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Journalist Hostages Describe Their Odeal; Covering the Conflict in Sri Lanka; Photographing the Afghan War

Aired February 20, 2009 - 04:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: In print, on air, and on the web, this is INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney.

Coming up, held hostage, two journalists who spent 40 days kidnapped in Somalia describe their ordeal. Off limits, covering the conflict in Sri Lanka and the risks to reporters. And frontline imagery, we meet the British Army photographer helping to document the war in Afghanistan.

First, something most reporters fear, but few will have to experience, being kidnapped. That's what happened to British journalist Colin Freeman and Spanish photographer Jose Cendon whilst covering a story in Somalia. The two were held in caves for nearly six weeks before being released in early January.

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS caught up with both of them and asked them about the kidnapping and the process of recovery.


COLIN FREEMAN, THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: Well, I wondered what it was like, what it would be like if we died there.

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST (voice-over): From a cave in Somalia, to a cafe in London, they're worlds apart for journalist Colin Freeman and photographer Jose Cendon, who both spent 40 days held hostage in the African country.

(on camera): What initially went through your mind when you saw that something was clearly amiss?

FREEMAN: I think we spent quite a lot of time in Iraq where kidnapping was a major problem there. It - believe it or not, it wasn't quite as frightening as you might have thought, because you just sort of, you know, your mind has rehearsed that scenario 100 times, probably 1000 times whenever you've been away and anywhere where kidnapping is a risk.

As we got driven away, my first concern was, you know, what have we been nabbed by - Islamists or some sort of people who are intent on just killing us? My next concern, though, really was well, if we're going to be OK, that is one thing, but how is my family going to react? How is my girlfriend going to react? How is everybody who knows about me and cares for me going to react to this?

And you know, we at least knew what was happening. We could see what was going on. They wouldn't - they would just know that we were missing. And that would be arguably even worse.

SWEENEY (voice-over): It's a sentiment shared by Jose Cendon, who in his capacity as a freelance photographer, is no stranger to hostile environments.

JOSE CENDON, PHOTOJOURNALIST: Well, the first thing I thought was about my family, you know. I thought now when they find out they are going to be really worried. And that was really painful. For myself, it was OK. More or less, I knew how these kidnappings usually happen. And you know, how they go. But I was really worried for my family. That was my only concern at the beginning.

SWEENEY: Colin Freeman is the chief foreign correspondent with Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" newspaper. He and Cendon were winding up their assignment investigating a spate of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden when they were kidnapped in the port town of Boosaaso.

FREEMAN: You had to try and just take everything as it came and tell yourself, well, look, there's nothing I can do about this situation. We were in a very remote area. There is no chance we'd got of escaping whatsoever. It was surprising how quickly you got used to it. I kept on expecting after the initial shock didn't seem too bad. And I wondered whether it would suddenly hit me after 24 hours or 48 hours that you would suddenly get a panic attack.

Luckily, that never happened. And then, as time went on, you just got used to it really. You woke up in the cave. You had a cup of tea, a cigarette. You had a bit of food and started the day. And as time went on, it just began to feel completely like your normal life.

SWEENEY: There were long days and nights for the pair. They were moved several times during their incarceration. Freeman made this makeshift chess set out of paper and pebbles to help the hours pass.

FREEMAN: It was the first time it worked together, but luckily, we got on very well together. I mean, you could imagine spending six weeks even backpacking or on holiday with your best friend. You might start arguing after a bit, but then luckily, we didn't really have any arguments whatsoever. And we also - he also turned out to be, you know, a great guy just for sort of having conversation with and having a laugh with. And also, he was very good at coping just with the more stressful moments.

CENDON: And being for instance with Colin, I mean, it was the best thing could happen to me. Anyway, I never go around to Somalia, never work around Somalia. It's the only country, you know, where I work that I never work alone. So it was much issue, you know, to be just with Colin. We talked a lot. And if I was alone, probably it would be much more scare.

SWEENEY: Somalia is recognized by Reporters Without Borders as Africa's deadliest country for the news media. It says at least 10 journalists have been killed in the past two years. Freeman and Cendon were released on January 4th. Jose Cendon likens his treatment when he returned home to that of a celebrity.

(on camera): There was a lot of publicity about your kidnapping. What was that like when you were released?

CENDON: It was really weird. To be honest, I hate it. I mean, people - and they come to me in the street and they say, "congratulations, welcome" and everything, but I really don't like it. I mean, it's nice to be appreciated, but at the same time, I enjoy a lot my (INAUDIBLE) you know. I want to go back to my normal life. I want to stop being the kidnapped guy in Somalia. I've been just Jose Cendon. And you know, so I don't know. I don't like it that much.

SWEENEY: And since you've got out, have you been able to process completely what happened?

CENDON: No, no, I don't have any flashbacks or any trauma or, you know, whatever. I am trying to explain that to the people because everyone treats you in a special way because I got kidnapped 40 days. And I kept saying that I am - I think I am OK. You know, I knew what I, you know, where I was. I knew how the kidnappers were more or less. I knew more or less Somali people. And you know, I don't see any problem. And I don't have any trauma.

SWEENEY (voice-over): Freeman agrees. He suggests that might be in part because they weren't ill treated by the kidnappers.

FREEMAN: It hasn't haunted me in the way that, I mean, you know, the incidents in London where, you know, if you've been mugged or had a bad experience on a train with somebody behaving in a threatening manner, I mean, everybody's had that. And you'll know how it can kind of dog your mind. And you can't stop thinking about it. I have nothing like that whatsoever.

I think it's partly because you have, you know, such a beginning and a clearly defined beginning and middle and end to it. And once you're released, you sort of think well, you know, thank God that's over.

SWEENEY: The circumstances surrounding Freeman and Cendon's release and whether a ransom was paid haven't been disclosed. "The Telegraph" newspaper reported that it was grateful to all those who had helped to secure the safe release of the two journalists. Despite their ordeal, Jose Cendon says one day, he would like to go back to Somalia.

CENDON: And they have been living, you know, in war during 17, now 18 years. And - but they are not bad people. They are like normal people. And they have to understand that the context and the situation can make the people to behave in a certain way. You know, I don't want to give a wrong image of Somali people.

SWEENEY: For now though, both Jose Cendon and Colin Freeman say a return to Somalia is out of the question mainly for the sake of their families and what the kidnapping put them through.


SWEENEY: The story of Colin Freeman and Jose Cendon. Well, from Somalia to another no go zone for reporters, Sri Lanka.

Press freedom groups say a growing number of journalists are facing attacks and intimidation, forcing many to flee the country. Sri Lanka and the media, when we come back.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. It's a conflict that has spanned more than two decades and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Sri Lanka's civil war has received more international attention in recent weeks, but few independent journalists have been able to report from where the fighting has taken place.

Press freedom groups say media workers have also been attacked and intimidated, forcing some to flee.


PEARL THEVANAYAGAM, JOURNALIST: I thought it was dangerous when I was there, but now, you are muzzled completely. Journalists, if you speak out, they'll kill you.

SWEENEY: Pearl Thevanayagam reflects on her reporting career in Sri Lanka, one that ultimately forced her to seek political asylum in Britain in 2000 in part because of growing censorship. She was saddened to learn of the death of her former editor, the Santa Wikram Atunga (ph) of "The Sunday Leader."

THEVANAYAGAM: Here is a news editor who was, I mean, I know him as a very fearless man. And he can dig out any, anything. No politician is exempt from his scrutiny. And he's a true journalist. I don't know how to express him.

SWEENEY: The Santa Wikram Atunga (ph) was shot in rush hour traffic on January 8th. His paper had been critical of the Sri Lankan government's war against the Tamil Tigers. Three days after the killing, Wikram Atunga's newspaper published his self written obituary in which he predicted his own demise.

It reads in part, "People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it's a matter of time before I am bumped off. In all of these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."

C.R. JAYASINGHE, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISIONER TO INDIA: The government is very clear that those who perpetrated this would be cracked down. The - there is no logic behind the assertion that there was complicity by the agency of the state.

SWEENEY: Sukumah Murlidharan of the International Federation of Journalists says Wikram Atunga's family owned business was taking on a calculated risk.

SUKUMAH MURLIDHARAN: They were well connected to both the government and opposition political hierarchies. And we believe that this would be sufficient protection for him. Obviously, we thought wrong.

SWEENEY: Also in January, this independent television station was attacked after the government run media criticized the station's coverage of the war. The station manager of Sarasa (ph) TV talked to CNN at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just hoping that the police could get to the bottom of this and bring to book whoever the perpetrators are.

SWEENEY: After the interview aired, the defense secretary responded, calling Chevan Danielle (ph) a terrorist.

GOIABAYA RAJAPAKSA, MINISTRY OF DEFENSE, SRI LANKA (through translator): I saw the news on CNN. A person in the Sarasa station was talking. The gist of it was that a claim or mine was used and that the government was responsible for the attack. The person who spoke, I know. He's a terrorist.

SWEENEY: Despite the defense secretary's language, officially, the government condemned the attack and said it was investigating whether it was carried out to discredit the authorities.

Sri Lanka's civil war in the north of the island nation has raged on since the 1980s. The government has been battling ethnic Tamil rebels known as the liberation tigers of Tamil Ilam. Aid groups say more than 65,000 people have been killed.

The conflict has also taken its toll on reporters according to the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists.

BOB DIETZ, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: We had 16 journalists who were killed. Some of those killed in crossfire in war activities. But there are nine who were killed by premeditated murder. And of those nine cases, there's never been a prosecution. So there's absolutely complete impunity for anyone who wants to just kill a journalist in Sri Lanka. That's been the record since 1999 at least.

SWEENEY: Covering the conflict and recent events has been difficult, given that independent media aren't allowed into the war zone.

A warning to foreign journalists and diplomats was published in a Sri Lankan newspaper on February the 1st. Sri Lanka's defense secretary saying "they will be chased away if they try to give a second wind to the separatist Tamil Tigers."

Restricting journalists' access to the conflict is a strategy used by several governments. Most recently, Israel did so during its offensive against Hamas and Gaza. It cited safety concerns as the main reason behind that policy.

THEVANAYAGAM: If you let journalists in there, give them free access, they won't be this fear psychosis because you - in any event, it's the news is leaking out. But when you hide something, there are speculations. But if you allow access, there's no interest. You know, the excitement dies down.

SWEENEY: How is journalism viewed or interpreted in Sri Lanka by the public?

THEVANAYAGAM: You see, there's no dialogue between - communication between the north and east and the south. The south live in a cocoon. They're mostly Singhalese. Tamils also live. Tamils live among them. Most people are interested in - are worried about the economy and stuff like that. But they don't know what's going on. It's like two countries already.

SWEENEY: From London, Pearl Thevanayagam now works with the Exiled Journalists Network, a group that helps reporters who have fled to Britain to escape persecution because of their work. She says one day, she would like to return home.

Do you think you'll ever be able to practice as a journalist in Sri Lanka again?

THEVANAYAGAM: Yes. I'm planning actually I'm planning one day to go to the north and to start a newspaper in the north.

SWEENEY: Something Pearl Thevanayagam says won't be possible until the fighting in Sri Lanka finally ends.


SWEENEY: From restricting access to access all areas in one of the world's trouble spots. Photographer John Bevan has been immortalizing life under fire. We speak to him about his experience in Afghanistan as a soldier and as an official photographer for the British Army.


SWEENEY: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Welcome back. Now capturing a side to war from a perspective we rarely see. John Bevan is a soldier and an official photographer with the British Army. In 2007, he spent six months with the troops on the frontlines in Afghanistan. And he shared with us some of this images from that tour.


SGT. JOHN BEVAN, BRITISH ARMY PHOTOGRAPHER: I'm an Army photographer. I'm one of only 40 other photographers in British Army who are full time professional photographers. And I (INAUDIBLE) and follow the army around the world, following whatever they're doing, whether it be on operations, whether it's adventure training, exercises. So where they go, we go alongside them.

SWEENEY: Talk us through some of the photographs. I mean, first of all, perhaps this one, where you're - this is obviously with your son and before you went to Afghan - on your way?

BEVAN: It is, yeah. This was taken in RFI Brice Norton (ph), which is the air head for any soldier who's leaving to go on an operation overseas leaves at Brice Norton. And it's a very sad airport because you're saying good-bye to your families.

SWEENEY: Let's immediately switch from another child, a child that was being cared for in one of the field hospitals in Afghanistan.

BEVAN: This young child is, his name was Zalmy (ph). He was aged about four years old. He was nearly enough the same age as my son. He'd been brought in following - there'd been a fight in round his village. And as a result of that fighting, he was actually injured.

The situation was touch and go with him. He was brought in on a medical emergency helicopter. And then the surgeon performed life saving treatment on him. But this picture was the - just after the operation in the intensive care ward there.

SWEENEY: And this is him obviously much improved, although still clearly very fragile.

BEVAN: Yes, this was - this is a picture of Captain Vickie Rigby. She's not a mother, but the care and the attention that all the staff on the ward gave the children was second to none. And I think it was through their love and attention that brought on the full recovery of a lot of these children.

But nothing really came - impacted me as much as young Zalmy. And I followed his recovery. It took about three weeks really to the - to be in there the first time he actually woke up was a major feeling because I knew then that the signs were good that he was going to make a full recovery.

SWEENEY: This is your very first experience of a situation in a combat zone or a medical situation?

BEVAN: That's right. This is very early into my tour. Only arrived a few weeks into - in Afghanistan. Again, I was with the field hospital and the medical emergency response team, who were known as the MERT. They were tasked to (INAUDIBLE) to pick up two wounded Taliban, who had been fighting against American forces. So we're actually doing a hot lamden (ph) to pick up who are the enemy under fire.

And this picture here just shows the lifesaving treatment that the medics were given to two wounded Taliban at the time.

SWEENEY: This picture here at first glance, it's a nurse. But when one looks closely, it's possible to see what it is she's looking at. And it's a pretty ghastly story.

BEVAN: Everybody's drawn to the eyes of this picture at first. This is an operational theater nurse called Cas Broadly (ph). It was a sad situation because an ISAF (ph) soldier had been brought in for a mine strike on his vehicle. And he was looking likely to lose both his legs. The surge at the time battled to save his right leg, which is just in frame in the picture. But then sadly, had to remove his left leg. But a lot of people relate to the realities of war from this picture.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at this photo. I mean, a soldier taking a drag from a cigarette. But there's much more to it than just being wonderfully historic black and white photograph.

BEVAN: This soldier's, I will call Teddy Rocker, he's a sniper in the army attached to the - who was serving with the (INAUDIBLE). He's only 20 years of age. And yet, he's the - he was awarded after the tour, the second highest award for bravery in face of the enemy, which was a military cross. And in this picture here, he's literally just before smoking cigarette, just went across open ground under fire between trenches up in Kajaki (ph). He then stoops low into his trench, takes out a cigarette, lights it, draws two breaths from it, and then it flicks it away. And then he picks up his sniper rifle and reengages the enemy, killing a Taliban.

SWEENEY: And what did that tell you?

BEVAN: Situations like this don't surreal, because you feel like it's a script from a film. But at the same time, it's telling you that life and death has taken away in literally an instant.

SWEENEY: Do you consider yourself a journalist?

BEVAN: I would consider myself as a photojournalist. I am in the Army. So I do try to - I'm very conscious of when I'm (INAUDIBLE) my work, but I'm trying to be impartial. So I like to take pictures of good and bad really. Whether it then get released by the higher authorities is for their decision. But I certainly as a photographer will take pictures of absolutely everything that's occurring in front of me.

SWEENEY: Let's have a look at this photo, because this really is a very striking photo because of the back drop, but also we do what's here on the right hand side of the picture.

BEVAN: That's right. I was trying to create two pictures in one here because Afghanistan is a beautiful country. And as a photographer, you're drawn to beauty. And on occasions where there might be a fire fight happening in front of you, you'll see something beautiful and take that picture. And then you return back to the reality of what's happening in front of you.

But in this situation, it was a long range patrol. And one - another iconic feature of Afghanistan is for the Army is the wommet (ph) Landrover. So I kind of brought the two pictures into one.

There's a picture here is a fire fight that was about an hour - it was about an hour's long in length between up in Kajaki. And about 2000 rounds of ammunition had just been passed through the barrel. There's two barrels. They used one to cool while they used the other one to engage the enemy.

And on this occasion, just before we extracted out the soldier's pouring oil on the barrel just to keep it cool. I just feel it, a sort of timeless picture, but sums up exactly what the fight is all about out in Afghanistan.

SWEENEY: This could be in some ways the favorite picture for any soldier. This is what you describe as the bus waiting to take you home.

BEVAN: This was the very last operation I went on. And it was a sort of picture that no one else has sort of captured of the Chinook with the dust created very atmospheric pictures. So I was really delighted to have captured this on my very last operation.

I look back now at all my pictures of Afghanistan. I took a number of risks. I think of - I am very, very lucky. I feel I'm blessed with the talent to take pictures. So for me, that's what helps me sleep at night is that I'll continue to take pictures and continue to take risks to represent be it the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force, wherever they may be on operation.


SWEENEY: Military photographer John Bevan. Now if you want to see any part of our show again, stop by our website. You'll find us at cnn.correspondents. While you're there, check out the archive and take part in the quick vote. Our address again

That's all for this edition of the program. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you all again next time.