Donkey treks and all-night hikes: the stories behind the stories

My interview with a Darfur rebel commander wasn’t particularly interesting. He said all the things you’d expect him to say: ‘We want peace’, ‘It’s all the government’s fault’, etc…  What made the story worthwhile was the five-hour donkey ride through the Jebel Marra mountain range to get there.

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Once I’d worked out how to get the donkey to go in the right direction it was great fun. More importantly it made me realise just how difficult it would be for Sudanese government forces to attack the SLA in the Jebel Marra. The only way to get around was by foot or by donkey and every village we passed through was controlled by the rebels. The actual journey was far more illuminating than the interview.

Donkey treks are nothing though compared to what a few determined members of the Nairobi press corps were prepared to do to get an interview with Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. According to Shashank Bengali, the McClatchy’s correspondent, it took:

“…a United Nations escort, an all-night hike through a rebel-controlled jungle, sleeping in a villager’s hut, a precarious motorbike ride up and down steep hillsides, an eight-hour wait for Nkunda once we reached the appointed location, a 45-minute press conference and, finally, a more elaborate U.N. escort that required another eight hours before depositing us at our hotel shortly after midnight — 41 hours after the journey started.”

What Nkunda had to say was hardly surprising (‘We want peace’, ‘It’s all the government’s fault’, etc…). Again, it was the journey to reach him which said far more about the state of the conflict than the words Nkunda spoke.

“It sudddenly struck me that Nkunda was completely in charge here. Not once the entire day had we seen a representative of the Congolese government, apart from a handful of police officers in Rutshuru, and it was clear that the Nkunda soldiers were keeping them there just for show. The UN took us part of the way, but their authority was circumscribed. It was Nkunda’s people who tried to unstick our cars, who walked through the night with us, who ensured security for the cars and drivers we had to leave behind on the muddy hillside.”

Interviews with Nkunda have been everywhere this past week or so (here and here for starters) and most have focused on his threat to take Kinshasa. But as Rob Crilly describes it:

“Never mind the fact that…he is barely able to hold on to his own territory much less take Kinshasa, reporters seem intent on presenting the story as rebels about to overrun the country. This would fall down against my former’s editor’s test of: “This might be what they say, but is it true.” Nkunda’s words would be presented in a much more sceptical light if that test were to be used.”

All journalists want to get the big interview and, right now, what Nkunda has to say is important. But reading some of interviews he’s done I can’t help feeling we would have learnt more if they had been about the journey rather than the destination.

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