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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 17, 2006

Salopek: From prison to freedom

By Craig Timberg

EL FASHER, Sudan I came bearing gifts I imagined would be useful to a foreign correspondent trapped in a grubby African prison: mosquito repellent, books, two recent issues of the Economist and an oversized bar of Lindt dark chocolate. And I came with one big question: How did Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the Chicago Tribune and a veteran of dicey Third World travel, land himself in a Sudanese lockup?

The answer, on the surface, seemed simple enough. Salopek, 44, had been on assignment for National Geographic when, on Aug. 6, he crossed the border from Chad, entering the intractable war zone of the Darfur region without a visa. Within two hours, he was picked up by former rebels who had cut a deal with the government. A few days later, Salopek was in the hands of Sudan's notorious secret police. The charges included not just the visa violation, but also espionage and writing "false news." The possible punishments included many years in prison.

I met Salopek four weeks later while on a reporting trip to Darfur. With stamped and signed travel papers in my pocket, I walked into the sandy court compound that had become his home. In late afternoons, the steel-barred doors to his concrete-box lockup were left open, allowing Salopek and his two Chadian colleagues a driver and an interpreter to move about freely, talk on the phone, chat with visitors and order out for dinner from one of El Fasher's few restaurants.

Salopek, lean and bookish-looking in short hair and glasses, had approached his time in prison as he would a story immersing himself in the place with the passion of a devoted observer. He picked up a bit of Arabic and studied the names and personalities of his captors, all of whom eventually came to treat him as a friend. They talked, shared food and played soccer.

Most of all, he appeared at peace with his situation, which I knew took much effort for a man uncomfortable in the spotlight The only time his blood pressure seemed to rise was when he contemplated another possible outcome of his captivity that he would go free but that other journalists, chastened by his experience, would stop coming to Darfur. It pained him to imagine that his plight might lead to less attention for one of the world's great ongoing tragedies.

Salopek knew better than most what the stakes were. For whatever he learned before entering Sudan (including through visits with rebels and refugees in Chad) he had spent a month mastering firsthand the brutality of the government here. And despite what he suffered I leave this for him to tell, but he came far closer to death than has been widely reported Salopek expressed much more concern for the hundreds of thousands of people who had died and 2 million made homeless in Darfur.

Salopek was convinced, as was every aid official and African Union officer I met here, that the conflict was about to become worse as the government moved to finish off the rebels who had not signed a May peace deal. With the AU preparing to leave and a planned U.N. mission blocked by the government, the thin margin of safety for journalists and aid groups was about to disappear as well. Salopek was distraught over what could happen to civilians once all the outside witnesses left Darfur, as the government seemed determined to make happen.

When I questioned him about his decision to enter without a visa something many foreign correspondents have done in recent years he acknowledged the misjudgment. He was in a hurry to complete a project on the Sahel region running along the Sahara's southern edge. Obtaining a visa to Sudan took months, if it came at all, and he wanted a single scene from Darfur for his story. With luck, he would have been back in Chad the next day. But all his luck that day was bad. And he made other mistakes, too, such as carrying several notebooks that he had filled in Chad. That gave Sudan's government plenty of evidence to convict him. To make matters worse, rain flooded a gully on his potential escape route. When the rebels arrived, there was nowhere to retreat.

Salopek had made a career of illuminating the lives of the world's least-powerful people caught in forces beyond their control; now, he had become a character in a quintessential Paul Salopek-type story, though when I spoke to him, it was not clear whether he would ever publish it.

The last few days we met, it became clear that Salopek's situation was set to improve. His wife, Linda Lynch, Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski and National Geographic Editor Chris Johns were on their way to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as part of a mission led by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, where Salopek has a home. It was unlikely, we all knew, that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had summoned them only to send them away empty-handed. As the endgame approached, the small contingent of U.S. diplomatic and military officials who had made it their mission to keep Salopek as safe and comfortable as possible began preparing for his departure. A Marine major wielding electric clippers gave him a high-and-tight haircut beneath a full moon. An Air Force lieutenant colonel shared some of his stash of premium cigars. The Americans also stepped up their quiet campaign of bribery for the courthouse staff delivering food, water and the occasional plastic tarp to make sure the mood at the prison stayed upbeat.

The day Salopek was freed, Sept. 9, he and his two Chadian colleagues sat behind a small row of orange-painted bars, waiting for the judge to rule. Moments later, at al-Bashir's request, the judge pardoned them all. They walked out free men, after 35 days in captivity.

Salopek exchanged hugs with most of his captors, including the judge, who urged him to write "a good story" about his time in Sudan. Salopek's many saviors his wife, his editors, Richardson and the U.S. officials were jubilant as he drove away, then boarded a plane to Khartoum for the first leg of the long journey home to New Mexico. I could see by the body language of the guards, who had grown accustomed to the warm smiles and steady bribes delivered by their star prisoner, that they were sorry to see him go.

In a strange, selfish way, so was I.