A necessary intrusion: George Alagiah on the painful choices that face a television reporter in wretched Somalia.

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The Independent Online
WE HADN'T been driving long when we came across the corpse. Another victim of the famine in Somalia. He'd given up exhausted, about a day's walk from the city where he hoped to find relief. Of course, he couldn't have known things were as bad there.

For me, it was time to decide how we were going to portray this. My cameraman and I had talked about trying to do more than shock the viewer, show people rather than nameless victims. Well, here was a victim and he was nameless. Should we be running this kind of stuff? Even the gunmen I'd hired for protection muttered, through the interpreter, about dignity in death. Never mind that, as soldiers for the Habir Gadir clan army, they seemed to care little for the sanctity of life. They would have felt the same even if the dead man had been a clan enemy they'd shot in the civil war.

Anyway, I did what I presume all television reporters would do: I asked my cameraman to shoot it every way - close and graphic, wide and meaningless. That way I could postpone the decision till I was in the cutting room. Back in the land cruiser I try to suppress those first stirrings of triumph: We've got one sequence in the bag, might even be an opening shot.

Goofgaduud turned out to be worse than I'd been told. I have come to dread the moment of arrival at a place like this. That moment of intrusion is much worse, of course, when you take the paraphernalia of television with you into a world seemingly left behind in the harshness of pre-civilisation.

The stronger ones came up to our vehicle - they'd heard there were aid workers in the region and took us for an advance party. There was neither anger nor despair when they realised the truth. That's the thing about hunger. After weeks - or months - you come to this plateau of acceptance. Or so it seems.

The father in me would rather caress the bodies mutilated by famine; the man in me wants to rage at the injustice of it all; I twitch at the medical pack the BBC gave me - wanting to hand over the drugs that might calm one child's fever. I do none of this - which child would I choose? You can't help them all. Instead, I shout at the cameraman, make sure he's got that sunken chest, focused on that grieving mother. I tell myself I'm doing more good this way.

Mogadishu is a study in chaos. One day we had a puncture at one of the busiest intersections in the town. I had 10 nervous minutes to watch the mayhem around me. A couple of boys threw themselves at each other. Their guns clattered on the tarmac - I seemed to be the only one worried about whether the safety catches were on. Somalia's version of joyriders stand atop pick-up trucks, probably looted from an aid agency, and cling to the anti-aircraft guns that are welded on. There are no planes to shoot at in this war, but these men are not fussy.

In town at the aid agency house where we put up for the night, I offered the drugs to a nurse. Maybe she could decide who is to survive and who is not. The aid worker can't run away from the decision. She's not jumping on a plane to go and tell the world about it.

But we do have some things in common. Relief agencies depend on us for publicity and we need them to tell us where the stories are. There's an unspoken understanding between us, a sort of code. We try not to ask the question too bluntly. 'Where will we find the most starving babies?' And they never answer explicitly. We get the pictures all the same.

There's also a camaraderie. Aid workers are the one group with whom you don't have to feel guilty about having a decent meal in the midst of famine. They understand that you are there to work, not share in the wretchedness. It's the same for them.

And for those with money there is food. If everyone had the cash, of course, there wouldn't be enough. But visiting journalists and the like eat well. It's called the market system and it works - in fact it's just about the only thing that does work in Somalia these days.

Aid agencies offer the only real chance of gainful employment now. Khaled, a cook at one of the UN houses in Mogadishu, bakes lobster just so, and his chilli sauce ought to be bottled and sold. Lobster is cheap there and even the dedicated have to eat.

Filming over, we shared a charter flight back to base with another television crew. There's a ritual on these journeys. You make light of what you've been through. 'Was that village an eight or nine on the Richter scale of good pictures?' It's not callousness - it's called keeping your distance. 'We'll meet again,' says the pilot. 'There'll be another disaster some place else - on that you can bet.'

He is right, of course. What will I do next time? What kind of pictures will it take to move people then? There's only one answer and it's the one I try to judge my work against. You're there to tell the story, not to market misery.

International Committee for the Red Cross is working throughout the country. ICRC aims to continue providing 20,000 tonnes of food a month. Its dollars 150m programme represents one- third of its 1992 budget. 500 community kitchens (250 in Mogadishu) have been set up. Cheques to British Red Cross Somali Appeal, 9 Grosvenor Crescent, London SW1X 7EJ.

Care specialises in moving food through ports into convoys of trucks. It is providing logistical support for British and EC aid. Cheques to Care Somalia Appeal, 36-38 Southampton St, London WC2E 7HE.

Save the Children is running five feeding centres and three health clinics, saving 20,000 children from starvation. Also providing seeds. Cheques to Save the Children, Department 204006, Freepost, London SE5 8BR.

Oxfam's emergency agricultural relief programme is providing seeds, tools etc in rural areas, to ensure there is replanting for next season. Cheques to Oxfam (Somalia), 274 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7DZ.

Medecins sans frontieres has been providing medical help and materials for hospitals and about 15 feeding centres for severely undernourished children. Cheques to Medecins sans frontieres, 8 Rue St Stabin, 75011 Paris, France. Mark envelopes CPP, 406OU.

George Alagiah is foreign affairs correspondent for BBC television news.

(Photograph omitted)

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