Investigating the State — with ‘Kunle Adebajo and Lynzy Billing

Investigating the State — with ‘Kunle Adebajo and Lynzy Billing
A boy jumps over a stream that flows out of the Bagram airfield. (Lynzy Billing)

This fall, New Lines published a series of investigations digging into government cover-ups and abuses of power around the world. This week, The Lede goes behind the scenes of two of these investigations — one in Afghanistan and one in Nigeria — and shows the difference journalism can make in people’s lives.

“It kind of came into my head years ago, really, when I went back to Afghanistan in 2019,” journalist Lynzy Billing tells New Lines magazine’s Amie Ferris-Rotman. Large numbers of American service personnel had been diagnosed with health problems caused by the improper disposal of toxic waste on military bases. Nobody seemed to be asking an obvious question: What about the local people?

“You could visibly see the pollutants and the waste that these bases were producing,” Billing explains. “You could see all of this waste coming out in trucks every day. You could see the smoke from the burn pits.”

Billing used freedom of information requests to find out more about the kinds of contaminants that had come from the bases. At the same time, she began to visit local people who had lived near the bases during the American occupation. “I started to see the same health problems that you see U.S. service members coming down with, after they’ve returned from deployment,” she says. “You would have whole families that have the same health problems — kidney problems, heart problems, gastrointestinal problems, skin ailments.”

Since the Americans left, however, any real accountability seems a distant prospect. “All of this is happening because it was just allowed to happen, right?” Billing says. “There really is nothing that the U.S. has to do to clean it up. So for me, it was very clear from the very beginning that we needed to tell these stories.”

“It was very clear from the very beginning that we needed to tell these stories.”

On another continent, Nigerian journalist ‘Kunle Adebajo heads the investigations desk at HumAngle. “I started reporting on the Boko Haram crisis in 2020,” he tells New Lines magazine’s Erin Clare Brown. “And so I’ve done lots of stories in the past about how people have been victimized by this crisis. But when I started reporting about missing people, I realized that it was a different ballgame entirely.”

Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, an insurgent group affiliated with Islamic State, left tens of thousands of people missing. State forces treated the local civilian populations brutally, with mass arrests and extrajudicial killings rife. But these abuses went mostly unrecorded. “People could not confirm the status and whereabouts of people who were arrested,” Adebajo says. “And that means even if your family member is dead, there’s no way for you to know for certain.”

In collaboration with New Lines, Adebajo and his team set out to investigate. Combining local reports with satellite data, they were able to uncover a number of mass graves left by the Nigerian army. The army didn’t respond directly to their request for comment, he says, but just weeks afterward, some of the families began to get phone calls from their missing loved ones. They’d been held in detention for years without contact with the outside world, but because of the increased scrutiny from the investigation, the government was finally allowing them to contact their relatives.

“Hundreds of people had received phone calls,” Adebajo says. “The estimate at the time was about 200. And the calls kept coming in.”

Produced by Erin Clare Brown and Joshua Martin

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