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That Day in Naivasha Revisited – January 27th 2008

Post-Election Upheaval in Kenya.  January & February 2008.

Grace Mungai is shot through the neck and killed by a stray bullet fired by police during tribal clashes in Kenya as her distraught 15 month old baby son Brian looks on.

I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist).  It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.

I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today.  It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it.  I find it really hard.  I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.

I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point.  Of course, I had no idea at the time.  The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.

It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway.  I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service.  I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected?  I was so wrong.  I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:

As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.

Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?

A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby?  Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot.  Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things.  I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception.  The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.

I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day.  I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital.  It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd.  The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene  by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.

It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’.  I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances.  To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional.  It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).

What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths.  I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere.  CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day.  It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day.  I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside.  They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute.  I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras.  Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble.  I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.

My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it.  I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head.  I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran.  It was a miracle I escaped that day.  I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.

 

Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.

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I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it.  I feel it is much more powerful because of it.  Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated.  I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations.  Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture.  I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).

Such moments of levity are few and far between.  I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can.  For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict.  And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite.  A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend.  I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.

work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com

 

 

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South Sudan, being a Reuters Stringer & Zanzibar Chest

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Spent the last month up in Kenya and a brief 2 week stint covering the terrible events passing in South Sudan.  I’ve been back a week now in Cape Town and still haven’t blogged – I’ve been busy to the max but to be honest for many reasons, I have been putting off writing this blog.

Part of it is the obvious – that I don’t like sitting on my own in front of countless gruesome images and wanton destruction and editing for hours.  But I’m used to that in a lot of ways and it’s not really that – it’s more that since going to Mogadishu in 2011, I have not ventured into a conflict zone and have blogged countless times about how news photog doesn’t work as a business model and touched upon the personal cost it has taken upon me in the past.  To explain away why I have gone back to it couldn’t simply be explained away by the fact I felt I could do a decent job of it in South Sudan.  A lot of what I would say would be personal and uncomfortable for me to say on a blog too.

But I decided to just sit down and free-write and see what came out.  I have been re-reading parts of Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley  recently – a book which had a huge influence on the type of photography I wanted to do and the area of the world I wanted to do it in when I first started out over a decade ago (even though I ended up doing more commercial work when I finally got to Nairobi).  The book covers a lot what transpired with the EA Reuters news-desk in Nairobi in the 90’s.  I read it too cos while in South Sudan with Reuters I met the son of one of the great Reuters photogs mentioned extensively in the book who died on 12th July 1993 during a botched UN attempt to capture or kill General Aidid and which was a forerunner to the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident later that year in Mogadishu.  I had one of the best convos with him that I’ve had with a fellow journo one alcohol-fuelled night of typical journo mayhem at the Logali House (where most journos stay in Juba).  I’ll come back to that all later.

Firstly, I went up to Kenya to try and begin to re-connnect with some of my old commercial contacts I have there.  I had worked extensively with ad agencies and large companies directly on ad campaigns in Nairobi in the past (at 1 point around 2006/7 1 in 3 billboards in Nairobi were mine) and have been considering going back there and spending large parts of the year in Nai to also pursue such work. I think the potential is def there to start up again – I even managed to meet up with a large company I loved working with back in the day and am busy with a creative brief for them for a large new ad campaign covering all of East Africa that may take me back to Nai within weeks.  One can but try & hope.

But my main reason for going back was to go into South Sudan and cover the terrible civil war that has broken out there.  I went with Polaris Images but also hooked up again with the Reuters photo desk once in Nairobi with whom I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years since trying to cover Mogadishu.

I went cos I believed I had good potential contacts there to be able to do a good story – albeit many I hadn’t spoken to in years.  Not only the NGO’s and UN contacts – but a few high level SPLA and rebel contacts, including Riek Machar himself (one day I might write about the crazy and surreal dinner at the Bhandini at the InterCon in Nai I had with him circa 2006, a contact and a man who simply and ominously introduced himself as a ‘Consultant from Virginia’).

But the reality once in South Sudan was that on the ground – access was hard and limited. Getting an exclusive with the rebels for example could only be done from Nairobi (smthg which Goran Tomasevic – Chief Photographer in Nairobi impressively managed to get the exclusive for Reuters).

I was expecting this before going though.  All the media coverage coming out of South Sudan up to mid-Jan had been scant and well away from any frontline fighting (expect for the BBC’s Alastair Leithead’s excellent reporting of the SPLA being ambushed on approach to try and re-capture rebel-held Bor).  It meant that either there were tight restrictions on the media or getting to the right place was hard… it turned out both were true.  I have blogged many times how such conflict photog in Africa is being killed by tight access restrictions more akin to a major event such as the World Cup or a Justin Bieber concert than a war zone.  It is also our fault as journos in that we act too much in unison as a press pack – to easily herded around by those who mean to control the access we get.

With my failure to get to an active frontline in Mogadishu suddenly fresh in my mind, unable to negotiate the Kafkaesque web of clearances required there, I was determined not to be undone again.  I decided it would be best to stay in a hotel close to the pilots who made the dangerous trips to all the places us journos were desperate to get to rather than with the press pack at Logali House and try and get access – as well as any info from them on conditions on the ground – that way (alcohol-fuelled nights with them were fun too must say).  I managed to get clearance with the SPLA to stay with the army at their barracks and was able to embed for 3 days and nights in Bor under General Malwal’s Command – also second in charge in the SPLA – and was granted access to the frontline at Mathiang and witness some of the fighting – albeit remote – via BM and Cartouche rockets – first hand.  I never got to see the offensives the rebels were undertaking against SPLA positions as they were all at night or ealy dawn (and are therefore harder to confirm – although the countless bodies of rebel soldiers strewn in no mans land the following days was strong evidence of it).  This all after the ceasefire between the 2 sides had been signed of course.

Being embedded for 3 days, took a lot out of me personally – the SPLA soldiers – many of whom were from Bor itself and fighting to liberate their home town and villages rather than for any higher purpose – gave me a tour of their now destroyed town – where the slaughtered and decomposing bodies of civilians – and especially of women and children – many of whom had been killed when the rebels re-took the town for around 2 weeks in early Jan – still lay uncollected.  The soldiers showed no emotion but many of the younger ones especially, drank heavily at night I’m sure to rid themselves of the horrors of what they had seen by day. General Malwal himself, while always having a calm, approachable yet slightly menacing air about him also seemed tormented – he himself is from Bor.  One night one of his female relatives asked to go through my pics on my laptop.  It was only when she got to a picture of a covered decomposing body that I realised that she was looking to see if she could determine whether her own mother had been killed in the clashes.  She was only able to recognise that it was her by the blue sandals lying next to the body.

Upon returning to Juba, I made a half-hearted attempt to get up to Bentiu – a town that apparently had been all but wiped off the map during the civil war and where there were rumours that further fighting was taking or about to take place.  But by the last few days, my heart wasn’t in it – it sounds lazy – but to be honest – when I do this kind of photography I have to be fully committed or else it actually starts to become dangerous.  A fellow journo and I tried to hitch a plane ride up to Bentiu – and we found one for the following day – but on the runway at the airport the Commander there threatened to arrest us for security breach (we were running around a damn runway trying to hitch rides as if the planes were cars so kind of understandable!)– that was it for me.  I hadn’t been sure about going but this was a final straw of sorts – luck was def waning!  I had had a relatively successful trip –  I had done a large feature on IDP’s (Internally Displaced Person) at the UNMISS airport base for Polaris Images.  Doing a portrait series using a simple studio light and softbox (similar to what I had undertaken in Mogadishu) but this time asking each IDP to bring their most cherished possession with which they fled their homes with.  And I had gotten an exclusive of sorts from the frontline pics (and footage) for Reuters at Mathiang.

I jumped on the first plane and headed back to Nai and that was my 2 weeks in South Sudan.

Was it worth it?  Financially of course not – SS is damn expensive (given everything is in short supply) and stringer fees barely covered what I spent – so why do it?

I could give the classic professional answer that I did it cos it is a great way to get your name out there.  But I’d be lying though.  I hardly – and have not since – looked at where my pics might have been published.  And seeing as I’m trying to slowly (but hopefully surely!) move into book, gallery and other such more long-term photography projects, it doesn’t do too much career-wise in that respect esp anymore (try showing this type of work at Fotofest portfolio reviews at Lens Culture in Paris or Palm Springs at the PDN Annual and see where you get!).

I do this type of photography because it is what I got into photography in the first place to do.  To work in East Africa for news wires – and – because of one book – Reuters in particular.

In re-reading the book, I laughed when Aidan Hartley recounted how the agency needed to find another stringer for Mogadishu quickly at the time:

What was needed ideally ‘…was a hungry Caucasian freelancer who aspired to nothing in the world so much as to cover bang-bang stories like Mogadishu without expecting to get paid anything more than pocket money for it.’

Yep – that sounds like what I was doing..  It all seems a bit naive, to risk quite a bit at times for so little.

In talking to the son of one of the Reuters photogs who died in Moggie, he went into the agency to see for himself what it is all about and what his dad had worked and died for.  He recounted the day – when at 9 years of age – he learnt of his father’s death and after all this time – you could see it was still raw for him in a lot of ways.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like.  And to think now, when you can see the general state of news and media as a whole – ever in a declining cycle – and when so many people seem to have switched off long ago from this type of reporting and work – the same question comes round again –

Is it worth it?

I don’t know – I can only answer the question for myself and I have come to realise in recent times – after so many years of doubt – that the answer is still yes.

I gave up long ago caring whether other people were interested or not.  The region is one that I call home more than any other on earth and have always personally followed the terrible conflicts and wars that plague it with extra depth and interest.  It is what fundamentally drove me to go back to South Sudan to be honest.  That and the notion that I could make a decent job of it.

Just as a quick footnote – on a personal level, it is not just that my son (and for that matter my ex-wife with whom I remain v.close) that is Kenyan.  My dad was born in Gedaref and grew up in Khartoum.  And my grandmother is from Gondar in Northern Ethiopia.  I’ll never forget when I did my long drive from UK to Kenya when I first came to the Continent I passed through Khartoum.  A man grabbed me on the street and said ‘you must be Philipas’s son’.  He had never met me – and had last seen my father decades before – but he knew exactly who I was.  It turned out to be an old school friend of my dad’s and the owner of the famous Acropole Hotel there (where most journos like to stay and frequent).  I was shown some great hospitality for some long dead friendship… I know there is always a friend not far away even in the most hostile places in the region and because of that have less fear than I should were I to be in a place I considered completely foreign doing this type of work.

I remember around 2004, a photographer with close links to Panos Pictures told me there was an opening to go to Iraq and cover the war there and that he had mentioned me and I should go for it.  It took me 5 seconds to say no.  It was considered a strange decision by my peers back then.  But for me, it was always East Africa I wanted to be based in.

While I hope that my other types of photography and soon filming will dominate my work.  I will always see it as a badge of honour – some would say misplaced and naive – to do this type of work.  But the pics I bring back – however hard some are – and while most people these days look or simply walk away (esp here in news-averse Cape Town!) – they always fill me with a sense of smthg achieved.  You don’t need re-numeration or people’s appraisal for that.  Though of course would be nice to be paid more in general for it…never know – might take it up full time if it was!


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