In the Heart of Life by Kathy Eldon

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In the Heart of Life by Kathy Eldon


Thu, 07/11/2013 - 11:40


Dan Eldon surrounded by Somali children
07 November, 2013

SOMEWHERE in a US military command centre a soldier pressed a button.

A missile’s engine fired up, and an aerodynamic shell holding high explosives streaked through the atmosphere, its guidance computer locked on to a ramshackle home in one of the world’s poorest capitals.

It was July 12, 1993, and American intelligence believed they had found the Mogadishu house where warlord General Mohamed Farrah Aidid was sheltering.

But pressing the button did not end with the death of a man accused of mass murder, corruption and famine.

Instead, it killed 72 innocent people and inadvertently led to the death of Dan Eldon, a 23-year-old photojournalist, whose family is from Belsize Park.

Now Dan’s story has been told in In The Heart Of Life, a new memoir by his mother, Kathy – and she explains how she hopes his death was not in vain.

General Aidid had come to prominence in 1991 after a coup deposed Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre. After the president’s fall, Aidid and his comrades carved the nation into fiefdoms and Somalia plunged into chaos.

International efforts to stop famine and restore order were resisted by Aidid and he was blamed for an incident that saw 24 Pakistani peacekeeping troops killed in June 1993. While Aidid denied involvement, the US government believed otherwise and bombed a house they thought he was sheltering in.

Dan was at the time working as a stringer for news agency Reuters and was in the country trying to highlight the famine that had hit the country.

Survivors of the attack pleaded with reporters to witness the carnage. As Kathy reveals, American troops had earlier flown over the scene  to take pictures in the hope they would identify the dead warlord.

In the victims’ eyes, when Dan and his colleagues appeared, they were linked with the  troops responsible.

He and three colleagues were attacked and killed.

“I understood immediately why Dan died,” she says, recalling the horrific moment she received the call telling her the news.

“They were so angry about what had happened.

“They said: you caused this! It was a response by people who had been so brutalised. They were still carting the dead away, so I understood immediately – but understanding is different to accepting and forgiving.”

Dan’s death acted as a catalyst for Kathy to consider how the world of news gathering has changed – and how dangerous it can be for reporters. Speaking this week at the Frontline Club in Westminster, she described how while her son was looked after by Reuters, the demise of press agencies employing full-time staff and having a sense of responsibility towards them has gone hand in hand with the rise of “citizen journalism”.

While news agencies cut costs, they have relied increasingly on people with mobile phone cameras, for example, to gather footage.

“Freelancers have little protection,” she says.

“A lot of young journalists are going to dangerous places like Libya and Syria in the hope of making their names, but they do not have the protection paid employees would do.”

She cites the death of British journalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Syria. She says his death could have been avoided if those around him had been taught basic first aid, such as how to apply a tourniquet.

“Reuters would get armoured vehicles but now there are very few credible bureaux left,” she says.

“So much work is being done by freelancers, yet there [are] not the structures in place to protect them. How does this effect news gathering? We need to make sure people buying pictures and stories have a sense of responsibility towards those selling them. Safety measures need to be put in place.”

This means better training, and a sense of “ownership” of the person – freelancers should be considered the same way as people on a paper’s staff would be, she adds.

As well as looking at how foreign reporters gather and file stories, Kathy’s memoir considers the effect Dan’s death had on her family. It covers a life lived in Belsize Park in the late 1960s, travelling with her family to forge a new life in Kenya in the 1970s, and then leads to Dan’s murder and its aftermath.

While coming to terms with Dan’s killing provides a thread through the book, she also reveals how his death was the catalyst for the establishing of an institute called The Creative Visions Foundation. Providing funding and expertise, the Foundation was behind the online worldwide phenomenon called Invisible Children, a documentary about the war criminal Joseph Kony. He had used child soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa. The film turned Kony, previously a virtually unknown mass murderer, into a household name.

As well as that, through her work with the Foundation there is a feature film in the offing that tells Dan’s story.

Kathy is hoping Dan’s untimely death can make the world a safer place for those whose passion it is to bring you the latest information from around the globe.

In the Heart of Life. A memoir by Kathy Eldon. HarperOne £17.99

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