From Aaron Swartz to Assange, Monsanto to Manning, fracking fears, Iraq carnage and more, here are RT’s "Top 13 of 2013." These vastly underreported stories are some of the biggest ones to fly under the mainstream media’s radar this year.
The visionary cofounder of Reddit and open access advocate who played a key role in how we navigate the web today, Aaron Swartz was young, precocious and determined to change the world. But with “the trial” looming large over his head, the tech genius succumbed to the pressure on January 11, hanging himself with his own belt in the Brooklyn apartment he shared with his girlfriend.
Accused of downloading millions of documents from the online database, Journal Storage (JSTOR), while using the campus network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the US Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts chose to aggressively pursue Swartz, despite the fact that the online digital library itself opted not to pursue a civil case against the 26-year-old.
Swartz faced 35 years behind bars on 13 felony charges in a prosecutorial campaign critics blasted as vindictive.
Department of Justice (DOJ) sources said Swartz’s past activism and Guerilla Open Access Manifesto spurred the vigor with which prosecutors pursued him. US Attorney General Eric Holder later told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Swartz’s suicide was “a tragedy” but the DOJ had acted appropriately throughout the prosecution.
Speaking at his son’s funeral, Aaron’s father said his son “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles”.
In July, a US district court ordered the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland security to release their files on Swartz, after a FOIA request from Wired magazine.
The following month, 104 pages of heavily redacted files were released: a drop in the 14,500 document bucket that will be made public on a rolling basis.
The government estimated the reports would take six months to process.
The redacted documents were released just after the prosecutors in the case, US Attorneys Stephen Heymann and Carmen Ortiz, were accused of escalating the Swartz case from a so-called “human level” to an “institutional” prosecution after he refused to accept a plea deal.
In June, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) mooted the latest version of “Aaron’s Law,” a proposal aimed at reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, so that others like Swartz wouldn’t face disproportionately lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent computer crimes.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) said that had Swartz “been a journalist and taken that same material that he gained from MIT, he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers.”
In February, many of the men being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility launched a hunger strike against camp conditions. It was sparked by a disrespectful treatment of Quran. One month into the strike, attorneys for the men, many housed at the facilities infamous Camp 6, said the number refusing food had already reached 100.
“The bottom line is that we believe the hunger strike is grand in duration and in size,” lawyer for several Guantanamo detainees, Carlos Warner, told RT as the strike reached its 200th day. He added that inmates were forced to suffer horrific conditions, describing “suffering, tube feeding, people not getting along, no communication with the military”. The US military, forced to acknowledge the strike, downplayed the number of participants at the time, saying initially that only 14 prisoners could be considered hunger strikers.
The Red Cross, which has been visiting Gitmo regularly since it first opened in 2002, said that the “tensions and anguish” suffered by the detainees is “clearly related to the lack of a clear legal framework in Guantanamo.”
Human rights groups have long protested the detention of suspected enemy fighters who haven’t been charged with crimes. Eighty-six detainees remain in legal limbo after being cleared for release, despite over a decade in detention.
As the months wore on, the number of those refusing food only continued to increase. At its peak in July, 106 detainees were taking part in the hunger strike, with 45 undergoing a force-feeding procedure the UN characterized as torture.
One Gitmo staffer talked to RT’s Anastasia Churkina, who was able to film inside Camp Delta, which houses a hospital where in addition to medical procedures patients are force fed. The staffer maintained that the detainees “seemed to like the force-feeding procedure”.
But a graphic video featuring US actor and rapper, Yasiin Bey, otherwise known as Mos Def, experiencing the procedure painted quite a different picture.
With international pressure mounting for President Barack Obama to follow through on his 2009 executive order to shutter Gitmo, the US military was accused of suppressing the hunger strike with abusive, underhand tactics.
Following intense efforts to break detainees’ spirits, the number of strikers dwindled to 15 by December. That month, the US military announced it would no longer disclose information about the hunger strikes, saying its release “serves no operational purpose”.
On March 29, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst near the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, flooding the town with the equivalent of over 10,000 barrels of crude oil. Nearly two dozen homes were evacuated following the accident, which the US Environmental Protection Agency categorized as a “major spill”.
Resident Chris Harrell, who spoke with RT extensively at the time of the accident, described the horrendous smell that permeated the area and the fears many locals had about the long-term health and ecological consequences of the spill.
Many residents were caught completely off guard, not realizing that the pipeline, which can carry more than 90,000 barrels of Canadian Heavy crude oil per day from Patoka, Illinois, to Nederland, Texas, ran right under their homes.
Shortly after the spill, as clean-up crews were dispatched to contain the spill, and police checkpoints were set up ostensibly to keep out looters, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a no-fly zone over the Mayflower oil spill on April 2.
Although the measure was said to be enacted so helicopters could be deployed to provide aerial support for the cleanup effort, the fact that the no-fly measure specifically applied to aircraft flying at 1,000 feet or lower sparked suspicions it was purposefully aimed at press helicopters.
Environmental activists also claimed the police lockdown was intended to stifle efforts at assessing the actual impact of the spill.
Nearly two weeks after the spill, the rupture was estimated to have caused at least 500,000 gallons of tar sands crude and contaminated water to seep into the Mayflower community, with State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel telling reporters “the pipeline rupture is substantially larger than many of us initially thought.” McDaniel characterized the affected area as something out of the post-apocalyptic TV series “The Walking Dead,” where “people in Hazmat suits” scoured abandoned streets.
An independent water test later determined that the oil had in fact contaminated a nearby lake, despite ExxonMobil’s claims to the contrary.
Many residents began complaining of health issues, with air samples taken one day after the spill revealing the presence of 30 toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, n-hexane and xylenes – many of which can cause cancer and reproductive health problems. ExxonMobile and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, meanwhile, denied that the spill could have adverse health effects for residents.
Ironically, around one week after the spill, the energy giant was awarded the National Safety Council's Green Cross for Safety medal for “comprehensive commitment to safety excellence”.
The leak coincided with growing opposition to the controversial Keystone XL project, which would see an oil pipeline run across the US Midwest.
‘Remember, remember the Fifth of November’, when protesters donning white-faced Guy Fawkes masks gathered in an estimated 450 locations worldwide to protest corporate greed, corrupt governance, and the ever expanding surveillance state.
The event, dubbed the “Million Mask March,” was associated with the hacktivist collective Anonymous and the horizontally organized Occupy movement. Originally growing out of the image board 4chan, Anonymous became increasingly political following the 2011 Arab Spring, targeting governments and corporations like the internet’s answer to white blood cells.
The group was instrumental in the spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement, itself a byproduct of protests in the Arab World.
In the run-up to the global day of protest, the group said the protest was intended to show that “fairness, justice and freedom are more than just words”.
Pinning down the exact impetus for the protest was no easy task, as the protests were ultimately as mercurial as Anonymous itself.
“All who claim anyone is in charge of Million Mask March knows little of Anonymous. There is no official site, and nobody is in charge: Anonymous is a movement, not an organization,” an Anonymous-endorsed website for the protest said.
Despite Anonymous’s penchant for covert missions secreted deep within the web, the Million Mask March was something of a turning point in terms of the groups swing towards broader public engagement.
From London to Tokyo and beyond, a few organizing threads could be found uniting the loosely defined day of demonstrations.
“They protest against what they see as a police state, they protest against the persecution of whistleblowers, they protest against Monsanto – the biggest producer of genetically modified seeds… generally speaking they see themselves as a movement against the government and corporations taking advantage of the people,” RT’s Gayane Chichakyan said from one of the marches in Washington DC.
Russell Brand, who sent, perhaps not shockwaves, but ripples through the British chattering classes by his call for revolution just weeks prior, made an appearance at the Million Mask March in London – Guy Fawkes mask and all.
“Whatever party they claim to represent in the day, at night they show their true colors and all go to the same party,” Brand said on Twitter, using the #MillionMaskMarch hashtag.
Writing for RT, Patrick Henningsen noted the irony that at an anonymously organized movement, Brand “provided a recognizable anchor for media photographers and journalists”.
He also noticed that while the message was somewhat obscured by the nature of the movement, the young and energetic crowd was capable of elevating public discourse to the next level.
“Everyone should pay attention, stop and ask why young people are reaching for the mask. It speaks volumes in terms of where social politics are for this generation.”
On October 19, Fracktivists’ from over 26 countries organized the Global Frackdown protest to demand an end to “dangerous” shale gas drilling.
At the heart of the global frackdown was a tiny village in Romania. Romania may hold 51 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration, making it a potentially lucrative ground for energy firms.
But when US oil giant, Chevron, planned to start drilling outside the village of Pungesti, around 1,000 protesters came to put a halt to hydraulic fracturing in the region.
To prevent Chevron from moving on with the drilling, Pungesti villagers set up a camp in a privately-owned field next to the site where the well was slated to be sunk. The strategy was effective for over six weeks, until riot police reportedly descended on the protest camp and violently dislodged the villagers in December.
Following the forceful eviction, activists launched a petition campaign calling to “Stop Chevron and police abuse in Pungesti.”
Several days later, protesters broke into the Chevron site, prompting another violent confrontation with police. Once the dust settled, the US company issued a statement saying it was suspending activities in the area.
“Chevron can today confirm it has suspended activities in Silistea, Pungesti commune and Vaslui County as a result of unsafe conditions generated by unlawful and violent protester activities.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – the extraction of oil and gas by injecting pressurized liquid to break rock formations deep underground – has opened up a world of previously inaccessible hydrocarbons for insatiable energy consumers. In the US, over 80,000 wells nationwide have been drilled or endorsed across 17 different states since 2005, and by 2010, upwards of 60 percent of all new oil and gas wells worldwide were being hydraulically fractured. Despite the widespread use of the technology, media coverage of the shale gas revolution seemed all but non-existent.
The potential risks of fracking, however, are legion. The liquid employed in fracking includes a potent mix of toxic substances that are not regulated by federal laws but can threaten human health if they contaminate drinking water. A recent report by Environment America found that fracking had generated 280 billion gallons of toxic waste last year, containing cancer-causing and radioactive substances.
The far-reaching campaign to end fracking has reached Texas, where the state’s third largest city, Dallas, which sits at the edge of the Barnett Shale gas-rich area, has imposed restrictions on the dangerous practice. Neighborhood groups and environmentalists have pushed for the new restrictions for years.
Earlier this month Dallas City Council finally adopted a set of new rules, according to which the drilling of natural gas wells will not be permitted within 1,500 feet of protected areas such as a home, school or church. The council voted in favor of expanding the safety buffer from the current 300 feet. Most of the local residents favored the measure. Given that Dallas has over 500,000 homes, the new rule forbids fracking throughout most of the city. As with the previous regulation, any new drilling site will also need to have the city council vote on a specific-use permit.
On the other side of the Atlantic, France and Bulgaria – two EU states with the largest shale-gas reserves in Europe – have already banned fracking. In late 2012, the UK government announced it had lifted a temporary ban on fracking, and exploratory drilling kicked off in Balcombe, West Sussex in August.
That same month, Lane Energy Poland, controlled by ConocoPhillips, began extracting some 8,000 cubic meters of shale gas per day at a test well in the northern city of Lebork in Poland.
Protesters in both states have made vigorous attempts to block the sites, resulting in multiple arrests.
FBI agents shot an unarmed Chechen man in the head during questioning over his suspected ties to the Boston Marathon bombings of May 2013. The FBI has since aimed to sweep the incident under the rug, blocking the release of Ibragim Todashev’s autopsy and intimidating those associated with him.
The FBI initially flagged US-based Chechen Ibragim Todashev because of his suspected involvement in an unsolved triple homicide in Waltham, Massachusetts in 2011, in which bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have also been implicated.
Following the Boston Marathon bombing, the FBI questioned Todashev on a number of occasions. The final interrogation resulted in his demise inside his Orlando apartment. The FBI’s details of the killing have been vague.
A statement released by the FBI immediately after the incident claimed the shooting was the result of a “violent confrontation.” One unnamed official claimed Todashev had a knife, while another said he was shot after trying to grab an agent’s sidearm.
A week later, intelligence officials confirmed to The Washington Post that the 27-year-old was, in fact, unarmed when he was gunned down by agents. Todashev’s family reacted with fury upon discovering that their son was unarmed at the time of the killing. Abdulbaki Todashev, Ibragim’s father, spoke up at a press conference in Moscow onMay 30, demanding that the agents involved be tried in court.
“I want justice and I want an investigation to be carried out, I want these people [the FBI agents] to be put on trial in accordance with US law. They are not FBI officers, they are bandits,” he said. Abdulbaki also denied that his son had any connection to suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, other than “using the same gym.”
The aggrieved father presented photographs at the press conference which showed that his son had sustained six shots to the body and one to the head.
“I just would like to say that looking at these photos is like being in a movie. I only saw things like that in movies: shooting a person, and then the kill shot. Six shots in the body, one of them in the head,” Abdulbaki Todashev said.
However, despite Todashev's calls for an investigation, the FBI agent involved was never identified - and the autopsy report for Todashev was barred from release. US authorities said the results will not be released until the internal probe into the killing of Todashev is brought to a close.
The FBI also targeted Todashev’s affiliates in its investigations. The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) claims that Todashev’s friends were harassed by the FBI and blackmailed into becoming spies in local Muslim communities.
Ashurmamad Miraliev, a friend of Todashev, was taken into custody by the FBI in September for allegedly threatening a witness in an Osceola County battery case 14 months ago. CAIR says that Miraliev was interrogated for six hours over his associations with Todashev.
Three people were killed and over 260 injured when two bombs exploded near the finishing line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The subsequent manhunt for the culprits was unprecedented and ferocious, and the suspects’ web of connections was closely examined.
Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were publicly identified as having been behind the bombings. Four days after the Boston explosions, both Tamerlan and a police officer died during a gunfight.
Dzokhar Tsarnaev survived and was officially charged in June with killing four people and using weapons of mass destruction. A public reveal of the brothers’ identities on April 20 prompted a scurry to gather as much information on their personal histories as possible.
Public anger against GMO food products and GMO giant, Monsanto, erupted in massive global protests in May and October against the company’s stranglehold on global food production. Millions went out in 50 countries, with signs reading ‘Hell no GMO’.
Protesters throughout India, Germany, the US and UK were calling
for the permanent boycott of Genetically Modified Organisms
(GMOs) and “other harmful agro-chemicals.”
The initial ‘March against Monsanto’, which took place on May 25 saw an estimated two million people join together against the organization. It soon grew into a global campaign in 436 cities.
The October 12 protest was an extension of the May protests and was particularly poignant in the US, falling just four days ahead of World Food Day on October 16 and as Agent Orange Awareness Month was being promoted by the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance (COVVHA).
“Monsanto was one of the seven chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange which was laced with one of the most deadly chemicals known to man, dioxin. Monsanto, the other six companies, and the U.S. government, are responsible for the slow burn genocide of Vietnam Veterans, their children and grandchildren,” March Against Monsanto alleged.
Shortly afterwards, Washington state sued a lobbying group opposed to a new GMO food
labeling effort. The measure was aimed at ensuring the proper
labeling of goods which contain ingredients with
genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), as well as the labeling of
seeds and seed products containing GMOs sold in the state.
However, there were some small victories for the anti-GMO lobby over the year. In July, Monsanto dropped its bid to get more genetically modified crops onto the European market due to the wide-spread popular opposition, opting to focus on the development of the natural seed market instead.
However, they were occasionally counterbalanced. Also in July,
Monsanto was awarded yet another victory by the US federal
government thanks to a recent Environmental Protection Agency
decision to allow larger traces of the herbicide glyphosate in
The moves against the corporate food giant have come as a number of studies link exposure to the chemical with diseases including types of cancer, the EPA is increasing the amount of glyphosate allowed in oilseed and food crops. Glyphosate, a weed-killing chemical developed by Monsanto in 1970, is the key ingredient in the company’s “Roundup” label of herbicides.
In mid-June, a fresh initiative against the corporation was also
launched. Monsanto Video Revolt was set to bypass the
corporate media blackout on GMO foods and bring the issue to
The campaign was announced by the Global Healing Center, Natural News and Natural Society, which have united to counter GM produce and the huge amounts of poisonous herbicides and pesticides being dumped all over the world.
“I think there is change going on not only against the Monsanto but biological engineering of our food chain,” geopolitical analyst F. William Engdahl told RT.
This year was a busy one for hacktivist group Anonymous, as well as for attorneys representing alleged members of the collective.
Online operations waged over the past year by the internationally-dispersed band of hackers and activists attracted the attention of people across the globe. But it wasn’t just ordinary citizens keeping an eye on the group; governments and prosecutors were doing the same. In fact, 2013 witnessed numerous global efforts aimed at taking the group down.
Admitted Anonymous member Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a federal judge in New York City last month for taking part in a hacking spree committed by the group LulzSec - the likes of which were largely masterminded by a federal informant whose continued cooperation with the United States government has pardoned him from several sentence hearings this year.
A nearly three-year court case surrounding a pro-WikiLeaks campaign waged by members of Anonymous finally accumulated in a plea deal reached earlier this month in Northern California. But in October, an indictment was unsealed against 14 individuals accused of participating in a similar operation that momentarily knocked offline the websites of companies accused of censorship by the group. The judge presiding over that case suggested it will likely not go to trial until next April - and if the California instance is any indication, it may take several years for that matter to finally unfold.
A Reuters journalist was indicted n March on a separate instance as well, that time for allegedly conspiring with members of Anonymous to deface the website of a company owned by his ex-employer. That same month, an Ohio man - along with other Anons - was accused of helping take down in protest the website of a company owned by Koch Industries. He was recently told that he will have to pay an impressive fine of $183,000 dollars due to that action.
Investigations into a number of Anonymous-affiliated campaigns are ongoing, and the argument could easily be made that the increased attention made by prosecutors in those cases and others suggests that governments around the globe won’t be slowing down their efforts to remove the group from the internet. A British man was indicted in October for taking part in an Anonymous-led campaign that targeted military sites He now faces the possibility of extradition to the US.
Meanwhile, sentencing hearings scheduled for Hector Monsegur - the Federal Bureau of Investigation mole that helped the FBI catch Hammond - have continuously been postponed due to ongoing probes. Additionally, the trial of accused Anonymous “spokesperson” Barrett Brown, which had been scheduled to start this September, has been pushed back until spring.
Anonymous has accessed US government computers in multiple federal agencies and stolen sensitive information, the FBI proclaimed in a memo made public last month. But even with lengthy prison sentences being handed down and indictments continuously being unsealed, the group has shown no indication of slowing down. Marches and rallies held in dozens of cities across the globe on November 5 brought thousands of Anons out to the streets of London, Washington, and most major international locales. Continued operations, which are largely underreported by the media, suggest that Anonymous won’t be stopped anytime soon - even if governments around the globe are gunning to take them down.
If you’re looking for proof that the mainstream media failed Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, look no further than statements made by the imprisoned WikiLeaks source herself.
Not only was the three-month military court martial of Manning largely ignored by established media outlets, but the former private first class said while on the stand that her own efforts to attract the attention of the press years earlier - before she turned to anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks - were ignored as well.
In late August, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for multiple counts of espionage and theft related to the unauthorized disclosure of classified files to Wikileaks. But the ruling was hardly extended the attention it deserved. By the next day, the news had more or less been outshined upon her attorney announcing that Manning identifies as female and would be pursuing hormone replacement therapy while detained during the next three-and-a-half decades. Prior to then, Manning worked as an intelligence analyst for the United States Army under her birth name, Bradley, and on more than one occasion attempted unsuccessfully to give American media one of the biggest journalist scoops of a generation.
During a pre-trial hearing in late February, Manning told the court that she initially contacted both The Washington Post and The New York Times, in hopes that either outlet would help publish military Significant Activities reports, or SigActs, pertaining to America’s role in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
“The SigAct reporting provided a reference point for what occurred and provided myself and other analysts with the information to conclude possible outcome,” Manning told presiding judge Col. Denise Lind during a pre-trial hearing on February 28. Critical information contained in those reports were omitted or ignored by the US government, however, and Manning’s eventual leaking of the so-called “War Logs” provided the world with previously unreported casualty figures that the US had not acknowledged until then. Transparency advocates far and wide said those disclosures shined much-needed light on military operations, while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange attributed the documents with helping end the war in Iraq.
For risking her life to expose those atrocities, Manning has thrice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her actions have been hailed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg alike. A petition asking US President Barack Obama to pardon Manning has garnered thousands upon thousands of signatures from supporters.
But despite the seriousness of Manning’s actions and the implications possible due to her trial’s outcome, the media at large failed to provide coverage of this summer’s court martial - just as they had ignored the soldier’s phone calls three years earlier.
At times during the trial, the tally of journalists on hand was in the single digits. Only on rare occasions - such as the February providence inquiry statement read by Manning and when Col. Lind announced her verdict and sentencing - did the media turn out in droves.
Upon being sentenced in August, Col. Lind stripped Manning’s title to that of private. Manning turned 26 earlier this month, celebrating her fourth consecutive birthday behind bars.
WikiLeaks won a court case in April that landed Visa with million-dollar fines for its financial blockade of the site. Julian Assange, still holed up in Ecuador’s London Embassy, said it was a victory over Washington's attempt to silence WikiLeaks.
December 7 marked the third year of his detention, despite no charges being filed against him in the country. Assange remains under threat of extradition to Sweden, with the journalist being wanted for questioning in connection with a sexual misconduct investigation, which he labels as politically motivated. He believes Sweden will, in turn, extradite him to the US, where he could face espionage charges, which could carry the death penalty.
However, WikiLeaks has enjoyed a major success story this year: In April, Iceland’s supreme court issued Valitor - formerly known as Visa Iceland (the Icelandic partner of both Visa and Mastercard) - with a fine for its relentless blockade of the organization. It was ruled that Valitor must pay WikiLeaks $204,900 per month or $2,494,604 per year in fines if it continued to blockade the whistle-blowing site. The decision “marked the most important victory to date against the unlawful and arbitrary economic blockade erected by US companies,” according to the organization.
"This is a significant victory against Washington's attempt to silence WikiLeaks. We will not be silenced. Economic censorship is censorship. It is wrong. When it's done outside of the rule of law it’s doubly wrong. One by one those involved in the attempted censorship of WikiLeaks will find themselves on the wrong side of history," said Assange.
Economic blockades against WikiLeaks have starved the whistle-blowing site of funds. Notwithstanding the fact that Assange remains confined to the embasssy, his efforts to remain active have been unyielding. Assange joined forces with the Puerto Rican group, Calle 13, in November, lending his vocals to a song denouncing media manipulation and ‘bad journalism’, while also taking on pharmaceutical companies, the military and corporate giants.
Assange has expressed public support for former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, since Snowden’s mass release of documents revealing the extent of NSA surveillance since June.
While Hollywood’s ‘Fifth Estate’ biopic of Assange - condemned by WikiLeaks as a “propaganda attack” - was released in October, it was an abject failure, being named as 2013's biggest box office flop by Forbes magazine. A subsequent film posing a challenge to its depiction of the organization was released.
In December RT began its three-part broadcast of ‘Mediastan’, a documentary film directed by Johannes Wahlstrom, which dates back to 2011, depicting different stages in undercover WikiLeaks journalists’ trips across Central Asia. The film was previously made available over the internet but has not yet been released in cinemas.
“RT proves that it is the largest international TV station in the world that will not shun from the topics of Mediastan,” said Wahlstrom when asked why the film had been released to RT.
Maaloula, an ancient Christian town where the locals speak western Aramaic - a language spoken by Christ - has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the Syrian civil war, with attacks on Christians who were eventually forced to make desperate escapes.
Christians and Muslims used to coexist in Maaloula peacefully and despite the civil war raging around them had agreed that their town must remain one of peace. But when Maaloula was taken over in early September by the Islamist fighters from jabat al-Nusra, a group with links to Al-Qaeda, not one of the town’s 5,000 Christian residents or virtually a single member of the 2,000 strong Muslim community remained. All have now fled, fearing for their lives. Maaloula has become a ghost town.
President Bashar Assad sent in the army to drive the jihadists out. With help from Christian and Muslim volunteers, the army claimed a victory of sorts and by 25 September the rebels had been pushed out to new positions a few kilometers away.
RT’s Maria Finoshina was one of the first journalists into the besieged town and spoke to some of its inhabitants about what had happened when the jihadists attacked.
Antionette Taaleb, a Maaloula resident told RT how jihadists first lied to her and then murdered three members of her family on the first day of the siege.
“We were woken up in the morning by their ‘Allahu Akbar’ shouts,” Antoinette recalls. “We closed the doors, and we gathered all in one room. They broke into the garden and told us: ‘Surrender and we won’t harm you.’ Antoine, Mikhael, and Shadi went there and surrendered. I heard my cousin outside saying that he never held weapons. I understood they pointed their guns at them. Then they started shooting and throwing mortar bombs into the room. I got injured in my chest and elbow.”
Antionette’s father in law, Suleyman Milaneh, is 88 years old and has never seen anything like this happen in Maaloula.
“We are living in peace, and it seems now they want to displace us Christians from the country. We pray God we’ll conquer them and kick them out,” he said.
There are also stories of a handful of Christians being killed in Maaloula when they refused to convert to Islam, and of al-Nusra extremists taking a perverse pleasure in destroying everything from Christian icons to household furniture.
Forces loyal to Assad eventually drove the islamist rebels out of Maaloula, but in early December jihadists were able to regain a foothold in the ancient quarter of the town, and in an unexpected move abducted 12 nuns including their mother superior.
There was uproar from the Syrian government who urged the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council to intervene. But the rebels themselves insisted they evacuated the sisters for their own safety to the nearby town of Yabroud.
Maaloula is considered to be one of the cradles of Christianity. The town is home to numerous convents, monasteries and shrines, many of which are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. Maaloula is one of the only places in the world where western Aramaic is still spoken, a language similar to the dialect spoken by Jesus Christ.
But many of Syria’s Christian population, who made up 10 percent of the country before the civil war, are fearful that the islamists want to drive them from the country for good.
“I believe it is all systematic and planned. Forcing Christians to leave… In Iraq, for instance, less than 200,000 Christians remain. We do have concerns, we do hope to stick to our land – Syria, which is the cradle of Christianity,” Sami Housni, a Christian priest in Damascus told RT.
Some 450,000 Christians have already fled Syria since the civil war broke out two years ago.
Two years after the NATO-backed deposition of Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the country is in chaos. 2013 has witnessed the siege of Libya’s Foreign ministry, the Russian embassy falling under attack, high-ranking officials kidnapped, as well as repeated and deadly clashes between the Libyan army and Islamist militia.
In April, Libya’s foreign ministry was besieged by some 200 men armed with AK-47 assault guns and sniper rifles. Demands were made to sack key foreign service officers in Libya’s embassies and consulates abroad. Intense negotiations followed.
The previous year – in September 2012 – the US ambassador to Libya was assassinated, along with three others, in an attack on the country’s consulate in Benghazi. On October 2 of this year, another harrowing attack on a foreign outpost took place: the Russian embassy in Tripoli came under fire.
October saw Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan abducted for several hours after a 'former rebel' militia kidnapped him from a Tripoli hotel in retaliation for his apparent cooperation with a US anti-terror raid.
US forces captured a top-level Al-Qaeda leader, an operation that preceded the repositioning of two hundred United States marines from a base in Spain to an Italian site neighboring Libya, out of fear for the security situation in the country.
In the first half of November, the country saw Libyan separatists take over oil exports by assuming control of several commercial sea ports, prompting Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, to condemn the demands as intolerable. He warned of the possibility of foreign intervention and gave militias until December 31 to join the regular government forces, under threat of cutting off payments to their regional government.
On November 17, over 40 were killed and hundreds left wounded on one day alone after clashes between militiamen and armed residents rocked Tripoli. The wave of unrest continued to the point that a state of emergency was declared within a couple of days of the outbreak. The spike in violence prompted political analyst, Nile Bowie, to question whether Libya was heading for civil war.
In December, Libya’s national assembly voted in favor of making sharia law the basis of all legislative decisions in the county.
Iraq has been embroiled in a bloodbath this year, with over 9,000 killed in total, according to Iraq Body Count - making it the most violent year the country has seen since 2008. RT’s timeline of the annihilation was set up to keep track of its escalation.
Nearly two years after US troops withdrew from Iraq, security forces are struggling to combat the violence. Iraq has been plunging deeper into inter-ethnic violence, prompted by ever-growing tensions mostly between the country’s majority Shiite community and the Sunni minority.
Deaths of civilians on a virtually daily basis are the harsh reality of the country, with insurgents, some with links to Al-Qaeda, also benefiting from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The frequency and severity of bomb attacks has raised fears that Iraq could descend once more into the kind of sectarian bloodshed which took place in 2006 and 2007, when tens of thousands died.
By April this year, the simmering tensions had boiled over and the country experienced its deadliest month in half a decade. At least 60 people were killed and over 300 others injured on April 15 alone, as separate incidents took place in at least 13 different cities. The majority of these incidents were car bombings. The day came to be known as ‘Black Monday’, and it went virtually unnoticed by media outlets.
Local elections had been scheduled to take place on 20 April and marked the first since US troops left the country. Just five days after they were held, nearly 50 people were killed in clashes in the city of Mosul.
Baghdad was the worst affected area in April’s disastrous spike in violence, with 211 killed and 486 others injured in the capital alone, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). The clashes have escalated since April. In October, 11 car bombs went off in the country, killing some 60 people and wounding dozens more.
By November Iraqi ministries of health and defense had disclosed that 948 people were killed as a result of violence in that month alone, 852 of them civilians, in addition to 53 policemen and 43 soldiers.
However, the Interior Ministry put the figure at 1,121 people killed. All said that a further 1,349 were wounded in attacks.
In December, it appeared that violent incidents were subsiding. However, on December 16 a fresh wave of carnage swept through the country, killing 70.
The deadliest attack took place in the southern Baghdad suburb of al-Rasheed when two car bombs struck a group of Shiite pilgrims, killing 23 and wounding 55. The pilgrims were on their way to commemorate Arbaeen, an important religious holiday in the Shiite religious calendar.
Further attacks targeted Shiite pilgrims celebrating Arbaeen, and on December 19, a 34 year old policeman ensured himself a place in history, as he heroically embraced a suicide bomber, potentially saving dozens while ending his own life.