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A Journalist's Interrogation, Imprisonment in Sudan

While on assignment in Sudan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Paul Salopek was captured by pro-government militias, then charged with spying and imprisoned for 34 days. He writes about his experience in April's edition of National Geographic.


Other segments from the episode on April 10, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 10, 2008: Interview with Paul Salopek; Review of Waco Brothers' live album "Waco express."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Paul Salopek on his imprisonment and release
in Sudan

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After entering Sudan to report on
Darfur, journalist Paul Salopek was captured by pro-government guerillas,
traded to the military, imprisoned and charged with being a spy. Having two
Pulitzer Prizes to his name was irrelevant to the government authorities in
Sudan. Salopek was released five weeks later, after American journalists and
elected officials intervened on his behalf. Salopek is the Africa
corespondent for the Chicago Tribune and, at the time of his capture in August
2006, he was on assignment for National Geographic.

Imprisonment prevented him from completing research on the story he was
writing about the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid grassland in Africa stretching
over about two and a half thousand miles, which he describes as home to 50
million of the world's poorest, most disempowered people. But Salopek later
returned to the Sahel to complete his research. His article about the Sahel
and his imprisonment is the cover story of this month's National Geographic.

Paul Salopek, welcome to FRESH AIR. Paul, what was the story you were
expecting to write about the Sahel?

Mr. PAUL SALOPEK: I was asked to do a transect of this geographic region
across northern Africa and basically do a story about the geography, culture
and politics of what is a big geographic and cultural transition zone. So it
was going to be a piece that did incorporate a bit about conflicts between
different cultures there, but it was also going to focus on geography, on
biology, just sort of a usual National Geographic in-depth piece on a certain
part of the world.

GROSS: And you got a lot of that into your article, but a lot of the article,
of course, is your story of being kidnapped and imprisoned. You were first
arrested by people in a militia in the border between Chad and Sudan, which
you describe as a no man's land, a no-go zone. Would you just describe that
area in which you were--I don't know what to call it--kidnapped? Detained?
Arrested? What word would use?

Mr. SALOPEK: You could use any of those. Ambushed, even. I think it would
look a lot like the American Southwest, if people are familiar, perhaps, with
the Mojave Desert of California or the deserts of Arizona: very dry, scrubby
landscape with parched mountains in the distance. And this is a part of
Africa where borders are not delineated. The countries are enormous. The
borders were drawn by colonial rulers a long time ago, and these are very poor
countries that don't have the wherewithal to patrol their borders, much less
erect barriers to mark them. So it's an open space, an open desert space
between one of the hottest wars in Africa today, that being western Sudan and
a country that is nominally at peace, Chad, that has its own internal
problems. But you could be driving in a Land Rover or a Land Cruiser across
this landscape, not really knowing if you're crossing borders at all.

GROSS: How did you get kidnapped?

Mr. SALOPEK: We had done interviews--and when I say "we," I mean my
translator Daoud Hari and my driver Idriss Anu at a series of refugee camps on
the Chadian side. There are hundreds of thousands of Darfurians who are
living in camps, UN-funded camps there, and we heard from the people who had
walked away from the war zone to the safety of Chad that a few people were
actually moving back into the war zone because they didn't like living in the
camps. They found the life restrictive, they felt they were being harassed by
surrounding ethnic groups. And this was a small window in time when a peace
deal had been signed, and there was a little bit of hope that maybe peace
would be coming to Darfur. So this seemed like a positive twist to an
otherwise very dreary story. And after doing a good deal of checking on the
security situation with NGOs, with local security forces, with journalists who
had traversed that area just a day or two before, we decided to go across and
find some of these people who were resettling their destroyed villages on the
Sudanese side of the border.

GROSS: So had you crossed into Sudan yet when you were arrested?

Mr. SALOPEK: Yes, we did. We had driven across, again, what was a wadi, a
dry gulch, and that was pointed out to me as being the border, and about two
hours in we were accosted by this unit of guerillas who had allied themselves
very recently with the central government in @ Khartoum.

GROSS: Describe the guys who kidnapped you.

Mr. SALOPEK: They were, as many soldiers in the wars in this part of Africa,
they were extremely young. Some would have qualified as child soldiers, young
men in their teens, some even as young as their midteens, wearing motley
scraps of uniform, carrying a motley array of weaponry from old Kalashnikovs
to M-14 rifles. Some of them were draped in these small black leather
pouches, which, from a distance, might look like dried fruit or perhaps even
ammunition pouches, but they were Qaranic amulets to protect them against
bullets. These guys rose up out of the grass alongside the road, detained us,
and I knew from the expression of my interpreter Daoud when he returned to the
car that we were definitely in trouble. You can often talk your way through
these kind of situations in war zones in Africa, but this I knew was going to
be a difficult one.

GROSS: How did you know that?

Mr. SALOPEK: After about 15 minutes, after they took away our equipment,
took away our satellite phones, and--whispering with Daoud about what they
were saying, signs were turning against us that they would be releasing us
anytime soon.

GROSS: Did you try to imagine what was going in the mind of these teenagers
with guns, thinking if there was any way to convince them not to kill you?

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah. Generally you, as a war correspondent, you try to do
exactly what you're saying. You try to see it from their point of view. You
try to be friendly with them. You offer them cigarettes, the standard
etiquette in war zones around the world with foot soldiers. You talk to them
about where they're from. You make small talk. You explain what you're
doing. But in very remote wars, such as the one in Darfur, where not too many
journalists actually penetrate--you know, I might have been the first Western
journalist some of these young kids had seen--there is confusion about what
journalism is, what does a reporter do. `Are you an NGO? Are you with the
UN? Why have you come all this way to simply scribble in your notebook?'

GROSS: `Are you a spy?'

Mr. SALOPEK: `Are you a spy?' That one comes up, generally at the commander
level, not so much the foot soldiers, but the next level up, that's one of the
first questions. And of course that's the rap that we ended up being charged
with when we were detained by Sudanese army forces.

GROSS: Now, you had a couple of things going against you. You were carrying
two passports but no visa. Why did you have two passports?

Mr. SALOPEK: This is a common practice for many foreign correspondents, not
just conflict reporters. It's a very--the banal reason is sometimes you're
applying for visas at multiple embassies so you need to have your passports
going around between different consulates. The other is that, when you cover
both sides of a, war as correspondents often do these days--I distinctly
remember covering the Ethiopian-Eritrean war and jumping from one side of the
battlefield to the other, basically looking across to where I'd just been
under shellfire from the Ethiopians. You need two passports because obviously
the host government doesn't like to see the stamp of its enemy in your
passport, so this is standard practice.

GROSS: So did the militia guys who kidnapped you, did they really want your
car? Did they want your Toyota?

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah. I think, of course, I think that's a factor as well.
When a war goes on long enough, especially a bush war, and in the case of
Darfur as a classic example, lines of discipline start breaking down. Poverty
gets so grinding, the conditions of life get so horrible, that there's a
tendency for what are already sort of loosely governed militias with very week
command and control that they break down, especially at the fringes, and often
turn into simple bandits. And if you have to--if you're taking a canoe
through the Congo or if you're covering the war in Darfur, it's a very fine
distinction between whether the guys that are holding you are in it for what
they can rob from you or if they're in it for ideological reasons. Often they
combine both and have the best of both worlds.

GROSS: And in your case?

Mr. SALOPEK: I think it was that. I think it was a bit of opportunism. I
think it was the timing of our capture that made the biggest difference of
all. Again, this was at a time in the history of this particular war when the
rebel groups, which had been only nominally unified in the past against what
they are saying is repression by the central government, had started
squabbling among themselves, and Khartoum had managed to drive a wedge into
them with this peace deal to break away chunks of them and so they would
become de facto militias for the government. And all this was happening just
as we entered the war zone, and so it was something that was brand-new, and
even though our information was maybe--from colleagues--was only a day or two
old, that would prove to be, in this case, too old, thing were changing so

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Paul Salopek. He's
a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and he has the cover story in the April
edition of National Geographic, and it's about the 34 days he spent in prison
in Darfur beginning August 6th, 2006, after being captured by militia then
traded to the Sudanese military. The article is also about the things that
were going on around him in the Sahel, which is the 2400-mile area of land
across Africa that separates the Sahara Desert from more fertile territory.

On the third day of your captivity in Darfur, the gunmen who had arrested you
traded you, your translator and your driver to the Sudanese army for a box of
uniforms. Why did the Sudanese army want you? Of what value were you to

Mr. SALOPEK: In retrospect, I think it was seen by hard-liners in the
regime, in the military, in the military intelligence as a propaganda coup.
This was at a time of year, when we were captured, when they were planning to
unleash a major offensive against the rebels, which, as it turns out, flopped.
So they were trying, in my analysis, to basically capture a high-profile
journalist and make an example of him or her to try to scare other reporters
from entering the side door into the conflict from Chad. It's very difficult
to get permission to go into Darfur from the Sudanese side of the war, the
government's side. Visas do come, but they come at the pace of a trickle.
And when you do enter you need added paperwork to get into Darfur itself. You
need to check in with central intelligence types. They keep tabs on you.
They discourage sources from talking to you as a means of information
management. So they, I think, just got tired of dozens and dozens of Western
journalists covering the conflict from the Chadian side, going into what is
essentially this no man's land, this shifting liberated zone where the rebels
have nominal control when bandits or government units aren't patrolling. So a
show trial, I think, is what they had in mind.

GROSS: Among the things that you were accused with was spying, and for a
government like the government in Sudan, is spying and journalism more or less
the same thing? Because they don't want the world knowing what they're doing,
so if you're reporting on it, that's not good for them.

Mr. SALOPEK: That is, and I think a lot of these governments have inherited
pretty draconian media laws from their old colonial governments so the kernel
for this kind of suspicion, the kernel for the legal framework in a place like
Sudan to try a journalist for spying would actually probably go back to the
British, who instituted those laws to control nationalist sentiment way back,
you know, a few generations back. So that's one of the ironies of these kind
of occurrences. Not just in Sudan but elsewhere in Africa, in formerly
colonial governed areas of South Asia as well. These draconian press laws
have their origins in colonial laws.

As it is, I mean, I have to point out that this is something my Sudanese
colleagues face all the time, and they're constantly in and out of jail,
multiple times, for the work they do, whether it's, you know, breaching
so-called government secrets or there's a government secrecy act or formally
being charged with espionage. There's even an added wrinkle in Sudan.
There's something called "intentional espionage" and "unintentional
espionage." The intentional espionage I sort of get. What unintentional
espionage is, which we were also charged with, has never been really well
explained to me, even by our lawyers. I think it's basically having documents
in your hand or having knowledge in your head that you're not supposed to, no
matter how you got a hold of it.

GROSS: Wow. That's--how do you...

Mr. SALOPEK: Argue against that?

GROSS: How do you argue against that? Yeah.


GROSS: That you have knowledge in your head that you're not supposed to have.

Mr. SALOPEK: I think the point is is that you can't. So, yeah, there are
all these layers of how repressive regimes cloak themselves. If they've
got--you know, they can use ex-judicial means, which is brutality or outright
violence, or they can use quasi-legal means, laws that they have in the books,
they've had in for years. But, yeah, it would be a very--it would have been
an interesting--I'm glad we never came to a trial, but had it come to a trial,
it would have been an interesting display of legal logic to see how
unintentional espionage could be charged, could be laid on us.

GROSS: So you were taken to a secret prison. There are so many of these
secret prisons in Sudan, there's a name for them: a ghost house. Would you
describe this secret prison, the ghost house, that you were in?

Mr. SALOPEK: We arrived just as it was getting dark. We were taken by
helicopter to the provincial capital of north Darfur, a town called El Fasher,
and the sun was just setting. They put us into a vehicle that had Sudanese
government humanitarian markings on it and then drove us--it had tinted
windows so we couldn't see out--into what appeared to be a walled compound. I
later discovered, once we were released, that it was in the middle of a
military base, and it was a ghost house or secret prison where they took
political prisoners for interrogations, a sandy compound, a high mud brick
wall painted yellow that you couldn't see over, sentries in the corners, a
cell block that probably dated back to British colonial times in a state of
disarray, disrepair. And at one point when I thought I was being smart, I was
trying to write little rescue messages on scraps of cigarette paper and
flicking them over the wall, which turned out to be hilarious because they
were probably bouncing off the heads of Sudanese soldiers, which would have
been funny to have somebody actually open one and read them.

So we didn't know where we were. I was familiar with the notion of a ghost
house from previous reporting trips into Sudan. Sudanese opposition
politicians, activists often are incarcerated in ghost houses. Their families
can't find them. They just disappear off the face of the earth. Eventually,
I think most of them resurface in court. Some never do.


GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek. He wrote
the cover story of this month's National Geographic. It's about being
captured and imprisoned while reporting on Darfur.

You decided to go on a hunger strike. Why?

Mr. SALOPEK: Two reasons. The main one was to be reunited with my
translator and driver, because I did not know the conditions that they were
being held in. I was held in isolation for nine days at this ghost house, and
so I kept demanding to be reunited and they refused so I stopped eating.

The second reason I decided to stop eating was because they refused to give us
access to our embassy in Khartoum, which is against international law. If you
get into trouble, if you get put in jail, they're supposed to notify your
embassy with a certain number of hours or days. And they clearly were holding
us in a bubble, and that was very dangerous because, in a place like Darfur,
it would be very easy to claim that they just find your body out in the desert
later. So the longer that the days dragged on, the more improbable to my mind
it seemed that they would actually release us because it would be increasingly
embarrassing for them to have held us for so long. So I launched this hunger
strike that pointed out to be fruitless.

GROSS: Did they even know what the concept of a hunger strike was?

Mr. SALOPEK: They at the beginning were a bit puzzled as to why I wasn't
eating, and even throughout, the ordinary guards didn't seem terribly
concerned. I think this is a hard part of the world where people go without
eating normally in the normal course of life.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. People are starving to death and you're on a hunger

Mr. SALOPEK: Exactly. Exactly. So I think maybe the, you know, the moral
high ground that I was trying to claim proved a bit confusing to them, but the
notion finally trickled high enough up in the chain of command that I got a
message down saying, `You continue to do this and we'll force feed you with a

GROSS: Yes, and the message included this. It said that they'd force feed
you through a tube like the Americans do at Guantanamo.

Mr. SALOPEK: That's correct. Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering what went through your mind, knowing that of the few
things the people imprisoning you knew about America, they'd heard that
detainees were force-fed at Gitmo.

Mr. SALOPEK: On the rougher corners of the world, where extra-judicial
treatment, harsh treatment of prisoners is a norm, this is well known. I
mean, maybe 30 or 40 years ago Elvis and his music might have been one of the
things people associate with United States, but today Guantanamo resonates
very strongly, and I immediately became concerned because there are a few
Sudanese to my knowledge being held at Guantanamo still, including one
journalist, so at that point I saw it was pretty hopeless, and I also wanted
to keep my strength up, to have the strength in my upper body to be able to
spring over the wall if I needed to in an emergency, so I decided to start
eating on the ninth day.

GROSS: Were you interrogated, and if so, what were the questions like?

Mr. SALOPEK: There were multiple interrogations, and it was--the questioning
was about the documents that I had on me, about my work. In today's world,
even in a ramshackle secret police outpost in the middle of the Darfurian
desert they have Internet, so they were able to google me and see the work
that I'd done in the past; confronted me with the work that I'd done in the
past, particularly in Sudan, in making repeated accusations of me being a spy,
essentially trying to scare me. So it was a lot of multiple questions. Being
asked 50 times in a row, `is that you in your passport photo? It doesn't look
like you.' So mind games basically to try to wear you down.

GROSS: Paul Salopek will be back in the second half of the show. His article
about the Sahel region of Africa and his imprisonment in Darfur is the cover
story of this month's National Geographic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview
with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek about his capture and
imprisonment in Darfur while on assignment for National Geographic in August
2006. He was imprisoned for 34 days. He later returned to the Sahel region
of Africa to finish his research. His article about his imprisonment and the
Sahel is the cover story of this month's National Geographic.

You were in, I think, three different jails during the course of your
imprisonment, and in the third jail you were in in Sudan, you were forced to
watch a flogging with an ox-hide whip. You saw an adulterer get 100 lashes.
What did you learn from watching the flogging?

Mr. SALOPEK: It was one of several, actually. We also saw men flogged for
drinking alcohol, and they got 25 lashes. Women were also flogged for brewing
alcohol. We were not privy to that because they did that in a section of the
prison that was reserved for women, but they actually would bring in women
with children, very small children, and flog them, I presume in front of their
children, I'm not sure. What I learned was just the amazing human capacity
for pain, and the toughness and the dignity of the people being flogged.

It was also an interesting, for me, interaction between captor and captive.
This form of torture is, of course, horrific to witness, even as a bystander.
You know, it's not happening to you but you're standing a few yards away. But
there is this strange intimacy between the man doing the flogging and the man
receiving the punishment. The main whip man, Corporal Salah, in the end, when
I got to know him, strangely was able, in his heart and mind, to divide his
life between the times when he was, you know, peeling the skin off somebody's
back and being a nice guy who wanted to be a doctor, studying microbiology at

GROSS: So the whip man, Corporal Salah, later called you after you were
freed. He wanted your help in getting him a visa so he could get out of the
country, so he could get out of Sudan. What did you tell him?

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah. I mean, the world is a strange place, isn't it? And
maybe also an indication that things are not all bad. Two months after I was
released I was doing my laundry at home and the phone rang, and my wife handed
me the phone, and here was this familiar voice coming across the wires.
Corporal Salah was calling to check on me, to see how my health was, probably
using a phone in a police station in Khartoum without his superiors'
permission because I imagine it would be an expensive phone call, but towards
the end it became clear. The conversation drifted towards me helping him with
the visa lottery to come to America. I told him what I knew. I hold nothing
against Corporal Salah. Corporal Salah is a man who was trapped in his head
and his heart and a time and a place that I can't judge him negatively because
I know too much about what life is like in that part of Africa in the Sahel.
It's hard. So I told him. I said, `Go to the consulate and good luck. Just
don't'--and what I didn't tell him is he'd probably want to omit some things
from his curriculum vita.

GROSS: Like being the whip man.

Mr. SALOPEK: Being the whip man at the El Fasher prison.

GROSS: Eventually your newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, your magazine, the
National Geographic, for whom you were on assignment, found out that you were
being detained, and they did their best to get you out. Governor Bill
Richardson of New Mexico, where you lived, went to bat for you and even went
to negotiate with the president of Sudan. Did he actually fly to Africa?

Mr. SALOPEK: Yes. Governor Richardson, my editor at the Tribune, Ann Marie
Lipinski, my editor at National Geographic, Chris Johns, all flew to Khartoum
to pick me up. You can imagine the shock this was for all three of us in jail
because we 're locked in a bubble most of the time. Only towards the very end
did we have access to phone calls. So we'll be in our cells, you know, our
scalps are flaking, we're feeding some of our scalp to the ants for
entertainment. To discover after the fact that this amazing effort had been
mobilized on our behavior was amazingly heartening.

GROSS: So you finally got out after 34 days in Sudan. When did you know,
`I'm really getting out'? When did you allow yourself to think `this is
really going to happen'?

Mr. SALOPEK: When I saw the rescue party, as it were, compromised of my
editors and Bill Richardson in El Fasher. Once they let us through the gate
of the prison yard at the courthouse and there were shiny new SUVs waiting
outside, engines idling, I knew that it would be very difficult for them to
turn us back at this point. Although we did have a close call. I mean,
we--there were some last minute hitches, and the governor of that province,
that state of Darfur was making trouble, making delays, so it was dicey up to
the very end, but at that point I knew it would be too embarrassing for them
to send us back.

GROSS: OK. It was August in 2006 when you were kidnapped, arrested,
detained--you said all of those words are fine.

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah.

GROSS: And your story in National Geographic, the story that you were doing
the reporting for when you were arrested, has just been published...

Mr. SALOPEK: Right.

GROSS: the National Geographic. After getting released from this
hellish experience, you went back to the Sahel in Africa to finish your
reporting, which amazes me because I can tell you, if this had happened to
me--which it never would have, because I'd never be in your circumstance in
the first place--but if it had happened to me, I'd never go back. I mean, you
were charged with a 22-year crime. You could have been arrested for 22 years.
You could have been killed. You were really lucky to get out. Why did you go

Mr. SALOPEK: Multiple reasons, and I think it's partly due to my background,
but also to the importance of the story. We haven't talked much about the
Sahel at large, but I had a commitment to the story. That's where 50 million
people live, some of them in the most dire circumstances imaginable. So I had
a commitment to the story itself, to get the story of the Sahel out, of the
people of the Sahel.

That's one thing. The second reason is, if I didn't go back, the people who
captured us and were attempting to put on a show trial with us, would in
essence have won. They would have discouraged foreign reporters from covering
this part of the world--Darfur, in particular--but again I like to think of
the whole region, because a lot of the problems that are accentuated to a
horrific degree in Darfur exist throughout a much larger area of Africa. They
just don't get the attention. So I felt I didn't want to give them the power
to basically knock us out of the picture. I went back with a dual sense of
mission: one, to fulfill my mission as a journalist; two, to not let the guys
how threw us in jail win.

GROSS: You know, in your cover story in the National Geographic, you tell not
only the story of you, your translator and driver who were imprisoned for 34
days in Sudan, you report on a lot of the people who you met in the Sahel in
Africa and the conditions that they're living and dying under, and in Chad you
met George Bush's father, and I read that and I thought, `what? He met George
Bush's father in Chad?' And of course, George Bush is just the name of the
son. He's from Chad; he's not the American George Bush. Why did the father
name his son George Bush, and which of the two Bushes did he name him after?

Mr. SALOPEK: He named him after the current president, who is viewed
favorably among the Darfurian refugees in Chad, at least some of them, for
trying to stand up to the Khartoum regime. So George Bush is popular among
some circles of Darfuris as being one of the few American presidents who are
attempting to engage.

Also, it's a reflection of the larger ideological battle around the world,
between the West and political Islam or extremist religious ideologies. And
the irony of that whole section in the story, what struck me and which I tried
to get across to readers, is here you have an individual from one of the most
complicated parts of the world, where lines of identity are braided through
every person, that you would never expect to find, here's a guy who is
identifying himself that is ethnically African, a dark-complected gentleman
who is a farmer and part of the ethnic groups that are being victimized by
ethnic Arab militias, the notorious janjaweed, who themselves are being armed
by an ethnic Arab-dominated country, Sudan, and yet he behaves like an Arab
himself. He wears an Arab jallabiya, a long gown. He drinks sweetened tea
the way Arabs do. He speaks Arabic. He prays toward Mecca.

The point of that passage was saying, here is the conundrum that anybody faces
coming from the outside trying to dissect the many different lines that
comprise this amazing 2,500-mile-long frontier called the Sahel: multiple
lines of identity that shift. And this man at this time in his life was being
victimized by an ethnic Arab regime, and therefore he named his son after
what, around large chunks of the world, the world views as the largest
anti-Islamic fighter, as it were, whether it's an accurate portrayal or not,
and that's George Bush. So he named his son George Bush, and here is this
chubby little toddler who was sitting in this plot of sand in the deserts of
Darfur, and Dafurian refugees in tents around him would be calling out, `Hey
Bush! Hey, Bush' and he'd wave back. He was very popular.

GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek. He wrote
the cover story of this month's National Geographic. It's about his
imprisonment in Darfur and about the Sahel region of Africa. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek. He wrote
the cover story of this month's National Geographic, which is about being
captured and imprisoned while reporting on Darfur.

Your article doesn't end with you getting out of prison in Sudan, it ends with
how people from the Sahel in Africa try to get out and get to another country
where they might be in less danger and get some work, and you write about the
captain of a boat that illegally ferried people out of Africa. Tell us a
little bit about the boat and the people who tried to get on it.

Mr. SALOPEK: Yeah, there's a mass migration of Africans out of Africa. In
the analogy for North America would be Latin Americans or Mexicans coming
north across the Rio Grande to seek a better life. There's a similar
south-to-north migration, from Africa to Europe, Africa to the Middle East,
only you would have to magnify the suffering of the migrants manyfold over
because the poorest of the poor in the Sahel are many, many orders of
magnitude poorer than the poorest Mexican or the poorest Latin American. So
these people sell whatever they have, whether it's a sewing machine, an old
bicycle. If it's a little shack on a sandy plot in a slum, they'll sell that,
every worldly possession. They'll borrow from their cousins and families to
scrape enough together.

And at the time that I did the story, it was about 700 to $900 for 12 inches
of plank seating on an open boat that would make a passage from the west coast
of Africa--Senegal was a point of departure that was popular when I was
there--to the outlying outposts of fortress Europe, in this case, the Canary
Islands. And it was a harsh trip, a trip in which many people die. Many
thousands of people have died over the last decade making such trips, and
success of survival is not great. It's good enough that if you're desperate
you'll go, but it's not great. It's far, far more dangerous than sneaking
across our borders in North America.

So I found a guy in a port called St. Louis, north of Dakar, the capital of
Senegal, who was willing to talk to me at his beach hut the day before he was
scheduled to take a boatload of people on this very perilous ocean journey in
what is essentially an open canoe with an outboard motor. And they pack them.
They're about, hm, maybe 60 feet long and they pack them with 100 or more
people, gunnel to gunnel. I mean, it's just a beehive, and you have maybe a
foot of free board, and that's the part of the boat that sits up out of the
waves, that's separating you and the ocean, and this half-wallowing boat would
set off across the Atlantic. The smuggler--in this case, a chap named
Didier--would use a GPS to find his way hundreds and hundreds of nautical
miles across the open sea to these islands controlled by Spain.

The title of my piece for the magazine is "Lost in the Sahel," and that has a
double meaning. I mean, it's about being, you know, for a while literally
lost in Darfur, not knowing where I was and shuttling between prisons. But it
also has the meaning of having lost something in the Sahel, and I have no
illusions that I'm probably not the same person I was.

GROSS: What do you think you lost?

Mr. SALOPEK: Probably a sense of invincibility that we, as journalists, try
to carry around to do our jobs, and I think that's a healthy thing to maybe
jettison for one's survival.

GROSS: You've been a foreign correspondent for 15 years. You've been
covering wars for a long time. You've said there used to be an implicit deal
with combatants. The journalist tells their side of the story if the
combatants don't kill the journalist. You say that doesn't really exist
anymore. Journalists have become targets in a way that they weren't when you
started covering wars. What's changed, and why do you think it's changed?

Mr. SALOPEK: I think the nature of warfare itself has changed. Big set
piece battles between uniformed armies has become essentially the exception,
hasn't it? The invasion of Iraq was almost a throwback war where you had
uniformed armies squaring off against each other, at least at the beginning.
And it evolved very quickly--very quickly--into the latest form of warfare,
which some military academics call fourth-generation warfare, which means that
every single human being walking the planet is the battlefield. So set
lines--where there are front lines, where there are trenches, where you can
get a "laissez-passer," a safe passage between enemy armies etc., that almost
seems quaint.

So what my predecessors had to deal with, say, during the second world war, is
something that just no longer holds today. You enter as a journalist into the
modern war where there is no front line, often characterized as brushfire
wars, guerrilla wars, insurgencies. You immerse yourself in all the dangers
of a combatant and your little press pass, this little thing that covers your
heart in your breast pocket, has become more than ever just a slip of paper
and not a shield. So we have become, in fact, targets.

I, for my lifetime, my career, it really started in the Balkans. It started
before then, I think, even in Vietnam, but for me the Balkan Wars was the
seminal war where these nice tidy lines about civilized behavior vis-a-vis
reporters, the media, just started breaking down in a big way. A lot of
colleagues were killed in the Balkans.

GROSS: You've been covering constant ethnic wars and civil wars through
Africa. I want to give our listeners a sense of three headlines from your
articles within the course of one month.

October 28th, 2007, headline: "Freedom of Speech Can Kill You. In Mogadishu
Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek encounters reporters who are afraid to even
go outside, with good reasons." And then in the article you describe how the
subject of your story was murdered by the time you published it. The
journalist who you're writing about was murdered by the time you went to

November 14th, just a couple of weeks later, 2007. Headline: "Somalis
Retreat from Horrors of War into Mental Illness."

A couple of weeks after that, November 25th, headline: "Under the Volcano: A
Congolese frontier town's main industry, survival."

OK, so that's three stories in a month, two different countries. How do you
even keep track of who's killing who and why?

Mr. SALOPEK: Well, I don't look at stories that way. I don't approach them
in a way where I have to--look, let me rephrase this. War is war. The
tactics stay the same through the centuries. They've changed a bit. Uniforms
change. The ideologies change. But the face of the war remains the same.
And it's lately--in the course of our lifetimes, it's become civilian
populations that have borne the brunt of warfare, and that is more the way I
look at it. It's very easy to get briefed to go do your interviews before you
enter a war zone to find out who's killing who and why. The more difficult
part is bringing to life the human face of warfare over and over again,
without turning readers off, without making readers' eyes glaze over, without
their hearts hardening. And I still--if I told you that I had a formula for
how to do this, I'd be lying--I still struggle with it.

I joke with a couple of colleagues that I don't really consider myself a
conflict, or a war, reporter. I consider myself more a love reporter. I just
look for love in all the wrong places. There are...

GROSS: That's just such a strange way of putting it.

Mr. SALOPEK: There are wonderful stories about human survival, about grit,
about bravery, about love that you find on a battlefield. And in a sense, I
mean, I have to cop to the accusation here that that's actually the easy way
to find it because it's so black and white, right, when you're surrounded by
so much darkness. When people behave well, it shines like a beam of white
light. It's a little more difficult to do in ordinary life, and that's maybe
where the real challenge is. Maybe I'm copping to go to the easy route where
the contrasts are greater.

GROSS: Well, you do an incredible job of reporting and writing. I want to
thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you so much, Paul Salopek.

Mr. SALOPEK: Appreciate it. Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Paul Salopek wrote the cover story of this month's National
Geographic. It's about the Sahel region of Africa and his imprisonment in
Darfur. He spoke to us from a studio in Johannesburg. He's the Africa
correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

You can find a link to Salopek's National Geographic article on our Web site,, where you can also download podcasts of our show. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on the Waco Brothers' live album "Waco Express"

The Waco Brothers is a band begun in the mid-1990s by John Langford. This
Welshman transplanted to Chicago was a key member of the British punk band The
Mekons and has developed an interest in American country music from the '50s
and '60s. The band has released more than half a dozen studio recordings, but
the new Waco Brothers album captures them onstage. Rock critic Ken Tucker has
a review.

(Soundbite of "Waco Express")

Unidentified Man: Here's a song by the Waco Brothers. It's called "Waco

Mr. JOHN LANGFORD: (Singing) Everybody's on the bandwagon again
Well, get onboard the Waco Express again
We got 13 years, 12 in reverse
A funky mess in a silver purse
Everybody's on the bandwagon again

The reason...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: John Langford sings in his Welsh twang on that song that the
Waco Brothers believe, quote, "nobody wants to go out on a limb these days."
He couches the composition as a love song, singing that "the reason you don't
tell me you love me is you're scared." But the song is really a metaphor for
Langford's own great love, country music, which he firmly believes has been
scared into timidity and blandness by the Nashville music industry
establishment. It is the Waco Brothers' mission to bring blood, sweat and
tears back into country music.

(Soundbite of "Plenty Tuff and Union Made")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) From the country to the town
(Unintelligible)...hauled us down
But in...(unintelligible) were made

Something...(unintelligible)... woke up one night
Said all the people should be...(unintelligible)...
Things were...(unintelligible)...things got changed
Plenty tough and union made

Plenty tough and union made
(Unintelligible)...struggle day by day
That's how we got to be this way
Plenty tough and union made

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: There are no blood brothers in the Waco Brothers. Instead there
are former members of British acts, such as the Mekons, Jesus Jones and Graham
Parker's old backup band The Rumour. The so-called token American is
guitarist Dean O. Schlabowske. They have a rather romantic view of country
music. I doubt that this side of Merle Haggard any American country act has
written a furious hymn to organized labor like the song I just played, called
"Plenty Tuff and Union Made."

But that's part of John Langford's vision. This is country music as it should
be written and played, with a long memory for roadhouse honky-tonks rather
than TV-ready music videos. He's written a blunt song about the
commercialization of country that's a lot more fun than most angry broadsides.
I'll let Langford introduce it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LANGFORD: (Speaking) This song is about the death of country music.
It's something we've been working towards over the years, and I think with
this album we will finally achieve it.

(Soundbite of audience cheering, talking)

Mr. LANGFORD: (Singing) Well, my body is a temple safer than a prison
I've done some demolition, and in a world gone wrong
The death of country music
Rattles 'round the planet
So we light the flame and fan it
Deep into the night

Where the city casts its shadow, we leave the straight and narrow
Tomorrow and forever seem so far away
Well, the dance floor's overcrowded, and the music's getting louder
People do some breathing
While they're cheating death

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Two years ago John Langford published a remarkable collection of
paintings and etchings he'd made. They were portraits of old country music
stars based on vintage publicity stills--paintings of photographs, he called
them. The stiff smiles that great artists like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash,
Lefty Frizell and others plastered on their faces to help sell records were
rendered by Langford as something like death masks. The public faces they had
to put on in between living the hard lives they and their audiences

(Soundbite of "Cowboy in Flames")

Mr. LANGFORD: (Singing) You feel disgusted and confused
Manipulated and abused
You're not the reason, you're just the means
It's a brutal little lesson in being free
Why, 40 days and 40 nights, out of mind is out of sight
Talking trash, conspiracies
Sending all your weapons to your enemy

I claw at another door
And everything will go away
There's so much money washing 'round out there
Do this, do it my way
Oh oh oh oh
Punishment, punishment

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: The book I just referred to is called "Nashville Radio: Art,
Words, and Music," and it's well worth seeking out for the way it captures the
Waco Brothers' love of American music that stirs what Langford calls in his
book, quote, "our alienated drunk commie souls." It's that dark, yet
exuberant, tone that is also released to roam the country, wreaking jubilant
havoc on the Waco Express.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
the Waco Brothers' CD, "Waco Express: Live and Sicking at Schubas Tavern."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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