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Bearing Witness

Americans who lost relatives on Sept. 11 visit Afghan-istan to survey the destruction caused by U.S. bombing

Four Americans who lost relatives on Sept. 11 walked down a dusty street in Kabul, Afghanistan, and were shocked by the devastation. Years of fighting in previous wars have wrecked parts of the city, and now the Americans were witnessing the civilian destruction caused by U.S. bombing raids.

The four were part of a delegation organized by the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Global Exchange. They investigated the impact of U.S. bombing and have now established a fund to help civilian victims of the war.

The delegation visited one house in southern Kabul where a U.S. bomb killed four adults and four children. Neighbors say there are no military targets nearby. Indeed, the house belonged to a Northern Alliance commander, the Mujahadeen group allied with the United States.

The commander lost his 21-year-old son. His wife explained that their 6-year old boy was so traumatized by the explosion that he cries constantly.

Derrill Bodley, a delegation member and music professor from Stockton, Calif., lost his 20-year-old daughter when United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. He feels a strong bond with the commander’s wife.

“My daughter was the same age as her son,” said Bodley. “It’s the same kind of pain.”

Delegation members spoke with dozens of victims of U.S. bombing. They say that while the U.S. military claims it has mostly dropped smart bombs that hit precise military targets, more Afghan civilians have now been killed from U.S. bombing raids than the number of Americans civilians who were killed on Sept. 11.

More than 3,700 Afghan civilians died from U.S. attacks through Dec. 3, according to a study by Professor Mark Herold of the University of New Hampshire. He based the figures on verified media accounts of civilian deaths and said the figure is probably too low because the media can’t visit some parts of Afghanistan.

The United States has no official figures on the number of Afghan civilian casualties and has no plans to investigate the issue, according to a high-ranking Western diplomat. The United States “is looking at the broad picture,” said the diplomat, “trying to get Afghanistan out of its cycle” of war and poverty over the past 20 years.

Interestingly enough, some civilian victims of U.S. bombing also want to look at the broader picture.

In another southern Kabul neighborhood, Shems Rhaman Shemsi described how a U.S. bomb, probably intended for a nearby Taliban checkpoint, hit his neighbors’ homes instead. Two houses were destroyed and four people killed. But Shemsi said he’s not angry at the U.S. government.

“It was a mistake by the U.S.,” said Shemsi. “We’re happy that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are gone. I feel so thankful to Mr. Bush because he sent us some peacekeepers in Kabul.”

Delegation member Eva Rupp, who lost her stepsister on Sept. 11, said many Afghan bombing victims share that sentiment.

“All the people we’ve met, even those who have lost little children, are hopeful for the future because the Taliban are gone,” said Rupp. “With tears in her eyes, a woman said, ‘Yes I’ve lost my 5-year-old daughter. But the Taliban are gone. I’m really glad the U.S. bombed us.’ ”

Global Exchange director Medea Benjamin said the Taliban was so hated by Afghans that they are understandably grateful to anyone who helped get rid of the despotic regime.

But Benjamin argued that the United States isn’t really interested in helping the people of Afghanistan. She said the administration of President George W. Bush is using the war against terrorism to aggressively expand U.S. military bases throughout the region and eventually secure a pipeline through Afghanistan for the benefit of UNOCAL and other big U.S. oil companies.

“I think we’re getting ourselves deeper and deeper into a very negative relationship with the Muslim world,” said Benjamin. “We’re expanding our territory. If, as a result of this, there is a pipeline going through Afghanistan, UNOCAL getting wealthy on oil from Central Asia, this will only fuel the resentment toward the U.S.”

Afghans have high expectations that the United States will bring peace and stability to their war-torn land. But security remains tenuous. Food-aid convoys come under regular attack by local warlords.

Kabul resident Shemsi complained bitterly about criminal looting at night in his poor neighborhood. A neighbor suspects that off-duty Northern Alliance soldiers are committing the crimes.

The soldiers have stolen hundreds of civilian cars for their own use. Obeidullah Shanawaz, a wealthy farmer on the outskirts of Kabul, even knows the name of the commander who stole his Land Rover but has been unable to get government authorities to take any action.

The Northern Alliance troops now controlling Kabul, admitted the Western diplomat, “are precisely the ones who tore this town apart” in the past. Any attempt to bring real security will require “a large force and a long-term commitment” by Western troops.

The American people may oppose such a commitment, particularly if significant numbers of American soldiers are killed, according to Global Exchange delegation members. Eva Rupp noted that the United States permanently stationed large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War.

“The presence of troops in Saudi Arabia is what upset so many people here [in Afghanistan] and caused them to hate the U.S.,” she said.

While the future of U.S. troop commitments remains unclear, delegation members said they have a long-term commitment to help U.S. bombing victims. They will be pressuring the U.S. government to provide compensation to those victims, as the United States has done previously in Lebanon, Panama and Grenada.

—Reese Erlich

Freelance reporter Reese Erlich traveled to Afghanistan on assignment for public radio networks in the United States, Canada and Australia.

The IMF Won’t Cry For You, Argentina

How the global economy played a role in the fall of the Argentinean economy

‘It’s an explosive mix,” said Ruben Cortina, a professor of law and economics at the University of Buenos Aires. “The middle classes are angry because their savings have been partly expropriated. The unemployed, at 22 percent and growing, have gotten nothing. And even those with jobs have had falling wages, and now face the prospect of even lower living standards due to inflation.”

The mix already exploded less than two months ago, when tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to defy then-President Fernando de la Rua’s declaration of a “state of siege.” It was a collapse of state power—a rare event that in other countries might have resulted in what is commonly called a revolution.

Calm has returned to this sprawling city of 9 million, with its wide boulevards and European architecture carrying reminders of the country’s relatively prosperous past. But unless the new government of President Eduardo Duhalde can reverse Argentina’s accelerating economic decline, the peace may not last long.

Can this be done? Contrary to the theme of most business reporting and forecasts, Argentina could recover relatively quickly without suffering further economic contraction. The country is actually running a surplus in both its trade and government accounts—if we don’t count interest payments. In other words, Argentina doesn’t really need foreign aid so much as it needs a moratorium on its debt-service payments.

In fact, the story of Argentina’s debt is really the story of its current economic crisis. And if we look at the numbers, it is decisively not a case of a government trying to live beyond its means. From 1993 to 2000, government spending as a share of the economy—again, excluding interest payments—was basically unchanged.

So what happened? Most importantly, Argentina’s interest payments increased. The trouble started in February 1994, when the U.S. Federal Reserve began a series of rate hikes that doubled U.S. interest rates, from 3 to 6 percent. Since Argentina’s peso was fixed to the dollar, the shock hit especially hard. Investors began to fear that the country’s higher interest payments would lead to devaluation and default.

These fears multiplied, and capital fled the country, when Mexico devalued the peso in December of 1994. This caused a recession in Argentina. The economy recovered in 1996, but not for long: Then came the Asian economic crisis (August 1997). Global financial markets spread the contagion to Russia and then Brazil. When Brazil’s currency collapsed in 1998, Argentina’s fate was sealed. The economy has been in recession—which is now really a depression—for nearly four years. In December, the inevitable currency devaluation and default on government debt finally happened.

In other words, Argentina fell victim to the caprices of the global economy, as well as some bad policies—most deadly was the fixed exchange rate that tied the peso to the dollar. These policies were supported and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. All this would be just interesting history, if not for the fact that the IMF is at this very moment trying to force further budget cuts on Argentina’s government.

The fund is still acting as though government spending is the problem. But the budget cuts will most likely worsen the depression: Economists here are projecting another 8 percent drop in gross domestic product for 2001, or worse.

It doesn’t have to happen this way. The government of President Duhalde proposed a reasonable economic recovery program when he took office: one that would make the banks absorb much of the cost of the devaluation, tax the oil companies (who will reap a windfall from the devaluation), revive domestic industry and suspend interest payments on the foreign debt.

But the IMF is a debt collector, and it is insisting on more austerity and pain. Other governments—most notably that of Malaysia during the Asian economic crisis—have stood up to the IMF, and done better for it. But Duhalde’s government has little backing among Argentines: He was chosen by the Congress, not a popular vote. And people here are deeply cynical about their politicians and government.

So IMF officials have the upper hand. But they better be careful about how much debt service they try to squeeze out of this collapsed economy, and how many more people they push into poverty. They are playing with fire this time.

—Mark Weisbrot

Mark Weisbrot is codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is author, most recently, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis and “Globalization for Whom?”

Why Johnny Can’t Renovate

Center Square Association to Dove Street Laundromat owner: No variance for you!

Joe Putrock

Apart from a thriving public Laundromat on the ground floor, there are no signs of life at 57 Dove St. No one lives in any of the apartment spaces that comprise the building’s upper three floors. The light green paint on the brick facade is peeling, and the windows and doors are boarded up. The building looks as if it once was one of the handsome townhouses that give Albany’s Center Square its charm, but today it sits vacant, in need of rehabilitation.

Bill McLaughlin, the owner of 57 Dove St., would like to start the rehabilitation as soon as possible. But the Center Square Association would rather see the building remain boarded up than allow McLaughlin to make the building the way he wants: a Laundromat on the first floor, with three apartments upstairs.

“They don’t want three units; they only want two,” said McLaughlin. “I say it’s not economically viable to do two, so I’ll keep it boarded up.”

As a result, McLaughlin has hung a huge sign in the window of the Laundromat that reads, “Help save this building. . . . come in and vote.” McLaughlin said that he already has more than 150 signatures on the petition. But Harold Rubin, chairman of Center Square Association’s zoning committee, charges that the sign and the petition are misleading.

“It is not that we don’t want the building rehabilitated,” said Rubin. “The sign gives the impression that the building is at risk of being condemned or demolished. We are not opposed to him developing two apartments, just three.”

Rubin said that the area is zoned for one- and two-family row houses. McLaughlin has filed for a variance with the City of Albany’s Board of Zoning Appeals. Last Thursday, at the Board of Appeals meeting, the association made a formal statement that it was against the application for a variance, a decision that has many in the neighborhood questioning what right the association has to speak for the entire area.

Comer Coppie, who owns the house directly across the street from McLaughlin’s building, said that the association is not representative of the whole neighborhood.

“The building is all boarded up now,” said Coppie. “No one wants to look at a boarded-up building. It brings down the property values of the homes that surround it. The association voted 16 to 7 against it, but that is only 23 people—150 people have signed a petition in favor of the renovations. I think that means something.”

Alice Oldfather, president of the association, said the group is against McLaughlin’s request to convert the building because it goes against the current zoning laws. The association, she added, encourages homeowner occupancy, and a project like this doesn’t fit that criteria.

“A lot of the stability in the neighborhood is thanks to the ordinance that only allows for one- and two-family homes,” said Oldfather. “If this is approved, it sets a precedent that any application that doesn’t fit the criteria for a variance can be approved. How would the city justify not granting a variance to the next person in the same situation?”

Rubin added that the association is also concerned that three units could add as much as nine cars to the area, contributing to the existing parking problem in Center Square.

McLaughlin, who lives on State Street and owns other rental properties on Chestnut, said that he could offer parking for his tenants in a lot that he owns on Lancaster Street. But Rubin said that the association would rather see more housing built in that lot rather than parking.

“They want me to build townhouses, yet they are concerned about density?” said McLaughlin. “But I don’t think the neighborhood is ready for that.”

Cindy Harold, who signed the petition in favor of the Dove Street renovation and rents an apartment on Jay Street, said this move by the association just doesn’t make good sense.

“Part of living in a city is dealing with development,” said Harold. “You need development in order to sustain an area. Why not support this? This is not the suburbs; this is downtown. This is a beautiful, historic, old building, and keeping it boarded up only detracts from the area.”

Rubin confirmed that the association would rather see the building remain vacant than to go against the current zoning laws.

“Our goal is to protect and promote the residential character of the neighborhood,” said Rubin. “The more you turn things into rental units, the less likely you are to have owner occupants and the less strong the neighborhood.”

—Nancy Guerin

A Site for Sore Eyes?

Will RPI’s proposed biotech center be an eyesore? Troy residents want to find out before it’s too late

Although Troy may not be generally known for its sweeping, dramatic skyline, some residents are saying that a plan to build a massive new tech center will permanently damage what little skyline the city has.

“They are saying that there will be no visual impact from these new buildings, but nobody has been able to see what they look like,” said Eric Daillie, special project director for the Rensselaer County Greens.

Daillie and others are concerned that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s $225 million proposed biotechnology building could alter the historic character of Troy and negatively impact the aesthetics of the community.

Tonight (Thursday), the city’s Planning Commission, which is the lead agency in charge of reviewing the project, is expected to rule on the buildings’ environmental impact. RPI’s plan includes a 200,000-square-foot biotechnology building, a 160,000-square-foot electronic-media-performing-arts building, a boiler, and a 500-car parking garage.

“We don’t want to build anything that detracts from the city of Troy or detracts from the neighborhood,” said Bruce Adams, director of communications and media relations at RPI. “It’s not good for us, it’s not good for Troy and it’s not good for the neighborhood.”

But Daillie said that the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement for the project leaves out important information about the aesthetic impacts it could have on the city. Without that, he said, it is impossible to know what to expect, visually, from the buildings. He is particularly concerned about the arts center and parking garage because both are going to be built on College Street, which sits perched over downtown Troy.

“We are not saying that it will be ugly,” said Daillie. “But we want to have some idea of what we are going to get. What color is it? Will it have big lights from inside shining down over Troy? Is it made of brick, glass or steel? The parking garage is being built right on a small street facing existing houses. . . . We don’t know even how tall it will be.”

Bill Rourke, chairman of the Planning Commission for Troy, said that this is not the phase of the process where those external issues are addressed. First, a FGEIS is required by the state, and then the site-plan review is required by the city.

“After we finish this, we will have to do a site-plan review and that is the appropriate forum for the aesthetics, that’s the normal process,” said Rourke.

But Daillie charges that visual concerns could easily slip through the site-plan review because these types of impacts are difficult to measure.

“In order for the site-plan review to effectively include some of the concerns we have, the problems must surpass a certain threshold,” said Daillie. “This is easy to identify when talking about an obvious environmental concern, like pollution, but how do you measure aesthetics?”

Therefore, Daillie said, his organization would like to see an amendment added to require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that would look solely at how the buildings will visually affect Troy.

“It’s a very difficult thing,” said Rourke. “We need to look at the neighborhoods’ concerns, the people’s concerns, the general public’s concerns and also the property rights of RPI. We can’t just say, ‘No you can’t do this or that.’ But we can tell them, ‘Here is what you are going to have to do if you want to do this project.’ That is what land-use planning is all about.”

Daillie said that his organization may sue the city if a supplemental impact statement is not included in the Planning Commission’s finding statement.

“The lead agency could not possibly assess the visual impacts of these two buildings with the information provided in the FGEIS,” said Daillie. “Since we are talking about a visual impact, they should make an extra effort to show the public what it will look like.”

—N.G.


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