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NEWSROOM for August 17, 2001

Aired August 17, 2001 - 04:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Seen in classrooms the world over, this is CNN NEWSROOM.

SHELLEY WALCOTT, CO-HOST: Hello, and welcome to this special edition of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm your host, Shelley Walcott.

We're here at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a center committed to the fight for peace and human rights around the globe. You know at this very moment there are numerous armed conflicts taking place all over the planet and it's the cost of that conflict that's the focus of today's show.

War is as old as mankind itself and often that results in borders moved, dollars spent and lives lost. Now many of those lives are the lives of children -- the children of war.

For many people, childhood is or was a time for development, learning and play, but not all youngsters have happy tales of camaraderie.


MARIA PEREZ, CHILD SOLDIER (through translator): When we came face-to-face with the enemy, we had to fight. And in fact, I saw many of my comrades and my colleagues and friends fall. It was very difficult, and there were many children.


WALCOTT: Maria Perez, the child soldier in Columbia, is not alone in her angst. There is an estimated 14,000 children in Columbia fighting under rebel and paramilitary orders. International reports indicate there are more than a quarter of a million children in 40 different countries fighting in conflicts. The wounds of these child soldiers run deep, both physically and psychologically.

Our Kathy Nellis met with a young survivor of the Bosnian War who discussed how it affected her life and cut short her childhood.


AMRA TREBINJAC, STUDENT: My name is Amra Trebinjac. I am 23 and I come from Sarajevo. I was born in Sarajevo. I've lived most of the time there and I lived in the center with my family in Sarajevo. And I have one brother who died during the war. I was really happy all my life until the war begun. So I was in my apartment in Sarajevo and it started. So nobody really believed that we were going to have the war there. So it came really suddenly.

I want to say that Sarajevo is a city with a lot of religions in there, a lot of different people, different cultures and it's all kind of mixed up. And we all lived together. For example, I can tell you that I played all my life since I was three years old with a friend who is a different religion and a girlfriend had a very different religion. So we played all our lives without knowing that we were a different religion.

So when the war started, I think it wasn't because we did hate each other. I was 15 years old when it started. So I saw a lot of people were killed on the street, a lot of civilians. And soon after the war started, my mother was injured on the street. So it caused in my life a change. From that moment, I had to think about my survival, about things I didn't think all my life. I needed to think about how to get food, how to get water, how to come to hospital to see my mother and if she was going to survive or not.

I think for many children in Bosnia it was like really like a change. So during the war I think a lot of children had like kind of a break in their lives, in their childhood, in their normal development. So that's what we really miss. So we stopped there. So we are continuing now after the war to develop our souls, our spirits like normal children. It is important to give children this, what they need as children, so to play with other kids, to be able to talk to other children, to draw, to play music, whatever, to go to school normally, to live with their families.


WALCOTT: Russia's Joseph Stalin, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill of Great Britain, these are the allied leaders of the Second World War. Now for many, World War II was the conflict to end all wars. There were millions of casualties but today, a unique tale of survival. The story of a black man who grew up in, of all places, Nazi Germany.

Here's his incredible story.


WALCOTT (voice-over): Hans Massaquoi is the retired managing editor of "Ebony" magazine, a post that for more than 30 years gave him access to statesmen, civil rights leaders and celebrities.

But when writing his autobiography, Massaquoi chose not to write about his decades of success in the United States. Instead, in his book, "Destined to Witness," Massaquoi wrote about what it was like to grow up black in Nazi Germany.

HANS MASSAQUOI, AUTHOR: The main thing, you know, I didn't want to be an outsider. I didn't want to be -- I was -- my color set me apart from everyone. WALCOTT: Massaquoi was born in 1926 in the city of Hamburg, son of a German nurse and an African diplomat. His parents never married. And while he was still an infant, his father returned to his native Liberia leaving Massaquoi and his mother to fend for themselves. He was one of just a handful of blacks living in Germany at that time. His African features made him a standout, but he says his classmates and teachers accepted him, at least early on.

MASSAQUOI: And then in 1933 when Hitler took power, everything changed. All of a sudden racism became the number one priority in Germany.

WALCOTT: Massaquoi was just 7 years old. At first, he was fascinated by the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. So fascinated, he had his babysitter sew a swastika on to one of his school sweaters.

MASSAQUOI: And, of course, when the teacher -- my teacher who was very -- this was one of the exceptionally nice teachers -- this lady Fraulein Byerly (ph) -- when she saw it, she had -- she knew -- she saw the contradiction and she happened to have a camera and she took this picture, which then became the cover of my book.

WALCOTT: The sight upset Massaquoi's mother.

MASSAQUOI: When my mother saw me after school that I had worn this swastika on my sweater, she immediately, you know, ripped it off.

WALCOTT: His childhood soon became filled with restrictions and rejections. But leaving Germany was out of the question. Massaquoi says he and his mother were too poor to travel. With no other blacks around to identify with, Massaquoi developed a fascination with Nazism, especially with a group known as the Hitler Youth.

MASSAQUOI: The Hitler Youth was an organization that had the boys marching through the streets blowing trumpets and fanfares and beating drums and walking around with flags waving and that sort of thing. And they would go on overnight hikes and all the kinds of things that appeal -- that are sort of Boy Scout like with, of course, plenty of political indoctrination on the side.

WALCOTT: But Massaquoi was not allowed to join the group. One of his teachers told him black children were not welcome.

MASSAQUOI: Being told that I could not join, that, to me, at the time, was the hardest thing for me to face because I wanted so much to be one of them.

WALCOTT: It was often Massaquoi's teachers who reminded him he was not one of them. One even made a not-so-veiled threat on his life.

MASSAQUOI: He said when we are done with the Jews, you will be next. And I knew that the Jews were not treated kindly. I knew that Jews went into concentration camps. I knew that Jews were maligned and that their shops were destroyed and they were driven out of their businesses and that sort of thing. So I had seen much of that. WALCOTT: Massaquoi credits his own survival to pure luck. He says even though he was routinely spotted by German soldiers, neither he, nor his mother, were ever approached by the authorities.

But life remained difficult for Massaquoi, especially as he moved into adolescence. In school, he routinely faced vicious remarks and racist name-calling. Even though he was a good student, he was not allowed to go to high school. And when other German teenagers started dating, Massaquoi knew that was out of the question for him.

MASSAQUOI: I had this hanging over me throughout my childhood and later, and especially during my teens when it was made clear to me that if I ever got caught with an Aryan girl in any kind of romantic situation that it could mean either sterilization or execution.

WALCOTT: By the time he grew more aware of the Nazi regime's true nature, Germans were at war and Massaquoi's life became even more of a delicate game of survival. He and his mother were nearly killed when British forces leveled Hamburg in 1943. The apartment where they lived was completely destroyed.

After some 200 air attacks, the government started evacuating the people of Hamburg to other parts of the country. Massaquoi and his mother boarded a train for the German countryside where they stayed with his mother's relatives. There, Massaquoi witnessed prisoner convoys passing through the village on the way to a concentration camp. A fate he managed to avoid, he says, because he fell under the German radar.

MASSAQUOI: Blacks were so few throughout Germany that they were not part of the German priority -- the priority for killing people. We blacks were not a threat in the sense that the Germans perceived Jews to be a threat.

WALCOTT: When the war finally ended, Germany was in ruins. Massaquoi was able to save his mother and himself from starvation by playing saxophone in clubs that cater to American soldiers. He eventually left Germany for Africa and later immigrated to the United States.

These days, Massaquoi calls the Bayou home. His life in New Orleans, a far cry from the working class neighborhoods of Hamburg.

And even though he knows his life was constantly in danger, Massaquoi still has some warm feelings for his childhood home. He says age and experience have taught him that the Nazis did not hold a monopoly on hate.

MASSAQUOI: Racism is almost -- you see it everywhere throughout the world. You see it in Rwanda and Burundi. You see it in Kosovo. You see it in Northern Ireland. You see it, you know, you name it and there's racism. You see it raise its ugly head again in Germany now with the Neo-Nazis, the so-called skinheads, and we have the same problem here.

So racism is a universal thing and I think all people -- all decent people in the world have to stay vigilant to make sure that the kinds of excesses that happened in Nazi Germany will not reoccur.


WALCOTT: Of course the atrocities that took place during the Second World War would hardly be the last mankind would witness -- far from it. Here in the West, there are many people still feeling the ripple effects of a war that took place on Asian soil.

Now, the experience of a woman whose life would forever be altered by the Vietnam War.


(voice-over): To many around the world it was the conflict that seemed to last forever: Vietnam. The country's war with France lasted almost 10 years, the war with the Americans another 20. But for one Vietnamese family, the battles never really ended.

KIM-CHI TYLER, FILMMAKER: See, like, how it edits? See all the clips? See that?

WALCOTT: It is the deep scars of the Vietnam War that inspired American filmmaker Kim-Chi Tyler to return to her native Vietnam in search of the painful truth behind events that changed the course of her life.

TYLER: War is a horrible thing. It's a horrible, horrible thing for relationships, families.

WALCOTT: Tyler's documentary "Chac" was named after her late mother. Chac means strong in Vietnamese, an appropriate name, Tyler says, for a woman whose inner strength became a central theme in the film.

TYLER: The memories I have of my mother are not conventional. In fact, I barely knew her. She was pensive and quiet. She never said she loved me, yet somehow, I always knew she did.

WALCOTT: "Chac" is a story about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese family. Tyler decided to make the film after the death of her mother and American stepfather. She says after they died, she became desperate for information about her mother. Tyler says her film was long overdue.

TYLER: So after the Vietnam War ended, there were a lot of films about the war, a lot of films about Americans -- you know, soldier's point of view of the war. And I rarely saw a Vietnamese family being portrayed how this war that shouldn't have been there affected this one family -- this one very simple family in a very, you know, small village.

WALCOTT: For Tyler, the making of "Chac" was a labor of love. The project took her back to the place of her birth, a remote village in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Tyler and her assistant had to adjust to months filming in one of the most rural parts of Vietnam. But the physical challenges paled in comparison to the mental hurdles she faced trying to get her proud Vietnamese relatives to speak openly about the past.

Family members eventually started to open up, allowing Tyler to finally start to untangle some complicated family roots. She was born in 1966 to parents in an arranged marriage -- the results of a deal made between two families during the Vietnamese War with the French. Tyler's maternal grandmother lost her husband and was left alone to raise seven children in poverty.

TYLER: So what she had to do was she had to give away one of her daughters to a wealthier family in exchange for land. That would be my mother. And she did not love my father at all, but the marriage became -- you know they have kids. It was during the times where women cannot choose their husbands.

WALCOTT: Tyler says at one point her mother fled the village after being repeatedly beaten by Tyler's father. She eventually returned, but soon after that, the Vietnam War broke out and it became her father's turn to run.

TYLER: So then the Americans came and then the French War became the war against the Americans. And my father was a rice farmer. He did not want to choose sides. He wanted to stay alive. So he was away from the family as well, but instead of fighting, he was just hiding from the war. So that left my mother alone to raise me and my brother. We were very, very young. I don't -- I think I was like one or two.

WALCOTT: With no husband around and two children to raise, Chac left her children behind and headed to the big city.

TYLER: You know so she went to the city. She went to Saigon. She had to do whatever she can to survive, so she became a prostitute.

WALCOTT: Tyler says her mother returned to the small village twice after leaving it -- both times to reclaim her children. While living in Saigon with her children, Tyler's mother met and married an American, Earl Tyler.

The family was separated briefly after the fall of Saigon when all Americans had to quickly evacuate the country. Chac Tyler managed to bribe her way out of Vietnam and she and her children had to live in a makeshift refugee camp in Guam until her husband found them and sponsored them into the United States.

Tyler says her mother's ingenuity was a product of a woman who developed survival instincts over the course of a difficult life.

TYLER: Well, I guess credit to her for being strong. But I also -- you know I was -- as a child when you grew up in a country and when you know there was a war, you sort of -- you sort of just grow up by yourself and be incredibly aware of what's going on.

WALCOTT: Five years after they officially became Americans, tragedy struck the family again. Chac was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was just 41 years old when she died, leaving her children in the care of their stepfather. With her mother gone, Tyler's life in Vietnam remained a distant memory, but that all changed when her stepfather died.

TYLER: Well, it wasn't important to -- for me to meet my biological father until my stepfather died. He -- you know he died in 1995 and my whole world just crumbled.

WALCOTT: After the deaths of the only parents she had ever known, Tyler became very depressed and increasingly haunted by memories of her former home. But she says making her film has been a tremendous healing process during which she found redemption for her extended Vietnamese family -- a family that had been victimized by circumstances beyond their control.

TYLER: The war changed a lot of lives, you know, and it changed my family completely. It began with my grandfather and then it went to my father and then my mother and then me, you know, it just changed. There's just this one family whose lives were completely changed because of the war -- you know a very long war that should never have been that long.

WALCOTT: Tyler has maintained a close relationship with her Vietnamese relatives and maintains ties to her community by teaching English to new immigrants in the Bronx. But, she says, the legacy of her war torn past will forever be a part of her life.

TYLER: Every time I cross the Mekong River I see your face. It was 20 years ago when you left the village where houses are made of leaves and in your arms you must have held me tightly. Together we crossed the river that changed our lives forever.


WALCOTT: War changes everything. This was especially true for Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp. She chronicled her experiences in a diary. And even today, her writings serve as a call for peace for all generations.


KATHY NELLIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For her 13th birthday, Anne Frank received a diary, a place to record her private thoughts and feelings. Her first entry expresses her expectations.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE AS VOICE OF ANNE FRANK: I hope I will able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

NELLIS: Three weeks later, Anne Frank went into hiding with her family. The German Jewish teenager lived in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The country was occupied by the Nazis and World War II was raging.

JEFFREY STRELZIK, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: Germany and the Nazis were taking over in Holland and in Amsterdam and in many other places. And that's why they were scared that they would be taken and put into labor camps or into concentration camps. NELLIS: Anne's diary is a chronicle of life in hiding. The story is part of the eighth grade curriculum at Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. These teens are the same age as Anne when she was taken into seclusion.

DANI FERRER, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: How she was taken away from her friends, and I think we can relate to something like that how hard it would be at this age.

DEBORAH WESTERMAN, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: It teaches how you can't take things for granted. Like one day she was living happily at home, she had everything she wanted, she had friends and she was happy, and the next day she was in hiding. She couldn't talk out loud, talk too loudly, afraid that people were going to find out that they were there and be taken away.

NELLIS: During the war, the Nazis killed millions of people, including six million Jewish men, women and children -- more than two- thirds of the Jews living in Europe.

For 25 months, Anne, her family and their companions remained shut away in a secret struggle to survive. They were taken away by the Nazis in 1944. Anne died of typhus in a concentration camp. The teenager never knew how famous her entries would become.

UNKNOWN FEMALE AS VOICE OF ANNE FRANK: Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old school girl.

NELLIS: But she was no ordinary 13-year-old school girl.

(on camera): Since it was first published in 1947, the book has sold more than 25 million copies around the world and it's been translated into 67 languages.

SALLEY LEVINE, SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER: I think the book, "Diary of Anne Frank," creates a very accurate, historical picture. We talk about the fact that there were some wonderful people and rescuers but that that wasn't the prevalent way that things went for most European Jews.

NELLIS (voice-over): Teachers and students say it's more than a story of Jewish persecution, it's a lesson in perseverance.

RABBI ALAN BERKOWITZ, JUDAIC STUDIES, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: Anne Frank speaks to the world about looking out for each other and doing the right thing.

EMERALD FEINDBERG, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: She always has hope and stuff. She never gives up. Like when -- even when she's in the concentration camp, she never gave up.

KOLIN SIMON, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: It's probably so universally popular because it's about a girl -- a young girl -- a child that had to go through so much suffering because of something that she couldn't control.

NELLIS: The book is more than a history lesson, more than a lesson in Jewish heritage, Anne's words speak volumes.

JAMIE ZEBRAK, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: "Sometime this terrible war will be over. Surely the time will come when we are people again and not just Jews." I think here she's saying that after the war, she hopes that people will learn that that's not -- you can -- that's not the way you can treat people, and people should look at people for who they are and not their religion or race or anything.

BERKOWITZ: It may carry the most important universal message of what people can do to each other if we're not vigilant, if we don't look out for each other, if we don't care for each other.

BLAKE SUNSHINE, STUDENT, GREENFIELD HEBREW ACADEMY: People need to learn not to hate people who are different and that we're all pretty much the same and that nothing like this should ever happen again because it was really horrible the first time it happened.

NELLIS: Fifty-seven years ago, another Jewish teenager had the same wish for the world.

UNKNOWN FEMALE AS VOICE OF ANNE FRANK: Until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again.

NELLIS: Above all, "The Diary of Anne Frank" is an entreaty for tolerance, a prayer for peace.

Kathy Nellis, CNN, Atlanta, Georgia.


WALCOTT: The effects of war are profound, that's obvious, but perhaps the greater lesson here is less obvious. It's the depth of resilience found in the human spirit. Today, we have met some people who have suffered greatly in their lives, but their words, their works and their spirits have risen above the pain.

For now, we'd like to thank the people of the Carter Center for sharing their facilities with us. But mostly, a heartfelt thanks to all of those who have shared their life stories.

For now, I'm Shelley Walcott. We'll see you next time on NEWSROOM.



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