Archive for June, 2022

The Volcano

June 22, 2022
That’s the one, with my lovely hotel Casa Alcindo in the foreground

Seeing the triangular cone looming over the island of Fogo, Cabo Verde on a simple postcard was already impressive. Seeing a bit of it (most was hiding under a thick layer of clouds) for the first time, I was awestruck. Here was this large thing rising from the sea, as I watched it from the ferry that had taken me across a fairly calm Atlantic Ocean from the capital Praia to this island. The point of getting here was walking up that mountain, incidentally the highest peak of all of West Africa. For some of you perhaps underwhelming but for a fellow who grew up in a country that is known the world over for being totally flat 2,829 metres is a lot. I did a bit of mountain walking in the south of Poland and the east of Zimbabwe…oh and I took a walk around the very active crater of Mount Bromo on Java, Indonesia. But that’s the point: it was walking, not climbing let alone mountaineering proper, for which I am totally unfit. My (admittedly totally irrational) fear of heights kicks in on the third floor of a building.

So was I here to prove some point or other? Nope; the idea did not even occur to me until I was well on my way to the top that fine morning of Sunday June 19 and well out of my flatland comfort zone. Mind you, a lot of West Africa (bar Guinea of course and impressive rock formations in Mali among others) is pretty flat, too, or gently undulating savannah.

Fogo is different. First of all, this is an active volcano. Records may have begun at some point in the 17th century and we have a fairly good idea of the bursts of activity this mountain gets into. One occurred between 1769 and 1857, when in the space of less than a century it erupted seven times. Then, for almost an entire century, nothing happened. Until 1951 and that’s the biggie the island remembers all too well, just like the one this century.

To all intents and purposes this volcano has been picking up speed of late, putting less and less time between the last eruption and the next. 44 years between 1951 and 1995 and only 19 between that one and the latest outbreak, which rumbled on in 2014 and 2015 and destroyed most of Chã das Caldeiras, where I am staying. José Doce, the guide who took me up the mountain, predicts there will be another one in two years’ time. So that’s just 10 years…

The village has been picking up where it was forced to leave off. New buildings have gone up, including the very welcoming Casa Alcindo. The nearby guesthouse that José runs was spared the destruction. “The lava just went around my place,” he says with a bit of mystery. I asked him if he had some kind of a deal with the volcano, since he had already told me about his prediction of the next eruption. He smiled.

José, ahead of me, on the way up

So how did I fare? Was this the half-imagined leisurely walk up the slopes of a bad-tempered fiery mountain? No, not really. The first bit was done at the brisk pace José set, which acquainted me with his style of guiding: gallop ahead (he is from here, knows the mountain inside out and has an excellent condition), then use the time I need to catch up – and sometimes a little more – texting and phoning and on we go.

The path turned into a field of ash that had been dumped at an angle, which meant we had to negotiate it using the well-known zigzag walking route, as we steadily went higher. Of course, your feet zigzagging through volcanic ash close to a ridge means that your job is to stay on the right side of that ridge. If you don’t you will roll a few hundred metres down – not quite to the village where you have come from but enough to sustain some pretty serious damage.

It was just before we got to a rock-strewn path (of sorts) that I realised that this was really very high and that this trek was going to be a trifle more challenging than I had originally thought. It began to interfere somewhat with the ability to appreciate the breathtakingly beautiful landscape around me. And below.

As in, more than just a couple of hundred metres below me. That’s a lot of metres, as José barreled ahead once again, although his inquiries as to whether I was alright increased in frequency. We were now on this steep path, manoeuvering from one rock to another. I was holding on to these rocks as I walked, sort of, in order to ensure that whenever I did put a foot wrong I would not immediately plummet to my death: José was just answering another text message. A legendary Genesis tune popped into my head, Dance On A Volcano, the one that talks about blue and red crosses for your friends that didn’t make it through. It also contains the exhortation to not look back “whatever you do…”. It’s a fantastic piece of music that does little to steady the nerves when you are negotiating rocks on your way up to…

…another ledge. Looking down to the distance already covered and the receding village below was becoming a bit of a hair-raising business. Had I gone quite mad? Or was I being bold and determined? Whatever it was, José’s incessant texting was getting on my nerves but perhaps that’s why he did it in a bid to make me tell him to hurry up because by now I had just one goal in mind: to get to that bloody top up there. We were also above the clouds that were covering the ocean to the right of us. Indeed, the village had started to resemble something you see from an aeroplane. I promised myself that I was really going to admire the landscape once we had got, er, there

Which turned out not to be the summit proper. Right behind me (propped up against a rock and taking this pic) was a sheer rockface, still a good 300 metres or so above where I was. You need ropes and stuff to get there. I decided that this had been quite the climbing session for one day and that descending was now in order. Once the obvious exhilaration (Yes!!! I made it!!! Well, almost…) had cleared and I had managed to make myself a little comfortable as I looked at the ragged rocky landscape surrounding me while clouds started to move in – all pretty awe-inspiring stuff – the question was: OK,  we’re here now. What next?” We go down via the other side,” José announced casually.

Meanwhile another one of the locals who had passed me by on the way up as if he was strolling through a city park – a bit like the young French couple that had also overtaken us – ran down an ashy path back to his village. Not walked, ran. I supposed he’d be equally amazed at the ease with which women cycle around Ouagadougou with a huge bowl of freshly harvested strawberries on their heads and a child on their backs…

And then I looked over the ledge that marked the partition between two portions of this mountain and my heart skipped a beat. I was looking into a frighteningly deep hole. Smoke was rising from the bottom. So that’s where that smell was coming from! I had been imagining someone roasting a chicken for me but no… his was sulphur from the very source. Are we really going there?

“Follow me,” José said. And what followed was a surprisingly easy walk under that sheer rock that marked the volcano’s true summit, at least for now. I had no idea that these fire-breathing things were such complex geological compositions. But hey: I had more or less scrambled my way to the top and I was now going to beat a more dignified retreat, being well aware of the notion that when you put your foot wrong on the way down the risks are potentially even larger than on the way up.

Spoiler alert: I did not die.

We negotiated that ledge, got onto that easy path that was glued to the crater rim (only one small stretch of it had a railing made of metal to hold on to) and continued our descent past natural vents that José pointed out to me. Warm air streamed out of holes and crevices. “The volcano is respiring,” José assured me, as we left the heights behind where the clouds were swirling around the rocks. This is also the moment he told me that the next eruption would take place in 2024. “Remember, you heard it from me first.”

Ash Highway, José is speeding ahead of me

Then came a fun part: Ash Highway. No zig-zag walk this time, or negotiating ledges and all the rest, nope. Just plunge in and go down a vast black slope that has an angle of about 45 degrees. The ash will come up around your ankles and sometimes your lower calves but it will also facilitate your descent. It’s the quick way down and gets you covered in the kind of stuff volcanoes just love throwing out in huge quantities. Ash Highway ended near the crater that had been formed in the 2014 eruption and the closer I got to it the more I became aware of how blooming large this thing was. Certainly, it sits way below the summit on the floor of the oldest crater but it is massive and it just makes you realise how major that last eruption must have been seven and a half years ago.

The rest was relatively uneventful, as we walked (leisurely at last!) through this moon-like landscape, strewn with rocks. I was trying to imagine the extreme violence with which these must have been thrown out as the earth emptied its bowels over the villages in the caldera.

We got back to my lovely little place, José having done his routine trip (“Sometimes I go up and down three times a day…”) and me feeling quite humbled by the experience. Had I gotten rid of my fear of heights? Maybe I had just learned to deal with it slightly better. Although………

Back in the hotel, I heard from two other visitors that there was, in fact, a challenge that made the volcano look like that walk in the park. Turns out you can actually scale the outer crater rim and get to the second highest peak that is part of that rim, at a mere 2,692 metres. This includes 600 metres of almost vertical rockface. You have metal hooks and ropes to help you climb up. Once at the top you have a fairly conventional path all the way down to the road. “It’s really easy once you are there,” one of the visitors told me. “Of course, if you make one mistake you are dead.”


Like the two I had seen walking up the volcano earlier this morning they had also been able to practice in their home country, Spain. Yes, you have serious mountains there, like this one here. Not fair.

José. Born here, working here as a guide. Runs a guest house too.

I’ll keep a safe distance from that outer rim, then. I am already pretty pleased with myself for having done the mountain and do not really have the ambition to push the envelope that much further. Or maybe…?

Naah. I’ll enjoy the pictures, including the ones I could not stop making, even when perched precariously (or so I thought) on a rocky outcrop. Because it is stunningly beautiful here.

Boots and brownshirts – conclusion

June 2, 2022

So is Ukraine a saintly country? No it is not. It was eye-wateringly corrupt in a way that makes it fit right in with those other well-known hotbeds of illicit financial practice – the former soviet Central Asian Republics, Russia itself, the United States or Nigeria. However, as of February 24 this year Moscow’s violent venal gangsters have made sure that Ukraine will be portrayed as the innocent victim, its inhabitants and the world at large rallying around it. To be sure: Ukraine is the victim of unprovoked aggression no matter the nonsense the propagandists are trying to sell you. But what happens with those who have been declare victims? Indeed: all their sins are whitewashed. This is what’s happening. 

In places like Eritrea, North Korea and indeed Russia itself there is no assessment of facts, no verification, just a constant spewing of mendacious sewage. Putin’s claim that he is “de-nazifying” Ukraine is on a par with the German claim that at 5h45 in the morning of September 1, 1939 they had started firing back into Poland, when in fact it was they who had invaded. It is on a par in terms of mendaciousness and criminal intent. 

Looking on a global scale there is a giant fascist hoover at work. It sucks in superficially disparate groups and movements and ideologies that want to take us all back. Back to the superstition and the quackery of the Middle Ages when it’s about public healthcare. Back to the inhumanity of slavery when it’s Dutch racists defending the hideously ugly invented ‘tradition’ of blackface in the first week of December every year. Back to a pure and pristine England that never existed and back to Empire with the Brexiteers. Back to the Soviet Empire with those that stand and applaud the destruction of Ukraine and the killing sprees in the CAR and Mali. Members of the Axis are nostalgic for the days of Apartheid, the good old colonial days when Africans knew their place. They can’t stand abortion either: women should give birth to fresh cannon fodder. 

It’s the Axis that runs through Marine le Pen, Brexit, Trump’s assault on the institutions of American democracy, Dutch small-time fascists like Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, violent Greek thugs that attack refugee camps, self-declared murderers in power like outgoing president Duterte of the Phillippines, or indeed self-declared so-called African Patriots who have no problem cosying up to the ultra rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party and – quelle surprise – the Kremlin, where 21st Century brownshirtism has found a strong power base backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Axis rhetoric has also entered parts of Africa itself. You can see it in the messages of those who defend mass killings in Mali and the CAR…in the name of anti-colonialism. There are many arguments in favour of the departure of lingering vestiges of colonialism – particularly French – from the African continent, including the presence of troops, development aid and the dependency syndrome. I have often made this point. But the cheerleaders for pro-Russian “anti-colonialism” are cynically dishonest and the African continent already has its unfair share of cynical dishonesty: awful journalism, outright propaganda, half-truths and fake news. And as you have seen, it also has its unfair share of businesses making a killing in not one but two ways. We do not need more of this. No shadowy soldier or dodgy journalist will solve any problem or make anyone’s life any better. It is wishful thinking but I’ll say it anyway: the sooner these clowns and goons are gone, the better. 

Boots and brownshirts – part three

June 1, 2022
A pro-Russia street demonstration in Bamako. Image retrieved from Deutsche Welle.

Having veered to the extreme right in terms of ideological orientation the current entourage of Putin (and the boss himself) consider themselves very much the heirs of the old Soviet Empire in geopolitical terms. During the “Cold”* War the Soviet Union had strongholds in places as diverse as Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Algeria, Mozambique, Egypt and Somalia, although some of these changed allegiances as the result of domestic political changes: the death of a despot, a coup, a war, the end of a war, an election. 

(*The War was of course anything but “Cold” in places like Angola, SE Asia and parts of Central America where the two superpowers – USA and USSR – were either directly involved or used proxies for their bloody turf wars. The people living there ended up paying the ultimate price for someone else’s hegemony.)

But Russia today is not the old Soviet Union. Gone is the rhetoric about international socialist solidarity, however thin that ideological veneer was in reality. This Russia does not only want influence and geopolitical turf; it also wants resources and money. Wagner exemplifies this more than anything. It consists of old Soviet intelligence and combat veterans, who, like their political bosses have had no problem shedding the old altruistic mask and donning the much more hard-nosed mug of the businessman. Wagner first emerged in Syria in 2011 and resurfaced in Ukraine three years later, where it cut its teeth in the Crimea and the Donbass Region, as their friends in Moscow were stirring up trouble there. Like all mercenary outfits, Wagner likes trouble; it thrives there. 

Dubbed in Sango, the most widely spoken language in the CAR, the film heaps praises on the exploits of a Russian fighter nicknamed “Tourist” who helps fight anti-government rebels. Image retreieved from Algérie 24H

In Libya, Wagner was among a plethora of private military outfits that came in after the forced removal of strongman Muamar Ghaddafi in 2011, an act spearheaded by France under former president Sarkozy, aided by the USA and the UK and the rest of the NATO gang. It was an act I have described on numerous occasions  as criminal. 

Wagner found itself on the wrong side of history when it backed the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, an old pal of Ghadaffi’s (he took part in the 1969 coup that brought the then colonel to power). In the following decades he was spotted taking part in Ghaddafi’s numerous efforts to annexe a slice of Chad before turning against his former boss and ally. Haftar staged various of efforts to remove his old pal until 2011 when he finally got lucky, thanks to Sarkozy’s and NATO’s criminal insanity that brought chaos to Libya and the entire northwest corner of the African continent. In April 2019, some 1,000 Wagner operatives joined Haftar in his bid to take Tripoli. It all went badly wrong and an unknown number of Wagner fighters got killed. It is here also that the first allegations of serious human rights abuses – gratuitous killings especially – surfaced. 

In Sudan, Wagner was involved in a brutal crackdown of street protests against the continued rule of the mass-murderer Omar al-Bashir. They cooperated with an ultraviolent militia called the Rapid Support Force, formerly known as the Janjaweed, gunmen on horseback who terrorised the people of Darfur during Bashir’s assault on that region. Scores of demonstrators were killed but in the end it was to no avail: Bashir was finally removed in April 2019. Wagner received gold and diamond concessions as payment. Bashir also promised to fulfil another ancient Russian imperialist dream: a warm water naval base. It was not to be. Entirely not incidentally, the same Rapid Support Force partners with the European Union in its quest to have as many refugees hunted down and killed before they reach Europe, as my good colleague Linda Polman reveals in her book on Europe’s century-old Keep ‘Em Out policy.

In Madagascar one year earlier, the company tried to influence an election but failed to get their candidate into the presidential palace. It then quickly shifted support to the eventual winner Andry Rajoelina and managed to retain a chrome mine it had got its hands on. But it was a close shave. 

Another Wagner-linked propaganda film, this time about the firm’s heroics in Mozambique (it did not quite go as depicted). Image retrieved from

“Badly wrong.” This is the phrase you’ll come to associate most with Wagner. Such was the case, for instance, in Mozambique. In late 2019 Wagner were asked to help eliminate a noxious jihad-motivated insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province. Wagner sent a few hundred of its operatives but their performance was so ruinous, culturally insensitive and incompetent that the Mozambican government sent them home. An unknown number of them had to be flown out in coffins. A South African outfit showed up there, too, the Dyck Advisory Group. Both of them were indistinguishable in their callous disregard for the human rights of any civilian having the misfortune to get into their crosshairs. This is true of all their African operations: wherever private military outfits like Wagner and others show up, war crimes are committed and go unpunished. 

Arguably, the Central African Republic (or CAR) represents something of a success story for  Wagner. In 2018 they got in, thanks to personal contacts between president Faustin Archange Touadéra, Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrow and Putin himself. Having successfully battled off rebels lead by former president François Bozizé who wanted prevent Touadéra’s re-election in early 2021, the group has been lionized by the political elites, the only ones that are actually profiting from said protection. Touadéra himself had special military advisor, Valeri Zakharov. His successor as of late 2020 is reported to be the equally shady Vitali Perfilev. In praise of their exploits, the Russians produced “Tourist”, a Hollywood-style propaganda film that was shown in the capital Bangui’s main stadium. In December 2021 president Touadéra himself inaugurated a monument in honour of the Great White Mercenary. Here again allegations of very serious human rights abuses (torture and extrajudicial killings among them) have surfaced. There is still fighting going on in many different parts of the CAR. 

Like its competitors Wagner is never there to stop the fighting; it is there to profit from it. It got its hands on mining concessions and probably some aid money, prompting the likes of the European Union to turn off the tap. Three Russian journalists were found mysteriously killed in the CAR as they were attempting to find out what the heck their armed and dodgy compatriots were up to.

In praise of another Great White Mercenary. Image retrieved from Quora.

Wagner latest war theatre, Mali is set to resemble that of the CAR. Mali came into the picture after the August 2020 and May 2021 coups and a rupture with France, the old colonial power that still has difficulty understanding that former colonies make their own decisions, however calamitous these decisions may be. Make no mistake:  letting Wagner into the country is calamitous – and deadly. Late March this year troops of the national army and their new Russian mentors went on a killing spree and left 300 civilians dead in the central market town of Moura, a crime Prigozhin’s troll army tried to pin on the French. No independent inquiry will be possible. The UN did investigate and pointed at French military culpability when in the central town of Bounty 17 were killed by airstrikes on January 3 last year. In Moura, no UN team will be investigating what happened and file a report; in fact, they are actively prevented from doing their work. The authorities do not permit any reporting that challenges the narrative that the army is going from strength to strength and only kills ‘jihadists’. 

Last part tomorrow