The International Reporting Project Fellows have recently returned from their overseas reporting projects. During their travels, they occasionally sent back correspondence, brief stories and blog items with their impressions. Below are some excerpts.
Nikole Killion from South Africa
DURBAN, South Africa – When I entered the home of a woman, in her mid-late forties, who was in stage three of the disease, my eyes were instantly drawn to her gaunt face and arms, which were almost as thin as a curtain rod. Her home was no bigger than a walk-in closet that one may find in a master bedroom of a typical suburban Washington McMansion. Plastic shopping bags hang from the roof “to catch the rain water,” she later explained.
When I enter her bedroom, she was crying out in excruciating pain…but somehow, she still manages to show me a slight smile when I grasp her hand. She is one of Gloria Shabalala’s patients from Inanda Community Hospital. Gloria makes the rounds regularly to about 40 patients in this community toting a bag full of medicines and supplies . On this visit, she provides the woman with vitamins and electrolytes. But one thing that she can’t deliver is ARV’s (antiretroviral drugs).
“The ARV’s are free… but getting there is not,” Shabalala explained, stating that there is limited transportation to get to the nearest hospital that is located several kilometers away. Furthermore, she tells me that there is a wait list of at least nine months or more for many patients to obtain ARV’s. And even if the woman were able to take the drugs, she would need to have proper nutrition. Since she lost her job and disability grant, she can’t afford to buy food and often goes hungry. Much of the burden has fallen onto her 13-year-old son who helps to take care of her.
It is a disturbing predicament. But the situation is also challenging at King George Hospital in Durban. It is a tuberculosis hospital where doctors are starting to see an increase in the number of patients who have contracted drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, known as MDR (multiple drug resistant) or XDR (extensively drug resistant). Because it is untreatable with first-or second-line drugs, many patients, specifically those who contract XDR-TB, often die within a short period of time. HIV positive patients have become especially vulnerable to this co-infection. Dr. Iqbal Masters, who runs the ward, said that 70 percent of his TB patients are HIV positive.
“I am a bit pessimistic about how MDR/XDR is going to do…especially with HIV fueling it, probably the situation is going to get worse,” Masters explained.
I hate to think about it…but it is likely that many of the patients that I saw will probably die prematurely. So what happens next? According to Thembinkosi Ngcobo, head of Parks and Recreation for the Ethikweni District (which includes Durban and the surrounding municipalities), they may not have a place to be buried. About 98 percent of the cemeteries in the municipality are filled to capacity. There is only one open cemetery, he explained. Because of the shortage, many graves are being recycled. Remains are exhumed after ten years and reburied deeper into the ground in order to make more room for other bodies to be interred above on the same plot. Cremation is also becoming an essential alternative, though most local residents are against it for religious reasons. Ngcobo said that AIDS-related deaths are likely to blame for the high mortality rate within the district, with 80 percent of the burial victims between 25-35 years old.
“Every weekend we have to go to funerals,” said Ngobo, who lost his older brother to the disease 10 years ago. “We may not be able to say and know for sure… but it is common knowledge that the majority of young people are dying because of HIV/AIDS. I only hope that once as a country we admit that, we will be able to stand up and deal with the problem decisively.”
Steve Kiehl from Mexico
CHIBATI GUACAL, Mexico – By the time I was on my hands and knees, crawling under a canopy of branches that appeared to contain a beehive, I began to appreciate the challenge in guarding a mountain that sprawls over 3,000 acres. There are few clear paths, just dense forest filled with pine trees, vines, plants and bushes I had never before encountered.
There was no time to contemplate the white bumps that began swelling on my hand; there was too much work to do, too much land to cover. Every day of the year, the men of the Donacio ejido, an indigenous community in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, patrol the Chibati Guacal mountain to protect their forest from illegal loggers. The men work 30-hour shifts in groups of seven.
For a story on the battle between indigenous communities and loggers, I accompanied a group up the mountain one week in mid-March. We set out at 7 a.m., riding up the mountain on horseback, through narrow paths and up steep switchbacks. After nearly three hours, we reached a clearing and set up camp. This would be home for the next two days.
My host for this trip was Vincente Guzman Reyes, 50, who used to cut these trees before he began protecting them. For 10 years, he cut and sold the tall pine trees. But it slowly dawned on him that he was mortgaging his own future and his children’s. The indigenous communities that live on the sides of the mountains depend on the forest for their water supply. If there are no trees, there is no water.
For environmental groups, there is another concern: If there are no trees, there are no butterflies. The monarch butterfly migrates to the mountaintops of central Mexico every winter, drawing tourists by the busload. The butterflies essentially nest on the trees until March, when they head north by the millions. To stand in the midst of a cloud of migrating butterflies is an experience for which the word transcendental does no justice.
Vincente wants to protect the forest not just for the tourists and butterflies, but for the future of his community. Five of his nine children have crossed illegally into the United States for work. He wants to build a self-sustaining community they can return home to. So every month or so, with a 9mm handgun tucked under his waistband, he does his part on the mountain, looking for the tracks of loggers and for cuts in the barbed-wire fence that marks his community’s land.
There have been shootings and threats of violence, but Vincente is undeterred. “They threatened to kill me,” he said of one group of loggers. “And I said, ‘Kill me if you want, but I have to defend the forest because it is the future for my sons and grandsons.’ ”
When we came back down the mountain the next day, I was sun-burnt, bug-bitten and covered in pollen and dust. But that all would clear up, like the bumps on my hand that had disappeared overnight, and I would be left with a deep respect for these men who took seriously their obligation to make their children’s lives better than their own.
Christina Larson from China
GANSU PROVINCE, China – On the road in Gansu province, you’ll pass bicycles, motorbikes, and donkey-drawn carts. This part of northwest China is parched in spring,its hillsides a dusty gold. Once famous as part of the Silk Road, the region is now mostly known for being poor, dry, and polluted.
Jia Chun Qiang, who grew up in rural Guochengyi township, now runs a training center to help farmers prepare for city life. He teaches computer skills, apartment-finding basics, and a primer on workers “rights”; his wife runs a shop selling clothing and shoes next door. Since last fall Jia has been interested in tweaking the curriculum to add an environmental component. The idea struck him after he attended a workshop run by environmental groups in the provincial capital of Lanzhou.
Green NGOs are a relatively new phenomenon in China, a form of civil society the government has tolerated (albeit cautiously), recognizing that averting further environmental catastrophes will require involving the Chinese public.
One day in March, Jia took me to various sites along the Yellow River and its tributaries where trash had been thrown on the beaches, ready to be washed into the river with the first rain. We saw where a hospital dumped medical waste and a lamb-processing plant discharged wastewater directly into the river. These actions are illegal, but green laws are poorly enforced at the local level, and the public has little knowledge of them.
Beijing has ambitious plans to divert rivers and build reservoirs to help solve urban water shortages. But infrastructure alone won’t solve the problem.
In his own village, Jia took me to meet his inspiration. “Yeye” (old man) Chan Seming is in his late 60s, deaf and dumb from an acupuncture procedure gone amiss when he was 12. He lives in a one-room house, with a coal-burning stove, giant poster of Mao in a blue suit smoking a cigarette, and a few faded photographs on one dresser. In back, Jia shows me mounds of garbage, piles of wires and cans and clothing, which Yeye has collected and sorted, a one-man municipal trash operation.
Inside, over cigarettes, Jia took a piece of white chalk and began writing in Chinese characters on the stone floor. He wrote to ask Yeye why he did it. But the old man shook his head. He wouldn’t say. In all the years they’ve known each other, he has never explained.
Vanessa Gezari from Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia – George Bull is 27 years old with a strong jaw and a look that says,
don’t come any closer. He started fighting when he was 13 – “from my baby time,” he says – and now lives with his girlfriend and their two small children in a cavernous abandoned building along one of Monrovia’s main roads.
The building, a former health ministry, is one of many in Monrovia now occupied by squatters. When Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended in 2003, thousands of demobilized fighters stayed in the capital, unwilling or unable to return home. George joined Charles Taylor’s rebel faction when he was 10, after seeing his uncle killed in fighting. For a few years, he carried guns for the bigger soldiers; then he started shooting on his own.
The other day, dressed in shorts and a black basketball jersey, he showed me the small, windowless concrete room where he and his family live. Babies cried on the crowded porch outside, and a woman walked by wearing a T-shirt that said “Please act shocked that I’m a granddad.”
George is working his way through 10th grade. He loves school, but it’s expensive: about $60 a year in a country where 80 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day. Like many Liberian students, he must bring his own chair, notebooks, tissues and soap, and pay a fee every time he takes a test. The UN money that paid for the first three years of his post-war schooling as part of a nationwide disarmament program has been spent, and he works odd jobs to cover the cost of his education and support his 1- and 2-year-old daughters. With Taylor in prison in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes, George has gained a measure of perspective on his old leader, whose army included thousands of children.
“When you are innocent, you don’t know anything,” he said. “Anyone can fool you.”
Gregory Warner from Afghanistan
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – It’s my third night in the northern town of Mazar-
e-Sharif, and my email inbox is buzzing with military press releases. NATO says, “Roadside Bomb Targets ISAF convoy; Kills Afghan Child” US_ARMY says back “Afghan patriots added to police force,” NATO shouts “Nursing Students graduate from Qalat PRT!”
I misread the next release from US_ARMY, when I drop a letter and read it as “Qalat PRT treats ailing Afghans in Stinky District” which is when I figure it’s time to shut down gmail. Besides, my connection’s frozen so all I can do is stare at subject headers. You know who else doesn’t have internet access right now? The city’s university. Even the professors don’t have email addresses. I interviewed the director of the agriculture school today. He was a slight man with a worn pinstripe suit and very round brown eyes. I requested a tour of the facility and he looked pained, then resolute, then politely guided me out in the rain to gaze on the small field of test plots behind the concrete dorms.
“Inja Safflower as,” he would say, “unja Canola as,” his tiny hand dripping in the increasingly heavy downpour. I declined his offer to walk across the field to the small tree nursery, and with that the tour was over. He gathered up his trousers in each little fist as he hopped bowlegged back down the muddy path. They’ve not had internet access all year he says because they can’t afford the subscription fee. He passes me a towel to dry my hair. He says his department has just $200 a semester to spend on textbooks and lab materials, about 30 cents per student. Even the faculty who live on campus don’t have hot water or electricity. I make a note of this with my $2 pen on my 80 cent notepad and I wonder how much of his budget was spent on the two plates of biscuits which the assistant director brought us along with green tea for the honored American guest.
Reporting here, especially as a Westerner, is a weighty experience. Weighty in ways both rewarding and crushing. Last week I broke bread with a agribusiness cowboy in an Operation Freedom windbreaker, he’d just returned from various development projects near the crux of the fighting; we talked war and raisins and terrorism and then he sighed and said, “I’ve never been in a country where I experience such high emotional highs and low emotional lows.”
I realized I’ve been on the same roller coaster. Because on the one hand you get a thrill covering stories in a place where even the small stories feel important. When you say you’re a journalist you get respect from people on the street; which is partly Afghan politeness but also that people see reporters as maybe their last allies against crushing forces. I know many young journalists here who are smart and brave. On the other hand the deeper you query the more twisted the facts and interpretations and there are always many layers to all but the very simplest stories. I never know when to stop peeling the onion and pretty soon I’m crying into my kitchen knife.
Jessica Reaves from Senegal
DIAOBÉ, Senegal – Ndeye Diop never planned to become a prostitute in Diaobé, a town 40 kilometers outside Kolda, in the Casamance region of Senegal. Born in Dakar, Diop married a police officer, mothered six children and lived a respectable life until her husband divorced her, and she was left to raise her family alone.
At 37, she was too old to begin a skilled career, and advanced education was impossible. So she did what many divorced women here do, turning to the sex trade, which provides a salary and, in Senegal, a modicum of security. In this country, prostitution has been legal since 1970, and sex workers are registered with the government and provided weekly mandatory health screenings and care. They are constantly at odds with the clandestine prostitutes, who operate under the radar and are not subject to the same medical tests. And then there are the foreign sex workers, who immigrate to Senegal without the benefit of a clean bill of health.
Diop is 45 years old, but her face, slackened by fatigue and sun, makes her look at least 15 years older. She carries herself with dignity, and smiles when answering questions, but the expression never makes its way to her eyes, which meet mine with a disconcertingly direct gaze. She waves away concerns about immigrant prostitutes. “They come here and they learn our ways,” she says. “We’ve never had any problems with any of them.” She pauses, and adds, “I think it’s because things are much better here for sex workers than they are in other countries.”
Relatively good working conditions are thanks in large part to small organizations of professional prostitutes, which provide sex workers certain rights, teach disease prevention and conduct AIDS tests. Diop is president of her local group, and she proudly tells me it was instrumental in giving its members the right to turn away any man who is unwilling to wear a condom during sex. There is no national advocacy group for sex workers in Senegal, although many NGOs have recently begun addressing the social and medical needs of the country’s prostitutes.
Diaobé’s geography – near the borders of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau – and its role as a trade hub — a weekly market draws traders from the Guineas as well as Mali and Mauritania — plus the Casamance region’s relatively high rate of HIV infection conspire to put its sex workers at ground zero for the disease.
“AIDS prevention is by far the most important issue for us,” Diop says in her soft, firm voice. “We’re exposed to the disease every time we go to work.” She has been tested “many times,” she says. Is she afraid to get the results? “Yes, “ she says slowly, “ but not truly. I know how to use a condom, and I have never engaged in any other risk behaviors.” She doesn’t get tattoos, in other words, or use drugs.
We talk for a while about her family, and her six children, who range in age from 9 to 17. She has two boys and four girls, and I ask her if she would consent to any of her daughters working in the sex trade. Her eyes harden a bit, and she raises her voice for the first time in our interview.
“Never,” she says emphatically. “Never, never, never.”
Shereen Meraji from Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Ali Fadlallah is a 21 year old Hezbollah supporter who lost a majority
of his family in the July War. I met Ali in Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-run enclave in southern Beirut. Ali works at a telecommunications company in Dahiyeh and he attends a technical college there. When he talks about his life in Lebanon and the way it changed after July’s war, you can tell he’s fighting back tears.
Half a year ago, Ali dug through the rubble of a bombed house in his village of Ainata, hoping to find pieces of his mother and sister who had been dead for 15 days, crushed beyond recognition. His older brother, a Hezbollah fighter, was found shot in the chest, clutching his M-16 in front of one of the Ainata village mosques. When I asked him if he’s been back to the village since burying his family, he looked at me curiously, and said, “Of course, my father’s still living in our house with my older sister. I love my village and I go and visit every weekend.” He said, “Why don’t you come visit and see for yourself?”
On the way from Beirut to Ainata, the scenery changed…hills, lush with vegetation gave way to burned out cars and houses pock marked with from shrapnel. Neon yellow Hezbollah flags flew high on electricity poles and the eyes of “martyred” Hezbollah fighters, Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khomeini stared down at us from their posters plastered on the sides of bombed out buildings and make-shift mosques. Construction crews were rebuilding. Men sat on plastic lawn chairs in front of mini-marts, flanked by empty shops, with glass storefronts shattered. Women, wearing floor length black dresses, their veils pinned tightly beneath their chins looked like spirits floating with plastic grocery bags over the rubble.
Ali started the tour of his village. We were standing beside an empty lot with a white tent erected in the middle of it. Ali pointed to a spot on the edge of the lot and said that’s where his older was brother was found, shot dead, while protecting his house and a newly built mosque. There was no evidence of a mosque, just the tent where the villagers pray until they can rebuild the mosque destroyed in the War.
We entered Ali’s home and sat in this living room to talk about life after the war. Framed photos of Ali’s dead relatives sat on little round tables and in the corner of the room, his brother’s Kalashnikov balanced on an unexploded Israeli shell.
The family meeting was awkward, listening to stories of war and death in a stranger’s home through and interpreter is an indescribable experience, it’s strange and uncomfortable and I wanted nothing more than to leave. I didn’t know what to say or what questions were appropriate or inappropriate. The air was thick with sadness.
A block away from Ali’s family home in Ainata, a pile of concrete marks the place where his family was crushed, along with 16 other villagers. Ali stood on the side of the rubble and said that after the cease fire he hurried back to the village, hoping his mom would be there to greet him when he arrived. He finished that day digging through the broken concrete that was once a three-story building. Ali looked to the right and said, “I used to play soccer with my friends 3 meters that way.” Then he turned to the left, stared at the pile of concrete, and added, “My happiest memories will forever be mixed with my saddest.”
On the road back to Beirut, I tried to understand why Ali wanted to return to a village that’s now a virtual graveyard. Everyone in the village is convinced that another war with Israel is months away. Young men are always training, preparing to defend their homes. Destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild.
Fifteen minutes from Ali’s village, we parked off the side of the road and I sat on a wall staring through a chain link fence that divides Lebanon and Israel. Edwin, my driver, pointed down to a group of children walking through an orchard on the Israeli side, “Can you believe how close it is, Shereen? We can actually see each other through the fence. But don’t get too close,” he warned, “you’ll be electrocuted.”