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Friday, March 19, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 6


There’s always a great story in a red light district. Like the time I was penniless in Bangkok and had to walk 45 minutes back to a hotel just 24 hours after landing in Thailand. Or the time I spent all night in Amsterdam and should have missed my flight.

So when Friday’s agenda called for a visit to Monrovia’s red light district, my crew and I were amped. Over coffee, our Sierra Leone-based, Lebanese born security detail advised us on the trip I planned that morning. “I can’t be held completely responsible for what happens inside there,” he told us. Didn’t he know that those exact words fuel producers? Anything was possible.

This red light district is like any third world capital’s main market – crowded with people, impossible to navigate, and unquestionably dangerous. It is here, as we were told, where thieves live by day and mass murderers crawl through night.

Two of our main characters live there. We didn’t know what to expect. We had strict orders from security: stay in the car until they surveyed the scene, never stray far, bring smaller cameras, and leave on their command.

Our first stop was with Richard. After navigating through the streets – curious eyes scoping our intentions – we finally made it to a mud shack without water and electricity. This was where Richard grew up with his sister. He doesn’t see her much anymore; the scene is pretty desperate. It’s a converted swamp that in the rainy season can pose awfully difficult challenges for houses that aren’t built to sustain Mother Nature’s wrath. But like everybody in Monrovia, they somehow survive with what they have.

A mile away, which seemed like an eternity through the crowded foot traffic at red light, we visited Richard’s current home. He now lives with his guardian, Howard Napoleon, and his family. Richard doesn’t remember meeting Napoleon in 1990, but Napoleon will never forget it.
The time was 1990. Liberia’s civil conflict was less than a year old. Then-President Samuel Doe was slowly losing power to rival tribes both in the east and in the north and west. He was eager to flex his muscles at the expense of hundreds of civilians from rival tribes hiding at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Doe led his troops into the church. His thirty men opened fire and wielded their butcher knives. Twenty minutes later, 600 were dead. From a Reuters reporter on the scene: “The entire floor of the church was thick with bloodstains and bodies were huddled under pews where the victims tried to hide. Bodies of boys 7 or 8 years old were draped on the altar and a pile of bodies was half-hidden in a dark corner.”

One of those lifeless bodies was Richard’s father. Another was his uncle. Richard was slashed in the leg. He lost it completely. Napoleon arrived on the scene to take those wounded to the hospital, including two-year-old Richard. During our interview with Napoleon at his home in the red light district, in front of a group of forty children – an audience we seem to have everywhere we go in Liberia – Napoleon told us how awful that day was. When I asked him to describe Richard’s condition in detail, he wouldn’t do it with our young audience present. So after the interview, we moved away and set up for a second interview look. There, he told me that Richard’s intestines were falling out of his body from the knife wound. Napoleon thought there was no way Richard would survive. He also figured he would never find out because he fled to Ghana weeks later.

When Napoleon returned in 1997, he asked those he knew if ‘Baby Duo’ – Richard’s name to those who cared for him as a child – was still alive. Miraculously, he was. Napoleon tracked him down and introduced himself to Richard, who obviously had no memory of Napoleon’s heroic efforts. They instantly connected. And in 2002, Napoleon officially adopted Richard. Now Richard has his own family – a two-year-old daughter.

Tomorrow morning, we interview Richard at St. Peter's Lutheran.

See, there’s always a good story in the red light district.


The Ducor Hotel

The main interviews are being shot at this location.

Ducor Hotel Wiki

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 5


Well, that was a sleepless night.
No running water. Malaria country. No AC. I don’t want to sound like a Westerner, but you need your sleep when you work in the African sun in an unfamiliar territory.
Everytime I heard my overhead fan flicker, I opened my eyes and flashed my cell phone. I was going to do my best to avoid those white-winged mosquitoes that have left so many West Africans dead within hours.
I finally fell to asleep at 3:30. I was eager to wake up at 6. Because we had a five hour drive back, the crew was only put to work for a couple of hours. By 1:30, we were in Monrovia.
I never thought I’d say this, but I was so happy to be back in Liberia’s capital city.
I crashed on my bed a couple hours later, only to be awoken by tribal drums. Funny, we are in the city. I followed the noise to a conference room off the hotel (not exactly somewhere you’d expect to see face paint, hand drums, and dancing). It was a perfect end to the day. Our fixers have been trying to track down an African band for me as an element for this piece – one more way to bring my audience to this unique country on the other side of the Atlantic. I think we found them.
Stay tuned to see if I can make it happen and make them come alive on camera later this week.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 3

We're in Gbarnga. A four drive from Monrovia.
We had two guests with us today, Joseph Kolobeh and Richard Duo. Both are from Gbarnga. Both play amputee soccer.
Nearly twenty years ago, at the outset of Liberia's civil conflict, Joseph was ripped away from his home and in order to protect his family, forced to fight for one of the many warring factions. He was part of the Small Boys Unit (SBU) - a large group of adolescents trained to kill.
Richard, on the other hand was three-years-old in 1990. As he's been told, he was hiding in a Monrovian church when rebels attacked. They killed six-hundred. Richard was left an orphan and an amputee.
Meanwhile, Joseph's stint with the SBU was short-lived. An ambush left him without a left arm.
So today, two members of the team went back to their hometown, each with completely different back-stories.
We visited Phebe Hospital where both spent time recovering. Nothing prepared for me for what I saw in that hospital. It was as close to a morgue as it was a recovery center. Everywhere I turned I found lifeless eyes - whether the body was emaciated, amputated or motionless. The images were equally shocking to Richard and Joseph - or so it appeared. But then again, like most of you reading this, I know nothing about what every Liberian saw from 1989-2003. I can only imagine what Phebe was like during the war. Doctors few and far between. And not just AIDS, malaria or dysentery.
Today was the first full day we spent with the Richard and Joseph. It's hard to approach a pair like them. Their lives started on the same path, but the war altered their course. Today they struggle to recover. As they walked down a deserted row of houses at the Gbarnga Catholic Mission - where Richard recovered as an orphan - our cameras caught a moment. The two drifted off on their own, surveying the damage: burned out buildings, a once crowded dining hall now flattened to concrete and weeds, and dorms reduced to boarded up windows and filth.
Our entire crew - which has grown large - stopped for a moment and just watched the two of them walk. These two outcasts of Liberian society, each with his own physical impediment, sharing a common moment of despair and destruction.
We're always told to forgive and forget. Does Richard really forgive those that took his family, childhood and normalcy away from him?
Can Joseph forget all that he did - beheadings, rapes, and murders?
I'm not sure I know the answer to those questions. But for a moment today, it sure seemed like it.


Tuesday's practice with the Liberian amputee soccer team.

Courtesy: Glenna Gordon

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 2

It was hot this morning. But at least it wasn't raining.
This is Liberia. 90 degrees in the shade. Hot.
We spent the first part of the day in downtown Monrovia. Our audio guy, a son of a Cuban mother, said Monrovia reminded him of Havana. Just minus the smiles and the music.
We are here to cover the Liberian amputee soccer team - the champions of Africa. When we stepped out of our van, onto Broad St, we were welcomed by one of the many beggars we would meet downtown. This one reminded us why we were here. He was a double amputee. As our security personnel reminded us, in the last two decades, Liberia had two choices: short sleeve or long sleeve. It wasn't about the shirt length, but where you wanted your arm amputated during the 14-year civil conflict. He was long-sleeve: without wrists.

When the afternoon sun was at its hottest, we went to watch the amputee soccer team practice. Liberia has many amputees - so many they have six amputee soccer teams, a full league. Today, the 18 finest assembled for a practice across the street from the President's mansion on a sandy pitch that is a sorry excuse for a soccer field. They are trying. And so are there coaches. A lack of funds prohibits them from practicing more than a couple times per month. Lack of funds also deems most of them homeless.

It is a sad state of affairs, but tremendously uplifting. These athletes have nothing. Less than nothing. But they still play, and fans show up to watch them. Able-bodied fans.

With an unemployment and poverty rate so high, everybody needs something. Even with nothing, these amputees provide that something. Even if it is for just a couple hours per month. It's a testament to the country's resilience seven years after a civil war. This country is behind, way behind. This team helps them remember their past while moving forward.

More on why that is tomorrow.

We ended the night at the Ducor Hotel. Wherever you live, imagine that five-star hotel turning into a catacomb, full of squatters, urine, and rubble. It's a symbol of Monrovia, but still is beautiful.


Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 1

Monrovia, 3-15-10, 7:30 p.m.

Monrovia is supposed to be hot. It's West Africa after all. Today, as we
concluded the second leg of our nearly 20 hour journey that began in
Washington DC, we were welcomed by rain. Not just the rain we see, but as
my cameraman, Gregg Hoerdemann described, "colors I've never seen before."
It was dark. Little contrast. Just black and white. We waited 10 minutes to
deplane. Looking out the window, it was a mere 40 foot walk to the
terminal. But we didn't walk that far. We walked down the slippery steps
to a sideways downpour only to board a bus, take off 2 minutes later, drive
close to the terminal, only to walk the final 10 feet in the downpour. The
whole operation made us wetter.

We were welcomed by one of the security personnel, who helped us skate
through security. Unlike the ubiquitious booths at any NYC area airport,
there were just two passport control booths here: Resident and Alien.
There's also only one baggage carousel. And you can see the bags being
loaded. So much for waiting at 11:45 p.m. at Miami's airport for 45 minutes
when you are the only flight... Here, the only flight arrives with the bags
moments later. Amazingly, our crew's 18 bags arrived... in one piece.
Always a good way to start a journey a half a world away.

I walked outside to a fog of humid air. Rain still dripping and the smell
of gasoline. We were finally in Monrovia. It'd been two years since I was
originally supposed to be here for the same story. Last time I was stranded
in Brussels with a missed flight. You see, flights to West Africa don't run
on the same frequency as NYC to DC. Twice a week, maybe three times a week.
I made my flight this time. I can't to tell the story of the Liberian
amputee soccer team -- the champions of Africa.

Our 2nd fixer was waiting for us. We had four baggage handlers eager to
await their payday from an American television crew. Mosquitos were
starting to swarm. I was only one pill deep of my Malarone at that point.
It is supposed to protect you from Malaria -- a disease even as I write now
scares the hell out of me. I saw these bugs flying, don't know if they were
mosquitos, but they were big. I ran to my bag next to one of our handlers,
and at the risk of looking 'Western' I grabbed a bottle of 'Off' and started
dousing my exposed frame that was now wet and unprotected below the elbows
and knees. I'm still itching right now, just at the thought of it.

By the time we hit the road, it was dark. Just after 7 p.m. I haven't been
everywhere, but I've been to Caracas, Santo Domingo, and Belgrade
among other places -- all brought back memories. But Liberia was
different. As we drove down one road, our security convoy leading us, it
was amazing to see how little light was with so many people around. People
were walking down the road, hiding in their shacks or simply staring -- in
pitch black. Liberia's Roberts Airport is not right in the center of town.
We came to learn it was about an hour away from downtown Monrovia, but it
was dark, and desolate and poor. So poor. Kids in the street without
shoes. People seeming to walk aimlessly. This is just a view from a car
window. I could be wrong. But it looked right.

It also looks a bit like I imagine a war zone. Even though the Liberian
civil conflict, which ran from 1989 to 2003 has been over for close to seven
years, it still felt like we were travelling through some undeveloped
country. And it is; Liberia has a long way to go. There seems to be
optimism, as we learned from our driver who pointed out such magnificent
government buildings and the 'big ass grocery store' that sits two miles
from our hotel.

It's hard to imagine what this place looks like during the day. I'll soon
find out.


Yaron Deskalo in Liberia, Africa

Liberia is a third-world country still recovering from a 14-year civil war.
Beyond the poverty, many are struggling to survive as amputees, who lost their limbs in the terrible conquest of various Liberian rebel factions.
While they struggle to make a living - some spend their days begging - amputees are trying to find a positive impact on society.
Some athletes have turned to amputee sports, like soccer.
What makes this soccer team so unique is that the players come from a variety of backgrounds - some were innocent victims of war atrocities, others are veterans responsible for deaths and destruction of hundreds.
They now take the field as a member of one team: members of the African amputee champions and signs of a rebuilding west African country when the world focus shifts in months to South Africa for soccer's premiere event..