American journalist Paul Salopek said he believes his arrest in Sudan was intended to be a message from that nation’s government to foreign journalists to tone down their criticism of conditions in the African nation.
Salopek was traveling with two other men to Darfur in August when his vehicle was stopped by a dread-locked teenager armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. The journalist, his translator and driver spent the next 34 days in custody.
Salopek described his ordeal and the humanitarian catastrophe in the Sudan region in a first-person account published in the Sunday editions of the Chicago Tribune.
“I believe that our arrest in Sudan was a billboard-size warning to foreign journalists: Khartoum is fed up with the drumbeat of negative news emanating from Darfur,” Salopek, a New Mexico resident and Tribune reporter, wrote.
Salopek said he was captured by followers of Minni Minnawi, a pro-peace former rebel who had shaken President Bush’s hand at the White House shortly before he was seized. The rebels beat Salopek and his companions and stole their vehicle and belongings. They then placed them in lice-infested huts.
A “skinny, rakish guerrilla” initially threatened to kill the men, Salopek said.
“Luckily, his demoralized, war-weary men disregarded those orders,” he said.
Several days later, the three men were traded to the Sudanese army for a box of new uniforms. The men were then shuttled to a succession of “pestilential huts, mud-brick prison cells and interrogation rooms,” he said. Throughout the ordeal, however, Salopek remained observant.
From the air, he saw torched huts that looked like “cigarette burns on a torture victim’s skin.” He also noticed an escalation in military activity. A peace agreement between the government and a major insurgent group appears to be deteriorating into violence, Salopek reports.
Salopek, who won Pulitzer Prizes in 2001 and in 1998, was working on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine when he was arrested on Aug. 6 and accused of passing information illegally, writing “false news” and entering the African country without a visa.
Salopek has said he initially intended only to travel to the Sudan-Chad border region, but made a last-minute decision to enter Darfur. Because Sudanese officials in Khartoum are “stingy” with journalist visas, Salopek explained in the article that foreign correspondents have entered Sudan through rebel-held territory in Chad for years.
Salopek, his driver, and his interpreter, were all freed after President Omar al-Bashir pardoned them on Sept. 9. Al-Bashir granted the pardons after meeting with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and energy secretary.