The War Diaries

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Amidst Western Squabbling, Wither Mosul and ar-Raqqa

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Watching Kobane burn. Much of the anti-IS campaign has been slow burn to roll back the group's once lightening fast expansion. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Watching Kobane burn. Much of the anti-IS campaign has been slow burn to roll back the group’s once lightening fast expansion. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the highly distracting ‘Brexit’ debate-arguably the most distasteful neologism since ‘Grexit,’ and the buffoonery of the coming US presidential election, the war(s) in Iraq and Syria painfully grind on in the ramadan heat. The recapture of Fallujah-which has not been fully consolidated-is hoped to be a prelude for regaining Mosul to the northeast. Various anti-IS forces have inched toward Mosul in 2016 by capturing villages in its rural hinterlands but there does not appear to be any coordinated effort to retake Iraq’s 2nd most significant urban centre amongst fighting groups with allegiances of widely varying stripes. PM al-Abadi has vowed to retake Mosul at an unspecified time later in 2016 although Mosul has a far more complex ethnic and religious matrix than Sunni Arab Fallujah. But there are other important smaller cities and towns that must be confronted before Mosul such as Hawija and al-Qaim which are still in the clutches of the IS evildoers to employ throwback neocon-ism.

 

Then there’s the perhaps more difficult idea of taking ar-Raqqa, from IS control, which, if occurred, would turn the offensive salafi-jihadi movement back toward its asymmetrical insurgent roots from which is spawned in mid-2000s Iraq. But the FSA and YPG are not getting along perfectly to say the least around the fight for Aleppo. Kurdish-Arab cooperation has worked to some degree in the SDF context in al-Hasakah governorate to the east. On another side of the equation, the SAA and their Russian backers are not fairing terribly either. IS claims to have killed three Russian servicemen with an IED on the  Ithiriya-Raqqa road. Meanwhile Russian air strikes in the city centre killed between 18-32 civilians depending on reports.

 

Though the Fallujah offensive has been successful to a degree, one must ask at what cost? And can PM al-Abadi survive the Sadrist turmoil that has breached the Green Zone? The only ground forces capable of taking ar-Raqqa are the YPG but they don’t appear to have a post-conflict plan for ruling the primarily Arab city nor have they expressed a palpable desire beyond rhetoric. Many questions remain beyond the cinders fluttering above al-Anbar governorate’s commercial capital.

Written by derekhenryflood

June 22nd, 2016 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Iraq,Syria

Unfrozen

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An Azeri chai khana in central Georgia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Azeri chaikhana (tea house)  in central Georgia. The South Caucasus region, despite its painfully deep divisions. remains inextricably linked by hard physical geography, and great power competition. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor entitled “A dangerous thaw – Nagorno-Karabakh heats up” after the recent clashes in the most hotly disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabagh, a Russian-Turkic-Iranian word mash meaning (Nagorno or Nagorny) Mountainous (Kara) Black (Bakh or Bagh) Garden, is part of land internationally recognized as a constituent territory of Azerbaijan yet de facto ruled by ethnic Armenian separatists who term their unrecognized republic “Artsakh.” Karabakh had, for years, been lumped together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a so-called ‘frozen conflict’ impeding development and economic integration in the post-Soviet, South Caucasus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 11.12.04 PMWhen the term was in vogue, frozen was far more apt for pre-2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia than Karabakh which has always been simmering with regular small arms exchanges as well as occasional mortars, known as “ceasefire violations” in diplomatic speak.

Karabakh is an oft overlooked conflict that rarely makes international headlines as the disputes origins are it little understood, its geography relegated to the obscure. It took the use of heavy artillery, drones, tanks, and so forth to elevate Karabakh to the center of attention if only for one brief weekend in early April. The fight over this heavily mined, gorgeous Mountainous Black Garden is perpetually framed by ultra competitive, irreconcilable narratives held tightly by Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

No party involved has either the mechanism nor the mindset to foster a lasting peace. Russia sells weaponry to both sides, the Americans are divided between a desire for Caspian hydrocarbon products that circumvent the Russian Federation and a vociferous, diaspora-powered Armenian lobby in Washington that tirelessly lobbies congress albeit with somewhat declining influence. Iran, though co-relgionists with the Shia majority in Azerbaijan, supports Armenia in part due to the paranoia of Azeri irredentism among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran. Turkey’s support for Baku’s position has been, for the most part, largely rhetorical in nature.

After three days of fighting in which Azerbaijani forces touted regaining two hilltops and one village and dozens of soldiers and Karabakhi militiamen were killed, Karabakh has faded back into the shadows as quickly as it temporarily emerged. Yet it is only more explosive as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have acquired more advanced armaments primarily from Russian vendors. The threat of violence can only temporarily subside in this tragically intransigent morass.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 25th, 2016 at 8:41 pm

Shelter from the Swarm

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Terrorsim in the Sahel region has spread far and wide. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Terrorsim in the Sahel region has spread far and wide since the French military and its local partner nations began trying to roll back salafi-jihadis beginning with their military intervention in January 2013 and morphing into Operation Barkhane in August 2014. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I’ve authored a recent article in the March edition of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review in the United Kingdom on the sprawling French-orchestrated counter terror operation called Barkane in Africa’s greater Sahara-Sahel region. The French effort has been met with mixed results at best in that during its as yet unfinished timeline, salafist terrorism has spread all the way to the Atlantic with the March 13 attack by sub-Saharan AQIM operatives on the Hotel Etoille du Sud resort in the Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam commune situated east of Abidjan in the Comoé District not far from the Ghanian border.

The Grand Bassam assault is part of what we can sadly call a distinct pattern of AQIM’s attacks well beyond its traditional theater of terror in Algeria from where it was b0rne out of the ashes of that country’s civil war. Firstly there was the attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako’s ACI 2000 district in November followed by the siege of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou in January. The arc of this does not appear to have any end in sight in the near term. Attacks in West Africa get nowhere near the coverage as those carried out by IS in Western capitals such as Paris and Brussels but they demonstrate that the al-Qaeda brand has a much bigger footprint in a part of the world that until very recently once essentially devoid of salafi-jiahdi cruelty.

And then there is the spreading threat posed by IS-allied Boko Haram which has deployed suicide bombers–some of them young girls–outward from northeastern Nigeria and into Cameroon’s Région de l’Extrême-Nord, Niger’s southeastern Diffa region and southwestern Chad’s lac region,  all around the the Lake Chad basin.

My article analyses the recent history of salafist violence in this part of the world with the reasonings behind continuing, geographically escalating attacks on soft, civilian targets aimed at garnering attention with mass casualty events. As I began writing it in November in the aftermath of the Bamako attack, I didn’t game out things going as far afield as southern Côte d’Ivoire so quickly (though I did see things potentially reaching the Atlantic via Senegal which thus far thankfully hasn’t played out). Curiously, Ivorian forces are not part of the five-nation alliance of sorts that participate in Barkhane. It was simply a soft target in a weak state still recovering from a vicious set of civil wars which was ill prepared for an AQIM operation.

My Barhane piece in the March 2016 issue of Jane's Intelligence Review.

My Barhane piece in the March 2016 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review.

In the core years of the terror wars after 9/11, Africa was always a seldom reported upon, low priority in comparison to the war Afghanistan and later Iraq. Sure, there was the State Department’s Pan-Sahel Initiative and then the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership but who–excluding think tank types–today even remembers these programs which effectively amounted to nil?

Written by derekhenryflood

April 3rd, 2016 at 3:03 pm

The Refugees

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In what the US Army refers to as a 'jingle truck,' a group of IDPs (internally displaced persons) ride atop sacks of wheat donated by NGOs during the Afghan civil war. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

In what the US Army refers to as a ‘jingle truck,’ a group of IDPs (internally displaced persons) ride atop sacks of wheat donated by NGOs during the Afghan civil war. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

New York- In compiling a short manuscript of poetry that was written from approximately 1997-2002, its interesting for me to look back and see which poem topics are in a time capsule of that era and which are even more relevant in 2016. The piece below about Afghan refugees before 9/11 but it might as well be regarding the fate of Syrian and Iraqi refugees today. It is juxtaposed with the image above which I shot shortly after 9/11.

Beneath the poem are Syrian Kurdish refugees in southern Turkey, existing in humanitarian limbo. We must ask ourselves what have the terror wars and the Arab and Kurdish uprisings actually accomplished?

The Refugees

Unwanted and unafraid

On the move from where squalor has stayed

Each at his own indescribable peril

Dying everyday undeserved of each discrete, excruciating hell

Transforming desert to village overnight

Pulling water from the bedrock in the name of the almighty

And when that smile confronted me

I knelt to grace for all to see

An expression so beautiful

A moment in time beyond dutiful

Inhabiting at the edge of existence

People without sustenance are the truest resistance

Syrian refugees, primarily but not exclusively ethnic Kurds, in a camp in Suruç, Turkey. Though refugees and IDPs have existed since time immemorial, mass flows of humanity seem to be emblematic of the terror wars. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Syrian refugees, primarily but not exclusively ethnic Kurds, in a camp in Suruç, Turkey. Though refugees and IDPs have existed since time immemorial, mass flows of humanity seem to be emblematic of the terror wars. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

March 27th, 2016 at 6:06 pm

Posted in 9/11,Afghanistan

Tagged with , , ,

al-Furat

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Boys hurl themselves into the Euphrates River after the fall of the regime of then President Saddam Hussein. ©2003 Derek henry Flood

Boys hurl themselves into the Euphrates River after the fall of the regime of then President Saddam Hussein. ©2003 Derek henry Flood

New York- Twenty years ago I used to write poetry, mostly about the world well beyond my day-to-day action space. Tonight I was inspired to scribble something new, something quickly. The Euphrates in Arabic is called al-Furat.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 8.17.20 PM

 

 

Written by derekhenryflood

March 10th, 2016 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Iraq

A Weathered #fabledcity

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A weather-beaten print I shot in Luxor, Egypt at the Temple of Karnak back in the spring of 2003 after getting out of Baghdad while the getting was good.

A weather-beaten print I shot in Luxor, Egypt at the Karnak temple complex back in the spring of 2003 after getting out of Baghdad while the getting was good. Click on image to be taken to my Instagram page. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

New York- For close to two years now I’ve been putting up ink jet analog prints up around three of New York City’s five boroughs and in my favorite locales in EU Mediterranean states as part of my #fabledcity project about the glory of an antediluvian realm that in our time is the stuff of legend.

I plan to install more along the eastern seaboard in in the American Southwest as soon as I am able. The prints hail from before I purchased my first digital camera in January of 2005. I was way behind the curve in hyper competitive journalism terms. I simply couldn’t compete monetarily. While some journos acquired the first generation of DSLRs en route to northern Afghanistan in 2001, by February or March 2003, the big names/outlets had gone digital. I hadn’t.

When I departed San Diego from Iraq at the time, I faced a stark choice. I could either shoot the aftermath of the invasion or sit on the couch with a low quality DSLR at home. I chose the former. The #fabledcity project is about the arc of my analog photography before and thence after 9/11. Throughout the early years of the so-called ‘war on terror’ I remained enthralled by the allure of ancient sites. The politics of our time were a vehicle for me to experience the majesty of the ancients.

After decompressing in Amman, I quickly made my way down to Aqaba and on to the Sinai and the Nile Valley. Well I sunburned my back so badly snorkeling at the precarious Blue Hole outside Dahab I jumped on an overnight bus to Luxor. It was the essence of Mubarak-era Egypt. Checkpoints, mukharbarat, simmering palpable resentment among the native inhabitants of the Sinai. Upon reaching Luxor I had to run from shadow to shadow in the Great Hypostyle Hall because the sun hitting my t-shirt was unbearable. Finally I reached to Temple of Amun-Re where austere the god-kings stood surveying the stone. The nightmare in Iraq that was just getting underway was well behind me.

The original image of the pharaohs basking in the African sun. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The original image of the pharaohs basking in the African sun. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Nothing would stop me from seeing this world.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2016 at 4:50 pm

The Walls Have Ears

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My view of Gauhati, capital of the troubled Indian state of Assam. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

My view of Gauhati, capital of the troubled Indian state of Assam. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

It’s the middle of winter here in NYC and I’m staying busy cleaning out my laptop and here I happened upon another unpublished story from my archives that I later used as the background for an article “Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)” for The Jamestown Foundation down in DC.

Gauhati- I’d come to Assam a few days ahead of India’s Republic day celebrations.  Tightly sandwiched between the Kingdom of Bhutan and Bangladesh, Assam is the bottle necked gateway to the “Seven Sisters,” the seven states that used to make up the Northeast Frontier Province during the British colonial era.  Deep in the shadows of the Iraq dominated headlines, an under rported insurgency raged there.  Delhi is rapidly beefing up its troop presence in the region in a quest to smash “the terrorists” as they are referred to in the Indian media.  The terrorists in this case are ULFA , a Maoist inspired group fighting a people’s war against the Indian state and the Hindi speaking migrant labourers and economic migrants from Bangladesh.

During 2007, ULFA was being blamed for the killings of dozens of migrants in a bid to send them packing back from whence they came. Along with some of the other ethno-linguistic based communist outfits here, they have also been employing Iraq-esque IEDs to discourage Indian units from patrolling villages considered ULFA strongholds in Upper Assam.  The crisis has taken a steep escalation since the start of the New Year with a combination of executions and randomly placed explosives in busy marketplaces. The central government in Delhi, which locally is simply referred to as “The Centre” has responded by ramping up a counterinsurgency campaign in the rural areas backed up by truckloads of paramilitary forces brought into the Northeast from all over India.

Getting our car searched for weapons in Tinsukia in upper Assam with the insurgency raging at the time. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

Getting our car searched for weapons in Tinsukia in upper Assam with the insurgency raging at the time. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

All of this certainly does not bode well for the over hyped “Rise of India” too often touted by Anglo-American intelligentsia in the 2000s.  For the Centre, ULFA is just one of the issues to tackle.  There are literally dozens of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist insurgencies not only in the troubled Northeast, but also in West Bengal, Jharkand, Orissa, Bihar and so on.  In a recent attack in the newly created Jharkand state, an obscure revolutionary group managed to kill 14 Indian policeman with an IED buried in the road reminiscent more of Ramadi or Nuristan than the buzzing call centers of Bangalore that were so in vogue at the time.

2007 was the 60th year of India’s independence from the British Crown, Indian elites seems to have two primary goals: to promote foreign and domestic investment, particularly in the economic services sector, and to demonstrate it’s robustness as a state.  The latter would be the reasoning behind India’s refusal of direct government-to-government aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that smashed the coastline of Tamil Nadu.

In Assam, Indian authorities put on a show of strength far from the eyes of any media observers, international or local.  The national press here puts far more emphasis on the latest cricket crisis or the Bollywood scandal de jour than it does for the casualties taken by its own troops fighting homegrown leftist militants in the bush. The total lack of media there was almost bizarre as if there was a veritable information blackout. But then India is a vast country with a multitude of issues occurring with vexing simultaneity. The Assamese conflict garnered a short fit of attention when the country’s then bespectacled Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh trekked out to Assam for a photo op with families of the dead migrants.

Walking around Gauhati at night was desolate. All the shops were shuttered and only the odd food stall remains open. Many of the migrants had fled back to their villages and cities in the state of Bihar.  I went searching, foolishly I suppose, for an internet café that would still be open to post this story at the time. I met a local man named Amitsabh who told me there would be nothing open except for a darkened pub where he and his friends where taking some Fosters and cheap whiskey.  He invited me to join them when I told him I was looking for a decent place for dinner.

Inside the pub was black as the night sky with a constellation of dimly lit Beatles posters for minimal décor. I plunked down in a booth with a group of Amitabhs friends for food, drink, and to get their take on the conflict here.  The troubles here, they said, stemmed from land rights and linguistic chauvinism, but were primarily based on the fundamental economic inequalities of the state and the curse of oil.  Many of the Assamese, they told me, resented the Centre’s exploitation of their resources while the local population saw virtually nothing in return.  To then invite outsiders to work and benefit from this exploitation is to add insult to injury.  After over three post-independence decades of this cycle, some in the Assamese community were angry enough to take up an armed struggle against the Centre beginning in 1979.

I wanted to get more into their impressions of ULFAs motivations and more of the actual specifics of the fighting.  “These are sensitive topics” one them warned me.  “As they say, in a place like Assam, the walls have ears.”

“Let us go out of here”.  We paid our tab and got into a Suzuki the size of a suitcase, whizzing around the empty streets with the stereo blasting Punjabi Bhangra Beat music.  “We need to be careful of police checkpoints” one said to the driver.  “What do I care, I am not militant. I have nothing to hide!” And we sped off into the night.

Indian troops in their finery for Republic Day celebrations in Gauhati. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

Indian troops in their finery for Republic Day celebrations in Gauhati. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

February 6th, 2016 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Terminal 2 Blues

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This is a rambling story I began nearly seven years ago on one of the most singularly interesting days of travel I’ve ever experienced. I just now stumbled upon it and felt like putting it up.

Sayed Mansoor Naderi, leader of Afghanistan's Ismaili minority based in Baghlan Province, voting for the reelection of then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Sayed Mansoor Naderi, leader of Afghanistan’s Ismaili minority based in Baghlan Province, voting for the reelection of then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Kabul/Dubai/Sharjah-At exactly 9am I arrive at Lt. General Hadi Khalid’s gated, sunlit home on one of central Kabul’s ubiquitous dust and rock backstreets. I’d been put in touch with Lt. Gen. Abdul Khalid by an Afghan friend I’d met during the initial post-9/11 war in the fall of 2001. That friend, Idrees, who now lives in Santa Monica where he works quietly on his PhD, was back in his homeland to visit family and gather material for his thesis. Idrees was a kind of stateless, post-modern intellectual who easily navigated between the corridors of American power and the strictures of his central Asian Islamic culture by which he was bound. He had arranged for me to interview the General for a Washington think tank that I was freelancing for as one of a string of clients I was trying to please under duress during a recent month-long stay in the Afghan capital.

Hadi Khalid had a falling out with President Hamid Karzai the previous summer and was now at loose ends, eager to talk and concerned about his personal security. A sinewy, refined Pashtun from Farah Province, Khalid welcomed me into his home with the best efforts of Afghanistan’s generous social code. We got on like two old friends as we tore into the minutiae of Afghanistan’s political and security relationships concerning the six nation-states that the country borders. Wanting to tackle the most difficult issue first in terms of obscurity, I launched into a line of questioning about the particulars of the Afghan-China border in the extreme northeast and we wound our way counter clockwise around the heart of Asia until we reached nearby Pakistan a short three hours later.

Near the end our time together, we were talking about a pilot programme of anti-insurgent local militias that was being tested in Maidan Wardak Province just west of Kabul. I’d heard from a visiting Indian reporter at my hotel that Obama’s top man in Kabul, the no nonsense General Stanley McChrystal had visited the area to have a look at this attempt at the Afghanization of “Obama’s Viet Nam.” I politely asked my very warm host if he could recall the name of the militia for my notes.

The name in English slipped his mind and he picked up a small, worn Nokia phone and quickly rung a friend of his that was still in government. I watching his face sink as the pace of his Dari accelerated and I picked out a few words here and there. The colleague he phoned to ask about something that was now utterly unimportant was telling him that two mutual friends of theirs had just been killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Laghman Province. It was not news yet, it was breaking reality. Khalid’s eyes winced and he shifted in his plush chair as a white hot sunbeam moved across the floor.

“At first we used to cry when our friends died. After thirty years of war, I cannot cry anymore. I have lost hundreds…thousands of friends.”

“I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” I did not know what else to say. This genteel, intelligent man invited me into his home to talk politics. Politics in the abstract. Politics in Afghanistan were often, most often, conducted at the point of a gun.

“These men were very good friends of mine.”

I felt at once awkward and sad. Afghanistan was tragic culture of neglect and stalled progress that I had developed an emotional attachment to over the years. Abused at whim by its neighbors and used as a hardware parking lot for the power projection of military technology innovators since the Great Game, Afghanistan seemed hopeless in the long term and dangerous in the short. But I grew to love the place nonetheless. It was time to leave.

As a foreign reporter in a war zone, there are psychological Berlin Walls that one builds between self and subject to remain above the fray and justify his presence in a place where in actuality he has no verifiable business and whose justifications are slim on the best of days. Khalid insisted his driver drop me back at the hotel for me to make it in time for checkout at noon. I had a flight to Dubai in six hours and still had errands to run. I told myself that what had just happened to the General’s friends out in Laghman must somehow be normal in context of a decades long, unrelenting jihad with constantly morphing internal and external stressors and that I should not question such things in order to make it out of the country by day’s end.

I had a ticket for the last flight of the day on a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways (defunct since 2011). The Pakistani travel agent who sold me the document said, when asked, that the airline was essentially a glorified money laundering operation owned by Kabul Bank.

“Sure. Kabul Bank has one of the only working ATMs in the city, I use it all the time.”

I then asked specifically who owned Kabul Bank. The affable travel agent chirped that a man named Sherkhan [Farnood] whom he described as “Only the biggest drugs dealer in Central Asia.” (Farnood would be jailed in 2014.)

“Oh OK” I replied. Again, normal and justifiable in the context of Afghanistan. Who was I to object to flying on a drugs trafficker’s for-profit airline? I mean, hey, we all need it to get to Dubai. Everyone in Afghanistan is complicit in everything in one way or another. Just by being in the country, you are often supporting businesses run by criminal networks.

After a normal hour’s delay on the tarmac and a short 2 ½ hour flight across the Persian Gulf, I landed back in what passed for civilization. Walking into the immigration queue in the infamous Terminal 2, I spotted several families from Somalia. I had looked at the wikipedia entry for Terminal 2 and remembered that an airline operated flights to the horn of Africa’s perennial basket case. I approach an unusually friendly Emirati immigration officer in his ironed, white dishdasha.

I handed him my passport.

“How long will you be in the UAE?”

“Oh just one day, inshallah. Wow, so you do have flights to Somalia from here. I’d read that you did. I see a lot of Somalis in line.”

He smiles back; “I think those people are from Nigeria. I don’t know anything about flights to Somalia.” Pound, he stamps a page in my passport with little room left.

“Uh no, they are definitely Somali. Don’t you see the women’s distinctive hijab?”

I walk away from the desk and look up at a flat panel monitor. Basra, Baghdad International, Hargeisa, Kish island, Djbouti, Kabul, Berbera, Khartoum, Peshawar and on. Terminal 2, the gate to hell. Jubba Airlines, Jupiter airways, Air Blue.

As I walk over to the baggage carousel, a panoply of people from failing states, outright failed states and nervous economic migrants wait for their twined and taped luggage. Sri Lankan Tamils, Swati Pashtuns, Uzbek elders in embroidered Turkic prayer caps and Terai Nepalis all stand around anxiously. The only other Westerners in the hall look to be mercenaries, often called “Security Contractors” or “PMC’s” (“Private Military Companies”) in the new perverse lexicon of militarized journalism. I see two young men who appear to be Somali with angular cheekbones and gaunt posture. Waiting for my bag, I sit next to them on a bench and interrupt.

“I beg your pardon. Are you guys from either Somalia [proper] or Somaliland?”

“Somaliland” the one with wire rim glasses says with a London accent.

“I see there are flights to your country up on the departures board. May I ask, how does one actually go there? I mean Somaliland is not an internationally recognized state but I see you have an airline. Where do you buy tickets?”

“You can go to any airline office here in Dubai that specializes in tickets to East Africa. A round trip costs maybe $270 US.”

My imagination is set alight. “When I show up at the airport what takes place? Is there a visa for a place doesn’t exist in the eyes of the world?”

“I think you have to pay $20 for a visa when you arrive and then you must change another $50 into  shillings.”

“Are they ‘Somaliland’ Shillings as opposed to Somali Shillings they use down in Mogadishu? Do you have a separate currency for a separatist state?”

The two affable young men laugh. “You seem to know a lot about our country” the one in the brand new Asics hi tops says to me.

“Oh well, you know where I’m from, San Diego, is a major refugee resettlement area in America and we have quite a number of your people living there since Black Hawk Down. Plus I like to read a lot.”

Before I could ask their names, they jumped up upon seeing their luggage. “It was nice speaking with you sir but we must be going, you know, with how things are here.” And with that they disappeared into the anxious crowd.

I jumped into the taxi of an angry, exhausted Malayali man in the sweltering blast of stagnant heat that hits you as you exit air condition world. It seemed the majority of the UAE’s taxi men were Malayalis, that is Malayalam-speakers from coastal Kerala state on India’s far southwestern coast. The Malayalis were required to drive in 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week without a break. Many of them told me they could be fined simply for the infraction of stopping to relieve themselves. These men are disconnected from the young families they leave behind in their villages and live in constant fear of their Arab overlords, who were often migrant traffic police with the power to issue steep fines from Egypt and Jordan but as native Arabic speakers, they thus remained at a higher echelon in the UAE’s rigid ethnic migratory hierarchy.

Sitting in the dim dining area of what I thought was a completely empty hostel, a sullen looking man in a white dishdasha shuffles in with a small laptop and seats himself at the next table. I asked him if he wanted me to turn down the Simpsons DVD on my MacBook Pro so that he could watch an Arabic telenovela.

“No, no, I am fine” he said as he cranked up the volume on the TV overpowering my small speakers.

I gave up and shut my DVD application down and began a conversation. His name was Majid Hizam Rabie Alshamari and he was an Iraqi national who escaped Basra in 1997 to look for a better life anywhere but Clinton sanctioned Iraq. Educated as a chemical engineer during Iraq’s drawn out secular Ba’athist nightmare of the late Cold War epoch, Majid got a working in the United Arab Emirates Environmental Agency. He travels the length of the UAE’s desert border with Saudi Arabia checking in bound vehicles for hazardous and prohibited chemicals. It’s a dull position but Majid performs his task dutifully. But Majid was not fulfilled in any way. He begins tell me that in 2006, his family received a night letter from one of the Iranian-backed roving Shia street militias controlling most of majority Shi’ite Basra. The letter, issued at the height of the salafist -induced intra Islamic civil war in Iraq, stated in no uncertain terms, that as Sunnis, they were no longer welcome in Basra and they were gifted with the choice of flight or death.

The Alshamari’s were able to make it to Yemen and gain political asylum in Sana’a. Majid’s wife had divorced him some time ago and they had no children. The only thing keeping Majid in the UAE was his steady income and dynastic political stability. He wanted his family, he needed them but he told me he could not get a visa to be reunited with them in Yemen. He stayed in the few youth hostels that dotted the Emirates when his job required him to travel along the seven emirates’s customs posts.

When I half-heartedly suggested perhaps Basra was stable enough to make a grand return, Majid scoffed at the idea.

“There is nothing there for me or my family to go back to. No house, nothing. I want to go to Yemen and I want to then go to another country. I want to go to Canada.”

“Can I play something for you on my iTunes” I asked.

I swiveled around an opened up my laptop and scrolled down for some recordings I’d made over six years before that I dreamed of having translated. In May of 2003, I was running low on money in instantly exorbitant Baghdad. I saw a sign in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel that if I could make it to Najaf there was free accommodation for foreign journalists who wish to cover the Imad ul-Nabi (celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) undoubtedly underwritten by an Iranian-backed Shia party. I’d made crude recordings that I’d later digitized but had never had interpreted. I played them for Majid thinking, naively, that he would be surprised to hear something from his country on a random Westerner’s computer. He had a pained look about him. The thumps and slaps of a million plus Shia men pulsating through Najaf’s tiny lanes reverberated through the Sharjah Youth Hostel’s common area.

I understand a modicum of Arabic but was curious about one track I’d recorded in particular. I turned up the volume.

“They are saying “Haider, Haider, Haider” Majid piped up.

Haider was another holy nom of Imam Ali around whose shrine the men were marching toward. Imam Ali was the spiritual fountainhead of Shi’ism. Shia derives from Shiat’Ali or partisans of (Imam) Ali, the fourth caliph in orthodox Sunni Islam and the first Caliph in Shia Islam. The veneration of Ali ibn abu Talib and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the birth of Islam’s great schism over the succession of the caliphate in Islam’s volatile formative years.

The next afternoon before I headed out on a frivolous post-war zone party trip to the Greek Islands via a $100 flight from Sharjah to Athens, I waited in the hostel for Majid to come back from work. He gave me a sizable set of documents from his vast family in Sana’a. There were thirteen people in all. There faces gazed from a set of long expired asylum letters from the UNHCR’s head office in Yemen. In the middle was a photocopy of his recently deceased father’s passport. Majid looked on helplessly as he recounted how his father in another part of the world from the Alshamari’s ancestral home and that he could not even be there in Sana’a for his burial. The next document was what I guessed to be his Yemeni death certificate.

Over the course of 24 hours I’d engaged men from the globe’s then three most talked about war zones. This was a post-bipolar world incarnate.

I arrived on Ios, the classic Greek party island wondering about all those I had just spoken to.

I arrived on Ios, the classic Greek party island wondering about all those I had just spoken to. I was there for my birthday in theory but spent half my time writing up the two-part interview with Hadi Khalid.

Written by derekhenryflood

January 30th, 2016 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Afghanistan,Africa

Tagged with , ,