Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

On the Front Lines

Aired December 23, 2011 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Welcome to our special for CNN on the front lines which is right where any reporter wants to be, where it's happening, when it is happening when it really counts.

And when it comes to all of that, it's been a very busy year for us this year for the world. A year that mattered to millions. People who felt the earth torn apart and saw their world washed away and their faith in science rocked by a nuclear catastrophe.

Elsewhere, millions rose up against dictators. They watched friends and neighbors die in streets but then tasted freedom. You'll experience all of that in the hour ahead through the eyes and minds of my colleagues from CNN international who was there when it happened right from the start.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): January, 2011, the rumblings of an uprising in Cairo. Crowds begin to gather in city central Tahrir Square. A revolution has begun.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: What is your message to President Obama?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He should leave tonight.

COOPER: Hosni Mubarak has been Egypt's dictator for 30 years. The growing crowd of protesters wanted him out. But Mubarak digs in and the once peaceful protest turn violent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: This is an unmistakable military force. Fighter jets flying low over at Cairo's Tahrir Square, Liberation Square. It has been a symbol of defiance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: What you are hearing them say is -- go, go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Flying in the air. The demonstrators say that's the army firing to warn them to stay away.

COOPER: Pro-Mubarak forces target the un-armed protesters. Journalists also come under attack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: It's completely surreal experience. OK. OK. I'm not -- OK, I'm being told to walk. Don't say -- OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: We have been hit now like ten times. The Egyptian soldiers are doing nothing.

COOPER: We would like to be showing you instead of this picture, this strange image of us sitting on the floor, about the undisclosed location we would like to be showing you live pictures of what's happening in Liberation Square right now. We can't do that because our cameras have systematically been taken down through threats, intimidation, through actual, physical attacks.

Eighteen days of clashes and with Mubarak stepping down from power. Just one country away, another revolution begins in Benghazi, Libya.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: We are the first television crew to get to this city. We were overwhelmed by the welcome here. People were throwing candy inside the car, clapping, shaking our hands, telling us you're welcome, thank you for coming here. Incredible experience.

COOPER: The uprising against Gadhafi turns into a seven-month war. In the capital, government minders try and force-feed journalists a message of total Gadhafi control.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: And this is really what the Libyan government wants to get out, this message that in the capital of Tripoli, support for Moammar Gadhafi is strong. Support for the government is strong.

COOPER: NATO begins its campaign to protect Libyans civilians. The battle on the ground intensifies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: This is proving to be a much tougher battle than anyone had anticipated. This city, key territory, should the pro-Gadhafi elements be able to push in here the concern is this could turn into a blood bath.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: We are leaving this area. There's gunfire all around us. And we believe that Gadhafi's forces are doing a -- a round about movement, so we are rushing out of this area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guys?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: We are going as fast as we can.

COOPER: As the fight draws close tore Tripoli, Gadhafi loyalist trap journalists inside the Rixos hotel.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Within the past few second radio or past few minutes, we learned that security that has been so prevalent around this hotel has all of a sudden decided to leave essentially the government minders who are arms with clash and assault rifles. Those are that, have departed the hotel. And it's pretty empty in the lobby apart from a few security staff or rather a few hotel staff. It makes it a very, kind of uncertain time. COOPER: Tripoli begins to fall and the journalists are free. Days later, opposition fighters storm Gadhafi's compound.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Over here, you're seeing them. These are car that is belong to the Gadhafi regime. They are sitting on them. They are blowing us around on the top of them. That is obviously close security --.

I'm going to try not to get hit by any of those rounds.

COOPER: Gadhafi is later found and killed. In 2011, the world also watches a natural disaster unfold on live TV. The most powerful earthquake to hit Japan causes a massive tsunami. Widespread destruction. It feels like its scramble but this is an actually the ground that probably - this is probably about ten feet up off where the actual ground is. There's so much debris piled on. There's actually an entire van beneath me. More than 15,000 people are killed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: When the earthquake happened, students at the e men tear evacuated out of the school. They had no idea a tsunami was coming. Out of 108 students at the school that day, 77 are either dead or missing. That's 70 percent of the children at the school.

COOPER: The quake causes a nuclear emergency after floodwaters damage the nuclear reactors. The radiation leak forces the evacuation of 200,000 people. Only the animals are left behind. Journalists retreat to Tokyo but continue to report.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It has an alarm. If you suddenly find yourself in an area where there's too much radiation, it will alarm.

COOPER: Nuclear concerns linger today as the country continues to rebuild. Another story where journalists and the world watched history as it happened.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

The different seismic events of course, some begin when the earth shakes, others when people won't move. It's the second kinds that has been happening all year, all around the Arab world, most amazingly, early on in Egypt, Homs the largest population in the Arab world. We asked reporters to spend a few minutes to tell us what they remember most about covering the stories.

Ben Wedeman was in Egypt that the outside the revolution, here's what he had to say.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 2011 has been a year of unrelenting news. But of course, here in Cairo, the biggest news came on the 25th of January when we were told there would be another demonstration against Hosni Mubarak.

We attended one and it went to Tahrir Square but it was relatively small. We headed back to the office. I started actually to write a script about that demonstration. And then I got a phone call that there was tear gas being fired in Tahrir Square. So, we went down to the street, jumped in a taxi, started to go there. But we went over or rather under what is known as the six October bridge.

And just by chance, I look behind me and I saw thousands and thousands of students coming down the bridge shouting down, down with the regime and heading to Tahrir Square. When I saw that, I realized, this regime is going down.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Ben Wedeman joins me now along with Arwa Damon, Nick Robertson, Ivan Watson and Hala Gorani. What was it about what was happening on that bridge that made you realize, OK, this is really it?

WEDEMAN: It was the sheer number of people. I have seen demonstrations for years in Cairo against Mubarak, against many others. But, it was always a handful, maybe 100, maybe 200. The bridge was full. We are taking thousands and thousands of people. And I think what became apparent that day was the regime was outnumbered by the people. I think that realization spread so quickly, three days later, basically the regime gave up and handed over the country to the army.

COOPER: People died on the bridge. You were beat up. You were pushed around a little bit near that bridge, weren't you?

WEDEMAN: That was on the 28th.

COOPER: On the 28th.

WEDEMAN: Well, actually we'd got in Cairo, you get shoved around quite a lot by the security forces and this goes back --.

COOPER: You have many more specific about which day?

WEDEMAN: Yes. Yes, on the 28th, we were filming and this was clearly the day when it was all going to come down and sort of with finality. We were with Tommy Evans and Mary Rogers. And, we were basically suddenly surrounded by plain clothed policemen and basically hired thugs. You end -- they looked like they were under the influence of some sort of narcotics. And they were insisting on taking away the camera. And you know, I said no. because we had great footage of some incredible scenes and what ensued was a very long pushing and shoving match in which eventually they just cracked the camera, the view finder right of right off and took it away. And I went back to argue with the superior officer, the commanding officer --

COOPER: You are fluent in Arabic?

WEDEMAN: Yes. And I was using words that I wouldn't use in this company. And I argued with the guy for quite some time. But, you know, we lost. We lost our camera. We lost our footage. Got a bit roughed up, but, you know, it got me going. I was angry. COOPER: Right. I remember that. I got there days later. But I mean, for all of us -- for me that was the most remarkable reporting experience just to witness it, to be there.

What about for you guys? I mean, you, Ivan were trapped in Tahrir Square in a kind of rundown hotel during the worst of the violence. We were all very worried about you. We were on the other side when you're the promo bar of course.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That was the famous day of the battle of the camel where we all saw scenes we thought we would never see before. First is rock fight breaks out. And you got attacked on that day. We were all getting pushed and shoved around. And we were caught, my camera man Joe Duran and I were caught in the middle of this horrendous rock fight between two sides and basically ran, did a commando run. And our hotel, this kind of fleet hotel. The door was chained shut. And we managed to squeeze in, got to the roof and suddenly these camels started charging into the square and beating up the demonstrators and then the riders were ripped off. And we were stuck in that hotel in Tahrir Square as it was encircled by the thugs and we didn't know if we would get out that night.

COOPER: Right. Because the fear was that they come into the hotel. There was nothing to stop them if they had that area.

WATSON: We didn't think the demonstrators could hold out against the regime and they did, for days. And they won in the end.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What I find fascinating, this battle of the camels was seen from so many perspectives. You were up top. I was right there when the camels came in. I was trying to badly take, you know, blackberry pictures. It just -- it just symbolized the historical nature of what was happening. All of a sudden, this epic, bizarre camel charges in Tahrir Square.

WEDEMAN: And I think that was the moment when many Egyptians realized that the regime was bankrupt, had no idea how to deal with it other than to pay a bunch of camel drivers to put down the revolt.

COOPER: When you resort to the camel drivers, it's over at that point. But it was interesting, I mean, because of technology and because of the resources, frankly, of CNN, you are able to be in the midst of stories in a way and broadcast live during them in a way we have never been able to do before.

And we saw that whether you in Tahrir Square broadcasting live. We were -- I remember being in the balcony with you of the hotel overlooking it and getting laser- sighted by people in the area where the thugs were. And we didn't know if it was the laser sight of a rifle or from just, you know what was going?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We were surrounded, our hotel as well. We completely under-siege. You could not leave without getting beaten up. We nicknamed it the beat journalist. Because so many people were just getting smacked around. And there was just something so run and visual amongst those that were pro-Mubarak, empty us, hating us, labeling us as spies.

COOPER: We want to continue the conversation about Egypt when we come back.

Also, what's happening in Egypt, right now, we'll look at what happens after a dictator falls, struggles with the military and now elections. Here's Ivan Watson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: This year, Tahrir Square has been the scene of incredible drama. The sensational images of the famous battle of the camel, people fighting each other with clubs and sticks, making weapons and shields out of the most basic tools.

But, it has also become a symbol, Tahrir Square behind me of a struggle for freedom, a struggle for dignity in the Arab world. First in January and February as Egyptians gathered and said no to the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. And then once again, nine, ten months in November as they gather again and said no to the ruling military council here.

So, Tahrir Square has become a symbol of this struggle in for dignity in the Arab world. And I predict we'll see more drama here again as Egyptians continue to see this square as a sign and symbol of their struggle for freedom.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: I was able to witness firsthand the birth of something that I thought I would never see in the Middle East. Protesters demanding accountability from their leaders. I never thought, in the years I spent covering in the Middle East and the time I spent going back and forth to the Middle East, my family is from Syria. I never thought I would see a dictator taken down by the power of street protests.

In Egypt, it's freer. The press can travel to Cairo and report. And I have come to love that country and the people in Egypt, I truly have over the several years I spent reporting there. So, it's almost, I almost -- it's almost like wishing family well when you know a country intimately in a way I have grown to know Egypt.

COOPER: Hala Gorani in the transformation in Egypt. I spent time there at the height of the uprising. Our fellow colleagues had opportunity to see every chapter and since.

Back now with Hala with Ivan Watson, Nick Robertson, Arwa Damon and Ben Wedeman.

Ben you, I mean, you live in Cairo, your family was there. So, the same time that all of this was happening; you are also concerned about your family and their well-being.

WEDEMAN: No. I mean, I was completely split, ripped in two. Because on the one hand, I wanted to cover the resolution. On the other, my neighborhood became an armed camp. My neighbors put barricades on the roads. They pulled out weapons I didn't know they had. Shotguns, machine guns, samurai swords. And even my 17-year-old son was out every night with a baseball bat and German shepherd and joining the patrol because we live in a very nice neighborhood surrounded by slums, next to Egypt's largest prison.

COOPER: I never forget broadcasting with you and with Hala. We snuck from the hotel to the bureau because it would have a better satellite feed for us. And moments before we went on the air, you saw or the security saw some people coming out through the back alley. And the bureau is completely open. There's anybody can get into the building. And that's when we decided to turn off all the lights, get down on the floor. And actually - and the security guy suddenly jammed the couch in front of the door. I was like that's our high- tech security? Jammed the couch in front of the door. And we just went ahead with the broadcast on the floor. That, for me, was one of the most intense moments.

WEDEMAN: So real.

COOPER: Absolutely so real. You've all reported in this region. Did you ever expect to be seeing the things you are now seeing?

WEDEMAN: Never.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not. Not across all the whole of North Africa. The way that I see it changed. And I think this is only the beginning. I mean, we are looking forward to next year. The revolutions happened. As we all know what happens after revolutions, convulsions and contortions. Syria is an event, in a way that we are waiting to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Syria is going to have a huge --

ROBERTSON: To be sort of watching the Middle East completely and utterly change, who would imagine that sitting here --?

COOPER: Yes. And you had recently come out with a report saying that they believe there's already civil war in Syria. Arwa and Hala, you were recently there. I want to show some of what Arwa had to say about her experience there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAMON: I was hiding in the back of a white van with two activists who were absolutely terrified. I never met them my entire life. And they were taking me through the Damascus suburbs to link up with a young doctor, who would set up a secret underground clinic, part of a network of doctors trying to save wounded demonstrators lives.

They were taking this incredible risk because they wanted us to see some of their patients. People with gunshot wounds who wouldn't go to the hospital. And a young boy, a teenager, the doctor didn't have the medical equipment to be able to fully understand the scope of his injuries. And so, he said, this little boy was partially paralyzed from the waist down. The doctor was a young man. He said it was difficult for him to have people die in his hands because he quite simply couldn't save them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: You know for months, Syria government has been lying publicly. They have been saying their ambassadors here say journalists are free to travel wherever they want in Syria. Anybody can go there. You can see you can talk to whom you ever you want. What was your experience?

DAMON: You are free to travel as long as you take a government minder with you, who have not called the government minder, who's called the facilitator. He's not there to prevent you from reporter. He's actually there to help you out.

GORANI: There's an element they might want to do you harm. And that was the narrative the whole time we were in Syria. We are not keeping you from traveling around the country because we want to hide things from you. We are keeping you from traveling around the country because we want to protect you.

But, it was still better to be there with those restrictions than not to be there at all. We were able, in the end, to get some of the stories, get out away from our minders. And get some --

DAMON: Because the street whispers to you too and the streets talks to you.

COOPER: What do you mean the street whispers to you?

DAMON: People come up to you and they will slide pieces of paper in to your hands.

GORANI: Or somehow, we connected with some of the activists. They would slide very - I mean, in this age of twitter and facebook and everything, the most old-fashioned way of communicated is how I got the best contact in Syria, which was a young man, an engineering student whom I am still in contact with a man with a fake e-mail account, just to make sure he's OK. He just rolled this tiny pieces of paper and put in my hand and said, there lines, you call me. I was just -- it was just amazing how they get around the control.

DAMON: And when you think about the risk that they are taking, I mean they could die so easily or be tortured to have them. Things we can't imagine. We hear the stories coming out of Syria, they are terrifying. They are taking this risk all the time. And we'd be there surrounded by government minders and some of them would swank passers that they are lying, completely.

COOPER: Do you get used to seeing people being killed in the streets for speaking out?

WEDEMAN: These people, the bravery that we've seen are like - it makes you want to weep sometimes to see these people that come out, that are out of funeral of their friend who was killed and then the security forces start shooting at the funeral procession and they still keep chanting you know, democracy or down with the regime when being fired on that way.

COOPER: Even now on my show, I talked to people in Syria on the phone who insists on using their real names. They insist on it because they say they are no longer afraid and they want the government to know they are not afraid no matter what is going to happen to them.

ROBERTSON: That's the biggest unifying factor I think. I found through the whole region people saying we lost our fear. That you mentioned here in the beginning and it started there and it just rolled across when people say they lost their fear, that's where government should work.

COOPER: We are going to have much more ahead with our correspondents from Libya 2011 also brought incredible change there. Opposition forces took on Moammar Gadhafi's military. Ultimately won with help from NATO. David and Goliath story, if ever there was one with plenty of hair-raising moments in Tripoli seen as Matthew Chance became a prison along with other journalists in this hotel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHANCE: We have been living in fear for the past five days because we've been, you know, really being held against our will by this a crazy gang man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Also ahead, the triple disaster that left more than 15,000 people dead in Japan. A massive earthquake, a monster tsunami and the nuclear crisis had set-off.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: By February, the unrest sweeping Egypt and Tunisia had also reached Libya. Demonstrators took the streets in Benghazi. And in Tripoli, demanding an end to Moammar Gadhafi's rule. His army met them with force. A blood bath began and wouldn't end for eight more months. The opposition would eventually get in a foot hole and make a major advance throughout the country with the help of NATO.

Nic Robertson was in Tripoli, the capital. One of the first reporters there in the early days of the uprising.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: When we were going into Tripoli at the end of February. We had no idea what to expect. Some journalists had pulled out and just didn't go. Others have beaten up driving because they were driving from the airport to the hotel.

But the - an amazing thing happened on the first day there. The government drivers and minders took us where the rebels had control of the central city. Amazingly, the government drivers just dropped us off and let us go where we wanted in Suwia (ph). So, we walked down the road to where we could see a crowd of people gathered around a tank. And we thought this was the government showing us pro-Gadhafi supports.

And as I climbed on the tank to go stand up, I realized these were rebels. That the government minders delivered us to the rebels. And I thought I think in the cave there's going to be a gun battle and where we have brought in to film, to witness it. But that wasn't the case.

The government made a mistake. But right after that, they changed. The security kind of took over from the government officials running the press sight. Within days, when we left the hotel by ourselves without minders, we were being rounded up sometimes at gunpoint and forcibly taken back to the hotel. So, there's first few days we had a tiny bit of freedom until the government clamped down on us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Nic joins me again now along with Sara Sidner, Matthew Chance, Ben Wedeman, and Arwa Damon. Nic, what was it like in Tripoli in those early days?

ROBERTSON: That was the time we had almost all the most freedom. I think they brought us in there the intelligence got a hold of the idea we were, you know, we were renegades because we were heading to parts of the city we didn't want us to go. We are being arrested and drive back to the hotel. And then they just clamped down on us. And the access dried up.

COOPER: And then you were the first western journalist to enter through the east of Libya in opposition held territory making your way to Benghazi in that video. I will never forget the video of you getting to Benghazi was like the allies entering, you know, Paris after world war II. It's just - to see extra ordinary jubilation.

WEDEMAN: No. And, you know, our first 48 hours in Libya was really nerve-racking because everybody would meet and speak to was full of this energy that had been pent up, frustration, anger. It was suddenly coming out. And they were happy to see you but they were so excited that finally they were free. And you couldn't have a normal conversation.

People were just shouting, I thought, my God, if I stay here much longer, I'll die of a heart attack. I mean, it was thrilling in a different way from Egypt.

COOPER: During the final fall of Tripoli, Matthew and Sara, you know, I think everybody is riveted to both of you. Matthew, you were trapped in this hotel, the Rixos Hotel. I just want show some of which you had to say about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Pivotal moment to the past 12 months for me was the situation I got myself into or found myself in, in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. We weren't permitted to go outside except under these very controlled circumstances.

So you got a very distorted perspective on the entire conflict. Afterwards, it was amazing because I was personally very relieved as were the other journalists that were held inside the Rixos.

I went outside the hotel. Within a few minutes I went to the live location of CNN in the center of Tripoli. I was surrounded by these crowds of people who had come out in the center of Tripoli. They were celebrating deliberation of their country and firing guns in the air.

They were giving me flowers. It's amazing electricity about the place that they were on the verge of a new era in their country and they were finally free. You know, I felt part of that as well because I mean, I was also free after a period of being incarcerated. So it was an amazing moment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: It's rare, often reporters end up, you know, talking about things that have already happened, reporting on things that have already occurred. You are trying to make the story in the past. But that was a story that was unfolding and you were trapped in the middle of it. What was that like?

CHANCE: Highly unusual to be actually the story yourself and that's what we find ourselves being, but it was also remarkable because we find that this small little transformation that took place in our hotel where everybody was hard lines and so pro Colonel Gadhafi. The government was so loyal to him.

Over the period of the days as they went by, as sort of rebellion and the rebels gained ground. This transition took hold. The gunmen inside the hotel started to realize that the world outside the gates of the hotel, their country changed beyond recognition.

When they finally made that realization, you know, the whole thing fell apart. They basically abandoned their post. Something got killed outside.

COOPER: What was that like negotiating though with gunmen? I mean, it's an experience I think everybody on the stage has had, but until you have had it, it's sort of hard to describe. What does that like?

CHANCE: Actually, the negotiations were carried out by the producer I was working with, Jomanna, because she speaks Arabic obviously. They were the end result of what were days upon days, hours upon hours of just everybody together thinking how we were going to get out of this.

That was the big concern. This was going to be the last stand of Gadhafi's loyalists in the hotel where we were stuck. We were going to get caught in that. That was our worst case scenario. Until we're constantly kind of, you know, assessing our risk was.

Wondering, deciding what our next step was going to be and then we present that in the form of a negotiation through Jomanna and others to the guards. We had no idea, right up until the last minute or two, five minutes, maybe, that this was going to produce results.

And they finally capitulate, they finally understood that you are holding us captive was a dead-end game for them. When that happened, there was a huge emotional release. They cried, gave us their weapons.

We took some of them with us in the evacuation because if we left them there, we would have been killed.

COOPER: A lot more about Libya ahead. The nation that's ending 2011 without the man who terrorized its people for decades. Our correspondents, what they saw on the ground, historic change was happening.

Also ahead, the disaster that claimed more than 15,000 lives in Japan raised new questions about the safety of nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We made it to a neighborhood that was right next to the compound Gadhafi's stronghold.

And there was, you know, dozens and dozens of men holding their guns, celebrating, saying, you know, it's close. It's about to be over. We are going to take this compound and we are going to kick, you know, the Gadhafi regime out of Tripoli.

And we are going to crush the regime that has been so crushing to us and our families for more than 40 years. It was exhilarating. It was one of those days where you are like wow, this is history being made right here. I'm standing right here, August 23rd. Tripoli is falling around me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Sara Sidner on the fall of Libya's largest city. Across parts of the Arab world, discontent seemed to explode in 2011. People compared it to a fever or a wave, a set of giant dominos in rest that rippled. It's still rippling across the region.

It's been extraordinary to witness Sara and the rest of the panel are back. All have seen history made and rewritten as well this year.

Being there, I mean, was that the most intense experience that you had found yourself in? Because you were reporting live throughout it all.

SIDNER: It was. The second most was the Mumbai attacks that were right outside the Taj Hotel, but there was a barrier, so to speak, that the walls of the hotel. There wasn't a barrier here.

I mean, you were trying to decide minute by minute whether or not you and your crew were safe. Whatever that meant in this scenario and as people started going into this compound, we couldn't obviously see with our own eyes. We were just next door.

But we could hear and the moment we saw them open up some of these files and the names on the files, the children of Gadhafi, we were like where could they have gotten those. And they were all saying, from inside, from inside. We're swimming in the pools. We're swimming in the pools.

That was a fascination. Everyone was happy to be swimming in the pools. We thought, OK, it was a scenario where we went a little bit forward trying to decide. Finally, we got to the walls, the outside of the compound.

They were littered with bullets and holes and mortars. I mean, it looked like Armageddon in there for a second. Then, the guys were there. They were standing outside. We said, you know, who, who, who?

We said CNN. They just let us walk right in. Everyone was rushing in and then rushing out. I kept thinking what the hell is going on? What is going on? Are people being shot at inside the compound still or are people just excited they're kind of going back and forth?

And what was going on is people were bringing out guns. They were bringing anything that they could their hands on out and then telling us, you know, the tea is still hot. There are still people in there fighting.

There are uniforms. You could see shoes. You could see all sorts of things. People has just gotten up and got the hell out of there.

COOPER: It is a great moment when you are somewhere and you are able to say CNN and they say, yes, OK. It's always a nice --

SIDNER: It doesn't happen very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes the door is closed.

COOPER: That's true. Nic, I mean, you were in the hotel that extraordinary when (inaudible) came in screaming that she had been raped by Gadhafi's forces.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the people who have been -- the government officials, the minders who have been escorting us to the different places around Tripoli suddenly were pulling guns and literally took our camera and intentionally broke it in pieces and threw it on the floor.

COOPER: One of the waitresses --

ROBERTSON: Threw a bag or sheet over her head and these government thugs just took her away. The journalists were trying to stop them from taking her away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you going with her?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: I mean, it was the brutality that the regime said wasn't happening, unfolding in front of our very eyes by the guys who are pretending to be somebody else.

COOPER: For you, what is a good day in the field? What is a day that makes you feel you know what? This was a good day. We are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When, you know, when you feel like you actually do have this fundamental purpose and you are feeling these human emotions and especially with everything that's happening in the Middle East right now.

I don't think despite the fact that we have been covering it we actually understand what it means for the people that are going through all of this.

What it means for the Libyans who have gone through so much under Gadhafi to finally not to have that anymore and all of these other places. They go through things that we can't even imagine. It's our worst nightmares and they are living it.

ROBERTSON: We are a window for our audience. As big as we can open that window and show them what's happening, it's a great feeling when you open that window and you know that you can show some of that story to the world.

But what's an amazing feeling is when you feel on this huge story, the world actually cares and it's looking in through that window. Then you feel like you have done your job.

COOPER: Because sometimes you feel like you are talking into a wind tunnel, telling the stories and it doesn't have any impact.

ROBERTSON: When the world cares and you know that the world cares and you know that they are watching. Those are the moments that get me the most. You know, I think they were slowed down to reflect on this year. But when you reflect on it now, I mean, just looking at these pictures, it's reminding us, we were talking about it. It's powerful to watch it.

SIDNER: Humbleness.

COOPER: I think a lot of people don't realize is that we don't actually see a lot of the reports. When you are overseas and filing this stuff and you had to go to another demonstration, you don't actually end up seeing a lot of this stuff. It was interesting just to watch you all watching these pieces.

ROBERTSON: We were so much younger at the beginning.

COOPER: True. We are going to have much more ahead. The other big story of 2011, Japan's killer earthquake and tsunami. Villages turned into rubble. Not just homes lost, more than 15,000 lives lost. For the survivors, there are still radiation concerns. Our international correspondents are going to share our insights on the disaster.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We look at the biggest stories from 2011 from our correspondents who covered the stories firsthand. I want to turn to the Japan earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11.

No one can forget that video of a 30-foot wave that destroyed the city in minutes. Scenes like this played out all along the coast of northeast Japan.

And here is what caused the most fear, the cripple of Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Explosions there causing major release of radioactive material.

Officials eventually put the damage on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. Here's how it all started with that massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit the island nation. Here's CNN's Kyung Lah.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If there is one story that will always be memorable to me this year, it's covering the tsunami in Japan.

But not those massive scenes of devastation, it's when I sat down with a young mother who was going over how many family members she had lost and she started counting on her hand and she ran out and she had to keep counting.

She lost seven immediate family members and among them, her 8- year-old son. That's when it really struck home to me that this story was not about all the structures that were lost. It was about the lives, the loved ones and these victims who would forever be impacted by it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: More than 15,000 people were killed in the disaster. Kyung Lah joins me now along with the rest of our panel. Hala Gorani is back, Nic Robertson, Ivan Watson and Matthew Chance.

It was so extraordinary to be there. I had the pleasure of working with you a little bit. To be there not just for an earthquake and tsunami, but also this radiation fear and disaster that was occurring.

What worried you the most? What was the most difficult aspect of reporting this storm?

LAH: Because you can't see it. You know, unlike the conflicts that we have seen around the world, you can't tell if the nuclear radiation is hitting your body, you don't know. So, that was the most alarming thing. We simply didn't know.

COOPER: You were 11 weeks pregnant at the time. A lot of people didn't realize.

LAH: Yes, I was pregnant at the time. My 2-year-old was also at home with my husband. We had earthquake damage in our apartment. So there were a lot of personal things going on. But that was a big concern. How close can we get?

How much should we push personal safety in order to get this story, this incredible story, which we all want to cover? There was very little information coming from the government.

COOPER: Incorrect information.

LAH: Incorrect information and we now know that they drag their feet and did not tell the international community all the information that they had.

COOPER: Everybody on this flat form has covered natural disasters. What is the difference between covering, I mean, emotionally covering a natural disaster from covering a war? Is it a different reporting experience for you all?

ROBERTSON: I found one earthquake in India, you are very much -- you become the scenes of devastation. You are trying to cover the story, but you are so much involved in it because you don't have anywhere to sleep.

You are not sure where we are going get electricity from and don't know where your food is going to come from because everything is collapsed. It's all on the ground lying around you.

COOPER: And you're talking electricity. I don't think a lot of people realize, for us, the keys when reporting on a disaster basically gasoline so that we can run a generator so you can get electricity so you can broadcast. That's the number priority and then finding a place to sleep, and then finding something to drink.

ROBERTSON: You're leveled with the community. You suffer.

CHANCE: One of the big, you know, obstacles of being in a natural disaster zone like an earthquake or tsunami, the infrastructure is so devastated usually that you are in exactly the same boat as everybody else in the area.

COOPER: It is terrifying dealing with the radiation disaster because you really don't have any sense of where is OK to go and there's not a lot of expertise that you can really rely on.

And you suddenly find yourself kind of making these choices like well, OK, I think this place is OK, but we really have no idea. It's the choices that civilians are making every minute.

SIDNER: The Japanese are so calm. The biggest difference I see in listening to all of you talking is we went from a story that was so filled with emotion and picture to a story that was exact 180 emotional opposite. The Japanese are very quiet.

COOPER: The thing that impresses me about all of you and I've worked with all of you and I've seen you in the field is that, you know, meet some people in the field, correspondents who swagger around as if they have a hard bitten newsman, they have seen it all and done it all and nothing affects them.

I think those people have no business being in the field, in those places because I think unless you are affected by it, unless you see it viewed as a human being, as well as a reporter, you don't do as effective of a job in telling the story of what human beings are going through.

I have seen each of you in the field really be moved and overwhelmed at times by the things you have witnessed. How do you deal with it? How do you come back from that and then go back out again at?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's the worst is the feeling of helplessness, if you are watching some child dying or a family that have lost their home or whatever. I mean, you can try to be empathetic.

You can try to explain the story to the world, but there's little you can do. You can give them a bottle of water. You can give them a granola bar, people in worst situations, but ultimately --

ROBERTSON: You can feel their suffering, but can't take their suffering away from them and I think that hurts.

COOPER: How do you deal with seeing this stuff time and time again?

WATSON: I feel beaten up after some of these assignments. And this year with all the euphoria of the Arab spring has also been, you know, I think for all of us, personally exhausting. Nic, made a joke we all look older than we did a year ago. I think everybody feels that way.

COOPER: Do you feel you carry the people you have met?

ROBERTSON: Sometimes. I've experienced on several occasions I would sit on the plane on the way home, which is the first time when you can actually stop and you are not focusing on working and the next story and you are beginning to disconnect and disengage.

The tears roll down my face and I can't stop it. I don't want to stop it because that's part of the release. I'm lucky when I go home, I walk in the front door, I have two girls and a lovely wife. I get on with that and I like running. That dissipates some of it. But why do we go out again? Because ultimately, we believe it does make a difference.

COOPER: And you have all had those moments?

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I have them after. If you have them during, you can't do your job, you start crumbling. But usually it will come a few days later or a few weeks later.

If I have seen a YouTube video, someone shot in the head, dragged by their friend in Syria or somewhere else, I sit there and think, in my mind, I think, God help that country. I hope these people are OK.

CHANCE: I find it life affirming, I have to say. You know, you see so many dead people. You see the fragility of life. I mean, I went to the tsunami, 8,000 bodies on the beach when I arrived.

I think it just makes you appreciate your life. That's how I deal with it. You know, I sort of kick back after a terrible story like that and think dear God that could so easily have been me. It wasn't. I got my life still.

WATSON: There's a difference between conflict and the natural disasters. I think on an emotional level when there's a conflict, there's somebody you can be angry at. There's a guy with a gun who's hurting innocent people.

There's some tyrannical figure like Moammar Gadhafi, who you can blame him for all this. But when it's a natural disaster, it's that the finger of God that destroys a city. There's nobody you can blame and it's a strange -- once again, it's the feeling of helplessness that you can't really comfort those people.

LAH: I don't know what to say. I mean, how many people did I talk to who lost every single member of their family? I talked to so many parents who lost all their children. So, what do you say to them? The only thing we can do as journalists is to tell their story.

WATSON: You know, maybe keep just -- coming back to the places later, or finding the people out of the conflict zone or the danger zone or they have started rebuilding and, you know, they are scarred. But they are intact and moving on with their life.

ROBERTSON: At the time, it feels terrible. You see their resilience.

WATSON: Come back a year or two years later.

COOPER: I also will say is one of the extraordinary things about CNN is that not only are we the first ones there and the last to leave, we are the first ones to go back and return more often than anybody else I have found over the years. I think that's great credit to the organization. We have to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: It's been a real pleasure talking to my colleagues from CNN International. I hope you have enjoyed it as well. In just a few days, they will all be gone, gone wherever the story is happening next. It's been a great hour, a remarkable year. Thanks for watching.