He gave his heart, and life, to Somalia

March 27, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

He was one of the first photojournalists to look unblinkingly at the agony of a small, East African country called Somalia. Long before the world knew anything about the nightmare of famine and civil war consuming Somalia, Dan Eldon was there, recording the anguish in that land of walking skeletons and silent, dying children. His pictures -- messages from hell delivered to us early in the summer of 1992 -- helped shock the world into action.

Dan Eldon was 21 when, working as a Reuter photographer, he began chronicling the desperate plight of Somalia, a country he knew and loved.

A year later Dan Eldon became a part of the story: On July 12, 1993, while on the job, Dan was killed by an enraged Somalian mob. He died on a dusty side street in Mogadishu. Three other journalists also died that day -- stoned, knifed and beaten to death by the same mob.

Now, eight months after Dan's death, the story he covered with such insight and conscience is about to change. Sixteen months after President George Bush initiated Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. military presence in Somalia is ending. On Friday, the United States completed its military withdrawal, leaving behind only a small number of Marines.

As the U.S. troops go, so goes the interest of most Americans back home. For all intents and purposes, the story of Somalia is over for us. The moving finger writes, and our attention will now focus on other trouble spots in the world. Bosnia. The Middle East. North Korea.

But for some, including the family of Dan Eldon, the story will never be over. And because Dan played such an important role in opening our eyes to Somalia, it seems fitting -- before that country fades from the spotlight -- to close the story with an account of Dan's life.

' And his terrible death.

The 'Mayor of Mogadishu'

More than most, Dan Eldon was a citizen of the world. The son of an American mother and English father, he moved with his parents to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was 7 years old. Officially he was both an American and a British citizen. But unofficially his heart belonged to Africa. Still, from childhood on, Dan moved easily from country to country, continent to continent.

His summers, however, always belonged to Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- the town where his mother was born and raised -- and to his grandparents, Louise and Russell Knapp, who still live there.

"Every year Dan went to Camp Wapsi, the YMCA camp here," recalls his grandmother. "And he fit into the local scene very well. He just had that ability to fit in with all kinds of people. He fit in with the Masai in Africa, and he fit in here at Camp Wapsi. I remember Dan as being just so much fun to have around."

It is precisely the way the adult Dan is described by one of his colleagues from the Mogadishu days.

"Dan was only 22, but when I first met him I remember thinking he was a guy who'd fit in with any age group," says 32-year-old Donatella Lorch, East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times. "He was very sophisticated for his age. And very happy-go-lucky, laughing all the time. Everyone knew him -- Mogadishu is a small town -- and he was loved by all." There's a pause. Then in a choked voice, she says: "That's the whole thing. The people who killed Dan probably knew him."

Dan's mother, Kathy Eldon, agrees his killers might have known him. She recalls a phone conversation with her son a week before his death: "Mom, they call me the Mayor of Mogadishu," said an ebullient Dan. "I know absolutely everyone here. I'm having the most incredible time."

But even though her son may have recognized the faces of his killers, the mother is not bitter. They were reacting, she says, to a U.S. helicopter attack on a local warlord's headquarters that left 200 Somalis wounded and more than 50 dead. Among them were some of Mogadishu's most respected leaders.

"I've felt anger and rage about Dan's death and all the feelings of 'what if' -- what if we had never moved to Africa, what if Dan had stayed in college . . . " Her voice trails off. "The curious thing is I've never felt bitterness toward the Somalis. It's not the correct response to pick up stones and kill foreigners, but I understand what they did. I do not condone it. But I understand it."

Just in from California, where she now spends most of her time as a film producer, Mrs. Eldon is sitting in a New York hotel room. Surrounded by her talented son's drawings, photographs and voluminous journals -- which she hopes to see published -- she and her daughter, Amy, 19, try to describe Dan. "He was one of the funniest people I ever met," says his sister. "And he made everything in life an adventure. It's almost like he knew he didn't have much time, because he had to pack in all this fun and do everything the best he could do it."

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