In the last episode, the team finally hears from a man they’ve been chasing for months. And they return to Maine, to tell Christopher’s parents what they have discovered
Male Voice 1: Hi.
Jeremy Bliss: Hi, Jeremy speaking. Hey how are you?
Basia Cummings: No, no, they just said you might have information because of your seniority….
Basia, narrating: It’s time to go in through the front door. Time to contact the South Sudanese government directly and to ask them, what happened that day in Kaya.
Basia: It says its calling but it’s not
Basia, narrating: And find out if they know Chris was connected to a group of fighters, and to Craig Lang.
Male Voice 2: How have you got my number, I want to know how you got my number. Are you belonging to a media organisation?
Basia: I belong to a media organisation in the United Kingdom called Tortoise.
Basia, narrating: But as you can hear, these are not men who expect to be asked questions. And they certainly don’t feel they need to answer them. None of this is surprising. One person who had worked with the military in South Sudan told me, just think about it, for decades, South Sudan has been at war. The security arm of the government is in control, and so almost everything is considered a state secret. And as a result, information is not seen as a public right. Journalists are viewed with suspicion, their lives under threat.
Basia: Do you feel scared now? Does that continue?
Male Voice 3: Yeah, I’m still actually, if somebody’s not happy with you, he can actually. Go ahead and just kidnap you from anywhere.
Basia, narrating: But it doesn’t stop me from trying. Despite the threats, I have the help of brilliant South Sudanese journalists who give me the tools to navigate the paranoid world of the military. It’s the final step, before we return to America, and to Chris’s parents to tell them which story we think is true about what happened to their son, five years ago on the frontline.
I’m Basia Cummings, and from Tortoise this is Pig Iron. Episode 7: Out There
As we get started, we decide Jeremy will focus on the rebels he already has an in with them, and I’ll focus on the government, who might be more willing to answer questions from a journalist, rather than a family member. And first, he manages to get hold of a former governor, who met Chris.
Jeremy Bliss: That’s actually what I was gonna ask you. Is there, is there anybody on the government side who could help understand from the government side, what happened?
Former Governer: I think you can contact the minister of information because, the one who came out obviously to make statements about him and the army spokesman also. But they command responsibility, they want to be able to speak. They will not allow you to talk to, to the one who was down there in the theatre of war.
Basia, narrating: Then, he gets another warning.
Jeremy: So, I’ve just received a text message from a former South Sudanese Senator I think, or parliamentarian. Hello Mr. Bliss. I’ve been trying to get information about your relative killed in South Sudan but have not been able to find something that can help you. Almost everyone I approach fearfully tells me it was killed in the crossfire. Witnesses are afraid for their lives because of possible reprisal attacks. I feel ashamed that your cousin was killed in my country while on the line of duty, yet I am unable to help.
Basia, narrating: South Sudan continues to be a violent kleptocracy, where a tiny number of politicians and generals have gotten rich from the country’s oil, while hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed. And though the political landscape has now changed, and the rebels that Chris was embedded with are in a power-sharing agreement, and in government it seems that his case is still, at best, inconvenient, and at worst, irrelevant. The passage of time is a protective cloak for those responsible. There is no pressure, it seems, to answer the question, why kill a young journalist? But I don’t think that can be the end of it. In the same way that you can’t answer the deaths or torture or exile of South Sudanese journalists with just a shrug. So, it’s time to apply some pressure.
Basia: A couple of people have suggested to me that you might have information about what happened.
Basia, narrating: I start by calling two generals on the side of the government, who I’ve been told were responsible for the military operation that day in Kaya in 2017.
Basia: I wanted to ask you some questions because as I understand it…
General: Who told you I am a General?
Basia, narrating: These aren’t the men the essay-writer told us about, those guys seem to have disappeared into the military system. But these two names I’ve been given now have been sent by a source who is trying to help. But they both deny any knowledge of what I’m talking about, they deny knowing the name Christopher Allen, and they’re both very unhappy that I’m calling them directly. But I keep trying, I call phone number after phone number…
I send emails, and finally, I get a reply, the spokesman for the South Sudanese Army, General Koang, agrees to an interview.
Basia: Did you know that there was a white man embedded with the rebels?
General Koang: No. We weren’t aware because they came under the cover of darkness. It was only after the rebels were repelled, then we were carrying out a search on the battle field, that we were able to find a dead body belonging to a white man.
Basia, narrating: I ask why was Chris called a white rebel? He tells me maybe because we really did think he was a mercenary. Okay, I say, but have you ever encountered white rebels, any mercenaries, joining them before?
Koang: No, no.
Basia: So, why would he think that if there hadn’t been mercenaries in South Sudan.
Koang: That was the one time.
Basia, narrating: He tells me to speak to the information minister myself, the man who made the white rebel allegation about Chris in the first place. It’s the first of many redirections.
Koang: I cannot speak for him. You can get in touch with him. Let him tell you why he described him like that.
Basia: And so, was it a member of the SSPDF forces who killed Christopher?
Koang: Say that again?
Basia: Was it a member of the South Sudanese military, the SSPDF who killed Christopher Allen?
Koang: No, we cannot say that with certainty.
Basia: What, what are the other possibilities?
Koang: The rebels that came embedded with him as the best people to tell you what had happened to him because he had entered the Republic of South Sudan to the territory that was under control of the rebels. If there are questions that I’m not able to answer, it is cause we are not in the know. The people who were in the know. That are part and parcel of the government, so you could cross over to and find out from them.
Basia, narrating: He points me back to the rebels. But they’re ignoring our calls. It’s like stepping into a hall of mirrors. Everything deflected to somewhere and someone else. But for one exciting moment, I think I get somewhere. I finally reach the government spokesman who was quoted in that obscure news article, the one saying that the mercenaries had pretended to be journalists. It’s the line that kickstarted my theory that perhaps Craig Lang’s trip to east Africa made everything riskier for Chris.
Basia: Hello, is that Mr. Maiwan Makui?
Maiwan Makui: Yes, that is me. How are you?
Basia: I’m okay…
Basia, narrating: So, I ask him, where did you get that information from? Where did you hear that they had pretended to be journalists?
Basia: Where that information came from?
Maiwan: I cannot say in a statement on the back of that again now because I wrote it all in the war.
Basia, narrating: But no dice. Like everyone else, he redirects me back to the information minister. Now, there could be a reason for this, beyond just evasion. One contact in Uganda told us, the South Sudanese military is really complex, and there’s a lack of coherent control. It’s possible that the arrival of Craig Lang didn’t really travel much beyond the soldiers he met at the border. It is infuriating. And it’s what Chris’s family has known for years that when you bang on the doors of a state which has killed journalists and civilians without consequence for years. There’s just no reason for anyone to open the door, let alone invite you inside. But trying to get hold of the South Sudanese government isn’t my only battle. Now, you might have picked this up by now, but journalists are a strange tribe. And where you find incredible acts of solidarity, you also find discord and when things go wrong, it can mean that reporters and newsrooms pull down the shutters on each other. When Jeremy first got in touch with me, I drew up a list of people that I wanted to speak to. And of course, at the top of my list were people who were there in Kaya. And aside from the government soldiers and the rebels there were two other men on that list. Right on the frontline, a matter of metres from where Chris was killed. And unlike the fighters, they’re not compromised by the politics of South Sudan. I’m talking about the two Reuters journalists who arrived the day before the attack. I thought, this is my tribe, this was Chris’s tribe. Of course, they’ll talk to me. I was wrong.
Basia: It’s about the trip that you made to South Sudan a few years ago and it’s about the reporting of Christopher Allen.
Basia, narrating: It took months to persuade one of them to give me an interview. Some of the exchanges were confusing and tense. Just when I thought we’d agreed to speak, something would change, and it would all be off again. The message seemed to be, leave this alone. And there was another, more subtle message, that journalists shouldn’t be the story. It’s not our job. But eventually, Goran Tomasevic, a celebrated Serbian photojournalist, a Pulitzer-prize winner now working for the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, agrees to an interview.
Goran Tomasevic: I don’t have much to hide, it was a long time ago. So, let’s start.
Basia, narrating: He’s covered wars for 30 years. Everything Goran tells me matches up with what we know that Chris was upset by their arrival. That there was an argument with the commander about whether they should travel to the fighting in Kaya, and crucially, that they did take different paths to the frontline.
Goran: And the rebels started attack. I told both of the boys, you be careful, you know, they don’t have enough weapons. You be careful. Allen told me I already have been in three wars. I said, okay, I’m telling you, you be careful. I mean, I was not. I met him for the first time. He is my colleague, you know, tried to give him a bit of advice. You know, he was not really keen to hear.
Basia, narrating: Goran also confirms all three of the journalists were wearing the red arm bands, to signal they were with the rebels. It’s an important point, because it was one of the key criticisms levelled at Chris. Along with the fact that he wasn’t wearing anything that identified him clearly as press, and that he had no protective gear. And it’s part of why I was so obsessed with the rules of war reporting at first, I thought, if I could figure out what they were, I could figure out if Chris was breaking them. Now, after months of speaking to so many war reporters and hearing their differing answers, I realise everyone works differently. And so, Chris wasn’t an anomaly that day.
Goran: So, when the rebels start running in, he went with one group of rebels on the right-hand side. One moment I see they were shooting too much. They don’t have enough ammo and I start seeing, hearing the incoming, so I shoot what I can and I told Siegfried, listen, boy, now it’s time to pull back. He asked me why I said, uh, don’t ask me why. Just fucking start walking back.
Basia, narrating: Goran reads the scene. Decades of experience feed his intuition. And he notices that the rebels are under-equipped. He can see how this is going to unfold he can see that in a matter of moments, everyone is going to need to retreat or face incoming fire.
Goran: I start running back. So, I just start maybe five minutes, maybe 10, I don’t think more. I said secret let’s fucking move. Let’s get the fuck out here. We’re gonna get killed. Never running, there were one part of rebel withdrawing with me, they also knew.
Basia: So, are you kind of saying that you had, you had a sense, an intuition that you could read the scene and see this was gonna go bad?
Basia, narrating: They reach the top of a hill. Goran asks one of the rebels who looks visibly upset about what has happened to Chris’s group. He tells Goran, Chris is dead.
Goran: He say he is killed. I said, what you mean he’s killed? You know, I have no idea. He said, are you sure he’s killed? Yeah. Yeah. He got shot in the head and this is what I know.
Basia, narrating: He thinks Chris didn’t want to hear his advice. He wanted to go it alone.
Goran: I believe he run too much fast ahead. You know, I’m kind of going ahead, but also, I’m thinking of how I’m gonna pull back. I don’t know how much, I didn’t witness when he was killed.
Basia, narrating: He says he didn’t see the moment Chris was killed, he didn’t see Chris’s body after. And despite being close to the eyewitness, he didn’t see government soldiers celebrating himself.
Basia: How did you feel at that moment?
Goran: I felt very bad of course. But there was no time to say, where is the body. The body was left behind. I was too far. We just proceed. It was no time to think, and I need to save in my skin.
Basia: So, what do you think happened to Chris out there?
Goran: I think he was unlucky. It was bad luck. He was too young. I don’t know if I, I believe he didn’t follow much of the ground. He didn’t take enough cover, but sometimes even if you do all of these things, this can happen. This is what we do. All of us are in a business of death. We go somewhere to do these stories. So, I’m not surprised, this can happen.
Basia, narrating: Part of Goran’s reluctance to speak to me is because he thinks this story has become warped by questions of whether Chris was killed deliberately. Journalists are killed all the time, he says. It’s part of the job.
Goran: If you are with a group, you are a target. And that’s how it is.
Basia, narrating: He’s no stranger to the wastage of war. He’s seen colleagues killed, and he’s been shot himself.
Basia: So, it’s not unusual?
Goran: Who play with the fire, burns fingers sometimes, you know, but that’s what we do. That’s how it is. You know, you wanna do this job or not it’s, there is always some risk.
Basia: Did you see any of yourself when you were younger?
Goran: Yeah. I was much worse than Chris in his age. No one could stop me. I didn’t listen to anyone. I would just fucking go where is the fight. And I don’t know why, young blood, you know, start boiling and you wanna do pictures that you want to see and have people like this. I feel, I really feel sorry for that boy really. I mean that.
Basia, narrating: Chris didn’t live long enough to perhaps learn to control his excitement or temper his adrenaline, he hadn’t reported in enough wars to build up the intuition that could tell Goran to hang back. But he was trying to learn. Failing sometimes, yes. But as Goran was telling me luck is slippery. And if war is ruled by the dynamic of chaos, then sometimes the reckless survive, and the experienced die. After Chris’s death, Goran says it was clear they were in danger. They needed to get to safety.
Basia: Did you have an exit strategy?
Goran: Yeah. Run away in a bush. What else to do?
Basia, narrating: Listening to him speak, I wonder if Goran and his colleague Siegfried Modola, were perhaps winging it themselves. Operating spontaneously, and on intuition. Perhaps outside of what Reuters would be prepared to admit. Maybe that could explain what happened next. Because two years after Chris’s death, Joyce, his mum, emailed Reuters, the newsroom where both the journalists worked. The campaign for justice was kicking into gear, and she was hoping they might be able to send her any unpublished photographs of that day in Kaya, or of her son, anything that might help her understand the timeline of Chris’s final hours alive. But Reuters responded with a short email. They said they had considered her request, and quote “respectfully decline”. No word of condolence, no “we’re sorry for your loss.”
So, Joyce replied, upset. “We wanted to share that we were dismayed to receive such a formal, uncaring and unsympathetic email from one of the world’s leading news organisations in response to a request from the bereaved parents of a fellow reporter.”
She received no response. A month later, she forwarded the exchange to the Reuters editor-in-chief, imploring him to help. He replied to say he’d look into it. Joyce waited more than a month again, and then chased him. In his final response, the editor offered his condolences and told her there weren’t any more images to show, beyond the ones that had been published. If you needed an example of the shutters coming down, an exchange to say, freelancers are not our responsibility well then, I think this is a good one. And other reporters could feel it in the air after Chris’s death. One told me: “I felt really sad at how everyone just kind of disowned him. As a freelancer as well, I felt really gutted that there’s a system that just washes its hands of you. And that no one was stepping up for his family.” When I contacted Reuters, they sent back a short statement. They said that they had “provided the help to Christopher Allen’s family that we were able to” and said they wished to “emphasise our enduring sadness over Chris’s tragic death and his family’s loss”. It is an uneasy relationship between freelancers and newsrooms, and it continues. Just months ago, in Ukraine, a filmmaker called Brent Renaud was killed in Irpin, outside Kyiv. He was a freelancer, but he had previously worked for the New York Times.
News Report: He made documentaries for 20 years. During his career he won a Peabody award and 2 Columbia Dupont awards. Brent was 50 years old.
Basia, narrating: Soon after the news broke, The New York Times issued a statement, from its deputy managing editor, distancing the newspaper from his death. After a brief word of condolence, it read: “early reports that he worked for the Times circulated because he was wearing a Times press badge that had been issued for an assignment many years ago.” One reply on Twitter read: “a shameful response”.
Lynsey Addario: I mean first of all, Goran is an incredibly brave and talented photographer. And I mean, he’s extraordinarily brave and I think he’s right. You know, sometimes it’s luck. I mean, there was no, sometimes there is no reason.
Basia, narrating: At each step in this investigation, I’ve continued to test this story and the ideas in it on reporters. And Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, has thought a lot about the dynamics of war reporting. But there is a more personal connection too. Beside a rocking chair, tucked into a window alcove in Chris’s parents’ kitchen, Lynsey’s book sits on the top of a pile that Joyce has been reading. In fact, Joyce told me that its Lynsey’s book called It’s what I do which helped her to make sense of what Chris wanted from life.
Lynsey: It doesn’t always mean that the people who are reckless die. I mean, I know a lot of very reckless journalists and they somehow never seem to get injured or killed and, you know, and yet they set a horrible example for people for war correspondent with less experience who think it’s okay to do those things. I think it’s, I think, you know, when I was kidnapped in Libya with three colleagues for the New York Times, I mean, there’s no reason we should have survived that. I mean, there’s just not, you know, I mean, we were, about to be executed, beaten, blindfolded, constant guns to our head held, tied up at the front line while bullets and bombs sort of reigned around us with absolutely no cover. I mean, there’s no reason. And then Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros were killed a month later. And so that is what destroyed me is that like why did we live and they didn’t, you know, I could not understand. And I think sometimes, like Goran said, it’s luck.
Basia, narrating: Lynsey has reported from South Sudan. She knows the dynamics of that conflict, and so I tell her about our journey about sifting truth.
Lynsey: But it’s not an easy process for sure because people also have their own versions of reality and people remember things differently. And so, South Sudan is a very, very complicated and bloody place, and I have worked there since before it was South Sudan and I have covered, you know, fighting there and I’ve seen the ground littered with bodies and skeletons and I’ve met a young boy who was locked in a shipping container while 60 plus men around him died and he was the only survivor because they boiled to death. I mean, the brutality is astonishing. And I think, you know, sometimes you can only get to the truth when you actually find an eyewitness. And that person is traumatized as well. So, I think, you know, I think part of what we need to do is just talk to a lot of people and try to get a sense and piece it together.
Basia, narrating: We had arrived at that point. We had pieced it together. Now, it was time to return to Chris’s parents.
Jeremy: It’s just after quarter to seven, I’m just picking up to go meet Basia and Gary and then drive up to Maine, where we’ll be meeting John and Joyce again.
Basia, narrating: Nine months after starting on this story with Jeremy, we travel back to Maine. We had made John and Joyce a promise, that we would come back and tell them what we have discovered before it goes out into the world.
Jeremy: And I’m feeling anxious that they will ultimately not feel like this exposure of themselves. This whole process of, doing the podcast was worth the grief that they had to contend with again.
Basia, narrating: We know that they have found these months incredibly painful. They waited, patiently, as we travelled to interview people who had seen their son in his final moments. But there’s a reason we didn’t just jump on the phone after every conversation. I don’t think we can, ethically, recount everything we’ve been told. Not to them, and not include in this series. I don’t think it’s fair, and a lot of it is useless just more war fog. I want to return to them with the story of what we think really happened to Chris. One we can really stand behind. And for that, we have needed time. But the result for them has been agony.
John: You must be exhausted before you get here…
Basia, narrating: Returning is a pleasure. Last time we were here, it was freezing, it was March. Now, the trees in the yard are in the brilliant colours of the New England fall. They greet us with hugs and with warmth. They’ve prepared lunch, and we sit together and eat, but there is a nervousness in the air. We all know why we’re here. We’re sitting opposite each other, around the kitchen table. After lunch, Joyce gets her notebook and pen, John has pieces of paper and a pencil.
Joyce: What did they do around his body?
John: I guess they couldn’t ascertain if it was one person…
Joyce: Can you say what the pathologist said about how quickly he died?
John: Can I just ask if that…
Jeremy: How do you feel about continuing?
Joyce: Just carry on.
John: I’m okay.
Basia, narrating: It is a heart-breaking scene, two parents denied any clarity about their son’s death, hanging on our every word, hoping for some truth.
John: I guess the question is, maybe you weren’t able to directly answer it. Was he specifically targeted?
Basia: I think that’s where all of the circumstantial and the stuff that we heard on the day all comes together. And, I think that’s where, without speaking to the person who pulled the trigger, I think it, that’s the best we can do at this stage is to piece all of these different things and come up with what we think.
John: And what do you think?
Basia: I think that it is unlikely that he was targeted for being a journalist. I think it’s likely that they saw a white person and shot him. But beyond that, I don’t think that there’s evidence that we found of them, of the, you know, them knowing who he was, to suggest that, that it was more than that. That’s my, that’s my assessment based on the interviews that I’ve done.
Jeremy: I think it’s very feasible that they did see he had a camera, they may have known what that meant, that he was someone taking pictures and that was to publish in the media. But that was a role that was considered, well, that was demonized in South Sudan at the time. So, I think what we’re seeing is a, a context in which Chris’s profession was considered just as dangerous as being part of the army or part of the rebels in the eyes of those people on the ground at the day.
Basia, narrating: John and Joyce listen. They make notes. Intermittently, they held hands. Comforted each other. But despite the pain of listening to us, just visitors to their nightmare, they don’t lose their ability to see the situation. We discuss the complexity of the essay-writer. And they could have easily felt outraged and frustrated. But they responded with compassion.
Joyce: There’s a fluidity to truth that it bends, it’s very pliable. And that’s how I’m feeling about this, this character that he, he might even believe that he’s doing the right thing and he might even believe that he’s got some nugget to share that will make all the difference. But I, I think, just as much as I thought the eyewitness believed that, that there was this cloud and that Chris, Chris went into the smoke and they rushed after him to help him and people, I mean, it’s almost like my fear about waiting so long to do this is that, when do you start believing your imagined story as truth?
Basia, narrating: We had sent John and Joyce the early finished episodes of this series to listen to before they went out to the public. To give them a chance to prepare themselves. And as the afternoon darkens outside and rain starts to fall, the conversation turns to the fighters and to Craig Lang. And it’s where things become more difficult. Because this is about Chris, and his friendships. It’s more intimate, it’s not about what happened to him, it’s about the people he chose.
Joyce: It seemed that you were trying to get Swampy to say that Chris and Craig were friends. And he wouldn’t say it, so sometimes I feel like you were leading with, you were putting words in people’s mouths. At least in the condensed version…
Basia, narrating: But I’m not the only one who has wondered about this relationship.
Joyce: I know when they came to my brother’s house after Chris’s death, there was an agent, two agents, but one was there definitely to investigate Chris’s connection and wanted to clear certain things.
Jeremy: When you say that it was definitely there, what, what makes you think that definitely there for that purpose?
John: I think they, they wanted to know what we knew, from memory. This all is of course. What was his…
Joyce: Why was he there? They wanted to confirm that he was a journalist.
John: Our gut feeling at the time was are they checking out to see if he’s a mercenary or not?
Basia, narrating: I haven’t been able to prove that the South Sudanese government connected Chris and Craig Lang. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has said: we knew a guy called Chris Allen had pretended they were journalists, so we thought he was pretending too. Given what John and Joyce had told me, that they thought Chris had been investigated by the FBI I went to them, and to the state department, the US embassies in Kenya and South Sudan to ask if they had connected him to the mercenaries and Craig Lang. But their responses didn’t answer my questions. And I sent Freedom of Information requests, which I have been told can’t be answered before February 2025. But one former spook who had worked with the FBI told me: “Never underestimate quite how plodding these institutions are.” So maybe it was all a dark coincidence, and I’m the only person to make the connection. And beyond what it all meant in South Sudan maybe it is a relationship Chris and Craig’s that only made sense to the two people in it; one that blurred the lines between source and friend, fellow adventurer and subject.
Maybe this was Chris bleaching the film stock of his own life. In the people he met, and the places he went.
Joyce: What I would say for me is that, we hope that the end result of this is helpful. It’s been agony, absolute agony for me.
John: It’s been more than we thought. I think,
Joyce: We feel dragged through the dirt like crazy and we couldn’t have anticipated that. And that’s not anything you’re doing. But the experience on this side has been agony.
John: Well, we, I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel sometimes well perhaps we shouldn’t have done this. And your brother said, you know, what, what are you doing this for?
Joyce: After episode two, my brother jumped up and said, What? There’s tears are coming down my eyes. What the fuck are you doing this for? So, certainly that question sits and who knows what you’re gonna end up saying about Chris and where this all goes. But we did feel like we were giving you Chris on a platter when we said yes and there were risks involved. And, if it doesn’t lead to, some kind of, accountability and justice, I think we will have put ourselves through agony for nine months.
Basia: And what if the end result is understanding Chris, that, that more people understand who he was, what he cared about, Why he went to war, Would that be, would that make it worth it?
John: I think, when your brother asked that question, I said, well, you know, something like, if God forbid anything bad would happen to his daughter, What would you do? You want to find out the truth. You would, you would want to find out why, why this terrible thing happened.
Basia, narrating: It’s a scene that is hard to convey how intimate, and close it all feels, and yet how sharp it is at the edges. And so they ask: if it’s cost us this much, what has it cost you? Was this just a job?
Basia: And I can see that for you both that is, that’s not what you signed up for. But that for me is where the power is as a journalist, is that I think his story has meaning. It has enormous meaning to me. And where we started in March with this sense that Chris had kind of been forgotten and booted out of journalism and treated as if he was an anomaly and that he had done things wrong. By the end of this process, and I’ve said it to Jeremy and Gary that it feels like bringing him back. That all the people I’ve spoken to, all the war reporters see something of themselves in Chris. They think he got unlucky, he lost his life. It’s an enormous price to pay. But his instincts and his draw to what he wanted to do with his life are familiar and are not unusual, and that to me feels like a very important thing and I hope that does bring you some comfort, because I know that was very painful at the time.
Jeremy: It’s been really complicated for me as well because I’ve gone through all of these questions in my mind constantly about like why I’m doing it, who I am to do it, why should I be the person to do it, you know, all these things, and as with many answers in this process, it sort sometimes the, the answer is that no one else was doing it. So that was why, but I think it’s good ultimately that I did. The thing that went through my mind a lot when we embarked on it is that Chris would’ve been like mortified at being the focus of this. But now with what it is my read is that actually he’d be pretty into it.
Basia: Do you think he would’ve liked it?
Joyce: I think he, I think because as I understand him, he loved to delve into people’s story and you’re delving into his, I think he would not appreciate the entertainment factor, but I think he would love that there’s a truth that’s being exposed, that might make a difference. Do you think he would have?
John: I think he would’ve come round to it somehow. He would have. So, it does attract him, it would’ve attracted him, but his name kind of lives on.
Basia, narrating: In the end, this has all been about getting close, to war, to violence and most of all, to the story. It’s Chris’s whole theory of reporting getting as close as possible. And yet it may have been a part of his undoing. It may have warped his decisions and moved his compass points. It is in the end what he wanted. And I don’t think I could have done this reporting without getting close to John and Joyce, or to Jeremy. Even here, in the quiet, leafy world of Maine, the lines blur.
Basia: God. They’re just so wonderful. You okay?
Jeremy: Yeah. I’m okay. You?
Basia: Yeah, I mean, I feel like the last time we left. It’s like just shattering how nice they are and how cruel it all is
Basia, narrating: After we got back from Maine, and we’re finishing this final episode of the series, a South Sudanese reporter sends me a text. It’s an audio file, and a news article. It’s a recording of Michael Makuei, South Sudan’s information minister. The man who originally called Chris a white rebel. And, ironically, he’s speaking on International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. And he brings up Chris.
Michael Makuei: When the journalists decided to go to join the rebels, who decided to attack Kaya because he wanted to take the portal of the rebels over overtaking Kaya, capturing Kaya and the cause of doing that, he lost his life. This man had entered South Sudan illegally in that first place, he is a rebel, and this is why I declared, and you that you may be clear of that, of that statement. We again say, I say we have killed a white rebel. Yes, because he was killed on the side of the rebels, so he was a rebel. Now…
Basia, narrating: Five years since he originally made the claim, he repeats almost exactly the same line: “We killed a white rebel. Yes, because he was killed on the side of the rebels, so he was a rebel.”
Michael: This is very funny, and we are being asked to investigate. Whom do we investigate now, or do we investigate the then rebels who are now with whom we have reach an agreement and that we are now in the same government? Should we start investigating them now, Cause I’m seeing that issue coming up every now and then.
Basia, narrating: It seems our investigation has ruffled some feathers, and he’s doubling down. And that laughter is full of confidence, isn’t it. It says we can do as we like.The US embassy in Juba released a statement as a result, saying they continue to call for a formal investigation, but it’s not going anywhere. And so, this what you’ve listened to might be the best that Chris’s parents ever get, a podcast series about their son that has been agony for them to take part in. Nothing about that feels right, whatever you think about Chris and his decisions out there, in Kaya, in 2017.
If I started this investigation thinking Chris was an anomaly, a bad example, well, my thinking has changed. Joyce, Chris’s mum, asked me at her kitchen table, what has this meant for you? And I garbled some response to her because I was overwhelmed by the moment. But I’ve thought about it a lot. I think I’ve become a more compassionate reporter in the last few months, more willing to accept the reality of being in the world, more accepting of the chaos and the complexity of being out there. And accepting that it feeds reporting, as much as it might tip it off course.
And yes, Chris was reckless at times, and perhaps the intensity of the friendships he found on the frontline moved the needle of his moral compass. But Christopher Allen wasn’t an outlier. He modelled himself on that compelling idea of the war reporter. Like so many others, he felt that lonely impulse of delight, that complicated draw to the frontline, and he answered it, and tried to find meaning in it, and tried to understand it. And he did it all, imperfectly, in a moment when journalism itself was vulnerable, stretched and staggering. When the cash had dried up, but the demand hadn’t. And the situation remains much the same, as war has returned to the east.
But I’ll finish with a word from Chris, from his journals in Ukraine. I read it as, his calculation for a life lived deeply.
“This is no stage play without consequences. But a life lived fully conscious of the consequences which may come with our decisions. This is part of what it truly means to choose, and therefore to live.”
This series with written and reported by me, Basia Cummings. Additional investigation was 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. With original theme is by Tom Kinsella
With thanks to Charlotte Alfred, the Association for Media Development in South Sudan and Juma Peter, the Union of Journalists of South Sudan, and Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders.
The executive producer is Ceri Thomas. Pig Iron is a Tortoise production.