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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It’s the second of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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[The following appeared March 18, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA The UN Security Council’s 11th-hour intervention to save Benghazi may have sparked a Libyan ceasefire – or brief respite – but one criticism caught my eye as Gaddafi loyalists tightened the noose around the rebel stronghold.

“There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises that said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate,” said the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had met with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution come flooding back. Not that I was there, mind you. But Hungarians have for years resented the West for “promised” assistance – via the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, the UN, and others – should Magyars take up arms against a Soviet-backed Communist regime several years into its reign of terror.

Spurred on by those words of support, the Hungarians rose up, heroically, on October 23, 1956. Except, the West never came. In Budapest, street-by-street gun battles against Soviet tanks lasted less than two weeks, before being snuffed out. The Hungarian toll: more than 2,500 killed and 200,000 refugees – including my father and grandparents.

My question is not if the international community should’ve intervened in Hungary then, or in Libya today. (As my Mantle colleague Corrie Hulse has suggested.) Rather, if you encourage others to lay their lives on the line, what moral responsibility do you bear if you ultimately fail to back words with action?

For Libya, this depends on your definition of promise. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary Libyan who over the past month has seen: the globe rejoice at revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; world leaders, even Arab allies, brand Gaddafi as “illegitimate” for his ruthlessness against civilians; Libya suspended from the UN Human Rights Council; French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands with rebel leaders and call for air-strikes; and the Arab League agree to a no-fly zone against one of their own.

If I’m Libyan, it sure sounds like the world is telling me: Keep fighting. We won’t let the Colonel get away with this. Help is on the way. Yet each day, while Gaddafi’s forces pounded and demoralized the rebels, the international community dragged its feet.

The aftermath of Hungary 1956 was marked by mass arrests, show trials, executions and long prison terms. In Libya, there seems no option but fight to the death. Imagine what revenge awaits Benghazi, after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no compassion.” If the ceasefire collapses and the world fiddles while Benghazi burns – as it did for Budapest 55 years ago – the blood won’t only be on the hands of its executioners.

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[This “Dispatch” appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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