Inside the Middle East
September 21, 2010
Posted: 1050 GMT


Sarah Shourd speaks to the media in Muscat, Oman (Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images)

*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent,  Nic Robertson, filed this report describing  the frenzied mechanics of chasing a big Middle Eastern news story*

As we dashed to Abu Dhabi’s International Airport last Tuesday evening we knew we had only a slim chance of catching up with Sarah Shourd.

We were frantically booking flights to Muscat and she was already in the air on a two and a half hour flight to freedom from a Tehran jail.

Sarah had probably reached cruising altitude, Tehran fading beneath the Royal Oman jet the Sultan had sent for her and we’d just got our tickets. But the race wasn’t over. Just as we were heading for security we discovered an earlier flight, and after a crazy and slightly undignified dash to another terminal we took our seats on a BA 777 as the doors were closing.

It was exactly the kind of adrenalin pumping journalism that this profession pitches you in to without warning. We had one goal: talk to Sarah.

We touched down almost simultaneously with her flight. She was getting the Royal treatment, red carpet, VIP lounge, we were struggling to confirm she’d made it.

We hung around in international limbo, afraid to go through immigration for fear Sarah would take another flight to the US. By now we were booked on every flight leaving Muscat for the next five hours.

We stalked the transit halls and lounges scouring for a glimmer of her entourage. Our producer Raja Razek had worked her magic and found a source who was searching passenger manifests for us. But no sign of Sarah.

We updated CNN live by phone before we get the call, she’d left the airport and would be over-nighting in Oman. Our next mad dash began. I was still on the phone giving a live update as we climbed in to a taxi and sped off to find somewhere to get a live signal out of.

We made for a hotel near the beach. Raja had used it before, it had the kind of high-speed internet we needed for our live shots and rooms that would guarantee a good back drop.

The adrenalin was still pumping as we reached reception, we had barely half an hour to check in, get to our room and set up for a live broadcast at the top of the hour. It’s moments like this you realize how slow check in can be.

Fortunately the receptionists realized our urgency and bundled us in to a hotel golf cart to race us to a room with a balcony. By the top of the hour we set up and ready.

Sarah had made statements in Tehran and Oman when she landed. It had caught US Embassy officials by surprise, the Omanis they said often kept such things secret, avoiding the publicity. Not this time. Omani TV was there as she embraced her mother and Uncle on the runway.

We kept our live shots going for the next few hours then got a couple of hours sleep getting up just before the sun for our prime time US shows. I felt groggy after too little but quickly focused as the live shot approached. The came the news we didn’t want to hear. We’d been bumped out of the show.

It was a night of domestic politics in the US, results were coming in and Congressman Rangel, a multiple term octogenarian representative with recently smeared in with allegations of corruptions and graft had just won his party's ticket. We would have to wait another hour to give the latest on Sarah.

How nice it would have been to have had that extra hour in bed. We all settled for breakfast too wired for sleep. And so the day went on, more information coming in to us. More live updates. Sarah Shourd was the lead story and it felt good to be in the right place to tell it.

By the following morning there was little new to report, it was unclear what Sarah’s plans were and we had to stay on high alert than miss our chance to talk to her. Never the less the adrenalin was gone. The race and chase were over, now it was hurry up and wait.

Three days later when the call finally came that she was on her way to the airport we were like coiled springs. Our plans carefully prepared ready we thought for any eventuality.

Sarah would make a statement from the VIP lounge used by Oman Sultan Qaboos. With our bags packed and in the trunk of the taxi on the way to airport we were desperately trying to confirm if the Sultan’s lounge had WiFi internet access. We wanted it so we could broadcast Sarah’s statement live. But no one could tell us.

After negotiating security we entered the rarefied air-conditioned opulence of the gilded exclusive departure building. US Embassy staff were on hand setting their equipment up, a podium and microphones to facilitate Sarah’s departing words. But there was no WiFi.

I got our Bgan satellite modem out and lined it up for broadcasting. It was ready to go, but there was no way to get a cable to the press conference room. Time was running out, Sarah would be starting in half an hour and our options to go live seem to have dead ended.

Back in the sumptuous hall more camera crews were gathering, It didn’t seem right we couldn’t get it out live and I was getting desperate. I’d tried an app on my Iphone designed to broadcast live over a 3g network. It had worked well in Abu Dhabi but now when I really needed it most the technology was let me down. It refused to connect.

I had one shot left. My 3g network computer dongle was buried at the bottom of my bag. I never go anywhere without it but right now with the clock ticking on Sarah’s arrival and my 3g Iphone app having let me down I had little faith it would work.

Two minutes later I was on the phone with our headquarters in Atlanta, they were looking at my live picture via Skype transmitted over the 3g phone card.

The computer and its tiny camera were about 10 feet from the podium. All I had to do was keep people from blocking it’s view. I put my phone on the podium too with it’s line open to our control room in Atlanta to improve the audio signal.

It wasn’t until after the press conference was over I realized how far the set up had exceeded my expectations. Sarah had kept her words carefully short talking for barely a minute and a half, but CNN had taken the whole thing live.

I’d worried about the audio but as the gathered press hung on her every word they the room had fallen silent. Her voice carried near perfectly, good enough for it to be replayed over the next hour until we got our main camera pictures fed in. The 3g dongle effortlessly speeding the quickly compressed data downloaded from the camera’s memory card.

Oh yes and the adrenalin. Kicking in again for the flight back to Abu Dhabi and more lives until late in to the night.

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Filed under: CNN Coverage •Oman

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Wilson   September 21st, 2010 11:05 am ET

So lets get this story straight.

She and her two friends decided to hike around Iraq, a country which has been in a state of war like violence for almost a decade. A country which is apparently so dangerous for kidnappings that the press hardly venture out of their military secured hotels.

But not only did these three obviously white faced Americans decide to venture around Iraq without a care in the world, they also accidently stumbled into Iran. Americans come from a country which has placed hostile sanctions on Iran and these kids just accidently stumbled into a country that America has threatened to assault with military action.

What can gain from this story? These three American kids are either the biggest jack @sses alive or this entire story is more western media BS.

David   September 21st, 2010 4:40 pm ET

Maybe you don't understand geography, you clearly have no compassion or common sense, but Kurdistan has borders with Iran that aren't labeled, there's no line on the ground running through the mountains. These three people had spent extensive time in the middle east, as a cursory google search would show you. They weren't recklessly wandering into Iran, they were hiking and were kidnapped by Iran, plain and simple.

trekker   September 22nd, 2010 12:56 am ET

$100 says she skips her trial date in Iran and lets her "friends" fry.....

Km   September 22nd, 2010 1:19 am ET

You refer to them as kids numerous times if you have read the articles it's clear they are not "kids" that sounds so condescending. They are grown adults ages to be around 30-32 years old. I don't think either of them said one day hey let's go hiking in Iraq and cross over an un-marked border into Iran, lets get arrested and sit in prison for over a year for the fun of it. Maybe you live your life sitting on your a** in your nice house in the suburbs behind your computer all day but clearly this was not the case for these 3 individual's. They were humanitarians who were brave enough to embark parts of the world we all fear and loathe to pursue teaching careers to refugees in Iraq. All were anti-war and social justice activists, all were well educated adults, all with a common interest. It seems as if you live your life inside a box, confined to whatever it is that makes you comfortable. Maybe you should research how many American's are around the world fighting social injustices and providing educations to children who maybe not be offered such an option. Your comment sounds ignorant and that of a typical spoiled American. I hope Josh and Shane find the freedom they deserve so they can continue their work and that Sarah has the courage to do so as well.

Wilson   September 22nd, 2010 8:26 am ET

David and Km, you are full of it aren't you.

Look at your words i.e. "they spent extensive time in the middle east".

"They were humanitarians who were brave enough to embark on parts of the world we all fear".

So with extensive time in the middle east and a knowledge that there are things to fear, these three jack@assess absorbed huge amounts of diplomatic time for them to be freed from the consequences of their utter stupidity.

Talking about brave humanitarian workers, your double standards make me sick. Brave humanitarian workers were murdered by Israel on the flotilla!!! But most Americans totally support Israeli murders don't they! But when some jack@ass Americans take ventures to close to other peoples boarders, then you come out with humanitarian bravery BS.

All this could have been avoided if these kids had a clue how to use a compass a map and added a safe margin of error to their calculations. But no, lets not blame them for being incompetent! Lets put on our tin foil hats and make theories on how Iran persuaded them to leave America, walk up to Irans boarder and be kidnapped.

What a pathetic joke. Its embarrassing to be American sometimes. These kids live in a dream world detached from responsibility (yes kids, because they have acted like kids). If they were Iranian and accidently walked across the Mexican boarder into the USA, Obama would have them in chains, tortured by the CIA and leave them to rot in Guantanamo Bay. And lets not pretend many innocent people have not been in that situation.

It time to grow up America, your double standards and shallow minds are making the world sick of you!

cathy   September 22nd, 2010 8:56 am ET

The news confrence w/Sarah Shourd, I believe was in Irac. There she stood for a full interview with a gold artifact behind her. It looked like a vase with a spout and a handle. PLEASE tell me what it is!! I have one very similar I picked up at a yard sale several years ago. I had no idea what it is. Please do tell. Mine is silver and has several ingravings in it. I always thought it might be worth something. Yet have had it in the back of my closet for some time now. Thank you so much, Cathy

Smith in Oregon   September 22nd, 2010 8:22 pm ET

The hikers were absolute idiots crossing the highly disputed border from the Kurdish region in Iraq into Iran. For decades that same border area has been used by heavily armed and CIA trained Kurdish fighters to slaughter Iranian civilians and solders. As a result a great many Iranian soldiers are alert and actively watching that border area.

It is completely unthinkable the hikers were not aware they were in a war zone and traveling across a highly disputed border region into Iran. Even if they were higher than a kite from the Turkish hashish, common in that region, they still wouldn't go on a nature hike without realizing how utterly dangerous that region and border area is.

These hikers give all American tourists a bad name, they should rot in one of the American taxpayer provided Iranian prisons built under the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran for several years until they realize how utterly stupid their crass actions were.

Km   September 23rd, 2010 7:31 pm ET

Ps..they were also on holiday..THEY LIVED THERE the articles!!!

Billy Spudd   September 23rd, 2010 8:05 pm ET

Sarah Shourd and her friends are most likely Israeli spies, just like those that were arrested in New York for dancing on the roof while the World Trade Center Towers came crashing down. (it is a true story the Jerusalem Post interviewed these Jews when the US released them from jail and deported them. They had the audacity to complain about their treatment in jail as 'cruel' ).

Jewish youth, around the world are routinely encouraged to act as spies for Israel. Israel has a program for teaching its youth to act as vendors of gee-gaws. It then sends them on 'sabbaticals' to other countries where they seek out shopping mall in capital cities to try and make contacts with important people. Others work as crowd rabble-rousers (which is probably what these three were on their way to do).

Once they get caught, the old 'innocent' whining starts up again.....I say let the other two rot in jail. Sarah got away with murder, but I, for one, will always see her as an Israeli spy. She will probably be appointed to some cush job in the increasingly Zionist colonial US government where she can report any secret that crosses her desk to her superiors in Israel.

Jackie   September 25th, 2010 12:37 am ET

This story makes no sense at all – of all of the places to hike around, these jokers have to hike around the Iran/Iraq border?!?!?!?
Sounds like BS to me – Israeli spies sounds about right.

Hope   September 26th, 2010 3:43 pm ET


The gold artifact behind Sarah Shourd is Ali Baba's oil jar used to store hot oil that eventually killed the 40 thieves! Not sure what (Irac,Oman,Tehran, pick your choice) could be using it for now a days...Maybe there's a Genie inside, why don't you try and talk to it or stroke it several times and see what happens! But first you should get it out of the closet! Hope this helps.

miriam   September 29th, 2010 12:39 pm ET


I think you'd make a popular candidate to succeed Ahmadinejad.

Your advantage over him is that he didn't have much chance to practise propagandizing his conspiracies and lies on internet blogs before his selection.

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