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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rangakaka: Remembering a colorful life

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.
Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.

The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.

That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.

My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.

Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”

On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.

When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.

Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.

Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.

I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.

Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.

He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.

I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.

My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.

On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.

“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.

I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.

Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.

I was on assignment for CNN  when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.

At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.

Anne Frank’s cousin dies

Buddy and Gerti Elias in Atlanta in 2011.
Buddy and Gerti Elias in Atlanta in 2011.

I hadn’t heard the sad news until my friend Lee sent me an email this morning with the New York Times obituary. Immediately, I went to the Anne Frank Foundation website and read the announcement . Her cousin, Buddy Elias, died March 16 shortly before his 90th birthday at his home in Basel, Switzerland.

The reason Lee sent me the obit was because the New York Times cited a story I wrote on Elias in 2012.

I met Elias and his wife, Gerti, at an uptown Atlanta hotel. He was touring the United States to promote a book, “Anne Frank’s Family,” which told the story of the entire Frank family. Many of the details in the book were not known until an amazing discovery more than a decade ago. You’ll have to read the story on CNN.com to find out what that was.

I felt a sadness come over me this morning when I learned of Elias’ death.

Like millions of others, I was deeply influenced by “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I was in the seventh grade in India when my father bought me the book. It was fascinating to hear Elias talk about his days with Anne. I felt I got to know her all over again, in happier days,

My CNN story begins like this:

If the curves of Buddy Elias’ 86-year-old face look familiar, it’s because he is the closest surviving relative of the girl whose diary gave an early glimpse into the Holocaust. It’s not difficult to see that Elias is Anne Frank’s first cousin. He has the same soulful eyes and smile in the photographs that accompanied Anne’s famous diary, written while hiding from the Nazis. 

He was my closest personal encounter with a girl who opened my eyes to the cruelty of this world. It was the goodness of Anne that amazes every reader of her diary, despite it all.

In Elias, I had seen that same goodness.

Rest in peace.

Wonderwomen

IMG_1552
Practicing for a performance in the courtyard of Kolkata Sanved.

On a bright December afternoon in Kolkata, I watched a handful of young women throw their arms in the air, swirl the scarves of their salwar kameez and leap from one end of the courtyard to the other. They danced their cares away. Literally.

The women had all been forced into prostitution or into abusive relationships. Dance was their therapy. For some, it was their only joy in life.

IMG_1540
Sohini goes over steps with a star dancer who was abducted as a girl and forced into prostitution.

Their leader is Sohini Chakraborty, a sociologist and dancer, who launched Kolkata Sanved after experimenting with rehabilitation for sexual violence survivors through dance. A poster she saw once at Kolkata’s massive book fair steered her in that direction. Under a photograph of a girl  were these words: “They sell me, my own blood for gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains,’ printed underneath.”

Chakraborty says she went inside the book stall to learn more about that girl and “embarked on a new journey.”

I spent many hours with the women and girls at Kolkata Sanved. It was amazing how uplifting it was to watch them come alive through music and movement. I even danced with them on my last day.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I salute Sohini, her staff and all the women who have rediscovered themselves through Kolkata Sanved. And all the other brave women I have met through the years on my travels around the world. We have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way.

Read more about Kolkata Sanved.

They own nothing. ZERO.

kol
A woman sleeps on a sidewalk in central Kolkata. Extreme poverty afflicts millions in India.

 

A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited India, I wrote a piece for CNN about how my homeland was poised to become a global power in the next few decades. The most recent World Bank forecast says growth in India is likely to outdo China’s.

But then came a sobering reminder of the widespread poverty in India.

The latest Census data says that 43 million households have zero assets to their name. That means about 215 million people own nothing. The Census listed cars, computers and televisions. But it also listed simple things like radios, bicycles and cell phones. Nothing. Zero.

As such, these people are largely excluded from society, marginalized by extreme poverty.

India’s extreme poor are often left out of the discussion on growth and a more fruitful future. But any measure of progress has to be diminished by these shameful numbers.

Recently, the Aam Admi  (Common Man) Party won a surprising and resounding victory in the Delhi elections, putting anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal back in the chief minister’s slot. Aam Admi’s core support comes from the urban poor.

Whether or not you agree with Aam Admi, the win in Delhi, though largely symbolic, is a strong indicator that “inclusion: might just be the “it” concept in Indian politics in the years ahead. Politicians who forget about the millions without assets, the millions without clout, may have disappointments in store. India has to lift all boats. A global power cannot be a nation in which so many people own absolutely nothing.

Read my story about Obama and India on CNN.com.

Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.
Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from other soldiers who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.
Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.

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

 

 

Cuba, Si!

CNN interviewed former President Jimmy Carter tonight about the thaw in relations with Cuba. Carter, of course, made a historic trip to the Caribbean island in 2002 with the intention of improving relations.

I was fortunate enough to make that trip with Carter. I will write more about that. But for now, here is one of my favorite pieces from that assignment. It ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is about the Harlistas.

 

HAVANA — Cuban legend has it that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara buried a thousand Harley-Davidson motorcycles after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Harleys, perhaps one of the noisiest symbols of America, were used by the police and army under the U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, and Castro felt compelled to reject them.

The tale has it that the bikes were put to rest on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island–buried deep in the soil of Communism but not forgotten.

Ask Adolfo Preito, 44, who as a child watched officers roar by on their hogs. He is an engineer for the Castro regime, but his life revolves around his white 1950 Panhead Harley. His wife, Linett Suarez, is convinced that he would forsake her for his Harley.

“I love this bike. It’s my life,” said Preito.

Not one new Harley has entered Cuba since the revolution–and parts and mechanics are scarce.

Many of the old bikes barely work, patched together with bits and pieces from Soviet-made Ladas and other vehicles, but they represent high-speed rebellion in a land struggling for free expression and civil liberties.

About 200 Harleys are running in Cuba.

Preito has been trying to organize a Harley club with 30 fellow “Harlistas” since 1976. An official stamp of approval of the club’s charter would mean the Harlistas could gather at formal meetings instead of having to get together at streetside cafes and taverns.

“But in Cuba, it’s difficult to form an association,” said Preito, tucking his Latin American Motorcycle Association T-shirt into his jeans. “We are not a political group but a social one. But if we were officially sanctioned, then we could have a clubhouse behind walls, and the government doesn’t want that.”

That’s why Georgia Tech professor Kirk Bowman decided to dedicate time for his 23 study-abroad students in Cuba to meet with the Harlistas.

“I wanted students to get a feel for Cuban civil society,” said Bowman, not revealing at first his love for all things Harley. “Civil society, according to the revolution, is a bourgeois practice and as such has become almost nonexistent.”

That makes organizations that seem conventional to Americans–from church choirs to the Sierra Club–rare in Cuba. Bowman, a specialist in Latin American studies, said that as a social institution, the boisterous Harlistas fall into the same category as Cuba’s independent librarians who quietly defy the government by making materials available for everyone to read.

When he left Atlanta for Cuba, Bowman had no idea whether he would be able to contact the Harlistas, but he brought souvenirs of the American motorcycle maker just in case: T-shirts, bandannas and a new mirror for Preito.

Even with the ears and eyes of Cuban authority monitoring them, the Harlistas find innovative ways to keep their traditions going. They barter for parts to keep their bikes running and make a special homage ride each Father’s Day, which was when Cuba’s most famous mechanic, Pepe Millesima, died.

“Everyone looks at us with admiration,” Suarez said. “People identify it as something American.”

The Harlistas are ordinary people with ordinary jobs making not more than $15 a month. They dream of the day when new Harleys will be available and when they will be able to journey to Daytona, Fla., to join the 300,000 bikers at Bike Week each year.

Some signs of change are starting to surface in Cuba, however. As many as 370 Masonic lodges exist, Bowman said.

“I don’t want to say there is a boom in civil society, but it’s definitely percolating,” he said.

Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.
The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave