Scouring through my old cds, I found an article I wrote years ago on the life of Mohamed Amin, including this rare picture of his prosthetic arm. I’ve tried googling for it, but to no avail. True to my academic immaturity at the time, no references are cited .
Furthermore, either Google does not do justice to a search on his name, or the websites used those years have gone down. Nonetheless, I hope this article plays some part in the remembrance of his life and contribution…
Recapturing the Life of Mohamed Amin
by Tohir Solomons
It takes the humaneness of one to make a difference to the world Mohamed Amin has shown us. Working in a profession connoted with lies and disinformation, Mohamed Amin taught us that we cannot be deceived to our own humanity.
It’s nearly 10 years ago that we witnessed the tragic crash of Ethiopian Airlines ET961 into the Indian Ocean. And sadly with that, was the life of the greatest photojournalist in the world. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Mo (as he was affectionately called) covered the politics, sports and wildlife of the African continent. A man of compelling bravery and pictures, his life continues to inspire the commoner.
At the age of 14, Mohamed Amin’s plea to join the photographic society was turned down. He was considered to be too young. Added to this, young Mo could not receive any encouragement from his family. Photography is seemingly an inappropriate profession for a Muslim, they argued. Determined to do photography, Mohamed Amin persuaded a friend to lend him his father’s Rollicord camera. He took it to the society and was admitted. Having access to equipment and the dark room, he managed to teach himself the art and science of photography.
In 1960, Mohamed Amin quit school in the middle of an exam. He decided there was no point of going through an exam because he’d get a paper he didn’t need. He also felt that the study couldn’t assist him practically in the field of photography. It was his belief that interest could well cover for teaching. Added to this, the African continent was about to experience a decade of turmoil and transition. Mohamed Amin wanted to make his mark covering the independence of Tanganyika.
In 1962, a friend introduced Mohamed Amin to a 16mm camera (video camera). Two white liberals had escaped from a jail in South Africa, stolen a Cessna aircraft and flown to Dar es Salaam. On his way to the airport, Mo borrowed a 16mm camera. He first took the stills and then made the two get back in the plane and come out again while he filmed. It was in this way that he started coverage for BBC and ITN. He also got the nickname ‘Six Camera Mo’ for being draped with stills and cine cameras.
Mohamed Amin received a tip off to the Zanzibar revolution in Tanzania in 1964. He traveled to Dar es Salaam on an early morning flight, and was the first cameraman in the region. For four days, his film coverage led world television bulletins at CBS, Visnews and ITN. Soon there after, he started working as a reporter for Visnews (predecessor of Reuters).
It was chiefly due to his work in Uganda that the world’s perception of Idi Amin changed. Captured and tortured for covering a coup in Zanzibar in 1966, he was released only after intense international diplomatic pressure. In 1969, Mohamed Amin was voted British Cameraman of the Year for his coverage of the assassination of Tom Moboya, a Kenyan Minister. He had not only recorded the event but also organized the transport and accompanied the dying man to hospital.
Ethiopia – 1980s
Mohamed Amin will best be remembered for helping to bring the attention of the world to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984. War was raging at the time in Ethiopia with Soviet and Cuban troops fighting the rebel movement. Though Amin had been trying for months to get a visa, the then Mengistu regime was in particular extremely suspicious of journalists. Eventually he managed to visit the famine-stricken regions along with Zack Njuguna (his soundman), and two journalists, Michael Buerk and Michael Woolridge.
Describing the situation in an interviewed with Mary Keevil in 1992, Mohamed Amin said,
“I had no idea how bad the famine was going to be until we got there. It was only when we saw what we saw – 80,000 people wanting to be fed in a camp with no food for possibly more than a handful of 50 or 60 people.
The Ethiopians being such a proud people, they just sat there holding their babies knowing they were going to die, but they didn’t make an issue of it, they just sat there… I’ll never forget those scenes… they calmly just sat there awaiting their fate. That came across strongly in the pictures. The poor guy distributing the food would just pick a person here or there… but people would die in their thousands… by the time the aid got there, very sadly it was too late to save a lot of he people. One million died before the food arrived, however, if it had not come maybe seven or eight million would have died.”
The seven minute clip was shown on BBC’s Six O’ Clock news on 24 October 1984. The pictures were stark and shocking, but the reaction, unprecedented. Over a billion people saw it throughout the world. The unique broadcast inspired millions to launch the ‘We are the World’ campaign, the greatest ever global act-of-giving we have seen. It was to have so much impact that it led Bob Geldof to launch Band Aid and Live Aid, the international humanitarian organizations. Speaking on the incident, Bob Geldof replied that he was a provoked by the broadcast: ‘I dare you to turn away, I dare you to do nothing’.
Mohamed Amin, however, was more emphatic about the situation.
“I think the reaction of the people of the world was tremendous. It wasn’t from the governments… it was from the hearts of ordinary people around the globe who saw those helpless people. It was their outcry that made the organizations and governments do something.”
Mohamed Amin returned to Ethiopia a few months later to do a follow-up story. He was, however, banned by the Mengistu government for also doing a story on the rebels.
Loss of an Arm
Mohamed Amin’s ban was lifted in 1991 following the fall of the Mengistu regime. He traveled to Ethiopia to cover the fall. The war was still continuing, and a few days later there was a huge explosion at an arms depot. Mohamed Amin along with his sound recordist John Mathai and reporters Michael Buerk and Colin Blane went to visit the scene. Suddenly there was an explosion, and Amin’s camera fell to the ground. As he tried to pick it up and put it to his eye, a rocket hit him. A heavy camera bag containing equipment had prevented the rocket from hitting his chest. Mohamed Amin was bleeding heavily and lost the use of both arms. Tragically, John Mathai, his sound recordist, was killed on the spot.
In hospital, Amin’s nightmare continued. As the war raged on, the hospital was short of medicine, blood and doctors. Fortunately, Reuters and Visnews assisted him tremendously. They managed to persuade the rebels’ government to open the airport, and Amin was flown to Nairobi for surgery. His right arm could be saved, but unfortunately, not his left. The surgeon decided to amputate, trying to save as much of the arm as possible.
Everybody thought that his career as a cameraman was over. The sooner he got used to this he was told, the better. Mo, instead, began an international search for a prosthetic arm to prove his skeptics and doubters wrong. He spoke to Visnews in London about modifying his camera so that he could work with one hand. A few months later, he went to the United States where John Billock designed an arm for him that could operate a camera. In fact, he had two prosthetic arms made for him. He used to joke with airline personnel checking the prostheses in his luggage, “I’m in the arms business.”
Speaking on the accident, Mohamed Amin said,
“Since I lost my arm I have been busier at work. At first I was a little slow, now I think I am faster than before. I think you try harder. I don’t really think I have a disadvantage.”
Mohamed Amin was awarded the M.B.E. in 1992 to honour thirty years of covering trouble spots in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
It used to be joked that wherever Mohamed Amin went, there was news! And sadly, this was also how he met his death.
On November 23 1996, Mohamed Amin was returning home on Ethiopian Airlines flight ET961 from Addis Ababa after a business trip. The airplane was hijacked by three Ethiopians claiming to be armed with explosives. After a struggle with the crew, the plane crashed into the sea just off the coast of the Comoros Islands, breaking into three. Mohamed Amin died on his feet still trying to negotiate with the terrorists.
Speaking on his death, Michael Buerk said, “Having spent all his life as a front-line war cameraman, to get killed in a news story that he wasn’t covering, after surviving for years against the odds, was difficult to come to terms with.”
Mohamed Amin’s Impact on the World
Mohamed Amin will best be remembered for his compelling pictures of the Ethiopian famine in 1984. He was instrumental in shaping the future of humanitarian assistance.
Mike Wooldridge speaking of events of seventeen years ago said, “I believe that the Ethiopian famine became a watershed not only for my own life but for the aid agencies and the media. 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”.
Bob Geldof, speaking on Mohamed Amin’s impact on the world, said:
“Time and again, Mo moved the world from apathy to an understanding of responsibility. He was a great journalist and a great man. For good or for ill, he changed my life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others.”
Mohamed Amin, though a recipient of many awards, also has a few awards named after him. Reuters launched the ‘News World Mohamed Amin Award’ in 1997 to reward acts of outstanding courage, professional skill or initiative in bringing news. The American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists established the ‘Mohamed Amin Humanitarian Service Award’ to honour humanitarian spirit among disabled persons.
Mohamed Amin and Our Future
Former US President George Bush commenting on the death of Mohamed Amin said, “Millions are alive today because Mohamed Amin risked his life time and again…”
This rare achievement makes one reflect on the many leaders who are guilty of the opposite. There are leaders who are responsible for hundreds and thousands of unnecessary deaths, not to make mention of the misery caused. George W. Bush, in pursuing a blind policy for hunting ‘terrorists’, will most certainly join the disgraced list of leaders with blood on their hands.
Mohamed Amin’s outstanding courage and determination is inspirational. Rejected by the photographic society and discouraged by his parents, he overcame all of this to become the most celebrated photojournalist in the world. Even the loss of an arm failed to lessen his spirit. It only added more significance to the value of life.
A concluding thought… If Mohamed Amin was alive today, how do you think he would have tackled the issue of AIDS?