Before starting out on this, three simple points: First, this chapter is longer than the other chapters. It gives you insights into how I have witnessed and engaged in international “affairs”, as they call it, during my lifetime, and builds a foundation for the rest. And you do not have to read every word of it. But I had to write every word of it.
Secondly, let me remind you and myself about how short and small all human life and each human life is in the larger scheme of things. That is not to diminish its importance or our responsibilities – it’s just to maintain some sense of proportion.
You and I come and go, and it doesn’t change the world that much. We are each a tiny element in something infinitely bigger than any one of us can imagine. It should compel us to be humble, careful and appreciative – rather than grab whatever we can whenever we can.
Thirdly, writing about personal and global history imposes a sort of chronology – “see, these events and trends were what influenced and shaped me.” What follows in this chapter is not an attempt to write any place’s history but functions merely as a kaleidoscopic and yet somewhat systematic background to my activities back then and now. I have frequently inserted links, mostly to Wikipedia, to help provide background because I recognise that today’s younger people may know little about some of the events, trends and places I deal with. As an educator, I have always seen it as my duty to help people learn more – deeper – than whatever I could provide.
Hungary 1956, Dag Hammarskjöld, the Cuban Missile Crisis & JFK’s murder
▪️ The Soviet invasion of Hungary in early November 1956 was the first international event I have some little memory of. I grew up in a large villa in Aarhus, Denmark, and I used to play with my toy cars on the floor in our living room, seeing my fathers shoe sole, trousers and the back of the newspaper behind which he sat for hours – now and then sharing his thoughts in a low voice with my mom.
It was an atmosphere silently oppressive enough to be felt by a five-year-old boy – although, of course, I had no idea about the event as such or the risks and crisis feeling it entailed.
▪️The UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld from Sweden, was killed in autumn 1961. I kind of knew what the UN was and had learned about some of its organizations, UNESCO and UNICEF in particular, at school. I knew it was an organisation for good and that Hammarskjöld was a man that many admired for his discipline and vision. Again, when he died in that plane crash in Africa – I had no idea exactly where it was – I understood from the silent and solemn atmosphere in my home that something terrible had happened.
▪️The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 hit me hard. From my parents, their conversation with each other and with their friends who came visiting during the two weeks it lasted, I began to understand something that was entirely new to me, namely that huge bombs existed and that they had some magic power. I heard people say that this was probably the beginning of the end. Of everything.
From what I could pick up and read – at least the fonts’ size on the newspapers’ front page – my mom and dad, my brother, and other family members including my beloved grandmother could all be destroyed. I am not sure I had any sense or could imagine, that that destructive power even applied to the rest of humanity.
▪️️Only thirteen months later, in November 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was murdered. During a theatre performance that evening, my parents had been informed about it and came home in shock telling my nanny, my brother and me about it. With my dawning political interest and widening perception of a big world out there, I knew very well who he was – also from TV – and felt how terrible this was for the United States and the world.
We had a modern teak wood television cabinet with doors. Behind them was the black-and-white velvet glass screen with rather blurred images which took quite some time to appear. There was only one radio and television source, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (Danmark Radio), that had immediately broken off its scheduled programs to report on what had happened. We sat glued into the night.
Undoubtedly, the images from that human and political drama have remained stamped on my visual – photographic – memory ever since. Enigmatically, it conveys the brutality of politics in general and the violent foundation of the US society in particular. It should be remembered that JFK was murdered only a few months after he had delivered his phenomenal and philosophical peace speech on June 10, 1963. He spoke about a new way of thinking about security and peace, about a new global order and a new relationship with the Soviet Union and declared general and complete disarmament the end goal. He knew it would be controversial, the story told here.
Did he also sense that he could be liquidated for it?
Had the United States pursued his vision in that speech – which was by no means utopian – what a wonderful world we could have had today. The best chance to do just that was the Fall of the Wall and of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1989.
It was squandered too.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Student Rebellion, the Prague Spring, nonviolence and detente
▪️Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. That violence was an integral part of politics and of American society became even more clear to me, now a high school student (1967-1969). While I must admit that I had not studied his background, deeds or importance, I was taken aback by the fact that a man of religion and peace rather than a political leader would be liquidated in cold blood. But genuine peace was extremely controversial – already then.
When some 25 years agi I participated in a conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia – to give a lecture and bring a message from some local Serb leaders in Yugoslavia to President Carter – I took time off to visit The King Center. While that made a lasting impression on me, it is still the social science basis, his devotion to Gandhi and his spell-binding speeches that move me today.
Those 1950s and 1960s were saturated with everything “America”, the saviour of Europe as the understanding was, the great ideal. JFK and Jackie Kennedy personified hope, progress and high ideals of freedom and a charismatic elegance not seen since. And there were those showy American cars (my father had a 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster), the Holywood films, the rock’n’roll – oh, Elvis! – and all the new household gadgets. I tasted Coca Cola for the time when in Hamburg with my parents; it had come to Germany with the US soldiers.
▪️The disastrous Cultural Revolution in China took place from 1966 to 1976. I had no idea about that faraway culture and society, and we heard little about it. However, there was always references here and there to the broader “yellow peril”. A couple of classmates and I at Aarhus Cathedral School asked our history teacher whether she could set off one lesson so we could learn a little about it. But her answer was negative. She thought that Denmark in the Middle Ages and the architecture of that old Cathedral (of which she was an expert) next to our school was much more important.
About five years later, I began to read Mao Zedong’s writing about conflicts, dialectics and the peasant-based revolution. So different from the mechanical thinking of Karl Marx. What I detested was their acceptance, if not glorification, of violence without any reflection. Gandhi was deeper – means-are-goals-in-the-making. Don’t try to create a better, more peaceful future by violent means. There is a deeper connection – and Martin Luther King, Jr. had grasped it better.
Although I did not perceive it that way at the time, it was a first tiny illustration of how self-centred the West is and how narrow-minded expertise can be.
▪️The civil rights movement in the United States – and not the least the songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and – more than anyone – Bob Dylan influenced my political thinking. Folk and protest songs became “in” to listen to. I began to collect folk music records from around the world and record music from radio programs on the family’s portable B&O tape recorder which was a “wow” experience back then.
That movement and those songs marked my first encounter with racism, class divisions, segregation etc. – and other dark sides of the otherwise ideal(ised) American society and culture, which so intensely reached my young and curious mind. President Lyndon Johnson talked about starting a war on poverty in 1964, 15% of the American people living under the poverty line. How could that be, I thought? And today one may ask, how can it still be as high as 12,3% while China has abolished poverty?
Martin Luther King was the one who made the connection between the race issue and civil rights on the one hand and the Vietnam War, on the other. The direct and the structural violence, the different types of wars that were rooted in the fundamental militarism.
▪️Growing up in a liberal-conservative milieu, I had enrolled as a member of the Danish Conservative Party’s high school association in 1968 and later Conservative Youth and Students. In the latter’s magazine, I wrote at least one article arguing that it was too bad that General Westmoreland did not get the US troops that he required to win that war.
Fortunately, I got wiser and left that party two years later. I never joined another party. One reason I did get wiser was that the headmaster of the Aarhus Cathedral (High) School, Aage Bertelsen, was a leading Danish pacifist and consistently invited, or provoked, his pupils to think about the bigger issues – such as war and nuclear weapons – and to understand that the meaning of education and learning was to become a qualified and active citizen. He also told us about his personal meetings with the two Alberts of his life – Schweitzer and Einstein. (More about him later).
I spent 1967-1969 at that school. It was a great social, psychological wake-up and liberation – an experience that shaped my life. But it was only decades later that I found out how it did.
▪️While at high school, Paris May 1968 happened in conjunction with rebellion, or revolt, in other spheres of society – such as education, ways of living, music, art, flower power, the hippy culture – you name it. The older generation was out; we young people do things differently, to hell with all authority; Uproar is the new normal.
Bob Dylan had changed the world of music and poetry with his debut album in 1962 and songs such as “Blowin’ In The Wind” the year after and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in 1964. The Rolling Stones were in the spotlight with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in 1965 – about which Mick Jagger has said that “‘Satisfaction’ was ‘my view of the world’, my frustration with everything… (disgust with) America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage.” The Beatles released “All You Need Is Love” in 1967; John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Imagine” in 1971.
Listen to the popular music of your day and you’ll know what is happening, won’t you, Mr Jones?
That youth rebellion was left-wing, yes – but also liberal in the good sense of the word, it meant an expansion of the fields of freedom, including the freedom to dream up a better future. It was an epoch of experimenting, rewarding change and vision. It did have a dimension of humanism, fundamentally human values, solidarity across the world, and an emphasis on the spirit rather than materialism. And it was, largely, a celebration of nonviolence – of the need for peace.
▪️In early 1968, reformist politician, Alexander Dubček, had come to power as leader of the Communist Party in then Czechoslovakia. He moved quickly to implement the Prague Spring – liberalization of the cultural, social, political and economic life if the country – so much so that Moscow sent tanks and about half a million soldiers into Prague on August 21 to stop the whole thing.
People in Western Europe held their breath. How brutal would it be? How would the West – US and NATO – react? Aage Bertelsen, the above-mentioned headmaster of my high school, convened all classes and tried to explain what was happening and what could happen and soothe our fears and probably his own too.
Once again, I experienced violence rear its ugly head where negotiations would have been a much better tool for all parties. The Berlin Wall had been built in 1961 and now this, what was next to come?
However, this formative experience contained a particular element – nonviolence. I documented how the Prague people’s nonviolent action had confused the invader and how people had tried to make friends with the Russian soldiers. Violence did take its toll, but it was also a remarkable example of the power of even rather un-organised nonviolent struggle. Turn the street signs, and the tank drivers would go in the wrong direction…
It was only the year later, in 1969, the Social Democrats in Germany initiated “rapprochement” – an idea developed by Egon Bahr 1922-2015 who later played a central role as a close adviser to Willy Brandt (1913-1992) and in changing security thinking towards common security.
Brandt who had been mayor of West Berlin became Chancellor and the detente with Eastern Europe and Eastern Germany in particular – “Ostpolitik” – commenced, also inspired by Bahr. Brandt – whom I consider one of the most important politicians of post-1945 Europe was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for reducing, with concrete steps, the tension between West (Germany) and the East of Europe.
The civic dissident human rights movement, Charta 1977, came into being in 1976 and existed until 1992. In November-December 1989, the country saw the Velvet Revolution that ended all the old system’s elements and Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) took over the Presidency.
Indeed things were happening. The old system crumbled. Nuclear disarmament, nonviolence and the confidence-building measures of the OSCE – the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which had been established in 1975 with neutral Finland’s President Kekkonen as a central player and in which all Eastern and Western countries participated – all were indicators of the possibility of change and liberation of Europe from the role of being the pawn in the games between the Western superpower and the largest – but not super – power of the East.
In those days, there were concrete reasons to be hopeful. War avoidance and peace were self-evident elements of foreign policies. Nonviolence had taken root and peaceful mass mobilization should soon undermine the hardest of conflict structures – the Iron Curtain.
The daily risk that Europe would also become the battlefield in a third World War and most like be turned into a nuclear desert was reduced.
Student, “soldier”, activist, public figure, adviser, researcher and spy…
In 1969, high school ended, and the choice had to be made: Study first and then military service, or the other way around? At the time, I did not question the military as such, it was just something I wanted to put behind me. Since there was no immediate place for me in the conscripted army system of the time, I took some courses in the history of ideas given by a pedagogue of God’s grace, theologian, humanist existentialist and Shakespeare translator Johannes Sløk (1916-2001), at Aarhus University. I’ve returned to two of his 60 books, the one about Existentialism (1964), the other “The Theatre of the Absurd and The Preachings of Jesus” (1968, my translations). Sløk was also a co-author to a textbook about the History of Ideas In Europe (1963) – the only textbook I took with me from Aarhus Cathedral School.
This was the first time I encountered existentialism – afterwards plunging myself into Jean-Paul Sartre’s book on the subject – and acquired an openness to the idea of absurdity, or absurdism, that has helped me live as a citizen in the nuclear age and work against militarism and other violence as well as against nuclearism. And that is where I’ve always reminded myself that Albert Camus tells us that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
When I had finally joined the army, I spent three months learning how to stop thinking – quite a change from professor Sløk! – and how to kill with a bayonet; then followed nine months with the medical corps. I write elsewhere about that somewhat unconventional experience – and how immensely useful that military service later turned out to be for me.
▪️My studies at the Department of Sociology at Copenhagen University – before leaving for Lund in Sweden in 1971 – will also be dealt with elsewhere. They became impossible – theoretically and practically – due to the hard science-political conflict between dogmatic positivists and no less dogmatic Marxists that was part and parcel of the Western youth rebellion.
Perhaps because I read books by both camps, I could belong to neither. These years shaped my basic attitude to scholarly work and its “schools” in the direction of keeping a healthy distance from all dogmatism and dichotomisations and either/or thinking. It tends to promote confrontation instead of dialogue. And as somewhat of an eclectic mind, – oh, Gandhi! – I’ve been drawn to combine what people generally think can not go together.
While all the above-mentioned things happened in Europe, I had both begun studying sociology (1970 in Copenhagen, 1972 in Lund) and come into contact with peace and conflict research.
Simultaneously, I began being used as a public lecturer invited by schools, people’s colleges, labour unions, peace and women’s and other movements and political youth organisations in Denmark, Sweden, and other Nordic countries. I became a sought-after public figure because, from 1974 to 1994, I wrote columns, debate articles, feature articles, and book reviews for the leading – then liberal and originally pacifist-oriented – Danish daily, Politiken. And I was used by the Danish Radio and sometimes TV in particular as a commentator and analyst of security and peace events and trends.
Members of various political parties in Denmark and Sweden consulted me, in one case I formulated part of a party program concerning security, disarmament and peace. I often met decision-makers at town hall meetings as I did military people and defence intellectuals. And those were also the days where you could hardly write a critical article without an MP or minister feeling the need to respond.
Debates and dialogue was the order of the day. There was an alert public debate. Of course, I never thought it was enough, but it was paradisal compared to the decades that followed.
I defended my doctoral dissertation in sociology at Lund University in January 1981 – “Myths Of Our Security. A Critical Study of Danish Defence Policy in a Development Perspective” (in Danish). It was the first of its kind about Denmark and also included the first systematic study of the Danish defence industry and of all the US military research and development in Greenland. Surprising to myself, it became a sort of textbook for peace activists too and sold in 7000 copies – and it was the original dissertation, not a popularised version. I remember condescending academics hinting that if it was read by so many citizens, it must be a lousy dissertation.
While working on it, I was honoured to be accused of being a spy by the Danish Chief of Defence, G. K. Kristensen (1928-2001). He called me up to his HQ in Vedbaek north of Copenhagen. Behind his large desk, he leaned forward and told me in so many words that I ought to be very very careful in the future. He maintained that putting together data and create a complete picture of such matters – even if based entirely on open sources – could be judged as espionage. He also organised that three officers in uniform turned up at the defence of my PhD at Lund University to check whether I – a Danish citizen – stood there in neutral Sweden and talked about military secrets in NATO Denmark!
After retirement, Kristensen joined Generals for Peace and Disarmament and we met now and then at public meetings and shared the memory of our – absurd – encounter in a friendly, respectful manner. Uniforms do something to people – whether green on the outside or intellectual-ideological on the inside.
During all the 1980s, I was an expert member of the Danish government’s Security and Disarmament Political Committee – and open advisory forum consisting of parliamentarians, scholars, journalists, military people and advisers from the relevant ministries. I was proud to later learn that it was then prime minister, Anker Jørgensen (1922-2016) and minister for Nordic affairs and, de facto, disarmament minister, Lise Østergaard (1924-1996) – and the first female professor of psychology at Copenhagen University – who had appointed me.
I’ve always cherished dialogue with decision-makers. I was curious to learn how they would see the world and think about concrete issues about, which I had completely different attitudes. And as a scholar, I thought it was only natural to share whatever I knew with them, not just sit on the outside and denounce what they did. I’ve done that with numerous people abroad and in conflict and war zones. And exclusively with positive results.
Regrettably, the opportunities to do so disappeared around the turn of the century and September 11, 2001.
Now a little jump back in time.
The War on Vietnam and my life in Somalia
▪️The War on Vietnam/Resistance War Against America (1955-1975) was formative too. It was there every day from I was a child until I was 24. The image of President Nixon shamefully departing the White House became iconic for me, the mighty US had lost to tiny poor peasant Vietnam with much higher morale. I wonder whether that was not the beginning of the process we are witnessing today, the decline and fall of the US Empire. Warfare consumes your own soul and violence; it never only hits the object but also the subject.
In 1998, my wife, Christina, and I went to Hanoi to learn about its tremendous post-war development and talk with various people about reconciliation – the enigmatic process through which the Vietnamese could go on and also cooperate with the United States that had done unspeakable harm to them.
Buddhism, of course, had something to do with it. The little ‘Napalm Girl’ running out of her village and how she later reconciled with the American who (most likely) was responsible for her suffering) is also one of the most beautiful stories ever told. I have used it innumerable times in my lectures to illustrate that, yes, forgiveness is an alternative to living the rest of your life with hate.
It should be remembered that one of the major US hawks and war criminals, Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara, spent his last decades going back and forth to dialogue with the Vietnamese enabling him to write two amazing books that advocate a new US world policy – Wilson’s Ghost in particular. And there is his documentary In the Fog Of War. What makes people repent, forgive and reconcile in a serious way is one of the many subjects we need much more research on and media attention to.
▪️I went to Somalia in 1977 with my first wife, Astrid. We were young scholars looking for a place to do something new and pioneering outside our own culture, a place where everybody else had not gone before to do studies. She studied landscape architecture and ecology and was very engaged in the women’s movement. I was into sociology and interested in studying development. I wanted a break from conflict studies, security, armaments and militarism.
In the eyes of leading Africa experts, such as Basil Davidson, after the non-violent coup d’etat by Mohamed Siad Barre and his fellow soldiers on October 21, 1969, Somalia’s socio-economic development was perhaps the most innovative and constructive in all of Africa in the 1970s. It was still among the world’s poorest, if not the poorest, but there was something totally fascinating in it for the two of us.
It was the beauty of the country, the sand dunes, the ocean, the red mud roads and the – here and there, at least – lush vegetation. It was the immense pride of the Somalis – with their own language, poetry, songs and dances – and the beauty of those long slim men and women. Elegant movements beyond anything you could see in Europe. And it was the tremendous creativity in getting the most out of little.
We always stayed close by the ocean in Muqdishu at a small white guesthouse owned by Amina Basbas, the daughter of a former minister of British Somaliland; incidentally, it was the same street where the country’s only printing press was (Somalia was an oral culture and not before 1972 did it get a Latin script). And it was always such a joy to fly into colourful Muqdishu from Nairobi which, in comparison, we felt was sadly imprinted by almost 60 years of British colonialism (and not a place you walked the streets after dark). I never felt in danger in Somalia, and while we were there, it was normal to see parliamentarians and even ministers enjoy a meal with their families at the restaurant. They had no bodyguards, and you could walk over and greet them. In many ways an egalitarian society with the quality of safety despite being materially poor.
The day we arrived for the first time to Muqdishu’s airport – as members of a study group of the Somali-Swedish Friendship Association – everybody was standing listening to transistor radios. We felt an intense, low-voice atmosphere, anxious and solemn faces all around. It turned out that that was the day when Somali government troops had crossed the border into Ethiopia’s Ogaden Desert, one of the five territories that the Somali people had been opened for partition by the Berlin Congress in 1884 – that is, British Northern Somalia, Italian Southern Somalia, Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, Djibouti and then Ethiopia’s Ogaden Desert) that is also indicated by the five-pointed star on Somalia’s flag.
The most homogenous people on the African continent had begun the continent’s most thorough fragmentation, thanks to its clan divisions and thanks to foreign influence and power games. It remains to this day, and Allah only knows for how much longer.
We travelled the country extensively in – and on – the land rovers of the day. Given either the red gravel roads or tarmac roads with more holes than tarmac, one could indeed talk about a pain in the ass after some six or more hours per day of driving. Domestic flights were not recommendable; I remember one where we could see the landscape and the landing strip through a hole in the floor.
We made friends with countless people at all levels and got to know Prime Minister, Omar Arteh Ghalib (1930-2020) rather well. He was one of the most respected politicians of his country and still its greatest international diplomat. He put Somalia on the world map in both the UN Security Council and the Arab League. He shaped the world’s largest organisation of Muslims, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, IOC, all of which you may read more about here.
Our friendship led Omar to suggest that he would help us adopt a child, perhaps even one of his own seven children; we wanted to adopt a child but anyhow ended up not doing so. He also facilitated a long interview with president “Jaalle” Siad Barre; he was known to sleep during the day and work during the night. So it took place at his villa at 3 AM, and poor Omar who was supposed to also be the interpreter at some point dozed off to the amusement of the three of us.
It was the first time I experienced things that I have kept close to my heart and mind ever since:
a) how Somalia was materially poor but also independent, full of pride, creativity, joy, cultural activities, poetry and sensuality – and thus very rich in a different sense than in my culture;
b) how they looked upon whites – small Somali children in the countryside would often throw a little gravel or small stones on us to see whether we white people reacted as real humans – but expressed no racist attitude in general when meeting us;
c) how incredibly self-reliant, strong and resistant nomadic cultures are, able to survive under the hardest conditions;
d) how we must never underestimate how much more people know about the West than we know about them; at the time, the Somali language was oral only and had no alphabet. As I said above, no books were used in schools, education was based on oral instruction. However, adult nomads in even the remotest regions knew a lot about Sweden – Olof Palme and Pippi Longstocking and our welfare system – and the rest of the world because they listened 24/7 on their transistor radios to the BBC Somali Service at Bush House in London. In contrast, lots of people back home in Sweden and Denmark didn’t know where Somalia was on the world map;
e) that culture shock is a two-way street. For us, it was definitely a shock to arrive in a black society where there were extremely few whitings and travel around the country to places where white people were basically never seen. And then there was the culture shock when returning to the opulent West seeing fat people again, stressed people burdening themselves with shopping presents for Christmas and displaying none of the elegance, pride and joi de vivre we had come to love so much there on the Horn of Africa;
f) top leaders can be rather uninformed because no one wants to bring bad news; Barre proudly told us about the achievements throughout the country and mentioned also how a cement factory outside Berbera had just started production. He could not know that we had been there earlier the same week and there were only a few women working on the concrete foundation in the inhumanly hot sunshine.
Forever, Somalia gave me a sense of proportions and taught me how essentially important it is to try to see your own culture, society and ways of doing things from the outside, through the eyes of ‘the others.’ Its importance in my life, at that very time, can hardly be underestimated.
The frequent long-term visits to Somalia ended abruptly in 1981. Political tension increased, Siad Barre’s leadership got more and more authoritarian, the war with Ethiopia destroyed much. When we had arrived and contacted our network and asked a friend about this or that other friend, the answer frequently was – “don’t ask for him anymore.” We could not continue our research and, sadly, never returned.
We were indeed very young but pioneered the Swedish research focus on Somalia, thanks also to a small scholarship we obtained from the Swedish development research agency, SAREC.
▪️In 2014 I went to Somaliland on a trip arranged for Swedes by the young, non-recognised country’s informal ambassador in Sweden, Rhoda Elmi. Somaliland consists basically of the former British part of Somalia with Hargeisa as its capital. In this photo documentary from Somaliland, you’ll see what it looks like today.
But you will find a – to me, at least – rather moving story about another Somali I am deeply grateful to have met, its first medical doctor, a chief visionary ideologue of the party and President of the National Academy of Sciences and Arts, Mohamed Aden Sheikh “MAS” (1936-2010). We could always walk up to his office, no appointment, and he would teach us more about Somali culture, history than probably any other.
Thanks to president Siad Barre’s increasing paranoia, he put MAS – one of his own relatives – into solitary confinement for no less than six years. However, in the outskirts of Hargeisa was now a modern children’s hospital built in honour of Mohamed.
In our basement, there is still a rather large archive of original materials we collected during those four years. Perhaps one day, I will activate it. I feel there is something I should finish, something I must pay back. But to do so, I must go back to Muqdishu and surroundings. It may still take a long time before it is safe enough, and one can do fact-finding.
Europe from Cold War 1 to Cold War 2
▪️ If Vietnam and Somalia were my Non-Western formative experiences, the Europe-centered Cold War (1945-1989) was the third permanent factor that shaped me both as a European and a scholar. This conflict between the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact, on the one hand, and the US/NATO on the other was between two versions of the same Occidental culture – socialism/communism/one-party and capitalism/liberalism/multiparty.
This implied that there were so much the two had in common in ways of thinking. Both focused on their differences and on “winning” the competition and both embarked on missions to convert others to adopt their particular version of Westernness. The Western West “won” that competition, interpreted itself as the only possible and therefore only-good system but has, in reality, been declining since 1990. It is destined to go the same way as the Soviet Union because the Western global dominance system – no matter its version – is simply not the sustainable system humanity needs. And it seems now also unable to radically reform itself.
Given this interpretation of the shared “Westernness” of the two, I had a rather sceptical view when colleagues and many others talked about the peace dividend and how – now after the Fall of the Wall – Europe and the world would become a much better place.
Instead, I had predicted as early as 1981 that the West would fall – and I had spelt out how it applied to both the Wests. But I must admit that I had no clue at the time that the Western West would play its cards that stupidly, triumphalistically and self-destructively. I wish that we had dialogued with Gorbachev about that new European House and kept our promise to him about not expanding NATO an inch and had really secured that a reunited Germany would be neutral and not a NATO member.
I’ve lived all my life with the risk of nuclear war on European soil. It was a turning point of historical proportions when Europe was liberated from a whole category of nuclear weapons by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, INF, that Gorbachev and Reagan signed in 1987. It was a huge victory for common sense, peace and the many and diverse CSOs – civil society organisations – in the East and West who had fought for it from the bottom-up. (I call them CSOs while NGOs today have developed rather much into Near-Governmental Organisations).
No one has a right to force others to accept such a risk in their lives – except if a referendum has been held and shown a vast majority in favour of possessing nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a milestone both legally and normatively: these weapons must be abolished before they abolish humanity.
We should all rise against those who have nuclear weapons and make these weapons a tragic parenthesis in the human civilisation’s development. More about that later.
While I visited Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union quite a few times during the 1970s and 1980s, I never liked the system; I did it because I believe in respect, bridgebuilding and dialogue. And in solidarity with those who suffer.
The hated Berlin Wall cracked open on November 9, 1989. The weeks leading up to this meltdown of the Iron Curtain belongs to the most surprising of my life. You heard stories and witnessed events that were, simply put, unthinkable, surreal.
My wife Christina and I celebrated and drank champagne together with the East and West Berliners at New Year’s Eve 1989-90 and hammered on that disgusting, shameful Wall the next days. We still keep some lumps of it as an eternal reminder that all forms of authoritarianism shall eventually go.
The unthinkable can be thought. Good things can happen.
There is hardly any doubt that that First Cold War has solidified my deep aversion, bordering on hatred, of armed confrontation in general and nuclear weapons in particular. No one had the decency to ask me whether I would accept to live under the Damocles Sword of militarism and nuclearism? Who has a right to force me to accept that I shall leave this world knowing that my children and grandchildren are likely to live – or to die – under it too? Do not tell me that the West is a true democracy when citizens have never been allowed to give their opinion about this existential matter.
Do not try to convince me that this is the best, most ethical, safe and logical system to create and preserve security and peace. It creates neither.
Instead, take away the funds available to advocates of militarism and nuclearism – or reduce it to the level we peace people have to operate on. And then let the one win the debate who argues best, most convincingly and wins the trust of the citizens. Or, let peace be financed by tax money and let the MIMAC – Military-Industrial-Media-Academic Complex elites finance theirs by fund-raising from citizens, bake sales and unpaid labour.
▪️ In what was nothing more than a nanosecond in global history, the US/NATO West immediately after 1989 found new enemies. Behind such a drive are strong forces; I call their consolidated structure MIMAC – the Military-Industrial-Media-Academic Complex – much broader, deeper and destructive than the Military-Industrial Complex that US President Eisenhower had warned his country and the world about in his farewell speech in 1961.
MIMAC wouldn’t survive without the manufacturing of threats that build up fears in the minds of taxpayers who, at the end of the day, finance militarism. The post-1989-enemies were Somalia, Saddam in Kuwait, Serbia, Afghanistan, Saddam in Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria – and Iran all the time and – believe it or not – Russia for a second time!
The starting point of this Second Cold War was a failed US attempt at regime change in Ukraine and the EU’s and other West’s – foolish – idea to get Ukraine into the Western fold. Although the only future possible for Ukraine is to remain neutral, be pampered by both and be a partner of both. Here 106 articles on my foundation’s old website.
I believe that this is a basic truth: Western political culture cannot live without images of enemies. That is why it was most significant when Russian political scientist, top-adviser and institute director, Georgy Arbatov (1923-2010), stated that “We are going to do a terrible thing to you, we are going to deprive you of your enemy” – as ex-CIA analyst Graham Fuller elaborates on here.
In other words, when we could have had a new peaceful Europe today, the US/NATO and the EU chose to prioritize the expansion of NATO, thereby making the old border with Russia even harder and exploiting Russia’s weaknesses at the time. By definition, humiliation with triumphalism can bring nothing good.
NATO now consists of ten countries what used to be Warsaw Pact members and neutral countries that were useful as soft buffers – such as Sweden and Austria and Yugoslavia – either are now pro-NATO or do not exist. Russia’s military expenditures are 8% of those of NATO’s 29 members and falling – while the old Warsaw Pact’s expenditures used to be 65-75% of NATO’s. But who cares about such facts in today’s militarist climate imbued with fake and omission inside a falling hemisphere?
Neither NATO nor the EU seems to have the vision or the coherence, to adapt to the new situation – whether the demise of Yugoslavia, the 2015 refugee flows or the Corona pandemic. Both both show conspicuous signs of fragmentation and lack of leadership.
Japan over 20 years
▪️ Now a huge jump to my life in Japan. I’d been to Japan before and worked with Japanese peace scholars both in Lund and elsewhere. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the country’s unique peace constitution – in the famous Article 9, Japan renounces war and the maintenance of a war potential – would make Japan exceptionally well-suited to promote peace as well as research on various aspects of peace.
“Would…” I said because the reality is very different. Japan’s de facto security and foreign policy is one long, incremental deviation from that unique pacifist norm as it has not been capable to liberate itself from US remote control.
Although I had visited China in 1983 as a Danish cultural delegation member and was sure that China would absorb me from then on, it did not work out like that. Thanks to various coincidences and encounters, I came to live altogether for almost two years as a visiting peace studies professor at the International Christian University, ICU, in Mitaka outside Tokyo, at Chuo University, two times at Nagoya and, finally at Ritsumeikan University in my favourite Japanese town of Kyoto, in total spanning 1990 to 2010. And I did not return to China until 2018 – but from now on it will indeed occupy me.
Among my special joys in Japan was to get acquainted with the lay Buddhist movement of Soka Gakkai International, SGI. With around 12 million members (at the time), it must be the world’s largest peace organisation too – becausepeace is what it is passionate about together with Buddhism.
I was invited to guest lecture at Soka University outside Tokyo in the mountainous and amazingly beautiful area surrounding the city of Hachioji. I spoke later at local SGI chapters here and there in Japan. The spiritual leader – Sensei – of Soka Gakkai is Dr Daisaku Ikeda (1928-). For some reason, Soka people had obviously let it go up through the hierarchy that I worked for peace because, in 1995, my wife Christina and I were invited to a conversation with Sensei Ikeda, which started out very formally in a huge hall with Soka notabilities seated along the walls.
At some point, he asked whether he could now invite my wife to a more intimate tea room – to which I said that that would be OK if I could then take his charming female interpreter to another room. That kind of broke the ice, and people laughed. I have always had a hard time with formal ceremonies in general and always think of Danish entertainer and humorist Victor Borge’s (1909-2000) famous dictum that “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
After many sips of tea and delicious cakes, he said to me that he had an offer to make, but before he told me what it was, he would like me to say “Yes”. I said, “Eh… Yes” – big smiles. The offer was that he wanted me to become the director of a new SGI peace research institute that SGI planned to establish at Okinawa – inside the buildings of an abandoned rocket launcher base where rockets had pointed for years against China.
It belongs to the story that Ikeda-Sensei had opened up the very sensitive relations between China and Japan in 1974 by visiting China’s first Premier, Zhou Enlai (who died in 1976). So placing a peace institute in an environment that signified no more enmity between the two appeared to me to be brilliant.
For various reasons, however, that institute was never built, and I didn’t have to live up to the offer I had not refused. But SGI did take me on a trip to Okinawa – the place where there is a very moving memorial park called The Cornerstone of Peace for everybody who died (more than 240 000) in the “Tennozan” Naval Battle, history’s allegedly largest, in 1945. It’s interesting in that everyone who died – military and civilian, war criminals and innocent people – have their names engraved in black marble walls. Okinawa is also partly occupied by US bases that the Okinawans have wanted for decades to get rid of.
Be this as it may, Buddhism has always been close to my heart, and I maintain contact with many Soka friends. Ikeda-Sensei gave me many presents, including his collected works and his books with his amazingly beautiful photographic works. In 1996 I was awarded an honorary doctor’s degree at Soka University. Perhaps most touchingly, Daisaku Ikeda wrote a chapter about me – “The Peace Doctor” – in his book, “One By One”, about great dead and living people who have changed the world for the better. Well, we all make our mistakes, but it was anyhow a great honour 😉.
My generation will remember how from the 1950s, Japan spearheaded Asia’s economic and management miracle and inspired the four “tiger economies” – Singapore, Taiwan, Hongkong and South Korea. My uncle bought one of the first Toyota cars in Denmark, and we’ve all been consumers of exquisite miniaturised Japanese products – computers, cameras, the walkman, tape and video recorders. We’ve enjoyed the elegant aesthetics in handicraft and fashion, been amazed by Zumo wrestling and plunged ourselves into one of the world’s most beautiful and healthy cuisines. I’m a self-taught maker (not master) of sushi, which used to be workers’ street food.
However, when I arrived in Japan in spring 1990, the miracle had begun to crack. For the first time in modern, wealthy and relatively egalitarian Japan, there were people living in the streets, parks and under bridges. And those who did not, either pretended not to see them or explained that they were just people experimenting with living far away from their incredible luxury and boredom. It was also a country that had embraced Westernization in lifestyle, food, entertainment etc. while – and that must be emphasized – always preserving its Japaneseness at the bottom.
I tend to think that we in the West actually never really understood the Japanese. We saw them as highly efficient and almost inhumanly hard-working high-tech producers and mass consumers – only. However, I learned that Japan is much more enigmatic, sophisticated and therefore interesting as culture and society and in terms of ways of thinking – “social cosmology”. For instance, the fact that a Japanese citizen plays many different roles every day and that all attitudes and behaviours are contextual – i.e. depends on the situation and the structure in which it takes place – cannot but make a sociologist highly curious.
Another aspect is the capacity for accommodating contrasts. Most citizens of Japan take very active part in the consumerist lifestyle – I’ve never seen Christmas shopping like that in a country where less than one per cent are Christians. More surprising to the foreigner is how much they also love walks in the woods and mountains, meditate, go to temples to turn their faces to various gods and their backs to fellow-citizens. And the ability also to mix new and old – be it architecture, ways of doing things, city planning, keeping up old traditions and handicraft while frequenting “electronic cities” to find the latest gadgets they – probably – don’t really need but group pressure and fashion tells them to buy.
Everybody who has seen the central railway station in Kyoto knows what I mean.
In that sense, it is strangely inward-looking, orderly, stable and working smoothly when everything is normal. But the moment something unexpected – big or small – happens, the whole system stalls. That’s also why it has stagnated over these thirty years where I have followed it.
And it has lost to China on virtually all important indicators. In 1990, almost everything you picked up in a store was “Made in Japan.” From around 2000 it was as more frequently “Made in China.”
I’m grateful beyond words for all I’ve learned about living differently in safe, decent, polite and smiling Japan. Those who taught me most about Japan were my students – both Japanese and foreign who had lived there over a longer time. I’d told them that they could always knock on my office door; no Japanese professor had ever done that, so I got lots of young boys and girls coming around trusting me as a confidant. They had an almost desperate need to talk with someone neutral.
Japan has at least two levels. An upper, visible which is quite Westernized such as the multiparty system, a military alliance and submissive foreign relation with the US, consumerism and an amazing interest in everything Western, including classical music. Below and way into the countryside, through the rice fields and up the mountains along the Buddhist temple trails, you still find the real, never-changing Japan. These years gave me the opportunity to learn how to operate in a culture very different from the West.
It’s a thoroughly good society to live in also because you can hardly ever become an integrated member of it. The Japanese remain unique, stagnating or not. And the foreigner remains forever a foreigner – a gaijin.
I can truly say that I ❤️ Japan.
Yugoslavia – my third country
▪️And now back to Europe and another love story – Yugoslavia. It begins in 1974 in Dubrovnik at the Adriatic coast in what is now Croatia. That’s where there was a multi-national Inter-University Centre, IUC. Professors from all republics came there to teach philosophy, literature, politics, international affairs, etc – and their students came from around the world. Not so strange because about 120 universities around the world delivered the non-Yugoslav students and teachers free of charge to the IUC. So it was an international meeting place like no other between East and West – and Yugoslavia was a neutral, non-aligned country with amazing relations with both the East and West and the so-called Third World.
One of the teachers at IUC was Håkan Wiberg (1942-2010) who was also one of my sociology professors at Lund University. He had stimulated my interest in peace and conflict research because he gave a short introductory course to it. He was also the head of the Lund University Peace Research Institute – or Department – LUPRI (closed down in 1989). He must have sensed my interest because one day he said, Come along with me to Dubrovnik, I think it will be an eye-opener for you!
And so I did. And so it was.
At the time, the director of IUC was Johan Galtung, whom I had met when he gave a lecture at my high school in Aarhus in 1968. So, here I was with two pioneering eminent and very different peace scholars who became my main mentors in the field of peace and conflict research. The first years I was a student, took all the courses I could and wrote one paper after the other; we called it high-temperature education. Apart from some sleep, a sista with lunch – often oysters and white wine at some beautiful square in the old town – and a swim in the sea, it was work, work and more work until late dinner and then up early the next morning. In particular, Galtung was a super-productive creativity-driven master who inspired young people East, West, North and South… in the end, however, too much for the Yugoslav authorities.
As you’ll see here and there through this book, they are guilty of much when it comes to my intellectual career and production.
Later, I became a teacher at ICU and enjoyed it tremendously – also because it gave me the opportunity to learn from some of Yugoslavia’s best intellectuals – including the Praxis philosophers, people like Mihailo Markovic and Svetozar Stojanovic.
Interestingly, Josip Broz Tito – the “dictator” as ignorant people in the West called him after his death in 1980 – had an interesting way of treating thinking dissidents; he took their passport from them and, so, the only place they could interact with scholars from abroad was in – yes, Dubrovnik. That was great for me because I learned one thing in 1974 that I could not have operated without later: Yugoslavia was hellishly complex; don’t believe that you understand it because you have read a book or two. Always look for various explanations, be aware that everything is related to everything else in the Yugoslav space and – finally – don’t believe that the Balkans is a kind of backyard of primitive thinking and atavistic conflicts.
Concretely – there I sat as a 23-year-old student and listened into the wee hours of the night to the – heated – discussions among the best intellectuals from all Yugoslavia’s republics discussing the most important thing that year and indeed signalling the fate of the country – the new Constitution that had been adopted in February 1974, a 300+ page document that allegedly made it the second-longest constitution in the world after that of India.
▪️ From 1974, Yugoslavia became the third country that I felt I belonged to. I have visited it more than a hundred times, almost every corner of it. With the TFF team members, I was very intensely and closely involved in all the processes of its violent dissolution through the 1990s and I have conducted about 3000 interviews in all republics, at all levels and with people of all walks of life – in addition to internationals, UN people, humanitarian workers, journalist and, on one occasion, CIA.
I have served as goodwill (unpaid) mediator between three governments in Belgrade and the Kosovo-Albanian leadership under then-President Dr Ibrahim Rugova. TFF’s team produced a comprehensive plan for a 3-year negotiated solution which was the only one that got widely published in leading media on both sides.
It was all destroyed by those who wanted a violent solution, the US, CIA, the German intelligence service and the murky Kosovo-Albanian forces that got all the weapons. They undermined Dr Rugova’s nonviolent policies and later became the Kosovo-Albanian Liberation Army, or KLA/UCK, NATO’s allies on the ground. Two of their leader still play prominent roles in the new states’ political system, Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj.
And that was basically what the 72-days NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia from March 24, 1999, was all about. The Clinton administration’s illegal (according to international law because it lacked a UN Security Council mandate) Serbophobic project produced nothing but destruction, fear, higher cancer rates due to the criminal use of depleted uranium bombs, 800 000 refugees who ran down to Macedonia, etc.
I was there during the bombing, visited Novi Sad and Belgrade. Remember standing in my room on the 6th floor of Hotel Moskva in the centre of Belgrade and feel the pressure wave up through my body when NATO relentlessly punded the Batanica air base, built to withstand tactical nukes, 10 kilometres away. No one who was not there would ever understand what crime it was. And the result? The US Bondsteel Base, the largest at the time outside the US, being built in Kosovo for strategic reasons, an even today failed stated called Kosova and a Serbia that has long ago lost faith in joining the West. Why?
I’ll tell you why. Law professor, Vojeslav Kostunica, who became President after Slobodan Milosevic told me during a conversation I had with him in his home in the cosy Skadarlija Street that Washington had already told him – a couple of months after NATO’s bombing – that Serbia would only be allowed to join the EU after it had joined NATO.
This deep engagement – with TFF’s several Associates and Wiberg and Galtung in particular – has produced what I believe to be the largest single analytical work, equivalent to about 2500 A4 pages, namely the blog called “Yugoslavia – What Should Have Been Done” (2014) in which everything we wrote from the wars broke out there in 1991 is published as it was originally written. It’s also unique in its systematic focus on not only criticism – of which we do a lot – but on how the world could have helped the peoples of Yugoslavia to divorce in a better way and live better together afterwards. Had the West not bee so ignorant and arrogant and mainly produced peace-prevention policies.
I remain of the belief that that conflict and the ways it was mishandled has changed Europe and certain matters beyond Europe more than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union.
In summary, much more to be said in due course.
September 11, 2001 – history’ most foolish war
▪️ I was on my way home from an international conference in Bucharest, Romania, about religion and peace, attended by church people of all denominations in Europe. I had a longer stopover in Munich and sat in a sauna there when someone came in and said that he had just seen some planes fly into the towers and added that it looked like a movie. I told myself that that was probably what it was. That somebody had flown planes into those towers from the top of which I had once seen all of Manhattan myself was simply too far out of my imagination. Surreal.
I soon got wiser. On my way to the departure hall, all screens showed those now-iconic images again and again as if to convince us that this was real. At the gate, it was announced that they knew nothing about whether there would be a departure to Copenhagen or not. It was a nervous, solemn atmosphere in which we felt something enigmatic and ominous had happened. But what exactly? At boarding, the staff searched us meticulously and took my Swiss knife.
Since that day, everyone knows what “9/11” means. But we’ve never learned “10/7” for the US retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan or “3/20” for the attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003. To be able to manufacture the symbols and images that help immortalize what “we-shall-never-forget” is an important element of political power – as is the ability to shape – by silence and omission – that “about-which-we-shall-never-talk.”
Since then, everything has gone wrong thanks not to the event itself but to how the U.S. under President George W. Bush decided to react to it. At this point, let me just state these views – probably still provocative to touchy souls:
• Terrible as the almost 3 000 innocent deaths that day was and remains (of which more than 300 were not US citizens), it is a minor event in the history of violence. The U.S. response, the Global War On Terror, has been totally out of proportion and caused millions of dead and wounded and destroyed one country after the other. 37 million people have been displaced. In parenthesis, about 30 000 people are killed and wounded in domestic gun violence, and about 300 000 Americans die from obesity annually. The thousands of billions of dollars wasted on the Global War on Terror could have been used to solve the much more devastating and tragic socio-economic and class problems of the American society.
• Very conveniently for the US as a victim, everybody asked Who did it? and How did they do it? – but very few dared ask: Why did they do it? Why did they choose the United States and why its three main centres – Wall Street as its global economic power, Pentagon as its global military power and (attempted) the White House as its political power? Just a bit of diagnosis, or causal analysis, would have helped shape a better policy.
• I have never engaged in analysing what actually happened, but I remain unable to believe the official explanations – too much unasked, unexplained or dubious. What has been more important to me is to see a) how the United States has exploited the event, b) how victim psychology has been given a perverse blast, and c) how counter-productive for itself and the rest of the world this has been.
For example, according to now disappeared State Department data for the year 2000, international terrorism killed about 400 people and wounded nearly 700, mainly in South America. However, the 2020 Global Terror Index from the Institute for Economics and Peace, IEP, put the figure for 2019 at 13.826 casualties. That is 35 times more deaths from political terror actions than in the year 2000. It must be one of history’s most counterproductive ways of solving a problem and one of the most unintelligent wars ever fought. Which doesn’t mean that any high-level politician has asked the obvious question: What have we done wrong for so many years when the problem has just grown bigger and bigger?
• The whole response was wrong because the Global War on Terror remains based on the – foolish and anti-intellectual – conception that you can eradicate an ism – terrorism – by killing terrorists. You can’t. Who in their right mind would argue that we should eradicate diseases by killing those who suffer from them?
• Finally, the definition of what terrorism is has been a slippery slope from Day One. Virtually any violent act – also without any documented political purpose – can now be called terrorism if it suits governments’ propensity to use violence to respond to an event and only ask questions afterwards.
Secondly, the entire focus for 20 years has been on small-group or private terrorist activity and not on state terrorism. A generally accepted definition of terrorism – distinguishing it from war – is that it is a surprising/unpredictable and horrifying act of violence meant to achieve a political goal by deliberately harming or killing innocents people or people not a party to a conflict. With that, it is obvious that governments – not the least the US itself – are much bigger terrorists than, say, ISIS. And it should be obvious that all countries with nuclear weapons adhere to a terrorist philosophy since nuclear weapons cannot be used anywhere without the deliberate harming and killing of innocent civilians, perhaps even in the millions. That’s why, before 9/11, we used to talk about the nuclear balance of terror. But that term has, understandably, been deleted from the nuclear discourse.
▪️ What has this Global War on Terror – not September 11 as such – influenced my life?
Well, I think of George W. Bush whenever I go through ‘security’ in an airport. It has meant surveillance everywhere and a tragic reduction of general trust in our society. It has created a huge security-intelligence-surveillance complex closely related to the Military-Industrial-Media-Academic Complex, MIMAC. It has reduced the joy and excitement of travels to a minimum.
And worse, perhaps than all of this, it has undermined democracy and freedom. In the name of fighting terrorism, authorities can do exactly whatever they like (“our first duty is to protect our citizens”). You cannot argue against any of it as long as the majority believes in it for real – instead of as a pretext for permanent worldwide warfare. It has caused a series of new wars and enormous refugee problems.
Sadly, the living conditions this has forced upon humanity are not going to disappear in my lifetime. Even if terrorism should disappear completely, this new Complex will promptly find ways to legitimate its existence and further expansion. For 20 years now, politics have been conducted by deliberate “fearology” – and when you make citizens fear, they are willing to accept anything.
In conclusion, the convenient self-image of an innocent, peaceful US being attacked out of the blue is absurd. September 11, 2001, was a consequence of the foreign policy of the United States since 1945 – a blowback or boomerang. We now have an everyday psycho-political fearological state terrorism, uniformly adhered to by governments around the world and reducing tremendously the quality of life, human rights and democracy for all the world’s citizenry.
Identifying the causes – the why – of “9/11” is not the same as defending its perpetrators. That said, the reaction the US leaders in Washington chose has, in my view, long ago documented itself as a much larger moral, legal and political crime against humanity than what happened on that historic, apocalyptic day in New York and Washington.
The US chose permanent violence as its response. It could do so because it is history’s strongest military power with a global reach. Ask yourself how a country with a tiny, or no, military would have reacted to a similar event. I imagine it would have searched its soul, used diplomacy, improved its intelligence and early warning and brought up its suffering in the United Nations. And it would have used its best brains precisely because it could not choose worldwide violence, death and destruction.
Burundi – the heart-shaped country still looking for peace
▪️My quite unexpected life in Burundi started out at a conference in the US where I gave a lecture about forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-making. Afterwards, a black man came up to me, shook my hand, thanked me and said – I want you to come to my country, Burundi. He was Prosper Mpawenayo and Minister of Education. He wanted me to be a keynote speaker at a UNESCO-supported conference shortly after in the capital of Bujumbura. I immediately said “yes” – having so long wanted to get back to the African continent I had so abruptly left in 1981.
As director of TFF and head of its mission in Burundi, I was engaged on and off in Burundi – the small, very densely populated, banana and coffee-producing country in Africa with 8 million inhabitants – between 1999 and 2010. Allegedly, it was the third poorest on earth, and little had happened for decades in terms of socio-economic development.
But Burundi was a good, pro-peace story out of Africa, in the wake of war and genocide.
Nevertheless, the world over, neighbouring Rwanda has received most of the attention, and its genocide is commemorated every year. The documentaries, history books, Hollywood movies and novels are all about Rwanda. Most people do not know that they were once one country, and if you go there today and compare Kigali and Bujumbura, you would also not believe they were.
Remembering genocides is an important means of ensuring that these tragic events do not happen again. So those who know Burundi ask themselves: Why never a word about Burundi?
In the genocide there in the 1990s, at least 300,000 were killed; isn’t that worthy of commemoration in the media?
▪️ TFF did conflict-analysis and mitigation, peace education courses, skills training and in 2005-2007, we organised a new NGO, the Amahoro Coalition with 13 leading CEOs – Civil Society Organisations. Amahoro means peace. The overall idea was to train young people in conflict-resolution, negotiations, mediation etc., to help them become change agents throughout their society. Our work enjoyed the full personal support of the President of the Republic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Speaker of Parliament and of the UN Head of Mission.
From 2007, I did two other things in Burundi. First, I had shot two video interviews in 2008 with then foreign minister, Antoinette Batumubwira. In the one here she emphasizes, among many other important things, that the good story about Burundi – and it was at the time – was complicated to spread to the world.
There was a strongly felt need to develop an international media strategy so Burundi would appear more in the media, both with its problems and as a good story out of Africa. So I worked with a ministerial team that she had appointed. When I had learned how they were thinking about such a strategy and what they needed, we made a brainstorm and, based on that, I wrote up a plan. Mme Batumubwira was quite pleased with it. However, shortly after and way before it could have been implemented, she was appointed head of the External Relations and Communication Unit of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Group and left Burundi.
Secondly, I taught the first peace and conflict course at the local, private Lumiére University. From time to time, it was pretty chaotic. The lecture hall with some 150 students was basically an open structure with a corrugated iron roof. In Africa, rain showers can be quite explosive and the noise on such a roof deafening. Since much-needed electricity for the microphone came through only a couple of hours per day – there was no way you could teach when it rained.
Be this as it may, the course went very well, but the university could not find the funds to establish a planned Masters degree in the field of peace. I must admit that I felt quite despondent about both of these developments beyond my control. Indeed, all involved did their best, but if you are at the bottom of the global society, funds are often Problem # 1. Burundi never received even half the international development aid pledged by donor countries.
▪️ To make a long story short, money also became a problem in a way I had not foreseen.
Two leading members of the youth organisation – one of whom I had taught bookkeeping – managed to empty the bank account of the organisation, funds that originated from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from friends of my wife and I as well as from TFF’s Friends. Although the stolen sum was small in Western eyes, it made up a few annual average incomes; it was never retrieved. A person at the Ministry of the Interior who should, upon my urgings, have intervened legally had obviously been bribed and did nothing.
None of what we had built survived after TFF’s and I had left. And I learned that there is something called inverse racism; about half of the young people seem to have thought it was wrong to do that to TFF and me personally – after all, they had had a good experience, we had had a good time together and many appreciated TFF’s work over the years. The other half was of the opinion that since I was a “muzungu” – a white man – it was not that wrong whereas it would have been a punishable crime had the money been stolen from a fellow Burundian.
C’est la vie – as they say. In 2017, I summarized what happened later:
“Burundi has been consumed by internal violence. President Pierre Nkurunziza’s main policy goal seems to be to keep himself in the President’s palace until 2034. He has stated that he has God’s mandate to do so.
On the way to achieve that goal, the Arusha Peace Accords have clearly been violated and so has the country’s constitution.
Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries due to rampant government-instigated terror against its own people. Civil society and media have been reduced to a bare minimum. Socio-economic problems have created a huge crisis, and the country is now likely the poorest in the world in terms of per capita income. The ruling party is strong because there is no viable, cohesive political opposition.
Burundi has quit the International Criminal Court and demanded that the earlier UN missions were drawn down. The last UN Mission left the country at the end of 2015.”
I had had a long conversation with President Pierre Nkurunziza shortly after he had won the elections. I got a good impression of him at the time; as a Hutu who had taken part in the violence and lost family members, he was committed to trying to reconcile the Hutu/Tutsi divide, he said. And he promised to pray for our peace work. As the years passed, he seems to have been hit by a kind of megalomania and started his and his party’s war on the people with whom he had been extremely popular in the beginning. I’ve heard that many of my young friends fled to Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
When the Corona struck the world, he seems to have declared that God had blessed the air in Burundi so the virus would not be a problem. However, his wife got it as well as a bodyguard, and then Nkurunziza himself fell ill and died in June 2020.
▪️ Despite the above and the sorry end of all our efforts, I am happy and in many ways grateful that I have worked in Burundi. I feel convinced that we sowed some seeds with a few minds. It gave me the privilege to work – again – in a materially poor country and appreciate my own life in the perspective of the hard lives millions – the wretched of the earth – live every day. It gave me proportions.
When on mission in Burundi, I often stayed at a villa owned by a Swedish lawyer and businessman, Magnus Schiller. He had decided to not only live in Bujumbura parts of the year but also to care for about a dozen young orphan street boys. They lived on his compound, he paid for their existence and education and also gave them genuine guidance and saw to it that they got a job and kept on the right side of the law.
I befriended him and them, began to take photos of them – and brought back the printed images at the next visit. On Sundays, we sometimes organised a minibus that took us all to the Tanganyika Lake’s wonderful beaches where we took more photos, sang, played football, drank Coca-Cola and ate sandwiches. Feeling how those happy hours there made them happy made me even happier.
Here three of them – “beach boys” – always with a glimpse in the eye and, yes, some of them turned it into a fashion show too…
I learned about a very different culture where people struggle very very hard to survive and in which economic corruption, abuse of women and of political power, unbelievably low standards of education and much else combine to condemn millions of good-hearted Burundians to poverty and a lax attitude to what I call truth. Simply to survive. Not checking what is right and what is true but believing in anything you hear – including constructed rumours – is one of the ingredients of the politics of genocide.
And – oh yes – like in Yugoslavia, I got a solid education in how wrong and self-serving the simplifying Western concept of ethnicity is.
Deep down, Yugoslavia’s dissolution was certainly not about “atavism” – something happening because of an ancient habit from a long time ago in the history of Serbs, Croats and other nations there.
And neither is Burundi and Rwanda about Hutus and Tutsis; these identities can be mobilised as part of complex conflicts rooted in poverty, inequality and the above-mentioned power abuse and, of course, in traumas. But ethnicity is not the root cause.
Perhaps, in reality, the assumptions about some kind of primitivity at lower civilisational levels that Western science, politics and media excel in is, when everything is told at the end of the day, rather more about the intellectually lazy and self-serving interpretations of cultures and conflicts that the West itself has a huge responsibility for having created in the first place?
Playing one group against another is primitive. Why? Because there has never been a complex conflict anywhere with only two parties and none in which all the good people are on one side, and all the evil people are on the other. But this is still the prevalent worldview among Western geopolitical interventionist decision-makers who operate on little knowledge about “the locals” and on a strong belief in their own superiority – that is, on contempt for those they consider morally, militarily or otherwise weaker than themselves.
There has been more than enough of Western racist colonialism in Africa – in both Somalia and Burundi. Their best hope now is to become part of the Chinese-initiated Belt And Road Initiative, BRI – or the new Silk Roads. I wish Amahoro for all Burundians. Finally.
Iraq 2002 and 2003
▪️The board of TFF had discussed what could happen in Iraq during the build-up to the bombing, invasion and occupation that began on March 19-20, 2003. Should we somehow get engaged? Not that we thought we could prevent a war, but we have always seen it as part of a serious analysis to have been to the place. Actually, that is one of the things TFF is known for in contrast to many scholars who often refrain from going to hotspots or warzones. I’ve always respected war reporters who took risks to be able to bring the rest of us news from such places.
TFF’s board chairman at the time was Stockholm-based Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Christian Hårleman who had spent most of his professional life in numerous United Nations peace-keeping operations (PKOs) around the world and also trained lots of people. We both knew how to operate under extraordinary circumstances and getting in and out of offices in a diplomatically correct manner. We did two missions to Iraq – one via Amman, Jordan, and one to Damascus, Syria, after which 800 kilometres by car to Baghdad. The latter was in February 2003 and upon arrival, we made an agreement with the Norwegian embassy that if the bombing should begin while we were there, we would be protected at the embassy. But we left well before hell descended upon the Iraqi people.
We conducted some 160 interviews at all levels. The Iraqis were extremely open to talk with us as visitors because all their attempts to dialogue with the US and the EU/NATO world had come to nothing. Letters they wrote to the EU requesting exchanges were never even answered. During our visits, we were mostly in Baghdad, of course, but also in Babylon and Basra and we visited the UN mission on the border with Kuwait, UNIKOM.
Upon our return to Sweden, we wrote numerous articles, gave interviews and commented on various media. TFF had more than 15 Associates with deep knowledge about the Middle East. At that time, it was possible to get through in the media with a variety of perspectives; editors thought it was interesting to convey what those few who had actually gone to a conflict or war zone had seen and heard – the independent, free voices. We also thought that that was the very least we could do in gratitude to the hundreds of hours our interlocutors had spent with us.
Between March 27 and May 2003, I wrote a diary of the events with critical observations of most of the media coverage – entitled “Think Freely About Iraq” encompassing 54 articles/comments. I also wrote a book in Danish the title of which in English would be “Predictable Fiasco. The Conflict With Iraq and Denmark As An Occupying Power”. It was published already in early 2004 while lots of research is often published way after events have taken place. I had thought it would make a splash in Denmark because Denmark’s participation in the occupation of Iraq under Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the largest (till then) foreign policy miscalculation in Denmark since 1945 and the one with most lies embedded in its foundation.
However, it sold only 10% of the copies of my more general dissertation “Myths About Our Security” had done in 1981. That made me wonder whether thick analytical books were rapidly becoming less productive at least when it comes to the global affairs field than online publishing. Whatever the answer, I haven’t published a printed book since then.
▪️Who did we meet, interview and learn from?
American military authorities had issued a deck of cards consisting of the “Most Wanted Iraqis” – people who have since then, by and large, been liquidated, imprisoned or died in custody. By 2021, only 11 of them have been released.
Obviously, it would be interesting to meet some of them and learn how they looked upon the West and upon themselves and their country and policies. And so we did.
For instance, we had five hours of conversations with Nr 3 man of the Iraq society, Tariq Aziz, long-time Deputy Prime Minister, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and close advisor to President Saddam Hussein. While surely not an innocent man, he knew the U.S. and other West much better than any top decisionmaker in the West seems to have known Arabic Iraq, its culture, history and ways of thinking. And all of that was not so innocent either.
In her home, we met Huda Amash, the highest female politician and top-level in the Baath party and a leading scholar and dean of Baghdad University. She granted us a long interview too and came across as a decent, knowledgeable, slightly nervous but strong and patriotic politician – all in contrast to her being one of the Most Wanted and officially called “Mrs Anthrax” by the US. Listening to her telling how weapons inspectors – groups infiltrated by Israelis and CIA people – demanded access to primary and secondary schools without notice was quite thought-provoking.
During a few meetings, we had gotten on excellent terms with a warmhearted and intellectual woman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was head of the office for contacts with CEOs – Civil Society Organisations – the category to which our tiny foundation would belong. Her name was Aqila al-Hashimi – press the link, like those above, to learn about these personalities’ solid background and roles. For a period, she also ran the Oil For Food Program. She was another high-level woman in Iraq and, like millions of other Iraqi women, not one in need of being liberated by President George W. Bush.
She was kind enough to open the door to other offices in the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One rather late evening, we were granted a more than two-hour interview with Amer al-Saadi, retired lieutenant-general and Saddam Hussein’s primary presidential scientific advisor. Read more about them under my picture of the two below. She was murdered a few months after we had met her. Knowing he had clean hands, he was the first to hand himself over to the Americans. But he was not released before 2005. It deserves mention that a few weeks before we met him, Amer al-Sadi had made the following extraordinary statement that the White House declined to comment on: “We do not even have any objection if the CIA sent somebody with the inspectors to show them the suspected sites.”
Some 12-15 people had gathered in al-Saadi’s office in the evening of January 8, 2003. They were extremely generous with their time, and it was way after 9 PM. This does not indicate that Hårleman and I were particularly interesting for them to talk with but that they all politically responsible Iraqis were desperate to get their side of the story out. So I felt it was about time to ask one last question and I said: “May we here at the end ask you a more personal question? We wonder who in this room are Sunni and who are Shia, and what does it mean to you?” It was a question we had asked all we interviewed, and no one had been able to make us understand the difference, and no one so far had answered that that was an important dividing line.
Dead silence! It lasted long enough for me to think that I had now offended everybody instead of expressing our gratitude to them for giving us so generously their time. But then, thank God, everybody burst out in laughter and crisscross began asking each other what she or he was. Having been colleagues there for years, they didn’t even know who was what. Several explained that s/he himself was this and the spouse that.
We felt greatly relieved when leaving, smiles all around. This is the kind of experience on the ground that no book or media report can convey with the same impact on your intellect and emotions.
▪️It’s a sad fact that when you go doing fact-finding in a war zone, you are bound to talk with people who later get killed, commit suicide, disappear, go made or suddenly change in fundamental ways – for instance, peaceful people who end up taking to weapons. I want to pay respect to two other deeply impressive people whom we had very informative talks with and who shortly after were killed. One is Brazilian Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Representative for Iraq, the embodiment of a visionary and globally thinking man of peace, a brilliant intellectual educated in moral philosophy, and a charming diplomat who was seen by many as a candidate for UN Secretary-General.
Tragically in more than one respect, he was killed with 21 others in August 2003 when terrorists blew up the UN Headquarters in Baghdad with a truck bomb. Together with 9/11, this was also a blow to the United Nations regarding staff security precautions and the role the UN can play in particularly nasty, brutal conflicts where it is virtually impossible to avoid being perceived by some as non-neutral, as a pawn in some player’s game. After all, from Day One, this was a US war on another UN member and a gross violation of international law.
My wife and I had met him in 1994 when, during a few months, he was head of the Civil Affairs Department of the UNPROFOR mission in Zagreb, and I remember how quickly our conversation became more general and global, on world peace options – and less focused on the immediate situation in Iraq. He was eager to learn about peace research in general and the conflict mitigation work TFF did and had done. de Mello was yet another on the long who was killed for being a man of peace.
Finally, the deeply tragic case of Margaret Hassan. She had married an Iraqi man and settled in Iraq in 1972, had many positions and jobs and was widely loved and respected for her humanitarian work – when we met her with Care International. She was murdered in the most bestial manner, as told here by Robert Fisk seven years after she died in 2004.
She was the first on the ground to give us an Iraqi view of the terrible human consequences for the Iraqi people, the children and teenagers and women in particular, of the economic sanctions imposed collectively on the innocent Iraqi people in an equally bestial way – while ignorant people back home had the guts to call sanctions a “soft weapon”.
I remember talking to doctors at a children’s hospital in Baghdad and Basra and seeing women and children waiting to simply die in their beds. Why? Well, one explained to us, because to help cure leukemia – that many suffered from because of the use of depleted uranium munitions – you need three types of medicine, call them A, B and C. Those who organised the sanctions saw to it that if Iraq had A and C, it would not have B – and if B and C, not A.
At an early stage in our fact-finding mission, Margaret alerted us to a dimension of this multi-dimensional war that was woefully – and on purpose? – under-reported throughout the Western media. During 13 years of sanctions, about 1 million Iraqis were killed, and more died from sanctions than from the warfare itself. Saddam was good at torturing and killing but an amateur in the field compared with Bush and his Coalition partners.
▪️In Baghdad, Babylon and Basra we met about 150 other people who were equally important for understanding the conflict – of “the other” – but not as powerful or known as those mentioned above. We liked talking to the very open-minded Iraqis we ran into in cafés, shops, tea places, or the famous taxi drivers when not having formal meetings. We met a political dissident in house arrest in his home, scholars, and parliamentarians. We also had a long conversation with the chairman of the parliament who was a Kurd and pointed out that the largest Kurdish town in Iraq was – no, we did not know – Baghdad with about 1 out of 5-6 million inhabitants being Kurds. Quite a few would have to be moved around, as he expressed it if somebody in the West wanted to chop up Iraq in a northern Kurdish part, a central Sunni part and a southern Shia part. A map of where Sunnis, Shia and Kurds were living in Iraq would show you how mixed they were and why, therefore, such a division idea – which many in the West entertained at the time – would have meant a new Bosnia or worse.
We also met with religious people who gave us the usual religious explanation of the difference between Sunnis and Shia which emphasizes the issue of succession after Prophet Muhammad’s death. Still, everyone emphasized that this was of no daily importance and, not the least, that the Iraqis had never fought a civil war.
Virtually every interview, or conversation, was an eye-opener. The leader of the national women’s organisation talked like a waterfall to me for about 3 hours. What I learned was how strong women were in the secularized Iraqi society compared with women’s roles in other Islamic societies. There were even female fighter pilots in the airforce. Also how strongly she felt connected to Saddam; I counted roughly 40 photos of herself with him on the shelves of her large office.
The head of UNICEF in Iraq told us that already by then – i.e. before the invasion and occupation – there were 300 000 clinically traumatized children and youth in the Iraqi society and I silently wondered how many of them might become future terrorists hating the West?
A Scandinavian diplomat ended our evening-long meeting in his residence where the shelves carried many books about Iraqi and Middle Eastern history and probably every book that was ever written about Saddam as a dictator, tyrant and torturer by saying: “I’ve been stationed in Saudi Arabia over several years and here for a year. I want you to know that I’d rather spend ten more years here in Saddam’s Iraq than one year more in Saudi Arabia.”
This is again the type of unforgettable insightful statement you get only by going there and by establishing trustful relations with those you meet. And we could do that because of two things: a) we had some knowledge and experience in how to just do that and, secondly, everybody understood that TFF was independent and for peace and not part of any governmental political or media structure or agenda.
The war on Iraq brought me in contact with an honourable German diplomat, Hans-Christof von Sponeck. He had served in the UN for more than 30 years, latest as UN Assistant Secretary-General and as Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, responsible also for the Oil-for-Food Programme. In 2000, he resigned from the UN with the argument that he did not want to preside over a genocide on the Iraqi people. He had taken over that position after Dennis Halliday who had resigned in 1998. I met Hans at a conference in Gothenburg in July, 2001, and invited him to become an Associate of our foundation and, later, he became a board member. In 2006, he published the most authoritative study of the sanctions against Iraq, A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq – a book that should be studied by those who continue to believe that sanctions is a “soft” weapon.
It is very difficult to analyse who many people have been killed in Iraq since the war started and until today. But 250 000 seems to be a minimum. The medical journal, The Lancet, estimated 655,000 total deaths (over 90% of them violent) as of June 2006, that is 15 years ago.
Everyone responsible for this mass murder is still at large, meaning no one has been tried at any court. Those who say – “but we got rid of Saddam” do not seem to have a sane idea about the price to be paid. In addition, his possession of nculear weapons was a lie, already revealed before the invasion of honourable people such as weapons inspector Scott Ritter and Hans Blix, head of the UNMOVIC inspection operation, famous for speaking truth to power in the UN Security Council on February 14, 2003, that “so far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons [of mass destruction], only a small number of empty chemical munitions.”
One more piece of fact-finding must be mentioned. Since 1991, the UN had a mission, UNIKOM, that monitored the demilitarized zone, DMZ, on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Several days before the US started bombing Iraq, armed US Marines and vehicles entered this demilitarized zone and on the Kuwaiti side cut down fences and set up 7 gates, presumably in preparation for an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Christian Hårleman and I wrote about it on March 12. No media took any notice. It was a crystal clear violation of the UN mission and its mandate and, thereby, of international law.
When the actual invasion took place, I managed to call one of the UNIKOM leaders who could do little but watch it all. He was devastated, trembling voice – “how can this be possible”?
▪️One of the last evenings, Hårleman and I both gave lectures to a high-level audience at Beit al-Hikmah – the House of Wisdom – that is one of the main centres of learning in the Middle East. The meeting had been arranged by a former Iraqi ambassador to France who was formally responsible for us during our visit and a man who rapidly became a dear friend, Amin al-Zubaidi, a businessman and former military who was also head of the small Iraq-Sweden Friendship Association. All kinds of people turned up – not the least some retired and active top-military people, intellectuals, citizens and politicians. We were asked whether we would mind that the Iraqi State Television broadcast the whole thing – to which we said yes. They respected that and turned off their cameras when we began to speak.
We talked about peace in general, concepts of peace in different cultures, and we argued that – if possible, which of curse we knew it wasn’t – Iraq should defend itself against the coming invasion primarily by means of nonviolent resistance. I remember that the response was kind and diplomatic but also very determined in the military direction: the Iraqi people will fight to the last soldier, nonviolence is unrealistic, and the only Iraq an enemy would be able to occupy was one that was empty of people – meaning all dead. We did not dispute it but we had discussed what to make of the poor boys who occasionally has marched by under our hotel window in worn non-fitting uniforms, out of step and some even with different types of boots on the left and right foot.
No wonder that most ran away and changed to civilian clothes when the US started its exceptionally cruel shock and awe.
▪️The US and other West were woefully ignorant about Iraq. I’ve documented that here. Not one of the US team that came to Iraq knew anything about nation-building or any relevant matters, had any experience from the country, or spoke Arabic. But they were a disgraceful mix of business people, mercenaries from other war zones, CIA, etc. The very least one would expect was that if you occupy a country and thereby becomes responsible for governing it, then you would select the most qualified people for that job.
The invasion and occupation should never have happened. It was built on what today is called lies, propaganda, fake, invention and omission. Deliberately. But instead of trying to make the best out of that and do something good for the Iraqis, a series of “should-never-have-been-done” policies followed.
One thing that should never have been done was to emphasize that non-existent Shia-Sunni divide and marginalize all Sunnis because Saddam was Sunni. His rule was more Sunni than Shia, although he did balance various groups in smart and brutal ways – and thereafter build on Shia groups. The ousted Sunnis, military people who had lost their jobs, later shaped ISIS; the Shia later invited – completely predictably – Shia-majority Iran.
Two other things should never have been done either – the de-Baathification of politics and the dissolution of the military. But if there was one thing that should have been there it would be a plan with a purpose, strategic goals and some strategies to achieve them.
If there is one man – and of course there never is only one – behind this policy that has cost so many thousands of lives and caused millions of innocent Iraqis unspeakable pain, it is L. Paul Bremer III who was appointed by President Bush – best colonial Viceroy-like style – to become Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq and, if you will, President of Iraq – that is, the Iraqi Governing Council or provisional government. Bremer was as close to a complete intellectual and moral disaster as could be, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bush, and now sits at various right-wing Republican institutions and does – equally talent-less – oil paintings which he sells through his own company in between being a ski instructor.
And you’ll see here that this man regrets nothing. Everything is somebody else’s fault.
“It is enough that a lie is believed for three days – it has then served its purpose.”
Marie de Medici, 1573-1642, queen consort and queen regent of France
The lies about Iraq have lasted now for about 20 years. Like all other US wars, they have added an unforeseen purpose to Marie de Medici’s: The decline and eventual fall of a country that, intoxicated by exceptionalism and militarism, seems unable to live in peace with the world and with itself.
And, remember: Everyone responsible for this mass murder is still at large. In the West that, allegedly, cares so much for human rights. While US President Bill Clinton was impeached for his special relationship with Monica Lewinsky and Trump was impeached for having instigated the January 6, 2021, assault on Capitol Hill, no President has been indicted for instigating dozens of regime changes – see Iran next – around the world or for having caused the death and suffering of millions of innocent people in a series of countries in this century alone.
It is, in my view, no wonder that Western politics has increasingly come to build on psycho-political projection unto others of its own dark sides, demonisation, invented threats and on blaming others for its own failures.
▪️ These two fact-finding missions to Iraq enriched my understanding of the West-Middle Eastern conflict from the side of “the other” which is important beyond words and only natural if you subscribe to the idea that a conflict has, by definition, at least two parties. I must admit too that it gave me the pain from learning the unbearable lightness of Western evil doing without even the slightest hesitancy or remorse.
It gave me something else that I shall write more about elsewhere – namely the impulse to do something concrete about photography.
During these missions, I had taken some photos between meetings with one of the early digital cameras, Fujifilm FinePix 4900 Zoom, that had 2.2 Megapixel, or 1/10th of today’s digital cameras. I posted some on TFF’s homepage called “Iraqi Faces and Surfaces”.
The photos of the boy in the car in Baghdad is telling. His eyes were expressionless and he didn’t move, tightly holding his own hands together in front of his mouth. And the car’s condition will tell you about the poverty of the Iraqi people at the time, a poverty the sanctions only made worse day-by-day.
While I wrote quite a lot upon my return, I found out that what the visitors to our homepage reacted to was my pictures, much more frequently than to the text. Many wrote and said that these faces were so mild, that the photos gave Iraq a human face, while the only images being available were of Saddam either shooting in the air or attending military parades.
Truth is, of course, that the media do not bring us images of people, culture, nature’s beauty or anything positive from a country that shall be demonised to justify later bombing, invasion or destruction by us – supposedly higher up on some civilisational ladder.
It dawned upon me that we had entered the age of images and, later, some would call that the post-literate society. Be this as it may, in May 2009, I opened my photo gallery and studio, Oberg PhotoGraphics, on the first floor of our villa in Lund. I’m an art photographer and not a politico-documentary or war photographer. There are enough images of violence in this world. But we’ve got to meet people where they are, and images and videos have never been more important than today, not the least thanks to the mobile phone and later the smartphone such as the first iPhone in 2007.
Iran from 2012
▪️With tension building up between Iran and the US/West, TFF’s Board decided that we should get engaged in the conflict that had its roots back in 1953 when the US’s CIA and the UK’s MI6 orchestrated a coup d’etat, or regime-change, in Tehran and deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh. Iran and the West have been on a collision course ever since around various issues, and the biggest issue has been whether or not Iran should be “allowed” to have nuclear weapons. In addition to strong Western political pressure, sanctions and embargo had been imposed.
After the first fact-finding mission there in 2012, we defined three specific purposes under the general headline of “Conflicts, Changes and Future Peace Options In the Middle East” – namely a) learning as much as possible about Iran to counter, as best we could, the West’s negative view with a focus on the nuclear issue; b) help develop academic peace research at Tehran’s University and c) produce a photo book from Iran.
Iran is one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with settlements dating back to 7000 BC. We found it interesting as a TFF focus point in the Middle East. We chose it deliberately in contrast to most Western interest in Arab and Zionist cultures, which, to quite an extent, share the perception of Iran as the enemy. In that larger equation, it is the “different” actor and a comparatively small military power.
▪️My work there has been multi-dimensional. Giving lectures at Tehran University and with NGOs – the deeply moving Tehran Peace Museum in particular; interviewing people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the top future research think tank, Center for Strategic Research (dissolved 2017), which used to be directed by President Rouhani; ploughing through all the history and art museums, gardens and famous mansions I could, visiting bazaars and mosques, travelling the country to experience historic places and places of beauty, ancient old Silk Road villages, etc. Like many other visitors, I fell in love with Isfahan.
Further, I always visit and explore the wonderful House of Artists and quite a few of the roughly 100 contemporary art galleries, as well as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which holds the largest collection of contemporary Western art outside the West itself. The diversity and dynamism of Iranian culture will take any visitor by surprise.
And most importantly, I interviewed citizens I met on my way. Because, as everyone who has visited Iran knows, the Iranians are exceptionally open-minded, happily make contact with foreigners in streets, cafés or parks, want to talk and hear your opinion of Iran and are happy to be photographed. They would have lots of reasons to turn their backs on Westerners, but – like I also experienced in Iraq – there is a deeply touching, spontaneous hospitality, kindness and will to dialogue among the people. It’s a decency that I believe an Iranian walking the streets of Lund, Washington, or Moscow would seldom find, if at all.
You may get a sense of what I mean by watching videos from and lectures about Iran by an American writer, Rick Steves, who emphasizes the difference between the generalised Western image of Iran and the real Iran you experience when taking the trouble to go there. I have not met one Westerner who has visited Iran who did not mention that remarkable difference. One explanation is that they distinguish very clearly between Western citizens and their governments.
▪️ My readers will now surely ask: But what do you think about the theocracy and the human rights situation in Iran? Let me make it short because I have nothing to defend. Iran is a party to a severe, deep and longterm conflict with the US-led Western world. My professional job is to try my best to understand all parties to any conflict my foundation and I engage in. Which side(s) I may personally sympathise with in, say, Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq or Burundi is completely irrelevant for the analysis of their conflict – like a doctor’s attitude to a patient is irrelevant when s/he does surgery. Your job is to behave as unbiased and neutral as humanly possible and focus on the problem that stands between the parties and detect ways to solve the conflict with as little violence as possible. That means listening to all sides, explore where they are willing to change view, perception or goals, how the problem itself can change and how you can help them think of a better future than continued conflict and, perhaps, violence.
The fact is that the West has never listened to Iran. And, further, that 99% of the people who shape Western perceptions of Iran have never visited the country. I felt I had listened enough to the West as a party to this conflict – and that needed to listen to the other side. Book are important before you go – but when you are there, forget the books and listen, listen and listen. Don’t judge!
In short, you can’t understand this, or any other, conflict by listening only to the United States or other Western countries and their news bureaus. You simply can’t. In Iran’s case, as in every other case, our media have never tried to produce a fair and comprehensive news reporting or to understand Iran. YOU never see Iranian news bureaus quoted. So going there is a since qua non of any understanding of the conflict. If you want to understand only your own side, of course, you can stay at home. However, it is highly useful to understand the other side and look at the world and ourselves from the perspective of “the other”. By the way, I have learned enough about the difference between the Western media reality and real reality on the ground to base my research and analyses on mass media reports.
Concerning theocracy, I am personally of the opinion that no government should be based on religion or the idea that some government leader has a mandate from God. So, no theocracy in the world is to my liking. Gandhi would never have run India – had he had a chance – as a theocracy. In my view, religion should be a private matter and every citizen should be free to be religious, social and political without harming others. Secondly, I am against the death penalty, torture or whatever evil under the sky, no matter what country practices it.
That said – and perhaps not very surprising – anyone who just denounces Iran but has never bothered to go there and see for her/himself is irresponsible and lacks intellectual and moral courage. It’s a political and scholarly correctness that I am unable to respect. Why?
▪️ The West-Iran conflict is extremely a-symmetric. By that, I mean that the West-Iran conflict is not about two equals, but about a big guy and a small guy. It’s the West that has, historically as I hinted in the first paragraph above, sought to influence, change, threaten, demanded obedience from, punished (with sanctions and more), liquidated high-level politicians and scholars, shot down a civilian plane, demonised and excluded Iran.
Iran has not done similar harm to the West.
If the West wants to influence, even change, another country or system – I do not know with what right, but let’s imagine it has such a God-given right – it should do everything else but what it has done to Iran the last roughly 70 years. You do not get someone you define as an opponent to come your way by the methods just mentioned. They are extremely counterproductive from that point of view and have only aggravated the conflict and caused tremendous suffering among the innocent 80 million Iranian citizens.
Sanctions, for instance, have only impoverished the people and caused a majority of the middle class – the only class that can bring about change – to fall down into poverty and catapulted the rest upwards to a Maserati and a luxury penthouse in northern Tehran. It has only increased the economic corruption, turning even honest people into smugglers by even depriving the country of medicine and humanitarian help – I have experienced it myself and written about it here. And it has only had the effect to cost the US and the EU lots of billions of dollars in lost trade and investments with Iran.
But Messrs Biden and Blinken tell the world and Iran that the US is back. Iran will therefore increasingly turn its back to the West and its face to Russia, China and the new Belt And Road Initiative, BRI. In the long run, Western policies are self-isolating and self-defeating.
On the specific issue of nuclear weapons, the whole affair is already a sort of the Theatre of the Absurd. We should be grateful that Iran has put up with it and joined the nuclear deal in 2015, the JCPOA. Here sits a series of nuclear weapons powers – the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – which for decades have arrogantly ignored every attempt at real nuclear reductions, nuclear abolition and the UN goal of general and complete disarmament – and force through a deal that tells Iran to not acquire what they themselves obviously cannot live without.
Furthermore, next door is heavily-armed nuclear weapons state, Israel, that – in contrast to Iran – became a nuclear weapons state in the 1960s with the full blessings of the West, accepts no inspections, is not a member of the NPT (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and is the only country violating the UN’s normative work which dates back to the 1970s to establish a legally binding Weapons Of Mass Destruction-free zone in the Middle East.
Besides, as of January 22, 2021, all nuclear weapons now exist in violation of the new, truly historical, UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW. Until the US under Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed new cruel sanctions, Iran was in complete compliance with that deal. Whereas the US withdrawal was not only a breach of trust – a country that doesn’t stand by its signature – it was also a serious violation of international law because the JCPOA was part of a UN Security Council Resolution and thereby a piece of international law which, as expected, is virtually never pointed out in the Western media.
Iran’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly stated that according to the Quran, possessing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, WMDs, would be Haram – forbidden. One can only hope that his successor does not interpret The Quran differently, or that the US/NATO countries have not already painted themselves so far into a moral and political corner that they will feel that the only way out is to punish Iran militarily, alternatively let Israel and/or its new-found Saudi and other Arab fellows do so. In early 2021, I fear that that is where Biden-Blinken are heading.
Iran and my many Iranian friends have given me more than I could ever pay back. Not the least Saeed Aalaei, who has become a member of our family over the last ten years while passing both a Master degree and a PhD in biology at record speed, whom my wife and I have travelled around Iran with and whose extended family received us with such open and warm hearts.
But some small tokens of our gratitude have been paid. Thanks to a lecture I gave about peace and conflict research at the Faculty of World Studies at Tehran’s University in 2013, I was privileged to be approached by associate professor Ali Akbar Alikhani who took me and Saeed into his office and said: “This is the type of studies we must have here!” He did not mean studies of the peace content of the Quran, he meant academic studies of conflict, war and peace in a wider sense that I had talked about, including Gandhian nonviolent thinking, peace by peaceful means, world future studies and – well all that my foundation has worked with and I have been a professor for here and there. And would I help with that and come and teach? You bet I would!
So, 7 years later there is now an international Masters degree there with an annual conference and I was immensely proud to be a keynote speaker in November 2020. All about it here. As far as I know, Iran is the second country in the Muslim world to have such a program – my mentor and friend Johan Galtung stimulating the first with Malaysia’s former leader Tun Dr Mahatir bin Mohamad.
Finally, we have – of course – not managed to change the pervasive one-sided, negative Western perception of Iran. But we have produced hundreds of articles on our websites and dozens of video comments, predominantly made to PressTV, the BBC of Iran if you will. They were all on YouTube but no longer accessible because Google-owned YouTube decided with no notice to close down PressTV’s channel. So much for freedom of expression and freedom of the media in today’s US Empire – and so much for displaying the West’s politico-media fear that there may develop a more diverse public perception about this conflict and a more fair image of Iran and its people.
Dictatorships act like that – but democracies? Oh yes – deception, fake and – worse – omission is part and parcel of Western foreign policies.
Despite this, we are moving. Some small people-to-people bridges have been built in just a few years. And every big change begins with a few people, with dialogue, not confrontation. I can’t wait to go there again.
And I trust the amazing poet and philosopher Rumi more than Biden-Blinken:
▪️ I went to Syria in December 2016. It so happened that I had come across the relentless media coverage of something called the White Helmets and found out that it was, by and large, everything else but the amazing human story about neutral good-hearted Syrian citizens of all walks of life who saved lives because President Bashar al-Assad’s had gone mad one day in spring 2011 and started to systematically kill his own people in a kind of domestic genocide.
The White Helmet media story was disseminated by governments, media, commentators and human rights organisations with such conspicuous timing, efficiency and with such amazing photographs and videos everywhere that I asked myself: Can this really be about one simple local humanitarian organisation? And why have I never seen any similar coverage of the tens of thousands of other local humanitarian initiatives in lots of other conflict zones?
So I began to dig – as any reasonably alert and independent scholar and journalist should. My conclusion – that turned out to be correct – can be found in this rather long analysis from November 2016, Just how grey are the White Helmets and their backers? I felt I had all reason to go there and see how many other aspects were part of the manufactured media war narrative with little or no truth content. I mean, if a Western regime-change intervention had to be marketed by something like the White Helmet propaganda story, then there was probably something fishy with the whole project.
I am happy to admit about myself what Canadian Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, UNPROFOR Commander in Sarajevo, allegedly said back then about himself: “I have a nasty mind”. If you take statements at press conferences and media coverage in international politics at face value and don’t apply a nasty mind, you’ll become interventionism’s and militarism’s useful idiot. Regrettably, many choose that role because it is the most convenient, profitable or career-securing.
Off I went to Beirut, Lebanon, and from there took a car to the border, obtaining a visa, and then – high-speed – over the mountains considered a dangerous stretch, through some checkpoints and into Damascus to the terribly narrow lanes of old Damascus and then walking the last hundred meters to the Beit al Wali Hotel, as beautiful and cultured as cosy, with every staff and the owner embodying decency and kindness. Parts of the roof had been shelled, and just a few meters from it were holes in the old street stones.
Soon Ali – not his real name – turned up as my “fixer”, a word I thoroughly dislike and he’s been my friend ever since. Other foreign visitors I knew had recommended him, and he was a very verbal and socially competent man in his twenties educated in the humanities and a very able interpreter. Of particular importance was that he was not working for the government; he occasionally took upon him to guide journalists and other visitors because of his love for his people, culture and society and because he wanted to dialogue with foreigners and thereby prepare himself for a future life outside Syria.
This was very fortunate because, with him, I would avoid the gramophone-like official explanations – or lies – governments at war seem to often think is a good idea to impose on visitors. As a principle, I myself and TFF’s teams have always sought to use local students or whoever came our way as interpreters. Interpreters with an official role are, no matter how kind and professional, largely useless from a fact-finding point of view.
So, while most Westerners in those days went to Syria via Turkey, operated in opposition/terrorist-controlled regions and never went to Damascus, I’ve always thought the capital would be the right place to begin fact-finding missions and then move outward. There you have the people of formal power, intellectuals, museums (for history), cultural places and much else of use when you try to understand a country, its policies and behaviour. Furthermore, over five years, Western media, film-makers and NGO people had told you the Syria story from where they went, and I felt I knew that sufficiently (and did not go there). In contrast, comparatively few had set foot in Damascus.
So, we had an intense schedule from the first day with formal and informal meetings – with intellectuals, parliamentarians, doctors, religious leaders, including the Mufti, and individuals living in Damascus. I squeezed in cultural institutions, shops, the bazaar, cafés and restaurants where you can be lucky to get to talk with local people and learn as much as possible. Pop into an antique shop owned by an older man or woman, and you may be lucky to strike up a conversation and learn more about history and society in an hour than any university lecture. Not always, but it happens – not the least in a cultured and history-filled place like Damascus.
▪️ Once again, I found out – almost like a detective who reveals a plot – that the media narrative, or media war, was incredibly deceptive. No, that did not take me more than ten days. Whoever I talked with in Damascus and Aleppo East and West told me things I’d never heard in the Western media, voices, perspectives and angles simply – shamefully and deliberately – omitted.
The violence broke out in the southern town of Daraa on March 6, 2011, and people who do not know better focus on the violence but not on the underlying conflict it is rooted in. The basic conflict, however, is much older and has nothing to do with Daraa. I present three types of conflicts that come together in Syria and have to do with things that happened decades earlier. You only need to read this 2006 telegram by William Roebuck, in 2006 political counsellor at the US embassy in Damascus, to understand that this was about regime change and that what has happened in Syria since March 2011 is not predominantly a civil war. More about this here.
Roebuck analyses the weaknesses of Bashar al-Assad’s policies and advocates exploiting them and destabilising the country. And the whole conflict goes back to the CIA’s interference in Syria in 1949 – here too – and the fact that both Assads, father and son, had said “No” to the US demands that pipelines should be built across Syria’s territory. Here is the brilliant analysis by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
On December 10, Ali and I had finally managed to get permission for us to drive from Damascus to Aleppo. Here and there, the driver made detours around zones of ongoing fighting and shelling with risks of being shot at or stopped by what I call RIOTs. RIOT stands for Rebels, Insurgents, Opposition and Terrorists – to summarize all those the West and its regional allies supported with narratives and stories, training, weapons and ammunition – virtually all kinds of people and groups who shared one thing – that they wanted to get rid of Bashar al-Assad.
Driving into Aleppo, through various checkpoints, I was overwhelmed by the continuous, systematic and merciless destruction and the skeletons of buildings still standing. They had not been “bombed by the Assad regime’s Air Force and by the Russian planes” because, if so, they would have been only flattened into ruins and debris. The fighting had taken place from flat to flat, house-to-house, street-to-street. (Again, see my photo documentation here).
We talked with all kinds of people, including doctors, priests, intellectuals, students from Aleppo’s university. We were taken by the local administration from our hotel in Western Aleppo to the East, but suddenly the convoy – me in a taxi in it – made a fast U-turn and drove high-speed back again, using the horn constantly, people jumping for their lives and the driver looking more and more desperate. I had no idea what was going on, and he spoke no English. When safely back in the West, at our hotel, we were told that security had called the driver and told him to get us back as fast as possible because a major attack was imminent. These were the last days of warfare in and around Aleppo, and the forces of occupying RIOTs were desperate to destroy as much as possible before they had to give up Eastern Aleppo.
Western media wrote that Eastern Aleppo “fell” to the dictator on December 12, 2016. It didn’t. It was liberated after 4,5 years of occupation and devastation. I ask you to see the pictures I took in Eastern Aleppo and of the displaced Aleppo citizens. They were smiling, waving, dancing and singing, celebrating at restaurants and honking the horns of their cars on December 12, 2016. In the East and in the West. I walked freely around in Eastern Aleppo, I talked with anyone I wanted. We were transported by the security – and I am happy they cared for us – but no one told me what to see, where to go or whom to talk with.
I was there. The only one from Scandinavia and among max 20 people from the West – all would be staying at one of two hotels reserved for foreign visitors. I believe I know.
When back in Sweden, I learned that media and some politicians thought I was lying, paid by the Assad government or “embedded with the dictator’s military.” Frankly, I have begun to wonder who is lying most about what to whom.
▪️ To make a long story short: Syria is basically about yet another Western regime change attempt, a failed one. The useful dates to remember are December 12, 2012, and December 12, 2016. Here is why:
On December 12, 2012, Western countries and allies – perversely calling themselves ‘Friends of Syria’ on the initiative of French President Sarkozy (in 2021 convicted for economic corruption but not for his warfare) carried through a regime change by statement and set up a Syrian National Council of people never elected by anyone in Syria and told the world that it was, from now on, the ‘only legitimate representative of the Syrian people!’
During the 4 years, Western, Saudi, Turkish and the Gulf States supported innumerable illegal, destructive and mainly foreign terrorist groups with the goal to undermine the legitimate Syrian government and destabilise the country – see the references above to William Roebuck and the WikiLeaks documentation here.
December 12, 2016 – four years later on the day – marked a fundamental turning point. Aleppo did not “fall to the dictator/butcher/mass murderer” aka President Bashar al-Assad – no, it was liberated and the occupation by terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra during 4,5 years ended.
NATO member Turkey had been singularly active in pillaging everything of value in Aleppo’s huge industrial zone (the largest in Syria and second largest in the region), bring it over to Turkey and convert the money to weapons and training facilities for terror groups – a rather peculiar way to contribute to the US Global War on Terror: Like the US itself, Turkey did its utmost to support terrorism in Syria.
Thanks to the destruction of that zone, 40 000 workers lost their homes and jobs. I heard no labour union, left-wingers or others in the West express any regret or solidarity.
Also, Assad’s predicted genocide on his own people there and then in Aleppo after its “fall” – well, just didn’t happen.
Here is a series of steps that could have been taken if the real primary purpose had not been regime change. And you are invited to learn conflict analysis and resolution in 20 minutes here. Finally, here is what you should never do when you want to understand a complex conflict – but all done by most media, politicians and scholars – and a personal pledge I made after my return from Syria.
▪️My visit to Syria gave me two shocks that have taken permanent roots deep down in me. One was the sheer physical destruction. I’ve witnessed the destruction in parts of Georgia and in every republic in Yugoslavia; it was bad enough – not the least NATO’s bombing in 1999 of Serbia and Kosovo. The destruction of Syria – Eastern Aleppo in particular – well, I fail to find the words to describe it and must simply refer you to my six series of documentary photographs with texts explaining what you see. I am constitutionally unable to understand how NATO countries, including my native Denmark, can be the main instigators and facilitators of such destruction – and then just leave it and never talk about such crimes.
The moral decay wars cause should never be underestimated. Neither the ability of governments, media and research to live in denial and learn absolutely nothing – not to speak about saying “We are sorry” or delivering humanitarian aid and other assistance to get a destroyed country back on its feet.
The other shock was that it turned out to be 100% impossible, in contrast to all the other conflicts I have worked in, to get through in any media with what I had seen, heard and photographed. I have documented (with names, formulations in emails, dates) my struggle with a series of media in the article, “Syria and Aleppo. Old News Media Falling”. In the end, all of them came to nothing: Not one article or photo being admitted through the filters of Western, including liberal Scandinavian, mainstream media. But more about that in the chapter where I deal with my media life.
Finally, to the extent that it is possible, I have summarised my experience with Syria in “Western moral decay: Syria – the war, the loss and the silence”.
▪️Left here is only to say that I was suddenly told that as a first-time visitor to Syria, I could not have my 10-days visa extended and had to leave. I tried several times to get back in. I’ve given up after sitting a week waiting in Beirut and calling the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Damascus 2-3 times a day. They had told me a visa was waiting for me at the border, but it wasn’t true when I went there. I’ve learnt that staff does not necessarily turn up at work and never read messages, that visa regulations are changing so often that nobody knows what applies today, that staff is employed not according to competence but connection and nepotism and that those who obtain a visa, such as big media corporations, pay outrageous sums and then do get a visa. Or you have to have some contacts so that you can get your visa from the President’s office, which I am not willing to. Corruption seems limitless. If it cannot manage to issue a visa to someone who had already been there and written something different from the destructive Western media narrative and lies – well, I’ve had to give up going back to Syria. I regret that.
Here again, you probably wonder: So what do I think of Bashar al-Assad? I’ve never met him – my attempts to get an interview was also never answered. But what I think isn’t important. What is important is how the Syrians see him, and there is no doubt that he, his wife and the “regime” has much larger support than you’ve ever been told. How do I know? Very simply put: enough people have told me why they support al-Assad; and if he had no support because he butchered his own, he would not be around today after ten years of nation-wide war and incomprehensible destruction throughout all important sectors of the Syrian society.
The Western insistence – simplification or lie – that everything is the fault of the dictator/butcher Bashar al-Assad and his “regime” has no broad base whatsoever among Syrians. And at the end of the day, it’s for the Syrians – not US/NATO members and their allies in the region to decide. Only the people living in Syria should – but they have, as far as I know, never been invited to any talks.
And, to end that answer: No matter what you or I or Washington think about al-Assad and the Syrian system, no solution can be found without him and it and the government. No one has a right – except the Syrian people – to get rid of this or that they don’t like. Genuine knowledgeable mediators like Kofi Annan and Staffan di Mistura have had to give up their mission to negotiated peace by peaceful means. There are reasons for that – one being that the West would not accept any solution that al-Assad would be part of.
I have no illusions about the character of Syria’s political system and its numerous intelligence services and repression. But it is no worse than many other countries in this world, including in many of those the US/NATO call their allies. (I have experienced how you are interrogated when leaving Israel, but that is another story).
My point is that you should imagine this: Imagine that Syria’s government, its President and its entire politico-military system were even worse than the Western media have told you systematically and without exception, would there be any thinkable way to justify what has been done to Syria, its people and culture?
My answer is a resounding “No”!
• At least 500 000 have been killed.
• Since 2011, more than six million (2016) have been internally displaced, and around five million refugees (2016) have crossed into other countries, with most of them – 3,6 million – seeking asylum or placed in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey (shamefully being paid by the EU for keeping them there), Lebanon (already bankrupt) 950 000, Jordan 660 000, Egypt 131 000 and other countries – all in all, approaching half the population of Syria.
• With that, one must ask, how many adults, youth and children have been wounded on body and soul, died earlier than they otherwise would under peaceful circumstances? And how many have committed suicide?
• Places of culture, UNESCO World Heritage and others, have been destroyed. Both Aleppo and Damascus were on the old Silk Road with enormous historical treasures.
• The West maintains cruel sanctions that, unavoidably, hit and kill innocents and amount to collective punishment – which is illegal – of the Syrian people. They also make reconstruction very difficult.
• Still today, large areas of Syria are under the control of foreign powers in collusion with various RIOTs.
• 11 US military bases have been built on Syrian territory, and President Trump famously said that “we’ve secured the oil” – that is, Syria’s oil. And from one of the larger oil fields, 140 000 barrels per day are transported on trucks into Iraq.
• Israel regularly bombs close to Damascus, and the US has declared that the Golan – belonging to Syria since its independence in 1946 – now belongs to Israel.
• On February 25, 2021, President Biden found it appropriate to bomb in Syria – killing 22 as so-called retaliation for one American soldier being killed or wounded earlier in Iran. Those killed were, allegedly, Iran-backed militia people.
•In short, Syria remains a battlefield for RIOTS, the West/NATO countries, Russia and Iran – the latter two being the only legal foreign forces because they have been invited by Syria.
(These are facts put together from Western media, the UN and other fact-based sources).
Ten years after violence broke out, no end to the misery in Syria is in sight. And not one government regretting the costs of this failed regime change attempt.
Given what I have seen, the people I have talked with and those I have photographed there in that ancient civilisation, I feel pain inside writing this conclusion. With Yemen, Syria is probably the largest humanitarian catastrophe since 1945. But since Eastern Aleppo “fell,” and the West concluded that its regime change attempt had failed, virtually all influential Western media fell silent about Syria.
Like an orchestra falls silent at the movement of a conductor’s subtlest hand move. I readily admit that I have no respect for such media who obediently follow a conductor, ask no questions, check no sources and take no interest in public education about more complex truths.
China 1983 and 2018
▪️I was lucky to be invited to participate in a Danish cultural delegation visiting China in 1983. It was arranged by The Friendship Association Denmark-China and very ably led by its then and now chairwoman, Julie Brink. Another member of that delegation was the grand old man of Danish photography, Viggo Rivad (1922-2016), who became my dear friend and mentor from then on.
It was a whirlwind trip through various regions and cities of China, a very intensive official 16-days program that documented this amazing civilization’s tremendous diversity. I was totally convinced at the time that I would soon return and study it more, but fate would have it otherwise; Japan instead became the country in the East that I worked in on and off over 30 years.
Among the things I vividly remember is that small farmers lived a few hundred meters from Tiananmen Square in Beijing; that I found the rice fields close to the centre of Chengdu immensely beautiful and peaceful; the ride on 1st class of a very slow train; the extremely hard work of the people – often very poor in muddy villages; the black limos of the party members; the infinite number of bicycles everywhere; the Chinese love of their children and their pride of the schooling system; the exquisite food at official banquettes – including, of course, the Peking Duck – where officials would sometimes smoke while eating, burb and spit on the floor – as well as the “must-see” tourist attractions like the Great Wall.
We left with a feeling that this gigantic civilisation, this poor, developing country, was full of pride, creative ideas, experimenting and drive – and the impression that all these Chinese had a strong sense of belonging to one huge family.
There was a kind of excitement about the future because, in December 1978, Chairman Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) had declared the “reform and open up” policy which meant inviting both capitalism and the larger world into China after the disastrous, failed Cultural Revolution.
So, this was the era when – for the first time – the Chinese could see advertisements for foreign high-tech products and dress a little more freely. And drink Coca-Cola.
It also pointed to China’s complete transformation during the next only 40 years. I do not hesitate to see this as the most important and positive development of humanity in modern times – for the 1400 million Chinese themselves and the for world.
▪️Fast forward now to 2018 when I travelled around completely on my own, with no set itinerary, for 6 weeks – Shanghai (art and history), Hangzhou (oh silk!), Guiyang and around Guizhou’s slightly poorer province with fabulous nature scenery), Xian (the old capital with its large Muslim centre), Chengdu (no ricefields to be seen…but full of history and art), Hefei in the poorest Anhui Province (to learn about original paper production), then Suzhou (only a small part left of this “China’s Venice”) and Shanghai. Yes, right, not Beijing, but that will be #1 on the list next time.
I saw that awe-inspiring, positive transformation everywhere. Depending on how you measure, at least 500-600 million people lifted out of poverty and poverty declared eradicated in late 2020. An incredible investment in infrastructure, super creative systems for everyday operations – including the amazing all-in-one WeChat app – and a society that works. I only once stood in a queue – heavy rain upon arriving at Shanghai, not enough taxis. Flight, trains, buses and taxis operate smoothly and on time; I met tons of people, of course at hotels and other places; they did not all speak English but were helpful and correct vis-a-vis me speaking even less Chinese (here translation apps come in handy).
I made many friends I will always be in contact with and see next time. I was taken around by them to museums, special tourist gems, private shops I had heard about but could not find, even a silk factory, schools, art academies and home to artists – and even into families having a party and drinking and singing and celebrating with enough of beers and moutais.
I also met some local politicians in a small village, and with the good help of an art gallery owner’s artist mother in Shenzhen, I was guided to an old-type paper mill far into the countryside in the Anhui province. A Beijing friend and her daughter volunteered to come joining me and also help me with translation, and we had understood that we would be taken around the mill for a couple of hours. But no – the mill owner took us to places of history, then told us there was an official dinner with the municipality in the evening and rooms reserved for us overnight at a lovely inn in the old part of town – and would we mind staying a little longer? (Here my short video from that paper mill).
So two hours became two days – just one example of the hospitality and decency I encountered everywhere that I shall always be grateful to have experienced – across thousands of kilometres, language barriers and huge cultural differences. And everywhere too: Curiosity about us in the West and what we think of China. A good sense of humour. And no checking of me or my photography in the street by any uniformed person.
And the West’s official attitude in response to modern China’s progress?
It is as simple as it is self-defeating: We are not interested in this even if it may be humanity’s largest and most impressive, societal transformation. We believe China is a dictatorship and a coming threat we must fight. We, therefore, bring only negative stories – and the same nine of them: Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, dictatorship, genocide, human rights, armament and China’s cheating poor countries through the world’s largest civilian cooperation project, the China-initiated Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, which today involves 80 countries.
The self-aggrandizing but woefully wrong underlyng assumption is that it is the West’s exceptionalist mission and right to understand China by using Western concepts only and, secondly, to change China to become more like the West. Or, that the values of the US are those that must dominate universally.
However, unfortunately, China can not be understood through Western values or “glasses”. Secondly, I do not believe that we have such a right – as little as we think that China has a right to change us to become more “Chinese.” Besides, the Chinese do not want that at all. They do not come with the two main tools the West has always brought along in foreign lands – the Bible and, if not enough, the Sword. It is not part of the Chinese way of thinking to try to make everybody else more “Chinese” – they have no civilizing mission. On the contrary, they have no wish to change you, rather learn from you precisely because you are different from them. But respect is the sine qua non of such a dialogue.
On its way down, the West – the US in particular – is choosing the wrong path these years when it builds a new Cold War with China. It is not fair. It is not wise. It is not good for the West itself – and China will just adapt over time to become less and less dependent on the West.
Instead, there is everything to win from cooperating with China – and be inspired by its amazing achievements in such a short time – and everything to lose from confrontation.
This is a hugely complex conflict that will define humanity’s future. It pains my heart to see that the West, in this essentially important moment of macro-historical world order change, takes the wrong road down to further decline – in the almost autistic belief that it can continue to bully the world and remain its leader.
Those days should be gone – as should the days of confrontation, exceptionalism and militarism.
China is also important for me in another way. I had been invited by the European Cultural Center in Venice to participate in its huge exhibition “Personal Structures – Identities” with artists from all over the world, held in connection with the world-famous Venice Art Biennale. So between my return from China and spring 2019, I worked intensely on a 20 sqm large photo-based, multi-media installation called Silk Peace Art Road, SPAR – that is inspired by the Chinese-initiated Belt And Road Initiative, BRI. I am working to bring it around in China and then travel back to Europe via some of the BRI capitals. From Venice where I talked with about 1500 people from all over the world, I know it has a dialogue potential.
I happen to finish this section on China on March 19, 2021, when the US has invited China to Anchorage, Alaska, for high-level foreign policy talks. But because of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s exceptionally impolite and insensitive welcome remarks, these two-day talks probably only convinced the Chinese side that the United States wants to continue its Cold War policies. Here CNN’s report with President Biden’s praise of his Secretary of State. And here the Chinese view as published in the People’s Daily. I fear the long-term consequences.
The United Nations
▪️ Some of the above-mentioned conflict zones and engagements are also stories about my encounters with the UN – in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Iraq, Burundi and New York. And let me frame the following by saying that I consider the UN Charter the most visionary, fundamentally important – and Gandhian – document ever signed by governments.
Its preamble establishes the basic norms and the goals of civilised global behaviour, among them that “succeeding generations shall be saved from the scourge of war.” That can be interpreted to mean that war as an accepted social institution shall be abolished.
Article 1 states that peace shall be established by peaceful means; it’s a Gandhian concept (whether the founding people knew or not) that “the means are the ends in-the-making.” Article 42 makes clear that in case of a violation of international laws and norms, all civilian actions and tools must have been tried and found in vain before violent means can be employed (Chapter 7) and then only under the command of the Military Committee of the UN and only with the aim of re-establishing peace. And Article 2.4 states that members shall refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
To put it crudely: those of us who work for peace, peace by peaceful means, disarmament and non-threatening relations between states have international law and its fundamental norms on our side.
A large majority of UN members has violated both the spirit and the letter of the Charter. Some do it on a daily basis. The Charter is super important because it is by its very existence that we can see what is normatively and legally right and wrong. And we can hold governments that are not in compliance accountable.
I am not going to discuss the UN as such, its mode of operation, its strong and weak sides or the reforms it needs after all these years – the latter I have done in many shorter articles and recently in “At 75 – The UN of the future in a globalized democracy” which happens to be based on something I wrote in 1990.
But I am saying that humankind cannot do without the UN and its Charter and that it must not be thrown away before we have something much better.
I also want to bring across what I firmly believe is a fundamental truth: there is no independent UN. There is only the UN that the member states individually and collectively decide to make. And as long as they are largely unable to think in global or transnational terms and prioritize their own national short-term good rather than the common long-term global good – the UN Charter represents a very advanced, ideal and visionary way of thinking even today.
I call this a truth because it was stated in various ways by its first Secretary-General, Norwegian Trygve Lie and has been repeated by a number of UN Secretaries-General. Or, to put it squarely: If all member states respected the provisions of the Charter in all their operations and policies at home and abroad, our world would be much more well-ordered, just, developed and peaceful.
The mission of TFF, of which I am co-founder and director, is to promote through research, education and advocacy the UN Charter’s Article 1 – “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace…” (my italics).
There can be no good future unless there is some legal and normative framework we do our best to respect. The only alternative is the ugly principle that “might makes right”. Think of how your own society would be to live in if there were no laws.
This is fundamentally important because we live – increasingly – in times when the UN has been marginalised by many states, and its Charter violated repeatedly and by the US and NATO members in particular. And in times when the peace discourse has disappeared.
▪️The UN missions I have been in touch with, interviewed members of or directly collaborated with are: UNPROFOR and UNTAES and local missions and offices in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, UNMIK in Kosovo, UNPREDEP in Macedonia, UNMIBH in Bosnia-Hercegovina, UNOMIG in Georgia, the UN HQ and UNIKOM in Iraq and BNUB in Burundi. Several of them were classical UN peace-keeping operations (PKOs) standing on three legs: the un-armed Blue Helmets, Civil Police and Civil Affairs.
Until 9/11 2001 and the attack on the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, many of the personnel were accommodated with the local people. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, these people were tremendously informative to talk with exactly because they knew what was going on on the ground and how local people were thinking. Since then, UN personnel has had to live in large, heavily guarded compounds and get around only in UN cars with protection. I understand why, but it is sad.
I’ve learned a lot from formal and informal conversations with hundreds of people in these missions on all levels. Most of them have been idealists, wanting to do something meaningful in their lives, operated according to a moral codex – and virtually all have been frustrated, to say the least, at the disastrous policy-decisions their respective governments back home regularly made. UN people on the ground – not their ministries of foreign affairs – foresaw quite precisely what the consequences of these decisions would be.
That said, I’ve also met incompetent people who didn’t seem to fit the situation or know their role. And people who had fled private problems and circulated in and out of UN missions just to avoid facing them. And there are countries that deliver soldiers to the UN because they are too incompetent for national service.
Mind-boggling as it may sound, I can’t remember one who thought there was any similarity between what s/he knew about a conflict, place or country and the media reporting about it back home.
▪️The second aspect of my relations with the UN is the HQ in New York. We were many who were active in relation to the 2nd UN Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD) in 1982 and the 3rd Special Session on Disarmament in 1988. When governments met to discuss such matters, civil society organisations, activists, people of culture and researchers from all over the world descended upon New York, sought to influence governments, held seminars, wrote petitions, published magazines, demonstrated and tried to get through the media.
We believed that that was somehow what democracy was all about.
And you did get opportunities to reach out. Here is the haiku version of my relations with the Nuclear Freeze Campaign that – among many other activities – arranged the largest-ever demonstration in the United States. It had been initiated by Randall Forsberg (1943-2007) – whom I knew as Randy at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) where she worked and I, in 1973-1974, repeatedly visited SIPRI to study its arms trade registers for my first article in the flagship Journal of Peace Research published in 1975.
During the 2nd Special Session in New York, we sang and walked up along 5th and 7th Avenue to Central Park and demanded a worldwide nuclear freeze – and then reduction.
We were between 700 000 and 1 million people. Not even the New York Times could ignore that, and President Ronald Reagan sent his greeting – “My heart is with those who march for peace” – only to call the Soviet Union the Empire of Evil in March 1983.
Randy spoke there, as did other leading peace leaders that day in Central Park. Linda Ronstadt, “the Queen of Rock”, and Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor swept us all off our feet. In the midst of it all, I was asked by a journalist to say a few things, which I gladly did – only afterwards to learn that I had reached no less than 8 million people – or did she say 80 million?
This 1982 events in conjunction with the UN Special Session was huge. Unforgettable. I feel sad thinking of the succeeding generations who have never heard about it or witnessed anything similar.
Around this time, I established good relations with the World Policy Institute on 777 United Nations Plaza – the building filled with civil society organisations opposite the UN HQ. Whenever I was in New York, its leader, Sherle Schwenninger (1951-2020) whom I had befriended and his colleagues generously let me work there and freely use their facilities, including phone and fax.
The WPI and its journal World Policy Journal was an intellectual milieu which pioneered visionary peace and future thinking in the tradition of world order thinkers and the World Order Models Project (WOMP) associated with brilliant, visionary scholars who came to influence me through their enthusiasm and their books such as Saul Mendlovitz and intellectuals who had also become or would become TFF Associates such as Ashis Nandy, Robert C. Johansen, Richard Falk, Radmila Nakarada and Johan Galtung.
The WPI was also the “global” place that cared very much for Western relations with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, it cultivated relations with a brilliant, dynamic and freethinking Russian by the name of Gennady Gerasimov (1930-2010) – whom I had also run into at various meetings in New York. He was both the foreign policy spokesman for USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev and press secretary to USSR foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. And you may remember the “Sinatra Doctrine” – a characterisation of Soviet policy that he coined with his fast, humorous intellect.
I deliberately make this detour around the World Policy Institute so close to the UN because I’m deeply grateful for what I learned from these visionary global thinkers as a relatively young scholar. They embodied the best of the United States. And they played a role and thought and said things that would be unthinkable in the US of today.
The Special Sessions on Disarmament provided opportunities to get into the UN building and interact with government delegates and ambassadors – a type of bridge-building between “we, the peoples” as stated – misleadingly – in the Charter and “you, the governments” with all your nukes, other weapons and wars. And between activism, research and policy-making.
That important spirit also characterized a very innovative global dialogue project initiated by the Women’s International League for Peace And Freedom, WILPF, in Sweden – The Great Peace Journey.
The women leading it from Ronneby, Sweden – Astrid Einarsson, Elisabeth Gerle and Margit Nygren – involved me in it from its start in 1985 and it culminated in September 1988 at the UN HQ in New York. Its basic idea was that delegates would travel to all governments of the world – more than 100 were actually visited – and obtain ministers’ answers to the five questions to your right.
Read more about it here. The amazing thing was that 91 governments said “Yes” to do these 5 things.
I had the privilege to be a member of the delegation that went to ask those five questions in Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Cuba. One of its members whom I appreciated very much was a professor of psychology, Lise Østergaard (1924-1996) who, due to her experiences during the Second World War and a feminist orientation towards disarmament and nonviolence, was strongly against nuclear weapons and had served as minister for disarmament in Anker Jørgensen’s social-democratic government some years earlier.
So, there we were at the UN in New York interacting with government representatives and finalizing the project at this “Global Popular Summit” by handing over to the Secretary-General all the answers with our recommendations.
That is where I was also granted another privilege to work with a most impressive social-democratic woman for peace and disarmament, namely Sweden’s – at the time former – disarmament minister Inga Thorsson (1915-1994).
Read her speech here, in particular this: “People have asked: why the Global Popular Summit? The answer is rather simple: we have often witnessed the pyramid symbol of what is called summit meetings: the two men at the top, letting whatever results their meetings achieve descend downwards to the smaller nations, and, at the base, the peoples having no influence on world affairs and human development in peace whatsoever. The Great Peace Journey, with its Global Popular Summit, is turning this pyramid upside-down: making the broad base its top, the peoples asking and requesting answers to their questions of the decision-makers.”
It was actually quite revolutionary! And not seen since in terms of global face-to-face interaction between the world’s governments, their peoples and the United Nations as “we, the peoples.”
It should be mentioned that one of the finest supporters and advisers to the Great Peace Journey was Sir Brian Urquhart (1919-2021) – one of the greatest UN people ever, the main adviser to both Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjöld and the main architect of the UN peace-keeping – all documented in his classic book, A Life In Peace And War (1987). Sir Brian also generously advised our foundation on a number of issues after having accepted to become a TFF Associate.
And now a final story about my “UN life”. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was tasked with responding to a request by the UN Security Council for an “analysis and recommendations” to strengthen peacemaking and peace-keeping. One of the people he had asked to give inputs was a Finnish diplomat, Tapio Kanninen, whom I had run into in the skyscraper’s corridors. He had somehow heard about our work in Yugoslavia and wanted my views on how to strengthen UN peacekeeping. I guess I shared a series of ideas – strengthening of the Civil Affairs leg of missions, training of UN staff to become more competent in conflict analysis and conflict-resolution, more clear mandates by member states, better long-term funding and – polemically – that the member states ought to know the conflicts they engage in much much better – or stay out.
Tapio nodded and agreed but … there was somehow something he seemed to be missing. I wondered what?
Well, concretely, there had been this idea circulating in the UN air that traditional un-armed peacekeeping missions perhaps should be supplemented by something more hard-hitting. It seemed to mean that a new type of more heavily armed forces should be made available to the SG, trained for quick deployment where conflicting parties did not comply with the traditional peacekeeping agreements or, to put it crudely, where the un-armed Blue Helmets would not be enough. That would be a military peace enforcement capacity trained in advance and available on standby.
With a big smile, I responded that I could not see the point in militarizing, or weaponizing, peacekeeping and peacemaking operations and that member states ought to accept the original concept embedded in Chapter 7 about the use of military force as a last resort. After all, remember that the UN Charter’s Article 1 says “peace by peaceful means.” Let’s make that principle better and stronger and not sneak in hard-hitting military forces through the backdoor! I think Tapio understood my argument very well.
To make a long story short: the exercise ended in the adoption of “An Agenda For Peace” in 1992 with its highly problematic paragraphs 42-44 about the new use of violence and enforcement. It can be argued that what I had warned against became reality when the US/NATO bombed in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The classical dilemma was: How do you bomb areas where traditional UN peacekeepers operate on the ground and risk getting killed by a UN “enforcement”?
I still wonder which member of the Security Council wanted it this way – or perhaps I don’t when later seeing who made use of this “peace” enforcement. Later emerged the easy-to-misuse concept of humanitarian intervention, coming in handy to bomb Yugoslavia in 1999, which was solidified by the idea that Western military force can and should be employed with reference to the idea of having a Responsibility to Protect – R2P – in 2001.
I see all three as dangerous ways to tie human rights concerns to militarism and justify (Western-led) military action where less noble motives dominate – such as strategic interests, psycho-political punishment and regime change. And I continue to refuse that humanitarian concerns shall fly F-16s.
In summary, you’ll now understand why the UN feels so important in my intellectual and political life. The UN may be in need of a real facelift – and a much larger budget – but its Charter’s basic norms and vision is something I shall continue to support and struggle for.
From Dag Hammarskjöld’s country farm in Backåkra, about 100 kilometres from where I live. I have taken many international visitors down there and go there at least once a year. You will feel the special ambience, and in addition to the historical documents, you’ll also see what kinds of art, Hammarskjöld collected – Barbara Hepworth in particular. And the landscape around is very inviting and meditative.
Let me now add the third and final dimension.
▪️ In September 1991, a team of four TFF Associates had gone to Yugoslavia, visited various republics, interviewing all kinds of people and then wrote the report, “After Yugoslavia – What?” upon our return. Its title indicated that we had no expectations that Yugoslavia would survive as a unified state; instead, we made a series of proposals on how to split and revive its parts in new ways and with as little violence as possible. We went down to Yugoslavia and presented it – also to give back something to all those who had voluntarily sat down and talked with us.
It was a simple A4 stencilled report with a printed front, stapled together and printed in more than 2000 copies. I remember the Swedish ambassador emphasized that the report had a nice layout…
We also sent it to all corners of the world – remember violence had broken out in Eastern Slavonia in spring that year and had spread fast, Vukovar was shelled from August. It meant that our report was one of the first – and probable the first to also outline possible solutions.
One of the proposals was that the United Nations should deploy peacekeeping missions to contested minority regions such as the Krajina region in Croatia. We believed the first step would be to limit violence because violence quickly acquires its own dynamics, tit-for-tat, revenge and hatred – violence begets violence. So, make things calm down instead of escalating and shape it in such a way that the parties can also talk to each other, rather than kill each other.
Naturally, we had sent it to the UN, Secretary-General de Guellar, the Yugoslav desk, and the UN Envoy to Yugoslavia, former US Secretary of State (in the Carter Administration), Cyrus Vance (1917-2002). Shortly after, we received a message from Vance saying that he had read our report with considerable interest and would like to discuss some of its aspects face-to-face when next we were in Belgrade, where he was based. That’s also where he – a former US Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary of Defence – walked with the people urging peace in that country. In vain, of course.
My wife, Christina, and I met him at his hotel suite in Belgrade shortly after. He received us together with his aide, ambassador Herbert Okun. Vance showed us how he had made notes on every page of our report and wanted to talk with us about the idea of stationing UN peacekeepers in Yugoslavia. Much to our surprise – and of course not known publically – it turned out that he was negotiating exactly that idea with Belgrade and Zagreb. That’s what later became the UN Protected Areas, UNPAs, in the Krajina region of the Republic of Croatia.
One of those he dialogued with in Belgrade was a Praxis philosopher in the tradition of human socialism, Mihailo Markovic (1923-2010), who had written the program of the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS. Incidentally, Mihailo was my old teacher from Dubrovnik in the 1970s; he had told me that when he formulated some of the basic principles of the party program, his main inspiration had been the Swedish social-democratic party program. SPS was the party headed by Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006), the West’s favourite hate object as the guy who could singularly explain all the problems and the wars on Yugoslavia’s territory.
Cyrus Vance was a thoroughly decent man and a good intellectual. He is one of a handful of foreign diplomats who, in my view, had any deeper understanding of Yugoslavia, operated on principles of dialogue and fairness and genuinely wanted to reduce, or stop, violence. In short, the type whose role was slowly undermined – in his case by everything Washington did in Yugoslavia – and the type you cannot find today.
I believe that this encounter meant something else – namely, that doors opened at the UN HQ in New York.
It is hard to believe in the post-9/11 security and surveillance obsessed times, but the way you got through those doors was this: You walked up the few stairs to the building’s public entrance and went into the round reception counter in the middle of the hall. They would ask you how they could help and you would say that you wanted to set up an appointment with this or that person; then they called up and handed you the phone. Simple as that. When you came back for the meeting, they might ask to see your passport and then tell you how to reach the person you were to meet. Metal detectors were used mainly when sessions were held.
Also, quite unbelievable today, you’d never wait for more than a day or two. UN staff were uniformly open and interested in meeting experts and tap their knowledge; that applied of course to the Yugoslav desk but also to the Department of Peacekeeping which at the time was headed by the later UN SG, Kofi Annan (1938-2018) who had also been stationed in Yugoslavia and granted me more than an hour to share what we knew, how we operated and what proposals we had.
So did Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor, when in 2001 I happened to be in New York after a 6-weeks walk around India in Gandhi’s footsteps. This brilliant intellectual and prolific writer’s 1997 book, “India. From Midnight to the Millennium”, had been my main travel companion. Although I am by no means an expert on India, he set off time to answer my questions and then opened up for much broader issues around peace, Gandhi and the UN.
In different ways, Annan and Tharoor belong to the category of people who, in a short, intense conversation, comes through – effortlessly – as passionate visionaries and truly remarkable personalities you feel tremendously enriched by and never forget. Perhaps qualities that surface more easily in one-on-one conversations than in front of formal delegates and media cameras?
I’ve often wondered whether people have regularly been so open and kind to me precisely because I do not represent any political organisation or interest – except peace.
Painful as it seems, they are also the kind of people who make today’s average civil servants and politicians turn rather pale.
In summary – Lessons learned and grateful for being alive
▪️This chapter offers a background to the international developments that shaped my life, profession and values – first as an innocent observer in childhood and youth, later as a student and professional peace and conflict researcher who engaged in these developments but also, thereby, in life-long learning, teaching and advocacy.
What we decide to engage in and do undoubtedly make us who we become. It’s a never-ending process. Thus, new sections will be added to this chapter and new chapters to the book in the future.
I can’t complain about the intense stream of history that has, quite constantly, imposed itself on me – mainly of course, because I was open to and curious about them.
In my teen years, I was convinced that I wanted to become an architect – and I may well try that in my next life 😉 – and, later, started out studying sociology and was convinced that industrial sociology in a broad sense would be where I would specialize; I ploughed through relevant books and did some empirical studies in 1970-1972 of motivation psychology, organisational development, worker’s job satisfaction, new types of production structures such as self-managing groups instead of assembly-line production and that sort of thing.
But then I met people who inspired me, and I began to go in another direction – perhaps one can express it as the application of sociology at the global level. After all, the global society – certainly not a community (Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft) as often mistakenly stated but for sure a society (Gesellschaft) – is a unit that can be studied, as can a factory or a country.
As a citizen and an internationally-operating scholar, I’ve seen it as my task to try to understand this global society and its meaning – if there is one – for myself, for those “others” in the receiving end of Western dominance and for ourselves in the West, in my own countries.
Then, I tried my best to influence and twist developments in the direction that I believed would be better for all and in line with the UN Charter norm that peace shall be established by peaceful means which is close to Gandhi’s famous dictum that the means are the goals-in-the-making.
And I have preserved my freedom to do so.
So, what did all these experiences teach me? Here some of the lessons learned:
• that there is a bigger world out there, and each of us and our countries are fundamentally connected to it but most often we forget and stop caring;
• that there is always a difference between the Western media image and the ‘real’ reality out there that I have experienced myself and that manufactured conflict narratives serves certain Western interests;
• that the way people shape their worldviews have very much to do with their education and the media they consume 24/7 both of which carry lots of implicit values, norms and judgements as to who is good and who is not, who is worthy of attention and empathy and who is not – and who deserves to live and who to be killed;
• that warfare and other violence are tragic and inhuman for the victims/objects and de-moralising and brutalizing for the perpetrator him/herself;
• that, in most cases, violence is unjustifiable because other means could have been employed and the conflicts handled in completely different ways – if the goal was peace through conflict-resolution rather than power and control through peace-prevention;
• that there are always alternatives to violence and wars – if we employ our intellectual and moral capacity – but most people who are responsible for warfare don’t see it;
• how immensely harmful Western policies have been around the world for hundreds of years. Visit a national history museum in virtually any non-Western capital, and you’ll understand just how fundamentally destructive the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, German, French, British and American interventionist policies have been to the local people, culture, identity and environment and how systematically others have been exploited – even to death – in the name of some noble principle such as freedom, liberation, human rights, or democratization;
• what the West looks like from the outside and how the combined fascination and hatred of it never seize to surprise me;
• how working in these places have taught me how to get in and out of the most diverse offices, establish trust across cultures and get people to share their views, sometimes for hours. It has indeed taught me how to dialogue with people of virtually all walks of life – something that has been useful in other spheres of my life;
• that because the West is, or has been, so powerful, we must become much more humble and careful and – that because we haven’t been – boomerangs are now coming to haunt us;
• how to be grateful that I have never been wounded in any of these dangerous places and therefore be thankful for every day I live;
• that these experiences have given me some proportions in my life; when I hear what petty issues can make people upset these days, I keep silent about the miniaturization of comfort zones;
• that it is incredibly important to preserve your integrity and freedom as well as being honest about your activities – particularly when working with adversarial parties in a tense conflict; security services anyhow know what you do so don’t play double games;
• that if you do, there are no necessary conflicts between being a citizen, scholar, mediator, diplomat, educator and media commentator; actually, you learn from these different roles and they can reinforce each other;
• and finally, that no matter what, work with passion (or do something else) but also with detachment from the expectation of rewards for what you do.
[ 29 000 words, 1st version finished March 21, 2021. Content subject to editorial changes ]