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What became of ...

On October 24 1984 a seven and a half minute film of the inhabitants of three towns in Northern Ethiopia; Mekele, Almata and Korem was broadcast on BBC's Six O' Clock news. The pictures were stark and shocking, the reaction, unprecedented. All the worlds media networks from ABC to ZDF went with the story. The pictures were Biblical, tens of thousands of Ethiopian tribes people, huddled together across a parched landscape, like a charcoal drawing, all blacks, greys and whites. The accompanying narration was calm, dignified almost funereal, the voice punctuated by a silence of ambient tragedy. Over a billion people saw it throughout the world. As a piece of journalism it was brilliant as a human story it was grotesque. Bob Geldof called it confrontational rather than objective journalism, there was a dare there: ' I dare you turn away , I dare you do nothing'. This unique broadcast challenged and inspired millions. It became was responsible for a global epidemic of charity and compassion. It was instrumental in shaping humanitarian assistance as we know it to day.

In this issue of Field Exchange we ask what became of the media crew responsible for this news report. They were, soundman Zack Njuguna, cameraman Mohammed Amin and two British journalists, Michael Wooldridge and Michael Buerk.

Field Exchange talked to Michael Buerk and Mike Wooldridge half of the four man crew that flew into Mekele on 19 October 1984.

Speaking from India, Mike Wooldridge, who was then the BBC East Africa correspondent explains some of the background to the October '84 visit. "Mohammed Amin and myself had for a few months been trying to gain access to the affected region, but one of the problems was that the Ethiopian authorities were highly suspicious of journalists, as there had been instances of journalists who received transit visas to work on famine stories but instead had focussed on the war". In March '84 Michael Buerk, then BBC correspondent for Southern Africa, was asked by the BBC to do some 'famine footage' to accompany an appeal that the TV network had agreed to show on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). The DEC was a grouping of Britain's major charities set up to raise funds to counter hunger in Africa. Speaking from London Michael Buerk told Field Exchange "I was keen to travel to Mozambique where the nutritional status of the people was reaching an acute stage but as the country was so difficult to travel and film in, this proved impossible, I decided to go to Ethiopia instead". Mohammed Amin organised visas and transport for Michael and his crew to Southern Ethiopia. Michael Buerk adds " Mo was great, one of best if not the best fixer in Africa". Aside from being a successful cameraman, (British cameraman of the year in 1969), Mohammed Amin was also an established journalist and in May '84 after travelling around Northern Ethiopia for twelve days wrote a front page story for the Kenyan newspaper The Sunday Nation. The headline "Millions face death in Ethiopia" pointed to the impending catastrophe facing some five million people in the country.

The synergistic effect of Mike Wooldridge's determination to travel to the worst areas affected by the 10 year Sahelian drought, Michael Buerk's and the BBC's desire to do a follow up story on the DEC appeal and Mohammed Amin's contacts and investigative skills led these three men, with Zack Njuguna as the final addition, to work as a team in October 1984.

The team arrived in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, on 19 October to find that the visas Mike and Mo had secured had been withdrawn. Eventually, after much persuasion, argument and luck they got new visas and were ready to go. Mike points out "many myths exist about the attitude of the Ethiopian authorities, however some of them risked a lot, they cared a great deal and were a great help to us". The four hitched a ride on World Vision's Twin Otter plane and landed in Mekele at midday on Friday 19 October.

Mike Wooldridge says of the sight that greeted them "Although we had all worked on famine stories before nothing had quite prepared us for what we found, the sheer scale of the famine was unbelievable, and the fact that people of all ages not just the young and old were starving was new to us". Michael Buerk added that "It was the numbers, some 85,000 in Mekele alone starving to death, and there was this feeling that apart from the few agencies working there no-one knew about this thing. The speed of the deterioration of the people was so rapid that it had overtaken everyone". Over the next three days this team of four filmed, wrote, and recorded some of the most powerful images seen, heard and read in forty years.

Immediately after the reports were broadcast they all returned to Northern Ethiopia. Mike Wooldridge stayed for eight weeks filing reports from the towns and camps of the affected region. Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin teamed up again to work further on famine related stories.

A year after the Ethiopian crisis had stabilised Mike Wooldridge found himself covering the equally catastrophic Sudanese famine. Michael Buerk was based in Johannesburg covering Southern Africa for the BBC. Zack Njuguna, who was working for Visnews, went on to work for Mo's company Camerapix. Mohammed Amin was keeping up his well known punishing schedule, producing, directing, writing and filming. For Michael and Mo accolades arrived and they shared the World Hunger Media Award and the Royal Television Society Journalism Award amongst others.

In 1991 Michael and Mo once again teamed up to cover the overthrow of the Marxist regime in Ethiopia. Whilst filming the fighting, a nearby arms dump exploded. The blast killed over one hundred people including Mo's soundman John Mathai. Mo lost his left arm. Against all the odds Mo continued to work as a cameraman by travelling to the USA to have a $60,000 bionic arm fitted. Later that year he was awarded the British MBE by Queen Elizabeth.

That same year Zack Njuguna, who had moved to Mombassa to work for Maridadi studios as a photographer, lost his life when he was beaten to death by thugs after covering a wedding in the city.

By now Mike Wooldridge had returned to Britain where he was working as the BBC religious correspondent. Michael Buerk worked for BBC news and presented '999', appropriately a television series focussing on true life rescue's. He also wrote a book to go with the series "a money making venture that made none !" he told us.

On 23 November 1996 Mohammed Amin was returning home from a business meeting in Addis Ababa when his Ethiopian airlines flight was hi-jacked. The disorganised terrorists forced the plane to crash land off the island of Grand Comore in the Indian Ocean. The plane broke up on the island's reef and Mo was among those who died. Michael Buerk said that their shared experiences in Africa and "his ironic loss being killed in a news story he wasn't even covering" has had a profound impact on him. Mohammed Amin is survived by his wife Dolly and son, Salim.

Currently Michael Buerk is based in London and is the anchor for the BBC's Nine O'clock news. Mike Wooldridge moved to New Delhi, India, in January of this year and is the BBC South Asia Correspondent. Mike says this of the events of thirteen years ago "I believe that the Ethiopian famine became a watershed not only for my own life but for the aid agencies and the media". He adds that "I would like to think that the media has improved from its earlier coverage, so that it can explain famines and people will understand that it is not simply about crop failures and drought".

Written and researched by Killian Forde

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What became of .... Field Exchange 2, August 1997. p22. www.ennonline.net/fex/2/what

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