South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, and one that was midwifed by the United States, has experienced a wave of ethnic cleansing that has gone nearly unnoticed by the rest of the world. Over a period of six weeks, Investigative Fund reporter Nick Turse interviewed more than 250 refugees on the ground in South Sudan and northern Uganda. In “Ghost Nation,” published in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, Turse documents the ongoing conflict between South Sudanese government forces and rebels. Through his reporting, Turse was able to pinpoint the locations of specific villages where atrocities were carried out.
— Juan Carlos Corredor
Corredor: Could you walk us through some of the different obstacles that you encountered when travelling 300-something miles? You travelled by foot, motorboat, prop plane...
Turse: Travel is challenging in that area of the world. South Sudan doesn’t have that paved road outside of the capital. The dry season, when I went, is the best time to go. In the rainy season, you can really only get around by air — helicopter or plane. But even in the dry season, the roads are lousy and exceptionally rutted; it’s difficult to travel anywhere fast. You have to budget for a lot of travel time. Roads are insecure, as well, in South Sudan. There are not just the military, police, but other armed groups, militias. You’ll be stopped and get shaken down. They ask for water; they want a bribe to let you go through, so there are obstacles like that. It’s a place that’s inhospitable to reporters.
Local reporters have it much worse. They are regularly threatened, roughed up, detained. Reporters are killed in South Sudan and no one has ever been held accountable. Foreign reporters, we have a lot of protections that our brethren there don’t1. Still, there’s a lot of interference by the authorities. All of these things are things you have to navigate just to get to the point where you’re in front of a person or able to ask questions.
Corredor: In “Ghost Nation,” you talked about how you were speaking with South Sudanese activists, politicians, religious leaders who avoided discussing genocide out of fear. How did you consider your sense of safety going into these spaces as a person who wanted to discuss this with people who couldn’t out of fear of persecution or even death?
Turse: This is a constant worry in South Sudan. I’ve been reporting there for four years so I have contacts that I can go to for information, but a lot of them I can never quote by name. We only talk on background just because it’s not safe for them. And even finding safe places to talk there is sometimes very difficult. There’s a national security service there, a secret police that is omnipresent, so you’re trying to avoid them. You try and communicate through encryption because it’s impossible to know how secure email or phones are there — not very. There’s a lot of getting in touch with people through intermediaries and setting things up. Sometimes it seems like public places — you know, there are some public places that I think are better, so it seems like you’re out in the open for authorities, and then sometimes you have to find a place behind closed doors and do your best to cover your tracks to get there, switching motorbikes or cars or travelling partway on foot when in the capital to avoid detection. Outside, on this trip, sometimes I had to report at night or find places that I thought would be out of the view of the authorities to talk to people. I was in a town called Yambio where I had a very difficult time reporting because of interference by the national security service.
Corredor: You discuss all of these things like encryption; did you bring any specific technology with you on your trip to South Sudan and around?
Turse: I communicate by encrypted email with people. I use Signal, if they have it. If not, WhatsApp, which provides at least some measure of protections. Communicating back with Sarah (Blustain at The Investigative Fund), we used all the security measures that are in place here.
Nothing is foolproof, but you should try and take as many measures as possible.
Corredor: You interviewed more than 250 refugees. Could you expand on how you referenced the narratives to document events in specific villages?
Turse: I know it’s always important on stories like this to really nail it down — to make sure you have as many sources as possible. I’ve been writing on atrocities for so long that I know also that these are exceptionally traumatic, chaotic events. People can be in the same place, at the same time, but one end of the village or the other, and see a radically different thing. Just the chaos of the event also makes it difficult for people to recall detail with great specificity. These are the most traumatic events of peoples’ lives. A lot of times what they see is seen while fleeing, running, over the shoulder, gunshots ringing out, villages on fire, this type of thing. I knew there would be a lot of official South Sudanese government pushback so I knew it was important to nail this down as much as possible.
A lot of this reporting was done in Northern Uganda at what they call refugee collection points, where refugees were funneled into before they got to actual camps. A lot of it I did just on the border, unofficial crossings where people were coming across. These villages were being emptied out due to attacks by the South Sudanese government. People would come in waves and I would talk to them — just make reference to what village it was. I would talk to people at different sites on different days and just try and put that all together. You take several different vantage points. Once you get three, four, five, you get a fairly good idea of what has happened in one of these villages. Once I had heard someone was from the village of Bamurye or Mondikolok, then I started to get a sense of what happened there. I would keep an eye out for people from that village or ask other people in a camp: “Do you know anyone else from your village who’s here?” and just try and interview them independently. You probe at the soft points of the story, things where the narrative gets muddy, and just try and work to get as solid of an idea as you can of what went on in that village.
Corredor: How would you compare the obstacles that you found in the Ugandan refugee camps with the obstacles that you found in South Sudan?
In South Sudan, it was much more difficult. In the town that I mentioned earlier, Yambio, I was detained by national security service there. They accused me of being a spy and possibly a terrorist. They said that I’d be arrested if they caught me out reporting. There, it just makes it exponentially harder. The days are pretty much lost. You have to try and report under the cover of darkness and try to stay out of the sight of secret police. These guys aren’t in uniform. You have to suspect almost everybody you see could be an informant. It’s a small town, I stand out like a sore thumb. In a place like that it’s very difficult, so you have to use subterfuge and you end up exposing your interviewees to greater levels of risk. These were things that made it much more complex in South Sudan.
Corredor: I wanted to talk about, is it Ismail Nelson?
Corredor: Ismail...especially with the phrase “bone-in-the-throat stutter.” I was very much immobilized with that description. What was it like to have that day recounted through an interpreter?
Turse: It was apparent immediately that there was a stutter there. You could hear it through the interpretation that he was stumbling over words and repeating himself. I could also just read it in his face that he was having a difficult time getting the words out, he was tremendously scarred. In the piece, I recount how he had four machete blows to his head. I thought it could be physical, possibly because he had slices to his neck, his throat, his cheek but his wife had said this was a mental thing and that’s how he also described it to me. At the end of the interview, something that had really stuck with me — I think it was cut from the Harper’s piece, I know I had it in there in an earlier draft — but he said, “There’s so many things that I want to tell you,” but in some way, he conveyed that his mind was a mess. He couldn’t get out everything he wanted to say. He was able to laboriously, for him, narrate his story, but there was obviously a layer of complexity, something further than just narrating a play-by-play of what happened that he wanted to tell me. He said, “I used to speak fluently.” His wife had said that too. He was so well spoken but now, he stutters and stammers. By all rights he should’ve been dead, but something extraordinary got him on his feet and kept him alive through all that time until he could finally get some medical attention.
So much of his story was left out of the Harper’s piece just because of the word count. After he staggered out of this burning hut that he was in, he was wandering around. He saw a group of people from his village but he was so disoriented; he said he had blood in his eyes and he couldn’t see. He thought they were soldiers so they ran away from them. They had to track him down. They didn’t even know who he was, he was so badly mutilated. Finally, someone called his name. He realized they were speaking with him in his language.
Corredor: What do you think reporters need to consider before an interview with a possibly traumatized displaced person like Ismail or the other people you were talking with?
Turse: This is something I’ve grappled with for years and I don’t think I have a great answer other than if you do this long enough you start to get a feel. Sometimes you can read it with the person that you’re just causing them too much pain and you need to end the interview. There are plenty of interviews that are like that where you stop it, thank the person for their time, but you realize this isn’t something they’re able to grapple with. I try and make it clear from the start the vein that I’m going to be asking questions about. Just make sure that my interview subjects know that they can refuse to answer at any time, end the interview at any time, and to let me know if it becomes too much and just try and give them as many outs as possible and pay as close attention as possible to how they seem to be reacting to it. I think just to be cognizant of what these people have been through and what the limits probably are, and to try and assess their level of comfort with the questions, and go from there.
Corredor: What qualities do you think a conflict zone reporter needs to have in order to document this kind of horror?
Turse: I think you need to have a level of adaptability. You really need to roll with just about anything. In a war zone, there’s one obstacle after another, and I often find that it’s just a matter of managing things from one hour to the next, just to figure out a way to get through this next hour or two. You have sort of vague plans, but you have to assume that they’ll be thrown by the wayside almost immediately. Try and think through every possible contingency and just have those in the back of your head, because the first thing you try is probably going to fall through, and the second, and the third. It’s a matter of, a lot of time, determination of these things where you just find a way to make things work. I think you have to figure out some way to decompress or de-stress. You’re grappling with difficult circumstances and a lot of other people’s trauma, so find whatever it is that can help with your mental or emotional stability and make sure you pay attention to that. You’re not going to be an effective reporter if you don’t take care of yourself in those situations.
And something you brought up earlier — I think you need to have a keen awareness about the people you are interviewing. It’s important to, at all times, be looking out for them. These people have stories that I think the rest of the world desperately needs to hear, but whether it’s their emotional wellbeing or what we talked about earlier about their physical safety, this always has to be at the forefront of your mind, especially because all the protections — that you have, the ones they don’t — you need to be thinking of that and taking pains to make sure that you’re minimizing risk to them as much as possible.
Corredor: Nick, thank you so much for this interview.
Turse: Thank you.