I cannot think of any decent way to publish my first post on this blog without paying tribute to my mentor and long time friend Victor Antonie.
Today, I deeply mourn the sudden death of Victor Antonie….a man from whom I learnt a lot about international news agency news production…a man who risked to give me and many others in Africa the rare opportunity to taste what it was to work for an international agency like Reuters.
“Sleek n’ mean H,” were Victor’s trade mark words each time he dispatched me on a news or features assignment.
Victor set high standards in television news gathering in East Africa and expected every news assignment to be professionally filmed to limit time wasting on editing. His instructions still ring in my head to date. Those journalists who have passed through my mentoring will know what I mean.
When I first met Victor in Nairobi, Kenya in late 1994, I was a bit apprehensive about signing a contract with Reuters. Coming from the world of freelancing or “mercenaries” as we called it then, the money was good. With the rest of Africa ripping itself apart, news camera crews were in major demand. Professional and reliable crews were also scarce. I happened to be very good at creating stories on video and I had an obsessively highly compulsive drive of leaving my competitors stunned. Under Victor’s watch, I had more than 90% success rate on each of my assignments.
The following except is from notes I took on a trip with Victor in eastern Congo in 1995….
“Apart from the single soldier watching from vintage point over fully loaded machine guns, shinny muzzles menacingly pointed at the center of the dusty potholed road, there was virtually no sign of other human beings in the villages we drove through. Torched huts littered the far hillsides. The air was heavy and stale with decay. Occasionally, a skinny dog strayed into the the road forcing our Congolese driver to jump hard on the breaks. Despite the dead emptiness in the countryside, the green vegetation was intoxicating. Victor and I were on our way to Uvira from Goma. Our mission? To cross into Bujumbura, Burundi where there were reports of deadly violence. The city residents were fleeing into Zaire.
Before we left Goma, we changed $400 for a stack of Zairian Francs. Whenever, we came across the machine guns, we dropped a few soiled francs notes into a straw hat or the hands of a soldier. The portrait of Mobutu on the notes wearing thick spectacles stared out into nothingness daring and mocking. We almost made a serious mistake of driving past the first machine gun road block and we were stopped and thoroughly lectured on matters of respect by overly friendly drunk Congolese soldiers.
“Put money in here when you see it or otherwise the machine guns will go off. Yes, just like this,” a red eyed soldier told us, demonstrating with his AK47.
“Man!” Victor would say as we drove off.
There were no UN agency flights from Goma to Burundi for the rest of the week. Crossing into Rwanda to get to Burundi would have meant chasing after the backs of the fleeing residents of Bujumbura. So, it made more sense to drive around and meet them as they crossed into Zaire.
Some eleven hours later, we drive into the fleeing panic stricken residents of Bujumbura as they poured into Zaire. Men and women, carried on their heads and on bicycles whatever they were able to snatch and bring along in their rush for safety. Some carried mattresses, sleeping mats, cooking pots, chickens and even goats. A few others had nothing. Just happy to flee to safety. I jumped out of the car and started filming. But there was trouble when Victor and I started conducting interviews. A group of angry Congolese soldiers approached us grabbed the tripod from beneath the camera and roughed us to their offices. Here we were paraded like petty thieves. The junior officer in charge screamed at us in French and Lingala. Victor whispered to me, “Stay calm.”
Then shortly afterwards, a senior officer in civilian stepped into the office and demanded to see our pass ports, visa and press passes for Zaire. We handed over the documents. He ran through the pages, his face twisted in disgust. When he was convinced he threw documents back at us, and ordered us to get out of his town before sunset.
“The violence is in Bujumbura not Zaire,” he hissed at us.
Victor then quickly paid our Congolese driver and we hurried to the border crossing towards Burundi. But before we cleared the bridge we stopped to complete the interviews in no-mans-land. Here, neither the Burundian nor the Congolese soldiers could see our activities.
Moments later, we arrived in Bujumbura. Victor headed straight to the satellite feed point. Within minutes, the story was on all leading international television news channels.
In the next few days, I would run into thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees fleeing to Tanzania from their camp in central Burundi. They claimed their camp had been attacked several times by some unknown people.
Another exclusive headline!”
Around 1997-98, when I returned from one of the many trips I undertook for Africa Journal, I learnt that Victor and his family were moving to Jerusalem. After his move to the Holy land we still kept in touch.
Years later, 2001 to be precise, our paths crossed again. In Pakistan. We’d arrived in Pakistan from bureaus all over the world to report on the war on terror in Afghanistan. But our foray would be met with devastating actions by the Taliban.
I would meet and work with Victor again in 2012-13 in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had relocated from Nigeria. Amid what he termed as mild “internal” resistance, Victor ensured I was appointed the Producer Africa.
Fare thee well Victor. Rest In Peace.
I was hoping you’d be the first to read a draft of my book….”Headlines to Die For,” and maybe you’d have had the chance to see my past struggles differently.