IDLIB, Syria, 2013. The man pulls at pieces of rope, his arms straining, gliding the pontoon across the river. We reach shore. I clamber up a muddy bank and look back across the river, into Turkey. A car should arrive shortly. It’s July 2013 and my fourth trip into Syria in eight months. I’m hungover and thinking, ‘If I get through this trip, can I get back into Turkey without getting caught?’
The car arrives, its windows blacked out. My fixer, he’s got a side arm. Three other men have AK-47s and six 30-round magazines each. And we’re driving, through the mountainous, pastel landscapes of Idlib province, northwest Syria.
The opposition is thoroughly radicalised. In every village the black flag of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra hangs; its fighters man the checkpoints in ski masks with black bandannas wrapped around their heads.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, winter 2012. I wonder if he’s dead, laid out flat in a booth. He doesn’t move. I don’t know where he shot up, drawing heroin into a syringe and pumping his veins full of the stuff.
We’re sitting in a cheap burger joint in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. Outside a thin and ice-cold rain falls. Adem stands up to check on the junkie, his arm riven with tracks. I haven’t seen Adem in 18 months.
We met in the tense days leading up to the Egyptian uprising of 2011. He vanished a few days into the protests, before turning up on my doorstep after Hosni Mubarak fell, clutching a blindfold. The secret police had picked him up and in darkness he sat for days on a cell floor, listening to the beatings echoing throughout the state security building.
In his way Adem is a newsman. A second-generation Eritrean migrant, 33 years old, he walks the streets in the dead hours of night, pushing a cart packed with copies of The Economist and Financial Times; Swedish newspapers, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet. His route takes him past Stockholm’s up-market cocktail bars, nightclubs and through the red light district, past the hookers and Johns, the drug addicts sprawled in doorways.
“The good thing about the rain is that it drives the junkies inside,” he says. “When you work nights, it’s…”
An ambulance has arrived and the officers are loading the guy in the next booth onto a stretcher.
“Fucking junkies,” Adem says.
I don’t know when I reached my limit, but it happened. I was trawling footage – hundreds of clips – of militia abuses in Libya, given to me by an IDP, an “internally displaced person”, in a barren and scorched Tripoli camp in 2012. He was a Tawerghan, a descendant of black African slaves.
One clip showed an interrogation shot on a cellphone. The men yell at their prisoner, a black African dressed in army pants, his eyes blackened, blood spraying from his mouth as he screams. The interrogators begin slicing at his face with dog tags, forcing a confession.
The prophet riots were in full-swing – September 2012 – following a Salafi preacher drawing attention to a teaser for a movie titled The Innocence of Muslims. I was half-heartedly covering the fallout in Libya and Egypt from Cairo and felt about to explode. For months, my nights had been sleepless. I felt nothing but hostility for the countries I worked in. I bought a ticket to Sweden and boarded a plane.
I hadn’t left the Middle East or Africa in nearly four years. I’m 29.
Adem had tried to get ahead after delivering newspapers for a decade. Enrolling himself in a long-distance Spanish course, he moved to Cairo. Before the uprising. He moved into my apartment soon after being released by the secret police and passed one of his four courses. He went back home to his delivery route.
That was 18 months ago. Now the debt collectors have their nooses tightening around his neck and he doesn’t have much time. He’s working seven days each week. Hanging out with him brings back a rush of memories.
The junkie is hauled into the ambulance. Lights flash and the vehicle pulls away.
CAIRO, Egypt, January 2011. Within hours the military would deploy, occupying key positions throughout Cairo and sedating the movement that had seemed to have the upper hand. But for now, the city belonged to the protesters. They raged.
Flames took to cars and buildings, blanketing the city in a thick shroud of smoke. Men scurried out of the National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters – the party which secured around 85 percent of the vote in the sham 2010 parliamentary elections – carrying antique furniture, and filing cabinets which they hurled into the churning, filthy waters of the Nile. Young protesters rode police motorbikes, hastily abandoned, swerving down roads in huge arcs.
It was Day Four of the Egyptian uprising and the city was in chaos. Teargas hung heavy in the air, stinging, as shotgun bursts rang out and police officers ran isolated and pursued by mobs along streets coated in torn up stone.
The feared security forces had been overwhelmed at sunset – their cache of teargas and buckshot running low – as tens of thousands of people marched from all corners of Cairo, congregating in Midan Tahrir, Liberation Square, where they called for the fall of Mubarak and for bread, freedom, justice and dignity.
The uprising would last 18 days. It took everyone by surprise. Yet discontent had built for years, as the regime’s warped neo-liberal policies and collusion with private economic interests intensified the suffering of so many Egyptians. Their standard of living had been in decline since 1978: minimum wage earners had lost about two thirds of their purchasing power, and on average everyone was now spending 40 percent of their income on food.
Years of political repression and crumbling health and education systems made it all so much worse. The result was a massive display of collective frustration, which all came to a head in those 18 days.
Days Nine and Ten, the counterattack days, marked the point of no return: thousands of Mubarak’s loyalists swarmed into Cairo’s alleys and boulevards, attacking protesters and triggering intense, pitched street battles. Thugs roamed the streets in mobs carrying machetes and sticks with nails driven through, meat-cleavers. After dark, they opened up with assault rifles.
IDLIB, Syria, 2013. Mohammed Khalil, who belongs to one of the last Alawite families remaining in rebel-occupied areas of Idlib, fears that a slaughter is coming. There has already been cleansing in this region, an area of Syria which a patchwork of religious groups – Christian, Sunni, Alawite – all call home.
Rebel brigades – radicalised Sunni Muslims — began consolidating control of the farmlands a year back. The Alawites, hailing from President Bashar al-Assad’s sect, a splinter of Shi’ite Islam, fled as retribution took hold. Now Idlib is full of jihadis, foreign fighters fashioning their Islamic fiefdoms. They’re already flogging people in towns, and a 14-year-old was recently shot in the face by a Nusra militant for “insulting” the Prophet.
“We are afraid,” says 37-year-old Khalil. “But we will receive what Allah wants for us.”
A child scurries past, poking her tongue out. Khalil’s home is built of pale sandstone, nestled among gentle white boulders and olive groves, plum trees. Many Alawites in the region were staunch supporters of Assad and Shabiha militiamen, says Khalil. Yet he insists his family is staying put.
“This is our home,” he says. “I will not take up weapons against anyone, even if they come to kill me.”
And we’re driving, at speed, past the militiamen and ski masks and Qaeda flags. I’m headed to a frontline 40 kilometres away. My fixer is exhausted. It’s Ramadan, he stayed awake all night. We stop to interview displaced persons.
STOCKHOLM. Adem says he will show me his favourite place in Stockholm. He doesn’t have to be at work until 1.30am and the sun is only now setting so we go halves on a bottle of Laphroaig and take a walk through the Gamla Stan district, Stockholm’s old town – a picturesque collection of cobbled streets and alleyways winding maze-like past towering churches and the sprawling Royal Palace.
I’ve been out of the Middle East a few days and am starting to feel better; like the last few years will soon be viewed through a fresh filter. I’m acutely aware that, scoured of words and confused, I’ve burned out.
His favourite place turns out to be a small mosque, Stockholm Mosque, sitting inconspicuously near a park a short walk from Gamla Stan into Sodermalm. A crescent stretching skyward from the top of a minaret and a single green dome. Young men from Somalia loiter in the park, waiting to head off for Maghrib Prayer.
Adem is turning back to the Quran. His small apartment is stacked with books of the Hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet), stuff about angels and copies of the Quran. There is no furniture, just a small foam mattress. Newspapers lie strewn about the place and notes from his Spanish course are piled up. From what I can tell, he spends all his time alone.
“I’ve dabbled,” he says. “Alcoholism. Pussy. Drugs.”
“But after a while you need something more.”
For months Swedes have been debating whether or not the mosque will be permitted to project the call to prayer.
“Why should it?” Adem says, sarcastically: “It’s not as if Europeans went all over the world and spread their religion, is it?”
Many of Adem’s friends are in Swedish prisons, for their parts in low-level armed robberies and drug deals.
Earlier that day he brought home a copy of The Economist. From mid-June, four months old. A nice thought. I flipped through it – rain hammering against the window – stopping to read an article about Somalia.
For most of 2012, the press framed Somalia as being in the midst of a renaissance. The National Theatre had reopened, diaspora Somalis were returning to the country, driving a building boom, and the insurgents of al-Shabab – financially crimped, fracturing, under enormous pressure from AMISOM, the Kenyan army and British, French and US special forces – were losing their grip on parts of the country.
The Economist declared: “Surprising Somalia/ Nice Beaches and Good Shopping/ Mogadishu – The Rejuvenation of Somalia’s Capital is a Hopeful Sign, even if Islamic Extremists are far from Beaten.”
There was some truth to it. Yet Somalia is a volatile place. The national theatre did reopen – staging the country’s first performance in just over two decades and serving as a litmus test for stability – but two weeks later a female suicide bomber wandered into an event, detonated an explosive vest and killed 10 people. As the Africa researcher Alex Thurston argued on Sahel Blog:
“The point about the theatre is, though, that if you – as a government or a news outlet – want to use a symbol in making your political argument, then others might decide to use that same symbol in making their (very different) political argument.”
The Economist article mentions the K4 roundabout in Mogadishu and I can see it. I’ve driven past it a dozen times, hunkered down in the back-seat of a private car cautiously eying the militias escorting charcoal trucks to the port.
Scarves and goggles wrapped around their heads, hands clutching AK-47s, .50 caliber and anti-aircraft guns mounted in the back of their cheap Japanese pick-up trucks.
MOGADISHU, Somalia, late 2011. We were traveling in a convoy along one of Mogadishu’s frontlines. I was sat in a truck with three turret gunners. I asked a soldier what would happen if we ran over an IED. He said the truck wouldn’t even stop, it was built for defense against landmines. I didn’t believe him and imagined a blast, then flame, glass and metal scattering death.
I met Ali, who was old, with half a mouthful of teeth. Barefoot, he sat under an acacia tree in a clearing at the southern end of Mogadishu, watching over dozens of unnamed graves until night fell and the mortar fire forced him into the neighbouring IDP camp, Badbaado, where he lived in a tent built from scrap.
“They are all children’s graves. Mostly children are dying here,” Ali said. “There are more [graves], but I do not know where they are.” The cause of the death was almost always malnutrition or diarrhoea.
The night before, al-Shabab militants occupying positions a few hundred metres away had clashed with AMISOM troops from Burundi. They were no match for AMISOM’s firepower. The soldiers began to kill.
The militants’ bodies were left to rot in the open, so when – if – any of their colleagues came to collect them, they could be picked off with Dragunov 7.62 calibre sniper rounds.
The city was beautiful, underneath the destruction and scars from the millions of bullets that had been pumped into it during 20 anarchic years. Sitting beside the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, traces of Italian and Arabic architecture still lingered, nestling against the grey and sprawling socialist-style monoliths built by former-President Siad Barre, who espoused “scientific socialism”.
But it was also lethal. A shattered and tragic place, walls missing and rooftops sunken, where frontlines shifted constantly, riddled with tunnels used to transport munitions, and where stickmen, starving, came in tides from the parched south in search of food, water and refuge.
The stickmen carried few possessions, only stories: of dying livestock, rotting in the summer heat. Of al-Shabab’s ‘justice’and of hazardous journeys on foot to Mogadishu. They set up tent cities and begged in the streets.
Badbaado was the largest of the camps, home to 5000 families, and tense. People pressed against barbed-wire, waiting to collect rations and glaring as I interviewed the police chief. He said they had five days’ rations left and the mayor of Mogadishu had promised more aid would arrive.
Later I learned aid was being commandeered in the camp, as a price-tag imposed by the land’s owners or stolen outright by the guards, who had additionally been raping women. Hence the cold stares from the IDPs pressed against the barbed wire, yelling at the guards before being beaten back with sticks and rifle butts.
There were six feeding centres. Rice boiled in huge pots, sat above fires lit with kindling and sustained by blocks of wood. Doctors from Sudan – experienced from the resource-wars in Darfur – tended to the malnourished as best they could. The strain was constant. Not enough medicine, too many patients.
Abdughadr, an animal herder from the Lower Shabelle region, said he had packed a few belongings and walked for a week to reach Mogadishu, with his wife, children and close relatives. They set up their tents amid the rubble of Badbaado’s shattered buildings and began waiting. But what for?
“All the animals have died… people were dying. Nothing has grown for three years,” Abdughadr said. “Al-Shabab would not let us leave. They are refusing to let anyone go. I said we were going to the next village for food. Then we came to this place.”
TWENTY YEARS AGO, when the Soviet Union fell, Barre’s state, awash with weapons, became unsustainable and his regime crumbled. Warlord Maxamed Faarax Caydiid led an alliance of clan militia in a rebellion, forcing Barre into exile. Somalia has not had an elected or functioning government since.
The country descended into brutal violence, spread along clan lines as warlord oligopolies slugged it out, carving fiefs into a dying land. In 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts overpowered the militias, exhausted after 15 years of fighting, and imposed order. It lasted six months. Ethiopian analyst Medhane Tadessa argues that this was a legitimate, locally owned political process – albeit increasingly extreme in its application of the Sharia: thieves’ hands were cut off, adulterers stoned.
“Under the Courts we were all afraid, that they would cut off our hands,” said Abdullahi, a relative of a local politician. “There was no more war, but it was not a good life.”
Already a stage for regional rivalries between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Somalia became further complicated as the United States, waging its War on Terror, deemed the UIC unacceptable and pressured Ethiopia to invade the country and overthrow the Islamists. The Ethiopians overwhelmed the Courts’ militias, installing the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Yet this gave rise to an even more potent movement: the UIC’s vanguard youth wing known as al-Shabab.
Backed mostly by Eritrea – Egypt, looking to disturb Ethiopia’s plans for dams on the Nile River, also funneled resources to al-Shabab, as did Yemen and Sudan – and led in part by Sheikh Aaden Xaashi Faarax, who received insurgency and explosives training in early-1990s Afghanistan, al-Shabab waged a bloody insurgency. A generation of boys who rose to be men in the midst of blood and violence.
By 2009, al-Shabab controlled most of south and central Somalia. And it was brutal – beheading its rivals and stoning rape victims. Meanwhile, the UN-backed TFG was heavily protected by 8000 AMISOM troops from Burundi and Uganda, along with Special Forces from Britain and France and a permanent CIA station at Mogadishu’s Aden Abole airport. Despite the support, the TFG commanded only a tiny slither of Mogadishu and its officials plundered from the state coffers.
The Deyr (secondary) rains failed from October to December 2010, and the Gu (primary) rains were delayed and below normal from April to June 2011. Famine set in.
It spread to six regions, while the TFG became so corrupt that for every US$10 received, only $3 was accounted for. A whistle-blower told the Associated Press that US$300 million had been siphoned off by officials, while according to a 2012 World Bank report US$130 million vanished in 2009 and 2010.
The TFG’s response was to threaten journalists investigating corruption with libel.
Meanwhile. people packed into hospitals’ hallways, connected to drips. By the time I arrived in August 2011, 29,000 under-fives had died, mostly from complications due to acute malnutrition. More than three million people were at risk of starvation.
White vomit dribbled down infants’ chins, their stomachs swollen and hard to the touch or alternatively needle thin. There was a stink of diarrhoea in wards echoing with screams and buzzing with flies. Mothers washed running shit off children standing in small plastic tubs, their empty and swirling eyes sunk deep into their black, wraith-like skulls. Child mortality rates were at 10 percent in the hospital; many of these children would be dead in a day or so.
The deceased were covered in blankets, before vanishing, as if they had been apparitions, into unmarked graves dug into the red soil all over the city.
STOCKHOLM. Adem is walking, scarf wrapped around his head and the hood of his jacket up. A bitter wind sends rain in sheets across the night sky. He’s pushing his wooden newspaper cart, covered in a yellow tarpaulin. An electronic address book listing his deliveries for the night is strapped to his wrist. From the depths of his padded jacket, hip-hop blares out of his phone.
His co-workers spread-out, down streets, lobbing stacks of newspapers over gates outside tobacconists and buzzing security guards in offices. Adem points out an H&M shop and says the clothing retailer has just been accused of encouraging “slave like” conditions at a Cambodian sub-contractor’s factory. “The only difference between Africa and Europe is that Europeans are better at hiding what they do,” he says.
He’s railing against European corruption, after reading about Italy’s scandalous former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. “So what if Asaias Aferwerki [Eritrea’s president] is corrupt? Wasn’t Tony Blair corrupt? And Cameron? Isn’t the BBC corrupt? Shit man, there are tapes of Berlusconi talking about how he fucks underage prostitutes. Will he go to jail? No sir, no sir.”
A young African migrant drifts in a daze along the street, huffing from a brown paper bag. His eyes are shot through with streaks of red. I hear the familiar throaty sounds of Arabic, the rasping and wheezing velar “h” sound, the voiced pharyngeal fricative “ayn”. I can’t make out the dialect, it’s unfamiliar. Arab men lurch about in a small square, sculling beer from large cans.
A transgender woman from India walks down the street, wearing grey trousers. She fishes a broken umbrella from a rubbish bin. It sags as she opens it up.
Adem stands outside a mall, buzzing the security guard. “Right, I’ve gotta get on with it,” he says. “The people need their news, don’t they?” As he bounds off, he calls back: “You know the news is all shit, huh?”
The rain comes down hard; the faded leaves choke the gutters. In a few hours I’ll be flying. I’ve had five weeks in Sweden.
A man huddled at the entrance of a carpark asks if I want cannabis. Five hundred Swedish Krona for five grams. I buy enough for a joint, roll it up and light it. Inhale deep. Further down the street an old man leaning heavily on a single crutch sorts through a rubbish bin, fishing for cans to exchange for one Krona.
I wander stoned into a 7/11 and read a copy of the International Herald Tribune. It is carrying an article on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): “Qaeda attack kills 14 Yemeni soldiers on base/ At least 14 soldiers and 12 operatives of Al Qaeda were killed early Friday when suicide bombers attacked a military base in southern Yemen.”
The focus on Yemeni jihadists has always irritated me. The country faces so many critical issues, of which militant Islam is but one.
It’s almost 3am. I find a bus and sit staring out the window. The Indian transgender woman is sitting at a stop on the other side of the road. She paws at a young man’s leg. He seems uncomfortable. She ups and leaves, carrying her disintegrating umbrella. The bottom of her trousers is a deep grey, saturated.
She stops another man, getting a cigarette from him. She walks past the square with the Arab men. One grabs her umbrella and she vanishes after him. The bus starts up, inching forward. We creep past the square, gathering speed. I can see the men.
HODEIDAH, Yemen, June 2011. I was sat above the camp, a staging post deep in the southern Yemeni desert, watching the beatings. A woman from Ethiopia was sitting with her head bowed, a green hijab wrapped loosely around her head. A trafficker whispered in her ear, pressed a stick against her forehead and forced her head back.
The traffickers were extorting money. He asked how she would get him his money. She said nothing. He moved behind her and began slamming his stick against her back, her body rocking under the blows.
All day the floggings went on. Thuds and screams; crisper staccato punctuations as sticks slapped into backs. Moans and cries and pleading. It was a sustained and vicious assault.
It started with a man beaten bloody early in the morning. By the time they began flogging the Ethiopian woman, I had decided to intervene and walked down into the camp. The gunmen looked on but did not stop me.
She had given me a pair of jandals to wear earlier in the day – I can’t remember what happened to my shoes. I walked up and interrupted the assault, handing her jandals to her and saying thank you. A trafficker told me I shouldn’t be in the camp and I walked away. The beating continued.
A few days earlier I hitched a lift on a banged-up dhow transporting the narcotic Qat leaf across the Gulf of Tadjourah in Djibouti.
The small vessel’s captain had a huge grin on his face as we flew across the water, bouncing with thuds off waves. Destroyer ships sat distant on the horizon, part of global anti-piracy efforts seeking to secure one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, the Red Sea, against Somali pirates.
Tadjourah was a rotting coastal town. The carcasses of broken boats littered its shores. I waited hours to hitch a lift with a truck to Obock, one of the Horn of Africa’s main human trafficking hubs.
At that time, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was registering around 75,000 arrivals per year in Yemen, from Africa. Capsize and drowning were common. Traffickers often forced their human cargo overboard, making them swim the final few miles to Yemen. Bodies regularly washed-up on Yemeni and Djiboutian shores.
It took around 24 hours in Obock to make substantial contact with traffickers. Within a few days, I was sitting in a hotel room waiting to be smuggled across to Yemen. It all happened so fast. A handful of people knew what I was planning, but I had no internet access and, even if I had a phone, hadn’t committed any editors’ phone numbers to memory. Yet there was no turning back, I had dreamed of the story for a year.
The man came into the room with a Yemeni scarf, told me to cover my face and speak Yemeni Arabic if the police asked questions.
I had spent the day hiding in the hotel while traffickers spread a rumour that I had returned to Djibouti city. When night fell, we flitted through darkened and broken back-streets to a safe house. Hours later he said it was time to go and gave me a bottle of water. I did hesitate. Then I walked outside and hauled myself onto the back of a Hyundai
I GOT INTERESTED in human trafficking while working on a story about homeless prostitutes in Tel Aviv, 2009. It was an ugly story. I learned that the narrative of malignant recruiters deceiving women with promises of work – say, in a bar – in a foreign land, before forcing them into sexual slavery, was largely a myth.
Most women knew they would work in the sex industry. What they didn’t know was how vulnerable they would be.
In Israel, they were often trafficked by Bedouins through the Sinai, then sold off in underground markets – in one case, a woman was sold in the toilet of a McDonald’s – pumped full of heroin and forced to work up to 18 hours a day, given a cut of around three per cent. Client after client. When they were no longer profitable, they were kicked onto the street or on-sold. Rape, knifing and intimidation were routine.
The thing about the myth surrounding trafficking for sexual purposes is that, when confronted with the reality of human trafficking – which can involve a degree of autonomy – people normally have internalised conceptions which adhere to what researchers term the ‘classic model’.
“In this scenario,” according to a 2005 report by Hotline for Migrant Workers, a Jerusalem-based NGO, “an ‘innocent’ young woman is enticed by the false promises of a gang of criminals. Expecting a ‘decent’ job with good pay, the woman discovers she is trapped, violated, and humiliated.”
“It follows that foreign women coming to Israel with the knowledge that they will work as prostitutes are not perceived as ‘classic’ victims, or as victims at all. They are seen as ‘professional’ prostitutes who know what they are getting into and therefore have no grounds for complaint.”
Over the years, I looked into trafficking routes running through Africa and the Middle East, as best I could.
Eritrean women burned ginger and made spiced coffee from their small wooden stools on the rundown and dusty streets of Khartoum; Ghanaians and Nigerians cleaned streets or were imprisoned and press ganged in the Libyan capital, Tripoli; South Sudanese sold their services from nightclubs open after midnight in Cairo; Somalis lived in slums on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, and cleaned hotels for a meager wage, or sold bootlegged Djiboutian vodka.
The number of groups involved in the trade was mind-boggling. The Arab Awlad Suleiman tribe vied with an alliance of Tebu – black Africans from the Tbetsi mountains in Chad – and Tuareg tribes for control of Western Libyan trafficking routes. The Affar in northern Djibouti shuttled tens of thousands each year across to Yemen where a patchwork of tribes, dependent on the informal economy, transferred them on to Saudi Arabia and then north, or alternatively through the vast open spaces of Yemen’s Empty Quarter.
Bedouin smugglers moved narcotics and persons into Israel, and were involved in organ harvesting; Isaaq clansmen ran ad hoc trafficking operations around Berbera in Somaliland; and Berbers operating largely out of Zuwara in north-west Libya herded black Africans onto boats for a perilous trip across the Mediterranean to Europe.
THEY HELD ME in the staging post for 36 hours. After dark, people were loaded on to trucks, to be transported on to Hodeidah then up through the war-torn Sada region and over into Saudi Arabia. I was put into a truck with a driver and a gunman. We drove out into the desert. The truck stopped.
They told me to get out. The gunman followed, clutching his AK-47. He said to walk away from the road. I felt the late-night breeze taking the edge off the day’s searing heat and looked at the sky, constellations in the clear night.
He said to sit down and he stood behind me.
I saw the outlines of a few trees and shrubs and the sands illuminated by the moon. Further away, it was all a distant and shapeless black mass almost indiscernible from the sky. I thought he would execute me.
I SPENT THE next 18 days being shuttled between political prisons. Four days in Lahaj, in a cell with two local men who had ridden a motorbike past someone from a rival tribe and hammered bullets into his chest; three days alone, without electricity, in a subterranean cell in the highland city of Taiz.
Eventually I wound-up in a prison in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, run by the notorious Political Security Office. It was full of al-Qaeda militants: Pakistanis, Yemenis, Moroccans, Syrians. I can’t remember how many times I was interrogated. Handcuffed and blindfolded, it was disorienting. You hear every movement, every sound.
IDLIB, Syria, 2013. When the fighting started near the city of Jisr al-Shughur, Abu Mohammed, a Sunni, fled with his wife and eight children. He planned on making it to a Turkish refugee camp, but the border guards denied the family entrance.
He settled in a village, Darkush, in a home formerly inhabited by an Alawite family. Bizarrely, that family had fled to Jisr al-Shughur. They were probably living in the house of a Sunni family that fled as government forces took the city.
Mohammed says he has one condition for talking: “You must not talk to, or look at, the women.”
Thin and tired flower-print mattresses lie on the floor, torn-out electrical cables hang from walls. The glass is gone from the windows, and the doors are gone too. A Quran hangs from a wall. There is no furniture. A toddler, one of Mohammed’s daughters, crawls along the floor.
“We have received one parcel of aid, from Germany, over the past six months,” says Mohammed, his beard shot through with grey. “There is no electricity, no water, food is too expensive, there is nothing at all. We can’t go to Turkey and we can’t go home. What do we do?”
There are 4.5 million IDPs in Syria, 300,000 of them in Idlib province alone, and 1.25 million in neighbouring Aleppo province. Aid efforts are complicated because of security threats. Communicable disease breaks out in the summer heat.
The war has now claimed 90,000 lives, destroyed infrastructure and is igniting broader regional violence, most notably in Iraq.
My fixer is fading. We have to get to the frontline, to interview residents in a Christian village. Four more hours, then he can sleep.
STOCKHOLM. It’s early and Adem is laid out on his little foam mattress, fast asleep. An episode of The Sopranos plays quietly.
I drink a coffee and grab my bags. Tony Soprano is beating Ralph Cifaretto to death. Adem gets up, says to take care. And that’s that. I train over Stockholm’s inlets to the airport, smoke a cigarette in the gray dawn. Into the departure lounge, where I continue reading Vanity Fair’s profile of Barak Obama, titled Obama’s Way.
The journalist has woven two narratives, one a personality profile of the president, the other about an American soldier, Tyler Stark, who ejected from an F-15 plane over Libya following a strike operation in the early stages of NATO’s Libya intervention in 2011, parachuting into the desert near Benghazi:
Out of nowhere a spotlight appeared… Tyler was now flat on the ground. “I’m trying to think as thin as possible,” he said. But he could see that the light had stopped moving back and forth and had settled on him. “I initially wouldn’t acknowledge or accept it,” he said. Then someone screamed, “American, come out!” “And I think, Nope. Not quite that easy.”
That operation was one of 26,323 sorties NATO flew over Libya, of which 9658 were strike operations. The blitzkrieg decimated the Libyan armed forces and led to Gaddafi’s downfall, effecting regime change in the country.
My plane is boarding. The Vanity Fair article reinforces the conventional wisdom and clashes with much of what I experienced in Libya. But so be it: it’s a beautifully written piece.
Another shout: “American, come out!” At length, Tyler rose and started walking toward the light.
SABHA, Libya, 2012. Trucks sat scorched and broken, the tread melted off their tyres into thin black strings. Animal pens were reduced to charcoal by the petrol bombs that set livestock ablaze. Most of the houses’ interiors were charred and blackened, wrecked by the grenades lobbed inside. A few children scurried across the sand and into houses.
Grad rockets, RPGs and mortars featured in the assault, according to witnessess. The trigger was a car-jacking gone bad, leaving an electrician from the Awlad Suleiman tribe dead. All told, 147 people were killed in the resulting seven days of bloody street combat.
The settlement, Hajjara, was one of three Tebu communities – slums – in the oasis city of Sabha, deep in Libya’s south-west. Muammar Gaddafi, smarting from the Chadian-Libyan conflict and his failure to annex the Aouzou Strip from 1978 to 1987, had isolated the Tebu, who come from the Tibetsi mountains in Chad’s north.
He built walls around the Tebu, playing them off against other tribes and ethnic groups. With black skin, they were already subject to Arab racism.
The Los Angeles Times had given me my second set of Libya assignments: investigating the killing and torture of alleged Gaddafi loyalists. The newspaper’s Cairo chief and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Jeffrey Fleishman, had thrown me the Libya string over a casual coffee in the Cairo suburb of Maadi in early February. I couldn’t believe my luck. I would learn more working under him than I had in years of practicing journalism.
It was clear how fractious Libya had become after the fall of Gaddafi. No one really trusted the opaque, aloof National Transitional Council (NTC) and people were asserting their identity at the level of community and tribe, withdrawing into their towns, with explosive consequences.
The Mashreya and Zintanis exchanged mortar fire; militias from Regdalin and the nearby coastal Berber city of Zuwara slugged it out for days, leaving scores dead and wounded in a hail of gunfire the authorities appeared powerless to contain. Militias with tanks from Misrata stalked Tawerghans across the country, executing many and staging a series of abductions from Bani Walid, a former Gaddafi-stronghold.
This came to a head in October 2012, as Misratan militias surrounded Bani Walid. With a hit list of 1000 names they laid siege to the city for a week, displacing tens of thousands. International media, who formed strong alliances with the Thuwwar (Arabic: revolutionaries) during the insurgency, miscast the issue as a last attempt to root out “ Gaddafi loyalists”. The Libyan authorities encouraged this, claiming that Gaddafi’s former spokesperson, Moussa Ibrahim, had been arrested and Gaddafi’s son Khamis killed. Neither claim was true.
I wondered why the city’s residents were being framed as devoted to Gaddafi and the attackers as government loyalists. Residents of Bani Walid – mostly from Libya’s Warfalla tribe – participated in the July national assembly vote, throwing their weight behind Mahmoud Jbril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA), which secured nearly 50 percent of the party vote. They essentially expressed loyalty to the country’s most popular political group, whose leader was one of the first high-profile defectors from the regime during the insurgency. In what sense were they “ Gaddafi loyalists”?
By contrast, Misratans seethed since the national assembly vote, which was largely free and fair. Stirred up by the Muslim Brotherhood, many rejected the outcome as being the beginning of “ Gaddafi 2”. It was a remarkable twist of logic to argue that they were the loyalists. Of course, a few days after the assault ended and as Misratan militias continued to wreck property and refuse returnees access to the city, the government distanced itself. Defence Minister Osama Juwaili told the Libya Herald the army had “no control” over the town, which was now controlled by “gunmen”.
Eventually, Reuters produced a piece headlined, “Capture of Libyan Town Smacks of Revenge, Not Reconciliation”.
Islamist militias emerged early. By October 2012 there were around a dozen separate jihadist groups operating, and they had scores to settle. One very murky group assassinated 15 former regime figures over three months, the first 12 hits coming in a two-week period. Attacks on Sufi shrines skyrocketed, with army and police approval.
In one case, documented by Amnesty International in a July report – Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias – Hasna Shaeeb was abducted by men in military uniform from her Tripoli home.
During the ensuing torture session – interrogators accused her of being a Gaddafi loyalist – Shaeeb was repeatedly electrocuted with shocks administered to her head, legs and groin. They poured urine over her. She was beaten and whipped while her assailants threatened to kidnap and rape her mother.
“The new Libyan authorities must end revenge attacks… carried out in the name of protecting the ‘17 February Revolution’,” the AI report said.
“It is time to turn pledges to respect human rights into reality by taking concrete measures to investigate and prosecute all… human rights violations, whether committed by al-Gaddafi forces…or by anti-Gaddafi fighters and militias.”
But concrete measures were not taken: the US Ambassador was assassinated; militias battled in the heart of Tripoli and in al-Khoms. Car bombs were detonated in Beghazi; semtex explosives were planted in a hotel frequented by western journalists; political assassinations continued and rumours spread that an offensive against – yet again – a last stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists was imminent. The list goes on.
Libya was meant to be the “Arab Spring’s” centerpiece. Instead, the country was breaking down and the region descending into chaos.
IDLIB, Syria, 2013. The night before I slept on the roof of an abandoned house, deep in Idlib province. In the next building, Nusra fighters – Egyptians, Libyans, Uzbeks – had set up base.
Now we’re driving once again, mid-morning. My fixer hasn’t slept. We didn’t make it to the frontline yesterday. Following interviews in a Christian village and a recently shelled field hospital, he needed to rest. It’s still Ramadan, which means most people will stay up all night eating and then sleep during the day. I let him return home mid-afternoon for a nap, rather than have him stumbling around a frontline, and he slept clear through until nearly 10pm.
I want to interview a rebel commander about strategy. Assad is creeping closer to the borders, rebels are hitting supply routes. We arrive at the base and he’s not there. My fixer did not reschedule the interview.
Fine, I tell him, let’s get to the frontline. It’s around 40 kilometres away. We drive through the highlands, past the ski masks and bearded men, through villages. We get to a field hospital close to the front. It’s very quiet.
Yesterday, while my fixer slept and when we should have been here, Assad’s warplanes hammered the position, which has a staging point for attacks on regime convoys. A doctor tells me dozens of fighters were injured and killed. They were treated here then evacuated out to Turkey.
I tell my fixer, “OK, man, this is what you’ve done for me: you slept most of yesterday; you took me to an interview that you hadn’t rescheduled, which isn’t really an interview; you’ve taken me to a field hospital with no patients and to a frontline that doesn’t exist.”
I ask him to take me to the border. I’ll hire a different fixer and he can go back to sleep. And we’re driving. In a small village he stops the car.
He turns and says: “If I see you in Idlib again, I’ll have you kidnapped.”
Presently some 30 journalists are missing in Syria. Idlib is notorious for it. James Foley, on assignment for Agence France-Presse and Global Post, was possibly set up by his fixer for kidnapping in November 2012, and no one has heard from him since.
And again: “If you come back to Idlib, I’ll have you kidnapped.” He gets out of the car and I follow. Two gunmen stand with him. I tell him he cannot leave me alone in Idlib, anything could go wrong. He walks off and I’m alone, driving through Idlib with the two gunmen. It’s about as bad as it can be.
The plane is somewhere over Romania and I can see the fields covered in snow thousands of feet below. An aged Turkish woman in the next seat is making jokes to her granddaughter, who is laughing.
I remember sitting on a bus travelling over Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley well over a year ago. The man in the seat across the aisle was ailing, forced to catch a bus from Gondor to the run-down shanty-town capital, Addis Ababa, for treatment. He gagged, wheezed and coughed, groaned for hours. Then he died. His brother covered the corpse with a sheet. It slipped off repeatedly as the bus detoured, searching for a hospital to leave the body at.
I started international reporting four years ago, in Jerusalem, full of the excitement of chasing a dream. That eroded as the intensity of protests and house demolitions grew, along with my inability to sell stories. An endless stream of editor rejections sapped my confidence.
I can smell the throngs of people, the tear gas and burning tyres, at protests in Cairo and Tunis. I can see a man collapse after taking a load of buck-shot to the head on Day Five of the Egyptian uprising, a bloodied scarf being wrapped around his head, screaming men carrying him away.
I made the death knock in Tripoli on the day the Lockerbie Bomber died – May 20, 2012 – following a prolonged battle with prostate cancer; the family traumatised, a nephew turning me away from the house.
The plane is over Bulgaria. I’ll land in Istanbul in an hour.
ISTANBUL, Turkey, November 2012. I start looking for news. I pre-write a piece: Turkey will strike Syria again and I want to be able to get the story out fast when they do. The particulars can be filled in later.
There is no interest in escalating Turkish military-Kurd violence, at its most vicious in more than a decade. I push all things Kurdish out of my mind.
I go to a small protest with no intention of writing anything, but to see how I respond. There are a lot of police and a bit of tension. I don’t feel any anxiety.
There has been a spate of killings of transgender sex workers. Three in October alone. One trans-woman had her throat slit in Antalya and her face carved. I start sourcing and lining-up interviews, researching the legal context – how defendants invoke so-called “unjust provocation” to receive reduced sentences.
There were at least 40 transgender murders in 2011. Hate crimes. I’m gathering colour in Istanbul’s red light district. One former transgender sex worker talks of how prostitution is a tough job. She worked the brothels for years, not the more brutal streets. Clients were demanding and she had to ensure they would return.
“People think princesses [trans prostitutes] are lazy, that they just put their legs behind their heads – into that sexual position – and ‘ohhhh, hello sailor’,” she says. “But it’s a service, a performance, and we had to work hard.”
Local media is reporting hundreds of Kurdish inmates on hunger-strike. I renege on my promise to avoid all things Kurdish and decide to follow the story for a while: perhaps some will go into renal failure.
I meet for coffee with Hugh Pope, formerly of The Wall Street Journal. Thirty years in the Middle East. He started out as a lentil-soup eating freelancer in the Lebanese civil war, 1982, and at his peak was covering two dozen countries. He’s formidable and it’s hard to feel like I’m not wasting his time.
He’s seething about the state of the publishing industry. His royalties for the authoritative Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey he co-authored came in depressingly measly this year. He says it’s a soul-destroying business.
“All you can do is keep on banging your head against the wall,” he says. “Be prolific and don’t take no for an answer.”
I want to do a feature about Turkish comics acting as a critical voice in an environment of muted press, but there is no interest. It’s the same for a news piece about the in-absentia trial of four former Israeli commanders for their part in the Mavi Marmara raid off the coast of the Gaza Strip just over two years ago, which left nine Turkish activists dead.
I push on with the story about transgender killing. If I want to make any money, I’m going to have to go to Syria. I start planning. I need to publish around three features and three dailies to stay afloat. If I do 10 days in Syria, I could probably double that number. The issue is I have no flak jacket. The country is ablaze. I have to go anyway.
IDLIB, Syria, 2013. I’m still in the car with the two gunmen. They’re listening to a recording of some crazed sheikh. He’s talking about killing the dog Christians and the dog Shi’ite and the dog Kafir (Arabic for non-believer). The sheikh rails on about the straight path of Islam.
I have no idea where I am. I brace myself and wait for whatever will come.