If you throw your hat into the air in Ramadi, it will come down with 12 bullet holes in it

I often wonder what happened to all the people I met in Ramadi.

I often wonder what happened to all the people I met in Ramadi. (Photo by Louie Favorite)

My heart breaks every time I read news from Iraq. So much so that I find myself clicking away or turning off the radio.

Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, has fallen to the Islamic State. I think of the people I met there during the height of the Iraq War and have to stave off tears. Ramadi and nearby Fallujah were the two most dangerous cities for American soldiers and Marines. Ramadi was believed to be the most dangerous place on Earth.

I was last in Ramadi in March 2007, when the Anbar Awakening was gaining strength, Sunni insurgents were laying down their weapons and there was, at last, a real hope for peace. Residents recounted the gross atrocities they had witnessed — assassinations and public beheadings, among them. They told me how they lived in fear so constant that eventually, they learned to go about their lives at that heightened level of anxiety.

Ramadi never had a chance to recover.

Ramadi never had a chance to recover.

I found Ramadi apocalyptic. I did not see a single building that was not bullet-riddled or bombed. I did not speak to a single person whose life had not been shattered in some way.

I wonder if those people are still there. Or did they escape? I hope so.

What is it like to grow up with this kind of violence? Or to never be able to look forward to a future? It’s so hard for journalists in Iraq these days; too risky to walk the streets of Ramadi and talk to people. The stories are about battles won and territory lost. But we never hear the voices of human beings who are suffering.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are scratching their heads on how to retake Ramadi from the clutches of ISIS. But all the strategizing in the world feels futile at the moment.

I reread one of my stories that ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007. It’s no longer posted on the newspaper’s website. But for anyone who is interested, here it is:

Scenes from Iraq: A PATH TO PEACE
By Moni Basu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ramadi, Iraq —- One afternoon last November, masked men raided the compound of houses belonging to Sheik Jassim Saleh Mohammed.

The intruders held an AK-47 rifle against the throat of Mohammed’s wife. They burned two houses. They killed 17 women and children. They killed his brother.

Overwhelmed by the carnage, the sheik uttered one word: “Enough.”

“I call it a decisive day,” Mohammed says, sitting on the front porch of his house overlooking a small lawn, pink roses and the charred ruins of his brother’s house. “After what they did to my family, I had enough.”

Mohammed was the first sheik in eastern Ramadi to turn against insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. Today, he is part of a burgeoning movement of powerful Sunni tribal leaders who might have tacitly supported al-Qaida in the past but are fed up with the extreme violence. More than 40 sheiks have joined in a united front against both the insurgency —- which they say uses Islam as the rationale for slaughtering women and children —- and a perceived threat from Shiite Iran to the east. And they are cooperating with the Americans.

The sheiks call it the “Anbar Awakening.”

They wield considerable influence in the heavily tribal Anbar province that stretches west from Baghdad to Iraq’s borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Col. John Charlton, the overall American commander here, says the sheiks’ support has allowed U.S. troops to raid restive neighborhoods, purge insurgents and set up American-Iraqi police stations throughout Ramadi, where the police force had been all but wiped out.

“The sheiks in this part of the world are the conduit to the community,” says Charlton, who heads the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, responsible for Ramadi since January.

“I could speak to all 400,000 people in Ramadi and have no impact,” Charlton says. “But if a sheik puts his arm around me, it’s a different story.”

Building relationships with community leaders has been a key facet of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq. Part of the much-heralded security push that began Feb. 14 in Baghdad put American forces in the neighborhoods they patrol instead of returning to isolated military bases.

The strategy appears to be paying off here in Ramadi, where U.S. troops live in makeshift compounds throughout the city helping the Iraqi Army and police keep the calm.

Signs of normalcy have started emerging in Ramadi, until recently a ghost town. A man sells produce at a roadside stall. Laughing children walk down the street behind a woman who smiles and says “welcome” to passing American soldiers.

Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, an Atlantan who commands one of Charlton’s battalions, Task Force 1-77 Armor, says Ramadi is a tale of two cities —- one where bloodshed was as routine as sunrise, the other where guns have almost fallen silent.


The Iraqis say if you throw your hat into the air in Ramadi, it will come down with 12 bullet holes in it.

A drive down the main east-west road that runs parallel to the Euphrates River conjures images of Hiroshima after the atom bomb. Not a single building stands unmarked. A fifth-floor balcony crashed to the sidewalk. Gnarled metal gates resembling Twizzler sticks. Carcasses of blown-up cars. Shattered glass. Trash everywhere. Facades of what were once apartments, offices and shops riddled with bullet holes. “Swiss cheese,” as the soldiers call it.

Saddam Hussein’s troops and U.S. forces fought fierce battles here during the 2003 invasion. When the United States disbanded Saddam’s military, many of the disgruntled men came home to Ramadi.

Anda Khalaf, a colonel in the former Iraqi Army, says the insurgency was imported to Iraq by foreigners but mushroomed here because so many men were sitting at home, jobless and angry. Last year, half the terrorist attacks in Iraq occurred in Ramadi.

The city has been al-Qaida’s haven and America’s hell on earth —- the ugly, beating heart of the insurgency.


On patrol with American soldiers in Ramadi. Match 2007. (Photo by Louie Favorite)

On patrol with American soldiers in Ramadi. Match 2007. (Photo by Louie Favorite)

The Americans believe democracy will help return this city to its people.

On a balmy April morning, Mohammed, the sheik from eastern Ramadi, heads to a district meeting. He is the leading candidate in an election to choose the district of Sufia’s representative on the Ramadi city council.

Mohammed wears the traditional dress for Arab men —- a pressed white dishdasha covered in a sheer black muslin robe with gold brocade trim. He is a simple man, a farmer who is not well educated. But he is smart enough to recognize his weaknesses and surrounds himself with polished men in suits and ties.

American military officers are at the meeting to ensure Sufia’s first act of democracy is unblemished. Mohammed enters a two-story building where two U.S. infantrymen were killed in a recent firefight and where, today, local ballots will be cast. In a show of good faith, American soldiers and Marines around the building remove their body armor and helmets. Standing unprotected on the street, they appear uneasy.

But there is no gunfire today. People are not giving the Americans the “evil eye,” a term soldiers use for glances that say: Get out.

“I am in shock,” says Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Dougherty of the more tolerant atmosphere.

Inside the building, the voting comes to a close. Mohammed, who heads the sizable al-Soda tribe, wins by a large margin. The Iraqis then serve lunch on long folding tables outside the meeting hall.

Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment’s Charlie Company, shares lamb and rice with Sufia’s community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There are three ways to deal with insurgents, he says, tearing a piece of bread and scooping up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

When asked what happened to the insurgents in Sufia, Gadoury stops chewing his food and grins.

“You’re eating with them,” he says.


What Gadoury means is that some Iraqis who planted bombs and pointed rifles at the Americans just a month ago now have switched sides.

Yet with that welcome change comes uncertainty: There’s no easy way to tell good from bad.

The police often don’t wear uniforms. They cover their heads and faces with rags, sling AK-47s on their shoulders and ride in the back of pickup trucks. They look disquietingly like insurgents.

Ramadi’s ferocious fighting nearly wiped out the police force —- its numbers dwindled to 35 a year ago. Today, Johnson, the 1-77 Armor commander, says 4,500 police patrol the city through nine permanent stations and many more substations.

Red squares and triangles on a U.S. military map indicate security posts throughout the city. A few months ago, the map was nearly void of the shapes. Now it is covered in them.


Every American soldier who has patrolled Ramadi’s streets knows how to predict danger.

“Even if people don’t tell you anything, their body language does,” says 1st. Lt. Curt Daniels of 1-9 Infantry’s Able Company.

Daniels leads his platoon through Melaab, a neighborhood known as “the heart of darkness.”

When residents are asked what it was like here before the recent calm, they glide their right index finger across their throats. The insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Daniels walks over a road where patches cover craters created by improvised explosive devices. The Americans recently found 15 IEDs and 2,500 pounds of explosives in Melaab.

In January, Ramadi suffered about 140 violent attacks a week. By the end of March, it dropped to a little over 60.

Daniels says insurgents are “laying low now” after the sheiks cleared the way for security forces to saturate neighborhoods.

“There’s no way you are going to kill or capture every insurgent,” he says, surveying the neighborhood from the rooftop of a police station, the sound of gunfire echoing in the distance. Then Daniels takes a line straight out of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual: “As soon as you win the faith of the people, the insurgents go away.”

Johnson, the 1-77 commander, says the peace will not hold in Ramadi unless local forces take control.

“They see my soldiers as just that —- soldiers,” he says. “The populace trusts the Iraqi police. These are their fathers and brothers, uncles and cousins.”

If anyone can sniff out bad from good, Johnson says, it’s the local police.


The day after his election, Mohammed, the sheik from Sufia, arrives at a joint Iraqi-American camp in central Ramadi for his first city council meeting.

He clutches a gray file filled with notes and says he already has started thinking of reconstruction projects.

Outside, the skies are ominous. It has been rained intermittently, but that’s enough to flood this city without any infrastructure. Mohammed wipes the mud off his leather loafers. He adjusts the white kufiya on his head and appeals to Ramadi Mayor Latif Obaid Eiada.

“We need many things,” Mohammed says.

Every district representative echoes Mohammed’s statements. Everyone is impatient.

Charlton, the brigade commander, attempts to soothe the crowd. He knows that the 15 months his brigade spends here will only be the start of an arduous process.

“This is probably the most damaged city in Iraq,” he says. “I’ll bet my paycheck on that. It’s going to take years to put it back together.”

Charlton promises the Ramadi council that U.S. forces will support its reconstruction priorities.

Realizing the fragility of the fledgling council, he implores them to keep on the right path. “We’ve worked too hard to let terrorists back into the community,” he says.

Mohammed nods in agreement. He has paid the price for peace.



Practicing for a performance in the courtyard of Kolkata Sanved.

On a bright December afternoon in Kolkata, I watched a handful of young women throw their arms in the air, swirl the scarves of their salwar kameez and leap from one end of the courtyard to the other. They danced their cares away. Literally.

The women had all been forced into prostitution or into abusive relationships. Dance was their therapy. For some, it was their only joy in life.


Sohini goes over steps with a star dancer who was abducted as a girl and forced into prostitution.

Their leader is Sohini Chakraborty, a sociologist and dancer, who launched Kolkata Sanved after experimenting with rehabilitation for sexual violence survivors through dance. A poster she saw once at Kolkata’s massive book fair steered her in that direction. Under a photograph of a girl  were these words: “They sell me, my own blood for gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains,’ printed underneath.”

Chakraborty says she went inside the book stall to learn more about that girl and “embarked on a new journey.”

I spent many hours with the women and girls at Kolkata Sanved. It was amazing how uplifting it was to watch them come alive through music and movement. I even danced with them on my last day.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I salute Sohini, her staff and all the women who have rediscovered themselves through Kolkata Sanved. And all the other brave women I have met through the years on my travels around the world. We have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way.

Read more about Kolkata Sanved.

We said we would not forget Haiti


I spoke with my friend Jean Mariot Cleophat by phone today. It has been five years since I first met him.

He was my guide for much of my reporting journey through Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake that left Haitians is utter despair. They called in “La catastrophe.”

Reporters from around the world rushed to Haiti then, hungry to tell the story of the disaster. Ordinary people felt moved to make donations, by cell phone even. The world pledged billions of dollars.

Everyone said: Haiti will rise from its ashes and finally succeed in its long struggle to overcome poverty.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Everyone said: We will not forget Haiti.

But we did forget Haiti, by and large.

It is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and the world’s focus is not on Haiti today.

The earth shook for a mere 60 seconds that Tuesday and 220,000 people died.

Millions were left homeless, desperately seeking shelter in camps that grew to become huge tent cities.

In their vulnerable state, Haitians braved killer hurricanes and a cholera outbreak.

There are places in Port-au-Prince now that show no hints of the catastrophe.

The palace has been fixed up and shiny new buildings built. There are new roads, new houses. The markets are do brisk business. But, said Mariot, they belie the truth about Haiti. They belie the plight of ordinary people.

I asked Mariot how his life has been.

“I feel without hope,” he told me.

Mariot is not yet 30. He is educated and speaks English fairly well. Since the last time I saw him in early 2011,he has gotten married and now has a four-year-old daughter.

He’s worked numerous jobs in international companies. He got himself OSHA certified and was working for a construction firm but when the World Bank contract ran out, so did his job. He’s moved to the countryside because it’s cheaper there than Port-au-Prince. I asked him what he was dong for money.

He said he finds temporary jobs here and there; makes $300-400 a pop. It pays for food. But it’s hardly enough.

“There are no jobs here,” he said. “What happened to all the promises of jobs for Haitians?”

That got me thinking about a conversation I had with a friend whose father used to work for a major cruise company. He told me how he had been to Haiti as a boy when tourists flocked to its turquoise waters and white sand beaches. I know there had been efforts to restart tourism in Haiti, a notion that irks those who see it as exploitative. But I wondered how much Haiti might profit from a booming tourism trade.

If we can talk about Cuba opening up to Americans who want to sun themselves in the tropics, then why not Haiti?

I don’t know what happened to all the people I met in Haiti. How did they recover? Were they able to regain a semblance of normalcy?

I think of them this week and pay tribute to their fortitude. And resilience.

Before he hung up, Mariot told me he lives by faith. Like all Haitians, he said, he lives by the grace of God.

Read my Haiti stories on CNN.com:

Buried alive for six days, survivors reunite

A day with Sean Penn in Haiti

Rescuer was woman’s last hope

Burying the dead

What it was a year later



Rembering Blacksheep on Veterans Day



Here’s to you, Blacksheep — 3rd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment.

Thinking of that hot day in April, 2006, when you completed your last patrol.

I was with you in the worst of times and you showed me the best. I feel proud to know all of you. Saluting your courage on Veterans Day.



Death, dreams and dread


I had a dream last night. It was the same one I’ve had since August 20, when I learned of Jim Foley’s death.

A man in black holds a small knife in his left hand. He is too cowardly to show his face. But he holds up Jim’s face. For the world to see.

I have been told that if one uses a small knife for such a brutal method of execution, it is an excruciatingly painful way to die. Not like the guillotine; not like a heavy blade making a clean chop.

I dream this every night. I have dreamed it before. After Daniel Pearl’s murder in February 2002 by al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

I do not understand people who wish to kill journalists and aid workers. I hope I will never understand them.

I know this: that if my dreams are so troubling, then how traumatic are these acts to the loved ones of those subjected to such heinous acts? I cannot imagine.

Some Muslims in that part of the world have told me that no less heinous acts happen in America each year. Murder in the most chilling fashion. Rape. Assault. Torture. Grisly crimes that make headlines — and some that do not.

But one act does not beget another. One crime does not justify another.

Jim was a journalist who cared. So was Steven Sotloff. David Haines dedicated his life to the betterment of others. How many more innocents will be killed in this horrific way?

Will Alan Henning be next? His friends pleaded with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known by the acronym ISIS, to let him go. But the men who make up ISIS do not know the meaning of compassion. They make al Qaida look mellow.

I will see Jim Foley in my dreams tonight. Again. I am sure of it.

And, in the morning I will again awake saluting his courage, saluting all those who put themselves in harm’s way for making this world a little bit better.

Give to the James Foley Legacy Fund. 


Reflections on a fresh start

Below is what K.S. Narendran, husband of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passenger Chandrika Sharma, posted on his Facebook page on the 6-month anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. I have admired his fortitude since I first spoke with him in March and his incredibly poignant expressions of his ordeal. So I thought I would share.

You can read my CNN story on him here: A hole in the clouds, an empty space on earth
chandrikaBy K.S. Narendran:

September 7, 2014 at 10:37am

It is six calendar months since MH 370 made news….

Since then, many horrific events across continents makes one wonder about the world we live in. Are we moving towards a better world that will see future generations, or a world bereft of humanity? World-views that breed hate and intolerance, self-centeredness and greed, power mongering and domination, and, all brands of fundamentalism and violence are ascendent. The space for inquiry and dialogue has shrunk, mutual respect has given way to the valuing of mutual gain, and relationships have progressively reduced to the short hand of techno-aided ritualistic greeting and voyeuristic tracking. From this wide angle lens, the outlook is bleak and scary. It is then tempting to bring attention to one’s immediate context, seek relief and refuge, assuming of course that we are more ‘in control’ of our lives than of the world at large.

In my personal context, what rears up is that I have associated normalcy with a certain belief in the uninterrupted certainty of routines and relationships. The disappearance of MH 370 has been a rude reminder of the transience of all things and the fickleness of dreams, goals and plans. It has been easier putting these on hold or distancing from them, and harder to find energy and meaning in making each day count. From being a seeker and wanderer that I thought I was for the most part, I have seen myself be more the drifter and the dodger, allowing myself a lot of latitude rather than exhorting myself to ‘move on’.

So what am I stuck at? I think it has to do with acceptance of what seems like an irreversible loss…. not being sufficiently pragmatic in responding to an event that continues to defy explanation, and to be remain mired in the swirl of possibilities. The other day, after a hard grinding walk, I was lying flat on my back in my apartment doing my ‘stretches’ about the same time and place that Chandrika would as part of her daily routine to stay fit. Unannounced, a thought entered: “what if the phone rang and it was her?” No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, and the phone rang. At that moment, I told myself: “This can’t be true”. Of course, it wasn’t. But those seconds let me see that no matter how far my rational mind had moved on, at some undefinable depths of my being there remain remnants of expectations that cold thought or reason could not banish.

I have struggled to receive or counter those who helpfully ask me to keep up hope, following it up with “where is the evidence? Without a shred of evidence, why must we believe and accept the worst?”.There isn’t a paper from MAS to help approach the banks and other institutions with. I suppose even they are in a quandary on what they can commit to paper without being interrogated. So such of those concrete things that one does in closing a chapter in one’s life so a new chapter may be written is in abeyance.

As I take in the news of Tony Abott and Modi cozying up to each other,and doing the deals, I wonder if it may have helped for Modi to whisper a word on MH 370 and push for the truth. Given the silence in the establishment, it will not surprise many if those in power thought it was a Mumbai cab registration number. And as I read of Malaysia and Australia’s calling for an independent investigation into the incident involving MH 17, I wonder why the repeated calls for an independent investigation into MH370 have been seen as less deserving. While the difference in ground (or ocean) realities may be pointed out as basis, the lack of transparency and credibility in both instances stands out as crucial grounds to consider the case for independent investigators.

I have in the last few weeks tried to grapple with the idea of loss and mourning. Why do I miss those whom I have a shared a slice of life with and today are no more in our midst? Near ones. Friends in distant lands I hadn’t stayed in contact with for years. Friends I have met in recent months. Why should the knowledge of ‘physically forever gone’ be such a big deal? Often, the mind shifts to a shared past, suggesting that one part of loving, losing and grieving has less to do with another’s presence in the present. At other times, it moves forward in time to an imagined future, that now needs repair. The present has to do with being suddenly incapacitated in small or large measure to fully apprehend and respond to an altered sense of space and the configuration of things. The void that one experiences suggests a wholeness with ‘my world’ and within myself prior to separation, a wholeness whose quality I don’t have an acute awareness of (or value enough?). Memory then is a companion (or a crutch) that keeps alive the notion of the erstwhile unity or wholeness till I discover a new location to re-anchor myself, a new relationship with memory itself, with all people, and things. It is a bit like a glass of water with my finger dipped in, and what happens to the water whenI remove my finger.It is just that memory is sticky, heavy and impedes flow.

I am not a mushy sentimentalist. The over-grown stoic in me seldom made time for such a part. What I miss most in my intimate partner is a friend and a foil, whose expressiveness made up for my lack of it, and whose yen for thoughtful action ensured that life was never frozen, stagnant and lost in a sea of words.

Many years ago, I sought to understand what the process of celebration was all about. Strangely, in the current context, my mind has strayed to that very inquiry. It makes me wonder if celebration and mourning are essentially two sides of the same coin. That in mourning one invokes the memory of a life lived. That much like Robinson Crusoe who perhaps could not celebrate all by himself and needed a gathering, mourning is a collective process that celebrates the life of one who has gone, and gives a vocabulary to the legacy that lives on. In this process there is sadness, joy, and celebration, all in good measure.

Courage in journalism

foleyHonoring the courage and fortitude of James Foley today. Rest in peace.

I had intended to write more about him but words are failing me now. So I am posting a few links for you. I hope you will think about how so many journalists put themselves in harm’s way so that you may know the truth about our sometimes vicious world.

The Committee to Protect Journalists: 1,070 journalists killed since 1992.

The Free James Foley Facebook page has posts from his family and friends.

A brave and tireless journalist.

Friends remember.