on foot. He picked up some children in the darkness and the surging water and took them to safety. One was Natalia’s ten year old daughter Tatiana. She was terrified about the fate of her daughter but didn’t know who had saved her. When she asked Tatiana who had rescued her she replied that it was a ,”Mr policeman,” but didn’t remember his name. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she thanked Oksana. “Without your husband’s help my daughter and all those kids would have died.”

Vyacheslav’s body was found some hours later. He had been overcome by the force of the water.

His widow Oksana cried too. But she was calm and, as she said, she knew he would never have acted any other way, “he wouldn’t just pass someone by who was in trouble. It was in his nature.”

Clothes were being donated from across other towns and cities. Food and supplies were being given out and debris cleared by volunteers, mostly from local towns. Friends, families and neighbours were starting to try and rebuild their homes and their lives. People have been promised around 170,000 roubles (£3300) to help rebuild their houses in the long run. There will be an inquiry into how and why it happened and there will be memorials to the great flood of 2012. But people here will keep asking one simple question. Why did all these sacrifices, all this death, all this destruction have to happen in the first place.


Friday, 6 July 2012

Bozons and Bozos- A particle article

It was like one of those physics lessons near the end of term when the teacher lets the students stray from their textbooks. Such was the atmosphere when journalists gathered for the momentous announcement from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that they had found the famous Higgs Boson 'god particle'. Well they hadn't actually found it. They were very sure they had found a new particle consistent with their expectations of the Higgs Boson. That sentence probably helps to explain why scientists never seem to give journalists the soundbites they want. I blame us journalists for being too much like the eager kids in that end of term class. Too impatient for simple answers and too ready to jump to conclusions. If only we could all be particle physicists.
After a short preamble, this is how the erudite head of CERN, Rolf Heuer put it, toungue in cheek-

"Today is also a special day because we hear two presentations from the two experiments ATLAS and CMS on their update on a search for a certain particle (laughter from the audience), I forgot the name (more laughter)."

The search for the Higgs Boson has been, as the scientists' presentation said, the work of thousands of people over many years, and lots of hours without sleep as they were probably justified in pointing out. They have been searching not just for the mysterious Higgs Boson particle, but specifically for the 'Standard Model Higgs'. This is important, as the scientists repeatedly pointed out. There is not just the particle, but also the theoretical model about its properties that the British scientist Peter Higgs has become so famous for. As they put it-

"We have a discovery. We have discovered a new particle, a Boson. Most probably a Higgs Boson but we have to find out which kind of Higgs Boson this is. Does it have the properties which we expect from the Standard model?"

Next came the questions from journalists. And the first, wonderfullly straightforward, ended, "so what would you have us write, have you found the Higgs or what?"

What the team are more than 99% (but not quite 100%) sure of is that after hundreds of painstaking measurements they have indeed found a new particle never discovered before. This alone is a great discovery for science. It also seems likely that is is the famed Higgs Boson which could tell us so much about how our universe works and about why particles have mass. But scientists weren't going to give the journalists the easy headline they wanted. It was 'too early to say' they cautioned, to discern if it was really the particle they expected it to be. That would require years more work examining its properties.

Ok, so more work is needed to work out what exactly the scientists have found. So what, even roughly, is this particle and what does it tell us?

In response to such a question the panel turned the press' curiosity back on itself. Imagine-

"You take a large room with journalists (laughter of course), and they are all equally distributed in the room. This is the field which would give mass to elementary particles through the interaction of these particles with the field. Somebody, who is completely unknown to the journalists can go through this field, through the journalists, with the speed of light, that means that person would have zero mass. The more known you are, the more journalists are clustering around you. That means you get slower, you don't reach the velocity of light, you acquire mass. The better known you are to the journalists, the more massive you are! You saw this when you were coming in here, Peter Higgs was pretty heavy!"

But, he went on....

"Now that doesn't tell you anything about this Boson yet, but this field of journalists obviously has an interaction in between itself and this self interaction can produce this Higgs Boson. How can I imagine that? Imagine I (Rolf Heuer) open the door and I whisper a rumour into the room. Then the journalists are curious. They cluster, 'what did he say?' This cluster of journalists is the Higgs Boson.

That's easy! That's particle physics for laymen without a single equation." (as you can imagine, more laughter!)

Well, I must admit I myself was only partly enlightened by that, amusing as it was. The metaphor wasn't succinct enough even for the now chuckling assembled journalists. The questions kept coming and the requests for simplification and metaphors. But I suppose us mere mortals must accept that some things on earth are just are immensely complicated and there simply isn't enough time in the physics lesson for us to get to the bottom of it. When the panel was asked for their favourite and least favourite metaphors about the Higgs Boson, they apologised but said they had no metaphors for what they had found. 

Rather like at the end of that (metaphorical) physics lesson, the questions could only go so far. Us laymen at the end had to be content with accepting that 'it', whatever it was, had been found. Thanks to the scientists (and perhaps the journalists a bit too) we probably understand a bit more about what the Higgs Boson was, is and could be. But until next time, this physics lesson has ended on a triumphant (if a little confusing) high 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Russia's human rights and public fights

Russia's presidential council on human rights has, at least on the outside, worked out some sort of agreement with the Kremlin over how its members will be selected. After a week of negotiations, fears of internet election of members, with all its attendant arbitrariness, have been allayed. Instead internet discussions will be presented to president Vladimir Putin along with the council's nominations for consideration. 

But the future of the council is still much in doubt with resignations over the new system and the disregard the council has been shown. 

In a further blow to the already weakened council last week three more of its members resigned in protest at a the mechanism for choosing members which they and others who have left before them say will effectively neuter the council, despite its modifications.

Igor Yurgens of Russia’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and human rights activists Valentin Gefter and Boris Pustyntsev walked out of the council in disgust at the new selection system which, in Yurgen’s words would create a, “quasi-democratic,” and not a real democratic selection. Many are angry that the president will be able to choose who actually makes up the council. Gefter added that the Kemlin’s uncompromising stance on the issue is, “proof that it would not be possible to work with such administrators in the service of the president.” 

It was for this reason that Lyudmila Alexeeyeva, the famous human rights activist and head of the Moscow-Helsinki human rights group resigned her position a week earlier. The continued pushing of this system lead to the latest walkouts, though some members, including Aleexeyeva say they may return if the new system produces a council that is not a mockery of human rights.

These are the latest of seventeen such resignations which put serious doubt over the future of the advisory body. The council’s chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, who only yesterday warned that a proposed new law directed at NGOs in Russia was ‘extremely dangerous’, has said that he would resign if the membership of the council fell below 20 members. It now has just 23 out of an original 40. 

The Council has advised on the cases of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer widely suspected of having been beaten to death by guards in his prison cell, and of Mikhail Khodokovsky, the controversial oligarch imprisoned on fraud charges but widely suspected to be the victim of political vengeance from the Kremlin. In both cases the council's recommendations lead to no change in the respective situations. More recently the council, which can only make non-binding recommendations, warned that a new law massively increasing fines for violations in public protests was unconstitutional. It was ignored. 

Some council members say they are happy with the new system and few disagree that hearing the public's voice would be a good thing. But others say that public involvement is not the issue. They warn that unless there are major improvements in the council's situation and effectiveness in the next few months at maximum it faces the real prospect of being abandoned altogether.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

An orthodox paranoia?- The 'foreign agents' in Russia

Even the Russian Orthodox Church could be considered a 'foreign agent' under the wording of this law, said Fedotov.

The Chairman of Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, has hit back at a proposed law which would crack down on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and force them to describe themselves as ‘foreign agents’.

Speaking to the Interfax news agency Fedotov, a former lawyer famous for writing Russia’s media law after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the proposed new legislation is, “extremely dangerous.”

Under the new law any NGO which receives foreign funding and engages in ‘political activity’ would have to register and from then on describe itself as a ‘foreign agent’.

They would have to publish reports on their activities every six months and undergo a compulsory audit once a year.

If the law is passed failure to do this would result in heavy fines and imprisonment.

Human rights groups are shocked by the proposed law, calling it a violation of democratic standards. Human Rights Watch in Russia remarked that this new law is reminiscent of state paranoia in the USSR in the 1930s.

The problem with the bill is in wording, Fedotov told reporters. The definitions can be used to target whoever the state wants. Under the new law, he pointed out, even the Russian Orthodox Church should rightly be considered a ‘foreign agent’. They receive money through foreign diocese and have church ecclesiastics who are responsible for interaction with the authorities. That is what would enable the law to be used to suppress human rights and NGOs, warned Fedotov.

The Russian Duma Deputy who drafted the law, Aleksandr Sidyakin, is the same man behind recent legislation which raised the fines for violations in public protests from around 100 euros up to 7000 euros and even more for protest organizers. That legislation caused outrage from human rights groups and furious arguments in parliament.

Sidyakin says the law would promote the, “national interests and sovereignty of Russia.” In the wake of protests against alleged mass vote rigging in Russian parliamentary elections in 2011, Vladimir Putin lashed out at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying she was to blame for instigating protests deigned to destabilize Russia. Clinton and other US officials repeatedly denied any involvement.

Groups within Russia and around the world take this as a sign of official suspicion of the West and its motives.

Sidyakin says that’s about right, seeing it as, “obvious that in Russia there is a whole network of non-governmental organizations whose paid activity raises suspicions about the aims of the client.”

Mikhail Fedotov says the Presidential Council on Human Rights will scrutinize the bill, but warns that the group has been much weakened after half its members left in disgust after more accusations of electoral fraud. The Council can only make non-binding recommendations on law and human rights and its findings have been largely ignored in the past.