A journalist in Kyrgyzstan's prisons: re-learning how to "hurry up and wait"

01-04-2008 Feature

Imogen Foulkes is the BBC correspondent in Geneva. She recently travelled to Kyrgyzstan to report on the ICRC's support for efforts to fight multi-drug-resistant TB in prisons. Before flying home she contributed this report to icrc.org.

The first time I climb inside an ICRC Land Cruiser, it’s 3 in the morning outside Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. Grumpy and jetlagged after the flight from Zurich, I am very glad to see it.

But my tiredness is not the only reason I’m happy that vehicle is there: often when I arrive in a new country on a reporting assignment, my first task is to cast my eyes over the waiting taxis, and choose the one with the most alert looking driver and the least balding tyres, so I’m grateful to the ICRC for sparing me that.

Not least because the BBC has become an incredibly safety-conscious organisation; I was required to fill out a lengthy risk assessment form before I even got on the plane to Bishkek, and a key question was what sort of vehicle I would be travelling in. Naturally, an ICRC four-wheel drive with that red cross on the side satisfies even the most pernickety of safety managers.

  ©ICRC/J. Powell    
  Imogen Foulkes interviews the ICRC's Dr. Maxim Berdnikov on the TB threat    
    I’m here to report on the ICRC’s work with tuberculosis patients in Kyrgyz prisons; rates of multi-drug resistant TB are very high, I am told, and there is little in the way of medical staff or resources to treat infected prisoners.

 Serious health issue  

For me, it is something of a dream assignment: not only can I escape the briefings, conferences and workshops of Geneva for a week, but I will have the support of the ICRC to go inside former soviet prisons (not something journalists get to do very often) to report on a health issue which is increasingly serious, and which is currently attracting much attention.

So, after an all too short night’s sleep, I am on my way, with the ICRC producer and cameraman, to the ICRC’s office in Bishkek for a first meeting. To my surprised delight, that white off-roader with its red cross is waiting outside the guest house to drive us there, even though the office is only a few minutes away.

This helpful organisation continues throughout the week; on the second day we are taken to colony 27, where some 50 prisoners are now, thanks to support from the ICRC, being treated for MDR-TB.

There, two translators and two ICRC doctors are on hand to assist us, as well as two prison doctors, various nurses, and numerous guards. And this is the point at which the awkward downside of television journalism becomes apparent.

 "C'est l'enfer!"  

As helpful experts mill around, I can see the French-speaking cameraman trying to get shots of the prison building itself, without, if possible, too many officials in the picture. For me, these are important pictures; I am hoping to use them at the start of my report to illustrate the kind of rundown prison infrastructure in which TB has been spreading.

But it’s not easy. I catch the cameraman rolling his eyes at me as another person wanders into shot, all the while staring straight into the camera lens. " C’est l'enfer (literally: This is hell!) ," he mutters.

Meanwhile, the medical staff and prisoners who are expecting to be interviewed are wondering what on earth is taking us so long. It is a very understandable question, how indeed can it take hours, days even, to produce a piece which will be only three or four minutes on air?

“Television is like that,” I say to one doctor who I see eyeing his watch. “You know we have a joke about it, we call it ‘hurry up and wait.’”

And television makes extraordinarily intrusive demands; we want prisoners to take their TB medicines on cue for us, in front of the camera, we want them to take their shirts off and submit to examinations, we want them to tell us about the misfortunes which have brought them to this situation.

 Patience and good grace  

I am always amazed by the patience and good grace with which ordinary people put up with all this, and the prisoners and staff at Colony 27 are no exception. We come away with excellent interviews and pictures… just a couple of hours later than we were expected to leave!

The next day we head to Colony 19, and here too I have specific pictures that I want. Colony 27, with its renovated interiors, was perfect for the treatment pictures, but I still need interiors of a prison that looks like a prison, and Colony 19 will, I have been assured, provide that.

But when we arrive, it appears there is some confusion about whether we should be there at all, and the governor at the prison seems reluctant to let us in.

As discussions seem to founder on whether we need a copy of our letter of introduction from the justice ministry, my journalist’s foot is beginning to tap impatiently.

 Day in, day out, around the world  

“Tell them I’ll copy it out myself, by hand,” I mutter, as I imagine flying back to Switzerland without my key pictures.

Wisely, the ICRC delegates ignore me and continue their negotiations. As I wait I reflect on the fact that this is what the ICRC does, day in day out, all over the world. And not, usually anyway, to help out journalists, but to gain access to detainees who often desperately need ICRC support, in the way of medical attention or even just that crucial thing – to pass on news to their families.

In the end, Colony 19 opens its doors to us, and once again we come away with fantastic pictures and interviews… we’ve got everything we need to start editing the piece.

So, as I travel back to Manas airport in that white Land Cruiser (once again at 3 in the morning) I reflect on the fac t that, courtesy of the ICRC, I’ve learned my own valuable version of " hurry up and wait”.

 Imogen Foulkes, 2008  

See the news report by Imogen Foulkes and her TV report on the BBC website. For more on the ICRC's support programme for TB in Kyrgyzstan, read the report by the ICRC's Jan Powell.