Friday, March 25, 2011


It is not Yusuf Raza Gillani or Asif Ali Zardari but Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, if at all, who should be invited to watch the high voltage India-Pakistan semi finals at Mohali.

After all it is not the titular president Zardari or pawn prime minister Gillani but the chain smoking chief of the army staff General Kayani who wields actual power in Pakistan.

Prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh would do well to press home the point with Kayani about the importance of maintaining stability in the region - which is now as much in Kayani's interest given the war with their home grown, trained and armed terrorists on their western flank.

Pakistan's military dictators from General Zia-ul-Haq (Jaipur,1987) to Pervez Musharraf (Delhi, 2005) have in the past used cricket diplomacy to talk to India in a less structured environment. Those talks may have momentarily reduced tensions but did not help bring about a change expected of a summit level meeting - aimed at cutting through the diplomatic red tape and stated positions.

Let me at the onset say I am not against talks. I am not an opponent of warmer Indo-Pak ties. I think both India and Pakistan stand to gain with friendly relations between the two nuclear weapon states. But the million dollar question is - who will tell the Pakistan army that?

Will Dr Manmohan Singh travel to the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul and tell the young cadets that India is not their enemy. Terrorists are. That threat to Pakistan does not come from its eastern flank but from its western flank and now within. That the Pakistan army desperately needs reforms in military affairs (it just bypassed the region) to re-orient itself to take on terrorists it gave birth to, armed, trained and launched both in Afghanistan and in India.

The situation is far more desperate and radicalised now. The US, with all its clout -money and muscle power had to literally go down on its knees to gets its spy Raymond Davis out of Pakistan. Do we actually expect to move forward after one cricket match? If so, our understanding and appreciation of Pakistan army is very poor. Hating India is in Pakistan army's DNA. That DNA restructuring will not happen through these cricket matches. For that India will have to engage the Pakistan army directly in military-to-military contacts - off the battlefield. And seeing the US having limited success, we should really set very realistic goals.

These Mohali-type talks are more for the sake of talks. More like talking at each other - or just talking to keep the Americans happy. Indo-Pak engagements follow a pattern. It is almost like theatre. There is a script. The prime minister here, the president/military dictator there are just characters in a play. And it is almost as if someone is directing the play, ordering the characters to follow the script sitting across the seven seas.

Lets just go back one decade. Lahore bus journey in Feb 1999 was seen as a turning point in Indo-Pak relations. A new dawn, many fawned. It was followed by a devious war in Kargil masterminded by General Pervez Musharraf. More than 540 brave soldiers laid down their lives just to restore the Line Of Control.

In 2001, India let Pakistan off the hook and became the first country in the world to give legitimacy to a military dictator; Pervez Musharraf. India gave him a ceremonial tri-services guard of honour, reserved only for heads of state, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Agra summit that followed was a complete disaster.

The same year terrorists trained, armed and launched by Pakistan attacked the J&K state assembly and then in December the Indian Parliament.

The same script was followed. India's desperate breast beating and sulking. A military stand off - Operation Parakram for 10 months and then again it was business as usual. Reports say more than 800 soldiers were killed during Operation Parakram without a single bullet being fired.

In 2004 Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan. Once again Pakistan was off the hook. The Indian cricket team traveled to Pakistan for the so called friendship series. In 200 Musharraf wrangled an invite to India to watch the cricket match at the Feroz shah Kotla grounds in Delhi. All for laying the foundation for better ties with India.

Did it bring peace in the sub continent? Delhi, Mumbai and several other cities across the country were repeatedly targeted by Pakistan sponsored terrorists. The Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore was targeted by terrorists. Tehre was a terror attack at Ayodhya and a serial bomb blast in Delhi on Diwali eve that killed almost 70 innocent people.

In 2006 the Sankat Mochan temple and the Railway station at Varanasi were attacked and in July, the same year, a serial blast in the Mumbai suburban train system killed almost 200 innocent Indians.

2007 again saw a series of blasts and terror attacks across the country. The government claimed it was Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamat-ud-Dawa and other Pakistan sponsored terror groups that were responsible for these terror attacks.

In 2008 terrorist attacks increased. Not only were several Indian cities like Ahmedabad, Surat and Bangalore targeted but the ISI targeted Indian embassy in Kabul before the biggest ever terror attack on India in Mumbai 26/11 2008.

To all these terror attacks what has Pakistan's response been ?

Pakistan signed an agreement saying it will not permit its territory to be used for terror attacks against India. Now that agreement is not worth the paper it is written on since even post 26/11 not only are terror factories up and running in Pakistan but they are mushrooming along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir and in Punjab.

Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, Illyas Kashmiri, Dawood Ibrahim are flourishing in Pakistan. Now that is an open secret. You do not need R&AW inputs for that. But Pakistan refuses to acknowledge that. What does that show? invite Pakistan for as many cricket matches - it will remain hostile to India.

Forget the past. Post 26/11 India's home minister P. Chidambaram cried himself hoarse telling Pakistan to give voice samples of alleged terror masterminds who were directing the 10 Pakistani terrorists during the 26/11 attacks. Has Pakistan delivered ? No.

Twice the Indian embassy in Kabul was targeted. Not just R&AW - intelligence agencies ranging from CIA to MI-6 to French and German agencies blamed Pakistan's ISI. Any action against even a low ranking non commissioned officer (NCO) let alone the mastermind - Director General of ISI ? No.

The civilian establishment needs to be strengthened in Pakistan no doubt. But the foundation cannot be laid on dead bodies of innocent Indians killed in terror attacks in India and Afghanistan. India should talk to Gen Kayani and tell him next time India is targeted - the nation will not turn the other cheek.

India should say exactly the same to the United States. While US interests in the Af-Pak region are important, Indian interests are far more important and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of US war on terror.

If India can do that then Gen Kayani would be equally desperate for that ticket at Mohali. Our Prime Minister would do well to keep that in mind while hosting Gilani at Mohali.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Tonight I write with a heavy heart. I am safe in Cairo. Physically more than 1,400 kilometres out of harm's way. But mentally and emotionally I am still in Benghazi and Brega and Aj Dabiah and Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya with the men who are so desperately fighting a losing battle for dignity, honour and freedom.
Imagine 15 days ago I did not know any of them. Never met them - never heard of them. Today they feel a part of me. There is not a day that passes without me thinking of them - praying for them and for Libya.
Why? I have covered conflict before and in other parts of the world - with little or no Indian connection. Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Iraq... why this attachment with Libya? A country that I along with perhaps more than half the world thought was synonymous with Muammar Gaddafi and believed what practically every one said - Libya is a rogue state.
10 days in eastern Libya changed all that. Libya - at least the 500 kilometres of eastern Libya that Headlines Today senior special correspondent Shiv Aroor and I saw is a lovely nation with equally lovely people - yearning for peace and prosperity and freedom from Muammar Gaddafi, Saif El Islam, Khamees and the rest of the Gaddafi family.
Tonight I am upset as reports indicate after Ras Lanuf, the rebels are on the verge of losing Al Brega. It is now only a matter of time before Gaddafi's mercenaries approach Benghazi, the opposition stronghold (our home for the past 10 days). Benghazi cannot be any stretch of imagination be described as a modern city. It is a small dusty port city on the Mediterranean coast. It could have been a beautiful tourist resort - as could perhaps more than half of Libya - a tourist paradise instead of being described as a rogue state. But its ruler for the past 41 years is happy to keep it backward and locked in a time warp. That helps him and his offsprings control the country better.
Can you imagine a country in the 21st century that prohibits its citizens from learning computers and English so that they cannot communicate with the outside world. There is so much oil in the country and so much foreign exchange coming in that if properly spent the country will be more advanced than perhaps the most advanced Arab country - if not Europe. After all Gaddafi only has to look after 6.5 million people spread over a vast African nation.
but Railway lines are still being laid in projects that started in the 1980s. Roads are still laid only on paper. There is a systematic effort to ignore the development of the eastern part of the country.
Revolutionaries love the media, we are told. They see the media as an ally or maybe a tool to carry their message to the world. The people we met saw us as family. Shiv and I walked into Libya with no contact whatsoever. No idea of what lay ahead. In the dead of the night we crossed over into Libya from the Egypt land border. The first welcome was heartening. The border guards, young `freedom fighters' stopped a taxi to take us to Tubruk, 200 kilometres from the border. The driver in the dead of the night took us to Tubruk and despite our pestering him refused to accept money. He was not engaged in psychological warfare. He was not using us as a tool. He was just a Libyan who wanted freedom and willing to lend a helping hand to anyone who could help get his message across. Even when we did pay him the money, he put it in a contribution box towards their revolution. He did not take a dollar or Dinar for himself.
We met many-many people like that in Libya. My story about Libya can never be complete without mentioning my good friend - or brother - Issam Khalil, an expat. He lives in Shanghai, China. Makes a lot of money importing Chinese goods into Libya. He gave it all up to join the freedom struggle. He took Shiv and me across the rebel held areas explaining the movement and the trauma the nation has been facing for the past 41 years of Gaddafi rule. His never say die attitude and fierce commitment for the cause of a free Libya are worthy of mention. I shall write more about him later.
Shiv and I were equally impressed with Dr Suheil Altarash - working tirelessly at the Ras Lanuf hospital - till moments before it fell to pro Gaddafi forces. Shiv, a British freelance photographer James Wardell and I reached Ras lanuf at last light. We filmed extensively in the town and then following ambulance sirens reached the hospital. As one battle casualty after the other was wheeled in, Dr Altarash and his team worked non stop to try and save lives - often literally snatching the seriously injured fighters in heavy arms fire - from the jaws of death. Dr Altarash spoke to us between life saving procedures in the operation theatre. He was calm, composed - matter of fact. He called us his brothers. Thanked us for being there in his hour of need. Have dinner with us. Eat what we have. Stay with us at the hospital, he said. If we have to die, we die together. we are brothers.
Barely two hours after we left that hospital, pro-Gaddafi forces bombed the hospital complex. Shiv and I prayed for the doctor and his team. We have not been able to get in touch with them ever since. These are just some names. There were many many people like that who spoke to us - both off and on record. We saw the Libyan prisons in Benghazi under Gaddafi rule. Heard the tales of horror. Not propaganda for the media. Just victims we sought, found and spoke to. Some did not come on camera. They did not want a story. They wanted justice. And freedom.
Freedom that is under threat today. Shiv and I are both keen students of military strategy and tactics. the rebels clearly have none. The days we spent with them - we saw their bravado. Holding a gun - from an AK series rifle to anti-aircraft guns, anti-material rifles, rocket propelled grenandes and even an odd mortar. But they are not an organised fighting force that can withstand - let alone take on Gaddafi's much better trained, armed and funded forces.
The writing is on the wall. The Libyan dream of freedom from Gaddafi appears to be dying a bloody death. The intervention that was eagerly awaited - desperately sought from the world - is not coming.
Gaddafi's forces are steamrolling all opposition in their bloody and brutal march towards Benghazi. Sitting in Cairo - with my heart in Benghazi - I can almost see my friends - brothers - fighting to their last breath for something that is so dear to all of us - HONOUR, DIGNITY AND FREEDOM.

War Dispatches From Libya #3

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Early in the morning we hired a taxi to take us to Benghazi some 500 kilometres from Tubruk. The previous night after flying half way across the world we had driven almost a thousand kilometres. Another group of journalists joined us and our cavalcade zipped through the cold north African desert. Nothing but rocks and sand for miles. The road was smooth. All cars were headed in the opposite direction – towards Egypt. Cars, buses and trucks all loaded beyond capacity with suitcases and bags piled on rooftops and hanging precariously from the sides. 300 kilometres and 3 hours later the landscape changed suddenly. The sand was replaced by red soil and rocks by lush green grass and trees. The sun disappeared behind clouds and it began to rain. A good omen I thought. As temperature dropped further I asked the driver to roll up his side of the window. It is broken, he smiled. I saw no reason too. Despite three layers of clothing, both Shiv and I were cold and wet.

We reached Benghazi by 5 in the evening. It was deserted. A ghost town. The vibes were rather negative. The first hotel we went to refused to take us. The rates had shot up to $ 200 per day. Every hotel had only journalists from all over the world. We then moved to Tibesty hotel – locals say the best in the city. The hotel had no rooms and no internet. Our hearts sank.

Early in the morning at Turbruk I had requested a Japanese journalist if we could use his Beegan system to uplink just two pieces to camera to India – just to establish our presence in Libya. He had very kindly consented. It must have cost his company a packet but he refused to accept the money we offered, In my school days I had read somewhere that Japanese were very helpful people. This action had confirmed it. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya had no internet. We had no means to send our feed to India.

Since phone lines were down we could not even ask our office in New Delhi to book a 10 minute feed for us either through the Associated Press or the EBU. We sent smses but none reached Delhi. We were cold and hungry but since both Shiv and I cover security issues and spend time with soldiers from across the world – our morale usually remains high. By late evening one journalist checked out of the hotel – moving back to Cairo because he had not been able to communicate with his office for 6 days. We checked into his room. We went to the town centre and were amazed to see thousands of Libyans assembled there – singing – dancing celebrating ``freedom from Gaddafi.’’

``This is real freedom. Two generations have not experienced this,’’ said a 50-year-old. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been at the helm of affairs for 42 years and with the much feared intelligence agents all over – nobody ever spoke their mind. This time they not only abused Gaddafi openly – savouring every word like a sweet dessert – they also openly talked of democracy, rights and freedom. ``Had we done so even three months earlier we would have been locked up in a secret prison and our family would never have heard of us,’’ he added.

Little children played on tanks that had been sent to crush the movement. A major part of the Libyan army deployed in the east rebelled against Gaddafi and joined the freedom fighters. There was a carnival at the square on the Mediterranean coast. Despite the icy wind people were rejoicing in the new found freedom. Even if some seniors warned the celebrations were a bit premature. The people of Benghazi may have succeeded in pushing back Gaddafi’s forces freedom is still a distant dream.

Distances in this country are killing. From Tubruk to Benghazi was more than 500 kilometres. Aj Dabiah and Brega where pitched battles took place between forces loyal to and opposing Gaddafi were another 200 to 300 kilometres away. Ras Lanuf the major oil hub and port another 500 kilometres away from Benghazi. In the next 48 hours Shiv and I travelled to all these places.

With Issam Khalil, an expat who returned to join the freedom struggle we followed a convoy of fighters from Benghazi to Ras Lanuf. This was an experience I will never forget. But more on it later.

(to be continued…)

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Crossing over illegally into Libya was the aim. Armed with a multiple entry visa to Egypt and Tunisia Shiv Aroor and I boarded the Etihad flight from Delhi to Abu Dhabi and then to Cairo.

Within an hour of landing in Cairo we left for Sallum – the border between Egypt and Libya. The 800 kilometre long journey through the changing landscape and the famous second world war battlefield Al Alamien took almost a lifetime – despite our car zipping across at 140 kmph. The drive to the border was cold and tense. The border was cold and windy. There were thousands of people – Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Egyptians desperately waiting to cross over to safety into Egypt.

Shiv and I were the only two trying to cross over into Libya. In harm’s way. The border security personnel could not believe with no back up, no fixers and no local help – two journalists who did not even speak Arabic and had no idea about what to expect across the fence in cold desert – were desperate to cross over.

The Egyptians were friendly. They turned a blind eye as Shiv and I began interviewing the evacuees at the border post and then quietly had exit stamped on our passports and slipped across the barbed wire fence well past midnight.

As we walked along the no man’s land we almost expected a shout or a burst of AK fire. Or were we being too dramatic. Across the Libyan border – armed civilians – some in battle fatigues stopped us. Checked our passports. ``Welcome to the peoples’ Democratic Republic of Libya free of Gaddafi,’’ said one. We instantly felt at home. One of them offered us a cigarette. I declined Shiv accepted. We had some pictures taken before they waved an oncoming car – that had dropped some evacuees to Egypt – to take us to Tubruk, a magical tourist town on the Mediterranian sea coast some 150 kilometres inside east Libya.

``Into fate’s hands,’’ said Shiv. We had absolutely no idea who the driver was. He did not speak English and we did not speak Arabic. At night we had absolutely no idea where he was taking us. There were burnt cars all along the highway. Lights were lit in every house but there was not a soul in sight for miles. We were too scared to even doze off. After flying from India to Egypt for 12 hours and driving non stop for another 12, we were tired, hungry and sleepy. But dared not sleep. But our fears were totally unfounded.

The driver took us into Masera hotel in Tubruk. It was a surreal experience. From crossing over into Libya illegally here we were in a swanky five star deluxe hotel. Except for two other journalists the hotel was empty. The hotel staff did not even ask where we came from and why. They saw our passports and gave us the room keys. But kept our passports with them. That was scary. In a strange land with passports not with us. A very scary thought but the hotel manager showed us the passports of other journalists too. Both of us were too tired to argue. We walked into our rooms and even before the door shut we crashed out.

(to be continued…)