Archive for May, 2012
Bamako- Though everyone, myself included, were talking about how Libya differed from Syria at the outset of 2012, I’m now thinking how Mali differs from Libya in terms of working. In Libya nearly as soon as I arrived in Benghazi, I did a trip straight to the front with a group of random journos I met in the parking lot of the journo hotel. Stories and photos seemed to be falling into my lap. Adrenalin pumped day and night. The international community was mobilized into military action to aid the rebels just a month into the revolutionary war. Libya was immediate. It practically bordered the European Union.
Here in Mali it seems to be the polar opposite. There are just a handful of journalists here at any given time. People outside the country cannot have a clear grasp on what is really going on here, due in large part to the rebels’ constant flip flopping on their own agendas and the constant political infighting in the capital. In other words, it is slow going here. The stories don’t just suddenly appear. They practically have to be exhumed. None of the sides in the conflict are particularly interested in gaining any meaningful press coverage it seems.
What people need to know is that fight for Mali has really yet to begin. Both sides (north and south) are essentially in a stalemate but there is no telling how long this shaky status quo will hold. Will the northern rebels finally consolidate their agendas? Will ECOWAS move in in any real form militarily? Does Sanogo mean what he said that his sole objective is retaking the northern regions rather than gain political power for himself? At the time of this writing there are still so many questions to be answered.
NATO has tidily washed its hands of this quagmire in waiting here in the Sahel. The conflict in Mali is a direct result of that in Libya last year. Not to say that this situation could or should have been so easily predicted or expected. This country is falling apart. From the Bamakois take on events of the past few months, it already has fallen apart in the past tense. What took just a couple of days to fall to MNLA and Ansar Eddine forces may take months or even years to restore or negotiate a settlementFrom an outsider’s point of view, there is no one to talk to because neither side is speaking from a singular, unified platform.
In light of all this mess, the comparatively slow moving, underrated story in Mali is the proverbial tortoise that make eventually overtake last year’s lightening speed Libyan hare in the news cycle. We’ll just have to sit on our hands and see. There certainly aren’t hordes of war tourists flocking here at the moment. Sometimes I like that just fine…I can still vividly recall a time when no one gave a damn about Afghanistan. It was August of 2001.
Bamako- Had an overall fantastic day here yesterday. Woke up to a cool, quenching rain that felt like it brought the temperature down about 30 degrees ºF. Had a morning meeting with a local journalist who was originally from the north and was nice enough to take the time to explain some of the ethno-linguistic nuances of his home region which outsiders like myself can be wont for more in depth specifics. This gentleman then introduced me to internal refugees from Gao who had fled the Islamist/Tuareg onslaught there for the relative safety of Bamako. They provide some rich detail into the northern conflict I have yet to see for myself.
One bit I want to note again is the Qaddafi iconography I’m seeing here around town. I had initially imagined from my perch in New York that the support of the late Libyan dictator would be perhaps an entirely northern cause. But contrary to that notion, most of the guys I see rocking the stickers and posters at least appear to be of sub-Saharan origin. The poster shown below lauds Qaddafi as an anti-French, anti-colonial figure pitted in some sort of vendetta against France’s recently defeated president, Nicholas Sarkozy. From this one can get an idea of the bitter legacy of clumsy European colonialism here and the enmity toward France’s post-colonial patronizing policies in the Sahel from the local point of view.
Finishing up my first dispatch from here sitting in the shade with a blasting loud francophone African film playing on the television a few feet away. After concluding my interviews yesterday, it sunk in deeper just how much this country is at a delicate juncture in its modern history. It as if Mali is between several of its histories. North and south, Islamism and ethnic secessionism, east and west.
Bamako- Between a Lisbon airport strike, a Tunis one, and other obstacles, I finally reached the Malian capital a few nights ago. It’s hot as blazes here and quite friendly overall. A low lying city of red, dusty sprawl, I decided to take a long walk around the central market and the Saudi-financed grand mosque yesterday to try and get a feel for the street. I was met with overt hostility in the courtyard of the masjid which wasn’t terribly surprising. I think I’d read before leaving that visitors were not particularly welcome in Malian mosques. I figured it might have to do with the legacy of French colonialism But I thought I’d try it anyhow.
“Musulman? Non? Interdit!!” So much for that.
I stumbled back into the street as touts harked their trinkets and treasures at me. I noted a pair of Chinese women casually shopping as if they were in Flushing, Queens. They didn’t seem to be of any interest to local parties in the way that I was. One of the first things I noticed on the way in from the airport was a shiny car dealership called Great Wall Motors.
Across the road there was some sort of small pro-junta gathering in front of the national assembly. Within the span of 10 minutes I managed to stir up a bit more ire. A couple of plainclothes men approached me with what I supposed were stern gazes behind their wrap around sunglasses. They instructed me to carry proper journo identification at all times if I’m to delve into the local political scene. With that, I toured the serpentine back lanes of the market to try and arouse slightly less suspicion. I ended the day cooling my heels in the shade on the earthen banks of the Niger and walking over Martyr’s bridge back to the guesthouse in Badalabougou.
Meanwhile the supposedly secular MNLA rebels appear to have let their agenda become subordinate to Ansar Eddine’s according to an AFP report. If indeed the case, then that about does it for my idea of meeting the MNLA I suppose… In other news I was quoted on cnn.com while en route to Bamako in their report “Impoverished, fractured Mali struggles to return to civilian rule.”
Barcelona- I finally was able to upload this Libya mash-up video I had been working on in NYC from here in Catalunya. For technical reasons beyond my knowledge or control, I was having a devil of a time getting the thing onto Youtube before. I had wanted to get this online before the Friends of Anton benefit event at Christies in Manhattan on May 15. Not that I had anything to do with the event of course, but I was one human degree of separation from Anton Hammerl and I simply thought it would be something nice to do. I’m off to the next conflagration in the shattered Republic of Mali and wanted to get this up beforehand.
This project is obviously not a documentary or scripted television package. These are memories from Libya in total upheaval in 2011. This is my Libya mash-up, dedicated to those photographers that arrived in Libya to tell its story and never made it out. I want to reiterate how grateful I am to the people of both eastern and western Libya. Without their immense hospitality this project would never have been possible. War throws people together in such an odd way who would otherwise likely never have met.
Barcelona- I’ve arrived in my beloved capital of the autonomous Generalitat de Catalunya on a cool rainy Sunday night after a few hours sleep at the circus that is London Heathrow en route. I’m here to rest up and prepare for a few days before setting off for the fractured République du Mali in the heart of Francophone West Africa. I don’t know quite what to expect upon my hoped for arrival in Bamako via Tunis later this week. In theory, I’ll be arriving two days after the ECOWAS deadline which is meant to expire shortly on Monday (or perhaps Tuesday).
The Burkinabe and Ivorian-led mediations have been trying to convince Amadou Sanogo, the CNRDRE junta’s leader, and his acolytes to allow the interim civilian political leader Dioncounda Traore to remain in office while a peaceful political transition is allowed to take place. Sanogo has accepted the ECOWAS initiative for now but who knows how long that will last. Just a few weeks ago he rejected an earlier ECOWAS plan. The 39 year-old army captain may just be buying time. Of course the other key issue to which the junta has been very hostile is the plan to send in ECOWAS troops to Mali.
ECOWAS has been able to send the first wave of Burkinabe troops to troubled nearby Guinea-Bissau after a coup in that country overthrew the civilian government supposedly in response to the unwelcome presence of fellow Lusophone (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa) Angolan troops there. The West African bloc has had much less success in Bamako than it has in Bissau. Who knows what will happen this week…
New York- I have the lead story in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about the hearing of KSM and Khallad at Guantánamo on Saturday, the killing of Fahd-al Quso in southern Yemen (or South Yemen if you prefer) by a drone strike on Sunday, and the apparent leak on Monday of the disruption of a suicide bomb plot believed to have the hand of AQAP’s Ibrahim al-Asiri. A very interesting succession of events to say the very least. The article contains some of my on-the-ground research on the background of the USS Cole attack and how that plan intersected with the 9/11 ‘planes operation.’
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.