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Hope in Hell
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

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On Assignment
Hope in Hell



    The devastation in Aceh was so utterly poignant, so irreverent, because the tsunami left virtually nothing in its wake. And yet there is something extraordinary about the resilience of ordinary human beings whose ability and desire to survive enables life to go on. 
     As I walked through Banda Aceh, I came across a makeshift school that had been set up to replace one of those destroyed. Small groups of children were huddled on the floor around their books. There were no chairs or tables, but the children were learning. As I gazed at them thinking of my own little boy and girl, one of them—a girl no more than ten years old—looked up. I have no idea what her story was, whether she had lost part or all of her family, but she suddenly gave me the broadest smile. I found myself winking back at her. She immediately nudged her friend, and they both grinned at me. I saw everything in those smiles, notably the hope for a new future. For me, that said it all.
    I've covered Afghanistan for more than 25 years and have had my share of nasty experiences. However, I didn't expect to be arrested by nine plainclothesmen (some armed) of the country's new Ministry of Interior. My crime was to dare demand to see their IDs, which police are required to show under Afghanistan's internationally supported rule of law. My arresting officer, it turned out, was a former Afghan editor for Voice of America who had interviewed me in the past, so I was quickly released. But this didn't prevent Ministry thugs from threatening some of my Afghan friends and colleagues. I filed a complaint in the form of an open letter to President Hamid Karzai, but he did nothing. Instead, a press release from the Ministry accused me of assaulting the nine men, even though 16 people witnessed them forcing their way into my guesthouse. Most of the local press who picked up the press release ridiculed it, and I received some 200 e-mails and phone calls from Afghans—the majority of whom I didn't know—apologizing for the Ministry's behavior. Finally, the Minister of Foreign Affairs invited my wife and me to dinner. He didn't want her to leave Afghanistan with a bad impression.
    While traveling through northern Uganda to report on frontline aid workers helping civilians who had fled the attacks of the rebel Lord's Liberation Army, I stayed for a few days with a Unicef child protection officer whose house is on the outskirts of Lira, a bustling market town. Several of the aid workers persuaded me to join them on a bike ride one Sunday morning. So shortly after dawn, they were waiting at the gate. We cycled through villages and farms, heartily greeting children who ran laughing alongside us. We came to a swampy river where we hailed a canoe manned by small boys. We placed the bikes into the boat and pushed off. "By the way," I asked, "where is the frontline?" 
    "Difficult to say," said one of the doctors. "Only two days ago, there were reports of [rebel] activity in this area. They could be watching us, but right now I don't think they're after foreigners. This may change with the elections next year when they want to gain more international attention and start attacking relief convoys."
      I realized that—for them—all this was normal. But it was a bit strange to be biking (and now canoeing) in an area where for years rebels have attacked villages, kidnapped children, and murdered hapless civilians.

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