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On the Ground in Damascus; Blair on Syria and Middle East; World's Richest Man Gives Back; Imagine a World

Aired January 21, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour, who is on assignment in Moscow for an exclusive interview with the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

The prime minister spoke of security issues in Sochi, home of the Winter Olympic Games in just a few weeks as well as the country's controversial anti-gay propaganda law. He also addressed an issue that's left Russia and the West at loggerheads for most of the past three years, the war in Syria.


GORANI (voice-over): These talks are said to take place this week, but they nearly collapsed before they even started. The disarray began when the United Nations decided to invite Iran and then disinvited Iran after a major outcry from the Syrian opposition as well as the United States that said it was surprised.

Russia, like Iran, is a key backer of Syria's President Bashar al- Assad. Here's what Medvedev had to say about it all.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: One hundred thousand-plus people have been killed in the last three years in Syria. There is starvation in the land, haunting many people. And there just doesn't seem to be any way out of this.

What are your real hopes for this Geneva 2 conference this week?

Do you think that there's really going to be some kind of solution?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, PRIME MINISTER OF RUSSIA (through translator): The thing that has happened with the revoke or withdrawal of the invitation to Iran, I believe that's unacceptable.

Can someone think that Syrian problem may be seriously discussed without the Iranian factor, without the account of it?


GORANI: Well, you can see the whole interview tomorrow on this program, including the prime minister's response to Amanpour's exclusive and chilling report of organized abuse and killing on an industrial scale at the hands of the Syrian government.


GORANI (voice-over): This photo, just one gruesome example of the use of starvation as a weapon of torture, hard to look at. The U.S. State Department says that the report suggests widespread and systematic violations by the Assad regime, Reuters reports. The images provide a graphic reminder to those gathering in Geneva of the urgency of bringing peace to Syria.


In a moment I will speak to former British prime minister Tony Blair about the Syrian crisis and more, including what's going on Iraq today. But first, for the very latest from inside Syria, we go to Fred Pleitgen.

So, Fred, we are just about a day away from the all-important Geneva 2 conference as far as the regime is concerned. What are the expectations?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's (INAUDIBLE) delegation had just arrived in Geneva this evening, Hala. And its expectations are that the conference will go their way. What they want to do is they want to turn this conference to be talks about fighting what they say is terrorism in Syria, the terrorism may of course mean everybody who's fighting against the regime, including some of the groups that the U.S. and others consider to be moderate.

The delegation that they sent to Syria is a very high-level one, including the foreign minister, the deputy foreign minister, the assistant to the president, Bouthaina Shaaban. So they have sent some very high- level people. They clearly are ready for these talks. They've been preparing for them for a very long time.

But on the other hand, Hala, they also feel that things are going their way on the battlefield as well. They feel that they're winning territory back; there's no denying that that's the case. And also they're putting in place some things that they call goodwill measures, where they're allowing aid into places that have been cut off, that have been under siege for a very long time. We were able to visit one of those places, the Yarmouk camp, which is mostly inhabited by Palestinians, but also has some Syrians in it as well, people that have been starving and where the U.N. says that the regime has used starvation as a weapon, (INAUDIBLE) civil war now aid is getting in and people are getting out. Here's what we saw today.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): After months of hunger, cold and violence ,for some of the weakest, the nightmare is over. The youngest, Hadi Firaz Baqir (ph), is only 15 days old.

"There's not enough food inside. I simply didn't have enough food for him," Hadi's (ph) mother says.

This is the Yarmouk area, just a few miles from central Damascus, inhabited mostly by Palestinians, it fell into rebel hands more than a year ago. Yarmouk has been under siege by pro-Assad forces since September. Activists inside say dozens have died of starvation and lack of medical care. This 75-year old says the lack of food is devastating.

"Most of the people want to get out. They're hungry. There's no food and hunger is the killer," he says, as gunshots rang over the area.

Yarmouk has seen fierce battles between pro- and anti-regime forces. International aid groups have accused the government of denying food to civilians trapped inside. The regime says armed rebels did not allow food and medication to enter.

We are now inside Yarmouk camp. This is the final area of government control and this is also as far as the military is going to let us go. They say otherwise it's too dangerous because there are snipers in the area behind us.

But that area is the place where thousands of people are still trapped.

Now in what the government says is a goodwill gesture, ahead of the Geneva peace conference, some aid is being allowed in and some people allowed to leave. But a resident we spoke to inside says little has changed and he has no faith that the peace conference will lead to an end of hostilities here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that nothing will change after Geneva. But I hope something different will happen. I hope that. But I'm sure that nothing will change.

PLEITGEN: The opposition says the Assad regime is using acts like this as a publicity stunt. For those able to leave Yarmouk after months of siege, politics are an afterthought and most are happy to simply be alive.


PLEITGEN: As you can see, Hala, most people that we speak to here on the ground in Damascus say their hopes aren't very high for this Geneva conference. But one thing I can tell you from speaking to both people opposed to the regime and people who are for the regime, both sides, the civilians, very much want this war to end. They are, as they say, sick of it and they're ready for some sort of solution, Hala.

GORANI: All right. And one can understand them absolutely. Thanks very much, Fred Pleitgen. Great reporting in Damascus.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair knows all too well both the devastation of war and the challenge of bringing peace in the Middle East. I was able to speak with him earlier today from Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum. I asked him about his thoughts on the Syria peace talks in Geneva as well as the report that alleges systemic torture and killing of prisoners by the Assad regime.


GORANI: Tony Blair, thanks very much for joining us today from Davos.

First, I have to ask you about Iran being disinvited from the Geneva 2 conference, that the aim of which is to try to find a peaceful solution to the civil war in Syria.

Russia is saying today that it was a mistake to rescind the invitation.

Do you agree?

TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it was pretty inevitable, given that the whole purpose of the conference is how you manage to get a transitional arrangement in place and even to make the transition. So if countries aren't prepared to come on that basis, there doesn't seem much point in participating. So I think the rescinding of the invitation was fairly obvious and clear. I think the more difficult and challenging task is how you make sure that these talks can lead to at least a pathway into some agreement that allows the carnage in Syria and the bloodshed and the terrible events to stop and be replaced by something that resembles a stable transition to peace.

GORANI: And how do you do that when many of the representatives of those fighting on the ground in Syria aren't even present in Switzerland and won't be this week?

BLAIR: Absolutely. But I think there's no way out of it. I mean, if the situation continues as it is, then the options for the country are absolutely horrible and you can see from what is happening there, I mean, it is -- I mean, I actually find it very distressing. I think that there's obviously large numbers of wholly innocent civilians caught up in this, millions of people displaced. And a country that is a cradle of civilization is being destroyed. So it is essential, however difficult and however challenging, that people try to come together and set out at least some broad principles for a framework that allows us to move from here, because otherwise the carnage will continue.

GORANI: Let me ask you about these photos that were made public by a defector of the Syrian regime, showing absolutely horrendous signs of torture on bodies in regime detention.

When you saw that and hear that report, what did you think? What went through your mind?

BLAIR: Well, I was sickened by it. But I was also -- I mean, I get motivated by these things because I think, you know, the fact is that is happening. It's happening to completely innocent civilians. It's happening on a very large scale. And the fact that these reports aren't -- are on our news programs every night in the U.K. or the U.S. and they're not -- I know right over in the U.S. but in the U.K. they're not -- doesn't mean to say it's not happening. It doesn't, I think, absolve us of some responsibility to try and help in that situation. And you know, it doesn't mean that in the end we won't have a fallout from that.

I understand, Hala, absolutely why people in the U.K., people in the U.S., we've been through big engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, the last thing people want is to get involved in the Middle East. However, what's happening there and those pictures and those scenes that we saw are just evidence of it. What is happening there is not going to stop at the borders of Syria. And that's what we've got to realize, I'm afraid.

GORANI: Today in your Mideast envoy for talks, peace, Mideast peace envoy, we had bombings in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and speaking of Iraq, we've had a huge flare-up in sectarian tension in that country. There had been a lull for a few years. Now we're back to what feels like and looks like 2006.

How much responsibility should Western countries, including the U.K., you joined in of course on the invasion of Iraq with President Bush in 2003.

How much responsibility do they have today for what's going on there?

BLAIR: Look, all over the region you've got the same issue. And the issue is this: there is an extremism that comes in part from countries like Iran that sponsor it on the Shia side, in part from organizations like Al Qaeda, like some of the organizations now fighting in Syria, elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. You know, you have this extremism from both sides. And in the middle, you have a population that wants to escape the extremism from both sides. And our job surely is got to be to try and do what we can to make sure that they're able to do that, because otherwise each of these countries in the region is going to be subject to these pressures of disintegration and there is no way that those problems particularly in Syria today will remain centered in Syria or the region.

GORANI: Someone in London tried last week to sit in as a rescue, I was reading, a bar worker, came up to you in a restaurant and he tried to arrest you for launching the Iraq War unprovoked.

How much do these accusations bother you personally?

BLAIR: No, they don't, because I'm aware of these decisions having taken them in government. They're immensely difficult. And if you intervene, as we did, and removed on any basis a brutal dictator in Saddam, responsible for hundreds of thousands of people dying, you end up with a very difficult set of consequences you've got to face up to.

But if you don't intervene, as we see in Syria today, we're also facing very difficult consequences. What I think is important for people to understand in the U.S., the U.K. and in the West is it's not that they're just a whole lot of crazy people fighting each other. There are actually very decent people there who want the same things that we want. Unfortunately, they're caught in this vise between these two elements of extremism.

GORANI: All right, thank you very much, Tony Blair, for joining us from Davos today.

BLAIR: Thank you.

GORANI: And among the collateral damage of Syria's civil war is the threat that a dreaded childhood disease could be making a comeback there just as it has never quite gone as well away in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Now fortunately, there are organizations -- Bill Gates doesn't shy away from a challenge and with the world's deepest pockets, he can put his money where his heart is. The richest man on Earth tells Christiane after the break how he hopes to rid the world of polio when we come back.




GORANI: Welcome back. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane. Bill Gates begins 2014 with two almost contradictory accomplishments. He is both the richest and the most admired person in the world, the two at the same time. Now it's an improve twofer, of course, and certainly much of the credit must go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his $40 billion philanthropic organization.

Today as the foundation releases its annual letter on the state of foreign aid, it can tout a truly milestone accomplishment. It was a key player in the eradication of polio from India once ground zero for the disease. Just three decades ago, polio claimed 150,000 victims a year in India. In 2013, and for three years running, not one child contracted the disease.

Now Gates is gunning to eradicate polio from the world altogether. And while there has been extraordinary progress, that's undeniable, there have also been extraordinary obstacles. Just today three polio workers were killed by extremists in Karachi, Pakistan, one of the few countries where polio is still endemic.

Christiane talked to Gates yesterday just before she left on assignment to Moscow and he left for the World Economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.


AMANPOUR: Bill Gates, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: You have come out and put your money where your mouth is again. You've written an amazing letter, talking about the good news.

And let's start with the good news. You say by almost any measure the world is better than it has ever been.

Wow, we wouldn't think that just to look at what's going on in the world. Tell me in a few sentences why you say that.

GATES: Well, I agree that if you just look at news headlines it's easy to know about the bad things going on because the good things are kind of quiet. For example, poor countries getting richer: when I was born, most of the world was poor. And the rich countries were the exception.

Now most people live in countries that are middle income. And in the next 20 years, if we're generous, if we do the right things, there will be very, very few poor countries left.

And yet that's happened sort of day by day. And so it's never really a headline thing. And so we have to remind people we are making fantastic progress.

AMANPOUR: I'm telling you, people are going to find that hard to believe, but you're Bill Gates. You have the algorithms.

So if one is to build on success and celebrate success, you have devoted your letter this year to busting what you call three major myths about poverty, that those who are poor will never be able to get out of where they are.

Give me your first myth and what needs to be busted.

GATES: First is that poor countries stay poor. That's not right. That progress there is unbelievably good.

Second is that aid is wasted. And there I talk about why I've chosen to spend money on these health programs that really do lift countries up.

And finally, my wife, Melinda, writes about the fact that if you improve health, you don't get population explosion. In fact, by improving health, empowering women, population growth comes down.

And so solving problems actually gets a lot easier.

AMANPOUR: Very interesting, because I've covered obviously a lot of the aid part of this picture. And so many people say exactly what you do, that either we're giving too much foreign aid or it's a complete waste of money; it's just, you know, good money after bad.

But you have said that it's actually -- I think you said that it is actually a bargain, considering what you get from it.

GATES: Yes. In terms of all the money that the U.S. government or other governments spend, well-spent aid money is saving lives for a few thousand dollars per life saved.

And it's actually as a percentage of the budget much smaller than people think; in the case of the U.S., less than 1 percent. Even the most generous country in the world, Norway, it's less than 3 percent.

So it's modest but now that we're smarter about it, we're measuring it, it really improves human welfare more than most government programs.

AMANPOUR: On that note about health, your foundation obviously deals a lot with trying to eradicate some of the biggest and worst diseases, and polio is one of them. And there's just been this massive success in India.

Melinda writes that actually eradicating polio in India was one of the most difficult things that could have been imagined.

Tell me about that and how it happened.

GATES: Well, India has over 20 percent of the kids born in the world, over 20 million. And they move around a lot. And so it was going to be the hardest country.

For a long time, it was where the most cases were. But in fact it's now three years since they've had a case. That required unbelievable dedication by teams to go out to every house, convince parents that the vaccine was OK, find people, even people moving around, and so it's a triumph.

We now have three countries that we've never gotten rid of polio; we do have a couple of outbreaks. So in 2013, it returned to Syria, who hadn't seen a case since 1999. So we've got to mop up those countries and then finish the tough ones, which are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

But a real milestone that India shows it really can be done.

AMANPOUR: And possibly no accident that Syria and Afghanistan are both nations of war.

Well, what will you do, then, about Pakistan? Because it is absolutely unbelievable to see these dedicated young field workers, who are going out to try to immunize kids and are getting killed for their trouble?

What can you do about that?

GATES: Well, the truth is on our side. Vaccine drops are there to help kids not be paralyzed and so we have to find people are trusted in those areas, religious leaders, other people and get the word out.

It is tragic that it's been viewed as a plot, been viewed as some negative thing. We've faced those kind of bad rumors in many countries; it's particularly tough in Pakistan and Nigeria. But we do have the religious leaders, the political leaders, coming together and saying this has got to get solved. Pakistan does not want to be the last.

AMANPOUR: Can I move on? Because you know, it's kind of connected; part of the empowerment of the world is also in the digital world, and the more people who have access to, you know, the jobs and innovation and tech, the better.

What do you think about what President Obama has just announced in terms of curbs on national surveillance? And it does, in fact, affect your company and all of the other big tech companies as well.

GATES: Well, it's an important issue. You know, at the end of the day, you've got two goals, protect privacy and to stop war and in particular the biggest threat going forward is terrorism. You know, somebody can get a lot of knowledge about nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and so the ability to see that early, track that down, literally could save billions of lives.

So it's striking the right balance. You know, there's a healthy debate taking place to how you -- how you achieve both goals.

AMANPOUR: Bill Gates, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

GATES: Thank you.


GORANI: And while protecting the right to online privacy is an ongoing issue, some secrets can fester and destroy from within. Not only individuals but whole societies. After a quick break, imagine a voice for gay rights giving a birthday gift to an entire continent. We'll explain when we come back.




GORANI: And a final thought tonight, we heard Bill Gates speak of Nigeria as one of the few countries where polio has yet to be eradicated. And that isn't the only scourge affecting that country where gay rights are increasingly under attack.

In fact, being gay is a crime in a majority of African nations, including Kenya, where gays and lesbians can face 10 years in jail if convicted. Given that hostility, imagine a world where one of Africa's most respected voices has broken his self-imposed silence to say publicly he is gay.

Binyavanga Wainaina is one of Kenya's leading authors. Internationally acclaimed for his essays in fiction. But until now his homosexuality was a secret he shared only with friends and fellow artists. That week this changed on his 43rd birthday when he published an article on the website, africaisacountry, framing it as a lost chapter of his 2011 memoirs and addressed to his mother. At the heart of it was this short and powerful statement, "I am a homosexual, Mum."

With those few words, Wainaina challenged Kenya's and all of Africa's restrictions on homosexuality, inspiring others, including his fellow writer, Teju Cole of Nigeria, who tweeted the following, "My dear @BinyavangaW writes a piece that springs open the prison doors of the heart."

And if words have the power to open prison doors and bring down walls of prejudice, one man's birthday gift to himself may one day become a gift to an entire continent.

That's going to do it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter @halagorani. And be sure to tune in tomorrow for Christiane's exclusive interview with the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Thanks for watching and goodbye from the CNN Center.