From the Kosovo war to Syria, reporting conflict has always carried big risks. War reporters know that covering conflicts can come at a price. Their jobs require them to go to the most conflict-ridden parts of the world. Once there, they attempt to get close enough to the action to provide written accounts, photos, or film footage. Thus, being a war correspondent is often considered the most dangerous form of journalism, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
“‘No pictures, someone yelled. I told them I would stop shooting if they stopped killing him. They did not. As the man was set on fire, he began to run. I was framing my next shot when a bare-chested man came into view and swung a machete straight into his blazing skull. There was the smell of burning flesh and I took a few more pictures. I was losing it but became aware that the crowd could turn on me at any time. The victim was moaning in a low dreadful voice as I left.” This is an excerpt of an Apartheid time South African photojournalist and filmmaker Greg Sebastian Marinovich.
Shaul Shwarz, who was on the frontline of the 2004 civil war in Haiti, describes his experience by saying, “I had blood on me, and brains. I was crying and shaking.” Marinovich and Shwarz are war correspondents who put themselves at risk taking photos and videos on warfronts. And the risks they take at times become fatal. It is only a week ago that Afghani field producer and journalist, Zabihulla Tamanna, died when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Afghan army vehicle in which he was travelling on. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tamanna was on assignment for National Public Radio (NPR) at the time covering intense fighting between the Afghan military and Taliban fighters.
War correspondents are considered to be brave and there are the likes of Hanna Allam. She covered the Iraqi War while she was five months pregnant and shocked the world.
Reporting from war zones and covering conflicts is a difficult and challenging job. Reporters face near-death experiences, imprisonment, abduction and death. Despite the dangers, many war correspondents go to the frontlines putting themselves in harm’s way. For some, the adrenaline rush that comes from covering wars becomes a source of motivation. Though they are highly respected, most war correspondents eventually suffer from posttraumatic disorder.
There are also Ethiopian journalists who died on the battlefront and others who live to tell their stories. The Ethio-Eritrean War, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and consumed millions of dollar, also claimed the lives of three Ethiopian journalists.
These journalists were on the frontline covering the atrocities of war and recording history. Though the war is over, the memory is still engraved in the mind of journalists who witnessed piles of dead bodies and gruesome scenes. A veteran journalist, Mengistu Abebe, says that he developed diabetes while he was covering the war. “I guess my body responded to the stress this way,” he says.
But how did Mengistu come to cover the war? He has worked in print media for a long time and says that one of the areas he was fascinated with was war reporting. “In journalism one of the challenging things is covering wars so I wanted to face that challenge,” Mengistu says.
During that time he was working for the state-owned Addis Zemen newspaper. He says that he was excited when he was assigned to cover the war and started his journey to the Tigray Regional State. The command post for journalists was in Adigrat town. He recalls that when he arrived, pre-war preparations and mobilization was taking place all over the country. Many Ethiopians supported the troops with equipment, food and other utilities. Mengistu and his team were covering this collective effort. Moving from area to area, they reached to Adi Hageray in Sheraro and stayed there for more than 15 days.
One evening they were told to travel to Badme. It was a gravel road and the driver of the car had to turn off the headlights so that the enemy does not notice them.
They drove for a couple of hours and reached their destination. It was a bit far from the battleground and they slept next to a ballistic missile. According to Mengistu, this was the time Geza Gerelassie was freed from the Eritreans.
By dawn the Ethiopian troops started firing guns and the noise woke them up. This was not a typical war corresponding where safety and protection measures are considered. They were not given any guidelines on how to stand or where to hide rather the only thing they were told was not to stand behind the ballistic missiles because it spits fire as far as seven meters.
The shooting intensified and both sides were firing their ballistic missiles. Following their instinct, they hid in a trench. Then, suggested by lieutenants Abdulsemed Mohammed and Mekonnen Bezabih, they crossed the trench. Mengistu was following their footsteps and at that instant a missile bombarded their area.
Instantaneously, he rolled down and got under a truck that was loaded with missile guns. “If that car exploded, let alone my remains, my ashes would not have been found,” Mengistu says.
Fortunately, he survived with a few scratches but three of his colleagues Hailu Legesse, Wasihun Gebre and Zewdu Tilahun died instantly. The image is still vivid in his mind. “Hailu did not let go of his camera,” Mengistu says.
When things calmed down, he moved to another area where he saw gruesome scenes. He was then joined by another journalist, Abdul Semed, who was badly hurt. “I did not know that I would survive,” Mengistu says.
They were told to search for the IDs of the deceased. It was a tough thing to do since he had no choice, he started searching for IDs. While doing that he found out that Hailu had a gold necklace. He took it off and decided to pass it to his family. “I was not feeling anything. I was numb and felt like I was sleep walking,” Mengistu says
They were told to leave the area and they buried the dead at a place called Hiret. According to Mengistu, Samora Yenus (Gen.), who was back then one of the top military leaders of the country and is currently the chief of staff, was angered when he heard the news. After that they were positioned at the war forefront and started following the troops from a distance.
The passing away was not taken lightly by Abebe Ketsela who was back then the production manager of the then Ethiopian Television, now known as Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. He was responsible for assigning journalists, photojournalists and videographers. Apart from that, he was a coordinator and gave trainings on how to use cameras in the battlefield.
When he heard the news Abebe was shocked. “One of the journalists, Hailu, asked me to be transferred, because he dreamt that he would die. He communicated with the Tigray command post he was sent to Tsorena front where communication was lost. As he predicted he passed away,” Abebe says.
They had families they took care of but had no insurance. Abebe told The Reporter that he told his bosses that he would resign if something was not done. Immediately, money was collected from advertisement and 50 thousand birr was given to each of the families. “It was one of the saddening moments in my life. They worked closely with me and it’s a sad loss,” Abebe says.
Over the last two years killings, imprisonments and abductions of journalists have reached historic highs. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, around 1,194 journalists were killed since 1992. War reporting guideline suggests that journalists should be aware of active war zones and have protective ballistic clothing, including armored jackets and helmets. In addition, they should take first aid course and carry a suitable first aid kit, adequate medical insurance. They should also do risk assessments and acquire local contacts.
However, Mengistu and his colleagues were not aware of these requirements. According to him, the state-owned media organizations saw covering the war zone as an obligation and a duty. “Saying no to this call was taken as treason. Actually, one will be fired from the job,” Mengistu says.
Looking back he says that there was no need to be part of the war. “Why does Addis Zemen need a sound effect or any recording of the war?” Mengistu asks.
Though they were not at the forefront of the war they were still in a conflict zone. Witnessing dead bodies was part of their daily lives. “I cannot express what I experienced using words. It was just brutal,” Mengistu says.
According to Mengistu, since it is an everyday occurrence, he got used to it. “Adapting becomes the order of the day,” Mengistu says.
He was initially assigned for two months but since there was no one who would replace him he was forced to stay for five months. During his stay, he never communicated with his family. “Everyone was not strong. I remember that there was a TV journalist who could not bear the atrocities. So he decided to leave without giving any notice,” he says.
Apart from witnessing dead bodies and gunshots he also had a near death experience while he was crossing a minefield.
Remembering those times, he says that there was deep confidentiality in the missions. “We did not know where we were going or what our next plan was. I understand about military secrecy but since I was ready to sacrifice my life I should have been informed about what our next move would be. That information was provided to the privileged ones and that saddens me to this day,” Mengistu says.
In some cases, the general public might not even hear about wars if it were not for daring journalists and one of those bold journalists is Mimi Sebhatu.
She broke war stories and reported the terror and atrocities. Covering the war was a coincidence. Working for the Voice of America, she was based in Washington DC before she came to Addis Ababa to cover a human rights conference.
This was the time of claim and counterclaim between the two countries. She talked to her editors and asked to investigate the issue more and talk to the communities of Alitena and Zalambesa.
While she was on the field incidents started to take place. The community decided that it was time to leave the place; however, Mimi took matters into her own hands and stayed behind to look for evidence. “I didn’t know what barrages sounded like so, at first, I thought it was heavy rain and thunder,” Mimi says.
She saw dead bodies of young soldiers scattered all over the place. “When you are a journalist the basic principle is not to be emotional but when the war story is about your country it is very tough to do that. I was very sad but still stood my ground, focused on my work and reread my script to cut out emotions,” Mimi says. “I guess being an old dog helped me not to be carried away with emotion and gave accurate information,” Mimi says.
They were told that they should exclude datelines from their reports. However, there was a journalist who transmitted his report mentioning his date line. “Immediately an airplane came and bombarded the place. Luckily we were not hurt,” Mimi says.
After breaking the war story she was expelled from the area. She came back to Addis Ababa frustrated. She was not allowed to go back. So the last resort was to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Luckily for her, she met an individual who informed her that a special chartered helicopter carrying medical equipment was ready to fly to Tigray from the Old Airport in Addis Ababa.
Without taking any extra outfit, she took her tape recorder and went straight to the Old Airport. She encountered a soldier at the gate and when she told who she was excitedly greeted her and took her to the helicopter. The chartered helicopter was only for carrying equipment and it did not have seats. This did not bother her at all. “I said no problem. I can travel standing,” Mimi says, adding that she was weighed like an object and then sat on a carriage. “The sound of the helicopter was ear bursting so in order to communicate with one another, I had to exchanging notes with someone who was on board. So, without anyone knowing, I arrived in Mekele,” Mimi says.
Once she arrived in Mekele she did not want to take the risk of being found. So she took public transport to Adigrat. Since she had informants it was easier to go to the places. In Adigrat there was bombing that she transmitted live. Cluster bomb was raining, houses were turning into ashes, people were dying and others were running to save their lives. She just stumbled in the middle and did not know what to do. “Nothing prepared me for this and in the middle I stopped and thought about what to do. Do I sleep on the ground? Do I sit? There was no one to ask. So I was confused,” Mimi says
Everyone was panicking and in the middle of the commotion she called her the VOA’s Washington DC Office to transmit the story live. Horrifying stories were covered including houses going to the ground with the whole family inside. The bombing was not over and another jet came and bombed a store. She transmitted the story live. Her coverage angered the officials. “Obviously as a journalist there are instances where you don’t ask for their permission. This was one of those instances so you hustle to get your stories,” Mimi says.
She came frequently to cover the war and even covered the last offensive. Mimi remembers that the ordeal was tough for some people. “There was a BBC journalist who fainted after looking at dead bodies. Death is a part of the package when it comes to war reporting. The irony is that journalists are also human beings. So it makes it difficult,” Mimi says, adding that experiencing the horrors has affected her as well. “I could not watch war films such as Platoon,” Mimi says.
After covering the Ethio-Etitrean war Mimi took another difficult task of going to Mogadishu, Somalia voluntarily. She says that she did not even take safety gears. She hired a translator to interview warlords by going to different parts of the country. Taking into account the danger, her husband wanted to come along. “He speaks the Somali language and he was a good company,” Mimi says while smiling.
Renowned for his human interest stories, Solomon Tsegaye, a senior reporter at Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, became fascinated with war reporting after he covered Operation Jubba Corridor in Somalia in July 2015. Though many resisted covering the dangerous place he went with along with Ethiopian troops. According to Solomon, their movement was limited since Al Shabaab was known for ambushes. The journalists were not taken to the war frontline until the area was cleared. They interview people, war prisoners and tell stories about the brutality of Al Shabaab. Though it is one of the guidelines of war journalism, they were not impartial in this case.
The 70 days he stayed there was scary since Al Shabaab followed guerilla tactics and there was no way of guaranteeing that the conflict was over. “There was no specific war zone and everywhere can turn into a war zone,” Solomon says.
He understood the cruelty of Al Shabaab and one of the gruesome scenes is still fixed in his mind. A woman who was blamed giving tea for Ethiopian troops was beheaded brutally. “It was horrific and I couldn’t write or eat. It was brutal,” Solomon says.
After a while the troops consoled him saying that these atrocities are normal situations in a war. He still wanted to go back and record the story of the war.
Ethiopia’s long history is associated with wars and the stories are archived both in print, audio and video formats being told and retold by journalists and historians alike. Many people who read Oromai are well acquainted with the Eritrean independence war. One of the characters in Bealu Girma’s book is a veteran journalist, Tadesse Gebremariam, who was part of the Derg regime’s Red Star Campaign and took part in three operations namely Key Kokeb, Key Bahir and Bahirenegash. Tadesse worked the at Ministry of Information, Ethiopian News Agency and was assigned to take part in the mission.
According to Tadesse, taking part in these operations was considered to be a great honor. “It was not a random selection and we were chosen on merit,” Tadesse says.
Those who were part of the camping arrived in Asmara in and congregated inside Tinsae Hall in 1981. The journalists started going around Asmara and Massawa covering festivals.
Their job was to convince Eritreans that they are part of Ethiopia and that they should stay as such. When President Mengistu Hailemariam arrived they followed his trails and did stories out of his speech. Finally, the war started in various areas including Nakfa Mountain, Algena, Kerkebed.
They were given military uniforms, tents and a bag to store foods and drinks. A man of few words, Tadesse does not deny the fact that he was shocked with the briefing and the training they received.
Tadesse did not want to take shooting tactics training but shooting exercise was part of that. What shocked him was that they were given a metal plate with a number. This number is a registrar number with emergency contact, name and other details. “We were told even when we were about to die we should hold on to the plate. That was very shocking for me since I didn’t go there to die,” Tadesse says.
They were also briefed on locations which include hiding and escape routes. They conducted their interviews with the troops and those that were taken as prisoners of war. Talking about death Tadesse says, “Of course it is a war. You witness many people dying. You just stop differentiating yourself. Who am I to say whose life is worth and whose is not,” Tadesse says.
For Tadesse, in addition to the tragic deaths the other shocking is witnessing the agony of people who were highly injured.