Thursday, August 10, 2006
No escaping terror's reach
I'm in London. A few hours ago, I was in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, listening to a barrage of artillery fire.
Just after we finished the broadcast this morning at 7 a.m. local time, we started to get word of the alleged terror plot in London. I saw the story pop-up on my BlackBerry, and sure enough, a short time later I got the call from producers at CNN.
"Can you get there?"
"Yes," though it certainly wasn't easy.
We have already assembled a fascinating program covering all the angles on this alleged plot. I'm now on the way to shoot some elements and interiews for the broadcast.
It's odd to hop from one place to another so quickly, but it's even odder how world events are increasingly linked -- Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers, Israel strikes back, Al Qaeda threatens attacks against those supporting Israel, and now this.
Is this alleged plot linked to what is happening in Lebanon? Not likely. British police say the investigation of the plot has been under way for months.
Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security chief, put it this way: "This operation is in some respects suggestive of an Al Qaeda plot." But as authorities are quick to point out, the investigation is still under way.
The world has gotten very small. We can wake up in Israel and hours later be in London, and terror can strike anywhere.
Early morning call prompts mad dash
A lot of you ask how we operate....
When my phone rang this morning, I looked quickly looked at the clock: 4:15 a.m. Nothing good ever happens at 4:15 a.m.
It was our vice president of news coverage. Did I know about the terror plot? Where was Anderson?
The assignment desk had already set up a conference bridge -- a kind of discreet party line -- for CNN managers to dial into to sort out the story and the logistics of getting London staffed-up. After all, many of CNN International's considerable resources were already dedicated to the Middle East.
As for Anderson, after 28 days in the Middle East -- Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel -- he was driving down from Israel's northern border toward Tel Aviv to start a long weekend break. When I found him, Anderson and his cameraman Neil Hallsworth already had sketchy details of the breaking terror story and were looking into ways to get from Tel Aviv to London.
Heathrow airport in London was shutdown. So we looked at flights to Paris and Budapest and then connecting to the Eurostar train. We figured that with air travel paralyzed rail would be a sure way to get Anderson to London.
As it turned out, all of the connections were dicey at best, so we arranged a charter jet to a small airfield in the United Kingdom, added a couple of additional CNN producers to fill the seats, and before long, the plane was in the air. All of this happened before 6:30 a.m.
Anderson should be on scene and reporting from London by mid-afternoon. Of course, we will continue our extensive coverage from the Middle East as well. John Roberts will anchor our coverage from there.
Flying in the face of terror
As I get ready to board a flight to London to cover the terror plot story for CNN, immediately I see the impact at New York's JFK airport.
I re-packed all my luggage when I got the list of what was banned on flights. But I didn't realize until I checked-in at the airport that make-up foundation is considered a banned liquid. So I had to throw that out.
Of course, no bottles of water or beverages of any kind are allowed for grown-ups. Baby formula and medicines are still allowed, and I do see young children at the gate drinking out of their sippy cups, so the rules may not be as tightly enforced for kids.
So far things are calm here and not too crowded, but it's early.
The list of prohibited items reminded me of the kinds of materials terror mastermind Ramzi Yousef used when he tested a bomb on a Philippine Airlines airliner on December 11, 1994. He built his bomb in the plane lavatory and left it under his seat when he disembarked at Cebu Airport in the Philippines before the plane continued to Tokyo.
When the plane flew over Minami Daito Island, near Okinawa, the bomb exploded, killing a Japanese businessman and injuring 10 others. The plane made an emergency landing in Okinawa.
Yousef later decided to increase the potency of his bombs since the plane wasn't destroyed. This was to be part of what became known as the Bojinka plot designed to blow up a dozen airliners in the air at the same time. The plot was interrupted.
Whenever I fly, I always check under my seat.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Putting a human face on the wider conflict
No one feels comfortable attending a funeral of someone they don't know. The sad reality is that for a journalist covering the Middle East conflict, this happens almost every day.
As a reporter, the moment you arrive, the family wants to tell you the story of their loved one. They show you photos. They want to make sure he or she is not forgotten. They want to know their loved one didn't die in vain.
The shiva for Shlomi Buchris was no different. His friends tell me he was funny, had an infectious laugh and could light up a room.
But Shlomi was a reserve member of the Israeli military. He wanted to fight. He had a day job working on the family farm and learning to breed exotic fish. But he also wanted to protect his country.
At the age of 36, he guessed this would be his last chance.
Shlomi's father struggles to tell us of the moment he knew his son was dead. He was watching the news and heard that 12 reservists had been killed by a Hezbollah rocket on the border. He saw one body with the shoes of his son's parachute unit. He tried calling Shlomi. And when his son didn't answer, he waited for the call every parent dreads.
Shlomi's mother still hasn't left the house.
The number of casualties in this war has risen well past the point of being able to tell each story of loss. But seeing how one death devastates a family, friends, and in this case, a small community, puts a human face on the wider conflict, however briefly.
Renewed bombing interrupts funeral
I went to a funeral today, but then the war broke out.
It was supposed to be the burial of 29 of the 41 people killed in an Israeli missile attack Monday evening in the crowded suburb of Chiyah. But just as one of the children was being lowered into the grave, two bombs came crashing down a few hundred meters away. After the first hit, young men at the funeral raised their arms and began shouting, "God is great!" Everyone backed-off when the second one hit.
More funerals, perhaps.
The day started when I opened up my copy of Beirut's English-language Daily Star newspaper this morning to see a huge, front-page image of Abbas Wehbeh. He was holding up the body of his 10-day-old niece, Waad, his face collapsed in pain.
Hours later, we sat down and talked in a cemetery not far from the apartment block that was pulverized Monday evening. As Abbas, a taxi driver who says he has never had anything to do with Hezbollah, began listing his family members who died in the strike, it seemed he would go on forever. Twelve in all, they ranged from his infant niece to a 1-year-old nephew, a 1-year-old niece, a brother, a sister-in-law, and more children.
With the summer sun beating down and sweat running down his face, Abbas poured out anger at Israel and the United States. He demanded to know if I would fight if my country were occupied. He demanded to know what his family members had done to deserve their fate. I was thankful he didn't really expect an answer, because I didn't have one.
Near the end of the interview, he shared a thought about how the present in Lebanon will affect the future in the Middle East. He told me his 7-year-old son, Mohammed, approached him last night to announce that when he grows up he's going to get a gun and go fight the Israelis. It wasn't fair, Mohammed reasoned, that he had only been playing with his cousins a day earlier and now they were gone forever.
"It's not us," Abbas offered up. "I never told him to carry a gun. Who is planting the seeds of hatred, us or them?"
The funeral that was interrupted by bombs came after this conversation. Beirut has a tendency to confound chronological order.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Arabic pop, 50 Cent and exploding bombs
The schedule has almost become routine. No need to set alarm clocks as the sound of heavy bomardment serves as the daily wake up call.
It is not too much later that members of the international media start to congregate at camera positions on the poolside patio of the Tyre Rest House Hotel to watch, from not too afar, the latest morning bombing and rocket launching taking place outside the seaside city of Tyre in southern Lebanon.
The almost month-long war is strange by most accounts. Watching the exchange of hostilities from our semi-tropical beachside location it sometimes feels like we are on some sort of perverse vacation package -- surf, sand and explosions.
Dotted with palm trees, the hotel has all the outward signs of a popular summer destination. Signs for water-skiing and Mediterannean excursions abound and, oddly enough, the beach bar has managed to stay open for business; open into the wee hours every night playing an assortment of 50 Cent songs and pop Arabic tunes.
Missing from all of this are the tourists. Instead, the hotel is packed with journalists and a few southern Lebanese who have sought refuge here. There are so many people here that we are sleeping two, three, and four to a room ourselves, and we are the lucky ones. Many of the other international news organizations have personnel sleeping on the beach and on cots outside.
The city of Tyre itself has been largely evacuated. Only a handful of employees are running the hotel, charging sky-high prices for basic services. The upkeep has become so poor that there are now wild cats roaming the halls of the building, rummaging through piles of uncollected garbage. Luckily, the power and the water are still working, but worries abound that conditions will become truly disgusting if the power grid and other utilities get knocked out.
Moving outside the city of Tyre has become a difficult and dangerous proposition, as many areas of southern Lebanon are hit very hard on a daily basis by Israeli fire. Yesterday, Tyre became isolated from Beirut when a bridge over the Litani River on the main road between the cities was destroyed in an Israeli bombing run. The fear that created was only heightened this morning when leaflets were dropped in the city by the Israeli military warning people that any cars on the roads of southern Lebanon would be considered targets.
Needless to say, this has curtailed our ability to go out and gather news, which is extremely frustrating for all of us. It has also made the normally simple task of picking up food from the few restaurants and stores still open a more complicated process. Yet, this is nothing compared to what the few remaining aid agencies working in southern Lebanon face on a day-to-day basis in getting aid to people in isolated towns and villages.
Doctors Without Borders was desperate move in some medical supplies from Beirut, so their team in Tyre met their counterparts from Beirut on opposite sides side of the Litani River and hand-carried the supplies in a human chain across a tree spanning the river.
The shelling and bombing has largely been taking place south and east of our our location, but the city of Tyre itself was hit yesterday when Israeli Air Force jets dropped bombs on a neighborhood of small five-story buildings. It was not clear if anybody was killed, as most of Tyre has become a ghostown, but it adds to the extreme feeling of fear and angst for those reamianing in the city.
Sometimes the explosions take place too close for comfort. But for the most part, they have become part of the daily din here in Tyre. We watch them from our camera location and we feel like odd spectators in a war that seems to get more complicated and dangerous by the day.
Will the city find itself under siege? Will Israeli ground forces enter the city? How long will this all last? These are the questions residents and journalists here ask themselves every day.
Monday, August 07, 2006
History repeats: Blown up once, blown up twice
I just got back from southern Lebanon. The eight-hour mission turned into a 14-hour one.
Veteran cameraman Neil Hallsworth, who probably has been on more embeds in Iraq than any other journalist, informed me that our vehicle's cramped quarters made this the most hellacious embed he's ever been on.
Whoever designed the Puma, the Israeli transport in which we were riding, needs to be forced to spend 14 hours in one. Anyway, enough griping.
The mission turned out to be interesting. The combat engineers with whom we were embedded were ordered to go into southern Lebanon and take out a Hezbollah position at Karkoum.
It had been one of the main command outposts in southern Lebanon. It had actually been an Israeli outpost back when they occupied Lebanon. When they left, they blew it up. Hezbollah rebuilt it. Now the unit I was with was supposed to go back in and blow it up again. History repeats.
We left under cover of darkness, but it was dawn by the time we reached the bunkers at Karkoum. Things moved quickly once we exited the Puma.
Israeli soldiers discovered a cache of anti-tank weapons, which Hezbollah has used to devastating effect. The soldiers rigged those to explode with the same C4 explosive they were using on all the structures.
The blast was massive, though we couldn't actually see it because we had to take cover back inside the Puma.
After the dust cleared, armored bulldozers moved in and leveled what remained.
We'll have the story on "360" tonight. We continue to broadcast from the region, and will continue to do so all week.
Tracking Hezbollah with a Puma
I can't say where I am exactly. Actually, I don't have any idea where I am, so even if I was allowed to, I couldn't tell you.
I know it's southern Lebanon, because as soon as we crossed the border, my Blackberry got a text message welcoming me to a new cell service.
I am in what the IDF calls a Puma, a kind of armored vehicle, which sounds sleek and fast, and it may be, but right now it is crammed with soldiers. Literally, when one person moves, we all have to adjust our position.
Cameraman Neil Hallsworth and I are embedded with a unit of combat engineers operating inside southern Lebanon. I can't talk about the mission until it's over, but safe to say, the unit we are with is targeting Hezbollah positions.
It's just before midnight. The Puma has no windows, so you can't see out. Riding in one can be kind of disorienting.
It's an armored vehicle, but the soldiers know that doesn't guarantee their safety. Hezbollah has been very effective at using anti-tank weapons, RPGs, and IEDs.
In some ways, Hezbollah is a double threat for Israeli forces. On the one hand, they have the zeal of jihadist guerrillas. And on the other hand, they have at least one state sponsor, Iran, and support from another, Syria, so they have money and plenty of modern weapons.
"They are tough," one Israeli soldier said to me. "They have courage, but they are just people."
I think about that a lot. He meant of course, they are human beings, not supermen, not phantoms. They can be located, shot and killed.
That's what the unit I'm with now is hoping to do -- find the enemy and kill them. This embed is only supposed to last about eight hours. It's a pretty direct mission, but you never know what can happen. I'll write more later.