Homestays for snow leopards in the Himalayas

Snow leopards thrive in high altitude regions like Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.

Source: Al Jazeera English Online

2015 declared International Year of the Snow Leopard to help conservation efforts for the endangered cats.

Ladakh, India -  On a recent June evening, as the sun cast the day's final, crimson rays over the mountains surrounding Saspochey, a hamlet at 3,658 metres in the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, Sherab Dolma prepared her living room for guests.

An old Ladakhi stove with intricate metal work took centre stage in the room. Soft, warm carpets hugged the floor and traditional kitchen utensils stood neatly stacked in a wardrobe. A young boy with sunburned cheeks and a dirty, green hat stormed in and out of the room.

As her guests seated themselves, Dolma served hot tea in delicate ceramic cups.

Dolma has been running a homestay for  three years, letting out rooms with stunning views over the Zanskar range. Tourists flock to her tiny hamlet in the hope of spotting a special guest - the snow leopard, a wild cat that thrives in high mountain terrains.

It is estimated that India is home to 400-700 snow leopards of a global population of 4,500-6,500, spread across 12 countries.

As part of conservation efforts, these countries have declared 2015 as the International Year of the Snow Leopard and have been promoting cross-country projects to save the endangered cats.

Ladakh - in the state of Jammu and Kashmir - with 60 percent of India's snow leopard population, is well known among wildlife enthusiasts for offering some of the best sightings of snow leopards.

That helps Dolma business.

"I earn 30,000 Indian rupees ($472) per year from the homestay business. The snow leopard and other wildlife here are like jewels," Dolma said as she prepared a meal in her compact kitchen.

A few years ago, Dolma wouldn't have spoken so kindly about snow leopards.

"I had lost many sheep and goats to snow leopards. So had many others in the village. That left us in a lot of loss. We were helpless. People would even go after snow leopards to kill them," she said.

The biggest threat to snow leopard populations globally is this conflict with humans . Decrease in the number of natural prey species leads to snow leopards hunting livestock. This in turn triggers retaliatory killing by herders and farmers.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), a community-based conservation NGO, helped Dolma and eight other villagers set up homestays in Saspochey.

Tsewang Namgail, director of the SLC-IT, who was visiting the village to raise awareness accompanied by a handful of his cheerful Ladakhi staff and international volunteers, told Al Jazeera how his organisation worked with the villagers.

"People in these remote areas live under poor conditions. They have to think about their day-to-day struggle," Namgail explained.

"When we go to a village and ask them to protect snow leopards, they sometimes laugh at us because they lose livestock to snow leopards," he said.

"We also wanted to improve their livelihoods. That's when we started the Himalayan Homestays," Namgail told Al Jazeera.

The Himalayan Homestay program, which began in 2003, seeks to reduce the dependence of the herders on livestock and the pressure on the pasture lands, allowing natural prey species like the Tibetan blue sheep to thrive.

Snow leopards belong to what's termed an umbrella species - a species that symbolises the health of an entire eco-system.

"Snow leopard is an apex predator so they are very important. When we work towards conserving this species, in the process we are helping a lot of other species," Namgail said.

Sitting in his office in Leh, Ladakh's administrative capital, Jigmet Takpa , chief conservator of Forests for Ladakh told Al Jazeera of the historical and cultural significance of hunting that has led to a decline in snow leopard numbers.

"Ladakhis, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, were hunters. They were poaching. It is in the culture. Even today, the hunting ceremony is still conducted during Losar (a Buddhist celebration)," Takpa told while looking at the view of snow-capped mountains through his window.

"This led to fast depletion of already scarce wildlife in the region," Takpa explained.

Takpa criticised the conventional notion of conservation, saying that it is a tough task to restore a previously depleted ecosystem like Ladakh.

"All over the world and even in rest of India people think conservation means taking a big chunk of area which has a good biological value and declaring it as a conservation reserve. And this normally involves displacing all the people who live inside the area. This is based on the theory that man and wildlife cannot coexist," Takpa said.

The Forest Department approach is contrary to this line of thinking, said Takpa.  "We say human beings and wildlife have to coexist and help each other in sustaining themselves."

The government has followed in the footsteps of the SLC-IT, and is now running homestays in national park areas.

The conservation programs do not benefit everyone in the vast deserts of Ladakh.

There were unconfirmed reports about a snow leopard having been killed the previous month in Tar, a sleepy village with about 12 homes right across the valley from Saspochey.

A two-hour hike up from the main road, Tar has no access to electricity or medical facilities. Most residents are in their 50s and 60s, the younger generation having left in search of better educational and career opportunities.

Tsering Dolkar, a 60-year-old woman with a wrinkly face, is the appointed head of the village. Dolkar complained about the losses the villagers endured due to snow leopard and Tibetan wolf  attacks on livestock.

"Last year, one of my goats was killed right here," Dolkar said, pointing towards a green terrace on her fields.

"This year we lost 20 of our livestock  already. We don't go and file complaints or reports because nothing comes of it," she said with visible disappointment.

Dolkar said a few years ago a government official had come to evaluate whether Tar could have homestays but she never heard back from them.

"How can we kill a snow leopard?" Dolkar said of the rumours.

"We saw a dead snow leopard but it must have slipped off the cliffs and fallen down," Dolkar said, shrugging her shoulders.

As for the human-animal conflict, "What can we do?" said Dolkar helplessly. "Nothing".

Transgender youths in Nicaragua selling their bodies to survive

Yadira is a transgender activist and sex worker in Managua.

In Nicaragua, young transgender people face violence and discrimination on a daily basis. Often, their families won't accept their identity change and throw them out of the house at an early age. These homeless youths often have to resort to sex work to survive. Pulse tracked some of them down on the streets of Managua to find out more.

Listen to the story here: http://www.dw.com/en/transgender-youths-in-nicaragua-selling-their-bodies-to-survive/av-18446605

Identifying Mexico's many dead along US the border

Thousands of migrants have died along desert crossings between the US and Mexico [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera English Online

Activists say harsh security measures have 'funneled' migrants into deadly routes with thousands perishing on the trek.

Tucson, United States - The stench of death and decay hung over the morgue at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner where dozens of white body bags lay on metal trays on a warm February afternoon.

"We have 90 unidentified remains at the facility right now," Dr Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner, told Al Jazeera, pointing at body trays on the right side of the room. "Most of these people we believe to be undocumented border crossers." 

About 100km from Hess' office, thousands of migrants have tried to cross the US-Mexico border through the US state of Arizona, which cuts through the arid Sonoran desert where summer temperatures soar above 40°C.

Many poorly equipped migrants, hiking for days on end, eventually succumb to the adverse conditions. Since 2001, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner  has received more than 2,200 recovered remains of suspected migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.

Dr Hess unzipped a body bag with an "Unknown" name tag to reveal the limited contents within.

"Here, [this is] not uncommon. We have a skull and a little bit of property. What are the odds that we will identify this person in a very timely manner? Probably very small," he said.

In 2013, 168 migrant deaths were recorded in Pima County, and 95 of the bodies remain unidentified.

The Medical Examiner's Office routinely works with the Colibri Centre for Human Rights , an NGO that assists families to find remains of their loved ones who disappear at the borderlands.

The Colibri Centre was established amid the increasing discovery of unidentified remains of border crossers since the early 2000s.

In a tiny office, Chelsea Halstead, programme manager at the Colibri Centre, sifted through folders of missing persons' reports.

"People started calling here to try and find their loved ones who had died while crossing. They couldn't call the police because there were language issues or jurisdictional issues, or because the person in question wasn't an American citizen. In other cases, they were too scared to call the police," Halstead told Al Jazeera.

Halstead and her small team at the Colibri Centre take detailed missing person's reports from families calling in, then catalogue and compare them with profiles of unidentified remains that come into the Medical Examiner's Office across the hallway.

In some cases, they successfully find a match and help return the skeletal remains and property to bereaved families.

"Death is a social experience. Even though it's sad and it's difficult, it's social and it's important for the community," Halstead said. "When you don't have a body, you don't have that socially agreed upon narrative of what happened to this person. You don't get to collectively pass them along to the land of the dead."

Jasmin Morales' is one such family currently seeking help from the Colibri Centre. Jasmin's brother, Julio Cesar Morales, disappeared in 2009 while trying to cross from Mexico along with Jasmin and their father.

"My brother wanted to find work. In the town where we used to live [Tierra Blanca in Veracruz, Mexico], there is not much work," Jasmin told Al Jazeera over the phone.

More than half of Mexico's population lives in poverty and the country has one of thehighest murder rates in the world .

Under these conditions, many such as Julio make the perilous journey north in search of a better life.

Jasmin, her brother, and their father spent a week in the Sonoran desert. At the end of the journey, they lost Julio after an encounter with US Border Patrol agents one night.

"To be honest, I don't know what happened to my brother because the desert is something ugly," Jasmin said. "I'd love to find my brother alive, at least for my mother because she has the hope that he is still alive."

Jasmin, however, acknowledged the reality that her brother could be dead.

"They [Colibri Center] asked me for authorisation so they can look for him in the morgue. They told me it has been many years since he disappeared. So, it will be God's will. I don't really know if he is in prison or dead, but we want to know what really happened."

Mexican migrants didn't always take the arduous Arizonan desert route to cross into the US.

Todd Miller, author of the book Border Patrol Nation : Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security, told Al Jazeera that border-security policies over the years have pushed people to trek through the unforgiving desert.

"The operations that took hold in the mid-1990s cut off traditional immigration routes in urban areas such as El Paso or Nogales or San Diego, creating a funnel effect. People were funnelled into areas that were supposed to be a deterrent, a lethal deterrent," he said.

In 1990, eight undocumented-person deaths were recorded in Pima County, compared to 225 in 2010.

Although unauthorised migration to the US along the Mexican border has decreased over the years, the US Border Patrol Agency has kept growing in size. Currently border enforcement costs $18bn each year.

Increased militarisation of the US-Mexico border explains the expanding budgets, Miller said. "Forward operating bases only used to be in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now you'll see it on the southwest borderlands."

At the foothills of the Silver Bell mountains deep in the Sonoran desert, civil society group No More Deaths routinely conducts search-and-rescue operations to help migrants in distress.

On a recent February afternoon, a team of volunteers navigated through the vast landscape dotted with saguaro cacti.   

"We get calls in distress that report someone in a group has started vomiting or started having diarrhoea. Often we also hear that people felt so sick that they were left behind," volunteer Genevieve Schroeder told Al Jazeera.

Schroeder showed Al Jazeera a recent recovery map where migrants were located.

"On the map the Silver Bell Mountains are like 70 miles [110 km] from the border, but the walking distance could be double that," she said.

"People weren't going this far a few years ago and now they are. They are now taking one of the longest routes that they could be forced to take," Schroeder said.

In 2005, the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice implemented Operation Streamline, an initiative that subjects undocumented migrants to criminal prosecution, prison sentences, and deportation.

Schroeder said Operation Streamline has a direct impact on the number of deaths along the border.

"The deaths are happening further and further north of the country. People are putting themselves at higher and higher levels of risk, not seeking out rescue even when they are sick, even when they are lost, even when they have fallen behind because they may be facing a very lengthy prison sentence."

As the sun set over the desert, painting the sky in vivid shades of crimson, Schroeder's colleague Maryada Vallet expressed their organisation's collective frustration.

"The number of human remains that we find here every year is as if a Boeing aircraft had to crash in our desert every single year since the last 10 years. And we still can't figure out that this is a humanitarian crisis and not a law enforcement issue?"

 

Bucking the trend: American rodeo under scrutiny

A cowboy throws a steer to the ground to tie it up as part of rodeo wrestling [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera English Online

Animal rights groups criticise US rodeo tradition, saying broncos and bulls are tormented and injured by cowboys.

Oklahoma City, United States - It's an American tradition that dates back hundreds of years to the time of cowboys herding hoards of cattle across the vast plains. But some today are raising concerns that rodeo competition with raging bulls and broncos inflicts cruelty upon the animals.

"Did you watch what I just watched? Because you're not clapping enough… I can't hear you," the commentator at the 44th International Finals Rodeo hollered over the microphone.

Spectators at the stadium, dressed in their best cowboy and cowgirl attire, acknowledged his request and gave a generous round of applause.

At the centre of everyone's attention, cowboys competed in the bareback bronco-riding event in the International Professional Rodeo Finals at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena.

A bucking horse with a cowboy atop was unleashed into the arena. Dramatic music filled the air, drowning out the commentators' voices. The horse galloped and bucked, throwing up its hind legs - sometimes as high as two metres off the ground.

'Part of my life'

Shawn Minor, 39, from Nebraska was one of the performers at the recent event. Minor told Al Jazeera he always wanted to be a cowboy.

"I was probably five or six years old and my father rodeoed and rode saddle broncs, and it's just been a part of my life ever since … since I was born. I never thought that I would be anything else but a cowboy."

Minor went on to win his ninth all-round title the following day, and took home prize money worth more than $15,000 from the weekend rodeo.

While he chewed tobacco that afternoon, Minor, who has won 21 world titles, said the fame, glory and money aren't the only things that keep him on the professional rodeo circuit.

"It [being a cowboy] means being down-to-earth… It's not the easiest way of life… It means everything to me. The tradition goes back 200 years, you know. I'm trying to keep the tradition alive," he said, adding his two young sons want to grow up to be cowboys too.

Minor has been on the professional circuit for 12 years now and said he's definitely seen the sport changing over time.

"Back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, there were a lot of great cowboys, but most of them would just go to town on the weekends, go to a rodeo and then they'd go back to the ranch. Nowadays with the sponsors and the TV and all that stuff, you can make a good living out of it."

'Rodeos terrorise animals'

According to sociologist Gene Theodori, who has conducted research on Western tradition and contemporary rodeos, there's been a natural evolution from cattle ranches to the way the competitions are conducted today.

"After months of strenuous labour moving cattle through the country, cowboys would get together and celebrate. For amusement at the end of the trail, they would gather and compare their roping and riding skills," he wrote about the origins of rodeo in the post-Civil War era in the US.

"Soon afterwards though, these exhibitions turned into competitive matches," Theodori noted.

Organised rodeos, as they are today, started gaining popularity in the early 1920s. Today, they also play a symbolic role in contemporary society by trying to preserve America's "Wild West" culture.

Back at the State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City, spectators and participants got ready for the tie-down roping competition.

A cowboy mounted his horse. Right next to him was a small caged enclosure.

As soon as the gate to the cage was opened, a timid-looking calf came sprinting out.

The cowboy riding his horse followed the running calf and lassoed it. In a second, the calf came crashing down to the ground with the lasso pulling it by the neck. Swiftly, the cowboy dismounted the horse, ran to the struggling steer, and in one quick movement tied its front legs and a hind leg together with his rope.

Proud of his achievement - having clocked less than nine seconds - the performer punched a celebratory fist into the air and walked out.

The breathless calf, with its tongue hanging out, lay on the ground waiting to be untied.

Roughed up 

The treatment of broncos and steers at rodeos has attracted sharp criticism by animal rights groups.

"Rodeos terrorise animals and provoke them into behaving fiercely and aggressively. They use cruel electric prods, bucking straps, and all of these cause wounds or dig in to the animals' sensitive tissues," Emma Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told Al Jazeera.

Vaughan said injuries to animals such as deep internal organ bleeding, hemorrhaging, fractures, ripped tendons, and torn ligaments and muscles "are common occurrences in rodeos".

"I have seen cattle [from rodeos] so extensively bruised that the only areas where skin was attached was the head, necks, legs and belly," said CG Haber, a veterinarian who worked as a meat inspector in a slaughterhouse, where rodeo animals often end up.

Dale Yerigan - general manager of the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA), one of the largest rodeo sanctioning bodies in the US - had a different take on the treatment of animals at rodeos.

"The horses that are used in the bucking events - the bareback horses and the saddle bronc horses - those horses can't be rode. If they weren't used in rodeos, they don't have another purpose. So it actually extends their life and gives them a place to go and perform and live out a long, full life," Yerigan said.

The IPRA is responsible for putting together a standardised set of rules for the events it sanctions. "In the current rule book, there are over 80 rules that pertain to the care and treatment of livestock and what the penalties are if somebody does something that they shouldn't," Yerigan told Al Jazeera.

Although there are penalties and fines in place, Yerigan admitted none of the participants had ever been charged with mistreatment of animals in any rodeos across the country in the history of IPRA.

Weak protection

Some states and municipalities within the US do impose legal restrictions on rodeos.

For instance, tie-down or calf roping is illegal in the state of Rhode Island. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has strict restrictions on the use of electric prods. Internationally, rodeos are banned in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

RELATED: Bucking the American rodeo tradition

Spectators at the Oklahoma State Fair grounds watched with rapt attention at the last event - bull riding.

Cowboy after cowboy rode on big, ferocious bulls. The stadium came alive with hoots, cheers, jeers and chants.

Ray Quintanilla, 43, from Choctaw, Oklahoma seemed to be enjoying the action. Quintanilla had watched bull riding on TV many times and wanted to see the action live. He said it lived up to his expectations and doesn't find much wrong or unethical about it.

"It's very fun and family-oriented. We have two daughters, so we kind of wanted to check it out first and see if they would enjoy it - and we think they would," Quintanillasaid.

He told Al Jazeera the next time the rodeo came to Oklahoma City, he would bring his children along.

No more trashing US 'Earthship' homes

AJE Earthships-5copySource: Al Jazeera English Online

Eco-friendly New Mexico houses made of garbage such as old tyres, beer cans, and glass bottles have gone mainstream.

Taos, United States - It was an ordinary evening at the Elsasser household in New Mexico. As the reddish sun set over the vast desert, Grey, 4, and Dusty, 6, enthusiastically joined their father to bake cookies.

While keeping one eye on his rambunctious children, who stealthily dug into the sugar jar and stuffed their mouths full, and another on the pets - three dogs and a fluffy black cat over the kitchen top - Ted Elsasser explained why their one-bedroom home is so special.

"We're completely off the grid. We produce our own electricity with solar panels, harvest water, and treat our sewage all within the house," he told Al Jazeera, adding that the exterior walls were built using recycled truck tyres, empty beer cans, and glass bottles pounded with mud.

Elsasser has lived in dwellings such as these for 20 years and said he can't imagine being back on the grid again.

Elsasser and his family live in an Earthship surrounded by 70 other families who reside in the Greater World community that sprawls over 257 hectares of New Mexico's desert. He built his own Earthship home for $110 per square foot using 85 percent of his labour, about half as much as an Earthship would cost with a professional crew. These half-buried structures with colourful glass bottles artistically embedded are the brainchild of Michael Reynolds.

RELATED: 'Earthship' revolution in the US

On a bright and sunny weekday, Reynolds, 69, walked briskly taking stock of goings on at a busy construction site in the community. A dozen people - architects, electricians, gardeners, volunteers - were finishing up work on a new Earthship. Reynolds strode across the building, stopping every now and then to have a second look, taking mental notes and giving instructions to those at work. The silver-haired architect said he felt the need to create Earthships because of what was happening around him.

"I started responding to what appeared to me to be problems with how people live on this planet, and one of them was garbage. Why do we throw away these fantastic materials like bottles that will never deteriorate?" Reynolds said.

Homes made of trash

According to a report released by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 251 million tonnes of trash were produced in the United States in 2012. Only 44 percent of automobile tyres, one of the main materials used for building an Earthship, were successfully recycled that year.

"Now recycling has turned out to be an industry," Reynolds said. "That uses up as much energy, in my opinion, as manufacturing them anyway."

One of the main principles of an Earthship is the use of thermal mass. It is built about 1.2 metres under the surface of the earth, where the temperature remains more or less stable, so there's no need to use fossil fuels to heat or cool a home.

Another important aspect is use of water. All Earthships utilise and re-utilise water harvested from rain and snow. Household sewage is treated and used to grow food in "grey water planters", as well as for flushing toilets. Sewage from toilets is then contained in an outdoor botanical cell called a "black water planter".

Reynolds' experiments to find sustainable ways of living were once questioned by the mainstream architecture community.

"I was an idiot for building out of garbage," he recalled. "I have been persecuted for doing this - for treating sewage in the house or building the house out of garbage."

Reynolds was referring to the time when the state of New Mexico took away his architect's license about a decade ago. He got it back in 2007, only after agreeing to comply with state rules.

"But people are starting to realise that maybe there is something to look at here. It is going more mainstream," he said.

Today there are Earthships in 50 US states and more than 25 countries worldwide.

Sustainable living

On a cold, windy winter evening, Phil Basehart, a 44-year-old architect and foreman at the Earthship Biotecture company is hard at work. He took Al Jazeera on a tour of a new model of building he was working on.

"This is what we call the global Earthship," Basehart said. "It's the best we have come up with so far. And it's a combination of 40 years of research we have done on how to build something that will allow us to live sustainably."

The global model of Earthships is a move towards entering the mainstream housing market.

"We're trying to present it as something that somebody who has never lived like this can walk in here and be absolutely comfortable. It costs as much as any other house of the kind you'll find on the market, but the difference is that you won't be paying any utility bills once you've moved in," Basehart told Al Jazeera.

Basehart said the best way to promote it is by passing on the skills to the next generation. And that's exactly what he does when he's not wearing his architect's hat. He's a teacher at the Earthship Academy, which hosts between 30-60 students from around the world seven times a year.

"Housing has a huge impact on the planet. The idea is to plant a seed and let them grow it however they want to. The demand is growing and that gives us hope that people, whether it's with us or without us, will make things better," Basehart said, before returning to work.

'Give something back'

David Nacmanie, a music teacher from Maryland, was a student at the Earthship Academy in August 2014. He had been exploring sustainable living options when he came across it.

"I had some time and money on my hands, so I thought I'd go and find out whether it was actually what they were claiming to be, or was it just fake," Nacmanie told Al Jazeera. "Earthships absolutely do everything they claim they to do."

After the six-week course, Nacmanie said he was equipped to build Earthships and adapt them to his surroundings.

He said he's thinking about building an Earthship community in Maryland, outside Washington DC, that could provide affordable housing to people who can't keep up with increasing real estate prices.

"I don't only want to build an Earthship home for myself, but I also want to give something back to my community," he said.

Of course Earthships aren't the only answer to sustainable living.

Communities around the world are experimenting with different kinds of ecologically sound homes, said Joshua Lockyer, a cultural anthropologist at Arkansas Tech University LINK, who has conducted research on the subject.

"I have only encountered very few Earthships in the eco-villages I have visited. So it's just one component of the mission to live sustainably and in a satisfying way that involves everything from building techniques to production material, forestry and land management, to figuring out how to cooperate with one another and make decisions together," Lockyer said.

Back in Taos, Elsasser builds homes for other people too and not just Earthships. He runs his own construction company, Taos Off Grid, and recently was contracted to build a house out of waste materials such as shipping containers and hay bales.

Elsasser stressed that different solutions in different places are key to living sustainably.

"Earthships are great, but there are a lot of other brilliant solutions out there too."

Art of change in post-war Kosovo

The Haveit Collective is using art as a medium to convey important social issues of domestic violence, extreme nationalism and more.

Source: Al Jazeera English

Many artists are using their work to raise social, economic, and political issues in Kosovo post independence.

Pristina, Kosovo - The female artists never thought people would threaten to behead them for sharing a kiss in this city's main square and putting a photo of it on Facebook.

"We were very scared when we got death threats," Hana Qena, 26, said nervously. "That's when we realised we'd done something very provocative."

Hana is part of the Haveit Collective - an art group comprised of a pair of sisters in Kosovo, the southeast European country that declared independence in 2008, but is still fighting for complete international recognition. Serbia continues to claim it as part of its territory.  

Hana's sister Vesa Qena, 23, is also part of the group, along with two other sisters - 26-year-old Lola Sylaj and Alketê, 23.

Last Valentine's Day, the Haveit Collective attracted attention to their performance in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, when they decided to kiss each other and then uploaded the photos to their Facebook profile.

Although homosexuality is legal in Kosovo, there is stigma attached to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community here.

After the performance, the group was taken in for interrogation by police but eventually set free after they said they weren't lesbians. The four women went home thinking they would get a few "Likes" on Facebook, that's all.

"When we woke up the next day, we were shocked. The photo had gone viral and we received over 100 death threats," Hana told Al Jazeera.

Vesa - quieter and more reserved of the two - added: "People with extreme religious views wrote in saying they would behead us," gesturing with her finger across her throat.

Kosovo - where a bloody one-year-long war ended in 1999 - has a predominantly Albanian-Muslim population.

"With the performance we challenged people's religious ideas here. They were upset. LGBT rights are not really spoken about here," Lola said.

Art and intervention

The Haveit Collective - like many other independent artists in Kosovo - is using art to raise social and political issues in the country. In the three years since it organised, the collective has held street interventions about domestic violence, suppression of LGBT rights, and extreme nationalism.

Albert Heta - co-founder of Stacion - Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina, an independent culture institution - said Kosovo's art scene has slowly emerged since the war.

"When Kosovo fell under direct Serbian administration in the 1990s, art and art institutions weren't accessible for Kosovar Albanians - the majority of the population," Heta said. "It was during this time that the idea of a contemporary art scene started to develop, but it happened under a very restrictive environment. After the war, this scene continued but more openly."

Heta said art in Kosovo now is more than just pretty pictures. "Today, art or artists are not here just to decorate this society, but also to reflect and criticise," he said.

Kosovo is one of Europe's poorest countries. It suffers from an unemployment rate of about 45 percent, and people here earn an average salary of just $20 a day.

Kosovo is also dogged by a political stalemate as the Democratic Party of Kosovo, which won the most seats in the June elections, has failed to form a coalition government.

Cultural transformation

Alban Muja, 34, is a visual artist and film-maker who grew up in Pristina. He met with Al Jazeera at a popular cafe. "As an artist I am always trying to research how social, political and cultural transformation is going on in the region," Muja said, puffing on a cigarette.

One of Muja's important works is a documentary titled Blue wall red door . "The film is about how people in Pristina don't use street names. Why? Because in the last 20 years, they changed the name of the streets five to six times depending on who's in power," he said.

Muja is one of the few Kosovar artists to have travelled around the world with his work. "What you learn while travelling, no school can teach you. But unfortunately, most artists here can't travel freely because of restrictive visa policies," said Muja.

According to the latest visa restrictions index, Kosovo ranks 80th alongside Iran and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Invariably, every Kosovar artist laments about the troubles faced while trying to acquire visas.

Conceptual artist Flaka Haliti currently explores the topic in an artwork at the National Art Gallery in Pristina.

On a massive glass installation, Haliti etches in bold a fictitious resolution by UNESCO to allow free global movement of artists.

" It's a lie that UNESCO is finally giving immunity to artists wanting to live and travel abroad," she told Al Jazeera on the opening evening of her exhibition. "I don't want to give hope to some artists who are desperate to get this. But I am trying to communicate to people who never think about these issues."

Minority art

For other artists such as Bajram and Farija Mehmeti, being recognised is itself a big challenge. The minority Roma siblings live modestly in Lepina - a small village about a half hour's drive from Pristina.

Roma along with Serbs are among the most discriminated groups in Kosovo. After the war, Roma who continued to live in Kosovo were placed in camps spread out across the country.

Bajram and Farija go about their daily routine like any other villagers - collecting wood for the household, working on the farm, and other household chores. When they get time off, they get on with their art.

"Our art is inspired by the Roma way of life, what we see around us. I paint landscapes and sceneries and my sister does portraits," Bajram, 34, said shyly. The siblings proudly led Al Jazeera to their studio - a hut with many finished and some incomplete canvases.

Farija, 36, showed her portraits one after the other. Each depicted a Roma woman dressed in traditional clothes and accessories. "One is for 50 euros [$64]," she said sounding disappointed.

Her younger brother jumped into the conversation. "We can't really live off our work… It's very hard for us to survive just with our art."

Back in Pristina, a Roma film festival "Rolling Films" opened at the National Theatre. Sami Mustafa, a 28-year-old Roma documentary film-maker, echoed Bajram's words. "It is hard and challenging to survive as a film-maker in Kosovo. But as a Roma film-maker, it's double as hard and challenging," he said.

Mustafa pointed out a majority of the Roma community in Kosovo suffer from abject poverty. "It's very hard to inspire youngsters to participate in art when there's no real monetary incentive. We try but it's really difficult."

Old school art

Despite a growing and diverse art scene, Kosovar artists also face archaic practises.

"The art institutions in the country aren't up to date," said Lulzim Zeqiri, 35. "I studied painting at the Faculty of Art in Pristina, but I wouldn't go there again because the way they perceive art there is very rigid. There are also very few spaces in Kosovo for independent and alternative art to flourish."

Kosovo's Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport Memli Krasniqi told Al Jazeera many of the artists' complaints were valid.

"Firstly, I think that young artists need to complain. They have to. It is true that we lack cultural infrastructure, but I'm happy to say that we've tripled the budget for the public as well as the private art scene. I am aware that it's still not enough and we're working on that," Krasniqi said at his office.

Krasniqi himself was a rapper before stepping into politics. It might seem like a strange career shift, but Krasniqi disagreed.

"My music and lyrics were political, social and very rebellious in a way… With music you can influence people, but it's hard to affect change. The best way to change things is to get involved in politics."

Internationally acclaimed painter Jakup Ferri said he doesn't want people only to think about war when Kosovo is mentioned. "We need to talk beyond nationalism, beyond borders, and think as citizens of this world," said Ferri.

Kurdish female units in Syria

Here's my video piece about all-female Kurdish armed units in Syria on Storyhunter: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIyXc1gHJIU&w=560&h=315]

Here are some images from the training camp.

And here's the story we did for the Caravan magazine:

At 5 am on an April morning this year, 30 young women emerged in khaki flak jackets from a dormitory in Syria’s north-eastern plains. Under the still-dark sky, they gathered on the gravelly ground at the front of a temporary facility where they were camped, filing into neat rows, one behind the other, an arm’s length apart. Once they were in position, they sharply saluted their commander, a lean, stern woman about twice the recruits’ age.

Then, as the sun peeped over the horizon, the armed unit went through their morning drills. They exercised for an hour or so, jogging from end to end on a roughly 100-metre-long concrete street that led out of the compound, breaking into occasional sprints, and doing push-ups, stretches and lunges. One of the camp members, 21-year-old Rokan Abrahim, took on the role of instructor for the day and performed the exercises alongside them, barking orders to coordinate the routine. When they had finished, they broke off into twos and threes and walked back towards the residential quarters, chatting and laughing with each other.

It was the start of another day at this all-women Kurdish rebel training camp in north-east Syria.Women from different parts of Syria’s Kurdish regions had enrolled in a 15-day-long physical education and combat program designed to prepare them for the frontlines. The 30 soldiers of the camp were women between the ages of 19 and 25, and were part of the only all-women armed unit in Syria, known as the Women’s Protection Unit, or the YPJ. Once the fortnight of lectures, assault courses, rifle practice and combat training concluded, the women were to disperse to various battlefronts and checkpoints across the north-east of the country.

The YPJ is part of the larger People’s Protection Unit (YPG)—the official armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, a governing organisation of Syrian Kurdistan—which comprises male and female fighters. In a country that is being ripped apart by war, the YPG aims to represent the rights of minority ethnic Kurds, who are not the main players in the clashes between Syrian government and Arab rebels. The YPJ has the same aim, but emphasises women’s rights. Since the beginning of the war, in March 2011, the YPG and YPJ, along with other Kurdish militia, have been taking over security of regions in north-eastern Syria heavily populated by Kurds, including the important cities of Al Malikiyah (Derik in Kurdish), Al Qamishli (Qamishlo) and Ras al Ain (Sere Kaniye). The exact strength of the combined YPG is hard to estimate—figures range from 1,500 to 15,000 depending on whom you ask.

For nearly a century, the history of Kurds in Syria has been marked by discrimination. Over the years, according to Human Rights Watch reports, the Syrian government has systematically repressed Kurds, through measures such as the revocation of citizenship, bans on language and cultural expression, and the harassment and arrest of activists. Since the 1960s, this mistreatment has increased under the regimes of Hafez al-Assad, and then his son, Bashar al-Assad. “In every country, people can speak their mother tongue, but [Bashar] Assad prohibited us from speaking our language,” Abrahim said. “We weren’t given the rights of civilians in this country. He always made us feel that we are not people of this country.”

In late 2010 and early 2011, violent anti-government protests in Tunisia were followed by similar movements in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other West Asian and North African countries. April 2011 saw the outbreak of clashes in Syria, between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and rebels aiming to oust him. Syrian Kurds were uncertain of which path to follow: a strong anti-regime sentiment was prevalent among them, but people feared that they would face harsh reprisals if they chose to protest. Since then, Kurdish participation in the Syrian uprising has been varied and complex across regions. Youth committees in some cities such as Amouda took the lead and fearlessly organised anti-regime demonstrations. In other places, like Al Qamishli, where older politicians were in charge, and had a hold over the population, Kurds remained quiet. Among the issues that Kurds have agitated for since 2011 is the establishment of an autonomous West Kurdistan comprising the Kurdish-speaking north-eastern regions of the country.

During the early days of the uprising, the Syrian government offered citizenship to thousands of Kurds in Al Hasaka province. Many sceptics saw this move as a way to appease the Kurds, and prevent them from turning against the regime. Soon after, Kurdish rebels ousted Syrian forces from their territories, although some observers claimed that Assad had ordered his troops to retreat as part of a tactical move to maintain stability in the region. The Kurds have adopted an official stance of being a “third front” in the Syrian civil war, neither siding with the opposition rebels, nor supporting the Assad regime. The women fighters of the YPJ have stuck to this line and have been involved in fighting Arab and Islamist rebels as well as government troops.

“We are living in difficult times in Syria right now,” said Abrahim, who joined the militia when her school shut down because of the war. “We should protect ourselves. When I join the academy here in Syria, I am fulfilling my responsibility of protecting our region and our rights.” She emphasised that the YPJ’s main aim was not an offensive one. “We are carrying weapons, not to kill anybody, but to protect ourselves,” she said. “We are against violence in any area, in any region. But we are carrying the weapons to protect our nation and our people.”

At the camp, after the morning drill, the women fighters gathered for a standing breakfast of bread, eggs and tea. At the table, they giggled and gossiped. There was only a fleeting sense of being in a warzone. Soon after the meal, however, they gathered to sing in praise of their colleagues who died in recent battles. Suzdar Kholchar, a 24-year-old, sat sombre in a corner. “Two of my friends were killed in the battle in Sere Kaniye,” she said, referring to clashes between Kurdish rebels and Islamic forces in the town, which borders Turkey, in late 2012. Soon, her mood became defiant. “My friends who died in the war, they paid with their blood as a price for our freedom,” she said. “I am also ready to pay this high price, my blood, for a free West Kurdistan.”

Suzdar then rushed to attend a class along with the rest of the women. Over the next hour, the lecturer, a woman around the same age as the soldiers, spoke to them about gender equality and women’s empowerment. She invoked the ideology and teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey—considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union—the ranks of which have always prominently included women. (Öcalan is currently in a Turkish prison on charges of terrorism.) The talk included an analysis of the imposition of the hijab on women in Islam, a condemnation of the growing number of honour killings in Kurdish Syria and the unequal treatment meted out to women in society.

After the class, the women proceeded outdoors for their next training session, in weapon use. “When a woman takes a weapon to protect herself and her region, it’s a revolution in itself,” Abrahim said. “Not all women can carry weapons. Only a strong woman can carry weapons. Only she can protect herself and her people.” She fetched her AK-47 and joined the group in the fields surrounding the camp building. The scene was surreal—some two dozen young women running across seemingly serene fields of yellow rapeseed flowers, with guns raised over their heads.

They were then ordered to move to another field, where they practised running over hurdles. Some of the women were showing signs of exhaustion, but their commander pressed them on. Then, one by one they loaded their guns and practised firing into gunny bags that were placed as targets in the fields.

At the end of the long day, they stood in a semi-circle, holding each other by the waist. They sang and danced to the beats of the YPJ anthem. Almost like a war cry, the loudspeaker blared, “Long live the YPJ!” The fighters performed a traditional Kurdish group folk dance, hooting and screaming at regular intervals, almost as if in a trance.

“I’d like to stay and fight with the YPJ, but not forever,” Abrahim said just before we departed. “After the war is over, I’d like to become a lawyer.”

In July of this year, the UN reported that more than 100,000 people had died in the Syrian civil war, while the estimate for the total number of refugees, within the country and abroad, stood at a staggering seven million, or nearly one-third of the entire population. In July and August, fierce clashes broke out between the Kurdish armed forces and Al Qaeda-linked rebels in the north-east, even as reports of chemical weapon use in Damascus shocked the international community. In the first week of September, we received some news from our contact person in the region, a young woman who works closely with the YPJ, though not in a military capacity. “All the girls from the camp are being deployed along the front lines all over the region,” she said. “They are all fighting. The military situation has improved. The YPG and YPJ are gaining control over more and more areas that used to be under Islamist control. Last month during the fighting, many people were afraid, but now there is more stability.”

Syrian Arab promotes Kurdish culture culture

Source: Generation Change, Deutsche Welle

Kurds, an ethnic minority in Syria, suffered oppression under the “Arabization” policy of the Assad regime. But the Syrian revolution has brought along change. With a strong political and military presence in northeast Syria, Kurds are putting their past behind and working towards a better future. They have transformed from being underdogs to the ones in power. This newfound influence is not just political or military, but also cultural, and Kurdish culture is experiencing a sort of revival. Young Syrians, like Sameer Shaiyer, 28, are doing their bit to spread the word about Kurdish art forms. And what makes Samir’s job challenging is that he’s Arab.

Listen to the report by Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke report from Qamishlo, Syria:

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