Behind the barricades of Turkey’s hidden war against the Kurds

The New York Times reports: On the morning of Oct. 29, 2014, a long convoy of armored vehicles and trucks rolled northward in the shadow of Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and crossed a bridge over the Khabur River, which marks the border with Turkey. As the convoy rumbled past the border gate, the road for miles ahead was lined with thousands of ecstatic Kurds, who clapped, cheered and waved the Kurdish flag. Many had tears in their eyes. Some even kissed the tanks and trucks as they passed. The soldiers, Iraqi Kurds, were on their way through Turkey to help defend Kobani, a Syrian border city, against ISIS. Their route that day traced an arc from northern Iraq through southeastern Turkey and onward into northern Syria: the historical heartland of the Kurdish people. For the bystanders who cheered them on under a hazy autumn sky, the date was deliciously symbolic. It was Turkey’s Republic Day. What had long been a grim annual reminder of Turkish rule over the Kurds was transformed into rapture, as they watched Kurdish soldiers parade through three countries where they have long dreamed of founding their own republic.

Some who stood on the roadside that day have told me it changed their lives. The battle against the Islamic State had made the downtrodden Kurds into heroes. In the weeks and months that followed, the Kurds watched in amazement as fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. — long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States — became the central protagonists in the defense of Kobani. The P.K.K.’s Syrian affiliate worked closely with the American military, identifying ISIS targets for airstrikes.

By the time ISIS withdrew from Kobani in January 2015, the Kurdish militants had paid a heavy price in blood. But they gained admirers all over the world. The Pentagon, impressed by their skill at guerrilla warfare, saw an essential new ally against ISIS. There was renewed talk in Europe of removing the P.K.K. from terrorism lists, often in news articles accompanied by images of beautiful female Kurdish soldiers in combat gear. For many Turkish Kurds, the lesson was unmistakable: Their time had come. I met a 27-year-old P.K.K. activist in Turkey, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals from the government, and who first went to Kobani in 2012, when the Kurds began carving out a state for themselves in Syria called Rojava. “I remember talking to P.K.K. fighters, and I thought, They’re crazy to think they can do this,” she said. “Now I look back and think, If they can do it there, we can do it here.”

Nineteen months after that convoy passed, the feelings it inspired have helped to start a renewed war between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels. Turkish tanks are now blasting the ancient cities of the Kurdish southeast, where young P.K.K.-supported rebels have built barricades and declared “liberated zones.” More than a thousand people have been killed and as many as 350,000 displaced, according to figures from the International Crisis Group. The fighting, which intensified last fall, has spread to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants in February and March killed 66 people. Another sharp escalation came in mid-May, when P.K.K. supporters released a video online seeming to show one of the group’s fighters bringing down a Turkish attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, a weapon to which the Kurds have rarely had access. Yet much of the violence has been hidden from public view by state censorship and military “curfews” — a government word that scarcely conveys the reality of tanks encircling a Kurdish town and drilling it with shellfire for weeks or months on end.

The conflict has revived and in some ways exceeded the worst days of the P.K.K.’s war with the Turkish state in the 1990s. The fighting then was brutal, but it was mostly confined to remote mountains and villages. Now it is devastating cities as well and threatening to cripple an economy already burdened by ISIS bombings and waves of refugees from Syria. In Diyarbakir, the capital of a largely Kurdish province, artillery and bombs have destroyed much of the historic district, which contains Unesco world heritage sites. Churches, mosques and khans that have stood for centuries lie in ruins. Tourism has collapsed. Images of shattered houses and dead children are stirring outrage in other countries where Kurds live: Iraq, Syria and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Report slams Israel’s military law enforcement system

Al Jazeera reports: Citing a raft of deep systemic failures, human rights group B’Tselem has announced that it will no longer cooperate with Israel’s military law enforcement system.

For the past 25 years, B’Tselem, which documents Israeli human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, has served as a “subcontractor” for the system by submitting complaints about soldiers’ alleged misconduct, gathering relevant documents and evidence, and requesting updates for affected Palestinian families.

While the goal was to help to bring justice to Palestinian victims and deter future misconduct, the reality has been the opposite, B’Tselem said in a scathing report released on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s Netanyahu suspected of ‘criminal conduct’

Al Jazeera reports: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised following a state comptroller report that concluded his financial records raise “suspicions of criminal conduct”.

Published on Tuesday, the State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report noted that many of Netanyahu’s trips – including several with his family – were funded by foreign governments, public bodies and businessmen.

Netanyahu did not report any of the trips to government committees which determine whether the funding can be considered illegal gifts and thus a breach of Israeli law.

The report focuses on Netanyahu’s travels between 2002 and 2005, when he was the country’s finance minister.

“The trips by Netanyahu and his family that were funded by external sources when he was finance minister deviated from the rules, and could give the impression of receiving a gift or of a conflict of interest,” the report said.

Netanyahu, through his lawyers, has denied any wrongdoing, and it was not immediately clear whether Israel’s attorney general, who is also examining the issue, would launch any criminal investigation. [Continue reading…]

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What the world owes to the Syrian people

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes: The suffering of Syrians comes to those of us outside the country in words and images. Violent scenes and anguished accounts pervade the international media. Reporters tell us who is fighting, and commentators ask why. How should the United States and others respond? What should be done about ISIS? About refugees? There are days when it seems we have reached a saturation point. No more talking, please — no more words.

But that impulse, however understandable, is mistaken. In their new book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, journalist Robin Yassin-Kassab and human rights activist Leila Al-Shami provide a bracing and timely reminder that no matter how long the war rages or how unreachable a political settlement may appear, the world owes it to the Syrian people — especially the peaceful revolutionaries — to listen to their stories and support their cause. Burning Country is a portrait of the opposition, a movement of protest against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, which has been nearly forgotten amid the humanitarian strife, factionalism, and power politics surrounding and driving the conflict.

The regime’s extraordinary cruelty is well known, thanks to reporting such as Janine de Giovanni’s The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria (2016), the latest in a long line of works detailing Assad’s bloody response to the revolution for democratic reform, economic opportunity, and an end to corruption and institutionalized violence. This revolution has its own lesser-known backstory, though, which Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami helpfully emphasize. Contrary to popular perception, 2011 was not the beginning. Calls for change emerged with the political openings accompanying the Damascus Spring movement in the early 2000s and the 2005 Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change. Prominent civil and political figures of all backgrounds — secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish; the opposition, Muslim Brotherhood, Communist Labor Party — signed on. When I visited Damascus in 2009, the potential for democratic reform was palpable, if unspoken. Within limits, one could discuss and even debate issues such as women’s rights and Syria’s role in the region. My sense was that many Syrians, though mindful of the dangers, wanted change.

To appreciate the tenacity of the Syrian revolutionaries in the face of the regime’s violence, it is important for those outside the country to understand this history: the Syrian uprising was not a spur-of-the-moment reaction to the Arab Spring. It percolated just beneath the surface — and just beyond the headlines — for at least a decade before March 2011, when anti-regime graffiti drawn by schoolboys in the southern city of Daraa provoked Assad’s violent crackdown. It is also critical to recognize the depth of many Syrians’ disillusionment with a regime that has imprisoned, abused, and violated them. One evening during my 2009 visit, I had dinner with two weary but warm Syrian Kurds who had spent the prime of their lives in prison. I asked what outsiders could do to help people in their situation. “Tell our stories,” they replied. This is exactly what Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami do. [Continue reading…]

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The Morning They Came for Us reports on the hell of Syria

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Michiko Kakutani writes: The title of Janine di Giovanni’s devastating new book, “The Morning They Came for Us,” refers to those terrible moments in ordinary Syrians’ lives when the war in their country becomes personal. Those moments when there is a knock on the door and the police or intelligence services take a family member away. Those moments when a government-delivered barrel bomb falls on your home, your school, your hospital, and daily life is forever ruptured.

“The water stops, taps run dry, banks go, and a sniper kills your brother,” she writes. Garbage is everywhere because there are no longer any functioning city services, and entire neighborhoods are turned into fields of rubble. Victorian diseases like polio, typhoid and cholera resurface. Children wear rubber sandals in the winter cold because they do not have shoes. People are forced to do without “toothpaste, money, vitamins, birth-control pills, X-rays, chemotherapy, insulin, painkillers.”

In the five years since the Assad regime cracked down on peaceful antigovernment protests and the conflict escalated into full-blown civil war, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and some 12 million people — more than half the country’s prewar population — have been displaced, including five million who have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe in what the United Nations calls the largest refugee crisis since World War II. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed offensive in Syria targets ISIS’s capital

The Washington Post reports: A Kurdish-led force backed by U.S. airstrikes launched an offensive on Tuesday to seize territory around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the first ground attack to directly challenge the Islamic State’s control of its self-proclaimed capital.

Although the operation appears to have relatively limited goals, it will serve as an early test of a coalition being forged with U.S. help between local Arab fighters and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to take on the militant group in its most symbolically significant stronghold.

A few thousand Kurdish and Arab fighters — grouped under the umbrella of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes — began moving south from the existing front line about 30 miles north of Raqqa, according to a statement from the SDF and the U.S. military.

The operation aims to secure control of a stretch of territory in the mostly desert terrain north of Raqqa, said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military, speaking by telephone from Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Fallujah offensive: Thousands of civilians trapped

Al Jazeera reports: The UN and humanitarian organisations are concerned over the fate of some 50,000 civilians trapped in Fallujah, a town situated west of Baghdad and the site of an Iraqi army offensive.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Baghdad, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Becky Bakr Abdulla recalled stories told to her by families who managed to escape Fallujah, where the Iraqi army has shelled areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group since Monday.

“People basically are surviving on dried dates and water from the river,” Abdulla said. “The only things these families managed to take with them were the clothes they’re wearing and their IDs.” [Continue reading…]

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‘My grandsons’ fight to avenge their father’: Child soldiers in Afghanistan

The Guardian reports: When Firoza handed her two grandsons Kalashnikovs and enlisted them in her militia, it was, she says, to give them a chance to avenge their father who was killed by the Taliban.

Known in Helmand by her nom de guerre – Hajani – 54-year-old Firoza fought for years to repel the militants from Sistani, in Marjah district, commanding a unit of the US-backed government militia called the Afghan Local Police (ALP). During the war, in which she lost three of her six adult sons, she armed most of her male family members, including two children.

The eldest, Nabi*, a shy boy with bags under his eyes, echoes his grandmother. “The enemy killed my father so I am also fighting,” he says.

According to Firoza, the government pays Nabi the standard 9,500 afghanis (£100) local police salary; his younger brother, Habib, is not paid.

Firoza says Nabi is 18. Many Afghans don’t know their age, but that claim seems improbable. Face smooth, voice unbroken, he looks perhaps 14. Firoza says she gave her grandsons weapons five years ago.

Despite government pledges to rid its armed forces of children, a growing number of minors are recruited to fight in the intensifying war, according to experts. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban leader was made to ‘face the consequences’ of refusing to negotiate

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama secretly ordered the strike on Mullah Mansour after first trying to bring him to the negotiating table. Initially, there was hope in Washington that Mullah Mansour would be more open to negotiations than his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Obama administration officials were divided over whether the Pakistanis were capable or willing to deliver Mullah Mansour for the negotiations.

U.S. officials said the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mullah Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.

Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mullah Mansour had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran.

U.S. intelligence agencies received information that allowed them to track Mullah Mansour’s movements, including details about devices he used for communications, U.S. officials said.

That allowed the spy agencies to present policy makers with a choice: If and when Mullah Mansour were located in Pakistan, should the U.S. strike?

Mullah Mansour’s travels made it easier to find him. In contrast, the Central Intelligence Agency spent years looking in vain for an opportunity to kill the reclusive cleric he replaced, Mullah Omar.

An April 19 Taliban attack in Kabul targeted Afghanistan’s secret service, killing more than 60 people and underlining for the Americans the extent to which Mullah Mansour had chosen a military course. A decision was made that he should “face the consequences” of his refusal to negotiate, a senior administration official said. [Continue reading…]

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Taliban name new leader after confirming predecessor died in U.S. strike

The New York Times reports: The Taliban broke their silence early Wednesday over the death of their leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, confirming in a statement that he had been killed in an American drone strike.

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, was selected as the new leader of the Taliban, and Sarajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub were chosen as his deputies, the movement’s leadership council said in the statement. Mullah Yaqoub is the son of the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, whose death was acknowledged in July 2015.

President Obama said Monday that Mullah Mansour had been killed in a drone strike Saturday in a restive province of Pakistan.

The Taliban’s spokesmen, who publish regular updates from battlefields across Afghanistan, had remained silent since Mullah Mansour’s killing, as the movement’s leaders convened in the Pakistani city of Quetta to discuss his burial, as well as his successor.

One of their first meetings was at the home of Mawlawi Haibatullah, a figure with deep religious credentials who had been a lesser-known deputy to Mullah Mansour. Over the past year, more attention had focused on another deputy, Mr. Haqqani, who increasingly had been running the day-to-day war for the Taliban as Mullah Mansour was occupied with a campaign of quashing internal dissent and with travel abroad.

Taliban commanders who were aware of the conversations in Quetta had described Mawlawi Haibatullah as a voice guiding the discussions of succession, but not as a front-runner for the leadership.

Many of the movement’s leaders had pushed for a relatively obscure figure to succeed Mullah Mansour — to avoid a divisive personality and for purposes of enhanced security, keeping in mind that Mullah Omar’s reclusive ways long protected him and even concealed his death for years. It appeared Wednesday that such criteria had served Mawlawi Haibatullah well. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s long history of air-disaster denial

Dorian Geiger writes: “I rely on God.”

That’s what Gameel Al-Batouti, the co-pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990, repeated — 11 times in Arabic — before the aircraft he was operating mysteriously plunged into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts on Oct. 31, 1999.

That audio, captured by the recovered flight recorder, was a key piece of evidence for U.S. authorities and the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB), which concluded that Al-Batouti was suicidal and had purposefully brought the airliner down while the first officer was out of the cockpit. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency was adamant, however, that mechanical error was to blame and dismissed the NTSB investigation as “flawed and biased.” Egypt still officially denies that Al-Batouti committed suicide.

Now Egypt is once again under scrutiny to deliver answers in the disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804, which crashed into the Mediterranean with 66 people on board on May 19. This time, in contrast to past air disasters, the Egyptian government initially suggested that it was terrorism, even though the exact cause of the crash remains unclear and no terrorist group has claimed responsibility. As it has done previously, Cairo appears to want to deflect blame onto other countries. A terrorist attack would reflect poorly on France’s airport security, whereas a technical issue with the plane would leave EgyptAir to blame. But Egyptian officials later walked that suggestion back and disputed reports that the small size of the body parts found indicated that a large explosion had brought down the plane.

The equivocation from Cairo was a reminder anyone expecting to get to the bottom of the tragedy should reflect on Egypt’s lack of transparency in previous investigations. “There has been a very checkered past in terms of Egyptian openness,” says says Adam Schiff, a California Congressman and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who has long criticized Egypt’s lack of cooperation in international investigations. “They have not always been open and forthcoming with the investigation results and often have sought to control access to wreckage and the flow of information during the course of the investigation.” [Continue reading…]

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For Washington, stability in Egypt matters more than human rights

The Wall Street Journal reports: After two years of cool relations between the U.S. and Egypt, the October terrorist attack on a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula triggered a flurry of visits here by U.S. officials, who called for increased military aid to shore up President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The downing of that jet was claimed by an Islamic State affiliate based in the Sinai. The possibility that the mysterious crash of an Egyptian airliner last week was another act of terrorism has only intensified worries that Mr. Sisi is unable to contain the threat, according to a U.S. official, a Western diplomat and other experts.

“An incident like this on the heels of another airline disaster is always going to speed up any cooperation on security even if the cause is not yet clear,” the Western diplomat said.

Regardless of what actually caused the EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo to crash, Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, said recent traffic from Washington suggests the U.S. will seek to increase support for the Sisi regime despite deep concerns about its human-rights record.

The goal is to avoid having Egypt — long a U.S. ally under longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak — follow the downward spiral of Iraq, Syria and neighboring Libya, where terrorists have exploited security vacuums in recent years.

“Egypt is too big to fail in the eyes of the U.S. and Europe,” Mr. Hanna said. [Continue reading…]

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5 ways Bernie Sanders may impact the Democratic Party platform

Jason Linkins writes: Every four years, as Democrats and Republicans plan for their national conventions, party leaders come together to decide on how to best dust off and shine up their respective parties’ platform — that catch-all proclamation that signals their political priorities and policy goals. Typically, the publication of these platforms results in a couple days of news stories, in which noteworthy alterations are documented and the other side levies partisan objections.

But this year, there’s an interesting twist: Bernie Sanders — the presumptive second-place finisher in the Democratic primary — has been granted the opportunity to play a role on the platform committee. Which means that the Democratic Party’s platform document may receive up to four days of coverage. Perhaps even five.

If this seems like a cynical way of viewing what is ostensibly an important party document, I invite you to muddle through the last Democratic party platform, authored in President Barack Obama’s re-election year. A red-hot manifesto it is not. Over the course of some 25,000-or-so words, the party outlines, in the safest possible terms, what it stands for. Everything is poll-tested to within an inch of its literary life.

Along the way, the platform is salted with marketing bromides and vague political platitudes. Credit is given to Obama for many accomplishments which need to, in the eyes of the party, continue being accomplished. And, in keeping with recent Democratic Party election-year strategies, much effort is undertaken to cast the GOP in a bad light (“The other guys are crazy!”). It’s a tradition that will no doubt continue now that the presumptive Republican Party nominee is reality TV personality and North Pacific Subtropical Gyre garbage patch Donald Trump.

The objectionable nature of Trump’s candidacy may be one thing on which this year’s platform committee might be able to quickly agree. In an unusual move, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is allowing Sanders to name five appointees to the 15-member committee, instead of reserving the right to name the entire committee for herself. Under this arrangement, presidential rival Hillary Clinton‘s campaign will get to pick six members and Wasserman-Schultz will name four, including the committee chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum points out, the buried news may be that Sanders is signaling that he understands he won’t win this nomination. Whether or not this is true, the independent Vermont senator is hailing this as a major, substantive concession. And he’s named a quintet of unconventional-by-party-insider standards as his emissaries: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), environmental campaigner Bill McKibben, Native American activist Deborah Parker, racial justice advocate (and Obama critic) Cornel West and DNC member James Zogby.

Clinton’s picks are decidedly more in keeping with her “barrier-breakers” theme: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union leader Paul Booth, former EPA head Carol Browner, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Ohio state Rep. Alicia Reece, former State Department official Wendy Sherman and Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden.

So, one way in which this arrangement will generate more news than is typically created by the platform committee will be watching West and Tanden co-author a document. But beyond the soap opera aspect of this collaboration, there are several areas in which Sanders’ representatives could alter what’s traditionally a very staid and cautious party declaration in significant ways. [Continue reading…]

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What the songs of wolves reveal about language

Holly Root-Gutteridge writes: Dialects, or regional differences in the form and use of vocalisations, have been observed in birds, bats, chimpanzees and now an increasingly long list of other species. This has been most beautifully heard in whales, where the songs of humpbacks are transmitted across hundreds of miles, telling a listener which part of the ocean the whale lives in, and tracing its family group by the influences on song formations. The bioacousticians Katharine Payne and Roger Payne first listened to the whales on underwater microphone recordings in the 1960s, and used musical notation to explore the changes that occurred in each male’s song, year on year. Whalesong, heard by humans as long ago as Aristotle, became the subject of intense study and public interest. Their research showed that there were geographic differences in humpback whale songs and that we could tell apart populations just by using those songs, which change throughout their lives. So the whales were controlling their singing and subject to cultural influences. The Paynes had found dialects in whale song. Would we find the same for canids?

Despite their cultural popularity, wolf howls haven’t been the subject of focussed research until recently. Now, following the lead of marine biologists and ornithologists, and with improved sound recording equipment and analysis programs, researchers can study them in depth. The first step in understanding what animals are saying to one another is to figure out what aspects of the voice are functional and what parts are formed by the structure of the throat and mouth, or what is the piano and what is the tune. Studies since the 1960s have shown that the howls that have haunted our dreams for centuries can tell us a lot about the particular wolf vocalising. Like humans, each wolf has its own voice. Each pack also shares howl similarities, making different families sound distinct from each other (wolves respond more favourably to familiar howls). This much we knew. What we didn’t know was whether the differences seen between packs were true of subspecies or of species, and if an Indian wolf howl would be distinct from a Canadian one.

More questions follow. If howls from different subspecies are different, do the howls convey the same message? Is there a shared culture of howl-meanings, where an aggressive howl from a European wolf means the same thing as an aggressive howl of a Himalayan? And can a coyote differentiate between a red wolf howling with aggressive intent and one advertising the desire to mate? Even without grammar or syntax, howls can convey intent, and if the shape of the howl changes enough while the intent remains constant, the foundations of distinctive culture can begin to appear. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook — ‘Sweet Pain’

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