Replacing the word “Draconian” with “Musevenian”

As my friends know, it is not like me to be “speechless”. But I have had great difficulty finding the right words for this blog article. I will try.

The word draconian seems an understatement when it is used to describe the anti-homosexual law signed two days ago by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

(Draco,by the way,  was a legislator in ancient Greece who is renowned for passing laws that called for particularly harsh punishment for offenses that were minor.)

In the past few months a large divide has developed between countries that see the rights of gay individuals as being basic human rights and regions where homophobic rhetoric has led to laws that are punishing and restrictive. The debate over Russia’s laws punishing anyone who “promotes” homosexual lifestyle became overshadowed by the fireworks and glistening white snow of the Olympics. The Olympics are done but the law remains.

In Arizona, recently, the state government passed a law that would allow restaurant owners to refuse service to gay clients, the argument being that it could be against the restauranteur’s religious beliefs. This law has not yet been signed by the governor but it was obviously supported by the legislature.

This week, in Uganda, the president signed a law that called for imprisonment up to 14 years for individuals who participate in homosexual acts and life in prison for “repeat offenders” or individuals with HIV who have gay sex. (The original version of this law actually called for the death penalty for some homosexual “offenses”.) The current law also calls for imprisonment of anyone “aiding or abetting” homosexuality and makes it a criminal offense not to report someone for being gay.

Museveni claims that homosexuality is unnatural behaviour that can be controlled. He claims that the west is trying to lure Ugandan youth into a deviant homosexual lifestyle and has directly thumbed his nose at he U.S. and Obama in particular over this issue. He claims to be resisting “Western social imperialism.” Although it is hard to believe, in an interview with Stephen Fry, one Ugandan government minister reportedly has even said that rape of a young woman is less problem than consensual gay sex because it is more “natural”.

In neighbouring Kenya, there are laws in place that outlaw homosexuality but they are rarely enforced.  Still, there is a widespread intolerance and disapproval of homosexuality in Kenya and there are reports of people being brutally killed in some African countries because of their sexual orientation. But let’s not be too smug here. “Gay-bashing” has been (and still is) alive in North America, too.

9549034Today, the day after the law was signed, a prominent newspaper in Kampala, printed names of 200 Ugandan homosexuals, many of them prominent citizens and not publicly “out”. This may lead to a backlash of not-so-subtelly-sanctioned harassment and even violence against gays. At least one gay activist was brutally murdered a couple of years ago after a similar newspaper outing. Many gays in Uganda claim to have been beaten and are understandably afraid. There are disturbing photos posted online of one fellow being burned alive, children watching, ostensively getting his just desserts for being homosexual.

What also angers me even more about this, whether it is in Arizona or Uganda is that it seems to be a sentiment that is pushed by Christian Evangelists. The anti-homosexual rhetoric in Uganda certainly has its foundation in religious zealots who may be losing their cause in the West but turning to vulnerable communities in Africa to promote this kind of intolerance and hatred. Even the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda has expressed support for this law. This is “Christian”? Really? I find it incomprehensible.

In some reports, I have also read that the Ugandan law calls for jail terms for directors of non-governmental agencies that support gay rights or gay individuals. Although the charity that I work with has no connection with any gay rights groups, we do support clinics and schools where we hope that all individuals will be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their race, religious beliefs, age, sex or sexual orientation. We support the rights of all people. Will all clients and students be treated with respect? We do expect that. We may have Canadian supporters who are gay and who wish to visit our project partner sites? Can they be safe to do that now?

As a fall out, several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway have announced today that they will withdraw governmental aid from Uganda. Canada has expressed disagreement with the new law but the official stance is not yet clear. To withdraw aid may make a principled statement but, as usual, those who will suffer will be the vulnerable people who live in poverty with no political power.

Societies differ. I can understand certain groups rejecting the idea of homosexuality or disapproving.  It may be totally outside their sphere of understanding or culturally “wrong”.  But punishment with life imprisonment for simply being homosexual is not tolerable. The argument that sexual orientation is a choice, that gays are “recruiting”  Africans to their lifestyle or acting like pedophiles is ludicrous.

Where will this all end? In Canada, we have debated and had strong disagreements  whether same-sex marriage will have the same legal rights as marriage between a man and woman. In some countries the debate is more whether a homosexual has the right to exist. Centuries from now laws like this may be termed as Musevenian, not Draconian.


(Photos were taken from recent internet news feeds)

Bosnia Reflections – Part 4 … Renewed unrest

Not only were lives and buildings destroyed by the four-year Bosnian war, the economy was decimated.  What international companies was going to invest in a country torn by ethnic violence, widespread corruption and uncertainty?

The move to privatization that happened in the years immediately after the war widened the gap between the rich and the poor.  People with money had power and politicians in all sectors used their political influence to fill their pockets.  A political appointment was a ticket to financial influence.  Bribery was common and almost accepted by everyone. The tripartite government that was born after the war was/is cumbersome and inefficient.

While I was working in Bosnia from 1998 to 2009, it was not uncommon for nurses or teachers or doctors to go several weeks without receiving their pay.  The government leaders claimed lack of resources as they drove around the country in black SUV’s with a police escort.  Government workers were threatened with losing their jobs if they did not show up to work despite not being paid. It astounded me that there was not more backlash from the mistreated workers.

For a few years, this may have  been chalked up to a post-war recovery process.  But it appears that things have gotten worse in the past few years.

Scenes of protests against the government in Bosnia last week . They took a violent turn.

Scenes of protests against the government in Bosnia last week . They took a violent turn.

Depending on the source, it is claimed that there is 25 to 40 per cent unemployment now in Bosina. Young adults are particularly hard hit. Poverty and boredom and hopelessness are a bad combination that can lead to unrest. Last week in Bosnia the tension boiled over and protests in many cities turned violent with government buildings being burned, police using tear gas and several people injured.

I can’t say that I blame the protesters for being fed up with corrupt and ineffective governments.  But I deplore the vandalism that is particularly sad when it takes place on the streets so recently destroyed by war and so painstakingly rebuilt. Sometimes it feels like this country is bent on self-destruction.

I have been been making plans to travel back go Bosnia this spring. I would really like to reconnect with all the friends that I met while worked there.  I had visions of sunny afternoons in a street cafe in old Sarajevo or overlooking the Neretva river from the reconstructed bridge in Mostar.

On a Sarajevo street last week.

On a Sarajevo street last week.

The images of police cars burning on streets that were so familiar to me have stunned me. My immediate thoughts were to postpone my return to Bosnia this May. But 24 hours of reflection have calmed my thoughts. Will I go? Of course, I will!

When I look at the news photos that I have posted here, I realize that many were all taken within a few blocks of each other. (I used to enjoy my lunch at a restaurant that is about a block from these burning cars.) The images are dramatic for sure. Disturbing. But are they representative of how 99.9% of Bosnia looked at those moments?

I know lots of sensible and peace-loving Bosnians in all districts. Did people stop coming to Toronto when images of the 2010 riots in Toronto at the G-20 conference hit the news?

I remember bringing some Bosnian colleagues to Canada for a study visit in the midst of the SARS epidemic that was getting widespread global news coverage. Did they back out in fear? No.

I booked my ticket this week. I will avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations and If things are too unstable I will relocate to neighbouring Croatia. Look here in May to see how I make out and what I find when I revisit Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(and for an update from my trip to BiH in 2014, the story continues here. )

By the way, where was the photo below taken???

This shot was in the news from Toronto in July 2010.  No country is immune to political demonstrations getting out  if hand.

This shot was in the news from Toronto in July 2010. No country is immune to political demonstrations getting out if hand.

Bosnia Reflections – Part 3 … Lovers, a cat and the Mozart Café

I found these two journal entries I made in September 2002 and February 2003.  I have been writing about Bosnia this week.  This one has a Valentine’s day theme … sort of.  These are notes I made 11 years ago while I was visiting there.

Bosnia and Herzegovina    September 10, 2002.

I am in Tuzla this week.

If Sarajevo is the Montreal of Bosnia, then Tuzla is its Hamilton. Not much to do here in the evenings except wander the streets with many of the rest of the people who live here.  During the day I work teaching principles of Family Medicine to local doctors.  At night I am on my own.

Last night was a bit rainy and I thought I would wander downtown for some dinner.   While I was looking for some keys in my knapsack, I came across the Stuart McLean Vinyl Café book that friends had given to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I had brought it along with me, knowing that it would be good for short reads on the plane or while waiting for my meal in a restaurant.  I tucked it under my arm and headed out.

I ate in a restaurant called Cite del Sale, a Bosnian version of an Italian restaurant and I was actually able to order Vegetarian Lasagne – not bad in a country that sometimes seems to worship meat.  The beer, a local Tuzla variety, smelled a bit sulphury but it tasted OK.  I started into a story about Dave and Morley and Harrison Ford’s toes and smiled to myself, all the while hearing Stuart McLean’s distinctive voice tell me the tale.

AUT_8445After the meal I decided to head down to a café called Mozart that is a short stroll along the main walking street in the city. I often go there for a cappuccino in the morning – a replacement for my Canadian Starbucks habit.  The café has a small outdoor section that  was not busy since it was misting rain, another large main room and then a wicker- furnished salon at the back that  is kind of separate from the rest.  I usually sit back there in the morning and read a bit while having my coffee and at 8 am, I am often the only one there.  In the evening, I discovered,  the music is louder – sort of Euro Disco.  I wondered as I ordered my tea if I would be able to concentrate on my book.

There were three couples spread around the room.  I pulled out the Vinyl Café  and started to read.  Soon I was distracted, not by the beat of the music but by the sound of kissing which seemed to be going on all around me.  I quickly realized that I had stumbled into a make-out area of the café.  So, here I was,  a middle aged foreigner, sitting at a little table in the middle of the room, reading Stuart McLean and trying not to look up  at the couples surrounding  me who were fiercely groping at one another.  This felt worse than the week before when I had accidentally found myself in the middle of a Nudist Colony on the Adriatic coast!  But that is another story.

The stereo sound of smacking and sucking seemed to rise above the music. I was having trouble concentrating.  I casually looked up. One couple, kind of fat were making most of the noise.  The guy had a sort of Henry VIII look to him. I imagined that he makes similar noises as he tears into his chicken legs for dinner.  Another couple had ordered both coffee and coke to drink. They must have wanted to stay awake. They smooched away between drags on their cigarettes.  The third couple were in the corner and at first I thought they were having a bit of a tiff.  I decided that if I had to look up, I would gaze in their direction. Soon, unfortunately for me, true love rose to the surface and they started kissing away, the woman also chewing gum between slurps.

I thought maybe I would leave but I had ordered a veliko caj (large  tea), which came in a cup the size of a sink.  So I was stuck, feeling a  lot like a High School Hall Monitor.

Just as I was starting to feel sorry for myself, a small kitten appeared at my feet.  It was a nice little grey striped thing that was sharpening its claws on the carpet.  It started to pounce around and jump like it was being poked by an imaginary stick.  I put my hand down to play with it but as it got closer,  I noticed that its right eye was oozing and crusted and swollen shut.  I withdrew my hand, thinking that I didn’t want to catch anything. But this didn’t deter the cat.  Soon it was pouncing on my feet and grabbing at the laces of my sneakers and climbing my pant legs.  I tried to look inconspicuous, periodically shaking my  leg to detach the tiny sharp little claws from my pants.  The kissers broke apart and looked over at me as I tried unsuccessfully  to discourage the cat. I ended up downing the rest of my tea as quickly as possible and headed back to the hotel.

February 20, 2003

I am back in Tuzla.

I find the breakfast at the hotel simply annoying. It usually consists of  dry buns, scrambled eggs that have turned greenish black from sitting in the warming pan too long and “orange juice” that is a cross between Tang and Fanta , a watery orange coloured sugar water that is sometimes even effervescent.  My preference is to start the day on a more positive note, by walking to a local Pekara or bakeshop to pick up a fresh bread roll filled with cherry jam. I then  head a bit further down the street to the Mozart café for some coffee.  They don’t serve food there so they don’t mind if you bring your bun in a bag and eat it while you have your drink.  And I usually go to the Wicker room at the back of the café that I have come to view as the nocturnal lair of lust.  In the morning, however, it remains bright and cheery and almost empty.  This morning was no exception.

I ordered my coffee, pulled out a journal to read, and got the cherry bun out of the paper bag.  I put the bag on the chair beside me rather than have it obviously displayed on the table.  I was trying to be discrete about bringing food into the café although I know that this is a common practice and the waiter really doesn’t mind.

Cat 1I hadn’t counted on the rustling sound of me getting my food out of the bag to attract…the cat.  Suddenly this little grey striped beast ran from the other side of the room and jumped up on my chair to quickly begin exploring the empty bag.  Within seconds he was halfway buried into the bag.  He pulled his head out of the bag and stared up at me. We hadn’t seen each other for five months.  He had grown but was still scrawny and where his right eye should be was now a hollow socket.

Cat 2We sat together, the cat and I, reacquainting.  Periodically he would  chase the shadow of a bird on the roof, bounding over the furniture as he ran around the room.  I crumpled up the bag and he batted it around on the floor. We played and visited while I drank my coffee.  When I got up to leave, he lay back on the chair pad and cocked his head to look up at me with his good eye.  I imagined him thinking, “Nice to see you again”

cat 3This little cat has it’s niche in a café here in Tuzla.   I   travel all over but I can  still come back to find this friendly kitten here several months later.   “Strangely comforting”, I thought, “how small this world really is.”

Bosnia reflections – Part 1 … Rebuilding after a war

A government office building in 1999 and after reconstruction in 2009.

A government office building in 1999 and after reconstruction in 2009.

Actually this is probably more like part 1000 for Bosnia itself. But it is part one of three blogs I am going to post this week reflecting on my experience in Bosnia in the past several years. The opening of the Winter Olympics in Russia may have spurred some of this thought since the Olympics in 1984 were in Sarajevo.  So much has happened there since then.

I first went to Bosnia in March 1998. I remember flying into the airport in Sarajevo and looking down at rooftops of houses blown off by war. Others were new and bright orange tile. You could see where things had been somewhat repaired.  But the view told the story of a country torn apart by war.

The photos of Syria which have circulated on the internet this past week have reminded me of what I saw in Bosnia. And I was there about 18 months after the war had officially ended.  There were still some tanks on the streets and roads and bridges were broken down. Some cities looked like…a war zone.

I took some photos in 1998 and sent them back to the Kingston Whig Standard with an article, one of my first for the newspaper. They suggested that I get some people in the photo for “interest”. The photos were of bombed out houses and deserted desecrated neighbourhoods where no people now lived.  They missed the point.

Zetra - the Olympic arena in 1984

Zetra – the Olympic arena in 1984

The stadium in the centre of Sarajevo that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics was in ruins. The fields surrounding it turned into graveyards.

So many of my photos of those early trips to Bosnia were of war damage. And it was everywhere.

Digital photography was quite new then and my camera

1984 Olympic fields transformed into graveyards after the Bosnian war.

1984 Olympic fields transformed into graveyards after the Bosnian war.

was a state-of-the-art point and shoot 1 megapixel camera. You likely have 5 times that on your phone now.  So the photos are grainy.  But I think they make the point.

Over the 11 years I worked and lived in Bosnia I saw a lot of change.  It took a while but new buildings sprang up – mosques tended to be the first to appear.  The people in Sarajevo, who all wore black and looked very sad on my first few visits, gradually became more animated and even smiled.  Some of the buildings that stood as monuments to war were refurbished into shiny new buildings, the windows replaced and the pock-marks on the walls from grenades gradually filled in.

The appearance was that Bosnia was slowly recovering.  Unfortunately, underlying ethnic tensions were not too far below the surface and often led to problems of governance.  It is hard to forget war.

My last trip to Bosnia was in 2009.  New buildings were springing up along the main thoroughfare in Sarajevo.  Glass and escalators, clothes from Italy and flat-screen TV’s.  On the surface it looked like things were recovering.

Looks can be deceiving. It takes more than new buildings to recover from war.

In March '98 I stayed in an apartment near the centre of Sarajevo. There were bullet holes in the wood floor and on the walls. The view out the street was of a hill, most buildings damaged.  By 2008, these had been restored.

In March ’98 I stayed in an apartment near the centre of Sarajevo. There were bullet holes in the wood floor and on the walls. The view out the street was of a hill, most buildings damaged. By 2008, these had been restored.

Later we stayed in a house on the west side of town. At the bottom of the hill was the "front line" during the war.  I was always intrigued by this house which was eventually torn down and replaced.

Later we stayed in a house on the east side of town. At the bottom of the hill was the “front line” during the war. I was always intrigued by this house which was eventually torn down and replaced.

This neighbourhood was particularly hard hit. It was uninhabitable in 1998 but by 2006, the buildings had been restored and it appeared like a "normal" neighbourhood street.

This neighbourhood was particularly hard hit. It was uninhabitable in 1998 but by 2006, the buildings had been restored and it appeared like a “normal” neighbourhood street.

The Newspaper office on the main street was demolished (although it continued to operate out of the basement throughout the war.  Eventually the frame was used to construct an office tower..with a revolving restaurant on the top.

The Newspaper office on the main street was demolished (although it continued to operate out of the basement throughout the war). Eventually the frame was used to construct an office tower..with a revolving restaurant on the top.

Bosnia reflections, Part 2 … People

Earlier this week I posted photos of how the buildings and streetscapes changed during the time I worked in Bosnia from 1998 to 2009. Over those years I also got to know and become friends with many people, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike – Muslims and Catholics and Orthodox and agnostics.

I watched them recover slowly from the trauma of war.

I heard horrendous stories and visited places that made me weep.

I shared lots of smiles, laughs and good food Bosnian beer with the people I worked with, Bosnians and Canadians and other internationals.

But I also got to know some of the people in the neighborhood. There was a bakery at the base of the hill where we lived and every Saturday morning I looked forward to walking down the hill and buying a freshly baked apple (jabuka) turnover to eat with my coffee and the Globe and Mail crossword I could download onto my laptop. The young man who was behind the counter was always there. Always. He spoke little English and I knew only enough Bosnian to say good morning and ask for my bread. Over the years I watched him grow up, covered in flour and serving up bread at the bakery. We exchanged greetings in the store. He, no doubt, was watching me age as well.

hljeb then and now

There were also two little waifs who lived in a house just below ours. My understanding was that their family were refugees, squatting in a house that had been abandoned by people who fled during the war.

Semir and Kiko with toques that I brought for them from Canada.

Semir and Kiko with toques that I brought for them from Canada.

I am proud to say that kids generally like me. And these two little fellows were no exception. They would come together early in the morning and ring the buzzer at my door. I would take them to the market and sometimes buy them something small. Once I took them to a restaurant and bought them each a slice of pizza and a coke. I remember them sitting there like they were princes and thinking that they may never have eaten in a restaurant like this.

Once I was cooking on our barbecue and realized that I and no flipper for the burgers. The kids were hanging around and they saw that I had no utensil to turn the burgers.  They disappeared and within about five minutes returned with a nice new barbecue spatula. I suspect that they swiped it from somewhere. They reminded me of the Artful Dodger.

One of the neighbourhood photos that the kids took with my camera.

One of the neighbourhood photos that the kids took with my camera.

One winter I loaned them my digital camera to take a few photos. I would see the neighborhood through their eyes. When I got the camera back I found they had taken it inside their house. There was their mother sitting under a blanket in bed beside an oven door open for heat, and smoking a cigarette with an ashtray of butts on the floor beside the bed. Out of respect for her privacy I have never printed that photo but I look at it and smile.

One year when I returned the family had moved away. Occasionally I would see the mother at a bus stop or the kids in the schoolyard. A few years later I chanced upon one of them, a teenager now, working in a local garden.

I wonder what became of those kids. I hope they are doing OK but they may be part of the large proportion of young Bosnians who are unemployed, disgruntled and fed up with their lot.  There is growing unrest among the unemployed and disadvantaged in Bosnia and last week it boiled over into anti-government protests in several Bosnian cities.

Semir grown up. Where is he now. He would be about 21 now.

Semir grows up. Where is he now? He would be about 21 now.