Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Together in electric dreams
The Internet has spawned some unlikely stars –- but few more improbable than Wenjiell Resane.
An accused methamphetamine dealer and self-described "she-male," she shares a single prison cell with a dozen transsexuals in a high-security jail in Cebu, the Philippines' second city.
She has been waiting three years for trial. It was a living death until it was bizarrely interrupted by a combination of YouTube and an unconventional prison overseer.
Wenjiell is the star of "Thriller" -– a video reworking of the Michael Jackson classic as performed by more than a thousand inmates of Cebu's Provincial Rehabilitation Center.
In the past year, it has accrued some six million hits on YouTube.
"I tried being a performer before but no-one took any notice," Wenjiell tells me with the mock bashfulness of the practiced celebrity. "Now, in jail, I have become a star."
The Michael Jackson role is performed with flair by 36-year-old Crisanto Niere, an accused crack dealer who has been waiting five years for trial.
He loves the dancing and laughs at his unlikely fame but says the video has brought him a reward he once thought would be forever beyond his reach. His son Christopher only knows him as a prison inmate.
"He used to be so ashamed of me," says Niere. "Now when he goes to school he tells everyone the dancer on the Internet is his father."
Sixteen men share Niere's tiny cell, doubling up on hardboard bunks. A photograph of Christopher in school uniform takes pride of place on the wall.
"It makes me proud that my son is proud of me," says Niere quietly.
Cebu's most notorious prison stands fittingly on Justice Street just down the road from "Beverly Hills."
Philippine justice moves so slowly that simply to be charged can feel like a life sentence. Most of the inmates are hardcore suspects, facing murder, rape, robbery and serious drugs offences.
Three years ago the jail was infamous for its drug culture and the corruption of its guards.
The new prison overseer, Byron Garcia, 47, took a gamble, calculating that compulsory marching exercises to music might help break the gang leaders' hold. It worked. Choreography followed.
"These men learned they can dance and still be men," he says. "It makes them work together, it makes them exercise and they learn self-esteem.
"They no longer feel like lowly criminals." A smile breaks his face. "Now," he says, "they feel like celebrity criminals."
Before the dance sessions, serious violence broke out at least once a week. "For one year and four months," says Garcia, "there has not been a single violent act ... they are just not hostile anymore."
Garcia admits he videotaped the "Thriller" performance and uploaded it himself onto the Internet. He believes the lessons he has learnt at his jail can be applied everywhere.
"I had to ignore everything in the handbooks to do this," he says. "People in the United States tell me it couldn't work in their prisons," he shrugs. How can they know without trying it?
Garcia himself has a hardline pedigree in law and order. His father, Congressman Pablo Garcia, introduced the death penalty to the Philippines in the 1980s.
Many of his inmates could yet be sentenced to death if they ever make it to trial. But accused mass-murderer Leo Suico tells me dancing means "we don’t think of bad things."
He says the experience has taught him "love" -– pure and simple. He blinks back tears.
Today, at 6 a.m., 1,500 inmates began rehearsing their next act -– a thank you and acknowledgement to their Internet audience. It is the 1980s hit "Electric Dreams," chosen by Byron Garcia.
"These people are behind prison bars," he says. "But with the Internet we all CAN be together in electric dreams."
-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Anchor/Correspondent
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Depending on who you believed, Sunday's environmental demonstrations at Heathrow Airport, the world's busiest international hub, were going to be mostly peaceful and would not interrupt airport operations.
Or a hard core group of protestors were going to jump the fences and head for the two runways while others caused chaos in the terminals.
Protestors kept to their word and did not go near the airport.
The owner of Heathrow, BAA, had vowed to keep the airport humming and the police vowed to keep campaigners from moving beyond the village under threat from the proposed expansion of Heathrow and the headquarters of BAA. Authorities also said they would ring the H.Q. with riot police.
They too kept to their words.
But it didn't mean there weren't dozens of news organizations on hand, just in case. A producer from New Zealand's TV NZ told me they thought some flights would be disrupted and because they believed protestors were going to "lay seize" to BAA's headquarters. After seeing protestors dancing to live music in BAA's parking lot, some bringing their small children with them, the producer assumed we were all at the wrong building. We weren't.
The day began with about a thousand campaigners awaking from their soggy tents in a muddy field they dubbed "The Camp for Climate Change." Before lunch they were joined by hundreds more who came for the "Day of Direct Action." Some of these people were retired folks who live in the village of 700 hundred homes which would be flattened for a third runway. There were also church and school groups. Many of these people marched a mile or so from the camp to map out the location of the proposed expansion.
But we told by organizers the would 'break the law' to make their point about air travel and climate change. That turned out to be a group, maybe a hundred or so, who jumped the back over a fence at the back of the camp and headed for BAA. It was there riot police and a few mounted ones to keep them hemmed in. There were a few minor scuffles there.
Others moved there from the front of the camp, with police escorts (which did not stop one of them from swiping the lunch of my cameraman. Though she did not get far before my cameraman caught up to her and got all of it back).
Once we all moved to BAA, there were a few more skirmishes between the police and protestors. We watched closely as police and demonstrators talked about clearing the entrance to the car park so a van full of officers could leave. It was interesting to see the negotiating skills of both sides. The police said they would wait another five minutes for campaigners to decide what to do. Those sitting on the ground chatted among themselves while a few ran off to 'gage' the opinion of others. There was even some light banter between the two as the police kept a relaxed stance. But the protestors did not move. It was obvious the police were going to move them when I noticed the Police medic showed up. Then the riot squad walked up and moved everyone in about 30 seconds. One man was picked up, and pushed aside while a policeman placed a knee on his head. The man still had a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he was sat upon. A young woman of college age was literally thrown onto the sidewalk. In essence, they were moved and the van left.
But then more protestors showed up, the rain came back, the music was turned up, more police arrived (one asked if he could come with us when we said we leaving) and a carnival atmosphere took off. That's when the TV NZ producer got confused.
The protestors had laid seize, but to nothing more than a parking lot miles from any of Heathrow's five terminals. But the leaders said their point was not destruction, but to let the British government know that it can't talk about cutting CO2 emissions while insisting Heathrow must expand for economic reasons.
-- From Jim Boulden, CNN International Correspondent, in London.
Monday, August 20, 2007
A Yazidi funeral ceremony
The Yazidi funeral ceremony is raw and emotionally charged. We were led into the sweaty, intense heart of one ceremony, while filming in the tiny village of Al Jazeera in north western Iraq. We'd come to report on the aftermath of four truck bombs, which have left more than 350 people dead.
The Yazidi men and women gather from sunrise to sunset to whirl in a kind of circle of grief. They repeatedly hit their heads and tear at their hair. We watched men and women screaming at the top of their voices. Photos of their dead loved ones were displayed on the walls of the tent. But I couldn't help noticing that amid all the anger and sorrow, was a visceral beauty.
The women were high-cheek boned, fair skinned with light hair. Some of the children looked like they were Swedish, not Iraqi. But their eyes were wild and furious. They were mourning an unimaginable disaster, that has decimated their population. It's because they are different, that they were targeted.
They hold little power or wealth. One of the U.S. generals in Iraq, Maj.Gen. Benjamin Mixon, believes the attack was "ethnic cleansing, almost genocide" -- an attempt to wipe the Yazidi and their religion off the face of the earth.
The Yazidi believe they are descended from Adam alone, not Eve, and worship seven arch-angels including Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, who is often wrongly associated with Satan. The Yazidi’s enemies claim they are devil-worshippers. It might have been one of the justifications used by the four men who drove truck bombs into the two villages of Qataniyah and Al Jazeera.
The U.S. army is sure that Al Qaeda is to blame. The bombs ripped through the simple clay-brick houses, shredding everyone for four city blocks. We walked amid the ruins of the town centre in Qataniyah. It looked like an earthquake zone. The putrid smell of dead bodies was overpowering in the 45C heat.
While we filmed, more bodies were being found. I've covered my fair share of natural disasters, but I am appalled and depressed that this kind of destruction and bloodshed could be deliberately planned on this, the softest of soft targets.
Watch my report
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent, in Iraq.
Friday, August 17, 2007
I’d already stirred awake, from the persistent thudding of a 105 mm Howitzer blasting away on the dusty outskirts of Forward Operating Base Kalsu. It was already probably 35 degrees outside and the sun had only just come up, but we were staying in an air-conditioned cabin that was almost chilly. I rolled over and then the missile struck; a thunderous blast rattling the windows; a ballistic shudder vibrating for a nano-second through my body.
A young soldier, who the previous night had been reading from a huge Bible in the bed opposite, got up and was looking worried. “Was that outgoing or incoming” I mumbled. I haven’t been in Iraq long enough to distinguish between the two. He had. “Incoming” was the monosyllabic answer. He was already pulling his desert boots on and heading for the “duck and cover” shelter.
We followed him into the concrete tunnel, just outside the other side of the huge “T-bar” blast walls. We crowded in, sitting on the dirt floor with a dozen other young soldiers, many clutching their rifles. No one seemed to know what was going on.
One officer had a radio and listened intently for news, while spitting brown saliva from a wad of chewing tobacco lodged in his mouth. After a few minutes, word came through that the missile had slammed into one of the aluminium-clad buildings in the camp. Thirty-one soldiers had been hurt, two seriously. There was the annoying whine of a pilotless drone above us, probably controlled by a man, thousands of miles away. Then we heard F16 jets had been scrambled to investigate four more missiles that had been found nearby. They were pointing directly at the base.
After two sweltering hours, we were allowed to emerge from the bunker. I went to investigate the damage to the building. It was staggering: A huge gaping hole on one side and a charred air-conditioning unit lying on the floor, which thankfully had taken the brunt of the impact. It was while I was walking back to our accommodation that another massive explosion rocked the base. This time it was the F16s dropping a 500 lb bomb on a "suspicious" house near the launch site.
Kalsu, like many other bases across Iraq, regularly gets mortared and attacked by insurgent missiles. The army thinks this attack was the work of the Jaish Al Mehdi, a Shi’ite extremist group.
That night we piled into Chinook helicopters in utter darkness, for a short flight to a nearby farm. The troops ran across the ploughed field, as the whirring blades rained the fertile alluvial soil down from the inky sky. The only light up there was from other helicopters and the sprinkled broken glass effect of millions of stars. The soldiers met little resistance. All the men had fled, save for a man in his eighties.
Women and children were herded together in the farmyard, while troops with night vision goggles searched the outbuildings and houses in utter darkness. Half way through the search, there was a ripple of excitement. They’d caught some of the men trying to escape across the fields. They were interrogated by sweating, nervous officers. We could hear repeated shouts of “Shut up” from the house, but after a few minutes I was allowed to witness some of the questioning. The man was cuffed, kneeling on the floor of a room that had been turned upside down by the soldiers. Questions about his name, his age, and his military service were all barked at him. His eyes were wide and darted between the soldiers.
Few hearts and minds were being won on this farm tonight. Among those detained was a general in the Ministry of the Interior. The U.S. army thinks he is the leader of the rocket cell. I find it extraordinary that a senior member of the Iraqi government machine, which is armed and supported by the U.S., is directing attacks on American soldiers.
No one on the base seemed to think it was very unusual though, just as the missile attack was shrugged off. It’s all part of the daily grind of this conflict that is picking off American soldiers randomly and without warning, ensuring even within their bases they don’t feel safe and leaving many feeling they simply can’t trust anyone within the Iraqi government machine.
Watch my report
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent, in Iraq.
Friday, August 10, 2007
The hidden side of Beijing
We all by now know the story of the new China.
A confident, powerful, even threatening nation to some, taking its place at the head table. A permanent member of the U.N. security council, W.T.O. member, inward investment magnet and now a country who's own money and people are spreading across the world. And at its center is Beijing.
I've been coming here for about 12 years and the changes have been extraordinary. A city of bicycles is now a city of cars, bumper to bumper along 12-lane roads lined by monumental new buildings. A city of glass and steel. An architect's playground where money is no object in creating something new, something different.
The Bird's Nest national sports stadium, the Watercube swimming center are not only centerpieces of the Olympic Games but symbols of the revival of a country no longer locked behind a bamboo curtain.
But there is another side to Beijing. The hutongs. Not the well-worn tourist areas where beautifully preserved century-old houses have been turned into high-class restaurants and offices for attorneys, but the older, more careworn parts of town.
The name hutong literally means alleyway. In Beijing they are more like a maze. Winding, tree-lined streets of cobblestone, bitumen or gravel, many too narrow for a car, where life goes on pretty much undisturbed by the blossoming city around them.
Brick houses with tiled sloping roofs and tiny cluttered courtyards, carved pillars and painted oak doors. In one courtyard we looked into, plump ripe grapes were growing across an arched entrance.
They are not all pretty, some look close to ruin. Some don't have running water and the residents share public bathrooms and toilets. But it's real. There's a sense of timelessness in the hutongs. And it's a welcome contrast to the new city that is rising up to engulf them.
I went to the Quanmen hutong area, barely a mile from Tiananmen Square. It could be a thousand miles away judging from the pace of life there.
But it, like many others, are disappearing. The government say it wants to preserve just a handful of hutongs to make way for high-rises with modern facilities. Fair enough perhaps, except many of the hutong dwellers don't want to go and the payout offered by the government (about $U.S.1,000 per square meter) is not enough to buy one of these new apartments.
They are being shunted to the outskirts of the city, the only place they can afford.
Even the hutongs under protection are not necessarily safe, says activist Hua Xinmin. She's been fighting the demise of the hutongs for the last 10 years. She says corrupt local city officials and property developers are in many cases ignoring protection orders.
Beijing is not the first city in the world, and it won't be the last, to bulldoze over history in the name of progress, but the sheer speed of development in the capital means that these areas are disappearing fast.
So my advice to you, if you are planning a trip to Beijing, is try to get off the main tourist track and visit some of these hutongs. Because once they are gone, they are gone forever.
-- From CNN Anchor/Correspondent Andrew Stevens
Thursday, August 09, 2007
'Giving it a thump' in Beijing
At 4 a.m. we hurtled along gloomy deserted streets toward our first live location for CNN’s week-long look at Beijing’s preparations for the Olympic games. In a rented van, whose locks don't quite work and only sometimes starts, we peered through the tinted windows at the murky Chinese capital rolling by us.
For a city, that by day is a swarming, sprawling megalopolis of modern skyscrapers and ancient imperial monuments, it's extremely peaceful before the dawn. Only construction crews, lost taxis parked at intersections and the occasional mysterious fire on the pavement give any hint that there is any life here at all.
Myself, one of our cameramen Scot Clotworthy and our Engineer Richard Stokes tried to sleep on the way there, expecting the journey to last the one hour it usually takes in daytime, but after 20 minutes our subject for the day loomed out of the morning mist. The national stadium, or "Bird’s nest" as it’s popularly known is an extremely impressive sight. It's enormous. Just enormous. Yet somehow our driver failed to see it and shot right past the turn-off.
Once he doubled back and negotiated some particularly vicious pot holes, we arrived at our location which was 18 floors up on a terrace overlooking the Olympic site. We immediately met up with our colleagues from the Beijing Bureau, Xiaoni Chen (Olympic Producer) and Wen-Chun Fan (Cameraman) we made contact with the building management, and started hand carrying the 500 kilos of TV equipment upstairs.
Live TV on location is a tricky business. It requires a lot of heavy "stuff" that you have to lug around, a lot of dedicated people who don't mind changing weeks of planning the day before, and a great deal of patience when dealing with governments and private enterprises to get permission to broadcast from their countries or properties. China is difficult. There are multiple layers of bureaucracy and you’re never really sure if the person who is telling you "no" is actually the right person to be speaking to in the first place.
Still we had all permissions in hand for our first location and we showed up knowing that everyone knew what we needed and had assured us that it would all be in place. Imagine our surprise when we arrived on the 18th floor to find it pitch black with no lights and no power.
It took a little phoning around to find the building engineer to come upstairs and unlock the electricity box that would power our gear. Job done? Not quite. The wiring in the box was back to front. The "earth" and "live" wires were switched over in the sockets which could have been a potentially dangerous problem. Thankfully Richard has worked in enough places not to assume that sockets are wired correctly, so he checked it, found the problem and immediately went to work re-wiring the building electricity with a large group of local maintenance men behind him taking notes.
Meanwhile Wen-Chun and Scot were placing the cameras and lights in position while worrying that the dreadful pollution in Beijing that morning might actually obscure our view of the bird's nest less than half a mile away. I was laying the cables for the camera signals and mics while setting up my monitors so I could direct the show.
Once Richard got the power situation sorted out, we turned everything on only to discover that we were not getting any kind of video out of the vision mixer. The vision mixer is the bit of kit that allows you to select which camera you want to put on TV, and if that's not working, then you have a bit of problem.
All the gear on the roof had been tested twice. Once back at our base in Hong Kong, and again the night before at our hotel in Beijing, so it was a complete mystery as to why this vision mixer had chosen this particular moment, 45 minutes from our first live show, to be entirely uncooperative.
Richard had to go and work on the satellite feed, and Scot and Wen-Chun were having their own problems with a rented light that wasn’t coming on, so I went to work on trying to fix the vision mixer. After every conceivable button had been pushed, and every cable connection checked, and then checked again, I resorted to the last gasp engineering solution, "re-seating the boards," which roughly translated means "give it a thump."
Much to my eternal relief and surprise this worked. We had a working vision mixer! "Giving it a thump" works sometimes if there is a small piece of debris inside the equipment housing that is lying across some crucial circuit. A hefty thump COULD dislodge this debris. On the other hand it COULD also completely break the gear or make the problem worse so it's definitely a last-gasp method.
Anyway, the mixer was fixed, the lights came on, the power was stable and the show went ahead as planned with all the zip and vigor we have come to expect from Kristie Lu Stout as well as some cracking shots from Wen-Chun and Scott.
Everyday on location throws up problems like these that if they go unresolved can jeopardize our input into the shows. When I first joined CNN eight years ago a producer with 20 years' experience told me over a beer that "it always works somehow, we don’t know why, but it always works somehow."
In many ways he’s right, we always seem to find a way, but it doesn’t happen by magic. Without the right people being in place behind the camera, the people in front of the camera wouldn’t be able to tell the stories that we all feel need to be told.
I wonder what will happen tomorrow?
-- From Mat Booth, Director, "Countdown Beijing"
Monday, August 06, 2007
The Baghdad Stock Exchange
Baghdad’s stock exchange is unlike any other in the world.
Surrounded by concrete blast walls, razor-wire and armed guards, and stuck firmly in the pre-digital age. It resembles a British betting shop (we call them “bookies”) – full of chain smoking men, clutching cheque books and nervously watching the action. Only here the action consists of a few brokers, writing prices on dozens of white-boards. But the noise is deafening, as eager investors yell their buy and sell orders. Baghdad’s stock market is about as basic as it gets. Potential share-buyers have to come, in person, and then squint across to the board that gives information about the company they want to buy into and yell out their interest to a broker. It’s the rawest form of capitalism – supply meeting demand on the walls of this small room.
But this is also an attractive target for those who are fighting the establishment of free-market democracy. It’s why I keep my flak jacket on while filming, even though everyone seems relaxed and welcoming.
Most of the people here are older men. When I ask, they say the market has been picking up and that new rules were introduced a few days ago which mean foreigners can now invest in the various banks, insurance companies and even hotels that are being traded. And they show me a new trading floor next door, where dozens of brand-new PCs are sitting, still in their plastic wrappers, ready for a switch over to a new digital system. It’s all been paid for by the United States, which hopes this will be a key building block in Iraq. It’s due to be switched on in a couple of months, once it gets the rubber stamp from Baghdad’s bickering politicians. It will certainly speed up trade – I just hope that it won’t dilute the boisterous atmosphere of shouting, laughter and cursing, which makes Baghdad’s stock exchange so unique.
Watch my report
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent, in Baghdad.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Bigger than Oprah: An interview with Yang Lan
"They are under orders not to let in any foreigners who want to do interviews."
It’s a pretty clear message, relayed to us by our intern as we sit in a people carrier on the outskirts of Beijing. We have arrived at a large, run down TV studio to interview China’s answer to Oprah Winfrey and “Image Ambassador” for the Olympics, Yang Lan. The studio’s security guards, however, seem to have other ideas.
Yang is at the pinnacle of her career. She has a TV audience in the hundreds of millions, a very lucrative TV production empire and has just been voted the most beautiful woman in China. Notably, she was instrumental in China‘s successful bid for the Games.
On the day of our interview with her for Talk Asia, she is presenting China’s version of Pop Idol (the UK talent show-turned-international-franchise which spawned shows such as American Idol). It’s called Olympic Songfest, a prime time, government-sponsored program seeking songs and performers for the Olympics. And despite arranging our interview slot, we don’t appear to be too welcome.
After some negotiation, we find ourselves in a smoke-filled waiting area outside the soundstage. Audience members, technicians and aspiring singers mingle, eating canteen-provided food and tapping cigarettes on overflowing ashtrays. Inside the studio, filming is under way. Our subject is serene on stage in the eye of the storm, as camera cranes swoop and the audience dutifully claps when prompted by floor managers.
Tall, elegant and focused, she holds as commanding a presence in person as she does on television. After a long conversation with a female contestant, kitted out in a tracksuit and baseball cap, the lights dim and the bubble machine switches into gear. The girl belts out a power ballad of the first order, with images of Chinese flags and past Olympic glories beaming out from a screen above her.
The taping of "Songfest" is fast and furious. Three weeks’ worth of shows gets crammed into a single afternoon of recording, with the set constructed and dismantled that same day. By 6pm – with three hours of work still ahead of her – Yang has lost none of her charisma, still finding the energy at one point to sing and shake her fist during a particularly rousing number. Then she disappears off to her changing room for a rest and costume change.
Our plan had been to film Yang giving Talk Asia presenter Anjali Rao a tour of her set during this time and - urged on by other visitors to her changing room – I knock and enter to discuss the shoot. Yang is sitting in a make up chair reading scripts and the look on her face tells me she is clearly appalled at my barging in uninvited. It is not an ideal first impression and I beat a hasty retreat.
Fortunately, such bumbling does not derail the shoot and we film a walk and talk around her set with two of our own cameras as a bemused studio audience looks on. Finally, we repair to another dressing room to set up for the main sit down interview: It doesn’t appear promising, with burnt out light bulbs, mosquitoes and cigarette butts on the floor. But after our cameraman extraordinaire works his magic, the room becomes an atmospheric den for speakeasy chat.
Her filming duties now complete at 9:30 pm, Yang arrives and takes her seat. She is charming, intelligent and extremely polished. It is not hard to see why she was selected as an ambassador by Beijing as she enthuses about the Olympics in a style befitting the most silver-tongued of Western politicians. But then, her position as a leading anchor and face of the Games could be considered political in contemporary China.
Yang delivers a searing performance after a 12-hour working day and falters only once. It is when we press her about media censorship - when the last time the government intervened in one of her programs. She takes a few minutes as she ponders her answer, before collecting herself and delivering a reply as polished as she is.
Despite discreet inquiries, we never find out who issued the security guards their orders.
-- From CNNI Talk Asia Producer, Nick Parker.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
In Saddam's image
We were touring around the Green Zone, looking for a suitable location to shoot a "stand-up," where I as a reporter deliver a few lines of script direct to the camera.
As we drove past convoys of Humvees returning from their patrols on the deadly streets, past soldiers sheltering from the scolding heat, we arrived at one of Saddam's palaces and found these extraordinary statues.
Apparently there were once four of them adorning each corner of the huge sandstone building. Now only two survive, and dominate a yard where U.S. troops prepare vehicles for deployment.
They stand like modern day Easter Island statues, gazing emotionlessly out at the American troops, a reminder of the total cult of personality that existed before the invasion and subsequent chaos.
Saddam's gaze still casts across this baked land, but his image is quietly rusting away, while American engineers try to decide what on earth they should do with this enormous hunks of metal.
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent
ABOUT THIS BLOGHear 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.