Air so foul it is hard to take a deep breath. Toxic chemicals seeping into the earth. Mothers giving birth to disabled children.
These are the suspected effects of the pollution from South Sudan’s oil industry that I was determined to document.
My resolve to report on the wide-ranging effects of pollution from the oil-pumping industry in South Sudan was strengthened when I interviewed the mother of a disabled child.
The people I spoke to in the oil-pumping area in the country’s northeast were desperate to describe how their lives have been harmed by the pollution and how they could not get help. I’ll never forget one woman shouting at me from across the yard as I emerged from her neighbor’s house after doing an interview. She asked if I’d come there “to save them.”
I had been reporting in South Sudan for nearly two years and learned that the rampant pollution in the area was suspected of being linked to the increased number of children born with deformities and residents dying from unknown diseases. I wanted to find out what was going on by meeting with people living near the oil fields.
Oil is South Sudan’s main source of income, accounting for more than 40% of its GDP, almost all of its exports according to the World Bank and the government did not want critical reporting of the lucrative business.
Getting to this area was challenging as it is militarized with a heavy national security presence. Few journalists have been able to report from there, especially since the civil war broke out in 2013.
I spent four days in Paloch and the nearby town of Melut, interviewing community leaders, residents, mothers who had lost children, and doctors who delivered deformed babies. I saw a junkyard full of chemicals, which were seeping into the ground. The air was so toxic I was coughing for days after.
The day I was scheduled to fly back to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, I was detained by a member of the country’s National Security Service at the airport in Paloch. I was taken to a small room in the airport and forced to hand over my phone, laptop, iPad, camera and notebook. I was allowed to board the plane to Juba but my belongings stayed behind. The security agents wanted to prevent me from publishing what I had witnessed.
When I was back in Juba, I still faced trouble. South Sudan’s National Security Service confiscated my passport, and for the next 11 days I was not able to leave the country and was called into the security offices every day for questioning. At the end of the day I was allowed to return home and sleep at my residence.
At first I was questioned by members of the oil company’s national security arm and later by the country’s Internal Security Bureau, intelligence officers within national security, at two separate facilities in Juba.
My belongings were flown from Paloch and I was forced to show the interrogators what was in my phone, camera, iPad, laptop and notebook. They accused me of working to prolong the civil war. They wanted to know my motives for talking to local residents about problems in the oil fields and they asserted that the people I interviewed were lying about the conditions they lived in.
The security officials refused to let me leave South Sudan for a scheduled reporting trip to Ethiopia. They threatened to send me to jail and told me I “wouldn’t be going anywhere for a very long time.”
Eventually I was released and my belongings returned to me. I was warned that if I ever wrote about pollution in South Sudan’s oil fields there would be consequences, most notably that I’d never be allowed back in the country.
I was torn about what to do. Should I write the story immediately and get kicked out? Or stay in South Sudan longer and continue reporting on the civil war and the faltering peace process, and use the time in country to further my investigation of the oil fields? I decided to stay and for the next year kept digging up material for the oil pollution story.
But then I was kicked out of South Sudan in October, 2019.
While that incident was stressful, I was never physically assaulted or threatened. South Sudanese journalists, activists and people who speak out against the government can be arbitrarily detained, tortured, killed and thrown in jail for years.
I’m deeply grateful to everyone who supported and helped me during that time including South Sudanese who did so at great personal risk.
I was fortunate to have been able to report for as long as I did in the country and get to know and learn from the people of South Sudan who yearn for peace and stability. Despite the threat of not being allowed back into South Sudan, I was compelled to tell the story of the wide-ranging effects of the oil pollution.
(AP: SAM MEDNICK)