Thirty Years of Post-Conflict Reportage

Life After War Series:



Life After War: Trapped is a collection of portraits from countries around the world where corruption is so corrosive that degradation of human beings -- the abuse, abduction, sale, trade, and disappearance – is a thriving industry, operating with impunity. In some arenas, the targets are selected groups; in others, entire populations. Among the complicit: governments, gangs, militias, and private business, all parties to the trade on human life. For the 30 years I've been chronicling societies as they struggle to come to life after war, degradation has been the precursor to greater conflict. In these turbulent nations, the world’s traffickers find their human resources. 

Amy Kaslow

Washington, D.C.



B A G H D A D ,  I R A Q

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Once the Arab world's bastion of secularism, where women advanced in their careers and youth were the nation's great promise, Iraq is redefined by risk. War after war has broken down the families and the communities protecting childhood as sacred. After an eight-year battle with Iran, much of it hand-to-hand combat, soldiers returning from the front found they were edged out by a replacement workforce: women and foreign labor had taken their essential place. Violence against females escalated, poverty became widespread, and impoverished parents began to deploy their young sons and daughters as income earners. Along the banks of the Tigris River, a moonlit beggar boy tries to hustle a passerby with card tricks. He was a rare sight in 1989. But during the 25 years of invasions and many insurgencies since, an alarming number of children have been dispatched to stave off family hunger. They peddle cigarettes, petrol, pornography and their bodies. Today more than three million Iraqis are displaced across the country and refugee camps are exploding. Instability is the best breeding ground for human traffickers, and in Iraq, there have been many competitors: ISIS, Iran-backed militias, and tribal forces abduct women and children to deploy them in combat, as ordinance makers, human shields, suicide bombers, and indentured servants. They pluck eight-year-olds from their homes, force youth from refugee camps, and target entire ethnic populations like Yazidi women, for sexual slavery.

The land where Arab women had unparalleled agency and where parents once pampered, even insulated their young, is today gratuitously violent. Iraq has become a global destination point for sex tourists seeking children and a leading marketplace for human slavery. 


T O G E , N I G E R I A

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A sprawling shantytown just off the highway near Nigeria’s modern capital of Abuja, Toge is dusty and hot, a sweltering swirl of humanity isolated from the gleaming metropolis. Urban officials intend to keep it that way; they’re vigilant about freeing the nation’s seat of government from squatters and other visible signs of poverty. A visitor to Toge is a curiosity, an event that draws many generations of families from their mud-packed and scrap metal homes, wearing a vivid mix of tribal markings, local fabric and faded Goodwill donations. For decades, this ever-growing encampment has lived without fresh water or electricity. There are no schools, no formal health services, and no expectation that anything will change.  

Villagers know and fear Boko Haram, the Islamic insurgency known for kidnapping and sexually enslaving girls as young as those cradled in this mother's arms. But after a decade of displacing millions, the radical group is now dwarfed by the homegrown Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Building a base by engaging fighters from the very territory it claims and taking its cues and funding from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISWAP controls mileage that reaches from Nigeria into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. It is violent and punishing and forces the weak to recoil.

It is the poor, frustrated, and desperate residents of Toge along with almost half of Nigerians existing on $1.90 a day who fit ISWAP’s target profile. Their communities are breeding grounds for discontent channeled into radical rage. When IS trained its focus on Africa, it converted Nigeria’s major liability—weak governance—into an ISWAP strategic asset. Bribery is de rigueur in Nigeria. Everything is up for grabs, including power. The get-it-while-you-can culture is no match for overwhelming security challenges: pirates in the Niger Delta, energy pipeline poachers down south, religious battles over farms in the central region and intensifying radicalization in the Northeast. The country’s epic corruption corrodes efforts to address larger problems. 

Sub-Saharan suffering is persistent, profound, and Nigeria is mired in it, eclipsing India with the greatest number of people living in extreme poverty, worldwide. Nigeria should be self-sufficient given its massive oil and gas reserves, but its gross mismanagement as an energy producer and its many areas of upheaval have forced 2 million people from their homes and pushed 6.1 million more into queues for humanitarian aid. 

At greatest risk: Nigeria’s economically marginalized youth, the continent’s Africa’s largest under-30 population. Families release children to human traffickers who promise more than the hunger and squalor they leave behind. Local police demand payoffs from parents brave enough to report abductions. Nigerians represent the greatest percentage of trafficked people in continental Europe. Traffickers theft, enslavement and sale of Nigerian youth creates child soldiers, the adolescent sex trade, and spreads disease. At 200 million today, Nigeria’s census is expected to nearly double by 2050, positioning it as the world’s fourth most populous nation. 


M O S C O W ,  R U S S I A

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Outside the Chamah soup kitchen in Moscow, elderly Jewish patrons line up in the falling snow. Some ride two hours each way on the city's crime infested metro for help that is critical to their survival. Inside, the kitchen is a whirl of activity, as paid cooks and volunteers turn out piping-hot pots of stew, plates of meat, and buttered rolls straight from the oven. Lunch tables are filled with diners who peel off layers of clothing as they tuck into their lunch. 

Russia's aging citizens struggle on minimum resources. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, pensions shriveled, government assistance vanished, and the elderly found food and fuel prices far out of reach. Deprivation was just the latest in a succession of horrors they survived over many decades: anti-Jewish pogroms, the Holocaust, Stalin's forced labor camps, refused emigration, banishment to Siberia, vicious anti-Semitic attacks, the wrath of skinheads and ever-increasing Russian xenophobia. 

Insecurity is the norm. President Vladimir Putin's nationalist push has often cited Jews and other minorities as suspicious groups. Today, the Chamah soup kitchen serves hundreds of indigent Jews. Most are isolated, living in decrepit apartments and houses, some with no running water or adequate heat. Aside, from the essential meal, the aging men and women enjoy a library, religious texts, social clubs and a sense of community, much of it funded by overseas aid organizations. Chamah also dispatches doctors for visits and casts a wide net with its meals and other social services for those who would otherwise die from neglect.

The soup kitchen patrons wear their very best clothing for their lunch together. Men arrive in old suits and necktie, and women in brightly colored scarves. The conversation and camaraderie over the daily meal they share together seems to go a long way toward restoring their dignity.


S A N  S A L V A D O R,  E L  S A L V A D O R

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Daily inter- and intra-gang battles put El Salvador among the world's most murderous nations. Throughout the country, terrified bus commuters avoid eye contact, lest they attract the attention of gang members who prey on riders for their cellular phones, watches, and wallets. Thugs divide up territory to shakedown businesses -- from modest street carts to upscale professional offices -- and promise harm to those who resist. Every school, every neighborhood, and every commercial establishment able to afford it, installs high walls, barbed wire, and security guards armed with sub-machine guns.

In a corrugated metal labyrinth of houses slapped together along a busy San Salvador highway, young Enri hangs onto the front door. His mother leaves for her nearly five-hour round trip commute to clean houses, and the six-year-old is not allowed to go outside. Gang leaders live next door and across the street. Like most Salvadorans, his family will not take the chance to venture beyond the house past six in the evening. 

The future looks tough for Enri's generation. More than half of the country's citizens are under the age of 20, and have only known the constant risk of violence. They will scramble for jobs in an economy crippled by government corruption and endless security challenges. The anemic rule of law allows gangs to act with impunity. But it is the idle Salvadoran teens and twenty somethings who gravitate to the gangs for a sense of purpose and protection -- this is what gives organized crime a stranglehold over society. Gang reach is wide and efficient. The US conversation focuses on the now third generation Salvadoran gangs that started in LA and have penetrated urban, suburban, and rural America. But in El Salvador's gang warfare, men, women and children are human trafficking targets, their lives stolen and then sold for gang-controlled day labor and sex industries throughout El Salvador, in Mexico and the United States.


N A B L U S  H I L L S ,  T H E  W E S T  B A N K

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Economic life for West Bank Palestinian women is still marginal, even as increasing numbers of young females enter universities and professions. More jobs, more access, and more integration for Arab women could give the area the shot of economic vitality it sorely needs. This female entrepreneur breeds songbirds for sale in the remote villages of the Nablus Hills. She started her business with micro financing, built cages in her backyard, and soon became a supplier to area pet stores. Her earnings are critical for the family budget, and she has gained hard won respect at home and in the community.

Layers of impediments stand in the way of similar successes. Among the external inhibitors: closed borders with Israel, restrictions on travel in the occupied territories, and the daily limitations imposed by occupation. Equally formidable are the internal constraints: pervasive Arab male resistance to female rights to attend school, to take public transportation, to use community childcare, and to work outside the home. Fathers, sons and brothers can be the biggest impediments for female family members. Women and girls often assume subservience, no matter their desires or needs, and the psychological barriers they must push through to seek something more can prove insurmountable.

Worsening conditions portend more challenges for Palestinian women and children. The West Bank is a largely Muslim society where public discussion of sex is taboo and the repression of females is a cultural norm. The Jerusalem-based Palestinian women's organization, Sawa, works in the West Bank to fight the enslavement of women and early teens in sex trafficking. It has detailed prostitution rings and identified perpetrators. As frustrations mount, abuse and neglect of women and children worsens. To reach the most vulnerable, Sawa must confront deeply entrenched practices of the traditional Arab household and penetrate physical and psychological barriers: males who resist females' efforts to appear in public, even to visit a community center.