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Why reporting from South Sudan is so difficult — and critically needed

In August, fellow reporter Jason Patinkin and I crossed on foot from northern Uganda into rebel-held South Sudan. Over the course of four days, we walked more than 40 miles through the bush, escorted by rebel soldiers, to shed light on one of the world’s most underreported conflicts.

Reporting on South Sudan’s war, which began in 2013, has always been a challenge due to the risk and logistical hurdles associated with accessing remote areas where fighting takes place. But over the past year, covering the war and its humanitarian fallout has become particularly difficult. Since the beginning of this year, South Sudan’s government has banned at least 20 foreign journalists in an apparent effort to silence reporters who had a track record of critically reporting on the government.

This systematic crackdown on the foreign press (South Sudanese journalists have long risked imprisonment and death for doing their work) coincided with two important developments. In November 2016, the United Nations warned that the violence being committed against civilians in the southern region of Equatoria risked spiraling into genocide. Then, in February, the UN declared a man-made famine, warning that 100,000 people were at risk of starving to death as a result of civil war.

Journalists seeking to cover these events were left with two equally unsavory options: self-censorship or a risky trip to rebel-held parts of the country. Only a handful of journalists have attempted the latter since fighting escalated in July last year. For us, this was our second embed with the rebels this year.

Martin Abucha (second from right) rests with his troops in rebel-held South Sudan. Photo by Jason Patinkin

We set off from a town in northern Uganda at five in the morning, bouncing along a bumpy dirt track towards the South Sudan border. Crammed into our four-wheel drive were rebel commander Martin Abucha, a dual American and South Sudanese citizen who we planned to profile for our PBS NewsHour Weekend segment, a couple of guides, and several duffle bags stuffed with our tents, sleeping bags, emergency medical kits and provisions to last us four days.

Just as the sun began to rise above a distant range of hills that we aimed to cross later that day, our car came to a halt in front of a stream. Because of the rainy reason, it carried more water than usual. It was time to disembark and start walking, or “footing,” as South Sudanese tend to call it.

We took off our shoes and waded through the stream’s chilly waters. This was the first of a many rivers we’d have to cross along the way, either on foot or in small flimsy canoes dug out from tree trunks. Each time, we dreaded the idea of falling in with our camera gear.

The first part of our journey in northern Uganda felt very much like a hike through a national park. Passing beautiful landscapes and idyllic farming villages, one could almost forget we were headed into a war zone — but we were about to get a reality check.

We had just crossed into South Sudan when out of nowhere, two dozen armed men popped out of the tall grass and surrounded us at gunpoint.

“Stop! Who are you and where are you going,” a soldier called out in Juba Arabic from his hideout no more than 20 yards away, pointing his AK47 at us. Another one next to him had a rocket-propelled grenade propped on his shoulder, also unequivocally aiming it in our direction.

Instinctively, we threw our hands in the air and exchanged a baffled glance. Had we accidentally bumped into government soldiers? Or perhaps we had come onto the “wrong” rebels? Abucha’s group, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition, is the biggest but not the only armed group in Equatoria, an area rife with rival militia and bandits who exploit the security vacuum left by war.

To our relief, and only after Abucha answered a series of questions, this routine security check quickly gave way to a warm welcome. The platoon would be our escort for the next four days as we trekked to their base and to Loa, Abucha’s hometown.

Keeping up with the rebels was no easy task. Given the country’s pervasive lack of basic infrastructure, South Sudanese grow up walking for dozens of miles just to go about their daily lives. For sedentary Westerners, keeping the target pace of “two meters per second” (around five miles an hour) proved challenging amid 90-degree temperatures, all while filming and plowing our way through dense, itchy elephant grass.

The upside of the cumbersome terrain was that it kept us safe. During our four-day trip, we didn’t cross a single road, instead walking along a dizzying network of narrow bush paths the rebels seemed to know like the backs of their hands. An unwanted encounter with government troops, who tended to stick to roads and move around in vehicles as opposed to on foot, was highly unlikely.

The closest we got to government-controlled area was a visit to Loa, located just two kilometers away from a main road frequently patrolled by government soldiers. We couldn’t stay long, but the hour we spent on the ground offered us a glimpse into what villages must look like in many parts of Equatoria: burned mud huts, looted schools and clinics, fallow fields and – most strikingly – no civilians.

The war has had a devastating impact on South Sudanese communities like the one in Loa, but much of it has remained out of the limelight of international media. Our four-day venture into rebel-held South Sudan offered us a rare opportunity to report ground truths, and we are thankful for that.

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South Sudan civil war causes Africa’s worst refugee crisis

SIMONA FOLTYN, IMVEPI REFUGEE CAMP, NORTHERN UGANDA:

After completing the registration process, the new arrivals will receive their plot, to start a new life as refugees in Uganda. While they are safe here, there are many challenges ahead, not least processing the trauma of what they experienced back home.

This woman, who we’ll call “Agnes,” agreed to tell us about her harrowing experience. She says four government soldiers from President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe stopped her as she was fleeing South Sudan and raped her right in front of her family.

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Tillerson: North Korea diplomacy continues until 1st ‘bomb drops’

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the North Korean crisis “will continue until the first bomb drops.”

That statement comes despite President Donald Trump’s tweets a couple of weeks ago that his chief envoy was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man,” a mocking nickname Trump has given the nuclear-armed nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

“I think he does want to be clear with Kim Jong Un and that regime in North Korea that he has military preparations ready to go and he has those military options on the table. And we have spent substantial time actually perfecting those,” Tillerson told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “But be clear: The president has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically. He’s not seeking to go to war.”

Recent mixed messaging from the top of the U.S. government has raised concerns about the potential for miscalculation amid the increasingly bellicose exchange of words by Trump and the North Korean leader.

Trump told the U.N. General Assembly last month that if the U.S. is “forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump also tweeted that Korea’s leadership “won’t be around much longer” if it continued its provocations, a declaration that led the North’s foreign minister to assert that Trump had “declared war on our country.”

Tillerson acknowledged during a recent trip to Beijing that the Trump administration was keeping open direct channels of communications with North Korea and probing the North’s willingness to talk. He provided no elaboration about those channels or the substance of any discussions.

Soon after, Trump took to Twitter, saying he had told “our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man … Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Trump offered no further explanation, but he said all military options are on the table for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Analysts have speculated about whether the president and his top diplomat were playing “good cop, bad cop” with North Korea, and how China might interpret the confusing signals from Washington. Beijing is the North’s main trading partner, and the U.S. is counting on China to enforce U.N. sanctions.

“Rest assured that the Chinese are not confused in any way what the American policy towards North Korea (is) or what our actions and efforts are directed at,” Tillerson said.

Asked if Trump’s tweets undermined Tillerson, the secretary said: “I think what the president is doing is he’s trying to motivate action on a number of people’s part, in particular the regime in North Korea. I think he does want to be clear with Kim Jong Un and that regime in North Korea that he has military preparations ready to go and he has those military options on the table and we have spent substantial time perfecting those.”

He added that Trump “has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts, which we are, and I’ve told others those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.”

North Korea has launched missiles that potentially can strike the U.S. mainland and recently conducted its largest ever underground nuclear explosion. It has threatened to explode another nuclear bomb above the Pacific.

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News Wrap: Dozens missing after deadly Mogadishu truck bombing

JUDY WOODRUFF:

A final result in the election is likely to be decided on Thursday.

Wildfires that broke out over the weekend in Portugal have killed at least 35 people, including a one-month-old infant. Today, more than 5,300 firefighters with some 1,600 vehicles were battling the fires, some of which officials say were started by arsonists. Wildfires have also left at least four people dead in neighboring Spain.

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty today to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He was captured by the Taliban in 2009, after leaving his post in Afghanistan. It prompted an intense search and a prisoner swap. Bergdahl appeared before a military judge in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, today. The 31-year-old could be sentenced to life in prison. He said his actions were very inexcusable, adding he didn’t — quote — “think there’d be any reason to pull off a crucial mission to look for one guy.”

The truck driver in deadly immigrant smuggling run has pleaded guilty in court. San Antonio police found at least 39 immigrants, 10 of whom died, packed into a sweltering semi-trailer last year and died. The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., pleaded to conspiracy and transporting immigrants, resulting in death. He faces now up to life in prison.

A New Jersey man has been convicted of planting two pressure-cooker bombs on New York City streets last year. Ahmed Khan Rahimi faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for charges including using a weapon of mass destruction. One of the bombs exploded in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, wounding 30. The second didn’t detonate. Officials said Rahimi was inspired by ISIS and al-Qaida.

JOHN MILLER, Deputy Commissioner, NYPD Intelligence & Counterterrorism: Ahmed Khan Rahimi learned a lesson which we keep reminding people of. This is the wrong place to try and carry out an act of terrorism. Witnesses will come forward, evidence will be developed, arrests will be made, prosecutions will be brought forth, and they will be successful.

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WATCH: Trump, Greek prime minister hold joint press conference

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says the U.S. stands with Greece as they recover from their economic crisis. He is speaking with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the White House in a joint news conference.

The U.S. president says the two leaders have discussed defense, energy, commerce and trade.

Trump is praising Greece for its defense spending under NATO and is noting a potential sale to Greece to upgrade its F-16 aircraft, which he says would be worth up to $2.4 billion and generate thousands of U.S. jobs.

Tsipras says his country has made economic strides and is “leaving behind the economic model that led to the crisis.” He says Greece’s relationship with the U.S. is “more important than ever.”

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Far-right groups gain ground in Sweden and Germany amid migrant influx

MALCOLM BRABANT:

About one million migrants poured into Germany in 2015. Chancellor Merkel consistently defended her pro-refugee policies, but now she has been punished by voters who believe she ignored their concerns.

Chancellor Merkel has promised to listen to the people who voted for the AFD, and she says she’s going to try to win them over with what she calls good politics. But she will not countenance having the party in her coalition.

But the chancellor needs to find new partners who are prepared to be tough on immigration.

As she tries to forge a coalition, the chancellor has agreed to put an annual cap of 200,000 on the number of immigrants, something she previously refused to do. But will it be enough to woo back people who deserted her at the election?

A question for Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden University.

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As Rohingya refugees continue to flee from persecution, here’s how you can help

More than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their homes since August to escape systematic violence at the hands of government soldiers in Myanmar. The U.N. has called the actions taken by Myanmar forces against the group “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A report released by Amnesty International on Wednesday documents widespread rape, killings and burnings of Rohingya across the Rakhine State in Myanmar. The report includes extensive interviews of Rohingya refugees who tell stories of live burnings, sexual violence and mass shootings at the hands of soldiers.

To escape persecution, Rohingya refugees are fleeing in droves to neighboring Bangladesh, a country described by some as a reluctant host for the thousands of refugees behind its borders. Conditions within Bangladesh show refugee camps beyond capacity, as organizations struggle to keep up with humanitarian aid.

Find out more: Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, though they’ve lived in the area since the 12th century. They are not considered one of the country’s official ethnic groups. As such, their lack of official identity bars them from government services and travel.

Officials from Myanmar, a majority Buddhist state, claim Rohingya are actually immigrants from Bangladesh to justify their exclusion of the group. This most recent burst of violence comes from Myanmar’s crackdown following clashes with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). After the government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, the retaliation escalated into hundreds of Rohingya villages.

Where to give: BRAC, a top-ranked NGO based out of Bangladesh, is scaling up humanitarian efforts for clean water, health, sanitation and child care for refugees from Myanmar. You can learn more about their efforts here.

An emergency appeal was made by the Disasters Emergency Committee for immediate crisis relief funds. DEC distributes funds to 13 member aid organizations.
UNHCR, UNICEF and Save the Children have donation pages dedicated to the crisis, as does the International Rescue Committee. CNN’s Public Good page provides a user-friendly resource to find NGOs that match your giving goals.

To give to starvation relief, try Action Against Hunger or the World Food Programme.

Be sure to research organizations receiving your financial contributions, not only to find the best organization aligned with your goals, but also to avoid potential scams. For the latest information on aid organizations and charities, visit GuideStar or Charity Navigator to ensure your donations are going in the right direction.