The beach in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: Getty
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In Kenya, al-Shabab is using terror as a way of destroying the economy

The group’s long-term strategy is to destroy Kenya’s reputation as a safe tourist destination, damaging its economy and weakening its ability to successfully fight terrorism in Somalia.

The beach was deserted. Not just typical low season – slightly quiet, as you’d expect – but truly not another soul in sight. White sand, strewn with seaweed, stretched as far as the eye could see. It was an instant, brutally visible, result of international terror alerts.

On 16 May, the British Foreign Office warned that there was a “high threat” of terrorist attacks on the Kenyan coast. Tour operators First Choice and Thomson Direct cancelled flights and evacuated 400 British tourists. The decision to evacuate was mainly due to insurance concerns but it was high profile and understandably caused panic among other holiday-goers. The US, Australia, and France also issued travel warnings about Kenya’s coast, particularly the area surrounding the coastal city of Mombasa. The hundreds of cancellations stretch all the way to October.

A week after the alerts were issued, I was in Watamu, a small tourist village not in the area covered by these terror warnings. Booking the trip from Nairobi, my friends and I scoured the Foreign Office’s online map for the parts of coast not covered in the red that indicates that you should “avoid all but essential travel”. To reach many coastal resorts, you must fly to Mombasa – the centre of the high alert zone – but Watamu is accessible via the tiny airport in Malindi. Yet still, the restaurants were empty, bar one or two other people. Hordes of taxi drivers aimlessly drove up and down the streets, with no one to collect.

The fact that not everywhere on the coastline is considered a high risk has not helped tourism. Flying from Nairobi to Malindi, I flicked through a local newspaper. It said that 7,000 people had been laid off from seasonal tourist work in the single week that had passed since the evacuations. One evening, walking back to our villa along a silent, pitch-black street, a car slowed down next to us. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright,” a man shouted from inside. “Can I drop you somewhere? You don’t have to pay.” In Watamu, those who had kept their jobs were anxious to make sure we – practically the sole tourists in the town – were not wanting for anything.

A week after I left Kenya, two days of violence in the coastal village of Mpeketoni and the surrounding area, close to the Somali border, left 60 people dead. Militants armed with guns and explosives slaughtered 48 people on the first day alone. Despite its proximity to the popular luxury holiday destination of Lamu island, Mpeketoni was not a tourist town but a local village. The intelligence services were right to expect something; but it was not a hit against western interests.

Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Somali Islamist group, al-Shabab. The group is battling the government in neighbouring Somalia, and has been responsible for a series of terror attacks in Kenya over the last few years. The most high profile of these was the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013. The siege lasted four days and left 67 people dead. Since then, there have been frequent bomb blasts in Kenya’s major cities. Al-Shabab, which still controls sections of Somalia despite being pushed out of the major cities, says that this terror campaign will not end until Kenya withdraws its troops from the country.

The aim is not just to create terror and a loss of life, but to damage the country’s economy. Attacking the tourist industry, which makes up around 12 per cent of the economy – second only to agriculture – is one way of doing that.

The Channel 4 reporter Jamal Osman recently described a conversation he had with an al-Shabab commander in 2010:

To explain al-Shabaab’s long-term strategy, the commander used an animal analogy. “Do you watch animal programmes on television?” he asked me. I nodded.

“You sometimes see a lion bringing down an elephant and killing it. That proves size doesn’t always determine the winner.

“We are not as big as our enemies, but with the right tactics we can win the war. We need to choose the weakest one, isolate, confuse and just follow what lions do.”

The commander said their aim was to destroy Kenya’s tourism sector - and hoped it would have a knock-on effect.

There will be less money to pay soldiers and buy weapons to fight us. Unemployment will rise. There will be crisis. Eventually the elephant will get tired and give up the fight.”

Somewhat ironically given the current state of affairs, Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia was partly triggered by al-Shabab’s effect on its tourist industry – when it kidnapped a British tourist from Lamu in 2011. Many now are asking why the state could successfully fight terrorism in Somalia but appears unable to do so within its own borders. Weak security intelligence, endemic corruption among police and all levels of government, and poor anti-terror policies (which have so far focused on indiscriminately rounding up members of Kenya’s large Somali community), all have a part to play.

Ministers have made a series of statements aimed at reassuring tourists that they are taking action. But with Kenya swiftly losing its status as a safe haven in the region, al-Shabab’s strategy seems to be starting to take effect.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.

Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.

Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.

The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”

Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”

The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.

Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.