Insight with Kathy Eldon: Dying to Tell the Story
By Hodan Yusuf – Pankhurst, freelance multimedia journalist
Kathy Eldon is a journalist, activist, and author who has transformed a personal tragedy into a positive force for good. She spoke at the Frontline Club on 5 November about her son, Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old photojournalist who was one of four journalists killed in Somalia on the 12 July 1993. The group were beaten and stoned to death by an angry mob while covering the US bombing of a building in Mogadishu. For the last 20 years, through campaigning and filmmaking, Kathy Eldon and her daughter Amy Eldon Turteltaub have kept Dan’s memory alive and celebrated his life. They set up the Creative Visions Foundation, to support activists who use media and the arts to create social impact. Twenty years after his death, she has published her memoir In the Heart of Life: A Memoir which has just been released.
John Owen, chairman of the Frontline Club, who also chaired the event, described how he first became aware of Eldon when she was speaking at the journalists’ memorial in Washington DC where her son was being commemorated and his name etched into the glass and iron memorial sculpture. Owen recalled how he watched the video of her speech with a hardened veteran editor who had seen many disturbing images in his. They listened to Eldon‘s tribute to her son, affirming her belief that his death had not been in vain, she said on that day:
“Let our souls all be reborn today, dedicated above all to the communication of inspiration and truth.”
The entire audience [at the memorial] was in tears and Owen said that he and his colleague both wept in that editing suite. Mark Wood, the then chief executive of Reuters was in the audience and Owen praised his role in 1993 saying:
“He was a brilliant example of a how a caring news executive responds to the death of a freelancer. A very important distinction, a freelancer.”
“We are here at the Frontline Club. Vaughan Smith created this place to honour journalists, especially freelance journalists who have given their lives to pursuing the news. In the Frontline Club itself as you go in to the members’ room you see the pictures of his colleagues who have lost their lives… Why this place matters is because the families and friends can come to this place and know that their lives were not in vain. That they are remembered and celebrated.”
Owen pointed out Robin Scott in the audience, the father of Roddy Scott a freelance journalist killed on the front line whilst covering the war in Chechnya. Robin and his wife Stina have also set up a foundation in their son’s memory to help educate the children of a neglected Chechen refugee community in the Pankisi Gorge, North Georgia. This was an example, of the sort of community that exists at the Frontline Club, which goes well beyond talking about the news.
Eldon read moving excerpts from her book and introduced a clip from the 1998 documentary she made with her daughter, Dying to Tell the Story. The clip shows her daughter travelling to Somalia with Mohamed Shaffi, the only journalist to survive the mob attack on the day her brother was killed.
Wood spoke from the audience about how the incident proved a turning point, which focussed attention on front line reporters’ need for safety, hazardous environment and first aid training. These things, he explained, are now seen as routine but 20 years ago were uncommon.
Another audience member mentioned as a follow up to Wood’s comment the RISC training programme set up by journalist Sebastian Junger. The RISC medical training, which was held at the Frontline Club in September, was set up following the death of Junger’s friend photojournalist Tim Hetherington whilst covering the conflict in Libya in 2011.
An aid worker in the audience asked what motivates journalists to do their job. The chair asked veteran journalist and Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith who was in the audience, to offer an answer:
[Journalists have] a great desire to engage the world…a very real sense of wanting to meet a public need for good quality information which underpins all of it.”
An audience member asked Eldon, after having lost her son if she would still advocate journalism to other young people. She said while she supports journalists telling the story, she is unnerved by the idea of a kid going off to cover Mogadishu or Syria without proper training.
Smith was asked again to comment, this time on a new initiative the Frontline Club launched recently. The Frontline Freelance Register (FFR) is run by freelancers for freelancer to meet the need for industry standards, safety, training and a sense community for the growing body of freelancers in the hope that it will improve both their welfare and effectiveness.
With the presence of a lot of young aspiring journalists, Eldon was asked if she thought taking a risk, albeit a reasonable risk was worth doing.
“If you feel compelled to do it, be wise and responsible and then go and do it as well as you possibly can. No story is worth your life….it’s not worth it. [But] you have to be true to yourself and follow what is your purpose in life. Don’t get killed please, because …we don’t want anybody dying.”
The last comment of the event was a poignant testimony to Dan from an audience member who said she knew him briefly and even though he was a few years her junior:
“… he had a deep compassion about him and wisdom beyond his years. He really was the legend of the good die young.”
If you missed the event, watch it back here: