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

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The situation on the border is very volatile. The rebel groups have fractured since [some of them] made a peace accord [with the government]. …

They are shifting allegiances almost weekly. … And you just don't know who they are.

Would you be able to give us an account of your latest trip and how that unfolded?

We crossed the border on what was supposed to be a day trip to a particular village, where colleagues had told us that people were rebuilding. … The road was open, according to everybody [we talked to in Chad].

What we didn't know is that there had been a clash further south and that a group of rebels had been displaced northward. So they were crossing the road as we were driving along it.

By terrible timing, we happened to bump into each other, and we were taken captive on August 6. We were held for three days in the bush with this rebel militia—actually it's a pro-government militia now. …

They then basically traded us to the Sudanese Army for a box of uniforms. Sudanese military intelligence then detained us for ten days incommunicado—not allowing us to call out, to call to our embassies or our families—in a prison that in Sudan is known as a guesthouse, a secret prison, a clandestine jail.

We were interrogated almost daily—me less so, my colleagues more so. I was kept in solitary confinement.

For a week I went on a hunger strike there to try to get us reunited and to try to get a phone to be able to call the outside world. After ten days they finally handed us over to civilian authorities. We were then able to call our families and National Geographic and my employer at the Chicago Tribune.

At that point, then the whole process shifted into one of from being in military hands, incognito—which was not a good place to be—to publicly being held by police and awaiting trial on espionage charges and on charges of carrying official documentation, charges of writing false news and of violating Sudan's immigration laws.

Did they accuse you of those charges when you were first stopped?

The charges came later, and I think they were basically concocted. … That's one reason they were holding us—to figure out what to do with us. …

I think, as my notebooks were taken and translated by military intelligence and as they saw that I was writing about humanitarian affairs, not any state secrets—I was talking to displaced people, to refugees, to aid agencies—they realized they had a hot potato on their hands [and] that they could never, by any stretch of the imagination, in a court of law, if the process were fair, convict me of being a spy or writing false news.

So I think at some point the equilibrium changed during our incarceration and moderates within the regime—and they do exist—won out and basically said, Look, we need to get rid of these people as quickly as possible, get them out of the country, because they're becoming a problem, and the propaganda accrued won't be for us, it will be for the international community, and the West in particular, to show that we're again mistreating whomever, civilians, journalists, et cetera.

So I think that's what happened. I can't be sure; I was never told.

What do you think the future of the conflict is?

I think it's going to heat up right now, this particular dry season. The rains have just passed in Darfur.

And when the plains and the mountains dry out, that's when militaries begin to mobilize. They can move infantry around and use vehicles.

I'm curious to know why you're drawn to telling this kind of story, because you've spent a lot of your career covering conflicts in dangerous situations.

Well, I think there's a banal reason and maybe there's one that I intellectualize.

The banal reason is that I'm good at it, and we tend to do what we do well. And there's something about conflicts and conflict reporting that it's not all darkness.

On a battlefield you see lots of evil, and you see the worst of human nature, but it's contrasted with a lot of light. And the goodness that comes out shines even more brightly because it's standing side by side with darkness.

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