The Hot Zone: Black Death Returns to Madagascar
sat in a helicopter as it banked around and down toward a clearing in the center of Beranimbo, a village of 80 or so palm-thatched huts tucked away in the emerald mountains of Madagascar’s Northern Highlands. My pilot, a blocky German expat named Gerd, had already made one attempt to touch down the shaky single-engine copter, but he’d aborted the landing after the rotor blades kicked up enough dust to cause a brownout.
A few hours earlier, when we’d set out for Beranimbo—a three-hour journey from the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo—Gerd had seemed excited. He doesn’t normally get jobs like this, typically making his money flying film crews around the countryside to shoot B-roll for ecotourism documentaries, usually about lemurs. “You want me to do a pass?” he asked, and before I could find out what he meant, we were swooping low through the hills. My stomach lurched upward; from this altitude we could see the spiny forest vegetation, tall ravenala trees, and great gaping wounds in the countryside, scars of systematic deforestation.
We were there because, in the fall of 2013, Beranimbo had been an epicenter of a black plague outbreak that resulted in nearly 600 cases and more than 90 deaths across the country. Madagascar reports the most instances of the disease in the world. Depending on which century you’re talking about, it’s perhaps best known as the plague—a scourge generally associated with the Middle Ages, when rats, fleas, and poor hygiene resulted in the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people. The disease remains an enduring threat in third-world nations; public-health watchdogs report up to 2,000 cases a year.
In the 1930s, the rise of antibiotics dampened and then nearly extinguished the clinical threat of the disease, at least in the developed world, and it lost its status as a global killer. But for years, epidemiologists have warned that Madagascar is particularly vulnerable to widespread rural and urban contagion. I wanted to find out just how dangerous this medieval disease is in the 21st century, and why it persists in this corner of the world. That search led me to Beranimbo.
When we arrived, Gerd’s nervousness was apparent. “This may be too dangerous,” he muttered into his headset intercom as he tried to land the helicopter. Gerd’s concern wasn’t for his own safety, but rather the security of 200 people gathered around the makeshift landing pad below. Any one of them could have easily lost an eyeball to a pebble or twig whipped upward into the air. Helicopters are rare in Beranimbo and always attract attention, as they usually carry aid workers from the Red Cross. When we finally found a suitable spot to land, villagers ran from the dusty complex of huts to greet us.
On the ground, I was introduced to the village elder, a thin old man in a light jacket and safari hat. To celebrate our arrival, he had organized the slaughter of a zebu, a type of domestic cattle with a large, camel-like hump, for a celebratory lunch. “The sacrifice of the zebu marks our friendship,” he told me. “I can’t express enough our happiness. Enjoy it with all our gratitude.” The animal’s neck was cut, and I was taken to meet Rasoa Marozafy, a 59-year-old father of seven who’s spent his life in the village. Rasoa is a plague survivor, and part of the reason I’d come to this place.
Finding Bergdahl: Inside the Search for the Last Prisoner of America’s Longest War
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one ofthem.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
The Derailment of the SEC – Part II: An SEC Official Works Both Sides of the Street, and Betrays the Public Trust
A senior Securities and Exchange Commission official, Spencer C. Barasch, quashed an investigation in early 2005 of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme masterminded by Houston financier R. Allen Stanford—after securing a lucrative partnership with a law firm of which Stanford was a client.
Barasch, the top enforcement officer of the SEC’s Fort Worth regional office at the time, overruled SEC examiners who had warned him that Stanford was likely running “a massive Ponzi scheme” and had sought permission from him to open a formal investigation of Stanford and his bank. For several months prior to that decision, Barasch had been negotiating to become a partner with the Houston law firm of Andrews Kurth, which had had Stanford as a client, according to confidential Andrews Kurth emails obtained for this story. Andrews Kurth’s work for Stanford is detailed in the law firm’s confidential billing records.
Federal conflict-of-interest law prohibits a government employee from participating “personally and substantially” in an official capacity in any “particular matter” that would have a direct and predictable effect on the employee’s financial interests or on the financial interests of a “person or organization with whom he is negotiating or has any arrangement concerning prospective employment.”
The British Soldier Who Killed Nazis with a Sword and a Longbow
Above: “Mad Jack” on the far right, clutching a claymore sword. Photo via WikiCommons
The first thing the Nazi garrison on Vågsøy Island, Norway, would have heard when the British No. 3 Commando battalion landed on December 27, 1941 was the sudden blaring drone of bagpipes. One commando stood at the fore of the landing craft, facing the impending battle and playing the peppy, martial “March of the Cameron Men.” Upon coming to a halt onshore, the soldier jumped from the craft, hucked a grenade at the Germans, then drew a full sword and ran screaming into the fray.
That maniacally fierce soldier was 35-year-old Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, and his stunts at this battle, known as Operation Archery, were hardly the most bizarre and semi-suicidal of his life. Over the course of World War II, “Mad Jack,” as he came to be known, survived multiple explosions, escaped a couple of POW camps, captured over 40 Germans at sword point in just one raid, and in 1940 scored the last recorded longbow kill in history. And that’s just the CliffsNotes on his wartime rap sheet.
For many war junkies and badass aficionados, Mad Jack’s exploits are the epitome of military romanticism. His recorded statements, full of swagger like, “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed,” and, “I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently,” seem like the physical manifestation of some mid-century boy’s adventure tale. The Royal Norwegian Explorers Club found him such a paragon of brawn and endeavor that, in a book released this March, they named him one of the greatest adventurers of all time.
Photo via WikiCommons
Not much is known about Churchill’s youth, save that he graduated from Britain’s premier Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1926 and, at age 20, was shipped off to Burma, where he spent the next few years driving his motorcycle around the region. Possibly bored by a long peacetime, Churchill left the army for a period in 1936 and spent some time as a Nairobi newspaper editor, male model, and a bagpipe-playing, arrow-shooting extra in films like The Thief of Baghdad and A Yank at Oxford. By the end of the decade, he’d become so obsessed with the pipes that he took second place in a 1938 military piping competition at the Aldershot Tattoo, causing a mild scandal because an Englishman had beat out so many Scots. The next year, his archery habit landed him a place as Britain’s shooter at the World Archery Championship in Oslo.
As soon as the Nazis invaded Poland and war became imminent, though, Churchill rushed to the battlefield. The longbow came out almost immediately during the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, France, in mid 1940. He took to practicing guerilla tactics, staging raids, and earning commendations for his bravery, even surviving a clipping by machine gun fire. Then, while watching a German force advance from a tower in the little village of L’Epinette, Churchill signaled his attack by shooting a Nazi sergeant through the chest with a barbed arrow, immediately followed by a hail of bullets from two fellow infantrymen in tow.
Saving South Sudan
We devoted an entire issue of the magazine to Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. It’s a companion piece of sorts; watch the documentary and read the issue or vice versa. But you won’t get a full scope of the situation without doing both.
Introducing the Saving South Sudan Issue
The “Saving South Sudan” Issue of VICE is unlike anything done before in the 21-year history of the magazine. It tells a single story over the course of 130 pages, following the writer Robert Young Pelton, the photographer and filmmaker Tim Freccia, and a former South Sudanese refugee named Machot as they travel to Machot’s homeland, one of the most war-ravaged countries on Earth. For Machot, the trip was an attempt to help South Sudan out of the seemingly never-ending cycle of war, corruption, and power-hungry strongmen that has ruled the country for generations. For Pelton and Freccia, it was the chance to explore and document the conflict that is rapidly turning the three-year-old country into the world’s newest failed state—and to find out what, if anything, could stop South Sudan’s slide into hell.
Understandably, they ran into some problems on their journey. To begin with, they almost couldn’t find a pilot foolhardy enough to fly them into the middle of an ongoing war between the government in Juba and the rebels led by Riek Machar, the country’s former vice president. Then they had to haggle and negotiate their way into an interview with Machar before following his fearsome but undisciplined White Army to a battle in the town of Malakal that turned into wholesale slaughter.
Partly a history of colonialism and misguided Western interference in Africa, partly a profile of Machar as he plots and coordinates his rebellion in the bush, partly a look into one of the most dangerous, dysfunctional countries in the world, “Saving South Sudan” is a terrific, sobering work, and no one but Pelton and Freccia could have produced it. Pelton, the author of the bestselling, one-of-a-kind travel guide The World’s Most Dangerous Places (now in its fifth edition), has profiled “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, been kidnapped by right wing death squads in Colombia, and lived with an elusive retired Special Forces colonel training Karin rebels deep inside the jungles of Burma. Freccia—who like many journalists, was inspired by Pelton’s work—has made it his life’s work to document conflicts and crisis in Africa and elsewhere. His photos provide a stark, sometimes horrific look into the realities of life in South Sudan, and his video footage is currently a documentary now playing on the site.
Pick up a free copy of “Saving South Sudan” anywhere VICE is distributed, or read it online now. Download the free iPad app for even more pictures, extended video footage, and special extras.
Uruguay’s President Mujica is a former revolutionary (some might call him a terrorist) who was shot six times, imprisoned for 14 years, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for upward of three years, only to be released, renounce violence, enter politics, win election to the nation’s highest office, and lead Uruguay as it rose out of recession, all the while legalizing gay marriage and abortion, which is noteworthy for a country that counts Catholicism as its dominant religion. He donates 90 percent of his income to charity, lives at his small farm rather than the country’s lavish presidential palace, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, almost never wears a suit, and rails against the excesses of consumerism and the West’s reliance on it as economic ballast.
President Chill: Uruguay and Its Ex-Terrorist Head of State May Hold the Key to Ending the Global Drug War
Behind the Big Eyes: How Walter Keane Cheated His Wife Out of Fame and Fortune
Editor’s note: Adam Parfrey runs perhaps our favorite small press, Feral House Books. If you’re interested in pills, black metal, and apocalyptic death cults, they’re pretty much your one-stop shop. So when Adam sent us a snippet of his new book, Citizen Keane, we jumped at the opportunity to run an excerpt. The subject is Walter and Margaret Keane, 60s pop artists who caused a weird sensation painting kids with big eyes. They’re also the subject of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s new biopic, which will see wide release this Christmas.
1965 was a year of bug-eyed glory for the former real estate salesman turned pop artist Walter Stanley Keane, who bragged to reporters that he “romped through life with the evident enjoyment of a terrier rolling in a clover patch.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Keane art was seemingly everywhere—from the sales bins at Woolworths to the gilded mansions of Hollywood royalty. As his income surged comfortably into seven figures, Keane decided he would keep things simple. “All that really matters to me,” he explained to an admiring Lifemagazine reporter, “is painting, drinking (which, the way I look at it, includes eating), and loving.” It seemed like the party was just getting started.
Keane’s fortune was made from a style stunning in its simplicity. Weeping waifs. Tearful children. All bearing hypnotic, saucer-sized orbs. It was said that if you looked at them long enough, the distressed children seemed to stare at you, even if you moved about the room. “Let’s face it,” he boasted to Life magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” More discriminating art enthusiasts, critics, and academics didn’t quite agree, finding the paintings formulaic and sickening in their sentimentality. But the rest of America fell in love with Keane’s Big Eyes, and he became a household name.
VICE Exclusive: How a Former SEC Official Manipulated the System for His Clients and His Own Financial Benefit
Two years ago, Spencer C. Barasch, a former high-ranking Securities and Exchange Commission official based in Fort Worth, Texas, paid a $50,000 fine to settle civil charges brought against him by the United States Justice Department for allegedly violating federal conflict-of-interest laws. The Department of Justice had alleged that Barasch, as a private attorney, had represented R. Allen Stanford, a Houston-based financier who was later found to have masterminded a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Barasch had done so even though he’d played a central role at the SEC for years in overruling colleagues who wanted to investigate Stanford’s massive fraud. Federal law prohibits former SEC officials from representing anyone as a private attorney if they played a substantial or material role in overseeing actions regarding them while in government.
In part because of that episode, Barasch, rightfully or wrongfully, has served as an example for critics of the SEC who say that it—and the US government as a whole—has done too little to hold accountable those financial institutions responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and other corporate wrongdoers. James Kidney, a respected trial attorney for the SEC, drew attention recently when he asserted in his retirement speech that the agency’s pervasive “revolving door” has led to a paucity of enforcement actions against seemingly untouchable Wall Street executives. More than two dozen current and former SEC officials that I have interviewed about these matters largely agree with Kidney on the takeaway: Quite simply, American investors can no longer expect the protection they once did, and that powerful Wall Street executives who have violated the law will continue to go unchecked.
A three-month investigation by VICE has uncovered evidence of numerous similar instances of misconduct and potential violation of federal conflict of interest regulations and law by Barasch since he left the SEC. And while Barasch’s legal representation of Stanford might have been the single most consequential and egregious example of such misconduct, the new information shows that Barasch’s actions in representing Stanford were hardly an anomaly. The new disclosures serve as further ammunition for those who argue that the SEC has been tepid in its enforcement of such regulations and its punishment of those who would violate them.
The Lost Boys of California Are Literally Dying to Pick Your Fruit
t the age when most American teenagers are trying to decide whom to ask to prom, Ernesto Valenzuela was instead weighing whether it was worse to die of thirst in the desert or have his throat slit by gangsters.
That’s the choice the 16-year-old faced in his hometown of Mapulaca, Honduras, a drowsy village where MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangsters are known for recruiting youth—sometimes as young as kindergartners—into their cartels. If the kids refuse, they are often killed. Now Ernesto was being recruited, and he didn’t want to end up one of the 6,000 people murdered each year in Honduras. With a total population just shy of 8 million, that means nearly one of every 1,000 Hondurans is a victim of homicide, making it the most dangerous place—after the war zones of Iraq, Somalia, and Syria—in the world.1
After mulling it over for months—and trying to dodge the tattooed gang members who wanted to sign him up—Ernesto decided his potential fate at home presented far more danger than what he might face at any distant desert crossing. So, early one morning in June 2013, after his mother sobbed and begged him to stay safe, he set out for a place he’d only seen in movies, a place where he’d heard a kid like himself—with just a fifth-grade education—could earn $60 a day working in the fields: America.