At the weekend, the situation Ukraine finds itself in, one not of its own making, is serious verging on bleak. As military hardware continues to roll into border regions around Ukraine, including Crimea, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, brings things up to the present from a U.S. perspective in this article titled After U.S.-Russia, NATO-Russia and OSCE Meetings, What Next?
Just as the Covid cloud descended over us all I had a spring 2020 train trip planned on the brand new railroad between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. That seems now to be on hold beyond a mere pandemic. Best laid plans have fallen victim to civil war.
Reading Around the Horn
No doubt that civil war is complicated. So here’s some background reading:
A few links to news from the region:
– Addis Standard
– A Muckrack list of articles from Awol Allo
– The International Crisis Group’s articles from Ethiopia and Eritrea
– Ethiopia coverage on Reliefweb
– The always opinionated Zehabesha
Neighboring Somaliland is busy with its own business, as presented in the Somaliland Sun. Djibouti doesn’t seem to have much to say in English (here is La Nation in French), but an expat named Rachel Pieh Jones sends a biweekly English substack newsletter from Djibouti called Stories from the Horn, in which she includes links to news from the region.)
“The army seeks to join hands with the entire nation to safeguard democracy. Violent acts that affect stability and security in order to make demands are inappropriate.”
– General Min Aung Hlaing, junta leader, observing Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, on which the military killed at least eighty people.
This morning’s cancellation of the US/DPRK summit comes as no surprise. It turns out that the president who threatens “fire and fury” can’t countenance similar rhetoric from his interlocutors.
It’s not just the threat of “fire and fury” that the North Koreans have been responding to. The other day the American vice-president went on a friendly news channel to say that “There was some talk about the Libya model … as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
This was a straightforward threat to the life of the North Korean leader, thuggish and anti-diplomatic. But boy, he sure is a big ol’ tough vice-president, yessiree.
The vice-president was referring to an appearance by the new national security advisor John Bolton on the same friendly Fox News channel, in which Mr. Bolton provocatively laid out a maximalist negotiating position, demanding the unilateral disarmament of North Korea along the lines of the “Libyan model.”
Libya’s ruler Moammar Gadhafi was persuaded to transfer his nuclear equipment out of the country in 2003 and 2004. This came under the George W. Bush administration. Later the Obama administration, along with European allies, mounted military action against Libya in 2011 to prevent a threatened massacre of civilians. In that conflict, rebels hunted down Colonel Gadhafi and killed him. This was the “Libya model.”
Since everyone knows this, Mr. Bolton’s remarks were artless and, as we see this morning, if the U.S. is really seeking to pursue diplomacy, counterproductive.
The United States, along with the United Kingdom and France, was instrumental in the death of Colonel Gadhafi. The United States has meanwhile just unilaterally abrogated an internationally negotiated treaty with Iran.
In this light, consider how much weight a member of the North Korean leadership would give President Trump’s remarks on Tuesday that “I will guarantee his (Mr. Kim’s) safety, yes … He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hard-working and prosperous.”
We now enter a period of blistering tit for tat rhetoric between the US and the DPRK.
That Nobel prize will have to wait.
To the long list of stiff upper lip-wielding Brits, including the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Sir Francis Drake who defeated the Spanish Armada and Henry V, the king who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, we may add King George VI, father of the current Queen Elisabeth.
King George woke one desperate May morning in 1940 to a call from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who was just then desperately holed up in an air raid shelter in a palace garden against an ongoing assault from the Germans.
“She begged me to send aircraft for the defense of Holland. I passed this message on to everyone concerned & went back to bed.”
Quoted in Last Hope Island by Lynne Olsen.
Today’s conviction of Ratko Mladic on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN tribunal will come as cold comfort to those terrorized by his renegade Bosnian Serb forces. Mladic served the President of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić (who was captured in 2008), as chief of staff of Bosnian Serb forces,
Mladic went underground at the end of the Yugoslav wars and was reported in poor health when finally tracked down and captured in 2011. On entering court today Mladic appeared in altogether better health, smirking at the camera – “a gesture that infuriated relatives of the victims.”
Mladic and his forces are most remembered for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of about 8,000 men and boys, but the “Butcher of Bosnia” also terrorized the capital Sarajevo, where the 1992 – 1996 siege killed about 14,000 more people, including 5,434 civilians.
Here are photos from Sarajevo in November, 1997.
The Bosnian parliament building, top, and detail below.
Bullet-ridden tram stop.
The SFOR, or Stabilization Force, patrols the main street.
The flower market, where a mortar shell killed 66 in 1994.
I think this photo sums up the term “abject misery.”
A Sarajevo tram crosses in front of the rubble of a shelled-out building.
Screen grab of what was Syria’s third largest city, Homs. From drone video you can view here.
To end this week’s series, a post originally published here on D-Day, 6 June, 2014, about Inge’s husband Erich:
“I don’t like Polish people,” he says, and raises one eyebrow that suggests “And how could anybody, really?”
Among other things, he explains, their language is incomprehensible.
At 84 he has earned his opinions.
He’s graying and a little severe, and turned out today in a light spring jacket, tan sweater and shirt with matching scarf. He takes small steps, pitched forward just a little. He’s tall, thin and upright, and he walks us up and down the streets of Wittenberg all day long.
His father was born in Poland, but mind you, Poland’s borders wave like a battle flag. When his father was born Posen was German. Today it is Poznan, in Poland.
His father fought the Great War riding great horses for the Kaiser, a dragooneer fighting hand to hand with lances. Imagine. His father owed oaths to three sovereigns in his lifetime: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar government and the Third Reich. Imagine that, too.
Erich was born in 1930.
His mother had little reason to think he’d go to war. At the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and during the occupation of the Sudetenland later that year the prospects of her eight year old marching off to war seemed distant. When Germany invaded Poland to start the war in earnest, she thanked heaven her boy wasn’t even ten.
But in time her boy was fifteen and the Reich was depleted of fighting stock. He got six weeks training – rifles, hand grenades, knives, and marched off to dig anti-tank trenches near Bratislava. In the end his unit marched two days trying to surrender to the Americans.
Early in the morning of 2 May, the Russians captured the Reich Chancellery. Fighting continued here and there, but a week later the Red Army had collected German remnants, sorry unfledged youth and press-ganged elders in a stadium in Prague. They ran them through a gauntlet of sticks and pipes. They held them for a week, rain or shine, no shelter, no change of clothes, gave them only bread, then marched the lot to Dresden.
He feels the Russians were fair enough, but along the way ordinary Czech people beat them with sticks and bats the Russians did nothing to stop them. The soldier’s tongues were so dry they filled their mouths. They came to a camp in Dresden, a German POW camp for Russians that once held 3000, but the Russians used it for 18,000 Germans.
He was there a month. Sleeping, when one man turned over, the next three or four had to, too.
When he was freed he returned to Berlin, a boy of sixteen and a war veteran. He had no idea if his parents were alive. His father had been a fireman. Because of the bombing, during the war he worked day and night. It was a dangerous job.
Tremulously, Erich walked up to his old house, knocked, and his mother answered. She peered into his eyes and dismissed him: “I already gave food to soldiers” before at last she recognised him.
He mimicks her, putting his palms to his cheeks and exclaiming, “My boy!”
He was so gaunt she didn’t recognize her own son.
His family was reunited but their city lay in ruins. He and his father bicycled 100 kilometers, deep into the Spreewald to trade with farmers, for there was no food in Berlin. 100 kilometers on a bike, for food.
One time it was a Sunday. He was due in school the next day, learning Latin and mathematics but when they got home he leaned his bicycle against the wall and slept all the way through until noon on Tuesday.
They would trade nails, tools, and especially soap for food. His father could get soap. Firemen had a police connection; they were the Fire Police. Maybe that had something to do with it, but he was never clear, he was just sixteen.
What food could you get from farmers after the war? It depended on how many nails you brought, how much soap, but the staple was corn.
Erich loved a woman, and when they wed in 1951 they had nothing. Basic weddings are free in Germany because of the church tax, but the pastor will suggest every extra you might imagine, a tree and flowers and cards and silly things, but they had nothing and told the man they wanted it simple.
Together they finished school as lawyers. Inge became a family court judge. Erich became a criminal attorney. Once the wall went up they stayed in West Berlin, for nearly three decades, denied the opportunity to get very far out into the countryside around town. Later they showed us the Gleineke bridge, the famous spy bridge where Gary Francis Powers and others were swapped between the East and West Blocs, and they showed us enticing woodlands on the other side that you could see but not visit.
They had a wooden boat for fifty years. They would pack enough food for the weekend and live on the boat from Friday night until Monday morning to get out of town. It gave them a measure of freedom. Except they had to be careful. There were buoys beyond which if they drifted in error, they were liable to be shot. Others were.
Inge and her mother lived in Berlin right through the allies’ assault, until the block of flats where they lived was bombed and burned. They found shelter in the neighborhood, sharing bedrooms with others and moved around from time to time before the German surrender, when they hid from the Russians.
They so wanted the Americans to arrive first because of the stories they’d heard of Russian soldiers and rape. There was a public shelter across the street from the last place they lived, nearby enough that Inge, a teenager in 1945, and her mother watched in terror as Russian soldiers went in and women came out, ‘blouses ripped’ and hysterical. Even parts of the rump German leadership fled west to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Russians.
Finally one day a single Russian soldier, very young, she said, pounded on their door and opened it to find her and her mother inside. “This is it,” her mother said, the moment of horror they’d built up in their minds in all those nights underground, burrowing like rodents against the bombs and the fires.
But the soldier just looked, then closed the door.
Later a Russian soldier stole her bicycle but left them alone.
She thought that because of some translation problem, when the Russians asked the Germans what kind of seed they wanted to plant they misunderstood that the Germans wanted corn instead of wheat, so now there are corn fields where there weren’t before. Which her future husband bicycled into the Spreewald to get instead of starving.
People ate most of the kernels the Russians brought instead of planting them. Which is part of the reason she loved the Americans. They brought actual bread instead of seeds. She said she would never forget when she and her mother got a whole loaf of bread from the Americans.
When President Kennedy came to give his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, of course she went, but to Inge, more than Kennedy the star of the show was General Lucien Clay, the head of the American occupation sector, who came out of retirement to accompany Kennedy. She said Berliners felt it was he who had fed and saved them.
They traveled widely once they could, after the wall came down. They visited all the European capitals. They survived a vicious hurricane in St. Maarten. They liked the warmth of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in winter and spent lots of beach time in Cyprus and Doha and Dubai. We met some twenty years ago on the beach in French Polynesia.
As American World War II veterans celebrate their great victory in Normandy today, their numbers are dropping by some 550 a day. They are dying, too, in Berlin.
America’s remaining veterans have led remarkable lives. So too have the remaining veterans in Berlin, some just boys at the time, who fought, were vanquished and left with a city in ruins, then found it rent asunder for 28 years more, divided east from west and friend from friend by the Berlin Wall.
In April Inge, wife of the young soldier Erich, died in Berlin. We went to see Erich last week to celebrate two extraordinary lives.
Photo: The Bundestag, Berlin.
This week, a series. I have the enduring good fortune to have met two lifelong Berliners, who, like all Berliners of their time, both led remarkable lives, enduring the fall of the Third Reich, the subsequent occupation of their city and its division and reunification in the Cold War.
This is the transcript of a conversation we had with Inge in the summer of 2013 at the Seehotel Muhlenhaus outside Berlin. Inge died, well into her eighties, in 2014. Her husband remains our dear friend today.
We hadn’t had that for twelve years and we didn’t know how to do it. And we now watch in the eastern part of Germany, they don’t know how to do it now. They think they can do everything and they can have everything and they can say “I want everything and I’ve got to have it.”
They haven’t learned about it but we learned it by the American people. They told us how to do it. How to make, to build up a nice democracy, and we watched it, and we did it, and it was good, wasn’t it? After the war then, after twenty years later some people in Europe also said, “Oh, look at the Germans, they are doing quite well, because everyone wants to get somewhere, you know, to rise again.
But we knew if we had been only in the Russian sector, Berlin, we would take all the time of the cold war being … them, you know, and they had no rights, and they had no freedom and nothing, and they knew it.
Only sometimes, you know what they did? They crawled into family and friends and so, and so they tried to forget all about the political pressure and had their being together with their friends and said well, we go on our own way. We don’t want the political stuff, we do our own way and make it.
But on this side there were some very bad things that people, one wants the other man spied (on). And even in, within the men and women. We had a woman, she was very nice, and then she came out from the, we had a certain bureau that was looking after the, what happened with the Stasi and so on, people spying on people, and she came out crying and said, “My own husband. Whatever we said at home, he was bringing to the Stasi.”
That must be a very bad experience, mustn’t it? I have seen them coming out of this (building).
Me: You would have to decide if you really want to know that.
Inge: She would have never believed it, you know? She said, “I haven’t… it was a file of this,” he had a certain name for it, but she had been talking only with him, you know, and it was on that file, word for word.
But still we made it.
Photo: Standing on the Berlin Wall, New Year’s Eve, 1989.