Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.
For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.
There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.
What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anbar 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more, see Raymond’s short film The Front Lines of Laiza over at CNN’s iReport.