TIME conflict

Kurds Repel Major ISIS Offensive in Northern Iraq

Members of the Kurdish security forces inspect the site of bomb attack in Kirkuk on Jan. 30, 2015.
Members of the Kurdish security forces inspect the site of bomb attack in Kirkuk on Jan. 30, 2015. Ako Rasheed—Reuters

At least 36 people were killed in a series of attacks

(KIRKUK, Iraq) — Clashes with Islamic State militants killed a senior Kurdish military commander and eight of his fighters just outside the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Friday, officials said.

Attacks elsewhere killed 27 people, with twin bombs hitting a crowded market in Baghdad and a suicide bomber targeting pro-government Shiite militiamen who were manning a checkpoint outside a city north of the Iraqi capital.

The casualties near the oil-rich Kirkuk were a heavy setback for the Iraqi Kurds, who have been at the forefront of the battle against the Islamic State group, which has captured a third of both Iraq and Syria in its blitz last year.

Also Friday, a car bomb exploded outside an empty, closed hotel near Kirkuk’s police headquarters, wounding two people. Both the Kurdish troops and the city’s security force have been trying to rout the IS group from Kirkuk, about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad.

After the car bombing, three gunmen took positions inside the hotel, located in the city center, triggering a firefight with the Kurds and the police.

Associated Press footage from the scene showed members of the Kurdish troops and the local police firing at the Qassir Hotel in Kirkuk and then storming it. Officials later said the gunmen were all killed.

The Kurdish Brig. Gen. Shirko Fatih and eight Kurdish fighters died in clashes south of the city earlier in the day, after the IS militants attacked the peshmerga fighters’ positions, said Brig. Khatab Omar.

The U.N. assistance mission in Iraq said Friday it was evacuating its foreign staff from Kirkuk to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, due to “a rapid deterioration in security in Kirkuk city.”

A UNAMI statement said the mission was also forced to halt its activities and bar employees from moving around freely within the Kurdish region, except for the cities if Irbil, Suleimaniya and Dahuk.

Kirkuk is home to a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, who all have competing claims to the oil-rich area. The Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-ruled region in Iraq’s north, a proposition strongly opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.

After the IS group’s blitz last summer and the quick collapse of the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces took control of the city. Since then, Kirkuk has often come under Islamic State attacks, with the militants likely hoping to seize the oil fields near the city.

Iraq has been facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, with Islamic State militants now in control of about a third of the country.

In the Baghdad market attack, a bomb first exploded near carts selling used clothes in the central Bab al-Sharqi area, followed by a second bomb as people rushed to help victims from the first blast. Police and hospital officials said 19 people were killed and 28 were wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Also in Baghdad, mortar shells landed on a residential area in the Shula neighborhood, killing four people and wounding seven others, said police and hospital officials.

Police officials also that said a suicide bomber drove his-explosive-laden car into a security checkpoint manned by Shiite militiamen near the city of Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, killing four militiamen and wounding 10.

TIME conflict

‘There Was All This Chaos': Vietnam-Era Antiwar Activists Reflect

LIFE Books

Read an excerpt from LIFE's book 'The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago--Two Countries Torn Apart'

For LIFE’s recent book revisiting the events of the Vietnam War, Daniel S. Levy and photographer Joe McNally visited people who had been involved in many sides of the conflict, including the anti-war movement. On the anniversary of the Jan. 30, 1968, beginning of the Tet Offensive — a campaign that energized such protests — we present the following excerpt of Levy’s conversations with four key anti-war activists from that time:

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a cofounder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society. Vivian Rothstein was a community activist. Abe Peck was a member of Chicago’s underground press. Ross Canton was a decorated soldier who, upon returning home, joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Here, during a sit-down with Levy in Santa Barbara, California, this group discusses not only their shared antiwar past but how they view their legacy today.

LIFE: How did you get involved in the antiwar movement?

Rothstein: I got recruited in the Mississippi freedom summer program in 1965. I decided I wanted to be an organizer. Then I got invited by Tom Hayden to go to a conference in 1967 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to meet representatives of the provisional revolutionary government in South Vietnam, to actually meet the grass-roots opposition in South Vietnam. From that I got invited to go to North Vietnam. The experience crystalized my commitment to end the war.

Canton: I was one of those poor white draftees. I was neutral with the war, until I got drafted. My first day out in the field in Vietnam our point man got wounded by a nine-year-old kid, and I thought, So that’s the enemy? I was in the field three weeks when I got wounded the first time. The third time I spent nine and a half months in the hospital. I had shrapnel in my brain and was not supposed to survive. But I did. It crystallized my feelings about the war and how I was very angry. Once I got out I joined the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Flacks: I went to teach at the University of Chicago in 1964. A few months later a group of people in Ann Arbor [Michigan] started the action, which they called a “teach-in.” Classrooms were used for debate, discussion, forums about the war. By the end of the academic year there were a thousand campuses where something like a teach-in had occurred. To me, that was the step I needed. I then devoted a great deal of my energy to being active in that role as a professor and as a campus leader.

Peck: I tumbled into the movement. I went to the Summer of Love in San Francisco, five guys in a Volkswagen van. My pivotal moment was driving to the Pentagon Demonstration in 1967. I saw everything from people putting flowers in guns to people storming the building to just having a sense of just how outraged we all were by the war.

LIFE: What did your families think of this?

Flacks: My parents were schoolteachers in New York, active in building a union. In the McCarthy Red Scare era, they both were purged along with several hundred other left-wing, commie-oriented teachers. I was 25 by the time I was taking a stand against the war. They supported me.

Canton: I grew up with a single mother who did the best she could. My father, an Italian immigrant, joined WWII early on, and was in the 101st Airborne for five years. Got wounded. He would have been prowar.

Peck: My parents weren’t radicals at all. My dad was a liberal Democrat, very working class.

Rothstein: My mother had a progressive heart, but we were raised with this sense that we lived in an ominous world that could turn against you at any moment. But when she heard me speak about my trip to Vietnam, she got herself involved.

LIFE: Describe the time, if you would.

Rothstein: When I went away to college that first fall, Kennedy got shot. There was a sense that it was a chaotic political environment. We weren’t being told what was going on. That engagement in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement gave the feeling that you could actually make a difference, that you needed to take a stand. I think we felt a sense that we could actually help end the war.

Flacks: The draft was an expression of this militaristic, imperial power that we were opposed to. I was in the early founding of the Students for a Democratic Society. We thought we were responsible for having to have an antiwar movement. We thought the demonstrations of larger numbers of people would have an effect on policy, and that was perhaps naïve. A new lever that SDS perceived for a change of the policy was people being forced to fight the war had the opportunity to resist it. It was a strategic kind of effort: We who were in opposition to the war, if we ourselves refused to fight, and got other people to refuse to fight, the policy would have to be reexamined.

Peck: A lot of it was exhilarating, the idea that you could set the country on the right way, change the world, build a new society, stop the war. There was a concept of “right action”—that this was really the thing to do. I had great trepidation about the Chicago Convention in 1968, but I still had to go to the park. You had to show up.

LIFE: Did dissidents have regular contact with the veterans?

Rothstein: There was the GI coffeehouse movement. These were independent coffeehouses that were set outside the bases. Women staffed those. I helped to recruit people. I worked at Fort Leonard Wood. The idea was not to push any kind of line. But there was antiwar material there and underground newspapers. It was a very subversive strategy, because it was a place where guys could talk about what was really going on. It was brilliant.

Peck: There was this kind of ring around the military to support people making decisions of conscience.

Canton: Returning veterans who were against the war were very dangerous, because we could tell what was true and what was not true. The whole idea of winning the war was deflated by all these Vietnam veterans coming back and saying that is not true. That really took hold. After [I spent] time in the hospital, I went back to Fort Ord and trained troops to go to Vietnam. We gave them the straight line. We told them that it was all bullshit.

LIFE: What was your experience with the mistreatment of vets?

Canton: It never happened to any of the Vietnam veterans I was associated with—getting spit on at the airport, “baby killer!” and all those kinds of things. By 1969 there was a coalescence of trying to have the veterans and the soldiers be a part of the antiwar movement and not disenfranchising them because they served over there.

LIFE: How were women in the antiwar movement viewed?

Rothstein: The [anti] draft movement was very focused on men. Eventually we started building independent women’s organizations and did antiwar activities. Women Strike for Peace was in there from the very beginning, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.

LIFE: If so many opposed the war, why was it so hard to stop?

Flacks: Both Johnson and Nixon said explicitly that no matter what public opinion said about the war, it would go on. It really [defies] explanation why, in the face of a popular mood against the war, these Presidents would feel they had to continue it. Vivian and I went to this conference in Bratislava, meeting the Vietcong, the North Vietnamese folks. They wanted to tell us that the U.S. had been defeated in the war, that there was no conceivable military strategy that the U.S. could deploy that would allow the U.S. to win. There was insight there into the limits of American power. It was reinforced a few months later during the Tet Offensive.

LIFE: So, at the end of the day, were all the protests useful?

Flacks: If you add up the numbers of protests after Kent State, it is the largest mass demonstration in American history.

Rothstein: The amazing thing is hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose this war. That they cared that much, that they would put themselves at risk—it is really remarkable. What could you think of today where hundreds of thousands of Americans would get up off their couches and demonstrate?

Peck: A lot of good things came out of that period amid the tumult and the personal destruction.

Rothstein: Things have changed. There is no draft. Nobody can get over there to meet with the enemy and see what is going on. The press has to be embedded. They have changed the conditions.

LIFE: Talk about the radicalization and splintering of the movement.

Rothstein: There was all this chaos. The black communities were exploding. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. There was a lot of agitation. There was a lot of militancy on campus, and the repression came in—Kent State, the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, the attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Convention. People felt like they were coming to get us. People felt like the stakes were really high, and we weren’t winning on the civil rights front, we were not winning on the antiwar front. I think some people became adventurist because they couldn’t figure out a strategy that was going to work. It was a totally wrong strategy. You don’t end an international conflict by breaking storefront windows.

Peck: People got extraordinarily frustrated. There were internal revolutions. It splintered . . . It was almost a Revolution of the Week Club.

Canton: We were having infiltrators. The FBI parked out in front of my house. Everybody who was a leader in the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had their phones tapped and were followed.

Peck: During the Democratic Convention our paper’s windows were shot out and the only car on the street was a police car. The FBI came to look for my parents to find out more about me. They couldn’t find my parents, but they found Mrs. Schwartz, my neighbor. And they asked, “What kind of boy was he?” and she said, “Oh, he always held the elevator doors.”

Flacks: The founding people and elected leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society were on [an FBI] list. In May 1969, a guy called me who said he was a newspaper reporter wanting to interview me about student protests. He attacked me . . . and left me there bleeding. There was the Legion of Justice, a vigilante group. There is circumstantial evidence they were perpetrating this kind of activity and operating in connection with government intelligence.

Rothstein: I was organizing youth in Berwyn and Cicero, Illinois. We started a coffeehouse in a church, and the Legion of Justice shot crossbow arrows into the church. They found it so threatening that young people would sit and just talk about life, the draft or maybe whether they wanted to go to college. Nobody got hit. I remember going into meetings and being greeted by the Chicago police officer who was with the Chicago Red Squad, “Hey, Vivian. How are you doing?” They knew every person’s name.

Flacks: Whatever splintering there was, there was [also] a thread of more strategic action. People like Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and others organized a campaign to get Congress to stop appropriating money for the war. And that was successful.

The shocking thing is that the American majority turned against the war in the late ’60s. The morale of the troops was collapsing by the late ’60s. Establishment intellectuals were writing about how the youth of America was turning against the society. And yet it still took six years for the war to be brought to an end after that.

LIFE: Looking back, your final thoughts?

Peck: I don’t have laments. We were learning as we went. As the Grateful Dead would say, it certainly was a long, strange trip. Being in the underground press gave me a really enduring appreciation of the First Amendment, which I have always defended since then.

Rothstein: For years I was very fearful that anybody would know about me going to North Vietnam. In those days it was considered a traitorous thing to do. Now it’s a really great thing to say I did. When I was in Vietnam, the Vietnamese said, “You are the true sons and daughters of Washington and Jefferson.” They had a real sense of an American tradition. I think in retrospect, what I did was in the best interests of the country.

Looking back now, we can all be proud we took those risks, but at that time we had no idea what it would be like in 40 or 50 years. I feel proud of the things that I did. I feel it took too long to end the war. I think history has not really taken on the Vietnam War and how right we were about the enormous destruction of Vietnam and the destruction it caused in our country. The antiwar movement is really not given the credit that I think we deserve.

Peck: There is no antiwar memorial.

Flacks: I would argue that at the time, the best interests of this country were not served by a leadership getting us into war but [by] the people who were trying to stop the war. [Also] I have a positive view of some of the changes in society that have come out of this period. The idea that the U.S. should fight that kind of war is illegitimate now. The draft is illegitimate. I can’t imagine a possibility of reviving conscription in this society. I know in my bones that if the move to restore the draft was made, there would be massive protests on college campuses right away.

The Vietnam War ended the capacity of people to be innocent and hopeful about political leaders. There is something healthy about that skepticism.

Canton: The reason we were out protesting was because we cared. It was about caring for certain types of freedoms—caring about certain things that were being done in our name. Most of us, our parents were immigrants who really came here for the American Dream. We grew up with that idea that it would be a new country, a new world and a better world. And it was a better world.

Peck: On a good day we wanted America to live up to its promise.

Canton: Yes. Exactly.

LIFE’s book The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago–Two Countries Torn Apart is available here.

TIME Yemen

U.S. Downsizes Yemen Embassy Staff as Crisis Builds

Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015.
Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015. Khaled Abdullah—Reuters

U.S. officials say that the embassy won’t be closing

The U.S. has decided to reduce its embassy staff in Yemen following the collapse of the nation’s government at the hands of rebel Houthi fighters.

“The safety and security of U.S. personnel is our top priority in Yemen,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

The move comes four months after U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Yemen as a model for “successful” counterterrorism partnerships.

The reduction of embassy staff, mainly in response to the security situation, comes at a time when Washington is trying to secure partnerships in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria while trying to limit Iran’s influence in the region, according to Reuters.

The situation is alarming neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Tehran’s military and financial support for the Shi‘ite Houthis as a sign of their growing regional clout.

Former Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resigned Thursday along with a slew of government officials, was seen as a key ally in the war against jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. However, the Houthis, who now control the capital, are said to loathe al-Qaeda as much as they do the U.S., reports Reuters.

Hadi’s resignation will “absolutely” limit drone strikes and counterterrorism operations in the immediate future, a former U.S. official told the news agency.

TIME Chile

Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda Could Have Been Poisoned

Chile Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda in 1971. Laurent Rebours—AP

A fresh probe is to be conducted into his death in 1973

Chile announced Wednesday that the death of Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda will be reinvestigated to ascertain if the poet was poisoned in 1973 during the first days of the South American nation’s military dictatorship.

Neruda, a staunch communist whose love poems some consider to be among the most romantic ever written, was presumed to have died of prostate cancer following a U.S.-backed coup that led to the merciless rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. However, many suspect that he was murdered, reports Reuters.

“There is initial evidence that he was poisoned and in that sense the signs point to the intervention of specific agents … that could constitute a crime against humanity,” said Francisco Ugas, the head of Chile’s humans rights department.

Neruda was a loyal follower of ousted President Salvadore Allende, leading to suspicions he was murdered to silence a potential powerful dissenting voice against the new military dictatorship.

Neruda’s chauffeur claims Pinochet’s operatives injected the poet’s stomach with poison while he was bed-ridden by illness.

[Reuters]

TIME conflict

Freed Iranian Hostages Weren’t Sure Whether to Criticize Carter or Thank Him

Free After 444 Days
United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days, in January of 1981 Express / Getty Images

Jan. 20, 1981: Iran releases 52 Americans who have been held hostage for 444 days

When the Iran Hostage Crisis ended on this day, Jan. 20, in 1981, 52 Americans were freed after being subjected to “acts of barbarism,” as President Carter phrased it, for 444 days.

The crisis had started with American support for the Iranian Shah in the 1970s; when Iranian revolutionaries declared him anti-Islamic and forced him from office in 1979, they quickly moved on to their next target: the American embassy in Tehran, where a group of students took more than 60 people hostage. Iran’s new leader released those among the group who were female, black or non-U.S. citizens, saying that they had already suffered “the oppression of American society.”

Called spies by the Iranians, they were physically and mentally tormented to an extent the American public was unaware of at the time. It was later reported that, in addition to regular beatings, they were subjected to mock firing squads and games of Russian roulette. Many of the hostages later said they never expected to survive the ordeal; TIME reported that one of Iran’s Foreign Ministers thought the hostages could be held “more or less forever.”

Though he was wrong, the situation did end up costing President Carter the 1980 election, many believe, since it was hard to appeal to the public when, for more than a year, the evening news regularly broadcast images of angry Iranian mobs shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Carter.”

But as for the hostages themselves, they had mixed feelings for Carter, whose policies could be blamed for getting them into the crisis, but who worked with single-minded devotion to get them out. During his last few days in office, he worked nearly around the clock on the final negotiations that secured their release, occupying the Oval Office until 15 minutes before Ronald Reagan arrived for his inauguration.

The hostages were released minutes after Reagan was sworn in. Carter flew to Germany to meet with them. The encounter was bittersweet. According to the New York Times’ account, the hostages sat in a circle, passing around copies of American newspapers Carter had brought with him, all bearing headlines about their release. Some were critical of the former president. One asked why a botched rescue mission Carter had authorized the previous spring hadn’t been tried sooner; another asked whether it should have been attempted at all.

But they applauded when he said that the Iranians had not succeeded in their attempts to extort money from the U.S., using the hostages as leverage.

When Carter left, L. Bruce Laingen, the ranking diplomatic officer among the former hostages, escorted him to his limousine. According to the Times, “Mr. Laingen embraced the former President once, held him at arms length and then embraced him a second time before letting him go.”

Read a 1981 account of what the hostages went through, here in the TIME Vault: The Long Ordeal of the Hostages

TIME Pakistan

Pakistanis Protest Charlie Hebdo Cover

Magazine printed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its post-terror attack cover

Demonstrators took to the streets in cities across Pakistan to protest the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo on Friday, two days after the newspaper published its first issue since the massacre at its offices by Islamist extremists.

Protesters clashed with police in Karachi, according to Reuters, and a photographer for the AFP was wounded amid the violence.

Charlie Hebdo, which has drawn the ire of some Muslims in the past for lampooning Islam among other subjects, published an issue on Wednesday less than a week after terror attacks across Paris left 17 dead, including eight of its journalists.

The cover of the issue, which has been criticized by Muslim leaders as a provocation, features a tearful Prophet Mohammed. Muslims consider any visual representation of the prophet to be blasphemous.

Sometimes violent protests have broken out in countries around the world, including in Niger and Sudan. But Muslim leaders elsewhere have appealed for restraint.

“Most Muslims will inevitably be hurt, offended and upset by the republication of the cartoons,” reads a statement on the Muslim Council of Britain’s website. “But our reaction must be a reflection of the teachings of the gentle and merciful character of the prophet (peace be upon him).”

Read next: Pope Francis Speaks Out on Charlie Hebdo: ‘One Cannot Make Fun of Faith’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME conflict

The Brief Luxurious Life of Adolf Hitler, 50 Feet Below Berlin

Adolf Hitler [Misc.]
Adolf Hitler's command center conference room partially burned out by SS troops and stripped of evidence by invading Russians, in bunker under the Reichschancellery after Hitler's suicide William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Jan. 16, 1945: Hitler retires to the bunker below his Berlin chancellery, where he lives out his remaining 105 days

The Russians were closing in and Berlin was under a barrage of bombing raids when, on this day, Jan. 16, 70 years ago, Adolf Hitler went underground. In a structure that still remains, about fifty feet below the gardens of the Reich Chancellery, he lived out his remaining 105 days in the Führerbunker.

For an air-raid shelter, it was practically luxurious. Equipped with its own heating, electricity and water, according to Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography, the 3,000-square-foot reinforced bunker was accessible via a red-carpeted corridor lined with paintings re-hung from Hitler’s grander chambers in the Chancellery under which it was location. In his study hung his most revered piece of art: a portrait of Frederick the Great.

For the first month or two, at least, Hitler’s daily life changed little in the bunker, as Robert Payne depicts it in The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler; running a war, it seemed, looked much the same below as above ground. After meeting with his generals and strategizing until early in the morning, sometimes as late as 5 a.m., Payne writes:

“[Hitler] got up about 11:30 a.m., bathed quickly, took a hurried breakfast, and held his first conference at noon. The rest of the day was entirely taken up with conversations with political and military leaders. He took lunch in the late afternoon. It consisted of vegetable soup, corn on the cob, jellied omelets, and whatever delicacies Fräulein Manzialy, his vegetarian cook, could provide for him.”

A few factors prevented the bunker’s residents from feeling like everything was business as usual, however. For one: The constant threat of death, and the dissolution of Hitler’s dream of empire. For another: The sense of claustrophobia as the underground offices filled with officers and support staff, as well as Eva Braun and the wife and six children of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, according to a report from one of the SS guards who was inside.

The sense of impending doom, as Russian troops marched on Berlin, kept any festive feelings at bay when Hitler and Braun married in the bunker’s map room during the early hours of April 29. According to Britain’s MI5, Hitler’s personal secretary, Gerda Christian, was invited to the “wedding breakfast” after the ceremony but left early, telling another of his secretaries, Gertrud Junge, that “she had been unable to stand the atmosphere of gloom and despondency.”

The bunker became gloomier still the next day, when the newlyweds committed suicide. Before they did, Hitler’s dog was fed a cyanide capsule, partly to test its lethality. Since the dog died almost instantly, both Junge and Christian asked Hitler for capsules themselves. Per MI5, “Hitler gave them one each, saying as he did so that he was sorry he had no better parting gift.”

Read the original 1945 report on Hitler’s death, here in the TIME archives: Adolf Hitler’s Last Hours

TIME Behind the Photos

Back and Forth in Central African Republic’s Unholy War

One photographer's year-long look at the unending cycle of death and uncertainty in a country mostly neglected by the international community

That Central African Republic even managed to squeeze into last year’s news cycle is a grim feat. After all, it was stacked against heavyweights like the July downing of a Malaysian jet over eastern Ukraine, protests across the U.S. over several police killings of unarmed black men, an unprecedented Ebola outbreak, as well as a summer war in Israel and Gaza.

Each of those stories, and many others of similar intensity, commanded audiences around the world for their mystery or shock or tragedy or absurdity. And, notably, for their visuals.

The same could be said for the conflict in Central African Republic, which saw some of the darkest days of its independence last year as it struggled to rebound from a coup a year earlier. Among those who committed to documenting the spiral is French photographer William Daniels, who has made some half a dozen trips there over 14 months.

Daniels was initially drawn to Central African Republic because of its unknown complexities and absence in most mainstream media. Landlocked with 4.6 million people, it lies at the center of a bad neighborhood. Democratic Republic of Congo and the Congo are at its south; Cameroon is to the west; Chad and Sudan are to the north; and to the east is a long border with South Sudan, where, away from most front pages of global news outlets, a raging civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

It was March 2013 when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka swept into the riverside capital, Bangui, from the northeast. President François Bozizé fled as a vicious campaign of looting, torture and murder got underway. Séléka leader Michel Djotodia soon proclaimed himself the successor; he would later lose control of his ranks and an attempt that fall to disband them would do little to stop the atrocities.

At the same time, groups of militias called anti-balaka had begun to form and train and retaliate against Séléka. Their name in the local Sango language means “anti-machete”; their fighters are comprised of ex-soldiers, Christians and animists, who think magic will protect them. They’re adorned with amulets to ward off attacks and fight with hunting rifles, poison-tipped arrows and machetes.

Months of tit-for-tat attacks led to two days of street warfare that December, leaving hundreds dead in the capital and an international community scrambling to react. France swiftly approved a contingent of troops to restore order in its former colony; the soldiers were named “Sangaris,” after a butterfly in the region with a short life-span. Some 5,600 peacekeepers from the African Union deployed around that same time.

MORE: Bloodshed in Bangui: A Day That Will Define Central African Republic

But the intervention would do little at first to quell the violence. Some critics called the French operation too narrow for its focus on Séléka when anti-balaka shared blame. At the start of 2014, with the retreat of Séléka into the east and resignation of Djotodia, who would be succeeded by popular Bangui Mayor Catherine Samba-Panza, anti-balaka began to fill the void. Their retaliation in some cases would eclipse the brutality of what prompted them to assemble.

Reports of atrocities would soon build up, as experts and journalists warned of whole Muslim villages being looted and torched, with their residents being forced to seek refuge in churches, schools and medical clinics. Hundreds of thousands would flee into neighbors like Chad and Cameroon.

A recent United Nations report found that anti-balaka had carried out the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority. As many as 6,000 people had died in the conflict so far, but “such estimates fail to capture the full magnitude of the killings that occurred.” The commission couldn’t conclude that there was a genocide but made clear that both Séléka and anti-balaka were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

All year, Daniels aimed to unravel the tale of how a people who historically hadn’t seen violence along sectarian lines devolved into just that: Muslims and Christians, neighbors, turning on each other because they shared the holy beliefs of those who attacked them, looted and burned down their home, or killed members of their family.

The implosion of the conflict allowed him to dig deeper each time he returned. After covering the more newsworthy unrest in late 2013, he flew back several times last year to bear witness to the grim aftermath.

In February, he recorded the violent assault by anti-balaka on Muslim communities. In April, he documented the exodus out of the country and violence in Grimari, a small town near Bambari that lies at the entrance to Ouaka region. While on assignment then for Al Jazeera America, he captured the plight of refugees trapped in a Muslim enclave, and in September he got a peek inside Séléka.

Daniels admits that the balance of keeping to the news while going below the surface to probe the conflict’s tangled roots has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to shoot daily life in the street in this country,” he says during a call from Bangui in December. “It was difficult before and it’s much worse now because as soon as you show your camera, someone will get upset and someone will ask ‘what are you doing?’ and someone will ask for money. It’s a nightmare and very, very uncomfortable.”

BanguiA Christian man is destroying burn out cars in rage, next to a looted mosque that was set on fire earlier, in the capital Bangui.
A Christian man destroys burnt out cars in rage, next to a looted mosque that had been set ablaze. Bangui, Central African Republic. Dec. 10, 2013. William Daniels—Panos

Returning to Central African Republic as much as he did last year allowed him to gauge any progress.

The overall security situation in Bangui was less tense in December than early fall, with more shops and markets open for business and more people back at work, he says. “Each time I come back, it’s a bit more.” In the capital, for example, where in late 2013 he photographed a man filled with rage destroying a burnt out car next to a looted mosque, a basketball court now stands in its place.

“It’s becoming better in places like Bangui but that doesn’t mean it’s better everywhere,” he says. “And there’s still a potential in many places for a big explosion of violence.” A U.N. mission took over from the African Union force in September and France plans to withdraw 1,200 troops—”we allowed this country—one of the poorest in the world—to begin healing,” President François Hollande said—but bouts of inter-communal violence still flare up often.

Thirty percent of the country’s population is considered as being in “a moderate to severe food security situation,” the U.N. said on Jan. 13, and 440,000 people are still internally displaced. More jobs are needed, too, especially for youths. A recent report by Save the Children estimates that some 6,000 to 10,000 boys and girls were part of armed groups, well above the 2,500 thought to be involved at the start of the conflict. And elections, originally scheduled for February, have now been delayed to at least summer.

It’s that grim assurance of uncertainty and global neglect, in part, that will keep him going back. Support from grants and hefty stipends helps. In September, Daniels received the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. (Disclosure: This reporter helped shape his entry essay.) And in December, he was named the 2014 recipient of the Tim Hetherington Grant by World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch.

Daniels continues to see the challenge of documenting the personal impact of the country’s strife. It’s easy to get aggravated at the scenes witnessed, but it’s his recognition that it’ll take time, and patience, and a lot more aid, to turn things around that keeps him grounded and motivated. He may return as early as next month.

“It would be pretentious to say that my pictures could completely change the situation,” he says. “But I think it’s important to keep an eye on what’s happening here. I think it’s important to keep testifying.”

William Daniels is a Paris-based photographer represented by Panos Pictures.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

TIME portfolio

Beneath the Front Lines of the War in Eastern Ukraine

A brutal ground war is tearing apart the region's coal-mining community as the long winter settles in

The miners didn’t hear the impact of the shell and kept extracting coal from the earth more than half a mile below the battlefield. They continued their work for several minutes, oblivious to the danger they were suddenly facing.

The shell, said to have been fired on Nov. 22 by the Ukrainian army in its war against pro-Russian separatists, had struck a shed at the state-owned Chelyuskintsev coal mine in the Petrovskyi district, located on the western edge of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The resulting explosion damaged the electrical and ventilation systems that serve the mine’s deepest shaft. A phone call from the security supervisor at the surface brought troubling news to the deputy director, who was working down below with more than 50 miners: they had just two hours of oxygen left, and the nearest elevator was now unpowered.

French photographer Jerome Sessini happened to be photographing at the mine that day. “At the beginning, the miners were quite relaxed and some of them were joking with us because it was a bit weird to see a photographer at the bottom of the mine,” Sessini told TIME. “The miners changed—their attitudes changed—so I felt something very serious was happening.” The deputy director reassured him that all was well, saying “don’t worry, everything is okay, just walk and everything will be fine.” (He wouldn’t find out until more than an hour later the kind of threat they had faced.)

The men began to find their way up and out of the mine on foot, using their headlamps to light the way. Shadowed by Sessini, they walked for about 30 minutes until they reached a rusted cable car powered by a small rescue generator. The car took them along a railroad eight kilometers (five miles) away to an elevator that ran off a power source unaffected by the shelling. They were now 270 meters (885 feet) below ground level. The elevator hauled them to the top of the mine. An hour and 20 minutes after the shelling, the men reached daylight—safe from the threat underground but back into the war zone.

Since last spring, the Russia-backed separatists have fought government forces for control of the eastern region of the country, one of Ukraine’s main industrial hubs and its coal-mining heartland. At least 4,700 people have been killed in the fighting, the U.N. estimates, and more than half a million are internally displaced.

Based in Paris, Sessini has spent much of the past year covering the unrest and its civilian impact in Ukraine. From the pro-independence demonstrations in Kiev, which erupted after the country’s former president opted against signing an association deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, to the rise of the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk, he has intimately documented the country’s fracture into civil war.

In July, Sessini was among the first on the scene after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed by a missile, killing all 298 people aboard. That’s where he first came into contact with miners, when they were scanning the fields with firefighters, looking for victims. Aware that mining is the region’s backbone — some families have taken up the profession for generations — he was interested to go deeper and arranged with his translator to find an active mine that would let him in.

Ukraine’s country’s coal industry, Europe’s fourth largest, has been hit particularly hard by the conflict. Sixty-six of eastern Ukraine’s mines had been lost as of Nov. 18, according to Euracoal, a Brussels-based trade association, and just 60 remained in operation. The drop in production—Ukraine produced 2.3 million tons of coal in October, according to its State Statistics Service, down almost 60% compared to the same month a year earlier—has created a critical shortfall.

And it’s taken a toll on the thousands of families in eastern Ukraine that rely on the industry. The closures have halted paychecks for months and left many without work. Sessini described the miners as “a very proud people,” the “elites” of the community who are somehow keeping their humanity despite the war: “They try to show they are having a normal life but you can see in their faces a kind of anger and frustration and depression.”

Some families have fled the region in search of stability; others have moved underground into World War II–era bomb shelters. And while miners have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, desperation and resentment have pushed some into the arms of the separatists.

The Ukrainian government said in late December that it has arranged to import enough coal to avoid power outages in the coming months. The imports will help Ukrainians stay warm during what is sure to be a cruel winter, but until the two sides strike a peace deal, the suffering in eastern Ukraine will continue—above ground and below.

Jerome Sessini is a French photojournalist represented by Magnum Photos. Kira Pollack, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Director of Photography. Follow her on Twitter @kirapollack. Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 8

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The same features that make cities hubs for innovation may spur inequality. Smart policies can strike a balance.

By Richard Florida in CityLab

2. Solar power can provide hot meals for the masses.

By José Andrés in National Geographic’s The Plate

3. A simple way to make a huge difference in the lives of foster kids: college scholarships for youth ‘aging out’ of the system.

By Jennifer Guerra at National Public Radio

4. When we include women in post-conflict peacekeeping, they do a better job of managing resources to prevent future war.

By Priya Kamdar in New Security Beat

5. It’s time to build a more secure internet.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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