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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year’s Eve, Stuck in a Church in Bangui

Churches in Bangui have drawn thousands of Christians seeking refuge amid the conflict.Reuters Churches in Bangui have drawn thousands of Christians seeking refuge amid the conflict.

In the brutally violent week before Christmas, dozens of families poured into a church in Bangui in the Central African Republic, my colleague Carlotta Gall reported last week. Run by Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the building had become a small island of refuge in the Central African Republic’s rapidly unraveling capital.

Each day since, hundreds more have arrived, from across the city and other parts of the country. Over a wavering cellphone line, The Lede spoke to one woman preparing to ring in the new year from the crowded lawn in front of the church.

“The people, they have nothing to eat. Only rice. More rice. They are hungry,” said Corinne, who has been at the church since Dec. 19 and preferred to share only her first name. “There are children, pregnant women. We pray out of fear.”

Corinne during a field trip as part of her professional training in Australia, a few weeks before she returned to Bangui.Lynda Lawson Corinne during a field trip as part of her professional training in Australia, a few weeks before she returned to Bangui.

A month ago, Corinne was sitting comfortably in Brisbane, Australia. She had just completed a training program for mining professionals from Africa, sponsored by the Australian government. She had the option of claiming asylum in Australia, something that Saleem H. Ali, the director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, where she studied, said was a common choice for attendees from conflict-ridden countries. But Corinne was determined to return to her family and to help her country, Mr. Ali said by email.

Even as her flight to Bangui was canceled, Corinne persisted in her journey. She took a circuitous route back home via Douala, Cameroon. By the time she was reunited with her family, Bangui was in bloody disarray. The Christian militia had attempted to seize Bangui, prompting Muslim Seleka fighters to retaliate and set Christian neighborhoods on fire â€" sparking more retaliation from Christians and then yet more from Muslims.

“There is nothing to see at my house,” Corinne said at the church, where she now sleeps on the ground. “There is no way I can go there. The rebels burned it.”

Although it is a desperate situation in Bangui, staying in Australia was not an option, she said.

Thousands of angry people flooded the runway of the international airport in Bangui on Tuesday.Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press Thousands of angry people flooded the runway of the international airport in Bangui on Tuesday.

“I am with my aunts, my uncles,” she said. “This is my country. I had no one there. No one at all.”

Throughout the brief conversation, more terrified Christian families continued to file onto the church grounds. Corinne said she had spent the day listening to the radio to reports of developments at the Bangui airport.

Thousands of people blocked the runway, demanding aid and the resignation of President Michel Djotodia, who promised in April to bring stability to his country.

“We are capable of doing it, of securing the whole Central African territory, the whole country,” he said, a few weeks into his presidency.

French Comic’s ‘Anti-System’ Salute Is Frequently Used to Mock Jewish Suffering

Video from BFMTV of the French striker Nicolas Anelka celebrating a goal on Saturday with a salute known in France as a quenelle.

Until three days ago, when a French soccer star celebrated a goal for his club in England with a form of stiff-armed salute devised by a stand-up comic who stands accused of inciting hatred of Jews, the English-speaking world was largely unaware that the meaning of the gesture, called a quenelle, is a source of heated debate in France.

The salute is controversial because it was invented by a comedian known as Dieudonné, who frequently makes crude jokes about Jews, and, after its use in a campaign poster when he ran for office in 2009 at the head of what he called an Anti-Zionist List, it was adopted by anti-Semites.

Within hours of the incident on Saturday, the player, Nicolas Anelka, got into a public spat on Twitter with the French minister for sport and youth, Valérie Fourneyron, who denounced the salute made in front of a worldwide television audience as a “disgusting, shocking provocation.” There was, the minister wrote, “no place for anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred on the football pitch.”

The player responded, in English and in French, that the salute was simply a way of dedicating his goal to his friend, the comedian. Over the following 24 hours, Mr. Anelka continued to defend the gesture on Twitter: first by posting an image of President Obama, Jay Z and Beyoncé making a different but vaguely similar-looking gesture of brushing dirt off their shoulders; then by quoting a Dieudonné tweet tagged “the quenelle is not a Nazi or anti-Semitic sign”; and finally by arguing, as the comedian himself has, that the salute is “anti-system,” rather than anti-Semitic.

“With regard to the ministers who give their own interpretation of my quenelle,” Mr. Anelka concluded, “they are the ones who create confusion and controversy without knowing what this gesture really means.”

Two other French sports stars, the soccer player Samir Nasri and the basketball player Tony Parker, offered similar explanations this week after images of them making the quenelle in private surfaced online.

“While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learned of the very negative concerns associated with it.” Mr. Parker wrote in a statement on Monday. “Since I have been made aware of the seriousness of this gesture, I will certainly never repeat the gesture and sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or harm relating to my actions. Hopefully this incident will serve to educate others that we need to be more aware that things that may seem innocuous can actually have a history of hate and hurt.”

Mr. Nasri was less willing to acknowledge that the gesture could have any negative meaning, writing on Twitter: “The pose in the picture I posted over 2 months ago symbolizes being against the system. It has absolutely nothing to do with being anti-Semitic or against Jewish people. I apologize for causing any hurt to anyone who might have been mislead into thinking this means anything of that nature.”

But, as John Lichfield explained in The Independent, what Dieudonné’s critics see as an inverted Nazi salute, his fans, including far-right politicians, call a version of a traditional, and obscene, French hand signal, known as the bras d’honneur, which signifies roughly the same thing as a raised middle finger in the Anglo-Saxon world. Although a quenelle is a kind of French meat dumpling, Mr. Lichfield notes that, in frequent off-color jokes about assaulting the Zionists that Dieudonné sees as a global enemy, he “always uses the word quenelle in its slang meaning as a ‘finger,’ or a ‘penis.’ ”

As my colleague Maïa de La Baume reported last year, Dieudonné’s recent obsession with Zionism has alienated many former fans, and his childhood friend, the Jewish comic Élie Sémoun, but earned him the cult following of a shock-jock. The mixed-race comic once brought a noted Holocaust denier onstage with him, to present him with an award, and he recently joked that criticism from a Jewish journalist made him nostalgic for the gas chambers.

The tribute from Mr. Anelka came one day after France’s interior minister announced that he was considering a ban on public performances by Dieudonné, in the name of preventing hate speech.

In an interview in September with the French newspaper Libération, an academic who studies far-right culture, Jean-Yves Camus, described the quenelle as a kind of code for a certain rebellious identity, like a gang sign, “which has acquired a real popularity among the young.” Many of those flashing the sign, Mr. Camus suggested, might not have any awareness of “the significance of the gesture.”

Dieudonné himself and his most ardent fans, however, seem to see it as a sign of a populist resistance to “a world order dominated by a Washington-Tel Aviv axis,” orchestrated by Jews. “Behind speeches criticizing NATO and the global financial system, while supporting Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Camus suggested, “there is the conviction that deep down it is the Jews who pull the strings.”

That interpretation seems supported by comments Dieudonné made in August in a YouTube clip in which he introduced images of police officers and soldiers making the salute with the comment that he dreamed of a coup against the French establishment, supported by the people, along the lines of what took place in Egypt last summer. The fact that the comic made that comment while wearing a Hamas scarf, which he described as a personal gift from the militant Islamic group’s leader, suggested some confusion about the dynamics of events in Egypt, where the military ousted an elected Islamist leader.

Video posted on the YouTube channel of the French comedian Dieudonné in August.

Support for the idea that the salute is seen by some in France as a relatively harmless sign of cheeky disobedience can be found in thousands of images posted on social networks showing young people from all walks of life â€" from basketball stars to glamour models to doctors â€" making the gesture in settings as innocuous as ski slopes and class photos. A lawyer defending Dieudonné against charges of incitement to hatred told Le Parisien that he had colected more than 9,000 images of people making the quenelle in photographs posted on social networks and that “99.9 percent of them have no racist of anti-Semitic connotation.”

However, as Stephan Marche explained in a post for Esquire, it is not hard to find a significant number of photographs online where the gesture is clearly intended to mock Jewish suffering. “Making the quenelle has turned into an anti-Semitic game played on social media, where people post themselves making the gesture in the most Jewish places they can find,” Mr. Marche wrote. “Auschwitz for example, or the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”

In response to Mr. Anelka’s claim that there was nothing anti-Semitic about the salute, several bloggers, including the socialist politician Yann Galut, shared links to dozens of images posted on social networks showing young people flashing the quenelle in front of sites associated with the Holocaust and the Jewish people.

Others mocked Mr. Anelka by pointing to Nazi salutes that looked very like the quenelle.

The most shocking of the images appeared to show a man making the quenelle salute outside the Jewish school in Toulouse, France, attacked by Mohammed Merah, who killed three French soldiers, a rabbi and three young children last year. The French police began an investigation this week into that image, hoping to identify the man who struck the pose outside the scene of the rampage killings.

Writing on the left-leaning French news site Rue 89, the journalist Pierre Haski argued that it was vital for supporters of the Palestinians to clearly denounce this popular form of anti-Semitism, as it lent support to the argument in Israel that all anti-Zionism is really just a front for anti-Semites. Mr. Haski noted that one militant supporter of Israel had written on a social network that Dieudonné “deserves a gold medal from the Israeli military for discrediting anti-Zionism.” The viral popularity of the quenelle, Mr. Haski concluded, “forces those who want to sincerely oppose Israeli policy to better define and to break with those whose agenda has nothing to do with Israel, but with a quite classic anti-Semitism.”

Colorado Counts Down to Legalized Marijuana Use

Colorado residents have more to count down to on Tuesday than just the approach of a new year: on Wednesday, their state will become the first in the nation to permit the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes, after landmark votes in November significantly eased marijuana laws there and in Washington State.

As my colleagues Jack Healy and Kirk Johnson have reported, legal marijuana sales are not expected to begin in Washington State until spring 2014, but marijuana retailers in Colorado are planning to open their doors on New Year’s Day. On Monday, The Denver Post published a list of almost three dozen stores across the state â€" with names like The Medicine Man and Green Grass L.L.C. â€" that planned to begin selling pot on Jan. 1.

State and local authorities across Colorado began issuing licenses in late December to those who wanted to grow or sell marijuana or wanted to sell marijuana-infused products. Kristen Wyatt, an Associated Press reporter in Colorado, reported on Twitter last week that Denver had issued 30 licenses to grow pot, eight licenses to retail outlets wishing to sell it, and four licenses allowing the sale of pot-infused products. She also posted a picture of a marijuana license issued by the Colorado State Department of Revenue.

Ms. Wyatt also tweeted a picture of a sign that marijuana retailers must post in their shops, outlining the legal parameters within which use of the drug will be permitted in Colorado beginning Wednesday. Rules governing the use of marijuana include prohibitions against its use by those under the age of 21 or giving or selling it to those under the age of 21, driving while high, using it in public or transporting it out of the state.

As the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use, Colorado will be a laboratory of sorts. There are a host of questions that may be answered in the coming months and years about the effect of the newly eased policies on the criminal justice system, public health, teenage drug use and the state’s tax coffers. Simply put: Was legalizing pot a good idea?

But The Denver Post reported on Tuesday that some in Colorado have a more practical question in mind: How can we make some money off this? For some entrepreneurs, the answer is marijuana tourism that “will bring shuttle buses to the state’s first recreational marijuana shops, guides sharing their stashes with out-of-staters and watchful eyes at ski resorts and Denver’s airport.”

One businessman quoted in the article, Peter Johnson of Colorado Green Tours, identified as a former stock trader and “tech entrepreneur,” told The Post: “We are professionals in the travel business. We’re not a bunch of stoners trying to have a party.”

At least three marijuana tourism companies plan to begin pot-themed getaways to the state in 2014, according to the report, although they have the support of neither the state tourism board nor Colorado’s many ski resorts. Most lie on federal land where marijuana is banned.

In a post to Twitter, Larry Ryckman, an editor at The Denver Post, said that marijuana would not be available on Jan. 1 in the resort town of Aspen, where retailers were “in no hurry to submit applications” for licenses.

When Stranded in the Antarctic, Get Ready and Wait

Participants on the expedition voyage helped to prepare a landing area on Dec. 31 for a rescue helicopter.

Icebreakers have so far failed to reach the Australian research expedition ship that has been stuck in Antarctic ice for a week.

So passengers and crew have no other choice but to prepare for rescue. And then wait.

On Tuesday, linking arms and stomping in the snow and ice, a team of people from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition disembarked from their ship to try to create a landing pad for a helicopter.

It was New Year’s Eve, so they sang “Auld Lang Syne” as they tamped down the deep snow in heavy boots and big marching steps, their voices barely audible in the whipping wind.

“We have just learned the Aurora can’t reach us,” Dr. Chris Turney, an expedition leader, said in the video message posted on the expedition’s YouTube account, Intrepid Science, as more than a dozen of about 70 people total on the ship moved in a straggling row across deep snow behind him.

Dr. Turney said once the landing pad was cleared, a helicopter could try to evacuate them.

“When the weather improves,” he added.

Dr. Turney was referring to the Aurora Australis icebreaker, which got within 12 miles of the chartered Russian ship, the 233-foot Akademik Shokalskiy, early on Monday but had to turn back because of snow and high winds.

Maritime officials made preparations on Tuesday to airlift all 52 passengers aboard the Russian ship to a Chinese icebreaker, while the ship’s 22 crew members would stay behind.

With the expedition ship been jammed in an unyielding field of ice in the Antarctic since last Tuesday, passengers and expedition members have passed the time by sending out video messages to the outside world.

Oceanographer aboard the stranded ship describes his work as he waits for rescue on Dec, 31.

Erik Van Sebille, the oceanographer with the expedition, said on Tuesday in a video diary message that they had all been instructed to be ready for a possible evacuation but that in the meantime he was continuing to work on a joint project with the ornithologist, studying what effect the ocean temperature has on the number of birds they encounter.

“Everything must be ready to go as soon as possible, but in the meantime it’s a lot of waiting here.”

The videos and updates on Twitter have provided a running diary of life on the ship and efforts to keep up morale as the rescue attempts came and went.

On Tuesday a small group from the ship recorded an upbeat song composed just as New Year’s Eve approached, with light-hearted lyrics about thick ice, news coverage, and the appearance of would-be rescuers who had to turn back. “Bloody great shame we are still stuck here!” went a refrain.

New Year message from some of those stranded on the expedition ship in the Antarctic on Dec. 31.

But a National Geographic editor, Christine Dell’Amore, wrote that an Australian photographer on board the ship, Andrew Peacock, said in an email to the magazine that “the mood is getting more frustrated by the day.”

“There are so many variablesâ€"every briefing is differentâ€"and people are getting a little worried now while the weather stays poor. Lack of control and missing loved ones are starting to put some emotion into our conversations!”

Dr. Turney posted a blog item with descriptions of the weather and changes in the ice that conspired to trap the ship a week ago. He wrote, in part:

It has been a sobering week. At the time we were initially caught by the sea ice, the Shokalskiy was just 2 to 4 nautical miles from open water. Now the sea ice distance has become even greater with the continued winds from the east, putting our nearest point of exit at some 16 nautical miles.

The thick chaotic surface we see around the Shokalskiy is consistent with the idea that this ice is several years old and is considerably more difficult to break through by icebreaker than single year ice. The presence of dark watersky to the southeast shows the presence of open water which is reflecting off the underneath of clouds.

We hope the Australian ice breaker Aurora australis may have more luck finding leads from this ice edge to reach the Shokalskiy. We are all hoping the Shokalskiy will find a route out thanks to the efforts of the Australian and Chinese icebreakers.

Meanwhile on board the Shokalskiy, moral remains good and the team are pulling together in an extraordinary way. Everyone is working hard to support one another. Take a look at the video diaries on the Intrepid Science YouTube Channel to see what we are up to.

We are all keeping busy, with twice daily briefings outlining all the information we have to hand, alongside classes through the day (knot tying, languages, yoga, photography and many others) while the science programme has continued as best we can.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.