Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Red & Blue at 3 am

The diehards remain, the celebs and want to be celebs down to the E list have left. Perhaps only the true believers will be able to claim that they witnessed history and yet everyone who has left will tell tales of how they were here and watched it. I doubt that half the people here know the difference between the donkey and the elephant and who is blue and who is red.
Speaking of colors Correspondent Greg Palkot and I almost had a heart attack when the embassy map showed the state of New York as red before they changed it to blue , apparently the computers colors everything red first , and then you have to change it.
In the next hour I hope to witness history , perhaps that is why working in the media is magic at times, then again anything is better than two weeks ago in Afghanistan

1am London , 8pm Eastern

The hard thing about time differences is that over here it is already tomorrow and yet the time on the East Coast is 8pm. And watching various monitors around the embassy you are beseiged by the flashing of figures across screens, we cannot contribute much as there is no reaction to results because they are still to be counted. The mood of the party makes me wish that I had spent more time reading celebrity magazines like Hello as the guest list here grows and given that the locals have not figured out how to turn on the air conditioners correctly. Most of the guests sip white wine and try to network amongst themselves. The map on the wall has only two states colored and the cut outs have finally become somewhat irrelevant as almost everyone has had their photo taken with them. It appears that we will still be here at 3am at least providing those chads are a thing of the past.

Midnight at the Embassy

London Update Midnight , 7pm Eastern
The official results are still not being called and thus the party continues here in the Embassy spilling over three floors, with Burger King and Subway doing a roaring trade in the basement where we cannot film. The Obama cut out is just about faded with the number of flash bulbs . It is hard to determine a mood as people seem more interested in socialising than watching history unfold and the large projected map on the wall has no figures yet the next hour will be fascinating

Polls Closing

London 11pm
Party in full swing now , complete with Starbucks coffe man walking around and a lady who must of been paid a lot to dress up as the statue of Liberty. The Mc Cain cut out is a lone figure not suffering from the flashbulbs. Oh and as Iwas walking thru the crowd I thought I had pushed someone so I turned and said sorry, it was the Sarah Pallin cut out .

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Countdown to History

US Embassy
London

Local Time 9 pm , East Coast Time 4 pm

Sitting in the Via Reception room at the US Embassy here in London, is somewhat of a weird place to observe a moment in history , that is likely to happen in the coming hours, The local evening newspapers here in London have all agreed that Barack Obama is likely in the coming hours to become the next President and here in the Reception room there are four cardboard cutouts of the candidates where you can have your photo taken with your favorite so far no one has had a photo taken with Mc Cain or Joe Biden. Obama is the favorite thou Pallin is popular because she is shorter.

We all remember where we were in great moments of history, Man on the Moon, 911 attacks and perhaps tonight the next defining moment a black man becomes President of the USA.

Apart from that we wait till the early hours of the morning here, as we are five hours ahead of New York and it is most likely that we will be here till 4 in the morning.

Meanwhile the Obama cut out remains the most popular and if that is any indication of the cut out exit poll, perhaps the night will not be that long. And history may start a little bit earlier.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reflections from 36,000ft



Afghanistan – September & October 2008

It would be easy to say that the war in Afghanistan is simply that a war between good and evil or a matter of faith depending on how you worship. How does one define victory, there will be no peace accord signed or will we watch two sides will try and rebuild there nations as in previous wars.

The cold hard reality is that no one cares about Afghanistan and never will. Afghans did not directly blow up the twin towers on 911. So the question they ask all the time is why are there still foreign troops on their soil. The enemy is there but is not seen.

After nearly a month in Afghanistan, I look back and see nothing positive. The role of the American soldier cannot be questioned each and everyone I met was that of caring. But we did meet soldiers with the look of defeat who openly questioned the effectiveness of the current strategy. The look in his eyes was the best mirror to the current situation there. And that reflection is the look of pointlessness.

Hard cold facts are never pleasant and the reality in Afghanistan is that corruption is pandemic. It is in and at every level of society and this cancer feeds on itself and the more money that is poured into Afghanistan every day, lines the pockets of the corrupt, twenty families now effectively control Afghanistan according to a recent British fact finding mission to Afghanistan.

Fact, you want to become a Police Chief, with a profitable narcotics route through your district - going rate is $150,000 and you get the badge, keep paying those above and take without mercy from those below.

Fact, In Southern Afghanistan, being a farmer, from Lashkar Gar and taking your crop and trying to bring your crop to Kandahar, to sell has become pointless. Police and Bandits set up roadblocks on almost all roads and by paying all the bribes there is no money to be made. So why grow crops when if you grow Opium you will have the protection of the local Warlord who in turn controls the Authorities. The farmer can now feed his family and have safety.

Fact, Statistics were quoted ad nausem to us, complete with power point presentations, which at times are more boring than death by paper cuts. Close to 250 International soldiers have been killed this year, the most since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Civilian casualties have tripled to more than 4,500. Highways that Generals point out of helicopters at 1000 ft and speak with pride of rebuilding a nation are void of traffic. No one dares to drive on them. Private companies supplying the ISAF forces in the South are reportedly now being known to be paying nearly $4000 for a tanker of water or fuel to get thru and onto the main base at Camp Bastion, of which a quarter of this amount goes to the Taliban.

Telephone companies operating cell networks in rural areas now turn them off in the evenings, at the request of the Taliban, according to an advisor to the Energy Minister four of the nineteen regional electricity companies are run by the Taliban.

It is not that the Afghan in the street wants the Taliban back, but the cause of the Taliban has been helped by the number of civilian deaths in the last year, killed in US air strikes. Operation Enduring Freedom can hardly claim success from the air. Nangahar, Farah and
Azizbad are not household words in the West but in Afghanistan mention these towns and everyone knows the death count of civilians and shares a sense of outrage.

Fact the Taliban will pay a soldier twice the pay he receives in the Afghan Army, fighting for the other side for $180 a month is often considered better than being shot at for $90 a month.

Fact the safest ring tone to have on your phone in Afghanistan is not a top 40 hit, but the Taliban favorite ringtone “Death to the Invader” a reference to foreign troops. Reality TV, forget Afghan Idol, that ran into trouble despite its popularity, a young woman just won a cash prize, a plastic sofa and a trip to Dubai for winning “Koran Idol” whereby contestants recite verses from the Koran in front of a judging panel of mullahs.

Fact The best business in Kabul is to run a security company and get a lucrative contract with a foreign company or aid agency. Thirty-six international security companies have established themselves in Kabul and eleven more are setting up. Cost for license $300,000, and that is the clean figure.

Add to this Afghanistan is facing a drought that has forced the price of wheat up fourfold, you will not see the hunger in Kabul but behind the mud walls in the countryside, women and children will pay the price.

Afghanistan is not a Military victory waiting to happen, the amounts of money flowing into Afghanistan are obscene. The obscenity is what happens when the money gets in country.

I started this trip expecting the dangers of any assignment in a war zone, we were shot at by RPG’s whilst in a helicopter, ran the gauntlet of driving on high profile roads and slept in some pretty average places. Yet after the month it comes down to two images that remain and best sum up the situation that we face in Afghanistan.

One the look on the face of a Marine who was heading home after a six month deployment in Helmand, we met him back in April on our last trip. They had expected the operation to last four to six days, six months later a dejected marine sat on the bench at Bagram Air Base and his eyes told the story of a unit that had been betrayed.

The second image a close up of a face of an Afghani Army Soldier and the way a shaft of light light up his hand on his weapon. His fear was that of probably his first helicopter ride and not of an enemy unseen.

I praise each and every person from the Military that is over in Afghanistan, for they believe in a cause that is directed by an Administration that was attacked back on that fateful day in 2001. Every soldier should be proud of what they have achieved, the issue is that very little has been achieved for the average Afghan and that is what needs to change.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

OXYPHENBUTAZONE



In 1985 Lieutenant Commander Waghorn and Lance Corporal Gill played Scrabble for 5 days when trapped in a crevasse in Antarctica. Which begs the obvious question, how do you manage to have a Scrabble board with you when you get trapped in a crevasse in Antarctica?
The same logic cannot apply to the team here in Afghanistan, not only do we have two sets of Travel Scrabble; we also have the Scrabble dictionary. There is an old Military saying that “God curses anyone who does not bring two of an essential piece pf equipment”.

Whilst we have cases of cables, batteries and various cameras (7 in fact, counting all available means of capturing video). We always carry a scrabble set with us, (and the dictionary).

There are times when we have a couple of hours between live shots or simply at the end of the day, when you are sitting around at the end of the world. Walking around kicking rocks gets boring after ten minutes or even worse when we sit around and see who can make the highest pile of rocks by balancing rocks within arm reach.

Thus we strive for the ultimate “QUARTZY” ((164 points) across a triple-word-score square with the Z on a double-letter-score square.) or dream of OXYPHENBUTAZONE, 1778 points formed across three triple-word-score squares, while simultaneously extending seven specific already-played words to form new words.

The actual reality of life on the (tile) road here in Afghanistan, is that between us more arguments are caused by the playing of brilliant words like “MALTY” (adj, resembling malt) onto a triple than “ZINGARA” (n.pl, a female gypsy).



Not that we are competitive but given that we have played by kerosene lantern at our hotel here in Kabul.




Or we sat on the tarmac next to the Afghan Air Forces helicopters freezing to death whilst bemused Afghan’s tried to figure out what the hell these people were doing.

Then there is the story of our Producer Maryam Sepehri, locking her door and closing the curtains, and reading the Scrabble dictionary before a game, whilst I simply try to remember the two letter words by rote.

With a few days on this assignment to go the stakes and tensions are rising, if only I get the letters KIJUZMS tonight and have first turn, then face it Maryam its game over. You may be winning at the moment four games to two and then you did beat me by over one hundred points in one of those games. Dana the official wordsmith of the team, correspondent and editorial expert claims that both Maryam and I cheat, and having consulted the dictionary CHEATY, is not a word unlike MALTY.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What 2 Euros can buy

There was a choice of two types available under the glass knife counter in the Italian PX store here at the ISAF base at Kabul International Airport. The price difference was two Euros.

Unlike the US military bases in Afghanistan, here at the ISAF base, it is a different world. In so many respects and in attitude, it is like a little European Union and the US Military presence is minimal. We have spent a few days here working with the US Air Force who are training The Kite Flyers (Afghan Air Corps) as I called them the other day.

The commitment to the effort here in Afghanistan of International Forces to actually do anything beyond the wire and barriers is a source of annoyance and frustration. Publicly they cannot say anything critical of these nations. But in private their words are harsh. The base here at the International airport is small and the car park is full of brand new 4x4 SUV’s that have never left the base.

However in the face of adversity, here are some examples of how International troops have embraced their deployment and somehow forgotten what this war is about.

Luke and Orsy have arranged for Salsa lessons for beginner beginning December, twice a week.



There is the tabletop fussball competition beginning soon, and a tribute to Depeche Mode is upcoming. The Beauty Salon is doing a roaring trade and massages are available. Are you the smartest person on the base? well the Dutch have a Trivia Night coming up, then there is the Mini Soccer competition.

The Italian PX store has a range of coffee machines available, and the lack of dress sense they display in the Dining Facility can only make you laugh. Running trainers worn with a full Military uniform seems more than acceptable.

Is the stress too much for the Germans? have no fear in there PX store there are stress balls in the shape of a women’s breast available, to take the tension’s away.

Do you seek “Strength, Flexibility and Relaxation” then sign up for the COMBAT Yoga class, instead of a downward facing dog maybe the upward facing bayonet pose will appeal. Instead of the sound of relaxing Tibetan mantras over running waterfalls, the “Ride of the Valkeryie” will help soothe your spirit.

After all that there is of course the choice of which bar and restaurant you would prefer, Thai, Italian or maybe a cold beer in the “Air Force One Bar and Restaurant”. All troops with the exception of the US forces are free to drink alcohol. If an American is caught drinking then a dishonorable discharge is pending, whilst the Europeans sip chardonnay on the outside tables.

It is not unusual in the evening to see male and female soldiers walking hand in hand around the base, or sitting and looking at each other between a bunch of plastic flowers. Condoms are available readily, (but I should add that they are available in stores on US bases also) there though I think they are used more for keeping dust and dirt out of rifle barrels, well that’s what they say.

It beckons the question of how committed many of the foreign nation’s are to the cause. World leaders like to boast about a coalition and commitment to Afghanistan, the reality is that some countries commit a hand full of troops and then place such caveats on there deployment that the greatest danger they face is a parking ticket on a day to day basis.

Under the glass back at the Italian PX, was a pair of standard metal handcuffs. Plain sturdy and functional cost 7 Euros. Next to them was a pair of Pink Furry Love Handcuffs, a vital piece of Military Equipment in a war zone, cost 9 Euros.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Kite Runner & Helicopters

Flying back into Kabul, as the sunset, it was not the brilliant glow of fading golden light in the mountains that held my attention. But the sheer number of brightly colored kites that ducked and dived under the windows of the helicopter.




If you have seen the opening scene from the movie “The Kite Runner” where kites fill the frame from above and below, you will know what I mean. As we came into the city at about 500ft it seemed that the kite runners below were intent on attacking the MI 17 helicopter that we were in filming a story on the newly formed Afghan Air Force.

The MI 17 is no sleek looking Darth Vader designed weapon of death but ha been the stable workhorse of the eastern block for years, it has an elder brother which is a merchant of death the MI 35. But for Afghanistan’s newly formed Air Force the 17 is there workhorse, ideally suited for the altitude and terrain here.




It is bare bones, comfort and electronic sophistication not included. Our US pilot working as a mentor for the training team also mentioned that the rotors go the other way, just like water down a sink in the Southern Hemisphere. Thus if the rotors go the other way all the controls are the other way.

But in the cockpit along with our US mentor was the leading Afghan Pilot who managed to take flying at low levels to a complete new low. The other week in a US Blackhawk in the Eastern Mountains it felt like you could safely touch the ground. In the Afghan version we at one time were crossing mountain passes with five feet to spare. Watching out of the opened portholes yes opened portholes. I felt my date with destiny was rapidly approaching and over the intercom the US pilot was insisting we go higher whilst the Afghan said “No No all is OK”.




I have had enough of helicopters for a long time.

There is a post note to the day and it was when after the first leg we came back from lunch at the base we were visiting. There was a delay in taking off, the crew on inspection found kite string wrapped in the main engine and in the tail rotor and for ten minutes the crew was seen pulling lengths of string from the engines.

No doubt The Kite Runner had run away.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Passion & Sport in Afghanistan

Karga Lake is as close to a “Lovers Point” as Afghans know, about seven miles outside of the capital Kabul. The now infamous “Vice & Virtue Police” of the Taliban may be a thing of the past, however puritan standards do still remain. Any young couples that wish to drive to the lake are stopped at one of the checkpoints manned by the Police and they are asked if they are married. Failure to verify often means that their parents are called and irate fathers mete out the consequences.

The other reason why the lake is so popular with young men is that there is a restaurant there that sells alcohol, and every young man is seen walking around with a coke can that has had added to it the evil and taboo alcohol. Whilst expensive random breath testing kits are way beyond the budget of the Police here. They have come up with their own version of testing for alcohol. Young men leaving the lake are randomly stopped by the Police on the checkpoints as they leave and have to breath on the Police. The elite nasal senses of these vanguards of virtue can immediately smell alcohol and for a few dollars the young men can excuse themselves from their lack of moral willpower.

We had been up at the lake for a shoot, talking to people about how they perceived life and issues and Kabul. A reputed warlord, who according to a diplomat here is best described as “a hard drinking human rights abuser”, owns the lake and area below the dam wall here lies one of the gems of Kabul.




The “Kabul Golf Course”, 9 holes (18 if you go around twice) opened in the late sixties closed twice for the minor matter of a Soviet Invasion and then during the years of the Taliban, who deemed golf not to be a decreed sport sanctioned by Sharia law.

We drove into the course and found the clubhouse, and the Golf Pro Mr. Afraid Abdul who has been the driving force of maintaining the tradition of golf in what can only be described as the most un golf course in the world. Jailed and beaten by the Russians, jailed and tortured by the Taliban Mr. Afzai Abdul is passionate about golf.

But before we even played a hole there are some facts about this golf course that make it unique in the world. There is not blade of grass anywhere, the greens are well not green in fact but compacted sand and oil mixed together. There is a water hazard somewhere, but there is no water, but if your ball lands in the water hazard you must take a drop shot. If you wish you may bring your own piece of Astroturf and use it for every shot. If you have any concerns about possible landmines on the course, rest assured it is safe, as it has been used for training of de mining teams over the years and completely swept.

There is one set of clubs available and a limited number of golf balls so caddies come in two’s, one to carry the set of clubs and one to run ahead and chase the ball.

Correspondent Dana Lewis confidently drove the first fairway, I was second to tee off and hit the best shot of my life with a wood straight down the fair”dirt”. Maryam Sepehri our Producer looked the epitome of golfing fashion with her Ugh boots,



But knows how to play this silly sport better than the rest of us. Tom our Security Advisor had never played a stroke of golf in his life and upon his first tee shot was dancing like a kid who had won the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, whilst Akbar our local fixer was just glad to hit the ball.

Golf articles tend to enhance the beauty of any course, but few words are needed to relay the picturesque non-beauty of the Kabul Golf Course. It is an experience that few golfers in the world will ever get to play a round here. And bragging rights go far in a game where you chase a small white ball and ruin a pleasant walk in the late afternoon light of Kabul.




We all made it to the green, sand and oil swept with a rag and for anyone who wants an insight into the speed of the greens, be aggressive as the ball sinks and leaves a deep rut as it inches towards the cup.

Some day’s you do get to experience fun on the road in war zones, and for a couple of hours we lost ourselves in a pastime that no one associates with conflict.

For the record Dana, Maryam and myself double bogeyed, Tom forgot that you had to count and would not tell us his score and Akbar never knew about scoring.

Monday, October 06, 2008

"Thunder Road" Air Assault Mission

Correspondent Dana Lewis & I have just returned from an embed, with the 101st, the Army Division, made famous by Band of Brothers. Where we did an air assault mission into the mountains of Logar Province in Eastern Afghanistan, known as one of the four doors into Kabul. Here is Dana's blog entry, which is a change from my writing, the view from a new perspective.



Dana's Entry :

I heard the bang. 


We had been on a dawn air assault by the 101st Airborne into Logar province watching soldiers hunt for Taliban militants. There were a few small exchanges of gunfire but for the most part it was quiet as U.S. soldiers backed up the Afghan National army carried out their random checks of homes for weapons and bad guys. It seemed almost to quiet and cameraman Mal James and I even walked down a road by ourselves transiting between American army units. But among the villagers there are always a few bad guys say Commanders. 



The ride into the villages had been exciting and a bit unnerving. Soldiers lined up in squads to board Chinook helos, their twin rotors kicking up huge amounts of gravel and dust. 

In the prebrief assault plan I was told the insurgents often fire rocket-propelled grenades at the big birds full of soldiers.


And in another war zone, Iraq I covered the downing of a Chinook by RPG fire which claimed the lives of more than two dozen soldiers. 


When the word came to move we almost ran onto the waiting Chinooks and then as they landed next to the so called target village, Mal and I were one of the first off the back ramp so we could film the soldiers rushing out and taking up defensive positions. Not the safest thing to do, but that's where we need to be to get the best pictures. 


And while we were on the ground-watching soldiers conduct search missions an Afghan interpreter said messages from the insurgents had been intercepted with one saying "we can't hit the helicopters" "they’re to high". 






But after three hours on the ground humping over hills and down trails at 8 thousand feet we were ready to go back to forward operating base Shank.





A soldier tossed a smoke canister into a field and a plume of green smoke marked the LZ for the big Chinooks to come back and pick us up. 

Womp womp womp - those heavy lift helos can be heard far away as their big blades slice the mountain air.

It’s a sand storm when they land. Even my ears were full of sand and I dropped to the ground on my knees as the air beat my body with sand and gravel. The engine exhaust makes you feel like someone has you over a searing hot grill as you rush up the open ramp at the back and get inside next to 31 soldiers in this case. Safe and sound as the helo lifted off?



Well just as we were airborne I heard a bang. It sounded like an explosion but a muffled one given the noise of the engines. 



But when we landed back at Shank a Captain who had watched us lift off and followed us in asked me how the day went for Fox News. 

I replied, "Well we didn't get shot at so I guess it was good”. And that’s when he said "oh yes you did".



Apparently insurgents fired an RPG at our helo and that was the bang I heard. It exploded just next to us and slightly under us. But fortunately didn't damage the helicopter. 

It was a better day than I realized. We we're luckier than I knew at the time as we rode for home on board the big Chinook. 


Friday, October 03, 2008

The bottom of the Ninth

Kabul
Afghanistan
October 2nd 2008

Sometimes going out in Kabul, can have as many potential risks as an embed in the hinterland. Certainly this was the case with yesterday when we had arranged o meet the head of the Kabul CIB. This man in the last few years has had eleven attempts on his life including one suspected attempt at poisoning, the last attack was the week before last.

The following blog is what I recorded on my blackberry as the morning went along


07:45 depart hotel enroute to meet the man I have dubbed Sean Penn , from the movie, Dead Man Walking" . He is the head CID Police Chief targeted three times for assianation in the last few weeks . The plan is to ride along with him for a few hours . The reality is that this is as dangerous as an embed
08:00 at hq
08:05 phone call shooting on jalabad road heading out
08:30 ninth and bottom of the innings , we ask why the baseball bat in the car in the Chiefs car, he says his driver plays but we think he hits more than balls
08:50 chief is tense gripping his ak 47 as we drive to scene of shooting
09:15 jalabad bus station
Chief examines bus with bullet hole , blood on seats and floor
Bodyguards all have fingers on their triggers as the boss walks around
09:30 at the NATO base reporrts that the french isaf troops were involved and now chief has gone inside to investigate ,reports that one person is dead and more injured. French deny they were involved. We wait outside the base in the sun
10:16 sirens and singing driver speeding back into kabul , more police escorting us , appears to be eight pickups loaded with police and guns in convoy
10:46 back at the police hq interview with the boss , as he continues to fidget with three phones in front of him, whilst a policeman with an ak 47 stands behind me at attention. They have not forgotten how Massood was killed by a tv crew here , just before 9/11. No one in any place of power here trusts a tv crew.
11:10 one more scene asks Dana "can you show us your police cells"
11:12 not exactly the black hole of Calcutta but still the seven guys being held are not happy to see me with a camera pointed thru the bars , espicially the man from Pakistan being charged with terror as he stares down the lens
11:25 we take our leave , a frantic three hours and it feels good to take off the body armour

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thrills & Reality

Afghanistan

Wednesday October 1st 2008



There is thrill and reality of covering the war in Afghanistan. It does not have to come from being in "kinetic action" as the new term for gunfights with insurgents is referred too. The thrill of being in a Blackhawk helicopter filming out of the window past the guns hanging out the side, with the wind rushing in and buffeting you at a 150 knots, as you fly twenty above the ground crossing mountain passes of 10,000 ft. You can feel your stomach lurch as the updrafts rise and drop, like a rollercoaster with no track. 



We headed to the Eastern Province of Khorst and Camp Solerno. Moving around a battlefield is sometimes like a game of chess and getting from A to B is often a matter of waiting at C. C being back to Bagram and then driving to Kabul. The distance from our original starting point at Camp Shank to Kabul is less than forty miles by road; two hours drive at the most. But conditions here make travel on unsecured roads to risky. So air transport is the only way and it will take nearly 36 hours to safely get back to Kabul. 



Our connecting flight on a C130 had a check in time of 11:30 pm, the logistics of moving troops, contractors, equipment and at times media like us, can only be compared to running a major airline. After we had checked in and loaded our camera kit and bags onto the pallet to be fork lifted onto the plane. The Army corporal in charge of check in, yelled out



"Could everyone please make sure that clips are removed from your weapon and that there are no live rounds in the chamber"



There are no metal detectors here and you do not have to take your boots off or empty your pockets before boarding. 



The bad news was that the flight was now not until 02:30. Even in the middle of a war zone, you wait in airports. Producer Maryam Sepeheri and I settled down to a game of scrabble, the only thing that opened was a chest of cold water in the corner and as we played on, soldiers slept in broken armchairs covered with the sweat and grime of previous passengers.



Finally a Sgt announced that our flight was inbound and let's get ready.



"Make sure you are all wearing your IBA"



Individual body armor in plain English.



Walking out of the terminal into the night, you are surrounded b y blackness, the base has a blackout policy due to recent attacks by Insurgents that included truck bombs and suicide bombers at the front gate.

You can make out the rough image of the person in front of you and nothing else and out of the darkness you hear the plane land. No lights on the runway all operations for the pilots here are infrared, it is a strange experience to hear a plane and not see it. Like children on a pre school outing you file out to the plane, there is no talking as the drone of the blades and the smell of jet fuel blasting on you as you wait.

Shuffling on, you find a seat on the webbing and take your helmet off, Bagram is only thirty minutes away and we finally get to our bunkhouse on the base at 4am.

The thrill of the morning chopper ride over the mountains will remain with me forever, but the reality of traveling here, even short distances is brutal.

Post script – FYI I beat Maryam by 10 points in scrabble, Qi on a triple letter

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Freedom


There is a freedom to write that exists in our society, just as there is freedom to read. Perhaps that is what distinguishes democracy from tyranny. Under tyranny any comment about the state is dealt with and those who make the comments are persecuted and suffer.
I allow comments on my blog as I believe in free speech and will defend it, unlike people who hide and think that posting as Anonymous, I am not afraid to write and tell the truth.
Truth can hurt, and people who truly think the world is a kind and good place will only be guided by fools and dictators.
I write what I see and experience, because trust me I have seen the evil side.
If you believe in truth then you have nothing to fear.
Mal
Kabul
Afghanistan

And yes I am a cameraman and proud of it.

The view from Bee House 5

Camp Shank
Afghanistan
September 29th 2008

The view from Bee House 5 is a bunker; then again view is a wrong word to use, as there are no windows in barracks in Afghanistan. You live in a dark cocoon where day and night are realized by either opening the door to whether it is dark (thus night) or light (thus daytime), or you can look at your watch.

Most of the bases in the East of Afghanistan come under regular attacks from rockets of the Insurgents on a regular basis, there is no witching hour the rockets can come at any time and soldiers do get injured or killed again on a regular basis.

Whilst you can easily ignore a stewardess on a plane trip with disdain about what to do in the event of an emergency when the soldier introduced us to Bee house 5.



The first and foremost information parted was not where the closet latrine is or what hours the Dfac (Dining facility) opens for meals. But what to do in the event of a rocket attack.

Calmly it was explained that there is usually sixty to ninety seconds between the first strike and following rockets so if you are not hit in the initial attack make your way as fast as you can to the bunker.

The bunker outside our beehouse was about ten feet long made of two concrete U shaped bocks turned upside down and covered with sandbags. Inside there was a stretcher, two sandbags to sit on and 31 bottles of water. Blocked at each end apart for a squeeze entrance to get in and out off.



The next question, we faced was whether to sleep with your boots on or off. Whilst it may sound like a silly thing to consider before going to bed, the reality is that in the event of an attack, could I in the dark find my boots, tie the laces and get safely to the bunker. Then again I would also have to have my camera on and be filming at the same time using night vision scopes which are the hardest things to use whilst not in a panic and having your heart race at 150 beats a minute.

In situations like this the camera never leaves my side, if I go to the latrine the camera goes with me, brush your teeth or go for a meal the camera comes with you. Because at any stage an attack can happen and running across a rocky parade ground a couple of hundred meters to get the camera is not an option. If it's not with me then I do not get the pictures, bunker or camera – the bunker will win.

I finally went to sleep last night at around ten thirty, late by isolated Forward Operating Bases standard, fully clothed with my boots on. The local wisdom is that if you have not been rocketed by midnight then it is a good bet that the night will pass quietly. I had practiced counting my steps down the stairs to the bunker three times before lying down. Two normal steps then a small half step and a drop to the ground three steps to the right and into the bunker.

In the early hours in the dark I finally took my boots off in the dark, reached across and checked my camera with night vision was at arms reach before falling asleep.

Just another day (or night) on the frontline in Eastern Afghanistan, a clear night sky crystal clear with stars and luckily no rockets rained down.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

At every level it exists

Kabul
Saturday September 27, 2008

Last May I left Afghanistan with the words of the outgoing commander of International forces here assuring us that by 2011 all foreign troops will be out of here and a stable democracy would have been restored.

Driving around the capital of Kabul in the last two days reveals a city that is effectively underseige. New checkpoints dominate virtually every road that leads to any Govt building or embassy.

For the more than 5 million residents of this city, the greatest problem they face is corruption. It is a cancer that has pervaded every aspect of life here, and by all reports it goes to the almost top of Govt, and even the President has a close family member that are regularly linked to the drug trade and corruption.

The figures are beyond belief; according to the US Government Accountability Office recent report the US Govt has spent close to $16 Billion on Military and Police training since 2002. And yet out of 105 Army Units only 2 are capable of conducting their primary missions, as for the Police. The figure is zero not one unit is capable of conducting effective enforcement.

I spent some time this afternoon filming Kabul Police conducting searches of cars, and again it is a matter of what is not being done that is more damming that what is being achieved. They would not stop a car with more than one male in it, cars with more than one male regularly waved off the Police requests to pull over and continued with immunity, not one car with a woman was stopped at any stage.

I filmed for a while for a feature we are working on, then getting back into our car I asked our fixer could we go to the outskirts of Kabul and film the checkpoints as the forces checked trucks coming into the city. He said he would try but a problem would be that when we were filming the authorities would not be able to collect their bribes. I jokingly mentioned that we would pay them for the lost revenue and he thought for a moment and did not answer.

A reality check for everyone is that Afghanistan is now officially the fifth most corrupt country in the world according to the latest report issued by Transparency International. Only Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and bottom of the list Somalia are more open to corruption.

During an interview yesterday with an ex member of the Cabinet he told us that there were reports of Govt Officials who had assets in excess of $20 million dollars and yet they were paid only a few hundred dollars a month for their services to the administration here.

You can feel the frustration of everyone in this city as they are powerless to stop this cancer as the International Community continues to pour money in here with the hope that things will get better. For a select few the benefits are astronomical and the disease of corruption filters down till there is nothing left.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Reflections from 36,000ft

En route Tbilisi – London

You never leave a war zone, in my work I depart one conflict and prepare for another.

In fact between live shots the other day, I went down to the hotel gym to find Correspondent Steve Harrigan working out as well.

“Here we find ourselves in a war zone, training for the next one”

The next one being Afghanistan, in a few weeks time where I have a three to four week assignment coming up, to coincide with the US Elections.

The last two weeks in Georgia have been physically draining, long hours , little sleep and the constant threat of danger. It is the danger you do not see that worried me the most. Isolated roads and ethnic tensions, add to that alcohol and guns and a lethal cocktail is created.

Who started the war in Georgia will be debated, Why Russia invaded can be argued from many viewpoints. I have no doubts that they had been planning this invasion for a long time.

I have learnt that you should never take sides and you cannot hate one side or the other. The secret is to simply despise both sides equally and be nice to the man with the gun or tank you are standing next to at the time. It is somewhat hard to explain what it feels like to drive across frontlines, one minute you are with one army the next with the other side with guns and artillery pointed at where you have just been and where you will be going too.

War is often not a constant Rambo’esque blaze of gunfire from the hip, but a slow calculated chess game, where moves are often made when the pieces are in place. And then the secret is not to be in the no man’s land

The one thing I dread about going home is the fact that I know that in the next few days, I will go thru, what I call the “wakes in the night”. Where I will suddenly wake up and not know where I am in the dark, and it will take a few seconds to register where I am and the fact that I am not in a conflict zone. That is never pleasant and will take a week to get over.

The Afghanistan trip next month will be hard, and already not two hours out of Georgian War. My planning has begun already.

Finally after two weeks my beard is at the stage that the itching is beginning to drive me crazy, what is worse though is the amount of less than dark hairs that seem to populate my natural color.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Perhaps it is the Hours

Tbilisi
Georgia

Perhaps one the hardest things to come to personal grips with on assignments of this length is the toll working hours in two time zones, and then having to work them twice or more in a day.
Time zones are probably my greatest enemy in many respects, here in Tbilisi we are eight hours ahead of Fox News Headquarters in New York. The affects of this after twelve days on assignment probably really hit home last night or afternoon depending on where you are reading this.
The day seems to begin the night before, as if we have to do a live shot for the Prime Time News Show"Fox Report" that means we are still working at 3 am , you do the shot, then have to break down. So as far as New York is aware we have finished just after 7pm, by the time you get to bed it can be 4:30 local and then to get up and gather the news for the day I have to be awake again no later than 9 am, to get the kit ready from Sat gear to Computers, power, cameras, first aid kit checks and the body armor.
Out of the hotel around 10 am (which remember is in fact according to New York 2 am, and the day has begun)
We head up the road to the frontline, film for a few hours, then head back to Tbilisi, I try to feed some of the material we have shot on the road so that the Channel has material for us to run during the day.



And this is before we start our rostered shift of live shots , our block of lives yesterday was from 3 pm to the 7pm shows, New York Time, which meant we were going locally from 10 pm to 3 am.
Then figure on getting up again and doing it again, sometimes the live shift good fall in your favor and we can wrap up by midnight. But you know that all things end, and at some stage life will be back to normal.
As far as what has happened here today, the reality is nothing, but my conspiracy theory for the future has no silver lining.
Tomorrow is another day, that is after we finish at 3 am.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's the time Mr Wolf

Outside Gori , Georgia

Well according to all The Russian troops were of supposed to be pulling out of positions at noon (that is when the big hand and the little hand on the watch, are together and pointing to the top) Now as they say try to stay fashionable and explain to me how come when we approached Gori, after the big hand little hand scenario whilst still in the sovereign nation of Georgia.
We approached and past thru a Russian Military checkpoint some ten km's outside Gori on the road to the capital Tbilisi.



Only to drive on and come to a complete stop to be turned around by guess who ?
There on the highway leading into Gori, in the country of Georgia was a Russian Officer who said that unless we had Russian Media Accreditation approved by the Kremlin or Russian Authorities we may not proceed along a Georgian road into a Georgian city that was supposed to of been clear of Russian troops at midday.
Then again the artillery still on the hills dug in, plus the APC's on the road, ohh and the camp of Russian soldiers.



Call me cynical, but I laugh when I got back to the hotel in Tbilisi an hour later and there on an opposition Cable Network was a running headline banner on the bottom of the screen "Russian Troops begin pullout". If they bothered to leave the Presidential Suite they occupy on the sixth floor and drive up the road rather than rely on wires from Agencies that have been so inaccurate and propaganda tools for both Governments in this conflict, then perhaps they could report the news.
So where does this leave us, the bottom line is I do not believe anything that I have not seen with my own eyes.
And from behind these hazel irises, the Russian troops remain in Georgia.
The next time someone comes up with a time, just double check which day, week, month and year they mean

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It is too Quiet - Igoeti Georgia

ASSOCIATED PRESS REPORT
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

IGOETI, Georgia (AP) - Russian soldiers dug foxholes Saturday on a hillside near the capital of war-battered Georgia as a cease-fire went into effect, setting the stage for a Russian troop withdrawal after more than a week of fighting.

The Russian seizure of territory, including the strategic city of Gori about 20 miles from Igoeti, raised fears that Russia was aiming for a permanent occupation of the country that once was part of its empire.

As both sides waited for the truce to come into effect, Russian troops' intentions were hard to read.

The shallow foxholes being gouged out of the earth at Igoeti by a small contingent of Russian soldiers on Saturday could indicate intentions to stay awhile. They could be intended as defensive positions for the Russians to guard their comrades as they withdraw


If you Google "IGOETI" thousands of hits will come up, all reflecting one thing, as the Associated Press Report above indicates the Russians have control of this vital city or town, every newspaper in the world will have a story almost indentical, and around the globe the world holds it breath fearing for the fate of "Igoetians".

Prior to the war, here. Googling "Igoeti" would of revealed a couple of hits relating to vineyards in the area.

We drove up to Igoeti yesterday, Saturday and filmed the Russian Tanks, APC's and Soldiers digging foxholes overlooking the road. At the frontline yesterday it was a matter of Georgian troops and Russian troops literally 50 yards apart, sometimes soldiers would walk back and forwards crossing the line. No one caring or really bothered. Fighting is no longer a real factor here. Everyone knows who has won and that at any stage the Russians can move where and when they want.

We drove up today towards Igoeti, which is about half way between Tbilisi and Gori. The highway i virtually closed to all traffic and for the first time in this conflict we pasted with tape on our car the word "TV" on the windscreen, bonnet and rear window.



So that when we approach checkpoints the risks are reduced of being an unidentified vehicle.

Our main concern today was not the threat of coming into contact, but the real danger of being robbed and having our vehicle stolen at gunpoint by roaming militants, or as Cher might say "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves". In a new 4X4 Toyota, TV on the windscreen driving on a road with no law and no order we were an ATM on wheels to anyone with an AK47, of which there are no shortage of here.

The Russian have pulled back a few km's from Igoeti, and there is always the professional desire to check facts as true. But leaving the last Georgian Army checkpoint and heading towards Gori the silence in the car reflected that knowledge that it was a risk not worth taking. Around a corner and a Georgian Police car with a few people milling around gave a sense of safety so we pulled in to talk with the police, the trouble as Rez our driver explained that the police themselves cannot be trusted they can just easily tell you that all is ok on the road ahead, watch you drive off and call their friends to steal your car and everything in it.



It was the first time in the week plus that we have been here that our driver Rez has expressed any concern in regard to this and Steve and him talked in Russian for a while. Basically it could be done but the risk was just to high. So without saying anything to the police we turned back towards Tbilisi . We had not gone more than half a mile when we passed a Red Cross Aid convoy heading towards Gori, being a convoy we turned and started to follow them past the police we had just left.

One minute past the Police we came upon another checkpoint manned by uniforms that made no sense and this was a major worry. It took two seconds for us to make a fast very fast U turn and head back.

We try everyday to cover the war and tell a story, the last thing we want to do is become the story ourselves.

It was a day as they say that everyone's sixth sense, became a little seventh. Sometimes the scariest sound is the sound of silence at a checkpoint.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Superstition and Lucky Charms

We all have them , and for whatever reasons you try not to break them just in case it brings bad luck. Friends often are amazed as to what superstitions I have when in a war zone and I do have a few so in no particular order here are some of the things that I believe bring me luck.
I never shave when covering combat, I can trim my beard under my chin as it gets too itchy otherwise, and if it goes on for too long I may trim my beard but never shave it completely. The exception is in the event that I have to wear a gas mask against a chemical attack, as was the case in the Iraq War, a beard is more likely to kill me than save me as the gas mask will not fit.
I always return home with one piece of clothing that I have not worn, nothing in particular but one piece and on this trip it will be a black t shirt.
I always carry a red hankerchief, have done for years and tucked away somewhere the last thing someone gave me before I leave for assignment. This time it is a coin that the London Producer Tadek Markowski, picked up from the bureau floor and said
“Here you are mate a lucky penny”.
Well a 2p coin is close to a penny.
We head out in an hour or so back to Gori, 40 miles away and the frontline.
With my coin, hankerchief and a stubble of a beard.
And most importantly photos of my two daughters, Louise and Brittany in my wallet.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Running from the Law

Gori
Georgia

Law today on the outskirts of Gori, involved a crazed Ossestian wielding a pistol firing a journalists, this directly in front of a Russian tank flanked by Armored Personal Carriers, the fact that the Russian soldiers did nothing is not surprising as reports of all sides in this conflict are committing atrocities. In the spirit of the Olympics car jacking and robbery are now national sports, and as journalists we are being targeted to new heights.

You can get that sense of calm and normality sitting around an army only to have it destroyed in seconds.

We managed to get through all the road blocks and arrived on the outskirts of Gori, to find the Russians taking up positions and for the first time a tank barrel was pointing down the road. The soldiers seemed calm enough and after thirty minutes of media mayhem most of us along with the Russian Soldiers were sitting under trees chatting as they asked us to make calls home for them, and let their families know that they are OK. Unlike the US and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, few have cell phones and the concept of Internet Cafes and AT&T phone centers, these guys have nothing. A young Kazach soldier lay on the ground playing with a puppy.

After the melee of the first half hour, we had let our guard down, doubting that any trouble could happen surrounded by the Army.

It was the crack of a single round that made me look up as Steve and I walked back up the road towards the tank and up ahead our car. Anya, our Producer was still getting beseiged by soldiers giving her numbers of families to call. I thought it was strange to hear a small arm sound. But the smell of cordite drifted down to us and I commented to Steve.

"Smells like cordite!"

Another ten steps and it was revealed, the entire media pack was running away back up the road, cars with tires squealing were bearing away, and between us and our car was "the law". A middle aged man with a pistol was screaming as he wrestled with a cameraman trying to get his camera. The pistol was swinging wildly and he was between us and our car.

More shots sounded, a gun swinging around in the air.




Steve and i were running to the side as he continued to wrestle with the cameraman yelling in Russian

"Give me your camera, you jerk or I will shoot you"

You do not stop or try to establish eye contact, you simply run, as fast as you can in a flak jacket. Each step seems to get slower. The distance to safety seems to become an eternity.

Now with fifty yards between us and the gunman I yelled for Steve to start talking, the drama and tension as I ran on with the camera pointing back at Steve, at this moment in time framing and lighting even exposure takes second place. It is a matter of capturing the impact.



With a few hundred yards between us and the crazed militiaman, we slowed to a walk and for the first time I stopped and turned back , wondering where our Producer Anya was in this mayhem. I could not see her so I started walking back towards the scene. It seemed to have cooled down.

Back fifty yards, and all of a sudden everyone is running back past me at full speed away. It was going to hell again.

Cars with doors open full of media hanging out screamed off, shouts were drowned out by the sound of engines reving and horns blaring.

And I could not find my car, I could not even see it. So I ran around cars as they took off wondering if I should just jump into a half open door. This was not one of the times when life flashes past your eyes or everything goes into slo motion.

This was full body contact effort, only my own effort was going to get me out and safe.

It seemed an eternity and the sound of cars became less as they were just about all gone, when I saw our car ahead. The mere sight of perceived safety gave me a boost. This is no armored car, but as we call them "soft skins" but it is "sanctuary".

I remember my arm finally touching the handle and opening the door to scramble in and I turned the camera still rolling to my face, my eyes shot with blood, my breathing and heart rate pulsing to the maximum.



Lifting the camera I turned to Steve and said go, rolling ...

"it's a good thing Mal James is a triathlete, he just had to run
about a mile in a vest. That's how quickly things
change here. One minute you are sitting down with
Russian forces, next minute - car loads of Georgian
forces drive up, they are furious, and they seem to
take out that fury and humiliation on the people they
can, which is the journalists. We saw one Georgian,
irregular force, pointing a gun and then another
fired.I don't know the result, but I saw a pistol fat
guy pointed our way and we just had to run by that
pistol and keep running. This is an irregular,
undisciplined, chaotic, angry, humiliated Georgian
force. They don't listen to orders, they fire on
civilians from what we've just seen."

It is called Law and Un Order

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Get Out NOW



Gori Georgia
Covering a war like this one is honestly to a degree like rolling dice, hoping that snake eyes does not come out. You assess every risk and decision rapidly and logically. Just how far do you push the envelope to get a picture or story. All intel amongst the Press Corp was that the town of Gori was a no go zone this morning, eve one of the major agencies was reported to have decided that since their armored car took an attack yesterday that they were nit going to risk it today.

But events change so quickly that the line in the sand shifts and your assessment and gut feel is that, yes go for it.

We arrived at the gas station overlooking Gori and saw smoke rising but it looked more like fires than military operations and every now and then a team would bundle into a car and head into the town. We have been into Gori everyday for the past four days and had the feel of the geography and lay of the land. Seeing a bus of people returning after fleeing we jumped in teh car and drove in following the bus. The bus stopped and people got out and we jumped into the bus to film faces and emotions plus a piece to camera, then having chosen a woman we decided to follow her home filming the return with all the heart ache and emotions associated. I only ever knew her as the woman in green, because of the shirt she was wearing.

She had to go to the hospital where she worked to say hello and check in on friends, by now there was probably twenty or so Press in the courtyard of the hospital. When all of a sudden a simple text came through from a fellow journalist somewhere else to a friend.

It simply said three words

GET OUT NOW

The adrenaline kicks in at such speed that decisions that could be workshopped on merit for hours and made in a millisecond.




The options of why are not discussed but with camera rolling we ran for the car, the greatest threat is of an air strike coming in and from that there is no escape. You do not form up into convoys or wait for stragglers the moment we were half in the car we were driving out fast,



Not a crazy speed but enough to make distance fast and back to relative safety, like the gas station we were bombed at yesterday seemed very safe.

The streets were empty as we sped out of town and then face to face we met them

As i sit in the front seat to film out the window, the first of the Russian Armored Personnel Carriers came into my viewfinder, then a second then for the forseeable future we had run into the Russian Army storming into Gori. If they had wanted to shoot us we were dead but speeding cars going the other way are given usually the right of fleeing.

You do not stop to think you film and prey that it will be alright, Steve gave the commentary and I filmed this was a defining moment in our coverage to date.

We rounded a bend and came to the Gas Station, to an enormous mass of Press who had missed the Russians entering because they had come down a road out of sight of the long lens.

You stop for a few minutes, and then the emotions of risk kick in.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

That Close



Apar from the fact that I did not hear the second explosion, I have looked back at my day trying to figure out what the hell the Russians were trying to bomb into oblivion and the Communications tower you can see behind Steve in this photo was the target the trouble is that they missed the tower and landed so darned near us.
I can sit back and review what went thru my mind at the time, but the worst statistic is that in the last five days up to seven journalists and cameramen have been killed covering this conflict. And in a haunting fashion we discuss amongst all of ourselves on the road , did you hear that so and so was killed and we can all place the the location having been there and it is just luck that we are alive at times, this is a bad area, a small war between two totally nations one a superpower, one a small nation that dreams it matters. No one has come to their aid, because the cold fact is that they started the fight.
And seven members of the Fourth estate have paid the ultimate price, not for being foolish or reckless they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tomorrow we will have to go back to the front, just hope this peace deal has reached the troops on the ground

The Adrenaline of Fear



Steve Harrigan yells we "Out of Here" , Gori Georgia

You can be filming artillery landing on a hillside five km away , and then suddenly the air cracks and 200 m away a Russian Artillery shell lands, in the adrenaline of fear , it is a matter of calm, panic will not help . What made me scared was that I never heard the second shell land in the same area until I got back to the hotel and edited the material.
5 members of the Press have died in the last few days
Today we were lucky

Monday, August 11, 2008

What lies around the next corner ?

There is a Golden Rule, in covering war and that is "Believe a Sixth Sense" , you can be traveling down a road and a member of the team gets that gut feeling that "We should not be here!". Everyone else may feel fine and comfortable, prepared to a bit further down the road around the next corner.
The moment one member gets that feeling and voices that fear we turn around, no questions we turn.
Today Correspondent Steve Harrigan, Producer Anya Ardayeva, our driver Rez and I wanted to try and get as close as we can to the capital of South Ossestia "Tshkinvali" which is now in teh hands of the Russian Army after the Georgians tried to crush the separatists there. No crew has gotten in, some get close but it is an extremely dangerous area with one road in and who controls it can vary and checkpoints can spring up and be manned by Russians, Georgians or anyone who wants to set one up and there rule is law. And law is an AK47 at your head combined with Vodka at times.
The line between safety and danger is rather like drawing a line in the sand during on a very windy day, it shifts every minute and you are never sure where it lies. What was safe an hour ago could be deadly the next minute, it all depends on what lies around the corner.
Yesterday we went to the city of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. Complete with the house he was born in and a statue in the town square dominates this city. Gori is about an hour from Tsibilsi the capital of Georgia. Yesterday it was quiet after a Russian jet had bombed the day before, and the pictures showed me in the ruins of an apartment block.
Today as we approached Gori, artillery guns were on the road overlooking the city, camouflaged with tree branches making them harder to spot from the air. In one of the few shops still open and running a bakery soldiers were carrying out trays of freshly baked bread and loading them into civilian cars to take to soldiers.
Our driver spoke with a few of them and they all assured us that the road we wanted to take was safe.

We left town to head to Tshkinvali, troops with artillery guns were hidden in the trees, then tanks under bridges and under the canopy of a grove. We stopped and hopped out of the car, walking over wanting to get some footage of the Georgian tanks, before I even lifted the camera up, the tankers indicated NO, we drove on out to the front

Six hours later ... Tabilisi nearly midnight

I wrote this much and basically .... the shit hit the fan

Russian troops are in georgia proper

Georgian troops are in disarray and have pulled back to defend the Capital Tabilisi where I am

A second front has opened in the West of the country Russian troops are in there

And i suppose my title stands , even without finishing the story

what lies around the next corner ?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Edge of the Abyss

Tbilisi Georgia
Below the hotel balcony , young Georgian males parade around the city with car horns blaring and flags hanging off the cars , in attempt to stir up the patriot spirit whilst a few miles up the road the might of the Russian Army masses. It could get nasty here very nasty. All the signs are for a full blown war to erupt, and I find myself on the edge of the abyss again.
We arrived here late this afternoon to a functioning city on a half empty plane full of journalists, nervous yet at the same time excited that we made it in, before access is cut off from the outside world. My first flight here was cancelled as the airline flying direct from London cancelled late yesterday, probably due to the fact that their insurance company advised that flying into a conflict zone might add a premium, so my route here was last night to Frankfurt, five hours sleep in the airport hotel, up at five am for a flight to Istanbul then a connecting flight on Turkish airlines which obviously does not have the same Insurance company. What amazed me was that all my 11 cases arrived amongst all those connecting flights.
It is hard to predict what could happen and tomorrow we will don the flak jackets and go forward to try and make some sense of this conflict.
Keeping safe as I can Lou, and Bj we will swim with the turtles soon have no doubts.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Sleeping Bag War

I sat up, shrugged the sleeping bag down and picked up my night vision camera which was next to me on the ground, filmed the Cobra and Huey helicopters flying overhead hoping that they would launch another volley of Hellfire missiles, in the green eerie light that is night vision they circled like hawks seeking mice in a field, but they were in fact looking for remnants of the Taliban Insurgents that the Marines had been fighting for the last twenty four hours.

The choppers faded off into the distance and I put the camera down, and lay back down. Dawn was a few hours away and I was freezing cold, in a few hours time I would almost be passing out with heatstroke.

“ You know you are close to the frontline, Mal when you can sit up in your sleeping bag and film war, without getting out of bed” commented Dana in the darkness of the night.

This trip has been one of the most grueling and demanding physically that I have ever done, in probably the most inhospitable place in the world. The Helmand Desert, known as the Desert of Death, average temperature 47 degrees Celsius, 126 degrees Fahrenheit. In the afternoon heat being in the sun is like feeling yourself being cooked from the inside. Add Body Armor and Kevlar helmets, and after a few minutes simply walking became a Herculean task.

Reflections, Looking back at my notes from the trip, what seemed important at the time becomes inconsequential with time. This truly was an embed back into the heart of darkness, where young marines as part of the new Afghanistan “Surge” were to take on the Taliban and Insurgents. What struck me throughout this trip was that not one Military person ever mentioned “Al Qaida or Osama Bin laden”; the threat now comes from “Insurgents and the Taliban” and is of course across the border in the Tribal areas of Pakistan that no one can go into.

Not one person ever mention Osama Bin Laden, the Army and the Marines along with the other forty countries that form the coalition in Afghanistan have simply decided that Al Qaida and Osama fall into the to hard basket and by ignoring them they will go away and hopefully the media will forget them too.

One thing you get used to when traveling with US military is flying in helicopters, I have to admit that whilst the excitement has gone out of flying in choppers for the most part. Flying across war zones in the middle of the night when you have absolutely no idea where you are or where you are going, and hanging off the back platform is a 25 year old girl with her blond hair pulled back firing a 50 cal gun into the desert floor does provoke some male fantasies, When you land in a cloud of moon dust and have a hot zone when nothing is turned off and the blades are screaming to take off whilst we try to get 14 cases and bags off loaded can be fun.

Arriving at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Dwyer, we were pre warned that it would not be comfortable, so lets begin, it is in the middle of a desert the tallest natural object is a small rock, living quarters are Hesco Barriers filled with dirt and a roof layered with four deep sand bags against Mortar attack, there are no windows and no air movement within, toilets are the piss tubes made from 6” plumbing pipes and toilets made of wood with the sign on the back of the door that read “When Mr. Brown has left the building, please put the seat down” , in the morning the pans of shit are pulled out and set on fire. Which is better than having the flakes of burnt shit come down on you, which happened later on the frontline, when the wind changed direction and the burning shit pit came back to haunt everyone. The most valuable commodity when we arrived was coffee, there was no way to have boiling water and there were no cups so using the meal heaters from the Mire’s (Meals Ready to Eat”) you could get a small plastic bag of water half tepid then adding the coffee, whitener and sugar to an empty water bottle you had a bad tepid cup of chemical coffee which given where we were actually tasted ok.

Breakfast was a MRE, lunch was a MRE and dinner was a commercial brand MRE, which in the big picture means that you are so clogged up that body functions become limited. I could eat one MRE a day and that was it, they taste ok but after 7:30am it was simply too hot to eat. The recommendation of the Marines at the base was to try and consume 9 liters of water a day, the best I got too was 7 liters that is 14 small bottles of water over ten hours and I only pee’d twice. Camel pack are useless in this environment, you just carry a bottle and search for another bottle that is hopefully not hot. At one stage I made a coffee from a bottle of water that I let stand in the sun for ten minutes and it was the hottest coffee I had in a week.

In the cold harsh light of the day, there is nothing cold you begin to accept that nothing will ever be cold and get on with life. Perhaps that is what bonds us as a team we can live thru the worst and hardest of times together and throughout it all we know that it will end and we will laugh when we reflect back. But at the time it is “Brutal” as Maryam would say “Just brutal Dude”.

I rarely write or comment on people I work with, but our team for this trip was great. Dana Lewis a superb Correspondent with a funny wit that can annoy you but at the same time make you laugh. And no matter what he says “I do not sound like Darth Vader, when I sleep”. It is always a pleasure to work with a correspondent who can turn on the barking words and work with my pictures. Maryam is one of the best Producers in the Network and this was one tough assignment, both Dana and I would go with her anywhere, and we have agreed never to mention the fact that whilst Dana and I survived the Desert of Death trip in the back of a 7 ton truck, Maryam sat in the luxury of a humvee. But then again she never found out our secret purchase.

Then you meet people like “England” all people in the military are called by their surnames, England well he joined the Military because he was told that Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR driver who died was actually killed by the Taliban and for him this was a personal reason.

Then there is Mr. Brown, who has left the departure lounge, and requests that you lower the seat lid, this is to avoid flies congregating in numbers that would become biblical around the latrines. On the back of the door of the home made wooden toilets was the sign that literally said “When Mr. Brown has left the departure lounge, please close the lid”. In the morning they drag the cans of crap out through the back flap, pour diesel on them and burn the shit. Be warned, what goes up does come down and one day we found ourselves with flakes coming down from the burn pit behind.

We eventually left FOB Dwyer to join Charlie Company at the front lines of the battle. You imagine that a frontline is like a line in the sand when in fact it can be just ten steps outside the compound you end up in. We arrived at dusk and two minutes after arriving Dana and I were running down the dirt track to the sound of gunfire as the Marines were pounding a Taliban position across a field.

I often get asked what goes through your mind as you literally run into the death zone, bullets are ripping overhead and the sound of incoming rounds smack around. The simple answer is that you are so pumped on adrenaline that everything slows down and each decision is calculated and planned. I work from shot to shot, each and every camera angle is calculated before I hit the record button and above all I must see the eyes of the Marine. Each close up reveals the horror and emotion of the moment. People like to see the bang bang of guns, but impact only comes with the full adrenaline of a close up of a nineteen year old kid eyes frantically trying to stay alive.

We filmed for ten minutes, raced back to the compound and in today’s world loaded the video into the computer, edited, compressed into Mpeg4, and transmitted to New York all this took less than fifteen minutes. That is the reality of covering war now, if not live then within twenty minutes of a gun battle in the remotest part of Afghanistan, the pictures are on air in America and the world.

In fact I was trying to edit and send, whilst racing back out to film in the dying light, before racing back and editing to send again, when the Apache helicopter (could have been a Cobra chopper cannot remember) came screaming overhead in the black of night now and I grabbed the night camera and took the best shot of the trip as it let a hellfire missile rip into a building that the Taliban were fighting from a hundred meters from us.

The shockwave almost sucks the air from your lungs and the explosion lit up the area like a July 4th Parade finale, then there is quiet. Dead quiet because if you were in this building you are plain simple dead.

Does this worry me, no not all. The only thing that mattered was to get this footage back to NY ASAP and with 10 minutes of this strike, people around the world were watching it.

It then questioned down and the sky was a complete blanket of stars and every now and then the helicopters would circle back and leave. All night this continued and after a while we simply lay our sleeping bags down in the dirt and tried to sleep.

Around 3am, the helicopters, returned and all I had to do was sit up in my sleeping bag reach out with my right hand and pick up the night camera resting on my boots and start filming the attack runs on the frontline.

By 5 am I was so cold that I forgot about trying to film any action and tried to crawl deeper into my sleeping bag, knowing that in two hours I would be literally suffering from heatstroke, I collapsed after filming the remains of the hellfire house and opium fields. I cannot remember what my pulse was but I was physically ill and could not stand after being in the sun for half an hour, the temp was pushing 45 degrees Celsius and in body armor and Kevlar helmets, you are simply being cooked alive.

Walking around the compound that was destroyed by the hellfire we found live grenades, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Italian Anti Tank Landmines this was not a home for nice boys.

Where is the satisfaction in covering war, well it comes when you race back across the desert to the base, running three hours late and with a deadline that is so close you have doubts. When as a team we look after one and another, I was so ill from lack of food I thought I was going to pass out, and yet Maryam found some rice and two pieces of meat for me, as Dana wrote and Maryam verbated interviews I stood in the dark trying to eat. Then it happens the sheer adrenaline rush of covering news in war zones, when you cut and edit a spot and everything works because of a simple word “team”. It was probably the best edit I have done, every shot matched every word and impact was there.

That is why I do my job for the sheer joy of the success of that night in the Helmand Desert; It was a damm good story.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Afghanistan Photo Essay


Hellfire Missile Attack on the Frontline

Producer Maryam Sepheri and I

Birthday in Afghanistan

Rainbow over Bagram Airbase

After four hours of travelling accross the Desert of Death

The full kit for covering War , In the backpack I carried Computers , bgan uplink, telephones, sound, four cameras, food and water

Waiting for war

The aftermath of crossing the Desert of Death

After the Hellfire Missile Attack , filming the ruins, a live grenade is a few feet from my "feet"

From the top of a 7 ton truck, shooting Charlie Co about to deploy for a mission

Breakfast , coffee in a bottle , whilst Dana holds up the most important thing Listermint Mouthwash

Correspondent Dana Lewis and I in the Desert , filming Charlie Co

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stuck in a plane , that well

Kabul Airport
Flight 401 Ariana Airlines , from Kabul to Dubai, via Kandahar
It could be worse but i doubt it, we have been stuck on the runway for two hours due to weather in Kandahar , the cockpit crew are screaming in Turkish at the local authorities , as it is a charter operated flight, and the plane is putrid and hot , the whole thing stinks like a bad drawer of unwashed socks in summer and there is no air con on the plane .
Not exactly a way to spend the day but hope above hope we get out of this god forsaken place .
Just announced , flight cancelled to kandahar , now they have to empty the plane
Maybe we will make Dubai

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Between Embeds

Kabul

You can always laugh when you reflect on what you have endured, but at the time all things move slowly and painfully. We are back out of Hellmend as I call it , after a week embed in conditions that make Iraq look like a summer camp for spoilt children. Without a doubt the hardest assignment I have done to date, I have six pages of notes thoughts and incidents to write up and will do so, no doubt on the plane next week when we leave. We leave on a second embed tomorrow out to the East with the Army who I hope have the sense to be more comfort orientated, than the Marines.

The thought I leave you with is that the recollection piece will be called the "The Sleeping Bag War" , because I could literally wake up in the night sit up in my sleeping bag and film the frontline of fighting between the Marines and the Taliban, put the night camera back down next to me and try to get back to sleep on the ground in my sleeping bag. We were that close.

Picture of me coming into Camp Bastion, after driving across the "Desert of Death"