Sebastiano Tomada and I accepted the Overseas Press Club award for best magazine reporting in New York last night, for our story on Syria's first responders, "Whoever Saves a Life," published by Matter. It's a long way from the bombed-out streets of Aleppo to the glittering hallways of the Mandarin Oriental, but I hope that we never lose sight of the people who matter. Syria's civil war is entering its fifth year, and the intractability of that conflict points to the need for a radical struggle for justice both abroad and at home, if we're to change a system based on inequality and violence. Thank you to Salam Rizek for getting us in and out of Syria safely, and to Mike Benoist and the team at Matter for taking the chance on this story. And most of all, thank you to the brave rescuers of the Syrian Civil Defense for allowing us to share their story. They continue to risk their lives daily so that others might live.
There has been a lot of talk about ISIS lately, but less about the people who are fighting a dirty war against them since the Iraqi army and police collapsed this summer: sectarian Shia militias backed by Iran. I have a story out in the current issue of Rolling Stone—the one with Kendrick Lamar on the cover—that details Iraq’s frightening descent into a fragmented militia state, and what this means for the US’s campaign against ISIS.
Late last year, I traveled to Baghdad, and found that, while the militias have been brutally effective at pushing back ISIS, in many areas they’ve committed war crimes against Sunni civilian populations that will only further entrench the sectarian roots of the conflict. In some cases, they've done so with US-supplied weaponry. Read the full story here:
This is a version of the notes that I wrote for a speech that I gave in December at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, on the occasion of receiving a medal for “courage” which had been renamed after James Foley, as result of a story I wrote about war crimes in Afghanistan. As you can see from the speech, I’m a little conflicted about the award, and the role of the (Western) war correspondent in general. I’m posting it here because it represents an attempt to think through these issues publicly, and I’d appreciate your thoughts as well. I also think it has some relevance to our considerations of the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Read the speech on Medium: https://medium.com/@mattaikins/on-being-a-western-war-correspondent-64a39f0757cd
This spring, I traveled to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, and witnessed what would be the largest opium harvest in Afghan history. Over the past decade, in the midst of a massive international military and development mission, the drug economy in Afghanistan has flourished. Today, the country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How the heck did that happen? In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I take you inside the making of the Afghan narco state:
It was an honor to receive the Kurt Schork Memorial Award last week, alongside two courageous and hard-working journalists, Neha Dixit and Priyanka Dubey. Thanks to the Thomson Reuters Foundation for establishing the award in honor of Kurt's memory, who was killed on assignment in Sierra Leone in 2000. At at time when journalists are under unprecedented threat and pressure both at home and abroad, the event was a reminder of the sacrifices that may be demanded of them in their pursuit of the truth.
Is there such thing as a good-news story from Syria?
This June, I spent seven days embedded with a brave team of volunteer rescuers in rebel-held Aleppo, who are caught between the Syrian government on one side, and ISIS on the other. Along with photographer Sebastiano Tomada-Piccolomini, I documented how they risk death every day in order to save lives under the relentless barrage of the regime’s bombs. In a war that sometimes seems without good guys, here are some real Syrian heroes. This, for Matter, is their harrowing story, “Whoever Saves a Life” (alongside some gorgeous photos from Seba):
If you do have a read, you’ll be interested as well in my postscript, which includes a video of me explaining a very close call with a barrel bomb, as well as an explanation of how the team was ultimately betrayed:
I'm excited to announce that I've been named the Schell Fellow at the Nation Institute. It's an honor to be included among such a distinguished and principled group of fellows. The Nation Institute is a nonprofit media center dedicated to strengthening the independent press and advancing social justice and civil rights. The fellowship--which is named after the late Jonathan Schell, an advocate of nuclear disarmament--is intended to help support my reporting on national security and foreign policy issues.
I have a piece in the current issue of Rolling Stone that depicts the end of a wild era in Kabul as Afghanistan faces a violent, uncertain future. It's partly an elegy for a cynical boom town and partly a meditation on what comes next, in the face of a wave of attacks that have the city's expat community fearing for their future:
The killings continued this summer: Two Finnish aid workers were slaughtered in July, and then on August 5th, U.S. Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene was gunned down in Kabul – the highest-ranking officer killed in the war. The violence brought to the surface what has been growing more and more obvious: The West is desperate to get out. NGOs and embassies, already in the process of drawing down their activities, have closed up like clams under drastically heightened security restrictions. The boomtown Kabul of the Surge has come and gone like a dream. But even a president's promise to end a war can't lop history off into neat little chunks. We are leaving behind a country whose fate is more uncertain than ever, where during a contentious election, two rival candidates have declared themselves the rightful president, where murders in broad daylight go unsolved. The American Era is ending in Afghanistan, but what will we be leaving behind?
You can read the full piece here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/last-tango-in-kabul-20140818?page=4
Have a look at my latest investigation for Al Jazeera America, which shows that three suspected insurgents who were rounded up in a joint US-Afghan operation were handed over to a militia, who then executed them:
According to Belcher, ISAF had not heard allegations of the killings in Andar until they were raised by Al Jazeera, but it subsequently conducted an inquiry. “The inquiry found no information that substantiates the allegations. We have passed the allegations to our Afghan counterparts to conduct their own inquiry,” he said. “According to Afghan officials with whom we spoke after receiving your inquiry, these individuals were questioned and later released without harm.”
Spokespersons at the both the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the allegations. But when reached by telephone, Abdullah, the militia commander, acknowledged killing the men. “I killed these three people,” he said when asked about them by name. “Those three were Taliban.” He also claimed that he has received, and continues to receive, backing from the U.S. special forces for his unofficial militia. “Everything is provided by the foreigners, including the weapons, salaries and other equipment.”
You can read the full article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/23/exclusive-a-killinginandar.html
Thanks again to my brave Afghan colleagues and the folks at Rolling Stone who made the story possible. I'm honored to win the Medill Medal, but the families of the missing men in Wardak are still waiting for justice from the military. Over a year after the killings and disappearances, the US Army's criminal investigation remains ongoing.
This is from the press release:
The 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism has been awarded to Matthieu Aikins for his story in Rolling Stone exposing alleged war crimes by U.S. Army Special Forces in Wardak Province in Afghanistan. A team of judges on behalf of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University selected Aikins’ work, “The A-Team Killings,” published in the Nov. 21, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
The Medill Medal is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.
I was in New York last month to receive the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for my article that appeared in Rolling Stone last November, entitled "The A-Team Killings." At the ceremony--which had an added touch of drama due to the last-minute arrival of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras--I spoke of the importance of maintaining the West's engagement with Afghanistan even after its military presence winds down. You can see a clip from the ceremony, as well as an interview, in the Democracy Now! segment above.
I was also a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award--congratulations to the well-deserving winner, Rukmini Callimachi--and the article received a citation from the Overseas Press Club. I've also been named a finalist for the second time for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which will be announced in June.
At its annual gala this evening, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation presented the Major Megan McClung Award for my article in last September's GQ Magazine, which told the story of a deadly Taliban attack on a Marine airbase in southern Afghanistan. The award honors "exemplary work in advancing and preserving Marine Corps history," and I am grateful that I was able to tell the stories of the men and women who fought for their lives that night. My thanks in particular to Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Upton, the then-director of public affairs in Helmand, and to everyone in the 3rd Marine Air Wing who told me their stories.
I'm incredibly honored to win the Polk Award for magazine reporting for my article in Rolling Stone, "The A-Team" killings. Here's the press release:
Matthieu Aikins, a freelance journalist who has reported from Afghanistan for five years, will receive the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for “The A-Team Killings” published in the November 21 issue of Rolling Stone. In the course of five months of dogged reporting from one of the country’s most dangerous areas, Aikins developed convincing evidence that a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces unit and their Afghan translators rounded up and executed 10 civilians in the Nerkh district of Wardak province, where allegations of extrajudicial killings had emerged in early 2013. The army, which initially denied the charges, opened a criminal inquiry, and human rights organizations called for thorough and impartial investigations.
The article was the product of a team effort and wouldn't have been possible without the support of the editors and staff at Rolling Stone, my friend and driver Ruhollah Ahmadi who took us through an ambush, and, most of all, my dedicated colleague Fazal Rahman Muzhary. And congratulations to the Polk winners in other categories, which include Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill and Barton Gellman for their reporting on Edward Snowden's revelations.
According to the US Army's Criminal Investigation Command, the investigation into the allegations of war crimes remains ongoing.
In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. Last year there were 223. But getting all the way to zero will mean spending billions of dollars, penetrating the most remote regions of the globe, and facing down Taliban militants to get to the last unprotected children on Earth.
The world is racing to eliminate the polio virus, which can paralyze its victims. The outcome is by no means certain. A recent outbreak of polio in Syria--where hundreds of thousands of children have not been vaccinated due to the war--has raised fears of a resurgence of the virus in the Middle East. The World Health Organization has announced an emergency campaign to vaccinate 20 million children in the area.
This fall, I traveled to the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the front lines in the battle against polio. My feature story is out in this month's issue of Wired magazine, a special edition guest-edited by Bill Gates. They've published it online here with a lovely and innovative web design, along with the deliriously evocative photography of Anastasia Taylor-Lind.
Two television appearances regarding my Rolling Stone investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.
My feature article, The A-Team Killings", is out this week in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The results of five months of investigation, the article presents detailed evidence to support the allegations that US Special Forces were complicit in a campaign of murder and torture in Wardak Province.
On Thursday, I published a video showing Afghans torturing a prisoner as what appear to be American soldiers look on. We don't yet know who the individuals in the video are, but based on their appearance they are likely to be either special forces or military intelligence. Democracy Now also presented excerpts from the video on their show, during the second half of a two-part interview:
As a result of the Rolling Stone piece, Human Rights Watch has published a statement calling on the US government to ensure that a full investigation is carried out into the allegations. There are sure to be more developments to follow; I've linked to some early coverage of my story below.
Lurking behind the resentment was a gnawing concern: that one of the cops might turn on the Marines without warning. So-called green-on-blue (or insider) attacks had been sweeping Afghanistan, leaving dozens of Americans dead. Innocent frictions between the two sides in Garmsir—such as arguments over living space—now took on a more menacing tone. The Marines felt like they were walking on eggshells. "I didn't ever feel safe," Oliver said. "It was, 'Be aware, never trust them, always have your weapon on you.'" But that evening he and some of the other Marines had left their pistols on the weight rack. They were almost home free.
Aynuddin stepped into the gym and leveled his rifle.
I want to share with you one of my favorite stories that I've written in a long time, one that I think captures the heartbreak and moral ambiguity of the war as best as I have yet been able. Published in the new issue of Mother Jones, it tells the story of Lance Corporal Greg Buckley Jr., and his assassin, a teenager named Aynuddin. Last fall, I traveled through Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, finding, among other things, Aynuddin's diary, so that he speaks to us in his own words:
As night fell, the boy went to the park to sleep. Around midnight, a pack of dogs came into the park and surrounded him. He drew his shawl tight and rolled himself inside of it. The dogs came and sniffed at him, but finally the night passed. In the morning, he was hungry, and wondered what to do.
He was tired, thirsty, and hungry. He had run away from home and was now ashamed in front of the entire world. He couldn't even ask for bread, he was too embarrassed. Filled with regret, he asked himself, why did I do this?
There is much inside the story to explain the sudden and bizarre explosion of insider attacks in Afghanistan, where Afghan police and soldiers have suddenly turned their guns on their Western allies, often at the price of their own lives, but what I think is most worthwhile about it is the simple manner in which the tragedy and absurdity of war are laid bare by the juxtaposed grief of loved ones from opposing sides.
It was on the way to Dover Air Force Base, to watch his son's body come off a plane in a box, that Buckley's anger returned. A onetime boxer, he'd always had a pugilistic streak. As Buckley and his family waited in the hangar, a tall, blond general approached and knelt in front of him. "Mr. Buckley, I just want to give you my condolences."
Buckley stabbed his fingers into the general's medals. "Do me a favor," he said, "and get the fuck up off your knee and get the fuck outta my face. 'Cause you motherfuckers had my son fucking murdered."
You can read the story here:
One year ago, a group of fifteen Taliban fighters sneaked onto the massive air field of Camp Bastion and launched one of the most devastating attacks of the war, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Marine jets in a single evening. The tale of the audacious attack--and of the small band of Marine aviators who fought back desperately to avoid being overrun--has never been fully told, and nor has the military held anyone accountable for lapses in security. In this month's issue of GQ Magazine, I bring you the Battle of Camp Bastion.
The article is available for free online, but if you pick up a paper copy from the newsstands, you'll get a bonus caricature of me on the Contributors page.
In other news, I'm back in Afghanistan after a month's vacation over Ramadan, and I have some exciting projects planned for the fall that I'm looking forward to sharing with you, so stay tuned.
Abu Yassin used to be a network engineer at an IT company in Beirut. Now he spends his days inventing new ways to kill people. He is one of Aleppo's premier bomb makers, and in the upcoming August issue of Wired Magazine, I tell his story, and that of the rebel's homemade arms industry.
In March, I traveled to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, and spent about three weeks with the city's weapons makers, chronicling their desperate struggle against Assad's professionally-equipped army. You can find the feature-length story online, along with photos from Magnum's Moises Saman, here:
If you're a subscriber to the print edition--or you spot a copy on the display stand--you'll notice that Wired has done something pretty neat with the layout and the design. They've run the story in landscape, that is, sideways, which means that you have to turn the magazine ninety degrees to read it. Give it a try, and you'll probably find yourself flipping the top page over, so that it almost feels like you're holding a book. I think it's a smart idea that pushes you into a more contemplative reading space, and it's certainly innovative.
Last summer, Foreign Policy and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting teamed up to produce a series of e-books on the world's borderlands. I was commissioned to write about the volatile tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and decided that the best way to do so was to ride a Pakistani truck for 1,000 miles along the NATO supply routes that wind from the port city of Karachi to the Afghan capital of Kabul. Along the way, we faced Taliban attacks, Army checkpoints, bandits and breakdowns, and sundry adventures galore. Here's a excerpt from a scene in the tribal areas:
It was late now, and we prepared for bed. Jahangir returned to his wife and children. With no electricity for miles, the stars were alive and web-like above us. Despite the chill, I asked Afzal to pull the chairpais out into the courtyard so that Sardar and I could sleep in the open air. Our feet were pointing east; the moon rose above our toes as we settled under our blankets.
Not long after drifting off, we awoke to the sharp boom of an explosion and the concussion of a blast wave. Opening my eyes, I saw the sky above me turn orange with light. I instinctively pulled the covers over my head and curled into a ball on the charpai. The blast felt so close that I thought shrapnel and debris would rain down on us. After a moment, I let down the blankets and lifted my head. I could see the whites of Sardar’s eyes shining next to me in the moonlight.
“What the hell was that?” I whispered.
“A bomb blast,” he said.
If you're interested, you can buy the e-book either directly from Foreign Policy as a PDF, or get it in Kindle format from Amazon. Either way, start here:
This e-book format is a bit of an experiment for me, and so I'm counting on your interest and support to make it work. And if you do buy and like it, please share your sentiments on Facebook and Twitter, and consider leaving a review on Amazon. Who knows, this could indeed become a model for funding a lot of good long-form journalism that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day.
In other news, I was in Aleppo in northern Syria for most of March, working on an assignment for Wired Magazine. I'm now back in Karachi, where I'm researching the city's gangs. I'll have a couple articles out in the coming months in more traditional venues so do stay tuned.