Tuesday, April 24, 2007
'Our generation's Vietnam' - A soldier's view
From an observation post in an abandoned shopping mall, Staff Sergeant Matthew St. Pierre gazes across the Sunni heartland of West Baghdad. The sprawl beneath him shelters insurgents, including Al-Qaeda, as well as ordinary Iraqi families, traumatized, terrified and angry after more than four years of war.
It has been a tough day.
The debate in Washington over the war, mirrors one among troops on the ground.
“We’ve talked at length, my soldiers and myself,” says St. Pierre, “and the term that comes up often is that this is our generation’s Vietnam.”
It is noon. Already that day, St Pierre’s patrol of Humvee vehicles had been narrowly missed by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack. Just an hour earlier they had driven into an ambush.
A massive explosion flowered metres in front of St Pierre’s lead vehicle. A second one followed moments later to the rear. They were bombs buried in the road, so-called IEDs, the main weapon of choice for insurgents and the primary killer of US troops.
Through small arms fire, St Pierre, 24, had led his patrol back to this observation post.
Now he is in a reflective mood.
“I don’t think this can be won,” he says. “We’re caught in the middle of a civil war.”
He says morale among U.S. combat troops is still good. Some Iraqis, fearful of their neighbors’ reaction, have whispered to him that they want the Americans to stay. But, he says, that’s not most of them.
“I think the majority is going to want us to leave and when we do pull out you’re going to hear cheering in the streets.”
He feels most for the Iraqis who have supported the United States.
“They’re the ones that are going to feel the wrath. They’re going to suffer, “ he says. “The people who are against us – and I think that’s the majority – they’re going to ultimately win.”
Staff Sergeant St. Pierre, a six-year army veteran, has spent two of the last three years in Iraq. He is due to leave in early 2008. He says his great regret is that for all the lives lost the United States will leave Iraq in a worse state than it found it.
That “doesn’t make me feel good as an American.”
-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Yeltsin through the lens
There was a time in my life as a cameraman in the Moscow bureau when I would see Yeltsin quite often, at least a couple of times a month. He was big and burly. He was a large presence, a force to contend with, but also he liked to have fun and at times that meant he was okay with looking like a buffoon. As a cameraman that made him entertaining to shoot. I saw him most often in 1994 and early 1995- I would often get sent into the Kremlin to shoot whatever meeting or photo-op Yeltsin had going. As just a kid from Elmhurst, Illinois, It was always a thrill to walk inside the Kremlin all by myself (they often only allowed one person per TV news team) to shoot the pictures for CNN. The first time I got to see Queen Elizabeth was one of those times when she met with Yeltsin in one of its most beautiful and grandest halls.
My career in the Moscow bureau was tied to the events that Yeltsin was involved in whether he was spearheading or just trying to keep in control of events as they happened.
I arrived to fill-in at the Moscow bureau for a couple of months in early 1991. One of the very first stories I worked on during that time was the inauguration of Yeltsin as the first democratically elected Russian President. I was also there at the end of 1991 as Yeltsin forced Gorbachev’s hand to resign as the Leader of the USSR and bring about the end of the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter the freefall of the Rouble brought these changes home to millions of Russians. I moved to the Big Potato (Moscow) in early 1992 and stayed until 1996 covering all the business stories, war zones, feature stories and terrorist stories in between. I left shortly after Yeltsin got himself re-elected in 1996 even though he was very ill with heart problems. At the time I had the feeling that the arc of the Russian story had changed and in many ways it had, after Yeltsin got re-elected he never had as much energy as he had in his first term.
Watching the pictures of Yeltsin climbing up on the tank in 1991, being played on TV today reminds me of a few of the old CNN Moscow cameramen’s favorite Yeltsin stories.
Those pictures on CNN of Yeltsin climbing the tank were shot by another CNN Moscow Cameraman Michael Johnson. As Yeltsin was leaving the Russian “White House” towards the tank, Michael was walking backwards shooting him. Michael and another cameraman tripped over each other and the viewfinder on Michael’s camera broke. Consequently, Michael shot all the pictures of Yeltsin on the tank without being able to see the pictures. He was shooting it blind. They are still amazing pictures even more amazing when you know the background. Michael left Moscow years ago and now shoots steadicam in LA for shows like “The Ghost Whisperer” and “Desperate Housewives”. But I bet he is spending this week remembering his times with Yeltsin in Moscow.
One of the other Moscow cameramen was a huge guy named Hugh Williams. Yeltsin was big and burly… but Hugh was even bigger. One time when Yeltsin was at the opening of the second McDonald’s in Moscow, Hugh and I were there to cover it. Yeltsin’s bodyguards started pushing us back as Yeltsin shook hands with some of the crowd, but when Yeltsin saw Hugh with a camera towering over him- he gave him a look. A bemused look that Hugh and I took to mean that he was not use to seeing people who had a bigger presence than him. Hugh is now living In Australia- but I know that he too is thinking about his days in Moscow.
My closest Yeltsin encounter- was after Yeltsin had suffered his second Heart attack and had heart surgery in late 1996. I was back in Moscow covering his illness. Yeltsin hadn’t been seen in quite a long while as he recuperated at a sanatorium outside Moscow. I seem to remember nearly two months went by when he wasn’t seen. The call came in… we were to do pool camera shooting Yeltsin with a cameraman from a Russian TV station. I got to go. It was just me and a Russian cameraman. Nobody knew what he looked like. Thoughts of propaganda of Chernenko sick in Hospital being filmed voting so that it looked like he wasn’t ill and in hospital flashed through my mind. We were ushered into a room and there was Yeltsin, who smiled and talked to us briefly for a few minutes. Just he, a doctor, an advisor, a Russian cameraman, and I, the only American, were in the room and Yeltsin was focused on us the two cameramen. He looked thinner but healthier than we had seen him be in a while. When we were told we were done, and we were walking out, I saw Naina, his wife in a side room. She looked very apprehensive and very nervous as to how it had gone and how her husband had faired. To me, that struck home. While the world was looking to see how Yeltsin was doing for the news value and his effectiveness in running the country, she was living with how he was doing for herself. When I got back to the bureau- everyone wanted to know-‘How did he look?’ ‘What did he say?’ We put the pictures out as quickly as we could knowing the world wanted to see them.
From the West’s view, Gorbachev was always the soft, cuddly, intellectual leader of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin always seemed more a man of the people, brash, bold… a Russian Bear. It is still up to the history books to see how they will be remembered and perhaps they are exactly what they needed at the time when they served, but in meeting them both I can tell you that how they came across on TV is exactly how they came across in person as well.
Russia lost a big figure in its history - a Russian Bear - one who makes me miss my days in Moscow when everything was changing so very quickly than it seems today.
-- From Todd Baxter, CNN Chief Photographer/Video Producer, London
Monday, April 23, 2007
Alan Johnston: six weeks missing
It is now six weeks since the BBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped. Six weeks. And still, after all that time, we know almost nothing about who kidnapped Alan, why he was kidnapped, or what their demands are.
Last week a previously unknown group, the Brigades of Tawheed (Monotheism) and Jihad, claimed it had killed Alan. Since then we’ve heard Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say his security officials have information indicating the claim was false. My sources in Gaza say the same. I hope they're right.
In the meantime, the Saudi-backed London Arabic daily, Asharq Al-Awsat, has published a report that Alan’s kidnappers want $5 million for his release.
The fact is, after six weeks we hardly know more about Alan’s abduction than we did the day he disappeared on March 12.
What is clear is that all the old rules of Gaza kidnappings have been broken. Before Alan, the longest kidnapping there was two weeks, when a correspondent and cameraman working for the US satellite network, Fox, were abducted.
Gaza has now become a no-go zone for foreign reporters, according to the Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association (FPA). This Wednesday, the FPA will organise a rally at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza to call for Alan’s release. Two weeks ago, the BBC enlisted its rivals in international news broadcasting, CNN, Sky, ITN and Jazeera English, to take part in a joint programme for the same purpose.
But the kidnappers, whoever they may be, aren’t watching.
Not that people in Gaza are indifferent to Alan’s plight. Quite to the contrary. A group of his friends in Gaza have set up a web page (www.free-alan.com) where messages of support for Alan are posted. Alan’s Palestinian friends and colleagues in Gaza recently gathered at the Palestinian Legislative Council to protest the Palestinian Authority’s failure to win his freedom. Scuffles broke out with the police and several of the journalists were beaten. Palestinian journalists in Gaza, and ordinary Gazans, realise as long as Alan is held captive, coverage of Gaza by international news organisations will be drastically cut back.
Many people there I speak with have a list of suspects they believe may have a hand in Alan’s abduction. The list includes prominent clans and prominent politicians, some well known to me. I won’t name them simply because there is no hard evidence indicating where guilt truly lies.
But I do fear Gaza is gradually becoming the latest addition to a list of territories and countries where westerners are no longer safe, like Somalia, like Iraq (outside the so-called Green Zone and the Kurdish north), like much of Afghanistan, etc.
Many in Gaza will tell you they feel the world has turned its back on them. It began with the collapse of the Middle East peace process in September 2000 and was finalised when Palestinians voted Hamas into office in January 2006. The Bush administration and the European Union cut off financial assistance to the now-Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority, and boycotted it diplomatically. In the meantime, they’ve thrown their lot behind the politically weakened president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely seen as an American puppet.
If the world has turned its back on Gaza, those holding Alan, it seems, have decided to turn their backs on the world.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
Sunday, April 22, 2007
CNN is following the work of three French bloggers on the night of the presidential elections. You can read their blogs here:
Loic Le Meur
The 'Star Academy' generation
"It’s like a reality show, whoever gets the highest rating wins," says a young man delivering tables and chairs to CNN’s French election headquarters.
"Do you think your candidate will win?" I ask him.
"Frankly, whether my candidate wins or not, it’s all the same. It’s up to us to change things, not the politicians."
He likened this election to a popular TV program in France called "Star Academy," in which aspiring singers share a house, are filmed day and night and eliminated until a final winner emerges.
Skepticism I’ve heard often in France from those who vote with little conviction that a new generation of leaders will mark a break with the past; and the cynics add that personality has become more important than policies and reform proposals in what been called the "People-ization" of politics.
France often prides itself on being different to America in the way it selects its leaders. French people say they don’t care about their politicians’ private lives and that their political programs are more important than the clothes they wear.
But this election has changed all that: Socialist candidate Segolene Royal’s wardrobe has been dissected throughout the campaign; conservative Nicolas Sarkozy set up a "photo op" on horseback on the last day of the official campaign; centrist Francois Bayrou wants voters to know he is a man close to farmers and agricultural France. Image, this time around it seems, is as important as campaign promises. This year, it pays to be telegenic.
Candidates are hoping to cash in on the highest number of newly registered voters in a quarter century. Young people, brought up on a steady diet of fast food and reality television could tilt the balance one way or the other in a very close and suspenseful race. Who will they vote for? Not necessarily to the left, according to some polls.
But in the last few minutes we’ve learned turnout is stronger in the first four hours
of the vote than in any of the last four presidential races. Analysts say that normally favors the left.
In the era of "Star Academy," a surprise can be a vote away.
From Hala Gorani, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
I always marvel at the hundreds of wires involved in putting a live broadcast on the air. The cables come in many sizes and all colors. Some are plugged into machines whose exact function is a mystery to me. Some come out of cameras and television monitors. Others are secured to the floor with thick yellow tape. Anchors and guests tripping on cables on the way to the live shot position is something we all want to avoid.
At CNN’s French campaign headquarters, a Paris terrace with beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower, what you see on the air and what you would see if the camera turned a just a few degrees one way or the other – or tilted down to the floor - is an entirely different picture.
We share small tables, we eat chips and sandwiches at our laptop computers, we tape guest lists to the walls, phones ring and producers shout across the workspace. Then there are the dozens of boxes for the mountains of TV equipment we need to put any field show on the air.
I ask CNN engineer J.J. Eynon to describe two big black boxes hooked up to dozens of cables. I see him sitting in front of those boxes almost all day so I assume they’re important.
"What is that? That thing you’re sitting in front of?" I ask.
"Those two big black boxes. Those things."
He enunciates clearly and separates each syllable.
"That is the flyaway," he replies. "The FLY-A-WAAAY."
With the flyaway, we’re able to transmit video and sound via a satellite dish. Oops, I knew that.
J.J. adds that the dish is "one-point-nine meters and that’s quite big." I believe him.
We’ve left nothing to chance: We have two live cameras and a studio designed to accommodate an anchor position and two guests.
We will be live at 1800GMT for the results and all evening with important decision-makers and political analysts. Our Jim Bittermann and Robin Oakley will be live at campaign headquarters.
After the results, we will be going down to street level and broadcast live reaction to the vote.
The multi-colored wires and cables will be put to good use.
From Hala Gorani, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Saturday, April 21, 2007
"Shhhhhh ... "
'Tis the night before the election and it almost feels like France isn't going to the polls in less than 24 hours. Some streets around the Champs-Elysees are quieter than you'd expect on a Saturday; and because of a campaign blackout before the vote, very little is said about Sunday’s crucial election on the air.
French law forbids candidates from campaigning or the media from disclosing poll numbers for almost 48 hours before the big day. It also threatens fines of some $100,000 to anyone disclosing exit poll results before 8 p.m. local time Sunday.
In my hotel room, I try catching up on the morning's developments. One network is airing a game show, another a decorating program and a third an American series.
No luck on the web either. French Web sites must abide by the same rules. Though French law seems almost archaic, with foreign Web sites, newspapers and television networks saying they will publish results as they please.
Anyone with an Internet connection in France can get around the rules. Twenty-first century technology is making the legislators' job harder.
Still, today, the country’s 45 million voters sound almost like a murmur even though, in a few hours, they will all cast votes that will radically change their country's future.
This is the end of an era in France and for the French. It is the first time since 1974 that none of the candidates running have held the office of prime minister or president.
Goodbye Jacques Chirac and the World War II generation, France is getting a political facelift: Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, Socialist Segolene Royal on the left and the so-called "third man" Francois Bayrou in the middle. All in their fifties, all promising to bring down unemployment and bring back France’s glory abroad.
But hang on, don't forget the extreme right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. One of the last polls published put him in third place, ahead of Bayrou. And because when polled a portion of Le Pen voters do not admit to voting for the National Front leader, some analysts warn he might make it to the second round and shock France in the same way he did in 2002.
No matter who makes it, France is bound to change and French voters are craving a new chapter. Unemployment is high, crime is on the rise and issues like immigration and "national identity" are high on the agenda.
The CNN operation is in full swing to bring you the latest results. We will be anchoring live from the Champs-Elysees in the lead-up to the vote and from 1800GMT with the official results. In a little more than 24 hours, the top two candidates will emerge and break their silence.
From Hala Gorani, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Friday, April 20, 2007
Six things we learned in the Arctic
Equipped with our trusty snowmobiles, Becky, Chris Mansson, Darren Bull and I went on an Arctic adventure with our guide Kristin last week. The shoot was for the new feature "The Spirit of ...," which launches in the first weekend of May.
Where did we go? And how did we get there, you ask?
For "The Spirit of Adventure" we went up to Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean. For all you geography fans, Spitsbergen is at latitude 78°57 N, longitude 12°27 E (i.e. very, VERY far up north).
The temperature while we were there varied from -20C to 4C, plus wind chill.
We flew to the town of Longyearbyen. Longyearbyen is known as the world's northernmost settlement with a population of about 1,800 (they have a Thai restaurant and the supermarket sells L'Oreal makeup.) However, we spent the majority of the trip outside Longyearbyen -- about a 2-hour snowmobile ride away from the town.
The beauty really is awe-inspiring! I'm sure I had a smile frozen (literally) on my face the entire week we were there (it really was FROZEN on my face; thankfully I wasn't FROWNING when we landed.)
Any concerns I had about the logistics and potential difficulties of the shoot went right out the window, the moment we caught a glimpse of the island from the plane. The sun was out 24 hours a day, albeit not always shining brightly.
Six things we learned in the Arctic:
1. If you don't want Atlanta to call you while in the Arctic, leave your phone at home. Your mobile and blackberry will work.
2. "Lamb" does not necessarily mean "lamb" as we know it. Arctic winds blur the vision and sense of taste.
3. Never leave home without: thermal long johns, thermal top, woollen jumper, windproof fleece
jacket, wool gloves, leather gloves, two pairs of wool/thermal socks, ski mask, wool hat, windproof, wool-insulated trousers, snow boots with 3-inch sole and wool lining, padded windproof snowmobile jumpsuit, woollen hat number 2 OR a viking-hat (Mansson's choice) OR Snowmobile-helmet-with-windguard OR all of the above (if you can find a size big enough -- I tried!)
4. 4C with windchill is still freezing. 4C in the Arctic does NOT equal "Arctic summer", as Becky and I found.
5. Hotel bedroom slippers are the apparel of choice in Spitsbergen hotels/restaurants; just make sure they match your cocktail dress (ALL outdoor shoes are BANNED from all indoor places in Spitsbergen).
6. Polar bears are not always cute and cuddly.
Watch a report by Becky Anderson about her trip: Becky's Briefing
From Leone Lakhani, CNN International Producer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The Road to Baghdad
The pharmacy at
"It's for the people coming out of
It is almost four years since I was last in
The young man brewing me a glass of tea near
"No, no - don't go!" he says. He shakes his head good-naturedly, and draws a finger across his throat.
But it is an intriguing time to be in
For now, perhaps for the last time, there are more American boots arriving in
-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Thursday, April 12, 2007
A diplomatic thaw
It’s springtime in Tokyo and the cherry blossoms may be in full bloom, but there's a lot of talk about ice here these days.
It's all about Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao's visit to Japan, dubbed by both Tokyo and Beijing as an "ice-melting mission." Wen's visit follows last year's "ice-breaking" visit to Beijing by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Talk about pushing that metaphor.
And yet, Japan's chair of the lower house went one step further. Addressing Japan's Parliament and the Chinese premier, Chikage Oggi said: "As for all of us concerned, the ice has completed melted!"
Sure, it was the first time in 20 years a Chinese leader has addressed the Diet. Sure, Wen and Abe have pledged peaceful development and cooperation.
And sure, Wen gave good photo opportunity doing tai ji with the locals in Yoyogi Park.
But do the Japanese people really think the Sino-Japanese ice is melting?
When asked about what he thinks of the Chinese premier, a 27-year old budding salaryman told me point blank: "I’m not sure if I can trust him."
"We’re just at the starting line," said an older Tokyo businessman.
And a 69-year-old woman who experienced World War II first-hand said Japan should come out with the truth about the war but added: "China should stop interfering with the issue."
But perhaps my producer's taxi driver said it best. He was furious about the Chinese Premier’s speech to the Japanese parliament ... simply because it interrupted the baseball game he was watching on TV.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was marking his Fenway Park debut – up against countryman Ichiro Suzuki. A dramatic face-off between two Japanese superstars ... replaced by vision of a diplomatic thaw in slow motion.
You can watch my report here.
-- From Kristie Lu Stout, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Monday, April 09, 2007
Reporting in Myanmar
I drew back the dusty, net curtain of a empty suburban café in Yangon where we were waiting. There was an old white salon car parked across the street, with a man trying to look nonchalant, reading a newspaper. Our fixer smiled, as he told me we were being watched by “MI” - or military intelligence, that oxymoron for the network of secret police that pervades so much of Myanmar’s society. They knew we were here, we knew they were here.
We were meeting some leading dissidents, who’d bravely decided to speak out, after being jailed for 16 years, simply for demanding the military dictatorship restore democracy. The three activists arrived quietly, trying to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. We moved into a back-room for extra privacy, but they too knew we were being monitored. We started our interview and they spoke about their horrendous time in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement. We spoke about the icon of the pro-democracy movement Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in an election in 1990. The Junta refused to hand-over power to her and continues to keep Myanmar under an iron rule, as it has since 1962. Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest in her lakeside residence on and off for almost twelve years. The three men are contemporaries of hers; they lead the student uprisings in 1988 that paved the way for the 1990 election. But since then, their youth has been stolen. They have watched the years slowly slide by from their prison cells, with Myanmar still in a political deep-freeze. I heard their story and thought of parallels with Nelson Mandela in South Africa: the same stoic resolution to beat injustice by non-violent protest and intellectual argument.
We finished our interview and our fixer checked the coast was clear outside. He came back, looking surprised. “MI” was sitting right outside our room, actually inside the café, nursing two cappuccinos. The dissidents left, smiling at their secret police tails, as they walked past. We followed a few minutes later. The spooks looked miserable and tense. They must get fed up with trailing the activists day after day, watching their movements, trying to suppress their views, attempting to crush democracy.
One day this country will be free. It make take many more years, but the men we spoke to will be hailed as the fathers of democracy, who risked their lives, so others could be free.
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent
Reflections on a kidnapping
This Monday marks four weeks since the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston, was last seen. He has now been held longer than any other western journalist or aid worker kidnapped in Gaza.
(Militants have held 20-year-old Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit captive in Gaza since last June. Corporal Shalit, however, is a member of an army engaged in hostilities with various Palestinian groups. Alan Johnston is a non-combatant.)
The precedent is disturbing, but, alas, not a complete surprise. It is part of a trend that has been gathering strength in the Arab world for more than two decades, a trend that does not bode well for westerners who live and work in the region.
When I first came to the Arab world, to Lebanon, in the early 1970s, there was little open hostility to westerners. So much so, in fact, that my father, a diplomat based in West Africa, thought it safe enough to send me and my 11-year old brother to boarding school in Beirut.
A teenager let loose on the Lebanese capital, I was free to explore the city—its flashy streets and neighbourhoods, its seedy dives, its markets, its slums, its refugee camps—with few restrictions other than a 6 pm weekday curfew, a 10 pm weekend curfew, and my weekly allowance of 25 Lebanese pounds (around $10, if I recall correctly).
I revelled in my new environment, was fascinated by its complexity, and began learning Arabic. For a hyperactive teenager, Beirut was paradise.
That paradise began to fall apart with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in April 1975. Suddenly parts of Beirut were off-limits. In the beginning of the war (and in the beginning no one actually called it war) classes would be suspended for a week, then resume for a few weeks as the fighting subsided and the agreements between the warring parties took hold. But the agreements would break down, the fighting would rage for a week, then another ceasefire would be cobbled together. This pattern went on until mid-summer, when the truces became shorter and the fighting longer, and it became clear it was indeed a war.
The civil war in Lebanon marked the start of a new and perilous phase for westerners in the Arab world, and perhaps the west as a whole. (Keep in mind this is a personal recollection, not a history of the region. As perilous as it has become for westerners in some parts, I’m well aware it’s been far more bloody and traumatic for many of its inhabitants.)
I remember listening in the early 1980s to a Lebanese academic, Professor Yvonne Haddad, who in the months following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon listened closely to the mosque sermons in Beirut’s southern suburbs. I don’t remember her precise words, but the meaning stuck with me: she warned that something dark and dangerous was fomenting, not just in Beirut but across the Arab world, which would have grave and long-term consequences for the west. And while I don’t have the text of her presentation in front of me, I came away with the impression she was warning that the amorphous, rarely personal but oft-expressed rhetorical anger at western intervention in the region and military and diplomatic support for Israel would soon be translated into violent action.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long before westerners in Lebanon—academics, journalists, diplomats, aid workers and spies—were kidnapped and held hostage for years, and in some cases executed. In 1983 other Lebanese militants blew up the US embassy in Beirut (just down the road from where I went to school), and the US Marines and French army barracks. Two years later others hijacked TWA flight 847, executing one of its passengers, an American serviceman, and dumping his body onto the tarmac of Beirut’s airport.
Thankfully, Lebanon is no longer such a dangerous place for westerners, but it serves, or rather should have served, as a cautionary tale for the rest of the region.
It seems that the case of Lebanon of the 1980s is now being partially replicated in two places which, despite their sometimes fearsome reputations, could, once not long ago, be surprisingly welcoming: Iraq and Gaza.
I spent a good deal of the 1990s shuttling, first, between Baghdad and Amman (where I was based from 1993 to 1998), then later Baghdad and Cairo (where I was based until last year). Despite the many headaches of covering Iraq under Saddam Hussein, I almost never felt my life in danger.
But even back then there were indications the United States was widely resented. I spent many a day in foul-smelling, overcrowded, decaying Iraqi hospitals, where the sick—and many of them were children—died before my eyes from conditions easily treated had it not been for United Nations sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Self-righteous western officials were keen to point out that, had Saddam Hussein complied with UN Security Council resolutions, those sanctions would have been lifted (it is now clear Saddam was far closer to compliance than those western officials led us to believe) and the suffering would have ended. But I did see in the eyes of the relatives of the sick and dying resentment and indeed hatred at the west for failing to act as hundreds of thousands died.
I recall a conversation with Udai Al-Ta’i, the head of the Iraqi News Agency (and, most of us believed, a senior intelligence officer) under Saddam Hussein. I often had to listen to his diatribes against the United States and Britain over cups of tea. It was rare that my eyes didn’t glaze over. Though I’ve long forgotten many of our meetings, this one stuck with me because I felt, for once, he actually believed what he was saying. “A generation of young Iraqis,” he warned me, “is growing up to hate, completely hate, the Americans.”
I now suspect Udai may not have been far off the mark.
But back then in Baghdad no one ever threatened me. In the months following the fall of the regime, those of us in the press corps who actually worked there in the era of Saddam Hussein (and we are now a vanishing minority, I might add) were ecstatic we finally had free run of the country.
Those bracing days are now a fading memory. Too many kidnappings, too many video-taped executions have closed off much of that fascinating country from first-hand reporting.
The door to reporting is still ajar in Gaza, but with Alan Johnston missing for four weeks now, it’s closing.
I’m no stranger to Gaza: I’ve been shot there, been shot at there more times than I can count. I had a CNN producer kidnapped by gunmen before my eyes in broad daylight. Despite all this, I always felt secure in the knowledge that the goodwill, humanity and generosity of ordinary Gazans were protection enough. And though I know those traits are still there in abundance, I fear they aren’t adequate protection against the kidnappers.
The longer Alan Johnston remains in captivity, the more difficult it will be for westerners to cover Gaza. That is not to detract from the abilities of Gaza’s many brave journalists. No matter how many times I’ve been there I will never, ever, know it as well as CNN’s tireless and experienced Gaza fixer Talal Abu Rahmeh or the BBC Arabic Service’s brilliant correspondent Fayad Abu Shamala, or Ramattan Studio’s producer extraordinaire Mohamed Salman.
I am confident that journalists like Talal, Fayad and Mohamed will continue to struggle to keep the doors open.
But there are far greater forces at work in the region, forces of anger that have been building up for decades.
You can argue about the reasons, but few would deny that many across the Arab world see the west, and particularly the United States, as the source of many of their woes. It was in Gaza that Abdallah Al-Shami, a spokesman for the militant group, Islamic Jihad, told me, “We must do something to shake America, to wake it up.” Two weeks later, it was September 11, 2001.
With Alan Johnston beginning his fifth week in captivity, with Gaza sinking deeper into violence, and much of Baghdad and large parts of Iraq a killing field, I suspect the forces of anger are only gaining in strength.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
Friday, April 06, 2007
Seeking global warming's 'first refugees'
How are some of the world’s poorest people dealing with the effects of global climate change? That was the question posed to us a few days ago.
In India there are a number of ways of looking at this story, but we decided to head out to meet the people living on a group of islands in the Ganges delta area known as the Sundarbans.
I’d read a lot about the Sundarbans - and knew it was home to the Bengal Tiger and a host to a diverse ecosystem. But some scientists and researchers are calling now the residents of the Sundarbans among the first "global climate change refugees."
This morning we woke up before dawn to take a several hour ride by car from our hotel in Kolkata to meet a small boat we had hired for the day to take us to Ghoramara Island. The boat that took us seemed to be barely rigged together. The "captain" leaned on a rusty old rudder and held onto a frayed piece of string in his other hand to regulate the speed of the boat.
Ghoramara Island was beautiful, though villagers told us (and satellite photos show) that the size of the island is shrinking. Local officials on the island estimate that more than half of the population of the island have left after losing their farmland to the surging water.
An environmentalist with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, traveling with us, says two (once inhabited) islands have already disappeared under water and there are about a dozen more threatened. The environmentalist also pointed to figures showing the sea level rising at higher-than normal rates in this region and suggested that global warming may be partly to blame.
For the villagers left on the island (just over 5,000 according to local official numbers) worrying about rising water is constant. We met families who told us they lost all of their land and were searching for other ways to make ends meet. We met former farmers –- turned fishermen ... who were trying to eek out a living catching tiny fish.
Even though these villagers were struggling to make it by (often on about $1 or $2 per day) everyone we spoke with said they felt lucky to just be able to stay on their island.
We put together the piece overnight, and now I’m heading to bed. You can watch my report in full.
-- From Seth Doane, CNN International Correspondent
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
A Farewell to Cairo
Last June I left Egypt after eight years as CNN’s Cairo bureau chief and correspondent. I wrote this back then, but never finished it as I was buried under an avalanche of packing cases. But now I’m back in Cairo, if only for a few days, I’ve decided I really have to get this out.
Covering Egypt was the experience of a lifetime. I’ll admit: a lot of that time was spent on the road, in Iraq, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But my home was Egypt.
And over the eight years, I saw dramatic changes here. The first few years were relatively quiet, but things really started to take off in early 2005 when agitation for political reform in Egypt took off. The people of Egypt had rediscovered their ability to raise their voice, and, I suspect, they won’t be going silent any time soon.
Raucous street protesters demanding the resignation of long-serving president Hosni Mubarak became routine. The protesters passionately denounced the entire Mubarak family, the pervasive intelligence services, the police, and the ruling, sclerotic, National Democratic Party.
The regime has never been able to come up with a convincing or effective response to the barrage of criticism, and instead has chosen force and intimidation to silence its critics. At almost every opposition protest, demonstrators are massively outnumbered by riot police, cops and plain clothed agents, commonly described in Egyptian Arabic as “baltagiya”—thugs—often armed with nasty looking short black rubber truncheons. As a result, protests often turned violent.
For me, covering Cairo street politics became a contact sport. You are shoved around, you shove back. To meekly obey barked orders from the authorities is a sign of weakness. You bark back and, if you can, you throw your weight around.
And thanks to Egyptian street food—of which I am particularly fond—I now have plenty of weight to throw around.
I’ll miss the street fighting, the street food, and the street smarts that set the people of Egypt apart. Over millennia, Egyptians have developed a wicked, subversive sense of humour that hones in on the powerful, pompous and pretentious, reducing them to mere mortals.
I’ll miss that wit, the jokes, and I’ll also miss the courage of those in Egypt who speak with razor-like acuteness that cuts through the often-clumsy government propaganda and group-think a succession of military-dominated regimes fostered over the last half century.
I already miss Tahsin Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomat who passed away a few years ago. Tahsin, a small man with a high voice and keen, insightful mind, liked to quip that there were more mummies in Mubarak’s cabinet (at the time—the current group of ministers is relatively young) than in the Egyptian museum.
I’ll miss the likes of part-time novelist (and full-time dentist) Alaa Al-Aswani, whose best-selling book, the Yaquobian Building, lifted the heavy lid of silence off sensitive aspects of Egyptian life—political corruption, fanaticism, terrorism, sexual exploitation and harassment, homosexuality, just to name a few. Through his eloquent, vivid, poignant prose, Aswani conveys the full weight of decades of disappointment and dashed dreams—but with an affection and love for Egypt that is infectious. (His novel has been made into a movie by the same name. See it.)
And I’ll miss George Ishaq, the feisty coordinator of the unruly Kifaya (Enough!) Movement. Kifaya’s noisy street protests resound with a delicious lack of respect for authority. George, a retired teacher with a shock of white hair and an impish grin, delighted in dishing out analyses the country’s dire political and economic straits so well spiced with humour, irony and indignation that sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for Egypt.
And then there are others for whom politics is a pointless sandstorm. Like Zahi Hawas, director of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The tireless Zahi is fanatically devoted to Egypt’s ancient heritage. Zahi is the only official in Egypt who always said yes to whatever I asked for. Once, at 630 AM on a weekend, I called him at home to get permission to climb the Pyramid of Khufu to shoot a story. Of course, was his immediate reply.
And then there are the ordinary Egyptians who never made it into any of my reports, like Ismail the munadi. A munadi is one of those quintessentially Egyptian professions without which Cairo would surely collapse into utter, irrevocable disorder. A munadi is the workingman’s valet parking. Ismail would take my car keys, and car, and let me go about my business. Hours later, even at 3 AM, I would come back to find Is mail, who would quickly locate keys and car, and with a broad smile, takes my five Egyptian pounds, showers me with thanks and wishes for a happy day, night or rest of your life.
This reflexive charm and courtesy act as a balm that gets you through what can be the most trying of days. Egyptians consider scowling, grumpiness, and short, curt answers to be bad manners. I couldn't agree more.
In a country where poverty is pervasive, where the vast majority barely scrapes by, it always amazed me that so few people were bitter or resentful of those more fortunate.
My hair is a lot greyer than it was when I first came here nine years ago, but my sense of humour is, if anything, in better shape than it’s ever been. And for that I have the people of Egypt to thank.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
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