‘Tis the season to be jolly, for some at least. Elsewhere, ‘tis the season to rampage through the streets, rubbing out your adversaries and making life a misery for anyone that contests your anti-social behaviour.
And so as we enter the final week of 2007, the staff at Polo’s Bastards, tucking into roast goose, washed down with hot mulled wine, present you with their collective assessment of the year’s top ten worst destinations. Always the source of much contention and vehement disagreement from various corners, we expect this year’s compilation to be no different. But whatever you may think of us and our take on the world’s more “colourful” destinations, we think you’ll have to agree that getting upset about a teddy bear’s name is just plain stupid, and murdering monks is dismally short of tactful.
What, wait, aren’t things supposed to be getting better there? Yeah sure they are, for those who may have already survived umpteen hundred suicide car bombs and bombers, extra judicial killings and kidnappings perhaps, but for you Mr. And Mrs. Samsonite, even the best and safest parts of the country may put you on the wrong end of a Turkish JDAM, or stuck at the wrong checkpoint, or tossed unceremoniously into the trunk of a car that you most certainly did not hail.
Your hide is still worth money here or it simply might just be good for a point making beheading on YouTube by all the wrong independent filmmakers, whom have absolutely no axe to grind with you personally, except the one that happens at that moment to be against your neck. Face it does anyone even know how many people are actually still being held hostage in Iraq? Arab hospitality notwithstanding, there are more armaments circulating this country in all sorts of hands and at all levels of technology that while it may be possible to get a cold drink and a tan the potential for so much more than you bargained for, or were willing to pay, is still very much in the realm of possibility.
While the violence and unabated killing seems to be enjoying a temporary lull it really is one of those rare countries where everyone seems to have a beef with someone else, whether it be brand new or a hundred years old. Let there be no doubt here, it’s whether or not the country is even in possession of a future that is still very much in doubt.
There may be only one place more wary of strangers as a whole than Afghanistan’s hinterlands (that’s pretty much the majority of the country outside Kabul) and that spot too would be inside Afghanistan somewhere. For centuries the tribes and people that populate this country have taken great pride in tossing out occupiers, and now for the past six years the country has been loaded with occupiers from all over Europe and the rest of the developed world. This would be courtesy of an organization called NATO and, all things considered, those locals that are so predisposed to the longstanding tradition of ejecting outsiders certainly have plenty of motivation to get their game on.
Unfortunately for everybody involved – the citizens, NATO and yes you the world traveler of exotic locations, the extreme dichotomy that exists within this physically and culturally stunning country range from “We want our MTV!” to “Sharia dictates that you must be punished for watching it”. Indeed you’ll be punished for any number of apparent ludicrous crimes against Allah by any number of barbaric forms of punishment; all of which for the average citizen and especially for the traveler tends to create a behavioral minefield. Speaking of minefields; this lovely country has more than its fair share of those too, sixth in the world, in fact, not to mention when talking of world rankings it happens to be number one in opium poppy cultivation. So while there may be a myriad of ways to find yourself in a great deal pain, whether through ever increasing rates of suicide bombing via human bombers or vehicle borne devices, kidnapping or random shootings, car or bus crashes on dangerous mountain roads, rampant disease, conflagrations initiated between NATO and the Taliban or the current villainous warlord of the moment, you’ll at least be able to derive some comfort that there will be enough morphine or heroin around to take the edge off.
While Chicken Street and much of Kabul and its populace will invariably be sure to invite you inside their rug shop or café for a hospitable cup of chai and to chat you up and practice your particular language, this will not be the case in the south of the country or in the northwest frontier provinces where tribal law and ‘who has the most guns’ tends to sort out even the most minor of issues. Unless, of course, NATO, the Taliban, Narcotics funded warlords or the Pakistani military decide to put in their two cents’ worth, which more often than not tends to be the case. Expect things to heat up in the upcoming year.
How much worse can it get for this poor impoverished, fractured, chaotic pseudo nation? It could always be stated that for a country that has had no viable government since the early 1990’s, it’s not doing too bad. Some folks even felt the leadership takeover this past year by the Islamic council was a step in the right direction, despite the fact that edicts governing basic human behaviors and Sharia-based laws were being declared on a weekly basis. The banning of public showing of movies, and Khat chewing, not to mention simply playing a radio, were punishable offences.
Say what you will about Sharia law but this was enough to prompt Somalia’s powerful neighbor, Ethiopia, to invade to toss these Islamists and their supporters out of power. This took cities like Baidoa and Mogadishu that already had enough violence and chaos and misery, and turned them into full on battlefields, where of course it was the civilians who suffered the most. Like so many forces before them, Ethiopia is now bogged down there following an initial withdrawal and then a quick return to support an outgunned interim government that within weeks of being “returned to power” was once again under attack. If this sounds complicated it hasn’t even begun to bring into play the role the warlords and their affiliate clans play, and the resulting constant, ongoing havoc. When it comes to the deaths of journalists that cover the anarchy, this country is second only to Iraq and it’s not clear where that leaves your camera-yielding white tourist other than dead.
Chronic Khat chewing leaves young, bored, gunmen with very twitchy trigger fingers and enough stimulation to jump into the back of a heavily armed Toyota Hi-Lux, ready to settle some perceived score with some begrudged party. If you plan a visit it is a very good idea to hire this type of crew as a preemptive measure to protect you from the very real threat of kidnapping by the very same people you’re hiring.
And it’s not just on land that you stand a chance of an early demise either: Rampant piracy has led to attacks, kidnapping and hostage taking on the high seas, and any ship or vessel entering Somali waters runs this terrifying gauntlet. The increase in the past year has been dramatic and worrisome for all involved. Relief agencies, the UN and Somalia’s citizens all depend on the goods and services that the maritime trade provides. Without safe, open shipping routes, a large segment of the population faces the prospect of starvation.
Without question the south of the country is vastly worse than the northern end, which has for the past several years been trying to divorce itself from its misbehaving brethren to the south by declaring itself the independent de facto states of Puntland and Somaliland. This is done to attempt on an international level to separate the north from the anarchy and violence in the south, and thus engender stability and a better way of life for the northern citizens. So yes it could be worse for Somalia – it could break off the continent and fall into the sea. Expect the grind to continue at its usual steady pace.
For a place with such a perfect Mediterranean location; wonderful historical context; exceeding geological beauty and refined social culture, it sure does have a load of worries. It’s really difficult to choose just where to start with this small plot of land with big problems, but betting people have been talking for some time now about the “if’s” and “when’s” of the next dust up between Hizbollah and Israel. This valid concern might be the top reason any vacation you plan here might most be affected. The last conflict in 2006 left no less than 3 billion US dollars in damage to Beirut alone, and a similar action could be your fastest ticket to ride along with the US marines or the French navy during the next mandatory evacuation, thus placing a sizable kink in your holiday plans of sunbathing, drinking fine wine and café dining. Couple this with an ongoing and seemingly systematic eradication via car bombs of higher echelon Lebanese politicians and civil leaders, and those who tend to be in the same area with them. Syria usually takes the blame here, so it’s easy to see that Lebanon has some serious neighbor issues.
No matter where you go in Lebanon, you will find the potential for trouble for a variety of different reasons. In the south, Hizbollah’s strong hold, you’ll find minefields, some old some new; you’ll find the remnants of cluster bombs that Israel dropped in the area during 2006; and you’ll need to contend with the potential for Israeli artillery to occasionally drop in, or over-flights from their jets that like to buzz Damascus and the disputed Golan, occasionally dropping explosives. But even in the north, on the outskirts of Tripoli, the Lebanese army has spent a great deal of time this past year fighting Palestinian Islamic militants (Fatah-al-Islam), who had entrenched themselves in some refugee camps. Outside of the potential for Pakistan to explode into an orgy of election inspired violence, to many this small country might perhaps have the greatest chance in 2008 to become, once again for all but the most fool hardy of travelers, a “No go” destination.
The nemesis of India just seems to go from bad to worse and this year was a particularly exciting one for them. With tribal problems, Islamist problems, territorial problems, sovereignty problems, election problems, foreign relation problems and the imposition of martial law, it’s a wonder they’re not getting a complex. Of course, the big bang this year (or at least the one that the media bothered reporting) was the public and very messy attempted assassination of opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. With a few hundred casualties, it gave us a good reason to stay away from political rallies in this volatile country. The incumbent PM also had at least one attempt on his life, too. Of course, with the amount of weapons floating around the country (largely thanks to the manufacturing production lines in the North West Frontier Province) combined with a peculiar predisposition to settling differences with said weaponry, it’s little wonder that the politicians of the country are constantly dodging the pointy end of them. Speaking of NWFP, the state continues to stew in a molasses of violent tribal retribution and anti-government sentiment with continued rumors that this is the current hiding place of the big kahuna himself – Osama Bin Laden. The other big problem, of course, is there are the twenty or so proxy Islamist groups that keep popping up in Kashmir to fight the evil secularists in India, though how much control the central government has over them is up for argument.
The lid is beginning to loosen on this powder keg which gives Pakistan a firm spot in our top 10 and a very likely position in next year’s too unless something drastic happens and it changes for the better. With the sheer scope of problems in the country, that is pretty unlikely.
The hilarity just continues in Africa, with Sudan getting another well deserved place on the list. Notwithstanding the fact that it appears to be a country with a sizeable population of idiots that believe a teddy bear’s name is reason enough to execute an old lady, Sudan is also mired in as complex tribal and political hostilities as you’ll find anywhere on the continent.
As one of the world’s longest running conflicts and the resistance of the central government to any meaningful actions that could lead to a lull in the hostilities, it’s difficult to see an end to it. With 200k Darfurians already dead and another four million displaced or relying on aid, the counter just keeps ticking. The 2006 Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement didn’t have a lot of support on the ground and resistance of the central government to the deployment of a UN peace keeping force means any real muscle that could help stop the slaughter remains impotent. Clashes between the Government and the SPLM also leaves the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on the verge of collapse with the rebels withdrawn from the Government of National Unity.
African Union troops currently deployed seem to be remarkably ineffectual and are coming under direct attack. Seven aid workers were killed in October alone and major aid organisations (which supply millions of people with their only access to food and water) starting to contemplate withdrawing. Cross border incursions by the government armed militias are also destabilising neighbouring Chad and having an effect on CAR.
As if all this isn’t enough, Sudan Arab militias have struck up a lucrative deal with those humanitarian angels, the Chinese, in which oil is traded for weapons and military training. Nations with a shred of decency walked away from an oil deal with Sudan, but Chinese oil companies saw an opportunity and now two billion US Dollars’ worth of oil each year is shipped out and fundamentalist Arabs draw a handsome salary. With untapped oil fields in the north/south borderlands, it seems only a matter of time before the shaky peace deal falls apart and if the north goes to war against the south again, Darfur will pale in comparison.
Even with all of this going on, Sudanese President Omer al-Bashir had the temerity to term 2007 “the year of peace” proving once again that politicians always have their hand firmly on the pulse of reality. The only question remaining now is whether the international community will have the strength of purpose to pursue a peace operation that guarantees security to civilians now that it is glaringly obvious to everyone that a short or even medium term political solution is a pipe-dream. We’re not holding our breath.
You know things aren’t going great for you as a government when you need to start killing and torturing monks. Now that’s some bad karma. But that’s what happened this year in our favourite South East Asian golden land when the monks started backing up a fairly sizable portion of the general population in anti-government rallies and found themselves on the wrong side of the ruling junta. Now, Myanmar has had its own fairly constant and intense teething problems with pesky things like elections and opposition parties, but beating up on monks was a new low and there were even reports that the soldiers were targeting anyone with a camera in order to stop the story getting to the outside world. Needless to say, the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest (the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with such a distinction) and journalists have been warned about reporting on the problems with internet access being cut off completely for a time and then restored intermittently.
Of course, we can’t really forget the ongoing insurgency in the country or the massive amount of heroin that comes out of the place, or the 300,000 odd refugees along Myanmar’s various borders. Really, Myanmar has it all!
Now, entering as a tourist, it might seem like a pretty nice place. This is largely due to the fact that the government forced thousands of citizens into forced labour to pretty up the main tourist destinations and thus encourage tourism, which is responsible for a fair amount of the country’s hard currency. The International Labour Organisation stated that it would be seeking to prosecute the leaders of the government for crimes against humanity as a result. With the likelihood of such great national management continuing there is a fair chance that we can expect to see more fun in Myanmar in the coming months and years.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Welcome to the darkest heart…. well one of them anyway. DRC is one of those nightmare places that usually ends up as the background of a flippant Hollywood attempt at depth and insight. Unfortunately for the locals it is all too real.
This year, DRC’s main claim to fame is their love of the child soldier. According to several charities, who still operate in the country, the eastern DRC has seen some of the worst situations for children in recent times (not to mention the displacement of up to 800,000 people). Kids as young as 10 years old are being draughted by both sides of the conflict as front line soldiers, not to mention porters and sex slaves. One exceptionally troubling element of this is that the government (and UN) backed soldiers have also been accused of recruiting children to their cause during an offensive against rebel general, Laurent Nkunda. Spotting the good guy is getting increasingly difficult.
Of course, to add to the lovely ambiance of DRC was a UN report in July by the United Nations Human Rights Council on violence against women that characterised the problem as “extreme” and “pervasive” with local authorities doing little to stem the problem. According to the report, “In numerous cases, male relatives are forced at gun point to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters.” As for who to blame for the brutality, according to the report, it is “committed by non-state armed groups, the Armed Forces of the DRC, the National Congolese Police, and increasingly also by civilians”. That basically means there’s nowhere to hide. How nice!
When the UNHCR warns that genocide may well occur in your country, it’s probably best to sit up and take notice. Well, that is unless you live in Chad where it’s just another day at the slaughter house. The country seems to have more problems than Paris Hilton and Pete Doherty’s love child and things certainly ain’t getting any better.
With several hundred thousand Darfurian refugees on the border with Sudan, Chad is now forced to endure constant cross border incursions by the Sudanese armed Janjaweed militia, leading to pretty tense relations between the governments, not to mention the people at the coal face. Combined with another 50,000 or so refugees along the border with CAR, who have fled the fighting there, and 140,000 internally displaced persons of their own, it’s fair to say room is getting a little tight at the inn.
Things couldn’t possibly be complete without a homegrown insurgency, too, and Chad does not disappoint. The Chadian Movement for Justice and Democracy keeps the government on their toes from the north of the country and at least a couple of other groups keep things tense. Banditry is also pretty rife so be sure to keep your iPod at an extended distance from your person so that the thieves don’t take your arm or head too when they steal it.
The country seemed to be united at the time of the cricket world cup with a multi-ethnic team making the finals of the event. Unfortunately, the Tamil rebels put a slight damper on that unity when they started dropping bombs at the exact time the rest of the country, including the army, was watching the Sri Lankan team play in the finals. But that’s how things roll in Colombo, where the bombs just keep coming. Sri Lanka lost the cricket and the peace but won a spot on our most coveted of lists.
Unfortunately, 2007 was another less than stellar year for peace on the island, with the Tamil Tigers finding a way to launch their own air raids against various facilities controlled by the central government, and the government finding ways to marginalise human rights groups, who questions their tactics against the rebels. In reality, both sides attracted condemnation for their human rights abuses, but who’s keeping count anyway? Extra judicial killings, “disappearances” and arbitrary arrests under terrorism laws are all part of the local festivities. With a quarter million people displaced and thousands dead, it can only get better… or not.
The Tamil Tigers have taken up a fine tradition from other parts of the world in kidnap for profit, and some pro-government militias have started to take up the fine tradition of child recruitment for military adventures. Fun!
With no viable political solution being discussed, we can only look forward to the party going on. Luckily, the cricket world cup only rocks around every four years.
And so as the new year unfolds before us, keep a mental note of this list of unsavoury spots and book yourself a nice skiing holiday in Austria instead; or a beach holiday in the Bahamas; or a barbeque at Ayers Rock. And if you simply can’t ignore that irresistible urge that’s drawing you to a night’s partying at the Hard Rock Café, Mogadishu, then don’t say we didn’t warn you.
From all at Polo’s Bastards – Go well.
Authors – Rob Wood, Steve Strommer and Lee Ridley.
Photography – Michael Cordoni, Lee Ridley, Sean Rorison, Vince Gainey.