Irish Lives: Dicing with death in former Soviet territory
Documentary maker Mark Walsh finally felt he had to intervene, and now works for MSF
Dubliner Mark Walsh: “My break came when I was asked to work on a documentary about Salman Rushdie”
In the mid-1980s, Dubliner Mark Walsh, following college, was “attracted to the louche cosmopolitanism of West Berlin”, preferring to live “on a walled island of capitalistic decadence in a sea of socialism”.
There, the Glasnevin-born, Belvedere-educated Irish man began working for a local television station. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the station was taken over by a larger German network, Deutsche Welle TV, leaving Walsh to earn his crust dubbing documentaries.
“My break came when I was asked to work on a documentary about Salman Rushdie. The film was a success and I became a freelance TV correspondent specialising in crime in eastern Europe, ” the 51-year-old tells The Irish Times.
Since then, Walsh has lived and worked in grittier places. In Moscow in 1998, during the rouble crash, the price of a pint of Guinness he was drinking in a bar in the city doubled during the drinking of it.
By then, the appetite for Russian coverage had increased in Germany: 13 documentaries followed. In time, he set up a video archive business, which bought footage from Russian police and emergency services which was sold to German and US television companies.
The work was raw. “Nearly everything was possible. The trick was to figure out which key opened the door: an official letter of request or a few shots of vodka. Or a bribe. Back then, bribes paid in Russia were tax-deductible in Germany.”
In Moscow, a Scottish casino boss kept an aquarium of piranha, each numbered. Before tossing a goldfish in, he would take bets on which piranha would get to it first.
Danger has come frequently, if often haphazardly: “A drunken policeman dropped his Kalashnikov [in a police station]. Everyone froze as it clattered on the tiles, not knowing if it would start spraying bullets.
“Fortunately, it didn’t and everyone started laughing.”
The bizarre figures prominently. In Kyrgyzstan, police found 17 kilos of raw opium in the back of a truck with Walsh’s camera.
“This was clearly not part of the script. I found out later the cartel got its drugs back – along with an apology,” he says.
His documentaries framed cruelty and frailty. In one, a stout police boss points to his station floor covered in handcuffed criminals. He walks across the supine forms with a malicious comment: “It’s a human carpet.”
But behind the horror, his heart was taking heed. “While visiting a tuberculosis project in Abkhazia run by MSF, I interviewed a 19-year-old girl who had a lung removed. She had drug-resistant TB and was in awful pain.
“She asked me to imagine trying to breathe with an elephant standing on my chest. She died two weeks later,” he says, reflecting on his move from documenting incidents to intervention.
“In 2002, after returning to Moscow from filming in the northern Pacific on a Russian factory fishing trawler, I took stock of my journalism career. MSF was hiring a regional press officer for the former Soviet Union. ”
His experience was useful, he thought. He was quickly hired, handling MSF’s communications during a 22-month-long kidnapping in Dagestan, along with its work assistance during the Dubrovka theatre hostage crisis and the Beslan tragedy.
In 2005, he shifted to operations and became country director for an MSF HIV/Aids programme in the prisons of Transdniestria, the breakaway part of Moldova: “Only the criminal bosses could guarantee our security.
“A meeting was set up with a guy doing 10 years for bank robbery – he had two bullet scars in his belly from the shootout,” he says.
“He had a room to himself. A leather sofa, flat-screen TV, a double bed. He nonchalantly offered me a kiwi from a bowl of fruit. I explained the project.”
Today, Walsh is in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-aligned rebels have declared a republic.
“The start of my career coincided with the post-cold war era. There was talk about ‘the end of history’ but it was just the beginning of another bloody chapter.
“The events in Donetsk are the latest instalment. Over the last 25 years, I have never got used to the cynicism and callous disregard for lives in the post-Soviet territory. I am humbled by the dignity and resilience of people.”