Monday, December 2, 2013

Russian Roulette

Thirty years ago, the US and USSR reached the brink of nuclear war …

By Joe Bruns

"...It was November 1983 that Soviet bloc forces invaded West Germany, setting off a much feared ground war with NATO. Earlier that year, as the Iran-Iraq war continued, the USSR increased its political and military assistance to Iran, Syria and South Yemen. The US responded by sending military advisors and naval forces to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, economic and political crisis was beginning to tear Yugoslavia apart, with the government increasingly looking to the West for military and economic assistance. Kosovo was in open revolt, encouraged by Albania. In Finland, pro-Soviet elements were threatening to topple the elected government. By mid-September, both sides were at elevated stages of alert, and were beginning to mobilize forces and pre-position supplies. In October, the Soviet bloc increased aircraft presence and readiness, particularly around Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
On October 31, Soviet forces entered Yugoslavia and then Finland. On November 4, 1983 massive air and naval attacks were staged against NATO bases. Soviet tanks rolled into Norway, West Germany and Greece. The outnumbered NATO forces provided stiff resistance, but Soviet use of chemical weapons took a toll, and the Western lines began to crumble.
It was soon apparent to NATO commanders that conventional forces would not be sufficient to stop the Soviet juggernaut. On November 8 the top NATO commander, SACEUR, requested from the top political leadership authority to use tactical nuclear weapons. The first use of those weapons occurred on November 9, followed by a second and larger launch on November 11.”
Joe Bruns
Joe Bruns
Today this sounds like a Cold War movie plot or a paperback best-seller.
In fact it was an actual NATO war exercise called Able Archer 83 based on a plausible scenario and designed to test the command and control transition from conventional to tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons.
To the Soviet Union, though, already at a heightened state of alert and viewing the activities through the cataract of its intelligence network, it had all the markings of a cover for an actual pre-emptive nuclear strike designed to decapitate the political and military leadership of the USSR.
Using a war exercise as cover for an actual attack was a ploy that the Soviets had feared and anticipated. The result was the closest approach to a full-scale nuclear war, at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As we now so loosely apply the term “nuclear option’ to changes in Senate rules, it is sobering to reflect on just how close we came to an actual thermo-nuclear holocaust as a result of military provocations, harsh political rhetoric, calculated foreign policy, faulty intelligence and misreading of intentions in the early 1980s. Much of this is just now coming into full light thanks to the work of Nathan Jones and the National Security Archive.
President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev

Détente Before the Storm

The 1970s saw an easing of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, a period of détente, as it was called. In 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) led to President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev signing an Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and an interim agreement limiting the number and types of ICBMs. This was followed, in June 1979, with the SALT II treaty, placing a variety of caps and restrictions on each side’s strategic nuclear forces. The US Senate however never ratified the treaty, as events soon intervened.
On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Just the month before, revolutionary Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking US diplomats hostage in a humiliating blow to US prestige. The world was quickly changing. Fearing that the USSR would next move into the new vacuum created in the Middle East, President Carter moved to draw a red line, with his statement of The Carter Doctrine during his State of the Union Address in January 1980. Carter stated in very clear terms that the Persian Gulf was an area of American vital interest, and that any move on the part of the Soviets to expand into the Gulf would be resisted “by any means necessary, including military force.” The Carter Administration imposed a trade embargo on the Soviet Union, withdrew from participation in the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, and began assisting the Afghan resistance. The spirit of détente was just a memory.
Moderation in the Protection of Liberty is no Virtue
Moderation in the Protection of Liberty is no Virtue
Ronald Reagan Vs. The Evil Empire

The first years of the Reagan presidency were ones of escalating tension. The Reagan Administration brought with them a strong belief in American Exceptionalism, metaphorically a shining city upon a hill, separate from and superior to other nations. Where détente implied give-and-take between countries each with valid national interests, the Reagan view was that moral and historical forces converged in the concept of American liberty. There was no moral equivalence, and there would be no compromise of principles. It was not a struggle between competing political philosophies, but rather a struggle between good and evil. In the words of Reagan’s political godfather Barry Goldwater, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Indeed, President Reagan and the conservatives he brought into government with him left no ambiguity about their hostility toward the USSR and its communist allies. The Reagan Doctrine was born. Without irony, the Reagan Doctrine seemed to be the policy implementation of the inaugural statement by John F. Kennedy to “…pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The Soviet bloc was the “Evil Empire,” and the Administration promised to use all the tools at their disposal to consign them to “the ash heap of history.”
Under the Reagan Doctrine, containment would be replaced with confrontation.
President Ronald Reagan – Address to the British Parliament
The period 1981-1983 was one of increased covert action, expanded public diplomacy, psychological operations and military assistance all coordinated in an effort to roll back Communism and confront its proponents. Rhetoric was employed to burnish Reagan’s image as an aggressive, perhaps even unpredictable, cold warrior. Operations included near and actual penetrations of Soviet territory by American aircraft and submarines, as well as feints of attacks to keep the Soviets on edge and guessing. American fighters would provocatively lock their fire control radar on Soviet bloc planes.
In March of 1983 the President announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars, upsetting the longstanding balance of nuclear power and potentially abrogating the ABM Treaty. Cold War stability had been maintained between east and west because of a rough parity among nuclear offensive capability, or mutually assured destruction (MAD). The ABM Treaty was intended to prevent one side from gaining an advantage by creating a defensive shield. SDI did just that. Furthermore, it would begin the militarization of space, where the West had enormous technological advantage. Leave aside whether the Americans could actually make it reliably work, the Soviet Union could not ignore it. Neither, though, could they afford to enter this new area of competition with the West, lacking both technological and economic resources. It was a dangerous upsetting of the balance of power, and led Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov to conclude that the United States thought it could ‘win’ a nuclear war.
American Supplied Stinger Missiles Proved Particularly Effective
American Supplied Stinger Missiles Proved Particularly Effective
American pressure was brought to bear as the Reagan Administration announced plans to double the size of the Navy, deploy intermediate-range Pershing II missiles in Europe, to develop nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and to fully modernize American military assets. They also increased support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and confronted communist regimes in Latin America and Africa. Bleeding resources in Afghanistan, the Soviets could not hope to keep pace.
Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky

Reagan also touched a particularly raw nerve by highlighting Soviet human rights abuses and taking up the cause of internal Soviet dissidents. The Reagan Administration undertook a $1 Billion expansion of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty allowing the United States to criticize Soviet actions and broadcast dissident voices back into Russia and Eastern Europe. President Reagan proclaimed May 21, 1983 National Andrei Sakharov Day in honor of the dissident Russian physicist, citing “continuous harassment and mistreatment by Soviet Authorities.” The cause of Soviet Jewry and the plight of Natan Sharansky played prominently in American public diplomacy.
President Reagan’s counterpart in the Soviet Union in the crucial year of 1983 was General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Born in 1914, Andropov was Ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 uprising, and was a strong proponent of the brutal suppression of that revolt. Later, as Chairman of the KGB, he was instrumental in putting down “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. He took a hard line against dissenters, and established ‘psychiatric hospitals’ to deal with the most troublesome of them. Andropov was the personification of Reagan’s evil empire.
The Cold War Heats Up
On April 4, 1983, aircraft from two US Aircraft Carriers flew simulated bombing runs over Zeleny, a small Soviet island in the Pacific. Reacting to this, Andropov ordered heightened alert, and said any aircraft violating Soviet air space was to be shot down.
On September 1, the Soviet Union did detect an encroachment of its airspace and shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, killing all 269 passengers and crew on board. The Soviets insisted that the plane had a military mission and had intentionally penetrated Soviet airspace. While the Western response was rapid in condemning this “brutal and barbarous act,” the consensus view of American intelligence analysts, corroborated later by Soviet documents declassified after the Cold War, is that the USSR did not realize it was a civilian airliner at the time. Their belief was that it was an intelligence probe to test Soviet air defenses perhaps in preparation for a war strike.
Operation Ryan
In May 1981 the Soviets initiated Operation Ryan (sometimes RYaN) an acronym for ‘nuclear war launch.’ RYAN had the express purpose of focusing Soviet intelligence efforts on detecting US plans for a pre-emptive nuclear attack. In February 1983, an urgent cable was sent to KGB and GRU stations stating that these efforts had ‘acquired an especial degree of urgency,” and was of “grave importance.” The Soviet leadership had convinced itself that the United States was preparing to launch a nuclear attack. Stations were instructed to assign the highest priority to gathering intelligence on US/NATO political and strategic decisions, early warning of any indicators of a nuclear attack and information on new weapon systems that might be used in a surprise nuclear attack.
In a 1990 interview, Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev said, “I believed [at the time] the United States [was prepared to] start a war against the Soviet Union and their aim is world supremacy.” Earlier in 1983, Soviet General Secretary Andropov warned U.S Envoy Averell Harrimanin a prepared statement that he was “alarmed” with the state of relations between the two countries, and that unless reasonable measures were taken, they “would become still worse.” Andropov went on to say that he was particularly concerned that the Reagan Administration “may be moving toward a dangerous red line, and that war between the two countries could start through “mis-calculation.”
The implication of Operation Ryan was clear: if Soviet intelligence developed convincing evidence that the West was preparing for a strike, the Soviet Union would itself launch its nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, trying to gather such intelligence was the KGB and GRU’s highest priority. If the American objective was to create paranoia within the Politburo, it had succeeded.
Petrov Ignored the Warning, preventing Nuclear War
Petrov Ignored the Warning, preventing Nuclear War
A Very Close Call
On September 26, 1983 a Soviet satellite in orbit over the United States flashed a warning that went off inside a secret bunker outside of Moscow that the United States had launched an ICBM. Moments later, a second alarm went off. Computers inside the bunker indicated that five American ICBMs had been launched, presumably aimed at the Soviet Union. Forty-four year old Lt Col Stanislav Petrov was on duty, and it was just past midnight. Under Soviet Cold War doctrine, the USSR response to an American launch was an immediate massive retaliatory strike, “launch on warning.” Many Russians still remembered their failure to heed early warnings of Hitler’s invasion of Russia in World War II, Operation Barbarossa, and its tragic consequences. The Soviet Army was determined that would not happen again.
Fortunately for the world, Lt Col Petrov was on duty that night. Petrov knew the computer system well, and he knew that it had, in the past, signaled false alarms.
Petrov also knew from his military training that a small launch of as few as five missiles was not likely. Such an attack would leave the opponent’s retaliatory weapons intact, allowing a massive reprisal. His instinct told him this was a false alarm, and he notified his superiors up the chain of command that it was a computer error. In fact it turned out that Petrov was wrong; it was not a computer error, but actually an error onboard the satellite.
Nevertheless, the world was perhaps saved from a nuclear war through the judgment of a single man.
Able Archer 83
Into this highly volatile geopolitical milieu came sensitive, high-level, but essentially routine NATO war exercise with an added element. Defense planners had long assumed that a likely scenario for the launch of World War III would be a multi-pronged land-based conventional attack on Europe led by massed Soviet armor and infantry. The Soviet bloc held considerable advantage in land based assets, and it was a given that NATO would have to give ground in the face of such an attack. A leveling factor was that NATO commanders had available tactical nuclear weapons that could be used to halt, or at least slow, the Soviet attack until additional American troops could deploy. But use of those weapons was under political control, not military. Able Archer 83 was a war game designed to test the decision and command process as NATO forces were forced to escalate from conventional to nuclear defensive weaponry.
In the lead-up to Able Archer 83, the Soviets had observed an unannounced 16,000 troop airlift to Europe carried out in radio silence. This troop movement was a part of another, and larger, exercise, Autumn Forge 83. Post-Cold War interviews show that the Soviet leadership failed to distinguish between the two exercises, but considered them all part of a single NATO escalation of just the type they assumed would be a precursor to war.
Able Archer 83 only lasted five days. It did not itself involve any troop movements or exercises, but was rather designed as a “command exercise,” including decision makers at the very top of the political leadership of NATO countries, although President Reagan himself did not participate. Because of the nature of the exercise, encrypted communication between NATO commanders and capitals gradually built up during the early phases as the scenario progressed from Soviet threat to limited invasion to multi-front invasion of Western Europe and Greece. True to the exercise the simulation took NATO forces through the graded phases of alert from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1 the highest state of readiness.
From the Soviet perspective, they began from a very high state of anxiety. They saw the clandestine troop movement to Europe, combined with deployments of NATO allies as part of Autumn Forge, followed by the rapid increase of highly encrypted traffic throughout NATO command and control channels. Meanwhile, the KGB was reporting, sometimes incorrectly, that Western troops had been put on a higher state of alert. It all fit into a pattern for them, and it led them to conclude that the West was preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.
The Soviet option was clear: it could not survive a first strike; it would have to launch its weapons first. And they prepared to do so.
Nuclear bombs were armed and loaded on aircraft poised on runways in East Germany and Poland. It is believed by some analysts that Soviet ICBMs were keyed for launch. The game was about to have tragic consequences.
And then it ended…The Aftermath
The NATO war gamers, totally unaware that their exercise was being taken literally, began to close down. Signal traffic dropped to normal levels. Importantly, President Reagan was seen making appearances at pre-announced events, rather than withdrawing to an ‘undisclosed location.’ One side knowingly and the other side unconsciously drew back from the brink.
Soon NATO began to receive its own intelligence reports of a rapid escalation of Soviet military activity, like an echo. It took a little while for the intelligence analysts to begin to link the Soviet actions with NATO’s. First, British intelligence received an accounting from a KGB double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, which set off more analysis. At first the American CIA dismissed the connection, but over time the either realized or simply acknowledged what had almost happened.
President Reagan meets KGB Agent Oleg Gordievsky, who was informing the British
President Reagan meets KGB Agent Oleg Gordievsky, who was informing the British
For his part, President Reagan was stunned. He could not believe that the Soviets thought that the United States might unilaterally set off a nuclear war. Reagan had seen the American movie “The Day After” in 1983, and had been briefed by his national security advisors on the potential effect of a nuclear war. He was reportedly shaken now by the thought that miscalculation on his part could lead to the most hideous consequences. None other than ‘the iron lady’ Margaret Thatcher also weighed in, urging her friend Reagan to be more moderate in tone and in action.
President Reagan continued to press the Soviet Union by giving military support to the opposition in Afghanistan. He continued to confront Communist expansion, particularly in Latin America and Africa. He continued to call them out on the matter of human rights. His massive expenditures on American military continued. But his tone become more modulated, and actions that could lead to direct confrontation with the Soviet Union were reduced. In January 1984, President gave a speech on US – Soviet relations. While the speech contained many of the usual talking points, Reagan ended it with a paragraph in which he spoke about a fictional Russian couple, Ivan and Anya meeting American couple Jim and Sally, sharing common, ordinary interests, and above all wanting to live in a world without the threat of nuclear war. The speech was a a short time, but a far cry from the days of ‘the evil empire.’ By humanizing the risk of nuclear war, Reagan had subtly changed the tone of the debate.
picendEarly the following year General Secretary Andropov died, and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, who was in poor health himself., and was succeeded in March 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev, ushering in a new era and, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Joe Bruns worked for USIA and VOA from 1983 - 1997

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

By Joe Bruns — National Football League commissioner  Roger Goodell right now might be feeling like the captain of a fishing boat seeing on his radar screen the confluence of four storms, each by itself manageable, but combined they threaten to shake the foundation of what has become America’s national sport.
Traumatic Brain Injury
nfl1PBS Frontline recently aired the aptly named program League of Denial, investigating the mounting evidence that football playing causes both acute and chronic brain injury even when playing within the rules of the game and with the recommended safety equipment. Furthermore, the program chronicles half-measured – some would say bogus — attempts by the NFL at research into the connection between playing football and traumatic brain injury and the condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As with the tobacco industry before it, the NFL continues to hide behind the argument that there is no ‘conclusive proof’ of a cause and effect relationship. It is hard to not accept the premise, though, that NFL players are risking permanent and serious brain damage every time they take the field. Several former NFL players have committed suicide and have specifically asked that their brains be examined.
Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012
Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012
But the NFL’s problem goes beyond its own professional players who are being paid for taking such risk. The physical style of play and the toughness of the professional players sets an example of the sport played at its highest level.  As such it is the style of play encouraged by coaches and emulated by players at every level, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Just this month a high school football player in Arizona died of a brain trauma suffered on the field. Children as young as eight are playing tackle football, and have coaches telling them to be tough, to ignore pain and to take a physical toll on opposing players.
Big hits (i.e. violent ones) are celebrated by parents and routinely posted on You Tube.  USA Football, the governing body of the sport, sends mixed messages on its website. In one article they talk about the need to teach kids as young as eight to overcome their fear of hitting. They also have an entire section of their website dealing with concussion risk and diagnosis. But their message becomes clear as you dig down, their conclusion is that concussions are “a manageable injury,’ and as for permanent brain damager, “…there is no proof.”
nfl4Former NFL great Brett Favre recently said that if he had a son he would be “real leery” about allowing him to play football. Participation in Pop Warner youth football has declined almost ten percent over the past two years. If parents decide that youth football is not worth the risk, the entire feeder system for high schools and colleges will be threatened, and with it a possible erosion in the popularity of the NFL itself.
College football: Everyone Prospers Except the Players.
The second threat to professional football as we now know it is the possible professionalization of its ‘minor league,’ NCAA college football
NFL Commissioner  Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Unlike Major League Baseball, which has a multi-tiered minor league system of professional prospects, professional football depends upon college football to identify talent, teach fundamentals, test players in high-pressure games, and eventually allow the best to rise to the top, ready for admission into the NFL cartel through the college draft system.
All of the costs of this process are borne by the colleges, and funded by television contracts, filled stadiums of fans, and you, the taxpayer. The players themselves, however, are so-called amateurs supposedly playing for the thrill of the competition and the honor of representing the alma mater, or at least that is the story. But players, and even some university administrators are beginning to rebel.  For their part, players see the billions of dollars of revenue generated by their play on the field, and wonder why they live on the equivalent of food stamps (sometime literally). They’re beginning to want a piece of the action. One study by Sports Illustrated concluded that a University of Texas football player was worth $578,000 per year. As it now stands, a player cannot legally accept a used car without jeopardizing his career, while his coach makes something upward from $1 Million. Even a college player’s own image can be used and marketed by video game producers without compensation. He may or may not make it through four years of college football without a career ending injury, and only if he is among the best will he be allowed to negotiate with a single employer for a professional contract. There is change lurkingin the future.
Arrogant Owners
The third threat to the NFL is brought on by the arrogance of team owners. Take the case of the Washington Redskins.  The “Washington Redskins” actually play their home games in Landover, Maryland, having moved out of Washington, DC many moons ago. It turns out the sports stadiums are generally built in the jurisdiction that will give them the greatest taxpayer funded breaks, not necessarily either where the fans reside or in their namesake city. Few of the negotiated concessions are passed on to the fans. The Redskins have among the highest prices for parking, beer and food. They also severely restrict what a fan can bring into the stadium, purportedly for ‘security concerns.’ Even the size of a women’s purse is restricted.
And then there’s the issue of the name “Redskins.”
Many old-time Washington Redskins fans will tell you about the legendary history of the football team, but many don’t know that before Washington, the team was the Boston Redskins (and the Braves before that.) More fans probably do know, but choose to brush aside the fact that, along with a number of championships over the years, the Washington Redskins in 1962 were the last NFL team to integrate, and did so only under the threat of federal legal action that would have denied them use of their DC stadium where they then played.
washington-redskins-logo_1600x1200_606-desktopWhile opinion polls find people divided, at least some Native Americans find the name Redskins to be offensive – a racial slur. Indeed, many dictionaries describe the term as disparaging or a slur. Defenders contend that the name is meant to honor American Indians, as a tribute to their bravery and warrior spirit. And many public opinion polls support that point of view, along with the sense that the name is part of a tradition, sort of like Semper Fi.
But we are talking here about a football team, not the United States Marine Corps. The ‘tradition’ of a professional football team is hardly something sacred. If even a small number of people are honestly offended by a name that  clearly has racist overtones, why keep it? Owner Dan Snyder is on record as saying he will NEVER change the name of the Redskins. (Capital letters are his). This sounds more like simple arrogance than it does like principle. But arrogance in the guise of denial seems to be an NFL trait. While the Super Bowl is described by activist Cindy McCain as the ‘largest human trafficking venue on the planet,” the NFL refuses to cooperate with those trying to address the issue.
Machismo Culture
Finally there is the inside look at the players culture, as demonstrated by the New Orleans Saints locker room. By now, everyone with even a passing interest in sports knows the story of Jonathan Martin, a classics graduate from Sanford being harassed by fellow Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito to the point that Martin quit the team and Incognito was suspended. While there are many questions to be resolvedabout the whole affair, one thing seems pretty clear:
The culture inside a professional football team is a pretty ugly one, with behavior that would be considered entirely out of bounds, perhaps even illegal, in most work places.
It also spills over outside the locker room. A Miami Dolphin staffer has come forward with accusations of harassment as well. What does it say about us as a culture that behavior and language, including frequent use of the N-word, that would be grounds for dismissal at almost any worksite is the norm among those we idolize as sports heroes? Perhaps it is a culture that leads to bounty-hunting bonuses for injuring opposing players.
Football and the NFL will endure these trials, I have no doubt. But you never know when a tipping point might be reached when a popular sport begins to decline in popularity as happened with boxing
Duk Koo Kim was taken off life support four days after fight
Duk Koo Kim was taken off life support four days after fight
Boxing was once considered a major sport, and television sports programming grew up with Wednesday and Friday night fights, and broadcasts of major championships before the age of HBO and pay television. But professional boxing had long had seedy underworld connections, including boxers willing to take a dive, corrupt managers and scorers, and plaster added to boxing gloves. But the turning point for boxing, when it lost much of its popularity and glamour, might be the death by brain trauma of Duk Koo Kim at the hands of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982. Mancini beat Kim to death on national television.
While boxing's popularity has waned, it does still continue, and so does the brain trauma. Even as I write this a boxer,  Magomed Abdusalamov, lies in a New York hospital with life threatening injuries.
Unlike boxing, the effect of brain injury usually occurs later, out of sight and not on camera, but if a high school boy dies of brain trauma playing football it is only a matter of time before we witness such an event on national television. What will be our reaction?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Well Founded Fear: The Refugee Crisis

A refugee is someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted… is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” — 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
Joe Bruns
Joe Bruns
By Joe Bruns — On October 12, Columbus Day in the new world, at least 26 refugees, mostly women and children were lost in the Mediterranean Sea when their boat teeming with several hundred people capsized and sank near Lampedusa, Italy in Maltese waters.
This particular tragedy might have gone unnoticed, except that it occurred during a particularly gruesome two-week period in which more than 390 people perished in similar fashion, leading Malta’s Prime Minister to condemn European inaction on the wave of seafaring refugees as turning the Mediterranean into a “cemetery.”
In the first nine months of 2013, more than 30,000 refugees arrived in just Malta and Italy. Most of these come from Senegal, Somalia, and now, particularly from Syria.
Those who make it to Europe are the relatively lucky ones. More often, refugees andinternally displaced persons (IDP) find themselves in camps with minimal services and scant security. Life for women and children is especially hard. A participatory assessment of the lives of refugee and IDP children in sub-Saharan Africa conducted by the United Nations in 2007 found the following:
  • Displaced children are frequently subject to violence both within and outside refugee camps
  • Refugee children often experience discrimination by local residents
  • Gender-based violence directed at girls, including harassment and rape is widespread
  • Forced marriages, often resulting from rape and pregnancy, are common in several camps
Simple chores assigned to women and children, such as gathering firewood or drawing water, can be life threatening.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees
The international body with primary responsibility for refugees and displaced persons is the UNHCR. Established in 1950, the UNHCR was given a three-year mandate to deal with the problem of displaced Europeans in the wake of World War II. It has, by necessity, extended far beyond its sunset date.
pic2Today there are 40 million refugees, displaced and stateless people world wide, almost half of them children. InSub-Sahara Africa alone there are some 10.4 million IDPs, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they live a particularly hellish life in North Kivu around the embattled cities ofGoma and Kamango, as government forces battle the latest rebel group knows as M23.
Worldwide, more than half the refugee/IDPs have come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Columbia, Somalia and Uganda. But the conflict creating the greatest volume of new refugees is Syria.
More people have been displaced from Syria than from genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.”  William J. Burns, State Department 
Syria – A Human Tragedy
While politicians and international bureaucrats debate the merits of military intervention in Syria the human costs of the civil war mount. Some two million people have fled Syria for Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, The exodus has been compared to previous crises related to Rwanda and the breakup of Yugoslavia. As superbly reported by New York Times reporter Anne Barnard, an additional five  million Syrians are internally displaced, forced to seek shelter with relatives, in mosques and vacant buildings, often experiencing food and fuel shortages and still subject to the war itself. As the war continues, the social and economic infrastructure is collapsing in major regions of the country, creating the conditions for yet another failed state.
The combined seven million refugees and IDPs represent fully one-third of the Syrian population.
pic5Much of the American political debate regarding Syria has focused on providing military assistance to the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad regime. The US has been providing humanitarian assistance to Syria and the affected countries– some $1.3 billion over the past two years according to USAID. The need though is enormous and will continue to grow. Also growing is pressure for the Obama administration to leverage its humanitarian aid by channeling it through opposition forces. This would likely be both ineffective and would simply add to the general cynicism in which US aid often held.
Also affected are neighboring countries receiving refugees. Lebanon, a country of only 4.1 million, has 750,000 registered refugees from Syria, and several hundred thousand more who have drifted across the border without registration. In Lebanon, such a large influx has the potential to further upset the delicate ethnic and religious balance, potentially leading to another conflict among Shiite Hezbollah, Sunni and Christians.
The situation in Turkey is also becoming tense. As reported in Al Monitor in July, Turkey was host to about half a million Syrian refugees, about equally split between camps and among the general population, and this number has been growing rapidly.
Not only are the numbers of refugees difficult to deal with, the Syrian refugees are mostly Sunni now living in a region of Turkey that has substantial numbers of Alevis, traditionally allied with the Alawites and supportive of Bashir Assad.  Jordan and Iraqare also heavily impacted by the human wave of refugees from Syria.
Syria may be the greatest immediate challenge, but refugees to Indonesia, and fromSomalia and Nigeria all face gruesome challenges. Refugees and IDPs from theDemocratic Republic of Congo are particularly falling victim to rape by both sides of the war.
And even those lucky enough to make their way to Europe often find themselves classified as ineligible for asylum, leaving them to live a life of evasion from the authorities, sleeping in empty cargo containers, and resorting to odd jobs, begging or petty crimes for survival.
For more on the fallout in Europe see the three-part article Hamburg Unrest, from Der Spiegel
Photo credits: AFP/Getty and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)
Photo credits: AFP/Getty and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)
The scale of third-party human suffering from armed conflicts is almost too great to comprehend. And too often the media run to the site of the conflict, or focus on the number of killed or on a particular genus of weapon used, leaving the plight of non-combatant victims barely visible.
– Joe Bruns (cajunjoe) is a Trail Mix Contributor