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Mohamed Amin Remembered

  • Cecily Hilleary

Salim Amin, son of photojournalist Mohamed Amin (in photo)

Salim Amin, son of photojournalist Mohamed Amin (in photo)

The late Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed Amin covered just about every aspect of life in Kenya during his 30-year career--but he is perhaps best known for his pictures of Ethiopian famine victims in 1984.

Twenty-five years ago, Ethiopia was in the middle of a 20-year civil war centered in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray. It was also suffering from a devastating famine. The government threw its budget into its military, not aid. Fighting had blocked outside agencies trying to get relief into the area. By winter, two hundred thousand Ethiopians had died of starvation. The refugee camp at Korem was among the places hardest hit; more than one hundred people were dying every day.

BBC reporter Michael Burke was sent to cover the story. Mohamed Amin was assigned to travel with him.

Based in Nairobi, Amin was a seasoned photojournalist who had spent at least two decades covering African politics. His son Salim was not quite a teenager 25 years ago, but he remembers well what lengths his father went to, to get this particular story.

"The Ethiopian government had kind of closed down the area where the famine was worst, Salim told VOA. "They didn’t want journalists going in there. Mengistu’s government was using the famine as a tool to fight the rebel armies."

Mohamed knew of one organization that had a plane and supplies. He called his contacts at the relief group World Vision International to see if they could help.
"To the dismay of the Ethiopian government at that time," Salim said, "they managed to fly in from Addis Ababa, into Korem, and they kind of stepped into the biggest catastrophe of the twentieth century."

Salim said Mohamed had covered wars, executions and genocides, but none of these moved—or angered -- him more than what he witnessed at Korem: "He later said that he felt completely helpless, he felt exceptionally angry at what was happening there, the fact that millions of people were dying for the simple reason that they had no food, something that we continually take for granted—especially in the mid-eighties, which was a time of great excess in the West and in the rest of the world.”

Mohamed recorded for posterity images of emaciated babies; women wrapped in blankets wailing over the bodies of the newly dead; and children who still managed to laugh and play in a scene of such desperation. What struck Mohamed most, said Salim, was the quiet dignity of the refugees.

“The fact that you would see thousands of people waiting for food when there was only food for maybe a dozen. And yet they wouldn’t storm it. They wouldn’t rush in and demand food as one would expect of people in that situation.”

The footage aired on the BBC on October 24—to an audience of millions. The report was not even seven minutes long—but that was long enough to shock and shame the international community into action. In Britain, musicians organized the group Band Aid to record a charity single. USA for Africa recorded the song We are the World. These and other projects inspired by Mohamed’s footage generated tens of millions of dollars in famine relief.

Mohamed went on to cover many other major events in Africa, including the fall of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda. In 1992, he was awarded one of Britain’s highest honors, the MBE, or Member of the British Empire. He went on to write several books and had plans to develop the first pan-African television news network. But they were cut short in November, 1996, when hijackers commandeered an Ethiopian plane. Mohamed was among its 123 passengers and died after hijackers forced it to crash in the Indian Ocean.

Two years after his father died, Salim set up the Mohamed Amin Foundation, a media production and training center.

To mark its 25th anniversary, USA for Africa recently announced a scholarship program at the Mohamed Amin Foundation. Salim hopes it will help African students gain the skills to pursue careers in the media. That, he says, will help raise journalistic standards across Africa, and, ultimately increase world awareness about the continent his father loved so much.