World

Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed. Nickel plant in Papua New Guinea reopens despite chemical spill. Protesters in Lebanon demand government’s resignation. People smugglers wanted for arrest after 39 deaths in Essex. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Lebanon protesters demand new government

An anti-government protester waves a Lebanese flag in Martyrs’ Square, Beirut.
Credit: Sam Tarling / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Syria: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Daesh, died last weekend. After being discovered by United States forces beneath a rural compound, he exploded a suicide vest, preventing his capture and – in a final act of depravity – killing three of his children.

A reclusive figure, al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate in 2014 but has rarely been seen since. As leader, he cut the fingers off smokers and the hands off thieves and participated in his so-called state’s mass rapes. His group controlled an area as large as Britain before losing its remaining territory in March.

In a camp in Iraq this week, one of the thousands of women from the Yazidi minority who were kidnapped and sexually assaulted by Daesh members told Reuters: “This doesn’t feel like justice yet. I want the men who took me, who raped me, to stand trial. And I want to have my voice heard in court … Without proper trials, his death has no meaning.”

This is the problem: the two states in which al-Baghdadi thrived remain broken. In Iraq, the anti-government protests of recent weeks have left more than 220 people dead. In Syria, the state is in flux as President Bashar al-Assad strengthens his control and as Turkey, Russia and Iran compete for territory and influence. Donald Trump is abandoning US support for the Kurds, who lost 11,000 fighters in the battle against Daesh. Despite Trump’s claim that the US “got very little help” in the hunt for al-Baghdadi, it was Kurdish spies who risked their lives to find the Daesh leader and report his location to the Americans.

The map of Syria is still being redrawn and depends on the whims of foreign powers. Before his death, al-Baghdadi had fled to Idlib, a rebel-held territory of three million people where Syrian, Turkish and Russian troops all operate. The province is mostly held by his enemies and continues to harbour the sort of violent chaos in which he and his movement learnt to survive, and flourish.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: On August 24, a broken pump went undetected at a Chinese-owned nickel plant in Papua New Guinea, causing 200,000 litres of metallic waste to leak out. The spillage, in Basamuk Bay on the country’s north coast, turned the waters red and killed marine life, including dolphins, turtles and dugongs.

Last week, PNG’s mining regulator ordered the plant, Ramu Nickel, to close after it failed to comply with measures to fix the faults. This week, to the apparent disappointment of local communities, the mine was allowed to reopen.

The spill has added to long-running tensions over the mine. In 2010, landowners went to court to try to block the operators from dumping millions of tonnes of waste into the sea. The project, and the dumping, went ahead but faced further troubles, including a clash in 2014 between Chinese workers and local villagers. In 2016, there was another spill, as well as an accident in which a worker was killed.

Since the spill in August, authorities have banned fishing along the local coastline. This has deprived residents of one of their main sources of food and income. Testing of the water, conducted by an Australian firm, found no continuing environmental impact. But locals have reported experiencing skin irritations after swimming and are now avoiding the water. A health worker, Lynette Dawo, told Radio New Zealand this week: “Our main source of protein we [are] getting from the sea but they stopped it … This company … doesn’t provide anything good for the people.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Lebanon: The Lebanese Civil War started in 1975 and officially ended in 1990, but recently the nation’s residents have been claiming the war truly ended on October 17, 2019. On that date, protests broke out across the country over a lack of adequate water, electricity and health services and the decades of nepotism and corruption that have led to a near economic collapse. The final spark was a new tax on WhatsApp calls.

Unusually, despite the fierce religious and political sectarianism that has crippled Lebanon for decades, the protesters have included members of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim, Christian and Druze communities. They have rallied behind the Lebanese flag and the national anthem, rather than partisan symbols and chants. And they have gathered in all major cities, not just in Beirut.

A 28-year-old protester, who requested his name not be used because of fear of retribution by the authorities, told The Saturday Paper: “Ever since the civil war ended, the government has been feeding us fear. Now it is gone … This is the first time that we feel a sense of belonging in this country.”

The protests follow years of corruption and mismanagement that have left Lebanon in ruin. Electricity fails for hours a day, roads are in disrepair and air and water are polluted. Unemployment and inequality are rising, and the national debt – 150 per cent of gross domestic product – is one of the highest in the world.

The protesters do not have a leader. Their main demand is the resignation of the entire government, which has been led by an unchanging set of figures and families for decades.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned, saying he was unable to find a way to address the public’s concerns. That night, the protesters went back to the streets and insisted that this was not enough. “All of them means all of them,” they chanted.

SPOTLIGHT: 39 dead in Essex

Britain: Two months ago, Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old from Vietnam, borrowed money from friends and started making her way to Britain, where she hoped to work in a nail salon. As she travelled across Europe, she recorded her trip on Facebook, which was filled with smiling selfies and photographs of bubble tea. On October 21, she messaged her sister that she was “in storage”.

Bui is believed to have been one of 39 people – 31 men and eight women – found aboard a refrigerated container on the back of a truck at an industrial park in Essex in the early hours of October 23. The container had arrived by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

This week, police charged the alleged truck driver, a 25-year-old from Northern Ireland. Three others have been arrested, and two brothers, also from Northern Ireland, are wanted by police. All are believed to be part of a global people-smuggling ring.

The victims are still being identified but are believed to be from Vietnam and possibly China.

In rural Vietnam, residents recounted losing contact with family members who were hoping to travel to Britain, where they planned to work and send back money.

Despite Vietnam’s growth, several provinces remain desperately poor and have been the main source of migrants who use people smugglers to go to Europe via well-worn routes through Russia or China. Many, such as Bui, aim to reach Britain, where they have relatives who can help them to find work in restaurants, nail salons or the cannabis trade.

Last year, Britain’s National Crime Agency warned that people smugglers were using ports in Belgium and that migrants were being transported by increasingly risky methods, including refrigerated containers. The Harbour Master’s Office in Zeebrugge said migrant stowaways were found “every day”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Lebanon demands new government". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.