Published: April 2008
Paul Salopek

Can you talk about what happened when you went to cover this story?

We began our reporting in Chad, which borders Darfur, and the object of that start was to go to a place where the most famous conflict in the Sahel was still raging. So we went up to the refugee camps on the border, we interviewed refugees there—Darfurian refugees who had walked away from the battlefield in neighboring Sudan—and we heard that there were some villages nearby, within a one- or two-hour drive over the border, where people were actually going back to reoccupy their destroyed villages. So we wanted to go talk to those people.

The border of Chad and Sudan—the border of Chad and Darfur—is a free-fire zone. It's a no-man's-land under nobody's control. There are roaming patrols of rebels, roaming groups of bandits, occasional patrols by the army. It's basically a contested area that has no boundaries, no markers, no fence. It's open desert, and this is how for the last four years journalists have been mostly crossing in to cover the Darfur conflict. You can go in through the government side, but they control you, they put minders on you, they interfere with your work, and they don't give visas. So we decided to risk it, to go in after checking about the safety.

Unfortunately we were ambushed. We got caught by a group of militia who were allied with the central government in Khartoum. We were taken captive, held in the bush for three days, and then turned over to the Sudanese army and held another nine or ten days in what the Sudanese call a ghost house—a secret, clandestine prison in a garrison town called El-Fasher. We had no communication with our embassies, our families, or anybody. We were interrogated repeatedly. Some of the treatment was harsh.

They decided what they were going to do with us was try us for espionage, entering the war zone without a visa, and publishing false news—all of these charges adding up to about 22 years in jail. At that point we went through a series of different prisons, culminating in our eventual release thanks to the intervention of the journalistic community. Our colleagues stood up for us. It was myself, my translator Daoud Hari, and my driver Idriss Anu. So after 34 days in detention we were finally released, due to outside pressure from our colleagues and also due to the intervention of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who came and negotiated our release. So I think all three of us—Idriss, Daoud, and myself—are very thankful that our fellow journalists at National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune stood up for us.

How did you negotiate the horrific situation of being held captive?

I had the great good fortune of having a Sudanese and a Chadian colleague with me—my translator Daoud and my driver Idriss. Between the three of us, we were able to come to some plan during the times when we were actually able to talk to each other, because I was held in isolation for quite a while. But when we could see each other, when we were passing each other to brush our teeth in jail, we could whisper, you know, you do this, let's do this, and let's agree to have a united front. I think without that united front the outcome could have been different. We all used our strengths, whether it was the indigenous savvy of knowing how to spin certain prison guards, or clan ties, or the fact that I had connections back in the States—all of those things together helped to get us out. That, and my amazing wife Linda. My advice to all prospective prisoners is that you'd better have someone to love. That helps keep you alive.

What goes through your mind now when you're asked about the experience?

You know, I've been asked a lot about the experience, and what I have to tell readers, colleagues, and friends is that what we experienced pales in comparison to what the people of Darfur live with every day they wake up. And in a sense, the experience made us truly Sahelian for about 34 days. We penetrated that bubble of being a journalist-observer and suddenly became participants in our own story. So if you want to look on the bright side, it gave us maybe a little more understanding about the plight of the people of the Sahel that we otherwise would not have had.

You became, as you say, truly Sahelian for 34 days. Given this experience, how do you think that people in these war zones exist in this constant state of fear and uncertainty?

I think the answer is simply because there's no alternative. You survive. And what it tells me is that we're tough—as a species we're tough. Men, women, children come out of these experiences scarred, often, but in some ways stronger. They use muscles that we all have, but that we who live in the peaceful corners of the world don't even realize we have and that we rarely use. But they're there. And if this had happened in North America, or if it happened as it did in Europe not so long ago, people do survive through the horrors, and I think that's a good lesson to take away.

As a journalist who covers conflict in various parts of the world, how common is the danger of being captured or killed?

It happens all the time, with increasing frequency. Back in World War II or even in the Vietnam War there was a social contract between war correspondents and the combatants. And the contract was this: We'll tell your side of the story if you don't kill us. That contract in the last decade or so has come unraveled to where we now, no matter what role we play in terms of disseminating information, are viewed as an enemy by certain sectors of society. So we're targeted now. And it really began during the Balkan Wars, which I covered. There was a huge loss of life proportionately among the press corps there, where if a sniper had to choose between a journalist and the soldier standing next to him, he'd shoot the journalist. That's a fact of life. If you're going to cover conflicts today—especially conflicts in areas where reporters don't exist, where the war zone moves and there's no front line—you have to be prepared to be sucked into the violence. I think doing the job today is much harder, I dare say, than maybe it was for the previous generation's war correspondents. The outcome is unpredictable, and you can no longer go in as a neutral observer, report what's happening, and then leave. You are a target.

So why place yourself at risk, given the increasing level of danger?

The risk of danger in covering war is the risk of being captured, being wounded or being killed—like a soldier, like a combatant. It has a very interesting clarifying effect on the reasons for why you do what you do, and you do have to ask yourself, Why am I doing this?

My answer is twofold. It's for the people who I cover whose stories I feel are not getting out, and to bear witness to darker corners of the world that the rest of the world chooses, for a variety of reasons, to avert its gaze from. And it's also for my readers, to be the vehicle for conveying that information as objectively as possible. I am not an activist—I am a journalist, a reporter. The moment I start taking on one cause or another and become an activist, that puts me in even more danger. So the only shred, the only fig leaf of protection that I have is the tiny claim to the man whose finger is on the trigger that I will be neutral.

So I do it for my readers, and I do it for my sources, who are ordinary people on both ends. I don't write for policymakers. I don't write for the people inside the beltway in Washington. I write for plumbers in Indiana and schoolteachers in California—the ordinary bloke on the street. And those are the kind of people that I cover too. I don't cover politicians, I don't cover kings or presidents. I cover people who live in huts or who live in houses or shantytowns, or who partake of the most common lifestyle in Africa, which is often pretty poor but on many levels very, very rich. Sometimes when I go to a fisherman's village in Nigeria, even though he's financially very poor, his family life is wonderful, and it's our task to convey all of that in its entirety and not just focus on the bad.

You returned to the Sahel following your release to finish covering the story. How did you feel upon your return?

I think it was good to go back for a couple of reasons. If I had not gone back, the people who wanted to keep the story out of the news—the people who threw Daoud, Idriss, and me into prison—would, in a sense, have won, wouldn't they? I didn't want to abdicate that power to them, so I went back to fulfill my mission, which was to try to tell the story as honestly as I could of the people of the Sahel who are portrayed often very shallowly as helpless victims, constantly lashed by weather and famine and war. And what I hope comes through in this story is that they're remarkable, smart, shrewd survivors who can teach us a lesson or two about how to get by in hard times. So there really was no doubt in my mind, even when I was in prison, that I would come back. I would come back, and I told my Sudanese captors I was coming back.