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Reporter's Home Burns in California; Reporting on Paskistan Suicide Attacks; New Darfur Film

Aired October 26, 2007 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories.
This week, too close to home, the journalists who covered his own home burning down in California. The survivors story. Reporters are caught up in one of the worst suicide attacks in Pakistan's history.

The call for action. The new film highlighting the efforts of six individuals determined to help the people in Darfur.

We begin in the United States. For the past week, the world has been witness to devastating wildfires that have swept California. The fire forced the biggest evacuation in the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of hectares of the California landscape have been charged. And more than 1.5 thousand homes have been lost.

Media outlets have scrambled to cover the fires from every angle. And one reporter in San Diego found himself at the center of the story.


LARRY HIMMEL, KFMB REPORTER: On any given day, I would say welcome to my home. But this is what is left of my home just outside the Forest Ranch area. Fire crews have fought valiantly to save every house on this hill. At least took a shot at it and were nice enough to let us up here. That was our garage. The livingroom over there. There was a porch. Back there, the bedrooms. No pets left behind. Family out, cars out, safe, but can see my hose right here, valiantly trying to do something, but this is it. It's a southwestern style house. I've been in it about 25 years out here when there was nothing. We did the clear brush. We did what we could. This was a living hell coming over the hill. And this is what I come home to today.


SWEENEY: Reporting on his own home burning down, that was Larry Himmel of KFMB in San Diego.

But rarely do journalists find themselves at the center of the story to that degree. Typically, reporting from such natural disasters poses other challenges, especially when they are an unpredictable force like fire.

To examine those difficulties and the media's coverage of the California fires, we turn to Dan Simon who's in San Diego.

Dan, you're in the Qualcomm Stadium at the moment in San Diego, which has seen lots of refugees and evacuees go there. But there are so many angles in which to cover this story this week. How do you begin? Where do you start?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's a good question. You know, CNN has sent so many reporters to the area to cover all the various aspects of the story. You have to cover the fire itself. You have to cover the evacuees. There are the animals. There are all the rescue workers, all the medical workers. There are just so many elements to this story. And you really do the best you can to really cover all the different angles.

And like I said, you know, we've just sent so many people here to cover all the various aspects, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: I mean, how does it feel to be going towards the direction of a fire, be it in Malibu or elsewhere, when other people are evacuating?

SIMON: Well, it's a bit ominous, especially when you see that very large plume of smoke in the sky, you think to yourself, number one, how am I going to stay safe? Do I have the right equipment? Do I have the boots? Do I have my fire gear?

And then you talk to your crew. And you say to yourself, OK, if I get into a scary situation, what's my evacuation point? So safety obviously comes first.

And then you have to think about, well, how am I going to cover this story? What people am I going to talk to? How am I going to get the information? Does my computer work? All those various things.

And then, you have to think about, well, how am I going to get the signal back to Atlanta, where CNN is headquartered? And so, there's just many different things you have to be worrying about at once.

SWEENEY: And you're standing there in the stadium, of course, which is a focal point for evacuees. And there's a huge media presence around you. Can you describe it?

SIMON: Well, there have been journalists here from all over the world. Obviously, this is a story where one, a lot of people are affected. But number two, it's generated worldwide coverage just because so many people are interested in what's happening.

We've seen reporters here from Germany, from Japan. I believe I saw somebody from Australia. So no question about it - I mean, it's like a satellite city, where when you get out into the parking lot, you see all the different satellite trucks, so many different camera men, and producers, and assignment editors, all the various things you need to do to cover a story of this magnitude.

SWEENEY: From San Diego, Dan Simon, thank you very much indeed for taking the time to join us.

And up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, a homecoming turns to tragedy in Pakistan. The attempted assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto. It's a tale of survival for journalists as well. We'll hear a press hand account from journalist Christina Lamb when we return.


SWEENEY: It was an event that drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Karachi. The return of former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto after eight years of self imposed exile.

It was a day of celebration for supporters and well wishers until that homecoming was shattered by two blasts, a suicide attack on the convoy carrying the former prime minister.

Journalist Mark Davis was traveling in that convoy.


MARK DAVIS, JOURNALIST/EYEWITNESS: It was totally blinding blast of the dust. I mean, they kind of clouded the area. I damaged my ears and was confused.


SWEENEY: More than 130 people were killed in the attack. Benazir Bhutto escaped the assassination attempt unhurt.

Foreign correspondent with "The Sunday Times", Christina Lamb was also on board the bus carrying Benazir Bhutto. Christina Lam is the author of the book, "Small Wars Permitting." It's due for release in January. She joins me now in the studio.

First of all, quite extraordinary to have been so close to this attack and live to tell the tale?

CHRISTINA LAMB, CORRESPONDENT, SUNDAY TIMES: Yes, I feel lucky in to have survived, because I guess you're about 15 others on top of the bus. And three people were killed. So those of us that got off were very lucky.

SWEENEY: Describe how you're write in your article about hearing a sound, a dull thud and you're talking with somebody on the bus. Both of you look at each other and realize immediately what it is.

LAMB: Well, I was talking to Venice's legal affairs folks (INAUDIBLE). And we were having quite animated conversation right in the middle of the bus.

And suddenly, there was this low boom. And we both sort of looked at each other. And then orange flame came on. And we were thrown back onto the floor of the bus.

And everybody was on the floor, looking at each other shocked and starting sort of lift their heads up. And I've covered suicide bombings before. And often, there are two blasts. And so I said there my be another blast. Before really anybody could do anything, then there was another much bigger bang. And then a huge wall of orange flame came up the side of the bus. And we were thrown right back again.

SWEENEY: A second orange flame.

LAMB: Yes, but much bigger the second time. And that then everything around it seemed to catch fire. It was as though the whole scene was flood lit. So the trees were on fire and some of the vehicles were on fire.

SWEENEY: It really highlights in your article the small amount of time between hearing the first thud and the first orange wall of flame, because you were able to look at the person to whom you were talking and know. And both of you know that this was an explosion before it actually hit you?

LAMB: No, it was a very small amount of time. And it was a strange thing because everybody knew that that might happen. And Benezutto talked about it before the government had warned that something could happen. But it was still a shock when it actually did.

SWEENEY: Mm-hmm. And you emerged unscathed relatively.

LAMB: Yes. I just felt as soon as the second one had happened, I just really felt I had to get off the bus because I could see all this flame around, and was aware that the fuel tank could catch fire. And then we would have had it, because we're right on top.

So I was saying we'd better jump off the bus. And some people jumped off the side. And there was a shoot at the back of the bus. And so, several of us jumped on there.

And fortunately, somebody at the bottom caught it, because it was quite the big job. And then I just ran and get away. And there was body parts and just absolute carnage and blood. And I didn't realize that I was with a lot of blood on me until I ran down the side street and a woman grabbed me and tried to take me to well it's an ambulance. And I was saying I'm fine, I'm fine.

And then I realized that I had blood all across my shoulder, and bits of blood all over, and also bits of flesh, too in my hair.

SWEENEY: Have you ever been in this situation? I know you've been in a number of scrapes, sort of mildly. But have you ever been in a situation like this?

LAMB: I mean, I've been in situations where I've been under fire and thought I was going to be killed in Afghanistan and places like that. But I've never been in a suicide bombing where we were the actually target like that, no.

SWEENEY: You made your way to Benazir Bhutto's compound, where she was - you found her relatively calm, watching television and seemingly at that moment, not in shock?

LAMB: Well, I think she was - I mean, everybody was shocked. She was sort of holding it together. And everybody was - all the different people from the bus who'd all ended up in different places were turning up at her house. And everybody was sort of hugging each other and crying.

And she was sitting, watching the television. And the news - and watching live what was happening. And the death toll was coming in. And initially, they were saying 15 dead. And we were all saying we saw far more people killed than that.

And then suddenly, quite quickly, it was increasing up to 50, then 80, then over 100. And of course, she was very shocked at what happened.

SWEENEY: But remarkably composed, it seemed.

LAMB: Yes. So they were - I mean, I spoke to her the following day. And she said it only really hit her slightly later just how close we'd come.

SWEENEY: It raises the question as well, the security of how close that the suicide bomber was able to get to the convoy. And you wrote in your article something that was raised the night of the bombing. And since about the electronic (INAUDIBLE) that the government had provided Benazir Bhutto. And her husband phoning and saying I'm in Dubai. You're all on your mobile phones. I can see you on TV on the bus. The (INAUDIBLE) must not be working.

LAMB: That's right. I mean, she - one of her security advisors on the top of the bus, the whole time was sort of prowling up and down, looking over the side of the bus. And I was talking to him what was he doing. And he said that he was very worried, that the jarma (ph) that they'd asked for, which would have intercepted any remote control bomb, wasn't working. And so, he was making phone calls to government officials, trying to see what was going on.

But also, it meant that they had to watch the crowds much more. They're frankly, I mean, against a suicide bomber, there wasn't that much they could do.

SWEENEY: Well, a week later, you're in London. You're back with your family. It's (INAUDIBLE) home for your son from school. Have you yourself come down from the whole shock experience of this?

LAMB: It was shocking. I mean, you - I still jump when I hear sirens and the sound of the - that first kind of boom when we were thrown back, sort of rocking feeling and seeing all the flame around here. I feel that we were incredibly lucky and probably feel slightly stupid having stayed on the bus for so long, because I knew what a risk it was. I didn't intend originally to be on it, and then got caught up in the excitement of the occasion.

And it's strange, because it went on for so long. I mean, we'd been on the bus for nine hours when the explosions happened. By then, you sort of - it was almost like a carnival like atmosphere. Everybody was waving and singing and dancing. There was music blaring out.

And it was only at one point I went and spoke to Benezutto at the front of the bus. And she was saying to me, have you noticed that the lights are going out, the street lights? And I hadn't noticed because the bus was lit up. So I hadn't realized.

And when she said it, I looked. And sure enough, what was happening wasn't the whole street. It was just as we moved along, the lights over us were going out, which is very odd. And I've lived in Pakistan in the past. And whenever there's been unexplained attacks in Karachi, usually drive-by shootings, the first thing that happens is the street lights go out. And then, the people appear and the shootings happen.

So when she said that, I remembered those occasions. And then I was like her, watching and wondering why that was happening. It seemed very odd.

SWEENEY: And indeed it was almost to be born out if there was any link or not yet to be established. Christina Lamb, thank you very much indeed for taking the time.

And still to come on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, highlighting a humanitarian disaster. The new documentary aiming to help end the crisis in Darfur. We'll examine the difficulties in making the film when we return.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Making a difference to help the people of Sudan, that's the thinking behind "Darfur Now", a new documentary that highlights the efforts of six individuals to end what's being described as a humanitarian catastrophe.

Filmmakers were given exclusive access to camps and other areas off limits to most media outlets. Now in a moment, we'll meet two members of the Darfur now team.

But first, Kareen Wynter with this preview of the film.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can we move forward so that peace can (INAUDIBLE).

KAREEN WYNTER: In 2004, the U.S. government labeled the humanitarian conflict in Sudan as genocide. The new documentary "Darfur Now" examines the crisis and six individuals taking action to change it.

DON CHEADLE, ACTOR: Create enough noise and create enough pressure that we finally push our leaders to do what we want them to do.

We have 2.5 million displaced. We have close to 400,000 killed.

WYNTER: Among those featured is actor Don Cheadle. He recounts for CNN a story from the regent he's heard time and again.

CHEADLE: The bombs started raining down on us. We gathered as everything we could gather on our backs. We started to flee. Then came the jenjouid (ph), supported by the government soldiers behind them. And they attacked and burned and raped and killed.

WYNTER: Surprisingly, filmmaker Ted Braun was granted unprecedented access into Darfur by the very government blamed for the atrocities.

TED BRAUN, DIRECTOR: I think the world has frequently demonized the government of Sudan. And I thought that as a human being, and certainly as a filmmaker, I had an obligation to not do that.

WYNTER: Braun's film does not let the Sudanese government off the hook, but it does offer perspective and focuses primarily on those working towards resolution, like then Los Angeles student Adam Sterling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's going on over there?

WYNTER: Incensed by the genocide, Sterling began a grassroots campaign, which had led to a dozen states divesting millions of dollars from Sudan, beginning with California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In California, there's no stand for murder and genocide.

ADAM STERLING, ACTIVIST: From our efforts have started to see companies pulling out of the region, putting pressure on the Sudanese government and taking away that credit line to genocide.

If you learn about what's happened in the past, what happened in Nazi Germany, and here we've got a chance to make it right.

WYNTER: Kareen Wynter, CNN, Hollywood.


SWEENEY: Filming of "Darfur Now" took place in the first four months of this year. To discuss the complexities in making such a documentary, I'm joined by writer and director Ted Braun and activist Adam Sterling. They're both in Washington.

Thank you for joining us. Ted Braun, journalists often find great difficulty in terms of trying to write a story about Darfur, cover a story about Darfur. Why do you think audiences in the United States particularly would want to go to see a movie that seems so depressing to begin with?

BRAUN: Well, Fionnuala, I hope that audiences in the United States will come see the film because of the way in which we've humanized this story. We've really tried to put people in the shoes of six people who have hope and who believe that they can make a difference in ending the crisis.

And we're hoping that audiences will ride into the theater on that hope and leave with a sense of the complexities in Darfur, but also some sense that the situation can be resolved.

SWEENEY: One of those people with such hope as you've described is the man sitting beside you, Adam Sterling. Adam, at an amazingly young age, you managed to convince the California legislature to stop companies in California investing in Darfur. Very briefly, how did you manage to do that?

STERLING: It wasn't easy. We basically had an idea that we wanted to use California's billion dollars of pension fund money as leverage on the Sudanese government. And there wasn't really much of a model there. So we had to research, actually write the law, and then lobby for it. So really on all levels, we were our own lobbyists, our own law makers, and our own publicists.

SWEENEY: Ted, obviously, Adam is one of those six people featured in "Darfur Now." Let me ask you, if I may, about the logistics of making this money? I mean, so many journalists find it impossible to get access to Darfur, to even get out of Khartoum. How did you manage to persuade the authorities that you were not a threat to them?

BRAUN: Well, I think a key component of this picture was that we were focusing on people trying to resolve all conflict, and not trying to get to the front lines or expose the worst of the ongoing situation.

I also, when I spoke with members of the government, underlined the fact that I was curious about their perspective on the situation and interested in bringing that to the world as well.

I think we have an obligation as human beings and as documentarians to engage and look at all sides of an issue. And I was interested in that and discussed that at length with the members of the Sudanese government that I was in contact with.

SWEENEY: Adam Sterling, you're one of six main characters in this film. When you were doing your work, how far along were you in getting this bill passed when Ted began filming you in action, so to speak?

STERLING: We had really just started. I think we had completed writing the bill and had actually had begun just started moving through the legislature. So made a couple of trips up to Sacramento to lobby, but it was really right towards the beginning of our legislative journey.

SWEENEY: And how did it feel being filmed as you worked?

STERLING: It was strange at first. I don't have much experience on film. I had - before, we had coffee together. And a couple of weeks later, he called me and said we'd like to put you on camera and see how it works out. And I said OK, but I'm going to work tomorrow. And he said OK, we'll follow you. And they stayed for three months.

And I got used to it, but I spent some time talking to the camera at first and was told not to do so.

SWEENEY: A final question to you, Ted, if I may. You spent four months in Sudan. I mean, presumably, if you thought you knew the story beforehand, you must have felt somewhat differently afterwards?

BRAUN: I did indeed. I mean, it was a transformative experience. And I'd say it was really marked by two things, Fionnuala. The first thing, which I really wasn't prepared for, was how deeply I was affected by the lives and the stories of the people of Darfur who I met. Their bravery in the face of really unimaginable atrocities was inspiring to me. And I - the stories have been my stock and trade as a profession for my entire working life, but this was the first time I'd met and worked with people for whom getting their story out was a matter of life and death. And that was something I wasn't prepared for and left me humbled and with a sense of great responsibility, and in a way, a great sense of honor in being able to be a part of helping the world understand what's happening in Darfur.

The other thing that I came away with was a really quickened sense of how important it is for us in the so-called West to find ways to speak to and engage that Muslim speaking part of the world, so that we can be heard and that we can understand each other.

Darfur is a Muslim region of Sudan. And finally, the people of Darfur, all Muslims, will have to live together when this conflict is resolved. And I think if the West is interested in participating in a constructive resolution to that conflict, we need to keep in mind that we have to address the conflict in a way that all of the people of Darfur, all of the parties, can hear us. And that means speaking in a way that the Arab speaking Muslim population will feel represented and understood.

SWEENEY: All right. There we must leave it, but Ted Braun and Adam Sterling in Washington, good luck with the film "Darfur Now". Thank you both very much indeed for joining us.

SWEENEY: That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.