Mo Amin lives on in images he spent a lifetime making

Photo and video journalist Mohamed Amin

Photo and video journalist Mohamed Amin.

Photo credit: Courtesy |

What you need to know:

  • Photo and video journalist Mohamed Amin, more familiarly known simply as Mo, was always one step ahead of the pack, covering major breaking news.
  • On November 23, 1996, the last chapter in the life story of one of Africa’s greatest journalists ended at the prime of his trade.
  • He died aboard a hijacked plane off the coast of the Comoro islands in a tragic incident that gripped the attention of the world.
  • Twenty-six years later, NTV’s Duncan Khaemba looks back at the life and times of a journalism legend whose works remain immortalised in picture and sound.

On Saturday November 23, 1996, holidaymakers in the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros captured the image of Ethiopian Airlines’ flight ET 961 Boeing 767 crashing into the sea.

Unbeknown to them at the time, these would become some of the most memorable amateur images in the history of modern journalism; the last moments of a man who had himself captured many world exclusives in his lifetime.

Flight ET 961 had lifted off from Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.

Some 163 passengers from 36 countries were on board. Three hijackers were among them. The plane had a 12-member crew, making a total of 175 individuals on board.

Legendary photographer

The legendary photographer had left Nairobi on a Friday morning for Addis Ababa for a one-day business trip and since he was the one publishing the airline’s flight magazines, was flying first class.

The pilot of the ill-fated flight, Leul Abate, lived to tell the tale. Incidentally, it was his third time being hijacked. As soon the flight levelled off in the Ethiopian skies, the three hijackers sprang into action, demanding to be flown to Australia.

“I told them this flight is destined for Nairobi, we don’t have enough fuel to fly all the way to Australia, let’s land and refill then we can proceed, they said No way,” said the pilot in an interview with a Camerapix crew.

Michael Odenya, one of the only 52 survivors on the ill-fated flight, saw it all. Mohamed Amin was the only passenger who tried to negotiate with the hijackers.

“At one point Mo asked us to fight the hijackers since they were only three but nobody was brave enough. Mo had only one arm, remember. It was brave of him,” said Mr Odenya.

The stand-off persisted, with the pilot declining to fly the plane to Australia and the hijackers refusing to soften their stance. After circling in the air for about four hours, the plane ran out of fuel and came tumbling into the waters of the Indian Ocean, killing 123 passengers, among them the acclaimed photo and video journalist.

That was the end of the life of a man who had an outstanding media career spanning over three decades. His camera lenses had been shut for good. Mo Amin was no more.

His son Salim says he was in Westlands when he was asked to go back home. “The news was scanty. We are talking about 1996, a time when there was no internet, no mobile phones, there was very little communication,” Salim said.

The family was expecting Mo back home at around lunchtime that Saturday.

“My office called me saying, 'Azim, do you know that your friend is dead? There was a plane crash.' I was having tea, I started shaking because the day before, I had met him in the corridor and he told me he’s going to Ethiopia and will be back almost immediately,” veteran photojournalist Abdul Azim, who worked with Mo at his Camerapix company before switching to the Associated Press (AP), says.

Makeshift hospital

He adds: “When I got home, I started making calls ...went to Reuters office and sat there the whole day and late into the night.”

The 24 hours that followed seemed like a year for the family. Reuters news agency, one of Mo’s clients, chartered a flight from Wilson Airport for the Comoro islands that Sunday for its crew as well as Salim. It was a small plane and the flight took about five-and-a-half hours.

They found a makeshift hospital set up by the French troops. A temporary morgue had been put up at the beach, improvised from one of the meat storage facilities which had coolers to accommodate the bodies retrieved from the Indian Ocean. Family members arriving had the task of checking each body laid out on the floor to identify their kin. Salim identified his father’s corpse.

Mo was born in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate in 1943 and his love affair with cameras began at the age of 11 when he bought himself a second-hand box Brownie camera for Sh40.

He dropped out of school to focus on photography after establishing his Camerapix company, which still operates to date.

Mo’s first world-class exclusive images came out in November 1965 when he stumbled on big news – a military training camp in Zanzibar. For a while, there had been rumours that the island was being used as a Soviet Union submarine base with reports of a huge military build-up. These remained mere rumours until Mo’s camera lenses blew the cover.

Eastern Europeans were training local soldiers dressed in Cuban and East Germany uniforms, with Russian armoured personnel carriers nearby. The following day the London Times published the pictures as CBS and VisNews TV stations aired the footage, leading to heated debates in the British Parliament and US Senate over the undisputed and overwhelming evidence of Russia’s military presence in Zanzibar. Mo became a marked man by soviet security men who communicated to their associates in East Africa and it was just a matter of time. Amin was a wanted man.

In 1966, he flew back to Zanzibar to cover a visit by then Egyptian president Gamal Nasser. The authorities pounced on him, detaining him at the dreaded Kilimamigu Maximum Security Prison for 28 days. That arrest emboldened him, given the publicity it attracted, and there was no looking back.

When Cabinet Minister Tom Mboya was assassinated on that chilly Saturday of July 5, 1969 in Nairobi’s CBD, Mo was there to cover the news. He was the first newsperson to arrive at the scene and exclusively captured images of the medics as they fought to save Mr Mboya’s life. He boarded the ambulance that rushed the mortally wounded politician to Nairobi Hospital.

The assassination shook the country and Mohamed Amin’s footage and pictures were published all over the world, winning him the British Television Cameraman of the Year award in 1969.

When Uganda’s tyrants came to power and some exited unceremoniously, Mo was the frontline photo and video journalist who captured the events as they unfolded.

In 1971 Colonel Iddi Amin Dada toppled President Milton Obote. Uganda’s capital Kampala was in chaos; no flights were leaving or landing at Entebbe. Major world news agencies were stuck at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport as the news was breaking.

Mo quickly reached for his contact book and called Entebbe State House. When whoever received the call heard his name, Mohamed Amin, he thought he was Colonel Amin’s relative and quickly handed the new ruler the phone. He authorised his flight and within hours Mo landed at the airport and was received by Iddi Amin himself. He immediately started filming another exclusive as the competition salivated in Nairobi as Mo’s exclusive pictures were plastered everywhere.

He enjoyed good relations with the despot throughout his reign of terror, capturing memorable moments, such as expatriates led by the British High Commissioner carrying the giant Amin aloft in Kampala streets on the eve of an Organisation of African Unity summit, and the images printed on T-shirts with the legend ‘King of Africa, Conqueror of the British empire’, which he distributed to delegates who attended the summit. Veteran photojournalist Sam Ouma, who worked at Camerapix from 1977, says the dictator locked out all foreign news crews and only allowed Mo to cover him.

Even after his ouster in 1979, Mo was able to track his namesake to Saudi Arabia and interview him in exile for another exclusive that aired on BBC a year later in 1980.

Museveni

When Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was in the bush in the early 1980s leading his national resistance movement to capture power, Mo was there and covered the NRM rebels, exposing the young boys and girls Museveni had roped into his guerrilla movement.

The children were ruthlessly intimidating as they killed at will and only understood the language of violence. The expose raised debate and as pressure continued piling, Museveni summoned the Camerapix crew to his base and paraded some of the children dressed in military fatigues before the cameras.

He followed Museveni’s every move in the bush until he eventually toppled President Milton Obote and captured power on January 26, 1986.

However, what became arguably the greatest work of the legendary photojournalist came in 1984, when he travelled to northern Ethiopia’s hunger-stricken Korem region and filmed images that not only shamed but also awakened the world. Dozens of people were dying at an IDP camp where thousands had sought refuge from the ongoing civil war.

It was a mega humanitarian crisis that had remained covered in the dusty fields of Korem until Mo chartered a plane and landed in the area. The Ethiopian ruler at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam, did not want the information to get out.

In the UK, the shocking news aired on BBC prime time news while in the US, it was on CNBC. It was a humanitarian crisis like no other. Then US President George Bush invited Mo to the White House to witness as he signed an executive order to address the crisis.

In the United Kingdom, lead singer Bob Geldof mobilised Britain’s pop stars to stage a concert and fundraise for aid for the hunger victims. They heeded the call with a mega concert at London’s Wembley Stadium that was watched by an estimated one billion people, raising more than 100 million British pounds.

In the US, singer Harry Belafonte was moved by the London initiative and partnered with Geldof to bring America’s superstars together under the banner ‘USA for Africa’ and recorded a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie titled ‘We are the World’.

In 1991, Mo the great was at it again. He was tipped off about an impending ouster and quickly left for Addis Ababa and together with his team captured the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam as rebels from the north began pouring into the capital, forcing soldiers to scamper.

Mo and his camera were atop one of the tanks filming as the rebels turned the capital and the palace upside down.

But tragedy was soon knocking at his door. On June 4, 1991, a tragic incident would alter his life. Fleeing forces of the overthrown Mengistu set fire to their ammunition depot in Addis Ababa, leading to massive multiple explosions. Mo and his associates were filming from their hotel balconies. The news crews went closer for the aftermath.

As he was filming, there was another blast and his left hand was seriously injured. His soundman, John Mathai, was not so lucky and was killed on the spot.

Mo was airlifted to Nairobi for treatment, but it was too late to save his arm, which had to be amputated.

Only 10 days later he was back in his office trying to figure out how he would get back into the game. He began shopping around for help and found a team of American doctors to work on a bionic arm that would help the big man get back to his feet, a procedure that was carried out in Ohio in the US. And after three months, he was back doing what he loved most. He had been down but not out.

It's now 26 years and his legacy lives on. His son Salim still uses the same table his late father used for many years as he tries to step into the big shoes at Camerapix. His office bears anything and everything that reminds him and the world about his father, including the bionic arm that was salvaged from the Indian Ocean, the awards and accolades he won, the paraphernalia and rich archive that has acres and acres of material he collected that is now being curated.

From the age of 22, when he made international headlines by filming the Russian training camps in Zanzibar, Mo straddled the African continent like a colossus with his world-beating exclusives to the prime age of 53, when he made his exit from Earth, captured on camera that fateful Saturday of November 1996.

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