‘Goodbye Gagarin’: Paris suburb razes Communist housing estate

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A man walks past a building of the Youri Gagarine quarter in Ivry-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of the French capital Paris on August 19, 2019.(AFP / Philippe Lopez)
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A man walks past a street mural adorning a building of the Youri Gagarine quarter in Ivry-sur-Seine on the outskirts of the French capital Paris, on August 19, 2019. Some see it as "the end of a world", others "a page that turns": the destruction of the emblematic workers' quarter Gagarine, at the gates of Paris, emblem of the red suburbs, arouses the nostalgia and apprehension of residents who attend the entrance of their city in the era of Greater Paris. Inaugurated in 1963 by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to have travelled in space, this quarter is closely linked to the history of the city of Ivry, stronghold of the Communist Party since the 1920s. On August 31, inhabitants and representatives will meet at the foot of this imposing 13-storey red brick district in the shape of a T to say goodbye during a solemn ceremony in Ivry-sur-Seine. / AFP / Philippe LOPEZ
Updated 30 August 2019

‘Goodbye Gagarin’: Paris suburb razes Communist housing estate

IVRY-SUR-SEINE, France: For decades a hulking housing estate on the edge of Paris was a red-brick symbol of Communist Russia’s promise to workers of the world, but on Saturday residents and local officials will gather to say goodbye to a building that has been left behind in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Inaugurated in 1963 in the presence of Russian space pioneer Yuri Gagarin — just two years after he became the first person in space — the “Cite Gagarine” underscored the Communist Party’s appeal in much of postwar France.
“The bathroom, the spacious kitchen, the elevator — it was all new for us. We’d never known such comforts!” said Jacqueline Spiro, who with her parents was among the first generation of residents.
The T-shaped, 13-story building in the suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine may indeed have looked like something from outer space amid the rows of cramped working-class houses in the so-called “red belt” of suburbs surrounding Paris since the 1920s.
It became a model for the social urbanism projects pursued by the French Communist party, which enjoyed huge support for decades after World War II for its role in the Resistance.
“The Cite Gagarine was the international showcase for the French Communist Party,” said Emmanuel Bellanger, a historian with France’s CNRS research institute.
“With it, the party showed the world what is could do at the local level, so that it could eventually do it on the national level,” Bellanger said.
Russian authorities seized on the project, sending the national hero Gagarin himself to reward “Ivry the Red” for putting Soviet ideals into practice.
“This was not an easy decision to make, but it was done in concert with its residents,” Romain Marchand, the deputy mayor of Ivry-sur-Seine and French Communist Party member, told AFP.
“Everyone knew each other, and would spend time at one another’s homes. It was like a big family,” said Francoise, who gave only her first name and who had lived on the estate some 10 years.
“It’s the end of an era,” she said.
Today, however, graffiti and broken or boarded-up windows are what catch the eye as workers start tearing down the building — there won’t be any spectacular demolition explosions.
The estate’s fortunes began fading in the 1970s as factories shut down in what would prove a deep industrial decline in the Paris region.
As poverty rates increased so did cases of juvenile delinquency and crime, and the Cite Gagarine area became of France’s infamous “sensitive urban zones” requiring more targeted state help to combat joblessness.
“There was a real problem in terms of attractiveness, people didn’t want to come live here, and turnover rates were high,” Marchand acknowledged, saying he wanted to “turn the page.”
After the 16-month demolition is finished, workers will break ground on a so-called “green district” of energy-efficient buildings and parks.
But locals worry the middle class families being sought as part of a “Greater Paris” plan to merge the capital with its suburbs will be the final blow to the social cohesion embodied by the Cite Gagarine.
“With this Greater Paris, we’re wondering if we’ll have the means to live here,” said Elizabeth, a local resident who also gave only her first name.
Critics note that the new project won’t be wholly owned by Ivry’s public housing authority, “but that won’t stop us from keeping 30 percent of the new ‘green district’ as social housing,” Marchand said.
He said he was well aware of the “real estate forces” bearing down on Ivry, which are likely to be a top issue in municipal elections next year.
“Gentrification has long been considered an electoral threat for the French Communist party,” said David Gouard, a political scientist at the University of Toulouse, in southern France, who focuses on the French suburbs.
Communists garnered 55 percent in Ivry’s last municipals in 2014, and “for the time being, the political currents are still in the party’s favor,” he said.

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

Updated 13 July 2020

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

  • Follows little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army carrying out attacks

KARACHI: Investigations into a spate of recent attacks in southern Sindh province have led Pakistani officials to believe there are growing links between Sindhi separatists and militant groups from the insurgency-racked Balochistan province, officers with knowledge of the investigation have told Arab News.

However, experts warn that it may be too early to assume a “nexus” between the groups.

Late last month, gunmen attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, killing two guards and a policeman before security forces killed all four attackers.

Counterterrorism officials said that the attack had been claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group from the southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

Just weeks earlier, three consecutive explosions killed four people, including two soldiers in Sindh. A shadowy secessionist organization, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), which wants the province to break away from the Pakistani federation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This week, SRA also claimed a grenade attack on a Karachi bakery in which a retired paramilitary Rangers official was killed. 

SRA and two other Sindhi groups were banned by the government in May this year. 

Speaking to the media after the attack on the stock exchange building,  Sindh Rangers  chief  Major General Omer Ahmed Bukhari said that the attacks proved that “hostile intelligence agencies” were working to forge a “nexus” between Sindhi and Balochi insurgent groups, adding that he believed current investigations would establish this beyond doubt. 

In a statement emailed to the media after the stock exchange attack, the BLA admitted that it had “complete support” from Sindhi groups. 

“Today both the nations (Baloch and Sindhi) are fighting for the independence of their homelands against Pakistan,” the BLA statement said. “We had the complete support of the Sindhi nation in today’s attack, and it shows a strong brotherly bond between both the nations.”

Separatists have been fighting security forces for years in Balochistan over what they see as the unfair exploitation of the province’s vast mineral wealth. Insurgents are also opposed to — and attack projects linked to — China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in the resource-rich province. 

Pakistan has regularly blamed India for supporting Baloch separatists, a charge that Delhi denies.

Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament that he had no doubt India was behind the attack on the stock exchange building, which India promptly denied. Khan offered no evidence for his allegation, but he said that there had been intelligence reports warning of attacks in Pakistan and he had informed his Cabinet about the threats.

Sindhi separatists such as the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army have carried out low-intensity attacks in the past, including blowing up train tracks. Their attacks, however, have been less violent than that of neighboring Balochistan where separatists have attacked a Chinese consulate, a leading hotel chain and on many occasions killed security officials patrolling a coastal highway.

Now, officials fear that Sindhi groups might be able to enhance their capacity to carry our deadlier attacks with help from Baloch militants and other hostile groups. 

“It can be a source of lawlessness in the future if this nexus is not broken,” said a police officer involved in investigating a “possible nexus between Sindhi and Baloch insurgent groups, backed by India.” He requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

The police official said that Baloch groups already had “some capability” to launch damaging attacks, “but once there is a nexus, it can also be helpful for Sindhi nationalists, and that’s worrisome.”

A senior intelligence officer, who also declined to be named, said there had been a noticeable increase in the frequency of attacks by Sindhi groups, which pointed to the fact that they might have more experienced helpers.

“Increase in capability (through a nexus with Baloch groups) will only be proved if they launch more sophisticated attacks,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are absolutely aware and alert to the dangers posed by the growth of this nexus.”

Raja Umar Khattab, a senior counter-terrorism officer in Karachi, said that while teaming up with other groups might enhance the capacity of Sindhi nationalists, he did not see the nexus posing a significant threat in the near future. 

“The nexus can supplement the capacity of Sindhi sub-nationalists,” Khattab said, “but they will not be able to create any big law and order situation due to the preparedness of the law enforcement agencies.”

Sindh’s chief of Rangers has also said that Baloch and Sindh separatists were cosying up to the London faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political party whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London. 

“Hostile intelligence agencies strive to make a nexus of the cells, sleeper cells and facilitators of the remnant terrorist organizations (separatists), which include the remnants of the MQM,” Bukhari said during a press conference after the stock exchange attack.

The MQM, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political parties, is mostly comprised of descendants of Muslim Urdu-speaking people who migrated to Pakistan around the time of the partition of India in 1947. 

Once able to control Sindh province with an iron grip, the party’s fortunes have waned in recent years, particularly since 2013 when the military launched a crackdown against criminal groups and militants as murder rates soared and mutilated bodies were dumped in alleyways daily. Many saw the operation, centered in Karachi, as a pretext to wrest control of the port city from the MQM, an accusation that security forces deny.

While Karachi crime rates have dropped sharply and many local businesses have welcomed the operation, allegations of brutal and illegal methods have remained. 

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has in the past referred dozens of cases of illegal abductions of MQM workers to the Pakistan government, concluding a “pattern of specific targeting” of the MQM by Rangers, which the paramilitary force denies.

Before the 2013 operation, law enforcement agencies and many Karachi residents accused the MQM of racketeering, the abduction, torture and murder of opponents and holding the city to ransom by calling mass strikes at will.

On Wednesday, the MQM’s Qasim Ali Raza denied that the party had any links to separatists or attacks in Sindh and urged the state to stop the “blind and fraudulent” process of blaming the party. 

The Karachi-based political analyst, Mazhar Abbas, said that a nexus between the MQM and separatist groups, if it existed, would not work. 

“The workers of MQM neither accepted the alliance with Sindhi nationalists (in the past),” he said, “nor will they subscribe to the current idea of a friendship.”

Other analysts said that there was as yet no “solid” evidence to claim the nexus existed. 

“Politically, there has been some closeness between Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, but speaking about a military nexus, one needs to have solid evidence at hand,” said Sohail Sangi, a Karachi-based analyst who closely observes separatist groups.

However, Anwar Sajjadi, a Quetta-based security analyst, said that he believed a growing nexus was a possibility, adding it was no coincidence that Sindhi groups had recently started voicing opposition to Chinese projects being built under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) umbrella, which Baloch groups have long opposed.

“We have seen uniformity in their stances,” Sajjadi said. “Same stance on CPEC and other (rights) issues is bringing all these groups closer.”