Daniel Metcalfe

An unlikely president will determine the future of Ukraine—and Donald Trump

Journalism, November 2019

The promise of Volodymyr Zelensky

First published in Prospect Magazine on 11 November 2019

It was a smug move by a confident reformer. On 23rd September Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a bill enabling the impeachment of the head of state, hitherto impossible under Ukrainian law, as part of his reform package. The following day US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Zelensky and Trump were suddenly mirror images of governance—one good, one ill.

The revelations about Zelensky’s telephone call with Trump may yet be the US president’s undoing. As the transcript reveals, Trump pushed Zelensky to initiate investigations into the son of a putative electoral rival. The subtext was that failure to comply would result in the withholding of US$390m of vital military aid.

Zelensky didn’t come out of the call well either. The transcript showed him cringingly eager to please. “I had an opportunity to learn from you,” gushed the Ukrainian to Trump, “we used quite a few of your skills and knowledge.” But so far Zelensky—a man as unlikely a president as Trump himself—has not been badly damaged.

This time last year Zelensky was the lead actor in Servant of the People, a political comedy, playing Vasyl Holoborodko, a humble teacher who is so sickened by his country’s corruption that he makes an impromptu rant to a colleague in an empty classroom, but is filmed on the sly by a pupil—the resulting clip gets a rapturous reception on the internet. He runs for office and is catapulted to the presidency by a landslide.

Servant of the People became one of Ukraine’s most-watched television series—it also sparked a political flame inside Zelensky himself. He engineered a lightning three-month campaign waged almost entirely on social media, and captured the presidency in April with 73 per cent of the vote—more even than Holoborodko.

It is hard to know whether fact or fiction was more improbable, but the face of the incumbent Petro Poroshenko during the televised presidential debate said it all: shock and disbelief that a TV funnyman from an entertainment show hoped to lead a country at war. But the majority of Ukrainians, some of the world’s least optimistic voters, felt that Zelensky was a gamble for change worth making.

Zelensky was everything that his competitors were not—easygoing, funny, fresh. For 15 years this bumptious comic, and leading man in numerous romantic comedies, was as popular in Russia as in Ukraine. Commanding high fees for his stage and screen appearances, he was probably a millionaire by 30. To boot, he was a capable businessman who has run his own production company for over a dozen years.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Zelensky in October

Zelensky’s campaign was astonishingly lean. There were no foreign spin doctors, smear campaigns, attempts to buy votes or meddle with the electoral system, all notable features of previous Ukrainian electoral campaigns. Zelensky’s secret was the internet. He worked with a small team operating in secrecy, bombarding YouTube and Facebook with daily content. Appearing in casual dress, often in jeans and a hoodie, with a selfie stick, Zelensky spoke directly to the people in his deep breathy voice, too husky for such a youthful elfin face, combining sharp insights, folksy musings and messages of often staggering banality.

Most importantly, Zelensky was not a politician. He was an outsider committed to rooting out entrenched interests, namechecking those Trumpian tags to “drain the swamp,” “destroy the deep state.”

But there, the parallels with Trump run out. Zelensky is no populist. He is an EU- and Nato-supporting centrist who speaks continually of unity not division. He does not curry favour with one Ukrainian constituency over another, as his opponent Poroshenko did. There is no hard-done-by majoritarian base Zelensky seeks to please, and the corruption he rails against is all too real. His instinct is to unite, not to tub thump, and he has made a serious bid to break the deadlock in Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed rebels. Whether he succeeds is another question. But in a few short months Zelensky has already removed lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, a long-cherished refuge for oligarchs entering politics for the wrong reasons.

As much as the phone transcript paints him to be out of his depth, Zelensky is on an important course. While Trump appears interested in re-election by any possible means, Zelensky’s ambition is to turn Ukraine into a normal European country.

The bigger question is whether he can make good on his anti-corruption promises, which keep the west, especially the IMF, sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause. But with Russia poised to return to the negotiating table, a distracted Washington is bad news. Whoever wins the White House next year, Zelensky needs all the US clout he can get in the diplomatic minefield ahead of him.


Ukraine’s dangerous schism

Journalism, November 2019

First published in Unherd on 20 January 2019

It was a fitting setting for an ecclesiastical earthquake. The gold cupolas of the ancient St Sophia cathedral in Kiev flashed in the winter sunlight, while cowelled hierarchs jostled under the frescoes of long dead saints holding aloft the “tomos”, a parchment sanctioning the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia, to which it had been attached since 1686.

This ending of Russian religious control in Ukraine was the biggest event to rock the Eastern Church for centuries. It has even been compared with the schism which divided Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054.

It had been a while coming. In October last year, Patriarch Bartholomew, the primus inter pares of the Ecumenical Council in Constantinople1 and the highest body in the Orthodox Church, signalled his approval for Ukraine’s full independence.

The Kremlin, though, was quick to react. Moscow’s religious writ has long dominated Kiev without any desire for change. On hearing the news, Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s highest official, broke off relations with Constantinople, plunging Russia into further diplomatic hibernation.

The Kremlin does not have a record of letting such slights pass. When Ukraine reoriented towards Europe after its 2014 revolution, Vladimir Putin retaliated with the annexation of Crimea and a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Will Russia permit the repositioning of Ukraine’s spiritual space too, especially given that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been staunchly pro-European? It remains to be seen whether the UOC’s new head, the young, wispy-bearded Metropolitan Epiphanius, will have what it takes to withstand such animosity from Russia.

When Christianity came to Kiev in 988, neither Russia nor Ukraine existed. There was only “Rus”, a sophisticated Slavic empire, swept away by the Mongol horde in the 1200s, which both modern Ukraine and Russia claim as their cultural forbear. It was only later, with the southern expansion of Muscovy in the 17thcentury that modern Russia came to dominate what is now Ukraine, both territorially and spiritually. Its authority over Ukraine was uncontested during the Soviet era, even as Bolsheviks executed church leaders and bulldozed churches. St Sophia’s cathedral itself narrowly escaped destruction when somebody suggested turning it into a museum.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the thundering Ukrainian priest, Patriarch Filaret, broke away from the established Russian-dominated entity – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, or UOC-MP – and founded his own unofficial Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Despite UOC-KP’s uncanonical status, the church had a patriotic strong flavour and gained much popularity in Ukraine.

Its success did not go unnoticed in Constantinople. For some years, sympathy had been growing within the wider orthodox community for the beleaguered UOC-KP, and also for the small Autocephalous Orthodox Church, another unofficial breakaway church in Ukraine.

Whether Constantinople would have given its benediction to the split were it not for the events of 2014, is hard to know, but Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine in that year catalysed matters. Putin’s actions had unintended consequences for Ukraine’s religious life.

Tension between the patriarchates erupted during the revolution. President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU co-operation Agreement in 2013 was to light a powder keg of discontent. The pro-Russian leader, unable to shift demonstrators from Independence Square, ordered his riot police to fire on the crowd, killing more than a hundred and injuring many more. Protesters ran for cover in local churches. They found some doors – namely those of the Moscow Patriarchate – shut, while those of the Kiev Patriarchate provided refuge and food. Even today, long after Yanukovych’s ousting, priests from the Moscow Patriarchate refuse to bless the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers sent back from the front.

Russia’s disappointment at Constantinople’s decision is understandable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has watched as country after country within its sphere of influence has either joined the EU or NATO, or at least expressed a wish to veer from its orbit. There has been an inexorable decline in Russian soft power.

But as Ukraine celebrates the longed-for recognition of its unified church, the road ahead may not be an easy one. Yosyf Zissoels, a former Ukrainian dissident and human rights activist warns: “This has been a huge blow to Russian. This is only the beginning. There is much that they can and will do.”

Russia’s ‘hybrid’ scare tactics typically range from the most traditional – such as the casting of the “anathema”, against the UOC-KP at its inception in 1991 (the most extreme sanction an orthodox church can inflict) – to the technical (a cyberattack attempted to steal the emails of Patriarch Bartholomew’s aides in August), to the financial: Russia is a major supporter of the Orthodox church, and Moscow may use their means to persuade or bully other pro-Russian churches, to turn against Constantinople.

Another, darker, possibility is an armed provocation within Ukraine itself. Before Russia’s incursions in 2014, Putin declared his intent to “protect Russian speakers” in eastern Ukraine. The phrase echoed again in his October vow to “defend Russian church believers” Nobody yet knows what that means.

To date the only incident has been a Molotov cocktail attack at Kiev’s St Andrew’s church on 15 November, thankfully causing no lasting damage. However, one law enforcement officer in Kiev told me in December that several attacks had “already been foiled”, though he refused to provide further details.

Many Ukrainians wonder whether the recent naval spat in the Kerch Strait, close to Crimea, was entirely unconnected with the church schism. On 25 November, three Ukrainian navy vessels boats and four sailors were fired on by the Russian navy as they attempted to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were taken into Russian custody. Seeing the potential for a Russian land invasion, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, imposed martial law. This was a watershed moment: the first time that Russia stopped hiding behind plausible deniability – blaming local rebels and unofficial volunteers – and owned up to the attack. There are now growing fears that Russia is strengthening its grip across the entire Black Sea, not only in Crimea.

Ukraine’s new church will therefore have to be careful how it treats the clergymen who remain unconvinced by the validity of a separate Orthodox church and still cleave to the Moscow Patriarchate. For now, at least, UOC-MP counts on 13,000 parishes, versus about 7,000 belonging to the UOC-KP. There are plenty of areas for conflict, notably over ownership of land, monasteries and other historic properties. Any of these could be easily inflamed.

One seminarist studying at the Monastery of the Caves complex in Kiev, which in part belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, told me: “We are all free to choose which patriarchate we want to belong to, but to be honest, none of us know what will happen to us if we make the wrong decision.”

Despite the cries from Moscow that “blood will be spilled”, the danger of conflict would not be sparked by the parishioners. Russian wounded pride is a far greater danger. What is to many Ukrainians a spiritual liberation from a colonial power, for Moscow is a provocation.

  1. The fact that the Holy See is still in “Constantinople”, rather than Istanbul, is an indication of the glacial nature of orthodox reform.


Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

Journalism, February 2016

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.



We Witnessed an Initiation Ceremony That Turned Ragtag Rebels Into Cossacks

Journalism, February 2016

Photo by Pierre Crom

On the road from the separatist stronghold of Luhansk earlier that morning, our government minder cranked up California Dreamin’ on the car stereo as we sped past endless ochre fields. “We register with the local division, then set off to the front! We have monsters to kill!” he shouted in jest, eyes glinting.

Forty miles later, a handful of well-armed soldiers checked our documents at a roadblock and called in a military escort. We headed into Pervomaisk in a convoy, led by a rebel in a yellow Lada. The vast steppe buckled into a valley as the minder put on Orthodox Serbian choral music and yelled over it, “Welcome to hell, boys! This is Ukrainian Kosovo.”

The comparison was tenuous. The Ukrainian army’s activities do not compare to the atrocities of the Serbian war machine. But the rolling landscape was certainly more Balkan vale than Eurasian steppe. And as we neared the church where the initiation ceremony was to be held, the gravity and headiness of the Orthodox religion pressed down hard upon the rebel-held town.

A martial people, romanticized as outlaws and renowned for their battlefield prowess, the Cossacks have participated in just about every Russian conflict in modern times. While the exact origins of this quasi-ethnic group are disputed, it has a strong tradition of independence, counting among its ranks peasants who had fled a miserable life of serfdom in Lithuania, Muscovy, and Poland. They lived as free men in the lands stretching from Siberia to Ukraine’s Donbass, drawing on their skills as horsemen and soldiers to patrol the frontiers of Imperial Russia.

There are the Zaporizhian Cossacks of central Ukraine, who launched a powerful but ill-fated independence movement in the 17th century before being crushed by Catherine the Great; they have since been rebuilt as a pillar of Ukrainian nationalist sentiment. But the Cossacks in the Luhansk region, originally from Russia’s neighboring Don province, are a separate branch. Along with the Kuban, the Volga, Terek, and so on, they are reactionary and often fiercely pro-Russian.

Regarded by Soviet authorities as unwanted relics of the tsarist era, Cossack officers were killed and imprisoned by the thousands. But a state-sponsored revival followed the collapse of the USSR. Armed Cossack militias fought alongside the Russian army during its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea last year. Thousands more have funneled across the border since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war to join the separatists and form militarized, Orthodox battalions. They blindly claim to be defending their Slavic lands against an army they brand as fascist invaders from Kiev.

In contrast to the elite reputation of their forebears, scores of recruits milled around the car park outside Pervomaisk’s church, smoking, joking around, and posing for pictures. Most were men in their early 20s to late 40s; a handful were women.

All wore the traditional fur hats, topped with red and marked with a white cross. Many claimed to be in some way related to the Don Cossacks. The rest were just in it for the ride.

Photo by Pierre Crom

Among the crowd stood Sergey Zagoryliko, a Russian Army veteran of the 1992-93 separatist war in Abkhazia. The sides of his head were cropped short, his magnificent, 10-inch moustache on full display. His fighting days were behind him, he said, and he had journeyed from his Cossack village in southwestern Russia to witness the ceremony.

“This conflict is taking place within the same family. It is brother against brother,” Zagoryliko, a 10th generation Kuban Cossack, told VICE News. “The devil lingers between the same people.

‘Today is the official start, but we felt like Cossacks before. It was passed to us in our mother’s milk’

“I’m not here to fight. I will just support these Cossacks today and return home. For these men and women, this initiation is their destiny.”

An order was barked out and the recruits formed a long line facing the church, dedicated to St Paul and St Peter. Pavel Dremov — their ataman, or leader — strutted before them. A thorn in the side of the LPR, the former bricklayer has accused the regime of presiding over a kleptocracy that diverts humanitarian aid to the black market.

“You will serve the people!” Dremov commanded, reasserting the group’s fundamental rejection of the state. “You will not serve politicians! You will not serve presidents!” In a chorus befitting a cohort of Hollywood Spartans, they shouted back in consent with one voice, “Luba! Luba! Luba!”

Sergey Zagoryliko. Photo by Jack Losh

In their varying shades of camouflage, they marched into the churchyard to commence the prisyaga, the swearing-in ceremony. A duet of women sang Orthodox hymns a cappella before the priest addressed each fighter by the ancient Slavic versions of their names. “You swear to yourself and to God to defend the fatherland and live by the Bible,” he intoned.

They repeated an oath that shone a spotlight onto their deeply held rejection of any republic other than their own. “I swear to the Order of the Cossacks, in the presence of God and the Orthodox religion, to serve the Great Don Army and bring glory to the ataman,” they chanted in unison. “I swear to fight to the last drop of my blood for my own glory and for the strength of the army. I swear to fight for the Cossack homeland, not for the politicians.”

“It was like a baptism,” one Cossack told VICE News afterward. “I will fight shoulder to shoulder with these men. Not one of my brothers recognizes the authority of the LPR.”

Another fighter and an unlikely Cossack hopeful, Evgeny Zhenia, 29, a divorced man from Magadan in Russia’s far east, said, “I received the spirit of safety. My brothers and I are now protected. Our family has become bigger and better.

“Today is the official start, but we felt like Cossacks before — that same feeling brought us to war. It was passed to us in our mother’s milk.

“We fight for freedom, for the people. We fight for no politician — not for Putin, not for Plotnitsky, not for any ideology.”

Stas Chisayko, 25, had joined the Ukrainian army in 2012 before switching sides this year. “Now my only allegiance is with the Cossacks and the ataman.”

Tensions on both sides are far from defused. Following Plotnitsky’s deadline for Cossacks to swear primary allegiance to the LPR, “hundreds” of Cossack fighters were arrested, according to a regime source. Some have been released and stripped of their weapons, while others remain in jail, the source added.

Renegade Cossacks are a major headache for other rebel groups. Alexei Markov, deputy commander of the Ghost Brigade, a pro-Russian separatist brigade in nearby Alchevsk, was scathing of his new allies. “They are volatile and unpredictable,” he told VICE News. “That traditional Cossack bravery…” He flicks his index finger against his throat, the local gesture for boozing.

“At Debaltseve, my first battle was not with the Ukrainians but the Cossacks. They shelled us with friendly fire. I had to move my entire unit through no-man’s land, past mines and traps. When we met up later, they refused to apologize.

“Lines of communications are open with Dremov [the local Cossack leader]. He takes care of his fighters and keeps order. But he’s a very difficult man to deal with.

“There are still many Cossacks who don’t obey LPR.”

Photo by Pierre Crom

After the ceremony had ended, the Cossacks dispersed in troop carriers and battered sedans. We passed through the center of Pervomaisk. This desolate, forgotten town had borne the brunt of catastrophic artillery barrages last winter during the Ukrainian army’s failed bid to dislodge separatist troops.

Half its population was forced to flee while the rest endured the winter. Hundreds of civilians died.

Block upon block lay devastated. Windows remained shattered and glass crunched underfoot. Empty shell cases piled beneath a statue of Lenin. The skeleton of a bombed-out bathroom was exposed, toiletries neatly lined up on a shelf by some dark jokester.

On the road to Luhansk, the urban devastation gave way to a vista of rolling grassland. “I am fond of Hindu philosophy,” the government minder said, addressing no one in particular as the rest of us sat in silence.

“People here only see things in terms of good and bad. But the Hindus have one more. There is Sattva, the good. Tama, the bad. And Raja — passion. The last one is like fire or lava or a volcano. It can’t be determined good or bad. It just is.

“I can’t live in this conflict like a Zen monk and look at everything I see, saying, ‘This is bullet, this is soldier, this is tank.’ It all has an effect on me. Raja helps me stay neutral. For me, war is raja.”


Why Angola’s Star Reporter Won’t Stay Down

Journalism, October 2015


Angola’s corrupt leaders keep trying to silence Rafael Marques. So far without success

Why Angola’s Star Reporter Won’t Stay Down

The defamation trial of Angolan journalist Rafael Marques on March 23 did not go well. As crowds of his supporters shrieked “Criminals, murderers!” and “Free Rafael,” the 200-odd police officers attached to the courthouse struggled to impose authority.

When Marques emerged coolly from the building, even some of the officers couldn’t resist asking for an autograph. Unsurprisingly, when the court reconvened a month later, it was behind closed doors.

At issue were allegations in Marques’ book, Diamantes de Sangue: Corrupção e Tortura em Angola (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola), published in Lisbon in 2011. It details a litany of human rights abuses and killings perpetrated in diamond mines owned by seven high-ranking generals, including General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Júnior, head of the military wing of the presidency and, by popular reckoning, the second-most-powerful figure in the country. Now these generals, embarrassed by Marques’ painstaking documentation of their crimes, were demanding damages — to the tune of $1.2 million.

Rafael Marques de Morais is the single most important voice in Angolan independent journalism, and his latest sensational trial was a test case for how far the regime was willing to go to defend its prestige. Conscious of the world’s gaze, the government has lately borne his tireless attacks with gritted teeth. A previous jail sentence in 1999 for criticizing the president had turned Marques into a household name. Within a few more years he had become a popular hero.

Underlying all of Marques’ work is a brutal honesty about what’s happening in Angola, especially the corruption and crony capitalism that continues to dog this country. The articles on his crusading website, Maka Angola, (in Kimbundu, Maka means a “delicate problem”) have found a wide local and international following. They have not only tarnished the reputations of the Angolan elite, but have also changed what the public expects of its democratically elected leaders. Marques has made meals of the military top brass, the political establishment, unscrupulous foreign investors, the business oligarchy and the presidential family, leaving whole swathes of the upper sets in anxious expectation of the next set of revelations. But Marques is no haranguer. His investigations stand out for their meticulous research and his tight grasp of Angola’s statute books, to which many members of Angola’s elite appear to be absolutely indifferent.

After publishing his book in 2011, Marques went further and launched criminal complaints against the seven generals and two affiliated companies for crimes against humanity in the Lunda region. The generals reciprocated in 2012 with defamation lawsuits against both him and his Lisbon publisher, Tinta-da-China.

I interviewed Marques in a flat in south London on the same day he was announced joint winner of the prestigious Index on Censorship award. It was less than a week before his first court appearance. Dressed in a baggy top and trainers, and apparently unruffled by either the award or the trial of his life, Marques sipped tea and spoke about his career with precise and moderated diction. Occasionally he would let out a winning laugh as he recalled the exploits of his early career, but he restored his poise with a quiet intensity.

Marques was born into poverty in 1971 in Malanje and grew up in Angola’s much larger capital, Luanda. Brought up by his mother, a market vendor, he learned about journalism by poring over the daily newspaper she brought home from work. With the end of communism in 1991, the state newspaperJornal de Angola opened its doors to new recruits. It was a narrow window of opportunity, not repeated since, and Marques was taken on as a journalist on the political affairs desk.

As Marques explained, his headstrong independence would soon get him into trouble. In the first of many demotions, Marques was transferred to the Luanda city desk. He concentrated on aspects of the city that the press purposefully ignored, such as the gathering piles of garbage and the infamous potholes. Demoted again, Marques was assigned the mundane task of comparing food prices in the city’s shops. He visited Roque Santeiro, a vast, sprawling market that was then the biggest in Africa, and wrote of the dazzling array of weaponry on offer and the illicit trade in donated food enjoyed by government officials. This was the final straw. His supervisors banned him from writing altogether and, out of nowhere, he received an order to report to a military unit to train for battle.

Powerful figures linked to the newspaper were clearly trying to get him out of the way.


The unit he joined turned out to be a high-risk commando unit that trained with live grenades, routinely resulting in a 30 percent mortality rate. The beleaguered trainees often had to make do with half-rations, or no rations at all. The reason soon became clear: “There was a scam going on,” said Marques. “Food trucks arrived, and were then depleted — sold on by the commander and then his deputy and so on down the food chain, until there was hardly any food for the soldiers.” The half-starved conscripts were on the verge of mutiny. The skittish officers, by now fully aware of the young journalist’s articles and his penchant for causing trouble, suspected that Marques was responsible. Preferring to rid themselves of the journalist than risk turning him into a commando, they ordered him home. ”Not without my demobilization papers,” insisted Marques, to which they reluctantly assented, and he made it to Luanda unscathed.

Marques’ spell with the commando recruits was a brief episode in one of Africa’s longest wars. Its roots lay in an earlier guerrilla conflict against Portuguese colonial rule that began in 1961 and ended abruptly with the fall of Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship in 1974. Angola gained its independence, which was soon contested among three factions. The Marxist MPLA took power in the capital, Luanda, in 1975, with the heavy backing of its Eastern Bloc advisors and Cuban troops. Once its smaller rival, the FNLA, was out of the way, the Marxist government was soon was fighting a full-scale war with its main challenger, the anti-communist UNITA, lavishly funded and equipped by the United States and South Africa, and led by its charismatic though eventually unhinged leader, Jonas Savimbi.

The war went through many phases: the MPLA transitioned from communism to democracy, UNITA descended into tyranny, and the country rumbled through several shaky United Nations brokered cease-fires. While the MPLA had near limitless oil waiting to be tapped offshore, UNITA ruthlessly exploited the diamond fields in the Lunda provinces, putting garimpeiros (diamond panners) to work in abhorrent conditions. As the 1990s wore on, and international opprobrium gained traction, UNITA found it harder to smuggle diamonds onto the international market. The stalemate was broken for good when government troops re-launched the war in 1998 and within a couple of years had overrun the main diamond areas, depriving UNITA of its main source of funding.

The senseless grind of the war motivated Marques to write an article for the private newspaper Folha 8 called “Cannon Fodder,” a passionate piece about how Angolan mothers were treated as breeding machines for the war effort. “What to me was most incredible was that the government never cared to set up a system to inform these mothers of these families when their beloved sons died. It wasn’t lack of capacity, it was neglect — sheer disregard for life.”

He was interrogated and put on a black list: his articles were gaining notoriety, and not just within Angola. On a trip to South Africa in 1998, the magnate and philanthropist George Soros asked Marques to set up the Open Society Initiative in Luanda, a privately-funded NGO tasked with championing democratic ideals, as a part of the Soros Foundation. This way Marques was able to reenter the public discourse without relying on state-sponsored media. It proved an unlikely success: the debates the organization aired on the Catholic station Rádio Ecclésia provided a forum where legislators, religious leaders and administration officials could talk things out in a way that was impossible in parliament.

At the turn of the new century, the narrow window of freer debate was closing and the government stepped up the use of its oil wealth to dominate the media, bribing the country’s best journalists with money and houses. To this day this — the creation of a “hub of mediocrity,” as Marques puts it — has been the most effective means to destroy freedom of expression Angola. “Anyone who stands out as being morally strong, intellectually strong, that has a voice, is co-opted or destroyed,” he said. “This is creating a vacuum in society where you don’t have singers who are inspiring, you don’t have artists who are inspiring, you don’t have academics who are inspiring. You never hear an Angolan doctor talking about the need to improve the health sector because that would be the end of him.”

The state finally tired of Marques’ writings. In 1999, after he published an article called “The Lipstick of Dictatorship,” in which he described president José Eduardo dos Santos as a dictator, Marques was charged with defamation and served 43 days in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

He was held in a small cell which had been built by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and designed so that he could neither lean nor stand upright. The concrete bed swarmed with cockroaches. Nevertheless, Marques was able to carry on his work. The “leading” prisoner recognized him from his broadcasts on Rádio Ecclésia, and allowed a stream of prisoners into his cell. Provided with pen and paper, Marques wrote their testimonies and smuggled the notes out again.

With the killing of Savimbi in 2002 and the subsequent surrender of UNITA, the government finally secured victory (leaving aside a smoldering rebellion in the northern exclave of Cabinda). The country was in ruins, a million were dead, and the land was sown with perhaps ten million landmines. The government’s immediate task was to rebuild a country that had ceased to function. Fortunately, it had oil, sales of which accounted for over 90 percent of exports. As a result, in the mid-2000s, Angola enjoyed staggering economic growth averaging 16 percent a year. Luanda thronged with oil and infrastructure companies jockeying for lucrative contracts. New developments, office blocks, port facilities and hotels transformed the skyline, and Chinese-built roads began to crisscross the country. But there was little trickle-down. The post-war windfall has been confined to a tiny percentage of the population, leaving the vast majority to perform the miracle of living on about $2 a day. Despite some improvements, thirteen years after the war’s end, the country is still built on patronage and clientelism, there are shockingly high levels of child mortality, and the quality of education and public health is pitiful.

As the conflict ended, senior army officers joined the other members of the ruling party, gliding comfortably from the barrack room to the boardroom, their positions affording them easy access to lucrative shares in telecommunication, construction, and diamond mining companies, whose operations they generally ignored: management was always left to others. They migrated seasonally to beach houses in Cascais, Miami and Rio de Janeiro, employed discreet English nannies, and generally tried to keep out of the public eye.

Marques’ 2015 trial changed all that. For the first time, images appeared of the well-fed generals sitting in court alongside the witnesses: thin, wizened Lunda tribespeople, in traditional outfits and beaded headdresses, the manifest victims of a rotten system who had been harassed throughout the whole legal process. One witness, Alida Moises da Rosa, was interrogated by police about why she insisted on going to court.

 “You killed my two sons,” she replied. “Now you can kill me too.”

Had Marques been an average blogger or troublemaker, the authorities would likely have threatened him into silence, or bought him up, as they have with countless other radio journalists, poets, musicians and commentators. But Marques would not be bribed and he was not afraid of jail. Years ago they had tried to isolate him by steering international organizations to other “critics” of the regime (naturally, of their choice). But by the 2010s he was such a renowned figure that no boilerplate process could possibly deal with him. Put him in jail and the world would cry for his release. Dispose of him, and the government would sink in the eyes of the world — a prospect that, at a time of scant respectability, it cannot abide. Keeping him at large risked further embarrassment.

These are difficult times for the MPLA. President dos Santos, now in his 37th year of rule, must finally account for the last decade. Blaming slow progress on war damage is now wearing thin. There is acute pressure to deliver for the 2017 elections, and unexpectedly low oil prices have massively curtailed his ability to do so without a painful restructuring of the patronage and corruption that underlies the system.

And pressure is building. In 2011 the unthinkable started to happen: Angolans, long silenced by decades of war and an unchallengeable state power, went onto the streets to voice their anger: youths too young to have participated in war and veterans tired of waiting for late pension payments. The demonstrators were quickly quashed by state security, but they would soon appear again, sometimes only very few at a time. Led by musicians, activists, lawyers and an increasingly vocal political opposition, these crowds have since reappeared persistently, fearlessly flaunting their disapproval of a government that is unsure what to do with them.

But Rafael Marques is their biggest irritant of all. Operating out of his house in Luanda, he has grown used to heavy surveillance, threats, and periodic house arrests.

As a precaution against poisoning, he must take his own food with him if he goes out of the house.

“They bug my house,” he said. “They once recruited my cleaner. But I enjoy being in isolation because I have more time to write and more time to investigate them because I’m not socializing. So actually they create the conditions for me to do my work well. I can go for two weeks without going to my gate.”

Marques should count himself lucky — the regime isn’t always so lenient to its challengers. One need only think of the tragic fate of two young protesters, António Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Sebastião Cassule, who disappeared without a trace in 2012. It later emerged that the men had been abducted, tortured, and murdered by the security services. Cassule was thrown to the crocodiles in the Bengo river.

Marques’ defamation trial was concluded on May 28 following a series of legal irregularities — not least that the allegations in Diamantes do Sanguewere never even addressed by the court. Though the judge declared that Marques had fabricated the material in the book, all charges were dropped. In what Marques subsequently described as a “trap,” the judge made an about-turn: the court proceeded with a different charge of slanderous denunciation, condemning Marques first to a month, and then to a six-month jail sentence, suspended for two years. These unexpected turns carried a note of revenge, while offering the illusion of leniency compared to the sentence Marques could have received. In reality, the sentence is nothing more than an attempt to keep him quiet, at least for a while. Marques is making efforts to appeal, so far without success.

“[The sentence] was designed to stop him writing,” said one columnist for a Luanda weekly. “But if the trial was meant to make the generals look good, they have failed. Every Angolan who has access to the internet has downloaded the book. Everyone can see that MPLA is supporting the interests of these generals against the people.”

The state’s “victory” may have left Marques temporarily defanged. But the irregularities of the trial, the craven behavior of the prosecution, and public outrage on behalf of the victims leave nobody in any doubt as to the real victor. Marques has spent over twenty years confronting the state, so it would be premature to assume that he has given up. The question now is who will make the next move.

Daniel Metcalfe is the author of Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Herculano Coroado

Postcard from . . . Japan – 50 years of Shinkansen

Journalism, October 2014

As I grip the lever of my speeding train, which is threatening to veer off the interweaving tracks ahead, I hardly notice that there’s a troupe of angry 12-year-olds looming around me. Fumihiro Araki, deputy director of Tokyo’s Rail Museum, scratches the nape of his neck: “Shall we continue our tour?” he suggests politely, guiding me lightly by the arm away from the bullet train simulator.

I think Araki is secretly amused. The former train engineer, a spry 70-something, understands the appeal of the Shinkansen, something that shows no sign of diminishing either for locals or tourists. This year is the 50th anniversary of the trains and as a visitor to Japan it’s hard not to be jealous: these are trains so quiet they appear on the platform as if by magic, and with enough legroom to silence a six-foot sprawler like me. Most of all they provide an unequalled way to take in the countryside, flying beside paddy fields and hills rustling with Japanese maple and bamboo.

©Heather Gatley

Government approval for the Shinkansen project came in 1958, with construction of a new standard-gauge track network starting the following year. Much of the technical development work was done by three wartime fighter-plane designers. When the first trains started operating in 1964, everyone went on the move – commuters, families, day-trippers, businessmen – at speeds only dreamt of before. The Tokyo-Osaka run, normally more than six hours by express train, was halved to three. With Tokyo also hosting the Olympics, 1964 was an annus mirabilis for Japan, marking the end of the postwar reconstruction and the birth of a generation nicknamed shinjinrui, or “new people”.

The Rail Museum, in Saitama in Tokyo’s northern fringes, is a Mecca for train lovers but this hangar-like building, with 35 engines and railway carriages, also tells a fascinating story of Japan’s changing relationship with the world. Once out of developmental paralysis with the fall of the last shogunate in 1868, Japan was eager to learn from other countries. There are some mighty exhibits from the early years, such as the British-built Locomotive “No 1”, which plied the first railway from Tokyo to Yokohama in 1872. The US built their own engine for a coal mine railway in Hokkaido soon after, and one appears here in all its Wild West glory, with a vast urn-shaped smoke stack.

Female staff with long black hair bow wordlessly as we pass on our tour. Araki explains that he was himself a steam engine driver before switching to Shinkansen in 1966. He had been involved in the bullet train’s design process but, for him, they could never compare with steam trains. “The automatic control system of the first Shinkansen was impressive,” says Araki, as he shows me one of the engines he drove as a young man, a confounding mass of iron valves and brass dials, “but it took all the skill of the driver away. You hardly had to do anything!”

We come to the legendary 0-Series, the first Shinkansen, and sit inside. With its rounded face and doe-eyed headlights it looks like a friendly robot – Shinkansen are now sleeker, their noses having apparently stretched in proportion to their growing speed.

Early Shinkansen weren’t to everyone’s liking. In his travel classic The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), Paul Theroux was unimpressed. After enjoying the slow, garrulous locomotives of south Asia, in Japan he encountered silent passengers, the trains’ unfailing punctuality and, worst of all, windows you couldn’t open.

The future is even faster and quieter – Japan is working on entirely frictionless Maglev trains, which levitate several millimetres above the tracks and can reach 500kph. The technology is already in use on the Shanghai-to-Pudong run in China; Japan is pushing for a 2027 launch. Araki furrows his brow: “We’ll see about the Maglev. They are harder to control when in motion – I’d rather stick with Shinkansen.”

But while the Maglev work continues, the Shinkansen are being constantly updated. This summer, Japan Railways East even trialled a new variant, the Toreiyu, with cherry-wood bar, tatami mat flooring and passenger foot spas. With all that to look forward to, who needs a window you can open?

Postcard from . . . Japan – Onsen Art in Matsuyama

Journalism, October 2014

An illustration depicting ‘Hotel Horizontal' at the Dogo Onsen festival

Bathing at the Dogo Onsen is traditional to the point of severity. A drum bangs three times a day from a turret; pensioners squat in the scalding water, grunting as though preparing for a water birth. Ritual is all at the Dogo Onsen, a grand late 19th-century spa house in central Matsuyama: scrubbing, rinsing and dipping, but definitely no splashing.

Strange then that the bathhouse, which sits on Japan’s oldest continuously used hot springs, finds itself at the centre of an avant-garde arts festival held to celebrate the 120th anniversary of this venerable wooden building. Two dozen artists, designers and sculptors from Japan and beyond have helped transform Matsuyama, on the southern island of Shikoku, with a series of artworks, which include silhouette projections on to the city’s buildings (“People’s Projections” by Stephen Mushin); an installation deploying otherworldly sound and light (by Kohske Kawasi) and a “fog sculpture” (by Fujiko Nakaya), where mist streams out of nozzles on the Dogo building and billows around it into something almost solid.

The festival’s centrepiece is the “Hotel Horizontal”, a witty installation composed of nine rooms in hotels and ryokans (traditional inns) that have been redesigned by the likes of avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Marimekko-designer Fujiwo Ishimoto and poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. They are already providing some unusual challenges for local hotel owners.

Visiting Kusama’s room after the bathhouse is like shock therapy. The doyenne of the New York pop art scene has overhauled the smart Takaraso ryokan into an extraordinary riot of polka dots in red and gold, chrome orbs hanging from a fake-grass ceiling and an op-art display of ultraviolet stickers that appear to hover in mid-air. I’m informed, with a certain gravity, that the man-sized fibreglass pumpkin in bas-relief is the “only one of its kind anywhere in the world” – though it is also true of the entire space. Kusama herself is depicted naked on the wall on a sea of stuffed phalluses (a reproduction of her “Accumulation no. 2”, 1966), as if to observe the effect of her world on the recumbent visitor.

I follow the polka dots down the hall to the lobby, where they burst again into life, attacking sofas, walls and tables. I have a cup of green tea with Mitsuhiko Miyazaki, director of the ryokan, and note that the spots have already reached our cups and saucers and the cellophane-wrapped cake that I’m about to eat.

“It’s no small thing changing a room into an artwork. Think of the air-conditioning and fittings,” chuckled Miyazaki. “But it’s been extremely popular.” The Kusama-designed knickers are apparently selling like hot cakes in the lobby’s vending machines, and he regrets that he has to change the room back when the festival ends at the end of the year.

The idea of linking art and bathing is not completely new. Beppu, an onsen (“hot spring”) town in Kyushu, helped revitalise its own urban centre through its Contemporary Art Festival. Held every three years and last staged in 2012, it featured eight projects in eight of its bubbling hot spas. Now Matsuyama, which is little-visited by tourists (typically only 3 per cent of foreign visitors to Japan come to Shikoku) and known only for its onsens, its imposing local castle, and the old-fashioned trams that still trundle through its streets, is at last making a mark for itself.

While most are delighted by the rooms at the “Hotel Horizontal”, some guests aren’t so sure – especially about the darkly erotic “Paradise” by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki at the Kowakuen ryokan. It is a disquieting installation: traditional screens and tatami mats are left intact, while photographic screens display Japanese girls in classic kimonos, semi-nude and rope-bound, shot under a harsh, voyeuristic light. Less openly pornographic than suggestive, it makes for an interesting visit (rooms are open for public viewing by advance booking) but not exactly a cosy evening. Some guests apparently checked out early.

It is a subtle and thought-provoking festival – turning ryokans on their heads and confounding expectations of Matsuyama – but I note that nobody messes with the bathing experience itself. That much is sacrosanct.

What’s life really like in the cities – Tehran, Luanda, Baghdad, Caracas… – that make the headlines?

Journalism, June 2014

For most visitors, Luanda equals agro. At least, that’s how it feels when you first land. The sheer onslaught of congestion, pollution, poverty and bureaucratic hassle is a lot to take in. Most of its five million inhabitants are bewildered and angered by the soaring prices. But if you’re privileged enough to have a wander around and let the city get under your skin a bit, Luanda has some wonderful surprises. There are some beautiful old Portuguese churches and peeling stucco mansions. Angolan food is, at its best, a rich and piquant blend of the African and Portuguese table, famous for seafood, stews, grilled reds snapper and spicy greens. There’s also an urgency to the city to live in the present, to enjoy what you can, to party hard.

Bizarrely, Luanda, the capital of a country where 70 per cent scratch a subsistence living from the soil, is consistently voted the world’s most expensive capital. It’s hard to miss, with yachts cruising around Mussulo beach and the luridly expensive dinners on Ilha de Luanda. There’s a culture of one-upmanship and excess, and there’s not a great deal of shame in flaunting what you’ve got while others can’t afford drinking water. It’s all down to the mineral boom. Angola’s been producing oil from the 1950s and diamonds from the 1920s but the great surge in income came after independence from Portugal in 1975. Huge oil and gas discoveries in the seventies and eighties swelled government coffers and financed a long and devastating war. Little of the care that’s gone into mineral extraction has found its way towards infrastructure, health or education, and it’s certainly helped a fatcat culture get fatter. Slowly, though, there’s a small but growing middle class. One effect on the city is the surge in car ownership, so the traffic is truly awful, and there’s been a boom in construction. These days a bevy of new skyscrapers are sucking the faded and sometimes rather glorious old centre into its hungry embrace. You’d expect petty crime to rocket. But the truth is it’s easy and relatively safe to wander around the city centre, snacking on bananas and avocados from street-sellers or enjoying the few museums that are open.

Not many people know capoeira comes originally from Angola, before it was exported on slave ships to Brazil where it really took off. One capoeira move, the ginga, comes from the legendary warrior queen Njinga, who fought the better-armed Portuguese to a stalemate in the 17th century. You still see youngsters practicing capoeira on the seafront and somersaulting on discarded tyres.

Coming back from a long bus journey into Luanda one time, I fell into conversation with a passenger who was determined to take me safely back to my hosts. She told me she’d run a catering company supplying the government during the civil war. Her contracts ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. One particularly large order in the 1990s was never paid and it bankrupted her. This once wealthy businesswoman took me back to her basic flat in a rubbish-strewn courtyard where she plied me with water and funge (a local meal paste), insisted on praying for me, and finally brought me back to my hosts. In the ensuing weeks, I received phone calls from the woman determined to know if I was alright and if I needed anything. This clear victim of the system, who’d suffered the full brunt of government corruption, seemed only to think of my safety that evening. I felt that was pretty courageous and said a lot about Luandans: the grit, hope and resilience that got them through the darkest years and through a very strange present.

High spirits in Angola – From Our Own Correspondent

Journalism, October 2013

Daniel Metcalfe trembles at Angola’s hard drinking habits…first broadcast on the BBC World Service, 6 September 2013

From Our Own Correspondent

When money stops talking – the sound of dissent in oil-rich Angola

Journalism, September 2013

WITH his thin-rimmed spectacles and philosophy degree, MCK belies the image of a streetwise rapper, but his latest album bears a message that is authentically tough. Released in January, “Proibido Ouvir Isto” (Forbidden to Hear This), assails a host of national ills, from the corruption of Angola’s elite to the squalor of its fetid musseques (slums).

Flush from oil exports that now generate more than $45 billion a year, the government is used to silencing critics with cash.“Four years ago they offered me $500,000 to stop rapping,” MCK confesses with a smile, sitting in a sports hall in Angola’s capital, Luanda. “Now they know it won’t work.”

MCK, who doesn’t disclose his real name, gained fame in 2003 after presidential guards in Luanda murdered a 27-year-old car-washer whom they caught singing his anti-government lyrics. His music has become a staple in the candongueiros (shared taxis) that criss-cross the vast country. MCK (pronounced MC Kappa) has himself faced death threats, and decides to leave the sports hall when a police informer sniffs around nearby. But like fellow Angolan rappers Ikonoklasta, Nástio Mosquito and Carbono Casimiro, he continues to speak his mind.

His most coruscating new track, “O País do Pai banana” (the Banana Republic’s Leader) accuses the patrão, or boss, President José Eduardo Dos Santos, of treating his country like a colonial fief. Another object of ire is Portugal, the former colonial master that has lately flooded Angola with some 130,000 workers. “They come here to make their fortunes,” complains MCK, who is himself from Catambor, one of Luanda’s most violent musseques, “but they never question the origin of the money.”

Political protest had been rare since Angola emerged in 2002 from three traumatic decades of civil war, and began slowly to rebuild itself. But MCK is pleased that fewer Angolans now accept the conflict as an excuse for the lack of jobs and services. He and fellow artists are central to a slender but persistent protest movement that is making the government tetchy in the run-up to parliamentary elections due later this year.

Mr Dos Santos’s regime does not like surprises. The constitution it enacted in 2010 means that Angola’s next president will be chosen not by popular vote, but by the ruling party, which since independence in 1975 has been the MPLA (or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). One of Angola’s last two independent newspapers, Folha 8, was recently raided for lampooning the president. Other media outlets have long since been bought off.

Nobody expects an effective challenge from the host of brave but impotent opposition parties. Yet despite being banned on government radio, the lyrics of MCK and other rappers sound a constant subversive drumbeat:

The boss is the coloniser

in the Banana Republic…

We either put an end to corruption

or corruption puts an end to us.