HARDtalk 2010: A year on the road

Courtesy  of the BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/hardtalk/9313264.stm


 Stephen Sackur with a former LTTE concript at a rehabilitation camp in Ratmalana

The talking is done for another year – no more inquisitions, no more interjections – after all, ’tis the season of goodwill. And so, full of the Christmas spirit, it is time to recall the highlights of a remarkable HARDtalk year. A year which saw me playing cricket with child soldiers in Sri Lanka, striding down a red carpet with the President of Venezuela and blushing a delicate shade of beetroot in the presence of a couple of my musical heroines.

At HARDtalk we pride ourselves on delivering interviews with newsmakers around the world, but this year the programme has been on the road, and flying the skies, as never before.

Brutal conflict

 Pic from Island, 14 Dec. 2010 – sL army soldiers advancing

Perhaps my most compelling encounters took place in Sri Lanka, a country now enjoying peace after three decades of conflict between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels. We arrived in Sri Lanka with simple questions. Has one of the world’s most brutal communal conflicts really ended for good? Can there be a lasting political reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population?

   Fonseka denies telling lies and committing treason

We went to the north of the island where the last bloody battles of the Tamil war were fought. We spoke to Sri Lankan army officers, to civilians displaced by the fighting and even to a surviving Tiger fighter who managed to escape as the rebels made their last stand.

Thousands of civilians lost their lives in the last months of the war and we heard allegations of war crimes from both sides.

There were also claims that the last remnants of the rebel force were shot whilst trying to surrender – allegations fuelled by the former head of the Sri Lankan army General Sarath Fonseka who confirmed to HARDtalk that he had heard witnesses describe how Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa told local commanders to take no prisoners.

Gen Fonseka, who was, and still is, being held in military detention, spoke to me covertly by phone. He told me he would be prepared to testify before international war crimes investigators.

It was an explosive intervention, and sure enough it produced an enormous bang when I put it to Mr Rajapaksa (who also happens to be the brother of the Sri Lankan president).

 Mahinda Rajapakse embraces his brother Gothabaya after the latter had escaped a claymore mine assassination attack by the LTTE

“He can’t do that. He was the commander!” the defence secretary shouted. His voice went up an octave. “That’s a treason. We will hang him if he does that. I’m telling you! … How can he betray the country? He is a liar.”

 Pic from bBC news item above

It was a classic HARDtalk moment. Interview as theatre.

His eyes and his gestures were filled with fury. They conveyed an unmistakable message – Sri Lanka’s war is over but the journey to truth and reconciliation will be long and painful.

But a start has been made. I saw it for myself at a remarkable school, Hindu College, in Colombo, where dozens of children recruited to fight in the Tamil Tiger army were offered the chance to go back to the classroom.

These were boys and girls conscripted as young teens and despatched to the frontline after weeks of training. Many had witnessed unimaginable horrors.

And yet they spoke with quiet determination of their ambitions to teach, to practice law, to rebuild their devastated Tamil communities.

One group of boys invited me to join them in a game of cricket.

To see children who had been forced to shoulder weapons in a brutal war doing battle with bat and ball was the most moving moment of my HARDtalk year.

Pitching a fastball

As for glamour, that came in Caracas. I found myself on a red carpet outside the national theatre sandwiched between film-maker Oliver Stone and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The two men were marking the premiere of Stone’s homage to Latin America’s Leftist leaders, a documentary titled South of the Border.

And I was there to snare a HARDtalk exclusive with el presidente.

The legwork paid off. The next day I was in the presidential palace being shown a magnificent silver sword by my host.

“It belonged to Simon Bolivar himself,” Mr Chavez told me with a proud smile. “It’s on loan from the national museum. They figured it would be safe with me.”

There followed an extraordinarily combative interview.

The president rubbished my research, questioned my intellect and pitied my ignorance. He thoroughly enjoyed himself. But then again, so did I.

The last word went to Chavez himself. He went on Venezuelan TV to tell his people that he had been on the famous BBC programme “Dialogo Duro” and the interview had been tough.

“That’s how I like journalists to be, hard like pitchers,” he said: “That way they hit a better line drive. We exchanged some hard blows.”

Embattled leaders

Through the course of the year we spoke to a clutch of presidents and prime ministers eager to reach a world audience.

For some like President Sebastian Pinera of Chile the timing was fortuitous – he spoke to HARDtalk just a couple of days after the miraculous rescue of the trapped Chilean miners and he made the most of the greatest feel-good story of the year.

For others like President Felipe Calderon of Mexico , the context was less auspicious – a spate of mass killings by drugs cartels prompted tense exchanges about the efficacy of his “war” on organised crime.

One of the most embattled leaders to go before the HARDtalk cameras was Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece.

In the face of mountainous debts, street protests and IMF pressures, he kept a promise to talk to me in Paris.

“My advisers told me HARDtalk was the last thing I should be doing,” he told me with a bleak smile before the recording began.

“But I told them, ‘On the contrary, this is exactly what we need… We will show the world that we will run away from nothing’.”

Star struck

It was not all politics in 2010. I also got to interview two of my favourite singers – Annie Lennox and Kiri Te Kanawa.

Both times – and I know I should admit this to no-one – I was a tiny bit starstruck as introductions were made.

Both women have voices that I would want to hear if I were marooned on a desert island, but you can hardly confess that on HARDtalk can you?

Actually both proved to be fascinating, complex guests… when I finally stopped with the blushing and started with the questions.

I cannot leave 2010 behind without a special mention for the strangest office accessory of the year.

Most politicians line their walls with photographs of themselves alongside other famous people. Many have mementoes too.

But none can match the mayor of Las Vegas and former lawyer to a host of mafia mobsters, Oscar Goodman.

There on his desk, beside the paperweights, penholders and keepsakes I found an inflatable horse’s head.

As anybody who has read the Godfather will surely agree, Mayor Goodman is a politician with an unusual sense of humour. Perfect for HARDtalk.

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Filed under LTTE, military strategy, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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