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Chicago Tribune: Jailed for 34 days, Tribune reporter writes: What I saw in Darfur

Humanitarian catastrophe poised to grow worse in weeks ahead

By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published October 8, 2006

One cloudless Sunday morning in early August, while traveling on a desert road in the remote Darfur region of western Sudan, a teenager sporting dreadlocks and an AK-47 rifle stopped my vehicle. My translator, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, stepped out and offered the youth a cigarette--standard etiquette in African war zones. But Moussa immediately returned to the car, frowning.

In this incidental way, I learned that we had just lost our freedom.

The young gunman belonged to a pro-government militia. And his patrol, after beating us and stealing our car and equipment, handed us over to Sudanese military intelligence. Moussa, my driver, Idriss Abdulrahman Anu, and I spent the next 34 days behind bars in Darfur, ending up hostage to a regime accused of mass murder. The government in Khartoum charged us with espionage, spreading "false news" and entering Africa's latest killing field without a visa.

It was hard not to feel, however, that our real crime was unspoken: reporting on a humanitarian catastrophe that is largely invisible to the outside world, and that is poised to grow worse in the weeks ahead.

Thousands of villagers will likely die soon in Darfur, the arid homeland of millions of farmers and herders who have been targeted in a ruthless civil war that some call genocide. Their torched huts, seen from the air, look like cigarette burns on a torture victim's skin.

Currently, a peace deal between the government and a major insurgent group is coming unglued. With the advent of the dry season, the Sudanese army and the fractious Darfur rebels are primed for a new military showdown. And, paradoxically, negotiators on the ground worry that a well-intentioned human-rights campaign, launched by Western activists on behalf of Darfur's civilians, may actually be locking in the violence. With Khartoum tarred as the bully, there is scant hope for any last-minute dialogue before the offensives begin.

Ironically, I wasn't focused exclusively on the Darfur tragedy when I crossed the desolate border separating Sudan and Chad on Aug. 6.

My Chadian colleagues and I were working on a much broader freelance assignment for National Geographic on the Sahel, the immense and turbulent band of savanna that runs across northern Africa, home to some 90 million struggling people.

Darfur was a side trip. Other journalists and aid workers had described how some Darfur refugees in Chad were drifting back to their ruined villages to rebuild their homes. It seemed a rare chance to profile civilians clinging to life in an intractable war zone. With our arrest, we unwittingly became part of that survival story.

For years, foreign correspondents have covered the Darfur crisis by slipping into rebel-held territory from Chad. Sudanese officials in Khartoum are stingy with journalist visas. Thus, much of what the world knows about a conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people comes from quick reportorial forays into the beautiful, lawless, corrugated plains and rocky escarpments controlled by Darfur's half-starved rebels.

Unfortunately for us, those insurgents can no longer be relied upon to guarantee our safety.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Sun Oct 8th, 2006 at 12:45:23 AM EST
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