If it was a time for anything, 2013 was a year that saw the Snow Fall(ing) full-bleed layout solidify itself as the du jour template for longform non-fiction storytelling on the Internet.
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Unaccompanied Miners: Down the Shaft with Bolivia’s Child Laborers
In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. “The place is like… my own mental picture of hell,” he wrote of the experience. “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” Orwell was a lanky guy, 6’3” or 6’2”, and I am too. So I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn’t have turned around—or turned back—even if I’d wanted to.
Orwell wasn’t the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tio, or “the Uncle,” to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I’d offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he’d disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn’t reply, my photographer Jackson turned to me and coughed. “I’m freaking out,” he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani’s path through the hot, sulfur-stinking tunnel.
The Boxer, the Murder, the Fall from Grace
The argument started over gas money. It escalated to the point where a man got shot in the testicles. And it finished with one of the participants murdered and the other—a professional boxer with 20 victories to his name—in prison.
The dead man’s name was Raul Bennett Sambola, and I’ll get to him, but it was the boxer’s involvement that made the argument and its aftermath famous up and down Nicaragua’s poverty-stricken Atlantic coast. Evans Quinn was a 28-year-old heavyweight at the time of the February 2012 murder; just nine months earlier he had been in Nevada fighting Seth Mitchell. That bout ended with Quinn getting knocked out in the first round, after which he returned to his hometown of Bluefields. But before that humiliation, before he got involved in a feud, killed Sambola, went on the run, and was finally thrown in prison, Quinn was already a local legend, beloved by the people of Bluefields because he was one of them. As he came up through the boxing ranks, they imagined he’d make it to the top and show the world that the people in this poor but lively region are fighters and winners.
“God gave Evans Quinn the ability to rise up the people of Bluefields,” a local pastor told me. “But he threw it away.”
It’s hard to describe Quinn without using words like “potential” and “ability.” He was charismatic as hell, handsome, successful, and able to make whoever he talked to feel like he was the most important person in the world. He claimed to have seven wives (“I’m Muslim,” he told me) and surrounded himself with friends, drugs, women, and guns. But he could also be dangerous—if you crossed him, he wasn’t afraid to use his immense physical talents to show you who was boss. Like when he punched that pastor’s son in the mouth just because the kid was at a nightclub with a girl Quinn thought would be better off with him.
“He was crazy, but he could have done great things,” the pastor said. That’s how eager many in Bluefields were to look the other way when Quinn did something most people would be hated for. That was the influence the boxer had once had here. Today Quinn is still a legend, but now that he’s in prison, his glory days long burned away to ash, his story is now one about wasted potential, or a cautionary tale about what happens when a man takes justice into his own hands. If you’re willing to forgive his excesses and his ugly violent streak, he could even be a folk hero who got thrown in prison by cops with a grudge against him.
America’s First Hippie: Living, Learning, and Going Long with Gypsy Boots
Photos courtesy of Kees Van Voorthuizen
My mother hated hippies. She also wasn’t keen on meeting strangers, long-haired or otherwise. And her mood was especially dark that day in 1970 when the two of us were vacationing at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. She’d been waging a long battle with my father, her ex-husband, over me, their seven-year-old, and worried that she’d either lose custody or I’d “turn hippie” thanks to California’s corrupting influence. So when a hyperactive senior citizen with shoulder-length silver hair, a scraggly beard, and love beads around his neck approached us in the hotel lobby while banging a tambourine, shaking maracas, dancing a Russian cossack jig, and chanting, “I’m-a the Gypsy Boots, I live on nuts and fruits,” I wasn’t surprised when my mother yelled at him to get lost. I wanted him to scram, too. Ordinary hippies—the ones I saw on TV or hitchhiking through our New Jersey suburb—they intrigued me, but this one seemed crazy. Scary crazy. Why was this man who looked older than my grandparents behaving like a kindergarten escapee?
“Make him leave, Ma,” I whispered.
She certainly tried to. But Gypsy Boots was a man on a mission, which was to cheer up the sad-sack divorcee and kid he’d just come across. And, being irresistible, he succeeded. Within minutes, Gypsy had my mother and me smiling at him, then laughing with him, applauding his antics, trying out his musical instruments, and humming along to his inane ditties. Boots wasn’t drunk or on drugs, as I had heard other hippies were. Like the female protagonist of the film Harold And Maude, this guy was just chronically jubilant, the archetypal holy fool. After he was gone, leaving me with a free autographed copy of his self-published memoir, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, my mother admitted that she hadn’t felt this happy since before my father left her. It amazed me to hear her say that. And it amazed me to realize I felt the same way.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t know for a long time, was that Gypsy Boots was important, nationally important, an odd figure who had changed the course of American culture. He wasn’t just an old hippie, he was the ur hippie. His journey started in the late 1930s, when Boots, nearing 20, left the working world, grew his hair and beard long, and went “back to nature.” This was way beyond Thoreau at Walden Pond: For years at a time, Boots would sleep in California forests, bathe in mountain streams, feed himself by foraging for nuts and fruits and vegetables, practice yoga, and wear practically nothing in the way of clothing. A dozen other Nature Boys, as they were called, kept him company (including eden ahbez, who wrote “Nature Boy,” the hit song for Nat King Cole, supposedly about Boots), but Gypsy was the most visible of the gang, the one who would eventually become a star.
Long before the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, “Hollywood’s ageless athlete,” as Boots was known, created a counterculture for them to inhabit. He did this by performing fitness demonstrations on network television and in movies, opening one of America’s first health-food restaurants, racing around LA in his crazily painted van with organic treats for a network of customers—all to spread his message, which was deadly serious in spite of his constant clowning: “Why cling to sickly, fretful, conformist ways when you can be your healthiest, happiest, most authentic self?”
Gypsy died in 2004, just short of his 90th birthday. With his centennial coming up next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he meant to history and what he meant to me.
Two and a half decades after our encounter in Beverly Hills, Gypsy reappeared in my life. By this time, my mother was long gone—she’d died of breast cancer at 49—and I was living in New York City, volunteering as a cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. I didn’t think much about Boots; he was a luminous childhood memory, nothing more. Then, while browsing my shelves, I came across the memoir he’d given me, and I decided to bring it to the soup kitchen. Maybe we could use some of the vegetarian recipes he’d included in his book. As I consulted Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat while cooking, a middle-aged woman I worked with noticed the book and grinned and said, “Wow, Gypsy Boots! When I was a flower child in Hollywood in the 60s, Gypsy was such an inspiration. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s still going—I just ran into him last year!”
“Wait,” I said, “he’s still alive?”
“Sure, and he hasn’t changed one bit since the old days. He came roaring into this ashram I was at, shouting, ‘Don’t panic, go organic,’ and making everybody crack up.”
Until then, I’d never met anyone who’d known of Gypsy. So, he was still around, inhabiting the present as well as the past! That night, I called 411 in Los Angeles County and requested a listing for Gypsy Boots. I was doing this out of curiosity, but also as a sort of tribute to my late mother.
Don’t Get Caught: I’ve Spent 8+ Years in the System for a Nonviolent Felony
I’d been involved in selling drugs since I first smoked weed when I was 13. It just made sense to me that in order to have the money to use drugs, I’d have to sell some, too. I never thought I was doing anything wrong—my entrepreneurship put smiles on a lot of faces, and I did it better than most people ’cause I showed up on time and wasn’t a greedy, lying scumbag. I did abuse my stash pretty frequently, but I had enough self-control to avoid going off the deep end.
As a kid, I attended elite prep schools, played hockey year-round, and wound up getting accepted into Skidmore College, where, smooth as silk, I kept selling narcotics, mostly to my fellow students. Soon, I was HOOKED, living lovely off all that drug loot. I drove all around the Northeast like a madman, bartering and hustling coke, weed, X, shrooms, and whatever else seemed like a good flip. (I stayed away from dope and crack, though—you have to draw the line somewhere.)
I was so cocky—I never actually thought the pork-chop patrol would come after me. I ignored the illegality of what I was doing and didn’t care about my well-being enough to investigate or even pay attention to the laws. But as I soon learned, the law was paying lots of attention to me.
On a seemingly normal Friday night in February 2004, I was outside a Barnes & Noble with my older brother and his son when I got tagged by an undercover cop who looked like an upstate trailer-park stick-up kid. In retrospect, I wish he had robbed me for all my money instead of cuffing me in front of my six-year-old nephew. At that moment, my brain was spiraling through a million made-up explanations for my arrest instead of accepting the nightmarish reality of what was about to happen next. The pigs had a search warrant, and they took me back to my crib to rifle through my head stash, which was substantial enough to get me charged with five felonies and, potentially, 12 to 25 years in prison. I was 23 years old.
I spent the night in county jail and then, thankfully, was released on bail to await my trial. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and had been as excited as a nip-sucking piglet to finally graduate with all of my peoples. The future was so bright, and unlike most of my fellow students, I was in the black: I had a ton of money saved. I had already booked my plane tickets and hotel reservations to go to Italy with my girlfriend. But not anymore. Whatever the outcome of the trial, I knew my parents would be devastated (way more than I was), and I’d probably be kicked out of school.
I ended up taking a plea bargain. I was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison. My lengthy sentence was at least partially a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—’04 was an election year, and the politicians in Saratoga Springs, where I was living and dealing, thought the town had a drug problem. The district attorney who prosecuted me probably figured nabbing a college student “involved in a drug-trafficking ring from New York City” (as the local paper referred to me) was a good demonstration that the city was tough on crime. They made an example out of me.
I took the plea deal in August, and they told me I was going to jail in October. Because I was at home, living in my own apartment, I spent that summer in an awkward sort of hell—I was technically free, but soon not to be. Every day that passed inched me closer to The End. It was such an awful countdown—never before or since in my life have I wanted time to stand still.
When the morning of that loathsome day arrived I was already running late, stumbling out of my girl’s apartment, hungover and sleep-deprived. I left my bonerabelle sobbing uncontrollably in the bed. She couldn’t handle going to court and watching the police take me away. We’d been together a couple years, and this was the most horrible way imaginable to say good-bye. Only death would’ve been worse.
I found my parents parked on the street, waiting, already lockjawed with tears in their eyes. They were so caring that they had even temporarily moved to Saratoga Springs, renting an apartment for a few months to watch over me while I was out on bail, making sure I didn’t do anything stupid before I was sent away, which I probably would have if they weren’t there. I still cringe over the pain I put my father and mother through. I felt like the Human Turd.
THE MAN WHO WAS THERE -
ROBERT KING HAS BEEN COVERING THE FSA SO LONG THEY NAMED HIM “HAJI MEMPHIS”
(Above) September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
Ibecame interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.
Members of the Free Syrian Army’s mughaweer (commandos) and Ah al-Rassi (Freedom for the Assi River) brigades return to al-Qusayr after a battle near the Lebanese border in Homs. (The photos contained within this piece were taken by an independent photographer before the author visited the region. The Lebanese rebel-supporters and Hezbollah members interviewed throughout the piece refused to be photographed for obvious reasons.)
ON THE LAM IN LEBANON -
SYRIA’S VIOLENCE BLEEDS OVER THE BORDER
It’s dusk when the rebels move into position within a cluster of lemon and olive groves about 300 feet from the Syrian border post north of the bleak and dusty Lebanese farming village of al-Qaa. I’m watching the operation from behind the troops with their commander, a Lebanese man I’ll call “Hussein” who oversees 200 rebel fighters in the area.
“We’re moving some guys into [the nearby Syrian town of] al-Qusayr and need to distract Assad’s troops,” Hussein tells me. His brigade is tasked with keeping the guns, money, and fighters flowing between Lebanon and Syria. He interrupts our conversation to bark out an order on his walkie-talkie, keeping it short and sweet so his signal has less of a chance of being intercepted.
“OK,” Hussein orders. “Move in.”
His soldiers fan out across the olive orchard, preparing to attack the concrete buildings, ringed by sandbags, distracting the border guards while another unit of fighters seven miles away slips across the border undetected. A classic diversion.
The idyllic orchard explodes into war. Three rocket-propelled grenades fly toward the border post. A dozen automatic rifles and machine guns release a rain of ammunition; muzzle flashes light up the darkening sky.
“We do this every few days,” Hussein laughs. “But so do they,” he adds while pointing toward Assad’s troops.
The Syrian Army returns fire with machine guns and AK-47s of their own, sending bullets whipping through the grove at the rebels in front of us. Hussein and I are standing a few rows back, but we are still somewhat in the line of fire. I realize I’m uncomfortably close to the front line, even if I’m not right up on it. The bullets that hit the nearby trees aren’t aimed at us, but marksmanship is a moot point after you’re dead.
A moment later, Hussein’s troops pull back. They’ve distracted Assad’s border guys long enough for the other unit to cross into al-Qusayr undetected.
“Let’s go,” orders Hussein. “The [Syrian] helicopter will be here soon.” We retreat as bullets continue to fly our way. The trees in the orchard are our only cover, and they don’t offer much protection.
The skirmish is part of a nearly nightly series of clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border that seems to indicate the civil war is morphing into a regional conflagration. A week after my visit with Hussein, a car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing an important pro-rebel Lebanese intelligence officer and sparking battles in the streets of the capital and Tripoli that resulted in at least seven deaths. Neighboring Jordan and Iraq are accepting refugees in an attempt to contain the spread of civil strife while simultaneously avoiding direct involvement.
In Lebanon, staying neutral isn’t so easy. The nation’s deeply divided population and weak central government have left it vulnerable to spillover from nearby conflicts. While most of the world is focused on the slaughter in Aleppo and rising tensions between Syria and Turkey, another, potentially devastating conflict is breaking out right next door.