This story is by SJ O’Neill and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I frantically dove behind a stone wall as machine gun bullets flew overhead, splattering against the wall behind me, tearing it apart – pieces of plaster, mud, stone and glass flying in all directions!
The warlord had given instructions and the trigger-happy rebels were firing indiscriminately on the villagers fleeing for cover in all directions. This was a country on the verge of genocide.
For a moment my life flashed before my eyes as fear gripped me. Is this how I’m going to die?
“Journalists are given immunity in conflict zones” I assured my family before I left home, filled with anticipation to build a career as a war photographer. I could have stayed in the safe and mundane world at home photographing a few weddings, made some money, but that does not exactly scream Pulitzer prize. I came here full of enthusiasm to make a difference, to tell a story with my photos – a story of hope, heartache, growth, truth and tragedy.
However, in that moment with the ear-deafening sound of machine gun fire all around me, I knew that all bets for immunity were probably off. A political movement to overthrow a dictatorship turned into an ominously religious persecution. Rebels split up into out-of-control factions killing, looting, raping, and burning villages to the ground. After the killing of two members of the press and the abduction of another, it was clear that only journalists promoting the propaganda were welcome here. Attempts were made to muzzle the inquisitive, independent press. A person with a camera was often targeted to prevent the facts shown in the photographs from becoming public knowledge.
Some of the rebels waving their rifles menacingly in the air, were rounding up the villagers – shoving, shouting and frogmarching scared children towards the trucks. A mother, desperately trying to shield her boy behind her, was wrenched away violently, thrown to the ground and bludgeoned with the butt of a Kalashnikov rifle. A scream rang out. The rebels bound the boy’s small arms behind his back and callously threw him onto the cargo bed of the pickup truck. With a thump the boy hit his head against the side railing. The other petrified children were also crammed unceremoniously onto the truck where rebels tied their arms and legs with rope. The boys were destined to become child soldiers; the girls turned into a harem of sex slaves. Parents who protested were shot on the spot.
There was no mercy here. Like the overwhelming buzzing of cicada beetles on a sweltering day the air was thick with palpable fear, heartache, brutality, dust and noise – muffled sounds, screams, orders rattled out, like staccato beats intermingled with the sound of gun fire – and then blood, staining the dust.
This was a nightmare…
A droplet of sweat from my forehead splashed onto my camera. Momentarily I became aware of the heatwave engulfing us despite the sun already drawing shadows as it sat low on the horizon. The beauty of the lush African jungle around us was in stark contrast – a silent, muted witness to this human horror.
From my vantage point behind the stone wall I snapped a few camera shots – agonies in technicolour – a Pulitzer perhaps.
Suddenly a faint cry distracted me. A young girl, who had been hiding behind a wooden barrel to my left, was running after her mother who was just shot and whose body instantly crumpled into the dust. I recognised the woman. No, not her! I gasped for breath. It was the woman who had saved my life the previous week. A group of rebels had identified me as a photographer and started shouting, firing shots in my direction and charging towards me. The woman had seen me fleeing and decided to save my life by sheltering me.
In that split second time stood still. The words of my editor rang through my ears.
“Remember McKenzie, conflicts are complicated, but it’s a journalist’s job to record the events accurately and impartially.” He was a no-nonsense, seasoned veteran of the newspaper business. If you cut him, he would probably bleed ink.
With blue piercing eyes staring at me over round spectacles, he had emphasised: “You have to be neutral at all times. Neutral! It’s company policy.”
My mind raced. How does one remain neutral in the face of such human tragedy? I’m a photographer, but I’m also human. Wouldn’t it be immoral not to save this child’s life? If the mother of this innocent little girl saved my life and was killed in an attempt to prevent her other child from being kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier, isn’t this the best respect and gratitude I could show her in return? Do I intervene and risk my own life and career or do I stay neutral and risk never forgiving myself?
Instinctively, I reached over, grabbing the girl by the arm as she was passing me and pulled her frail body next to mine, crouching behind the wall. With my hand over her mouth I muffled her cry. Placing my index finger to my lips I showed her to be silent. Two fear-gripped, brown eyes with tears welling up in them, were staring back at me. Due to the commotion around the trucks, it seemed as if no-one had noticed the girl or me…yet. The noisy, old trucks drove off and left billowing dust clouds in their wake. The roaring of the engines faded and the dust settled. A couple of rebels left behind lined up the rest of the adults to be shot; others started torching the huts. We sat there waiting… When the sounds of the shots echoed through the air, I did not look – I was filled with a sense of guilt and helplessness. I hugged the little girl closer to me. My purpose at that point was to get us out of there alive and to get her to safety.
We sat there crouched behind the wall, the only sound the crackling fire consuming the huts. The heat was unbearable. The smoke hung low in the air, filling our lungs, burning our eyes. We ran to the closest trees and sat down, catching our breath. A tear had left a train track on the child’s dusty cheek. She looked scared and traumatised, but no sound escaped her lips. I uttered a few comforting words in a language she might have understood and hugged her. How is a little mind supposed to process what just happened if I, an adult, struggled to process and make sense of this? Sense? There is no sense to this…
At dusk we started making our way cautiously to the nearest UN camp, her little hand in mine. We were two lonely figures stealthily moving in the shadows – each lost in thought, united by our shared experience. I felt sick to my stomach. How do I explain this to the outside world if I don’t understand it myself? Many people back home wouldn’t even be able to find this place on a map if they tried. My photographs would be published, conveying truths of humanity in conflict. It may be glossed over by citizens reading the afternoon paper clutching beers, or catching the train back home, uncaring or perhaps just unable to grasp the extent of the tragedy. In my mind I wanted to shout: Why don’t you care?
As I slumped back in my seat on the aeroplane heading home, I stared disillusioned over the African landscape where I earn my living. I was so hoping to make a difference as a female war photographer. I recalled a conversation I just had with my editor over the phone.
“When I took this assignment I wanted to make a difference, to show the best and the worst in humanity, to show future generations the mistakes we made, but I’m wondering now what the value of these photographs will be?”
“McKenzie, there will always be war and conflict. It’s our job to document it so that we can try and learn from it.”
“But do we really learn from this? Why then does it feel as if history is repeating itself over and over again, in different wars and conflicts all around the world? Or is the only thing we learn from history that we don’t learn from history?”
“McKenzie, you’re an idealist.”
At that moment I felt that although I’m living in two worlds, I don’t really belong to either of them.
My photos will be futile to fight this or any war. When my editor finds out about the child, I might be back to photographing weddings, but my motherly instincts overpowered the war photographer in me. The biggest and perhaps only difference I could make in this war – saving the child. As I glanced over at the little girl sleeping next to me on the plane, I thought: life is a matter of choices and every choice you make, makes you.