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Basarwa and their Tswana Kinsmen: A Tale of Persecution (1)

In this tale about the horrors of history in Kalahari country, Botswana novelist, poet, historian, essayist, biographer, writer of short stories and travelogue, and human rights campaigner, Teedzani Thapelo*, looks hard at Tswana imperial dominion over Basarwa nation in the last one hundred years, and wonders what it is that makes people who profess to be civilised to behave in such a cold and cruel manner towards others. Is this a matter of race? Is it a question of cultural arrogance? Is it a simple matter of unmitigated human savagery? Is there something barbarian about our national character? Does our vulgar, pretentious, fake significance and brazen philistinism augur well for the future of this country? Is there a value to be derived from this violent mess? Do we derive pleasure from their loathsome miserableness? Is there an ideology and process to promote this violence that some of us don’t know about? What continues to promote this violence? What continues to radicalize the perpetrators of this violence? Is this thing a political proposition? Is it an economic necessity? Where do the perpetrators get their operational instructions, how and why? We need, Thapelo argues, answers to these questions so that when finally the hand of justice comes knocking at the door, bearing on the right a solemn Lady Justice, we should know where to point our fingers. This, he says, is a national duty if we have any conscience at all.

I took the trouble to go through extant historical sources these past three weeks with one object in mind; to explore relations between Basarwa and Batswana in the past hundred years. I just don’t really know where I should begin relating this story. One thing though is certain: throughout this period the life of a Mosarwa has been a theatre of unmitigated calamity and that of his Tswana kinsman a journey of remarkable progress and social transformation, at least by the miserable standards they set for themselves. By some unwritten law of God, oppressors, it would appear rarely ever truly prosper for long.

Anyway, throughout this period Basarwa have bore the brunt of Tswana tyranny and to this day they still find it hard to escape the vigilance of this relentless political despotism. Batswana have shown themselves to be inaccessible to entreaties and virulently determined to visit this spectre of terror upon their neighbours with a commitment so worrisome I doubt any people have ever suffered so much persecution in recent African history, and that is a subject I happen to know very well.

Yes, 800 000 innocent souls died in Rwanda in 100 days while the world watched and partied but the dead do not shed tears; and in some wretched but calm way they lie in the bosom of God: the ultimate author of all things, great and small. Basarwa are still with us, and their blood and tears mingle with the air that we breathe, and their mangled voices, the tolling bells of our cathedrals-the strangest thing for people who live in a democratic society.

We all agree, I think, it’s a terrible thing for the lives of others, their very welfare and happiness, to be victims of such tyrannical vigilance. I shall return to the issue of justice later. But what really happened to evoke such a vexing conclusion on my part? Well, the incidents of horror are well documented. We shall mention some of them by way of illustration. What I find most shocking is the form and shape this mode of persecution has taken in these years.

The toils of persecution are things so loathsome they scar not only individuals but the entire project of human civilization. We should never take such things lightly. The tyrant, however, is an animal too difficult to appease so that even as I write I know this brief memoir will do nothing to divert the deplorableness of this situation. But common decency demands that we record these blood spots in the annals of national history.

Our children may, with the help of God, and a much firmer grasp of civilised conduct, do something about them in the future. Yes, I do have faint hope posterity may by their own means and convictions feel it necessary to render justice which my contemporaries refuse. That’s one of the reasons I am writing this article.

The trouble with horrific national history is the difficulty of locating the sources of political depravity. So I’m not going to try. It’s always better to appeal to justice than address the sources of malady, something that is very difficult for a historian to do. But I’ll try. It’s important I set these parameters least I be accused of intellectual levity. My discovery is that this tale of persecution operates by supplying means and resources for destruction and refusing opportunities for conquering difficulties, a most singular thing.

The spring of action is political greed. Acts of insult and injury, of which there are far too many, are camouflaged with the cartel of honour, and violent effort is employed to engender hesitated confusion and irresolute answers. Simple scenes of revelry and mirth are contrived to divert the unhappiness of tortured minds, and these are also camouflaged by the episodic benevolence of superior actions that call upon the garb of veneration even under the deep groans of intolerable anguish. Colonialism was not this perverse. Nor apartheid.

These were elaborate political machines that did not shy away from what they intended to accomplish. What’s happening in Botswana is terribly disturbing. The whole train of life of a Mosarwa is continually subjected to a deserted situation of political terror that is hasty, peevish and tyrannical. It’s like living with and serving a mentally deranged political master; a master whose disturbance and inflammation of the mind is characterised by brief and pale rhapsodies of visionary honour. Tried as I can I just could not give perspicuity to this horrible series of events.

As a child I found the ordinary Motswana possessed of an air of uncommon dignity, a dignity heightened by an expression of frankness, kindness and unreserved enthusiasm; a terribly charming fellow. I found the ordinary Motswana a creature almost encumbered with reflection, sensibility and an amazing good taste that never lost sight of humanity.

Now I am no longer so sure. I wonder what happened to the genuine hilarity of the heart. We have never been a brilliant and scholarly people but we always counted on our good manners to stand us good in all company and conversations. But no longer so. We have changed radically. We are no longer superior to suspicion. Is what I see today our true character coming out? Is what I read in the annals of our history our true character as a nation and a people?

I invite the reader to travel with me through Kalahari country and survey for themselves the criticalness of this situation. The tragic irony of the horror that separates a Mosarwa from his Motswana kinsman is that this same loathsomeness seems, in many instances, to be predicated on the fear for the progress that each party might have made in the affection of the other.

Both are aware of the dangers of this relationship. Both are exhausted by the endless rancour and blood-letting but this they choose, in the majority of cases, to endure with apathy; the Mosarwa because he’s powerless and helpless, his kinsman, because the very things that feed his frenzied gormandising; land, labour and the body of the victim, are not seen as finite resources.

In short there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The Mosarwa must become accustomed to tormented submission and deference, and his kinsman to his imperious manners and the superior resentment of insolent questioning of his political privilege. The oppressor is always drunk with choler, and will not, under any circumstances, listen to a word that tends to check the impetuosity of his actions.

The victim traverses the land of Kalahari, no, his entire life span, with grievously perturbed steps, foaming with anguish, fury and rage. The oppressor has the honour of choosing any scene of action that pleases his diabolical fancy, the victim always has considerable difficulty appeasing the indignation of the master and the rapacious calling of his raw appetites.

Rarely are peaceful means employed to disarm the stateliness of these opposed resentments and nothing is ever done to effect even the smallest moments of mutual cordiality and happiness, and yet both these antagonists live in a democratic society, and often copulate sufficiently well to bring children in this land of plunder and agony.

The reputation of the tyrant’s courageous brutality is already so well established it cannot allow itself to be exposed to impeachment. The Mosarwa, it would appear, has little courage to subdue its imperial arrogance and unstoppable imprudence-and everybody calls Botswana a democratic society, how amazing!

What, I wonder, makes human beings to behave like this towards each other? Does this simply signify the weakness of human nature? Does it signify the weakness of society, its laws and political institutions? Is it always necessary to expiable haste and indiscretion with blood and sworn hate? Is such an unmitigated persecution of a malignant destiny a pleasant feature of democratic society? What happened to the fields of utility and distinction so well spelled out in parts of our constitution?

Why should one nation give accommodation and advantage to another in this way, a way that can only result in it rusting and rotting in the dungeons of oblivion? Why do some people think the world is made for them, and not others? How does a man explain this malignant contagious distemper in democratic society? I am not a philosopher, and the world, I know, is not governed by words. But these things haunt me like a demon.

I cannot wake, but I think of them. My friends at Government Enclave, I know, don’t care. Their attitude is simple: as we brew, we must bake, and life goes on. But this I think is the wrong attitude to take. Let me explain.

A little over a hundred years ago the traveller J.C. Chapman, met a group of Basarwa. He says in his book they called themselves dogs, pack oxen and horses of Sekomi (sic) the Ngwato chief. Asked if they wanted to do anything better than be slaves of this monarch they said they never thought of aspiring to any other position in life.

They called themselves dogs because they hunted and killed game for their master, pack oxen because they had to carry home the proceeds of their hunts for hundreds of miles, and horses because they had to act as his spies throughout his kingdom and run from one post to another with the least information so the man could always rest at peace knowing all was well.

In short, they fed his family, provided secret security services for his kingdom, without asking for millions of money like the DIS, made sure his authority was not challenged, and got nothing in return for their work. We may suspect they got some food but that is only conjecture.

At about the same time David Livingstone, a great humanitarian, died in central Africa fighting to stop slavery and the abomination of slave-trading. America was still smarting from a civil war to end slavery in that great republic, a war that cost millions in human lives and property just to procure the freedom and human dignity of hapless black souls who had hitherto remained tied to the mainstream society by denigrating and dehumanizing bonds of blood, sweat and tears. But in Botswana, a country that had just run 5000 miles across the sea to ask for protection from an old woman in Britain, slavery continued to flourish.

In the 1930s the writer Diana Wyle estimated that Tshekedi Khama owned 300 000 herd of cattle and 3000 Basarwa. This translates to one Mosarwa looking after 100 cows. Bangwato are what they are today because of Basarwa. I could quote many similar data for relations between these suffering people and Bakwena, Bangwaketse, and other tribes.

The tragic plight of Basarwa is a matter of recorded history. The blight of their lives has always been, and remains to date, a function of Tswana prosperity. For centuries they remained the backbone of the country’s transport network, serving wealthy Tswana tribesman as porters, postmen, messengers, and the historical record shows they could even be used to convey their masters and trading goods on their bare backs for hundreds of miles.

Basarwa have always been, and remain to date, master trackers. It is an open secret that it was these much oppressed and maligned people who opened the odiously exacting hinterland of the great Kalahari Desert for commercial exploitation, scientific investigation and tourist marvel and adventure.

For ages they lived in this enchanting paradise with poets, philosophers, scientists, artists, geologists, film makers, intrepid and wayward missionaries, adventurers, celebrities and all sorts of lost human souls from all parts of the world.

Today these great pioneers, these quiet, unassuming, hospitable, and humble souls have been reduced to mere objects of exploitation and tourist fascination. They are outsiders in a land they conquered through great spiritual contemplation and compassionate communing with nature and beasts. The uncontaminated Mosarwa is by nature and philosophical disposition a mystic and wanderer.

He tames first his passions and excesses, and then next tries the best he can to live with his known world-a world of immanent human experience. The way Batswana treat Basarwa today is appallingly disturbing and morally reprehensible principally because it is a horrendous violation of the law of human hospitality-a principle that has been the hallmark of all great civilisations since time immemorial. It is the worst case of bestial internal colonialism ever recorded in human history.

The greatest shame is that it is precisely because of the way we treat these hapless people that the civilised world is beginning to use our oppressive interactions with them as a yardstick to measure our humanity. What a shame! What a horrible fate! What a scandalous self-denigrating proposition! The tragedy is that we do this horrible thing for the simplest reason in the world-we want to be rich. We want to be affluent. We want to be big men and women. The tragedy is that we call this wholesale dispossession and exploitation of fellow citizens civilised behaviour.

The world is laughing at us. It has a right to. The opprobrium of decent voices is engulfing the very soul and spirit of the nation. Rightly so. I just wonder when we’ll tire of this dishonour, humiliation and ignominy. It is a tragedy of our own making. The land claims, legal disputes, intellectual contestations, constitutional determinations, international outcries, activist social science, anthropological anger and discontent, and Basarwa nationalisms and liberation struggles that have characterised ideological, political, moral and legal discourses and actions in Botswana between the first constitutional intervention and pronouncement in 1978 and the sustained High Court battles in the recent past all arise from these historical injustices.

To this day Basarwa struggle for freedom rages on. As I said, the tragic development biography of Basarwa has already become the greatest feature of our definition as nation. There is no worse affront to the magnificence of the human estate than the deliberate vehemence of brutality against others in modern society. The history of Basarwa in Botswana occupies prime position in university bookshelves around the world in all written languages.

There’s hardly any leading anthropologist at the world’s top hundred universities who has not written about Basarwa in the last hundred years. The story of Basarwa has appeared in all leading newspapers of the world. It has been debated in the House of Commons in Britain from as far back as the 1880s and as I write that august house is still open to such debates; its hansards a record of our great folly as a nation.

This story has been the subject of congressional lobbying in America. No leading global television network has not covered this story. No prestigious international magazine has not featured it. This story has featured in films, documentaries, academic conferences and remains the subject of animated discussions in classrooms and private homes in just about every part of the world.

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Opinions

Internal party-democracy under pressure

21st June 2022

British novelist, W. Somerset Maugham once opined: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.”

The truism in these words cannot be underestimated, especially when contextualizing against the political developments in Botswana. We have become a nation that does not value democracy, yet nothing represent freedom more than democracy. In fact, we desire, and value winning power or clinging to power more than anything else, even if it harms the democratic credentials of our political institutions. This is happening across political parties — ruling and opposition.

As far as democracy is concerned, we are regressing. We are becoming worse-off than we were in the past. If not arrested, Botswana will lose its status as among few democratic nations in the Africa. Ironically, Botswana was the first country in Africa to embrace democracy, and has held elections every five years without fail since independence.

We were once viewed as the shining example of Africa. Those accolades are not worth it any more. Young democracies such as South Africa, with strong institutions, deserves to be exalted. Botswana has lost faith in democracy, and we will pay a price for it. It is a slippery slope to dictatorship, which will bring among other excess, assault on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Former President, Festus Mogae once stated that Botswana’s democracy will only become authentic, when a different party, other than the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) wins elections, and when the President of such party is not from Serowe.

Although many may not publicly care to admit, Mogae’s assertion is true. BDP has over the years projected itself as a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of democracy, but the moment its stay in power became threatened and uncertain, it started behaving in a manner that is at variance with democratic values.  This has been happening over the years now, and the situation is getting worse by the day.

Recently, the BDP party leadership has been preaching compromise and consensus candidates for 2024 general elections. Essentially, the leadership has lost faith in the Bulela Ditswe dispensation, which has been used to selected party candidates for council and parliament since 2003. The leadership is discouraging democracy because they believe primary elections threaten party unity. It is a strange assertion indeed.

Bulela Ditswe was an enrichment of internal party democracy in the sense that it replaced the previous method of selection of candidates known as Committee of 18, in which a branch committee made of 18 people endorsed the representatives. While it is true that political contest can divide, the ruling party should be investing in political education and strengthening in its primary elections processes. Democracy does not come cheap or easy, but it is valuable.

Any unity that we desire so much at the expense of democracy is not true unity. Like W. Somerset Maugham said, democracy would be lost in the process, and ultimately, even the unity that was desired would eventually be lost too. Any solution that sacrifice democracy would not bring any results in the long run, except misery.

We have seen that also in opposition ranks. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) recently indicated that its incumbent Members of Parliament (MPs) should not be challenged for their seats. While BDP is sacrificing democracy to stay in power, UDC is sacrificing democracy to win power. It is a scary reality given the fact that both parties – ruling and opposition — have embraced this position and believe democracy is the hindrance to their political ambitions.

These current reality points to one thing; our political parties have lost faith in democracy. They desire power more than, the purpose of power itself. It is also a crisis of leadership across the political divide, where we have seen dissenting views being met with persecution. We have seen perverting of political process endorsed by those in echelons of power to manipulate political outcomes in their favour.

Democracy should not be optional, it should be mandatory. Any leader proposing curtailing of democracy should be viewed with suspicion, and his adventures should be rejected before it is too late. Members of political parties, as subscribers of democracy, should collectively rise to the occasion to save their democracy from self-interest that is becoming prevalent among Botswana political parties.

The so-called compromise candidates, only benefits the leadership because it creates comforts for them. But for members, and for the nation, it is causing damage by reversing the gains that have been made over the years. We should reject leaders who only preach democracy in word, but are hesitant to practice it.

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Opinions

The Big Deal About Piracy

21st June 2022
piracy

Piracy of all kinds continues to have a massive impact on the global creative industry and the economies of the countries where it thrives.

One of the biggest misconceptions around piracy is that an individual consumer’s piracy activities, especially in a market the size of Botswana’s, is only a drop in the pool of potential losses to the different sectors of the economy piracy affects.

When someone sitting in Gaborone, Botswana logs onto an illegal site to download King Richard online, they don’t imagine that their one download will do anything to the production house’s pocket or make a dent in the actors’ net worth. At best, the sensitivity towards this illegal pirating activity likely only exists when contemplating going about pirating a local musician’s music or a short film produced locally.

The ripple effects of piracy at whatever scale reach far beyond what the average consumer could ever imagine. Figures released by software security and media technology company, Irdeto, show that users in five major African territories made approximately 17,4 million total visits to the top 10 identified piracy sites on the internet.

The economic impact of this on the creative industry alone soars to between 40 and 97.1 billion dollars, according a 2022 Dataprot study. In addition, they estimate that “illegally streamed copyrighted content consumes 24% of global bandwidth”.

As Botswana’s creative industry remains relatively slight on the scale of comparison to industries such as Nollywood and Nilewood where the creative industry contributes a huge proportion to West and East Africa’s respective GDPs, that does not imply that piracy activities in Botswana do not have a similar impact on our economy and the ability of our creative industry to grow.

When individuals make decisions to illegally consume content via internet streaming sites they believe they are saving money for themselves in the name of enjoying content they desire to consume. Although this is a personal choice that remains the prerogative of the consumer, looking beyond the fact that streaming on illegal content sites is piracy, the ripple effect of this decision also has an endless trail of impact where funds which could be used to grow the local creative industry through increased consumption, and revenue which would otherwise be fed back into Botswana’s economy are being diverted.

“Why can’t our local creative industry grow?” “Why don’t we see more home-grown films and shows in Botswana?” are questions constantly posed by those who consume television content in Botswana. The answer to this lies largely in the fact that Botswana’s local content needs an audience in order for it to grow. It needs support from government and entities which are in a position to fund and help the industry scale greater heights.

Any organisational body willing to support and grow the local creative industry needs to exist and operate in an economy which can support its mandates. Content piracy is a cycle that can only be alleviated when consumers make wiser decisions around what they consume and how.

This goes beyond eradicating piracy activities in so far as television content is concerned. This extends to the importation and trade in counterfeit goods, resale of goods and services not intended for resale across the border, outside its jurisdiction, and more. All of these activities stunt the growth of an economy and make it nearly impossible for industries and sectors to propel themselves to places where they can positively impact society and reinvest into the country’s economy.

So what can be done to turn the tide here in Botswana in order to see our local production houses gain the momentum required to produce more, license more and expand their horizons? While those who enforce the law continue to work towards minimizing piracy activities, it’s imperative that as consumers we work to make their efforts easier by being mindful of how our individual actions play a role in preventing the success of our local creative networks and our economy’s growth.

Whether you are pirating a Hollywood Blockbuster, illegally streaming a popular Motswana artist’s music, or smuggling in an illegal decoder to view content restricted to South Africa only, your actions have an impact on how we as a nation will make our mark on the global landscape with local creative productions. Thembi Legwaila is Corporate Affairs Manager, MultiChoice Botswana

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Opinions

Our Strength is our Unity

18th March 2022
Craig-Cloud

Putin Chose War.  We Remain United with Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador Craig L. Cloud

This is a dangerous moment for Europe and for freedom-loving people around the world.  By launching his brutal assault on the people of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has also committed an assault on the principles that uphold global peace and democracy.  But the people of Ukraine are resilient.

They’ve had a democracy for decades, and their bravery is inspiring the world.  The United States, together with our Allies and partners across the globe, will continue to support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.  By choosing to pay for a war instead of investing in the needs of Russians, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be a strategic failure for the Kremlin and ravage the future of the Russian people.

When the history of this era is written, it will show that Putin’s choice to launch an unprovoked, unjust, and premeditated attack left the West more unified and Russia exponentially weaker.

United in Our Response

This will not end well for Vladimir Putin.  Together, the United States and our Allies and partners are taking action to hold Russia accountable.  As a result of unprecedented global sanctions coordination, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, and Canada have removed selected Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system and imposed restrictive measures on the Russian Central Bank.

President Biden announced sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will damage Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.  After Putin began his invasion, the ruble hit its weakest point in history, and the Russian stock market plunged.

Along with the United Kingdom and European Union, the United States imposed sanctions on the architects of this war, including Putin himself.

By moving in close coordination with a powerful coalition of Allies and partners representing more than half of the global economy, we have magnified the impact of our actions to impose maximum costs on Putin and his regime.  In response to Putin’s war of choice, we will limit Russia’s ability to do business in U.S. dollars.

We will stunt Russia’s ability to finance and grow its military.  We will impair Russia’s ability to compete in the global economy.  And we are prepared to do more.

In addition to economic penalties, this week President Biden authorized an additional $1 billion over the $350 million of security assistance he recently approved, and a $650 million in 2021, to immediately help Ukraine defend itself, bringing America’s total security assistance to Ukraine over the past year to $2 billion.

We also stand ready to defend our NATO Allies.  President Biden has coordinated with Allied governments to position thousands of additional forces in Germany and Poland as part of our commitment to NATO’s collective defense.

He authorized the deployment of ground and air forces already stationed in Europe to NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks:  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.  Our Allies have also added their own forces and capabilities to ensure our collective defense.  There should be no doubt about the readiness of the greatest military Alliance in the history of the world:  NATO is more united than ever.

The United States has also coordinated with major oil-producing and consuming countries to underscore our common interest in securing global energy supplies.  We are working with energy companies to surge their capacity to supply energy to the market, particularly as prices increase.

Putin’s Unprovoked and Premeditated War

This was an attack that Vladimir Putin has planned for a long time.  He methodically moved more than 150,000 troops and military equipment to Ukraine’s border.  He moved blood supplies into position and built field hospitals, demonstrating his intentions all along.

He rejected every good-faith effort by the United States and our Allies and partners to address his fabricated security concerns and to avoid needless conflict and human suffering by engaging in diplomacy and dialogue.

Putin executed his playbook exactly as we had warned he would do.  We saw Russia’s proxies increase their shelling in the Donbas.  We saw the Russian government launch cyber-operations against Ukraine.  We saw staged political theater in Moscow and heard outlandish and baseless claims made about Ukraine in an attempt to justify Russia’s aggression.

Russia continues to justify its military aggression by falsely claiming the need to stop “genocide” in Ukraine – despite there being no evidence that genocide was occurring there.  We saw Russia use these tactics before when they invaded Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.

And then, at almost the very same moment the United Nations Security Council was meeting to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and forestall disaster, Putin launched his invasion in violation of international law.  Missiles began to rain down, striking historic cities across Ukraine.  Then came air raids, columns of tanks, and battalions of troops, all riding a renewed wave of disinformation and outright lies.

We have been transparent with the world.  We declassified our intelligence about Russia’s plans so there could be no confusion and no cover up.  Putin is the aggressor.  Putin chose this war.  And now his people will bear the consequences of his decision to invest in war rather than in them.

Transatlantic Unity and Resolve Stronger Than Ever

Putin’s goal of dividing the West has failed.  In the face of one of the most significant challenges to European security and democratic ideals since World War II, the United States and our Allies and partners have joined together in solidarity.  We have united, coordinating intensively to engage as one with Russia and Ukraine, provided assistance to Ukraine, developed a broad response, and reaffirmed our commitment to NATO.

Putin has failed to divide us.  Putin has failed to undermine our shared belief in the fundamental right of sovereign nations to choose their destiny and their allies.  And Putin will fail to erase the proud nation of Ukraine.

The next few days, weeks, and months will be incredibly difficult for the people of Ukraine.  Putin has unleashed great suffering on them.  But the Ukrainian people have known 30 years of independence, and they have repeatedly shown they will not tolerate anyone who tries to take their country backwards.

The world is watching this conflict closely, and if Russian forces commit atrocities, we will explore all international mechanisms that could be used to bring those responsible – whether members of the military or their civilian leadership – to account.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will cost Russia profoundly, both economically and strategically.  The Russian people deserve better from their government than the immense cost to their future that this invasion has precipitated.

Liberty, democracy, and human dignity are forces far more powerful than fear and oppression.  In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake:  Freedom will prevail.

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