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July 14, 2009
A Burmese family’s story of multiple arrests, weekly bribes

Karen Zusman (left) with a Burmese refugee. Photo courtesy of Karen Zusman.

In June, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report blacklisted Malaysia for trafficking refugees into Thailand.

Karen Zusman, an independent journalist, was one of few Westerners inside Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the monk-led protests in 2007. She interviewed Burmese refugees and produced the audio documentary Please Don’t Say My Name: Burmese refugees at risk in Malaysia over the course of five months in Kuala Lumpur.

I met Jack in Kuala Lumpur after the protests in 2007. Jack was imprisoned and tortured for teaching human rights in his country. When he was released from jail, he fled to Malaysia.

I learned that he and nearly 100,000 Burmese who had fled persecution were now held hostage in a country  that offered no protection from vigilante groups, police and immigration officials. It was routine to hear refugee stories of mistreatment and physical and sexual abuse.

In January of this year, I returned to Kuala Lumpur, but things did not go as planned. I intended to document Jack’s story — his English was good, he was articulate, passionate and street smart. He was working in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur with several other Burmese refugees.

Shortly after beginning to record, Jack’s Burmese girlfriend was arrested at the Thai-Malaysian border. She had fled Myanmar to be with Jack in Malaysia because her parents had engaged her to a Burmese soldier knowing the family would benefit greatly from the marriage. The girl was caught at the Thai-Malaysian border and imprisoned in Malaysia. Jack arranged for a friend, John, another Burmese refugee, to meet with the immigration officials at the border who were known to accept payment in exchange for releasing refugees. Malaysian officials took the money. And then arrested John.

Jack lost his girlfriend and his best friend in the same night.

Back in Myanmar, a Burmese soldier arrested Jack’s father, an elderly man with a heart condition, who now faced charges for “trafficking” the girl. Jack’s brother was arrested trying to leave Malaysia (also a refugee, he had a work permit but no travel documents).

I tried to console Jack the best I could. I tried — in vain — to get John released from prison by repeatedly reporting his arrest to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). John had been registered with the U.N. and so it was part of their task to release him from prison. But after he completed his sentence, he was subsequently transferred to detention camp.

While all this was happening, there were rumors that a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report would soon be published bringing the Malaysian “deportation” (a.k.a. trafficking practices) under extreme scrutiny.

Jack and his friends were afraid that this would mean the trafficking would stop, and they would no longer have the option to purchase back their “freedom” should they be arrested. This was particularly distressing for Jack, who felt purchasing his girlfriend from traffickers once she was sold to them by Malaysian immigration was his only hope of saving her from a life as a Burmese junta-wife.

The report, which confirmed the allegations that the Malaysian government had been complicit in the sale of refugees to human traffickers at the Thai-Malaysian border, was made public in early April. Since then, as the refugees predicted, the incidents of trafficking have significantly decreased.

But because the raids by Rela (Malaysia’s citizen volunteer corps) and arrests have not decreased, the detention camps are severely over-crowded. Two Burmese refugees have died as a result of water contaminated with rat urine in a camp in Penang. John called while I was still in Malaysia and told me there were 47 people in one tiny cell with no water supply.

Jack’s brother called from a camp in another part of the country and told us that though the monsoon rains had begun, they were kept outside with no shelter and were given food to eat off of the mud floor.

Every week for five months, Jack wired money to each camp to pay for provisions such as toothpaste. Jack said the money was also for them to give money to their jailors so they would not be beaten. When Jack took time off from the restaurant to try and visit them, he was fired.

Now it’s July and Jack’s girlfriend has been deported to Myanmar. His friend was released last week and his brother is being hospitalized for a heart condition exacerbated by his time in the camp — he is still in the custody of his Malaysian jailors.

– Karen Zusman

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June 29, 2009
There are no gay pride parades in Jamaica

Lisa Biagiotti (right) walks with Ida Northover (left) through an inner city on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica.

Lisa Biagiotti is working on signature stories for Worldfocus on HIV/AIDS and homophobia in Jamaica. She reported with Producer Micah Fink and Director of Photography Gabrielle Weiss, both from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Their reports will air on Worldfocus later this summer. Lisa gave the below interview to

Q: Gay pride is celebrated across the U.S. every June. Could there be similar celebrations of gay pride in Jamaica?

Lisa Biagiotti: No, there could not be an openly gay pride parade on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, as in New York or San Francisco. In Jamaica, anti-sodomy laws criminalize sex between men, fundamentalist interpretations of the bible and pride in reproduction contribute to the general disdain and non-acceptance of the gay lifestyle.

The idea of a “glass closet” best describes the public’s expectations of homosexuals, meaning, “We know you’re gay, and we can see you, but stay in that glass closet.” In fairness, Jamaica tends not to be a heavily PDA (public display of affection) culture. You don’t see men and women petting each other or even holding hands in public, with the exception of the dancehalls.

One thing that was interesting was the way homophobia finds its way into the language, in the choosing (or avoiding) of certain “gay” words. When little boys call each other “sissy” names, they say “you’re a battyman.” “Batty” means buttocks and is a derogatory name for a gay man. Saying the number “two” — referring to the anus — is also avoided. We heard a story of a father instructing his two-year-old son to say he’s going to be three. You’d say “come forward” instead of “come back.” If you’re ordering fish to eat, you’d say, “Give me a swimmer or a sea creature.” “Fish” is another term for a gay man.

Q: This anti-gay side of Jamaica doesn’t really jive with what many Americans may think of Jamaica. (Stereotypically, sun, fun, Bob Marley and “no problem, mon.”) How did you become interested in this topic?

Lisa Biagiotti: I first became interested in the subject of gay Jamaicans about 18 months ago. I was reporting on gay asylum in the U.S. and was told that Jamaica was one of the most violent and homophobic places for gays. I was told by human rights organizations that if you’re gay and Jamaican, you’d qualify for asylum. I then spent a year profiling Alex Brown, a gay Jamaican who received asylum in the U.S. In all honesty, this portrait of Jamaica was completely foreign to me — it contradicted the image of the Jamaica I know and love.

Q: Your mom is Jamaican, and your family ties to Jamaica span three generations. Was it difficult to report these seemingly negative stories for Worldfocus? What did your family think?

Lisa Biagiotti: At first, I was concerned we were doing advocacy journalism. I questioned whether we were imposing our U.S.-centric views on a country with a different cultural bedrock. Did we really understand the Jamaican culture, which is steeped in religion? Admittedly, I was protective of Jamaican people, who I still hold to be some of the warmest and most resilient people on Earth.

Going into these stories, I was aware of my bias. As a journalist, first-hand observation served as my guide. My team and I went to the places where people were literally living in hiding. We listened to the palpable stories of many gay men — the violence against them, the families that rejected them, the double lives they lead and the idea of mainstreaming their lifestyle to “make it right with God.”

We spoke to hundreds of Jamaicans from all walks of life to try to understand the cultural nuances and attitudes toward homosexuals. And everywhere we went, we heard the same things — said with varying levels of vitriol. Open homosexuality is not accepted. Tolerance and violence really depends on class and whether people act on their general disgust toward gays.

After observing and speaking with people on the ground, I’m confident that the stories we’re producing are fair and accurate illustrations of Jamaican attitudes toward homosexuals. As for my family in Jamaica and abroad, I believe they will respect that. Our goal is not to change Jamaican culture and mores, but to present what it’s like to be gay in Jamaica, and why it is important for the general population to talk about homosexuality because gay men are living double lives in secret.

Q: What do you mean by “double lives?” How is this playing into the spread of HIV?

Lisa Biagiotti: A recent Ministry of Health study showed that more than 30 percent of gay men are HIV+. It was a small sampling of about 200 gay men. But it was one of the first surveys conducted within the gay community. Whether or not the study is actually reflective of the larger gay community is questionable, but this rate is still 20 times higher than that of the general population.

What’s important here is that gay men are not isolated from the rest of the population. These men lead double lives — one gay life underground and another “heterosexual” life to save face in their communities. Gay men have girlfriends and wives and children, who likely do not know of their secret lives. This poses a threat to spreading HIV into the general population. So, when you layer this 31.8 percent figure over the laws, religion and general stigma against homosexuality, you’re masking the problem and potentially spreading the infection into the general population.

Q: How does the Jamaican government address the HIV problem without acknowledging the gay community?

Lisa Biagiotti: It’s difficult to target the gay community because they’re not out in the open. There could be no ad campaign in Jamaica talking about using condoms for anal sex because anal sex is illegal and punishable with a 12-year prison sentence of hard labor. The channels of awareness and education of gay men are limited and insufficient.

I should also mention that, on the flip side, Jamaica has made incredible strides in making anti-retroviral medication free and accessible to everyone. Early testing has whittled down the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate to under 5 percent. But the gay community is not siloed from the general population and could potentially reintroduce the disease into the general population.

Q: Given the extreme anti-gay discrimination and level of violence in Jamaica, did you ever feel that you were in danger as you covered these stories?

Lisa Biagiotti: Every day, approximately four or five people are murdered in Jamaica. For a country the size of Connecticut, with 2.8 million people, that’s a staggering murder rate. I don’t know if I had a false sense of security, but I never felt in danger. We had local guides taking us around and introducing us to communities, and I think that was key. We made sure we had introductions wherever we went. We told people we were reporting on homosexuality, HIV and AIDS. We knew these were touchy topics, but we were open and I think Jamaicans appreciated our honesty, and were in turn welcoming.

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
  • Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
  • Visit the Pulitzer Center’s multimedia website Live, Hope, Love, which explores living with HIV in Jamaica.

See more Worldfocus coverage on Homosexuality Around the World.

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June 29, 2009
Kosovo refugees left lives behind at the border

Martin Savidge with the CNN Kosovo team, along with their translator, Gulka. Photo: Martin Savidge

About 10,000 people died in the 1998-99 Kosovo war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in pursuit of national self-determination. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and this month marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the war.

Following our online radio show on statelessness, Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge describes his experience reporting on the struggle of Kosovars forced to flee in the war.

You can go from something to nothing in just 139 steps. I know, because I counted the footfalls.

It was the spring of 1999 along the border between Albania and Kosovo. The war was raging, and people were trying to get out of its reach. Many fled south, heading to where I was — on the Albanian side of the Morini border crossing. I watched the metamorphosis from a gully, marginally sheltered from occasional gunfire and mortar rounds.

On the Kosovo side of the bridge, the frightened people still had a history, somewhere — a home and a life. One hundred and thirty-nine steps later, they emerged into Albania with none of that, only the clothes they wore. Some even came without families, having been separated in the chaos.

Like most wars, this one was triggering a humanitarian crisis and Albania was in no position to handle it. That day, the traffic was heavier than usual, most of it tractors pulling wagons filled with a bumper crop of women and children.

We began asking questions. Our interpreter was from Kosovo — a teenager who in the early, frantic days of the conflict had become separated from her family after the Serbs forced them from their home, and NATO bombs sent everyone on the run. She had crossed into Albania at this very same checkpoint. A CNN crew found her while doing interviews in a refugee camp. She stood out because she spoke English.

The producer quickly realized that despite the best intentions of the relief agency, a refugee camp is still a very dangerous place for a young girl. The camps were rife with reports of women and children vanishing, kidnapped for the sex trades. After all, who would miss them? They were nobodies, lost in the confusion of war.

Gulka was brought to the safety of the CNN house and hired as a translator. Eventually, we took in a number of similarly-rescued young people, temporarily orphaned by the upheaval of the war.

The group of women before us said they had no idea where their husbands were. The men of their town had been taken away by Serb soldiers and police when the fighting began. The women said they had fled into the mountains, fearing the soldiers would come back for them. They also told us that while it might have looked deserted across the border, just beyond our view was a heavy presence of Serb troops, tanks and artillery.

As if on cue, our conversation was interrupted by a blast. The first mortar round struck on the Serb side of the border…but the successive explosions walked their way over the line.

I was impressed that instead of running when the first round struck, most of the refugees dropped flat. This clearly wasn’t their first time under fire. Even the kids knew to get down. It was only after the sixth explosion that the crowd finally broke and the air was suddenly filled with screams and wails, the sound of revving engines and drifting smoke.

A week later, as we neared the border, we were suddenly forced to stop by the sight walking toward us…bedraggled columns of men. They staggered, stumbled and shuffled. Some men supported others; many were bloodied and beaten, showing scars. All of them looked emaciated and filthy. We pulled over and started filming, gathering a story and documenting what would later be judged as war crimes.

The men described being released from detention centers and camps days earlier. They told of torture and starvation, of unspeakable horrors inflicted on humans by humans. Some cried as they spoke, and one collapsed. Another died at the side of the road — and the men just kept coming.

Eventually, we moved our coverage to the refugee camps. The scenes and sounds of pain and anguish were overwhelming. Tony, another one of our young adopted interpreters, went with us. He had escaped to Albania early in the crisis. As he listened to the men’s stories he often had to wipe the tears from his eyes.

When the interview was finished, as was their habit, the teen translators would often ask personal questions, like where the men were from or if they knew anything of friends and family. After one such conversation, Tony suddenly jumped up. Something the man said had set him off. He raced through the crowd shouting. We ran after him, afraid we’d lose him in the crush of people…maybe for good. Eventually we caught up and found him deep in the embrace of an older man. The two were so overpowered with emotion they couldn’t get out a word, only tears and shuddering gasps. But you didn’t need words to understand. It was obvious…in the middle of a war, in the middle of the chaos on the edge of Albania, Tony had found his father.

– Martin Savidge

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June 26, 2009
“Moonwalking” like Michael Jackson in Jerusalem

Michael Jackson’s death brought out a chorus of grief from across the globe. Worldfocus producers grew up listening to his music from their homes around the world — from Jerusalem to Addis Ababa — and share their recollections of this truly global star.

Have your own memory of Michael Jackson? Share it in the comments section below.

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June 19, 2009
Teeing off to the sound of gunfire

Martin Savidge at the “world’s most dangerous golf course.” Photo: Martin Savidge

Danger fits me to a tee.

The U.S. Open is in the news, and so is North Korea. I’ve found a way to blog about both…kind of.

As the gunfire continued behind us, I stared at the distant target through a small pair of binoculars and the U.S. soldier next to me did the same. “It’s farther away than it looks,” he said. His words were punctuated by more shooting, which seemed much closer.

“Whatever you do, don’t go left — that’s a minefield,” the soldier added. My mind raced with possibilities. I was an embedded journalist, a non-combatant, but circumstances now forced me to take sides. At best, I had three, maybe four shots at success…but the first one would matter most. I turned to the soldier and asked, “What would you use?” He stared me straight in the eyes and without skipping a beat said, “A three wood.”

This was Camp Bonifas, a Republic of Korea army post just 13,000 feet outside the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Korea. Here, more than a million soldiers stare daily across at one another, poised to resume the war that never officially ended. It’s the reason why past American presidents who have come here have called it the “most dangerous place on earth.” Which is how the “world’s most dangerous golf course” earned its name.

Read more about Martin Savidge’s patrol in the DMZ.

To be honest, it’s not a course at all, but a single 192-yard par-3 located next to the base’s target range — which accounted for the distracting gunfire as I teed off. So to call it a course is a bit of a stretch, but the hazards are real. Beginning with its location on the edge of the DMZ, the trip-wire of Armageddon. Then, along the left side of the fairway, is a real minefield. Attempting to retrieve a ball out of bounds there is unwise. It’s safer to just take the one stroke penalty.

The bunkers on the right side are real as well. If the base were to ever come under attack, soldiers could dive into them for shelter. Back behind the green rises is a guard tower complete with search lights. The green itself is too difficult to maintain naturally, so it was fitted with a sort of cheap outdoor carpet. Instead of wearing chinos and polo shirts, my fellow golfers were decked out in camouflage fatigues.

How’d I do? Well, because of a wrinkle on the green, I three-putted and ended up with a double bogey. Feeling dejected, I decided to drown my sorrow with a dip in the “world’s most dangerous pool.”

– Martin Savidge

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June 12, 2009
Coca fortunes read amid crucifixes and Bolivian war heroes

Coca leaves have both a practical and spiritual use in Bolivia.

Ivette Feliciano reported on Bolivia’s coca plant cultivation as part of the signature series “On the ground in Bolivia.” The coca plant is still used to make teas, pastas, shampoos and medicines, in the same way that generations of indigenous Bolivians used coca leaves in years past.

For extended multimedia coverage of the issues facing Bolivia today, go to On the Ground in Bolivia.

One day while heading back to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, our driver Mauro told me about a use for coca that surprised me. Mauro is an indigenous Aymara Indian, and he told me how dried coca leaves are used by indigenous Bolivian fortune tellers, or brujos, to help guide people in communities like his on their life paths.

Mauro is originally from a town a few hours outside of La Paz.  He said that he and members of his family typically go to see a brujos if they are sick, need guidance on a business decision, or are having trouble in their love lives. The last time Mauro had visited a brujo was a few months before, when he and his wife opened a new liquor store. They wanted to make sure that an offering was made to the Pachamama, or mother earth.

Mauro took me to a neighborhood in La Paz high in the hills that seemed isolated from the other bustling La Paz neighborhoods. There were about 40 or 50 small blue shacks, and if you peaked inside one, you might see a fortune teller saying a prayer or breaking down an altar they had prepared for a previous customer.

We walked into two different shacks and had our fortunes read by two brujos.  The first brujo was in his late 70s.  He said he’d been born into the tradition. His grandfather was a brujo, as was his father.  He’d been practicing coca leaf fortune telling for 33 years. He explained that for most people in his profession, you were born into the tradition. But some people received the calling later in life, like a man he knew who’d been struck by lightening and survived — and from then on had the gift of being able to read coca leaves.

He performed a simple reading. There was a crucifix on the table along with dried coca leaves. On the walls were pictures of Catholic saints and indigenous war heroes. He asked what question I’d like to ask, and then proceeded to say a prayer using both Spanish and Aymara words. After a few minutes of prayers, he began tossing the leaves around the crucifix and observed the pattern they formed as they fell, and then answered the question I had asked. His price was a little less than a dollar, and the entire experience lasted about 10 minutes.

The second brujo said he wanted to perform a cleansing ritual on me after reading the coca leaves. He built an altar that included grass, incense, walnuts, confetti and of course coca leaves.  After saying a ten minute prayer, he burned the altar and placed a string bracelet on me.  This was meant to rid me of fear. This ritual cost close to fifty dollars.

On our way back to hotel after going to see these two men, Mauro told me he thought the second brujo was very good. He also expressed how happy he was that I was able to experience the sacred uses of coca.

– Ivette Feliciano

For more Worldfocus coverage of Bolivia, visit our extended coverage page: On the Ground in Bolivia.

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June 11, 2009
U.S. in a game of carrots and sticks with North Korea

North Korea has sentenced American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years in a labor camp.

Earlier this week, North Korea sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years in a labor camp after they were convicted of illegal entry and crimes against the nation. Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge writes that the U.S. is in a precarious position as it tries to ensure the journalists’ safe return while pressing North Korea on nuclear containment.

First off, if you can predict North Korea, then you are not an expert — you are divine.

That said, here goes. It is my sincere hope Laura Ling and Euna Lee will be back with their families ASAP. But I fear it could be some time — months, perhaps years. The North Koreans know they have something the U.S. wants. Also, North Korea has just begun what could be a difficult transition of power from father to third son. They don’t want reporters snooping around.

As long as North Korea holds the pair, they hold an edge over the U.S. and send a strong message to other journalists. The U.S. must disconnect the issue of journalist imprisonment from the larger issue of nuclear containment. Good luck on that…North Korea always feels like the Rodney Dangerfield of the world when it comes to respect.

So the U.S. needs to send an envoy. It’s got to be somebody well known, especially to them, but not a government official. Al Gore is the obvious choice. He’s known, he’s a civilian and he represents the company the journalists were working for when they were on assignment. Like any negotiation, North Korea will want something in return. There’s the rub for the U.S., which would prefer to punish the regime even more.

Truth is, the journalist capture and conviction couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Obama team has seen that the previous policy of carrot and stick used by the Clinton and Bush administrations didn’t work. Now they’d like to use more stick…but how likely are you to board a suspect North Korean ship carrying weapons or nuclear technology when they hold two Americans hostage?

Is North Korea America’s biggest problem now? No, that dubious honor still rests with the economy. But North Korea would like us to think they are our biggest problem. They love brinkmanship. They also, it seems, like nukes — and I’m not sure you are going to get them to give those up. It’s that respect thing again. The U.S. needs to defuse the problem by taking it out of the headlines and by opening the quiet and obscure channels of negotiation.

– Martin Savidge

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Steve Rhodes under a Creative Commons license.

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June 8, 2009
Shrines, souvenirs pay tribute to Turkey’s founding founder

“Remember Me”: A bust commemorating Kemal Ataturk. Photo: Bryan Myers

Worldfocus producer Bryan Myers is currently reporting from Turkey. He writes from Istanbul about the country’s love for one of its most famed figures, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who appears on everything from office buildings to lapel pins and souvenirs.

It’s not a sight an American is accustomed to encountering when checking into a large hotel. Instead of the usual flowers or water fountains, in Istanbul, it’s a bust accompanied by the words “Remember Me.”

Those words, and the image above them, belong to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. And in Turkey, they are as inescapable as minarets and kebab shops. They are emblazoned everywhere — on the walls of schools, in public parks, at entrances to bridges and even in the lobby of private office buildings. Visit the souvenir shops in Istanbul, and they’re there too. Ataturk wrist watches seem to be the hottest item.

This Ataturk omnipresence isn’t merely a gesture of respect — it’s worship. That observation isn’t meant to belittle his memory. In fact, to do so is a crime in Turkey. It’s just that as an American, it is rare to see a politician so beloved. The last time I can remember seeing a politician’s face on a watch in America was Nixon or Agnew in the early 1970s, and I’m pretty sure those watches weren’t meant to be a tribute.

Having forgotten much of my high school world history lessons, I decided to do a little boning up. Kemal Ataturk rose to prominence as a military officer in World War I. Unfortunately, Turkey — then called the Ottoman Empire — picked the wrong side, allying itself with Germany and the other Central Powers. After its defeat, Turkey was carved up by the British, French, Italians and Greeks (mention of the Greeks’ role in World War I in particular seems to irk the Turks, but perhaps that’s a topic for another blog).

Ataturk led the army that chased the foreigners out and unified the country once again (his official bio goes on to note his love of animals and his prowess as a ballroom dancer). The name “Ataturk” literally means “father of the Turks,” and was bestowed on him by the Turkish parliament in the 1920s. According to fellow Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil, herself a native Turk, the Ataturk story is so moving, it’s been known to reduce small children to tears when taught in elementary school.

But for adults, the image of Ataturk has become a potent political symbol, and I think that gets to the root of why his image is found all over town. Besides being a war hero, Ataturk was also a fierce advocate of a secular state. He thought the only way to bring Turkey into the modern era was by rejecting traditional ways rooted in religion. That was a bold stand in a country that was just about entirely Muslim. And today, while many Turks are not devout Muslims, some are, and they’d like to see a return to the Islamist ways of old.

So it is that today, an Ataturk lapel pin or portrait on an office wall quickly identifies one as a “secularist,” and in their view, a modernist more closely in tune with the West than the East.

All of this got me thinking about the early planning for our trip to Turkey, and our visit to the Turkish consulate in New York for visas. As often happens when journalists stop by for a consular visit, we were loaded down with books and pamphlets intended to introduce us to the country. One contained a series of official portraits of the presidents of modern Turkey, beginning with Ataturk. It is the photograph most commonly seen of Ataturk, in which he’s dressed in a white tie and tails.

I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing he picked this somewhat unusual outfit because at the time it was considered the the height of formal European fashion, and as such symbolized a clear rejection of traditional garb. That style was mimicked by all the other Turkish presidents in the book up until the 1970s. Perhaps they were hoping that by doing so, a little bit of the public’s affection for Ataturk would rub off on them.

“Remember Me?” After several weeks in Istanbul, it will be hard to forget Turkey’s founding father.

– Bryan Myers

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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May 29, 2009
Camouflaged and silent, my patrol in the DMZ

North Korea ended the week with another weapons test on Friday — this time a test of a short-range missile.  Its actions are certain to test the resolve of the international community even further, after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb on Monday.

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge reported from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, and writes about going on patrol with U.S. troops on Christmas eve in 2006.

I have twice spent time embedded with U.S. forces stationed at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the DMZ.

The demilitarized zone is where another Korean War could very well begin. In just three years, the first Korean War killed more than 38,000 American military personnel, more than 58,000 South Korean military personnel and killed or wounded more than 2 million civilians, which is why few here are keen to see a second war. If there was another, estimates are that 10,000 people would die in just the first hour. The DMZ remains so sensitive that even now I cannot tell you everything I saw while I was there. What follows is some of what I can…

Soldiers gather at Observation Post Oulette. Photo: Martin Savidge

Stand-to came at 4:45 a.m., first light, but because of the rain and fog that now shrouded Observation Post Oulette, it was still pitch black. In the labyrinth of tunnels and fortifications that riddled the hilltop, soldiers stood in full combat gear, guns at the ready and manning positions. The scuffling of boots, mixed with the sloshing of water that had invaded their bunkers, was backed up by the steady drip-drip drum beat of a rain that wouldn’t stop. If an attack was going to come, history said this was most likely the time.

The soldiers were a little edgy. Most hadn’t slept well in the small outpost’s cramped barracks. A number of land mines had gone off in the night, detonated by lighting or maybe a deer — maybe a North Korean.

I was in my third week of living with U.S. forces stationed there. It was easy to feel nervous there. Though the Korean War stopped 50 years before, it never officially ended — instead, it was suspended by an armistice. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war. That’s something you really feel in the dank and dark underground, especially when you know that less than two miles away, an estimated million or more North Korean soldiers are also at stand-to. Armed and ready to bring it on, again.

But Armageddon apparently waited for another day. So, after breakfast, I joined about a dozen soldiers in a makeshift gym to witness a regular ritual. It began when someone plugged an iPod into a big boom box, cranked the volume and then hit play. The howling grunge of heavy metal pulsated through the room. The soldiers bobbed to its rhythm, psyching themselves up for what lay ahead as they turned to the mirrors on the wall and painted their faces camouflage colors, green and black.

Out on patrol. Photo: Martin Savidge

This was a patrol about to go in search of North Korean infiltrators. We would walk the line — the military demarcation line that in those parts passes as a border. Essentially, it’s where the front lines were when the guns fell silent five decades earlier. Today, it’s still a trip wire for the next war. If the North Koreans cross it,  then it all kicks off again — or at least that’s the theory. The North Koreans do cross it, just not in large numbers. In ones or twos, North Korean commandos sneak across as part of their own ritual.

This patrol was going out to find the North Koreans or signs that they have been there. The mission was considered so dangerous that only I was allowed to go — the camera couldn’t. I painted my own face and wore camo. Those are the army’s rules.

The day before, we even practiced the patrol somewhere else so that I could get a sense of how the soldiers move. Above all, to get to know the hand gestures, as once we leave the outpost, not a word would be spoken. Stop, go, get down…hands went up, fists clenched or flattened, palms circled in the air.

We set off down the outpost’s steep driveway. As we approached the double row of ten foot high steel fencing topped with swirls of concertina wire, the South Korean guards took up defensive positions before opening the gate. The rain poured down, and before we even crossed the perimeter, every member of the patrol was soaked.

To me, the patrol seemed to take a meandering course, down steep rocky slopes, slogging through wet underbrush and slithering up the muddy other sides. The rain was good and bad. It covered the noise of the patrol, but it also made it harder to see. Out there, it’s very easy to bump into a North Korean patrol or come across an infiltrator by stumbling over them. In the past, that has not turned out well…if the North Koreans feel trapped, rather then get caught, they use hand grenades to kill themselves. Pictures of the aftermath still hang on walls in the basement of nearby Camp Bonifas.

Another danger in the gloom: It’s very easy for the patrol to accidentally cross into North Korea. Away from Panmunjom, the demarcation line is only marked by signs spread a hundred meters or so apart. But the signs are the originals. Half a century later, their once-bright yellow paint has now turned rusty brown, the warning words unreadable. The U.S. and South Korea have wanted to replace them, but the North Koreans have to agree and so far they haven’t.

Soldiers communicate through hand signals. Photo: Martin Savidge

After a half hour or, so hands went up and the patrol sank down to one knee. Each man was spread far from the next so a mine or mortar wouldn’t take too many out. More gestures. The unit took up positions and simply waited — this was part of the surveillance. Everyone scanned the scene in front of them and strained to listen, looking for movement or listening for the whisper of footsteps. The entire patrol was just statues. One minute…five…10 minutes…waiting.

Another hand moved, and we rose and became animated again. We repeated this several times. We walked a long lazy loop, and after a while, we came across an ancient graveyard. Large tombstones sat at awkward angles; others were broken or fallen. It was here the North Korean commandos reportedly came.

The Americans say it’s part of a test they must pass: To cross the border into the south and return undetected. To prove they really made the journey, they carry pencils and paper to rub upon the stones of the graves and carry back to their commanding officers. No rubbings? Don’t bother returning.

The patrol inspected the area for signs of visitors, finding indications but no solid proof. After several hours of this silent hide-and-seek, we made the steep return up Outpost Oulette’s drive. The gates opened and only once inside did the guns go back on safety.

Patrols like this have been going out every day for 50 years. More than 28,000 U.S. troops are still in Korea today, daily guarding against a war most Americans back home forgot long ago.

– Martin Savidge

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May 18, 2009
Gay men in Jamaica must lead two separate lives

A gay Jamaican man shares his story, but conceals his identity for fear of attacks. Photo: Lisa Biagiotti

Lisa Biagiotti is reporting on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and young gay men in Jamaica. Her interest in the subject began when she met Alex Brown* 18 months ago. The story below is his — of a gay Jamaican who received asylum in the U.S. because he was persecuted on the basis of his sexuality. Though Alex is free from persecution, he still wrestles with issues of secrecy and religion, and his family in Jamaica still doesn’t know he’s gay.

It’s no secret that homophobia crosses class lines in Jamaica. From the inner cities to elite high schools, homosexuality is not accepted in Jamaican society. Pastors preach against the sin of homosexuality from the pulpit and dancehall lyrics glamorize gay killings.

Mob violence and attacks against gays have earned Jamaica the mark as one of the most intolerant nations for homosexuals. And the act of sodomy is still illegal, holding a 12-year prison sentence of hard labor.

Hurling stones in Jamaica

Alex Brown knew he had to leave Jamaica after back-to-back anti-gay attacks at work and home. On a Saturday evening in August 2002, two young men knocked on Alex’s cottage door in Kingston, shouting, “We know you’re a battyman (gay man — batty means buttocks) and you better pay us.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, I’m not a battyman. No, I’m not,” he cried. The 6-foot-3-inch Alex shut the front door, cowered beneath a window of his one-room hut and watched five men hurl stones at his home, shattering windows and alarming neighbors.

“Are you going to come pick up my dead body?” Alex pleaded to the female police dispatcher. Alex feared he would end up like his gay uncle, who was beaten to death in downtown Kingston in the late 1990s.

The police were stationed two blocks away, but it took more than an hour for them to arrive. They rounded up the men at a corner store. When the men accused Alex of making a pass at them, an officer turned to Alex and said, “If we find out you’re a battyman, we’ll come over there and lock you up.”

“The police don’t protect gay people in Jamaica,” Alex said. He feared reporting other anti-gay incidents where he was punched in the face, threatened to be run over by a car, or robbed at gunpoint at Portmore Plaza. “I could not go back to the same police station that threatened to lock me up because I’m gay.”

In 2002, Alex left his 9-year-old son, the offspring of the only opposite-sex encounter he has had, and his job of 13 years as a wharf warehouse supervisor. With a fellow gay Jamaican, he headed to London to complete his bachelor’s and earn a master’s degree in business administration.

“I had to move from one place to the next,” Alex said. “I was accused of being gay. I learned my lesson.”

When he couldn’t pay his tuition bills, he was forced to return to Jamaica in June 2006. The anti-gay sentiment seemed more hostile. Alex’s best friend Emil and ex-lover Robert had been murdered earlier that year. Six months of further harassment ensued and Alex decided to board a plane to the U.S.

In 1994, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno expanded asylum law to include immigrants who could prove government persecution based on sexual preference. Asylum applications must be filed within one year of entry into the U.S. Immigrants must prove persecution in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group — gay asylum cases fall under this category.

While gay asylees make up a small percentage of the 12,000 total asylum cases per year, the severe situation in Jamaica against homosexuals proved grounds for asylum.

Immigration Equality, a national U.S. organization that works to end immigration discrimination, handles about 100 gay asylum cases a year. They are seeing a steady stream of applications from Jamaicans, which make up about 20 percent of their caseload. Their stories always seem similar.

Living a double life, again

Gay Jamaicans abroad still face challenges in reconciling two parts of themselves — being gay and being Jamaican. Despite the freedom from persecution that asylum offers, they are frequently drawn into communities of other Jamaican immigrants, including the very same people that persecuted them. They find themselves see-sawing between gay isolation and keeping up appearances for the Jamaican community at home and abroad.

“You live a double live,” Alex said. “Sometimes living two or three lives; that’s how it is.”

After spending a year on a cot in a New York homeless shelter, where he shared a room with two other men, Alex now has his own subsidized apartment in the Bronx. He received his Greencard and is working on his nursing certificate.

But even with asylum and a new start, some Jamaican roots cannot be forgotten completely. So, he hasn’t told anyone about his asylum — not his 13-year-old son, his family in Jamaica or his church communities.

“When you’re gay, you’re isolated,” Alex said. “Once you interact, it opens up a gate for your own downfall.”

– Lisa Biagiotti

*Alex Brown’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
  • Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

See more Worldfocus coverage on Homosexuality Around the World.

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