Friday, December 29, 2006

Link Me


I have finally mastered I hope or as we say in lands close to me, Inshallah. I have a new template that allows me to finally add links to each and everyone of you who is kind enough to read this rambling diatribe.
So if you have blog and read mine . please let me know your blog name and I will add a link to your blog.
A small keystroke for us bloggers a giant leap for my technical world
Cheers
Mal

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A White Day in the Unholylands

Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen snow falling. Excepting mispent youth days sking back in Australia and yes there is good sking downunder and why else would we call an area the Snowy Mountains if it did not snow there.

The last time I woke to snow falling was in Kabul back in January 2002, so yesterday when the snow started falling in Jerusalem it was a magic moment, we even had a klutzy kitsch snowman on the window that plays the song "Let it Snow". Marveling at the white stuff for a while it was a scene of rare peace in a nation that has few moments to reflect peacefully.



But this all comes to a screaming halt the moment I stepped into the car to drive home. My armored car sat in the car park blanketed in white a nice change to being filthy with dust and debris from Gaza.

Now I have not written about the virtues of drivers in Israel for a while. But a few snowdrops and the whole flaming city came to a complete and absolute gridlock. No reason at all , no accidents, no ice on the roads, the snow was just a few flakes and for my sins of watching the snow fall from the bureau window it took me 1 hour 25 minutes to get out of the city a distance of less than a mile.



I sat reflecting on the snow and rain falling and made the resolve that the next time i see a flake fall from the sky, I am out of the office as fast as possible to avoid the gridlock that can only happen when every idiot here wants to drive in the snow so they can boast to their friends about how good they can drive in the bad weather.

Taliban Airlines

Found the tickets that I wrote about in the last entry and have updated previous post with pictures

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Afghanistan Series - Flying to Kabul

Last time I posted about Afghanistan we were deep in the heart of Kandahar and about to head up to Kabul. Now after the drive thru the Desert of Death there was the prospect of driving a similar distance to Kabul, and the thought of doing this is about as appealing as having your wisdom teeth removed on your 21st Birthday.

We had heard that Ariana Airlines was still running limited flights from Kandahar to Kabul, and Lara was dispatched with little optimism to see what she could manage whilst we would spend the morning avoiding the Religious Police more commonly called the "Taliban Department of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice".

This is the same Police force that would do things like ask for tenders for 500 whips in a Kabul Newspaper Advertisement later in the year.

To our amazement there was a flight the next day and we had five tickets. I still have the tickets and if i can find them I will take a picture, because they had been Taliban'ised. By this I mean on the back of the ticket the airline had photos of the Budhas of Bamiyan (that the Taliban had blown up the previous month, more on that story later) Now under strict Islam faces are not allowed and even on books in shops pieces of paper would be stuck on faces.

On the back of the ticket some clerk had obviously been ordered to black the faces out on the statues picture and with a black marker the ticket had been colored in, obliterating the picture.



Duly the next morning we left the UN Compound and headed for Kandahar International Airfield, built in the 1962 with US financial aid, and expertise even to the extent that the power points in the walls of the airport terminal are US power points, no where else in the entire country would you find a US Power Point except for the airport. The architecture is a snap shot of America 1962.

Now we are not expecting much and luckily we were not diasapointed. There seemed to be only about tweleve passengers, a few travelling Imans, a family and us.

But Ariana Airlines realised that this was a windfall of excess baggage to be paid of course in cash to the airport manager. And to the last kilo they calculated what we had to pay. Naturally we would have to pay in US Dollars and after a prolonged discussion on which they did not budge one kilo we coughed up a few hundred dollars.



Walking out to the plane you tried not to look too closely, I assume that canvas showing on the tyres adds to the traction and braking of the Russian made AN24. Now travelling with weapons is a standard practice on any Military flight however evryone boarding the flight to Kabul carried their Kalishnikov onto the plane and if I could of translated the pre flight briefing I only hoped that the Captain requested that the safety be on, I somehow doubted it as the weapons were not even un clipped as the other passengers put their weapons into the overhaed lockers.

Such was travelling on Ariana Airlines back in the Days of the Taliban. But it was better than driving and that is all that mattered for us. The choice between 14 bone shattering hours in a car or an hour flight with canvas wheels and armed passengers, was simple.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Why Cameramen are Not Rocket Scientists

Curses, I thought I had the maths correct on the sandbags story, but thanks to JPresEFnet, I stand corrected
Thanks a binary
Cheesr
Mal
hence this is the corrected equation

Each person on your 3 man team, eating 2 meals per day for 12 days ate 24 total meals. Filling 2 sandbags per meal, each of your 3 man team would have filled 48 sandbags. 48 sandbags X 3 people = 144 total sandbags over 12 days. At 40 pounds each that's 5760 pounds of sand, or 2.5714 Long Tons 2+5+7+1+4=19 and 1+9=10 if you want a fancy binary conversion to close with.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Zen and the Art of Sandbags

Iraq has two things in abundance ; Sand and Oil, well three things if you also include kalishnikovs. And as a reader asked why so many sand bags. Everything in Iraq is sandbagged, on any military base or outpost there is nothing but sandbags. Sandbags surround the Portaloos, every single doorway is side entered due to being sandbagged. Every outpost and guard post is sandbagged.
Every rooftop has sandbags on them. You get so used to sandbags that they become invisible.
But they provide security they stop bullets and if a mortar lands then there is only a sandbag between you and the lord above, and I have not even mentioned Hesco Barriers yet.
The Marines we were embedded with had a plan and strategy behind the sand bag filling. They were planning on pushing deeper into the city and establishing a new security outpost, and they do this virtually overnight. So Achmed wakes up the next morning and lo and behold he has a new police station down the road complete with over a hundred thousand sandbags or shipped in the dark and hand carried and put in position, if you wonder why Marines are so fit try being in a human chain as you move thousands of 40 lb sand bags up four flights of stairs.
Sandbags also have another function

... Interviewing tall Marines for tv well just level the playing field by standing on a sandbag

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Decompression Time

Final Entry of the Ollie North, FNC & War Stories Trip to Iraq Dec 2007.

First and foremost a big thank you to each and every one of you that have taken the time to read my words and enjoy some of the background scenes to covering events in Iraq.

I have my opinion as to what is right and wrong in this world, and that is just the point it is my opinion and the purpose of my blog and journal is not to sprout forth my views on the world and the events I cover. But to take you behind the scenes and try to give you a sense of what happens away from Politicians and think tanks.

I have been out of Iraq for a few days now and I still wake in the darkness and think I am back there. Not the type of dreams that you see portrayed in Hollywood Movies of sitting bolt upright in a cold sweat.

But one of confusion and worry that something has happened, is going to happen or that we have missed a live shot in the middle of the night. Over in Iraq wherever you sleep or live there are no windows, if there was a window it has been sand bagged up, thus you never know whether it is day or night whilst you are inside over there.

To come home and have a window is strange and takes some getting used to again, I am one of those travelers on a plane that insists on having the window shades up at all times, still cannot get over people who insist on thinking traveling in a plane is the same as there private bedroom. The flight back from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv a few days took off at 10:30 am and arrived in Tel Aviv at 3:20 in the afternoon. Honestly you would not of believed the way people carried on as if it was the middle of the night and they were going to bed.

That’s just a quick insight into one of the things in this world that bug me, so if we ever travel together and you want to annoy me, pull the shades down.

Decompressing takes time from a trip like Iraq, you look back at tapes and realize that there were two shots fired at us from a sniper outside the Govt Centre not one as I originally remember. When I was under attack from the RPG’s you can see the flash of the explosion in the eyes of the Marine if you freeze the tape.

It feels different not to have to wear body armor anytime you go outside, not have to fill sandbags to eat, I can determine what I want to eat these are all positives to a degree. But what you miss the most at the end of any long trip is being around friend’s twenty-four seven especially in an intense close experience like Iraq.

We went and we came back, safe and alive. And in a war zone that is the most important thing.

What is next … well that depends? In the world of News, things happen and then I find myself again in another conflict zone.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Mal
Herzliyya Pituach
Israel

(The Unholyland News)
www.unholylandnews.blogspot.com

Friday, December 22, 2006

Thanks for the Comments

Quick note to say thanks to everyone, who has posted a comment or reply recently. Enjoy the feedback
Thanks
Mal

7.714 a Number to remember

Ones and zero’s are what dominate the fore thoughts of the US Army Data Company. No doubt this elite unit has a motto that would probably be something like “Byte Hard” all units in the armed forces have motto’s that they use to impress the history and spirit of the unit, forged on battlegrounds from past war’s. The 1st Army Data Company being a new unit is forging its colors on the sands of Iraq.

Actually most Command and Operations Centers in Iraq resemble something from NASA complete with real time monitors and more computer power that it takes to put the Space Shuttle up in space.

To a degree numbers can start to dominate our lives in Iraq. And you find yourself doing calculations just for the … well sake of it. For example to enter the Mess Hall at Hurricane Point and get food everyone has to fill two sand bags and each sand bag weighs forty pounds.



Hence the following

3 People in our team, Ollie, Andy and myself.
12 Days on station at Hurricane Point
2 Meals a day
2 Sandbags a meal

Hence

3 x 12 = 36 (people x days)
36 x 2 = 72 (people days x meals)
72 x 6 = 432 (meals x two sandbags per meal = Number of Sandbags filled by us)
432 x 40 = 17,280 (Number of sandbags filled x weight of each sandbag)

Thus we sandbagged 17,280 lbs of Sand

17,280 lbs = 7838 kgs or 7.714 Ton’s of Sand

Now add together 7+7+1+4 = 19

1+9 = 10

10 is essence a One and a Zero.

Thus we have proved by binary calculus that the US Army First Data Company play a major factor in the Fox News Coverage efforts in gathering News from the battlefields of Iraq.

It is either that or it could be the omen for the next Powerball Number in a multi million dollar lottery draw.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Smoke over the City



A smoke plume trapped by a cold thermocline, shows the aftermath of another Vied (Vehcular Improvised Explosive Device) attack on a Combat Outpost over the city of Ramadi Iraq

490lb Doors, Watch your fingers



The doors on the new US Army Humvees weigh and I kid you not, 490lbs each. Designed to stop a RPG rocket. Complete with battle lock mechanism and a back up wrench to open them

The View from 17th Street



Filming at 17th Street in Ramadi Iraq, is in a word dangerous, the only way to get shots is to work around the "Sniper Views" so it is a matter of keeping low and moving fast to minimise the exposure to danger

Workclothes ... Not a Problem



What does one wear today?.
Is it clean?.
Has it been washed?.

Questions that are never a problem in Iraq. The moral question of whether the Press should weaar Military clothes is a no brainer to use an expression. Out in a warzone, you never want to look different, if you look different you are a target because ... You look different and Freindly fire is just as dangerous as the enemy

The Ramadi Bureau Christmas Photo



The Official Team Photo or as we called it the Fox News Ramadi Bureau Annual Christmas Party Photo. Taken at Blue Diamond Camp grounds , the nicely painted humvees in the background with racing stripes are the Iraqi Army.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Do Not Turn Around

You have to have a sense of humor on the road that to others may seem totally silly, and as I look back at the time in Iraq with Ollie North and Producer Andy Stenner. Perhaps nothing more summed up a day when we were scheduled to leave the final air base in TQ.

TQ is a massive airbase that handles logistics and just moves lots of stuff; it is like a parking lot for planes and other things. Like the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Air Force, old relics from the sixties that may have last seen action in the Iran Iraq war in the early 1980’s.

These old planes had been virtually buried in the sand and after the US forces found them they dug them up and have put them on display. According to local legend a high level Iraqi Military Staffer with pips on his shoulders demanded to be shown the planes so as to assess whether they could be put back into service.

Well if the Iraqi Catering Battle Combat Forces ever need drainers and colanders for cooking. Then these relics will serve a purpose.



Andy in the role of being the team’s “turp” (Interpreter) tried to explain in flowing language to Ollie that these were in fact fine combat machines that would surely interest any Super Military Power.

This small story has no bearing to the title of this entry, because it was only we came back from inspecting these old relics of the sky.

Ollie was walking thru a narrow walkway to the car park next to his room. When I noticed that strung above us was a string of washing lines with pegs on them.

“Ollie Don’t turn around, but for a dollar how many clothes pegs are on the lines you just walked under? for a dollar”

Pause deep thought response “67, how many do you think there are?”

Without a blink I guessed 32.

Ollie counted them and believe it or not, there were exactly 32 and no I had not counted them. He paid the dollar on the spot, claiming that he was set up and I had previously counted them.

On a stack of bibles I swear I had not counted them, it was just a lucky guess.

These are some of the moments that make trips when we relax and just enjoy the time together as a team on location. And I was a dollar richer.

New Pictures Uploading


Just a quick entry, to let everyone know that we are out of Iraq and I will be over the next few days updating a lot of previous blog entries and adding photos. Out in the field in Ramadi it was slow and hard to add many pictures using the Internet access we had and the speed of uploading was minimal, so check back and I will hopefully add some pictures to each of the blog entries from Iraq
Have also some funny stories to relate now that I have time to reflect
Thanks to everyone for comments, any comment is very much appreciated
Cheers
Mal
Frankfurt

Mercy 10 Fallen Angel

Mercy 10 Fallen Angel

The Air Force flight Chrome 24 took off before we had even landed, which was annoying but given that it taxied past 14 other people without bothering to stop and pick them up and had left them stranded in Iraq along with us. Welcome to Air Force Air and such is life in Iraq, you do not worry or even bother to complain, because it basically just happens.

Things like this happen, and all it means is that people work very hard to then make thing‘s happen and we got word last night. That we were manifested on a C130 flight named - “Mercy 10” an angel flight.

An Angel flight is the saddest way to end our time in Iraq, because “Angel Flight” means that the plane is carrying a “Fallen Angel”.

A young man or woman who has died and the “angel” is going home.

In moments of reflection we think of very golden images and I swear that if prophecy has an angel then as I climbed on board the C130 thru a narrow door wearing body armor and carrying two bags the scene inside the hold of the plane truly took my soul away.

Imagine an empty plane, stripped bare. No seats nothing and at the end is a coffin tied down with a flag covering the coffin, then add a beam of sunshine coming thru only window on the side of the plane and the beam ending on the coffin exactly. Above the coffin is another flag hanging proudly and lit up by the spill of the beam on the coffin.

I stopped, just plainly stopped and realized that a young soldier was going home a “ Fallen Angel” and that I thought of a wife, mother, father, brother, sister were going to watch their angel carried off the back of a plane in the next few days.

We all know the image we have all seen the TV News pictures, we have heard words of bravery as the flag draped coffin is carried of the back ramp.

Some people use the image of dead soldiers being “body bags” to describe how bad the war is going and how the Pundits in Washington do not want to talk about War Casualties.

These people have never sat alone in the hold of a plane looking at the rays of sunshine as we flew back into Kuwait, the rays of light changed and altered, but in the entire flight of just over an hour the sunbeam rarely left the angel.

In the last minutes of daylight we landed in Kuwait and an honor guard lined up and slow saluted as the coffin was carried out of the plane.

I do not know the name of the soldier, sailor, or Marine who was in the coffin, I do not want to know, it would of not made any difference the respect a son was paid defies my words.

But an angel did cast a sunbeam on a fallen angel the whole way from Iraq to Kuwait.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Hug & a Chocolate Bar

We are getting ready to leave Iraq, and the Chaplain dropped by to say good bye, his final words to me when I said look after the Marines, was all they need is a hug and a chocolate bar and they can fight for another hundred days. It sums up the spirit and true heroism of the young men who serve here. For each and everyone of them are heroes.
And we all need heroes in our lives. Think of them in this season of festive tidings and reflect on what each and everyone of them is giving us.
The Chaplain also wanted sex with his wife, the good lord Jesus and a bottle of bourbon. A man with a heart of gold.

Pogs for the Plate


Sunday in Hurricane Point Base, and in the final days of shooting it is church service morning. It is one of those events that is always nice to cover as you spend days covering the true horror of war to see spiritual reflection for an hour. A young Marine who you film with a gun turns out to have an angelic voice and can play Silent Night on an acoustic guitar.

The Chaplain here Jamie Stall-Ryan is the type of man who greets you warmly every time and insists on giving you food and coffee, he talks of Bible Study Classes and makes sure the Chapel is open so that the guys can watch NFL Football on Sunday Nights. And you also know that he is there when the worst will and does happen here.

His service today was plain simple and inspirational, the theme was “purpose not planned” To plan related have things pre determined, which here does not apply to greater sense, whilst everyone here in Iraq has a purpose.

The song Silent Night is one of my favorite, Christmas Songs that conjures up many images. To listen to 17 Marines sing it in a cold room in the back of one of Saddam’s son’s palaces, lit by two flickering fluorescent lights with a marine holding a M203 Grenade launcher by his side and a small manger scene on a table is very moving. No voice boomed or dominated just 17 men quietly singing together and reflecting.

The title for today’s entry “Pog’s for the Plate” is one of those lines that you think up as we were walking the 50 yd’s round the back from our hatch to the chapel. I mentioned if they pass the plate around for donation does anyone have some pog’s. Pog’s are the coin currency here, paper discs with monetary value so that the Military PX stores do not have to worry about coins. Just thought it was funny the thought of a plate being passed around and everyone putting paper discs into a plate. There was no collection, but then again I had no pog’s in my pocket.

Having a Good Time, Don't you wish you were here


We have all heard the stories of days being brutally hot here in Iraq, where the mercury n thermometer reaches up past 120 degrees in the shade and patrolling the streets where it feels like it is 140 degrees. That’s all you hear about the weather in Iraq, how hot it is. It is always baking hot.

I can attest to the heat here, back on a previous trip with Ollie North in the summer of 2004, it was so extreme that on numerous occasions ended up with an IV drip in my arm, due to dehydration and heatstroke.

Thus when I packed for this trip, I naturally factored in, that the weather would be warm, not to hot and not to cold. Because Iraq is never cold.

Having said that it is obvious what the weather has been like on this trip, one morning filming on a firing range with wind chill it was way below 0 degrees the wind off the desert felt like it was ripping the skin from your face.

Yesterday we went to the roof to try and film an air strike on the city and I put on every piece of my clothing and even with sixty pounds of body armor it was miserably cold. The type of cold wet weather that makes doing anything hard. Ollie took the picture of me in my pathetic miserable state, claiming I looked like the poor child in the school playground that no one will play with.

Would I have traded yesterday for an Iraqi Summer, not likely? But the noisy air conditioner in the room has been cranked up to heat ever since we arrived here. It is not the prettiest air conditioner in the world but it blows good hot air into out little bunkhouse.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Funny Line in the darkness

Perhaps the best line of the last twenty four hours, was coming back to the base here at Hurricane Point from Camp Ramadi. When the gunner on the humvee said
"Sir, can I flash bang him?"
Now before you jump to any conclusion that we are on a secret clandestine mission and about to kick in a door. No we were actually at the front gate to the compound and blocking us was security issue in the form of a large armored vehicle designed to stop a suicide bomber driving his car near the checkpoint, the Marine in the aforementioned vehicle was just slow to move.
Sitting in the blackness of the night here with the driver and Staff Sgt in the front seats on night vision and me alone in the black back seat it was a funny line.
Life here is full of lines during the days and nights that make life feel rather real.
The entrance then opened up like the cave to Ali Baba’s cave and we entered and returned safely to the base.
In the blackness there is nothing funnier than a simple line, to diffuse the stress and tensions of moving around this city.
And no we did not flash bang him but it would have been fun too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pumping Iron in Ramadi Iraq


There is no lycra and no women, no one is fat or overweight, there are no rows of pristine treadmills and elliptical machines with multi channel TV’s attached, there is no reception area where your membership card is swiped. There is no membership fees or promotions, no changing room, showers, toilets, lockers or sauna bath. You are more likely to hear heavy metal or rap than you are to It is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and your membership is valid for four years. (*1)

There is no natural light, in fact any windows, the entrance way is sandbagged and you walk past the drop off point for dirty laundry (Laundry is picked up at 6:30am Tuesdays and Fridays by a seven ton armored truck, back on the next run). Eight fluorescent lights strung up and the rumble of the heater that manages to warm the air in front of three machines enhances the atmosphere in the gym.

Most benches and surfaces have some duct tape holding them together. There is dust and cobwebs in corners, in fact most surfaces have dust, it should be noted that almost everything in this part of the country has dust on it if left for more than 30 minutes.

And yet for all its faults, its negatives the Gym here on the Marine Base at Hurricane Point, Ramadi, Iraq has what any gym in the world wants close to 100% of the community belong. Virtually every Marine works out, and they work out hard, heavy and tough. In a realm where the Alpha male rises to the top, he who bench presses the most per body weight is held aloft.

I use the gym here everyday, one because I like going to the gym, two because it is far too dusty to run my usual trail, inches of dust does not make for conducive times let alone ruining a pair of good running shoes, three it is too cold to run here in the morning with the running clothes I bought, and lastly I had an operation on my big toe last night. (More on that later, the big toe that is.)

In the Corps, discipline and respect are the cornerstones of their world. You do not see Marines walking around the Camp here endlessly saluting or standing to attention. But you do see respect and honor.

In the Gym every Marine is equal, because they all want to be the best, no one wears any insignia of rank in the Gym everyone has the same sweats, everyone has the same haircut and everyone wants to be better.

The gym here will never win any trendy award, the old broken treadmill in the corner will still be gathering dust in six months. However today, tomorrow and for every day there after, the Hurricane Point Gym will have close to 100% of the population walk past the sandbags and push open the door.

(*1) When you enlist in the Marines it is for four years.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Trademark of Death

Yesterday it was sitting in the armored Humvee’s getting shot at by RPG’s, today a sniper decided to try and take a shot at us.

The worst thing is that there is no warning, no sense of impending danger all that you experience is the sound. The air simply cracks, one single round the trademark of a sniper.

We were down at the Government Center, well to use the term Government and Center together is an oxymoron. Because whilst it may be known as the Government Center, certainly no administration has taken place there for a while. On previous trips it was always where you met the Provincial powerbrokers, but that was before six major bombing attacks on the building compound and a daily assault from mortars, rpgs and snipers.

It is now a shell, cold stark and with tables and chairs covered with dust, no heating exists and the cold in the rooms reflects what is left of the town. Across the road from the GC there used to be shops and building, now there is rubble. The buildings were leveled first by 500 lb bombs then by demolition teams, as they had become a haven for terrorists from which to attack the Government Center.

This morning we went there with the Marines who had escorted a local contractor and his foremen whose job it will be to remove the rubble from outside and make the area suitable for a car park for the GC and planners even have ideas for a park. Now given that no parks exist in this city it seems an ambitious urban planning scheme to say the least.

So whilst the Marines were escorting the contractors out thru the safe back way to the alley and then to the street so that they could assess the task ahead, we tagged along wanting to shoot a segment link for the War Stories Special.

We had a couple of takes in the camera and moved to change angle with the camera rolling Ollie was just about to start when the sniper “sniped”. It shakes you up for a second or two and Ollie headed for the wall, I just ducked down and waited for the inevitable gunfight, but the discipline of the Marines is such that locating the position from which the shot was fired is more important than blasting away.

The site survey did not last much longer and we moved back into the safety (sic) of the Govt Center and spent time filming Xmas Greetings with Marines even then the cracks in the air continued on and off. Just another day in Ramadi.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Sandbags for Dinner

You are aware of the phrase singing for your supper, well the US Marines at Hurricane Point have a different variation. It is called “Sandbagging for Chow”. Just before you enter the chow hall there is a pile of sand and a stack of empty sandbags and before you can enter each person must fill two sand bags with 40 lbs of sand tie them off and throw them on a stack.

It takes but a couple of minutes but the pile continues to grow, at this base we get two meals a day that are bought over form the main Military Base at Camp Ramadi in 7 ton armored trucks with armored military Humvee’s escorting them. Sort of like Pizza delivery boys with attitude, but here the delivery boys have body armor and kevlar helmets.

Food comes twice a day in Vat Cans, sort of like large cool boxes that are designed to ensure that food is Luke warm. Tonight’s dinner was a classic, if you ordered it in a restaurant your request to the Maitre D would have been something like this …

“I would like an old T Bone steak with gristle cooked four hours ago and served medium Cold, along with a side serve of green peas that can turn mushy under air pressure with mashed potatoes triple super sized so that it drops off the side of the plastic plate and then can you top it with brown gravy to disguise the taste of anything under it. And your finest bottle of 2006 Tabasco Sauce so that I can really enjoy it with my meal.”

All jokes aside the chow is good and the meal times are looked forward to here. And you are allowed to carry weapons into the food hall and no one complains.

Cup of Joe

Hurricane Point
Monday December 11, 2006

I like a few things in life and nothing more than a coffee to start the day. I consider Starbucks to be the Mc Donald’s of coffee. It looks and is marketed to make you think it is good but in reality it tastes dreadful. Luckily there is no Starbucks yet in Ramadi Iraq, and come to think of it there is no Mc Donald’s either.

But we do have the option to brew a coffee in our bunkhouse. On past trips here Producer Greg Johnson ha always managed to rustle up a cup of joe for me even at four am in the morning, so in his brief to our new Producer on this trip Andy Stenner he stressed the importance of feeding me my morning cup of coffee. No doubt with the words of wisdom of “He is not as grumpy if he has caffeine in him”. Greg even went to the trouble of giving Andy a jar of instant coffee and a bag of coffee. But this is where we ran into trouble. Andy does not drink coffee and hence has never had to make a cup.

So at four in the morning on the first day at Hurricane Point in Ramadi, Andy proceeds to make a pot of coffee. With all the best intentions in the world it was undrinkable in a dripolater for 8 cups there must have been ten spoons of coffee. I look back and laugh at just how bad it tasted, even Ollie North could not drink it and he is a former marine and marines can drink any coffee.

In Andy’s defense he admitted this morning that the coffee he made was from Greg’s bag, hang on I said “You mean to tell me that Johnson, gave you this bag of Bonus Blend, who in the hell has ever heard of Bonus Blend”.

The Bonus Blend may of impressed Andy a non-coffee drinker as a good coffee. But for Ollie and I the only place for Bonus blend was the garbage bag. Maybe if you could not read English it may look impressive, but the taste of it defies words.

But then again I like Instant Coffee so who am I to talk. It is the small things on the road that sometimes make you laugh

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Frontline Photos




With the Marines at the 17th Street Outpost, filming day operations , the second photo shows a marine reflected in a pool of sewarage and the 17th Street Outpost is the building behind sandbagged up. Sleeping in these buildings all sandbagged up you have no idea of wherther it is day or night outside, then again everyday is groundhog day. Apart from teh fact that on patrol this afternoon was almost hit by two RPGs which rocked the armoured humvee to say the least and no I did not get out to film

Mal
Ramadi Iraq

Saturday, December 09, 2006

In Memory

There is nothing sadder than attending a Memorial Service for fallen soldiers in the field. It is hard not to hold your emotions in during the final minutes, it is not the service or the firing of the salute rifles outside the mess, it is the sight of and sound of fellow soldiers and marines on their knees as they reach out and touch the dog tags. It is not a loud sound but the soft sound of two dogs tags touching each other. Two small pieces of metal that contain the heart and soul of a friend.

They played a song that I never have heard before, a country and western ballad “ American Soldier” I do not know who wrote or sang it. It will forever be in my heart, because one of the fallen was a Marine I knew.

A reservist who came here and paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom and liberty. This is not the time or the place to debate the merits of the war here. We all have opinions and thoughts as to the rights and wrongs of what is happening. But for families who have lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, know that out here when a comrade falls the entire community weeps with you and your loss is shared all, in the dust and heat, cold and mud they are never forgotten.

When I run my next marathon I will have on my arm the name of a friend who will be remembered because she like me used to liked to run marathons.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ali & the Three-Dollar Haircut



Next to the bunkhouse we are staying in is Ali’s Barber Shop, a place where there is only one price. All haircuts are three dollars fixed. Now Ali’s clients are solely US Marines on the base here and as we all know Marines have one style of haircut “high and tight”.

Which is basically a shave up to the “cover” a Marines cap line and then a Number One buzz cut on top, so there is not much in the way of variety. In the corner is a small TV blaring out Middle East TV Soap Operas, and every time Ali had to use the electric clippers he would turn the volume up so as to not miss any crucial plot lines, even worse is during the day when there is no Soap Opera he can crank up the music which is always some Arabic singer sounding like a cat is being strangled slowly to the untrained musical ear.

There is one magazine a semi soft men’s edition of unknown background that has photos of Paris Hilton in it. The mag is so well thumbed through that is has fallen apart well it always falls apart on the pages of Paris Hilton even in its decrepit state.

Both Ollie and I had haircuts today and in those first few moments I dreaded that Ali had mistaken us for marines and we were destined for high and tights but sanity and hand signals managed to convey the message and we both had great haircuts, not bad for three dollars and you even get a free can of coke thrown into the deal, now that’s value for money.

Early Starts Cold Mporning & Shopping in Iraq

JUST FINISHED THE FIRST LIVE SHOT OF THE DAY, WHICH GIVEN THE DIFFERENCE OF TIME ZONES IS LAST NIGHT BACK IN THE STATES, VERY EARLY IN THE MORNING AT HOME IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND LUNCHTIME FOR MY GIRLS IN AUSTRALIA.
I HAVE NEVER BEEN AS COLD IN IRAQ AS ON THIS TRIP IT IS WELL DOWN INTO SINGLE DIGITS ON THE THERMOMETER AND IN MT EFFORT TO KEEP WARM IN THE SMALL MILITARY STORE ON BASE HERE YESTERDAY, THINK OF THE STORE AS A SMALL MOM AND POP OPERATION COMPARED TO THE WALMART SIZED STORES SOME BASES HERE HAVE. IN FACT ON ONE BASE THEY ACTUALLY TOOK US ON A TOUR OF THE “PX” PROUDLY PROCLAIMING IT AS THE LARGEST IN THE COUNTRY. I DID NOT HAVE THE HEART OR INCLINATION TO MENTION TO THIS “PAO” (PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER) THAT WHILST I WAS IMPRESSED WITH THEIR WAL MART, THEY ACTUALLY SELL FLAT SCREEN TV’S & VACUUM CLEANERS. IT IALSO GIVES YOU AN IDEA AS TO HOW CLOSE THEY ARE TO ANY COMBATATIVE ARENA. THE SMALL PX ON BASE HERE AT HURRICANE POINT IN RAMADI SELLS HE BASICS TO HELP LIFE HERE , WHICH FOR MOST MARINES INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING ESSENTIAL ITEMS
BODY BUILDING SUPPLEMENTS & MAGAZINES
MAGAZINES ABOUT CARS AND TRUCKS
CHEWING TOBACCO AND CIGARETTES
VARIOUS SOFT DRINKS LIKE RED BULL
WACKY MAC – IN MIRCOWAVE SIZE PORTIONS
MICROWAVE POPCORN
TUNA, TUNA AND MORE TUNA IN TINS AND FOILS
HOLSTERS AND POUCHES FOR WEAPONS
CORN CHIPS AND OREOS
AND A FEW CLOTHING ITEMS SUCH AS SOCKS T SHIRTS & WARM FLEECES.
NOW THIS ALL BRINGS ME BACK TO THE ORIGINAL THOUGHTS THIS MORNING ABOUT THE COLD WEATHER HERE, AS I WALKED OVER TO THE PX TO BUY ANOTHER FLEECE TO ADD TO THE ONLY ONE I HAVE HERE. INSTEAD I GRABBED ANOTHER THREE T SHIRTS TO ADD TO THE FOUR I ALREADY HAVE, SO NOW I HAVE 7 BROWN MILITARY T SHIRTS AND 1 FLEECE AND THE PX STORE IS NOT OPEN AGAIN TILL MONDAY.
NO DOUBT THE WAL MART SIZED PX STORE IS OPEN 15 HOURS A DAY SEVEN DAYS A WEEK, FOR THE TROOPS AND CIVILIANS IN THE REAR BUT HERE ON THE FRONTLINE IT IS GOING TO BE A COLD WEEKEND FOR ME.

MAL
RAMADI IRAQ
DEC 8TH 2006 6:00am

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Black Night Explosions


Ramadi Iraq
Thursday December 7, 2006
8:30 pm

It is one of those nights here tonight were there is no moon and looking out from where we are based with the Marines in Hurricane Point Ramadi it is like the world ends ten feet away, a wall of blackness envelopes everything and swallows up even the lights we have for broadcasting.

That does not stop the noise of war that continues, not the sound of gunfire but in the past five minutes a large explosion rocked the building we are in, one of palaces of the Saddam family. A solid building virtually shook us, and then you sit back and wonder, “What the hell, was it?” All we hear now is choppers and jets overhead, no lights just the noise of darkness being broken by the blades of choppers flying.

It something you can never get used to, the tranquility of darkness. Because it can often hide the horror of war. We have another live shot in twenty minutes before we seek the sanctuary of a sand bagged bunkhouse.

In fifteen minutes

Ramadi iraq

A quick post, about to go out in fifteen minutes to an outpost in Ramadi. Moments to reflect and think, the outpost is called Camp Hero formerly known as "The Snake Pit" . It is not a far drive but anytime you leave the gates you truly enter the danger zone. Will post later pictures and an entry on the events today

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

251 AR


8pm December 5, 2006
Washington Helizone
Baghdad

In the world of E tickets, you get a piece of paper with a computer code that somehow makes sense to the person behind an airline counter. Flying with the military here you get an “S Ticket”. That is a sharpie is handed to you and on the back of your hand you write your flight number and destination.

We are scheduled to fly on marine bird 251 destination Ar Ramadi, boarding the chopper in the noise where conversation is impossible the loadmaster simply grabs your wrist and checks you are going to where they are flying.

Other small points to factor in you MUST be wearing a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet; earplugs are not for fun but again a mandatory safety requirement. Guns must be unloaded and clear. Protective eyewear again required. As you arrive at the heli zone a sign clearly states that Deadly Force is authorized, now hopefully you understand what is meant by deadly force.

You carry your own bags on and then we sit in the pitch black on webbing and alone in your thoughts you fly further into Iraq and right to the front line that is to be home for us. It is hard to think in the noise and amongst the vibrations of Marine Airlines. But most of all you think and pray that all will be safe.

There is nothing glamorous or exciting at times like these, it is a combination of fear and adrenaline that supports you, that and the feeling of being alone in your thoughts in the blackness 200ft above the ground flying to what is one of the most dangerous places in the world, AR Ramadi flight 251 will be departing in an hour.

Watching Paint Dry – or Kuwaiti Visa Isssueing

Now the joy of arriving in liberated Kuwait fun ois only compounded by the complete beauracy of getting a visa upon arrival. Logic normally dictates that visas on arrival are issued in the arrival hall. But of course here in Kuwait the Visa issueing counters are in the departure hall, this is for visas to enter Kuwait you need to go to departures.

Here eight counters await, of which six were manned. Now do not assume that by simply being manned that that means that six counters are working to process the simple process of a visitor wanting to enter. No for fifteen minutes nothinjg moved except for the guy on counter two whose arm moved up and down as to allow himself to smoke.

The only sense of logic is that they at least have a numbering system, push the button get a number and wait,l when we arrived it was number 234’s turn and the machine issued me with the number 262. It was at this point that realized that I would havce ample time to write a blog entry as Andy and I have now been waiting 40 minutes and we have just hit 250, but as I write the buzzer is sounding more optimistic 251 has been called.

I love aspects of servitude here behind the visa man is a foreigner whose job it is, to walk and photocopy each passport, the Kuwaiti behind the desk arrogantly tosses the passport to the guy dressed in a waistcoat who walks to the end of the zone dutifully copies and walks back.

There must be a room somewhere in this country where hundreds of thousands of passport photocopies are stored, why copy the passport in a photocopy machine I suppose it is a simple matter of someones brother who was a Sheik owned a photocopy business sometime in the past and has the contract for passport copies, perhaps it is Kuwaits way of trying to diversify from exporting oil.

Number 256 … looking good

Transit Time

Frankfurt Airport
Monday December 4, 2006
11.00 am

Sitting in the lounge, waiting for Ollie and Andy to show up. And waiting for a shower in the next few minutes. So it is basically a waiting game.

One of the ironies of being based in Israel is that you cannot check your baggage through to Kuwait. Thus I checked in five cases 95 kg for the leg Tel Aviv to Frankfurt paid $600 Excess baggage and then upon arrival in Frankfurt have to go through Passport and Immigration, find a porter collect my bags walk out thru customs catch a lift up one flight and check back in for the Frankfurt to Kuwait sector pay another 1100 Euros close close to $1600 excess and go back through immigration and Passport Control. The real clincher is to go over all my bags looking for any security stickers from Israel that could cause trouble upon arriving in Kuwait tonight.

The irony is that from Kuwait back to Tel Aviv, I can actually check my cases the whole way back and pay a kings ransom in excess baggage, they cut no deals and charge to the last kilo ever single dollar.

This trip is better than some as I am only bringing the transmission and communications gear from my kit, that still takes five cases, taking out my personal bag the weight is around 80 kilos of kit. The cameras come from New York as they are NTSC standard and this saves a standards conversion of multiple tapes at the end.

We work with four cameras, two PD 170s and two small PC109’s or 27’s mainly for night work. The kit also includes suction mounts for attaching to the exterior of armored humvees, monopods for shots up thru gun turrets, wide-angle lens, and Infra red light kits.

It is impossible to use the bulk of Betacam’s in war zones; they also have the disadvantage of looking like a rocket launcher on your shoulder. A couple of years back a nervous soldier accidentally shot and killed a Reuter’s cameraman for that very reason.

I like working with the PD cameras and 80% of all my work in conflict zones is now done with the PD, attach the new wireless microphone system and it is a great system that has no hanging cables to get entangled and you can move fast in and out of the humvees, that is if you ever do actually get out of them on a patrol.

If anyone is interested I can post the complete war kit I travel with, so you have an idea if at some stage you have an assignment in a hostile environment.

14:15 EN ROUTE
Frankfurt – Kuwait

Having met up with Ollie and Andy at the airport, one of those enjoy these beers because they are the last for a few weeks type reunions, we are now enroute to Kuwait. I thought we might have a nice relaxing night at the Hilton before heading into Iraq, looks like we could be heading straight out to the military airport and a cot bed for the night. Then to add joy to the travel plans it seems that we might have to fly into Baghdad in the morning, (now morning in military terms means anything after midnight tonight) to get some accreditation and do some pick ups interviews, with Ollie a pick up interview could mean access to Casey the total el supreme of all operations in Iraq.

In the meantime will just relax and let the time pass, what shall be shall be.

The Pouch on my Flak Jacket


In flight Tel Aviv – Frankfurt
Monday December 4, 2006
06:20 am

You wake in the middle of the night to get to an airport you only left less than twenty four hours ago, after being away for a week in Turkey covering the Pope, that right the guy I never saw but was there in case it happened.

Well what is happening now is “Back to Iraq” another embed, in what can only be classified as all out total Civil War. I have honestly forgotten how many times I have been to Iraq this is the sixth seventh or eighth time. Each time it gets a little bit more dangerous and the world seems to care less about what is happening and only looks to find someone to blame.

This is scheduled to be a two and a half week assignment with good friend Ollie North and Producer Andy Stenner in Ramadi, west of Baghdad also the capital of Al Anbar Province and in the middle of the triangle of death. More Marines have been killed here than anywhere else and it is not somewhere you would want to consider going for a holiday.

When I first went there with Ollie there was a sense of optimism, when we were there last year for the election the city looked like a wasteland. I have no doubt that this time it will be even worse. Hopefully I am wrong but I doubt it.

What do you take to a war zone, where you know that it is all going very wrong? I think that the most telling time for me was yesterday when I was packing my bag. In the cupboard I have two boxes marked “War Kit” and they contain the combat equipment I need in the field. Kneepads, essential when you drop to the ground. Nothing is a fashion accessory; in combat you take the minimum that gives you the maximum. I have a pair of combat gloves that are designed to stop burning in case of explosions and fire, ballistic glasses that we wear the will help stop shrapnel hitting your eyes. The 45lb flak jacket and Kevlar helmet is coming with Ollie, latest generation from the US Military.

But it was the pouch that contains my battlefield dressings and first aid kit that held my attention as I looked and checked thru it. Not large not small but in a pouch maybe 6” x 6” x 3” (12 x x12 x 6 cm, approx) are two tour quays, Velcro with carbon fiber twist locks, two medium size wound dressings and a large wound dressing vacuum packed. That is all I carry and will carry for this assignment; maybe I will speak with the Doc’s at some stage and refine it. But it is a kit designed for those initial minutes, just in case something happens, something you prey does not happen. But in this arena life and death is a reality and being prepared is often the difference.

This pouch used to be the one I carried a spare small camera in and a couple of granola bars. Now it is marked as all my gear is as “James O positive”.
After a week of nothing happened, whilst in Turkey. I have a feeling that the next few weeks will have more happening than I care to think about.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Never Saw Him.

Lets get this right my friends will ask.

"You spent a week in Istanbul, covering the Pope and you never saw him?"

" Yes that's right, It is what I do for a living"

"What you film things you don't see, I mean Mal you spent a week filming something you did not see... Come on what is this The Sixth Sense or something?"

" No, It's Television News, you cover an event without actually ever seeing the event, sort of like going to a Rock Concert and not seeing the lead singer but still watching the concert" will be my response

"Oh, so what did you do for the week?"

" I covered the Papal Voyage, of Pope Benedict XVI to meeet Ecumenical Patriarch Barthlomew 1"

" But you did not see him so how can you say you covered his Papal Voyage, ands by the way what is a Papal Voyage"

" Well Pope's simply do not do visits or drop in for a coffee and discuss Middle East Politics and Football, they have Papal Voyage's which basically means they drop in for coffee, wave incense and try and heal religious schisms (the word of the week) that go back a thousand years"

" Hang on, you still have not explained how you can go somewhere for a week to cover something and not see the thing you went to cover? "

" Thats because I was here in case something happened "

"But something did happen, the Pope visited for over four days"

"Yes but that is not what is meant by happened!"

" So what happened that meant you covered nothing happening, for a week?"

"No I did cover events but not the Pope because nothing happened to him and I was in Turkey in case something happened which in any case nothing really happened, but I worked every day covering the Pope."

"And you never saw him?"

"No, because I was waiting for something to happen."

" Your job makes no sense!"

"I agree"

Mal
Istanbul
Turkey

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Il Papa & Well Mannered Lamb

Istanbul Turkey

Every now and then you get to cover events like the Pope aka Il Papa, which is sort of like a roadshow that accompanies the President of the USA, these events are like circuses where you rarely get to see the actual person. It is highly unlikely that I will even see the Pope in the flesh during the week I am here in Istanbul. We arrive before the Pope, do previews and end up leaving days later.

Turkey is a nation of 70 million people, which is a hell of a lot of people in anyones books, a nation that is both in Europe and Asia, more Asia than Europe but at the same time a nation that wants to join the European Union but has some minor problems like Human Rights and the question of Cyprus, not that anyone cares in the rest of the world about Cyprus, apart from Turkey and Greece. Human Rights is something we all are aware of and yet when it comes to Turkey all we ever remember is the movie "Midnight Express" and that is the human rights issue Turkey grapples with to this day. Everyone thinks of Midnight Express as Turkeys Human Rights problem.

Having said that I am convinced that when we arrived in Istanbul the other day, a prison guard from Midnight Express was on duty. You can meet some of the most worst people in the world in Customs Officials and upon hearing that we had flown in from Israel, this guy took it upon himself to be the most obnoxious sod I have ever had the displeasure to meet, he even joined my favorite list of people I will never shake hands with along with slave traders I met in Sudan. The contempt and spit that came out of his mouth was matched only by his sheer rudeness. At one point it looked like I was actually just going to go upstairs and fly straight back out of the country before the gear was impounded. Luckily cool heads managed to placate the customs and they simply waved us through after 90 minutes with not even a stamp on a piece of paper. If you can figure that out then please let me know, but it seemed to be in the too hard basket and they obviously could not be bothered with paperwork.

The first morning of filming was set up for the Spice Market a building that is 350 years old. it is always strikes me as a reality check to realise that these places were built a century before Australia was even discovered, like all markets it has the faces and characters and one item that catches your attention. In the world of modern medicine Viagra has become a wonder drug, in the Spice Market of Istanbul you can buy the local version homemade that it looks like a cake with handmade signs proclaiming miracle results 5 times a night, by these hand drawn signs I took it to mean that the stuff is useless during the day.

The next stop was lunch and the inevitable bloody kebab, if America has the Hamburger and Australia the Meat Pie then Turkey has the kebab. an epicurian delight that gives you wind that smells like something has physically died inside you and indigestion that brings your stomach to your throat. But sitting in the Restaurant contemplating the 15 plus variations of kebab on the menu. Only one struck me "Well Mannered Lamb", now there is no way in hell that I am going to eat a bad tempered lamb and with a menu heading like that the decision was simple, simple being a good word because it turns out that "Well Mannered Lamb" is simple cubes of lamb that have been "Well marinated" none the less the lamb well mannered or not gave me indigestion and dead rat flatulence.

After such a feast we headed for a demo where Islamic Women stood outside one the famous ex Churches/Mosque/now Museum to protest the visit of the Pope. There were perhaps a hundred women, a couple of hundred world media and twice as many Police. Nothing happened not even a good old fashioned flag burning, since no one actually knows here that the Vatican has its own flag. The only funky thing was that the female police have these new riot outfits that make them look like a cross between BMX riders and Robo Cops.

Nothing happened at all but when I get the chance wait to I download a photo that shows Monty Python's Life of Brian is alive and well and living in Istanbul.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Village of the damned

“Find me the dog shelter, in this town “ I asked

“Why?” asked Yonat our Producer

“Because, people care more about dogs than they do about poor people”

Sderot is the town in Israel that is the closest to Gaza and hence has been subjected to nearly a thousand Qassam rockets fired by militants in the Strip this year, about eighty in the past week. Now Qassam rockets are not the state of the art Tomahawk missiles but are crudely home made pipe bombs that rely more on the principle of ‘Point, shoot and prey’ principle of modern warfare.

When you hear in the news that Israel has struck a metal shop in Gaza, it really means that they have tried to wipe out a Qassam factory, and having spent time on the streets of Gaza, it often seems that there are as many ‘Metal Shops’ in a block as there are Starbucks stores on corners in New York City.

Sderot, is not exactly the resort capital of Israel. It is fair to say that it could lay claim to one of the most depressing places here, when Russian migrants come to Israel they believe they are coming to the land of milk and honey, only to find that they end up in the village of the damned.

To give you an example of playground conversations overheard today, a group of children maybe six of them aged eight to ten were in a vigourous discussion and when I asked Yoav to translate he laughed and said that they were each boosting that “No the Qassam landed closer to my house or the Qassam that landed near my flat was bigger than your Qassam”

Of course being down here for the whole day not one has been fired today and we have been sitting around drinking Israel’s worst coffee. The only highlight, is when someone walks past us and we try to guess how many bottles of 15 shekel vodka they have had to drink.

Fashion is something that should also be noted that Sderot is not famous for, as the procession in the main street showed. If you are female you must wear boots, preferably white and then try to totally uncordinate them with everything else you wear. Of course the famed hat makers of Sderot specialize in woolen caps in multi colors to match the socks sticking out of the boots.

This just a tragic town of twenty thousand where no one wants to live, but cannot afford to live anywhere else. Almost totally all Russian migrants, there are more signs in Russian than in Hebrew on the shop fronts and you hear more Russian than anything else spoken.


Why would I ask for a dog shelter?.

Because in the sad world of TV News, scared yelping puppies who have been abandoned by owners fleeing the rocket attacks has more impact than poor people pushing shopping carts in depressing streets.

We laughed about my idea, and no we did not go and find a dog shelter, but set up in the street for our live shots.

Still think it was a good idea though

Mal
Sderot
November 16, 2006

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kandahar ' Worst Place on Earth" ?

Do you ever have one of those conversations?

What is the worst place in the world you have been too?

Now, I have always told anyone who would listen that

"Lets accept that there is a greater being than ourselves, and for the the sake of avoiding an argument lets call him 'God' that way we can include all messiahs and prophets, now this greater being decides that the Planet needs to be re cleansed and in keeping with the fads of the 21st Century naturally it involves the colon and lots of water"

Well the place the pipe goes into on this Planet is Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In the scheme of the world I have been to some shit places, and yet no matter where I travel Kandahar is yet to be topped as without doubt the worst place on Earth, that does not have an excuse of a Natural Disaster to blame for the misery and conditions that exist there.

The origins of the city go back to 330BC and Alexander the Great, for many centuries it was the capital of Afghanistan before Kabul and under the Taliban it was again the seat of power and decision making. led by a one eyed cleric Mullah Omar.

Born in 1959 (good year that, perhaps Omar and I are twins separated at birth) he grew up on a rural village near Kandahar and having attended a Madrassah he had risen to the highest ranks and even in a ceremony received the title of Commander of the faithful , which had not been adopted in nearly a thousand years wrapping himself in a cloak that is believed to have been the Prophet Mohammad, a ranking in the Islamic world that is nearly second to the Prophet himself.

From his humble youth to becoming a Mullah with his own Madrassah outside of Kandahar, Omar was taken back by the vacuum of the lack of law and order following the departure of Russians, local mujadhideen commanders were kidnapping and raping boys and girls and stealing from other Afghans at gunpoint on the roads. Thus the Taliban began, when Mullah Omar and 30 followers "picked up the gun" at first to stop four mujahideen who were raping women in a village close to Omars village, from there the Taliban grew to bring law and order to the entire country.

One of the things that amazed all of us on this trip was that everyone we met (and I do mean everyone) thanked the Taliban for restoring law and order, it never ceased to amaze me to hear farmers talk about the fact that their young sons were safe now from being raped. Boys more often than girls are raped in Afghanistan.

We had a couple of days shooting planned for Kandahar, including key interviews with the Taliban Foreign Minister and the Information Spin doctor Hashimi, who was the International Public Face of the Taliban, he was the street savvy kid with multi languages, American educated and even an accent, who would defend the Taliban till the end. Every now and then he still pops up here and there in interviews, but most of the time he appears to be in hiding.




The first morning i spent lying on the bathroom floor getting over the previous days journey from Herat and letting my body enjoy the magic world of porcelain as it completed the final stages of the bug we had picked up on the road.

The guys hired a mini van , as the Herat drivers had left us before first light no doubt after spending a wild night in the bright lights of Kandahar, not!. Officially we were still without our "Official Minder" as we had had no contact with any official who would take an official stance, but in the coming hours that was to officially change.

We went into the back streets and managed to shoot a few of the dreaded vox pops or MOS's (man on the streets) naturally asking in depth questions like, Do you know where Osama Bin Laden is? (this was still pre 9/11 attacks) the couple of interviews we did manage to get naturally said "We like OBL he is a good Muslim and a guest" . The trick is to keep moving to try and avoid a crowd or getting attention drawn to yourself, but given that not many American Television Crews were on the streets of Kandahar asking people their views on the worlds most wanted terrorist, it was at some stage that inevitably the Vice and Virtue Police were told that we were in town, and thus we became the hunted.

We drove out on the best piece of road in the entire country, which just so happened by chance to go to Mullah Omars residence and in those days reportedly Al Zawahiri (the real brains behind Al Qaida)had a house next door. This was one of those zones where you do not need the " No Photography " signs, it was evident that this was a compound not for the feint hearted we managed to get close to the first gates in a series of gates and squeeze off a few shots on the long end of the digital lens, which is a polite way of saying a couple of crappy pictures.

After the fall of the Taliban, I went back out to Omar's mansion following the bombings by US Forces and walked around his Mosque that he was building next to his house, the pictures were still crappy, at least he did not succumb to the third world dictator taste of bad architecture.

The next stop was the key interviews which involved driving miles out of town to the ramshackle buildings that were in effect the Government Offices of the Taliban and Afghanistan, for the key interviews, which were fascinating as neither guest blinked or apologized for what had happened in the rise to power or how they were dealing with the issues of women's rights. They had the standard spin answer which in reality is no different to any Western Leader giving an interview, the interviews went longer than expected with tea breaks that are mandatory in this part of the world.



We finally all piled into the van as it was almost dark and set of for the drive to the other side of the city perhaps 30 minutes or so, it is not that Kandahar is this vast urban (mud brick) metropolis, rather the roads are so bad and the drivers manage to set standards so low that only Israel would ever grant them a drivers license internationally.

We were approaching the main mosque in town where Omar had accepted the cloak, it was now dark and the only real street lighting came from the stores lining the roads. When a couple of cars pulled in front us blocking any movement, the Vice & Virtue boys had been looking all afternoon for us and could not figure where we were, not expecting that we were doing interviews with the leadership.

But the commander was agitated and pissed, and Imtiaz and him were involved in a verbal joust that in Pashtun sounds like two japanese game show hosts bidding for tuna. I casually got the Sat Phone out of the back of the van and rang New York Foreign Desk to inform them that we were now guests of Vice and Virtue, that things were alright and we would call them as soon as possible.

By this stage we were starting to draw a crowd so they hustle back into the van and were taken under escort to a building that was either a Police Station or Vice & Virtues Offices, since the only Police we ever saw were the occasional traffic lollypop Intersection variety in was without doubt V&V Headquarters.

In these situations there is nothing you can do as a foreigner, so it is one of those moments to sit back and enjoy the show of the Commander & Imtiaz going between offices and cars whilst contemplating the big issues of the world in the back of a van in Taliban Kandahar, behind the locked gates of the Vice and Virtue Police Offices in the dark.

Within half an hour Imtiaz had managed to placate the Commander and ensure him that we were heading directly to Kabul and our first stop was to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Section where we would get our minder. We were not pass Go or detour in any way the officials were unhappy with us being sans "Minder".

The only issue now was how to get to Kabul.

The Desert Of Death

Have you ever been so sick from food poisoning that you want to curl up and die, then imagine how you feel three hours into a trip on the road through the Desert of Death.

" The old Soviet constructed road to Kandahar is terrible and travel between the two cities ( Herat / Kandahar) can take up to 18 hours. The UN has applied a travel ban on this road from dawn to late afternoon, (particularly on the stretch through Helmend Province) as a result of Islamic guerilla activity. Check the current situation before travelling on this road."

We had finished shooting in Herat and our next destination was Kandahar the spiritual centre and capital of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our two taxi drivers were confident that their trusty Toyotas were capable of the drive, which they said they did on a regular basis. But they did warn us that we would need to leave to be on the road before 4am so as to maximise driving in the cool of the morning before the heat of the day. There was no air conditioning in the cars and in fact a colander has less holes in it to stop the dust and heat coming in.



They warned us that the road would be bad in certain areas which turned out to the understatement of the year, within fifteen minutes of leaving the road became a dust bowl of destroyed bituman with more potholes in the dirt than flat road, all going well the drivers estimated 14 hours and that we would arrive before nightfall. This is an area were you do not travel at night for all the obvious reasons.

We split the team up with Greg, Joe and Lara in one car, with myself and our fixer Imtiaz in the second car. The first thing our drivers asked us was do we have any music tapes to listen to on the drive. The Taliban had banned all music with the exception of listening to the Koran, a copy of which our driver proudly held up and told us not to worry he had a Koran on tape for when we would be stopped by the checkpoints.

The Taliban set up checkpoints on the roads all over Afghanistan and would stop all cars to search for music, if they found any tapes they would destroy the cassettes by pulling the entire tape out and drape it over poles in old oil drums so that people could see that they were serious about stopping the scourge of music.



I would like to add a personal note that given the standard of music in Afghanistan that the Taliban were actually doing a favour to everyone by ridding the nation of bad music taste.

In these pre ipod days I always travelled with a compile of music tapes, which after listening to a hundred times became just as torturous as an Afghan Top 40 compile. But at least it was better than listen to the exhaust and engine straining thru the dust.

During the drive we went through about three of these Taliban Music checkpoints, and sure enough there was cassette tapes hung up proudly for all transgessors to see. In a fit of laughter we started to call these " Taliban Christmas Trees" and still to day we laugh about them.

The first few hours passed and eventually the drivers pulled into a couple of mud brick houses by the side of the road and proclaimed that this was the breakfast and prayer stop. You get used to drivers pulling over and stopping for prayers by the side of the road, if anything it gives you a chance to stretch your legs and ten minutes of peace.

The mud huts it turned out, were the Afghan equivalent of a Truck Stop, and as we sat in the dark room illuminated by a couple of of lamps, our hosts bought out traditional afghan tea made with milk and very sweet, then came the bread and two fried eggs.




For such little that went in, the mathematical equation did not add up because within an hour back on the road cramps and the uncontrollable urge to expel everfy body organ, not only hit me, but Greg and Joe also had an Alien growing in their guts.

Now the Desert of Death is not called that name lightly, it is the most barren inhospitable land I have ever been through, there is not a living thing for hundreds of kilometers, what passes for a road is elevated to avoid flash floods that happen on the two days a year that it considers to rain, the only saving grace is that this meant that there were culverts under the road and in our state it offered us the only place of privacy, and thus when ever we saw a culvert the taxis would come to a rapid stop and the three of us would fly out trying to hold our stomachs in for the dash off the road. And the sanctuary of the culvert, when we relayed this story to some people over the next few days they told us that we were the luckiest bastards alive.

As it turns out this entire stretch of road is one of the most intensively land mined stretches of road in the world, when the Russians were in Afghanistan they had a massive airbase at Shindead and as a result landmined the complete region. What happened is that the average Russian conscript did not give a damm about laying mines and would often just sweep aq cursory handful of dust over the top of the landmine. Then over the years when it rained the landmines would be caught in the stormwaters and be washed to .... yes you guessed it the culverts under the road, so the sanctuary of our inpromptu latrine was in fact infested with landmines.

To be honest we were by this stage so ill that it is one of those moments that you wish you could die, in more than one way we almost had our dreams come true. we all forget how many drugs we tried to get into our bodies to stop the lose of fluids because we still had over eight hours of misery to endure.

I remember virtually lying in these culverts amongst the remnants of others who had suffered the same fate and wishing the world would end, it was just a chance to get out of the heat of the sun that was by now really hitting bad.

The amazing thing is that Lara did not get the bug, perhaps it was that she had the good common sense not to eat when we did. However whenever we stopped we had to cover the car windows with whatever we had so that men could not look in, we even named the car she was in with Joe and greg and the Burqa Car. We had the luxury of stretching our legs and poor lara had to just sit and endure the sun in the Burqa Car.






Hour after hour we continued , my tapes had been played countless times to the point even I was bored with them and still the potholes rattled every bone in my body the heat started to diminish and we started to see signs of life. We were approaching Kandahar the heartland of the Taliban. Naturally we had no hotel or even any idea as to where we could stay. We decided to turn up at the UN house and see what they could offer and against all odds they had a guest house which was vacant and they offered us a room with air con, the only time we would ever have it in Afghanistan so after an incredible day of travel that amazes people to this day. We had driven from Herat across the Desert of Death and Lars from the UN even offered us a home brew beer, bathtub beer tasted good that night.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lost in the Computer

First up apologies for those who read these ramblings and background to life on the road, somehow my computer has eaten the three next installments on the Taliban in Afghanistan
Not to be discouraged the search on the hard disc continues
Cheers
Mal

Monday, September 25, 2006

Herat Part Three - Life and Death on the Road to Iran

In late January 2001 the temperature around Herat dropped to minus 25 C, brutal numb chilling cold and more than 150 people effectively froze to death in the "Internally Displaced Persons" Camps outside Herat on the road to Iran. The world politically corrected the term to "Internally Displaced Persons" instead of "refugees you are technically not a refugee till you cross a border. People actually discuss this point in offices around the world, but as we drove out to the Camps about 40 km I knew that we were going to a Refugee Camp.

Afghanistan was in the grip of its worst drought since 1971, the fighting pre Taliban between warring factions had destroyed communities and now with the Taliban's Iron Fisted Rule people from rural areas had nothing left but hope. Almost 10% of the population of Afghanistan's 22 million people displaced desperately seeking help and hope. The lucky ones managed to get out to neighboring Pakistan and Iran and had a life of misery in Refugee Camps far from home.

Through another piece of good luck and poor communications between officials we actually had permission from Taliban Authorities to film out at the camps, the plight had gotten so bad that even they realized the need for the world to see the worsening situation in the camps within and that help was needed. The UN and other aid agencies could simply not cope with the scale of tragedy that was unfolding.

You approach the camp on the only road out to Iran, a five hour drive away. At first you honestly wonder what has happened and as we turned into the only permanent building in the area, guards with long whip like sticks were beating men who surged to get to the gate and hopefully food. It was a scene that was to replay itself time and time again whilst were there. This was not cruelty or punishment for the sadistic minded officials, but the only form of crowd control, to stop the food store being over run by the desperate. A two storey mud brick complex with a couple of large rooms for the bags of aid, most of it USAID wheat being handed out by the UN.




I went to the roof and squeezing past the machine gun nests on the roof looked down into the sea of desperation, Every few minutes the guards would open the gate a small way and allow a lucky few men thru to get food.

The official in charge of the camp was in despair trying to do the impossible with nothing, this camp extended more than 5 km's, tents that offered shelter from sun and rain but not from the cold or heat. It is in the middle of a desert terrain without any trees for shade or more importantly fuel for cooking or heating. Taking us down the road we stopped at a tent and I filmed small children queueing for a pail of gruel. They did not complain at their life, for most they knew nothing better at least there was some food here, it breaks your heart to stand there filming as a four year pushes here two year old sister or brother forward with a bowl to get the only food they would that day and then see them both try to walk back through the maze of canvas together trying not to spill the slop. Only children were allowed to get food from this kitchen Aid tent, as the official said we try to feed the children first they in turn take it back for the sick and elderly with whom they share, adults rarely ate in this camp. Were they starving with distended stomachs, no but the fear was that unless aid came and the world started to care it was a real possibility. It was the sound of the cookers hissing that I remember to this day slowly keeping warm vats of gruel, as if Charles Dickens Oliver Twist Workhouse kitchen was in the middle of this desert.

We were then taken down to the arrival area and the official casually mentioned do not worry if there is nothing there when we arrive because more would surely arrive. I always get worried when we are relying on key pictures to tell a story only to be told before we arrive that nothing was there, in many places we have waited hours for nothing to be constantly reminded that we should of been here yesterday.



Filming the Arrival of IDP's outsside Herat

In this case tragically the official was right, next to the Medical arrival tent where all refugees (IDP's - Internally Displaced Persons) are processed and most importantly immunized against disease, there was nothing there. Within five minutes a truck arrived and then another, within twenty minutes four trucks arrived. battered old Russian models with men riding on the rail around the side providing security for there family who were huddled in the back. It wasn't until the third truck arrived that I climbed up to film the scene and the conditions that these people had endured to reach the sanctuary of hope that the camp provided. Few things prepare you for the despair you sometimes face and looking down into the bed of the truck were about 75 women and children crushed together clinging to the hope that somehow they were safe. From babies barely days old to to the old who had nothing. We were told that they had travelled for four days in these conditions to the camp and hope of a better life.




From the trucks they would be processed and immunized for the fear of disease is of paramount in these conditions, like a military operation they would over the next half an hour be shuffled thru the tents and in the whole time we were in Afghanistan this would be the only time that I could openly film women, some in Burqas others with the shroud flung back as they held the children as they cried when the doctors gave injections, what struck me was that in these desolate austere grey and sand was the color of clothing amongst everything I was to film that day this was the only color I saw.






Eventaully our hosts had had enough and not sure of what actual permission we had, they started to get nervous and said we had enough, so true I thought how much misery can you capture thru the lens of a camera. We had more than enough misery and despair for the stories we would file once we left. We drove back to Herat, all of us quiet and I am sure all of praying for a better life for these people.

Was this the worst misery I had ever filmed, no that had happened the previous year in an Afghan Refugee Camp called Jalozai outside Pershawar in Pakistan, and will be the subject of another entry. It was the only time that after a trip on the flight back home that I went into the toilet of the plane and cried myself silly with the nightmare I had seen.

Vaccination Photos by Joe Kainz

Friday, September 22, 2006

Herat Part Two - Taliban Sport

I was to learn that if you wanted to film in Taliban Afghanistan, then it would almost always be done undercover, with a small video camera pointing out the window of a moving car, only a very few times in remote areas could I get my large Betacam out to film with. The bottom line was if Vice and Virtue were around then all work was done on small cameras.

With Imtiaz in the front seat and me in the back we slowly drove around town, trying not to be conspicuous but at the same time trying to get some sense of life in Herat under the Taliban, as one of the features we had slated was a general piece of Life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, so we needed video and more than anything we needed video of women in Burqas, driving around Herat that afternoon we got lucky and managed to get some good video of women filming secretly from the car. However the lure of the football game that afternoon was hard to resist.



Picture : Taken secretly from inside the car , of women in Burqas in Herat

We thought that it would be best to wait till near the end of the game before we tried to get in and film some scenes. To give you a sense of the mob mentality that pervaded under the Taliban, the previous year the Pakistani Football team had come to Herat to play a friendly match against the National Afghan Side, neither teams in an way being a world football force of any distinction and the match was a low key event.

But when the Pakistan team went onto the field the word was that a riot almost ensued, but the mob was getting angry. It had nothing to do whatsoever with the actual game, but to the horror of the crowd, the Pakistanis were wearing normal shorts and showing skin on the legs and to add insult even further several of the Pakistani Players did not have beards. In contrast the Afghan Team had shorts down to the shins and long socks to ensure modesty and beards naturally. The Taliban had issued a decree that all males where to have beards. The game had not gone well for Afghanistan and eventually the mob had had enough so they stormed the field in the name of Allah (apparently they were also losing) and started attacking the Pakistani Team for the lack of respect for religious matters. They shaved the heads of some of the players as a punishment and the team managed to flee the mob with new haircuts, battered and bruised

There were only three countries that ever officially and diplomatically recognized the Taliban as a legitimate Government, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So the chances of another friendly football match had been agreed to a year later and as we stood outside the ground we could at least hear the hysteria of a crowd watching a match rather than the baying of a frenzied mob. Imtiaz went in and looked around then came out got me to come in, the stadium had perhaps 5,000 men watching the the game all with beards.



Picture : Taliban Foot Soldier at the Football,

I quietly filmed the general scene trying more than anything not to be noticed which in that crowd was not an easy job, but at least the Pakistani team were wearing very long shorts well past their knees and long long socks, plus I did notice they all had beards. This was not football of any high standard but since the only other sport normally held in Football Stadiums were public beheadings , whippings and stoning's at least football was by any standard a far more normal spectator sport. Everytime the ball was kicked there seemed to be more dust in the air than anything else.

When arrived Afghanistan was down one nil, but managed to score an equalizer in the last few minutes, now not being a cynic but lets say diplomatically it was better for the home team fans to be happy and celebrating a draw rather than taking out the anger in a riot. It was better to be equals, with a late minute goal than to go home with shaven heads.

I got a few decent shots of the crowd as I thought it might be one of the few chances of large groups of men together. Even the officials seemed happy for a few minutes and allowed me to film a few of the local leaders who were on the sideline. However there reached a point when I was getting more hands on the lens than anything else,



Picture - The hand on the lens " No More Pictures"

Imtiaz and i both agreed that that rather push our luck filming the crowds it was time to leave and get back to the hotel before it got dark and the curfew was enforced by the Vice and Virtue Patrols.



Night Picture of the Taliban Vice & Virtue Patrol during curfew in Herat.

There is not much to do at night in Herat and the next morning we wanted to head out to Refugee Camps close to the Iranian border, the main reason for coming to Herat was to get to the camps and try and see what misery existed in the deserts of no hope.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Herat Part One - Judge Jury and executioners

Herat

In the small International Red Cross Plane that left Islamabad was Fox News Correspondent Greg Palkot, Star News Correspondent Joe Kainz, Producer Lara Hartzenbusc and our local fixer/translator Imtiaz Gul.

Yes Lara is female and apart form the fact that she is a great Producer she is also a woman and flying into a Taliban world she was going to face a tough trip, we had planned 15 days in country allowing time to shoot 5 features for Fox which in turn became ten pieces and three extended feature length pieces for the Star Network Prime Time Current Affair Program.

in the day's before we left Islamabad Pakistan, we had been around to the Taliban Embassy to get the official visas and letters that we would need to work in Afghanistan. When I casually asked one of the Taliban in the Embassy if there were any restrictions on filming, with a dead pan expression on his face he simply said

"It is forbidden to film people"

Now I just about choked on my tea at this point, how in the hell am I going to be able to film for for 15 days and under the law "Not be able to film people". I would of liked to have thought that he was joking but decided not to say anything. Filming was going to be tough enough without creating a diplomatic incident before even setting foot in the country.

Naturally they explained that we would have an official minder from the Taliban with us at all times, who would meet us at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul.

So we decided that the best thing we could do would be to token land in Kabul enroute to Herat and thus claim that we had tried to meet the minder, without actually having a minder assigned to us.

Communication between Islamabad and Kabul was at the best sketchy and an old fax machine that had seen better days seemed to be the only form of written dialogue between the Embassy and the Foreign Ministry.

We touched down in Kabul and being a Red Cross Flight no one in authority seemed to take notice of our gear in the plane or the fact that we did not get out. Kabul Airport was just one long runway littered with the destroyed hulks of planes and helicopters each one of them blown up into various states of destruction. We just hoped that the Taliban Authorities would not have a welcome committee in Herat when we landed.

Touching down in Herat was like landing at a country airport in the Outback at the start of summer, there was nothing there but a non descript brown brick building with a hallway and empty rooms, the runway was long enough for military operations but we were the only plane there and the Red Cross Pilot was glad to get rid of us before heading into the safety of the Red Cross Compound in town.

There was no Taliban waiting for us as we unloaded into an old truck that somehow Imtiaz had managed to find whilst an official took our passports and stamped the visa before handing them back to us with a complete lack of interest that seems to be the trademark of airport workers worldwide. In the office where we waited there was nothing but dead flies on the window, not a phone or any piece of machinery was on the officials desk, the record of arrival was recorded in an old notebook.

It is hard to explain to people that often we turn up with not a clue or idea as to where we would be staying, we had hoped to be able to stay with the Red Cross but that door was just closed in our faces and that left us with the only option of trying to find a hotel in town. Now do not think that Herat has a Four Seasons, Hilton or Marriott. In fact the best we could find was a two storey building near the centre of town aptly named the "Mowafaq" quickly renamed the Ma Fuck Palace. Sure it had somewhere to lay flat and a bathroom with live electric wires hanging down near the hot water heater which occasionally sparked when water drops hit them. The restaurant had a separate dining room so we could eat (well get food poisoning together). The swimming pool well now that was a sight to be hold perhaps forty or so young Taliban boys dressed in black pants (turbans and tops removed) spent the afternoon jumping in the murky water trying to avoid drowning themselves.

The first days of a road trip are often frustrating and long, as you try to get a feel for what you can and cannot get away with. Since we had no official minder, we wanted to keep it that way. The one thing we noticed was that the streets were almost totally empty apart form the occasional patrol of the dreaded "Ministry of Vice and Virtue" in the trademark pick up trucks they cruised the streets day and night looking for anyone transgressing the Sharia Law. For hours I hid on the balcony of the hotel lying on the narrow verandah or hiding behind curtains getting shots of them cruising for bruising as we called their patrols. Two or three of them in the cab guns and sticks hanging out with another four or more in the back. They were judge, jury and executioneer in a Toyota Pick Up.

Imtiaz managed to find a couple of dodgy looking taxis that we could use for the next day or so, you ever wondered where Japanese cars of the seventies came to die then Afghanistan is a good starting place to find them.

And if you wanted rubber on the tires then that was extra , After less than six hours in country we at least had no minder and a couple of dodgy taxis.

Imtiaz asked if I wanted to go and film a football game between Pakistan and Afghanistan that afternoon, but Lara could not come in fact it was best if just him and I went out on the streets, the others well they could soakup the comforts of the Ma Fuck Palace.

And thus we quietly went out onto the streets