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MUHAMMAD SALI: A journalist has no absolute right to challenge what I say, because he is reporting—he’s like a tape-recorder. A tape recorder cannot challenge anyone.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, Nigerian journalists struggle to achieve free and fair reporting.
KEITH PORTER: Plus, one family’s diplomatic tradition.
IFTEKHAR CHOWDHURY: The Civil Service on the Indian subcontinent was a very strong tradition. And it continued to remain in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And somehow our family was attracted by it.
PORTER: And North Korea’s underground railroad.
MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: There are thousands of North Koreans trapped inside China hiding in villages, mainly with Chinese of Korean descent.
MCHUGH: These stories—coming up next.
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MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Nigeria is a country in transition—from military dictatorship to civilian democracy. A civilian administration took office three years ago and this past summer Nigerians re-elected their president, Olusegun Obasanjo in a landslide. During the campaign, there was sustained ethnic violence in the southern state of Delta; over a dozen people were killed, and the Army was able to restore only a very fragile peace. There were also persistent allegations, both from the opposition presidential candidate and from independent observers, of fraud and voting irregularities.
MCHUGH: In spite of this, it’s the first time a democratically elected federal civilian government has succeeded another civilian government in Nigeria. Indeed, it’s a milestone in the country’s troubled half-century of independence from British rule. Prior to the elections, correspondent Max Easterman was in Nigeria, running training courses for local journalists on the principles of election reporting. He found a great determination to tell it as it is. But as he first reported in June he also found many obstacles to free and fair reporting—some of them the responsibility of Nigerian journalists themselves.
[The sound of many journalists talking at a training seminar.]
SALIM: PDP is a peoples-oriented party, so we believe in rural transformation, free primary education for our children.
MAX EASTERMAN: You are saying, “we.” Why are you saying “we?”
SALIM: Because I have that mandate. I am part of the party.
EASTERMAN: Salim is an active member of Nigeria’s ruling PDP, the People’s Democratic Party. Salim isn’t his real name. To give that might not be in his best interests, because he’s also a political journalist. For many like him, the problem is not being seen to be political, but being seen to be political enough—not covering up your political views, but showing them off.
WURNO: Professionally it is wrong but if you didn’t do that in our area, you’d be in trouble. Even those in the opposition party, they would not grant interviews, they would not grant me audience. There are journalists who tried, but who were molested and now they are out of the job.
EASTERMAN: By molested did you mean they were physically attacked?
WURNO: Physically attacked, yes. Because that is the nature of the area. You can’t run away from it.
EASTERMAN: You don’t feel that you should resist it?
WURNO: Well, I could not resist.
EASTERMAN: Why not?
WURNO: If you are an editor, you will be demoted to a reporter. If you are a reporter, you will be transferred to Ministry of Information so that you won’t be heard over the radio.
EASTERMAN: So you keep active in politics to keep your job?
WURNO: Yes, I can keep it.
[The sound of street traffic in the city of Kaduna, Nigeria.]
EASTERMAN: Here in Kaduna, in the north, some 20 journalists have been attending our training workshop. One of the guest speakers was Muhammad Sali, Vice Chairman of the Kaduna State PDP party; I wondered what he thinks is the journalist’s role in a democracy.
MUHAMMAD SALI: The role of the journalist is to gather facts on the spot of all political happenings and disseminate such information objectively.
EASTERMAN: Is it the journalist’s job to challenge your ideas?
SALI: A journalist has no absolute right to challenge what I say, because he is reporting. He is like a tape recorder. A tape recorder cannot challenge anyone. A journalist is a journalist, he is a tape recorder, to report what he hears.
[The sound of PDP Chairman Alhaji Makama Rigachikum speaking.]
EASTERMAN: Mr. Sali’s boss is the PDP Chairman Alhaji Makama Rigachikum. He’s complaining here about what he calls “corrupt journalists.” But he’s just demonstrated how politicians like himself make journalists corrupt. We’ve just held a press conference. As it ended, he offered a gift to the journalists—50,000 Naira, about $400. Very generous, and, you might think, very unethical. But in Nigeria it’s just very routine. Politicians pay what’s called “dash” in brown envelopes to make sure they get favorable coverage. Well, we’ve warned the journalists not to collect these particular brown envelopes.
[The sound of street traffic.]
EASTERMAN: Unfortunately, it now seems our warning’s gone unheeded. A carload of the journalists has just driven off after an argument over money, and you don’t need to be a detective to work out which money. We spent a whole day on this workshop talking about ethics and it seems we might as well not have bothered. It’s very dispiriting.
CLEMENT WASAH: Most of the journalists do not seem to understand the stake they have in democracy. Because their interest is either to make money or their interest is to advance their political cause, which may not be in the interest of the whole society.
EASTERMAN: Clement Wasah works for Community Action for Popular Participation, a lobby group representing ordinary voters in the federal capital, Abuja.
WASAH: Journalists don’t seem to have realized that with the transition from military to democracy that what they’re supposed to do is to make sure that they serve as a veritable check on politicians whose interest is to capture power and will use all means available to them. They have not been able to play that watchdog role in Nigeria. They are still comfortable with whatever any politician tells them.
[The sound of street traffic in Abuja.]
EASTERMAN: Half the journalists at the Kaduna training workshop took the PDP’s brown envelopes. Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t keen to talk about it. Their colleagues here in the federal capital, Abuja, have been more forthcoming. As far as they’re concerned, taking money from politicians is perfectly okay. It’s part of a tradition of Nigerian paternalism. The state house correspondent for Monitor Newspapers, Cyril Mbah, is quite prepared to defend that tradition.
CYRIL MBAH: [with the sound of street traffic in the background as he speaks] We have this culture in this country whereby your seniors are expected to cater for the juniors, if you like. That includes politicians and all manners of public officers. That’s our culture and it’s not that you have to ask. He feels obligated to do some favor to you. It would be an insult to that person to reject it.
EASTERMAN: Some press and broadcast editors and managers don’t share that view—though, regrettably, not all. Kabiru Yusuf is the editor of Trust Newspapers in Abuja. He assumes that most of his journalists do take brown envelopes, so he keeps a weather eye out for biased reporting. But apart from that, there isn’t much else he feels he can do.
KABIRU YUSUF: You cannot punish somebody unless it’s exposed. The giver doesn’t say, the taker doesn’t say. So it’s only once in a while that you get to know in the office and we definitely discipline people we find doing that.
CHUKWUDI OKOLIE-UGBAJA: I am not going to pretend that after I’ve done a job and some kind of a present, gift, gratification comes, that I’ve resisted it—no.
EASTERMAN: Chukwudi Okolie-Ugbaja is a TV reporter for a privately-run station.
OKOLIE-UGBAJA: The tendency is for you to be overly protective of the man who’s in the habit of telling you “Thanks for coming.” Any time he has a problem, you might be tempted to color it up because over a period he had presented himself as a friend. If I as a professional had a choice I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
EASTERMAN: But, but you do have a choice, don’t you? You can just say no.
OKOLIE-UGBAJA: Yes, and say no, then go back to your station where perhaps the last salary you saw was some three months back. You wallow in misery. What do you tell your wife at home?
[The sound of street traffic in Lagos.]
EASTERMAN: This is a huge issue for journalists in Nigeria. While the state- or federal-run media put political pressure on their reporters, in privately owned media, as we’ve just heard, the pressure is often financial. The salary check that never arrives. Titilayo Omotayo says her experience at a Lagos radio station is not unusual.
TITILAYO OMOTAYO: Occasionally we are paid maybe about once in two months or three months or more than that. And you know, it keeps accumulating. So…
EASTERMAN: What’s the longest you’ve waited?
OMOTAYO: The longest I’ve waited? Eight, nine months.
EASTERMAN: So for eight or nine months, you had no money at all coming in from your job?
EASTERMAN: Making money in Nigeria’s cash-strapped economy is hard. In a country of more than 120 million people, most daily newspapers sell fewer than 100,000 copies and broadcast media struggle to raise advertising revenue. So, political donations can be a lifeline for hard-pressed owners. Generations of corrupt politicians have stolen the country’s oil wealth and used it to buy loyalty as well as lifestyle. The last government promised to stamp this corruption out. It didn’t, and that’s a major concern for Festus Okoye, a constitutional lawyer in Kaduna. The law, he says, gives journalists little protection from employers who pressure them to sing to a particular political tune.
FESTUS OKOYE: Unfortunately the law does not really make provision for some of these things. But I think that the major responsibility for the training of journalists rests with the media organizations. But unfortunately, most of them are not just doing that.
EASTERMAN: Why not, do you think?
OKOYE: Funds. Some of the major organizations are privately owned and the only thing they are interested in is balancing their books at the end of the year, while the government media organizations are not well funded. So that leaves a very big vacuum and a big lacuna in terms of the training of journalists.
EASTERMAN: Somewhat belatedly, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the NUJ, is trying to tackle these problems. It’s sponsored a senate bill on journalism, but this has angered many journalists because what it will do is create a closed shop. To work as a journalist, you’ll have to be an NUJ member. To be a member you’ll have been a journalist for at least 10 years, or you’ll have a media-related degree. And that will mean several of the journalists I’ve met will be out in the cold. Funke Fadugba is the Lagos NUJ Chairman. So, why is just being a good journalist not going to be good enough to join her union?
FUNKE FADUGBU: Because we have seen that that has done so much damage to the practice of the profession and because a good number of people like that don’t know the ethics. And we feel that because of the challenges of our society, there is a need for people to be properly trained.
EASTERMAN: So are you saying that anybody who doesn’t join the union will lose their job as a journalist?
FADUGBU: That is the implication. If they don’t meet the requirements, too bad.
EASTERMAN: Well, many journalists think this is a draconian way of solving a problem which may be on the way to solving itself. And Kabiru Yusuf, the editor of Trust Newspapers in Abuja, says there is light at the end of the financial tunnel.
YUSUF: I’ve been in journalism for 18 years, from 1984 and I must say there has been a tremendous improvement. It’s also a function of the environmental change. We’re now in a democracy. There’s an increasing move to a private sector economy in Nigeria, which wasn’t there when I started in journalism. So as that is happening you find that newspapers are becoming serious businesses. And everything is based on that. Unless a paper is viable, freedom and integrity and dignity are theories. Because you have to pay for them.
EASTERMAN: Journalists themselves, in spite of their low or non-existent pay, in spite of the culture of bribery or paternalism, in spite of the political pressure to say what they’re told, journalists remain optimistic. They’ve survived the elections. The real test, they say, will be holding the new government to account.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: There is a high hope that when it goes back to the producers, presenters, and even the owners of the stations, that you cannot continue to bamboozle the public. Things will begin to turn around. And I’m so optimistic that it’s only a matter of time.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: And I share your optimism, too. Because the brown envelope syndrome notwithstanding, we still go ahead and write the truth. You know, because one thing you cannot compromise, especially in a country as fragile as Nigeria, is the truth.
[The sound of street traffic.]
EASTERMAN: The truth, of course, is that Nigerian journalists, media managers, owners, and, above all, politicians, have to clean up their act. As long as politicians manipulate and corrupt the media, and as long as journalists allow this to happen, ordinary Nigerians won’t know who’s telling the truth. And that leaves the country wide open to cynicism, disaffection, and violence. For Common Ground, this is Max Easterman in Lagos, Nigeria.
PORTER: An ambassador to the United Nations continues a family tradition, next on Common Ground.
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PORTER: The UN ambassador from Bangladesh has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the next United Nations secretary general. Iftekhar Chowdhury certainly has the background. He comes from a family of diplomats. His father and two brothers all worked in foreign service. Last spring, Common Ground‘s Cliff Brockman talked with Dr. Chowdhury about a variety of topics, ranging from his family and life as a diplomat, to his country, and the future of the United Nations.
IFTEKHAR CHOWDHURY: It’s true that it was a family tradition. My father was also in the Service. But those days, this was in 1930 when he joined the Service, the Civil Service on the Indian subcontinent was a very strong tradition. And it continued to remain in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And somehow our family was attracted by it. It was extremely competitive to get in, of course, but this was we thought almost a Hobson’s Choice for us when we were children.
CLIFF BROCKMAN: Will that continue on in your family?
CHOWDHURY: Unfortunately—or fortunately—no. Because we have one daughter but she’s history of art student specializing on Tushio. This is 13th-century Sienese painting.
BROCKMAN: What’s a typical day like in the life of a UN ambassador?
CHOWDHURY: Well, it’s a busy one. It’s an extremely challenging post, and particularly if you’re representing a country like Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest countries, 130 million people, but a developing country nevertheless. Which is testing out a new paradigm, as if it were, in the world. It is a country which over years has been able to develop a strong middle class, a vibrant civil society, pluralist institutions which are very democratic, sometimes intensely democratic. But perhaps the contribution that Bangladesh can make to the world is to show itself as a paradigm for societal changes brought about on its own initiative. Ideas like micro-credit, nonformal education from, for woman. You know, the whole Gramin experience, etcetera. This was essentially Bangladeshi. It has brought about a tremendous change in society. It has empowered women. It has sort of started a Protestant revolution as if it were. So, that is the kind of model that we have evolved.
And being in the United Nations gives me the opportunity to project Bangladesh in this manner. So we do that. We are trying to bring development center stage in UN activities. And which makes, makes for a very, very busy career even on a daily.
BROCKMAN: You mentioned a couple of things there, if I could ask you about them. One is the changing role of women in your country. Tell us about that.
CHOWDHURY: It is a very important change. Fifteen, twenty years ago Bangladesh was a conservative, it was a Muslim country. It was also very conservative. It still is a Muslim country and of course, and people are very attached to the religion. But there is a tremendous change that is ongoing. And this change has come about as three successful programs in empowering women. We have done that by providing women education, providing them small credit which mainstreams them into the economy, and now that has had the positive result of marginalizing fundamentalism and that kind of extremist thinking. So it’s a very mainstream society largely. And it is a society devoted to changing itself positively for the better.
BROCKMAN: You mentioned micro-credit. What is that?
CHOWDHURY: Micro-credit is an institution whereby small amounts of money are advanced to largely women in order for them to procure a capital good, which is again used for economic advance or commercial purposes. It is an extremely successful project which has brought women into the mainstream economy.
BROCKMAN: How does the job of a diplomat change from assignment to assignment. New York, Geneva; capitals like Washington, Paris. What’s the best posting for a diplomat?
CHOWDHURY: Largely you can dichotomize a modern day diplomat’s work into bilateral or multilateral. Time was we used to say, “A diplomat is sent abroad to lie for the good of the country.” But today he or she has to be extremely professional. For example, project the image of the country in a positive way, interact with other peers, whether it’s a bilateral post, which means some of the stations that, or capitals you named—Paris, Washington are bilateral—whereas New York, Geneva would be multilateral. So, interact with your peers, interact with the host society, try and advance the perceived national self-interest of your country in every possible way. At the same time work together with others to create a harmonious region, sub-region, and ultimately, a world.
BROCKMAN: One last question. With the dispute between the United States and the UN over the Iraq war some people have made some dark predictions about the future of the UN. Do you think the relationship can be healed between the UN and the United States and that the UN can survive?
CHOWDHURY: It is very rare for a major actor in the UN system not to have at some points in time certain conflicts within the UN. The UN is a conglomeration of the total membership of the nations of the world. So, it is wrong to say that one has a dispute with the UN as such. Perhaps with some members of the UN, perhaps with the Secretariat, perhaps with some key players. But I cannot imagine any country having a problem with the totality of the United Nations.
In any case, a large part of the United Nations function is in development in the social and economic sphere. Eighty percent of it in many ways. In which the United States continues to be a very, very key stakeholder and very major participant. I have not seen any evidence that there has been a dampening of that involvement. You perhaps referred to the problems in the Security Council. That is not a problem. I mean, this is what diplomacy is about. You have your differences, you iron them out. And you are there to make sure that in spite of the differences there is a, there is a broader harmony within which you operate for mutual advantages.
BROCKMAN: Ambassador Iftekhar Chowdhury is the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations. For Common Ground, I’m Cliff Brockman.
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MCHUGH: With winter looming, human rights groups expect more people to try to cross the border from North Korea to China in search of food and a better life. The story of these migrants is somewhat of a mystery, since few people have access to the border areas where most of them live. But human rights groups paint a picture of people trapped between dire conditions in China and the threat of severe punishment if they return home. Judith Smelser first filed this report last January.
[The sounds of an African-American spiritual song.]
JUDITH SMELSER: For most Americans, the words “Underground Railroad” conjure up images of a dark time in US history, when escaped slaves embarked on a treacherous journey from South to North. Chun Ki-won represents a different kind of underground railroad.
CHUN KI-WON: [via a translator] From 1997 until I was kicked out of China I saved 237 refugees.
SMELSER: For four years, the South Korean pastor was one of many religious and humanitarian workers who helped North Koreans escape their country via China.
CHUN KI-WON: [via a translator] There are three countries in the world that accept North Korean refugees—Cambodia, Thailand, and Mongolia. And I guided these refugees through deserts and through jungles and crossed the border to a third country.
SMELSER: No one knows exactly how many North Koreans have crossed the border into China. Some estimates put the number at 10,000—others as high as 300,000. Some leave for political reasons. Others, especially since the mid 1990s, have left to escape their country’s deadly famine. But crossing the border is a dangerous risk. China has been cracking down on border crossings, and once the migrants leave, they’re considered criminals back in North Korea. According to a recent report by the prominent human rights group Human Rights Watch, many of them end up in a perilous kind of limbo. Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Asia director for the organization’s Washington office.
MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK: There are thousands of North Koreans trapped inside China hiding in villages, mainly with Chinese of Korean descent and subject to, now increasing harassment, surveillance—we’ve even heard of house-to-house searches. And the possibility they could be arrested and forcibly sent back to North Korea virtually any time. They face extortion, women are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Some sell their sexual services or actually get involved in prostitution to make some money or to help feed their families. Others are abducted and forced into prostitution or are convinced to marry Chinese husbands who then end up beating them and becoming quite abusive.
SMELSER: The Human Rights Watch report is based on interviews with 15 North Korean defectors and several humanitarian workers with experience in the region. It urges China to stop cracking down on the border-crossers, but Beijing is standing firm.
XIE FENG: These North Koreans who come to China are not refugees. We consider them to be illegal immigrants.
SMELSER: Xie Feng is the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
XIE FENG: They come to China mainly for economic reasons. That is, for better living and food. And secondly, I would say that there do not exist severe punishments in North Korea if they go back.
SMELSER: But not so, says Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch.
JENDRZEJCZYK: Once you leave North Korea it is considered a crime under North Korean law. You are then subject to all kinds of persecution and abuse and possibly, if it’s considered treasonous, even the death penalty. So that, while many of the refugees, if not most of them are leaving for economic or other reasons, once they are in China they are subject to such severe abuse if sent back to North Korea, we think they should at least have the possibility of applying for asylum.
SMELSER: But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, North Koreans who want to leave their country must find other ways to reach their goal. Some have done so by breaking into foreign embassies and diplomatic missions in China. While Beijing usually negotiates the peaceful transfer of these migrants to third countries, Embassy Spokesman Xie Feng discourages the missions from granting them asylum in the first place. And he hints that the work of humanitarian organizations that want to help North Koreans trapped in the border region is being threatened by the embassy break-ins.
XIE FENG: These economic refugees coming into China, this problem has existed for quite some time. And it was only recently there has been this upsurge in numbers and the worst cases breaking into foreign representations in China. And we have evidence to prove that these are the result of instigation behind scenes by some NGOs and so-called religious groups. So we hope that they will not engage in any illegal activities.
SMELSER: Some humanitarian workers and human rights groups do blame the embassy invasions for China’s recent crackdown on North Korean migrants. But the other routes out of China, via the so-called “underground railroad,” are far from simple. They’re very costly for the defectors and dangerous for those who help them. Chun Ki-won was arrested in 2001 while trying to help 12 North Koreans cross from China into Mongolia. At a Congressional hearing last May, Timothy Peters, the director of a Christian charity called Helping Hands Korea, drew the lawmakers’ attention to the plight of Mr. Chun and others like him.
TIMOTHY PETERS: [testifying before Congress] I can only act as a spokesman, a voice, for not only Mr. Chun, but many others whom I consider unsung heroes who have taken it upon themselves, not only their personal safety, but their personal resources. Some of whom have gone into debt, into considerable amounts, which have strained their marriages, of their own personal finances, to bring North Koreans to safety.
SMELSER: At the time of the hearing, Mr. Chun was still in a Chinese prison. His fate was uncertain. But he was eventually released, having spent a total of 220 days behind bars. He’s forbidden from returning to China but he’s not giving up the fight. He’s simply taken it elsewhere—as he told a group of reporters in Washington not long ago.
CHUN KI-WON: [via a translator] As long as the refugees want to escape, I have to help them escape. But there’s a limit to what I can do. That’s why I’m here. I’m going to go to England, I’m going to go to Japan, I’m going to go wherever I can go. And people like you will have to make an international issue of this refugee problem. That’s the way we can solve the problem eventually.
SMELSER: In the meantime, others are continuing his shadowy work on the underground railroad for the 21st century.
[The sounds of an African-American spiritual song.]
For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser in Washington.
MCHUGH: Sadly, since this story first aired last winter, Mike Jendrzejczyk passed away unexpectedly.
PORTER: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
KEITH PORTER: I’m Keith Porter.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, housing problems along the US-Mexican border.
FRANK DESALES: We’re off fighting wars and providing more services, food, you know, to different areas—Africa, what like that. But then of course one thing that we’re not doing is actually looking in our own backyard. Our own backyard, meaning the Texas-Mexico border.
MCHUGH: Plus, young Iranians take to the ski slopes. And, a rebuilt landmark in Russia.
MARIA ALEXANDROVA: [via a translator] We’ve already spent more than three hours here and we don’t want to leave. I brought my daughter and grandson. This temple is becoming a symbol for all religious people in Russia, although it is new and difficult to get used to.
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PORTER: Millions of people reside in underdeveloped neighborhoods called colonias on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Although some initiatives are underway to meet the housing and infrastructure needs of these communities, the demand for basic services is still a burning issue. Late last year, Kent Paterson traveled the borderlands and filed this report.
[The sound of a car driving through busy traffic in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.]
PATERSON: Architect Jesus Gamiz drives his car through the rough and tumble hillside neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Exploding in population from 300,000 people in 1970 to more than one million today, Juarez attracted new migrants drawn by the hundreds of maquiladora export assembly plants in the city. But many arrived only to encounter no housing or utility services. Building up improvised neighborhoods called colonias, the new residents went to work constructing their own homes.
JESUS GAMIZ: [as translated and paraphrased by Mr. Paterson] Gamiz says economic and cultural factors led to a shift back in the 1970s away from traditional adobe houses to ones made out of concrete block. Gamiz says this new construction style presents problems in a climate like Juarez’s, where extremes in temperatures often predominate and where many people don’t have air conditioning or natural gas connections built into their homes.
GAMIZ: [via a translator] When it’s hot outside or inside the home, the concrete block heats up and causes the house to be hot in the summer, or inversely, cold in the winter. And this causes people to spend more on gas and electricity so they can have a comfortable environment.
[The sound of a car driving through busy traffic in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.]
PATERSON: To keep cool, people purchase portable fans. To stay warm and cook, they use propane gas tanks, which are sometimes unsafe and explode. Some colonia residents still lack running water and sewers. The spread of colonias in Juarez grows out of a housing deficit currently estimated to be from 60,000 to 80,000 units. Across the river from Juarez is El Paso, Texas, another place where the lack of affordable housing has encouraged the formation of colonias. An estimated 80,000 people currently live in colonias in El Paso County. Across Texas there may be more than 600,000 people living in colonias.
[The sound of hammering and construction.]
PATERSON: First settled in the 1950s, the predominantly Mexican-American community of Sparks became the model of US colonias. Even though fancy, site-built homes are intermingled with run-down dwellings and trailers, two-thirds of Sparks’ 900 or so families live below the poverty level.
[The sound of Guadalupe Ortega speaking in Spanish.]
PATERSON: On a steep hill above Sparks, Guadalupe Ortega talks in the living room of her family’s old mobile home and self-built extension. After her husband left, Ortega says she and her children lived for many years without basic furnishings.
GUADALUPE ORTEGA: [via a translator] When people finally came to help me, I didn’t have any gas. I didn’t have a heater and the room had a lot of holes in it. It didn’t have anything. Me and my girls were freezing.
FRANK DESALES: Well, very unfortunately, you know, as the richest country in the world, we’re off fighting wars and providing more services, food, you know, to different areas, Africa, like that. You know, to be a competitive, you know, world power. But then of course, one thing that we’re not doing is actually looking in our own backyard. Our own backyard, meaning the Texas-Mexico border.
PATERSON: Frank Desales directs the Sparks Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that helps neighbors like Guadalupe Ortega improve their home construction.
DESALES: You know, we have people who come over here and they say, “Wow, is that, is this Mexico, or is this a third world country?” No, this is the United States, but we are living in third world living conditions. You know, but like I said, you know, we should work with different government entities to actually combat this problem.
PATERSON: Nowadays, colonias on both sides of the border are prominent features of one of the world’s fastest growing regions.
DR. PETER WARD: Let me just say that in both cases what we are seeing here is essentially a rational response from low income people to the lack of a housing policy, to rapid urbanization often.
PATERSON: Dr. Peter Ward is a Centennial Chair in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. Ward has studied and written about colonias in both Mexico and the United States.
DR. WARD: Throughout Latin America and in Mexico, we’re talking about a process of self-build. People will occupy their lots, they’ll put a shack on there and then they’ll gradually over a period of 10 or 15 years, they will improve that shack, substituting the shack for 1, 2,3, 4-room, brick built dwellings, gradually will perhaps put in a second story on there, put a concrete roof on—you’d have to do that if you’re gonna build upwards, at the household level through what’s called self-help. And at the community level would be lobbying officials to put in basic services. Now in the United States, it’s very, very different. There is some level of politicking of local officials, but that’s really very weak because local officials usually don’t have the resources to put in terms of county officials. But in terms of the actual, the sort of house that you put on your lot, it’s very, very different. One finds a modest amount of self-help, particularly among original Mexican migrants, who’ve done that or their parents did that back home. But more usually what you find is that people will put a trailer on their lot and aspire to upgrading or substituting that trailer for a manufactured home.
SCOTT STORMENT: There’s some similarities in the sense that the people you’re dealing with are, they’re trying to make the best of a tough situation. I mean they’re very, very strong-willed, very capable, very proud people.
PATERSON: Scott Storment is a Senior Program Development Officer with the North American Development-Bank—NADBank—a bilateral institution set up in 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement to fund infrastructure improvement projects along the US-Mexico border. In its early years, the bank concentrated on funding water and wastewater projects in colonias , often serving as a source of leveraging other financing.
STORMENT: And also we’ve been called the “funding of last resort,” you know that when a project doesn’t quite have all of its finances together, let’s say a water utility and they need that last piece they can come to us and we’ll work with them. We do have grant funds as well as low-interest loan funds to provide them resources to get the water and wastewater infrastructure into the colonias.
PATERSON: By early 2002, the NADBank had authorized spending about $379 million from its funds to help finance 43 projects in Mexico and the United States. Storment says the bank has also expanded its original mandate and is funding other needs stemming from the proliferation of colonias.
STORMENT: We have several projects. One in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Two projects that are gonna be targeting lower income, poor, colonia-like situations on the Mexican side of the border where they don’t have adequate paving—they don’t have any paving—and so the dust is a huge public health problem as well as it’s a huge contributor to the overall air quality non-attainment issues on both sides of the border.
PATERSON: Accidents of geography, economics, and history are encouraging some border communities to cooperate.
[The sound of a train passing through a crossing.]
PATERSON: Here in the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, the daily train rattles residents on both sides of the border as it ships goods from Mexico to the United States. Like Ciudad Juarez, Nogales’s hillsides are sculpted with colonias. And on the United States side, the federal government has declared Nogales, Arizona, a colonia eligible for additional federal funding. Connecting the sister cities is a storm drain tunnel.
MIRIAM DAVIDSON: It’s not a sewer tunnel, though there is a lot of run-off from outhouses and shantytowns and stuff like that. So the water is dangerous, plus there is run-off from maquiladoras. The water in the tunnel supposedly has heavy metals and toxics in it. There’s been spills of gasoline into it. It caught fire on the Mexican side a few years ago.
PATERSON: Miriam Davidson is the author of a book about the two Nogales titled Lives On The Line.
DAVIDSON: But there is also a separate sewer line that runs south to north across the border, because all the effluent from Mexico is treated at a sewer plant that is about 8 miles north of the border. And then the water is released and flows, continues to flow north to Tucson. So the two sides have this complicated history of cooperation on the environment because of the way the land slopes here, downhill from the Mexican side to the US side. And, so it’s required them, and also the many hills in the area, it’s just made it very complicated for them in terms of water and wastewater systems. So they’ve had to work very closely together and that has helped them in terms of dealing with other issues in a cooperative way.
[The sound of Nogales traffic.]
PATERSON: Despite examples of bilateral cooperation in Nogales and other places, rapid population growth and commerce along the US-Mexico border have outpaced infrastructure investments. No Marshall Plan for the colonias and adjoining areas exists. The North American Development Bank estimates that almost $2 billion will have to be spent during the next three years just to keep up with border infrastructure needs. Whether Mexico and the United States will be able to meet the challenge at a time of austere budgets is a question with deep implications for millions of border residents. For Common Ground, I’m Kent Paterson reporting.
MCHUGH: Coming up next, a visit to Iran’s ski slopes. You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
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MCHUGH: Over the past six years, Iran’s large youth population has helped sweep reformists into the country’s presidency and parliament. Today, many of Iran’s voters have become disillusioned with the promises of reform that have not been delivered. But, Roxana Saberi visited one place earlier this year that’s a testimony to how much the country has changed in recent years.
[The sound of street traffic in Tehran.]
ROXANA SABERI: The streets of Iran’s busy capital can be stifling.
[The sound of street traffic in Tehran.]
SABERI: But drive about an hour north of Tehran to the ski slopes of Shemshak….
[The sound of skiing.]
SABERI: …and you might feel as if you’ve stepped into a different country.
UNIDENTIFIED YOUNG IRANIAN WOMAN: I think that we have nothing less than European or American people, young people in fun and other entertainment of life.
SABERI: There are 21 ski resorts in Iran, though skiing is a fairly exclusive sport here because only wealthier Iranians can afford it. The prices range from around $4 to $16 a day, depending on when you go and if you rent equipment. That may be inexpensive to many Westerners. But for Iranians, who officially make an average of about 13 million rials, or $1,700 a person a year, the cost can be substantial.
[The sounds of people waiting for a ski lift.]
SABERI: Yet the lines here are long: Managers say up to 3,000 people visit Shemshak on the weekends, and the resort has plans to expand to accommodate the crowds. Many of the visitors are young people, escaping from the restrictions of their day-to-day lives in Tehran. In the city young men and women walk on the streets and eat at restaurants together. But mixing at parties with dancing, loud music, and sparse clothing is illegal. It’s subject to punishment, which is usually a fine.
[The sound of young Iranian men and women talking to each other at a ski resort.]
SABERI: Here men and women mix more freely than elsewhere. They gather on the slopes and at the refreshment stands, laughing and occasionally exchanging phone numbers.
UNIDENTIFIED YOUNG IRANIAN WOMAN: We just want to have fun and don’t care to limitations. It’s good. No problem.
SABERI: Indeed, limitations are more lenient here than in the city. Many women like the ski slopes because the dress code is much more relaxed. Though they have to wear some sort of head covering, many replace the usual head scarf with a stylish winter cap. And many don’t sport the long coats they do in town.
LEILA: [via a translator] Only here I can dress like this. Nowhere else.
BEHNAZ: [via a translator] There are still some controls there, but it’s freer.
SABERI: Behnaz, a researcher of women’s studies in Iran, who asked that her last name not be used, says young people feel more relaxed on the slopes.
BEHNAZ: [via a translator] Because there is less pressure and fewer controls than in the city, they like to be there. Because it’s a comfortable place, they like to go there. The way women dress is freer and more comfortable.
SABERI: The slopes haven’t always been like this: In many ways, Shemshak reflects how life has changed in Iran since Mohammad Reza Shah built the resort 45 years ago. He used to come here by helicopter, to ski.
MOUSSA SHEMSHAKI: [via a translator] In the Shah’s time, men and women could mix on the slopes, but after the Revolution, the conditions changed.
SABERI: Shemshak manager Mousa Shemshaki saw how Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 brought many changes.
SHEMSHAKI: There were two separate slopes, one for women and one for men. And they used the Islamic head covering after the Revolution, and still they use it.
[The sounds of a ski lift.]
SABERI: Today at Shemshak, men and women are required to stand in separate lines for the ski lifts, and they can only ride with the same gender. But in the past few years, they’ve been able to mix on the slopes. It’s common to see young men and women teaching one another how to snowboard. As the rules have gradually become less strict, young Tehranis like 21-year-old Leila, seem to feel more at ease to say what’s on their minds.
LEILA: [via a translator] There’s a difference between girls and boys. Boys have more freedom and more power.
SABERI: Other young skiers here say they’ve become disillusioned by the slow pace of reform in recent years. Several, like this Tehrani woman who preferred not to be named, didn’t bother to vote in the recent municipal elections.
UNIDENTIFIED YOUNG IRANIAN WOMAN: Because I was at skiing. I didn’t go there. I preferred to come here and you know, have, do the ski and have fun. You know, it’s better.
SABERI: Nowadays skiing here may be less popular among Westerners than it was before the Revolution. But for Iranians, these slopes—10,000 feet high—have become a different culture within their own country. They’re a snapshot of what’s changed in the past 24 years—a peek into the minds of many young Iranians and possibly, a forecast of their future. For Common Ground, I’m Roxana Saberi in Tehran.
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PORTER: Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral is one of the main attractions in the Russian capital these days. Rebuilt in the year 2000, the temple has become a symbol of Russia’s revival after the Communist era and attracts crowds of visitors every day. As part of our occasional Destination Spotlight series, Anya Ardayeva reports from Moscow.
[The sound of ringing church bells]
ANYA ARDAYEVA: On a chilly Sunday evening in Moscow, a Russian Orthodox religious service is about to begin. Crowds of people—tourists and believers from all over the world—gather to attend the service at Moscow’s most famous church—Christ the Savior Cathedral.
[The sound of an Orthodox church service]
ARDAYEVA: There’s no electric light inside the sanctuary, but numerous burning candles create a mysterious atmosphere. There are no pews or seats either. People stand in the middle of the room as the priest conducts the service—singing and reading prayers in the old Russian language. Along the sides of the hall, believers pray to the icons lining the walls. Each icon, some of which are made of gold and pearls, depicts a different saint. According to the Russian Orthodox tradition, if a person has something to ask a particular saint, he should buy a candle, light it, and put it in front of the icon.
Many Russians travel for hours, or even days, to attend the cathedral, which has now become the main Orthodox temple in Russia. Maria Alexandrova, who lives several hours away from Moscow, says she finally made it here after watching major religious services being held in the cathedral on TV.
MARIA ALEXANDROVA: [via a translator] I always wanted to come here. I’ve been to Moscow before, but always wanted to come here. We’ve already spent more than three hours here and we don’t want to leave. I brought my daughter and grandson. This temple is becoming a symbol for all religious people in Russia, although it is new and difficult to get used to.
[The sound of an Orthodox church service]
ARDAYEVA: The cathedral’s history is complicated and tragic. Built in the 19th century in memory of the Russian victory over Napoleon, its construction took almost 44 years. But it was completely destroyed by the Communists in 1931 and replaced with a swimming pool. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new government decided to rebuild it. The recreation of the temple was considered a symbol of Russia’s spiritual revival after the long years of Communist rule.
[The sound of an Orthodox church service]
ARDAYEVA: These days, the cathedral’s massive and shiny golden dome is visible from all over central Moscow. Christ the Savior Cathedral is the largest church in the country—33 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. It’s located in the busy historic center of the Russian capital just a short walk away from the Kremlin, surrounded by offices and restaurants. Many Muscovites come here during the day to take a break from the city’s busy, everyday life. Violetta, who works nearby, says she comes to sit on a bench by the cathedral several times a week to shake off the stress of living in this big city.
VIOLETTA: [via a translator] I come here to rest and get rid of negative emotions. There’s positive energy here. I think it helps, because it takes off the burden of problems. You look at the domes and the blue skies and it feels better. I just sit here and think about nothing.
ARDAYEVA: And Victor, who brought his girlfriend here for a walk, says he is not religious at all—he just likes the atmosphere.
VICTOR: [via a translator] This is one of the most beautiful places in Moscow, on the bank of the river. It looks great, with clouds passing by. I come here three to four times a year and will bring my children here.
[The sound of an Orthodox church service]
ARDAYEVA: Moscow’s new Christ the Savior Cathedral does not have hundred-year-old walls, like other Russian churches. But it does reflect modern-day Moscow—busy, gigantic, and somewhat pompous. And still, it has a special aura that draws hundreds of visitors every day. For Common Ground, I’m Anya Ardayeva in Moscow.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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