Farewell to a friend

Lateef: Always cool, but an understated cool. (Photo courtesy Tricia Escobedo)
Lateef: Always cool, but an understated cool. (Photo courtesy Tricia Escobedo)

My friend and colleague Lateef Mungin died Friday. He was only 41.

I was asked to write a tribute for CNN.com.

There are some assignments that I dread. But none like this one. I was so afraid I would fail him. I hope this gives you an idea of what a caring and wonderful man he was. He was so loved.

The story published today. You can read it here: A CNN journalist and a giant in humanity.

Here’s to you, ‘Teef. You were the best and I will miss you terribly.

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On Thanksgiving

newalipurI’m at work today, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by news that projects mankind in the worst sort of way — war, murder, rape. But I am also heartened by the best of humanity.

I was especially reminded of that as I wrote a CNN story about a Holocaust survivor who met his Polish Catholic rescuer for the first time since the war ended. The survivor told me how grateful he was to the family who hid hid from the Nazis. Because of them, he was able to continue his family.

I am not with my family today but I am thinking of them. Some are still here in this world; others, including my mother and father, have passed away. They remain in my heart and fill it with love.

I am thinking today of two dear friends who each lost a parent this year, Valerie Boyd and Jan Winburn. I know this holiday season will be especially tough for them. But I know their mother and father’s spirit will warm their gatherings.

I looked through an old album last night and found this photograph of my father’s family. It was taken at my grandfather’s house, in the backyard, in Kolkata in 1970. I’m sitting in the front row, my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great aunt around me.

I wish we could all be together today. I am thankful for each and every one of them being a part of my life.

Tejpal, Tehelka and scandal

Tarun Tejpal
Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.

Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.

Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.

Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.

The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.

With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.

Now, all of it hangs in the balance.

Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.

“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.

Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.

Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.

“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.

A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”

The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many —  have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”

Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.

I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.

But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.

And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.

The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.

Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.

“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”

In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.

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.

‘When we were good men’

Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013
Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013

As a reporter, I have numerous conversations every day with people I don’t know that well or at all. Once in a while, those conversations strike a chord. That’s what happened a few days ago in my 30-minute discussion with Col. Kevin Brown.

I’d met Brown in Baghdad in 2005; he was commander of a 10th Mountain Division battalion (Triple Deuce), to which a Georgia guard company I was embedded with was attached. I saw him now and then when he interacted with the soldiers I was writing about and then in the context of “Baby Noor,” an Iraqi girl with spina bifida who the soldiers flew to America for life-saving treatment.

You can read my stories about Noor on CNN.com: “Iraq’s Baby Noor: An Unfinished Miracle” and the followup story for which I called Brown recently.

I knew Brown was a smart man. He was now a retired Army colonel pursuing a PhD in security studies. He was a high-ranking officer who was well-liked by his soldiers — I didn’t hear that often about battalion commanders.

Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.
Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.

But our phone conversation struck me. Brown was forthcoming and deeply philosophical about his years at war and how Iraq had affected him and others. Though he is largely unfamiliar to me, at times in the conversation, I felt I was talking to my best friend. I knew exactly how he felt. I felt comforted by the words on the other end of the phone.

“Perhaps the Noor story shines that light on a time when we were good men and earned our nation’s respect whether they were looking or not … whether they knew it or not, and it gives us some comfort amongst the shades of gray we experienced there,” he said.

At that moment, I knew that my follow-up story on Noor had to center on Brown. He had captured the essence of the story with his words. I hope you will read it on CNN.com.

It’s not a big, bad, breaking news story. And in the grand scheme of things, Noor’s story, as I say in my piece, is a blip in the overall chaos and  sorrow of the Iraq War.

But it’s stories like these that keep me going as a journalist. Because in the most basic way, they confirm our humanity and keep me believing there is good in people. Without that, after all, there is little meaning in our lives.

Rena

rena golden
Rena Golden

Hasan Zeya used to boast about how he was still practicing medicine into his early 80s. But at 84, he no longer is happy about his age. His daughter, Rena, passed away last week, days shy of her 52nd birthday.

“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.

Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.

Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.

Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.

Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena  on her birthday last year:

Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.

As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.

Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.

Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.

He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.

I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.

My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.

As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.

Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.

She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.

She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.

We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.

But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.

The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.

WAR & Fashion

Carnage: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.

Catwalk: Armani, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent.

War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful. War projects the worst of humanity. Fashion displays sartorial splendor in its highest.

War is fraught with danger, even for journalists and especially for photographers who must get up close to their subjects to frame an image.

Fashion is far less perilous, though photographers must also get intimate with their subjects on and around the runways.
There are photographers who shoot both: battlefields and runways, guns and glamour. At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look.

Check out this provocative project on CNN. It was our Director of Photography Simon Barnett’s idea. I got to interview some very cool people for the story.  http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/02/world/war-and-fashion/index.html

A New Year’s salute to amazing people not on any lists

Zhanna
I met Zhanna Dawson at her Atlanta home in April.

Today, we bid goodbye to 2012 and usher in a new year. It’s a time of cheer and remembrance.

We like lists. So we have the top 10s of everything from movies to gadgets to events. And there are lists of admirable people. Barack Obama was Time’s Man of the Year. Malala  Yousafzai topped other lists. As did Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian president and Olympians who set records and won medals last summer in London.

Then there are all those people who perhaps made the news in remarkable moments and then faded to the background again. Their names are not on any Top 10 lists though it’s likely they went on in their acts of courage, brilliance and altruism.

There are countless people, of course, who deserve recognition. I am naming a few who I had the opportunity to write about in the last 12 months.

Dr. Kasem kept the Hippocratic Oath at a makeshift hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Al Quasyr. He knew every patient could be his last; that at any minute, a rocket could slam into the building at any moment. Instead, he kept moving the hospital from building to building and held steadfast to the medical oath he took that demands that he do all he can to save lives.

“If I will die when I help people, it is good for me,” he told CNN many months ago. “Because I am a doctor. I must help people, especially in this very catastrophic time. After the revolution, before the revolution, during the revolution, I will help people.”

I don’t have any way of knowing where Dr. Kasem is today. Whether he is even alive.

Back in February, I wrote about how the Tibetan New Year, Losar, was silent and dark in 2012. Tibetans decided to forgo festivities to honor all the monks and nuns who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese rule. Think about what that takes — to set yourself afire because of your love for homeland.

In the West, we seldom hear about what Chinese occupation is doing to Tibet, how an entire culture is eroding.

And I salute survivors of tragedy and trauma everywhere who  found ways to carry on living.

In 2012, I was lucky to have met Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who survived the Holocaust in her native Ukraine by playing the piano for the Nazis.

She is in her mid-80s now, yet I was so taken by her verve for life. I could not stop listening to a recording of her playing Chopin. I could not stop hearing her stories of the war — how she felt when she played for survivors of Auschwitz.

She was was a triumph of spirit amid the worst of humanity.

Tonight, I will sip bubbly and make resolutions for the new year. And I will celebrate the lives of extraordinary people I have met and hope that their achievements always serve as a guide for my own aspirations.

A future star











This summer, another crop of interns spent time with us at CNN, working in various departments from the CNN Wire to Headline News. Chelsea Bailey was one of them.

Young, bright, smart, personable, curious. Chelsea has all the qualities to make a great journalist. Most of all, I appreciated her eagerness to learn and her verve for life.

She reported and wrote about all sorts of topics — from a vial of killer Ted Bundy’s blood helping to solve cold cases to Florida fishermen catching a massive shark. She helped me report one my stories about a group of devout Hindus suing a restaurant for having served them meat.

At other times, she was part of the wires team, updating daily stories or gnashing her head to come up with a new angle to the heat wave report.

Always, she approached her assignments with a big smile.

I taught a magazine writing class at UGA last semester and discovered the incredible rewards of working with young people who want to take up my profession, especially in a time when print journalism is undergoing a zillion changes. I miss teaching now. So when Chelsea and Molly Green showed up from the University of North Carolina this summer, I found an added dimension to my days at work, and relished it.

Working with Chelsea made me see journalism with fresh eyes. She helped energize me, inspired me to carry on.

Thanks for all your hard work, Chelsea. I will miss you. And I know you will shine.

The grimmest of anniversaries

Anniversary stories are common in journalism. A year ago in Haiti, an earthquake devastated the country…

Anniversaries a great peg to revisit stories.

Number 10 is a big one and I am sure journalists around the country are gearing up to tell all sorts of stories as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Hard to believe sometimes that it has been that long.

I have been thinking of my own 10th anniversaries this year — of a massive earthquake struck I covered in western India when I suddenly found myself in the midst of intense human misery.

Today is the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. Alzheimer’s turned his brain to mush and rendered his body weak and feeble. In the end, he had massive bed sores eating away the outer layers of flesh.

I knew he was very ill and was rushing to get home to Kolkata. In Amsterdam, during a six-hour layover, I found out he had died.

I sat at an airport bar, drinking glasses of cabernet and wiping away unstoppable tears.

I tried to calm myself with the thought of my father’s pain finally ending; that he had found relief.

I landed in Kolkata and tended right away to his cremation,

Today, I went to work with thoughts of my father’s death. It was one anniversary that went without notice in the CNN newsroom.