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Maria Ressa: Writing from the war zones |

Sunday Lifestyle

Maria Ressa: Writing from the war zones

- Tanya T. Lara -
She’s a woman easy to miss in a crowd.

Standing just a little over five feet, journalist Maria Ressa looks like any other young Asian going through life quietly. When she opens her mouth, however, two things strike you about her: first, that she has a soft voice that swings between unbelievably cheerful and very impassioned; and second, beneath this composed demeanor are some harsh memories that she has compiled through 17 years of covering Southeast Asia.

CNN Jakarta bureau chief Maria Ressa talks about these events off camera as though she was still doing a report – she gives you the exact dates and places, names and positions, what the atmosphere of the moment was, what it was like witnessing the violence and hearing people’s stories.

She has seen the worst acts humans are capable of and how these send off a ripple of grief and continues the cycle of violence. She has seen how terrorism snakes its way across borders – from Al-Qaeda to Abu Sayyaf and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). She has interviewed charismatic leaders, heard their lies, half-truths and plain bullshit. She has read volumes of intelligence reports from various countries and has sources around the region who give her access to information they probably wouldn’t give to anyone else.

Yet despite all this, as a private person Maria is not cynical, but as an investigative reporter she doesn’t take anything for granted.

That’s what makes her first book Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda ’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia such a good read.

During the launching at Powerbooks last Monday, Maria’s Probe Team co-founder Cheche Lazaro said the book is like a "spy novel." Cheche is right. Seeds of Terror does read like an engrossing spy thriller, except it’s non-fiction and the secrets she uncovered are real and the bloodshed all too real.

Maria tracked down the links of Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asian countries and found them in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. She traces their beginnings – the MILF, Abu Sayyaf, JI and its "public face" the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), and other groups – anchoring her chapters on history and showing how they grew into international embarrassment and national crises for these countries. Despite MILF’s denial of any links to Al-Qaeda and Southeast Asian governments’ denial of the existence of training camps in their backyard, Maria continued to dig deeper until she found evidence in the intelligence community (the chapter on MILF uses documents and interrogation reports never before published).

Maria explains that what makes "Southeast Asia such fertile ground for Al-Qaeda is its large Muslim population within a political landscape that is much more open and fractured than the Arab Middle East."

She describes the "Asian Osama bin Laden," Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, "as the most widely followed extremist cleric in the region with a magnetic personality and fanatical following… Many people trace the rise of terrorism to this Indonesian cleric." Maria once interviewed Ba’asyir, and he was wearing white robes and a white cap. "How daunting is that when there’s this Muslim cleric holding a Koran while you’re interviewing him and you know he’s a terrorist! It was so bizarre."

In her investigations, Maria found out that "Every major Al-Qaeda attack since 1993 has had a connection to Southeast Asia," she says. "When 9/11 happened, it triggered a memory for me. I remembered the police in Manila had uncovered a plot to hijack commercial planes and crash them into buildings, including the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the Trans-American Building."

She did a special report about the Southeast Asian connection for CNN but, as she says, there were just too many things that even several TV reports not be able to cover. The book also brings about an understanding of Al-Qaeda, why and how it was born, how it operates, the terrorist groups it influenced and the chaos they bring – this is not just not possible for TV as a medium. While TV can shock viewers into attention and influence their opinions, the print medium takes readers to the heart of things, allowing for a deeper analysis, and this is where Maria’s writing style stands out. "I wanted readers to see it unfold the way I did. Obviously I’m passionate about it because I find it very engrossing. The way it appears on the news, sometimes it’s so distant from you, you don’t care. This was something I really cared about."

Inside Al-Qaeda author Rohan Gunaratna calls Maria the "unofficial keeper of history…in a region where retiring officials are accustomed to taking their official records home."

How long did it take her to compile all the documents?

"I started gathering the documents after 9/11. Some of it has been in my head since 1995, but I went back and got more. What’s funny though is that I was doing stories for CNN during the time period and I kept a database. That’s how I started to track it all down. When you have all these facts, you see the bigger picture, it becomes very clear."

Her writing is at turns sensitive and stern, and thanks to her TV training it doesn’t feel contrived. She writes about the most gruesome crimes and heart-wrenching interviews a matter-of-factly – the rape, murders and beheadings committed by the Abu Sayyaf.

As the Abu Sayyaf and their hostages made their way from the river toward the jungle, the kidnappers picked out ten men, pulled them away from the group, and brought them to the side of the river. Some were forced to wade in. "When they reached the river they began beheading them," says Efren. "Ten of them in one night. Every five meters, they would behead another one. My son died that night."

This was in Balobo, where the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped about 30 residents.

It was a brutal response to a shakedown that did not pay off handsomely as expected. Not even the Mafia is this nakedly rapacious.

Maria has an eye for detail, a memory for atmosphere and a sense of humor. On her last interview with then Indonesian President BJ Habibie, Maria writes:

Protocol officers told me while we were setting up that they thought my skirt was too short. They reminded me I was speaking with a Muslim leader, and that I should accord him the proper respect. Also, since I was a woman, I should avoid touching him. They asked if I could keep my notebook on top of my lap so my legs would be covered. I could tell the officers had a checklist they were following. Yet after the interview, when our photographer, Anastasia Vrachnos, told Habibie it was my birthday, the president spontaneously jumped up and began gleefully singing "Happy Birthday." I was stunned when all his aides followed… At the end of the song, President Habibie kissed me on the cheek and I kissed him on the other cheek. When I pulled away, I was horrified to see that I had left a lipstick mark on him so I excused myself, reached over and wiped the lipstick off his cheek.

Like the best of spy novels, Maria’s book is filled with good guys and bad guys, and because it’s about real peopple, sometimes the good guys are also bad. Then there are the women thrust into the Al-Qaeda cells’ operations. In the Philippines, these unsuspecting girls were used to open bank accounts. There are also many clandestine operations described in the book – groups trying to bring democracy down in unstable countries, trying to assassinate heads of state including the Pope (Ramzi Yousef, who was arrested in Manila, also plotted to assassinate Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto).

Finally, Seeds of Terror is a book about different ideologies. Where once the world was divided by the Cold War, it is now splintered by religion.

She’s been told many times by Muslins that in Islam, "if one person falls ill, we all fal ill. If one of us is hurt, we all feel the pain."

In the war against terrorism, against Al-Qaeda, Maria says "someone must counter Al-Qaeda," that we take that same attitude – we hurt when one of us hurts. She argues that America "by virtue of its power," is already the global policeman. "The United states can do the same for the other side. It’s a universal hope – and an act of enlightened self-interest."

Born in the Philippines, Maria Ressa studied at St. Scholastica’s until third grade, when her family moved to the US. There, she attended public schools in New Jersey until she went to Princeton.

"When I left Manila, my name was Angelita Aycardo. My stepfather in the US adopted me so that changed my last name, and my teachers in school called me by my first name – the first name of most Filipinas – Maria. So I came back Maria Ressa."

At Princeton, Maria majored in biology, and theater and drama. She was a member of the university’s debate team and the basketball team. In 1986, she went back to the Philippines on a Fulbright scholarship and she co-founded The Probe Team with Cheche Lazaro and Luchi Cruz-Valdez.

In 2001, she taught for a semester at Prince- ton. Typically Maria, she landed in the US half a day before her first class was supposed to begin. "It’s another one of my life stories. President Gloria Arroyo comes into office January 20, on January 21 I fly to the United States to teach. So I go from Newark Airport and I get to my classroom right as my students were going in and I move into my apartment after my first class."

Teaching at Princeton was eye-opening for her. She found out she didn’t want to live in the US. "I belong in Asia, I belong in the Philippines. It was a good thing because I was trying to figure out what was next."

Maria describes life in CNN as "like chasing your shadow and you forget that people don’t live at that pace."

We get the feeling that she wouldn’t have it any other way.


PHILIPPINE STAR: Tell us about singing in a karaoke bar with an Indonesian commander right after East Timor was burned down. You said in the book it was your "most surreal experience."

MARIA RESSA: (Laughs) You read the book! I had spent maybe six weeks seeing the violence and East Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed, there was no running water and electricity. I knew I had to get back in. CNN basically said, we’ll try to bring people in from Australia. I was in Jakarta and I thought, maybe we can fly to West Timor, land in Kuta which was a 10-and-a-half-hour drive to East Timor. How could we make the trip a little safer? I had heard a convoy of military vehicles was driving to East Timor in the morning and I wanted us to be part of the convoy. Their military commander basically kept postponing our meeting. We landed early morning and I had exactly six and a half hours to stock up, to get the hired truck, to buy grocery, to buy tents.

I was very aware of the risks we were taking. I was the team leader; my cameraman has three kids. So I asked everybody to vote on it before we left. When we got there, we split up. Some people got the truck, some people bought food. We lived for two weeks on ramen noodles. We were cooking it ourselves on a campfire.

The commander basically said he would see us at the end of the day, meet him at this bar. My feeling was: I’m not going there alone! (laughs) The bar was really a seedy place. We walked to the basement, there were half naked women around. They showed us into a "special" room. We waited for maybe 30 minutes. I was, like, this is the strangest and most horrible experience I am having. At the same time I was worried because CNN had said, don’t take unnecessary risks because nobody had gotten into East Timor, we would have been first. I had an all-Pinoy team – we were brown, we merged in.

You know, the way things work in Indonesia, it’s much more passive than Manila. You get to know each other first. So there I was dying to get some sleep and people just started singing; when we weren’t singing, I was talking with the commander.

What were the songs?

Lots of Hall and Oates. And this guy had a good voice. I was thinking, I will not forget this. The worst part was when one of my teammates – we all go karaoke every now and then, so they know the songs I can sing – slotted Desperado and I started singing it! In the end, they said they would escort us only to a certain point. It was so uncertain, we went on our own.

Was it East Timor where the beheadings were covered by media, and people were sticking the heads on spikes?

That was Kalimantan, before East Timor. Indonesia was very eye opening in so many ways. It exhausted me physically, mentally, spiritually. The year 1999 was a year of violence, of living dangerously. Indonesians are nice people, how can they have so much violence? Part of the reason was that some of it has been fueled. After you put so much pressure to control an environment, and then you lift the pressure it goes crazy.

You live in Jakarta now?

I live in Jakarta, I also have an apartment in Manila. I’ve been covering for CNN since 1998 – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, the Philippines.

Yesterday, they said that when you were with Probe you couldn’t write your script unless it was on a yellow pad. Do you still use one?

No more (laughs). You know what happens in CNN when you’re typing your script? The editor in Atlanta is looking at it as you’re typing it in. As soon as I punch it to send it, within four minutes I get it back. It’s very very quick we’re you’re on deadline. Normally I have 15 to 20 minutes to write.

What was it like in the beginning at CNN?

I did CNN partly because we needed money for Probe. We needed an equipment contract and CNN provided that. I didn’t expect to do this – I was not an on-camera person, I produced and directed. When CNN came along, originally I was trying to get them to use Cheche Lazaro as the reporter and I was to produce the show. CNN said they only wanted to deal with one person, and I became that person. Probe was amazing because you do a story and you see the effect on society right away, people react. When I do a story for CNN, it goes into a black hole.

Even in Indonesia they don’t react?

I guess the difference was Probe was something we started. It was my baby. We were all very passionate about it. CNN was a two-minute story, it was a challenge to learn the format. To do it well, there are techniques, but it’s a whole different ball game. You report about things Filipinos know about that Americans have no concept of, so you’re always trying to explain it but you can’t sound like you’re explaining it. It’s fascinating. I don’t mean to downplay CNN versus Probe, but when we started Probe, we were so young and idealistic.

Now that your book has come out, aren’t you afraid for your own safety?

I’ve been doing reporting before and I’ve gotten threats, some of them by text messages. From the MILF it’s very veiled, like "Pakisabi sa kaibigan nating si Maria, ginagamit siya ng military." At the beginning I had several of those. I would always send a text back saying, "No, because I didn’t get this from the Philippine military." I think the problem with the MILF sometimes is that it’s easy to manipulate. I really just want to ask them to be accountable. If you’re gonna set up training camps, then take responsibility for that. MILF’s Eid Kabalu tells me, "No we have no ties with Al-Qaeda," and now those words ring very hollow. When the links are corroborated by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – you know there’s no conspiracy.

When you’re interviewing the military, terrorists, and all the other people connected in some way, how do you know if they’re telling the truth?

We have documents to back up what they’re saying. Like how do I know Abu Bakar Ba’ashir is lying? Because the information from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines tells me he’s wrong. Three different countries, three different independent sources. You know, this man is kind of charismatic.

I saw him in your reports; he looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

In one of my interviews he was holding the Koran during the entire time. But how harsh do I get? Not so harsh. If that’s the image he wants to portray, all I do is juxtapose it against the reality I see.

On the Abu Sayyaf’s Sipadan kidnapping, you didn’t exactly say that you believed it but that "everyone allegedly took a cut."

I think that’s the problem. The only people who can tell you are the actors in it. The tone I tried to strike in the book is to be as objective as possible, telling you what other people have said but also letting you know that I’m not gonna condemn. Here’s where I am definitive — in the big ideas. Given this situation, I try to analyze what it means.

How long was the writing process?

Three months. I gathered everything together. I was finishing the documentary while I was writing the book. Every week I made sure I wrote 30 pages. I just didn’t sleep until I did, that was a very good incentive. I organized it beforehand and I was thinking of roughly 10 chapters. It was daunting in the beginning. But once you start and you do one chapter a week, it goes very fast.

And here’s Stephen King recommending only 1,000 words a day.

But that’s a different thing, it’s fiction. I think if I had more time, I could’ve been more creative.

Of the heads of state you have interviewed, who is the most memorable?

Bill Clinton, I find him larger than life. He’s very charismatic, he controls the room but at the same time when you ask him a direct question he answers you. I love Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatir Mohammad, too. Gloria Arroyo, a woman who’s articulate and will bite back at you. Benazir Bhutto was great also, she was the first one that made me see Bin Laden in a particular way. She had to deal with Ramzi Yousef, who tried to assassinate her. When I was in India, she basically said that Osama bin Laden had tapped different units in different countries around the world and harnessed the Muslim people…It was like a light bulb went off in my head. It was something I believed coz she’s so intimately involved with it.

They tried to assassinate her for the same reason they tried to assassinate Sukarnoputri Megawati, because she’s woman?

Yes. Women get a bad rep (laughs). If you walk into an international conference, the number of women is always much less than the number of men. The Non-Aligned Movement Summit, the Organization of Islamic Conference, it wasn’t rare for me to be the only woman in the room. Particularly the last one, it was almost antagonistic.

Has that stopped you from getting a story? Have they tried to do that to you?

No and I think I’m very lucky. Part of the reason is because I work for CNN.

What part of you is very Filipino and what part is American?

I think I have the best of both worlds. I have the best of being Filipino and the best of being American. And I’ll use them when I need them. I think I learned sensitivity and tact from the Philippines. The Philippines is not a cynical society. When I was growing up in New York, I could never really understand sarcasm; I’m not a sarcastic person. When I came back to Manila, I felt much more at home. I don’t like being cynical. There’s something about the character of the Filipino – it’s open and accepting. Even if the person doesn’t like you, he still gives you a chance in the beginning. Or if they don’t really like you, you won’t even know it. Journalistically, there’s a part of me that’s very Filipino. Part of the reason I wanted to come back is because the growth of television journalism in the Philippines is something I get passionate about. I look at where we were in 1986, where we could be and where we are now.

The parts that are American are the parts that were educated American. They allow me to speak aggressively if I need to make an argument, it’s the way of debate, it’s the Socratic method. In my classes in Princeton, if I wasn’t articulate I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Being competitive, that’s American. When I was working in Probe, I knew we were teaching people how to frame an argument.

If I had children I would send them to school first in the Philippines, elementary and high school, and then I’d send them to college in the States. I want this combination of education.

Why did you take up biology?

As a premed. I was doing what my parents wanted. I was a good Asian kid.

I heard you’ve always been interested in theater, too. What was the appeal?

I grew up in the Philippines, so I was always shy, less aggressive than my American classmates. I was always the runt, the youngest, the shortest kid in class. Princeton had a wonderful theater program. It was a place that encouraged me to look inside myself and develop myself.

I came to the Philippines on a masteral program in political theater at UP. I was a Fulbright scholar. I found Philippine theater too focused on the externals, that we get caught in the form of theater not the substance of it. I came to work with PETA. Remember in 1986 they were focused on getting rid of Marcos. When I came in, it was right after Marcos had left and PETA was in search of an identity. I thought we were relying too much on passion without technique to anchor it. But I loved it. I did Panata sa Kalayaan at CCP. My main criticism of theater at the time was that passion does not make up for technique. I think you need to have both to have art.

You studied in UP?

I wasn’t really a part of the UP campus because at that point, I was looking to try to understand the Philippines quickly. I was also working for the government station with Twink Macaraig. I walked in as she was doing the 11 o’clock newscast. I was watching the director and I said, I can do that! So they hired me as a consultant and I revamped their newscast.

What was Princeton like?

You know what turned me off about medicine? The premed program in Princeton was so utterly competitive I felt it destroyed the humanity of it. One of the things that I love about Princeton is the honor code. Teachers don’t sit with you when you take your exam. Like I can take an exam and bring it to this restaurant, but I must at the end of the exam write that I pledge on my honor that I’ve not violated the honor code. If you see someone violating that code, you have to report it. It was amazing. It gave me a lot of faith in human nature.

You report it anonymously?

No, because you’re part of the 200-year-old tradition. If you violate the honor code, you not only violate your honor, you violate my honor. You’re responsible not just for yourself but for the other people around you. It’s a wonderful concept actually. I really liked it.

You raised some ethical issues in your book, like checkbook journalism, journalists paying for access.

(During the Sipadan hostage crisis, Abu Sayyaf began charging foreign journalists access to the camp and interviews with leaders. The Abus asked for her; she declined the offer. Later on, they began to take the journalists as hostages.)

I never paid. Technically, I can get fired from my job. We’re not Hard Copy or any of the sensational shows. You know what, one of the nicest things that CNN has allowed me to do is to live according to my ideals – and I’m 40 years old and I’m not poor.

It’s against our principles to pay. Has it changed? I don’t think it has – not even in Afghanistan or Iraq. If Bin Laden said for a million dollars he would give an interview, I don’t think CNN would do it. I really have faith in my network. Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve still been able to be naive. I’ve never done anything that I’m ashamed of. Here’s the other thing, and this is why I never paid Abu Sayyaf. Journalists who did that made it more difficult for the journalists who were coming after them. They made us more vulnerable.

I was asked once, during the anniversary of East Timor. Actually, it was a dilemma because the person who asked was somebody who had lost his home, it was burned down, he had watched his wife get killed. So my interview was about what it was like a year later. At the end of our interview, he asked me for money because he had no food to feed his children. Technically, I couldn’t do it. So what I did was I bought groceries before we left and gave them to him. It’s a tough thing in that situation. I still go back and forth, did I do the right thing or not?

Has terrorism changed the way media cover events?

I think it should. We should be talking about a world where you’re trying to bridge the gaps between religion and culture, trying to explain to people a different perspective. I think journalists can do a better job at that, and I try honestly. Being in Indonesia is amazing coz I didn’t know what it was like to be a Muslim. In the Philippines, we don’t feel it. When you’re the minority, which I am in Indonesia, then you can see. In the Philippines we have it so easy in some ways. We should be an easy country to pull together and run.

In the first part of your book, you said that there was a change in Arroyo’s attitude toward the MILF after she announced last December 30 that she wouldn’t run in 2004 (from peace talks to military action). Were you surprised that she is running again?

No. You know what, I wasn’t as caught up as many Filipinos in the debate of whether she should or shouldn’t run. To be really honest, it’s her prerogative to run. For me, if she does a good job, if she delivers what she says, she should run. Our culture gets in the way of our politics. I think she was frustrated. Imagine if you were in charge of the whole thing and nobody’s following you and you’re doing your best. It didn’t make a difference when she said she wasn’t running. I asked her afterward, she was, "Why should I give up something for nothing?" I don’t feel betrayed. A politician is a politician.

What do you think about FPJ running for president?

Like a repeat performance of Erap. We’ve already been down this road before. We know that if the political elite will not band together, he’ll win. If they split their vote like they did with Estrada – remember Estrada won with 34 percent. He didn’t win with a lot. He won because how many people ran against him? If all those people who wanted power gave it up for the national good, then that would have shifted the ballot, then you could have argue on platform. I’m looking forward to seeing what Filipinos are going to do.

Ping Lacson?

He doesn’t have a track record for me yet. The kuratong baleleng case, which has never gone away…I want to see the action of Ping Lacson, not the rhetoric.

Raul Roco?

Somebody who speaks a lot. He’s educated, he stands by his ideals. The question about Roco is whether or not he’ll be able to lead. He has certain a dogmatism – to be a leader, you can’t be holier-than-thou even though you’re trying to get people to a higher standard, and I appreciate that about him. I think he tries to live by his ideals. He’ll do it by example yes, but he can’t do it by himself.

When you watch local TV and read newspapers, what comes to your mind?

We have a long way to go and still I go back to my word: accountability. I don’t think journalists are accountable. Somebody asked me how do I describe myself as a journalist? Ethics and accountability. Because we came out of a dictatorship, we pushed up on a pedestal freedom but without responsibility and accountability.

I saw this happen in Indonesia: Once you have a dictatorship, in many ways it’s like a pendulum that swings back and forth and someone is holding it up so it can’t swing. When you let it go, it’s gonna swing fast back and forth, a little chaotic. I was hoping that slowly we would find equilibrium. It’s been 17 years since 1986.

That’s part of the reason I wanna come back. With Probe, I was able to help shape some of the debate. The Filipino journalist has the ability to be the best, but we’re not necessarily pushing ourselves in the right direction. In the US, the trend is for sensational and infotainment. I think it’s a bad trend for journalists in general. We Filipinos are developing it ourselves. Friends of mine at ABS-CBN would say the US is doing it, yeah but just because they are doesn’t mean we have to. Why don’t we aspire for something better?

Yeah, the things that pass for news nowadays, like a barangay gay beauty contest…

You should say something. In Probe, everybody said we couldn’t survive as an independent. We started with just an idea. You know, I’ve had all these fantastic role models – Cheche Lazaro and her energy; Luchi Cruz and her experience. We wanted to make it work and we believed in it enough, we did it.

How long do you think you’ll be staying with CNN?

CNN is not a sustainable lifestyle (laughs). I spend 80 days of the year in my apartment, that’s all the time I’m home. Before 9/11, I was ready to leave. Breaking news is very shallow. I can recite it in my head with my eyes closed. I can give it to you for 30 seconds and get ready for the next two questions. After 9/11, all of the violence I lived through found a reason and that gave me so much power. Now that the book is over, it’s time to reassess again.

You talked about the fine line that journalists cannot cross with regard to passing information to government intelligence agencies.

There’s no way I can work in an intelligence agency as a journalist.

Have they asked you?

I’ve been asked by three different countries. But it would be to leave journalism and join them.

Three countries in Asia?

I can’t tell you.

Or else you’ll have to kill me?

It’s not a lifestyle that I want because they get to find out secrets and can’t talk to anyone about it. I get to find out things and tell the world about it. It’s such a big difference.

As a journalist, aren’t you asked for information? Isn’t it an exchange sometimes?

I’ll tell you the exchange. Say, this happened a week ago. I was in Atlanta and I got a text message. One of my sources in Manila said they were told one of the Bali suspects was in the Philippines, could I send them a picture of him? That picture is in the public domain and I have it on my computer so it’s easy. If you were to work through the bureaucracy in the Philippines you’ll get it in three weeks. If you were to work through the Interpol, you’ll get it in a month and a half. So in that sense, if I know it’s in the public domain, I can exchange that.

But one of the key lines that I want to draw is that I can’t ever betray the secrets of one country to another country. Like if I have an intelligence document from the Philippines that implicates something in Indonesia and they’ve not been shared, then I’m very very careful about it. Most of the time, I’m just a mode of efficiency. It becomes more efficient to my Indonesian contact to say, hey, tell us about the MILF because there’s nothing really written that’s current about it. They’ll give me their expertise and I’ll give my expertise, and in the end we’re all working for the same thing, which is to try to figure out what this network is like. We’re all starting from different places. The only advantage I have is that I really travel the region, jump to different countries.

During your talks at Powerbooks and National Book Store, you told the story of Ambon. I had the feeling that Ambon affected you more than any other story. And do you ever get nightmares from all the violence you’ve covered?

(Ambon is a city in Indonesia that was destroyed by the violence between Muslims and Christians fueled by Al-Qaeda .)

I can’t say Ambon affected me more than any other story. There were so many: the beheadings in Kalimantan, the Ormoc flashflood, watching the destruction and violence in East Timor, etc, etc. What makes Ambon stand out for me is that it is a success story for Al-Qaeda. This is what they want to happen – and what they will push to happen.

As far as nightmares, no, I don’t get nightmares because when you’re in the middle of the violence, you’re living on adrenaline, and when it’s done, you collapse and sleep is easy.

You told me that you’re in a long-term relationship despite your crazy schedule. Care to elaborate?

I believe one of the key factors for a successful relationship is privacy. So I try to keep my personal life private. I can’t believe I even admitted to you I was in a long-term relationship. You must be good!

To be honest, the personal tone of the book launch in Manila made me very uncomfortable. I know my friends loved roasting me, but I want to keep the focus where it belongs: on the ideas.

In doing these stories – so much heartache, lies, loss and grief – aren’t you afraid that you might become desensitized?

I can’t become desensitized because then I wouldn’t do my job properly. Being a good reporter means detaching enough to let your analysis work but engaging enough to empathize with the people you deal with and write about. If my interviewee places himself/herself at risk – whether it’s physical or emotional – I believe I must do the same. It goes back to accountability.

The minute I become desensitized, I plan to quit, find another job. I hope it doesn’t happen.

What’s your idea of retirement?

Hmmm, that’s hard to answer. There are still so many things I want to do, and even when I retire, I have projects I want to try, like write a novel – fiction, this time. Ultimately, retirement for me is being surrounded by family and friends with the luxury of time to enjoy them.

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