Geopolitics

*Happy* Witness: Slain Photographer Camille Lepage Remembered

French photojournalist Camille Lepage was killed at the age of 26 in the Central African Republic. Despite her youth, her passing leaves a huge hole in crisis reporting. Memories from a German friend and colleague.

Camille Lepage in March 2014 in a market in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Photo: Christian Putsch
Camille Lepage in March 2014 in a market in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Photo: Christian Putsch
Christian Putsch
Christian Putsch

CAPE TOWN — In the evening she always sat at the same slightly wobbly table in front of Hotel Levy’s in Bangui, hunched over her laptop, her camera within easy reach. We, her colleagues, sat at the same table talking about our day in the Central African Republic. Jokes made the rounds, taking a bit of the edge off the pain we’d experienced. But Camille Lepage, usually never at a loss for words, said nothing as she worked with her day's batch of photographs.

She never sent her work out before she had checked the latest photos down to the final details, and captioned each one of them. Her work held her firmly in its grip. Photo by photo, she tried to make this incomprehensible crisis, the conflict between Muslims and Christians, a little more graspable. Few could claim to have done as much first-hand reporting about what has been happening there.

Camille was killed on Monday evening in Bouar near the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic. She had been traveling with a group of Christian anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militiamen. The men had avoided the checkpoints manned by African Union soldiers. It was a dangerous and courageous thing for her to be doing. She wanted to provide some insight into the way the militia — which has been terrorizing large parts of the Muslim population in the region — worked.

According to Die Welt sources, Camille was in a car with four anti-balaka fighters who were also killed in the incident. There are a number of indications that they were the victims of an ambush. Camille’s body was found in a car by French soldiers out on patrol. What isn’t clear is if she and those with her were the victims of a rival anti-balaka group or of the Séléka rebel coalition.

France’s President François Hollande announced that all necessary measures would be taken “to cast light on the circumstances of this murder and to find the murderers.” French investigators are on their way to Bangui.

Too young

Overwhelmingly comprised of Muslims from the northern part of the country and mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, the Séléka overthrew the government in March 2013 and assumed power temporarily. For months, the Séléka has been involved in a bloody fight with the anti-balaka militia — a battle that so far has cost the lives of more than 10,000 people. In early May, two local reporters were killed in Bangui while trying to report on the predominantly Muslim residents of the city’s PK5 area.

It needs to be said again: Camille Lepage was 26 years old. And this needs to be said not only in the context of her dramatically early death, but the impressive achievements of her short life. She leaves behind major photographic documentation of this oppressed country and its political and humanitarian crises, to which the international community has reacted with such shameful reluctance. These are pictures of the dead and dying, of hospitals and refugee camps, of murder in the streets. See Camille Lepage's photographs here

But Camille also took pictures of lighter moments in daily life — a fashion show, a guitar player in a market. She wanted to show other sides of this country, not just the war that otherwise focused most of the attention. She was one of the few foreigners who occasionally went to the legendary Zodiac Club in Bangui to dance the night away.

We met in March at Levy’s Hotel. Nearly all journalists in Bangui stay in this run-down block of concrete that my colleague Johannes Dieterich of the Frankfurter Rundschau accurately describes as “simple, but shabby.” In the face of temperatures over 35 °C (95 °F) the air-conditioning system had long ago given up the ghost, although there was electricity mostly thanks to a noisy generator in the back court. Shower water and Internet access were less reliable.

Camille had been living for many months in this place that most exhausted journalists leave after about a week. With her grin, possibly the broadest in the whole city, and her fast-paced French, the freelancer had talked the hotel manager down from $50 to $15 a day for her room on the second floor.

She often began her days before sunrise if she got yet another call from a source. Camille had a network that included everybody from the imam at the mosque to the commander of the anti-balaka militia, Séléka fighters, soldiers, political analysts as well as simple citizens. Hardly anyone was as well-connected as this small, energy-charged woman. And Camille stayed in touch with them, cared about the people she met in the refugee camps. It would make the photographer sick with worry if one of the people in a camp didn’t come to the phone to talk to her.

Pharrell ringtone

And yet the misery that Camille documented on a daily basis didn’t break her. At Levy’s, not a single day went by when she didn’t loudly sing along to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” In fact the song was her cell phone ringtone, Swedish journalist Katarina Höije recalls. Höije spent several months in the room next to Camille’s at the hotel. “Her good mood was contagious. And her interest in people was sincere. She earned the trust of the people she reported on,” Höije says.

Few people knew as much as Camille about this conflict, which goes well beyond its religious dimension. And few have shared their contacts in so natural a way. Camille passed on telephone numbers of people who could help one understand the influence of politics, neighboring countries, or class differences on the population. She helped me with crucial contacts and advice when I was researching a longer piece that appeared in Die Welt am Sonntag.

By comparison with the crises in Ukraine or Syria, the crisis in the Central African Republic — despite the UN warning about the “extremely grave” situation — has not really registered on the world’s radar. Camille wanted to change that, in whatever way she could. She leaves a huge information vacuum behind her.

I asked Camille why she was here. We were sitting in a little watering hole on a lively street after we had both reported on a Bangui market that had to change location because of the crisis. She told me that even as a child she’d dreamt of living in places that didn’t interest anyone. “I didn’t think it was right that the stories of people living in such places weren’t told because there wasn’t any money to be made from them.” When she visited her friends in France, she continued, she didn’t understand why they thought her job was so unusual when it seemed self-evident to her.

In July 2012, not long after she’d completed her journalism studies and published freelance work in France, Camille went to South Sudan to report on the destiny of the newly-created nation. In October 2013 she moved on, to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Shortly before her death she had found a room to rent because she wanted to stay until 2015 at least — the earliest possible date for elections. Camille wanted to be there to cover the return to peace, and she would have been doing that for leading media.

Her work appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, the Sunday Times, the Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel and on the BBC, among other media. Camille was a complete pro. She covered the manufacturer’s name printed in white on her black camera with dark tape, and when I asked her if it was because she didn’t want to advertise the name she said: “It’s not that — it distracts people when I photograph them. They look at the writing, not into the camera.”

Courage, not recklessness, was her partner in work. She apparently wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest when she died — not that that would have likely helped her much in an ambush. Camille was not an adrenaline junkie; she always tried to gauge the risk factor. But when in doubt, she went for it.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

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