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Episode 3

The lonely impulse

The lonely impulse


Basia traces Chris’s career as a young freelancer. By now, it’s clear his death is tied to his life as a reporter. But who was he trying to be? Just how close was he to a group of fighters? And after years in Ukraine, how did he end up in a remote corner of South Sudan?


Chris: The things I saw, the crash site, they’re not the kind of images that leave your head quickly. And when you walked through it was really like walking through a sort of hell, you couldn’t have created a scene that’s more evocative…

Roland Oliphant: C J K Allen, wasn’t it? 

Basia Cummings: So, when were those messages sent? 

Roland: On the 17th of July 2014.

Basia Cummings, narrating: In 2014, Roland Oliphant was based in Moscow. He’d recently got a job reporting for the Telegraph newspaper. 

That year he’d spent a lot of time in Ukraine. That’s where the story was. 

He was there for the Maidan revolution in Kyiv, and for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Basia: And so where were you when you heard that a plane had been shot down in Eastern Ukraine.? 

Roland: I was in my kitchen in Moscow.

Basia, narrating: But that summer, when a new story began to travel, Roland was back in Russia. 

Roland: My phone rang, it was the foreign editor of the Telegraph, David Monk. He said, what about this plane that’s been shot down Roland. I said, you know, I don’t know. I mean, several planes have been shot down, you know, jet fighters, whatever. He goes no, no, no, they’ve shot down this airliner. I said, no, no, I don’t, I think I’d have heard about that I foolishly said, and I turned on the internet and bang straight away, I realised it was true.

Basia, narrating: It was the 17 July 2014. 

Flight MH17 had been in the sky for around 3 hours. 

As it passed over Eastern Ukraine, over a part of the country controlled by separatists, armed and supported by the Russians, the plane lost contact with air traffic control. 

Roland:  Essentially what we understand happened, the Russians completely deny all of this, by the way. They deployed this. High attitude, air defence system. They turned on the radar, they saw a blip on a screen. They thought it was a Ukrainian aircraft and they pressed fire. And it was in fact, um, a Malaysian airlines, Boeing triple seven, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur full of 298 people, including passengers and crew. And they didn’t stand a chance blown out of the sky at 30, 35 thousand feet. 

Basia, narrating: Dutch investigators would later confirm that it was hit by a Russian-made missile. 

But no one, including Roland, knew any of this at the time. 

All he knew was that he had to get to the scene of the crash, and start reporting.

So, he jumps in a cab and heads to the airport. 

But when he arrives, he finds out that Aeroflot, the Russian airline, has grounded all flights to Ukraine. 

Roland: Then there’s a scramble around, I tell the desk I’m not gonna get there quickly.

Basia, narrating: Eventually, he finds another way, but it’s going to involve a mix of trains and hire cars across the border, he thinks it will be another 24 hours before he gets to the crash site. 

But Christopher Allen is already hours ahead.

I’m Basia Cummings and from Tortoise, this is Pig Iron. Episode 3, The Lonely Impulse

That month, July 2014, was the beginning of Chris’s second, longer trip to Ukraine. He’d been and done his thrilling spring break, and now he was back for the summer. 

He wrote on Twitter that he was going back there to ‘do some reporting’. 

He takes a train to the city of Donetsk, the capital of the Donbas region where the separatists are trying to break away from Ukraine. 

And so, he’s there when a few days later, the news breaks that a plane had been shot down into sunflower fields, just 80km away. 

He’d often told people that he wanted a seat on the frontlines of history, now he was really about to get one. 

News Clip: Pictures appear to show the plane after it came down near the Russian border. Ukraine and Russia both deny they shot it down.

Basia: When did you first hear from Christopher Allen? 

Roland: I heard from Chris, I might even have still been at my kitchen table in Moscow, and I got a direct message, an unsolicited direct message from him saying, hi, my name’s Chris, Um, he said, hi, I’m a freelance photographer/journalist. And wanted to say, I’m currently in East Ukraine. I’ll be at the site of the crash tomorrow morning and can help with reporting if you’re interested. 

Basia, narrating: What’s incredible is that Chris definitely doesn’t have the credentials to call himself a “photographer/journalist”, yet.  

Then again, the BBC reporter David Loyn once wrote, that the only skills that really count as a foreign correspondent are: the ability to live easily in difficult places, and enormous self-belief. 

And I’d say that Chris was already displaying one of those skills. 

And of course, this is no time to ask questions. Chris is in the right place, at the right time. Half the battle of being a reporter. 

So, Roland replies, knowing that his boss wants somebody on the ground as soon as possible.  

Roland: So, I immediately forwarded his email address to our desk in London who got in touch with him.

I’d guess what they said was what they’d always say, which is get for the crash site, file us as much colour as you can 

Basia, narrating: Chris is just a 2 hour drive away from the scene. Through five separatist controlled checkpoints, he races east, to a village called Hrabove. 

Roland arrives there hours later, after dark. 

And by the next morning, he’s met with the same horrifying scene that Chris has just witnessed.

Roland: We realised at that point we were sitting in a field full of bodies and bits of bodies. And then if you looked at the wheat field, you could see these white ribbons, attached to sticks. Each of those ribbons was a body.

There’s a young girl, very, probably seven years old, like she had, you know, no visible injuries, just dead, looked like she’s asleep, other people in pieces, people still strapped in their seats. Some people still wearing oxygen masks. So obviously had time to put it on after the missile hit, and they’d obviously dropped down. Other people had not been wearing their seat belts or had unbuckled them and had been ripped into bits.

And amongst all this death, you have all their personal belongings. So, your cabin baggage, your lonely planet, your underwear, your contraceptive pills, absolutely everything that goes in the plane.

Just splatted over an area of, I mean, square miles

Basia, narrating: Because Chris is there so quickly, and the Telegraph are keen to get some material, he gets a commission, and you can still find his article online. 

The opening reads: “They lie among the sun-bleached wheat. The bodies. Torn. Broken. Burnt.”

Roland: I think because maybe he was quite, you know, young and fresh, he wasn’t constrained by journalistic convention. Right. It’s quite, it’s pretty raw copy. It’s pretty, almost, you know, literary poetic, punchy, you know, this is the horror, in your face. This is what I can see. Um, and I think it worked, that did the shocking scene justice. 

Basia, narrating: But Chris isn’t the only person to have raced there and neither is Roland. 

24 hours after the plane is shot from the sky, the world’s press arrives. 

And you can imagine that for Chris, this feels like a real moment. 

He’s just started boldly calling himself a journalist, and suddenly, he’s writing for a prestigious British newspaper. You’d think if he needs proof that he had it in him to be a journalist, here it is. 

But it’s not quite as simple as that, because in the media scrum around him, Chris sees something he doesn’t like. 

He writes on his blog that TV presenters were “preening themselves in front of bodies and wreckage, trampling whatever was in their way.’’ That luggage and possessions were being ‘’organised in neat piles and laid out in order to photograph”.

News Reporter: I think it’s a small girl’s bag. Isn’t it by the looks of things, set of keys toothbrush. I mean’s, we shouldn’t really be doing this, I suppose, really, but look….

Basia, narrating: After hundreds of complaints, a reporter from Sky News apologised for picking items out of a suitcase live on air. He said: “Too late, I realised that I was crossing a line”. 

Roland: I’ve been in many places where I felt uncomfortable with the behaviour of the, of the herd mentality of journalists. And I can understand, I mean, you say that he was affected by it. What are you getting at? What was his… 

Basia:  He said to friends and to family that he was pretty disillusioned by the media circus and pretty disgusted with how some of them had behaved. And I think my impression is that if this was his kind of first taste of what journalism as an industry might be, I think he felt like that bit of it wasn’t for him. 

Roland:  Yeah, I can imagine that. I mean, I think everybody has that moment. And there are times when you think I don’t wanna be a part of this.

Basia, narrating: Chris saw the press pack and he thought, that is not for me.

When we came back from Maine, our investigation into what happened to Chris out there in South Sudan, kicked into gear. 

Jeremy: It says calling, sounds ominous. 

Basia, narrating: Jeremy was working hard on getting back in touch with his various sources that he’d spoken to over the years.

Jeremy: Sorry, I’m Christopher’s cousin, and I will make contact with a couple of these people who you’ve mentioned. 

Basia, narrating: And the essay-writer kept messaging, kept asking, when are we meeting? There was this urgency hanging over us. 

As Jeremy focused on South Sudan, I started to figure out what kind of journalist Chris had been, because it feels totally clear to me that his death was tied up in his life as a reporter. 

I need a guide to the frontline. Someone to tell me what the rules out there really are.

And so, I turned to Anthony Loyd, one of Britain’s most respected war reporters, and the author of that book that Chris had so carefully underlined. 

Basia: This is like when you’re sitting in a trench in Ukraine thinking I’ll be going home soon. It’s not too bad to come back here. Wow. Oh my God.

Basia, narrating: On a humid day in June, Gary, my producer, and I drove to meet Anthony at his home. It was a drive from London to the lush wild landscape of Devon, in the Southwest of England. And it’s about as far from the frontline as you can imagine.

Inside Anthony’s cottage, photographs of the wars he had covered lined the walls, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone. 

While we spoke, his two dogs snoozed in the room next door, but the chickens were less obliging. 

Anthony Loyd: I can’t do much about the cockerel however, if he is in the front garden, I can chase him out, but he might start there.

Basia: Just let it be known that you forced Anthony Loyd, war correspondent, to chase a chicken to the back of his house. Mid-interview.

Basia, narrating: I asked Anthony to take me back to the beginning. 

Anthony: I was 25 or 26 years old. It was January or February 1993. I had left the British army not long before, about a year before, after five years. And I remember that first day in Sarajevo and the sound of machine gun fire echoing through the streets, and laughing in a way that seems, you know, quite strange from outside.

But I knew exactly what I was laughing for at the time, at the incredible thrill of finding myself in a real war, actually in the first day of a real war in my life, it was something which I had kind of sought to experience in the British army and never really found. And Sarajevo, day one, the sound of kind of heavy machine gun fire echoing through the streets, the odd bit of sniper fire, which sounds very different. And I remember laughing at the thrill of that sensation on that first day. 

Basia:  And at that moment, what was the goal? Was the goal journalism or was it just to be there?

Anthony: It, it was both, but of course with the passage of time, if I look back now, then I can kind of analyse my reasonings for being there much more efficiently. But at the time, as a guy in my mid-twenties, I was there a lot for the shits and kicks. There’s no doubt about it. There were other, it wasn’t just the shits and kicks, I had a loosely defined wish to be a journalist, well certainly a foreign correspondent, and certainly a war correspondent. And that had really grabbed me. And I thought, my God, there could actually be a job that involves going around in helicopters, listening to Jimmy Hendricks, and getting stoned.

Basia: And you found it. 

Anthony: Yeah.  I was like, can it get better? As I thought at the time. So, I would like to emphasise the kind of altruism and professionalism behind it all, but certainly the reality was a sense of adventure. Inevitably, there was a lot of, kind of discovery and thought along the way, and guilt too at various times. Hang on, what is it I’m actually doing here, is it just a day trip and someone else’s nightmare.

Basia, narrating: The guilt and that question: “is this just a day-trip into someone else’s nightmare”, hung over Chris too. 

After filing his article for the Telegraph, Chris left the MH17 crash site. I got the feeling that he didn’t think there was much left for him to do there, now that Roland had arrived along with hundreds of other reporters. 

He organises to join up with a battalion in the area, one that’s made up mostly of Ukrainians and a few foreign fighters. He ends up making some close friends there.

And in his notes from later that summer, he describes being with them on a particularly dangerous mission.

While walking on a train line, they come up against separatist snipers. Suddenly, four men are killed around Chris, and five wounded. 

And when he gets back to the camp, he sits alone and bursts into tears. 

He writes: “I was overcome with a sense of sadness not just from what I’d seen and felt on the front, but from what I knew I had lost forever, something which I know will have a permanent effect on me. My tongue stings. My lungs are tight. I feel weary, sad.”

He knows, I think, that he’s through the looking glass now. 

Basia: In the epigraph to your book, there’s a quote from the Irish poet, WB Yeats and it says ‘nor law nor duty bathed me fight, nor public men nor cheering crowds. A lonely impulse of delight drove to this… 

Anthony: Tumult in the clouds. Exactly. Sorry to cut you off. 

Basia:  No, no, no. It was better that you did, what’s the lonely impulse?

Anthony: At the real heart of it, you know, talk about other things like altruism or a sense of adventure. At the heart of my decision, and I see it in other people as well, but the heart of my decision to go off to wars then and now, is something which is quite difficult to describe. Yates, touched on it in a magnificent poem about the Irish airmen who foresaw his death. In that he had, he had gone off to fight in the first war and he didn’t have to, he was an Irishman. He wasn’t obliged to go and fight at all, but he was driven to this kind of, the war in the sky, the chaos in the clouds by this inner impulse of delight. Something very, that only Yates or perhaps Joyce could have described some, some yearning of the soul.

Basia: A lot of that book is also about having a kind of split personality between the experiences and the, and the sort of changes to your soul that you experience on the frontline.

And then trying to make sense of those changes when you come back to whichever beautiful suburb you may be living in, or your London flat, or your girlfriend at the time, and trying to reconcile this kind of tectonic shift in your young being with, you know, normal life and it’s hard, or maybe impossible.

And so much of that, those, those pages seem to be you kind of grappling with what the fuck you’re meant to do. 

Anthony: I think they were grappling with what I was meant to do. Cause at the time I was trying to unify everything and become one coherent person. I think oddly as time has gone by, and this is 30 years on, I have learned that to be peaceful with myself, I have to live with two people. I don’t try so much to reconcile. I try to accept. That is another life, to an extent another personality, and this is the bigger life and the main personality, but stop trying to, yeah I don’t really try and match what goes on out there which is every bit as much reality as this is. But I just try and accept that this is 2 different entities, and I don’t, I shouldn’t spend too much energy in trying to match them up and coalesce them.

Basia, narrating: Chris definitely struggled with how to hold his different worlds, his life at home, with his parents, his girlfriend, and his life at war and you can see that, in how he wrestled with firing the mortar. 

So, I asked Anthony about the version of him that emerged in war. Would he, as an aspiring young war reporter, have picked up a weapon? 

He told me about a moment in Sarajevo. 

He was with a sniper team, and a guy hands him a rifle. It’s dark. And suddenly, a figure pops up in the distance. 

Anthony: I was like, I could shoot this guy. This is really quite a moment. 

Basia, narrating: He’s not long out of the army. He could have fired. But the moment passes. 

It feels to me like a similar moment of instinct to Chris’s, a moment when the theatre of war takes you in. 

Anthony didn’t pull the trigger. But in lining up the shot, he stepped right up against a line. 

But Chris, in firing, stepped up to the line, and crossed it. 

Not for the first time, I felt like a referee in the wrong game, rattling off, mostly to myself, the rules that I thought Chris was breaking: don’t pick up a weapon, don’t wear combatant clothing, always identify as press. 

But Anthony, and Roland too, were telling me yes, those rules exist, in principle. But when you’re out there on the frontline, it doesn’t always work like that. 

Anthony: Yeah, so, here’s how it is: by its nature people get killed in war. War is ruled by the dynamic of chaos. You can try and control your outcomes in a war as best you can, but there’s no guarantees. Now that applies as much to journalists as it does to anyone else. You’ve gotta be really stupid as a journalist if you go into the arena where other people are killed, killing, getting wounded and messed up and thinking that that is not gonna happen to you.

So, there’s an awful lot to take on board and that’s a very tight calibration in the way you behave there, given that we’re talking about something that’s governed by the dynamic of chaos, you’re never gonna get it right the whole time. You are gonna make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes in war.

Basia, narrating: Somewhat selfishly, my response to all this was relief. Because I drove back to London thinking, Chris wasn’t alone in going to Ukraine and winging it, how else was he meant to do it? And maybe he wasn’t alone in testing the boundaries either.

But I kept returning to the mortar that he’d fired at the town. When he’d wondered if he might have killed someone. Because he did really agonise about it. He knew the second he’d fired that he’d really messed up. He wrote how angry he was at himself. That it was unforgivable. 

And so, I figure, maybe it was actually the mortar fire, not reporting on MH17, that turned him into a journalist. 

He crossed the line, and he knew it. And he knew that side of the line wasn’t for him. 

After this, Chris really seemed to commit to freelancing.

Ukraine had gotten under his skin, and he’d made some close friends. 

He kept going back to the east, and he eventually moved to Kyiv full time, pitching himself as an expert on the foreign fighters. 

With Chris’s parents blessing, Jeremy gets access to his inbox, and from there, I could better map out his career as a freelancer. 

He sent dozens and dozens of story ideas to editors. And he comes across as, I’d say, quite a spiky character. Thoughtful, reflective, committed, yes; but also arrogant, stubborn. He has quite a big idea of himself, which again, let me tell you, is not unusual in reporters. 

And it seems that Chris’s reporting idols were from a different age, from the 60s and 70s. I got a strong sense that he had a borrowed nostalgia for those days. 

Clip: I’m not John Wayne Junior, you know I’m not a blood and guts guy. I just had a very strong attraction to war.

Basia, narrating: Though there were many great female war reporters, the era that inspired Chris was one of let’s face it, mostly celebrated men who wrote books, and long essays, and shot film, and smoked cigarettes, and got deep into the action. 

Clip: I’m trying not to sound like an old-fashioned Hunter Thompson or something. We were the acme of the profession.

Clip: You know at that time, the work of the foreign press was very different to what is now. 

Basia, narrating: Those were the days when doing that kind of reporting could actually make you a living. A time when you could be an adventuring war reporter, paid a handsome salary by a prestigious newspaper, with carte blanche to travel the world. 

But Chris, was about to enter a very different era of journalism. 

Vice News: So right behind me are three illegal oil refineries. The police are amassing a large presence. About 8 total of water cannons.

Basia, narrating: That year, 2014, was the dawn of the Vice news era.

Vice – which had started as this zeitgeisty magazine for millennials had spun out into a high-octane digital news operation. 

It had just gotten an enormous injection of cash from the media tycoons, the Murdoch’s. And it launched a brand-new news channel. 

Vice knew what played. And in the chaos of online content, war and adventure played. 

Vice News: A man just set fire to himself.

Basia, narrating: Vice weren’t alone, of course. But they set the tone. They made foreign reporting seem cool again. 

And it’s curious, because while Chris seemed to be seeking out the high-octane and the visceral, he didn’t seem to feel he fit in this new world. 

But there’s another story in his emails, one that’s actually a lot bigger than Chris. 

And it goes something like this. 

News Report:  It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the digital news industry. More than a thousand workers, many of them reporters have lost their jobs at companies like Buzzfeed, Huffpost and Vice. Just 5 years ago, these digital news outlets were seen as the future of journalism.

Basia, narrating: After the enormous excitement of the internet which had brought millions of new readers to the news online, newsrooms had been hit by a perfect storm.

The digital media bubble had burst. Advertising the way newsrooms had traditionally made their money in print and online had collapsed.

By 2014, if anyone had money to spend on ads online, they were switching to Facebook, or Google. Why speak to a million readers, when Facebook could deliver you 1.4bn?  

So nearly all of the big newsrooms were struggling, and figuring out how they were going to survive. 

And you can see what this really means, for freelance reporters, in Chris’s emails. 

Newsrooms wanted material from the many, many freelancers in Ukraine. But they didn’t really want to take much responsibility for them getting it. 

Because let’s be honest, responsibility equals cash. It means time and energy and cost getting someone out of a sticky situation. 

It also meant; everything was at arm’s length. From his emails I could see that not a single editor seemed to ask Chris about his experience, his training, or how he was going to stay safe, even when he was pitching pretty hairy stuff. Not one person seemed to check, at least in writing, if he was who he said he was. 

Yes, a lot of journalism is about trust, but this was different. 

There just wasn’t the money to pay any more. 

And when an editor did commission Chris, they often didn’t pay much. We’re talking £250 for a feature from the frontline that might have taken him weeks to report, that’s nowhere near enough to make a living, let alone pay for insurance, or safety gear, or even really, food. 

Jeremy: I mean he writes directly to you at one point: Dear Basia, I’m a British journalist based in Ukraine

Basia:  So, this is when he was in Ukraine?  

Basia, narrating: In going through the emails, Jeremy found that I’m in there too, copied as one of the editors in a series of emails at the Guardian where Chris is commissioned, then left waiting for weeks until, finally, his piece is spiked, cancelled, for a tiny fee. 

Chris’s inbox is like peering under a rock and seeing all the bad bits about journalism that none of us really want to think about, or talk about.

And there were these other more slippery emails. The ones that dangled the possibility of a paid commission.

Basia: So, this is pertinent. So, just on the question of what newsrooms do and don’t do, so, there’s a screenshot here from Chris’s emails, which is an email from one of the editors at the Telegraph to Chris, this is in 2015, regarding an article pitch that he sent saying Europeans fighting in Ukraine and it says, Hi Christopher. Thanks for getting in touch. I’m afraid we cannot for insurance reasons, commission you to embed with the foreign Legion or encourage you to go. But if you decide to go ahead with the project, please do let us know afterwards, and we can have a chat about it. Best wishes. 

Roland: That’s interesting.

Basia: And I’m not saying this to you because as I said, I think this is industry wide, but that sort of incentivization of… 

Roland: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, it’s, it’s real. There is that incentive to go and put yourself in danger. Yeah. I wasn’t aware of that email. Um, but yes, I mean, yeah. Bang, banged to rights.  I’m not here as a spokesman for the Telegraph, by the way.

Basia:  But I think it speaks to that kind of really delicate and complicated thing at the heart of why I think Chris’s story is so important for us as journalists, which is, there are always going to be young freelancers who are pitching and wanting to go to dangerous and exciting places. And where is the line of the responsibility? 

Roland: Where is the line? Where’s the line of responsibility between you mean, the line of responsibility between newsrooms and freelancers? I don’t know. And I think it’s one, it’s one of those many things in this job that you kind of navigate by intuition and occasionally you’re gonna get on the other side of it or not, because we have to be to a degree, you have to be realistic about the way the world works.

If somebody has witnessed something, that’s a really good part of the story, are you really gonna say no to it? I mean, this is how we, we gather the news, and this is a risky business.

Part of my thing is like, you know, those in glass houses. I know when I was younger and starting out, I definitely did things that I shouldn’t have done, definitely without a doubt, stupid things. And I was lucky, I got away with it. Um, and I would never advocate that kind of behaviour. Um, but it’s part of it. And a, a lot of us has been, have been through those kind of, that kind of cycle.

Basia:  Does that email make you feel uncomfortable? 

Roland: Does it make me feel uncomfortable? In the context of this conversation, yes, of course it does, but I wouldn’t necessarily have thought twice about it if I’d seen it or if I’d received it because I’m not necessarily so focused on this particular issue, 

Basia:  The issue being…

Roland: This contradiction between what we’re officially told to do and how safe you should be and oh, please don’t do that. And, oh, you are, no story is worth your life. You know, but you know, if you, if you come back with video of you running across a field with, you know, gunshots going on, you saying we’re under fire. Um, we will put it bang at the centre of the website and you’ll get a note of congratulations from the editor. Right.? That’s the reality.

Basia, narrating: It’s all part of the journey to an answer, who killed Chris, and why. 

I know that Chris’s work was drying up in Ukraine by 2017. I know that he was looking for a new story. Was that why he went to South Sudan? 

To up the ante, the riskier the story, the more likely someone might buy it. 

So where did the idea of South Sudan even come from? This was not a high-profile war. 

After we got back from America, Jeremy had shared his Facebook chat history with Chris. 

It’s from when they’d first met in 2015, to Chris’s death in 2017. It’s where Chris had told Jeremy with his crazy tales from Ukraine. 

Basia: So, 14th of October 2015, Chris, again, is talking about going to Africa. There’s definitely a few months in this first six months of your conversations where it comes up quite a lot. It was obviously an idea that was really taking hold of that time, or perhaps the people he was hanging out with were talking about it a lot.

And he says to you, these European soldiers of fortune are trying to make plans. So, we’d all go together.

Jeremy: Say that again.

Basia: He says these European soldiers of fortune said the mercenaries are trying to make plans. So, we’d all go together, and you reply to say where in Africa. And he says, we’re waiting to hear from their contact on the ground, South Sudan. It’s chaos out there from what I understand. And you reply to say you’re brave and stupid. Any thoughts?

Jeremy: It’s hard with those things because after an event like a death, you think should I have said more, but I guess, you know, it was just the way that we interacted and the way that anyone interacts with someone who is still alive, is you hope for the best. 

Basia:  I mean, you do say you do make clear what you think about it. I suppose the thing that really jumps out at me is, and there is, there is more, but at least at this point, the question about going to South Sudan is only ever, in the context of, tagging along on a trip where they will go and participate in the conflict, which does feel significant given what comes later.

Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah. It does. It doesn’t make sense in terms of where he’s trying to position himself as this expert on mercenaries or soldiers of fortune. But yeah, of course it feels significant. 

Basia:  So, it gets more intense. These exchanges, um, as part of the same conversation he says to you, when talking about going to South Sudan, he says, I just know if it happens, it’s going to be something crazy. I can’t say everything over the internet, but these guys are lunatics, and you say, or now you sound a bit crazy. And he says, we’ll be some other world completely, to me, that’s fucking exciting.

Jeremy: I get that. I get that, that excitement of going somewhere completely new and completely different. Obviously, the comments about the mercenaries is unsettling, but I also understand the desire for discovering. I think he wanted to be a discoverer, and yeah, I said, no, you sound crazy. I guess the very thought of being around those guys was to me crazy.

Basia, narrating: It’s so complicated, isn’t it? 

Did Chris see these guys as his biggest story? 

If he was, I’d say it would be pretty smart. When you’re starting out, editors often say: find your niche, become an expert on something. 

Maybe he was thinking, modern-day mercenaries, the foreign legion for the digital age, adventuring in South Sudan. Maybe he was thinking, this is a story I can tell. 

Basia: Hello.

Chris Garrett: Hello.

Basia: Hi. 

Chris: Hi there, how’s it going? 

Basia: Yeah. Good. How are you doing?

Basia, narrating: There are two men I want to speak to. 

Two foreign fighters at the top of my list. Craig Lang, who was a fighter in Right Sector. Number 7 on Chris’s emergency contact sheet. 

And another man, Chris ‘Swampy’ Garrett. 

Basia: What would you prefer to be called, Chris or Swampy? 

Chris: Chris is fine. Swampy is fine.

Basia, narrating: I went with Chris. 

He’s a former tree surgeon, from the Isle of Man. In 2014, he’d been in Burma, clearing landmines. And when war broke out in Ukraine, he travelled to the east and joined the Azov Battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard. 

Chris Allen really liked him and described his as something of an island of empathy among a more extreme group of men, some of them Nazi sympathisers. 

Fast forward to 2022, eight years later, Swampy is back in Ukraine. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, he teaches Ukrainian forces about de-mining, and collects money and equipment for the war effort. 

He’s a character, with a popular Instagram account. 

He has a giant tattoo across his back: a skull and crossbones, with the words DANGER, MINES in all caps. 

When I contacted him and told him I was investigating what happened to Chris, he was immediately open to speaking to me.

Chris: So, he came out us and embedded with myself and the foreigners that were, that were there. And then we just stayed in touch, obviously he’s a journalist so he was running around going here there and everywhere.

Basia:  You said he was a bit of a mad bastard though? What was it about him that, that you thought was mad? 

Chris: Well, when we first met, he had reached out to me and said, oh, you know, I’d like to be in band and I said well, that’s fine, but I’m gonna be on the front line in a small village called Schockner, by all means, if you can make your way there, you know, or I’ll catch you, you know, I’ll catch you when I get back off the front line.

And so, I was up in the building getting shot out one day. Laid down by my sniper rifle fallen. Next minute, someone comes in going Swampy, Swampy, there’s some guy here to see you and I replied I’m a bit busy right now, and in comes this guy that turns out to be Chris wearing absolutely huge plane carrier, a massive helmet that was too big for him, and just this enormous rucksack. He just, he just looked so outta place and it was just like, you know, what are you doing here?

He’s like, oh, I’m here to film. Could I, could I get my camera out? You know? And it’s just like, you haven’t noticed we’re kinda getting shot at right now

I think, I think he thought that the laws of war didn’t apply to him. Yeah. A little bit. 

Basia: Do you think it was bravery or bravado or just kind of blissful ignorance? 

Chris: Not bravado. It was just, there’s a story there and I wanna film it. You’re not gonna stop me.

Basia, narrating: I could see the scene, somehow, perfectly. 

Chris, totally out of place, and yet, totally at home in this bullet-riddled chaos. 

And I wanted to ask Swampy about just how at home Chris was.

Because there was one more unresolved detail hanging over me from Chris’s journals. 

Firing the mortar wasn’t the end of Chris’s curiosity with fighting. 

There are times when I dip back into Chris’s journals, when I fear my conclusion, that Chris had only focused on journalism, was premature. 

Because in early 2015, after spending more time with the Azov Battalion, Chris wrote: “Here I was, writing an article on the Europeans fighting in the east of Ukraine while I myself considered joining them. I came to get close to history, now I want to enter it.”

And again, later in 2015, when he writes about how split he is, and refers to himself as torn between “Fighter” and “Writer”. 

Basia: Did he ever talk to you because in, in one of his journals that I’ve been reading, he’s kind of, like at that time I think he, I think it would’ve been sort of 2015, he was struggling a bit with, it seemed like he was struggling a bit with journalism. He wasn’t really getting the support that he wanted.

And he was sort of toying with the idea of becoming a foreign fighter. Did he ever talk to you about that? Was that ever something that you had discussed?

Chris: He had mentioned it a couple of times. So, I think, I think there was a couple of people that he had gone out, to speak to, to document on the frontline Ukrainians that had been killed injured. I think that struck him a little bit and I think he was maybe struggling a little bit with, you know, just I think it got to the point a little bit where he was kind of looking at it and go, well, you know, what help am I doing with the camera? Maybe I should have a gun. 

Basia, narrating: Something inside Chris kept pulling him back to that blurry line.

From speaking to his friends, his roommate, the fighters, I think there is no denying that he toyed with the idea of fighting, but ultimately decided journalism was for him. 

But that still leaves open the question of South Sudan. 

Chris’s Facebook messages with Jeremy suggested that the trip there was always tied to the fighters. 

So why did he end up dying there, alone, without them? 

Basia:  And did, do you know whether there was any connection between Chris’s plan to go to South Sudan and their plan. 

Chris: That I am unaware of. I know that Chris and Craig didn’t speak. I think maybe a conversation would’ve been had about, you know, it might be an interesting place to go.

Basia, narrating: Again, Craig Lang’s name had come up. 

I knew I wanted to speak to him, but he didn’t strike me as the kind of person you could just call up out of the blue. 

Swampy was now something of a war hero. Craig Lang had a more complicated reputation. 

In the same set of notes in which Chris had described Swampy as more compassionate, he’d written this about Craig: “For Lang, violence is the world’s modus operandi.”

Basia: Craig was in, would be a friend of Chris’s would you say? 

Chris: Chris and Craig knew each other quite well, you know, to go to have a beer and stuff like that. I think, I think they got on well just to talk and everything else. So, I don’t have anything to do with these people. If you Google Craig Lang Ukraine, Sudan, you’ll understand why. 

Basia, narrating: Next time, in episode four.

Helena: Fuck. I really thought I’d made that up, wow there’s a lot more questions than I thought.

Basia: And it turns out that Craig Lang has tried to get into South Sudan just a few weeks before Chris arrived. So, these two trips that before now seemed like two separate things, now seem like they’re actually very connected

Jeremy: Do you think it’s safe for me to meet you? 

Essay Writer: Um, Um…

Frank: Is it worth it to you?

Basia, narrating: This series is reported and written 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, Jon Jones, Christopher Miller, Amanda Sperber, Elisabet Catenys and the ACOS Alliance, Kacper Rekawek, and David Ferris. 

The Executive Producer is Ceri Thomas 

Pig Iron is a Tortoise Production