Fragile, Delicate, Free: Glimpses of Circus Life, at Sea

Eirini Tarkaziki and Faidra Liapi perform among the sails.
Eirini Tarkaziki and Faidra Liapi perform among the sails.


A photographer embedded with the Sea Clown Sailing Circus on the troupe’s journeys through the Mediterranean. Here’s what he saw.

They arrive from the port with their colorful clothes and their well-worn musical instruments, parading through the village and performing at the various squares. Islanders view them with a mix of awe and wonder.

At times they look like superheroes, moving together to the rhythm of the music, conjuring tricks like magicians.

The crew of the Sea Clowns.
The crew of the Sea Clowns.

I first heard of the Sea Clown Sailing Circus when I was following the stories of refugees crossing Greece. Members of the circus were performing at a camp in Athens, trying to win smiles from children who had experienced too much pain.

Later, I joined the performers in the summer of 2020 on the storied island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. Hoping to sail with the nomad crew, I happened to arrive the very day their engine broke down. Apparently it was a regular occurrence. A technician from the island mocked them: The engines were rusting from lack of use, he said.

It was true that Fred Normal and Alvaro Ramirez, the captains, never wanted to use the engines, aiming instead to sail with the wind as much as possible — even while docking at and departing from the port.

Alvaro Ramirez plays a trumpet aboard Valkiria, one of the Sea Clowns’ boats.
Alvaro Ramirez plays a trumpet aboard Valkiria, one of the Sea Clowns’ boats.

Twenty years earlier, in the United States, Fred, an Alaska-born circus performer, decided it was pointless to try to change the world while traveling with gas-guzzling trucks and caravans. Instead, he resolved to offer his form of utopia to people across the United States and Europe by bicycle. He rode around with his crew from one town to the next, staging pop-up shows and sleeping beside campfires.

Eventually, on the Southern coast of Italy, he met Nikoleta Giakumeli, a Greek acrobat, and Alvaro, a Uruguayan clown who had been traveling around Europe. Together, the trio dreamed up the idea of a seaborne circus, even though none of them had ever formally sailed.

Colorful scenery — at sea, and during various performances around Greece.

So they learned. For 13 years, Fred and Nikoleta lived on their boat, Surloulou, through summers and winters. After the birth of their daughter, Sirena, who at the age of 4 is already climbing ropes and trying her first tricks as an acrobat, their lives changed dramatically. They now spend less time with the circus, which, despite their absence, continues reinventing itself with new performers and new ideas.

Dozens of artists from all over the world are connected with the Sea Clown Sailing Circus. Some join the crew for only a few days; others join for the whole summer. But a core group of around seven or eight people are trying to bring the circus to a greater acclaim — not only by roaming freely from one Greek island to another, but also by producing more meaningful, and more philosophically engaging, shows.

Fred Normal performs on a tightrope.
Fred Normal performs on a tightrope.

In the summer of 2021, when I joined the Sea Clowns again for a month, they were producing a new show based on Plato’s allegory of the cave. I saw firsthand how dedicated the performers are to their craft. Though their performances often feel impromptu, the Sea Clowns are in fact immensely disciplined in their preparations. Every act — from acrobatic shows and fire juggling to aerial rope tricks and slacklining — requires a tremendous degree of skill and training. And they simply love to learn.

Fred juggles with fire during a show on the island of Paros.
Fred juggles with fire during a show on the island of Paros.

Being a part of the crew requires being good at sailing, music or circus acts, and ideally all three. But what’s most important is the ability to express enough humor, kindness and respect to live in proximity with a crew of curious artists every day without creating tensions.

It’s also a challenge, of course, to adapt to life on a shoestring budget. “We live or we die by the hat,” Fred would say at the end of every show, inviting the public to offer a donation for the Sea Clowns’ survival.

The life of a street (or water) artist is fragile, delicate — like a tightrope act, or juggling with knives, or sailing through a storm. Yet for most of the crew, nothing seems to offer them a greater sense of freedom. The Sea Clowns ride with their sails open to the wind, confronting both their dreams and an unpredictable future.

“Our work aims to show that nothing is impossible,” Alvaro said, “unless your mind convinces you to believe the opposite.”

Crowds gather to watch a Sea Clowns performance on the Greek island of Lefkada.
Crowds gather to watch a Sea Clowns performance on the Greek island of Lefkada.

New York Times – October 31, 2022

Bogus Deals Involving Russian PropertyDid a Berlin Dentist Swindle Moscow Out of Millions?

Foto: [M] Ole Schleef / DER SPIEGEL: Paul Glaser / picture alliance / ZB; Kay Nietfeld / picture alliance / dpa; DER SPIEGEL (3)

A dentist and his Ukrainian mistress allegedly used forged Kremlin powers of attorney to sell Russian government-owned properties worth millions. Investigators, intelligence services and diplomats are now puzzling over the bizarre case.

At first, it had all seemed like a lucrative deal. Real estate investor Sascha Klupp and his business partners bought four plots of land from the Russian government in Berlin’s emerging Karlshorst district – a 17,000 square-meter (4.2-acre) section of the old airfield, as well as three dilapidated residential buildings where Soviet officers once lived.

The investors paid a total of 13.5 million euros, a seemingly reasonable price in the overheated Berlin real estate market, especially given that the airfield, part of which had been declared an historic monument, still offered plenty of space for new, high-quality buildings.

But the dream was shattered on March 18. When Klupp tried to step onto his newly acquired property, two Russian Embassy secretaries confronted him and refused to vacate the field. They claimed that Moscow had never sold the plots of land. Berlin police had to be dispatched to calm tempers. Klupp filed a criminal complaint, as did the Russian Embassy, both for fraud.

But who deceived whom?

Since then, a criminal case has been unfolding in the German capital city that has reached the highest levels of politics. In addition to calling in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Russian Embassy also asked the German Foreign Ministry for assistance. It soon emerged that even more properties owned by the Russian government were on the sales list without Moscow’s knowledge, even including parts of the embassy complex on Berlin’s grand Unter den Linden boulevard

A Dentist Allegedly Representing the Kremlin

Diplomats as well as investigators and intelligence officials are puzzling over what exactly happened. Did corrupt Russian officials sell off old Soviet real estate to enrich themselves? Was the Russian Federation possibly the victim of a Hollywood-esque secret agent conspiracy? Or is it just a particularly brazen case of fraud?

A team of DER SPIEGEL reporters spoke with numerous people involved in the case in recent weeks, including investigators and security experts. Together with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, DER SPIEGEL journalists sifted through hundreds of pages of sales agreements and purported powers of attorney from the Russian Presidential Administration along with internal chat logs and company documents.

One name makes several appearances in the documents: Jefim B., a 60-year-old dentist from Berlin’s Grunewald district. The dentist, born in Czernowitz in present-day Ukraine, posed as an authorized representative of the Russian government at land registry offices and to real estate agents. He presented professional-looking powers of attorney from Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Administration, including a stamp and coat of arms with a double-headed eagle, to the notary who notarized the sales agreements. He tried to sell some of the real estate to companies owned by his sons.

Intimate Relations with an Alleged Russian Spy

Whether the man really intended to steal the valuable properties in Germany from Putin or was tricked himself will ultimately have to be clarified by a court. Investigations by the criminal police suggest that the dentist had an intimate relationship with a mysterious woman who allegedly posed as a high-ranking officer with a Russian intelligence agency. She is said to have obtained the supposed Kremlin powers of attorney for B., before directing him to transfer part of the purchase price to a man with an address in Moscow. But where the money actually ended up, a total of around 1.8 million euros, is unclear

According to the investigation, the alleged spy isn’t even from Russia. Rather, like the dentist Jefim B., she is from Ukraine. And that raises the question of whether political motives may also have played a role in the allegedly fraudulent real estate transactions. Some of the property deals, after all, were first initiated after Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine.

Until now, details of the delicate matter had not been made public. And many of those involved were likely quite pleased about that fact. Jefim B., the dentist to whom the alleged powers of attorney were issued, could face criminal prosecution, while others – including the lawyers, notaries, judges and bankers who waved through the sale of the Russian properties – will face unpleasant questions at the very least.

Jefim B. is a well-known figure in posh parts of western Berlin, where he likes to walk his dogs among the mansions. He leads an affluent lifestyle, as do many in this part of Berlin. His family lives in a big house with high columns and drives expensive cars.

A Past in the Gaming Hall Business

Jefim B. had been active as an entrepreneur before, albeit in a different field. In the early 1990s, he managed Sesam Spielhallen GmbH before becoming managing director of Vienna Gaststätten- und Video-Betriebs-GmbH in 2004. The purpose of the establishment: “The operation of restaurants, amusement arcades and video equipment with regular film screenings” and “retail sale of sex articles.” In 2007, the enterprising businessman left the industry.

In the ensuing years, B. invested a lot of money in real estate, and his family bought at least four properties in upscale locations. It seemed the dentist had arranged everything for a carefree retirement.

But then he apparently wanted to try to go big. It was a plan that would require plenty of chutzpah, if not a fair amount of criminal energy as well. If the Berlin prosecutors’ suspicions are correct, the dentist and his accomplices wanted to sell Russian real estate in Germany on a grand scale, secretly bypassing the Russian Embassy.

Russia still owns a number of properties in Germany to this day, including old military plots, trade missions and consulates, often in prime locations. Most of that Russian-owned property is in former East Germany, where the Soviet Union maintained numerous military bases and housing complexes after the end of World War II. A small number of those complexes are still owned by the Russian Federation today.

It is unclear how and when the special operation to acquire the Russian properties began. Olena G., the dentist’s mistress, apparently played a key role. The 57-year-old also lives in the Grunewald area of Berlin. She recently wrote in a social media profile: “Love is a state of mind in which people with the strictest rules allow themselves to go crazy!” It was followed by three fire emojis.

In chats, the two addressed each other with terms of endearment and assured one another of their feelings. In between the tender messages, though, business was a primary focus.

At noon on Feb. 22, 2020, the dentist contacted Olena. “Greetings, my love,” he wrote in Russian. In response, she sent him a photo of a power of attorney issued in his name. Above the text were the words: “Moscow, Kremlin.” The document had allegedly been signed by the head of the Presidential Administration. In the short text, the dentist is authorized to sell Russian properties in Berlin.

“You’ll be gobsmacked in a minute,” she wrote. “Look at the data.”

“You’re a gem,” he replied, likely sensing the deal of a lifetime.

According to land registry records, the dentist first approached the relevant district court in Berlin’s Lichtenberg district about the Russian real estate in November 2020. Through a notary, he asked for information about one of the plots of land in Karlshorst, a borough of Lichtenberg. A purported power of attorney from the Russian Presidential Administration was attached. It stated that he was authorized to “request and receive” all documents relating to the properties.

The district court promptly dug up the information he had requested.

There is some evidence to suggest that the dentist really believed he was part of something big. His lover Olena sent him documents that identified her as a colonel in the reserves of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency. And she also forwarded messages to him that supposedly came from the Kremlin. In the autumn of 2020, he even received an alleged thank you note from the Kremlin “for the tremendous work done,” signed by a purported FSB lieutenant general, who allegedly added that he was looking forward to “further fruitful cooperation.”

“Money Loves Silence”

The order to discreetly conduct the real estate transactions likewise came from an account called “Moscow, Kremlin,” with a Russian number. “The most important thing is that no information is leaked,” read a chat message that Olena G. forwarded to B. “Money loves silence.”

He answered: “We will try to do everything in silence, but that doesn’t always work.”

In any event, the dentist was fully committed. At the beginning of 2021, he sought contact in the Berlin real estate scene and soon established ties with well-known Berlin property developer Sascha Klupp.

Klupp’s initial reaction was apparently one of skepticism. A major Berlin law firm and a renowned notary were hired to check the powers of attorney. Nobody, though, apparently suspected that the papers from Putin’s Presidential Administration could be forged.

Russian real estate in Berlin's Karlshorst district (left), Red Army troops withdrawing from Berlin in 1994.

Russian real estate in Berlin’s Karlshorst district (left), Red Army troops withdrawing from Berlin in 1994.

[M] Ole Schleef / DER SPIEGEL: Meißner / ullstein bild; DER SPIEGEL

The sales story also seemed plausible. The properties in Karlshorst have been derelict and falling apart for around 30 years, and many windows of the apartment buildings are boarded up. An issue of the former official Soviet government newspaper Izvestia from 1990 could recently be seen lying on the floor of one of the buildings. The ruins are a constant nuisance for the authorities in Berlin. The fact that the Russians now wanted to get rid of the structurally unsound property at a reasonable price would have made sense.

The deal was finally formalized on Sept. 2, 2021. Real estate developer Klupp and dentist B. appeared before a Berlin notary to sign the purchase agreements for the four properties. On the purchase agreement, behind B.’s name, it was noted that he was acting on the basis of powers of attorney on behalf of the Administrative Office of the President of the Russian Federation. The powers of attorney were attached to the purchase contract, with letterhead and seal.

It did, though, seem unusual that the account into which the purchase price, a total of 13.5 million euros, was to be paid was held at the Deutsche Apotheker- und Ärztebank, a bank whose customers are primarily from the medical professions. And that the account didn’t belong to the Russian state, but rather to a company belonging to the dentist’s family.

The notary seemed a bit uneasy about the whole thing. As a precaution, her law firm apparently filed a money laundering SAR. The notary public nevertheless notarized the purchase contract – with the fees allegedly having amounted to around 130,000 euros. When reached for comment on the multi-million-euro property deal, she demurred, citing a “notarial duty of confidentiality.”

Jefim B., the dentist, also wanted his piece of the pie. He was provided with a 10-percent interest in four special-purpose entities to which the properties were transferred. In other words: The authorized representative of the Russian state sold the real estate to himself, at least partially.

When the purchase agreements were received by the Lichtenberg District Court, a legal officer became skeptical. In addition to having doubts about the powers of attorney, she also raised the question in an internal memo as to whether it might be a prohibited transaction: She noted that B. had acted both as the seller’s representative and as the buyer. Such deals are generally prohibited due to the threat of conflicts of interest.

But the district court judge brushed those concerns aside. A request was made to the notary to submit further documents, but the judge ruled that he did not believe the purchase was a prohibited transaction, since Jefim B. was only the managing director of a non-voting, special purpose entity belonging to the purchaser. But this is demonstratively false. According to the commercial register, he is also indirectly a shareholder, with a 10-percent stake. So why did the judge make the assessment that he made? A court spokesman declined to provide an explanation for the ruling, citing “judicial independence.”

The notary presented further purported Kremlin powers of attorney to the district court and there were no more hurdles standing in the way of the properties’ transfer. On Oct. 15, the judge made a handwritten note that he had “no more concerns.” Klupp and the dentist were registered as owners through the entities they held.

After that deal went so well, the dentist seemed to want even more. DER SPIEGEL found that he sold the next two properties on Feb. 28 with the help of his purported powers of attorney: a lakeside property in Brandenburg for 300,000 euros, where Soviet Embassy staff used to vacation during East German times. Local residents say it is still used by the Russians today. And the former Consulate General of the U.S.S.R. in West Berlin for 1.6 million euros.

This time, however, the buyers were not Klupp and his associates, but rather the dentist’s sons. They acted as shareholders of the firms buying the property, which were represented externally by a suspected straw man. The latter declined to comment when contacted. The defense attorney of Jefim B. also declined to comment. The dentist’s sons also left inquiries from DER SPIEGEL unanswered.

Then, this spring, the family’s real estate fever seemed to grow even more acute. Documents from the Commercial Register and the Land Registry Office suggest that they were now targeting the Russian Embassy complex on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard.

Moscow owns an entire city block not far from the Brandenburg Gate, containing the embassy building, diplomatic apartments and even a tennis court. An administrative building on the eastern edge once housed the state airline Aeroflot, but it has been vacant for some time now.

The prime piece of property, with the address Unter dern Linden 51, was apparently to be transformed into money, as one power of attorney seems to indicate. The sons of the dentist were likely involved in this would-be deal, as well. As with the Brandenburg lakefront property and the West Berlin Consulate General, one of them became a partner in a company that was presumably to act as the buyer. In this case, it carried the name Unter den Linden Living GmbH.

But Moscow caught wind of the whole scam before the sale could be completed. At the beginning of March, the new property management company placed a notice placed at the old airfield in Karlshorst stating that the Russian Federation no longer owned the property.

A copy of the newspaper Izvestia from 1990 in an abandoned apartment building in Berlin's Karlshorst district

A copy of the newspaper Izvestia from 1990 in an abandoned apartment building in Berlin’s Karlshorst district Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The Russians were alarmed. A diplomat rushed to the Lichtenberg district court and found that the Russian Federation was no longer listed as the owner in the land register. The Embassy immediately took action, filing an official objection and justifying it on the grounds that the powers of attorney used by the seller had been “forged.” The criminal complaint filed by Klupp, who had grown suspicious, is also likely to have averted further damage.

The Russians also called in the German Foreign Ministry. In the finest diplomatic parlance, the embassy assured the Foreign Ministry of its “excellent regard” and was honored to announce that Russia had “not sold” the properties and had “not issued any powers of attorney in this regard.” Russian representatives asked that all measures be taken to “restore” the “integrity” of the properties.

An Unprecedented Disgrace

The Foreign Ministry replied just as politely that the diplomatic note had been immediately forwarded to the Berlin authorities. Moreover, they had asked the administration to guarantee the protection of the properties, regardless of the “possibly incorrect land register entry.”

Panic must have broken out in the Russian representation during those weeks in March. Diplomats were already under pressure because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, there was also the threat of losing property. An unprecedented disgrace. The lines to Moscow were so busy that the real estate scandal even drew the attention of Western intelligence agencies.

The embassy engaged the services of a Leipzig lawyer who sought to reverse the sale of the Karlshorst properties. On March 21, the lawyer turned to the district court in question. The subject line of his letter: “EXTREMELY URGENT!!! FRAUD!!!”

In the letter, the lawyer explained why the deal was invalid. He repeated the accusation that the powers of attorney had been forged and he also lodged serious accusations against the Lichtenberg District Court. The lawyer noted that the court should have realized that an incorrect address had been entered for the responsible Presidential Administration in Moscow. Moreover, it stated that the court had “not applied Russian law correctly.”

Seized Mobile Phones and Storage Devices

But the district court rejected the embassy’s objection at the end of March. It stated that the alleged violations had “not been sufficiently substantiated.” The district judge involved doubted in a memo that the land register was “incorrect at all.” When reached for comment, a court spokesman continues to insist that the necessary documents had been requested from the notary and that, “based on the findings at the time,” there had been no irregularities. In particular, the usual international certifications for documents had also been provided.

At the behest of the Berlin Public Prosecutor’s Office, the properties were nevertheless seized as a precautionary measure – and officials froze most of the purchase price.

Prosecutors quickly recognized the explosive nature of the case and initiated investigations into several suspects. Among them, dentist Jefim B. and his alleged mistress Olena G., the purported colonel in the Russian intelligence service reserves. Prosecutors have accused them of having jointly committed fraud and jointly committed forgery of documents, among other infractions. Like the dentist’s lawyer, Olena G.’s defense attorney also declined to comment.

In the final week of March, Berlin prosecutors had several apartments and offices searched and confiscated numerous documents, mobile phones and storage devices. Concurrently, they also secured land registry files, purchase agreements and bank statements to trace the money from the real estate transactions.

Money Transfers To Moscow

Some the 13.5 million euros paid for the four plots of land in Karlshorst apparently ended up in the hands of a man with a Russian name who allegedly lives in Moscow. In chats, the dentist asked his paramour if he had recorded the man’s data correctly. She corrected the street name. Investigators found that Jefim B.’s real estate company transferred 1.8 million euros to the man.

Investigators do not currently consider it likely that the alleged fraud was politically motivated. At the moment, they say, there are no reliable indications of the involvement of intelligence agencies, and “general criminal motivation” is suspected.

Over the past few weeks, real estate mogul Klupp has been doing everything in his power to try to get his money back. It is said that the dentist has apparently signed a contract promising Klupp a refund of the purchase price and the reimbursement of most incidental expenses. When contacted, Klupp declined to comment on the deal and its consequences, citing the ongoing investigations. The Russian Embassy said it was supporting the prosecution “within the scope of its competencies.” The issue of “restoring the Russian Federation’s ownership rights to the real estate is currently being resolved,” it added.

What is clear is that this story has many losers: a disgraced embassy that allowed real estate worth 13.5 million euros slip through its hands, allegedly defrauded investors and an alleged representative of the Kremlin who was likely just a normal dentist and now has to pay for the damage.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the state of the Russian properties in Karlshorst. They are still empty. And crumbling.

Der Spiegel May 18, 2022

From inventors to adventurers and a warrior nun: Kate Mosse on 10 forgotten women who helped shape the world

Ani Pachen, who led 600 fighters against the Chinese invasion in 1958, marching in Washington DC in 2000 to support a free Tibet.
Survivor of conflict … Ani Pachen, who led 600 fighters against the Chinese invasion of her country in 1958, marching in Washington DC in 2000 to support a free Tibet. Photograph: Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images

Women’s achievements and contributions have been routinely neglected, overlooked or misattributed. In my new book, I tell the story of 1,000 of these extraordinary characters missing from history. Here are just a few

What is history? Who decides which people deserve to be remembered, lauded – or vilified – and those who will be forgotten? Why is it that some documents and reputations are preserved, cherished, and others are lost or allowed to fade into silence?

Women and men have built the world together, so why is it that women’s achievements and contributions have been so routinely neglected, or overlooked, or misattributed? In science, it’s known as the “Matilda effect”, after a tract by US suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage about the deliberate suppression of the contributions of female scientists within research, as well as the frequent crediting of their work to male counterparts. US science historian Margaret W Rossiter, who coined the phrase in 1993, believes that because few male historians were willing to write about female scientists, or their achievements, it meant that even if a woman was visible within her lifetime, her work quickly became invisible after her death.

Physics professor Chien-Shiung Wu in a laboratory at Columbia University.
Physics professor Chien-Shiung Wu in a laboratory at Columbia University. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

There is also the pervasive idea of the occasional unique or extraordinary woman – so yes, the story goes, although it’s true Joan of Arc existed, she was a lone wolf. Or, although everyone has heard of the brilliant Polish-French scientist Marie Curie – and she was brilliant: the first female physics professor at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win any Nobel prize, the first person and only woman to win a Nobel twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences, physics and chemistry – the impression given is that Curie was a rare female scientist in a man’s world.

The biochemist Gerty Cori.
The biochemist Gerty Cori. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

But what about Gerty Cori, who helped revolutionise treatment for diabetes, or the Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, or the great 18th-century German comet-hunter Caroline Herschel, or the so-called “Chinese Marie Curie”, Chien-Shiung Wu, or the English electrical engineer Caroline Haslett, one the founding members and first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society?

Suffragist Annie Kennie in jail.
Suffragist Annie Kennie in jail. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Sustained change, genuine equality between women and men, lies in telling the story of all those who made a contribution, not just a few chosen as figureheads. So, for example, in the suffrage movement, we should remember Southend’s Rosina Sky, Glasgow’s Helen Crawfurd Anderson and Oldham’s Annie Kenney alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Ethel Smyth.

Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World is an attempt to put back some of the women missing from history. There are more than 1,000 women in the book, though it is no more than a beginning.

Here are 10 trailblazers to get you going.

Enheduanna (2285-2250BC)

Did you know that the first named author in history is a woman? The high priestess to Inanna – one of the most powerful Mesopotamian goddesses, associated with love, war, sex and political power – Enheduanna lived in the 23rd century BC in the Sumerian city state of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). Excavations in 1922 and 1934 turned up an alabaster carved disc, as well as clay tiles with poetry attributed to her. Her catalogue includes a collection of 42 temple hymns, three long poems to Inanna and three poems to the moon god. If women cannot write, are denied the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own voices, then half of our human story is lost.

Egeria (4th century AD)

Egeria (sometimes Etheria) was an early Christian writer and traveller, originally from Galicia or Gaul (Spain or France). Her detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land c AD381–386, The Travels of Egeria, was written in Latin and is the earliest extant account of a Christian pilgrimage. Only one incomplete manuscript has survived, transcribed into the 11th-century Codex Aretinus, and it begins in the middle of a sentence. Eleven short quotations were also found in a ninth-century manuscript from Toledo. But these fragments give a flavour of her voice. Egeria is a wonderful narrator, detailed and curious. She stayed in Jerusalem for three years, visiting Jericho, travelling to the tomb of Job in modern-day Oman, to Mount Nebo, to the Sea of Galilee. Just imagine her courage – a woman travelling alone to Constantinople, Jerusalem and Mesopotamia, and home again. A great travel correspondent.

Rabia Balkhi (10th century AD)

A renowned Afghan poet-princess of the royal court, she was born in Balkh, an ancient city in northern Afghanistan known as the “mother of cities”, and is one of very few female writers of medieval Persia to be recorded by name (she also wrote in Arabic). Her legend is that she fell in love with her brother’s Turkish slave. Disapproving of her choice, her brother incarcerated Balkhi in the hammam and ordered her wrists to be slit. Her last poems to her lover are said to have been written on the walls of her tomb in her own blood.

Balkhi’s tomb was a much-visited site in Balkh and many hospitals and universities are named in her honour. The portrait of her wearing a blue khimar with a book, inkwell and quill was everywhere in Afghanistan. A long-term symbol of independence for Afghan women, as of August 2021 her legacy is under threat. A female student, who had fled as the Taliban swept into Kabul, wrote in a US newspaper of how, when her university was summarily closed to female students and tutors, she witnessed a painting of Balkhi being erased from the wall. This is not “silence in the archives”, but rather a deliberate eradication of a great poet from Afghanistan’s history.

Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.
Crusader-era monarch … Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. Photograph: Alamy

Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem (1105-1161)

You must guard against eulogising any aspect of Crusader history – they were bloody religious wars of conquest and devastation – but Melisende is a woman I admire. Though she was contemporaneous with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Melisende is inexplicably almost completely absent from the history books despite her extraordinary life and achievements. The eldest of the four daughters of Baldwin II, she was raised to succeed her father and, though married to a wealthy crusader, Baldwin held a coronation ceremony investing the kingship of Jerusalem three ways – between Melisende, her husband and his grandson, in the hope that his daughter would be granted the same power and seniority as her husband.

Baldwin II died in 1131 and, as he had clearly feared, her husband, Fulk, refused to accept Melisende as his monarchic equal. Rather than tolerate this, she went to war against him to secure her rights and – again, extraordinarily for these times – the clergy and nobility of Outremer (the Crusader states) supported her. They were reconciled by 1136 and she appears genuinely to have mourned him when he was killed in a hunting accident in 1143. Melisende ruled as queen from 1131 to 1153, and again as regent for her son when he was on campaign from 1154 until 1161. She endowed many convents and religious institutions, commissioned works of art and literature, yet despite this, there is no major mausoleum or tomb dedicated to her. It’s a salutary reminder of how easily even the most famous women can disappear from history if their legacy is not protected.

Khutulun (c1260-c1306)

Khutulun was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, whose Mongol empire was starting to splinter. By 1260, her father, Kaidu Khan, was in dispute with his uncle, Kublai Khan. As she came of age, his most trusted military adviser and general was not one of his 14 sons, but his beloved daughter. She was also a famous wrestler, and this is where the lines between legend and fact become blurred. Legend has it that she said she would only marry someone who could beat her in a wrestling competition. If she won, they had to present her with 100 horses – some versions of the story say 1,000 – and it is said that is how she built up her own herd of 10,000 horses. Kaidu failed to secure his daughter’s succession as grand khan and little is known of her after his death.

For centuries she was forgotten, until the early 18th-century French orientalist and traveller François Pétis de la Croix wrote a story inspired by her life story – Turandot, or the Daughter of Turan – though rather than wrestling her suitors, his princess sets them riddles. That story inspired others, not least Puccini’s 1924 opera.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley at her desk.
African-American poet … Phillis Wheatley at her desk. Photograph: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

An enslaved woman originally from west Africa – possibly the Gambia or Senegal – she was taken to North America on a slave ship as a child and bought by the Wheatley family in Boston. Recognising her talent – though, of course, any success she achieved would benefit them – they set about helping her to find an audience for her writing. Bigotry and racism in America sent them to Britain, where the Methodist evangelist and abolitionist Selina Hastings helped secure a London publisher. Phillis Wheatley was forced to appear before 18 men to prove that she had written her poems – shades of Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431 – but by 1771, her work was circulating in London. Her best-known poem – On Being Brought from Africa to America – is a searing protest against racism. She was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poems and among the first published African-American poets.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877)

Caroline Norton.
Social reformer … Caroline Norton. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

Every woman going through a divorce in the UK owes a debt to the English poet, pamphleteer and justice campaigner Caroline Norton. Norton’s husband accused her of adultery and, though he lost the case, he not only refused to grant her a divorce, but denied her access to her three young sons and even continued to claim her earnings from her own writings. Norton used her personal experiences to work to change the law, which she saw as state-supported domestic violence, coercive control and injustice against women. Her dogged and meticulous campaigning led to the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, three pieces of legislation of enormous significance to women’s lives. She also found the time to publish several novels, plays, poetry collections and political pamphlets.

Isabella Bird.
Isabella Bird. Photograph: Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images

Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

“I still vote civilisation a nuisance, society a humbug and all conventionality a crime,” wrote one of the greatest Victorian adventurers, Isabella Bird. A naturalist, explorer and writer – she was the first woman elected a fellow of the British Royal Geographical Society – Bird climbed mountains in Hawaii, rode more than 800 miles of the Rocky Mountains in the US on horseback, and travelled through China, Japan and Malaysia taking extraordinary photographs. Her letters to her sister during her US expedition formed the basis of perhaps her most famous book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Then, as if she had not achieved enough, she studied medicine so that she could work as a missionary. Bird arrived in India in February 1889, in her late 50s, full of enthusiasm and curiosity. She visited missions and founded a hospital, travelled to the border with Tibet, then on through Persia, Kurdistan, Armenia and Turkey. In 1897, now in her 60s, she sailed the Yangtze in China and the Han River in Korea, then saw in the new century during a last trip to Morocco, where she became ill. Bird returned home and died in Edinburgh in October 1904, having lived life on her own terms. Magnificent.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913)

Dishwasher inventor Josephine Garis Cochrane.
Dishwasher inventor Josephine Garis Cochrane. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy
A diagram of Cochrane’s dishwasher.
Cochrane’s dishwasher. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

In Chicago in the late 1880s, presumably after a particularly large family gathering, the US inventor and businesswoman Josephine Cochrane went to a shed in her back garden and designed the first … automatic dishwashing machine. Developing her invention with the help of mechanic George Butters, who became one of her first employees in the Garis-Cochrane Manufacturing Company (Garis was her birth name), Cochrane’s patent was issued on 28 December 1886 and she never looked back. Cochrane is just one of many enterprising female inventors including fellow American Mary Anderson, who patented the first windscreen wiper in 1903, and German pioneer Melitta Bentz, who, having spilt coffee on her son’s blotting paper while he was doing his homework, patented the first paper coffee filter system in 1908.

Ani Pachen (1933-2002)

In 1958, the Buddhist nun Ani Pachen led a force of about 600 fighters against the Chinese invasion of Buddhist Tibet, resisting the resulting genocide during which many hundreds of monasteries are believed to have been destroyed. Though Pachen was captured and kept in some of the harshest prisons in China for the next 20 years – for nine months, she was shackled and in solitary confinement – she never lost her Buddhist faith. She was released in 1981, during a slight thawing of relations between China and Tibet, but continued to protest against the genocide and Chinese occupation. In danger of being rearrested, the courageous Pachen fled on foot through the Himalayas to Nepal in 1988. She died in exile in India two years later, a warrior nun to the last.

In my house is a Tuvaluan basket, a tiny piece of an island the world cannot fail

Kate Lyons

Each day this week, essay series Before it is lost will feature Pacific writers detailing the climate fight that threatens the survival of their islands

‘My woven basket from Tuvalu acts as a reminder of the culture and craft of a country I am lucky to have seen, that we might lose.’
‘My woven basket from Tuvalu acts as a reminder of the culture and craft of a country I am lucky to have seen, that we might lose.’ Illustration: Kate Nolan/The Guardian

I own a basket I can never throw away.

It is deeply impractical, with a wide base that means it takes up the entire surface area of any coffee table it sits on and a tall, rigid handle that makes storing it on any sort of shelf impossible.

Several times, I have rescued it from the pile of items to be donated to a charity shop. Last Christmas when my husband and I were packing to move house and taking savage inventory of the things we owned, I rescued it once again and spelt out my feelings for the basket and the long future it would have with us.

“I will never throw this away,” I said. “Ever.”


The woven basket comes from Tuvalu, an atoll nation in the South Pacific 4,000km north-east of Sydney. People from the Pacific often roll their eyes at the constant use of the epithet “tiny” to describe any Pacific island mentioned in international media, but in Tuvalu’s case, it actually does apply.

An aerial view of Fongafale island, home to the Tuvaluan capital of Funafuti

The fourth-smallest country in the world by land size, and, at 11,000, the third smallest by population, Tuvalu also has the cruel distinction of being one of the countries most under threat due to rising sea levels. Tuvalu and Kiribati are often mentioned in the same breath as countries that could be first to become completely uninhabitable and then disappear under the sea in the terrifyingly near future.

Salinity in the water table, heatwaves, king tides, flooding, destruction of coral reefs, coastal erosion – have all already begun. The skinny spit of land that makes up the main island narrows at one point to just 20 metres across – the ocean raging on one side, the lagoon on the other.

Three years ago when I visited Tuvalu, buying the basket from a small market full of sarongs and flower headpieces, taking it home to Australia, felt like an act of salvage. The privilege of having a tangible piece of an island that is so terribly threatened. A reminder of the culture and craft of a country I am lucky to have seen, that we might lose.

An aerial illustration of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean
Tuvalu is a tiny atoll nation located in the south-west Pacific 4,000km north-east of Sydney, Australia. Illustration: Kate Nolan/The Guardian.

This week, as the world prepares for the next UN climate summit, COP27, we’ll bring you a series – Before it is lost – of essays from Pacific writers about the things on their islands that are threatened by the climate crisis, the things they are fighting to save.

We all have a lot at stake in the climate crisis, but none more than the Pacific. The climate story in the Pacific is a story of deep loss and injustice. As a region it has contributed negligible amounts in greenhouse emissions but disproportionately suffers its effects.

Surface temperatures and ocean heat in parts of the south-west Pacific are increasing at more than three times the global average rate, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Five of the 15 countries most at risk from weather-related events are in the Pacific. In the last 30 years, the mean sea level has risen approximately 10cm–15cm in much of the western tropical Pacific, according to the Pacific Islands Climate Change Monitor report 2021, compared to the global mean of 9.7cm.

The losses that have already been endured: of entire islands, of safety, of lives, of species, are enormous. The losses that could come are unthinkable.

I visited Tuvalu in 2019 to cover the Pacific Islands Forum. At the forum, then prime minister Enele Sopoaga, used Tuvalu’s culture and natural beauty as shameless weapons to try to win over the visiting politicians, policy wonks, NGO bosses and the media to his country’s fight.

I only spent a week in Tuvalu, but if it is lost in my lifetime, my heart will break for it

Most nights, there would be a fatele, a feast with dancing and traditional music. Different islands took it in turns to host – saving their fish and lobster catch, bringing their coconuts and taro – to put on a huge meal for the hundreds of visitors. Afterwards they performed songs and dance; the mood was competitive between the islands, with groups calling challenges and friendly taunts to one another.

One morning, before sunrise, Sopoaga invited visitors to come to the beach and learn a traditional Tuvaluan fishing method that involves swimming into the lagoon in a line, banging the water with palm branches, herding the fish, before forming a circle around them in the shallows and catching them with nets.

I have not experienced many things more beautiful than swimming at sunrise in that perfect warm water, along that white-sand beach, surrounded by people singing and calling out from the shore as they built fires on the sand to cook our catch.

Locals during a traditional fishing practice to round up fish to be cooked on an umu (traditional earth oven) by the lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu, 15 August 2019.
Locals during a traditional fishing practice to round up fish to be cooked on an umu (traditional earth oven) by the lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu, 15 August 2019. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE

It was diplomacy by cultural sledgehammer. The prime minister was trying to get us to see what might be lost to the climate crisis, to see the specificity of Tuvalu, so that it would not, in our minds, be just one in a list of small Pacific countries, interchangeable and unremarkable.

Fiji has offered land to Tuvalu for relocation, but that offer, while generous and perhaps, God forbid, necessary, is not a solution that the international community should be content with. Tuvalu is not Fiji, just as the islands of Tuvalu themselves are not interchangeable and in fact are fiercely competitive on the dance floor.

I only spent a week in Tuvalu, but if it is lost in my lifetime, my heart will break for it. This is why I bought that basket, it’s why it has occupied far more space than I can spare in a tiny apartment; it is a physical piece of the island that the world must not be allowed to fail. Something that can be touched and held from a country facing a future of digital statehood; a dispersed or relocated nation.

The writers you will hear from this week, from across the Pacific, have those islands, those beautiful threatened lands, in their bones, in their blood.

They are – to a person – extraordinary: an acclaimed poet and national climate envoy, an veteran climate journalist, a renowned academic, a Pulitzer-nominated essayist who is also a human rights lawyer co-leading the campaign seeking an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice.

I mention this, not just because I am proud to be publishing their work, but to reinforce the fact that while Pacific peoples are undoubtedly victims of the climate crisis, they are also, without question, heroes of the climate fight. It is a fight they have been leading – fiercely, creatively, intelligently – for decades. It is a fight they need the world to join, before it is lost.

Money for RebelsTracking Down Blood Gold in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

A group of rebels controls the mines in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and uses the money to finance killings. The gold often ends up in Europe illegally. DER SPIEGEL is one of the first media outlets to document what is happening on site in the country.

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.All Articles

A string of lights hangs from the ceiling, glowing in myriad bright colors, as if a child’s birthday party were underway. Raymond is sitting on a plastic chair under the lights, wearing a bright red cowboy hat and a yellow T-shirt with a large bottle of beer set on the table in front of him. Raymond laughs a lot and then pulls out his phone and scrolls through the photos.

The first pictures show a number of children, but they aren’t playing or carrying their book bags – they’re holding guns. And instead of wearing school uniforms, they’re in camouflage. Raymond is also in the photos with the rebels, looking far more aggressive. He’s not wearing a cowboy hat and is instead holding a gun and posing next to the children. He scrolls further. At some point, the photos stop, and dozens of porn videos follow. Embarrassed, he turns off his mobile.

We are visiting the Mai-Mai Yakutumba in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The notorious rebel group dominates this region, massacring entire villages, raping women and extorting the populace – all to expand their power. And they control the gold business.

Raymond refers to himself as the secretary general of the Mai-Mai rebels, but it is hard to tell if the title really exists or if it is just something he has made up. He’s an emissary of sorts, because the rebel chief himself, William Yakutumba, is scheduled to arrive that night. For now, though, the DER SPIEGEL team must content itself with hanging out under the string of lights and listening as the secretary general shares his war stories.

At some point, the beer runs out and we are assigned rooms in the rebel’s flophouse. They can only be locked from the outside. The next morning, Yakutumba still hasn’t arrived, but there are serious-looking older men who again query us about what we want to ask the boss. Raymond with the cowboy hat is rebuked by them in Kiswahili. They tell him he doesn’t look tough enough and that the foreign journalists aren’t going to get the correct impression. Ultimately, though, the boss doesn’t show up at all – and no real reason is given for his absence. Raymond seems a bit disappointed.

Several goldmines are located around the town of Misisi. The entire area makes its living from gold mining.

Several goldmines are located around the town of Misisi. The entire area makes its living from gold mining. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Ultimately, though, the group does provide DER SPIEGEL, and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, with access to the notorious gold mines around Misisi. It is the first time international journalists have been allowed inside. And there’s a reason for that: Gold is the main source of income for the Mai-Mai Yakutumba rebels and they use it to finance their armed conflict. The precious metal eventually ends up in rings and necklaces in Europe and the United States, but beneath that luster is the blood of the rebels’ victims.

Victims like Esther Nanduhura’s husband. It was early one morning in October 2021, the sun hadn’t even fully risen, when the fighters arrived in Bibokoboko, the village where they lived. They charged in from three sides with machine guns, machetes and torches. “I was sure at that moment that I was going to die,” Nanduhura says.

Mai-Mai rebels killed Esther Nanduhura's husband during a raid on her village.

Mai-Mai rebels killed Esther Nanduhura’s husband during a raid on her village. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

She’s a member of the Banyamulenge ethnic group, a minority that migrated from Rwanda and other regions generations ago. The Mai-Mai Yakutumba view them as their main enemy, as alien Tutsies who must be exterminated. They have already driven the Banyamulenge out of large parts of South Kivu and Bibokoboko is one of their last strongholds, guarded by United Nations peacekeepers and the Congolese military.

Nanduhura managed to find a hiding place, but her 80-year-old father-in-law wasn’t fast enough. The rebels shot him to death without hesitating. In the end, the Mai-Mai also found the 35-year-old and her family, making them go on a forced march that lasted for several days. After two days, they dragged her husband away and he never came back. Nanduhura later learned he had been hacked to death with a machete. “They threatened to kill us too, we didn’t get anything to eat and the children kept fainting,” she recalls. The prisoners weren’t released until a week later, and only a few returned to their village.

Nanduhura is safe now and lives in a large city far away from the horrors. “People in Europe buy gold from the rebels, thus financing the weapons they use to kill us. This has to end,” she demands.

In other words, the men under the string of lights, drinking beer in their red cowboy hats and showing off their photos and porn, are essentially murderers and rapists.

The Mines of the Rebels

Two porters carry mineral sand on their bicycle down into the valley. The path down is very dangerous.

Two porters carry mineral sand on their bicycle down into the valley. The path down is very dangerous. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

The road to the Mitondo gold mine is challenging, to say the least. The road gets narrower and narrower behind the town of Misisi. At some point, the old Land Cruiser gets stuck in a deep water hole, and from that point on, it is only possible to continue by motorcycle. Another motorcycle approaches with two sticks attached in an upright position behind the driver. Something is tied tightly between the sticks – it looks like a big sack or a mummy wrapped in cloth bandages. The motorcycle is carrying a body, which has been positioned upright. A miner has died, as so often happens. His body is now driven for hours over bumpy roads, back to his family, who will bury him.

After a few kilometers in the direction of Mitondo, it is no longer possible to go further by motorcycle and the journey continues by foot on a steep path. The climb is relentless, with the hot sun beating down, even though it is already late afternoon.

The mineral sand is carried down into the valley from the mines in sacks. From there, it is transported further using muscle power and bicycles.

The mineral sand is carried down into the valley from the mines in sacks. From there, it is transported further using muscle power and bicycles. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Suddenly a rattling can be heard, it gets louder, and someone gasps. “Look out” someone yells from above. Then a rickety contraption emerges, a bicycle the men cobbled together themselves, but without working brakes. A young man holds the handlebars, his feet in rubber boots dragging on the ground, panic can be seen in his eyes, even though he somehow manages this grueling descent every day. He has loaded large sacks with the ore and now has to find a way to transport them down into the valley, using his rubber boots as brakes.

Eventually the path flattens out a bit, winds around a rock to the left, and a dystopia suddenly comes into sight. Dozens of makeshift huts covered with blue tarpaulins line the road. People can be seen lying, squatting or sitting in them. Many still have their headlamps on their heads, their naked torsos shimmer brightly, they are completely covered in mud. Some look up briefly as they notice the visitors, but most continue to doze lethargically, their eyes half open. They don’t even seem to have the strength to nod in greeting anymore.

The miners live in these makeshift dwellings for weeks and months at a time and work in the mines every day. They eat in makeshift restaurants in a secluded parallel world. This young man is trying to earn some extra money by selling grooming products and alcohol.

The miners live in these makeshift dwellings for weeks and months at a time and work in the mines every day. They eat in makeshift restaurants in a secluded parallel world. This young man is trying to earn some extra money by selling grooming products and alcohol. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Behind the tents, two steep slopes rise to the left and right with a small stream flowing between them. Workers with shovels can be seen everywhere digging artificial pools or heaving brownish mud into wooden troughs and sieves. Then, suddenly, there’s a loud burst of thunder, a few men quickly jump to the side, and seconds later it becomes clear why: Huge chunks of stone are rolling down the slope toward where the workers had been standing only a moment before. A life-threatening job even outside the actual tunnels.

Only at second glance does it become clear that the steep slopes are littered with tunnels, barely more than a meter high, supported by thin wooden beams. The wet rock with the gold ore is pounded out in these tunnels using a hammer and chisel. Many don’t survive the search for the precious metal.

The United Nations issues an annual report on the Democratic Republic of Congo with a special focus on armed groups and their access to raw materials. The mines around Misisi make a regular appearance in that report. The experts write: “The Mai-Mai Yakutumba control the Makungu and Mitondo mines.” In Mitondo, the report states, the rebels forcibly drove out the Congolese army in December 2021 and established their own administration.

But armed men are nowhere to be seen. A group leads us through the mine, with some introducing themselves as representatives of the local gold cooperative, one man as a security officer, others cannot be identified. No one wears a uniform. Later, the miners say that several rebels dressed in civilian clothing had been part of the entourage. The boundaries are often blurred, with the rebels working hand in hand with government security forces and sharing the profits from gold mining.

Most of the miners are still young, but this mine worker, despite being 51 years old, still goes into the tunnels every day.

Most of the miners are still young, but this mine worker, despite being 51 years old, still goes into the tunnels every day. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Children also work in gold mining, but usually at improvised prospecting sites along the rivers rather than in the mines.

Children also work in gold mining, but usually at improvised prospecting sites along the rivers rather than in the mines. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

James Mulemi*, 22, takes a break from washing the slurry in a yellow plastic container to talk about working in the mine. A man standing near him introduces himself as an intelligence officer, whatever that might mean. But James still speaks openly about the rebels, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

“They’re up there in the mountains,” the wiry teenager tells us, pointing to the slope next to him. He’s referring to the Mai-Mai with the guns who control everything here. He says that although they may be out of sight, they can still see everything that takes place down below – an invisible power that determines the lives of miners. In confidential conversations, other workers confirm James’ descriptions.

James then discusses how the rebels exert control. For every gram of gold he extracts from the mountain, he has to pay a fee: first to the Mai-Mai, then to the army and, next, to the cooperative, to the Mining Ministry and the local village chiefs. He says they’re all aware of what the other is doing and that they leave each other alone – the main thing is that the money keeps flowing. James recounts how the rebels kept meticulous records. “Since they arrived, we have had to pay the money upfront. Those who don’t are beaten brutally. There’s very little left for us to live on.”

The miners extract the gold from the steep slopes in Mitondo. The mine is extremely profitable.

The miners extract the gold from the steep slopes in Mitondo. The mine is extremely profitable. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

It's only possible to maneuver through the narrow tunnels hunched over or crawling on all fours.

It’s only possible to maneuver through the narrow tunnels hunched over or crawling on all fours. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

After the beatings, usually with a heavy drill rod, the victims are then placed in the “hole,” as they call it. James describes it as being about 3 meters deep and 1 meter wide, adding that they are thrown in if the don’t pay their “taxes,” with as many as 10 people in the hole at a time. Several people claim they were forced to stay there for days without food. The Mai-Mai rebels didn’t respond to questions about the accusations submitted to them by DER SPIEGEL via WhatsApp.

Brutal Working Conditions

A porter waits for sacks to be removed at the Mitondo gold mine.

A porter waits for sacks to be removed at the Mitondo gold mine. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Another gold mine, Makungu, is located just a few hundred meters away from Mitondo, though they look almost identical. In one of the narrow tunnels, a light suddenly flickers on, the glow growing brighter and brighter until, finally, a mud-caked figure emerges from the gloom. Michael* rolls a bag of gold ore out of the tunnel, his eyes only slowly getting used to the daylight.

Michael is on guard, he owes the Mai-Mai money. He had recently ran into financial troubles and didn’t have the necessary protection money. “I was in the hole for a week and lost 10 kilos,” he says. You can still see the traces of the torment – he looks haggard despite his muscular body, with sunken cheeks. His tormentors could come back at any moment, and he still doesn’t have the money to pay them.

Here, at the foot of the Makungu mine, experts and diggers test soil and rock samples for their gold content.

Here, at the foot of the Makungu mine, experts and diggers test soil and rock samples for their gold content. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

“I was making twice as much before the rebels came,” Michael says, adding that some of his co-workers have even been killed. Other miners confirm the torture and the violence, but say they haven’t been witness to murders.

Yet working conditions here are bad enough without the Mai-Mai. The tunnels are bored several hundred meters deep into the mountainside, and it is pitch dark inside, with only the light of headlamps piercing the darkness. The miners have to hunch as they walk through the tunnels, even crawling on all fours in some places. And the further they advance into the mountain, the hotter it gets, sometimes over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The air is so thin that workers use a special breathing technique, shallow and steady, to avoid fainting.

The Dangerous Work of Gold Mining

The tunnels frequently collapse when the timbered beams yet again fail to hold them up. In a single incident six years ago, 20 young men were buried alive in the mine. They didn’t stand a chance. Michael’s brother died in the accident, and his body still hasn’t been recovered to this day. It’s only worth digging for gold, not for the dead. “Everyone here knows they could die at any time. But there’s no other way to make money in the area, so we keep going,” the 21-year-old says.

The Path of Gold

Below the gold mines, not far from the village, a deafening grating noise fills the air as a cement mixer-like device crushes the rocks that have been carted out of the mine. The stone powder is then mixed with water to form slurry and sieved several times. After a time, mercury is added, the chemical that separates the gold from the unwanted residue, ultimately yielding porous yellow nuggets that are some of the best in the world.

M’mbongecha Nyange stands next to the noisy machines built by his cooperative. This is where the traders come to buy the valuable nuggets before reselling them. Asked about the rebels and the role they play in the mines, Nyange answers: “In the past, the armed groups used to be here, but not any longer. None of it is true.” Every gram is supposedly strictly accounted for. Yet, according to official statistics, only about 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of gold were produced at Misisi between November and April 2022, an impossible figure given the daily output at the mines.

There is no receipt or even a certificate – the price is negotiated after reviewing the current rate for gold. "My boss is in Bukavu, that's where the gold goes. He pays me to get him supplies and doesn't ask questions," says one shopkeeper.

There is no receipt or even a certificate – the price is negotiated after reviewing the current rate for gold. “My boss is in Bukavu, that’s where the gold goes. He pays me to get him supplies and doesn’t ask questions,” says one shopkeeper. Foto: 

Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Everything in the gold-mining town of Misisi revolves around the precious metal. The gold is resold in many shady stores. The owners report that the Mai-Mai collect protection money from them, as well.

Everything in the gold-mining town of Misisi revolves around the precious metal. The gold is resold in many shady stores. The owners report that the Mai-Mai collect protection money from them, as well. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

U.S. officials estimate that more than 90 percent of Congo’s gold is traded illegally, and it is impossible for consumers to know whether the product they are buying is clean or not. For the Congolese state, this means that millions in tax revenues are lost every year, while a corrupt elite shamelessly enriches itself

The traders bring the gold from the mines to Misisi.

The precious metal is taken from city to city along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo to Bukavu.

From Bukavu, it usually continues further across the border into Rwanda, either smuggled in or officially exported.

From there, the traders ship the gold, sometimes through intermediary sites, often to Dubai.

The city in the United Araba Emirates is considered the global trade center for gold.

Bukavu is a notorious trading hub on the Rwandan border. Gold from all over the south of the country passes through the city, and from here, it is either smuggled to Rwanda or other East African countries, or it is officially exported with fake certificates. Then, the journey of the coveted precious metal continues to places like the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest trading centers for gold, before finally ending up as jewelry in places like Paris, Berlin or Madrid.

The city of Bukavu on the Rwandan border is a major hub for the further transport of gold to other parts of the world. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

The Godfather of the Gold Business

One name has been in the headlines repeatedly in recent years: Alain Goetz. The Belgian is a godfather of sorts in the gold business in Africa. He set up large gold refining plants in Uganda and Rwanda and has allegedly negotiated with an armed group in the 1990s. He has also been convicted of money laundering and fraud. At times this year, he hasn’t even able to use his credit cards, laments Goetz in an interview with DER SPIEGEL.

In March, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Goetz because he was allegedly sourcing gold from regions controlled by armed groups, including the Mai-Mai Yakutumba. Goetz’s network of companies generated hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenues from trade in Congolese gold. “These illicit acts provide income for armed groups that threaten the peace, security and stability of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” a Treasury Department press release stated in justification of the sanctions.

The United States has slapped Alain Goetz, a Belgian citizen, with sanctions for allegedly buying gold that supports the rebels.

The United States has slapped Alain Goetz, a Belgian citizen, with sanctions for allegedly buying gold that supports the rebels. Foto: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS

For his part, Goetz accuses politicians in Washington of meddling in African affairs. But he also tries to portray himself as naïve. “Conflict gold? That term is very easy to use. Then also bananas, water, everything would be ‘conflict’ in that region. The only things I see as products of conflict are weapons, ammunition and bad people,” he says. Besides, he adds, it’s impossible to know exactly where the gold really comes from. Experts, though, believe that tracking its origin should be the duty of traders, since they earn a fortune with the controversial commodity.

Yasin Somji says he wants to build a flagship gold refining plant in Bukavu.

Yasin Somji says he wants to build a flagship gold refining plant in Bukavu. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

Goetz’s competitors, meanwhile, are already working on their next steps. On a busy main road in Bukavu, a tall, corrugated iron fence keeps out prying eyes. Behind it, construction workers are laboring away as heavily armed police officers secure the site. Yasin Somji greets his visitors wearing a hardhat and a tight-fitting shirt, walking past huge vaults whose doors are being installed, while brand new machines from Italy are ready for installation. Somji plans to open Congo’s first gold refining plant soon.

When he talks about his plans, he sounds like the opposite of Goetz: young, smart and ethically responsible. He speaks about transparency and the ability to trace the origins of gold. But when asked about the concrete steps, he just repeats, “We will work closely with the government” – not exactly reassuring in a country like Congo.

In any case, he says the mines in Misisi have “great potential.” After all, the gold from the Congo is among the best in the world. The rebels feel the same.

The team of reporters from DER SPIEGEL and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (front left, middle and right) with the Mai-Mai rebels. In the back on the left in the yellow T-shirt is Raymond, the secretary general.

The team of reporters from DER SPIEGEL and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (front left, middle and right) with the Mai-Mai rebels. In the back on the left in the yellow T-shirt is Raymond, the secretary general. Foto: Arsène Mpiana / DER SPIEGEL

*We have changed the names of the main protagonists in this story to protect their identities.

King Tut Died Long Ago, but the Debate About His Tomb Rages On

Maybe the walls are disguising the undiscovered burial chamber of Nefertiti. Or “maybe it’s Al Capone’s safe.”

Visitors to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, view the sarcophagus and decorated walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Tourists looking at the tomb of King Tut, as displayed in a glass case at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, in November 2015.Credit…Amr Nabil/Associated Press

More than three millenniums after Tutankhamun was buried in southern Egypt, and a century after his tomb was discovered, Egyptologists are still squabbling over whom the chamber was built for and what, if anything, lies beyond its walls. The debate has become a global pastime.

At the center of the rumpus is the confrontational enthusiast Nicholas Reeves, 66, who shares a home near Oxford, England, with a nameless house cat. In July 2015, Dr. Reeves, a former curator at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, posited the tantalizing theory that there were rooms hidden behind the northern and western walls in the treasure-packed burial vault of Tutankhamun, otherwise known as King Tut.

It was long presumed that the small burial chamber, constructed 3,300 years ago and known to specialists as KV62, was originally intended as a private tomb for Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, until Tutankhamun died prematurely at 19. Dr. Reeves proposed that the tomb was, in fact, merely an antechamber to a grander sepulcher for Tutankhamun’s stepmother and predecessor, Nefertiti. What’s more, Dr. Reeves argued, behind the north wall was a corridor that might well lead to Nefertiti’s unexplored funerary apartments, and perhaps to Nefertiti herself.

The Egyptian government authorized radar surveys using ground-penetrating radar that could detect and scan cavities underground. At a news conference in Cairo in March 2016, Mamdouh Eldamaty, then Egypt’s antiquities minister, showed the preliminary results of radar scans that revealed anomalies beyond the decorated north and west walls of the tomb, suggesting the presence of two empty spaces and organic or metal objects.

To much fanfare, he announced that there was an “approximately 90 percent” chance that something — “another chamber, another tomb” — was waiting beyond KV62. (Dr. Reeves said: “There was constant pressure from the press for odds. My own response was 50-50 — radar will either reveal there’s more to Tutankhamun’s tomb than we currently see, or it won’t.”)

Three men in sunglasses and button-down shirts, including Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, walk in the sun at the Valley of the Kings.
Mamdouh El-Damaty, left, Egypt’s antiquities minister, and Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, center, visit the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, in September 2015.Credit…Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

Yet, two years and two separate radar surveys later, a new antiquities minister declared that there were neither blocked doorways nor hidden rooms inside the tomb. Detailed results of the final scan were not released for independent scrutiny. Nonetheless, the announcement prompted National Geographic magazine to withdraw funding for Dr. Reeves’s project and a prominent Egyptologist to say, “We should not pursue hallucinations.”

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s onetime chief antiquities official and author of “King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb,” said: “I completely disagree with this theory. There is no way in ancient Egypt that any king would block the tomb of someone else. This would be completely against all their beliefs. It is impossible!” (Dr. Reeves countered by pointing out that every successor king was responsible for closing the tomb of his predecessor, as the mythical Horus buried his father, Osiris. “This is even demonstrated in what we currently see on the burial chamber’s north wall — as labeled, Ay burying Tutankhamun,” Dr. Reeves said.)

Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted the fraught scholarly terrain. “Nick’s work is evidence-based and carefully researched,” she said. “But few Egyptologists will say it on record because they are all afraid of losing their access to tombs and excavation concessions. Or they are just plain jerks.”

Despite the setback, Dr. Reeves soldiered on. In “The Complete Tutankhamun: 100 Years of Discovery,” a freshly revised edition of his 1990 book to be published in January, he draws on data provided by thermal imaging, laser-scanning, mold-growth mapping and inscriptional analysis to support his fiercely debated scholarship. The provocative new evidence has bolstered his belief that Tutankhamun was given a hasty burial in the front hallway of the tomb of Nefertiti.

The golden funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, who died in 1,323 B.C. at age 19, on display behind glass at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2015.
The newly restored funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, who died in 1,323 B.C. at age 19, on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in December 2015.Credit…Mostafa Elshemy/Andalou Agency, via Getty Images

“Much of what Tutankhamun took to the grave had nothing to do with him,” said Dr. Reeves, who spoke by video from his home office. He maintained that King Tut had inherited a suite of lavish burial equipment that had then been repurposed to accompany him into the afterlife, including his famous gold death mask.

The father of Tutankhamun was Akhenaten, the so-called heretic king whose reign was characterized by social, political and religious upheaval. The 18th-dynasty pharaoh rejected Amun, Osiris and Egypt’s traditional gods in favor of a single disembodied creator-essence, Aten, or the sun disk. In the space of a generation, Akhenaten had created a city from scratch at el-Amarna for his new god, and prepared royal tombs for himself, his children along and his wives, including Nefertiti.

A painted bust of the ancient Egyptian ruler Nefertiti, fine-boned and slender-necked, on display in Berlin in 2012.
A bust of Nefertiti on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin in December 2012, during an exhibition marking the 100-year anniversary of the item’s discovery.Credit…Michael Sohn/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

After Akhenaten came an obscure pharaoh named Smenkhkare, whom Tutankhamun succeeded directly. Dr. Reeves has long held that Smenkhkare and Nefertiti were the same person, and that Akhenaten’s queen simply changed her name, first to Neferneferuaten, during a period of co-rule with her husband, and then to Smenkhkare following his death, navigating a period of sole, independent rule. To the boy-king would fall the burial of this rare woman pharaoh.

During King Tut’s decade-long reign, he appeared to have been largely occupied with rectifying the chaos bequeathed to him by his old man. But it would not be enough: Shortly after his death in 1,323 B.C., a new dynasty chiseled his tarnished name into dust.

Dr. Reeves has conducted research directly in the tomb on several occasions over the years. He came to his theory about Tutankhamun in 2014 after examining high-resolution color photographs of the tomb, which were published online by Factum Arte, a company based in Madrid and Bologna, Italy, that specializes in art recording and replication. The images showed lines beneath the plastered surfaces of painted walls, suggesting uncharted doorways. He speculated that one doorway — in the west — opened into a Tutankhamun-era storeroom, and that another, which aligns with both sides of the entrance chamber, opened to a hallway continuing along the same axis in form and orientation reminiscent of a more extensive queen’s corridor tomb.

“I saw early on, from the face of the north wall subject, that the larger tomb could only belong to Nefertiti,” Dr. Reeves said. “I also suggested, based on evidence from elsewhere, that the perceived storage chamber to the west of the burial chamber might have been adapted into a funerary suite for other missing members of the Amarna royal family.”

Several men examine documents atop the glass-covered sarcophagus in King Tut’s tomb, a wall of painted figures behind them.
Dr. Reeves, third from right, evaluates documents inside the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Luxor, Egypt.Credit…Yumiko Ueno

To support his radical reassessment, Dr. Reeves pointed to a pair of cartouches — ovals or oblongs enclosing a group of hieroglyphs — and a curious misspelling painted on the tomb’s north wall. The figure beneath the first cartouche is named as Tutankhamun’s Pharaonic successor, Ay, and is shown officiating at the young king’s burial carrying out the “opening the mouth” ceremony, a funerary ritual to restore the deceased’s senses — the ability to speak, touch, see, smell and hear. The key, Dr. Reeves said, is that both of the Ay cartouches show clear evidence of having been changed from their originals — the birth and throne names of Tutankhamun.

Dr. Reeves suggested that the cartouches had originally showed Tut burying his predecessor, and that the cartouches — and hence the tomb — were put to new use. “If you inspect the birth-name cartouche closely, you see clear, underlying traces of a reed leaf,” he said in an email. “Not by chance, this hieroglyph is the first character of the divine component of Tutankhamun’s name, ‘-amun,’ in all standard writings.”

Beneath Ay’s throne name may be discerned a rare, variant writing of Tutankhamun’s throne name, “Nebkheperure,” employing three scarab beetles. This is a variant whose lazy adaptation provides the only feasible explanation for the strangely misspelled three-scarab version of the Ay throne name “Kheperkheperure” that now stands there, Dr. Reeves said.

He deduced that the scene had originally depicted not Ay presiding over the interment of Tutankhamun, but Tutankhamun presiding over the burial of Nefertiti. There are two visual clinchers, he said. The first is the “rounded, childlike, double underchin” of the Ay figure, a feature not present in any image currently recognizable as him, implying that the original painting of the king must have been of the chubby, young Tutankhamun. The second is the facial contours of the mummified recipient — until now presumed to be Tutankhamun — whose lips, narrow neck and distinctive nasal bridge are a “perfect match” for the profile of the painted limestone bust of Nefertiti on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

A hieroglyphic on the decorated north wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.
A hieroglyphic on the decorated north wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. It is central to Dr. Reeves’s theory that the tomb held another occupant before Tutankhamun was placed there.Credit…Peter Gremse

“There would have been no reason to include a depiction of this predecessor’s burial in Tutankhamun’s own tomb,” Dr. Reeves said. “In fact, the presence of this scene identifies Tutankhamun’s tomb as the burial place of that predecessor, and that it was within her outer chambers that the young king had, in extremis, been buried.”

Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptology curator at the University of California, Berkeley, said she had been following Dr. Reeves’s old and new claims with interest. “If he is right, it would be an amazing discovery because the tomb of Nefertiti would be intact, too,” she said. “But maybe even if there is a tomb there, it’s not that of Nefertiti, rather of another individual related to Tut. We simply cannot know it unless we dig through the bedrock.”

The problem, Dr. Lucarelli said, is finding a way to drill through the decorated north wall without destroying it. “This is also why other archaeologists do not sympathize with this theory,” she said.

Dr. Reeves’s unsympathetic colleagues are legion.

“Nick is flogging a dead horse in his theories,” Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, said. “He has provided no clear proof that the cartouches have been altered, and his iconographic arguments as to the faces on the wall have been rejected by pretty well every other Egyptologist I know of who is qualified to take a view.”

Dr. Cooney, whose book “When Women Ruled The World” argues that Nefertiti may have been Tut’s grandmother, is one of Dr. Reeves’s few champions. “I am not one of the many scholars laughing behind their hands,” she said. “Nick’s theory is brilliant but easily discounted in a very political and nationalistic Egypt that has refused to give permits to Western scholars who disagree with the party line. Maybe there’s nothing beyond the north wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Maybe it’s Al Capone’s safe. But if there is something there, this could potentially be the discovery of the millennium.”

At least part of the backlash against Dr. Reeves’s ideas can be traced to the politics of heritage. The narrative that Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed by the heroic English archaeologist Howard Carter has long been openly challenged by Egyptians, who took the discovery as a rallying cry to end 1920s British rule and establish a modern Egyptian identity. Among Egyptologists today, the hot topics include the decolonization of the field and more inclusive and equitable accounts of Egyptian team members involved in archaeological excavations.

“Sure, some in Egypt take a different view from me, which is easy enough to understand,” Dr. Reeves said. A weary expression spread over his face. “Archaeologists in the U.K. would, I am sure, look askance at some foreigner sounding off on who might be buried in Westminster Abbey. But my sole interest as an academic Egyptologist, my intellectual responsibility, is to seek out the evidence and report honestly and as objectively as possible on what I find.”

Nefertiti’s burial is what the raft of new facts points toward when considered altogether, he said, and inevitably Nefertiti plus Tutankhamun is a big ask. “I can understand the skepticism with which my proposals have been greeted in some quarters,” he said. “And I initially shared it; I would spend a year testing and retesting my conclusions before feeling comfortable enough to publish.”

That was back in 2015, and Dr. Reeves believes the evidence now is stronger than ever. “Indeed, with the discovery that both cartouches of Ay overlie original cartouches of Tutankhamun, we have the veritable smoking gun,” he said. “To simply deny the evidence is not going to make it go away.”

New York Times – October 30, 2022

With no buyers, Colombian farmers are sitting on kilos of coca paste

Without explanation, sales in the municipality of Tibú have ground to a halt, dealing a blow to the local economy

Venezuelan migrants working in a coca leaf camp in Tibú, Norte de Santander, Colombia.
Venezuelan migrants working in a coca leaf camp in Tibú, Norte de Santander, Colombia.SANTIAGO MESA


On this farm in El Zulia, on the Colombian border with Venezuela, there is only one man picking coca leaves. He arrived just 20 days ago, from the municipality of Tibú, about three hours away by car.

Six months ago, there would have been about 10 or 12 workers picking coca leaves on this farm. There also would have been no need to travel to another part of the department of Santander to look for work as a picker. But in Tibú, the Colombian municipality with the most coca cultivation – about 50 thousand acres worth – drug traffickers are no longer buying coca paste from the peasants.

“We live as coca growers and we’ve had many difficulties,” says Diomedes Quiroga, who supervises this 20-acre coca farm, which belongs to his sister. “We’ve stopped growing coca for a bit due to the situation… those who have a little spare land [have also started] planting crops like cassava.”

It’s not clear why the traffickers have stopped buying coca paste, the crude extract of the coca leaf that is essential for cocaine processing. Some think that it could be due to the 2021 capture of Dario Antonio Úsuga – alias Otononiel – the leader of Colombia’s largest drug cartel, the Clan del Golfo.

“Around here, the talk is that Otoniel gave up everything [to the Americans] when he was captured,” explains Quiroga. Others believe that a series of operations carried out by the Venezuelan regime along the border have destroyed many of the drug traffickers’ transport routes. And there’s another rumor: that the ELN guerrillas have ceased the production and sale of cocaine in preparation for a peace deal. Of course, nobody can confirm any of these theories.

Workers take a break from picking coca.
Workers take a break from picking coca.SANTIAGO MESA

While many in this part of Colombia think that the sudden lack of buyers is unprecedented, for Daniel Rico – an expert in drug policy and the director of the risk management consulting firm C-Análisis – the slowdown could simply be related to difficulties moving inventory into the United States from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

“In the drug trafficking business, from the time the cocaine is produced until it is sold, it can take two years.”

The troubles affecting the coca economy have unleashed a kind of recession in Tibú. The growers keep kilos of coca paste hidden in plastic bags at home, waiting for buyers.

“Here, coca represents a huge part of the economy,” says Nelson Leal López, the mayor of Tibú since August of this year. “That’s where a lot of the money comes from to buy food, medicine.”

Peasant farmers usually buy a kilo of coca paste for 2,750,000 Colombian pesos ($600). Today, they still have leftover stock. One grower has been keeping three kilos of coca paste in his house since July – about $1,800 worth. With no traffickers to buy his paste, he hasn’t been able to pay his workers.

A woman carries several bags filled with coca paste in Tibú, Colombia.
A woman carries several bags filled with coca paste in Tibú, Colombia.SANTIAGO MESA

Many pickers are still waiting for their money. Some have even had to accept being paid with pieces of paste – the same paste that was made from the leaves they ruined their hands picking. Many have sought work in coal mines or oil palm plantations, even though they earn far less than what they used to make.

César Ruiz, president of the board of the Campo Raya village – about an hour-and-a-half from Tibú by car – expresses his concerns: “Here, every week, they deliver food… but who can afford it? Nobody buys. The new government needs to do something.”

Pickers, farmers and local politicians in Tibú are generally in agreement that the previous right-wing administration of Iván Duque (2018-2022) never implemented anything to help the area’s economy transition away from illicit crops. Even though, affirms Teoniro Vargas, president of the Peasant Movement of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers (Coccam) of El Zulia, “we have always had the will to do so.”

Laborers grind coca leaves into paste.
Laborers grind coca leaves into paste.SANTIAGO MESA

“We want to change the crops and benefit from the substitution program… the price [of coca] in the region is very low and we are also working at a loss,” he explains.

Perhaps for the first time, coca is less profitable than other crops in Tibú.

“It’s the ideal time for us to reach out to farmers to change their mentality,” says Mayor Leal. “The fact that there is less income from coca leaves makes people more likely to seek other sources of income. However, it’s an opportunity with limits, because the drop in prices and demand is transitory.”

It’s unclear how big this window of opportunity is for the recently-elected government of President Gustavo Petro. The left-wing leader’s rhetoric has dealt a lot with drug policy. He has mused about putting an end to the aerial fumigation against crops for illicit use and of strengthening the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

An aerial view of coca leaf cultivation in Tibú, Colombia.
An aerial view of coca leaf cultivation in Tibú, Colombia.SANTIAGO MESA

But in Tibú, there’s still an air of uncertainty, especially after comments that Petro made following a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which he promised to continue the eradication of coca leaves in areas that “are industrial (narco-owned)… and do no belong to the peasantry.” The president even named Tibú as a place where coca eradication would continue.

“From that meeting, we feel that there is no clarity, only confusion,” says Ruiz. “The issue is that forced eradication will supposedly continue to attack large areas and drug traffickers. But how will that work? We’re concerned that, when it comes to eradicating, [the government] will not distinguish whether it’s a large or small crop yield.” Still, he isn’t alarmed just yet: during the Third Cocalero Meeting – to be held in Tibú on October 28 and 29 – a government delegation will attend to hear the residents’ concerns.

Just as he finishes expressing his hope, from the door of Ruiz’s house, a military helicopter can be seen passing by.

“What’s going on?” someone shouts.

“They were going to Caño Indio – about 40 minutes from here. The communities told us that they were trying to carry out forced eradication, but the peasants stopped them,” someone replies.

It is clear that Tibú – and all of the North of Santander, where almost 100 thousand acres of coca are cultivated – will be the testing ground for Colombia’s new drug policy.

Ukrainians use phone app to spot deadly Russian drone attacks

Citizen-spotters can report missiles at the push of a button with ePPO on their mobiles

In Kyvi people look at the remainder of what Ukrainian authorities believe is an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, after an attack on the city on 17 October.
People look at what’s left of what Ukrainian authorities believe is an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, after an attack on Kyiv on 17 October. Photograph: Reuters

A simple mobile phone app has been developed by Ukrainian volunteers to allow civilians to report sightings of incoming Russian drones and missiles – and, it is hoped, increase the proportion shot down before they hit the ground.

The app, ePPO, relies on a phone’s GPS and compass, and a user only has to point their device in the direction of the incoming object and press a single button for it to send a location report to the country’s military.

Gennady Suldin, one of those behind the project, said the aim was to enlist “the entire population” in helping to spot incoming attacks in what he described as an example of “web-centric war”

Ukraine has been subject to months of deadly long-range missile strikes, but the attacks have stepped up in the past month as Russia has fired hundreds of cheap, Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones into cities and at Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Limitations in Ukraine’s air defences have meant that a minority of the distinctive delta-winged drones get through. Five civilians were killed when the centre of Kyiv was bombed a fortnight ago; on that day 28 drones were launched at the capital, five exploding near the main train station.

Shahed-136 drones are a challenge for traditional radar to detect because their initial flight path is often low, perhaps 30m above ground, and their small size means they have a modest detection signature. As they close in on their targets, their altitude increases before they dive into the ground with terrifying effect.

The drones have been particularly effective in bombing Ukraine’s power stations and energy grid, causing blackouts in Kyiv and elsewhere, and prompting a scramble by politicians and the military to find ways to halt them.

Typically, the drones are set on course to fly over remote areas, rivers or other bodies of water, and are often launched at night. The attacks on Kyiv were launched from neighbouring Belarus, with drones flying low over the Dnipro river reservoir that runs from the border to the north of the capital.

A drone approaches for an attack in Kyiv on 17 October.
A drone approaches for an attack in Kyiv on 17 October. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

However, the team behind the app believes the drones’ relatively slow cruising speed, around 110mph, and their distinctive motorbike or lawnmower engine noise means they are easy to detect from the ground. “It is their Achilles heel,” Suldin said. “Once detected, these low-flying objects are easy to intercept.”

Samuel Bendett, a drones expert and adviser to the US CNA military thinktank, agreed that the Shahed drones were “relatively loud and have a distinct sound in flight”, and that the app could be useful as part of Ukraine’s layers of defence. “Every bit of data can help to pinpoint the origin and trajectory of the attack,” he said.

For all the technological novelty, however, the app echoes previous systems of public air defence. During the Battle of Britain, the Royal Observer Corps, a network of volunteer spotters, worked closely with the Royal Air Force to identify German aircraft flying over the UK.

The British coastal radar system faced outwards, meaning that the 30,000-strong network of spotters was crucial in pinpointing the enemy inland.

Towards the end of the war, the focus shifted to the identification of incoming V1 and V2 German rockets.

So far the app has had limited publicity in Ukraine but has nonetheless been downloaded 180,000 times via word of mouth. Its developers acknowledge that it took five months of testing and work with the military and government officials to develop it.

Suldin said the app had already helped to spot previously undetected Shahed drones and Kalibr cruise missiles on a few occasions, but he said he could not provide an exact figure for security reasons. Senior air defence officers “did not expect it to be so efficient”, the app’s promotor said.

For security reasons, the ePPO app only works in conjunction with the established Diia government app, which allows adult Ukrainians to store their identity card, driving licence and other official documents on their phone. That means it cannot, in theory, be used by non-citizens.

The app has been available for around three weeks, although only on Google Android phones, while approval from Apple is expected within days. Setting it up takes only a couple of minutes, requiring a download and confirmation from Diia, with a finger or thumbprint.

Andrii Kosiak, an electronics supplier also involved in the development programme, said he hoped people who work in remote locations – “fishermen, railway workers” – would download the app, although it is not clear that rural populations use Diia, which has been taken up by around a third of the adult population.

Ukraine does not have the equipment to monitor its low-level airspace continuously, said Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst with the Rusi thinktank. “Updates from spotters,” he said, would “help the air defence network plot the course of missile and loitering munition raids, to alert air defence units along their course and tailor air raid warnings.”

With Western Weapons, Ukraine Is Turning the Tables in an Artillery War

In the southern Kherson region, Ukraine now has the advantage in range and precision guidance of artillery, rockets and drones, erasing what had been a critical Russian asset.

A team of Ukrainian soldiers armed a drone with bombs on Friday during a mission that destroyed a Russian armored personnel carrier on the front lines in the country’s southern Kherson region.
A team of Ukrainian soldiers armed a drone with bombs on Friday during a mission that destroyed a Russian armored personnel carrier on the front lines in the country’s southern Kherson region.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — On the screen of a thermal imaging camera, the Russian armored personnel carrier disappeared in a silent puff of smoke.

“What a beautiful explosion,” said First Lt. Serhiy, a Ukrainian drone pilot who watched as his weapon buzzed into a Russian-controlled village and picked off the armored vehicle, a blast that was audible seconds later at his position about four miles away.

“We used to cheer, we used to shout, ‘Hurray!’ but we’re used to it now,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has been fought primarily through the air, with artillery, rockets, missiles and drones. And for months, Russia had the upper hand, able to lob munitions at Ukrainian cities, towns and military targets from positions well beyond the reach of Ukrainian weapons.

But in recent months, the tide has turned along the front lines in southern Ukraine. With powerful Western weapons and deadly homemade drones, Ukraine now has artillery superiority in the area, commanders and military analysts say.

Ukrainian soldiers inspecting a multirocket Grad launch system on Friday near the front lines in the country’s Kherson region.
Ukrainian soldiers inspecting a multirocket Grad launch system on Friday near the front lines in the country’s Kherson region.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Ukraine now has an edge in both range and in precision-guided rockets and artillery shells, a class of weapons largely lacking in Russia’s arsenal. Ukrainian soldiers are taking out armored vehicles worth millions of dollars with cheap homemade drones, as well as with more advanced drones and other weapons provided by the United States and allies.

The Russian military remains a formidable force, with cruise missiles, a sizable army and millions of rounds of artillery shells, albeit imprecise ones. It has just completed a mobilization effort that will add 300,000 troops to the battlefield, Russian commanders say, though many of those will be ill trained and ill equipped. And President Vladimir V. Putin has made clear his determination to win the war at almost any cost.

Still, there is no mistaking the shifting fortunes on the southern front.

0:52A video provided to The Times by the Ukrainian military shows a drone system releasing a single explosive with enough precision to hit a weak spot in the armor of a Russian tank.CreditCredit…Ukrainian Military

Ukraine’s growing advantage in artillery, a stark contrast to fighting throughout the country over the summer when Russia pummeled Ukrainian positions with mortar and artillery fire, has allowed slow if costly progress in the south toward the strategic port city of Kherson, the only provincial capital that Russia managed to occupy after invading in February.

The new capabilities were on display in the predawn hours Saturday when Ukrainian drones hit a Russian vessel docked in the Black Sea Fleet’s home port of Sevastopol, deep in the occupied territory of Crimea, once thought an impregnable bastion.

The contrast with the battlefield over the summer could not be starker. In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russia fired roughly 10 artillery rounds for each answering shell from Ukrainian batteries. In Kherson now, Ukrainian commanders say the sides are firing about equal numbers of shells, but Ukraine’s strikes are not only longer range but more precise because of the satellite-guided rockets and artillery rounds provided by the West.

“We can reach them and they cannot reach us,” said Maj. Oleksandr, the commander of an artillery battery on the Kherson front, who like others interviewed for this article gave only his first name for security reasons. “They don’t have these weapons.”

A Ukrainian soldier preparing a meal on Friday in a trench system along the front lines in the Kherson region, where Ukrainian forces have seized the momentum recently.
A Ukrainian soldier preparing a meal on Friday in a trench system along the front lines in the Kherson region, where Ukrainian forces have seized the momentum recently.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Falling rates of Russian fire also speak to ammunition shortages, he said. “There is an idea the Russian army is infinite, but it is a myth,” he said. “The intensity of fire has fallen by three times. It’s realistic to fight them.”

A main highway approaching Kherson city from the west has become a thoroughfare for Ukrainian artillery, with towed howitzers, truck-mounted howitzers and trucks laden with grad rockets rumbling by continually through the day.

American-provided M777 howitzers firing precision-guided shells and striking up to 20 miles behind Russian lines have forced the Russians to stage heavy equipment farther from the front. Ukrainian drones spot infantry but fewer tanks or armored vehicles near the front line, said First Lt. Oleh, the commander of a unit flying reconnaissance drones. “We hear a lot of rumors they are abandoning the first lines of defense.”

This firepower has tipped the balance in the south, raising expectations that a long-anticipated assault on Kherson is drawing near — though a swirl of apparent misdirection from military leaders on both sides has clouded the picture.

The terrain around the city — table-flat steppe with thin tree lines and little cover, and crisscrossed by irrigation canals that can be used as trenches — favors its Russian defenders. And Ukrainian commanders and officials have been dropping hints of an impending attack since the spring, only to have the fighting drag on.

But the city lies on the west bank of the Dnipro River, making its defenders reliant on bridges to Russian territory on the eastern bank that now lie within easy range of Ukrainian rocket artillery and, for the most part, are now unusable. That has made the Russian grip precarious. But President Putin has reportedly overruled his generals’ recommendations of a retreat to safer and more easily defended ground on the east bank.

The question remains just how long the Russian forces can, or will, hold out in Kherson.

Workers on Saturday cleaning up the site of a bakery that was damaged by Russian bombardment the day before in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.
Workers on Saturday cleaning up the site of a bakery that was damaged by Russian bombardment the day before in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“Russia is unable to maintain logistics supplies” to the west bank of the Dnipro, said Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst and the director of Rochan Consulting, based in Gdansk, Poland. He added that the Ukrainian military’s claim to have achieved the upper hand in artillery and frontline drone strikes in the south was “highly plausible.”

After a recent Ukrainian assault using American M777 howitzers and High Mobility Artillery Rockets, Slovak Zuzana self-propelled artillery and Polish Krab self-propelled artillery, Mr. Muzyka said, citing Ukrainian military sources, heavily battered Russian artillery positions on one section of the Kherson front went silent for more than 48 hours.

A recent drone attack led by Lieutenant Serhiy provided another example of the Russian forces’ vulnerabilities.

Equipped with night-vison goggles — an essential item of modern warfare that the Russian forces generally lack — the soldiers drove to the front line in an SUV with the headlights off, passing the jagged ruins of houses in a destroyed village silhouetted by a thin sliver of the moon.

Rattling under the driver’s seat were eight small bombs, each packed with a pound and a half of high explosives, enough to obliterate an armored vehicle. In the rear storage area sat a high-end, commercially available drone.

A Ukrainian air defense team driving along the front lines on Friday in the Kherson region.
A Ukrainian air defense team driving along the front lines on Friday in the Kherson region.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

From a rooftop position, two former computer programmers turned tank hunters directed drone strikes that took out two Russian armored vehicles in the space of about three hours, destroying more than a million dollars of Russian weaponry with a weapon that cost about $20,000.

After each flight, the drone buzzed back a few minutes later, unscathed.

This drone system, called Perun, one of dozens used by the Ukrainian military, swoops in at an altitude of about 500 feet, hovers directly over a target and releases its bombs.

The drones are audible from the ground but still effective, Lieutenant Serhiy said, as the Russian forces “don’t have much time” to shoot them down. It cannot be flown in all weather, and sometimes misses. “The technology is not perfect,” he said, “but it works when it works.”

1:13In another video provided to The Times by the Ukrainian military, one of its drone systems, called Perun, drops bombs on a Russian armored vehicle.CreditCredit…Ukrainian Military

Farther from the front line, out of drone range, American-provided, satellite-guided artillery shells have forced the Russian military to carefully camouflage or pull back heavy equipment, said Lieutenant Oleh, the commander of a drone surveillance unit.

“Russia’s advantage was only one thing: quantity,” Lieutenant Oleh said in an interview at his base, a house along a muddy lane in a village. The inside was crammed with screens, laptops, cables and batteries. A strip of flypaper dangled from the ceiling.

A Ukrainian soldier in a trench system on Friday along the front lines in the Kherson region. Ukraine is slowly building toward an assault on Kherson city, the only regional capital seized by Russia during the war.
A Ukrainian soldier in a trench system on Friday along the front lines in the Kherson region. Ukraine is slowly building toward an assault on Kherson city, the only regional capital seized by Russia during the war.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Sitting in front of his screens, he pinpoints tanks, barracks or other military objects and relays coordinates to artillery teams firing satellite guided shells, which hit within a yard or two of their intended targets.

“From a typical howitzer, you create a sniper rifle,” he said of the combination of drone surveillance and satellite guided artillery shells, something Russia lacks. “One shot, one kill.”

The partial destruction of bridges over the broad Dnipro River through the summer slowed Russia’s movement of heavy equipment to the river’s western bank, even as Western weaponry helped Ukraine whittle away at what was already there. The combination cost Russia its artillery advantage on the river’s western bank.

“Think of the orcs in their trenches,” Lieutenant Oleh said, using a derisive term for Russian soldiers. “They have no heavy weaponry, no supplies, it’s cold and raining. It’s a really difficult state for morale.”

If they try to hold out in Kherson city, he said, referring to a protracted battle with the Nazis in World War II, “it will be Stalingrad in winter for them.”

Residents lining up to receive a hot meal on Saturday from World Central Kitchen, which donates thousands of meals daily to people in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.
Residents lining up to receive a hot meal on Saturday from World Central Kitchen, which donates thousands of meals daily to people in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

While the messaging and movement of forces around Kherson on both sides have been hard to decipher, by design, there is no mistaking which side has the momentum.

Major Oleksandr, the commander of the Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer battery, said he had the sense of the Russian lines that “if we shake them, they will disintegrate.” But he was also aware of the possibility of deception, with the Russians trying to lure Ukraine into a premature advance by falsely signaling a willingness to withdraw.

Ukraine’s buildup of forces could also be a trick, he said.

“The plans of our leadership are always unpredictable,” Major Oleksandr said, “and I like it that way.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

A Ukrainian helicopter flying low along the front lines on Friday in southern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian helicopter flying low along the front lines on Friday in southern Ukraine.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

New York Times October 29, 2022