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

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.

 

 

 

David Gilkey: remembering an incredible photojournalist

Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal
Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

I woke up to extremely sad news today. NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was killed in Afghanistan, along with interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

Another friend who worked tirelessly in the world’s most difficult places, gone.

David and Zabihullah were traveling with an Afghan army unit, according to the report I heard on NPR this morning. They came under fire and their armored Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Also killed was their driver, an Afghan soldier.

David was only 50 years old.

He was an incredible photojournalist. His photographs were often difficult to look at and yet I could never turn away. He was so good at capturing the essence of a place through its people.

He won many well-deserved accolades, including the Polk Award. I encourage everyone to look at his work: His NPR profile page and the NPR tribute today

I first met Gilkey in Iraq. I can’t remember exactly which year it was or even where it was. Later, I got to know him better through Military Reporters and Editors. We were both newspaper journalists then — he with the Detroit Free Press and I with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I ran into him in Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010. By then, we had both left the shrinking newspaper world. He joined NPR in 2007 and I had been with CNN for about a year.  We spoke about our transitions and he said:

“You’re a writer who works for a cable television network and I’m a photog who works for radio. Go figure.”

We laughed. He told me he was thankful he could carry on his work. And it was such important work. David gave us an understanding of people who are so often forgotten.

He said this about his work in Haiti, according to NPR: “It’s not just reporting. It’s not just taking pictures. It’s, ‘Do those visuals, do the stories, do they change somebody’s mind enough to take action?’ So if we’re doing our part, it gets people to do their part. Hopefully.”

We forget the risks that journalists take to bring us important stories. We forget until we are reminded by tragedy.

A few days ago, I spoke with Paula Bronstein, another photojournalist who has put herself in harm’s way countless times to tell the sad story of Afghanistan. Paula recently returned to the United States to receive a courage award named for Anja Niedringhaus, also killed in Afghanistan in 2014. You can see that story here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/31/middleeast/cnnphotos-afghanistan-between-hope-and-fear/

I thought today of all the journalists I knew who were killed in conflict. In all, 1,192 journalists have died this way since 1992, says The Committee to Protect Journalists. So many important voices silenced too soon by war.

 

From the darkness of disaster…

meandmaya

I first met Maya Gurung last year, a few days after a massive earthquake struck Nepal. Maya was recovering from the amputation of her left leg at a Kathmandu hospital.

I wrote a story about her  because I wondered how a little girl would fare in Kashi Gaon, the remote and rugged village in Gorkha District, where she lived. It would be hard for her without the use of a leg; her future seemed bleak.

Then a second quake hit Nepal on May 12. And Maya’s life trajectory changed again.

Ahead of the first anniversary of the quake, I returned to Nepal for CNN to find out how Maya was doing. I believe hers is a story of something good happening from something very bad.

You can read the story on CNN.com: A ray of hope for one girl in Nepal

 

When doves cry…

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Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here 2 tell u
There’s something else
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day or night

Prince.

You left too soon. Just two months after Vanity.

I saw you on stage a few times. The first was the best. Tully Gym. Florida State. Vanity 6. Yeah.

You rocked my world.

 

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.

 

 

Moment of desi pride at the Oscars

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Lost in the diversity controversy at the Oscars Sunday night was this: The only woman of color who won was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Who? That’s the problem. Very few people in America know who she is. But they ought to.

Obaid-Chinoy, 37, has two Academy Awards to her name; her latest was in the best documentary short category  for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a haunting  portrayal of honor killings in Obaid-Chinoy’s ancestral Pakistan.

The film tells the story of Saba, 19, who is beaten, shot and tossed into a river because she eloped with a man her family rejected. Saba is a rare survivor of honor violence and Obaid-Chinoy’s film explores in the bleakest way the physical and emotional pain that so many women in that part of the world suffer.

“She wanted her story told,” Obaid-Chinoy said in a CBCinterview. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”

Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist turned documentarian, has focused her life’s work on social justice and feels compelled to expose wrongdoing in her homeland. Because, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A Girl in the River” prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pledge that he would change a barbaric law that lets perpetrators of honor crimes go unprosecuted.

“”This is what happens when determined women get together,”  she said with her golden statue in hand. “This week, the Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”

Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her accolade to Saba and to all the women who helped her make the film and also to the men who champion women.

Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech was the most powerful Sunday night, though, ironically, it got drowned by the noise of diversity jokes and the buzz over Leo.

But she was the real stuff. Here was a brown Muslim woman totally rockin’ it. She hails from a part of the world where the most barbaric practices against women still exist, and that made Obaid-Chinoy’s win even more worthwhile.

Go, Sharmeen, I yelled in front of the TV. You make desi women proud.

Check out her work here: http://sharmeenobaidfilms.com/

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.

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?

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
04/22/07

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.

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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.