A Bombed Libyan Village Where NATO's 'Collateral Damage' Has A Name And A Face

More than 30 people were killed last August when NATO jets bombed the small Libyan town of Majer. NATO says it was a "legitimate" target. Villagers tell a very different story, of innocent victims, and pain made worse by NATO's

Injured Syrian girl treated at a hospital in Safed
Farah Fathi Jfara was 9 when she died in a NATO air strike (Photo courtesy of the Jfara family via HRW)
Yin Dongxun/Xinhua/ZUMA
Benjamin Barthe

MAJER – Nine months have passed but the rubble has yet to be removed. Bombed by NATO last August, the house of the Gafez family in Majer, a town about 150 kilometers east of Tripoli, still looks like a shriveled soufflé. Fourteen people died in the explosion. Twenty others died a few minutes later when bombs struck the farm of the neighbors, the Jaroods. Men, women and children, struck dead in the middle of a Ramadan evening.

What about clearing away the debris? Rebuilding? Haj Ali, the patriarch of the Gafez family never considered it. There are questions of money and of health, but also of honor, says the friendly mustachioed man. That's because NATO doesn't want to hear about the martyrs of Majer. The military alliance continues to insist that the bombs dropped on Aug. 8 were aimed at "legitimate military targets."

International human rights organizations disagree. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a well-documented report this week citing numerous errors NATO committed during its 2011 Libya campaign. According to the authors, the seven months of bombings that led to the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime caused the death of 72 civilians. The "relatively low" toll "shows that NATO acted with caution" all along the operation, the report states. This said, HRW laments that the military organization did not recognize its faults, did not open any probes, and did not pay any compensation to the victims of its firepower.

As an act of protest, the surviving members of the Gafez family have transformed the ruins of their house into a memorial museum. Visitors are greeted by a furious message painted on the front gate: "Is that human rights?" The words are in reference to the principle of "protecting the civilians' that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé invoked when lobbying the U.N. Security Council to support the NATO bombing campaign.

In the ground floor living room, whose ceiling resisted the collapse of the two upper floors, a banner covered with pictures of children and young women wearing headscarves has been put up. "Many families escaping the fighting came to take shelter at our place," explains Amr, Haj Ali's son. "Our traditions require that in such cases, men leave the house to women and children. We settled in the neighboring field. That's what saved us."

The plastic sandals of the deceased women, still covered with the dust of the debris, have been grouped together in a corner. Next to them are a dented clock, a children's bicycle with a bent wheel, and a sewing machine. The haunting mess is there to honor the memory of the victims, but also to prove that they did not deserve to be targeted by NATO, that there was no reason they should have been mistaken for a "legitimate" target.

"Do you think that I would have welcomed all these folks at my place if Gaddafi's soldiers were around the town?" Haj Ali asks.

HRW researchers, who came to inspect the site four times – including on the day after the tragedy – are backing Ali's statement. Save for a camouflage shirt (a piece of clothing that many Libyan people like to wear), they could not find a single piece of evidence to back NATO's claim that the Majer farms served as a resting stop for the Libyan army.

In the next room, the mausoleum becomes a horror museum. The walls are plastered with pictures of dead, torn bodies. "This is my brother", says Adel Absaat, a young man in his 30s. He points to an image of a shapeless body, covered with blood. "He was at the mosque when a first explosion destroyed the Jarood family house. With about 10 of his friends, he ran to help the victims. This is when the second strike hit. All of them were killed."

The villagers have picked up bomb fragments in the debris and placed them on a wooden table. One of the fragments has been identified by HRW as a piece from the fin of a GBU-12, a projectile with a laser-guidance system that should have indicated to the pilot the presence of a great number of people on the ground, according to the report.

New government reluctant to criticize NATO

The day after the bloodshed, May 9, Libyan authorities drove dozen of journalists to the scene. Delighted by the prospect of embarrassing NATO, or even of forcing it to suspend its operation, the regime's spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, went on a tirade, describing the crime as "beyond comprehension."

Ibrahim exaggerated the death toll, citing 85 casualties. Knowing that Gaddafi supporters had a history of fiddling official figures, the media reported the speech with caution. Torn between anger, grief and a reluctance to feed Gaddafi's arguments, the villagers kept silent. They had to wait until the conflict ended before they could begin to seek recognition for the tragedy they'd suffered.

Nevertheless, the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC), the governing body of the Libyan revolution, is reluctant to take a stand on the case. Some of its members deem it inappropriate to blame NATO, an ally whose support was decisive in toppling Gaddafi. "They say Gaddafi forces carried out the bombings themselves to discredit the West," says Khaled Shakshik, an NTC official in Zlitan, a larger city next to Majer. "Even those who do acknowledge that NATO made mistakes are against the idea of calling the victims martyrs. They say the victims weren't all necessarily anti-Gaddafi."

Such petty calculations are exasperating Milad Tawil, an engineer whose brother died in the bloodbath. "We don't want compensation as much as we want moral support," he says. "We paid the highest price for freedom. This has to be acknowledged."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – courtesy of the Jfara family via HRW

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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