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the new life issue 2003
dan eldon
by mia taylor
also see eldon-gallery
life after death
"Dan Eldon blazed through his short life like a meteor, leaving a trail... that awes with its intensity and beauty" . USA TODAY

Dan Eldon was one of four journalists stoned and beaten to death July 12th 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia, three months before the events depicted in the film, Black Hawk Down.

UN forces had bombed a house where they believed warlord Mohammed Aidid to be in hiding. Over sixty civilians were killed. The enraged mob turned on the journalists who had just pulled up to cover the bombing. Dan Eldon was 22 years old.

His photographs of the famine stricken and war torn region had appeared in Time and Newsweek. After his death his mother, Kathy gathered a treasure trove of collage journals, documenting in original and imaginative style, his experiences and evolving artistic sensibility.

In 1995, “The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon” was published, and created a sensation that continues to this day. Dan Eldon’s journals have taken on a life of their own. They seem to strike a chord that is not only appreciative, but life altering. Amazon readers rave “I have never had a book influence me as much as this one”, “I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially anyone who has big dreams, but does not believe in his or her own potential.” Or as Rosie O’Donnel declared, “on my 40th birthday I got Dan Eldon’s book, and I became brave, through him.

His art, his life, the force of his being”. Kathy and Dan’s sister Amy, made a deliberate choice to build something positive from Dan’s death. While Kathy oversaw the publication of the journals, she and Amy made a documentary “Dying to Tell the Story”, on foreign correspondents who put their lives at risk to bring us the news from war zones. Two of the journalists featured have since died in the field. They have formed a company, Creative Visions, and are currently taping a TV series for PBS called Global Tribe and developing a feature film based on the life of Dan Eldon. Dan Eldon’s work and life continue to resonate. “Dan Eldon: the Art of Life,” a biography by Jennifer New, was published last year by Chronicle Books.

The Book: What gave you the idea to publish the journals?

Kathy Eldon: Right after he was killed, people started bringing out his journals. My aunt found three in her garage, and I found three in my flat in London, we collected together seventeen in all... I started to dream about using the journals as a way to inspire other young people I went from one publisher to another. One of my “favorite” responses was, “he’s dead isn’t he? So, how’s he going to promote the book?” People really didn’t get it. Then Doubletake magazine did a story on Dan and one of the senior editors at Chronicle Books, Irwin Rappe, spotted it. After the meeting, they said, Kathy we’re not going to publish one journal, we’re going to publish three.

The Book: “The Journey is the Destination”, is three journals?

KE: It’s a compilation from the 17 journals. It’s only 225 images out of about 1800. And the website has a little more sampling from the 17. They’re all works in progress. He was 13-14 when he started. And you can see the evolution of this mind.

Amy Eldon: I think it’s important to note that we weren’t publishing to memorialize Dan, but to use his life as an inspiration to others.

KE: And the life of an ordinary person who had an extraordinary way of viewing the world. He was not a saint, nor somebody inaccessible.

AE: the other day I was talking to Charles, our producer at CNN. I didn’t understand why the book moved him so much. It’s because, instead of becoming a doctor or a lawyer as his Korean parents expected of him, he became a freelance producer where you don’t make a lot of money, and his parents, never got that. But he does want to make a difference, and Dan’s book was an affirmation that it was okay to do this, that this was important. And I think a lot of people have that reaction, that you can to live a different kind of life, not just the path that’s well traveled.

The Book: Did you anticipate that kind of response?

KE: this will sound strange, but I believed that part of the purpose of Dan’s life was his death, and how it was expressed; he was stoned to death in the 20th Century. He could have died in a motorcycle accident none of this would have happened. This story was well known around the world. He lived in a hurry. He was rushing through life. Why? They all thought I was a bit nutty to get this stuff out there.

AE: It’s irritating, because I’ll be cruising through life and I’ll be just fine and I pick up that damn book and look through it and think, am I living as much as I can, being as adventurous as I can? Am I making an impact? It puts into sharper focus that which I’m forgetting in my life.

The Book: Is he the standard you aspire to?

AE: In some ways. Not all. He always forced me to push boundaries, to question, and be more adventurous. I think he still pushes me on that level. He showed me how to live with courage. Actually he gave me courage, he showed me how to live with passion and compassion, and through his death, gave me a voice. I had to decide what to do with it. I still very much feel that responsibility, because I did wonder when I was 19, why did this happen to me? Is this a mistake, or is there something else that I have to be doing? Making “Dying to Tell the Story” was the beginning.

The Book: One of these Amazon reviews describes Dan as a hero. Would you say he’s a hero?

AE: I think he would hate to be described as a hero. If a hero is someone who sacrifices his life for others, then all of them were heroes that day because they went in to the compound to tell a story that really needed to be told, and they died.

KE: I think the beauty is that he’s not a hero. He’s one of us. He just had a conviction that he could change things, that one person could make a difference.

The Book: But not everyone would have the courage to walk into a war zone when they didn’t have to be there.

KE: When you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put it in cool water and slowly heat it up.. you get used to a certain level of danger, and it’s not that you’re in any way foolhardy, and they did quite an extensive study of whether those guys did something they shouldn’t have, but you get used to it. When we went to Somalia, a cameraman was kidnapped at our hotel, a day after we left. If we had been there we would have been with him. But there was no way we weren’t going to go in and tell that story. The bombing of that house was an important story.

The Book: Tell us a bit about Global Tribe: how would you describe the show?

KE: It’s a travel show with a difference.

AE: It’s a new genre, it’s not a travel show, it’s not a news piece, --

KE: It takes you on a journey. When her brother was killed, Amy saw the effects of misunderstanding and revenge and hatred. She went on a quest around the world for people trying to find solutions.

AE: Seeing the way the world could work. It was a progression from Dying To Tell the Story. We started in South Africa looking at racial healing, how whites, blacks, coloreds were coming together. For The Philippines we did a story about a group of people who live off the garbage dump there. There is a massive center at the bottom of the dump that Martin Sheen built. It’s a bathhouse where the kids can splash around, take a shower, and the parents run it, so they have a sense of pride and dignity. It’s not going to end the garbage crisis, but at least it’s one solution.

The Book: What is the state of Mogadishu today?

KE: there’s no infrastructure. People are so inventive that they make things work, but it’s a disaster.

AE: When we went, we had to go very early in the morning, so nobody would know we were coming. The airport is this bombed out little office, and we had forty bodyguards, it was the presidential envoy, and there’s no one side of the street that you drive on, it’s just a game of chicken, and whoever has the biggest AK 47 wins. Then we broke down and we all had to shift to a car... it’s just total anarchy.

KE: there’s no electricity, no houses.

AE: People just squat outside these bombed out shells of buildings. I can’t imagine how people live like that.

KE: And it used to be the most beautiful city in east Africa!

The Book: Carlos Mavroleon, whom you profiled in Dying to Tell the Story, said he had been going every year to Afghanistan, since the end of Soviet occupation trying to get people to pay attention to what was going on there, but no one would listen.

AE: And that’s how he died. He was trying to cross the border to interview this guy called Osama Bin Laden, and that’s when he died.

The Book: How did it happen?

AE: We don’t know. He was on assignment for 60 Minutes, he snuck across the border dressed as a doctor, and shortly thereafter he was held overnight and accused of being a spy. Later he called 60 Minutes and said I’m fine, just a bit shaken, and then he was found dead in his hotel room with the door closed, but they were saying there was a needle with heroin, and he used to be a heroin addict... he may have overdosed. KE: And the beautiful Mohamed Shaffy, [the only journalist to survive the attack that killed Dan Eldon and three others,] Mo, died about a year ago in Jerusalem. He was on assignment for Reuters and went to his room and didn’t come out. They broke down the door. He had died of a heart attack. I personally believe he died of a broken heart, I don’t think he ever recovered from the death of his friends.

AE: That’s always been our message. These people risk their lives every day to bring us the news, the least we can do is pay attention. It’s so frustrating, all the foreign bureaus have been closed down.

KE: one of out themes is stopping the cycle of revenge.

AE: That’s what’s amazing about my parents. After Dan died there was no thought of vengeance. It was immediately looking towards forgiveness. And I did that because they did. It’s the Gandhi quote: “if you want to see the brave, look to those who can forgive, if you want to see the heroic look to those who can love in return for hatred.”

The Book: Tell us about the feature film based on Dan’s life you’re developing.

KE: In 1996, Lisa Henson saw the article in Doubletake magazine, wanted to make a film about Dan, working together with Janet Yang who did The Joy Luck Club. Jan Sardin who wrote Shine wrote the first couple of drafts. Later we attached Bronwen Hughes who directed Forces of Nature and Harriet the Spy. She rewrote the script. So now, we have to find the right up and coming young man to play the part. The challenge of doing a real character is if you veer from historical truth, people get very cross. You have to make an entertaining feature film, not a documentary, so we’ve had to look for the higher truth, yet make a film that people want to see.

The Book: And what is the higher truth you hope to get across?

AE: Showing people the possibility of making a difference, whoever they are, just making a difference in your own community.

KE: Living the life of your choice. Sometimes we don’t know what our purpose is, and the film is about uncovering it, and then living it fully. It’s about our shared humanity, about looking behind the worst. Black Hawk Down was a brilliant war film, but you didn’t care about the Somalis at all, it was like a video game where you pop off the black people. I hope people understand from our film why the Somalis were doing what they were doing, that they see impoverished Somalis in the refugee camp, and understand that they are people.

The Book: Does Black Hawk Down revolve around the same incident?

KE: That happened three months later. What happened on July12th led to Blackhawk Down, because the people were so enraged by this unprecedented bombing. [General] Aidid was not in the house they bombed. They did not give the people warning. 60 people died, women, children. There was rage.

AE: I think part of the message of the feature is that we don’t know how much time we have. Anything could happen at any time, so whatever it is you want to do, do it, be it, live it, seize it.

KE: Dan’s spirit surrounds everything I do. I believe passionately that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do because we have this, I call it, “team spirit”, friends in high places watching over us.

AE: I always knew that Dan would make an impact in his life, I just didn’t know it would be so quickly.

KE: I think for Amy it’s hard to realize that she’s making an impact, because she is the living one, lighting the way with her own torch. For a while, it was Dan giving her the voice, but she’s got her own voice now and her own issues... There are so many days that I think what are we doing, then I’ll get three letters saying, I’m so grateful, and then I think, Okay, step up to the plate for another day, and just keep going. We’re never bored.


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