When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter

When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter
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Meeting Garang was a bit of an anticlimax after our exotic encounter with the Tuposa. To start with we were placed under informal arrest in a jungle clearing that Garang’s people laughingly called the International Hotel. Then we were told we would have to wait our turn while Garang held talks with a visiting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Every now and then some of Garang’s people in their fatigues and dark glasses would come and check us over again. One of them was especially sinister. Tall, thin and aggressive, he sneered through his dark glasses, asking, “Why should I let you meet our leader? How much money will you give me?”

As time wore on, waves of bewilderment and fear rolled over us in equal proportions. An overnight sleep did nothing to help. Quite the contrary because when we awoke we realised the makeshift pillows on which our heads had been resting were actually canvas sacks filled with grenades.

Finally, nearly twenty-eight hours after our arrival, we were ushered into Garang’s presence. A well-built man with a PhD from Iowa State University in the US, he had very little to say that was original, preferring to stick to the SPLA mantra: “We are the government of the area, anyone who contests this fact is entertaining an illusion.” He insisted that the SPLA were no separatists, merely political activists who wanted peace based on genuine dialogue with all the country’s political forces.

Before my interview the Thames crew had theirs. As previously planned Gill and Stewart had decided that their team would focus predominantly on the famine gripping south Sudan. For them it was more of a visual story and their cameras could really paint in chilling detail the human cost of the civil war. Stewart in particular went very quiet as the scale of the tragedy hit him. Clearly, the money raised the previous year from Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Live Aid concert hadn’t helped this part of Africa—something he especially seemed to be particularly aware of. Garang’s seeming indifference to the plight of his fellow Sudanese and the belligerent comments of his close advisers upset all of us. For these particular African warlords life was all too cheap.

The following morning, after our interview with Garang who appeared to have vanished, we again teamed up with Kwol and another older guide called Majak to head back to Kenya. Ten hours after leaving Buma our convoy stopped. It was a good excuse to stretch our legs and for someone else to take their turn driving. I had been in the second car—a far from pleasant experience because of the dust and sand constantly kicked up by the lead vehicle. Stewart asked that everyone change cars because one was considerably more comfortable than the other. He’d spent the previous ten hours being rocked about in a seat that was badly welded to the floor and the bumpy dirt road had been playing havoc with his knees. Nobody objected, not least because of how withdrawn Stewart had become since the meeting with Garang.

My car started up, I was sitting in the same uncomfortable seat that Stewart had been complaining about. He was now lying with his long frame stretched out in the boot of the other Land Cruiser, sleeping.

A few minutes later there was a sound like a dull rumble or what I imagined was a mini earthquake.

I remember turning to Hutchings to ask if the Land Cruiser behind had punctured its petrol tank, someone may even have shouted, “It’s their petrol tank.” As we raced back we could see Stewart lying spread-eagled on his back with a bloodied Majak next to him. Their Land Cruiser had driven over a forgotten landmine planted months earlier by Garang’s forces and the sheer force of the resulting explosion had thrown Stewart clear through the air into a clump of trees. When we got to his fallen body on that mud track in southern Sudan, we could see there was a thin branch sticking out of his head.

Kwol simply disappeared and was never seen again, but Majak was lying half in and half out of the Land Cruiser. Both his legs were twisted in an unnatural way and there was blood trickling out from one side of his mouth, but he was nevertheless in a better condition than Stewart who was moaning but still sufficiently conscious to help me unbutton his shorts to help him breathe more easily.

There were also tricklets of blood dripping from his forehead, so we ripped off our own shirts to make a turban of makeshift bandages, while Gill raced off to find the nearest habitation, a government-held town called Kapoeta, where, despite heroic attempts, he tried and failed to find a doctor. He did make contact with the local SPLA commander who sent him back to us with a temporary military escort. We had absolutely no idea what would become of us. In that gathering gloom, surrounded by African scrub, nothing was clear or certain. That sense of desolation has been pushed so deep into my subconscious that it is almost impossible to recall.

What I do remember is that while Gill was away Hutchings, Heasman, Killlian and I tried to do what we could to make Stewart comfortable. As he lurched between different states of consciousness, we held his hand, talked to him and he in turn talked back at us, at least for a while. I wished at the time that we’d been able to lay him out more comfortably on a bed or a mattress. No such luxury was available. All we had was the hard, sandy ground.

I’d come close to death before a few years earlier in Afghanistan when fellow passengers on a bus travelling from Kabul to Kandahar were killed one by one by the mujahidin in front of my eyes. But, however horrible that experience, my murdered fellow bus passengers were anonymous casualties who spoke a language –Pushtu – that I didn’t understand.

The crisis involving Stewart and Majak was completely different. Both men were part of a much smaller, more closely knit group that had travelled together in convoy from Garang’s headquarters in Buma. Stewart for his part had taken the trouble to introduce himself to each one of us. By the time we got to Buma he and I had told each other everything there was to know about our schools, colleges and families. He was someone I had got to know and like. We had shared jokes and stories about our lives, played silly games to while away the time.

Unlike me, Stewart was still a bachelor. There may have been references to a girlfriend in the distant past, but what he talked about most were his parents and in particular his sister to whom he was especially close.

At the time the idea of stories or pictures did not even enter our thoughts. All our thoughts were with Stewart and Majak who to our untrained eyes, although wounded, was in no danger of losing his life. My fear for Stewart was mixed with anger about the landmine. How come Garang’s forces had left it there? It must have been Garang because his forces had been in control of the area for the past few years. Why didn’t Majak, the Garang guide designated to help us, know about the location of the mine? Had we been set up by Garang’s aides – one of them had demanded money with menaces – and were there other randomly scattered mines that would take all our lives?

There were no obvious answers and the questions seemed irrelevant because by the time Gill returned from his futile search for help, Stewart’s breathing had stopped. He was dead at the age of thirty-five and there was nothing we could do about it. The sheer sense of helplessness has never gone away. His last words were, “I don’t want to go there, I must survive.” One of us closed his eyes, I don’t remember who, as we knelt next to him, crying like little children. By my watch it was 7.30 pm Kenyan standard time.

Soon afterwards a platoon of Garang’s SPLA soldiers walked past. They must have been watching us before they suddenly loomed out of the dusk because they were not hostile. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Gibson, one of twenty seemingly barefoot soldiers, asked if there was anything he could do. We asked what medicine he could lay his hands on. All he had was a useless pack of paracetemol tablets. No good for wounded or dying victims of a mine blast.

But Gibson was practical in other ways, helping us brew a mix of coffee and whisky that each of us drank. Then we prepared for the long drive back to Lokichokio. There were difficult decisions to make.

Stewart’s body wrapped in a sleeping bag took up a huge amount of space in the one surviving Land Cruiser that had to stop several times because of two punctures and a leaking radiator. It could not accommodate all of us, as well as Majak, so our wounded SPLA guide was left behind. When we finally reached Lokichokio, shivering from a mix of shock and hysteria, news of our accident had travelled ahead of us.

Helen Fielding met us at the border crossing, together with locally based representatives of the International Red Cross. To his eternal credit, a young Swiss delegate from the ICRC took charge of a medical team that drove back into Sudan to tend to Majak. They returned with him to Kenya where he was treated in their field hospital and made a full recovery.

As for the rest of us, we were put on an ICRC charter aircraft that flew us with Stewart’s body back to Nairobi where the next twenty-four hours are still just a remembered blur of hot baths, whisky and sleep. Local contacts said Kenyan police wanted to interview us, and there was some possibility of actually spending time in a Kenyan prison cell. But before the police could get to us British diplomats had us out on the first available commercial flight to London.

My wife, Amanda, met me at Heathrow airport and drove me straight to the office where I spent the next several hours writing up the story of our tragedy. Looking back, the writing up of the story and wringing out the details on the keyboard of my typewriter was a cathartic experience. No psychiatrist could have suggested a better, although temporary way of coping with the aftermath of the tragedy.


‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry

‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry
Photo Credit: pixabay
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Most Europeans take pride in recycling. A good citizen separates glass from plastics, biowaste from metal cans and brags about it to their friends. Recycling helps soothe some of the anxiety driven by endless consumption.

However in Russia, recycling comes with a sense of shame. This is reflected by the fact that more than 80% of Russian domestic waste ends up in landfill, and most of the rest is incinerated. For comparison, Europe’s best recyclers – Austria and Germany – reuse well over 60% of their municipal waste while the UK manages 39%. A 2012 report by the International Financial Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, found that Russia’s waste recovery rate was “nearly zero”.

I first became aware of negative social attitudes to recycling in Russia during research in Samara (formerly Kuybyshev), the country’s sixth largest city and which lies in a twist of the river Volga 1,000km from Moscow. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a closed city hosting aviation and automobile industries. Along with a team of Russian and Finnish researchers, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the local culture and learn about the potential for developing eco-innovations in an economy undergoing rapid transition. The results of which were published late last year.

We focused on how people dealt with their waste. At first the task didn’t seem too gratifying as the people whose lives we followed told us they threw all their waste in the bin and that there was neither waste separation nor recycling.

Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided
Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided

But as we observed their daily lives, we noticed some people leaving beer bottles under the staircases of their apartment building. We also saw bottle collection points outdoors under trees or in shabby basement premises. The outdoor collection points were tended by women who told us their salary was some 200-300 roubles (about £2) a day, but they refused to tell who collected the bottles and paid their salary. We were usually thrown out of the basement recycling places as soon as it turned out we wanted information.

When we asked people whether they ever took bottles to these recycling points, most regarded the question as ridiculous. The question made a lot of sense to us as the families we asked were from the low-income tiers of society and could certainly have used the extra money. Probing the issue further we were told that “only alcoholics, drug addicts or poor babushkas [elderly women] who clean corridors” take bottles to recycling points.

In addition to the bottles, we also saw used cardboard neatly packed as if it was going somewhere. But nobody seemed to know who it belonged to and where it was heading for. Once, when taking a photo of one such cardboard pile, a bulky man came shouting loudly and chased us away.

The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided
The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided

It’s not easy to get access to companies in Russia, but we were lucky to find one waste management firm willing to talk to us. One morning we met the CEO in his office. After some champanskoye (sparkling wine) and chocolate he took us to visit his company’s landfill site. The company focused primarily on landfill, he told us, because to get involved in recycling or reused items was too risky a business; and waste fragments of any value, such as bottles and metals, were already in the hands of the mafia.

Recycling goes overground

Integrating this informal, underground recycling with official efforts to deal with waste is tough.

To give one example, we recently worked with Baltika brewery in St Petersburg, which wanted to start bottle collections because of the environmental policy of its parent company, Carlsberg Group. As part of an intensive course on corporate sustainability, an enthusiastic group of international and Russian students were asked to design bottle collection and recycling methods that would encourage Russians to recycle. Baltika wanted to set up an independent, stand-alone system.

Knowing about the informal bottled recycling, which seemed to be as well-organised in St Petersburg as it was in Samara, I suggested a collaboration with independent recyclers, given there was a system already up and running. The question was met with a cold response: such informal bottle collectors were regarded as criminals.

In Russia, informal recycling identifies you as some kind of undesirable. It is a heavily stigmatised activity and ordinary Russians make an effort not be seen doing it. People also view many recycling companies as either having links to organised crime, or risking conflict with such groups. So at both an individual level and more organised corporate level there are major barriers to setting up the types of systems taken for granted in other parts of Europe. And despite the best efforts of citizens and companies, don’t expect to hear about major advances in systematic large-scale recycling in Russia any time soon.


2008 Malegaon blasts: NIA under fire from former prosecutor as it seeks to drop MCOCA charges

2008 Malegaon blasts: NIA under fire from former prosecutor as it seeks to drop MCOCA charges
Photo Credit: IANS
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“It is a political move,” former special counsel for National Investigation Agency, Rohini Salian said, when asked for a response to the NIA informing a special court that it intended to drop charges under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act against the 11 accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts.

The NIA requested the court on Tuesday that the framing of charges against the accused, including Lt Col Srikant Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, be deferred until it receives an opinion from the Attorney General whether charges under MCOCA could be dropped.

“How can they ask the Attorney General? How is he concerned with the case? The matter is sub judice (pending in court) and the case is at framing of charges. The court should decide the charges now. This is all politics. I have disassociated myself from the case now. They are cheating everyone (the society),” Salian said.

Salian, however, added that even if the stringent MCOCA charges were to be dropped, the case will not collapse and will stand on the basis of witnesses who have spoken of various conspiracy meetings.

Salian had charged last year that she had been under pressure from the NIA to go “soft” in the case since “the new government came to power” in May 2014.

‘Hindu terror group’

This was the first case where a “Hindu terror group” had been named. It pertains to a blast that took place in Bhiku Chowk, Malegaon, Maharashtra, on September 29, 2008, leaving four dead and injuring more than 70 people.

The case was first investigated by the Maharashtra Anti-terrorism Squad under the late Hemant Karkare. The trail led first to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur after a golden LML Freedom bike parked outside the blast site was found to have been allegedly registered under her name. Her arrest was followed by the arrest of Colonel Purohit, who was alleged to have provided the RDX for the blasts, and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay.

The NIA took over the case on the direction of Home Ministry on April 13, 2011. Fourteen people were chargesheeted in the case including Pragya Singh Thakur, Major Ramesh Upadhyay, Lt Col Prasad Purohit, Sameer Kulkarni, Rakesh Dhawade, Sudhakar Dwivedi aka Dayanand Pandey, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, Pravin Takalki, Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu, Ajay Rahirkar, Jagdish Mhatre. Two accused – Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange – are still absconding. The trial is yet to begin.

In April 2015, the Supreme Court said that the application of MCOCA for most of the accused, including Thakur and Purohit, in the case was “doubtful” as there was not enough evidence to show their involvement in the blasts, apart from the Malegaon one. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad had applied MCOCA in the case on the basis of “continuing unlawful activity” of accused Rakesh Dhawade, a Pune-based antique arms collector, who was also arrested for two prior terror plots in Prabhani (bomb explosion in Mohmedia Masjid, Nanalpeth, Parbhani in 2003) and Jalna (bomb explosion in Kederia masjid in 2004).

The Supreme Court ordered the special judge to consider bail applications on the merits of the case and pass appropriate orders. While three accused – Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu, Ajay Rahirkar, and Jagdish Mhatre – were given bail, the trial court refused bail to the main accused, including Purohit and Thakur.

Crucial witnesses

The NIA move puts a question mark on the confessions of three accused – Sudhakar Dwivedi aka Dayanand Pandey, Pravin Takalki, and Rakesh Dhanwade – recorded under MCOCA that support the case.

“We have judgements which say that now confessions can be used even in cases under Indian Penal Code. So I think we can use them still,” said Salian. But observers point to the legal troubles ahead as the case is based mostly on circumstantial evidence, with little direct evidence to implicate the accused.

To make matters worse, the alleged bombers in the case, Ramachandra Kalsangra and Pravin Dange, still remain at large. So, while the paper trail speaks of meetings for conspiracy, there is little information about the nuts and bolts of the case – the actual bombing.

“If MCOCA goes, the benefit of confessions go away,” rued special NIA counsel, Avinash Rasal. “Since I took over, we have disposed of 24 applications of bail or discharge,” he said. “Despite the Supreme Court judgement, we argued that MCOCA is applicable. And the court accepted it. We have given our 100%”.

The NIA’s legal cell, Rasal said, was not sure about the applicability of MCOCA. With the accused being acquitted from the Jalna blasts case in 2012, it becomes more difficult for the prosecution to argue about “continuing illegal activity”, on the basis of which MCOCA had been applied, he pointed out.

But Rasal hopes that the witnesses will support the case, unlike the 2007 Ajmer and Samjhauta Express blasts case, where many witnesses turned hostile. “The witnesses have to come and speak before the court,” he said. “We can lead the horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink.”

Defence lawyers point to the lack of evidence. “There is only evidence of the meetings which were all public meetings,” said Shrikant Shivade, who is representing Purohit. “None of them were closed door meetings. Besides, they were all unconnected with the blasts.”

Political move?

Naveen Chomal, the lawyer for many of the accused in the case, said that the arrested accused feel “cheated” by the right wing Bharatiya Janta Party government. In 2008, when the accused were arrested, some of them had written to LK Advani, one of the seniormost BJP leaders, about the injustice meted out to them. They had pointed out that the accused had been tortured and had been kept in illegal custody before arrest, Chomal said. “But, he (Advani) disappointed us. He mentioned our problems in one line before Parliament and let it go. He should have done something then,” Chomal said. “We do not want any favours from the government,” Chomal added. “We just want them to go by the law.”

Prashant Maggu, one of the other defence lawyers in the case, who appears for three accused in the case, said that it was in the interest of the Congress government to “bring out Hindu terror.” “This was a star case for the earlier government to bring out a pattern in the country. They tried to implicate Hindu accused in Samjhauta and Ajmer blasts cases,” Maggu said. “The government wanted some angle. They wanted all these cases to be interwoven, so that they can bring out Hindu terror. They started hammering all saffron clothed Sadhus and Sadhvis. The other side was pleased. But there was no factual material.”

The entire case, the defence counsel allege, was a political move. “The NIA is the same agency that withdrew the case against the 2006 Malegaon blasts case,” said Shivade. In 2011, after the NIA did not object to the bail applications of seven accused in the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, they were released on bail. The NIA had told the court that the confession of the 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blast accused, Swami Aseemanand, had led them to review the evidence collected by the previous investigating agencies, namely the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad and the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“They follow different standards for different sets of accused,” said Sanjiv Punalekar, who appears for Sudhakar Dwivedi and Pravin Takalki. “They have been dishonest throughout. We are being used to politically please the government.”

Maggu agreed with Punalekar. “We term the witnesses hostile – like in the Ajmer and Samjhauta blasts cases. But, the statements themselves were recorded wrongly. Obviously, then they will turn hostile,” he added.


Explainer: What is the EU emergency brake?

Explainer: What is the EU emergency brake?
Photo Credit: pixabay
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Negotiations about the UK’s place in the European Union now seem to hinge on one thing: applying an “emergency brake” to stop certain EU migrants claiming in-work benefitswhen they move to the UK. But what is this mysterious brake and could it really be used?

There are two types of emergency brake procedure in the EU. One relates to common foreign policy and security policy, the other to areas such as cooperation in criminal matters and (relevant to this case) on social security.

The deal currently under negotiation would make it possible for the UK to apply for a temporary exemption from certain pieces of EU legislation. The process of applying an emergency brake on benefits would involve appealing to the European Commission and the European Council for exemption for an agreed period of time.

In reality though, such suspensions are only allowed in relation to asylum of non-EU nationals and to the free movement of goods (that is, restrictions on imports and exports). There is no such thing as an emergency brake for inter-EU immigration or benefits. In essence, the UK and the EU are making this up as they go along.


The Treaty of Lisbon – signed in 2007 and in force since 2009 – handed the European Union greater power to develop legislation for all member states. The concept of the free movement of people – that is, the right to move to another EU country for the purpose of working – had until then remained unmodified almost since the creation of the European Community. But the treaty allowed for new legislation related to free movement to be more easily passed, without following the normal strict voting procedures.

To counterbalance these looser rules, it was decided that member states would be allowed to ask for specific measures to be subject to stricter voting if they were concerned that the new rules would cause extreme difficulties. To do this they would have to cite “vital and stated reasons of national policy” and appeal for the decision to be subject to more voting at the European Council. The idea is to delay implementation until it is clear that a large number of member states are on board. This is, effectively, the brake.

It’s important to note here that the brake clause was intended for use on new legislation – not on existing rules, as is happening in the UK’s case now. The goal was always to allow a member state to make sure any developing legislation would be widely supported before being approved.

EU regulations on coordinating social security systems (which apply not only to the EU, but also to EEA countries Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, as well as Switzerland) state that citizens from all these countries should have equal access to social benefits in every other country in the deal. The UK and Ireland asked the European Court of Justice to exempt them from offering equal access to citizens from EEA countries and Switzerland but their request was denied.

May need oiling

I’ve searched for examples of the emergency brake procedure being applied to challenge social security legislation but have found none. No major reform has been proposed in this area since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, so no-one has ever felt the need to apply one.

So if the UK was going to be allowed to use a brake in this area, the terms would need to be agreed anew. Fresh legislation would be needed and that legislation would have to be applicable to all member states, the EEA and Switzerland.

The real problem, though, is what comes after the brake has been applied. The implementation is likely to be incredibly complex. The only way that the UK could reject applications for benefits from non-UK citizens is by verifying the identity of everyone applying for benefits – including British citizens.

The current deal on the table suggests that EU migrants should be allowed staggered access to benefits over a period four years, which sounds even harder to implement. Then of course there is the question of how and when the UK would revert to the previous system.