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Jerome Starkey

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Arbil

Sometimes it gets lonely inside Arbil’s ancient citadel. Its labyrinthine lanes, once crammed with refugees, all emptied seven years ago. Only one man, and his family, were allowed to stay behind.

Gone are the children Rebwar Qadir grew up with. The alleys where they scampered, over six millennias’ worth of history, are mostly silent. Their tumbledown, mud-brick homes are crumbling. The public baths are dry.

Mr Qadir’s only visitors, atop the man-made mound, are the archaeologists and artisans charged with its restoration. Yet for a part-time plumber turned web designer the solitude is tolerable — it comes with a most unusual honour.

Mr Qadir, his wife Nazanine, and their three children are the only living link to Arbil’s claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Pretoria

“If you could read our minds,” lamented Reeva Steenkamp’s uncle as he left the high court in Pretoria yesterday, “then you’d have a story.”

Terse and typically restrained, his comments were in stark contrast to Oscar Pistorius’s histrionics, with the athlete sobbing and vomiting through large parts of his trial.

Michael Steenkamp only hinted at his family’s anguish, after they had watched the track star being cleared of first and second-degree murder, but be convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter and allowed to walk free, for at least another month.

“Obviously we’re disappointed,” a cousin said.

Ms Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry, sat stony-faced on the relatives’ bench as the verdict was read out. The publicans, from the Eastern Cape, have sold the rights to interviews, and Dup de Bruyn, their lawyer, said they were contractually obliged to make no other comment until four weeks after sentencing, which is not due to start until October 13.

Yet Michael Steenkamp’s comments touched on a conundrum at the centre of the case: mind-reading is impossible. With only one surviving witness to the events in Pistorius’s house, he was the only person who could tell the court what happened.

Judge Masipa made that point when she pronounced her verdict. Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, made that point when he opened his case on March 3. The one person he most wanted to interview was dead.

He produced neighbours who heard blood-curdling screams, a woman who heard an argument the night Ms Steenkamp died; Gert Saayman, a pathologist, said there was food in Ms Steenkamp’s stomach that did not tally with the athlete’s account; there were inconsistencies between Pistorius’s account and the position of objects in his bedroom — but in the end, none of that mattered.

When it came to the murder charge, all that really mattered was what Pistorius was thinking at the moment that he pulled the trigger. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Pretoria

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents criticised a South African court’s decision to acquit their daughter’s killer of murder, claiming that justice had been denied as ­Oscar Pistorius was freed yesterday.

The sprinter spent less than an hour in the cells after he was convicted of killing Ms Steenkamp, but cleared of murder. He walked out of the Pretoria High Court after Judge Thokozile Masipa extended his bail until ­October 13.

Pistorius, 27, could still face up to 20 years in prison when she sentences him next month.

In an interview with the American broadcaster NBC, Ms Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, expressed their disbelief at the verdict: a conviction of culpable homicide, the South African term for manslaughter, but acquittal of first and second degree murder. “This verdict is not justice for Reeva,” Mrs Steenkamp said. “I just want the truth.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Pretoria

Oscar Pistorius walked free from Pretoria’s High Court today after a judge extended his bail despite convicting him of manslaughter for shooting dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Miss Steenkamp’s friends and family said they were “bitterly disappointed” with the verdict, which saw the Olympic and Paralympic athlete convicted of culpable homicide, the South African term for manslaughter, but cleared of first and second degree murder. (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Pretoria

Oscar Pistorius was negligent, his actions were unreasonable and he used excessive force the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, but he was not guilty of her murder, a judge ruled today.

Thokozile Masipa said the athlete had lied in court and he was evasive in the witness box, but the state had failed to prove that he planned to kill Reeva Steenkamp when he fired four hollow-tipped bullets through a locked bathroom door in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

“There are just not enough facts to support such a finding,” she said at the High Court in Pretoria.

However, she said the Olympian could and should have phoned the police or the private security guards who patrolled his estate before he opened fire, making it all but certain she will convict him of culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of manslaughter, when the trial resumes tomorrow.

“The accused acted too hastily and used excessive force,” Judge Masipa said. “In the circumstances, it was clear that his conduct was negligent.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, Africa Correspondent

She has said only a few sentences since the trial began six months ago. Occasionally berating the public for making too much noise, or cajoling squabbling lawyers for taking too much time, Judge Thokozile Masipa has given few, if any, clues as to what she has been thinking as she oversees the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.

Only once, when the weeping, retching Olympian was giving evidence for a fifth day, did Judge Masipa intervene, to warn him that he was “making mistakes”.

Peering over her spectacles, she added: “You can’t be in a disadvantage when you are in that box.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Kirkuk

A few hours after the car bombs that shook Kirkuk last month, Mustapha Kani got an urgent phone call. “You have to come! You have to come!” a voice said. He was sitting with his father in their garden while his mother cooked supper. He told his parents that he would be straight back.

Part Sunni, part Shia, with mixed Arabic, Kurdish and Turkmen heritage, the 18-year-old made an unlikely target for a sectarian death squad, but the next time his father saw him he was lying in a mortuary, alongside two other men, with a single bullet in his head.

“All of them had just one shot,” his father, a retired soldier, said, touching his forehead to indicate their wounds.

Qahtan al-Joburi, a local activist, said up to 50 people — mostly Sunni Arabs — had been murdered since three car bombs hit the city on August 23. Three men were found on railway lines and had been eaten by dogs, Mr Joburi said. Some relatives were too scared to name those responsible for fear that they could be next. “That is the government’s job,” Mr Kani’s father said.

The murders bear the hallmarks of Iraq’s Shia death squads, whose members are part of the militias now marshalled by Iran to fight Islamic State. (Read more…)

Iraq-4207.jpg on Flickr.

At home in a Kurdish classroom: Yazidi refugees in Dohuk

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Dohuk

A teenage girl who spent three weeks as a prisoner of Islamic State militants in Iraq has described how she was captured with her sisters and robbed, then bussed from jail to jail until they reached an impromptu slave market where pairs of armed men arrived almost every day to pick a bride.

Sama had been singled out for her beauty. Only 16 years old, she was held with girls as young as 11, including her own sisters, who were prized by the militants for their virginity.

After two weeks in captivity, her jailers announced their intention to make the prisoners “marry Muslim men”.

Then a mystery benefactor helped her to escape, apparently by buying her from Islamic State (Isis), and she regained her freedom last week.

Yesterday Sama (not her real name) was able to speak to The Timesfrom a high school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk, which is serving as a refugee camp. She sat cross-legged on the floor of a class-room as she described how she was captured with her mother, her grandmother, four sisters aged 11, 13 and 18, and a niece, on August 3. (Read more…)

Iraq-4179.jpg on Flickr.

The bullet travelled down Pte Ali’s throat & lodged between his ribs, but left his vitals in tact

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Suleimaniyah

The first bullet missed. Private Qassim Hussein Ali saw it fly past his face as he sat in the back of a pick-up truck hurtling towards the front line.

The second hit his right hand as he reached for his Kalashnikov.

The third round hit his throat and tore down his neck, lodging between his fourth and fifth ribs and scorching his windpipe on the way.

It was just after midday on Sunday as Kurdish peshmerga, with whom Private Ali is engaged, Iraqi forces and Shia militias broke a two-month siege on Amerli, a mostly Turkmen town in northern Iraq.

“The gunman was hiding in the trees,” Private Ali said through laboured breaths as he recovered on a morphine drip at Sulaymaniyah’s emergency hospital yesterday. (Read more…)

Iraq-4132.jpg on Flickr.

The sound of civilisation: Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra giving Baghdad a chance to “breathe”.

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

From the first notes of the national anthem, it was clear this performance was about something more than music.

In a city besieged by barbarian hoards, who view musical instruments as blasphemy and concerts as profane, listening to Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra was an act of dignified defiance.

For more than 850 people, who packed the National Theatre in Baghdad, the sounds of Elgar, List and Stravinsky were a chance to forget the daily drumbeat of car bombs and suicide attacks, which have once again become the city’s unwelcome soundtrack.

“This is the only way we can breathe,” said Naji Hassan, an art student, who was ten years old when the US-led invasion, in 2003, unleashed a decade of violence on Iraq.

Today, it is Islamic State militants who have captured huge swathes of the country’s north and are threatening Iraq with another civil war.

“These concerts make us think we are people, not just numbers and statistics and casualties of war,” said Dr Mustafa Saleh, a dentist from Mansour, an upmarket suburb in the west of the city.

“We are not barbarians,” he added. “The situation is overwhelming. Events are smothering us. This is the only release we have.” (Read more…)

The Times
Jerome Starkey, in Baghdad

For some, it was the executions. For others, it was seeing young men flogged in public and old women harangued by teenage jihadists for infringements of the militants’ rules.

One man could not tolerate the destruction of historic tombs. Yet residents in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, said their main complaints with Islamic State were over shortages of food, money, medicine and electricity.

“Every five days, we get just one hour of electricity. Water, every three days. We get a just a small bit of water,” a labourer in the city’s northern suburbs said. “There’s a shortage of food, a lack of medicine. No one has been paid since June.” He added that he had seen a young man hit with sticks for “joking with a girl”.

Some people welcomed the militants from Islamic State (also known as Isis) when they advanced across Iraq in June, because they were tired of abuses by the Iraqi army. Residents in Mosul said that soldiers ran a kidnap racket, arresting young men for ransoms. Yet three months after the soldiers fled, patience with their replacements is wearing thin. (Read more…)

Muezzin Mohammed Abbas, Baghdad on Flickr.

In the bombscarred remains of the Imam Ali mosque, in Baghdad-e Jadeeda, where 11 people died on August 25, 2014.