Stop the politics today — and remember

Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for

Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for “Chaplain Turner’s War,” a newspaper series and ebook I wrote on an army chaplain. Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC

Amid all the political noise of today, I want to stop and think of all my soldier  friends I met in Iraq and back here at home in all the years I covered the military.

Today is Veterans Day, a time for pause and reflection about the courage and sacrifice of our men and women who served in uniform. I am afraid that they will not get the attention they deserve given the current post-election situation.

Here’s to you, Fig, (see photo caption) and every veteran throughout the land.

You can find Fig’s story here: Chaplain Turner’s War

Eye on Mosul

CNN

CNN

I recently wrote a story about a very brave man living in Mosul, who has been defying ISIS for more than two years with his words. You can read about the Mosul Eye blog on CNN here: Determined to let the world about know the suffering of his city.

He posted yesterday as street-to-street fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters raged in Iraq’s second largest city. It made me cry.

 I thought I would share the beginning here.

Oblivion

I don’t know what to write tonight. I’m writing to you then I feel bad because I am sharing my sorrow with you .. you don’t deserve to drop this on you like this, but I feel that sharing my pain with you might help to release some of this stress that sits heavily on my chest and strangles my soul.

I don’t know what to write tonight. I’m writing to you then I feel bad because I am sharing my sorrow with you .. you don’t deserve to drop this on you like this, but I feel that sharing my pain with you might help to release some of this stress that sits heavily on my chest and strangles my soul.

I feel that this war will take longer than I think. We are stranded between Life and Death. We are neither alive, nor dead. I can see death hovering over the city, but it’s not taking lives to declare the end of it, and doesn’t leave the city to let it live in peace. There is no value for death if the dying soul is already dead!

I saw a video where children were dragging along the ground ISIL dead corpses. I cried just for seeing this hideous scene. I was fearing this very moment. It frightens me to see such scenes take place in my city. But I rush to Hannah Arendt as she watches Eichmann and watches the human action and the subjugation to authority. I find my consolation with Hannah Arendt, with all this totalitarianism and atrociousness, how can we restore life and peace to the city? I feel very sad to watch those children play with corpses! They cannot think, they don’t know what thinking means and cannot value it!

Read the rest of the post on Mosul Eye.

Eva, a Nigerian woman, gets some much needed sleep after being rescued at sea.

Migration crisis: People keep dying

The team from MOAS gets ready to rescue migrants who set sail from Libya on a rubber dinghy.

The team from MOAS gets ready to rescue migrants who set sail from Libya on a rubber dinghy.

Almost every day, I receive an email from the International Organization for Migration containing the latest update on migration issues around the world. Many of you may not know that more than 60 million people are on the move, either as refugees fleeing horrendous situations in their homelands or economic migrants seeking a way out of a life of poverty.

Today, the IOM update included a number. Migrant arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean: 302,149. Deaths at sea: 3,501.

The numbers are higher than they were last year at this time, yet it seems to me that European nations are addressing the crisis in an incremental way that won’t likely lead to a permanent solution.

In July, I spent almost a week with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a private rescue outfit started by American millionaire Chris Catrambone and his wife, Regina. They were sickened by what they perceived as a lack of response from governments. They were called to action by Pope Francis who visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, then a hub for migrants, and shamed the rich countries for a lack of action.

Eva, a Nigerian woman, gets some much needed sleep after being rescued at sea.

Eva, a Nigerian woman, gets some much needed sleep after being rescued at sea.

I’ve reported on natural disasters that kill thousands and leave even more in dire conditions. I’ve reported from war zones, where I have seen the worst of humanity unfold before my eyes.

I did not expect I would feel the kind of emotions I did during my days on the Topaz Responder, a ship chartered by MOAS to patrol the Mediterranean with the sole purpose of plucking desperate people from the sea.

In one day, MOAS rescued 366 people. Luckily, everyone had survived. I spoke with many of those on board. Some had traveled for months and experienced the worst physical conditions as well as abuse by human smugglers and Libyan militias. A Nigerian woman, Esther, told me she was right next to her brother  he was shot and killed by gunmen.

Even after those harrowing journeys, refugees and migrants then board flimsy boats to make a long crossing to Europe. Some die of dehydration. Most of the deaths are from drowning and in the winter months, hypothermia.

I thought about the kind of desperation that drives human beings to risk everything for a better life. I can’t fully understand it because I live such a privileged and comfortable life compared to them. But I try hard to report their stories.

Yes, we should be outraged when a photograph of a shell-shocked Syrian boy goes viral on social media. But that’s not enough.

It’s important for those of us who live in rich countries to know the stories of people who were born to poor countries rife with corrupt and callous leaders who do little for their people. It’s important to open our eyes to the suffering of people who endure constant war and conflict.

I encourage everyone to think about how huge the numbers are in the refugee crisis. Think about what it would feel like if you were forced from your home knowing, that you may never see it again. What if you were separated from your mother or father, your husband or wife, your children?

Here’s a link to a few stories I’ve written recently on the crisis, including the one I reported thanks to MOAS.

 

 

 

Ed Duffy. Unforgettable.

We all lose people we love, people who are integral to us. We cannot escape loss. I will never know what it must feel like to lose a child but I know the sorrow of a mother or father’s death.

Today, my father-in-law, Edward Duffy, died.

His wife, Jean, and his seven children are in that unenviable position today of realizing they will never see Ed’s smile again or hear his laugh. They will never sit down for a family dinner with him or debate the future of America.

It is a very hard thing to think about death in those ways. So finite.

FullSizeRender 8But I have learned some things in all the years that have passed without the physical presence of my parents. I have learned that their love has stayed with me, no matter that I cannot see them or hear them or feel them.

Ed would have turned 90 later this month. He lived a long and full life. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York, served in the Navy during World War II and excelled in his banking career. By the time he retired from a top position at Marine Midland Bank, Ed had built a comfortable life for his family. He served on the boards of several companies and was wise with his money, as every good banker should be.

But most of all, he cared deeply about his family. They mattered more to him than anything else. That was something that drew me to the Duffys. When I first met them, my parents were in India and I saw them for a few days every year, if I was lucky. I wanted so much to be a part of a family, and Ed and Jean were gracious enough to give me that gift. After my parents died, I thought of Ed and Jean as my own mom and dad.

I reminded Kevin today of his father’s long and rewarding life. Ed’s children were lucky to have him around so long. That’s something precious many of us don’t get.

Ed may no longer be here on Earth and we will miss him. But his spirit is within all those he loved and he will continue to be a guiding light in their lives.

Here’s to you, Edward Duffy, and a life well lived.

 

 

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.

 

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