Ethiopian Survivor Recounts New Zealand Mosque Attacks

Abdulkadir Ababora was sitting in the front row of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week when a 28-year-old Australian gunman opened fire during Friday prayers.

Fifty worshipers were killed in the March 15 attacks in two mosques, and the gunman appeared intent of taking as many lives as possible.

“Those who were hit with the automatic weapons fell, and he went and checked those who were breathing and started shooting at those who were already on the ground,” Abdulkadir told VOA’s Afaan Oromoo service.

Abdulkadir, meanwhile, lay under a bookshelf, pretending to be dead.

“I pulled the Quranic bookshelf on top of me to hide my head under and held my breath so that he didn’t detect I was alive,” Abdulkadir said.

The kinds of weapons used in the attack are now banned in the country. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced Thursday that the government would outlaw “military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles,” effective immediately.

Abdulkadir said he “saw blood flowing like a river” as bullets pierced victims in his mosque.

“I didn’t think it was real, and I thought it was something out of a cinema or a movie,” he added.

Originally from Ethiopia, Abdulkadir now works as a taxi driver in New Zealand. He left his wife, who gave birth two weeks ago, at home and his other children at school before heading to the mosque that ill-fated day.

“I am not sure if he passed me thinking I was dead, but he shot those who were on my left and right,” Abdulkadir said. “All I was thinking about was my wife and my three children. … I was thinking that it was going to be my turn, and I lost hope at the moment.”

Victims’ families have begun receiving their loved ones’ bodies. On Tuesday, six victims’ bodies were returned to families, according to police, and the rest will soon get a place to rest. The victims included refugees from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, along with other people seeking refuge.

Mike Bush, New Zealand’s commissioner of police, said Thursday that all of the victims have been identified and their families notified, earlier saying, “this is for us an absolute priority for family reasons, for compassionate reasons and for cultural reasons.” Among those killed was 3-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, the youngest victim of the attacks.

Despite the attacks and ongoing islamophobic sentiments, Abdulkadir remains hopeful.

“New Zealand is a peaceful place, and we have never seen anything like this before,” he said. “Migrants are now getting help — more than anytime before — and showing us support and strength.”

This story originated in VOA’s Horn of Africa’s Afaan Oromoo service.

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2 S. Korean Firms Plead Guilty of Overcharging Pentagon for Fuel

Two South Korean energy companies have agreed to plead guilty and pay $75 million in fines for rigging bids for contracts to supply fuel to the Pentagon.

The U.S. Justice Department unsealed the indictment Wednesday.

Hyundai Oilbank, S-Oil Corp. and seven individuals were charged with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful function of the procurement process for the fuel supply contracts.”

One of the seven was also indicted for alleged witness tampering for threatening those trying to cooperate with the investigation.

“Illegal bid-rigging schemes violate fundamental tenets of government contracting and lead to inflated charges and costs to the government,” Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt said.

Because of the action of the companies and the seven suspects, the Pentagon paid “substantially more” for fuel supplies in South Korea than it would have if the bidding for contracts had not been rigged, the indictment says.

The two companies agreed to plead guilty, while the seven individuals charged have not yet entered pleas. All seven face up to 10 years in federal prison and as much as $1 million in fines if convicted.

Three other South Korean energy companies pleaded guilty and were fined $236 million in November for their part in bid rigging.

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Child Loses Arm in Cambodia Brick Factory

A few seconds were all that it took to change ten-year-old Srey Pheak’s life forever. When she reached into the brick machine to clean off some clay, she got trapped. The machine quickly pulled her arm in, like it would with clay, and crushed it.

“When the incident just happened, inside the ambulance, she asked me: ‘Mum, my hand is chopped. When I recover, will it regrow?’ I told her yes,” her mother Khim Channa recounts in the hospital while holding her daughter in her arms.

But Srey Pheak’s arm won’t regrow, and her mother was unable to hold back her tears in the ambulance, she tells Voice of America. “I was crying, and she told me ‘mummy, don’t cry. I survive. It’s just the hand that’s chopped, I still have life in my body.’ She comforted me. It’s not me who comforted her,” the 34-year-old mother recounts, tears welling up in her eyes.

While Channa tells how Srey Pheak lost her arm, her daughter is unable to speak. She is in visible pain, and where her arm was is now a patch of bandages. Drugged with pain killers and medicine, she can only stare into space, sometimes whimpering. It has been five days since the accident.

Channa and her whole family lived and worked at a brick kiln factory in Kandal Province. Two of her three children – 12 and 10 years old – would help out for an hour or two a day, Channa says, to support the family’s income. Mother Channa and father Chheng Bunham together earned about $5 to $6 a day, barely enough to feed their family.

“She came to help me because she saw that I’m very tired and very hardworking,” she says while caressing her daughter’s back. “I feel regret, but it’s too late now.”

They moved to the factory about six years ago to take up a loan from the brick kiln owner to buy some land in their home province Kampong Cham. But instead of being able to pay off the $3,500-heavy loan, they worked hard every day just to sustain themselves.

Laurie Parsons, a researcher at Royal Holloway University of Livelihoods and co-author of study Blood Bricks: Untold Stories of Modern Slavery and Climate Change from Cambodia, said brick kiln owners attracted workers by offering to pay off loans they had taken up elsewhere. The workers were told they could pay back by working for the factory owners. On average, he said, workers owed just under $800 to the brick kiln owners, but also loans of up to $5,000 were not uncommon.

In that sense, Channa’s case was unusual, he said, as she hadn’t been indebted before working at the factory. But she shared the common fate of many brick kiln workers: not being able to pay off the debt over years.

Parsons explained that the workers were paid by the number of bricks they produced. As brick production was much more difficult during rainy season with clay not being able to dry quickly, brick workers had to take up additional loans during that period and found themselves trapped in debt bondage.

But while Channa regrets having let Srey Pheak work, she did not blame the owner for her daughter’s accident in March.

She said he had reminded them not to let their children work, and had now said he would cover the medical expenses, as well as school tuition fees, and waive her debt.

Parsons said most brick kiln workers felt positively toward factory owners as they were repeatedly told that the owners were doing them a favor by letting them work to pay off their loans. “The brick kiln owners [say] that they don’t have to do it, but they do it out of the goodness of their heart,” he said.

Channa said at least five other children were also working at the same factory.

The factory owner could not be reached for comment.

While authorities initially denied the existence of child labor, the Labour Ministry has now fined the factory and started a lawsuit against the owner.

But Parsons said more far-reaching reforms that addressed the causes of child labor – debt bondage being a main factor – had to be implemented. One way would be for the government to extend the minimum wage beyond the garment industry to include brick factories.

Ministry of Labour spokesperson Heng Sour said in a message to VOA that “we work on this with stakeholders”, without elaborating further.

For Srey Pheak, this will come too late. “My daughter suddenly got very angry”, Channa says, explaining that her daughter could neither drink nor eat because of the medicine. “She said: ‘okay mum, I’m very sick, but I can’t eat, so just let me die then.’”

While her mother does not know when they will be ready to leave the hospital, she says she knows one thing: she now wants to send her daughter to school. “I will tell her to study because now that she is handicapped, going to school will help her with the future,” she says.

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Italy Set to Join China’s Belt & Road Initiative

Italy is expected to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives Thursday in Rome.

The United States has been critical of the trillion-dollar global infrastructure project and warned about the risks of “debt-trap diplomacy.” Members of the European Union are worried the plan could add to fissures in an already strained coalition.

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with then-Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, May 16, 2017.

FILE – Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with then-Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, May 16, 2017.

When Xi visits this week, analysts say Italy is expected to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China. That agreement will pave the way for construction projects and financing from the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

FILE - The logo of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is seen at its headquarter building in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2016.

FILE – The logo of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is seen at its headquarter building in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2016.

“The MoU is mostly perceived as a way to secure more exports to China and more chances to access financing from the AIIB,” said Alessia Amighini, co-head of Asia Center at ISPI, a Rome-based research group.

Rome expects to reduce its trade deficit with China and avoid some heavy expenses by attracting Chinese and AIIB investments in big infrastructure projects. The agreement also will give Chinese companies more access to the busy port of Trieste, and in turn, the Mediterranean.

Reports emanating from Italy suggest Rome also is looking at the possibility of inviting Chinese companies to expand or manage three other Italian seaports, which are Genoa, Palermo and Ravenna.

“Italy is eager to attract investments to improve its competitive position compared to northern European routes and ports,” Amighini said.

Clearly, China is exploiting business competition within the Eurozone and trying to wean away an important member by offering a set of attractive terms, analysts note.

The MoU signing will represent a major political achievement for China at a time of growing concerns and criticism of the plan. Italy is a founding member of the European Union and could help open up doors for Beijing to the Eurozone.

So far, the Belt and Road Initiative’s biggest projects and controversies have been tied to countries with serious financial difficulties, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Greece.

With Italy’s decision to join, China is dealing with a country where there is less fear of slipping into a debt trap under the program.

But it is likely to challenge Europe’s connectivity strategy, a plan that was unveiled in September 2018 and aims to improve links within Europe and with Asia while promoting sustainability standards and rules-based practices.

Analysts are waiting to find out if Xi will offer a modified version of the program to Italy to meet European standards; but adopting those standards would take away China’s ability to cut costs and reduce its competitive edge.

“I don’t expect China to show more flexibility. In any case; I don’t see financing terms as a real issue in Europe,” Amighini said.

European disunity

Teresa Coratella, program manager at the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, said the Italian move has the potential of creating disunity in the European Union at a time when the coalition is working out a common approach toward Chinese investments.

Both the U.S. and France have expressed discomfort about Rome’s move, while German officials reportedly have been lobbying against the MOU signing. Italy, a member of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries, is the only G7 nation to join the BRI.

“Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project,” tweeted Garrett Marquis, spokesman for White House’s group of national security advisors.

French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed unease about Rome’s decision, and he has called for a “coordinated approach” covering all European Union members toward Chinese plans.

“It’s a good thing that China is taking part in the development of many countries, but I believe in the spirit of equality, reciprocity. The spirit of equality means respecting the sovereignty of nations,” Macron said.

Lucrezia Poggetti, a research associate with Merics, the Berlin-based research institution, said Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone, and an Italian signature on the BRI has wide implications.

“Italy’s decision in itself is bad news for the EU and its largest members, who are currently trying to pursue a more unified European China strategy to address challenges with the economic and political weight of the EU bloc,” she said.

Rome’s attraction toward the BRI is not new. Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was the only head of government among G-7 countries to attend the first meeting of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017.

The current government would “go much further by officially endorsing an initiative that has been criticized internationally for, among other things, creating debt traps, political dependencies and promoting exclusively the interests of Chinese companies through unfair practices that don’t meet international standards and rules,” said Poggetti.

Zhiqun Zhu, who chairs the Department of International Relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the United States is exaggerating the idea of a China threat in all issues, including the BRI plan.

“Italy and other countries should make their own decisions instead of being forced to choose sides between the U.S. and China,” Zhu said.

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Taiwan, US Plan New Talks This Year in Rebuke to Beijing

Taiwan and the U.S. will hold talks later this year as part of upgraded efforts to counter Beijing’s growing pressure on the island for political unification.

The talks planned for September in Taipei will include a senior official from Washington, de facto U.S. ambassador to Taipei William Brent Christensen said Tuesday.

Christensen didn’t say whether the consultations are meant to provoke China or push it to make changes. The U.S. has formal diplomatic relations with China but maintains strong ties with Taiwan though the American Institute in Taiwan, its de facto embassy in Taipei, which has recently undergone a major upgrade in facilities.

“We believe it’s possible to have a good relationship with Taiwan and a good relationship with China at the same time,” Christensen said at a news conference. “Things we do with Taiwan should not be regarded as things that we are doing because we are seeking to provoke China or vice versa.”

President Donald Trump has elevated 40 years of informal ties with Taiwan through more open contacts and planned arms deals. Meanwhile, China and the U.S. are enmeshed in a dispute over trade, copyrights and tariffs, raising economic and political frictions to their highest level in a decade.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the “Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Consultations” — as the dialogue is termed — would allow the two sides to “grow closer and more direct in their cooperation … to protect regional freedom and legal order.”

Taiwan has been democratically ruled for about 30 years. It allows freedom of expression and religion in contrast to China’s tight restrictions under authoritarian Communist Party rule, and remains a close U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

While China insists that Taiwan is its territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary, more than 70 percent of Taiwanese oppose China’s goal of unification, the government’s Mainland Affairs Council spokesman said in January. Many fear Beijing would eliminate Taiwan’s democratic institutions.

While there was no immediate word from Beijing, China will “most definitely” protest the consultations, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.

China has used military flybys, aircraft carrier movements and diplomatic pressure as warnings to Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen took office there in 2016. Tsai’s party embraces greater Taiwanese independence from China, resulting in a strong backlash from China. Beijing has cut all formal ties with Tsai’s government, blockaded the island’s participation in international forums and persuaded five countries to cut diplomatic ties with it.

Washington switched its official recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979. But Taiwan still counts the United States as its staunchest informal ally, particularly as a source of advanced weapons systems. Last year Trump signed a bill encouraging more high-level exchanges between the two governments, inflaming China.

In another sign of stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties, Tsai is expected to stop over in U.S. territory once or twice during a trip starting Thursday to visit diplomatic allies in the South Pacific. China has protested to the United States against her previous stopovers.

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Indonesian Vice Presidential Debate Shines Overdue Light on Education

In the first vice presidential debate in Indonesia leading up to the April 17 elections, both candidates — businessman Sandiaga Uno and renowned Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin — agreed on one problem: Indonesia’s education system needs repairs.

The debate on Sunday involved four main themes: culture, public health, employment and education, with the goal of Indonesia becoming internationally competitive by 2025 and achieving the “industrial revolution 4.0” — delineating the increasingly competitive market for the country’s workforce.

As raised in the debate or outlined by the Lowy Institute think tank’s 2018 research titled “Beyond Access: Making Indonesia’s Education System Work,” the problems surrounding education in Indonesia include employment opportunities for vocational school graduates and the ineffectiveness of funds allocated for research.

Employment opportunities

According to data released by Statistics Indonesia (BPS), the country’s main survey body, graduates of vocational schools number highest among the country’s unemployed.

With the goal of reducing unemployment among young people by 2 million, Sandiaga, a former military commander and Prabowo Subianto presidential running mate, proposed creating a training hub for fresh graduates, providing incentives and co-working spaces.

FILE - A couple rides a motorcycle past a campaign banners for Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, and his running mate Sandiaga Uno in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 17, 2019.

FILE – A couple rides a motorcycle past a campaign banners for Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, and his running mate Sandiaga Uno in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 17, 2019.

“We see that the main issue is the absence of link and match between what an educational institution provides and what the workforce demands,” he said.

Similarly, Ma’ruf, incumbent President Joko Widodo’s running mate, identified two ways to remedy the problem.

“We’ll revitalize vocational schools, polytechnics and academies, and we will adjust them to what the market will bear,” he said.

If elected, Ma’ruf said, the team will release “a pre-work card” and provide incentives between six months and a year upon graduation from vocational schools.

Ma’ruf also reiterated his camp’s program of “perpetual funds” for research purposes, initially announced earlier this year. Sandiaga proposed restructuring research institutions, noting that “collaboration” and “synergy” between the government and research bodies are key.

Education

Child psychologist and education expert Najeela Shihab told VOA that the debate felt “incomplete.” She said that topics surrounding education could have been given more attention.

“I’ve always understood that education isn’t a priority yet,” she said. “Education isn’t just a political issue or fodder for political contestation. Whoever’s elected needs to have a road map 20 to 30 years ahead. In Indonesia, our main problem with regards to policy surrounding education is that it changes. That’s why there’s a saying, ‘With a new minister, there’s a new curriculum.'”

FILE - Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center right, walks with his running mate Ma'ruf Amin during a ceremony marking the kick-off of the campaign period for next year's election in Jakarta, Sept. 23, 2018.

FILE – Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center right, walks with his running mate Ma’ruf Amin during a ceremony marking the kick-off of the campaign period for next year’s election in Jakarta, Sept. 23, 2018.

Sunday’s debate was the third of five leading up to the elections. Recent polls suggest that the ticket of Joko-Ma’ruf edges Prabowo-Sandiaga 57.6 percent to 31.8 percent, according to research center Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting.

According to the Lowy Institute, the primary problem with Indonesia’s education system is not access but effectiveness. Problems such as a convoluted bureaucracy and a lack of teacher training continued to impair the troubled system.

“The country’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an ‘internationally competitive’ system,” Lowy Institute contributor Andrew Rosser wrote on the organization’s website.

Shihab said that although Indonesia managed to get 56 million kids into schools, there are still outstanding problems with regards to access.

“There’s a problem with the quality of education, too, like there are still teachers who don’t show up to classes,” she said. “And there are also kids who are not in school, especially those who are already working or those who don’t have a birth certificate.”

Solutions for other essential problems do not stop at this debate, Shihab added.

“There are still essential issues like the potential growth among students, basic rights and democratic values. I hope attention for education goes on.”

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