Postcard — June 4, 2015, 11:00 am


A visit to Djibouti City, where thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge from their country’s civil war.

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti on May 13, 2015. Djibouti has recieved scores of Yemeni refugees and migrants since the beginning of April. Photograph by Alex Potter

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti, on May 13, 2015. Photograph by Alex Potter

We traipsed across a muddy, trash-strewn creek bed in Djibouti City. Om Sakhr had insisted we chat someplace pleasant, and this was the way to the garden. She was dressed in a wispy black abaya and hijab, her lips painted a tart red. Her strappy heels weren’t exactly suited for the walk. But after several minutes, we reached a wicker table beneath long palms, tucked away in one of the city’s residential districts, a welcome respite from the afternoon sun.

A few weeks earlier, in April, 53-year-old Om Sakhr, along with her youngest son, Sakhr, arrived in Djibouti by boat after fleeing their home in Yemen’s southern port city Aden, now the center of the country’s civil war. (Om Sakhr translates to “mother of Sakhr”; she asked me not to use her real name.) In Aden, she had been a women’s rights activist. I asked her what she does with her days in Djibouti City. “Here, I don’t have any work except flipping through CNN, Al Arabiya, BBC, and Al Jazeera,” she told me, so she could keep up with the war in Yemen, where her husband still lives. “It’s not good for your psyche, but what else will I do?”

Om Sakhr suffers a common feature of refugee life: she waits. She waits for peace so she can return to her home, or for options—a job opportunity or a visa—so she can move on and try to establish a new life. Right now, none of these are available. Some Yemenis I met in Djibouti said they didn’t like being labeled refugees because they associate the term with the thousands of Somalis who used to pour into their country, fleeing violence and famine—but now they are desperate too.

1 Ali Abdullah Saleh was the president of Yemen for over 30 years, until 2012, when he stepped down following a year of Arab Spring–inspired mass protests. Saleh has recently aligned himself with the Houthi rebels in their efforts to gain control of the country.

Yemen’s long-simmering conflict reached a tipping point in February, after a rebel group of Iranian-supported Houthis attacked cities throughout the country and forced out Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In March, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition responded to the uprising by carrying out a series of airstrikes on Houthi targets. Later in the month, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports, cutting the country off from crucial imports such as medical supplies and fuel. The Houthis, with support from fighters aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been engaged in bloody street battles in Aden for nearly two months.1 Neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.

When Om Sakhr’s boat took off from Aden’s shores, she watched her beloved home, a beautiful coral-white city, disappear in the distance. “I never thought I’d leave Aden like that,” she said. “I was born in Aden and spent all my life in Aden, so taking me out of Aden is like breaking me down. It is not something I want to think about again.”

Djibouti, a barren corner of East Africa, is home to about 800,000 people, mostly of Somali and Afar descent. About 65 percent reside in the capital; almost 20 percent live below the poverty line. If Djibouti is known for anything in the West, it’s for capitalizing on its strategic location to court foreign militaries. In Yemen, Djibouti has the reputation of being a place where one can fly cheaply for a weekend of vodka and prostitutes. Across a 20-mile-wide strait, it’s Yemenis’ closest hope for safety. Around 13,000 have arrived to Djibouti from Yemen as of mid-May. For many of them, the country’s crowded capital—where undernourished Mogadishans beg on the streets and American defense contractors zoom around in SUVs—has become their home.

The Yemenis who flee to Djibouti often arrive with the hope that they will be able to travel onward, to the United States, Turkey, or anywhere else. Some get by with funds wired to them from family abroad. Others, like Om Sakhr, have Djiboutian family. Djibouti is their only guaranteed refuge. In nearby countries, the visa policies for Yemenis have been in flux since the war began. Notably, Egypt, where Yemenis typically used to travel for medical treatment, stopped giving them visas on arrival.

Yemenis appeared wherever I went in Djibouti City. At a bank downtown, two men were trying to access money that had been tied up in shuttered Yemeni banks. At a local store, Yemenis were behind me in line waiting to buy Djibouti SIM cards. When I checked out of my hotel, a group passed by the reception desk to ask if there was a free room; they were turned away. A moment later, when I got into a taxi, a Yemeni from Sanaa was in the front passenger seat. He said he was a runaway from Yemen’s secret police and asked if I knew of any hotels with vacancies. Then he asked me, an American citizen, to marry him.

Around 1,000 Yemeni refugees live in a U.N. camp in Obock, a coastal town north of the capital, where July temperature highs average 106 degrees. Many of the thousands of unregistered arrivals cram into Djibouti City’s hotels. “Everyone is hiking their prices. Djibouti City is very small,” explained a Djibouti businessman who wanted to speak anonymously. We talked under a much-needed AC wall unit in my hotel lobby. “If you extend their visas, what are they going to do? The money they brought with them is very small. Everything’s messed up.

“People think to stabilize their situation, and most Yemenis are thinking Yemen or Aden is done. ‘We lost our jobs. We lost our homes. So what do we have here in Djibouti?’ So they are trying to find jobs here, and a job here is very difficult. They don’t have any other choice but to stay and be patient, but until when?”

I first noticed signs of Yemen’s presence in Djibouti City when my plane landed at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Crowded on the end of the runway were several planes belonging to Yemen’s national airline, Yemenia. Presumably, they are stored in Djibouti because it’s much safer than at Sanaa’s airport, a frequent target of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Just across from the Yemenia planes, a waving American flag identified a U.S. military base that, up until 2013, housed drones used in Yemen.

While waiting for Djiboutian immigration officials to let me into the country, I met a man from Yemen’s southern province of al-Dhale whom I’ll call Yassin. Ten days earlier, Yassin had traveled from his home through Djibouti en route to Ethiopia, where he was refused entry despite having the appropriate visa. He had spent two days stranded in Addis Ababa’s airport when he got word that his father had died and turned around to return to Yemen. Now, he told me, he had to find a boat in Djibouti to take him back to the war-torn country from which he had just fled.

Yassin and I went to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch of roast chicken and rice, which was served alongside a spicy pepper salsa similar to one used in Yemeni cuisine. He told me he had tried to go to Ethiopia because a friend worked for a pharmacy there and said he could have a job too, but Ethiopia began preventing Yemenis from entering its borders the week Yassin arrived. “I’m not a refugee. I want to work,” he said. I asked him how it was to witness his country descending into chaos from afar. “I cannot sleep if I think about it,” he replied, and so he tried his best not to.

After lunch, we walked through downtown Djibouti’s crumbling French colonial facades to the Medina Hotel, where Yassin was staying. The streets were deserted at this hour, around three o’clock in the afternoon. Most of the city took a siesta, but a few fruit sellers sat beneath umbrellas on the sidewalk, and a group of brightly clad Somali women sold qat, which Yassin stopped to inspect. As he felt the bundles of leaves he cursed how expensive the mild narcotic plant was in Djibouti. He bought it anyway, for about $15. Yassin always kept all of his cash on him—hundreds of U.S. dollars.

Back inside the hotel, a dismal block building that resonated with the staccato sounds of Yemeni Arabic, Yassin introduced me to a group of six men from Yemen living together in a fourth-floor hotel room. He then promptly forgot about his qat and fell asleep on the room’s only single bed, which was pushed up against the wall to make room for the mattresses on which the rest of the men sat. A muted TV in the corner streamed images of news from around the world: the Nepal earthquake, protests in Baltimore, and then a brief shot of a shelled-out city. I wasn’t sure if it was Aden or somewhere in Syria.

The half-dozen men came from cities across Yemen. They had led a variety of lives—some lawyers, others uneducated and unemployed—and met on the boat as they fled Yemen. The married men left their families to scope out life in Djibouti and to see how difficult the journey by boat would be. The sea winds pick up in the summer, which will make the trip more hazardous.

The most well-spoken of the group was a businessman from the ancient city of Taiz, where Houthi militias have been battling a homegrown insurgency since the war began. Abdel-Aziz, as I’ll call him, wore a colorful wraparound skirt, known as a mawaz, and a white, sweaty T-shirt. He told me the boat from Aden was overstuffed. “It’s not for people; it’s for animals,” he said. They were crammed on the top deck, under a blazing sun for over 10 hours, sitting knees to chest.

“We are looking for a solution,” Abdel-Aziz explained. “Yemen is destroyed. The Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are the ones who killed everyone. Even if you are able to live, they rule you.”

Little made these men smile or laugh. They repeatedly said “inshallah, if God wills it, my lot in life will improve,” yet they were overcome by a general malaise at the obstacles they face. They are loathe to admit to themselves that they too may end up at the camp in Obock, and every day they hear news that more are killed in Yemen, more infrastructure destroyed, and another humanitarian aid shipment denied entry.

A skinny 19-year-old from Ibb was searching around the room for his lost qat bag. He grew frustrated with our conversation. “The problem is no one knows what will be the future!” he yelled, throwing a mattress to the side. At this, Yassin sat up from his nap and half listened from his stupor.

“The West has all the technology, power, and weapons,” Abdel-Aziz added. “If there is just the will to end the war in Yemen, they can kill Saleh with one drone.”

These men have other practical concerns. When they first arrived, they didn’t know how to wash clothes, and the laundromats in Djibouti are prohibitively expensive. Eventually it was decided by the group that the youngest, the man from Ibb, was to figure out how to do their laundry. He smiled sheepishly when admitting that this was true.

2 A month later, Yassin told me via a phone message that he was still in Djibouti, unable to find a boat to take him back to Yemen for his father’s funeral. His visa will expire soon, in which case he will have to register with UNHCR and officially become a refugee.

As the afternoon turned into evening, some men left to run errands. “Do you know if Western Union is still open?” one asked. “There is no more water in the bathroom!” another yelled. Their room was cluttered with empty water bottles, cologne, and qat stems. Each night they swept up the floor, lined up the mattresses, and tried to sleep so that they can tackle whatever the next day might bring.2

In the garden with Om Sakhr, a caretaker brought us two bottles of Coca-Cola. The property was owned by a well-off Djiboutain family Om Sakhr had met through her daughter’s Djiboutian in-laws. They told her that she and Sakhr could visit as often as they liked. A network of the wealthy, especially locals with ties to Yemen, try where they can to make refugees’ lives less bleak.

Sitting at the wicker table, Om Sakhr was eager to explain how women have played an important role in aiding Aden’s local insurgency. “They aren’t afraid of the shelling,” she said. They provide water to the fighters, water that they have to fetch from wells in mosques because there is no other fresh water to be found. For Yemenis today, she said, “there is an element of revenge in it. They’ve lost their sons.”

“The problem is snipers,” she added—trained Houthi marksmen who shoot from nearby buildings down onto Aden’s streets.

Like many Yemenis, Om Sakhr does not see a solution to the war ravaging her country. I asked if she worried that she would never be able to return to Aden. “Right now, I am not thinking of that seriously,” she said. “I am just crying.”

Laura Kasinof is the author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, a memoir of her time reporting from Yemen for the New York Times. She’s also written for the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, Newsweek, and Guernica, among other publications.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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