Most of the time, I don’t remember where I meet people who become part of my life. But, in the case of Heidi Kuhn, I remember the circumstances very clearly in 2003. She left a lasting impression on me from the moment I first heard her speak to this very day, as we strategize on various ways to raise awareness about her non-profit, Roots of Peace.
My husband and I were attending a birthday party for the internationally known environmental artist, George Sumner in Marin County. I was mingling and then noticed a crowd gathering in one corner so I went to check it out. I saw a tall, elegant woman talking about landmines! I was shocked and pleased. Shocked because landmines are not usually included in cocktail banter at any party. I was pleased because I was so interested in her message.
I had my own experience with landmines in 1999 and 2001 so I was open to her powerful message. I was working as a news anchor and reporter for ABC7 TV in San Francisco. CARE International invited me on a humanitarian mission to Kosovo, after the U.S –led bombing effort against the Serbians to stop their genocide against ethnic Albanians. CARE wanted me to see the children of war…the many orphans and widows and old men. Many of the young men were dead, killed in the war. CARE wanted me to see just how destructive landmines are. The Serbs mined hospitals, homes, streets, and farm fields. Farmers couldn’t feed their families. Hungry children would risk their lives to pick fruit or vegetables. They were sometimes injured or killed. Farm animals were constantly being maimed or killed by the landmines in the fields. The landmines kept the country from moving forward. They held it hostage.
CARE arranged for me to witness a crew removing landmines from a farm field. There were times when we were six inches away from an active mine. The images of those brave men will remain with me. It takes a special kind of person to do this risky work. They wore full body Kevlar suits and helmets. They used equipment that look like metal detectors to locate the mines. Then, they crawled very slowly to the site and carefully collected the mines to be blown up later at a safe distance.
I brought that story back to the bay area for a special report on CARE’s work in Kosovo. CARE told me they used my story about landmines to raise awareness and money to remove landmines I traveled back to Kosovo two years later to see what had happened. The mines were gone. The fields were in full bloom. Farmers could feed their families. It was such a gratifying feeling to see what could happen when people care about the destructive power of landmines and take action. I felt that I saw a miracle for those families in that war-ravaged country.
And yet, people in my world couldn’t relate to the concern about landmines. After all, landmines don’t affect ordinary Americans….unless they are in the military. So it’s not a daily concern. I get that.
But I cared. I didn’t have any place to put that concern and take action on it until I met Heidi Kuhn at that birthday party.
I stood with the crowd andlistened to her speak and later talked to her privately. I asked her….why don’t more people know about Roots of Peace? She had founded it in 1997 to continue the work started by Princess Diana. Heidi told me that it is hard to get people to care about landmines.
So, I asked her if she would be my guest on my weekly show called: Beyond the Headlines on ABC7. She agreed. Unfortunately, something happened the day she was due at the station and the show was canceled. I knew she had probably gotten her hair done and I just couldn’t let her energy and time go to waste. I offered to take her lunch so we could talk more about her non-profit. She said her 16 year old daughter Kyleigh was out of school that day and wanted to know if Kyleigh could join us. Of course!
We went to lunch at Il Fornaio in San Francisco. I learned that all three of us had walked through minefields. Kyleigh walked her first minefield when she was just 13! I suggested to Heidi and Kyleigh that perhaps we could start a campaign collecting small change from children because children are so responsive to environmental concerns. I thought we could model it after a charity started by Oprah Winfrey, called Oprah’s Angel Network, which started out by collecting spare change for projects.
We got more excited about the possibilities of having children lead the way for landmine awareness. Kyleigh agreed to be the face of the campaign. We called it the Roots of Peace Children’s Penny Campaign. We would be collecting pennies for peace. It wasn’t easy to get it going. We got resistance from some schools who didn’t think their children needed to know about such things.
But, we found an enlightened principal at Del Mar Middle School in Tiburon and staged our first penny campaign. It was glorious! The kids completely got it and started collecting small change for children in Afghanistan. The police and fire departments turned out at the school. A Brinks truck was there to collect our bounty! Kyleigh spoke. Heidi spoke. I covered the story for ABC7 news. More schools decided to join us.
Kyleigh led this effort on a volunteer basis, The goodwill from this inspired so many donations that, over time, the Penny campaign raised 50 million pennies! That money was used to created soccer fields in Afghanistan and repair several schools.
I did a series of stories on the Penny campaign. One of my news managers, Bob Goldberger, was so impressed, he submitted my story to a group called American Women in Radio and Television in Sacramento. My story won a $5000 prize which I donated to help build a school in Afghanistan. Thank you, Bob. There is a plaque at that school in Afghanistan with the women’s group initials AWRT and my name. It was a proud moment for all of us.
I was fascinated with the work being done by Roots of Peace in Afghanistan and wanted to see it for myself.
I traveled to Afghanistan with Heidi and her husband, Gary, twice, first in 2005 and then in 2015.
But, before I could travel with them:
1. ABC7 took out a life insurance policy on me since I was a long-time news anchor.
2. ABC required reporters to take a week of hazard training before going to a war zone. Part of the discussion included how to treat wounds if we were injured. Hospitals or ambulances would not exist for us. We were told to carry gifts in case we got stopped, gifts like cigarettes or candy. Also, we were taught that if we were captured by terrorists, we should remain hopeful that we would be rescued.
The first minefield we walked through in Afghanistan was being de-mined by the HALO Trust in the Shomali Plain. They asked us our blood type before we got started, just in case something went terribly wrong. My photographer, Mike Clark, and I were able to capture incredible images of bravery. The Afghan de-miners did not have on full body armor. They wore helmets and protective gear that covered their chest and other vital organs, but did not have anything to protect their legs. I thought of the full Kevlar suits in Kosovo and wished that could be a possibility for the Afghan de-miners. They would search for landmines and unexploded ordinance and carefully chip around the devices to unearth them. Mike would position his camera right over the de-miners. I stood behind him.
What was amazing to Mike and me, is that the farmers would stand in the fields, ready to move in with their picks and shovels, as soon as the de-miners were finished…row by row by row. The farmers were in a hurry to get their crops in the ground. They were incredibly grateful to Heidi and Gary, who went out into the fields and met with the farmers, in spite of the risks from either landmines or the Taliban.
I learned that Roots of Peace brought the first “cold storage” to Afghanistan. They brought in refrigeration which allowed the grape crops to be preserved. The old way was to put the grapes on cloth bags in the shade which meant the grapes would deteriorate quickly in the hot Afghan sun. Roots of Peace worked with U. C. Davis experts to teach Afghan farmers modern techniques of farming. The Afghans let their grapevines grow on the ground. Roots of Peace specialists taught the farmers to raise the vines on trellises and to prune the grapevines.
None of this would be possible if the landmines and unexploded bombs were still in the ground. That’s why Heidi is always saying “may the world go from mines to vines.”
My second trip to Afghanistan with Heidi and Gary was vastly different than the first. Security for the first trip involved handy talkies and unmarked vehicles, women sat in the back with our heads covered. We stayed in the Roots of Peace compound.
The second trip: we were greeted at the airport by a heavily armed security team who threw body armor on us and pushed us into their armored vehicles and then they raced away from the airport. Later that day, there was a bombing near the airport. Our team had three armored vehicles, a lead car, one in the center and one in the rear. Heidi and Gary were not allowed to ride in the same car in case of an attack. The guards carried machine guns, pistols and knives and wore body armor. It was extremely tense. The drivers made sure no other cars could get close to the cars in which Heidi and Gary were riding. We raced to a secure hotel in Kabul. There were guards outside and three layers of security to get inside. This included two metal gates, bomb sniffing dogs and a mirror check underneath our vehicles to look for explosives. Once inside the hotel compound, we were greeted by the security chief who warned us that if there was an attack, we were to go to a “safe” room with a metal door and wait it out. We were given backpacks with medical supplies and sugary foods. The explanation was that if there were to be a gun battle, it could last as long as three hours and we would need the candy bars for energy and medical supplies in case someone was wounded.
This second trip resulted in something quite extraordinary: we had a meeting with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace. Heidi and Gary talked about the success of the farmers in the Roots of Peace program. President Ghani allowed his face to be used on a poster promoting increased farming in Afghanistan. It’s 80 per cent agricultural. Gary told me that the long term work in Afghanistan by Roots of Peace has increased that country’s Gross Domestic Product by two per cent. That is yet another miracle that happened in a war torn country after the landmines were removed.
I had the great privilege of being the first western reporter to interview President Ghani in Afghanistan. He praised the work of Roots of Peace in his country as a nation changer. Roots of Peace has created new export markets for the prized grapes and other fruits and crops from Afghanistan.
I have followed the journey of Roots of Peace for more than 15 years because I have seen first- hand how effective it is in transforming an economy. My husband and I followed Heidi to Israel and the West Bank for a de-mining project in the fields of Bethlehem. We went with Heidi to Vietnam to meet successful pepper farmers whose fields were reclaimed after the landmines were removed. Many of them had been maimed by landmines or unexploded bombs. Roots of Peace created jobs through farming so the farmers, men and women, can support their families. And, Roots of Peace created an export market. The spice company Morton and Bassett in Marin County is buying all the Vietnamese pepper it can get. More miracles.
Heidi Kuhn is a visionary. And my dear friend.
Her dream of a mine-free world is possible. That would truly be a miracle.