In episode 6, the team tries to understand the connection between Chris’s trip to South Sudan, and one taken by a group of American fighters just weeks before. Could this explain why Chris was called a white rebel? And after months investigating, Basia finally speaks to the fighter who fascinated Chris, and she asks – how close really were you?
David Ferris: What do you wanna…
Christopher Allen: I don’t have any philosophical…
David: Just this stuff like life big, big feeling, big thoughts on life and death. You don’t have to force it if nothing comes to mind, you know?
Eyewitness: He was shoot again in the chest…
Chris: Big thoughts on life and death.
Jeremy Bliss: I still feel like he has woven together a narrative that he thought could better his circumstances.
Chris: Being in Donetsk, being in eastern Ukraine, you’re conscious of how quickly a life can be taken, that life is a really fragile thing. I’m not sure if there’s anything more to add than that.
Basia, narrating: We’ve been in Nairobi for days. Me, Jeremy, Halima, our fixer, and our producer, Gary.
Halima: It feels like it’s taking you back to zero. Right. Do you feel like that Basia?
Basia: No, I don’t feel like I’m going back to zero. I think slowly I can see that there are these like shards of truths and they’re kind of, it’s sort of splinted all over.
Jeremy: I think it’s right. There are glimmers of truth from everyone. And it’s up to us to try as best as we can to corroborate them now.
Basia, narrating: We’re piecing together what we’ve learned. From the essay-writer, and the eyewitness, and all the other conversations we’ve had while we’ve been here. A lot of it is conflicting. Even an eyewitness, who saw Chris get killed on that day in Kaya, isn’t completely reliable.
Essay Writer: There are many shades to the truth…
Basia, narrating: It’s like what the essay-writer told us…
Essay Writer: But it’s hard to understand it…
Basia, narrating: That the truth is hard to understand…
Essay Writer: Unless you are…
Basia, narrating: Unless you are…
Both: Out there.
Basia, narrating: In the fog of war, shots can move, injuries become confused. Jeremy and I are left thinking differently about the essay writer. I feel that he was trying to help, in some warped way, Jeremy feels duped. But we do know more than before, we know that the arrival of the two Reuters journalists really changed things for Chris. We know that Chris ran ahead to take pictures and lost the protection of the rebels around him. We know that any journalists or white people with the rebels were considered a target. And the eyewitness told us that his death was celebrated. Which might explain those trophy photos, published later. What happened to Chris is clearer but the why isn’t. The next step is to contact the South Sudanese Government directly and ask them for their version of events. But before I do that: there is a final turn of the dial. Because I have a theory. Now, it’s time to test it.
I’m Basia Cummings and from Tortoise, this is Pig Iron. Episode 6: The Rope.
Basia: I must be able to connect the one thing to the other. It cannot be random, you do not have two guys, one a journalist, one a mercenary, coincidentally find themselves in South Sudan a few weeks apart, and I just dunno yet what the connection is. One of the things that somebody told me is that Craig Lang went to his memorial and said that the reason that he was there was because he felt guilty. And I really wanna find out if that’s true and why he felt guilty. Was it Craig Lang that led Chris to South Sudan? I don’t know.
Basia, narrating: Craig Lang used to be in the US army. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he ended up getting injured. In 2013, he allegedly drove from Fort Bliss, Florida to North Carolina to try and kill his wife. He was arrested, and his father told local reporters that his son had developed PTSD. After he was dishonourably discharged from the military in 2014, he went looking for something new. And so, it was 2015, when he was in his mid-20s, that he travelled to Ukraine and joined the paramilitary battalion, Right Sector, fighting on the eastern front. And it’s where he met Chris, who had embedded with the battalion that same year. Craig Lang is a recurring character in Chris’s journals. A source of fascination. Chris pitched articles about him, trying to understand his history of violence. And that history means that very few people want to talk about him. One person warned me, “everyone who gets pulled into Craig Lang’s orbit gets fucked.” But ever since we found Craig Lang’s name on Chris’s emergency contact sheet right back at the start of all this in Maine, I’ve wondered about what their relationship really was, and what it might say about Chris’s life, and his death. And people close to Chris have told me conflicting things…
Basia: But Craig would be a friend of Chris’s, would you say?
Male Voice 1: Yeah, so Chris knew Craig…
Joyce: Chris was, he was friends with them….
Male Voice 2: No, no…
Basia, narrating: I find Craig Lang as compelling a person as Chris. Another young man, drawn to war. And I think, if I can understand how their two trips to South Sudan might be linked, it could help explain why Chris was killed. But from everything I’ve been told, Craig doesn’t speak to journalists.
Craig Lang: Hello?
Basia: Hi Craig, it’s Basia.
Craig: Hi, how are you?
Basia: I’m good. Thanks. How are you doing?
Craig: I’m doing okay.
Basia: Great. Well, it’s really….
Basia, narrating: We’re in our hotel in Nairobi. Craig Lang is in Kyiv. He now has a Ukrainian wife, and a family.
Craig: I do have a fairly negative atmosphere associated with my identity right now and I don’t want to be used to like bring Chris down or anything like that.
Basia: I understand, I think it would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t know about…
Basia, narrating: Craig has agreed to be interviewed. But the subject of the double murder charge in which he is accused of killing two people in Florida, and stealing $3,000 from them in 2018, that’s is off limits. He denies the charges and he’ll only talk about Chris.
Basia: When, when did you first meet Chris? Let’s start at the beginning.
Craig: So, I met Chris, I wanna say late 2014. Chris was actually the way that I came into Ukraine. I found him on a volunteer page. He was talking about the war. I kind of reached up to him and he connected me with some of the various volunteer battalions, like right sector and Azul. And he was kind of, you know, someone that helped get me out here…
Basia, narrating: When they finally meet up in person, they click. They’re two young American men in the middle of a war they’ve both chosen. Craig later told a Vice reporter that he picked fighting in Ukraine over, say, Syria after seeing the Maidan revolution on the news, and saw that quote “these people fucking want change.” I’m not sure what I was expecting from Craig. But on the call, he seems open. Open about what Chris did for him, setting him up with the volunteer battalions in the first place. And Craig says that Chris was the one of the smartest guys he’d met.
Craig: And whenever he wanted to go to the east, usually what he would do is he would message me, and I could get him out to one of the right sector battalions or I could get him out there with me and the other foreigners that were out there. And whenever I was in Kyiv I could contact him, you know, I could, you know, sleep on his floor at his apartment, you know, it started out initially just, you know, helping each other out, you know, doing favours back and forth and then it kinda, it kinda went into a friendship. I mean, there’s a lot of people that, that are much closer to Chris than what I am, you know, I like to say that he was a friend.
Basia: Yeah, and in some of Chris’ journals that his family have let me have a look at, it’s clear that Chris was really drawn to the foreign fighter way of life, he really had a lot of respect for what the volunteers were doing. But he also, I think, it feels like in his journals, he toyed with the idea of like, maybe he should be a volunteer. Maybe he should be a fighter. Did you ever so get that sense from him?
Craig: So, I’ll actually share a story. So, when I actually met Chris in person, he’d came back to Ukraine. And he had actually, he had made the decision that he wanted to fight, that he was tired of reporting that he wanted to actually, you know, pick up a rifle and fight and, I actually had trained him for about two weeks, two, three weeks. I sat there doing training drills with him, teaching him, uh, manoeuvre drills, teaching him medical care, like, you know, tactical, combat health care, things like that. He never, he never stayed with it.
Basia, narrating: I knew about Chris firing the mortar, but this is a step further, weeks of training together. It begins to feel that a code of honour, a loyalty to Chris, is behind Craig’s decision to speak to me. They looked out for each other. It’s a camaraderie Chris didn’t find in journalism. And these fighters seemed to offer Chris so much: both his biggest story, and a sense of belonging. Maybe that’s why the line between writer and fighter felt so blurry to him.
Craig: You know, we always told him, hey, if, if it comes down to a, don’t pick up a rifle because you’re a journalist and, his response to that was, you know, the Russians are gonna shoot me anyway. I might as well pick one up…
Basia: I guess at that stage in his life that the, the boundary between being a reporter and being a volunteer was maybe not as clear as it would’ve been later on when he, you know, after many years in Ukraine, do you think that’s fair?
Craig: Yeah. No, I think that I think that’s extremely fair. I think at times, you know, the, the line would kind of get muddied a little bit and, you know, sometimes it was more of like, he was a fighter than, you know, a journalist. So, I mean, you know, he didn’t take part in actual, you know, combat operations. He was there for combat operations, but he wasn’t carrying a rifle. But he, he did always kind of seemed ready to, you know, help if somebody was wounded or ready to help if something had to be done.
Basia, narrating: Chris moves deeper into the world of the fighters. It seems he starts to feel their gravitational pull. Freelance work is hard. He’s getting a handful of articles published here and there but it’s not enough to make a living. And he can’t justify the long embeds with the fighters for the few hundred pounds he’s being paid. He starts thinking about writing a book about it all. Maybe that will allow him to go deeper. And it seems he really does want to understand them. He writes in 2015: “With Right Sector, I would see a darker side of humanity. One not so easy to come to terms with, and yet one that was fundamentally true and real and important to understand, one I wanted to see.” He embedded with Right Sector several times, but his journals focus on people, and their motivations. But there is no mention of the crimes that some of his friends and sources would later be accused of. More recent reporting gives some idea about what might have been happening around this time. In 2021, BuzzFeed reported that US authorities were investigating Craig Lang and other American fighters under the federal war crimes statute, for allegations that they took non-combatants as prisoners, beat them, and held them underwater. In the autumn of 2015, Chris writes to his girlfriend, Helena, about a line of rope. “I know there is this rope which connects me with the world I left behind,” he writes. “Relationships, friends, family. Will this rope fray? Will it break? “Those who know one half of the truth are here. Those on the other side of this rope know the other half. The war, the book. Fighter, writer.” Was the rope fraying by June 2017, the month that Craig Lang travels with 2 other men, to South Sudan?
Basia: So, I wanted to ask you about South Sudan in particular because I’ve wondered for a while what the connection is between your trip to South Sudan and Chris’s, when did you first get interested in going to South Sudan yourself?
Craig: So, there was a, another fighter who had, who had fought in South Sudan.
Basia, narrating: It was trench warfare in eastern Ukraine, and Craig wanted something new.
Craig: I was like, okay, I’m thinking about going to Africa. We flew to Kenya, where we were gonna go to South Sudan. Now, originally, we were going to link up with Chris’s contact with the rebels.
Basia, narrating: And again, Chris seems to be the link, the fixer, first to Right Sector, now, to the rebels.
Basia: Do you remember the guy’s name?
Basia, narrating: I think this could be Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel. The rebel spokesman who had met Chris in Kampala, and who had taken him to Equatoria. But Craig can’t remember. The fighters had planned to travel into Uganda, across the border into South Sudan, and eventually join up with the rebels. The same way that Chris would later travel. But it was too expensive.
Craig: We made the decision that we would go straight into South Sudan from Kenya, we were going there to see what was there and to find somebody to fight with. It wasn’t really a match, so much as who, you know is just out there I think that was one of the biggest problems that we had is we didn’t have a clear plan in place. And I think that’s what kind of doomed our trip from the beginning.
Basia, narrating: Craig and the two others he was with walked across the border from Kenya to South Sudan. And they didn’t care, really, who they ended up fighting for, the government side, or the rebels. They weren’t going there for the money, there was none. They were going there for the adventure.
Basia: Right. And did you guys have military equipment with you? Did you have guns? Did you have ammunition?
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. We had all that stuff with us.
Basia, narrating: Craig says they picked up weapons outside a British army base in Kenya, and he says it as if it’s totally normal. It’s an extraordinary detail. A glimpse at a parallel world, a foreign legion for the reddit age. An experienced cohort of fighters who treat the world like a violent playground.
Craig: So, what ended up happened as we, we crossed the border and we’re in South Sudan and we’re going to this town and as we get to the town, we meet somebody for the army. And the army seems, really excited to, to take us. They want us to work with them for fighting and everything. And then, there becomes a little bit of a disagreement because one guy in the group starts saying, we’re medical volunteers. And it kind of confuses the guy cuz the guy’s like, are you here to fight or are you medics? And there’s two people saying we’re fighters and there’s one person saying we’re medics. And anyway, that causes a little bit of confusion. And then the border guy showed up. The border officer showed up at the town and when he saw us, he immediately recognized us. Cause we were the only three white guys in South Sudan….
Basia, narrating: Craig says they were handed over to the Kenyans. And at the request of the US embassy, they were held in prison for three weeks. At this point, they needed help.
Craig: And when we didn’t make contact after a while, Chris actually was the one that contacted the embassy, asking about our whereabouts. So, that’s kind of what he was set up for, was that if all went wrong, he was supposed to step in.
Basia, narrating: Back in Maine a few months ago, Chris’s mum, Joyce, had told me something. That Craig had stayed at Chris’s Kyiv apartment on his way to South Sudan. And there Chris agreed to support Craig if anything went wrong in East Africa.
Basia: When Chris stepped in and tried to help when you were detained, I guess by that time, it would’ve been in Kenya. What did he do?
Craig: So, he just started making phone calls to all the embassies, the embassy and South Sudan and Juba, embassy in Nairobi. And I think that’s what sort of like got the American government looking for us.
Basia, narrating: It’s time to test my theory on Craig.
Basia: In the moment that you were detained, did you ever say to any of the authorities that you guys were journalists.
Craig: No, we did not. However, Chris called it up to the embassies that we were journalists.
Basia: Which embassy did he call?
Craig: I think it was the embassy in Juba. He called it up that we were journalists, I think. I think he was trying to sort of get an idea of where we were or if there had been anything reported.
Basia: Right. Okay. Cuz I saw that that had been reported at the time that a South Sudanese government minister had said that you guys had been pretending to be journalists.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. No, that was, that was from Chris calling up that we were journalists. Because we told them from the beginning that we were fighters.
Basia: How do you know that Chris called the embassy in Juba and said that you guys were journalists? Is that something that he told you he had done?
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. That was something that he had told us he had done. And then from another contact that I had had also sort of said that, so…
Basia, narrating: As Craig repeats the line “Chris was calling up the embassies” I look at my producer. This is a moment. He may have been acting out of loyalty or friendship, but if Craig is telling the truth, then this might have put Chris and others in danger. It’s not just that muddying the waters like this could have put him on the radar of the South Sudanese authorities, but it would have risked making any journalist a target of the South Sudanese government, as if anyone could be a mercenary in disguise.
Basia: I’ve just been thinking that you guys go to Kenya and then try and cross over the border. And then, pretty much six weeks later, he crosses the border into South Sudan. He is killed either on purpose or accidentally, but the government may have known at that point that there was some connection with you guys. And that’s why he, they called him a mercenary. Do you, do you think that there’s any connection or do you think there’s any truth to that theory?
Craig: I think that it is quite possible. I think that it is a very legitimate theory. I think that there’s a high possibility that there could be a correlation between us going into the country getting kicked out and then him going into the country. And potentially being kill, well, him being killed and potentially, you know, captured.
Basia, narrating: I ask Craig if there’s any way, he can prove what he has just told me about Chris pretending they were journalists. A text, a Facebook message, anything. He says he doesn’t have anything, so it’s an uncorroborated claim. But there is an email Jeremy told me about, a couple of months ago.
Jeremy: Right. So, over the past days I’ve been trawling through Chris’s emails and on the 31st of July 2017, Chris had written to the American embassy in Nairobi. So, that’s obviously quite significant.
Basia, narrating: In Chris’s outbox, there is an email addressed to the US embassy in Kenya, sent while the fighters were detained there at the end of July 2017.
Basia: That’s very close to when he travelled no?
Jeremy: Well, he arrived in Kampala the next day.
Basia: Wow. Okay, blimey.
Basia: So, he made, he sent an email to the embassy to say…
Jeremy: What’ up, whats going on with Alex…
Basia, narrating: It’s from Chris, inquiring about the status of Alex Zwiefelhofer, one of the two people detained with Craig. So, we know that Chris had made some contact on their behalf.
Jeremy: I don’t have anything else to hand in terms of the communication. So, I assume that was either by telephone or maybe there’s another email that we don’t have. But certainly there was a chaser email. He had already been in contact beforehand, but certainly there was a chaser email on the 31st of July.
Basia, narrating: Much of what Craig tells me about his own arrest is consistent with the FBI document I’d found a few months before, including the sworn statement by an FBI officer, which outlined their trip to South Sudan. But the conversation with Craig is evidence of something else, of how intertwined his and Chris’s lives were between 2015 and 2017.
Craig: I remember I told his, told his mom when I went to his funeral. I was like, you know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I wasn’t there. Cause I did feel a little bit responsible for that because. I wanted us to go into Uganda and to link up with that team before he did, but everybody else had wanted to more or less, drive us into South Sudan.
Basia: Thanks so much time for your time Craig, really appreciate it, okay, bye…
That just feels very significant, I don’t know how else to put it, it’s just, it’s a direct link between him, mercenaries, and the accusation of a journalist being a mercenary and vice versa.
Gary: So, what’s the next step?
Basia: Well, there’s two things really. One is I need to figure out if I can, what the FBI knew and when, and what they thought Chris was. And I also need to figure out what the South Sudanese government knew and when, and I need to figure out whether anyone can tell me what Chris said when he was contacting those embassies. But anyway, it, it’s, it no longer feels like the Craig Lang thing is a hunch of mine, it feels like it’s central to the story.
Basia, narrating: Gary and I emerge from the hotel room and meet Jeremy for dinner.
Basia: Should I tell you about Craig Lang?
Jeremy: Yes, please.
Basia, narrating: I’ve made notes. There’s a list of things I want to tell him, but I start with the key revelation…
Basia: It was Chris who told the South Sudanese embassy that they weren’t mercenaries, they were journalists. So, that came from Chris.
Jeremy: Fuck, fuck, I mean it suggests, just a collaboration which is not great.
Basia: I think it shows, I hate to say it, but I think it shows a real lack of judgment. And I think a lack of understanding of the risks, of what getting involved with somebody like Craig in that environment might mean.
Jeremy: All that I understand, and I guess we sort of knew bits of in a way, the thing that I find complicated is why Chris would’ve said that they were journalists. So, I guess we’ll just have to find out more.
Basia, narrating: The claim, that Chris said the fighters were journalists has never been mentioned before, not in any of the numerous conversations that Jeremy and the family have had with embassies, the FBI, or the US state department. It’s a totally new piece of information.
Jeremy: I’ll tell you the issue, the issue with the perspective that this is like, a breakthrough is we’re taking the word of mercenary, who’s accused of doing terrible things who yeah. Is suggesting that he’s close to Chris and being honest with you, but I don’t feel like he’s cut and dry a great reference point. He’s a good one, but I still feel like that stuff has to be proved out.
Basia: This has to be proved out, but I think at some point we have to…
Jeremy: What would you, in my scenario, if you were saying it to me, how would you respond?
Basia: I think I would first acknowledge that that’s an enormous step and that that’s a really important interview to secure and it’s a really big move forward and it’s like, right, okay. We’ve kind of, we’ve gone somewhere. And then I think I would, I think the reason I get touchy is because I think that your instinctive position is to kind of push back against things that are difficult about Chris or that don’t, or that are going to be problematic. And I totally understand why you do that.
Jeremy: But it’s not what I said.
Basia: But it’s the way, it’s how it becomes a kind of volley of like, but it could be this and it could be that. And like, it could be an infinite number of scenarios where we can only go on the evidence that we’ve got. And the evidence is this on the record interview with somebody who has no reason to lie saying this, what happened. He might have got it mixed up. He may…
Jeremy: Yeah, but that’s not evidence.
Basia: But it’s testimony. And journalism is a mix of evidence and testimony, and it’s about a balance of probabilities.
Jeremy: I have to approach it from a different perspective, and I’m not a journalist. I’ve only looked at stuff ever in this context through law and it’s not about balance of probabilities, it’s not the test. And I know that he says that’s what he was told but that’s not evidence. But you also have to imagine for me it, this is my relative, not a, not a thing I’m reporting on. So, I don’t feel the same, you know, moment of revelation that you do, and I get that you do, and you should, but I don’t feel it like that because someone at firstly that I knew, but also that I’m related to, and then, I don’t know it, I don’t have those feelings, I feel bad in a way that I can’t sit with you and have like a Eureka moment, but I can’t. And even if we find out who killed it, it’s not going to be Eureka moment for me, cause it’s someone who I know that was killed.
Basia, narrating: After a long trip, we return to London. And I speak again to Helena, Chris’s girlfriend, who tells me that by 2017 Chris had become a bit tired of the fighters, that he was relieved when they were finally arrested. But I know, even if he was telling her that, he was also trying to help them, jumping into action when they were arrested and detained. And then there’s that rope Chris wrote about, the one running between his two worlds, home, family, girlfriend and the world of the fighters. The split personality. He is clearly conflicted. Perhaps he could feel the rope fraying, feel the rope pulling in different directions, just as he’d written. I’m lost in what I learned in Nairobi. So I go to the pool, to try and find some sense. I’d like to ask Chris, did you see Craig as your ultimate story, someone you wanted to follow around the world and write about; or did you see your friendship as primary. I want to ask Chris why the mercenary? I can’t ask him. But there is someone else. And so, we travel to the Kent coast in the South of England.
James Brabazon: So, when I was 17, my best friend had drowned. Stepped into a lake in, in France. And that was, it died of cold-water shock. And I had felt very much at the time as partly why I set off across Europe. I just wanted to live, but you know, you see your best friend die at 17. It’s like, okay, that’s beyond the tragedy. It’s like, it’s destruction absolute. And I just wanted to live, see stuff, like, know what it meant to feel all the things that I knew he would never feel, love, rage, disgust, hate, whatever I wanted all of it. I was like, it was like being a camera with the shutters locked back and just bleaching the film out. That’s what I wanted, be careful what you wish for.
Basia, narrating: James Brabazon, an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. And the author of a book, My Friend the Mercenary, about his bond with a South African man called Nick du Toit, a former arms dealer, fighter, and coup plotter.
Basia: I guess I’m here because I’m looking for a guide.
James: I can be a very unreliable guide, but I’ll do my best for you.
Basia: I’m looking for a guide into difficult friendships.
James: Right okay. I’m reason I’m reasonably good at that.
Basia, narrating: I want to know if James’s friendship with Nick was like Chris’s with Craig Lang. James tells me about Liberia, where he had travelled with Nick in the early 2000s to report on a new rebel movement.
James: I got really ill. And I was really ill. And as the, as the sickest I’ve ever been on location, I mean, it was just, it was rampant and me with dysentery with no antibiotics to control it. And, I’ll spare your listeners, a full physical description of that. But at the point at which I’d stopped shitting blood puss and water, I was sort of beginning to wonder whether it actually was me that wasn’t gonna make it. It was very, very weak. I couldn’t, I wasn’t strong enough to get out my sleeping bag either, Nick would take me outside, and hold me up by my wrists so I could shit into a ditch. And then he’d wipe me and put me back into my sleeping bag. And there’s a point at which when you’ve had another man, hold you up naked by your wrist so you can shit into a ditch. You’re either mates or you are not. And he sent out rebels in every direction with the remaining cash that we had to try and find anyone that would part with antibiotics. And, in the end, someone came back with a hand, tiny handful of flagyl metronidazole. I took that and I revived very quickly. And then we continued from there, down towards the front and already our relationship had completely changed as a result.
Basia, narrating: I think back to Chris’s theory of reporting, about getting as close as possible. Craig had told me a story from the frontline, in which a fighter in Ukraine was seriously injured to the leg. And Chris called a doctor to help him. It’s like what the essay-writer said about out there maybe lives do become intertwined in a way that makes sense on the frontline. And it’s a question turned over by so many war reporters. The tension of the heart of being out there, are you in the field to bear witness, to document history, or to help? Do you observe, or do you participate?
Basia: Did it ever cross your mind that a man, like this could not be your friend, that the things that he had done made it impossible for you to become friends with him?
James: No. No. It never crossed my mind.
Basia: What kind of, just so I understand what kinds of things are the unconscionable things that you heard at that time?
James: Well, you have to put this into context, he was a professional soldier fighting on behalf of apartheid South Africa, so the entire framework, here is a man who’s entire raise on debt is to maintain and perpetuate the Apartheid state.
Basia: And if you were to describe if I said to you, who is Nick du Toit, how would you describe him to me?
James: He’s a good man. He’s a good man. Saved my life. He is a thinking, feeling person who changed. And I spent a lot of time with Nick when eventually he was released from prison years later, when the other events that followed Liberia had all played themselves out and there was genuine contrition.
Basia: As part of like doing this whole investigation, I’ve been talking to various different war reporters about like what the rules are, like what are the rules of being a war reporter?
James: There aren’t any.
Basia: Not something like never pick up a weapon, never participate.
James: Oh man, I don’t know what wars these guys were fighting. Jesus Christ. Listen, if you are, if you are in a frontline capacity, in any profession, but particularly as a war reporter, there will come a point at which you necessarily need to exercise your natural and enable right of self-defence. It doesn’t matter how you do that. The moment that you act in self-defence in a war zone, you are necessarily a participant. So, the idea that you can operate in war and not participate is just the most rank, unconscionable horse shit, it’s possible to smell. If you are there, you are in it. And if you’re in it, you’re participating, you might not like that. You might try everything possible to convince yourself it’s not true, but you are, objectivity, forget it. We are men, not God’s. So, there is no objectivity. There is no detachment. The issue is irrespective of that is your work credible and authentic. That’s the yard stick you have to go by, are you telling the truth?
Basia: But what about the means by which you get that truth? Because I it’s one thing to pick up a weapon and I, and I take your point about self-defence, but what about relationships and access and how you find yourself to be there and who who’s facilitated that truth and in war, there are so many competing. I mean, it’s like, I keep thinking that it’s like dropping a glass and there are just thousands of shards, and you can never piece them back together in the same way, because everyone has a different perspective.
James: You sound like Pontius Pilot. What is truth as he washes his hands? It’s easier actually, just to say, oh, there are lots of many truths, it’s very hard to, it’s nonsense. You know, what’s true in your heart, you know. You know, what’s right and what’s wrong. And this is one of the great difficulties with working in war is that war is like pig iron on your moral compass. It takes an effort of will, to point true. A lot of people convince themselves they’re on the side of the angels. I guess they must try very hard not to look at themselves in a mirror. And I think, I think that’s the hardest thing about working in war is that you have to be relentlessly brutally honest with yourself. Maybe that is the only rule.
Basia, narrating: James is totally clear-eyed about war and journalism and so I ask him how he reckons with the violence he saw in people he liked and become close to.
Basia: How do you reckon with somebody else’s violence towards others when they are good to you?
James: One of the most horrifying things about war is that when you strip away all of the architecture and trappings of war, you see that the people that you think are sort of blood thirsty criminals, just like you. We are all capable of it and if the mask slips, we can all do it. That was the horror. Right. And you know, maybe Chris understood that, maybe he understood that the compulsion for something which is like you but not you, an alternative you perhaps.
Basia: Did you feel that, did you ever feel capable of participating?
James: I did participate.
Basia: But in a more direct, violent way, did you, did you feel the…
James: Of course, of course.
Basia: And do you think in the end that the, the difference between Chris and Craig or you and Nick, or any number of war reporters who have gotten close to people who are on the front lines fighting their own wars, like is the thing that shared the thing that keeps them together rather than the thing that like the line between them is very…
James: It’s very thin. We’re all flies buzzing around the same carcass.
Basia, narrating: The thing is, I don’t agree with James Brabazon on this point. And I’m sure he would laugh at my piety. In fact, I’m certain he would. Because I do hold on to the principles of journalism that I think matter. I don’t think that we’re all flies, even though I can see how complicated, and how darkly intimate reporting war can be. Chris and Craig were drawn to the same place. And their lives were clearly intertwined. But they were different. In the end, Chris decided to travel alone to South Sudan, he went with his cameras, and his notebooks, not with guns and ammunition. So even if the two trips to South Sudan, by the mercenaries and then by Chris were connected, they were also, ultimately, different. What I can do now is to ask the South Sudanese government, did you connect these two trips? Did Chris really say that the fighters were journalists? And is that why Chris was called a white rebel?
Next time, in Episode 7.
Jeremy and I had made a promise to Chris’s parents that we would return to Maine and tell them what we had discovered. And that moment too was nearing.
Basia: I need to figure it out because I can’t go back to Maine and be guided by not wanting to upset his parents. Because the thing that I promised them in the beginning was that I would be honest.
Male Voice 3: How do you get my number? I want to know. How do you get my number?
Male Voice 4: This is what we do, all of us are in the business of death.
Basia: A couple of people have suggested to me that you may have information about what happened…
Joyce: My fear about waiting so long to do this is: when do you start believing your imagined story as truth?
Basia, narrating: Craig Lang denies involvement in the 2018 Florida killings. He also denies the accusations of war crimes in Ukraine and says that US authorities have refused to provide evidence to his attorneys. He says that he is currently a refugee residing in Ukraine with his family.
This series with written and reported by me, Basia Cummings. Additional investigation is by Jeremy Bliss. The producer is Gary Marshall. Additional reporting and editing by Xavier Greenwood. Additional editing by David Taylor. Sound design is by Karla Patella. Original theme is by Tom Kinsella
With thanks to Kacper Rekawek, Christopher Miller, Charlotte Alfred, Zoe Flood, Sarah Giaziri, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Sebastian Junger. The executive producer is Ceri Thomas. Pig Iron is a Tortoise production.
Thank you for listening to Pig Iron. As a Tortoise plus member, you have early access to all new episodes and if you’re enjoying the podcast, do leave us a review and a 5 star rating.