A selection of my work
Rape gangs of Tahrir Square
Ramita Navai Cairo
December 1 2012
Yasmine had been at the protest in Tahrir Square filming the demonstrations for a few hours before the crowd around her suddenly turned.
The square that was the crucible of the Arab Spring, a centre of protest against dictatorship and brutality that had echoed with hopeful calls for greater freedoms and representation, is now a dangerous and forbidding place.
Before she realised what was happening, a mob of about 50 men began grabbing her breasts. As they became more frenzied, they ripped off her clothes; her headscarf was the first to go. A few men tried to help her but they were beaten away by others in the mob. For nearly an hour, scores of men sexually assaulted Yasmine, indecently assaulting her with their hands.
Finally, a group of residents who had seen the attack from their windows came to her rescue. An elderly couple pulled her into their home. She was bruised, battered and naked. Yasmine suffered internal injuries and could not walk for a week.
Four of her friends were also sexually assaulted in the same part of Tahrir that day, in the summer. No one has statistics on the frequency of these attacks, as they are rarely reported, but what is certain is that there has been a dramatic increase in mob sex attacks against female protesters in the past year. Activists have reported nearly 20 attacks in the past ten days.
Mothers who refuse to give up hope of finding girls sold into sex slavery
Ramita Navai Huixtla
Published at 12:01AM, June 8 2012
In a tiny, windowless room, a white-haired grandmother is slowly tapping away at an ancient computer. In neat piles around her are hundreds of files, each with a photograph of a young, smiling woman stapled to the front.
Edita Maldonado is a member of the Mothers of Progreso, established by a few women in Honduras 13 years ago when their daughters started to disappear. It now has more than 400 members. “We’ve had to turn into private detectives to try to find our children, because if we don’t, no one else will,” Mrs Maldonado said.
Hundreds of Honduran women go missing every year, most when seeking work in the US or Mexico. Many end up in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, which has a booming sex industry. Padre Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, an outspoken priest who runs a shelter for illegal migrants in Chiapas, says that migrant women are falling prey to human traffickers. He has housed dozens of trafficking victims and regularly receives death threats.
Undercover with the Syrian revolution
October 11 2011
Hidden in a back room of a half-built, crumbling apartment block in the centre of Duma, a young man groans in pain as a doctor tends to his gunshot injuries. Under a dim, flickering light Dr Khaled inspects the wounds from where a sniper’s bullet sliced through Mohammad’s liver and kidney. He works quickly, using instruments smuggled in from Lebanon, as allies outside keep watch.
Mohammad is in critical condition after security forces opened fire on an anti-government protest. He should be in intensive care. Instead he is here, in one of Syria’s “secret hospitals”.
Dozens of hospitals in Syria have been raided by government forces and those injured at protests are too afraid to go to them, so safe houses, family homes and abandoned buildings have been turned into medical centres where patients are kept hidden.
“The security forces have been hunting protesters down. Some have been shot dead in their hospital beds by Assad’s men,” says Dr Khaled, who claims to have seen many of his patients dragged away, their bodies delivered to their families a few weeks later.
Medical staff have been tortured for treating protesters. “We’re seen as the opposition’s secret weapon. That’s why, if they catch us, they want to kill us,” Dr Khaled says, drawing a line across his throat with his forefinger. He says that ten colleagues have been jailed.
Among his patients are a boy, 15, who was paralysed and left mute after being shot in the head, and a 36-year-old father badly brain damaged when doctors were forbidden to treat him. The restive town of Duma is only a 30-minute drive from Damascus, yet the sound of gunfire has become nearly as frequent as the sound of chanting from the daily protests in its streets. Despite the violence and the killings, protests in Duma and the suburbs of Rif Damashq have not lost momentum. Every night, hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather outside mosques and march to squares where they hold banners and sing anti-regime songs of freedom. The protesters are showered by sweets thrown from windows by locals too afraid to risk sniper fire, but desperate to show their support.
The Government has encircled Duma with military checkpoints and the town is dotted with roadblocks. Plainclothes security officers with AK47s patrol the streets. Whole neighbourhoods have been without power for months as electricity and mobile phone networks have been shut down.
Migrants risk kidnap and death for desert trek into ‘rich’ Israel
Ramita Navai Sanai Desert
June 3 2011
Deep in the Sinai Desert in a secret location surrounded by sand dunes, more than 100 Eritrean men, women and children are packed into a low-brick building known as a “holding house”. It has taken them more than a month to get here, smuggled by Beduin nomads hundreds of miles from the border of Sudan.
Scared and tired, they lie on the ground, waiting for the final part of their journey: the attempt to cross the border into Israel. They have each paid $2,000 (£1,200) to be hidden under piles of fruit and vegetables in pick-up trucks and driven for hours in blistering heat. “Before we met our smugglers, we walked across the desert for weeks with no water, no food. Many died,” said Tadsse, one of the migrants. “But Israel is rich and there are jobs there.”
The smugglers will drive Tadsse and the others to the border where the migrants will make a run for it. Egyptian border guards have been accused of a shoot-to-kill policy — 86 people have been reported killed attempting to cross, but human rights groups claim the number is much higher. Once in Israel, if captured within 30 miles (50km) of the border, the migrants can be handed to the Egyptian authorities, then detained or sent back home where Eritreans face prison and torture for having left the country illegally.
Children locked in prison ‘hell’ among killers and rapists in Burundi
Ramita Navai Bujumbura
May 14 2011
The tightly packed inmates pace endlessly around the main courtyard in Mpimba prison. Burundi’s most notorious jail was built for 800 prisoners but holds 3,300. Sandwiched between the murderers, rapists and dissidents are small, emaciated figures in ragged clothes: groups of boys, huddled together for protection.
Mpimba holds at least 140 child prisoners. There is no juvenile justice system so they are locked up in adult jails alongside some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. The prison is a lawless place. As darkness descends not even the armed guards dare to enter. Bootleg alcohol fuels the aggressive atmosphere and fights are common in the pitch-black, overcrowded cells. Night is the most frightening time for the children.
“I feel scared in here,” Claude, a 13-year-old, whispers. “You always have to be careful. The adults try to trick you into having sex.”
Sexual abuse is rife but the children are too ashamed to report it. The age of criminal responsibility in Burundi is 15 and it is illegal for anyone younger to be imprisoned. But in this small country still recovering from a 12-year civil war, official records and birth certificates are scarce. Many under-age boys end up behind bars.
Mugabe ‘buying army’s loyalty with blood diamonds’
Last updated at 12:01AM, October 29 2010
President Mugabe is plundering Zimbabwe’s biggest diamond field to buy the army’s loyalty and tighten his grip on power as the coalition government teeters on the brink of collapse, according to members of Parliament and military sources.
“Government officials are allowing top-ranking members of the military to pocket money from the diamond fields. They simply rubber-stamp the decisions taken by the military,” said a high-ranking soldier who did not want to be named.
Members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister, claim that the proceeds are being used as a war chest to fund Mr Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party in upcoming elections.
“Politicians are profiting from the diamonds, not the Government. The money is being used to fund thugs, it’s funding violence,” said Moses Mare, an MDC member of a parliamentary committee investigating the mines.
According to both Mr Mare and the unnamed soldier, a directive was issued from the President’s office allowing looting at every level, with generals sending a fresh brigade of troops to the fields every few months. This enables all military units to profit, enhancing officers’ paltry pay, which is about $100 (£63) a month. Even if there are no especially large finds, a soldier can earn more than three years’ salary during a stay at the fields. This, says Mr Mare, ensures the army’s continued loyalty.
Women and children are killed in attacks on starving villagers
Ramita Navai in Akobo
November 6 2009
Thousands had gathered under the shade of the trees by the airstrip in Akobo, waiting for the arrival of a United Nations helicopter packed with food aid.
Bony-armed women in ragged clothes held children with distended bellies, slack skin hanging off tiny limbs, their hair turned orange by severe malnutrition. Most stared blankly ahead, too weak from hunger to cry.
Every person here has fled bloody inter-tribal violence. More than 2,000 people have been killed by fighting in southern Sudan so far this year — more than in the war-torn western region of Darfur. More than a quarter of a million have been displaced in three southern states alone. South Sudan is now in the grip of a humanitarian crisis, and one and a half million people do not have enough food, with the UN warning that it is on the brink of a famine.
“The situation is really bad; we haven’t had food for over two months,” said Nyayual, who fled her village after it was attacked by a rival tribe. “We’ve been surviving by eating grass.” Nyayual and her family were attacked again when her community was forced to leave Akobo to hunt for food. They were ambushed on a fishing trip, and more than 180 people were killed. Nyayual lost seven family members, including two children.
All Ahmadinejad has done is create poverty
Martin Fletcher and Ramita Navai in Tehran
March 13 2008
Until President Ahmadinejad’s name is mentioned Mokhtar, an Iranian labourer, stands listlessly with his friends on a street corner in a blue-collar district of south Tehran. Suddenly he grows animated. He voted enthusiastically for Mr Ahmadinejad in 2005 because he had pledged to help the poor, he says. Now he feels so disillusioned that he will never vote again. “I will not pollute myself,” he declares.
His family is suffering, Mokhtar explains. Work is scarce. The rent on his one-bedroom flat has jumped from $120 (£60) to $180 a month. Food prices are soaring. He has no health insurance, cannot afford a car and may soon have to move somewhere even cheaper. He recalls Mr Ahmadinejad’s pledge to put oil money on every Iranian’s dinner table. “It was precisely for that slogan that I voted for him but it didn’t happen,” he says. “I’m very disappointed. All he’s done is create inflation and poverty.”
Tomorrow Iran elects a new Majlis (parliament) and although the hardline President is not a candidate the results will be scrutinised to assess his chances of re-election next year.
The threat to the bête noire of the West comes not from the reformists swept from power in 2005. The Guardian Council, Iran’s Islamic watchdog, has disqualified hundreds of their best-known candidates, including former government ministers and sitting MPs. The reformists will contest barely half the 290 seats. “It’s like a soccer game with 11 players and the referee taking on a team of two,” complains Muhammad Atrianfar, who was editor of the reformist newspaper Shargh (East) until the Government closed it last year.
‘Jailed journalist will die if world fails to react’
From Ramita Navai in Tehran
August 6 2005
SMUGGLED photographs of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most famous political prisoner, show him ghostly white and gaunt with sunken eyes. He is close to death after 56 days of a hunger strike.
Mr Ganji was rushed from the Evin prison in Tehran to Milad Hospital last week as his health deteriorated. Massoumeh Shafiie, his wife, said doctors have tried to feed him intravenously but he has pulled out the feeding tubes.
Mr Ganji, an investigative journalist, was jailed for six years in 2000 on charges of “acting against national security”. Some charges related to an article he wrote linking some of the country’s top officials to the 1998 murder of dissident intellectuals.
He was temporarily released in May for medical treatment, when he came to the end of a 43-day hunger strike. Since returning to prison in June, he has resumed his hunger strike.
President invokes new Islamic wave
By Ramita Navai in Tehran
Last updated at 12:00AM, June 30 2005
IRAN’S ultra-conservative President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threw down a challenge to the West yesterday by declaring that his election victory marked the dawn of a new Islamic revolution that would spread around the world.
“Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution of 1384 [the current Iranian year] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world,” he said. “The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”
His fiery language shows that he has not lost the revolutionary ardour that propelled him into politics as a young Basij Islamic militia volunteer who had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. It is also reminiscent of the rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomenei, the architect of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and is likely to sound alarm bells in the West, afraid that his victory could signal a return to post-revolutionary fundamentalism.
Guardian of the revolution with a populist feel for the working class
From Ramita Navai in Tehran
June 27 2005
AS MAYOR of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained notoriety for pandering to his right-wing supporters with frequent crackdowns. He closed several cultural centres, turning them into prayer houses, he shut down fast-food restaurants and he made city employees grow beards and wear long sleeves.
He also famously banned hoardings of David Beckham — the first Western celebrity to be used in advertising since the 1979 revolution — in a drive against “Westoxification”. Such measures angered the departing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who eventually barred Mr Ahmadinejad from attending Cabinet meetings.
He became mayor after winning the 2003 municipal elections when turnout plunged to just 12 per cent. His victory marked the beginning of a conservative resurgence and the decline of the reform movement, whose leader, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he trounced by a spectacular margin in the presidential election on Friday.
But despite his hardline stance, Mr Ahmadinejad is also seen as a populist man of the people. While other candidates spoke in abstract terms of freedom and democracy, Mr Ahmadinejad’s straight talking on issues that matter to the ordinary Iranian — unemployment, poverty and corruption — and his blunt criticism of the wealthy Iranian elite won him the working-class vote. He threatened to “cut the hands off the mafias” who he claimed control the country’s oil industry.
“He’s one of us” is a common remark made by his supporters, from market stallholders in the slums of south Tehran to middle-class office workers. His supporters and those close to him say that he is a humble man with a modest lifestyle. His campaign film contrasted the glittering mansions of his predecessor with his own small suburban house in east Tehran, where he lives with his wife.
Iran election divides rich and poor
By Ramita Navai
Published at 12:00AM, February 21 2004
A boycott by richer citizens contrasts with voting zeal in the hub of the 1979 revolution
POLLING stations across Iran were ordered to remain open yesterday to give voters three more hours to take part in parliamentary elections blighted by controversy after hundreds of reformist candidates were disqualified.
The Interior Ministry demanded an extension to voting hours in an apparent effort to achieve a higher turnout among a disaffected electorate. Early indications suggested a reduced but respectable turnout of between 47 and 52 per cent, according to an Interior Ministry source. That compares with 67 per cent in 2000 when reformers swept two thirds of the parliament seats.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, attacked MPs who called for a boycott of the elections and urged Iranians to vote. “You see how those who are against the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution are trying so hard to prevent people from going to the polls,” he said on state television.
Washington witheld comment on the balloting while it was still under way, but attacked the pre-election disqualification of reformist candidates, which Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, described as “reason for concern”. The actions of Iran’s Government were “not consistent with international norms”, Mr Ereli added.
Calls for Iran poll boycott grow
Ramita Navai in Tehran
February 20 2004
Disillusioned students see little point in voting when reformist candidates are barred
SHAHRAM and his student friends used to meet every week after their lectures to discuss politics in their local coffee shop. They no longer bother, and neither will they be voting in Iran’s parliamentary election today.
“What’s the point? We thought our vote counted for something, but it doesn’t. No one I know will be voting,” Shahram says, sitting crosslegged in his bedroom.
There is no pre-election buzz in Tehran, just a sense of resignation that was compounded this week when the ruling theocracy closed two leading reformist newspapers for publishing a letter critical of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
MPs to boycott ‘farcical’ Iranian elections
From Ramita Navai in Tehran
February 16 2004
FATEMEH RAKEI was assured of re-election in Iran’s parliamentary elections this week, but has decided to boycott the ballot in protest at the disqualification of 2,000 other reformist candidates by the hardline Guardian Council.
“Those disqualified by the Guardian Council are my colleagues and best friends,” Ms Rakei, a popular revolutionary poet, told The Times yesterday. “The reason for their disqualification is just political. By not standing, I am showing my support for them and showing that I reject all the things the council has said about them.”
Friday’s vote is now being viewed as farcical. In addition to the 2,000 banned reformists, 550 other reformist candidates, including many MPs such as Ms Rakei, announced over the weekend that they will refuse to participate in what they are denouncing as a parliamentary coup d’etat.
Local workers are the true heroes
From Ramita Navai in Bam
January 3 2004
THE international aid workers are a conspicuous sight as they traipse through the ruined city of Bam. Laden with sophisticated equipment, they are received with cries of joy wherever they go.
Destitute survivors offer them their bread and water. “Come to my home for a chai!” people beseech them from the thresholds of their tents.
Fifty aid teams from around the world have been to Bam. Most have now left, believing that their job is done. But grinding on in the background is the Iranian aid effort. It has been huge. Donation points throughout Iran bulge with food and gifts, and millions of dollars have flooded in – this from a country with an unemployment rate of more than 15 per cent.
The Iranian Red Crescent Society, an immense legion of volunteers, doggedly labours away. With their discreet white bibs, they are omnipresent: mullahs in combat trousers, Basij militiamen, scout groups, students, doctors, teachers. Eight bakers from Mashad have set up a bakery to feed the hungry. As many as 9,000 volunteers have come to Bam. They shovel the ruins with the locals, distribute food and water, bury the dead and register the living.
American aid workers fly the flag in Iran
From Ramita Navai in Bam
January 1 2004
THE Stars and Stripes emblazoned on the top of a cream state-of-the-art tent has drawn a large crowd of Iranians. There is a buzz in the air. They haven’t seen the American flag on show in public in this way for 24 years.
Two bright red trucks gleam beside the tent, not a splash of mud or dust on them. Tanned, brawny firefighters hurry about. They look slick.
Their crisp, dark-blue combat trousers and fitted military-style jumpers are an incongruous sight amid the baggy fluorescent boiler suits. Cameramen, journalists, Basij militiamen, mullahs and soldiers swarm around the new arrivals; even a few curious survivors have taken a detour from collecting aid to come and look at the “amrikais”.
Everybody wants to talk to the boys in blue. They have enjoyed a rapturous welcome: no other aid team was given a singlered rose for each worker. “We go, people see us and they love us. They see the American flag and they feel like help is here,” Craig Luecke, from the Fairfax, Virginia, Fire Service, said. “The people of Iran have given us so much.”
The feeling is mutual. “We like Americans, they are nice people,” a shivering survivor says, sitting on a mound of rubble, huddled with his family around a fire.
Even the Basij, carefully watching the proceedings from a grass mound overlooking the American tent, view the political situation as a separate issue: “We’ve got nothing against the American people. It’s just their Government that messes things up.”
uake survivors seek shelter in a barren landscape
From Ramita Navai in Bam
December 31 2003
A THICK white mist hangs stagnant over Bam. Under it the survivors shiver with cold. For the 100,000 homeless, some sheltering in flimsy tents, most wearing only the clothes that they had on when last week’s earthquake struck, the drop in temperature is too much to bear.
The rescue phase of the aid effort is winding down. Up to 50,000 people are thought to have died since the earthquake on Friday devastated the 2,000-year-old city in Iran. Now the emphasis is on shelter. Bam is a city of the dispossessed.
Last night Houshang’s two-year-old girl Maryam and eight-month-old baby Sara, could not sleep because of the cold. They were curled up on their mother’s lap.
Houshang’s wife Farangis said: “We’ve been waiting for a tent for days. They keep giving us water, but all we want is a tent.” At night Houshang lights a fire and feeds it with broken furniture that he digs up from his house. Last night it was their chairs, tonight it will be their table and shelves.
The cold weather is good for disease control, although now the main concern is not epidemics but hypothermia.
I see an endless production line of death in the desert
By Ramita Navai
December 29 2003
Apocalyptic scenes as the city of Bam buries its dead
HUNDREDS of cars piled high with bodies file into the Behesht Zahra cemetery in Bam. Survivors drive their loved ones to the mass grave on the backseat of cars, tied on to roofracks, stacked on the back of pick-up trucks and packed into the boots of cars.
From a distance, it looks like a vast construction site. But through the haze of a sandstorm, the apocalyptic scene unfolds — endless rows of trenches tightly crammed with thousands of corpses spill out into the barren desert. The smell of death clings to the air and sticks to the lungs: not even the strong desert wind can shift it.
At least 22,000 people are believed to have died last Friday, in the worst earthquake in more than a decade, according to the Iranian Government. Some estimates put the casualties as high as 30,000.
As helicopters buzz overhead, a forklift truck roars with age as it picks up bodies and kicks up dust. All around them men with shovels dig furiously at the earth, while mechanical diggers plough into the horizon. The desert is endless, but so is the incessant stream of new arrivals.
A woman on her knees beats her head and wails, throwing dust in her face. As she claws at the mound of earth at her feet her remaining family members desperately try to drag her away, crying and pleading. Around her people are on their knees praying. Relatives cluster around the graves. They have been here for hours — most have no one and nothing to go back for.