When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter

When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter
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Meeting Garang was a bit of an anticlimax after our exotic encounter with the Tuposa. To start with we were placed under informal arrest in a jungle clearing that Garang’s people laughingly called the International Hotel. Then we were told we would have to wait our turn while Garang held talks with a visiting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Every now and then some of Garang’s people in their fatigues and dark glasses would come and check us over again. One of them was especially sinister. Tall, thin and aggressive, he sneered through his dark glasses, asking, “Why should I let you meet our leader? How much money will you give me?”

As time wore on, waves of bewilderment and fear rolled over us in equal proportions. An overnight sleep did nothing to help. Quite the contrary because when we awoke we realised the makeshift pillows on which our heads had been resting were actually canvas sacks filled with grenades.

Finally, nearly twenty-eight hours after our arrival, we were ushered into Garang’s presence. A well-built man with a PhD from Iowa State University in the US, he had very little to say that was original, preferring to stick to the SPLA mantra: “We are the government of the area, anyone who contests this fact is entertaining an illusion.” He insisted that the SPLA were no separatists, merely political activists who wanted peace based on genuine dialogue with all the country’s political forces.

Before my interview the Thames crew had theirs. As previously planned Gill and Stewart had decided that their team would focus predominantly on the famine gripping south Sudan. For them it was more of a visual story and their cameras could really paint in chilling detail the human cost of the civil war. Stewart in particular went very quiet as the scale of the tragedy hit him. Clearly, the money raised the previous year from Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Live Aid concert hadn’t helped this part of Africa—something he especially seemed to be particularly aware of. Garang’s seeming indifference to the plight of his fellow Sudanese and the belligerent comments of his close advisers upset all of us. For these particular African warlords life was all too cheap.

The following morning, after our interview with Garang who appeared to have vanished, we again teamed up with Kwol and another older guide called Majak to head back to Kenya. Ten hours after leaving Buma our convoy stopped. It was a good excuse to stretch our legs and for someone else to take their turn driving. I had been in the second car—a far from pleasant experience because of the dust and sand constantly kicked up by the lead vehicle. Stewart asked that everyone change cars because one was considerably more comfortable than the other. He’d spent the previous ten hours being rocked about in a seat that was badly welded to the floor and the bumpy dirt road had been playing havoc with his knees. Nobody objected, not least because of how withdrawn Stewart had become since the meeting with Garang.

My car started up, I was sitting in the same uncomfortable seat that Stewart had been complaining about. He was now lying with his long frame stretched out in the boot of the other Land Cruiser, sleeping.

A few minutes later there was a sound like a dull rumble or what I imagined was a mini earthquake.

I remember turning to Hutchings to ask if the Land Cruiser behind had punctured its petrol tank, someone may even have shouted, “It’s their petrol tank.” As we raced back we could see Stewart lying spread-eagled on his back with a bloodied Majak next to him. Their Land Cruiser had driven over a forgotten landmine planted months earlier by Garang’s forces and the sheer force of the resulting explosion had thrown Stewart clear through the air into a clump of trees. When we got to his fallen body on that mud track in southern Sudan, we could see there was a thin branch sticking out of his head.

Kwol simply disappeared and was never seen again, but Majak was lying half in and half out of the Land Cruiser. Both his legs were twisted in an unnatural way and there was blood trickling out from one side of his mouth, but he was nevertheless in a better condition than Stewart who was moaning but still sufficiently conscious to help me unbutton his shorts to help him breathe more easily.

There were also tricklets of blood dripping from his forehead, so we ripped off our own shirts to make a turban of makeshift bandages, while Gill raced off to find the nearest habitation, a government-held town called Kapoeta, where, despite heroic attempts, he tried and failed to find a doctor. He did make contact with the local SPLA commander who sent him back to us with a temporary military escort. We had absolutely no idea what would become of us. In that gathering gloom, surrounded by African scrub, nothing was clear or certain. That sense of desolation has been pushed so deep into my subconscious that it is almost impossible to recall.

What I do remember is that while Gill was away Hutchings, Heasman, Killlian and I tried to do what we could to make Stewart comfortable. As he lurched between different states of consciousness, we held his hand, talked to him and he in turn talked back at us, at least for a while. I wished at the time that we’d been able to lay him out more comfortably on a bed or a mattress. No such luxury was available. All we had was the hard, sandy ground.

I’d come close to death before a few years earlier in Afghanistan when fellow passengers on a bus travelling from Kabul to Kandahar were killed one by one by the mujahidin in front of my eyes. But, however horrible that experience, my murdered fellow bus passengers were anonymous casualties who spoke a language –Pushtu – that I didn’t understand.

The crisis involving Stewart and Majak was completely different. Both men were part of a much smaller, more closely knit group that had travelled together in convoy from Garang’s headquarters in Buma. Stewart for his part had taken the trouble to introduce himself to each one of us. By the time we got to Buma he and I had told each other everything there was to know about our schools, colleges and families. He was someone I had got to know and like. We had shared jokes and stories about our lives, played silly games to while away the time.

Unlike me, Stewart was still a bachelor. There may have been references to a girlfriend in the distant past, but what he talked about most were his parents and in particular his sister to whom he was especially close.

At the time the idea of stories or pictures did not even enter our thoughts. All our thoughts were with Stewart and Majak who to our untrained eyes, although wounded, was in no danger of losing his life. My fear for Stewart was mixed with anger about the landmine. How come Garang’s forces had left it there? It must have been Garang because his forces had been in control of the area for the past few years. Why didn’t Majak, the Garang guide designated to help us, know about the location of the mine? Had we been set up by Garang’s aides – one of them had demanded money with menaces – and were there other randomly scattered mines that would take all our lives?

There were no obvious answers and the questions seemed irrelevant because by the time Gill returned from his futile search for help, Stewart’s breathing had stopped. He was dead at the age of thirty-five and there was nothing we could do about it. The sheer sense of helplessness has never gone away. His last words were, “I don’t want to go there, I must survive.” One of us closed his eyes, I don’t remember who, as we knelt next to him, crying like little children. By my watch it was 7.30 pm Kenyan standard time.

Soon afterwards a platoon of Garang’s SPLA soldiers walked past. They must have been watching us before they suddenly loomed out of the dusk because they were not hostile. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Gibson, one of twenty seemingly barefoot soldiers, asked if there was anything he could do. We asked what medicine he could lay his hands on. All he had was a useless pack of paracetemol tablets. No good for wounded or dying victims of a mine blast.

But Gibson was practical in other ways, helping us brew a mix of coffee and whisky that each of us drank. Then we prepared for the long drive back to Lokichokio. There were difficult decisions to make.

Stewart’s body wrapped in a sleeping bag took up a huge amount of space in the one surviving Land Cruiser that had to stop several times because of two punctures and a leaking radiator. It could not accommodate all of us, as well as Majak, so our wounded SPLA guide was left behind. When we finally reached Lokichokio, shivering from a mix of shock and hysteria, news of our accident had travelled ahead of us.

Helen Fielding met us at the border crossing, together with locally based representatives of the International Red Cross. To his eternal credit, a young Swiss delegate from the ICRC took charge of a medical team that drove back into Sudan to tend to Majak. They returned with him to Kenya where he was treated in their field hospital and made a full recovery.

As for the rest of us, we were put on an ICRC charter aircraft that flew us with Stewart’s body back to Nairobi where the next twenty-four hours are still just a remembered blur of hot baths, whisky and sleep. Local contacts said Kenyan police wanted to interview us, and there was some possibility of actually spending time in a Kenyan prison cell. But before the police could get to us British diplomats had us out on the first available commercial flight to London.

My wife, Amanda, met me at Heathrow airport and drove me straight to the office where I spent the next several hours writing up the story of our tragedy. Looking back, the writing up of the story and wringing out the details on the keyboard of my typewriter was a cathartic experience. No psychiatrist could have suggested a better, although temporary way of coping with the aftermath of the tragedy.