Michael Riordon

the view from where I live


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Stolen Children: a tribute to Cristián Orrego

Cristián Orrego is in the final stages of a struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Based at the Human Rights Center, University of California in Berkeley, and more recently in El Salvador, as a forensic geneticist Cristián inspired and enabled me to write Stolen children.  It documents the deeply stirring birth and life of Pro-Búsqueda (For the search), a Salvadoran citizens’ organization that seeks to find and reunite children and relatives forcibly separated during the 1980s military assault on the people of that battered country.  Their story became a key chapter in my book Bold Scientists, about working scientists who question and defy a range of status quos

When I asked Cristián what motivates him in his often frustrating work, he replied: “I only have to think of the strength and determination of the families, who carry on this struggle for decades in the face of so much official indifference, greed, and laziness—the indifference of a state toward what happened in the past, ignoring that the future will be better by understanding the past, laziness in the sense of a society so indifferent to the loss of its children, and greed in the sense of not wishing to disrupt business as usual.”

I’m posting the Stolen children chapter here, as a tribute to Cristián Orrego, to forensic geneticist Patricia Vásquez Marías, his partner in life and work, and to the people of Pro-Búsqueda.

Stolen Children

In the autumn of 1982, a California couple, Jerry and Greta Fillingim, began the process of adopting a child from El Salvador. Their family story would be intertwined with the history of a people. Only a few months earlier, the Salvadoran army had launched a brutal incursion in the department (administrative region) of Chalatenango, in which forty-six to fifty-three children disappeared, including two young sisters, Erlinda (age three) and Ernestina Serrano Cruz (age seven). No one knows what happened to the sisters after that, or rather, the few who do know hide behind a wall of silence and immunity. One or both of the sisters could still be alive, now in their thirties, in El Salvador or elsewhere. Relatives continue to search.

This story begins a century and a half earlier.

1840: El Salvador, a small country in Central America, achieves independence from Spain.

1932, January: By now, fourteen wealthy families control 90 per cent of El Salvador’s land, mostly growing coffee for export. When prices drop, the lives of campesinos go from grim to desperate. Finally the campesinos rebel, led by Agustín Farabundo Martí. In reprisal, the army kills thirty- to forty-thousand Salvadorans.

1975, July: In the capital, San Salvador, soldiers open fire on unarmed antigovernment protesters.

1977, February: Another rigged Salvadoran election installs another general as president. More than two hundred unarmed protesters are killed.

1977, March: Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande García is assassinated, to silence his outspoken advocacy of liberation theology—interpreting the Christian gospels as a call to struggle for justice and equity. His murder is widely believed to have moved his friend Oscar Romero, the previously conservative archbishop of El Salvador, to embrace liberation theology.

1978–1979: Across El Salvador, popular protests intensify against rising military repression.

1979, November: U.S. president Jimmy Carter authorizes military aid to El Salvador, and American military “advisers” are sent to train Salvadoran security forces.

1980, March 23: In Archbishop Romero’s Sunday sermon, broadcast live on radio, he directly addresses soldiers: “Brothers, you are all killing your fellow countrymen. No soldier has to obey an order to kill. It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.” The next day, a military death squad assassinates Romero while he conducts mass in a small chapel.

1980, March 30: For  Archbishop Romero’s funeral, more than two hundred thousand Salvadorans fill la Plaza Libertad in San Salvador. Soldiers fire on the crowd from the National Palace. At least fifty people are killed.

1980, May 14: The military, national guard, and death squads massacre at least three hundred men, women, and children trying to flee across the Sumpul River from Chalatenango into Honduras. Honduran troops prevent the fleeing Salvadorans from coming ashore.

1980, October: Five revolutionary organizations join forces in the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, named for the leader of the 1932 uprising. In 1980, according to the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, army and security forces kill 11,895 people, most of them peasants, trade union members, students, journalists, priests, and human rights advocates.

1981, January: The FMLN launches its first major initiative, advancing swiftly in Chalatenango and Morazán.

1981, December: At the village of El Mozote in Morazán, more than a thousand civilians are massacred by the Atlacatl Battalion, armed and trained by “counterinsurgency” specialists from the U.S. army. That same month, the Reagan administration refuses the FMLN’s offer of peace negotiations, and increases aid to the military. In 1981, according to the Christian Legal Aid Office, army and security forces killed more than sixteen thousand Salvadorans, the vast majority of them civilians.

1982, May–June: Salvadoran army battalions attack northern Chalatenango. The army calls it Operación Limpieza (operation clean-up); the people of Chalatenango call it Guinda (running away) de Mayo. More than six hundred civilians are killed, and approximately fifty children, including the Serrano Cruz sisters, disappear.

1982, July: President Reagan “certifies” to the U.S. Congress that human rights standards have improved in El Salvador, so that new military aid can be authorized.

 

The horror in El Salvador continued for another ten years, until 1992 when the Chapultepec peace accords were signed in Mexico. By year-end, the UN Truth Commission concluded that seventy- to seventy-five-thousand Salvadorans were killed during the war, 95 per cent of them by government forces, 5 per cent by the FMLN. The commission called for perpetrators of human rights atrocities to be brought to justice. But within days, the right-wing Arena government decreed a blanket amnesty for all those implicated in such crimes. That immunity from prosecution still stands today.

International Adoption

The Fillingims Get the Call

I meet Jerry and Greta Fillingim with their daughter Angela in the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Continue reading


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Jerusalem bleeding

Al Quds.  Jerusalem.  Yerushalayim.  It is all of these, and it is bleeding.

President Trump performing at the western wall, Jerusalem

This week the US regime announced it would move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  In so doing it becomes the first country in the world to buy the Zionist claim that Jerusalem is the ‘real’ capital of Israel, and to break the long-held international and UN consensus that Jerusalem cannot be the capital of Israel because it is illegally occupied.

No matter.  In return for enough cash and votes in the US, the people who run that imperial country simply gave away Jerusalem to the Israeli regime.

Of course it was never theirs to give.  Neither was Palestine when the former imperial power, Britain, gave it away 100 years ago to the Zionist movement.

In a 1917 letter to Lord Rothschild, a British Zionist leader, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  And so it was done, at the stroke of an imperial pen.

This week’s equivalent assault by the US can only produce more of the same ‘benefits’ the British favour has been dispensing since 1917.  More lies, more ignorance, more hypocrisy, more hatred, more repression, more suffering, more violence, more death.

From western regimes, historically biased and/or fearful of the Israel lobby, the best we can expect are a few meek murmurings of ‘cause for concern,’ but no meaningful opposition.  As usual that will have to come from the rest of us.

As I see it, the most effective way to stand with the besieged Palestinians is through the international grassroots campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the illegal occupier, Israel.  In short, BDS.

Here I offer impressions gleaned from my own travels in Palestine-Israel.  These generated a book, Our Way to Fight, about courageous Palestinians and Israelis fighting for a just peace in the battered land that many call holy.  From those same travels also emerged Deus Vult/God wills it, a short, pungent history of Jerusalem before, during and since the Crusades.

That article follows below.  A few fragments:

…Archeological findings suggest human habitation here for at least fifty centuries.  Some linguists believe the name Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in contemporary Hebrew, was derived from the Jebusite (a tribe of Canaan) Ur-Shalem, which translates loosely as ‘City of Peace.’  The Arabic name for the city, Al-Quds, means “the holy.”  The faithful of three religions consider it holy, with the result that peace here has tended to be rather elusive.  By one historian’s count, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times….

…..The European invasion known as The First Crusade occurred in the last decade of the 11th century.  It was sparked by Pope Urban II in 1095 with a series of ferocious sermons across Catholic Europe, in which he denounced Muslims – or Saracens, as they were called at the time, a term that evoked both contempt and fear – as pagans, rapists, defilers of Christian holy places, and all in all “a race absolutely alien to God.”  At the launch of this vicious campaign for an invasion of Jerusalem, it is reported that a great roar went up from the assembled crowd: Deus vult!  God wills it!

An estimated army of 40 – 60,000 volunteers started out on the long march from Europe to Palestine.  Along the way, many Jews were massacred by the Christian zealots.  Probably now the victims would be called collateral damage.  Also enroute, many foot-soldiers died from hunger, disease or in battle, and many defected.  Some 12 – 15,000 survivors reached Jerusalem in early June, in the roasting heat of deep summer, to besiege the thick-walled, well-defended city.  At about midday on July 15, 1099, the Crusaders managed to break through a section of the northern wall east of Herod’s Gate, a short walk from the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

According to Crusader eye-witness reports, within two days nearly all the Muslims in the city were killed.  The Jews, who had lived at peace with their Muslim neighbours, sought refuge in their synagogue; the Crusaders burned them alive.  Fulcher, a chaplain and chronicler from Chartres, wrote thus of the Christian invaders’ motives: “They desired that this place, so long contaminated by the superstition of pagan inhabitants, should be cleansed from their contagion.”  Several reports describe a triumphal procession of nobles and clergy to the Holy Sepulchre, through streets that ran with blood – some said as deep as the ankle, some the knee.  Deus vult!  the Crusaders chanted along the way. God wills it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Read on…. Continue reading


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“There is a crack in everything…”

“…That’s how the light gets in.”  (from Anthem, by Leonard Cohen).

In the closed, murky realm of democracy-for-sale and rent-a-politician, a huge, astonishing crack has just opened up in British Columbia.

Big congratulations and thanks to all who worked so hard to open it.

Let the light flood in!


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Growing up: Three rivers get legal rights

Whanganui River, New Zealand

Glimmers of hope.  Details here.

Mind you, human rights tend to be honoured a lot more on paper than in practice.  So it will be with river rights.  Rivers, lakes, oceans and their defenders will continue to face countless challenges and battles.  But at least now two rivers have some legal rights to defend.

Meanwhile in the USA, rivers have no more rights than do sewers or highways, both of which purposes they serve.  In sharp contrast, corporations in the USA won long ago the same legal rights as individual citizens, which they deploy to commit horrible crimes against humanity and nature, including the poisoning of rivers, lakes and oceans.  Of course, unlike actual human persons, corporations regularly get away with murder.

In Canada the picture isn’t much better.  The late Conservative regime decimated environmental protections for all but 159 lakes and rivers in this country, leaving more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers wide open to destruction.  Breaking election promises to reverse their predecessors’ crimes against nature, instead the current Liberal regime is deferring to corporate pressure to maintain the status quo.

In such a grim context, the hard-won court decisions in New Zealand and India represent a huge step forward, rare signs that we can act sanely and respectfully in relation to the natural world, our life support system.


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And yet, grounds for hope. Real hope.

Against impossible odds:  Ecuadoreans’ Legal Fight Against Chevron Continues in Canada.

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Texaco/Chevron vs Ecuador.  Photo: La Hora.

On South America’s teleSur, journalist Joe Emersberger interviews lawyer Stephen Donziger on a crucial case with huge implications for us all.

Donziger: “The fact top law firms around the world are helping the Ecuadorean villagers is terrifying to Chevron and the fossil fuel industry and completely changes the risk calculus of oil drilling in delicate ecosystems.  These firms normally represent the oil industry; now they are representing groups fighting that industry. That’s never happened before.”

The interview is here.

True, this couldn’t happen without the lawyers.  But before, during and after the courts have their say, again and again it’s people who live on the land and water under siege that have to hold the front line.  Against Dakota Access, Enbridge, Line 9, Kinder Morgan, Energy East and all the other petro-invaders.

If our planet is to remain livable, these are the first people we should thank, and support.

 

 


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Oil crimes: Who needs a Trump?

In Saskatchewan’s second major oil spill, crews are still trying to identify where the rupture occurred in a tangle of pipelines from the Alberta tar sands that cross this land.  Oil Pipeline Spills 53,000 Gallons on First Nations Land.

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Tar sands, Alberta, Canada

Meanwhile, in Washington DC President Trump has just re-opened the door to the infamous Keystone XL pipeline, which his predecessor had temporarily blocked.  The new president also promised to accelerate construction of bitterly fought Dakota Access Pipeline.

In Ottawa, the Liberal government recently rubber-stamped two dangerously invasive pipelines in Canada: Kinder Morgan’s line to the Pacific coast and Enbridge’s expansion of Line 3 to the U.S. midwest.

Prime Minister Trudeau also welcomed the Keystone decision.  “I’ve been on the record for many years supporting it,” he said in Calgary.  “We know we can get our resources to market more safely and responsibly while meeting our climate-change goals.”

Soon the world’s dirtiest oil will flow more abundantly than ever from the Alberta tar sands.

We are told by the oil cabal, its collaborators in government and big media that Canadians need it.  But notice where it’s going: to the Pacific Ocean and to the USA, in both cases for sale far, far away.  It will leave behind: mountains of broken promises to First Nations and the rest of us, a moonscape in northern Alberta, toxic spills and explosions along the routes, and countless tons of life-destroying greenhouse gas.  Hidden somewhere in there, we are told, is a fair bargain.

In Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley welcomed all three pipelines.  At the same time, her NDP government reneged on a promise to charge oil companies higher provincial royalties for the oil they plunder.  “It is not the time to reach out and make a big money grab,” she told reporters, “because that is just not going to help Albertans.”

Ah.  But then soon after and with no apparent shame Notley said, “We’re at the point now where the Alberta economy needs to be enjoying the benefits of a higher return for our oil and gas…  That is definitely something that will happen as a result of the Keystone.”

With Liberals and social democrats like these running things, who needs a Trump?

Across Canada, the US and planet earth, our only home, the battle goes on.

 


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DAPL and DNB: good news

dapl-direct-action

Resisting the machine

DNB, the largest bank in Norway, has just sold its assets in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  Reports are unclear on the extent and nature of these assets (or maybe I just don’t know how to translate financialese).  However, by all accounts the assets dumped by the bank are substantial.

Further, DNB is now considering the withdrawal of its loans to the project as well, which would leave a major gap in the project’s financing.

A first crack in the banking wall, DNB’s move is a direct result of steadfast resistance to the invading pipeline by the besieged Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, and escalating public pressure on the banks to divest from it.

This week from the Sacred Stone Camp, ground zero, comes a stark breakdown of why Energy Transfer Partners (the DAPL perpetrators) are pushing so aggressively to complete construction.

The stakes are incalculable: on one side, billions of dollars in profits, on the other side, survival.

Contact information for the CEOs of DAPL and other Bakken pipeline-complicit banks is here.  If you bank with one of them, how about letting them know you might not?