In Sderot, Life is Under Attack

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

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SDEROT– Fifteen seconds is the difference between life and death for residents in a small village 100 kilometers from Jerusalem. In Sderot, an agricultural village just a stone’s throw from the Gaza border, the fear of attack weighs heavy on everyone’s mind.

A giant multicolored slide stands in the middle of a playground at Kibbutz Mefalsim just outside Sderot. The structure is between two white cement blocks painted with brown monkeys and green flowers, and a narrow opening on one side. These cement structures, which blend in so well with their surroundings, are for protection, not play. The blocks are bomb shelters.

Bomb Shelter

“You always know a missile can land in your backyard,” said law student Noam Uerad standing next to the play structure. “You have learned to avoid a missile, but you never know when to expect an alarm.”

Sderot’s close proximity to the patrolled border with the Gaza Strip, complete with a barbed wire fence, makes it an easy target for Hamas and Al Qaeda-launched rockets and missiles.

Since 2001, more than 10,000 missiles have been launched toward Sderot, according to the Sderot Media Center, a nonprofit citizen journalism organization formed to bring attention to the community’s plight. Many of these remnants are on display at the local police station, while others are turned into intricate sculptures placed around the city.

Sculpture made of rockets

The exposure to the intense, on-going threat of missile and mortar attacks is a major stressor for the city’s residents. Almost 50 percent of the village’s preteens suffer signs of post-traumatic related symptoms including reliving attacks, according to a 2012 study by Journal of Adolescent Health. Since the fighting between Israel and Hamas intensified in the early 2000s, depression and anxiety among the village’s residents has doubled, states a study set to be published in the journal of Israeli Medical Association.

But native Sivan Hanukayev disagrees, saying the village does not suffer from PTSD. The disease’s definition, she said, implies the fighting and violence are over.

“In Sderot it is an endless situation,” she said. “We are experiencing on-going trauma…”

Here, just 800 meters from the Gaza border, children grow up playing Lego next to and inside bomb shelters, waiting for missiles to strike land.

“There is an entire generation that doesn’t know anything else,” added Uerad.

Bomb shelters are more common in Sderot than coffee shops in any major North American city. In many schools, the cement structures are painted in vibrant colors or disguised as 25-foot caterpillars that span the length of a playground. Common sites including bus shelters, garages, and rooms in family homes; even community mailboxes are made to withstand a missile attack.

Bomb shelter in playground

“Every kid born here has already experienced thousands of alarms,” emphasized Hanukayev, who can’t count how many attacks she has experienced.

Despite colorful paintjobs and clever designs, the city is always on alert. Children born and raised in Sderot, for the most part, know only a life of violence and terror. It’s their normal. The memories with the most impact are of violence and destruction.

“All those kids, their first memories, experiences and vacations, or forced vacations, happened because of the missiles,” added Hanukayev.

David Levi, 12, experienced his first rocket attack at age 4. His father parked the car at a nearby school, got out of the vehicle and took his sister to her kindergarten class. Levy was left alone in the backseat. Shortly after his father got back into the car, a rocket fell approximately 20 meters from their vehicle.

Levi is one of five smiling children in bright colored t-shirts standing against a white wall in the bomb shelter of his summer camp at Kibbutz Mefalsim. The pre-teens are sharing their first-hand experiences with rocket attacks.

Roni Tarnovski, 11, spent her 10th birthday in a bomb shelter following a rocket attack. In the evening, Tarnovski had to escape to an neighboring community. “It was scary,” she said.

Alon Cohen, an 11-year-old boy wearing a neon green t-shirt, begins to choke up as he speaks about one encounter with a rocket. Cohen was eating dinner at home with some friends when the warning siren went off. The boys, who were alone at the time, didn’t have a bomb shelter within sight so they hid under the dining room table. The experience, said Cohen, was stressful.

Kids like Cohen and Tarnovski are taught from a young age how to survive a missile attack. “Run to a shelter, or hide under a table,” said Tarnovski. While schools in other places conduct fire drills, in Sderot schoolchildren often perform routine bomb drills.

These training sessions work, but they take a toll on the students, said Anat Benami-Tarnovski, a mother and teacher at the camp. Two summers ago she had her students run from the deep water of a local swimming pool to the nearest shelter – all within 15 seconds. The test was tough, she admitted, and made the children aware of how fast they need to be when a siren sounds. This summer, she said, the students would not enter the deep water for fear of being too far from a shelter.

“It happens a lot,” she said about the frequency of missile strikes in her village. “It’s all the time.”

Regardless of their frequency, the attacks don’t seem to get any easier. The woman’s voice that echoes throughout the village when a warning siren goes off is etched into the memory of almost every resident, including the youngest children. Sometimes, however, residents are given no warning.

Despite a lifestyle plagued by the fear of the unknown, residents are optimistic about the future and about peace between Israel and Palestine. Many people living in Sderot will tell you they choose to live and stay in the war-afflicted village. For many, it’s where they have grown up and where they have made memories, both good and bad.

“It’s our responsibility to show we are not neglecting the people of Sderot because it can be unsafe,” said Uerad.

But it’s not just the adults that drive the optimistic spirit in this town: it’s the children.

“I really love this place no matter what,” said Levi, who sees himself as a symbol of a kid who should never abandon his home. Leaving this “magical place,” said Levi, means giving up.

“If we leave, they will have won,” he added. “Maybe sometime it will finish and it will be a nice place to live.”

rockets

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Police stop women from praying at Western Wall

Originally published on the Huffington Post 

JERUSALEM- In another example of the growing stress of the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews on Israeli society, you only have to go as far as the Wailing Wall.

Police barricades blocked hundreds of Women of the Wall supporters, a liberal Jewish women’s group, who are demanding equality of worship at the Western Wall.  The ancient revered wall is one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

“We have the right to pray at the wall just like anyone else, and they (the ultra-Orthodox community) will get use to us,” said the organization’s director Lesley Sachs.

Current customs prevent females from wearing prayer shawls and from praying and reading the Torah aloud, as men are permitted to do. The group faces stiff opposition from the Ultra Orthodox community who say prayer shawls and other similar religious items are reserved for men.

Women of the Wall supporters

The group’s estimated 350 members were corralled into a section of the plaza in front of the Western Wall, guarded by lines of police officers and barriers.  It’s the first time in 25 years the women have been prevented from holding their monthly limited service at the wall.

“It is simply wrong,” said one of the group’s supporters Ellyn Bender. “Cage them, as well as create a space for us.”

About 1,000 ultra-Orthodox men gathered on the opposite side of the barricades, chanting and yelling profanities at the women. Midway through the service two ultra-Orthodox women charged their way through the crowd blowing their whistles to drown out the prayers. Some also threw eggs at the women seeking fairer treatment at the wall.

The oppositions’ behavior, said Bender, was inappropriate.

“For them to be yelling things like prostitute at us is completely unholy and unJewish.”

ultra-Orthodox

The unprecedented police action to restrict the group’s access was a necessary security measure, said Israeli Police Spokeswoman Kagit Rapapore. The decision, she said, had nothing to do with religion or politics, but with over-crowding in the women’s section of the wall.  As many as 7,000 young Orthodox women were out in support of their community.

The movement got a significant boost last April after a Jerusalem District Court Judge ruled the liberal women were not violating a high court ruling by wearing prayer shawls and reciting the Torah aloud at the Western Wall.The group’s director repudiated the police’s statement, saying there was enough space for them to pray.

Want a Future in Journalism? Move to Kenya.

View the published article on the Huffington Post.

Global state-funded television news channels like Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV and RT (formerly Russia Today) have proliferated in recent years — and now they’re expanding, with a host of new services that tailor the news to local interests.

Al Jazeera, for example, has hired close to 200 people for an all-Turkish channel. RT now offers Spanish-language reports. And at CCTV, programs that debuted early this year include “Biz Asia America,” a daily business show targeted at the U.S., and “Americas Now,” a weekly newsmagazine for Latin America.

But one of the busiest new markets for the global channels is, perhaps, a surprising one: East Africa, where the new daily program, CCTV Africa, launched in January. Expected later this year is Al Jazeera Swahili, a 24-hour news channel as well as new East Africa-focused half-hour daily news television programs in Swahili and English from a more traditional international broadcaster, BBC.

Why East Africa? All of these new operations are based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where the media business operates with relative freedom from government interference. And while many western countries are still suffering from economic slowdown, Kenya’s economy is on the rise — with growth of nine per cent in its GDP over the past decade, according to the World Bank.

That economic growth means more money for the advertising that global media hope will help sustain their new operations. Synovate, a Global Market Research Company, stated that the Kenyan media industry has experienced a tenfold increase in advertisers between 2006 and 2010.

China’s ambitious investments in Africa in recent years give it a particular incentive to target African media audiences, says Tom Rhodes, East African correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They see Kenya as an economic hub for trading, where they can do business from there, take resources from the media hub and use it as a transaction point.”

As Kenya’s largest trading partner, China also has a substantial financial investment in Kenya’s infrastructure — including playing a major role in the country’s switch to broadband connection. “The Chinese companies are doing all this work,” says Cowan. In return, the government has “granted them prime slots on domestic stations, not surprising because they have invested billions in the country. They are hoping to make a lot of money out of Africa.”

Others note that Kenya and its neighbours — like Somalia, home to the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents called al-Shabab — are undercovered on the global news stage. Few international stations have permanent bureaus in Kenya and there are no regional TV news stations that cater to both an international and African audience.

The East Africa startups of Al Jazeera and CCTV are creating tensions within Kenyan television journalism. Of Kenya’s five major television stations, two are regarded as pro-government, one is owned by the state and two are viewed as more independent. KTV, a private station, was the most-watched until it lost senior staff to CCTV this past year.

At first glance, it might seem puzzling that a Chinese channel, owned and operated by the Chinese government, would try to compete in Kenya’s already fairly competitive TV market. Chinese censors keep tight control over what is reported by state media within China. But Rhodes says things seem to be looser at CCTV Kenya than at CCTV China. “The censorship isn’t quite as rough,” he says. “I get the impression that there is a lot more press freedom and allowance.”

When CCTV started hiring to launch its new Africa program, it scoured Kenyan TV staffs, scoping out the competition’s talent. One Kenyan online news station, Jackal News, reported the network was looking to hire roughly 200 local journalists. And since none of the local stations have large staffs, “When two or three people are removed, that creates unrest and openings,” says James Smart, a news anchor for NTV.

Smart says six of his channel’s journalists — including two top anchors and an editor — were all hired by CCTV. One of the biggest losses was at KTN, where Beatrice Marshal — who had worked as deputy managing editor and anchor — was lured away to become lead anchor at CCTV.

Up against the deep pockets of China’s state funding it was almost impossible for Kenyan stations to hold on to highly experienced and talented staff. After being offered salaries twice what they earned at the Kenyan station, John Mwendwa, head of news at K24, says his network “lost some of its best reporters.” Saida Swaleh, a reporter at KTN, said her colleagues ran towards the money. “They came with fat checks and everyone wanted to go where the money is,” she says.

In addition to the larger salaries, reporters who move to an international network often get greater television exposure and travel opportunities. Signing with CCTV means their reports may be seen globally, via the Chinese broadcaster’s satellite channel, and not just within Kenya. But Mwendwa says that CCTV’s programming doesn’t resonate well with all Kenyans. Many, he says, are skeptical of their biases and “The perception of Chinese media is as having the interests of their people at heart.”

Inside Kenyan TV newsrooms, changes to programming had to be made as a result of lost employees. K24 “pulled one show off air and a second had to find a new cohost,” says Mwendwa. Although vacancies have been filled by employees hired from other local radio and television stations, some channels have suffered a decline in their ratings. KTN “is slowly dying because people do not really ‘trust’ the ‘rookies'” who have replaced veteran journalists hired away by CCTV, says George Nyabuga, assistant director at the University of Nairobi School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

While scrambling to find replacements, Kenyan network executives worked to create and implement incentive programs to keep their best and brightest. At NTV, for instance, new incentives were offered based on employee “experience, expertise, performance and planned growth within the organization,” says Sharleen Samat, the channel’s head of TV. “It is a competitive package,” says Samat, though she declined to give details.

Despite the tempting offers from global channels, some journalists remained faithful to their local stations. “CCTV isn’t reaching the kind of audience I’m reaching now,” says James Smart, the NTV news anchor. Despite having a smaller staff, Smart says NTV covers local news — particularly breaking stories — more thoroughly than the Chinese-owned network. When a grenade attack killed several people in a Nairobi bus terminal last month, it was the top story on every local station throughout the day. CCTV, however, reserved only two minutes of its coverage of the attack, says Swaleh.

While managers wring their hands about how to replace veterans lured to the global channels, some Kenyan reporters think their arrival could actually be a boon for local journalism, by opening many new job opportunities.

Before, competition for the few jobs available was so fierce that “unless one is exceptional, they can hardly get a job, particularly in a good or established station,” says Nyabuga. He says the new competition has the potential to improve journalistic standards and improve coverage of events in Kenya.

Some journalists say the increased competition has also forced news networks to offer more competitive salaries. “Local journalists are beginning to tell more stories from the entire East Africa,” says Mutiga Murimi, a reporter at K24. “And local media houses have already begun opening bureaus everywhere in the entire region.”

But the competition is set to grow much more fierce. Right now, CCTV offers only one hour of African programming each day, but Kenyan reporters say that Al Jazeera has begun recruiting for a 24-hour Swahili channel. It is expected to poach top Swahili reporters, but the hope is that Al Jazeera Swahili will force networks to put more resources and focus on Swahili programming.

Follow Annie Claire Bergeron-Oliver on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/@AnnieClaireBO

Syria: An Assignment Worse Than Hell

Published on the Huffington Post.

Syria’s 544-mile border with Turkey has long been a common path for illegal entry or exit. These days, that border has drawn a new group of illegal entrants to Syria: foreign correspondents covering a nearly year-old conflict that seems to grow bloodier by the week.

As the civil war in Syria intensifies, it has become the only pathway foreign journalists can use to sneak in under the nose of Syrian authorities who are determined to keep out foreign press. Very few visas are granted to the foreign correspondents — which is why reporters from the BBC, the New York
Times
, CBS, and other news outlets have taken the clandestine route from Turkey this month.

“If I’m caught,” said CBS correspondent Clarissa Ward, “I’ll spend time in jail and be used as a political bargaining chip.”

Ward has made two sorties into Syria, the latest in early February. Trudging through mud canals created by a week of rain, in the dark of night, with a sprained ankle, was Ward’s only option to exit the country as unnoticed as she entered. Ward hired a professional smuggler to act as a guide and translator to make her safe escape.

To cover the uprising in Syria, reporters like Ward are willing to risk their lives by embedding with opposition forces and being smuggled back and forth across the borders. In light of the deaths of theSunday Times correspondent, Marie Colvin, and the New York Times correspondent, Anthony Shadid, the safety and working conditions for journalists in Syria have become increasingly hazardous.

Syria is now at the top of the Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries in the world for working journalists. In the last four months, seven other journalists have died in Syria. Last year according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, two were killed.

Last summer, as the uprising reached it’s six-month mark, the Syrian government ordered a media blackout. Visas for journalists had not been easy to obtain before, but now it became virtually impossible to get one. Soazig Dollet of Reporters Without Borders said that in July and August, fewer than a dozen European journalists were given visas.

Bashar Akbik, the Syrian ambassador to Canada, insists in an exclusive interview that his government bars journalists out of concern for their safety. But he also acknowledged that the Syrian government believes it’s version of events is not being fairly told by the western media.

“These media are trying all they can to distort the reputation of Syrian government initiatives to hinder insurgents,” he said.

One of those few journalists granted legal entry into Syria earlier this summer was Deborah Amos, National Public Radio’s Middle East correspondent. However her ability to report was restricted by the accompaniment of a full-time government monitor. Monitors or minders are the eyes and ears of the government. They dictated what events, cities, and individuals she could visit. The city of Homs, which has been under siege by Syrian tanks and artillery, was off limits to Amos, as were protests and funerals.

“You understand that staying with a minder, you’ll see only what they want,” she says.

Travelling with a minder is one of the rules journalists agree to when receiving a rare journalist visa, said Alexander Marquardt, the ABC News foreign correspondent. In early December, Marquardt was denied travel authority to areas of violence and unrest, despite Syrian President Assad’s assurance that his team was free to do what they wanted and go wherever they wish. But shortly after landing in Syria, Marquardt was given a government minder and learned that eight undercover police cars were following them.

“They were taking us where they wanted us to go,” he said.

Sometimes getting a good story means sneaking away from a minder, but even then, both Amos and Marquardt think they were being followed by secret police.

That’s why some journalists try their luck with a tourist visa and don’t bother applying as journalists. The success rate for a work visa is too low, said Clarrisa Ward, and it puts you on the government’s radar.

“The minute you are in Syria as a journalist,” she said, “your view of Syria is different and you can never get in again.

Last December, Ward, looking as much as possible like a British tourist, complete with backpack and camera, went to a small town on the Turkish/Syrian border. Using her British passport free of immigration stamps from Israel or Iran she was granted a tourist visa. Her CBS producer, however, was denied entry, so she went alone.

To maintain the tourist identity, once inside the country Ward spent two days taking snapshots and visiting tourist haunts. “There is a real chance that you are being watched,” said Ward. Even after she felt confident that she was not being followed and could start reporting, she kept two separate memory cards, one containing her editorial material and the other her tourist pictures. Ward says she felt safer being in the country with legal authorization.

Without the constant presence of a government minder, she could attend events and visit cities other journalists had previously been shielded from.

Her most recent sojourn two months later presented a new set of challenges caused by the mushrooming of armed rebel groups in Syria. Ward embedded herself with opposition forces, living with them day in and day out. But other rebel groups and leaders running knew nothing about her.

That’s why she said she tried to avoid all checkpoints. There’s often a lack of communication amongst opposition forces, said Ward, and that makes reporting more dangerous.

“I felt that I needed armed protection,” she said. But during her trip in December, she added, “I didn’t think about that in Damascus.”

The strengthening of opposition forces is also giving reporters greater access.

Ward engaged in daily conversations with rebel forces. She lived with opposition fighters in the Syrian city of Idlib, where rebels controlled large sections of the land. She was given access to hospitals, protestors, and people shot by government snipers. The rebels responded by giving her their schedule and list of events.

“I needed them in a way I didn’t before,” she said.

On her first visit with official permission, people were fearful of speaking to her.

Ward says she never shot a single video frame containing the faces of activists she interviewed for fear they’d be retributed by the government.

But this time was different. “People were hugging me and thanking me. When you’re not on the government radar, activists and citizens appear less skittish,” Ward says.

However, Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the CPJ says now even tourist visas are being denied. He says: “[That] excuse is becoming less acceptable. The Syrian Government often assumes you are a journalist, or worse, a spy.”

Foreign reporting in Syria, especially without work authorization, is a dangerous and potentially deadly business. It can include arrest, material seizure, and possibly torture for reporters and their Syrian sources. These are the circumstances local journalists have faced in Syria long before the present crisis.

The CPJ says that eight Syrian journalists have been imprisoned since December and 27 more detained since the uprising began. While no international journalists have been arrested, Reporters without Borders urges them to be prepared. Dollet said that the punishments are unknown, especially for journalists who have entered the country illegally.

“Reporters should be ready for interrogation. They should clear their Facebook page
and have no Syrian contacts on it,” she added.