Right up until 9:14 PM on November 22nd, 1987, what appeared on Chicago’s television sets was somewhat normal: entertainment, news, game shows. That night, as usual, Dan Roan, a popular local sportscaster on Channel 9’s Nine O’Clock News, was narrating highlights of the Bears’ victory over the Detroit Lions. And then, suddenly and without warning, the signal flickered up and out into darkness.
The Child-Rape Assembly Line: In Ritual Bathhouses of Jewish Orthodoxy, Children Are Systematically Abused
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg—who is 63 with a long, graying beard—recently sat down with me to explain what he described as a “child-rape assembly line” among sects of fundamentalist Jews. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to be graphic,” he said.
A member of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim fundamentalist branch of Orthodox Judaism, Nuchem designs and repairs mikvahs in compliance with Torah Law. The mikvah is a ritual Jewish bathhouse used for purification. Devout Jews are required to cleanse themselves in the mikvah on a variety of occasions: women must visit following menstruation, and men have to make an appearance before the High Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the devout also purify themselves before and after the act of sex, and before the Sabbath.
On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, Rabbi Rosenberg entered into a mikvah in one of the holiest neighborhoods in the city, Mea She’arim. “I opened a door that entered into a schvitz,” he told me. “Vapors everywhere, I can barely see. My eyes adjust, and I see an old man, my age, long white beard, a holy-looking man, sitting in the vapors. On his lap, facing away from him, is a boy, maybe seven years old. And the old man is having anal sex with this boy.”
Rabbi Rosenberg paused, gathered himself, and went on: “This boy was speared on the man like an animal, like a pig, and the boy was saying nothing. But on his face—fear. The old man [looked at me] without any fear, as if this was common practice. He didn’t stop. I was so angry, I confronted him. He removed the boy from his penis, and I took the boy aside. I told this man, ‘It’s a sin before God, a mishkovzucher. What are you doing to this boy’s soul? You’re destroying this boy!’ He had a sponge on a stick to clean his back, and he hit me across the face with it. ‘How dare you interrupt me!’ he said. I had heard of these things for a long time, but now I had seen.”
The child sex abuse crisis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, like that in the Catholic Church, has produced its share of shocking headlines in recent years. In New York, and in the prominent Orthodox communities of Israel and London, allegations of child molestation and rape have been rampant. The alleged abusers are schoolteachers, rabbis, fathers, uncles—figures of male authority. The victims, like those of Catholic priests, are mostly boys. Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, thinks the real number is higher. “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage.”
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
Scrap or Die: Metal Thieves Are Tearing Cleveland Apart Piece by Piece
One sweltering afternoon in July, I found myself breaking and entering into a derelict warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. I was in the middle of a crash course in metal theft from a man named Jay Jackson. Dressed like a plumber with a crumpled blue baseball cap on his head, Jay’s muscular physique belied the fact that he was once a crackhead. These days his life still revolves around illegally acquired goods, but not ones smoked, snorted, or injected: Jay makes his living stripping copper and steel from abandoned buildings like the one we were sneaking into, selling his yield by the pound to scrapyards for quick cash.
“Scrapping is just like being an entrepreneur,” he said, leading me toward a gaping hole in one of the warehouse’s walls, which we then scurried through. “It’s just a job, and you can make as much money as you put into it.”
Earlier that day, I’d used Google Street View to map out our jaunt through the epicenter of the city’s thriving scrap trade, the neighborhood known as Central (counterintuitively located on the east side of town). But the building Jay and I broke into looked completely different from what I had seen on my computer screen. The photos on Google, taken in 2009, showed a tidy vacant office building with nearly all of its windows intact and sturdy wooden boards blocking off its many entrances. But now it looked like the aftermath of a drone bombing in Afghanistan: every window was blown out, every orifice torn open. The stinking carcass of a rodent was splayed on the floor. The drop ceiling had been ripped down, revealing empty tracks where ventilation, piping, and wires once snaked through the building. I couldn’t believe that we were only a ten-minute drive from the stadiums, skyscrapers, and fine dining of downtown Cleveland.
The place may have looked like a dump to me, but to Jay it was a treasure trove of unknown proportions. “I could bring my torches in here and cut that steel box right over there,” he said, tiptoeing as he critiqued the work of the scrappers who’d already hit the spot, rattling off a litany of different ways to dissemble the building “properly.”
Above: Drug addicts gather by the hundreds under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in west Kabul to shoot up, smoke, buy, and sell.
Below: This former Afghan soldier who calls himself Shir Shaw lives under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in Kabul, shooting up during the day and hustling for money at night.
Swimming with Warlords – After Twelve Years of War, a Road Trip Through Afghanistan
nder the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.
I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.
In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.
I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.
It’s Good to Be the King – Arjan Roskam’s Cannabis Empire Is More Than Smoke & Mirrors
One afternoon this May, Arjan Roskam lounged on the deck of a 24-foot sport-fishing boat. He was speeding through a deep bay off the Caribbean coast of northwestern Colombia, keeping an eye on a line he’d cast a few minutes before. Arjan is 48 years old, well over six feet tall, and clean-shaven. He has the rough-hewn mien of a Dutchman, and possesses a piercing baritone that cuts through chatter like an oboe. He looks and sounds like a leader, one of those rare souls who was able to fulfill his destiny without compromising. He is the most recognizable and controversial figure in the business of marijuana, the self-styled and self-described “King of Cannabis.”
I was traveling with Arjan through the mountains and jungles of Colombia, along with a crew of international pot growers he calls the “Strain Hunters.” We were searching for three exceptional but elusive varieties of marijuana that have remained genetically pure for decades. They have lyrical, almost mythic names that roll off the tongue: Limon Verde, Colombian Gold, and Punta Roja. The day before our jungle excursion, we’d found specimens of the latter two strains in a nearby marijuana grove maintained by paramilitary groups and local farmers. Arjan was elated. He had acquired the first two of the 200 or so landraces—strains of marijuana that have naturally developed in far-flung regions around the world—and he was hell-bent on getting them all.
Arjan and his breeders will grow thousands of plants from these landrace seeds, pick the strongest ones, and breed new commercial strains based on their exotic genetics. This is the first step in a long, intricate process that makes it possible for a local deliveryman to show up at your house with a backpack bouquet filled with varieties like Alaskan Ice, Bubba Kush, and White Widow. If you’ve ever been cornered by a bleary-eyed pot nerd at a party, you know that the reason we’re not all still smoking Thai stick and twiggy, seed-filled weed is because of the thousands of commercial breeders around the world mixing, cross-breeding, experimenting, and developing new flavors, effects, and qualities—all from what is essentially a common mountainside plant.
The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia – The Perpetrators Were Caught, but the Crimes Continue
For a while, the residents of Manitoba Colony thought demons were raping the town’s women. There was no other explanation. No way of explaining how a woman could wake up with blood and semen stains smeared across her sheets and no memory of the previous night. No way of explaining how another went to sleep clothed, only to wake up naked and covered by dirty fingerprints all over her body. No way to understand how another could dream of a man forcing himself onto her in a field—and then wake up the next morning with grass in her hair.
For Sara Guenter, the mystery was the rope. She would sometimes wake up in her bed with small pieces of it tied tightly to her wrists or ankles, the skin beneath an aching blue. Earlier this year, I visited Sara at her home, simple concrete painted to look like brick, in Manitoba Colony, Bolivia. Mennonites are similar to the Amish in their rejection of modernity and technology, and Manitoba Colony, like all ultraconservative Mennonite communities, is a collective attempt to retreat as far as possible from the nonbelieving world. A slight breeze of soy and sorghum came off the nearby fields as Sara told me how, in addition to the eerie rope, on those mornings after she’d been raped she would also wake to stained sheets, thunderous headaches, and paralyzing lethargy.
Her two daughters, 17 and 18 years old, squatted silently along a wall behind her and shot me fierce blue-eyed stares. The evil had penetrated the household, Sara said. Five years ago, her daughters also began waking up with dirty sheets and complaints of pain “down below.”
The family tried locking the door; some nights, Sara did everything she could to keep herself awake. On a few occasions, a loyal Bolivian worker from the neighboring city of Santa Cruz would stay the night to stand guard. But inevitably, when their one-story home—set back and isolated from the dirt road—was not being watched, the rapes continued. (Manitobans aren’t connected to the power grid, so at night the community is submerged in total darkness.) “It happened so many times, I lost count,” Sara said in her native Low German, the only language she speaks, like most women in the community.
In the beginning, the family had no idea that they weren’t the only ones being attacked, and so they kept it to themselves. Then Sara started telling her sisters. When rumors spread, “no one believed her,” said Peter Fehr, Sara’s neighbor at the time of the incidents. “We thought she was making it up to hide an affair.” The family’s pleas for help to the council of church ministers, the group of men who govern the 2,500-member colony, were fruitless—even as the tales multiplied. Throughout the community, people were waking to the same telltale morning signs: ripped pajamas, blood and semen on the bed, head-thumping stupor. Some women remembered brief moments of terror: for an instant they would wake to a man or men on top of them but couldn’t summon the strength to yell or fight back. Then, fade to black.
Some called it “wild female imagination.” Others said it was a plague from God. “We only knew that something strange was happening in the night,” Abraham Wall Enns, Manitoba Colony’s civic leader at the time, said. “But we didn’t know who was doing it, so how could we stop it?”