Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Liberia, Charles Taylor, Naomi Campbell and me

(Naomi Campbell testifying at the Hague war crimes trial. Photo courtesy of CBC.ca)

With the testimony of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, I've been remembering my time in Liberia, when I covered the civil war there.
Campbell admits she received diamonds as a gift from Taylor, who is thought to have supplied Sierra Leonian rebels with weapons to carry out their brutal war, in exchange for so called blood diamonds.

In 1991, I was a freelance journalist based in Rome. On assignment for the World Food Programme, they'd asked me to travel to West Africa and write about how their relief food aid was reaching between 600,000 and 900,000 people around Monrovia, and tens of thousands more Liberian refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire.

Landing in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for my first stop, in early June 2001, I remember stepping off the plane and feeling like I had stepped into an oven. It was my first experience with African heat and I wasn't prepared for it. Oh sure, I had the khaki jacket and I had all my tropical travel shots and carried the pills to ward off malaria. But I wasn't ready for the mosquitoes and other bugs at the Freetown hotel where my UN guide dropped me, and pledged to collect me the next morning to take me to tour the refugee camp.

I'll always remember that hotel for two things: the huge cockroach in the bathtub which scared me to death when I turned the lights on, and tossing and turning all night without a mosquito net, listening to Radio Canada International on my shortwave radio, and feeling so incredibly lonely.

The next day, with my face swollen from the mosquitoes, I must have looked a fright for my interviews. But my living conditions were better then in the camp.

A local UN office employee, James Legge, drove me out to see the Waterloo Refugee camp on the outskirts of Freetown, where thousands of Liberian refugees were living outside the capital. At the time, Sierra Leone hadn't itself been torn apart by its own civil war, which would begin soon enough.

Liberian refugees at the Waterloo Camp selling at makeshift market site. Ellin Bessner photo.

James Legge, WFP worker at Waterloo, Sierra Leone. Photo: Ellin Bessner

In Waterloo, now known as Kissy, I remember snapping this photo of a group of men who were in the midst of slaughtering a cow to supplement their UN rations.

Food distribution at Waterloo Refugee Camp/Ellin Bessner photo.

Before leaving Sierra Leone, I must have eaten dinner at restaurant which I think they called the White House. I was so careful not to drink local water, but I ate rice and chicken. The next morning, Imodium was the name of the game on the small, bathroom-less Red Cross relief flight from Freetown to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.


I arrived in Monrovia in June 1991, during a cease fire, a relatively calm period of what's now known as Liberia's first civil war, which started in 1989, when then-rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his uprising (supported by Libya and, some say, by the United States) against Liberia's unpopular president Samuel Doe. By 1990, Taylor's forces, the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) had conquered most of the country except for Monrovia, which was held by an Interim Government of National Unity.

See a 1990 ABC News report about the beginnings of the rebellion fought mainly by teenaged soldiers loyal to Charles Taylor:

A siege of Monrovia during the previous summer of 1990 had forced internally displaced Liberians and local residents to eat all the dogs, and all the animals in the zoo, then they cut down coconut palms and ate the hearts, and then they ate grass. With the cease fire, a relief corridor around the city was set up and reinforced by no-nonsense peacekeeping troops from several west African states, especially Nigeria, known as ECOMOG. This allowed NGOs and UN agencies in to the city, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, Catholic Relief Services, USAID and others.

Bullet holes in facades of buildings/Ellin Bessner photo.

There was no fighting when I arrived. But the Monrovia airport was just barely functioning. You could see the destruction of the city that had been carried out during the siege and the fighting: there were bullet holes everywhere, especially the hospitals and schools and government buildings.

There was garbage everywhere, abandoned cars, and while I didn't see this, some journalists reported seeing human bones lying in fields. The UN estimates that some 200,000 Liberians were killed in the fighting by the time the first war ended in 1996 and a further 700,000 fled the country to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

All international food aid to Monrovia had to come through the city's port, because Taylor's forces still controlled the rest of the country. So, UN officials asked a well-known local woman Dorothea Diggs, to find a way to distribute the rice and other commodities.

Dorothea Diggs, photo/Ellin Bessner

She created a group known as SELF, Special Emergency Life Food.

"We had to do something or we'd starve," Diggs told me in Monrovia during an interview.

She recruited local men to unload food shipments. They were paid in extra rice rations. But it wasn't enough for some: at first, in the warehouses, some men would wear two pairs of trousers and stuff their pockets and shoes with rice.

There were other troubles: early lists of residents eligible for food aid turned up "ghost houses" of imaginary clients, until SELF tightened up its procedures and began using computerized lists.

With rice worth $1 per cup in the local markets, the UN also used rice to encourage city wide clean ups.

"The city runs on rice," Richard Snellen told me at the time, in a story I wrote for "Africa Recovery", a publication of the United Nations Public Information department. Snellen was the WFP's emergency coordinator in Monrovia.

There was a sense of hope in the air then. Headlines in UN magazines included "Rebuilding after the war". Remembering my visit, I pulled out my old passport today.

It had its Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire immigration stamps. I did find an old black and green Liberian $5 dollar bill I'd pocketed as a souvenir.

It bears the face of J.J Roberts, Liberia's American-born first and founding president, a free black man who'd emigrated from Virginia to build a democratic Liberia in 1829. Wonder what he would have made of the supermodel's testimony?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

God, Guns and Oil - and Sarah Palin: journalism in Alaksa

I was on the Park Connection bus last month traveling between Denali National Park and Anchorage, Alaska when we passed through Wasilla.

Yes, that Wasilla.
The home town of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, who's also a former mayor, and now a much sought after speaker.
And yes, some gift shops in this state do sell t-shirts with the slogan "I can see Russia from my window".
For the record: you can't. Not from Wasilla, anyway.
What I did see were newspapers from north to south, Fairbanks to Juneau, where Palin's name, or her husband Todd's name, or Bristol Palin's name, are usually in the top stories. The Alaska Daily News website has a section called Palin Headlines, with a box of news about Palin. Today they discussed her comments about US President Obama not having "cojones" when he appeared recently on "The View".

There's an election underway in the U.S. now for Senate seats, and although Palin herself isn't running, just having her husband sit in the audience at candidate Joe Miller's campaign event, was enough to merit above the fold coverage, and, according to the Anchorage Daily News, an endorsement.

Many people may ridicule Sarah Palin, and comedians may joke about her lack of foreign policy experience, or her unorthodox way with words, or her non-traditional family despite her espoused family values. But here in Alaska, Palin is bigger news then the Pope.

In the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a story about a biography of Palin being written specially for children, was published just under the photo of rapper Jay-Z's concert in Ireland. The book, by Christian publishing house Zondervan, will tell tweens about Palin and her Christian values. According to the newspaper story, it won't mention anything about unwed daughter Bristol's baby, born when the girl was just 18.

We didn't stop at the Palin compound in Wasilla, as it would have meant an unscheduled detour for the rest of the passengers, but I understand better now why she is in favour of hunting. The only place in Alaska where I noticed obvious suppport for the right to bear arms, was in Wasilla. See the store in the photo, and photo I snapped of the window sticker on a car stopped next to us at the traffic light.

Supporting hunting isn't an opinion I would normally share. But carrying a gun? Maybe. After two weeks of hiking and camping in Alaska, and seeing moose and grizzlies and caribou, I might have been happier if our guide had had a weapon with him, rather then just two cans of bear guard.

This young grizzly bear was just outside my bus in Denali National Park. Shoot him? For sport? No. But to protect yourself? It's done here. And reported about in the news. They also quote the experts who often say never to shoot a charging grizzly, since it will hurt the bear, and probably make them madder. Bear attacks are big news here, too. A police officer recently used a taser on one in Anchorage and is in hot water for doing so.

The local TV News station KTUU covers bear attacks and reports stories about education and hiking safety, while Anchorage Daily News's ADN.com has a section for people to submit information about bear sightings on their main webpage.

It's not just bears who make big news here: salmon do, too, and so does the majestic scenery, 100,000 glaciers, mountains, moose, caribou, waterfalls, and bald eagles soaring overhead. All that beauty and natural resources is amazing, and whether it makes people here believe in God more then elsewhere, or not, it does make the environment a big news story in Alaska. After all, I think it's hard not to be awestruck with the spectacle of Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America, at 20,000 ft. plus. Especially seeing it on a clear day, like I did.

Alaskan news organizations spend a lot of time covering the environment and how development could impact it. Be it a new Pebble Mine proposal for Bristol Bay, or global warming being blamed for slow salmon runs, the papers cover stories pitting the "Drill, Baby, Drill" camp against the environmentalists and native Alaskan first nations bands. As well, local papers in Alaska have any news about the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, on their front pages. After all, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster here in 1989 is still very much in readers' minds.

And while papers across the country have news stories about crime and law and order, I saw something in a paper in Alaska that I haven't seen elsewhere: where the Toronto Star or National Post might cover one big crime or manhunt or arrest, in Fairbanks, Alaska, they report the entire contents of the local police blotter each and every day. In the Public Safety Report, they even put the result of the breathalyzer test right in the newspaper, before the suspect has gone to trial. With names and everything! In Canada, my students at Centennial College Journalism school are not permitted to write stories that would place them in contempt of court like that, at least according to Canadian law. The paper does have this disclaimer before the feature:
Individuals named as arrested and/or charged with crimes in this report are presumed innocent until proved guilty in a court of law.

Here's a sample from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:


• Reign Sherrell Bennett, 20, of North Pole, was charged with driving under the influence after being stopped for speeding Wednesday on Buzby Road. A chemical test found Bennett’s breath-alcohol content to be 0.149, more than the legal limit of 0.08.

• Timothy Keonikeltner, 24, was charged with driving under the influence after Alaska State Troopers pulled him over for speeding near 351 Mile the Richardson Highway. A chemical test found his breath-alcohol content to be 0.127.

• Corey Spears, 36, was charged with driving under the influence after troopers stopped him for weaving on the Mitchell Expressway near University Avenue. A chemical test found his breath-alcohol content to be 0.128.

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Looking Back in Fairbanks — July 17

One final note: I teach my students about the Mack Truck Moment in journalism. That's what happens in an interview when the guest mumbles something unexpected like "I did murder her" and the interviewer ignores the comment and proceeds to the next prepared question which is something like "How about those Blue Jays?". In other words, when someone drives a Mack Truck through your yard, you'd better stop what you are doing and pay attention to it. So when the Public Safety report had the following entry, what question should a good reporter have asked the police department, but didn't? !!!!

Stephen Ronald Englishoe, 61, of Chalkyitsik, was charged with first-degree failure to register as a sex offender, a felony, after Fairbanks International Airport police treated him Wednesday after he fell out of an aircraft that was about to disembark. Englishoe has been out of compliance with the state’s registry since December 2008, according to charging documents.

Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of Sarah Palin with my family in Alaska

Sarah (cardboard) and me in a gift store in Anchorage, Alaska July 2010.

Some of you may know that I recently returned from a three week camping and hiking trip to Alaska. While my blog usually discusses journalism issues, I thought I would add the link to a new blog I began while on the trip, as we had some incredible experiences and met some amazing people.
This second blog, which I have called 3familiesinalaska, was written for them.

Let me know what you think so far.

In the coming weeks look for new posts here in the usual space, about the newspapers and journalism and bear attack stories (not me, thank goodness) which I studied while tracking wildlife and journalism in Alaska.