Surviving Darfur: Geographic Reporter on Imprisonment, War's Future

October 13, 2006

Traded by militia for a box of clothes, U.S. reporter Paul Salopek and two Chadian colleagues were turned in to the Sudanese Army in early August in the fractious Darfur region, where they spent weeks imprisoned on charges of spying, passing information illegally, disseminating "false news," and entering the country illegally (map of Sudan).

Salopek, a Chicago Tribune reporter, was on a freelance assignment covering the sub-Saharan Sahel region for National Geographic magazine when he was seized. The Pulitzer Prize winner was released on September 9 thanks to the efforts of U.S. politicians and Tribune and National Geographic Society editors and executives, among others.

Speaking with National Geographic News podcast host Peter Standring yesterday, Salopek told of his brutal treatment at the hands of militiamen, his hunger strike, his predictions for Darfur, and the "light" he sees on the darkest battlefields. (To listen to the podcast interview, download our free podcast for the week of October 13, 2006.)

What is it like to live and work in [Darfur]?

Well, for the first 10 or 11 days of my assignment—I was just beginning … a long journey across the Sahel, across five countries—I spent much of my time in refugee camps on the Chad side of the border.

And these camps contained … tens of thousands of people—they're teeming. There are canvas tents bolstered by pieces of scrap wood, driftwood, whatever people can scrounge together to create shelter, very densely packed together.

Some families have been there three years now. And some of these camps have schools.

Roads are very undeveloped, and in some cases they're nonexistent, and when the rainy seasons come it becomes all but impassable. And that's what happened to us.

We were traveling across these very corrugated plains that, whenever the rains sweep in, get bifurcated by hundreds of gullies, and you have flash floods that can stop traffic for days, if not weeks. …

Once you go into the war zone proper, there's an added layer of danger. Of course, you're in an area where there are many armed factions floating around. Often you don't even know who they are.

[If you enter Sudan legally, government officials] restrict your travel. They have secret police who basically interfere with your job when you're trying to interview people, so many of us have done the sideways door, coming in with rebels through Chad.

Now that's become, I think, more perilous than ever.

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