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March 16, 2009
From bloodshed to bustle, scenes from a Beirut street

 

Hamra Street. Photo: Kristen Gillespie

Kristen Gillespie is currently reporting from Beirut on an upcoming signature series about life in Lebanon. She recounts life on Hamra Street in Beirut, where cafes and eclectic storefronts mask the past scenes of violent fighting.

Hamra Street in Beirut, Lebanon is a random mix of sleek cafes and sketchy nighttime establishments with names like “Tico tico” and “Goldfinger.” It is also the home of Bread Republic, part of the international Slow Food movement, and Café Younes, one of Beirut’s oldest cafes that still prepares its beans in the original roaster from 1935.

The past two years have brought new life to a once-desolate Hamra Street. Restaurants, cafes and lounges are opening, and in a city where the short term can bring just about anything, it is a much-needed sign of confidence that the future will be better than the past.

For a country known more for being politically and socially divided along religious lines, Hamra Street is something of a refuge from the unrelenting sectarianism that haunts Lebanon’s past, present and future.

In the past four decades, the fighting has also swept over the street. It was occupied by Yasser Arafat’s forces, Israel’s army, pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, in addition to countless other militias. But Hamra, ultimately, has never belonged to one group, and it is that freewheeling spirit that makes it what Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut calls “the last, great cosmopolitan neighborhood in the Arab world.”

 

The Tico Tico club. Photo: Kristen Gillespie

Nearby, a woman from the Arabian Gulf, dressed in head-to-toe black, looks at the risque lingerie in a shop window. A little further up Hamra Street, readers have their choice of well-stocked bookstores, which confidently present their wares in Arabic, French and English. While a café sits on nearly every block, international coffee chains along Hamra threaten the famous café culture of the neighborhood.

Young shoeshine boys wander the street to attract clients, and then set up their portable shoe-polish stand, squatting on the sidewalk, furiously rubbing in the polish with their hands for a small tip. Maher, the host of the tiny Abu Hassan restaurant specializing in grilled meats just past Hamra Street, expounds on why he became a vegetarian as he serves picture-perfect salads and other Lebanese dishes at this shabby hidden gem. Cab drivers shove each other while yelling about some sort of internal turf war. Traffic jams up along the two-lane street, and frustrated drivers honk into oblivion, all to no effect.

– Kristen Gillespie

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March 13, 2009
Newly-minted Estonian soldiers head to Afghanistan

Soldiers gather for a briefing in Estonia’s snowy woods. Photo: Sally Garner

Producer Sally Garner is reporting from Estonia and writes from a military base about the newly-independent country’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan.

This newly-independent former Soviet Republic takes its freedom very seriously. Proud of its membership in NATO and its friendship with the United States, Estonia is among the most committed of all the countries willing to send soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2002, Estonia — a country with fewer than 1.5 million people — sent its first soldiers to stand alongside the United States in the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2003, Estonia signed on as one of the original members of the so-called “coalition of the willing” to fight the war in Iraq.

That may not sound newsworthy until you realize that this tiny country had no army until 1994 when Soviet troops finally left. As one army officer said, “We started from scratch.”

We saw this first generation of Estonian troops training for international missions on what used to be a Soviet military base not far from the town of Paldiski, about 50 miles from the capital city of Tallinn. Thirty young soldiers got their briefing in the snowy woods before tackling a tough lesson on searching for suspected Taliban fighters and weapons.

A soldier trains in Estonia’s fierce winter weather. Photo: Sally Garner

After scoping out possible approaches, they drove their armored personnel carriers up to abandoned Soviet barracks, a perfect training ground for soldiers learning how to maneuver in Afghan villages and towns. Perfect — except for the weather which is the complete opposite of the heat and dust they’ll experience during their upcoming summer tour of duty.

It’s an amazing sight to see. And what makes this a story that producer and cameraman Ara Ayer and I won’t forget is the discovery that many of these soldiers’ fathers were forced to serve in the Soviet Army during its long and disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But these Estonian troops aren’t really interested in history. They’re focused on their country’s future and value their international service for the combat experience they can’t get in their very young country. As one lieutenant told us, “We always need to be ready for any enemy who wants to take our freedom away.”

– Sally Garner

Watch for Worldfocus’ upcoming series exploring the Baltics in the coming weeks.

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March 12, 2009
Cigarettes flicker in Spain despite ban on smoking

A sign outside a restaurant in Madrid says “Here, you can smoke.”

In 2006, Spain banned smoking in offices, hospitals, schools and enclosed spaces. Worldfocus correspondent Martin Seemungal is currently reporting from Spain. He writes that three years after the law banned smoking, the air is still thick with smoke.

Spain — a nice place to visit and a great place to live.

That’s certainly the impression you get speaking to just about anyone who has ever been here. They talk about the food, the wine, the weather, the friendly people and the atmosphere.

All that is true. But there’s one little tidbit of information they seem to have left out: The smoke.

Amid great national debate, Spain “imposed” a smoking ban three years ago. You’d never know it. Traveling around in Barcelona, Valencia and down in Andalusia, it’s not easy finding a smoke-free environment to eat in. As far as I can tell, virtually all the bars and cafés are smoke-filled, not smoke-free.

As it turns out, it’s the law’s fault. It gives restaurant and bar/café owners an option. They can, if they wish, declare their establishment “smoke-free.”  Or, they can put up a sign making it clear that “smoking is permitted.”

Of course, they have to clearly demarcate smoking and non-smoking sections, but in tiny Barcelona cafés — in winter, with the doors and window shut — it makes no difference.

I travel a lot, and in recent months my travels have taken me to France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. I have never had to leave a place because a smoker “lit up” next to me, or walk in only to have to turn around and walk out again because of thick cigarette smoke. In Spain, I spent nearly an hour once trying to find a smoke free place to eat.

I believe there may well be more smokers in Spain than anywhere in the world. That’s certainly the way it seems. And they’re not all Spanish: I listen intently to the accents and have heard those of many different nationalities, many of them from European countries with strict smoking laws.

Of course, this is all very serious to organizations like Spain’s National Committee for the Prevention of Tobacco Addiction. It has released figures which underscore the impotence of the smoking ban. In the three years since the “ban” came into place, the number of adult smokers in Spain is pretty much the same — it’s gone from 24.2 percent to 24.1 percent.

The number of smoking-related deaths is also incredibly high at 50,000 every year. Given the way things are going in sunny Spain, that seems unlikely to change.

– Martin Seemungal

Watch for Worldfocus’ upcoming series on Spain in the coming weeks.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DavidDennisPhotos.com under a Creative Commons license.

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March 9, 2009
Liberian summit celebrates African women with laughter

Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state.

Worldfocus correspondent Lynn Sherr is in Monrovia, Liberia, reporting on how the country is faring following its long civil war. She writes about attending the lively International Colloquium on Women. 

Who says feminists don’t have a sense of humor? The laughter was liberating today in Monrovia, Liberia, where a two-day International Colloquium on Women opened with appropriate pomp, ceremony and wit.

That Liberia could even contemplate such an event in the wake of a 15-year civil war that destroyed the country’s government and infrastructure, and nearly its future, sounds like a very bad joke all by itself. More than 200,000 people died in the fighting; several million more were displaced. The roads are barely passable; bullet holes still make major buildings uninhabitable.

And when one American guest arrived at our downtown hotel past midnight this morning, she was stunned to be escorted to her pitch-dark room by a fellow toting a rifle. She was, of course, perfectly safe.

Still, the rooms are clean and spacious, and the band at the rooftop bar plays a mean rock tune.

After all, Liberia has had a new president since 2006 –- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, who has brought a new sense of promise to this West African nation and to the entire continent. It is she who dared to convene hundreds of women from around the world to help inspire her own countrywomen.

In the process, she’s made them smile, which is no small feat in this post-conflict country.

During the opening ceremonies, a young Liberian girl participating in a pageant of famous women in history charmed the house with her portrayal of Rosa Parks, the American who woman whose refusal to sit in the back of the bus helped start the civil rights movement.

Another Liberian participant brought down the house when she announced herself as “the richest woman in the world.” Who knew Oprah Winfrey would show up?

Actually, it wasn’t a house at all, but a leafy-roofed, open-air shelter in the center of SKD (for Samuel Kay Doe, one of Johnson-Sirleaf’s less beloved predecessors) Stadium, a recently refurbished arena that seems to be tolerating the foreign guests reasonably well. No plates in the lunch line? No problem; they’re washed and dried in just a minute. No spaces in the conference? Stand by –- a stack of chairs is brought in.

Plenty of stacks were needed for a riotous session late this afternoon during which two teams of extremely distinguished female African dignitaries entertained the packed hall with a tongue-in-cheek debate on whether we really need all those women in public office. The debaters –- elected and appointed officials from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zimbabwe and other countries –- maintained a spirited dialogue, whose tone was set by moderator Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, co-founder and executive director of the African Women’s Development Fund.

“Throwing shoes is acceptable,” she announced at the start of the festivities, “as long as they are size tens and Manolo Blahniks.”

Tomorrow, it’s down to more serious business. If, that is, there is anything more serious than being able to laugh at yourself.

– Lynn Sherr

Watch for Worldfocus’ upcoming series on Liberia in the coming weeks. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum  under a Creative Commons license.

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March 6, 2009
Latvians hold their breath with economy on the brink

Riga’s central market. Photo: Sally Garner

Rooftops in Riga’s old town section. Photo: Sally Garner

Worldfocus producer Sally Garner is in Riga, Latvia, reporting on the country’s floundering economy. She writes about how the financial crisis has impacted daily life in Latvia.

The headlines read: “Europe’s Sickest Country,” “Latvia’s Government Collapses,” “Europe’s Most Extreme, Dramatic Economy” — but walk around Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and you’ll see people heading to work, stores full of shoppers and banks open for business. It’s a recession. It’s Eastern Europe. And Latvians are holding their breath.

Unemployment is growing. The economy is now shrinking faster than in any other European country, but in the central market we found people choosing from the mountains of fruit and vegetables, checking out tables full of cookies and candy, buying bunches of flowers and even picking out sweaters and coats. They’re worried, but they say they remember harder times under Soviet rule.

This is a country proud of its 18 years of independence from the Soviet Union and willing to fight to save itself in the current economic crisis.

As we walked around Riga’s old town with its cobblestone streets and “pedestrian only” signs, we saw “for rent” signs — and while many people didn’t want to talk about the economy, most say they know someone who’s lost a job in just the last few months.

We’ve only been here two days, but we’ve heard bankers, small business owners, students and engineers all tell us that Latvia is in trouble. They just want us to know it’s trouble they share with the rest of the world, not theirs alone.

We’ll be back in Latvia next week. Tomorrow we head to neighboring Estonia, and later to Lithuania where we’ll see for ourselves what the headline “Once leaders, Baltic countries in deep slump” means in the countries that were dubbed the “Baltic Tigers” when money was flowing and times were good.

– Sally Garner

Watch for Worldfocus’ upcoming series exploring the Baltics in the coming weeks. 

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March 6, 2009
My neighbor just lost three sons in Afghanistan

Click to listen: Online radio show on Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge was embedded in Afghanistan when Canadian troops arrived in 2002 and writes about Canada’s sacrifices in the war there.

My neighbor just lost three sons in Afghanistan.

Warrant Officer Dennis Brown, Corporal Dany Fortin and Corporal Kenneth O’Quinn. All died together Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded during a patrol in southern Afghanistan. No, they don’t all share the same last name…but all three were Canadian.

That brings the total number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan since 2002 to 111. Tragically, their deaths were announced only a few hours after our Worldfocus BlogTalkRadio program which, this week, focused on our neighbor to the north’s commitment to the war known in this country officially as “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Many Americans are only vaguely aware — if at all — of the support Canada has given to the war in Afghanistan. Canada is more commonly associated with the role of peacekeeping. Afghanistan is the first time Canadian troops have gone into large-scale combat since the Korean War. And they have paid the price.

The 111 deaths may seem like a low number when compared to the 640 American military personnel killed in Afghanistan, but those figures don’t tell the whole story. The number of Canadians serving in Afghanistan is put at about 2,700, almost all of them based in the very violent south home to the Taliban in the Kandahar area.

During our program, Canadian freelance journalist Terry Glavin, who recently spent a month reporting in Afghanistan, points out that statistically, Canadian forces have paid an even higher price than American forces. He notes that the mortality rate of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is two to three times the mortality rate of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

       

Canadian troops returning to Bagram Air Base from Operation Anaconda in March of 2002. Photo: Martin Savidge

Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been the source of some of the most divisive debate Canadians have seen in recent memory. The growing public outcry is part of the reason the Canadian Parliament voted to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by 2011.

I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002 when the first Canadian soldiers stepped off the plane. As they walked into the air terminal, I remember how much older they looked than the American soldiers, who were at least a decade younger. For many Canadian soldiers, the military is a profession.

Less than a month later, I was embedded as the Canadians faced combat for the first time in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda. For a while, I followed a Canadian sniper team who used a 50-caliber rifle. The distinctive crack of the heavy gun echoed through the Shahi Kot Valley. The Canadians were especially effective against one of the greatest threats to the operation, Taliban mortar teams. The Canadian sniper teams were credited with killing 20 Taliban or al-Qaeda members. Two of the sniper teams were recommended for the U.S. Bronze Star.

It was just a month later when the first Canadian casualties of the war were counted. They were killed not by Taliban or al-Qaeda militants, but by the very nation they came to support — the United States. A U.S. plane mistakenly attacked the Canadian troops as they took part in a live-fire training exercise, leaving four Canadian soldiers dead and eight others wounded.

It’s seven years later and Canada’ s deep commitment to its neighbor to the south is still measured by the flagged-draped coffins that come home bearing the red, white and maple leaf.

– Martin Savidge

Read more about Martin’s experience in Afghanistan: Embedded on a chopper in Afghanistan.

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February 27, 2009
Embedded on a chopper in Afghanistan

Martin Savidge at the Bagram Airbase with photographer Scott McWhinnie and producer Tomas Etzler. Photo: Martin Savidge

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge does a lot of flying, but no flight has been so harrowing as one he took over Shahi Kot valley while embedded with troops in Afghanistan in 2002.

Afghanistan is no Iraq…something I realized just before I threw up.

I’ve been to both wars. In Iraq, there were a couple of times I thought I might be killed. In Afghanistan, I was sure of it.

In Afghanistan, the land itself is as much a combatant as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The environment strips away many of the advantages U.S. forces enjoy in Iraq. Tanks have limited mobility in Afghanistan’s mountains. Attack helicopters find maneuvering in the thin air a challenge. Everything is harder in Afghanistan, including just getting to the fight — something I learned one flight, one night.

It was the early days of March 2002 and the opening hours of Operation Anaconda, a big battle fought in the Shahi Kot valley. It wasn’t going well.

I was embedded with the second wave of troops being flown in to join the fight. I took my spot next to the waist gunner’s position on the big CH-47 helicopter. Following me were about 45 heavily-armed soldiers struggling under the weight of their backpacks. Loaded with all the food, water and ammunition they would need, they weighed more than a hundred pounds. When the seats were filled, the sergeant was still shouting, “Move in!” They began dropping to the floor of the chopper. We were packed so tight, we could barely move. The barrel of the gun of the soldier at my feet was stabbing my leg and the only thing he could do about it was to say “Sorry.” Outside the temperature was in the 70s. We were dressed in multiple layers of polypropylene and body armor, soaked with sweat. How that helicopter ever got off the ground, I still don’t know.

The trip to the box (battle zone) would take a little over an hour. We would be dropped off at 8,000 feet and overnight, in near zero-degree temperatures, climb to 12,000. There would be lots of snow but not a lot of air. Like many of the troops, I had taken pills to prevent altitude sickness, causing us all to pant like dogs. We had also consumed lots of water to fight dehydration.

As we flew, the sun set. The darkness, along with bitter cold air, poured through the open waist gun positions, roaring over us before exiting like a hurricane past the tail gunner as he sat on the still lowered rear ramp. In just minutes, we’d gone from threat of heat stroke to danger of hypothermia. Men struggled to wrap blankets around themselves, wrestling with the wind that tried to snatch them away, the whole scene illuminated by the eerie green light of the soldier’s night vision goggles.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the CH-47 finally labored over the mountain peaks ringing the Shahi Kot valley. It suddenly tilted and plunged. To prevent being hit by Taliban gunfire or missiles, the pilots flew “nap of the earth” — roaring down the backside of the mountains like some out-of-control roller coaster — then leveling off, “banking and yanking” at over a hundred miles an hour, flying just a few feet off the ground.

They call it “flying in the dirt.” Occasionally, you’d see trees and mountainsides flash past, punctuated by patches of snow — so close it made you wince.

The soldier beside me suddenly pounded my shoulder with his fist, as the wind and the rotor noise made conversation pointless. He pointed at the plastic barf baggie sprouting from my coat pocket. As I turned toward him he grabbed it and threw up. It set off a puking chain reaction. Adding to the suffering? All the water we drank before takeoff. Now everyone’s bladder registered painfully full.

“Ten minutes!” the radio man shouted. “THE LZ IS HOT!” (meaning the landing zone was under attack).

A short time later: “Five minutes!”

At two minutes, the men began to stir, checking and preparing weapons as the radioman shouted “THE LZ IS STILL HOT!”

At “One minute!” a mental stopwatch started ticking backwards in my head…59…58…57…I started thinking of my home, my family — anything to distract me from thinking of what might happen next.

“Thirty seconds!” The radioman’s shout was cut off mid-sentence by an explosion of gunfire next to my head. The waist gunner had begun firing into the darkness. Even with the roar of the rotors, the gunfire made me jump. I started getting hit in the face with hot shells ejected from the machine gun. The gunner on the other side also opened up. It became a trifecta when the tail gunner joined in.

The helicopter banked sharply, and I caught a glimpse of the scene below. The whole area seemed ablaze with the red of tracer fire coming from what seemed a hundred guns. “STAND-BY!”

This was suicide! I thought. I waited for the bump of the wheels on the ground and the thud of impacting rounds. I was sure we would soon be a screaming fireball.

Suddenly, the helicopter banked and rose, leaving behind what little was left in our stomachs. “IT’S TOO HOT!” the pilots shouted back from up front. The solders cursed and shouted back, demanding to land. Some of the gunfire we saw from below was from members of Charlie Company of the 10th Mountain. They were surrounded, and one in three men (out of more than 100) was a casualty. This mission was supposed to rescue them.

The pilots clawed the helicopter back into the night. “We’re going to let the fast boys cool things down,” they said — translated, it meant Air Force jets were going to hit Taliban positions near the landing zone.

We circled and waited. When we ran low on fuel, we were directed to a FARP (forward air refueling point), basically a spot nearby where another big helicopter full of fuel had landed rolling out hoses to fill up other choppers so they didn’t have to go all the way back to Bagram to refuel. On approach we passed over the still-smoldering wreck of an Apache attack helicopter that had limped in and crashed.

On the ground, we begged to get out so we could go to the bathroom. And I mean begged! The answer was no; the refuel was too quick.

We took off again and then landed just moments later. The helicopter’s interior broke into confusion, curses and shouts of “Are we there!?” The pilot leaned back into the cabin and said the LZ was still too heavily under attack; the order was to return to base. On the flight back, the medic passed around a catheter and bag so men could relieve themselves.

The only thing more painful was knowing in less than 12 hours we would do this all over again.

– Martin Savidge

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February 20, 2009
Raucous rallies contrast coastal wastelands in Haiti

In Haiti, Worldfocus correspondent Benno Schmidt reported the signature stories Dirt poor Haitians eat cookies made of mud and Haitians destroy environment in struggle to survive. Benno saw many sides of the island nation, including raucous street celebrations and desolate coastal wastelands. The two videos below capture the contrasting sights & sounds of the nation.

In Haiti, freedom of expression is alive and well despite nearly constant turnover in the government, from the president and prime minister all the way down to obscure ministers often forced out over corruption charges.

But one of Haiti’s signature political expressions is this: A huge rally for a senate candidate shutting down an already traffic-clogged part of Port-au-Prince, the island nation’s capital. These types of demonstrations are part political rally, part Mardi Gras, and a big excuse to party. There is nothing subtle about these impromptu celebrations, which start small and then drag in people and onlookers with very little political interest into the fracas.

For people living in terrible poverty, the political rallies are an excuse to cut loose and dance in the streets. Haiti’s police help direct traffic and onlookers as the rallies grow and grow.

Haiti’s sanitation, sewage and plumbing are nonexistent for large pockets of people living in crowded conditions in Port-au-Prince. It means that nearly forty tons of trash and sewage and debris literally wash into the Caribbean each year after the storm season. The result is that the large slums in Port-au-Prince like Cité Soleil bleed into the sea. People fashion houses and living quarters out of the mounds of trash and sewage that accumulate.

It creates havoc for fishermen who say the fish are getting smaller, are harder to find and are sometimes poisoned by all the trash and nasty stuff seeping into the water. Also, the storm season each year contributes to the trash problem as rains form mudslides that wash everything into the ocean.

– Benno Schmidt

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

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February 20, 2009
Martin Savidge analyzes Iran on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge visited the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to discuss developments in Iran. Check out the video below:

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February 19, 2009
Betting on cockfights for fast money in Haitian slum

While reporting in Haiti, Worldfocus correspondent Benno Schmidt stumbled upon a weekly cockfight on the edge of a slum.

On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince’s infamous slum — Cité Soleil — we stumbled into this explosion of noise, excitement, money and above all else, anticipation.

We couldn’t understand why the Haitian men, just a few feet from the Caribbean in the outer extremes of the slum, weren’t letting the roosters off their leashes to fight.

This was one of the several cockfights held every Sunday in various parts of Port-au-Prince. The whole point is for two prized roosters to fight it out unrestrained, with betting and bragging rights going to the winners.

In a country where many live on less than a dollar a day, gambling is a way to make a lot of money fast. The men were clearly getting their prized fighters ready: Washing them down, winding them up and pointing them in the direction of their anticipated foe.

But then our Haitian fixer/guide told us they were waiting for us — the Worldfocus crew — to make a bet. They weren’t going to bet their own money and thought the camera crew might be interested in placing a wager. So, the extraordinary images in the above video were as close as we came to seeing an actual cockfight here in Haiti.

No money to wager meant that these roosters got a pass — at least that Sunday. They didn’t have to battle it out because no one was putting any money on the table — at least not for the fights.

– Benno Schmidt

For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.

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