Five years after his death on a distant frontline in South Sudan, the truth about what happened to Christopher Allen is still a mystery. Was he a reckless freelancer? A mercenary? Or a young and ambitious reporter, caught in the crossfire? Approached by a family member looking for answers, journalist Basia Cummings begins investigating
Christopher Allen: Yeah, I’m ready.
News Report Clip: For weeks, this European capital has been the scene of a violent uprising
Christopher: My name’s Christopher Allen. I’m a writer and photojournalist focusing on covering conflict.
News Report Clip: The President tonight is in hiding, and just look at the images coming in now, families wandering the ground of his luxury….
Christopher: I was in Turkey, for The Independent, for Al Jazeera, for Vice.
News Report Clip: What we saw here today was a revolution, for the second time in a decade, Ukraine has ousted its President.
Osie Greenway: Just let it roll
Christopher: So, what now I’ve introduced myself?
Osie: What now, Chris? Where do we go now?
Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s April 2014.
For months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been gathering on Maidan Square in Kyiv, Ukraine.
It’s one of those moments that you can feel the gears of history turning.
The battle between Russia and the west has just resumed.
And travelling to the heart of it, is Christopher Allen, a 23-year-old American graduate studying European history.
For him, the moment is just too important to miss.
He’s bored of academia and frustrated by the feeling of being outside the world, looking in.
He decides that his spring break is going to be different.
Christopher: The conflict in Ukraine was just beginning and history felt like it was happening there and better to be on the front lines of history than to be in the library studying it.
Basia, narrating: He buys a ticket to Ukraine and heads straight for the new frontline in the east of the country, where a war is unfolding.
Catching buses, riding in cabs, he travels to Donetsk. The centre of the action.
There, a group of rebels wanting to break away from Ukraine have just seized control of a government building.
Chris joins the growing crowd of protesters outside. When he gets inside the building, he sends his mum a picture.
Then, he heads to a nearby town. He’s just set up a Twitter account, and he posts what he sees. Checkpoints, Molotov cocktails, sniper rifles.
There’s a photograph of him from around this time. He’s standing with two guys, both of them wearing bulletproof vests, labelled ‘press’. They’re both standing boldly looking at the camera. But Chris looks different. In just a t-shirt and backpack, he looks so young. This lean 23-year-old with short, thick brown hair, and intense, dark eyes.
He’s totally winging it. But he’s getting exactly what he wanted, a front row seat to the biggest story in Europe.
In amongst all of this drama, he’s a complete unknown. A student. A tourist. Smoking Ukrainian cigarettes, and tweeting into a void.
But it doesn’t matter.
Because Chris, is hooked.
After two trips to Ukraine that year, he starts to figure out who he wants to be, and how he can keep coming back.
Journalism seems like an obvious choice. He’s grown up on a healthy diet of books by the great war reporters, those golden age, cigarette-smoking, suit-wearing hacks of Vietnam; the leather-jacket press corps of Bosnia.
Reporting is a reason to be there, it’s a passport to war. So, he starts writing, and he gets published.
News Clip: Just got off the phone with Christopher Allen. He’s a freelance journalist at the moment in Kiev though, he has travelled the country during this crisis.
Basia, narrating: The thing is, he’s not the only American to have travelled to the frontline. Plenty of other westerners have arrived.
They too have chosen this war. Only they’re there to fight, in the various battalions that have sprung up to defend Ukraine against the separatists, who want to be closer to Russia.
Chris finds them immediately fascinating, these men on the extreme of life.
Clip: And then we just stayed in touch, obviously you know he was a journalist…
Basia, narrating: They go by codenames, Franko, Wanderer, Skull, Swampy.
Clip: And whenever he wanted to go to the East, usually what he would do is message me and I could get him out there with me and the other foreigners that were out there.
Basia, narrating: He notes in his journal that some of them proudly call themselves soldiers of fortune, mercenaries, though they’re barely getting paid, and he scribbles a line from one of his favourite books, All Quiet on the Western Front, about World War 1. “This is the front, now we are within its embrace.”
He starts writing about these fighters too, trying to understand why they’re there.
But as time passes, the bits and pieces of reporting work he’s had dries up. Freelancing is tough. The reality is the Ukraine story is getting old. The news cycles on. Syria is claiming the world’s attention. Isis has just declared its caliphate.
The moment of history has, seemingly, passed.
But what can Chris do? Taking a normal job, a desk job, feels impossible now.
He’s no longer a fresh-faced kid from the Philadelphia suburbs. He’s changed.
He’s been in and out of Ukraine for three years now. His journalism career hasn’t yet had a chance to take off.
It’s now the summer of 2017. He’s 26, and he’s after a new adventure.
While Chris is figuring out his next move, he considers going to Syria. Or maybe Libya.
But in the end, he lands on South Sudan. In East Africa, the world’s newest country.
It’s a place that’s been on his mind for a while, he’s mentioned it to his cousin, Jeremy.
Jeremy Bliss: I think he mentioned it on that day, that we met.
Basia: In Paris?
Basia: In 2015?
Jeremy: Yep. Which was another moment where I felt like, don’t do that.
Basia, narrating: It came up with his roommate too.
Basia: When did you hear Chris talk about South Sudan for the first time? Do you remember?
Sava: I don’t remember exactly, but there was this group of foreign fighters who wanted to go through Uganda to South Sudan to fight there. And Chris had contacts of people from the site of rebels of South Sudan.
Basia, narrating: He buys a ticket and flies from Ukraine to Uganda. He lands on the 1st of August 2017.
From there, he embarks on a 500km journey to a remote corner of the world, a pocket of South Sudan, right at the meeting point of Uganda and the Congo.
He’s heading there, because he’s made a plan to report on a brutal war that rarely makes international headlines, despites hundreds of thousands of deaths. To put it bluntly, it’s a war that very few people care about, a fractured conflict between the government of South Sudan, and opposition rebels who are challenging the leading party.
But this, this sprawling, remote frontline, is Christopher Allen’s final destination.
Jeremy: I received the messages from Chris, saying he was in Africa
Helena: On the 5th of August at 9:16 in the morning, he said, all good crossed the border in Kayo Keji now connectivity’s really bad. Might be some time till I am in touch. Kiss you girl.
Basia, narrating: At the rebel headquarters, Chris starts to bed in. He’s planning to spend a few weeks there.
He interviews locals, takes portraits of them, takes notes. Days and days go by. He messages his girlfriend, Helena.
Helena: With rebels, no fighting at the moment. Been thinking of you, Helena. Kiss you girl.
Basia, narrating: He’s waiting for an attack, one that’s been promised to him as something of an exclusive by the rebels.
Helena: So, on the 18th of August, he says, Helena, I wanted to write to, because we are leaving the camp today and headed out to the frontline. I’m not sure what connectivity will be, but I hope I will be able to write you again by the end of the month.
Basia, narrating: Then, suddenly, two other journalists appear, from one of the biggest news agencies in the world. Chris is upset. He thought he had this one to himself.
But he sticks with his plan.
And very soon, he joins the rebels in a long trek for hours overnight, through long elephant grasses taller than him, through driving rain, through rivers, to reach a place called Kaya.
It’s hard work, even for him, who has trained hard for this trip spending hours at a climbing gym back in Ukraine to get in shape.
But still, this is all new to him, his first time in Africa. His first-time reporting in these kinds of conditions.
He keeps careful notes as he goes. He writes: “Death seems a very close counterpart to life here.’’
Until now, his messages to Helena, have been fairly routine.
But after this long trek to the frontline, his tone changes.
Helena: On the 25th, I woke up thinking of you today. We have such good memories together, girl. Anyway, tonight, and tomorrow you could light a candle. I’ll write you as soon as I can. And in the meantime, I will be thinking of you and looking forward to being with you soon. So that was the last message.
Basia, narrating: On the 26th of August, the rebels leave early in the morning before sunrise.
The journalists join the walk into Kaya, a town on the border with Uganda.
Jeremy: I remember feeling, this is superstition shit but, I felt like very low.
Helena: I said something like, we have so many good memories and so many good memories to come.
Basia, narrating: And then, the shooting starts.
Helena: But this message never arrived.
Denise Knapp: My name is Denise Knapp, I’m calling from the US embassy in South Sudan, I need to speak with you as soon as possible. You may contact me and ask to be connected to the Consul at the US Embassy in South Sudan. Thank you.
Helena: Around 5 or 6 in the morning I woke up with a jolt and looked at my phone and it still hadn’t arrived. And I was getting really worried. But somehow, I managed to fall asleep again and then, woke up went out. And it was then that I received a phone call of an unknown number. And I thought it was Chris.
And when I pick up the phone and I heard another voice.
Lam Paul Gabriel: This is Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel. Military spokesman for…
Basia, narrating: Helena picks up the phone to the spokesman for the rebel group Chris has been with.
Helena: when I heard it wasn’t Chris, I knew that something terrible had happened. Uh, so it was Lam Paul telling me, well, I asked like, is Chris all right? And he said, no, Chris is dead. And, I said, no, that’s not possible. That’s not true. And Lam Paul told me, like, you gotta be strong now, you gotta call the embassy and get in touch with his family and friends because…
Jeremy: And I got a message from my cousin Amy.
Helena: I haven’t been able to reach out to them yet.
Jeremy: And she wrote and told me that Chris was dead. And, um, I remember feeling kind of disconnected from the news. And then I walked down the garden up the metal stairs and, um, I think I probably. I called my mum to tell her, and then it all started to sort of unfold pretty fast.
Basia, narrating: A man called Christopher Allen has been shot and killed.
But nothing beyond that single fact is clear.
Not even who Chris really is, and why he’s there.
News Clip: A Government spokesman says the young American journalist was on a different mission in South Sudan
Basia, narrating: A more sinister claim is made.
That Chris hadn’t been there to report on the rebels. That perhaps, he was a rebel.
48 hours after he is shot, the South Sudanese information minister dials into South Sudan in Focus, a radio show in the US.
Information Minister: And in the fighting, 16 rebels, including a white rebel were killed. The identity of that white man is not known, but he was among those who attacked the garrison.
Basia: They were saying he’s not a journalist, he was a rebel. That was the first time they made that claim. Do you remember that interview?
Essay Writer: Yes, the minister of information, Michael Marquise said that there was a white rebel shot. That is when we asked him, we said this guy is a journalist, He said, no, this was a white rebel.
Basia, narrating: The information minister tells reporter, John Tanza, that Chris was a white rebel.
A white man fighting the rebel cause.
What he’s saying is, Chris was a mercenary.
When I started this investigation, Chris’s story felt, a part of my world. I’d probably wanted to be like him, once, when I was young and imagining what an exciting life could be. In fact, Chris and I are nearly the same age.
Only my path ended up being very different, a month after Chris rocked up in Ukraine for the first time; I got my first job in journalism, on the foreign desk of the Guardian Newspaper in London. Chris even emailed me, once.
Over time, I became one of the editors working with foreign correspondents. And with this window onto the world, I’d seen the myth and the mystique of the war reporter in action, and heard stories of the complicated characters reporting the frontline, and in some cases the demons that pushed them there, and then followed them home.
And maybe it’s because I have always been in the safety of the newsroom, that I always believed that there was a cardinal rule about war reporting, one that everyone followed, that you don’t join the story, you don’t get involved, you don’t cross the line.
At least, that’s what I thought.
What started here in Chris’s story, as a question about a mystery killing, has become an investigation into the people who choose the frontline, and the decisions they make in the chaos of war.
Clip: You cannot participate, you cannot pick up a gun, you cannot fire a gun.
Helena: He was very interested about violence, what it means to be good, what it means to be violent, and he wanted to understand it.
Clip 2: War is ruled by the dynamic of chaos. You can try and control your outcome, but there’s no guarantee.
Clip 3: This is one of the great difficulties of working in war, as in war is like Pig Iron on the moral compass
Basia, narrating: I’m Basia Cummings, and from Tortoise: this is Pig Iron.
A matter of hours after his death, the South Sudanese government is saying pretty freely, listen, he was killed because he was was the enemy.
Essay Writer: I’m wondering, um, whether your government or military have, past experiences with so-called white rebels fighting on this side of the anti-government forces?
Michael Marquise: We are not in a position to identify that person.
Basia, narrating: Images begin circulating online, showing Chris’s dead body. It’s been humiliated. In one image, he’s been stripped naked.
Basia: What was your gut response?
Essay Writer: Well, I was shocked. I was just shocked because we know, this was Allen, Chris Allen. He has never been a rebel. I was just shocked.
Basia, narrating: Thousands of miles away, in San Diego, California, in the middle of the night on the 26th of August, his parents, John and Joyce, miss calls from the US Embassy.
Then, they wake up into a nightmare.
Joyce Krajian: I think the suggestion that he was something other than what he was, was just horrifying. To hear his death shrouded in an un-truth felt terrible
Basia, narrating: Chris’s body lies for around three days in a military hospital in the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
The US consul has to buy ice, with her own money, to keep it cool.
Chris’s parents are now in a race against time. A race to get his body back so they can get a post-mortem performed, to find out how he was killed.
And a race to combat the idea that he was a fighter.
This was not the Chris they knew.
Joyce: He chose to bear witness. Um, he chose to look unflinchingly at what was painful and to find the humanity within it. It’s really hard to imagine the world without him.
Basia, narrating: But the thing about suspicion is, it’s infectious. The question sticks.
It sticks so successfully, that here I am five years later still asking it.
Basia: If you were in my position, if you were me, what are the questions that you would be asking on this story?
Essay Writer: Well, my first question would be, how did Chris end up in Kaya? Who took him there? And finally, why were there so many different narratives? Why not one narrative?
Basia, narrating: After 10 days in limbo, Chris’s body finally lands in San Diego. His parents are waiting on the runway. There is a hush of respect on the tarmac as his coffin is unloaded.
The same day, they issue a statement with the Committee to Protect Journalists, saying that they will push for a formal investigation into what happened to their son. They’ve got so many questions, and no answers.
They’re broken by his death. But they’re also broken by the idea that anyone could say he wasn’t a journalist.
And that’s before other journalists start saying privately, but some of them online, yeah it’s terrible he was killed, but Chris was reckless. He was inexperienced. He was ill-prepared.
It all adds to the chatter around Chris’s case, and it all becomes a bit uncomfortable, a bit complicated. Some of the newsrooms who commissioned Chris, who published his work, didn’t even cover that he had been killed at all.
And despite the family’s calls for an official investigation; to South Sudan, to the US and UK government, nothing happens.
Jeremy: I think the lack of investigation, the lack of clarity in as to what happened has been incredibly difficult for the family…
Basia, narrating: Enter, long-lost cousin. Jeremy.
Like a character from a book, this guy appears, sort of from nowhere.
Jeremy: The lack of truth is, is I suppose, a roadblock to moving forward at the moment.
Basia, narrating: The thing you need to know about Jeremy is that he’s into family research, in a big way.
He’s in his early 30s, into art and films, a bit of a man about town. And to cut a long story short, Jeremy’s and Chris’s families had been estranged from each other. After years, Jeremy manages to find them, and in 2015, he strikes up something of a friendship with Chris on Facebook messenger.
And so, when Jeremy hears Chris has been killed, he feels like it’s his duty to try and help. He’s just found a cousin, now he’s lost him again.
He contacts John and Joyce and he tells them he’ll do anything he can, and he does. He brings together lawyers and press freedom campaigners.
Over time, he helps orchestrate a campaign, which argues, if Chris was killed for being a journalist, if he was targeted by the South Sudanese army, then a war crime could have been committed, and they again call for a formal investigation into what happened to him.
But to be honest, even that doesn’t do it.
The story around Chris is still too fraught. His death happened too far away. Not enough people knew his name, or his work. He was a freelancer, he didn’t have a newsroom behind him.
Which is how, five years later, I meet Jeremy.
He pitches the story to Tortoise, the newsroom where I now work.
Jeremy: Before I contacted you, I think we felt well. I felt that we were running out of options. And I think just generally people were stopping to care.
Basia, narrating: Before this, when Jeremy made contact in November 2021, I had been vaguely aware of Chris’s story. I’d been interested in South Sudan when I worked at the Guardian and so I’d seen the news of Chris’s killing. I didn’t remember that he’d pitched to me, but I thought it was probably likely our paths had crossed at some point.
I’d even considered doing the story, a few months before I heard from Jeremy. But part of me thought, why this guy. The only white journalist killed in a country where scores of local reporters have been killed. I didn’t really get it.
So, when Jeremy appeared, saying very clearly, there’s more to this. I was willing to listen.
We started talking. And just as I was grappling with whether to take it on and to make this podcast, a letter arrived. Out of nowhere.
The timing was, extraordinary.
Jeremy: The idea to run a writing prize in Chris’s honour came from a south Sudanese activist in Australia. Who’s been really involved in the case more or less since Chris was killed her name’s Nyadol Nyon.
Nyadol: So, it just felt as though it fit who Christopher seemed to be, and he was maintaining a different part of his identity alive even his family tried to struggle with finding justice.
Basia: An essay competition, set up with the help of a South Sudanese lawyer, Nyadol, was a neat way to keep Chris’s name alive. It was a competition for school age kids in or from South Sudan.
Jeremy, as he had been for years by now, was helping with the practical stuff.
Jeremy: My role was to monitor the email inbox that’s associated with the writing prize on the website, primarily because from time to time, you get fairly nasty notes. And it was just better that John and Joyce didn’t have direct access to that, so I’d be like a filter
Basia, narrating: But he made a mistake.
An email came through with attachments.
Jeremy skimmed over it, thought it looked basically fine, and forwarded it on to Chris’s parents.
Jeremy: The handwritten letter when it came, seemed fairly innocuous, so I just sent it on.
Basia: And it came as in an email or?
Jeremy: Yeah, funny isn’t it, it came. In an email, but it was handwritten. So it was a picture of a handwritten note and all the other, um, entries had been word processed and nothing stood out to me about the letter, at that stage.
Basia, narrating: John and Joyce get the submission, and they read it.
Jeremy: Then, I got a message from John and Joyce. We, we have a WhatsApp group, one of them wrote and said, are you fucking reading this?
Basia, narrating: What they were reading, well, when I saw it a few weeks later, I had the overwhelming sense that someone had taken time, a lot of time, to write these 12-pages.
In biro pen, on lined A4 paper, this man, writing from a refugee camp, had filled the pages with reams of claims, filling the pages from top to bottom with phone numbers and annotations and place names and times and dates, there was barely any room left on the page and it was eerie and uncomfortable.
Jeremy: This essay is a kind of blow-by-blow account of the authors experience around the time that Chris was killed and ultimately Chris’s movements as he arrived into South Sudan and describes his killing, the thing that’s really disturbing or crazy about it is he also gives names and dates and sometimes times for everything that happened.
So, I was feeling very shocked and anxious, but also kind of, there was a, I suppose, a feeling of some kind of excitement as I was reading it, because it felt like finally someone’s come forward with first person testimony about what happened to Chris, which is something we’ve been looking for, for such a long time. Many people have said we know someone who knows something, but no one was actually going on the record saying I’m the person that knows
Basia, narrating: Most importantly, it contained a single incendiary claim.
Something the family had come to suspect.
That Chris’s death had not been an accident of war, not a crossfire death.
But a targeted killing.
Jeremy: I guess that the biggest message is that he was captured alive and handed over to military intelligence who then, because Chris wouldn’t cooperate with them, killed him.
I think this was the first time that we’d heard specifics of, I think a lurking fear of all of ours, that, that this was a targeted killing, and that there was more to this than just crossfire.
Basia, narrating: Jeremy and I retained a healthy scepticism. It could of course be a weird scam, somebody pretending to have information. Maybe as a way of asking for money. It wouldn’t be the first time this had happened to Chris’s family.
Nyadol: You know, I, I think I say to you, I think it’s bullshit. And I use that strong term because part of me is angry that someone would, would use a situation where a family’s looking for answers to pitch something that is, to me, seems fundamentally dishonest, you know. Like I think, sort of my bullshit rather just stand up from a lot of the things that come up from the letter, but you never know. South Sudan is interesting in that sometimes rumours have truth. I don’t doubt that he would have heard stories about what happened.
Basia, narrating: Scam or not, I was hooked.
Jeremy: I think for a long time, we kind of just assume that there’s something to find out because we don’t know the truth. And then these things happen and you think, well, maybe there’s a basis for all of this
Basia, narrating: So, we thought, why not just try giving this writer a call?
Jeremy and I had still never met in person at this point, and we were still figuring out the basics of how to work together on a story like this.
But already, it felt in motion. What started as a simple question, who killed Chris? Had morphed into a more complex puzzle.
Was Chris a journalist, or a mercenary? Could he have been killed in crossfire, an accident of war, or was he killed deliberately, as the essay was claiming?
We needed to call the writer.
Essay Writer: Yes
Jeremy: Can you hear me?
Essay Writer: I’m fine, I’m getting you clear
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah, I can hear you now. How are you?
Essay Writer: I’m fine thank you Jeremy.
Basia, narrating: And in this long, and nightmarish dig into the dirt of war and journalism, this was our first find.
One that had appeared, right in front of us.
One that, in the end, drives to the heart of this story, just not, it turns out, in the way that any of us expected.
Jeremy: So, you think it’s a good idea for us to meet him in person?
Nyadol: Carefully, but yes, I think so
Jeremy: What does carefully mean?
Nyadol: You should always be careful in South Sudan
Basia: What impact did his death have on you?
Chris Garrett: I was quite close to getting on a flight not that it would have done anything I mean revenge is a pointless thing.
Joyce: He knew what to do and what not to do, he knew how far he could go.
Basia: You know and then there are other layers to this, like the pathologist who examined the body in San Diego seems to have suggested to the parents at some point that his brain was removed.
Essay Writer: You know, in a war situation, sometimes you go your own way. This also happens.
Nyadol: I go, what do you mean you wouldn’t sell out Chris. I wouldn’t sell him out. I know who killed him… And why.
Basia, narrating: This series is written and reported by me, Basia Cummings. Additional investigation is by Jeremy Bliss. The producer is Gary Marshall. Additional reporting is by Xavier Greenwood. Sound design is by Karla Patella. Original theme by Tom Kinsella
With thanks to Charlotte Alfred, Halima Athumani, John Tanza, Brian Adeba, and the International Journalism Project.
The Executive Producer is Ceri Thomas
Pig Iron is a Tortoise Production