Nurse of the Mediterranean
Ever since the Libyan uprising began last February, the small Mediterranean island of Malta which I call home has been a vital cog in the vast humanitarian machine in operation. It started as an evacuation hub for thousands of people and then became a critical transit point for humanitarian aid. Several months later, Malta continues to play its part.
I got the call to head to Malta’s international airport VIP lounge around lunchtime, to photograph Shwejga Mullah arriving on the island for medical treatment. Shwejga Mullah is the Ethiopian nanny who was recently discovered weak and alone in the home abandoned by deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Hannibal. It’s been reported that Hannibal’s wife Aline threw boiling water over her, causing horrific scald burns and scars, when she did not stop his daughter from crying and refused to beat the child.
As she was being brought over in a private plane chartered by the Maltese government, there wasn’t going to be any need to shoot on a long lens from outside the airport perimeter fence. The government officials wanted to show the world that Malta was still playing a crucial humanitarian role in the Libya crisis. We would be allowed right up to the foot of the stairs of the aircraft, so just 2 camera bodies, one with a 70-200mm lens and the other with a wide angle would be necessary. This was what all the other photographers were doing.
But this was one of those instances in which a persistent voice in my head kept telling me I was going to need something longer. So, I decided to take my 6kg (13 pound) 400mm f/2.8 lens with me.
The arrival of the plane kept being pushed further back. What should have been a fifteen minute wait soon stretched into a three hour wait.
When the aircraft finally arrived, it taxied to a spot on the apron right in front of us. We all prepared to move to the foot of the stairs as soon as the engines stopped, when suddenly, some security officers decided we couldn’t approach any closer. They said they hadn’t been consulted regarding our photo position, though for three hours we’d been told the exact opposite.
My gut feeling paid off – I was the only one in a position to get good quality shots of Shwejga as she was slowly helped off the plane and walked to a waiting ambulance. Sure, you can always crop an image, but the loss in quality often renders the image unusable.
Important lesson learned; if your gut feeling tells you you’re going to need a particular piece of your camera kit even when reason tells you otherwise, follow your gut feeling even if it means lugging around extra heavy equipment for a few hours.
Once she boarded the ambulance, everyone decided “to hell with the security guards” and started running forward, creating a scrum around the ambulance door trying to get an image of some sort. Personally, I’ve always felt that once a patient is inside an ambulance, then they’re entitled to their privacy and should be left alone. I was somewhat disgusted at the pushing and shoving taking place, though I can understand the pressure my colleagues would have been under to get a usable image.
After exchanging a few angry words with the security personnel who were responsible for this ruckus and bringing my profession into disrepute, I noticed that a high-ranking government official was helping some cameramen into the ambulance. So, I deduced Shwejga herself must have had no problem with the cameras. The crew of the U.S. TV network which had originally broken her story was even joining her in the ambulance for the journey to the island’s main hospital, so it seemed like a good time to shelf what I thought was a sacred principle. It seemed to no longer really apply and as the saying goes – if you can’t beat them, join them. So into the melee I plunged and came away with some tight portraits, which I hoped preserved the dignity of this quiet and demure woman.
My hunch is that Shwejga will be in Malta for quite a while as she undergoes medical treatment and recovers. The Maltese government has offered her asylum, should she want it. She has said however that she wants to eventually return home to Ethiopia.
For centuries, Malta has been known as ‘the nurse of the Mediterranean’ – and it seems it will continue to be known as such for many more years to come.