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The Lord of the Skies, Afghanistan’s Instagram influencers, ‘Blob Girl Summer’: Here are 15 of our most-read stories of 2021

Ayeda Shadab, a social media influencer in Afghanistan; Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies; Austin Smith, a lawyer who had spent years helping student loan borrowers cancel debt; Taliban fighters in 1996; an aerial view of the Astroworld venue; the Birth of Venus.

Roya Heydari; Reuters; Alan Chin; Alan Chin

  • One of our most-read stories of 2021 delved into the mysterious death of Mexico’s “Lord of the Skies” drug lord. 
  • Readers also loved our story about Afghan influencers, and a photographer’s look back at 9/11 and the wars that came after. 
  • Insider’s Global News Correspondents produce journalism from all over the world.  

Hanging out with Afghanistan’s fearless Instagram influencers. An investigation into the unbelievable death of Mexico’s “Lord of the Skies” drug lord. The lawyer who took on student debt, and the medics who rushed into lethal crowds at Astroworld. Naming that particular feeling that was “Blob Girl Summer.” 

These were some of the most-read stories of 2021 from Insider’s Global News Correspondents, a team of freelance journalists who report from all over the world. 

Happy holidays and happy reading! 

15. I’m a photographer who covered 9/11 and its aftermath. Here are the most gripping photos I took, and the stories behind them

xxSept. 11, 2001. After the collapse of the South Tower, a man tried to make a phone call inside a building on Vesey Street.

Alan Chin

Two decade ago, photographer Alan Chin was awakened by a call from his brother, telling him that that plans had struck the World Trade Center. “Twenty years is a long time, long enough to forget what the texture of daily life was like,” Chin writes. “I think back to that September day in New York, and the six months that came after — when I traveled to Afghanistan, to witness the early months of the war, and then to Cuba, to see the Guantánamo Bay prison. I had a cellphone, but not a digital camera. My internet was dial-up and I was driving a 1987 Mazda. My parents were alive and well.”

14. Naomi Wolf’s slide from feminist, Democratic Party icon to the ‘conspiracist whirlpool’

At rallies for her ‘Five Freedoms’ campaign, Naomi Wolf – the best-selling author and one-time Democratic Party insider – has railed against vaccine passports, mandatory masks, and emergency laws. The academic scandal over her latest book Outrages: Sex, Censorship & The Criminalization of Love undermined her literary reputation, while raising serious questions about publishing ethics. “Many old friends and admirers of Naomi Wolf are horrified,” writes Ian Burrell. “The great figurehead of 1990s “third wave” feminism, who bestrode the highest pinnacles of literature and politics to become an inspiration to a generation of young women, has morphed into something other than the Naomi they thought they knew.” 

13.  The young lawyer who became the ‘Don Quixote’ of canceling student debt

210415 00401Austin Smith

Alan Chin for Insider.

“When Lesley Campbell sued Citibank in March 2015 to get a portion of her law school debt forgiven in bankruptcy, everyone told her she was wasting her time. Conventional wisdom held that student debt is impossible to get rid of, even in bankruptcy. Then, she got a text from an unknown number advising her that there was a legal way to discharge her debt – along with an offer to help do just that. Campbell thought it was a joke,” writes investigative journalist Cezary Podkul. It was Austin Smith, a lawyer who had spent years helping student loan borrowers cancel debt by arguing that courts had systematically misinterpreted the federal bankruptcy code in lenders’ favor.

12. Apocalyptic scenes in eastern Congo as a volcanic eruption triggers earthquakes and fears of Lake Kivu methane explosions

“It was around 4pm on May 22 when Dr. Gédéon Batibonda Batubu noticed a frenetic scene outside of his medical clinic in Goma, the provincial capital in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He looked out to see villagers from the foothills of Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanoes just outside the city, carrying mattresses on their heads and large sacks with their belongings, children in tow. There was a forest fire, they said, and it was getting closer. An hour later, the fiery glow had appeared in the sky and the foot-traffic, along with packed motos and cars, had picked up. Explosions could be seen in the distance,” writes Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi. Thus begins a weeks-long nightmare, as millions of people fled their homes and sought safety from a collision of natural disasters. 

11. ‘There’s no getting out of here’: Astroworld medics say they were trapped in crowds and unable to radio for help as Travis Scott fans were suffocating

An empty outdoor arena is seen from above.Astroworld fans were divided into quadrants. The southern quadrant (bottom center) was where most of the deaths occurred, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Nathan Frandino/Reuters

Weeks after chaos at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival left ten people dead from compression asphyxia, Chris Francescani sat down with senior medics from Paradocs, the festival medicine team that was on the ground that night. They described in detail, for the first time, how their communications were cut off and how they rushed into packed, lethal crowds and frantic fans pointed them toward people in distress. “Honestly, looking back on it now? People call us heroes but I just feel like we were idiots,” senior medic Zach Chan told Francescani. “Once I was in the crowd, alone, I just thought to myself, ‘I fucked up. There’s no getting out of here.'” 

10. Get ready for Blob Girl Summer

By April of 2021, millions of people had recieved COVID-19 vaccine shots. In New York, the promise of “Hot Vax Summer” was everywhere. But Tal Lavin was thinking about something else, which she termed “Blob Girl Summer.” 

“As the petals drop to the pavement and shots slip into arms, we’re rolling inexorably toward Hot Vaxxed Girl Summer,” she wrote. “We, the immunized, survivors of the plague, are supposed to emerge from our Covid quarantines without hesitancy. The problem with this is that I was never Hot in the first place and this Summer is no different. It’s still just me, blinking hesitantly and shaking a little, sweating under my shapeless clothes and knowing that there are still people dying at war with their own lungs.”

“The truth is I am a Blob Girl. I am part of a vast middle sector of womanhood who are pretty bad at Being Women in the way that involves an arsenal of products and a wealth of knowledge to address every detail of our femininity with attention and care and perform it with the practiced grace of dancers. My je ne sais quoi is a literal translation: I don’t know what it would take to have such a quality.”

(Lavin is also the author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. You can read an excerpt from the book here.) 

9. COVID allowed Raquel Esquivel and 4,500 others to be released from overcrowded federal prisons. So why is she back behind bars?

A woman hugging a man from behind as they both smile at the camera.Raquel Esquivel and Ricky Gonzalez.

Ricky Gonzalez/Raquel Esquivel family photo

“As Covid cases spread through prisons across the country, Raquel Esquivel was told she was eligible for a transfer to home confinement, which would allow her to serve her sentence at home while she was being rigorously monitored. Under a directive set by the CARES Act, the Bureau of Prisons had screened its population of more than 150,000 prisoners for those with a high vulnerability to the coronavirus, who posed a low risk to public safety, and had a record of good conduct; 4,500 prisoners had been approved for home confinement. For the next year, Esquivel and the others would wear GPS ankle monitors and be strictly supervised by probation officers or halfway house personnel. It wasn’t clear what would happen afterwards.

Esquivel was 37 years old and had about two years left on her 15-year sentence.”

Now, she’s back behind bars – even though, by many accounts, she seemingly did everything right – held down a job, bonded with her kids. She met a man, got engaged, and soon they were expecting a child.

Jamie Roth reconstructs those months in Esquivel’s life and asks the question: Do These 4,000 Federal Inmates Belong Behind Bars? 

8. Meet Afghanistan’s fearless Gen Z influencers

Ayeda Shadab twirlAyeda Shadab during a photo shoot from a lookout point in Herat, Afghanistan.

Roya Heydari for Insider

Ayeda Shadab, a social media influencer in Afghanistan, spent much of 2021 documenting her every move, “excited to find fresh content for her 230,000-plus Instagram followers and her nearly 390,000 followers on TikTok.” Afghan journalist Ali Latifi accompanied her across the country, and then back to her boutique in the capital, which had become an informal headquarters for Kabul’s set of “young and fabulous.”  (Most of them, including Shadab, left Afghanistan once the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021.)

“Our intention is to show people the possibilities, that they can live life as they want,” she told Latifi. “There is always fear in your heart, that’s just part of living in Afghanistan. But we have to stand up and live our lives.” 

7. Photos: I was in Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban first took power

Two men are seen in a car, and the one in back looks out the window as he clasps a gun.Kabul, Afghanistan: October 19, 1996. Taliban police or soldiers of a mobile unit patrol near the Darulaman Palace.

Alan Chin

“In the autumn of 1996, I received an assignment from The New York Times to go to Afghanistan to cover how a little-known (in the West, anyway) fundamentalist group called the Taliban had taken Kabul, the Afghan capital.” Thus begins Alan Chin’s remarkable photo essay, in which he dusts off his photographs, 25 years later, and considers how little has been gained. 

6. There are more ways to cancel your student debt than you might think

In 2021, lawmakers gave some relief to student loan borrowers: due to Covid-19, the federal government – which owns the vast majority of the $1.7 trillion of student debt outstanding – put in place emergency relief measures for student loan borrowers. It temporarily suspended payments, stopped collections on defaulted loans, and cut interest rates down to zero.

President Biden has extended the pause to May, but Democrats’ push for a long-term fix, including debt forgiveness, as thus far failed. Here investigative journalist Cezary Podkul walks readers through the available options. 

5. Photos: Riding aboard the Navy’s new littoral combat ship

The rear of a navy ship as seen out in the waterRear view of the USS Kansas City.

Ted Soqui for Insider

Photographer Ted Soqui went on board the Kansas City LCS 22, an Independence-Class Littoral combat ship, in San Diego. With its modular design and a price tag at around $500 million, it’s meant to be a nimble ship that can move both close to the shoreline and out at sea. It’s also controversial, with critics calling out its troubled history and saying it breaks down too easily.

4. How viral memes did the Taliban’s work of helping them rebrand. Here are your options

“You’ve seen them on Twitter: the videos of Taliban fighters struggling to understand how gym equipment works, enjoying a pirate ship amusement park ride, and driving dodgems and riding carousel horses,” writes Chris Stokel-Walker. “Many of the videos have gained millions of views and thousands of shares—a testament to the oddity of seeing members of a proscribed terrorist group that have taken control of a country of 38 million people in a matter of weeks acting like buffoons.”

In the days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, meme-makers on social media seemed to delight in images of the mysterious fighters navigating the modern world and their newfound hold on power. But their work was helped along the group’s “Taliban 2.0” whitewashing and distract from their human rights abuses. 

3. Made Men: A photo tour of the most notorious sites of New York Mafia history – and what they look like now

xxSkyway Park, which is being constructed at what was formerly the PJP Landfill Superfund site, in February 2021.

Andrew Lichtenstein for Insider

From Sparks Steak House, to the landfill where bodies were known to be dumped, the streets of New York are steeped in mob history. Photographer Andrew Lichtenstein visited some of the most notorious New York Mafia sites to see how they have survived the passage of time.

2. Airlines and regulators turn to eye-poking flight attendants and eye-popping fines amid sharp rise in unruly passenger incidents

“In undisclosed locations near airports around the country this month, flight attendants are receiving training in aggressive self defense moves that are specially designed for close-quarters,” writes Gabrielle Paluch. “Flight attendants learn the double-ear slap, the eye-poke, and the groin-kick. They learn tricks to swiftly disarm passengers with sharp weapons, and how to use items readily available aboard a plane for defense. The moves are designed to de-escalate and quickly subdue passengers because, in the words of former trainer Scott Armstrong, “you don’t want to get into a long, drawn-out fight.” This is, as they say, not a drill.”

1. The curious afterlife of the Lord of the Skies

A mugshot of an unsmiling man with a beard.An undated photo of Amado Carrillo Fuentes.

Reuters

“The departed smiled up at the ceiling, his lips pulled back to reveal a row of bright white teeth. The skin on the man’s hideously distended hands shone a sickening gray-green color of rot, and his long, puffy face was heavily bruised, with deep, dark circles ringing his eyes and nostrils. Mottled patches of discoloration spread up his high forehead and across his cheeks. Under the harsh glare and buzz of fluorescent lights, the body of one of Mexico’s most powerful men lay in state, nestled within the plush white confines of a metal casket. The body was clad in a dark suit and a blue-and-red polka dot tie, his deformed hands deliberately forced together at his waist to mimic a state of repose, a hideous parody of an open-casket funeral.”

“In the place of mourners, photojournalists pressed up to the edge of the casket, inches away from a man who just days before could have, with a wave of his hand, ordered unspeakable violence against anyone insane enough to have treated him with such disrespect. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies, the boss of Ciudad Juárez, and arguably the most powerful criminal kingpin in the nation’s history was dead and his rotting corpse was displayed for all to see.”

Thus begins Noah Hurowitz’s investigation into Amado’s unbelievable death and the conspiracy theories that have lingered ever since. (Hurowitz is also the author of author of El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord. You can read an excerpt from the book here.) 

Insider’s Global News Correspondents team is accepting pitches for investigations, profiles, enterprise features, and photo essays. Please address pitches to its editor, Edith Honan, at [email protected], and include “Pitch” in the subject line. Thank you!

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