Freed by Sudan, "Geographic" Reporter Arrives Home in U.S.

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Detained in North Darfur

The Pulitzer Prize winner and his Chadian assistants—driver Idriss Abdulraham Anu and interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa—were arrested on August 6 after traveling from Chad to Sudan's troubled Darfur Province without a visa (map of the region).

The border crossing had been a last minute decision, Salopek said at the Sunday press conference.

Normally, the three would have been deported. Instead, on August 26 they were charged with espionage, passing information illegally, and disseminating "false news," in addition to the charge of entering the country unlawfully.

The three men were confined to a single cell in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur Province.

From the cell, Salopek says, they could see protestors daily inveighing against the United States and the United Nations, which are leading an effort to deploy a UN peacekeeping force to neighboring Darfur Province.

Salopek and his cellmates, though, weren't without welcome company.

U.S. soldiers—in the region advising an African Union peacekeeping force—discovered that an American was being held in El Fasher and took up his cause.

"They visited us virtually every day," Salopek said. "They were like our guardian angels."

The effort to free the reporter and his colleagues, though, wasn't exactly heavenly.

It was like a "carnival ride," Salopek said, "up and down, day to day."

The Release

Governor Richardson flew to Sudan on Thursday to negotiate the three men's release on humanitarian grounds. Thanks in part to prior dealings with the Sudanese ambassador to the U.S. and with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, Richardson succeeded after a 45-minute meeting on Friday.

"This is your lucky day," the Sudanese president told Richardson, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In agreeing to release Salopek, Al-Bashir asked Richardson to convey a message to the Bush Administration requesting good treatment and release of Sudanese prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, the Tribune reports.

But, Richardson said in a press conference Saturday, there were "no deals" made to win the men's release.

Actually getting the three out of jail required a full day of bureaucratic wrangling in El Fasher.

"There were some bureaucratic hiccups," Richardson told the Tribune. "You just sit and wait, be pleasant, be positive."

Salopek and his assistants were released into Richardson's custody at 5 p.m. Saturday local time, following a brief court hearing.

"We are stopping the case and we are releasing you right now. And that is all," Judge Hosham Mohammed Yousif told the men before setting them free.

"I can't tell you how great it is to see friends' faces again," Salopek said, when greeted in El Fasher by his wife, Linda Lynch; Richardson; Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski; and National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns.

"The concern for a long prison sentence was very real," the reporter added.

Night Flight

The delays and an approaching dust storm nearly prevented the three journalists from leaving El Fasher on Saturday.

"There was a big dust storm, called a haboob," Salopek said. "And they close the airport for security reasons at 6 p.m."

The airport, Salopek adds, is basically a military base.

"Picture an air base in the middle of a savannah, with helicopter gunships, bombers, and Sudanese soldiers in pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns on the back," he said.

A small group of the U.S. soldiers escorted Salopek, his editors, Lynch, Richardson and his staff, and the U.S. counsel to the their plane.

"It was like something out of a James Bond movie," National Geographic's Johns said.

Salopek, Richardson, Lynch, and Lipinski departed Khartoum late last night on a private jet, with refueling stops in France, Ireland, and Canada.

"It's all been a bit of a busy day," Salopek said. "It's only been 24 hours since we left Khartoum."

"It was quite a change going from the jail cell into a private jet."

Johns stayed behind to ensure that Salopek's driver and interpreter make it home safely to Chad.

"Paul told me he's concerned about of the safe return home of his Chadian interpreter and driver. … " Johns had said on Friday.

"I assured him that I and the National Geographic Society will take responsibility for getting them home safely."

On Sunday National Geographic's Belt, senior editor for geography and world affairs, said that the Chadians were on their way out of Sudan by air, by way of Ethiopia, and should be home this evening.

Conflict

Darfur has been plagued for years by conflict between local rebels—mostly black Africans—and the Arab-controlled central government.

The fighting has killed an estimated 180,000 people, mostly from disease and hunger. An estimated two million have fled the region.

Of particular concern are attacks by a government-backed Arab militia called the Janjaweed, which has assaulted both rebel forces and civilians.

Tensions appear to be mounting again, with the Sudanese government currently rejecting the deployment a U.N. peacekeeping force to the region.

At the moment, 7,000 African Union troops are attempting to maintain the peace, but they are scheduled to withdraw late this month.

Despite the difficulties, Salopek was quick to say that he'd return to Sudan to report again.

"Absolutely," he said to the Tribune. "If I were to be granted a visa, I would come back."

Salopek told National Geographic News, "Obviously I regret having gone across that border, especially without a visa."

Every journalist working in that part of Africa knows that working in Sudan is difficult, he says. In addition, Chad and the Sudan have a traditionally rocky relationship, making that border crossing particularly problematic.

"I think we were victims of bad timing and bad luck," he said.

"I have been arrested before, quite often, and held for a matter of hours or days. This is the longest and most serious, but it's the cost of getting difficult stories where there is no other way to bring it to light," Salopek said.

"My hope is that my case does not discourage other journalists from continuing to cover the important story of Darfur, which I fear is only going to get worse."

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