Anger is simmering among Iraq’s Kurdish youth

Erbil, Iraq – It has been more than a month since Iraq’s Kurdish region held its parliamentary election, and a new Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is yet to be announced. Currently, intense negotiations are taking place between the two main political players in the region – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – dispelling speculations that their decades-old power-sharing agreement had come to an end after the severe political fallout from last year’s independence referendum.

But as the two parties are busy evening out their differences and haggling over ministerial posts, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm about the new KDP-PUK government, especially among the youth. 

“I’m 23 years old. Since I was a child, I’ve only seen the PUK and the KDP in control of the region,” says college student Adel Hassan.

“I never saw a good thing these parties did for the Kurdish people. I think there is no hope coming from those parties,” he says, sitting with four friends from college in a cafe under Erbil’s millennia-old citadel.

Hassan was born during the civil war between the PUK and the KDP which lasted three years and ended with the Washington agreement brokered by the Clinton administration and signed in 1998 by PUK’s leader Jalal Talabani and his KDP counterpart, Masoud Barzani. Since then, the two parties have ruled the Kurdish region under a power-sharing scheme, as the international community, and particularly the US, have encouraged them to stay united in power.

But many young people like Hassan are increasingly seeing this arrangement as part of the problem in Iraq’s crisis-stricken Kurdish region, rather than the solution.

“There is a lot of corruption here because of the political parties, they are stealing the money. They are building big projects for their parties’ benefit and the people close to these parties are getting benefits,” says 21-year-old Rajan Mohammed, sitting across from Hassan. “They are not paying salaries, they are not providing services, they are stealing our oil. Parties here are based on families, on family relations – this is one of the main reason for corruption.”

Unlike the older generations, young Iraqi Kurds, such as Hassan and Mohammed, did not witness the nationalist uprisings Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani led against the regime in Baghdad in the 1980s and 1990s, which have been their main source of their legitimacy. At the same time, many young people face growing socio-economic difficulties which a deepening political and economic crisis in the Kurdish region have brought about.

According to Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, the KDP and PUK are increasingly losing ground among the Kurdish youth.

“These youths, they’ve only known one kind of leaders – or make it simpler – they’ve only known a few families who have run the entire system,” he says, referring to the two prominent families, which lead the KDP (the Barzanis) and the PUK (the Talabanis).

“Most of [them] remain disenfranchised and disillusioned from the political process, from Suleimaniyah to even Erbil and Dohuk. They can’t find jobs, they are finding difficulty, […] they don’t feel the KRG has done enough to respond to their needs.”

For Hassan, the prospect of being unemployed or underemployed is indeed causing much anxiety. He and some of his friends readily point the finger at the KDP and PUK as being responsible for this situation.

“I think will be seeking a good job for 20 years [after graduation]. Most of those who graduated in 2014 are still without a job today. Those who got the jobs are people supported by some politicians or by people in the government,” says 20-year-old Aziz Mawlood, another of Hassan’s friends at the cafe.

More than a quarter of the population in the Kurdish region is aged 18 to 34 and much of it is suffering from high unemployment and increasing disillusionment. A demographic survey released in July by the Kurdish Region Statistics Office shows that over 20 percent of youth aged 18-34 have left the work force because they have “lost hope in finding a job”. Of those who are still searching for a job aged 18-24, nearly 30 percent cannot find one.

“I’m studying here, in the area which is under KDP control – the yellow zone. In the college, anyone – a professor, a doctor – if he’s not one of the KDP supporters, he cannot get any high position in the college. Even in the student committees, the members have to be KDP supporters,” says Mawlood.

Each of the two parties informally controls a geographic area in the Kurdish region: KDP – the northwest, or the so-called yellow zone with de-facto capital Erbil (which is also the capital of the region); PUK – the southeast, or the green zone, with de-facto capital Sulaimaniyah. Both parties also retain control over their own Peshmerga forces which man checkpoints between Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.

This arrangement has allowed the KDP and PUK to extend their control over various parts of the public sphere through vast clientelistic networks, which some youth like Hassan, Mawloud and Mohammed, see as a major barrier to accessing economic opportunities.

But among Hassan’s friends, there are also two who support the KDP. They both voted for the party in the September 30 elections – one, who refused to give his name, said he did so because he proudly supports the party; the other – 20-year-old Sarkawt Qader – because he worried about disunity among Kurds and supported the idea of a one-party government.

Hassan himself could not vote because he was born outside the borders of the Kurdish region, while Mohammed decided not cast a ballot because she “was angry”. Mawloud voted for one of the opposition parties.

According to Hogr Shekha, Chairman of the Public Aid Organisation and an election observer, the KDP and the PUK have managed to engage part of the youth into the political structures and patronage networks, but their political pull among younger people is continuously dwindling.

The electoral commission does not release statistics on youth participation in the elections, but in Shekha’s estimate, turnout in the youngest age group was the lowest among all age groups in the September 30 vote. This year’s vote saw 58 percent of eligible voters turn out to polling stations – the lowest overall turnout since the Kurdish region gained autonomy. Some observers like Shekha doubt the validity of the official number, claiming the turnout was below 50 percent. 

“The number of young people rejecting the political process [in the Kurdish region] is increasing for a number of reasons: the shrinking freedoms, the lack of opportunities and the worsening economic situation,” he says.

In his opinion, this trend will continue, as the new Kurdish government is unlikely to be able to significantly improve the economic situation.

For Mansour, disillusionment with the political process among the youth and other parts of the Iraqi Kurdish society could be dangerous for the KRG.

“If the patronage networks are no longer able to be sustained, if the Kurds become increasingly aggrieved because they don’t have their daily needs [met], and if they realise they can’t change things through democratic institutions, there is going to be some kind of conflict between the citizens and the elite, probably a protest movement to begin [with],” he says.

Iraq’s Kurdish region has seen sporadic protests over the past few years across both KDP and PUK-dominated areas. In December last year, six protesters were killed and dozens wounded after an angry crowd stormed party headquarters and government buildings in Sulaimaniyah. Earlier this year, civil servants, teachers and doctors took to the streets of Erbil to protest salary cuts and payment delays; the police forces dispersed the crowd with tear gas, beating and arresting dozens.

Eight years ago, when the economic situation was much better, the region also saw mass protests. In early 2011, the ripple effects of the Arab Spring inspired thousands to take to the streets, angry at the corruption of the KRG; demonstrations took place at Kurdish universities. However, the protest wave was short-lived and was effectively suppressed by a sever security crackdown.

Both Mansour and Shekha agree that despite the simmering anger among the youth, a “Kurdish spring” is unlikely; a possible protest movement, in their opinion, would be organised and contained within the political opposition.

Yet, the kind of despair among the youth that kindled the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011 is increasingly evident in the Kurdish region’s growing exodus of young people. Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds have died each year since 2014 trying to migrate to Europe to seek a better life; the latest victim earlier this month was 19-year-old Danar Fatih Ahmed from the village of Chinara, near Sulaimaniyah.

At the cafe under Erbil’s citadel, pessimism seemed to be the dominant sentiment.

“For me, I don’t have any hope for the future,” says Hassan.

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How Bijlmer transformed from Amsterdam’s no-go zone to the city’s most exciting ’hood

The mosaic art of the Growing Monument, in an area of southeast Amsterdam known as the Bijlmer, sits among fruit orchards and long green vistas to tidy apartments. I hired a bicycle to navigate the miles of trails around it, but that seems unnecessary in hindsight. Around every bend I’ve hopped off at an outdoor market, pottery gallery, photogenic mural or boutique showcasing chic dresses in African fabrics. The canalside route to the monument is a hike, but an eminently strollable one. 

If you’d been here 30 years ago… well, you’d have started planning your escape the minute you arrived. Back then, tenements crowded this patch of land. Rubbish mounted, tossed out windows by low-income or no-income tenants. Not from the upper floors, though – those flats stayed mostly vacant, except when heroin addicts squatted them. 

Things only got worse. In 1992 an El Al cargo flight, doubling back to Schiphol Airport after engine-failure, ploughed into two identical towers, killing all 43 residents in its way. 

The Bijlmermeer estate had distinctive honeycomb-like buildings (Marco van Middelkoop)

The disaster was one of Grenfell proportions for Amsterdam. An urban housing project designed in the late 1960s around the same idealistic principles as Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist utopias in West London, the Bijlmer (official name: Bijlmermeer) ultimately fell short in almost every respect. Its zigzag apartment blocks, laid out in honeycomb formation, isolated residents in a confusing labyrinth devoid of public transport and amenities. Elevated roadways turned life at ground level into a dangerous desert. Construction sucked up public money at the expense of landscaping. The Bijlmer became a depository for new arrivals from Suriname and the Congo. 

And now it was a literal disaster area. 

So few public-housing projects from the 1960s have anything to celebrate. And yet this month, after years of reconstruction, the Bijlmer is celebrating 50 years as Amsterdam’s most hopeful, feared and now promising neighbourhood. There’s a programme of talks and exhibitions, reaching a crescendo on the weekend of 24-25 November, with world-film screenings, Afrodance performances and the launch of “50 Years of Bijlmer”, a photo-memoir by gallerist, broadcaster and Bijlmer pioneer Henno Eggenkamp.

Since the 1990s, the city has pushed through campaigns to raze the Bijlmer’s most heinous buildings and rebuild at a more human scale. It recruited young artists to populate a new “creative community” of vibrantly painted studios, subsidised theatres and museums. New cafes like snug Oma Ietje – a de facto workplace for young freelancers – have brought the area to the verge of gentrification without being consumed by it.

Bijlmer is alive with markets and world food stalls (Anton de Komplein)

Locals are reaping the benefits. Jenny van Dalen, a so-called Bijlmer Believer since moving into the area 33 years ago, leads walking tours you might once have classified as “ghetto tourism”, visiting monolithic highrises rappers would use as video backdrops. But these days she fields requests from architecture students and city planners. “The rappers,” she says, “need something new to rap about.”

Nicknamed Street Girl of the Southeast (an unfortunate translation, considering the borough’s notoriety), Jenny takes me to the new contemporary art space OSCAM, where an exhibit features photography and craft from a nearby youth group. 

We cycle on to Kleiburg, one of the last original honeycomb buildings – stripped back, renovated and sold off as live-work spaces. As we approach, the self-styled “abbot” Johannes van den Akker calls out to Jenny from his sweeping balcony. Johannes runs a commune from Kleiburg, centred around a makeshift wood-panelled chapel. And to finance it, he’s begun producing small-batch ales from a cavernous microbrewery and farm-to-table restaurant at the other end of the Bijlmer. We make plans to meet him there later. 

Bijlmer is peppered with canals (Ellen Himelfarb)

But first we wheel across the fastidiously tended Nelson Mandelapark. A year from now the motorway along the park’s southern end will be rerouted underground and the surface level converted to greenbelt, linked with parkland further east. Hopes are it’ll lure people to the elliptical, aluminium-clad Parktheater, jutting over a pond in Mandelapark, and past the outdoor sculpture that rises from the lawn like a Phoenix, a symbol of the wider neighbourhood. 

The low-rise estates rippling out from here integrate all the best ideas from Dutch social housing: tall, grandstanding windows, handsomely weathered wood-slat siding, jauntily painted doors and vast terraces overlooking the ubiquitous canals. They house pretty much every one of the 150 nationalities living in the Netherlands today. 

The Bijlmer’s actual birthday is still weeks away, and I’ve missed the art and music festival 24H Zuidoost, but there’s always some sort of celebration underway here. Alighting at a municipal square paved with herringbone brick, Jenny is unfazed to find a Ghanaian troupe in woven robes and kufi hats rehearsing for the perennial Dance with the Kings. 

Bijlmer is enlivened by creative communities (Ellen Himelfarb)

“One of my wishes was always to travel the world,” says Jenny. “I didn’t have the money, but the world is right here.”

At World of Food, where I queue for crisp, charred chicken tjauw minh on fine noodles, the Surinamese founder Sarriel Taus introduces me to chefs from 26 international food stalls, recruited from the immediate area. The multi-storey food hall was once a derelict car park. 

“There are no more no-go areas in this neighbourhood,” says Taus. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in these flats. It’s made the worst place in the Bijlmer into somewhere people want to go to sample the culinary richness.”

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The Saturday evening crowds are as diverse as the staff. But on weekdays, Taus tells me, the suits migrate here from over the train tracks, a symbolic frontier people once called the Iron Curtain. The offices and arenas on the other side earn more per square kilometre than anywhere else in Holland. 

But when it comes to lunch, says Taus, “they all want to be here.”

Travel essentials

Getting there

Eurostar connects London and Amsterdam from £70 return. 

Easyjet flies from London Stansted to Amsterdam Schiphol from £35 return. 

Staying there

B&B Zoh, located in the Heesterveld Creative Community, offers doubles from £53, room only. 

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‘You can’t beat somebody with nobody’: Pelosi foes struggle to find a leader

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi looks on a news conference.

Critics of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi believe that a challenger will eventually emerge. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Congress

For now, the anti-Pelosi caucus is determined to show she lacks the votes to become speaker — settling on an alternative will sort itself out later.

The House Democratic rebels trying to keep Nancy Pelosi from becoming speaker have a big problem: They can’t seem to find someone to run against her.

The naysayers claim they have the 15 to 20 votes it would take to block Pelosi on the House floor. But so far, no one’s stepped up as an alternative, and it’s unclear who might. Also unknown is whether that person would have a prayer against the experienced Pelosi, as flawed as her detractors say she is.

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Pelosi is acting like the next speaker already, and any effort to replace her faces immense obstacles without a viable alternative, said Democratic lawmakers and aides.

“In politics, nobody is perfect, including Nancy Pelosi. But the basic rule is you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who backs the California Democrat. “That’s the problem with Nancy’s skeptics.”

Another Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named argued that Pelosi “has all the skills we need, no one else really has that package.”

Pelosi’s critics believe a challenger eventually will emerge. In 2016, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) waited almost two weeks after the GOP crushed House Democrats to declare his bid against her.

The question surrounding Pelosi’s future is the only cloud over what was a hugely successful election for House Democrats. On one hand, there’s a cast of incoming Democratic freshmen who ran on change, in some cases starting with Pelosi; on the other, there is no potential replacement with anything approaching the seasoning or legislative savvy the 78-year-old Californian possesses, making it hard to see how she won’t be speaker again.

Leaders of the anti-Pelosi faction acknowledged that some lawmakers are nervous about taking on Pelosi, who’s presided over the caucus for 16 years. That’s why they’ve focused on growing their numbers. The first order of business, they say, is to demonstrate that Pelosi doesn’t have the 218 votes needed to be speaker; after that, they figure a challenger will emerge.

Even if no one steps up immediately, some rebels believe they can still push out Pelosi.

“The idea that you can’t beat somebody with nobody isn’t true when you have a minimum threshold to meet,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) one of the organizers of the movement against Pelosi. “We have a lot of great, diverse candidates from all across the caucus who would be fantastic as our next speaker. They just need the opportunity to rise up and step forward.”

Not all her critics are so confident. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who’s vowed to vote against Pelosi on the House floor, acknowledged that the lack of an alternative candidate “makes it more difficult … for a lot of members” because “they need to have somebody to vote for.”

“But at this point in time, we don’t have anyone to run to remove the rock in the road,” he said.

Pelosi has offered a variety of reasons why she should be reelected as speaker. She argues that she has the toughness to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump in the White House. In a nod to the calls for her to move on, Pelosi also suggested before the election that she would be a “transitional” leader, though she is not repeating that possibility in recent conversations with members.

At the same time, a group of incoming freshman told voters that they would not back her, and she is seen as toxic in their Republican-leaning districts. Voting for Pelosi could put these seats at risk in 2020.

There’s clearly angst about Pelosi’s return to the speakership among a large bloc of House Democrats, though that doesn’t mean they will vote against her, especially if there’s no better candidate to replace her. Many have privately prayed for Pelosi’s exit for years and bemoaned the trio of septuagenarians who‘ve created a leadership bottleneck at the top: Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

The push for new leadership suffered a setback this spring when Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), widely viewed as potential Pelosi successor, lost a June primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That left Pelosi’s most aggressive critics without an obvious option.

Several House Democrats have expressed interest, but so far, none has been willing to challenge her for speaker. Other established figures — including Hoyer and Clyburn — have made clear they’ll support Pelosi as long as she’s there.

There are sound reasons why any Democrat would be wary of taking on Pelosi, especially at this stage. A challenger would get “beat up badly,” Schrader said. Better to keep the focus on Pelosi, he insisted.

“Anybody but her,” Schrader said.

Following the disappointing election results in 2016, Ryan won 63 votes in a closed-door caucus vote, while Pelosi received 134, her poorest showing since running against Hoyer for deputy minority whip in 2001. Yet all but four Democrats ultimately supported Pelosi on the House floor in the public roll call, including Ryan himself.

This time, Pelosi faces a steeper task. For minority leader, she needed just a majority of the Democratic Caucus to vote for her as leader. Now, a small number of Democrats — the precise figure depends on a handful that have yet to be called, but it’s likely 17 to 20 — combined with presumably unanimous opposition from Republicans, could sink her bid for speaker.

So far, 10 current or incoming Democratic House members have said they will vote against her on the House floor.

Democrats will choose their leaders starting on Nov. 28. The floor vote for speaker takes place on the first day of the new Congress.

Ryan has not ruled out running against Pelosi but clearly does not want to. The anti-Pelosi group has sounded out numerous other Democrats about challenging Pelosi but would not say who they are.

If Pelosi’s critics can’t find someone to take her on, they do have one extreme tactic at their disposal: take the fight to the House floor and attempt to deny her the votes to be speaker even without a successor in place. That’s exactly what the House Freedom Caucus hoped to do following the 2016 election, when they chose conservative Rep. Jim Jordan to become what they called the “sacrificial lamb” against Speaker Paul Ryan.

At the time, Freedom Caucus leaders were under no pretense that Jordan would win, but that wasn’t the point. The hard-line conservatives merely wanted to deny Ryan — who had repeatedly criticized Trump during the campaign — the votes he needed to be speaker, in the hopes that another pro-Trump candidate would emerge. The group ultimately backed down when Trump supported Ryan for the job.

Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a Pelosi critic who believes they can take her out without a challenger, predicted a repeat of the Freedom Caucus move. “My position from the very beginning has been that we’ve got to do this on the House floor,” Vela said.

Such a ploy would throw the caucus into chaos just as Democrats are taking control. The leadership vacuum would almost certainly divert attention from the party’s platform and its oversight of Trump.

It’s still unclear whether the anti-Pelosi movement will have the numbers to derail her. “I don’t know if there’s a big part of the caucus that actively does not want Nancy Pelosi reelected” as the top Democrat, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

Connolly added, however, that there is widespread sentiment within the caucus that more leadership opportunities need to be created for younger members over the next two years.

“We are concerned about how we broaden opportunity for the caucus, and what commitments we’re going to get from people who will be in leadership to do that,” he said.

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Brexit: Hopes fade for emergency EU summit as No10 admits ‘substantial issues’ stand in way of deal

Hopes are fading for an emergency summit to agree a Brexit deal this month as Downing Street admitted “substantial issues” are still to be overcome between London and Brussels.

Senior British officials were locked in talks until 2.45am with their EU counterparts but failed to produce a decisive breakthrough on the remaining problems, including the vexed issue of the Irish border.

The absence of progress has plunged Theresa May‘s plans into chaos, as she had hoped to reach an agreement with the EU by Wednesday – the deadline for arranging an emergency EU summit in November.

It also ramps up the need for the UK to make large-scale no-deal Brexit preparations and casts doubt over the ability to pass the right legislation before the official exit day in March 2019.

The delay means cabinet ministers will not discuss whether to sign off the deal at the regular cabinet meeting on Tuesday, although Brexit will be on the agenda.

Downing Street said that there were “substantial issues still to be overcome” in relation to the so-called backstop measure aimed at preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We have made good progress in the negotiations in relation to the withdrawal agreement but there are substantial issues still to be overcome in relation to the Northern Irish backstop.”

The spokesman added: “We want to make to progress as quickly as possible in these negotiations but we have also said that cannot be at any cost. That remains the position.”

Meanwhile Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told European leaders that at a meeting of the general affairs council that key issues remained unresolved.

As they gathered for the update, several EU member states claimed that any Brexit deal hinged on agreement of the cabinet, rather than difficulties with Brussels.

Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said it was “a very important week for Brexit negotiations,” adding that there was “still clearly work to do” to reach an agreement.

His French counterpart Nathalie Loiseau said: “The ball is in the British court. It is a question of a British political decision.”

Ms May is facing opposition from all sides over her call for a backstop measure that would keep all of the UK within a customs union, rather than the Northern Ireland-only provision proposed by the EU.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who has failed to offer public support to Ms May’s blueprint, suggested the Cabinet would act as a “check” on the prime minister.

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The Brexiteer told Sky News: “The important thing is that there are two checks on this deal – there is Cabinet and there is Parliament.

“Cabinet’s job is to put something to parliament that is going to deliver on the referendum result.”

However the PM’s spokesman said the cabinet had supported Ms May so far and was expected to continue to do so.

Ex-transport minister Jo Johnson revealed that he chose to dramatically resign from the government last week over reports Ms May was planning a publicity campaign showing a binary choice between a no-deal exit and Ms May’s deal – which he said amounted to a “calculated deceit”.

“I challenge the government to come clean on the cost of Brexit,” he told the Evening Standard.

“The reason they can’t look us in the eye, it’s because they know this will leave us worse-off and with less control. It’s a gross abuse of civil service impartiality.”

Mr Johnson added: “There is a sea-change in mood among my Conservative colleagues who are focused by this crisis. I would not be surprised if more colleagues in senior positions speak out.”

His brother, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, claimed Ms May is on the brink of “total surrender” to the EU over Brexit and told ministers to “mutiny” against the plans.


The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.

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When a man kills his wife in India, what happens to the children?

Names marked with an asterisk* in this piece have been changed to protect the interviewees’ anonymity.

Madurai, India – In a southern Indian village near Madurai, at around 1am one day in February 2010, Annam*, a daily wage labourer who lived with her bedridden husband, was shaken awake from her sleep by panicked neighbours.

“They were screaming that something had happened to my daughter,” said the now 60-year-old.

She ran to her daughter’s hut, two streets from her own, to find her child’s charred body outside, wrapped in several jute sacks.

She died six hours later in hospital from burn injuries. 

Shortly afterwards, Annam’s son-in-law was arrested for murder.

He has now served two years of a life sentence in Madurai Central Prison. 

After her daughter’s death, Annam took responsibility for her grandchildren, a girl and a boy then aged nine and six.

“For years, I did back-breaking work at construction sites and as an agricultural labourer to put them through school,” she said. 

Annam earns about Rs120 ($1.66) a day.

When 17-year-old Pallavi* graduated, Annam could not afford to send her granddaughter to college. 

That’s when KR Raja, a differently abled prison activist and social worker living in Madurai, stepped in to help.

“He said he had spoken to my father in prison, and wanted to find a way to help us,” said Pallavi. ”At first, I just couldn’t believe it. Why would he care so much? But he sounded so kind and was persistent.” 

Although Pallavi wanted to go to college, she knew it was impractical.

“I’d planned to take a tailoring job, but Raja said the GNE (his non-profit, the Global Network for Equality)  would support me, and that I shouldn’t stop my studies. He helped me apply to several colleges, often travelling with us to meet the principal and to explain my situation.” 

She is now enrolled at a college in Madurai and the GNE subsidises her tuition fees, amounting to Rs12,000 ($165) a year. 

GNE also provides the family with living expenses each month.  

“I never dreamed I’d go to college,” said Pallavi. “I feel so grateful to be in a better position to care of my grandma and family when I graduate.”

On September 30, in the southern Indian suburb of Pudhur, a 60-year-old man fled his home in the middle of the night after killing his wife. 

I’ve seen even hardened criminals change their behaviour after family visits. I tell them that while I can’t promise to solve all their problems, I can promise to never let them face them alone.

KR Raja, activist

Across the world, it has been estimated that around half of female victims of homicides are killed by partners or family members.

There are no statistics for the number of women killed by their spouses each year but, under Indian law, three categories – dowry deaths, encouragement of female suicide and death following cruelty by the husband – deal with the issue.

For an idea of the magnitude of the problem, National Crimes Records Bureau data from 2016 – the most recent available figures – show 39,723 cases of dowry death pending trial in court with 16,315  fresh cases registered that year. 

There were 12,282 cases of abatement to suicide pending trial with 6,223 new cases registered. And 515,904 cases of cruelty by the husband pending trial, with 1,68,053 cases registered that year. 

Children of prisoners are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems, Raja told Al Jazeera, because of the shame, stigma and unresolved psychological issues they face in their impressionable years.

Supporting hundreds of children

Since 2012, he has made it his mission to seek out the children in family cases involving crime and murder.

For some, he ensures their safety. For others, his GNE organisation provides financial assistance and emotional support to help them get through school. 

The level of financial support depends on the child’s needs and is paid in instalments, directly to the child’s or guardian’s bank account. 

GNE has been operating for six years and currently supports over 200 destitute children of prisoners, aged between eight and 18.

The NGO focuses on those who were left parentless, essentially orphaned, after one parent murdered the other and ended up serving a life sentence.

Raja pictured during a visit to the families he supports in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu [File: Global Network for Equality]

Born in the southern Indian village of Kallakurichi, 300km from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Raja is no stranger to adversity.

At eight months, the eldest son of an agriculturist was struck by a fever.

A local doctor treated Raja with a powerful concoction of medicines that left him paralysed. 

Bedridden and unable to walk, his earliest memories are filled with the sacrifices his parents made. 

“They sold property, almost invited financial ruin to ensure that I had good schooling and medical care,” he said.

At the age of five, he remembers how his mother, under psychological strain, laced a glass of milk with poison and suggested they both drink it.

“She said that if we both died, my father could marry again and start afresh. I knocked the glass out of her hands. I wanted to live, to lead a meaningful life. I told her I would take care of us all.” 

In the years that followed, Raja struggled to secure his independence.

He endured painful physiotherapy to walk with the help of crutches. He challenged himself to keep a steady gait on muddy paddy fields and rocky village roads.

KR Raja, with his wife and child outside his home in Madurai, India [Global Network for Equality]

In 2010, he arrived at Puducherry Central Prison.

As a master’s student in social work at Puducherry University, for his final year thesis, he set out to interview 70 imprisoned men, many of whom had killed their wives in heated arguments.

Over the course of these interviews, Raja realised that they were ridden with anxiety over the fate of their children, some even begging him to check on them.

“I began tracing their children and reporting back to them and was struck by their relief and joy,” he says. 

In 2010, measures for prison reform were set in motion by R Natraj, the then director-general of police and chief of prisons for the state of Tamil Nadu. 

The inmates were being taught yoga. Prisoners grew organic produce and were gainfully employed in small manufacturing units and cottage industries run inside jails. 

Raja saw Natraj as a mentor. 

“Prison reform has always focused on how to reintegrate convicts into society once they’ve been released,” said Natraj. “But in order to ensure that they don’t revert to a life of crime, you need to change their attitudes when they are still in prison.” 

Easing prisoners’ minds about their families and ensuring they have better social support and resources to be productive in jail is critical, he said, in the evolution and rehabilitation of the prisoner. 

“Raja’s work addresses this and engages public interest in these issues.”

‘I’ve seen hardened criminals change their behaviour’

To access prisoners in jail, Raja had to register as a non-governmental organisation. 

In 2011, he applied to study at Kanthari in Trivandrum, Kerala. 

The school trains social entrepreneurs who wish to create change anywhere in the world. 

Paul Kronenberg, Kanthari founder and codirector, remembers Raja as shy, humble and very dedicated. 

“We realised that the impact of Raja’s work has a reach beyond the lives of the children and prisoners he helps. It extends to entire families, communities and society,” he said.

With Kanthari’s support, Raja travelled to Nepal and spent three months observing the work of an organisation that had similar goals – Prisoner Assistance Nepal. 

On his return, Kanthari provided him with funding to establish GNE.

Raja then began to visit Pallayamkottai prison in Tirunelveli, which had several prisoners serving life sentences for killing their spouses. 

He knew he had to win their trust.

On his first day, a prisoner cruelly asked him: “Are you sure you can help us when you look like you need help yourself?” 

Over time, however, when Raja brought them news from their homes and families, traced missing children and provided financial and educational support to their sons and daughters who would have otherwise dropped out of school, they embraced him. 

Today, financial assistance comes in fits and starts. Raja is helped by friends, donors and volunteers from all over the world.

“I’ve seen even hardened criminals change their behaviour after family visits,” said Raja. “I tell them that while I can’t promise to solve all their problems, I can promise to never let them face them alone.”

Raja visits children whose father is serving a life sentence for a murder. The prisoner’s wife suffers from mental illness. Raja, with the help of a private company, has been giving the family $40 a month for food and schooling. Recently, he arranged parole time for the man to visit his wife when she was ill [Credit: Global Network for Equality]

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Santiago Solari: Real Madrid set to appoint Argentine as permanent manager

Solari played for Real Madrid as a midfielder

Real Madrid are set to appoint Santiago Solari as the club’s permanent manager.

The Spanish Football Association says it has received Solari’s contract from the La Liga club, although no there has not yet been an announcement from Real.

Solari took over on 29 October on an interim basis after the sacking of former Spain manager Julen Lopetgui.

The 42-year-old has since led Real to four wins in four games – the best start of any manager in the club’s history.

Real had to give Solari – or someone else – the job as Spanish rules prevent an interim coach from staying in charge for longer than two weeks.

Solari’s wins in his spell in charge have been against Melilla in the Copa del Rey, Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League, and Real Valladolid and Celta Vigo in La Liga.

In those games, Real have scored 15 goals and conceded two goals.

The club were ninth when he assumed control and they are now sixth, four points adrift of leaders Barcelona.

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The discovery of a mystery particle at Cern could totally shake up our understanding of science

There was a huge amount of excitement when the Higgs boson was first spotted back in 2012 – a discovery that bagged the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013. The particle completed the so-called standard model, our current best theory of understanding nature at the level of particles.

Now scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern think they may have seen another particle, detected as a peak at a certain energy in the data. Although the finding is yet to be confirmed. Again there’s a lot of excitement among particle physicists, but this time it is mixed with a sense of anxiety. Unlike the Higgs particle, which confirmed our understanding of physical reality, this new particle seems to threaten it.

The new result – consisting of a mysterious bump in the data at 28 GeV (a unit of energy) – has been published as a preprint on ArXiv. It is not yet in a peer-reviewed journal – but that’s not a big issue. The LHC collaborations have very tight internal review procedures, and we can be confident that the authors have done the sums correctly when they report a “4.2 standard deviation significance”. That means that the probability of getting a peak this big by chance – created by random noise in the data rather than a real particle – is only 0.0013 per cent. That’s tiny – 13 in a million. So it seems like it must be a real event rather than random noise – but nobody’s opening the champagne yet.

Many LHC experiments, which smash beams of protons (particles in the atomic nucleus) together, find evidence for new and exotic particles by looking for an unusual build up of known particles, such as photons (particles of light) or electrons. That’s because heavy and “invisible” particles such as the Higgs are often unstable and tend to fall apart (decay) into lighter particles that are easier to detect. We can therefore look for these particles in experimental data to work out whether they are the result of a heavier particle decay. The LHC has found many new particles by such techniques, and they have all fitted into the standard model.

The new finding comes from an experiment involving the CMS detector, which recorded a number of pairs of muons – well known and easily identified particles that are similar to electrons, but heavier. It analysed their energies and directions and asked: if this pair came from the decay of a single parent particle, what would the mass of that parent be?

In most cases, pairs of muons come from different sources – originating from two different events rather than the decay of one particle. If you try to calculate a parent mass in such cases it would therefore spread out over a wide range of energies rather than creating a narrow peak specifically at 28GeV (or some other energy) in the data. But in this case it certainly looks like there’s a peak. Perhaps.

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If it’s real that means that a few of these muon pairs did indeed come from just a large parent particle that decayed by emitting muons – and no such 28 GeV particle has ever been seen before.

So it is all looking rather intriguing, but, history has taught us caution. Effects this significant have appeared in the past, only to vanish when more data is taken. The Digamma (750) anomaly is a recent example from a long succession of false alarms – spurious “discoveries” due to equipment glitches, over-enthusiastic analysis or just bad luck.

This is partly due to something called the “look elsewhere effect”: although the probability of ra independent ndom noise producing a peak if you look specifically at a value of 28 GeV may be 13 in a million, such noise could give a peak somewhere else in the plot, maybe at 29GeV or 16GeV. The probabilities of these being due to chance are also tiny when considered respectively, but the sum of these tiny probabilities is not so tiny (though still pretty small). That means it is not impossible for a peak to be created by random noise.

And there are some puzzling aspects. For example, the bump appeared in one LHC run but not in another, when the energy was doubled. One would expect any new phenomena to get bigger when the energy is higher. It may be that there are reasons for this, but at the moment it’s an uncomfortable fact.

The theory is even more incongruous. Just as experimental particle physicists spend their time looking for new particles, theorists spend their time thinking of new particles that it would make sense to look for: particles that would fill in the missing pieces of the standard model or explain dark matter (a type of invisible matter) or both. But no one has suggested anything like this.

For example, theorists suggest we could find a lighter version of the Higgs particle. But anything of that ilk would not decay to muons. A light Z boson or a heavy photon have also been talked about, but they would interact with electrons. That means we should have probably discovered them already as electrons are easy to detect. The potential new particle does not match the properties of any of those proposed.

If this particle really exists, then it is not just outside the standard model but outside it in a way that nobody anticipated. Just as Newtonian gravity gave way to Einstein’s general relativity, the standard model will be superseded. But the replacement will not be any of the favoured candidates that have already been proposed: including supersymmetry, extra dimensions and grand unification theories. These all propose new particles, but none with properties like the one we might have just seen. It will have to be something so weird that nobody has suggested it yet.

Luckily, the other big LHC experiment, ATLAS, has similar data from their experiments. The team is still analysing it, and will report in due course. Cynical experience says that they will report a null signal, and this result will join the gallery of statistical fluctuations. But maybe – just maybe – they will see something. And then life for experimentalists and theorists will suddenly get very busy and very interesting.

Roger Barlow is a research professor and director of the International Institute for Accelerator Applications at the University of Huddersfield


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