A witness to atrocities in conflict zones from Northern Ireland to Sarajevo, multi-award-winning Perth photographer Tony Ashby owes his life to his wits… and sometimes blind luck. Here, he reflects on his experiences and why the risk has been worth it.

I have always been interested in civil war – not because of the violence but because of war’s effect on people, because civilians are the ones who suffer. I had just been divorced and decided that it was the right time to travel to a war zone; the first time I entered one, I must have got shellshock.

It was 1985 and sectarian militias in Beirut were having a go at each other day and night. It’s the sort of fear that you can’t describe, so I don’t try. That kind of fear can be debilitating… I retreated to Cyprus and had a rethink. But then I thought, ‘I have come all this way and I really want to do this’, so I went back. (Beirut-based UK journalist) Robert Fisk took me by the hand and we went back in, despite the fear. Once you do that, it gets easier.

I went back about a dozen times over the next five years. I learned to handle it, learned to build up my defences. Sometimes it’s the only way, but I don’t like going on assignment with troops – getting embedded. I prefer to immerse myself in communities, sneak around the neighborhood and work with the locals. They know the terrain, they listen to the local radio. I learned when to hold back and who to trust.

 Rwanda: more than 200 children imprisoned and facing a charge of genocide, one that few of them understand. 


I used to pay a guy in West Beirut about US$6 a day – a huge amount for him – to drive me around. His name was Jihad Nannoun and he looked like an evil bastard, but he was a really terrific bloke. He saved my bacon so many times, took me into places where you wouldn’t dare go on your own, and put his own life in danger. That was at the time when (Anglican church envoy) Terry Waite was kidnapped by Shiite Muslims and held hostage for more than four years. Waite had secured the release of missionaries in Iran, extracted British hostages from Libya and got American hostages out of Lebanon before he was kidnapped himself – nobody knew if he was alive or dead. Nowhere was more notorious for kidnapping than Lebanon. It was not easy getting a seat on United Nations planes to get into these places but I had a contact book full of helpful names.

Many correspondents were killed – in the first six months in Croatia, before the siege of Sarajevo and surrounding conflicts, 26 colleagues died. There were lots of rookies driving down to Croatia at the time, from Europe and the UK. They were adventurers. I did an interview on CNN about it, about (all these) inexperienced photographers putting their lives in danger.

One young bloke was with me, fresh out of Canadian photography school. His name was Peter Bryski. Two days after my last day there, I got a call telling me that Peter had been blown up. Another photographer – Antoine Gyori – had bent down to grab a packet of cigarettes from his bag just as an incoming rocket exploded: the resulting shrapnel killed Peter Bryski. Antoine probably would have been killed if he hadn’t been dying for a smoke.

Sarajevo: Narcis Misanovic kneels at his father’s grave in his front yard, the only safe place near his block of flats to bury the dead. 


Peter had only lasted three days, and sold one photograph.Another day, I saw Antoine’s car burnt out on the street; a civilian also saw it, and quickly crossed himself. I assumed Antoine was dead – despite snipers causing absolute chaos, I made it to his hotel, and there he was, sitting up having a stiff drink. In February 1993, he got shot in the neck at Sarajevo Airport. It only kept him off the radar for about a year. He’d used up most of his nine lives!

The closest call for me? I was in a ditch in an exposed paddock with four other photographers, in Croatia during the Balkan conflict. We could hear strafing from an approaching helicopter, and I knew that in a few seconds we could all be dead. Then the firing stopped. A few minutes later, some excited Croat came by, sitting on the bonnet of a car with his hands up, signalling victory; he had shot the copter out of the sky and captured the Serbs in the cockpit. I got a pic of the bloke who saved my life. 

People in the west generally complain about the smallest things – like the power going off. But in a civil war, it is the other way around: they celebrate when the power comes on. On the day that (fashion chain) Benetton opened for the first time in Sarajevo, it sold out within hours; even during a war, people want to look nice. I photographed a crowded ballet class in West Beirut during the worst of times. The attitude to life was the thing…  the idea that life goes on.

Swimmers in Christian East Beirut enjoying the waters, oblivious to the burning tanker behind them. The vessel was hit by Syrian gunfire from Muslim West Beirut: seven crew died. 


I used to have nightmares about dead children and old women. I once photographed children in Rwanda who were alleged to have been forced to kill their neighbours with machetes. They had been arrested for genocide. I took a photograph that really showed the madness of the genocide: a laughing man holding a shrouded corpse.

In Sarajevo, there was a busload of Bosnian women who’d been captured by the Serbs, raped and held until they were heavily pregnant. The Serbs sent them into town and dropped them off, as if to say, “Here are your Serbian babies”.

I used to go to the morgue in Sarajevo, just to get a sense of how many people were dying. There was a kindly caretaker there with the grisliest job in the world. They had run out of burial space and had to bury
people on the local soccer field. I saw widows burying their husbands there under risk of snipers. In the nearby suburb of Dobrinja – where people were under siege, in a city under siege – they were burying loved ones in their backyards with the (enemy) living in the next block. There were old women in the morgue who could have been my mother – anyone’s mother. Anyone’s grandmother. You never get immune. I would get right up close at the funerals. The human element was right there. I didn’t go into the politics of the situation, that wasn’t my terrain. But the humanity interested me, and still does.

Sarajevo: solo clarinetist Emir Nuhanovic playing in the ruins of the Bosnian National Library. He cried when the soldiers drove tanks over his clarinets. “They did it from spite because I deserted with nearly 250 instruments from the barracks music college when war broke out,” he said.


Once, in Northern Ireland, I went to two funerals in a day: one was for an IRA bloke who blew up a fish and chip shop, killing mainly children and women. The other was for one of the bombing victims –
a nine-year-old girl.

Two years later, I returned to Belfast and tracked down the mother
of the terrorist. I wanted to ask her about having a son who blew up
a nine-year-old girl. When I knocked on her door, she told me she had had no idea that her son had been a terrorist. I went to the nine-year-old girl’s family and they explained how the council had built a playground that was an almost perfect copy of one she had drawn in a picture for a school project called ‘My Ideal Playground’. I couldn’t believe it. Those things stay with you.

I once met Martin McGuinness – alleged to have been an infamous IRA leader. I told him I wanted to take a photo of him trout fishing, after finding out he did that as a hobby, and he agreed. He looked like a choirboy: blonde curls, quietly spoken, polite. Not what you would expect.

I also went once to Afghanistan and got in contact with (Afghan political and military leader) Ahmad Shah Massoud, who had been frustrating the Taliban. He was blown up by a Bin Laden suicide bomber. It was a few days before 9/11 – they knew Massoud would have found Bin Laden in a flash. I met with (Pakistan political leader) Benazir Bhutto, and she too was assassinated.

Goma camp, in former Zaire, where more than 700,000 refugees fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994. “A local unwrapped the smallest bundle and I recoiled with sorrow as this tiny girl was exposed,” says Tony. “In death, she was so peaceful, so angelic and so out of place in this dreadful site.”


It’s funny what you remember, and where the humour was. I remember wearing a new pair of expensive winter boots, and I was having trouble getting up a hill on all this ice in Sarajevo. The local kids only had these battered wellington boots; they came up, took my hands and pulled me up the hill, while one little bugger kicked at my ankles from behind. It was funny at the time.

I would come back to Perth – fly in at 6am and get into the office (at The West Australian) by 9am, without skipping a beat, so I could get over the jet lag. One time, I got off a flight from Beirut in the morning and was sent straight out to photograph the interior of a house for the Homes pages. I still don’t know whether or not it was a set-up, to bring me down a peg or two, but it was pretty funny.

A lot of people have inspired me. They worked fearlessly in conditions that made my own fear seem insignificant. An American Lebanese doctor called Amal Shemaa worked on the front line in Muslim West Beirut, in a strip of land separating the Christians from the Muslims. There were always snipers, but she’d left her comfortable American life to save lives.

One day, five-day-old twins had arrived dead and still on fire at her hospital. Journalist Robert Fisk wrote powerfully at the time that Amal had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames… and when she took them out half an hour later, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours.

Goma camp: death in his arms and a smile on his face… A chilling image of how cheap life had become to Rwandans. 


Next morning, she took them out of the mortuary for burial and they burst into flames again. Her attitude, her quiet persistence, was extraordinary.

I met a doctor in Sarajevo during the siege crisis: Sanja Besarovic would work for 24 hours straight in the emergency trauma ward, then spend 24 hours at the children’s ward, stealing naps in a small bed in the hospital. She would then make it home for a 24-hour break.

A reporter at the time loaned us his car, on the condition that we take firewood to Sanja’s house. “You just have to do a delivery for me,” he said. I used to take as much pasta over from Zagreb as I could carry in my backpack because the local people were boiling up nettles to eat. It was the winter of despair, bitterly cold.

How did I make sense of it all? I always worked with the words of former LIFE magazine photographer Carl Mydans in mind: “I have often been in places where it was so terrible, where I was so frightened, where I would criticise myself for being there by saying, ‘What are you doing? Why are you here?’ The answer always has been that what I am doing is important, and that’s why I am here. I am making an historic record of a period of our times.”

West Beirut: Dr Amal Shemaa on the upper level of the frontline Barbir hospital, forced to descend when a Christian sniper started showing interest.

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