Kevin Sites Seeks the 'Hot Zone'

Journalist Kevin Sites set out to cover every armed conflict in the world in one year. Armed with one small camera, he delivered his message through a nontraditional video news outlet: Yahoo.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

This is the scene in Lebanon on July 26, 2006.

Mr. KEVIN SITES (Reporter, Yahoo! News): There are people here trying to find the other victims, and there's a lot of anger here, a lot of seething anger. I talked to certain people that were on the streets when we came in right after the missile strike, said that they hated America. They didn't even mention Israel. They hated America, and you hear people right now cheering, doing it this (unintelligible) cheer.

STEWART: That was Kevin Sites, a journalist who set out to cover every armed conflict around the world in one year. This was kind of an exercise in lo-fi meets hi-fi. The lo-fi part: one journalist on the ground with a small camera, but using technology to deliver his message through a nontraditional news video outlet an Internet a portal, Yahoo!

Now, in his new book, "In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, 20 Wars," it just kind of reads like a diary, really. Kevin not only details what he saw, what he reported on, but it's also a peek into the personal conflicts of a journalist trying to make sense of his profession.

Kevin Sites joins us in the studio, and it's nice to see - Kevin and I used to work together. We worked at the same time at NBC News.

Mr. SITES: That's right. Good morning.

STEWART: So I always talked to you via satellite, not that often in real life.

Mr. SITES: That's right. You're debriefing me from your comfortable studio.

STEWART: Yes, I was, I was. I was always sort of amazed at what you guys go through to in the field. You know, according to your book, you traveled to over 30 countries - Lebanon, Haiti, Uganda. Of all the conflicts you covered, which one really still stays with you?

Mr. SITES: They all stay with me in one shape or form. And, you know, it's interesting, because you talked about our time at MSNBC together and NBC. And I really felt that, you know, television is a powerful medium, but we just weren't getting enough time to tell the stories - a minute, 32 minutes. And here I had this opportunity to tell a story not in one dimension, but in three - a video, still photography and text dispatches - and then, to deliver it all on the Internet, where it could be archived forever.

And so those stories became very powerful vignettes from all of those different places, but I think very specifically of the Congo over and over again, the New York Times recently did a take out on this. But, you know, a year and a half ago when I was in DRC, they were experiencing that epidemic of rape as a weapon of war and interviewing these young women that had encountered such amazing horror, but it wasn't just their misery that we were reporting on. It was their resilience, too.

There were a lot of children that resulted from these rapes, and instead of rejecting them outright and, you know, imbuing that situation with hatred or rejection, they transformed it into this sense of love, naming their children, things like Berwanna(ph), which means goodness in their name, in their language, and love and hope, in transforming that.

STEWART: You spoke about the amount of time and the way you can tell a story and really develop it. It seems like a dream assignment for a lot of journalists, especially ones who cover international relations and international conflicts. But of doing it, what is the challenge of it that came up and smacked you on the face?

Mr. SITES: There's many, you know.

STEWART: The one that you didn't expect?

Mr. SITES: It's a dream, and it's a nightmare. I mean, for instance, when I was working in television for NBC, I was a television reporter and producer, but I would write my blog at night. They weren't conflicting in the reporting. I didn't have to do them both at the same time.

One was a national news report, the other was more of a diary. And in doing this job, I had two cameras on my shoulder, a note pad in my hand. You know, which tool do you use first when you go out in the field? And I was using all the wrong tools when I started. I was taking notes when something dramatic was happening in front of me. I was taking still photographs when it was inappropriate. I was shooting video when nothing was happening. I needed to use the strengths of all those mediums, take notes when things are calm, use the video to capture the inherent drama of something and then start photo - using still photography just to focus on faces.

STEWART: Okay. Two years ago today, you were in Sudan…

Mr. SITES: Wow, you guys did your research.

STEWART: …okay? And I want you to read - this is part of a child…

Mr. SITES: You're going to make read early in the morning.

STEWART: …yes, a chapter called "The Longest War," and this is about the Janjaweed. The part that I highlighted - it's just a short paragraph…

Mr. SITES: Thank you.

STEWART: …would you mind reading that?

Mr. SITES: No, not at all.

(Reading) "Most of the men here say they joined the SPLA because of the atrocities committed against them by Arab tribal militias known as the Janjaweed. The SPLA claims the militias are sponsored by the government, a charge the Janjaweed denies."

STEWART: It's the Sudanese People Liberation Army, and I thought it was interesting you presented a reason for people being involved in conflict. Did you find there was anything common about the reason people are in conflict? You've been in all these different conflicts.

Mr. SITES: Well, if I went to all of these conflicts and some kind of truth didn't emerge in that time period, I'd be a pretty dense person. And there really was a truth, and that's that war poses as combat. It poses as the inherent drama - the shooting, the fighting, the armies, the guerrillas - when in reality, it's collateral damage.

We always hear the politicians and generals say, wars, there's always going to be a little collateral damage in war, civilian casualties. No. There might be a little combat. There's always collateral damage in war. It's always about civil destruction. That is the defining feature of war, and it lingers on for generations. Those battles may only last moments, you know, days or weeks, but that civil destruction goes on and on.

And again, people would say to me, what is it? Is it religion the causes of these things? It's all about resources. In every one of these conflicts I went to, it's all about resources, and you just had me read a passage from Sudan. At the very most basic level, they call their militias, protect the cows. It's about protecting the resources.

STEWART: Because the cow is the one thing…

Mr. SITES: The cow represents the economic life…

STEWART: Yeah, it's the one thing of the economy.

Mr. SITES: …you know, of their tribe. Absolutely.

STEWART: It's interesting also, that you're very honest about you were watching a video where you saw a Chechen rebel cut off somebody's finger, and you said to yourself, I hope I never go to Chechnya.

Mr. SITES: It scared the hell out of me.

STEWART: Yeah. and then you ended up there, but you saw a little bit of beauty in a way that people survived there.

Mr. SITES: It was amazing, because there was a carpet - there were two carpet-bombing campaigns that happened in Chechnya, destroyed the city. And I found people living in that rubble still, you know, years later. And I found an artist that had carved out a niche within one of these buildings. There was a kind of a comfortable little apartment that hadn't been bombed out within a building that was completely destroyed.

And he was a painter, and he was painting landscapes of the Chechen countryside, and they were absolutely beautiful. But this art, this beautiful art was occurring in the midst of rubble, and he was also raising a child there with his wife. And they had to go down to haul water up to their apartment five floors up, but they were making a life. But they also knew that they couldn't live there forever. That was no future for their child. And that was really interesting, almost a metaphor in some ways, living within the destruction.

STEWART: You know, I got to the end of your book, and I sort of made a bet with myself, would there by a Kumbaya ending? Sort of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …the world that I learned about people…

Mr. SITES: It doesn't seem so, does it?

STEWART: …that way. No, you wrote that you're not particularly optimistic or more hopeful than when you left on this assignment.

Mr. SITES: I'm not. In fact, you know, much less so. I mean, I've seen this constant destruction and misery. But at the same time, I'm more motivated. You know, the idea behind this is not that if this defeats my spirit in just covering it, imagine what it does to the people that live there. And what I saw time and time again was strength of spirit of resilience, and you have to honor that. You have to honor it by trying to solve the problems. And for me, it's about making people more aware, and I think that's the first step.

STEWART: You're on book tour right now. You're going to be reading tonight in New York?

Mr. SITES: I'm - that's right. I'm going to be reading here and - at the Borders on Park Avenue. And also, I'll be doing another book tours around the country and hopefully talking and showing the documentary that's included with the book. We have a documentary called "The World of Conflict." It's packaged, because it was a multimedia project. We wanted to make sure people can see and feel, actually, what we were seeing out there.

STEWART: All right. Kevin Sites, it is very good to see you in real life.

Mr. SITES: Good to see you, Alison. Thanks.

STEWART: Good to see you in one piece as well…

Mr. SITES: Good to be in one piece.

STEWART: …after reading this book. It's called "In the Hot Zone."

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