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Paul Salopek: behind the stories
Seattle Times staff reporter
Paul Salopek sits in a jail cell in Sudan, charged with espionage and writing "false news," and I've been having trouble sleeping, worried that people might not understand why this matters.
I don't know Paul well. I don't think I'm supposed to.
But I know him well enough to tell you how good he is, and how wrong I was about him.
When I first met Paul at the Chicago Tribune, I feared he was a writer. Writers who go into journalism tend to be an unhappy lot, forever polishing their words when they should be out talking to someone or reading a court file. Paul wrote beautifully — poetically, even. But was he a reporter?
Paul came to the Tribune in 1996 from National Geographic. I covered legal affairs and worked on investigative projects. We attended a meeting once, to discuss story ideas. Paul said he wanted to track a single shipment of illegal drugs — from point of production through sale after sale after sale — to learn what lives were touched or destroyed along the way.
How could anyone possibly pull off such a story? He's not just a writer, I thought. He's a dreamer, too.
Two weeks ago, The Seattle Times ran a four-part series excerpted from the Chicago Tribune, called "A tank of gas, a world of trouble." Paul wrote the story. He took the same idea — the same bold, brilliant idea that I had dismissed all too readily years before — but replaced drugs with oil.
He tracked crude shipments from across the world to a single gas station in South Elgin, Ill., and showed how the gasoline that gets pumped into some 10-miles-a-gallon Chevy Suburban has touched and sometimes devastated lives in Louisiana, where the wetlands have turned to mud; in Nigeria, where the oil industry's byproducts have included pollution, corruption and political thuggery; in Iraq and Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, where the demand for oil and all of its resulting riches and intrigue have contributed to global turmoil.
For Paul, it was just the latest in a line of stunning stories. He's told stories from Africa, Afghanistan, Asia and the Balkans, stories about refugees, rebels and victims of war, about pirates, poachers, gunrunners and killers, about a child in Ethiopia forced to marry at age 7 and a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Angola tortured for being a witch. He's told stories through hardship and will, with datelines like: THE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN KOSOVO; THE SHOMALI PLAIN, Afghanistan; THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF ETHIOPIA.
Stories like these:
After Saddam's fall, Iraqis dare to seek out his victims
HILLAH, Iraq — The dead are rising up in Iraq. They are emerging from bald soccer fields as well as bleak prison yards. They are rising from innocent-looking highway medians and jaunty carnival grounds.
False teeth. Clumps of women's black hair. The twig-like rib cages of babies. The appearance of such heartbreaking relics represents the final, damning rebellion against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — an intifada of bones.
"We would never have had the courage to do this when Saddam was alive," said Jomma Mohammed, 29, a taxi driver searching for his murdered cousins at a mass grave hidden for years near a mosque in this sweltering farm town. "If I had tried this a few weeks ago, I might be lying here, too."
Nov. 8, 2001
Detailing the toll of the Afghan mountains' winter
ANJUMAN PASS, Afghanistan — The Afghan pony's hooves sank into the first winter snows blanketing this strategic pass deep in the Hindu Kush, the awesome mountain wall that blocks the anti-Taliban armies facing Kabul from their vital supply lines to Tajikistan.
Exhaling steamy breaths at an elevation of 15,000 feet, higher than Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, the caravan of bony horses slogged upward, passing the carcasses of mounts that had collapsed on earlier climbs, their ribs picked over by enormous vultures that staggered, gorged, across the snow.
There were the carcasses of trucks, too — the wrecks of military and humanitarian convoys that failed Anjuman's harsh test, a merciless, high-altitude bottleneck that abruptly falls away into the Panjshir Valley, the central redoubt of Aghanistan's Northern Alliance rebels.
Slashed by freezing winds, utterly inhospitable, Anjuman Pass is more than just the pinnacle of woe on the worst road in the world.
Pathetically, it also happens to be the crux of the sole overland supply route to Afghanistan's U.S.-backed opposition forces. As such, it offers a brutal example of just how extraordinarily difficult it will be to wage a winter war in Afghanistan, and, in the case of foreign-aid groups, to feed her desperate people.
Jan. 11, 2000
An African describes his brush with an airborne killer
THE IVINDO RIVER, Gabon — The wind has no name. But it is a fierce wind, a bad wind, and when it blows down this tar-black jungle river most people run. Because it turns their eyes to color of blood. Because the wind kills them.
Isidore Edjimouagno knows. He survived the evil wind, though it left him a broken man. This is his one claim to fame: He breathed the wind and lived. He is a dead man who sits blinking in surprise under the shade trees of his garden.
"People thought it was yellow fever at first, and weren't that frightened," recalled Edjimouagno, 61, one of scores of gold panners who were brought down the Ivindo River in dugouts, vomiting blood and semi-conscious. "But the next time the wind came they all ran away. The police had to set up roadblocks in the towns. They wanted to run all the way to the capital."
Edjimouagno's harrowing brush with the foul winds of the Ivindo River was actually the world's last recorded outbreak of ebola, Africa's notoriously lethal virus.
April 11, 2001
A group of refugees makes a dismal return
ABOARD THE MOTOR VESSEL OVERBECK, Off the coast of Sierra Leone — The lush, African shoreline that loomed one recent dawn off the bow of this rusting ferryboat should have gladdened the hearts of its beleaguered passengers.
After surviving years of civil war, wasting away in the limbo of foreign refugee camps, and enduring a nauseating ride aboard a ship reeking of vomit and diesel fumes, 250 Sierra Leoneans finally were coming home.
But there wasn't any cheering as the Overbeck chugged into the harbor of Freetown, Sierra Leone's war-haunted capital. Instead, hundreds of grimy and exhausted women, children and men crammed into the passenger deck didn't stir. Most never glanced out of portholes. The battered refugee ship, packed with families, docked in eerie silence.
"Nobody wants us anymore," whispered Aminata Tarawally, 50, a seasick teacher curled in a passageway. "So we have decided it is better to come home to die."
Paul doesn't take shortcuts. To tell a story of civil war, he took a five-week trip down the Congo River, mostly by canoe. To tell a story of the people in Mexico's Sierra Madre, he traveled 1,300 miles by mule. He crosses mountain passes, deserts and seas, all to tell us stories.
He doesn't write for awards. He doesn't promote himself. He doesn't tag along with other journalists. He goes his own way.
Last year I asked Paul to come to Seattle and speak at a journalism conference. He said he couldn't, because he gets stage fright. Talking to large groups of people terrifies him.
He isn't fearless, or devoid of ego, or any of that. But when it comes to getting a story, he doesn't let fear dictate. I've had my chances to do the kind of work Paul does — and I blinked. I didn't want to endure the hardship and peril.
Paul is a decent man, humble and humbling, who finds time on his travels to e-mail colleagues, saying how much he likes whatever story they have written. He has won two Pulitzers. I tell you that not because it matters much to him or me, but because an editor will make me do it anyway, because that's the way it is.
He grew up in California and Mexico. He worked as a farmhand and fisherman. He became a journalist in a way some might call serendipitous — though I suspect Paul wouldn't use that word. He was traveling to the Gulf of Mexico, to work on a shrimp boat, when his motorcycle broke down in Roswell, N.M. He didn't have the money to fix it. He took a job at the local paper, as a police reporter. He found his calling.
Last year, Peter Han of Seattle published the book "Nobodies to Somebodies: How 100 Great Careers Got Their Start." He asked Paul where his passion comes from.
"It's not acclaim, it's not money ... [It's] just the act of moving through the world in the way a storyteller does, where the thing you're out there getting, what grabs you, what gets you, what grabs you in the gut, is saying, 'Aha, there's a story unfolding in front of me, and I can tell it.' It's almost a shamanistic sort of power. So that's what rings my bell. The accolades and everything else are great. I'm delighted, I'm honored, I'm humbled, I'm flattered, but I did not get into this business to win Pulitzers or be a global correspondent, or XYZ."
Han's book also quoted Paul talking about the rewards of risking failure:
"I had to make myself available to the possibilities that would move me along toward an honorable goal, whatever that is. Whether it's going to be your career, whether it's going to be your relationship or whatever, and the way that I did it was by, I tried to make myself vulnerable, intentionally vulnerable. Physically, and as much as possible, emotionally — because that leaves you open to the delight and the magic of possibility. If you fear not, if you're too comfortable, if you've made yourself invulnerable, you've built sort of, you know, a comfortable blockade or palisade around you, I think you're going to miss out on some of these possibilities that float by, that other people may attribute to serendipity, but may or may not be serendipitous. ...
"So my parting advice would be, make yourself vulnerable to change, to discomfort, to the unexpected. And in fact, embrace it. You'll find that you may not always get what you're looking for, but in the end, you'll look back and see that everything eventually adds up to something."
Paul, who is 44 and married, was arrested Aug. 6 in Sudan, with his driver, Idriss Abdulrahman Anu, and interpreter, Suleiman Abaker, both from Chad. Paul was carrying publicly available maps and two passports, but no visa. He was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic, to do a story on the Sahel, a sub-Saharan belt that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa.
The charges against Paul include espionage and disseminating false news. A Slovenian writer who faced the same charges was sentenced this month to two years in prison.
A number of legislators have taken up Salopek's cause. Sen. Barack Obama told the Tribune: "Press freedom is like tending a garden; it's never done. It continually has to be nurtured and cultivated and the citizenry has to value it. It's one of those things that can slip away if we don't tend to it."
If we don't care about Paul, we don't care about the stories he writes. We don't care about the world and the people in its farthest reaches and most desperate circumstances.
His work serves us all, to help us understand and feel.
Paul isn't a spy. He's a reporter.
He's the best reporter I know.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company