How Syria Did -- and Did Not -- Hang Over the Davos Conference

DAVOS, Switzerland — A group of aid workers and former refugees took over the basement of a Davos school, spooled out fake barbed wire, put up tents and corrugated metal walls and laid down straw on the floor. Then they donned military uniforms, picked up plastic AK-47s and invited CEOs and world leaders to come experience a taste of refugee life.

David Livingston was one of them. He traveled from Uganda to this small mountain town to spend a week in a basement pretending to be a soldier running a Syrian refugee camp. A former refugee and child soldier himself, he comes to Davos to participate in a simulation of some of the same horrors he suffered to draw attention to the plight of refugees, especially from Syria.

Livingston and his fellow actors created an elaborate 30-minute simulation complete with sound grenades, fake gunfire, smoke machine and a lot of yelling soldiers pushing participants from one location to another. Participants take name cards, don headscarves, and descend into the chaos that organizers admit is only a tiny fraction of what refugees go through. And yet, people emerge in tears at the end.

There was good reason to be skeptical going in, given the absurdity of Davos. The forum has embraced so many different meaningless trends -- everything from sustainability to "circular manufacturing" -- that it's often hard to take the place seriously. In an effort to make the meeting "greener," for instance, there was a note that only green cars would be allowed in certain areas, which was followed immediately by contact details for the helicopter service.

Though the World Economic Forum's stated goal is "improving the state of the world," it's better known as a place where CEOs and world leaders get a chance to speak to friendly audiences, a place where governments and companies compete to throw the most extravagant parties, and a place where economic and political soothsaying gets distilled into smart-sounding talking points that can be portioned out at other cocktail parties around the world.

The forum is a nonprofit private club of companies from around the world, some of whom pay more than half a million dollars a year for the privilege of membership. The academics, the NGOs, the journalists, and most of the young people all go for free. The organizing principle is founder Klaus Schwab's stakeholder theory -- the idea that companies are beholden not just to shareholders, but to a broader array of people who are affected by them. The meeting is supposed to bring all these people together to talk in Davos.

The forum has created so many unintelligible labels through its "knowledge generation activities" that it sometimes sounds more like a cult than a meeting about economics. With the parties, and the ubiquitous business negotiations at every free table, and the NGOs shunted off-campus, it's easy to wonder whether the Davos dream is dead. Schwab himself frets about it.

"We fight the commercialization of the meeting," Schwab told Bloomberg News before the conference started. "The forum has a great opportunity to tell the business community: You have to act in the global public interest."

At the opening of the conference, Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth stood up with several other NGOs at an off-site press conference to draw attention to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. The timing was particularly apt with negotiators meeting in Geneva to try to work out a peace agreement at the same time. Roth pressed for the negotiators to prioritize humanitarian needs in the short term while they continue to search for a long-term solution.

"Nobody believes that we're going to have a negotiated peace anytime soon," Roth said.

As the refugee simulation ended, the lights came up and benches were pulled out. Participants sat down and spoke about the fear, guilt, and helplessness that they felt. Sheryl Sandberg had slipped in at some point and was sitting on one of the benches, listening and holding the hand of the person next to her.

Then Livingston got up and talked about soldiers invading his village in Uganda when he was 17 and kidnapping him. Another former refugee talked about fleeing his village in Democratic Republic of Congo and living in a camp for two years. Two aid workers told first-hand accounts of the rape, abuse, and desperation of Syrian children in refugee settlements in Jordan and Lebanon.

Sandberg spoke to the group, through tears, about the necessity of economic growth to create opportunity for parents, so that children don't end up in these situations. She had done the simulation herself two years ago at Davos. Last week she became a billionaire and got a movie deal for her book "Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead."

Crossroads, the Hong-Kong NGO that organized the event, said about 350 people took part in one of 13 sessions during the Davos meeting. It's hard to know how many of those people go on to give money or do other things to help refugees, but organizers say people are often so moved that they commit to donating on the spot. Nestle executives have participated in past years, and then helped underwrite the simulation this year.

"There are some people who have questioned, 'Why would you do this in the mountains of Davos?' I can't think of a better place," said Crossroads' David Begbie.

"It's absolutely important to bring these worlds together," said Christoph Sutter, head of a Swiss energy company. He said it was the best thing he'd done at Davos. Even though, as he said afterward, the extreme wealth of Davos attendees can make it harder to connect them to the experiences of the world's poorest.

"Taking people where they are and making them aware of the situations other people face is important," said Sandberg.

People started to leave and Sandberg's assistant was trying to urge her on to the next event. As she was leaving, she turned to one of the organizers, not offering money, but inviting him to a dinner she hosts for women in Silicon Valley, presumably giving him the chance to pitch other wealthy possible patrons.

Courtesy Crossroads Foundation / Blake Chalmers Photography


‘Cossack’ at the Heart of Kiev Protests Refuses to Give In

The video of Mykhailo Gavrylyuk has become an early symbol of the protests that have rewritten the political map of Ukraine. Stripped naked in the freezing winter, it shows him being berated by the Berkut, the country's infamous riot police. He is made to hold an ice-axe and pose for photographs. His body bears clear marks of a recent beating.

But a day after he was beat up by the police, Gavrylyuk was back on the barricades of Independence Square, known as Maidan, in Kiev. On Friday, this rather amazing photograph showing him back in the square that has become the ground zero of protests circulated on Twitter:

Gavrylyuk was apprehended Thursday by the Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police behind the lion's share of violence visited on protesters. According to Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian-language edition of Radio Free Europe, he said that they threw him on the ground and beat him "for a very long time." They later stripped him and started kicking his head "like a football" -- all while taking pictures. "They gave me an ice-axe and attempted to make me shout ‘I love Berkut!' But how could I ever say something of the sort to these fiends? I would rather die! So, I refused," Gavrylyuk said at a press conference Friday in remarks that were translated for Foreign Policy by the Ukrainian citizen journalist Taras Denysenko.

The 34-year-old Gavrylyuk hails from a Ukrainian-speaking part of the country, where sentiment against the government and its backers in Russia is especially strong. The Berkut forces, on the other hand, largely hail from eastern and southern Ukraine, areas that are historically more pro-Russian. (The spread of protests around the country have strained somewhat these traditional geographic divisions.)

Moreover, Gavrylyuk sports a traditional hairstyle of the Cossacks from the Ukrainian region of Zaporozhia, a shaved head with a long forelock swept to the front or side along with a matching mustache. The Berkut were none too pleased to have a self-professed Cossack on their hands. "One of them took me from behind and held my hands, while the other bent my head, took his knife and started to cut a strand from my oseledets [the scalp lock].  It took several cuts, as the knife was apparently blunt. Then he took another strand and cut it off too," Gavrylyuk said.

The legacy of the Zaphorizhian Cossacks is an important part of Ukrainian national culture and today stands for a spirit of freedom. The Cossacks, who are best known for their roles as border guards for the Russian tsarist empire, have taken on a symbolism in Ukrainian lore somewhat analogous to the American cowboy -- free, fierce, and independent. "I am a Cossack, I took an oath that I will defend the Ukrainian people," Gavrylyuk said at Friday's press conference. "Every Cossack could always answer for another one. Revenge will be very tough." (Cossacks, of course, have a very mixed reputation in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, they are better known as the hated dispensers of vigilante justice and perpetrators of pogroms.)

That sentiment of hardy defiance has become a defining feature of the Ukrainian protests, which escalated after parliament passed laws that would effectively ban anti-government demonstrations. On Saturday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declared that he would back an initiative to ease those laws and offered the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively, to the opposition leaders Arseny Yatsenuk and Vitali Klitschko. They declined. "We're finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders -- not you," Yatsenuk said.

On Monday, that spirit of defiance appeared to pay off when Yanukovych agreed to scrap the anti-protest laws. The government also agreed to entertain a vote of no confidence before parliament but declined to agree to the opposition's main demand, snap presidential elections.

Whether this marks the end of the Ukrainian protests remains an open question -- whether the government's partial retreat on the protesters' demands will mollify the crowd is unknown. Like Gavrylyuk, the crowds in Maidan have shown remarkable resilience, stubbornness even, and the violence of the police response appears to have only solidified these feelings. On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in a Kiev cathedral to attend the funeral of Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a citizen of Belarus, who was shot to death during clashes with police. The Belarusian was one of at least four protesters who died last week. The dead also included Serhiy Nihoyan, who was also shot to death by the police during protests, and Yuriy Verbytsky, who was kidnapped along with journalist Ihor Lutsenko and was found dead in a forest several days later. Lutsenko managed to escape.

The revolution now has its martyrs. Both in the living, like Gavrylyuk, and the dead. 


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