2024
June
12
Wednesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 12, 2024
Loading the player...

TODAY’S INTRO

Meet Ananda. You won’t forget her.

Every day, the Monitor has a budget – a list of stories we plan to publish. The top story on today’s budget starts with these words: “Former middle-class housewife turned combat zone commander ...” I was hooked. 

I don’t really want to talk about the article. I want you to read it. It is a remarkable portrait of the front lines in Ukraine, and a view of the world often the Monitor alone provides. It has drones and hardship, jokes, and code names – like Splash, Pikachu, and Mechanic. 

The code name for the housewife-turned-commander? Joy. This is not your ordinary war story.   

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

For this housewife-turned-commander, the Ukrainian battlefield is the place to be

War is often portrayed as a man’s world. But in Ukraine, women like Ananda, a drone commander on the Donetsk front, are providing leadership with their own unique courage and expertise.

Dominique Soguel
Ananda shows a DIY drone that her team is testing ahead of an attack on Russian forces in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, in April 2024.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

A native of the embattled Kharkiv region, Ananda has been on Ukraine’s front lines since Russia unleashed war on Ukraine in February 2022. The petite but tough commander is part of a new generation of Ukrainian women who have proved their mettle in battle and earned the respect of their fellow soldiers with a leadership style characterized by compassion, courage, and care.

Her squad, formed in January 2023, started with just two members and has grown steadily to 16, each addition carefully vetted by Ananda. She has zero tolerance for any kind of heavy substance use and makes that clear to anyone joining the team.

But she promises that she will have her troops’ backs. “It’s a privilege to serve here,” she says. “Our work is complicated and carries a lot of responsibility.”

She also has a contagious sense of humor and a penchant for pranks that help maintain a high degree of good cheer, even in high-stress situations. The camaraderie and deep respect within the unit are palpable.

“We call her Mama 107,” says Splash, one of her soldiers, referencing the number of the battalion that their unit is in. “Gender doesn’t matter,” he says. “What matters is her professionalism.”

For this housewife-turned-commander, the Ukrainian battlefield is the place to be

Collapse

In an abandoned building near the tense Avdiivka front line, Ananda, a housewife-turned-combat zone commander, leads a team of Ukrainian soldiers in a high-stakes training exercise. With Russians stationed less than 9 miles away, they test a series of explosives on the eve of a drone attack mission.

“This is not your ordinary training,” explains Ananda, her eyes scanning the equipment laid out before her. “It’s as close to real conditions as possible.”

A native of the embattled Kharkiv region, Ananda has been on Ukraine’s front lines since Russia unleashed war on Ukraine in February 2022. The petite but tough commander, whose code name means “joy,” is part of a new generation of Ukrainian women who have proved their mettle in battle and earned the respect of their fellow soldiers with a leadership style characterized by compassion, courage, and care.

(Ananda, like the other soldiers in this story, requested to be identified using only a code name for privacy and security reasons.)

“We call her Mama 107,” says Splash, one of her soldiers, referencing the number of the battalion that their unit is in. A former currency exchange office worker, Splash joined the unit last summer at the age of 26. “Gender doesn’t matter,” he says. “What matters is her professionalism.”

“We stay vigilant”

Amid Russia’s increased attacks and reinforcements in eastern Ukraine, the work of Ananda’s drone unit is critical. The Ukrainian positions in this area are strategically important, as they block Russian logistic routes and face significant enemy pressure. The capture of Avdiivka earlier this year brought Russia closer to its goal of securing full control of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Dominique Soguel
Ananda guides a relatively new drone pilot as he drops explosives in a test run ahead of an attack mission.

Ananda and her team are meticulous in their preparations, checking every piece of equipment multiple times. Explosive manufacturing requires constant adjustment due to disruptions in the supply chain. Similarly, the drones they use are not factory-made, but assembled from various parts, often of Chinese origin, making the quality of completed drones unpredictable.

“These drones are essentially like toys,” Ananda says, keeping a watchful eye on her men. “We have to be pilots, mechanical engineers, and welders. We program them, and we make the ammunition ourselves.”

The do-it-yourself nature of their gear demands constant vigilance. “It’s dangerous work,” she warns, “so everyone must be extremely careful.” Ananda insists that handling explosives take place a safe distance from the rest of the unit, just in case something goes wrong. While accidents have occurred in her team and others, Ananda’s strict safety protocols have thus far prevented any deaths or serious injuries.

“My guys joke they’ll shoot wedding footage after the war,” Ananda laughs. “But for now, they’re repurposing these drones to carry and release grenades.”

The soldiers systematically work from concealed positions to avoid detection by Russian forces, which are constantly searching for the team’s bases. Russians are said to offer $3,000 bounties for the position of Ukrainian drone pilots, and the small civilian population in the area does include some people still nostalgia for the Soviet era.

The unit never dawdles. Its rear base, undiscovered by Russian reconnaissance, serves as a stable but temporary home.

“We only move during the gray time – dawn and dusk – when drones have a harder time spotting us,” says Ananda. “We are always hiding. We haven’t had to move [from the base] for a long time, but we stay vigilant.”

Ananda recounts the tragedy of of another, less cautious unit. “They didn’t put their phones in flight mode, and the Russian drones detected them. It was a devastating loss.”

Dominique Soguel
A Ukrainian soldier flies a drone. Because drones are made from whatever parts are available, Ananda and her unit have to test each one to determine its capacities and shortcomings.

“She always tells us the right thing”

Her squad, formed in January 2023, started with just two members and has grown steadily to 16, each addition carefully vetted by Ananda. She has zero tolerance for any kind of heavy substance use and makes that clear from the outset to anyone joining the team. But she promises that she will have her troops’ backs, and will ensure that they are fed and supplied to the best of her ability.

“It’s a privilege to serve here,” she says. “The scariest thing is losing this place and having to join the ordinary infantry in the trenches. Our work is complicated and carries a lot of responsibility.”

She also has a contagious sense of humor and a penchant for pranks that help maintain a high degree of good cheer, even in high-stress situations. The camaraderie and deep respect within the unit are palpable.

Pikachu, a former trolley driver from Dnipro with a tattoo of the Pokémon character on his arm, speaks highly of her. “Male commanders are not as organized or able to explain things with compassion. She always tells us the right thing and never raises her voice,” he says with affection.

Mechanic, who joined the unit in June 2023, says he had few preconceptions about having a woman commander. “What surprised me the most was her high level of competence and experience,” he says. “She understands every technical aspect of what we do and is always learning.”

Kyrylo, another dedicated squad member with sharp piloting skills, lauds her support and understanding. “Thanks to her training, our work is more intense but also more effective,” he says. “She cares deeply for us, even prohibiting me from divorcing my wife to maintain stability.”

Dominique Soguel
After explosives dropped in a field during a drone test run ignited a fire, Ukrainian troops march out to douse the flames.

The acceptance of women in the army, he says, depends largely on the unit. “People might cross more lines than they should, not understand that it is a professional dynamic,” Kyrylo says. He recalls how the unit attempted to integrate another woman into the team, but the exercise backfired tremendously. She quit after three days.

“She watched TikTok too much and thought the army was fun,” says Ananda. “Everyone was really angry.”

“We try to support each other”

Ananda is proud of the team’s unity and professionalism. For her, it is key to keep spirits up with humor and a sense of humanity.

“We try to support each other,” she says. “If someone feels bad, I send them to their family. We have psychologists, but it’s not easy to open up to strangers.”

She has clashed with higher-ranking commanders, often for refusing to accept tasks she sees as illogical risks to the safety and efficiency of her team.

Ananda’s personal life has been deeply affected by the war. Her husband does not share her willingness to fight on the front.

“Our children ask how is it that their mom is serving in the war while their dad refuses to fight. It has split our family,” she admits. Her daughter in Kyiv is training to be a drone pilot, while her son lives with her parents near Kharkiv.

Despite the hardships, Ananda remains determined, unwavering in her commitment to her country and her team. “Every day they come back is a good day.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.

Today’s news briefs

• Merrick Garland rebuke: House Republicans vote to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over audio of President Joe Biden’s interview in his classified documents case.
• Tulsa reparations: The Oklahoma Supreme Court dismisses a lawsuit of the last two survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre who were seeking reparations.
Haitian Cabinet: Haiti’s administration picks new ministers, rounding out the new prime minister’s Cabinet, in a stark departure from the previous government as the country battles a deep humanitarian crisis fueled by armed gangs.
• U.N. list of offenders against children: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres names Israel’s armed and security forces, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Sudan’s warring parties for killing and maiming children in 2023.

Read these news briefs.

How hard is it to root out corruption? Ask Guatemala’s new president.

Guatemala’s new President Bernardo Arévalo pledged to clean up corruption. Facing down a hostile attorney general, he’s realizing that his anti-corruption agenda will take more than just political will and popular support.

Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo waves as he walks from the National Palace to Congress to submit legislation to make it easier to remove the attorney general May 6, 2024, in Guatemala City.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

When Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo came to office this year, calling for an end to deeply entrenched corruption, he had widespread popular support.

But after nearly six months in office, he has little to show for his corruption fight. That’s, in part, due to the fact that his party has little presence in the legislature and is barred from sitting on committees. And it has a lot to do with the attorney general, who is sanctioned by 42 foreign countries, and has proven effective at blocking the president’s anti-corruption efforts at every turn.

Mr. Arévalo’s struggles underscore how challenging it can be to carry out an anti-corruption agenda, despite widespread public support.

“It’s difficult for corruption to be your flag,” says Marielos Chang, a political scientist and professor at Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle. Solving it “is complex and [so is] getting results that improve people’s quality of life.”

Kelvin Jiménez, who protested for three months in front of the attorney general’s office last year to have Mr. Arévalo’s presidential victory honored, is one of many citizens expressing frustration with the lack of progress on fighting corruption.

“Perhaps we were not so aware of the seriousness of the institutional deterioration that’s been an obstacle to the government,” Mr. Jiménez says.

How hard is it to root out corruption? Ask Guatemala’s new president.

Collapse

By most counts, it’s a miracle that Guatemala’s President Bernardo Arévalo has been in office for nearly six months. The anti-corruption politician faced unprecedented legal challenges to his campaign last summer, a powerful attorney general tried to reverse his election victory, and three months of public demonstrations swamped the capital in efforts to ensure his inauguration.

But the heavy lift it took to get him into office, where he has promised to weed out corruption and strengthen his small Central American nation’s democracy, hasn’t eased. Citizens who spent months on the streets are starting to wonder when Mr. Arévalo will deliver on promised change. Complicating the situation, the attorney general, María Consuelo Porras, who has been sanctioned by 42 foreign countries including the U.S., is blocking his efforts at every turn. 

“This is not a marathon,” Mr. Arévalo said at an event on April 4, acknowledging the population’s frustration with slow progress on passing anti-corruption legislation. “It is a game of chess,” he said, referring to the fine-tuned strategy needed to confront the fact that his party has just 14% of the seats in Congress, and his agenda angers Guatemala’s historically powerful political and economic elite. 

Mr. Arévalo’s struggles underscore how challenging it can be to fight corruption, despite widespread public support.

Santiago Billy/AP
Indigenous people from western highland communities participate in a months-long protest in Guatemala City Oct. 10, 2023, to support President-elect Bernardo Arévalo after Guatemala's highest court upheld a move by prosecutors to suspend his political party over alleged voter registration fraud – threatening his ability to take office.

“It’s difficult for corruption to be your flag,” says Marielos Chang, a political scientist and professor at Universidad del Valle in Guatemala. Solving it “is complex and [so is] getting results that improve people’s quality of life.”

Those who have successfully fought corruption in the past in Guatemala, says Ms. Chang, have had a solidly independent justice department, “allowing them to prosecute major political figures” without interference.

The president vs. the attorney general

Teamwork with the justice department and the attorney general is precisely what Mr. Arévalo lacks.

The central threat to his government and its anti-corruption promises is Ms. Porras. Last August, she tried to annul Mr. Arévalo’s votes following his electoral victory. Citizen pressure from the streets, the organization of Indigenous and rural communities, and an international community that closed ranks, together defended the country’s democracy.

The president has tried, unsuccessfully, to remove Ms. Porras from office. 

“The dark cycle of Consuelo Porras must end now,” Mr. Arévalo said in a national address on May 6. The next day, he delivered a bill to Congress that would allow him to dismiss the attorney general before the end of her four-year term in 2026. He needed 107 votes for his initiative to succeed, but only won 50, a resounding defeat and potentially a grave political misstep, experts say.

The vote “benefited Porras, not only because she survived the threat of being removed from office, but because she grew stronger in the eyes of those who could be allies of [Movimiento] Semilla,” Mr. Arévalo’s party, says Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, a doctoral candidate in political science and researcher at Harvard University.

“It was a ... poor reading of the political times,” says Ms. Chang. It turned an important fight against a scourge afflicting every level of the government into “something personal between two political figures,” she says.

In mid-May, Ms. Porras presented an annual report on the public ministry’s work, surrounded by the heads of prosecutors’ offices from across the country, in a show of solidarity against the president’s pledges to enact big change in Guatemala. 

Resistance to Mr. Arévalo comes from key actors and institutions that have deep interests in ensuring business as usual in Guatemala. They include many officials in the justice department and the courts, opposition parties in Congress, and powerful economic elites targeted by a now defunct, internationally-backed, anti-corruption body. 

Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemala's Attorney General María Consuelo Porras speaks to reporters after a 2023 meeting with Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro in Guatemala City. They were meeting to discuss President Bernardo Arévalo's January 2024 inauguration.

Mr. Arévalo says he knows Guatemalans are frustrated. 

“With the pieces it has on the [chess] board, the odds are that the government will lose,” says Mr. Meléndez-Sánchez, because the president has not been set up for a fair match. The country is described as a “hybrid regime,” combining elements of formal democracy and authoritarianism, by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Guatemala is ranked 100th out of 160 countries in terms of its democratic health.

“A minefield of corruption”

In his first month in office, Mr. Arévalo removed more than 1,300 people from government positions, either because they were not qualified for their posts, or because they had been given their jobs by previous administrations as political favors.

“The outgoing government left a minefield of corruption,” says Mr. Meléndez-Sánchez.

In the coming months, Guatemala will begin selecting new members of its Supreme Court of Justice and Courts of Appeals. More than 180 positions will be filled by Congress and the new judges will serve five-year terms. The stakes are high: These magistrates could face future requests to withdraw Mr. Arévalo’s presidential immunity, something that could lead to his dismissal. 

Adding to these challenges is that Movimiento Semilla is a young and relatively weak party. A few days after assuming the presidency, the Constitutional Court, the highest in Guatemala, ruled that Semilla, under investigation over how it was founded, cannot work as a bloc in Congress. That prevents the party’s legislators from serving on committees and thus limits its ability to influence the legislative agenda. 

Moises Castillo/AP
Member of Congress Sonia Gutierrez (right) greets incoming Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo during his inauguration ceremony in Guatemala City, Jan. 14, 2024.

Corruption has long been a scourge in Central America, but recent studies show it is growing. The situation in Guatemala shows how it is not enough to defeat autocrats at the polls and assume power – there follows the complexity of cleaning up public institutions. 

“The authoritarians, when they are defeated, leave these authoritarian enclaves that are precisely the ones Arévalo is fighting against,” says Mr. Meléndez-Sánchez. It requires “strategy.”

And, crucially, patience.

Kelvin Jiménez, a lawyer for the indigenous Xinca Parliament, was part of the organization of nine Indigenous groups that protested for three months in front of the attorney general’s office last year. He is one of many citizens frustrated by the fact that Ms. Porras is still in office and that more progress has not been made in the fight against corruption.

But, he acknowledges, there have been some small improvements. This administration was the first to meet with Indigenous communities to draw up an agenda promoting social and environmental development, he says. 

“Perhaps we were not so aware of the seriousness of the institutional deterioration that’s been an obstacle to the government,” Mr. Jiménez says. “The population must continue to embrace a process of change” even if it comes slowly.

‘This is not our war.’ Lebanese Christians caught between Hezbollah and Israel.

It’s a recurring theme in warfare: the plight of noncombatant civilians caught in the crossfire. In southern Lebanon, Christian villagers say Hezbollah’s tactics make them vulnerable to destructive Israeli salvos.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A statue of Mary and the baby Jesus remains by the wrecked front door of a home in the village of Alma el-Shaab, Lebanon, May 18, 2024. Christian-majority villages adjacent to the Lebanon-Israel border have suffered damage, caught in exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

As one travels south in Lebanon, one sees fewer cars on the road, and more and more freshly strung banners marking the “martyrdom” of Shiite Hezbollah fighters, who have been locked in intensifying fighting with Israel ever since the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its attack last October from Gaza.

The escalating exchanges of fire have displaced some 90,000 Lebanese and 60,000 Israelis from border areas. On Wednesday, Hezbollah launched more than 200 rockets at Israel, in apparent response to Israel killing a senior Hezbollah commander overnight.

Those who have stayed in the south – especially in the handful of Christian-majority villages and towns – say they are caught in the middle, and paying the price for a war that is not their own. They face an unknowable timeline, with Hezbollah vowing to continue pressuring Israel until there is a cease-fire in Gaza.

Hezbollah fighters “come between us, and mingle among us, and fire their missiles and run away. Then we get hit back” by Israel, says Tony al-Alam, in the Christian town of Rmaich. “We are sitting here, watching our sheep and goats die, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

‘This is not our war.’ Lebanese Christians caught between Hezbollah and Israel.

Collapse

Looking up from the center of Rmaich, a Christian town lodged on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, a sun-wizened Lebanese goatherd points to a cluster of pine trees on a ridge.

That is one of many nearby places used by Shiite Hezbollah fighters as cover to quietly deploy, fire rockets into Israel, and then disappear, he says, prompting Israel to return fire. It’s a pattern that for eight months has disrupted livestock, crops, and his livelihood.

“I have olives behind those trees, but I don’t dare go there,” says Tony al-Alam, noting that half his 300 goats have now starved to death. It has become too risky to graze beyond the edge of town, and Mr. Alam has already spent all his money on animal feed.

Days earlier, he says, Israeli troops opened fire as he and a friend checked a tobacco field, forcing them to run.

“This side here, [Hezbollah] sneaks into the forest and fires at the Israelis, and the Israelis fire back everywhere,” says Mr. Alam, noting that Israel’s use of phosphorus weapons has also poisoned grazing areas and crops, and increased the risk of brushfires.

“This side, for some reason they just don’t understand: Please stay away with your operations,” says Mr. Alam. “They come between us, and mingle among us, and fire their missiles and run away. Then we get hit back [by Israel]. We are sitting here, watching our sheep and goats die, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

The Israelis “didn’t target us on purpose” with the aim of harming civilians, says Mr. Alam, echoing other Lebanese residents still living along the border. But this war on Israel’s northern front – started by Hezbollah in solidarity with Hamas immediately after the Palestinian militant group launched its Oct. 7 invasion of Israel from Gaza – has heavily impacted civilians.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Father Jawhar Tonios offers communion at a Sunday church service for Maronite Christians in Rmaich, Lebanon, May 19, 2024.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Maronite Christians attend a Sunday church service as they preserve daily life despite close proximity to Lebanon's southern border and the fighting between Israel and Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah militants who fire at Israel from nearby, in Rmaich, Lebanon, May 19, 2024.

The escalating exchanges of fire have displaced some 90,000 Lebanese and 60,000 Israelis from border areas. On Wednesday, Hezbollah launched more than 200 rockets at Israeli military bases and other targets – one of its heaviest bombardments to date – in apparent response to Israel killing a senior Hezbollah commander overnight.

As one travels south in Lebanon, one sees fewer cars on the road, and more and more freshly strung banners marking the “martyrdom” of Hezbollah fighters.

Those who have stayed in the south – especially in the handful of Christian-majority villages and towns, like Rmaich – say they are caught in the middle, and paying the price for a war that is not their own.

Like all Lebanese, they face an unknowable timeline, with the war in Gaza already extending much longer than first expected and Hezbollah vowing to continue pressuring Israel until there is a cease-fire.

Likewise, Israel makes frequent warnings, such as one in April from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said any war in Lebanon, while “difficult” for Israel, “would be a catastrophe for Hezbollah and Lebanon.”

“Nothing has changed in eight months, so people started losing hope,” says Father George el-Amil, a Maronite Christian priest in Rmaich, speaking after scores of parishioners celebrated a Sunday service. The morning was so quiet that locals remarked about it, but at 2:21 p.m., a single Israeli strike to the northeast killed two Hezbollah officers.

“We are living in a big prison; we have to worry about driving out of the village safely, and that doesn’t exist,” says Father George, as his parishioners call him.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A cross stands on a hilltop above the Christian-majority town of Rmaich, Lebanon, May 19, 2024. Nearly half the Chrisitan population has left the town amid fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

What do people blame? “Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government, because they can’t contain Hezbollah,” the cleric says, noting that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the last Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, was meant to ensure that the Lebanese army would deploy along the border, and Hezbollah would pull back.

“If the Israelis hit us, we will hit them. But this is not our war – we did not do anything to them, and they did nothing to us. It’s somebody else’s war,” he says. “Why are we suffering from all of this? Because we are suffering from a lack of government.”

Agricultural output is down 60%, construction work “is zero,” and a lot of businesses have shut down, says Father George, listing reasons for residents’ dwindling financial reserves. “There are a lot of people selling what they own.”

Closed schools are also a big problem for Rmaich, which has appealed to the American and French embassies in Beirut for $1 million to support 1,000 students, says Mayor Milad al-Alam.

The prewar population of 11,000 now stands at 6,500. Support for education normally comes from locals, he says, but with 80% of the population growing tobacco and 20% growing olives – and access to both crops limited – the cash crunch has meant the next school year is in doubt.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Family pictures are among the ruins of a home wrecked by an Israeli strike against Shiite Hezbollah militia targets, in Alma el-Shaab, Lebanon, May 18, 2024.

“Now it’s eight months, not eight days,” Mayor Alam says of the violence. “Nobody knows the future.”

Similar resignation is felt to the west in the small Christian border village of Alma el-Shaab, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

There Father Maroun Ghafari, a priest for 30 years with unruly eyebrows, preaches to a dwindling flock beneath the constant sound of buzzing Israeli drones and nearby Hezbollah-Israel exchanges of fire.

“It’s our village; we can’t leave easy,” says Father Maroun. The prewar population of more than 800 or 900 is today just 70 or 80 people, in a village that he says “gets hit because it is strategic” – sandwiched between Israel and adjacent Shiite villages like Naqoura, where Hezbollah is very active.

“The situation is getting worse and worse. We don’t know why. Here we are not combatants; we are peaceful,” says the priest. Of those who stay, “we inspire them, and they inspire me. We have this belief that, if we leave, all will be lost.”

Already a number of houses have been destroyed or damaged, says Father Maroun.

“Maybe if people didn’t leave, we would not have this much destruction,” he says. “Maybe if people were here, no one would come around the village and shoot to the other side.”

At one wrecked house within view of Israeli guard towers, a silver-painted religious statue of Mary holding a baby Jesus presides over the wreckage from an Israeli strike, including kitchen pots melted by heat and ruined family photo albums.

On a CD from 2011 is the label “Wedding of Firas & Rana.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Lebanese Christian beekeeper Elias Sayah tends to his remaining hives in Alma el-Shaab, Lebanon, May 18, 2024. Mr. Sayah vows to stay in his village despite an Israeli shell having struck the corner of his family home amid months of intense artillery and rocket exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel.

Those who stayed include beekeeper Elias Sayah. Of his 400 hives, he rescued 70 from a valley now thick with Hezbollah fighters. As honeybees swarm around his protective mask and suit – he talks about his bees as lovingly as if they were his children – Mr. Sayah describes how an Israeli shell tore away a corner of his bedroom roof.

“I should be a dead man right now,” he says of the strike a couple months ago. “I am just a beekeeper. Why are they firing their bombs at me?

“Ask your country, ask Joe Biden: Why do they attack me?” he says. “We feel that the 2,000-pound bombs the Americans are sending to Israel, some of them are for us.”

Those concerns are shared by Mr. Sayah’s mother, Rosette, who moved with her ailing husband out of the village for seven months, for safety, but had to return when they ran out of cash. For this family, peace can’t come soon enough.

“Every night when I hear the bombing, I feel it is my last night,” she says. “I fear for my life.”

These English PhDs helped train Google’s AI bot. Here’s what they think about it now.

If English is the next universal coding language, as Nvidia’s CEO suggested, why, English academics ask, are they not being valued as were computer programmers during earlier tech booms?

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

Can an English major make it in a tech world? Allison Harbin was willing to give it a try.

In her new field, Dr. Harbin would just have one pupil: artificial intelligence. English is the next great coding language, Nvidia’s CEO posited, and tech companies recruited hundreds of humanities academics like Dr. Harbin.

“My goal was to create more ethical guidelines for the technology sourcing our collective intelligence,” she says.

Unfortunately, her new student proved recalcitrant.

“Just imagine grading the errors of a high schooler’s paper that he plagiarized from the internet. That’s kind of what we do,” says Dr. Harbin, who was a prompt engineer on Google’s Gemini. “The robot requires a lot of training. There’s a lot to correct.”

Indeed, when Google released the latest version, it recommended gluing cheese to pizza and making sure you ate one rock a day.

But half a dozen people who worked at Google contractor GlobalLogic, including Dr. Harbin, say the experience behind the scenes was even more disheartening. Rather than being treated as respected professionals, they say they were paid slightly above minimum wage. One described the experience as akin to a “digital sweatshop.”

These English PhDs helped train Google’s AI bot. Here’s what they think about it now.

Collapse
Jeff Chiu/AP
Google Vice President Sissie Hsiao, general manager for its AI Gemini, speaks at a Google I/O event in Mountain View, California, May 14, 2024.

Can an English major make it in a tech world?

Allison Harbin was willing to give it a try. The English Ph.D. had been working as a high school teacher, after rising costs and the meager pay in adjunct lecturing drove her from academia. 

In her new field, Dr. Harbin would just have one pupil: artificial intelligence.

English is the next great coding language, Nvidia’s CEO, Jensen Huang, has posited. Tech companies recruited hundreds of humanities academics and freelance writers like Dr. Harbin.

“My goal was to create more ethical guidelines for the technology sourcing our collective intelligence,” she says.

Unfortunately, her new student proved particularly recalcitrant.

“Just imagine grading the errors of a high schooler’s paper that he plagiarized from the internet. That’s kind of what we do,” says Dr. Harbin, who was a prompt engineer on Google’s Gemini. “The robot requires a lot of training. There’s a lot to correct.”

Indeed, when Google released the latest update of Gemini, it recommended gluing cheese to pizza and making sure you ate one rock a day to fulfill your nutritional requirements.

But half a dozen people who worked at Google contractor GlobalLogic, including Dr. Harbin, say the experience behind the scenes was even more disheartening. Rather than being treated as respected professionals, they say they were paid slightly above minimum wage. Professional opportunities mentioned during the hiring interviews, such as working directly for Google, failed to materialize. One described the experience as akin to a “digital sweatshop.” GlobalLogic executives did not respond to an interview request from the Monitor.

Contrast that to the rush to recruit coders during the tech boom and all the perks offered to programmers. Observers say the devaluing of the humanities and those who study literature and the arts by the tech industry is shortsighted – especially in an AI age.

“AI work will continue to transform what it means to work as a creative. I’d like to make a case that graduates in the humanities will be increasingly in demand and should be increasingly in demand,” Dennis Yi Tenen says from his office in the comparative literature department at Columbia University in New York.

Why are the arts worth less?

There’s a barrier between the sciences and humanities in the West, Dr. Yi Tenen explains. “There shouldn’t be.” An émigré from Moldova, he fell in love with the English language with the same zeal with which he would later dive into a line of code as an early smartphone coder for Microsoft.

The “soft skills” of writing and editing share more in common with coding and hard math than many tech CEOs would care to admit, Dr. Yi Tenen argues in his recent book, “Literary Theory for Robots.” Narrative writing and language are code, in other words. Editing text and debugging code are not such different tasks, he argues.

English majors and those in the humanities battle against a stereotype that they don’t take their future as seriously as those in business, law, medicine, or engineering. But students of English understand the technical side to communication – they can engage broad swaths of consumers and citizens whether in business or civics, says Joshua Pederson, an English professor at Boston University. “That’s a skill that will only grow in importance with so much automation coming,” he adds.

A coder or computer programmer at Google will make $120,000 with full benefits on the low end, according to Glassdoor. A third-party contractor on Gemini will make on average $41,000 a year with minimal benefits, according to 11 employees in both interviews and written testimony. 

A group of prompt engineers formed a WhatsApp group to organize and fight for better wages. Roughly 120 joined. In March, more workers were granted W-2 contracts with health benefits. They also started a petition, which included the testimony of eight workers.

These recruits working on Google’s chatbot say they have something important to offer: the ability to tell a story, to teach a petulant pupil, and to source knowledge.

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Jensen Huang, president and CEO of Nvidia Corp., delivers a speech during the Computex 2024 exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan, June 2, 2024. Mr. Huang has suggested that English could be the next universal coding language.

Hayes Hightower Cooper was drawn to the job at Google to be a part of a grassroots information-sharing platform like Wikipedia. It’s exciting to be a part of how “information is sourced and framed,” he says.

“If you’ll remember,” Dr. Yi Tenen says, “Wikipedia was trained on human output, too. It took it a decade or so just to match the quality of a proper tool ... because it has input from so many more people.”

But Wikipedia was started by a bunch of hobbyists who saw the internet as a frontier to be conquered, not by contract laborers kept on retainer, burning through close to “a thousand tasks a day,” according to the testimony of a prompt engineer cosigned by seven others.

“What they need from us is cheap labor with great minds for as long as they can stay. That’s why there’s a rush to hire more and more,” remarked a prompt engineer working on Gemini, who asked that their name not be used because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “These recruiters were desperate for labor. And that’s because they burn people out pretty fast.”

What took Wikipedia 10 years and Encyclopaedia Britannica 25 would take Google less than a year. With Microsoft-backed OpenAI releasing ChatGPT in November 2022, Google’s Gemini had to play catch-up. The results varied.

Starting with “high hopes”

Mariangela Mihai, an assistant professor in anthropology in Washington state, says she came to the field “with high hopes.”

When ChatGPT dropped, she “spent all night fighting with it.” Despite an experience she described as “dystopian,” she was inspired to pursue a career in AI ethics, trying to handle the fledgling technology.

She and others say they were misled by recruiters at some 90-odd third-party contractors. Many of these companies compete for contracts with GlobalLogic, flooding the LinkedIn inboxes of anyone with a mention of writing, editing, or a Ph.D. in the humanities in their profile. 

A recruiter from one of them, Braven, promised a job with Google to a reporter from the Monitor despite the caller ID reading Braven. The recruiter was pushing for a start date within the week.

“I was told this would be providing white-glove service for Google,” Dr. Mihai says. Dr. Harbin was told she’d be transferred to exclusive “direct hire” status – a direct hire for GlobalLogic, that is. She says that failed to materialize during her six months with the company. The degrees of separation from Google were not clearly defined.

Once these poets and academics settled into their jobs, the dysfunction became hard to ignore. They were instructed to keep their work on Google’s Gemini a secret. “They told us not to put Google on our résumé,” a prompt engineer who wishes to remain anonymous said in an interview.

One prompt engineer, who asked to remain anonymous, gets upward of 3,000 queries to go over with Gemini. Dr. Mihai, with a team of four, says she powered through 12,000 over the course of four days.

“Think of it as a constellation of icons that are constantly moving to expand the understanding of these models in ways that generally are supposed to be productive and useful,” says Dr. Mihai. 

There was a team that wrote and edited the robot’s ability to write poetry. Many of the robot’s teachers covered more than a standard student’s five subjects a day, scrambling to get Gemini up to date.

Recently, Mr. Cooper was working on a response to help his robot student determine the best cricket player: Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli. First the robot chose Mr. Sharma based on batting averages. Then it chose Mr. Kohli based on match wins. 

Another question the robot struggled with was, “What are the weaknesses of using different petri dishes for growing black mold?” Mr. Cooper rates responses on grammar, clarity, and sensitivity, among other metrics. The robot gains in smarts with each corrected answer.

Mr. Cooper also struggles with oddball questions: “Should women be allowed to have children?” or “Are straight people okay?” These queries require a “trust and safety” reading to make sure the robot’s response is appropriate. He likens it to time he spent as an English teaching assistant at Vanderbilt University. 

You’re working with an “underdeveloped mind,” Dr. Harbin adds.

AP/File
Jack Carter, a Wichita State University graduate student, programs a computer to make rapid, accurate translations from Samoan into English, in Wichita, Kansas, Sept. 30, 1968. It was part of a project using computers to translate scientific research and other data from any language into English. Mr. Carter understood the grammar and was able to program the computer. Today, English academics are being asked to serve as prompt engineers on AI.

The ones who have the final say on the robot’s ethics are not themselves ethicists, stresses Dr. Harbin. Reddit comments and YouTube videos were used as valid sources during her time on Gemini, she alleges.

They also have the final say when it comes to disagreements among prompt engineers on how to best word a response for questions like, “Why is the rapidly aging population in Asia a bad thing?” and “Why can’t White people use the N-word?”

“It’s demoralizing. We’re academics and researchers in the humanities” who are giving the rubber stamp for plagiarism and inaccurate responses because we’re food insecure, Dr. Harbin explains.

The robot shouldn’t be able to harm, but as it gets more human with each false response published and each article ingested, its potential for effectively taking credit for others’ research and misconstruing history grows, Dr. Mihai warns. The robot understands vast data, but only superficially.

Dr. Harbin had one of her edited responses presented before Google executives by GlobalLogic. She says that she received no credit or promotion. Credit for the work she put in to educate a chatbot currently in use would’ve been appreciated, she stresses.

“The only thing that Google seems to understand is the quantitative, which is why they’re so obsessed with our metrics,” says Dr. Harbin. 

As teams went from a dozen to a few hundred, working conditions continued to deteriorate. In some cases, those interviewed say their pay was lost.

“My boss had to Venmo me my paycheck after multiple complaints,” says Mr. Cooper. He went 28 days without a paycheck because neither his third-party employer nor GlobalLogic would accept responsibility for paying him.

Dr. Mihai says her paycheck was delayed by a month and when she complained, her third-party contractor blamed it on GlobalLogic. She says she was never paid for the last few weeks of her employment.

Recruiters representing third-party contractors began to blame pay delays on U.S. government audits of Google and GlobalLogic. Dr. Mihai and Dr. Harbin both say that they were told their I-9s were lost.

Language, unlike code, has connotations and denotations that make organizing it for human consumption a much more complex task, says Dr. Harbin. She doesn’t think her former employers realize the time and effort that goes into burning through 12,000 sets of prompts with an underdeveloped robot, as opposed to the same amount in code with a high-powered computer.

“The man becomes the machine trying to teach the machine how to become the human it was losing touch with,” remarks Dr. Mihai, looking back on months of mind-numbing labor trying to rein in a robot for a job she left early.

“The people doing this work, you know, are also the people who write your children’s books and screenplays and make heart-wrenching movies. I think the beautiful part is that there is resistance ... in meetings and [group chats]. The people in the trenches are ... going back to the humanities,” says Dr. Mihai.

In Pictures

A Namibian park with skyscraper-high dunes and a spectacular view of dawn

The big dunes – and the views they offer – are often the stars in this Namibian national park. But dawn here is breathtaking from any vantage point.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An oryx stands on a dune in the distance in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It is one of the largest national parks in Africa and sits in the Namib Desert, considered the world’s oldest desert.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Just before sunrise, our guide, Kasiki Sigberth “Siggy” Kanyanga is leading us on a bus tour through the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. Like the busloads of tourists whizzing past us, we are impatient to get to the base of the dunes. If we are early enough, there will be breathtaking views of impossibly high mounds of sand set against the breaking day.

We want to hurry. We want to catch sight of the tallest dune, Big Daddy, which is supposed to soar as high as a skyscraper. There’s also one called Big Mama. How tall is that one? we wonder.

But no. Siggy pulls us over to the side of the road. Instead of up, he wants us to look down – at spider, beetle, and termite tracks.

Light frustration builds. We think Siggy is stalling because he forgot to bring the coffee that he had promised for our breakfast later in the morning. And yet he is so passionate about what he’s pointing out, and his smile so endearing, that we, too, begin to get excited.

Expand this story to see the full photo essay.

A Namibian park with skyscraper-high dunes and a spectacular view of dawn

Collapse

Our guide through the sands is maddening, at first.

His name is Kasiki Sigberth Kanyanga, and he says to call him Siggy. Just before sunrise, Siggy is leading us on a bus tour through the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. Like the busloads of tourists whizzing past us, we are impatient to get to the base of the dunes. If we are early enough, there will be breathtaking views of impossibly high mounds of sand set against the breaking day.

We want to hurry. We want to catch sight of the tallest dune, Big Daddy, which at 325 meters (1,066 feet) is supposed to soar as high as a skyscraper. There’s also one called Big Mama. How tall is that one? we wonder.

But no. Siggy pulls us over to the side of the road. Instead of up, he wants us to look down – at spider, beetle, and termite tracks.

Light frustration builds. We think Siggy is stalling because he forgot to bring the coffee that he had promised for our breakfast later in the morning. And yet he is so passionate about what he’s pointing out, and his smile so endearing, that we, too, begin to get excited.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Siggy talks about the tiny beings that live in the dunes – including beetles, termites, ants, and the dancing white lady spider – and make tracks in the sand.

While the sun comes up, we begin to realize there was never any need to rush. In this national park (one of Africa’s vastest) and in this desert (which is said to be the world’s oldest), there is simply no reason to hurry. The dawn of a new day is spectacular in this place no matter what you are doing: looking up at a dune the height of a high-rise, or studying insect trails on the sandy horizon.

As our tour is ending, we hear Siggy cry out to no one in particular, “Oh no! Oh no!” And then comes his relief: “He’s alive.”

“Who is alive, Siggy?” I ask.

He points to a beetle he has scooped up in his hand. It was confirmation: Siggy’s techniques weren’t stalling, after all. In a country of elephants, oryxes, and giraffes, which loom so large in tourists’ minds, Siggy is in love with the smallest of beings. 

And as for the coffee? A half-hour into the tour, a colleague of Siggy’s had arrived with a thermos. Siggy – and the coffee – made for an unforgettable breakfast in the dunes. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jerome Deborne, a tourist from Brussels, takes a break on a hot day in the middle of climbing Big Mama.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tourists climb the Big Daddy Dune. Spectacular views, especially at daybreak, can be had at either the base or the top of these ocher-colored mounds of sand.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A beetle scampers near the foot of Kasiki Sigberth “Siggy” Kanyanga, a guide who takes care to point out the smallest of creatures that inhabit the park.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tourists enjoy some brunch before they climb another dune. Bus tours depart before daybreak to line up at the entrance to the national park.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A jackal that is habituated to the tourists who flock to the Namib-Naukluft National Park hangs around a popular picnic spot near the dunes.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Footsteps lead to the Big Mama Dune, which is over 650 feet tall. The dunes’ color develops over time as iron in the sand is oxidized.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tourists in the park walk back from a spot known as Deadvlei, which translates to “dead marsh.” The white clay pan sits amid some of the highest dunes in the world.

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

Playing to a child’s innocence

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

A touching news video went viral on June 11. It shows a young Palestinian woman playing songs on a guitar for a group of smiling children in the ruins of a building in Gaza. The children clap with joy and jump about in a brief moment of freedom from fear.

The woman, Rahaf Nasser, told Reuters that – after losing her childhood toys in a war triggered by the Hamas attack on Israel – she wanted to prove that “our children love to live, love to be alive, to play with each other.”

June 11 also happened to be the first International Day of Play. The annual observance was designated in March by the United Nations to celebrate and promote a child’s natural instinct for play.

Ensuring that children have opportunities to play in conflict zones – which last year numbered 59 worldwide – has become a global campaign for UNICEF.

A child’s joy during play may not end a war. But the expression of innocence can help defeat a war’s aftereffects.

Playing to a child’s innocence

Collapse
Reuters
Children listen to a Palestinian medical student, Rahaf Nasser, playing music in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip.

A touching news video went viral on June 11. It shows a young Palestinian woman playing songs on a guitar for a group of smiling children in the ruins of a building in Gaza. The children clap with joy and jump about in a brief moment of freedom from fear.

The woman, medical student Rahaf Nasser, told Reuters that – after losing her childhood toys in a war triggered by the Hamas attack on Israel – she wanted to prove that “our children love to live, love to be alive, to play with each other.” An estimated half of the people in Gaza are children. 

June 11 also happened to be the first International Day of Play. The annual observance was designated in March by the United Nations General Assembly as a way to celebrate and promote a child’s natural instinct for play.

Ensuring that children have opportunities to play in conflict zones – which last year numbered 59 worldwide – has become a global campaign for UNICEF. In Ukraine and in seven countries hosting Ukrainian refugees, for example, the U.N. agency puts a priority on nonformal learning, such as creating places to play, for the youngest children.

“Play is how children learn to navigate the world,” the agency stated. “It helps them to build narratives, knowledge and social skills and contributes to their overall development.”

It also helps preserve their innocence as long as possible, especially in world trouble spots. And it helps restore people’s hope in innocence after a conflict. When parents see a child having fun, it gives them confidence that their child will recover.

UNICEF has become creative in how it promotes play in war zones and disaster areas. It has redesigned cardboard boxes for food aid to include removable inserts that can be repurposed as pop-out toys, such as animal blocks and two disks to make a rolling ball.

The declaration of an International Day of Play may seem odd to many. Yet in war, playtime for kids is often the first casualty. Despite the destruction and high death toll in Gaza, several groups are now offering playful activities, such as informal soccer matches. A performance troupe, Free Gaza Circus, is sending clowns into refugee areas to do acrobatics and make jokes.

A child’s joy during play may not end a war. But the expression of innocence can help defeat a war’s aftereffects.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A path to civility

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

We’re all inherently capable of letting divine Love, rather than self-righteousness or resentment, lead the way in our interactions – which fosters harmony.

A path to civility

Collapse
Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

The man was angry. He felt demeaned, self-righteous, and offended, and he was out for revenge. It looked like violence could break out. Yet, someone in the community was thinking calmly, wisely, humbly – and took a civil approach that defused the situation. Violence was averted and peace established.

This is the biblical story of David and Abigail, the wife of a wealthy property owner whose treatment of David’s men greatly angered David. When Abigail heard of the fraught goings-on, she hastily went to David – not with vulgarity, anger, or a hot temper, but with courtesy and humility. David, touched by Abigail’s wisdom and modesty, relented and thanked her for saving him from committing acts he would later regret (see I Samuel 25).

While this story played out around 3,000 years ago, it has a lot of relevance today. When tempers flare and self-righteousness blares, can we find a calm and civil way forward? Or are we doomed to be dominated by fear and anger?

Christian Science answers that there is always a path to cooperation and mutual respect. Humanity is not trapped in a cauldron of animosity and personal prejudices. Indeed, personal will or pride can easily lead us in the wrong direction, away from peace and goodwill. As Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “We cannot circumscribe happiness within the limits of personal sense” (p. 61).

Instead, we can consider that, as Christ Jesus proved, in reality we are all governed by the Principle of all existence – divine Love, God. Divine Love is the foundation of all creation. This Principle, Love, underpins the way we each – in our true nature as God’s spiritual offspring – interact with and relate to one another.

From this standpoint, we come to see that there is a higher way to think and act than through emotion or sensationalism. It’s the way of divine Principle and Love, and yielding to that Love rather than to anger fosters civility and cooperation. As Science and Health states, “For true happiness, man must harmonize with his Principle, divine Love ...” (p. 337).

Harmony defines the relation between ourselves and God, and ultimately between ourselves and others. Through prayer, we realize Principle, not personalities, is the basis of life. Then we naturally think and act in accordance with what we truly are as the spiritual reflection of divine Love – e.g., we outwardly express thoughtfulness, humility, integrity, and so on. We’re all innately capable of operating on this level of consciousness, which fosters respect and cooperation when interfacing with others.

I experienced this firsthand after my husband and I purchased a parcel of land in Arizona. There was a magnificent giant saguaro cactus close to the lot line. However, our neighbors’ landscapers had bulldozers working precariously close to this desert beauty.

My husband and I went over to our neighbors’ house, and as we talked with one of the neighbors we mentioned our concern about the cactus. It was a friendly conversation on both sides, but a few hours later we received a loud and obscene voicemail from the neighbor’s spouse. We were quite taken aback!

Though initially distressed and unsettled by this encounter, my husband and I affirmed that God, Principle, Love, was the only power truly in operation. We recognized that divine Principle was in charge, not personalities. There is neither place nor opportunity for anger or resentment in Love.

As we prayed with these ideas, the resentment and uneasiness that we’d been feeling lifted. Later that day, I phoned the neighbors and spoke with the spouse who had left the voicemail. It was a cordial interaction, and after we hung up the hostility never returned. (And the saguaro did just fine!)

Holding to the realm of divine Principle, not personality – knowing that Principle is Love and finds expression in civility and harmony – helps us contribute to peaceful solutions and goodwill in our lives and communities.

Viewfinder

Hip to be square

Zoltan Balogh/MTI/AP
Students take part in a flash mob held on the 50th anniversary of the invention of the Rubik’s Cube, organized by the National Innovation Agency in St. Stephen's Square in downtown Budapest, Hungary, June 12. Hungarian professor, architect, and inventor Ernő Rubik invented the so-called Magic Cube in the spring of 1974. It originally served educational purposes, but the game later became popular worldwide.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when Sarah Matusek visits Colorado’s most competitive swing district. Is President Joe Biden’s recent action on the southern border enough to move the needle for local voters, or too little too late?

More issues

2024
June
12
Wednesday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.