Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival

BOOK: Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
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I
WAS TEN WHEN
my father died, and before that moment, that slap of silence that reset the clock, I can’t remember much. There are some things, of course—fractals, shards of memory, sharp as broken glass. I remember an old globe that sat on the table by my bed. I must have been five or six. It was a present from my mother, who’d received it from the author Isak Dinesen, long after she’d written
Out of Africa
.

When I couldn’t sleep, I’d touch the globe, trace the contours of continents in the dark. Some nights my small fingers would hike the ridges of Everest, or struggle to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. Many times, I rounded the Horn of Africa, more than once my ship foundering on rocks off the Cape of Good Hope. The globe was covered with names of nations that no longer exist: Tanganyika, Siam, the Belgian Congo, Ceylon. I dreamed of traveling to them all.

I didn’t know who Isak Dinesen was, but I’d seen her photograph in a delicate gold frame in my mother’s bedroom: her face hidden by a hunter’s hat, an Afghan hound crouching by her side. To me she was a mysterious figure from my mother’s past, just one of many.

My mother’s name is Gloria Vanderbilt, and long before I ever got into the news business, she was making headlines. She was born in 1924 to a family of great wealth, and early on discovered its limits. When she was fifteen months old her father died, and for years afterward, she was shuttled about from continent to continent, her mother always moving off into unseen rooms, preparing for parties and evenings on the town. At ten my mother became the center of a highly publicized custody battle. My mother’s powerful aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was able to convince a New York court that my mother’s mother was unfit. It was during the Depression, and the trial was a tabloid obsession. The court took my mother away from her mother and the Irish nurse she truly loved, and handed her over to Whitney who soon sent her away to boarding school.

My brother and I knew none of this as children, of course, but we’d sometimes seen a look in our mother’s eyes, a slight dilation of the pupil, a hint of pain and fear. I didn’t know what it meant until after my father died. I glanced at myself in the mirror and saw the same look staring back at me.

AS A BOY
looking at that globe, I grew up believing, as most people do, that the earth is round. Smoothed like a stone by thousands of years of evolution and revolution. Whittled by time. Scraped by space. I thought that all the nations and oceans, the rivers and valleys, were already mapped out, named, explored. But in truth, the world is constantly shifting: shape and size, location in space. It’s got edges and chasms, too many to count. They open up, close, reappear somewhere else. Geologists may have mapped out the planet’s tectonic plates—hidden shelves of rock that grind, one against the other, forming mountains, creating continents—but they can’t plot the fault lines that run through our heads, divide our hearts.

The map of the world is always changing; sometimes it happens overnight. All it takes is the blink of an eye, the squeeze of a trigger, a sudden gust of wind. Wake up and your life is perched on a precipice; fall asleep, it swallows you whole.

None of us likes to believe our lives are so precarious. In 2005, however, we were reminded just how quickly things can change. The year began with the tsunami and came to a close with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. There were wars and famine, and other disasters, natural and man-made.

As a correspondent and anchor for CNN, I spent much of 2005 reporting from the front lines in Sri Lanka and New Orleans, Africa and Iraq. This book is about what I saw and experienced, and how it crystallized much of what I’d previously learned and lived through in conflicts and countries long since forgotten.

For years I tried to compartmentalize my life, distance myself from the world I was reporting on. This year, however, I realized that that is not possible. In the midst of tragedy, the memories of moments, forgotten feelings, began to feed off one another. I came to see how woven together these disparate fragments really are: past and present, personal and professional, they shift back and forth again and again. Everyone is connected by the same strands of DNA.

I’ve been a journalist for fifteen years now, and have reported on some of the worst situations on earth: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq. I’ve seen more dead bodies than I can count, more horror and hatred than I can remember, yet I’m still surprised by what I discover in the far reaches of our planet, the truths revealed in the dwindling light of day, when everything else has been stripped away, exposed, raw as a gutted shark on a fisherman’s pier. The farther you go, however, the harder it is to return. The world has many edges, and it’s very easy to fall off.

THE WEEK AFTER
my father died, I saw one of those old Jacques Cousteau documentaries. It was about sharks. I learned that they have to keep moving in order to live. It’s the only way they can breathe. Forward motion, constantly forcing water through their gills. I wanted to live on the
Calypso,
be part of Cousteau’s red-capped crew. I imagined myself swimming slowly alongside a Great White, my hand resting lightly on its cold, silver steel skin. I used to dream of its sleek torpedo body silently swaying through pitch black seas, never resting, always in motion. Some nights I still do.

Hurtling across oceans, from one conflict to the next, one disaster to another, I sometimes believe it’s motion that keeps me alive as well. I hit the ground running: truck gassed up, camera rolling—“locked and loaded, ready to rock,” as a soldier in Iraq once said to me. There’s nothing like that feeling. Your truck screeches to a halt, you leap out, the camera resting on the space between your shoulder and neck. You run toward what everyone else is running from, believing your camera will somehow protect you, not really caring if it doesn’t. All you want to do is get it, feel it, be in it. The images frame themselves sometimes, the action flows right through you. Keep moving, keep cool, stay alive, force air through your lungs, oxygen into your blood. Keep moving. Keep cool. Stay alive.

I didn’t always feel this way. When I started reporting I was twenty-four, and didn’t mind waiting for weeks in dingy African hotels. I was on my own with just a home video camera and a fake press pass. I wanted to be a war correspondent but couldn’t get a job. In Nairobi, I practically moved into the Ambassadeur Hotel. It was across the street from the Hilton, but a world away. During the day, the second-floor lounge filled with evangelical Christians singing, “Jesus, God is very, very wonderful,” while outside, on the street, a man with shiny, steel hooks for hands and pale plastic prostheses for arms waved wildly in the air screaming passages from the Old Testament. At night, the bar opened, and sweating waiters in red jackets served tall glasses of Tusker beer, weaving between black businessmen and prostitutes in shiny emerald dresses. I was alone and lost, clinging to a routine. Lunch at noon. Dinner at six. Weeks passed, and I just waited.

By the time I was twenty-five, it had all changed. I had a job, a salary. I was being paid to go to wars. It had taken me nearly a year of shooting stories, and of hard travel, but I was finally a foreign correspondent. The more I saw, however, the more I needed to see. I tried to settle down back home in Los Angeles, but I missed that feeling, that rush. I went to see a doctor about it. He told me I should slow down for a while, take a break. I just nodded and left, booked a flight out that day. It didn’t seem possible to stop.

Working overseas, traversing front lines, I felt the air hum. Neutrons and protons collided about. I could feel them move through me. No barrier between life and death, just one small step, one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t one of those adrenaline cowboys I’d run into in some Third World cul-de-sac. I wasn’t looking to get shot at, wasn’t looking to take chances. I just didn’t let risks get in the way. There was no place I wouldn’t go.

Coming home meant coming down. It was easier to stay up. I’d return home to piles of bills and an empty refrigerator. Buying groceries, I’d get lost—too many aisles, too many choices; cool mist blowing over fresh fruit; paper or plastic; cash back in return? I wanted emotion but couldn’t find it here, so I settled for motion.

Out at night, weaving through traffic, looking for trouble, I’d lose myself in crowds. Gaggles of girls with fruit-colored drinks talked about face products and film production. I’d see their lips move, look at their snapshot smiles and highlighted hair. I didn’t know what to say. I’d look down at my boots and see bloodstains.

The more I was away, the worse it got. I’d come back and couldn’t speak the language. Out there the pain was palpable; you breathed it in the air. Back here, no one talked about life and death. No one seemed to understand. I’d go to movies, see friends, but after a couple days I’d catch myself reading plane schedules, looking for something, someplace to go: a bomb in Afghanistan, a flood in Haiti. I’d become a predator, endlessly gliding in saltwater seas, searching for the scent of blood.

I recently saw a documentary about sharks on the Discovery Channel. Scientists had found a species of shark, a deep-water one, that didn’t have to keep moving to stay alive. It can breathe lying still. It can rest. I find that hard to believe.

S
MALL WAVES, ONE
after the other, lap the shore. Two Sri Lankan villagers walk along the water’s edge, searching for bodies washed up by the tide. They come every morning, leave without answers. Some days they find nothing. Today there’s a torn shoe and a piece of broken fence.

I’m standing in a pile of rubble. Beneath me the ground seems to move, twisting and turning in on itself. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. The ground isn’t moving at all. It’s maggots, thousands of them. Writhing, squirming, they feast on some unseen flesh. Nearby, a dog with low-hanging teats and a face smeared with blood scavenges for scraps. She steps carefully among scattered bricks, tourist snapshots, china plates, the flotsam and jetsam of life before the wave.

IT TOOK CENTURIES
for the pressure to build. Subtle shifts, grinding force. Long ago, a thousand miles east of Sri Lanka, more than fifteen miles below the surface of the Indian Ocean, two gigantic shelves of rock, tectonic plates, pressed against each other—the rim of what scientists call the India Plate began to push underneath the Burma Plate. Something had to give. At nearly one minute before 8:00
A.M.
, the morning after Christmas, 2004, the force of the compression explodes along a section of rock some one hundred miles off the west coast of Sumatra. A fault line more than seven hundred miles long violently rips open and a shelf of rock and sediment thrusts upward fifty feet, unleashing an explosion of energy so powerful it alters the rotation of the earth. It is one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history.

Shock waves pulse in all directions, displacing millions of tons of water, creating giant undersea waves. A tsunami. A ship on the surface of the sea would barely have noticed, detecting perhaps some slight swells no more than two feet high. But underneath, out of sight, churning walls of water extend from the ocean’s bottom to the surface, pushing outward. The water moves fast, five hundred miles per hour—the speed of a commercial jetliner.

It takes eight minutes after the earthquake begins for the sonic signals to reach the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, in Hawaii. The thin needle of a seismograph suddenly springs to life, rapidly scribbling side to side, signaling an alarm. It’s already too late. Eight minutes later, at approximately 8:15
A.M.
, in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, the first of several massive walls of water explodes onto shore. In the next two hours, tsunami waves strike ten other countries. More than two hundred thousand people will die.

IN NEW YORK,
2005 begins in a blizzard. A hurricane of confetti and light. At the stroke of midnight, I’m standing on a platform in the center of Times Square. I’m about sixty feet off the ground, and below, on the streets all around me, are people—hundreds of thousands of revelers packed shoulder to shoulder behind barricades set up by police. The crowd is cheering. I see their mouths are open, their hands waving in the air, but I can’t hear them. Both my ears are plugged with wireless headphones connecting me to a control room several blocks away. I hear only the hiss of the satellite transmission and a thin pulse of blood throbbing in my ears.

It’s a strange way to start 2005. We’ve been covering the tsunami around the clock this week, and each day brings new details, new horrors. There’s been talk of canceling the celebrations, but in the end it’s decided that the show will go on.

I’ve always hated New Year’s Eve. When I was ten, I lay on the floor of my room with my brother, watching on TV as the crowd in Times Square counted down the remaining seconds of 1977. My father was in the intensive care unit at New York Hospital. He’d had a series of heart attacks, and in a few days would undergo bypass surgery. My brother and I were terrified, but too scared to speak with each other about it. We watched, silent, numb, as the giant crystal ball made its slow descent. It all seemed so frightening: the screaming crowds, the frigid air, not knowing if our father would live through the new year.

I grew up in New York but never went to see the ball drop until I volunteered to cover it for CNN. For most New Yorkers, the idea of going anywhere near Times Square on New Year’s Eve is inconceivable. It’s like eating at Tavern On The Green; the food may be tasty, but it’s best left to out-of-towners.

I’ve always thought that New Year’s Eve is proof that human beings are essentially optimistic creatures. Despite hundreds of years of pathetic parties and hellish hangovers, we continue to cling to the notion that it’s possible to have fun on that night. It’s not. There’s too much pressure, too many expectations, too few bathrooms.

The truth is, I began volunteering to work on New Year’s Eve as a way to avoid having to do something social. This is my second time covering the Times Square festivities, and I’ve actually begun to enjoy it. There aren’t many opportunities in this city to feel part of a community. We scuttle about the streets each day, individual atoms occasionally running into one another but rarely coalescing to form a whole. In Times Square, however, as the ball descends and the crowd cheers, New York becomes a very different place, a place of pure feeling.

When midnight arrives, the air explodes into a solid mass, a swirl of colored confetti that seems to hang suspended in space. For several minutes I am not expected to say anything. The pictures take over. The cameras pan the streets, wide shots and close-ups; people sing and shout. I take the headphones out of my ears and am surrounded by the waves of sound. The air seems to shake, and for a few brief moments I feel part of something larger, not lost in the crowd but swept up by it, buoyed by the emotion, the energy, the joyful pandemonium. It overwhelms my defenses, my hard-won cynicism. The past gives way to the present, and I give myself up to it—the possibilities, the potential.

It doesn’t last long. By 12:30, it’s over. I thank the viewers for watching, and the broadcast ends; the lights go out. The crowds have already dispersed, pushed along by tired police and armies of street sweepers cleaning up debris. I shake hands with the cameramen, and crew, wish everyone a happy new year. There are genuine smiles, and jokes. We pause for pictures, arms around one another—quick snapshots I’ll never see. A few minutes later I walk home alone. I have a flight to Sri Lanka that takes off in the morning. I still have to pack. There’s no point in sleeping.

When I first started reporting, in the early 1990s, I used to experience anxiety attacks before heading overseas. Packing bags, sitting on a plane, breathing in all that recycled air and anticipation, I felt like an astronaut floating in space—untethered, unmoored. Whatever thin bonds I’d established back home, whatever delicate connections, I’d willingly severed. I used to think that these anxiety attacks were just part of the process—a midair metamorphosis I had to go through the closer I got to the edge. They were a warning, of course, but it took me years to understand this.

At dawn I board the plane, the first of several I’ll take to get to Sri Lanka. When I sit down, the flight attendant tells me I still have confetti in my hair.

SOMETIMES I WONDER
if I’m the person I was born to be, if the life I’ve lived really is the one I was meant to, or if it is some half life, a mutation engineered by loss, cobbled together by the will to survive.

My father’s name was Wyatt Cooper. He was born in Quitman, Mississippi, a small town hit hard by the Depression, which started just two years after his birth. His family was poor, his father was a farmer, though by all accounts not a very diligent one.

My father was a born storyteller. As a child, he was often asked to give sermons at Quitman’s First Baptist Church when the preacher was out of town.

He wanted to be an actor from the time he was little, but in Quitman during the Depression that didn’t seem like a very realistic goal.

“Listen to me, boy, and I’ll make you the youngest goddamn governor this state’s ever had,” my grandfather would bellow at my dad. But my father had no interest in his father’s far-fetched political plans.

Whenever he could save up money, he’d hitch a ride into Quitman and see movies at the Majestic, the only theater in town.
The Philadelphia Story
played there; so did
Gone With the Wind.
Films showed for only a day or two, but my father tried to see them all. He’d save the ticket stubs in a scrapbook.

Eventually he left Mississippi and worked as an actor in Hollywood and Italy, did stage productions, and took bit parts in TV dramas and cigarette ads, but his career never really took off. He found more success as a screenwriter, working at Twentieth Century Fox.

My parents met at a dinner party. Their backgrounds could not have been more different. My father had never been married and had a large clan of brothers and sisters and a mother whom he adored. My mother was an only child estranged from her mother, and her third marriage, to director Sidney Lumet, had just ended. In each other, however, they recognized something—a desire for family, a need to belong. “There was something about his eyes,” my mother later told me. “We were from very different worlds, but he understood me better than anyone else ever had.” They were married just before Christmas, 1964. One year later my brother, Carter, was born. I came along two years after that.

My mother is a remarkably talented artist, and when I was young she began to design home furnishings. She then moved into fashion, and produced an enormously successful line of designer jeans and perfume. My father was working on a book and writing magazine articles. He usually wrote from home, and sometimes, late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d go into his study and curl up in his lap like a puppy, my arms wrapped around his neck, my ear pressed against his chest. I could always fall asleep listening to the beat of his heart.

I’M UNABLE TO
sleep on the flight to Sri Lanka. It’s nearly a week since the tsunami struck and already I fear I’ve missed the story—the bodies and the burials, the emotion of the moment. Like a raw recruit who thinks the war will end before he sees action, I wanted to go the minute this happened. It’s the way it always is: find the worst-off place and plunge in head first. It sounds strange, ghoulish, perhaps, but it’s the truth. I want to be there, want to see it. Once I am there, however, I’ve quickly seen enough.

On the plane the flight attendant asks a Sri Lankan passenger if she’s comfortable.

“I just lost three people in my family,” the passenger says.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” the flight attendant says, pausing for a moment. “No duty-free then?”

I expect the Colombo airport to be buzzing with activity. A massive recovery effort is supposedly under way. At Sri Lanka’s main airport, however, there is little sign of it. No C-130s off-loading pallets of water and medicine, no line of trucks picking up supplies. A few Red Cross personnel wait for their colleagues to arrive, but there’s no indication that a catastrophe has just occurred.

We drive south from Colombo, and the farther we go, the worse the scenes of destruction. There are few bulldozers, no heavy earthmoving equipment. In every seaside town we drive through, villagers dig through rubble with their hands, or use crude tools to repair fishing boats splintered by the waves.

Thirty-five thousand people are dead in Sri Lanka. Their bodies have already been found. Another five thousand people have simply vanished.

CNN engineers have set up a satellite dish on the grounds of a destroyed beachfront hotel. Christmas decorations still hang from the lobby ceiling:
SEASONS GREETINGS! HAPPY NEW YEAR
!

Every morning near dawn for the next two weeks, we broadcast live from amid the hotel’s rubble. Then Charlie Moore, my producer, and Phil Littleton, my cameraman, and I pile into a van and drive off, searching along the coast for stories. We end up working around the clock: shooting all day, writing and editing most of the night. Every report is the same: incalculable loss, unspeakable pain.

THE SINGLE WORST
scene of carnage in Sri Lanka is just off the main road to Galle. When the tsunami hit, an old train packed with more than a thousand people was knocked off its tracks. At least nine hundred passengers died. For days they were unable to move the railcars and couldn’t get to the bodies trapped in the smashed steel. When we arrive, however, most of the dead have finally been recovered. A few are still pinned underneath the train cars, submerged in ponds of seawater that have turned the ground to mud.

Two dogs brought in by Dutch volunteers search the wreckage. They are cadaver dogs and are specially trained to find dead bodies. The dogs are confused, however, there are so many scents; it’s hard for them to stay focused.

“Everywhere we are searching, we find always bodies,” one of the dog handlers tells me.

One of the demolished railcars came within a few feet of Dhanapala Kalupahana’s house. He and his wife, Ariyawathie, are trying to clean up inside, but there is little they can do. Their roof has collapsed. It wasn’t hit by the train; it fell under the weight of passengers who jumped onto it, trying to escape from the railcar. Several survived, but at least four people fell through the roof and died in Ariyawathie’s living room, right in front of her eyes. She is barely able to speak. Her mother and son were also killed by the wave.

“Mother, no body. Son, no body” is all she can say.

Outside their home the jungle has become a gnarled mass of steel and mud, splintered trees, rotting flesh, and broken bones. I climb into a train car that was knocked off the tracks. Passengers’ possessions are strewn about—a plate of food, a little girl’s purse. Handprints smear the walls, a mixture of mud and blood. Everyone aboard drowned. Later I learn that the name of the train was Samudra Devi, the Goddess of the Sea.

AT TIMES, WORKING
in news is like playing a giant game of telephone. Someone reports something, and everyone else follows suit. The truth gets lost along the way.

“What about the kidnapped children?” a producer in New York asks.

“What kidnapped children?” I say.

BOOK: Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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