From the Cape Flats to the basins of war
This is the story of Alvin Andrews and his illustrious media career as a frontline journalist in the basins of war, disaster and the emergence of history.
Alvin Andrews may just be one of the most unheralded of South African journalists but 40 years at the frontline of wars, disasters and international turbulence working for the major international news agencies Associated Press, Reuter Thompson and American Broadcasting, this brilliant and almost shy TV cameraman has impeccable credentials as one of the best in the murky business of reporting on conflicts and disasters.
From an award-winning print media photographer plying his craft on the mean streets of the Cape Flats in the townships of South Africa, he transformed into one of the best TV cameramen in the world with a stunning record of breaking major exclusive stories from the conflict in Somalia to the war on terror in Afghanistan.
Frontline journalism to the uninitiated seems glamorous and exciting but it is only for the brave, the fearless or those with reckless enthusiasm who imagine that covering war, famine and disaster is in any way entertaining. It is a dangerous working environment. It is a ruthless and competitive arena in a complex world of lies, favours, tip offs and spies.
Danger lurks around every corner.
For more than two decades, Cape Town journalist and frontline TV cameraman Alvin Andrews thrived and survived in this hot bed of factional warfare and international crisis where many capable and crafty journalists met their untimely deaths. From the ravages of famine and war in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, clashes on the streets of Mogadishu, disasters and uprisings in the Congo to the war on terror in Afghanistan and the chaos of paramilitary control and civil unrest on the streets of Abidjan, the main port of the Ivory Coast, Alvin Andrews has just about seen it all.
In a career that started way back in the 1970s when the boy from Durban became a man in Walmer Estate, a cosy “coloured” suburb nestled in the shadows of Table Mountain where the highway snakes past on its way to the Cape Flats, he joined The Cape Herald as a news photographer. This was at the height of the apartheid era when the four main media groups developed their metropolitan newspapers in a way that excluded “non-white” journalists.
For example, it was considered unnecessary for the Sunday Times to focus on news that affected “coloured” people in the Cape because the Sunday Times Extra did this. It was unnecessary for the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport to employ “coloured” or black journalists because the Rapport Extra did this.
At the Argus Group, The Cape Herald was pitched solely to “coloured” readers on the Cape Flats and Port Elizabeth.
Admonishing and censuring the racist policies of the apartheid government on the front pages while relegating more than 90 per of the nation to an appendage was a juggling act of huge magnitude, particularly for the English Press. It was not easy to reconcile with the public interest role of the Press in a democratic society. It was also around this time that the bizarre concept of Total Onslaught-Total Strategy was peddled by the government of P.W. Botha. It was a sinister policy that originated in the South African Defence Force and refined by the clandestine Broederbond, a secret brotherhood of the Afrikaner.
Openings for black and “coloured” journalists were few and far between on any newspaper in apartheid South Africa. Very limited job opportunities, lack of proper training and reluctance on the part of newspaper editors to employ people of colour meant only a chosen few could pursue that dream.
“I was pretty lucky when Tony Richmond, editor at The Cape Herald, gave me an interview and a chance to prove myself. Get a portfolio and come back to me when you are ready,” Richmond said to me. “That was way back in 1974 after a brief stint as a graphic artist,” Alvin recalls his early days on the beat.
“For some strange reason, I always wanted to be a news photographer, but I did not know much about news photography, nor for that matter, did I know much about journalism or how the media worked. But at least I could give it a bash as I had in my possession at the time an old Pentax camera with a standard lens that my dear mum Ruby (bless her soul) had bought as a gift for my birthday.
“Armed with this baby, I hit the streets photographing anything I could lay my hands on to build a decent portfolio of news photographs worthy of publication.
“Not so easy, I almost lost my camera when I tried to photograph some sleazy hoodlums lurking on a corner in District 6. These were the local thugs. They were the notorious Stalag 17s who ruled District 6 with fear and terror. They were a particularly loathsome group better known for stabbings, muggings and Friday night pay packet robberies.
“Here was an early lesson well learned for me. Never point a camera at someone who does not want to be photographed as it will get you into all sorts of trouble. But I would carry on regardless and venture into other places of interest around Cape Town trying my best not to provoke anyone and quietly going about my business of news gathering.
“It wasn’t long before I fronted up to Tony Richmond again, portfolio in hand and optimistic about a successful career in journalism as a press photographer. Richmond was a tall, wiry Englishman. A former Anglican priest, he told me. He was soft-spoken and courteous almost to a fault but not being too familiar with the English, I somehow found him untrustworthy. This was a mistake. He was a kind man working in a disorganized place in a strange country and he was out of his depth. This I only found out much later.
“I didn’t like Richmond at first glance but needed him so badly to take me on board that I could overlook any flaws, real or otherwise. And then he punctured my dreams like some nasty kid poking the birthday boy’s balloon at a party. He was unimpressed by my efforts, found fault with most of the photographs and suggested I go back and have a good think about my prospects and options and to have another go at my portfolio.
“Come back when you are ready,” Richmond told me off with a firm handshake. My career objectives were in peril. My mind was racing and confused and I was having some serious doubts that I would ever make it as a press photographer. But six months later I was back in The Cape Herald offices in St George’s Street, Cape Town, and sitting in front of Richmond in his small, cluttered office.
I can clearly remember he was still wearing that same tomato-red cardigan and shiny grey-black pants. Back copies of the Herald and a variety of other newspapers were scattered all over his office. Some old posters adorned the walls. Stuck on with sticky tape, some had scribbles on them but all had a similar theme: blood and guts and gore. It all looked much the same as when I first stepped into his office.
But, this time things were a bit different. I heard there was a vacancy for a news photographer coming up at the Herald and I reckoned my name was on it if I played my cards right.
So, there he was and as I sat across from his old wooden desk I could detect he had a slight smile on his face, friendly but not familiar and genuinely surprised by my perseverance and tenacity. I was chasing a humble opening on what I learned later was probably one of the worst newspapers in South Africa.
He leaned across and in his gentle pastoral voice, he said: “Alvin, the job is yours if you want it.” I was overwhelmed and surprised by the suddenness of it all and could hardly respond but blurted out “Yes, yes, yes”. We didn’t even talk pay or conditions and I was out of there before he could change his mind.
This was the gateway to a career in journalism that would take me around the globe with major international news agencies including American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Reuter Thompson, Associated Press and a few more international television networks along the way. It has been a hectic experience that started with humble beginnings and continued for the best part of nearly half a century.
Early Days and The Cape Herald
This was indeed a strange breed of newspaper animal at a time when political correctness was not yet invented and severe apartheid restrictions on the liberties of Press freedom were increasingly inflicted by the Nationalist government. Not that it bothered The Cape Herald too much.
This was a coloured biweekly newspaper, staffed by predominantly “coloured” journalists and delivering a diet of news fodder that thrived on gang violence, grisly murders, sex assaults, major crime and a diverse range of community sports. The Cape Herald thrived briefly under strange and difficult circumstances in a readership market segmented by race.
At its peak, it reached just under 100,000 copies a week. It was always a complex juggling act of attracting reluctant advertisers, providing a scorecard of the weekend’s gangland activities and the latest in local gossip and sports results. And against this background, the Herald also had to contend with township vilification. Love it or hate it, among the readership the credo was the same: Die Herald Lieg Net (roughly translated the Herald always tells lies). It was a debatable argument.
But one thing for sure, the prettiest “coloured” girls who walked the streets of the Cape Flats graced the pages of every Monday and every Wednesday’s edition. And to be honoured in the briefest of swimwear and the brightest of smiles, never mind the weather nor the season, were good credentials for the plethora of beauty pageants that were such an essential part of the Cape Flats culture of the time.
Against this background, Tony Richmond’s job as captain of the ship was a particularly odious task. As a British migrant and former Anglican vicar who dabbled in parish pump, he was out of touch not only with staff but the reality of catering to a diverse, poor and mostly unsophisticated semi-literate community.
There was no honeymoon period when I got to the Herald. I hit the decks running. It was sink or swim and while this was not the world’s busiest newsroom, there was ample for a new recruit to get accustomed to. In between photographing dahlia show winners, used cars for sale and advertising merchandise, there were also criminals to be chased at the courts and grieving relatives of bludgeoned gangsters to be photographed as well as sports and entertainment.
But the biggest chore of all was the social beat. Line up four punters to photograph and by the time you’ve fitted a flashlight, there are seven in the frame. And then the films had to be processed and printed.
In the early days, it was a challenge but I was assisted by a helpful group of fellow journalists. Some were new on the job like me; others were old hands who first cut their news teeth on Golden City Post, a forerunner to the Herald.
Some of the old heads around the news room at the time included Herman Arendse as news editor. Sadly, he did not make it much past 50. He was a talented journalist and a kind man who always had time to help his junior staff. It was a sad day for The Cape Herald because he was a friendly and lively bloke who enjoyed his work and he was always ready for a party.
His colleague from their days at Post, Colin Dedricks, took it very badly. Colin was a seasoned journalist. A former school teacher, he turned his hand to journalism and editing with great success. Dedricks left for Canada where he settled with his wife and family and for many years was involved with community programs that helped and guided South African expats as they settled into a new life away from home.
This was the breeding ground that would spur Alvin Andrews on to greater success as a news photographer and his foray into the hotspots of the world where he achieved great acclaim as a photojournalist on various South African newspapers and international television news networks. Over a period of 40 years in the field, Alvin saw trials and tribulations across the globe on assignments to South America, North America, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
From humble beginnings on a shabby newspaper that focused on race-segmented news, limited facilities, no training and a diet of crime, sex and sport, this was a huge leap of faith into the unknown and hectic world of international journalism.
Anti-apartheid protests: Riots and blood on the streets
The political unrest that swept across South Africa in the mid-1970s started with student protests in Soweto and surrounding areas and quickly spread down south to Cape Town and nationally. It was a time of great upheaval, civil unrest and increased police brutality and security services surveillance.
The apartheid government was under attack, the national Press was stifled by a myriad of oppressive laws, censorship and restrictions, and journalists were in the forefront of the nationwide crackdown. Many were silenced by restrictive banning orders and many more were jailed. Others suffered painful beatings while reporting the sporadic unrest as it flared from township to suburb until it reached the centre of the major cities.
This was about the time that my career and fondness for risky news coverage ignited with a bang. It started with the 1976 student uprisings in the townships of Gugulethu, Langa and Nyanga on the outskirts of Cape Town and soon spread to what was then the surrounding coloured townships. Areas that erupted with violence and swiftly met with armed response by police and defence included Modderdam, right next to that hotbed of black politics the University of the Western Cape, Elsie’s River and Bonteheuwel.
I was there when the first shots were fired in Bonteheuwel where students were gathered in protest. Christopher Truter, a 15-year-old schoolboy was shot dead by Police Captain Albert Voskuil on 25 August 1976. This signalled the start of an intense campaign of protests, riots and mayhem on the streets of the Cape Flats.
Streets were on fire with burning tyres and rubble, the heavily armoured riot police were out in force travelling in military vehicles that also carried select groups of white photographers from the mainstream Press.
At the Truth and Reconciliation meetings in August 1996, Christopher’s mother recalled him as a happy child who was always very curious to know what was happening, but he was also quite timid. He loved his school and he was very successful in his studies. He never failed a class. He was not involved in political activities at the school because even though there were lots of riots and unrest at the time he was quite afraid, he was a quiet, reserved child.
On October 15, 1985, I was again present covering riots and protests in Thornton Road, Athlone, where I witnessed one of the most savage killings during my media career covering South African student uprisings and protest marches. It was commonly known as the Trojan Horse massacre. The horrors of the day are clinically recorded in South African History Online and were the focus of much attention at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings.
In Athlone, the area bordered by Klipfontein Road, Belgravia Road, Thornton Road and Alexander Sinton High School became a gathering place for anti-apartheid protests, particularly by students. On 15 October 1985, members of the security forces shot and killed three young people who were part of anti-government demonstrations. On the day of the incident, Security and Railway police worked together to crush a gathering of youths who were protesting against the apartheid government.
A South African Railways truck was loaded with crates packed close to the edges all around the back of the vehicle with the middle unloaded to create space for the police to hide. The truck drove down Thornton Road to the centre of the protest. Armed police were hidden behind the crates. Then the armed police, hiding behind the crates jumped up and opened fire. Jonathan Claasen, 21, Shaun Magmoed, 15, and Michael Miranda, 11, died and several others were seriously injured.
An inquest was launched in March 1988 to investigate the actions of the police. The magistrate ruled that the police had acted in an unreasonable way. Thirteen men were charged in connection with the incident and the case was referred to the Attorney-General of the Cape. The Attorney-General refused to prosecute those who were to blame. Families of the victims launched a private prosecution which ended in the acquittal of the accused men in December 1989.
It was a fascinating experience to be at the heart of what was ultimately the vehicle for change in the new South Africa. It was also an interesting time because police were arresting scores of journalists across the country for writing and reporting what was considered either politically inflammatory, insensitive or anti-government news reports that offered hope or comfort to the oppressed protesters.
On the other hand, it was also a time when some journalists collaborated with the secret police and relayed information, photographs and reports about fellow journalists. They were from both the English and Afrikaans Press.
It was a period of little trust all round. As police were firing tear gas and rubber bullets then later switching to live ammunition in the streets, it was a hectic time to be a news photographer or a reporter covering these extraordinary events. But the story beckoned and had to be covered. For some it was also a watershed in the careers of many journalists. It was a wakeup call for journalists, especially those who worked on the so-called coloured newspapers to transform from social and community-based parish pump papers to something a bit more challenging as the evolving political landscape changed.
It was not a task that was always well handled but there can be little doubt that reporters tried as best they would with limited resources and against a background of threats and Draconian banning orders to add a voice to the protests. There was also opposition from many of the media owners who supported the Nationalist agenda of apartheid or what they described as separate development.
My formative years at The Cape Herald taught me much about the journalism and the print media business. There I worked alongside news editor Herman Arendse, sub-editor Colin Dedricks, and chief sub-editor Chris Walton who was one of only a few whites on our staff.
By 1979, I quit The Cape Herald to pursue a career across the road at The Cape Times, courtesy of my friend and master photographer the late John Rubython. He was a seasoned press photographer, highly regarded and very experienced. As a war zone photographer with an impeccable portfolio few could match Rubython. He was also a trusted friend, mentor and a wonderfully friendly man. Sadly, his life ended tragically years later when he was murdered in his Woodstock home, stabbed to death by a burglar.
Rubython had just been appointed Chief Photographer at The Cape Times and was looking to build his team of staffers and recruited me into his team of experienced photojournalists. It was an opportunity for which I was eternally grateful. It gave me a chance to perform in a different arena with greater opportunities and a lot more flexibility. Now I could focus on more intense and more interesting assignments of national prominence. It was a major stepping stone in my journalism career.
With Tony Heard at the helm, The Cape Times was looking to establish itself as one of the premier investigative newspapers in the country. Constantly under scrutiny by the Security Police and often staffed by clandestine police spies who operated undercover to infiltrate the newsroom, this was a challenging time under difficult working conditions.
I suspect that was how my friend and colleague at the Times, Zubeida Jaffer, got arrested the first time for which she served time in prison. Jaffer was an activist; in fact, her whole family were anti-apartheid activists. She was a strong minded young woman who was never afraid to share her views even in the face of adversity or threats.
And more often than not it got her into hot water with the police. Later she went on to become a successful author and academic. My stay at the Times included the 1981 uprising which again saw students take to the streets to protest. I also covered the tragic Laingsburg flood disaster and the sinking of the oil tanker the Castillo de Bellver off the West Coast of Cape Town. I was on a plane tracking the sunken oil tanker and took the last photograph of it as it went down.
By 1983, I was looking for new journalism career challenges and was considering a switch to television news. It sounded like a good idea at the time but again, job opportunities were almost non-existent for so-called “coloured” journalists. It did not matter how skilful or how good you were, job reservations ensured that you would not get an opportunity. These jobs were exclusively the domain of white people in apartheid South Africa.
An added problem was that even at that critical period in South Africa’s history the state broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a very poor reputation both in terms of news coverage, agenda setting, and job opportunities. It was also the only employer of television journalists in the country.
But I was determined to make the transition and learned some basic skills in television news gathering. Then I managed to secure a spot in their news room as a roving cameraman and learned some of the finer techniques of television journalism.
My big break came in 1989 when the American Broadcasting Corporation News (ABC News) came knocking for a freelance cameraman in Cape Town. I got a surprise call from producer Terry Page. She had heard about my work and was interested. I can remember it like it was yesterday.
Her call to me went something like this: “Hi, I’m Terry Page and I am a news producer for ABC News based in the Johannesburg bureau. I heard that you could be interested in working with us.”
Stunned into silence, I could only mumble something like “yes, I could be”. But my heart was thumping faster than the six o’clock express from Mitchells Plain station. Then I managed to compose myself and explain that I was still attached to the SABC and would need at least one month’s notice.
But Page would have none of that. Then she blurted out “No, No, No. We need somebody now, in fact we need somebody to start tomorrow.” Then she mentioned the day rate in US dollars and I knew I was on my way. Never mind the SABC and notice period. That we can sort out later.
A few home truths quickly flashed through my mind. There’s a house in Mitchells Plain that was one month in arrears with rent, my car was in disrepair and in need of registration and the decks were falling all around me. So after a moment’s silence to catch my breath, I managed to utter quite calmly: “Yes, OK send the air tickets I’ll be on my way in the morning.”
I knew from that very minute that my career had just taken on a whole new dimension of its own. Although I didn’t have a clue where it was heading, I was ready for wherever it would take me. The shambles that was surrounding me at the time was about to come to an end.
Well, as it turned out, the SABC quickly discovered the following day that I was not too ill to come to work as I had told them and in fact was working out in the townships filming the 1989 uprisings across the Cape Flats for American Broadcasting Corporation.
The inevitable happened. I was fired.
But the ABC stepped in and offered me a year’s freelance contract and that was the start of a whole new world. They supplied me with a hired BMW, got the finest and latest equipment for me to operate with and I was now a fully accredited TV cameraman for one of the global giants of TV news.
This was a fantastic experience for anyone aiming to improve as a TV cameraman. The scope of the assignments, the opportunities to expand, learn and develop with the finest hands in the business was a great opportunity for me and I grabbed it with both hands.
I covered the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, the factional infighting fighting between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC), numerous confrontations with the police in the townships of South Africa and I was seconded to travel all over the country with Nelson Mandela to the point that the apartheid icon would be on first name familiar terms with me.
Occasionally he would even stop by and offer a greeting or a few words of encouragement. The ABC was a professional outfit and as an employer they would always take care of their staff, always taking care of you and making sure that you were safe and comfortable in the work environment.
After Mandela was released from prison, casual assignments at ABC News started drying up and my contract ended. I was happy for the experience and for the privilege of working with some of the finest television journalists in the world. I recognised that all good things always come to an end. I was without a new contract with few signs on the horizon.
However, a short time later M-Net came knocking and asked whether I would be keen to produce a few documentaries for a show called Camera 7.
This contract came with a busy travelling schedule from Namibia to Frankfurt, to London, Washington and New York. I was working on assignments such as Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Namibia, a profile on Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson, finding and filming the wreckage of the sunken ocean liner, the Oceanos, as well as a profile on the emerging right-wing force in South Africa.
My brief at M-Net was to join the dive team that would go out looking for the Greek ocean liner, the Oceanos that sunk off the east coast of South Africa on 4 August 1991.
I had two encounters with this story: the first while I was still working for ABC News when producer Terry Page called me early one Sunday morning and suggested that I hurry along and get on board a flight to East London because a cruise ship was sinking off the coast.
Professional Mariner magazine (December/January 2012) reported that the Oceanos had sailed from East London to Durban with 571 passengers and crew members on board.
The 7,554-ton vessel was commanded by Captain Yiannis Avranas, a Greek licensed master with 30 years seagoing experience. On August 3, 1991, while engulfed in a gale, the ship began taking on water after a main engine explosion damaged the hull. Powerless, the ship drifted in 80 knot winds and 10 metre seas, with flooding waters rising deck by deck within.
By the time soundman Gary Meder and I were operational and ready to go, we missed the first flight to East London and had to wait for the next. By the time we arrived in East London, the Oceanos was already at the bottom of the ocean and the passengers were heading towards the shore in lifeboats.
There were no casualties but lots of scandal afterwards as Captain Avranas was accused of abandoning his ship.
ABC News managed to get dramatic by chartering a helicopter from Johannesburg and getting there in the nick of time for cameraman James Mitchell to record the disaster.
It was also a sad time for us as we learned the shocking news that our colleague who worked as a soundman for Reuters, Aziz Tassiem, was killed after the car he was in rolled on a dirt road as they rushed towards the Transkei coastline to cover the sinking just off the shore.
Cameraman, Jimi Mathews, was devastated as he made his way back to the hotel in East London. It turned out to be a dramatic and really sad day for us.
My second encounter with the Oceanos was when I was assigned by M-Net’s Camera 7 show to join the dive team searching for the sunken wreck. Again, it was Meder and I who made our way first to East London then by car to Mthatha before turning off the N2 motorway to drive another 100 km on a remote dirt road, ironically the same road that claimed the life of Tassiem, to get to the “Hole in the Wall” on the rugged Wild Coast.
We were joined there by veteran reporter Mike Hanna who would anchor the piece and dive master Peter Lamberti and his team of divers from Johannesburg. The plan was for Peter and his team to locate the area where the liner went down and drag a camera along the seabed to record the images for the story.
This was easier said than done. It proved to be a major challenge for the team. In between daily doses of nausea out at sea in a boat with camera equipment we spent about three weeks trying to find the wreck. We would go out in the morning before the rough seas came into play but that did not stop Gary and I from getting seasick.
Lamberti spent the hours watching a monitor and dragging a camera on the seabed for signs of the wreck. It was only after about three weeks of constant searching that we struck luck.
We had gone out as we always did every day and we were out for about two hours when Lamberti suddenly yelled out: “Turn the boat around. I think I may have sighted something.” And, yes, there she was. It appeared as if she was waiting for us to find her.
The name Oceanos appeared on top of the hull. I rolled the cameras in excitement to capture the moment. There were screams of excitement, and the divers were all smiling. It was as though we had found sunken treasure.
After making several sweeps of the area, we finally returned to land and an even more excited Hanna. The job was done and we could all finally all return to base in Johannesburg.
When the M-Net contract ended, I once again returned to television news when I was hired to work alongside Jimi Matthews in the Cape Town bureau of Reuters news agency. Once again, I was covering conflict.
Some major assignments included the historic 1994 elections in South Africa and an excited Archbishop Desmond Tutu voting for the first time which I captured in detail for Reuters before travelling to Somalia for duty there with the US forces still stationed in that troubled nation.
Towards the end of 1994, the Associated Press news agency started their first video service then called APTV which would later become APTN after they bought out news agency Worldwide Television News (WTN). At the time, I was based in Cape Town and little did I know my career in my home town was soon coming to an end.
I took on the role of senior producer at APTV and moved to the Johannesburg studios where I handled the Africa region for Associated Press. My stint here would last 16 years, 16 memorable years mostly on the frontline of some major breaking news stories and a stint “on the run” after capturing the gruesome assassination of township drug baron and notorious gang boss Rashaad Staggie.
Associated Press Television News was a challenging exercise that would take a chunk out of my life emotionally and physically. By this time, I had lost several media colleagues working the frontline and it was a growing burden that started to take an emotional toll on me. I was drained from continuously having to travel to some of the most dangerous and remote places on earth – much of it on the troubled continent of Africa.
There is only so much that one person can stand of death and destruction, of blood and guts and a world at war. It is far removed from a normal life in suburbia. The horrors of war and the dangers of filming some of Africa’s most dangerous militia leaders and gruesome killers is not a task to be taken lightly. It leaves a deadly stain on the psyche.
So, when I finally packed it in at APTN, I wanted to take a badly needed break away from news. That was when the Cape Town Jazz Festival offered me an opportunity to produce their 10th anniversary video of the festival. I jumped at the idea as it was not the usual blood and guts fodder that I was used to covering for decades.
This was more mellow and serene. But later I discovered even in these soft assignments there’s just as much stress meeting deadlines and dealing with the demands and hang ups of fragile entertainers.
Finally, I would once again end up at Reuters Television when the Johannesburg bureau asked me to work on the logistics for the eventual passing of Nelson Mandela.
So, I made my way to Johannesburg for a year while I worked in their Sandton office. These days it’s not that stressful and my contributions are mainly for Africa Focus Africa Daily with short feature inserts. It is so much less stressful but with that big breaking news story never far away from my mind anything can happen.
So, you want to work in war zones?
There is a strange and almost morbid desire by young and inexperienced journalists who aspire to be foreign correspondents jet-setting around the world from one international crisis to the next as if life is a never-ending live show of death, destruction and mayhem.
Whatever your perceptions about a career as a roving international foreign correspondent, it is not half as glamorous as it is made out to be.
It is a hectic and often dangerous life where simple mistakes and miscalculations can end in tragedy or disaster.
It is neither for the feint hearted nor for the foolishly brave. And it is most definitely not some sort of macabre game to satisfy youthful enthusiasm. It is definitely not remotely anything like chasing police cars in gang-infested townships of Cape Town or riots in Soweto. This is war zone reporting and the stakes are high.
All the international news agencies recognise this aspect of journalism as a particularly dangerous exercise reserved only for experienced hands with a commitment to safety and security as well as a complete grip on the subject at hand.
As part of its commitment to safeguarding production staff and journalists who work in dangerous regions around the globe, Associated Press Television Network (APTN) along with other major international news agencies and news networks are obliged to train their staff on how best to protect themselves if they ever came under attack, were kidnapped, hi-jacked or wounded while on duty on the frontline.
So off I went to the Centurion Hostile Environments Safety Course in Heckfield just outside London for a week of intensive training on how to keep my sanity while everyone else was losing theirs as bullets fly and bombs explode. It was not a good feeling, I can tell you.
It brought home to me, not exactly for the first time, how dangerous this job was. At home I had a wife and child waiting for my safe return and a bank manager waiting for the monthly mortgage repayments. And what was I doing? Here I was enrolled for a hostile environment survival course to help me get by playing with my life, filming troubles that I was not involved in nor had anything to do with and quite often not particularly interested in. It sounded kind of crazy.
Well, that was the feeling at least.
So, off I went to Heckfield in Hampshire for a week and bubbling with enthusiasm all ready to learn from the professional bruisers and to observe how best I was able to look after myself in hostile situations. Luckily, I was not alone on this mission. A few scribes from other networks were also on board for the training. Like me they were similarly nervous of what was ahead.
We were quickly introduced to our instructors and I got the distinct impression we were dealing with some experienced former military types who knew the way around a trouble spot or battlefield. None of them said much. This was simply a professional relationship.
They were strictly professional and shared nothing personal. We went through the first few days of tutorials and then got down to serious business with some physical training to test our nerves and prepare us for any eventuality should it arise. I found the course quite stimulating, especially the first-aid courses which would come in very handy if anyone was injured on assignment.
The highlight of the training program was a staged kidnapping scene where we would drive in a Land Rover on a deserted road and suddenly there would be loud explosions camouflaged with frighteningly realistic coloured smoke. Balaclava-clad instructors came swinging down with ropes tied to trees after our vehicle was banged up by the blast and enveloped in smoke. It was as realistic as you could imagine and sent the pulses racing with fear.
To further enhance this frightening experience, hessian sacks were pulled over our heads and all jewellery and eye glasses were removed. After that you were pulled over to lie on the ground while stun grenades exploded all around you. Not one word was said during this contrived ordeal and certainly not a word from the instructors turned attackers. Then it just all went quiet and the “kidnappers” disappeared from site leaving us wondering just what the hell happened now.
The entire episode was filmed and later replayed so that the instructors could observe the different reactions of those being “kidnapped” and they offered advice and techniques that could help in such an emergency.
The great thing about the course was you got to meet up with fellow APTN colleagues from all around the world and inevitably you would become friends and really get to know each other over a pint of beer at night.
After the course we all headed back to London and as was the custom for graduates of the hostile environment course, we were all treated to a fine dinner at company expense before we all said farewell and left to our respective postings. Not only was this a demanding and worthwhile experience, it also put into perspective the perils of reporting from the frontline and the need to be prepared for any eventuality.
This is definitely not a job for a starry-eyed aspiring young journalist or a junior scribe filled with youthful enthusiasm.
Mayhem in Kinshasa: Laurent Kabila assassinated
For many African political observers, it came as no surprise on January 16, 2001 when it was first reported that Laurent Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was shot dead by a bodyguard at his presidential palace in Kinshasa.
Kabila was shot by his bodyguard, Rashidi Muzele, who was killed as he attempted to flee the scene at Kabila's Palais de Marbre residence.
It was rumoured his assassination was the result of some sordid business links involving diamonds and linked to a Lebanese businessman. Colonel Eddy Kapend (one of Kabila's cousins), and 25 others were sentenced to death in January 2003, for the killing but were never executed.
But Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian newspaper (11 February 2001) casts doubt on this version, saying Kabila’s child soldiers were in revolt and plotted against him. The Guardian reported the incident:
Kabila's young killer entered the president's office at the Marble Palace in Kinshasa on 16 January, as the increasingly paranoid and isolated Kabila was discussing with an economics adviser a looming summit with France he hoped would be his political salvation.
The assassin bent over Kabila, and the president, assuming the teenager wanted to talk to him, leaned towards him. The kadogo then produced a revolver and shot the president four times, and then escaped with other conspirators while the palace resounded with gunfire.
The plot to kill Kabila started in early January when a dissident group of kadogos went to Brazzaville and drew up a document setting out Operation Mbongo Zero. 'Mbongo' is a Swahili word for buffalo, a reference to the ex-president's corpulence.
A copy of the assassination plan has been kept by one of the plotters, identified by Le Monde only as Abdoul.
Consisting of three unsigned hand-written pages, it explains how the conspirators would infiltrate strategic positions in Kinshasa, including the presidential palace, the national radio and television station and the headquarters of the country's electricity company. It involved some 75 members of Kabila's bodyguards at the presidential palace, many of whom were arrested after the killing.
The roots of the boy soldiers' dissension go deeper. Kabila founded his Alliance of Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire in 1996, backed chiefly by Rwandan and Ugandan forces (with whom he later fell out), but with support from the kadogos from the east of the country.
Kabila consolidated his power base by organising the assassination of one of the co-founders of the Alliance, Andre Kisase Ngandu, who had been chief of the National Council of Resistance for Democracy, a group opposed to Mobutu to whom many of the kadogos belonged.
One of those kadogos was Abdoul, who supported Kabila during the 1997 coup d’état, but never pardoned him for killing his former leader: “I marched with Kabila, but I knew he was a traitor.”
Resentment against Kabila grew. According to Abdoul, he treated his “children” with contempt: “We knew no one in Kinshasa. All the time we were with Kabila. But he treated us badly. We didn't have salaries, all the money came from him. We were like beggars.”
Increasingly paranoid, Kabila started to devour the children of the revolution. Kabila later believed he had discovered a plot against him and arrested tortured and killed soldiers loyal to Commandant Anselme Masasu Nindaga who had earlier made a subversive speech at a reunion for 1,200 kadogos in Kinshasa.
The day before his assassination, Kabila had witnessed the execution of 47 kadogos, all believed to be plotting against him. His terror had turned on those who had been his closest allies, the boy soldiers who had marched with him from eastern Congo four years earlier.
So, when word got out that that Kabila was assassinated, the Johannesburg-based foreign media scrambled to get into Kinshasa. I got a call from APTN senior producer Sahm Venter to fly to Johannesburg immediately to get on a charter flight to Kinshasa. My role was producer on the ground and my cameraman was the late fearless Sipho Maseko, a close friend and confidant.
We boarded an ageing Boeing 707, which then first landed at a disused airbase in Namibia before making its way to our destination. But instead of landing in Kinshasa they landed in Congo, Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River explaining that they could not get clearance to fly into Kinshasa.
Soon everybody was scrambling to get across the river using light aircraft and whatever means they could. Sipho and I watched, after all we had several cases of television equipment to carry across which would not be easy. We ended up being the last to leave the airport to get across after asking a young French pilot to fly us over the river to the airport.
As we landed on the other side in Kinshasa, we were met by the army who were all armed and pointed us in the direction of the waiting rooms at the airport. As we entered and much to our relief all our media colleagues who had left earlier were all holed up there. The instructions were that we would have to sleep on the flea-infested floor of the airport and wait until morning when government officials would come and escort us to the Memling Hotel in the city.
The city was dangerous and tense, many people we upset by the death of their president. Tensions were running high in the street, the media were not welcome and treated with suspicion and it was difficult for most journalists who were covering this story. Sipho was among the first of the reporters who ventured out into the streets. Sipho was always calm and focused but when he got back to the hotel, he reported that the atmosphere was like a time bomb out there waiting to explode.
APTN flew in an extra producer based in Paris, Marsha Macpherson and Egyptian cameraman based in Nairobi, Bishr El Touni. Both of them were of course fluent in French and this proved a great help.
There would be many tense moments at the Memling Hotel especially with my fixer on the ground, Romeo Luyindula, also known as Romeo, who was initially my translator and later became one of my cameramen after a crash course on camera technology. Romeo was a third-year medical student who had to drop out of university because of a lack of funds. Later he would play a big part in my life.
It started with a knock on my hotel room door.
When I opened there were two army officials who shoved a picture of Romeo in my face and subsequently asked me if I knew who the person in the photograph was. Of course, what else could I say except that I had never seen this man in my life before? At the same time Romeo just happened to be on the rooftop helping the BBC to transmit a story with French translations.
When Romeo entered the room I sat him down and told him about the military visit. He broke down in tears and became extremely emotional. I was wondering what the hell just happened. Paris-based senior producer Marsha Macpherson entered the room and saw what was taking place. She started a conversation with Romeo in French trying to establish out why the army would be looking for him. Turns out it was his father who got into trouble with the army and Romeo was somehow involved trying to protect his father.
So we needed to do something fast. This young man’s life was clearly on the line and so was the life of his wife. The call to London went something like this to the APTN Chief of Bureaux Worldwide Dave Modrowski: “Dave we have a problem here with one of our fixers on the ground and it looks bad.”
As always Dave would say in his calm native Canadian accent: “What would it cost to solve the problem?”
But it was a lot more complicated than that as it would involve getting Romeo and his wife two passports to fly them from Kinshasa to Abidjan and safety. It was done thanks to the organisational skills of Macpherson as all the South African crews were unavailable and had to return to Johannesburg.
The answer from Modrowski was as expected: “Just do it mate, just let me know the costs afterwards.” Costs? This would entail chartering a flight to Abidjan and the APTN office was very concerned for the safety of Romeo and his wife especially in these circumstances.
The plan was for Romeo to get out with his wife and then become the producer/cameraman for West Africa, based in Abidjan, for APTN. To this day, Romeo and I remain friends. Besides sharing a birthday with his lovely wife, he would call me dad whenever our paths crossed in West Africa.
I made several trips to war-torn Abidjan where I covered a constant stream of riots and unrest in a city that feeds on violence. When the French forces bombed the aircraft belonging to the Ivory Coast, the airport was shut down immediately. Romeo was having a problem with his livewire equipment used to transmit pictures into London and Europe. The Africa Desk then called me, asking for help. It resulted with me and cameraman Sam Msibi flying to London, picking up new equipment then returning on a British Airways flight to Accra, in Ghana, which was the closest airport to Abidjan.
On arrival in Accra I immediately started making inquiries about who was flying ex-pats out of Abidjan to Accra. It turned out that the Brits were making several flights in and out of Abidjan. A few calls later to the British Consulate in Accra and a very helpful media spokesperson was willing to help me and Sam out.
Soon enough we were safely on our way in a noisy old Hercules heading to Abidjan to deliver to Romeo the equipment he badly needed. We landed; we handed over the equipment to a relieved Romeo, and sat around for seven hours in the waiting area before the aircraft departed again with hundreds of ex-pats loaded on to the plane back to Accra.
But APTN had instructed us that our job was not over, we would have to make that journey back into Abidjan to help Romeo and his crew on the ground. When the first flight took off from Accra we were on board. Landing in Abidjan, we were met by French forces on the ground. There were many roadblocks manned by the French leading out from the airport to the city.
We were stopped periodically for security reasons. We wanted to make our way into the city to the Tiama Hotel that promised much comfort and a great view from the hotel roof into the city. That was perfect. Whenever there was trouble you could film from the roof. It also offered some of the finest French cuisine in Abidjan, a luxury seldom experienced by the crews on the ground.
Political tensions and blood on the streets of Abidjan
For the better part of a decade, the Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire, was out of bounds for all but the most daring thrill seekers who desired the coastal delights of Sassandra and Grand-Bassam. Ivory Coast also has a fascinating cultural heritage.
It is a French-speaking jewel of Africa that has struggled to overcome severe obstacles in pursuing a vibrant and lucrative tourist trade after independence from France. A referendum in 1958 resulted in the Ivory Coast becoming an autonomous republic. In June of 1960, the pro-French Félix Houphouet-Boigny proclaimed the country's independence, but he maintained close ties between Abidjan and Paris. The Ivory Coast became one of the most prosperous West African nations.
In October 2000, I was on my way to report on escalating political unrest in the region and conflict on the streets of the administrative capital Abidjan – violence that later spread to Bouake and the northern town of Korhogo and quickly engulfed the rest of the country.
Military strongman General Robert Guei was firmly in charge and headed the ruling military junta. General Guei has the dubious distinction of having mounted Ivory Coast's first and only successful coup d’état in the history of the country. It was on Christmas Eve 1999. Until then Ivory Coast had never experienced military rule.
Plans for upcoming elections were in place by 2002 but the military ruler decided only one candidate was suitable to challenge. And that was Laurent Gbagbo, of the opposition Ivorian Popular Front, who was not expected to win.
A historian by profession, as well as an amateur chemist and physicist, Gbagbo was jailed in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s, and he lived in exile in France during much of the 1980s as a result of his union activism. He founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for President against Félix Houphouet-Boigny at the start of multi-party politics in 1990. He also won a seat in the National Assembly of Côte d'Ivoire in 1990.
When the civil war broke out in 2002, Gbagbo's supporters were accused of carrying out xenophobic attacks in areas they controlled -- against those from the mainly Muslim north, immigrants from neighboring African countries and Westerners.
The BBC would just a few of years later describe Gbagbo as a classically educated academic who cut his political teeth in the trade unions and widely regarded as a leader who was willing to destroy his country by refusing to accept defeat at the ballot box.
In April 2011, Gbagbo was himself forced from office -- captured in a bunker at the presidential palace by United Nations and French-backed forces supporting his rival, Alassane Ouattara, internationally regarded as the winner of elections five months earlier.
Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where he became the first head of state to be tried there. The conflict killed more than 3,000 people.
Margaret Busby, in an obituary in The Guardian (September 20, 2002,) recalled that for decades the former French colony was a beacon of prosperity and stability in West Africa. Under the leadership of President Houphouet-Boigny - affectionately known as the Old Man -- and his Democratic Party (PDCI), its 15 million inhabitants lived peacefully for over 30 years, despite the diversity of 60 ethnic groups. The economy blossomed and the main exports were coffee and cocoa that provided a decent standard of living.
In the late 1980s the country opened to multi-party politics, and among the emergent opposition was Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front. However, on the Old Man's death in 1993, Henri Konan Bédié, who had been Speaker of the National Assembly, took over.
General Guei ousted Bédié in a military coup after clashing with his leader. It was a short and sweet victory for the general. Within 10 months, he had fallen into the mould of many other African military leaders; he transformed himself into a power-hungry civilian.
A candidate in the October 2000 presidential elections, General Guei was so determined to win that, against all the evidence, he proclaimed himself the victor, and tried to steal the vote from Gbagbo. However, the general badly misjudged his popularity and was forced out of office. In the face of a popular uprising, he was forced to flee to Gouessesso near the Liberian border.
Hundreds of protesters were shot and killed on the streets as protests grew amid calls for new and fair election.
Guei had been out of office for nearly two years when his bullet-riddled body was discovered on a roadside in the commercial capital, Abidjan, during a second attempted coup in 2002. He was killed during action by government forces to suppress an uprising by troops in Abidjan. The violent struggle left at least 10 people dead.
Following Guei’s death, his body stayed in a morgue until a funeral was held for him in Abidjan on August 18, 2006, nearly four years after his death. General Guei was military ruler of Ivory Coast from December 1999 to October 2000.
It was against this chequered background that I went to cover an election in the Ivory Coast and ended up covering conflict between supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and General Robert Guei.
Journalists travelling to Abidjan to cover the conflict encountered the usual problems of a war zone. Every time there was some sort of conflict or unrest in in the city then the, airport would immediately shut down leaving you stranded in the country. And I made several trips to Abidjan where I was left stranded for days on end with my team. It can be both scary and exciting to see and record history in the making.
We were holed up just outside the plateau at the Gulf International Hotel which was eerily deserted. In fact, we ended up being the only guests during the conflict. Needless to say, room service was out of the question because most of the staff had fled. Only two guards manned the entrance to the sprawling hotel complex, and a clerk arrived daily to charge us the hotel room rate.
My crew consisted of a “fixer” named Eya who came from Benin, Jean Claude a tall strapping soundman who accompanied me on all my assignments, and was a brave and trusted solider who never ever asked where we were going when we headed towards the front lines.
Tensions were running high by the time the election results were announced by government officials. The assembled international media in the room soon packed up and headed out to the city where trouble was anticipated. The assembled media included the three French channels -- TF1, 2 and 3.
As supporters of Gbagbo marched from Cocody to the city centre, gunshots were heard all around the city described as the Paris of Africa. We made our way cautiously towards the centre of Abidjan and found a city trashed by drunken soldiers manning roadblocks. They were all armed to the teeth and ready to spread gunfire at anyone who dared to cross their path.
As we crossed the bridge, gunfire rang out and we were forced to duck for cover as bullets zinged over our heads into the river. The Associated Press “fixer” Eya was on the ground shouting at us to get back into the car. But I could not resist. I first rolled the camera to get some footage before we backtracked to the car that was waiting to get us out of harm’s way.
Just then my cell phone rang. It was Associated Press West Africa correspondent Alexandra Zavis trying to find out where we were and warning us not to return to the city because she had just witnessed a shooting from her 12th floor apartment which overlooked a roadblock. Drunken soldiers were on the rampage but for us the warning came too late.
We headed straight into the morass. The soldiers quickly stopped our car and demanded to see what was in the boot. They found two bullet proof vests and questioned us about it.
They also demanded to know who we were and what we were doing in Abidjan. Luckily our soundman fixer Jean Claude calmed them down in French, explaining that we were journalists covering the elections for an international audience. That seemed to calm matters down and we were again on our way.
They reluctantly let us through, much to my relief and Jean Claude’s language skills. We delivered the pictures to our London Bureau based in Camden using a TOKO machine which first delivered the video and then the audio, which took up much of our time.
Later we decided to take a trip through Abidjan to see the extent of the damage, but noticeably absent were the three French TV crews. They had fled by road from Abidjan to Accra, a car journey which took about eight hours. They were not the only journalists who fled the city. Everybody else who was there had suddenly disappeared, leaving only us, the Associated Press Television News (APTN) crew at the Gulf International Hotel.
Just when we thought the misery was all over, we received this eerie cell phone call from someone who claimed to have footage of dumped bodies of young boys on a pile near the city. At first we were suspicious, but Eya soon established that the call was from one of the local camera operators and the tip off came from the French News cameraman before they fled the city.
We asked him to bring the footage to us, and warned the APTN office in London we could be dealing with a potentially dangerous story here. The footage was horrendous, piles of dumped bodies of young boys which we failed to understand why they were killed in the first place.
The cameraman explained that it was a way of recruiting young soldiers and those who refused would be summarily shot on sight. This information could not be verified but I managed to get two minutes of brutal footage that was not too dramatic to feed into our office in London.
The story soon ran on our 24 news networks and we received a message from Editor of the Day Phil O Keefe, an Australian who ran the newsroom with a firm hand, saying big congrats to the crew in Abidjan for exclusive and great coverage.
Our Africa Editor Claude Colart called to check on our safety, and then soon realised that we were the only crew left in Abidjan. That was when he decided it was time to get out. He contacted charter flight operators and quickly found a cargo flight that would leave Abidjan bound for Johannesburg. This time the airport was not shut for any reason.
His call to me was, “get the hell out of there to the airport and get on that flight”. As I made my way saying goodbye to the local staffers Eya and Jean Claude, it was a little emotional knowing that I was leaving them in a city torn apart by conflict.
By the time I got to the airport, I bumped into the CNN crew who were trying to get into the city but had to abandon their plans because of security fears. The CNN team of Charlayne Hunter Gault, cameraperson Cynde Strand and soundman Phil were so excited to see me safe and sound; after all, we were all getting on the same flight back to Johannesburg and to safety
As luck would have it, that was my last foray into West Africa and the Ivory Coast but there are memories and experiences in that battle scarred city of Abidjan that will remain with me for many years. It was a brutal and savage political battle between two stubborn leaders that left blood and mayhem on the streets of Abidjan and wrecked the safe and happy world of Ivoirians forever.
A hot Christmas in Mogadishu
Somalia, situated on the horn of Africa, was hot as hell when I first got there in 1992 over Christmas and New Year. The gauge in my car driving from the airport to the Al Sahafi Hotel in Mogadishu showed it was 40 degrees Centigrade. Unused to this intense dry heat, I could swear it was already reaching boiling point and the skin on my forehead was bubbling.
For a man from Mitchells Plain and more accustomed to the milder Mediterranean climate of the Cape Peninsula, it was a torrid introduction that has been burnt into my brain.
This was not my first visit to Mogadishu as a Reuters cameraman but it was the same old city, often described as the most dangerous city in the world. I was reminded by one of my colleagues who told me: “It’s like being in an oven with the door closed. Even at night you still felt the intense heat.”
But it’s not just the oppressive heat that is a concern. A devastating civil war has destroyed this once beautiful city leaving little but ruins. Since 1991, various Islamist and clan or warlord-affiliated militias have taken control of different parts of the city in a savage civil war that has raged for more than 20 years. Many journalists have been killed while covering the ongoing strife in Somalia.
In 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts took full control of Somalia, implementing their harsh version of Islamic law over the city. Ethiopia sent in troops to liberate the country and with help from local resistance fighters the Islamists were ousted and the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government was reinstated.
In the resulting chaos and confusion, this was also an opportune time for the hard-line Islamist group, al-Shabaab, to gradually take control of Mogadishu while the government only controlled a few square blocks of the city. A counter-offensive, supported by African Union troops, cleared the city of militants in August 2011. Bombings and shootings are still commonplace in Somalia, but thankfully open warfare has ceased for now.
So it was no surprise to learn that visiting Mogadishu was discouraged and tourists were advised if you had no business to travel there, it is wiser to stay away.
In 1992, on assignment for the Reuters news agency, I ended up alone in the lounge of the al Sahafi Hotel and was joined later by a Reuters photographer, a photographer from Associated Press, a reporter from a Canadian daily and a reporter from the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP).
It was a messy festive season with the Christmas-New Year period spent practising my whiskey drinking skills while celebrating with new-found friends.
The al Sahafi was one of the more popular hotels in Mogadishu and the hotel of choice for journalists and United Nations workers who were the main foreign visitors in the city. By local standards it was probably the most luxurious in the city but it was an ordinary rundown joint, a former motel turned into a low budget hotel for visiting journalists and other workers.
But one thing for sure, the staff always gave guests a warm welcome and you could choose any room from four floors of mostly empty rooms. There was also air-conditioning throughout which was most impressive considering fuel and electricity were considered luxury goods in Mogadishu.
In November 2015, Al-Shabab militants attacked the al Sahafi Hotel, and killed 15 people when gunmen used two car bombs to blast their way into the hotel compound before storming the building.
The al Sahafi did serve a good meal though, the chef was trained in Italy and there was certainly a hint of that Mediterranean influence in his cooking style. Visitors and guests alike rated his sweet goat curry very highly. It was a grand meal, neither hot nor spicy, but more like a delicious stew and very popular on Friday nights with the local version of biriyani.
As it turned out, we were more holed up in the contrived luxury of the al Sahafi because of safety concerns from management back in London and when we did manage to sneak out on to the streets, security was heavy. The bodyguards were not of much use either as they were always spaced out of their minds from chewing on Khat, a green leaf drug that kept them on a high when they were not smoking large parcels of weed.
It was always our main fear that that if we ever came under attack, and thankfully we did not, if these spaced-out bodyguards would be able to defend us and lead us to safety. I had serious doubts after observing them for a long time.
Driving around Mogadishu was not allowed as Reuters in London had strict instructions for us not to leave the hotel without first informing them for safety issues. And even when we did it was eerie. As the 4 x 4 Toyota drove down the road with our fixer at the wheel, we would be observed by the local Somali community with suspicion.
We were warned about the so called “hell run”, the road from the hotel to the airport. Local bandits would often shoot out the tyres of passing vehicles and then rob the occupants of their belongings they thought were valuable and could be resold.
Some months before I arrived in Somalia, several journalists were shot and killed at the Bakara market in Mogadishu.
This was always an open market and the largest of its kind in Somalia. Created in late 1972 during the reign of Siad Barre, its original purpose was to allow vendors to sell daily essentials, but the civil war subsequently created demand for arms and ammunition.
Everything from pistols to anti-aircraft weapons were sold there. Falsified documents were also readily available, such as forged Somali, Ethiopian and Kenyan passports.
The violence at Bakara Market and the deaths of several journalists resulted in the media fleeing the city.
I was one of only six and we were protected by the US troops. The television networks by this time considered it too dangerous for their staff.
My assignment in Somalia started off with a meeting with the late legendary African photojournalist Mohamed Amin. His energetic life was cut tragically short when, in November 1996, hijackers took over an Ethiopian airliner and forced it to ditch in the Indian Ocean killing 123 passengers and crew.
Amin died still negotiating with the terrorists. His life and contribution to frontline journalism was truly remarkable; action-packed, full of pain and passion and inseparable from the troubled chronicle of emergent Africa. He also ran Camerapix and Reuters Television in Nairobi.
His coverage of the 1984 Ethiopia famine proved so compelling that it inspired a collective global conscience and became the catalyst for the greatest ever act of giving. Unquestionably, it also saved the lives of millions of men, women and children. The concerts of Band Aid and Live Aid and songs We are the World and Do they know it is Christmas were a direct result of Mo Amin’s moving television images.
At the end of 1997, David Johnson, an American and Christel de Wit, a South African, collaborated with Salim Amin, Mo’s only son, to launch the Mohamed Amin Foundation’s Broadcast Television Training Centre, a professional media training centre based in Nairobi.
Mo Amin was a friendly man with a wicked sense of humour. After a bit of general small talk when we met, he politely told me that they had several bullet-proof vests ready and available in a variety of colours and sizes. And just to make me feel better he quickly ran through a safety check list on security just in case anything should ever go wrong.
We were on the way inland on a small United Nations aircraft. I was the producer on the ground with Reuters cameraman Willie Quebeka tagging along. We boarded the flight from Nairobi to Mogadishu with hard seats and a captain with a taste for the high life.
As the plane reached cruising altitude, he announced that bar service was now open. This turned out to be a bottle of whiskey being passed around with a single glass and when we were about to land at the airport in Mogadishu he announced simply: “Welcome to Mogadishu and have a great holiday “.
After three weeks in this hell hole of Africa it was time to pack up and leave -- back to Nairobi with much cooler temperatures and then back to South Africa, job done.