Saturday, August 29, 2009

Grapes of Wrath revisited

It's 70 years since John Steinbeck's seminal Grapes of Wrath (about Depression-era American families moving west) was published.

Here The Guardian's Chris McGreal retraces that journey and finds a series of desolate ghost towns clinging to the famous Route 66.

(I recently went to see a theatre production of the book and it still holds its power, decades since it was written).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jack's Death

A moving tribute from a father to his slain only-son, in Afghanistan.

Trooper Jack Sadler was killed in December 2007, when a land mine exploded underneath his army Land Rover in the desert of southern Afghanistan.

At the inquest into the death of the 21-year-old, in July this year, a coroner in Exeter said the government should explain why such light vehicles were used for army reconnaissance patrols.

Hear the audio tribute here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Iranian boy who defied Tehran hardliners tells of prison rape ordeal

The 15-year-old boy sits weeping in a safehouse in central Iran, broken in body and spirit. Reza will not go outside — he is terrified of being left alone. He says he wants to end his life and it is not hard to understand why: for daring to wear the green wristband of Iran’s opposition he was locked up for 20 days, beaten, raped repeatedly and subjected to the Abu Ghraib-style sexual humiliations and abuse for which the Iranian regime denounced the United States.

“My life is over. I don’t think I can ever recover,” he said, as he recounted his experiences to The Times — on condition that his identity not be revealed. A doctor who is treating him, at great risk to herself, confirmed that he is suicidal, and bears the appalling injuries consistent with his story. The family is desperate, and is exploring ways of fleeing Iran.

Reza is living proof of the charges levelled by Mehdi Karoubi, one of the opposition’s leaders, that prison officials are systematically raping both male and female detainees to break their wills. The regime has accused Mr Karoubi of helping Iran’s enemies by spreading lies and has threatened to arrest him.

The boy’s treatment also shows just how far a regime that claims to champion Islamic values is prepared to go to suppress millions of its own citizens who claim that President Ahmadinejad’s re-election was rigged.


Read this incredibly powerful story at The Times.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hammering The Rock

It was a place for those who had made it. Plate glass and grandeur, reflected in the bright winter sunlight. The posh Pacific Heights neighbourhood was a world away from the street gangs and violence plaguing many American inner cities.

So it must have seemed to Bill Kuenzi on a typically brisk San Franciscan afternoon, January 26 2001, as he unlocked his friend's third-story apartment door. Until, that was, he heard the screams.

"It was high-pitched, desperate, continuous screaming," Kuenzi later testified in a Los Angeles court, "of a woman who was obviously being attacked. I knew I had to do something and I tried to call 911 on my cell phone."

Kuenzi's phone didn't work where he was. So he went to the stairs for better reception and began climbing toward the screaming. The cell phone still didn't work. He continued until he reached the fifth floor. Then fear stopped him. The screaming was coming from the sixth floor.

"I assumed it was a domestic violence situation," said Kuenzi, a 35-year-old stockbroker. "Or a woman being sexually assaulted. I realised that when I climbed to the sixth floor landing, I would be exposed to the situation, which I knew was violent, and I was scared."

He had good reason. The violence that Kuenzi feared was not being perpetrated by some enraged boyfriend who might be calmed down, or even a rapist who could be scared off by the arrival of others.

The attack taking place a floor above Kuenzi was being carried out by two huge Canary Island mastiffs. They had been bred as vicious attack dogs by a pair of prison cellmates, members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood — possibly the most frightening prison gang in US history.

The dogs were mauling to death Diane Whipple, a petite 34-year-old college lacrosse coach and resident of the sixth floor, who had just returned from a shopping trip.

Descending again, Kuenzi finally got through to police. As he reached the ground floor, he heard Whipple's cries change to a low moan.

"Then the screaming stopped," he said.

The first police officers at the scene found Whipple in the sixth-floor hallway, nude, mutilated, covered in blood, and trying to crawl to her open apartment door. The carpet, floor and walls were smothered in bloody handprints.

Whipple was beyond help. Her larynx was crushed and her jugular vein had been severed by dog bites. The two dogs, Bane (male) and Hera (female), had worked together, Bane attacking her face and neck, Hera the lower body. Whipple would die in the emergency room 70 minutes later.

This strange and savage attack was to expose to the American public one of the more bizarre aspects of the Aryan Brotherhood. Known as Presa Canarios, the dogs which killed Diane Whipple belonged to her neighbours, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, husband-and-wife attorneys. Their legal practice had put them in contact with the two life-term prisoners at Pelican Bay, the most secure facility in the California system.

With Noel and Knoller's help, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, an Aryan Brotherhood member, and Dale Bretches were running a dangerous business – against prison rules – that they called Dog o' War. Officials believe that huge dogs were being raised for sale to guard methamphetamine labs. The business was conducted from the cells, and by vulnerable contacts on the outside whom Cornfed managed to dupe.

Jewish-born Noel, 60, and Knoller, 46, were later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and, in Knoller's case, second-degree murder as well. There were allegations of sexual abuse concerning the dogs, and naked pictures of Knoller were also found in Cornfed's cell. Even so, these were hardly your run-of-the-mill Aryan Brotherhood associates. Yet the case threw into sharp relief the continued existence of America's most feared prison gang.

One of the most feared gangs in American history faces the ultimate showdown with the authorities – but will it be enough to smash 'The Rock'? Report by Nick Ryan.

Read the shocking tale of America's most feared prison gang; and how the authorities tried to break it. (Reprinted).

My Virtual Family

They are the 'Twitter generation'. Couch-potato teenagers, addicted to video games and instant messenging, dangerously cut-off from the outside world.

That, at least, is one depressing stereotype painted of today’s youth: we have a disgruntled, alienated generation ignored by its guardians and parents.

Video games, from 'first person shooters' (FPS), to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs, or MMOs), are often blamed for heightening this apparently self-destructive behaviour.

Psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, a specialist in treating adolescent addiction from the Tavistock Centre in London, has even said that the teenagers he saw were living entire days inside virtual game worlds. Their time inside hugely popular fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft, was damaging their health and studies.

"One young man described vividly to me a sense that having achieved very high success in the game, when he switched off he felt downgraded," he said.

But is there another side to this picture?

Time-pressed, divided families – those divorced, living away from their loved ones, or simply with grown-up children – are increasingly using online worlds and games to stay in touch with one another. It's an interesting, and as yet unreported, shift in the new ways we're being forced to associate. It is the rise of a virtual family, you might say.

More and more of us are finding ways to stay in touch with family and loved ones via online game worlds or "MMOs", says Nick Ryan.

Read how video games are providing a new way for us to communicate.

Good Heart in Africa

Two years ago he lay dying on the hard earth of a shanty town. As his life blood gushed out he stumbled away, trying to escape the men who had just shot him at point blank range.

"The third shot was like a fist going right up into my body. I really felt that," says the mild-mannered Belfast priest with a shudder. He pauses for a moment, licking his lips.

"I felt so alone … abandoned," states Father Kieran Creagh, as he remembers the night in February 2007, when a criminal gang attacked his South African hospice.

"They just rang the bell outside in the courtyard and I thought, 'oh, something must have happened in one of the wards'. I didn't realise these guys were inside. I opened the door … and that's when they grabbed me."

Leratong – the name means "place of love" in one of the six local languages spoken here – had been set up by Father Creagh in 2004, a single-minded effort to help tackle the massive HIV/AIDS crisis crushing the nation. With its hospice beds, drug clinic and creche, plus new church, it was at the physical and spiritual heart of the community.

A member of the Passionist order, Creagh had spent over a decade seeing his congregation succumb to the deadly disease. In the overcrowded, poverty-stricken township of Atteridgeville, about an hour west of the capital Pretoria, he had watched as old men lay dying in filthy shacks, unable to move; attended by wives who were scarcely less sick.

He felt passionately about bringing dignity to the dying: it was his vision and determination, despite funding problems, political obstructions and the South African government's refusal to provide anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), that had led to Leratong's birth.

The irony was that he was now facing the end of his own, most extraordinary, life.

Fr Kieran Creagh narrowly escaped death in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and more recently in South Africa where he founded Leratong hospice. Nick Ryan meets a man who for many epitomises the essence of priesthood and its sacrifices.

Read the amazing story of 'The Father', my latest profile piece.

Lords of War

I first saw them on the slip road. They were trapped in a muddle of traffic, jostling to get through, eager, anxious, impatient; the mood of the driver transmitted down through the steering wheel and the throttle into the jerking, pushy movements of the car. I'd watched them as we drove past and now they were behind us framed in my observer's mirror, kicking up a plume of road dust as they weaved through the morning traffic on the highway through Fallujah. Pickups loaded with workers on the open backs, loose-fitting robes snapping in the milky warm slipstream, moved to let the black BMW 7 series charge through. They were like the members of a herd making way for a big predator which had earmarked its prey further into the throng.

I knew what was coming now just as the herd, watching from their pickups and battered saloons, did... But the difference was that I am not one of the herd.

They brave their lives in the shadowy world of mercenary riches, risking all for reward – but what are the dangers today of using so many 'soldiers of fortune' to protect corporate and diplomatic interests? Nick Ryan, who has met many private military and security contractors, looks at their motivations and at the wider industry they inhabit.

Read the story of today's modern mercenaries, now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gold Trading: Exposed

Is gold selling like pornography: something more of us do than admit? A shameful secret, something indulged alone and at night, in front of the screen; or during a lunchbreak, safely away from a partner, when a quick credit card or PayPal transaction will go unnoticed by others in-game?

Secret or not, we all hate 'gold sellers'. Apparently. Despise them, even. Ask your friends or colleagues: how many will openly admit to buying services from a gold farmer? Yeah, that's right. Not many. And the ones that do probably harp on just as loudly against them as the next man or woman.

But just who are these scourges of the gaming world? You probably know them as the anonymous figures plaguing your trade chat, offering great deals for game currency, power-levelling services or purchase of rare items and plans. In games such as World of Warcraft the infamous random whisper from a level 1: "Hello, are you there?" quickly leads into a macroed advert if you bother to reply. What with the well-known 'grind' present in most massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) these days, how many of us have been tempted to take that short cut?

The received wisdom, as we'll see later from the major games companies, is that such outfits are as good as organised crime: they support and promote hacking and stolen accounts and credit cards. They are not merely a nuisance and headache, but a plague to be stamped out which costs us all millions of greenbacks.

Yet this is the thing: if there was no demand, there'd be no market. And no gold sellers. Right? Yet gold selling – or 'real money trading' (RMT) to give it its emasculated, industry name (the real-world sale of virtual goods and services produced in online games) – is now worth an estimated US $2 billion annually. And that figure is growing.

It's worth up to $10 billion and used by 30% of all gamers – yet denied in public by most players and now even banned by a national government. In a four-part weekly feature series which was picked up across the Internet, Nick Ryan reports on the current state of the thriving grey market of "gold selling" in online worlds, which supports an industry of over 1 million in China alone.

Just who are these scourges of the gaming world?

Read the stories which set the internet alight -- now on my website for the first time.

The Fraud Busters™

My new story in Wired magazine:

Summer 2003 – The two men stepped off the long flight from Dublin. The Miami heat washed over them in a second, but they didn't flinch. In their line of work they were well-used to entering harsh climes; war-torn Liberia, the jungles of Papua New Guinea or a freezing Toronto winter – they went wherever the money trail led them.

The taller and more broad-shouldered of the two had once guarded US Presidents and worked out on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border when the US supported the mujahideen. His companion, shorter and with carefully-buttoned suit and tie, was a forensically-minded lawyer responsible for crossing swords with some of the most tenacious con-men the world had ever seen, sociopaths who would stop at nothing in their avarice. When you heard of names like Bernie Madoff or Sir Allen Stanford, chances are he was on their trail. He had sat across from these criminals as they told him how they lay awake at night, dreaming of ways to kill him.

Read October's Wired (UK) magazine for my story of the Global Fraud Busters.

Living With Dying - The Times Magazine

It is the great leveller. And the last taboo.

It brings down rich and poor alike. Hollywood gives it glamour; poets gild it with romance. Oscar Wilde even tried to make light of it. "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go," he muttered from a Parisian hotel, sipping his last champagne.

Our tabloids mawkishly follow its path, too, through the spectacle of reality TV star Jade Goody and actors such as Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze fighting their doomed battles with cancer.

More than half a million people in the UK die every year, yet death is the one fact of life we refuse to confront. As we debate the morality of assisted suicide, five people with terminal illnesses movingly discuss what it really means to die:

The despair, anger, hope – even humour.

Read my story. Saturday 15th August: The Times Magazine.

(or read my original, longer piece here)