Cat fight between homeland and home

I just read a CNN-IBN report on the Devyani Khobragade episode that made me squirm.

“Devyani’s arrest,” the report said, “has rattled the Indian Diplomatic Corps.

“It is forcing the government to hit back at the U.S. According to Indian diplomats serving in the Western countries, paying lesser than what is actually on official papers is a common practice among the Indian diplomats. They claim that the salary fixed by the U.S. government is too high for the Indian diplomats.”

Indian diplomats say they cannot afford to pay $4,500 a month for domestic help. They say they, themselves, make just a little bit more than that a month.

What? Really?

In that case, diplomats should not be hiring live-in help.

They certainly cannot expect to treat domestic workers like they are often treated in India — underpaid and sometimes abused in other ways.

The row that has erupted over Khobragade’s arrest and strip search has turned into a Cold War-style standoff between two countries that have enjoyed warm relations in the past few years.

Many of my Indian friends are upset the United States that Khobragade was strip-searched. How dare America treat a diplomat like that? America would not stand for it if one of their own was treated this way. I see their point.

But my guess is that some Indian politicians may be taking a staunchly nationalist stance ahead of critical elections to drum up support for themselves. It pays for them to take a tough position against the United States.

Khobragade, meanwhile, has been transferred to the United Nations mission and can apply for diplomatic immunity. That’s not right if indeed she is guilty of a crime. She, like any other Indian in this country, should be held accountable if she broke the law.

It all seems very stressful as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I am stuck watching a political match between my homeland and the nation I now call home. Not good.

Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

Bhopal’s forgotten tragedy

Bhopal_GasTragedy050This tragedy has been forgotten by most people. It shouldn’t be.

It was 29 years ago on this night that tank 610 exploded at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. A milky fog that spread silently across the sleeping India city, spreading toxic gas in the densely populated slums nearby.

Within minutes, people poured into the narrow lanes and alleys. They grasped their throats as they gasped for air. Their eyes, mouths and bellies were on fire. They vomited blood and frothed at the mouth.

At first, some people thought the chaos was political — India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated weeks before and there had been rioting in the streets. But they learned soon enough that at five minutes past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas had enveloped their city.

In areas near the plant, it was impossible to walk without treading on the dead.

Bhopal native Nadeem Uddin told me many years ago that he saw tents — colorful ones used in weddings — at a government hospital. They were filled with the dead. “I can’t explain to you how I felt,” he said.

Union Carbide said 3,800 people died that night. The Indian government said 12,000 people were killed. Health workers in Bhopal estimated at least 20,000 people have died from MIC-related diseases like lung cancer and tuberculosis. Another half a million people suffered illness or gave birth to deformed babies.

The legal wrangling goes on, even after 29 years as survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster are fighting for financial compensation for their suffering.

In 1989, the Indian government agreed to a $470 million out-of-court settlement. In 2010, the survivors filed a petition with the Supreme Court demanding the case be reopened. They say the numbers of victims were underestimated.

Besides the compensation, a criminal case against Union Carbide in a Bhopal court and a class-action lawsuit in a New York district court are ongoing.

Bhopal’s mission continues to hold Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow Chemical, accountable. Some Indians have called the gas tragedy a holocaust.

Amnesty International, the global human rights organization, said this about Dow in July:

“The company has been ordered to explain why its wholly-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has repeatedly ignored court summons in the ongoing criminal case concerning the 1984 Bhopal disaster, where UCC is accused of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

“Dow has always tried to claim it has nothing to do with UCC’s liability for Bhopal, but the court has today made it clear that Dow itself has a responsibility to ensure that UCC faces the outstanding charges against it. Dow can no longer turn its back on the tens of thousands still suffering in Bhopal.

“Almost three decades after the Bhopal disaster, victims and their families have yet to receive adequate compensation from UCC or the Indian government.”

Amnesty’s research shows that about 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems. That’s today, almost three decades after tank 610 exploded.

A friend of mine in India said Bhopal was the most callous manifestation of corporate insensitivity. Had the victims not been poor Indians, Dow and Union Carbide would have been held more accountable. Look at what happened with BP on the Gulf Coast, my friend said. “How is it that no one was made to answer for Bhopal?”

How is it, indeed?

First-person fire

In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written a lot about victims. Many sorts of victims. Of war. Murder. Illness. Natural disasters. And man-made ones.

I always try to be sensitive and to highlight the incredible resiliency of human beings.

I was lucky enough to have won a Dart-Ochberg Fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I learned many things during that fellowship; how to improve my own reportage about people who have suffered.

All that really hit home last week when CNN published a story I reported from India about a woman who was raped four decades ago. You can read the story here: The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country.

In the story, I revealed that I, too, had been raped when I was 18. I broke a 33-year silence. I wrote about some of the reaction to the story and how it made me feel in a follow-up. I was reporter and victim all at once.

I so appreciate the outpouring of support from women from around the world. It’s been a very difficult few days, reliving a memory from my past — one that I had put away in one corner of my mind. I tried to forget. But you can never really forget. The good thing is that it is possible to move on.

This post is to thank those who reached out to me. And for my dearest friends who took the time to make sure I was doing OK. Thank you.

I’m moving on to the next story. But I will not be afraid anymore to write about rape.

Iraq’s forgotten tragedy

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I wonder how he is doing today. I don't even know if he is alive.

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I think about him and all the people I met over the years in Iraq and wonder what their lives are like today.

I just read an excerpt from Peter Baker’s new book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. It’s being touted as the most comprehensive account of the Bush-Cheney years, at least until historical archives are opened to the public.

What’s clear from the book is that Cheney was a major driver of the Iraq War. And a  senior administration official is quoted as saying that America was looking for a fight, looking to kick someone’s ass.

So the Iraqi people paid the price.

I am looking forward to reading Baker’s book. I met him in Baghdad in 2002, when he was with the Washington Post and I was with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That was four months before the invasion and all foreign journalists were made to stay at the Al-Rashid Hotel — the one that had a mosaic of Papa Bush’s face on the entrance floor. You couldn’t enter the hotel without stepping on the presidential mug.

I read about Baker’s book today along with the latest media reports of more bloodshed. At least 43 people were killed Sunday. Dozens more were wounded.

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded coffee shop in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, not too far from where I was in March when I was last in the Iraqi capital. Many of the victims were young men gathering to drink tea, smoke hookah and play games, officials told CNN.

Earlier, in mainly Sunni Anbar province, three attacks killed six people.

At least 350 people have been killed in October.

Take a look at these numbers compiled by the United Nations mission in Iraq. They are nothing short of shocking:

September: 887 killed; 1957 injured

August 2013: 716 killed; 1936 injured

July: 928 killed; 2109 injured

June: 685 killed; 1610 injured

May: 963 killed; 2191 injured

April: 595 killed; 1481 injured

March: 229 killed; 853 injured

February: 418 killed; 704 injured

January: 319 killed; 960 injured

Adding to the horror is a new survey that estimates the civilian death toll of the war to be much higher than believed — 500,000.

Yet Iraq is but a blip on the news. Iraqis are not a part of the global conscience, at least, certainly not a part of the American conscience.

My heart bleeds for Iraq. I think about friends I made there; how so many of them lead lives marred by hatred. It’s difficult to read about daily death and destruction now, more than 10 years after Bush and Cheney made the decision to attack.

Few American news outlets are covering events in Iraq the way they should be, I believe. It’s a mistake not to focus attention on the bloodshed. Terrible to ignore tragedy, worse to forget.

You can read my last story from Baghdad on CNN.

Vivek Singh

vivek

I just returned from a short trip to a part of central India that was previously unfamiliar — Gadchiroli District in the state of Maharashtra. I was there to report a rape story for CNN and traveled with CNN cameraman Sanjiv Talreja and producer Harmeet Shah Singh.

Photojournalist Vivek Singh also accompanied us. He’s a freelancer based in Delhi and we’ve used his work on CNN’s photo blog. I edited the text that ran with an amazing gallery about rising tensions between Bodo tribespeople and Bengali Muslims in northeastern India. It was refreshing to see journalism from India that goes far beyond the breathless and sensational stuff that is common in the media here.

Vivek’s work is hauntingly beautiful. Powerful. Sometimes stark in black and white. It’s difficult to take your eyes off his images. I was lucky he was able to make it to Gadchiroli with us.

Check out Vivek’s work here:

http://www.viveksinghphotography.com/#/home?i=1710

A brutal rape, then outrage. What next for women?

India-protestors-1200

When I was home in Kolkata several years ago, I climbed aboard a crowded public bus to go across town. The experience was far from pleasant.

It was hot and crowded. The bus was filled with the stench of body odor. I could feel the sweat of others on my bare arms as I clawed my way to the front door to get out at my stop.

But all of that could be borne in some way or the other. This was the price of getting from south Kolkata to its financial center in Dalhousie Square on a ticket that cost me all of 5 cents.

But there was another memory that came hurtling back in the last few days as I read the news of a 23-year-old woman attacked and raped by a gang of men on a moving bus.

Men on the bus pinched me and groped me and there was nothing I could do. My right arm was up, holding onto the grab bar for dear life as the rickety bus bumped its way over gaping pot holes.

I could not move in that packed bus. I could not hit them back. I was helpless.

But that was just the way it was. Not one person around me thought to do anything about it.

What happened to me happens to women all over India. Every day.

I’ve been stared at on the streets. Or heard catcalls and whistles.

In every instance, I was violated. But I was lucky.

Many times, the attacks are violent. In the December 16 rape of the Delhi woman, the circumstances were unimaginable. Her assailants gang-raped her and dumped her battered body off an expressway. Her injuries were so horrific that part of her intestines had to be removed in hospital.

The shocking nature of this crime galvanized Indians to take to the streets to express their outrage.

But I believe that anger was a long-time coming.  It stemmed from years and years of hearing about rapes and other forms of violence against women in which victims are blamed and perpetrators face little or no punishment.

I believe that Indians were finally finding a mass, united voice by which to say: We have to change the way we think about women and the way we treat them.

Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, got it right in a speech that was posted online:

There is barely a woman here who has not at some point fought for her dignity on the streets of Delhi, or in its buses. There is not one amongst us that has not found herself alone in such a situation. When we do this, we are told that we are inviting trouble; that we are asking for it.

The Indian government has promised stricter safety measures on buses. It can also, perhaps, make policy changes that will make reporting and convictions in cases of violence against women easier.

But ultimately, there has to be changes in the Indian mindset that affords women the dignity they deserve.

Here’s what journalist Shoma Chaudhury wrote on Teleheka.com:

Rape is already the most under-reported crime in India. But beneath that courses a whole other universe of violence that is not even acknowledged. It’s not just psychopathic men in a rogue white bus who can be rapists: it’s fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, friends. Almost one in every two women would have a story — perhaps told, perhaps untold — of being groped, molested or raped in the confines of their own homes. If they dare speak of it at all, they are told to bury and bear it. Take it as a part of life. To name an uncle who has been molesting a minor niece would be to shame the family. And marital rape — that stretches the very imagination. It’s a mark of our bestial ideas about women that even judges often suggest that rape survivors marry their rapists to avoid the hell of life as a single woman rejected by society.

It’s clear, say Indian women’s rights activists, that passing laws is not enough.

Legislation might give a sense of change, said Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, when in fact, very little is being done. This is what she wrote in The Hindu newspaper:

To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society. We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights.

I am horrified by what happened in New Delhi.

I am heartened that so many people hit the streets in outrage.

I can only hope that from this brutal crime will come the beginning of a safer future for women.

A voice in Vietnam

Ho Thi Bich Khuong.
Born: 1967
Activity: Writer
Date of arrest: November 15, 2011
Sentence: Sentenced December 29, 2011 to 5 years imprisonment followed by 3 years house arrest
Charge: Propaganda against the socialist state
Current location: Nghe An province

This is the information available on the Vietnam Reform Party’s page on blogger Ho Thi Bich Khuong. Few in America have probably heard of her. But this is her third arrest. She has been tortured in detention, according to Human Rights Watch.

She was found guilty of violating article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, designed to deflect criticism of the Communist government. The state said she “blackened” Vietnam’s name and belonged to human rights groups led by “reactionaries.”

She publishes detailed accounts of the repression and harassment she and her family have faced, and writes about the suffering of poor rural farmers and of human rights defenders, said a statement from Human Rights Watch.

In November 2010, she visited the families of people killed by police in a land rights protest and questioned the authorities’ silence on the case. After that, she wrote about violence against Mennonites at Christmas. Three weeks later, she was arrested, said Human Rights Watch.

“Vietnam should be grateful that people like Ho Thi Bich Khuong call attention to local abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the global rights monitor.

“They give the government an opportunity to investigate and show commitment to the rule of law,” he said. “When the government instead clamps down on the media and locks up independent bloggers, it simply encourages further corruption and abuse of power.”

Human Rights Watch honored Ho Thi Bich Khuong with a Hellman/Hammett award in 2011. The group said it wanted to give an international platform to those who Vietnam will not allow to be heard.

Vietnam launched a crackdown on freedom of expression in 2009. Since then, dozens of political and human rights activists have been handed long jail terms, rights groups say. Vietnam now ranks 172 out of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

It’s a disturbing trend we don’t hear much about in the Western media. We ought to, especially when we are so focused on the Arab Spring and the great risks people take to get information out to the rest of the world from places like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

A Vietnamese court will hear Ho Thi Bich Khuong’s appeal tomorrow. It’s unlikely she will be released. She may be silenced for now, but her voice, I am sure, will resonate for as long as there is injustice in her homeland.