The shootist

Mohammed Amin, the cameraman whose pictures of famine in Ethiopia nudged the world out of apathy, died in the Comoros plane crash. It was a life of obsessive story-chasing, slick fixing ... and what else? By Paul Vallely
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Indy Lifestyle Online
By one of those coincidences which hindsight makes uncanny, we were talking about Mohammed Amin and Addis Ababa only a few days before he died in the plane hijacked from that city. It seemed a world away, said Michael Buerk. Buerk was the BBC reporter whose hushed and understated words brought the first television news of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984. The devastating pictures over which he spoke - of the still, emaciated figures waiting for death in the refugee camp at Korem, high on the Abyssinian plateau - were taken by Mo Amin. They shocked a world grown used to being shocked and they galvanised Bob Geldof into mounting the fundraising event which became the largest ever known.

It was a world away. Buerk and I were having dinner in a smart restaurant, together with the other panellists from Radio 4's Moral Maze. Once the discussion had been held over the contents of the next day's programme, the table talk turned to other matters. Buerk and I first met in Ethiopia at the height of the famine. At a time when many of the world's press restricted their reporting to areas which could easily be reached on day trips from the Addis Hilton, Buerk and his team were working in the most remote corners of the parched land; their ability to get there due in large measure to Mo Amin, who was not simply one of Africa's most fearless TV cameramen but, amid a continent of fixers, a fixer extraordinaire.

Odd juxtapositions and unresolved paradox are part of the coinage of a roving reporter's experiences. Gruesome tales are often told in the most urbane of circumstances. Even so, the others around our dining table last week were unprepared for the graphic detail of Buerk's account of the massive explosion in Addis in which his team's soundman was killed and Amin lost his arm.

Buerk had been full of traveller's tales of the Ethiopian capital five years ago, after rebel forces toppled the regime of the Stalinist dictator Colonel Mengistu. He told how he entered the deposed dictator's office and found that the desk drawers were, bizarrely, full of contraceptive pills. He told how the BBC team discovered the one remaining lion of a pride which had been kept in the royal palace by the Emperor Haile Selassie before he was toppled by the Marxist Mengistu - the British public, naturally, set up a fund to save the starving animal with greater alacrity than they contributed to help the people of a region suffering from the after-effects of more than 20 years of civil war. But then came the story of the early morning explosion of the biggest arms cache ever accumulated in the war- ravaged city.

Thinking the site was safe after the first massive explosion, the BBC news team set out at once to get pictures. But just as they arrived, there was a second explosion and the four men were hurled through the air. John Mathias, the soundman, died at once. But Buerk and the BBC radio reporter Colin Blane, a few yards behind and protected slightly by a wall, were only badly bruised. Mo Amin, in the middle, caught the full force of the blast on one arm. "I looked down. His hand looked perfectly normal," recalled Buerk, "but between his elbow and his hand there was nothing but a few shreds of bone and nerve. It just flapped there."

The point of the story was not to make our fellow diners pause, fork in hand. It was a prelude to illustrate the courage and sheer dogged tenacity of Amin who then went on to have a replacement limb designed to enable him to carry on operating a TV camera. Using it, the cameraman who had earlier brought the atrocities of Idi Amin in Uganda to the attention of the world carried on his work covering the major news developments across the African continent.

We fell to philosophising. Oddly enough, it is not close shaves with death that make many journalists pause to think about the risks involved in their profession. For many it is the opposite. The adrenalin of being shot at is addictive for some. For others it acts to bolster the conviction that, if someone is shooting at them, then what they are reporting must be worthwhile. But for others who have worked as war reporters it is only when they stop, when they are posted elsewhere, or "elevated" to punditry or some other journalistic task, that the distance of safety allows a questioning of whether the risk was always proportionate to the good achieved. That is not a question that you can allow yourself to ask under fire.

Yet somehow it never seems appropriate to ask such questions in public. When another close colleague, David Blundy, was shot during the fag-end of the war in El Salvador - the most dangerous conflicts for journalists are those without proper front-lines - the thought formulated itself: was it worth it, to report the final days of a conflict on which reporting seemed to be having little impact? But with David dead it seemed unworthy to articulate the question. He had died in pursuit of telling the truth; who could want to question that?

Romanticism is, of course, the great danger here. Most journalists who die at work do so in an accident - car and plane crashes claim more victims than do landmines and the sniper's bullet. Mohammed Amin, when he died in a news story he had not been seeking, was returning to his home in Nairobi after a business trip to Addis on behalf of his publishing company which, among other things, produced the airline's in-flight magazine. Mo was a fixer in every respect - not simply using his unparalleled contacts to get his Visnews, Reuters or BBC crew into places no one else could reach, but also setting up entrepreneurial deals for his own companies, on which he was increasingly concentrating. Was his death, then, any different from that of any other international executive on a business trip?

In one sense not, and yet in another the courage lies as much in the routine, the dedication, the continual putting yourself in situations of potential risk when others have ceased to do so, as it does in any battlefield act of heroism. So pondered Michael Buerk and I from the safety of our comfortable dining room. In an age when so much journalism has been reduced to the cliches of infotainment there is still something of the essence about the act of getting out there and finding out whether the reality on the ground matches the truth in the leader-writer's head. What drove Mohammed Amin in his tireless dealmaking is exactly what drove him in his uncompromising journalism. "The day I cannot get out on the story," he so often said, "will be the day that I die."

"He is an amazing man," Buerk said of him. Less than a week later, the present tense had become past. Perhaps the qualities of the man should not be magnified in death. But nor should they be diminished. The world is a poorer place without themn

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