The Reporter Meets His Characters

Eduardo del Campo, a 45-year-old Sevillian journalist, listens to and writes the stories of people all over the world, including those in his own city. Here, he tells about how he met the relatives of Mehdi Zui in Benghazi, Libya, Frederic Oumar Kanouté in N’Gabacoro Droit, Mali, and Coral Camúñez Gómez in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, a neighborhood in the south of Seville.

The journalist sat waiting inside of his metallic gray, three-door Renault Clio in front of the men’s pavilion of the penitentiary center Sevilla Dos. He was picking up Coral Camúñez Gómez, a transexual prisoner, along with her friend, to take them to their neighborhood. Between 2001 and 2002, Eduardo del Campo interviewed various prisoners serving sentences in local prisons for a series of articles on behalf of the Human Rights Association of Andalusia, which were published in the national newspaper El Mundo. A contact at the Association brought Coral’s story to his attention, and during her day of leave from the penitentiary, Eduardo was able to get to know her in her own home. He wanted to learn about the life of a transexual woman in a prison for men.

Coral has green eyes and lashes coated with mas- cara, black hair peppered with gray, and the slender hands of a girl who likes to show off. The other day she left the prison, with a leave permit that expires this morning, wearing a jean skirt, white platform boots with matching stockings, and a black handkerchief tied at her neck. Her makeup eases the wears of a life of marginalization, the marks of drugs (al- ready forgotten), the overbearingness of the penitentiary system, family abandonment, and sickness.* 

A lot happens behind the scenes of a journalistic piece that the reader doesn’t see. This same day, for example, he picked up another prisoner, the mother of 25 children, and interviewed her in her home, just like Coral. “I got two stories; that was a good day.” This is the life of a journalist.

Today, he is the one being interviewed. He arrives to the meeting with his long hair, a color between blonde and gray, still wet from a shower. His eyes, wide behind a pair of clear framed glasses that correct his farsightedness, search through the cafe where he waits. He is wearing a black leather jacket and a silver ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. He married Cristina in July of 1997 and together they have two children, Claudia, 15, and Eduardo, almost 12.

Eduardo always knew that he wanted to be a journalist. When he was six years old, his mother bought him a box set of encyclopedias with drawings of the world, Lugares Maravillosos (Marvelous Places). He said he wanted to travel the world to see all the places in those books. Further, his father read two newspapers a day, El País and Diario 16. That is why Eduardo decided he would be a journalist, to be able to talk to people all over the world. Eduardo believes that if you know what to look for, stories are everywhere. “When I walk through the street, I listen with my antennae up, or a poster catches my eye. Other times, it is a small news story that pulls me in and that I can develop into a much larger article. I also receive assignments from my editor to go to a specific place and write a report. I always need to find an angle. There are always stories wherever I go; I only need to listen and talk with people to find them.”

In 2007, Eduardo received an assignment from the director of the magazine, Magazine from the newspaper, El Mundo, to write an article over the French-Malian, Frédéric Oumar Kanouté, the star of the soccer team Sevilla F.C. and one of the best forwards in Europe, a smart, socially-committed, and a practicing Muslim.

Like a deus ex machina under the blazing African sun, the black SUV burst onto the road, a new and impressive Mercedes ML-400. The benefactor himself drove the craft and when he gets out, it seems like a king, a saint, or a prophet suddenly appeared in flesh and bone amongst the poorest in his kingdom. In reality, it’s something similar: a famous soccer player. He is the star of the Malian selection, and the crack player of Seville. One of the best players in the Spanish League, which is the same as saying the world. A crowd chants his name like a sacred psalm of good luck, while they wave their hands, anxious for a blessing, and applaud. ‘Kanouté, Kanouté, Kanouté!’ ** 

It is curiosity that always leads him to a story. “With Mehdi, I heard something on the television, but no one in Spain had reported it yet. There was a small mention on CNN. That’s why, when I arrived to Benghazi in March of 2011, I asked my guides if I could talk with his family, with his daughters and with other people who knew him.”

Mehdi was a father, 49 years old with a good job, a respected member of the community. What happened on the morning of February 20, 2011, that led him to commit a suicide bombing in front of the general headquarters of the Gaddafi troops, an act that turned him into a hero and a martyr? “The important step is to go to the origin because everybody there knew him, and you can begin to create a profile,” Eduardo ex- plains. The journalist went to the neighborhood, talked with the neighbors and the family in their home, and visited the grave site to try to under- stand why Mehdi decided to do what he did.

Mehdi’s neighbor saw him leave from his apartment, door #5, at nine thirty in the morning on February 20th, carrying two 18 liter cylinders of cooking gas. He asked him where he was going: ‘I’m going to fill them. I’m all out.’ But they were full(…) He loaded the tanks in the trunk of his car, a dark green 2007 Kaya from South Korea. A little before or a little after, he put in two 20-liter gas drums. The officials said he was also wearing TNT dynamite, but his cousin Mehdi Ali said that they couldn’t prove it. With his cargo, he converted his working family man’s car,which only knew the daily routine of the drive between work and home, into the car-bomb that the rebellious citizens of Benghazi needed to attack Gaddafi’s headquarters.*** 

Sometimes, a profile is created only with the voice of the protagonist. The story of Coral is told in the form of a long quote in her own words. “It’s better to give a testimony from the start with their voice,” comments the journalist. Although he edited the quotes to clarify the story, the tone stayed the same.

Eduardo never records his conversations, preferring to take notes by hand, writing and editing the most important ideas while the interviewee talks. During the car ride from the prison to her neighborhood, Eduardo was able to get to know Coral and later, in a more formal manner, inter- view her in her own home.

In the case of Kanouté, the journalist knew months before that in June of 2007, the soccer star was going to attend an event in N’gabacoro Droit, his father’s hometown in Mali, to lay the first stone of a building that would serve as a residence for orphaned children. After months of trying to find the perfect moment to write a pro- file on Kanouté in a context outside of the soccer field, the opportunity had arrived. Accompanied by the photographer Ricardo Cases, he travelled to Mali and from the capital Bamako to a small municipal of N’gabacoro Droit, where the family and a group of organizers awaited Kanouté and the event. While there, Eduardo spent a lot of time with the soccer player in the black Mercedes ML-400 that would become so important in the article, accompanying him in many different situations and meeting the other people that would allow him to create a well-rounded profile on the idol of Sevilla F.C.

Although Eduardo speaks Spanish, English, French, and Italian, and is able to understand a bit of Portuguese, communicating with people all over the world in different languages can still be difficult. “If you have the will, you can communicate by using gestures or Google Translate. There is always someone young that speaks English, Spanish, Italian, or Arabic and wants to be the translator for you.” The noise level rises and falls in the interview room, and with it, so changes the volume of his voice; he never wants to be the loudest in the room. He seems accustomed to communicating in adverse situations.

Eduardo has covered wars in foreign countries and has been put in high-risk situations on more than one occasion; but when he is in the location of the story, he has no fear. “The fear is mostly before the trip. Your imagination exaggerates things, and there is a fear of the unknown, of what you are going to encounter, of what might happen, what might occur.” Once he is at his destination and talking with the locals, he realizes that the danger is controllable, and that the people he is with want to help him and keep him safe. In the first pages of his book, De Estambul al Cairo, Diario de viaje por un Oriente roto (2009) (From Istanbul to Cairo, Diary of a trip through a broken Middle East), the journalist writes: “In these moments, when the unknown brother opens his house, his heart and his life, as if he had spent years waiting for this moment to meet you, you tell yourself it’s worth it to come and meet them, and you shamefully ask yourself why you doubted it so much.”

A reporter should be cautious with permanently-opened eyes and perpetually-listening ears, the same state they should be in to find the story. The production process of an article is sometimes arduous. The reporter uses his connections to make the world seem like a smaller place. For the article on Kanouté, as it can be difficult to access a star, Eduardo first contacted the personal traumatologist of Kanouté, Antonio Ojeda, who happened to be the friend of another journalist that Eduardo worked with in Seville. “It is a chain; when you look for information, you need to ask a lot of people.”

For a journalist, it is important to maintain contact with the subjects of his stories because they can serve as resources for future stories or help him make another connection. He always gives them a copy of the article after it is published. In the case of Coral, it was not possible because she was still in prison many years after. “I would like to have contact with her, but I don’t have her telephone number. I might be able to find her. God willing, she is free.”

Throughout his life, he has published more than 2,000 articles and edited more than 20,000 more stories from other journalists. He began his career at the Radio Nacional de España and later wrote scripts for Canal Sur Television. In addition to working for El Mundo, he has worked for many other newspapers: first, in Diario 16, where in fall 1994, he published one of his first articles about people diagnosed with AIDS; then, El País, where he published his first inter- national story about Rwandan refugees in the Congo; for Diario de Sevilla; and most recently, for El Español. He has travelled to Afghanistan, Mali, Libya, Rwanda, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Colombia, the United States, Peru, and Cuba, and many countries in between. He has published two books of journalistic articles and the already mentioned De Estambul a Cairo, diario de viaje por un Oriente roto (2009), as well as Odiseas. Al otro lado de la frontera: historias de la inmigración en España (2006) (Odysseys. The other side of the border: Stories of immigration in Spain); The novel Capital Sur (2013) (Capital South) and a book of poems, Pan Americano (1999) (Pan-American/American Bread). He was also the editor of a book compiling great journalistic texts, Maestros del periodismo (2014) (Masters of Journalism). Eduardo del Campo was in Afghanistan in the fall of 1996 when the Taliban took control of the country. He was in Kashmir when Pakistan and India fought over the disputed territory. “People like to read real stories that explain the world, and everyone wants their story to be heard.” •

* Excerpt from “Coral de mujer en cárcel para hombres”, Eduardo del Campo, El Mundo Andalucía, lunes 21 de enero de 2002

** Excerpt from “Kanouté: El ‘Rey Gol’ Marca en África”, Eduardo del Campo, Magazine de El Mundo, edición nacional, domingo 12 de agosto de 2007

*** Excerpt from “El suicida de Bengasi y otros héroes”, Eduardo del Campo, El Mundo, edición nacional, domingo 3 de abril de 2011

Eduardo del Campo is the professor of the course Migrations in a Globalised World at CIEE Seville