With prospects of victory looking slim, Ukrainians are waiting – in hope rather than in confidence.
It was a strange but almost comical scene.
A dog was running towards me across Kyiv’s central landmark, Independence Square. And trying with some difficulty to restrain the animal, on a long lead, was the dog’s new master, 26-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash, Ukraine’s youngest member of parliament.
He had been driven from Kyiv to Bucha just after the Russian troops had pulled out, and saw bodies on the street and other evidence of atrocities. Special forces had broken in to a locked house to find the owner dead on the floor, and his dog alongside. Miserable and half-starved, the dog started yelping.
Soldiers, who had house-to-house searches and booby-trap clearance to prioritise, suggested the animal should be eliminated. Instead, Sviatoslav persuaded them to let him bundle the dog into his vehicle. In Kyiv,the dog was given its new name. The two have become closely bonded.
Sviatoslav has another claim to fame: eight years ago, he returned from a scholarship in India, aged 18, to take part in a huge popular uprising in this same square, against a Ukrainian president who was little more than a Russian puppet.
Brave and fluent in English, Sviatoslav became the revolution’s unofficial foreign press spokesman. More than 100 protesters died in months of unrest in that uprising, now also commemorated in the road in front of the Square, called The Alley of the Hundred Heroes. Sviatoslav showed me the cartoons that now adorn the square and large signs, telling the revolutionaries’ story in graphic detail.
The Russian puppet regime was toppled in early 2014. That triggered a series of events that led that year to the Russians occupying two key parts of the Ukrainian territory: the Crimean peninsula, and parts of Dombas in the east.
Yurash belongs to President Zelensky’s ruling party, Servant of the People – incidentally, the same name as the popular television show about a comedian who becomes Ukraine’s president. (Life imitated art — the star of that show was Zelensky).
Today, Yurash is livid. He’s been reading reports that the French and the Germans, and even some American voices, reflected in the New York Times, are suggesting Ukraine should offer to cede territory in the east and south in return for peace.
“Those who suggest this are nothing more than useful idiots,” he snaps. “Useful, that is, to Putin, subversive of our chances of success.” He argues that Ukrainians, if given Western support that includes full economic and military pressure, can and will eventually regain all the territories Ukraine has lost so far in this war, and even much, if not all, of the land occupied in 2014. And in any case, that even if Russia accepted ‘land for peace’, it would just lead to Russia launching new aggression within months or years.
I had first met Yurash and dog in early April just after a very memorable Shabbat. After a food-deprived night train journey from the Polish border through Lviv (Lvov), I had arrived at a city that was close to shut-down. The station was considered a military target – no photos allowed of an old steam train – as people wondered if the Russian forces had really withdrawn from their spearhead 30 kilometres north. One boy, about five, was calling for his mother and father; no-one had told him they were both dead.
I eventually found a small place serving coffee, no cake.
On that trip it was noticeable that fear was turning to exultation as the Russian failure to reach Kyiv became clearer and the extent of Putin’s losses were revealed. There was also shock and horror at the reports of its atrocities in Bucha and other just-liberated cities.
Now I was back for a third time. Even though the city itself was very seldom being struck by missiles (one or two sirens a day, ignored by most people) the mood was feeling grim again. The situation in the east was precarious. And the brave resistance at the destroyed southern port of Mariupul had finally collapsed.
Getting an interview with President Zelensky was proving impossible – “he is rather busy,” said the young MP with considerable under-statement. But I felt getting the capital city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko was an equally big scoop.
Last week he agreed. Inside a high-security sandbagged building – Klitschko like Zelensky is thought to be a prime target for Russian assassination efforts — the famous former world heavyweight boxing champion explained why despite some setbacks he is confident of ultimate victory.
“Firstly, no-one would launch this kind of war in 21st century Europe unless he’s suffering from a very sick mind,” he told me. “And secondly, our people fighting for our homes and our lives. I ask Russian soldiers: is it worth it to die here in a foreign land far from your homes?”
The mayor adds: “I have Russian blood in my veins. My mother is Russian, and speaks no Ukrainian, by the way. I cannot hate my mother. How can I hate Russians? I just hate what they do.”
Klitschko, whose daily energies are devoted to bringing in and supplying food and electricity and shore up military defences, has become so disillusioned with the Russians that he ordered “with great reluctance” the dismantling of a famous landmark in his city. Underneath the Friendship Arch lay a huge statue of two men facing each other, arms held aloft — the Soviet-era Statue of Friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian Peoples.
“When Russians have killed tens of thousands of my people, including so many civilians, and when they want to destroy my entire country, this is not the time to have statues about our so-called friendship,” he tells me.
He and his younger brother Wladimir — they never boxed against each other because, they told me, their mother ordered them not to — together dominated world heavyweight boxing for more than a decade.
Boxing has taught lessons in persistence and tactical nous that have proved useful in combating the Russian invasion, the mayor tells me. “And I’ve learned not to judge from appearances – some macho people crumbled, and some mild and meek people turned into lions here.”
Like most Ukrainians, the Klitschkos are contemptuous of Germany and France for continuing to pay billions for Russian gas and oil, feeding its war machine. But, says Vitali, “I love Boris”. He pens a message, on a set of Klitschko official-tribute postage stamps, writing: “To Boris”. He dates it and draws a heart.
In the streets there similar determination but somewhat less confidence. A taxi driver tells me you can avoid conscription into the army if you have the right connections or the right large sum of money. “I love my country, but I don’t want to die,” the taxi-driver says.
A well-connected couple tells me: “We know things are being kept from the public, and it’s good they think we’re going to win. But the truth will start to filter through to them within a month.” They left the country by train a few days later.
Reports of troop movements around the Belarus border suggest a new Russian attempt will be made to drive south and, this time, penetrate into Kyiv. Social media is abuzz with these reports, urging people to retreat to their underground shelters again. The army counters that it’s false propaganda spread by Russian psy-ops. Who knows?
“Of course, as the capital city, we remain a top Russian target,” says Wladimir Klitschko. The idea of another thrust fills many people with justified dread.
I make my second trip to Bucha and Irpin, satellite towns about twenty miles north of Kyiv. The famous bridge near Irpin over the Dnepr River was destroyed by Ukrainian explosives, not by the Russians, to prevent the invaders thrusting further towards Kyiv. Already a new temporary bridge is carrying traffic across into the satellite towns.
In Bucha, the railway station has been reopened, and, nearby, where destroyed Russian tanks have now been removed, I buy a few frozen pastries from a bakery that’s going to open its doors to customers within days. Not much else is working, apart from a gym. But electricity is running again – supplied now Mayor Klitschko has erected cables from Kyiv.
In a nearby village I walk through ruined apartment buildings, and despite the Russians having laid it waste more than two months ago, the smell of burning and charred remains still lingers. An enterprising builder has put up a notice on cardboard saying: “Windows replaced: cheap prices.” Despite a trickle of people driving past to inspect their ruined apartments there’s no sign that the builder will be doing much trade soon.
I’m in the company of Viktor Synytsky, aged 43, who shows me where he escaped death because his Russian jailers fled during a Ukrainian bombardment. In a cellar nearby I can see and film blood and bullet-holes – Ukrainian police had found the bodies of five men held prisoner there by the occupation forces.
I later visited a local blogger who has taken in two boys whose mother was allegedly killed in her apartment by Russians. At her temporary graveside, alongside their apartment block, the distraught confused child had brought his mother some food. The five-year-old refused to talk at all for a month. Now, he chatted and laughed as we sang Happy Birthday over a small cake, as his brother turned eleven.
I also met a Ukrainian officer, Matvey Dykhanvovskyi, who had gone into Russian-held Irpin on a reconnaissance mission and when challenged had shot three Russians at close range. He showed me the knife he said he’d taken from one of them. Matvey suffered from severe symptoms of shock for days afterwards.
If things remain gloomy in these shattered towns, the sense of foreboding is even worse in villages and towns in the east. Russian forces are making sporadic but steady progress in their blunt tactics of concentrating huge bombardments and slow moves of infantry. And in the south, after the fall of Mariupul, the Russians have a major supply line to the east, and have shut off all the Black Sea ports to the west of Crimea, ensuring a disaster for the export of grain.
Kyiv itself is sunny and astonishingly well-kept – no rubbish whatsoever in the streets or gutters, for example. Cafes, supermarkets, phone-shops and even barbers and hairdressers have reopened. Things though, are not normal. Sandbags are stacked at restaurant doors and at places of worship, and many ‘hedgehogs’ (X-shaped metal barriers) restrict passage in many places. There’s an 11 pm strict curfew. Posters and electronic signs proclaim the heroism of the soldiers and declare: Glory to Ukraine – the same statement that ends many conversations.
Most statues remain literally under wraps – protected as far as possible against shrapnel from any future rocket or missile attacks. (Nothing can protect them from a direct hit.)
Kyiv had a population of 4 million and though the main train station is bustling with returning refugees, well over a million are not back. Millions have been displaced, and millions have left the war-torn country altogether – including the majority of the Jewish community.
On the wall of the Chabad synagogue run by the city’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Inna was a photograph of its football team. I asked Rabbi Jonathan – who served twelve years in the Israeli air force — how many of the football team players were now in Kyiv. None, was the answer.
“They’re shooting at me with my own rockets,” exclaims an elderly gentleman in a smart Kyiv apartment. Boris Prister, 87, shows me photos of his various international trips – something not allowed in Soviet times for most people. He had become the deputy chief of a secret Soviet production facility for missiles, based in Moscow, and had designed a key part.
He is offered a food parcel, which he and his wife say they don’t really need — and the opportunity to put on tefillin for the first time in his life. His wife scowls and he says: “Perhaps next time”.
Two days before the Russian attack, the leadership in the army and in politics were assuring everone that there would be no invasion. Then, amid the shock of the first few days of the war, the Ukrainian intelligence service heard that, in particular, rabbis would be attacked by Russian agents provocateurs.
“They told us once we rabbis and their families were attacked the Russians would claim the Ukrainians were killing Jews – to back their propaganda that labelled Ukraine as a Nazi-led state,” Kiev’s chief rabbi Jonathan Markovitch told me.
Special agents gave them ten minutes to pack their documents and grab some frozen bread, recalled the rabbi. The rabbinic families were then spirited out of the country on a long hair-raising high-speed convoy, overtaking thousands of fleeing Ukrainian vehicles. “It was like the exodus from Egypt,” the Rabbi says. “Except we were not fleeing from a Ukrainian pharaoh, just a Russian one!”
As the Russian advance stalled the Rabbi and his wife returned.
“The courage needed here is different to the kind I had to develop in the Israeli air force,” Rabbi Jonathan concluded. “To help other people is not just something I can do, it’s something I must do, at all costs.”
But much of his community has fled. Next morning the once bustling Shabbat service was one short of a minyan.
The ebullient Post Office chief Igor Smelyanksy is not as upbeat as before.
He’s done a poll to see if the next stamp he issues should show Putin in chains. Instead the public voted to display a dog called ‘Bullet’ that has become a sensation because he’s trained to sniff out hidden bombs and booby-traps. “I expected the anti-Putin stamp would get the most votes, but no. So it shows the nation’s not dwelling on hate, it’s looking for some form of hope and positivity,” Smelyansky says.
That positivity is hard to find though. Most businesses are shut or struggling to survive. I hear that a top legal firm has just laid off two senior staff, and a woman lawyer working there tells me she’s relieved to still be working, though her salary has been cut from 5 thousand dollars a month to one thousand. Despite their plight, people are friendly and kind.
The city is making efforts to bolster morale. Some of the ruined Russian tanks I first encountered on the road to Bucha and Irpin have been deposited in a square right opposite St Michael’s golden-domed church, along with samples of the casings of Russian rockets and missiles. On weekends, the public is out in force here — to exult. Posters on the relics appeal for volunteer foreign soldiers to sign up for the fighting.
One foreign fighter on the eastern front-lines sends me graphic WhatsApps, including a video of a captured Russian soldier being interrogated. That soldier “did not live much longer,” the foreign fighter says, without being more specific.
Less dramatic, domestic soldiery makes the biggest impression on me.
Alex Flolov is just 20, and each early morning patrols his square mile of apartment blocks, alongside Kyiv’s no-longer-working zoo — looking, he says, for spies. The Russians, he says, are infiltrating people to seek out where next to attack. He shows me a crater from a missile strike. Part of it struck a children’s playground, and holes are gauged in the wooden slides. No children died here – it was hit at 6 a.m.
“They will never crush our spirit,” says Alex. “But we’re ready for worse.”
When Nelson Mandela was being buried, I could have gone to the funeral in Qunu, with a much-coveted media badge allowing me access. Instead, I chose to visit a grave of even greater significance to me: my father’s.
On October 13, Ali Azhar, 45, kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and “married” Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl. On that same day, her parents registered a kidnapping case with local police.
Two days later, on October 15, “we were summoned to the station,” explained her father Raja Lal, “where we were shown documents which claimed that Arzoo was 18 and had willingly converted to Islam after marrying Ali Azhar.”
Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority records Arzoo as being born on July 31, 2007 and is therefore 13 years old. Sexual intercourse with girls under 16 is statutory rape and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison in Pakistan.
Howeverm on October 27 the High Court of Sindh ruled in favour of the kidnapper/husband by relying on a Sharia stipulation that abrogates all the rules for those who convert to Islam. According to the court order,
“The petitioner [the 13-year-old] initially belonged to the Christian religion. However, after the passage of time, the petitioner understood and realized that Islam is a universal religion and she asked her parents and other family members to embrace Islam but they flatly refused.
“Subsequently she accepted the religion of Islam before the religious person of Madressah Jamia Islamia. After embracing Islam, her new name is Arzoo Faatima; per learned counsel, petitioner contracted her marriage to Azhar of her own free will and accord without duress and fear.”
On hearing this decision, Rita Masih, the girl’s mother — who was apparently banned from entering the courthouse and who, with her husband, had fallen at and “even touched the feet of police to meet their daughter” — cried for her daughter with open arms outside the courthouse: “Arzoo, come to your mama. He will kill you.” She eventually fainted on the pavement.
Earlier, when the girl saw and tried to go to her mother, her Muslim abductor/husband snatched and took her into the courtroom.
Discussing this matter, Samson Salamat, the Christian chairman of an interreligious organization, stated how he felt about the position taken by the court:
“I am distressed and disappointed with the position taken by the honorable court. A sexual act with a minor is felony even if she is willing. The court has validated a rape despite the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 that punishes contractors of child marriage with up to three years’ imprisonment.
“Can a judge, an army officer or a Pakistani politician tolerate handing over their minor daughter to a middle-aged man? What is the future of minority girls in Pakistan? Our courts favor the powerful. We still don’t have strong calls from a joint minority platform on forced conversions.”
This is the second recent forced conversion and marriage of an underage Christian girl in Karachi.
To justify marriage to Huma Younus — a 14-year-old Christian girl who was also abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and wed to a Muslim man — on February 3, 2020, the Sindh high court in Karachi ruled that men may marry underage girls once they have their period, in direct compliance with Islamic sharia law, but against Karachi’s own laws.
“Our daughters are insecure and abused in this country,” Huma’s mother later remarked. “They are not safe anywhere. We leave them at schools or home but they are kidnapped, raped, humiliated, and forced to convert to Islam.”
Similarly, in August 2020, Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash — her kidnapper, whom the Lahore High Court had recently ruled is her legitimate husband despite her and her family’s objections.
She fled to a police station, where she gave testimony that included how she was being “forced into prostitution” and “filmed while by being raped,” accompanied by threats that the video would be published unless she complied with the demands of her rapist/husband and friends. “They threatened to murder my whole family,” the girl said.
“My life was at stake in the hands of the accused and Nakash repeatedly raped me forcefully.” She and her family are currently in hiding.
In a separate incident of what is described as “religious hatred” in Pakistan, a Muslim man and his son beat and humiliated a Christian woman in public for arguing with him.
On October 12, Balqees Bibi, the Christian woman, called out in public to a relative — whose name is distinctly Christian — thereby angering Muhammad Abass Butt.
“Abbas was [always] full of religious hatred against my mother,” her son explained. “He often expressed his anger against Christians in the street, but everyone ignored him to avoid disputes.” On that day, “Abbas started abusing my mother saying, ‘Oh choori! Shut your mouth!’ When she argued with him, he slapped her and dragged her into the street.”
The report adds:
“Abbas was angry that Bibi, a person he considered socially lower than him due to her religious identity, had argued with him in public. As Abbas beat Bibi, he also used an extremely derogatory slur for Christians which labels them as untouchables. After the attack, Bibi and her family registered a police complaint against Abbas (FIR # 372/20). However, there police have yet to arrest Abbas or his son who reportedly joined his father in beating Bibi.”
The first Arab professional on the Ladies’ European Tour says Saudi Arabia is making “improvements” as it prepares to host its first women’s golf events.
The Saudi Ladies International starts today (November 17 2020) with a separate team event set to take place from 17 November.
Professional women’s golf has never taken place before in the kingdom, which has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.
“To me it’s huge improvement,” said Moroccan professional Maha Haddioui.
“To be part of something so huge, a moment in history, to me it’s a new Saudi when it comes to a lot of things and to be part of that is really big.”
A prize find of $1m (£750,000) is in place for the this week’s singles tournament at Royal Greens Golf Club.
Saudi Arabia, which recently announced it will host its first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2021, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its staging of major sporting events, with human rights organisations such as Amnesty International saying the country is seeking to ‘sportswash’ its reputation, the BBC reports.
Amnesty’s head of campaigns has said sporting fixtures such as moor racing’s Formula One events offer the Saudis “a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation”.
The Saudi Ladies International was due to take place in March until the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement. At the time England’s Meghan MacLaren had said she would boycott the event for the ‘sportswashing’ reasons mentioned by Amnesty and others.
Until 2018 women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and, although a number of reforms have taken place in recent years, one activist who campaigned for the right for women to drive is currently refusing to eat in protest at the conditions in detention. Her family allege she has been offered freedom if she agrees to say she has not been tortured.
“No matter where you go you can look at flaws or what’s improving,” said Haddioui. “By looking at what’s improving, this is where you keep improving. To me the glass is half full; Saudi is making huge improvements.”
The 32-year-old joined the Ladies’ European Tour as a professional in 2012 and has played over 100 events in it.
She says professional sport is not yet viewed as a viable career path for women in the region but feels the staging of landmark events will offer aspiring sportswomen a vision of what they could achieve.
“It will motivate a lot of young girls to take up the game,” she added. “I think in the coming years there will be a lot more Arab female professional golfers.
“The game changed my life. I travel the world doing what I love. I wish the same for every woman in the Arab world – to pursue these opportunities.”
Jericho was first made famous by the Old Testament, when it describes how the Jewish leader Joshua circled around the city seven times, after which its walls collapsed.
More recently, it’s a major city in the West Bank, where mostly Arab Palestinians have had control, while Israeli forces man exits and entrances to this town in a valley well below sea level, and close to the trickle that these days is all that’s left of the River Jordan.
It’s also been the home of Saeb Erekat, often touted as a possible successor to the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud Abbas. He died, aged 65, in an Israeli hospital this week, after being infected by Covid-19 while in Jericho. He had already undergone a lung transplant three years ago in the USA — and had suffered a heart attack.
I met Erekat several times, including in his Jericho home, and he always came across as a sincere but very frustrated person. His frustration stemmed from the pressures he felt from all sides. “People here in my city have warned me they want me dead,” he told me, “because they cannot see where these interminable talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority were going”.
In fact the talks went nowhere – or somewhere that many Palestinians did not like.
He was suspected, by many of his people, to be ‘soft’ on Israel, especially after notes from informal meetings between the negotiating teams of Palestinians and Israelis were leaked to Al Jazeera in 2011. He appeared willing to make concessions that contradicted the public stance of the PA leadership.
Yet he supported a Palestinian Authority decision to cut off talks with Israel several years ago – and to boycott the United States peace efforts too after it recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
In recent months he firmly rejected any moves by Arab States, especially those in the Gulf, to make peace with Israel, demanding that the Palestinian Authority had a right to veto any such deal till it got a state of its own.
Using huge amounts of British government aid money, he established a strong propaganda arm, though, for the Authority. His Department for Negotiations Affairs put out a case for Palestinian statehood – based on a strongly-contested narrative of victimhood and on misleading maps.
Even in an arena where exaggeration is a speciality, Erekat excelled.
Early in 2002 Palestinian suicide bombers had killed over 100 Israelis (mostly civilians) in 35 days of carnage in various parts of the Jewish State. The Israelis decided to root out what they considered to be terrorist cells based in various cities and villages in the West Bank, where attacks were prepared with apparent impunity.
The Israeli assault on these targets centred on the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. On April 11, Erekat told CNN’s Bill Hemmer that, “They are burying more than 300 Palestinian in Jenin refugee camp alone.” Ensconced in Jericho, Erekat then told several Western reporters by phone – including me – that at least 500 were dead in Jenin.
Six days later he tweaked the death toll further, this time to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in a flurry of internal self-contradiction: “We have 1,600 missing men in this refugee camp. Mostly women and children, husbands and wives . . . How many people were massacred: We say the number will not be less than 500,” Erekat declared to CNN and other Western news outlets.
Very soon, even usually sober newspapers like The Times and broadcasters like the BBC were openly affirming that a massacre had taken place. The Times correspondent, who was interviewed by the BBC, compared it with the ‘massacre of Sabra and Shatila’, a genuine massacre of civilians that had occurred in Lebanon in 1982. (The killers in that event were all Christian Phalangists, but Israeli forces had control of the entrances to the two Palestinian refugee camps.)
The actual death toll in Jenin was 52 Palestinians and 23 Israelis – a United Nations report stated three months later. (See below)
Erekat’s wildly exaggerated claims had been contradicted within days, from a seemingly unlikely source. Erekat’s colleague, the governor of Jenin, Mousa Abu Mousa. This reporter filmed him looking over a list of the Palestinian dead. It contained only 50 names. The United Nations secretary-general decided to withdraw efforts for an on-the-spot inspection team to go there, but criticised Israel for being obstructive.
Here, for the record, is an objective news agency account, published months later — far too late to have blunted the thrust of Erekat’s propaganda:
UN report rejects claims of Jenin massacre
Thursday 1 August 2002 16.00 BST
The Jenin incursion, which began in early April, was the heaviest fighting in Israel’s six-week campaign that began on March 29 this year. The Israeli army lost 23 soldiers in the camp and, in the weeks after the battle, the Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, said that 500 people had been killed.
The UN report, prepared by the secretary general, Kofi Annan, after Israel refused a fact-finding mission access to the camp, said 52 Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by April 18, and that up to half may have been civilians.
It called the Palestinian allegation “a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of evidence that has emerged”, the diplomats said.
Israel, which had repeatedly denied any massacre took place, praised the report. It had previously claimed that 22 Palestinian gunmen were killed in the fighting.
“Israel welcomes this finding, as well as the determination that the armed Palestinians deliberately took up position in a densely populated locality,” a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Jonathan Peled, said.
The violence in the camp came during an Israeli offensive in the West Bank, launched after a suicide bomb attack that killed 29 Israelis.