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


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

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


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


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.