I Shot the President(s) pt. 1
Pt.1 of my first assignment for AP.
It is 4 in the afternoon, on February 2nd. The sky is turning a hazy gold as the sun dips towards the rooftops in downtown Bamako. I am, sweaty, dirty, and tired. It’s rush-hour, and the air is thick with dust and smog. I’ve been walking around Bamako all day, and have just listened to a single-mother of 8 tell the story of her flight from the hellish rule of Islamic extremists in the north. This is when the AP calls me with my first assignment.
French President Francoise Hollande is flying into Bamako, possibly this evening. My editor’s not sure when, and my name’s not on the list of journalists the French government has. But can you make it work? Do I have a choice, really?
I immediately hail a cab and head for the Cite Administrative in a vain attempt to talk to someone before the offices close. In the back of my mind I know it’s a lost cause. The looks I get from the remaining staff in the Ministry of Communication say it all:
It’s 4:30 on a Friday, tomorrow is a national holiday, and you want me to help you get onto a press list for the French President who may or may not be arriving any time now?
Come back Monday.
So I hop another cab back to the camel and gather my gear. There’s a new face sitting in the common area. It’s George Henton and the cameras splayed across a table make it clear he’s a photographer. I tell him what I’d heard and I invite him along. His info says the president arrives tomorrow morning, but he comes along anyways. A split cab is half off, after all.
So we rush to the airport and of course…nothing. As soon as we arrive, I’m able to get a hold of the French Army Captain who is coordinating the press, and he tells me the plane is at 5 am the next day. I make the most of it and check for my lost baggage, but there’s nothing. Tomorrow, they say.
So we go back to the camel and regroup. We arrange a driver for the next morning and spend the evening frantically calling members of the president’s entourage and anyone who might be able to help. George is shooting for the EPA , and we’re throwing our agencies’ names around at every possible opportunity. I mean, working for two of the largest wire services in the world has to count for something, right?
Not tonight. We crash around midnight.
A Shot in the Dark
A Shot in the Dark
4 hours later that cruel, cruel alarm goes off and we drag ourselves out of bed. Our driver shuttles us to the airport and we arrive, thankfully, at the same time as a convoy of press vehicles. We slip into the back of the convoy, and when the guard looks into our car we point confidently at our cameras. It works, and they wave us in with no questions asked.
Once inside the airport, we make friendly banter with a German film crew until a French military officer approaches us and takes down our names. “The flight leaves at 6, everyone else will be here at 5:30,” he says.
We had just put our names on a list for a flight to Timbuktu. As it turns out the president isn’t flying into Bamako at all, and instead is going straight to Sevarae, where he’ll meet Malian interim President Diancounda Traore before continuing to Timbuktu There are 3 flights leaving this morning: One for Malian media, one for western media, and one for President Traore. We’re not sure if we’re on the list for western media, but we keep out mouths shut and stay with the group. Maybe, just maybe, we can get on the plane.
We can’t. The flight is strictly controlled. It’s painful to watch 30 other press people climb into the back of a military transport plane and fly off. We get a consolation prize, though. The military officer informs us both Presidents will be returning to Bamako on the same plane that afternoon, an hour and a half before the press planes get back. That means we’ll be the only shooters from AP/EPA there when they arrive. It’s not what we’d hoped, but it’s something.
Meanwhile, they’ve rolled out the red carpet and mustered the honor guard for President Traore. A few minutes later he arrives. It’s dark, and the lighting is terrible. The only shot I manage to get is this:
It’s crap, and not even worth filing. We head back to the camel and let our editors know the score. Thankfully, they want us back at the airport that afternoon. I crawl into bed at 7 am, to try and get a few pathetic hours of sleep. What I don’t know at the time is that the rest of the day will be absolutely awesome.