Reuters Cameraman Mark Chisholm Recounts The Ambush

21/7 London, UK

Reuters cameraman Mark Chisholm has spoken to TVnewsweb about the horrific events surrounding the deaths of APTN cameraman Miguel Gil and Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork, who were killed in a rebel ambush in Sierra Leone on May 24. Mark, along with Reuters stills photographer Yannis Behrakis, survived the attack.

Mark arrived in Freetown on May 13. Although he was a veteran of several African conflicts, this was his first trip to Sierra Leone. Early last year APTN producer Myles Tierney had been killed in Sierra Leone and Mark was well aware of the risks.

"The night of Monday May 15 Miguel had a chat with me," Mark recalled. "He wanted to warn me Sierra Leone was a very dangerous place. I was quite surprised by this because I had tried to slow Miguel down for the last few years, tried to convince him to do less war stories, to do something different in between. So for me to be sat down by Miguel in this way was a surprise."

"He said they had been told by AP London to stay away from the front line. It was too dangerous and the government soldiers weren't a recognised army."

"Secondly he was also there because Myles had been killed there the year before, which was a big shock to Miguel. He was on a mission to deal with Myles' death, to find out more about how he had died. He went to the site where Myles was killed, he went to pray for him. He was coming to terms with Myles' death."

"Then Miguel said: 'One of two things will happen on this story. One of us will get the big scoop of fighting pictures, or one of us will get killed.' It was very strange, Miguel saying this to me."

"He spent a lot of time in Freetown, going to the airport, filming with the the British and Nigerian soldiers. He was definitely being cautious. He said he would not go out with the Sierra Leone army. He said he didn't trust them."

"Meanwhile, I was working with Kurt and Yannis, going to the front line. But we never advanced with the troops. They had no radios, communications were bad and they had very little ammunition. There were also four different factions fighting for the same army."

"What we would do - what I did nine days out of the eleven I was there - was go to where the new front line was and film the aftermath. But not once did we advance with the soldiers."

"The way the battle was fought at that time in Sierra Leone was that you would have 200-300 soldiers walking down a main road, firing left and right into the bush. They walked down the road until they met some resistance and then there would be a firefight."

"We were aware that, if we had advanced with the soldiers, then the rebels could come out of the bush behind us and attack us. So that was why we never advanced with the soldiers."

"This was also why we picked up soldiers at checkpoints. It was good to have a couple of soldiers in the car in case this happened. Secondly, if you didn't have soldiers in the car, they wouldn't allow you through the next checkpoint."

"On Sunday May 21 the government soldiers took a place called Rogberi Junction. Rogberi Junction was important because there the road went left to Lungi Airport and right to a place called Lunsar, which led to the diamond fields. I was filming there on Sunday when, from nowhere, the rebels attacked. I got some really strong pictures as a 15-minute firefight erupted."

"The pictures caused quite a stir and it was like Miguel had said - one of us would get really good pictures. I wasn't there to compete against Miguel or AP because I knew it was a very tense situation and competitiveness in a situation like that should not exist. It never existed between us on the ground."

"After this, Miguel came to my room and said 'Those were nice pictures today. But I'm not going to the front line because I don't want to influence the other AP cameramen here.' So he was setting an example to the cameramen not to go to the front line. He also did say that his colleagues would be leaving in a few days and he would start doing his own thing - whatever that meant."

"I decided not to go to the front line the next day - it was 90 kilometres, and 23 checkpoints. I decided not to go because I'd been going too often. And I'd got the pictures the day before. However, we discovered that Miguel had gone to the front line that day, for the first time, despite what he had said the previous evening."

On the same day - Monday May 22 - the bodies of seven Zambian UN peacekeepers were found about 500 metres away from Rogberi Junction, in trenches. The Reuters and AP teams were still following that story on the morning of Wednesday May 24 - the day of the ambush.

"We went back to Rogberi Junction that morning to go and finish the peacekeepers story. In fact, when Kurt's room was cleared out he still had a half-written story on his computer, about the junction and these Zambian peacekeepers," Mark explained.

"There were various delays that morning and, by the time we got to the junction it was already 11.45 a.m. Miguel was there already, sitting under a tree reading a book. He'd been there since 11 a.m. He said the observers hadn't arrived. And then he said most of the government soldiers had left the junction around 10 a.m. and were advancing down the road, towards Lunsar, which was around 12 km from the junction, on the way to the diamond fields."

"A lieutenant came up to us and we asked what was going on. He confirmed that there was an advance going on that morning towards Lunsar. We asked about the observers and he said they hadn't arrived. We asked if he was expecting them and he said he didn't think so. In the distance we could hear firing - a long way off. We asked is this the advance and he said yes."

"We asked is there any chance we can film? and he said yes, saying he was very confident that the soldiers would be almost in Lunsar by now. He said he'd provide us with an escort of himself and six soldiers and take us down the road."

"The four of us all agreed that it sounded like a good story. There was no argument or discussion, we all agreed it was a good story. It was the first time we had decided to go beyond the front line but we were all happy with the decision."

"The drivers didn't want to take us but they said we could take their vehicles. So Miguel and Kurt drove the two cars. Kurt climbed into the driver's seat of our car - a left-hand drive blue Mercedes. I was in the passenger seat with my camera. Behind me was Yannis in between two soldiers. There was another soldier on the bonnet. Behind us, was Miguel driving his car - a white Range Rover-type vehicle. The Lieutenant sat next to Miguel. In the back were three more soldiers."

"We set off down the road - driving on the right, towards Lunsar. We were in front and Miguel was close behind. The road was tarred but there was a lot of potholes so we weren't going very fast - around 20-30kph."

"After about 1 km we came to a small village which the soldiers there said they had taken at around 10.30 a.m. They added that the rebels had fled. We asked whether it was safe to go on and they said yes, adding that the government soldiers were 5-6 km down the road advancing towards Lunsar."

"We drove for another 2 km or so. We were fairly quiet but there was no worries or panic. There was no negative discussion. The soldiers were quite happy. They were sitting casually in the car."

"Suddenly there was this explosion of gunfire, coming from the lefthand side. I knew it was an ambush. There was a hell of a lot of shooting. I could hear bullets hitting the car I could hear glass smashing. My first reaction was to scream 'Go, go, go go!' The car started slowing down slightly as we got hit by the ambush and I was thinking, if we can get through this then the government soldiers are ahead of us."

"As I said this I glanced over and looked at Kurt. He was dead. Already dead. It was absolutely awful. He was still sitting with his hands on the steering wheel, with his head slumped over towards the window. He didn't scream, he didn't shout, he didn't acknowledge the ambush. He got shot by one of the first bullets."

"One of the things that saved our lives was that the car didn't stop. Kurt being Kurt, the car kept on gliding for about 20-30 metres, drifting towards the lefthand side of the road. I took the wheel and guided the car until it came to a stop, which was the same side as the rebels but they were now about 20 metres behind us."

"As the car stopped I moved my hand to open the car door and that's when I got hit in the hand by shrapnel. I jumped out and ran into the bush, the same side as the rebels were firing from. Which I think saved my life. I ran round in front of the car and into the bush. Had I ran the opposite way, it would have given them a direct line of fire. It was pure instinct."

"One of the horrors for me - and I still go through it now - was running into this bush blind - not knowing what was there. I had no idea whether there were ten rebels or 100 - I had no idea what I was running into. And, basically, I was waiting to be killed. I ran around 30 metres into the bush when I realised I still had my camera in my hand. It was slowing me down and I threw it into the bush."

"I kept running further into the bush - absolutely terrified. I ran for about 250 metres. I stopped to gather my thoughts and then I realised my hand was bleeding quite a lot and I was leaving a blood trail. So I took my shirt off and wrapped it around my hand and tried to cover my tracks with leaves. And then I walked another 50 metres into the bush. I didn't want to run too far because I didn't want to get lost."

"I lay down in some thick bush, still absolutely terrified. I didn't know how many rebels there were, I didn't know who had made it out of the car. I didn't know who was alive and who was dead."

"I lay for 15 minutes, thinking what do I do now. I was waiting for the rebels to come and find me and hack me up. Then I heard voices back towards the cars. By this stage the shooting had stopped. I thought maybe this was the government soldiers. So I got up, stupidly, and I walked back. I got about 50 metres from our car and I saw it in flames and I saw figures. I realised these were rebels burning the car."

"I was really scared I was going to make a noise and they would hear me. So I walked back into the bush for about 30 metres and then I ran. But, without realising it, I was running parallel to the road, which was bending to the left. I ran into thick bush and I saw a tree trunk and I lay there, again thinking about death."

"I was very scared but I was very focused, too, thinking about what to do next. I was even looking at the ground, at the worms, thinking I may have to eat the worms or drink my urine."

"After about 35 minutes, firing broke out, quite close to me. I saw a clearing in front of me about 30 metres away. What I didn't realise was that what I thought was a clearing was in fact the main road. From where I was I couldn't see the tar."

"The firing got heavier and came closer. I put my head down and there was firing all around me, bullets snapping branches of the trees just above my head."

"I thought it was the rebels coming to get me. Then I heard voices. I lifted my head and I saw fighters moving through what I thought was the clearing. I didn't know if they were government soldiers or rebels. Then I recognised an army captain. He was a chubby-looking guy with a bushy beard. I had interviewed him about five times in the previous ten days."

"I screamed 'Journalist! Journalist!' They stopped firing and turned towards me. I started waving at them. They recognised me - we'd been working together for the past ten days. They gestured me forward. I walked out and for the first time realised that what I had thought to be a clearing was in fact the main road."

"I walked up to the Captain and I hugged him. I said thank you for saving my life. But they were still on a mission. They had a situation to deal with."

"Then I looked down the road and saw for the first time that Miguel had been caught up in the ambush. I had no idea whether he'd been able to turn his car around and leave, or speed past us, or what."

"I walked with the soldiers - about 200 of them - back to my car. Kurt's body had been taken out of the car before they burned it and was lying next to the car. It was a big shock. In the split second during the ambush I'd had no time to react to his death. Now I was faced with his death for the first time and it was a huge shock to me."

"A dead soldier was lying next to the car. They had taken everything from the car - Kurt's satellite phone, the stills camera, all our food - everything."

"The soldiers helped me to put Kurt's body on to their only vehicle - a big truck with an anti-aircraft gun fixed to it. Some soldiers retrieved my camera from the bush and put it on the truck, too."

"Then we drove up to Miguel's car. I was praying please don't let Miguel and Yannis be there. As we got up to the car I saw Miguel's body by the side of the road."

"We put Miguel's body on the truck and started to leave. We couldn't stay any longer, despite the fact that we hadn't found Yannis - or his body. The situation was still tense and the soldiers wanted to get back to Rogberi Junction as soon as possible."

"I walked with the soldiers, several of whom came up to me and said how sorry they were - they had got to know us during the previous ten days. Their commander was screaming at them to concentrate on their jobs and not to talk to me. But I wanted to talk to them. I wanted comfort. I could not believe I was alive. I could not believe Kurt and Miguel were dead and Yannis was missing. I could not believe I was in the bush for just an hour and walked on to the main road. I was in complete shock."

"The commander said film this. At first I said no but he insisted and I agreed. And it did help me. It helped take my mind off what might be ahead - more rebels, ambushes. So we made our way back to Rogberi Junction, the soldiers firing every now and then into the bush on either side of the road."

"We got back to Rogberi Junction and the two drivers came running up to me. They realised something was wrong because I was covered in blood. I told them 'They're all dead, they're all dead!' They just collapsed and started crying. I put my arm around my driver and I cried for the first time. Then the soldiers started yelling at him to stop crying beacuse he was making me cry."

"Now the worst thing was that all the equipment was gone - Miguel's satphone was gone, ours was gone. I had no communications and the two cars were wrecked. The only vehicle was the truck with the anti-aircraft gun on it which the soldiers needed for their defense. It was horrible. All I wanted was to be able to do something and I could do nothing."

"Some soldiers bandaged my hand and another came up and said here's something I found on one of the bodies - it was actually Miguel's bracelet and a cross he had worn. This meant the world to Miguel's family when I was able to give these items to them at his funeral."

"Then I went to sit with the bodies. It was bizarre. I looked at their features - nice things. Their fingernails, the way their hair was combed, the way their hair was cut. I looked at how they had shaved that morning, at what socks they were wearing. A counsellor I talked to later said this was pretty OK to do because I wasn't thinking about horrors, I was looking at the nice side of them."

"I was sitting there and then a guy came rushing up saying 'Your friend is coming, your friend is coming!' And I ran on to the road and Yannis came walking down the road, with two soldiers that had met him on the edge of the village. He saw me for the first time and we ran up to each other and we hugged. Then I told him Miguel and Kurt were dead. He cried and punched the ground and went onto the truck to look at the bodies and was in absolute shock."

Like Mark, Yannis lay in the bush, hiding from the rebels for three hours before walking back to Rogberi Junction.

"It meant the world to me that he had survived," Mark said.

Around 6 p.m. Mark and Yannis were able to get themselves and the bodies aboard a food truck heading back to Freetown. On the way they were helped by Jordanian soldiers, who took them to a Jordanian military hospital outside Freetown. From there, they were taken to an Indian military hospital, where Mark had more treatment.

Meanwhile, their colleagues in Freetown were still unaware of what had happened. When news of the ambush did reach them, the details were confused and it was understood that Kurt and Mark were the ones that had died.

"For an hour I was dead," Mark recalled. "And it really freaks me out, because I've spent the past two months hearing people's stories about their reactions to my death."

It wasn't until the AP and Reuters teams arrived at the Indian military hospital that they knew for sure who was alive and who was dead in the party they had said goodbye to that morning.

Mark stayed in the Indian hospital overnight and next morning, after an operation to his hand, he and Yannis began their evacuation.

"Reuters were amazing," Mark declared. "Once they'd got me back to London, they laid on a private jet so that we could attend Miguel's funeral in Spain. It meant so much to Miguel's family that I was able to attend and speak to them about him and about what had happened."

"Also, at no point did Reuters say to me 'Why did you go down that road?' They understood we were all experienced journalists and they trusted our judgement. What they did say was 'What could we have done better?'"

Dealing with the shock, pain and loss has not been easy for Mark but he believes that he is on the right road to putting the experience behind him and moving forward.

"Initially, when I was offered counselling by Reuters I declined. I was surrounded by the world's best and most experienced journalists and I wanted to speak to these people because they understood. These people were my counsellors."

"Later, I had counselling with a former military man, which I found very helpful. I spent five-and-a-half hours with him, going over every detail of the incident. He told me that, had I hesitated, had I tried to help Kurt, or anything, I'd be dead. He said my instincts saved my life. When your driver is dead, you get out of there. The fact I ran on the same side of the road as the rebels saved my life. And he said I possibly helped save Yannis' life, because, unknown to me, he also ran round the front of the car, saw my camera and followed my blood trail, until it ran out."

Now, two months after the ambush that robbed him of two of his closest friends, Mark believes it is time to get back to work. His hand is healing well and he is returning to Kosovo, where he, Miguel, Kurt and Yannis had worked so often together. After his assignment in Kosovo, he is going to Sydney to work on the Olympic Games.

He says he feels no anger or hatred towards the rebels. He doesn't feel guilty either, because he knows he would do the same again, with the same colleagues, so confident is he that when they made their decision at Rogberi Junction, it was the right one to make in the circumstances.

Of Miguel and Kurt, he recalls the speech he made at Kurt's memorial service: "If 100 journalists were lined up by terrorists and two were asked to step forward and sacrifice themselves to save the rest, then those two would be Kurt and Miguel."

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