No less important than recognizing a genocide: fighting the current one
President Biden's recognition of the Armenian Genocide is an important step in the struggle against mass atrocities – genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But it's far from being enough and it won't do much for those who are being persecuted, discriminated against and murdered in places like the Chinese Xinjiang province, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar.
About a week before the outbreak of World War II Adolf Hitler met with his army commanders at his Bavarian Alps headquarters. At this meeting he spoke about exterminating the Poles by mercilessly killing men, women and children. There are some who say that this speech also included the rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’’
That statement has served as a warning and an illustration of the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that’s only one reason why it’s important. Another one is that the denial of a genocide is a part of genocide itself. It conceals the crime, exonerates the murderers and erases the victims’ existence as a group.
For those reasons, last week, many praised the U.S. president for recognizing the Armenian genocide and criticized other countries, including Israel, for not doing so because of political and economic interests. As justified as the criticism may be, and as positive as the declaration by President Biden is, we should recall that despite the importance of historical memory, there are other forces that shape the present and the future. Recognition of a genocide that took place over 100 years ago is only the first step in a long journey.
This journey passes through places like Xinjiang in northwest China, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar. In China, members of ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs are being sent to “reeducation” camps, in which the prisoners are held without trial in grueling conditions and suffer from cruel indoctrination, torture and rape. In addition to the camps, testimonies, leaked documents, satellite photos and media reports reveal a series of other steps against the population in Xinjiang: forced labor, tight surveillance, separating children from their parents and a ban on practicing Islam. There is also evidence of medical experiments, organ harvesting and forced sterilization, all almost without intervention by the international community.
In Ethiopia’s Tigray region and in Myanmar local longstanding ethnic conflicts include horrific reports. News from Tigray in the last few months included acts of slaughter, looting, uprooting the population, deliberate starvation by burning crops, and widespread rape. In this round of the conflict the perpetrators are the Ethiopian government with the assistance of forces from Eritrea and Amharic militias. In Myanmar the second half of the previous decade saw tens of thousands of Rohingya people murdered, and hundreds of thousands persecuted and expelled. Testimonies revealed horrific acts such as setting entire villages on fire and throwing their residents into the flames, acts of gang rape, and tossing infants into the river. Since the military coup in February, the situation of the Rohingya may deteriorate even further.
The sad truth is that in the short term, the recognition of the Armenian genocide won’t help the victims in China, Ethiopia and Myanmar. History teaches that acts of genocide were not prevented in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur or Syria in the 1990s and 2000s despite the universal recognition of the most comprehensive genocide in history – the Holocaust. Nor did they take place due to a failure to recognize the Armenian genocide. Recognition is necessary for prevention, but it’s insufficient. In order to combat present and future genocides at least three additional elements are needed: facts, limits and institutions.
There’s a great deal of discussion about media and public discourse in the 21st century suffering from relativization and multiple narratives. In addition, some of the conflicts that lead to genocide are complex and hard to understand. The terrible result is that the murderers can always paint a picture in which they themselves are the victims. That is how reports are published, based on partial truths, maintaining that the Uighurs are fundamentalists and terrorists, the Rohingya are Muslim invaders and the Tigrayans themselves carried out acts of ethnic cleansing. Only undisputed facts and a wide context can counter the abundance of opinions and propaganda.
But facts aren’t enough. “They shall understand that a limit, under the sun, shall curb them all,” wrote Albert Camus in “The Rebel.” “Each tells the other that he is not God” (translated by Anthony Bower). In a world where Authoritarian leaders and their regimes aim to achieve absolute power, recognition of the past and understanding the present must lead to placing limitations. Wars will probably continue to accompany mankind for years to come. We must recognize that and place clear limitations on them.
This isn’t new – international treaties, institutions, courts and tribunals have tried for decades to place limitations and prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The situation of these institutions has never been worse, but even if they suffer from weakness, political biases and corruption, in the absence of a world power that is committed to putting an end to acts of horror, and is capable of doing so, the international institutions must recognize the past, discover present facts and place limitations. Nothing else will prevent the next genocide.
A policy downplaying lockdowns and mask-wearing may have buoyed infection rates and deaths, but Swedes disagree on how the long term will look. How the world we knew has changed – the first in a series.
STOCKHOLM – Håkan Frändén, 61, lives in Stockholm and normally works as a tour guide, but these aren’t ordinary times and tourists have been a very rare commodity in Sweden since the coronavirus broke out a year ago.
“Of course, the pandemic affected my professional life when the world closed down and the high tourist season ended before it even began,” he says. “In 2020 we had zero tourists and my wife, who’s a tourist guide too, and I lost all our income.”
But Frändén and his wife didn’t give up. She took a course and is now working as a personal trainer and yoga instructor, while Håkan got a part-time job via the national employment agency delivering groceries – plus he receives unemployment benefits for the days he doesn’t work.
"It’s true this has been a terrible year when it comes to the victims of the pandemic, but personally I had a good year,” he says. “We bought bicycles and made them our main means of transportation, we rediscovered our city – many times with our children and grandchildren – and we had more time for ourselves and our family.”
In the past year, few countries have attracted attention like Sweden. The fact that it didn’t impose lockdowns, didn’t force quarantines, didn’t close schools and didn’t require masks made it the subject of thousands of news reports and commentaries in the world media. Some called Sweden “the world’s control group,” others said it was carrying out “an experiment on people.”
As far as we know, COVID-19 reached Sweden in January 2020, carried by a passenger from Wuhan, China. Still, there’s a suspicion that already the month before people were infected in Sweden, without being traced due to a lack of testing.
Community transmission started in March, after a month earlier many infected people landed on flights from northern Italy, Iran and other countries. Already during the first stage of the pandemic the Swedish authorities were criticized for not assessing the danger and preparing accordingly.
On March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, the first coronavirus patient died in Stockholm. April saw a significant wave of illness, and by mid-June dozens of infected people were dying every day in Sweden.
Heavy burden on health care
The country’s health care system withstood the heavy burden and didn’t collapse thanks to the great efforts of the medical staff, as well as budgetary and logistics efforts by the government and local authorities. But in nursing homes for the elderly the situation was completely different. A government committee has determined that Sweden failed to protect this population, citing neglect and poor management by the current government and its predecessors.
In the first wave, the Swedish strategy for halting the infection was unique. The authorities simply asked people who developed symptoms and people in risk groups to show responsibility and stay home. Also, everyone was asked to work from home if possible and forgo unnecessary travel.
Instead of the thorough system of testing, tracing and quarantining established in many countries, the Swedes did coronavirus testing during the first stage only in hospitals and in care for the elderly.
Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist and the person most identified with Sweden’s management of the virus, explained this policy in April in an interview with Haaretz. He said that Sweden had limited testing capacity and that regardless of the test results, the recommendation would be to stay home. The Swedish policy was based on a high level of public trust in the authorities and long-term thinking, he added.
Despite the reliance on public trust, the government and the local authorities, the Swedes took a number of restrictive steps due to the virus. They switched over to online learning at universities and high schools, limited public gatherings to 50 people, prohibited visits to hospitals and nursing homes, and imposed restrictions on serving food in bars and restaurants.
'The long-term social consequences will probably turn out greater in countries that seemed to be succeeding at the beginning'
During the summer the pandemic waned in Sweden and the hospitals’ coronavirus wards emptied out. But this was temporary; in November a more deadly wave began. Once again there were dozens of deaths every day and the hospitals were overburdened. So the authorities tightened the restrictions: They limited gatherings to eight people, banned the sale of alcohol after 8 P.M. and closed movie theaters, museums and libraries.
Still, the overall strategy didn’t change. The country’s leaders continued to rely on public trust and eschewed a general lockdown; they left the schools, restaurants and malls open. Stores and other businesses remained open, but with restrictions on the number of people allowed inside. Also, there was no requirement to wear a mask; Swedes were recommended to wear one only on public transportation at peak hours.
Around the world, people had the impression that while many countries were isolating and suffering a harsh economic blow, in Sweden it was business as usual. But the reality was different. “At first I thought we’d work from home for a month and then return to the office,” says Erik Numan, a 56-year-old art director from Stockholm. “By now, 10 months later, I’ve been in the office for only one day.”
'Even though I work in many fields, everything disappeared and I still can’t plan anything even a year later'
Numan says he has stopped exercising at a gym, doesn’t visit his parents and rarely meets with friends. Although he says he isn’t very worried about the virus personally, he feels solidarity with others who are likely to become infected and is concerned about the overburdened health care system.
“Nobody checks on me and the police won’t arrest me if I don’t observe the recommendations,” he says. “But I think most Swedes do what’s necessary when there’s a crisis.”
Numan’s 16-year-old daughter contracted the virus, developed mild symptoms and was in quarantine for two weeks. “When she meets girlfriends now they hug as usual, at a time when we adults have completely stopped shaking hands,” Numan says.
Like the Frändéns, Linnéa Sallay, a 60-year-old singer and violinist who lives in Stockholm, saw her professional life racked by the virus. “All the jobs disappeared overnight in mid-March,” she says. “Even though I work in many fields, perform in concerts, guide tours and produce events, everything disappeared and I still can’t plan anything even a year later.”
Sallay notes, however, that the past year has also provided a welcome time-out. She's surviving financially thanks to her savings, she has launched a YouTube channel and is developing her digital skills. She has also spent a lot of time with her family and friends, even if not at restaurants and cafes. And she’s now rehearsing and preparing for digital concerts.
Entering the crisis with disadvantages
Sweden has several disadvantages regarding COVID-19. Twenty percent of the population is over 65, it’s cold, its borders are open to other countries, its population is very diverse and it’s not used to emergency situations. But it also had advantages: a universal, quality health care system, stable and well-financed government services, and many single-person households.
Considering its starting conditions a year ago, it’s hard to estimate the real effect of the Swedish policy on illness rates and mortality. Compared to its Nordic neighbors – Finland, Denmark and Norway – Sweden’s mortality has been very high. The country of 10 million people has suffered about 12,000 deaths, with this figure per million people high at 1,444. In Denmark, Finland and Norway the number is 363, 121 and 104, respectively.
It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is. It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates
Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren
But compared to many other European countries, including those that imposed lockdowns, closed schools and halted the economy, the mortality rate is modest. In Britain, Spain and Italy, for example, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per million inhabitants is 1,591, 1,254 and 1,473, respectively.
Some experts believe that the shunning of lockdowns has brought Sweden better results in metrics that have yet to be measured such as rates for depression, excessive weight gain, addiction, violence and illnesses from diabetes to heart attacks and strokes. In Sweden you could also hear the claim that the country’s high mortality rate in 2020 stemmed from the low mortality rates from the flu in 2019.
Fiasco at the nursing homes
Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren told Haaretz in September that it was too early to judge the Swedish policy because this was a marathon, not a sprint.
“It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is,” she said. “It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates. Different countries were hit differently; they have different structures and relations with their authorities, they test in different ways and have different kinds of data and information. In the long run, we all need well-functioning societies. We should learn what there is to learn from others, point fewer fingers and try to keep up with long-term recommendations.”
But there’s considerable evidence of failures in Sweden’s handling of the pandemic. The Swedish media has reported on cases where nursing home residents did not see a doctor and were not evacuated to hospitals despite their serious condition. The nursing home staffs were unequipped and not trained at all to deal with a pandemic.
The Public Health Agency of Sweden has been harshly criticized too. Critics say that during the pandemic’s early days, the agency was complacent and didn’t assess the danger correctly. Later, the prime minister himself, Stefan Löfven, said the agency had downplayed the second wave. At various stages, key people in academia and the medical system demanded that the agency make more stringent recommendations to curb the spread of the virus.
Regarding vaccines in Sweden, signs also attest to delays and complications, though here the shortcoming is mainly on the European level. Like many countries, Sweden has bought vaccines as part of an EU transaction, but the supply has been slow, one reason being a hitch in the manufacture and supply of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
As of now, Sweden has vaccinated 256,978 people with the first dose and 28,279 with the second. That means 3.13 percent of the population over 18 has received one dose and only 0.34 percent two.
Although Swedish politicians in general have backed the government over the past year, other voices have been heard in recent weeks. “We have to respond differently now,” Ebba Busch, the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, told the daily Aftonbladet. “If the government lacks the courage to lead, it should resign.” Nonetheless, the ruling Social Democratic Party is leading in the polls and received 28.5 percent support in a survey last month, a 2-point rise over November.
'I hope we’ll appreciate each other more when all this is over, and I hope we’ll go back to meeting up again. The hell with Zoom'
“I think we’ve dealt pretty well with the pandemic,” says Frändén, the tour guide. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But there have been failures too, mainly the spreading of the virus in old age homes. In recent decades there has been unrestrained privatization in our care system, and that’s one reason for the negligence in preparing and training staff.”
Frändén says the virus spread within another marginalized group too. “In 2014 and 2015 Sweden was one of the countries in Europe that opened its doors to the most refugees,” he says.
“As a result, many refugees settled in Stockholm’s suburbs and we saw social phenomena that we didn’t have before – crowded living conditions in large families, large family gatherings including elderly people, and less access to the authorities’ information. Our authorities failed here, and that may be an explanation for the differences in the virus’ spread between Sweden and Denmark, Norway and Finland, which hardly took in any refugees.”
‘Every country has its own conditions’
Sallay, the singer and violinist, also criticizes the authorities’ handling of the pandemic, especially the economic aspect, so she and a colleague launched a protest by the self-employed.
“We, the small independent workers who don’t have employees, have been discriminated against,” she says, noting that large companies in Sweden furloughed employees and received government funding for expenses, while small businesses are only now beginning to receive help.
And indeed, in an interview with TheMarker in June, Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said the national priority is to help salaried workers and large companies. During the crisis the Swedish government has invested large sums to buoy employment while providing payments to furloughed workers, compensation and guarantees, while strengthening companies’ liquidity and providing professional training and retraining for the unemployed.
“I think it’s too early to know whether we chose the right path,” says Numan, the art director. “Every country has its own conditions, and the long-term social consequences will probably turn out greater in countries that seemed to be succeeding at the beginning.”
As he puts it, “I hope we’ll appreciate each other more when all this is over, and I hope we’ll go back to meeting up again. The hell with Zoom.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Sweden’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is not so unusual. Sweden is not a coronavirus-denier, it is not continuing business as usual and it does not seek herd immunity; it is just trying to flatten the curve by social distancing using methods suitable for its society and its political culture. For example, the decisions are made at the professional level and not the political one, most of the directives are recommendations not obligatory orders and there is almost no enforcement through fines or police action.
The essential differences, compared to other countries, are few: Sweden did not close its elementary schools or its kindergartens; it did not recommend the wearing of masks and did not impose general lockdowns, because the authorities decided that these steps would do more harm than good.
The uniqueness of the Swedish model might therefore be defined as “non-imposing of lockdown.” This is a significant difference, but – and the conspiracy theorists will forgive me – it does not prove that Sweden treats the coronavirus like “flu with PR.”
The main argument of critics of the Swedish model is the high mortality rate, about 11,000 in a country of 10 million. While this is a human tragedy, even if we ignore the fact that the population of Sweden is very elderly (about 20 percent are age 65 or over), the number of the dead compared to the number of inhabitants is still much smaller than in other countries in Europe that imposed strict lockdowns, like France and Great Britain. The experience in Europe so far has shown that lockdowns do not necessarily reduce the level of mortality.
The focus on the “failure of the Swedish model” in this matter is absurd and its purpose is to justify the policy of lockdowns. Why isn’t anyone talking about the “failure of the Belgian model,” for example? The number of dead in Belgium, which imposed severe lockdowns, is about 1,800 per million inhabitants. In Sweden, the number is less than 1,100 per million.
“But even the king of Sweden himself said the Swedish model failed,” goes another common claim. King Carl Gustaf XVI did stammer something in an interview about the high number of the dead being a failure, but he did not relate to any specific component of the Swedish model, and certainly not to the fact that no lockdown was imposed. The criticism expressed by the king is also accepted by the state authorities, which concede the failure to protect nursing homes. But more importantly – and the monarchists will forgive me – the king of Sweden does not deal with the matter, he is not particularly knowledgeable about it and he has no influence or political power whatsoever.
One of the reasons lockdowns were not imposed in Sweden is that until the beginning of 2021, the law did not permit this. The government could and indeed did restrict public events and initiated emergency action, but it did not have the authority to close restaurants, malls or gyms. Laws can be changed, but the Swedes are hesitant when it comes to restricting personal freedoms and human rights. That is one of the reasons that they seek to change behavior voluntarily, without orders and fines. There are many indications that change has indeed been achieved this way.
In Sweden it is easier to maintain discipline, trust and solidarity. Many claim that this is because its population is homogenous (a polite way of saying they don’t have ultra-Orthodox communities or an Arab population). But the image of the Swedes as blond and obedient, hard-working and doing as they are told is false – a quarter of the population is made up of immigrants or second-generation immigrants. That is in fact a great challenge, but with a social-democratic welfare system, ethnic variety does not necessarily contradict trust and social responsibility. On the contrary – and the Greeks and the Hungarians will forgive me – a lack of trust in the authorities and concern over government corruption are common in quite a few countries that are more ethnically homogenous.
Another issue absent from the public debate is the global addiction to tables and numbers, which can be drawn and understood quickly: The number of infected, the number of seriously ill, the number of dead. It will be years before the price of the lockdowns will be measured and calculated, but public health is a broad concept, and there are reasons to believe that the advantages of the Swedish model will be recorded in the future with regard to phenomena like depression, addictions, violence, weight gain, diabetes, disrupted treatment of other illnesses, poverty, unemployment and more.
This is the price of a lockdown: It’s high, it's tough, and it must be paid over the course of years. Sweden decided to avoid this although the temptation was great. Nevertheless, hospitals in Stockholm never got to the situation of hospitals in Lombardia and Madrid; excess mortality in Sweden over the past few months is lower than that of Switzerland and Austria; and the number of seriously ill patients in Sweden is lower than in Romania and the Czech Republic. Like every other country, Sweden made mistakes in dealing with the pandemic. But not imposing a lockdown wasn’t one of them. Comparing the illness and mortality rates in Sweden and Israel is problematic because it’s hard to compare a warm, young country with closed borders and lot of experience with emergency situations to a cold and aging country with open borders that last experienced war in 1814. But, on second thought, that last part may not be such a disadvantage. Perhaps treating the pandemic like a military battle is a metaphor that got out of control, and produced sweeping, brutal solutions when what may really have been needed were complex, balanced and long-term solutions. I hope the generals will forgive me, but after all, the coronavirus is a virus, not an army, and COVID-19 is an illness, not a war
STOCKHOLM – Once the coronavirus spread to Europe, Sweden captured the world’s attention with its low-key approach to fighting the pandemic. During the first wave in the spring, the Swedish government eschewed lockdowns and kept the elementary schools and preschools open. Gyms, restaurants and workplaces have also remained open throughout the crisis. Although measures like social distancing, working from home and discouraging large events were implemented, most were merely recommendations; no one would be fined. The policy was carried out at the recommendation of nonpartisan health experts and won the public’s trust.
At the wave’s peak, Sweden had one of the world’s highest death rates, yet this wasn’t attributed to the relaxed approach but to the failure to protect the elderly in retirement homes, where half the people who died had resided. The strategy came under fresh scrutiny this week following the release of an official report stating that the government had failed to sufficiently protect Swedes in retirement homes.
Still, by summer, the belief was that perhaps the “Swedish model” was more sustainable than strategies elsewhere based on coercion and lockdowns. The number of infected people had decreased significantly; coronavirus wards in hospitals emptied and the death rate was not excessive.
But in the second half of October the second wave struck and now many of Sweden’s hospitals are overwhelmed. According to the Swedish statistics agency, the November death rate was the highest per capita in a decade and highest in absolute figures since November 1918 – during the Spanish flu pandemic. “The health system is overloaded,” Björn Eriksson, the health and medical care chief for the Stockholm region, said in a television interview. He described an event of historic proportions. “Never have we needed so much medical care at one time point in time, and an improvement doesn’t appear likely soon,” he said.
Worsening daily number
In recent days, 7,000 new coronavirus cases a day have been plaguing Sweden, whose population is 10 million. The number of patients in hospitals this week reached nearly 3,700, topping the peak of the first wave. The number of average daily fatalities is lower than in the spring, but with the total death toll approaching 8,000, there are fears the situation is getting worse. Sweden’s plight is no different than that of several other European countries now facing a second wave, but its per capita patient number is lower than in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, where a similar number of tests are being done. Sweden comes in 25th in the world in deaths per capita – doing far better than Britain, Spain and Italy.
However, the situation in Sweden is far worse than in its neighbors Denmark, Norway and Finland, whose mortality and infection rates are among the lowest in the world. The numbers may be going up, but the Swedes are loyal to the model they created. Even in the second wave they decided not to impose a lockdown and kept schools and preschools open. The economy is functioning and although some people are wearing masks in public spaces, they’re still a minority. In recent days medical experts have slammed the public health agency, claiming that not enough has been done to slow the spread of the virus, and even Prime Minister Stefan Löfven appeared to be critical. Löfven told the daily Aftonbladet this week that the experts had underestimated the second wave, and the government is drafting a bill enabling the closure of shopping centers, gyms and public transportation.
However, the legislative process could take months and there’s no indication the government plans to implement a lockdown at this stage. Sara Byfors of Sweden’s Public Health Agency told Haaretz that while the country’s strategy hasn’t changed, stricter measures have been taken. “The Swedish strategy is to reduce mortality and the serious COVID-19 infection rate to a minimum and make sure the health system can cope and provide medical care to those who need it,” she said.
“The steps we’re taking to achieve this goal have changed in the course of the pandemic. In the autumn the government took steps like banning alcohol sales after 10 P.M. and limiting gatherings to eight people. We’re also very clear in our message that social interactions must be restricted, so the strategy has remained similar but the measures may change.” Additional measures have been implemented such as remote learning for school kids and the closing of some retirement homes to visitors. But these steps might not be enough: The hospitals are stretched to capacity, the death rate is rising and nonurgent medical procedures are being postponed. Last week, following the resignation of a large number of health care workers, the head of the Swedish Association of Health Professionals, Sineva Ribeiro, called the situation ”terrible.”
The head of emergency preparedness at the National Board of Health and Welfare, Johanna Sandwall, told Haaretz it saddened her to see nurses and other health workers quit during the crisis. “We don’t have an analysis yet as to whether it will affect national planning and what the repercussions will be,” she said. “At the moment the health system is stretched extremely thin due to the medical staffs’ exhaustion and the many COVID-19 patients. We have to take various steps to handle urgent needs.”
Either way, there is still no agreement on the Swedish strategy. Unlike those who say the current crisis stems from the soft approach and Sweden’s refusal to close everything down, many note that a raft of countries that shunned lockdowns are faring worse. This is reflected in infection rates, mortality, delays in treating strokes and heart attacks during lockdowns, and worsening cases of depression, obesity and addiction to drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, amid worsening violence, poverty and unemployment. The Swedish authorities also say it’s too early to judge their approach. At this stage they’re focusing on bolstering the health system and trying to prevent the virus from spreading. Conclusions will have to wait for the crisis to pass, they say.
China experts and activists claim that the repression of minorities in Xinjiang has escalated in recent years, with thousands of Uighur Muslims in ‘reeducation camps’ being murdered and their organs harvested for wealthy Chinese and foreign patients. The Chinese deny all such allegations.
“The interrogation started at 9 P.M. and ended around noon the next day. The five officers didn’t hit me, but there was a sixth man and he beat me and threatened me. ‘I’ll remove your organs,’ he said, ‘and burn what’s left of your body.’”
This is what Huiqiong Liu told Haaretz recently in a video call from her home in Europe. Liu was arrested at her Beijing home in 2001 when she was 29 years old, and taken for “reeducation through labor” as part of the Chinese government’s battle with Falun Gong – the spiritual movement that has been persecuted by the authorities since the late 1990s.
Liu was in the camp for about 18 months, and was imprisoned again between 2005 and 2007. She says that during her first imprisonment, she was taken to a hospital for tests. “I told [a doctor] I have a heart problem, but she said my heart is fine. I asked if they’re planning to take it away from me, and the doctor said: ‘That will be decided by someone at a higher level.’” Liu decided to go on hunger strike. Eight days later, she weighed just 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and the doctors decided that her organs were no longer viable.
Liu says she also underwent blood tests, blood pressure tests, X-rays and ECGs during her incarceration. “Sometimes they would take us to a hospital; other times, a large vehicle full of medical equipment would come to the camp and the checkups would be done in it,” Liu recalls. “They gave us all numbers and the doctors would follow-up on our situation. The doctors only knew the numbers, not our names. Sometimes they would ask for a specific number to be taken to the hospital. Those people never came back.”
Liu says she has another vital piece of evidence: “Before I was taken to the hospital during my first arrest, they gave me a form to sign with my fingerprints,” she recounts. “The form was already filled out but the name and address on it wasn’t mine, it was a name I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to sign, but they made me do so anyway. They didn’t let me see what it was I was signing, but when I asked other women who were arrested with me, one of them – a woman who was sentenced to death – told me it was a consent form, saying I’m willing to donate my organs after I die.”
‘Harvesting never left’
In recent decades, alongside China’s rising political and economic power, reports have also surfaced of human rights violations and methodical oppression of minorities and opponents of the regime.
During this time, the Chinese authorities have been accused of torture, executions and organ harvesting from tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and selling the organs to patients in need of transplants. Repression, ethnic cleansing and even genocide of minorities living in the Xinjiang province, northwestern China, has also been alleged.
According to numerous testimonies, minority groups – the largest of whom are the Uighur (aka Uyghur) Muslims, who number some 12 million – are suffering restrictions on their rights and liberties, surveillance and privacy invasions, separation of children from parents and forced abortions. It is believed that more than 1 million members of minority groups in Xinjiang are now in “reeducation camps,” which combine violent indoctrination with forced labor, rape and torture.
A number of international researchers and human rights activists say the oppression of minorities in Xinjiang has only grown worse, and that some prisoners are being murdered and their organs harvested.
Ethan Gutmann, an independent researcher who’s considered a world expert on this issue, unequivocally believes the practice is occurring. “Harvesting never left Xinjiang, it just took a vacation,” he tells Haaretz. “The Chinese Communist Party [CCP] first experimented with the live organ harvesting of death row criminals on the execution grounds of Xinjiang as early as 1994. By 1997, surgeons were extracting livers and kidneys from Uighur political and religious prisoners for high-ranking CCP cadres – small-scale, but it set a precedent.
“The explosion in transplant activity that followed and the use of surgeons as executioners?” he asks rhetorically. “This was fueled by Falun Gong organs. Now China appears to be running out of young and healthy Falun Gong, and, like ‘a dog returning to its vomit,’ the party’s killing machine has returned to Xinjiang.”
Gutmann, 62, authored the 2014 book “The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem,” is co-founder of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), a China Studies research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
The executions and organ harvesting are not sporadic or local, he says. “China’s transplant volume is 60,000 to 100,000 transplants per year. Beijing has no intention of dismantling its vast transplant infrastructure. Over 15 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui have been blood tested, compatible with tissue matching. Over 1 million are in camps. So yes, the CCP has created a policy of ethnic cleansing – a potentially very profitable one,” the American scholar asserts.
Matthew Robertson is anothe research fellow at the VOC and a doctoral student at Australian National University, Canberra. He told Haaretz that while China claims to be performing over 20,000 transplants annually, sourced exclusively from voluntary donors, the figures appear to have been falsified, since they conform “extraordinarily closely to a simple mathematical function, and because of numerous artefacts throughout the data sets that are indicative or otherwise inexplicable except for human manipulation.”
According to Robertson, there’s a direct connection between the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the rise in organ transplants. “Over the last couple of years – during the same period organ transplants from ‘volunteers’ are claimed to have grown rapidly – over a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in detention camps and prisons,” he says.
At the same time, he adds, “reports have emerged of Uighurs being subjected to blood tests and other medical examinations consistent with those required to assess organ health, which is a prerequisite for organ matching and transplantation. There’s a history of the use of prisoners, including non-death row prisoners, for their organs. So in the end, it’s very much about where the burden of proof should reside,” Robertson says.
Robertson and Gutmann aren’t the only ones to suspect the Chinese regime. An international tribunal based in London and headed by leading British human rights prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice published a report last year declaring that China’s campaign of forced organ harvesting against innocent victims was a “crime against humanity,” constituting one of the world’s “worst atrocities committed” in modern times.
Like the tribunal, law-makers and politicians in countries such as Canada, The US and the UK have begun to shed a light on China's Xinjiang policies, as well as Uighur leaders abroad who are trying to raise awareness. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, said: "We have real fears that the Chinese government may be cremating the bodies of detainees to hide evidence of torture, execution, and organ harvesting. We are also deeply disturbed by reports of the Chinese authorities collecting blood samples from the entire Uighur population in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and establishing a DNA database from these samples. We do not know its purpose. But it could be used to match prisoners’ organs with patients who need transplants".
According to Rushan Abbas, the founder and executive director of "Campaign for Uyghurs", China has established “organ farms,” where millions of people are forced to undergo DNA testing and are “prepped for slaughter”, she said in a 2019 speech, “In the beginning of the Holocaust, countries around the world continued to do business with Germany, enabling their economies while millions of innocent people were being attained and held in concentration camps,” she added, “I don’t know what it takes to get the attention of world leaders for action. Don’t let it come to mass executions and gas chambers.”
In the 1990s, Envar Tohti was a young surgeon in a hospital north of the city of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. He tells Haaretz that in 1995, two senior surgeons asked him if he “wanted to do something wild.” In a phone interview from his home in London, Tohti recounts: “They asked me to pick up the largest mobile operation kit and bring assistants, nurses and anesthesiologists to the hospital gate at 9:30 the next morning and join an ambulance, which was in fact just a van with a bed in it.
“The next morning, we assembled at the gate and the chief surgeons told us to follow them in a convey. We drove toward our branch hospital in the western mountain district, but halfway through our journey, we turned left and our driver said we were going to the western mountain execution ground.”
At that moment, he says, “I felt chilly even in the hot summer.” There was a hill at the site, Tohti recalls, and the surgeons told him “to wait there, ‘and come around when you hear gun shots.’ I was scared, wondering why we were here.”
Tohti says he then heard gunshots. “We jumped into the van and drove toward the entrance to the field. There were between 10 to 20 corpses. They had shaved heads and were dressed in prison uniform. Their foreheads were blown up. They were shot in the back of the head. A police officer – I think he was one of the executioners – shouted at us: ‘The one on the far right is yours.’ I was confused. I moved to the location and our surgeons held me and told me: ‘Hurry up, extract the liver and two kidneys.’”
Tohti says he did as he was told. “I turned into a robot trained to carry out its duty,” he says. “The officers and my assistants put the body on the bed already inside the van. The victim was a man in his 30s.”
The senior surgeons apparently kept an eye on Tohti and when he asked to administer anesthesia, he was told there was no need because the man was already dead. “So I started my insertion, a cut designed as an upside-down ‘T’ shape to expose internal organs as wide as possible. My scalpel found its way cutting his skin. Blood could be seen, which implies that his heart was still pumping blood. He was alive! My chief surgeon whispered to me: ‘Hurry up!’”
The operation took some 30 to 40 minutes. When it ended, Tohti says, “The chief surgeons happily put the organs into a weird-looking box and said ‘OK, now take your team back to hospital. And remember – nothing happened here today.’ This was a command. No one talked about it ever since.” The events Tohti recounted happened 25 years ago. But researchers say the situation in Xinjiang has grown much worse since then.
‘Like a monkey’
Abduweli Ayup, 46, is a linguist who now dedicates his life to the education and preservation of the Uighur language and culture, and lives in Europe. He was arrested in August 2013 and incarcerated for 15 months at three different prisons in Ürümqi. Though it’s widely claimed that the “reeducation camps” were only established in 2017, Ayup says the prisons in Xinjiang were operating the same way for years beforehand. “They were at the same places, the same conditions, the same uniform and the same rules,” he tells Haaretz, adding that when he was arrested in his hometown of Kashgar he was gang-raped by other prisoners who were ordered to do so by Chinese officers.
Ayup says that in the first prison, he was the “victim of a cruel prison hierarchy orchestrated by the regime.” There were 17 prisoners in his cell, he says, explaining that he was one of the 12 “low-status” political prisoners forced to wear a yellow uniform. “There was no room for us on the beds, so we slept on the floor close to the toilet, which was a bucket covering a hole in the floor exposed to all. When we slept, the other prisoners’ pee drops fell on us,” he says.
The higher-status prisoners were drug dealers and murderers, Ayup reports. “One was in charge and he could decide to violently punish the others; another would execute the punishments, while a third and a fourth would guard and document them.” He says he witnessed and suffered countless acts of violence, humiliation, torture and sexual abuse.
With lights on 24/7, cameras on the ceiling, a never-ending stench from the toilets and a strict schedule of indoctrination, this was just the first of the three camps where Ayup was imprisoned.
In the second prison, he had an encounter he will never forget. “A man called Abdul Rahman was brought into the cell,” he says. “He was a political prisoner too, accused of separatism. I was shocked because he had a red uniform – the uniform of the people who are sentenced to death. His legs were chained and one of his hands was chained to his legs. Someone told me he has been held like that for two years. He slept in our cell, and I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he requested that after his death his body be cleansed according to Uighur tradition, but the guards refused. When his arms and legs were finally freed, he couldn’t stand up so he had to walk with his hands. Like a monkey.”
Ayup says that later, when he was finally released and fled to Turkey, he met Abdul Rahman’s wife and a couple of his friends. “His wife said that after the execution, the family was notified but she was only allowed to see his face, not his body,” he recounts. “The family was not allowed to wash the body and they were allowed to visit the grave only a month after the execution.
“Even then, they were told that they were not allowed to plant a flower in the soil beside the grave, as is customary in Uighur tradition, for at least a year,” Ayup continues. “The family were told by workers at the ‘burial administration’ that organs are usually removed from executed prisoners, and that’s why families are not allowed to see the bodies.”
This part of Ayup's account matches the account of Jiang Li whose father was arrested as a Falun Gong practitioner in 2008 and sent to a labor camp in Chongquing in central China. In January 2009, a day after Li visited him and found him healthy, the family was notified that he had died.
"After my father died in prison", says Li, "we were allowed to go and see him. We were only allowed to see the head, not the body. We were not allowed to enter the room with cell phones or cameras. After a physical search, my sister entered first. They opened the refrigerator where they kept the body and opened it just enough to see the head. My sister touched the head and felt it was still warm. She shouted 'he's alive!' and we immediately ran inside, we were able to take out the body and touch the chest. It was still warm. Then about 10 policemen ran in and pulled us out. My sister tried to revive my father but she was pushed away. The whole thing only took five minutes and we never saw our father again".
Top secret files
Dr. Alim (not his real name) worked as a physician at the university hospital in Ürümqi for a decade, before leaving China. “In 2016,” he tells Haaretz, “a new department was opened at the hospital. It was a liver transplantation coordinating department and the department head’s office was close to mine.”
When the department head was out, Alim says, “some of the patients who came to see him stepped over to my office and we sometimes chatted. These were wealthy people, they weren’t local – I remember some of them being from Shanghai, Beijing and even South Korea. When I asked them what they were doing here, they said they were patients in need of a liver transplant and that it took 24 hours between the time they had their checkup and DNA test until a matching organ was found for them.” (The waiting period in most countries is at least a few months.)
Alim says he recalled at least two instances in which he came across files of transplant patients. “In one case, all the information about the person who received the liver was in place – name, age, medical status, and so on,” he recalls. “But in the file of the so-called donor, there was no identifying information and instead of a name there was just ‘XXX.’”
According to Alim, all of the transplant files at the hospital were kept secret and most of the doctors were not given access to them. “In another case, I noticed there was a name on a consent form – but the name didn’t match the name of the person who signed the form. Medical forms don’t include prices, but it was common knowledge that a liver costs a minimum of 100,000 RMB [about $15,000].”
The Uighur doctor also believes there’s a connection between what’s happening in Xinjiang and the hospital transplants. “Many Uighurs disappeared after the massacre of July 5,” he says, referring to violent clashes between rival Uighur and Han Chinese protesters in Ürümqi in 2009, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
“Since then, the number of transplants at my hospital grew dramatically,” Alim says. “In 2007-08, there were about 60 to 70 transplants a year. I first saw patients from outside of Ürümqi in 2009, and since then it was around 200 transplants a year. The new coordinating department finally opened in 2016. That was also when I remember all Uighurs in Ürümqi being summoned to local clinics, in order to provide blood and DNA samples and medical data.”
In response to questions for this story, the Chinese Embassy in Israel told Haaretz: “Vocational education and training centers operate legally, and citizen donations are the only legal source for organ transplants,” in China.
Gutmann wanted to look more deeply into claims of organ harvesting in Xinjiang, so he went to Kazakhstan earlier this year and looked for people who had been released from the “reeducation camps.” Once there, he says he drove around in an old car and refrained from using the internet or electronic devices that could reveal his identity.
“I disappeared, and this gave me the freedom to do confidential interviews with witnesses who still had family in the camps,” he says. Gutmann spoke with approximately two dozen people, who all indicated a clear pattern. “Every year, about 2.5 to 5 percent of healthy individuals in the camps simply disappear in the middle of the night. On average, they’re 28 – Beijing’s preferred age for harvesting.” This, he says, explains the “health checks” that Uighurs undergo in Xinjiang.
Gutmann believes at least 25,000 people are murdered every year in Xinjiang and their organs harvested. To streamline the process, he says, the Chinese created “fast lanes” for the movement of human organs in local airports, while crematoria have recently been constructed throughout the province.
One of these was discovered by chance thanks to a job ad in a local Ürümqi newspaper, seeking 50 security guards for work at a crematorium, on a salary of about $1,200 a month – “a small fortune in that part of the world,” Gutmann says. “I don’t know about you, but the presence of 50 security guards in a single crematorium sends a chill up my spine,” he adds.
The majority of the clients for these organs are wealthy Chinese people, according to Gutmann. But the big profit margins come from medical tourists: Japanese, South Koreans, Germans – and Muslims from the Gulf states. “The theory is that they have a preference for organs taken from people who don’t eat pork,” he explains.
Gutmann says the Chinese themselves have admitted that until 2015, they harvested organs from death row prisoners after execution, though they never released precise numbers or admitted that these were political prisoners. He adds that the Chinese have taken advantage of their power on the world stage to silence criticism, and that international institutions such as the World Health Organization chose in 2016 to present the Chinese transplant industry as a case of successful reform.
The problem, Gutmann concludes, is that “they never saw the human rights catastrophe in Xinjiang coming. Now they’re left in an indefensible position.” Anyhow, the researcher says, the phenomenon of organ harvesting is known, but the Chinese have extensive influence in the international medical establishment. Only a handful of doctors and physicians came out as opposers to these Chinese practices, one of them being the Israeli Dr. Jacob Lavee, Director of Sheba's Heart Transplantation Unit, who was the force behind the Israeli transplant law which blocks "organ transplant tourism" from Israel to China.
“Every major media that I can think of in the West has reported on this crime during the last four years,” he says. “Not on the front page perhaps, but as I’m sure your readers are aware, The New York Times didn’t put the Holocaust on the front page until after 1945 either.”
China's Embassy in Israel's responce:
Firstly, regarding the Vocational Education and Training Centers. From 1990 to 2016, separatists, religious extremists and terrorists have plotted and carried out several thousand violent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Many innocent people were killed and several hundred police officers died while performing their duty. Terrorism and extremism are the common scourge confronting the humanity. It is for the purpose of counter-terrorism, deradicalization and saving those who were deceived by extremist ideas that Vocational Education and Training Centers were built in China, and their operation has always been in strict accordance with the law. In essence, the Education and Training Centers are no different from the deradicalization centers in many countries around the world, and they do not target any specific region, ethnicity and religion.
The Vocational Education and Training Centers fully protect the personal dignity and freedom of trainees in accordance with the basic principles of the Chinese Constitution and the laws on respecting and protecting human rights. These Centers are education and training institutions that deliver the curriculum including standard spoken and written Chinese, laws and regulations, vocational skills, and deradicalization. Trainees can have home visits, ask for leave to attend to private affairs and have freedom of communication. The relatives of the trainees are fully aware of their training through telephone or video chat as well as visiting the trainees.
The number of people participating in Vocational Education and Training programs is not fixed, some in and some out from time to time. It is purely fabricated and baseless to say that there are “around one million or even two million trainees” by some media. Vocational Education and Training centers are special efforts in special times. By the end of 2019, all the trainees of the Vocational Education and Training Centers have reached the training requirements and graduated. Most of them have obtained vocational qualification certificates or vocational skill level certificates and found decent jobs.
In the future, Xinjiang will provide regular and open educational training programs to meet the needs of local people to improve their skills, based on principles of respect for their will, independent decision, categorized training programs and freedom to join or leave.
Secondly, regarding the question about organ transplantation. The Chinese government has consistently followed the WHO guidelines on human organ transplantation. In recent years China has further strengthened the management of organ transplantation. In 2007, the State Council of China promulgated and implemented the Regulations on Human Organ Transplantation, which stipulates that organ donation should follow the principle of being voluntary and for free. The sale of human organs is strictly prohibited in China. Since January 1st 2015, the use of death row prisoners’ organs as a source for transplantation has been completely banned and citizen donation is the only legal source for organ transplantation.
Last but not least, I would like to emphasize that some international forces with ulterior motives have fabricated some lies distorting facts, smeared and attacked China’s policy of governing Xinjiang, in an attempt to contain China’s development. We hope our Israeli friends keep your eyes open and not be deceived by those lies.
Large numbers of people went into the streets of Belarus in August after the authorities in Minsk declared that President Alexander Lukashenko had been reelected with 80 percent of the votes. The opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was said to have received 10 percent. Since then, statements testifying to fraud in the voting booths have been published, and the European Union condemned the Minsk government for “elections that were not free or fair.” Undeterred, however, Lukashenko had himself inaugurated for a sixth term on September 23, even as protests continued around the country. The demonstrations in Belarus against Lukashensko, who has been in power for 26 years, have been met with a heavy hand by the security forces. Thousands of demonstrators who have been arrested since the protests began have testified about brutal violence, torture and the crass violation of their rights. Three of them told Haaretz about what they endured in incarceration.
Valery Samalazou, 32, a software engineer from Minsk, is married and the father of three daughters. In June, he received a visa to work in the U.K. He returned in August to visit his daughters and wife and his friends, and to vote. He says he never expressed his political opinions publicly in the past, never broke the law and was never arrested. “I never even received a driving ticket,” he relates.
On August 8, the day before the election, he was on a camping trip with his family, cut off from the unfolding events in the country. On his return to Minsk, he discovered that the city was full of soldiers and that internet access was blocked. “We decided to take the girls out of town, to my wife’s mother,” he says, speaking to Haaretz by phone using secure channels, “in order to save them from the uncertainty and possible dangers.” He and his wife then returned to the capital, shortly before the polling stations closed, in order to vote. To find out the results, he bypassed the government's internet shutdown by connecting via a computer of the company he works for – an Israeli company based in the U.K.
Initial exit polls, Samalazou discovered, showed an apparent Lukashenko victory. “That was impossible, we thought. When I checked again in the morning, I also found messages from people abroad who sent video clips via social media of arrests and violence. I didn’t know anything and I decided to look into it. By the evening, there was no internet at all. After I met colleagues who confirmed that there had been war-like scenes in Minsk, I decided to go to the city center in order to speak my mind and protest the theft of my vote.”
He continues, “As I passed the central railway station, I saw people in black masks hiding around the corner. They blocked my path, questioned me and asked to see some identification. Then they grabbed me, hit me in the head and dragged me to a police vehicle which already had around five detainees inside.” Afterward, he was pulled out of the vehicle and dragged to a nearby building, where his shoes were removed and he was beaten again and questioned. His phone was examined, and the security forces wanted to know why he had money, pictures and bank cards from Britain.
“They treated me like I was a spy,” Samalazou continues. “When the person in charge arrived – in civilian clothes and not wearing a mask – he ordered me to be taken to the police station. He told me that I would be jailed for such a long time that my daughters would be married by the time I got out, and he also threatened to rape me with a club. A police vehicle took me to the station and collected more detainees along the way.” At the police station, the prisoners were forced out of the vehicle and made to lie on the ground. Police officers occasionally came by and hit them randomly, focusing on the younger detainees. “Some of them were hit so hard that they passed out,” he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to look, but we heard the truncheons strike their bodies. I discovered that a truncheon that strikes someone who’s unconscious makes a different sound. There was a girl there who pleaded with them to stop hitting those who had fainted, and they then beat her on the legs. When someone asked to see a doctor, the guard shouted ‘Doctor!’ and two policemen in masks arrived and beat the person viciously.”
Samalazou was interrogated in the station: “They tried to prove I was a spy. I was asked about my work and my political views. By searching my phone, they discovered that I had voted for Tsikhanouskaya [by reveiling a picture of the ballot which was taken for a system whereby activists submitted such pictures in order to compare them to the official count]. They beat me for that. Finally I was taken back to the parking area. In the middle of the night they brought detainees from the demonstrations, who had undergone worse beatings. Their faces were seveirly wounded and covered with blood.” He was left lying, bound, on the ground in the parking area for some 18 hours. “I understood that we were not under arrest but had been kidnapped and that they could do with us as they pleased.”
In the morning, after the group spent the night in the cold, a military vehicle transported Samalazou and the others to a detention facility. “We were made to lie on the floor of the vehicle in three layers. Whoever got on after us had to step on us,” he relates. He was handcuffed, and started to feel that the blood wasn’t reaching the palms of his hands. When he asked for his hands to be freed, they were bound behind his back instead. Leaving the vehicle, his arms were twisted violently and he lost consciousness.
At the detention facility, Samalazou was left for seven hours in an inner courtyard. The handcuffs were removed, but by then his hands had turned blue and purple and he had no feeling in them. Finally he and 30 more detainees were incarcerated in a cell intended for 10. There he was finally given food, after two days in which he hadn’t eaten. “There were no beatings in that prison, but the conditions were awful,” he says. After three and a half days, Samalazou was released with no explanation. He signed a declaration stating that he would not take part in demonstrations and was hospitalized for two weeks with head injuries. Since then he’s returned to his job in London and hopes that his wife and daughters, who don’t yet have visas for Britain, will be able to join him soon. He still has no feeling in his fingers.
Four days in a cell with 40 people
Viachaslau Krasulin, 32 and single, was forced to leave Belarus after the demonstrations in August. A lecturer on culture and art at a university in Minsk, and a musician, he fled to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on September 3, after a criminal case was opened against him in Belarus, which could land him in prison for some years. He had participated with friends in a demonstration at a shopping center in Minsk on August 10.
“There were maybe a hundred people there, and things were calm,” he recalls. “There were no weapons. Some of the demonstrators erected roadblocks, a few young ones collected stones. After a time, police vehicles arrived, and the forces began throwing stun grenades. People ran and the police started to dismantle the roadblocks. My friends fled, but I thought that if I didn’t run, they wouldn’t take me in. That was a mistake.”
As he was trying to leave the scene, Krasulin continues, “I saw that one of the police officers had shot an elderly man in the stomach. The man wasn’t moving. I was in shock. I saw a young man running toward the man who had been shot to try and help him, and I wanted to join him, but then four men in green uniforms jumped me. They started to hit me and took me to a police vehicle. Two more of them attacked me there – one of them cut off my long hair with a knife. They made me lie on the floor, shouted at me that I was gay and handcuffed me. Then the man who had helped the person who was shot was forced into the vehicle. He was a doctor.”
More detainees were brought to the already crowded vehicle – two people had to lie on top of him, Krasulin relates. After a drive of about half an hour, they arrived at the Okrestina detention center. “We were beaten as we got out of the vehicle. They made us run to the wall of the courtyard and get on our knees, and left us like that for two hours.” They were then forced to lie on the ground for a few hours. “We were left there until 8 in the morning and then interrogated separately and taken to a cell. It was a cell for six people but they packed 30 detainees in and ordered us to strip down to our underwear. We weren’t beaten, but we were forbidden to approach the windows, so that people standing outside would not be able to see or hear us.”
Eventually, he says, about 40 people were crammed into the cell, making it impossible to sit, let alone lie down. “I spent four days there, and for the first three days I received only a little bread and cereal for breakfast,” Krasulin continues. “We drank water, but there was no more food. On the third day, there were trials. There were no lawyers and we weren’t allowed to make calls. Each trial lasted six minutes. The judge asked what I had done, who had beaten me and why. I replied that I had no idea why I was beaten. I was sentenced to 11 days in prison. I was glad not to have received more; others were given far worse punishments.”
On the following day, Krasulin and his fellow detainees also were fed supper. After being interrogated again, he was transferred to a different, less crowded cell. Subsequently a police officer arrived to let him out. “I was given back my clothes, which were filthy, but not my bag, which held my passport, papers and credit cards,” he relates. “My telephone also remained with the police, because it was used as evidence in someone else’s trial. Before being released, I was made to sign a document stating that I would not take part in more demonstrations. I was taken in a police vehicle with six other people to a cemetery in the city, where we were released.”
Krasulin received medical treatment and decided to file a complaint against the police officers who had beaten him. In the wake of the complaint, he was informed that a file had been opened against him, after which he left the country at the advice of his lawyer.
‘He was beaten, then doctors covered his head’
Aliaksei Novik, 37, from Minsk, is the owner of a technology company. On Election Day, he was an independent poll observer for an opposition party. “Because of the coronavirus, we were not allowed to be inside the polling station during the day,” he relates. “But at the end of the day we waited outside for the protocol [i.e., the results of the voting at the station] to be published. It was made available two hours after the polling stations closed, and it turned out that Lukashenko had won big. That was a joke. It was clear that the results were falsified.”
Novik wanted to make his way home, but discovered that public transportation had been halted and also that internet access was being blocked: “I tried to walk to the center and find a taxi, but when I got close to one of the metro stations, I saw large forces who looked to be from the army. I lay on the grass in a courtyard, I heard very loud screaming and also shots, and I waited for it all to end.” Afterward, he relates, “I got up and ran in the opposite direction. I ran into a police patrol. I felt safe and asked them how I could get home. They pointed to a yellow bus nearby and one of them said, ‘That’s your ride home.’ Maybe he was joking. Then a few of them grabbed me. The five days that followed will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
He, too, like Krasulin, was taken to Okrestina. Sentenced to a 15-day prison term, apparently for participating in the protests, he was moved to a different detention facility in Zhodino, northeast of Minsk. His story is also rife with brutal violence against detainees, the hacking of his phone, coerced false confessions that were videoed, threats of rape on the part of the guards and appalling hunger and overcrowding in the detention cell. The age of the detainees ranged from 16 to 74, he says, based on their conversations. “There were people with broken ribs. One night in Okrestina, through the window, we saw guards beating a man in the yard. He cried and cried, then stopped. When things were quiet, I saw a few doctors arrive and cover his head. I don’t know for certain that he was dead, but I think a few people died there.”
Snipers were posted on the watchtowers of the facility, Novik relates, and there were dogs in the yard. From the adjacent cell he heard women’s voices. He refers to the police as “Gestapo,” and he says that one police officer called him “Jew” (he isn't Jewish). After he was released, apparently following the intervention of the European Union and human rights organizations, he filed a complaint against the police and has been conducting a legal battle against them since. He has remained in Minsk. He says he is wounded mentally and physically and can’t sleep at night.
“The Belarusian people is starting anew,” Novik says. “We live in the center of Europe. I see how people live in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, and I ask: Why do I not have human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly? I do not want a union with Russia, we are not its ‘little brother.’ We are a free people in Europe, and this is our war of independence.”
STOCKHOLM – Back in April, many worldwide thought the Swedes had lost their minds. As country after country shuttered its schools, shopping malls and restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden decided to take another approach.
Despite the Scandinavian country’s death toll reaching a peak of about 100 a day by mid-April, many Swedes were still going about their daily lives, face masks were not recommended and rarely used, young children were still going to school, and no national isolation system was set up for infected but asymptomatic individuals. And though many businesses took a hit – because Sweden relies heavily on its export trade – most remained open and gradually started to rebound. It’s not as if Sweden did nothing at all to combat the virus. High schools and universities switched to online learning, most cultural, entertainment and sports venues closed, and the general population was asked to maintain hygiene and social distancing, avoid traveling wherever possible, and to stay home when symptoms appeared.
But there was clearly a major difference between the Swedish way and that of the rest of the world. Besides legal restrictions prohibiting gatherings of over 50 people or visitors at hospitals and retirement homes, most were recommendations rather than legal decrees. Fines, police enforcement, mobile phone tracking and curfews were deemed unnecessary.
Despite this, most Swedes observed social distancing and the infection rate finally began to drop. Last week, Sweden carried out over 140,000 tests, with 1.2 percent coming back positive. The country currently has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe.
While the curves are clearly flattening, the government isn’t wasting time. After a traumatic spring, it’s doing its best to learn from its initial mistakes by improving testing capabilities and boosting the economy.
It’s a stark contrast to Israel, which has just become the first country to enter lockdown for a second time. Yet Sweden’s health minister, Lena Hallengren, told Haaretz that it’s not just about having or not having a lockdown.
“It’s true we didn’t have lockdowns [in Sweden], but we did have lots of changes in society – and the most crucial thing is having long-term measures,” she said. “Without a lockdown, restaurants, bars, trains and buses have to be adapted with regulations – legally binding or recommendations. You have to always maintain distance, have signs, information, sanitizing, washing hands: all that has to be in place. We can see that you can’t lock down the virus forever, and you always have to consider the price that society pays.”
Falling mortality rates
Different countries’ success rates in handling the coronavirus has become something of a “sport” in the past six months, a table reflecting the global “winners” and “losers.” Given its outlier approach, Sweden has come under particularly close scrutiny: initially, it drew harsh criticism and was used as a cautionary tale; now, it’s offered as a slightly more sustainable model than repeatedly going into lockdown. But Hallengren is careful about making any comparisons.
“We’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. “It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is. It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates. Different countries were hit differently; they have different structures and relations with their authorities, they test in different ways and have different kinds of data and information. In the long run, we all need well-functioning societies. We should learn what there is to learn from others, point less fingers and try to keep up with long-term recommendations,” she added.
So far, some 5,800 people in Sweden have died due to COVID-19, mainly as a result of the virus spreading in Sweden’s nursing and care homes in the spring.
“In the worst week of April, we had 845 new cases of infection in elderly care facilities. Last week we had 17,” Hallengren reported. “Our mortality rates have also fallen radically. We don’t have excess mortality and in August, the rates were below normal [yearly] figures.”
Hallengren also tried to look beyond the headline figure concerning COVID-19 deaths. “One [southern] region in Sweden, Östergötland, recently conducted a study investigating all cases of elderly patients who died infected from the coronavirus,” she said. “In only 15 percent of the cases was it concluded that COVID-19 was the direct cause of death. In 15 percent [of cases], the real reason was another illness or medical condition, and in 70 percent of cases COVID-19 contributed to death due to underlying conditions or the health status of the patient.”
The health minister said her government is analyzing why the coronavirus hit Sweden so badly, especially in comparison to its Nordic neighbors, and is taking long-term measures to tackle possible new local outbreaks.
Scenarios are being prepared by government authorities and financial resources allocated to address unemployment and support the health care system, as well as those in elderly and mental health care. “The outbreak of COVID-19 is not, and has never been, a narrow health issue for the infected people,” Hallengren said. “It’s a broad issue affecting all parts of society.”
When quizzed on Sweden’s “no lockdown” policy, Hallengren said that although a total lockdown was never imposed, remote work, online studying in high schools and universities, and restrictions on entertainment venues affected the country’s citizens.
“It was certainly not ‘business as usual’ in Sweden,” she said, rebutting a common claim, “but we needed to have a functioning society. That’s why we made an active decision not to close preschools and elementary schools. If you close schools, how do you enable people to work at the care homes, hospitals, and police and emergency forces? How do you keep the pharmacies, commuter trains and food stores running and open?
“We decided to lean on experts and the available knowledge at the time,” she explained. “We knew children were not severely affected and not the ones spreading the virus. This was proven by looking at the number of people on sick leave. Teachers working at preschools and schools were not sicker than other groups in society.
“We need to fight the virus, we need to protect vulnerable groups,” she continued. “But we need to make sure that the measures can be kept for a long time in a functioning society.
“Swedish people have high confidence in government authorities,” she added, “so with transparency and a lot of quantifying information, we created a strategy based on taking the right measures at the right time and in the right part of Sweden.”
How do you respond to allegations that Sweden sacrificed its older population for the sake of the economy?
“That criticism is unfair and untrue. Of course we never sacrificed anyone. We tried our very best, as I suppose other countries did, to protect lives, to stop the virus spreading in society and to protect the vulnerable groups.
“The care homes have been an extremely difficult and sad part, but they are very specific – people living there are extremely old, fragile and sick. We created a government commission to find out what happened, who did what and what we can learn from this.
“In Sweden, care homes are not just facilities for older people; they provide health care. We have 1,700 such homes and about 85,000 people live in them. Fifty percent of them live in these homes for only six months – that’s how old, fragile and multi-diseased their situation is. If you get COVID-19 or even the flu into these homes, it’s a matter of life and death.”
Retirement homes were generally perceived to be the weakest link in Sweden’s coronavirus strategy. But there’s another part of it that others could benefit from: decision-making based on expertise rather than politics.
“We [political decision-makers] are thinking people and we're responsible for the decisions we make,” Hallengren said, “but our authorities wouldn’t be independent if we’d sometimes decide to follow the experts on disease prevention and disease control, and sometimes not to do so. You don’t have experts and expert agencies just to have them. You have them to listen to, and take what they know into consideration,” she concluded.
In an interview with Haaretz from a hiding place in Lithuania, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calls on Russia and other countries not to intervene in the political crisis in Belarus, and stresses that she does not intend to run for the presidency in any future election
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been in hiding in Lithuania since August 10, under guard. While she has been living in forced exile, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko – who is considered by many to be “the last dictator in Europe,” having served as his country’s leader since 1994 – has been facing huge nationwide demonstrations daily.
“I feel great pride [at] my people who at last woke up,” Tsikhanouskaya told Haaretz in an interview – the first time Lukashenko’s greatest rival, who ran in the recent presidential election against him, has been interviewed in the Israeli media.
“They have aims, they know what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting for new elections where they’ll be able to choose a new president for our country,” she said.
Until last summer, Tsikhanouskaya, 37, was an English teacher and translator. She had no intention of being active in politics and only decided to run in this year’s presidential election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky – an entrepreneur who launched a YouTube channel last year in which he criticized the government – was not allowed to stand. He has been labeled an opponent of the regime and was arrested at a demonstration in May. He was later charged with disorderly conduct and attacking a police officer, and has been imprisoned ever since.
In response, Tsikhanouskaya became the opposition candidate in the August 9 election. Her husband supported her until he was jailed, and she continued to campaign despite threats, harassment and the arrest of some of her supporters and staff.
She reportedly received widespread support from the public on Election Day, as well as from major opposition figures. Standing alongside her were Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo – another opposition candidate who was barred from running – and Maria Kalesnikava, the campaign manager of a third candidate, Viktor Babaryka, who was also barred from running and jailed.
Tsikhanouskaya said she was worried about the “awful violence” being used by the authorities in Minsk against Belarusians. She views the public protest that broke out in her country as the tip of a process that has existed for years.
“Of course it didn’t happen in just a moment,” she said. “There were preconditions. COVID played a huge role: Our society understood that we can help each other, that we’re a nation and our authorities don’t care for us in difficult times. So, when Sergei Tikhanovsky was going around the country showing the truth and saying the truth, they started to prosecute him. But he encouraged other people to understand they have the right to say the truth and talk about it".
“Step by step, people started to wake up,” she continued. “There was a great fear, but every day – the same as I did – people had to overcome the fear and do something and say what they want. During this election campaign they saw how united they are. Many people came to our rallies,” she said, “and they looked into each other’s eyes and understood that they want to live in a different country. They want to be respected by the authorities, unlike the last 26 years. We want a different life for our children.”
According to the official result, Lukashenko won 80 percent of the votes while Tsikhanouskaya received only 10 percent. However, opposition activists claimed there had been voter fraud, while the European Union condemned the government in Minsk for holding an election that was “neither free nor fair.” It also criticized the violent repression of the protests that erupted immediately after the election, and is advancing sanctions against senior Belarusian leaders.
Tsikhanouskaya filed a complaint with the Central Election Committee the day after the vote, and as a result was detained by the authorities for several hours. Later that same day, security forces accompanied her to the Lithuanian border (to the west of Belarus). In Lithuania, she joined her 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, who were evacuated from Belarus before the election due to threats against the family.
After arriving in Lithuania, the official media in Belarus released a video in which Tsikhanoskaya can be seen reading an announcement calling on protesters not to go out into the streets and to respect the election result – in a style reminiscent of those films where hostages read the words of their captors. Later that day, she released her own video on social media in which she stated that she was forced to leave Belarus out of fears for her children’s safety.
A few days later, Tsikhanouskaya declared in another video that she had won the election and was forming a public council to arrange the transfer of power from Lukashenko to her – and to hold new and free elections. In interviews, Tsikhanouskaya emphasized that she would serve as an interim president and didn’t intend to run in any new election.
Will the fact that the president holds all the power in Belarus, including the military and police force, not cause the protest to dissipate without replacing the government – especially in light of the fact that the opposition leader is not even in the country? Do you have the power to even start a dialogue with Lukashenko?
“First of all, I’m not the leader of the opposition, I’m the leader of the majority. Second, you say that Lukashenko has all the power, and you mentioned police, but he doesn’t have the power on his people. This matters. He has power on 1 percent of the people. He has no power at all in the eyes of the Belarusians. They will never trust him anymore, they will not be able to live in their country under his leadership. So, how can you say that he has power? Absolutely not!"
In that case, what practical steps are you taking in order to bring a regime change?
“First of all, all the political prisoners must be released. That will be the sign that our authorities are ready for a dialogue. This dialogue has to happen as soon as possible, because of the political crises and the economic crises. When the political prisoners will be released we’ll start this dialogue – which will lead to new, fair and transparent elections, and people will have the right to elect a new president for themselves,” she said.
“Thanks to different initiatives, we have results from poll stations where the results were falsified. At the moment, we have over 150 real results which are radically different than those which were published.” Says Tsikhanoskaya and adds that
international observers were not allowed to come and supervise the election. Furthermore, the results she obtained were the result of acts of bravery from people who worked in the polling places and were charged by the authorities because they published the truth. She added that she won over 50 percent of the vote – a level that does not require a second round of voting according to Belarusian law.
Are you, like many others, concerned about possible Russian intervention in the situation in Belarus? Have you been in touch with the Kremlin or have they tried to contact you?
“What’s going on in Belarus is absolutely our internal affair. It’s not about geopolitics, it’s a political crisis where our people are standing up against one person. There’s no need and there’s no reason for the Russians to interfere in this political crisis. There is awareness to this [Russian intervention], but I can’t say that I’m afraid of this. I always ask all the countries, including Russia, to respect our sovereignty. We have to deal with this conflict ourselves.”
The principle of Belarusian sovereignty is equally valid with regards to other nations too, Tsikhanouskaya says. Nonetheless, she’s happy to note that many countries recognize her claims that election results in Belarus were falsified and that they don’t recognize Lukashenko’s victory.
“They show their support for the Belarusian people who are standing up for their rights and for defending our elections. They are absolutely for our people, they are supporting us in this fight,” she said. “We appreciate what they say and we appreciate that they are vocal, and we are very grateful for whatever they do to support our people.
“But we also call to respect the sovereignty of our country. We underline that what’s going on is our internal affair and other countries shouldn’t interfere in the situation. When other leaders ask what they can do for us, I say that if one day we will need international mediation in starting negotiations with our authorities, then all the countries which care about our situation are invited.”
International criticism, nonrecognition of the election result and calls for Lukashenko to avoid violence have also come from the United Nations, Belarus’ neighbors and even from the Vatican. A source close to Tsikhanoskaya said she has already spoken with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and the Leaders of Sweden, Finland and Estonia. But her exile in Lithuania has forced her to devote time not only to foreign officials but also to her partners in the protest.
What’s the nature of your relationship with the protest leadership and the other leaders, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kalesnikava? Do you speak? Are there any disagreements or conflicts between you?
“Of course we’re in touch. We’re working together. But we understand that Maria Kalesnikava is in Minsk, and of course she has much more pressure on herself than I have or Veronika Tsepkalo, who is in Poland I suppose. But each one of us does her best to reach the aim we have. So I’m here, meeting with leaders of different countries who show support to our people and our situation. Veronika also, I’m sure, is doing her best for the same purpose, and Maria, who’s in front at this moment in Minsk. I’m really proud that she’s there and I’m proud that we’re still together, that we have one aim and we’re moving toward it together.”
The fact that the leadership of the opposition is made up of women is no coincidence, and Tsikhanoskaya attributed great importance to it. “The phenomena of a [female] revolution is very significant in our demonstrations. We understood that we can, we are important and we can defend our country not in the kitchen but in front of men and beside men. So we felt ourselves as a united nation where people help other people, take care of other people – and this is our unity.”
But in spite of what she may say, it’s clear that living in exile is not easy for Tsikhanouskaya.
In a video released after she arrived in Lithuania, she said that the decision to leave was very difficult and one she made on her own, without consulting with political figures – or even her husband in prison. In subsequent interviews, as well as now, she has refused to say exactly what happened during the hours when she was held by the authorities in Minsk before crossing the border into Lithuania.
“It’s not time [to tell]. Sorry,” she said.
What about your future plans? Do you intend to be president of Belarus?
“No, my opinion on this hasn’t changed. I’m not planning to be involved in the future elections.”
Are you in touch with your husband? When did you last talk to him?
“I think I spoke to him about three and a half months ago, because in our country you can’t phone prisoners. But we communicate via a lawyer who visits him about twice a week. The lawyer tells him about what’s going on in Belarus, and he’s very proud of the Belarusian people. He supports me and he’s really grateful to the Belarusian people that everything he did wasn’t in vain. Of course I’m worried about him, because he’s held like a hostage.”
Can you tell us a little about your situation in Lithuania, the conditions in which you live, the situation of the children and your plans to return to Belarus?
“What matters is that I feel safe here. I’m surrounded with different, wonderful people – Lithuanians and Belarusians – who are now members of my team, and we’re doing our best to achieve our aims in Belarus. We’re all working for the same purpose, which hasn’t changed: new elections in Belarus.
“My children are fine, thank God. They want to go back, they miss their Daddy. I also want to go back to Belarus, and I will as soon as I feel safe there.”
She continues: “We have a wonderful country with peaceful, friendly and hardworking people who have lived under this regime for 26 years. According to the Constitution we have a lot of rights, but in reality we have no rights at all. People are imprisoned just for having an intention to tell the truth; they’re imprisoned for going out and showing their disagreement with the regime.
“It’s not safe to live there, because people are disappearing. It’s not safe to go out and raise your voice, because you’ll be beaten and imprisoned. There’s no justice – our people have had enough. They woke up and want to live in a democratic country where people are safe and free. Now it’s high time for our people to struggle for their rights, and they’re ready to build a country for life.”
It was clear that a new, provocative book about Sweden’s attitude toward the Nazis in World War II was going to stir up controversy. But the author didn’t imagine that the state would seize its last print run and demand to pulp it.
STOCKHOLM – The four police officers showed up at the building, located in a commercial area of south Stockholm, shortly after 9 A.M. this past June 11. Several of the officers, dispatched by the international and organized crime division, were armed and wearing protective vests. They took the elevator up and found the storeroom, which contained about 150 cartons. Wasting no time, they loaded the cartons onto a waiting truck and drove off. Now all that is required is a court decision to pave the way for the destruction of the contents of the cartons. This could be the opening scene of a Nordic-noir crime story if, say, the cartons were packed with drugs or if a crime syndicate was involved. But this is a story of a different kind: The items in question belong not to a mobster, but to a comedian. And instead of dangerous substances they are packed with history books.
Aron Flam is a 42-year-old Swedish Jewish comedian who does stand-up, appears in film and on TV, radio and podcasts, and writes books. The subjects he tackles are often complex (such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). He is drawn to slaughtering sacred cows and enjoys spouting controversial political and cultural criticism (especially when it omes to ideas and ideologies that are popular in Sweden, such as feminism and socialism). He has frequently been accused of having ties to the Swedish alt-right and to populist groups, although he presents himself as a liberal and a democrat. He’s a free-speech advocate who likes to discuss what he calls “culture-specific taboos,” and though his subject matter is often very serious, he’s better known on social media than in academic circles.
But the book he published this year took his controversial persona a step further. Its title, “Det här är en svensk tiger,” translates as “This Is a Swedish Tiger” and it deals with, among other subjects, Swedish policy during World War II. In the book, Flam puts forward a radical argument to the effect that Sweden collaborated with Nazi Germany from start to finish. Most historians, in contrast, depict Sweden as a neutral country that leaned toward Germany until 1943, then tilted toward the Allies as the war wound down.
The first two printings, of a total of 5,000 copies, sold out completely, and now, in a highly unusual move, the third print run, of 2,000 books, has been confiscated by the police. Formally, the reason is not the book’s content, but rather a lawsuit over an alleged copyright infringement, centered around the illustration on the cover. But the fact that
the author’s claims are controversial and embarrassing to Sweden, as well as perceived as an effort to undermine the country’s national heritage, immediately ignited a trenchant public debate and fierce criticism: Why did the state prosecution take such an extreme step?
Is censorship alive and well, even in a free, liberal country like Sweden? It all started almost 80 years ago, during the war. In 1941, the Swedish authorities commissioned the illustrator and author Bertil Almqvist to design a poster showing a tiger painted in yellow and blue, the colors of the Swedish flag, with the slogan “A Swedish tiger.” This is a play on words, as “tiger” in Swedish can also be a verb meaning “to keep silent.” In other words, the “Swedish tiger” is not only a predator in the colors of the national flag, it is also a sort of sly directive meaning, “A good Swede keeps his mouth shut.” The wording recalls wartime field-security slogans from many countries, such as America’s “Loose lips sink ships” or Britain’s “Careless talk costs lives.” “During the war that symbol was everywhere – on pencil cases, on Tshirts and on lunchboxes,” Flam says. The tiger appears on the cover of Flam’s new book, but unlike its original wartime iteration, his tiger is winking and stretching its right front leg upward, as in a Nazi salute, while the left leg is adorned with a swastika. The animal casts a long shadow behind it. In Flam’s telling, the tiger is the symbol of a Swedish culture of silence and functions as a kind of joke about that silence. The Swedes, he explains, are strong, silent types.
“Sweden is the only country that takes pride in its silence,” Flam tells Haaretz in a phone conversation, referring to the first lines of the national anthem, lauding the land of the northern hills, which is “joyful, fair and quiet.” “We like silence so much that we sing about it.” “In contrast to the Americans, we had no ships in danger of sinking in World War II – we were ostensibly neutral,” he says. “That makes one wonder about the purpose of the Swedish silence, and that is exactly what my book is about. The cover is a parody of the tiger, which is to say, a parody of a joke. I deal in the book with psychology, law, politics and philosophy, and it all starts with that joke. Today’s Swedes aren’t familiar with the historical context. They don’t get the joke, precisely because their grandparents got it so well, and maintained absolute silence about what happened in Sweden during the war. To understand a joke, you need to understand the references. The book explains them.”
There’s at least one body that doesn’t appreciate the joke: the Military Readiness Museum, a private institution in the country’s south that owns the rights to the original illustration by Almqvist. According to the museum, the Almqvist tiger is “part of the Swedish cultural heritage,” and no one was authorized to make use of it. “Their response was very emotional,” Flam explains. “I got a call from a lawyer who is one of the museum’s owners. She screamed at me over the phone and said that I should be ashamed of myself for undermining our cultural heritage.” He adds that “she told the police that she wants every copy of the book, including those that were already sold, to be destroyed.”
After the museum filed a complaint of copyright infringement (in February 2019, after the book’s release), the police entered the picture. They contacted the printer, summoned Flam for an interrogation and seized the entire third print run. “One morning,” Flam relates, “I suddenly received a text message from the office building where I rent a storeroom. The message stated, ‘The police are here.’” The police continue to hold onto the cartons, and now the Stockholm District Court will have to decide on the conflict between the principles of freedom of expression and copyright considerations. A trial is set to open September 24. If the prosecution triumphs, all remaining copies of the book will be destroyed and Flam will have to pay the museum 1.5 million Swedish crowns (about $171,000).
The state prosecution insists that no censorship of content is involved in the case, only the issue of rights. “The books were impounded because the cover is inseparable from the book itself,” a press communique stated. Flam: “The chief prosecutor in the case claimed I was ‘desecrating’ the original work by placing a swastika onit. If they think my work desecrates Swedish heritage, that is their right, but satire is not supposed to be polite and respectable.” Both the Swedish prosecutors and the museum turned repeated requests from Haaretz to speak with their representatives.
The Swedish public has not been indifferent to the state’s dramatic action against Flam. “It’s scandalous,” Thorsten Cars, a senior jurist, wrote in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “It is difficult to understand what interest the copyright holders – they are not even connected to the artist himself – have in the prosecution and the confiscation of the books. It is even more difficult to understand how the harm done to the state, the people and its ‘national symbol’ is so severe as to justify prosecution and confiscation.” Like other legal and media observers, Cars characterizes the actions of the police and the prosecution as “gross intervention in freedom of expression.” The journalist Nils Funcke, who deals frequently with the issue of freedom of expression, found it “strange that the prosecution is taking such a drastic step.” Seizure of the entire inventory of a book is a rare event, he added. Colleagues of Flam’s – well-known Swedish comedians – also rallied to his defense. “Comedy and humor are a very important part of freedom of expression and public discourse, even in Sweden, a country that lacks humor,” the comedian Sandra Ilar said with a smile, adding that one must not be silent in the face of such a threat.
“It is wrong to prosecute a comic and a writer because he casts doubt and creates satire,” comedian Özz Nûjen said. “That is exactly his job.” Others go farther in their criticism, accusing the Social Democratic Party establishment of taking action against Flam in order to conceal its own dark history. Even if there is no proof to back up this allegation,
it is gaining traction because of the silence of the political establishment on the subject. The Social Democrats were in power during most of the 20th century, and led a national-unity government during the war. It is still in power today and though it has recently renewed its commitment to combat anti-Semitism, some still accuse it of hiding its dark past. Writer and musician Jens Ganman had harsh words for the government and the state-owned media in a Facebook post he called, “How can we sleep while our books are burning?” Why wasn’t the justice minister invited to the country’s major news studio to comment on the subject, he asked, and went on to wonder rhetorically, how it was possible that the Swedish police were sent to impound a book, whose author is a Jew, about the Social Democratic Party and its ties with Hitler.
So much for rescues
Flam’s thesis deals with the depth of cooperation and collaboration between the Swedish authorities and the Nazis. “I maintain that the Swedish Social Democrats started to work with Hitler even before he rose to power,” he says. “The Swedish account of history leaves out the fact that Sweden was dependent on Germany and collaborated with Berlin before and during the war. Most Swedes today don’t know this, but Sweden was Germany’s ally from 1933 until 1944, by which time the war was already very much over. Only then did Sweden announce that it would cease to do business with Germany.”
Flam, who has a master’s degree in economics, also addresses that aspect of the story. “The Germans needed weapons, Sweden had the materials to manufacture weapons (iron and ball bearings), and the Swiss banks were able to launder the money that changed hands in these transactions. Sweden supplied Germany with the components without which no modern army can operate.” When it comes to the results of Sweden’s policies during World War II, Flam goes so far as to maintain that the Swedish welfare state “is built on gold that was stolen from Jews and other European peoples.” He also greatly minimizes Sweden’s vaunted rescue operations on behalf of Jews in the war: the saving of the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by Swedish diplomat Raoul
Wallenberg, the asylum granted to the Jews of Denmark and the so-called White Buses operation involving the Swedish Red Cross, which extricated refugees from concentration camps in areas under German control during the final weeks of the war.
“I would say that none of it is significant,” he says provocatively. “The goal of Folke Bernadotte [the Swedish diplomat, who negotiated the release of thousands of Jews from the camps, became the United Nations mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was
assassinated by the Lehi pre-state underground, in Palestine in September 1948] was not to save Jews. He collected Jews along the way and then wrote a book explaining what a hero he was. The case of Denmark’s Jews [who were smuggled into Sweden by the Danish underground] is similarly complex. They placed the Swedish government in an embarrassing position and were taken in for reasons of public image. Regarding Raoul Wallenberg, as far as I understand he was a hero – there’s always an exception.”
Though Flam’s claims in the book are debatable, it’s a fascinating project, which jumps between disciplines and historical periods. He draws a line and demonstrates connections and similarities between Sweden’s policy in World War II to the Swedish establishment’s attitude toward Israel and toward antisemitism in Sweden itself,
before, during and after the war. Not everyone will agree with Flam’s conclusions, but even many of those who don’t are convinced that the mobilization of the police and the state prosecution against him is both extreme and unwarranted. His book, they say,
should be debated, not destroyed. “You don’t have to agree with Aron in order to support him,” says Nûjen, the comedian. We ask Flam, who says he will appeal the case if the court rules against him, if he thinks there’s an effort afoot to silence him. “If that’s what they’re trying to do,” he says, “they’re doing a very bad job of it. I insist on my right as a satirist to make fun of things that people think are sacred. Does freedom of speech exist without the right to parody? I think not, but I’m not objective. I’m only a comedian.
STOCKHOLM – In the final analysis the Swedes will disappoint everyone. Those who claim that their own government's reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was hysterical, because "in Sweden it's business as usual," have yet to discover how little they knew about business in Sweden. Even those who claim that countries that opted for a lockdown saved numerous lives, as opposed to the Swedes who are dying in the thousands, will discover that the numbers are misleading and confusing.
Both groups will be forced to find another source to prove their arguments. Last week, for example, headlines worldwide declared that the Swedes admit their mistake and that their model for dealing with COVID-19 has collapsed. The headlines were incorrect. The Swedish authorities are still adhering to their initial strategy, and the presumed admission of a mistake was a general statement that was taken totally out of context. But Sweden has long since become a punching bag for those justifying the lockdown policy as well as an exemplar for those who oppose it. Meanwhile, in the real world, the situation is more complex.
First it should be noted that it is not business as usual in Sweden – high schools and universities have switched to distance learning, most of the cultural, entertainment and sports venues are closed, and residents were asked to work from home, maintain social distancing and avoid traveling. Although most of the restrictions are only recommendations, it can be proven that most Swedes observe them meticulously,
Despite that, the elementary schools and preschools did not close, no lockdown was imposed and there is no obligation to wear a mask. These are examples of controversial policies, which may turn out to be more damaging than beneficial. It is definitely possible that the Swedish government is wrong, but the claim that it is practicing “human experimentation” could be directed to all the other governments too. In times of coronavirus uncertainty, steps such as isolating asymptomatic patients, prohibiting swimming in the sea and closing places of business are also a gamble. It’s clear to everyone that they all cause social, economic and health-related damage, but it is still unknown if and to what extent these steps limit the spread of the virus.
As is true of every country, Sweden has advantages and disadvantages in dealing with the pandemic. The advantages include: an efficient public sector, a good health care system, a sparse population and a large number of single-person households (about 40 percent of households). And on the other hand, the Swedish population is elderly (about 20 percent are aged 65 and above), the country has open borders and a cold climate, and about one fifth of the population was born outside the country – and therefore has less trust in the authorities and limited access to their directives.
There is therefore a limit to our ability to learn from the terrible figure – about 4,500 dead. Even if we ignore the differences in the way countries count their dead, and complex data such as overall and excess mortality – it is hard to compare young countries with elderly ones, hot countries with cold ones, and open and closed countries. Although Worldometer charts have become a morbid sport of body counts and patriotic wrestling matches, it is doubtful whether we can learn from counting the dead about the degree of effectiveness in a country’s handling of the pandemic, and especially the effectiveness of lockdowns.
Heading the charts are Belgium, Spain, Italy, England and France – countries which imposed a lockdown, and occasionally adopted tough measures to enforce it. They are followed by Sweden, without a lockdown and with a “soft policy.” And then come the rest of the countries, which have various ways of dealing with the problem. There are countries that imposed a lockdown and have a high mortality rate (Belgium), there are countries with a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Israel), countries without a lockdown and a high mortality rate (Sweden) and some without a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Iceland). And of course there are also differences between one city and the next in the same country.
Why then have so many died in Sweden? At this point it seems that the failure is not related to the failure to impose a lockdown. There is no evidence of a significant contribution by schools or shopping centers to the spread of the pandemic. But there is evidence of a different failure – the treatment of the elderly. Although the handling of senior citizens’ homes was problematic all over the world, in Sweden the situation was especially grave. Recently it was revealed that due to power struggles among the authorities, the personnel were not prepared, there was a lack of equipment and the ban on visits was belated.
And yes, although Sweden is a developed welfare state, in the years when the seeds of the failure were sown it suffered from another plague: privatization, cutbacks and reforms in the public sector. Today, as opposed to the situation in the past, senior citizens’ homes in Stockholm lack work slots, equipment and skilled manpower. This is another example of the helplessness of the “invisible hand” when it comes to managing crises and protecting the weak.
Is it true, as has been claimed, that Sweden gave up on its elderly for the sake of the economy? Definitely not. First of all, public health is managed by an independent authority, which is not subject to economic considerations. Second, the Swedish economy is export-oriented. Initial investigations have shown that the blow to Sweden did not differ greatly from that of its neighbors. In Sweden too there was a decline in consumption, growth was harmed and unemployment increased. Even if local businesses remained open, Volvo cannot manufacture vehicles when there is interference in the supply chains and demand plummets, and H&M cannot sell clothing when factories and malls the world over are closed. Not to mention the tourism industry. Policymakers knew that and did not waste time on attempts to prevent the blow, but instead channeled money to reduce the damage it caused.
Even more serious is the claim that the Swedes tried to save the economy by achieving herd immunity, because initial examinations demonstrated that Sweden is very far from that objective. But Sweden has never claimed that it was aiming at herd immunity – on the contrary, it vehemently denied that. The objectives were to flatten the curve of the number of patients and to protect the populations at risk. The first objective was achieved: intensive care beds and ventilators were ready for use at all times – an impressive achievement, because there was no need for a ruinous lockdown. In the case of the second objective, the Swedes themselves admit failure. Those using the example of Sweden would do well to stop looking at the country for proof for their arguments, and to try to think what can be learned from the Swedish case. In the final analysis, this is not a theoretical exercise, it is an essential preparation for the second wave.