Archive for the ‘reportage’ Category


Gloria Sherman was 13 years old when Charles Taylor‘s soldiers came for her in 2001. Flushed from her hiding place in the bush outside her village in Lofa, northern Liberia, she was forced to watch as her father and brother were skinned alive. Then she was taken into a captivity lasting nearly two years: a conscript child soldier and a sexual slave in the former president’s army.

She is 18 now, but the memories are still raw. “We used to do bad, bad things that they told us to do,” she said last week. “Sometimes even if you were only 10 years old they would put guns and ammunition on your head to carry to the battle; you have to do what they said or they’d kill you. They killed many children, many girls. All the time many soldiers would have sex with you, every night they would come and have sex and beat you, and if you said no they would kill you or hit you with guns.”




Two years of systematic rape and beatings have left Gloria with jagged scars and internal injuries so severe that she has little chance of ever becoming a mother. When she managed to escape from her captors and make her way back to her village, she found that she was now an outcast.

Labelled a “rebel wife” and accused of collaborating in the violence inflicted on her village by drugged and ruthless soldiers during the war, she says that the only way she can survive is by having sex with men – NGO workers, government officials and businessmen – who often pay her in food, sanitary towels or soap.

“They say we are bad girls because of what we did in the war and what we do now,” Gloria said. “But they took me and I had no choice.”

This is an edited extract of an article on Liberia’s former child soldiers first published in The Observer on 12 July 2009. Click here to read the original article in full and to watch the video.


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Last year, in a village in the east of Sri Lanka, Selvi Ratnarajah opened her door to find three masked men pointing guns at her face. They pushed inside and screamed at her to turn off the lights. When she refused, they shouted for her husband, Ravanana, dragged him into the street and forced him at gunpoint on to the back of a motorbike.

“I went out of the house and ran and ran through the bush,” she said, fingering her husband’s tattered ID card. “I could see the lights of the motorbike ahead and I saw them stop by a bridge. Then I heard shots. I ran towards the noise and I could hear someone breathing. It was dark and there were no lights and I was screaming for him. When I found my husband, they’d shot him in the mouth. He was trying to talk to me. I tried to scream again, but no sound came out. Then he died.”

Ratnarajah says she has no idea who took her husband or why. “When they came to the house, all they said was that he was being taken for questioning, but nobody has ever told me why he was taken,” she says. “Everywhere there are men with arms. We don’t know who they are and what is happening with the fighting, and I don’t know who to trust. I saw him being taken from the house but nobody will listen to me. My husband was never accused of anything.”

As the Sri Lankan military mounts a spring offensive designed to eliminate the Tamil Tigers and end their bloody 26-year struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, the civilian population of the Tamil-dominated regions is terrorised, displaced and fears the worst.

As rebel soldiers melt back into the civilian population, and the number of those displaced by the fighting swells, tales of brutality and intimidation are legion. Meanwhile, people are simply disappearing.

This is an extract of a longer article on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in the days before the government finally crushed the last remaining Tamil Tiger forces, which first appeared in The Observer on 5 April 2009.  Click here to read the article in full.

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To reach Zambia’s new frontline in its long and protracted battle against the HIV/Aids virus, you have to leave the hospital wards and government buildings of Lusaka and head out into the wide open expanses of the bush.

Eight hours west of the capital in the dusty Mouyo rural health centre, 62-year-old Baxter Kayombo Mubanga describes himself as a soldier waging war against the disease that has killed so many of his friends and neighbours.

“Out here we are fighting, fighting, fighting against this epidemic,” he says. “I am sick to the bone of seeing my community shrivel and die with this disease. When I discovered I was HIV positive in 2003 I told all my neighbours to take the test; most of them who refused are now dead. We have to say enough is enough.”


Transmission is still highest in Zambia’s urban centres and industrial copper belt. But it is in rural communities like Mouyo that a lack of access to health facilities, chronic shortages of trained healthcare workers, and cultural stigma and discrimination have ensured HIV rates remain stubbornly high.

This is an extract from a longer article on how Zambians are fighting back against the rise of HIV/Aids, which first appeared in The Guardian in October 2008.  Click here to read it in full.

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When 60 countries from around the world pledged their commitment to the new Millennium Declaration in 2000, Liberia wasn’t included in the handshakes and photographs. The small west African state was at war, in the grips of a bitter and bloody civil conflict that had killed hundreds of thousands of its own people and decimated its fragile economy.

Eight years on, the scars remain. Liberia is still one of the least developed countries in the world. Informal unemployment hovers around the 85% mark, access to health services, clean water and sanitation remains limited, and 76% of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

In 2006, a new government headed by former World Bank and UN director Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, pledged to rebuild Liberia’s economy, heal the deep rifts caused by political corruption and tackle the chronic poverty faced by many of its people.

Speaking to the Guardian by telephone from Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges that a history of persistent bad governance and an almost total lack of institutional capacity have chronically undermined Liberia’s chances of hitting any of the targets.

“When the world agreed to the millennium development goals, we were seeing our country regressing developmentally,” says Johnson Sirleaf. “Since then we’ve been trying to catch up.”

This is an extract of an interview with Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, which was first published in The Guardian in August 2008. Click here to read it in full.

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The green highlands of West Badawacho in south-west Ethiopia are not a place where you would expect to find hunger. The land is fertile and lush. Rain falls on fields covered with waist-high maize and red flowers dot the tree-lined tracks leading deep into rural farming land.

But West Badawacho is in the grip of the worst “green famine” it has experienced in decades and severe malnutrition can be found in many of the villages dotted among these fields. Here, and across Ethiopia, drought, high population density, successive failed rains and rapidly rising food prices are dovetailing to create a crisis. Ethiopia is bearing the brunt of the food shortages currently sweeping across east Africa threatening the lives of millions.

In June the government said 4.6 million people in drought-affected parts of the country required £162.5m of assistance, but unofficial estimates from donor agencies following recent nationwide assessments put the figure closer to 8-10 million people.

In West Badawacho, the lushness of the land masks a near total crop failure across the district. More than 90% of the people here are smallholder farmers, surviving on twice-yearly harvests of maize and root crops. For them the poor harvests of 2007 and the repeated failure of the crucial March-May rains have spelled disaster.

This article was first published in The Guardian in August 2008. Click here to read it in full.

Click here to watch the video report.

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Miskito children

When the first white cranes started appearing on the banks of the Rio Coco, deep in the Nicaraguan rainforest, Marciano Washington told his sons to start preparing the family’s three hectares of land for planting.

A month later, the weather-beaten Miskito elder from the town of San Carlos shades his eyes from the baking sun and surveys his cracked and barren land. His seed is rotting or has been eaten by rats. The few rice seeds that have sprouted are only inches high, yellow and discoloured.

“All my life the earth has told me when the rains are coming,” he says. “I don’t understand what is happening to our land.”

Miskito boat

The natural signs that Washington’s father taught him to observe, such as the white cranes, flowering avocado plants, silver fish and rapid flashes of lightning, no longer herald the rains that his community so desperately need.

Climate change is having a devastating effect on the Miskito Indians who live in wooden huts in Nicaragua’s western territories. They subsist on crops planted on a few hectares of land and food hunted from the jungle and rivers.

Ten years ago Washington said he could harvest 60 bags of rice a hectare. Last year he managed seven. “Every year it is getting worse,” he says. “We have floods in the summer and droughts in the winter. We can’t depend on nature anymore and we don’t know when to plant our crops. I don’t know how I am going to feed my family.”

Miskito boy

Environmental researchers are warning that the effect of climate change is likely to hit indigenous communities like the Miskito the hardest. Many of the world’s indigenous people live in isolated communities and their livelihoods depend on nature and on predicting the weather, making them vulnerable to increasingly unstable weather patterns.

Click here to read this article in full

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Pakistani fishing boats

There is an old proverb, beloved of fisherfolk in Pakistan, that says when all else fails the sea will provide. Now, after centuries of surviving on fish such as the tuna and shrimp that thrive in Pakistan’s coastal waters, many traditional fishing communities are facing ruin as the sea is stripped bare by foreign trawler fleets and industrial overfishing.

According to trade campaigners, it is a story that is being replicated in poor fishing communities in developing countries across the world. And as the current round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations splutter back to life, the demise of Pakistan’s fishing communities is being held up as a warning of the impact that the moves to further liberalise global fishing could have on some of the world’s most deprived communities.

Pakistani fishing boy

The Pakistani Maritime Security Agency (MSA), which polices fishing along Pakistan’s coastline, says there are currently 23 mid-size trawling boats and 21 trans-national trawlers operating with licences in Pakistani waters.

Local fishermen in Ibrahim Hydri, a small fishing town in the sparse Sindh coastal province, unload their fishing boats just yards from half-a-dozen trawlers with Chinese insignia in the town harbour. Many dispute the official figures, insisting that around 100 foreign ships have been spotted in local waters in the last 12 months.

paistani fishing boat

“Since the government has let these foreign ships into our waters, our stocks have depleted and there is nothing left,” says local fisherman Abbas Ali. “For hundreds of years, our forefathers have fished these waters, but our children are going to end up beggars.”

He says the town’s small wooden fishing boats are no match for the trawlers. “It’s like trying to race a truck with a bicycle,” he says. “In just a few years, these people have come here, destroyed the sea, and stolen our livelihoods from us.”

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