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We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back.
I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price. Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. “If you go, you don’t come back,” more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately.
Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own. Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline meant that the foreign correspondent was the sole author of the reporting. Then I became a journalist and quickly learned the truth. Foreign correspondents are almost never alone in our work. We’re almost always dependent on locals, often many of them, if we want to have any hope of getting the story. It was never truer for me than on that day when I was attempting to cover an ongoing ethnic-cleansing campaign in South Sudan.
As the motorbike driver was topping off the tank with gasoline from a plastic water bottle, I had a final chance to think things over. We were going to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan so I could gather evidence of a murder by government troops in a village garrisoned by those same soldiers. The driver hailed from one of the ethnic groups being targeted by South Sudan’s army. If we were found by soldiers, he would likely be the first of us killed. The woman, Salina Sunday, was my guide. She was confident that she would be safe and didn’t show an ounce of fear, even though women were being raped and killed as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign churning through the southlands of South Sudan, including her home village, Bamurye.
Within minutes we were off again to find, if we were fortunate, the mutilated body of the murder victim; if we were unfortunate, his killers as well. I had met Sunday barely more than an hour earlier. I had laid eyes on the driver for the first time only minutes before we left. They were strangers and I was risking their lives for my work, for “my” story.
The Fix is In
When it comes to overseas newsgathering, it’s the “fixers,” those resourceful, wired-in locals who know all the right people, who often make it possible. Then there are the generous local reporters, translators, guides, drivers, sources, informants of every sort, local friends, friends of friends, and sometimes—as in that trip of mine to Bamurye (recently recounted in full in the Columbia Journalism Review)—courageous strangers, too. Those women and men are the true, if unsung, heroes behind the bylines of so many foreign correspondents. They’re the ones who ensure that, however imperfectly, we at least have a glimpse of what’s happening in far-off, sometimes perilous places about which we would otherwise be clueless.