My Favorite Story This Year

FP’s reporters, writers, and editors share some of the most important, personal, and challenging stories they worked on in 2016.

Over the course of this extraordinary year, Foreign Policy published more than 5,000 articles and blog posts – from powerful dispatches to prescient essays to, well, things that just made us laugh. We asked FP staff to flag an article or two that they wrote or edited that particularly moved them or illuminated something of lasting value the past year.

Want to get a rise out of readers? Threaten the future of Game of Thrones. – David Francis, senior reporter

Making a little difference – Ty McCormick, Africa editor

Predicting the future in Turkey – David Kenner, Middle East editor

A personal essay from China’s most famous “lost daughter” – David Wertime, senior editor, Tea Leaf Nation

On the frontlines of the information war  – Elias Groll, staff writer

Things are bad everywhere. – James Palmer, Asia editor

The East European kids are all right. – Emily Tamkin, staff writer

We don’t want you anymore. – Alicia Wittmeyer, Europe editor

When Washington’s power brokers fall from grace – John Hudson, senior reporter

The weight of the world on a young naval officer’s shoulders – Dan De Luce, senior staff writer

Defusing a ticking time bomb in Kinshasa – Robbie Gramer, staff writer

The nightmare and the American dream – Molly O’Toole, senior reporter

Want to get a rise out of readers? Threaten the future of Game of Thrones.

By David Francis, senior reporter

That’s what we did on June 21, just two days before the Brexit vote. During its six-season run, the HBO production received a very small stipend from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund. If British voters decided to leave Europe, it would take Northern Ireland with it. And Game of Thrones films, in part, in Northern Ireland, so the show would no longer be eligible for the EU stipend.

Britons voted to leave the EU anyway (even if it hasn’t happened yet, and it might never occur), but Game of Thrones illustrated a larger point: British film and television projects were given $32 million over the past seven years from organizations like Creative Europe, which grants money for media and cultural projects. If London ever leaves Europe, that money goes with it.

HBO refused to comment on my piece prior to publication. After it went live, and as it was picked up across a panicked internet, the channel eventually put out a statement, reassuring fans that the Brexit would not impact the future of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen (R + L = J!). But it was a fun exercise to illustrate that Britain will lose cultural benefits if it ever decides to part ways with Brussels.

Read the original article: Brexit Could Be Bad News for Game of Thrones RETURN TO LIST.

Making a little difference.

By Ty McCormick, Africa editor

For years, the Kenyan government has threatened to shutter Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, which sits along the desolate frontier with Somalia. This year, it followed up that threat with action, repatriating as many as 1,000 Somalis every day with the help of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). Both the Kenyan government and UNHCR claimed that the initiative was strictly voluntary, but from the beginning there were worrying signs that it wasn’t.

I set out to investigate the repatriation program from both sides of the border – interviewing refugees in Dadaab, many of whom told me they did not wish to return, and returnees in Somalia, nearly all of whom said they felt forced to leave Kenya. It took months to organize both trips, which required various levels of authorization and extensive security arrangements, but I like to think that FP’s two-part series left little doubt about the illegality of the U.N.-facilitated repatriation program.

It also made a small difference for one of the families I wrote about. Nafiso Mohamed Noor was repatriated to Somalia in 2015, only to be struck by a mortar shell fired by al-Shabab militants. She fled back to Kenya a second time but discovered that she was no longer eligible for humanitarian assistance, having given up her status as a refugee. When I met Noor in Dadaab, she was living with her disabled husband and nine children in a single, flimsy hut made of thorn brush and plastic tarps. She had no money for food and was surviving on handouts from extended family. Leaving after the interview, I felt awful knowing that my article was unlikely to make any difference for her. But a few weeks after it was published, I got an unexpected email from my translator. He said Noor’s case had been reviewed and that her family was now eligible for food assistance once again.

“Nafiso called me to say thanks to you for making the world to know her plight…. At least you changed [the] life of someone positively,” he wrote. It was a small victory, but one that will stick with me forever.

Read the original articles: The World’s Largest Refugee Camp Is Invited to Please Shut DownThe U.N. Is Sending Thousands of Refugees Back Into a War Zone RETURN TO LIST.

Predicting the future in Turkey.

By David Kenner, Middle East editor

Getting the interview with Selahattin Demirtas in which he correctly predicted that he’d soon be arrested was the easy part. The difficult task was finding someone to translate my conversation with the co-leader of Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party. The first two translators I asked politely declined — his office was well-known in Ankara, they told me, and they worried about repercussions for their jobs if they were seen entering it.

I have been traveling to Turkey for over a decade now, and the tensions between its Kurdish minority and the state during my visit to the capital and the southeast were worse than I’ve ever seen them. It wasn’t just Demirtas admitting despairingly that “everything is getting worse than before.” In the city of Diyarbakir, I spoke with members of a pro-Kurdish teachers union that had over 10,000 of its educators removed from schools, and the head of an NGO dedicated to helping people displaced by the fighting between security forces and Kurdish insurgents that had its bank accounts closed by the powers that be.

The change isn’t only on the government’s side. Demirtas once criticized one of his MPs for attending a funeral for a slain Kurdish militant — now he justifies it as something all legislators do, including those of other parties. A friend in Diyarbakir who implored an angry young Kurdish boy not to resort to violence when I saw her last year, saying it was precisely what the government wanted, now dreams of leaving her city and building a life outside Turkey.

When I next travel to Turkey, I’ll listen closely to people’s predictions of what will come in the days ahead — but I am afraid of what they will tell me.

Read the original article: Turkey’s ‘Kurdish Obama’ Is Now in Jail RETURN TO LIST.

A personal essay from China’s most famous “lost daughter.”

By David Wertime, senior editor, Tea Leaf Nation

In the summer of 2012, a Yale junior from Massachusetts named Jenna Cook traveled to the Chinese industrial city of Wuhan in search of her birth mother, where she handed out fliers seeking the family that had once abandoned a baby girl on a certain Wuhan street, on a certain month, 20 years earlier. In an illustration of the astonishing scale of child abandonment in China, dozens of families came forward saying Jenna must be theirs; within weeks, she was featured in press across the country. Her story registered deeply with the countless Chinese who had been (or knew someone who had been) “lost” under the weight of poverty, China’s draconian one-child policy, or both. But Jenna herself had never offered a definitive, public account of her story, until her March 30 essay for Foreign Policy.

I got to know Jenna in the winter of 2012, when I visited Yale’s campus to chat with writers for my journalism start-up, Tea Leaf Nation. I had been gently reminding Jenna ever since that should she choose to write about her search, Tea Leaf Nation would make a great home. Years later, following TLN’s acquisition by FP, she finally agreed.

Jenna’s piece, published in English and Chinese, represents my favorite type of journalism: one that hands the pen to someone about whom much has been written, but who has, by dint of choice or circumstance, not yet spoken for herself. It also marked the inaugural Chinese-language article in FP’s nearly 46 years of history, the first of several published in 2016. The result of years of research and reflection, Jenna’s article is elegantly and carefully written, seamlessly weaving her personal narrative with the larger story of a nation’s buried pain. The article resonated deeply and broadly, enjoying wide readership in both languages.

Jenna hasn’t located her birth family, but she found something else of immense value. In her essay’s perhaps most moving scene, she describes encountering one of the many families that came forward. They told her what a beautiful baby she had been; she told them she’d never forgotten them. In that moment, it didn’t matter that they all knew they “did not share the same blood” — they harbored the same primal desire to be held, loved, recognized, and remembered. In that simple image of embrace, and in the wide impact that Jenna’s article has had across political and cultural lines, we glimpse our common humanity.

Read the original article in English: A ‘Lost’ Daughter Speaks, and All of China Listens

Read the original article in Chinese: A ‘Lost’ Daughter Speaks, and All of China Listens RETURN TO LIST.

On the frontlines of the information war.

By Elias Groll, staff writer

Throughout 2016, Russian hackers attacked American political organizations and dumped online their private correspondence and internal documents for all the world to see. American intelligence officials believe that campaign aimed to benefit President-elect Donald Trump, and they warned reporters covering the story that documents published by Russian groups may have been altered to smear the Kremlin’s opponents.

These warnings spooked reporters such as myself covering the story. I didn’t know what material to trust, and the possibility of tampering cast a haze of doubt over each document dump. How, after all, was I supposed to tell what documents had been tampered with?

Then the Russians slipped up and made a silly, revealing mistake. Two groups operating on behalf of the Kremlin — CyberBerkut and DC Leaks — published the same batch of documents, one of which had been altered to attack the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. After months of vague warnings about tampering, Moscow had been caught red-handed, and their mistake was documented for the first time by FP.

As a reporter, I frequently felt frustrated covering Russia’s information operation against the United States. Each actor in the story shrouded his identity and his interests. Russian hackers used front groups and cut-outs, and the American intelligence community stayed nearly silent throughout. This shadow war between Moscow and Washington left reporters caught in the middle, forced to cover a story with serious geopolitical implications but always with a highly limited set of facts – the veracity of which were constantly under question – at hand.

But for a brief moment in August the tactics in this spy war were laid bare for all to see.

Read the original article: Turns Out You Can’t Trust Hackers Anymore RETURN TO LIST.

Things are bad everywhere.

By James Palmer, Asia editor

My favorite stories are the ones that reverberate in ways you don’t expect and catch people far from your intended audience. Just before I joined FP this fall, I wrote a piece for the British magazine Aeon about the Chinese habit of half-assing work, whether it’s nailing curtain rods in properly or checking vaccination safety. Appropriately enough, it matched one of my favorite personal criteria for an article; I could do virtually all the work within a 30-minute walk from my house. There are writers who thrive upon hardship and will brave virtually any danger for a story; I applaud them, from a very great distance.

I was pleasantly surprised, though, when the piece caught fire in India and my Twitter comments were suddenly full of “jugaad” and “chalta hai” — national equivalents to the Chinese “chabuduo.” It wasn’t the only place that the combination of jerry-rigging and indifference was familiar — I learned phrases from the Nigerian “manage manage,” the Filipino “pwede na,” and the Kiwi “she’ll be right,” while Italian friends wrote that I had clearly been describing Naples or Rome — but it was India where it resonated most. Partially that was because India’s trapped modernity shares some of the same roots as China’s, but I suspect that it was also because, given the envious worry of China’s size and growth that often pervades the Indian media, it was reassuring for many Indians to realize that everyday Chinese life could be just as shoddy as theirs.

Read the original article: Chabuduo! Close enough … RETURN TO LIST.

The East European kids are all right.

By Emily Tamkin, staff writer

In the days following the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, I reached out to several young liberals of the former Eastern bloc to get their take. In the course of writing this and talking to students and self-styled intellectuals from a handful of countries I was reminded that, even when the world ends, the world does not end.

But it does change. I came back to this little piece in the weeks that followed, as I wrote about attempted media crackdowns in the Czech Republic and a takeover of the constitutional tribunal by the ruling party in Poland. And I thought of the people to whom I spoke for this piece on young liberals, what they said they and their parents had lived through, and of what they’re still living through. All of which is to say that we don’t know how history ends. We’re just all living through it, everywhere, all the time.

Read the original article: Young Liberals of the Former Eastern Bloc on Trump: ‘We’ve Been There, Done That’ RETURN TO LIST.

We don’t want you anymore.

By Alicia Wittmeyer, Europe editor

Denis MacShane, the former U.K. minister for Europe (and FP contributor!), used to have a handy go-to phrase that, on various occasions, he would trot out to explain how British politicians could manage, so often, to botch so badly the European politics of any given issue or situation. “They read our papers,” he’d say. “And we don’t read theirs.” I’ve thought about this often in the weeks since June 23, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Living in London, as I do, I’m surrounded by a remarkable number of people who admit that they remain somewhat in denial about the whole thing and believe that some scenario will arise to stop it. These same people watch the ongoing confusion on the part of the government and think that before the whole thing is finalized, things will surely get so bad that there will be a second referendum, and the British people will come to their senses. Most realize that this is a long shot.

What few people I encounter in my daily life seem to be thinking about is how little anyone in Europe wants the U.K. back. Britain’s obsession with the Europe question was an irritation before the Brexit vote, but Brussels was willing to tolerate it for the sake of union. Since the vote, British politics have become deeply problematic. The idea that Europe would tolerate a scenario in which Britain didn’t leave, at a time when the last thing it needs is another distraction, seems completely untenable — perhaps even delusional, along the lines of assuming bargaining leverage based on the size of your prosecco market.

And so here’s a piece we did, which wasn’t necessarily the best-trafficked in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, but whose implications I think remain poorly understood, and which will be important going into 2017: an author from the Netherlands proclaiming “Good Riddance to Great Britain.

Read the original article: Good Riddance to Great Britain RETURN TO LIST.

When Washington’s power brokers fall from grace.

By John Hudson, senior reporter

The ability of our democratic system to transform itself overnight dawned on me again last Thursday as I passed Patrick Kennedy wearing a bland sweater vest in the cafeteria of the State Department. In July, I profiled the 67-year-old government boss at the height of his powers as under secretary of management and resources. Despite his unglamorous title, Kennedy is widely viewed as the most powerful bureaucrat at the State Department given his force of personality and vast authorities over the budget, diplomatic security, email communications, consular affairs, human resources, and an array of other functions. “He knows where all the bodies are buried,” his friends and foes say with about equal frequency.

Kennedy’s hold on power seemed assured in July despite his role overseeing diplomatic security during the 2012 attacks in Benghazi and the IT department during “Emailgate” — the four-year period when Hillary Clinton used a private email server for official business. Though other bureaucrats would’ve been thrown under the bus long ago, insiders assumed that Kennedy’s role defending Clinton during the crucible of the 2016 campaign would be rewarded after she became the first female president of the United States.

Then Donald Trump happened. And with his ascendancy and the rise of other Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pompeo who continue to blame Kennedy for Benghazi, he’s not expected to be reappointed to his job, or any other senior position in the federal government.

So watching Kennedy casually eating lunch last week amid the rank-and-file diplomats served as a reminder that the fortunes of the powerful can change in an instant. And even a man whose mastery of the bureaucracy was compared to Stalin’s can fade on the whims of the electorate.

Read the original article: The Bureaucrat at the Center of Hillary’s Scandals RETURN TO LIST.

The weight of the world on a young naval officer’s shoulders.

By Dan De Luce, senior staff writer

I had to wait nearly two months before I could write a story about the capture of 10 U.S. Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf, and then an additional six months for a second article about the incident. There were some excruciating moments when I would hear official versions about the event while sitting on information that told a more nuanced account. I had to hold off because our sources, including the sailor at the center of the incident, were not yet ready to go public with their information.

My understanding of the whole incident shifted the more I learned about what transpired on Jan. 12 in the Persian Gulf. It was not just about sailors getting lost at sea, or their commanders sending them on an ill-advised mission without providing them adequate support. The Jan. 12 confrontation between the two U.S. riverine boats and Iranian forces near Farsi Island had all the ingredients for a potential international crisis. And the fate of two countries hinged on the split-second decisions of a 27-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant, David Nartker.

If he had pulled the trigger on the mounted gun on his boat, or ordered his crew to open fire on the Iranian boats just feet away, he could have sparked a shooting war with the Islamic Republic. Had he survived, he could have faced a court-martial for possibly violating the laws of war and his military’s rules of engagement.

I was struck by the high-stakes dilemma facing Nartker, and the certitude he felt afterward about his decision to talk instead of shoot his way out of the standoff — even though it meant that he ended up facing a reprimand and the end of his career in uniform.

Read the original articles: Inside the U.S. Navy’s Iran FiascoPunished U.S. Navy Officer Believes He Prevented a War With Iran RETURN TO LIST.

Defusing a ticking time bomb in Kinshasa.

By Robbie Gramer, staff writer

The world got a rare gift on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s current political crisis: advance notice. On Dec. 19, President Joseph Kabila’s term expired. According to the constitution, he had to leave office that day. But he didn’t. This came as no surprise to those few in Washington who were paying attention.

I sat in on a congressional hearing where human rights experts and Congolese activists gave compelling, and at times heartbreaking, accounts of the DRC’s looming crisis to a crowded audience and nearly empty panel; only one member of Congress, Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), attended. Then I sat down for a closed-door meeting with one of the DRC’s most prominent and charismatic opposition leaders, Moise Katumbi. It was a sobering day — the DRC draws so little attention compared with other crises around the world, even though the stakes are so high. Because what happens in the DRC rarely stays in the DRC; it was the epicenter of a conflict known as “Africa’s World War” from 1997 to 2003 that killed up to 5 million, according to some estimates. Protests have been bloody, albeit relatively muted, as the country waits with bated breath on negotiations between Kabila and opposition leaders. But activists in Kinshasa and experts I’ve talked to since say things could get much, much worse if no deal is struck soon.

Read the original article: Defusing a Ticking Time Bomb in Kinshasa RETURN TO LIST.

The nightmare and the American dream.

By Molly O’Toole, senior reporter

Covering foreign policy in a presidential campaign largely devoid of actual policy took me from snowy New Hampshire to summer storms in Philadelphia, from fall football in Georgia to very nearly a jail cell in Las Vegas. Many have said covering the 2016 presidential election was the story of a lifetime, and in mine I won’t easily shake the unsettling sense of latent violence at the Republican convention in Ohio, or the mute grief at the all-night funeral Hillary Clinton’s watch party became on Election Day.

But of the hundreds of voters I spoke to about America’s role in the world, amid a climate of fear and anxiety, the most powerful stories were those of the immigrants and refugees who risked everything to call themselves Americans. In Virginia ahead of Super Tuesday, I spoke with a young Iraqi woman who fled after she received death threats for working as an interpreter for the U.S. military. “Nobody is going to ban me from my country,” she told me. Despite promises from the country she served even before it was her own, her family remained trapped in Iraq. Meanwhile, visa programs for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters — perpetually held hostage by national security politics — are all but doomed under a Trump administration and the new Congress.

Immigration was front and center in this campaign. But a chance encounter just a couple of weeks ago put it all in perspective. In a shelter near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, I met an orphan from Honduras who pulled off his dusty sandals to show me his feet, which were missing most of his toes. He had already once realized his goal of making it to the United States — when he was airlifted to a hospital in Houston after he was electrocuted picking avocados to earn money for the journey north. He survived, and was told he’d been adopted by an American family only to be deported back to Honduras. He thought showing me his scars might help him find another family. No wall can keep out the American dream.

Read the original article: In Virginia, Muslim Voters Greet Trump’s Rise With Anger and Defiance RETURN TO LIST.

Top photo credit: TOBIN JONES/AFP/Getty Images

FP Staff