Advertisement
News

He gave his heart, and life, to Somalia

He was one of the first photojournalists to look unblinkingly at the agony of a small, East African country called Somalia. Long before the world knew anything about the nightmare of famine and civil war consuming Somalia, Dan Eldon was there, recording the anguish in that land of walking skeletons and silent, dying children. His pictures -- messages from hell delivered to us early in the summer of 1992 -- helped shock the world into action.

Dan Eldon was 21 when, working as a Reuter photographer, he began chronicling the desperate plight of Somalia, a country he knew and loved.

Advertisement

A year later Dan Eldon became a part of the story: On July 12, 1993, while on the job, Dan was killed by an enraged Somalian mob. He died on a dusty side street in Mogadishu. Three other journalists also died that day -- stoned, knifed and beaten to death by the same mob.

Now, eight months after Dan's death, the story he covered with such insight and conscience is about to change. Sixteen months after President George Bush initiated Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. military presence in Somalia is ending. On Friday, the United States completed its military withdrawal, leaving behind only a small number of Marines.

Advertisement

As the U.S. troops go, so goes the interest of most Americans back home. For all intents and purposes, the story of Somalia is over for us. The moving finger writes, and our attention will now focus on other trouble spots in the world. Bosnia. The Middle East. North Korea.

But for some, including the family of Dan Eldon, the story will never be over. And because Dan played such an important role in opening our eyes to Somalia, it seems fitting -- before that country fades from the spotlight -- to close the story with an account of Dan's life.

' And his terrible death.

The 'Mayor of Mogadishu'

More than most, Dan Eldon was a citizen of the world. The son of an American mother and English father, he moved with his parents to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was 7 years old. Officially he was both an American and a British citizen. But unofficially his heart belonged to Africa. Still, from childhood on, Dan moved easily from country to country, continent to continent.

His summers, however, always belonged to Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- the town where his mother was born and raised -- and to his grandparents, Louise and Russell Knapp, who still live there.

"Every year Dan went to Camp Wapsi, the YMCA camp here," recalls his grandmother. "And he fit into the local scene very well. He just had that ability to fit in with all kinds of people. He fit in with the Masai in Africa, and he fit in here at Camp Wapsi. I remember Dan as being just so much fun to have around."

It is precisely the way the adult Dan is described by one of his colleagues from the Mogadishu days.

Advertisement

"Dan was only 22, but when I first met him I remember thinking he was a guy who'd fit in with any age group," says 32-year-old Donatella Lorch, East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times. "He was very sophisticated for his age. And very happy-go-lucky, laughing all the time. Everyone knew him -- Mogadishu is a small town -- and he was loved by all." There's a pause. Then in a choked voice, she says: "That's the whole thing. The people who killed Dan probably knew him."

Dan's mother, Kathy Eldon, agrees his killers might have known him. She recalls a phone conversation with her son a week before his death: "Mom, they call me the Mayor of Mogadishu," said an ebullient Dan. "I know absolutely everyone here. I'm having the most incredible time."

But even though her son may have recognized the faces of his killers, the mother is not bitter. They were reacting, she says, to a U.S. helicopter attack on a local warlord's headquarters that left 200 Somalis wounded and more than 50 dead. Among them were some of Mogadishu's most respected leaders.

"I've felt anger and rage about Dan's death and all the feelings of 'what if' -- what if we had never moved to Africa, what if Dan had stayed in college . . . " Her voice trails off. "The curious thing is I've never felt bitterness toward the Somalis. It's not the correct response to pick up stones and kill foreigners, but I understand what they did. I do not condone it. But I understand it."

Just in from California, where she now spends most of her time as a film producer, Mrs. Eldon is sitting in a New York hotel room. Surrounded by her talented son's drawings, photographs and voluminous journals -- which she hopes to see published -- she and her daughter, Amy, 19, try to describe Dan. "He was one of the funniest people I ever met," says his sister. "And he made everything in life an adventure. It's almost like he knew he didn't have much time, because he had to pack in all this fun and do everything the best he could do it."

What emerges through the memories and the laughter and the tears of the mother and sister is a picture of a funny, energetic, irreverent, creative and caring young man, one who from an early age involved himself in helping others. His success at doing so was astounding for one so young.

Advertisement

At 14, he and Amy raised $5,000 for open-heart surgery for a young Kenyan girl.

At 15, he helped support a Masai family by buying their handmade jewelry and then selling it to friends.

At UCLA, he and some college friends raised $17,000 to pay for a Land Cruiser, two wells and blankets for refugees in Mozambique.

His commitment to others is one of the qualities -- that and his sense of humor -- his colleagues remember most about Dan.

"He was a person who naturally had a lot of humility in him and was always willing to help anyone who needed it," says 50-year-old Mohamed Amin, the bureau chief for Reuters Television in Africa. "Even in Somalia, Dan would actually go out and gather a few kids and give them whatever help he could. He would play with them, try to make them laugh." Andrew Hill, 44, a writer who headed up the Reuter team in Mogadishu at the time, remembers just such a scene: "When I arrived in the city for what turned out to be my last stint, I went up to the roof of the hotel just to look around the city and breathe the air. And there below was Danny, sitting behind a refugee camp. He was surrounded by kids and drinking tea. It was a delightful sight."

Later, on July 12, 1993, Andrew Hill would see Danny again. To him fell the heart-wrenching task of identifying the body of his colleague.

Advertisement

Mr. Hill now works in Ireland as Reuters' chief correspondent there. The death of Dan and the other three journalists on July 12, he says, "had a lot to do with my leaving Africa."

Hundreds of bodies

Even before the events that took place on July 12, few photojournalists stayed in Mogadishu for more than three weeks at a time.

"It was just too stressful, both from the work point of view and the psychological," says Dan's father, Mike Eldon. For the last year and a half of his life, Dan had lived in Nairobi with his father -- Mike and Kathy Eldon are divorced -- and the older man saw signs of stress in his son. "He would go up to Mogadishu and come back here for R and R. But you can only tolerate the killing, the mutilated bodies, the grief and the horror for so long. It has a cumulative effect. It's not like you can come home and rest and have it go away. It builds up. And each time you go, you have less desire to confront it.

"Dan wasn't too excited about going back that last time. He had this dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to see the story through and he was getting all this extraordinary exposure in newspapers and magazines all over the world. But then there were all these other things."

In a book Dan put together of his Somalia photographs, he wrote about "these other things:"

Advertisement

After my first trip to Somalia, the terror of being surrounded by violence and the horrors of the famine threw me into a dark depression. Even journalists who had covered many conflicts were moved to tears. But for me, this was my first experience with war. Before Somalia I had only seen two dead bodies in my life. I have now seen hundreds, tossed into ditches like sacks. The worst things I could not photograph.

I've seen so much'

In on of his last phone calls to his mother, Dan expressed both his excitement about what he was doing and his concerns.

"Mum," he said, "I'm having the most incredible time. I feel really alive."

But he also said: "I really don't know where to put everything I'm seeing. I don't know where to put it in my head. I've seen so much. I'm a little worried about where it's going."

The mother listened, concerned. "Danny," she said, "don't you think your luck has run out? Isn't it time you got out?"

Advertisement

The son did not answer right way. Then: "No, I can't leave now. I'm really committed to being where I am right now."

Looking back over those last weeks before Dan's death, Kathy Eldon says, she now realizes something was changing in her. "I always thought he'd be all right, but suddenly I was very aware of looking at people and thinking, 'Gosh, I wonder if they're going to a funeral.' I'd never thought of that before in my whole life. I think at some subliminal level I knew that something could happen or was going to happen."

The father experienced his own version of this feeling: "It was always a difficult moment when Dan said goodbye to me and went off again. But my assumption was always that Dan of all people was well-equipped to survive."

Still, something inside the father anticipated another outcome: "Wherever I was, I put up this photograph I took of Dan," says Mike Eldon. "And I think a part of me understood that it might end up . . . being the one I remembered him by."

The last day

July 12, 1993. It was 10:20 in the morning when a formation of U.S. helicopter gunships suddenly appeared, swooping through the sky near the Mogadishu hotel where most foreign journalists lived. Rushing up to the hotel roof, Dan Eldon and the others watched as the gunships began pouring cannon fire into a compound belonging to Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid.

Advertisement

The attack lasted only 17 minutes. And while they were anxious to get to the site of the devastation, most of the journalists agreed to wait until the situation calmed down.

A few, however, rushed out. Scott Peterson, 28, an American reporter for the Daily Telegraph of London, arrived at the compound while U.S. ground troops were still there. "Get out," they said. "It's too dangerous." But he stayed, believing he was safe as long as the Americans remained.

"What I didn't count on was them pulling out so quickly," he says now. "And once they did, all the Somalis they'd been keeping at bay started running toward where I was. They battered me pretty badly. . . . I was lucky to get away with my life."

Mr. Peterson returned to the hotel, where he ran into Dan Eldon. "What the hell happened to you?" Dan asked. Then he started to help bandage Mr. Peterson's wounds. "If you go out there today," Mr. Peterson told Dan, "be a lot more careful."

Suddenly five or six Somali appeared, asking the journalists if they would like to see the damage done by the helicopter attack. Some were known to the journalists, and so it seemed safe to go. A convoy left the hotel, complete with the bodyguards hired to accompany journalists.

Already crowds were forming in the street. Angry kids were everywhere. Dan Eldon was in one of the two vehicles that got through and, along with four colleagues, he entered the compound.

Advertisement

'It's getting bad'

Of the five men who entered, only one survived. His name is Mohammed Shaffi, a cameraman for Reuters TV. He remembers vividly what happened next:

"The five of us were inside the compound, all staying together, shooting the same pictures. There were about 200 to 300 people inside the compound and over a thousand outside the compound. All of a sudden, the crowd starting shouting, 'What are the journalists doing here?' "

It was then that the stones began hitting the journalists. "Shaffi," yelled Dan Eldon, "it's getting bad. Let's get out of here. Run!"

Mohammed Shaffi, trapped inside, watched as the four other journalists ran out of the compound. The crowd attacked but he pushed his way through to the outside. Beaten and shot, he fell down, got up and continued running.

"That's when I saw Dan Eldon and Anthony Macharia [a Reuter journalist] running ahead of me, followed by a crowd. I saw them turn a corner and I thought, 'Thank God they're safe. I will be dead, but they will get away.' "

Advertisement

In the end, neither Dan nor Anthony got away. Nor did their colleagues, Hansi Krauss (Associated Press) and Hos Maina (Reuters). All four were beaten, knifed and stoned to death by the mob. Only Mohammed Shaffi managed to escape.

Dan's body was picked up by a helicopter almost immediately. And almost immediately the sad message made its way around the world: Danny's dead. The bodies of the other three journalists were not recovered until much later.

The day of Danny's death was also the day he was scheduled to leave for his father's home in Nairobi. His replacement was to have been Hos Maina. One wonders: Why did Dan go to the compound?

"It was one of the biggest stories running, and Dan understood the story much better than a lot of people who were in and out of Mogadishu," says Mohamed Amin of Reuters. "Dan wanted to stay with the story."

But the journalist who escaped that day has a different explanation: "If a death was written," says Mohammed Shaffi, "it was written."

Doing what he wanted

Advertisement

On the Saturday after Dan's death, hundreds of mourners gathered under a high blue sky on the edge of the Rift Valley in Kenya. They had come not to mourn Dan's death but to celebrate his life.

One by one, his friends and family spoke. The remembrances brought both laughter and tears as they recalled Dan's irreverent sense of humor and his kind heart.

Scott Peterson, the reporter whose head Dan had helped bandage on July 12 spoke for many when he said: "Dan was the last guy we ever would have expected this to happen to. A lot of photographers there didn't care if they turned Somalia into a parking lot. But Dan cared. He enjoyed spending time with Somalis. The feeling among colleagues is that he was there doing what he wanted to be doing."

Still, the father wonders about the meaning of his son's death. Particularly as he watches the Western troops leaving Somalia. "At the time of the pullout, I've been reflecting on Dan's death," he says. "Was it in vain? Did he make a contribution? On the one hand, I think he made a big contribution because of the pictures he sent of the famine, bringing it to the world's attention.

"But as I reflect . . . it wasn't such a big contribution. Dan's death on July 12 -- and that of his colleagues and the Somalis -- didn't appear to teach too many lessons to those who are charged with formulating policy and implementing it."

Dan's mother and sister view it differently. "Maybe it didn't change foreign policy in Somalia," says Amy, "but I think young people around the world who met Dan and who heard about this and have been affected by it will go on later in life to start their own projects -- and maybe change foreign policy."

Advertisement

Her mother agrees. "My belief is that Dan's story isn't over. We have to do something positive with this. We can't forget these four guys."

Positive things are already happening: In May, the Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow (DEPOT) will open in Nairobi. It will focus on developing creative skills and leadership abilities in young people. And Reuters, the news agency for which Dan worked, has established a fellowship in memory of the slain journalists.

Dan Eldon needs no epitaph. His pictures and his life speak for him. But something the mother said sticks in the mind: "He was a bright light which shone for a very short time."



Advertisement