Michael Finkel’s Journalism

Playing War

Playing War

On the front lines with the child soldiers of the Gaza Strip

from The New York Times Magazine / photograph by Christopher Anderson

A little before noon on the last day of his life, 15-year-old Ahmed Abutayeh invented a toothache. This was the first time he had ever complained of a health problem in school, so his science teacher wrote him a permission slip to visit a nearby clinic. Ahmed shouldered his plaid-patterned book bag and walked out of the Rimal Boys’ School and onto the chaotic streets of Beach Camp, where 75,000 Palestinian refugees are corralled into a half-square-mile block, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip. It was November 1, 2000. The previous day, Ahmed had sold his pet nightingale for a few shekels, and now, carrying this money, he caught a taxi and asked to be driven to a place called Karni crossing. He was wearing the nicest shirt he owned, a light blue button-down, and a few dabs of his father’s cologne. On the outside of his book bag, in blue ink, he had inscribed a four-word epitaph: ”The Martyr Ahmed Abutayeh.”

Karni crossing, as its name implies, is an intersection. It’s where the Karni Road crosses the so-called Green Line, the razor-wire border dividing the occupied territory of Gaza from Israel proper. The Gaza Strip is a place small enough to be easily fenced. It pokes from the northern end of the Egypt-Israel border and follows the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea; its silhouette is roughly that of a pistol, aimed just west of Jerusalem. Karni crossing is at a point about midway along the pistol’s barrel.

continue reading at The New York Times Magazine

 

Naji’s Taliban Phase

Naji’s Taliban Phase

The making and unmaking of a Taliban warrior.

from The New York Times Magazine / photograph by Christopher Anderson

Naji received his first letter from Ali in early July. It was delivered by a man on a donkey. The man rode from the Northern Alliance positions in the brown hills outside the city of Taloqan, in northeastern Afghanistan, then across the dusty battle plains, and then farther, to the Taliban roadblock patrolled by Naji. Naji opened the letter, read it through and tore it up. Then he struck a match and burned the pieces.

The letter was written by a midlevel Northern Alliance commander named Ali Ahmed. This was six months ago, when the Northern Alliance controlled only a tenuous pocket of the Afghan highlands and the United States military had scant interest in a far-off civil war. For Naji, the letter was completely unexpected; its mere delivery shot him with fear. ”It was just a small letter,” Ali says, speaking in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. ”I introduced myself. I sent greetings from my family, and I sent greetings to his family. I said I would be happy to hear back from him. Then I signed my name.”

continue reading at The New York Times Magazine

Desperate Passage

Desperate Passage

At sea with 44 Haitians willing to get to America at any cost.

from The New York Times Magazine / photograph by Christopher Anderson

Down in the hold, beneath the deck boards, where we were denied most of the sun’s light but none of its fire, it sometimes seemed as if there were nothing but eyes. The boat was 23 feet long, powered solely by two small sails. There were 41 people below and 5 above. All but myself and a photographer were Haitian citizens fleeing their country, hoping to start a new life in the United States. The hold was lined with scrap wood and framed with hand-hewn joists, as in an old mine tunnel, and when I looked into the darkness it was impossible to tell where one person ended and another began. We were compressed together, limbs entangled, heads upon laps, a mass so dense there was scarcely room for motion. Conversation had all but ceased. If not for the shifting and blinking of eyes there’d be little sign that anyone was alive.

Twenty hours before, the faces of the people around me seemed bright with the prospect of reaching a new country. Now, as the arduousness of the crossing became clear, their stares conveyed the flat helplessness of fear. David, whose journey I had followed from his hometown of Port-au-Prince, buried his head in his hands. He hadn’t moved for hours. “I’m thinking of someplace else,” is all he would reveal. Stephen, who had helped round up the passengers, looked anxiously out the hold’s square opening, four feet over our heads, where he could see a corner of the sail and a strip of cloudless sky. ”I can’t swim,” he admitted softly. Kenton, a 13-year-old boy, sat in a puddle of vomit and trembled as though crying, only there were no tears. I was concerned about the severity of Kenton’s dehydration and could not shake the thought that he wasn’t going to make it. ”Some people get to America, and some people die,” David had said. ”Me, I’ll take either one. I’m just not taking Haiti anymore.”

continue reading at The New York Times Magazine

Uncatchable

Uncatchable

George Wright, America’s most elusive fugitive, ran for forty years. He ran from the cops after escaping from prison. He ran from the feds after the most brazen hijacking in history. He ran from the authorities on three continents, hiding out and blending in wherever he went. It was a historic run—and now that it’s over, he might just pull off the greatest escape of all

from GQ / illustration by John Ritter

It’s past ten o’clock in the evening, a rude hour to knock on someone’s front door, but George Wright’s attorney has assured me that this is the best time. The TV cameras have gone away. The newspaper reporters have quit. For the man whose recent capture, after forty-one years on the run, ended one of the longest unsolved fugitive cases in criminal history, there might be some semblance of normalcy. So I stroll by moonlight through a wooden gate, down the cobbled entryway of a whitewashed cottage in a Portuguese village, and I knock.

There’s a faint padding of footsteps; a porch light flips on. I find myself suddenly anxious. Before my trip, I’d asked an FBI agent who helped orchestrate Wright’s arrest how it was possible for a man to vanish for four decades. The agent said that Wright was an intelligent and conniving con artist, probably a compulsive liar, who would not hesitate to use violence or charm or subterfuge to worm his way out of any situation. Perhaps, the agent hinted, he was a sociopath. In 1962, he participated in a robbery at a gas station in New Jersey, in which he left a man bleeding to death while he went out to dinner. Later he broke out of prison and worked with the Black Panthers.

continue reading at GQ

The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See

The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See

Daniel Kish has been completely sightless since he was a year old. Yet he can mountain bike. And navigate the wilderness alone. And recognize a building as far away as 1,000 feet. How? By using echolocation. Yes, like a bat.

from Men’s Journal / photograph by Steve Pyke

The first thing Daniel Kish does, when I pull up to his tidy gray bungalow in Long Beach, California, is make fun of my driving. “You’re going to leave it that far from the curb?” he asks. He’s standing on his stoop, a good 10 paces from my car. I glance behind me as I walk up to him. I am, indeed, parked about a foot and a half from the curb.

The second thing Kish does, in his living room a few minutes later, is remove his prosthetic eyeballs. He does this casually, like a person taking off a smudged pair of glasses. The prosthetics are thin convex shells, made of acrylic plastic, with light brown irises. A couple of times a day they need to be cleaned. “They get gummy,” he explains. Behind them is mostly scar tissue. He wipes them gently with a white cloth and places them back in.

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy – Kish is now 44 – he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.

continue reading at Men’s Journal

To Wait Or To Flee

To Wait Or To Flee

They had a radio, just a single battery-powered radio, so the news traveled by word of mouth up and down the footpaths of Abdulgan, village to village, until everyone knew. They knew what was happening elsewhere in Afghanistan. And therefore the people of Abdulgan not only suffered, they suffered with the knowledge that they were some of the last ones suffering. The news on the radio throughout the fall and early winter was of Taliban retreats and food-relief plans and celebrations in cities released from oppression. Yet in the district of Abdulgan, where they had been tortured by the Taliban for years, people were still dying. Not just a few people, but hundreds, even thousands — a few thousand dead, and more dying.

The people of Abdulgan did not die all at once, and they did not die on television or in a manner that could be called spectacular. They died in prosaic ways — of disease and cold and starvation. They died because they were trapped by nature and politics and war. They died because they were caught in the cross-fire of Afghan history. They died deep in the mountains of northern Afghanistan, dozens of miles from the nearest dirt road. And they died because this war, like all wars, is a complicated and messy affair.

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The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation

The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation

A journey into and beyond the challenges of total silence.

from Men’s Journal

These are my final words: “Why a camp chair?” I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I’m in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. “I’m so glad I have this,” he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It’s never answered. One of the volunteers approaches, puts a finger to his lips, and the silence begins.

Not just silence. I have – we all have – signed a pledge to observe what’s called “noble silence.” This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. “You must live here,” we’re told, “as if you’re completely alone.” There is also no exercise permitted, except walking. No cellphones. No computers. No radios. No pens or paper. No books, pamphlets, or magazines. Nothing at all to read. There will be only two simple vegetarian meals a day. My suitcase, with my phone and laptop, is locked away in the meditation center’s office. I have just a day bag, with a couple of toiletries, a med kit, and a single change of clothes. I’m wearing sandals and sweatpants and a loose T-shirt

continue reading at Men’s Journal

Here Be Monsters

Here Be Monsters

They did it for the simplest of reasons: adventure. Three friends, on a drunken dare, set out in a dinghy for a nearby island. But when the gas ran out and they drifted into barren waters, their biggest threat wasn’t the water or the ocean—it was each other

from GQ / photo illustration by Ingvar Kenne

A crewman on a commercial tuna-fishing boat was the first to spot it: something shiny and metallic in the water off the ship’s bow. The crewman alerted the navigator, and the 280-foot San Nikunauslightly altered course to avoid a collision. As the ship came closer, the object revealed itself to be a small boat, an aluminum dinghy. It was late in the afternoon on November 24 of last year. The New Zealand–based San Nikunau was in open water, a couple of days out of Fiji, amid the vastness of the southern Pacific—an expanse the size of a dozen Saharas in which there are only scattered specks of land.

The dinghy, fourteen feet long and low to the water, was designed for traveling on lakes or hugging a shoreline. There was no way it should’ve been in this part of the Pacific. If the San Nikunau had passed a quarter mile to either side, likely no one would have noticed it. Anyway, it appeared empty, another bit of the ocean’s mysterious flotsam. But then, as the big ship was approaching the dinghy, something startling happened. From the bottom of the tiny boat, emerging slowly and unsteadily, rose an arm—a single human arm, skinny and sun-fried and waving for help.

continue reading at GQ

This Little Kidney Went to Market

This Little Kidney Went to Market

The global trade in human organs

from The New York Times Magazine

After four years on dialysis, with no sign that he was nearing the top of the transplant waiting list, Moshe Tati decided to buy a kidney. This was easier than he had imagined. Several months previous, the name and telephone number of an organ broker had been passed, furtively, around his dialysis group. At the time, Moshe did not think he would use the telephone number. He thought he would wait.

Then his health began to fail. This happens with kidney patients. Dialysis is a tricky thing, rough on the body — it keeps you alive while gradually killing you. It is not uncommon for a person to lose 15 pounds during a single three-hour dialysis session. Shortly before he made his decision to buy, Moshe suffered a heart attack. The attack was minor, but it reduced his suitability for transplant surgery and dropped his standing on the organ-waiting list. He was now placed below some people whose kidney failure had just been diagnosed. Moshe was 43 years old, and he was dying, and not one of his family members was a suitable match for a kidney donation. So he called the broker.

continue reading at The New York Times Magazine

How Three Tokelau Teenagers Survived Being Lost in the Ocean for 51 Days

How Three Tokelau Teenagers Survived Being Lost in the Ocean for 51 Days

A crewman on a commercial tuna-fishing boat was the first to spot it: something shiny and metallic in the water off the ship’s bow. The crewman alerted the navigator, and the 280-foot San Nikunau slightly altered course to avoid a collision. As the ship came closer, the object revealed itself to be a small boat, an aluminum dinghy. It was late in the afternoon on November 24 of last year. The New Zealand–based San Nikunau was in open water, a couple of days out of Fiji, amid the vastness of the southern Pacific—an expanse the size of a dozen Saharas in which there are only scattered specks of land.

The dinghy, fourteen feet long and low to the water, was designed for traveling on lakes or hugging a shoreline. There was no way it should’ve been in this part of the Pacific. If the San Nikunau had passed a quarter mile to either side, likely no one would have noticed it. Anyway, it appeared empty, another bit of the ocean’s mysterious flotsam. But then, as the big ship was approaching the dinghy, something startling happened. From the bottom of the tiny boat, emerging slowly and unsteadily, rose an arm—a single human arm, skinny and sun-fried and waving for help.

Naji’s Taliban Phase

Naji’s Taliban Phase

The making and unmaking of a Taliban warrior.

from The New York Times Magazine / photograph by Christopher Anderson

Naji received his first letter from Ali in early July. It was delivered by a man on a donkey. The man rode from the Northern Alliance positions in the brown hills outside the city of Taloqan, in northeastern Afghanistan, then across the dusty battle plains, and then farther, to the Taliban roadblock patrolled by Naji. Naji opened the letter, read it through and tore it up. Then he struck a match and burned the pieces.

The letter was written by a midlevel Northern Alliance commander named Ali Ahmed. This was six months ago, when the Northern Alliance controlled only a tenuous pocket of the Afghan highlands and the United States military had scant interest in a far-off civil war. For Naji, the letter was completely unexpected; its mere delivery shot him with fear. ”It was just a small letter,” Ali says, speaking in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. ”I introduced myself. I sent greetings from my family, and I sent greetings to his family. I said I would be happy to hear back from him. Then I signed my name.”

continue reading at The New York Times Magazine

Rough-Terrain Unicycling

Rough-Terrain Unicycling

Riding a unicycle up and down mountains requires the balance of a gymnast and the temperament of a teenager.

from The Atlantic magazine

Why the red unicycle was left in the Seward, Alaska, dump and what inspired George Peck’s wife, Carol, to bring it home are both unclear. “I’m a salvager and recycler,” is all she will say. “She’s a dump rat,” Peck says. Carol put the unicycle in the garage, and Peck found it there. This was almost fourteen years ago. His life hasn’t been the same since.

“I glom on to things,” Peck says. “He gets obsessed,” Carol says. Peck taught himself to ride the red unicycle — no books, no instructors. He practiced daily for more than a month before he could wobble up and down his driveway. Then he attempted to take the unicycle onto the roads. Riding a unicycle is as precarious as it looks — the “cone of balance,” as Peck calls it, is extraordinarily precise. A pebble can be enough to put you on your back. So can a patch of sand or a gust of wind or a crack in the pavement. This may be why the red cycle was tossed into the dump: Seward is possibly the worst spot on the planet in which to ride a unicycle. The place is all sand and gusts and cracks, not to mention ice and snow and logs and boulders and mountains.

Peck learned to ride his unicycle under all conditions. He discovered how to make the cycle hop, and he honed the skill until he could pop over logs two feet in diameter. He figured out how to power through boulder fields, how to jump up and over picnic tables, how to turn in ankle-deep mud. He became skilled at riding in dried-out riverbeds, across frozen lakes, up mountain trails, and through wind-crusted snow. This is clearly not what unicycles were designed to do. When the red unicycle fell apart, Peck drove to Anchorage and bought a new one. When that broke, he ordered another. After a dozen more were destroyed, he began designing his own.

continue reading at The Atlantic
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