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12 Stories From Around The World That Show What Really Happened In 2016

From Mexico to Libya to Nigeria to the Philippines, it was a year of war and endurance, of tragedy and hope. BuzzFeed World was there.

Posted on December 29, 2016, at 12:10 p.m. ET

1. Broken Land, February 2016

Stringer / AFP / Getty Images

ABU GREIN, Libya — A howling wind filled the air with sand, enveloping the small desert outpost. Shivering from the January cold, a skinny, bedraggled man in mismatched desert camouflage fatigues, a scarf wrapped around his face, took a deep breath and stepped forward. He tightened his grip on his AK-47 as the car pulled up to the checkpoint. Without a helmet or bulletproof vest, he warily approached, asking for identification papers, searching for weapons and checking the trunk. This time there was nothing inside, save for some rope and a few empty burlap sacks, likely to be filled with wheat or barley for the drive back. He relaxed, and waited for the next car to arrive.

Just a few years ago, the land around this outpost, 180 miles southeast of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was a nature reserve where the deposed leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his entourage would come for retreats, hunting for wild game. The spacious villas that housed them are dotted around, now empty, looted for their gaudy fixtures and fittings. Inhabitants of a nearby village have mostly fled. Once a sleepy patch of desert, Abu Grein has now become the front line against the Libyan branch of ISIS, a gathering force now threatening to demolish what’s left of the country.

2. The Numbers Game, February 2016

Fede Yankelevich for BuzzFeed News

WASHINGTON — One day last year, a team of U.S. soldiers working in the military’s special operations drone program sat tucked away in a secret facility discussing the rapidly accelerating campaign against ISIS.

One of the operators was asked about collateral damage assessments in a war that is rooted in U.S.-led airstrikes and that is increasingly being fought in urban centers — cities still crowded with those who have not joined the millions who have fled places like Syria and Iraq. ISIS, meanwhile, has used that to its advantage, moving military assets into cities to hide them among the remaining civilians. How, a U.S. intelligence official asked, did they decide when there were too many civilians present to risk the strike?

“‘As long as it’s under 10,” a soldier said, “we’re good to take the shot.”

3. This Is What Life Is Like When Your Daughter Is Kidnapped By Boko Haram, May 2016

Afolabi Sotunde for BuzzFeed News

ABUJA, Nigeria — “One of our daughters may be returning to us.”

It was an otherwise ordinary spring evening in Abuja when the text message flashed up on Esther Yakubu’s phone, and suddenly she was filled with hope — and fear.

As she always did when she got a message like this, she ran through what it might mean: Could it be that, after two long years, she might finally hear her missing daughter’s voice again? Was Dorcas about to return to reclaim her place in the family as big sister to her five siblings? Would this bring an end to the sleepless nights spent imagining her daughter’s fate at the hands of a sect that has burned schoolchildren alive?

4. The Fruits of Their Labors, May 2016

Meghan Dhaliwal for BuzzFeed News

APATZINGÁN, Mexico — The thermometer hit 98°F as the women peeled and sliced hundreds of mangoes inside a nondescript factory in western Mexico on a recent Sunday. They dipped the wedges into a chili mix, leaving their gloved hands looking as though they were covered in blood, like something out of a bad horror film.

Shards of natural light and a few flies seeped in through the gaps between the corrugated metal roof. A sweet aroma filled the factory, empty save for a few tables and tray racks. For the next three hours, the women worked to make dried fruit, washing, cutting, and placing it. There were around 40 of them in all, ranging in age from their twenties to fifties, some rail thin, others bulging out of their cotton tops. A few were chatty and curious about visitors; others kept their heads down and avoided eye contact.

But they all had one thing in common: Their husbands and sons had been killed, had disappeared, or are on the run amid the violence that has engulfed the city of Apatzingán in Michoacán State. Barely any of its 123,000 inhabitants have escaped untouched by the drug wars. Some of the women are widows of cartel members; all have had their lives torn apart.

5. Trapped On Europe’s Doorstep, May 2016

Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP / Getty Images

Idomeni was a challenging environment, but until its last moments, it was ultimately a place people chose to stay — and not because refugees like squalor or indignity any more than the rest of us. The thing that kept people in Idomeni is the same thing that trapped them there: that chain-link fence with barbed-wire curls, the rest of Europe so tantalizingly close, just on the other side.

In early May, when I spent a week working and sleeping in Idomeni, I heard nearly a dozen rumors about the door: It will open on Monday. It will open on Wednesday. It will open at the end of the month. Angela Merkel is talking to the Turks. Angela Merkel is talking to Macedonia. Angela Merkel told the Serbs to open their border, so that when the Macedonians open the door, the people can get all the way through.

The door was closed before, people said over and over, and then they opened it again. Why not one more time? Why not now?

6. Nepal Doesn’t Want You To Know It’s On The Edge Of Failure, June 2016

BuzzFeed News

When I met the prime minister of Nepal five years ago, he was sitting on a white leather sofa in a top-floor suite at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. Baburam Bhattarai, a soft-spoken, mustachioed man, was the fourth prime minister in four years and, at heart, a stern ideologue, who frequently quoted Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, and Sun Tzu during our interview.

After we were done, he expressed his surprise that a Nepali journalist had come to interview him in New York. “Why don’t you come back home? The world ought to know about the good things happening in Nepal and we need young, energetic people like you.” The man was the architect of Nepal’s decade-long Maoist insurgency between 1996 and 2006, in which thousands of people — including journalists — were targeted, killed, and disappeared by both the rebels and the state. “I want to, but if I did the kind of reporting I am allowed to do in America, I would have my hands and legs broken,” I told him.

7. Meet North Korea’s Number One Fan In The United States, July 2016

Jessica Chou for BuzzFeed News

LOS ANGELES — The heart of Koreatown was still hot as night fell in early June. Inside a ballroom on the second floor of a three-star hotel, a white banner with Korean words revealed the night’s theme: “Discussion between fellow countrymen in the U.S. on peace and unification.” Ken Roh, 72, was wearing an old, dark-striped suit and a bright scarlet-colored tie, and stood greeting the three dozen people who drove from all over the city to see him, a veteran reporter who built his career defending one of the most secretive countries in the world: North Korea.

The audience sat straight up, focused, eager to hear about what Roh had seen and heard during a recent four-month-long trip to the country and its neighboring areas in China — his 69th visit to the country officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

8. Inside The World Of ISIS Investigations In Europe, August 2016

Clay Rodery for BuzzFeed News

ISIS militants threaten Europe with a wave of violence not seen since the heyday of 1970s political terrorism, and it appears to have the potential to be far more deadly. Previous terror campaigns led by Ireland’s IRA, Spain’s ETA, and Italy’s Red Brigades tended to have national aspirations and couldn’t exploit total freedom of movement between European countries. Those groups also had political considerations and patrons that forced them to calibrate their violence.

As the spring and summer of 2016 progressed with attacks and arrests across Europe — at one point in France, Belgium, and Germany, almost weekly — I met with investigators as they struggled to make sense of the new phenomenon, shuttling between crimes that had already happened and struggling to prevent new attacks.

This is what terrorism investigations in Europe look like today.

9. Why Transgender People In Japan Prefer To Be Told They Have A “Disorder”, August 2016

Kate Ferro / BuzzFeed News

OSAKA, Japan — When the principal at a middle school in Osaka, a few hours west of Tokyo, insisted one of his new students do gym classes with the boys, the child’s mother turned to the only person who could help: Dr. Jun Koh.

It was the spring of 2014, and the student was entering junior high at her new school. The problem posed by the gym classes was just the latest in a series of transitions she had been forced to navigate as she grappled with her identity — and it wasn’t the first time her mother had called on Koh for help.

Back in first grade, when the Osaka student began insisting on wearing skirts, Koh was able to reassure her mother that there was nothing wrong with a boy wearing girls’ clothes. Later, in the fifth grade, the student wrote a will after the teasing she faced in the boys’ locker room left her contemplating suicide. So they turned to Koh again, and he helped get the school comfortable with the idea of the student living as a girl full-time. Koh was even the one to explain to the parents of her classmates why she’d be sleeping in the girls’ room on the sixth-grade class trip.

10. Inside the Real US Ground War On ISIS, August 2016

Warzer Jeff for BuzzFeed News

Obama came to office promising to get the US out of old wars, not into new ones — and to stop the loss of US lives in Iraq. White House officials have often downplayed the role of US soldiers in and close to combat against ISIS, keeping the narrative of US involvement focused on the drones and fighters jets that operate out of range of ISIS’s assault rifles, mortars, and suicide car bombs. But while this new US war, in contrast with the last one, leaves the bulk of combat operations to local forces, for US soldiers, it carries its own set of sacrifices and risks.

11. Meet Fancy Bear, The Russian Group Hacking The US Election, October 2016

BuzzFeed News; Getty

The group behind the hacks is known as Fancy Bear, or APT 28, or Tsar Team, or a dozen other names that have been given to them over the years by cybersecurity researchers. Despite being one of the most reported-on groups of hackers active on the internet today, there is very little researchers can say with absolute certainty. No one knows, for instance, how many hackers are working regularly within Fancy Bear, or how they organize their hacking squads. They don’t know if they are based in one city or scattered in various locations across Russia. They don’t even know what they call themselves.

The group is, according to a White House statement last week, receiving their orders from the highest echelons of the Russian government and their actions “are intended to interfere with the US election process.” For the cybersecurity companies and academic researchers who have followed Fancy Bear’s activities online for years, the hacking and subsequent leaking of Clinton’s emails, as well as those of the DNC and DCCC, were the most recent — and most ambitious — in a long series of cyber-espionage and disinformation campaigns. From its earliest-known activities, in the country of Georgia in 2009, to the hacking of the DNC and Clinton in 2016, Fancy Bear has quickly gained a reputation for its high-profile, political targets.

12. How US Dollars Are Helping The Philippines’ Bloody Drug War, November 2016

Erik De Castro / Reuters

MANILA — Dalisay dela Cruz was drifting off to sleep when she heard the shouts of police.

From her tiny concrete home in a Manila slum, the slight 75-year-old grandmother heard officers bang on each of her neighbors’ doors, ordering them to report immediately to the nearby government office. Staying silent, she peered through a small hole in the wooden barrier that separates her one-room home from that of her grandson.

She heard the police tromp inside his house.

She heard her grandson call out — a strangled cry for mercy.

Then she heard four gunshots, and finally, silence.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.