On those rare occasions I get around to writing down my thoughts I put them here.
Here you'll find stories about my travels and my thoughts on history.

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February 2, 2015

Maritime Greenwich

UNESCO World Heritage Series Part 1

On the south bank of the Thames, in an eastern suburb of London, there is a complex of buildings that has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Though the area is beautiful and many of the buildings are masterpieces of British architecture, most people only know Greenwich as the place we all set our time to and the place the Prime Meridian has been set, 0° latitude.

But the true significance of Greenwich ranges far beyond these distinctions. It extends to every corner of the globe and into every sphere of Western cultural life. Indeed, persuasive arguments can and have been made that the institution represented by Maritime Greenwich has played an unsurpassed role in shaping the modern world, greater perhaps than the Roman legions, Christian missionaries or Mongol hordes. For Maritime Greenwich is the symbolic heart of the Royal Navy.

A view of the Queen's House from the rear. Beyond is the Old Royal Naval College and the Thames. The photo was taken from the Royal Observatory.

The Royal Navy of England hath ever been its greatest defense and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of the island.
– Sir William Blackstone

It was on the wooden walls of the Royal Navy that the British Empire was built, an empire on which the sun never set. An empire that, for good or ill held under its sway a fifth of humanity and a fourth of the world’s landmass. It was on the Royal Navy’s vessels that the English language, parliamentary democracy, the common law system, Enlightenment ideals and science, the Protestant work ethic, English literature and culture, were all exported around the world. Were it not for the daring and resourcefulness of Britain’s sailors in the turbulent 18th and 19th Centuries, the world today would scarcely be recognizable to us.

The buildings in Maritime Greenwich all represent aspects of the Royal Navy’s global reach. At the water’s edge can be found the Old Royal Naval College that once served as the Naval Hospital. Laid out in perfect symmetry, the two buildings mirror each other and lead the eye beyond to the Queen’s House, which houses a remarkable collection of paintings made by Britain’s explorers. Beside that is the National Maritime Museum, the largest such museum in the world and a repository of all Britain’s rich naval history. Even further beyond that, atop a steep hill, resides the Royal Observatory, scene of some of the most celebrated achievements in the history of navigation and astronomy.

On the left is the National Maritime Museum. On the right the Royal Observatory, which is set on a hill behind the museum.

It was at the Royal Naval College that the men who preserved the Royal Navy’s supremacy at sea were moulded and forged. It seems a fitting place to start, for it was from success in battle that all of Britain’s other success followed.

British global naval supremacy was never a foregone conclusion. Indeed, looking at the world of the late Middle Ages, it seems a fantastic notion that the rainy islands off Northwest Europe would come to dominate world affairs. Internal strife and a small population barred Britain from the first rank of European powers for most of the 15th and 16th Centuries. The powers on the Continent only had cause to sit up and pay attention to England when Queen Elizabeth’s nascent navy defeated the numerically superior Spanish Armada in 1588. There followed a string of wars with the Netherlands and France that culminated in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. These cemented Britain’s uncontested mastery of the seas. What followed was a century of Pax Britannica, where the Royal Navy was able to project power on a scale unparalleled in world history. Even today American admirals can only dream of the power to influence world events the Royal Navy once enjoyed.

A map showing the countries that have been invaded by the United Kingdom at some point in history. This amounts to just shy of 90% of the nearly 200 countries around today. Only 22 countries have not been invaded by Britain. No other country has ever been able to influence global events in the same way Britain once did.

If this success was far from assured 500 years ago, how then did it come about?

As an island nation Britain has always had a strong naval tradition and the seas shielded her from the need for the massive armies that ravaged the Continent. Fishermen from Devon and Cornwall traversed the Atlantic and Britain’s merchant fleet was consistently one of the largest in the world. Service at sea paid surprisingly well and offered better prospects than most other options open to the average 17th Century Englishman. This culture decorated the service with glory and funneled talented men into the ranks. The Royal Navy always had a huge pool of able seamen to draw upon.

A mother and her son, a naval cadet, admire a painting of Lord Nelson. This painting hangs in the National Maritime Museum.

These sailors were trained to a high pitch of readiness, skilled at the immensely complex task of handling a sailing ship’s rigging, giving British ships the best speed and manoeuvrability of the age. Many of the sailors in the French and Spanish navies were landlubbers and did not take so easily to the art of seamanship required in the age of sail.

Sailing along the coast of Spain, the frigate HMS Endymion came across a French frigate floundering on the rocks in heavy seas. Though the two countries were at war for the time, the Endymion's captain Sir Charles Paget went to the rescue of the French ship. Through careful manoeuvering and a stunning display of seamanship in these treacherous seas, the Endymion was able to get a line on to the French ship and tow it to safety.

Gunnery in the Royal Navy attained the status of high science, and British gunners achieved rates of fire two or three times that of their less nautically inclined French counterparts. It helped that the guns forged at Woolwich, just downstream from Greenwich, were some of the best in the world. French naval guns occasionally blew up on their operators, an occurrence that cannot have been beneficial to crew morale.

Some of the dangers of battle in the age of sail. On the left is a Spanish bar fired at Trafalgar that killed 8 Royal Marines. Centre is a round of grapeshot, used to rake the quarterdecks and kill enemy officers. Right is a short carronade carried on a heavily armed East Indiaman.

Just as important as the ship’s crews were the men schooled at Greenwich who commanded them. Royal Navy doctrine produced and glorified men of daring and aggressive spirit, foremost amongst them Lord Horatio Nelson. His victories at the Nile and Trafalgar are still embedded in the national psyche and his famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty,” is known to every schoolchild.

On the left is the uniform Lord Nelson wore on the day he commanded the Royal Navy to its greatest ever victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, preserved in the National Maritime Museum. In the centre you can see the hole from the sniper's bullet that killed him near the end of the battle. The uniform is still stained with dried blood. On the right are Nelson's breeches. The dried blood on them is not his own. In the opening minutes of the battle a cannonball killed his secretary beside him, splattering Nelson with blood.

Reforms by Samuel Pepys in the 1600s ensured that commands would be doled out on the basis of merit, rather than by accident of birth, a concept foreign to most militaries of the time. The Duke of Medina Sidonia who commanded the Spanish Armada, for example, was prone to sea-sickness and had never commanded a ship at sea before. On the other hand Admiral Rodney, victor over the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, was born into abject poverty.

I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.
– Oliver Cromwell

The Navy’s officers were not content to rest on their laurels and a spirit of innovation flowed through the ranks. Britain spearheaded the adoption of virtually all the revolutionary naval technologies of the 19th Century, from ironclads and torpedoes to dreadnoughts and aircraft carriers. This willingness to stay ahead of the times cemented Britain’s lead and translated into colonial possessions and economic might. Success bred success, and by the middle of the 19th Century the United Kingdom had become history’s most successful thalassocracy, an empire of the sea.

Being unchallenged and unchallengable, Britain was able to exercise her maritime imperium of the Pax Britannica at remarkably modest expense. The British defence burden fell progressively to a minimum of 2 percent (of GDP) in 1870. Britain's dominance flowed not so much from the size of her active fleets as from the vast potential strength implicit in the reserve fleet and, behind that, the unrivalled capacity of her industry.
- Pugh, Philip

HMS Warrior. Launched in 1861, she was the world's first armour-plated iron-hulled warship. Iron hulls, steam propulsion and screw propellers all spelled the end of the age of sail.

The consequences of British naval power were vast. Most obviously it facilitated the movement of millions of people around the world. Wave after wave of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish emigrants washed over foreign shores, my parents and grandparents amongst them. They established the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the nation that would eventually become the United States.

But these mass migrations had a dark side too: Millions of enslaved Africans were transported to the new world on British ships, to be worked to death on Caribbean sugar plantations. For the indigenous peoples already inhabiting these lands, the result was nothing short of disastrous. Canadian First Nations and Australian aborigines were dispossessed and sometimes exterminated while a tiny imperial elite presided over the entire Indian subcontinent.

Manacles used to restrain slaves taking the horrific Middle Passage on a Royal African Company ship. Though British companies oversaw the brutal transportation of millions of Africans to the New World to live lives in bondage, Britain was among the first countries in the world to ban the slave trade and throughout the mid-19th Century the Royal Navy actively sought to suppress the trade.

In tandem with the movement of people was the movement of ideas. The English language, which has today become the global lingua franca, the system of parliamentary democracy, the English common law system and more than we could possibly list here were spread around the world.

Yet in addition to spreading Europeans and their ideas, the Royal Navy helped expand Europeans’ own minds, knitting the world’s disparate threads together as part of the world’s first era of globalization. In the Queen’s House, a marvellous Palladian style building next to the Maritime Museum, an exhibition of paintings recounts Britain’s voyages of discovery. George Stubb sailed with Captain Cook to the South Pacific and his paintings of Tahiti and Australia hang there today, reminders of how these voyages of exploration captured the world’s imagination.

George Stubb's The Kongouro from New Holland is the first depiction of a kangaroo in Western art.

These expeditions not only sought to fill in the blank spaces on the map, but to expand our knowledge of science. The ostensible reason for Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768, for example, was to observe from Tahiti the transit of Venus across the sun’s disc. Measurements of this celestial event would allow Royal Society astronomers back in London to determine Venus’s distance from the sun, and from that extrapolate the distances between the various bodies in the solar system. The famous botanist Joseph Banks sailed on this expedition, assembling an impressive collection of flora and fauna from the lands they visited, forming the basis of Kew Gardens’ world-leading collection, another World UNESCO site on the outskirts of London. The impact of Cook’s three voyages has echoes through the ages, reflected in the naming of two space shuttles after his ships HMS Endeavour and HMS Discovery.

And we cannot forget that on a later voyage to the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, perhaps the most important development in the history of science.

The ability to accurately navigate and chart waters on the other side of the world was a feat in and of itself that would not have been possible without sustained scientific advancement, in particular the problem of accurately judging a ship’s longitude. Measuring latitude was done easily enough: by checking the sun’s altitude at noon against a series of charts.

A sextant used in the 18th Century to judge the angular distance between objects, necessary for calculating one's position.

Longitude—one’s position east or west—was another matter altogether. In the 17th Century it could only be determined by dead reckoning. This made accurate navigation on transoceanic voyages treacherous, perilous and frequently fatal. King Charles II, recognized the problem and in 1675 announced the foundation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich which would, he hoped, “find the so-much desired longitude of places.”

The curious-looking Royal Observatory set atop a hill beyond the Maritime Museum. It was once the site of a Tudor palace.

This odd little building overlooking the rest of the Greenwich UNESCO site holds a special place in the history of science. The first attempts at solving the longitude problem looked to the stars, hoping celestial measurements would provide the answer. Britain’s foremost astronomers worked from the observatory making great strides in telescope technology and recording many new astronomical phenomena, including the first definite sighting of the planet Uranus in 1690 (though it would not be properly identified as such until a century later by the astronomer William Herschel who was also working in London).

But the problem of longitude defied the astronomers’ best efforts and proved so vexing that in 1714 the British Government offered a ₤20,000 prize ($5 million CAD today) to whoever solved the riddle. The Spanish and Dutch governments had offered similar prizes but had signally failed to produce results. It took over 50 years for a solution to be found, and it didn’t come from one of the illustrious astronomer royals, but from a humble Yorkshire carpenter and clockmaker.

John Harrison sought to solve the problem by building the first precise clock that could tell navigators exactly what time it was at a given point—Greenwich. This knowledge would allow a completely accurate longitude calculation. But a clock that could work accurately from a moving ship, survive the hardships of sea and not be affected by fluctuations in temperature, pressure and humidity was thought impossible by many, including giants like Sir Isaac Newton. Yet in the 1760s Harrison built such a clock, called H4, accurate enough to be adopted and revolutionary enough to represent a giant leap forward in the immensely complex science of clock-making.

The deceptively simple H4 Chronometer built by John Harrison that revolutionized navigation. At first the Admiralty refused to believe Harrison's claim the clock only lost 5 seconds over a 61 day sea voyage, thinking it was too good to be true.

Now with accurate charts possible, voyages like Cook’s were possible to accurately map the world. Suddenly naval cartography became stunningly accurate. Some of the charts created by Captain George Vancouver during his surveying of British Columbia’s coast in the 1790s remained in use until the advent of GPS. Now all of the Royal Navy’s charts set Greenwich as the Prime Meridian, Longitude 0° 0' 0''. Today it runs through the centre of the observatory compound, a steel band along the ground. You can stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other in the west.

The Prime Meridian.

By the late 19th Century British ships using chronometers set to Greenwich Time and calculating their longitude in relation to the Royal Observatory dominated world trade. When railways and communications necessitated the creation of an international standard for time (prior to this every town set its own time) Greenwich was the obvious choice. In 1884 an international convention voted Greenwich as the world’s Longitude 0, “the centre of world time and space.” This is the basis of our system of time, Greenwich Mean Time.

A view of central London from the Royal Observatory, over a meander in the Thames.

Today the Royal Navy is but a shadow of its former self, succeeded as global naval hegemon, perhaps fittingly, by the United States Navy. Yet the years of 18th Century British naval dominance and 19th Century Pax Brittanica had incalculable effects upon the world’s future development. It is impossible to understand the world today without some understanding of the role the Royal Navy once played in it. At Maritime Greenwich, inside these breathtaking buildings, we can recapture a sense of the Navy’s former glory and come to grips with the perplexing concept that this small, rainy archipelago once, for a brief yet crucial period, set the world’s course.

December 8, 2014

Ukraine's Lords of War

Historical Analysis

Of all the weapons in the vast soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947. More commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It's the world's most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn't break, jam, or overheat. It'll shoot whether it's covered in mud or filled with sand. It's so easy, even a child can use it; and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin. Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people's greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. One thing is for sure, no one was lining up to buy their cars.

Why is it that in virtually every image of war from around the world in the last 20 years, the soldiers, fighters or rebels are armed with AK-47s? The above passage provided a pretty good answer to that question, and it came from a surprising place. Those words were spoken by Dimitri Orlov, an arms dealer played by Nicholas Cage in the movie Lord of War. Though there never was a Dimitri Orlov there might as well have been.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it opened the floodgates for a torrent of guns, tanks, APCs, attack helicopters and munitions into the world’s conflict zones, fuelling an eruption of small and not-so-small wars. Men like Dimitri Orlov built criminal empires secreting these weapons from Red Army storehouses and across international borders. But these arms weren't simply exports of Russia. Arguably playing an even more prominent role in this black market trade was Ukraine, the country where the man who spoke the lines above acquired all of his AK-47s.

In this article we will examine the role Ukraine played in this dark trade. We will start at the factories and the warehouses in Ukraine and look at the conditions that allowed the wholesale theft of military hardware. Next we'll move to the warzones of Africa, and meet the individuals who moved the weapons in between. Finally we will see that collusion with the arms traders went to the highest levels of Ukrainian politics and has contributed to the widespread corruption and cynicism that hobbles Ukraine to this day.

Shedding light on this murky and opaque business goes a long way to explaining the unrest and war that rocked Ukraine in 2014.

A Windfall Inheritance

Misspent Youth

Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Soviet armies lined up against the border were rapidly cut to pieces by fast-moving German panzer spearheads.

When an independent Ukraine was born in August 1991 it inherited one of the largest and best equipped militaries in the world equipped with virtually inexhaustible stockpiles of tanks, helicopters, artillery pieces, assault rifles, land mines and ammunition.

There were several reasons for this windfall inheritance. The first was that because of the sheer size of the Soviet military behind the Iron Curtain, Ukraine along with all the other republics were bound to be left with huge military stockpiles. Through the latter decades of the Cold War the Soviets had maintained conventional armed forces intended to be at parity with the combined armies of the NATO alliance. Keeping this absurdly high level of military preparedness cost somewhere between 17 and 19 per cent of the Union’s GDP. That investment translated into armed forces of four million men, 40,000 tanks and guns and 10,000 combat aircraft.

Of these forces, a disproportionately high number were stationed in the Ukraine. Soviet strategists were determined to avoid a rerun of the catastrophe of the summer of 1941 where the bulk of the Red Army’s best divisions, lined up at the shared border with the Third Reich, were encircled and annihilated in the first weeks of the war. To be able to react to a NATO attack and launch counter-offensives most Soviet troops were stationed in front of the Russian heartland but still well back of the front line with NATO in East Germany and Czechoslovakia: meaning the Ukraine and Belarus.

The troops in the Ukraine were some of the best equipped: the 1st Guards Army, 13th Army, 38th Army, 6th Guards Tank Army, 8th Tank Army and the 32nd Army Corps. They could muster 6,052 tanks, 3,602 artillery pieces, 1,650 combat aircraft, 75 attack helicopters and a large (to put it mildly) supply of small arms. For our story, it only became important that the troops were stationed in the Ukraine in 1991. It was then that the debate ignited over what to do with the massive combined military might of the Soviet Union’s suddenly sovereign states. While Russia and the Central Asian republics wanted to keep the military united under the overall control of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), “Ukraine placed itself at the forefront of efforts to divide the military assets of the former Union.”

The Ukrainians wanted all the military assets on her new national territory to revert to the just created Ukrainian armed forces. Russia was in no position to challenge this demand, and the Ukrainian demands were quickly echoed by most of the other republics. In 1992 the Russian government caved and, when it was finally set down in a treaty, it was determined Ukraine would inherit all the above listed equipment valued at $89 billion, as well as 780,000 men and women under arms. At the same time the 2,500 nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil were to be repatriated back to Russia as Ukraine wanted nothing to do with nuclear weaponry after the Chernobyl disaster. The Ukrainian government felt safe doing this after Russia and the West guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty with the signing of the Budapest Memorandum. Unfortunately for Ukraine the Budapest Memorandum didn’t stop Putin from invading and annexing the Crimea and fomenting civil war in Ukraine’s east in 2014.

Misspent Youth

Red Army soldiers in Red Square in the 1980s. There were four million others like them when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Chaos and Collapse

In Lord of War, the Ukrainian—former Soviet—General Dmitri Orlov sells a seemingly endless stream of military equipment to the freewheeling arms dealer played by Nicholas Cage. At one point General Orlov even offers the arms dealer a bargain: for every ten T-72’s he buys from his military stores, he’ll throw in an eleventh free. Instances like this, where men entrusted with hugely expensive and powerful equipment blatantly abused their authority, appear to have been commonplace.

How was the theft of billions of dollars of Ukrainian state property possible? There were three factors that created the conditions where tanks, guns and helicopters could be quietly shipped out of the country. The first was the administrative chaos that followed the creation of the Ukrainian armed forces. This breakdown in military discipline and central authority was mirrored in most of the post-Soviet republics, but it was particularly acute in Ukraine. It began when the Verkhovna Rada’s (parliament) legislated a Ukrainian Armed Forces Command into existence in 1992 and placed under its “full jurisdiction... all former Soviet military formations and units in the republic.”

Misspent Youth

A map showing the prevalence of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

No such command structure had ever existed before: the units now under Ukrainian command had been under the direct control of Stavka in Moscow. As a result, commanders were left in the dark about who exactly they now answered to and whether they would even have jobs in the months ahead. To further complicate matters the language of the Soviet military had been Russian, but the new Ukrainian Armed Forces was to work in Ukrainian—even though many of the army’s officers could not even speak it. Indeed, many people who suddenly found themselves Ukrainian citizens couldn't even speak it: Ukrainian was more widely spoken in the west of the country while Russian in the east and Crimea. The languages are roughly as mutually intelligible as Spanish and Italian. This linguistic split has continued to fester for the last 25 years and is a major contributing factor to the unrest in Ukraine today. Given these factors, it is hardly surprising the chain of command broke down almost immediately, oversight and accountability were impossible to enforce.

Secondly, widespread disillusionment with the system, both old and new, crippled the fledgling government’s attempts to assert control. When the Soviet system collapsed there were not many who mourned its passing, least of all in the Ukraine; polls taken at the time showed 90% of Ukrainians wanted independence from the USSR. Another measure, membership in the Communist Party of the Ukraine (CPU), is indicative of widespread dissatisfaction with the Soviet system and the bankruptcy of the communist ideology. Before it was banned in August 1991, the CPU could boast four million members. When it was re-legalized just two years later only 150,000 rejoined –5 per cent.

People simply did not believe in the Soviet system anymore. Ukrainians had many grievances with the Soviet government, chief among them the mistreatment of Ukrainian troops in the armed forces. Red Army conscripts had never been treated well and Ukrainians suffered disproportionately compared to their Russian counterparts. Many Ukrainian units were put at the forefront of fighting in the Afghan War, or quelling hot spots of rebellion across the Warsaw Pact nations. Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms that legalized a free press backfired when the army's brutal hazing practices for new conscripts, Dedovshchina, were brought to light. Dedovshschina included humiliating duties and details, physical abuse, torture and even murder. The practice was endemic throughout the armed forces and many Ukrainians recoiled at the thought of giving up their sons to such a brutal disciplinary regime. The practice continues in the Russian Armed Forces to this day.

The other burning issue driving Ukrainians away from communism was the government’s handling of Chernobyl. The Soviet authorities had tried to cover up history’s worst nuclear disaster, which had occurred on Ukrainian soil, and most Ukrainians only found out about it when Geiger counters started going off in Sweden and the Swedes traced the isotopes back to Chernobyl. Dozens of Ukrainian firefighters received lethal doses of radiation fighting blazes at the plant, tens of thousands were forced to permanently evacuate their homes and hundreds of thousands were exposed to varying levels of radiation. Ukraine will be dealing with the fallout from Chernobyl for millennia to come. One historian wrote, “While an independent post-Soviet Ukraine may be years off, the old regime collapsed, practically and metaphorically, at 1:23 A.M., April 26, 1986, the moment of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.”


As if this all wasn't enough, there was a third factor, the most important: Ukraine’s complete economic collapse.

Highly integrated within the Soviet economy as a whole, the split with the other republics came as an economic shock so huge it is almost unparalleled in modern history. Hyperinflation and unemployment soared. Many opportunistic government managers sold-off the state’s assets (since the state owned virtually everything) en masse, making private fortunes as the economy crumbled around them. One economist contrasted this ruthless, plutocratic form of privatization with Western equivalents and coined the term “grabization”. The defense industry was hit particularly hard since it employed over a third of the population. Over the next decade the economy contracted by a shocking 60 percent. These numbers can be deceptive however as estimates of the size of the informal sector or black market in this period, which is beyond government regulation and taxation, range as high as two thirds of the total GDP. The fact that such a huge portion of the economy went underground, and the lines between legal and illegal business practices became so blurred undoubtedly made stealing military equipment easier.

In a country that experienced negative growth for nine years following independence, the idea of a national consciousness has struggled to gain traction. A recent study (2009) even shows Ukrainians beginning to have nostalgia for the hated communist past: “59% of Ukrainian citizens,” it reads, “feel their country’s interests would be best served if the government ‘sought confederation with Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and other former Soviet Republics.’ If Ukrainians were at all nationalistic, the polls would certainly show a different result.” This certainly helps explain the pro-Russian sympathies felt by many in the country’s east and in Crimea. The result of the economic collapse, writes Ukrainian scholar Taras Kuzio, was a decade of disillusionment with the new as well as the old. “The 1990s were characterized in Ukraine, Russia and the post-Soviet region as one of cynicism, ruthlessness, callousness, and disrespect for human life.”

Misspent Youth

Some very young boys have been sent into the coal mines to make ends meet. Today Ukraine's per capita GDP is about 105th in the world.

Economic depression meant the country had absolutely no way to pay the salaries of the three quarters of a million men and women under arms, let alone clothe, feed and house them. Initially the government intended to maintain armed forces about 450,000 strong and began demobilizing the remaining 300,000, but it was almost immediately apparent that even shrunken force was a preposterously large standing army given the state of the country’s finances. A painful and chaotic downsizing was inevitable. The mass demobilizations created more unemployment and gave those who remained in the military a fatalistic view of their own futures. Desperate to find any way to make money before receiving their pink slips, soldiers predictably began to sell their weapons, oftentimes their only assets. Today the Ukrainian military conforms more closely to budgetary realities, it is only 159,000 strong.

Cynicism and economic desperation go a long way to explaining the attitude of General Orlov in Lord of War, along with the actions of the hundreds of army officers, soldiers, politicians, border officials, and port authorities who must necessarily have been complicit in the theft of military equipment in order for it to occur on such a gigantic scale. More than anything else, the primary enabling factor for the Ukraine's illegal arms trade was economic collapse.

The Buyers

Mozambique Flag

The flag of Mozambique. It has an AK-47 on it.

We’ve laid out the equipment available to spur on an illegal arms trade, and the conditions that allowed that trade to flourish. Now we will take a brief look at the next piece of the puzzle: the buyers. It was disturbingly fortuitous that the collapse of the Cold War system that left huge stockpiles of armaments available for sale at bargain basement prices also helped spark a surge in regional and civil wars throughout the Third World.

As the New York Times’ East African bureau chief wrote, “The Cold War’s end bred state collapse and chaos. Where meddling great powers once found dominoes that needed to be kept from falling, they suddenly saw no national interest at all.”

Throughout the Cold War the USSR and USA had been propping up wobbly authoritarian regimes around the world with money and military aid; dominoes to be kept standing. When the Soviet Union disintegrated their share of the aid suddenly halted. Lacking an ideological nemesis, the United States also scaled back their commitments enormously. The corresponding weakening of centralized power in Third World states made the 1990s a time of intense civil strife where long simmering ethnic and religious conflicts boiled over. Many of these conflicts persist to this day.

It is well documented that since 1991 Ukrainian arms have turned up in the hands of rebel groups, international terrorists, tin-pot dictators and everywhere in-between. Taras Kuzio asserts it is public knowledge that “Ukrainian arms were exported to Iraq, Iran, and South Yemen. In Latin America Ukrainian arms ended up in Peru. In Asia, they were exported to Sri Lanka, Burma (despite an international embargo in place), China and Pakistan. In the latter case, some weapons could have been sent to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.”

But nowhere did the flood gates open harder and faster, and cause more horror and misery, than in Africa. From 1990 to the very recent past, Africa burned. The catalogue of wars, civil wars, genocides, rebellions and violent coups is shocking. Rather than listing them, their extent is better illustrated by the map below.

Oftentimes there was not even a clear motivation for warfare. As the NYT reporter explains:

What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else --something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you'd like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars. I've witnessed up close --often way too close --how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators.

African Conflict in the 1990s

The map was made with information from the CIA World Factbook.

These ‘predators,’ exemplified by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the armies of Liberia’s President Charles Taylor, were easily able to prolong their reigns of terror thanks to access to cheap Eastern Bloc weaponry that, more often than not, originated from the Ukraine. These weapons, more than anything the AK-47 assault rifle, gave these men—and frequently children—many times more destructive power than had previously been possible. The majority of the almost four million thought to have died in the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2004 are thought to have met their demise at the end of a bullet. The weapons are so common that the price has plummeted: One commentator noted that in the Kenyan town of Kolowa, an AK-47 could be bought for fifteen cows in 1986. By 2005 it had dropped to four.

The money for these weapons comes from the rich natural resources of the African continent. The most notorious and well documented instance of African resources for Ukrainian guns was in Sierra Leone’s trade in so-called ‘blood diamonds’. Though Angola’s UNITA rebel group was defeated and forced into the bush in the country’s interior, they could still pay for planeloads of small arms and attack helicopters because the narrow strip of jungle they occupied contained a huge diamond mine.

Though many African countries were subjected to UN-backed arms embargoes, great powers rarely invested in enforcing them. The many parties in Africa clamoring for guns could rely on shadowy middlemen—the arms dealers—to skirt any restrictions and meet their demands. It is to examining the methods of these arms dealers that we now turn.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

The Middlemen

Details about Ukraine’s illegal arms trade, beyond what’s been described, are sketchy. There is no doubt that Ukraine held thousands of tons in military stockpiles, and many of those weapons have wound up in African conflict zones. How they got there and who was responsible are much more difficult questions to answer.

Profiling the lives of two suspected arms traffickers can help shed some light on the inner workings of this illegal trade. Nicholas Cage’s character Dimitri Orlov is intended to be a composite of these two colourful and villainous men.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Leonid Minin.

Leonid Minin was born in the Ukrainian port of Odessa in the 1970s. Working as a transporter of oil and timber in a number of countries across Latin America, Africa, and Europe, he was subjected to fraud and money laundering investigations during the early 1990s. As his import/export ventures around the world multiplied, so too did the white collar criminal investigations. Suddenly in 1999 Minin’s name shot to the surface of an investigation into arms smuggling when an Antonov-124 (formerly of the Soviet air force) transported 68 tons of small arms from Kiev to Liberia, via Burkina Faso (an event actually portrayed in Lord of War). The plane had been chartered by Minin.

French intelligence service were looking to find out how Charles Taylor’s rebel group in Liberia, which was supported by the Cote d’Ivoire, was getting its hands on arms despite a UN arms embargo. When a second shipment of 113 tons arrived in the Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan months later, taking the final leg of the trip on Minin’s personal jet, the Italian police had the pretext they needed to swoop in on the paunchy Ukrainian. They arrested him in a posh Milanese hotel with four prostitutes, 20 grams of cocaine, half a million dollars’ worth of ‘blood diamonds’ and tens of thousands of dollars in Mauritanian, American and European currency. At the time of his arrest he had seven known aliases and five passports.

Among the findings in the hotel room was a sheaf of documents detailing Minin’s business dealings, exposing for the first time the shady business of post-Soviet arms dealing to the Western press. The documents showed Minin had just visited Ivorian dictator Robert Guei and promised him shipment of 10,500 Ukrainian AK-47s, 30 grenade launchers, sniper rifles, night vision equipment and five million bullets. They were to be transported by Moscow-based air cargo firm, Aviatrend, an outfit run by former Soviet test pilot and friend of Minin’s Valery Cherny.

The Ukrainian government actually defended Minin, decrying the arrest and arguing that the end-user certificates for Minin’s weapons specified Burkina Faso—a country not under any arms sanctions—as the deadly cargo’s destination. End user certificates, documents certifying the buyer of military equipment, were, and still are, one of the primary tools used by police authorities to enforce arms embargoes. Luckily for arms dealers corrupt governments (Djibouti, Eritrea, Peru and Burkina Faso are popular choices) could sell falsified end-user certificates for as little as $50,000.

Once the weapons arrive in that country (in this case, Burkina Faso) they can be easily forwarded to embargoed nations. Despite the Ukrainian government’s protests, suggesting a high level of collusion, Minin was sentenced to two years in prison in 2002. Though his arrest was well publicized, I could not find any information regarding his imprisonment and presumably he was released in 2004.


An Antonov AN-12, one of the kinds of planes that made up Bout's international air fleet.

Far more infamous is Viktor Bout, dubbed the ‘merchant of death’ by the human rights groups, government officials and journalists who have been tracking him over the past 15 years. His origins are murky: he may have been born in Turkmenistan or Ukraine. He steps onto the pages of history when he began serving in a military air transport regiment in the 1980s. Speaking six languages and standing out for his brilliance, he was moved to the KGB and appointed acted as an advisor to Soviet client governments in Africa, spending two years in Mozambique. Some commentators believe that Bout was in Angola when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Seizing his opportunity, he bought three huge Antonov cargo planes sitting idle on Eastern European airfields for a measly $120,000 and immediately began moving arms.

Bout’s previous experience made him well placed to profit heavily from the rapidly developing illegal arms business. As a remarkable New York Times profile on the man written in 2003 explained:

Arms traffickers inherited not only the Soviet Union's cold-war weapons supply but also its fully operational systems of clandestine transport, replete with money channels, people who understood how to use them and, most important, established shipping pipelines—what Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement under President Clinton, calls "the tubing." "The tubing can carry different kinds of things," he told me, "drugs, humans, money—or weapons."

Victor Bout was master of the tubing. Making money hand over fist, Bout’s cargo fleet rapidly expanded to 60 planes (larger than many of the world’s flag carriers). Based in the free trade zone at Sharjah in the UAE, the lax import/export regulations allowed him to operate under a veil of secrecy. As the 1990s wore on it became clear to Western intelligence agencies that Bout was a very big deal in the smuggling business. “Though Bout denies his involvement in arms trafficking, he has been persistently and publicly linked to weapons shipments, charges supported by paper and money trails, confessions, eyewitness accounts and multiple intelligence reports.”


Viktor Bout at his court appearance in Thailand. Bout was sure he was going to get off, but the United States made strenuous efforts to ensure he was extradited to the America to stand trial, over Russia's vigorous protests.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s Bout was likely to have been the largest and most successful arms dealer in the world. Unlike Minin, Bout procured arms from virtually every country once in the Warsaw Pact. Arms he transported are suspected to have wound up in the majority of the conflict-ridden states depicted in the map above as well as everywhere else. Oftentimes his planes carried other goods—flowers, frozen chicken, mining equipment, even UN peacekeepers—but that was simply a matter of keeping his planes from ever flying without a profit-making cargo. These legitimate flights were often useful as a cover for his illicit activities. When Bout sat for his New York Times interview in Moscow in 2003, he was the second most wanted man in the world, after Osama bin Laden, yet he was free in Russia. In the interview he made numerous veiled and not-so-veiled references to the support his trans-national criminal network received from Vladimir Putin’s government. As one author noted, “His access to former Soviet arsenals, aircraft, and crews would not have been possible without state protection.”

It was only in 2008 that Bout was arrested by Thai authorities while attempting to orchestrate a sale of sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels. Russia reacted angrily to all American attempts to extradite him to the U.S. for trial as an assault upon their own sovereignty. Nevertheless the extradition succeeded and when he stood trial in the United States in 2012 Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He’s currently serving his time at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.

Skeletons in the Closet

Profiles of these two arms dealers paint pictures of complicated international criminal networks that blur the lines between legal and illegal, state and non-state actors. The difficult question for Ukraine is the extent of government involvement in these deals. It is easy to understand why the Ukrainian authorities could get involved: Warsaw Pact countries left with huge military industrial complexes found weapons were their only real source of hard currency. If the buyers were under international arms embargoes so much the better: they could be charged higher prices.


Ukrainian manufactured AK-47s seized during a customs inspection.

In 1994 it was an open secret that Ukraine’s Cold-War warehouses were being emptied for private profit and the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada ordered a commission to conduct inventory of all the young state’s military equipment. The first inventory taken in 1992 valued the military’s assets were at $89 billion. The second inventory took four years, and it was not for lack of effort. The commission’s head Lieutenant-General Oleksandr Ihnatenko complained bitterly of being blocked by opaque, self-serving bureaucracy and denied access to military installations. When they finally finished their inventory they concluded $32 billion worth of military equipment had been stolen.

When you consider that in 2001 Ukraine’s total military budget was $550 million and her GDP was $38 billion, this was not an insignificant sum. Officially, the government of President Leonid Kuchma declined to comment. Tellingly, Ihnatenko was demoted and “threatened with court martial for divulging ‘military secrets.’”

Horrified by the theft of national resources and shocked at being spurned by the government, he leaked a 27-page summary of the commission’s voluminous findings to the press. When the story ran in one Kiev daily newsletter the journalist responsible was attacked by an unidentified gunman outside his home who demanded that he “stay out of politics.” When the journalist refused, the attacker shot him in the leg. As for the report it was swept under the rug and despite my best efforts I have been unable to find it or the summary that was published in the Kiev newsletter.

“Individuals who know too much have been routinely disposed of,” Kuzio laments. “The head of the state Ukrainian arms export agency Valeriy Malyev died in one of many suspicious car accidents as an arms transfer scandal unfolded.”


The 95% completed Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag reverted to Ukrainian control. It was sold to China in 1998 for a paltry $20 million to become a floating casino, the biggest piece of equipment the Ukrainians sold off. The Chinese changed their minds about the casino and now this ship is the PRC's first operational aircraft carrier.

Incontrovertible proof this corruption goes all the way to the pinnacle of Ukrainian politics was revealed during the release of the so-called “Kuchmagate” tapes. Recorded by a disgruntled presidential bodyguard in 1998, the tapes recorded President Leonid Kuchma discussing the sale of four advanced radar systems to Saddam Hussein in contravention of an arms embargo. When an aide mentioned that Georgy Gongadze, editor of Ukrainska Pravda, had been asking too many pointed questions on the matter Kuchma ominously said “he has gone too far already," and ordered his aide to “take care of him.” Gongadze’s headless corpse was found outside Kiev several weeks later.

The political fallout from the tapes helped derail Kuchma’s government and contributed to the Orange Revolution in 2004 that catapulted reformer Viktor Yushchenko to power. Sadly for Ukrainians, Yushchenko’s rule did not lead to the fresh start many had hoped for. He dissolved his cabinet, many of them holdovers from the Kuchma-era, because of accusations of corruption and illegally dissolved parliament twice. His approval rating stood at 10 per cent when he lost reelection last year to Viktor Yanukovych, widely seen as Kuchma’s protégé and a strong backer of the oligarchs invested in shady business dealings. To date no further inquiry has been held into illegal arms smuggling or political murders, and not a single conviction on charges of arms trafficking has been brought in the Ukraine in the past 20 years.

As Kuzio says, “No country can move on if it fails to deal with the skeletons in its closet, especially when a country’s weapons have brought untold misery on the peoples of Western Africa.” In Ukraine’s current political climate it is questionable whether any meaningful action on arms smuggling will take place in the foreseeable future.

While many newspapers, government agencies, and NGOs have described pieces of the puzzle, rarely do they effectively assemble the pieces into a coherent whole (the exception, surprisingly, is the Hollywood blockbuster Lord of War).

But the story is not one that should have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Ukraine in the 1990s.

Ukraine was turned into a vast military storehouse by Warsaw Pact defensive doctrine, and when she became independent she retained all of the equipment and soldiers on her soil, armed forces out of all proportion to her ability to maintain it. The result was predictably chaotic. Cynicism, economic collapse and a plutocratic conversion to capitalism all contributed to widespread disrespect for government property. When the rest of the world was clamoring for weapons to settle long simmering conflicts, especially in Africa, Ukraine was more than happy to oblige. What she needed, though, were men willing to secrete these weapons out of the post-Soviet bloc. That is where the gunrunners, men like Leonid Minin and Viktor Bout, came in. They were able to capitalize on the chaos in the Ukraine as well as the leftover Soviet “tubing” to send ship and plane-loads of arms wherever they were wanted. Revelations like ‘Kuchmagate’ and the Ihnatenko Inquiry show high levels of government collusion in these matters and make it obvious why there was no concerted government effort to stop it. Though the flow seems to be slowing today, the damage has been done and of the estimated 550 million small arms in circulation today, the Ukraine bears responsibility for more than its fair share.


Some of the tanks that weren't pilfered. A depot filled with abandoned T-64s in central Kiev.


May 3, 2014

Night Shift in the Oil Sands

My Travelogue

A shortage of bus drivers precipitated my appointment as night shift shuttle driver for a week. In practice nobody used–or was even aware of– the shuttle service, meaning I ended up spending my nights sitting in the shuttle or hanging out with the security guards and hearing about their homelands of Gambia and Ethiopia.

Working night shift affords one the opportunity to savour some of the experiences inherent to working this far north that can easily go missed if one is stuck on the 0700-1730 day shift. It’s refreshing to be on the work site absent the sights and sounds of hundreds of men working. The silence reminds you how close to the wild we are, how thin on the ground our little patch of civilization is. At night nature creeps back onto the land so recently claimed by man.

I can relax. There is no pressure to be seen to be doing something. You don’t have to drive around in your truck and play a sort of adult version of hide and seek I call “The Kevin Game.”

The rules of the Kevin Game are simple. The seekers, the numerous bosses we answer to, patrol around in pickup trucks, like predators on the hunt. There’s a lot of them, as one of my coworkers would often say, “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.”

Deer wander back onto the construction site at 4am.

The quarry, us, must evade detection by these lurking menaces. By learning routines, finding safe zones, eavesdropping on other companies’ radio channels and memorizing all the players’ trucks as you would their faces, we can get pretty good at the Kevin game. If you get caught, as often happens, a list of plausible and seemingly high priority tasks demanding your attention can be used as a last resort. If this fails then you lose, and you have to work.

During night shift you also have more time alone with your thoughts. Time to ponder who in your real life you can text and remind you’re alive, and time to write things like what you’re reading now. Though by many measures it’s a good life, the isolation and enforced regimentation can be difficult to deal with. It easily becomes all encompassing and lonely. Reminders that there are places that are not this goddamned place are always welcome.

On one night Ola, a guard, distracted me from my ongoing Rome Total War campaign and beckoned me outside urgently.

Dude Keven’s coming! Just pin it, we gotta get the fuck outta here.

“Can you hear that?” he asked.

A faint chorus of yips and yelps carried out of the woods in front of us, rising and falling with the wind. I thought they were coyotes, but he shook his head. He had seen them before, eyes shining malevolently as they stalked along the treeline, watching him. He pointed at a towering Dodge 3500 parked nearby. One of them was as tall as the hood, he said. No coyote is that big. Just then a long, very lupine howl cut short all the smaller cries and erased my doubts.

“Shit, this is like that fucken movie, The Grey,” I said. He agreed.

“I wish Liam Neeson was here.” He agreed.

Our work site straddles a creek that we’re told is a ‘wildlife corridor,’ so we see lots of animals: beavers, deer, owls, foxes, coyotes, bears, and wolves. During the day the wolves seem more majestic than dangerous. But at night, in the dark, their presence becomes sinister and unnerving. I made sure never to stray far away from my truck.

They’re pretty big and they’re not afraid of people.

It didn’t help that the previous day a woman at another site, Suncor, had been tragically mauled by a bear. It happened in broad daylight and in the middle of a busy laydown yard. The most popular theory currently is that this tenacious winter has left the bears emerging from hibernation with little food for forage. They are hungry. Presumably the wolves are having a hard time of it too.

I saw the Northern Lights. Emerging from the security shack at midnight, I glanced up at the sky and exclaimed “No fucking way!”

Undulating green sheets banded across the sky. Beginning at the horizon, they extended straight over my head and continued to the opposite horizon. The gently rolling plains around the work site meant I had an almost unimpeded 360 degree panoramic view. They were fast moving, faster than the fastest clouds. Rapidly and randomly, they changed shape and brightness, transitioning from long wispy white strands to thick fluorescent green blocks. I hopped back into the bus and pulled into a darkened parking lot where I had a good vantage of the brightest streams. In the distance one could see the unblinking and ominous tower flare at the nearby upgrader, always reminding me of Sauron’s lidless eye.

Apparently this photo was taken by Fort Mcmurray the same night I saw them, April 30. I check this website pretty frequently for the next chance to see them.

I had seen the Northern Lights once before. My first winter here I told my friend and coworker John that seeing the Northern Lights was one thing I absolutely had to cross off my bucket list while working up north. John was a Cree Indian who had grown up in Fort Chipewyan far to the north, near the border with the Northwest Territories. Though seeing the lights was almost a daily occurrence foWr him growing up, he was eager to take me out, in the manner people suddenly become enthusiastic about the most ordinary aspects of their surroundings when given the opportunity to show them off to an outsider.

Good ole John.

In the middle of January, when it was -35 Celsius outside and there was three feet of snow on the ground, the website dedicated to tracking such things showed a 70% probability of catching an aurora. Around midnight we hopped in his truck and drove out onto the middle of Gregoire Lake. It was thickly frozen, John assured me, and fresh snow made it hard to tell where the beach ended and the water began.

Blasting the heater we parked and watched the sky, waiting. I had brought along a few beers, because, well, who wouldn’t want to drink a beer in this situation. As we waited John told me about his tough upbringing in Fort Chip, the drugs many of his peers succumbed to, and the fights he couldn’t avoid, as well as the summers spent fishing, the winters snowshoeing. My childhood was pretty tame by comparison, to put it mildly. He kept stepping out into the cold and scanning the sky with an expert eye. After some time he pointed at a patch of clouds and told me they were the Northern Lights. I doubted him, but he told me they often looked white, not the green I’d expected. We reorientated the truck and saw as they began phasing in and out, growing brighter all the time. As we watched the pulsating white columns in the sky John told me how the Cree believed the Northern Lights are the spirits of the dead who’ve come out to dance. You must never whistle at the lights, he told me. To do so would draw their attention, which can have disastrous results. I did what anyone else would do and tried whistling at them.

My stint as shuttle driver ended quickly. Yesterday I was wrenched back onto the day shift. Kevin has just returned from days off. Nature recedes into the background again.

January 25, 2014

A Train Ride with Uighurs

My Travelogue

It was my misfortune that my tourist visa’s expiration would coincide with the travel chaos of Lunar (Chinese) New Year. Originally I envisaged traveling by rail to Hong Kong to renew my visa and spend some time exploring the extant bunkers from the ill-fated Canadian defense of the city in 1941.

Lunar New Year in China is analogous to Christmas in the West. Bonds of filial piety demand everyone who has left home return to their parent’s house for a week of festivities and harangues about their marital status (“Why aren’t you married yet?!”). After China opened up in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people from the rural hinterlands left home and flocked to the major cities to pursue their fortunes, and now constitute the heart of China’s enormous workforce. When the Lunar New Year rolls around these people begin to move. The Chinese Government estimates 3.6 billion trips are made for New Years, the vast majority taken by train. It is a mass migration unlike any other in history.

Shining new Chinese bullet train.

On the dozens of trains making the 28 hour trip south every day in this brief period, the only seats remaining were not seats at all, but standing room tickets. Looking at this daunting prospect, I tried researching Chinese train travel on the numerous expat blogs on China. I could not find anyone who had experienced a “hard seat” trip lasting more than a couple of hours, let alone a 28-hour standing ticket. Even for short hard seat trips most Western travelers complained vociferously about the conditions. This picture, taken around the New Years of course, gave me a good idea of what I was in for.

A Train on Chinese New Year. 28 hours standing? Ummm…

In light of these poor travel options, along with a money squeeze and the need to return to Canada within the month anyway, I opted to take the train to much-nearer Dalian and fly home from there, ending my trip.

Beijing Railway Station.

I departed the capital from the Beijing Railway Station. It is one of the “Ten Great Buildings” Mao decreed built to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. Construction on the monolithic building was completed in 10 months by an army of some two million “volunteer” workers. It is certainly an impressive, if bizarre, fusion of traditional Chinese and brutalist Soviet architecture.

When my new German friend Kenny saw me off at the station, the scene was virtually indistinguishable from the one in this BBC Video. In fact this video was shot only a couple days after I left.

Thousands of people thronged the ticket lines, faces anxious and drawn, perturbed by the race for scarce tickets and the grueling journey ahead. Behind me stood a chain-smoking salaryman in a smart business suit, in front a worker hunched over by a giant sack of rice. A gift for his family perhaps? Despite the frenetic atmosphere in the station and the stern megaphone-toting PLA soldiers in olive drab greatcoats, the guard monitoring the X-ray machine slumbered peacefully as my bags went through the scanner.

As I set up in my train’s surprisingly comfortable 4-bed sleeping compartment, I was joined by several young men. They clearly didn’t look Chinese. Dark and handsome with Central Asian features, they more resembled the Uzbekistanis I had met a few days prior. The first one to sheepishly introduce himself didn’t speak English but seemed to be asking a question, so I gave my knee-jerk response: “Jianada.”

The first question everyone seems to ask in China is where you are from, so it quickly becomes second nature to respond to anybody’s first question with “Canada.” Every English word has to be shoe-horned into the Chinese phonemes, so “Canada” in Chinese is actually “Jianada,” and saying “Canada” will get you nowhere. Vancouver in Chinese is “Wēngēhuá.”

Sparsely populated Xinjiang, home of the Uighurs.

At any rate my answer made him happy, and he answered “Xinjiang.” Xinjiang is the northwestern province of China. It’s huge, the size of Iran or twice the size of Texas, and largely populated by a Muslim ethnic minority called Uighurs. The province is restive. The authorities are accused of attempting to squash the cultural and religious practices of the Uighurs and import ethnic Han Chinese to dilute the ethnically diverse makeup of the population. The region has much in common with Tibet, except it lacks a charismatic leader like the Dalai Lama to put a face on its independence struggle.

All in their mid-twenties like me, Aksa Asa, Turgun, Adil and Ablimit were Uighurs. They were irrepressibly cheerful and excited, I think, to be taking their Lunar New Years vacation in Dalian. A week to escape the drudgery of factory life in the capital.

The tallest of the bunch–and by the way the others deferred to him the leader of the group–indicated they liked drinking, so I produced a couple cheap bottles of baijiu from my backpack. They found a water bottle, cut it in half to use as a glass, and we engaged in their communal drinking ritual, going around the circle one-at-a-time cheersing and taking a shot of the foul firewater euphemistically translated as “white wine.”

Seeing I was a Westerner, the first they had ever met, they all were keen for my opinions on “Dominic,” their favourite envoy of our culture. Who could this Damian be? Since he was the first person people on the other side of the planet think of when they see a North American, it seemed odd I had not heard of him.

It took a long time for them to explain to me using their hands that Damian is Vin Diesel’s character in the Fast and Furious movies. It is strange to think which cultural artefacts pass through the filters of language and geography dividing us.


After the first bottle we set about teaching each other our languages. Between them they could muster the English words “English,” “hello,” and “name.” For my part I spoke no Uzbek, which they said their language was, though I think they actually meant Uighur. One of them had a Smartphone I tried to use to find an Uzbek-English online translator. None existed. There are online translators for some of our country’s First Nations languages with only a handful of speakers, but none for Uzbek, which has over 25 million.

I tried Chinese, but they could not read that either. They could only speak it. Nevertheless they wanted to learn English, and they started teaching me some basic Uighur verbs, names for body parts and clothes. “Hello” for them is “as-salam alaykum” as in most of the rest of the Muslim world.

They were far better with non-verbal sign language than almost anyone I met traveling. Most people who would try to communicate with me in a foreign language would, upon realizing they were incomprehensible, just keep repeating themselves, but louder. When this didn’t work it’d usually lead to getting thrown out of the bar or taxi or punched in the head. My train-buddies on the other hand were excellent at breaking down nonverbal gestures into understandable segments while writing down numbers (the only aspect of writing we had in common) so that even without a shared language, we were able to be mutually intelligible.

Teaching each other our alphabets.

Seizing my notebook, Turgun started to write out the Uighur alphabet, before the others elbowed in and took turns filling out all the Uighur letters beside their English counterparts, getting in a heated argument in the process. Correcting each other frequently, I noticed they completely ignored the eraser on the back of the pencil, instead using their thumbs to great effect in rubbing out pencil marks. Perhaps where they went to school pencils didn’t come with erasers?

They saw my passport peeking out of my pocket and marveled at the stamps. I showed them some pictures on my laptop of life back in Canada. They all wanted to travel, especially to Canada. They were however barred from this human right until the age of 60. Only when nearing retirement age, they indicated, would the Chinese government allow them their own passports, and therefore, the right to leave the country. It was a sad moment.

This is a violation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” I went to verify this for myself, and it seems basically accurate. The Chinese government began confiscating most Uighurs’ passports in 2006. In some cases a 50,000 RMB deposit ($6,000) seems to get a confiscated passport temporarily returned. Applying for new ones seems to have become all but impossible, though this is in contravention of China’s own laws. In many ways China is not a country of laws as we think of them.

This unfairness has become even more pronounced since Uighur separatists were blamed for an apparent terrorist attack when an SUV slammed into a crowd tourists in Tiananmen Square last fall, killing two. Most Chinese people are completely unaware this “terrorist” attack in the heart of the capital even occurred. Uighurs all over China suffer from official discrimination and police harassment.

I had the picture of the tank man on my laptop and tried to ask if they had seen it. They all went quiet and studied the photo. Turgun pointed at the red star on the tank and said “China.” The others nodded. They had not seen the photo before. I tried to use the phone translator to say this was one of the most famous pictures in the world and people in the rest of the world know that the Chinese government is bad. I translated into Chinese, which I hoped they could read, but none of them had been taught to read it.

Everyone had been chain smoking in our sleeping compartment and at this point they ran out of cigarettes. Ablimit disappeared and returned with a very drunk middle-aged Chinese man. The Uighurs made a show of being friendly while they relieved him of several packs of cigarettes. Aksa asa kept turning to me and muttering under his breath “fuck Hansa,” and flipping him off. Han, or Hansa, are the ethnic Chinese.

The Han man didn’t see the gritted teeth behind the smiles. He was more keen to befriend me. He spoke some English and after chatting for a couple of minutes, I gauged he would be too drunk to remember and I showed him the picture of the tank man.

The tank man. Not so famous in China.

He bent forward and carefully scrutinized the photo for a moment before shouting “Those are American tanks!” jabbing his finger at the screen to punctuate his point. I pointed to the PLA’s red star, and he vehemently shook his head, repeating “American! American!” On the phone I translated to Chinese text the message that this was a picture of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square and it was very famous throughout the world. I asked him to explain it to the Uighurs, who watched this exchange curiously. Raising his voice, he stood up and angrily refused. I suppose this kind of thing can be dangerous in China, and I changed the subject. He soon sat down and kept drinking with us, quickly regaining his composure and relapsing into a jolly drunken stupor. When he soon departed my new friends could barely contain their rage. I think he didn’t want to translate because they were Uighurs, second class citizens in their own country. That ended the night and we all took to our bunks.

When I awoke the next morning I sat staring out at the bleak countryside outside Dalian. It appeared much as all the other spaces I saw between cities in China: abandoned, collapsing brick buildings; ploughed fields; stands of half-built ultra-modern condo towers; factories with belching smokestacks. In China you are never far from a smokestack.

Welcome to Dalian.

We detrained in Dalian and took breakfast at a nearby hotpot restaurant the Uighur boys knew well. They stuffed me full of food and would not accept any of my kwai for payment. We exchanged QQ addresses and went our separate ways, ending the last leg of my Chinese trip.