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Peace In Light of War

August 30th, 2014 No comments
The sun sets over Cituadella Parc. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The sun sets over Parc de la Ciutadella. The air and light in the Mediterranean region is like no other which is part of  why I return year after year. This spot is calm incarnate. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I realized the other day that going to wars for years and years affects perhaps not only the psyche over the long term but also the synaptic algorithms that are part of an unending string of decision making processes driving daily routines. I can be in the most secure Western city environment but am still often making the smallest decisions in a wartime mindset without even realizing it. Hard to explain but basically always bracing for the worst. Here the most petty detail like the food stores being closed on Sundays somehow evokes the most careful conflict behavioral patterns. I remember in Afghanistan in 2001 when ABC and CBS had teamed up to set up a joint broadcast compound and they had gone to a bottled water warehouse in Tajikistan beforehand and bought half the potable water in Dushanbe to take with them down to Takhar.

Those early experiences had a molding effect on me that is often difficult to gauge. Now even if I am just coming to the EU, I find myself prepping and packing as if I was going off to war. You can leave a war but war never quite leaves you.

The last significant acts of terrorism here were a parking garage bombing in June 1987 that killed 21 attributed to ETA and a bar bombing that December which killed an American sailor during a Christmas port call and was claimed by Catalan radicals. But the wealthy from societies in conflict today seem to all be here as tourists and so to me war is never far away. Just before I shot the above photo, a nouveau riche family with a brand new Porsche bearing unmistakeable Ukrainian plates had their car towed where friends and I were sitting and asked for our help as they did not speak Spanish much less Catalan. As I was shopping for clothes in the discount department store yesterday, I find myself reflexively trying to discern where the niqab-clad North African in line ahead of me might precisely be from. This stuff is just always on my mind. An innate curiosity coupled with too much experience often makes it difficult to zone out.

The past few years the only way I could justify being here was by go to and fro to conflicts; Libya in 2011, Mali in 2012, Iraq in 2013. This summer I decided to simply return to Catalunya without forcing myself to justify it. Did I miss out on the big Sinjar drama? Of course I did. One thing I have learned in all this time is that if you do miss out on a story, if you’re patient enough another one will pop up in no time. Despite tracts written about how this is the most peaceful time mankind has yet lived in comparative to the scale of the World Wars that consumed the first half of the last century, there are seemingly always more wars to come. They may not have vast trench networks and poignant ballads written about them but today’s wars are many if not ‘Great’ or “Patriotic’ in the grandiose appellations of an era gone by.

To relative safety. After being nearly shot by a regime sniper nest in Qwaleesh my agile driver roared our Hi-Lux back to a friendly checkpoint hoisting Qatari and Tunisian flags. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

To relative safety. After being nearly shot by a regime sniper nest in Qwaleesh, my ultra agile driver roared our Hi-Lux back to a friendly rebel checkpoint hoisting Qatari and Tunisian flags. That era is the thing of the past as Libya has no single internal enemy to rally around and Libyans have turned their many guns on one another. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

For what I suppose is part of the make up of my personality every single trip I have ever done has been alone. I meet other journos in war zones but almost always by sheer happenstance. No one has ever bought me a plane ticket to go anywhere ever. No big name outlet has ever called me up out of the blue and thrown an assignment at me. Everything I’ve ever done has essentially been as an autodidactic hustler.

I’ve worked in conflicts since 9/11 yet have never been written up as a ‘veteran’ while loads of people from the class of Libya 2011 have quickly surpassed me at least in terms twitter/instagram fame and so forth. Hell, one random guy with an iphone who spoke zero Arabic wound up with a spot in the world’s most prestigious photo agency and with a documentary then being made about his exploits by a big name Hollywood director. Suddenly people were getting famous for not dying after others did. Coming to NYC and winning big awards in the aftermath. The ‘Arab Spring’ morphed into a major turning point for journalism itself. It became a veritable free-for-all environment for those just getting started.  Safety norms were either not heeded in many instances or simply went out the window of the technical fighting truck.

My fixer driving us into outskirts of Kirkuk last year. He is plenty busy now. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My fantastic fixer driving us into outskirts of Kirkuk last year. He is plenty busy now, one can be sure. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

To my knowledge another photojournalist has never shot my photo while I’m working along a front line. If I went missing in one of these places there wouldn’t be a flurry of action shots of me to raise awareness. I’ve also never worn or had access to a bullet proof vest. Perhaps I simply don’t do enough socializing when I’m in these places. To add to that I also occasionally like to cover events before they’ve been totally blown out in the mainstream. In Iraq last August I didn’t encounter a single other war correspondent. Iraq was considered a dormant conflict to many and was definitely not ‘hot’ story-wise what with Syria going on next door.

I’m currently debating whether its worth doing any more wars from here on out. Perhaps a couple more. There is only so much that can been gleaned from hiking up a mined hillside or facing off a guy with a Dragnov rifle when you only have a long camera lens to shoot back with. Of course to truly understand the human dynamics you have to actually go to these places. There is a middle ground between an adrenalin rush and an armchair twitter warrior also where you can go to Kiev or Erbil and be mostly safe without venturing toward Donbas or Mosul for example.  This is the modus of the more reserved journos or more actionable wonks.

There’s a whole crew of millennial wunderkinds making their names in prominent think tanks or King’s College War Studies Department or Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department by analyzing trends in salafi social media and venturing into the ummah’s safer nodes like Casablanca, Tunis or even Sana’a on a good week without ever really putting their lives at risk.  But I don’t fit into that category either. A senior analyst in DC once told me on the sidelines of a conference that as far as he was concerned a true subject matter expert concentrates on one, possibly two, but no more than three countries (his were Morocco and Algeria and sometimes Tunisia). That gave me insight into just how competitive the think tank set is.

Rather than befriend gatekeepers who prove difficult, I just move in another direction until a more friendly door opens. Things have a way of falling into place if you let them it seems.

A few weeks ago I went partying with some friends atop a dilapidated bunker from the civil war here where people now congregate for sunset gahterings with a spectacular view of the city below. That bitter war between Franco’s Nationalists and the floundering Republicans is firmly in the ash bin of history, its legacy is relegated to anti-fascist graffiti slogans and sparse ruins from the era. Every war, no matter how long or brutal, eventually ends.  Even in dark, peace can and will be found in light of war.

A bunker from the Spanish Civil War has now become an underground party place for people here. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A bunker from the Spanish Civil War has now become an underground party place for people here. The Catalan reads: “The Bunkers are of the neighborhood.” I think whoever wrote this was trying implore either for outsiders to respect the area or maybe a ‘locals only’ vibe. There is some old adage about every war zone eventually becomes a tourist destination. That could not be more true with this city. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Pakistan Triptychs in Barcelona

August 5th, 2014 No comments
From left to right: Mughal cupola Peshawar, Pakistani Army vehicles in the slim shadows of the Derawar Fort in southern Punjab, and the exterior of a cinema in Peshawar, Pakistan circa 2000, ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

From left to right: Mughal cupola Peshawar, Pakistani Army vehicles in the slim shadows of the Derawar Fort in southern Punjab, and the exterior of a cinema in Peshawar, Pakistan circa 2000. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I installed two triptychs here in Barcelona the other day from when I was conducting my senior thesis in Peshawar, Pakistan back in the autumn of 2000. The one above was on an abandoned storefront in El Clot while the one below was on the side of the Mercat de Poblenou while it was quietly closed on a Sunday. This was a component of my original concept before 9/11 to put up imagery on both sides of the Atlantic in order to educate a viewing public by employing the style of street art phenomenology that was so prevalent in southern California at the time.

Little did I know that while I was in Peshawar trying to persuade the Taliban to grant me entry to photograph the countryside and monuments of the land the controlled most of, Mohammed Atta, Ziad jarrah and others had already recorded martyrdom videos outside Kandahar 10 months previously.

So now 13 years on, I’m still doing my idea. The world has ostensibly changed in the interim but that can’t always negate a vision.

From top to bottom: Punjabi dhol drummers in Peshawar, a minaret at the Shah Faisal masjid in Islamabad, and a boy with a ferret in Uch Sharif, Pakistan circa 2000. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

From top to bottom: Punjabi dhol drummers in Peshawar, a minaret at the Shah Faisal masjid in Islamabad, and a boy with a ferret in Uch Sharif, Pakistan circa 2000. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Diplomats and Hors d’Oeuvres on the River

May 28th, 2014 No comments
A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world's colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world’s colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I attended a Georgian diplomatic party marking the restoration of Georgian independence this week hosted by Ambassador Kaha Imnadze. Georgia was briefly independent from 1918-1921 following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The Menshevik-led Democratic Republic of Georgia was ultimately subsumed into the Soviet Union as neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ottoman Empire crumbled giving rise to pragmatic Kemalism.

With badrijani and lobiani wafting through the air (unfortunately there was Pellegrino rather then Borjomi) and interesting discussions being had on the geopolitical primacy of the greater Black Sea region made for an interesting evening.

Georgia's flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Georgia’s flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan's East River. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of former Secretary-General and elder Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan’s East River. Hailing from an aristocratic background in what was then the Gold Coast, the Annan era at the UN encompassed my coming of age in the world of international affairs. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Caucasus, Georgia, Uncategorized Tags:

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.

In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.

From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.

The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.

I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.

By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

Scenes From an Enclave

July 31st, 2013 No comments
DHFlood_FamilyMall

Scenes from a Mall. Took a taxi to the Family Mall here in Erbil on the search for a rare Trade Bank of Iraq ATM. Erbil’s malls are somewhat reminiscent of those found in the GCC states replete with imported Bangladeshi janitors in bright colored coveralls. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- Here are a handful of snapshots from my iPod from my day running around the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to get situated.

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A portrait of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Mullah Mustafa is the godfather of modern Kurdish independence/separatist movements and was part of the short lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad that was established in what is now Iran following World War II. The Kurdish state lasted for less than a year between 1946-1947 before the Americans came to an agreement with the Soviets to retreat from Soviet-occupied Iran whereby Barzani went into Soviet exile until 1958. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

DHFlood_KurdistanStreet

It seems that with each passing year the notion of a sovereign Kurdistani state is becoming closer to a ground reality. As the tug of war between Erbil and Baghdad grinds on over federalism, security and oil export law while mainstream Iraq descends into another fit of sectarian warfare of which the Kurds want no part. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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Late night Ramadan street food. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Strolling by the Jalil al-Khayat mosque late night while searching for a falafel vendor. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Strolling by the Jalil al-Khayat mosque late night while searching for a falafel vendor. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Kachin Days

Guest blogger: Raymond Pagnucco

Follow Raymond on Twitter at @RaymondPagnucco

See Raymond’s site here

New York- I’ve known Ray Pagnucco for some twenty years now. Ray is constantly on the move in Asia and Africa, often interested in uncovering the world’s lesser told e stories that strike his imagination.

The following guest post stems from Ray’s most recent trip to what is likely the world’s most perennially troubled nation-state if one goes by sheer decades of political violence (sorry clichés about Somalia since 1991 but Burma has been raging since 1948). Ray recently crossed from the western-most region of southern China’s Yunnan Province into Burma’s northern Kachin State to document the hardscrabble rebels of the Kachin Independence Army. Enjoy!

KIA soldier with Gun ( this can be used with either pic) Young Kachin Soldier posses with this rifle. This rifle is Kachin made copy of the Chinese Type 81. The Kachin make a lot of their weapons including claymore, grenades, mortar rounds and bullets. I asked one KIA official why they didn’t buy weapons from China. He replied we didn’t want to make the Burmese Military mad and we never thought we would be fighting again. So we put our resources in to building a civil society and infrastructure. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA member with rifle
Young ethnic-Kachin fighter posses with his rifle. This rifle is Kachin-made copy of the Chinese Type 81. The Kachin fashion many of their own weapons including claymore mines, grenades, mortar rounds and ammunition. I asked one KIA official why they didn’t buy weapons from China. He replied, “we didn’t want to anger Burmese forces and
we never thought we would be fighting again. So we put our resources in to building a civil society and infrastructure.” ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

It is well known to any highly organized ethnic group that the road to greater autonomy is a rough one replete with of hopes, dreams and a considerable amount of uncertainty that come with a national liberation movement. When your an ethnic group in Burma that makes up just 1.5% of the population of a country of 60 million the reality of ever being autonomous in even more challenging.

However the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and their armed wing the Kachin Independence Army ((KIA) have been pushing for greater autonomy since the the early 1960’s with only limited success. After about three decades of fighting the KIO and KIA had reached a ceasefire with the Burmese junta then known as the ominous sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)* in 1994.

*The SLORC was later renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 and then officially dissolved by the infamous General Than Shwe in early 2011 when Than abdicated the junta’s rule in the transfer of power to President Thein Sein’s civilian government.

The1994  ceasefire gave the KIO and KIA a fair bit of autonomy over a large area of Kachin State and parts of Shan State along the Chinese Border. This Kachin autonomous zone allowed the KIO is able to collects taxes at border crossings with China and engages in various business deals throughout Kachin State. Most of the trade often revolved around the monetization of natural resources such as jade, timber and gold. The KIO-though no angels themselves in this prolonged conflict-also launched a ambitious opium eradication campaign within the territory under its control.

Chinese dam While the fight rages in Kachin State work continues unabated on the Chinese dam that has been a hot bed of contention between the Burmese and the Kachin people. The power generated by this dam will go straight back to China. If the Kachin want access to the power produced by the dam they will have to buy it from the Chinese. Oddly enough the Burmese Military and Civilian Government don’t seem to care that their land is being exploited by another country as long as they get paid. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Chinese-built dam
While the fight rages in Kachin State, work continues unabated on the Chinese hydroelectric dam that has been a hot bed of contention between the Burmese and the Kachin people. The electricity generated by this dam will return to China. If the Kachin want access to the power produced by the dam they will be required to purchase from the Chinese.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

However in June 2011 renewed violence broke out between the KIA and the Burmese military effectively ending the seventeen-year long ceasefire. The fighting was a result of the Burmese regime’s attempt to secure areas around lucrative energy projects in Kachin and Shan state, the majority of which are funded by the Chinese government while in an area traditionally controlled by the KIA.

For the first year and a half the KIA was able to hold its ground and tried on eleven separate occasions to end the fight and work on a new ceasefire. Then in late December 2012 the Burmese escalated the fighting using aerial attacks to push the KIA back toward to their de-facto capital of Laiza hugging the Chinese boorder.  Government troops have since stopped their larger advance but sporadic fighting continues and an estimated 100,000 Kachin civilians have since been displaced.

Young Kachin rebel A youthful KIA fighter clutches his rifle as a frame his forest portrait. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Young Kachin rebel
A youthful KIA fighter clutches his rifle as a frame his forest portrait. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

For a number of years I have kept a close eye on Burma and the various ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country since it was granted independence from Britain in the wake of the the Second World War. I have travelled several times with the Karen National Liberation Army in Karen State to wittiness the war they had been waging for 63 years. This past February I felt it was time to make a trek to Laiza and see what they Kachin where going through and to understand why they were fighting following the ceasefire’s collapse.

When you get to the KIO and KIA controlled areas you will see the result of the former 17 year ceasefire. From roads to schools to sending students abroad for higher education, the Kachin upheld the rule of law and where able to transform their area into a functioning civil society that other ethnic groups like the Karen were not able to achieve after the fall of their d-facto capital of Manerplaw fell to the Burmese in early 1995. The Kachin used their natural resources to create something out of nothing and waited for many year to have a real peace deal with the Burmese military government that went beyond a ceasefire agreement that are so often broken by the Burmese military known locally as the Tatmadaw.

Logging Elephant  On my way to Laiza I happened to see an elephant use for logging on the side of the road. I was very excited to see him and it reminded me of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2003 when I saw my first camel. I suddenly realized that this elephant was more than just a beast of burden. It was a metaphor for Burma. A might beast longing to be free but having trouble with coming to terms with it’s own reality. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Logging Elephant
On my way to Laiza I happened to see an elephant used for logging on the side of the road.I realized that this elephant was more than just a beast of burden. It was a metaphor for Burma. A mighty beast yearning to be free but having trouble with coming to terms with it’s own reality. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Although Laiza is essentially a city under siege, Stalingrad it is not. Upon  arriving in Laiza, I noted that many of the businesses were shuttered.. Its is normally possible to get in and out of the city through either the official nearby Chinese border crossing that has now been closed to non-Kachin. It is also possible or to take a jeep and travel five-six hours on a bumpy mountain road (thought this alternate route is impassable during rainy season). On they way I passed open pit mines, a Chinese dam and elephants employed in logging.

The Kachin people differ from other regional ethnic groups in that they are overwhelmingly Protestant or Roman Catholic and cherish democratic societal practices. During my visit the locals appeared be in relatively good spirits, believing that one day they will be victorious even if that means they are forced to withdraw from population centers and retreat into the jungle to fight or a yet another peace deal will be brokered.

The Kachin remain united. Not only those living in Laiza but those living in other parts of Burma, China and India. It is not uncommon to meet Kachin who have come from other parts of Burma or neighboring countries to aid in the effort. This conflict has had the effect of  uniting the Kachin transnationally.

Shot of the lower receiver of the M16 A veteran of the first war between the KIA and the Burmese military proudly displays this  US Government issues M16. If you look at the lower receiver you can still see  Colt AR 15 Property of the US Govt. M16A1 stamped on the side. When i told the veteran solider I grew up near the factory, he asked me when i go home if I could stop by the factory and pick some up for his men. My heart sank after hearing this. He then went on to tell me it was the finest rifle he had ever fired and he believed that the KIA could win the war only if they had more M16s.   This weapon most likely made it’s way to Burma via arms deals between ethic armies and the Thai Military or black market arms dealers who took advantage of the weapons left behind by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Either way after 40 years the ghosts of the US presents in Southeast Asia still rome the jungles. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Shot of the lower receiver of the M16
A veteran of the first war between the KIA and the Burmese military proudly displays this US Government issue M16. If you look at the lower receiver you can still see Colt AR 15. M16A1 stamped on the side. 
This weapon most likely made its way to Burma via arms deals between ethnic armies and the Thai military or black market arms dealers who took advantage of the weapons left behind by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Either way after 40 years the ghosts of the US military adventure in Southeast Asia still hunts the jungle to deadly effect.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

When and how this war will end is anyone’s guess. The Kachin and the Burmese authorities have met over a dozen times since the current bout of war and a lasting deal has yet to be reached. President Thein Sein has told the international community that he has ordered the army to stop it’s war against the KIA and KIO but this has not led to lasting change in the region.

This is a clear sign that the army is still in power in Burma and the civilian government of Thein Sein (a former junta member himself) is mostly a veneer in the brutal realities of Burma’s ethnic hinterlands.

Some say that this conflict will only end when the KIA and KIO are completely obliterated. Other say that this battle was only practice for the Tatmadaw for a larger war with the United Wa State Army and they the Kachin will get some kind of deal when fight in Wa State begins.”

TWD Editor’s Note: Despite having publicly shifted from a military junta to weak civilian rule with promises of reforms coupled with the limited return of Western corporate investment, the harsh militarism entrenched since Ne Win’s March 1962 coup d’état followed by the era of SLORC/SPDC-rule after the disastrous student-led People Power Uprising of August 8, 1988, the aggressive stance of Naypyidaw’s troops is as strongly felt as ever before in Burma’s independent-minded minority homelands as ever before. And it appears the rebels of the KIA will not be abandoning the fight any time in the near future.

Women praying at shrine  Since  fighting Between the Kachin Independence army and the Burmese Military (Tatamadaw)  escalated at the end December 2012 and beginning of January 2013, women for the Catholic church in Laiza walk the streets reciting the ava maria praying for peace in Burma. One night I decide to join them as they made their loop around the city. At the end of their loop the women end the evening back at the Church to pray one last time in front of a technicolored shrine to the Virgin Marry. In a weird way it remind me of my college dorm room minus the giant Grateful Dead Steel Your Face black light poster. After the ladies finished their prayer there was a defining silence. The women got up and walked over to me each one saying Chyeju gaba and shanking my hand. I soon realized they wanted they world to see my photos. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

Women praying at shrine
Since fighting Between the Kachin Independence army and the Burmese military escalated at the end December 2012 and beginning of January 2013, women from the Catholic church in Laiza walk the streets reciting the ava maria praying for peace in Burma. One night I decided to join them as they made their loop around the city. At the end of their loop the women end the evening back at the Church to pray one last time in front of a technicolor shrine to the Virgin Mary. .©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA soldier sleeps in trench  After a long night of guard duty a KIA solder sleeps in a trench. This picture was take at the front lines in Laiza. Three weeks earlier this was a rear position now it’s the front. I stood over this young man while he slept and tried to imagine what this young man when through in the last few weeks. ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

KIA rebel sleeps in trench
After a long night of guard duty a KIA member sleeps in a dug out dirt trench. This picture was taken at the front line at Laiza. Three weeks earlier this was a rear guard position now it’s a frontal one.  ©2013 Raymond Pagnucco

For more, see Raymond’s short film The Front Lines of Laiza over at CNN’s iReport.

Syria Rough Cut

May 17th, 2012 No comments
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TWD Inside Free Syria

January 31st, 2012 No comments

Man vs War. I was so ill prepared for this trek. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.

At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.

In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.