A mother finds meaning in a Mogadishu nightmare

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Aaron Schachter: Dan Eldon was a talented young photojournalist when he first traveled to Somalia in 1992. He was in the East African country to document the widespread famine that was killing tens of thousands of people. Just one year later Eldon was killed. Dan's mother Kathy has spent decades trying to make sense of her son's death. Her new memoir is called In The Heart of Life. Kathy Eldon: Dan was a vibrant spirit. He was skinny as a rail and he had a very strong positive personality that disarmed people. When Dan was 21 years old he heard about a possible famine in Somalia. He went with his friend, Aidan Hartley, who was working with Reuters, to explore whether there was indeed a problem there. The two of them reported and took photographs of this famine where thousands of people where threatened and hundreds were dying. The photographs that he took were harrowing and they triggered a global response, and that response was enough to make Dan want to go back again, and again and again for the next year to continue telling the story. There's an addictive quality to that country. It is uncertain, unstable, the people are challenging. By 4:00 in the afternoon, many of the young men are on khat, which is something that you chew to make you high. It was always an adrenaline boost, but I don't think that was really the reason he was there. I think for him it was a chance to use his photography to tell a story that needed to be told about a problem that really needed to be solved, so he continued to go back. His photographs showed the really unraveling of that country and the descent of it into tremendous chaos. Schachter: Dan Eldon's young life was cut short when he was killed by the very people whose stories he was trying to tell. Eldon: On July 12, 1993, there was a bombing by UN forces under American leadership of a house where they believed a warlord was hiding. It was sort of like a hunting for Osama bin Laden. Tragically, the warlord wasn't there and it was really a meeting of community leaders discussing the possibility of peace. During the bombing, about 72 people were killed, hundreds were wounded and the survivors ran to the al-Sahafi Hotel to get help. They wanted to get people to come and tell the story of what happened. They convinced the journalists to come and that they would safe, and Dan and a group of other young journalists arrived on the scene to discover a scene of terrible chaos and carnage. They started shooting pictures, but the crowd, numbered about a thousand in the compound, was very angry and it became a mob and picked up stones and sticks and began to shout that the journalists were to blame, and they attacked the journalists. And four were killed and one escaped. Schachter: Kathy Eldon has been working through her grief ever since. A few years ago she was traveling in NY with her daughter, Amy, when she hailed a cab. Eldon: And when we got in the taxi we realized that the taxi driver was Somali. Now, this has not happened to me before or since. I thought what do I do? Do I tell this guy what happened? And I just told him what had happened to my son and I thought I have no idea what he was going to do. He turned around and he had tears in his eyes, and he said my name is Mohamed and I'm so sorry for what happened to your son. He said I know exactly what happened that day. He had a friend or a brother who had been hurt or killed even, and he said it shouldn't have happened. And I was still kind of cold because I just didn't even know how to respond. And then he looked at me and he said on behalf of all Somalis, I ask your forgiveness. And I thought whoa, man, what am I gonna do now? And then I thought you know, as Gandhi said, if the world is to change, we have to change. And I was able to say okay, I understand what the Somalis who killed Dan did and why, and I forgive them. And it was like this enormous weight off my head and my spirit, and I was able I think to really use my life in a much more positive way than if I'd hung on to that rage. Schachter: Kathy Eldon's son Dan died in Somalia in 1993. He was just 22 years old. Her new memoir is called In The Heart of Life. You're listening to The World on PRI.