A few years ago I went to the Maldives and it first dawned on me that there was one world above sea level and another below. It is beautiful beneath the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean: there are countless corals and colourful plants, moray eels peek out of caves, and flocks of eager clownfish play among the air bubbles. From time to time a shark passes by. Above the water surface there are almost 1,200 islands, mostly rising just one or two meters out of the sea. The Maldives count as the flattest country in the world. And they could soon be lost to the sea, at least partly: like many other island states, they are imperilled by rising sea levels. As the corals that surround the landmasses die, the islands lose their natural underwater protection against the tides. When the coral dies, the islands are virtually washed away.
Other environmental problems afflicting the Maldives remain relatively unknown. Most people in the West know the islands mainly as a holiday paradise spot for the wealthy. For the Maldivians, however, the tourist resorts are a sealed-off world with which they have little contact. Our editor Kai Schnier travelled around the islands for this issue and tells of how visitors’ impressions of the Maldives shift once they leave the tourist trail. The journalists Rae Munavvar, Ibrahim Maahil Mohamed, Ali Naafiz and Shafna Hussain also report on life in the capital Malé and in small villages, chronicling recent political upheavals and stories of young men who went to war in Syria and are now coming home as "IS returnees".
Together the Maldives form a small country with only half a million inhabitants. And despite its diminutive size, it shines a spotlight on many of the world's most topical issues: climate change, radicalisation, and the clash between rich and poor. In this issue we want to show you this extraordinary country, both its beauty and its lesser known facets.