Joshua Hammer is a former Newsweek Bureau Chief and Correspondent-at-Large in Africa and the Middle East. His new book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, was published in April.
 (May 2016)

The Nepal Catastrophe

The remains of the Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, four days after the earthquake, April 2015
A few minutes before noon on April 25, 2015, the Great Himalayan Thrust, a fault line between the Indian and Eurasian continental plates, ruptured deep beneath Gorkha district, fifty miles northwest of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The sudden slippage caused an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that sent …

Betrayal in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi
In late 2010, I traveled to Myanmar—formerly known as Burma—the resource-rich country of 52 million people bordered by China, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand that had been blighted for decades by brutal repression and squandered opportunity. After seizing power from a civilian government in 1962, a military junta plundered the treasury, …

The Rule of Boko Haram

Children who escaped Boko Haram attacks in Michika and Cameroon, Adamawa State, Nigeria, January 2015
In early May, during the final days of the hot, dry season, I flew to Yola, the capital of Adamawa State in eastern Nigeria and an apparent safe haven from the Boko Haram insurgency. Over the past year, the radical Islamic fighters had taken over large swaths of territory in three northeastern Nigerian states, killing thousands, conscripting many young men, and kidnapping and raping young women and girls. But after a series of defeats at the hands of the insurgents, the Nigerian army had begun pushing them back.

The Very Tricky Trial of the Khmer Rouge

Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime protesting outside the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to demand individual reparations, Phnom Penh, October 2014
Last October the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convened in Phnom Penh to resume what many regard as the most important international criminal prosecution since the Nuremberg trials. Currently on trial are the two highest-ranking surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, the onetime chief of …

The Terrible War for Sri Lanka

Tamil boys at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of
Vavuniya during a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, May 2009
The Nanthi Kadal lagoon, a waist-high body of water extending for four miles along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, bears few traces of the battle that took place here a little more than five years ago. Herons fly low over tidal flats and islets covered with sea grass. Palmyra …

Terror at the Edge of the Sahara

Malian soldiers with Tuareg men in the village of Tashek, near Timbuktu, July 2013
In 2012 Mali descended into chaos. Much of the north of this large and very poor country of 16 million people—its area about the size of France and Spain put together—was taken over by a shaky alliance between hard-line Islamists and Berber Tuaregs, some of whom had come from post-Qaddafi …

Timbuktu: Surviving After All

Residents outside a restaurant in Niono in central Mali, near the front line of fighting between Islamists and French and Malian forces, January 2013
Secluded amid a sea of sand dunes at the edge of the Sahara, the Maison de Qaddafi, or Qaddafi’s Palace, was once considered the most desirable piece of real estate in Timbuktu, the ancient town in the northwest of Mali, one of Africa’s largest and poorest countries. Constructed by the …

A New Turn in Tunisia?

Female student protesters from Manouba University at an apartment in Tunis, January 2012. The text on the banner behind them says, ‘Yes to niqab-wearing women to study and sit exams. A prayer room is the right of every male and female student.’
One morning in mid-May I drove to Manouba University, the largest in Tunisia, to meet Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Letters and one of the most prominent critics—and victims—of a campaign by Salafist radicals to Islamize the country. An avuncular man with a shock of white hair …

In the Kenyan Cauldron

One morning in mid-March, at the beginning of the Kenyan rainy season, I drove to Kiambu, the ancestral homeland of Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s newly elected president. Thirty minutes northeast of Nairobi I turned off a new six-lane highway and followed a country road across a fertile plateau. Coffee bushes glistened after a morning rainfall. Banana trees and plots of maize climbed the slopes of ravines. Mile after mile of new streetlamps bordered the road. “It is rare to see these lights in rural Kenya,” my companion, a reporter named Dominic Wabala, told me, attributing the local improvements in part to Kenyatta’s huge fortune.

When the Jihad Came to Mali

Mali has long combined poverty, radical Islam, and tendencies to armed rebellion. The Sahara desert, beset by droughts and avoided by governments, is a zone of discontent and lawlessness. Between 1963 and 2006, the region’s Tuareg population mounted four armed uprisings. Each time the government promised more development projects, but the pledges fell short. The Sahara also became a sanctuary for outlaws—including narcotraffickers, cigarette smugglers, and, in the last ten years, jihadists bent on creating a Caliphate across the desert. In late 2011, the combustible mix exploded.

The Killing Fields in Egypt

Fans of the Cairo soccer teams Al Ahly and Zamalek protesting near Cairo’s Ministry of Interior on February 2, 2012, a day after seventy-nine Al Ahly fans were killed and hundreds were injured at the Port Said stadium by fans of the local team, Al Masry, following a match
One warm night in September, I sat in an outdoor café in Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood with a young member of the Ultras Ahlawy, an organization of hard-core fans of the Cairo soccer team Al Ahly. Mahmoud, a pseudonym, was a diminutive twenty-one-year-old with bulging biceps, a red athletic shirt, and …

A New Crisis in South Africa

Julius Malema during an ANC Youth League march, Johannesburg, October 27, 2011. Malema, who was fired as president of the Youth League in November 2011 and expelled from the ANC in February 2012 for bringing the party ‘into disrepute’ with his inflammatory and racially tinged populism, has repeatedly attacked South African President Jacob Zuma, leading to a bitter split within the ANC.
The Freedom Park housing settlement sprawls across a barren, windswept plain on the outskirts of Rustenburg, South Africa, about one hundred miles northwest of Johannesburg. When I arrived there around noon on a searingly hot day in late February, at least ten thousand people had gathered in a dusty field sandwiched between clusters of zinc-walled, tin-roofed bungalows. They had come to hear an address by Julius Malema, the recently ousted president of the African National Congress Youth League, and one of South Africa’s most incendiary politicians.

Vengeance in Libya

Seif Qaddafi after his capture by rebel fighters, Zintan, Libya, November 19, 2011
On November 20, the day after the capture of Seif Qaddafi, the second son and former heir apparent of Muammar Qaddafi, I set out from Tripoli for Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, to meet some of the former rebels who had tracked him down. I left the seaside capital just after dawn, followed the coastal road west, then turned inland. There were many signs of the recent civil war on the arid plain: craters formed by the impact of 122-millimeter Grad rockets, destroyed communications towers, crumpled armored vehicles struck by NATO bombs. Unexploded ordnance lay everywhere. My driver-translator, Wagde Bargig, said that “children have been killed playing” in the fields we passed.

A Sinister Turn in Zimbabwe

Morgan Tsvangirai speaking to immigrants from Zimbabwe who had been attacked by South Africans, Reiger Park, South Africa, May 2008
In late August, at the height of Zimbabwe’s cool, dry season, I drove north from Harare to the mining town of Bindura, in the province of Mashonaland Central. Once a stronghold of the ruling party of Robert Mugabe, the town had voted decisively for the opposition in Zimbabwe’s violent 2008 …

In a Worried Corner of Tunis

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, Tunis, June 28, 2011
Outside Tunis one afternoon in late September, I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. The center is located in a whitewashed two-story house in the suburb of Borj Louzir, not far from the ruins of Carthage. It’s a …

Will Tunisia Become Less Secular?

Tunisian women at a meeting for the Ennahda party, Tunis, April 17, 2011

Outside Tunis one afternoon last week I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. A sewing class had just ended, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23. In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted.

Egypt: Who Calls the Shots?

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the Egyptian armed forces, meeting with antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 4, 2011. When President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, Tantawi became the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the de facto head of state.
Who are the leaders? And what do they really want? In the first weeks following the departure of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was widely celebrated as a defender of the revolution and supporter of a new, democratic Egypt. But the Supreme Council’s intentions and ambitions are not so clear anymore. The focus of much public anger and uncertainty is Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the Supreme Council—and the man who calls the shots in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Prisoner of the Taliban

The journalist David Rohde interviewing villagers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2007, about a year before he was kidnapped by members of the Taliban and taken over the border to Pakistan
In the fall of 2008, David Rohde, a reporter for The New York Times, was forty-one years old, newly married, and tiring of the peripatetic life of the war correspondent. Since the September 11 attacks, which he had witnessed from the window of his Brooklyn apartment, Rohde had devoted much …

Inside the Trap

Freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt removing a portrait of herself from the Hôtel de Ville in Paris the day she returned to France, July 4, 2008
Midway through Ingrid Betancourt’s harrowing memoir, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, the politician who had been the hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for three and a half years escapes from her captors’ jungle encampment with her closest …

Good-bye to Dubai

The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, with the Hotel Atlantis in the foreground, December 2009
In mid-May, with Dubai reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis, I flew into town and took a taxi down the Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main thoroughfare, which runs parallel to the Persian Gulf. The evening rush hour had not ended, but the road was clear of traffic; during previous visits to Dubai I’d encountered gridlock day and night all along this highway. As we approached downtown Dubai, we ran a long gauntlet of illuminated skyscrapers, all built during the past few years. Covered with garish architectural flourishes, many were unfinished, with exposed steel girders and cranes frozen above them; almost all displayed TO LET signs in their windows.

‘I’m a Realist’

On a Sunday afternoon last November, Avigdor Lieberman, the most controversial man in Israeli politics, stood behind his desk at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, fresh from an encounter with American diplomacy. Hillary Clinton had just passed through town, and Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had met with her …

Dictator Mugabe Makes a Comeback

The arrivals lounge at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe once provided a sinister foretaste of life under the Robert Mugabe dictatorship. In every corner lurked agents of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization, his domestic spying agency, on the lookout for Western journalists, human rights workers, democracy activists, and other perceived enemies …

The Price of Paradise

A dance hall in Fordlandia, Brazil, with a movie screen on the back wall; photographs from Greg Grandin's Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
In the summer of 1927, a thirty-seven-year-old Ford Motor Company executive named Willis Blakeley arrived in the Brazilian port of Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River, following a tedious, two-week boat journey from New York City. Employed as a personnel manager in Henry Ford’s Services Department, a union-busting …

Mad Dreams in the Amazon

Percy Fawcett in 1911, the year of his fourth major Amazon expedition; from David Grann’s The Lost City of Z
In the winter of 1925, Percy Fawcett, a fifty-seven-year-old Amazon adventurer of fading reputation and unyielding ambition, embarked on a journey deep into the jungle for a final stab at glory. For years Fawcett had been obsessed with the quest for the ruins of a city he called “Z”—an advanced …

Will He Rule South Africa?

In November, I paid a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, where ninety-year-old Madiba— as Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa—was making a rare public appearance. The gathering brought together leading figures from the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, including the surviving defendants …

Iraq: Before & After, and Now

This September, at the height of Ramadan, I flew north in a US Army helicopter from Baghdad to Samarra, a former sanctuary of the extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, on the east bank of the Tigris River, known for years by US troops as “the worst city in …

The International Crooks Now in Power

One evening in the winter of 2004, while working as Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, I found myself in a dark parking lot outside a banquet hall in suburban Tel Aviv, waiting for Israel’s most powerful gangster, Ze’ev Rosenstein, alias the “Fat Man.” The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, born in …

Scandal in Africa

With his ruthless seizure of power in the June 27 runoff election in Zimbabwe, following a well-organized campaign to intimidate and murder members of the opposition, Robert Mugabe joined Myanmar’s military junta at the top of the list of the world’s most despised dictators. Both the Burmese generals and Mugabe’s …

The Reign of Thuggery

On a clear spring afternoon in Harare in mid-May, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator, six weeks after Zimbabwe’s tumultuous elections on March 29 in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed a clear victory over Mugabe. Mbeki had been largely silent as …

In the Pit of Africa

At the beginning of Peter Godwin’s enthralling memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the author, a foreign correspondent living in New York City, returns home to the bush of Zimbabwe, back to the town where he was born and spent his childhood and teenage years. The year is 1997, …