Twenty years ago, I was the overnight shift chief for English News Programs at the Voice of America. We were set up to cover the arrival of the New Year and the new millennium, as it rolled in 26 magnificent hours all around the planet. (Yes, we carried stories about how it wasn’t really yet a new millennium, but who paid attention to that?)
We were also set up to cover the problems the Y2K bug would cause in New Zealand, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Islamabad, Moscow, Nairobi, Jerusalem, Paris, London, Rio de Janiero, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles.
I went in to work at the newsroom on Independence Avenue, in Washington, DC, at 10 pm, Eastern Standard Time, Thursday night, December 30, 1999. It was 3 am December 31 in Universal Coordinated Time, and the Voice of America runs on UTC. We looked forward to New Year’s and New Millennium celebrations. They were starting in Tonga, Kiribati, and Samoa, soon to move on to New Zealand—we had a stringer in Sydney, Australia tell us about the fireworks there. We settled in for a relatively easy, repetitive night of fizz and fireworks rolling around the planet.
Yeltsin Resigned, Putin Took Over
Then Boris Yeltsin resigned. You may not remember him, but this was a big deal for us. He was president of Russia, after a long and colorful political career. He was the mayor of Moscow who stood on a tank in 1991 and shoved back a hardline coup. The political outcast elected with 57% of the vote for president of the Russian Republic in 1991, humiliating Mikhail Gorbachev’s candidate.
His resignation was a surprise. He said, in what was supposed to be a routine address, this is the last time I will address you this year. Then he said, this is the last time I will address you as president of Russia. He apologized for “not making many of your and my dreams come true. What seemed simple to do proved to be excruciatingly difficult.” And he handed over power to his chosen successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—whoever he was.
Well, we had to scramble. Peter Heinlein, our correspondent in Moscow, got us the story and kept updating as he found more sources. We called experts in Moscow, and woke up experts in London, and then in the United States, to talk about What It All Meant and What Would Happen Next.
Negotiations with Hijackers in Kandahar
And meanwhile—Indian Airlines flight 814 had landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was originally a routine flight, departing Kathmandu, Nepal on Christmas Eve, headed for Delhi. It had been hijacked, flying to Amritsar in India, Lahore in Pakistan, and Dubai, UAE, before landing in Kandahar—an area controlled by the Taliban, who had yet to become a household word in the United States.
We happened to have someone right there on the runway in Kandahar. Ayaz Gul, on staff at our bureau in Islamabad, stood on the tarmac for hours, updating us every time we went to him. Not an easy task, since we were never entirely sure whether we could make air with it, but he kept going and gave us updates until the negotiations were finished. The passengers on Flight 814 departed safely on another plane, and the hijackers got what they wanted—the freedom of three men being held by the government of India.
Who the Hijackers Wanted Freed
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was involved in the grisly beheading murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. He is believed to have played a significant role in the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Maulana Masood Ashar, whose organization Jaish-e-Muhammed has since gained notoriety for its alleged role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and the 2019 Pulwama Attack.
Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar who has played an active role in training Islamic militants in Jammu and Kashmir.
We didn’t know those things were going to happen when the year 2000 dawned.
What We Didn’t Know Then
We had no idea that Vladimir Putin would be important to us 20 years later, more important than the names of Boris Yeltsin, Yuri Andropov, or Mikhail Gorbachev. We didn’t know then that we would be sending American soldiers to Afghanistan for nearly 20 years.
We thought there might be a problem with computers dealing with the change to the year 2000.
When I came in for my next shift at 10 pm Eastern Standard Time, it was 3 AM Universal Coordinated Time. The new millennium had rolled through Europe, and we had wonderful reports of fireworks over the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Reykjavik. Soon it would roll through Times Square. During my shift that night it would roll on through Chicago, LA, Hawai’I, American Samoa.
What About the Y2K Glitch
We would start asking our stringers and correspondents in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok—what are your Y2K problems? There were none. Also none in Beijing, New Delhi, Islamabad, Moscow, Nairobi, Johannesburg, London. . .By the time we got to U.S. cities, the idea of the Y2K bug was a joke.
The disaster we had anticipated never happened.
The disasters we had not anticipated keep happening.
Here’s the message: Pay attention to world news, people. It does affect our lives.
For More Information
The Voice of America, or VOA News, is a much smaller operation than it used to be, thanks to repeated rounds of budget cuts. It also emphasizes other languages more than English now–so, you may ask, how is this the Voice of America? It’s still worth checking out at the website, though, www.voanews.com. It’s technically illegal for “the Voice” as we used to call it, to broadcast into the United States, but what can you do about the internet? They still have real journalists, with real news judgment, and they still do good work.