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Dr. Machar, I Presume

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

October 1, 2014

By James Verini

84038_990x742-cb1411500585 When she was a girl, in the 1960s, Sarah Kier’s parents fled southern Sudan with her. The Sudanese civil war, in which black-African inhabitants from the country’s south were fighting for autonomy against an oppressive Arab-dominated government in the north, had been going on, without respite, for more than a decade. Kier’s family moved to the hills of western Ethiopia. When she grew older, Kier became aware of the south’s struggle. She joined the southern rebel militia, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and became a battlefield medic. She spent much of her early life around violence and death.

On a hazy afternoon this past April, Kier was in the passenger seat of an old Land Cruiser, moving through those same hills, thinking about what it was like to not have a childhood. “You know, like for a young person somewhere else, you go for disco,” she told me. “We don’t know that. We [Sudanese] have ever lived with guns, from the word go.” See Full Story

Close Your Heart

SLATE

September 2, 2014

By James Verini

CENTRAFRICA-UNREST Even by the standards of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic and one of the poorest cities in the world, Saïdou is poor. Unlike the districts around it, with their neatly packed-in houses behind walls and gates, Saïdou, which occupies an oblong dirt plot near the city center, resembles a slum in a less orderly African city like Kinshasa or Lagos. That is another way of saying it resembles a village. There are no walls or gates. The one-story cinderblock homes face one another at strange angles. You go between them on dirt paths or by stepping through the undergrowth and over rivulets of gray water. To access Saïdou, you make a quick turn off the Avenue des Martyrs, slipping between a pair of high-rises. The high-rises are falling apart, and their residents are poor, too; but when they look down on Saïdou, they thank God, and the martyrs, for their luck. See Full Story

Reconciliation Is Hard Won

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

April 2, 2014

By James Verini

78231_990x742-cb1396290099The Tutsi residents of the village of Jabiro, which occupies the spine of a hill in the Muhanga District in Rwanda’s southwest, had heard rumors about bands of men coming from the capital, Kigali. They’d known of the Hutu-only rallies held in the district. But they didn’t grasp the reality of what was happening until the third week of April 1994, when they began hearing screams coming from the villages on neighboring hills. Black smoke rose into the sky above nearby farms. Then the screams grew louder, the smoke thicker. See Full Story

Should the U.N. Shoot First?

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

March 27, 2014

By James Verini

77968-cb1395691531 If volcanologists invent an instrument that can measure the interplay of beauty and menace, Nyiragongo, on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the province of North Kivu, will send its needle into spasms. Twenty thousand years after it formed, Nyiragongo is still terribly Pleistocene in appearance: Its cone curves gently through montane forest and then thrusts two miles into the sky, where its rim is only occasionally visible through the wooly mists above Goma, the city it watches over and periodically destroys. The crater’s emissions give the mists green, amber, and crimson tones. The people who once lived around the volcano believed the souls of evildoers were cast into the crater. When the souls fought, the Earth shook. See Full Story

Love and Ruin

THE ATAVIST

February 2014

By James Verini

dupree-cover-landscape It has no official number in the archaeological record, nor an agreed-upon name. Some curators at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, where it resides, have called it the Limestone Head. Others call it the Carved Pebble. Still others call it simply the Head, and while there is no question that the artifact they’re talking about depicts a head, the answer to the question of just whose head it depicts—which person or deity its unyielding eyes and screwed mouth reflect—is lost, like so much else in Afghanistan is lost, to some insolently mute vault of time.

The Head is carved into a limestone pebble two and a half inches high by one and a quarter inches wide. It dates from around 10,000 B.C.E., placing it in the Upper Paleolithic and making it one of the oldest pieces of sculpture ever found on the Asian continent. We know that it turned up in a gorge near the village of Aq Kupruk, in the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush. Beyond that we know nothing. See Full Story

The War for Nigeria

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

November 2013

By James Verini

northern-nigeria-scarred-church-bombing-victim-303x455 The ticket taker, who worked at Kano’s bus station, had his back to the blast. Before he heard it, it knocked him to the ground, and flame licked his head. He lay facedown, dazed, his ears ringing, blood streaming from a shrapnel wound in his leg, but still he knew instinctively what had happened: There was a bomb in the car.

The driver of the Volkswagen had acted strangely. After pulling into the dirt lot of the station, he and the man in the passenger seat had been approached by touts—ticket salesmen who compete for fares—and had told them, “We don’t know where we’re going.” But when the ticket taker went up to the car, the driver said, “We already bought tickets.” Not thinking much of it, the ticket taker walked away.

And then—boom. See Full Story

After Westgate

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

October 4, 2013

By James Verini

72241_990x742-cb1380836440 Bushan Vidyarthi is the kind of Kenyan one used to see often at ArtCaffe. He has the cordial and casual air of someone who’s done well for himself, but also watchful eyes that suggest that in a lifetime in a young and turbulent country he’s seen things he might have wished not to. When I met him in a living room in his home on a leafy road in Nairobi earlier this week, Vidyarthi, who is 76, was wearing a pressed shirt and sandals with socks. He invited me to sit down on a leather sofa across an immense coffee table from him. “Please have some tea,” he said, as a domestic hurried off to make it. See Full Story

Surviving Westgate

THE NEW YORKER

September 27, 2013

By James Verini

westgate-attacks-recalled Adam arrived at Westgate a few minutes after noon last Saturday. She parked on an upper terrace in the building’s rear. Nearby, around some tents, a crowd of children and their parents were assembled for a junior-chef cooking contest. One of the mothers invited Adam over. She said that she would come back after her salon appointment. She walked into the mall, whose interior is shaped like a “d,” with stores and restaurants surrounding a central atrium. She went into the Safaricom store.

“Then I heard the sound,” she said. “PAH! There were three shots.” See Full Story

Youssou N’Dour Has Left the Building

DEPARTURES

October 2013

By James Verini

800px-Photo_-_Festival_de_Cornouaille_2010_-_Youssou_N'Dour_en_concert_le_25_juillet_-_021 The first time I saw Youssou N’Dour perform, he was a little flash on a cheap TV in Italy. It was the autumn of 1994. I was living in Florence, taking a documentary filmmaking course, and my subject, Abdula, a Senegalese immigrant who trafficked in trinkets on the Via Palazzuolo, had invited me back to the flat he shared with five other vendors on the city’s outskirts. We’d have dinner so I could learn something of the food and music of his native Senegal. In Abdula’s living room was a pile of bootleg cassettes and videos on thrice-taped-over VHS. We watched some Baaba Maal and Super Diamono. I could have left happy. Then Abdula put in a N’Dour video. See Full Story

Terror At The Westgate Mall

THE NEW YORKER

September 22, 2013

By James Verini

KENYA-UNREST-ATTACK Ambulances were lining up outside Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall, and helicopters circled overhead. When I arrived Saturday afternoon in the mall’s parking lot, policemen, AK-47s and pistols drawn, were running around, speaking into walkie-talkies. The crowd of journalists and onlookers was growing.

People were reporting that a dozen or more assailants, armed with automatic rifles and grenades, had stormed the mall around lunchtime. After a series of explosions, they had shot, it seemed, whomever they could—men, women, children, the elderly. Estimates of fatalities kept climbing; the siege would last through the night, and by Sunday the Kenyan government would claim fifty-nine dead, a hundred and seventy-five wounded, and dozens missing. Among them, according to news reports, were not just Kenyans, but Americans, Europeans and Canadians. See Full Story

The Kenyatta Affair

FOREIGN POLICY

March 20, 2013

By James Verini

kenyatta_0 For now, Uhuru Kenyatta is the president-elect of Kenya. On Saturday, March 9, after a week of suspense following voting, he bested his main rival and former boss, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who’s challenging the results in court (and now claims, without furnishing much evidence, that he won). This is causing a lot of handwringing among allies of Kenya’s who make human rights a centerpiece of their foreign policies, because Kenyatta is facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the violent wake of the last election, in 2007, ICC prosecutors allege, Kenyatta helped organize death squads. See Full Story

The Fall and Rise of Raila Odinga

FOREIGN POLICY

March 2, 2013

By James Verini

odinga_1 A third generation of leadership is emerging in post-colonial Africa, and with it a trend of sons being made to answer for their fathers. During Kenya’s first-ever presidential debate, held three weeks ago in Nairobi, the moderator accused the two leading candidates of subjecting Kenya to a family rivalry that their fathers started a half-century ago and that the country needs to get past. The leading candidates are Raila Odinga, the prime minister, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the deputy prime minister. Their fathers were Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, and Oginga Odinga, his aide de camp and vice president — before they came to detest one another. See Full Story

Vote M For Murder

FOREIGN POLICY

February 26, 2013

By James Verini

mathare78677542 On Monday, March 4, Kenya will elect a new president, its first in a decade. The last time it held a presidential election, five years ago, the country tore itself apart with an atavistic ferocity that still shocks and embarrasses people here. When discussing the episode with outsiders, Kenyans, normally unafraid to meet a gaze, will look off to the side. “Other countries in Africa act like that,” one hears a lot. “Not us.” They don’t try to deflect blame (no one mentions the CIA), but they do disagree about the causes of the violence. Tribalism is a given. Landlordism, too, some insist. Or corruption. Or inequality, alcoholism, and idleness (the local euphemism for unemployment, which has hovered stubbornly near 40 percent for years; nearly half the country lives at or below the poverty line). See Full Story

Debate Night in Kenya

THE NEW YORKER

February 20, 2013

By James Verini

Uhuru Kenyatta, Peter Kenneth, Musalia Mudavadi, Martha Karua, Raila OdingaNext month, Kenya will elect a new President, only its fourth since it gained independence from the United Kingdom fifty years ago. And so, last week, the country held its first-ever Presidential debate. Kenyan candidates for office are usually referred to in the British manner, as aspirants, but they study American campaigns, so despite the inexperience it was a slick production. There was an hour’s worth of pre-game commentary, with cutaways to the candidates emerging from chauffeured cars at the auditorium in Nairobi. On the stage, they stood at specially designed curvy, metallic podiums, in front of ceiling-high images of the State House, Kenya’s equivalent of the White House. The moderator interrogated them through a wisp of a headset mic. The debate was broadcast on forty-two television and radio stations and livestreamed on the Internet. See Full Story

The Battle for South Kordofan

FOREIGN POLICY

January 22, 2013

By James Verini

nuba_rs NUBA MOUNTAINS, Sudan — When Gen. Jagod Mukwar joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), soon after it formed, in the mid 1980s, he was a young man, and Sudan’s civil war was already many years older than he was. Factions from the north and south of the country had been fighting since before Sudan won its independence, in 1956. Still, the SPLA’s cause — independence for the south — remained internationally obscure. Sudan had not yet become a pariah state, while a famine in Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa used up the world’s limited bandwidth for African tragedy. Mukwar’s cause-within-a-cause — the plight of the people of the Nuba Mountains, his home, in Sudan’s South Kordofan province — was unheard of. Today, nearly 30 years after Mukwar took up arms, the bloodshed continues. See Full Story

The Last Stand of Somalia’s Jihad

FOREIGN POLICY

December 17, 2012

By James Verini


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KISMAYO, Somalia — Incredibly, this small port city, a study in ruin in a country that is a parable of ruin, boasts two airports. There is the new airport, as it’s known, laughably to all who touch down there, which lies 10 miles inland and consists of a couple of mostly tarmacked runways and the carcass of a terminal. Kismayo International Airport, in blue block letters, is just barely visible above the building’s sun-bleached cornice. Stencil-painted on the wall below that, and more legible, is the flag of the Islamist insurgent movement that until recently controlled Kismayo, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, or al-Shabab — a black rectangle over white classical Somali script that reads “There Is No God But God.” See Full Story

The Tunnels of Gaza

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

December, 2012

By James Verini

For as long as they worked in the smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip, Samir and his brother Yussef suspected they might one day die in them. When Yussef did die, on a cold night in 2011, his end came much as they’d imagined it might, under a crushing hail of earth. It was about 9 p.m., and the brothers were on a night shift doing maintenance on the tunnel, which, like many of its kind—and there are hundreds stretching between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—was lethally shoddy in its construction. Nearly a hundred feet below Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, Samir was working close to the entrance, while Yussef and two co-workers, Kareem and Khamis, were near the middle of the tunnel. They were trying to wedge a piece of plywood into the wall to shore it up when it began collapsing. Kareem pulled Khamis out of the way, as Yussef leaped in the other direction. For a moment the surge of soil and rocks stopped, and seeing that his friends were safe, Yussef yelled out to them, “Alhamdulillah!—Thank Allah!” See Full Story

In Rebel Country

FOREIGN POLICY

November 27, 2012

By James Verini

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — After three days of sporadic fighting in and around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the city fell to the M23 rebel movement last Monday night, November 19. The following Thursday morning, the military spokesman of the M23, Col. Vianney Kazarama, was standing at an intersection in central Goma, addressing a group of young men. Government troops were said to be in the hills planning a counteroffensive, and United Nations peacekeepers, who had attacked the M23 forces with helicopter gunships before fleeing, were nearby, awaiting new orders. Kazarama didn’t care, he said. He was thinking ahead. The M23 was going to create a better future not just for Goma but for all of Congo, he told the young men, and it needed their help. See Full Story

The Cult of Massoud

FOREIGN POLICY

November 23, 2012

By James Verini

KABUL — The first sign of officialdom you see when you drive from the Kabul airport parking lot is a government billboard looming above a traffic jam. It’s the size of a highway billboard in the United States, but closer to the ground, so that you can make out every nuance of the faces on it. Those faces belong to, on the right of the coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, and on the left, slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, dead some 11 years. With Karzai, you note those tired eyes and that child’s chin, unaided by a trimmed gray beard. Massoud comes off vastly more dashing. He appears to be in conference with the heavens: The eyes smolder from within, the strong chin and bushy goatee angle out like a divining rod. A pakol, the traditional hat of the Hindu Kush, sits like a column capital on his head. See Full Story

Prisoners Rule

FOREIGN POLICY

November, 2012

By James Verini

SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS — A real estate broker might describe the state penitentiary here as centrally located. From the prison, it’s a quick ride to the barrios, where many of the inmates and guards live when they’re not inside its crumbling concrete walls — and also to the fortified residential compounds at the foot of the lush green hills that surround this city, the second largest in Honduras. When there’s a riot at the prison, the sirens can be heard in the mansions and the slums alike. See Full Story

How Virtual Pop Star Hatsune Miku Blew Up in Japan

WIRED

November, 2012

By James Verini

A Hatsune Miku concert begins humanly enough. If you’ve ever had the heart to accompany a daughter or niece to, say, a Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus extravaganza, you know the drill: The young crowd rushes in, giggling, making yelplike noises that adult throats don’t make, repeating the titles of songs as if they were mantras. The band emerges, followed by more young-throat noises, followed by the diminutive but eerily poised headliner, who recalls one of those grown-up-looking babies in Renaissance art. Followed by pubescent rapture. See Full Story

Christopher Nolan’s Games

THE NEW YORKER

July 19, 2012

By James Verini

For over a decade now, Christopher Nolan, whose “The Dark Knight Rises” opens this Friday, has been awing and taunting us with his restless blockbusters. Nolan has directed “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige,” “Batman Begins,” “Insomnia,” and the independent “Memento,” which established his reputation in the summer of 2000. That film delighted everyone from university faculty to teen-agers with customized bongs. Since “Memento,” however, Nolan, though more critically praised than many directors and more commercially successful than most (“The Dark Knight” is the twelfth-highest grossing film of all time, and its sequel promises to crack the top ten), has been dismissed by many cineastes as slick and quasi-intellectual. See Full Story

The Fast and the Ridiculous

FOREIGN POLICY

June 27, 2012

By James Verini

The majority members of the U.S. House Oversight Committee have been granted their fondest wish — their investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has caused the biggest proto-scandal in Washington, thanks to Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to hand over documents and a House panel’s vote last week to recommend the chamber cite him with contempt. No longer the private obsession of the right-wing media, Fast and Furious is on front pages and leading news broadcasts around the United States.

At issue now are two questions. First, what was the exact intent and oversight of the operation, run out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)? The agency says it was meant to track illicit guns going over the border into Mexico, as part of an effort to build cases against major smugglers. Where cross-border gunrunning is concerned, ATF is usually confined to interdicting low-level purchasers, thanks to crippling investigative limits put on it by Congress. See Full Story

Obama’s Deportation Two Step

WASHINGTON MONTHLY

June 27, 2012

By James Verini

In April, a man named Juan went to a courthouse in Inglewood, California, to turn himself in after learning a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He’d been driving on a suspended license, having racked up several traffic violations. Juan figured that he’d have to pay a fine, at worst do some community service. But the police arrested him. They told him he’d likely spend a few days in jail. So Juan called his boss at the drugstore where he worked to say he would be gone a few days. As it turned out, Juan would be gone much longer than that. See Full Story

The Talking Heads Song That Explains Talking Heads

THE NEW YORKER

June 14, 2012

By James Verini

In Jonathan Lethem’s new book, “Fear of Music,” a study of the Talking Heads album by the same name and a riff on his emotional history with the band, Lethem refers to an earlier essay of his on the subject: “At the peak, in 1980 or 81, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” But no sooner has he quoted himself than Lethem applies the eraser of time, deciding “Like everything I’ve ever said about Talking Heads, or about any other thing I’ve loved with such dreadful longing—there’s only a few—this looks to me completely inadequate, even in the extremeness of its claims, or especially for the extremeness of its claims.” See Full Story

A Terrible Act of Reason

THE NEW YORKER

May 17, 2012

By James Verini

Suddenly, self-immolation is everywhere. Yesterday, in Oslo, a man set himself on fire outside the Anders Breivik trial. He follows at least forty Tibetans who have set themselves aflame to protest Chinese rule in the past year. There have also been a series of self-immolations in the Middle East and North Africa. In January, five young Moroccan men auto-cremated (the more accurate term; “self-immolation” technically means any form of self-destruction) following a fifty-two-year-old pensioner in Jordan and an elderly woman in Bahrain. The young men belonged to a group called Unemployed Graduates that had been occupying the Ministry of Higher Education building. They followed upon the action of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, whose self-immolation—inspired by the chronic poverty and corruption of his country—helped incite the Arab Spring. See Full Story

Bernard Hopkins and the Endless End of Boxing

GRANTLAND

January 25, 2012

By James Verini

Lately, boxers are in the habit of emerging for fights accompanied by deafening music from their homelands. In this respect American boxers have something of a cultural advantage — in hip-hop they have a brawler’s overture, entrance music that might have been created for the sport, what with its flow and flurries and self-aggrandizement. Bernard Hopkins has only recently pressed this advantage. He likes rap, but through much of his career he has preferred to appear for fights to “My Way.” The song, first recorded 44 years ago, is a personal anthem. He has it committed to memory. Asked during a segment of the HBO show Real Sports to answer accusations that he’s a paranoiac who’s betrayed trainers and managers and promoters over the years, Hopkins didn’t exactly deny the charge, but said, “I’ve done it the Old Blue Eyes way.” Flashing the interviewer with a feline proto-grin that almost seemed an invitation to join in, Hopkins then went into song: “I crossed the bridge … I took the blows … I’ve done it my way.” The grin had by this point turned, imperceptibly, into a glower. “Frank Sinatra,” he said. “It’s a bad piece.” See Full Story