Excited to share a project I've been working on for the past several months. This is a trailer for our latest documentary film for VICE News, investigating the crackdown on dissent in President Vladimir Putin's Russia:
Armenians from around the globe are in Istanbul today for the commemoration of what's been called the first genocide of modern times, when up to 1.5 million Armenians died in the massacres and deportations that began in 1915.
A century later, the bitterly contested history is hardly a thing of the past. Turkey continues to insist that the wartime killings were not genocide, while Armenians say Turkey's denial is an affront to a core part of their national identity.
My latest for USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/04/23/turkey-armenia-genocide-massacre-anniversary/26261059/
A Turkish prosecutor and his two captors were killed Tuesday following a shootout with police at an Istanbul courthouse, bringing a six-hour hostage standoff to a bloody end. My story on the latest developments made the front page of Wednesday's USA Today newspaper.
You can read a more in-depth online version of the report by clicking here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/03/31/report-turkey-hostage/70711160/
A high school student, a former beauty queen and a slew of Turkish journalists are among a growing number of people facing prison sentences for engaging in political dissent, part of what critics say is a widening government crackdown on freedom of speech. My latest work in USA Today:
Below is the full-length documentary film I had worked on for VICE News, investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine:
You can watch the full documentary and read the accompanying print stories on the VICE News website by clicking here.
I am very excited to share my in-depth print feature for VICE News about the Russian soldiers who were killed, maimed or disappeared while fighting in Ukraine, and the toll the Kremlin's undeclared war has taken on their families.
You can read the full story by clicking on this link, or the text below:
'It Is a Government Crime': The Coffins of Russia's Ghost Soldiers In Ukraine Are Coming Home
By Lucy Kafanov
March 3, 2015 | 12:49 pm
At half past six in the morning, on September 2, a captain from Russia's 106th Guards Airborne Division arrived at the outskirts of a remote village in the Samara region, a triangular stretch of southern Russia between the Volga River and Kazakhstan. He had been driving through the countryside for hours. Seemingly endless rows of birch trees eventually gave way to flat stretches of farmland, until a signpost beside a small cemetery announced the village of Podsolnechnoye. The vehicle bounced along a rutted road, past clusters of dilapidated single-story houses, and came to a stop in front of a modest white brick home.
The captain had travelled nearly 900 miles from Rostov, on the border with Ukraine, in order to make a personal delivery. With him was a sealed zinc coffin containing the body of a 20-year-old paratrooper named Sergei Andrianov.
Relatives were waiting to greet them outside. Sergei's older brother and uncle stepped forward with an angle grinder and set about opening the coffin. His mother Natasha remained inside the home. "I was hoping there was a mistake," she told VICE News. "They took so long to bring him, I thought maybe he was wounded and they were treating him." Outside, the men managed to pry open the coffin. Natasha heard her daughter begin to scream.
In photographs, Sergei is often smiling, his boyish face set in a calm gaze. Built like a featherweight fighter, he had close-cropped sandy hair, blue hooded eyes, and an angled jaw. But in death, Natasha could barely recognize her son — his expression frozen in a grimace, eyes wide open and mouth agape. The left side of his face had turned blue, while his nose was twisted at an odd angle, as if someone had yanked it to the side. His body was covered in dirt, which had caked under his fingernails. A fatal blast wound to Sergei's heart was hidden beneath a fresh military uniform intended for a man twice his size. A pair of flimsy rubber flip-flops dangled from his feet.
The family had spent five days waiting for the body to arrive, during which time Sergei's brother "raised hell" within the division — calling anyone he could reach in a fruitless attempt to find out how his brother died. At one point, an exasperated officer told him to give up. "Quit calling,"the officer said. "They'll give you 100,000 rubles ($1,850) — more than enough to drink and remember him. What more do you want?" But Natasha wanted answers. "How did he die? Where did he die?" She paused, tears welling up in her eyes. "My son is gone and no one can explain to me how it happened."
Natasha showed VICE News the documents she received along with her son's body. "Blast trauma," read the handwritten scrawl on the army death certificate. "One shrapnel wound in the chest, with damage to heart." No word on what caused the blast or where Sergei died. According to a military forensics report, at 9pm on August 28, Sergei, who served in Russia's 137th Guards Airborne Regiment, was carrying out a "special mission" in a "place of temporary dislocation." There was "an explosion, from which Corporal Andrianov received a traumatic injury not compatible with life, as a result of which he died on the spot." Although the paperwork was signed and issued in Rostov, on each document the place of death was perplexingly listed as "point of temporary dislocation."
"They make it sound like a government secret," Natasha said, looking down at her lap. When she spoke again her voice was quiet but firm. "But honestly, I want to say that it is a government crime."
Natasha is still struggling to piece together what happened to her son. In mid-August, his unit was sent to Rostov for military training exercises. His phone went out of service and he stopped responding to emails. On August 21, Sergei called Natasha from an unfamiliar number to tell her he was safe. "He was whispering, like he was in a rush," she recalled. "I thought it was strange but he told me not to worry." Seven days later, the family was informed of his death.
Russia isn't officially at war, but its soldiers are dying. Sergei is one of dozens — possibly hundreds — of active-duty Russian servicemen believed to have been killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies sending troops into battle, claiming it has no direct involvement in the conflict raging across the border. But Sergei's story is one of numerous accounts gathered by VICE News from soldiers' families, human rights workers and government officials that cast doubt on the official narrative. The stories reveal the toll of a war that doesn't officially exist, and the unacknowledged sacrifices borne by Russia's ghost army.
In late February, heavily armed men in unmarked green uniforms fanned out across parts of Crimea in an operation that would lead to Moscow's annexation of the peninsula. Asked whether the so-called "little green men" were actually Russian soldiers, President Vladimir Putin insisted they were "local self-defense forces" who probably acquired their Russian-looking uniforms in Crimean shops.
But during a nationally-televised broadcast in April, the president calmly announced that Russian troops had in fact been deployed to occupy and annex Crimea. As Putin spoke, pro-Russian gunmen were seizing control of government buildings in east Ukraine — a region the president now called "Novorossiya," or "New Russia," as it was known under Tsarist rule. Were Russian forces involved there as well? "It's all nonsense," Putin scoffed. "There are no special units, special forces or instructors there."
In one fell swoop, Russia redrew the international border that had been part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. The move provoked furious denunciations abroad, with threats of sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But domestically it was a watershed event for Putin, unleashing a flood of patriotic fervor. His approval skyrocketed from 65 percent last January to 80 percent in the aftermath of the Crimea referendum, and would continue to climb even as the economy tanked.
The image of Putin that many Russians saw was one of a strong leader, unafraid to confront the West and restore the country's rightful place among the great powers. But critics accuse the president of manipulating events to consolidate power. "Without question, Putin is using Ukraine to achieve his domestic political goals," said Victor Shenderovich, a Moscow satirist and author. "He was a few years ago a lame duck, a person without legitimacy, now suddenly the return of Crimea and we see a huge rise in support for Putin."
The conflict in east Ukraine, meanwhile, was getting worse. By August, the Ukrainian military was making gains against the pro-Russian rebels, pushing them back towards their strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk. In danger of being encircled, the separatists renewed calls for Moscow to send troops to their aid.
Russia embarked on a massive military build-up on the border, reportedly doubling the number of combat-ready troops to an estimated 20,000. As NATO and American officials warned of an outright invasion, soldiers like Sergei Andrianov deployed to the border for what Moscow described as training drills. Just like Sergei, many would return home in body bags.
Sergei's case matches up with dozens of accounts collected by the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a network of NGOs that has been defending the rights of servicemen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Valentina Melnikova, who heads the organization, says at least 500 members of the armed forces were killed in Ukraine, citing information from relatives and soldiers. That number roughly corresponds with US estimates. But without officially-confirmed lists, the extent of Russia's involvement is difficult to verify. "It's clear there's the use of Russian armed forces," said Sergei Krivenko, a member of Russia's Presidential Human Rights Council, a quasi-independent body that advises Putin. "In one way or another, they're participating in the conflict but it's all being covered up."
The first information came from worried parents, unable to get in touch with sons serving in Rostov. Local chapters of the Committee of Soldiers'Mothers began reporting overflowing military hospitals, packed full of wounded soldiers. Then came the coffins, as bodies of soldiers with trauma wounds began arriving in villages across Russia. Their documents, too, listed the place of death as "point of temporary dislocation."
For Melnikova, there's a sense of déjà vu. Russia has a history of downplaying military casualties that dates back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, when coffins were delivered to families in the dead of night. It continued with the Chechen wars in the 1990s. But the military underwent significant reforms in recent years, meant to add a new layer of accountability. The death or injury of a Russian soldier, especially in peacetime, is supposed to trigger an official inquiry. "Of course, there are rare instances when something happens by accident, but here we clearly see battle wounds as the cause of death — and these aren't isolated incidents —and there's been no criminal investigation to date," Krivenko told VICE News.
None of this was covered by state-controlled media, from which most Russians get their news. Television reports portrayed the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" bent on slaughtering Russian speakers in Ukraine. Programs were rife with conspiracies about a "fifth column" threatening Russia from within, and a string of documentaries portrayed prominent writers and politicians as traitors for speaking out against the war.
All of this contributed to a climate of fear that made some families reluctant to go public. Natasha feels isolated by the secrecy surrounding her son's death — not only from government officials, but also among neighbors in her village. "Everyone is silent," she said. "They understand where it all happened, and that you can't speak about it."
That wall of silence would begin to crumble in the last week of August, when fresh graves in the Russian city of Pskov offered a link between Kremlin and the fighting in east Ukraine.
Situated near the Estonian border, about a five-hour drive from St. Petersburg, Pskov is one of Russia's oldest and most beautiful cities, teeming with onion-domed churches, some of which date back to the 12th century. It was here that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, sounding the death knell for the Russian empire and paving the way for the creation of the Soviet Union. These days, it's largely known as a military city — hometown of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division.
Pskov's paratroopers deployed to Rostov in early August; families quickly became anxious when the soldiers stopped calling and writing. On August 21, Ukrainian officials announced the capture of two Russian armored vehicles following a clash near Luhansk. They also claimed to have recovered a number of documents, among them a roll-call journal listing the names of 60 Pskov paratroopers. Photographs of the documents were posted online. It wasn't necessarily a bombshell — the internet was rife with forgeries — but it set off panic among the families, which caught the attention of local news media.
Russian officials insisted nothing was amiss. "A pure provocation," said the commander of Russia's airborne troops, who flew to Pskov the following day. "In our airborne assault brigade everyone is alive and well." But word of losses within the division was spreading rapidly across the city and online. "Leonid died," wrote the wife of Sgt. Leonid Kichatkin, posting an invitation on the social media site Vkotntakte for friends to attend a funeral scheduled for that Monday. The post would soon be taken down, but not before going viral.
Irina Tumakova, an independent journalist from St. Petersburg, intended to cover the funeral, but when she phoned Kichatkin's wife, the woman on the line insisted that her husband was alive and well. "I was fully confident that we would write a story about how this is all rumors, how no one was killed and the document was just another fake," Tumakova told VICE News.
On Monday morning, a church at a small cemetery on the outskirts of Pskov began to fill with people. High ranking officers in dress uniform milled about outside. According to Lev Schlossberg, a local politician and the publisher of an independent newspaper, "this wasn't a funeral for Kichatkin, but likely a goodbye ceremony for servicemen who were later buried there and in other regions."
Having got lost along the way, Irina Tumakova arrived to the cemetery several hours late. By then the area was deserted, save for several soldiers leveling the dirt on two freshly dug-graves. The first belonged to Sgt. Kichatkin, killed on August 19, and the second to Sgt. Alexander Osipov, who died on August 20. Mistaking the reporter for a fellow mourner, a man offered Tumakova a swig of vodka. "My son is here," he said, pointing to Osipov's grave. "Wanted to be a hero." She nodded towards Kichatkin's grave and asked whether he was killed in Ukraine. "Where else?" came the reply.
On August 26, Schlossberg's paper broke the story, setting off a scandal. The division closed ranks. Soldiers' families refused to speak to the press. Unidentified men began to guard the graves, blocking access to any outsiders who tried to get close. Between August 26 and 27, at least seven journalists investigating the mysterious deaths were threatened or attacked, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most violent incident involved Schlossberg himself, who was hospitalized for several weeks after being beaten by unknown assailants. "It was a political decision," he told VICE News. "They attacked me professionally. These weren't street hooligans, they knew well where to hit and how to hit."
By the time VICE News visited in October, the men guarding the graves were gone, but the climate of fear remained. None of the Pskov families would go on record and the division didn't respond to inquiries. This did not surprise Schlossberg. "The ones who know what happened are terrified to speak," he said. "They tell them, 'if one of you says this was in Ukraine then that's it, we'll rip the contract and stop the financial support and you'll end up on the street' — and in many cases the soldiers were the sole breadwinners."
Despite the violence, Schlossberg's paper continued to publish reports on the deaths, including information from leaked transcripts suggesting that up to 80 Pskov paratroopers died in a clash with the Ukrainian army on August 20. Schlossberg believes the losses across the entire army are much greater. "The scale of the coverup is colossal," he said. "We don't know exactly how many soldiers were killed in Ukraine, but the number is in the hundreds —possibly more."
On August 26, the same day Schlossberg's paper published its Pskov report, Ukraine announced it had captured ten Russian paratroopers on its soil. That afternoon, Putin flew to Minsk to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. The talks were aimed at paving the way for a resolution in east Ukraine. By the time the two men awkwardly shook hands in the Belarusian capital, Kiev had released interrogation videos of the soldiers in its custody.
The captured paratroopers were from the 331st Airborne Regiment, based in Kostroma. In what appeared to be forced confessions, the soldiers said they were misled by their commanders, who told them they were going on a training exercise, and instead sent them across the border.
The Kremlin admitted the incursion, but claimed that it was a mistake. "What I've heard is that they were patrolling the border and could have ended up on Ukrainian territory," Putin told journalists in Minsk.
But in Kostroma, the videos unleashed a firestorm amongst the families. "When were they planning to tell us what happened?" asked one furious mother in an interview with RFE/RL. "After a week? Two weeks? If it weren't for the internet, we would have never found out." Relatives began gathering at the division to demand answers. A group of tearful mothers held a press conference, begging Putin to bring home their sons. Under pressure, the Kremlin eventually exchanged 63 Ukrainian soldiers for the ten paratroopers.
The events drew the attention of Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker and member of Russia's lower house of parliament. He requested an official inquiry into the deaths of three dozen soldiers believed to have been killed in Ukraine, including those buried in Pskov. Citing privacy laws, the Defense Ministry refused to comment, dismissing the suggestion of Russian military deaths as a "rumor" spread by Ukraine and the West. "The Russian Federation is not a party in the conflict between the government forces of Ukraine and the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who disagree with the policies of the country's leadership," read the reply.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers filed a petition asking Russian investigators to look into the allegations. Several days later, the local chapter was officially declared a "foreign agent," a status often used to discredit critics of the government.
Despite Moscow's efforts, the growing controversy was becoming difficult to ignore. With the Kremlin narrative at risk of unraveling, it suddenly changed.
On the evening of September 5, all three state-controlled TV channels aired a report about a Russian soldier killed in Ukraine. It was the first time the death of an active-duty serviceman was covered by state media. Viewers were shown footage of a funeral for a 28-year-old paratrooper, who was buried with full military honors, complete with a gun salute. The soldier was described as a patriot "who could not idly observe events in Ukraine." All three networks claimed he was a "volunteer" who didn't tell his wife or commanders he was heading to Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russia rebels.
Melnikova scoffed at the notion: "What volunteers? There's no such thing for a soldier under Russian law." In order to take a vacation, a Russian soldier needs to fill out a report to his commander detailing where he'll be during his time off. To leave the country, the process is even more complicated, requiring the permission of his commander, the defense ministry and the FSB. Moreover, Russian criminal law doesn't distinguish between someone who goes abroad to fight for a personal belief and someone who fights for money. In either case, he is considered a mercenary, a crime punishable with jail time.
But those facts did little to undermine the new narrative, that Russian soldiers, motivated by kinship with their Russian-speaking brethren in east Ukraine, were voluntarily flocking across the border to fight the fascist Kiev government.
Another state television report on so-called volunteers featured a baby-faced Russian paratrooper named Nikolai Kozlov, who lost his leg during an ambush in Ukraine. Sad piano music played over footage of Nikolai recovering in a hospital room, his pregnant wife at his side. In an interview, Nikolai's father, a veteran of the Afghan war, said he was proud of his son: "He was fulfilling his duty until the end."
Except Nikolai wasn't a volunteer. "He went because he was ordered to go," his uncle said. "Move forward, destroy military positions, and keep going."
The uncle, Sergei Kozlov, recounted the battle as told by his nephew. His unit crossed the border on August 18; six days later, it was ambushed. Nikolai heard a rustling in the bushes, but before he could drop to the ground, a mortar blew off his right leg. He doesn't remember much that happened afterwards, just that he applied a tourniquet.
Sergei Kozlov showed VICE News a copy of the medical report issued at the military hospital in Rostov. It read: "Due to impossibility of evacuation, the lance-corporal was admitted to Military Hospital 1602, three days after injury."
The war has divided the family, pushing Sergei and Nikolai's father apart: "[My brother] almost lost Nikolai, but he believes his son sacrificed for the benefit of the homeland, while I think the homeland betrayed and sacrificed him."
Asked whether Nikolai could have refused to cross the border, Sergei blinked away tears. "How?" he asked. "An order is an order."
The grinding conflict in east Ukraine has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Hostilities are escalating, but the Kremlin line remains largely the same: no Russian invasion, no incursion, no military involvement. And the families of Russia's dead, maimed and missing soldiers keep waiting for answers.
It is difficult to imagine that a war in the center of Europe could be waged with any semblance of secrecy in 2015. In response to Russia's denial of its troop presence in Ukraine, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Russia "might have gotten away with this before invention of cameras."
But despite international condemnation, dead soldiers, and the invention of cameras, domestically, at least, Russia arguably has gotten away with its undeclared war. Only a quarter of Russians believe their troops are fighting in Ukraine, according to aDecember poll by the independent Levada Center, in which 77 percent of respondents said they didn't think Russia had any responsibility for the bloodshed.
Tough international sanctions and tumbling oil prices have cost the ruble nearly half its value against the dollar. Yet contrary to the predictions of Western policy-makers, this hasn't seemed to weaken Putin's position. An Associated Press-NORC poll released in late December found that 81 percent of Russians continue to support their president.
Back in Podsolnechnoe, Natasha is still mourning her son. She is sitting on the edge the couch, hunched with grief, hands fidgeting in her lap.
"I could have kept him from the Army, I could have paid the bribes — everyone would have understood," she said, her face creasing with sorrow, then bitterness. "But I thought he needed to become a man and so I let him go." Moments later, she added: "No, the army is supposed to be responsible for every soldier."
Natasha oscillated between disbelief and despair. One moment, she was filled with fury with the military and government: "I want to shout at the whole country that my son is dead. I want everyone to know where he was killed." The next, uncertainty and fear took hold. "I am giving you this information but I'm afraid — people might come here, who knows what they will do."
Sergei was laid to rest beside his father, in a plot overlooking a large field. Sunflowers will bloom there in the hot summer months, but during the Russian winter, there is only barren soil as far as the eye can see. There are no plaques commemorating his service, no inscriptions detailing the war in which he served. Natasha wants her son awarded a Hero of Russia medal, "but they only issue that to those killed in war," she said, sighing heavily. "And there is no war."
The funeral was a quiet affair. The only official present was the captain who brought Sergei's body home. Natasha says the family of another Russian soldier killed in Ukraine came to pay their respects. Seeing her distress, the father of the slain boy pulled her aside. "Don't listen to anyone, Natasha, our sons are heroes — real men," he told her. "Live with this thought. And for now, keep quiet."
The closest thing to a public acknowledgment was relegated to the internet, where a friend of Sergei's posted a farewell message. It read: "Rest in peace within this earth, brother. Cursed be the one who sent you to fight on foreign soil."
Putin, when questioned on Russian troops in Ukraine in his annual end-of-year press conference, again claimed the fighters were "volunteers… following the call of their heart." But Sergei Andrianov was an active-duty serviceman who was likely following the orders of his commanders when a piece of shrapnel to his heart took his life.
"This is very painful — not just because of my son but all of these guys who were killed," Natasha said. "What did they die for? And why are their deaths not being acknowledged?"
Follow Lucy Kafanov on Twitter: @LucyKafanov
My latest story out in the Christian Science Monitor about how the brutal rape and murder of a university student has galvanized protesters in Turkey and put its government in the spotlight.
In Turkey, a show of male solidarity in tackling violence against women
By Lucy Kafanov
FEBRUARY 23, 2015
ISTANBUL — Decked out in miniskirts, dozens of men braved winter weather to march in Turkey’s largest city Saturday to protest rising violence against Turkish women.
Some brought their young children; others carried placards calling for the government to strengthen protection of women. All said they had donned skirts in support of women’s rights, denouncing a culture they say legitimizes violence by blaming the victim.
“To say that a woman deserves rape or invites harassment by wearing a miniskirt is sick and we need to change this mentality,” said Mete Corumluoglu, a local nightclub DJ and one of the protest organizers. “I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a country where she doesn’t feel safe or free because of her gender.”
Saturday’s rally was part of a wave of demonstrations that swept Turkey after the murder of a 20-year-old university student by a bus driver who allegedly attempted to rape her. Notably, the killing has spurred a national debate among men as well as women about sexual assault and violence against women, in a patriarchal country where the subject has long been taboo. It highlights a rift within Turkish society, reflecting tensions in this majority Muslim country where the state’s official secularism – a bedrock of modern Turkey’s identity – is increasingly at odds with the government’s conservative religious agenda.
“Turkish women have succeeded in getting a number of legal protections on paper, but people’s attitudes, especially in the highest ranks of power, are still lagging behind,” said Dr. Jenny White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has published several books about Turkey. “Women are still considered as being the property of their husband and the community, so crimes against them are not treated as seriously by the state.”
Özgecan Aslan, the university student, was the last passenger on a minibus in the southern Turkish city of Mersin on Feb. 11 when the driver attempted to rape her. When she tried to fight him off, police say he stabbed her then beat her to death with an iron pipe. Her body was burnt and dumped in a riverbed where it was discovered two days later.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the murder and called violence against women the country’s “bleeding wound,” vowing harsh penalties for Ms. Aslan’s killers. Police have arrested and charged the driver and two associates in connection with the murder.
His defenders point to a slew of protections enacted since his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. These include criminalizing marital rape and increasing penalties for so-called honor killings. In 2012, Turkey became the first country in Europe to ratify a Council of Europe treaty on violence against women.
But critics say Erdogan’s response – passing laws that protect women – leaves untouched Turkey’s male-dominated conservative culture that treats women as inferior. In the case of rape, women are occasionally forced to marry the rapist or targeted for honor killings by family members.
“Turkey is a country where the violation of women’s rights is dramatically high,” said Zelal Ayman, a director at Women's Human Rights-New Ways Association, a nongovernmental organization in Istanbul. “This government doesn’t see a woman as someone who should have a life an individual.”
Erdogan previously angered activists by declaring women unequal to men and calling motherhood a woman’s primary role in society. He has also said that women should bear at least three children, and attempted to outlaw abortion and adultery.
“It’s good that women are breaking the silence about violence and harassment in Turkish society, because it isn’t something we’ve seen before,” says Diba Nigar Goksel, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Turkish Policy Quarterly. “But Turkey still has a very long way to go…. I think [Erdogan] genuinely doesn’t see the problem in his rhetoric. I think he genuinely thinks he’s saying something effective.”
The first protests over Aslan’s murder were held on Feb. 14, including one in Aslan’s hometown, where women broke with Islamic tradition at her funeral by carrying the coffin. A Twitter campaign followed, under the hashtag #sendeanlat (tell your story), in which Turkish women shared stories of sexual assault and violence.
After conservative Turkish commentators, including a popular singer, suggested on Twitter that women who wore miniskirts were inviting unwelcome sexual attention, men responded by posting photographs of themselves in miniskirts. This meme carried over into Saturday’s protest where men marched in skirts, attracting mostly curious and amused reactions from onlookers in a popular tourist district.
While reliable statistics on violence against women are difficult to come by, a report by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy this month found that four out of 10 women said they had been exposed to physical or sexual violence by a family member. Human rights group Bianet reports that 281 women were murdered in 2014, a 31 percent increase over the previous year.
'Hard to see something changing'
Turkey’s Minister of Family and Social Policies Ayşenur İslam said the government would introduce an electronic bracelet system in March to deal with violent offenders. Both the perpetrator and the victim will be fitted with bracelets, which will have a GPS location system that will be monitored by officials.
Meanwhile, private solutions are also being put forward. Hayrettin Bulan of a national women's group, Sefkat-Der proposed arming at-risk women, and is planning a series of firearms training workshops next month. And Mert Nomer, an attorney in Istanbul, has taken a less controversial route, organizing free self-defense courses.
“What has to change is men’s basic understanding of equality,” he said. “But if you ask me, I’m sorry, but this is political... if we still keep on having the political party in power right now, if they will keep on ruling the country, nothing will change. I think it will be worse.”
As protests continued to spread across Turkey, however, so did reports of further assaults against women. A man killed his girlfriend in the southern province of Antalya last week; in a separate incident, another man was arrested in Hatay for allegedly beating and attempting to rape a 12-year-old girl. A third reportedly threw his wife off a balcony in Izmir after a fight, leaving her critically injured, Turkish media reported.
“This has been happening for a long time, and I think sadly it will continue to happen,” said Goksen, a businesswoman on the sidelines of Saturday’s protest who did not want to give her last name. “This is something many have experienced from a young age. It’s really hard to see something changing in the short term.”
I'm excited to share the trailer for my upcoming film for VICE News, investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
I'll post the film as soon as it is released. In the meanwhile, if you'd like to learn more about this story you can read my new article in the February issue of Vice Magazine by clicking here.
I went on Huffington Post Live to discuss my latest story out in the February issue of Vice Magazine about the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
You can watch the segment here: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/archive/segment/54e3873578c90a1c060005e3
Violence against women seems to be on the rise in Turkey. The latest case to spark street protests was the murder of 20-year-old psychology student Özgecan Aslan. Her body was discovered on the eve of Valentine's Day by a riverbed in Tarsus town of Turkey’s southern province of Mersin. It appears that she was raped and subsequently murdered.
Below are a few photographs from today's rally in Istanbul:
I have a piece in the current issue of Vice Magazine that looks into the deaths of Russian soldiers believed to have been killed in eastern Ukraine, where the grinding conflict has claimed more than 5,000 lives. While the Kremlin denies sending troops into battle, among the dead are dozens — possibly hundreds — of active-duty Russian servicemen. Since the summer, a small but steady stream of coffins began arriving in villages across Russia, containing maimed bodies of soldiers killed in “unknown circumstances.” Some would be buried in secret funerals or hastily at night, their graves zealously guarded from prying outsiders. As the conflict rages on, the families of Russia’s dead, wounded and missing soldiers are still waiting for answers:
The family had spent five days waiting for the body to arrive, during which time Andrianov's brother called anyone he could reach in the 106th Division in a maddening attempt to find out how his brother had died. At one point, an exasperated officer told him to give up. "Quit calling," the officer said. "They'll give you a hundred thousand rubles [a little over fifteen hundred dollars]—more than enough to drink and remember him. What more do you want?" The paperwork accompanying Andrianov's body offered no clues as to how or where he'd been killed. According to a military forensics report, at 9 PM on August 28, Andrianov was carrying out a "special mission" in a "place of temporary dislocation." There was "an explosion, from which Corporal Andrianov received a traumatic injury not compatible with life, as a result of which he died on the spot."
"They make it sound like a government secret, but honestly, I want to say that it is a government crime," Natasha said. "How did he die? Where did he die? My son is gone, and no one can explain to me how it happened."
You can read the full article and see my original photographs in the February issue of Vice Magazine, or on the web by clicking here: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/russias-ghost-army-0000568-v22n2
I went on Huffington Post Live to discuss CPJ's latest report documenting a rise in attacks against journalists.
Here's the link to the full segment:
I've spent the past few months working on a project that I look forward to sharing with you. We travelled around Russia gathering stories from families of soldiers who have been killed, wounded or remain missing in action in Ukraine. Moscow denies any direct involvement in that grinding conflict, which has killed more than 4,700 people since mid-April. But accounts we gathered from soldiers' relatives, human rights workers and government officials cast doubt on the Kremlin's narrative. This is the story of Russia's ghost soldiers, fighting and dying in a war that -- officially -- doesn't exist.
I moved to Istanbul at the start of September with the mistaken impression that I had 180 days of valid-visa bliss before I needed to start worrying about residency. I was wrong. The tourist visa is good for 180 days, but you’re only allowed 90 total within the country. All of the sudden, I found myself thrust into the confusing world of Turkish bureaucracy in a mad-dash to get my residency permit before time ran out.
The first thing I can tell you about the process is that there will be tears. A lot of tears. Tears of frustration, tears of anger, tears of confusion, and occasionally, gratitude.
The problem is that Turkey changed the residency rules back in April. The result is a flood of contradictory and often confusing advice. Local officials were often not caught up on the changes, various friends who had gone through the process before April offered advice that no longer applied, Google wasn’t of much help. While I have yet to get the actual residency permit, I’ve gone through many of the steps and will post instructions based on my personal experience. Perhaps there will be fewer tears when you go through it.
To get a residency permit in Turkey, you need the following:
Notarized rental contract (KİRA SÖZLEŞMESİ) in your name
Turkish Tax ID number (VERGİ KİMLİK NUMARASI)
Health insurance (Sağlığı Sigortası) through a local Turkish company
A Turkish bank account with at least $6,000 USD
Whether you’re renting through a real estate agent (emlak) or subletting from someone you happen to know, you absolutely will need an official lease in your name. You will also need to get this document notarized, which should cost about 120 TL. One important thing to note: if your lease agreement mentions any sort of security deposit or advance payment, the notary will charge you a percentage of whatever the contract states. In my case, the emlak simply drafted another contract where he removed any mention of money. I took that contract to the notary along with my passport and walked away 15 minutes later with my notarized lease. Simple enough. The notary isn’t likely to speak English, but you should be able to manage without anyone translating.
EMLAK / REAL ESTATE AGENT: Alican Akgüç 0 (212)-2524115 or 0 (533) 450-7168
Alican speaks English and his office in Chihangir. You can find the address by clicking here. Like most emlaks, his fee is the equivalent of one month's rent.
NOTARY PUBLIC: Beyoğlu 33. Noter Kuloğlu Mh., 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
Located right near the Carrefour supermarket, they don't speak English but got the job done.
In order to open a Turkish bank account or sign up for health insurance, you need to first obtain a Turkish tax ID number, or Vergi Kimlik Numarası. The process is free and relatively easy once you know what you’re doing. You’ll need:
notarized rental agreement
photocopy of your passport
Head down to your local tax office, or Vergi Dairesi. I live in Beyoglu, so mine was located at Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:125, by the Şişhane metro. Once you walk past the metal security gate, you'll see a huge room with lots of counters and lines. You want the second counter on your left.
The person at the counter may not speak English, but show them your lease and passport and ask for “tax number” and they should understand. They'll give you a form to fill out where you''' have to write your local address and Turkish cell phone number. After clicking away on the computer for a bit, the counter person will hand you a printout that has your tax number (next to the letters TCKN/VKN) as well as a piece of paper that you have to take upstairs to the “manager” for a signature. I went upstairs, where there was another enormous room with counters. When you walk in, look right and you’ll see an office for some sort of Very Important Person. That’s where the manager sits. Just shuffle in, smiling apologetically and hand her your papers. The manager will sign the slip and then you’re off on your merry way.
Don’t lose that paper.
No matter what you are told, your foreign health insurance will not be sufficient for obtaining a Turkish residency permit. You need to get one through a local Turkish company. I had a great experience working with a stellar English-speaking health insurance agent who came highly recommended by several expat friends. The insurance came out to 820 TL for the year.
Notarized Rental Contract
Turkish Tax ID number
820 TL in cash
You go to the office and the agent fills out all of the paperwork for you. Then she hands you a booklet and a slip of paper and sends you donwstairs to the bank. There’s a little ticket machine that will give you a number indicating your turn -- a local guard helped me figure out what services I needed as everything was in Turkish. At the counter, you give the clerk your papers and passport, along with the 820 TL. You'll receive a slip of paper in return. Head back up to the agent, hand her the slip, shake hands, and you’re done.
This part was absolute hell. I decided to go with HSBC bank since it’s international and blah blah. I proudly marched in with my notarized lease, Tax ID number and passport and ask to open a new account. Almost no one spoke English at the Istiklal street branch I happened to go to, so it took a while and a lot of gesturing to explain what I was there to do. We finally found an agent who was able to communicate with me. The woman takes a look at my documents and tells me that it’s not enough. The conversation went something like this:
Woman: “You need a residency permit to open a bank account with HSBC.”
Me: “But the Turkish government won’t issue a residency permit unless I have a Turkish bank account.”
“Yes, but we need to your residency permit in order to open an account.”
“But I need a bank account in order to get the residency permit.”
“These are our new rules, I’m sorry.”
“Do they make sense to you?”
I gather my papers storm across the street to Garanti bank. The wait to see a teller is 20 minutes. Once I show her my paperwork, another problem. The bank system won’t let her open a new account. I’ll have to come back the next day. The following day, I head to Garanti bank in Chihangir. After a 30 minute wait to see the teller, the woman looks through my paperwork and tells me she can't open a new account unless I have a foreigner ID number. She tells me I can obtain this at the police station. Confused, I leave.
After some googling and consultation with friends, I realize that the foreigner ID number she was talking about was precisely what the residency permit is for. And no, you can't get it at the police station. Frustrated, I call Garanti bank's English-language hotline. I learn that there are only a few branches that are "authorized" to open new accounts for foreigners with just the Tax ID number and notarized lease. One such branch is in Taksim Square. I head there next and after about two hours, much confusion, and a few tears, I have a Turkish bank account.
This might be the hardest step and one that I have yet to go through. You basically have to wake up at 7 am each morning and head to http://e-randevu.iem.gov.tr/yabancilar/dil_sec.aspx, in hopes of being able to sign up for an appointment before all the slots are filled. Once I do so, I'll update the blog.
Waking up to news of an expanded war. Overnight, the United States launched a series of airstrikes in Syria, opening up a new front in its war against militants from the Islamic State.
One of the first videos to emerge appears to have been shot on a cell phone and purportedly shows US airstrikes on ISIS positions in and around the city of Raqqa, the group's de facto capital:
The Pentagon says it dropped more than 160 munitions on targets in Syria. While casualties are difficult to verify, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 militants were killed in Syria's north and east, with about 50 al-Qaeda-linked fighters believed to have been killed in strikes west of Aleppo. Eight civilians, including three children, were reported to have died. Meanwhile, this tweet from @Brown_Moses links to two videos allegedly showing wounded children in the wake of last night's strikes:
According to CENTCOM, 14 strikes were conducted using a mix of unmanned and manned aircraft, including the Air Force's F-22. Last night's attack also saw the U.S. launching 47 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea, which are positioned in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf. The Navy released this video from last night, showing it launching Tomahawk missiles:
Separately, the U.S. also carried out independent strikes against a little known, but well-resourced al-Qaeda cell that American officials fear is more dangerous than ISIS. "Led by a shadowy figure who was once among Osama bin Laden’s inner circle," the Khorasan Group consists of "a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe" and is believed to pose "a more direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation." According to a statement released early Tuesday by U.S. Central Command, the U.S. conducted eight strikes against Khorasan Group targets "west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities."
The strategy of striking ISIS in Syria is a military gamble with unpredictable consequences. As the New York Times reports, six weeks of US-led airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq have "have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country." The strikes might halt the expansion of IS but they're not going to wipe the group out. As Mark Thompson writes in TIME, the bombing campaign may force IS militants to move in among civilians in Eastern Syria, "betting that the U.S. and its allies will not attack them there and risk killing innocents. That could lead to a stalemate. While air strikes are likely to keep ISIS from massing its forces, and traveling in easy-to-spot convoys, air power can do little to stop small groups of fighters from billeting with and intimidating the local population."
I've recently relocated to Istanbul. Below are a few photographs of what is, for now at least, my home city:
Earlier this week, I spent several days in the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to film a story about how life has changed since it had been taken over by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This used to be one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. When I had visited the previous year, I couldn't move around without an armed escort. This time, the mood seemed lighter. Residents told me they felt safer than before. The rampant violence that had once marred the city seemed to have subsided. But it didn't take long for the fragile peace to shatter. Just as I was getting ready to drive back to Erbil, a suicide blast ripped through a busy Kirkuk street in a Kurdish neighborhood. I was on the scene to witness the chaotic aftermath of the attack.
I've just completed a reporting assignment in Northern Iraq. Photos will be up shortly but wanted to share this:
These are just a few of the horrific images posted by ISIS on social media, showing mass execution - seemingly targeting Iraqi soldiers. As @azelin points out, "... ISIS mass executions is to radicalize Shi’a population, so Shi'a do the same to Sunnis, so ISIS then becomes protectors of Sunnis."
Absolutely horrifying developments. And this is just the start.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki is urging the United States to deliver more advanced weaponry, but ISIS fighters have already been seen riding round in U.S.-supplied Humvees in other areas they control, and much of the weaponry captured in this latest battle is likely to be American, experts say. Below are just a few of the images circulating around the web showing ISIS fighters with U.S. military gear following the operation in Mosul. These have not been independently verified.