Wednesday July 20th , 2011- Execution Day (Part 1)

I  am  inching my way  to write about  Mark Stroman’s last day and his execution.  It has taken me time to gather my thoughts and put my impressions on paper. It probably was the most intense day of my life.  I had other intense days of  course but nothing that resembles this day  full of fears,  emotions concerns about the  other witnesses to the execution, worries about Mark and his final  hours , the execution  and than the private viewing of his body. The  day that started for me  at  9.30 am  with my  last visit  with Mark  who  was full of humour and  as usual  some keen observations:  “There is so much love pumped into me  it does not leave any room for  hate” . It   ended at 11 pm at night  with a cold body on  a stretcher…. but all of that will come later.

Today I wanted to share with you Rais and Mark first ever conversation.  It was also the last. We, the 5 witnesses to the execution, were in the “Hospitality suite” two blocks from the prison. It is a guesthouse run by private donations and the Baptist church. It is a place where families of prisoners can stay or wait for the execution of their loved ones. Between 3pm-5pm Mark was allowed to talk to anyone he wished. In between phone calls to friends and relatives he kept calling us. Mark was in the “Death House” cells, which were only few feet from the Execution chamber and 2 blocks from where we were.  Mark was eating his last meal and smoking his first cigarettes in 10 years:“This can kill you “ he joked.   Yes I answered they are not good for your health”.

The people here”, Mark said, “are not that concerned about my health now”. He ate so much he said , “they will have to wake me up to kill me “

It was tense time for him as he had 2 hours to say  farewell to all his relatives and friends from around the world

Hundreds of Miles away Rais was struggling in various State and Federal courts in Austin to get Mark a stay of execution. He was using a novel legal tactic: suing the State of Texas because it had violated his rights as a victim under the Texas law. The State refused Rais’s s request even to see Mark.

The time was 4.35 and Rais legal suit was rejected by the District Court in Austin and by the Federal 5th circuit Court.  It was now before the Supreme Court. Execution was scheduled to 6pm. Rais was in the Court House in Austin when he received my text message. I texted him  the prison phone number and he texted me back that he was trying , but the phone was busy.

Around 4.40pm he called me on my cell phone to let me know that the Prison authorities will not let him speak to Mark. He was upset and did not understand why he could not talk to Mark in his last hours.  Mark was at that very moment on a speakerphone with all of us. I put the cell phone on speaker and put it near the house phone, which was on a speaker too. Below is the transcribed conversation that followed and recorded by us. It reflects the confusion , the urgency of Mark last minutes before his phone was cut off as well as the uniqueness of the moment.

Mark: Whom am I talking now?  I have two people on the Line

Ilan& Connie :  Mark say Hello to Rais

Mark I think there is cross connection

Connie: Mark, Rais is on speaker right now …talk to him!

Mark: So is Linny  (a friend from England) she is on the phone too I think

Connie: Mark, talk to Rais… ok?

Mark: Rais …how you are doing Rais?

Rais: Hey Mark how are you buddy?

Mark: How are you doing man? …Hey man thank you for everything you have been trying to do for me … you are inspiring. Thank you from my heart dude.

Rais: Mark you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious… I forgive you and I do not hate you!  I never hated you!

Mark: You are inspired Rais!

Rais: …and this is from the bottom of my heart…

Mark: You are a remarkable person thank you from my heart! I love you bro!

I love you with whole my heart… thank you for being such an awesome person…I mean it

Rais:  You will always be there…

Mark: You touched my heart… I would have never expected this.

Rais: You touched mine too.

Mark: Hey Rais they are telling me to hang up now I will try to call in a minute.

He never did. Ten minutes later at 5pm his phone was cut and we moved to the administrative building to wait for the 6pm execution.

The execution ultimately took place at around 8.40 pm. Rais ‘s law suit was denied by the Supreme Court and traveled back to the State where it was dismissed.

At 8.53 Mark Stroman was pronounced dead. This conversation was the first and the last one he had with Rais.

More on this amazing day in my next  blog

17 Days

“Some of you only thought of death row as something that happens to the worst of the worst. To the other person. I once thought that, too, until I woke up in this place on April 6th 2002, then reality sunk in. The insanity of my new home and existence took control of me and I fight daily to stay as much a human being as possible. But most call us animals, not to have any type of feelings or compassion. Well that’s wrong and I’ll show that in these blogs.”

This was what Mark Stroman’s wrote on August 1st 2008, almost 3 years before his scheduled execution on July 20, 2011. And this is what he wrote on June 19th, 2011 a month before his scheduled execution:

Waiting patiently, looking deep within myself… I’m honored and this ride of death has truly changed me and I believe its part of the Master’s plan. Thank you all”.

As someone who was instrumental in initiating Mark ‘s blog, has been requested by him to witness his execution and plans to complete a film that features Mark and his victims, this  “death ride “ has been intensely personal for me too.  My journey did not begin with Mark’s first blog but with the first time I interviewed Mark’s victims and then Mark himself in  early 2004, more than 9 years before his scheduled execution.

As Mark’s execution is getting closer, I decided to begin my own blog, trying to recall for myself as well as for others the past nine years.  I am writing this blog on July 3 st  , seventeen days  before Mark’s scheduled execution.

Nothing in the past nine years prepared me for the campaign that Rais, Mark’s only surviving victim, began, in early June, to try to save Mark’s life.  I might have hoped for , but never anticipated the depth of the changes that Mark has undergone. I am still stunned by the efforts of so many people I never knew who work tirelessly to try to fight for Mark’s life.  Finally, I never imagined the diversity of the group of friends who are converging on Livingstone, Texas to be with Mark in his last days and to witness his execution.

I never succeeded to explain to myself and to others why I committed myself, and so full heartedly, more than nine years ago, to accompany Mark in his journey -“ the ride of death”, as he calls it. But I do know that all those who are trying to save Mark’s life or console him in his last days must have felt a similar pull from this tragedy.

In the coming blogs and through interviewing many of the people who are accompanying Mark in what could become the last leg of his journey, I hope to gain an insight into these forces that I can not fully explain or understand.


The “Ground Zero Mosque”

With the debate about  the mosque  near ground zero heating up I decided to give this space to a dear friend and a couregous activist Anya Cordell, a recent winner of the Spirit of Anne Frank  Outstanding Citizen Award.

Her  letter  appeared recently in the blog of  William Spear  in the  Huffington Post :

You can read more  from  and about Anya Cordell’s work  at:

William Spear:

I recently received a thoughtful letter from a student and friend, Anya Cordell, winner of the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award. Her courageous work following the World Trade Center disaster more than qualifies her to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. I share it here for HuffPo readers, with thanks to Anya for her work and efforts.


In relation to your work on trauma, I’ve been wondering about your response to the multiple traumas related to 9/11 and lower Manhattan; the victims on the planes and on the ground, the rescue workers, the witnesses on the scene and watching on screens (all of us), and Muslims the world over who became instantly associated with something as horrifying and destructive as this event. As you know, I received the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award from The Anne Frank Center USA (in lower Manhattan ) for my work against the designating of any group as “Other.” At this time of controversy surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center in New York, I thought I’d share my reflections with you and your audience.

When I think about the issue of “sacred ground” at the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, and what should occur on or around it, I think about the innumerable “ground zeroes” around the world, where loved ones of families we never hear of have died in unspeakable violence. I think about what monuments or markers do, or do not, exist to commemorate where they fell or burned or disintegrated. Despite the unspeakable trauma in New York, it strikes me as quite a luxury to be able to memorialize and sanctify such ground, a luxury afforded to only a very few grieving families, the world over.

What we call New York ‘s “ground zero” was prime real estate in the world’s most powerful country, with gleaming, tall, expensive buildings which were destroyed in a horrifically cruel and shocking way. This certainly calls us to respond in an appropriate fashion, and it is hard to argue with any grieving, traumatized person whose loved one disappeared that day; however, I’m quite certain that most scenes of bombings, explosions, terrorism, hate crimes and wars, throughout the world, are fairly quickly reclaimed by the exigencies of daily life, the need to rebuild and to make a living, and by life moving forward, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

After September 11, a number of innocent men, not just Muslim or Arab, but also Sikh, Hindu, South Asian, and others, were murdered in the U.S. by self-avowed ‘patriot’ vigilantes. I know the families of some of these victims. The widow of one works every day standing exactly where her husband was shot in cold blood, behind the counter of the service station he ran. There is no hushed and sacred ground there, except for an instant when momentary wisps of incense her father lights in the doorway each day fade away, just before the customers tramp through to pay for their gas, cigarettes, lottery tickets and sodas. Customers do remember and speak of the murdered man who was the soul of generosity — a U.S. citizen who was Hindu, from India, who would let you drive away with a tank of gas and the promise that you’d pay him back if you didn’t have money in your wallet that day. I suppose their memory is his memorial. Similarly, a Sikh family works every day where their loved one was slain, in Mesa, Arizona on September 15, 2001 by a killer who had vowed to “kill the ragheads responsible for 9/11,” and instead murdered a sweet man wearing a turban as a tenet of his Sikh faith.

There is no memorial at the intersection where I live, where a black neighbor, was gunned down by a white supremacist in 1999, although we did organize nightly walks from the site, which folks attended for months, sometimes accompanied by the victim’s wife and children, two of whom witnessed their father’s shooting. There is a slight imprint of a leaf in the cement curb where he fell, (I think the curb was set before the murder), a coincidence that feels to me a tiny bit meaningful.

These are my thoughts when I read of the families of some of those who died in lower Manhattan, wanting “ground zero” and its environs (how far?) to be hallowed in a way that only the most privileged nations can afford. Perfectly innocent people die daily as victims of what is referred to as “collateral damage” in dusty parts of the globe. Children disintegrate stumbling across minefields. All manner of mayhem and terrorism destroy lives, but somehow we imagine that those who were lucky enough to have lived and worked in New York apparently stand (figuratively, no longer literally) far apart from these multitudes of others, who were equally innocent, whose deaths were equally shocking, whose families loved them just as much and who also clawed at earth with bare hands trying desperately to rescue and recover them.

My further reflections on the controversy grow out of my work around what I call “appearance-ism” (appearance-based judging of ourselves and others), which I have tried so ardently to address.

Once a fashion and beauty obsessed girl, I grew to realize that fashionable attitudes can hold sway as much as, and far more destructively, than the dictates of frivolous clothing and makeup trends. The media which can teach us which body shapes, sizes and colors to value, can also train us to accept particular and sometimes very peculiar ideas. But just because something is repeated, or shouted, does not make it true. Propaganda, however, can and does take hold and has, throughout history, made some people very rich, powerful and destructive and has subjugated and decimated others.

Eventually, I realized that I did not want to be judged, or judge others, on the basis of appearance and stereotypes. Everyone is much more complex than any snap judgment we may make about them on the basis of appearance, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. I began to speak and write about appearance-ism, racism, stereotyping, teasing, bullying, and hate crimes. Everyone understands some aspect of the injustice of appearance-ism, and this common experience, I’ve discovered, can be a touchstone to help people appreciate the unfairness of all sorts of biases we have been taught.

After 9/11 I felt compelled to reach out to the innocent families I mentioned above, and in the years since, I’ve watched the anti-Muslim drumbeat intensify in ways that impact multitudes of innocent people. All the Muslims I know are traumatized by the stereotyping and characterizations that are now rampant. Rather than celebrating 9/11 (as they have been accused), they despair of it. All of them fear; children being taunted and bullied, adults being more vulnerable in public and in the workplace. They feel constant suspicion directed at them as they try to live their lives while absorbing the shame and blame being heaped on all Muslims, worldwide. They are between a rock and a hard place, damned for whatever they do or don’t do. How many of those who yell about Muslims, I wonder, have ever met a Muslim, let alone had a Muslim guest in their living room, or set foot in a mosque or a Muslim person’s home?

Following a presentation, a student once whispered to me, “Thank you so much for your program. I’m Muslim, but no one here knows it.” That sent chills down my spine, reminding me of historic times when people needed to try to “pass” to be safe. As a Jewish woman, the moment made me think of Anne Frank, and the disparity between the Nazi stereotypes of Jews, and the reality of the innocents who were slaughtered. It also made me think of the heroic non-Jewish friends who supported Anne’s family in hiding, and the necessity of crossing divides to be allies for one another.

Like all who commit such atrocities, the savage people who demolished the towers had no idea whatsoever about the people they destroyed. They didn’t care to know anything about them. They accepted sweeping generalizations, thus dismissing them entirely.

How, then, does making blanket statements about an enormous, extraordinarily diverse group — Muslims — serve as a contradiction to all the individual family tragedies that were engendered by the 9/11 attacks? Isn’t the most appropriate way to stand against wanton, wholesale destruction of broad categories of people, to not engage in categorizing groups at large; to not listen to smears, to fight against demagoguery, to go out of our way to get to know as many individuals as possible, to be thoughtful, reasonable, patient and careful in our thinking about one another?

I would trust my Muslim and Hindu and Sikh friends with my life. I’m sure there are some Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Christians and others who might terrify me. In my experience there are wonderful people of all faiths, who claim their religion has taught them their values, and awful people of all faiths who also claim their religion has taught them their values. I am much more interested in meeting people than in labeling them.

People build their houses of worship, schools and community centers and create all manner of organizations, and it is all very messy and complicated. I am certain that if we could have interviewed, in depth, every person who died a victim at 9/11’s “ground zero,” we would be left with an equally complicated collection of beliefs, worldviews and value systems, which we cannot possibly honor, by making wholesale decrees about a faith adhered to by one fifth of the people on this planet.

Anya Cordell, Author, RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case

KENBE AYITI( hold Haiti)

This is the first letter in a series of many that I will write to inform and update you on our new project in Haiti. As you will see from this brief letter, we will need all the support we can get. I do not mean only financial support (although we are actively fund raising for the project). But as I will explain below, we are going to establish an elaborate system of professional mentoring and we will need as many volunteers as we can get …but I am getting ahead of myself. First,here are the facts:

Sanjeev Chatterjee, the Vice Dean of Miami University School of Communication (and the head of the Knight Center for International Media) and myself are back from a four day eye opening visit to Haiti. The trip is part of the effort of Tamouz Media and the Knight Center for International  Media to develop a cross platform media project that will bring the world to Haiti and the story of Haiti to the world. The project will become a substantial complement to the work already started on a voluntary basis at the University of Miami, School of Communication. The plan is to create a multilingual website that serves as a stepping stone for stories in the world media about Haiti to reach the Haitian population that is isolated by geography, lack of technological infrastructure and language. Kenbe Ayiti will be the project’s other focus: to enable young Haitian media makers and journalists to develop and distribute stories to media in Haiti while having the ability to reach a global audience. Our goal is to tell the story of Haiti as it has never been told before, through the eyes of young Haitian media makers empowered by training and a robust mentoring system. It is on this aspect of our work that I want to tell you about.

Only after visiting both Port Au Prince and the town of Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast did the full weight of what we had undertaken dawn on us. Nothing prepares you for the utter poverty and desperation of Port Au Prince. All public parks are now tent cities. There are tents everywhere, on streets, between collapsed and damaged buildings, on the sidewalk. But most distressing, at least for me, was the sense of resignation and shock  that I felt in the refugee camps and in so many other parts of the town. That sense of resignation stood out in such contrast to the bright, energetic and thoughtful young media makers we found in Port Au Prince and in

We engaged the students of Jacmel’s Cine Institute in a conversation inside a tent classroom near the Jacmel airstrip where Cine Institute has set up their temporary headquarters. (Their original building was destroyed). They were  eager to talk and there was no shortage of ideas, passion and a desire to be heard. They were asked what stories they would like to tell and their amazing list of potential stories and characters is too long to cite here.

Tele Mobil, a Port Au Prince  production company, has an imaginative program that produces   public service announcements and then screens them, as well as other films, every night in refugee camps throughout  the city. This is the only form of media that the refugees, without access to electricity, can consume. Tele Mobil’s  youthful staff is full of ideas and a desire to be trained to produce more complex stories and longer documentaries. The folks at Cecosida, a network of dozens of local journalists working on promoting and discussing Aid prevention, asked us to train them in multi media story telling techniques. We met the young new owner of a local Port Au Prince television station. He is a Miami University School of Communication alumnus who dreams of a schedule full of original programming, something that no television station in Haiti can achieve because of lack of funds. So it seemed to us that by helping and supporting these emerging media makers and by providing them with training and financial support, we will create riveting stories out of Haiti, stories that international audiences have never seen. We also will help to stimulate a whole movement of local media makers who, with their enthusiasm and energy, could become part of a social force that could play a crucial role in shaping Haiti’s future.

Our plan is to transform  both Tele Mobil and Cine Institute into active content creators in an ambitious cross platform project.  The third leg in the process will be to help a local television station to become the venue for distributing this content, as well as helping  to replace its schedule, (which primarily consists of cheap pirated entertainment), with the best of international  television  plus original locally produced content with a social message.

Thus Kenbe Ayiti’s dual goal  is to help young Haitians to produce powerful stories for  local and international media, as well as to create a distribution system inside Haiti that will consist of public screenings in refugee camps and remote communities, radio broadcasts, cell phone broadcasts as well as broadcasts by a flag ship television station and a network of small local stations.

We envision it as a multi year project. The core of the project’s first phase will be a web documentary series that will follow around 8 characters in Port Au Prince and Jacmel. The series will feature the personal stories of Haitians from all walks of life as they try to put their lives together after the devastating earthquake. The audience will be encouraged to dialogue via email and have chats with both the young media makers and the characters. They will be encouraged to get involved in the stories, suggest possible scenes that should be filmed etc.

The web series will become the first step in the creation of two long format films:

a) Long Form Documentary Film

A long form documentary that will evolve out of the material either by developing and expanding the filming of some of the characters or by documenting the entire process itself.

b) Dramatic Feature Film

The documentary part of the project will feed into a unique drama project where a script will be slowly developed out of improvisational drama workshops that will be conducted in the refugee camps. Aided by theater and film professionals from around the world, we will conduct a series of improvisational workshops with Haitian youth and adults in the refugee camps. The material from the workshops will be developed, with the help of a professional scriptwriter and his young student assistants, into a feature film script. The film that will be shot will use a cast of non-professional actors pulled from the drama workshops we have conducted. It will be directed by a well known filmmaker (to be chosen) aided by  the young students. Knowing first hand the inherit drama of the reality in Haiti today,  I believe that the film that will emerge out of this unique process will be  stunning in its emotive power, vision and its raw depiction of life in Haiti after the earthquake.

It will also attract attention to Haiti and  its nascent film industry.

We hope to launch the web series part of the project by early Fall. Our goal is to premiere the documentary and make it available for international broadcast by the end of  2011.

We want the feature film to be ready to be premiered in either the Berlin or Cannes film festival in early 2012. In the second year of the project we want to expand our distribution network, our “production hubs”, and our programming.

To achieve all of this, we intend to create a wide network of media professionals who will become our international partners. They will have a stake in the project and will provide a pool of mentor volunteers that will ensure that the fresh and riveting stories that will emerge out of the various workshops will be of the highest professional standards, so they can be broadcast internationally, as well as participate in major international  film festivals.

We are developing a very precise structure and schedule for the intensive first year of the project. I will describe it in my next letter, as well as our specific needs  for volunteer mentors. I will also describe what you can expect from your visit to Haiti, – a visit that I guarantee you will be transformational.

We need your support to make this project happen and succeed!  Together I believe we can create powerful stories that will replace the one dimensional imagery we currently watch on our television screens, introduce  new voices and visions to the international scene, and help young Haitians to reconstruct their country.

Looking forward to see you in Haiti.


The Night Bibi Won- A blog revisited

As an eye witness to Serbia’s self destruction through the Balkan wars in the mid 90’s of the last century,  I always saw parallels with  Israel’s  43 years  road to self destruction. The differences are obviously immense  but the similarities are striking.  I wanted to write about it  now when  Israel’s isolation grows and  tensions develop with its only  real ally , the U.S.  And than I discovered that I  already wrote about   it  a year ago on the  night Bibi   won  ( for the second time ) in   Israel ‘s most recent  elections.

I therefore decided to re publish the blog. I  find it eerily  relevant as  the country passed another bench mark  on the road  to a complete  international  isolation  inching closer to  the huge  violence which I believe  awaits us around the  corner.  Fervent  nationalist passions do not subside by themselves they die a very violent death.

This is what I wrote  a year ago, the night  that  “Bibi” won:

During the 1996 Israeli election, I was in the Channel 4 Television studios in London. I still remember the surrealistic atmosphere sitting in the editing room, putting the final touches on a film that was supposed to be broadcast in an hour, while on a small TV, the Channel’s news was broadcasting images of the spontaneous celebrations in the Likud party’s headquarters. On stage was the beaming winner: Bibi Netanyahu. “Bibi, Bibi, King of Israel,” they sang. It was indeed a historic election, a metaphor for the near death status of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. The process had been slowly killed by expanding Israeli settlements and Palestinian suicide bombers. After the murder of Yzhak Rabin by a right-wing assassin it was only a question of time, we felt, until the death of the peace process would be made official. For me, the election of Bibi Netanyahu in 1996 was that moment. Four years later the disillusionment of both societies  from any process of reconciliation  produced  the blood letting of the second “intifada”.

I suddenly remembered that episode yesterday as I was watching on the Internet, the live election coverage from Israel. Don’t believe the morning papers that report inconclusive results and don’t be distracted by the stories of the power struggle between the night’s two winners. Who the next Prime Minster will be and the precise list of parties, which will form the future coalition, is unimportant. The reality is that the right-wing block in Israeli politics received close to 65 members of Parliament out of a possible 120. As in 1996, the results are not surprising. In fact, they should have been predictable to anyone who has watched and lived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I do not want this blog to become an analysis of Israeli electoral politics or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the lessons I learned in the Balkans while making the film that was going to be broadcast in the UK the night Bibi won. Throughout 1995, my colleagues and I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Roy Gutman, on an investigation into the UN role in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica—designated by the UN as a Safe Haven. It was my second film in Bosnia. The first one was an investigation into the beginning of the ethnic cleansing campaign as it unfolded in the Bosnian town of Zvornik. It was that film that brought me to Belgrade at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. At first the city was surprising. Belgrade, even during the war, had a liberal, sophisticated and strong intellectual elite. Sitting in sun-drenched cafes in Belgrade as Serb paramilitary units were decimating Bosnian towns only a few hundreds kilometers away was almost surreal. It was hard to reconcile the urbane atmosphere with the horrors of Bosnia. But, Serbia, as I soon learned, was gravely ill. Impressive as Serbian intellectuals were, the country was on a path of self-destruction; dark ghosts of nationalistic fantasies gripped its soul and were slowly eating its body politic. Serbia, by choosing an uncompromising, extremist nationalist position, pinned itself into a corner from which there was no exit. The massacre in Serbrenica was not the last stop in that journey of self-destruction but it was visibly the beginning of the end.

Israel is, of course, no Serbia and there are many differences between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Balkans. But as I watched the election results last night I could not escape the feeling that since 1996, Israel too has embarked on a similar journey of self-destruction. Of course Israel’s journey began long before Bibi Netanyahu was elected, and he is hardly the only one responsible for it. But the process of destruction has accelerated since the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and Bibi’s election in 1996. Violence has been radicalizing both Israelis and Palestinians and has steadily eliminated the available political options. The ruins of Gaza are the most recent evidence of how destructive the last 13 years have been. But as I learned in the Balkans, they are only but a preview of the conflicts ahead.

There was something else last night that reminded me further of the dark days of the Balkan wars. It was the meteoric rise of Avigdor Liberman, the arch nationalist, whose party got more votes than the Labour party did, becoming the third largest party in the Israeli Parliament. I saw his ilk in Serbia too. It is a mistake to consider Avigdor Liberman as just one more voice in the nationalist chorus. He is far more ambitious and clever than that. Liberman carved his role in the Israeli right by stoking the fires of a much more dangerous aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the future of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Without Loyalty—No Citizenship,” proclaims his party’s motto. It was splashed behind him on the stage. He wants to impose a loyalty oath on the Palestinians citizens of Israel. Their refusal will lead to loss of citizenship. It is only one part of an ambitious goal: to rid Israel of this “Fifth Column” which, according to Liberman,  is what the vast majority of the over one million Palestinian citizens have become. Liberman is, of course, not alone. His party could not  end up with 15 members of Parliament  unless it represented and attracted a far wider segment of the Israeli society. On the stage behind him last night were former Likud members of Parliament, generals, and even Israel ‘s former ambassador to the United States. All have recently joined his party.

In 1995, the war in Bosnia came to an end, and Srebrenica was its last massacre. The searing imagery haunted the entire world and distracted us from another conflict that was brewing in the background.  The Albanian majority in Kosovo first demanded the return of the Province’s autonomous status, which it had enjoyed as part of the former Yugoslavia. When their struggle was met with Serbian repression, their demand was changed to full independence. Kosovo was where Slobodan Milosevic baptized his nationalist campaign and where it ultimately ended with disastrous consequences to Serbia. In 1996, with the images of Srebrenica still seared in my mind, it was difficult to see the looming time bomb, which was Kosovo. In the wake of the war in Gaza, it is hard to focus on the radical change that the election of Avigdor Liberman signifies. But I believe that last night Avigdor Liberman laid the foundations for what could become an “Israeli Kosovo.” He, like his counterparts in Serbia, is ensuring that the delicate, tense and complex relationship between Israel and its Palestinian minority will be further damaged, leading to the radicalization of both societies.

The film we were making in 1995-1996 was not just a chronicle of Serbian and Bosnian-Serb atrocities. Its main focus was the moral bankruptcy of the international community, which had promised the Bosnian citizens of Srebrenica protection, and then betrayed them. At the core of this failure was the international community’s inability to grasp the fact that the war in the Balkans was not going to end by itself or run out of steam. Western politicians failed to grasp that virulent nationalist and ethnic conflicts such as these are like fires that feed on themselves. Without outside intervention and help, Serbia could only but continue to advance deeper and deeper into that dead end corner. Its political system was not only held hostage by Slobodan Milosevic. Its soul was infected with xenophobic rhetoric, and its passions whipped to hysteria by nationalist politicians . No opposition could grow in that barren landscape. The Bosnian Muslims, on the other hand, were wounded and radicalized by the atrocities committed against them and could only produce a desire for revenge. Srebrenica was a reminder that without international intervention, the Balkans would not only burn themselves to death but ignite other parts of Europe and the Muslim world. By the time the West was propelled into action, over 200,000 Bosnians of all religious beliefs had lost their lives and over 1.5 millions refugees were expelled from their homes. In 1996, the night Bibi won, I did not understand the parallels with what I saw on  television  and my film, which was about to be broadcast. Last night I felt I was watching the future unfold… and it looked painfully familiar.

Israeli novelist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent article that Israelis and Palestinians are like the foxes in the biblical story of Samson. In the Bible, Samson, in his war against the Philistines in Gaza, tied two foxes by their tails and placed a burning torch in their midst. The terrified foxes, unable to untangle themselves, were unleashed on Gaza ‘s wheat fields, setting them on fire while the foxes themselves burned.

Yesterday, the Middle East made yet one more step toward that great fire that, at the end, could consume us all.

A visit to Death Row


I am just back from visiting Mark on Death Row . As a “special “ visitor one is allowed two days a month visit with 4 hours each day. I last visited Mark more than a year ago.

Entering prison is a highly regulated affair. It begins in the parking lot where the car’s license plates and your name are being recorded and radioed to the staff inside. You pass through a metal detector and are thoroughly searched. The only items you are allowed to carry for a prison visit are car keys and $20 in quarters. The coins are used to purchase food for the prisoners from the snack machines which are in the visiting hall. This “shopping spree” by itself is highly regulated as well . You are allowed to insert the money into the machine but are not allowed to touch the food. The visitor room’s warden ( who in my case was a very sweet and nice woman ) collects the items which are than being put in a brown paper bag. The bag is than given to another warden who monitors the closed corridor which leads to the tiny cages where the prisoners sit. The prisoner is handcuffed and escorted by 3 guards when he moves between his cell and the new confined small “cage” where through a glass he meets his/her visitor. Though all the conversations are done through a phone and behind a thick glass , they tend to be intense. Time flies and you hardly notice when your 4 hours visit is over.

I have visited Mark and interviewed him several times since 2004. But in this visit I have been struck how he has changed in the last 5 years . For me these changes only enhance the tragedy of a Death Sentence . Mark of December 2009 is a much calmer and more introspective Mark from my first visit over over 5 years ago. Mark has always been remorseful of what he did a but now I feel how self aware he has become. Rather than defending his views or background he has begun to see the damage it has done to himself, his family and of course to his victims and their families ;a trail of destruction all the way to Death Row . He sees clearer now the role ignorance, or what he would call his “red neck background “ played in all of this. The moving part for me is that this has been a slow process not a sudden religious revelation:-discovering God or Jesus

So ?”, I can hear the cynics argue, “ what’s is the big deal? All of that does not bring to life his victims. He needs to be punished for his crimes”!

I do not think that anyone, Mark included, does not think that he should not be severely punished for what he has done. The problem with a Death sentence is its finality. It does not recognize our capacity to change to learn from our past. Mark who has run through most of the legal options available to him will probably face the executioner sometime late next year or early 2011. But if and when he reaches the Death Chamber , Mark will be a very different man from the one sentenced to death in 2001.

I am sure this argument has been used before and like many other arguments failed to sway the supporters of the Death Penalty. For a long time now I have come to believe that support for the Death Penalty has nothing to do with logical intellectual arguments. On practical ground (let alone the moral human one) the Death Penalty does not make any sense. Support for the Death Penalty needs to be treated as an emotional, psychological and cultural phenomenon that I do not pretend to fully understand.

But despite all of that I could not stop myself from thinking, as I left prison, how in a different country with a different state of mind , Mark in prison and with his new insight and understanding could become a huge educational asset for young offenders . Who can have a better impact on young offenders than some one like Mark, bright as he is,   and with newly gained insight into the horrible mistakes that landed him in prison. Yes,  Mark with all of his tattoos and “red neck” lingo could reach young offenders much more effective than any correctional officer or councilor. I am sure he could save many from a fate similar to his.

As to the cynics out there , they better read the December 9, New Yorker article Rap Sheet by Jill Lepore. In the article the author claims that despite our lead in the industrialized world in the number of prisons and incarcerated people , despite the fact that the US is the only democratic country which still has the death penalty on its books , the rate of murders in this country is double than that of any other affluent democracy all of whom have banned the death penalty long time ago.

The article cites a certain Italian nobleman Cesare Beccaria who wrote in 1764 : “The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane of deeds were committed.” More than three centuries later this observation is not only relevant but prophetic.

The vast majority of Texans who , according to polls, support the Death Penalty ought to think about that.

September 11, 2009


Execution Chronicles is one year  old  and growing.  The film project  that   helped to launch the site is entering  post production while we  are  still continuing to shoot  . Our commitment was to accompany Mark Stroman till  the end  and we will honor it. We  are hoping to develop a sister site that will be more tightly focused on  immigration and its  relationship with Hate crime.   Most of us are  oblivious to what is happening on our  border with Mexico  or to   the growing anti  immigrant entiment around the country  but a quick read through our past stories will give you  a sense of the growing crisis. So at this jnuction for all of us  I   re read  my inital blog  which I wrote on the occasion of  the launching of this site.  I feel it is relevant today as it was a year ago .

September 11th 2008 The launch of this website is, for me, one more step in a life-long journey to understand violence and hate. Growing up the son of a Holocaust refugee in Israel, I learned from a young age to view the world through particular lenses. My father did not tell me horror stories when I was little – those came later – but he spoke of his family who had been killed as if they still were alive and with us. So real were they, that when I learned of their murders, I felt a great loss. Later, when I fought in some of Israel’s wars, I was introduced to violence firsthand. Given these experiences, I feel that every film I have made has been part of a personal investigation into the impact of violence and hate, two frighteningly powerful forces that have shaped my life and the lives of millions of others. Now I assume most people would understand this description of my work. That might change, however, after visiting this site. I can almost hear some of the reactions: How do you dare to place the victims and their tormentor on the same page? How can you allow a confessed murderer to have a blog to communicate his fear, rage and frustrations while the families of his victims struggle to reconstruct lives shattered by his crimes? Am I some wide-eyed liberal with a distorted sense of fairness? This is not the first time I have been subjected to such questions. During 1994 and ’95, I filmed in Bosnia and Serbia investigating the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group. It was a demanding period, during which I hung around with the most despicable human beings I have ever met, and tracked down their victims in refugee camps throughout Europe. The documentary, Yellow Wasps: Anatomy of a War Crime, participated in many human rights film festivals and aired on television networks around the world. During appearances I had to explain and defend myself against charges of giving voice to individuals whom the international community condemned as war criminals. Three yeas ago, I produced another film, The Junction, the story of the first Israeli soldier and the first Palestinian killed in the beginning days of the second “Indifida” at an obscure road junction in the Gaza strip. Critics wondered how could I place victims (Palestinians) and their occupiers (Israelis) on the same level, “drawing moral parallels between them.” Although all my films are different, they share the same focus and belief. I feel the complexities of hate crimes, personal violence or political violence gripping Bosnia or Israel can’t begin to be comprehended without trying to understand the participants and what drives them. How were the members of the Yellow Wasp recruited and what were they after? How did they commit such heinous crimes? Why did young Israelis volunteer to serve in a military unit to guard isolated Jewish settlements in a sea of Palestinian-Arab population — settlements, which by their very existence, generated violence and resentment? I have come to realize is that criminals are as human as we are. The majority of killers are not demented psychopaths, and if we hope to understand the inner forces that create hate crimes, we need to explore the criminal as much as his/her victims. It is this realization that guides this web site. At the trial of Mark Stroman, the prosecutor in asking the jury to sentence Stroman to death, referred to him as “cancer,” for which the only cure was amputation of the infected limb. This sentiment impressed Nadeem Akhtar, the brother of Duri Hasan whose husband was Stroman’s first victim. (Duri appears on Victims’ Voices this week) Nadeem, a devout Muslim who opposed the death penalty on religious grounds, was swayed by the prosecutor’s argument to believe Stroman’s punishment is right. “Cancer” is what Nazis called Jews in order to remove them from the human experience. In Nazi films, books, newspapers articles and endless speeches, Jews were labeled a disease that threatened the “volt” – the people. This prolonged propaganda campaign was essential to the success of the Final Solution in deporting and killing millions with minimal protest from the rest of the society. Prof. Rick Halperin of Southern Methodist University, who will be featured on this site in the coming weeks, actually made a study comparing the language the Nazis used against those the party wanted to eliminate with the language used by proponents of the death penalty. Now I know many might disagree, but on the level of the human experience, I do not see much difference between the prosecutor of Mark Stroman labeling him “cancer” or Stroman lumping poor Asian migrants as ” Arabs” and thus “responsible ” for the September 11 attacks. Both needed to reject the individuality of their victims as a first step in seeking their death. — Ilan Ziv

My bi-weekly blog anxiety

Ilan portrait

Every two weeks, before we change content on our site, I am seized with uncontrolled anxiety. Though I have millions of issues I could write about I am tormented by the question of whether they are appropriate for the Execution Chronicles. Can they deal directly with Hate Crimes or the Death Penalty? As I ponder, I delay writing, times passes, I miss the deadline and out of sheer guilt I finally succeed in writing a blog. I have tried many remedies: good sleep the night before, a glass of my favorite wine… nothing seems to work. This week, I just gave up and decided to write about what I care about and what transpired in the past two weeks when I was on vacation in Israel. You will have to decide if that story has any connection to Hate Crimes or to the Death Penalty.

One of the projects on which I am currently working is EXILE—an investigation into the myth of the exiling of the Jews by the Romans—a myth deeply etched in the collective Israeli and Jewish memory. As part of the research and development of the project, I visited and later filmed in the ruins of the ancient Jewish/Roman city of Sephoris, a city known around the world for its proximity to Nazareth, the place where Christians believed Jesus’ parents lived, and where Jesus was said to have begun his preaching in Galilee . Sephoris of Jesus’ time (1st century, AD) must have been a fascinating place. Though heavily Jewish, excavations found remnants of large early churches and Pagan temples. Sephoris was never swept in the Messianic religious fervor that finally led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. Rather than rebel, Sephoris signed a peace treaty with Rome. Not only did it avoid destruction, it flourished and has become an important Jewish cultural center where the most important Jewish theological books (Mishna and Talmud) were written and edited. The fact that such important Jewish theological books were written in a city full of large churches and Pagan temples is a testimony to the tolerant character of the city and its multi-ethnic nature. Sephoris was never destroyed though it seems that around the 5th century it was mysteriously abandoned. At some point in history, on the ruins of the city, a Palestinian village named Saffuriya emerged. This village of 5000, existed until it was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948. Most of its inhabitants fled or where expelled. Since the film explores the myth of the Jewish exile, it also examines the possibility that if Jews were never exiled, it is possible that today’s Palestinians have some Jewish roots. Could some of Sephoris’ ancient citizens have been transformed over thousands of years of religious conversions into the villagers of Saffuriya?

I spent a day last week in Nazareth talking to leaders of the Saffuriya refugees in a community that, 60 years later, still keeps the memory of its village alive. “What do you remember your ancestors told you about the village and its possible Jewish roots?” I asked the community leaders. Between endless cups of coffee and glasses of cold water, people pondered and tried to remember. The majority agreed that they had been told by their elders, as children, that the villagers has always lived in the village throughout history, while conquering armies came and went. Looking at my face and realizing that maybe I was waiting for more, Abu Arab, one of the leading activists in the refugee community, proceeded to tell me a story his brother, a well known poet, used to tell:

Saffuriya, his brother used to tell visitors, has always been a mixed village of Christians and Muslims. For decades, the villagers fought over the village’s true identity. One day, the Muslim inhabitants of the village decided to resolve this endless debate once and for all. They dug for days near the village’s mosque and finally found, among the archeological ruins, a crescent. They paraded it through the village as the final proof of the village’s Muslim origins. Then they celebrated for an entire day and night. The humiliated Christian inhabitants of the village were devastated and at a loss over what to do next, until someone came up with the brilliant idea of digging near the village’s church. Sure enough, after few days of intense digging, they found a cross, which they happily paraded in the village—proof of the village’s Christian origins. “But where do you go from there?” continued the poet, examining the faces of his listeners. The two groups decided to meet. Many proposals were debated when the villagers assembled. The consensus seemed that further digging was required in order to reach a conclusive result. It was at that moment, when  the villagers were going to vote on what to do next, that an elderly man rose to his feet. “Until when we will continue to dig?” he asked emotionally, “Until when?” Suddenly, silence befell the large assembly. “Since then, the crescent and the cross have become symbols of our village,” the poet finished the tale.

Now, you have to decide what the connection of this story is to the Execution Chronicles.



This week, I participated as a mentor in the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Academy. This year, the Academy took place in Santa Fe. It was, as in past years, an exhilarating experience. There is nothing more exciting than trying to help young, emerging filmmakers, full of enthusiasm and creative excitement, to launch great, stimulating projects. This year’s selected projects ranged from a film by a grandmother from New Mexico, who used the making of empanadas by four generations in her family as a tool to explore their Latina identities, to the haunting story of an abused Colorado woman, Virginia Gonzales. Her husband kidnapped their three daughters despite a police restraining order and got into a shootout with the police in which he and all three girls were killed. The film follows Virginia and her transformation from a survivor of domestic violence to a passionate activist who is now challenging the United States at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal under the Organization of American States.

On the first night of the conference, Juan Mandelbaum, a producer, filmmaker and mentor in this year’s Academy, screened his riveting and beautiful film, OUR DISAPPEARED. The film is about Juan’s personal journey to Argentina, his homeland, to find out what happened to college friends during the repressive military rule of the late 1970’s. For me, the most moving part of the film involved Juan’s interviews with the children of friends that had been murdered. The children were infants when their parents were kidnapped and killed. Miraculously, they survived. Ines, for example, was only a few months old when her mother, Mimi, (one of Juan’s colleagues at a progressive summer camp they ran for poor neighborhood kids,) took her to the zoo. When Mimi saw the approaching soldiers she left the baby on the grass and went directly to the soldiers knowing full well what was at stake: torture and death. This brave move, against all her instincts as a mother, saved her daughter. Ines was picked up and raised by strangers. After a long and amazing journey, today she is a passionate young lawyer in San Francisco. It was riveting to see young men and women who were saddled by fate with a horrible legacy, trying to articulate their understanding of what happened and its meaning to their lives. It was exhilarating to watch how they were empowered by those horrors, transforming tragedy into hope.

It was precisely during that scene in the film that my cell phone rang. Embarrassed and annoyed, I of course turned it off immediately.

After the screening I listened to my voice mail message. It was from Mark Stroman’s daughter, Cassandra! It was the first time that I heard Mark’s daughter since I began the project almost 5 years ago.

Interviewing Mark on Death Row, I learned how important Cassandra is for him and how badly he wanted to see her at least once before his death. On this site, Shawna, Cassandra’s mother, wrote:

I can understand the very mixed feelings that people have for Mark Stroman. I myself spent five years with him and we have a child together who is now 15 and has not seen him since she was three years old. She is also a victim in this tragedy. I myself have cried for the families left behind of the people he killed, but mostly have spent years trying to explain to our child this tragedy. Shawna left Texas, where “many people grow up taught to hate” and settled on the West Coast.

For the past 5 years, I have been trying to get in touch with Shawna and Cassandra, so you can imagine how emotional Cassandra’s call was for me. I am still haunted by the coincidence of the timing of her call. Still under the impact of the film, I heard on the other side of the line, a mature, confident, amazingly honest and perceptive young woman. Cassandra, now 16 years old, told me that her dream is to pursue documentary filmmaking. She even researched potential colleges in her state with film programs!

In the future, I hope Cassandra can contribute her thoughts, feelings and impressions to this site and make her first, tentative steps into filmmaking by contributing some of the ideas and images she will capture to the film. I, for one, am excited to be her mentor! I have no doubt that despite this horrible tragedy in her family she will be empowered by it as she forges her own life, injecting our lives with her hope and optimism.


Ilan portrait

I was white trash,
just another junky that why they assigned me
a two-bit flunky

And I knew
At first glance
That I didn’t stand
Any kind of chance

That is part of a poem that Mark sent me almost 5 years ago.  It was soon after we began to correspondent and I interviewed him in Jail. I came upon this poem recently as I began to view the material I shot, as the film enters its post-production phase. It was while I was going through Mark letters, all carefully dated, that I noticed that almost 5 years have passed. “Death is in the air” Mark wrote in his last letter—“The sleeping giant has awakened.” He meant the recent movement on his case; the new judge that was recently assigned and the coming oral argument to be held in September.  He knows his appeal has almost no chance of success.  “In Texas,” Rick Halperin, an anti-death penalty activist and professor of History & Human Rights at Southern Methodist University, told me, “if you are given a death sentence, you are as good as dead. Only in very rare and isolated cases, mostly when there is DNA proof of innocence, can an inmate succeed in his appeals.” Mark confessed to his crimes from day one.

Change is in the air here too. As the long journey that I began five years ago is coming to yet one more station. A year ago, we began the Execution website as an attempt to start publicly to document the process I have been following in private. Mark began to write his weekly blogs. We began to focus on the many issues involving the death penalty and hate crimes. Our site has grown. What we originally conceived as focusing on Mark’s victims’ families has developed into regular coverage of hate crimes all over the world. It is out of this work that we began to document the rise of hate crime against Latinos and immigrants in this country. As our interests grew and developed, we began to feel that maybe the site was losing its focus and it has become difficult to do justice to all these issues under one roof.

As a result, we have decided to use our 1st year anniversary to refocus Execution Chronicles on Mark’s life on death row, his legal struggles to stay alive and the evolution of the film as it enters its post-production phase. We promised Mark to stay with him all the way till the end, filming around his execution, if and when it happens. Starting in September, we will post more and more scenes from the film as our editing progresses, as well as out-takes of material, that because of narrative constraints, have not found a suitable place in the film.

Simultaneously, we are committed to try to come up with a separate website dedicated to hate crimes.  We want to begin with a limited project focusing on immigration as it fuels right-wing rhetoric in this country. To this end, we have decided to launch our Border Project on Until September 11, we will dedicate that portion of that dealt with hate crimes (In Depth, Close Up, News and in part, Resources) to our Border Project. In the months that follow, we hope to raise the funds to develop an entire website that will feature grassroots reporting from both sides of the border.

So a journey that began in August 2004, with the first exchanges I had with Mark and his victims’ families, continues! I hope you will stay with us!