“You break down every major conflict on this continent, and you’ll find at the very root of it the same thing. I think that’s one of the things, collectively, journalists have let the world down in. It’s been lazy, cliche journalism that has led to some gross misunderstanding of what’s going on here.”
Bulletproof vest. Check. Army helmet. Check. Armored car. Check. Private militia. Check.
No, this is not the checklist of an army commander, or high profile drug dealer; it belongs to a journalist reporting from the most dangerous places in Africa.
International journalism is increasingly becoming a dangerous profession, especially when you decide to cover the stories where few dare to tread. Peter Greste has chosen this fate, and in doing so he continues to put his life on the line to bring the world stories that may otherwise be lost. He is sacrificing everything to bring you the news.
As a freelance writer for the last 16 years, first with the BBC, and currently with Al Jazeera English, Greste has been reporting on some of the most fascinating, and tragic events in recent history. He’s covered the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the subsequent war in 2001, civil war in Sudan, civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, bombings in Uganda, and much more.
In January of 2011, I had the privilege of meeting with Peter Greste downtown Nairobi. I had stumbled upon Greste while searching for BBC correspondents in Africa, and I was eager to learn about his job, and how he got where he was. When we met up I asked Peter if there was anything he was doing that I could voluntarily partake in, or help out with. He flat out told me “no.” He said he was about to begin work on a project, but it was so dangerous that he couldn’t even tell me what it was about. I was disappointed to say the least, and continued to wonder what exactly this mystery project was. As of two weeks ago, I found out. Peter Greste was about to travel to the most troubled place in the world, and film a documentary. He was headed to Mogadishu, Somalia. In finding this information out it immediately became clear to me why I was not invited, and why he couldn’t even mention any of the details.
Going to Somalia is no small feat. In fact, Peter Greste is one of the first Western journalists to enter the heart of Somalia in a very, very long time. One of the last journalists to attempt a news story from Somalia was actually Peter Greste in 2005. Unfortunately, the story ended in tragedy and never got finished. Greste’s producer, Kate Peyton, was gunned down while getting into a car shortly after arriving. Not to be defeated by this, Peter Greste has soldiered on, and his return to Somalia in 2011 marks a triumphant accomplishment of what should have been completed years ago.
Currently, Peter Greste is reporting from East Africa on the famine that is ravaging the land. Many aid agencies, and publications are calling it the worst drought/famine in 60 years. Things are very serious, and desperate there right now; millions of lives are on the line. When I got in contact with Peter for an interview he was up in Wajir, Kenya at a massive refugee camp for the drought. He took some time from his busy schedule to speak with me live from the scene. Miraculously, our skype connection was able to hold on long enough to speak in length about Greste’s work, and the current situations he was covering.
As one of the most influential, and inspiring people I’ve come across, there is clearly much I WANNA KNOW about Peter Greste. I believe his work is enormously important, and beneficial for this world, and I was thrilled to speak with him.
From the current famine in East Africa, to what it’s like to report from Somalia, to misconceptions and misrepresentations of Africa, to the importance of journalism, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: You are currently up in Wajir, Kenya covering the drought. Can you describe the scene up there right now?
Peter Greste: Well, it’s pretty desperate. This area is what the aid agencies are calling ‘ground zero’ for the crisis. Although you have to be careful because the aid agencies have a tendency to inflate crises. There seems to be a bit of a Western agency bias to get more attention, but it’s really serious here.Food is marginal at the best of times. With that in mind, it is absolutely desert-like dry. It’s almost impossible to understand how people live out here, but they do. Today, we saw a woman trying to move her camel, her last camel, that had wandered off basically to die. The thing just would not get up. These people are tough at the best of times, and they know what this life is like. This woman was practically in tears. This camel was a family pet, and more than just a pet, their livelihood. It was dying right in front of them. It was really tragic.
RK: How many people are they estimating are up in the Wajir camp right now?
PG: There is a refugee camp. The estimates vary, but they reckon it’s probably around 400,000 people, which is absolutely staggering. Their pouring in at a range of 1,500 to 2,000 every day. It’s unbelievable. People are coming in from the border across Somalia, where they reckon three and half million are really struggling for food.
RK: How serious do you think this drought ranks with recent ones in Eastern Africa?
PG: It’s difficult to say with any degree of accuracy. I’ll just quote the aid agencies on this one. They reckon all across Africa 10.7 million people are suffering, and in true crisis. That’s a massive number by any reckoning.
This is probably more than what we saw in Ethiopia in 1984. Ethiopia set a new benchmark, the standard for what an African famine should look like, but that was also the result of very unique circumstances. It was undergoing a war that had kept the region cut off from the rest of the world, and had pushed a lot of people into very concentrated areas, and we saw not only a very dramatic famine, but one place that was particularly dramatic (Wollo).
We need to be very careful in saying, if this drought doesn’t look like what we saw in Ethiopia in 1984 than it’s not as serious as it was. There’s that tendency. There are two points: 1) that one was very concentrated, so we’re not going to get the same apocalyptic images, 2) if we get to that stage than it’s much too late. We need to make sure we act now, ring the bells, and take heed or what’s going on otherwise we’ll be in an absolutely disastrous place.
RK: Do you think there’s an element of political causation in this current famine, much like there was in Ethiopia in 1984?
PG: There’s no denying the weather. There’s a drought, and it is what it is.
There has been a very serious drought, but this food crisis is as much about political, and economic factors, as it is about natural factors. There’s food out there. You drive through the markets, and you see food, but it’s way too expensive, and beyond the means of most of the people out here. Only the richest can afford it. So, it’s not just because there’s a shortage of food, but because of poor infrastructure which makes it difficult to deliver food. It’s also a factor of high grain prices because of shortages elsewhere in the world. It’s a factor of high fuel prices. It’s a factor of political neglect in the case of Kenya and Ethiopia. It’s been aggressive neglect in Ethiopia because it’s happening in the Ogaden region, which is an area where the Ethiopians have been fighting a separatist movement.
Somalia itself is all about politics and conflict. Al-Shabaab has banned international agencies from operating in there. All these factors come into play.
RK: Do you think the drought will soften Al-Shabaab’s reluctance to let Western aid agencies into Somalia?
PG: It’s a very difficult question to answer. I just don’t know. They did say last week that they would allow aid agencies to operate, but I know that two Somali aid agency workers went in, and were kidnapped. That was resolved, but it raises all sorts of questions about just how serious Al-Shabaab is about following through with their promise. Having said that, it is deeply embarrassing for Al-Shabaab to have literally hundreds of thousands of people walking out of their area of control because they’re starving.
RK: You just released a documentary for the BBC’s Panorama series entitled Somalia: Land of Anarchy. It’s a timely piece of journalism considering Somalia is now back in the headlines with the famine. Can you tell me a bit about how that documentary came to be?
PG: On a personal level, I thought I owed it to Kate’s memory to finish off the story that we originally came to make. As I said in the film, I felt pretty bloody minded going back. I looked for the opportunity for a very long time, and finally it popped up. I found someone who was able to get me in, and move me around, and do it safely. I pitched the idea to Panorama, and they went for it.PG: I’ve been wanting for a long time to do a film on Somalia; Mogadishu in particular. For many reasons. On a professional level, I felt that the story had been woefully neglected because it is an incredibly difficult place to operate in. It’s hard to get any story, except for what the officials want you to see. The state narrative from the African Union peacekeepers, and the transition government is that the fight is going well, they’re expanding military control, they’re winning the political battle, and that security is improving. I wanted to test that claim because all of the statistics suggested the opposite; that Al-Shabaab was expanding its control, and that security was deteriorating, and that things were going from bad to worse.
RK: They’re saying that you’re one of the first Western journalist to go into Mogadishu in a very long time. How nervous were you before you went, and how intense was it once you got there?
PG: It’s a hellishly dangerous place, and after going through Kate’s shooting all those years ago, it was difficult. I was acutely aware of what it might mean, and just how anarchic the place really is.
The fighting was far more active on this last trip, than it ever was when we were there. In fact, the reason we went back in 2005 was because things had stabilized, and the country looked like it might have a fighting chance for some period of stability. So, this was anything but, and it was very difficult, and dangerous, but we were very well prepared. I made sure that the people we went in with were very, very experienced and capable. I had enormous amounts of respect around the place. I felt confident that around the bounds of what was possible we had made the trip as safe as we could reasonably make it.
I never felt entirely comfortable, and there were moments I was generally afraid, but at the same time I felt that we had the situation under control.
RK: How many other journalists did you see in Somalia? Or, was it literally just you and your crew?
PG: Me, and my crew. That’s it. We did two trips one with AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), and one independently. With AMISOM we went in with an NPR journalist, but that was it.
RK: What did you learn, and see this time that really shocked you, and that you weren’t expecting to see?
PG: I was really shocked by the situation for a lot of the internally displaced people’s (IDP); the people who’ve had to flee from their homes. It was absolutely shocking to see the conditions these people are living in. These are people, a class like nomads if you like, who’ve been forced to drift around the city. They are vast in numbers. They are very downtrodden, and unrepresented. They tend to come from marginalized clans, with little support networks to help them out. They’re very weak, and so, they are in absolutely desperate situations. I found that very shocking indeed.
RK: Did you ever adjust to the Mogadishu Music? (i.e. the constant gunfire to be heard at most times of the day)
PG: (laughs) Um, yeah I think we did. Initially you flinch at every crack, but after awhile it becomes part of the background, and you learn very quickly what’s safe, and what’s not; what’s a distant battle, and when things get a bit too close for comfort. I don’t think I ever got used to it, but adjusting is probably a good word.
RK: Would you agree that Somalia is probably the most troubled place in the world right now?
PG: For my money, yes. I think it’s probably the most dangerous place in the world. There are more active front lines, and you could arguably stick yourself in the middle of Kandahar, and you’d probably find yourself in trouble, or the front lines of Libya right now and find yourself in strife, but I think overall it’s hard to imagine any city in the world that is quite as anarchic, and as dangerous, and out of control as Mogadishu is right now.
Even though we were in Villa Somalia – which is a collection of government buildings including the Prime Minister’s office and the ministry of information – the most secure place in the country, our minders wouldn’t let us walk 100 yards from the ministry of information to the Prime Minister’s office. Instead, we had to put on full body armor, and get inside an armored vechile to drive those 100 yards. That’s how crazy it is.
RK: At this stage in its history, what do you believe needs to happen to change things in Somalia? Is it mainly a governance thing?
PG: That’s a good question. It is a governance thing.
Clearly the Somalis have an awful lot to answer for themselves. They’ve got the responsibility to sort out a lot of the problems, but I think the environment we see, is to a large extent, the product of Somalia’s history; that has been a history of a lot of interference from Western powers. The war really erupted as a result of Cold War battles between the Said Barre regime, which was backed by the Russians, and the rebels that were backed by the West.
Ethiopia has long interfered in Somalia, as has Eritrea. Those two countries have fought their wars by proxy in Somalia. Eritrea supports Al-Shabaab, and the Ethiopians have been supporting those who are fighting Al-Shabaab. So, a lot of it has to do with external powers.
I’m not saying we’re to blame for what’s happening there, but what I am suggesting is we certainly made a bad situation a hell of a lot worse. I think the West has a responsibility to get more actively engaged in Somalia, and to help sort out the problems. There are all sorts of deeply complicated ways in which it could be dealt with. The main thing that it needs is serious diplomatic muscle, and consistency in the fight to get Somalia sorted out. The fact is the solution is long, round about, and indirect. I don’t think we should give up, because frankly it will bite us. Many aid agencies believe we’ll see Al-Shabaab inspired terrorism in the streets of the West if we’re not careful.think also the West, which didn’t create Al-Shabaab, should take some responsibility. If you go back to the history of this, the Islamic Courts Union emerged as a result of the anarchy the warlords had plunged the country in to. It was a generally homegrown Islamist movement that was trying to stabilize the country using the only form of law, and order, they knew how: shariah Law. The West, George Bush in particular, branded the Islamic Courts Union as a bunch of Islamists, which is true, but with the war on terror Bush was looking for an excuse to marginalize those guys, and it was very effective. That pressure forced the Union to split. There was the Djibouti Conference to try and hammer out some form of lasting government. The leader of the Union, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, was eventually nominated as the national President, but the militant wing of the Union broke away and formed Al-Shabaab. What we failed to do was recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic Courts Union, instead of branding them as Islamists radicals, and enemies of the West.
RK: Do you fear any backlash from the piece you just produced on Somalia? Are you worried about your own personal safety?
PG: No, I’m not worried. There are other elements to the story we could have told, that could have changed that situation. We felt the story we told was the one that needed to be told at that time. There’s certainly more work to be done on Somalia. I’m not afraid of that work, and the pressure of offending people. I think under the circumstances we needed to go back to Somalia 101. I suspect Al-Shabaab won’t be too impressed, but I don’t think they’ll come after me personally.
RK: You’ll be heading to Ethiopia soon to continue coverage of the famine from there. How did you manage that? I thought you were blacklisted from the country after your other piece on the hydro dam?
PG: Well we’ve already gotten permission. We had to make a few personal representations to the information minister, Bereket Simon. It seems as though for this story, they’ve decided it’s in their interest to allow us to come in. Also, now that I’m with Al-Jazeera, and not the BBC, it’s changed the dynamic a bit
RK: I was wondering, what inspired you to get into journalism in the first place? What motivated you?
PG: I got into it by default. I had no idea what the hell I wanted to study when I finished high school. I knew I wanted to go on to do something, I just had no idea what. In Australia, all the universities were state run at the time, and you had to fill out an application form that would go to the ministry of information, and they would then place the students around according to your preferences. At midnight before that form was due, I was sitting with a blank form, and a huge fat book with all the courses I could do. The form was completely blank, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I figured, rather than try and work out what I wanted to do, I crossed out all the things I didn’t want to do. Architecture? No. Accounting? Blahh. I kept crossing, and crossing, until the only thing that was left, that didn’t actively turn me off, was journalism. I figured that’s it then.
Having made that choice, I have absolutely no regrets. I think it’s the best thing I could have done.
RK: Now that you’ve achieved a successful career in journalism, what motivates you? Why do you continue to write?
PG: I do it because it’s a license to indulge a curiosity. It’s a license to stick your nose into other peoples business, without always getting your nose punched. People want that information, and I think it’s a part of why societies work.
I also believe in what we do. I believe in the value of journalism. Obviously, there are various types, and approaches to this business, but I believe in the integrity, and importance of what we do. I take pride in being able to do a job that has the potential to make a difference. You can’t always make a clear connection between a story you do, and a specific outcome, but it doesn’t work that way. Collectively, we draw attention to problems, to crises, to inconsistencies, and we contribute to the public debate on these issues. That’s why I took the risk to go to Somalia because I felt it needed to be discussed. I know for a fact that some public servants in Somalia are showing their Minister’s my film, but I think it’s presumptuous to think it will change anything substantial on its own, but if it nudges the debate in the right direction, I think it will have been worth it.
RK: What are the main hardships in trying to report on, and from, Africa?
PG: Oh God, you’d know this. It’s logistics. It takes forever to get places, it’s expensive as hell, it’s physically often very hard work, it’s hot and dusty. The logistics are just very challenging.
RK: Thinking back on all your time spent learning about, and traveling through Africa, what are the biggest misconceptions outsiders have of Africa?
PG: That’s an easy one: tribalism. Too often on this continent, journalists and writers dismiss the difficulties they see as rooted in tribalism. Tribe is clearly a factor, and issue in Africa, but the conflicts you see are often never about tribe. There is nothing inherently incompatible between tribes. It’s a form of journalistic shorthand that seems like it explains everything, but when you think about it it explains nothing of what’s going on. Invariably, it’s very lazy journalism. What these conflicts are all about is something much deeper. It’s always about a fight over resources, money, land, water, power, whatever. It’s too complicated to dig into those issues, and explain to people. It’s much easier to dismiss what happened in Kenya as tribal conflict. It did take on an element of tribe, that’s true, but that’s because the people that were trying to grab the land, and money, were using tribe as a tool. It wasn’t about tribalism, but about the politics. I asked someone then about tribalism, and they said you only need to look at when we’re fighting: during elections.
If you look across Africa you see that time and again. In Rwanda, it wasn’t about tribe, it was about access to land, and political power. In South Africa, it wasn’t about tribe, it was about control of power and resources. You break down every major conflict on this continent, and you’ll find at the very root of it the same thing. I think that’s one of the things, collectively, journalists have let the world down in. It’s been lazy, cliche journalism that has led to some gross misunderstanding of what’s going on here, and has allowed some of these conflicts to simmer on.
RK: Most of your work now revolves around some of the most heavy African news stories out there. People might be surprised to discover you had some of your biggest success reporting on a story of friendship between a baby hippo and a massive tortoise. Does that story still hold a special place in your memory?
PG: Of course it does. All the stories that you do, that you think are going to change the world, the one’s you think are grand investigations into corrupt practices, or you expose some hidden truth; none of those amount to anything. You do one thing that seems inconsequential, and it can change many peoples lives. The story of Owen and Mzee has had a tremendous impact. It touched a nerve in a way that no other story I’ve done has. The story went viral on the internet, people responded to it. I think people responded because it spoke to them in a way they could identify with.
The children’s book we produced went on to sell over a million copies, and spent nearly 50 weeks in the New York Times bestsellers list. I don’t think it was anything I did, it was just a story that people could interpret and connect to. That’s a pretty profound lesson for anyone in this business.
RK: You are also an accomplished photographer. What does photography do for you that your writing can’t?
PG: I write because I need to write for work, I enjoy it obviously, or I wouldn’t do it. I get a lot more satisfaction out of the creativity of taking pictures. It’s a hobby. I do it because I don’t have to do it for work. I enjoy losing myself in the image. It’s a different part of this business, but to me it’s much more closer to art than the turning out of television news stories that I have to do. I enjoy trying to use that to create not just dramatic events, but creating visually powerful images. I’m not concerned with whether people want to buy them, so I take photos more for myself than anyone else.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PETER GRESTE:
1) Follow him on Twitter: @PeterGreste
2) Watch his documentary from Somalia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fiFrJxzI5c