15 Years of War

Leon Malherbe, 42, camera producer for Reuters, has covered many of the major international conflicts of the past 15 years, starting in 1990 with anti-apartheid clashes in South African townships. From there, he reported on civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, the arrival of U.S. troops in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide and civil war in the Congo. In between, he also covered the wars in Yugoslavia.

Leon Malherbe, 42, camera producer for Reuters, has covered many of the major international conflicts of the past 15 years, starting in 1990 with anti-apartheid clashes in South African townships. From there, he reported on civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, the arrival of U.S. troops in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide and civil war in the Congo. In between, he also covered the wars in Yugoslavia

In 1999, Leon moved to Vienna to cover Eastern Europe full time, with forays into Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2001 he was in Afghanistan to cover the impending American bombardment, followed by a spell back in Africa covering farm evictions in Zimbabwe and then the conflict in Sierra Leone. The next big conflict was in Iraq where Leon was embedded with U.S. forces and most recently he was in Israel and Gaza. Leon has been based in Berlin since 2004.

In this interview, Malherbe discusses covering conflict in Somalia; genocide in Rwanda; the journalist's role in conflict zones; his method of pairing his images with music; maintaining his family life; where he finds emotional support; and the recent Dart Centre Workshop in Stockholm, June 2005.


Dart Center: You mentioned that Somalia was one of the worst places you've ever covered .

Leon Malherbe: Well, I started journalism in 1990 in South Africa, in Johannesburg. In those days we covered the warfare in the townships. That was quite brutal because there were police on the one side shooting and then you had the two factions fighting and shooting each other. So you always had to be on the winning side; be on the losing side and you're dead!

In between I covered the civil war in Angola and Mozambique. But the big one was in Somalia in 1992. In Somalia, you never knew where the next bullet was going to come from. People would laugh at you and then pull a gun and shoot you. You couldn't get a grip on the story because there's just violence everywhere for no reason.

I went up to Baidoa, the "city of the dead". People went to Baidoa and nobody came back. Nobody told me this when I went! It was terrible, people were dying because of hunger. They didn't bury their dead any more, they just put them outside their houses and a truck would come round and pick up the bodies and take them away.

I hated the place. Even the people I hired to protect me were shooting each other! It was complete chaos, no respect for each other, no respect for life. It just made me extremely cross.

I was so cross that when people asked me what I think should have been done to Somalia, I said the only thing you can do to sort out the problem there is to nuke it and make it a parking zone . I'd never want to go back there again.

Then the whole thing broke up in Rwanda and that blew me away.


LM: When I was in Kigali the first time, we went with these soldiers as they were marching through all these churches where women had been raped in the middle of the church, where families were lying; fathers, mothers, all the babies with their heads chopped.

I took pictures of all this. I remember walking to the church and I looked down and my legs were black from fleas. All the fleas from the dead people jumped onto me, I couldn't see my pants.

We went to see this one church in the middle of the city that was full of Tutsi refugees. The UN went down there to see if there were any Tutsi refugees that wanted to leave to the Tutsi-held area of the city. Whoever wanted to leave had to put their names down on a list. So they would do a swap: Hutus in from one side and Tutsis out.

There was a priest there, and I asked him, 'Why is a Man of God walking around with a side arm?' and he said, 'Man, in this country the power of God is not enough.'

The people told me that at night, this priest calls up those who put their names on the list, he takes them out and they get shot outside the Church. So people would just get it if they put their names on the list.

There were some kids hanging on my legs and they were saying, 'Please, take us with you; they're going to kill us tonight. They come in every night and beat us up and kill us.' And there was nothing I could do. Just to see the naked fear on people's faces and know that there's nothing you can do, it's quite tough.

Later when Kigali fell to the rebels, that was the start of all the refugees running out of Rwanda. So you had this movement of people coming out of the hills, they were like ants. It was really good pictures, you know.

On the road there was a dead woman lying with her baby still sucking on her breast. Another woman was giving me her dead child. I didn't know what to do with a dead child. I said, 'There's nothing I can do for you.' I had some wounded kids with me at the time and I tried to bandage them up and do what I could.

DC: Were their pictures that you consciously did not take?

LM: No, I took pictures of everything. Government forces running away as fast as they can in lorries and taxis, women and children on foot and bicycles, and people lying next to their dead.

The journalist's role

DC: What do you try to achieve when you take pictures?

LM: I try to tell the story as best as I can and to be unbiased. I don't take anybody's side. What I see is what I film. That's what is important for me. And that the pictures are also good quality.

DC: Is there a dilemma for you when you say 'It was a good picture,' and yet it is a picture of people suffering?

LM: You go into a completely different mode when you shoot; you see only pictures, sequences, how you are going to cut this together, and how it's going to work. You have to have a kind of a wall between you and the subject. If you get too emotionally involved you'll never be able to do your job and you become a Red Cross worker or something and you have to change your line of work.

DC: What would you call this mode if you give it a name?

LM: Auto. You just go on automatic.

For example, when I was in Jenin (in the West Bank ), I filmed inside during the siege. I still can't remember what I filmed there. I know I was filming, but everything just happened and I don't have to think about it. It's only afterwards.

DC: When you were at that church in Rwanda, what did you feel? Or did the emotions come up later?

LM: There's no emotions involved, just pictures. Emotions come up later. You're there and there's just death all around, all these people lying dead around the church. For me it wasn't 'Wow, there must be about four or five thousand people lying dead here.' I was thinking, 'How am I going to get this on camera? How can I show how many people are lying dead there?' My problem was how to get the image across for the world to see what was happening there.

DC: Do you ever look at your pictures again?

LM: You know, it took me about two years to be able to watch my pictures from Rwanda again. It was one of the most horrible sights I've ever seen in my life; and just the smell of all those thousands of dead bodies lying around. I put the pictures away. I have a lot of pictures of children's faces; I just couldn't look at them again.

Images to music

DC: You've developed an interesting and almost cathartic process that helps you 'keep sane,' as you put it, giving a structure to the endless images of violence that you have filmed and witnessed yourself. How did it start?

LM: When I'm back home after having been in a war situation, sometimes I get depressed, I feel sad, but then I hear a piece of music and I know that it reflects exactly the way I feel.

So one day, I looked at my pictures and I thought if I can add music that I like it would be nicer. I'm not cutting a news piece for somebody, I'm cutting the way I feel about the pictures.

It's like telling a story through pictures. You start like any other story; you build it up, you have a beginning, build it up to a climax and then come down to the end. The pictures and the sound have to work together, so it can take a day or two of playing it over and over.

Then, Alles Klar (All's Clear), I'm finished with the story. I pack it away and I don't think about it again. You know; it's gone, I'm happy. There's something healing about cutting images to music. It helps to lock all the emotions into the image.

It took me the longest time, two years, to get over what happened in Rwanda and to be able to sit and cut the piece. I had never seen death on such a scale before. It was incomparable to anything else I had seen. All the kids dying; everywhere we went there was too much to see. There was innocence dying and the terror on people's faces. Kids faces are especially open, they really show what's going on in the community.

With the Rwanda pictures I ended with the poorest of the poor: A guy walking with his cow, the cow with its head turned around, and this man standing there like he's in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go. And a baby sitting on a yellow water tank. I thought, I'm finished with Rwanda now, gone.

I've done pieces in this way for Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Serbia.


DC: How do you manage your relationship with your family when you are back home?

LM: That's a tough one. My wife knew that I've always done wars since we got married, and she's never stood in the way or said I can't go, or that's enough now, or . Respect is important. That is what my relationship is built on, respect for one another.

When I was in Somalia my wife was nine months pregnant with our first child. When they phoned her and told her that I was wounded, but not seriously, it was still a shock for her.

The last time she was really scared was the last Gulf war. I could hear it when I spoke to her. She was scared because I think she was watching television. Before that she never used to watch TV, she said she didn't want to know. I said, 'Come on, you have to know what's going on in the world, you can't be like an ostrich.' So I think that was the first big war she watched on TV, and I could hear in her voice that she was scared.

One time, CNN asked to interview me about what had happened in Congo/Zaire and what I saw. The pictures I had taken showed, for the first time, evidence of what was happening there. So I had to speak to them. My wife told me afterwards that she heard my voice and thought, 'I know that voice!' But I never tell her what I see, or what I filmed.

DC: She obviously heard what had happened. What did she say?

LM: Nothing. It's my job and I do it. Then I go back home and I start my game of walking around, pacing up and down. She knows I listen to my music for a day or two and then I'm fine; I calm down.

And of course the kids don't like it when I go away. The smallest one didn't even know. But now they are old enough to understand what I'm doing they don't like it.

They always ask me if there were any kids that got hurt. It's always about children.

DC: What do you tell them?

LM: Of course I say 'No, no kids have been hurt.' It's always about 'Why are people so stupid to make war?'

DC: As a father do you feel overprotective as a result of everything that you have seen?

LM: No, I think I've got more of a problem communicating with the kids; to be able to talk to them, to explain things to them. I worked all my life with facts, and when I speak to people I assume they know what I'm talking about, so I don't need to explain myself.

I get irritated too quickly with my kids. I can't explain to them what I want to say, or they don't know what I'm talking about. So then my wife comes in, 'What Daddy is trying to say is . " and she talks to them in their way of talking.

You're not a very nice person when you are struggling with yourself. You neglect your family, you are moody, you scream at them, you drink too much, you are tense all the time. I felt I didn't have time for trivial problems and I was easily irritated.

My wife was pregnant with our second child while I was in Rwanda, and I don't know but something just clicked in my head about the children in Rwanda. Seeing all these kids being chopped up; seeing their little bodies lying everywhere and all the babies.


DC: Where do you get support?

LM: When you are in these dangerous situations, you become a very close family with the people with you. There's no time or place for playing silly games. You strip naked and emotions are there for everybody to see and you form very close friendships.

The bunch of people that normally work together become like a club. Wars attract the same bunch of people and you always meet them. Everybody helps everybody else and it's very supportive. People really care about you. They phone you up to ask how you are, or come and visit you . and they're genuine, you know, so that's very important.

DC: Do you feel you need more support from your managers/editors?

LM: No. I think what's very important is just a thank you, just recognition.

Reuters does everything that they can to support and help you, they are always looking after me and my family, keeping us in touch. But, sometimes it's a bit too much. I mean all the safety equipment they give you, I said to them 'I can't take all this stuff, I still have to take all my equipment. I am here to do a job.'

For certain places nowadays they even send people, ex-soldiers, with the crews to see if it's too dangerous. But I think that's a bit too much.

I've always said, 'I'm not going to put my life on the line for a picture'. But then, I suppose I have.

The Stockholm workshop

DC: What are your reflections on the Dart Centre's Stockholm workshop in which you took part?

LM: I just wish I knew this stuff 15 years earlier. I know quite a few people, especially two people who could still be alive.

DC: What would have helped?

LM: Nobody knew about these things. Two guys committed suicide. They didn't know who to turn to or where to get help.

DC: You're talking about friends of yours who committed suicide. How is that?

LM: It's sad. But everybody has to choose the way he's going to go and the way he's going to walk. I always say, it's easy to talk, but it's not easy to do what you say.

DC: What do you think was the breaking point for them?

LM: For Kevin [Carter](Carter won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for a picture of a starving child in Africa who had collapsed while a vulture waited nearby), what broke him were the drugs. For his last assignment, Time Magazine sent him to Mozambique. First he missed his flight and on his way back lost the film. So he came back with nothing. Then shortly after he committed suicide.

Ken [Oosterbroek] was shot dead [killed April 1994 in pre-election fighting in the Thokoza township two weeks before South Africa's historic elections]. Ken and Gary [Bernard] were close friends. They were all close friends. Since Ken's death, Gary couldn't really get to grips with it. He was kind of feeling alone.

I was still in the office one night, Gary was there, and I could tell that he wanted to talk to me, he was just hanging around. But I was busy editing, cutting a story that I had to get to London. I told him, 'Hang on, I'll just be an hour, I need to finish this story and we can go and have a beer or something.' He said that, No, he's got to go. So I said, 'See you.' And yeah . I never saw him again, he committed suicide. He put his head into a gas oven, and you know, died.

DC: Obviously the support network helps on the field, but what about after?

LM: That's it, that's just it. I've had to find my own little way of dealing with it. I do it through music. Sometimes people get very emotional about nothing, just watching a stupid movie.

DC: Does that happen to you?

LM: Yes, yes. But then you have to find your own way of survival, of how you cope with these things.

DC: What is it exactly you would have liked to know fifteen years ago?

LM: Symptoms, so I can see for example that this man really needs help, or that there are people you can get in contact with to help you when you don't know where to go anymore and the doors are closed. I just feel more empowered. It's knowledge that I never had before.

Maybe I can check myself, see the symptoms and say 'Hey, watch it!'

DC: How do you think this can be extended to your colleagues?

LM: I think middle management should do a course like this. I'm out on the field doing my stories, but middle management are the people in the bureau - they get to see everyone, while I might see them just once a week. It's important for them to have this knowledge, so that they can see if somebody is behaving strangely.

I also think it's important for camera people to be aware of these things so you can watch yourself. Camera people are closer to the action for much longer. Sometimes you don't know what's wrong with you; you go on a drinking binge, and you don't know why, or you just need to get away from everything. The pressure might be too much.

The course tells you to watch out for these signs, and you know what to look out for, and you know that there are people out there you can talk to. It's important.

I think after Rwanda I needed help. I needed to talk to somebody.

DC: How did you support yourself during the two years before you were finally able to cut the Rwanda piece?

LM: I listened to music, I read a lot, I spoke to friends. I also cycle a lot and practice Kundalini yoga.

DC: You mentioned that you are now covering less war and want to focus on family. Where are you now with whether or not to continue covering wars?

LM: I've got ups and downs sometimes. Fifteen years of war is enough. Then one morning you get up and you think, 'I need that adrenaline'. Or you see something on TV, 'I should be there - look at the pictures, that should be me taking those pictures.'

DC: Why should it be you?

LM: Because it's great pictures. The pictures drive you to tell the story.

DC: How do you think you can personally take forward the issues raised in the workshop?

LM: I can spread the word now. I can speak to my other colleagues, people who do wars with me. One of my friends, I'm quite worried about him, for example, he's out there for months. It's not good, it's not good for the soul.