WHILE YOU SLEPT

Another Syrian Boy, Another Photograph

While many of us are immersed in the Olympic drama in Rio or enjoying a summer vacation escape, a photograph from Aleppo has brought a jarring reminder of the horrific war still raging in Syria.


The image shows a dazed five-year-old boy, covered in dust and with an open head wound, sitting in an ambulance after surviving a military attack on a rebel-held area in Aleppo. Syria’s second-largest city is living through a months-long siege that the German daily Die Welt recently compared to the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. Hospitals have been bombed, there have been chemical attacks, and it seems there is no end to Aleppo’s suffering in the face of global apathy.


Can a photograph of the most innocent of victims shock the world into action? It was nearly one year ago when the image on the shoreline of the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi shook the public consciousness. While the victim in this latest photograph has survived, he strikes us in a similar way as the image of little Alan: the juxtaposition of something so horrible with the familiar outline of a young child’s body. That boy could be anywhere in the world, maybe sitting next to you on the local bus â€" or on an airplane coming back from summer vacation.



WHAT TO LOOK FOR TODAY



NORTH KOREA RESUMES PLUTONIUM PRODUCTION

North Korean authorities have confirmed that they had restarted the production of plutonium at their Yongbyon nuclear facilities and said they had no intentions to stop nuclear tests. The U.S. State Department said that, if confirmed, the claims were “obviously a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”


MASS DEATHS IN SYRIAN PRISONS, SAYS AMNESTY

As many as 17,723 people have died in Syrian prisons since the beginning of the war in March 2011, according to Amnesty International. The gruesome revelations come in a chilling report, based on the accounts of 65 torture survivors, and which describes systematic torture and “inhuman conditions.”


â€" ON THIS DAY

Whether you love love him or not, Mika is turning 33 today…! More in your 57-second shot of History here.


U.S. SWIMMERS STOPPED AT RIO AIRPORT

Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, two U.S. swimmers who say they were robbed at gunpoint in Rio over the weekend, have been barred from leaving Brazil last night because of differences in the accounts of the event, The Washington Post reports. Earlier yesterday, a Brazilian judge also ordered the seizure of passports of two other team members, Ryan Lochte and James Feigen, for “possible divergences” in their versions of the robbery.


$55 MILLION

Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, will spend $55 million on new presidential and legislative elections after the results of the last vote, held less than a year ago, were scrapped amid reports of fraud.


â€" MY GRAND-PERE’S WORLD

Rainy Reputation â€" Brignonan-Plages, 1971


VERBATIM

“I lead a simple and disciplined life,” a healthy Hindu monk Swami Sivananda, who claims to be 120 years old, told AFP. Sivananda, who would officially become the world’s oldest man ever if the Guinness World Records verifies his claim, says he eats only boiled food without oil or spices. He put his longevity down to three factors: “yoga, discipline, and celibacy.”


BOMBINGS IN EASTERN TURKEY

A bombing at a police station in Turkey’s eastern province of Elazig killed three people and wounded more than 100 today, coming less than a week after similar attacks in eastern Turkey. Turkish daily Hürriyet reports that authorities blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the attacks in the Kurdish-populated regions of the country.


â€" WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO

Rowdy Rio crowds are upsetting both athletes and fans. But as Laurent Favre writes for Le Temps, it's a passion born from soccer stadiums, and is what a South American Olympics should look (and sound) like: “Brazilian fans are used to making it very clear who they love, and loathe. Sports is an experience of taking sides, and the Olympics are no exception.

They'll pick the short one over the tall one, the pretty gal (Swiss volleyball player Anouk Vergé-Dépré, who turned out to be very popular) over the plain one, and the smiling guy (Usain Bolt) over the grumpy-looking one. If it is not always obvious who they're rooting for, it is easier to identify who they're rooting against.”

Read the full article, Why They Boo: Brazilian Fans Accused Of Bad Olympic Manners.


SOUTH SUDAN OPPOSITION LEADER FLEES COUNTRY

South Sudan’s opposition leader and former Vice President Riek Machar left the country today, weeks after his forces withdrew from the capital of Juba following the collapse of a peace deal with his rival, President Salva Kiir.


CALIFORNIA FIRE RAGES ON

More than 1,500 emergency personnel are continuing to battle a wildfire in Southern California that has already charred more than 40 square miles. NBC News reports that tens of thousands have been forced to flee, with one veteran firefighter saying he’d “never seen fire behavior so extreme” in his four decades of service.


MORE STORIES, BROUGHT TO YOU BY WORLDCRUNCH

BOLIVIA OPENS “ANTI-IMPERIALIST” SCHOOL

Bolivian President Evo Morales inaugurated a new military academy near the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra today, but the school has a peculiar mission: teaching anti-imperialism. According to El Deber, the newly opened “School of Anti-Imperialism” will have 200 students and seeks to teach the dangers of imperialism and counter U.S. policy in the region.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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