Wednesday, 30 Oct 2013

Westgate: Brave cameraman juggles journalism and humanitarian work

By Cyrus Kinyungu, Internews Kenya

When the distress call from a victim of Westgate Mall came through to Joseph Mathenge on the fateful Saturday, he knew his day's work was cut out.

The photojournalist immediately called police to alert them of the siege before driving to the mall to attempt to rescue his friend. He was accompanied by his 20-year-old son who was preparing to fly to India for cancer treatment in a few days time.

"As I approached the mall, my journalistic instincts told me the problem was bigger than I had thought. I knew this is where the world story was," he says.

As he removed his camera from his car ready to enter the mall, he suddenly realised he was with his son whom he wouldn't want to expose to any danger.

"When I asked him to remain behind, he picked a camera and insisted he was coming with me, I gave in." Mathenge recalls.

He met many other journalists outside the mall's entrance, who were too cautious to risk their lives, as he entered.

For the next six hours father and son ducked bullets from the terrorists and jumped over bodies as they juggled between rescuing people trapped in the building and taking pictures of the chaotic scenes.

"At times I would be torn between taking pictures of the dramatic scenes in the mall and rescuing people from the mall," says Mathenge noting that balancing between journalistic and humanitarian work was tricky.

All this time, Mathenge did not lose focus on what took him there. He kept communicating with his friend on phone who guided him on how to reach her.

Working with the police, Mathenge says, they nudged slowly towards her as they rescued many other victims.

"My friend would sms me directions to where they were trapped. She would caution me on where the terrorists were firing from so as to avoid harm's way," recalls Mathenge shaking his head as he reflects on the danger he had exposed himself to.

Five hours later, they were able to reach his friend and rescue her. But this was not before Mathenge captured dramatic and exclusive images of the delicate rescue operation carried out by police, armed civilians and Red Cross volunteers.

One image Mathenge captured on his Nikon D 3100 camera particularly captured the world's interest.

The photojournalist with over 20 years experience captured a dramatic short video of a police officer risking his life to save a woman and her two children who had acted dead for hours to escape the terrorists' bullets.

The police officer exposed himself to enemy fire as he crawled towards the woman and her children. He took time to convince the woman and her children that he was a police officer. Mathenge's voice could be heard faintly on the video as he tried to persuade the woman to trust the officer. They were eventually rescued.

As Mathenge captured these momentous photos, dozens of journalists were milling outside the mall crouching in fear every time police exchanged gunfire with the terrorists.

As they emerged from the mall six hours later, Mathenge says he realised between him and his son, they had taken over 1000 photos. The photos were in high demand by local and international media houses. His story was published in the local dailies and aired in local TV stations. He had become the darling of every media house.

He has now become a hero not only within the media circles but also in the country.

"Some police officers wondered how I could muster the courage to get into the mall unarmed. Some confessed they pretended to control the crowds outside just to avoid going in because they did not have bulletproof vests," he recalls with a chuckle.

"You are a shujaa (hero). That was very brave of you. You did a really good job," Joel Magu, a freelance journalist told Mathenge as he was being interviewed for this story.

He has now become a household name in the media.

Asked whether he feels like a hero, Mathenge smiles then laughs and asks: "Why? I was just doing my job. In fact I had just come to rescue a friend it's only that I don't leave my camera behind."

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