Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year Gaza!!!

I spent the last few days at Egypt's border with Gaza, in a town called Rafah.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Gaza, here are a few facts:
1. With around 1.5 million residents squeezed into 139 square miles, it is one of the most population dense areas in the world.

2. Although Gaza is ruled by Hamas, Israel controls Gaza's borders, airspace and territorial waters, which allows Israel to control the flow of goods and people into and out of the strip. This includes food, fuel and medical supplies, as well as weapons. Since Hamas took full power of Gaza in June 2007, Israel has severely limited its exports to Gaza.

3. Egypt is the only country besides Israel that shares a border with Gaza. To the consternation of the Egyptian government, which is trying to control its own widely popular Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas enjoys widespread support throughout the Egyptian populace. Egypt's border at Rafah has been closed for all but select humanitarian aid since June 2007.

4. Yes there are probably Palestinians who would like to bomb Israel off the face of the earth (with their homemade rockets), just as there are Israelis who actually are bombing Gaza off the face of the earth--and neither side seems to care if non-combatant civilians are killed in the process. The fact is, Palestinian civilians essentially have no place to go. They can't flee to Egypt. They certainly can't get into Israel. They are trapped on this tiny island with bombs falling all around them.

I arrived at the Rafah border crossing on Sunday, Dec. 28, a day after Israel's air strikes began. I hired a driver to pick me up at 5 a.m. and make the 4-hour jaunt to the Rafah border post. I arrived around 9:15 a.m., just minutes after the first bombs of the day fell on Rafah, I was told by the cadre of journalists lined up outside the gate.

Incredibly, the Egyptian officials allowed all of us journalists past the front gate to the actual border crossing area. We merely had to give them our passports and press cards, as assurances that we wouldn't be able to cross into Gaza. (See Mom, I couldn't even get in to Gaza if I tried.) That's pretty amazing access from the Egyptian government, which more often than not obstructs the work of journalists here.

I understood why we were allowed inside when I saw the 50 or so ambulances and 15-20 trucks packed with donated medical supplies from around Egypt. Since Egypt has refused a complete opening of its border to refugees and supplies, its important for it to be seen by the Egyptian citizenry and by other Arab nations as helping the Gazans somehow, at the very least allowing humanitarian aid to pass through the border.

It's all political.

Bizarrely, the ambulances were sitting there empty and no wounded people were being allowed in to Egypt. The trucks full of medical supplies were sitting there not being allowed to cross into Gaza. We waited all day for something, anything to happen. Hamas officials came, gave interviews and left again. Palestinian Red Crescent workers could be seen pacing through the open gate on the Gaza side of the border. An Egyptian official showed up mid-afternoon, stating that the Hamas officials hadn't "coordinated" enough with the Egyptian government to allow the humanitarian aid process to begin. Hamas left in a huff.

Finally, around 4:30 p.m., the supply trucks began to line up. It appeared they suddenly had the green light to unload and that the transfer of medical supplies was about to begin.

It's a bit of a blur now, but as I remember it, my back was turned away from the border gate, toward the trucks, when I heard, and felt with my whole body, several massive explosions. The ground shook. I turned to see the smoke rising from an Israeli air strike just on the other side of the border wall. More explosions followed, and just when I thought they would stop, there were more. I could barely lift my camera to my face. The bombs felt so close. People were yelling and running.

A total of 20 bombs were directed at Gaza's system of underground smuggling tunnels leading into Egypt. The tunnels are used to import all kinds of goods into Egypt--food, electronics, livestock and, Israel claims, weapons.

The bombs seemed to jar the many volunteers and police on both sides of the border to action. Since the Egyptian supply trucks were not allowed to drive into Gaza, all of the medical supplies had to be unloaded and carried or rolled, box by box, across the border. Men frantically stuffed ambulances with pharmaceuticals and syringes. Even the Egyptian police were lending a hand, running boxes and beds to the Gaza side. Within an hour, the trucks were empty.

The next afternoon, more trucks of supplies were transported across the border.

In January 2008, the Rafah border was breached when somebody in Gaza exploded a hole in the barrier. A mass of humanity swelled into Egypt to buy all kinds of goods--everything from food to televisions. The government decided it didn't want this scenario to be repeated, so in preparation for the transfer of injured Palestinians into Egypt, the riot police stood in formation near the gate, and truckloads more waited outside the border crossing in case of emergency.

Over the next couple days, I shot the wounded being transferred to Egypt for medical treatment. The first day I saw nine Palestinians transported to Egypt. Gaza's medical facilities have been crippled by the inability to get adequate supplies, among other things. And the hospital in Rafah was not well-equipped enough to deal with the most critically injured.

Shooting this was not fun. The crowd of photographers and television cameras was extremely aggressive. There were also a bunch of random people crowding around gawking, taking pictures with their stupid cell phone cameras. It was really strange. Sometimes the paramedics could hardly get the injured person from one ambulance to the other. All anyone seemed to care about was getting their pictures, instead of caring about the people they were photographing.

I asked one of the wire photographers if this was the norm, if it's always such a feeding frenzy when wounded people are brought in. He confirmed that that behavior was typical in the Middle East.

It's also pretty interesting that nobody, from the families of the injured to the police, volunteers and journalists, seemed concerned with patient privacy. Of course this transfer was happening within a public space, but still. People wanted us to take pictures. They wanted the world to see what was happening.

However, in the U.S., it doesn't matter how big of a story it is, you still need release forms and spokespeople and lawyers to make sure it's all right to take such photographs. Nobody wants to get sued. Just an interesting cultural side note.

The emergency volunteers treated the patients with care and compassion.

Women, children, and men were among the wounded.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


I have been embedded with U.S. Army in Paktya province, Afghanistan, near Pakistan, for the past week. Above is the view from a dusty humvee window.

(Sorry mom and dad. I didn't want you to worry.)

It took a few weeks for the embed to be approved--I went to Kabul not knowing if it would come through at all. But on Nov. 25, I received notice that the embed had been approved and that I was expected at Bagram Air Field the next afternoon.

From Bagram I was transported the same day to Salerno Foward Operating Base in Khost province, where I spent Thanksgiving and the following day waiting for a helicopter flight to FOB Herrera in Paktya province.

So first of all, I haven't been shot at. Just fyi. I haven't come across any IED's, haven't been at the FOB for any rockets or indirect fire. According to the soldiers here, things have calmed down considerably. September was bad. October was quieter but not great. By the time I arrived at the end of November, it was starting to get cold and hopefully the Taliban will go into hibernation or back to whatever country they came from for the winter.

Being able to talk to the soldiers who put their lives on the line everyday has opened my eyes. The soldiers joined the Army for different reasons: ROTC college scholarships, to find some direction in life, and because they believed in serving their country. After 8 months here in Afghanistan, most of the people I have talked to just want to go home. Many of them are on their second or third deployment. Most have been to Iraq for a year or more. They have experienced IED explosions, rocket fire, bullets and ambushes. They have all experienced the pain of losing one of their own.

Having said all that, they are quite honestly doing the best they can. They go out every day and try to keep each other safe, but with courage, toughness and dedication.

I have accompanied two different platoons on missions every day since I arrived. The Calvalry Scouts are part of the 1st Squadron, 61st Calvalry, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. They are trained to find and kill "the bad guys," as many of them put it. They travel in convoys of humvees. Above, a gunner looks out from the gun turret of a humvee.

A few days ago, one of the missions got sidetracked when one of the platoon leaders saw a group of men parked next to the FOB, taking photographs with a cell phone. They appeared to be taking photographs of the convoy of soldiers as they drove down the road next to the FOB. Photographs of certain aspects of the FOB or the soldiers could be a serious security risk.

When confronted, the group was uncooperative and acting suspicious. They refused to give up the cell phone. Then they took the battery out so the soldiers couldn't see what photographs had been taken. They said they were Afghans, but they could have been Pakistanis, as the border is a short drive.

The man in this photograph was the one with the cell phone. He was actually staring down the individual soldiers. Obviously not a friend of American forces. He was also on his way back to his madrassa, a religious school.

The cell phone was confiscated for a week, and the men were questioned, but other than that, they couldn't be detained further. Being suspicious is not enough. This situation just illustrates one of the many difficulties of this war: the enemy doesn't wear a uniform.

The other platoon that I've spent time with is the first platoon from the 549th Military Police Company. Traditionally, the military police were "combat support," meaning the infantry would be on the front lines and the MP's and many others were in the back, supporting their work in various ways.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Military Police have been moved to the front. They are conducting missions similar to the Cavalry Scouts. Both platoons that I have been following have conducted many "key leader engagements," meaning they visit a village, seek out the tribal/village elders and talk to them. They ask about the welfare of the villagers, security threats from Taliban and foreign fighters, education, health, basic necessities like food and water, power and road projects and voter registration. Often, they end the visit with a distribution of HA: humanitarian aid. Hearts and Minds missions. Above, the MP platoon leader, Sgt. First Class Hermes Acevedo, chats with elders in a village.

I accompanied the MP's to another village, one that hadn't seen many visitors at all. We were there for a long time and the villagers, especially the children, were interacting a lot with the soldiers.

The little girls were very camera shy and the first few times I approached them, they scattered in all directions. I don't think they were less curious about what was going on, but girls just don't get the opportunities for education, fun and outside contact that boys do. It's a cultural thing, but it really sucks. My opinion. The excuse is that they are "protecting" the women, but really it just comes across as selfish.

The girls and women here are incredibly beautiful, even when they are completely covered, because they dress in bright colors--red, green, hot pink, purple, orange. They decorate their scarves and dresses with little mirrors and sparkling jewels. They are the splashes of color in this land of brown and grey.

This particular village was very poor. They were very nice though, and welcomed the soldiers with smiles. At one time the village had a river nearby, which helped them irrigate their crops. But recently a neighboring village built a hydroelectric project and the river dried up.

When the soldiers starting unloading the humanitarian aid, the people immediately began fighting and grabbing at items. Unfortunately, the soldiers had to separate the people from the food, radios and toys until it was all unloaded.

Some of the soldiers occupied the crowds of curious children who gathered around to ask questions and make friends with them. Above, one of the children asks by pantomime if these soldiers are the ones with aircraft that fly overhead.

One little boy, an 8-year-old named Khan, was having trouble walking because he had stepped on a land mine a few days earlier. The platoon medic, PFC Colin Thon, cleaned and dressed the infected wound and told him how to clean it. Some villages are doing better than others and even have their own medical clinics. This village had no medical help nearby.

One of the times I approached the group of girls with my camera, one of the interpreters helped me out by saying something to the effect of: "She's not going to hurt you. Don't you want your picture taken?" A little while later I noticed them smiling and motioning me to come to them. Some of the girls still ran away, but a few stayed right in front of me and let me make some photographs. They loved seeing the pictures on the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

Then the boys came over and told the to go away and shook their fingers at me. It's like they don't want the girls to have any fun at all.

This is Spc. Ernie Ruiz, a gunner with the MP's right before a test fire of the rounds in the humvee gun turret.

The MP's and Scouts have been taking good care of me and watching out for my safety. I am thankful for all of them.

Afghanistan is actually a beautiful place in many ways. Too bad it's so messed up.