Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Sunni-Shia struggle spreading

The murderous Sunni-Shia battle in Iraq is starting to infect other parts of the Middle East. It's spreading in insidious ways: In people's conversations, in the ways Arabs in the region look at events in neighboring nations, in the decisions some are making to take up arms several countries away from home.

On a recent visit to Jordan, I was speaking with a man we often work with on the ground, a Jordanian Sunni, who is as far from a radical Islamist as you can find.

"What the Shias are doing in Iraq, it's making Arabs not want to support Hezbollah in Lebanon."

I was dumbfounded.

"What they did to Saddam Hussein?" I asked.

"That and other things. Nasrallah is going to have to back down with the Lebanese government because people don't want to support the Shias as much as after the war with Israel."

The internal clash between Sunnis and Shias was spreading like a cancer, I thought.

This man was no fan of Saddam Hussein, and I can't say I ever meet anyone in the Middle East who is; yet the grainy cellphone images of his hanging, and the taunts and cries of "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" beamed around the Middle East and the world, struck a chord among Sunnis in faraway places across the region. The images hit a raw nerve.

Drinking coffee in a hotel lobby on an unrelated assignment, I felt the full impact of the shift in the region. The Sunni-Shia divide is experiencing a region-wide revival more than 1,400 years after it first led to a split among Muslims.

I remembered the story of the son of an Egyptian banker, a young man in his thirties who was married with two children. Increasingly religious and radical, he one day told his father that he was traveling to Iraq to fight. Against whom? The Americans, the Shias, you name it. He disappeared a few months ago, leaving his young family behind. The last time the father heard from him, I was told, the son was heading to Damascus. He has had no news from him since.

Growing up in a Syrian family in France, I don't once remember hearing the differences between Sunnis and Shias discussed in any great detail. Occasionally, "a Sunni married a Shia," or a Christian man converted to marry a Muslim woman, and that was that. I never learned more than the basics about why the original schism occurred because, in my family, it was simply not considered relevant to my understanding of political and social events in the region.

In my travels across the Middle East as early as last year, I can't think of an instance when a Sunni or a Shia outside of Iraq openly expressed feelings of hostility toward members of the other sect. It was something that was happening in Iraq - something tragic - but a conflict that remained contained within the borders of the war-torn country.

That was the Middle East of the past. Today, the battle lines have multiplied exponentially. It's not "the Arab world against the West" of the Iraq invasion aftermath, it's the Sunnis versus the Shias, the Christians with the Sunnis against the Christians with the Shias, the Sunnis against the West, the Shias with the West, those against the West, the Druze with the Sunnis against the Shias, and the list goes on. The overall conflict is dividing itself into hundreds of splinters. It's not bloody everywhere, of course, but the tension is sewing the seeds of what could explode into other struggles in many other places across the region.

Take Iran and Saudi Arabia: The two regional powers have come to represent the Sunni-Shia divide and despite efforts to smooth things over, tensions still run deep.

Repeated comments from the Saudi King Abdallah who reigns over the bastion of Sunni Islam are binging the Sunni-Shia divide into sharp focus. In a recent interview, he issued a veiled message to Iran that Sunnis would not convert to Shiaism and that his country knows its "role as the state where the message (of Islam) began."

Meanwhile, two senior Saudi clerics declared this month that Shiites were infidels and heretics, describing them as "the most vicious enemy of Muslims."

As for the open battle, look no further than Lebanon. What began as a mainly political struggle between the Hezbollah (Shia)-led opposition and the Sunni/Christian/Druze government of Fouad Siniora is taking an increasing sectarian tone in spontaneous clashes between the youngest of Lebanon's citizens. The Beirut Arab University tiff that turned into an all-out deadly battle raised fears the Sunni-Shia clash was erupting without warning, among those with no memory of the civil war that devastated Lebanon for 15 years. Young, angry people fighting for what they believe to be their identity.

Brace yourself, without strong intelligent leadership in the region to turn things around quickly, many say there can only be more conflict to come.

Young lament the dead in Lebanon

I searched the girl’s eyes for a glimmer of understanding.

Funerals are no one’s favorite place, but as a journalist I get to go to more than most.

They can be quite revealing of a situation, at multiple levels, telling you not just about the victim, but the society at large, and this one -- the burial of a young man killed in last week’s clashes between pro- and anti- government protestors at Beirut’s Arab University -- was going to be no different.

On this day, as we drove out of the center of Beirut, the roads were quiet, people still cautious after the blaze of violence that killed four and wounded more than 150 people at the University.

Our route took us along the old airport highway, once bordered by a beautiful beach, now a dense forest of semi-legal apartments, houses, stores and auto workshops that sprang up when Shias from southern Lebanon poured into the capital, after the Israeli invasion in 1982.

A sprawling shantytown capable of keeping secrets: It’s widely believed that American, British, French and other western hostages passed, without notice or remark, through the labyrinthine back streets and alleyways of this urban jungle.

That wasn’t on my mind, however, as we pulled up yards away from what used to be the golden sands. My first impression was not of poverty, rather more of general abandonment. This was a world apart from the wealthy mansions on the mountains a few miles away, looking down – in every sense of the words – on this and other neighborhoods like it.

Within seconds of stepping from our vehicle, we were accosted by a man on scooter with a two-way radio. Who were we, what were we doing, he asked and we told him, CNN, here to cover the funeral. He politely asked us to wait and returned a few moments later with two burly men. Hezbollah security. They were controlling the funeral and we needed their permission to film. It was granted in an instant. It’s not always that easy. I later found out our chaperones were told we were “untouchable”-- that is, not matter how angry mourners got, we were not to be hassled. And they could not have been more diligent, keeping us ahead of the crowd, and those times when we slipped back, maneuvering us with ease through the tight packed arms and elbows in to the best position to shoot.

Hezbollah’s leadership had clearly decided it was in their interests to let journalists see the pain and suffering in their community. They had also quite clearly decided not to let us film the guns fired at the graveside. I couldn’t see them, but I could sure hear them and see the smoke rise over the gathered heads.

Hezbollah has a shrewd and tightly- controlled media operation, enough to put some
corporations and even governments we deal with to shame.

But if our access was managed, the emotions of the dead man’s family were not. His wife, pregnant with his unborn child, called for revenge. His brother, who had been carried by two men through the length of the wake collapsed, a shambles, no more a man, slumped legs dangling in to the freshly dug hole. He had to be taken away.

But this wasn’t the emotional trigger I had feared. What brought tears to the eyes of even the most embittered of onlookers was the dead man’s daughter. She could barely have been three. She came with her brother, perhaps all of five.

Her mother, sitting by the grave flailed about, wailing, the crowd echoed to get the children away. They stood what felt like an eternity looking at they knew not what. The hole, the crowd, their mother, the men holding them. I searched the girl’s eyes for a glimmer of understanding.

Only raw, red swelling, a mirror of her mother. Next to me, tears ran down a translator's face. In that instant shone every reason not to go to war.

As we moved away, out of the human press surrounding the grave, we came to a different part of the crowd. Their murmuring washed over me like a gentle wave and the intensity of the isolated graveside solitude receded.

It was then I realized that while most of the faces at the graveside were young, the faces of those here in this group were older. They’d seen it all before. Buried generations of brothers, fathers, sons and cousins before. Been through a civil war, knew what could come. It was the young who were at the grave side, it was the young who were lamenting the dead, it was the young simmering in the hatred of the other side that accompanies loss in this way.

If what is happening in Lebanon heralds the start of a wider conflict to come, as many fear, then a fresh cycle of it was forged here in this cemetery.

As large as several football fields, it is already a final accounting for many who’d left their homes in the south during the last civil war. As we exited the graveyard and turned up a tiny alley, we passed the victim’s brother, sitting on a green plastic chair outside a store, his feet resting on another chair.

Some color had returned to his face. As we walked on, I thought about how elsewhere in Lebanon that day, other young men were being buried, young men killed in the university clashes. More brothers, wives, mothers -- more children-- bereaved and bereft and not just where Hezbollah could open the door and put them on display, but from other traditions too.

Everyone loses. Hard not to conclude the seeds of the next conflict are being sown.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Reading tea leaves in Havana
Covering the subtle twists and turns in Cuban politics is a bit like reading tea leaves.

It’s been six months since Fidel Castro handed power over to his younger brother Raul – in theory a temporary measure while he recovered from intestinal surgery. He hasn’t made a public appearance since then and we haven’t even had any photos or video of him since October.

At dinner with foreign journalists talk is all about Fidel, his health and the opaque world of Cuban politics. We are overnight experts on diverticulitis and peritonitis – conditions reportedly ailing Fidel. The 8-page daily Communist paper Granma has turned into a kind of oracle and we all comb through its pages seeking signs. Is a three-page spread on one of Fidel’s victory speeches an indication that the government already thinks of the ailing leader in past tense or a sign that he is still calling at least some of the shots?

Everyone has a reliable source who turns out to be wrong. This was one of the few weekends we weren’t woken out of our sleep because someone in Miami heard on a ham radio that el Comandante had died or started chemotherapy.

Fidel and what comes next also dominate conversations with Cubans. Many yearn for economic changes but worry they could bring crime and drugs and greater inequalities. Their fears and hopes are perhaps exacerbated by the lack of information.

The official media has no health updates or stories on where the government is going. Instead, this past week has been all about the 154th birthday of Jose Marti. The poet and patriot died during the fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain.

Fidel has always said he didn’t want to encourage a cult of the personality. He may be the only leader 70 percent of Cubans have ever known, but I have never seen a statue of him anywhere. Some see Marti as a kind of stand-in. Busts of the mustachioed freedom fighter are literally all over the island. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day cards are inscribed with quotes from Marti.

As students and doctors and farmers across Cuba laid their wreaths at the base of Marti monuments this last week, I couldn’t help wondering what will happen the day Fidel goes. It’s easy to imagine bearded statues erected next to Marti and quotes from his lengthy speeches appearing on greeting cards. Easier than reading the political tea leaves.

From CNN Havana Producer Shasta Darlington.
Friday, January 26, 2007
The lives they left behind
There is no one word to describe a battlefield or the aftermath.

For the most part, all you find are traces of civilian lives, the lives that they left behind. Dusty photo frames, unfinished meals, a child's shoe.

During the November 9 battle for Haifa Street in Baghdad, all that was left behind in the luxury apartments U.S. and Iraqi troops had taken position in were these small clues of the life that once was Haifa Street.

Outside the firefight was still raging, an explosion shook the building, and someone yelled "mortar!" I was staring at a little yellow sequined flip flop. It was probably around hour five of what would end up being a 10-hour gun battle ­ and I was already exhausted. And so when I saw the dirty and dusty couch in the poorly lit entrance to one of these apartments and the unit that I was with paused for a moment - I sank into it. And then I saw the flip flop ­ discarded and dusty. Who was she? I pictured her as being slender, maybe eight years old, slightly curly hair in pigtails. Where did she go? Was she still alive? I could imagine her laughter echoing in the hallway and I wondered if it ever would again.

Back out on patrol the day after the second battle for Haifa in as many weeks - a quick embed facilitated by the 1-23 Stryker Battalion that we had covered the fighting with - we were finally able to snatch brief conversations with some of the civilians that endured life on Haifa street.

There's were stories of killing at the hands of the "others" (the insurgents,) fear of "down there" (where most of the fighting was centralized,) and raw anger at just about everything.

On the southern tip of Haifa life looked almost normal. Kids played soccer in front of the Stryker vehicles as if a major battle had not just raged for eight hours, as if it might not just flare up again.

"Down there" - an unnerving ghost town. Shops shut, laundry still fluttering from deserted apartments. Just the boots and chatter of Iraqi and U.S. forces and the knowledge that something probably still lurks in these buildings.

In the slums behind the luxury apartment complexes that line Haifa, not far from where a precision guided missile had flattened a building that insurgent machine gunners had holed up in, two women were walking around.

What were they thinking walking around what was once alley-to-alley fighting? They were in fact fuming. At the helplessness of their situation, at life that forced them to endure mortars falling in their backyard and snipers, at visions of dogs gnawing at dead bodies. They were stuck with nowhere else to go and no one to help them.
Bangs and booms in Baghdad
The background noise of Baghdad isn't quite like the background noise of, say, New York's traffic, or living under an airport flight path.

Here, the "noise" is gunfire, occasional mortars, IED's and car bombs.

Over the past few weeks back in Iraq for the eighth time, the car bomb booms have been audible almost daily. You begin to be able to identify roughly how far away they are ("Wow, that was only maybe two miles away") and in what district.

Gunfire becomes recognizable in terms of both distance and type of firearm - AK 47s have a pretty distinctive sound, and when you hear the "crack" then you know it's pretty close. "Cracks" are common.

This past week or so we've also had a grandstand view of the Haifa Street battles a mile from our Bureau (although not quite as grandstand as CNN's Arwa Damon, who was with U.S. troops at the time.)

There was the familiar thudding the heavy caliber .50 caliber machine gun, the "whomp-bang" of mortars (or "whoosh" if they're outgoing,) and the louder, more distinct bang of a hellfire missile fired from an Apache helicopter swooping overhead.

When it comes to car bombs, our windows will routinely rattle, although today was the first time I've felt rather unnerved by one.

We were sitting at our computers in our Bureau when there was a terrific explosion and the windows more than rattled - I was convinced they were going to fall in on my back.

The building shook - really shook. The exterior kitchen door blew open and all of us - all "used" to bangs and booms - instinctively ducked.

It was a suicide car bomber (targeting an Iraqi Army patrol) who detonated his vehicle not more than 500 yards from our bureau.

Two people died, more than a dozen were wounded.

We soon returned to "normal," but it was the closest bomb to our building I can recall. A wake up of sorts.

And once again a reminder that ordinary Iraqis are facing this carnage every day. We keep a white board with daily death tolls, differentiating between bomb victims and the ubiquitous "bodies dumped in the streets, most showing signs of torture." 45 here, 30 (a good day) there, one day this month there were 71.

It's a macabre running total, but we all are intensely aware because of our daily contact with local folk that these are people. Husbands, fathers, sons, daughters, mothers.

I sometimes wonder if folks back home see them that way. It's easy to see a scoreboard rather than a face.

-- From Michael Holmes, CNN Anchor
Beirut on the brink
My first big mistake today was I trusted that however close Hezbollah wants to push Lebanon towards the brink of crisis to bring down Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government, they would know when to dial back tension and head off an irreversible slide to civil war. That was my first mistake.

In the morning I headed to the office leaving my flak jacket in the hotel feeling secure that without sanction, violence would not escalate and I wouldn’t need it. The next mistake would come later.

The day could not have felt more normal. It began in Hezbollah’s heartland, Beirut’s southern suburbs. Traffic was a little slow but otherwise life amid the ruins of last summer's 34-day war with Israel was humming along. I met a man who has excellent insights in to Hezbollah and a mother who is still waiting for her house in the South Lebanon to be rebuilt. From both I felt their intense dislike for the current government. This anger was much stronger than last time I was here several months ago.

Back in the office later I was writing their story, that’s when the call came to head out to the gun battle at Beirut’s Arab University. I was about to compound my first mistake and make my second. With check points being thrown up it would have cost too much time to grab my flak jacket from the hotel, I decided I should go immediately to the trouble. There was no time to lose. Oh and the second error, I left my satellite phone behind. I had two cell phones, what could go wrong?

The situation was intense, Lebanese army soldiers were firing automatic burst after automatic burst of gunfire in to the air to clear rival, pro and anti-government rock throwers off the streets. I didn’t feel in immediate danger, the shots were in the air, indeed I had good cover from a high brick wall, but I knew at that moment my faith Lebanon’s multi-factional leaders have this country under control was wrong. Violence had flared, who knows why. The nation, particularly some volatile youths, are on a hair trigger to tip the country so far in to violence no leaders can not dial it back. I should have taken my flak jacket because the brakes that hold Lebanon back from spontaneous conflict are off. I should have taken my satellite phone too because the cellular networks were either jammed by callers or jammed by officials to thwart a wider and more coordinated violence.

At the end of the day I’m realizing the hobbled choreography that keeps Beirut one stumble away from a slippery path to its old civil war is losing its footing. Leaders seem to be reaching the limits of their powers of control. However the day looks tomorrow you can be sure I’ll have my flak jacket and much more when I leave the hotel.

More fool me. I should have known better.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
A child's story
It’s funny what makes a connection. I was sure that most people wouldn’t give a damn about the plight of a small 6 year old girl in far off Cambodia. The news media is so saturated with misery and pain, why would this story make any impact? But I think Srey’s vulnerability and the sheer horror of what she has endured has sent a collective shiver down the spines of parents across the net. As I write this, some 900,000 of you have logged on to read about her story. Some of you have contacted me personally to ask if you can help. One of you actually wants to adopt her. It’s comforting to think people out there care. So what can you do to help? Well Somaly’s charity needs money. Here's her Web site.

The children she is caring for sleep in a large barn – cramped together without even separate bedrooms. They have plenty of land and need money to extend this shelter to enable them to take in other children. But the problems in Cambodia are huge. The UN estimates there could be 55,000 prostitutes and Unicef thinks that perhaps 35 % are underage. That’s almost 20,000 children. Think about it for a second. Cambodia needs more women like Somaly. It needs an army of them. But there are plenty of NGOs there that are doing a great job: Unicef, Save the Children, ECPAT etc. Give them your money, give them your time, lobby your politicians, take an interest and keep caring.

(Watch my report on how one woman has saved dozens of children from brothels.)
Nightmares and souvenirs
I rarely dream. Well ... I probably do dream, but I rarely remember if I do. So I was quite surprised Tuesday morning when I woke up in a panic.

I'm here in the beautiful Swiss mountain resort of Davos to produce a panel at the World Economic Forum that will later air on CNN. The program is called "CNN Connects: Our Networked World," and is hosted by Becky Anderson. A great deal of time and effort has gone into preparing the panel, which is bringing together some of the top computer and Internet executives in the world.

So back to my dream:

I arrived back home in Atlanta and realized I had forgotten to buy gifts for my husband and two young children. I was devastated. My week in Davos had simply flown by and I never had a moment -- not one single moment -- to shop for gifts. And then ... in my dream ... I suddenly received an e-mail from my boss. It went like this:

"Lisa, WHERE ARE YOU? We're starting rehearsals now and the show airs tomorrow, we need you here now!"

As the message sunk in, I realized I had left Davos five days too early!

And that's when I woke up, relieved to find myself still in cold and snowy Switzerland.

Oh, and in case you're wondering ... I stopped by a small souvenir shop Tuesday afternoon!

-- From Lisa Cohen, Supervising Producer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Freezing my socks off in Davos
Climate change has turned into "the issue" here in Davos. For me, the jury is still out on who is setting the agenda around here -- is it WEF's list of sub-themes in the extremely detailed Davos program, or is it the media obsession about chosen topics which is creating the buzz? It's probably chicken and egg and I'm not sure it much matters as long as the delegates have something to talk about and the journos have something to report. The lack of snow at the beginning of the week gave us the perfect excuse to explain that climate change would be grabbing much of the attention. As if we had a clear example on our very own doorstep. But let me tell you, the snow has well and truly arrived and temperatures are dropping fast.

One of the low points last year, when I was producing the evening shows, was the question from London about the "smoke" coming out of Charles and Becky's mouths. "It's condensation" I explained wearily. "Can we get rid of it?" they asked. "Well here's the thing ... it's minus 25 degrees, I can barely speak and neither can the anchors, I've forgotten what it's like to be able to feel my hands and feet and our heaters have broken down. So er ... the condensation right now is the least of my worries and frankly, out of my control." Those memories came flooding back today as I was back at the same liveshot position (raised on a platform this time and thus, comfortingly named "the gallows,") freezing my socks off and wondering when I could head back in for a much needed cup of tea. It's very glamorous, this TV stuff. I look like a Michelin Man in a million layers, my extremeties are blue from cold and all I can dream of is a hot drink and hot bath. Not likely while we've airtime to fill --- dream on!
Davos: A day in the life
After one day in a new location, you've begun to find your way around; after two and a half, when everyone else has only just arrived, you swan around as though you own the place. So it's particularly embarrassing to be turned away in the queues to get into the conference centre because your pass is 'invalid'. Suddenly the aggressive black boots worn by the swathes of security guards look slightly more sinister. Plus you get scornful looks from others in the queue, as though you're trying to pull a fast one or have something dangerous in your back-pocket.

That is unfortunately the hierarchy of Davos and as media attendees we are expected to know our place. Thus whilst the other delegates enjoy a welcome lunch two floors above us, we TV low-life are tucked away in our basement workspace wondering how to feed ourselves. The staple is the pizzeria just above the conference centre, where everything is drenched in oil and, as of any ski resort - reassuringly expensive. Otherwise at the live shot position where I stand banging my hands together until midnight, it's a diet of walnuts and Mozartkugeln.

Our truck engineer, the astonishing Edwin, is the most cheerful soul in Davos. From 5am until midnight he is a bundle of enthusiasm, across every technicality and generous with warming hugs and huge smiles. Let him be an example to us all when the shows get more and more busy and tempers, as I have been warned, become more and more frayed. I am a Davos first-timer, and those who've darkened its doors before tell me that I will without a doubt cry at some point during the week. This I consider a challenge and so far wonder why I ever would, though after two nights at the live shot position I can understand you might cry from cold. Even that Edwin has an answer before. This year he's rigged up a heated platform upon which the anchors and the guests can stand - the ultimate in live-shot luxury. And rest assured, that's where you'll find me every second we're not on air.

Posted by Diana Magnay, CNN International Business Editor
What's the buzz? Snow idea!

Me with Executive Producer Sonia Sequeira

So it’s all happening. We’ve queued to shake hands with the World Economic Forum’s Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab and toasted this year’s annual meeting at its traditional "Welcome Cocktail." The four-and-a-half-day frenzy that is Davos 2007 is under way.

Above all, it can’t be too long before one of my anchor colleagues asks me on air "So, Charles, what’s the buzz at Davos?"

I have a big problem with this question. Yes, I always blather out some kind of answer, but the fact is, there isn’t generally any one single issue or viewpoint that dominates the annual meeting here.

A lot of people seem to think Davos is some kind of parliament where everyone meets in one huge room and plots the advancement of capitalism. It isn’t. Everyone goes to the gala soiree on the Saturday night, but beyond that there are literally hundreds of official sessions, some drawing big crowds, others just a few devoted souls.

And that’s not even mentioning the scores of rival attractions organised by big companies for their clients and friends, or the one-on-one meetings where business leaders thrash out big deals in the rarefied Alpine atmosphere. Everyone does different things when they get to Davos, and there are as many subjects of conversations as participants.

Unfortunately, even if there really were one thing that all 2,400 of them talked about, I’d probably never get to hear about it. This time around, CNN’s workspace is down in the concrete bunker below the Davos congress centre. Every Swiss town has one, designed to shelter its population from any nuclear attack and its aftermath, sealed off from the word above by impressively thick doors with chunky steel catches. Not the best place for journalists: if you’re trying to keep your ear to the ground, it’s best not to be several storeys below ground.

That said, there’ve been two recent WEF annual meetings where people have talked a lot about one thing. One was the one held – exceptionally – in New York City a few months after 9/11. I wasn’t there, but I’d think the challenge of terrorism and its relationship with Islam was front, left and center. And the second one was a year later, back in Davos: The United States was poised to go to war in Iraq and Secretary of State Colin Powell came here to explain why – above all, to sceptical Europeans.

And this year? Global warming looked like it had a chance – especially when the CNN team we all arrived in Switzerland to find it unseasonably warm and devoid of snow, except right up the mountains. A snowless Davos would have been just the kind of striking anecdotal evidence that might wake up Big Business.

But just before the participants arrived in their gaz-guzzling limousines and helicopters, along came a big belt of colder weather and clouds full of snow and – guess what? – Davos is now as white as ever it was, so perhaps we can get back to our cocoon and leave the task of rolling back climate change to our grandchildren. Talking about the weather is so unoriginal anyway.

So what am I going to say when somebody pops that awkward question about the talk of the Forum? Maybe this time I’ll just have to tell the truth.
Branscombe Beach memoirs
The wreck of the Napoli and the hordes of people scavenging its cargo from the beaches of Devon have been big news this week. Channel-hopping in my hotel room here in Davos I found the familiar sight of Branscombe Beach popping up on late-night television news bulletins from all round Europe.

I say “familiar” because it’s a spot I know and love, and I am dismayed to find it pitched into the headlines for very distressing reasons. Branscombe beach is a little over an hour’s drive from my home in South-West England, and my wife and I first discovered it one hot afternoon in August 2001. We were on the last day of a long hike along the East Devon coastline; to come across such a beautiful secluded spot and swim in its gentle blue-green waves was bliss.

I’ve been back a couple of times since, most recently on a sultry Sunday afternoon just over four months ago. We parked on an obscure country lane and my wife and I and our two Labrador Retrievers (sniffing the salt air excitedly – Labs adore the sea and can smell it from miles away) made our way to the beach on foot, threading our way through woodland echoing with birdsong and along a coastal path with views over the English Channel.

When you get down to the place itself there’s no shop, no pub, no car park, not even a hut selling teas. It’s a shingle beach, which deters the crowds and means the place is never crowded, even on a summer weekend.

This bitter January, though, the hordes have come to Branscombe beach, reviving one of the oldest traditions of the South-West: plundering wrecks. Centuries ago, wreckers used lanterns to lure ships onto the rocks deliberately; this time the elements did it for them.

I just hope that once the last containers have been looted of their BMW motorbikes and perfume, the dead fishes and sea-birds have been cleared away, the shampoo and other debris have been picked up by volunteers or washed out to sea, and the insurance companies have settled some very big bills, the beach will go back to being to exactly what it was: a place that made you feel that there’s nowhere better on a fine day. I doubt it, though.
The new Queen of Hollywood

Me with Helen Mirren

To me, Queen Elizabeth II is a mysterious character. Most people never get to meet her. Those privileged enough to be graced by her presence are usually awarded with no more than a fleeting smile or handshake. I’ve seen the Queen once from outside Buckingham Palace with thousands of onlookers (mostly tourists,) but I normally rely on the tabloids for latest photos and movements of Her Majesty. So when asked to set up an interview with actress Helen Mirren – the silver-haired English actress who played Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" - I was eager to find out what she had to do to prepare for this role. How did she portray this highly-publicized figure with so little insight into her personal life?

Hours before our interview, the Academy Awards revealed this year’s nominees. Mirren was nominated in the Best Actress in the Leading Role category with other much bigger names. Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench, but she’s widely seen as the favorite. We showed up at the studio on the outskirts of London where she was filming her next movie, "Inkheart," and she met up with us shortly after the day’s filming wrapped. Didn’t take much time to get made up, and she looked every bit the same in person as in her movies.

Helen Mirren with Adrian Finighan

"Delicate" was my first impression of Helen Mirren, probably because of her petite, slim frame and soft demeanor. No entourage. No attitude. Cameramen Darren Bull and David Mcbride set up three cameras and plenty of lights to capture the best shots, and CNN anchor Adrian Finighan sat down with her for a one-on-one interview. Since there was a short queue of media waiting after us, we were initially given five minutes for the interview, however Helen seemed to be enjoying Adrian’s questions so much that her publicist let the time slip a bit. We ended up with about 10 minutes of usable material and edited two versions of the interview. Not bad for half a day’s work!

One thing I didn’t expect from this interview is ... now when I think of the Queen of England, I think of Helen Mirren.

Click here to watch highlights of the interview.

-- From Eileen Hsieh, CNN Producer
Climate change in action?

The mountaintop is barely covered with snow

It is rare when covering a story that doesn’t involve an immediate news event, such as a catastrophe, disaster or explosion that you get evidence of that which you are talking about in front of your very eyes.

But this year's delegates at the World Economic Forum can be in little doubt about the changing face of the world's climate -- they just need to look around them. Normally at this time of the year the snow on the mountainsides would be many feet deep – the base would be solid and skiers would be swooshing around in something approaching Alpine ecstasy.

That cannot be said this year. As my pictures show, much of the mountaintop is barely covered in anything like the normal amount of snow, and the reason is climate change and global warming.

Now some of you will say I am making a huge leap worthy of ski jumpers to take a few pics of poorly-snowed mountains and say this is climate disaster. So I asked on this morning's CNN Today, Professor Kiang from Peking University - a world expert on the subject - if this was the case. His answer left no room for doubt. Yes, this is just one small example of the climate change underway.

I wasn't satisfied, so I went back for another bash, less he had misunderstood my question (although there was no reason why he had.) Again the answer. Yes. By now, not unreasonably, he thought he was dealing with one of his duller students. Hadn’t he just answered that question in clear ringing tones?

The professor is a tolerant man. Yes again. Let there be no doubt. This is the sort of change we can expect to see in the years ahead.

I offer up this story not as a political statement nor position. That’s not my job. I offer it up because over the next few days the governmental leaders, business executives and NGOs will be debating the effect of global warming and climate change. As the head of the WEF, Klauss Schwab has said, this is one of the core issues on their agenda.

Well delegate. Look no further than the end of your nose – to be more precise at the mountain at the end of your nose. And now the debate can begin.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Meeting Leonardo

How I went in a few hours from my office chair to chatting with Leonardo DiCaprio is another story. But - you guessed - it has a lot to do with timing and a colleague asking me to help her and swap shift with her. Call it good karma, next thing I know, the gloomy London day that was Monday 22 of January - most depressing of the year, according to a research - takes a gleeful turn when I’m sent to interview the Hollywood actor and the cast of his latest movie "Blood Diamond."

The place is the Claridges, one of London’s more sophisticated hotels, an Art Deco jewel favorite of the Queen and rock royalty.

Sure I’m thrilled, but not exactly because of Leonardo’s blue eyes. I know him from his movies and his decade-long presence in the media. I’ve always thought of him as a "cool guy," someone who chose not to be consumed by fame and grinded by the Hollywood machine, an actor who at the peak of his career chose a courageous path rather than a more predictable and opportunistic one. So this is my tiny chance to see if that’s all true, to scratch beyond the glossy surface of the magazines and take a rare glimpse at the human being, not the semi-god spotted arm in arm with gorgeous models at the Oscars.

Oh, and I have five minutes to do that. Yes, five minutes to see the real Leonardo and hear about the movie, the idea, the controversial subject of blood diamonds financing wars in Africa, child soldiers, a black man looking for his son (Djimon Hounsou) and a white man (Leonardo DiCaprio) desperate for a way out of a life he has a lot of distaste for. We’re on a tight schedule today as the event organized at the Claridges is a so called "media junket," where a great number of journalists are invited on the same day, in the same place, to interview the movie’s cast. So my colleague Kendra and I patiently wait for our call, while frantic press agents scroll through a long list of names and, one by one, whisk each journalist into the interview rooms. What am I going to do, spit my ten-something questions like fire, so as not to steal precious time to his answers? But then it doesn’t go that way.

I enter the room and the studio lighting is so strong I can barely see DiCaprio sitting on a chair right in front of mine. He seems diminutive there, he looks boyish, good-looking of course, but in a very different way from the screen…more like a normal guy than a huge Hollywood star. I introduce myself and shake his hand: "Hi Leonardo" I say while pronouncing his name in my mother-tongue Italian, rolling that "rrr" and stretching the "e" the same way I would say Da Vinci’s name.

Cameras roll and so come the answers and it looks clear from the way he talks that he truly liked working on this highly charged movie. His character, Danny Archer, is a soldier of fortune who has been arrested for smuggling diamonds, not an immediately likeable man and a far cry from the one he impersonated in Titanic. As he sails through my questions, he seems genuine and so down to earth at times I almost forget I am talking to a Hollywood actor. There’s nothing self-conscious or overly guarded about him. I feel I don’t need to bring down walls, that this is a chat the same way I’d have with any other guy his age. Time is running out and I spit out the last question, trying to ignore his publicist who’s been giving me dirty looks for the last minute or so. She raises her hand and says "We have to stop here." I know … it’s her job. But I’m doing mine and look back at Leonardo and repeat my question. He says to her ‘It ok’ and answers what I’ve asked.

It’s the day before the Oscar nominations and though he steered away from the subject during the interview (how to blame him?), I stand up from my chair and whisper "good luck," leaving behind the bright lights of Leonardo’s set.

The calm before the storm
It's Monday and the whole CNN team from London and Atlanta have arrived in the Alpine ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum. And it's no mean feat getting everyone with luggage, cameras and edit gear up the mountain. Everyone has settled into their apartments and hotels and even better, the computers in our work space are actually working! Our trusty IT guru Sylvia has spent the entire day fielding questions that usually start with "Why can't I...?" or "Why won't it...?" and I swear the woman has the patience of a saint. When I was here in 2003, I don't think I even unpacked my laptop, it was all pen and paper. Possibly more to do with my tech incompetence than lack of IT support, but that's another story. Now we're all so reliant on files and e-mails and our own CNN systems that it's unthinkable not to be able to get onto the computer.

We go live in 90 minutes and the "bird" (slang for the satellite) is up and running. So far so good -- but for those of us who have been here before, we know it's just the calm before the storm. The WEF meeting officially begins on Wednesday and that's when the stress levels really start to rise. 2,400 delegates, 220 official sessions and a big media bun fight to schmooze the political and business elite. I choose to believe it's organised chaos -- but those watching from a distance might think otherwise. A lot of running around, trying to make sure you don't miss anything, shoving food down when you get a moment's rest, shouting for camera men -- you can't think where they've gone until you remember you sent them on a two camera shoot for a high-level interview about 20 minutes ago. The whole affair is one big juggling act.

So I'm trying to enjoy the relative peace and tranquility while it lasts -- I can almost feel the storm approaching.

-- From Executive Producer Sonia Sequeira
Monday, January 22, 2007
Hot air in Davos

This magnificent platform blows hot air right up my trouser leg.

I have a confession to make. I look forward to attending Davos with all the enthusiasm of a patient heading for root canal.

The reason is not the event itself: The fact is over the next few days I will have the chance to meet dozens of people who I would otherwise have to travel thousands of miles to schmooze. And I will meet people that would not usually come anywhere near me. Government ministers who are usually shielded by a bevy of advisers and minders, CEOs who usually travel in an entourage of private planes and six star hotels.

No, the reason is the cold, it’s as simple as that. I have the task of presenting the morning shows. And that means getting up at 0400 and standing outside anchoring from 0600-1000. At that time of the morning the sun is non-existent and the nighttime cold is at its worst. Bits of me that shouldn’t feel cold start to freeze!

Well this year it is all change. We have moved into the 21st Century. Heat has arrived in Davos. Well to be more precise. Heat has arrived at CNN in Davos.

A brilliant contraption constructed by our satellite engineer Edwin now means we won’t be freezing as we present our programs.

Me with Edwin, who built the platform

This magnificent platform blows hot air right up my trouser leg. Our guests will feel warm all over and not because we are grilling them with searching questions.

Now I hear you retort: “Quest, heating is hardly a 21st Century idea.” But that ignores history. For the past few years presenting from Davos has been a mixture of great interviews and miserable conditions. That has all changed with this new platform.

And if you think I exaggerate … I took huge pleasure in showing round producers from our competitor networks. When they saw the CNN All-Comfort platform there gasp of “Whoa….wow…whooooooo” just gave me a tingle of delight.

Oh how the little things please me.

Rivers Runs Through It
So now this blog is attracting ever more intriguing responses. Have a look at this one below - it reads like an official press release from the Junta. It came in without a signature, so we don’t know who sent it…

Dear Mr. Dan Rivers,
On our part, may we be allowed to put the following on the record:-
Thailand's policy on press freedom remains the same as expressed by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont during his speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) on 7 November 2006, after assuming the position of Prime Minister. You yourself were present then.

(Well, actually I wasn’t, because the 7th of November is my birthday and I distinctly remember being at Angkor Wat, but anyway, let’s not let the facts get in the way of this fascinating contribution)

The Council of National Security (CNS) has requested for and received good cooperation from television and radio broadcasters in Thailand in being discreet when broadcasting programmes that might affect the process of political reform or national reconciliation in this country.

The Thai Government and the CNS by no means have any intention of controlling nor influencing the work of the media, both domestic and international.

Yes, the fact is that the recent broadcasts of the excerpt of Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra’s interview with CNN’s “Talk Asia” on Monday, 15 January and its full programme on Saturday, 20 January 2007 were not aired in Thailand. But it is also the fact that the blockade of signal was voluntarily done by the UBC, the carrier of the CNN broadcast in Thailand. Neither the Government nor the CNS has ever issued instructions or request for the broadcaster to prevent the programme from being on air.

It is also the fact that the said programme was broadcast in its entirety on the following day. After UBC’s consultations with the authorities concerned, UBC has broadcast it in full on Sunday, 21 January 2007 between 08.30-09.00 hours (Thailand time).

Well apparently UBC are now telling us that they didn’t in fact block our broadcast at all. It begs the question : who did???? Anyway, it’s all getting a bit “inside baseball” this, so for those of you who aren’t interested in Thai politics, skip this bit and read about Cambodia, below!

For those that are interested: our broadcast was blocked right up until this last weekend, when mysteriously the full interview was suddenly allowed to be shown. Someone was responsible for that decision. I have no proof who that was, or who actually pushed the button, but it was widely reported the Junta asked the local media to cooperate and not to broadcast or publish messaages from Thaksin. A request by a military junta is a bit like a polite question from a 700 kilo gorilla - it doesn’t matter how politely the question is put, you’re going to acquiesce and say yes, unless you want to be bashed on the head with a banana. It might not be an “order” or a “ban”, but the message was clear - if you want to stay on-side with the army in Thailand, you’d be advised to do what it asks and don’t cause any trouble. And as the army now runs the country, keeping the generals on-side obviously seems sensible to some media here.

Anyway, let’s park that issue there.

I’m in Cambodia at the moment, looking at the issue of sex-slaves and child prostitution. It’s harrowing, desperate stuff. Some of the interviews were difficult to listen to - I can’t imagine how the victims of this awful industry feel. I wonder how much of the violence, perversion and down-right evil we’ve encountered while talking to victims of the sex trade here, is down to Cambodia’s shattered past and the genocide committed during the Khmer Rouge years in the 70’s. I guess, sadly it’s probably much the same in many other countries the world over, but it doesn’t stop me grasping for a rationale or cause, which can explain how parents could possibly sell their own five year old girl to a brothel.
Friday, January 19, 2007
From London to Davos

CNN's Becky Anderson gives us a peek inside the London newsroom, and looks forward to CNN's special coverage of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, beginning on Monday. You can watch the video here.
Setting the record straight ...

Well the reaction to the Thaksin Shinawatra interview and my blog here on has been pretty strong. I’d say you’re split 50-50 down the middle. Some of you hate me and think I failed in my job as a journalist, failed to ask the right questions, or simply should never have interviewed Thaksin in the first place. The other half of you seemly genuinely pleased and grateful.

So for those that persistently asked why I didn’t quiz Thaksin about the corruption charges, let’s set the record straight, shall we? None of you have heard or read the full interview so far -- it will be broadcast this weekend. What was broadcast and blocked this week was merely a two-minute excerpt.

In the full interview I repeatedly challenge Thaksin on the allegations of corruption, asking for example:

"What about the specific allegations against you of you know massive corruption in Thailand, of nepotism, of abuse of power of breaking multiple laws, what do you say to those charges?"

He answers and then I challenge him again …

"Well I mean you definitely for example appointed your cousin as the commander of the armed forces I mean that’s not in dispute?"

He answers and the once again I challenge him …

"But can you imagine in another country, Tony Blair for example, appointing his cousin to be the head of the army, it would be an outrage?"

He answers and once again I say:

"Is there not a conflict of interest though?"

I think you guys get the picture. I can’t post Thaksin’s responses here until the programme airs tomorrow. But I repeatedly challenged Thaksin about vote rigging, nepotism, his handling of the south, his handling of the war on drugs, I ask him specifically if he ever bent the rules.

You have to appreciate that Talk Asia is a programme which lasts just 22 minutes. I think in that time, I gave Thaksin a fairly thorough interrogation, while remaining balanced and fair. We had a lot of ground that we wanted to cover, so I couldn’t dwell for the full 22 minutes just on the corruption charges, but it would be totally wrong to suggest that I didn’t ask him questions about that.

I hope that assuages some of the anger on this forum. Feel free to keep posting. I’m glad the interview provoked a reaction anyway. Oh, and here is a cartoon of yours truly from today’s Nation. My wife says the ears are perfectly rendered by the artist. She is a cruel woman, that Mrs. Rivers!

'The War Within'
CNN's Chief International Correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, writes about the people she met while making "The War Within," which airs on CNN TV this weekend. The hour-long documentary looks at growing conflicts within Britain's Muslim communities.

"While Britain's Scotland Yard and MI5 intelligence service regularly warn of Islamist cells plotting violence -- some 30 potential plots have been identified -- some Muslim preachers, activists and ordinary people are beginning to see that they have to take the responsibility of seizing back their religion from the small band of extremists who have hijacked it."
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
An update from Ouagadougou ..
We didn’t get to film the king … but actually I am a little relieved.

Despite our charm offensive with local officials here in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Femi Oke and I have not been granted an audience or photo opportunity with the King of the Mossi people. It would have made a great picture story for Inside Africa.

So why am I slightly relieved?

The last time I filmed an African king was in 2006, when I went with CNN’s Richard Quest to Swaziland, to film an interview with the King, Mswati III. He is still held in great reverence and awe by his people. Before the interview, his aides where very concerned that I should not touch the king when putting his microphone on. Only his 13 wives and certain special people may touch him, I was told. The king of course said it was absolutely fine for me to mike him up, but when I was trying to hide the cable he became concerned I may have touched his special black wooden stick, which he held at all times. Not sure if I had brushed it, I thought it best to assure him I hadn’t. "But Sir, what would happen if I had?" I asked politely. "Something very bad will happen to you," he replied, to laughs from Quest and the producer.

The next day we needed one last sequence with the king. As we drove into his compound, I started to have strong pains in my chest, tingling up my arms and difficulty breathing. Quest was getting very agitated that I was about to have a heart attack. I started to black out and was rushed to a local clinic. There the doctor, without examining me, laid his hand on my heart and prayed to God "to care for me and protect me from the dark forces we know little about." Was he giving me my last rites or exorcising some magic curse? At this point it took all my will to convince myself that at 38 I wasn’t about to die. After a heart scan and an intravenous drip the doctor’s verdict was … stress. The diagnosis back in London was strained muscles between my ribs, (from a previous day of running through the African bush with camera on shoulder) causing acute chest pain and difficulty breathing.

I still wonder whether I did touch the king’s stick.

-- From CNN cameraman Neil Bennett
Off the Air in Bangkok

Well, our tussle with the military junta here is almost becoming comical. CNN’s signal into Thailand is being blocked whenever our exclusive interview with deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is broadcast. Yet, the entire transcript has been carried on the front pages of all the papers here in Thailand, so quite why it is being censored on TV is mystifying me. Whenever the signal is blocked, a montage of photos of various Hollywood celebrities is put out on CNN instead. My cameraman cruelly suggested most viewers would prefer to see Brad Pitt to Dan Rivers any day of the week! We’ve also become increasingly concerned about a number of sinister phone calls to our office here in Bangkok, with callers repeatedly hanging up and asking for information on the whereabouts of my Thai producer. Several of our phone calls from the office have also been mysteriously cut off. It smacks of an intimidation campaign – of course I have no proof of that, just a journalistic hunch. But it’s clear our interview has caused waves. We interviewed Thaksin in Singapore, where he also met a senior politician. Our interview threw his visit to Singapore into the limelight – now the military regime in Thailand is furious with the Singaporeans – they’ve cancelled an official visit of the Singaporean foreign minister and cancelled a civil service exchange programme, because they dared to have a meeting with the deposed prime minister of Thailand…oh and because they didn’t prevent CNN from interviewing him there too. The Singaporean Ambassador has also been summoned to government house here for a reprimand. It’s not quite war, but it’s certainly a jolly angry spat. Its ironic that the undemocratic, authoritarian junta here in Thailand is trying to take the moral high ground with Singapore – itself not exactly a paragon of freedom. In my opinion, it all bodes ill for Thailand’s return to democracy. The military junta had promised to lift martial law by the end of 2006 – but now we’re in 2007, and martial law remains in place, CNN is being censored, local TV stations are self-censoring their output and there is a growing climate of anger, trepidation and fear…especially in the CNN office, where the anonymous, threatening calls keep coming!

Monday, January 15, 2007
'Take us to your king'
"Hi, we’re from CNN, take us to your king."

Well it was worth a try, and maybe we will be successful. You never know. Those three letters -- C.N.N. -- have a funny way of opening the most difficult of doors. Femi Oke and myself are in the greatest sounding capital in the world ... Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in West Africa (Just incase you didn’t know!) We are here to do a story about a Priest, Father Morris Oudet. Otherwise known as the Cyber Priest, because of his use of the Internet to connect the rural villages in this poorest of the poor countries in Africa. Passing news and farming techniques on to villagers, via the internet.

We have a restricted schedule here, but making most of our precious time we want to film another piece for CNN’s Inside Africa. The Mossi tribe is the largest, with a strong culture, identity, hierarchy and a King. A nice picture piece on a place rarely reported on. So why not check first whether the King is a fan of CNN and Femi Oke. This we are still to find out. But after a cool reception with his spokesman a letter was formally passed and we wait, not with bated breath. The irony was not lost on our presumptiveness. Could you imagine a news crew from Oagadougou landing in London, and asking to meet and film the Queen? "Ideally today, but Wednesday would be fine."

What was easier to film later today was the most charming Mossi family introduced to us by our local fixer. Life is hard here, and the mud hut compound was without electricity, plumbing and water. In fact the nearest well was three kilometers away. But with great courtesy we were welcomed to their world for an afternoon. The extended family let us film them preparing food, cleaning the cotton crop and telling stories, passed on from generation to generation. A real privilege to witness, and also a most humbling experience. They had so little, but the family still felt they needed to give their guests a gift -- a live white chicken. I great honor, we learnt. But a gift we couldn’t accept for obvious reasons, disregarding the code of practices we have to follow regarding gifts from interviewees.

We still want to film more Mossi cultural activities in the next few days, and possibly, just possibly, the King of the Mossi people.

-- From CNN camerman Neil Bennett
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Private moments in public places
I had that "I love this story" moment which usually happens for me at some odd point in the process of shooting. We are covering the Kumbh Mela in the north Indian city of Allahabad -- one of the largest gatherings of human beings on Earth. We had gotten up before sunrise to see people taking a dip in the frigid (but in the Hindu faith, holy) water where these rivers meet. We did a number of interviews and got some shots of the sun rising while people were shivering in the early morning light.

But it wasn't until later when we hired a boat to see the pilgrims dipping in from a different perspective that the size of the gathering and the strength of their faith really struck me. Those dipping into the Ganges/Yumena rivers are cordened back by a little rope fence which is constructed, presumably, for saving people from going too deep and possibly drowning. But sitting on the boat, we looked back at the sloping shoreline which was absolutely full of the devoted coming to the waters edge.

Everyone was facing out, toward the confluence of the rivers, where we were floating. Looking toward the shore there were layers and layers of people, dipping in the water, praying individually, or in families and groups, some were singing and chanting , others lighting incense, some laughing, some shivering, some playing, some with their hands raised to the heavens. This was all you could see up and down the river which was covered in flowers that had been tossed in.

This is something I've witnessed in other forms in my time living in India -- there is an incredibly independent or individual experience that is often carried out in the most public of places.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
'Baghdad is dying'
"Baghdad is dying, we are all just waiting in line." Khaled -- not his real name to protect his life -- one of our Iraqi employees, said the words softy, his eyes glossing over.

It was during a conversation with our Bureau Chief Cal Perry, talking about work in the bureau, and I was helping out translating. But the conversation had quickly shifted from business to life.

"It's so hard for me Arwa. This skull won¹t absorb English," he said, smacking both palms against his head. "I just have too much on my mind. I'm supporting three families, most of them women, each time my phone rings my heart sinks thinking that one of them was killed."

Khaled is a well-built man, proud and softly spoken. But like too many others, utterly broken by the hardship of life in the capital. Helpless in the face of the violence. Moving mechanically through each day, just hoping to reach tomorrow.

There absolutely nothing to say. Reassuring words ring hollow. And so I just said "I know." And his eyes glazed over even more.

Iraqis are strong and proud. You won't often see their suffering in their actions or in their voices. You see it in their eyes. Baghdad is dying.

-- From CNN Correspondent Arwa Damon, Baghdad
A snapshot from the Kumbh Mela
I've just crawled into my sleeping bag but I can't imagine I'll be able to sleep. I can't even identify all of the different sounds I'm hearing. Right now some sort of flute seems to be playing over drums. Further away there is some female voice singing in Hindi over a really tin-sounding speaker system. Now a sitar. I'm not kidding -- each time I identify a sound -- a new one pops up.

Today we arrived at the Ardh Kumbh Mela in the north Indian city of Allahabad. For about 45 days this place is home to one of the largest gatherings of human beings on earth. Organizers say the "big" Kumbh Mela -- which happens every 12 years -- draws up to 60 or 70 million Hindu devotees. "Ardh" means "half" and this festival happens in the middle of the 12 year cycle. Organizers say tens of millions will make the pilgrimage here. And ... the Hajj? Well, that gets just over 2 million. It kind of puts it into perspective.

We're getting up before sunrise to see the devoted take a dip in the water here at the confluence of three rivers (one mystical) the other two are visible (Ganges and Yumena.) The Hindu belief is that a dip in the river at an auspicious time will wash their sins away and stop the process of reincarnation. The atomsphere here is a little carnival-esque and it is so spread out that it is hard to get a sense for it.

There are some wild scenes that unfold. Today we watched as a Sadhu (holy man) lit an area of sticks on fire and walked across it to sit on a swinging chair of nails over the fire and mediatate. His "associate" who spent some of the time pulling a rope to keep the Sadhu's swing in motion told us that the holy man didn't usually do this in front of crowds as he didn't like the attention.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Stranded at the Kenya/Somalia border
We’re on a mission … to get to the village of Liboi on the Kenya-Somalia border -- a tiny spot on the map which has been the entry point for many fleeing victims of Somalia’s clan wars since the early 1990s.

We’ve chartered a plane in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, (a six-seater Cessna with a two-man crew and carrying 300 kilos of gear.) Destination, the tiny town of Dadaab in the country’s east. The flight is smooth and uneventful, thanks to the experienced German pilot who clearly knows his way around the thick clouds. Along the way we get an amazing double-view of the snow-capped peaks of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro.

Two hours later we’re in Dadaab and meet up with the rest of our crew which drove up the night before. We pack the 4x4 and head due east to the border. The roads are unbelievably bad, the terrain inhospistable on a good day. I wonder to myself, even if the Somalis refugees make it across the border, walking the 75 kilometres to Liboi under a 50-degree sun is suicidal at best. Every now and then we see antelopes and other wild game skipping across the landscape while a warthog and her little family scamper at the sight of our loud and dusty vehicle.

Three hours later we finally get to our destination, the village of Liboi a few miles from the border. It’s literally a one-horse town -- dry, dusty, deplorable -- with families of refugees lining both side of the main dust-filled street: Men, women, children and more children.

We check into the only hotel available. It claims to offer five star service. Actually it’s a dive with no electricity, a roach motel with no running water but (thank God,) cold soft drinks. We devour what seems a fridge-full of drinks, quenching our thirst from the now unbearable heat.

It’s going to be a tough few days here, but I’m thinking of the poor refugees stranded across the border with their few belongings and fast running out of water and food. At least we know we’ll be leaving this God-forsaken land in just a matter of days. These refugees don’t know how long they’ll be in this "black-hole," not wanting to return to Mogadishu due to fighting and not knowing who will eventually come to their rescue here in the middle of nowhere in Africa.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Street combat in Baghdad

CNN's Arwa Damon provides an intense inside look at street fighting in Baghdad
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Battle in Baghdad
A few hours after waking up to the sounds of heavy gunfire, our Bureau Chief Cal Perry yelled: "I want a cameraman on the roof NOW -- get the fighter jets!" Air support for the "Haifa street battle" had arrived.

Within minutes, our engineers and cameramen were on the roof transmitting live pictures of fighter jets in the sky and Apache helicopters firing missiles; Correspondent Arwa Damon (embedded along with cameraman Dominic Swan on this operation) was phoning in reports with loud gunfire in the background. Correspondent Ryan Chilcote was reporting live as the battle in the heart of the capital intensified. Shortly afterwards Anchor/Correspondent Michael Holmes arrived from the streets of Baghdad and headed straight to the second live location.

All three CNN correspondents were in place for breaking news we have not seen in Baghdad for a while. Producers in the newsroom were making calls and passing on information to correspondents on the roof. Cal was running from the roof to the newsroom throughout making sure everyone on the roof had body armor and helmets on as he was overseeing our coverage.

The fighting died down by late afternoon. But tomorrow is a new day and every day in Baghdad brings a different story, a bombing, a mass kidnapping, a grisly discovery of tortured bodies, or a battle between insurgents and the military in the city center. But one thing never changes, we are all here as one team doing our best to cover a war that is becoming more and more difficult to cover every day.
-- from Jomana Karadsheh in Baghdad
Friday, January 05, 2007
A world apart
CNN's Hala Gorani writes here about her experiences traveling between the Arab world and Israel.
"I sometimes imagine traveling from New York to Atlanta, but instead of a direct flight, I imagine driving to Philadelphia, spending three hours waiting for permission to board a plane, then hopping on a flight to Miami before finally boarding a plane to Atlanta, where I might be told to wait 2 days before crossing into the city. That is the insane reality of travel in that part of the Middle East (and only for those who can move around because they have the proper documentation, visas and paperwork.)"

Hala's piece accompanies Inside The Middle East
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Iraq - The Children

It was just an idea – talk to kids. Find out what they think of the war. When you interview adults here in Iraq – you often get a filtered view of reality. On the other hand, kids can’t lie. They will always tell you the truth – and really, it’s the truth we’re interested in.

So, one morning I set out in the neighborhood looking for kids to talk to. With me, the over talented cameraman Dominic Swann – neither of us had a clue if anyone would talk to us. Our fixer kept smoking – shaking his head, letting us know that this in all likelyhood would be a failed mission. Of course, it’s Baghdad so our other options were try this, or sit in the office and wait for the violence and live shots to begin.

It took over three hours of talking to people before we found a 16 year old boy who was willing to tell us his thoughts. His first one, “Saddam was better than the Americans.” We’re off to a great start – I thought. “Any hope for Iraq” I asked. “None,” he said.

“This is going to be a very uplifting piece” our stringer said immediately. Such is Iraq.

Kids in Iraq are wonderful. They run the same routine anytime they see a foreigner. First they send a scout. He appears from no where – checks out the situation, then disappears. Depending on his report to the others, flocks of kids start to arrive. In this case, there were at least a dozen.

One became the leader. He pointed out everything that had changed – the trash, the blast walls – the western security. He told us he wished he could play football without fearing for his life.

I asked one final question to the group that had arrived. “How many of you have lost family members in this war? Everyone raised their hand.

“Welcome to Iraq,” said my stringer.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Catching up on sleep
The Hajj assignment is officially over. I'm now back in Jeddah (departing for Riyadh early tomorrow morning) and finding it really bizarre to have so much time on my hands. The past couple of weeks have been two of the busiest of my life -- but you know what? Despite every difficulty that I've written about in this blog, I've enjoyed this job more than I could have imagined. I mention this because I'd like readers to know that the experience of being part of the Hajj coverage team for CNN was far more enriching than enervating. I only wish I had the eloquence to describe what it was like to witness, up close, how happy the pilgrims were to be there, how willing they were to help each other out.

The sole regret I'm left with is that I couldn't have posted more on the blog. The crew faced major communication difficulties while in Mecca (everything from not being able to make or receive mobile phone calls to sometimes finding it quite problematic getting online) and I had hoped I could submit more vignettes about our daily goings on. I wanted to thank the readers who posted comments -- it's always nice to get feedback -- the fact that it was positive feedback regarding the team's coverage only made it nicer. So that's it for me. Time to finally go get some sleep ...
Blogging by SMS
One quick story from The Hajj that some might appreciate: On the second day of the stoning of the devil, when I was on Jamarat Bridge, I was surprised to discover that I could once again make and receive mobile phone calls. Because I was eager to blog about what I was seeing, I called Dylan Reynolds, Senior Editor of CNNI Interactive, wondering if I could SMS him some in the field reports and asking if he could then post them on this blog. I had to marvel at the surreality of it all: Being on Jamarat Bridge, watching pilgrims stone the devil, texting my reports to Dylan, and knowing that he was posting them on the blog. Sincerest thanks to Dylan, who saved the day for me.
Hear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.
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