Archive for February 17, 2015

25 January 2015 Sunday

A former battery factory building, in which, at the time of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, Dutch troops were stationed, will be transformed into a museum.

The museum will be part of the memorial-cemetery complex in the village of Potocari, located about six kilometers northwest from the town of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The “aim is to equip the interior of the building in the same way as it was equipped in 1995,” Mersed Smajlovic, director of Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial, told The Anadolu Agency.

Members of the association “Mothers of Srebrenica,” which represents the relatives of the July 1995 victims, said they believed that opening the museum was the Netherlands’ duty to all the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.

“Construction of the museum is very sad and painful for us. However, it is still a positive thing and a warning to all states not to fail the exam that the Netherlands has failed,” Hatidza Mehmedovic, president of “Mothers of Srebrenica,” told The Anadolu Agency.

During the war in Bosnia, the UN declared the Srebrenica enclave a safe zone under the protection of its peacekeeping forces.

In July 1995, the UN, represented by Dutch troops on the ground, let Army of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) troops enter Srebrenica. The latter would kill 8,372 Muslim men and boys in just a few days.

In the summer of 2014, a Dutch court had found the Netherlands liable for the deaths of more than 300 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, in a case launched by the “Mothers of Srebrenica.” They had been handed by the over to Serbian forces by the Dutch peacekeeping force in Potocari.

The museum will exhibit audio and video equipment, photos, maps, furniture that were onsite in 1995, said Smajlovic.

The project is being implemented in cooperation with the Dutch peace organization, PAX.

According to Smajlovic, the museum will be built and equipped by the end of 2015.

Source: World Bulletin.


January 19, 2015

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Heavy overnight rainfall has caused rivers to rise in the Sarajevo area on Monday and flood homes in the suburbs for the fifth time in the past 20 months.

The city’s Civil Protection department said that about 100 homes were underwater. Rescuers evacuated an elderly woman, but complained that many residents refused evacuation. Residents said that over the past few years their homes have been flooded two or three times annually.

“It’s chaotic here. I am afraid and I didn’t sleep last night at all,” said Enver Becirevic, a resident of the Doglodi suburb. “We live in fear all the time.” In central Bosnia, the river Bosna is reaching a critical level and rain has caused at least three landslides. Several roads were closed.

Bosnians have still not recovered from the devastating floods in May, the worst in 120 years. The flooding displaced 90,000 people and left 43,000 homes in need of repair. The floods devastated the agriculture industry, infrastructure, farms, buildings and homes in about 40 percent of the country.

Rain is expected to continue to fall for the rest of the week.

By Naimul Haq

JAMALPUR, Bangladesh, Feb 4 2015 (IPS) – Shanta is only four years old, but already she loves school. Every morning, her mother walks her to the small pre-primary facility in Mohonpur village, about 140 km away from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, and leaves her in the care of a young female teacher, who oversees the day’s activities: storytelling, drama, reciting poetry.

The little girl’s mother, Mosammet Laily Begum, is a housewife of humble means. She and her husband, a rickshaw puller who earns about 100 dollars each month carting passengers back and forth, live in a thatched-roof home. They grow vegetables in the garden to supplement their income, and between them only just manage to scrape together the funds to feed and clothe their three kids.

Education is a luxury, one that – in a different time and place – they would have had to forego in favor of life’s necessities.

But the preschool located close to their home is free. Before Shanta, Laily’s two older children also passed through these classrooms, where they learned the alphabet in both English and Bangla. They have gone on to do very well in elementary school. She credits their love of lessons to the foundation they received here in Mohonpur.

“My daughter now plays with nothing but her school books at home,” Laily tells IPS. “She would rather do that than play with other children in the neighborhood.”

This family is lucky; unlike scores of others across rural Bangladesh who have no access to preschool facilities, they live within walking distance of one of the several thousand schools run by BRAC, one of the world’s largest development organisations that focuses on early education for kids between the ages of three and five.

Laily knows that her children could easily have fallen into the same category as the 3.3 million ‘out-of-school’ youth in Bangladesh. Until 2012, the government offered no options for families like hers, that couldn’t afford private preschooling.

This meant that the roughly 45 million Bangladeshis who subsist on less than 1.25 dollars a day had little chance of preparing their offspring for mainstream education.

This fueled a vicious cycle: poorer children who couldn’t get a head start lagged behind their more privileged peers, with inequities continuing on into the secondary and tertiary levels.

Many of these disadvantaged youth make up the bulk of Bangladesh’s unemployed, who constitute some 4.5 percent of the population of 156 million people.

Organisations like BRAC have attempted to level this uneven playing field.

With 12,450 pre-primary schools across the country, which provide schooling for nearly 360,000 students each year, the BRAC (Pre-Primary) Education Program (BEP) is the largest free preschool program in the country.

Altogether, over 5.2 million kids have benefited from these facilities since BRAC first rolled out the initiative in 1997.

Easing the transition into mainstream schooling

Standing inside the small tin shed that serves as her classroom, 27-year-old Rowshanara Begum is in her element. She handles a group of 30 kids, 18 of them girls – a 50-percent female enrollment rate being a top priority for BRAC – and she knows she is making a difference.

For two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, she painstakingly takes her charges through the alphabet, peppering the tedious process with drawings, nursery rhyme recitals and games. The flexible, informal structure keeps families coming back for more.

“There is tremendous pressure from parents to open another such free school for the children here in Mohonpur village,” she tells IPS.

Teachers are trained to nurture a child’s creativity, which in turn encourages better communication, language and social skills. Equal emphasis is placed on improving motor ability, using exercises such as free-hand drawing and painting.

In short, the whole curriculum is geared towards easing the transition into the public education system.

This is no small undertaking in a country where the average child takes 8.6 years to complete the five-year primary school cycle. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) chalks this up to low standards in public institutions, and the fact that 24 percent of all teachers in government-run or registered non-government schools are untrained.

The NGO has a lot to show for its efforts. A senior BRAC official who did not wish to be named stated that they have achieved a “remarkable” transfer rate of students from preschool into primary school, touching 99.14 percent.

Still, this is only half the battle won.

Bangladesh has made huge strides in improving education in the last two decades. It currently has one of the largest primary schooling systems in the world, with an estimated 20 million pupils between the ages of six and 10 years old, along with some 365,000 teachers working in over 82,000 schools.

Since 1990, it has raised its enrollment rate from 72 to 97 percent and its completion rate from 40 to 79 percent. The number of primary schools receiving free textbooks has increased from 32 percent in 2010 to over 90 percent in 2014.

According to Rasheda K Choudhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) – a network comprised of over 1,000 NGOs working on education issues – Bangladesh has also lowered the dropout rate from 33 percent just a few years ago to 20 percent in 2014.

“Improved teacher trainings, a narrower gap in the student-teacher ratio [which now averages 49:1, compared to 67:1 in 2005], and provisions for stipends for students are among the reasons for its success,” she told IPS.

But there are gaping holes that need to be filled. Policy makers insist that the current allocation of 2.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the education sector must be upped to at least four percent in order to truly provide high-quality education for all.

Much work also needs to be done to improve access for the 71 percent of the population living in rural areas, as well as for indigenous communities who dwell in the country’s remote hill districts and residents of ‘chars’ – little islands formed from sedimentation that dot the country’s largest rivers.

According to Johannes Zutt, the World Bank’s country director for Bangladesh, the government is reaching out to those left behind by educational reform, “including slum dwellers, working children, indigenous children and children with disabilities.”

But unless programs’s like BRAC’s BEP are rolled out on a massive scale all around the country, Bangladesh will continue to nurse a patchy educational track record, and the goal of universal primary education will remain out of reach.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).


February 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Pastor Ahmet Guvener managed to get his daughter, a Christian, an exemption from mandatory religious classes in her Turkish school. But he soon found that the 17-year-old wasn’t really off the hook.

As an alternative to the classes at her school in Diyarbakir, in southeast Turkey, she would have to choose from three electives: the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran or basic religious knowledge — or fail the year.

“It seriously damaged my child’s psychology,” said Guvener, who heads the Protestant Church in Diyarbakir. He accuses the school of deliberately forcing religious education on students — a claim the teachers’ union denied.

Turkey has long enshrined the secular ideals of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, particularly in an education system that until recently banned Islamic headscarves in schools and made schoolchildren begin the day reciting an oath of allegiance to Ataturk’s legacy. Now proponents of Turkey’s secular traditions claim President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking a new path, building a more Islam-focused education system to realize his stated goal of raising “pious generations.”

The ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party insists it is simply heeding the demands of a conservative and pious majority. It says the education measures aim to undo restrictions on religious education that were imposed following Turkey’s so-called “soft military coup” of 1997, when the then-powerful military — which saw itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular principles — pressured an Islamic-led government out of power and moved to close down vocational religious middle schools.

“Education is an ideological tool,” said Sakine Esen Yilmaz, secretary-general of the left-leaning Education and Science Laborer’s Union. “It is (now) being used to raise an obedient generation that will serve the government.”

The government’s moves have included loosening the headscarf ban; dramatically increasing the number of religious schools; and ending the school ritual in which students pledged allegiance to secular principles. While it has cited student freedoms in allowing headscarves, it has at the same time banned tattoos, body piercing and dyed hair in schools.

As an indication of possible steps to come, the country’s national education advisory council, dominated by a pro-government teacher’s union, recommended a series of other controversial measures that included increasing the number of compulsory religious classes from one to two hours per week; lowering the starting age of these classes to 6 from 9; teaching religious values at pre-schools; and removing a class on the preparation of cocktails from vocational tourism schools’ curriculum.

One proposal that received particularly strong backing from Erdogan was the introduction of mandatory Ottoman language classes at high schools, although the recommendation was later limited to religious schools. An older version of Turkish written in Arabic script, the Ottoman language all but passed into oblivion after Ataturk introduced the Latin alphabet in 1928 in his quest to anchor Turkey closer to the West. An iconic black-and-white picture shows Ataturk teaching the new Roman script at a school after introducing the reform.

“There are those who are disturbed by our children being taught Ottoman,” Erdogan declared. “Whether they want it or not, Ottoman will be learned and be taught.” Government-allied educators say Turkey is returning to its cultural roots.

“In Turkey, the education that was offered was one that was directly opposed to the people’s own culture (and) own civilization,” said Ali Yalcin, deputy head of the pro-government Egitim Bir-Sen teachers’ union, which proposed many of the recommendations.

Last week, thousands of people demonstrated in Istanbul to demand that the secular principles of education be upheld. They urged the government to halt a perceived campaign to impose the Sunni faith and to respect the rights of students from the Alevi Shiite sect that constitutes Turkey’s largest religious minority. Thousands of pro-secular and Alevi students and teachers were expected to boycott schools on Friday in protest of the government.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the mandatory religion classes are an affront to Alevi students’ religious freedoms. The government insists that the course teaches general knowledge about all faiths — a claim dismissed by critics who say that Sunni teachings still dominate the syllabus.

Critics say that while the government is focused on entrenching religion in schools, it has been ignoring the Turkish education system’s serious failings. According to a 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, Turkish students fared poorly in reading, mathematics and science, ranking 44th out of 65 countries.

“The real problems, in the meantime, are being brushed aside,” Yilmaz said. “We still have classes of 50-60 students. There are schools that have no labs, libraries or sports halls.” Guvener says the school in Diyarbakir, in offering only three elective religious classes, claimed implausibly that there was no demand for any other electives at the school.

“They said that out of 900 (people), no one asked for math or English as an elective class,” Guvener said. He said that the school eventually offered his daughter an elective astronomy class after he spoke to the media about her case.

Yalcin, of the pro-government teacher’s union, denies a deliberate move to force religion on the students through the elective classes. “The aim is to open the way to elective religious education, in line with the wishes of the people,” he said. “There is no question of forcing the classes on students.”

Education expert Abbas Guclu, who writes for Milliyet newspaper, argues that increasing religious education may not necessarily lead to a more pious generation. “It is not possible to control the youth of today,” Guclu said. “If they spend three or five hours at school, they spend eight or 10 hours in front of the Internet, the social media or television. For every few hours of religious education they spend hundreds of hours elsewhere, being bombarded by other things.”

Mucahit Ceylan in Diyarbakir and Ayse Wieting and Berza Simsek in Istanbul contributed.

Tulay Cetingulec

February 6, 2015

Translator Sibel Utku Bila

The world-famous Van cats, snow-white, with odd colored eyes and found in Turkey’s eastern province of Van, have been saved from the threat of extinction. Their number, both in Van and other Turkish regions, is now near a thousand. The Van Cats Research Center, established by Van’s Yuzuncu Yil University in 1992, has played a key role in saving the species from extinction. The number of purebred Van cats at the center has increased from 30 in 1992 to 144 in 2014. In the 23 years since its creation, the center has also given away hundreds of cats to animal lovers in Van on the condition that the felines remain under the center’s scrutiny. The cats have been issued ID cards and the university has banned them from being sold or given away as presents. Taking the cats abroad is also prohibited.

Distinguished for their white silky coat and mismatched eye color — usually one amber, one blue — and their swimming talent, the Van cats were declared a “national species” in a communique published in Turkey’s Official Gazette in 2006. The same year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources included the Van cat into its report on endangered species, listing it among 16,111 species across the world faced with the threat of extinction due to human abuses. The report contributed greatly to accelerating the project to save the cats, which have lived with the peoples of Anatolia for millennia.

The Yuzuncu Yil University continues to work hard to save the “aristocrat” felines, found only in the Van region. It uses controlled mating methods to make sure the cats are purebred.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the head of the university’s Van Cats Research Center, Abdullah Kaya, explained the characteristics of the purebred Van cat. “A genetic work is not something that starts and ends at a stroke. The genetic pool must not include alien genes. The Van cat has to be fully white, with one eye turquoise blue and the other amber. The roundness of its face and the length of its tail are very important. We decide scientifically which cats are to be reproduced by checking a number of criteria,” Kaya said.

The Yuzuncu Yil University’s Cat House is currently home to 144 purebred Van cats, including 65 females, 34 males and 45 young ones. The bloodlines of all felines have been registered, including mothers, fathers and even grandfathers. Each cat has a chip. ID cards have been issued also to hundreds of Van cats outside the Cat House.

“The cats we give away to animal lovers are also Van cats, but with both eyes blue or amber, or fur not impeccably white. When a cat gives birth to five kittens, they are not all the same. Only one or two possess what we call purebred characteristics. We keep those at the Cat House and give the others away to animal lovers, again with IDs. Those people can later seek our assistance on issues related to feeding, vaccination or diseases,” Kaya explained.

The cats have become the subject of 12 doctoral and post-graduate studies as well as a number of other projects.

Kaya, who has headed the center for the past two years, commented also on the “in-vitro cats” idea brought up by the previous administration and the latest work at the Cat House.

“The ‘in-vitro cats’ idea entailed the freezing of embryos of purebred cats. This, however, is something difficult, a method not fully mastered yet. It can’t go ahead before other technologies are tried and everything is thought out in detail,” Kaya said.

“Researchers willing to work on the cats undergo a tough questioning. We ask them to explain the purpose of their projects, their thoughts and objectives. Cloning and other similar work is out of the question. Our aim is to breed and reproduce a pure species and raise researchers in this realm,” he added.

The research work on the cats has contributed to boosting tourism in the city. “An average of more than 20,000 people visit the Van Cats Research Center each year. This is a five-star hotel for the cats. Their sheets are changed every 15 days, their rooms and outdoor spaces are cleaned on a daily basis, their food bowls and toys are sterilized. Eight workers take care of the cats, giving individual attention to each of them. Visitors are required to wear shoe-covers,” Kaya said.

He voiced confidence that the Van cats had been saved from the threat of extinction, saying, “The Van cats are now more secure. With the work of our center and all arduous efforts, the threat of extinction for purebred Van cats has receded. Some new projects are under way, but we can’t reveal them before they are put into practice. Yet, I can say we have … achieved great progress in making sure that the species lives on.”

The Van cat has a prominent place in the lives of locals. Retired biology teacher Gulseren Apaydin, who spent her childhood in Van, recounted how she remembered the felines: “Half a century ago, snow-white cats wandered the streets of Van. Their tails were like fox tails. In the summer, I would go to the Van Lake with my elder brother Tayyip and other children. The cats … would go into the water and play with us. Some children would press their heads into the water. The cats were very resistant and funny. When I went back to Van 17 years ago, there were almost no cats in the streets. I paid visits to relatives. The Van cats, which used to be the emperors of every household before, had disappeared from the city. I bumped into a crossbred feline and, by habit, I tried to take it in my arms. It pushed me and snarled. I was astonished. What had we done to those docile cats?”

Van cats deserve to be called “aristocrats.” According to the Van Cats Research Center, they originate in the Altai Mountains. The earliest information of the cats is found on Hittite jewelry and seals. Later, when the Romans ruled the region in 75-387 A.D., they appeared also on Roman shields and banners.

Source: al-Monitor.


Pinar Tremblay

February 8, 2015

As the clock hit midnight Feb. 7, news broke in Turkey that Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), had resigned. Although no official announcement was made as to why he resigned, none was needed. Everyone knew this meant that Fidan would be running to become a deputy for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the June 7 parliamentary elections.

While his resignation ended one puzzle, it opened up quite a few others for Turkish rumor mills. Ankara has been buzzing with all kinds of possible scenarios on what future political position Fidan would assume. Almost all pundits are confident that he did not resign his post simply to become a deputy. While tradition calls for members of parliament to be appointed to Cabinet posts, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he was prime minister, on several occasions assigned outsiders to be ministers. For example, current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was appointed foreign minister before he became a deputy in parliament. Current Interior Minister Efkan Ala is another example. Quite a few pundits thought that Fidan could have resigned after the elections and be appointed to a Cabinet position. Yet, he has resigned now. Why?

As the events unfolded, Al-Monitor spoke with two senior government officials. On condition of anonymity, these officials provided important insights into three crucial questions: the reasons why Fidan resigned now; who will replace Fidan; what is Fidan’s five-year legacy in MIT and what can we expect for the institutional setup in the near future?

Trying to sift through the intriguing scenarios circulating in Ankara, here are the most sober answers Al-Monitor gathered:

The timing of the resignation

The date Feb. 7 stands out as a message to the Gulen movement as it was the third anniversary of when a prosecutor summoned Fidan to his office for questioning. This is seen as the day Gulenists declared war on the AKP. By selecting this day for his resignation, Fidan sends the message to Gulenists that their quest to harm the AKP has failed. A senior bureaucrat affiliated with the security apparatus told Al-Monitor, “Fidan opted to follow the procedure to be in the parliament [to become a minister]. He could have been appointed from outside, yes, but why should he? He wants to be in parliament for two reasons: First, he believes he has done his best at MIT, and now it is the right time to move on; second, when you are a bureaucrat, however high your position is, in Ankara you are merely a government employee, not an “elected” representative. There were allegations by the opposition that Fidan wants to be a deputy for parliamentary immunity.

But the official immunity that the head of intelligence agency enjoys surpasses those of legislators.

Not all AKP members cheered Fidan’s decision. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, learning about the decision on live TV, blurted out with a puzzled look: “It would be a waste for Fidan to resign such a post with Superman powers.” Several others along with Arinc questioned whether it is ethically appropriate for the head of intelligence to accept a Cabinet post. Although there are plenty of international examples, such as former US President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State Robert Gates, in Turkey there is no precedent. Fidan is the first to make this transition from top spy chief to a Cabinet post.

When asked about Arinc and opposition leaders’ comments about Fidan’s candidacy, another senior official told Al-Monitor, “Criticism cannot be avoided in politics. Fidan would have been blamed for monopolizing the intelligence agency had he stayed on.” Fidan is the confidant and protege of Erdogan. His resignation now is the most comfortable way to make sure he is in parliament after the elections, given the uncertainties awaiting with the proposed new constitution and presidential system transition.

Who will replace Fidan?

It was announced Feb. 7 that the deputy secretary of MIT, Ismail Hakki Musa, a former ambassador, would serve in Fidan’s position until it is officially filled. Still, it is likely that Fidan will remain de facto head of the agency until the elections. Several names to replace him after the elections are circulating among pundits, party members and journalists in Ankara. Arinc uttered the name of the undersecretary of Public Order and Security, Muhammed Dervisoglu. However, senior officials dismissed that speculation and told Al-Monitor that a surprise name will become the head of MIT after June.

Fidan’s legacy and the future of MIT

Fidan was appointed as head of the agency in May 2010. Since then, the agency has gone through a transformation from being a passive, detested and feared deep-state tool into an alleged CIA-like institutional reformation that has managed to sit tight in the eye of several political and military storms. Particularly in the last couple of years, Fidan’s team has successfully managed to turn the controversial international and Gulenist press coverage into his advantage. Fidan has emerged as a national hero along with Erdogan. Before Fidan, Turkish prime ministers feared MIT rather than trusting its briefings. A short list of Fidan’s reforms is as follows:

Prior to Fidan, MIT’s international reach was limited to its domestic concerns. For example, MIT would gather intelligence about members of terror organizations who had fled abroad, and keep surveillance on them but not gather or analyze intelligence about foreign countries otherwise. Fidan has established a subagency inside MIT that is responsible for foreign intelligence. Updating outdated 30-year-old laws, which in his eyes had crippled MIT, the agency gained the legal right to initiate and carry out military operations abroad. This law also called the agency for the first time to be open to parliamentary supervision. Yet, it is difficult to see in the current setup how MIT could be supervised. It is rather seen as an audit-free establishment serving Erdogan exclusively.

MIT has been the main party — under Fidan’s leadership and Erdogan’s approval — in the negotiations with the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. This link is expected to continue with Fidan whatever post he assumes.

MIT has recruited its own paramilitary staff ready to engage in cross-border operations and even monitor the security of the border, thus assuming some traditional functions of the all-powerful army.

Fidan also initiated technical reforms in the agency. All systems were updated to deal with cyberthreats. Aspects of the MIT were modeled similarly to the US National Security Agency, such as providing daily briefs to policymakers.

AKP officials are confident that MIT will keep on working as if Fidan were still there.

As Hayko Bagdat, a prominent journalist, joked: “Has anyone in Turkey ever heard Fidan’s voice?” Although his name and photo have been in the headlines frequently in the last five years, little is known about Fidan’s private life and personality. Fidan has been a stark contrast in the midst of loud and colorful AKP personalities; he is reticent, unpretentious and definitely a loyal secret-keeper, as Erdogan described him. The majority of commentators believe he will be the next foreign minister. Although we cannot definitely say which post he will assume after June, we can confidently say this resignation changed little. That is, Fidan has long been “the No. 2 man” in Turkey, and will continue to be. Whatever post he assumes, that position will be at the center of power and action.

Source: al-Monitor.


04 February 2015 Wednesday

Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci and Finland’s Foreign Trade Minister Lenita Toivakka signed a Joint Economic and Trade Committee agreement on Wednesday.

The agreement is intended to boost bilateral trade and investment.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Zeybekci said that Turkey plans to make investments worth at least $300 billion over the next decade, and urged Finnish companies to increase their investment in Turkey.

Turkey has attracted foreign direct investment worth about $140 billion, Zeybekci said.  “Overall, direct investment of Finland in Turkey is approximately $300 million. We invite Finnish investors to Turkey.” Zeybekci said.

Finland’s Foreign Trade Minister Toivakka said that the new agreement is a critical step to boost cooperation and trade ties between the two countries.

Both Turkey and Finland recognize that small- and medium-sized enterprises are important elements of the economy. Toivakka noted the importance of cooperation between smaller companies in each country.

Source: World Bulletin.