Margaret Moth: Fearless camerawoman who faced the dangers of many war zones and was seriously injured in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online

When Margaret Moth was shot through the face by a Serbian sniper in Sarajevo in 1992, her life was in the balance. But after two years and a dozen operations of reconstructive surgery, she persuaded CNN to let her get back to work. So where did she demand to go? To those who knew her, that was a no-brainer: Sarajevo. "I want to go back to look for my teeth," she joked. In the end, it was neither that bullet nor the many others she faced thereafter that killed her; she died of colon cancer at the age of 58.

Moth, her native New Zealand's first female camera operator on national TV news, became known to her colleagues as "the Lady in Black". There was the jet-black hair, the thick black eyeliner which emphasised her piercing blue eyes, the black clothes, black socks, the black army boots she slept in while on assignment, the black rollerblades she took to Baghdad to scoot around her hotel lobby to unwind. She even painted their wheels black. Moth herself recalled bumping into a group of children after dark while she was back on leave in New Zealand. "They ran away shouting 'There's a witch! There's a witch!'"

For two decades, Margaret Gipsy Moth – she officially changed her name to that from Margaret Wilson when she was in her twenties – covered the most dangerous stories of the day, starting with the violence in India after the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. For CNN, one of her first assignments was the 1990 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, and she was in Baghdad more than a decade later to cover Saddam's overthrow.

Often working with CNN's renowned correspondent Christiane Amanpour, Moth had a reputation as fearless, and that was the adjective used as the title of a CNN documentary about her life. Colleagues recall how they ducked behind vehicles in Tbilisi, Georgia, when militiamen opened fire on a crowd of protesters. Moth stayed on her feet and kept her camera rolling to obtain exclusive footage. She once famously zoomed in on an Israeli soldier who turned his rifle towards her and fired off a round. If it was a warning shot, it was awfully close. Her camera did not even tremble and the soldier jumped back into his armoured vehicle. Her colleagues joked that he probably thought he had seen a witch.

During the Israeli incursion into the West Bank in 2002, Moth hid herself within a group of protesting Palestinian doctors and walked, filming all the while, past Israeli troops and armoured vehicles to gain an interview with the beleaguered President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. During the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, Moth would crawl into the rubble of a hotel room on what we called the "Emmental cheese" side of the shell-battered Holiday Inn – in direct line of sight of the Serbs' artillery. Using a night vision lens, and covering her camera's red "on" light with masking tape, she regularly filmed the overnight bombardment of the city by Serbian forces.

It was in the Bosnian capital, on 23 July 1992, that Moth and two CNN colleagues set out on what correspondents used to call "one of the best laxatives known to mankind" – the pedal-to-metal dash from the centre of Sarajevo to the airport along "Sniper's Alley", at the time a deserted boulevard in full view of Serbian snipers. Her crew's aim was to interview pilots of relief flights at the otherwise closed-down and besieged airport. Despite their van's speed, Moth was hit in the face by a perfectly-aimed bullet from a sniper many hundreds of yards away, shattering her jaw and destroying her teeth and much of her tongue. After local emergency treatment, CNN had her flown to the Mayo Clinic in the US.

"My face, it felt like my face was falling off," she said later of the moments after she was shot. "I remember I was trying to hold my face back on. I knew I had to stay conscious. If I go unconscious, I will stop breathing." She also joked later – but it was true – that her injury left her forever sounding to strangers like she was drunk. For many months, she couldn't speak. Fellow CNN cameraman Joe Duran recalled visiting her in hospital after initial surgery, before she had been allowed a mirror. She scribbled two notes to him: "Mark is OK?" referring to one of her colleagues who had been with her, and less seriously wounded, at the time. The other note read: "Do I look like a monster?"

Asked recently what she felt about the man behind the gun which shot her, she replied: "We came into their war. Fair's fair. They're in a war and I stepped into it."

Margaret Wilson was born in Gisborne, on New Zealand's North Island, in 1951 to a homekeeper mother and a father who built and sold swimming pools. She originally wanted to be a motor mechanic but found that no one would give a girl an apprenticeship. "It was the first time I realised that being female is a handicap," she recalled later. Perhaps that helped motivate her to prove the opposite.

Fascinated by photography since getting her first still camera at the age of eight, she studied film and photography at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch before moving to Dunedin, also on South Island, for the local TV channel DNTV2 as the first news camerawoman in New Zealand. These were the 1970s, before the days of a national hook-up, and colleagues recall her racing by car to the airport to get her videotapes to Auckland and Wellington in time for the national evening news. After work, she would relax on alternative evenings as a bell-ringer at a local church or by jumping out of a small plane.

"There was no skydiving club in town," Dunedin pilot Mike Caldwell said. "Margaret would just walk up to pilots and ask for a lift. Even in blustery north-westerly winds, she'd jump out at 12,000ft. She could have no idea where she would land." Since there were no instructors to insist otherwise, Moth preferred to skydive barefoot.

The quality of her camerawork landed her a job with national television – TVNZ – which in turn got her a job in the United States, with the KHOU 11 news channel in Houston, Texas, and eventually, in 1990, with the CNN 24-hour news channel. She had changed her name from Margaret Wilson to Margaret Gipsy Moth "because there were too many Margarets and too many Wilsons." The first aircraft she had jumped out of was a Tiger Moth so she first applied to be Margaret Tiger Moth but the New Zealand bureaucracy would not allow it.

In Fearless, the CNN documentary about her life, Moth, who lived in Istanbul before moving into a hospice in the US, expressed no fear of dying. "You could be a billionaire, and you couldn't pay to do the things we've done. Dying of cancer, I would have liked to think that I would have gone out with a little more flair, but feel like I can die with dignity – that's the main thing."

Margaret Moth never married. She is survived by her 25 stray cats, now being looked after by a fellow cameraman in Istanbul.

Phil Davison

Margaret Moth, news camerawoman: born Gisborne, New Zealand 21 August 1951; died Rochester, Minnesota 21 March 2010.