Compassionate journalist who died filming the Chechens’ forgotten war
Roddy Scott, who has died aged 31 while filming intense fighting between Chechen rebels and Russian forces in Ingushetia, would have enjoyed the irony that it took the killing of a British journalist to revive international media interest in the ongoing war in Chechnya. Scott, who was making a documentary about the Chechens’ eight-year fight to win independence from Russia, felt strongly that their struggle had been forgotten by the rest of the world. He was determined to tell it.
A descendant of CP Scott, the great editor of the Manchester Guardian from 1872 to 1929, Roddy was born in Huntingdon but grew up in North Yorkshire, where his family have a farm. He was educated at Repton school and Edinburgh University. It was at Edinburgh, where he read history, that he developed an interest in journalism. He was foreign news editor of The Student newspaper, and during the holidays travelled widely in the Middle East, spending time living with the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, in eastern Turkey.
On graduating in 1994, Roddy could have taken the easy option of a newspaper or agency job in London. Instead, he chose the tougher but independent path of a freelance career. During the following eight years he lived and worked in some of the world’s most unstable countries, including Yemen, Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Kosovo, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Chechnya. Based for several years in Turkey, he worked as a correspondent and photojournalist for, among others, Reuters, The Middle East magazine and Jane’s Intelligence Review, before concentrating on documentary film work. He was also a contributor to the annual guide, The World’s Most Dangerous Places.
Roddy always argued that there were three simple steps to good journalism: witness an event, work out what was happening and then report it in a balanced and accurate way. It was his insistence that journalists must see things for themselves that led him to take so many risks as, time after time, he headed straight for the centre of the action.
A happy rural upbringing left Roddy well prepared for the rigours of war reporting. Physically tough, he marched everywhere in great strides. But at heart he was an intellectual; he wrote beautifully and was happiest when he was devouring books on history, politics and current affairs. I remember a trip around Egypt, Jordan and Syria when his luggage consisted of a tiny hold-all dwarfed by an enormous hardback history of the French Revolution.
His physical presence, combined with his intelligence and a compassion that he often tried hard to hide, explain how he came to gain such easy acceptance from the tribesmen and guerrilla fighters among whom he spent so much of his time. These were vital qualities for a journalist who lacked the resources that were available to the employees of multinational media agencies.
Arrested by the Ethiopian army in 1999 while trying to cross the border into Sudan, he was held prisoner for several days, charged with espionage. Typically, he enjoyed the experience, making friends with his captors and even ignoring opportunities to escape. A year previously, he had contracted cerebral malaria in Sierra Leone and temporarily lost his sight. The hard-bitten RUF (Revolutionary United Front) guerrillas with whom he had been travelling were so distressed that they made him a litter and carried him to safety across the hostile Guinea border.
But it was the Chechens and their cause that he came to really care about. For the last two years, Roddy had carefully won the trust of Chechen rebels operating out of Georgia’s Pankisi gorge as he made a documentary about their war with Russia. Last year, winter snow had prevented him from travelling into Chechnya to interview a senior rebel commander; Roddy was almost killed in an avalanche as he struggled to save a precious satellite phone. He relished the Chechens’ company, quickly making friends among “the boys” as they swapped stories around camp fires.
In December 2000 he arrived on a holiday in Austria straight from a stint in Georgia. Smelling of woodsmoke and grime, he announced that he hadn’t washed for weeks. He had never looked happier.
Outside his family Roddy had many devoted friends. He was instinctively loyal and kind. And when his eyes shone as he recalled a moonlit night crossing the Albanian alps with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), or talked about his next assignment, you realised how privileged you were to count this rare man as your friend.
Gervaise Roderick (Roddy) Scott, journalist, born February 23 1971; died September 26 2002