Saturday, July 22, 2006
Aid trucks stuck at border
At the duty-free zone on the Syria-Lebanon border, the Dunkin' Donuts is deserted. No donuts, no muffins, no coffee -- not even a single employee.
I ask the Syrian cashier operating the shawarma/Turkish coffee shop nearby what happened.
"The food was all imported from Lebanon," he told me. "We don't even know what happened to the workers. We haven't seen or heard from then since the war began."
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "That's life, madam, now stop wasting my time and order something."
The fact that roads linking Lebanon and Syria are either closed or too dangerous to navigate isn't just affecting this small Dunkin' Donuts stand. It's delaying crucial aid shipments into Lebanon from Syria.
The Red Crescent tells us more than 20 trucks filled with food are stuck at the border, waiting to drive in. Several truckloads of medicine made it through a few days ago, but food aid is still stuck at the border, with drivers twiddling their thumbs waiting for the go-ahead.
NGOs also tell us that medicine for long-term diseases normally imported into Syria from Lebanon could soon be in short supply. Will this short-term problem turn into a longer-term crisis? How long the fighting across the Syrian border drags on will determine that.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Call to prayer, silence, then 'boom'
There was a moment last night, as we were preparing for the program, when it was so peaceful and quiet that I could have been convinced the war had ended. We were on a balcony overlooking downtown Beirut; the first call to prayer was sounding.
We had been in Beirut for 20 hours and this was the first time I remember hearing the call. I am sure that's because it was the first time I was able to focus on it.
We flew in yesterday morning on a Marine chopper, landing on the embassy grounds. Within minutes, before we had even moved away from the landing pad, the helicopter lifted off with a group of evacuees inside. Many of the Americans on board were far too young to really understand what was happening. Little boys seemed torn between fear and the excitement of getting to dress up in a military helmet and life vest.
As we drove south from the embassy towards the center of the city, the cars in the northbound lane were bumper-to-bumper. Our driver explained that people were literally heading for the hills, the mountains in northern Lebanon, to wait out the war. It was the first time I'd heard someone wish the war would end soon and not sound like they believed it would.
Beirut really is lovely, quite possibly the most beautiful city in the Middle East, even with very apparent and still open scars from this conflict, and the conflicts that have come before. People here always seem to be whispering conspiracy theories; some think that once all the foreigners leave, the real shelling will begin. It's a frightening thought if you've seen pictures of what has already been done to the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs.
On the balcony last night, the illusion of peace ended a few minutes after the call to prayer, as the silence was smashed by a massive explosion to the south.
The Arab street's resounding silence
The biggest mystery of this conflict so far is the reaction of the Arab street ... the Arab leaders. The silence resounding around the Middle East is deafening. For the first time, there is no phalanx of Arab leaders lined up to condemn Israel.
Rather, word is gradually being leaked in Israel that something different is afoot. A leading Israeli newspaper reports one moderate Arab leader with no relations to Israel sending the government a secret message to carry on, wipe-out Hezbollah for us once and for all. They are all mostly Sunni, and they would say that about the powerful Shiite resistance group tied to powerful Shiite Iran.
A senior western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the efforts to find a solution tells me that Lebanese and other Arab leaders privately are asking, "How could Hezbollah have incurred such Israeli wrath if it genuinely is a domestic movement?" In other words, they are worried about Iran. They are worried that an early ceasefire would not only make Hezbollah much stronger in Lebanon, but their patron --Iran -- much stronger in the Middle East.
They are also worried about the U.S. administration's hands-off policy giving the green light to Israel to go ahead and weaken what both call a terrorist organization. But it's a gamble with potentially dangerous consequences -- the mounting Lebanese casualties, the potential disaster that a full-scale ground invasion by Israel could turn the whole region into a raging cauldron. The United States is the only nation with the clout and credibility to stop this and help hammer out a real political solution to resolve this particular tinderbox.
Hezbollah may cry uncle ... Then again, it may not.
Paying for the bombs dropped on your head
It's an eery and ironic sight -- watching one ship after the other steaming in from the darkness and arriving in the port in Larnaca, Cyprus. Warships of great power unable to halt a conflict with their armies are instead helping the helpless to flee. Ferries and cruise ships usually signaling hordes of merry vacationers are packed to the gills with tired, sweaty, weary evacuees.
They pour out of the vessels by the hundreds, boarding buses taking them to the next ordeal -- getting through customs and processing by their own countries. Lining up behind their countries' flags, anxiously waiting to hear whether they'll catch a plane now or wait. The lucky stranded get a hotel; others a cot in a hall.
All seem grateful to be on safe ground, but fearful for their relatives still in Lebanon. "And strange that my tax dollars are being used to pay for the bombs being dropped on me," says one American.
Mideast solution requires 'long hard slog'
A senior American diplomat I talked with yesterday predicted that finding a solution to the Israel-Hezbollah conflict would be a "long hard slog" -- echoing Donald Rumsfeld's infamous words about Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been working with her staff behind the scenes, speaking with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as well as France and other European countries about a way forward. The key to ending hostilities in a way acceptable to both Israel and the United States will be the cooperation of Syria, one of Hezbollah's major sponsors, and acquiescence by Iran. The United States can't talk to Syria anymore, nor can it speak with Iran, so it will be up to other members of a "diplomatic coalition" to handle that part of the heavy lifting.
The plan will be to give support to Lebanon's government to take control of the country and disarm Hezbollah -- no small task given the enhanced position of authority Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seeking. In addition, the international community must band together to help rebuild Lebanon's shattered towns, cities and infrastructure. And there will be other aspects to a settlement -- an international force to help keep the peace, a buffer zone along the border with Israel and measures to keep arms out of the hands of Hezbollah fighters.
The diplomatic wheels will really start turning when Rice visits the region -- most likely next week on her way to the ASEAN conference in Kuala Lumpur. Rice may drop off a few diplomats so they can work on a deal while she's in southeast Asia. Then, she'll likely circle back on her return and pick up the negotiations. State Department officials say that Secretary Rice is fully prepared to engage in the sort of intense shuttle diplomacy that Middle East deal-making has demanded, but not to reaffirm the status quo.
The United States is determined to see that any negotiated settlement of this crisis substantially changes the situation on the ground. The White House is content, for the moment, to allow Israel to continue its bombardment in hopes it can further degrade Hezbollah's capabilities. But diplomats say they are very much aware of the rising international criticism of the violence, and every day they reassess how much patience they have for Israel's military campaign.
Meantime, people on both sides of the border continue to suffer.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
The value of a pistol in an Israeli border town
The town of Metula on the Israel-Lebanon border -- this is where we are staying to cover Israel's northern battlefront. It's a ghost town, deserted except for a few journalists.
The proprietor of our small hotel always has her pistol at hand, just in case, she says. But there's a heavy artillery unit just nearby and there are tanks firing against a guerrilla army which has Katyusha rockets and mortars. How was a pistol going to help?
We found out last night amid a sudden flurry of soldiers racing towards the border fence, machine guns firing, and a helicopter firing overhead -- a massive and sustained barrage of artillery hitting Hezbollah positions and buildings on the hills opposite the town.
They had heard that Hezbollah guerrillas had infiltrated this small town. Imagining being taken prisoner, held hostage or worse, we realized what the pistol was for. Though it must be said we still don't know whether anyone actually did slip through the border fence.
But the incident highlighted the problem here: A first world army set against a militia whose military is a moveable feast. All the expensive F16s, the one ton bombs and the brilliant fighter pilots cannot take out a man with a rocket launcher on his back.
Israel may be pounding south Beirut, but the real goal seems to be the creation of a Hezbollah-free buffer zone at the border. Fighter pilots at Ramat David Air Force Base told us the military would be part of the solution, but the rest of it would have to be political in nature. So it's not just a buffer zone Israel is after, it's a completely different relationship with Lebanon.
Israel wants to share a border, not a front.
Business as usual in northern Beirut
Anderson and his team are writing and editing their pieces for tonight. I just spoke with our senior producer Charlie Moore, who is in Beirut with Anderson. Charlie's briefing adds more details on their trip into Beirut.
In Larnaca, the U.S. Marine base they left from had a number of huge choppers and C-130 transports waiting on the tarmac. It's super hot in Cyprus. Marines catching-up on rest were sprawled in the islands of shade under the huge wings of the transports.
The chopper flight from Larnaca to Beirut took them over the Mediterranean for about 50 minutes. Marine gunners in the front and tail of the chopper were on watch for threats from the sea. They flew fast and low. As they approached land, the Marines became even more vigilant as they watched for ground-fire.
They were headed for the U.S. embassy, which is near the water in northern Beirut. The choppers had to come in fast and drop quickly onto the tarmac in the middle of the embassy compound. The embassy is heavily fortified.
Inside, groups of Americans were waiting their turns for chopper rides out. More groups were waiting outside the embassy walls for rides too. But the scene was calm. No chaos. No desperate throngs waiting to evacuate.
In the trip from the embassy to the CNN bureau in Beirut what Charlie and the team saw is not a city under siege. Charlie describes crowded streets, lots of cabs -- business as usual in this northern part of the city.
But we understand the situation looks worse the further south one goes. Karl Penhaul is reporting in southern Lebanon for CNN and will file a report from the region for tonight's "360."
Hitching a chopper ride to Beirut
Beirut. That's where I'm heading now.
After nearly a week of covering this conflict from all over northern Israel and Cyprus, I'm finally about to take off for Beirut. Literally.
My team and I tried over the weekend to cross into Lebanon from Jordan, but Syria wouldn't let us in. Now we're shooting a story about the U.S. air bridge that has been ferrying Americans out of Beirut since Sunday.
Brigadier General Carl Jensen is in charge of the operation. He's a no-nonsense Marine determined to get the Americans out as quickly as possible. So far, they've taken about 1500 Americans by air and sea. On Thursday, they hope to get about 3000 more.
My team and I are on a Marine Corps chopper. Ok, now we just took off. Within about a minute, we are over water and the rear hatch of the chopper is opened up. The sea is an extraordinary blue, and the air in the chopper rapidly cools off. The thud of the rotors is deafening, but it is great to be moving again after a few days in one place.
We plan to stay in Beirut once we land, and put together a story about what the Marines are doing and how the evacuations are going. I'm not sure how long I will be in Beirut, but after three nights in Cyprus, it is good to be getting another angle on the story.
Assuming everything goes as planned, we should land in about an hour. We will try to do our show from Beirut tonight, and then after that, who knows? This is a fast-moving story and we are trying to follow it wherever it goes.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
'Tell the world we do not support Hezbollah'
The lobby of the Damascus hotel we're staying in is buzzing with activity 24 hours a day. Suitcases piled on top of each other, people falling from exhaustion in the seating area -- many of them evacuees who've driven the dangerous road from Lebanon to Syria, fleeing the bombings.
Phone lines are bad here and cell phone coverage is unreliable. Our main link with the CNN news desk is e-mail, so I visit the hotel's business center several times a day, e-mailing my producers and writing scripts. One man came in yesterday and ... breathlessly ... asked one of the hotel employees for a room for him and his five family members.
"All full," she answered.
"Not even one room?" he asked.
A lady walked over to him: "I'm checking out in two hours she told him. You can have my room."
"No, he can't," replied the hotel employee. There are dozens on the waiting list ahead of him.
This is what every hotel in Damascus looks like today. Lebanese, Saudis, Emiratis and others who had planned on spending a holiday or visiting family in Lebanon -- their summer plans drastically altered.
A Lebanese woman stopped me in the hallway. She and her two children made it out of Lebanon and were waiting for a flight to Dubai, where they live.
"You must tell the world we do not support Hezbollah. We do not support anyone. But my country is being destroyed by people using it as a battleground."
Her voice was trembling and her eyes teary.
And, relatively speaking, she is one of the lucky ones. The number of refugees without the money to buy basics, let alone pay for accomodation is swelling at the Syrian-Lebanese border. People are coping now, but for how long?
Terrorism groups helped by black market goods
Do you ever wonder who profits from the black market sale of cigarettes or Viagra? Well, those purchases could help finance Hezbollah, the terrorist organization engaged in a conflict with Israel.
"Anytime that you buy a good illegally on the black market, there is a possibility you are helping to fund groups like Hamas and Hezbollah," said terrorism financing expert Emily Hunt.
Hunt says tens of millions of dollars -- a conservative estimate -- is funneled to Hezbollah from the United States through various illegal operations.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 19 men with "racketeering to support a terrorist organization." For eight years, investigators say, the suspects sold contraband cigarettes, counterfeit rolling papers, even counterfeit Viagra.
Investigators say the suspects bought cigarettes in North Carolina, where taxes are lower, or in some cases at a New York Indian reservations, where there are no taxes. By doing so, they evaded tens of millions of dollars in cigarette taxes.
They then made huge profits by reselling the cigarettes in New York and Michigan at market prices. A portion of the profits, the indictment charges, was given to Hezbollah. Can you imagine? U.S. citizens unknowingly sending money to Hezbollah.
But some other Americans were well aware of what was going on. In some cases, buyers on the black market were charged a "resistance tax" -- a set amount over the going price -- and told the money would go to Hezbollah, investigators said.
Members of the group also allegedly solicited cash from customers to be given to orphans of Hezbollah suicide bombers. And the money trail doesn't stop there. Investigators say Hezbollah also received financing through sympathetic charities. After the donations were made, they were diverted to Hezbollah.
"Many of them are able to kind of fly under the radar simply because we don't have the resources. ... Law enforcement doesn't have the training or the time to really be delving into their backgrounds," Hunt said.
Looking for Lebanese and Israeli webcams
I'm working on a piece for "360" on people in Lebanon and Israel using high-tech ways to tell their stories to the rest of the world. Have you seen any great videos from the area? Is there anyone in Lebanon or Israel with a webcam who would like to be interviewed? Let us know in the comments section below or by sending us an e-mail using this form
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
U.S. response exasperating for some Americans
We spent the day in Cyprus tracking the latest efforts to get Americans out of Lebanon.
The U.S. government says it has evacuated more than 100 Americans, but their efforts are clearly lagging behind those of other countries. The French and Italians have gotten hundreds of their citizens out.
Some of the Americans who have made it out are clearly exasperated with the U.S. response. You see them checking into Larnaca's beachfront hotels tired, frustrated, and a little stunned at what they've been through.
I just finished interviewing one American woman with three young children. The kids were bouncing on the bed of their hotel room, oblivious to the nightmare they just escaped.
Their mother was lucky. She was able to get a spot on a Marine Corps chopper and has a ticket back to New York in a few hours.
"I don't know how they are going to get all those people out," she told me.
The United States has a number of ships en route and chopper flights will continue, but getting people out means crossing a logistical minefield.
Another ship may arrive with more evacuees tonight while we are on the air, but it's hard to predict exact arrival times.
We will bring you the latest tonight on the evacuations. We'll also check-in with CNN correspondents for the latest news from Lebanon, Israel, Syria and the rest of the region.
As for tomorrow, there's no telling where we will be. This is a fast-moving story and we are trying to bring it to you from as many angles as possible.
I'm curious to hear your perspective. Do you think what Israel is doing is legitimate? Should the United States push for a ceasefire? Or is the Bush administration's current approach appropriate?
Man seeks his fate in Lebanon
"It was a nightmare."
I heard that over and over again in the day I spent along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Hundreds of thousands of people have been streaming across the main crossing since this crisis began. Most are poor Syrian workers living in Lebanon. Many of them had no money for a car; they walked, carrying whatever they could, from Lebanon into Syria.
I met Lebanese families who described the bombs dropping close to their homes. One man helped four injured people to the hospital and then grabbed his family and took off for Syria.
The officials here -- a country not so easy to enter to begin with -- have relaxed the rules. Diplomats, tourists and everyone in between spent hours crossing into Syria.
They come with a sense of suffocating uncertainty. When will they go home? Will Syria become part of this escalating crisis, the very place they have fled to in order to escape the violence?
Hotels are overflowing with guests, some spending the nights on the lobby floor. It all happened so quickly, and many are only now coming to grips with what they saw.
The road into Lebanon at the crossing we were at was understandably empty. But a few cars did go in. One Lebanese man I met was living in Saudi Arabia. After he saw the news, he rushed back to Lebanon.
I asked why, and he said, "My family. My country. My everything is in Lebanon. Now I must be in Lebanon. If I die anywhere, it should be in Lebanon."
Who should pay for evacuations from Lebanon?
A fascinating argument is ramping up fast here in Washington about the thousands of Americans still in Lebanon, but trying to escape the fighting. Simply put: Should they pay for their own evacuation by the U.S. government or should all of us pay for it through our tax dollars?
Air or boatlifts of Americans from wartorn nations are not new. Heck, many Americans have been helped out of all sorts of tricky foreign situations by the military or the State Department. But those who want these particular Americans in Lebanon to help foot the bill for their rescue make the following points.
1) They knew they were living in a dicey area to begin with. Yes, Lebanon has shown significant progress toward being a more peaceful, stable country in recent years, but the southern end of the nation is and has been essentially in the control of an internationally recognized terrorist group, Hezbollah. When you move to or visit such a place, these critics say, you are willingly putting yourself at some degree of risk and that's your burden ... no one else's.
2) This conflict, while fast-moving, has been intensifying for days. These "stranded" Americans should have got out while the getting was good.
On the other side, there are those who make their own strong points.
1) This conflict hasn't just been fast moving; it has developed at a lightning pace, going from a dispute over a pair of kidnappings into what resembles all out war in less than a week. It is unfair, they argue, for American civilians to be expected to foresee how bad it would get so quickly.
2) We encourage Americans to invest in foreign nations, to help spread the ideals of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights all over the globe. We can't then turn around and say, "Now, you're on your own," when times get tough. In addition, if people start fearing a big bill is going to land in their mailbox after an evacuation, might that not encourage other Americans in future disputes to wait even later before seeking help?
This issue of having people pay for their own rescues has come up in many different ways with all kinds of rescues: Hikers plucked from mountainsides where they've become rimrocked, motorists rescued from blizzard-swept roads, boaters pulled from stormy seas.
So who should pay for pulling Americans out of Lebanon: Those Americans? Or you?
Monday, July 17, 2006
Cyprus becomes staging ground for evacuees
We just landed in Cyprus. We decided to come here after spending much of the day in Haifa, Israel, literally following Hezbollah rocket attacks. We've come here because this is the staging ground for the evacuation of foreigners trapped in Lebanon.
France and Italy already have begun evacuating their people to Cyprus. America is expected to follow soon. There are approximately 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, but no one knows how many want to leave.
I'm currently finishing up the story we shot earlier today in Haifa. That piece will be on the program tonight in addition to extensive coverage from our correspondents in Lebanon, Israel, and all across the region.
Not let into Lebanon
Since Anderson and producer Tommy Evans last blogged, the team has been making its way to Cyprus.
You may not be aware of some of the specific challenges of traveling in the Middle East. If you have a number of Israeli stamps in your passport, then it is all but certain you won't be allowed into certain Arab countries. (Many reporters request that Israel not stamp their passports to avoid this. Generally, Israel accommodates.)
As it happens, Anderson and his team were barred from entering Lebanon over the weekend because -- we are guessing -- we had already been broadcasting from Israel and suspicions about "who is reporting what about whom" tend to arise.
At the same time, the story has moved forward to include evacuations -- those trapped in Lebanon who want out. With the Beirut airport bombed-out, direct airlifts are not possible. Thousand of Arabs are streaming into neighboring Syria.
That brings me back to, "Why Cyprus for the show tonight?"
Cyprus is the Mediterranean island country geographically in the middle of all of this -- a short flight or a 4-hour boat ride from the war zone. Almost overnight, it has become the central staging area for evacuees to get transported out of the region. Anderson will anchor the show from there tonight.
This is their lives
I had just put down my lunch plate from the hotel buffet when the first siren went off. I never took a bite, and I am just realizing, I never paid either.
We scrambled out onto the hotel restaurant's balcony, where we could see most of Haifa spread out down the hill below us.
The scary thing about rocket strikes is that even with the siren sounding you can't see them coming. No streak of fire across the sky. Not a lot of sound. That is, not until the thump when it hits.
This time, the thump was very close, and soon, a plume of thick white smoke started to rise. Within a few minutes, we jumped into our van and tore down the hill.
The site was pure chaos -- filled with police, EMTs, onlookers, and of course, the throng of world press. Bullhorns were blasting and photographers snapped endlessly at the blast-splattered building.
Then, just as we felt we had a grasp of the scene around us, the siren sounded again. The crowd went from pushing and shoving in the street to huddling together under any cover we could find.
I found myself squeezed in a boarded-up shop doorway with a cop and a photographer. A second dull thud and a second sprint to the van. By then, we were all drenched in sweat. Summer in Israel really isn't body armor weather.
This strike felt very different. The first rocket hit an unoccupied office building. This one hit a more residential neighborhood.
I watched as the apartment building slowly started to catch fire. I saw a man holding a woman in the alley behind me. She was shaking violently in his arms as he tried to console her.
I've never blogged before, so forgive me if this rambles. But as we rushed off to feed tape and throw the rest of our gear in the van to make the next flight to the next story, I am still thinking of that couple, people for whom this war isn't dramatic pictures and adrenaline.
When the crowds leave the neighborhood, this tale won't be just another story running on tonight's news. For the countless innocent people in Israel and Lebanon, this is their lives.
Rocket hits with a crushing thud
It's been a busy morning in Haifa. I'm in a van right now, coming back from the scene of a rocket attack.
We were actually covering an earlier rocket attack when the sirens went off yet again. We all had to run for cover. It's an odd sensation -- waiting for a rocket to hit. At a certain point, the sirens stop and you hear the impact. A crushing thud.
This one was probably a mile or so away. We ran to our van and got to the blast site a few minutes later. The rocket hit a small apartment building in a residential neighborhood.
When we arrived, rescuers were removing an elderly lady from the rubble of the apartment building. She seemed stunned and scared. Someone lifted her onto a gurney and she was taken to the hospital.
There are casualties on both sides of this conflict, of course. Lebanese authorities say more than 150 Lebanese have been killed, several hundred wounded.
How much longer will this go on? That's a question a lot of people here are asking.
Sitting here in this van, trying to catch my breath after running to yet another blast site, nothing seems certain. Both sides acknowledge there is likely not a military solution to this conflict, but political solutions seem far off.
Israel may find it hard to come up with new Hezbollah targets they can successfully hit in Lebanon, so perhaps the bloodshed will lessen as the week goes on. But as long as Hezbollah is willing and able to lob shells deep into Israel, it is likely the attacks on both sides of the border will continue.
Tonight, expect extensive coverage from the region. While I'm in Haifa now, we may head elsewhere for tonight's broadcast.
Already, Neil Hallsworth, my cameraman, is digitizing the footage we've shot. We'll start editing the rocket story in a few minutes while driving in the van.
That's it for now. I'll try to blog later today, depending on where we end up.