Graeme Wood

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The African country where compasses go haywire

UNTIL THE LAST YEAR, when the Central African Republic’s civil war became a humanitarian crisis too dire to ignore, most Americans thought little about the country at all. It has a low global profile in part because it is exceedingly poor, with four out of five people living on less than $2 a day. It has some natural resources, but because it is landlocked by other troubled countries—Chad, Sudan, Congo, and Cameroon—even if a lull in the war allowed it to extract those from the ground, it would still face formidable problems in exporting them.

But for one group, the Central African Republic is anything but ignorable, and in fact is home to an enduring scientific mystery. Geophysicists who map the earth’s magnetic fields have identified a disturbance in the earth’s natural magnetic fields within the Republic. They still have few clues about what causes it, but at least some think it could be key to understanding one of the most dramatic events in the history of the planet.

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Orta Afrika Cumhuriyeti’nde Silinen İnsanlık İzleri

Originally appeared in Perspektif (Turkish).

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Sorcery at War

Originally appeared in The New York Times.

BANGUI, Central African Republic — This nation is flirting with genocide. Two barely organized groups — one Christian, one Muslim — have been fighting for control in the last year, and in some areas have tried to hunt each other to extinction. C.A.R. is splitting in two, with Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Much of the capital is already empty of Muslims.

And yet casting the conflict in religious terms is a poor way to understand it. The war was caused not by sectarian differences, but by political and economic grievances, the products of systematic neglect of Muslim areas by the government once run by François Bozizé, a general backed by Chad and France. Religious divisions mapped onto, and exacerbated, senses of longstanding economic and political injustice. Read the rest of this entry »

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Hell is an Understatement

Originally appeared in The New Republic.

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), has never been known for the reliability of its public utilities. Most trash is picked through by scavengers, and the remaining mango pits, scraps of plastic, and rusty bottlecaps pile up on dirt roads or get blown into fetid open sewers. But since December, along a desolate stretch of the Avenue de France, the Red Cross has operated an on-demand, white-gloved sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact.

The Avenue de France marks a divide between two neighborhoods, and the human remains belong to those who have, for one reason or another, strayed too far in the wrong direction. The road itself is devoid of foot traffica no-man’s-land where both sides can deposit their victims, so they don’t have to bury them or let them rot within smelling distance in the African sun. North of the line is the Fifth Arrondissement, a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Christians now that its Muslim residents have either been killed or forced into exile. The Muslims who haven’t fled the country live primarily in the Third Arrondissement, just south of the Avenue de France. There, being a Christian is a condition nearly as fatal as being a Muslim is to the north, south, east, or west. Read the rest of this entry »

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Book review: The French Intifada

Review of The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey.  Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Nowadays it’s neither fashionable nor conscionable to feel nostalgic for the colonial era. But it’s clear that some colonial powers left more fragrant legacies than others, and one of the smelliest of them all was that of France. The country amassed a near perfect record of mismanagement, everywhere from Algeria and Indochina to the Central African Republic, and France is the only great colonial power whose misdeeds abroad keep haunting it, more or less constantly, at home.

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Out of Africa

I reviewed Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde in The American Scholar.

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Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
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Mercenary Hires Self, Has Fool for a Client

I reviewed Simon Mann’s memoir, Cry Havoc, for The National.

John Blake Publishing Ltd

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Everyone’s favourite kind of coup d’état is the bloodless one: El Presidente is surprised in his pyjamas, or while shopping in London, his trusted military aides turn out to be snakes, and he ends up, along with his loyalists, either under house arrest or in exile – padded at first, then increasingly threadbare as the secret accounts are frozen, one by one. Meanwhile, if you are an average citizen of his beleaguered country, not much changes. The money flows to anyone but you: meet the new Presidente, same as the old Presidente.

Simon Mann, one of the most famous living mercenaries, set out in 2004 to manage what he insisted would be a bloodless coup to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. But the Wonga Coup was so bloodless that it barely got started. Mann chartered a Boeing 727 full of armed men and planned to fly into the capital of Malabo, where an advance team led by the South African mercenary Nick du Toit intended to take over the airport. Mann hoped to install Severo Moto, the leader of a government-in-exile headquartered in Spain, as president, and in return reap millions in oil revenues.

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