The saint

mother_teresa-smaller.14704.articlefull.0Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa is becoming a saint. She will be canonized next fall.

The pontiff attributed the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors, which means the Albanian-born nun can now ascend to the most vaulted status in the Catholic church.

But for me, and millions in my hometown of Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s true miracles were on the streets of that city. She didn’t just save the life of a terminally ill Brazilian man; she saved the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa gave everything to make something of people who had nowhere to go. People who had no hope.

I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at an institution run by the Missionaries of Charity. Their main chapel was just down the street from my parents’ home in central Kolkata. I met Mother Teresa many years ago, before she was a Nobel laureate, before the world knew much about her.

She has been criticized in India from various corners. Some thought she was pushing a Catholic agenda in a mostly Hindu city. Others said she gained fame because she was a foreigner. I don’t pretend to know every truth about her. But I will say this: I know she helped care for desperate people who otherwise would have gone without help. I don’t know of anyone else who gave so tirelessly to the poor.

That makes her a saint in my book.

Dear Naren

I first began speaking with K.S. Narendran right after the disappearance of MH Flight 370 in March 2014. His wife, Chandrika, was on that doomed jet.

We spoke by phone, Skype an email — conversations that resulted in several stories on CNN. I finally had the chance to meet him yesterday in Bangalore. I felt honored he made time for me.

I felt some apprehension about the meeting. I was not sure how much he still wanted to talk about the tragedy that befell him; how much he wanted to just move on.

But the meeting was easy. Even though I had never seen him before, at times, it felt that I had known him for a while. After all, he had shared with me some of the most personal parts of his life, the kind of things you share only with family and those closest to your heart.

In the end, we met not as journalist and subject of story but as friends, really — and with the hope that our friendship will continue.

Here are the stories:

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/20/world/flight-370-family-missing-india/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/14/world/asia/malaysia-airlines-families-narendran/

http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/01/world/mh370-conversations-with-missing-wife/

 

 

Diwali, Lakshmi and good winning over evil

The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).
The return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya. (From Ramayana online).

Today we mark a day of solemnity, remembering all those who fought for our country. I salute you on Veterans Day, especially those of you I came to know well in Iraq. I think of you often, not just on days reserved to honor you.

Today is also a day of joy. It’s the festival of lights. Happy Diwali, everyone!

Hindus and Jains mark the day by decorating their homes and streets with rows and rows of diyas, or oil lamps. Well, these days, many folks use more convenient candles or electrical lamps.

Light is such an important metaphor in so many religions. It is the presence of a higher being. Hindus see light also as a metaphor for self-awareness and self-improvement.

The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit Deepawali — a row of lights. The festival celebrates a triumph of good over evil.

The story stems from the Hindu epic, “Ramayana,” in which Prince Rama returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya from 14 long years of exile with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakhsmana. Rama comes back a hero after defeating the nasty Ravana, the 10-headed king of the demons.

Rama becomes king and Ayodhya prospers in peace.

Lakshmi
Lakshmi

This was my favorite story of all from the Hindu epics, partly because I was born on Lakshmi puja, the day when Hindus pray to the goddess of prosperity. Sita is an avatar of Lakshmi, just as Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, the preserver.

The story of the  good Sita ends with a dramatic account of the ground splitting apart and Sita enters Earth’s womb. It’s a rescue for her from the cruel world that challenged her purity.

My pishi (aunt) read me stories from the Ramayana when I was a little girl. On Thursdays, I sat with her and my great-aunt in a mezzanine level room that housed the altars to the gods. The two women chanted mantras in Sanskrit in worship of Lakshmi while I gazed on the idols and detailed photos of the gods and goddesses, especially Lakshmi.

I think of those days every year on Diwali. I am so far from home and feel so connected at times through my memories. I don’t have diyas at my home but tonight I will light a candle and think of all the times I have borne witness to goodness winning over evil, something I don’t do often enough.

 

Three executions

death

The United States has scheduled three executions this week” Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia, Richard Glossip in Oklahoma and Alfredo Prieto in Virginia.

Gissendaner’s children are pleading for her life. They and others who know her say she epitomizes the prison system in that she has transformed herself behind bars. Gissendaner earned a degree in theology and ministers to fellow inmates. She is deeply remorseful for arranging the murder of her husband, Doug, in 1997. She doesn’t want freedom — she says she deserves a life in prison.

As I write this, a parole and pardons board in Georgia is meeting to reconsider an earlier decision to deny clemency.

Read my stories about Gissendaner here:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/27/us/georgia-sets-execution/

http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/21/us/death-row-inmate-theology/

I spoke with Glossip in Oklahoma last January, days before an execution date was set back then. He has always maintained his innocence and told me he was afraid the state would botch his execution like they had Clayton Lockett’s. Read the story here:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/15/us/oklahoma-resumes-executions/

Prieto  is a Salvadoran national who is lawyers say has an intellectual disability that would render his execution unconstitutional. You can read more about him here: http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/uaa19815.pdf

Here is the link to the Death Penalty Center:

http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

Here is a pro-death penalty forum:

http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/

The United States is the only Western democracy that still has capital punishment. What do you think? Should we still have executions in this country?

Death, dreams and dread

foley

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. 

foley

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, Part II: RIP, Habibi

sarmad2A few months ago, my friend and colleague Lateef Mungin died quite suddenly. This morning, more shocking news awaited me.

CNN photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera passed away. He was 42.

Here’s the thing. Like Lateef, Sarmad was always smiling, always cracking jokes. His joy in life was infectious. I never heard him get bitter like so many other journalists in the war zone.

He came to America from his native Iraq and lived here in Atlanta. He told me how he lived with his ailing mother and was her primary caregiver.

He traveled constantly for work. He survived war zones, riots and disasters. But a long life was not to be his. It’s something a lot of my CNN friends are grappling with today.

I salute Sarmad for his courage and talent in journalism. I salute him for being the very best of humanity.

You are gone from us too soon, Sarmoudi, Habibi. It is a terrible, terrible loss for the world.

Check out this video of Sarmad talking about being a cameraman in dangerous situations: http://cnn.it/1uarHEB

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.

 

Trouble for a forgotten people

Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.
Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.

Who are the Yezedis, the 40,000 people who are hiding in the Sinjar Mountains from the horror of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants?

They are not Muslims. They are a people largely forgotten by the world. In 2007, I had the opportunity to spend time in Nineveh province in the towns and villages around the Sinjar Mountains. Here is a blog post I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 6:

Caesar, an interpreter for the U.S. Army, shuttles us into the courtyard of his house in Baronah, Iraq.  He is anxious for Maj. Daniel Rice to see where he lives, meet his family.

Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq.
Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq one day.

Caesar (his real name has been withheld for safety reasons) is proud of who he is. “I am not Muslim, ” he says. “I am Yezedi.”

Rice, a border patrol transition team officer from Atlanta, sits on a white plastic chair and drinks a can of the local version of RC Cola. Today, he is the guest of honor.

The women of the family usher me into one of the rooms to show me the newborn of the family lying in a small crib. Caesar introduces me to his sisters. They are wearing slinky skirts and body-hugging blouses. Gold jewelry adorns their necks, ears and wrists.

The Yezedis are an obscure sect whose beliefs are ancient and whose practices are often misinterpreted.

No one knows exactly how many Yezedis are left in the world though it’s estimated that 100,000 live here in northwestern Iraq, along the Sinjar Mountains.

The Yezedis are an insular people who have their own customs. They never wear the color blue or eat lettuce.

They have kept their religion alive through oral history and have falsely come to be known as devil worshippers because they are followers of the fallen angel, Lucifer.

The Yezedis, however, believe Lucifer was forgiven by God and returned to heaven. They call him Malek Taus (the peacock king) and pray to him. They do not ever use the word “Satan.”

In the Yezedi villages, women don’t have to cover their heads. They consume alcohol. Cans of Heineken pile up on trash heaps. At a local new year’s festival, Georgia Army National Guard soldiers were offered whisky (they declined, of course).

The Yezedis, like their neighbors the Kurds, were persecuted by Saddam Hussein after he took power in 1979. When the dictator was toppled in 2003, the Yezedis had great hopes that their lives would take a turn for the better.

They believed in the Americans as saviors who would release them from their misery.

yez1
I took an instant liking to a Yezedi boy named Ahmed. I wonder if he and his family are safe now.

But now, in the fifth year of the war, frustration surfaces in Yezedi villages.

In nearby Yarmouk, the mukhtar (mayor), Qasim Sameer Rashu, sits down eagerly with Maj. Voris McBurnette, a high school principal from Raleigh, N.C., who is serving in Iraq on a military transition team.

Rashu leads McBurnette into a large hall lined with carpets on the floor and fancy lighting fixtures on the ceiling. There is, however, no electricity.

Rashu doesn’t hold back. He unleashes a torrent of complaints — no electricity, no water, no food supply.

“Electricity? We have forgotten what it is, ” Rashu says.

“In the beginning we were happy to see coalition forces. They got rid of Saddam. Now we are disappointed.”

McBurnette explains that coalition forces will do less from now on.

“It’s time for the Iraqi government to do more, ” he says.

“You are right, ” Rashu says. “But for three months, they have done nothing for us.”

He says insurgents often target trucks carrying food and medicine into the village.

“What if your kids were without food, without water, without power?, ” Rashu tells the major.

“We think the insurgents come from outside of Iraq but the Arabs here help them. And the Iraqi government — they are not hungry. They don’t know what’s going on in these villages far away from Baghdad.”

They are a forgotten people, Rashu says.

“We feel safer with Saddam gone but the services we have are worse.”

McBurnette explains that the Iraqi government must learn to respond to its own citizenry; that Americans can no longer do their job for them.

And then the mukhtar makes a politically-charged statement.

“We want to be part of Kurdistan.”

Though they practice a different religion, the Yezedis have much in common with the Kurds. They come from the same ethnic stock.

But because they occupy villages that sit on the borderlands between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan, the Yezedis were caught for years between the two.

The Kurds, who established an autonomous region after the 1991 Gulf War, now exercise influence in the Sinjar area but few Yezedis want to be co-opted by their northern neighbors. They have fought for centuries to maintain their identity. Rashu speaks out of economic desperation.

“In four years, the only help we have seen is from Kurdistan, ” he says.

Back in Baronah, Caesar’s family don’t want to let Rice and his team leave. They want him to experience Yezedi hospitality.

Caesar’s family, meanwhile, shows me albums containing snapshots of weddings and vacations. They like to go to Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, where “things are so nice.”

The Yezedis are far removed from the bustling streets of Baghdad. Overlooked even in a war that cruelly highlights ethnic and sectarian differences. There is no mention of them even by those who want to ethnically carve up Iraq into separate nations.

Sadly, one man tells me, the only connection to Iraq these days is through bloodshed. The Yezedis, he says, are prone to bombings and assasinations just as their Sahiite, Sunni and Christian brethren living south and east of them.

Caesar’s sister wants me to take home a photo from their family album. I tell her I cannot accept something so personal.

She tells me they have never seen a foreign journalist in their village before. She says she probably won’t again. She is part of a forgotten people.

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

me&helen
On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on CNN.com. Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

http://us.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html?hpt=hp_c2