Stories of the Eastern Front…

The Photog Flies again. Kevin Johnson and Reporter Mike Gooding are on the road for another 2 weeks to cover the “War” with Yugoslavia. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have updates from them as they travel to Italy and “Points Unknown” to cover the story.

April 19, 1999
The wheels go up on our Continental DC-10 as the aerial of Newark International Airport “zooms out”. The second leg of our journey begins. After a little hop from Norfolk to Newark, NJ, we are now beginning the 8 hour trek to Rome. As is becoming more and more common, the plane is packed. I am lucky enough to have an empty seat beside me, a valuable advantage for my 6′ 6″ frame.

The Italian lady sitting behind me offers some “must see” locations to check out during my few hours of layover in Rome. This will be the fourth or fifth time I’ve been to Italy, and may be the first time I’m able to do any type of sightseeing. I’m kind of excited. I love this job for the places they sends me, the only problem is I don’t normally get to see those places.

After a couple of hours in Rome, we board a train for Bari, Italy, a small town on the South East Coast of Italy. The US Navy uses the small airport there to transport cargo out to the ships in the Adriatic. We hope to be some of that cargo.

At this point we are at the mercy of the Navy. They decide what ships we can visit. They decide when we go. We just hurry up and wait. In the mean time, I’m pulling out my still camera for once….

April 20, 1999
A few wrong turns, and a refusal to ask for directions (actually I’m just now starting to look into an English/Italian dictionary), and we never found any of the typical Roman landmarks. We wound up in a typical Italian neighborhood looking in shops and checking out thousand year old aqueducts. (I still chuckle at the fact Americans think a 100 year old building is old… Europeans see that as “late model!”) Anyway, being awake for over 24 hours limited the interest in true exploration, but I did get some nice pictures.

Just before getting on the train, I noticed a guy hopping on with a box marked CNN. I asked him if he was with them, and if he knew Maria Fleet, a CNN Rome photog I met a few years back. Amazingly he did and he happened to be taking supplies to Bari to a “make shift” CNN bureau. If all goes well, we’ve found our feed point!

The train ride through Italy was very nice. There were vineyards everywhere. I can see where the wine is coming from, now. Call me an naive traveler, but I enjoy the subtle discoveries in traveling. I plugged my head phones into the train “radio” and sat back jamming to BonJovi type rock and roll in Italian. It was a blast.

We piled off the train in Bari with our 8 crates of gear, and looked over to see Reuters unloading much more gear than that. It felt like photog summer camp. All of our stuff amazingly fit in one cab, and off we went to the “7 Mari Hotel” right on the beautiful South East coast of Italy.

April 21, 1999
A solid nights sleep pretty much corrected my internal time clock, which is now 6 hours ahead. The greatest thing about the time difference is we’re wrapping up a days work just as our newsroom in Norfolk is finishing their morning meeting. (“we get more done before 9am EDT, than most news crews do all day…”)

Our project for today is to find that CNN Bureau, and look into the possibility of feeding. We fly out to the USS Roosevelt tomorrow, and we’ll need a way to get those stories back to the states as soon as we get back. One of the 8 crates of gear contains our portable SX editor which will be our saving grace later in this trip I’m sure.

After trudging around the city for most of the day, a good dinner became our main objective. We wound up at the hotel bar, surrounded by a dozen Americans with flannel shirts, a few John Deere hats, and heavy southern accents. Not exactly what I expected to find in Southeastern Italy.

It turns out these men work for a company called “Brown and Root” based out of Houston, TX, and they are contracted by the government to go to “war torn” areas and rebuild the infrastructure. They run backhoes, and loaders; 18 wheelers and bull dozers. Most projects we naturally assume are done by the Army or Navy are actually completed by these contractors.

They were fascinating “ex-pats” who shared many amazing experiences, in Africa, Saudi Arabia, and all around the world. Interesting guys, with careers I never would have dreamed of…

April 22, 1999
The alarm clock went off early, as we prepared for our first voyage out to a navy ship. It turns out the first stop on our “tour of ships” is actually the USS Nassau, a great Amphibious Carrier that I spent two weeks on back in November. At that time we completed a documentary called Navy Christmas.

I was very excited about the getting back on the Nassau. They were great host before, and I have grown to feel at home there. Captain Chapman, the Commanding Officer, made sure we made it to the ship safely and as soon as possible. We are basically the last local media to come aboard before ABC’s Nightline takes over the ship. They plan to put cameras in the cockpits, all over the flight deck, and shoot everything that moves. It should be an interesting endeavor.

April 23, 1999
We got up with the 6am whistle on the Nassau. They turn on all the lights, and blow a boatswain whistle over the “1MC” to wake everyone up… even if you aren’t ready to wake up. We spent the night in the Medical Wing, which is a full fledge hospital on board. The quarters were very nice, so nice that I had a hard time waking up.

We flew off on a 53 helicopter, one of the large Marine choppers. The flight took about 45 minutes to get back to the beach, just enough time to barely doze off. The interesting thing about doing many Navy stories is you eventually get used to the noise, the vibrations and the fumes. So much so that with ear plugs in, I’ve been able to sleep almost anywhere. The human body is amazing at compensating for it’s environment.

Once we landed at the Bari Aeroporte, we were heading for a cab, when we ran into one of the Houston, Brown and Root guys from the hotel. They were loading up a crew of workers onto a bus, and offered us a ride. It was nice to hang with people who spoke English, and we saved a cab fare.

We put together 2 packages from the Nassau at the hotel and had them ready to feed. The portable SX editor worked perfectly, the only problem was setting up the feed. Paper work shifting and many calls from our desk in Norfolk meant we sat around on the ready until 10pm waiting to feed. It was a long day, and in the end we canceled the feed because it was simply too expensive. A $2 a minute phoner would have to fill the void of a $10,000 satellite window…

April 24, 1999
A re-con day in Bari. We simply had to get a tape to “FedEx” or something like that, in attempt to get our story back to the states. We almost made it, but the 1pm “siesta” meant the store closed before we could complete the transaction. All stores and restaurants close around 1pm for 2 or 3 hours and on the weekends, they don’t open back up. I’ve been spoiled on the 24/7 culture of the US…

April 25, 1999
Again, small discoveries are the most fun on this trip. A lazy Sunday morning went into the afternoon, and the stomach began to growl. The only problem is, most restaurants close at 1pm.

The solution, call a taxi. As the driver pulled up, and we hopped in, I rubbed my stomach, and asked “eat?” (I don’t really know ANY Italian). He understood and began driving… as he drove he asked “il pesce” and made a fish motion with his hands. I said “no” (I’m not a big seafood eater) and asked for “il carne.” He drove us to a little restaurant right on the Adriatic call Da Tommaso… the food was great and the view was perfect.

I take great pride in finding ways to communicate even though I don’t understand the language. Luckily the people are very nice, and my little phrase book (“cheat sheet”) is extremely helpful.

Not a bad days work for a Sunday.

April 26, 1999
“Vorrei spedire questo pacco in America.” (I want to send this parcel to America.) I practiced the phrase in the cab on the way to “Mail Boxes, Etc.,” even though once I got there, I simply showed the gentleman the phrase in my “cheat sheet.” (the best 12,000L I ever spent!)

We sent our stories home on a tape to the states via UPS. Hopefully it will get there before we do. They say a little over 24 hours, if it works, I’ll be very impressed.

The cab arrived at the 7 Mari to pick us up and we were off to the airport. We joined up with two British reporters, and hopped a COD to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The COD is the largest plane that is able to land on an aircraft carrier. The technology is great, but if you’ve ever had an uncomfortable flight on a commercial jet, it’s nothing compared to the jolting you receive on one of these planes.

Luckily, this flight went very well. We were in the air for about an hour and came straight onto the ship smoothly “catching the wire.” As smooth as a 200 mph arrested landing can be.

I’m embarrassed to say this, but even as exciting and amazing the flight deck of an active aircraft carrier is, I’m bored with shooting them. I stopped counting how many times I’ve shot F-14’s and F/A-18’s and other jets flying on and off a carrier, and I thought I had run out of ideas. This visit proved fruitful in finding a new angle. From my position near the front of the ship, I was able to get a great view of the planes shooting off the deck into the dusk sky. It was a pretty impressive sight.

After Flight Ops, we began a tremendous line of interviews with crew, pilots, chiefs, and officers. We wound up working until midnight, and found our way to our “racks.”

April 27, 1999
We flew off early Tuesday morning on the COD. The take off on an aircraft carrier is more exciting than the landing. Imagine the toy cars in which you pull the car back tightening the springs, and then let it go. That’s a very basic analogy to the catapult system of the TR. The plane is attached to a steam pressured track that when released can move an extremely large plane from 0 to about 200mph in about 3 seconds. Try that with your new vette! The G-forces this launch puts on you are pretty impressive. Because you are positioned facing the rear of the plane, any limb you don’t hold down flies “forward.” This includes hands, feet, and shins (which sometimes fly into the seat in front of them…).

Our flight home wound up being 3 hours with a diversion to Rome to drop off the ABC folks, and a second leg down to Bari. Upon our arrival we found out we really wouldn’t have another chance to get out to a ship, so off to plan “B”. Albania bound we were…

April 28, 1999
We called our favorite cab driver Joseph to give us a ride to the “Super Fast Ferry.” These catamarans can travel across the Adriatic from Bari to Durres in a little less than 4 hours. They can move.

Luckily the seas were extremely calm today, even glassy enough to water ski behind our “La Vikinga Line.” We settled into the first class section, and relaxed across the water, not knowing what we were in for…

Albania, I know now is the poorest country in Europe. Communism hit them hard, and they haven’t really recovered yet through capitalism. There isn’t a lot of industry here, and the climate conditions make it different farming a challenge. It is wet and dry at the same time. It’s the first place I’ve stood in a mud pit 6″ deep, and had to squint my eyes because of a dust storm. Ironic to say the least.

The boat pulled into the port city of Durres and we saw our bus waiting for us. We couldn’t get to the bus, though, until we got through immigration. Getting a passport stamp involved paying the officer $50 each (and you wonder why tourism isn’t their major industry).

After fighting customs, we carried our gear through a swarming crowd of begging pan handling children, and threw our stuff on the bus. When the bus pulled through the gate off of the pier, I didn’t realize that would be the last smooth surface we would drive on. I’m not saying the pot holes are bad, but I did see a car door sticking out of one… I assume the rest of the car was down there somewhere!

The crowd on the loaded bus was silent for the entire ride though. We were all mesmerized by the sight outside the window. The buildings were falling apart. The children were dirty. Old men drove flat bed carts pulled by donkeys. Women sold unhealthy looking fruit out of boxes on the curb. This area looked like a war zone, and this is where the refugees are running TOWARDS.

The most interesting fact I found out about the whole Kosovo crisis is that the Kosovo region was very prosperous. Most young adults there were college educated. Families had money and nice jobs. So these people are fleeing their first world lifestyle to escape to a third world nation in Albania.

We made our way to the hotel and attempted to check in. There are only 3 hotels in Tirana, the capital city of Albania, that would meet “western” standards, and they were all filled with media from around the world. BBC, NBC, CNN, ABC, RAI TV, CBS, and many other acronyms. We were lucky enough to find 1 room, and only for 1 night. We took it and moved our gear into our new home.

We ventured out of the hotel, after spending almost a half hour trying to figure out the archaic Albanian phone system. Contact had been made with the local producer from CNN, and we wanted to go find them in their hotel. With camera in hand, we fought our way through little kids trying to sell us overpriced cigarettes, out into the main square of Tirana. The city looks like it was once a beautiful old European city, but the years of communism has caused a visible dust to develop. Everything is grey with dirt, and the only color comes from the random graffiti on the old bricks.

We shot a few stand ups, and while asked directions, stumbled upon an English speaking Kosovar who had fled from his homeland just 3 weeks ago. He was a great interview. It was time to call it a night, a big day was planned for tomorrow.

April 29, 1999
Today didn’t go exactly as planned. We grabbed a cab and cruised about an hour to the Tirana Airport outside of town. The small airport has all but been closed to commercial air traffic, and has been taken over by militaries of many NATO nations. With our Navy connections, we were heading through the guarded gate with a few objectives. 1) Find some local guys “in country,” 2) show the buildup of the base, and 3) fly out to a refugee camp. The first objective was easy. A helo pilot from Norfolk just happened to be sitting around waiting for a ride back to the ship, so we grabbed a quick. Unfortunately during the interview, warnings began to blast over the P.A. system. “THIS IS NOT A TEST. ALL PERSONNEL IN THE OPERATIONAL AREA IS REQUESTED TO MOVE TO THE NORTH RUNWAY.”

A bomb sniffing dog had alerted security of something suspicious on a truck bringing in humanitarian supplies. Basically all operations on the base were shut down while bomb tech soldiers went in to investigate the “package.” Not only did this stop us from getting normal action on the base, it blocked our exit from the base. There was only one way in or out, and no one was leaving until the “bomb” was found. Four hours later, it was announced that there was no bomb, and we were free to go. Unfortunately our day was “shot” and we had to go home. When you only have one full day “in country” in Albania, a lost day is a big problem. We regrouped during dinner, an found a plan for the morning.

April 30, 1999
The plan was set. Get up at the crack of dawn, check out of the hotel, grab a taxi, drive to a refugee camp, shot our story, get back in the cab, and some how get done in time to make our 9:30am ferry. It was no small task, but we’re always up for a challenge.

Finding a cab wasn’t difficult. There are always about 10 cabs outside of the hotel every morning. The influx in media has increased the opportunities for cab drivers, that road side stands were selling “fake” taxi lights so anyone could throw the lights on their personal car and become a cab. The fake ones were a fairly easy to spot, as they spelled taxi, “T-A-K-S-I.” Our driver, even though he spoke almost no English, was very pleasant. He understood we were with TV, and made haste getting us out of town.

After about a 45 minute ride, we came upon an Italian run refugee camp. We were initially stopped at the gate, because you had to have a “registered resident” ticket to get in, but after displaying my camera, we were let in. It seems the “rights” of the media work just about anywhere.

We were just about to start shooting, when a CABERNERRI, a form of Italian secret service, stopped us and began speaking in Italian. After some slow talking, we discovered that the official who runs the camp was not there, and he was the only one who could authorize us to shoot there. Bad news, our one attempt at a camp was squashed by P.R. red tape.

As I stood outside the gate getting a few wide shots of the base and surrounding country side, I noticed a large opening in the fence a couple dozen yards down the fence.

May 1, 1999
Train to Rome (taxi fun)

May 2, 1999
Flight home….

One comment

  1. […] in the late 90’s, I was fortunate enough to travel overseas to places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf. On a number of these brief trips we would run into crews from CNN and other […]

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