Ground Zero: Mali
Back in February, the only way to reach the city of Gao in northern Mali was to hitch a ride with the French convoys that rolled through the desert every few days. Along the way, a VICE production crew made friends with some French soldiers and chatted with them about what they thought about this grueling campaign as well as the greatest threat they face: homemade bombs, aka IEDs.
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Ground Zero – Mali, Part 1
Ground Zero - Mali was shot in Gao, Mali, on February 21, 2013. It’s basically the first legitimate combat footage to come out of the war there. Normally the French ban journalists from the front lines and film a sanitized version of the fighting themselves and then distribute it to the media.
In this case, the insurgents came to us: They slipped into Gao overnight on small boats and used suicide bombers to blast their way into government buildings. The French left the fighting to the Malian army for most of the day as a test of their combat abilities. Malian soldiers, while very brave, are almost completely untrained and had great difficulty fighting less than a dozen jihadists, some of whom were children. They fired wild bursts of automatic fire everywhere, destroying the city center. The Malians soon ran out of ammunition and had to wait for the French to show up and save the day.
Watch it here
Sorry Guys, Americans Love Obama’s Killer Drones
Right now, as you’re reading this, American remote-controlled planes are flying over mountains and deserts in the Middle East, occasionally firing missiles at people who—in the estimation of an “informed, high-level” official—are engaged in some kind of activities that might, conceivably, harm the United States. Sometimes, these missiles incinerate (as in, consume with fire until their bones and flesh are turned to ash) precisely the wrong people. Very occasionally, the missiles kill American citizens. The Obama administration is doing this without declaring war on any nation in particular, without getting the permission of Congress, and without explaining to the public in detail why it’s OK to order the death of pretty much anyone it wants to kill. Just how broad the administration believes its powers to be was revealed in a Justice Department memo obtained byMichael Isikoff of NBC. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen,” Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU told Isikoff.
If you are upset about all this, you’re not alone—there are plenty of people on both the right and left who aren’t happy that the executive branch can now kill whomever it wants. Call them antiwar isolationists or civil libertarians or simply people who don’t like to see other people die for little apparent reason and with no explanation. Whatever their name, they came out in force to attack Touré, the liberal writer and talking head who went on MSNBC, the “lean forward” progressive network, to say, in essence, It’s OK for the president to order the deaths of anyone, even American citizens, even 16-year-olds, since they probably hated the USA or whatever. Those who disagree with Obama’s drone policy are hardly shy about saying so.
The thing is, they’re in the minority, and few people in power have paid much attention to them. Sure, most voters, according to a Fairleigh-Dickinson poll, don’t think that it’s legal to assassinate American citizens abroad (even if you’ve never heard of drones, that’s got to sound like a pretty awful prospect), but take away the “American citizen” part of that question and voters are like, “Oh, sure, kill whoever.” In fact, according to aWashington Post-ABC poll, Americans are perfectly happy with the way Obama is running the war on terror. They like the fact that he’s kept Guantanamo Bay open, even though he said he’d close it—53 percent ofDemocrats feel terrific about him breaking that particular campaign promise. A whopping 83 percent of Americans and 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats approve of Obama’s use of drones to kill people. And remember, the administration has refused to discuss its drone policies in detail so these people are supporting a policy they have no way of understanding beyond, Terrorists bad. We kill bad people.
Who Is Causing the Blackouts in Yemen?
As the Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2011, urban Yemenis called for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade reign in power. They also saw the end of their reliable access to electricity. The situation bottomed out in late summer, as 23 hour long power cuts during Ramadan left fatigued Yemenis struggling to negotiate dimly lit iftar meals at night. Improvements sharply sped up when Saleh’s successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took office.
Nevertheless, this week finds Sanaa thrown back into the darkness.
In 2011, there was a widespread rumor that the power outages weren’t accidental. Conspiracy theorists were vindicated last May when, following Saleh’s flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, Sanaa saw its first full day of power in weeks. The blackouts returned, of course, and soon were worse than ever. In those literal and metaphorical dark days, it wasn’t hard to imagine the embattled leader was the one behind the power cuts; the minarets of Saleh’s monumental Mosque, lit by a self-contained generator system, seemed to loom over the city, as if he was giving us all the finger. Months after Saleh left power, the Minister of Electricity was still blaming him for acts of sabotage. For their part, Saleh’s political allies have often made similar accusations against their opponents. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if both sides were guilty.
Saadi Gaddafi is “a fun guy” and not a war criminal, says his bodyguard.
I Was Tortured as a Bahraini Political Prisoner
Thirty-six-year-old Bahraini journalist Ahmed Radhi was one of the roughly 500 prisoners of conscience who were detained following the citizen uprising against Bahrain’s government that began in February 2011. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that the country has the highest number of political prisoners per capita worldwide. Ahmed told us about the supposed reasons for his detention and the extremely poor conditions he faced while in prison.
Being a journalist in Bahrain comes with many risks. The press has no freedom to move and work independently without being harassed by the regime. I was investigated by the Ministry of Information for reporting on the US presence in Bahrain, but it was a May 13 phone interview with the BBC, during which I criticized a proposed union of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that led to my recent arrest. Clearly, America and Saudi Arabia are topics that the Bahraini regime doesn’t want anyone to discuss.
I was arrested on May 16—police and masked civilians surrounded and broke into my father’s house at around 3:30 AM without a court order. I was interrogated from the moment I was arrested until I reached the Criminal Investigation Department building.
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM IN THE WEST BANK:
HANGING OUT WITH ISRAEL’S ILLEGAL HOMESTEADERS
In many people’s imaginations, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are bearded, M16-toting fundamentalists living in hilltop trailers overrun with barefoot women and children. And sometimes that’s the reality—but not always.
In 2010, 269 Jews moved from America to West Bank settlements, many of which are marketed as “bedroom communities” to families and white-collar professionals in the US. The migration is called “making aliyah,” which translates roughly from the Hebrew as “movin’ on up.” Never mind that it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions for Israel, as an occupying power, to install civilians in the West Bank, one-fifth of which, according to the Oslo Accords, falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
To encourage Jews to illegally settle there, the Israeli government subsidizes home purchases and offers reduced rates for leasing land, in addition to the perks all new Israeli citizens get such as free health care, upward of a 90 percent reduction in property taxes, tuition waivers for earning advanced degrees, and a payment of about $14,000 spending money for a family of five. The first installment is paid on arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport—in cash.
Prospective immigrants shop for homes at frequent government-sponsored events, like the Israeli real estate exhibition that recently took place in New York or the “aliyah expo” I attended a few years ago in the Times Square Marriott. Neatly bearded and wearing a knitted yarmulke, Shmuel Aron of Brooklyn Realty sat in front of a particleboard wall affixed with photos of sleek high-rises in Har Homa, which was billed as an Israeli town but is in fact a settlement located squarely within Palestine, near Bethlehem. Simply put, the Israeli government carves up the West Bank, builds illegal homes in Palestinian territory, calls it Israeli territory, and then invites Jews to move in. Booths draped in fabric offered information packets on floor plans, as well as the many government subsidies that accompany aliyah. After browsing the offerings, I spotted a bowlful of fortune cookies. “Israel is for tough cookies,” my fortune read.
While Israel encourages Jews from around the world to move anywhere in the Holy Land, Palestinians aren’t so lucky. During the 1948 war, when Israel declared statehood, Zionist forces expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel. To Israelis, this was the War of Independence, and to Palestinians, it was the Nakba—the catastrophe. To this day, the Israeli government prevents these exiled Palestinian refugees and their descendants from returning to their homes.
The armistice lines drawn in 1949 after the war form Israel’s internationally recognized boundary, the infamous Green Line, which demarcates the West Bank from Israel. The building of Israeli settlements in Palestine began in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War. From the start, the goal of the settlement project was to establish “facts on the ground”—to erase the Green Line. There are now more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank who live there in violation of international law. And sometimes there are rare Israeli casualties like in May of 2011 when a man sneaked into the Israeli settlement Itamar and knifed a whole family, killing three kids.
Libya in Vitro
After Libya’s revolution in 2011, tens of thousands of citizens wounded in bloody guerilla battles needed good hospitals and doctors the war-torn country didn’t have. As a quick fix, the interim government established a medical program for Libya’s patients, sending them to some 44 countries with the promise that their medical bills would be covered. And because of its historic ties with Libya and its high-quality, under-utilized medical facilities, Jordan quickly became the top destination for Libya’s post-revolution wounded. Beginning soon after the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, Amman’s hospitals and hotels saw an influx of Libyans—a dozen per week were arriving at one point—and soon, a mounting tab of IOUs from Libya.
But the war-wounded weren’t the only ones getting a free ride. Amidst the dysfunction of the transitional government, many non-fighting Libyans took advantage of the system, using loopholes to receive treatment for non-war related injuries. Among some 60,000 total patients, an estimated majority of Libyans took advantage of Jordan’s expertise in dentistry, plastic surgery and in vitro fertilization. If you’re in the market for getting pregnant with a test tube, it turns out there are few better times for medical tourism than after your dictator of thirty years is removed through a violent uprising. Apart from Israel (which happens to provide free IVF to its citizens, all the time), Jordan boasts some of the best IVF care in the Middle East. In all, thousands of Libyan women were treated for IVF, some of them twice if need be, on the government’s bill.
Wijbe Abma Started a Charity in a Syrian War Zone
Kilis, like most border towns, feels like a bastardized, slightly less-racist Wild West: gossip spreads, people pass through, supplies (legal and otherwise) are bought and sold. In this particular border town, however, it feels like that sense of transit is more tangible than in most. Kilis, in southern Turkey, is the gateway to Aleppo, a key battleground in the ongoing conflict in Syria and one of the oldest cities in the world. Unfortunately, with fighting normally including stuff like shells, explosions, and carnage, a good deal of old Aleppo is being devastated.
This border town is also the home of Wijbe Abma, a 21-year-old “freelance” aid worker. He runs Don’t Forget Syria, an idea that started small and has snowballed to a size the founder is not quite comfortable with. It’s one man’s plan to bring aid directly to civilians within war-torn Aleppo. On his first run, he gave out 100 blankets, but his idea was picked up by the press, donations flooded in, and he now has $17,200 burning a hole in his PayPal account, a logistical clusterfuck to untangle, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) trying to sell him flour.
A few months ago Wijbe was a regular student, traveling home from a year of teaching, drinking shochu, and banging out karaoke in South Korea when he found himself in Antakya in southern Turkey, now home to thousands of Syrians. Here a Syrian man from Aleppo told him about his son who’d been killed by regime shelling. They talked about his troubles and what was left of his city. Like many Syrians, confused and angered by the lack of international assistance, he asked: “Why won’t anyone help?” Wijbe decided to stop partying and do something.
Wijbe selecting blankets.
“It started very small,” he says. “I decided to do myself what all of the NGOs had talked about, but none actually seemed to be doing.” The idea was simple; he would walk across the border at Kilis to the makeshift camps in Syria with a couple of blankets in a rucksack, give them out to those in need, and keep traveling.
On arrival, he realized the problem was larger than he’d initially thought. The camp was dismissive and Wijbe began to feel powerless when it became apparent that no one would allow him to choose who to help. That autonomy is something Wijbe takes seriously. “More important than aid that helps is aid that doesn’t harm. The only way you know someone isn’t taking it all and selling it for weapons is to do it yourself,” he said.
Motivated, he left and founded his own aid project, committing $920 of his savings for the first 100 blankets. A Syrian friend tells me he originally bought one and slept under it for a night to test it. He caught a cold for a week, threw it out and found thicker, warmer blankets. With the help of Syrian civilians he took the blankets to Aleppo and went door to door. Each blanket came with a letter, in Arabic, explaining that it came from an individual with a desire to help and show that someone cared. On the way back their car had a dozen rounds fired at it from a nearby army base, which is a novel way of saying thank you.