Saturday, 23 August 2014

Surviving The Long Night


An abridged version of this article was published on the Guardian's website: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/25/elie-wiesel-night-jewish-identity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014


The impotence of language in the face of visceral horror should not be underestimated; words evade the tremulous pen. Authors revealing the sordid depths plumbed by mankind are thus wordsmiths of singular talent, who stare with unfaltering courage into the abyss.

‘Night’, Elie Wiesel’s account of his experiences during the Holocaust, is a memoir of prodigious power: his luminous humanity shines from every page as he bears witness to the tragedy which befell the Jewish race at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesel was a Romanian-born Jew whose home town of Sighet was occupied by the Hungarians for most of WWII. Although some foreign Jews were deported in 1942, it was not until May 1944 that German orders came to liquidate the ghetto. All the Jews – fifteen-year old Wiesel and his family among them – were forced into cattle wagons and transported to Auschwitz. It was an unfamiliar location to the new arrivals: some even had faith that families would remain together and work in tolerable conditions at a labour camp; the ‘wretched stench’ of burning flesh swiftly disabused them of these hopes.

They found themselves in the ‘demented and glacial universe’ of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where each of the four crematoria attended to the daily slaughter of several thousand Jews. It was only a fortuitous encounter with an inmate, who advised Wiesel and his father to lie about their ages, which resulted in their avoiding the gas chambers and being sent instead to Buna, a sub-camp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz. His mother and sister, on the other hand, were taken straight to their deaths in a routine selection process which exemplified the Nazis’ brutal indifference to human life.

The concept of a name as a form of identification has been embedded in the human psyche for millennia. A person’s name is subliminally bound up in the fabric of their existence: it tethers them to the past and anticipates their future remembrance. When seeking to expunge every vestige of Jewish identity from Europe, the Nazis were not content to deracinate each Jew, rob them of their worldly possessions, shave their hair and clothe them in rags; the ultimate affront to their individuality was the replacing of every prisoner’s name with a number. This was integral to the Nazis’ dehumanisation of the Jews in their eyes: a number on a list carries far fewer intimate human connotations than a name.
In a grotesque parody of a baptism, Wiesel and the other inmates were ‘told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three “veteran” prisoners, needles in hands, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.’

Wiesel’s prose is quietly measured and economical, for florid exaggeration would not befit this subject. Yet at times his descriptions are so striking as to be breathtaking in their pungent precision. He writes through the eyes of an adolescent plunged into an unprecedented moral hinterland, whose loss of innocence is felt keenly by the reader. His identity was irrevocably altered in such conditions: ‘The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.’

Hunger was an immense force in the camps, eroding identities and sculpting them into different forms; it could compel a man of principle to steal or fight, whilst thoughts of food tormented prisoners’ dreams. Wiesel recalled one inmate whose starvation drove him to approach two untended cauldrons of soup on a suicidal mission, which resulted in his being shot by a guard. The victim fell to the floor writhing, ‘his face stained by the soup.’ As the Red Army’s onslaught swept west, Jews were transported into the heart of the Reich; after days without food, a passing German worker tossed a piece of bread into a wagon. Carnage followed: ‘Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails.’ Wiesel too asserted that his very existence was contingent on his next meal: ‘I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time.’

Yet despite all the Nazis’ monstrous attempts to efface the Jewish identity, their victims’ indomitable spirit could not be extinguished. Material goods have no bearing on this impenetrable dignity, and another man’s inner workings are inaccessible to even the omnipotent despot. Wallowing in memories was a source of incomparable solace to many, whilst others clung tenaciously to their faith. This was not true of all - one prisoner observed bitterly that he had ‘more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises to the Jewish people’ - but Wiesel befriended two brothers with whom he would ‘sometimes hum melodies evoking the gentle waters of the Jordan River and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem.’ Thus, his identity was besieged but not conquered: it became a taut membrane stretched across the soul.

The atrocities committed by the Nazis might have strangled hope and joy, but the flame of life refused to perish. Even in Wiesel’s darkest hours on the death march away from Auschwitz, when his mind was ‘numb with indifference,’ an atavistic awareness of survival kicked in. He recognised that if he slept in the icy night, he would not wake up: ‘Something in me rebelled against that death. Death which was settling in all around me, silently, gently. It would seize upon a sleeping person, steal into him and devour him bit by bit.’ This resilience, alloyed with pure chance, meant that Wiesel not only preserved his own identity, but lived on to preserve the identity of his race in his writing.

The Jewish identity has been moulded by persecution since antiquity, yet the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism had a uniquely horrendous countenance and manifestation. Whilst fervent Zionists might still have secured the creation of Israel in the aftermath of WWII, the Holocaust played a significant role in shaping the belief that a homeland was vitally important for the Jews: it would enable them to salvage the remnants of their collective identity from the smouldering embers of their past. On a more universal level, and regardless of religion, experiences such as Wiesel’s leave an indelible mark; the magma of suffering rolls down the slopes of the victim’s identity and hardens into new contours and forms. ‘Night’ is profoundly necessary reading not just because it furnishes a chilling insight into the void that remains when man abandons all morality, but also, as Wiesel observed: ‘To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Dark Heart of the Congo Free State


This article was published on the blog of 'It's History Podcasts': http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2014/9/1/colonial-repression-at-its-worst-conrad-and-the-belgian-congo#.VB7mbznU6FI=


‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish… The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps… And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.’

The human condition has always embraced the allure of adventure; for Charles Marlow, the intrepid protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novella, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ this fascination with the unknown manifests itself in an urge to command a steamboat down the mighty Congo River. It reminds him of ‘an immense snake uncoiled,’ and he recalls that ‘it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.’ The ensuing tale is a damning exposition of the corruption and insatiable greed of colonialism, and of mankind’s capacity for savagery. Yet this story is rooted in historical fact: it stems from Conrad’s own disillusionment whilst working on the Congo River in 1890, and Marlow is thought to be his alter ego.

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium hosted the Brussels Geographical Conference, aiming to garner support for sowing seeds of civilisation amongst the indigenous people of the Congo. He advocated the creation of an International African Association, under whose umbrella various countries and groups would collaborate: it would be the purveyor of progress to the benighted natives of Central Africa. Leopold was instated as its first chairman, and, whilst his intentions were ostensibly philanthropic, in reality, he used his authority to further Belgian interests in the region.

At around the same time, Henry Morton Stanley – famous for locating the Christian missionary, Dr Livingstone – set out to explore the uncharted territories of Central Africa and to trace the Congo River to the sea. He discovered a region replete with natural resources and ripe for development, yet British financiers were lukewarm about his findings. In King Leopold, however, he found a zealous leader who required an agent to expedite the establishment of a Belgian presence in the Congo. Leopold’s de facto hegemony over the area was confirmed at the Berlin Conference in 1884, where fourteen European states convened to carve African territory into national possessions. The Congo Free State was proclaimed the following year; unusually for an overseas colony, it did not belong to a country, but was instead Leopold’s private fiefdom. Its population was about to experience the ruinous consequences of an ‘enlightened’ man’s unfettered power.

Leopold began swiftly to assert his authority by funding railway construction to facilitate exploration, and challenging the troubling existence of Arab slave gangs, led by the formidable Swahili-Zanzibari dealer Tippu Tip, along the Lualaba River. Leopold had pledged to tackle African slavery at the Belgian Conference, but the gangs’ presence in the north-east also constituted an intolerable threat to the economy, for each labourer or portion of ivory claimed by the traders detracted from the Belgian regime’s power. After several years of tense co-operation, open conflict broke out between the unhappy bedfellows in 1892, and the Arabs were ultimately subdued and crushed.

Leopold promulgated various decrees which stifled free trade and curtailed the natives’ rights, until these subjugated citizens were little more than serfs. He also established the Force Publique: a loyal private army of indigenous soldiers and European officers, which enforced his rule with breathtaking brutality. The region offered a cornucopia of exploitable materials, notably ivory and rubber, and although demand for the latter significantly increased with the advent of motor cars and inflatable bicycles tubes, it was around the ivory trade that Conrad centred his book.

Marlow is confronted by the reality of colonial oppression soon after his arrival at his Company’s station. In a narrow ravine nearby, he stumbles upon ‘black shapes… in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.’ It is self-evident that the labourers have come to this place to die: ‘They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought back from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air – and nearly as thin.’

Charged with relieving a company agent, Mr Kurtz, from his station, Marlow ventures into the depths of the sprawling, primordial wilderness on his steamboat. Mr Kurtz’s reputation precedes him: he is a remarkably productive ivory trader who possesses ‘universal genius,’ and Marlow nurtures a growing obsession to meet this enigmatic figure. At the end of his perilous journey up river, he finds an individual wallowing in his own supremacy, and so engorged with authority that he coerces the native people to revere him as a god-like entity. Through his quasi-divine status, Kurtz obtains prodigious amounts of ivory from the Congolese; yet lurking behind this glamour is an egregious relationship of elaborate manipulation and viciousness, captured by the gaunt heads on stakes that surround Kurtz’s dwelling.

Colonial cruelty and exploitation were just as dreadful in reality. Appalling punishments were meted out to natives who failed to harvest enough wild rubber to meet their quotas, including the burning of their villages and the murdering and mutilation of their families. One of the most infamous punishments carried out by Force Publique soldiers was to chop off the right hand of a native in order to verify that he had not been squandering his resources on hunting and had instead been actively implementing Belgian authority. Photographs from the era attest to this perverse discipline: in one image, Congolese stare bleakly at the camera, each consciously bending the remainder of their arm inwards; in another, two impassive militiamen grasp severed hands: grotesque tokens of their dominance. Famine, disease and exhaustion were other major killers: they stalked the country, seizing first upon the elderly and weak labourers, before welcoming the able-bodied into their chilling embrace. Although it is impossible to ascertain the true human cost of Leopold’s avaricious and merciless regime, many estimates place the death toll in the region of ten million.

This flagrant indifference towards human life inflamed international opinion, and ‘Heart of Darkness’ contributed to this outburst of moral revulsion. Leopold might have been able initially to conceal the hideous underbelly of his regime, but by the turn of the century, criticism was mounting. The British government was compelled to establish an investigation into the reality of life under Leopold’s administration, the findings of which were published in the 1904 Casement Report. Roger Casement, a British diplomat and human rights activist, had listed Belgian atrocities meticulously, and an interview with a native illustrates the rampant abuse:

‘We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts – the leopards – killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: “Go! You are only beasts yourselves; you are nyama (meat).” We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short the soldiers came up our towns and shot us. Many were shot; some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes round their neck and bodies and taken away… Our chiefs were hanged and we were killed and starved and worked beyond endurance to get rubber.’

The report engendered further outrage at the plight of the Congolese, and also triggered the foundation of the Congo Reform Association, a movement which counted Conrad, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle among its notable supporters. Leopold’s position was becoming increasingly untenable, and he eventually succumbed to international pressure by conceding the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908. Yet it was not until 1913 that the Congo Reform Association officially disbanded: a reflection of the Belgian government’s reluctance to investigate or even acknowledge the crimes perpetrated under Leopold’s regime. When considering the abhorrent and systematic abuse of the Congolese, it seems therefore apposite to end with Kurtz’s final, ambiguous yet visceral, exclamation before he died: ‘The horror! The horror!’

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Influence of British Burma on George Orwell


My biography of George Orwell can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/George-Orwell-Explaining-History-Century-ebook/dp/B00HLRW8YQ


On 27th October 1922, a nineteen-year-old man boarded the SS Herefordshire in Birkenhead; his destination, Rangoon, the vibrant heart of British Burma. Eric Blair had failed to meet academic expectations, despite attending Eton, and his parents had decided that he should enrol in the Imperial Indian Police. The shores of the steamy sub-continent were not entirely foreign to him: his father, Richard, had served in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service since he was eighteen, and Eric had been born in India. His mother chose to raise her children in England, but she had grown up in Moulmein, where Eric’s grandmother still resided. Thus Burma, with its potent blend of exotic allure and family history, seemed the natural colony in which to work. Eric underwent six months of rigorous preparation at a crammer in Southwold, and, upon passing assessments in subjects such as Greek and riding a horse, he was deemed fit for service and dispatched like a freshly minted coin into the Treasury of the British Empire.

The Eric who returned to England five years later was a man transformed, for his reaction to the British rule in Burma had been of visceral disgust and profound disillusionment. Experiences churned in his mind like fish in the Irrawaddy River, and, over the coming months, these inchoate ideas would crystallise into the foundations of some of the most powerful writing of the 20th century. George Orwell had arrived.

The British occupation of Burma – or Myanmar as it was previously known – began in 1824. Former relations had revolved around the East India Company’s efforts to engage the Konbaung Dynasty in open trading, but these soon deteriorated with the escalation of border tensions. The First Anglo-Burmese War saw the loss of Assam and other northern provinces; a second conflict in the mid-19th century, provoked by a trivial Burmese violation of the treaty that had ended the first, resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma to the burgeoning Raj. In November 1885, animosity between the two powers was further enflamed by a dispute over raw materials, and the British capitalised on the situation with fervent expansionism. By the end of the month, forces had advanced to the capital and deposed Thibaw, its monarch.

The texture of Burmese life was now to be taken from a different cloth. Myanmar was rechristened Burma in a stamp of British authority, and the country was consumed by the imperial behemoth. The wounds inflicted on society by the dissolution of the monarchy and the secularisation of the state festered for some time, and rancorous Burmese nationalism sparked guerrilla warfare. The livelihood of Burmese farmers was undermined by a significant influx of Indian migrants prepared to labour for a lower wage. Consequently, these displaced natives resorted to desperate measures and crime rates soared. British rule heralded a new era of prosperity through foreign trade: by the 1920s, Burma was exporting around two million tonnes of rice every year. This was, however, only a veneer of opulence. Although the economy flourished, wealth was disproportionately concentrated in the hands of foreigners, and the Burmese social system crumbled.

Orwell found himself in the awkward position of being a critic of his own community during his five years in Burma, and became increasingly isolated from his contemporaries as he retreated into the sanctuary of his own mind. This independence of thought would light the touchpaper of his genius. He saw the Janus-faced nature of colonial rule – the exploitation, the oppression and the domination – and was disgusted by it. When he returned home for leave in 1927, after contracting dengue fever, he was shocked to discover the same iniquities in his own country, and set about alerting others to such issues through his writing.


Burmese Provincial Police Training School in Mandalay (1923). Orwell is third from the left in the back row.

‘Burmese Days’ was not published until 1935, as it was seen to be teetering on the edge of defamation. This imagined story of life under British rule was corroborated by personal experiences, fusing fact and fiction in a damning critique of imperialism. The outlandish Eastern world had pummelled his mind relentlessly: in a passage written a decade after his return, he remarked:

‘The landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the qualities of nightmare, afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them.’ The Road To Wigan Pier

‘Burmese Days’ was by no means his sole account of colonial life. In 1929, an essay entitled ‘Comment on exploite un peuple: L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’ – or ‘How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma’ – elaborated on all that he abhorred. The government of Burma was denounced as ‘of necessity despotic’ but concealing itself ‘behind a mask of democracy’. The British were able to maintain their domination over the region only because it was populated by Burmese peasants who existed in a state of ‘political apathy’ founded on an insubstantial education: ‘because there are no educated classes, public opinion, which could press for rebellion against England, is non-existent.’ Remarkably, twelve thousand British controlled fourteen million people, and Orwell was responsible for the security of over two thousand. Further opprobrium was heaped on the British: ‘they [the Burmese] are under the protection of a despotism which defends them for its own ends, but which would abandon them without hesitation if they ceased to be of use. Their relationship with the British Empire is that of slave and master.’

A quest for absolution can be discerned from Orwell’s descriptions of his time in Burma. He wrote with a searing honesty that persuades the reader that he was not a wholly willing party to the brutality:

I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear… But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.’ Shooting An Elephant, Essay

The essay describes his reluctance to kill an elephant that had trampled an Indian to death: shooting such a majestic creature was ‘comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery,’ particularly as it appeared ‘no more dangerous than a cow.’ Before capitulating to the pressure of the masses and shooting the elephant, a startling, and somewhat disconcerting revelation came upon Orwell:

‘It was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to “impress” the natives and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.’ Shooting An Elephant, Essay

A similar degree of involvement is recorded in ‘The Hanging’, an evocative vignette of an execution. The condemned was a ‘Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes.’ Orwell later observed that he had not trained himself ‘to be indifferent to the expression of the human face’. The Road To Wigan Pier. A subconscious movement by the man on his way to the gallows elicited intense empathy in Orwell:

‘When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All of the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.’ The Hanging, Essay

Orwell’s words are laced with disgust at the grotesque contrast between an ‘extraordinarily funny’ anecdote told after the hanging, whilst the ‘dead man was a hundred yards away’. It took place at Insein Prison, to which Bo Kyi, a former inmate, referred as the ‘darkest hell hole in Burma’. By a grimly ironic coincidence, Insein is pronounced as ‘insane’: many prisoners suffer from mental health issues as a result of their incarceration. It is a jail notorious for its human rights abuses today: conditions are appalling, disease is rampant and torture is endemic. Yet little has changed since Orwell was stationed there:

‘The wretched prisoners squatting in the reeking cages of the lock-ups, the grey cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboo, the women and children howling when their menfolk were led away under arrest – things like these are beyond bearing when you are in any way directly responsible for them. I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders.’ The Road To Wigan Pier

Orwell believed the British Empire to be sucking the lifeblood from the Burmese natives, and was ‘conscious of an immense weight of guilt’, for which he had to atone. The injustice of man’s tyranny over another repulsed him, and led him to the ‘simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.’ The Road To Wigan Pier

Ten years after Orwell’s return to England, Burma was granted some autonomy through devolution from India, and became a separately administered colony. In 1948, Burmese independence was achieved, and the country began to recover economically. Yet it was plagued by its fissiparous political makeup, and, in 1962, the army seized control through a coup d’├ętat. The country has been under the domination of a military junta ever since, and became increasingly introverted and isolated. Burma always resided in the hinterland of the British Empire, and has failed to find a niche in the nation’s imperial imagination. For years, it was an international pariah, beset by atrocious human rights abuses. Although it is now slowly emerging from its seclusion, its cornucopia of natural resources belies the troubled state of its society. It is the world’s principal exporter of teak, and possesses significant reserves of precious stones, oil and gas, yet little of this wealth reaches the populace. An ossified economy, ethnic tensions and rife corruption have all hindered its development.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a beacon of hope for proponents of democracy, and Orwell would, no doubt, have held her in the greatest esteem. Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists persists, and this domestic strife can be attributed to the British legacy: it was colonialism that diversified Burmese society, as many foreigners, particularly Indians, emigrated there. Orwell might have seen Burmese emancipation, but he did not live to witness a journey to independence fraught with political and social turmoil. His death extinguished the mind of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century; one can only imagine his sentiments on Burma’s current predicament, which would be pronounced with the characteristic lucidness and integrity that has illuminated his work and ensured its enduring significance.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Qatar 2022: The Ugly Side Of The Beautiful Game


This article was one of three short-listed for the Amnesty Young Human Rights Reporter award in 2014:

The Janus-faced nature of rapid progress is painfully obvious when examining the plight of migrant workers in Qatar. This tiny Gulf state, which boasts the largest GDP per capita in the world, has been embroiled in a dispute since being chosen to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Concerns have been raised that the intense summer temperatures will be detrimental to footballers’ performances; this, however, is to overlook a far graver issue.

Qatar has the highest ratio of immigrants to domestic citizens in the world, with foreigners comprising over 90% of the workforce. Its voracious appetite for infrastructural growth has been sustained not only by its vast natural gas reserves, but also by this influx of migrant workers, most of whom originate from Southern Asia. Lured by financial incentives and the emirate’s prosperity, many go to extreme measures to travel there. They arrive in severe debt after paying exorbitant fees with high interest rates to recruitment ‘agents’ in exchange for a visa. Instead of being treated with justice and respect, these disillusioned workers face oppression and exploitation tantamount to slavery.

There is compelling evidence to suggest that the World Cup project is dependent on forced labour. Under the kafala system, a policy redolent of medieval feudalism, workers are legally bound to the companies who sponsor their visas. Their passports are routinely confiscated, and they are forbidden to change jobs without the permission of their employer. Exit visas are issued only with the sponsor’s consent, leading the Nepalese ambassador to Qatar to condemn the nation as being comparable to an ‘open jail.’

A Nepalese worker died almost daily in the summer of 2013. Many were young, fit men who were felled by sudden heart attacks, for they were forced to labour for long hours in extreme heat with no access to free drinking water. The incidence of fatal injuries sustained during construction work is eight times higher than in the UK, and the average worker is paid only $8 for 15 hours of work. Mired in debt with little opportunity to leave, their predicament is enveloped in a miasma of despair and futility. Many are segregated in remote camps and live in squalid surroundings. There is no minimum wage in Qatar, and salaries are sometimes withheld completely, whilst independent trade unions are illegal: these conditions provide fecund soil for corruption. It has even been alleged that some employees who protested were threatened with jail.

Woefully little is being done to tackle the crisis. A report by Human Rights Watch stated that ‘Workers face obstacles to reporting complaints or seeking redress, and the abuses often go undetected by government authorities.’ This exploitation is an inconvenient truth that many prefer to ignore, for the underbelly of development is not always an attractive sight. The World Cup should be increasing opportunities rather than limiting them, and the global community needs to act before it is too late. Qatar’s stadiums must be built with pride, not with blood.