How I watched the world turn: The Independent's foreign correspondents look back at the major events of 2012
From Syria to Sandy, 2012 has been a momentous year for our award-winning foreign correspondents. In the first of a two-part series, they pick the stories that affected them the most
Tuesday 25 December 2012
Aleppo destroyed, by Kim Sengupta
We came across the doctors while trying to find treatment for Bari, a rebel activist and a friend who had been shot during a particularly violent day in Salheddine, on the Aleppo front line. The wounds, caused by ricocheting bullets, did not look too severe, but there was loss of blood and the worry that with night closing in we may get stuck on the streets getting pounded by artillery and air strikes.
The clinic was an abandoned set of offices into which a constant stream of the injured, and, at times, dead were being brought. The numbers of staff who were on duty were few and they looked exhausted; the amount of medicine available low; the atmosphere tense with booms of incoming shells not far away.
"We need supplies from the West, we are desperate," said a doctor as another of the injured, his face covered with blood, was carried in by three men. "We need weapons, anti-tank, anti-aircraft – anything we can get hold of."
Later, as he scrubbed his hands in a basin stained with blood and ointment, Dr Mahmoud al-Shami continued: "Look, this will sound strange, a medical man saying something like this. But you know, you can only patch up people for so long. Most of the seriously injured we can't save anyway. You realise the only way to end this would be to defeat the Assad regime. But I don't know how many of us will be alive to see that."
A number of doctors had been killed, some of them deliberately. The burned bodies of Basel Aslam, Moussab Barad and Hazim Batikh were found a few days after their arrest by the Mukhabarat, Syria's secret police, a month previously in June. Two weeks later a pharmacist, Abdel Baset Arja, died while in detention. All had been accused of helping terrorists; their real crime was to treat victims of the regime. It was Eid and that evening we had Ifthar, the meal breaking the fast of the day, sitting on a bloodstained floor, bread and a few pieces of meat laid out on newspapers.
"Not very hygienic, I am afraid," Dr al-Shami smiled in apology. "But we have other things to worry about." Three days later, during a regime push to take Salheddine, a young doctor was killed. I wondered whether he was from the clinic; when I got there the doors were shut, the windows smashed. A group of local men described how troops had arrived and taken away a few pieces of equipment, patients and two doctors. One of them was Dr a-Shami. A month later, after I had left Aleppo, Bari telephoned to say the doctor's body had been found, shot and burned.
The Annecy mystery, by John Lichfield
"Yes, you can drive up," the gendarme said. "But you will have to walk the last half a kilometre."
Up that rutted, twisting, beautiful, forest road above Lake Annecy, a British-Iraqi family – a father, a mother, a granny and two small girls – had driven two days earlier. They would not drive back down.
I was among the first group of journalists allowed to reach the scene. The fallen leaves in the layby at the top of the road were still splattered with blood. You could see the deep gouge in the earth made when a panic-stricken Saad al-Hilli had reversed his BMW estate car into the forest side before he was shot twice in the head. French investigators have since been lambasted for allowing journalists to trample the ground so rapidly (and for much else besides). I am grateful for that brief visit. It has helped me to understand what happened that misty afternoon in September – or rather to understand why we may never understand what happened.
Almost four months on, the mystery of the quadruple murder at Chevaline remains intact.
A targeted killing? Investigators are convinced that the murderer was already on the scene and could not have known the random itinerary of the holidaying al-Hillis that day. Investigations of a family quarrel or an Iraqi connection – exaggerated by some press reports – have come to nothing so far. The same goes for the French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, who was trying out a new route and lost his way. Despite insistent reports to the contrary, French investigators say that they are "99.9per cent" sure that Mr Mollier was not the gunman's prime target.
A professional killer? The gun was an antique: a Swiss army Luger from the 1920s or earlier. It fell apart in the gunman's hands. Fragments of it were found at the scene. One of them has recently yielded a trace of DNA, which may yet help trace the attacker. On the other hand, that DNA may belong to Zainab al-Hilli, aged seven, who was beaten and left for dead.
Judging by the theories rampaging around on the internet, the public refuses to accept that these vicious murders were the random act of a psychopath, as investigators are now inclined to believe.
Small wonder. Just like the Princess Diana investigation, public perception of the events has been muddied by lurid reporting. The wild theories are better known than the facts. Part of the media has trampled the crime scene – but not just with their feet.
Trailing Suu Kyi, by Andrew Buncombe
A week before Burma's historic by-elections at the beginning of April, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had stopped giving interviews but was hitting the campaign trail almost every day. How hard could it be, we reasoned, to sidle up to her, introduce ourselves and obtain at least a quick comment.
Hours ahead of a speech in Kawhmu, the sprawling, largely rural constituency south of Rangoon that she was contesting, thousands of her flag-waving supporters had lined the hot, dusty road that lead to the rally ground. Bunches of bougainvillaea grew from homes and gardens. There was a buzz and excitement rarely experienced in Burma in recent years.
When her small convoy finally arrived, Suu Kyi would slow down, wave at people through her wound-down window of her white SUV, receive bunch after bunch of flowers and move on to the next hamlet or cluster of homes.
Following precariously on motorcycle-taxis, we repeatedly drew alongside her car only for it to pull away again, her security guards warning the photographers not to get too close. At one point, her slight, delicate hand emerged from the window and I reached forward to shake it, only for the car, agonisingly, to move on once again.
Not to be defeated, we made one final determined effort. We were able to reach level with her window and I greeted Ms Suu Kyi, explaining that I was from The Independent newspaper of London.
The Nobel Laureate's smile remained in place and she appeared to give the slightest nod of recognition. But there was to be no interview, no quote, no comment, not that day at least. Her car quickly pulled away again. The opposition leader may have been a novice when it came to political campaigning, but she was already a master at dealing with the international media.
Armenia's burden, by Robert Fisk
Between wars, I lecture on the Middle East. But rarely have I seen an audience so moved, so trapped by history, so tearful as one night in Sharjah last spring. Nothing I said upset them. But the pictures I showed them were terrifying. In front of me, young and middle-aged Armenians – well-off for the most part, businessmen and women, well-educated – sat in an almost religious silence as they watched a succession of four photographs. Each showed the progress of an Armenian death march from Erzerum, old people, carts, young men with hidden faces, the doomed on their way to death 97 years ago.
The four pictures were taken by Victor Pitchman, an Austrian soldier in the Turkish army, who could not have known that these men and women were about to die. Nor could they have known. They are heading in a straight line, down a straight road, women with scarves, over-burdened donkeys, past the same bunch of trees which feature in each photograph, a pale line of hills on the far horizon. All the Armenians of Erzerum were to die at the hands of the Turks in the 1915 genocide.
There are many photographs of Armenian survivors. And there are pictures of their corpses. But few show the living just before they were slaughtered. These people, in the pictures I had been trawling through from the Armenian genocide museum in Yerevan, were the living dead. Shellfire, wounds, death. Each year, we report this miserable saga. But old wars and other genocides lean heavily upon us, as they did upon my Armenian audience in the Gulf. These were their grandparents and great-grandparents, plodding along, possessions piled on horse-carts, a pleasant enough, sunny day, clouds high in the sky. Only the grave awaits them.
Superstorm Sandy, by Nikhil Kumar
The lights went out just as Superstorm Sandy came ashore in southern New Jersey. It was late October. Warnings about the storm's destructive potential had been coming for days. But in New York, the experience of Hurricane Irene, which despite similar warnings a year before had arrived, in the end, with a whimper, city life was expected to continue uninterrupted. Sure, there'd be rain and wind. But we'd be fine, I was told was scores of New Yorkers barely a fortnight into my stint across the Atlantic.
And I believed them – until darkness arrived shortly after I filed a piece about the Sandy's arrival in the US. What happened to the city over the remainder of the week – the storm touched down on the East Coast on Monday evening – can only be described as surreal. On the Lower East Side flood-waters caused an explosion at an electricity substation that plunged nearly all of Manhattan south of 34th Street into blackness. Quite apart from the disorienting effect, being cut off made it harder for people to get back on their feet: down near the damaged substation, the river had leaked into rows of shops, hitting already-struggling businesses where it hurt most. As the power went out, the back-up generators at New York University's Langone medical centre failed, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of patients.
As the days passed, Manhattan became two cities. From midtown upwards, there was power, and, not long after the storm struck, public transport. Restaurants and shops were open, hot food was available. Down south, it was dark, hot food was scarce, and the only way to get around was by taxi, which were hard to come by. It was an unexpected and unforgettable turn of events – not just for a new correspondent but for the city, which was split down the middle.
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Postcard from... The Vatican
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