Postcard — October 27, 2016, 8:00 am

The Troubles at Home

Syrian brothers seek refuge in Belfast

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People's Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People’s Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

On a gray Sunday in Belfast, police stood cross-armed in front of a line of armored jeeps, primed like racehorses in the stocks. They formed a barricade across a wide shopping street in the center of the city, starting at Poundworld and cutting off the KFC from the Disney Store one door down. The street was an eventual meeting point of the famous Falls and Shankill roads, the thoroughfares of West Belfast’s predominantly Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, divided by a looming peace wall. A solid concrete barricade topped with metal fencing, the wall runs for miles along the lonely bend of Cupar Way, rising higher than a double-decker bus. One of many peace lines built up more than four decades ago to prevent clashes between the two communities, on one side of the wall, fenced-off estates fly the English Cross of Saint George, while on the other, houses hang the Irish tricolor. Spike-topped security gates stand at the point at which the peace line crosses Lanark Way, traffic streaming through during the day. But the gates still shut automatically at designated times, barricading one side from the other.

That morning, Khaled Berakdar, his head and face freshly shaven, nipped down a back alley lane, making his way through empty streets and past the line of police, to meet his younger brother Ibrahim. With slicked-back hair and a thick beard, Ibrahim was sporting a rubber bracelet that read “Syria.” They embraced before making their way towards the Falls, where a crowd was mustering for a parade in honor of the Irish uprising against the British.

“It’s like being back home,” Khaled joked. The peace wall’s thick metal gates reminded him of the checkpoints and barricades in Syria, since the protests broke out there in 2011, leading to civil war. “When my sister left Syria with her kids it took her fourteen hours to reach the border in a taxi, because of the checkpoints, a journey that usually takes an hour,” Khaled said. “Now, there is Hezbollah checkpoint, regime checkpoint, Daesh checkpoint.”

A helicopter buzzed overhead, and he caught himself flinching.

The Falls Road is an artery through West Belfast, a predominantly Catholic area of the city where the streets are lined with murals immortalizing Republican heroes and houses along the side lanes proudly fly the flag of the Irish Republic from their windows. Khaled and his brother had come to join the parade commemorating one hundred years to the day since the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion in Dublin city that proclaimed Ireland an independent nation. Though the uprising failed, it was the catalyst for the years of war waged by the Irish Republican Army that led to Ireland becoming a free state. The treaty signed in 1921 made official the final break from hundreds of years of British rule in the south, but resulted in a bitter compromise, with six northern counties left under the British crown, creating what is now Northern Ireland. In the years that followed, the south was locked in a civil war.

Republicans were split between those who supported the treaty and the independence already won, led by Michael Collins, and those who rejected the treaty in favor of a united Ireland, led by Éamon de Valera. As a boy, my granddad in Dublin had refused to shake the hand of de Valera, by then a head of state, calling him a “Spanish onion” to his face, because my great grandmother was a sworn supporter of Collins.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, the bitter sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, was just a couple years from erupting. Similar to the grassroots demonstrations in Syria, it began with a civil-rights campaign—in this case to end discrimination against Catholics and repeal an act that allowed internment without trial by a mainly Protestant government loyal to the British crown. In 1969, the British military was sent in to quell widespread protests and riots, but instead the situation escalated into an armed conflict. Between attacks by Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups and crackdowns by British forces—who were targeted in turn—over three decades, more than 3,600 people, at least half of them civilians, were killed. Car bombs, armed men in balaclavas, British soldiers patrolling the streets, stone-throwing youths, the bleeding bodies of protestors, and political prisoners dying on hunger strikes dominated the news. By the end of the Nineties, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, declaring an official end to the conflict. But peace lines continued to be built at what became known as interface areas between already divided communities, and reports of sporadic killings that appear to be paramilitary linked continue.

Belfast is now better known for shopping trips than sectarian shootings, with tourists taking black-cab and bus tours of the peace walls and the old front lines. But for many, divisions remain raw. A few years ago, Loyalist protests erupted across Belfast, with petrol bombs and stones thrown, after the city council voted to limit the days the Union Jack would fly over Belfast city hall to the same number of days as other government buildings in Britain, instead of year round. Every year, Loyalist and Republican parades still march through the city, mostly peaceful, with some still carrying paramilitary trappings. This year, the centenary of the rising was followed a couple months later by a parade through the city center to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, commemorated mainly by Loyalists. The exit of Britain from the European Union, which the majority of people in the north voted against, has raised both hopes and concerns of a new push for a united Ireland.

A hundred years after the rising, Khaled and Ibrahim made their way up the Falls Road, lampposts plastered with posters for Sinn Féin,an Irish Republican party that shares power in the north. Theypromised that a vote for them was “a vote for united Ireland.” On the International Peace Wall, amid a patchwork of murals dedicated to revolutions across the world, the silhouettes of a man, a woman, and a little girl were painted across the bricks above a defiant declaration that refugees are welcome. Up the street, men and women in old-style green military uniforms marched holding rifles for show. Kids in green berets and yellow neckerchiefs struggled to keep in time to the beat of the marching drums and whistling flutes. Pinch-faced teenagers in sweatpants and hoodies carried flags emblazoned with “Irish Republic.” In the city center, a small contingent of Loyalists held a counterprotest behind a row of barricades and police, waving the Union Jack, middle fingers swinging.

A man we met during the parade mentioned that one time, during the height of the Troubles, the ceiling of his office collapsed on him during a bombing “You got used to it,” he told us. “I know that sounds weird, but you did.” Khaled knew what he meant. Two years ago he was living for a few months in northern Syria, hoping to work as a volunteer teacher in Aleppo. He stayed with the family of a friend and every night until the early hours of the morning, the sound of the barrel bombs by pro-regime forces had kept them awake. They lay there wondering if they would be hit. The next month, he heard the institute where he would have been teaching had been flattened in an airstrike.

“We thought it would end quickly,” said Khaled, speaking of the civilian uprising in Syria. “Now it’s five years and a lot of blood.”

Even though the brothers grew up in Syria, the Irish rebellion and the conflict in Northern Ireland was part of their heritage. Their mother was from West Belfast, born and bred near to the Falls Road. They all were entitled to Irish and British passports, as well as Syrian. When they were growing up in Syria, his mother rarely spoke of what was happening back in Belfast, her city turned conflict zone, at the height of the Troubles. Sometimes, Khaled remembers, he would see her crying in front of the TV, pointing at the screen and quietly repeating “that’s home, that’s home.”

Khaled had come to Belfast on family visits since he was a young kid, with his three brothers and older sister. When he was nineteen, at the end of the Nineties, he came back on his own and stayed for months with his granny in West Belfast. She would tell him stories about the Troubles, how one of the houses she had lived in had been destroyed in a bombing. Khaled had gone to an Internet café one day and tried to join the Irish Army down south. He came home a few weeks later to find his granny standing at the front door, slapping a thick, ripped open envelope against her open palm and telling him to come straight to the kitchen. “I got this in my door. What do you want people to say about me?” she had asked him. “I’m no traitor.” Somehow, he had been sent an application pack for the British Territorial Army.

Back then, Khaled remembers the Irish tricolor draped out every window along the streets of Catholic areas, until it met with the British Union Jack, each territory marked out edge to edge with flags. As if to strengthen the divide, Protestant areas would hang Israeli flags and Catholic areas would fly the Palestinian colors. More recently, Khaled had passed a muralist in West Belfast painting a tribute to Palestine. He suggested he paint something for Syria. “Which side?” the man had asked him. When Khaled said he supported the revolution, the painter told him, “Walk away from here, kiddo.” He supported Palestine, siding with Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah supported the Syrian regime against the revolution and so by default so did the muralist.

Before the revolution in Syria, divisions simmered beneath the surface. “They lived in some kind of harmony, but a hatred was still there,” said Khaled. In 1982, a mainly Sunni uprising in Hama been crushed by the Syrian army, under the rule of Assad’s father. It ended in a massacre. For Khaled, this revolution was not religious, but a political uprising against a long oppressive system. “It felt like it was coming from people desperate to have a dignified life.”

Khaled and his brothers were raised Sunni, but never felt divided from the Alawite or Christian kids they grew up with. Their mother, who passed away from cancer when they were young, had converted to Islam, but their father was never particularly religious. In school, Ibrahim shared a desk with a boy who was Alawite. But when Khaled posted a video of a protest in his neighborhood in Lattakia, Khaled said some friends who were Alawite began to criticize him for not being Syrian. Their father, still in Lattakia, is now confinded to a small Sunni enclave surrounded by pro-regime areas. Once a ship’s captain and a keen fisherman, now checkpoints often keep him from the sea. “He tells me, ‘I am ready to die in my house, but I won’t give it to anyone,’” said Khaled. 

Their youngest brother, Abdullah, a lanky twenty-four year-old, was in Syria in 2012, during crackdowns on his neighborhood by government forces. One by one, people close to him were arrested or killed. “I lost my best friend,” he said. “The security forces didn’t allow me to go to the grave.” While their father refuses to leave the country where their mother is buried, he made sure all his children got out of Syria before the war worsened. One brother went to London and the three others returned to Northern Ireland. Abdullah moved in with his sister and her two kids in West Belfast. He now works at a Pizza Hut in Lisburn, a mainly loyalist city next door where Union Jacks fly proudly. With his red cap and tracksuit, and every other of his sentences punctuated with “mate,” you would think Abdullah grew up in Belfast all his life. On his Facebook, a photo shows him in the stands at Old Trafford, the hallowed ground of English football, holding up the flag of the Syrian revolution. But he told me matter of factly that his last visit to Syria haunts him everywhere he goes—the face of his dead friend resurfaces in his dreams.

Khaled and Ibrahim followed the parade up the Falls Road, past a Palestinian solidarity mural and a souvenir shop bursting with green, white, and orange paraphernalia. At Milltown Cemetery, where hunger striker Bobby Sands is buried, the marchers tiptoed around the edges of old graves to form a crowd around the small stage setup, a man with a loudspeaker reading out a copy of the Irish proclamation.

“Six counties are still under British rule,” another speaker’s voice crackled out, reminding those gathered of the continuing campaign among some for a united Ireland. “We still have men, women, and youths languishing in jails because of their beliefs.” 

The brothers stood in silence. A year after the protests in Syria began, while working as a diver in Abu Dhabi, Khaled had been detained after trying to board a plane back to Belfast for Christmas. Ibrahim was also arrested shortly after. They were questioned repeatedly about why they were sending money home to their family in Syria. They described how their interrogators would hit them on the soles of their feet with metal bars over and over. Eventually, they were put on a flight together back to Ireland, heads shaven. Ibrahim finds it hard to sleep now. He thinks of the endless violence back home, the countless activists and civilians imprisoned or disappeared. They watched the ceremony, wondering what would be left to commemorate back home if the war ever ends. As they walked through the cemetery on their way home, Ibrahim flicked through photos on his phone until he found the one of his mother’s grave back in Syria, the last time he had visited her.

“Northern Ireland and Syria, it’s the same. Everywhere, it’s always the same,” said Khaled. “One day, there will be arguments over which date to remember for our revolution.” Maybe in the future, they will celebrate both the Irish uprising and the Syrian uprising in the same month. They wonder whether their country will be split into divided territories, whether the sectarian divides will be permanently entrenched.

After the parade, we went to Khaled’s sisters house in West Belfast for tea. When it was time to leave, he asked a taxi driver to take us to Lisburn. “What are you going there for,” the driver asked. “Khalid explained he was visiting his brother at work. “Does he support England does he? In football?” he responded.

On the drive into Lisburn town, a massive poster celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday, which fell the same week, draped the side of a building. British flags floated from lamp posts on a roundabout and along the streets. “It’s just tit for tat, that’s what it is,” the taximan snorted. “They put this up, we put that up.”

A few days earlier, while in London, President Obama had weighed in on how the peace process in Northern Ireland was a blueprint for countries dealing with sectarian conflict. He encouraged young people in Northern Ireland to forge “a new identity,” to decide “the country as a whole is more important than any particular faction or any particular flag.”

After playing football for a local team in West Belfast, Abdullah joined a club in Lisburn, which because of its location had Unionist allegiances, just as teams in West Belfast are tied to Republican groups. “People say, ‘How do you live with the IRA, support ISIS and play for the UVF?’” Abdullah laughs, having no allegiances to any. “You’re Muslim, but are you Catholic Muslim or Protestant Muslim?” If anyone gives him a hard time on the side of the peace wall in Belfast where the houses, isolated behind high metal fences, are flying the English St. George’s flag out their window, he says, “Don’t worry mate, I’m a Protestant Muslim!”

Abdullah refuses to buy into religious divisions. “My mum was Christian, I had friends who are Shia, we don’t judge on religion,” he said. “Religion is just a face, these conflicts are about money and power.” The guys he plays football with are his teammates, regardless of where they live.

“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” Khaled says. “It’s taken so many years here and some people still can’t get over this fact, but it’s true.”

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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