I was the news editor at the then People weekly newspaper on the morning of July 11, 1993 when Hos Maina, a Nairobi-based photographer with Reuters telephoned to say he was flying out to Mogadishu on an assignment.
Hos wasn’t just a colleague but a close friend and mentor. He is the one who made me feel at home on my first day in a newsroom at the age of 21. And though he grew up in Nairobi, his rural home was in Nyahururu not far from where I come from.
Hos had a private arrangement with the People newspaper that if he found something of interest to Kenyans in his assignments outside the country, he would give us a separate set of photographs and a write-up.
Somalia certainly was of interest to Kenyans. The shocking events unfolding in the country at the time were gnawing at the world’s conscience. Kenya was keeping tabs in a mixture of pity and disgust as hundreds of innocent refugees as well as assorted criminals – including terrorists – crossed over our common border.
Hos and I agreed we reserve for him two full pages in our edition that week. But even as I booked him in our diary of stories (in the newsrooms we call it docket), sudden apprehension engulfed me and I asked him: “Hos, are you sure you want to be in Mogadishu at this point in time?”
He didn’t give it a thought and replied: “Kamau, actually I am on my way out. The driver is waiting to drop me at Wilson Airport for my flight. Just pray for us.” And off he was gone.
Not that I expected him to change his mind and convince his bosses why he shouldn’t go. Hos was one of the rare ones who literally wanted to be where eagles dare. When Kenya Air Force soldiers attempted a coup on August 1, 1982, he was one of the only three photojournalists who defied order that all civilians remain indoors and ventured into the streets to record the mayhem on camera as bullets flew over his head. At one point, he’d to go down on his knees to plead for dear life as an enraged rebel soldier aimed at him.
As I watched news in the evening of the day he flew to Mogadishu and saw what was happening there, I said a short prayer that God take care of him. By then, he and three colleagues from Nairobi were holed up in a hotel in Mogadishu planning their next move as sounds of gunfire came through bullet riddled windows.
With him in Mogadishu were Antony Macharia and Dan Eldon, who worked at Reuters as television soundman and photographer respectively, and Hans Krauss, a photographer with the Associated Press.
In that period, the devil literally had left hell and set up camp in Mogadishu. It was in the pogrom that followed the ouster of Somali President Siad Barre in January 1991.
Though a brute dictator, Barre had managed to hold the country together for 20 years and given it some semblance of nationhood. In his absence, Somalia had become a free-for-all boiler where survival depended on how faster you were on the trigger, a contest that inevitably tipped in favour of the more deranged and the blood-thirsty.
The world had responded by dispatching a 20,000-strong United Nations military to restore sanity but it didn’t work as the Horn of Africa country sank deeper into the abyss.
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The capital Mogadishu had been curved into two fiefdoms where rival self-styled generals vied for power grab. The northern part of the town was under General Farah Aideed as General Ali Mahdi controlled the southern sector. Each warlord had a militia guarding his turf and scores of snipers roaming the streets of the capital. It was dangerous walking the streets of Mogadishu any time of the day or night and journalists – including the Kenyan news crew – had taken the precaution of wearing bullet-proof vests.
On the eve of my friend’s arrival in Mogadishu, US cobra helicopter gunships had bombed warlord Aideed’s headquarters killing 13 of his top henchmen. It sent his supporters into a murderous rage. They were screaming blood at the UN forces and anybody they associated with the peace keepers, journalists included. The mobs were blinded to the fact that it is journalists who were helpful to their cause by keeping the world informed of their plight and urging for world interventions, more so humanitarian assistance.
Date with death
As they retired to bed with one eye open, the Kenyan team agreed with local guides who were friendly to warlord Aideed that they would escort them to the warlord’s bombed headquarters.
Early morning, the guides picked them as agreed. They assured them of safety and promised they would accompany them all the way and back to the hotel.
At the entrance to the shelled compound, they found a big mob shouting anti-UN and anti-US slogans. The guides explained to the mobs that in their company were journalists who would help in telling the world what damage the UN and the US, in particular, were doing to their country.
The mobs saw the point and let the journalists proceed. Inside the compound, the news crew hurriedly filmed the rubble and counted the bodies.
Hell broke loose when another mob arrived from a different direction and, on sighting journalists, screamed murder as they hurled stones and charged forward. Sensing danger, the news crew took to their heels.
The guides who had brought them to the site tried as much to plead their case but the murderous mob played deaf and pursued the fleeing journalists.
Associated Press and Reuters photographers Hans Kraus and Dan Eldon were first to be caught as they attempted to jump into a pick-up truck that slowed down to evacuate them. The mobs pulled them down, beat and stoned them to a pulp.
My friend Hos and colleague Antony Macharia tried to run as fast as their legs could allow. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep the pace. They got caught and suffered the same fate as their two colleagues. The four dead bodies of the team from Nairobi would be retrieved at a dumping site next to a market in northern Mogadishu.
World leaders joined the media fraternity in mourning the senseless murder of the four Nairobi-based journalists. President Daniel Moi signed the condolence book and remarked: “These young journalists had their lives snuffed out in their prime, ending promising and brilliant careers.” Italian President Oscar Luigi was saddened that the four journalists “were lynched for doing their job”. He said the deaths were “all the more painful in that they were totally unmotivated as violence is always unmotivated.”
For me, the loss was personal and professional. The two pages I had reserved for pictures and story by Hos in the Mogadishu assignment would instead be used on pictures of grief-struck relatives and friends receiving body bags containing his body and those of colleagues at the JKIA airport - so sad. I had lost a person I regarded as a brother. Indeed, some people said we were look-alikes and thought we were blood brothers when they heard we both hailed from Nyahururu.
I try as much as possible to mask emotions at burial ceremonies. But standing at the grave site as Hos’ casket was lowered to the ground at his family’s farm in Nyahururu tears rolled down my face.
Then Standard Managing Editor Mitch Odero best captured who Hos Maina was to me and entire media fraternity. He said: “Hos Maina was a top-rated press photographer every editor would have loved to have. If pictures speak more than a thousand words, then it was the camera of the dare-devil Hos Maina which brought to national and international attention the story and in very sharp focus.” RIP my buddy Hos.
This Wednesday, July 12, when we mark Hos 13th death anniversary, Somalis can do themselves a favour by resolving to silence guns in their often troubled country. They owe it to themselves and to their future generations.