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Stelios Kerasidis says his latest work is for people who suffer and isolate because of Covid-19

Move over Mozart, here comes Stelios Kerasidis. A seven-year-old Greek prodigy has penned an isolation waltz inspired by the pandemic.

The hypnotic, fugue-like melody has picked up more than 43,000 hits on YouTube since its launch last week.

Hi guys! Im Stelios. Lets be just a teeny bit more patient and we will soon be out swimming in the sea, he beams, perched on his piano stool, feet barely touching the floor. Im dedicating to you a piece of my own.

The work, his third composition, was written especially for people who suffer and those who isolate because of Covid-19, he adds.

Stelios Kerasidiss Isolation Waltz

Born in Athens in 2012 to Fotis and Agathe Kerasidis, both pianists who now teach him, Stelios first performed in public at the age of three.

In 2018 he played Chopins Waltz in A Minor at New Yorks Carnegie Hall, and last year he appeared at Londons Royal Albert Hall performing on Elton Johns famous red piano.

Stelios says his favourite pianist is the late Canadian Glenn Gould, best known for his technically demanding renditions of Bach variations.

The Greek has shown a flare for composing. His two earlier works were written for his sisters, Veronica and Anastasia, and like Isolation Waltz were met with critical acclaim.

Greece has been under lockdown for longer than most other European nations, the government having closed schools almost a month ago. Last week the government announced that swimming was also forbidden as the measures were ramped up.

The precautionary steps appear to be working: Greece has reported 79 deaths and fewer than 1,800 confirmed coronavirus cases, far fewer than some other countries.

Stelios, who is likely to be homebound for some time yet, has not hinted whether he has another composition up his sleeve.

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Cordoba, Spain (CNN)The fortress town of Zahara de la Sierra in southern Spain is used to fending off enemies. The Moors and Christians fought over it in medieval times, and it was sacked by the French in 1812. Now its formidable position high above the Andalusian countryside has suddenly become an invaluable asset once more.

Since then, the country has recorded more than 100,000 cases and 10,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.
In Zahara, however, there has not been a single recorded case of Covid-19 among its 1,400 inhabitants. “It has been more than two weeks, and I think that’s a good sign,” Galván told CNN.
    The mayor’s drastic steps have the full support of the townspeople, and especially the elderly. Nearly a quarter of Zahara’s inhabitants are older than 65; there are more than 30 residents in an old people’s home. Towns and villages nearby have seen infections and several coronavirus fatalities.
    Zahara’s white houses and narrow streets cling to the steep hillside, looking up at medieval fortifications and down towards a reservoir and rolling olive groves. An hour from Seville by car, it’s a popular destination for visitors from around the world. Galván says that in the first few days, they had to turn away French and German tourists who were unaware of the local government’s measures.
    The checkpoint on the one access road is run by a single police officer. Two men dressed in the protective clothing normally used for spraying the olive groves wash vehicles that come through with a mix of bleach and water. The vehicles even have to pass through a sort of sheep-dip to ensure their tires are disinfected.
    “There is no car that comes through the checkpoint that’s not disinfected,” says Galván.
    The mayor admits that such measures could be anywhere from 20% to 80% effective, but says it’s all about reassurance. “We have managed to give tranquility to our neighbors,” he says. “They know no one ‘unknown’ can come in.”
    Similar sanitation precautions have been introduced inside Zahara. “Every Monday and Thursday at 5:30 p.m. a group of around 10 people are out in the streets to disinfect the town, all the streets, plazas and outside homes,” Galván says.
    One of them is local farmer Antonio Atienza, whose tractor trundles through the town spraying the streets.
    A local business is paying two women to make grocery and medical deliveries to reduce the number of people out on the streets, especially those most vulnerable to contracting the virus. They work about 11 hours a day and their order book is growing.
    One of them, 48-year-old Auxi Rascon, says the response from other citizens has been wonderful.
    “They are very happy, because they don’t need to go out, they feel protected and feel confident,” she says. Rascon is also proud of the town’s swift response. “They took the right measures at the right moment, and now we are seeing the results,” she told CNN by phone.
    Besides organizing the delivery service, the Zaharilla women’s association looks after the elderly who can’t cook for themselves (by leaving food at their front doors) and arranges basic repairs for them. A Facebook page created for older residents has started a drive to get their old photographs published online. Luisa Ruiz Luna, who started the initiative, says it’s taken off, and is “a nice way for Zaharenos who live abroad to interact with us, apart from exercising the memory.”
    The town has also outfitted two cars with music and lights, “so kids can come to their balconies and enjoy them,” Galván says.
    The economic lifeblood of hundreds of small Spanish towns like Zahara is provided by family-run businesses and “autonomos” — the self-employed. So the town council has dipped into its contingency fund to cover the costs of electricity, water and taxes for local businesses during the national state of emergency. Bars and restaurants reliant on tourism — there are 19 such establishments in Zahara — would otherwise go to the wall.
    For Galván, it’s more than financial aid. It’s about preserving Zahara as a community. His father was born in the town. But the mayor knows that in the end, Zahara will need help from Madrid or the regional government if the national confinement continues.
      “We will need a sort of financial lung if this goes on,” Galván told CNN.
      Like millions of Spaniards, he scrutinizes the Ministry of Health’s daily Covid-19 bulletins, hoping that like the sieges of Zahara in centuries past, this too shall pass.

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      The long read: The notorious case of three teenage sisters inspired a campaign for change and a backlash from the patriarchy

      At about 3pm on 27 July 2018, the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan scolded his three teenage daughters, Krestina, Angelina and Maria. The apartment they shared in a Soviet-era housing block near the huge ring road that encircles Moscow was a mess, he told them, and they would pay for having left it that way. A large, irascible man in his late 50s with a firm Orthodox faith, Khachaturyan had run his household despotically since he allegedly forced his wife to leave in 2015.

      That afternoon, his daughters would later tell investigators, he punished them in his customary sadistic way. Calling them one by one into his bedroom, he cursed and yelled at them, then pepper sprayed each one in the face. The oldest sister, Krestina, 19, began to choke from the effects of the spray. Retreating to the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Krestina collapsed on the bed and lost consciousness. Her sister Maria, then 17, the youngest of the three, would later describe this moment as the final straw.

      Krestina woke shortly after 7pm to cries from the other side of the bedroom door. Running into the living room, she saw Angelina and Maria standing over their father, who was in his chair, struggling violently. Apparently believing her sisters were in danger, Krestina snatched the bottle of pepper spray from a nearby table and sprayed it frantically at her father.

      But what Krestina had witnessed was not another assault by Khachaturyan on his daughters. While she was recovering in the bedroom, investigators say Maria and Angelina attacked Khachaturyan with a hunting knife and hammer they had retrieved from his car. Disoriented from the pepper spray and rapidly losing blood, Khachaturyan hobbled on to the landing outside the apartment. It was there that Angelina, the 18-year-old middle daughter, caught up with him and, investigators allege, drove the knife into his heart.

      Several minutes later, one of the sisters called the police. Identifying herself as Angelina, she explained through tears that her father had attacked her under the influence of a heavy dose of sedatives, and that she had killed him in self-defence. Police found his body on the landing, with multiple stab wounds to the neck, arms and torso. The sisters were arrested for murder and held in a womens remand prison in south-east Moscow.

      News of the killing quickly spread across Russia, and in the months that followed, the country was divided over what drove the three teenage sisters to kill their own father. The case was covered obsessively by newspapers, evening news programmes, and TV talkshows. It was all anyone could talk about for months, said Alexey Parshin, Angelinas lawyer.

      Some, including Khachaturyans two sisters, claimed the young women were scheming ingrates who killed their father to steal his money. They cited evidence that the daughters had slashed each other in the minutes following the killing with the same knife they allegedly used to murder him, in what investigators would later call a deliberate attempt to mislead them.

      Others including their mother, Khachaturyans estranged wife came to the sisters defence, refusing to accept that such an egregious motive could be behind their actions. As lawyers and investigators began piecing together the Khachaturyan family story, it became clear this was not a cold-blooded murder. Over hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts of witness testimony, a picture emerges, which Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters contest, of a household terrorised by his paranoiac despotism of routine sexual abuse, beatings, humiliation and death threats.

      Despite this history of abuse, in June 2019 prosecutors indicted all three daughters on charges of pre-meditated murder. Two months after the killing, they were released from custody following an appeal from their lawyers, and as an investigation into the crime continues, they are staying with relatives, awaiting trial. A psychological assessment shortly after the killing found that Maria was mentally unsound at the time of the crime due to an acute stress disorder caused by her fathers abuse, and recommended her for treatment. But given the severity of the charges, Maria and her sisters face betwen eight and 20 years in prison for what they maintain was a desperate act of self-defence.

      Meanwhile, Russia finds itself deep in a national debate over domestic violence. The sisters case has galvanised opposition to the countrys punitive legal system and conservative political culture. At present, Russia has no specific legislation to define, prevent or prosecute domestic violence. Womens rights advocates are campaigning to overturn a controversial 2017 law on battery that has softened punishments and, they say, encouraged perpetrators to act with impunity.

      Hundreds have taken to the streets since the indictment was issued to call for the sisters release and picket government buildings in protest against their prosecution. Fundraising concerts and theatre performances have been held to offset their legal fees and call for the passing of a law that would help prevent future attacks. An online petition for their release has gathered more than 370,000 signatures. Its become clear this is a problem of catastrophic proportions which cant be ignored, said Alyona Popova, a womens rights activist who started the petition and helped draft a domestic violence bill now being debated in the Russian parliament. Something has to be done.

      But as activists step up their efforts to reform the legal system, they are being countered by a campaign backed by the powerful Orthodox church to promote traditional values and portray the Russian family unit as under threat.

      Orthodox priests are appearing on state TV channels excoriating the malign forces of globalisation, while mass vigils are being held across Russia to protest against western progressivism. Hundreds of social media accounts representing conservative movements are promoting an apocalyptic narrative that claims any moves towards regulating family affairs will lead to the disintegration of Russian families and perhaps of Russia itself.

      In the years before his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan liked to take regular pilgrimages to Israel, returning with candles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianitys holiest site, and various icons that he added to a home shrine at which he prayed daily. An account purportedly belonging to him on a Russian social media platform where he lists his name as Michael of Jerusalem contains pictures of him bathing at holy sites, drinking shirtless with friends and posing with prominent Orthodox clerics and public figures.

      During a police interrogation the day after his murder, a partial transcript of which was provided to me by one of Angelinas attorneys, Angelina said that her father first sexually assaulted her while the two were on holiday in Israel in November 2014, and that he had subjected her to various forms of sexual harassment ever since. It always took place in his bedroom, she said, with the door closed. Hed regularly tell us that sex outside marriage is a sin, she said of her pious father. But because were his blood and his daughters, he can do with us as he wishes, and we should submit ourselves to it.

      In WhatsApp messages that were leaked to the press, Khatchaturyan had often threatened Angelina with sexual violence. In January 2018, while he was on a pilgrimage in Israel, he threatened to rape both his daughter and his estranged wife upon learning that Angelina wasnt home as he had instructed. Three months later, he sent her a series of lewd voice messages. Youll be sucking endlessly, Angelina, he said in one. And if you leave Ill find you. Three minutes later, he warned: Ill beat you for everything, Ill kill you. Leave, leave, dont drive me to sin.

      Khachaturyan sexually assaulted his other daughters as well, according to the official investigation into the crime, and had effectively enslaved them. We served him in the home, ironing, cleaning, cooking for him and giving him food when he asked, Maria said in a police interview, according to court documents. If the sisters fell short of his expectations, or he simply lost his temper, he attacked them.

      Violence, or the threat of it, was a constant presence in their home. Khachaturyan was highly superstitious, and is said to have banned his family from uttering certain everyday words in his presence, believing them to bring bad luck. He installed a camera on the landing outside their apartment to record his childrens comings and goings. In a search of the property after the killing, police confiscated a hammer, a knife, two airguns, a crossbow, a rubber-bullet handgun, a revolver, a hunting rifle, 16 cartridges and 16 spears. In Khachaturyans car they also found business cards displaying the logo of Russias Federal Security Service, or FSB, and listing the 57-year-old as its employee.

      Angelina Khachaturyan arrives at a court hearing in Moscow in June 2019. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty

      Investigators declared the cards fake, but few in the area doubted that Khachaturyan was well connected. A series of events recounted by neighbours indicate that he had friends in the Moscow police and the prosecutors office. He constantly bragged about his connections, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, who has written to the authorities requesting that Khachaturyans contacts with law enforcement officials be investigated. The choice for the three sisters, he said, was to do nothing, and hope itll pass, or go to the police and inevitably suffer another beating at the hands of their father, who would have been the first person the police would report to.

      In records of her police interrogation, Angelina described the predicament the sisters faced in the run-up to the murder. My sisters and I were tired of such a life, but afraid to turn to anyone for help because he had connections everywhere, she said of her father. After their mother was forced to flee, the sisters were afraid that anyone who tried to help them would get into trouble. Telling our relatives was also not a solution to the problem, because they might have not believed us.

      In their statements, Maria and Angelina both recounted an episode from early 2016, when the three sisters were on holiday with their father in Adler, a resort on Russias Black Sea coast. After Krestina ran out of a room where shed been alone with her father, she swallowed a handful of drotaverine pills, an antispasmodic drug, in an apparent suicide attempt, and had to be rushed to hospital.

      Krestinas lawyer, Alexey Liptser, told me that it was fear that Krestina would again attempt suicide that had driven her sisters to take matters into their own hands. (Krestina did not take part in the killing, he added.) In a WhatsApp exchange with one of her friends a month before her fathers murder, Krestina said that he had again threatened to rape her and that she might not endure the situation much longer.

      I lost consciousness during the night, she wrote. He began to chase me out at one in the morning, because he didnt like the fact that one of his shirts isnt ironed. She continued: I became anxious and started crying and then began suffocating and fell on the ground. The little ones began to sob and resuscitate me, it was fucking crazy. And to top it off he whacked them over the head with his gun He gets worse every day. And its like this every day? the friend responded. Almost, Krestina replied.

      Consider the fact they could not be expected to make logical decisions, their inability to find help, the constant violence, the threats to their lives, said Parshin. Put all that together and youll understand what state they were in, and why they took that knife and that hammer.

      Mikhail Khachaturyan drove them to that state, Parshin went on. The moment he began to commit crimes against them, he stopped being a father.

      In December, I travelled to Moscows northern outskirts to see Aurelia Dunduk, the mother of the three sisters and a key witness in their case. Dunduk met Mikhail Khachaturyan in Moscow in 1996, two years after she had emigrated with her parents from Moldova. She was 17. Khachaturyan, who was 35, was from an ethnic Armenian family that had left the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1988 to escape the sectarian conflict that was engulfing parts of the moribund Soviet empire. The family came to Moscow hoping to eventually emigrate to the US, but their plans never worked out.

      The city the two families encountered then, in Russias first post-Soviet decade, was a place descending into lawlessness. Aspiring entrepreneurs, law enforcement officials and petty criminals eager to exploit the collapsing system used any means at their disposal to profit from the chaos. After a stint in the Russian army, Khachaturyan became a local racketeer: merchants opening up stores and small businesses in his part of north Moscow would pay cash for his protection.

      Dunduk dated Khachaturyan for several months after they first met, then broke it off. He had become violent, and started threatening her family, she claims, so she moved outside the city to stay with relatives and keep her distance. He ultimately forced her to return through a campaign of threats and coercion, she said, which culminated in him locking Dunduk in his apartment after she attended a new years eve party he hosted.

      Krestina, left, and Angelina, at Moscows Basmanny district court. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/TASS

      I stayed against my will, Dunduk, now 40, told me at a cafe not far from the apartment where Khachaturyan was murdered. He left none of us any choice, neither me nor my relatives. She is tired of the constant attention from prosecutors, journalists and Khachaturyans defenders that she has faced since the murder, and her shaky cadence was barely audible over the pop music playing from speakers overhead. Her voice is familiar to audiences of the many talkshows she has appeared on since her daughters arrest, in a bid to argue their case. In February, she sat in a TV studio as a screen above her showed two amateur actors re-enacting her alleged rape by Khatchaturyan 20 years earlier. The cameras zoomed in on Dunduks face so viewers could scrutinise her reaction. She lowered her head and looked away.

      In June 1997, Dunduk gave birth to a son, Sergey, and two years later to Krestina. By that point, she said, Khachaturyan regularly beat her; the smallest thing could set him off. You just didnt know, she told me. One minute youre talking to him normally, and then suddenly he might begin shouting and cursing. One afternoon in the early 00s she managed to escape the apartment and run to the local police station. Khachaturyan followed her and listened with a grin as she asked to file a complaint against him. She said he then hit her in front of the duty officers, many of whom were his friends, and dragged her home. After that, she said, it was pointless trying to do anything.

      Sergey said he was also subjected to regular violence. When he was 16, in 2013, Khachaturyan chased him out of the home. He was forced to sleep rough for weeks before he was taken in by a friend, with whom he has lived ever since. Then, in 2015, Khachaturyan also forced Dunduk out. He lost his temper, put a gun to my temple and told me: Im going to leave now, and if youre still here when Im back, Ill kill you all, she alleges.

      Dunduk never returned to live with the family. A friend in Moscow put her up for six weeks, and then she joined her mother in Moldova. After a year, she came back to Moscow to be closer to her children, again staying at friends homes. But she had minimal access to her daughters, who she said feared retribution from Khachaturyan. It was because of this lack of communication, and the fear that drove it, that Dunduk only learnt of Khachaturyans sexual abuse from investigators. When she found out, she said: I wanted to kill him all over again.

      After Khachaturyans death, his family began a very public feud. Arsen, Khachaturyans 21-year-old nephew, started touring Moscows TV studios defending the reputation of a man he calls papa. On air, he has branded Dunduk a prostitute and accused her of abetting her daughters in the killing. In September 2018, friends of Arsen assaulted Sergey on the set of a prime-time talkshow. In January, Khachaturyans mother, Lidiya, and sister Naira launched a libel suit against Dunduk for claiming in an interview that Khachaturyan had raped her. A husband cannot rape his wife by definition, they told Russian media.

      In many ways, the split in the Khatchaturyan family reflects the bitter divide within Russian society. On the one hand, there are those who wish to preserve a sense of national identity rooted in conservative Orthodox Christian values and a rejection of progressive ideas. On the other, there are those who believe Russias development as a modern society is dependent on its ability to embrace liberal social policies and champion the rights of women and minorities.

      Even before the killing, domestic violence had been a topic of public contention in Russia. In 2012, the Russian government conducted a nationwide survey that found one in five women had been physically assaulted by a husband or partner. Four years later, in July 2016, the Russian parliament, with Putins consent, excluded battery against close persons spouses, parents, children and other live-in relatives from a law decriminalising other forms of battery. This meant that for the first time in Russias history, there was effectively a law that applied specifically to domestic violence.

      But there was soon a backlash from conservatives. In November 2016, a group of lawmakers led by the head of parliaments committee on the family, Elena Mizulina, introduced a bill to decriminalise instances of domestic violence that happen no more than once per year and cause no lasting physical damage. Mizulina framed her bill as a way of safeguarding Russian families from outside intrusion, citing foreign funding received by NGOs opposed to her initiative.

      This time, Putin backed the conservatives, warning in December 2016 that interference in family matters is unacceptable. As lawmakers moved to pass the decriminalisation bill at the end of 2016, Russian state TV launched a propaganda campaign to smooth its passage through parliament. Reports on federal channels suggested men should not be criminally liable if they beat their wives accidentally, out of strong love, or in the interests of upbringing, and peddled the notion that European children are routinely withdrawn from families after bogus domestic violence complaints from strangers. We are balancing out peoples rights, and removing anti-family laws, said Olga Batalina, one of the lawmakers pushing the initiative.

      Under the new law, which Putin signed in February 2017, domestic violence that doesnt cause severe injury is punishable by a 30,000-ruble fine (360) comparable to a smoking or parking violation or 15 days in jail. A second offence can lead to three months in prison, but if a year has passed since the first, a modest fine is again imposed. Critics summed up the law as one free beating a year.

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      The reasons for Putins about-face on domestic violence are complicated. The conservative movement in Russia is partly fuelled by many of the same anti-globalist fears driving the current populist wave across Europe. But in addition, since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Russia has suffered a protracted population decline. Putin has unveiled various financial incentives for first-time mothers and made raising the birth rate a signature policy during his 20 years at Russias helm. But he has largely failed to reverse the trend: the country has one of the worlds highest abortion rates, nearly half of all marriages collapse, and immigration no longer offsets population decline.

      To shore up support, Putin has appealed to the nationalist majority that comprises his base through a rhetoric of traditional values and a slew of conservative initiatives. A 2013 law banning promotion of homosexuality in the presence of Russian children led to a violent backlash against LGBT people across the country. Putin has also empowered the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that rails against globalisation and encroaching western influence and defends traditionalism as a means of protecting Russian identity.

      The Russian Orthodox Church is completely merged with the state, said Yulia Gorbunova, a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of a major report last October on the issue of domestic violence in Russia. They echo each other on all the main social issues.

      Following the passage of Mizulinas decriminalisation bill in 2017, womens rights activists reported a spike in domestic violence. Many incidents involved repeated abuse and blatant police inaction despite victims appeals. A crisis hotline operated by the Anna Centre, a womens rights organisation that Putins government has labelled a foreign agent, recorded a rise in complaints from 20,000 in 2016 to more than 31,000 in 2018.

      After the decriminalisation, all of us saw a barrage of cases, an absolute barrage, said Mari Davtyan, a lawyer involved in the Khachaturyan case and a campaigner for domestic violence legislation. Society read the message. Those who used violence concluded that its now allowed. And what did those who suffer from it conclude? That theres no line of defence left.

      Ten months after the law went into effect, in December 2017, Margarita Gracheva, a woman from a town 60 miles south of Moscow, was driven to a nearby forest by her husband where he chopped off her hands with an axe. It was a horrific coda to months of abuse that continued despite Grachevas appeal that November to the police, who refused to press charges. In January 2018, in another Moscow region town, a beauty salon worker named Elena Verba was stabbed 57 times by her husband, who went to work and left the mutilated body for his seven-year-old son to discover. Verba had reported an incident of domestic violence to police six months earlier, but duty officers persuaded her to retract her accusation because her husband worked in law enforcement and risked losing his job. Last September, in Cheboksary, 400 miles east of Moscow, 38-year-old Anna Ovchinnikovas husband strangled her with a rope, placed her body in a suitcase and buried it in a nearby forest. She had filed at least three complaints about domestic violence. All three men were ultimately sentenced to prison terms of between nine and 15 years.

      Government figures suggest that only one in 10 Russian women who suffer domestic violence report it to the police roughly in line with the global average, according to the UN and a mere 2% seek legal advice. According to a recent analysis by independent outlet Media Zona of several thousand court verdicts against Russian women jailed on murder charges between 2016 and 2018, 79% had been defending themselves against a partner.

      A protester holds a placard with a message reading Domestic violence victims need therapy not prison on Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

      Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch said the problem is compounded by the fact that Russian police often refuse to launch investigations. Theyre not taught to treat the situation as potentially lethal, she said. So they either laugh it off, or tell the wife to behave herself and be nice to her husband.

      Last July, a court in Oryol, 200 miles south of Moscow, sentenced duty officer Natalya Bashkatova to two years in prison for negligence. In November 2016, Bashkatova received a call from a woman whose boyfriend had threatened to kill her. Do not call again. We will not come to you, she told the woman. What if something happens? the woman asked. If he kills you, well come to examine the body, came Bashkatovas answer. Dont worry. Within 40 minutes of that exchange, which the woman recorded, she had been beaten to death by her boyfriend in the courtyard of her home.

      The last resort for some victims is an appeal to the European court of human rights. In July, the ECHR issued its first decision on a domestic violence case in Russia, ruling that police had failed to protect Valeriya Volodina from repeated acts of violence by a former partner who stalked and assaulted her after she left him in 2015. It gave a scathing assessment of the governments tolerance for a climate which was conducive to domestic violence.

      In November, Russias justice ministry responded to a series of questions sent by the ECHR in connection with domestic violence cases brought by Russian women. In excerpts cited by Russias Kommersant newspaper, the ministry said the scale of domestic violence in Russia is exaggerated and dismissed the need for separate legislation. A victim has the option to reconcile with their attacker for the sake of preserving personal relations in the family, it said, and Russian women who appeal to the ECHR are trying to sabotage the efforts the government is making to improve the situation.

      To get to the office of Oksana Pushkina, a lawmaker in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, you pass through metal detectors and through an exhibition space to a set of lifts that takes you to the ninth floor. On the November afternoon I visited, assault rifles and other Russian-made weapons were on display in glass cases as the legislative body, as well as schools and other state institutions across the country, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Russian arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

      Pushkina is one of 73 female lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber, where she stands out among a mass of jingoistic officials who rubber-stamp laws approved by the Kremlin. When we met, she had recently returned from a conference at the Council of Europes Strasbourg headquarters on how police should respond to domestic violence. I sat there like some creature from another planet, said Pushkina, a glamorous woman in her 50s. They were discussing whats already in place in their countries. And we dont even have a law.

      With help from Davtyan and Parshin, the two lawyers involved in the Khachaturan case, and Alyona Popova, the activist, Pushkina is trying to introduce a new domestic violence bill. It includes banning an abusive partner from access to the victim for at least one month, their possible eviction from a shared family home, and a requirement that they compensate their victims legal fees or alternative accommodation during periods of violence. It proposes a support infrastructure for victims, with counselling services and shelters across Russia. And it defines domestic violence and the kinds of ways physical, psychological, economic it can manifest itself.

      For us its important that the violence does not happen again, Davtyan said. The goal is simple: that he stops approaching her.

      The opposition to any domestic violence bill is well organised, well funded, and backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In early December, a month after visiting Pushkina, I attended a roundtable at the Duma that brought representatives of Russias various religious groups together with lawmakers.

      Billed as Legislative aspects of the defence of spiritual-moral values as a key factor in the development of civil society, the three-hour session was dominated by high-ranking Orthodox clergy. Pushkinas domestic violence bill featured prominently. The family is a holy creation, declared one priest, and thus cannot be regulated by a secular state.

      One threat in particular kept coming up: zapad, the west.

      Aurelia Dunduk, estranged wife of Mikhail and the mother of the three Khachaturyan sisters. Photograph: Matthew Luxmoore

      Fifty-four units of the CIA are working against us, trying to impose their values, Pavel Pozhigaylo, a member of the Russian culture ministrys board, told the room. We are at war. The audience applauded. The Orthodox activist Andrei Kormukhin told the roundtable that Pushkinas bill is aimed not at preserving the family, but at destroying it. He then gave the floor to his wife, a mother of nine children, who branded the bill anti-Russian and said that if it had passed in the 90s, the happy families we have today would not exist.

      A few days later, I sat down with Kormukhin at a cafe in central Moscow. He leads Forty Forties, an ultra-conservative movement that claims to have 40 regional branches and more than 10,000 supporters, including senior Orthodox clergy. The churchs leader, Patriarch Kirill, has met with its members and is a personal friend of Kormukhins, whose WhatsApp avatar shows the men deep in conversation. In its six years of existence, Forty Forties has roped in football hooligans and neo-Nazis and stood accused of various extremist acts in defence of religion. In May 2015, Kormukhin was briefly detained by police for joining in a violent attack on LGBT activists attempting to hold a parade in Moscow.

      In recent months, Forty Forties has directed its resources against Pushkinas domestic violence bill, staging protests and mass vigils under the slogan for the family. In October, Kormukhin co-authored an open letter to Putin denouncing the draft law. The 1,700-word text, which included 50 references to family, was co-signed by more than 180 organisations from across Russia including amateur fight clubs, paramilitary groups and civic movements with names like Big Family, Family, Love, Fatherland and Lots of Kids Is Good.

      Kormukhin argues that the law is part of a western plot aimed at weakening Russian families and insists that statistics on domestic violence cited by rights activists are wrong. Because the majority of crimes happen when the man is in a state of intoxication, he said, a man needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and be left to sober up.

      A good duty officer will know that if the woman returns home then the husband will fall before her knees the next morning, beg for forgiveness and promise it wont happen again. And then the children will stay with their parents and the family unit will be preserved, he said. Why do you want to deprive a family of its breadwinner?

      What if he beats her again after three days? I asked.

      And what if youre a paedophile? Kormukhin asked, frustrated. It says nothing if a man has beaten his wife once.

      For Pushkina, the dirty campaign waged by groups like Forty Forties undermines their stated commitment to religious values. Were talking about prevention [of violence], and they call us extreme feminists and destroyers of a social order that is a de facto patriarchate, Pushkina said. It really has been that way since ancient times. But times are changing.

      Maria, Angelina and Krestina Khachaturyan are largely oblivious to the vicious culture war their case has fuelled. Banned from using the internet and from communicating with each other, with witnesses or the press, they are dimly aware at best of their status as torchbearers for Russias feminist movement and targets of its conservative backlash.

      For now, Angelina and Krestina are living with relatives, and Maria with her mother. Just before New Years Eve, their night-time curfew was lifted, but the other rules remain in force. They now only see each other in court, under a bailiffs watchful eye, when they gather to hear the judge extend their pre-trial restrictions. They were always together, and when they split them up it was as if one organism was torn into three parts, Parshin told me.

      On 3 December, investigators announced they were sending the final version of their indictment to the prosecutors office for trial. Maria, Angelina and Krestina had acted with premeditation, they concluded, driven by a strong personal enmity towards their father caused by his protracted physical and sexual abuse. But two weeks later, the prosecutors office issued a stunning decision: investigators should reassess the case, it said, and consider reclassifying the sisters actions as self-defence exactly what their lawyers had been arguing all along. Killing in self-defence is not a crime, so if the murder charge is dropped, the women will be set free.

      But Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters, Naira and Marina who have emerged as his most committed apologists since his death have appealed, alleging that his daughters led a debauched, drug-addled existence and murdered their father for his money. Theyve also pressed additional charges against Dunduk, claiming she lied repeatedly in interviews about extramarital affairs. Yulia Nitchenko, an attorney who represents them, said any rumour that charges will be dropped is fake news; she expects the case to go to trial in the coming weeks and for the three sisters to be convicted within a year. The court will set the whole record straight, she told me. No one will evade justice.

      Pushkinas campaign for domestic violence legislation appears to have stalled. In November, parliaments upper house published a version of her bill listing preservation of the family as a primary goal of preventing domestic violence a clear overture to the conservatives. Even in this watered-down version, the bill is unlikely to race through parliament. In the past decade, at least 30 different domestic violence bills have been prepared in Russia, and several introduced in the Duma. None has passed even the first reading. But public opinion appears to be on Pushkinas side, driven in part by the case of the Khachaturyan sisters.

      In the past, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, the problem was denied outright; it was as if, in societys perception at least, it did not exist. Thats the most noticeable change, he said. People have begun talking about the issue of domestic violence.

      In a December 2019 survey by state-backed pollster VTsIOM, 40% of respondents said they know violent families, and 70% said they supported a hypothetical law on domestic violence. In an August 2019 poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 14% of respondents said domestic violence is a family affair that should be kept private.

      It used to be treated as a marginal issue. Journalists covered this rarely and reluctantly, and called such cases household squabbles, said Davtyan. But theres now an understanding that this is not just a domestic affair, but a violation of human rights.

      Popova was hopeful this shift will pave the way for the laws passage, even if the conservatives succeed in stalling it for now. But she warned that each month brings news of victims who could have been saved.

      Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, and sign up to the long read weekly email here.

      Read more:

      (CNN)Even in the most desperate times, music can lift the spirits — as some Italian neighbors have proven by singing together in harmony from behind closed doors.

      The video, which has been liked over 77,000 times and shared more than 23,000 times, was taken by a local who said they were singing to “warm their hearts” during the quarantine.
      Italy is in the midst of a lockdown after the government implemented strict isolation measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, which has so far claimed more than 1,000 lives and infected more than 15,000 people in the country.
        “People of my hometown #Siena sing a popular song from their houses along an empty street to warm their hearts during the Italian #Covid_19 #lockdown,” the resident said in a tweet.
        The video shows a dimly lit and deserted street and features the voices of men and women singing “Il Canto della Verbena” (“The Song of Verbena”) — a traditional patriotic folk song.
        Italian Susy Unica Silvestri posted a separate video on Facebook on Thursday from her flat in Naples, which has been shared more than 13,000 times.
        Her video shows people in neighboring blocks on their balconies, singing and chanting upbeat messages such as “go Italy, go Naples!” and “there is no virus that can beat us.”
        Silvestri told CNN the community planned to sing again on Friday evening — and that despite the gravity of the situation, it was in the nature of Italians to remain upbeat.
        “We are worried, but optimistic. The Neapolitan people love each other even with a choir from the balconies,” she said.
          “Tonight we will all do it again and we will thank the volunteer nurses and doctors who are helping us,” she added.
          “There is trust and optimism in the air… it could not be otherwise, we are Neapolitan, we are optimistic by nature.”

          Read more:

          The refugee camp is notorious for its overcrowding, fires and riots. But for the people who live there, life goes on and every day brings new stories of resilience, bravery and compassion

          It is not easy to find the library at Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. Before reaching the refugee camps main entrance, you turn off the road where the police bus is always parked, then walk up the track that runs beside the perimeter fence. You walk past the military post and the hawkers selling fruit and veg, trainers, cooking utensils, cigarettes, electrical equipment pretty much everything; past huge stinking mountains of bagged-up rubbish so much rubbish; and past the worst toilets in the world, overflowing with excrement and plastic.

          Then, opposite the hole in the fence where people who dont want to use the main gate come and go, you turn right, into what they call the Jungle, the olive groves into which the camp has exploded, because it was meant for 3,000 people and now has 20,000. Continue along the winding path, watching out for low-slung washing lines, past the burnt-out olive tree and the tiny tent with the family who always say hello, then turn left up the steep hill that becomes a muddy slide after rain. And there it is, on the right: Morias new library.

          From the outside, it looks like all the other structures in this part of the camp a shack cobbled together from bits of wood and tarpaulins. But inside there are shelves and books. And, standing behind a counter, wearing a New York Yankees beanie, a librarian Zekria, from Afghanistan.

          He runs a school, too that is how the library started. Zekria, 40, his wife and their five children arrived on the island a year ago in the usual perilous way, in a small boat at night across the 12-mile strait from Turkey. He tried to register the kids at one of the NGO-run schools that provide some educational activities, but they were all full; the waiting list could have been a month, two months, three months.

          So Zekria, who used to teach law at a university in Kabul, decided to start his own class. I bought a whiteboard and some markers. It started in an open area under an olive tree last March, teaching English, he says. English is the most important, because, even though people get stuck here for a year, two years, more even, no one wants to live here for ever. He speaks excellent English, softly.

          Everyone especially children needs hope … young refugees on the outskirts of Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          More and more people mostly Afghans, but also Syrians, Iraqis and members of other nationalities wanted classes. Zekria was invited to peoples tents and containers to teach; soon he had more potential students than he could cope with. So he set up a team and they built a classroom. Registration opened one Friday morning. When I came here at 7.30am, more than 600 people were in the line.

          They scheduled lessons for everyone: no one gets turned away, even if it means 50 to a class. We cannot say no, says Zekria. As if to prove it, 14-year-old Somahya shows up to register for German lessons (her family is trying to get to Germany) and is told there will be a class available by next week.

          Now there are three classrooms and the teaching team numbers 30, with more than 1,000 students learning English, German, French and Greek, guitar and art. In the room next to the library, a class mostly of teenagers is painting designs on T-shirts on the floor. Its very important for people living in this stressful place, says Zekria. They come here, paint or listen to music, they learn something, theyre busy, they forget the other traumatic stuff they suffer in this camp. Psychology starts in action. Doctors will advise, but we are doing it in action.

          The library is the latest project. Zekria hasnt quite worked out the system yet. It doesnt officially open until tomorrow. He thinks it is going to be one book borrowed at a time, maybe two if users travel a long distance within the camp. They will be able to keep items for a week, maybe 10 days. So far, books have mostly been donated by aid workers and NGOs, some possibly more pertinent (Catch-22) than others (the Lonely Planet guide to China). Zekria would like more books in Farsi and Arabic. I have only one book with me, a new one by the film-maker Chris Atkins about his time banged up in Wandsworth prison in London. That could be relevant, I guess. Anyway, it is there now, in the library at Moria.

          Humanity survives in hell … South Sudanese migrants outside Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          Zekrias own sentence and his familys is further uncertainty. Their asylum application has been rejected. He doesnt know why, but suspects it may have something to do with this educational activity. The authorities dont like it, he says.


          I have come to Moria on the hunt for hope. It began with a letter to the Guardian from an aid worker there. He was concerned that the notorious camps portrayal in the media was relentlessly negative. But working there, he said, was an amazing experience; every day, he witnessed acts of kindness by extraordinary people. It gave him faith in humanity.

          You will have heard about the desperate conditions, the overcrowding, the fires, the riots, the unaccompanied minors, the trauma, sexual exploitation, rape and murder. I am here to see if there is another, more positive side to Moria.

          Bloody hell, that looks unlikely. Moria no good, is the chorus to my time at the camp. The same issues come up again and again: the fear and the cold at night, freezing showers, the unreliable supply of water, no electricity, queueing for hours for food, for months, years or for ever for permission to leave the island. Then there are the fights that break out among the frustrated, angry, bored young men who make up a high proportion of those living here. Just before my arrival, a 20-year-old Yemeni man was fatally stabbed, the second death this year. No one came here for this.

          Moria is hell, a stain on 21st-century Europe, where bureaucracy, politics and simply not caring enough have left tens of thousands in limbo people fleeing war and danger, looking for a future for themselves and their children and not finding it. Morias existence is a disgrace, a failure of morality.

          Yet, somehow, a sort of life goes on; humanity survives in hell. I am here for three days two alone, then another with the photographer Byron Smith and experience so much goodwill and humour.

          I am offered warm flatbread fresh from one of Morias many ovens, sunflower seeds from kids, shisha from a bunch of Iraqi lads standing around a fire. Language is sometimes a problem, but it turns out it is possible to discuss the demise of Manchester United through sign language. There are more people here from Afghanistan than from any other country and I end up talking to more Afghans than anyone else, but I also meet people from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Zimbabwe and even Myanmar.

          Abdullah Najafi (second left), from Afghanistan, and two of his children Mohammad (left), 14, and Meraj, five show photos and share tea with Sam Wollaston inside their tent. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          There is no power to make coffee or tea in Wahid Aminis store today, but he has cold drinks. A cameraman back in Kabul, Wahid, 20, is trying to join his family in France, but his application has been rejected. He is hopeful that, with legal help and more documentation, he might get there one day. The shop, next to a busy barbers, is a new enterprise, to try to make a bit of money. He sells shampoo, rice, spaghetti, washing-up liquid, disposable razors, etc, which he buys outside the camp. He is open 24 hours.

          The Najafi family Abdullah and Gulbdan, plus their sons Ali Reza (15), Mohammad (14) and Meraj (five) invite us into their homemade tent. It is tiny for five people six, actually; their 16-year-old daughter, Faezh, has gone to queue for a cold shower. But it is spotless and tidy blankets have been folded and piled up for the day and we leave our muddy shoes at the entrance. The familys belongings hang in rucksacks from the wall, next to the Afghan flag and a couple of soft toys, one of which looks like a Kevin the Carrot from Aldi. I really hope it is one of the Kevins I recently sneaked into the charity-shop bag at home.

          Gulbdan must know of a secret power source, as she conjures up an electric kettle and hot water to make tea, served in cracked cups with almonds and biscuits. Touching hospitality in any circumstance; properly moving in Moria.

          Mohammad shows me footage on his dads phone of him taking part in a karate tournament in Iran. Abdullah and Gulbdan left Afghanistan 20 years ago; the kids have been brought up in Iran until now. Mohammad, already a black belt, won his bout. There is no karate in Moria, just actual fighting. The Najafi family keep to their tent after dark.

          They show us pictures on Faezhs camera of some of their journey. Playing on a beach in Turkey, rock pools, jellyfish. She didnt take pictures of the crossing it was too dark and too scary but there is a little video of them on the beach where they landed in the north of Lesbos, looking tired but happy, in Europe at last. They never imagined they would end up like this.

          There is plenty of humanity on show from the aid workers. Kind Danish women distribute clothes; a group of Dutch Christians hand out boxes of toys; a middle-aged British man with a background in water engineering leads a team to maintain the camps showers, toilets and sewers. There are hundreds of mostly young volunteers, who consider Moria unacceptable and Europes shame. They are not indifferent: they want to make a difference. I meet many who came for a few weeks and ended up staying for a year, sometimes two.

          One Happy Family is, as you might expect from its name, good news. A community centre a few miles from the camp, run by various organisations along with many refugee volunteers, it has a medical centre, a playground, a gym, a womens space, a cafe, board games, a phone-charging station and an electrical repair shop. There is also a garden, where refugee volunteers including Sima Mohammedi and Reza Rezaie show me the beetroot, spinach, turnips, chard, beans and herbs they are growing. Covering the compost heap is a big piece of black rubber, just recognisable as part of one of the dinghies that bring refugees from Turkey and then get abandoned. Recycling.

          The vegetables contribute to the OHF kitchen, where they cook lunch for up to 1,200 people every day. Todays chefs are Fifie from Zimbabwe and Mohammed from Myanmar. They are cooking vegetables, lentils, chickpeas and flatbread. Once a week they do chicken and the queues get really long.

          Back at Moria, it is hard not to meet Ali Shama Eddin. He must be the most famous and is certainly the tallest person here. Ali, 23, from Damascus in Syria, arrived in Moria in 2016. He was alone: his parents had already reached Germany but that helps your case only if you are a minor. He started helping, volunteering with the Dutch organisation Movement on the Ground, and learned English from hanging out with the Europeans he worked with.

          It took Ali almost two years, but he got his travel documents eventually and went to Germany to join his family. But my heart, my mind, my feelings were here, so I decided to come back, he says. Now he works here, as the general manager for the same NGO, Movement on the Ground. He strides about the place in his bright yellow jacket, greeting everyone in several languages, trying to sort out peoples problems, finding room in a tent for a new arrival. I understand Im a refugee as well, he says.

          I understand Im a refugee as well … Ali Shama Eddin, from the charity Movement on the Ground, mediates a dispute in the camp. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          When there is a dispute between two men, one of whom says the other owes him money, Ali sits them down to try to sort it out. I want to hear from both of you to understand how we can solve this problem, he tells them. This one doesnt end in a fight for now.

          There is love and communication between people from different countries we can all be together, share a meal, discuss something. We can learn from each other, inspire each other, support each other. This is amazing, says Ali, who is very much on board with the NGOs ethos, which is all about treating people with dignity and respect and empowering them.

          Who is this European woman, who looks a bit like Johan Cruyff and smokes like him, too? Ah, Susila Cruyff, the daughter of the footballer. She is here with the Cruyff Foundation, which develops sports activities for children in need around the world. Nowhere are kids more in need than here. The foundation is going to build a football pitch a Cruyff court in the camp and Susila is here to look for a suitable site. At the moment, there is nowhere flat in camp to kick a ball. My father used to think that sport is more than sport, she says. Its good for your health, but also for your mental health, she says.

          The foundation will build two pitches: one here, one somewhere else on the island for the locals the hope being that it will encourage competitions and build bridges between refugees and residents. The relationship between the two has been far from easy.


          They steal, they fight, they dont respect us, says Sofia, my taxi driver from the airport. Tourists no longer come; Lesbos is now an Islamic place, she says.

          There are about 25,000 refugees on an island with a permanent population of 86,000. That is an increase of almost 30% (think of 19 million people suddenly showing up in the UK). It has put a massive strain on the islands resources: water, services, the hospital. Ambulances are frequent visitors to Morias main gate; I see a woman in labour and obvious pain being lifted into one. She will be back within a couple of days with Morias youngest resident.

          Close the borders … a woman holding a Greek flag protests against the countrys refugee camps. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

          There is a one-day general strike on the island while I am here; everything is shut down. Hundreds of protesters gather in the capital, Mytilini, waving Greek flags, demanding the closure of the camp and the removal of refugees from the island. We want our islands back, we want our lives back, is the main slogan of the protests, which are taking place on the islands of Samos and Chios at the same time.

          A few miles from Mytilini, in a tiny hamlet on the Gulf of Giera, a very different scene is playing out. In what used to be a restaurant, a cosy dining room with a woodburner, four Afghan teenagers are playing with a kitten. One of them puts on some music from home and they dance.

          They are unaccompanied minors from Moria, children lost in a world that isnt fair, but brought here today for something a bit like a home. They are accompanied by Eleni Dimou, who works for the government, looking after boys at Moria. Some have psychological problems; some self-harm, she says. It is hard enough being a teenager anywhere, but it is really hard at Moria.

          Some call her Mother, says Eleni, whose own children are grown up. Because they need a mother, they need someone.

          It is a really hard job, but not a thankless one. I get a lot of love from them, says Eleni, who is learning Farsi. On Christmas Day, one boy gave me a pair of socks. I said: Why did you do that? It costs money. He said: Because I know in your country, on Christmas, you give presents to the people that you love.

          This place was set up by a lovely local couple, Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou. They turn up later and tell me how it came about. In 2014, Nikos, then a fisherman, was driving around with a van of fish to sell when he came across a group of refugees from Syria who had just landed. They were wet, tired and hungry; there was a pregnant woman and a boy of about 10, who was on his own. Shocked by what he saw, Nikos used the money he got from the fish to buy them food and gave the boy his jacket. When he got home and told Katerina, she got to work immediately, cooking for them. Then they set off to find them, with 40 homecooked meals and all the blankets and clothes they could lay their hands on.

          We try to give back what others took from the people … Home for All founders Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou (left) say goodbye to Zakira Naderi, an Afghan asylum seeker. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          That first lot never got their dinner: they were detained by the police before Nikos and Katerina found them. But the couple found another boatload of arrivals to give it to. Ever since, they have been helping refugees, adapting to the changing needs of the situation. When Moria opened, they took sardines, bread, rice and vegetables to the camp and they fed hungry volunteers in their restaurant. Then they started to bring families from the camp to the restaurant. We try to give back what others took from the people, Nikos says. They took their lives, their smiles, their humanity, their dignity. These things we have here.

          It hasnt gone down well with the authorities. They have broken petty rules, such as that you are not allowed to be a charity and a restaurant at the same time. Nikos and Katerina have been fined a total of 47,800 (40,000). So they have given up the restaurant and are now solely an NGO, Home for All. They have refugees here every day, to eat, to learn to cook, to be at home, like the boys today. They cook and deliver food for the most vulnerable in the camp minors and sick people.

          Katerina has had to accept that they cant help everyone. This was my problem in the beginning I wanted to help them all. But then I realised: If I do this, probably I am not going to help anyone. You help those you can, and if you can do more, you do.

          Why do they do it? Because we want to and because we can, she says.


          I return to Moria one more time, turning off the road where the police bus sits, up the dirt track that runs parallel to the perimeter fence, right into the Jungle. I am not going to Zekrias library this time, not yet, but to his school, to see one of his teachers.

          It has been more difficult for me to talk to women in the camp than to men, mostly because of culture and tradition. No problems with 19-year-old Azita Barekzai from Afghanistan, though. She is happy to chat. Her English is good; she is ambitious and wise (I hope that doesnt sound patronising). When I ask her something I have already asked, she tells me off: I told you! She doesnt want her photo taken, because she has a cold, but in the end she relents. I am glad there is a picture of Azita; like many of the people I meet in Moria, she is amazing.

          I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile … Azita Barekzai, a 19-year-old Afghan English teacher, poses inside a classroom at the school founded by Zekria Farzad. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

          She got here seven months ago, with her parents and her three siblings. She is the oldest of the kids. The crossing was terrifying, really dangerous. I never thought we were going to survive.

          Then she was shocked by what they had come to in Moria. The usual issues the cold, the rubbish, the fights, being too scared to leave the tent at night. It is especially horrible when it rains. You cannot imagine how people tolerate it. Life is really difficult here.

          She wants to go to Switzerland, because she heard it accepts refugees and is beautiful. She would like to be a doctor. She has her papers already; she can travel, but the rest of her family hasnt been approved. They are still waiting.

          In the meantime, she is teaching English to kids in Zekrias school. I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile. I just want to make them laugh. I know that if someone laughs it doesnt mean they dont have problems. We need hope. Everyone especially children needs hope. We are really hopeless sometimes because of this bad situation. Maybe learning English gives them some hope for the future. They can go somewhere else better.

          It is time for the librarys opening ceremony next door. There is a small gathering; someone has brought a basket of sweets and a red ribbon. Zekria says a few words, thanks the people who nailed the bits of wood together and attached the tarpaulins, and the book donors. Then, with a pair of scissors, he cuts the ribbon. Morias library is, he declares, officially open.


          A couple of weeks later, back in my nice, safe, warm office, I WhatsApp Zekria to check a couple of things. First, he tells me that the pictures I took of the opening (Byron wasnt around at the time) were terrible. He is not wrong. Then he says his asylum application was rejected again. Fearing deportation, he and his family managed to get to mainland Greece, where they are staying in a squat. Its cold, there is no electricity, it is the life of refugees, he says. I hate the fucking politics of the world.

          He has no money left and will try to find informal work, then perhaps try to cross a land border into Albania or Macedonia. The library and the school in Moria are fine, he says. The team is running them; he is in touch regularly. I have to go, he says. We will speak later, my friend.

          Read more:

          Excitement for The Europas Awards for European Tech Startups is heating up. Here is the first wave of speakers and judges — with more coming!

          The Awards — which have been running for over 10 years — will be held on 25 June 2020 in London, U.K. on the front lawn of the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London — creating a fantastic and fun garden-party atmosphere in the heart of London’s tech startup scene.

          TechCrunch is once more the exclusive media sponsor of the awards and conference, alongside The Pathfounder.

          The application form to enter is here.

          We’re scouting for the top late-stage seed and Series A startups in 22 categories.

          You can nominate a startup, accelerator or venture investor that you think deserves to be recognized for their achievements in the last 12 months.

          CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS: 25 March 2020

          For the 2020 awards, we’ve overhauled the categories to a set that we believe better reflects the range of innovation, diversity and ambition we see in the European startups being built and launched today. This year we are particularly looking at startups that are able to address the SDGs/Globals Boals.

          The Europas Awards
          The Europas Awards results are based on voting by experts, experienced founders, hand-picked investors and the industry itself.

          But the key to it is that there are no “off-limits areas” at The Europas, so attendees can mingle easily with VIPs.

          Timeline of The Europas Awards deadlines:

          Submissions now open!
          25 March 2020 – Submissions close
          14 April – Public voting begins
          25 April – Public voting ends
          8 June – Shortlist Announced
          25 June – Awards evening, winners announced

          Amazing networking

          We’re also shaking up the awards dinner itself. There are more opportunities to network. Our awards ceremony this year will be in the setting of a garden/lawn party, where you’ll be able to meet and mingle more easily, with free-flowing drinks and a wide selection of street food (including vegetarian/vegan). The ceremony itself will last less than 45 minutes, with the rest of the time dedicated to networking. If you’d like to talk about sponsoring or exhibiting, please contact Claire Dobson on

          Instead of thousands and thousands of people, think of a great summer event with the most interesting and useful people in the industry, including key investors and leading entrepreneurs.

          The Europas Awards have been going for the last 10 years, and we’re the only independent and editorially driven event to recognise the European tech startup scene. The winners have been featured in Reuters, Bloomberg, VentureBeat, Forbes,, The Memo, Smart Company, CNET, many others — and of course, TechCrunch.

          • No secret VIP rooms, which means you get to interact with the speakers

          • Key founders and investors attending

          • Journalists from major tech titles, newspapers and business broadcasters

          The Pathfounder Afternoon Workshops
          In the afternoon prior to the awards we will be holding a special, premium content event, The Pathfounder, designed be a “fast download” into the London tech scene for European founders looking to raise money or re-locate to London. Sessions include “How to Craft Your Story”; “Term Sheets”; “Building a Shareholding Structure”; Investor Panel; Meet the Press; and a session from former Europas winners. Followed by the awards and after-party!

          The Europas “Diversity Pass”
          We’d like to encourage more diversity in tech! That’s why we’ve set aside a block of free tickets to ensure that pre-seed female and BAME founders are represented at The Europas. This limited tranche of free tickets ensures that we include more women and people of colour who are specifically “pre-seed” or “seed-stage” tech startup founders. If you are a women/BAME founder, apply here for a chance to be considered for one of the limited free diversity passes to the event.

          Meet some of our first speakers and judges:

          Anne Boden
          Starling Bank
          Anne Boden is founder and CEO of Starling Bank, a fast-growing U.K. digital bank targeting millions of users who live their lives on their phones. After a distinguished career in senior leadership at some of the world’s best-known financial heavyweights, she set out to build her own mobile bank from scratch in 2014. Today, Starling has opened more than one million current accounts for individuals and small businesses and raised hundreds of millions of pounds in backing. Anne was awarded an MBE for services to financial technology in 2018.

          Nate Lanxon (Speaker)
          Editor and Tech Correspondent
          Nate is an editor and tech correspondent for Bloomberg, based in London. For over a decade, he has particularly focused on the consumer technology sector, and the trends shaping the global industry. Previous to this, he was senior editor at Bloomberg Media and was head of digital editorial for in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Nate has held numerous roles across the most respected titles in tech, including stints as editor of, editor-in-chief of Ars Technica UK and senior editor at CBS-owned CNET. Nate launched his professional career as a journalist by founding a small tech and gaming website called Tech’s Message, which is now the name of his weekly technology podcast hosted at

          Tania Boler
          CEO and founder
          /> Tania is an internationally recognized women’s health expert and has held leadership positions for various global NGOs and the United Nations. Passionate about challenging taboo women’s issues, Tania founded Elvie in 2013, partnering with Alexander Asseily to create a global hub of connected health and lifestyle products for women.

          Kieran O’Neill
          CEO and co-founder
          Thread makes it easy for guys to dress well. They combine expert stylists with powerful AI to recommend the perfect clothes for each person. Thread is used by more than 1 million men in the U.K., and has raised $35 million from top investors, including Balderton Capital, the founders of DeepMind and the billionaire former owner of Warner Music. Prior to Thread, Kieran founded one of the first video sharing websites at age 15 and sold it for $1.25 million at age 19. He was then CEO and co-founder of Playfire, the largest social network for gamers, which he grew to 1.5 million customers before being acquired in 2012. He’s a member of the Forbes, Drapers and Financial Times 30 Under 30 lists.

          Clare Jones
          Chief Commercial Officer
          Clare is the chief commercial officer of what3words; prior to this, her background was in the development and growth of social enterprises and in impact investment. Clare was featured in the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for technology and is involved with London companies tackling social/environmental challenges. Clare also volunteers with the Streetlink project, doing health outreach work with vulnerable women in South London.

          Luca Bocchio
          Luca Bocchio joined Accel in 2018 and focuses on consumer internet, fintech and software businesses. Luca led Accel’s investment in Luko, Bryter and Brumbrum. Luca also helped lead Accel’s investment and ongoing work in Sennder. Prior to Accel, Luca was with H14, where he invested in global early and growth-stage opportunities, such as Deliveroo, GetYourGuide, Flixbus, SumUp and SecretEscapes. Luca previously advised technology, industrial and consumer companies on strategy with Bain & Co. in Europe and Asia. Luca is from Italy and graduated from LIUC University.

          Bernhard Niesner
          CEO and c-founder
          /> Bernhard co-founded busuu in 2008 following an MBA project and has since led the company to become the world’s largest community for language learning, with more than 90 million users across the globe. Before starting busuu, Bernhard worked as a consultant at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. He graduated summa cum laude in International Business from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and holds an MBA with honours from IE Business School. Bernhard is an active mentor and business angel in the startup community and an advisor to the Austrian Government on education affairs. Bernhard recently received the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 UK Awards in the Disruptor category.

          Chris Morton
          CEO and founder
          Chris is the founder and CEO of Lyst, the world’s biggest fashion search platform used by 104 million shoppers each year. Including over 6 million products from brands including Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Prada and Saint Laurent, Lyst offers shoppers convenience and unparalleled choice in one place. Launched in London in 2010, Lyst’s investors include LVMH, 14W, Balderton and Accel Partners. Prior to founding Lyst, Chris was an investor at Benchmark Capital and Balderton Capital in London, focusing on the early-stage consumer internet space. He holds an MA in physics and philosophy from Cambridge University.

          Husayn Kassai
          CEO and co-founder
          /> Husayn Kassai is the Onfido CEO and co-founder. Onfido helps businesses digitally onboard users by verifying any government ID and comparing it with the person’s facial biometrics. Founded in 2012, Onfido has grown to a team of 300 across SF, NYC and London; received over $100 million in funding from Salesforce, Microsoft and others; and works with over 1,500 fintech, banking and marketplace clients globally. Husayn is a WEF Tech Pioneer; a Forbes Contributor; and Forbes’ “30 Under 30”. He has a BA in economics and management from Keble College, Oxford.

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          Weimar-era detective show has sold to 100 countries, firmly establishing Germany as a serious player in blockbuster series

          It has been sold to 100 countries, spawned international interest in the fashions of 1920s Berlin and, in 2020, Germans first TV blockbuster of the streaming era returns for its third season, promising more murder and mystery in the turbulent days of the Weimar era.

          Based on the bestselling detective novels by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin is the most expensive non-English language screen production ever. Its cast is a whos who of Germanys best actors, headed by Liv Lisa Fries, playing the impoverished stenographer and aspiring detective Charlotte Ritter, and Volker Bruch, who plays her superior, chief inspector Gereon Rath.

          Both investigators harbour secrets, with Ritter turning to prostitution at night to subsidise her family, and Rath battling PTSD triggered by his experiences in the first world war as well as leading a complicated love life.

          The backdrop is 1929 in Berlin, a city in turmoil as it undergoes profound cultural, economic and political change. Nazis lurk in the wings, ready to exploit the desperation caused by poverty and unemployment. The foundations of the young republic show signs of crumbling and, as if in expectation of its imminent demise, the citys inhabitants, including the protagonists, indulge in a frenzy of dancing, drug-taking and cabaret parties.

          From left, Meret Becker, Jenny Schily, Leonie Benesch, Hannah Herzsprung, Liv Lisa Fries and Fritzi Haberland at the premiere of the third season of Babylon Berlin in Berlin. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

          At its recent red carpet premiere in Berlin, and the after-party event in a dairy factory from the Weimar era, cast and audience members wore cloche hats, flapper dresses, spit curls and drag queen looks, underlining how the show has caught the publics imagination.

          A 1920s musical, guided tours of Weimar Berlin, including many of the locations in the show, a rise in popularity of burlesque nightclubs and table telephone bars, as well as a flurry of books and music, are among the cultural spin-offs.

          Liv Lisa Fries plays the aspiring detective Charlotte Ritter. Photograph: X Filme

          Liv Lisa Fries, wearing a 1920s-style cinnamon taffeta gown at the premiere, has also become caught up in the craze. Its fascinating. I know a lot of people wanting to have their hair cut in a bob like Charlotte, who are wearing her cloche hat. They also like the real world of this film, and how my character boxes her way through this very male world to fulfil her goals.

          Its creators, the director-screenwriter trio Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Henk Handloegten said they sometimes had difficulty keeping up with reality, citing economic and political upheaval around the world. Im reluctant to say it, but similar things are happening in the world today, said Tykwer. It has also been one of the big challenges. We have had to keep reminding ourselves to stick to the point of view of the characters in 1929, otherwise it will become cheap.

          The production team on the set of Babylon Berlin. Photograph: X Filme

          It has surprised some in the entertainment industry that Germany was so late in entering the field of television blockbuster serials, which has been dominated by the US, Scandinavia and the UK.

          On the eve of the launch of the third season of Babylon Berlin, and with a fourth season in the pipeline, Germany is now considered to be firmly established in the genre.

          A remake of Germanys hitherto most successful TV export, Das Boot, came out in 2018 to critical acclaim. Other series, such as Der Pass (Pagan Peak) and Acht Tage (8 Days) are also making an international impact. Deutschland 83, a drama based on recent German history, is particularly popular in the US and is also about to launch its third season. The sci-fi eco thriller Der Schwarm (The Swarm), based on a popular novel by Franz Schtzing, is creating a buzz even before shooting starts next year.

          A scene from Babylon Berlin, season three. Photograph: X Filme

          But critics in Germany have taken umbrage at the extent to which the compulsory TV licence fee, one of the highest in the world, has provided the bulk of the 40m (34m) funding for Babylon Berlin, which is co-financed and produced with Sky, whose subscribers will see it in January. German terrestrial television will not broadcast season three until the autumn.

          Tykwer, also known for Run Lola Run and Perfume, defended the model. Many more people something like 10 times as many watched the first two seasons on the public television station ARD, he said. The year before it was shown on ARD, it didnt really exist for most German viewers, most of whom, I have to say, are still watching linear television.

          Season three was kept under wraps until its premiere in December but the Guardian was allowed on to the Studio Babelsberg set. In reconstructed 1920s Berlin streets, with a pawn shop, a millinery, restaurants and brothels, fog, rain, the hoot of car horns and the stink of exhaust fumes, Tykwer was overseeing a key scene from the end of episode two.

          Volker Ruth plays Chief Inspector Gereon Rath. Photograph: X Filme

          We watched as Chief Inspector Gereon Rath, holding on to his trilby, dashed down the stairs of a tenement block, elbowing everyone out of his way, including a cartload of chickens. He caught the witness to the murder of a silent screen actress, bundled him into a car for the briefest of interrogations, before the man was immediately shot dead. Rath was left bewildered and sprayed in blood.

          Its joyful to shoot, even if its physically draining, said Tykwer when the scene was finished. We shoot these 12 episodes in 100-120 days, whereas you would usually have 40 for cinema or 20 for a TV show. The dedication you need for something so long term is quite absurd.

          After wiping the sweat from his brow, Bruch said he had learned a lot about the period while playing Rath. At school it was so squeezed between world war one and two, he said. So it was useful to have lots of historical experts to prepare us, everything from the police work to the politics, the psychology and the nightlife. They even taught us how to dance the Charleston.

          My character is haunted by the past and that describes the era well because it was at this time, with German resentment over paying war reparations, and the suffering of living standards, that created political turbulence, which all leads to a horrific future we know too well.

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          (CNN)Here’s a look at the life of Keith Richards, musician and founding member of the Rolling Stones.

          Birth date: December 18, 1943
          Birth place: Dartford, Kent, United Kingdom
            Birth name: Keith Richards
            Father: Bert Richards, factory worker
            Mother: Doris (Dupress) Richards
            Marriage: Patti Hansen (1983-present)
            Children: with Patti Hansen: Theodora and Alexandra; with Anita Pallenberg: Marlon, Dandelion, and Tara (son, died as an infant)
            Education: Attended Sidcup Art School

            Other Facts

            Richards and band mate Mick Jagger first met as children.
            Has been nominated, with the Rolling Stones, for 12 Grammy Awards and has won three.
            Has made cameos in both “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”


            1960 – Rekindles friendship with Jagger after running into him at a train station.
            1962 – Forms the Rolling Stones with Jagger and Brian Jones.
            July 12, 1962 – The Rolling Stones play their first gig together at the Marquee Club in London.
            1963 – The Rolling Stones sign to Decca Records and release their first single.
            1964 – The Rolling Stones release their first album.
            1965 – The single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is released and earns the band their first gold record.
            1967 – Richards is arrested, with Jagger, for drug possession. Jagger is sentenced to three months and Richards to one year. Later, the sentences are overturned on appeal.
            July 5, 1969 – The Rolling Stones give a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. Jagger reads poetry and releases 3,500 butterflies in honor of former band mate Brian Jones, who was found dead on July 3.
            December 6, 1969 – A fan is fatally stabbed during a free concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California. The documentary, “Gimme Shelter,” is released in 1970 about the concert and the tragedy.
            February 27, 1977 – Richards is arrested in Canada for heroin possession. Later, he is placed on probation and ordered to perform a benefit concert for a Toronto charity.
            1988 – Releases solo album “Talk is Cheap.”
            1989 – The Rolling Stones are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
            1992 – Releases his second solo album “Main Offender.”
            2010 – Richards’ memoir “Life” is published.
            October 16, 2012 – The band’s book, “The Rolling Stones: 50,” is published.
            October 18, 2012 – “Crossfire Hurricane,” a documentary on the band, opens at the London Film Festival.
            November 12, 2012 – The Rolling Stones release their greatest hits compilation “GRRR!”
            May 3, 2013 – The Rolling Stones kick off their “50 and Counting” tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
            September 9, 2014 – “Gus and Me,” an illustrated children’s book by Richards and his daughter Theodora, is published. The story is about Richards’ first guitar and his relationship with his late jazz musician grandfather.
            September 18, 2015 – Richards releases his first solo album in 23 years, “Crosseyed Heart.” Also, Netflix releases the documentary film, “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” to coincide with the album’s release.
            March 25, 2016 – The Rolling Stones become the first major international rock band to play in Cuba, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to a free concert in Havana.
              December 2, 2016 – The Rolling Stones release “Blue & Lonesome,” their first studio album in more than a decade.
              January 28, 2018 – The Rolling Stones win the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for “Blue & Lonesome.”

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              Leipzig, Germany (CNN)The morning after the Berlin Wall came crashing down in November 1989, nine-year-old Thomas Tpfer was one of the few East German kids who turned up for school.

              Everything Töpfer and his fellow pupils had been taught to believe had collapsed overnight.
              This week marks 30 years since the wall fell, paving the way for German reunification in 1990. Amid the momentous redrawing of the nation, the school system of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was also overhauled.
                In the months that followed, the syllabus was scrapped. Teachers underwent retraining. And joining the country’s official youth organization — known as the “Pioneers” — with its distinctive neckties and caps was no longer a rite of passage for every pupil.
                The children who grew up under the former communist regime are all grown up now. But their years of education there left a lasting impression.

                A political education

                In some ways, Töpfer never really left an East German classroom. Today he is director of the School Museum in Leipzig, a city around two hours drive from Berlin, that was also home to the peaceful revolution that helped bring down the wall.
                Stepping inside the museum is like tiptoeing into a time machine. A recreated East German classroom features rows of rickety desks and chairs pointed towards a blackboard. Hanging nearby is a portrait of Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany until 1989.
                The classroom walls are adorned with paintings of communist utopias — workers in flowery fields and scientists diligently tapping away at nuclear control boards. Textbooks with Lenin’s silhouette on the cover line the shelves. Even the curtains have authentically garish retro patterns.
                In the early years of the GDR from 1949, schools played a central role in “educating this new society,” said Emmanuel Droit, professor of contemporary history at the University of Strasbourg.
                By the time the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the regime’s grip had tightened. The main goal of schools was now to “control the minds and bodies of pupils,” said Droit.
                A big part of this indoctrination was the Pioneer program.It resembled a Scout association — but with a twist: songs around the campfire were more militaristic and stories featured Socialist heroes defending the self-defined peace-loving state from the big bad West.
                The welcoming ceremony for new Pioneer recruits was “almost something mystical, something holy,” remembered Robert Schleif, who grew up in Leipzig and was 19 when the Berlin Wall came down.
                As a six-year-old boy he was “very excited” to become a Young Pioneer — the first of three ranks organized according to age.During his initiation, children created a “shrine” to the socialist state, in this case, a bust of Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann draped with dirty workers’ hats.
                Socialism was rooted in almost everything the Pioneers did, said Schleif, now a 49-year-old consultant at a flooring company in Leipzig. Once a week, local factories would give the children tours, introduce them to workers and explain how the machines worked.

                ‘The West is bad’

                Back in the classroom, political propaganda was rife. “We were always told: ‘The West is bad but here in the East we are all good. We are progressives — we love peace. The others are the ones threatening us,'” said Schleif.
                Children quickly learned to censor what they said to certain teachers out of fear they were informers, said museum director Töpfer. Historians describe the youngsters as “double-tongued” — parcels sent from relatives in the West, for example, were discussed at home but not at school.
                “Some people say children were educated to lie,” said Töpfer.
                They had good reason to. Senior teachers regularly reported “hostile” or “negative” individuals to the Stasi secret police — in “much the same way you or I would file our tax returns,” said Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German history at University College London.
                It was a “slightly irritating but normal task,” she said.
                Like any school, pupils distinguished between teachers they liked, and those they distrusted. In the GDR, the stakes were much higher.
                Saying the wrong thing to a particular teacher, could “put a black mark on you for the rest of your life,” said Fulbrook. Such a student might be barred from doing the school leaving exam, studying certain subjects at university, or even going to university at all.
                As for the emotional toll this had on young people, there was the “full spectrum,” said Fulbrook. “From terror and fear at one end, through to not really caring very much about it and treating it as normal at the other end.”

                ‘Good morning children’

                Not all teachers agreed with this curriculum. Elke Urban was a music and French teacher, also in Leipzig, who quit in the mid-1970s to look after her five children.
                At least, that’s what she told bosses. In reality Urban, now 69, found “the political pressure was too great.”
                “I grew up in a Christian pacifist household,” she said, adding that she refused to sing the school’s military songs or do the Pioneer salute.
                Each lesson would begin with a distinctive salute. Teachers would say: “For peace and socialism be ready.” And students would reply in chorus, “always ready,” while simultaneously moving their right hand to the middle parting of their head.
                “That always repelled me,” said Urban, who instead greeted her pupils with a simple: “Good morning.”
                While the curriculum was “set in stone,” teachers did have a degree of freedom to focus on particular aspects behind closed doors, said Urban.

                A new era

                By the time Schleif graduated in the summer of 1987, the Soviet grip on satellite states like the GDR had begun to weaken. For the first time, open political discussion was happening in East German schools.
                “We were still careful about speaking aloud,” said Schleif. “But we were no longer intimidated as we were before.”
                When the Berlin Wall finally came down on November 9, 1989, so did the GDR’s education system.
                Textbooks showing cartoon soldiers defending the mighty Soviet state no longer held true. Military singalongs rang hollow.
                Teachers were forced to report if they’d ever worked for the Stasi — though whether they answered truthfully is up for debate. “Most teachers were afraid since they just lost the floor under their feet,” said Urban.
                She was one of the school administrators who began working with counterparts in the West to craft a new school curriculum. They discovered that while East Germany lagged behind in humanities, it excelled in sciences.
                By the time of reunification in 1990, all of the state schools in what had been East Germany had been dissolved. They were replaced with a national education system that pretty much resembled the West German model.
                Still, it took a while for public trust to be restored in its teachers, says Urban, who was also one of the founders of the Free Education initiative that supported alternative school models like Steiner or Montessori.
                That said, East German schools did have redeeming features,such as lessons that were “geared towards practical day-to-day life,” according to Urban. Students regularly visited factories, and they “learned a lot from this,” she said.
                They were brought up respecting the working class, “who worked very hard under often difficult circumstances,” she added.
                  Flick through one of the old textbooks in the Leipzig School Museum today and you’ll find the odd graffitied pictured of Lenin, or a sprinkling of teenage obscenities.
                  After all, East German children were still children, said Töpfer. “They laughed, they made jokes, they got up to mischief,” he added. “Just like anywhere.”

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                  The contract between the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and ecommerce giant Amazon — for a health information licensing partnership involving its Alexa voice AI — has been released following a Freedom of Information request.

                  The government announced the partnership this summer. But the date on the contract, which was published on the contracts finder site months after the FOI was filed, shows the open-ended arrangement to funnel nipped-and-tucked health info from the NHS’ website to Alexa users in audio form was inked back in December 2018.

                  The contract is between the UK government and Amazon US (Amazon Digital Services, Delaware) — rather than Amazon UK. Although the company confirmed to us that NHS content will only be served to UK Alexa users. 

                  Nor is it a standard NHS Choices content syndication contract. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed the legal agreement uses an Amazon contract template. She told us the department had worked jointly with Amazon to adapt the template to fit the intended use — i.e. access to publicly funded healthcare information from the NHS’ website.

                  The NHS does make the same information freely available on its website, of course. As well as via API — to some 1,500 organizations. But Amazon is not just any organization; It’s a powerful US platform giant with a massive ecommerce business.

                  The contract reflects that power imbalance; not being a standard NHS content syndication agreement — but rather DHSC tweaking Amazon’s standard terms.

                  “It was drawn up between both Amazon UK and the Department for Health and Social Care,” a department spokeswoman told us. “Given that Amazon is in the business of holding standard agreements with content providers they provided the template that was used as the starting point for the discussions but it was drawn up in negotiation with the Department for Health and Social Care, and obviously it was altered to apply to UK law rather than US law.”

                  In July, when the government officially announced the Alexa-NHS partnership, its PR provided a few sample queries of how Amazon’s voice AI might respond to what it dubbed “NHS-verified” information — such as: “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?”.

                  But of course as anyone who’s ever googled a health symptom could tell you, the types of stuff people are actually likely to ask Alexa — once they realize they can treat it as an NHS-verified info-dispensing robot, and go down the symptom-querying rabbit hole — is likely to range very far beyond the common cold.

                  At the official launch of what the government couched as a ‘collaboration’ with Amazon, it explained its decision to allow NHS content to be freely piped through Alexa by suggesting that voice technology has “the potential to reduce the pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses”.

                  Its PR cited an unattributed claim that “by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be made through voice-assisted technology”.

                  This prediction is frequently attributed to ComScore, a media measurement firm that was last month charged with fraud by the SEC. However it actually appears to originate with computer scientist Andrew Ng, from when he was chief scientist at Chinese tech giant Baidu.

                  Econsultancy noted last year that Mary Meeker included Ng’s claim on a slide in her 2016 Internet Trends report — which is likely how the prediction got so widely amplified.

                  But on Meeker’s slide you can see that the prediction is in fact “images or speech”, not voice alone…


                  So it turns out the UK government incorrectly cited a tech giant prediction to push a claim that “voice search has been increasing rapidly” — in turn its justification for funnelling NHS users towards Amazon.

                  “We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists,” said health secretary Matt Hancock in a July statement.

                  Since landing at the health department, the app-loving former digital minister has been pushing a tech-first agenda for transforming the NHS — promising to plug in “healthtech” apps and services, and touting “preventative, predictive and personalised care”. He’s also announced an AI lab housed within a new unit that’s intended to oversee the digitization of the NHS.

                  Compared with all that, plugging the NHS’ website into Alexa probably seems like an easy ‘on-message’ win. But immediately the collaboration was announced concerns were raised that the government is recklessly mixing the streams of critical (and sensitive) national healthcare infrastructure with the rapacious data-appetite of a foreign tech giant, with both an advertising and ecommerce business, plus major ambitions of its own in the healthcare space.

                  On the latter front, just yesterday news broke of Amazon’s second health-related acquisition: Health Navigator, a startup with an API platform for integrating with health services, such as telemedicine and medical call centers, which offers natural language processing tools for documenting health complaints and care recommendations.

                  Last year Amazon also picked up online pharmacy PillPack — for just under $1BN. While just last month it launched a pilot of a healthcare service offering to its own employees in and around Seattle, called Amazon Care which looks intended to be a road-test for addressing the broader U.S. market down the line. So the company’s commercial designs on healthcare are becoming increasingly clear.

                  Returning to the UK, in response to early critical feedback on the Alexa-NHS arrangement, the IT delivery arm of the service, NHS Digital, published a blog post going into more detail about the arrangement — following what it couched as “interesting discussion about the challenges for the NHS of working with large commercial organisations like Amazon”.

                  A core critical “discussion” point is the question of what Amazon will do with people’s medical voice query data, given the partnership is clearly encouraging people to get used to asking Alexa for health advice.

                  “We have stuck to the fundamental principle of not agreeing a way of working with Amazon that we would not be willing to consider with any single partner – large or small. We have been careful about data, commercialisation, privacy and liability, and we have spent months working with knowledgeable colleagues to get it right,” NHS Digital claimed in July.

                  In another section of the blog post, responding to questions about what Amazon will do with the data and “what about privacy”, it further asserted there would be no health profiling of customers — writing:

                  We have worked with the Amazon team to ensure that we can be totally confident that Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties. Amazon has been very clear that it is not selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers. All information is treated with high confidentiality. Amazon restrict access through multi-factor authentication, services are all encrypted, and regular audits run on their control environment to protect it.

                  Yet it turns out the contract DHSC signed with Amazon is just a content licensing agreement. There are no terms contained in it concerning what can or can’t be done with the medical voice query data Alexa is collecting with the help of “NHS-verified” information.

                  Per the contract terms, Amazon is required to attribute content to the NHS when Alexa responds to a query with information from the service’s website. (Though the company says Alexa also makes use of medical content from the Mayo Clinic and Wikipedia.) So, from the user’s point of view, they will at times feel like they’re talking to an NHS-branded service (i.e. when they hear Alexa serving them information attributed to the NHS’ website.).

                  But without any legally binding confidentiality clauses around what can be done with their medical voice queries it’s not clear how NHS Digital can confidently assert that Amazon isn’t creating health profiles. The situation seems to sum to, er, trust Amazon. (NHS Digital wouldn’t comment; saying it’s only responsible for delivery not policy setting, and referring us to the DHSC.)

                  Asked what it does with medical voice query data generated as a result of the NHS collaboration an Amazon spokesperson told us: “We do not build customer health profiles based on interactions with content or use such requests for marketing purposes.”

                  But the spokesperson could not point to any legally binding contract clauses in the licensing agreement that restrict what Amazon can do with people’s medical queries.

                  We also asked the company to confirm whether medical voice queries that return NHS content are being processed in the US. Amazon’s spokeswoman responded without a direct answer — saying only that queries are processed in the “cloud”. (“When you speak to Alexa, a recording of what you asked Alexa is sent to Amazon’s Cloud where we process your request and other information to respond to you.”)

                  “This collaboration only provides content already available on the NHS.UK website, and absolutely no personal data is being shared by NHS to Amazon or vice versa,” Amazon also told us, eliding the key point that it’s not NHS data being shared with Amazon but NHS users, reassured by the presence of a trusted public brand, being encouraged to feed Alexa sensitive personal data by asking about their ailments and health concerns.

                  Bizarrely, the Department of Health and Social Care went further. Its spokeswoman claimed in an email that “there will be no data shared, collected or processed by Amazon and this is just an alternative way of providing readily available information from NHS.UK.”

                  When we spoke to DHSC on the phone prior to this, to raise the issue of medical voice query data generated via the partnership and fed to Amazon — also asking where in the contract are clauses to protect people’s data — the spokeswoman said she would have to get back to us. All of which suggests the government has a very vague idea (to put it generously) of how cloud-powered voice AIs function.

                  Presumably no one at DHSC bothered to read the information on Amazon’s own Alexa privacy page — although the department spokeswomen was at least aware this page existed (because she knew Amazon had pointed us to what she called its “privacy notice”, which she said “sets out how customers are in control of their data and utterances”).

                  If you do read the page you’ll find Amazon offers some broad-brush explanation there which tells you that after an Alexa device has been woken by its wake word, the AI will “begin recording and sending your request to Amazon’s secure cloud”.

                  Ergo data is collected and processed. And indeed stored on Amazon’s servers. So, yes, data is ‘shared’. Not ‘NHS data’, but UK citizens’ personal data.

                  Amazon’s European Privacy Notice meanwhile, sets out a laundry list of purposes for user data — from improving its services, to generating recommendations and personalization, to advertising. While on its Alexa Terms of Use page it writes: “To provide the Alexa service, personalize it, and improve our services, Amazon processes and retains your Alexa Interactions, such as your voice inputs, music playlists and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists, in the cloud.” [emphasis ours]

                  The DHSC sees the matter very differently, though.

                  With no contractual binds covering health-related queries UK users of Alexa are being encouraged to whisper into Amazon’s robotic ears — data that’s naturally linked to Alexa and Amazon account IDs — the government is accepting the tech giant’s standard data processing terms for a commercial, consumer product which is deeply integrated into its increasingly sprawling business empire.

                  Terms such as indefinite retention of audio recordings. Unless users pro-actively request that they are deleted. And even then Amazon admitted this summer it doesn’t always delete the text transcripts of recordings. So even if you keep deleting all your audio snippets, traces of medical queries may well remain on Amazon’s servers.

                  On this, Amazon’s spokeswoman told us that voice recordings and related transcripts are deleted when Alexa customers select to delete their recordings — pointing to the Alexa and Alexa Device FAQ where the company writes: “We will delete the voice recordings and the text transcripts of your request that you selected from Amazon’s Cloud”. Although in the same FAQ Amazon also notes: “We may still retain other records of your Alexa interactions, including records of actions Alexa took in response to your request.” So it sounds like some metadata around medical queries may remain, even post-deletion.

                  Earlier this year it also emerged the company employs contractors around the world to listen in to Alexa recordings as part of internal efforts to improve the performance of the AI.

                  A number of tech giants recently admitted to the presence of such ‘speech grading’ programs, as they’re sometimes called — though none had been up front and transparent about the fact their shiny AIs needed an army of external human eavesdroppers to pull off a show of faux intelligence.

                  It’s been journalists highlighting the privacy risks for users of AI assistants; and media exposure leading to public pressure on tech giants to force changes to concealed internal processes that have, by default, treated people’s information as an owned commodity that exists to serve and reserve their own corporate interests.

                  Data protection? Only if you interpret the term as meaning your personal data is theirs to capture and that they’ll aggressively defend the IP they generate from it.

                  So, in other words, actual humans — both employed by Amazon directly and not — may be listening to the medical stuff you’re telling Alexa. Unless the user finds and activates a recently added ‘no human review’ option buried in the Alexa app settings.

                  Many of these ‘speech grading’ arrangements remain under regulatory scrutiny in Europe. Amazon’s lead data protection regulator in Europe confirmed in August it’s in discussions with it over concerns related to its manual reviews of Alexa recordings. So UK citizens — whose taxes fund the NHS — might be forgiven for expecting more care from their own government around such a ‘collaboration’.

                  Rather than a wholesale swallowing of tech giant T&Cs in exchange for free access to the NHS brand and  “NHS-verified” information which helps Amazon burnish Alexa’s utility and credibility, allowing it to gather valuable insights for its commercial healthcare ambitions.

                  To date there has been no recognition from DHSC the government has a duty of care towards NHS users as regards potential risks its content partnership might generate as Alexa harvests their voice queries via a commercial conduit that only affords users very partial controls over what happens to their personal data.

                  Nor is DHSC considering the value being generously gifted by the state to Amazon — in exchange for a vague supposition that a few citizens might go to the doctor a bit less if a robot tells them what flu symptoms look like.

                  “The NHS logo is supposed to mean something,” says Sam Smith, coordinator at patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — one of the organizations that makes use of the NHS’ free APIs for health content (but which he points out did not write its own contract for the government to sign).

                  “When DHSC signed Amazon’s template contract to put the NHS logo on anything Amazon chooses to do, it left patients to fend for themselves against the business model of Amazon in America.”

                  In a related development this week, Europe’s data protection supervisor has warned of serious data protection concerns related to standard contracts EU institutions have inked with another tech giant, Microsoft, to use its software and services.

                  The watchdog recently created a strategic forum that’s intended to bring together the region’s public administrations to work on drawing up standard contracts with fairer terms for the public sector — to shrink the risk of institutions feeling outgunned and pressured into accepting T&Cs written by the same few powerful tech providers.

                  Such an effort is sorely needed — though it comes too late to hand-hold the UK government into striking more patient-sensitive terms with Amazon US.

                  This article was updated with a correction to a reference to the Alexa privacy policy. We originally referenced content from the privacy policy of another Amazon-owned Internet marketing company that’s also called Alexa. This is in fact a different service to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. We also updated the report to include additional responses from Amazon 

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