Near-death experiences while chasing photos for newsroom - Beaking Kenya News

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Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Near-death experiences while chasing photos for newsroom


A picture is worth a thousand words’ is an adage that has lived for years. In the pursuit of great pictures, however, photojournalists across the globe have lost their lives, gear and been left with permanent injuries.

While the audience rushes to grab a newspaper and sit before their televisions to catch up on the aftermath of a bomb blast, for instance, it remains unknown how much camera journalists sacrifice in such assignments.

The Star interviewed some photojournalists who came close to losing their lives in the line of work but are still soldiering on.

Dan Irungu, a photojournalist with the European Press Agency in Nairobi, was the first to relay frontline images of the Garissa University terror attack on April 2, 2015.

Upon arrival at the scene, while being directed where solders had taken cover by residents, he recalls how a solder shouted to them not to walk directly on the road, as they could be shot by a sniper who was firing in that direction.

Almost at the time, the sniper aimed at the solder speaking to Irungu, the bullet missed him (soldier), but hit the ground near Irungu’s legs.

“I don’t know how it missed me.  It dawned on me the real danger we were in and needed to take cover fast,” he says.

Trained to cover hostile situations, he dove into the bush, his body playing numb at the time.

He crawled under the bushes and joined another soldier who had taken position a few metres ahead.

“I noticed blood next to the soldier and after enquiring, he told me his fellow soldier had raised his head and the sniper had noticed him and shot him dead,” he said.

The soldiers told him they had not changed position from 5 in the morning when the attack started. It was now 11am.

To engage the solders, Irungu made rapport with them by sharing water he had carried, a trick he had learned in his trainings.

“To survive in these areas, it’s more than knowing how to click pictures,” he says.

The university attack left at least 148 dead. Irungu had had a similar experience two years earlier.

While covering the terror attack at Westgate shopping centre on September 2013, him and another photojournalist decided to follow a cop into the mall.

They were following a cop, taking cover behind him. But right before them, the cop was shot by the attackers. In absence of the cop, the bullet would have hit either Irungu or his friend.

“I had innocently passed where other journalists had been told stay because I arrived a bit late,” he says.

After that scare, he retreated and began to take photos from outside.

People Daily photojournalist Ndegwa Gathungu in Mombasa on November 26

People Daily photojournalist Ndegwa Gathungu in Mombasa on November 26



At the height of radicalisation, being at the scene became dangerous for police, radicals and journalists.

In 2013, Ndegwa Gathungu, a photojournalist with People Daily based in Mombasa, was covering an incident where police were trying to prevent youths from torching a church in Kisauni.

“At these scenes, you have to choose which side to shoot from to remain safe,” he says.

He and other journalists were on the police side, but a decision to shift to their own position saved them.

“Just the moment we crossed the road, leaving police, the youths threw a hand grenade at the police, killing one of them on the spot,” he says.

Gathungu was among the journalists who respondent to the killing of radical islamist and terror suspect Sheikh Abubakar Shariff, alias Makaburi, after a court session in Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa on April 1, 2014.

Police were shooting in the air indiscriminately, trying to disperse youths who were trying to carry Makaburi’s body.

Police had linked Makaburi to militants who had attacked a church during a Sunday service, leaving six dead a week earlier.

It was 6.30 in the evening and getting dark. “We were standing with the police because the radical youths could even attack journalists, but in the commotion a police officer accidentally fired a bullet as his pistol faced the ground. It landed on next to my foot,” he says.

He says since he started his photojournalism journey in 2006, he has faced many risks but passion keeps him going.

Three years ago, Reuters photojournalist Monicah Mwangi, then working with the Star, was taking offbeat photos for Christmas holiday.

At Nairobi's Marikiti market, she found some hawkers selling the holiday decorations she was looking for. “I introduced myself to one seller and told him I was covering Christmas preparations and he allowed me to photograph him,” she says.

Immediately she began taking photos, hawkers selling their goods descended on her, accusing her ‘selling' them to county council officers. “They said by taking their photos, journalists escalate their troubles with county inspectorate officials.”

“They pelted me with tomatos, potatoes. They were so many of them I thought I would either lose my gear or get injured,” she says. Luckly, two men helped her to escape the crowd safely with her camera intact, but with her clothes smeared with fruits and vegetable dirt.

The Star photojournalist Fredrick Omondi covers Madaraka Day celebrations in Nairobi in 2018

The Star photojournalist Fredrick Omondi covers Madaraka Day celebrations in Nairobi in 2018


The Star photojournalist Fredrick Omondi was working with Daily Nation in 2013 when he was assigned to cover Kenyatta University students riots.

Over 100 students ambushed him and a number of police officers near the administration block after the police ran out of tear gas.

“They started pelting us with stones. They injured one police officer on the head, while I was also injured on the head,” he says.

Omondi says it is by a whisker that he survived the pelting of stones.

It’s not only risky where many gather with negative energy, as Evans Habil later found out.

On January 2015, Evans Habil, of Daily Nation, was covering a stand-off between a secondary school and a developer over a piece of land in Shauri Moyo, Nairobi.

He was the first to arrive at the scene.

“Some goons hired by the developer abducted me and locked me in a container of a truck that was standing nearby,” he says.

At knife point, he was told to choose between his life and his gear, he chose his life.

“Just when they were done robbing me, as they opened the container, they met their leader, who, upon realising I was a journalist, ordered them to return my property,” he says.

He escaped unhurt and got back his camera and two lenses, but his two hard disks where he had saved photos he had taken over the years were lost.

Two years later, Habil went to cover supporters celebrating after their candidate won the 2017 presidential vote in Riruta, Nairobi.

As he photographed the celebrating youth, they sought to know which his political affiliation was.

Before he could give an answer, they pounced on him, threw him into a nearby sewerage trench and began beating him.

Before he knew it, his bag with Canon 7D camera, 16-35mm wide angle lens and his credentials were gone.

Enos Teche, an award-winning photojournalist with the Star, says he was clobbered by police while covering the 2017 repeat presidential election skirmishes.

“Police had thrown a teargas inside one of the churches and I was photographing people suffocating under the teargas, when they (police) turned on me with clubs, blows and kicks,” he says.

He says the pains in his body persisted for weeks.


Stephen Mudiari, then a photojournalist with Daily Nation, was among seven journalists who accompanied Somalia’s transition Prime Minister Ali Gedi on his first visit to the country after his election in Nairobi in 2009.

Upon their arrival in Mogadishu, as they neared their hotel, they were met by militants with machineguns, shouting, "Down, down with Ethiopia!"

“That time they had issues with Ethiopia and they thought we were Ethiopians. It was my first time in life to see massive war machinery,” Mudiari said.

The militia, however, retreated after they were informed the team were Kenyans.

The following day, the journalists went to cover the Prime Minister’s speech at a soccer stadium in Mogadishu.

Among the attendees was a man who was planning to attack the PM with a grenade.

“There was a man who was standing near where we were and he kept trying to push to advance near the PM, but every time he tried to move, the security would stop him.

“Finally, he raised his hand trying to throw the grenade, but one officer noticed in time and parried his hand, making the grenade to fall and explode almost where we were standing,” he says.

In the commotion of scampering for safety, Mudiari fell down and a woman stepped on his back with high heels.

“The pain on the back has remained for years and stopped aching just the other day,” he says.

While the PM, journalists and others survived the attempted assassination, about 14 people were killed and dozens others incapacitated, according to reports.

In the trip, the team of journalists survived two attempted abductions by gunmen in the capital.

Mudiari has gone back to Somalia for other assignments, has covered Mungiki, post-election violence chaos and other risky assignments.

The photojournalist, who began his trade in 2000, says the experiences made him more courageous.

He has since left active photojournalism and is in private practice.

“You don’t come back and explain to the editor how chaotic it was, you just have to try your best and take photos under a tense situation," he says to upcoming photojournalists.

“This career is a calling. Don’t think you will take photos of women in the market and think that’s enough. You have to gain courage to go for more serious assignments.”

Thomas Mukoya, an award-winning photojournalist with Reuters news agency in Nairobi, says photographers are always at risk “even if you are covering soccer at a stadium”.

“You must be ready to sacrifice a lot. You have to balance between the risk and the picture. If you think the risk is too much, remember your life is worth more than that picture,” he says.

"While a picture can be taken by anybody in the world, your life cannot be brought back by anyone in the world. Safety must come first. People must not celebrate your photo and your life is gone.” 

The photojournalists asked media owners to invest in training them on handling threats and equipping them with the right gear to cover high-risk assignment

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