Saturday, September 30, 2006
So close, yet so far
It doesn't get more IRONIC than this.
We thought we were almost there, travel permits sitting in the Ministry of the Interior in Sudan for us to go to Darfur have just been approved, but with one slight HICCUP. Two of our crew members, Dutch producer, Kim Norgaard and South African cameraman, Chevan Rayson, are good to go. But guess what, for yours truly, of Kenyan descent but holding a US passport, there's a problem.
You see, at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, the US State Department decided to restrict the travel requests of certain Sudanese officials. Now it seems like a tit-for-tat scenario. Sudanese President, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir has said he too will restrict the movements of US citizens wishing to travel outside Khartoum. 'But I'm actually Kenyan,' I insist. 'They don't come more AFRICAN than me,' I argue. 'But you have an American passport,' say the officials here, 'That makes you one of them.'
Is this what you call a diplomatic 'stand-off?' Will the travel restrictions also be applied to journalists and more importantly, much-needed Aid workers wishing to ease the misery of the desperate and downtrodden in Darfur?
Even as I write this, we're in a 'holding pattern'. We're trying to get on a flight early Sunday morning to El-Fasher, capital of Northern Darfur. We're so close and yet so far, the next few hours are critical, and the proverbial ball is back in the court of the Sudanese Government.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Dying in silence
We are on our way to central Africa. Right now we're in Dubai waiting for one of several connecting flights we'll be taking to get to the Congo.
It's a place many Americans know little about, and yet each of us carries a piece of the Congo with us, wherever we go. Minerals mined in the Congo like tin ore and coltan are essential components in cell phones, computers, and video game consoles.
The battle over who gets to mine those minerals has fueled the deadliest conflict the world has seen since World War II. More than three million people have died in the Congo since 1998 and there has been very little coverage of it.
Tens of thousands of women have been raped; often gang raped by soldiers and militia members. What has happened there is hard to fathom, and still some 1200 people are dying every day from malnutrition and disease.
It is ironic of course, that in our hi-tech world, the very place that makes our phones and computers work, is one of the least developed and impoverished places on the planet.
Next week we will be doing something I don't think any other network has ever done. We will be covering two major humanitarian crises at once, the Congo and Darfur. Jeff Koinange and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be reporting on Darfur and I will be in eastern Congo.
Logistically this is an incredibly difficult undertaking. It's expensive, and requires a huge team of people. The truth is no one but CNN would undertake a mission like this. Our plan is to take all of you along on this journey, to two places you have rarely seen.
So many people in the Congo and Sudan have already lost their lives; so many more lives hang in the balance. There are few things worse than dying in silence, too many already have. I hope you'll join us on this trip.
Mission Darfur, job one: part the red tape
We almost failed to make our flight out of Johannesburg, on our way to Darfur as '360' focuses next week on the humanitarian crisis in Africa.
The booking was fine for the first sector to Nairobi, Kenya, but it was the continuing sector to Sudan that was 'choc-a-bloc'. We did the only thing journalists do in that kind of situation; we begged and begged and begged the airline officials like our lives depended on this 'mission'. They must have seen our sincerity (or is it desperation?) that finally they checked us all the way, complete with 18 pieces of baggage, digital news gathering gear, laptops, satellite phones, bottles of water, clothes, everything we would need for about a week in what's been described as THE world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Both sectors of the flight were uneventful and we finally landed in Sudan later that night. Clearing immigration proved easier than expected and our luggage made it, believe it or not. We were ecstatic as we wheeled our FIVE carts towards the customs officials and the first of what was going to be a lesson in patience and tolerance. We showed our paperwork to one of the officials who barely glanced at it before handing it over to his colleague and on it went until the fifth customs officer took a quick look and yelled something back in Arabic to our fixer who'd met us at the airport. 'He has to call his superior,' Akram told us. 'Ok,' we replied. Five minutes, ten, twenty, half-an-hour. 'What's the delay,' we aseked? 'It's Ramadan,' was the answer, the fasting just ended for the day and no-one's available.' This was understandable given the timing of the flight and the Muslim Holy month. 'How long do we wait?' we asked 'He'll soon come,' the official responded.
Two hours later, we'd finally gotten the necessary paperwork sorted we were walking out of the now deserted airport, humbled but happy to have all our gear with us. We eventually got to the hotel, checked-in and crashed for the night.
The next morning we were up early. Copies of passports were made, photographs taken, ID at the ready. First we had to register with the authorities, let them know we're in town. Then to the Ministry of External Affairs to get accredited and receive permission to film, then to the Internal Ministry to get permission to fly to Darfur, then to the police to make sure they know we can film in the streets of the capital. In a word, Sudan is a bureaucrat's dream, paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork.
Two days later, we just about have everything in hand, except the all-important permission to fly to Darfur. That's been promised by Saturday and we plan to be 'wheels-up' Sunday to a place called El Fasher in Northern Darfur, a region as large as Texas or France. From there it's a helicopter ride to a camp that was the recent scene of bloody clashes. Fingers crossed until we actually set foot in one of the world's most wretched locations.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The run for the money
There was cake aboard Air Force II this week as Vice President Dick Cheney passed a milestone, his 100th fundraiser of the midterm election cycle.
Counting his Tuesday night dinner for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Vice President has raised $37 million dollars for the party and candidates. Not far behind in the fundraiser count is President Bush (with 68 as of Tuesday night), though he is way ahead in dollars with more than $170 million.
Republicans still hold their traditional lead in campaign donations, raising an astounding $870 million dollars between the candidates, the party and the national campaign committees. Democrats are doing much better than in the past, but they still lag more than $100 million behind the Republicans. A real bright spot for the Democrats is their Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has actually outpaced its Republican counterpart in fundraising.
Political scholar Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution says that's likely a result of the thought of success breeding success. The possibility that Democrats might take back control of Congress has unleashed a flood of donations from people who don't ordinarily give.
A potential downside for the Democrats is the bickering that's been going on over how much money party chairman Howard Dean is willing to commit to Congressional races. Dean says he'll cough up $12 million, just a fifth of the $60 million his Republican counterpart Ken Mehlman is planning to spend. Dean insists he needs to put money into rebuilding the party's election apparatus on the state level, but many Democrats worry his stinginess with the campaigns may cost them dearly in morale and retirements if they don't capture at least one house in Congress.
There's an old saying in politics. Whoever spends the most, wins. Some analysts believe a rising tide of Democratic support may help to mitigate the fundraising deficit, though the Democrats' Senate committee chairman Chuck Schumer told me he'd still like to have the cash. The Republicans financial advantage WILL make a difference, he said.
'How much of a difference? We'll have to wait and see on Election Day.'