Sept. 28, 2002
I’ve in been in Bucharest for only two weeks, but I thought I’d drop a quick line to say I’ve arrived and all is well. Hope all is well with you wherever you are.
This is going to be a good nine months full of challenge. The people of the Center for Independent Journalism are great. All are fluent English speakers, as will by my 13 students from the University of Bucharest. The center assigned a student intern to be my handler. She takes me to my appointments, helps me learn to buy groceries, use my shiny new cell phone, negotiate public transport, translates at museums, whatever I need in my naïve state. She also tells me about the city and country and university and about being a college student in Romania these days, which in most respects is a lot like being a college student anywhere. She talks about clothes a lot.
I’m living in a comfortable flat on the fourth floor of one of the city’s hundreds or thousands of crumbling communist concrete blocks of flats. I was disheartened when I first saw the place, but I’ve quickly grown accustomed to it. In fact, it turns out it’s rather upscale for Bucharest. It doesn’t seem to be the place in which you ever meet your neighbors. As in most big cities, folks pretty much keep to themselves, at least so far. Meeting people is difficult as only the very young speak English. The city seems as safe as any big American city. ATMs are everywhere. Food is good and cheap. The wine is incredible. Most everything is cheap, but then everyone is a millionaire. The dollar is trading this week for $33,000 Lei (Lay), which means a modest bag of groceries costs about $1 million Lei. It’s funny how that makes me want to spend less money, even if things are cheap to the dollar. The average monthly wage here is about $150. There are a few beggars on the street, but no more per capita than in Boulder.
The journalistic landscape is proving to be both fascinating and complex. Whereas we in the United States have had 225-plus years of press freedom to develop our media (which Romanians consider the best in the world), these folks have had 12 years. The madman dictator Ceausescu was executed after a 30-minute trial (most people wonder what took so long) on Christmas Eve 1989 after subjecting the country to some 25 years of his egomania. Everywhere in the city stand huge, unfinished buildings – parts of his warped vision for Romania. Groves of humongous cranes stand idle like bizarre, petrified praying mantises where their operaters switched them off in 1989. And in the center of the city is Ceausescu’s master folly, a palace that folks say is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. The dictator ripped out the heart of the city to build it. Romanians hate it, hate to look at it, but it’s too expensive to tear down. One woman said she thought it should be made into a place for children to play. That seemed appropriate. But the parliament uses a wing of it instead.
It’s evident that Bucharest was a beautiful city before communism. There are architectural wonders hidden among the concrete monoliths. But with the exception of a few newer buildings, everything is in decay. But no one seems to mind. I’m not sure anyone really even notices. They keep on keep’n on pretty well here.
But back to the media. Imagine how awkward it must be to suddenly build a media based on a foundation of party loyalty and rip and read journalism. There simply was no recent experience with a free press here. The folks who launched the first newspapers after the revolution had little idea of how to write a fair and balanced story, nor could they imagine why anyone would want to do that. They were mostly engineers, psychologists, or party hacks newly unemployed. Many of them still don’t know the first thing about journalism as we know it. But they still run the show. Most of them are way wealthy in much more lucrative businesses and keep the newspapers to curry political favor and punish their political enemies, I’m told. This means the publishers aren’t really interested in doing better journalism. It’s not a pretty picture.
The journalism school, a state school although it gets no money from the state for facilities, does what it can with what it’s got. Its graduates, if they do learn much about good journalistic practice, say they often can’t practice it and keep their jobs. Just during my first week here, a quasi-government council pulled the plug on a tv station because it didn’t like the content, which was repulsive, but so what? Also, a flurry of stories appeared about newspapers blackmailing foreign companies for advertising. This stuff happens all the time. So there’s lots to do here. There is little doubt that the program of which I’ll be lead trainer is a bright spot in Romanian journalism.
And did I mention the academics hate the working journalists and visa versa? This place makes the University of Colorado look like a model of sanity. But there are some great people here. And as usual, the students are more together than the adults. It’s going to be a great year.
So that’s week one. Classes start Oct. 2. Stay tuned.
Be well, doug
Dec. 6, 2002
I hope this note from Bucharest finds you all warm and warming up for the holidays. I apologize to those of you who hate impersonal email for sending another, and to those who love them for not sending it sooner. Things got way busy about a month ago and I have been working almost has hard as if I had 50 CU students instead of 12 Romanian ones. Which is fine with me, as it was starting to get a tad lonely here. Romanians are famous for their hospitality, but a big city is a big city, and I have yet to be invited into a Romanian’s home here.
I am adjusting to living like a street sparrow in a nook in one of the concrete canyons of the city. But I’ll appreciate Nederland and my small piece of mountain all the more when I return. I have seen more of Bucharest’s back streets and am getting an idea of how beautiful it must have been before Ceausescu. There is a Romanian Orthodox church just three blocks behind my flat block. It has four domed towers with narrow vertical windows. Two of the towers are twisted like licorice, like God reached down and gave a half turn of His wrist before they hardened from clay. It hurts the mind to look at them, they are so beautiful. You don’t see so many churches here, although hundreds escaped Ceausescu’s wrecking ball. Those he didn’t destroy he hid behind these damned concrete flat blocks. That’s why so many religious Romanians on the trams and busses suddenly go off with a blur of genuflections for no apparent reason. When they do that, you know there is a church hidden nearby somewhere. Busses are rolling church Geiger counters.
The Romanian husband of the AP bureau chief here, a Brit, helped me make sense of the rhythm of the street in Bucharest. “Everybody is on the hunt,” he said. That could explain the hungry, catlike gait of the two million residents of the city. “Everybody is trying to find the next way to get a little bit further ahead,” he said. One more wrung up the new but tarnished capitalist ladder. When I arrived, I was struck by the fashionable clothes worn by the women on the street. Things can’t be all that bad, I assumed. I have since learned that although a few Romanians have a lot of money, most spend what they have on the tools for success, including simple but tasteful clothes. An intern at the center has a lovely pair of earrings. But she told me she wears them every day because they are her only earrings. People in the countryside think people from Bucharest are crazy greedheads. It’s clear that many of them are struggling for a leg up, any leg up.
I have visited two cities outside of Bucharest so far – Cluj and Timisoara. Both were pretty. In Cluj I attended an academic conference where I was asked to speak on “an aspect of American journalism.” I chose to talk about the rift — total disdain, really — between journalism educators and practicing journalists. It was called “And the Cooks All Hate the Waiters,” after a 60s Allan Sherman song, “Camp Granada.” I saw a couple of people nod positively in the audience, which was a good thing. About 40 people were asked to deliver papers. I never counted more than 30 in the audience at one time. But the place had a very, very cool coffee shop.
In Timisoara, the western city where the 1989 revolution began as a popular uprising before it was hijacked by a party coup posing as revolution. I held two days of news writing workshops for students of a private university there. These kids were in a private journalism program yet had not the foggiest idea what news was. We walked by an open sewer lid a block from campus marking the subterranean home of four or five street boys. I walked up and looked down the hole. The pit below had just enough room for the boys and appeared to lead nowhere. One of the kids chased me off. The students with whom I was walking didn’t know why I’d be curious about this. Everybody knows about it, they say. It’s not news. Yet they confessed they knew almost nothing about who these boys were and why they were there.
I’m learning that the biggest problem with journalism here is not a lack of skills, although there certainly is that. The big challenge for people is making the connection between journalism and democracy and community. There remains a cover-your-ass mentality, essential for survival before 1989. There is yet precious little thought devoted to building community for the benefit of all. And journalism that isn’t aimed at supporting democracy and building community, even if unintentionally, is something less than journalism. It’s like some stillborn thing that people imagine is alive.
This issue came up last week in class when nine of my 12 students said that journalists clearly deserved special privileges not granted to the common citizen. They clearly believe that journalists are somehow more important than other folks and deserve more rights. I told them about reporters in Boulder who declined on principle special access to public records in the clerk of the court’s office. I’m not sure they believed me, or they thought I must be loony.
But the positives by far outweigh the negatives in our classes, and things are going better all the time. The kids put out their first newspaper two weeks ago, and it looked great. I dare say it’s the most professional publication in the country (But I would, wouldn’t I?). A couple of Romanian press Web sites featured stories from it on their sites already, and a Prague-based, online magazine wants to recruit some of the students as free lancers. The first issue of “The Bullet” (“shooting down the news for students” – the students’ choice) had some good stuff: Page one stories covered why only one of four doors was ever open at the main university entrance, causing students to queque to enter and exit (This is the cleaning lady’s way of getting her revenge on “uncivilized” students, never mind the fire hazard.), illegal car races in the city center, and TB cases among students. Other stories included a numbers story on gender and enrollment (Women comprise 80 percent of most departments.), a story on the relaunch of a Web site sort of censored by the journalism school (lots of politics dealing with that one), a student demonstration against the head of the church, the lack of student representation on campus and searching for jobs on the internet.
And, I’m proud to say – no sports! But that won’t last.
We’ve had some adventure lately, too. If you want to tap the paranoid vein of Romania, take out a camera. We had a week-long photojournalism workshop taught by another Knight Fellow out of Prague. After every afternoon of shooting, the students returned with lots of pictures and another story of being harassed by one official or another. One student was physically assaulted by an academic at the university for taking pics in a public place without permission. Others were cornered by store clerks or guards or train station attendants who all insisted they needed permission to take pictures. Six of us almost got thrown in jail by burley power freaks in nondescript uniforms for photographing moving cars. (OK, the Israeli embassy was just beyond that, but the damn thing is unmarked in this huge office building.) We had to stand outside in the cold for an hour while an ever-increasing covey of cops exercised the remnants of their control mentality studying our IDs. These guys wouldn’t tell us who they were or even what agency issued their uniforms, although they almost certainly were cops of some sort. It was interesting. You could imagine what it was like here 12 years ago. These guys use powerlessness as a tool. I called our center, which called the U.S. embassy. In 15 minutes the biggest, meanest, nastiest father raper of them all was handing back our IDs and groveling shamelessly. It was really quite sad. If they’re going to be jerks, they should at least be proud jerks.
The kids, by the way, are great. Today is my birthday. They got that info off of my cv and lured me to the center on this cold and rainy day on the ruse of needing coaching, then threw me a surprise party with a little cupcake with a candle and some lovely gifts, including a coffee mug that reads “Bullet Editor-in-Chief.” Pretty sweet bunch. And they still work at least 50 percent harder than the schedule demands and rarely complain. They are into this. I had to talk them out of publishing an extra, Christmas edition of the paper.
I’ll be home with Pip and Anna Dec. 19-Jan. 3 at the house. And Carol (with Cinnamon the dog) is taking two weeks off to be with us. The folks renting the place are going to their real home for the holidays and are letting us house sit our house. We’re pretty lucky to be home and together for the holidays. Pip graduates from UT this Sunday and will take a year off before entering a graduate program aimed at making legal drugs. Anna is working hard at an art academy in Utrecht, Holland. I will return to Romania after Christmas and teach and do workshops here and there until about July.
We all wish you all a very warm and loving holiday.
Best always, doug
June 15, 2003
Greetings once again from Bucharest. I hope this update finds you all well.
I wrote that first sentence in February, the day before my second semester started. That I am writing the second sentence now, four months later, hints that times have been kind of crazy busy here in Romania. My immediate apologies to all who hate group letters.
This will be my last letter from Romania. I have a June 30 flight home.
I can sum up the work part of this semester quickly, I think. It was so much work I can’t remember many details. With one major disappointment, the semester went very well. The students surpassed everyone’s expectations, producing six really strong issues of their newspaper, The Bullet (available now on their new Web site: www.cji-bullet.ro Check it out!) Their story ideas have been stolen by national newspapers, Web sites and television investigative news shows – we took that as a compliment. Some of my students are working for decent national media outlets. One student from last year’s class got into Missouri’s master’s program. Another got a real job at AP here in Bucharest. I’d say they kicked some serious butt, but then I would say that.
The disappointment came when I had to kick a kid out of the program. Alex was a rising star of Romanian journalism. At age 20, he was scoring page one stories on one of the most respected dailies in the country. We caught him fabricating an interview for the Bullet – made it up from whole cloth. Then, just as some were willing to give him a second chance, he plagiarized a code of ethics and lied about it. A code of ethics, yet. I expelled him from the program, but he continues to work at the newspaper. Alex, his ability to lie and the willingness of others around him to excuse his dishonesty, has come to represent the self-destructive underbelly of Romania for me. Romanians, even the young ones, will tell you that deception is in their blood. It is a constant struggle to argue that Romanian blood is no different than any other blood on the planet, and “differences in nature” are better explained by recent history. But even I have found myself referring to folks here as Romulans – a sure sign a break is in order.
We had a very cool two-week exchange of students with CU. Romanian student Irina traveled to Boulder to work on the Campus Press. She found the school’s facilities unimaginable but their student journalists lacking in enthusiasm. Aaron, a Campus Press editor who came here, had a real eye-opening experience. He also returned with a little scar over his right eye – the result of falling out of a public bus. As we tried to explain to everyone here, Americans don’t do public transportation very well. At semester’s end, we threw ourselves a little party at the center. We gave each other funny awards. The students gave me the “stet” award, meaning, “don’t ever change.” Is that sweet or what? I will miss those kids, no doubt about it.
Since Christmas break, I have had working visits to Sofia, Bulgaria; Chisinau, Moldova and Sarajevo. Bulgaria is Romania’s slightly richer cousin to the south, and Moldova is her poor (still communist) cousin to the north. I wrote a report on the state of the independent media in Moldova and can send it if anyone is interested in that. Sarajevo is a charming place despite the fact that the city and its economy remain largely in ruins from the war. I was there to facilitate a diversity workshop. Better late than never, I suppose.
Carol came to visit for 10 days in March. We took a leisurely drive through Transylvania, the mountainous core of Romania. Transylvania was settled by Saxons in the 11th century or so. They built marvelous Medieval cities and arguably Romania’s most successful society, but after nine centuries they left all the same – returning mostly to Germany in the 1990s. Apparently the German-speakers survived the communist years only to find that they were not going to be able to return to their former positions of influence under capitalism. So they just left, leaving entire villages deserted. Anna came for a second visit in April, and my old English traveling buddy, Ian Ruddlesden, came in May bearing 16 cans of most welcome English ale. Pip was unable to visit as she got a job doing clinical research in New York.
I lost three dear friends since I arrived. Former Journalism Professor Bill McReynolds’ big heart finally gave out up on Cape Cod. My former Nederland neighbor, Karl Kirst, who fled Nazi Germany rather than join his friends in the Brown Shirts, let go to join his wife, Katie, at age 94. And Zack Martin, a former CU student who was set to shake the world was killed in a car crash while he slept in the back seat.
I have three tasks remaining before I leave Romania. Tomorrow I will facilitate the launch of the country’s first journalism advisory board at the University of Bucharest. If it takes root, I’m hoping the board will lay the foundation for better communication between journalism educators and professionals. At present, they pretty much dismiss each other, and journalism suffers as a result. On Tuesday I’ll travel to Bacau, a nearby town where the mayor and his cronies own everything, including all the media. I’ll be consulting with the one newspaper they don’t own. My last week will be spent in workshops with Roma journalism students. The Roma, better known as gypsies, defy my heretofore comfortable way of thinking about minorities. It should be a great week.
The future will sort itself out when I get home. I most likely will seek another, but briefer, training assignment, and/or check back in with CU. I also have some fiction ideas to explore, including one that came to me in a dream in one of those Medieval Romanian villages. But mostly I want to spend time with Carol and friends and the wildflowers around my house and recharge and eat enchilada grandes at the Pioneer Inn.
My friend Karl, who worked most of his life as a chef, left me with these words the last time I saw him: “A good meal, good wine with friends, what else is there?” During these months in Romania, I have felt needed, able to serve and appreciated. After all, what else is there?
I hope to see or at least to talk to you all soon.
Be well, doug
Feb. 1, 2004
The big green sign at the crossroads said in English, “KILLING FIELDS,” and a bold white arrow pointed down the road toward the Choeungek Genocidal Center. The park, along with a former-school-turned-Khmer Rouge-torture-headquarters, are among a handful of must-see sites on the Phnom Penh tourist trail.
They offer critical historical lessons, of course. But what does the fact that displays of one of the most grizzly and unspeakable epochs of mass murder in human history are among the most promoted tourist attractions in the capital city have to say about a place?
I wish I knew. If I’m lucky, Cambodia will give me at least some hints along the way of my six-month assignment here. I arrived in Phnom Penh 17 days ago. I will be teaching two, two-month intensive courses in basic journalism skills to professional (sort of) journalists from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma) for the Independent Journalism Foundation in New York. They are the same folks who ran the center in Bucharest where I served as a Knight Fellow. This should be interesting, as with the exception of Cambodia, these students will return to newspapers in countries not the least bit interested in democracy nor journalism as promoter/protector of same, which is my usual schtick. But when I asked my 14 students last week what they believed was the role of journalism in their countries, they practically unanimously replied, “to inform the readers.” If that isn’t common ground, I don’t know what is.
With a very few exceptions, the trainees are here to learn. Just to get a sense of their abilities, I assigned everyone to write a brief profile of someone at a shopping mall or the central market. One Chinese-Cambodian student named Ice (is that cool, or what?) came back with a great little piece about a young woman who commands an elevator and stands, never sits nor speaks to riders, for 12 hours a day for about $50 a month. Ice rode up and down for 20 minutes to get the interview. Good stuff.
Teaching to the few exceptions whose English is very weak will likely be, as one former trainer wrote, “like watching cows listen to music.” They’ll probably surprise me, though. Students usually do. The best thing about teaching in Cambodia is that you have to do it barefoot. And you can have fun with names. For example, every morning I get to say to a Vietnamese woman named Hanh (Hai), “Hi, Hi!”
To get an idea of the extremes of Phnom Penh, I asked Sareng, a driver who was getting me around in his 1988 Toyota Camry – about half of the cars in the city are Camrys of that era for some reason – to take me to the richest and poorest places in the city. This request usually utterly confuses local folks, who can’t imagine why anyone would want to see a bunch of poor people. I had just read a New York Times account of Cambodians who eke a living out of recycling garbage at the city dump. So we headed out there. On the way, we passed enormous, French-inspired villas going up inside walled compounds on the main road. These things rivaled Colorado prairie castles in size and surpassed them in opulence. I asked who owned them. “Powerful people in the government,” Sareng said. Big surprise. Cambodia’s economy, such as it is, depends largely on foreign aid. Expats and their Land Rovers are here by the thousands. Much of that money finds it way easily, apparently, into the pockets of power.
At the city dump, a couple hundred rag pickers, about half of them elementary school-aged children, spent their days mining garbage to either eat or sell to recycling warehouses set up nearby. When garbage trucks arrive with fresh garbage, these people mob the truck three-four deep as the machine disgorges the contents of its iron stomach onto the heap. On leaving, I did notice that some non-governmental organization had set up a center offering food and health care to what apparently has become a viable community living on garbage.
So all in all, Cambodia is no different than the rest of the world. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. It’s just easier to see here than at home. If I were a betting man, I’d say that this ever-widening gap will become the greatest threat to human civilization down the road.
I’m starting to get a vague sense of the political landscape here, and it isn’t pretty.
I’ll spare you history lecture, but suffice it to say that the gentleman in charge, a former Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen, lost UN-sponsored elections 10 years ago. But he didn’t like that outcome, and bullied his way back to power in a power-sharing agreement with the legitimate winner. He ended up back in the driver’s seat after a brief shoot-out in the capital in 1997. He failed to get a clear majority in recent elections but remains in full control of the country as he negotiates (not) with the opposition to form a legitimate government. The opposition is getting a lot of support from voters, but by all accounts its members are more worried about their personal safety now than any time in the last decade.
And not without reason. The country’s leading labor organizer, Chea Vichea, was gunned down in broad daylight the week I arrived. Two men rode up on a motor scooter as Chea read his newspaper at a kiosk on a main street just 10 blocks from where I’m staying. One man got off and pumped three bullets into Chea and rode off. I visited the site the next day, and local venders pointed to the place on the concrete where Chea fell. I guess there is no tradition of placing flowers at sites of tragedy here.
Bob Mellis, a Scottish-American journalist veteran who directs the journalism center, and I attended Chea’s funeral the following Sunday morning. The procession began at about 8 a.m. during the relative cool of the morning. Thousands of Cambodians and some Westerners lined the streets in wait. A big wreath of flowers with Chea’s portrait in the center led the procession followed by clusters of 100 more. These were followed by a gaggle of dignitaries, including Sam Rainsy, to whose opposition party Chea belonged. They carried a cardboard likeness of Chea dressed in his business suit. Behind them came a float of sorts carrying monks in saffron robes. One important monk sat cross-legged on a platform in the center uttering prayer into folded hands. Then more flowers, another truck with six or eight musicians playing traditional percussion instruments similar to Indonesian gamelon. The truck carrying the casket, shaded by golden umbrellas, followed flanked by hundreds of garment workers wearing black mourning headbands and carrying small bouquets with incense. Chea’s wife, who is seven months pregnant, and their small daughter rode with the casket, which was draped in the Cambodian and union flags. Behind them marched thousands and thousands of garment workers. At the end of the procession, Chea was cremated in a public ceremony at a Buddhist temple. Folks said it was the biggest street turnout since a 1998 protest against fraudulent elections. Somebody in the close crowd lifted Bob’s wallet.
But not to worry, the week following Chea’s murder, police released a sketch of the shooter. The bad journalistic news is that most newspapers ran it at face value. The good news is that at least one English-language newspaper interviewed a dozen people who witnessed the shooting. All said the police never asked them for a description of the man. Police declined to say where they got the information for the sketch. This inspired a lot of confidence in the authorities when they made two arrests of men who first said they didn’t, then did, kill Chea. So there we are.
I met two young monks at the national museum who wanted to practice their English. Most young monks are simply too poor to go to school, which costs a lot of money here, and join a pagoda to get a free education. It seems to work pretty well. But there are disadvantages for a young man – namely, no women. One of these fellows, who has been a monk for almost four years and is soon to return to civilian life, couldn’t keep his eyes off four girls sitting on a bench across from us. “Soon,” he said.
Yesterday the trainees and I visited the aforementioned “killing fields” near Phnom Penh. It is one of an estimated 120 such places in Cambodia. As you probably know, these are the places where the Khmer Rouge killed and buried those who they considered unfit to go forward in their bold new Cambodia during their rule from 1975-1979. In the case of Choeungek, this largely meant Phnom Penh’s intellegencia. As our young guide explained, the Khmer Rouge rounded up those with “soft hands” and perhaps eyeglasses. Anyone who spoke a foreign language was it. Apparently the Khmer Rouge, who had been living hard in the jungle for years, wanted only those who had suffered as they had, like farmers, to join them in the new future that began with what they referred to as “year zero.” By some estimates, the holocaust consumed, by execution, starvation or disease, as many as one-third of Cambodians, about 3 million people.
An estimated 17,000 soft-handed ones were taken to Tuol Sleng, a former school converted to a torture center in the center of the capital. I will visit it next week. There, each one was tortured to extract the names of their family members, who would follow them to Tuol Sleng if named. If they didn’t die there, they were taken to Choeungek, a once pleasant little wood about 15 km outside of town. It’s difficult not to feel the fear on the road to this place. There, the condemned kneeled beside pits and were bludgeoned with farming implements. The guide said the executioners were often mere children, 14, 15, some as young as 10. Some of those young murderers escaped with their lives and have married and gone on with their lives, he said.
“I have nightmares maybe three times a week just from working at this place,” he offered. “I cannot imagine what they dream.”
The guide said it is estimated about 20,000 people were disposed of here in mass graves. The site today appears to be pocked by bomb craters, as the pits are now marked by depressions in the earth. The earth itself is now an aggregate of dirt, bone fragments and scraps of clothing underfoot.
The diggers unearthed 8,985 skulls before they quit digging. These are now stored in a newly built stupa, or little temple structure, stacked three skulls high on 17, 12 foot-by-12-foot glass shelves rising 40 feet high. In the void of those skulls once resided a large portion of the knowledge and education of this country. That knowledge is now sorely missed. My Khmer students did not have the benefit of qualified teachers, for example. It’s a stark memorial to the insanity, but few Cambodians come here. It’s mostly the tourists, like me.
I wish I knew what old Cambodians dream.
That’s what I know so far.
I hope this missive finds you all well and happy. I’m sorry for the group email, but, well, you know. Let me know what’s going on with you. I’ll be home Aug. 1, hopefully in time to help my friends George and Scott build an addition onto George’s house.
On family news, Pippa just got accepted to CU medical skul, Anna is having a great time studying art at her new school in Holland, and Carol is still trying to keep dog Cinnamon from eating toxic leftovers on his walks.
Be well, doug
May 29, 2004
Greetings from Phnom Penh. I’m on the downhill side of this assignment, and it’s past time to check in with you all. I hope this massive missive finds you all well and getting ready to vote in November. I am well. I have completed my first two-month journalism course here in Cambodia and just finished up workshops in Hanoi and Vientiane, Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic). And this will be the subject of today’s lesson.
But first, I apologize for all the typos in my last email. My daughter, Anna, pointed them out to me. Pretty embarrassing considering many of you are wordsmiths. But I took some consolation in Anna’s editing eye.
My first two-month workshop for 15 Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao and Burmese journalists was fascinating. The first day I met them, I asked them what they thought the attributes of a good journalist were. Predictably, I heard curiosity, persistence, bravery … then one of the Cambodians who works for the largest Khmer-language newspaper said, “They have to be good liars.” Ok, I said, could you tell me more about that? “You have to tell people you’re somebody else so they will talk to you,” he said. A few heads nodded in agreement. Ethics are a hard sell here. It is common for journalists to find a $10 bill paper-clipped to press releases. Cash is also paid at the door for attendance to press conferences. These people make about $40 a month. A simple meal in a restaurant costs about $5. My lesson No. 1: It’s a lot easier to be ethical if you make a living wage.
Shaha (not her real name) was special. She is a 26-year-old Burmese (Using the name Burma really ticks off the dictators in power in Myanmar. I recommend it.) and the student with the highest concentration of ink in her veins. She is Karen, an ethnic minority that is still fighting a guerrilla war with the government. Burmese live is under the heavy thumb of a military junta that has been in place in one form or another since about 1946. There is no press freedom. There is no real news nor newspapers. Access to the Internet is banned. Shaha and the two other Burmese journalists will not be able to practice much of what they learned here. Maybe someday though. Shaha dreams of the day Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner who won 1990 elections but was not allowed to rule, will be released from house arrest and lead Burma out of the darkness. She asked me when a journalist knows when it’s time to cross the line and risk their life for a story. How can we answer that, we who have never had to take such risks?
I gave the class a lead-writing exercise taken from a local paper about a policeman who was killed by three men after stealing his motorbike. They were still at large. The policeman had just gotten married a few days earlier — good human interest hook. What’s the lead? Shaha wrote that citizens should be on the alert for three dangerous men. I asked her why she didn’t lead the loss of life. “He was a policeman,” she said. “People won’t be sorry that he was killed.” Well, she WAS writing for her readers.
Luo (not his real name) is another Burmese journalist. He already has spent four years in prison for associating with an undesirable, he said. It’s no wonder Burmese journalists are cautious about what they write. Luo told me that several student journalists were imprisoned for reprinting previously published quotes from generals. An example: “We will return to barracks after the election.” Not.
Luo approached me after a news writing session. “I am glad to know how to put the most important news in the lead,” he said. “But you should know that in Burma we work very hard to hide the news inside the story so the censors don’t find it.” Kansas, this is not.
We started with 15 students and graduated 14. One of the Khmer journalists had almost no English and didn’t seem interested in the material. The center pays these journalists $50 a month and gives them free room and board — enough reason to apply for some, and candidate pickings are slim. We sent the guy home after several warnings. Believing that Shaha had somehow been responsible for our decision, he threatened to kill her in front of the class over breakfast. Then Bob, the director, began receiving emails that he chose to take as death threats against us. I and a co-trainer, armed with beer bottles, slept at the center with the students for a few nights to calm nerves, but this went on for weeks. Bob finally ended up buying him off. A Cambodian writer said that Khmer society is like a clenched fist. That resonates.
The class took a weeklong field trip north to the ruins of Anger Wat. Stunning. Paris was still a village a millennium ago when Angkor was a thriving city of 1 million. For some reason the Khmer Rouge largely spared the temple complexes their wrath. But most art and sculpture not nailed down was stolen and continue to be stolen, often by the army, which has the heavy equipment to do it. But what remains is exquisite. Exquisite.
Sihanoukville, named after the Cambodian king who prefers to live in North Korea or Beijing, is about four hours south of Phnom Penh by bus. As in any developing country, the beach is swarming with children selling baubles. One of these latched on to me, beseeching me to buy a sarong. I firmly resisted, and this little guy began making a macramé bracelet for me. “A gift,” he said. “I don’t need a bracelet,” I persisted. But as he was half finished with it by then, I accepted the fact that I had lost this little skirmish and would give him some money for the gift. He tied it on my wrist, then vanished. Interesting marketing strategy, thought I. The next morning he came to hit me up for a sarong again. I handed him a dollar. He took it in his hand. “That’s for the bracelet yesterday,” I said. Then the damnedest thing happened. This little guy put the dollar back in my hand. “No,” he said, “That was a gift for good luck.” Just when you think you have folks all figured out, they go and do something like that. That night a Cambodian soldier raped a Canadian woman walking alone on the beach.
Down the beach a ways a trail beckons into the jungle. I followed it a little ways before I saw the skull and crossbones signs that mean landmines. Five or six people a day still die by stepping on landmines in Cambodia. I was later told that the landowner put these up just to scare people away. Worked for me.
Traffic in Phnom Penh is a real phenomenon. There are cops everywhere, but there appear to be no rules of the road to enforce. The cops are there just to shake down drivers without papers for a little cash. Few busy intersections have stoplights. Cars and motorbikes simply muscle their way through each other. The preferred method of turning left is to head directly into oncoming traffic a half a block from the turn. Like a school of fish avoiding an obstacle, traffic flows around the offending vehicle. The same thing happens with pedestrians. You’d starve to death before a gap in traffic occurred. So you just walk out in traffic like you own the road, and people drive around you. I bring this up because I have a new driver this month. There is no public transportation nor taxis, so most expats hire drivers. Tai is an incredibly kind and gentle young man who cooks at the media center. He just bought an old $800 Hyundai from his brother in law. My last driver didn’t work out, so I tapped Tai, hoping to give him a start in the driver business. Only then did I learn that he can’t actually drive the car very well yet. We’ve had some lessons with the clutch and he’s getting better. But I’m reminded of teaching my daughters to drive every time I tell him to give it more gas, slower on the clutch. All this in the chaos described above. So far so good. The only guy on a motorbike he has hit so far wasn’t hurt. Tai is also learning how to keep business records – money out, money in – to learn if this car business is a good idea or not. It could go either way. The other day he ran out of gas, and I got to push the car to the gas station in traffic.
I had the opportunity to train journalists in Vietnam and Laos between Phnom Penh courses. Hanoi was an eye-opener in every way. The city itself is dripping with art and culture. The first time I saw a young man sitting on a park bench reading a book, I was awestruck. He made me aware of how utterly focused Phnom Penh is on survival, on getting a leg up. There are no parks in Phnom Penh to speak of, and books seem a luxury for the elite. Hanoi is safe, ambitious and most incredibly of all, forgiving. Not once did I detect the slightest resentment of my nationality from any one, of any age. I had heard this was the case, but it was still hard to imagine. When I asked Vietnamese why they don’t resent Americans, they invariable said, “That’s in the past.” They are moving ahead at full steam now. More than one told me that the Americans were just one of many foreign powers, including China and France, that Vietnam has had to fight for its independence.
A former Time Hong Kong bureau chief and I had prepared a two-week course for mid-level editors at the Vietnam News Agency – the basic skills of the trade our experience told us were needed. Our director, who set up the training, said it was officially a “train-the-trainers” course for top editors, but assured us the bosses wouldn’t come and we should focus on the basics. We got the participant roster the morning of the first day. There, sure enough, were the names of the top brass of Vietnam’s national wire service and official voice of the Communist Party. Unfazed, we stuck to plan A, and bombed. The 20 or so participants told us bluntly that they had very important jobs, that they had been journalists for 30 some years, that they knew what a news story is, and that they expected to learn how to train their staffs. Rick and I had planned one day out of 14 to talk about training techniques – pretty much all we knew on the subject.
There was a lot riding on this workshop. This was the first time top VNA people had ever consented to attend training by Westerners. The VNA director in charge of training took a big risk in setting it up, especially with these participants. If we blew this, her head would roll, it would likely set back all training in Vietnam, and the Independent Journalism Foundation, which we represented, would not be asked back. I haven’t operated at that level of panic for quite some time.
Rick and I came back the next day with both barrels blazing training techniques. That was well received, even in translation. Then we proceeded to cover the basic skills, but in a way we hoped would be more palatable for these seasoned journalists. Instead of saying, “This is how you write a hard news lead,” we tried, “This is how you teach your young reporters to write a hard news lead.” By Buddha’s divine grace, it worked. We really did have a lot to share with them that was new and useful, but it had to be presented in a way befitting their stature. Makes perfect sense in hindsight. I even did the Billy Bob exercise, which some of you will know, and it brought the house down. The workshop ended on a high note, and the VNA and IJF shook hands on four more workshops this year. Don’t ya love a happy ending?
Laos went much more smoothly, as the participants really were starting from scratch. Laos is a pretty good sized country but has only 6 million people compared to Vietnam’s 80 million. In every way, it is half way between Cambodia and Vietnam — more developed and sane than Cambodia, but far behind Vietnam. The good news is that the Lao people seem to like it that way. It’s a soft place, where people live modest but mostly content lives. People treat each other gently. But the press is weak. It’s tough to be a journalist in Laos. As in Vietnam, every publication is affiliated with one government ministry or another, and the media is the official voice of the government. There is no higher education in journalism, almost no training, and most people simply get assigned by their bosses to be journalists. The pay is about $20 a month. But like Vietnam, Laos is gradually seeing the value of a press that also serves the reader (and one that makes a profit). It is moving forward cautiously. Many of my participants devoured the workshop like mango sticky rice. One guy couldn’t stay awake, but the class said he delivers newspapers early before the course started.
Between Hanoi and Vietnam, Carol and I met in Italy for a romantic week together on the Amalfi coast south of Naples. Cambodia was too far for her to come for just one week, so we met in the middle. It was a lovely week, but I did learn that in some ways the Italians are about on a development par with Cambodia and far behind Thailand and Singapore. Did you know that there is one Internet tube available at the Rome airport, and it is in an obscure shop and usually doesn’t work? And the airport Hilton has exactly three connections for only 20 euros an hour? I know this because Alitalia was on strike, Carol’s flight was cancelled, and the web was our only hope of communication. But the wine was great, and there were all those cool shoes and sunglasses….
On the homefront, Pip is winding down her job in NYC and will move back to Colorado in July. She’ll stay for a while. Her med school plans got upgraded to a seven-year MD/Ph.D program. Anna just returned from a couple of weeks in France where she was on an art school field trip. She’ll visit me in Cambodia in about three weeks. We plan to go up to Angkor Wat and down to the beach, then hang around Phnom Penh while I’m teaching. I’ll be home Aug. 2.
To end with some very good news, we heard recently that Shaha will probably be hired as the new Agence France Presse correspondent in Yangon (Rangoon). Whatever else happens during these six months, this makes it all worthwhile. As an employee of a foreign wire service, Shaha will be able to practice what she learned here and still live in Burma. She can be a real journalist, writing real news about Burma. I hope she will be there to write the story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s eventual triumph over the junta.
Be well all, and I hope to see you all soon, doug
Oct. 3, 2005
I hope this letter from Baku finds you all well where ever you might be. I am sorry for the group format, but I am blessed with lots of friends and cursed by the time management gods. Please let me know if you’d rather not receive these irregular dispatches.
As some of you know, I am in Baku, Azerbaijan, on a Fulbright grant to teach journalism skills at Baku State University, the biggest state school in the country. Azerbaijan, for those of you who don’t know much about the place (as I didn’t), is on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It’s bordered on the south by Iran and Armenia, west by Georgia and north by Russia. Chechnya is right across the border, but there’s no violent spillover that I have heard about. It’s a Shiite Muslim country, but not at all in the die of Iran. Azerbaijanis have lived under many flags in their long history (and I do mean long, as some say the Garden of Eden lies undiscovered within its borders), including the hammer and sickle for about seven decades. Emerging from Russian influence, Azerbaijanis seem about as religious as your average Presbyterian, but the men drink Vodka like East Texas Baptists. The young women dress like Jennifer Lopez and strut their stuff on the promenade nightly, but they’re home by 6 on orders from their fathers.
Baku is an oil town of about 3 million people. At the turn of the century it supplied something like 90 percent of the world’s oil supply. The stuff boiled to the surface. Sometimes it caught fire and burned eternally. Those spots became Sufi holy ground. Now British Petroleum is here producing mostly offshore and pumping billions of dollars worth of crude to the Mediterranean every year through a brand new pipeline, so far with profits cleanly bypassing the people. There is an English or Scottish pub every few blocks in the city center – the muezzin’s call to prayer no doubt reminding exhausted oil workers it’s time for a pint.
It’s been 14 years now since Azerbaijanis gained their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. There have been some paper steps toward democracy, but the country remains utterly corrupt, run by what the locals call the “mafia”– family and cronies of the president. Shiny new Mercedes and BMWs course with old Russian Ladas on asphalt rivers.
I got a small taste of the depth of democratic reform yesterday when I went with a local journalist to an opposition demonstration a few blocks from my little flat in the center of town. As some of you know, there have been three relatively nonviolent popular revolutions in this neighborhood of late. Citizens of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgystan gathered in their downtown squares, usually after crooked elections, chased off their leaders and installed new governments. Well, Azerbaijan will have parliamentary elections Nov. 6, and the opposition here has been trying to march to the central square to hold rallies. Based on recent history, the government figures it’s prudent to keep the opposition out of the center of town. So yesterday, like the Saturday before and probably every Saturday leading up to the election, police formed lines across streets blocking access to the center. When the 100 or so marchers (it’s not a particularly strong nor united opposition) tried to proceed to the center, the police moved in, banging their sticks on their metal shields for effect, and herded the group down a side street away from the center. Some were beaten, others arrested. It was over pretty quickly. The passers by seemed to take it pretty much in stride.
A Fulbright anthropologist colleague and I got caught in one of the sweeps. A pod of shield-beating cops wearing expressions like those Balinese demon masks descended on us. My Azerbaijani journalist friend shouted something to them, and they flowed around us. I later asked him what he said. He told the cops we were with the State Department. Damn, insult to injury. Then we three went for a beer by the nearby seaside. We had to sit upstairs in case there was trouble with the demonstration on the ground level. When we left, people were drinking downstairs, confirmation that this Saturday’s spectacle had officially ended.
Some people are predicting revolution if the Nov. 6 elections are pronounced a fraud, which just about everyone expects them to be to some extent. But most Azerbaijanis I talk to say they will probably vote for the president anyway. The explanation goes something like this: It’s better to vote for the scoundrels in office because they already have filled their pockets and maybe won’t take so much more. But the opposition would take office with empty pockets. There’s not a lot of optimism here, not yet.
I arrived in Baku 3.5 weeks ago. That time has been spent paying respects to the university bureaucrats, which had to approve my work here, and recruiting students. Until Friday, my three Azerbaijani teaching colleagues and I didn’t know whether any students would be interested in taking the courses. After all, under the Baku State system, they will get no academic credit for it. They certainly aren’t getting paid to take it, and it will be a lot more work than the classes most of them are used to. I’m sure most of them are wondering why they would want to be a journalist in the first place. As in most developing democracies, Azerbaijani journalists are poorly paid, little respected and have very little room to move in doing the job.
Then there’s the university. According to those who teach here, the academic system, probably as in every former Soviet country, is still in a post-Soviet hangover of sorts. Students show up for class. The dean personally takes roll, I’m told. The lecturer, in the Soviet style, lectures slowly and deliberately. Students dutifully record his or her words in a notebook, which later will be checked by the instructor for its content. There is a test. A state education is nominally free here. But at the end of class, students are expected to buy their grades if they want to receive credit for the course, whether they made an A or an F – doesn’t matter. That money, I’m assured, starts with the lecturer and, in decreasing amounts, finds its way all the way to the rector of the university. He’s running for Parliament, incidentally. So as in many public sectors in so many countries, public servants here make their living quite outside their salaries – which to be fair is a pittance in this expensive oil town. During their four years of journalism school, most students never write a news story. Not one.
A university administrator gave me a tour of the facilities recently. On our way out of the main building, she said there was not much to see in the classrooms or library. Passing the deteriorating old Soviet-era buildings on campus, we came to a bright, shiny new sports complex which included a state-of-the-art Olympic swimming pool. No one was using it, but it was well guarded. The students have no books, the faculty doesn’t earn a living wage, lecturers have to pay for paper for handouts from their own pockets, but by God you should see their pool! And it was paid for by the university, not some generous foreign donor.
“This is typical for Azerbaijan,” my guide laughed, and shrugged.
Thus my trepidation over whether anyone would be interested in what I’m selling.
My colleagues and I visited classes last Tuesday to introduce the course and asked those interested to show up for a meeting on Friday. We were hoping at least 10 or maybe 20 would show up. Forty-eight came. Some of them came three hours early and waited for us. Is that cool, or what? So next week we begin. This is going to be fascinating. I’ll also be teaching one skills course for working professionals bound for a U.S.-sponsored master’s program in Georgia. That’s three in all.
So after a slow start, this assignment is shaping up to be promising. The plan is to plant a seed of practical journalism training at Baku State. I’ll co-teach the Baku State courses with some of the enthusiastic young journalism instructors there, thus gaining translators and giving them the opportunity to observe American training techniques. We’ll also develop a basic curriculum in Azerbaijani that they can use to carry on if the powers that be will allow it. Winning the dean and senior faculty’s confidence will be the real challenge. If they feel threatened by what we’re doing, they’ll squash it like a bug when I leave.
Today I spoke with some journalism graduate students. They and their professor told me that they were not allowed to use the university swimming pool. They didn’t know who was allowed to use it. I asked them if they thought that might make a good news story, the pool being built with public money and all. They didn’t reply. I think they were thinking about why that would be news here. This is going to be interesting.
Be well, Doug
Hello from Baku . . . well, actually from the plane leaving Baku bound for Colorado. My apologies to those who would have liked more from Baku sooner, and to those who feel spammed by this one. I guess things got pretty busy after this gig – a Fulbright scholarship –
finally slipped into gear. Before I neglect, I hope your new year will be full of love and good works and that Star Trek reruns start up again on Channel 2.
When I wrote the last one of these almost four months ago, my three Azeri colleagues and I had recruited about 50 Baku State University students to take our basic skills journalism courses – without school credit. That number dropped to a more reasonable 30 or so, and we ran one class of 20 in Azeri in interpretation and one of 10 in English. To my delight and awe, those 30 students pretty much came to every class, including on Saturdays, and did all the work.
Like students across the developing world, these kids are starving for real education and for a little respect and leash from the grownups. When it comes along, they wolf it down and ask for more, please. Not only did these kids complete the course as volunteers, but a group of the most dedicated put out a little newspaper in just three days AFTER they had received their certificates. More about that later. This experience has reinforced my belief that students, given a little guidance and respect and responsibility, will shine if only idiot adults will get out of their way. I think Dylan said that.
Besides the newspaper, we broke some new ground at Baku State, the nation’s largest university. You might recall that Azerbaijan held parliamentary elections in November. They were as crooked as Nixon’s nose, but that’s another story. In an effort to teach the students election coverage, we organized a little news conference/debate with three actual candidates from government, opposition and independent parties. This doesn’t happen in nature yet in Azerbaijan. We had to rent a hall off campus as opposition candidates were not allowed to speak at a state university. The rector (who is yet another story — think “Godfather”) was running as a government candidate. His posters were the only ones allowed on or near the campus, and faculty were required to work on his campaign.
The students interviewed everyday Azeris on the street to learn their issues and concerns so that they could take them to the candidates at the conference. Many of them calmly and professionally put these questions to the candidates. Others who had never gotten this close to an actual politician before leapt at their throats. There was no taming them. A review of interviewing techniques followed in the next class. All in all, it was very successful and much the talk of the J-skul.
We also covered a court session and wrote about that. The judge was either so impressed to see 30 students in his courtroom or so enjoyed being in the limelight that he volunteered to guest lecture on Azeri press law. We had to get written permission from the dean for that one. We would have covered a public meeting had we been able to find one. Azerbaijan ranks fourth from the bottom on Transparency International’s openness and corruption index.
We threw the students a graduation ceremony and gave them neat, shiny certificates of achievement last week. The dean, not a bad guy really, but post-Soviet to the bone, told the students he was pleased to see they were so enthusiastic about this course, and he wished they felt the same about their other courses at the university. Duh – Earth to Dean. Teachers spoke, the kids spoke. It was cool.
Then after some tea and cakes about a dozen of the students who wrote the best feature stories and I met to talk about publishing a newspaper, and The Windmill – (“Circulating News for Students”) was born. After naming the paper, they formed an editorial board. We had a five-minute session on news photography, and off they went with my little digital camera to get art for their stories. The editor of a local newspaper lent us a designer to lay out the paper, and three students saw it through that rather messy five-hour process. One of them, Tamara, automatically assumed the position of editor-in-chief and called the editorial shots. Despite several visits by Murphy’s Law, they got the paper out on deadline.
The next day I went to campus to say goodbye to the students. Everyone seemed to be reading The Windmill. That’s a beautiful sight every time it happens. The students corralled me and wanted to know how they could keep publishing. I told them what I thought it would take, and an Azeri teacher reminded them, “You shouldn’t have very high hopes. It takes lot of work to put out a newspaper.” Of course, the students knew exactly how much work it takes to put out a newspaper. They had just done it. They know that if they are to succeed, it will be in spite of their elders. I think they might pull it off.
The Windmill might be the first real student-published newspaper in Azeri history. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but it is about student issues, based on facts (I dare not say it is wholly accurate) and tries to be balanced and fair. This is an improvement over where we started, where most students – including fourth year students – honestly didn’t know it wasn’t ok to make stuff up in news stories. I also coached the head of the journalism department of Azerbaijan’s best private university. He didn’t know that, either.
We built the foundations of some potentially significant reform at BSU (apt abbreviation, no?). My Azeri instructor colleagues will almost certainly get a Soros grant to write an Azeri-language textbook based on our course materials. The Godfather Rector has agreed with us that the course should be added to the general curriculum – meaning every j-student would take it – in September. This all looks very good on paper. But of late I have had a nagging skepticism that we may have built a house of cards rather than concrete. What happens from here all depends on university politics, not even remotely what makes sense or is best for the students. In this respect, BSU is not so different than some U.S. universities. So cross your fingers.
There’s more to tell, but this is quite enough for a mass e-mail.
Oh, you should know about the shoeshine man. Language is a great isolator in this kind of work, at least it is for me. But I have discovered that it is both possible and pleasant to have complete conversations with someone speaking a different language even if neither of you has the foggiest notion of what the other is saying. The other day, a little old man who shines shoes on the sidewalk near my little commie flat started telling me about how stupid his president is. I only understood the word “president,” but by his tone I was pretty sure he was dissing the guy pretty hard. So I proceeded to tell him what a nincompoop my president is, in three-part harmony, and we had a perfectly lovely conversation while he was working on my boots. We shared a special “My president is an idiot” relationship after that and always greeted each other on the sidewalk. Or maybe he was saying my president is an idiot. No matter.
Family catch up: Pippa is into her second year of the Md/Ph.D program at CU in Denver and still thriving there. Anna just completed her first full-length animated film (six minutes, but it has a beginning and an end) and will graduate the art academy in Holland this summer. Anna and I spent Christmas with good friends in Greece. Carol is still working at the CU engineering school and is nursing a sprained ankle that has caused her to miss the ski season. Her daughter Ally is working and taking classes at CU. Son Aaron is in the 11th grade now in Lyons.
I plan to be in Colorado for a while. I hope our paths cross soon – here or there.
Be well, doug
p.s. An email from Editor-in-Chief Tamara awaited me when I arrived home. Seems a vice-rector didn’t care for some of the stories in The Windmill and was calling everyone in for little talks. They explained to him that the stories were accurate, fair and balanced, and that the readers would decide for themselves what to believe about them. Inshalla, these kids are the future.
July 23, 2006
This is a letter from Male, the Maldives, but it was written on the plane home. There was an ever-so-slight chance my email was being monitored on the island, and I figured, why chance it? So please forgive the delayed report. As usual, I apologize for the length. It just happened. Feel free to hit the delete button now.
I hope this finds you all well.
For those of you who don’t read yourselves to sleep with world atlases, the Maldives is an island nation off the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Its 300,000 souls live on about 200 of the country’s 1,200 islands. Pricy yuppie resorts occupy 88 islands so far and counting. I’m told you can spend $3,000 a night on one island resort, a deal that comes with your own private butler. Almost twice as many people visit Maldives each year as live there. The Maldivians have been there for centuries. They’re descended from South Asians, Arabs and Africans – really pretty people – and short.
Of those 300,000 people, about 70,000-90,000 live on Male, the capital island. I have seen a few islands, but I have never seen anything like Male. Imagine throwing a lasso around Boulder, scrunching it up to about a 2-kilometer diameter, scooping it out of the earth and depositing it on a 2-km diameter island just made to fit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Delete the dogs, bars, cleavage and Starbucks and you’ve pretty much got Male. Paradise it’s not — there are no beaches (well, one artificial one) and no alcohol. Every Maldivian citizen is by law a Muslim, which explains the ban on booze and dogs.)
But it’s pretty good to Maldivians. It’s safe. Its residents are relatively affluent, although most have to hold down two jobs to make ends meet. It’s orderly, as it must be to support that many people on four square kilometers. There are speed bumps about every block, which keeps the 650 taxis from getting in too much of a rush. There are a few really fast-looking cars on the island. I saw one Corvette, which must be adapted to clear the speed bumps. Taxi drivers told me that every Thursday night (Muslim Friday night) the hot cars gather to cruise Ocean St. on the island’s north side. I didn’t get to see it, but imagine this Corvette and the like cruising a 2-km.-long road interrupted by speed bumps every 50 meters or so. What is it about guys and their cars and dragging Broadway on Friday night? Maybe diplomats could use that as the starting point for commonality in peace talks in tough places.
But I digress. I was in the Maldives as a Fulbright senior specialist (that’s a souped-up Fulbright skolar) at the invitation of the Ministry of Information to write the curriculum for the country’s first journalism degree program. This was very different from what I’ve been doing in post-Soviet countries. Male is a journalism education virgin of sorts. As I can see that metaphor isn’t going to work out, let’s try this: starting a journalism school in Maldives compared to reforming a post-Soviet one was like building a new house from scratch compared to remodeling an old one. I didn’t have to mess with everything being out of square and out of plumb. I didn’t have to deal with a thoroughly rotten foundation. There were no aging, corrupt carpenters who understood nothing about modern construction. It was pretty cool. And unlike in Azerbaijan, where the university rector was shadowed by a coterie of bodyguards, the rector of the Male College of Higher Education was a nice, intelligent and dedicated guy who was admired, not feared, by the faculty.
Anyway, I wrote course outlines for 12 journalism courses in about 2.5 weeks. It ain’t art, but it’ll serve. The rest of the time was spent trying to make it as hard as possible for the powers that be to take the credit for the work and file it away in that warehouse where they put the Arc of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The weakness in this effort was the lack of one dedicated human being in whom to entrust it. This was apparent from the start. First the people at the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka, which also serves the Maldives, were all transferred out to other posts the week after I arrived. When diplomats are reposted, nobody even remembers their names a week later, much less their initiatives. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Then there was the situation on the island.
First, some condensed history. The Maldives have been governed by the same man for 27 years now. Most folks will say he’s a benevolent leader, but then they’ve never had a choice in candidates for whom to vote. To his favor, he hasn’t seen the need to plaster his face on every billboard and building in town. But he does have his own island and fleet of yachts (I counted five in the harbor) and his office is heavily fortified with machine gun nests in a town where the wickedest weapon I saw was a sling shot. In response to street demonstrations that the police handled badly some years ago (and some say under the threat of a European Union tourist boycott), the president is steering the nation on a course to democracy. Opposition parties are now allowed, and the nation is trying to decide whether to become a parliamentary democracy.
Also new is liberalization of press freedom, which is where I came in. Although it enjoys a monopoly on broadcast, the government is allowing an opposition press to publish. Now, this opposition press, led by a spunky little paper called Minivan (it means “independent,” which of course it’s not), is feeling its oats. But like any young bull fresh out of the stable, Minivan is long on passion and short on discipline. It talks a lot of trash about government officials, who are understandably newly taken aback. So the minister of information, a 36-year-old guy on his way up, has been charged with cultivating a free and responsible media that won’t badmouth him and the other ministers. He especially resented Minivan’s publication of his medical records regarding his hemorrhoid surgery. Fair enough. What he doesn’t know about a free and responsible press won’t hurt him. Yet. Anyway, the opposition press’s excesses are why, I gather, the president decreed the nation will have a journalism degree program at the college.
Now it has a curriculum to teach. The question is whether there is the will to teach it. Maybe I just have a journalist’s thing about government officials, but the ambitious info minister’s motives in this venture were unclear at best. The College of Education, in which lap the new program fell, has neither the experience nor enthusiasm to host it. Asked what he thought about the new program, the rector frankly replied, “The minister has said it will be done, and we will do it.”
So a big part of this assignment was trying to make it as hard as possible for those powers that be to let it whither after I left. We put together a new Journalism Advisory Council of representatives of the most influential media in the country, from the left to the right of the political spectrum, to advise us through the course design process. I’m hoping the members are now invested enough to keep an eye on its progress and at least ask the minister how it’s going now and then. And we have tried to lock in Western journalism trainers to co-teach the journalism skills courses with Maldivian faculty on the maiden voyage. The embassy, or what’s left of its continuing staff, promised the minister two Fulbrighters for those courses. For his part, the minister promised to send three Maldivians to the U.S. for master’s degrees in journalism. They would presumably return to take over or help teach the courses. Inshallah these people will keep their words. If they do, this will fly. If not, well, it may crawl for a while.
I wasn’t able to do much training of professionals while I was there for all the work it took to get the main job done. But I did manage to train the little staff of Minivan for a few sessions late at night. The reporters were a motley but sincere and dedicated lot. I liked and respected them immensely. Minivan is an opposition party paper, pure and proud. Our press grew from the same roots, only our first papers were even more vicious and unprofessional. We mostly worked on the premise that good, fact-based journalism that is accurate fair and balanced is not only a more formidable tool for change than slander, but that practicing it can keep you out of jail. I once asked if the author of a particular story was in the room. “He’s in prison,” the editor told me. In fact, half of the staff is either in prison or under one charge or another. The editor, the brother of the opposition leader currently under house arrest, is charged with incitement just for quoting a veiled threat of violence by a politician. I asked him what he thought would happen. “I’ll be found guilty,” he said. According to a local justice NGO, no one charged with a crime in Maldives had ever been acquitted. This editor already has spent 33 days in solitary confinement on a previous charge, he said. He showed no signs of mollification.
For purpose of context, one political rally and one of our training sessions had to be postponed for a world cup football game. It’s not all that bleak.
I passed through Colombo, Sri Lanka, to be briefed and debriefed at the embassy. That is worth a mention as well. I was last in Sri Lanka 30 years ago as a traveler. I had just come down with hepatitis, and spent something like six weeks holed up in the YMCA for a quarter a night. It was a kind of frenetic South Asian kind of place then, but the war was not fully upon the country. On the day that I arrived in Sri Lanka, somebody detonated two claymore mines as a bus full of civilians bound for a funeral passed. More than 60 of them were killed. The next day, the Sri Lankan military launched strikes on Tamil Tiger positions in the northeast of the country. Every day there is an incident. People seem a little less poor, but Colombo seemed much was the same.
My first morning in Colombo, I got the gift of a reminder of the bottom line for most South Asians. Out for a look at the sea, a guy who said he was a barman at the hotel offered to show me a special, today-only, temple ceremony nearby. Why not, thought I? I followed this fellow, trailed by another who ended up getting $2 from me for a charity — something to do with sign language. He had a clipboard and everything. He complained rather loudly that I handed him $2 instead of the $20 clearly indicated as the going rate for foreigners on the clipboard.
We hailed a whining two-cycle, three-wheeled taxi and were at the temple in minutes. The barman went off to pray in a neighborhood temple “not a tourist temple,” he said. The taxi driver made a sudden and smooth transition into a tour guide, explaining the Buddhist trappings all around us, punctuated by the question, “Are you happy?” I assured him that I was, and so he was happy, too. I had only 30 minutes for this whole affair, as I had to make an initial meeting at the embassy. So the driver whisked the barman, sufficiently prayed out, and me back to the hotel. This was bottom line place. I ended up getting soaked for $8 by the driver, $2 by the barman (who, of course, wasn’t), who bitterly complained that that wasn’t even bus fare home, and “that’s nothing to you,” as if I needed to be reminded. I muttered something about principle and strode back to the hotel, decidedly not happy anymore. But what the hell, a cheap and timely lesson and welcome back to South Asia. In a way, it actually felt kind of good to get a goosing before breakfast, like the old dharma bum days of the 70s. Oh, and I found the YMCA and stood at the railing where I stood every day waiting to get well enough to move on. It was very, very cool to own that memory.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Pip is thriving in her second year of MD/Ph.D school in Denver, Anna just graduated from the art academy in Holland and has an internship at a Dutch 3-D animation studio before coming home in November, and Carol and I took an Alaskan boat trip to make up for lost time.
Live long and prosper, doug
March 10, 2007
I hope this note from Africa finds everyone well.
Anna and I are taking a break from work at a national park on the Zambezi River in the far north of Botswana. The river is swollen from heavy rains in Angola upstream and is easily a couple of miles across from the hotel terrace where I sit.
I am in Botswana for four months on a McGee Journalism Fellowship for Southern Africa. I’m in the throes of helping the young Media Studies Department here launch a student newspaper and Web site. Anna is visiting for five weeks, giving an animation workshop to artists in Gaborone, the capital city, volunteering with an NGO that cares for children in need of a home for various reasons, and collecting sketches and ideas for a project we’re working on together.
Botswana is a mind-boggling place for an American uninitiated in Africa – not so much for the contrasts, but for the similarities to life at home. Some call this place “Africa light.” It is unique in this troubled continent, thanks mostly to serendipitous gifts of history and good decisions by early leaders.
First off, white folks (whose colonial adventures caused much if not most of African’s woes) didn’t appear to covet Botswana. The vast majority of its vastness – it is almost as big as Texas – is occupied by sand and thorn trees capable of supporting family cattle and little else. When the Afrikaners did start moving north out of South Africa, three Botswana chiefs journeyed to London to ask the queen for protection. Britain, being at odds with the Afrikaner Boers, obliged. Thus in 1885, Botswana became a protectorate — short of a full-blown colony – of Britain. Apparently less colonization meant more stability after independence in 1966.
The tetse fly helped as well. Domestic cattle could not survive the sleeping sickness virus that the little guys transmitted through their bite. This not only made Botswana less attractive to white farmers and cattle ranchers, but it helped preserve the nation’s wildlife populations from their rifles and fences. The wild species are not bothered by the tetse fly.
At independence, Botswana was free to exploit a zillion hectares of sand and bush. Then, in happenstance of amazing good luck and timing, the largest diamond deposit on Earth was discovered here. It is so big that DeBeers, the world’s largest diamond company, agreed to give the nation 10 percent of its company’s action worldwide in exchange for half the profits from Botswana mines. So Botswana has basically a one-resource economy. But unlike oil-rich Azerbaijan, for example, where probably 90 percent of the profits end up in private Swiss bank accounts, Botswana spends generously on infrastructure and services. One has to wonder where lies the difference in humanity.
From a Roddenberrian* perspective, Botswana’s economy relies almost entirely on love — on that most elusive commodity – the sparkle in brides’-to-be eyes, and on their suitors’ desire to put it there.
Oh, and there’s this: Botswana, as far as I can tell, has never been to war. Can anyone think of another nation on Earth that has never been to war? I can’t.
Gaborone, the capital, is a brand new city – roughly 40 years old beyond its village phase. The first recipient of diamonds’ largesse, it is a mostly modern place with good, well-lit roads, fancy cars, shiny new shopping malls and fashionable shoppers toting bags of fashionable stuff.
It’s odd, and not a little troubling, that I work to develop journalism on the assumption that better information gives people the opportunity to have choices in their lives. And then when they choose to build lives similar to ours, I don’t really care to be there anymore.
The people here are lovely — quick to offer a smile and way-cool handshake and generally a laid back lot. This is especially expressed in how they practice Christianity. Suffice it to say the missionaries scored big in Botswana, as all over Southern Africa. A Batswana colleague, a lecturer at the university who moonlights as a fundamentalist preacher, took me to one of his services one Tuesday afternoon. It was spirit-filled with a rock band with sound man, lyrics projected on a screen from a laptop via projector. All the components of an American fundamentalist service were there, but somehow there was less pressure to surrender in the room. Folks came and went and did their thing – very personal. There were some sincerely generous gestures of community. A member’s infant son had died the previous day in Zimbabwe, and members gathered round him offering spiritual and monetary support while his wife’s cell phone number flashed on the screen for condolences. Zimbabwe, in case you are behind in the news, is circling the economic drain with a 1,600 percent inflation rate. Store shelves are bare while President Mugabe throws himself a lavish 80th birthday party. This is another story.
After the ceremony on the drive home, my preacher colleague and another university staff member engaged in a debate about whether preaching putting one’s faith in God instead of putting on a condom was aggravating the HIV/AIDS crisis here. What struck me was how relatively rational the debate went. And the fact that I am a card-carrying heathen and damned-to-burn-in-hell-for-all-eternity does not seem to faze my colleague. He seems to like me anyway.
You are probably wondering about the HIV/AIDS situation here. Well, so am I. The international media still refer to Botswana as having one of the highest infection rates in the world – up to 38 percent. Signs advertising 24-hour funeral parlors are common, but otherwise, the disease is not readily visible here as it has been in other places I have been, although I admit my exposure to Botswana is largely a 20-minute walk from my flat to the university and back and reading newspapers. (The common language here is English, by the way.)
One possible explanation for the lack of a visible crisis is that the government is making headway in providing anti-retro-virus treatment to all citizens free of charge. This is not possible for Botswana’s neighbors that don’t have the world’s largest diamond mine supporting about 2 million people.
Another possibility is that the numbers were wrong in the first place. Without getting into the details, UNAIDS put the infection rate at 33 percent two years ago. The government says it’s 17 percent. The UN has since lowered its number to 24 percent, but there remains a debate about whether one in almost five Batswana or one in four is HIV-positive. The national press has not bothered to sort this out, so a reporter for the UB Horizon (our little paper-to-be) will do it in the first issue. Our concern is that rumor of inflated rates might make for bad decisions in the sack.
As this letter is running way too long, as usual, I’ll save the story of the UB Horizon for a second letter. For now, be assured that its debut next week is by no means secure.
I’ll close with the coolest thing I’ve seen since I arrived: Walking to work one morning after a rainfall the previous afternoon, I chanced to see a dung beetle on the side of the road. She was an uninspiring black 1.25 inches from end to end, but what she was up to lent an awesome beauty to her. She was using her shovel-like head to dislodge bits of dung (cows regularly wander into town) from a little pie – just the moist bits best fit for sculpture – into a perfect ball about 1.5 inches in diameter. And I mean diameter. This sphere was perfect. After she had turned a pile of shit into a work of geometric art, she pushed it backwards, using her hind legs, toward an underground nest where she would lay one egg in it. Her larvae would begin life feasting on mom’s artwork. It gives one a whole new perspective on cow flop.
Meanwhile, Anna is pondering her next move after graduating from a Dutch art academy last year. Pip just bought a cool condo in Boulder and is in her third year of a sevenish-year MD-Ph.D program. Carol is coming to Botswana for two weeks in May, and we will fly home together May 12.
Stay well, and please keep me informed.
All best, doug
* Gene Roddenberry is the creator of Star Trek. But you knew that.
August 17, 2007
Greetings from Dili, East Timor. As usual, this isn’t actually sent from East Timor, as I just got around to writing it on the plane home.
I hope this group email finds you all well. This one will be a tad lighter on humor than usual, as East Timor is not at a very funny place in its history. East Timor, or Timor-Leste (which literally means East-East) is the world’s newest country. It is just turning 8. It is a graceful but injured place.
By way of sobering anecdote, I gave the staff of our program a Timorized role play exercise I have given to just about every journalist and student I’ve ever stood before. The original involves an East Texas redneck fire department dispatcher named Billy Bob Johnston. Students interview Billy Bob and write a story based on what they learn. Part of the plot involves jet fuel storage tanks dangerously close to a burning house in a poor neighborhood, and part of the challenge is to recognize the potential disaster as a story angle. Billy Bob tells them, “If them tanks would have blowed up, it would have taken out a quarter of the capital. It would have been the worse disaster this city has ever seen.” It occurred to me that in Dili, the incineration of a quarter of the population wouldn’t be the worst disaster this city has ever seen.
For the geographically challenged, East Timor is the eastern half of the lovely isle of Timor, which is northwest of Darwin, Australia. The western half is part of Indonesia. The historical dime tour begins with three centuries as a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese shed East Timor in 1975 with most of the rest of its colonies and after Timorese voted joyfully for independence. Indonesia thought otherwise about freedom for the East Timorese and, with U.S. approval, invaded nine days after it became independent. An estimated 100,000 Timorese died in subsequent weeks and months, and 200,000 more became refugees – this from a population of just less than 1 million. Thus began a 25-year, often brutal occupation that made Timorese good guerilla fighters but gave them precious few other skills. A British journalist managed to film a massacre of unarmed demonstrators in a cemetery in 1991 and show the world what was happening there. One of our staff members lost two brothers in that massacre. The UN forced another independence referendum, this time from the Indonesians.
The people again voted for independence. The Indonesian army and its proxy militias did not take that well. Having already ensured the Timorese remained largely uneducated and unskilled, they now proceeded to make sure the new nation would have little upon which to build. They killed hundreds, displaced another 200,000 and burned or bombed three-quarters of all buildings in the country on their way out the door. One of our trainers lost about 50 family members. The departing forces chopped some of them up and threw them down the family well, as they did routinely across the country. The survivors returned from the forest to no electrical grid, no phone service and precious little drinking water. And that’s just the dime tour.
Suffice it to say that just about everything, and everybody, has to be built from scratch, including the news media. I was called in for 2.5 months as interim director of a U.S. government-funded journalism development program. The first guy left suddenly in May with medical problems, and the next permanent director couldn’t arrive until August. The work went well, so far as I can tell. But journalism development efforts have barely scratched the surface here.
As always, I worked with some extraordinary, courageous people.
Fernando, our operations manager, told me of fleeing to the hills that surround Dili during the Indonesian carnage. He took some rice and a cook pot and the clothes on his back. For three months, Fernando survived on the good will of local farmers as he watched Dili burn below.
Although unrest doesn’t approach those levels now, violence still plagues the Timorese. Post-election uncertainties sparked pent-up political resentment across the country, and for two weeks in August there were small mobs of youth roaming the streets in Dili, burning tires and stoning cars (which explains the t-shirts that read, “I got stoned in Dili.”), but not much else. It was worse in the countryside. Mobs burned about 400 houses, creating an estimated 4,000 more refugees on top of the 150,000 already living in camps scattered in pockets across the city – the result of worse internal strife a year ago. It was quite safe in our neighborhood, but we didn’t venture out after dark then.
Fernando lives in a tougher neighborhood. A local “gang” targeted him and his family for harassment. Youths stoned and threatened repeatedly to burn his house. He sent us an SMS one night in a panic, but there was nothing we could do but urge caution. The gang laid siege for two days. Fernando kept guard around the clock in his front yard. If he and his family had fled to safety, his house would have been history. Officers at the police station next door offered little comfort, until inexplicably one day they arrested the gang leader and shipped him off to jail. It was what Fernando did next that I will never forget.
Instead of crowing victory, he gathered some neighbors together with coffee and treats and marched on the home of a community leader who is a member of the opposing political party – the party usually considered responsible for the violence. The man had locked himself in his home for days, also afraid to venture out. But he let Fernando and the others in, and they talked about acting like neighbors instead of enemies. That took not only courage, but grace. Saving East Timor will require much more of both.
Another staff member, the director of a community radio station far from Dili, missed three weeks of training, afraid to leave his home and family open to attack from those who threatened his life. I’m sure most of our staff members have similar stories I never heard.
Oh, here’s something sort of funny. It has nothing to do with East Timor though.
I drank beer one night with my next door neighbor, director of the International Republican Institute in Dili. These people, like their Democratic counterparts, mostly work in developing countries cultivating political parties. They do some good work.
So this guy had been living in Ukraine and Mongolia for the past seven years. He married a ravishing young Ukrainian. She’s 25 now, he’s 42. She was out that night, so we sat in his living room around a dwindling six pack, and he bared his Republican soul to me. He produced a pile of photo albums of himself and George Bushes Sr. and Jr. The Bushes seemed to look down from every wall of the flat. There was even a W. refrigerator magnet. I drank more beer.
He showed me what he called his most prized possessions — presidential cuff links with George Sr.’s signature on the back. And then came the presidential broaches and tie clip. Presumably as a reward for campaign work, he got a Whitehouse job keeping track of the stuff that kings and queens and sheiks etc. gave the Bushes as gifts. The king of Saudi Arabia gave him five gold-plated assault rifles once. Truly amazing stuff.
He told me he hadn’t talked to another American in a long time, and he obviously was hungry to share. I finally told him I was a Viet Nam draft resister and war protester, but by then we had had enough beers to let it go. It is so weird out here sometimes.
Oh, and he didn’t like Dili much. “There’s nothing to do here,” he lamented. “They don’t even have a bowling ally.” I am not making this up.
I neglected to write a second letter from Botswana. So in case anyone was hanging in suspense about whether the students’ newspaper, the UB Horizon, was born – indeed it was. The students tell me issue No. 3 is due out in days.
On a personal note, we are all ticking along. Pip is in her third year of MD-Ph.D. skul at CU. Anna is exploring her art in Holland, and we’re working together on a little project which is news for a later note. Carol is busy with work and possibly will soon help daughter Ally and son Aaron move to San Diego to attend art school. Nederland recently celebrated yet another “Frozen Dead Guy Days.”
Please keep me informed, and keep up the good work out there. All best, Doug
Letter from Sarajevo
Aug. 30, 2008
Sarajevo is a wounded beauty. Its great virtue – ethnic diversity – once a source of civic pride, somehow turned malignant. The city was savaged. For four years, death rained from Bosnian Serb guns from the surrounding hillsides. An estimated 10,000 died in the city. Everyone was wounded, either physically or psychologically. The city survived.* Now, 13 years later, most of the city’s physical wounds have been patched with mortar and hidden under a fresh coat of paint. Cafes along the famous Ferhadija esplanade hum with the coffee conversation of fashionable young people, some too young to remember well the war. Now each man and woman who does remember seeks his or her path to the future as best they can. Times are better, but they are uncertain.
I have been in Sarajevo for 11 weeks as an editor for the Center for Investigative Reporting, an NGO launched four years ago by an American journalist. A staff of 10 Bosnian journalists work on investigative projects usually dealing with corruption and organized crime. (www.cin.ba)
Every evening on my way home from the center, I walk through a lovely park. Kids neck on the park benches between the tombstones that seem to sprout like mushrooms where they will. Most are venerable and stained with age. Some are among the thousands of new white markers throughout the city that bear the dates of the war – 1991-1995.
I was last in Sarajevo in 2002, and the city was a lot worse for wear. The big landmark buildings were still sullen, pockmarked gray hulks then. In the basement of one of them, a group of journalists risked life and limb to put out Oslobodenje, a daily newspaper that published throughout the siege with support from journalistic colleagues abroad. The feat has become legend in the journalism world. Several died as they drove the gauntlet of sniper fire down the main boulevard from the city center to the office. I had a coffee with one of the staffers last week. I asked him what drove the staff to risk their lives to get the news out. He said, “Do you want the answer we give everybody, or do you want the truth?” He said matter of factly that, yes, it was dangerous putting out the paper. But the journalists were excused from the military, which was more dangerous, and they were paid 50 Duetch Marks a month. His version didn’t diminish the staff’s bravery, but it did add a nice balance, don’t you think?
Most folks here have war stories. Ermin, a center reporter, told of how his single mother, in a desperate attempt to escape the madness of Mostar, packed the kids in her old car and made a dash for the border, not knowing if she would be allowed to leave the city. After some tense moments, the border guard waved her through, but as she grasped the stick to put the car in gear, the floor shift came off in her hand. Ermin remembers her jamming the stick back through the floorboard and miraculously, it found home, and the car lurched forward and out of harm’s way. I think he remembers that moment as crossing the line between surviving and not surviving. The family was resettled in a cold European city – another story of hardship as refugees.
Mostar is a city built astride a river soon after it flows out of the northern mountains. Mostly Muslims (who are mostly about as religious as American Presbyterians) and Croats (Catholic) lived in relative harmony with Serbs (Orthodox Christian) for a long, long time. After the minority Serbs were defeated and expelled by the Muslims and Croats, the particular madness of the war pitched those two communities against each other in a way that now seems like a metaphor for madness. For more than two years, the Muslims and Croats squared off and pounded each other with every sort of ordinance across a road that bisected the city. The city was destroyed, but neither side ever gained ground.
The Croats shelled a famous bridge that the Ottomans built over the river in 1556, probably because it was built by Muslims. After the war, German stonemasons recovered what original stones they could from the river and lovingly rebuilt the bridge. It was supposed to be a symbol of the reunification of Croat and Muslim, and once again it is among the biggest tourist attractions in the country. But Bosnians will tell you that although repairing the bridge may have made the European donors feel good, Mostar remains a bitterly divided city. Law laid down by foreign peace keepers requires Catholic and Muslim children to attend the same schools. But they use separate entrances and separate classrooms, where they learn separate accounts of who started the war, and who won.
When I first came here in 2002, it was to conduct diversity training for journalists. As I recall, the idea was to help heal this shattered nation by teaching journalists to sow seeds of diversity-as-strength in the media. This longer stay taught me how silly we outsiders must have looked to the Serb, Croat and Muslim journalists in the workshop. Diversity may be a dream of a few, but the war has left most Bosnians disinterested in living with their former neighbors. In villages throughout the country that once had three places of worship – a Serb Orthodox and Croat Catholic church and a mosque – only one remains. The other two typically stand in ruin. Villages are now either Serb, Croat or Muslim.
I’m told that the war changed the way Bosnians feel about ethnicity. Serbs, Croats and Muslims all speak the same language. But in the name of ethnic nationalism, Serbs have adopted the exclusive use of Cyrillic script. Croats busily add new words to distinguish “their language.” Muslims add Turkish words to promote the “Bosnian” language. It’s hard to escape, even in a friendly kiss. I once tried to kiss the cleaning lady on both cheeks at a gathering on the event of her birthday. She resisted, and there was an embarrassing collision of noses and eyeglasses. Apparently, Serbs kiss Dutch style, three times on alternating cheeks. So Muslims won’t.
Joan Baez was in town for a free concert in July. She played here during the siege, and she is fondly remembered for that. The venue was an outdoor stage under a canopy. It was across the river from Sarajevo’s famous Ottoman-inspired national library, shelled to ruin by spite and Serb cannon during the war. I have always admired Joan Baez, but I had no idea what a class act she is. She paused in the middle of a song to accommodate the evening call to prayer from a nearby minaret. She accepted a swig of beer from a fan she recognized from her war visit when he staggered up to the stage. And she played John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Imagine there’s no country . . . and no religion, too.”
Lots of people cried.
There is a palpable fear here that Bosnia is headed for division despite the Dayton Agreement that ended the war and called for semi-autonomous Serb and Muslim/Croat regions. The Bosnian Serb president, tapping the mood of his region, appears to be moving toward independence, toward realizing the dream of Radazan Karidzic, the former Bosnian Serb president now on trial for genocide in The Hague. This does not set well with many Muslims or Croats, who finally were gaining territory dramatically when the West pulled the plug on the war, ceding half of Bosnia to the Bosnian Serbs. No one denies that atrocities were committed by all sides, but it’s clear that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible for the great majority of them, including the massacre at Srebrenica. People in Sarajevo ominously remind visitors that Bosnia has a war about every 50 years. No one is taking peace for granted.
Enough about this war. The coolest thing that happened while I was in Sarajevo had to do with another, far away, fight. A friend who observes war crimes trials here for a living guided Anna and I and his wife one night through a labyrinth of alleyways under an old flat block to a little drinking establishment that was as much a time machine as a bar. The place was maybe 25 feet by 25 feet, but I counted 32 portraits or photos of Tito on the walls, not counting the framed Tito postage stamp collections and statuary. Tito represents a time, a golden age to some, when a peaceful Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia, a relatively enlightened communist outpost free from Soviet control.
Two grizzled old men sat drinking and smoking at one of three tables. This was not a place foreigners stumble into very often. We ordered raki, a strong, usually homemade brandy made from just about anything. We had grape. Another old guy stumbled in with a sack of groceries and started carving up dinner at the third table. He approached our table and plopped down a plate of cheese, smoked meat and bread. We toasted to his good health, and I bought a round for the house.
The old guy who ran the place spoke Spanish, as well as French, Russian, German and Bosnian, but not English. He told me in Spanish that he had spent eight years in South America, some of them fighting with Che Guevara. I was struck silent by even the possibility of bumping into someone who fought with Che, here, in a back alley bar in Sarajevo. We toasted the revolution in Spanish. As the old guy ambled over to the bar, he said something under his breath like, “That has all passed now,” and refilled his glass at the tap. I felt a moment of sadness for the passing of the dream of the communist revolutionaries. Who knows if he was telling the truth, but his age and Communist sentiments added up.
Anna came to visit for about 10 days in August. We hung around the city and took a long weekend in Dubrovnik – a magnificent walled city on the Adriatic coast built mostly by the Venetians. We hung around coffee shops on the sea and read, wrote and talked. Anna is still in Holland working on her art, wondering where it will take her. Pip is three years away from finishing her eight-year MD-Ph.D program at CU, weary of torturing mice in a lab and eager to begin hands-on medical school.
Carol is keeping the CU engineering school honest and being patient with me and this work (I hope!). I will be home Sept. 1 for about three weeks until leaving for training gigs in Burma and Thailand. It has been a dream for a long time to serve the Burmese somehow. Maybe this will be my chance.
I hope this finds you all healthy and happy. Keep up the good work, and keep me informed. All best, Doug
* The movie, “Welcome to Sarajevo,” is a good primer on what the siege of Sarajevo was like seen through the eyes of journalists who covered it.
Dec. 10, 2008
I hope this tale find you all healthy and happily preparing for the holidays with loved ones. This comes past deadline, as it is not wise to email such things from inside Burma, and I was engaged in another workshop in Thailand the following month. I’m home in snowy Nederland now.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) captured my heart like no other place I’ve worked. I suspected it would, as most Burmese I’ve trained have done. I was in Yangon (old Rangoon) to conduct a two-week advanced journalism workshop at the American Center, the cultural, hearts-and-minds outpost of the U.S. Embassy. I doubt I can do Burma and the daunting feat of practicing journalism there justice in this letter, but I’ll try to give you at least a glimpse. Forgive me if this letter goes a little long. It can’t be helped. Please don’t post this letter on the Web or distribute it to people who might. I intend to keep working in Burma, and there is a blacklist. Any Burmese names are pseudonyms, of course.
First I’ll introduce you to May, who I had the pleasure to train outside of the country some years ago. She was thin as a rail then. Her radiant smile occupied most of her face. She supported her mother and several siblings on her approximately $40 a month reporter’s salary. Now she’s doing quite well, earning around $300 a month with as much integrity as the system allows. We met for lunch. She is not quite so thin, exponentially more confident, and her smile is larger than ever.
When May speaks of her country, she uses the words, “in here,” as if Burma were surrounded by walls. For most of her 50 million countrymen, it is. She is one of the lucky few granted a passport. Life “in here,” is tightly controlled by the junta, which by one clique or another has controlled the Texas-sized nation for 46 years, all but 14 years of its post-colonial history. As much as can be controlled, is controlled by the authorities. The generals fear the people above all, and they rule by fear. If a Burmese wants to have a house guest – even a parent – visit overnight, they must get permission from the authorities. Motorbikes are the primary means of transportation in most of Southeast Asia. They’re banned in Yangon because they can be handy tools for motorcade and other assassinations. Distance learning is differently motivated here. After the 1988 student uprising, college campuses were dashed into small, remote pieces to prevent the possibility of another critical mass of students forming. There is an entire other layer of thought in Burma that few other peoples on the planet need know. “Is this or that act too close to the line?” “Is it worth the risk?” The prisons are full of people who made the wrong call.
Too many of them are journalists, who must make this call every day. The Committee to Protect Journalists says Burma is the third worst jailer, now holding 14 journalists. Five of them were arrested while trying to spread news and images from areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis, it said. The good news is assassination of journalists is rare in Burma.
Burmese journalists work in conditions that would make most of us wonder why they bother. Newspaper reporters try to publish about four stories a week, May says. Every story, every photograph, every cutline, every song and every book must pass the “scrutiny board,” an office of some 200 censors whose job is to guarantee that nothing unsavory toward the country or junta sees the light of day. I was told there are four tiers of scrutiny. The first guy redlines almost everything, afraid that he might miss something. The story gets progressively uncensored as it moves up the tiers, until a high-ranking official passes final judgment. The process takes a minimum of four days, which means breaking news is at least four days old. There are ways to get hot stories into print faster with the right connections.
Sometimes, May says, one or two or three of the week’s stories get through with only minor changes. Sometimes none survive, sometimes all. To fill the news hole, some reporters write seven or more stories a week, hoping enough get past the censors to fill the paper. Journalists are not told why their stories are spiked, nor can they try to rewrite them. They just move on.
I was baffled at first at why the journalists in our course had such poor news judgment. As soon as I realized that bad news of any kind is generally not allowed, it started to make sense. The censors discourage “news” as we know it. Thus, there was very little warning and no news at first of Cyclone Nargis, an epic storm that killed an estimated 130,000 people last May. Never mind the ban on news of death and destruction. In the aftermath of the storm, one journalist wrote a story advocating the replanting of coconut palms, a plant that people depend on for a myriad of uses from food to construction, in the worst-affected Irrawaddy Delta. It didn’t pass. Some examples are laughable. I saw a cutline beneath a photo of a beauty queen slashed with red ink simply because it contained a date in 1988 – the year that the people very nearly succeeded in rising up against the junta. This reference was not remotely related to that event, which ended with the massacre of an estimated 3,000 demonstrators.
If for some reason a story makes it to publication that still offends a minister or general, the fact that it passed censorship is no protection for the newspaper or the reporter. Publications are banned and journalists jailed on the whim of power. A private weekly was banned recently for two months because a cutline under a photograph of a Burmese child happily working on a Thai construction site contained the words, “child laborer” – accurate but offensive.
The best journalists find ways to slip the news unnoticed past the censors. One journalist told me that a German tourist recently had died of natural causes while on holiday in Burma. This was bad news and would never survive the red pencil. So he wrote a story about the man’s wife, “who so loved the beautiful scenery and people of Burma” that she stayed on and finished her vacation, even though her husband had unfortunately died. The story ran, the news got out there, albeit in the fourth or fifth graf. Despite my lead-writing workshops, the trick in Burma is to bury the news, not begin with it, if you want to see it published.
Add to this low pay, communication challenges (a cell phone sim card costs $2,000, so most rent time on them), monitored email, tapped phone lines, and the fact that reporters must speak in code and meet in safe rendezvous to avoid military intelligence eavesdropping, and you begin to get a sense of how dedicated these journalists are. Did I mention beginning reporters earn about $50 a month?
May’s beautiful smile never sagged as she spoke of the hazards of practicing journalism in Burma. I asked her how she and her colleagues managed to carry on.
“Our lives are a struggle,” she said with that huge smile of hers, as if that was supposed to explain it all. I think there is another reason. Over the month that I was in Burma, I don’t think I met one journalist who did not love his or her country passionately.
Minutes after we parted company, May called to caution me to stay in the hotel, as a bomb blast had just occurred downtown. It was the first anniversary of the “Saffron Revolution,” named for the color of the monks’ robes who led it. Dozens of them were shot down by the army, hundreds of others arrested. During my visit, trucks stuffed with riot police cruised the streets. The government is afraid of anniversaries, too.
Our training attracted somewhat less attention. On the first day of our journalism workshop at the American Center, we got word that the chief of military intelligence had asked for more information about what we were up to. This sent everyone scrambling, as this was one man no one wants for an enemy. The next day, the scrutiny board contacted the editors of some of the reporters in our class, requesting their profiles. Police visited the home of at least one of them, saying he was checking to see if the address matched the address on the profile.
I asked the journalists in the course how they felt about all of this attention. They said of the scrutiny board, “That’s their job.” They said they were not intimidated, although that surely was the reason for the inquiries. They were used to this, they said. The general consensus was that the authorities would be watching us, but so long as we didn’t get political, we should be ok. We stuck to journalism skills, and the course proceeded without incident.
Each journalist in the workshop wrote one in-depth news story. I instructed them to imagine themselves on the deck of a starship where they could report and write freely. I’m not sure how that was translated. On our next to last day, we returned to Earth. We held a workshop on how to regroove a proper news story into something that might get passed the censors. They were the experts on this, so they divided into groups and advised each other.
That day, the Burmese co-trainer recalled for these young journalists a golden month during the 1988 uprising during which several journals resolved together to publish without submitting their stories to the censors. He became visibly excited recalling those heady days. He was there. Everyone knew how the story ended.
The next night, we all went out for beers after an American Center presentation honoring Daniel Pearl. One of the journalists at the table had been arrested after the 1988 crackdown and had spent 12 years in prison, eight of them in solitary confinement. He was imprisoned with Win Tin, until recently the longest-jailed journalist in Burma. He was released while I was in the country. When I left for my hotel in a taxi that night, I felt blessed by the presence and camaraderie of these journalists, but left still groping for how to best help them march against a wall so strong and high that no one can see over or around it.
Journalists in Burma are not hopeless. They have much hope. But they are helpless, as was I, to change the things that really matter.
I’ll leave off on a happier note. Boarding a domestic flight to the ancient capital of Bagan on a rainy day, I noticed water dripping onto passengers from above. Could a jet plane with holes in its fuselage maintain pressure at 13,000 feet, our cruising altitude, I wondered. When we climbed above the clouds, the dripping stopped, and it was a fine flight up the Irrawaddy River. Telling a Burmese friend about this later, he laughed, “Oh, it’s much better now. We used to open umbrellas in the plane.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, daughter Pippa is more than half way through her medical program in Boulder, and Anna will be home for the holidays as well. Anna and I are still slogging away at finding a publisher for our little children’s books. If anyone has any contacts in the business out there, we could use all the help we can get. Carol remains busy with work and family.
We send you all our warmest wishes for the holidays and for a healthy, productive new year – a year of promise for a change. Cheers, Doug
Postscript: I had three more assignments in Burma with the U.S. State Department for a total of 10 months in Burma until 2011. For most of those months, I was honored to work with the Burmese Writers and Journalist Association to train hundreds of Burmese journalists to cover the 2010 elections. Some independent newspapers didn’t believe the junta would relinquish power no matter how the election went. But other journalists chose to remain true to their craft and did their best to inform their readers. And damned if it didn’t pay off.
March 27, 2011
I hope this letter from Juba, South Sudan, finds you all well and enjoying the coming of spring. As always, I beg your forgiveness for sending you a group letter. I am in Juba on a three-month mission to train radio journalists working for the UN-sponsored station, the largest in the almost country.
The Republic of South Sudan will, inshallah, be declared the planet’s newest independent nation on July 9. The celebration will come at the end of 55 years of fighting with the Sudan to the north (the government that brought us Darfur), which ended with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and the recent peaceful, landslide vote to secede from the North. But for those who fled the country and returned, the South Sudanese have known only war. Now, the peace remain tenuous, and the prospects for prosperity remote. The challenges facing this country are inestimable. One set of figures keep coming to mind. Although the fertile soil here could feed much of Africa, according to experts, the government currently gets 98 percent of its revenue from oil. The UN folks here say that about 90 percent of that money is spent on government salaries. This direct pipeline of easy money straight into the pockets of government doesn’t appear to leave much room for incentive for these officials to serve the people nor develop the nation. It’s hard to preach accountability to the taxpayers when there is virtually no tax revenue. I’m told that this arrangement was necessary to ransom peace by rewarding the military with these jobs to entice them to put down their arms. After so many years of war, it probably seemed like a bargain at the time. Now some are questioning how good a deal it was, as seemingly each week another former general defects from the government and returns to the bush with thousands of armed militiamen to stage attacks against the army. Many here believe these defectors simply get better offers from the North. The national army is a microcosm of this tribal nation and thus not a cohesive force. I’m told that when the SPLA moves out to quash fighting between rival militias, some of the government soldiers who identify with the militia’s tribal affiliations defect, and others pronounce the fighting as a tribal affair and refuse to engage them. So, at least in the opinion of the UN military guys who drink beer at the camp watering hole, South Sudan lacks a force than bring order to the country.
Juba has the feel of a refugee camp that has taken root. Most estimates put the population at less than 1 million but growing by the day. Just six years ago it was a tiny Northern army outpost, with the current inhabitants shelling it from the bush. There are some brick buildings, but most structures have the appearance of having been made with whatever lay nearby at the time. There are still many traditional structures scattered about – one room, round adobe huts with conical reed roofs. Too many people have no shelter at all, as more refugees continue to stream in from every direction across the vast plain. But for a few exceptions, the roads are very much like Colorado mountain 4×4 roads. This perception is amplified by the herds of Toyota Land cruisers and Land Rovers – many white with the letters UN on the sides, but others privately owned presumably by aforesaid government officials. There are no traffic lights, and very few people have driving licenses. There is very little electricity or water or services of any kind, although the Nile flows through town. The place is so new that there is understandably very little of anything that defines city or state. The UN and heaps of aid agencies are here to help the people build those institutions and things. It’s a lot to take in, and I get tired just trying to get my mind around it all.
I live in a fortified UN compound connected to the airport near the center of the city. The UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Sudan) camp is what I imagine a military camp must be like, but peopled with folks of all flavors. The other day I was walking to the radio station and was set upon by a band of Indian soldiers celebrating a Hindu festival. Their faces were covered in brilliantly colored powders, a spot of which they dabbed on my forehead before sending me on my way. The camp is pretty much self-contained. It purifies its own water, has its own sewage treatment plant, generates its own electricity and has a PX and a nightclub with subsidized booze. Everyone lives in institutional gray 3×6-meter metal “containers,” which are about as cozy as they sound. Some long-timers here have fixed them up with furniture and landscaping, maybe even an attached toilet. It’s nice to see people making trying to make a home even here. My container, sadly, is just a gray can. But it’s fascinating how anything can feel like home if that’s what one comes back to at the end of the day. Oh, and each container comes with its own powder-blue UN flak jacket.
There is one restaurant run by Egyptians that serves good food and coffee – and lots and lots of beer. One Serb who has been here for four years as liaison with the SPLA (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army) told me that the great challenge in the camp is passing the time. I know that sounds crazy in such a busy world with so little free time, but I’m beginning to understand it. There is much time to kill after knocking off at 5 or 6, and Juba does not have much to offer in the way of relaxation. Everyone here seems to have a story that involves drunken men in uniforms with guns at night. I have always distained UN staffers who never leave their compounds to meet the locals they are paid to serve. I’m trying not to become one, at least during daylight hours. UN staffers spend their evenings quietly in their containers or in the restaurant bar, drinking weak Kenyan beer and expositing to anyone who will listen their take on what REALLY lies behind events of the day, played out non-stop on Aljazeera on a big screen. Favorite topics include conspiracy theories to explain the most recent renegade general attack up north in South Sudan are a favorite, but also popular is what forces are REALLY driving the Arab “awakening.” Even if it is sport, some of these people know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, I heard one guy inform the table with utter certainty that the Arab democracy revolt had spread to Wisconsin and had President Obama trembling in his boots. Another guy, an American working to protect civilians (which he says don’t exist here after five decades of war) painted an authoritative picture of loyalties and betrayals in a northern region, then with the same tone of certainty assures us that the Americans are using a green incinerating ray fired from space in many of the most recent high-profile assassinations around the world. Star Trek has nothing on this place.
I’m learning more than I needed to know about the United Nations. It seems that it deserves its reputation of poor management, inefficiency and waste. The system certainly rewards ineptitude, and the resulting work ethic is hard to watch. I suppose the wonder is that our species has managed at all to pull together an organization from our myriads of tribes that is dedicated to peace.
As I don’t get out much, I’m lucky that wildlife within the camp is surprisingly abundant. There are always kites in the sky (The locals call them eagles, but I’m pretty sure they’re the same species of kites that are always overhead in Lahore, Pakistan – incredibly artful fliers.), several lovely little finch species always in the few trees here, and a flock of ghastly-looking storks that hang out around an old sewer pond. It’s hard to imagine how such an ugly creature can fly so gracefully. And when it rains, a chorus of frogs sings one to sleep.
I am here in South Sudan to train radio journalists at MirayaFM, a radio station that broadcasts to more of the new almost nation than any other. It is a joint effort of the UN and the Hirondelle Foundation, a Swiss group that does a lot of radio work in post-conflict zones. The station has played a significant role in informing the people about recent elections and the referendum for independence. My assignment is to raise the bar if I can on the journalism here. As always, it’s an honor to work with these journalists. I don’t know any of them well enough yet to learn much about their backgrounds, but I do know that most of the men were in the army. Many were child soldiers. Others were recruited from refugee camps in Uganda and other places. I am working with about 20 full-time reporters who together turn out about a dozen one-minute news clips a day and a handful of feature a week. Expectations are not high in the UN. When I arrived, it seemed every UN international I encountered wanted to let me know up front that the Sudanese were lazy. I’m wondering where they were supposed to pick up a work ethic fighting in the bush or just surviving in the refugee camps. Some of the reporters are working hard to learn new skills and get good stories, and as always it’s a joy to see that. Most of the ones who aren’t producing, I believe, don’t have the skills but are reluctant to ask for help. I’ve tried to make some changes in the newsroom that should make it easier to get better stories. The Serb news editor, his Sudanese deputy and I have introduced news beats. This is taking some getting used to, as previously most reporters waited for news releases about this UN workshop or that government meeting to land on their desks. Those who have embraced the change are starting to get stories previously unreachable, including in the courts, and they are breaking more news. We’re all quite pleased so far, but this has been tried before and petered out over time. I will be here for two more months. I hope that will be enough time to institutionalize beats and thus reporting by initiative. Meanwhile, I’m coaching individual reporters and conducting workshops.
This place is full of surprises. Recently I edited a nice little feature about a small tribe which ritually hands over chiefly power to a new generation every 15 years. This time it was only 13 years because the rain chief and bird chief (keeps the birds away from the fields) underperformed and had to go early. (Note: this would never happen at the UN, where nobody gets fired.) It was a sweet story – singing, dancing, drumming – all of it. And what a thoroughly civilized tradition, I thought, handing control of the community over to the next generation periodically. Then I’m talking to the reporter to learn more, and it turns out he left out the part where the new generation leaders kill 45 members of the old leadership when they refused to step down. They burned their bodies in the presence of the police and governor. It’s a tribal issue, he explained matter-of-factly – no complaint was filed. He can’t write about that. The radio station’s mission is to promote the peaceful transition into statehood. That means we don’t run stories that could exacerbate tensions and possibly spark conflict. It runs against the grain, but makes complete sense on the ground.
The staff had a tough week last week. One reporter lost a relative to childbirth (including the child). “It is our life here,” he said. Another lost a cousin to an argument over a $1.60 motorbike taxi fare. The customer shot the 16-year-old driver as well as a Good Samaritan who came to his aid. And we had two cases of malaria.
Whenever I find myself losing patience with reporters, I try to remember a story one of them, Maal, a Dinka guy about 7-feet tall, I swear (He is getting tired of me asking how the weather is up there.), recalled to a videographer who shared the DVD with me. When he was a boy of 6, Maal got separated from his parents as the fled a militia raid on his village. By the time everyone stopped running, his parents were nowhere to be found. The SPLA soldiers took responsibility for him and other boys like him. The army became their family. When he was 8, the soldiers gave him and the other boys his age a gun. He recalled that the gun was as big as he was. They boys didn’t understand death, nor the connection between guns and death. One day, as boys will do everywhere, they decided to play battle and divided into two groups, one the SPLA, the other the enemy. There was shooting, and some boys fell. Maal said he remembered standing over a boy, telling him to get up, the game was over. “But he didn’t get up.” He never said so, but the woman who made the film suspected that Maal fired the shot that killed his friend.
Meanwhile, as most of you know, Carol moved in with me in Nederland last year and we are happily making a life together. Anna is in Thailand and Burma teaching English and training Burmese to use puppetry to get their social messages across. Pippa got her Ph.D in February and will start the final two years of medical school this month. I will be home in mid-May for two weeks before returning to Burma on a two-month training contract. I’ll be back in August for a long stretch at home.
Sorry this ran a little long. I hope you are all well. Keep up the good work each one of you do, and please keep me informed.
All best, Doug
Postscript: I had two further missions to South Sudan, ending in evacuation in December 2013 when the country returned to war, civil war this time. I am happy to report that newsbeats took hold in the newsroom, and Miraya became a reliable source for breaking news. At a party by the Nile on the eve of my departure, each reporter introduced him or herself at the microphone by name and beat. It was a proud moment. I also recall standing alone looking out on a dilapidated ferry boat on the river, wondering what stories it could tell, when Emmanuel, who covered SPLA affairs among other things, joined me. He was a quiet, secretive man who clearly had seen too much of war. He spoke to me from knowledge of the inner workings of the army and government, but telling me nothing – just letting me know I was talking to a man who did know. I liked Emmanuel. I respected him strength. He was married to a beautiful fellow reporter named Night Grace. She, on the other hand, was a pain in the ass. Night was the perfect example of someone who knew how to work the U.N. system, so it wasn’t necessary that she work very hard. Emmanuel and Night had two small children. A few weeks after I arrived home in Colorado, I got an email from the Miraya editor. Emanuel had for some reason gone into a rage and stabbed Night to death with a knife, then turned the blade on himself. He spared the children.
As much as the South Sudanese taught me, they could never teach me the depth of their pain.
By the restart of war, the UN had booted the Hirondelle Foundation out of the station and assumed editorial control. It functions largely as a public relations tool for the UN now. In places like South Sudan and so many others, good people create good works over months and years, and those good works vanish in moments of madness.