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War correspondents reporting feelings from the front line
* Ana Maria Carrano, publisher and magazine editor, is our correspondent in Caracas, Venezuela. Her journalistic activity has been always tied to the local cultural environment.
The most experienced Venezuelan war correspondent, Carlos Rivodo, has covered several armed conflicts since the seventies. Among his lengthiest coverages are the wars in Central America and Angola.
The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) judged multinational corporations for human rights violation in Colombia
War correspondents reporting feelings from the front line.
The Latin-Canadian Organization of Human Rights and Freedom of Expression / Organización Latino-Canadiense de Derechos Humanos y Libertad de Expresión
By Ana Maria Carrano / Seinforma Canada
When Carlos Rivodo recalls the episodes he lived in the wars, he talks more like an active member of the conflict than as an observer. He admits being a journalist that takes sides and gets involved. How could he not do it if he had to live for months and even years with soldiers that ended up being like his siblings? How could he not do it having seen them die, and even having helped digging some of their graves? How could he not do it if he saw that was the only way of winning the other’s confidence to be able to survive? There is no doubt about it: War hurts Rivodo first-hand.
He has got a thick and prominent voice, probably as a result of a slight deafness that left the continuous exhibition to shots. He has got clear and precise diction, with no hesitation whatsoever. Rivodo could pass for radio presenter, because his voice reverberates deeply, as if the words were coming out of a cavern. From time to time, a certain rhythm comes out of his vowels, which is very frequent among the people from Caracas; but his Venezuelan accent is frequently lost in Cuban intonations, country in which he lived for a few years and in which he worked as a correspondent for the magazine Prisma, from the news agency Prensa Latina.
Carlos Rivodo was studying photography in Italy when the war of Yom Kippur broke out. A couple of years before he had sold everything he had in Venezuela to travel to Europe, where he would combine his classes in the State Institute for Cinematography and Television with a street labour activity in which he resold Miguel Angel sculptural reproductions. A peddler routine in which nobody could hurt him “because he was friend even of criminals”.
He was born in Caracas and grew up in El Valle, a humble area of the city, under the guardianship of an “old revolutionary Spanish” who was like his father: “an unusual guy who instilled me in sensitivity”. His school was so small that each one took its own chair to attend classes. When he was 12 years old, the presence of a student of archaeology that rented a room in his house enabled him to enter the world of photography. “I used to go with him to the excavations, and was like a magic valve. He knew about lots of things and, among other things, he knew about photography. He gave me a typescript which was like a course and that changed my life. I went mad. It was like opening up Pandora’s box”.
“During warfare, the death becomes a daily routine and it’s very difficult not to involucrate yourself on it. They say to you: They killed X, and it’s tough, but what can you do different of making a hollow to bury X.” says Carlos Rivodo who appears in this picture among SWAPO combatants in Namibia. (Photos Courtesy Carlos Rivodo/Seinforma Canada)
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“I am a reporter of horror”
That October 7th ,1973, as soon as he got the piece of news saying that the previous day Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel by surprise, and taking advantage of his circumstantial geographical “closeness”-the way Latin-Americans tend to perceive the distances among the European countries-, he decided to leave as an independent correspondent. He headed for the Arab and the Israeli embassies to obtain an accreditation, taking as a reference a thick folder with letters of recommendation and photographs carefully organized before his voluntary exile from Venezuela-one from the newspaper El Nacional, issued by the emblematic photographer of that newspaper, El Gordo Perez; another one of the State TV channel, channel 8, where he worked as Renny Ottolina’s photographer-one of the most remembered Venezuelan showman-; and another one of the sports photographer Fulvio Sassi, his first mentor in the job, who taught him to “see the light without exposure meter”.
With the Arab and the Israeli visa (provided to him as an extra-passport to prevent him having any problems) he flied to El Cairo. After landing, he placed himself in a press office first. In the middle of the deep black of the city with no electricity, he moved to the Nilo Hilton, where he stayed together with other correspondents. “We were very controlled by the Arab troops who had a psychological war for us: they would say that the Israeli were disguised as journalists and that if we went out alone we would be murdered. But we would escape. I was a beginner doing that, so I would just copy the others. We were taken for the front in the Sinai, always under their control”.
“That experience opened up another field; I understood I could do that. I had been with the urban guerrillas in Venezuela, during the sixties, for that reason it was like playing metras, compared to what might happen in a war of that magnitude”.
“The power of an army is not only its striking capability, but its ideology. The Israeli people, they may say Barriga Verde to each other, but when it comes down to shooting they kill anybody, and on the way back, they keep on arguing. That is why that army is so extremely powerful. When an army has already set an ideology, there’s no stamping, nobody refuses orders. The Arabs, which are ten times more than them, adopt a tribal attitude about life. They are dominated by leaders, but if they get annoyed, they just leave and don’t stand for the other ones. That has happened even in combat”.
The macabre postcards of Managua
After the war of the Yom Kippur, Rivodo’s mother gets sick and decides to go back to Venezuela. It is then that he hears about the uprising against Somoza in Nicaragua, contacts some Central-American friends, and emigrates again, this time for more than a decade.
He arrived in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, in 1979, short after the murder in the neighbourhood El Reguero of the North-American journalist Bill Stewart by the National Guard, on July the 20th of that same year. The pictures of the 37 years old journalist on his knees with his arms opened and then executed with a gunshot in the nape were travelling around the world.
For many people, the death of the journalist of the ABC News was the beginning of the end of the dictatorship of Tachito Somoza (Anastasio Somoza Debayle), the last representative of a bloodthirsty dynasty that subjected the Nicaraguan inhabitants for 42 years. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) -which had been 17 years in activities against the dictatorship of Somoza and had been strengthening its actions since 1978 (after the murder of the editor in chief if the newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro)-,was gaining field on international politics with Stewart’s death.
“The environment was too tense. If you were close to the National Guard, they would look at you and shoot you. They said they were going to kill one hundred journalists. I left immediately and got in touch with the guerrilla outside the country and entered with them from the south through the mountain, but there were also other groups of guerrilla moving forward from the north. At that time, guerrillas could not be buried because the relatives were riddled. I helped a woman bury her son in the yard of her house. The inhabitants rose in insurrection against Somoza and the National Guard, and seized the streets. It was with shots, bites and stones that they knocked him down, together with the Sandinista guerrilla that was in the mountain”.
When he refers to the cruelties committed by Somoza’s National Guard, Rivodo recalls particularly some macabre Christmas cards found in a drawer of the Head of Intelligence of the guard, together with a flag, a packet of marijuana and a gun. “The person that opened that drawer and gave me the cards is a friend. He told me: I want you to keep them because they are a testimony of history. I have got like ten of them, where the pictures of the people they murdered appear. In one of them there are some kids of around 10 years old with its throats slit”.
Finally, on July 17th, 1979, Somoza fled from the country and two days afterwards the National Board of Re-enactment took charge of the government. Rivodo’s description of Managua during those weeks makes it look similar to hell: dead bodies lying everywhere, some complete and some burning to prevent epidemics; a persistent stink of dead meat, of old blood; labyrinths among the streets, the paving stone taken out to form barricades; light bulbs from the streets shot down; constant confrontations among the local gangs. “Even the board invented a disarmament operation. They took the city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, in a well-planned process. They put the weapons in those trucks they used to move the sugar cane. They picked up so many weapons they would take the trucks up to the roof”.
The city recovers its calm, but not for a long time. With the aim of fighting against the Sandinista regime, from Honduras, Costa Rica and Miami the contra revolution is given shape, with Somocists Nicaraguan sponsored by Reagan’s government. “That same year I go to Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, which was the centre of the conspiracy. In Costa Rica there was no war, but there were thousands of Nicaraguans involved in favour of one and the other one. When covering conflicts, taking a plane is the same than taking a taxi”.
A long stay with the Sandinista guerrilla
During the war against the Contras, the fights were in the mountain and in the villages further away from Managua. Rivodo was in a small village called Jalapa, where the battle of Teotecacinte took place. “In that place they put 4 thousand Contras in just one day and started to bombard it; but it were kids that they killed with the mortars, because men were fighting”.
"Death becomes a daily thing. They tell you: They killed "X", and you feel annoyed because of that, but what can you do else than a hole to burry that person? Once we were in a place seating down eating some laticas. I turned on the tape recorder as I used to do sometimes. Then, when I heard what I had recorded, it sounded like the narration of a movie. The guerrillas and some soldiers could be heard, the tinsmiths were sounding on the back. So it can be heard the voice of a woman saying: A plane; and everything remains silent. And the airplane is clearly heard in the record. Another one says: They will drop bombs. And you hear the blast of the dropped bomb. Another one mentions: Hey, they will answer back. It was as if they knew what was going to happen. They will throw "four slots" at them, which are anti-aircraft machine guns that have four slots and sound as harsh as thunders...and nobody stopped eating. During the entire conversation, the tinsmiths were always heard on the background, while bombs were dropped 50 metres away from us".
"In Nicaragua there were lots of volunteers, and a lot of people with fear. The incendiary bombs, the petrol tanks, the 500 pounds bombs were very scary. A person can not fight for obligation, because a person can not be forced to die. And that was happening there, because those volunteers made you feel like crying. Some of them were kids of up to 10 and 11 years old, some pelaitos that had no life by facing the Contras. Besides that, they were ideologically weak".
“In the guerrilla there was a major named Walter Ferreti, alias Chombo, a peasant I appreciated a lot. He was the most pure conception of a hero, the popular hero, brave. When the Sandinistas storm the Congress and take the members of parliament as hostages, reason that leads to free Daniel Ortega and other important figures from Prison, he is the third on board, although actually he was one of the persons in charge”.
“He once took me to a thunder operation where they had to prevent the major of the Contras from being taken away of one of the North-American bases, located in the island of Tigre; close to the border with El Salvador and Honduras. The lights from the island could be seen from solid ground. To get to that coast we had to walk 17 kilometres along the wet shore and return immediately. That night was completely dark, it was pouring with rain. The mortar, that has a huge rounded plate, made of steel, that weighs around 80 kilos, was tied to the soldiers’ back. Same as the spiders, which are enormous grenade throwers. Some men passed out and stayed in the shore while the others continued. We arrived, they assembled the weapons and shoot for around 3 hours. Then we returned running because the piranha boats from the Contras were coming closer, some that had machine guns on its extremes and two of them on the sides”.
The way in which Rivodo narrates his anecdotes resembles the narration of an adventurer about his great episodes. He enjoys the reconstruction of the facts and specifies with excitement those moments of extreme survival.
"We would generally sleep on the floor, in the middle of the jungle or in the middle of nowhere; even on the wet floor. And we slept like babies because the tiredness was too big. In the Nicaraguan guerrilla there was a rearguard where the food for the combatants was prepared, because it is the people that were fighting that could not stop eating. In those operations command like, people take their own combat provisions. I was given a rucksack with tins and a water bottle".
"Hunger is bearable I have been up to three days without eating, with my belly stuck to my spine, just rinsing my mouth with coffee. But the ambushes are the worst".
"One day I had to go through two ambushes in a row on the same night. That was when the Sandinista army moved forward towards Managua. We drove a convertible through a mountain where we couldn’t see a thing. The guy that was sitting on the front seat was carrying the riffle between his legs and the first shot was received by the cannon of the riffle, which was close to his chest. The riffle broke down, but it deflected the bullet and nothing happened to the man. Everybody hurled to the ground. Only the fire of the gunshots could be seen. It was like half an hour of continuous shooting. Finally, the group drives back the action and stopped shooting or they were killed. We went off like a shot from that place, with a crazy man that drove the car at full speed, under the rain and without being able to see clearly where he was heading. It was like going out of a dark cave.
"As if it weren't enough, when we got to the village they started shooting at us because they thought we were Somocists. We run away, crawling along the pond, and we entered an empty house that had no doors. We hadn't taken a bath for days and we were absolutely stinky. We could feel the bullets hitting the roof. We were hungry. We remained there, sitting until dawn. The truck had been riddled with bullets. Until somebody screamed: They are not from the Contras! Afterwards, they even offered us some breakfast".
"Wars in Central-America were too tough because they were personal wars, from majors, groups. I will beat this one because I know that if tomorrow I were to be the captured one, I would be beaten".
"To be in a war like that you have to get involved. It is different when you get involved than when you are defenceless and suspect the people that are close to you, to whom they frighten, kill, torture, and besides they leave the evidence".
The State terrorism in Guatemala and El Salvador
Rivodo went to Guatemala to cover the guerrilla in the Quiche, an area from the mountains "full of fog and pine tree forests". As the guerrilla didn't allow the press to be there, he followed the coordinates he was given in the border: go as a tourist and try to get in gradually. He arrived to the mountain in a taxi and achieved his aim: take pictures to what was going on, to record the guerrilla.
"When I decided to go back to the city, the kaibiles (ex soldiers of counter-insurgent elite of the Army in Guatemala) laid an ambush for me, but actually they were troops of murderers from Guatemala. They used to make people get out of the buses and they killed them all. That was one of the moments I felt closer to death. They got me out with a rifle in my neck and a guy asked another one: Shall I kill him? But the other one did not answer. They grabbed the taxi driver, kicked him and knocked him over".
Rivodo remained calm. In order to make his role of a tourist believable, he showed them masks of Guatemalan rituals he had brought from the Quiche and some toys with indigenous fabrics he had bought for his wife and his son.
"The guy said: Just to see, and he looked into the back seat. Finally I hear: Let him go away, and do it fast. The taxi driver was so distressed he almost gets in through the window. That day I was reborn, because falling into the hands of the guerrilla meant death. When we continued, we saw a lot of dead people on our way".
"In Guatemala people know just half of what happened. In there it was put into practice the same criteria used in Vietnam, using as a parable Mao Tse Tung's quotation that the guerrilla is to population what a fish is to water. The foreigners create the military theory that is to be done is take the water away from the fish so that it dies. That is how they kill and make the population disappear; they murder the men or create the strategic villages: confinement areas, concentration camps where they tortured and killed them".
"In El Salvador something similar was happening: the guerrilla units were working-class people or peasants that worked during the day, and during the night they gathered contingents of 900 men to fight. They were all the same, it was the people. There were wire fences on the streets. If you went through military points there was the risk of being murdered. The people were very frightened. They were confrontations against invisible people. The guerrilla could be the same guys that drove the taxis. If the death squad knew you had been friends with a guerrilla, your head would appear in somebody else's house. If a guy suspected of being guerrilla just waved at you, you were dead. They cut thousands of people's heads off".
"In that type of war, when the guerrilla is among the civil population, it is not that one did not see some tanks firing in that direction and some in this one. Better said the trouble is that a state terrorism is taking place, where the population is threatened with murders and tortures in full view of everyone, and the dead bodies are left on the floor, no matter if they are kids, women or old people. Besides, it is done with total impunity.
In Angola with the Cubans
It was through "his mates" in Cuba that Rivodo was finally sent to Africa to cover the war of Angola. He was offered to go under the same conditions than the soldiers and he agreed. Eighteen hours flight with over 200 soldiers until they arrived in Luanda, the capital city. After a couple of days in the city, he went to the fronts. Some time later he went to The Congo and Namibia with the SWAPO. Altogether, he stayed in Africa around eight months.
"As a kid I dreamt of going to Africa without knowing what it was like. Getting to know the Sub-Saharan Africa is an extremely powerful cultural impact, because you finally get to understand those things we tend to talk about such as poverty. In Venezuela there is not just one miserable person. Africa is the forgotten continent, plunged into the most horrible social condition. Women in Luanda, for example, have an average of life of around 42 years, they look as if they were 70 and they are 40 years old because they are treated like slaves. So, how do those countries get out of those labyrinths? Moreover, the big powers have managed to make that remain the same, because they have stolen their belongings, the diamonds, they stole everything from them".
"What Portugal did to Angola could still be perceived when I was there. When I asked black people why people was still living in quimbos (shacks) if there were intact estates that had been abandoned 20 years ago, they answered: And if white people come back? if black people were murdered just for looking at them into the eyes".
"The one of Angola was a different type of war. Soldiers moved in huge military units, which they called the tactic units that were self-sufficient, had division, soldier, infantry, logistics, and intelligence".
Rivodo states one more time that he has never been a rearguard photographer; that he has been interested in being with the soldiers, getting involved like one of them.
"I have always been with the researchers that are the ones that die, the ones that went 60 kilometres into the enemy's territory. They are the ones that clear the minefields so that the tactic units of the army are able to move forward. That is an unusual job, the most pure concept of what men are. We used to say that was the only circus where there was no clown but just mere wild. That is why they ended up with the Apartheid and made the SWAPO seize the power in Namibia. That is a consequence of what happened in Angola. The MLPA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) seized the power thanks to the defeat that the Cubans infringed on the South-African army”.
“In that war the front moved towards the desert. There was no water. We had to go fetch it 60 kilometres away from our location. When the soldiers saw millions of guinea fowls, those that are painted on the top and do not have tails, they threw a grenade at them and three hundred died. That would feed the entire troop. As the researchers can not make any noise, you can be up to a month with the rucksack full of tins. The Africans, on the other hand, hanged the dogs from the desert and when they were rotten they ate them, because that is the way they like them”.
The war in Angola was not visually as terrible as it was in Central-America. It is not face to face, but much more technological; it was an air force and long-range artillery war. Maybe the war was not visually that cruel. In Central-America, people collided ten metres away from the jungle and the muertero was everywhere”.
“When the South-Africans dropped a cannon named G6, which is my same size, the sand became crystallized. That reaches 6 or 7 thousand degrees of temperature. In the war one has to learn to coexist with that the same way as a soldier”.
“I was in the south-west, with units that moved towards the east that cleaned all that area of South-African enemies. The Cuban army was a very small one, but really combative. There are soldiers with moral, with ethics and with ideologies. Those are the best ones. I, above all, defend the Cuban troops because there are no tortured people. Of course they do kill people, because that is the idea, but the concept of teaching does not exist.
Being a reporter of horror
Rivodo’s tired eyes sparkle and even seem to get bigger when he talks about the toughest episodes. After recalling the moment he had a crash in a plane in the middle of the jungle of Darien, in Panama, when he accompanied a vice-minister in election campaign, thereupon he goes on to savour the spicy fish and the rice with coconut milk that the indigenous Kuna, who received them, cooked for them while they waited for the rescue. He looks as if he were immune or too accustomed to the extremes of war.
“There are two beings that can be very tough in the war: a woman and a child. Women because they are very definite when they decide to do something, and children because of their lack of fear to death, their lack of awareness of what’s right and what’s wrong. Anything can happen to you when you are in the hands of children. I have seen kids of 7 and 8 years old, that could be my grandchildren or sons, kicking people, armed to the teeth with riffles and grenades.
“I think a person needs certain characteristics for a job like this one. It is not that one feels superior to anyone, but you can not fear death, because it is an every day thing. Your life changes, the precepts before moral things, before God. People think wars are like movies, where somebody arrives at the end and saves you. But it is not like that. I do not have religious principles. I was not completely sure before, but I am now.
“In Venezuela somebody had the impudence of writing a headline in a newspaper that is in opposition to the government, saying: Do you want war? Come on, then! I thought it was unheard. It was as if the journalist could be beyond a war. That nobody is going to touch his family or his house. That is irresponsible and of a catastrophic ignorance”.
“I have seen kids being peeled, women having their heads cut off. The more evilness and brutality, the better the soldiers become. Because that is the aim: exterminate the others”.
“One is a reporter of that horror. One begins a story, either you survive or not. In that job other things come into play: first, your awareness of what is happening; second, not leaving anything at random, although chance and fortune are related to your survival. You can not arrive like a parachutist because it is very likely that you get killed. People have to understand the situation; who are the ones that are fighting. People have to understand that there is an implicit language and metalanguage in all of the paramilitary or guerrilla structures to escape undamaged from that situation”.
“Neither should you fear the gunshots, because one thing is two gunshots and another one is a bombardment. Some people, when we were in Nicaragua, in the war against Somoza, messed themselves when they heard the helicopters. And it is not a euphemism. I always proved I was capable of being there, without weapons, but with my camera, with the men I have loved the most in my life, those guys that are in the fronts of the war, where everything is extreme. Love, solidarity and cruelty are extreme”.
“I like war. It is not that I like seeing how people are murdered, but the adrenaline that you breathe there. I have liked it until today. If I got scared I would never go back again, because the first ones who die are those who are scared. Fear and courage are stuck with the same intensity. You see the soldiers leaded by men that are unusually hazardous and their soldiers are the same as them. If that head staggers or fears, everybody gets killed. I have rolls of film with pictures of the soldiers alive and then dead, in only thirty pictures”.
“The power of an army is not only its striking capability, but its ideology.”
A combatant’s daughter, Nicaragua, 1979.
“I always proved I was capable of being there, with no weapons, but with my camera.”
“I like war. It is not that I like seeing how people are murdered, but the adrenaline that you breathe there. If I got scared I would never go back again, because the first ones who die are those who are scared.”
Fallen Internationalist soldiers, Nicaragua, 1979.
"I am a reporter of horror"