Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Hermit KIngdom "Seeking Guidance"

12th April 2012

Back in the DPRK

Perhaps it was the rousing music on Air Koryo, the National carrier of North Korea that set the mood for the flight into Pyongyang or the Cabin Attendant who seemed insistent that boarding and seating meant you must not stop, to put your bags in the overhead lockers. The music was basically at the proverbial Spinal Tap volume level 11. You were in doubt that the destination has lofty ideals.

The flight was ok, if they offer a frequent flyer programme I may be inclined to enroll, but the choice of destinations is somewhat limited to Beijing – Pyongyang.

The in-flight magazine is dedicated to the Kim Jong Il, in fact it has nothing but pictures of Kim Jong Il touring factories and military installations handing out advice. In every photo there are people with notebooks and pens recording advice from the dear (former) leader.

The old terminal is being torn down which is a shame as it is classic Eastern Block 70’s architecture and the new terminal has the warmth of a carpet warehouse on the outskirts of Slough in England. However the pictures of the great father and the great son (recently departed) hang in full glory over the customs line were the x-ray machines, again soviet circa 1980’s scan every bag.

It is a matter of fact that you hand your phones in at customs and they give you an official receipt, it’s that simple. Try living without a cell phone again, the good thing is you never have to worry about losing it or having it stolen. The only worry is are everyone in your contact numbers and email addresses are on a data bank in North Korea’s answer to the CIA.

The drive from the airport to the hotel should of taken about 30 minutes, as traffic jams are not considered a big problem as 99.5% of the population does not have a car, and gas/petrol stations do not exist.

So heading to the hotel and suddenly our bus stops behind a couple of other buses, the few cars that were around suddenly did U turns and went back from whence they came as fast as possible. The reason became evident for the next 25 minutes, as open top army truck after truck came from around the next corner, each with 40 soldiers sitting ramrod straight in the back. They were off to the main square no doubt with a Kim in the title to rehearse for Sunday’s big parade to mark the 100th birthday of the founding father of modern North Korea Kim Il Song. The hotel became that little further away.

Now having just completed a Hostile & Security Refresher Course the week before in England, I remembered the advice for requesting hotel rooms, never go above the 6th floor as that is the limit of a fire engine’s rescue ladder. Well for one having never seen a fire engine in Pyongyang, this seemed a moot idea, and since all the foreign press did not have say on what floor you would like for your personal convince and safety, we were assigned rooms on the 38th floor. It makes it easier for Security to monitor, as on my last trip here surprise, we were also on the 38th floor.

Day 2 Notes Friday 13th April Pyongyang – Missiles and Statues

Given the time zone difference between Pyongyang and New York, thirteen hours behind. You basically do not get much sleep, you shoot all day and start the live rotation for New York at 8pm in Pyongyang.

Having not eaten the night before, I thought breakfast might be a good idea and was heading to the elevators when another journalist explained” have you heard they have just launched the Missile”. The launch of which has had the world in an frenzy, the North Koreans have never successfully launched a ballistic missile in the past two attempts and whilst this one was meant to be carrying a weather station (that somehow resembled a dishwasher wrapped in tin foil), North Korea does have more than one nuclear weapon in its arsenal, and if this launch worked then the whole game of brinksmanship could be taken to the next level.

Grabbing the camera kit I headed down to the Press Center where hopefully a local official would be holding a Press Conference. After jumping the spokesman he reassured the assembled foreign media that a statement would be forthcoming in ten minutes as to the whether the launch had been successful or not. Meanwhile the news was coming out that in fact it had been a stunning failure with a flight that lasted less than two minutes and the rocket had broken up and was now on the seabed somewhere off South Korea.

Naturally in this age of tweet news flashes, it was reassuring that “Darth Vader” had tweeted something along the lines of “Earth People, do not worry, if you need it the Death Star is available to help you”.
Ten minutes turned into and hour and another and the assembled foreign media sat and waited. Breakfast passed and so did lunch, there is no concept of ordering food or coffee. Stale chips and coffee in a can is available if you dare to leave the Press Center, in case the long awaited statement was forthcoming.

Our official government minder, every team is assigned a minder. Naturally had no news or idea and was not even mentioning the missile incident. But we were told to be in the hotel lobby ready for a security check at 1:30pm. We would be told in all good time what we were going to.

Trying to handle the approx 200 members of the Press who had been invited into Pyongyang to report on the Missile Launch and 100th birthday celebrations is never going to be easy. In fact it is like trying to herd cats.

Luckily the American TV Networks were called to the front and marched down the hall.

All kit goes thru the x-ray machine that’s standard practice. Then the airport style security door and hand wand , but with your hands by the side “please” again standard. Then the Geigemeter is swept around you by another person in case you are carrying a thermo nuclear device in your pocket, unusual to say the least. Then off to the next guy who has a minesweeper device what he was testing for was no one could figure out. Then you are called back to the x-ray machine and every single item in your bag is examined piece by piece and we members of the 4th estate carry a lot a stuff. They were especially on the lookout for cigarettes and lighters, if you had them in your bag then your name was taken in what we termed the naughty book and the Senior Inspector recorded a black mark dutifully.

After the ten minutes it took Greg, Claire and I to get through we realized that this was going to be a long process, straight from security and onto the bus, and wait. And wait, fall asleep and wait. Two hours later the buses were packed with journalists and still we had no idea of where in the hell we were going.

A short bus ride later we were at the site of the famous Kim Song Il statue, which was covered in cloth and we could just make out a new and second statue also under wraps. It was of course the unveiling of Kim Il Jong’s statue next to his father.

The buses then took us a mile away and we exited, then it becomes the whole media zoo circus of trying to get the best position. We were herded by our minders and set off, walking became brisker and brisker, and after a few minutes the frenzy became a run. Now the minders are going bat shit crazy at this point. At one point we came to a roundabout on the path and it looked like a scene from the Tour De France where the peleton splits and half go one way around and the others the other way trying to gain advantage. Up a hill , back down through tress and bushes. From here to there and back and yet we still could not even see the statues.

After explaining that we actually needed to see the statues and not the crowd at the bottom of the hill (more on the crowd in a short while) we were taken to the top of the hill and that was as good as it was going to get. Naturally the cat herding was not going well. And what was all the fuss about security

The crowd, a modest 300,000. Yes half million people are around the area as far as the eye can see. Silently and respectful, dressed in there finest, tens of thousands carrying plastic flowers. And there is no one drinking or eating, not a scrap of rubbish. There are no toilets and ducking behind a tree carries a penalty not worth thinking about in this country.

The band strikes up and a roar deafens every sense in you as the new supreme leader Kim Jung Um appears A spec a few hundred meters away through a sea of waving flowers, clapping hands and triumphal music is blasted as he waves solemnly surrounded by old general with so many medals on their uniforms that it is wonder that they don’t fall over forwards with from the weight.

The new leader never speaks in public, or for the matter Kim Jong Il never spoke but to utter a few words once many years ago. Can you imagine a politician in the West not talking to half a million people. Instead a General steps up to the podium and commences a speech which does nothing but extol the glories of the Kim family and the nation. He somehow did not mention the failed missile test from earlier that morning.

The new leader Kim Jung Um who is only 28 years old, whom during the day had been given a few new titles with the word supreme in them walks over to the switch, naturally out of view of every member of the press and pulls the cord to unveil the new statue of Kim Jong Il next to his father.

At this point the crowd goes wild, fireworks burst in the late afternoon sky. Note to North Korean Officials – Fireworks 101 , they look better at night. The statues are actually very good , big is an understatement, towering is more apt and these will become an even greater shrine in years to come.

Now cat herding comes back in force and each and every team is rounded up to wait to go back to the buses at a much more leisurely pace. Back down the hill and along the path to the square where we are told the buses are now at.

Approaching a main intersection the tens of thousands people on our road start running like a debt collector team is chasing them . The reason becomes obvious as we finally see to our left the largest number I have ever seen coming towards the intersection from a bridge across the river we had no concept that the bulk of the crowd was in fact out of sight a mile or two away. And they were all walking home, there is no other way everyone walks no matter how far across the capital city.

It was an amazing sight as the cross paths met and wound through each other.

Mr. Hong our minder, asked if we would like to use the public toilet, what sane rational person would turn down this opportunity after being on the go for 5 hours. Lets just say that in this public toilet was a smell that will outlast religion. My eyes watered and I doubt that my sinuses will ever be blocked again, and that’s only doing a proverbial number 1, God forbid nature would of wanted me to be seated. I should add this point that it has taken three days to get toilet paper in my room in the hotel.

It had been a long day, failed missile launch to filming the new Kim and New York was only just waking up.

We were told to be in the hotel lobby at 7:30 for security. Did not get the chance to eat today.

Saturday April 14, 2012

Pyongyang, North Korea.

“Another Number 1 Event”

So security is called for 7:30am in the lobby. First up breakfast, it is time to eat no matter what. And whilst every buffet in Number 1 Restaurant was loaded with Kim chi, there was some fried eggs and toast, plus my first coffee in 36 hours, apart from coffee in a can cold.

Now we had figured out that this was another “Number 1” event and that all going well it was going to take two hours to get on the buses, option one is get through security early and get some sleep or two loiter politely to the last moment and minimize the bus time but sacrifice sleep time.

We opted for the later and after being searched for thermo nuclear devices again. The wheels on the bus went round and round back thru the streets of the capital. Going to a Number 1 event means that you are not allowed to film whilst you are driving and for a change its nice to be able to see the city and observe it, rather than through a one inch black and white viewfinder.

Its what you observe rather than what you see that is the key to trying to understand this country. You never see people with bags or groceries walking around, you never see obese people, and you see police and military everywhere. Shops if and when you see them are empty of customers, there are few restaurants and local fast food is glimpsed on rare occasions. There are no advertising billboards , only propaganda slogans here and there. By the train station is a park with a large jumbotron, which looks like it has films on it and of all things a penny arcade style shooting gallery on the corner. You look two blocks down side streets and see dilapidated apartment blocks. Not the better ones that line the main routes through the city. A whole new cityscape has been built in one part of the city yet seems unoccupied, the buildings shine out at night all light up, yet there are no lights in the actual apartments. It’s the story that you cannot see here that is the story, and the frustration is that you are not free to explore and tell the story.

At least the minders tell us today that yes it is a “Number 1 Event” and everyone on the bus agrees that there will be no running today, which is the irony as we pull up outside one of the sporting stadiums in the city.

Walking into a stadium is a gladiator moment and as we were ushered through, it was scene that took my breath away 50,000 plus soldiers and people were seated in every available seat perfectly. Not one gap in the stands or on the field. There is almost a quietness of politeness. Again not one sign of food or drink, nobody going to or fro from their seats.

And for once there is actually space for the media so we don’t have to try and kick the proverbial out of each other for no good reason. Down on the pitch, naturally best quality Vinalon artificial turf . We point the cameras to the podium and wait. Not one person in the crowd is talking, the only buzz comes when the doors are opened on the podium level. This Kim family has a large executive box.

The Generals arrive and file in, the band starts up and the crowd goes wild as the Kim Jung Um appears, the only problem is that no one can see him as the official state press are on podium level and totally block him, swing the camera around and the stands full of military are united as one in cheering and clapping. Just what sort of society can collectively enforce this is the story. Is it true admiration or just fear of not being seen to admire as a collective. They clap as one , they stop at precisely the same time, and no one claps early or late.

Eventually the state media move and we can see Kim Jung Um. He does not speak but listens as yet again the virtues of legacy and glory are expounded. Every few minutes, at the correct time the stadium erupts with cheers and deafening clapping. Kim Jung Um has this new hand signal of “please enough, but keep clapping” .

The speech ends, the crowd erupts but for what ?. The leadership goes back from where they come and the stadium empties. There is no story here, it is merely a dog and pony show in a sense. Nothing is proclaimed the leader does not speak, the rhetoric remains the same.

We are herded back onto the buses and back to the hotel. It was a show and only a show.

Tomorrow the main event the parade, a big Number 1 Event, must remember not to consume any radioactive food tonight, then again it’s to late and the restaurants are closed.

Sunday 15th April 2012

Bucket List Day

It really is one of the coolest events in the world to cover, and yet at the same time you actually do not see the event. A North Korean Military Parade is just one step away from total awesomeness.

We all have watched them at some stage, commented on the precision, the complete devotion of the adoring masses and of course the benign dictator waving from the stands.

The bottom line, like everything in North Korea is that it is a show, a demonstration of might and power. That has many facets, the first is that for North Koreans it clearly shows the power and might of their armed forces, secondly and it scares the Western World.

The sheer precision of the marching in complete goosestep, then when they get to the actual spot in front of the podium they kick into double time goosestep, in complete sync, just shocks your system. It is clinical in its precision and timing, and no one not one person in tens of thousands is ever out of step, men and women.

Naturally we, had been ordered to assemble by our minders at some silly o’clock because naturally no doubt one of us had assembled a thermo nuclear device and had ingested it overnight in our hotel room in a cunning international plot to ruin the 100th birthday celebrations of the regime.

This time, due to the complete and utter lack of “guidance” from our minders, who were not allowed to actually tell us that we were going to the parade, the media decided that of the 4 buses we were seated on waiting for two hours, that the bus number was a clue as to your position at the parade. So it all of a sudden became a game to play move to another bus, which we all did at least once. Only to realize that it made no difference as we all ran around and thru the shrubs on the front of the parade ground, which only added to the minders screaming at us. If they had simply explained what was going to happen then nothing would of happened to cause them angst, but quite a few small official shrubs were killed in the filming of the parade, due to lack of “guidance”.

Guidance is without doubt the best and most over used word by the regime in North Korea. Somehow the Kim – Song/Jong/Un dynasty somehow cannot go anywhere without giving guidance in a photo. The text under every photo of the leader – Great, Dear or Supreme, shows them in some factory or army base ‘giving guidance”. Kim Jong il even gave guidance on how best to eat cold noodles properly and what’s scary is that the word of the Kim is gospel. If they declare that only two meals a day is more than enough, then surely having only one is even better.

So for the media the trip became a game of seeking “guidance” from our minders.
Or to use a better line “What would Kim do”
So having kicked the living shit out of each other, we all realized that in fact there was enough space for everyone so why the professional tensions, for fucks sake a bit of guidance from the minders and there would have been no destruction of small shrubs in front of the parade ground.

The parade starts, and then honestly the biggest shock of the trip, is that Kim Jong Un steps up to the microphone and starts to give a speech. In the West we naturally expect our leaders to speak at every event they attend. In North Korea, Kim Jong Il only said about seven words in public ONCE and was never heard again. So for the new leaders to actually give a full speech was incredible, forget the goosestep pictures it was now all about the “kid”, and he addressed issues from atomic weapons to the famine. But above all the message was clear “military first”.

Then the parade kicks off in full glory, you hear every goosestep, every tank rumble under your feet, the sheer volume of adulation, as every soldier is screaming, as they approach, not one mistake, not one error. It was honestly watching military perfection.

Then to wrap it up, Kim Jong Un does this whole parade closer thing when the people, read hundred thousand plus who have been diligently waving plastic flowers over their heads for the past two hours, one in each hand. Laugh about it, but try doing it – two hours both arms up, just a flick of the wrist on the count of one / two. However you can have a piece of string connecting them around your neck, just in case you have to stop waving to hear some guidance. So Kim does the walk, fantastic pictures and the crowd is going wild and its all stage managed, middle aged men screaming as if they were teenage girls at a boy band. Of all the things in the world to try and film this is one of the easiest “ a mass adoration shot at a military parade in Pyongyang”.

The goose-stepping is visual but the missiles are the showstoppers that everyone wants to see, and after the failure two days before of the Missile Launch of the dishwasher wrapped in tin foil. The word was that a new missile was going to be shown for the first time in public. Which actually means “Western Powers” here’s what we got, be afraid and we have the bomb, in fact we have at least ten atomic bombs according to all reports. Success in the North Korean missile program is defined by when they can strike America.

Parade done, bucket list for me ticked. And once again thru the whole charade of security again, to film this time a fireworks show. Because the Supreme Leader was there we had to have security clearance even though he was 500 meters away and they blocked our view of him with a bus. What we did see though for the first time was that every single person at these events, hundred’s of thousands are indivually screened and checked as well. Documents checked, any Kim event is ticket only.

Filming fireworks is one of the most boring things in the world, after five minutes you honestly have everything you need and the bottom line was that it was all cheap loud bang fireworks. I finished filming and realized that after six hours of this event, not a single frame would make air and it didn’t.
Monday 16th April 2012

Have and Have Not’s

There is no doubt that the regime wants to showcase Pyongyang, and according to analysts it is working. The problem for the regime is that they are definitely creating a two-tiered nation. We cannot go outside Pyongyang freely, not that we can do it in the capital itself, you are always being ‘minded” Mr. Hong a nice guy but he is doing his job to put the message out. Turn the camera to something slightly dodgy and you are reminded.

But for the first time, we were actually allowed to go out, not in the vast press gaggle of 4 buses. But in our own people carrier alone, sounds silly but here this is a major step, we actually had the chance to film whatever we wanted (to a degree), the message clear and loud we want to show off Pyongyang. Look we have cell phones and taxis, never before have we been allowed to just film on the streets, of course with minders watching.

Up market restaurants, pizza and wine … of course you can film.

They want a message out, BUT only the capital, only the showcase.

Starvation, poverty and gulag work camps never an option. You cannot leave the capital, so you have to take what you can, but not drink the Kool Aid.

Of everything I filmed on this trip from parades to stadiums and fireworks, they meant nothing compared to one sequence just after lunch we walked over to the river and watched a group of about twenty people simply having a picnic.

Nothing planned or planted, just a group of friends having a bbq, telling stories and jokes, sharing a laugh, singing songs just simply having fun. It was ten minutes, of honest magic it was the chance to actually see and film people in a non orchestrated manner. And yes they did sing songs of praise to the Supreme Leader, that’s what people do in North Korea it’s a fact. But they simply sat around and laughed, offered Greg and I food and drink.

And you know what at the end of the trip, the closing sequence to Greg’s final prime time story was not the dog and pony shows of hundred’s of thousand’s, idolizing the regime.

It was the picnic and with reflection the most honest and genuine shots I have filmed in North Korea.

It was a one and half hour flight back to Beijing, and the 21st Century.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Bad Morning

FOB Joyce, Kunar Afghanistan – Combat Outpost Nevada

Ok, getting caught with your pants down whilst under attack is bad enough, what the hell could be worse than that.

Take this morning, after a sleepless night and a chopper to catch further into the mountains to a remote Combat Outpost on a mountaintop in a couple of hours.

This was a good chance to have a shower before a few days of basically living in the dirt and having to ablute without porcelain, (a polite way of having to shit in a bag then throw into a fire pit to burn slowly).

So enjoying the warm caress of hot water cascading down, and feet slipping in my flip-flops.

The gentle hiss of water was broken by the deafening scream of the siren.

Incoming Waa Waa, Incoming Waa Waa

Great, f…ing fantastic bad enough getting caught with your pants down the other day, now buck naked in flip-flops in the shower.

So stumble out wrap the micro fleece towel around and collect my stuff and try to get back to the shelter. Out the door and naturally in wet feet slipping one of the flip-flops breaks within two steps.

Back at the tent, into clothes and then the reality if nothing has gone bang in the last few minutes. What the hell, I am going to get dressed.

Two minutes later the all clear is broadcasted, and life on the base returns too normal.

Half an hour later with kit packed ready to go and up at the landing zone waiting for the chopper to the Combat Outpost. I had managed to get to the DFAC and grab a cup of coffee and taken it up to the chopper pad. Putting it down on the bench I turned to watch a heavy lift chopper with a sling come into to transport fuel drums.

The down draught then hits and my coffee is basically flying through the end and naturally lands on my body armor at the end of the bench. Great what else can go wrong?

Then again it only takes a simple sign on the back of the Portaloo door to restore the Zen of the day, as they say.

I write this from the top of a mountain at the edge of the Pech Valley in Afghanistan, perhaps one of the most remote and dangerous places in this war zone. Food is no longer at a DFAC three times a day across the base, but is delivered in the morning on the back of a donkey.
Home for the next two days is in a pit depression on the mountain, with twelve soldiers and a lot of mountains around us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Caught with my Pants Down

November 20, 2011

FOB Joyce

There is the expression getting caught with your pants down. Normally associated with acts that have absolutely nothing to me this morning.

Having woken at a normal time around 7am, not that you know inside the tent with partitioned into small rooms with plywood walls (think Ikea natural pine) and a stretcher for a bed, thou some interior designer has come in and added some ambience by putting some nails in the wall studs so you can hang stuff up, a minimalist wardrobe approach is the best way to describe the nails.

With the sun shining in the valley as I walked back from the Conex (Container) Box that serves as the Latrine, rather than the Portaloo on the corner. It was time for a shower also in a Conex Box next to the Latrine, every two to three days it is nice to wash and change clothes. Not mandatory by any stretch of the imagination. But given the sun was out and the golden rays shined across the valley on the mountains, it felt that why put off today what I have put off the last three days.

Having flip-flopped my way over thru the rocks and dirt, I enjoyed the hot water cascading over me and dried off. I flip flopped my way back into my suite in Tent 13 and looked at the clean clothing on my stretcher. I had decided on a khaki look for the day around the Forward Operating Base to blend in and not clash with the camouflage of the Army uniforms.

And just as I was reaching down to pull up my pants …..

“BOOM, BOOM, ratta tat tat, ratta tat tat”…. Gunfire and explosions erupt in the valley


The base is under fire and the warning siren is set to Volume 12 on the Spinal Tap scale of amplification.

So with my pants around my ankles, decisions have to be taken. Do you kick them off and run for the bunker or pull them up and run the risk of being unlucky.

“Waa Waa Waa” the sirens continue

I honestly thought that at one stage, the Robot’s voice was going to come over and come out with the classic “Warning Will Robinson Danger, Danger”.

Pants up, grabbed the camera and out the door, behind the concrete barrier, film for a few minutes. Then in a lull head for the nearest bunker to find Conor in his shorts straight out of bed. But suitably attired in his flak jacket and Kevlar helmet.

With sleep in his eyes we filmed a quick piece to camera describing but was happening.

Gunfire and mortar booms gradually ceased.

The robot came back on and proclaimed “All clear, return to your duties”.

All this before a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning or as someone pointed out it is in fact the equivalent of a Taliban Monday. As someone wisely pointed out always avoid the DFAC (Dining Facility) for the first hour of daylight as the bad boys constantly try to target it early in the morning thinking it will be full of hungry souls.

I will sleep in tomorrow an extra hour to allow for this new found wisdom, and also have my pants ready just in case.

Friday, November 18, 2011

84 Hours

1:50 am Friday November 18th 2011
Bagram Air Base

You just wait, and when you are tired of waiting you wait some more. The misconception of arriving in Afghanistan is that from the moment you arrive you are under gunfire from Taliban or Insurgents can be misleading to say the least.

We arrived at the base here Tuesday afternoon and had high hopes of catching a flight to the East later that night only to have all hopes dashed as the Air Force just cancelled that flight, remember that they do not have to give a reason they can just cancel. And the wait begins in the aptly named Hotel California that is the media holding rooms on Disney Road the main road in the base.

Now the word, Hotel is somewhat of a misnomer. In fact a wooden shack divided by ply wood into four rooms, three bunks in each room, a mattress and a pillow, no sheets or pillow cases so God only knows what creatures are from head lice to bed bugs are free to breed. Though I do add we had Room 1, which is considered the suite, as it is few square feet larger, and the luxury of a metal folding chair. Each room has a small fridge with a few bottles of water, I should add though that according to the energy consumption labels still on the door indicated that energy efficient rating was about as bad as you could possibly seek out.

There are no windows in any buildings as glass and bombs are not a good combination in the case of a rocket attack. So you have no concept of day or night. The heating and air conditioning is pumped into the building via by what sounded like a pre cold war jet engine. The tranquility of the environment is rocked every ten to fifteen minutes by this rush of noise more than heat or cold air.

The routine of waiting to hear that the next flight has been cancelled or that there are no flights to where we want to go, usually means being woken up by a knock at the door at 11pm, 1am or 6am. Flight schedules for daily flights are posted at different times and only 24 hours in advance. So if there is no flight you know that the wait to try again is 24 hours away.

There are no stories to be done at the base here as after ten years of war every story has been done at least five times and no one has any interest in day-to-day operations, because in a word nothing has changed, so you wait.

Breakfast in the DFAC (Dinning Facility) is followed by Lunch at the DFAC, wait and then dinner at the DFAC. The walk from Hotel California to the DFAC is about 8 minutes down Disney Road. More anything it kills time. The food is good, but obviously the big issue at the base here is obesity, as you enter the DFAC there are signs trying to explain portion size, which to some members of the Armed Forces and Contractors needs to be enforced. An extra large serving of fried onion rings is not considered 2 of your 5 daily requirements.

Of course there is option of Pizza Hut, but to the consternation of many on the base is not open for breakfast. Popeye’s another fast food chain is closed but reopening soon.

The other popular time wasting pastime, shopping. And the PX store is the same as it was 5 years plus again, from chewing tobacco to knives. Then just down the road is the local Afghan equivalent to the PX store, where every known dodgy DVD is available for $3 along with more aftershave and perfume than a duty free store at an airport. But the best sign in the bazaar is a note posted everywhere from the Base Commander stating that claiming something is fake is not a reason for demanding a refund.

The most disliked people on the Base seem to be the MP’s (Military Police) these people are more diligent than a traffic warden in London. Caught not wearing a seat belt, even in the back seat and your car is compounded for ten days and you must do a self criticism and how you will change your ways. Maximum speed 5 mph is enforced, no wonder service personnel have trouble adjusting to the real world after a tour of duty, spend a year driving the same roads at 5 mph. I suspect that a private wheel-clamping contractor is not that far away.

Finally after 84 hours we boarded our flight to Jalalabad, as they say a mere elevator ride less than 25 minutes in the air. The irony is that we could of driven from Kabul to Jalalabad in just over two hours. And saved 82 hours, nothing moves easy, in which you are part of a 32,000-person jigsaw that is the US Military.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Pizza Deliveryman

Your normal pizza deliveryman does not check his AK47 before he starts a delivery and makes sure it is cocked and the safety is off. The again Ahmad is getting ready to make a delivery to the rebel soldiers on the frontline.

The Pizza factory in an abandoned building is less than 3km from the front, we cannot show the exterior of the building for security reasons as they do not want Gaddafi’s army to recognize the area and shell them out of business as they say.

Filming pizza making is not normally a dangerous assignment, but here I was in a flak jacket shooting a truly bizarre scene, 20 young men all volunteers under the watchful eye of a pizza chef of Libyan descent who until a few weeks ago was living and making pizza in Sweden.

The call of the revolution had bought him back to his hometown of Misrata, Ehmad Daiki had never fired a gun or any type of weapon and when asked by leaders what he could do, he replied I can make pizza.

And thus for the last two weeks, with his team he has been turning out 6000 slices of pizza a day for fighters. A production line chops olives, breaks up fresh garlic by banging it in a plastic bottle, crushes fresh tomatoes, knead and roll out dough. People and shopkeepers in Misrata as part of their war effort donate each and every ingredient.

Every time a rocket is launched in the area or even worse an incoming rocket lands in an adjacent field the whole production line celebrates by yelling

“Allah Akhbar”

Three ovens run non stop thru the late morning and lunch, each tray is cut up and five to six slices of fresh hot pizza are wrapped in tin foil to keep warm and within half an hour they are delivered up the road.

My producer and security advisor, refused to let me go up to the front for the delivery footage. Despite my annoyance of not being able to go up and film the final scenes.

The reason being

“Mal, How in the hell am I going to explain to New York, that you got injured or killed for a story on pizza, no you cannot go”

Even I had to agree after a short sulk, risk and reward as they say. No story or single shot is worth risking your life for, and a pizza story is not how I want to be remembered.

We gave a small camera to the delivery guy with the AK47.

Misrata, Libya

The Victim's

Misrata, Libya.

Viewer Discretion advised

“We wish to advise that some images in this story…………….”

If the image is shocking to watch on a TV News bulletin, image being in the hospital room and having to physically experience the pain, suffering and anguish of the victim.

9-year-old Faraz Abu Shaba is staring at the lens and his face fills the frame, it is a haunting image of a young boy suffering 2nd degree burns; every feature is burnt and discolored. Every few seconds his expression changes and is contorted with pain. His head is listless and his eyes are elsewhere.

You have to distance yourself and somehow the lens becomes a shield that helps break the reality of where you find yourself.

His father lay in a bed next to him, eyes in a catatonic stare to nowhere. And again I filled the frame so that only his eyes gave the window to his soul and despair.

It is the first hospital we are to visit on this day.

Farazs’ older brother Ibrahim is dead, cut in half by ball bearings that had been packed in a grad rocket and fired into Misrata from Gadaffi’s forces outside the city. He had been standing at the sink outside the kitchen of his modest house in the Eastern section of the city, when the rocket landed less than 10 meters away. A steel propane tank in the yard is full of holes, from the ball bearings; Ibrahim did not stand a chance as he washed to get ready for evening prayers.

Relatives show us a passport photo of Ibrahim as a 9 year old; he looked almost angelic in that photo.

Shrapnel razor sharp is gathered and displayed on the base of what remains a wall, so that everyone who visits can examine the evidence of another war atrocity.

From the roof of our hotel in the centre of the city, we can hear and see these rockets coming in. You become accustomed to the sound of war in a weird and disjointed way. In Misrata there is no escape, you cannot simply drive away and escape, surrounded on three sides by Gadaffi troops, and the sea on the fourth side. It was one of these rockets that had hit the Shaba family home. A distant boom and smoke cloud as dusk fell the night before.

Across town in the second hospital, as I walked into the ward room it was the sound of Faraz and Ibrahim’s youngest brother that drew my attention, 2 days old and lying in his grandmother’s arms and making new born squeals and lifting his arms and legs.

On the other side of the room his mother lay, burnt head to toe and wrapped in bandages, only her face and toes exposed charred and raw. She had probably been standing in the kitchen when the rocket hit and a fireball engulfed her after killing Ibrahim a second beforehand. I remember standing in her kitchen only an hour ago, everything black, mangled metal plates half melted and a pool of aluminum on the floor that had melted in the firestorm.

She cannot open her eyes due to the burns and swelling.

In a whisper barely audible thru cracked and burnt lips, she says

“God will take care of the people responsible”

It is hard not to want to show the close up because, the impact of the horrors of war are not some computer game whereby if you die you get another life, when you are hit the impact is forever and all that matters in life is shattered.

I walk out and back to the car, it has been a tough morning and more rockets fall that afternoon, from the roof I wonder if another families life has been destroyed.

I send the edited story back to Washington, and at the end I include extra video of wide shots of the hospital rooms in case the close-ups are too graphic they can decide, for at the frontlines of a war zone, you find yourself with a different acceptance of what war is really like. Close ups of faces and eyes show the doorway to the soul and without seeing into the soul you cannot feel the pain of innocent victims.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Field Hospital

June 21st 2011

Misrata Libya

You can get used to things in life, but the constant drone from the Mosque next door is starting to wear thin. From mid morning to night it plays a constant loop of call to prayer, repeated every 60 seconds, the same again and again and again.

Then again there are the Grad Rockets fired by the Gadaffi forces who are surrounding this city, from the roof of the hotel you can see them impact some a few km’s away towards the port and steel mill appear as plumes of smoke, whilst with closer ones you feel the impact and the smoke is much closer. As I was writing that sentence another landed close by, heard and felt the thump.

The attacks on the city itself are sporadic and come at anytime. Go to the frontlines outside the city and it is a constant barrage, both incoming and outgoing. At a field hospital 5km (3miles) from the frontline separating the Loyalists and the Rebels yesterday, a grad came in low and fast, hearing the incoming it’s a matter of dropping and preying because it is close, very close.

The field hospital is a converted tractor repair workshop. The doctor in charge, Mohammed Al Bayra is in his mid twenties and before the revolution worked in Oncology, asked how many rebels he has seen come arrive by ambulance or on the back floor of cars and pick ups, injured or dead. His response “Thousands”.

Frontlines are not “Lines in the Sand”, what was a safe distance can be become a disaster zone in the matter of minutes. The first indicator is normally the rebels fleeing back down the road in the back of trucks, faster than rats up a drainpipe. This is always a good cue for us to likewise consider a tactical relocation just in case, not to mention the Grad Rocket that came way to close for comfort.

An hour later we are back at the field hospital, and 6 ambulances and pickups arrive within ten minutes carrying more wounded back, Wounds to the arms, legs, chest and stomach evident as they are wheeled into the makeshift frontline hospital. They are patched up by the young doctor and his team of students and sent back into Misrata half an hour back down the road.

We leave too, there are only so many injured you need to film for a story and the scene will not change in the coming hours or days.

Back in Misrata. NATO jets are heard thousands of feet up in the sky, but even their noise does not drown out the mosque next door, the call continues and likewise the rockets will continue to fall around us, for the foreseeable future.