Wednesday, February 20, 2008

All the king's men, Gone!

The headline on the front page of one the national newspapers today, along with "Democracy takes revenge" describing the elections for the Parliament here in Pakistan yesterday. In a nutshell President Musharraf's party was walloped in the first free and fair elections in years here, almost all the senior cabinet members in his administration lost there seats in Parliament and the party of Benazir Bhutto (now dead) is set to form a coalition government.

By Pakistan standards it was considered a complete success as only 25 people were killed nationwide in election related violence and a only a couple of hundred were treated for polling related violent scuffles.

It is strange covering an election were in many respects the outcome means very little to one personally, sure there is the greater global picture and of course the vote here has a direct influence on the "War on Terror". But for me personally the election yesterday was not easy.

The reason being that back many years ago in the late Eighties I came the closest to being killed whilst working.

Sure I have been bombed and shot at in war zones, but the incident in the Philippines Election was the closest I have ever come to being shot at point blank range by a gunman I could see.

And arriving at a polling station in Rawapindi, just outside Islamabad yesterday bought back some hard and bad memories of could this be a deja vu, perhaps it was not the threat of a gunman but the risk of a suicide bomber yesterday, needless to say that we did not muck around on the streets as this polling station was a potentially prime target.

Manila 1986

President Ferdinand Marcos, had called an election naturally he was expecting to win, as all Dictators do. However having killed the Opposition Leader Aquino on his arrival back at Manila airport (they shot him as he walked down the steps to the tarmac) his wife Cory Aquino took the rains and a peoples power revolution was underway.

For the first time in the first and only time in my life I went to a rally that was a true 1 million people rally. And believe me 1 million is a large mass of people , it took nearly an hour to try and squeeze into the middle near the stage.

From nun's to housewives the city and nation was awash in yellow, the symbol of Peoples Power leading up to election day, and the President was nervous, the ballot would be rigged but this time it would require corruption on a massive scale to try and fix the numbers.

Vote buying by Marco's was so endemic that locals took it as a way to earn easy money, and a classic expression was born in "Vote early, vote often". Playing cards with the picture of Jesus were handed out by Marco's cronies and locals would place them under the ballot and when they marked the ballot it left a mark on the card, they would then go around the corner show the crony the marked Jesus card and collect their money, then assuming another false name go to another polling station and repeat the process.

Only the vast and overwhelming majority had figured out that they could reposition the Jesus card, so that the mark would be the same as if they had voted for the Marco's candidate when in fact they had voted for the Peoples Power candidate. So in essence there was a need to simply steal the ballot boxes after the polls had closed and replace the ballot boxes with fake votes.

At the time I was working for the Seven Network in Australia and we had done our story for the day by mid afternoon before the polls closed due to time zones and the US network asked if we could help them out by covering some polling stations in the suburb of Muntilupa, south of Manila. They arranged for me to have a sound man to help, a mercedes car with driver and even a policeman for security on a motorbike.

We headed out and went around a few of the polling stations before it became evident to us all of us on the team, Correspondent Paul Lyneham, Local Soundman Sarni Ocampo and myself that we in fact were not covering news but in fact were being used by the locals to try and show the Marco's Cronies watching the Polling stations that an American TV Network was there filming polling stations.

Finally we said enough and having been directed to a polling station just before the close of polls we stopped, I filmed the last votes being cast and the start of counting. After ten minutes or so of this I had shot enough and we were simply sitting outside in the courtyard relaxing behind a low wall of the school were the polling station was. The only noise came from the main road , as the school was up an narrow street and our mercedes with driver and policeman was waiting for us to come back.

Then the first noise and the first screams started up as the pistol shots were being randomly fired in the air, grabbing the camera I dropped behind the wall and filmed half a dozen men running into the schoolyard still firing, the gun is mighter than the ballot in this case, and they wanted the ballot boxes now!, American TV Network be dammed.

In those few seconds I had dropped behind the low wall and had started filming the gunmen on the other side of the school yard, you descend into another world in moments like this, it is about capturing the image, and for twenty or so seconds my mind was occupied with the the technical aspects of framing, exposure and above trying to get your breath and heart rate under control as the adrenaline courses thru your body like a fire hydrant being suddenly opened.

After about twenty seconds or so of filming the mayhem of gunmen running from classroom to classroom, weithout saying anything dramatic from a Hollywood script, the words went something like this

Me " lets get the fuck out of here now"
Sarni (my soundman carrying the BVW 50 Recorder and tethered to me by a cable between us" Go Go Go
Lyneham "Fuck me this does not look good"

I started of first with Sarni close behind me the cable bonding us, Lyneham a few steps back, round the low wall and across maybe ten yards of open space to the gate to the street and another wall. I kept going through the gate with Sarni, oblivious to where Lyneham was.

The sound of gunfire behind us had not let up, the goons had control of the school and the ballots.

Crouching to stay low I ran out into the lane , and coming up from the running crouch I came face to face with a man brandishing a pistol , he coldly calmly pulled the trigger and a bullet passed over my head by inches as i was still in a run.

Time stopped, In that absolute second of terror everything stopped, the barrel was pointed directly at my eyes, all I coulod focus on was his hand gripping the trigger, and I thought I was dead.

Sarni behind me dropped and I followed as we now lay on the ground face first in the dirt, it was as if I had not taken my eyes off the trigger and the barrel still pointed directly at my head. Sarni was tucked in behind me and the video recorder lay there in the dirt and my camera was in my hand still recording , what I would never know.

Screaming at me, he said

"Camera Camera"

I remember the weight of the camera as i lifted it up , my eyes never leaving the barrel, I cannot remember his face only the gun pointed at my head ,

" Camera Camera" he screamed and i let go of it

Two well placed kicks to my body and I turned my face back onto the ground and looked to the side.

With this I watched him drag it down the lane the recorder bouncing along with cables and microphones trailing.

Sarni remained tucked in and then two more young guys came over and started kicking us again, except now they were yelling at the top of there voices

"Go Go"

Sarni and I slowly stood to our feet and put our arms in the air, at this moment we saw Lyneham come out of the school his arms slowly rising too.

He had been just going around the corner when he saw me being shot, ducking back a second or two later all he had seen was the back of Sarni tucked into me and us lying in the dirt, he thought we had been shot dead in cold blood.

The three of us slowly walked down the lane arms in the air towards our mercedes and waiting policeman, I went into shock as i slipped in the seat of the car and we sped off with the policeman now using his siren, he had seen it all and was powerless.

NBC complained to the President and the next day the camera and recorder was returned to the hotel in pieces minus the tape. To this day I wonder where that tape is, not that it matters.

The Marcos regime claimed victory in the election and later fell in a peoples power revolution which was a sweet moment for me and another story as I was there and entered the Palace the night he fled the country.


Perhaps that is why yesterday I was nervous, another election and perhaps, just perhaps it could of happened again .