Some of the stories I covered, with added comment.
Observations that didn’t make it in de edit.
In August 1989 I watched as the border between Hungary and Austria opened to let thousands of East German tourists rush into Western Europe for the first time, and then, on November 9 in foggy East Berlin, I listened as Communist party leader Gunter Schabowski, to everyone’s surprise, announced the East Berlin border posts would also open, effective immediately. The Berlin Wall, which had separated two worlds for generations would collapse. Later that month I witnessed the next domino to fall when the Czech people regained their freedom during the Velvet Revolution. Suddenly writings, pamphlets, cartoons and photographs, all forbidden by the regime, appeared on the walls of Prague and people were lining up in the streets to read them. Then they demanded the government change. As in Berlin before, state controlled television suddenly began broadcasting live uncensored reporting from the mass demonstrations, which grew in size day after day, as more and more people saw what was happening on their television sets.
December 1989. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the people of Romania also decide to rise against their leader. After a week of confrontation with the Securitate, the feared secret police, the dictorial regime of Nicolae Ceausescu collapses. For a week the Romanian revolution remained inaccessible to outside witnesses, the borders tightly shut. A growing number of casualties were rumoured, up to a vastly exaggerated 100.000… Every day we tried to sneak in and got turned back, until one day Ceausescu fled and the border guards suddenly raised the barrier in front of our car.
April 1994. South Africa is bracing itself for the first all inclusive general elections, signalling the end of Apartheid. Tension is mounting, with some shootouts in townships and car bombs. One bomb explodes just next to our hotel, seconds before we intended to walk out. In the end, the country makes a peaceful transition towards democracy as millions of proud and eager first time voters patiently wait from dawn to dusk to cast their vote, in kilometer long queus spiralling around each voting station.
Het Zwin schenkt Ooievaars aan Italie om er de uitgestorven populatie weer aan te zwengelen/ Belgian nature reserve Het Zwin flies storks to Italy to replenish depleted stock.
Two girls are liberated by Belgian police, caught exclusively on my camera. 12 Year old Sabinne Dardenne and 14 year old Laetitie Delhez had been abducted by Marc Dutroux in the summer of 1996. The event and the following discovery of the remains of four more victims of the paedophile shocked the country and led to mass protests and profound changes in police and judiciary. It also sparked a year long media frenzy for scoops and exclusives, and the publishing of unsubstantiated rumours and myths about paedophile rings involving the country’s elite and devil worshipping.
In the spring of 1999 we watch the final episode of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. It is the Kosovo Albanians’ turn to want to secede from Serbia. The Kosovo Liberation Army sets up barricades and takes control of whole sways of territory, where Albanians are a majority. The Serbian army moves in to try to prevent yet one more province -one which it considers the historical epicentre of the Serb nation- from breaking away. Both sides chase each other from their homes and villages, which are ethnically cleansed. We witness how a group of Serb paramilitaries enter the village of Mjalic, not far from the capital Pristina, loot it and burn it to the ground.
After almost a decade of hesitation, the world finally decides to intervene in the last stages of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. Nato warplanes bomb Serbia and Kosovo, to try to stop Serbian president Milosevic from driving all Albanians out. We watch the bombardement of the village of Planeia, near the Albanian border, presumably to clear it of Serbian troops and to prepare for the coming ground invasion.
At midday on October 31st 2002 the earth shakes and shatters the Italian town of San Giuliano di Puglia. 26 Children die as their school collapses, none of the 9 pupils of the 4th grade survive. We watch as their bodies are recovered and lifted from the rubble, one by one, all through the night. We also witness and capture on camera a rare moment, the few seconds when the earth actually shakes and buildings tremble, and the immediate panic in the streets.
Every night Nato warplanes pound the Libyan capital Tripoli. Anti aircraft guns are no match for cruise missiles finding their way to Colonel’s Kadhaffi’s Bab El Azizya compound, a sprawling military base in the centre of the city, adjacent to the Rixos hotel where a handful of foreign journalists cover the city under attack. At night, armed gangs of volunteers sympathetic to the regime patrol the streets and set up check points at every intersection, looking for insurgents.
This scene was filmed from a distance, but I also walked into the old city to talk to people in the streets with a hidden camera to find out what they would say with no government minders present.
Working as a journalist, and especially when having to use a camera, can be very tricky in a police state. The authorities see you as spy, the population often as the enemy. You are usually accompanied by ‘minders’, and when venturing out on your own you frequently end up being arrested by one of the many intelligence services or dodgy civilians with guns.
Before this stint in Tripoli, I had already worked in communist East Berlin, Kinshasa under Mobutu and Belgrade under constant bombardment.