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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The Secret History of the Vietnam War
If you thought you knew all there was to know about the Vietnam war, you’re wrong. For example: Ever heard of the “mere gook rule,” a code of conduct the U.S. military came up with in order to make it easier for soldiers to murder Vietnamese civilians without feeling too bad about it? (“It’s only a mere gook you’re killing!”)
Well, few people knew about this bit of history either until author Nick Turse discovered it in secret U.S. military archives, which he used as the primary sources for his new(ish) book, Kill Everything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The book is based on Turse’s discovery of theretofore secret internal military investigations of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities alongside extensive reporting in Vietnam and amongst American veterans and it reminds us that the most significant fact about the Vietnam War is its most overlooked: massive and devastating Vietnamese civilian suffering.
The debate over the U.S. war in Vietnam continues to hang over this country’s most recent and techno-futuristic imperial adventures. Nick’s book makes for timely if extraordinarily painful reading, and I sat down with him recently to talk about the ongoing relevance of Vietnam, massacres, and secretly photocopying whole U.S. government archives.
VICE: Your book documents how the American war in Vietnam was a fight systemically waged against the civilian population. How does this account that you documented differ from the Vietnam war as it’s popularly remembered in the United States today?
Nick Turse: We have 30,000 books in print on the Vietnam War, and most of them deal with the American experience. They focus on American soldiers, on strategy, tactics, generals, or diplomacy out of Washington and the war managers there. But I didn’t see any that really attempted to tell the complete story of what I came to see as the signature aspect of the conflict, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed wounded, or made refugees by deliberate U.S. policies, like the almost unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling across wide swaths of the countryside. That is, deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. But any discussion of Vietnamese civilian suffering is condensed down to a couple pages or paragraphs on the massacre at My Lai.
This isn’t the book that you initially intended to write. Tell me about the War Crimes Working Group and the documents that you found.
I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. I would go down to the National Archives and I was trying to find hard data, military documents, to match up to the self-reports that we had from veterans about their experiences during the war. And on one of these trips I hit dead ends at every turn. After two weeks I had nothing to show for my research. I went to an archivist I worked with. I told him I couldn’t go back to my boss empty handed. He thought about it for a second. He asked me, “do you think witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?’ I told him, “excellent hypothesis” and asked what he had.
Within an hour I was going through this box, many boxes actually, these reports of massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation. Records put together by this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group impaneled in the Army Chief of Staff’s office in the wake of the My Lai massacre, to track any war crimes cases or allegations that bubbled up from the field, to make sure that the Army wasn’t caught flat footed again. And whenever it could it tried to tamp down these allegations.
The People of Guerrero, Mexico, Have Taken Justice Into Their Own Hands
above: Militia members in Cuautepec, Guerrero, where they gathered to take an oath to defend their communities against organized crime. Photos by Carlos Alvarez Montero.
On January 5 in El Potrero, a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a man named Eusebio García Alvarado was kidnapped by a local criminal syndicate. Kidnappings are fairly common in Guerrero—the state, just south of Mexico City, is one of the poorest in the country and the site of some of the worst violence in the ongoing battle between the drug cartels and Mexican authorities. Guerrero’s largest city, Acapulco, is known to Americans as a tourist hot spot. It’s also currently the second most dangerous city in the world, according to a study released by a Mexican think tank in February.
Eusebio’s kidnapping, though, was exceptional. He served as the town commissioner of Rancho Nuevo and was a member of the community activist organization Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), and the brazenness the criminals showed in snatching him up pissed off his neighbors so much that they took matters into their own hands.
Gonzalo Torres, also known as G-1, the leader of the UPOEG militia in Ayulta.
The day after Eusebio was abducted, hundreds of people from the nearby towns of Ayutla de los Libres and Tecoanapa decided that they could do a better job policing their communities than the local authorities. They grabbed whatever weapons they had—mostly hunting rifles and shotguns—set up checkpoints at entrances to their villages, and patrolled the roads in pickup trucks, often hiding their faces with ski masks and bandanas. Overnight, UPOEG transformed from an organization of advocates for better roads and infrastructure into a group of armed vigilantes operating without the endorsement of any branch of the government. The kidnappers released Eusebio that day, but UPOEG’s checkpoints and patrols didn’t disappear with his return. In fact, there was a groundswell of support. Five municipalities in the surrounding Costa Chica region followed suit and established their own militias. Soon, armed and masked citizens ensured that travelers and strangers weren’t allowed to enter any of their towns uninvited.
These militias captured 54 people whom they alleged to be involved in organized crime (including two minors and four women), imprisoning them inside a house that became an improvised jail. On January 31, the communities gathered on an outdoor basketball court in the village of El Meson to publicly try their detainees. The charges ran the gamut from kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and homicide to smoking weed. More than 500 people attended, and the trial was covered by media outlets all over the world.
Remember Haiti? Giles Clarke Does
On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti, killing over 230,000 people, injuring many more, and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Although the media has since moved on for the most part, many Haitians are still struggling in scores of tent cities around Port-au-Prince and all along the coast. In Léogâne, a seaside town near the epicenter of the quake, 90 percent of the town’s buildings were destroyed and a quarter of its residents died. Many aid organizations such as Medicin sans Frontieres had two-year contracts from the Haitian government to provide services to the tent cities, but these contracts have quietly been allowed to expire, leaving thousands of families in dire straits. Many don’t like to talk about the earthquake and find solace in the spiritual—either in Christian churches or at voodoo ceremonies. There are now over 12,000 registered NGO organizations in Haiti, which is still the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
Léogâne, 20 miles to the west of Port-au-Prince, was one of the hardest-hit towns. Survivors were treated on hospital ships that moored just off the coast in those first frantic few days following the quake.
The UN and many international aid agencies are actively helping the people rebuild their homes and lives. Many of the town’s surviving residents will never sleep in stone buildings again and now camp in tents and makeshift houses behind the dilapidated ruins of the few remaining buildings.
A bird’s eye view of Cité Soleil, a shanty town near Port-au-Prince that grew to an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 residents, the majority of whom live in extreme poverty. The area is generally regarded as one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the western hemisphere and it is one of the world’s largest slums. Cité Soleil has has a poorly maintained open canal system that serves as its sewage system, few formal businesses, sporadic but largely free electricity, a few hospitals, and a single government school, Lycee Nationale de Cite Soleil.
Children on the seawall in Cité Soleil. The boats in the background are laden with charcoal that is shipped in from an island just off the coast to the north.
Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
Coal miner smoking a cigarette, Pol-e-Khomri, Afghanistan, 2002
—Steve McCurry Photographs the Human Condition
Steve McCurry Photographs the Human Condition
Above: Ahmadi Oil Fields, Kuwait, 1991
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Steve McCurry’s photo of Sharbat Gula, titled Afghan Girl, appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It quickly became one of the most famous photos in the world. McCurry’s work covering the mujahideen’s long fight against the Soviet war machine in the mid-to-late 80s further cemented his position as a hugely influential photojournalist. Since then, he has documented the human impact of wars across the world and collected numerous awards for his photos. I gave him a call to find out about nearly getting killed on the job, and the effect of seeing so much horror over so many years.
Mujahideen fighters, Afghanistan
VICE: Hi, Steve. Afghan Girl is probably one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Is it ever annoying that, from all of your work, one image is seen as so representative of your career?
Steve McCurry: Not at all. In fact, the contrary. I don’t think that has ever occurred to me.
You worked in Afghanistan for a long time. How do you feel the situation in the country has changed since the Soviet war?
It’s always a dangerous place, and there has always been ongoing fighting. Any time you’re in a combat situation, it is dangerous. I think in the beginning there was a lot of goodwill toward foreigners, or to pretty much anybody who was willing to support or help the people there, which included the West, and, effectively, pretty much anyone aside from the Soviet Union. India, Europe, China, and the US were all welcomed. Now there is obviously opposition in Afghanistan—the Taliban see the West and NATO as the enemy, so by virtue of my birth, they now see me as the enemy. Before they were taking hostages and asking for ransom, now they just kill you for political reasons.
Does Afghanistan feel more dangerous than other places you’ve worked?
All these places, war zones, present different problems. Afghanistan, Iraq during the Gulf War, places like Beirut or Cambodia. But yes, perhaps Afghanistan was the most dangerous. When I was there back in 1979–80 with mujahideen fighters, I was often days from help, out on location, perhaps two days from the nearest road, often with men who were not well trained and with whom you had a lot of communication problems and language barriers. You were being bombed with mortars and artillery and aircraft, and you’re with a bunch of ragtag fighters, who were certainly brave, but maybe short on training.
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Al Qaeda Wants Africa – Are the French in Over Their Heads in Mali?
This February, after a victorious battle against Islamic insurgents in the Saharan city of Gao, the Malian army put on a tour for the assembled press. Journalists from various news outlets from around the world stood in a dusty courtyard in the heart of the city. Gao is a conservative town—the sort of place where six-month-old babies wear hijabs—and since last year, it has played host to some of the fiercest battles in an international conflict that could reach far beyond Mali’s 15 million people: the fight to prevent al Qaeda from flourishing in Africa.
The press tour was supposed to be a victory celebration. French soldiers, who had offered military support to the Malian troops in the recent battle, stood silently at the edge of Gao’s central courtyard and watched with amusement as the Malians led reporters around the battlefield. Gendarmes swathed in ammo belts guided the journalists around the town’s courthouse, pointing out dismembered limbs and dead jihadists crumpled on the ground.
One soldier called our attention to a severed head facedown in the dust. “Is it Malian, do you think?” I asked. The gendarme kicked it over and studied the face. Dark blood dripped from its mouth. A fly crawled up its nose. “Nah, maybe Algerian or Nigerien,” the gendarme said, grinning with pride. Nearby, in the town hall, next to a body hunched in a stairwell over its machine gun, the soldiers pointed out a wide streak of blood that had burst up the wall and across the ceiling. “Suicide bomber,” they said. “Look, here’s his head.” It was more of a face than a head, though, a puzzled countenance lying wrinkled on the floor in a dusty frown, its skull sheared off by the blast. The cameramen pointedly avoided filming it. “You’d never get it on TV,” one reporter later said, “so why even bother?”
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