I Spent 4 Days In Jail In South Sudan. I Won't Stop Reporting On The Crisis There


Internally displaced people gather by a water collection point in a United Nations site outside South Sudan's capital city Juba in January. South Sudan's civil war has killed tens of thousands and driven out some 1.8 million people.Siegfried Modola/Reuters

There is a certain peace that comes with being surrounded by a bunch of men with big guns.

As much as you want to run or fight or scream, there's not much you can do — except whatever they say.

On a Friday afternoon in April, I was sitting in a restaurant in Juba, South Sudan's capital, trying to convince two government officials to issue me press credentials so I could report there. I had tried and failed to do this over the phone from my home base in Nairobi, and so my bosses and I made the decision that an in-person appeal would be best.

I flew to Juba, and this was the moment of truth. The two government officials and I made small talk for a while, and then I sheepishly said, "So..."

One of them grinned.

"We'll give you the credential. You can come pick it up on Monday," he said.

NPR's Eyder Peralta - Kainaz Amaria/NPR

We were mid-celebration, in the middle of our beers, when half-a-dozen men with guns showed up. They were in plain clothes, carrying assault rifles.

"I need you to come with me quietly," one of the men said.

"I'm not coming with you; I don't even know who you are," I protested.

"National security," he said, as the guys with guns stepped closer.

I looked at the government officials still sitting at my table and they looked as shocked as I was. I knew then that I was going with these guys wherever they wanted to take me.

So we walked down a dark hallway, out a back door, into the hot afternoon and an alley crawling with more men with weapons. They were all young, some of them in military uniforms. They looked like teenagers hanging in the alley behind a movie theater. But as they saw us coming out, they all clutched their old AK-47s and moved toward me.

When I prepare for assignments like these, I think through the risks. In this case, the South Sudanese media authority was not pleased with my previous coverage of the dire refugee situation in neighboring Uganda, so they did not want to grant me a press pass before coming to their country. But sometimes as a journalist, you have to insist and show up anyway. You have to try. You have to tell an unsympathetic government official, "Look, I'm here in search of an explanation for one of the worst conflicts in the world and I want you to let me tell these stories."

When I ran through that scenario, I thought the worst case would be that the official would laugh. He would tell me, "You're not welcome in South Sudan" — and I'd be escorted to the airport to catch the next plane out.

Just a few minutes earlier, in the restaurant, everything seemed to be turning out much better than I'd expected.

But now, the young men with guns forced me onto the back of a pickup truck. I was on my back, caged in by two benches above me. The bed was soaked in gasoline. I could smell it. I could feel it soaking through my shirt. I could feel the vibration of the engine in my body and I could see the tops of buildings zoom past.

Every once in a while, the guys with weapons, who were sitting on the benches above me, took a peek at me. I tried to keep track of the turns we were making and tried to look for landmarks. But it felt like we were driving in circles. We accelerated. I felt the bed of the truck turn hot, and suddenly, the top of buildings disappeared.

I tried to keep my mind from going to dark places. But it did anyway. Maybe these guys were driving me to some field somewhere, where I'd be forced to kneel and I'd feel the muzzle of one those weapons on the back of my head.

A burgeoning humanitarian crisis

In July 2011, South Sudan became the darling of the international community. With a referendum, it ended the longest-running war on the African continent and the 10 southern states of Sudan formed their own independent country.

On the streets of Juba, there was elation. The two biggest tribes split leadership: Salva Kiir, a Dinka, won the presidency and Riek Machar, a Nuer, was his vice president.

The hope was that the South Sudanese, who had for so long suffered under the oppressive regime of Khartoum, could finally build their own country — in peace.

But that was not to be. In 2013, Kiir accused Machar of organizing a coup. He fired him, and a civil war erupted.