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Reports

Wednesday, 16 April 2003
--> Hampstead Montreal, Quebec, Canada (day 2)

When I woke up this morning, I heard Sandy typing away behind her computer. I felt miserable and told Sandy about that. "Hey, you can just lay in bed all day, probably you need to recover from something." And while drinking a lot of tea, that's just what I did.
Sandy was being very active behind her computer as she was helping out a friend of her. That friend just got an Okay to do a report on the Republican Guard of Iraq and had to get herself to Baghdad.

And right here, from her apartment in Montreal, Sandy was gathering all the ins and outs to help this lady to Baghdad. She was on the phone with colleagues all over the world to get a way in.

A renowned journalist in California who had been all around the world as a war correspondent told Sandy that the press can only get into Iraq through the Pentagon. "Just forget about it, forget it," he basically said.

Well, that didn't lay back Sandy at all and one half an hour later she was calling with a friend in Jerusalem and in a two-hours-long phone call they figured out that it is possible to get to Iraq through Jordan - with the occasional hassles of course. They even found themselves a fixer right in Baghdad, somebody 'on the ground' who could arrange things and help them out! "I doubt I am going along to Baghdad with her," Sandy said with a sigh.

Between her phone calls she told me fascinating stories about the people she just called. Like the one about that well-known war correspondent who has been a kind of a mentor to her: "There we were in Moscow in 1991 and the Russian militaries were bombing their own Russian White House. We were sitting behind this huge wall as radio correspondents for big and important media networks in North America and all we could scream was 'oh fuck!', 'oh fuck!', every time a bomb got near us."

And whenever she received a phone call (the phone would ring all the time), she would just say "Hey, by the way, do you know anybody in Iraq?" It's was becoming comical to see this all happen from my fold-out-couch-bed in the living room. And again she would find somebody. "Are you serious!? Does he speak English?"

Of course I wanted to see some work by her and she proudly came with her favourite articles, of course one about her favourite place on the world: North Korea. She also showed me one of her television documentaries. "I want to show you my first documentary ever. Not that it is that good, but just because it all started with this video."

An 8-minute video portrait the treatment of pregnant women in Moscow at that time, which wasn't exactly how you would expect it to be. After giving birth, women are left alone on their bed and they get to see their child for a few seconds in the hands of a doctor. The husband would not be there at all, he would throw the necessary goods for his lady through the hospital window, not a rare sight to see in Moscow at all. Because of the lack of warm water, newborn babies are cleaned with Vaseline and put away. After three days the mother would see the baby again and one week later she can go home and show the child to the father. One Russian young lady on the video said, with a smile: "It was good I brought myself a blanket, otherwise I died of the cold."

The video continued on about birth control in Moscow and about how pregnant women (!) were given education in birth control. Young ladies, just before having their fifth abortion, would say they would never use a condom because it doesn't feel good. "I rather have an abortion, I am used to that," one said.

It was unbelievable to watch this story and I was pretty impressed, of course. "I knew nothing about editing; a friend there helped me out with that. And I simply filmed everything with a Hi8-camera. I did not know anything about lighting or framing, so I learned that from friends."

Sandy has a very sad connection with the Netherlands. Her soulmate, best friend and "partner in crime" so to speak was a guy from the Dutch town Enschede, named Sander Thoenes. "Maybe you heard of him," she asked me. "He worked for the Financial Times of London and was murdered in East Timor three years ago. We went to school together in the United States, then moved to Moscow together where we spent six years playing journalist and travelling incessantly."

And with these facts I dug deep into my memory and remembered the fuss at home when this Dutch journalist was brutally murdered in Indonesia (nowadays the Republic of East Timor).

While covering events in East Timor Sander Thoenes was riding pillion on a motorcycle taxi. According to the driver six uniformed gunmen of the Indonesian army riding three motorcycles ordered them to stop. When they drove off the gunmen opened fire.

"That's just one side of the story," Sandy told me. "That same driver made various different statements."

Sander Thoenes died at the scene, and his body was recovered the next day by Australian soldiers who also found his reporter's notebook and pen by his hand.

I could totally understand what an awful time this must have been for Sandy, to loose your best friend, your pal, your partner you do everything with, so suddenly.

Next to her desk hangs this big collage with paper clippings, photos and an article she published after his death. Have a read: "His name was Sander, he was my best friend" and visit the Sander Thoenes Memorial Site, set up by his family.

The worst thing about this all is that, after two years of investigations, the case was closed by the Indonesian court, because of the lack of evidence. Dutch ministers debated about this and a Dutch independent lawyer is still knee deep in this whole case. "It has no political priority for anybody at the moment," Sandy explained. "And at that same day some 100 other innocent people were shot to death. I once heard an interview with the office of the battalion who is pointed out as the leader of the murdering group of gunmen. All he said about the murder on Sander was 'just prove it'. Which says enough doesn't it?"


As the day carried on, it ended up that I could not come along with Sandy to the Jewish Passover Seder celebration at her parents' house. It struck her a bit, but I could understand it. First of all I am not Jewish, secondly Passover is a traditional family event and I could understand the point of the parents about that stranger with his camera.

"But you know what?" she said, "I don't want you to be stuck here again." And she gave me $25 dollar and four metro tickets. "Why don't you just go into town and do whatever you want to do?" Are you serious?!

So that's what I went to do! Sandy dropped me off at the nearest metro station near her apartment complex and from there I took the metro to the Quartier Latin. Just because after hearing all the stories about this area yesterday when we quickly drove through, I wanted to have walk along Rue St Denis and the Boulevard St Laurent.

It was pretty cold. Yesterday it ended up sunny with 20 degrees Celsius, today it was suddenly just 1 degree… I had coffee in one of those coffee shops where they sell one thousand variations of coffee (Maison de Torrefaction) and had myself a Mokka Voltaire while browsing through a city guide of Montreal that Sandy had given along.

After sauntering through the Latin Quarter I ended up in the downtown centre of Montreal. The sun had set and light was made by all the neon lights along the streets. I bought myself some supper with the money Sandy had given me at one of the food courts on the tunnel level of The Eaton Centre, which is another part of the Underground City.

Afterwards I decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to watch a movie at the cinemas on the sixth floor of this huge complex. The Spielberg-flick Catch Me If You Can was playing tonight for the last time and I still had not seen it. I missed it in the Netherlands as the film came out when I left for Canada.

So with a big bucket of popcorn and one litre of Pepsi (that's what they call regular here!) I enjoyed this charming feel-good movie starring Leonardo diCaprio and Tom Hanks.

After the movies I walked down the streets, looking for a metro station to take me back to Sandy's house until I passed this marvellous red sandstone mansion on Bishop Street with an Irish Pub called McKibbin's where I heard a band playing Britney Spears songs!

I have terrible weak heart for Irish Pubs and there is always a good atmosphere when a band is playing Britney Spears music, believe me. And while being surrounded by all kinds of people of my age, I enjoyed the band and a nice cold pint of Guinness beer. It felt great.

A night out on my own isn't that bad at all!

Good night Montreal!

Ramon.