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Interview with Tzipi Livni; Mali Implodes

Aired August 10, 2012 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our special weekend edition of the program, where we bring you two of the big stories that we covered this week.

In a moment, the war within Israel. I'll ask the former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, about the battle between secular Jews and the ultraorthodox.

But first, for more than 20 years the country of Mali in West Africa has stood out on that continent as a stable democracy despite a long history of poverty and drought.

And then this spring, Mali imploded. A military coup overthrew the elected government just as rebels took over the northern part of the country. As the nation sank into chaos, AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took control of the north.

AQIM instituted Sharia law and immediately set about destroying the priceless heritage of Timbuktu, a cultural landmark and, until this spring, a popular tourist destination. AQIM is well funded, well armed and fully committed to dying for its cause.

That's the assessment of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. He was held captive by AQIM for 130 days in 2008 and 2009. Fowler has written about his nightmare experience in a book called, "A Season in Hell." And he shared his harrowing story with me.


AMANPOUR: Welcome to our program. Thank you for being here.

ROBERT FOWLER, AUTHOR AND CANADIAN DIPLOMAT: Thank you, it's good to be here.

AMANPOUR: It really does sound hellish, all the things that I've read from the excerpts of your book, and I've been reading about who you came face to face with.

We've been talking about Al Qaeda in general. So just tell me before we get into your story how big a threat is AQIM, the very people who kidnapped you and held you.

FOWLER: Well, Christiane, they've been fighting for 20 years, under different names. They took up the Al Qaeda franchise formally in January of '07. But they've been the Islamic Front; they've been the group Alamaise Dynique (ph). They've been the group for preaching and combat, but they're all --


AMANPOUR: Are these people who want to take over?

FOWLER: No. They're celibates. They don't want to govern. They want God to govern. They don't think men should govern. And they hate all our favorite terms. They hate democracy. They hate liberty. They hate freedom. They hate human rights. These are all things they believe are the province of God and not of man.

AMANPOUR: So as the United States and its allies, Europe and others and other African neighbors, try to figure out how to push back AQIM from the north, are these people who can be negotiated with?

FOWLER: No, absolutely not. They would insist to me repeatedly, as I was representing the U.N. -- they hate the U.N. with a passion -- they insisted we were prisoners of war. They would fight the U.N., the great powers, aid workers, we're all trying to subvert young Muslim minds. They believe the war on terror is a war on Islam. And they would say it again and again.

They don't -- they formed this strange alliance with Tuareg nationalists to take over the northern 65 percent of Mali, an area the size of France and Belgium combined. They now control it. For the first time, Al Qaeda has its own country.

AMANPOUR: Which is very, very significant. The last time was in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

FOWLER: Yes. Yes, precisely. And we seem to be paying -- obviously, it's my view -- relatively little attention to it.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, you know, whether you agree with this.

General Carter Ham, who's head of the African command for the United States, "We missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. And now the situation is much more difficult."

FOWLER: I agree with him 100 percent.

AMANPOUR: Let's go to your story. You were in Niger as representative of the United Nations Secretary-General to try to bring some peace to that region. How is it that you ended up in the hands of AQIM?

FOWLER: Well, you're absolutely right. My mission -- there was a low-grade Tuareg rebellion in Niger, which had locked down the upper 80 percent of the country, the third poorest country in the world. My mission was to get the rebels and the government to talk peace. I got the rebels to agree. The government didn't want to agree.

I was on my third trip there and, on a Sunday afternoon, 35 kilometers from the capital of Niger, we were grabbed by that guy right there on the screen. We called him Omar 1. I saw him on the Internet the other night.

AMANPOUR: What did it make you feel to see him?

FOWLER: Rather -- quite an emotion, to suddenly see these guys in real life. And that was the face that I remembered very well for 130 days. He was effectively the sort of hostage liaison officer, if you will, of the AQIM group of 30 that held us.

So we were taken 35 kilometers from the capital and we were driven more or less due north into the middle of the Sahara Desert. It is almost exactly the middle up here --

AMANPOUR: That's a massive distance.

FOWLER: -- near the Nigerian border (ph). And it was all, except for 20 minutes, it was all off-road and very, very rough. And we were bound. It was a very unpleasant five days.

AMANPOUR: Did you think that you were going to die?

FOWLER: Yes, I thought it would -- most of the time I thought it would end in a tent with a knife like Daniel Pearl in Karachi in '02. And every time --

AMANPOUR: He was our colleague, the journalist from "The Wall Street Journal".

FOWLER: Exactly. And every time I went into a tent like that -- we only went to tents to make videos -- I looked -- first thing I did was look on the ground to see if there was plastic, because I figured they wouldn't want blood all over their rugs in the middle of the desert, where there's no water.

AMANPOUR: So that's what led you to determine that they weren't going to kill you, because you saw no plastic?

FOWLER: They wouldn't kill me that day.

AMANPOUR: How did you know they were Al Qaeda? How did you know?

FOWLER: They told me.

AMANPOUR: They told you?

FOWLER: The first video that -- you had a shot of it up a moment ago -- was a proof-of-life video, a pretty classic step --

AMANPOUR: Of you sitting with them.

FOWLER: And that guy, who is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was the, quote, "emir of the southern Sahara," according to many sources, he runs a katiba or a battalion of Al Qaeda. They said, "We're going to film this.

"We're going to send it back to Canada and the U.N. and just tell them who you are and who we are."

And I said, "Well, if I'm going to do that, you better tell me who you are."

And they said, "We are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."

AMANPOUR: So what did you think when they told you that?

FOWLER: I thought my chances were pretty poor, frankly, A, because I'm a diplomat and I'm a Westerner and I'm -- was working for the U.N., and those are all bad things in their view.

These guys are the most focused group of young men I have ever seen in my life. They're -- if you look at them, they're dressed in rags. Their clashes are not nickel-plated. There are no women. There's no slinking off for R&R on the weekends.

They are totally focused to jihad, to dying in the -- in their cause. They believe that the prophet said that 99 out of 100 shall not pass, and - - but if you die in jihad, you get a free pass to those rivers of milk and honey. And that's what they want.

AMANPOUR: How did you cope?

FOWLER: Well, we had -- we were bureaucrats, so of course, we had rules, right? So we -- our rule, first one, was sort of healthy mind, healthy body, and we exercised. So we walked and walked, before dawn and after sunset. The only -- it was so hot it was the only time you could possibly move.

And we -- if one of us got into a kind of depression, the other one had to pull him out. We had -- our most wonderful rule was no talking about bad stuff after lunch. And the theory there was if we got wrapped around a difficult discussion, we wouldn't sleep. And if we wouldn't sleep, we'd get more depressed. So it was trying to keep hope alive. It never totally eluded us, but it came very close.

AMANPOUR: It's an incredible story to come face to face with these people who everybody is now trying to figure out how to push back.

FOWLER: There's nothing you can say to these guys that would change their mind, nothing.

AMANPOUR: Robert Fowler, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

FOWLER: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Amazing story.

FOWLER: My pleasure.


AMANPOUR: And he was kept for 130 days, and his belt has the notches to prove it. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And now to the war within Israel, the battle between secular Jews and the ultraorthodox. Whether it's the ever-growing settlements on the occupied West Bank or how some of the ultra-religious collect government checks while refusing to work or serve in the military, there are big issues dividing the state.

And the question: is Israel's status as a democracy now under threat?

Tzipi Livni was Israel's foreign minister and a leader of the centrist Kadima Party. I spoke with her about the growing turmoil inside her country.


AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program


AMANPOUR: I want to say, when you resigned from the party in May, I want to quote what you said.

"I do not regret not selling the state to the ultraorthodox."

Is that what you think is going on right now? Is Israel being sold to the ultraorthodox?

LIVNI: Unfortunately, yes. Politically, the ultraorthodox represent a small portion of the Israeli society. They represent part of our history, tradition and everything. But yet, unfortunately, they have now more power than they should. And in a way, political party or other parties gave the monopoly on the Jewishness of the state of Israel to the ultraorthodox.

AMANPOUR: So do you agree with certain critics, who've been writing very prominently -- a former Knesset speaker has said that the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party is kowtowing to the ultraorthodox, to what he calls the fundamentalists.

LIVNI: Netanyahu said himself that, for him politically, the ultraorthodox are his natural partners. And I believe that the raison d'etre of the state of Israel is to be homeland of the Jewish people. So for me being a Jewish state represents something from a national perspective, not a religious one.

AMANPOUR: And so is it still a secular state? Is that what you still think it can be?

LIVNI: Israel is a democracy and homeland of the Jewish people. I believe that we need to have these values of Israel, Jewish values, and the democratic values, living in harmony and not in contradictions.

AMANPOUR: Why are they being threatened? How are they being threatened?

LIVNI: Politically, when you have a part of the Israeli society believing that the sole source of authority is not the law or the Supreme Court but the Halakha, the Torah, the rabbi. So we have now a clash between the values of democracy and what I believe are our values as a Jewish state. And the way that they --


LIVNI: -- they implement their own understanding of Judaism.

AMANPOUR: How is it going to be resolved, this issue of military service, or even a national civilian service? They're resisting it. Or the Supreme Court has said that an old law needs to be struck down. And your successor, Shaul Mofaz, said that 80 percent should be integrated into the military right now. And yet it didn't happen.

LIVNI: It's a matter of leadership and it's a matter of decision, and not some of the politics that used to see in Israel for many years now.

AMANPOUR: You say it must be changed, and you say there's a lack of leadership. But what about your own party? And I know you've resigned. But what about your own party, your own successor, as I said, brought this to a head. And then -- and then left the coalition. I mean, he didn't stay in the coalition to work it out. So how is it going to be worked out?

LIVNI: Now in order to change reality, you need the willingness of the prime minister, any prime minister, to make the change. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's coalition is his choice. I know that for many years, or since last elections, people even said to me, this time maybe he wants to, but he cannot. So now it was proven that he doesn't want to. And this is going to be part of future elections in Israel, I believe.

AMANPOUR: Does Israel need to make a change?

LIVNI: Oh, yes.

AMANPOUR: Does it need to have a separation, a full separation of state and synagogue?

LIVNI: Oh, I believe that what we need is a constitution and a clear definition of what is it this Jewish state that we are talking about, that we ask the world to say and to accept that Israel is homeland of the Jewish people, and rightly so.

And it is -- it's a thing that is the -- to agree upon, because we have a majority of Israelis understanding and believing that Israel is homeland of the Jewish people by its own nature. But it's a state with equal rights to all its citizens.

And the idea or the meaning of a Jewish state is from a national perspective, not a religious one. And we need to define this in a constitution, and we have a majority to do so.

AMANPOUR: What about the effect on the peace process, if the ultraorthodox -- I mean, there is no peace process right now. But you know, if there was one to start up again, the power of the ultraorthodox, how does that affect the possibility of the two-state solution?

LIVNI: I think that this -- it's not connected. As I said that we had a majority in Israel to form a constitution that defines Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

When these values are living in harmony, so Israel can reach an agreement with the Palestinians or to try to do so, because it is our own interest and because this is the only way to keep the values of Israel as a Jewish democratic state living in harmony.

The ultraorthodox can support it. They can be against it. But we have a majority of Israelis that, when an Israeli leader would come with an agreement, that represent the idea of two states for two peoples, they would support it. I know it. This is according to our understanding and the force (ph). But there's a need for a leader to make these decisions.

AMANPOUR: So let's talk about this now in the context of U.S. elections. The presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was recently in Israel, and very clearly aligned himself with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What -- how do you feel about partisan U.S. politics being absorbed in Israel?

LIVNI: I think that -- well, I know that for many years, basically since the establishment of the State of Israel, the relations between Israel and the United States were bipartisan. This is the way it should be. And the idea of Israel being part of the agenda in the elections in the United States is wrong. The relations are -- it's more than just partisan issue. It's based on shared values.

Israel is part of the free world led by the United States, no matter what. No matter what happens in the region, this is who we are. And this is the reason why any American president should and can work with any Israeli prime minister and vice versa.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you something about what Mitt Romney actually said. This is about the nature of Israel and the Palestinian people.

He said when he was there that, "As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation" -- meaning Israel -- "I recognize the power of at least culture," and a few other things. That, of course, caused a firestorm of protest.

LIVNI: And after I said that we shouldn't intervene in the internal elections in the United States. You expect me to defer to Mitt Romney's speech?


AMANPOUR: But what do you feel about that notion of, I don't know, saying that there is a cultural reason why Israel is superior economically?

LIVNI: I'm quite proud of the achievements of the state of Israel. In a way, Israel is truly (inaudible) in the Middle East. But listen, it is also part of the reality that the Palestinians don't have their own state now. And they're under, unfortunately, an ongoing operation since '67 that must be ended, not for the sake of the Palestinians, for the sake of Israel, by the way.

AMANPOUR: What about the sake of some of your neighbors? Israel is obviously -- and I know you've been looking at what's going on around you in Egypt, in Syria and elsewhere. What about Syria? How much does that threaten Israel? And do you think that the international community should have intervened? And what should it do now?

LIVNI: It threatens Israel -- it's not a secret that they have chemical weapon and we are all looking, watching, in order to see whether it's going to stay in Syria, in responsible hands or it's going to go Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. And this is something that we cannot afford.

So the expectation of -- I don't know if there are some expectations of others to -- that we just look, see and watch, it's not acceptable. And I believe that the fact that the international community is quite, excuse me, impotent on this issue sent a very sad and problematic message to the region, because the international community is being watched by extremists in the region.

It's not only inside Syria, it's by Iran, by other radical elements, by Hezbollah, by Hamas.

And when they see this ongoing debate in the Security Council, having Russia, having their own interests, preventing Russia and China, preventing the international community take the right steps, it's a very problematic message to those believing that we should work together with the international community, with the free world, and make the right decisions.

AMANPOUR: Tzipi Livni, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

LIVNI: Thanks.


AMANPOUR: And when we return, we'll travel to the Olympic Games and look at some athletes who won no medals but took a giant step for their countries. Stay with us.


AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine a world where just getting to the starting line is Olympic gold. Many athletes say it. But for some, it's really true. Take Guor Marial, the marathoner from South Sudan, a country so new that it's yet to be included as an Olympic nation. So he's competing as an independent in London.

When he was only 8 years old, he became a refugee from the brutal civil war. Running saved his life. And on Sunday, he will fulfill a dream.

I asked him how he'll feel when he hears that starter's gun.


GUOR MARIAL, OLYMPIC ATHLETE: When you -- the gun goes off, there's no stopping till the finish. So I just say, this is it. There's no way out. This is what I've been waiting for.

And this is the light I've been seeing, when I'm walking in the tunnel, in the dark tunnel.


AMANPOUR: And then there's Tahmina Kohistani, an Afghan woman who trained for the 100 meters in the Kabul Stadium, where once the Taliban used to hold executions. And even though she came in last, she rose above the ashes of war for her embattled country and for all Muslim women.

Such grit reminded me of Mirsada Buric, a runner I met during the Bosnian War.

In 1992, I reported on her determination to represent her country at the Barcelona Olympics, dodging snipers and shells, to train on the streets of Sarajevo. I caught up with her again in Sarajevo four years later as a fragile peace ushered in a new year.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Tracers streaked through the night. Machine gun fire and Beethoven play in a new year and perhaps a new era. Sarajevo has never abandoned its culture nor its sense of style.

MIRSADA BURIC, BOSNIAN OLYMPIC ATHLETE: Doesn't matter how much that they destroyed this city, they did not destroy the people and their souls and their high morale.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Mirsada Buric has been watching from afar. Her marathon began in the summer of '92, when she was dodging danger, training on Sarajevo's empty streets, to become Bosnia's only Olympian at the Barcelona Games. She lost the race, but she won a husband and a new life.

Eric Adam (ph), an American, tracked her down after seeing her on television.

ERIC ADAM, HUSBAND OF MIRSADA BURIC: And we started letter writing back and forth with her, and we kind of fell in love through long distance.

BURIC: They were lifelines.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Peace has brought Mirsada home again. New Year marks her wedding anniversary. She's celebrating by introducing Eric to her family. But it's not the same family she left.

Her 20-year-old cousin, Arna (ph), is smiling now. But sitting in America, watching news of home, this is how Mirsada saw Arna (ph) six months ago, screaming and covered in blood. A shell had hit their building and killed her 12-year-old brother.

Mirsada is showing Eric Sarajevo, but it's not the same city she left, either.

BURIC: When I see all these buildings, I just can't believe that they had to do all of this to us. For what reason? What did we do to them?

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Taking in the sights, wandering through the ruins, seeing all that has happened since she's been gone, Mirsada is almost a tourist in her own town.

BURIC: She went to my school.

ADAM: Really? You know her?


AMANPOUR (voice-over): An old acquaintance renewed with another familiar tale. Every family has a story here. Mirsada's friend, Anisa (ph), lost her brother and father on the bridge. A shell landed and killed both of them six months ago.

Mirsada and Eric visit the small shrine to one of Sarajevo's worst shellings, the one that killed and wounded scores of people this summer, the one that finally got the world to say just how much it was willing to tolerate in the heart of Europe at the end of the 20th century, the one that started the NATO bombing that stopped the Serbs.

Eric, the American, wishes his country had stepped in sooner.

ADAM: That just proved that all along we could have done it the entire time. I mean, that put an immediate stop to the aggression.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And led the way to peace, through the graveyard of people, principles and ideals.


AMANPOUR: And of course as we watch Syria unfold, we can see from that report the incredible power of U.S. and NATO humanitarian intervention to actually stop a war. And since that report, Mirsada has earned a degree in journalism from Columbia University and is now a financial sales adviser right here in the United States. She's also the mother of two.

Looking back on those dark days, she said, "It was my fight against the enemy. I didn't want to fight with a weapon or kill anyone. Just coming to the Olympics and competing is a victory of its own."

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.