Last chance to save Bedouin school

I visited this Bedouin school last year and am horrified to learn that it is under threat.  Read more about its fate HERE and Eid Khamis account of how it came to be built: He says:

Eid Khamis tells the story of the Khan al Ahmar school

Our children were travelling 15 miles to Jericho or ten miles to Bethany to get to school.  Many of the girls did not even go to school. We asked for a school, but were refused. So we decided to build a school ourselves here at Khan al Ahmar to serve five Bedouin villages.
We are forbidden to build anything using breeze blocks or cement, so we looked on the internet and we saw that in South America, in Brazil and Argentina, they are building with used car tyres and mud. So we brought that picture here and we started to build a school, not just the Bedouin but international volunteers from Europe who were working with us, the Sisters of Camboni from Italy, French activists and a Dutch NGO.

The Israeli authorities caught sight of the building before it was finished and they put a stop-work order on us.  If they came back and found anyone helping us to build the school, they would have immediately arrested them and taken them to court if they were Israelis or taken them to the airport and put them on a plane – and probably banned them from returning for ten years – if they were Europeans.

So we had a meeting and decided to split into two groups. One group would go on working and a second group would be watchmen, keeping look-out.  Whenever the Israeli police or army came by, we would dress the European and Israeli women as if they were Bedouin. The men would hide in a tunnel. And that way we finished the school.

The people from the nearby Israeli settlement were using a drone to spy on our village, so as soon as the school was finished, they called the army and the army put a demolition order on the school.

So I invited the head of the settlers’ village council and the headteacher of the settler school to visit our school. They came and the teachers came without children and they said what a wonderful school you have made out of garbage! A week later we got a court order  and it said you built a school on our land and it’s a threat to our security and our lives.

In 2014 the Italian Consul-General visited and we asked him for a donation of some playground equipment for the school. Two weeks later the Consul-General arrived with a lorry full of equipment for the school and the settlers activated their drone and saw the lorry and immediately called the army.  The army came and took away the lorry and all of the playground equipment.  The Consul-General was standing there watching it all with his own eyes.

And two weeks later, after he had used his diplomatic channels to ask why they had confiscated the equipment, the reply came that as you had to dig ten centimetres into the ground and put in cement to anchor the equipment, the playground equipment was regarded as a building and confiscated.

Now there are 150 children studying in this school from the age of six to fourteen and there is also an out-of-school-hours literacy course for adults. Once a week Medical Aid for Palestinians runs a clinic in the school.  There are also plans for English classes and human rights classes.

There will be a hearing in the Israeli High Court in December. We fear they will use the Christmas break to demolish the school. It would not be the first time that the High Court ordered a demolition at the end of the year, because at Christmas all of the diplomats and the international organisations and all of the journalists are away.  It’s taking advantage of that fact.

A generation ago the Bedouin lived totally independent and sustainable lives.  We didn’t need any outside help.  We used to have 1,600 sheep and goats and 28 camels.  Then they came and declared most of our land to be a ‘military area’ and after a few years they gave that land to the settlers to build settlements.

Now our biggest problem is the settlers.  They kill animals, they beat people up, they commit arson, they cut down trees.
Now if we go 600 metres into the desert it is a closed military zone.  There is nowhere for the Bedouin to graze their animals.  There are no markets for us to sell our food in since they built the wall to stop us going into Jerusalem.

Now we have barely 240 head of sheep and goats and no camels. Every year we are falling further below the poverty line, so we are knocking on the doors of all the humanitarian organisations asking for help.

We do not choose to live like this. We see our future as being through education. We have Bedouin professors, doctors, PhDs, but our children often have to go abroad to get their degrees because they have not done military service.

A consortium of five organisations is giving us caravans, toilet and shower blocks, solar panels, but when the organisations come to deliver aid, it is being confiscated on the way and if we build any structures, even solar panels, they come with bulldozers to demolish them or carry them away.

Donor agencies don’t know how to help. The Israelis are taking away their visas and preventing them from coming in. They want to take the Bedouin out of this corridor between Jerusalem and Jericho. That will cut the West Bank in two and it will also prevent Palestine from having Jerusalem as its capital or from being a viable state.  If this happens, it is the last bullet in the head of peace.

It is not just the future of our school and our village that is at stake. It is the future of Palestine.

Oxford platform for Afghan girls education advocate

Farkhunda Trust founder Rahela Sadiqi (pictured far left with Malala Yousafzai) joined a panel of speakers in Oxford on November 20th to discuss the impact of aid on development in Afghanistan – and the vital importance of education for girls.At the invitation of the Oxford International Relations Society she joined Dr Michael Ryde and journalist Bahar Joya in a discussion chaired by Professor Sue Doran. She said, “For far too long, the nature of development has been donor-driven with Afghans in the backseat.”

After the main event the audience of students and supporters at St Benet’s Hall, St Giles had an opportunity to meet Ms Sidiqi and learn more about the life changing impact of the Farkhunda Trust which was set up in memory of Farkhunda Malikzada, whose brutal murder on the streets of Kabul in 2015 shocked the world. Its mission is to provide scholarships to women from disadvantaged backgrounds to enable them to pursue higher education and, ultimately, to contribute to shaping a progressive Afghan society.

See: The Afghan Women’s Support Forum

Reflections on the nature of evil

 “The evil that men do lives after them the good is of interred wit their bones” –
William Shakespeare

Remembering Srebrenica, honouring the victims and survivors of the genocide.

 “My son’s name was Nermin and he was just one of over 8,000 men and boys who were massacred at Srebrenica. In the 22 years since he was murdered, all the authorities have been able to find of him are two of his bones, these bones were found in two separate mass graves, over 25 km apart.”

 A hushed audience listens to the testimony of Munira Subašić.[1] An indomitable woman driven by pain and desire for justice, she was one of several speakers marking Srebrenica Memorial Day on 11th July at London’s historic Guildhall.

Twenty-two years have passed since that shameful chapter in European history but Munira’s passion cuts through the decades like a blade. Everyone in the vast room is transported in time to the event of which Kofi Anan said, “Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

In 1995 more than 8,000 Bosniaks – mainly Muslim men and boys – were massacred in the now infamous Balkan town. What is less well known is that as part of the same orchestrated genocide as many as 50,000 women in the region were raped or subjected to sexual violence.

As it had done after the Holocaust, the world hung its metaphorical head in shame and said ‘never again’.

Twenty years later, a mob of hate-crazed men stoned to death a 27-year-old woman in Kabul; a student with an impressive educational background in Sharia law. After refusing to purchase a taweez (a religious amulet with inscriptions from the Quran) from a male street vendor, she was accused of blasphemy. That lie provoked a storm of hatred that shocked the world. Farkhunda wasn’t just killed, she was obliterated; repeatedly stamped on, beaten, dragged through the streets and run over by a car. The clothes were torn from her body, which was hurled from a wall before being set alight. The video captured on camera phones is stomach churning.

Time, numbers and distance aside, the two events have something sinister in common. They were fuelled by such a chilling disregard for human life that descriptions of how they happened prompt disbelief.

Events in Srebrenica were being played out against the background of a conflict that featured nightly on national TV – the attack on Farkhunda Malekzada occurred in a public place and was witnessed by members of the public and police.

Reactions to this kind of violence are diverse: discomfort, shame, anger, pity – and in some cases denial. Farkhunda’s murder can perhaps be attributed to the ‘red mist’ that inspires mobs to act as a single beast, bereft of reason and intent on destruction. But the Srebrenica genocide was planned, calculated and deliberate. Both events were driven by a malevolence so strong that only annihilation would satisfy its perpetrators.

In the Middle Ages evil could be displaced. It was an entity. It had a face. Today religion, superstition and belief in the supernatural have been replaced by a conviction that we are not puppets of higher powers, but individuals with free will, in control of our own destinies.

The downside of this is that mankind then has to ‘own’ evil and take collective responsibility for its exercise. We become guilty by omission, inertia and inactivity.

Munira Subašić, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says: “Justice is not a privilege, it is a human right, and the 8,372 people who died at Srebrenica were human beings. Every year in July, people across the world remember them and they remember our loss, and we are truly grateful for that. But what I want to make clear is that for us, telling our stories and fighting for justice doesn’t end after July commemorations, this is the fight of our lives, and we will never stop fighting. As we women grow older, we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure that our stories, and the stories of our loved ones are heard and remembered, and that when we are gone, others will continue to fight for justice.”

‘Justice’ is a word used often by the rape victims of Srebrenica. “We don’t want vengeance,” they say, “we want justice.”

Some would argue that there is a fine line between the two but it’s a noble sentiment. The men who violated Bakira Hasečić and her daughter still walk freely but she meets their eyes with defiance these days. “When us survivors first started returning to Višegrad, we felt that we had to hide from these war criminals who had tried to destroy our lives, but now when I go to Višegrad, these war criminals hide from me. Now when I return to my Višegrad, I hold my head high, and I hope that one day all survivors will find their strength to do the same.”

The men who murdered and abused Farkhunda for having the temerity to express an opinion about Islam, their shared faith, melted into the crowds after their frenzied orgy of destruction. Most of those who were arrested were later released. Her family’s pain is enduring; still gripped by grief they are paralysed by fear of reprisals if they protest.

It’s hard to imagine how anything good can come of such evil deeds, but one London-based Afghan woman and her friends are ensuring that it does. Rahela Siddiqi still recalls the day she heard what had happened to Farkhunda and the physical impact it had. “I felt evil like a bang that hit me, like my body was burning!”

She and her 11-year-old daughter Rasheel Barikzai were preparing for Nowruz, the period of preparation for Afghan New Year and traditionally a time of happiness. They were stunned. “We just asked ‘Why? Why? Why?’; I felt every stone as though it were dropped on my own head and body.”

Initially paralysed with horror they vowed to turn the senseless murder of a brave young woman into something positive and, with help from like-minded supporters, set up The Farkhunda Trust for Afghan women’s education.

Rahela says, “I did it because in my heart I wanted to keep Farkhunda alive in name and aim. I thought she should be remembered by generations as symbol of bravery and a defender of women’s rights in the worst possible environment for women. I wanted the world to be aware of this horror, of the devastating actions of this mob.”

Like Munira Subašić and Bakira Hasečić, Rahela and her friends determined to use their strength as women to do two things: to ensure that a great evil was never forgotten and to make something positive came from it.

Munira Subašić speaking at a “Remembering Srebrenica” event at the Guildhall this July. 

Munira said to her captive audience at the Guildhall, “I did not come here today just to speak about what happened at Srebrenica, I came here today because I want to make a call to action. To everyone who sees our injustice and feels our pain, I hope you will join us in fighting for truth, justice and a better future.”

A ‘better future’ for an Afghan girl denied access to education is something Rahela is already delivering. The sum of £1,530 (including feed of £700) buys one year’s university education, and with education comes power.

“I felt that preventing violence against women should become our top responsibility” said Rahela. “I hoped that through our joint efforts we could make a difference; we could increase the number of brave women like Farkhunda and ensure that such evil acts would not be allowed again.”

Its seems that throughout history events occur that make us examine our collective humanity and shiver with shame at their enormity. Does evil exist? Rahela thinks so. “I think evil is everywhere where there are people of malevolent and immoral nature, harming God’s creatures and humanity in particular. Good human beings have a duty to stay their hands.”


A room with a view – £8m flagship veterans hostel takes shape.

Take away the prefix ‘youth’ from ‘hostel’ and the image conjured up is not usually an attractive one. Those who have spent time in temporary accommodation for the homeless describe noisy impersonal places where people down on their luck seek refuge only from the even bleaker prospect of living on the street.


A former client at Veterans Aid‘s ‘home’ (sic) for ex-servicemen described one he had spent time in as ‘reeking of marijuana, stinking of piss and noisy as hell’.

The £8.2m rescue and redevelopment of VA’s New Belvedere House is an investment in something that will rewrite the manual on ‘hostel living’. Gleaming state of the art training kitchens, computer suites, a professional standard gym/fitness centre, thoughtfully equipped study-bedrooms and public areas where the interplay of light, colour and space provoke impromptu smiles . . . complemented by a move-on block of semi-independent living units, the ‘new look’ New Belvedere House will be bigger, brighter and better.

The hostel enjoys a success rate of around 90% – lives that are turned around tend to stay on track. But that’s no accident. Veterans who are admitted with nothing leave with hope – a network of reliable friends, a training course or two under their belt, the prospect of a job and a new home. There are failures of course, but they are few and untypical.

Funding the build has been the biggest challenge in VA’s history – a huge ask for an organisation with no marketing department, employing just 25 people and until recently no in-house fundraising manager. Since the present hostel opened in the 1970s it has helped more than 700 homeless, or potentially homeless, veterans; it has given them hope, a reason for living and the tools with which to do it.

Each stage of the refurbishment has been followed by a sigh of relief and expressions of wonder, but the last part of the project is not a rebuild, it is an extension. The building is, literally. ‘going up’. The picture above shows a bird’s eye view of the planned expansion; in the months to come it will take shape leaving only interior spaces to be painted, furnished, equipped and occupied.

*The charity is still £1.5m short of the total needed to complete the build and still needs help to raise it. If you want to know more about how you can support this inspiration project please email or read about the project on the VA website:

War: the real ‘cancer’ of mankind

Reproduced by kind permission of The Courant.

 June 5th marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. On June 14th Palestinians in Gaza will have been in lockdown for 10 years, a period punctuated by three punishing military offensives. It’s 16 years since British troops were deployed to Afghanistan, and three since they officially left a still dangerous and unstable country.

 Palestinians and Afghans have been so frequently linked to violence, conflict and aid appeals that they have lost their identity as people with ‘normal’ needs; needs like education, freedom of movement, food, shelter and healthcare.

Pain can shrink a universe. To someone struggling with cancer the fact that their nation is in political turmoil or their leader about to be toppled is almost an irrelevance.

But only ‘almost’, because war and the tectonic plates of political repositioning have a direct effect on every aspect of family life – and at the heart of every family is a woman.

‘Brexit’ may have prompted families in the UK to speculate about how leaving the EU might impact on health spending, but no Western woman expects to face a future in which breast cancer treatment is either unavailable or punishingly hard to access.

Towards the end of 2016 I joined a low profile, self-funded ‘tour’ for individuals who wanted to see for themselves how citizens of the Jewish State and their neighbours in the Palestinian Territories co-existed. During that visit news reached the party that Donald J Trump had won the American election and iconic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had died. Cohen’s legacy was a poignant valedictory album prophetically called ‘You want it darker’. For those living in the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ that darkness had been gathering for a long time. For some it began 70 years ago and on May 15th the Nakba was commemorated – i.e. the ‘catastrophe’ that resulted in more than 750,000 Palestinians being dispossessed when the State of Israel was formed.

Erez Crossing from Palestine to Israel

Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the USA provoked shockwaves of horror and international condemnation. Yet Israel has been building walls for years, not to staunch a flow of economic migrants, but to keep Palestinians out of their own country. Behind the walls are roads that Palestinians can’t use and settlements that they can’t live in.

Nearly 4,000km east of Jerusalem, the residents of Kabul also face barriers. Maybe not the kind that physically criss-cross the West Bank or restrict access in and out of Gaza, but they are equally impenetrable.

American journalist Sidney J Harris described war as ‘the cancer of mankind’ – a malignant and destructive force that changes the conventions of life. Nowhere is that more evident than in these two countries.

Palestine and Afghanistan are not unique; visit any failed state, war or post-conflict zone and you will find disruption. Good infrastructure, freedom of movement, communication networks and a degree of wealth are pre-requisites of any ‘healthy’ society and the first to suffer in times of war.

The Erez crossing from Gaza to Israel is a bleak, soulless place. Intimidating to all travellers it represents a singular obstacle to those seeking medical treatment. It is accessible only to Israeli-issued permit holders, primarily medical and other humanitarian cases, aid workers and merchants. Many of those who pass through the long corridors of concrete and wire that deliver them to the scrutiny of security checkpoints need vital treatment for cancer. According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Access Report for March 2017, 45% of patients seeking to leave Gaza for healthcare had their appeals for permits denied or delayed.In 2016, the average rate of permits granted was just 64%.

Erez Crossing from Israel to Gaza

At the Qulandia crossing, between the West Bank and Israel, women seeking radiotherapy also have to wait – often standing in the heat and dust for hours feeling sick, frightened and anxious. Currently this critical treatment is only available to them at Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital.

Mainstream news outlets focus on the kinetic aspects of Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbours. The morality of bombs, air strikes, blockades and the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ is a subject that exercises Middle East pundits with Pavlovian regularity. The 2016 Haifa blaze was global news, but deaths due to more prosaic causes are not so well profiled.

Oslo Accords notwithstanding, neighbouring Israeli and Palestinian communities live in parallel universes. Divided physically by intimidating concrete walls and forced to use different roads, their daily experiences of life couldn’t be more different. Those living in Gaza have faced virtual lockdown since 2007 when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the strip; many inhabitants regard it as an open prison. Their counterparts in the West Bank have more mobility, but their movements are curtailed by checkpoints, random ID inspections and much-disputed seizures of land, property and water sources. There is no airport in Palestine (the West Bank, or Gaza).

As for the ‘mutual dignity’ promised by the 1993 Oslo agreement, it is hard to imagine anything less dignified than the sight of human beings queuing like cattle at checkpoints manned by unsmiling young guards whose ‘security’ role frequently causes sick women to miss hospital appointments or go home in despair.

Often separated from their West Bank neighbours by just a few kilometres Israeli women are almost twice as likely to survive breast cancer as their Palestinian counterparts.

“Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP), one of the charities contributing to the support of a not-for-profit Cancer Centre in Ramallah and a West Bank university, has tried to remedy this. The charity supports the Dunya Centre (to the tune of £88,000 per annum) and has invested in Bethlehem University so that it can offer a Higher Diploma course for nurses in Oncology and Palliative Care. A spokesman said, “Our initial £121,000 covers the first two cohorts (1.5 academic years), with another £152,000 pledged to cover a further three cohorts subject to a positive evaluation.”

 The Dunya Centre

The Dunya Centre is a beacon of hope in this depressing scenario. Founded in 2011 it is the only place in the West Bank that offers Palestinian women (and men) the comprehensive early diagnostic technology for breast cancer that can save invasive surgery and, in many cases, lives.

After qualifying as a doctor in Moscow its Director, Dr. Nufuz Maslamani, returned to Palestine to practice. She too has to negotiate the Qulandia crossing daily to get to work, but is upbeat about what the clinic is achieving. “Every woman who comes here is given a breast examination. We teach her how to do self-examination. If she does this each month she can detect 70% of the changes that indicate breast cancer. We work to international protocols, if a woman is more than 40 we start with a mammogram and then after that, ultrasound but if the woman is less than 40 we start with ultrasound and a physical exam.”

The Dunya Centre offers clinical examination, mammography, breast ultrasound and PAP/cervical smear tests. It has a cytology lab and is able to conduct a variety of investigations. “Six of our patients have been men,” says Dr. Maslamani.

Dr Nufuz Maslamani and members of her team at Ramallah’s Dunya Cancer Clinic

While we speak a member of staff brings in some hair ‘donated’ by a supporter. It will be used to make one of the wigs that the centre makes available to women who have lost their hair as a result of treatment. The clinic also offers psychological support for cancer patients and their families and uses its ‘Survivors Group’ as a force multiplier to reach members of the community fearful or mistrustful of its services.

One Israeli hospital employee has a unique overview but is understandably unwilling to be named. “Certain kinds of treatment are just not available in the West Bank; they don’t have a child dialysis facility for example and they (children) have to travel many kilometres to get their treatment three times a week.

 “In Gaza however, things are terrible. If they need a blood transfusion for example, it can be done, but certain blood types need to be processed to get rid of antibodies. Well, that facility does not exist in Gaza. You can do the transfusion but you are probably killing the patient.”

Afghanistan’s cancer sufferers are not separated from treatment by such visible barriers but by lack of money, and accessible facilities. Like their Palestinian counterparts their situation is a legacy of conflict.

 Afghan breast cancer surgeon Dr. Zarghuna Taraki, whose UK patients at University College Hospital London have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

“Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer – so they die without ever knowing the reason. This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

The WHO estimates that nearly 20,000 cases of cancers are diagnosed in Afghanistan each year. Breast cancer is the most common, accounting for approximately 15% of all cases. It is the leading cause of death in women.

Of course, Palestinians and Afghans are not the only people denied the healthcare that we in the UK take for granted – every country where ‘the cancer of mankind’ has left its mark can point to families destroyed by un-necessary deaths.

But it’s not all bad news. Just as the Dunya Clinic brings hope to Palestinian women, so too does the embryonic Cancer Department in Kabul.

 In November 2014 when the then MP Dr. Shinkai Karokhail, now Afghan Ambassador to Ottawa, returned home after spending almost a year overseas being treated for breast cancer that was misdiagnosed in Afghanistan, she and HE The First Lady, Mrs. Rula Ghani, began advocating for improvement and better cancer prevention and control in their country. They brought together the nation’s cancer professionals under one umbrella – the Afghanistan Cancer Foundation (ACF).

In addition to cancer awareness campaigns, ACF convinced the Ministry of Public Health and the only medical oncologist in the country to set up an outpatient department (OPD) followed by the opening of a 23-bed Inpatient Department (IPD) in Jumhuriat Hospital. Between August 2015 and April 2017, more than 9,500 patients were provided with cancer diagnosis and treatment services there.

Still finding its feet the Cancer Department, affiliated with the National Cancer Control Program, is desperate for support as its coordinator at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Maihan Abdullah  explains: “Support and advocacy for cancer prevention and control here is badly needed. With each passing day the number of patients visiting the Cancer Department is increasing. Patients coming from rural areas have to wait for days to be admitted. The most urgent need is infrastructure/buildings that could accommodate the increasing demand for cancer care services. The second most important need is for the establishment of a pathology unit for which we need human and financial resources. The third most important need is for radiotherapy.”

He knows that political and financial support is crucial, but equally vital is expertise. “We need to recruit non-Afghan experts but many are reluctant to come to Afghanistan without the support of their governments.”

See also:

Westminster incident

On a blustery March afternoon 12 women made their way to Westminster for a meeting at The House of Lords. As they settled down with tea and notebooks to discuss women, peace and security in Afghanistan there was a sudden noise in the corridor outside. Muffled shouts and the thud of running feet provided a momentary distraction, but barely impacted on proceedings .

Moments later, as phones started pinging and a fractured announcement about ‘the palace’ interrupted a speaker, it became evident that something was wrong.

Even then, with minds focused on events in Kabul, several members assumed that the ‘palace’ in question was there. It was not. The appearance of an armed police officer in the room soon afterwards confirmed that The Palace of Westminster was in lockdown. For those peers, MPs, employees and visitors inside it was the start of a long incarceration. Similar cells of captive groups were confined all over the building, informed by calls and messages from anxious friends and family about what was occurring outside.

Nearby a policeman and his attacker lay dying while paramedics and passers by tended to the horrific injuries of those mown down by a car on Westminster Bridge. One woman had apparently leapt into the Thames to avoid it.

We were at the heart of what was being described as a terrorist attack. Close but cocooned from it, detached yet connected by smartphone technology to reports from all over the world.

Many hours later, as we were led from Westminster Hall and released into darkness and the unusually quiet area that formed the cordon around the Houses of Parliament, the practicalities of getting home began to surface.

Half a mile away in Victoria, all was ‘normal’ but the events of the afternoon had changed some lives for ever. For those injured, or related to the maimed or dead, nothing would ever be ‘normal’ again.



Re-evaluating veterans – it’s time we were honest

Speaking to Glyn Strong of Veterans Aid, the organisation’s CEO, Dr. Hugh Milroy,  says the nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but our stereotypes of veterans may end up having a negative impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system.

It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals, says Dr Milroy.

As the Government contemplates a radical shake-up of its housing policy to end rough sleeping, perhaps it’s time to decouple the issue from military service – a linkage that, despite evidence to the contrary, comes up in debate with monotonous regularity!

The nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but like any long-term relationship it can be turbulent and complicated.

CEO of Veterans Aid Dr. Hugh Milroy – a combat veteran of 17 years who has been involved in the world of homeless veterans for more than 20  – is quick to point out that service in the Royal Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force does not confer sainthood. He runs a charity that has been helping veterans who are homeless or in crisis since 1932 and his bête-noir is stereotyping.

“I applaud the CSJ for advocating a ‘Housing First’ approach to chronic rough sleeping. ‘Housing First’ is a seductive and appealing concept for politicians and policy makers but a quick Google search shows that it is not regarded as being universally successful. There is a real danger of urban myth subjugating reality. The world of homelessness among veterans is a case in point.

“I’d like to use the current focus on Housing First to point out two ‘inconvenient’ things; firstly, veterans do not feature disproportionately in Government homelessness statistics and secondly that ‘Housing First’ isn’t the only solution! The Veterans Aid ‘Welfare to Wellbeing’© model has been delivering holistic solutions to street homelessness for many years with a heavy focus on prevention. It is a transferable and highly successful pathway with 92% of those completing it going on to lead sustainable independent lives.”

There are now fewer than 3 million veterans in the UK and the strength of HM Regular Forces is just 153,470. Unsurprisingly, most voters get their information about military life via the media. And as we know from recent debates about ‘fake news’ and the power of controversial ‘tweets’ there are people who will say, and believe, anything.

“The shorthand that treats veterans as an homogenous group, comprising heroes, victims and villains, has implications that impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system. Claims become certainties, trapped like redundant ghosts in popular search engines, ready for rapid recycling before they pass into public perception and crystalise into fact.

“My staff and I have been verbally abused for speaking out about stolen valour, self-diagnosed PTSD and our daily experiences with veterans whose life-crises have less to do with military service than poverty, homelessness, social isolation, addiction, relationship breakdown and debt. Some of our clients come straight from prison; not because ‘war drove them to crime’ but because, after serving for as little as one day in HM Armed Forces, they are ‘entitled’ – to call themselves veterans and tap into a vast dedicated support network.  This has to be said: The ‘hero, victim and villain’ tagging of veterans simply isn’t helping anyone and it’s time that those politicians, members of the media and charity world who routinely use such designations, stop doing so.

“My PhD was about homelessness among veterans and my experience, over years as a researcher and practitioner, is that very few can ascribe their life problems to military service. My worry is that if veterans continue to be regarded as causally damaged, it may impact on the defence of the nation by deterring young men and women from enlisting.”

Veterans Aid has been accused of ‘talking itself out of business’ by challenging the universal hero narrative – a claim that only underlines the power of the media and huge lack of understanding among those who confuse reportage with research.

“It seems to me that by assigning the term ‘hero’ to everyone who has served, society is devaluing the actions of the few who truly deserve the label. Many veterans are never deployed, never serve on operations and never find themselves in harm’s way. And let’s be clear, today’s ex-servicemen and women are not conscripts; they chose to enlist and wear a uniform. They signed up to a career and accepted a wage – just like members of the police, fire or ambulance service.”

Perhaps uniquely among military charities, Veterans Aid confirms the service of putative veterans seeking its help. Those who exaggerate or lie about their service are quickly identified. The irony is that they don’t need to make fictive claims; the charity is there to provide immediate practical support to any veteran in crisis, regardless of his/her age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, length of service or rank – on humanitarian grounds and because they are entitled.

“It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals. This perception has been shaped by media activity, which, in turn, has driven legislation, and on 16 May 2011 The Armed Forces Covenant was rolled out.  (“A promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.”) I’m on record as hailing its worthy motives  . . . and questioning its relevance.”

Many homeless veterans, lionised by local media and described as heroes, are former clients of the Veterans Aid.

Milroy concludes, “The number of genuinely ‘street homeless’ veterans is so small that we now recognise many of them as they move around the country. Some have complex mental health or behavioural problems that long pre-date their military service. Some have alcohol or drug addictions that they have been unable, or unwilling, to face.  Hardly any are there because, at one time in their life, they served in the Armed Forces.  A recent example was a chronically homeless ‘veteran’ used as a flagship case study.  His ‘PTSD’ was highlighted and there was a distinct impression that the man’s 30 years on the streets was linked to his military experience. The reality is that he served for fewer than three months and had never been deployed on military operations. This linkage has to stop.

“As for not enough being done; for some years it has been clear that there has been over-capacity in facilities for homeless veterans.  There is no reason for any veteran to be on the streets of Britain today but this doesn’t seem to stop almost daily exaggeration and exploitation of the issue.  Challenging the script is a constant battle, whether it relates to homelessness, PTSD or numbers in prison.

“I fervently hope that whatever approach the Government adopts to tackle rough sleeping in future, reflects this and acknowledges that veterans are a part of – not apart from – society.”

First published in POLITICS HOME

In Absentia maybe – but Bob Dylan’s was a powerful presence at the Nobel Awards.

IF literature is that which moves us to pause, reflect, explore, question, cry, rage, gasp, laugh and wonder – walk for a short time in the footsteps of other people, real or imaginary – then yes, Bob Dylan’s songs and narratives qualify for the designabob-dylan-nobel-laureatetion.

Watching an emotional Patti Smith stumble over the words of Hard Rain at last night’s Nobel Award’s Ceremony and seeing members of that illustrious audience wipe away tears, I too felt a wave of empathy, nostalgia, sadness and wonder. Dylan’s lyrics are hardwired into my DNA it seems and during that brief ceremony I was catapulted down a corridor of time that took me back to schooldays.

So many memories, so many moments frozen in time with friends, lovers, places, events. I’ve queued at his concerts, raged at his idiosyncrasies, smiled at his wit, berated his ‘betrayals’ (sic) and cried over his lyrics.

My love affair with Dylan has waxed and waned over the decades like a tempestuous marriage, but like his own affirmation of life – The Never Ending Tour – it will endure. It will also be my best memory of Christmas 2016.

The Nobel Committee said that Dylan had changed its idea of what poetry could be (HERE): Smith’s performance of Hard Rain, and his own acceptance speech (below) came close to explaining how.

In his own words:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: KiplingShawThomas MannPearl BuckAlbert CamusHemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan

Why giving tents to UK’s homeless is an admission of failure


Justin Parkinson’s (BBC News Magazine – 28.04.16) raises the question of whether homeless people should be given tents.

While he nowhere suggests that anyone in the UK is officially advocating this, I’m dismayed that the wisdom of doing so is even posed as a question.

If Britain has reached the point where people think its acceptable to acknowledge that homelessness is so much part of the landscape that it should be ‘accommodated’ (sic) rather than addressed, its politicians should hang their heads in shame.

Tented shelter is provided universally as a last resort, as a short-term reaction to natural disaster or situations where immediate humanitarian relief is the only option.

Homelessness in the UK is unacceptable, but it is a man-made situation that should be addressed – by prevention (ideally) or at least by effective remediation.

The moment we make even a quantum shift from intolerance to tolerance of the social isolation that leads a human being to street homelessness, we have compromised our humanity.

There are officially more than 200,000 empty homes in Britain; 22,000 in London alone. According to latest DCLG figures there are 3,569 rough sleepers in England – 940 in London.

Even the most numerately challenged can work out that this is not a problem about roofs and heads!

There are myriad reasons why men, women and children end up homeless. Existing statutory safety-nets catch only a few of them (i.e. those who ‘qualify’). Of course compassion has its place, but the ad hoc distribution of  ameliorating comforts  is not the answer.

The sophistry employed by those who assign discrete ‘reasons’ for why specific groups are homeless is a distraction. As long as service in the armed forces, mental health issues, lack of education, unemployment, relationship breakdown, residency status, alcohol dependency etc are treated being unique triggers by those with vested interests, the underlying issue will remain unaddressed.

No-one can sustain a home in 21st Century Britain unless they have an income, a support network of some description and good health. A meal, a sleeping bag and a tent may offer transient comfort, but proactively normalising any of those things is abdication of responsibility of the most dangerous kind.

This suggestion is not progress and no amount of smart words and policies will ever make it so.  Housing is the “elephant in the room” for our politicians.  Few it would seem, have the courage to deal with the national housing scandal but if there is a “silver-lining” to this dreadful suggestion of tents it that it may provide a rude awakening to those in power…21st Century Britain must be better than this.

There are solutions. There are models that work – and for the few who will always and inevitably prove to be beyond help, there are better options than handing out tents.  This shocking story makes it hard to believe that Britain has a future as a truly humanitarian nation…need, not greed, must be the guiding principle.  Houses are not a commodity.

Mission Critical Afghanistan – Britain’s legacy.

Mission Critical Afghanistan

A ‘must watch’ report for anyone who is interested in Afghanistan or the legacy of British involvement. A depressing film made by a brave reporter. For once – no comment. This narrative speaks for itself.

  • Published on You Tube 8 Apr 2016 – First shown at The Frontline Club and Channel 4 news.

    Abigail Austen has unique, extraordinary access to the battle against Isis and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are threatening to take everything Britain helped fight for.