A checkpoint set up by the Islamist police on the road to Gao marks the beginning of the region controlled by the new rulers of northern Mali. Adolescents wielding Kalashnikovs stand at the barrier with their legs apart. The oldest one keeps repeating the same instructions through a megaphone: "No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry," an endless loop of prohibitions, a list of everything that's haram, or impure, with which this journey to the north begins. The men stand guard in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
With arrogant gestures, they stop the few long-distance buses still coming from southern Mali. One of the men, holding his weapon at the ready, inspects the busses by walking down the aisle and checking to make sure everyone is in compliance with the Islamists' rules: Are women and men sitting in separate areas? Are the women wearing the hijab? And are the men wearing trousers that reach to their ankles, the kind of trousers that radical Muslims believe the Prophet favored? They are now obligatory in Gao.
The driver and the passengers submit to the procedure in silence. When it's over, the inspector jumps out of the back door, still wielding his Kalashnikov, and calls out "Salam alaikum," the greeting commonly used in the Muslim world. The bus has now been cleared to pass through the checkpoint....
Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.
"Gao is a dead city," says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao's economic output has "declined by 85 percent" since the spring.
The Islamic police have become the city's biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered "haram" and "halal," or pure.
Until recently, the Sharia courts' sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret.
The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments. One of its victims is Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain.
Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," he calls out, takes the convicted man's hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it's a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: "The man has been punished."
Maiga had kept his eyes shut the entire time, not even screaming. The men lead him into another room, where his arm is bandaged, and after 15 minutes he is released and stumbles into the street. "I'm innocent," he says. "What am I supposed to do now? I can't work anymore."
A few days later, Maiga is dead, probably as a result of blood loss or an infection.
Worth reading in full.
The New York skyline as you rarely see it - unlit:
From an In Focus gallery, Hurricane Sandy: After Landfall.
"The lights on the Brooklyn Bridge stand in contrast to the lower Manhattan skyline which has lost its electrical supply, early on Tuesday, October 30, 2012, after megastorm Sandy swept through New York. A record storm surge that was higher than predicted along with high winds damaged the electrical system and plunged millions of people into darkness."
This is what it should have looked like:
Except of course it's a fake.
Update: more Sandy photos at The Big Picture.
Well that's the Wildlife Photograph of the Year Prize sorted:
What do you mean, what is it? It's a heron, of course: a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) no less. Standing in a drained section of the Hertford Union Canal in Hackney. When an opportunity like this comes along, you have to grab it.
Elsewhere, below Lea Bridge Road:
A seemingly random view, but a closer look reveals how much skill has gone in to the framing of the shot. Note how the blue and yellow colour block of the fencing on the right is echoed in the blue yellow and green of the boat, while the red and white barrier is cleverly mirrored by the red and white of the tiller. The arrow sign reinforces the perspectival pull of the triangles on the bridge as they draw the eye over to the left, while the path winds its way up into the centre then to the right, creating a dynamic tension....
And here's a boot:
It's business as usual for the Kims:
The National Intelligence Service said on Monday that North Korea is spending around US$330 million on amusement parks and the cult surrounding the ruling Kim family.
The NIS told a National Assembly hearing that the North Korean regime is building huge outdoor swimming pools and water parks modeled after theme parks in Europe like Switzerland's Alpamare.
The agency said the plaza in front of Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the pickled bodies of nation founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il lie in glass coffins, is being transformed into a luxurious garden modeled after those of French and Austrian palaces.
The $330 million would be enough to buy 1.1 million tons of corn, which can feed the entire people of North Korea for three to four months, the NIS pointed out. The North is reported to be experiencing a worse food shortage than in the famine of the 1990s.
There are other signs that the new regime under Kim Jong-un is reverting to type. The agency said Kim's wife Ri Sol-ju has not appeared in public for 40 days, apparently because senior apparatchiks are worried that her westernized ways could corrupt public morals.
There are now rumours that the Ri Sol-ju is in fact pregnant - perhaps carrying the next-in-line of the immortal Kim dynasty.
Street art off Brick Lane:
On nearby Hanbury Street the dodgy Illuminatus piece has now been replaced with this:
You can't go wrong with endangered animals (though whoever drew that red line may disagree). Better than playing around with anti-Semitic stereotypes, anyway. If you can't read it, it says "Less than 500 Ethiopian wolf" [sic], "8,174,100" London humans", "15000 African cheetah". Yes, a smaller London means more room for the cheetahs.
Across the road:
More animals (and traders) up Cheshire Street:
Some autumn colour from a few days spent visiting gardens south of Evesham.
If history had played out differently, this could have been Adolf and Unity's country retreat - a kind of English Berchtesgarden.
The house isn't open to the public, but the arboretum is: