By Yannis Behrakis
It was the beginning of December 1992 and the winter had settled into Athens – the big story was the civil war and the famine in Somalia.
I volunteered to cover the story, as I’m sure many others did, but I was one of the “lucky” ones selected to go. Tom’s distinctive voice on the phone sounded both reassuring and worried. It was my first trip to the region and I remember running frantically to get malaria pills and a Yellow fever vaccine. I had the other vaccines a year earlier before covering a massive earthquake in Iran.
After a long flight via Cairo I found myself in Nairobi, with all my clothes lost somewhere in Africa. The most valuable part of my kit was fortunately still with me: two analogue camera bodies, the usual collection of lenses, a portable darkroom to develop color films, lots of chemicals and the latest in transmission technology, a 35mm film scanner and a T1 PC (the first Reuters photos portable PC) capable of filing a color photo to our London desk in about 22 minutes! This, of course, only if you succeeded in sending all three color separations.
My aim was to be in Mogadishu at least a day ahead of the arrival of the U.S. task force. After a lot of research I found a 12-seater twin engine private plane and a pilot willing to transfer journalists to Somalia. After days of negotiations between a group of correspondents, the Nairobi airport authority, the pilot and a little extra money, we had a deal.
On the morning of December 5, a group of seven journalists arrived at a remote area of the Nairobi airport. The pilot was a young Kenyan wearing flip flops, a pair of old jeans and a white shirt covered in engine oil patches. After receiving $500 per head, he arranged his passengers according to their weight. The aircraft looked old and a heavy smell of petrol added to the misery. Some cables were running loose off the dashboard in the cockpit, the upholstery of the seats was dirty and parts of it torn off. “People, do not worry, the plane is in good shape, we will fly low… just in case…. a bit more than an hour’s flight,” the pilot shouted while warming up the noisy engines. I could not complain, the view from a low-flying plane over Africa was an unforgettable experience.