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Monthly Archives: September 2008

UN soldier in Lebanon trades her blue beret for a veil

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 by Ali Dia*

Sylvia Monika Wyszomirska is a Catholic from Poland, but in an effort to integrate better into south Lebanon's conservative society she has traded her UN peacekeeper's beret for a headscarf during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"Out of respect for the environment I work in, I feel I need to try to integrate myself" during Ramadan, said Wyszomirska, 37, who has been stationed in the country for four months.
"And since my contingent is deployed in a Muslim area, I have decided to wear the hijab," the Muslim veil, over military fatigues, she said.
Wyszomirska chose a veil in the same light shade of blue used for the berets worn by members of the 13,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which keeps the peace along the tense Lebanon-Israel border.
A native of Krakow, Wyszomirska works as a translator for the 200-member Polish contingent of UNIFIL, and her job brings her into direct contact with the people who live in Shiite-majority villages across the Marjayoun region.
Her deployment to southern Lebanon is not Wyszomirska's first encounter with Muslim tradition. She has also been to Kuwait and Iraq and worked in Syria as well to perfect her Arabic.
"When I was studying Middle Eastern languages at Jagiellonski university back home we also learned about the customs, traditions, history and geography of the countries we might end up working in — places like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait," she said.
Wyszomirska's decision to wear the veil during Ramadan has helped to break the ice with local villagers, both for her personally and for her colleagues in the Polish contingent.

'All we can offer them is respect'
"At first relations were lukewarm, especially since we don't come from a rich country with things to offer the people," she said. "All we can offer them is respect and a smile.
"But since I started wearing the veil, people have been more welcoming with me and also with my colleagues. This has opened more doors and opportunities to strike up friendships.
"They began inviting us into their homes for coffee or sweets. And when we pass by the children smile and wave at us," she said.
"Today I feel almost as if I have a second family in Debbine, Blat and Arid," she added of the mostly Shiite villages in the area.
Wyszomirska said that wearing the veil was "a gesture from the heart — it was not imposed on me."
Her superior welcomed the idea that she don the veil during the holy month.
"He also suggested to me that I explain Ramadan customs to the other soldiers so they can respect the traditions and refrain from eating and drinking in public during fasting" between dawn and dusk, she said.
Another woman peacekeeper in the Polish contingent, a 36-year-old, said she thought "wearing the veil was a smart move, because it brought us closer to the residents," but also added that she would not do the same herself.
"It would change my look completely, and that's not something I want."
Some of the villagers were slightly taken aback by the sight of the fatigues-clad Wyszomirska wearing a veil.
"I was surprised to see Sylvia wearing the headscarf, because I know she's not a Muslim," said Zahraa Hijazi, a veiled student from the village of Debbine.
"But in any case nuns wear veils even though they are Christian," she added.
Debbine mayor Mohammed Sherif Ibrahim agreed that many of his constituents were surprised by Wyszomirska's decision to wear the veil "because it is out of the ordinary".
"But it is also a nice gesture that breaks down barriers between UNIFIL and the local people," he said.


Iran battles searing drought across half the country

by Aresu Eqbali

According to local legend Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, abhorred the telling of lies, which he believed to be his people's worst enemy.
It is said that next in line was drought. Little has changed for the modern-day descendants of those who lived 2,500 years ago in what is now Iran.
The ancient grave of Cyrus lies not far from the town of Eghlid in the southern Iranian province of Fars. This agricultural city has 11 rivers — but 10 of them have now run dry.
On the road between Isfahan and Shiraz, Eghlid's altitude of 2,230 metres near the Zagros mountains means it should not be short of water — but it is.
Mohammad Gholi Ashiri has small oblong concrete ponds in which he used to breed up to 20 tonnes of trout a year. But his business in one of the forsaken villages in the area has literally dried up.
"We don't have even one litre of water, even for drinking," Ashiri said. Now the 46-year-old ruined father of four also has an insistent bank to deal with because he has been late in repaying his business loans.
"We don't know what to do. There's no way out, and no way to stay," he lamented. "First lying, and then drought. That's what Cyrus the Great warned his people of. In that order!"
Fars, where wheat is the prime product, is one of Iran's 14 provinces — of a total 30 — officially labelled a drought-stricken region.
Its four million-strong population is accustomed to weather changes including dry spells, but never have they seen anything like this.
Average rainfall is down 68 percent in Fars this year. The situation is so bad that Ayatollah Mohiedin Haeri Shirzai, Friday prayers leader in Shiraz, the provincial capital, urged everyone to pray for rain on a certain day in June.
The people of Eghlid have good reason to urge divine intervention — up to 85 percent of the town's 100,000 population relies on farming and livestock to survive.
According to the local state agriculture organisation, the drought had inflicted losses of more than two billion dollars by July.
"The problem is that in autumn there will be no water for next year," said Mansour Rashidi, a provincial ministry of agriculture expert.
"The underground water table will not be replenished. We will be hit with the lowest amount of water ever because we have used up all the reserves."

'We are dying of hunger'
Tehran has allocated nearly five billion dollars to fight the drought nationally. Even arch-foe the United States, often referred to in Iran as the Great Satan, is helping out.
To cover demand, Iran needs to import five million tonnes of wheat to make up for this year's drought-induced shortfall.
According to a recent US Department of Agriculture report, Tehran has bought 1.18 million tonnes of American hard wheat, commonly used in breads and pasta, since the 2008-2009 crop season began in June.
"On each hectare we produce eight to nine tonnes of wheat a year. But this year we have nothing at all," 47-year-old Faraj Bazgosha said, standing under the burning sun on his now barren seven-hectare farm.
Usually farmers can acquire the supplies and equipment they need early in the year on credit because traders know they will be compensated when harvest time comes around.
But no future crop to reap means no current credit.
"I used to get what I wanted from local shops, but now that I have no income they don't give me anything," Bazgosha said.
The lack of pasture means livestock also suffer. Nomads in Fars who move 1.2 million animals annually from winter to summer quarters have been badly hit.
"I now have 58 sheep and geese. But I lost some. They don't become fattened," said Avaz Peykar, 40, now settled in Eghlid's Aspas plain.
The father of six sees no future for the nomadic lifestyle.
"A nomad's herd is his asset. But this drought means there will be no more nomads. In the end we'll have to settle down somewhere. We are dying of hunger."
Shahrokh Shakeri, another agriculture ministry expert, said that in addition to having to sell livestock when animals are too young, owners are also being forced to slaughter them to ensure more grazing for the rest of the flock.
Fruit production had also been hit by the fierce drought of 2008, he said. The driest in a decade, it has been dubbed "crisis year" by local agriculture officials.
In addition to grains, Eghlid is also normally a great producer of apples, almonds, beans, grapes, walnuts and stone fruits, with a total of 16,000 hectares allocated to harvesting the land.
"We've had a little rain and some snow. But around 2,000 hectares do not have enough water and orchards have been dying," said Ali Agha Mirtalebi, deputy head of the Eghlid agricultural office.
There are not enough water tankers in this town of dried-up rivers to supply nomads, let alone water the plants.
Eghlid agricultural officials hope that a recent state allocation of 4.7 billion dollars to battle the drought will alleviate matters.
But it is not only agriculture that has been hit by the unprecedented drought. A 60 percent decrease in the amount of water stored behind dams has meant daily power cuts across Iran, because hydroelectric plants also lack water.