Best international affairs longreads of 2016

Here are the longform journalism pieces that stuck with us all year long.

By: /
December 22, 2016
A woman buys a local magazine at a kiosk in Havana, Cuba, September 15, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Each week, we scour the web for longreads that delve into some of the world’s most pertinent issues (you can see our growing list here). From India to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria, journalists reporting from around the world brought us compelling stories of daily life and unimaginable journeys. Needless to say, narrowing down an anthology of our top picks this year wasn’t easy. 

Here are the longreads you should dig into over the holidays.

The Washington Post

Cobalt Pipeline
Michael Robinson Chavez/Washington Post

Todd C. Frankel traces the global supply chain of cobalt  essential to the batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles  from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children labour in dangerous mines, to manufacturing sites in Asia, to consumers' hands in developed countries. With the demand for cobalt increasing as technology advances, dangerous working conditions in the mines and China’s economic chokehold on the impoverished African country reveal the grim reality of globalization in the 21st century.

The Atlantic

Jeffrey Goldberg's 10-part feature in The Atlantic assesses Barack Obama's engagement with the world. "Over the past few months," Goldberg writes, "I’ve spent several hours talking with him about the broadest themes of his 'long game' foreign policy, including the themes he is most eager to discuss  namely, the ones that have nothing to do with the Middle East.” This nearly 20,000-word essay delves into America’s foreign policy actions over the last eight years with regards to Syria, Ukraine, the rise of ISIS and climate change. While it’s lengthy, it is well worth reading if you’re interested in U.S. foreign policy.

The New York Times

Over 35 days, photojournalist Daniel Berehulak documented 57 homicides in the Philippines  a consequence of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody campaign against drugs. This interactive piece showcases graphic images of the chaotic violence that has engulfed the South Asian country since late June when Duterte assumed power and vowed to “slaughter” drug addicts and smugglers, even going so far as to liken himself to Hitler. Scroll through this piece with an empty stomach. 

The Globe and Mail

In 2011, the words “it’s your turn next, Doctor Bashar al-Assad” appeared on a school wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. It was the Assad regime’s reaction to this seemingly harmless act that became what The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon calls Syria’s “Sarajevo moment.” For this feature, MacKinnon travelled to half a dozen countries over several months, tracking down the Syrian boys behind an act of rebellion that sparked the conflict that is now tearing Syria apart, and having hard-hitting, wide-ranging effects across the world, from the rise of ISIS to the refugee crisis. 

The Atlantic

The Atlantic
Ian Wright/The Atlantic

Adapted from his latest book, “The Way of Strangers,” Graeme Wood tells the story of a drug-loving Texan from an upper-middle class family who rose to become an emulated teacher within the so-called Islamic State. Wood speaks to his friends, family and admirers to form an intimate profile of John Georgelas, who may have just taken up the second-most powerful position in the terrorist organization. While stories of the radicalized Westerners who have run off to join the caliphate have made headlines in recent years, this one is particularly eccentric.

The New York Times

For this multimedia feature, New York Times reporters Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink and James Risen tracked down former detainees that were held in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo to discuss the long lasting psychological effects of U.S.’s use of torture as an interrogation tool. Dozens of the detainees they spoke with said they continue to suffer from mental health problems as a result of these “enhanced interrogation” tactics. Read this for insight into the human toll of this much-debated policy.

The Nation

This multimedia feature by Katie Worth and Michelle Mizner reveals the economic, political and social conditions that made Brazil a breeding ground for an outbreak. Through infographics and video, they outline how the Zika virus disproportionately affected women in poorer neighbourhoods due to inadequate infrastructure and sanitation. Read this in-depth feature for a thorough understanding of the virus that made headlines across the world this year.

Harper's Magazine

Sonia Faleiro tells the remarkable story of an Indian father’s journey to rescue his three young sons who were tricked into enslavement by an abusive brick kiln owner in Nepal. Sadly, this chilling story is not uncommon. Faleiro explains in great length the prevalence of child trafficking in Southeast Asia, and why there is little hope for parents to find justice.

The New York Times

In this beautifully written piece for The New York Times, Mujib Mashal describes a cacophony of life in the most unexpected of places: a cemetery in Kabul. Enterprising children, young lovers, bookish students and cannabis-smoking police officers all mix among the graves, while officials worry about the lack of space for bodies in a city that has seen so much death.

The Intercept

The Hot Lands
Brett Gundlock/The Intercept

In the first half of this two-part series, Ryan Devereaux tells the story of how a lime grower in southern Mexico launched an armed rebellion against a powerful cartel, which had infiltrated every aspect of life in the local towns and cities. Fed up with the cartel’s chokehold and the government’s failure to address the growing violence, this single call to action sparked many neighbouring municipalities in the region to do the same. Read on to part two to find out how the shift in political power in Mexico impacted the fate of these makeshift militias.

Buzzfeed

“There’s an old saying that if you kill a doctor you kill 100 people.” The death of one of Aleppo’s most skilled pediatricians sparked international outrage and grief, writes BuzzFeed News’ Borzou Daragahi. And yet, it made doctors in the city more determined to work, despite deplorable condition and amid mounting reports that pro-government and Russian airstrikes were targeting hospitals. 

The Washington Post

Washington Post reporter Chico Harlan follows Dumano Aristide, a 29-year-old Haitian, who decided to make the treacherous trip from Brazil to the U.S. after being laid off from his job. Like thousands of other migrants this year, largely from Haiti and Africa, he trekked across numerous countries in hopes of finding salvation in America, just as political tides turned against him. 

The New Yorker

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer profiles Tony Schwartz, who had ghostwritten President-elect Donald Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, “The Art of the Deal.” Mayer walks readers through the whole ordeal  how Schwartz came to agree to the job, the many hours he spent with Trump, and his current feelings of regret about the project. Schwartz colourfully spills his “deep remorse” for his part in bolstering Trump’s global image, something that probably contributed to his recent election victory. This feature offers insight into the man who will now assume the Oval Office (from one person’s account, mind you). 

ZEIT Online

On Sept. 4, 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded across the border of Germany in what was eventually dubbed "Merkel's border opening." A year on, 12 reporters from ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE, a German newspaper, string together the series of events that led to the night that would come to change the landscape of the continent forever. This fascinating and tense timeline will amaze you.

The New York Times

Puerto Rico
Ángel Franco/The New York Times

In The New York Times, Mary Williams Walsh relays the stories of Puerto Ricans who live in precarious conditions as the island suffers a massive debt crisis. From a mother who resides in a crumbling public housing complex to a doctor whose hospital can no longer afford medical supplies, Walsh paints a surreal and haunting depiction of a country at odds with itself.

Handelsblatt

How did Edward Snowden stay under the radar during the two weeks between his NSA revelations from a Hong Kong hotel and his escape to Moscow? Handelsblatt's Sönke Iwersen tells the story of the Canadian human rights lawyer who took on Snowden's case and the refugees who didn't hesitate to give him shelter in the city's slums amid an international manhunt. 

New Republic

In the New Republic, Siddhartha Deb presents a blistering profile of “the man who has replaced Gandhi as the face of India.” Tracing Modi's rise through right-wing Hindu politics, Deb describes a trail of violence, racism, rage and unaccountability  a narrative at odds with the Western world's admiring view of the prime minister. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the man at the helm of the world’s largest democracy.

The Guardian

Poison was once a murder weapon of choice during the Soviet Union era, but over the past century the exotic killings mostly stopped  that is, until Vladimir Putin moved into the Kremlin. A British inquiry into the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko found that his murder from polonium poisoning was 'probably' ordered by Putin. From his deathbed in 2006, Litvinenko had already come to the same conclusion, as recounted by Luke Harding for The Guardian

The New York Times

This ongoing multimedia series from the New York Times takes readers to unexpected places across the globe  from a small town in Alaska to the fringes of China’s deserts  where peoples’ lives are being uprooted by the effects of climate change. 

What did we miss? Let us know on Twitter @OpenCanada!