Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Mr Aventures' perspective on the robbery

Mal Pais: Bad Country or Bad Luck?

Mal Pais means 'bad country' in Spanish. For surfers, tackling a surf spot with a name like that sounds cool. I first visited Mal Pais on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninula 11 years ago this month.

I set out there with a hand drawn sketch of where the beach breaks were and places to stay from a mate of mine in Sydney.

I eventually ended up staying in a tin shed split into two rooms out the back of Frank's Place. Frank's son slept in one room and I had the other. Frank's was one of the few places to eat and had literally the only telephone in town. Arroz con Pollo – rice with chicken - was basically my staple diet for a month.

In between surfing and Frank's, I hung out with other surfers who were camping down at the beach.

Life in a hammock beachside was idyllic. The local farmer asked for a few colones every now and then for being on his land and no one bothered us at all. It was no worries to leave your stuff unattended anywhere.

Saturday nights were fun. We'd wander down to Santa Teresa past the church to the local dance hall where surfers would gather at the bar and local Tico girls would come up and ask for a dance.

11 years on and Mal Pais and Santa Teresa have changed radically.

Bridges have replaced shallow creek fords – the whole area is much more accessible. Loads of people get around on ATV's – all terrain quad bikes. There're two banks (!), shops (small malls perhaps a better description), beauty salons and spa treatment, and holy smoke, even couple of sushi restaurants. Sure, Frank's is still there at the crossroads, but rebuilt and now includes a two storey office block. The good ol' Mal Pais Surf Camp-Resort also still there but now there're are hotels, cabinas and resorts galore catering to all tastes all the way along the main road.

Click here for Mr Aventures full story on the robbery

Mal Pais lives up to its name or why I will never learn the difference between Imperfecto and Indefinido

When I started off with Petites et Grandes Aventures – and bascially up until yesterday – the word „adventure“ actually always had a rather positive connotation. Well, as I said, up until yesterday December 23rd.

6.07 am. Mr Aventures is an early riser. I'm not. It's our second morning in Mal Pais, a surfer's paradise on the southern tip of the Nicoya peninsula. We've booked into a very cute little cabin right on the beach.

6.10 am. Mr Aventures nipps out, checks the weather condition, the waves and decides to go for an early surf.

6.15 am. He waxes his surfboard on the terrace and takes off. I decide to sleep in a it longer.

Between 6.20 and 6.30. I've just fallen asleep again as I suddenly feel a presence, very close - actually right next to my head. Instinctively I think this can't be Mr Aventures, he's out surfing. A fraction of a second later and the shadow is out the door. I'm storming behind, adrenaline pumping, brain on auto-pilot, blind without my glasses... and only wearing my undies. I'm just racing behind the guy, yelling trying to draw attention to the thief. I don't remember how I got around the hammock blocking the way in front of our cabin, I'm just running, screaming and shouting. 100 meters. Then it strikes me, what if he has an accomplice? What am I doing? The guy disappears in the bushes – I have two options, now quick decision Barb, I dart back. The beach is empty, no one has heard me, not even the fisherman at the end of the beach. F***. I'm angry, scared and really pissed off. I am in such a shock, I don't even remember a single detail of the thief – what did he look like? What did he wear?

6.35 am. I'm back at the cabin. I assess the damage, lock the door and go to find Mr Aventures.

6.45 am. I get Mr Aventures out of the water. It was such a peaceful morning and he seems to have a great time. Bummer.

6.50 am. We're back at the cabin, shell shocked, calling the manager.
My brown Marimekko bag is gone. And also the G10 Canon with all our holiday snaps. Damn. This stupid f***** he's probably thought he'd cracked the jackpot with my heavy bag... I would have loved to see his face when he opened it and saw: Spanish Level 1, Spanish Level 2, Spanish-German dictionary, Latin American Short stories in Spanish and German translation, Spanish vocabulary, Spanish grammar, plus a Gala and Vanity Fair magazine, along with my extensive collection of miles and more cards... Lufthansa, Air France, Qantas, British Airways, Air Berlin.

Shortly past 7 am. The very sweet manager arrives, and the night guard - who had left at 4 am.

7.30 am. Local police arrive on the scene. No one speaks English, great. I describe the facts for about the fourth time in broken Spanish, plus do a pantomime of the robbery. I'm clearly struggling with my Spanish verbs and the various past tenses that I was determined to learn during these holidays.

Well, so much for my good intentions, I will now certainly not improve my irregular verbs, nor my imperfecto nor indefinido, but I've managed to make a police statement in Spanish. And I think they told me there's a place in San Jose where I'll be able to claim my valuables and get reimbursed. That sounds too promising too be true, but I'll check it out.

For now we've moved up the hill, hopefully a safe distance enough from the beach, and I'm trying to stop scanning everyone suspiciously and looking for my brown bag and my yellow Spanish books.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

El Cafe Quiz

Today we've visited the headquarters and roasting facilities of Cafe Britt - the most famous coffee roaster in Costa Rica. We've learned everything about coffee - from its history, varities, harvesting, drying and roasting process. And of course I'm still shaking with so much coffeine after tasting all the coffees.

By popular demand the PGA FOOD QUIZ is back.

How many coffee pickers are needed to pick the Costa Rican coffee harvest every year?

Whoever comes closest to the correct figure will receive a packet of delicious Cafe Britt - which apparently is fairly difficult to get in Europe.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Pura Vida on the Pacuare River

Rafting into the Pacuare Lodge was easy, but wait until you raft out we were warned. Our expectations were high, but the experience surpassed anything we could have ever imagined. The river runs fast with huge waves and rapids class III and IV. From October through December the water is at its highest - great, good timing!

I've never paddled so hard in my life. I clung so strongly to the raft that my muscles still hurt three days later. But our raft led by the indefatigable river guide Pascal was lucky. Down one shallow class III technical rapid we watched another raft lose its entire crew, almost capsizing. Plenty of chuckles from us as they floated by in ones and twos.

All that amongst a breathtaking rainforest: waterfalls right, left and centre. Deep spectacular canyons, wildlife galore probably wondering what all that screaming is about and the jungle so high it's touching the sky.

It definitely ranks as a TRES GRANDE AVENTURE.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Another day in paradise

5 pm Pacuare Lodge. It's quickly getting dark here in the jungle of the reserve Rio Pacuare. The mist is coming down from the top of the canopy, it's humid and cooler than the past few days.

The staff is lighting hundreds of candles throughout the lodge. There's no electricity here - apart from the kitchen which is powered by a little water turbine.

Yesterday we rafted into the lodge, along with the supply raft that carried everything from our bags to food supplies - including dozens of cases of Imperial beer and as many trays of eggs. I think this made the eggs and beer taste even better knowing the effort it takes in getting it there.

As I sip my beer at the bar, the sound of the wild Pacuare river rushing by, the hum of insects and birds make a great evening sound track. It's paradise - a word I seem to be using everywhere in Costa Rica.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Punisher

The Lonely Planet had warned us, in its Top Ten of Costa Ricas Worst Roads Carate-Puerto Jiménez is ranked second and is called "The Punisher".

To save a few colones we decided to catch the bus, known locally as the "collectivo". For the equivalent of eight dollars your one way ticket gets you a place on a bench seat in the back of a cattle truck.

With a quick call of all aboard for any stragglers around the pulperia in Carate the driver locks the back gate and we were off.

The comfort of our thinly padded seat lasted about two seconds. I watched the agony as the man sitting across from me whack his head against the wooden side panels of the truck, but grinning like this was fun. He certainly had fun in Carate. Despite the bumpy road he whipped out a little plastic bag from his wallet and handed it across to me. At first I thought here we go, I'm being offered drugs, which wouldn't be surprising for a guy wearing a bandana emblazoned with marijuana leaves and lyrics to Bob Marley songs, but no he was just showing off the gold dust he had collected on the beach in Carate and in the surrounding creeks.

There are not really proper bus stops along the way, people just flag down the collectivo.

There was the Costa Rican cowboy who leaped on - light blue jeans, big belt buckle, leather hat and neat mustache. A real tough Tico. Later down the track the truck really filled up. There was the old woman trying to counter the impact of bumps by steadying herself with her umbrella. Across from the old lady another woman was also struggling with the bumps. While looking after her children the woman was clutching her enormous boobs with both hands to try and well... do you get the picture? Poor thing, the two and a half hour trip through the jungle and over several rivers was certainly arduous. Upon arrival in Puerto Jiminez the woman with the big boobs fainted in the truck. Maybe it was the heat... maybe mammary distress?

Monday, 15 December 2008

Cabo Matapalo to Corcovado

Our next stop is up the coast at La Leona Lodge. The only way you can access this tent camp right on the border to the Corcovado national park is by hiking the better part of an hour along the pristine beach. Our lagguage is following in a quaint little horse cart. The camp is sitting right by the beach, hammocks scattered around the property inviting us to a long lazy afternoon. There's no electricity, but open air bathrooms at the back of the tents and amazing views out onto the pacific. The National Geographic described the Osa peninsula as the „most biologically intense place on earth“ - I don't know about that, but I've never seen so much mammals, birds and insects in my entire life.

Dolphins, sea turtles and whales as we're sitting in front of our tent gazing out onto the ocean. And the next morning is even more prolific: spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, white-throated capuchins and howler monkeys, oatis, squirrels, bats, golden orb spider, poisonous frogs, scarlet macaws, tucans, woodpeckers, honeycreepers, manakins, tanagers, herons, vultures, hawks, caracaras and pelicans – all those in only half a day hike through the Corcovado. I wish we'd have more time to spend here... but we'll be back – next time for some serious hiking in the Corcovado. Maybe we'll then also spot some tapirs, crocodiles and pumas.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

It's a jungle out there

The day starts early here at Lapa Rios on the southern tip of the secluded Osa Peninsula – and not only because we're still a bit jet lagged.

As dawn breaks an ever growing ensemble of jungle sounds reminds you where you are and what lies beyond the moskito net and the exquisite open air wooden hut.
The howler monkeys are still on patrol in the canopy – the gutteral woop echoing across the valley. I can hear tucans, scarlet macaws and flocks of other birds above the constant hum of insects. Across the Golfo Dulce the lights of Golfito twinkle and long corduroy-like lines of swell sweep across the azur blue water.

With a cup of fresh brewed Costa Rican coffee that has just been delivered on our door step I tip toe to the comfy hammock on our private wooden deck to watch the sun rise.

So begins another day in paradise.

Monday, 8 December 2008

I would love to go to Le Web but...

I'm going to Costa Rica for a well earned break!

I'll try to follow what's going on via #leweb on twitter. I interviewed Le Web's founder Loic Le Meur recently for Network Europe Extra

It sounds like it's going to be really interesting. Thanks Loic for sparing some time so shortly before the start of Le Web.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The visionary Don Pepe

I read an interesting article in the French daily newspaper "Libération" this morning. Costa Rica: Pays sans Kaki. 60 years ago, on December 1st 1948, José Figueres Ferrer also known as "Don Pepe" changed the fate of Costa Rica. After winning a short civil war, Don Pepe nationalized all the banks of the country - but more importantly he abolished the Costa Rican army. Instead of buying arms, Costa Rica hired teachers and doctors. Money saved on military expenses went straight into improving the country's education and health system.

And while the neighbours experienced conflicts and wars, Costa Rica soon became the most stable and most democratic country of Central America. It's certainly not a coincidence that Costa Rica today ranks 48th on the world development index, while Nicaragua and Guatemala lag far behind on rank 110 and 118.

Mr Aventures' Snapshot 2008

Fieldreports has been out and about much more than me this year.

Here's his snapshot 2008:

snapshot '08 from Guy Degen on Vimeo.

"It was a busy year through the lens...

Sometimes the most interesting stories aren't the ones you were sent to cover.

What's that saying - the kindness of strangers? Believe me it rings true. Many people, in all manner of circumstances, were patient with their time to tell me a little of their lives.

This is not a 'Year in Review' - just a tiny snapshot of places I visited and people who shared their stories with me over 2008."

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Ethnic divisions continue burdening Bosnia and Herzegovina

More than 13 years after the end of the war in Bosnia, deep ethnic divisions still exist between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Secession calls from Republika Srpska could lead to the country's collapse.

The recent EU progress report on countries in the western Balkans expressed concern about political instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It criticized the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the countries' politicians, saying it blocked the functioning of Bosnian institutions.

With three ethnic groups, two entities and one country, Bosnia and Herzegovina has an identity problem. When the war ended in 1995, the Dayton peace agreement laid the foundations of the country, splitting it into two entities: the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska and the Bosniak/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ethnic divisions have time and again stalled badly needed political and administrative reforms and weakened the central government. Hans Juergen Moeller has been working on development issues in Bosnia for more than a decade and is based in Banja Luka. He says ethnic tensions are clearly getting worse.

"Just after the end of the war, people were busy rebuilding their lives, making sure they had food," Moeller says. Now, the situation appeared to have stabilized, giving people more time to think about identity. This led to exclusion, he says, especially as there was always a majority that clearly dominated the other groups.

"And in good old Balkan fashion, the majority oppresses the minority, and if that's not the case, the minority thinks it's being oppressed by the majority," Moeller says. "It has always been like this here, and it's still the case today."

Public opinion just as divided as the nation

In Republika Srpska, almost 90 percent of the population is Serb. In the center of the entity's capital Banja Luka, Serbian flags not Bosnian ones are flying everywhere -- not only on official buildings, but also on churches and sport stadiums.

Talking to the people on the street, one gets the feeling that their opinion is just as divided as the country is.

"I don't see a future here in Republika Srpska and no perspectives for young people," says one woman. "I think Republika Srpska would be better off on its own."

A man says that people's mentality plays a major role in wanting to divide the country.

"We can no longer live with people who slaughtered us in 1941, and tried it again in the 1990s, wanting to create an Islamic Bosnia," he says. "We need three completely ethnically clean national states."

But another woman says that is not the solution.

"We're better off together than separated," she says.

Impossible to satisfy everyone

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik deplores foreigners meddling in his country's politics. He accuses the international community of consistently weakening Republika Srpska. According to Dodik, the concept of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its territory and structure is absurd.

"Only Bosnia and Herzegovina was forced to work with a structure which didn't survive in the former Yugoslavia," Dodik says. "Before the war, people said Bosnia and Herzegovina is a small Yugoslavia. But if the big one couldn't survive, how can a small one survive?"

Despite his criticism, Dodik concedes that it's difficult to find a solution for Bosnia's future that would satisfy everyone. Serbs want as much autonomy as possible -- even as far as independence. Croats are also seeking more autonomy, while Bosnian Muslims demand a more centralized and unified Bosnia.

Serbian politicians see more centralized powers as a threat and want the right to hold a referendum on any issue including secession. Sulejman Tihic, one of the most influential Bosnian politicians, says Serbian nationalism only fans the flames of Bosnian and Croat nationalism. He says Republika Srpska should remain part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Milorad Dodik tries with his secession intentions and the constant mention of a referendum to play a political game with his own people," Tihic says. "He tries to create an image that a third power -- be it the state, the EU or whoever -- is trying to eliminate Republika Srpska."

This generated fear among Serbs that they need to defend themselves, Tihic says.

"But if he really wants to make Republika Srpska independent, he will definitely lose," Tihic says.

Even love can't bridge the divide

In the east of the country, close to the border with Serbia, nationalism is rampant. This had made life extremely difficult for Zorica, an unemployed young Serb.

"Whenever something bad happens here, family, neighbors, friends, everyone says, 'oh God, it's the Muslims again'," Zorica says. "There are great ethnic tensions here, especially because we're close to Srebrenica where so many Muslims were massacred."

Zorica -- not her real name -- was just a child during the war and grew up with an ingrained fear of Muslims. During the fighting, Muslim soldiers forced her and her family to leave their home in central Bosnia. Two years ago, in an ironic twist that echoes Romeo and Juliet, she fell in love with a young Muslim man. She says she knew it would deeply disappoint her family.

"My boyfriend asked me to marry him, but I didn't dare, because I would have hurt my parents," Zorica says. "A Muslim boyfriend was out of the question and a Croat for that matter as well."

Her relationship lasted seven months, but the fear of how their families would react became unbearable. Even though Zorica says politics is something she doesn't want to care about, ethnic tensions and nationalism destroyed what she calls the love of her life.

International community will not tolerate secession

The EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn recently expressed his alarm about the deteriorating political situation in Bosnia.

"Bosnia must be able to speak with one voice," Rehn told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "Politicians can continue to quarrel and fall behind their neighbors or move forward to the EU."

The EU will not stand for any questioning of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Eldar Subasic, the EU spokesman in Bosnia.

"Calls for a referendum, threats of secession by one entity will not be tolerated by the international community," Subasic says. "We've said clearly this is a red line."

The position of the international community is clear. But is there a way forward for Bosnia and Herzegovina? The only unifying force is the possibility of joining the European Union. But the road to Brussels is subject to bitter debate, says Ognyan Tadisch, a delegate of one of the most nationalistic parties of the Republika Srpska parliament.

"Economically speaking, Republika Srpska has a much bigger chance alone than with the Federation," Tadisch says. "We don't have such a large deficit, we have less unemployed, our population is not as poorly educated, and we have a much simpler system when we're talking about market competition and everything else. In every respect, we're in a better position."

If this sounds like grounds for Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia, it's not, says Tadisch. Independence would only jeopardize peace.

For Bosnia and Herzegovina, putting aside ethnic divisions is clearly the only way forward. But 13 years after the war, its people and politicians are still struggling to deal with the legacies of the past.

This article was part of Inside Europe's Breakaway Regions series.

Sarajevo Sights & Sounds

Wander through the mazy streets of Bascarsija to discover Sarajevo's old soul. Watch the craftsmen at work. Try to bargain in Bosnian for a pair of funky hand made leather boots. Take a seat at one of the many Kavhanas to sip a coffee, soak in the atmosphere or chat with the locals. Bascarsija is pretty chilled - and the locals are too.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Cevapcici, Shopska & Sarajevsko Pivo

My first three days in Republica Srbska where not filled with culinary highlights, so today I thought it was high time to sample some authentic Bosnian cuisine.

For Sarajevo's best Cevapcici my Bosnian friend Belma told me to check out Zeljo right in the centre of the Bascarsija bazaar. You basically just have to follow your nose.

It's just past 12pm and the place is quickly filling up. I grab a stool at one of the low wooden tables.

The choice is not difficult: 5, 10 or 15 Cevapcici, the divine lepinja bread is complimentary, you only have to choose if you want a side of onions or not. As the three middle aged ladies sitting next to me have gone for onion breath, I follow suit - bugger my next interview partner, it's only the EU anyway...

A peak around the room, and the thing to do seems to be to order a glass of yoghurt too. Delicious.

I'm really not a big meat eater, but these Cevapcici's are very very yummy. Not even 20 minutes later, the place is jam packed. An older guy with disproportionately big glasses takes a seat across from me without asking, or even looking at me. Strange. I guess I have TOURIST written all over my face and he probably doesn't speak English, so why bother?

This place is all about a quick eat anyway. The guy behind the cashier yells "idimo, idimo, idimo!" - which, as far as I know, means "come on, come on, come on!" The three ladies next to me have long time gone.

I scoff down my meal, surprised how good meat can taste. And it's time to move on.

I still have my onion breath... and I'm already back to onions... a friend on Facebook last night recommended checking out Inat Kuca. It's not difficult to find, just across the bridge from the old Austrian Hungarian library currently in the process of being renovated.

It's a gorgeous wooden house, full of beautiful exotic lamps, Bosnian carpets, and other Ottoman knick knacks. The story goes that the restaurant was once on the other side of the river but when the authorities wanted to demolish it during the construction of the town hall, the owner insisted to rebuild it on the other side of the bank - piece by piece. Hence the name, Spite House.

I'm going for Shopska salad and Sarajevo Pivo. Uzdravlje!

The mute Bosnian muezzin

No matter where you look here in Sarajevo, you can spot a minaret and its mosque. In front of my hotel window there's the first one, heading down to the Bascarsija bazaar, just a two minute walk, there're at least another four or five, and when you're down in the city center and turn 360 degrees looking up to the surrounding hills, they're everywhere. Amazing. Only the muezzins seem to be less vocal than in other Muslim countries -- maybe out of respect for the other religions?

What role do history classes play in Bosnia's reconciliation?

More than a decade after the end of the war in Bosnia the divisions are still running deep between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Whether it’s drafting a common constitution, working together in the police or effectively cooperating in state institutions – the list of contentious issues seems endless. Education is another example. Bosnia Herzegovina does not have one common ministry of education, but rather 12 education ministers. And has just as many school curriculums and text books. So what can be done to bridge these divisions in Bosnia’s schools and what role do history books and history teachers play in reconciliation? I visited two schools on both sides of the ethnic divide.

This feature was broadcast on Inside Europe. The German version was part of an online special for the UN year of reconciliation 2009.


Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Heading East - deep into a difficult past

Today we left Banja Luka, the capital of Republica Srpska to head east. A young Serbian girl has promised to tell me her impossible story with a young Muslim man - provided I don't disclose her identity and don't say where I'll meet her.

Transport in this part of Bosnia is somewhat sketchy. We thought about taking the bus, but there's only one a day, and it takes ages. Fortunately Renko who normally drives a van delivering dairy products, decided to take the day off. He barely earns 300 euros a month, so with two little kids and an unemployed wife, he offered to take me east - provided I didn't mind his old car.

I didn't mind the cracked front window, the recurring strange noises form the engine, the lack of seat belts, but unfortunately the police did. We had just left town when two police officers pulled over Ranko's rusty old Ford. "You have to get this car checked" they told him. NOW! But we were lucky, Dejan my translator was quick on his feet, and pointed to the German journalist sitting in the car. One little sentence did the trick: "She interviewed Dodik yesterday". And off we were again.

Past beautiful rolling hills, all shiny in the warm autumn light. Actually very much like back home, if it wasn't for the tiny white minarets dotting the landscape and reminding the traveller that Republica Srpska is not all orthodox...

Heading East, also means heading into the heartland of Serbian nationalism, the part of Bosnia which witnessed some of the worst battles and most notorious war crimes of the 1990's. Tuzla, Zvornik, Bratunac, Srebrenica, all resonate with massacres, refugees, and scores of burned homes and villages.

Even the beautiful river Drina, which forms most of the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia, has been the backdrop of a bloody battle - though this one a bit earlier, Dejan tells me. The Serbs fought the Austrian-Hungarians here at the outbreak of Wold War I.

Now it's all quiet and peaceful here.

We ended the day visiting the Srebrenica Memorial, outside Potocari. About 2000 Bosniaks are buried here. The endless rows of white tomb stones are a stark reminder of the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs and their leader General Ratko Mladic. More than 7500 Muslim men and boys were massacred here in July 1995. The majority of the bodies remain unidentified in giant warehouses in Tuzla, awaiting analysis by the International Committee for Missing Persons.

My Serbian driver didn't want to get out of the car, I didn't ask him why.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Dinars, Marks & Euros

Stopover in Belgrade. The airport has changed so much since the mid 1990ies when I regularly flew to Belgrade to protest on the streets of the Serbian capital against Milosevic - and visit my family who lived here at that time.

Shiny duty free shops, modern coffee shops. I'm contemplating to have a beer, but I don't have the local currency, the Dinar, and they don't accept Euros here. How backward, I think, spoiled by our common currency.

And in two hours time I will have to get used to the Bosnian convertible Mark. I can't help but smile because yesterday when I was on the phone to Hotel Bosna where I'm staying in Banja Luka, the guy gave me the room price in Marks... and I told him "Can you give me the price in Euros?" thinking "God, doesn't he know that we gave up the Mark ages ago?"

Traziem Bosnia

Now, Bosnia is a country I've always wanted to visit. I don't really know why, but somehow Sarajevo resonates with me, maybe it's the stories I've heard from my Serb, Croat and Bosnian friends, maybe the history surrounding this city which was once called the Jerusalem of Europe, where mosques and churches - both Catholic and Orthodox - stood peacefully side by side for so many centuries, where traditional Turkish cafes sit today right next to the continent's hippest bars. I'm curious to discover this country I've studied in so many diplomacy and conflict resolution courses during my Masters degree. Are the consequences of bloody wars of the 1990ies still visible today? Have Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs been able to move on? Is there something like a "Bosnian" identity, or do Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks still very much think and feel along ethnic lines? Has the international community managed to build bridges? What does the future hold for Bosnia Herzegovina?

Only four days ago US ex-diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was the chief architect if the Dayton peace accords and Britain's Lord Paddy Ashdown, who was the international envoy in Bosnia between 2002-2006, have warned that the country is in real danger of collapse and called on the world "to pay attention to Bosnia again."

"As in 1995, resolve and transatlantic unity are needed if we are not to sleepwalk into another crisis", both former peace envoys wrote in an open letter published in a daily Bosnian newspaper last Wednesday.

The long-term policy of the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik is clear, "to bring his Serb entity - the Republic of Srpska (RS) - into a position to break away as soon as the opportunity presents itself."

Tomorrow I'm meeting the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik. I'm really curious to see what he has to say.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Football diplomacy

Amernia versus Turkey - a true historic game not only because these two teams have never played against each other before, but also because it's the first time ever a Turkish president visits the small landlocked Caucasus country. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia became independent in 1991 the two countries haven't had diplomatic relations. The 325 kilometer border between the two countries has remained closed for 15 years now.

The tension is palpable as we arrive at the stadium just outside Yerevan's city center. Highest security everywhere: police, military, bodyguards, secret service - with such a high level visit, 150 Turkish officials and more than 400 international journalists, the Armenian government obviously doesn't want to take any risks.

It would actually be the ideal time to break into Armenia's central bank, one of our colleagues jokes. Hmmmm.

So here we are in Yerevan's modern Hrazdan stadium. It's a beautiful late summer evening, very windy, something historic is in the air. I'm surprised to see that the stadium is not sold out. Ok, I hadn't expected to see heaps of Turkish fans. Fifa had reserved 2,700 seats for them, but with the closed Turkish-Armenian border it's clear that it was very difficult for them to travel to the Armenian capital.

Earlier in the day I had met a few dedicated Turkish fans who had driven all the way - 12 hours via Georgia. But in the end, they were only a handful. And the few planes that were chartered from Istanbul, I was told, were full with Armenians living in Istanbul - not Turks.

Tonight seems to be all about politics. As the Turkish anthem plays, everyone in the stadium gets up, though buuhhing and whistling is clearly overriding the music. Armenian fans seated in the wing facing president Abdullah Gul and his Armenian counterpart unfold a huge banner saying RECOGNITION & REPARATION.

The Armenian genocide is still on everyone's mind here. And you actually can't blame them, with more than 1 million Armenians massacred by the Turks in 1915 during World War I. The Turks have always denied this was a massacre. But for Armenia and many other countries around the world there's no arguing about it, it was genocide and it's high time for the Turkish neighbour to admit it.

But back to the game. No, I'm not biased.

It's actually a rather boring game, neither Armenia nor Turkey plays particularly well. Turkey scores twice, much to the disappointment of Armenian fans. The less than 100 Turkish fans parked in one corner of the stadium have no chance to make their voices heard and both times the Turks score the stadium is silent. So much so, I both times have to ask my neighbour, a Japanese political correspondent based in Cairo looking rather bored, if this was actually a goal. Quite unreal, but no doubt historic. Let's hope the next goal will be forming diplomatic relations.

Football diplomacy by Aventures

Friday, 5 September 2008

So this is the Georgian border

The Georgian-Russian conflict and the fall out for Armenia was a recurring theme during our three day visit to Yerevan. Borders and relations with neighbouring countries are a pretty hot topic for Armenians. Their tiny landlocked country backs onto Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia - as you can imagine that means Armenia's foreign policy is a balancing act between friends and foes.

The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and completely sealed off, roads and rails lead nowhere - well, with the exception of smuggling and illegal trade of course. Then there's Georgia - 70 % of Armenia's imports transit through this northern neighbour. But obviously the conflict has had disastrous economic consequences for Armenia - for 20 days the rail and road links from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti to Yerevan were closed. Fuel ran out in Yerevan, food supplies were severely shortened, most of the trade was rerouted through the Persian Gulf and Iran.

Armenia is now walking a very thin line trying to stay neutral and juggling interests between its strategic ally Russia, its natural partner Georgia and southern neighbour Iran. Then there's the EU and the US to take into consideration. Washington is heavily lobbied by the big Armenian diaspora in the US. As for Brussels, the majority of Armenians, especially young ones, would like to join Club Europe in some not too distant future.

How's all that for a diplomatic challenge?

We asked Arman Kirakosyan, Armenia's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, what the official position towards the conflict in Georgia was. Surprisingly he replied: "There is none."

Well, maybe diplomacy is not that difficult after all. I wonder what his boss thinks.

To see a little practical foreign policy in action, we were squeezed into a minibus and dispatched to the Georgian-Armenian border. Now, I had my doubts as to what exactly we would be able to see there and what the whole point of this excursion was. And as it turned out I was not wrong.

Under the strict observance of a customs official who had joined us from Yerevan, meticulously filming our every move, we had a chat with the guy in charge of the check point. Sure, he said, there were long queues to enter Armenia when the conflict erupted and Russian troops were moving closer to Tbilisi. Thousands of Georgians, as well as expats were fleeing the country. But the Armenian customs and immigration officials were, as he proudly announced to us, always well prepared, and the situation was back to normal within a few days. As you can imagine the group 15 journalists was less than impressed with such a, let's say, "textbook" official response.

Eager for more concrete info, we assaulted the border crossing with our cameras - very much to the dismay of our border chief who quickly called us back and summarily imposed a PHOTO BAN. So next we pursued anyone crossing the border.

It must have been a pretty funny sight. 15 journos representing 15 different EU countries hunting for any snippet of information, a good quote, or something that would have made this 7 hour drive worth our while. Even a Georgian Khachapuri would have been welcomed.

But I guess we lingered around long enough and made the local chief feel important with all these microphones and recording devices poked at him. Whatever it was, he suddenly had a change of heart and said it's OK to take photos. So, out came the cameras again, and this time we were more like a group of Japanese tourists taking souvenir shots from an exotic location. Perhaps he also felt a little guilty as next thing we were treated to a round of beers! So much for rules and regulations at the border.

Despite the Armenian hospitality, most of us were a bit frustrated to travel all this way and to not be able to cross the border and drive the remaining 70 kms to Tbilisi.

Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighbouring Azerbijan, would also have been so much more interesting, but I guess that's what you have to deal with when you're on a press trip.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

ENP - getting along with the neighbours

The European Neighbourhood Policy - or ENP as Eurocrats love their EU jargon - was developed in 2004. It was formulated shortly before the "Big Bang" when the EU was about to expand eastwards to include 8 former communist countries and to the south with the two Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta.

In short, the EU was looking to its new southern and eastern neighbours and wanted to strengthen prosperity, stability and security - in the interest of all concerned.

The ENP encompasses Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine. Working towards "deeper political relationship" and "economic integration" - those are the buzzwords, even if some of these countries do not have a specific EU outlook or any intention of ever joining the European Union.

The central element of the European Neighbourhood Policy is the bilateral ENP Action Plan agreed between the EU and each partner. It's probably no surprise that Belarus, Syria and Libya haven't signed one of those... and ah, Russia hasn't done so either, but that's a whole different chapter...

Anyway, I've spent today in Brussels being briefed on the ins and outs of the ENP, on the results of the EU emergency Caucasus summit and the wider political implications for the region. It's quite an interesting time traveling to Yerevan. I'll keep you posted!

Recipe for Lavash

Travel always equals food for me so here's one for foodies.

Lavash is thin, soft flat bread that is served with dips and used for wraps.

Serves 8 large pieces or 16 small pieces.


* 1 pkg. yeast
* 1 1/2 cup warm water
* 2 teaspoons sugar
* 4 1/2 cup all purpose flour
* 1 tablespooon toasted sesame seeds
* 1 tablespoon toasted
* 1 1/2 teaspoon salt


Coat a large bowl with oil. Set aside.

In a measuring cup, combine yeast, water and sugar. Mix until yeast is dissolved.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Add yeast water mixture and form a dough. Knead dough by hand for 10 -15 minutes. 5-8 minutes is sufficient if using a knead hook on a mixer.

Once dough is kneaded, place ball of dough in oiled bowl. Roll the dough around the bowl to coat it with oil. Cover and let rise for 1 -1 1/2 hours, or until dough doubles in size.

Once dough has doubled, punch down to release air. Continue to knead for about 5 minutes.

Divide dough into 8 separate balls of dough. Cover and allow to rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Once risen, roll dough out to thin rectangles, about 12"x10" for large or 8"x6" for small flatbreads. They should be as thin as pizza dough.

Puncture rectangles with a fork. Brush dough with water and sprinkle sesame seeds. Bake on baking sheet for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Continue baking remaining dough.

Eat in the company of good friends and conversation. European Neigbourhood Policy is optional.

Off to 'Lavash' Armenia

Early in July I received a call from Brussels asking me if I'd be interested to travel to Armenia as part of a European Neighbourhood Policy seminar organised by the European Journaliam Centre and the European Commission. The focus: Trade Flows and Internal Security in Armenia. Maybe you can guess what my answer was.

The last time I was in Armenia was more than 20 years ago... I was travelling with my parents through the Caucasus. First stop was Tbilisi and then we made our way to Yerevan. I vividly remember visiting the local market - the vendors were so much friendlier than in Moscow, where we were living at that time. I can still picture the zesty lemons and colourful exotic fruits I had missed for years in the Russian capital.

Of course it was not the West, and of course it was difficult to find anything but the typical Soviet era state run restaurants. Let's just say they were always slightly rundown, cold and deserted, staffed by grumpy waitresses wearing ugly uniforms and bad makeup, and decorated in bad taste 60's furniture and curtains that hadn't been washed for years. Does anyone know that sort of very distinctive Soviet smell?

As a 12-year old I was not a big fan of Russian cuisine, but I remember my enthusiasm for Armenian food and particularly lavash - a thin, paper-like bread they served us with vegetables. Yummy!!

So, of course there was little hesitation in saying "yes, let's go to Armenia!". And well, what about the European Neighbourhood Policy? What was that all about again? Ok, maybe it hasn't gripped my attention but with the ongoing crisis in the Caucasus there's no better time to be in the region looking at European foreign policy.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Caged in?

We're nearing the end of our election reporting seminar here in Johannesburg and I must say it's been a rewarding and enriching experience. I suggest you check out the very interesting blog our 13 South African colleagues set up:

"Ubuntu Bomzantsi - Togetherness in the South"

Here's what Alani, one of the participants, had to say about the ongoing xenophobic attacks in South Africa:

How ironic is our country’s fight for freedom?

During this 10 day long seminar we had the chance to visit Constitutional Hill and a refugee camp in Glenvista Rifle Range in Johannesburg. After these visits I can not stop myself from thinking that there are many similarities between the imprisonment of political prisoners back in the apartheid era and keeping refugees in camps around the country now.

Here are some comparisons to help you understand. Our tour guide at Constitutional Hill told us that the prisoners were mainly fed bread, porridge, tea and sometimes they got some coffee with a bit of sugar and fruit. This was a little more than the six slices of bread, tea and sometimes fruit that the government is feeding refugees in the camps at the moment. Even the sleeping arrangements have some similarities. Prisoners had only one blanket, while the refugees also have to do with just one. Sleeping on the floor, cement or a tent floor, is another thing these people have in common.

This has left me with the question: are we really free in South Africa?

Even we South Africans are been caged in by all the barriers we’ve erected around our homes and workplaces to keep us safe from the escalating crime we face.

By stating all of this, I want to bring home the point that many South Africans still don’t have the freedom democracy promised us. It is a shame that in such a vibrant and beautiful country, we are in so many ways caged in. I hope we all rise to the occasion and live up to our own responsibility when it comes to freedom - especially the government!

Friday, 13 June 2008

It's the kids who suffer most

Rifle Range Refugee Camp on the Southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg.

2300 immigrants from 14 African nations have been relocated here ten days ago, after spending excruciating days fearing for the lives at various police stations throughout the city.

They've lost everything: their homes, their jobs, all their belongings. Many just have what they wore when they fled the xenophobic violence.

A group of Congolese young men is showing us around the camp. Neat rows of white plastic tents, all numbered and sorted by nationalities.

Here are the Ethiopians, down there - towards the end - the Zimbabweans, Malawians and Somalis. And here the Congolese, one of the camp's biggest communities. Every community has so-called Peace Marshalls and community leaders.

But the seemingly organised structure doesn't gloss over the chaos and the desperation.

It's the kids who suffer most here at the Rifle Range Refugee Camp.

Families with up to eight kids live in crammed tents. There are no mattresses and not enough blankets. The refugees are using cardboard boxes to try and isolate the winter cold, but it doesn't work. There's no hot water and the sanitation is rudimentary, to put it mildly.

Food is distributed twice a day, but a few slices of bread are simply not enough. Many suffer from diarrhoea and some refugees told us that much of the food they've receive is way past the date and actually rotten.

The atmosphere in the camp is tense - and the anger palpable. And who can blame them?

Xenophobia is part of everyday life for the refugees here in South Africa.

Susanne, a 43-year old Congolese tells me she was harassed on the bus yesterday as she was on her way to extend her papers. They called her "Kwere Kwere" - which means "foreigner" in Zulu. They said she should leave the country, because foreigners are neither needed nor wanted.

Susanne is sad - and very upset. Like most of the foreigners here at the Rifle Range Refugee Camp, she fled her country because she was persecuted. Going home is not an option. But staying here neither.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Have the abused become the abusers?

Over the past few weeks South Africa has witnessed some of the worst incidents of xenophobic violence ever experienced.

62 foreigners from neighbouring countries have been killed, 670 have been injured and tens of thousands of people have either been displaced or forcibly ejected from their homes.

In this week's BBC African Perspective, Carolyn Dempsters asks why there is such hatred for foreigners in the so-called 'rainbow nation' -- and what can be done about it?

Saturday, 7 June 2008

South Africa - First Impressions

It's my first visit to South Africa. I've heard and read a lot about this country, sadly also a lot of negative press lately, as anti-immigrant violence has sullied the rainbow nation's reputation for tolerance.

I'm in Johannesburg for ten days working with South African Journalists on election issues. And we kicked off our seminar at Constitutional Hill, an impressive and inspiring landmark that bridges the country's past and present.

On the one hand there's the old fort, a notorious prison dating back to 1892 with its various sections: the Awaiting Trial Block, which held the 156 treason trialists of 1956 - led by Nelson Mandela; the gruesome Number Four section, which held black prisoners...

...and the Women's Goal, where female offenders - both black and white - were separately incarcerated like animals.

On the other hand, or I should say in the midst of this, there's South Africa's new Constitutional Court literally rising from the ashes of one of the city's most poignant apartheid-system monuments.

The architecture is impressive and full of symbols. The modern structure incorporates the prison walls. The new court's plenary was built with the old red bricks and large windows allow the people inside to see the former watch towers, and the people outside to watch the proceedings.

The ethnic and linguistic diversity is omnipresent. The court's facade is covered with the words "Constitutional Court" in the eleven official languages of South Africa. There're eleven judges hearing cases in eleven languages.

I think I've never seen a landmark concentrating past, present and future in such an overwhelming density. It's all here in one spot. South Africa's cruel and tragic history, making me ashamed of being white. South Africa's hope and dreams of a better future. It really evokes strong emotions.

How did these people survive? Where did they take their strength from? Is it possible to forgive and build a future together? The tour through the prison - especially through the Number Four Section - is deeply upsetting. I'm thinking, how much worse must it be for my South African colleagues?

Some said it provokes hatred, other said patriotism and pride to see what their country has achieved after so many years of oppression and terror.

Friday, 30 May 2008

The Debriefing

My five days of hostile environment training on the base have been very enriching. Of course it does take a bit of getting used to waking up to the sound of a bugle and reveille, queing up for breakfast with a few hundred soldiers in full combat gear. But the food was better than I expected and I learned to appreciate the benefits of discipline, straight talk and marching. Somehow it seems I'm moving far quicker from A to B now. I mean, we civilians are still miles away from any serious discipline and our military trainers made no secret of that.

We certainly tested our trainers' patience. We're not always punctual. Looking very unmilitary-like carrying our mineral water bottles and wandering around with our mobile phones. Leaving class to the toilet whenever we felt like it, and to make things worse without asking. We also occasionally mixed up our trainers' ranks and grades. There's a lot of room for improvement for us as journalists to understand the military. But I guess, the learning process is a two way street. I loved the little video they showed us about media training at the Bundeswehr: journalists don't follow orders, you have to present them arguments.

No seriously, it's been an amazing week of training. If you're reading this and have done a similar hostile environments course, I'd love to know what your experience was like.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Hands up, head down, sore knees

Day 4 - Hostage scenario

The security situation is rapidly deteriorating in Rhönland. UNDOFOR has just recently arrested Iwan Ivanovitsch, the head of the paramilitary group NAFROS. Both sides to the conflict are said to have committed war crimes, including civilian massacres and rapes. We find ourselves sitting in a bus on our way to Karsbach where a press conference by UNHCR and the South Rhönland Defense Force is scheduled for this morning.

A few kilometers out of the base our bus is redirected through a forest on a dirt track. This could be due to the risks of landmines in the area, says my colleague sitting next to me. But he's hardly had time to say that when two armed men suddenly jump out in front of our bus.

It's no mucking around with guys waving rocket propelled grenades at the vehicle. We're all hit the floor of the bus. More masked rebels storm the bus yelling and branding AK-47s. "Hands up, heads down, close your eyes and shut up!"

Everything happens within a matter of seconds and the bus is moving again. A bit further down the track we make another stop - more armed militia get on board. There's a frenzy of activity. I attempt to look up, but a strong hand pushes my head down. One by one we're being blindfolded and separated. One of my colleagues is taken off the bus, and then we're off again. Then one of the hostage takers sits next to me. My arms hurt, my head too, and my captor constantly forces me to put the head down.

After a good half hour drive, we're taken off the bus. Balkan music is blarring: where are we? I feel grass under my feet. I have the impression we're close to a forest. "Down on your knees! Arms up! Head down and shut the fuck up!"

Why haven't I done more upper body muscle building lately? Everything hurts. I'm trying to keep track of time, but it's useless...

"Get up!"

Two guards take me a few hundred meters to a table where I'm being checked for weapons. Watch, armband, mobile phone and notebook - everything goes. I'm handcuffed very tightly behind my back. Ouch.

Now I'm in a dark room, sitting in the corner, waiting. The music is unbearably loud. It's no longer Balkan beats, but pure pain - a colleague will later tell me that it was a Pakistani song entitled Qawali.

It's difficult to know how many people are in the room. I estimate one colleague to my left and another four to five on my right. I would like to shout out, who else is here? But I'm too scared. So, I just cough, and a few coughs come back as an answer. It's still difficult to make out how many we are in the room.

"On your knees!"

This is really the worst position of all. I'm trying to breathe calmly. In and out, in and out. I'm thinking of my yoga teacher back in Cologne. I can do that. U-Jei, I'm doing this every Monday at my Yoga class. Though I guess not handcuffed and being yelled at and exposed to noise torture. Try spending 15 minutes on your knees, I can tell you it's PAINFUL.

Suddenly I feel I'm going to faint. I sway forward and backward but I can't control my body any longer and panic starts to grip me. I'm close to tears but a voice whispers into my ear: "are you alright?"

Gosh Barb, this is only an exercise; calm down, breathe, relax, you're going to be fine.

"Arse on your heels!"

This feels comparatively sooooo much better.

How long are we going to sit here? There are constant steps in and out, I'm not sure what's happening to my colleagues. But suddenly it's my turn: "Get up!" - I'm escorted out. Grass, tarmac, roughly 600 meters. I'm entering a building, right, left, the room feels nice and cool, I can smell incense. Keep calm, this is crucial now. "On your knees!"

My interrogation starts. Okbar, some sort of militia leader from North Rhönland is in charge and sets out his rules: answers should be short and precise, clear and loud, always ending with SIR!

"Yes, Sir!"

"What's your name?"

"Barbara Gruber........"

"BaRbaRa", he rolls the Rs in typical Balkan fashion.

"Do you want to cooperate?"

"Yes, I want to cooperate, Sir!" This wins me points and I get to sit down on a chair.

But not for long, I commit the mistake of asking if they can take my blindfold off - and am back down on my knees.

"Are you married?" uhhh, we're getting personal now...


Do you have a boyfriend?

What's his name?

How can I reach him?

What are you doing in Rhönland?

What do you think of the situation in Rhönland?

Why were you seen carrying weapons yesterday?

What do you think of the South Rhönland Defense Force?

Phhhewww, I know what's coming now...

I answer: "I don't think anything, I haven't spoken to them, or done any interviews. Actually we were even briefly detained at one of their checkpoints yesterday".

And that's where the problem starts. I was forced to take a photograph yesterday with Mr Wujew, the guy in charge of the checkpoint.

My blindfold is taken off, I'm blinded by a very bright light. I'm in a small room, kneeling in front of an old metal table, the bright light is positioned half a meter away from my head.

Okbar throws a photograph on the table: "Is that your friend?"

"No, it's not my friend", but any discussion seems pointless, Okbar doesn't give me the chance to explain...

"Now you're going to read this into the camera."

He hands me a document admitting to having committed war crimes, accusing the United Nations and the South Rhönland Defense Forces of all sorts of violent acts. I read, stumbling over the words, looking at the camera, wondering what the hell I'm doing.

"Sign!" I sign.

"Now, is that the Truth?"

"No..." oh god, I'm thinking are we now going to start all over again? But Okbar is visibly annoyed with me.

"Get her out!".

I'm back on my knees in the original detention room. The blaring music now seems even louder and is seriously getting on my nerves. I'm looking forward to the few seconds of silence every so often, when our hostage takers have to turn the cassette. I'm back to my Yoga breathing exercises. I'm starting to faint in and out, maybe I should try to sleep? But then I risk falling over...

"Get up!" and here is me thinking the worse part is over... The captors take me out again.

"On your knees!"

"Your colleague doesn't want to sign the document, so we're now going to shoot you in the knee!"

Great, now I'm thinking who is stupid enough not to sign this silly document which doesn't have any validity whatsoever.

The captors repeat the question to my colleague:

"Will you sign?"

"No," he says and before I know it, BANG! I'm shot and out of the exercise. Lots of things are going through my head: I should have defended myself better, talked my colleague to reason, how unreal is that? And then I'm thinking what can you expect from a tabloid journalist... I guess I have the right to be a little bit mean, no?

If you've been to a hostage training like this did you end up having a miserable end like me? Even though it's a training scenario, I think it's really interesting to see how colleagues react.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Legal & illegal check points

Today was an action packed day.

After learning what to do when you've just lost a limb from stepping on a mine, we were exposed to various forms of ordnance - including sitting in a bunker when a five kilogram bomb is detonated a mere 15 meters from you. I can tell you it's full on.

The blast is so powerful, you have to keep your mouth open to compensate the pressure. Now this was "just" five kilos. A suicide car bomb would most likely have far more explosives. I don't even want to begin to imagine what that means.

On the road to Karsbach for another attempt to meet and interview Rhönland civilians, we're confronted with an illegal check point. We thought it would be a great idea to carry some local currency and had fabricated some Rhönland dollar notes. But as it turned out this proved to be a disastrous idea. The local war lord was highly offended when our team leader presented our money.

"Are you taking the piss?" Not a good start to the negotiations.

The next check point was legal. We were temporarily detained and I was forced to take a picture with the head of the check point- a certain Mr Wujew, with his arms around me. I suspected that this would mean trouble for us down the line.

After a short detention we were allowed to move on, but only managed to drive a few metres when a suicide car exploded just at the entrance of the check point. Now, it was all about applying the first aid knowledge we had acquired in the morning.

In this carnage we had to deal with the full spectrum of injuries from acute shock, serious head injuries and a pretty disgusting amputated arm. Now, you might be wondering why there're not more pictures to show. Well firstly I was flat out doing first aid and throughout the course we were under strict instructions not to photograph anything during the entire week.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mines & Maps

Bravo 1: not much to report. Except maybe that the popular leader of the RGLR Iwan Watzlaw was killed by the warlord Ivan Ivanowitsch from NAFROS. The situation in Rhönland remains calm though.

Lesson learned from our mine awareness debriefing today: if you step onto a mine, you have basically no chance. So, your best bet is to stick to the roads, as mines are rarely visible.

The map and compass session was more useful than expected - I can now find North and South with the help of my watch or even with the stars, though I'm still wondering whether it's wiser to invest in a compass or a GPS.

Took an illegal dip in the camp's open air pool. It only officially opens at the end of this week, but it was simply too tempting. The man in charge told us the pool's chemistry is not right yet and we might well suffer from bad diarrhea tomorrow. As long as I don't have that problem during the hostage taking, I guess I'm fine...

Monday, 26 May 2008

Snipers, grenades and booby-traps

06:00 wake up call.

06:30 breakfast with a few hundred recruits.

07:30 I fetch my helmet, a splinter jacket and hearing protection.

After a theory lesson, we're quickly assigned into teams: Alpha 1, Alpha 2, Bravo 1 and Bravo 2 and hit the road heading to Bonnland, a village in the Area of Separation. Our mission: exploring the village and gathering information. But as soon as we've approached the first villager and are about to strike up a conversation, sniper shots ring out.

For a split second I'm paralyzed: where did the shot come from? It's coming from the right. Where do I find protection? My three colleagues are already lying flat on the tarmac, I have the impression it takes ages until my body decides to move. The villagers now are nowhere to be seen.

We move on. A few hundred meters down, we turn right into a large square. We're a group of four, so we've divided the tasks: looking ahead, right, left and back. Suddenly a bright blue grenade lands right in front of our feet. I jump back two meters and find safety behind the corner of a house. In the real world it's difficult to say if I would have had enough time to actually jump these two meters - or whether I would only have survived throwing myself on the floor. What do you do when a grenade lands at your feet? My first thought was running away, but the best thing we're told to do is hit the ground to be less exposed - head facing down, arms over the head, mouth slightly open to cope with the pressure. Hmmmm.

Down at the other end of the square half a dozen young boys are playing football. The ball comes flying down my side, I kick and start talking to Mark, 18 years old. I can't say I'm really relaxed or even remotely listening to what the boy is telling me... I'm just waiting for the next explosion. And BANG I'm on the floor again, waiting to see what happens next. Silence. Then screams, "he's injured, he's injured... you have to come and help!!". Four boys are trying to push me over to the left. I'm torn, is it another trap? Should I help? And even if I wanted, I would have no clue what to do. The villagers are yelling and screaming for help, my colleagues are holding back, the situation is chaotic. We're all paralyzed.

And BANG another explosion goes off.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

UNDOFOR - United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Rhönland

We're supposedly in Rhönland a country where ethnic and religious minorities have been increasingly suppressed over the past few years. The economic gap between the rich industrialized South and the predominantly agricultural North is growing and exacerbating ethnic tensions. North Rhönland is seeking independence... sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?

Three months ago the government of Rhönland was overthrown by extremists which lead to protests and violent clashes. North Rhönland declared independence and was soon invaded by South Rhönland. Paramilitary groups and the official troops of North Rhönland are now fighting the Southern invaders. That's just the very beginning of our scenario... like in the real world, it gets more complicated.

Of course what's a real crisis region without the UN? There's UN SC Resolution 1203 calling for an end to the violence and for democratic elections. A failed UN embargo. Only the recent threat of military sanctions got the warring factions to the negotiating table. They agreed to a truce and an AOS - Area of Separation - a buffer zone patrolled by UN observers and Peacekeepers. UNDOFOR we understand has been deployed for the past 10 days. And the International Police Task Force (IPTF) is in charge of restructuring, training and controlling Rhönland's police force. You're still with me?

I guess I'm at this stage mainly concerned about who will be shooting at me tomorrow... Here's the intelligence I've gathered:

SDF: the South Rhönland Defence Force - red crosses, red flags;

RGLR: the Regular Guard for the Liberation of Rhönland - green crosses, yellow flags, olive green uniforms;

NAFROS: the National Front of Southern Rhönland - one of several paramilitary groups in the South

RAFN: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of North Rhönland - one of several paramilitary groups in the North

Other players include numerous other armed paramilitary groups, bandits and village militias.

Our task as journalists is to report about the activities of UNDOFOR and the military observers, and about the humanitarian situation in Rhönland. We're accredited with the UN and both sides of the conflict. We have freedom of movement across the whole country, including the AOS. Great! But what do you do if the whole country is mined?

You have arrived in a crisis region

"Saaleck Bundeswehr Kaserne" in Bavaria:

A friend of mine drops me off at the gates of the base, he has a big grin on his face - I guess he wonders: "how on earth will she cope for an entire week here?".... I was expecting high security, but the officer at the gate just asks: "You're one of the journalists?" I nod and he waves me through.

No ID checks, nothing. I make my way to the registration office in the VN-AusbZ Bw building, stand in line with half a dozen young soldiers, neat uniforms - red berets. I feel a bit out of place. Everything seems highly organized, abbreviations obviously rule here.

Now, it's my turn to check in: Journalist? Name? Date of birth? The officer is friendly but doesn't waste a word. He hands me my keys, a map and some documents - point 1: "You have arrived in a crisis region".

Welcome to five days of hostile environment training!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market

Ever since we decided to spend three days in Tokyo on the way Down Under, it was clear that we'd have to visit the world's biggest fish market. Many years ago I had seen a documentary about the famous tuna auctions at the crack of dawn - and it became one of the many myths shaping my image of Japan.

Anything fished out of the sea seems to transit via Tsukiji before turning up on a sashimi platter...

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo
Video sent by petitesetgrandesaventures

Audio Slide Show of Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market

So, day 3 in Tokyo we woke up at 4.00 am to make it on time to bid for an 800 kilo tuna. There are auctions for fresh tuna and auctions for frozen tuna. The tuna come from all over the world. On this morning there were fish from Mexico, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Australia and of course Japan...

The auctions start at 5.30 am with the ringing of bells. Most tuna weigh a few hundred kilos, but some can reach 800 kilos -- and can set you back up to 2,000,000 Yen. Each auctioneer has his own sing song pattern and quickly works through the various lines of tuna. Spotters scribble down the winning bids and look out for the hand signals of the buyers.

After sneaking through the live auction, we wandered around the outer market photographing the staggering shapes and colours of fish and worked up an appetite. So, shortly past six, we cued in front of the famous Daiwa - we were told it's the best place for an early morning Sushi breakfast. Undoubtedly a perfect way to end our little Fish Market adventure.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Bad Fortune

Day 2 in Tokyo. We start off with a great breakfast of Soba noodles in a traditional little restaurant in the old Asakusa neighbourhood. Sitting on tatami mats sharing the table with locals and slurping the delicious noodle soup is a great start into the day and it's now time to explore Tokyo despite freezing temperatures.

Asakusa's main attraction is the beautiful temple Senso-Ji. I must admit I'm still mixing up temples and shrines - temples are Buddhist, shrines are Shinto. But I guess it's not that much of a big deal since most Japanese are following both Buddhism and Shinto. In fact I read the Japanese are saying that Shinto is the religion of this world and this life, while Buddhism is for matters of the soul and the next world. Births, marriages and similar worldly affairs are mostly Shinto, while funerals Buddhist. I wonder how the Catholic church would feel about a Christian baptism, a Jewish wedding and a Buddhist funeral... Anyway, I'm digressing.

So, here we are the Senso-Ji temple. I'm very intrigued by worshippers rattling metal boxes and taking out wooden sticks. After identifying the letters on the stick, they pull a little drawer bearing the same letters and pull out a piece of paper. The paper is then neatly folded, knotted around steel rods and followed by a prayer. This definitely triggers my curiosity and I decide to follow suit. However I drew...

- I am shocked at my fate.

"Everything stay and stick without progress. Even if you want to let other people know your name or try to get good fortune, never desire what beyond your control. It is real hard to cross on the boat, a pid (sic) and high wave is on your way. Although your request seems to be granted, by enormous barrier your goal is far away like the earth to the sky. Your request will not be granted. The patient is hard to get well. The lost article will not be found. The person you want for doesn't come. Building a new house and removal (sic) are both bad. To start a trip is no good. Marriage of any kind or new employment are both bad."

Gosh, and here's me thinking 2008 is going to be a good year... I immediately wanted to rattle the box again and pick another stick, but a group of young Japanese was laughing and saying "that's not on" . Oh, well...

Fortunately Guy from Notes From The Field drew No. 52 BETTER FORTUNE!!

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Japan - First Impressions

Tokyo Narita Airport 9 am. We arrive after our 10 hour flight from Frankfurt, jet lagged, contact lenses completely dried out on my eyes, hair crumpled and messy. I feel dirty and tired, but ready to be hit by all the images I have of Japan.

The ultra-modern airport is filled with neatly dressed people crammed in the arrival hall holding signs in Japanese scanning arriving passengers. Everything is sterile and clean, quite a few people are wearing white surgical face masks as if we were still at the peak of a SARS or bird flu epidemic. Wall to wall ads are advertising the latest high tech gadgets or the 2009 spring collections of the hippest European fashion designers. All the signs are in Japanese and no one speaks English to give us directions to the public transport to the city. We just follow the masses down the escalators and are being pushed by special agents into the insanely full subway.

That's how I was expecting my arrival in Japan. But it was nothing like that. The airport had a distinctly dated feel, seemed fairly deserted, quiet and low key with no sensory overkill, no claustrophobic frenzy by pushing masses, no being lost in a myriad of Japanese signs and no big surprises really - apart from maybe the heated toilet seat and the choice of hot or cold water for one's posterior.

In fact our trip from the airport to the city was onboard the rather quaint Airport Limousine bus. A white gloved attendant checked in our luggage and once we were ready to depart, gracefully bid us farewell and bowed. We then listened to the famous female voice politely reminding us that using a mobile phone during the hour long trip might irritate our neighbours.

Day 1 in Tokyo: I'm impressed by the friendliness of Japanese people, the cleanliness of the city and the lack of crowds and craziness.

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