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Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

INTERVIEW- WP’s Emily Wax on reporting from the killing ground

By Columbia Journalism Review

Feb 11, 2005 — Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Emily Wax covers the conflict in the Sudan for the Washington Post. Wax is originally from Queens, New York, and has reported for the Trenton Times, freelanced for Newsday, and covered schools and immigrant communities for the Washington Post.

Emily_Wax.jpgThomas Lang: Since you began reporting in Sudan, has there been any specific incident that has particularly shaped your views on what’s going on or affected the way you report your stories?

Emily Wax: Once in Sudan you need a travel permit to leave the capital. During one of my earlier trips, I waited six weeks for a travel permit with another reporter from The Guardian and rented an apartment to prove we would wait. A French delegation finally took us in. [When the trip finally occurred], all these women were crammed into squalid schools and they were handing me notes, lists of people who had been raped. There were over 40 names on the list with things like, “Please help us,” written in Arabic. Also, everyone was showing me their flesh wounds. They all thought I was a doctor. I was glad I waited for the travel permit and didn’t just go home.

TL: In late December the Sudanese embassy issued a press release titled, “The Washington Post and its Misinformation Campaign Against Sudan.” [It read], “Despite the hostile position of the Washington Post toward Sudan, an African correspondent from the paper, Emily Wax, has been allowed into the Darfur region for at least seven months now. We counted on her professionalism and the reputation of the newspaper she is affiliated with to produce credible reports that would help the world understand the real situation in that region of so much suffering. Regrettably, her fairy-tale reports have misled public opinion in this country and triggered hasty and harmful decisions that have only emboldened the rebels in Darfur and last month encouraged them to declare their ceasefire pledges null and void!”

How did you react to that?

EW: I never gave up asking for my visas, so it’s nice to know they noticed. I think they are able to say however they feel. I have made a huge effort to be balanced and include their side of the story. Some stories they may agree with, and others not. That’s part of it.

Recently a rebel leader opposing the government told me he didn’t like a story I had written about them. That actually made me feel balanced since both sides feel the coverage is negative. That’s okay, I think. We are not here to work PR for either side. We give them a chance to voice their side and also report what we see. That is the best way to do reporting.

TL: And has your access been curtailed since the government issued that statement? Or was it just a public relations bluff?

EW: My passport has been in the Sudan Embassy in Nairobi, where I am based, for two months now. They won’t say no or yes. They say “inshallah,” which means “God Willing,” or is a phrase that means, “No way!” I guess I can kinda guess what’s happening to me. But anyway, I will not stop trying. With the help of my editor Pamela Constable, we organized a lunch where three people from the Sudan Embassy visited with the foreign editors to talk about their opinions on my work and the editorials. I want to have the most balanced coverage I can and we need a visa to get that. Otherwise, most reporters just travel with the rebels in rebel-held Darfur. Then we never get to hear the Khartoum side of things.

TL: Speaking of access, how is your access to the Darfur region? We always read about reporters in Iraq being stuck in the Baghdad “green zone.” How do you go about getting yourself into the places where you can do some actual reporting?

EW: To travel, once you get into the capital, you need the very important and beloved “travel permit.” That can take six weeks — I once got an apartment in Khartoum while waiting to get one. It’s only taken two days the last three times I went in. Then once in Darfur, you need to see the local authorities every morning to get permits to different camps and areas. They usually are helpful, but sometimes reject requests. For a while, when they were moving residents in the camps, they restricted [us]. … But we, along with the BBC, went anyway, with the UN, and we witnessed people being beaten by police.

Usually, though, the authorities are very easygoing and respectful and you can travel most places. When you want to cross rebel lines, you must phone ahead to their commanders and they also need to give you permission. It’s a ton of waiting sometimes for permissions from both sides. The area is also so huge, and without roads, and often flooded during rainy season. The African Union has been very open about shuttling journalists around and giving helicopter rides and that has been great. But all of us are really only seeing a small percentage of what has happened.

My husband [the Boston Globe’s Raymond Thibodeaux] and I traveled with the rebels into rainy season Darfur. We rode in a machine-gun-loaded truck, swam across swollen rivers and at one point had to walk across the Sahara to get back over into Chad. We hired a donkey to carry our luggage at one point. The area was demolished, with burned villages and bomb craters. But it was also very beautiful and we slept under the stars as we traveled. We saw areas that had little access to the outside world. But because of the rainy season, we could not see as much as we would have liked. We lived on muddy water and dates.

TL: What are the advantages/disadvantages to being a woman reporter in the Sudan?

EW: The Sudanese people and the government are both very fair to women in general. This is not the Taliban regime. They have some women in high-ranking posts in the government, so this has not been a problem. I think this has been an advantage in interviewing female victims, who represent 60 percent of the population. They also make up most of the population of the refugee camps, since the men are off fighting or dead. I really enjoy reporting about women and I feel it’s an area that has been under-covered for a long time.

TL: In the American media the Sudan has had to compete with the presidential election, the tsunami, and the war in Iraq. Do you find it difficult to get your stories in the paper?

EW: Not at all. My paper, and my editors Phil Bennett and David Hoffman, have encouraged me every time I messaged that I was about to pack my tent and go to Darfur. They have improved the stories by talking about them with me and giving them good space when I filed.

TL: Reporters, including you, often write that 70,000 people have been killed in the Sudan, a number taken from a months-old United Nations report that only records deaths from disease and hunger among those Sudanese who managed to make it into refugee camps. Some academics claim that the numbers killed are in the hundreds of thousands. How do you try to evaluate these numbers, and do they effectively convey the magnitude of what’s happening on the ground?

EW: Truth is the first causality of war. So this issue has been murky. The government says the numbers are much lower than 70,000, rebels say they are higher. The truth is, no one knows. [The Post’s] UN reporter just did a good story on this issue. Many times I try to say tens of thousands have died because that’s something all parties agree on.

TL: Finally, if I’m a reporter leaving for my first assignment in Sudan, what are three things I shouldn’t leave home without?

EW: Ha. Great question. Since there is no electricity or frequent outages, a head lamp, also lots of bug spray — since there are many late nights writing and lots of bugs glued to your head lamp — and of course your laptop, with solar panels or generator — is that four?