BEIRUT (AP) — Simone Camilli was a consummate storyteller – a passionate, talented newsman with an eye for detail and the ability to convey events with powerful video images that touched people around the world.
As an Associated Press video journalist, he covered popes in the serene splendor of the Vatican and the horrific violence on battlefields from the former Soviet republic of Georgia to the Middle East.
But he could also capture the simple joy of a smiling child.
Camilli once said a favorite story of his was about a group of clowns performing for young Syrian refugees, bringing moments of happiness to the lives of the boys and girls who fled the civil war.
The 35-year-old newsman was killed Wednesday in the Gaza Strip while reporting on the aftermath of Israel-Hamas war – the first foreign journalist to die in the Gaza conflict that began last month.
He was killed in a blast as police were defusing unexploded ordnance. The explosion also killed a freelance Palestinian translator, Ali Shehda Abu Afash, as well as four Gaza police engineers trying to neutralize the explosives. Four people, including AP photographer Hatem Moussa, were badly injured.
“He was a very good cameraman and editor and a lot of his best work was not from the battlefield. He was passionately interested in art and music, and it was in these areas that he turned in some of his best work,” said Chris Slaney, former senior producer in Jerusalem.
His father, Pier Luigi Camilli, the mayor of the Italian town of Pitigliano and a former journalist himself, spoke of the work that his son did in “all the most dangerous places.”
“I’m proud of my son, who did a job that he had since forever in his blood,” the elder Camilli told reporters in Rome. “I spoke to him the other day and told him to be careful. `Be careful, be careful.’ He said, `No, here everything is calm. Don’t worry.'”
Simone Camilli’s death came at the peak of a thriving career full of promise.
An Italian national, he had worked for the AP since being hired as a freelancer in Rome in 2005 while taking Islamic studies and learning Arabic at Sapienza University. One of his first assignments was covering the illness of Pope John Paul II.
He covered major stories across Europe, including the independence of Kosovo, the war in Georgia and the arrest of Bosnian Serb military leader Radko Mladic. He also had assignments in some of the world’s most violent conflict zones in Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“Simone was well known throughout Europe, and especially to our video team in London, where his death has hit AP deeply,” Gary Pruitt, the AP’s chief executive, said in a memo to the staff.
Pope Francis prayed for Camilli in front of a group of about 70 journalists accompanying him aboard the papal plane on his flight to South Korea.
“I have to make a silent prayer for Simone Camilli, one of yours, who today left us in service. Let us pray in silence,” said Francis, clearly moved.
“These are the consequences of war,” he added.
Camilli relocated to Jerusalem in 2006, and often covered assignments in Gaza, and moved to Beirut in early 2014.
He was a welcome face in Gaza and loved the story so much that he recently turned down an assignment in Iraq to cover the seaside strip, said Najib Jobain, the AP’s chief producer in Gaza. He said Camilli was like a brother.
“He was so happy to be with me working in Gaza,” Jobain said. “He was asked, `Do you want to go to Irbil or Gaza?’ He said, `I’ll go to Gaza.'”
Other colleagues around the world remembered Camilli as a warm, charming and sensitive man who wanted to be where the news was.
“From the moment he arrived in the Rome bureau, he wanted to learn everything, falling in love with the job,” said Maria Grazia Murru, senior producer in Rome.
“He wanted to learn everything and be the first,” she said. “I had the greatest admiration for him and what he was doing. I will miss his enthusiasm, his Roman accent and his smile.”
Camilli arrived in Jerusalem in the summer of 2006, amid a surge in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
While in Jerusalem, Camilli became involved with two Palestinian partners in running an exhibition space and workshop for young artists, Slaney said.
“Simone was largely self-taught in the visual sense, and whenever I was faced with some tricky problem that with 30 years of professional experience I couldn’t solve, he was my go-to guy in editing and image manipulation,” he said.
While in Beirut, Camilli produced warm and heartbreaking pieces about the more than 1 million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon in the past three years from a war that has ripped apart their homeland.
His work had “an incredible eye for detail and was able to personalize stories and portray human drama,” said Tomislav Skaro, the AP’s Middle East regional editor for video.
Camilli’s pieces in Gaza told “the narrative of a destroyed Strip trying to get back to life,” Skaro said.
“He was incredibly calm, mature beyond his age, gentle and the friend that everybody wants to have,” he added.
Camilli is survived by a longtime partner and a 3-year-old daughter in Beirut, as well as his parents and two sisters.
The day before he left Beirut for Jerusalem and what would be his final assignment in Gaza, Camilli spoke happily over coffee about visiting his father during a recent vacation in Pitigliano, a Tuscan town of about 4,000 people between Florence and Rome.
He sported a new haircut, which made him look younger and more mischievous. But then he gave his signature timid smile, eager to get to his new story.
Diaa Hadid, a longtime colleague who worked with Camilli most recently in Irbil, Iraq, described him as “warm, lovely, funny.”
“I can’t think of the past tense and Simone,” she said.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield traveling aboard the papal plane contributed to this story.