‘Are you sure, Bob ?’
Of course I wasn’t but I gathered my courage while the driver looked doubtful and said gloomily.
‘It’s not that safe from here on in.’
I brushed his warnings aside..
‘Come on lets go.’
I didn’t exactly know what I was doing but I had to assert myself as crew leader. We drove for a few minutes. The buildings got more shell damaged and bullet marked, the road got more bumpy and our driver looked more doleful every minute as he jiggled the car around to avoid the large water filled shell craters. One second we were in the middle of the road, a second later, up one the remnants of a sidewalk.
‘This looks good!’ I said happily.
‘It’s tall enough.”
I’d seen a tall building that still seemed intact. We got out of the car and gathered all the paraphernalia of portable TV news, heavy tripod, extra batteries, six tapes, extra long lenses, different microphones and portable lights, I’d learnt to my cost to leave nothing behind. The building was thirty seven stories high and there was no electricity. I gazed unhappily at the impassive firmly closed elevator doors, gave a regretful sigh and we began our climb.
We were supposed to be a top network news crew after all and we had to get the shots. The temperature was over a hundred and four and twenty minutes later, an overweight, out of condition crew and driver stopped, mopping our brows, wheezing, sweat pouring from every pore as we rested.
Vlad looked at me imploringly.
‘We don’t have to go right to the top, Bob, do we?’
I went out hopefully to the balcony on that floor to look and my face fell, facing me was another tall building, dwarfing us, blocking our view and cutting out any possible shots of the war zone. We sighed, looked at each other resignedly and climbed for another weary hour, nobody was speaking when we reached finally reached the top floor, we were too out of breath for words as we got ready and set up the tripod.
It was worth the climb. The shots we were taking were amazing, yellow and red explosions dotted the landscape beneath us, silver shards of rockets climbed towards us their tails blazing, separated and blasted by me like express trains with an ear-splitting roar.
It was remote and strange up there, filming above the chaos of war, hard to accept that those gentle soft glowing red puffs of smoke that I was focusing on meant someone was dying out there.
Suddenly there was a loud crash and we were brought back to reality with a jolt. I saw Vladimir throw himself to the ground and I quickly followed him, the driver was already there beating us as we dived for cover. Some idiot in another building had mistaken my camera for a rocket launcher and decided to open up on us with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, I covered my head terrified of the ricochet as the bullets whined among us, one round was crashing around the balcony looking for a target, luckily it finally stopped, missing all of us and lay there looking ugly but harmless.
Vlad looked at me imploringly.
‘We’ve got enough haven’t we Mate?’ ‘BLOODY RIGHT!’ I said fervently,
We didn’t dare show our heads as we lay on the ground and I lowered the legs of the tripod down jerkily one by one to get the camera down. I had no intention of poking my head up and let some other maniac take a pot shot at me.
We returned shaken and handed in the tapes to the bureau chief.
‘Any problems guys?’
`None at all.’ We said and grinned at each other.
The next day we got ready to film the swearing in of, Amid Gemile, the new prime minister, whose brother had been recently assassinated by a massive car bomb, destroying the building he was in and killing him and dozens of others. Security was extremely tight, we passed across photo after photo, some for passes, others to be filed in their office.
A couple of days later our driver bought back the passes and we got ready to leave for the ceremony. Vladimir searched among the pile we’d been given.
‘Mine’s not there, the idiots haven’t sent it!’ ‘
‘Use mine, Vlad, I’m filming something else.’
It was far too late to go back to the issuing office and my soundman took Clark Todd’s pass.
‘This is no good!’ Vlad said with disgust. We looked at the picture, there was no similarity between him and the tall amiable Canadian correspondent. I said cheerfully
‘Don’t worry, Mate, just keep your thumb over the pic as you show it.’
Vlad shook his head, I could see he didn’t like my bright idea one little bit
We drove up the hills above the city to the new prime ministers villa.
The residence was surrounded by guards, all toting grenade launchers and looking suspiciously at us as we unloaded the camera gear out of the Volkswagen bus.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and we dived for cover.
‘What the hell was that?’
We emerged from under the bus, brushing dust and leaves from our clothes, in the distance on the way we come from, a large pillar of smoke was slowly rising above the city, climbing towards the warm sky of Beirut.
We’d passed a large ammunition dump ten minutes ago on our way here but now that road we’d driven on and for several streets around there was nothing but devastation.
We never learnt what exactly had happened, a lucky shell or maybe sabotage had blown the dump to smithereens.
‘Lucky we were early, Mate!’ My soundman said fervently.
I knew what Vlad meant, if we’d been passing at the time of the explosion we would have been blown to bits and wouldn’t have been alive now.
We lined up at the gate to be allowed in, when to Vlad’s horror we saw them taking our passes, comparing them to the ones on file and then handing them back to us. Everyone was trigger happy, nervous about another assassination attempt and ready to shoot at the slightest provocation and Vlad was really worried as they pulled out mine, compared it and handed it back.
‘There’s yours Vlad!’
I’d seen Clark Todd’s file photo and reached in and grabbed it from the pile.
‘Can I take this, it’s my soundman’s?’
The guard shrugged his shoulders, nodded casually and reached for the next pass, waving us through. We breathed a sigh of relief.
Everything went smoothly after that, we filmed the inauguration and sent the tape back to the office by motor cycle to satellite it back to the States.
One day in Beirut when were out filming we came round a corner and saw a group of Shiite guerrilla’s ramming long slim rockets into a launcher getting it ready to fire. The weapon held nine rockets and was loaded from the front, they’d got eight of them in already but the ninth was giving them trouble and seemed stuck halfway down the tube.
One of the soldiers picked up a heavy piece of wood and cheerfully began banging at the front of the rocket, hammering down. I looked at them apprehensively, nobody seemed to be worried except me but I was sure the nose of the rocket they were hammering so forcefully held the percussion cap.
I gave them a nervous wave and indicated I was going back to get a long shot, Vlad and I walked quickly away, the noise of the hammering getting fainter till we finally stopped and put up the tripod, framing the shot of the launcher with my longest telephoto lens as I switched on the camera.
Suddenly the earth around us erupted with a tremendous explosion, rocks and debris flew through the air towards us and I grabbed the camera as it toppled over.
Finally the dust subsided and we went back cautiously towards the launcher. All that was left was a large crater, there was nobody there but us, the guerrilla’s had blown themselves and the launcher into oblivion when they’d tried to fire it.
The craziness of the place was getting to me. I’d been there long enough. To relax I took the driver and Vlad to lunch at a famous fish restaurant at Juni, just a few kilometers from the center of the war ravaged city. On the calm lovely warm sandy beach, children were building sand castles, people were water skiing in the blue sea, while we drank cool wine and ate freshly caught fish.
A few miles away the war continued and people died.
I could see Vlad wasn’t enjoying being a soundman in Beirut and I wasn’t surprised a couple of days later when he told me he was switching to editing for the rest of the trip. ABC gave me a young Lebanese soundman to replace him, The new technician was dull to work with after the cheerful Aussie, the job wasn’t so much fun anymore without Vlad to joke with, when things got rough. His replacement was serious and didn’t speak much English and wanted to go home every night which caused problems when there was a rush assignment.
I’d been there six weeks now and thought it was time to ask if I could go home.
The London assignment desk asked me to stay for a few more weeks but finally gave in and arranged a replacement.
‘Can you leave your camera gear for the CTV crew, we’ll rent it from you, they need a new camera outfit.’
I handed over my camera outfit to Clark Todd’s crew who were splitting the assignment with ABC, pleased that the rental would cover me until my next assignment.
I wasn’t to know it that night but that was the last time I was to see Clark Todd alive, a few days later the New York desk phoned me in London and told me of his death and mentioned they were buying me a new camera as mine had been destroyed during Clark’s last assignment in the Bekka valley.
Nobody knew exactly how he’d been killed, a sniper’s bullet or a stray bit of shrapnel. He’d been standing outside a village hut and been hit suddenly. His crew had abandoned my gear and his body in the village and took several days to get back to Beirut, dodging artillery shells, hiding in the cliffs avoiding the roving bands of maniacs that only had death on their minds.
I’d been given a wonderful English speaking driver from the large pool of 17 drivers and cars that ABC had hired, Joe, knew his way around and could sense danger and when it was O.K. to risk things. Now I was leaving, the rest of the crews were eager to take Joe over as their driver and the lucky choice fell on two Austrian freelancers.
That night Joe came up to me in the bar, crying,
‘Why are you going, Bob, I’ve been fired!’
I looked at him.
‘That’s crazy, of course you haven’t, Kurt and Alex are going to be working with you after I leave.’
I caught sight of the executive producer a sweet man.
‘What’s all this about getting rid of Joe, he’s the best driver we’ve got and Kurt and Alex are dying to have him as their driver.’
He looked helpless.
‘The drivers are chosen by our fixer, Bob, it’s his choice who stays!’
I’d met the fixer when I’d arrived, a particularly unpleasant sinister Arab man who seemed to have his hand into every racket imaginable, he’d offered me drugs or women and seemed surprised when I refused.
‘But surely the crews have a choice who they work with!’ I protested.
The producer shook his head,
‘Don’t push it, Bob! ABC, New York got a call from someone in the mob, saying that the safety of our crews couldn’t be guaranteed if the fixer couldn’t choose the drivers.’
Organized crime is very organized and it’s tentacles had reached out from New York. I found it difficult to look at Joe as he drove me to the airport, I knew he needed the money for his large family, now he was unemployed through no fault of his own. All I could do was give him an extra large tip. Beirut looked lovely and peaceful as my plane rose above the sparkling beaches of the Lebanon, down there people were water skiing, killing each other, eating and drinking, making love and dying. I was glad to be shot of the place and be going back to London.
Even in the midst of a tragic war there are funny moments. Canada’s two competing networks, the Government owned CBC and the private CTV
had both sent crews to cover the war in Nigeria. There, the oppressed IBO
tribe tired of repression and massacres, had started a civil war, trying to form their own breakaway state of Biafra.
I’d gone this time for CTV, with a well known Canadian correspondent. The two of us were late arriving, the CBC unit had a four day start on us. The gun-runners plane we’d hitched a lift on had been stuck in Lisbon for four infuriating days.
Each night we’d tramp out to Lisbon airport. The terminal was in darkness, closed for the night, our only illumination a few faint ground lights as we made our way through the murkiness of the Portuguese night, to a remote runway on the other side of the field, far from the ones used during the day for commercial traffic. There a battered Super Constellation loomed out of the darkness to greet us.
The Super Constellation was painted a murky gray, it’s windows smeared with grease to prevent reflections. Once, it had been the most beautiful looking aircraft ever to take flight. In its long life, it had gone from being the pride of an airline fleet, carrying diplomats and businessmen to faraway airports, downwards, to the drab carrying of freight, to unheard of, desolate fields. Now, the Constellation had reached its final and lowest use.
An old carthorse that was to be used uncomplaining and uncared for, until it finally gave up the ghost.
That’s what it was now... A gray ghost...
Perhaps this was it’s proudest moment, the old Constellation struggling bravely to prolong the wisps of a dying, hopeless, futile revolt.
Battery lights revealed a Hollywood scene of sweating Biafians, loading guns and ammunition with undisguised haste, large stenciled wooden cases thrust hurriedly into every opening of the antiquated aircraft, as if the coming dawn was chasing everyone to complete the loading before it got light.
Anxious to be off, we sat fuming, in the broken seats while they tried to get the twenty year old “Connie” to start. Tired engines would give a reluctant cough and then splutter into silence. Sometimes there would be a glimmer of hope, all four of the planes’ engines would start, run for a while, we’d sit back praying that this take-off wouldn’t join the rest of the aborted ones we’d suffered through, and then, once again, one by one the four engines would die.
Once more, in the early hours of a Portuguese morning we’d troop back to the hotel before the busy commercial life of Lisbon’s International airport resumed and try and get some sleep.
Hotels are designed for normal people who get up at 7 or 8am. what they are not designed for is tired and disgruntled reporters and cameramen trying to grab some sleep after getting to bed at 5am. The sound of cheery maid’s voices, the loud humming of vacuum cleaners would quickly drive us from our beds, however hard we tried to burrow into the bedclothes. It didn’t matter about the “Do not Disturb” notice hanging on my doorknob.
My maid simply wouldn’t believe it and rapped loudly and happily on my door, shouting “Signor” at the top of her voice. I’d stumble blearily to the door and open it to be met by a large maid, determined to clean my room. I couldn’t really blame her, she wanted to get home and my unmade room was the one thing that stood in her way. By the end of four sleepless nights the reporter and I were fed up and ready to give up!
‘Where are you going?’
A smooth urbane looking man in a silk suit smiled at me as I waited by the empty airline desk. I’d gone out again to Lisbon’s airport in the middle of the night and waited for someone to take me over to the gunrunner’s plane.
I knew immediately he was from P.I.D.E. Antonio Salazar’s The Portuguese dictator’s secret police.
P.I.D.E. had a fearsome and well earned dreaded reputation.
Unlike its predecessor, which sought inspiration in the Gestapo, PIDE
followed the Scotland Yard model. As a section of the Polícia Judiciária (Investigation Police), it had full powers to investigate, detain and arrest anyone who was thought to be plotting against the State.
People just disappeared when they fell into the hands of P.I.D.E.
In 1936, the prison of Tarrafal was created in the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde. This camp, under the direct control of the PVDE, was the destination for those political prisoners considered dangerous by the regime throughout the more than 40 years of the Salazar regime, 32 people lost their lives in Tarrafal, which was known for its severe methods of torture.
‘Biafra?’ He smiled knowingly.
‘Yes’ I admitted nervously, it was obvious where I was going, no one else was at the airport at 2am.
‘You have time for a drink.’ He said firmly and I followed him nervously to the closed airport bar.
Inside the barman was cleaning up, he’d already pointed angrily at the “Cerrado” (Closed) sign on the class doors when I’d tried previously get him to open and get a drink.
Now when the P.I.D.E. man rapped on the door he looked up angrily for a moment and then his face changed to one of fear and he raced to the door and opened. it .
Somehow a miracle happened and that fifth night, the engines of the Constellation ran and kept running. There were incredulous looks between us and ‘Paddy’ the Irish flight engineer and then we hastily sat down, strapped ourselves in as the old aircraft trundled up the runway and finally creaked it’s way into the air, towards Africa.
The flight was long, twelve hours to our first stop in Africa and there was plenty of time to sleep and chat.
Paddy the Irish flight engineer sat down next to me, pulled out a bottle of Bushmills Irish whiskey and offered it to me. we sat there companionably sipping whiskey and swapping stories, me about Vietnam and filming wars and him about his gun-running while the Connie droned on and the level of the bottle got lower.
My mother was Irish so we had a bond and he’d lived for a while in Toronto and worked at AV Roe till the ill-fated ARROW project was closed by the government put him and thousands like him out of work.
‘Your from London, Bob, eh ?’
‘A long time ago.’
Paddy smiled nostalgically.
‘You know the Claridge’s hotel?’
‘Have you ever stayed at Claridge’s Bob?
I knew it but the Claridge’s was too posh for me when I’d lived there.
it was for Field Marshals, Film stars and their exalted like, not the average humble Londoners like me. ………..Paddy laughed.
‘I’d always wanted to stay there when I lived in London,’ he said,
‘I used to stand on the pavement and watch the Rolls Royce’s and Bentleys roll up and let out their rich passengers and wonder what it was like inside.’
Paddy grinned, remembering.
‘About a year ago I decided to find out. I’d finished a long spate of gun running in Sumatra, that had it’s hairy moments and I decided I needed a holiday.’
‘I hadn’t time to buy any clothes and when I pulled up at the door of Claridge’s.
I was still dressed in a filthy pair of jeans and an oil-stained tee-shirt, carrying all my worldly possessions in an old battered flight bag hanging from a strap on my shoulder.’
The lordly Claridge’s doorman nearly died when he saw me getting out of the cab and quickly moved to intercept me.
‘Do you have a reservation, Sir?’
‘The doorman’s eyebrows were raised in that bloody imperious English way you Brits can do.’ Paddy laughed.
‘I wasn’t to be put down, I had 84,000 pounds cash in that flight bag that I was going to put in an English bank the next day,’ he paused, held his glass up to the light and decided yes, there was room for a little bit more Bushmills,
‘I reached inside, making sure the doorman got a good look at the banknotes crammed there, pulling out a hundred pound note and gave it to him.
‘Just make sure that I’m looked after all right, will you chum?’, The head porter, the desk clerk and the concierge were the next recipient of hundred pound notes and i was ushered to the suite I booked with smarmy smiles.’
Paddy smiled nostalgically.
‘I had a grand time, they treat you like a king at that hotel.’
I grinned; especially if you pass around hundred quid’s like confetti.
The flight was long and seemed unending. Twelve hours before we reached Guinea Bissau our first stop, to pause there for a meal and to wait for a while so we’d arrive in the Biafran held airport of Enugu in the dusk and try to avoid being shot down.
We landed in Guinea Bissau and trooped to a small hut to eat a greasy meal and wash it down with warm African beer, We ate quickly and went outside, the hut was stifling. Outside the sky was blazing and the temperature over a hundred as we settled down in the shade of the aircraft.
We didn’t want to get in it till the last minute. The heat of the African afternoon had done nothing to improve the atmosphere inside the plane.
With the profits the gun-runners made every second of the war, nobody had time to stop and empty the toilets, they were rank and overflowing and they’d been that way for our flight and months before, guaranteed to give you instant constipation when you opened the toilet door.
Finally it was time to take off and get in the aircraft so that we’d arrive at the Biafran held airport of Enegu in the dusk and avoid the Nigerian anti-aircraft batteries surrounding the town.
We droned our way to war, pretending to each other we were brave and unconcerned about the possibility of being shot out of the skies but luckily nothing happened until we came in to land.
I never know why, cameramen are always expected to be brave-I wasn’t- my feelings about myself are that “an arrant coward “would describe me far better!
There seemed to be a sudden flurry of activity among the crew as we finally came into land at the Biafran capital. Paddy came down between the seats and the guns clutching a small axe and began hacking merrily at the wall above our heads. When he’d finished chipping away a large portion of the aircraft, he started pouring an oily fluid into the funnel he was holding.
Paddy smiled at our anxious faces.
Don’t worry, it’s always doing this, the undercarriage has stuck again and won’t come down. The hydraulic fluid gets blocked and we have to cut into the pipe and bypass the blockage.’
He turned to the cockpit.
‘Try it now Sam!’
For a moment nothing happened and then the plane shuddered and with a deafening crash the wheels clicked down into place.
We looked at each other anxiously as the plane hit the runway, all of us had the same thought,
“Would the wheels stay down till we got out of the plane?”
Enugu airport was in chaos, soldiers, relief workers and journalists swirled around shouting and pushing each other out of the way. Refugees sat apathetically, crowding the terminal, watching their revolt die. there was nowhere else for them to flee to, this was the end of the line, the Nigerians were within sixty miles and advancing rapidly.
There was no hope of us getting into the town that night, the roads were dangerous and the Biafran outposts along the road were twitchy, too ready to let loose with a machine gun or rocket at anything that came along at night.
We made our way through the crowd and managed to find a spot on the floor of the restaurant to sleep on and wait for the dawn.
The next morning after a lot of arguing and bribing, we hitched a bumpy ride into town in a supply truck, crammed among grain and troops. I cradled my camera protecting it from the worst bumps of the dirt road and started to cover the war.
We filmed all that day and the next one. Pictures were everywhere, roads blocked with fleeing Biafrans, Nuns with starving children, their ribs stark against their tiny emaciated bodies, we heard stories of refugees living on grass for a week, all the horror’s of an African tribal war.
All the time we were there, we’d heard tales of how the advancing Nigerian army dealt with captured whites, assuming they were one of the hated mercenaries that were on the Biafran side. We were told they would cut off your genitals and sew them up in your mouth.
We didn’t know if the stories were true but they did nothing to encourage us to stay and find out.
Now that afternoon their armies had surrounded Enugu and were only 18 miles from the airport and it was time for us to get out.
That last night we met up with our CBC rivals who were staying in the same o