Sunday, August 28, 2005

Journey into the Heartland - Pakistan 2000

Found an old diary piece I wrote after a trip to Pakistan a few years back - enjoy if you want to read through it

Israel August 2005

Sunday September 24 2000

Hong Kong – Bangkok – Karachi

There is a saying that every journey starts with a step, for life on the road every journey starts at the excess baggage counter. When I talk excess baggage I mean excess baggage, once when travelling by myself I had 300 kilos excess baggage spread over three trolleys behind me, needless to say I paid for the fuel for that flight.

Correspondent Joe Kainz and I had decided that this twelve-day trip would be best done with a minimal amount of equipment as we are due to travel extensively over our time in Pakistan. From the south to the North of the birthplace of the Indus civilization.

Karachi the first destination nine hours later,

Customs come and go, but the machinations of customs at airports is something to behold and the power of the Customs officials pen is mightier than the sword, even in a country under military rule. Logic defies reality and what applied the last time you arrived with a mound of television equipment did not apply this time.

The first sense of arrival is the assault of the senses of another country, the noise of an airport at 9.00pm, the heat and the hustle of porters. The drive in from the airport is often the first time you can sit back and relax, the baggage has arrived intact the hotel awaits and you try to remember the differences from the last time. Perhaps what amazed me most was that for the first time in visiting Pakistan over the last three years was that I started seeing signs which had web addresses on them, but I must admit that they seem to have decided that the longer the domain name the better the site must be 23 letters before the dot com.

From billboards advertising the infernal golden arches to the decorated bus running the red light whilst taxi drivers laughed and the motorbike with a family of six abreast. Pakistan may be chasing the e world but life has not visibly changed in nine months.

Monday 25th September 2000
Karachi – Islamabad

Six hours later the roads are deserted and taxi drivers around Asia are convinced that the faster they drive the happier you will be, so on a greasy road with no traffic we set out for the airport and the domestic flight north 2 hours to Islamabad.

There is a saying in diplomatic and business circle here that Islamabad is not in Pakistan, but in fact Pakistan is 30 km’s from Islamabad. It is a city that is less than forty years old and was planned to serve the interests of locals and diplomats with no sense of direction.

The only sense of life in the drive from the Airport is the increase in police checkpoints, as a result of a market place bombing a week ago. The impression driving past these checkpoints is that they serve only to shake down local bus and taxi drivers.

The first story we are working on up here is the decline in Pakistan cultural heritage, which like the fate of so many other countries is seeing its archeological artifacts being smuggled and sold overseas. Our first interview was with Pakistan’s’ leading archeologist who has been studying the ancient history of this land for nearly half a century.

We were due to interview another person who is a leading expert in this field, but who is currently working for a Government department, but she told us that it was pointless to talk to her as she has to toe the official line and would have to lie, but was still willing to appear on camera if we wanted. We declined.

Mobile phones are essential tool in everyday living but buying a local chip to use is not the easiest thing to achieve in a minimal timeframe. A simple rule on the road, is that the more logical an idea the less likely it is going to work. After 20 minutes in the largest phone companies office, moving from office to office, floor to floor and selecting a suitable plan we were told that our phone is not compatible and we should go to the other company next door. 10 minutes later we had an operational phone.

You get to spend endless minutes aimlessly wandering around hotel shopping centres, knowing full well that they are overpriced, but the books tucked away behind the handicrafts can often reveal the most bizarre reading material – take tonight’s offering in the Holiday Inn Islamabad “ Treatise of Flexible Pavement Design “ a complete diatribe on how to build a multi lane highway. Very useful on the road, might have to build a road one-day.

Tuesday 26th September 2000

Every knows that the best light to film in is in the magic hour after sunrise and before sunset, the trouble is getting other members of the team to agree to get up in the dark and start work at 5am. This is the day after also getting up at 5am the previous day to catch a flight up here. Well Joe agreed and the day began with me asking the driver to slow down in a polite but firm tone.

Driving in Pakistan is regarded as a bloodsport with no rhyme or reason, why bother with a map when you can take 5 wrong terms, go in the wrong direction and ask endless people which direction. Today was no exception. We would be dropped off at one spot due to the road being so bad, (next time I will buy the copy of “Treatise of Flexible Pavement Design”) then we would find the driver where we originally wanted to go but could not because of the road.

You meet great unassuming people on the road who are brilliant in their fields of expertise and then you meet people who have not got to their position of influence by apparently valid means, today’s example was a person who insisted on sitting behind his desk with a room full of sycophantic underlings nodding to his every word. The after asking us to leave whilst he made a phone call for the whole building to hear with the door open, and then rings a bell to call another person to come running to summon us. Please give me a break from such fools.

It was a good days filming today, we had brilliant dawn light and the crossroads of civilization where Alexander the Great visited (well conquered) in 327BC is know recorded for posterity. Visiting a looted site makes you realize that the problem here is corruption at all levels and the looting will continue until there is nothing left unless corruption is tackled in Pakistan.

Wednesday 27th Sept 2000

Islamabad – Karachi

A travel morning down to Karachi and a rise in temperature of about 10, in fact a boring day on the road with a couple of feature interviews and a late night interview with a psychiatrist. We have started working on the second story about the state of women’s mental health in Pakistan and the treatment they receive which involves trance dancing and chains in temples. That is tomorrow night so I am looking forward to some good pictures and something different to say the least.

The afternoon saw us wrap the last interview up with the Director General of the Department of Archaeology, the office was ancient to say the least. It is not until you stop and look around, did I realize that there were no computers on any desk. All communication was done in longhand and involved people walking in and out of offices. The Director had an email address but I could not figure out where the computer lived.
A hour off to try and get some shopping for clothes before heading to Thatta tomorrow was thwarted by the fact that every shop was closed in Karachi, except for shoe stores. Why no one knew they were closed because – well because.

Two Days later Friday 29th September 2000 6.30pm

Post Thatta and the Shrine Therapy Story.

Thatta is about two hours South East of Karachi, then turn off the main road and head south for another hour into the heartland of the Sind Basin, cross the Indus River and keep going. Eventually you come to the town of Chuhar Jamali, the closest village to the Sufi Shrines. Electricity is spasmodic and you realise that the whole world has not grasped the e world, when there was not even a fax machine in this town let alone a computer anywhere.

Sufi shrines are best described as tombs of mystic or holy men, like many shrines in the western world these attract pilgrims and devotees who believe that the power of devotion and worship can help them. The main concern for Pakistani health officials is that due to poverty and illiteracy is that some people have come to rely on these shrines as their primary source of medical help, forgoing modern medicine due to the cost.

The shrines of Ali jabar and ali 2 attract around 30,000 devotees a month, situated in the middle of fields 6 km from the village of Chuhar Jamali, people are living for years in mud and stick shanties in the most brutal and harsh landscape. The temperature in summer rarely drops below 40; there is no shade apart from the temple and mud huts, which become furnaces and ovens.

The dirt and filth defies words, and sanitary conditions belong to another century. Families endure these conditions in the hope of a miracle and they can afford the cost of hope.

We arrived as the sun was dropping and the sound of drums heralded our first exposure to what was to become probably the most bizarre night of filming in my career spanning more than two decades.

On the steps of the shrine three drummers pounded out a rhythm and in the forecourt of dirt and rubbish four devotees were literally shaking themselves to trance frenzy, rolling and running up the stairs to the shrine to throw themselves down in an uncontrollable tangle of limbs. The eyes were not focused and the drums kept going for over an hour.

The first person came forward with his miracle cure story that involved the Sufi replacing all his internal organs, over the next sixteen hours we were presented with stories of cancer and hepatitis being treated by the power of the Sufi.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this shrine therapy is that a large percentage of the devotees are women with obvious mental health problems from paranoid schizophrenia depression. They pace the shrine with clocklike timing, running and slamming into walls on occasions; standing and spinning the head with hair flying or speaking in tongues while shaking uncontrollably.

Another woman in her mid twenties sat chained to the bars of the shrine window so that she would not run away and hurt herself of others. Her husband sat holding her hand; it was a heartbreaking scene to see this tragedy unfold in front of the camera lens.

Inside the temple and around the outside women arched backwards and slammed into the marble floor with howls of demonic possession and pleas for help from the Sufi, whilst family members tried to minimize their injuries.

Dawn broke and the early mist light revealed a scene of controlled peace, only the occasional voice pleaded in the echoes of marble. Families that were leaving collected their possessions often a straw mat and tin cooking pot, whilst others rubbed mud from pools of wastewater and dirt onto the heads of infants seeking a miracle.

As we drove away, I thought how lucky some of us are in this world and the plight of others were the greatest possession they have in life is hope and no one can take that away from anyone.

Karachi was a welcome site and entering the city graffiti on a wall proclaimed “Crush India” welcome back to Pakistan 2000.

Saturday 30th September 2000

Time to move onto the new stories, Junoon the band has received so many international accolades over the past decade and have laid claim to the title to the biggest band in Asia.

The problem of piracy of music and CDs is beyond words on in South Asia and a factory we visited produces 12 million CDs a year it produce more but it has not got enough machines, full capacity twenty four hours a day seven days a week.

Today was also one of those great days of fixers getting things wrong, to the point of Fawlty Towers proportion. We asked how many people were expected at the concert, whether the venue was indoors or outside and what time was Junoon due on stage.

Emphatically after checking and much discussion amongst the fixers and driver it was agreed that
1. The Concert was indoors
2. The anticipated crowd was 800 maybe 900
3. The group Junoon will start at 9pm , yes 9pm

That was the end of discussion, “Let me tell you” is a Pakistani way of saying listen I know what I am talking about. What would you know you do not live here, ha ha ha I am the expert.

After arriving at the massive Pakistan Air force Museum grounds set in a sprawling park of 10 acres place with a stage being prepared in the middle of the park to be told that at least 8,000 tickets had been presold and hopefully Junoon would on stage around midnight. Joe and I laughed not at the situation but at the fact that the fixers seemed pleased that everything was as they had arranged.

We finished filming at 3.45 am the next morning in a dark Karachi street with a dead cat in the middle of the road.

Sunday 1st October 2000

The low point of the day was a get together of politicians and newspaper editors in the evening. It is no wonder that Pakistan faces the 21st century in such dire straits, as a nation it behind Bangladesh in almost all aspects now. These somewhat august gentlemen seem to consider yelling as a form of conversation and even the listening was beyond their level of manners. I left the evening assured that the military has a role in the future of Pakistan; at least they can provide order amongst the ruins of democratic chaos. The newspaper editor’s voice the future, but it sounded very much the past.

Politicians in Pakistan believe that to serve the people, they must have been to prison to suffer the indignity of the masses. These same people drink and eat whilst outside their drivers wait hungry, they are given the leftovers from the dinner party whilst the after dinner drinks are passed around. These same drivers all want the military to remain in power when asked off the record.

Monday 2nd October 2000
Karachi – Lahore

It was meant to be an easy operation, as promised by a Chief Minister “ have whatever you want, take it you have my permission”. It was a simple matter of dubbing some video from the archives of the Local Archive for Culture office of Sufi Music, enter the well yes but no world of Pakistan. To make matters worse one of our local fixers managed to totally confuse everyone by arranging something we did not ask for and compound the problem by having all discussions in Urdu and leaving us to sort out a mess we did not want to be in. It ended with Joe signing a bit of paper on behalf of the network saying we would not use any material, which has the same legal binding as me signing on behalf of Microsoft because I am running Windows 98.

An evening flight to Lahore and the final story – Imran Khan Profile and Feature Interview.

Tuesday 3rd October 2000
Lahore – Karachi

Lahore has the richest colonial history and buildings, the trouble is seeing it through the pollution. If the famed Red Fort has an enemy it is not the ravages of the elements but the exhaust fumes that by sunset reduce visibility to a couple of hundred meters.

The final story is Imran Khan, the famed Pakistani Cricket captain and living legend that eight years ago gave Pakistan the cricket world cup. Following the death of his mother from cancer he has devoted himself to building a hospital for cancer sufferers in Pakistan, providing free treatment to all that cannot afford it.

Stepping into the hospital was like stepping from the third world to the first world; this hospital could be in any major city in the world. The faces of the children in the wards upon seeing Imran was of bewilderment being to young to know who he is, but the faces of the mothers and fathers with their sick children when they talked to Imran revealed a glimpse into why there is hope here when every other section of society is collapsing due to corruption and mismanagement.

Pakistan Airlines flight to Islamabad tonight was delayed 4 hours because, well we never found out. So to avoid any problems the solution was to announce that it was a free seating flight. Meaning sit wherever you like, first come first serve. Enjoy your flight Inshallah.

Wednesday 4th October 2000
Islamabad – Attock – Middle of Nowhere – Islamabad

Is it the messenger or is it the message, comes to mind following Imran Khan on the campaign trail in the rural areas of Pakistan. The crowds come to see and meet him, but are they receptive to his vision for Pakistan. The team around him gave me great hope as men who have a vision without corruption but could it work here is the question.

Imran at times is the great sportsman, but a reluctant politician on the stump, he seemed to find it hard to just go and talk to people and shake hands like politicians in the west, but then again this is not the west. We visited three villages during the day, at the last in a fresh plowed field as the sunset Imran gave a passionate speech and left the stage to be mobbed by the crowd just wanting to shake hands with a living legend in a country where there are few.

Thursday 5th October 2000
Islamabad – Karachi – Kuala Lumper – Hong Kong (Next Day)

With the trip nearly over, we have only the final interview to complete. The final sit down feature interview with Imran at home. We sat down for nearly and hour and quizzed Imran on why he should lead this nation and life under Imrans vision.
The trip was over and effectively we just pack and travel home. Sitting in the departure lounge in Karachi I figured that in the past twelve days we had spent nearly eighteen hours in airport lounges waiting for various Pakistani flights, checked in and out 14 times from hotels. We had shot nearly 19 hours of videotape to be edited down to 5 feature stories.

The final laugh was at the airport leaving Karachi. Remembering back to the first day and the request that we send an equipment list in advance to assist Customs, I asked the Customs officer for a fax or email address, only to be told that sorry we do not have an email and nor do we have a fax machine. The largest airport in the country and they do not even have a fax machine. When pressed for how we relay the required information, we were told to send a letter addressed to Customs, Karachi Airport, and Pakistan.

Imrans vision has a long way to go, but as we saw at the shrine – hope shines eternal in Pakistan.

Malcolm James
September/October 2000

West Bank End Game

For months there had been words of doom regarding the dis-engagement from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank. That there would be blood on the streets as Jew expelled Jew, the opposition had promised hundred's of thousands protestors blocakading the army and police.

In true Israeli fashion, nobody's predictions came true, more people were injured in road accidents during the six days it took to remove the settlements than were injured in the actual operation of removing the settlers.

After the first phase in which the Gaza settlements were cleared, this week was the turn of the isolated settlements in the north of the West Bank. Deep inside Palestinian lands the four settlements to be evacuated had been fortified to repel the Army and Police.

Against one of the most disciplined and modern war forces in the world, the religious zealots and infilltrators thought that they would stock pile flour bombs and tomatoes complete with bottles of oil to pour down from the roofs.

We arrived in the settlement of Hormesh twenty four hours before the army and police, and drove into what can best be described as a quasi modern suburb with neat homes, paved streets, young parents pushing babies in strollers.

Given the ettiquette and rules of boys and girls not mixing, arranged marriages within the strict religious Jews, results in early marriage so it is not unusual to see young teen girls with at least one young child, I was talking to a young woman and found out that she was 24 and expecting her fifth child in the coming months.

So as we set up our live position on the edge of a playground overlooking the Synagogue and Yeshiva (Jewish Religious School same as an Islamic Madrassah), the speakers blare out that if anyone needs anymore magazines or ammunition to come down to the Yeshiva and collect them.

After being in the pleasant community of Hormesh for only a few hours, we had had five tyres slashed on our vehicles and rather than repair them, we decided to wait till things were over before repairing them. It turned out that the kid that had put the 18 holes in our tyres was ten years old and was arrested on the roof of the Yeshiva. A small pathetic child that had been brainwashed by religion and left on his own, I had no sympathy for this little kid as he represented what is wrong in this country and not the future.

There were about 1500 people in Hormesh, of those 1400 were infiltrators NOT settlers, they came to cause trouble. They had foolishly believed the right wing and religious leaders who had promised them tens of thousands more to boost there numbers and naturally divine intervention was immenent.

At seven am the next morning the police and army arrived, ten hours later with no injuries the operation was over. Clinical in its implementation, it was like watching a swiss watch movement.

Protestors had set up burning tyres barricades and torched the occasional car, this at the best delayed things by five minutes as the troops would simply relax find some shade (make some phone calls home on their cell phones) wait for the tyres to burn out, a D9 bulldozer would then push the tyres to the side and the evictions continued. Some came peacfully some came kicking and screaming but they all came rounded up and put on a bus out.

As we drove out (after repairs to the vehicles) the settlement of Hormesh was empty and will be bulldozed in the coming days. Driving out in the military convoy of buses and army vehicles we passed through a large Palestinian village, where people leaned on the balconies and watched in silence. No guns blasting the sky or dancing in the streets, but in their eyes you could see their glea.

Just fyi there are another 120 plus illegal Israeli settlements remaing in the West Bank

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Witness to History

Friday August 19th 2005

The streets of Nev Deqaulim are deserted this morning; the occasional Israeli Military vehicle cruises past. No teenagers in orange shirts are milling about chanting Judaism slogans and swearing racist statements, Long columns of Israeli Police and Army soldiers are no where to be seen. Nev Dequalim has been disengaged.

In years to come history books will record the events of the past few days here, I have been lucky enough to say that I watched it unfold. I filmed settlers setting their houses on fire rather than walk away, weeping families walking slowly onto buses never to return to their house, recorded demonstrators hurling the abusive racist chants at young soldiers. Filmed Jew fighting Jew and seen one of the most amazing sights I have ever witnessed, the Israeli Army storming and taking a synagogue full of Jews who had desecrated their own house of religion.

The days and nights of this week have been a blur, at one stage we worked 37 hours straight. It is easy to type but it drains the life out of you, the only thing that sustains you is adrenaline on assignments of this magnitude. You have to remember that it will end, like all news events they end, but the events of the last few days and weeks to come have changed this nation and what is next is anyone’s guess.

There are so many images of the past few days that I need to write and record over the next few days, some may make this blog others will be kept for my girls to read later.

The one story that somehow sticks in my mind happened the day before or the day before, the standoff at the synagogue had just started to gather around 1500 infiltrators had taken sanctuary inside but were free to move around come and go, they were not prisoners and the forces tolerated them. Towards the evening almost everyone is out of water from troops to media to demonstrators, you simply cannot carry enough to avoid dehydration.

A refrigerated truck turned up, organised by the Israeli Army. They open the back and handed out water to everyone around, we collected two cases and standing back watched troops and police hand out water to a group of teen girls demonstrators who accepted the water with thanks. These were in effect the enemy of the troops and police but they were fellow countrymen and Jews just themselves.

One minute later the same group of girls rushed the truck and tried to use knives and ice picks to slash the tyres of the truck, a sergeant managed to grab the girl with the knife and save the truck tyre from being slashed, she stood back glared and abused him, he was old enough to be her father and the venom she had in her tongue was obscene, but she had taken the water before.

The young kids have over this week discovered the art of petty vandalism, and prowled the streets looking for media cars so that they could slash the tyres, as fast as they could be repaired they were slashed to drive through the settlement here at times we would walk the car with four of us walking next to each wheel to stop them from rushing out and slamming an ice pick into the tyre. The strange thing is that it was not as if it was a state of Anarchy existed, police and troops were everywhere.

Why enforce law and order when the town will be rubble in the next few days. The house we rented is to be demolished in the coming days, like the rest of the settlement before being handed back to the Palestinians. The Israelis are not knocking down the homes to spite the Palestinians, it is just that the houses here occupy too much land and are not part of the plans for a future Palestinian State; both sides agreed that demolition is the best option.

It has been a week that changes this country, what the future holds is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

After Midnight

After Midnight

Neve Dequalim Settlement, Gaza Strip

It is now possible to leave the settlement’s but against the law to come back. The roads back into the settlements are closed, and effectively we are now trapped. Prisoners of choice as you wait to watch history unfold before your eyes.

Starting at 7am the Israeli Army will come by house by house and give notice that you have 48 hours to leave or face evacuation by what ever means is deemed necessary.

We are renting a house in the Neve Dequalim settlement that will be bulldozed in the coming weeks and we as a team face incredible challenges and risks over the coming days.

When you are in these situations you values and worries become somewhat skewed. Issues of security become paramount and the endless scenarios you can imagine could become reality in the next few hours. What ifs include complete riots and being physically under attack from zealots with sticks and a religion as their driving force. How do we protect ourselves and what becomes important. The desire to be live and showing the world real time news is an incredibly powerful drug.

We have a base on the roof of the only high buildings in the settlement-shopping complex and it is like a circus up there watching who comes up. From overweight politicians to pot smoking kids, some how they all end up on the roof. This only adds to your security nightmares, where is the security? Then when you find out late at night that the security is an eighteen-year-old boy, who is shit scared of the kids, you are not keen to leave anything on the roof.

So you end up renting a trashed office for a king’s ransom, think you have been totally ripped off, then look on the wall and see an air conditioner and all of a sudden the rent seems totally reasonable. It was so hot sitting on the roof today that sweating was considered as a national sport down here.

There are five of us living in the house, with no television. Stop for a second and ask yourself when was the last time you were in a house with no television. Ahhh, just as I thought, you cannot remember the last time you were living in a house with no television.

A fact of life now is the Internet, and the fact I cannot get wireless Internet is a cause for concern, this blog will be sent out tomorrow morning on a satellite phone.

A final thought as midnight approached, I was standing outside with Amir Efrati the Sound Engineer on this assignment, and I looked across the street to see a few kids out walking their dogs. I thought of Mohammed, the Palestinian boy I had filmed a few days ago and who had given me the theme of my last diary entry. And he was right; they do have nice dogs here in the settlements. Two happy dogs were walking down the street.

In forty-eight hours, it is forbidden to be here.

Monday August 15, 2005

Counting down the Hours

The first scene this morning were the hundreds of hard-core rightists barricading the entrance to Neve Dequalim, the largest settlement in the Gush Katif Settlement block here in Gaza.

Most of the demonstrators have never lived in settlement, but have come down to protest the disengagement, they sang and danced, cried and fried in the sun, which was beating down relentlessly. You work in a constant state of sweat, the heat and humidity draining the life out of your soul.

But I do realise that I am witnessing history, for many the a very painful chapter in the short history of this country, you do not have any sympathy or compassion in these times. You just do your job and listen to the demonstrators, they rant and at times demand that there’s is a true and just cause. Based on what distorted truths they have had driven into them by religion.

The hard core Jewish Settlers here in Neve Dequalim, do honestly remind me of any Islamist rally I have covered in the Muslim world, they DEMAND that their view is the one and only true light and that is what scares me. Religion no longer is love and understanding to extremists, but a source of zealot power.

Watching the dancing today, I could have been filming the same religious scenes at an exorcism in Pakistan, and I have filmed exorcism in Pakistan.

You work in a constant state of alertness, of when and if the “Game is ON” and the violence is about to start. The hardest part of covering events like this dis engagement is that they happen over a large area, and being on the scene you only see a small part of the equation.

Whilst watching major world events like this at home, you get to see the whole picture with video elements from here and there. WE cannot be here and there; we are locked into the settlement in one location. We cannot go and come back; the road is one way now jammed with buses and trucks of the Police and IDF coming in.

We spent five hours filming down at the gate, filming and waiting, being abused and waiting, hungry as we scrambled with no time for breakfast and by 1pm the heat and hunger drove us back to the house for a break, an advantage of living in the story.

One thing did make me smile today; remember how I told the story of the girls on the left, boys on the right (or vice a versa) at the rally last week. Well rest assured when they formed up today to barricade the gates, the girls and ONLY girls were on the left side of the road, and only boys were on the right hand side of the road.

I had to smile deep inside at just how funny it is to watch such sexual divisions in August 2005. Hard core Judaism has not changed in thousands of years and today was a chance to observe it.

I saw tears today as a young girl about seventeen, was reading her Torah, it was hard to gauge what she was experiencing she bobbed her head and cried in time (very similar to scenes I have filmed in a Madrassah) but she was deeply moved and as she recited the verses she had tears rolling down her face.

However her friend next to her was busy texting SMS messages on her phone, perhaps it was tradition, meeting the 21st century. I filmed close ups of the girl crying holding torah and her friend’s phone, both shots will never make air, as there was violence down the road but to me they did symbolise my day.

The clock continues to count down to when the scenes will get ugly, tomorrow is another day.

Friday, August 12, 2005

They have Nice Dogs

Khan Younis, Gaza

Spending the day in Khan Younis inside the Palestinian side of Gaza is not everyone’s idea of having a fun day in the sun. In the lead up to the disengagement next week, it was like a last chance to go into Gaza and experience the desperation that the locals must endure everyday whilst the Israelis are still there.

The population of Gaza is so young that more than an estimated 60% of the people there have never lived without the Israelis controlling every aspect of there lives there.

To put Gaza into perspective, it is only 40 km long and 5 km wide, the 8,000 Israeli settlers have 40% of the land (the best land) and the remaining 1.2 million, read that number again 1,200,000 live in the other 60%. The only way to enter Gaza, is through the Erez Checkpoint at the Northern end, there you come straight into Gaza City and all the
Refugee Camps like “Jabaliya and Beach Camps”, here squalor and life live in hand in hand. Whilst they are called camps they are just suburbs of Gaza City.

There is one and only one road down thru Gaza to the southern cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, which borders onto Egypt with the Israeli buffer zone known as Phildelphi road. This is where the tunnels for smuggling are and have been flashpoints for clashes for years.

Now the problem is that this road is only two lanes wide and passes thru Israeli settlements, so the IDF controls the road that is the main and only road to commute on in Gaza. The Israeli checkpoints that control this road are full-scale military options, no soldiers are seen, they sit in Concrete turrets and can close the road at any time for any reason.

Yesterday was no exception, we had wrapped filming in Khan Younis and wanted to get back to Gaza City and out through Erez. But the IDF had closed the road and we were in a traffic jam that stretched back a couple of km. There was nothing anyone could do we just had to sit and wait. Looking around at the Palestinians sitting in the heat of summer in the taxis and the frustrations of truck drivers you could sense that they know there is nothing they could do. When the Israelis would open the road no one could tell, it could of been in two minutes two hours or two days, there is nothing you can do but wait.

Somehow Niall our local fixer/producer managed to convince the Palestinian soldiers who were trying to maintain a semblance of order in this road closure, that as foreign press we were important and should go to the front of the line. Now I am not ashamed to say that we did get the green light to go ahead towards the front of the line and we took off only to sit in the heat further up the line. You just sit and wait, we probably spent an hour all told waiting there.

Which was only a precursor to the frustrations of trying to get out of Erez, we got to the first Palestinian checkpoint where they co-ordinate with the IDF to allow you to re enter back into Israel. Only to find out that no one was going out, you must wait how long no one could tell, my record is having to wait 8 hours. I just hoped that it was not going to be that long, it was 6:15 pm when we arrived and the border closes at 9pm.

The reason for the delay we found out was that Palestinian workers were coming back into Gaza after working the day in Israel, and with the disengagement the soldiers at the Erez Crossing were short staffed, so we had to wait.

Hot tired and sweaty we sat in the car, tried to sleep, tried to pass time, tried phone calls to anyone who could help us and tried not to look at our watches. It was getting darker and darker; this is no place to get caught after nightfall.

Two and half hours later we finally got out of Gaza and back into Israel, the whole experience can only be likened to escaping from prison, yet another blog subject on another day.

Perhaps the telling moment of the day, and the title of this blog belong to Mohammed Mouser aged thirteen. We were filming the final sequence for the story looking into the Gush Katif Settlements from the Palestinian side and I noticed Mohammed standing on a wall looking into the Settlements. After I had shot the sequence we were talking to him asking if he had ever gone into the Settlements, no he replied, but he had once got close to the fence and was watching life in there, his only line back to us was “They have nice dogs in there”.

Strange what people admire on the other side of the fence.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Seeking Asylum In Gaza

Seeking Asylum in Gaza

When I think of people seeking Asylum, you have images of crowded old fishing boats jammed with desperate people or men jumping fences to try and jump on a train, but here in Israel we have the classic opposite. There are people who believe that it is their mission in life to seek Asylum in Gaza.

The IDF has declared the area around here as a closed Military Zone, without the correct papers there is no access to the Settlements inside Gaza Strip. The right wing hard core settlers who are planning to make a stand and refuse to leave are getting more supporters coming in, they are truly “Guerrillas in the Dark”

Once night descends protestors in small groups start trying to walk into the Gaza Settlements through the fields, trying to avoid being caught by the IDF.

It is not exactly scientific well planned; most of them get caught, taken into Police custody and released at some time, by all accounts very peaceful.

So last night we set out to try and find some of these Israeli Asylum Seekers, by all accounts you must smile when you think that what they are trying to do is to smuggle themselves into Gaza. Gaza is not exactly the land of milk and honey, on the other hand you have a million plus Palestinians trapped inside Gaza, if they try to walk out they are shot without questions.

There was no moon and it was pitch black, and we had driven not more than one kilometre around the Kissifim Kibbutz, before we came across an IDF Checkpoint. Much scrambling by young soldiers who thought that the best thing to do would be to detain us, in fact Mike and I did not even know that we had been detained, Gaby the Producer did not seem fazed so we were not.

After a few minutes a slightly older soldier (here read about 20 years old) turned up, Gaby and him chatted and the end result was that there were no reports of people walking thru the fields that surrounded us, they even said we were free to go further down the road, but he warned us that only a km further down we would come to the fence that separates Israel and Gaza and that the locals do not always play nice.

With that warning we turned back and Mike had one of those secret squirrel type phone conversations and then pointed to a road junction twenty minutes on the map. Along dark roads, through the checkpoints. Mikes contact gave the impression that it would be like a sea of lemmings jumping out of cars and striding out into the fields, once we got to the junction.

We found a lookout spot on top of a hill overlooking the fields, and turning on night scope lens of the camera, I panned and zoomed, scanned and tilted. The end result nothing not one Gaza Asylum Seeker.

You get used to boasts of people with agenda’s in our business, all part of the spin and sometimes just sometimes they are telling the truth.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Kibbutz Breakfast

Sunday August 7th 2005

The Kibbutz Breakfast

“Breakfast” The most important meal of day, everyone says so, books tell you “do not miss breakfast”. They have not had to eat a kibbutz breakfast.

Kibbutz’s are a uniquely Israeli aspect of life. In other parts of the world, you would call them Commune’s, conjuring up images of hippy’s wandering around preaching love and peace. Here though they have always been the backbone of the country, almost every Israeli you meet, who has grown up here, has a one time lived on a kibbutz.

Kibbutz’s are like small farms, complete with an Industrial zone and housing community. Everyone has the own small house but no real kitchen, meals are served in a communal dining room. Most of the people, who live on the kibbutz, have jobs within the community whether it is on the farm or in factory/business that the kibbutz runs. Where I am staying the kibbutz has one of the largest paint factories in the country. Commerce is developed and the community runs them as a collective. In short some of these Kibbutz’s are multi million dollar operations.

As Israel has grown, the children of the kibbutz’s have moved to the big cities, for work and the bright lights, (that is after serving three years national conscription). And now a lot of the rooms have been turned into Bed and BREAKFAST hotel style rooms. Note the word breakfast has cropped up again.

They are a unique chance to actually experience the pioneer challenge that developed Israel into the nation it is today.

I have always tried to eat breakfast whilst on the road. And over the years, breakfast has been in places like this. A roadside cafes in rural Afghanistan, a dark smoky mud brick house on the pot holed road between Herat and Kandahar, just before you start the dash across the Desert of Death.

Here we had fresh baked Naan bread and fried eggs complete with tea, an hour later four of us were really sick and everytime we had to stop, we risked the chance of stepping on landmines in culverts under the road we were using as toilets. Only later to be told by a de-mining engineer that culverts are the most dangerous places for landmines.

We were too sick at the time to even think of the risk as we clambered down into the culvert before your stomach exploded. That was a bad breakfast, in what must be one of the worst places in the world to get sick.

In Iraq on the US Bases, you can get “Grits” for breakfast, and I grew up believing that Grits was only on the TV show, “The Beverley Hillbillies”. But this semolina type stuff is hard to handle, even “Cheese Grits” do not taste much better.

Breakfast in Vietnam, is a fantastic bowl of Pho soup, full of taste and every time you have one there is always a slight difference, so you can never get tired of ordering the same thing day after day.

The Kibbutz Breakfast must be the blandest repetitive meal that exists on the planet today. The communal dining halls are designed by Prison architects, functional, classless and depressing places. The meal is a self-service counter type with cucumbers and tomatoes sitting there, tubs of cream cheeses and yoghurt, hard-boiled eggs, and stale bread, hummus is naturally available.

It is just such a depressing meal to have to face everyday. Hot water is from a tap in the wall, the cutlery and plates are functional, and it is like walking into a bad prison movie dining room, at the end of your meal you take your plate out the back and put it on the conveyor belt Industrial dishwasher.

And like the movie “Groundhog Day” every morning you walk into the same scene, the food is exactly the same, the decor and ambience just the same. You probably read the menu items I listed and think that they sound good, BUT trust me every day it is the same. The same items in the same places.

In closing, I look out of my bungalow window and see a truly beautiful rural community lifestyle; the grounds are immaculate with glorious shade trees. I think I will close and go for a ride on my bike. They are a unique community lifestyle that you can stay in, but remember my words about “The Kibbutz Breakfast”, you too can experience what I have eaten it will be the same.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Guns & Religion

Day 4

Guns and Religion

Over the last few years being based here in Israel, I have filmed at most of the settlements that are to be evacuated the week after next. Netzer Hazani has always been known as the home of “The Celery Lady”, I cannot remember her name but she has lived in the settlement for over thirty years, growing celery (Kosher Celery, yes there is such a thing as Kosher Celery). Whenever you film or interview her it is always in her greenhouse, with her holding a stalk of celery.

Today however, when we met her in the community square in the settlement, she was not holding her beloved celery. But she was there watching the men of the community handing over their guns to the IDF, (Israel Defence Forces). For the last three decades the locals have had a degree of responsibility for their own security, given that the Palestinian town of Khan Younnis is just over the sand hill a kilometre away, and both sides have not played nice on many occasions.

But as a collective the residents of Netzer Hazani do not want guns in their community when the soldiers come to evict them, that way their can be no risk of someone losing their temper and firing a gun against a fellow Jew, perhaps a ray of sanity amongst the insanity of the Middle East.

With their guns wrapped in orange ribbons the men stepped up to the table and saluted the IDF representative and placed their gun on the table and walked away. There was no tears or outward signs of losing their toys, but a bitter taste in their mouths.

The celery lady has not given up hope and continues to farm in the belief that some divine intervention will come from above and the disengagement will not happen.

Down the road and on the beach is the settlement of Kefar Yam, a collection of tumbledown buildings and a growing community pf plastic tents and structures. But what is alarming is that these hard-core radicals are starting to turn their community, into a collective Orwellian “Animal farm”.

What made me realise how right wing and racist this community has become was when someone asked me if I was “Jewish”, remember the four legs good two legs bad from “Animal Farm”. Never ever in twenty-five years of covering news around the world has anyone asked my religion with the undertone that it mattered.

I did not respond to the question, I would not stoop to their level of racism.

In the media you get used to people not liking you, and placing silly caveats on you like, “ You can film here, but do not film any people “. It makes as much sense as saying you can write but you cannot use a pen or pencil.

The last time someone said to me “You can film, but you cannot film any people” was a Taliban Leader in Afghanistan when they were at the height of their power in early 2001.

Fundamentalism is alive and well down here.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

"Girls on the Left, Boys on the Right"

Day #3
August 3rd 2005

“Girls on the left, Boys on the right’

At the end of a long night, the Rabbi stands on top of the car and proclaims” Girls on the left, boys on the right” and Uri the Sat Truck Operator almost drops to the ground rolling in laughter along with Yonat our producer.
The location just outside Ofrakim on the edge of the Negev Desert, at 12.30am, it had been a long night. The anti disengagement protestors had been claiming that they did not want to clash with the police and army, and vice a versa. The remnants of the previous days protest in Sderot had staged a last rally in Ofrakim and were going to march into Gaza.

However 2,000 protestors mainly fanatics, were not going to get past 12,000 Army and Police, complete with three water cannons and mounted troops. Who had locked the area down tighter by sheer force.

Security is something that the Israelis take seriously, very seriously. Now the area around Gaza were the disengagement is to take place in a couple of week’s time is a closed military area. Without the correct accreditation you simply cannot go anywhere, it seems that every road has checkpoints every few kilometres, where we have to show our Government Press Cards after which we are allowed to pass through.

Mike Tobin, the correspondent that I am working with, somehow managed to lose his card the night before last at the demonstration in Sderot, and we have at least six checkpoints to clear before we get back to the Kibbutz where we are based for the month.

Traffic is naturally totally and completely chaotic as it can only be in Israel, It is late at night and we want to get home for a cold beer and something to eat.

We approach the first checkpoint and I say to Mike, “Pretend you are asleep”.

Mike closes the eyes and I wind down the 5cm that my window opens on my armoured car.

Soldier looks in, and Yanot and I show our Press Cards, he looks across at Mike and I shrug my shoulders tell the soldier “shhhh he’s asleep, very tired, he is a correspondent and has been working very hard”

Soldier nods OK and we are through, now it has worked once will it work again and again and again ....

Well it does six checkpoints later we arrive at the Kibbutz complete with Mike, one of those silly security things that late at night can work, even in the most security aware country in the world, just ell them “ sorry he’s a asleep”. Planning on trying this next time at the airport.

Back to the rally last night, after five hours of sitting in the dust of the desert, around two thousand tired bedraggled and listless protestors who after a couple of days in the heat and great outdoors are no match for the Police and Army. Finally clash well clash is to hard a word to use, they face each other off. There is no way the protest is progressing, New York expresses no interest in opening a satellite to show nothing happening but want us to stay around for a couple of more hours, ‘just in case’
I knew we were in trouble when the rabbi was hoisted up on a truck roof and after forty minutes asked for a box to sit on, sometimes it is good not to understand what is being said, ignorant bliss.

Rabbi after rabbi addresses the crowd and the clock keeps ticking, that is until Uri bursts out laughing.

What did he say I ask my interest peaked, he just said that they are going to spend the night sleeping on the road and the rabbi has requested that, Girls sleep on the left hand side of the road and Boys are to sleep on the right hand side of the road.

Lets face it in these tumultuous times of struggle it is important to remember “no hanky panky before marriage”

We packed up and left them in singing songs of struggle, and any aspirations of love under the stars (and eyes of 12,000 Police and Army) was not going to happen.

Ofrakim is not Woodstock

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Rallying for the Cause

Day #2 “ Rallying for the cause”

Tuesday August 2nd 2005

One favourite game that we like to play whilst on the road is to try and estimate the size of crowds at demonstrations, meaningless and a way to try a pass time whilst standing around doing nothing.

If anything epitomises the boredom of my job then last night was one of those nights, the anti disengagement movement had called for the Jews of Israel to come together and oppose the pullout from Gaza less than two weeks away now.

Claiming that they could get a crowd of one hundred thousand, five hundred buses and the nation to support them. The only fly in the ointment in this scenario was that they had called the rally for sunset in the town of Sderot. Now I am sure that none of you know of the vast metropolis that Sderot is, it’s only claim to fame is that it is the closest town to the edge of the Gaza Strip, and over the last few years of the Intifada it has been the favourite target for the Kassam missiles fired by the Palestinians to annoy and terrorise the Israelis.

These rockets are home made pipe bombs with no guidance or science involved, but have claimed many lives. So imagine a large crowd tightly packed into the park of Sdereot will naturally be a target that Hamas would find hard to resist.

Back to the crowd, the hundred thousand did not turn up, only a hundred or so buses arrived and the TV Networks of Israel gave the demo no major coverage. I stood there for four hours not understanding a word and trying to avoid conversations with racist right-wingers.

We estimated around ten thousand turned up, enough to cause total traffic chaos on the small streets of Sderot, and the Police and Army outnumbered the protestors.

One of the Palestinian cells did fire three rockets, two landed inside Gaza killing one Palestinian child and injuring others, and the third in a field miles away from Sderot.
No one will ever know the name of the Palestinian child who was killed by his or her own, it will be put down as a statistic in the struggle.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Life is a Supermarket Shelf

Countdown to History

Day #1 “Life is a Supermarket”

Monday August 1, 2005

It is hot down in the Gaza at this time of year, so hot in fact that the woman at the check out counter in the settlement supermarket sat listlessly eating gherkins straight out of the can, not exactly the best of looks for customers. But then again when you know that in two weeks time your shop is going to close for good, what the hell eat gherkins whilst doing the check out.

In two weeks time all the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip are going to be evacuated and the land given back to the Palestinians, also in this time a few of the settlements in the West Bank are also slated to be returned.

Supermarkets are a microcosm of life and societies, walking down the aisle you can see what people eat, clean with and purchase on impulse. What we are is represented in the aisles of the supermarket. Whether it is Safeway’s or Big W in Australia the alcohol department can be the same size as the fruit and veg department, or Tescos in England where a complete wall is dedicated to warm beer and crisps, In Hong Kong you just dread the Durian Season at Park n Shop.

So at the Nev Dekalim Settlement in Gaza, final closing down sale they are not stocking the shelves anymore, You can buy salt but not pepper, only dodgy brand children’s toothpaste is on the shelf, they have run out of diet coke and they don’t care, in less than two weeks they will have no customers, the settlement will be devoid of life just like the shelves.

This part of Israel reminds me of Kuwait in the build up to the Iraq War, every road is jammed with buses carrying soldiers and police into the region, as the nation prepares to go Jew against Jew. The nation is polarised with those against the pullout mounting demonstrations and those for the pullout declaring democracy is alive and well in the Unholy lands.

As we bought our meat for the bbq, the check out lady moved the half empty can of gherkins to the side, smiled and wished me a good day.