Gabon coup bid highlights country in grip of uncertainty

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba attends the closing ceremony of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations at the Stade de l’Amitie Sino-Gabonaise in Libreville. (AFP)
Updated 08 January 2019

Gabon coup bid highlights country in grip of uncertainty

  • Gabon has been without effective government since October, when President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke
  • Security forces attacked the building and arrested the coup leader, killed two and freed radio technicians and journalists who had been held hostage

LIBREVILLE: “Who’s in charge?” asked Gaston, a resident of Libreville, a day after Gabon’s armed forces quelled an attempted coup.
Calm has returned to the Gabonese capital after several hours of upheaval, yet Gaston’s question is on many lips.
The brief attempt on power has prompted many to ponder the flux gripping a country where political change has been negligible for more than half a century.
Gabon has been without effective government since October, when President Ali Bongo suffered a stroke.
Bongo, 59, is the son of Omar Bongo, who became head of state in 1967 and died in June 2009, leaving a legacy of corruption allegations.
In the kingdom of “kongossa” — gossip in local slang — tongues have wagged over the lack of detailed information about Bongo’s health.
The head of state has been flown to Morocco where he recorded a New Year’s Eve address marked by slurred words and a squint that critics said raised even more alarming questions about his health.
In his lengthening absence, a small group of soldiers stormed the state broadcasting headquarters in the capital on Monday and went on the air urging the Gabonese people to “rise up.”
The coup attempt turned out to be short lived. Security forces attacked the building and arrested the leader, killed two and freed radio technicians and journalists who had been held hostage.
The army was deployed in the capital and armored vehicles patrolled the streets, but on Tuesday most shops and restaurants were open and the seafront avenue, where the broadcasting center is located, reopened to traffic.
The Internet, which had been cut, was restored, although the round-the-clock state-run news channel Gabon 24 was off the air.
In a country based on an executive president, Bongo’s absence has been felt in many ways, from institutional fog to press speculation of tensions between Bongo’s cabinet director, Brice Laccruche Alihanga, and the head of the intelligence services, Frederic Bongo.
Gabon is without a new prime minister — there were legislative elections last October, but it is the job of the head of state to name someone to the post.
The opposition has sought to have the Constitutional Court officially declare a power vacuum in Bongo’s absence, but court president Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo instead announced a new clause in the basic law to clarify the situation, without a parliamentary vote.
“Gabon on (very dangerous) automatic pilot,” an opposition newspaper headlined early in November, prompting a ban on publication.
Frustration, anxiety or anger are not hard to find in the streets of Libreville, although few wish to speak on the record, fearing retribution.
“What happened (yesterday) was a good thing, it should have worked. We have to get out of this situation,” said Stephane, a 27-year-old tripe seller.
He said he had been among people who went out in response to the rebels’ appeal for an uprising.
“We weren’t criminals or looters. We answered the call. We are 120-percent fed up!” he said.
The authorities remain consistent in their communications. The situation after the attempted coup is “normal,” Bongo is “doing fine” and “will soon come back.”
“It’s as if absolutely nothing has happened,” snorted an angry citizen.
“They did the same thing to us in 2016,” the individual said, referring to the government’s posture after a bitterly contested presidential election was followed by clashes.
“Can you understand how frustrating it is to live in a country where there is such a blackout?”

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”