A Tribute to Martin Adler

The death of Martin Adler was not a surprise. It was a terrible shock, but not, truthfully, a surprise.

If a man, no matter how professional and experienced, travels as widely as Martin did to the war zones of our troubled world then, almost inevitably, something bad will happen. Life-threatening environments are where film-makers like Martin are at their professional best.

What is it about Somalia that had Martin, once again, packing his bags in his home in Sweden, saying goodbye to his wife and his two daughters and leaving on another assignment?

The Horn of Africa was somewhere that always fascinated him. Ethiopia was the first African country to engage him. He studied Amharic at SOAS in the late eighties. When he finally set foot in East Africa, he travelled into Somalia.

Through all the years since, despite long bouts of international indifference, he charted the various tides of turmoil and suffering the Somalis have endured.

In May the sharp increase in fighting between the Islamic Courts Movement and the warlords suggested that the ICM were becoming a force to be reckoned with. Rumours were rife that the warlords (who had allied against the ICM in a self-styled “Alliance Against Terrorism”) were receiving cash from the USA.


Martin wanted to know more about the ICM. The international press had quickly tagged them “the new Taliban.” He wanted to discover if this perception had a base in fact. Having delivered the most peace anyone had seen in the capital for 15 years, Martin believed the least the ICM deserved was a chance to explain themselves.

Perhaps Martin was just too late. Or perhaps it wasn’t worth the risk. Perhaps ICM are indeed the fundamentalists they are widely held to be. Whilst he was in Somalia the BBC described the ICM as a ‘Fundamentalist Muslim Alliance.’

Perhaps Martin should have walked away. Perhaps he should have accepted that – whatever the true nature of the ICM – their image had already been cast and asumptions formed. Perhaps there was no point in continuing to risk his life by trying to find out the facts.

But that wasn’t Martin. He was a conscientious reporter.

Apart from his curiosity, Martin believed intensely that by reporting the truth about largely forgotten people in largely forgotten wars he could make a difference. He thought the more people who knew about the pain and suffering he documented the better place the world would be.

Martin loved his work and he did make a difference. In 2004 he exposed the behaviour of American troops in Iraq with ‘Charlie Company’, a brave revelatory film which revealed how the soldiers show shocking indifference towards the safety of the civilians they were supposed to be protecting.

It aired around the world and won the Rory Peck Hard News award.

Vin Ray, head of the new BBC journalism school and the Chairman of the judging panel, said of the film: “This is the best embedded piece I have seen from Iraq. He shot it, voiced it, edited it: it genuinely was his creation. It spoke volumes about the situation in Iraq. Incredibly prescient.”

Martin created uproar in Sweden when he revealed that Swedish arms had been used by the Indian Army in Kashmir, despite an agreement that they would not be.

In Bangladesh his story on women attacked with acid brought offers of help from around the world and put much needed pressure on the government of Bangladesh to do more for the victims.

There were similar episodes from Sri Lanka, Congo, Liberia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Guatemala, China and others.

Wherever he worked he made lasting connections. He tried harder than any film-maker I know not to simply leave behind the people he worked with. He cared.

‘No story is worth risking your life for’ is an old adage. But it is wrong. Every day we read and watch stories that involve crews risking their lives. It’s the price we are prepared to pay for that knowledge, as readers, as viewers, as editors, and it’s the price those like Martin, who take the greatest risks, believe is worth taking because that is the price they put on such knowledge.

Martin was never alone in such beliefs. The same can be said for many of the members of The Frontline Club, a club that is dedicated to the memory of people who, like Martin, have paid the ultimate price for the same conviction.

Martin joins the fallen heroes of our trade and all those whose lives he changed, who loved him or were loved by him will never forget him.

Here is an edited extract of a column written by Patrick Naagbanton, who worked with Martin on several stories, published this week in the Prot Harcourt Telegraph, Nigeria.

“Why did they kill Adler? What will these barbarians who don’t have any regard for human lives achieve by killing a colleague and friend? The tragic death of Martin Adler can be likened to the irony of a great warrior who fought several battles and conquered several territories, only to die in a rivulet in front of his house at the end of his career. A man who had worked in dreaded and dangerous jungles of the world and emerged unhurt was finally killed by a filthy militia.

My condolence to Mrs. Adler, his beautiful wife and two of his fine daughters. He used to show me their pictures any time we met. The man who wanted the world to understand what was going on is gone and gone forever. Adieu, Martin.”