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CJD Review
30-05-06, 22:24
May. 29, 2006 - 9:00 AM
The Water Cooler

Lara Setrakian on Untold Stories from Guantanamo Bay
Edward B. Colby

Lara Setrakian, an off-air reporter with ABC News' Law & Justice Unit, last week posted on ABC's Web site an exclusive interview with a group of recently freed Guantanamo detainees. The men -- five Muslims from China's Uighur minority -- were ultimately declared innocent by American authorities and released to Albania, the only country that would accept them. Setrakian, 24, joined ABC in October. Previously, she was an intern at Good Morning America and at ABC's affiliate in Boston, and ran the news department of Harvard's radio station, WHRB.


Edward B. Colby: How did you come across this story?


Lara Setrakian: It was around. It wasn't a mystery. That's one of the beautiful things about surfing the Web for leads. There's a complete equality of national and foreign-type stories, not that this was necessarily a foreign story -- it should concern every American that there are people being held even a day longer than they should be at Guantanamo -- but you find such a diverse range. So I came across it on the Web, followed it up, called any person listed in the piece, kind of just kept track of it, and we did a piece. I pitched it for World News Tonight, and Jonathan Karl did a segment. It was a pretty big day -- it was one of those days that the UN said something about Guantanamo being horrendous and awful. So while the other networks did pieces just straight up reporting that report and the reactions from Washington, we had something more original to deliver. We had that, plus the story of these men.


And then when it came down that they had been released, we had all those numbers intact and we had already told their story once ... [Initially], there were rumors that they were going to Armenia. Are they going to Armenia or Albania? You know, I'm Armenian, so I get that all the time -- "Oooh, you're Albanian?" "No, I'm Armenian." So I called their lawyers and clarified. They said they were in Albania. I was kind of disappointed, to tell you the truth, because it would have been fun to call them in Yerevan. But no, so we kept in touch with their lawyers. They were already in Tirana at that point. It wasn't clear when they had been released, because by May 5 the government made the announcement that they were already there. So we kept track of their lawyers, they weren't ready to speak, we just kind of stayed patient, and tried to keep tabs on them and remind them regularly that if there was a time that was appropriate, we would love to hear from them. And that time emerged, we recorded it just as you're recording me now, except we used radio equipment so we could rebroadcast it as needed, and we put it up. It was really very simple for something that we felt very strongly should be told.


EBC: The man you interviewed, Abu Bakkir Qassim, spoke very matter-of-factly about his and his fellow prisoners' experience, describing Guantanamo as "a hell" and saying that he was not angry at the U.S. but instead extremely disappointed. What were your impressions as you heard his story?


LS: It was incredible. He spoke in Uighur. He speaks no English. So what would happen was I asked the question, the translator would translate it, he would get on the phone, and speak to me in Uighur. And there's something ineffable about the sentiments he was expressing. You can tell -- you can tell when someone is articulate. You can almost just hear it in the tone and clarity and pace with which they speak. So this may sound ridiculous -- because I'm no Uighur linguist -- but you could feel that he felt strongly and spoke with certitude about what he was saying. He was very forthcoming. You did not hear any reticence in his voice whatsoever. And then the translator would get on and express what it was he said. And of course ... you can hear it, you can tell. It was a one-to-one match, the passion with which he spoke and the meaning that was translated ...


EBC: This story has some unique twists to it -- the fact that these men were kept imprisoned for more than a year after being declared innocent, and that only Albania, of all places, would finally accept them. What was the most striking aspect of the story to you?


LS: I think it was Albania's being the only one to take them. And I've got to say, I know [the U.S. government has] their reasons ... but the fact [is] that even after admitting we made a mistake, we wouldn't let them into the U.S. Because what their lawyers described to us -- this is what really struck me -- was a kind of dialogue that [was] the U.S. asking these countries, especially countries with Uighur communities, to take them in, these countries saying "Well, we don't want your terrorists," and America saying "Well, they're not our terrorists. We told you they're not terrorists. We decided it was a mistake," and then them saying "Well, if they're not terrorists, why don't you take them?" And that going on and going on, until you have a country like Albania, which has a very close relationship with the U.S., that felt it could do what others couldn't for some unknown reason.


EBC: Qassim said that by last summer "our family members pretty much thought that we evaporated from the face of the earth." Do you think the American media should devote more coverage to Guantanamo?


LS: Do I think we should devote more to Gitmo? We certainly should devote [resources] differently, I think, in the sense that every person who's there has a story, and those who were held unjustly deserve that their story be told, every single one of them. The Platonic ideal for me is we would tell the story of the people whose lives were stolen, for some period of time, in error. And that's it. And that we as Americans and as the American media would ask why, even in the cases of those who aren't mistakes, why aren't they being tried? Do they know why they're there? There are clearly security concerns that must be kept in mind, but at the same time even if we don't get the answer we want, we have to ask the question.


EBC: What is it like to start out your journalism career at ABC News?


LS: I had taken a foray into corporate life. Journalism was always the fire in my belly, always. I was jaded, I was disenchanted -- in some ways I was disenchanted by some of what I had seen in my experience of journalism, so I went off and tried the corporate world to see how that fit. And frankly I think that was a great move, because not only did I get to build that skill set, [but] now that I'm back in journalism, I can really appreciate the beauty of getting to do the job that we do. And yeah, there are not-so-great parts, but you get over it. Every job has it. But only this job pays you to be yourself, to go meet people and make friends with people and listen to them, and convey. It's great. It's like you're paid to be yourself. You're paid to be a friend of humanity. I know that sounds cheesy. You're paid to be everyone's friend, and everyone's ear, everyone's therapist, a little bit.


It's great. It sure beats the corporate world. Not that I didn't like McKinsey -- McKinsey is a lovely place. But I think those who feel it know they feel it, and it's very hard for them to do something else and be happy at it.

http://www.cjrdaily.org/behind_the_news/lara_setrakian.php