Victory in Mosul, but at what cost?

I awoke to news today that Iraqi forces were claiming victory in Mosul. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul to personally deliver the message to the world: ISIS had been driven out of the northern Iraqi city that had been the extremist group’s crown jewel.

Victory. Yes. But at tremendous cost. The ancient city of Ninevah will never be the same.

ISIS took hold of Mosul in June, 2014. Thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and other minorities fled under threat of forced conversions to the ISIS brand of Islam. Those who remained endured three years of the so-called Islamic State and its brutality and intolerance.

The campaign to oust ISIS began in October 2016. The fighting was brutal. Iraq’s second largest city is left in ruins; many of its ancient sites destroyed by ISIS. That includes the historic al-Nuri mosque with its leaning minaret known as Habda.

Thousands of Iraqis were killed; more than a million people were displaced from their homes.

I was in Iraq last year when the campaign to retake Mosul was still in its early stages. I visited many of the camps set up for IDPs. Internally displaced people. That’s the term used for people who are forced to flee their homes for safety. Really, they are refugees in their homeland, separated from loved ones and the lives they once led.

Here are some of the children I met in the camps.

Yes, there is victory in Mosul. But what does the future look like for these children? They have been torn from the safety of the homes they knew and out of school for many months. Where will they return to? Will they even return?

Look into the eyes of one of these children. Imagine if this was your little boy or girl. Think of these children when you hear the news today. Think of what victory feels like for them.

Read a few of my recent Iraq stories published on CNN.com:

As Iraqi city of Mosul braces for battle with ISIS, its people recall gentler times

The Iraqi women who escaped ISIS but lost everything

Mosul blogger defies ISIS by listening to violinist Itzhak Perlman

Hiding from ISIS: Women fight for survival by staying put

In biblical lands of Iraq, Christianity in peril after ISIS

Voices of Iraq: Minorities on the edge of extinction

Good Morning, Mosul: Pirate radio risks death to fight ISIS on airwaves

In Iraq, thousands of terrorism’s victims go unnamed

 

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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?