12 foreign stories from 2012 we want you to read (again)

December 6, 2012

From the streets of Cairo to the Great Hall in Beijing, 2012 was a busy year for international news. The Washington Post also published a series of stories on the legacy of the war in Afghanistan, highlighting what the United States is leaving behind after a decade-long military presence in the country. Another series focused on the dramatically changing demographics in Mexico, a country also ravaged by a drug war and where the middle class is becoming the new majority.

Here we highlight some reports from our correspondents in places that made the headlines, along with others from places that did not.

Armored SUV could not protect U.S. agents in Mexico

Nick Miroff and William Booth, Mexico City, February 15, 2012


Pallbearers carry the casket of ICE agent Jaime Jorge Zapata, who was shot and killed in Mexico as he traveled with another agent last year. (AP)

In February 2011, a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent was shot while traveling in a sport-utility vehicle on a busy highway in Mexico. Miroff and Booth revisited the incident, reporting how an American agent in an armored vehicle was killed in broad daylight.

Forced off the road in a well-coordinated ambush, surrounded by drug cartel gunmen brandishing AK-47s, Zapata and his partner, Victor Avila, rolled to a stop. Zapata put the vehicle in park. 

The door locks popped open.

That terrifying sound — a quiet click — set into motion events that remain under investigation. When Zapata needed it most, the Suburban’s elaborate armoring was rendered worthless by a consumer-friendly automatic setting useful for family vacations and hurried commuters but not for U.S. agents driving through a red zone in Mexico."

The man who retrieves the Taliban's dead

Kevin Sieff, Kandahar, Afghanistan, February 20, 2012

Have you ever wondered what happens to a dead insurgent once a firefight is over in some dark alley in Afghanistan or after he has blown  himself up in a suicide attack? Sieff traveled to Kandahar to profile the man who gets the first calls from Taliban commanders in such cases.

The Taliban knows Hakim as the man who can retrieve insurgents’ bodies from American and Afghan authorities and return them to their families and comrades.

In the past six years, he has done it 127 times, carrying letters of permission from both the Afghan government and the Taliban as he weaves through Kandahar in a beat-up yellow taxicab, with dead insurgents in the trunk. Black bags for those killed in firefights. Small wooden boxes for what’s left of suicide bombers.

Acid attacks in Colombia reflect rage

Juan Forero, Bogota, Colombia, August 3, 2012


Consuelo Cordoba, 51, begs at a fruit and vegetable market in Bogota. She was the victim of an acid attack by a boyfriend 11 years ago. (Carlos Villalon / For The Washington Post)

Acid attacks, long known as one of the quickest  -- and most gruesome -- means of destroying a woman's face in South Asian countries, have been on the rise in Colombia, where the phenomenon has terrified women and shocked prosecutors, according to Forero.

If a woman is attacked over a dowry in India or because she ventured outside without a veil in Pakistan, in Colombia a woman might be attacked because of sheer rage over her independence or even by a disturbed man she doesn’t know.

That’s what happened in 2004 to Maria Cuervo when a complete stranger shouted, “This is so you don’t think you’re so pretty” and drenched her face with acid.

Mostly, though, a jilted boyfriend or a husband intoxicated with jealousy is behind the attack.

Hunger crisis raises fears of child marriage in Niger

Sudarsan Raghavan, Maradi, Niger, July 9, 2012

Each day around the world, more than 25,000 girls under the age of 18 get married, according to rights groups. In Niger, which already has the highest rate of child marriage, the growing hunger crisis has added new fears about child marriage, especially among girls in areas where families are marrying off their daughters in exchange for dowries -- livestock, money, anything that can keep the family afloat. Raghavan traveled to Maradi, where he found that the government is having a hard time eliminating the practice.

In the village of Madaroufa, Zahara Sani, 12, doesn’t want to go back to school. She wants to marry her 20-year-old fiance. As a bride price, the young man gave her father shoes, bracelets, earrings, perfume — and $260, a princely sum here.

But a soldier in their village reported her father to authorities. A judge banned the wedding, and government social workers have warned the father that they will have him arrested if he allows his daughter to marry.

The marriage has not been called off, and neither has the dowry been returned. And Zahara is determined. “I have four friends who are already married, and we are all the same age,” she said. “Why not me?”

Anti-immigrant Golden Dawn rises in Greece

Anthony Faiola, Athens, October 20, 2012

At a time when rising unemployment and poverty are hobbling Greece, a political party with an anti-immigrant rhetoric won its first-ever seats in parliament this year. Golden Dawn, Faiola reported, is willing to go to great lengths to fulfill its promise of a Greece for Greeks only.

Its supporters — in some instances with the alleged cooperation of police — stand accused of unleashing a rash of violence since the party rose to national office, including the stabbings and beatings of immigrants, ransacking an immigrant community center, smashing market stalls and breaking the windows of immigrant-owned shops.

Attacks have not stopped at foreigners. One Golden Dawn legislator slapped a left-wing female politician on national television. Party supporters have attempted to shut down performances of progressive theater. Activists see the party’s hand behind three recent beatings of gay men.

German boys choir copes with cracking voices at a younger age

Michael Birnbaum, Leipzig, Germany, April 7, 2012


The St. Thomas Boys Choir and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra perform Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. (Jan Woitas / ZB)

The young voices of the 800-year old St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig are deepening a little earlier than in the past, and the choir leaders say that is affecting the music. Birnbaum visited the choir in Leipzig, where J.S. Bach once served as a director, and found that recruitment efforts are now being doubled and boys being admitted at an even younger age.

... the St. Thomas boys are an institution. The 97 choir members, who range in age from 9 to 19, live in a boarding school on Sebastian-Bach Street.

 There, the older boys — who sing the lower tenor, baritone and bass lines — look after the younger ones. All receive a rigorous musical education. Boys whose voices are changing, a process that takes between three months and a year, take a break from the choir to study music theory, do light voice training and sell tickets and CDs at concerts. The group performs 100 times a year and regularly tours around the world.

In China's Central Party School, students intent on cultivating allies

William Wan, Beijing, October 12, 2012

China's top school for Communist Party bureaucrats is facing a new problem -- how to make the teachings of Mao and Marx engaging for a new generation of party officials, many of whom are more interested in  cultivating allies and networks. Wan wrote that the middle-aged officials use networking to trade favors and make deals to further their own careers and wealth.

The obsession with networking has alarmed leaders in China, who see it as symptomatic of larger problems threatening the party’s iron grip over the country — disillusionment with its communist ideals, irrelevance in the modern era and pervasive corruption.

Ethical corrosion has led to families of top leaders reaping vast fortunes, officials flaunting luxury watches worth several times their monthly salaries, and scandals such as a railway minister accused of using ill-gotten wealth to keep his 18 mistresses happy.

To counter such pressures, the school has strived in recent years to modernize its Marxist theories, overhaul its curriculum and enact stronger controls over students.

Afghanistan sees rise in 'dancing boys' exploitation

Ernesto Londono, Dehrazi, Afghanistan, April 4, 2012


An Afghan “dancing boy” performs at a private party in November 2008. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad / Getty Images)

In the decade since Afghanistan was freed from Taliban control, the country has seen a rise in the number of powerful, wealthy men exploiting young boys as sexual partners and objects of entertainment. Londono interviewed a group of men who had agreed to discuss their practice of "bachi baza."

Sitting next to the 9-year-old Waheed, who was wearing a pink pants-and-tunic set called a shalwar kameez, Mirzahan said he opted to take on the boy because marrying a woman would have been prohibitively expensive. The two have not had sex, Mirzahan said, but that will happen in a few years. For now, Waheed is being introduced to slightly older “danc­ing boys.”

“He is not dancing yet, but he is willing,” Mirzahan said with pride.

Asked how he felt about becoming a dancing boy, Waheed responded shyly.

“I feel so happy,” the boy said. “They are so beautiful.”

A darker story behind North Korea's propaganda star

Chico Harlan, Seoul, September 22, 2012

A 66-year old woman who had defected to South Korea returned to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, and described her time in the South as "miserable." Harlan wrote that Pak Jong Suk, one of the only cases on record of a defector returning to the North, apologized for having left and then praised leader Kim Jong Eun for forgiving her treasonous actions. But he found there was more to the story.

Those who knew Pak in South Korea, as well as South Korean government officials, say there’s a dark side to Pak’s rise to propaganda stardom. Her story, they say, is largely false and probably state-fed, and it exposes North Korea’s willingness to manipulate a citizen who returned not because she yearned for her homeland but because she feared for the safety of the son she left behind.

“This is a case where North Korea used motherhood for a political purpose,” said Park Sang-hak, a defector and a friend of Pak’s in Seoul.

Tensions among Alawites pose new challenge for Assad

Liz Sly, Beirut, October 17, 2012


President Bashar al-Assad, center, prays at a mosque on the first day of Eid al-Adha. (Syrian Arab News Agency via AP)

In recent weeks, the Syrian opposition has grown stronger, capturing more weapons as they managed to take over some military bases and airfields. But in addition to the rebels' growing momentum, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad faces another big challenge -- discontent among the Alawite minority sect to which he belongs. Sly reported that although the Alawites support Assad, fear is growing that if the rebels win, Sunni Islamists will achieve political dominance.

... from the Alawite heartland of Syria’s northern coastal region, come whispers of intrigue and strains within the Assad clan itself. A shootout between members of the extended Assad family in the president’s ancestral home town of Qardaha late last month and the detention of a prominent Alawite activist by the regime offer hints of unease within the one segment of the population whose unwavering support for Assad has hitherto not been in question.

[But] There is no indication that Alawites are on the verge of switching sides to join the fragmented and leaderless opposition, which has made little effort to welcome them.

Bee Gees, burgers and gun battles in post-Gaddafi Tripoli

Abigail Hauslohner, Tripoli, Libya, November 14, 2012

Tripoli is recovering after the revolution, which has drawn a flood of dreamers to the city. Although things have not changed as quickly as some Libyans might have wanted, the city is not as bad as it appears,  Hauslohner wrote.

Tripoli is a spectacle of post-revolution paradoxes. It is a place where all of the successes and failures of the Arab Spring’s most thorough revolution go on stark display side by side, where one can brave a militia gun battle and shop for designer dresses in the space of an afternoon.

Despite all the weapons floating around, there is relatively little crime. Libyans go to work and pick up groceries. Adults talk politics over cappuccinos. And teenagers chow down on burgers and blast pop music from their cars.

Iran faces possible health-care crisis

Jason Rezaian, Tehran, November 22, 2012


An Iranian woman gives a prescription to a pharmacist in Tehran in October. (AFP/Getty Images)

One of the areas where the impact of international sanctions on Iran is most visible is the country's medical sector, already suffering from poor management and diminishing state funds. Rezaian reported from Tehran that many medical workers have been told to prescribe drugs sparingly — or in many cases, not at all — to preserve resources.

Hosseinali Shahriari, the head of parliament’s health committee, said this month that “the government is playing with our people’s health and is not assigning the approved finances.”

Shahriari noted that the cost of chemotherapy has quadrupled in just the past year, and is now approximately $67,000 — out of reach for all but the wealthiest Iranians. “Practically speaking,” he said, “we have to tell a majority of such patients to go and die.”

To read more of our foreign coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/world

Anup Kaphle is the Post's digital foreign editor. He has an M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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