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Northern exposure: John Coghlan on helping disabled people in Africa

By Ivan Little

After the trauma of covering the Troubles for 30 years, TV cameraman John Coghlan is focusing on helping others in turmoil.... Disabled people in Africa.

John Coghlan holds an unenviable ‘record’ in the 30-plus years of TV coverage of the Troubles. For no other cameraman in Northern Ireland filmed so much of the horror as he did — from Bloody Sunday to the Kingsmills massacre to the funerals. Hundreds and hundreds of funerals.

So the Belfast-based Dubliner could be forgiven, in his retirement from his front row seat of history, for staying as far away as possible from suffering.

But playing 18 holes on a golf course or keeping his garden in order just aren’t on the radar for this restless, selfless spirit.

Instead, 68-year-old John travels thousands of miles and works seven days a week helping the disabled in Africa, focusing on the forgotten unfortunates in a world where caring for the underprivileged sometimes seems to start and end with victims of famines and earthquakes.

And while Coghlan’s Disability Aid Abroad organisation applauds and supports the work for the headline-grabbing victims overseas, its volunteers concentrate on the disabled whose plights tend to be overlooked.

The number of disabled people in Africa is frightening, not only in scale but also in under-reporting by the media. The United Nations estimate that of the 800 million people living on the continent, 50 million have disabilities, yet only 2% have any access to any form of rehabilitation and 70% are living in abject poverty.

“In many developing countries, disability is seen as a social and cultural stigma and access to health services, education and employment opportunities is being denied to disabled people,” says John, who is determined to bring change to people’s lives, especially when it comes to children.

To anyone who knew John throughout the Troubles — as I did — it’s not surprising that his humanity has found an outlet in his post-TV life.

On the surface he was always the wise-cracker, the joker in the press pack. But behind the wit was a wisdom coupled with a compassion garnered from a lifetime on the hard road of conflict, not only in Ireland but across the globe in warzones like Angola, Somalia, Lebanon and Romania.

The supreme irony is that John’s perilous journey ended with a blast bomb in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the squalid campaign of intimidation by loyalists against young girls and their parents from the Holy Cross Primary School in 2001.

It was the sort of news story that Coghlan had covered a thousand times for his bosses in RTE. But the bomb thrown at the children injured him and left him suffering from shock.

And when he was offered early retirement, he took it willingly.

But even before that, John had suspected that the end to his illustrious career was nigh — on the day that 29 people were killed by a Real IRA bomb in Omagh in August 1998, shortly after the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

“I was so enthused about the agreement. It gave me great hope for the future. But I remember that when the Omagh bomb went off I said I wasn’t going. It was the first time I had ever done that and I still can’t explain my decision. But maybe I’d been able to cope with the despair during the Troubles and it was the hope that messed me about,” he says.

When early retirement came after Holy Cross, boredom wasn’t far behind for John, who endured the thumb-twiddling for 12 months before deciding to do something about it — and do something for other people in the process.

“I volunteered with Disability Action, a charity which is very active across Northern Ireland, and my initial administrative work turned into a PR role and then into advocacy and lobbying using the political contacts I had.

“But all the while I really wanted to do something on an international level for disabled people, particularly the kids,” he explains.

It was a dream inspired by a tragic Sophie’s Choice moment he witnessed as far back as 1966, when he was covering the war in the Congo.

“We were at a feeding centre when a woman brought in her three young children, one of whom was disabled. I watched her dividing up her little bit of food and she gave 70% of it to her able-bodied children, sharing the rest of it between herself and the other disabled youngster.

“That had a profound effect on me. I remember thinking that it was a terrible dilemma for any mother — to mete out survival to her family.”

The tragic image haunted John, and it was in his mind when he proposed that Disability Action should spread their giving wings through a subsidiary charity to Africa. And so Disability Aid Action started in a small way, with employment support programmes in Tanzania primarily for disabled women, because the reasoning was that by empowering them they would be helping their families.

"Women will always use whatever money they have to help with their children's education and health," says John. "Men mightn't necessarily do that."

Another priority was to encourage people in Africa to press for official recognition of their human rights, which were enshrined in law but weren't routinely enacted.

"The one thing that I was told repeatedly here that made a difference to the lives of disabled people in Northern Ireland was legislation. To be able to go to Governments, local authorities and employers and tell them what they had to provide for people with disabilities was crucially important," says John. "And so it is in Africa."

As well as education, one of the more tangible examples of Disability Aid Abroad's work of late has been the development of a new factory to make wheelchairs.

"At the start we were sending out reconditioned second-hand wheelchairs from Ireland to Africa, but the rough terrain meant they were quickly falling apart," he says. "But some of the disabled men were able to set up a co-operative where they're making wheelchairs after learning the basics on metalwork courses we sent them to in Kenya."

The factory can turn out 20 wheelchairs a month, but that's a drop in the ocean because at least 6,500 children are waiting for new wheelchairs. "It's a start," says John, who is always telling anyone who will listen that more funding is a necessity for the disabled in Africa.

"Disability is way down the pecking order," he says. "But we are grateful for the assistance we get from our backers here, like the Big Lottery Fund."

One of the big frustrations for DAA, who work in tandem with disability organisations in Africa, is that so much of the disability on the continent is preventable.

"A lot of it is the result of polio or poor maternal health and if there were more vaccinations and care there would be fewer disabilities," says John.

But for every down that John and his colleagues experience in Africa there are even more ups as a result of their work in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

"I'm convinced that some of the disabled people I know would be CEOs of major companies here if they'd had a proper education. They're bright, charismatic and they have a social conscience."

And their determination is awesome, according to John, who cites the example of one woman who suffers from polio and has to "walk" on her knees to her place of work a kilometre away from her home every day.

Another woman has carried her polio-stricken brother on her back the two kilometres to and from school every day for four years.

John's face lights up at the thought of the successes, but one frequent criticism of international development aid is that the structure needed to maintain it has become a multi-million pound industry which has created a dependency culture among the very people it is trying to help.

John diplomatically sidesteps the controversy, preferring to accentuate the positive changes which his organisation has managed to spearhead.

And he is also proposing to adapt the post-conflict lessons learnt in Northern Ireland for similar situations in places like Rwanda, where one million were slaughtered in a few months in 1994.

"I gave a talk in Rwanda a couple of weeks ago and we have already run a programme in conjunction with War on Want NI for people disabled as a result of the conflict in northeast Uganda and southern Sudan," he says.

"Most of the participants had been abducted as children on their way to school by the Lord's Resistance Army.

"The girls became war brides, which meant they were raped, and the males were forced to become boy soldiers, whose initiation ceremonies involved killing one of their own friends.

"When they escaped or were released by their abductors most of them had HIV/Aids and post-traumatic stress and mental health problems which receive even less attention than physical disabilities."

The vocational training the youngsters received has turned many of their lives around, according to John. One of them has set up a successful farming business and another has established a tailoring company with DAA-provided sewing machines and has orders for hundreds of school uniforms every year.

At 68, John knows that the time may be approaching when he may have to take a step back from his passion for his charity.

"I think there will be significant developments in the way the charity is run," says John, who has a degree in engineering from University College, Dublin, where he ran the film society "to try to find a woman" but ended up finding a job with RTE in their film department.

After flying visits north to cover civil rights marches and riots, John met Geraldine, the Belfast woman who became his wife. They settled in Dublin until the mid-Seventies, when John was headhunted by BBC Northern Ireland.

John says: "On my first day the IRA declared a ceasefire and the powers-that-be wondered if there would be enough work to keep me on, but the trouble later returned with a vengeance.

"I was with the Beeb on a contract basis, but when I was offered a staff job in RTE in 1980 the security of that appealed to me. I worked with some great reporters - and the late Jim Dougal was undoubtedly the finest."

John covered all the major stories of the day but says he tried to keep an emotional distance from the violence he was filming.

"I never spoke to anyone about it, ever. I didn't take the Troubles home with me," says John, who makes light of the dangers he faced and the death threats that became a way of life, though he did admit that there were times when he used alcohol as a crutch.

Looking back, he wonders if it was right to broadcast some of the shots of grieving families he captured at funerals: "I remember one particular image of a young boy coming out of a church and he was saying 'Don't go, Daddy' to the coffin. People praised me for getting the pictures, but I felt it was pornography in a way. Maybe as a human being I should have put the camera down and consoled the boy, I don't know."

John saw so many atrocities that he finds it difficult to single out any one of them as "worse" than any other. But he does recall returning home after filming one mass murder scene and wondering what was sticking to the soles of his shoes.

"They were human remains," says John. With a shudder.

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