by Robyn Dixon
The light was always on, with no sense of day or night. Two guards were always in the cell but they rarely spoke to the prisoner. The cell’s two security cameras watched constantly. To sleep, the prisoner had to lie on a narrow bed between the guards. He had to squat on the open latrine in front of them to relieve himself.
In China these conditions are common for detained human rights advocates and activists. Lawyer Sui Muqing knew it. He had taken on many such cases. But then the police came for him. He found himself held in the same kind of cell. He faced days of questioning and sleep deprivation that almost broke him.
“I was just doing my job,” he said of his lawyering. And I was just doing mine. I sat in his apartment, with its green Snoopy clock on the wall and cheerful yellow teapot, and listened to his story. It would not change government policy–and might lead to harmful repercussions for him.
Conditions have gotten tougher in China for bloggers, activists and both local and foreign journalists. China’s long campaign to cow human rights lawyers saw more than 300 detained at the campaign’s peak in 2015, including Sui. He was disbarred last year. Telling his story to a foreign journalist would not bring back the things that his conscience had cost him: his living and his marriage. But he believes in the power of the truth.
Sui’s courage made me think about what we hope for when we journalists seek out the world’s unpalatable truths: to cast light on problems or abuses, to bring accountability or change. Yet reporting in Africa for 15 years until last year, I found the power of truth is not always as grand and sweeping as we would like it to be. Scribbling down the stories of survivors of ethnic killings or a food emergency or a war seldom has any immediate impact. Usually it is an incremental thing. It creeps up gradually. A story might have to be told many times in dozens or hundreds of voices, over months or even years, before it lands its punch.
There are exceptions. A single photograph can open the world’s eyes to a famine or one story can topple a corrupt cabal in a clattering collapse of dominoes. But writing the news is usually more like sending out a lone pigeon, hoping to see it join some great flock that will eventually get the message through.
One of the first stories I covered in Africa, in 2004, focused on an 18-day-old baby in Darfur, Sudan, nestled naked under a blanket at her 15-year-old mother’s side. The community leaders in the refugee camp who told her story were clear about the implications for an infant born of rape by the enemy Janjaweed militias who had swept in, killing men, raping women and girls and burning houses. “If a girl has a baby after this kind of incident, she has no future and no hope,” said one. “She can’t study and her mind will be destroyed. In the future, everybody will blame the baby and it will always carry the shame.”
It wasn’t until five years later that Sudanese president Omar al Bashir and others were indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. But he remains in power and has traveled to dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East without anyone enforcing the arrest warrant. The baby girl, if she is still alive, would now be almost the age her mother was when she was raped. Violence in Darfur is still going on.
Mostly the stories I have written, whether about starvation, war or rape, had the slow-motion impact that journalism brings through gradually creating awareness. Yet the truth did shine its light. It whittled away at public attention.
I met women in Afghanistan and Sudan, jailed for running away from violent husbands or for having lovers. I was there at a government forensic clinic in Kabul, the Afghan capital, when a forensic doctor threatened to poke out the eyes of a young unmarried woman accused of having sex, as he horrifyingly conducted a rough internal examination and declared she was no virgin.
I stood at the grave of an anonymous woman found slain on the streets of Kabul, the suspected victim of an honor killing. I smelled the decay of her body rising through the dry dirt in the heat. I wondered about her story and the terror of her last day. Most of all I wondered why the doctor and other men I interviewed for the story hated women like her so fiercely. I felt compelled to unearth stories of powerless, vulnerable people like her, not in any hope of changing their lives but because their stories mattered.
There was Arror Chelagat, 13, one of 23 Kenyan teenage girls from Dorcas village who defied their elders, fled their parents and crossed snake-infested hills in the middle of the night to escape female genital mutilation. One Dorcas father sent his daughter to be cut. “It’s not painful; it’s nothing,” he said scornfully as he hoed a rocky patch of ground. But the local women said it hurt them “too much.”
In another part of Kenya, a 59-year-old woman named Peninnah Tombo rescued teenage girls who contacted her on her ancient, battered cellphone, seeking her help to escape genital cutting. “The pain is so much that tears can’t form,” said Tombo, who experienced FGM and dedicated her life to helping others escape the ritual and early marriage so they could stay in school. “You are fearful. It affects you psychologically, because it’s like a death, like when you lose a person or a loved one.” The campaign against female genital mutilation has been going on for decades. Many governments have outlawed it, without enforcing the law. But it is slowly declining, thanks to women like Tombo.
Long after stories such as these stopped rippling through the news cycle, they remained embedded in me, like sharp little rocks. I cannot forget Martha Yar, an orphan from Rumbek, South Sudan whose life was altered by an uneducated former rebel soldier who watched her every day as she walked to school and back home. He decided he would have her. He offered her brother 20 cows. Yar had no say, but she begged her brother to let her go to university so that she would get a good job that would eventually bring in more money. Her brother needed the cows so he could marry, so he threw her down, pulled a knife and threatened to kill her if she did not accept.
The former rebel soldier gathered a big group of men and kidnapped her. “I cried; I was kicking,” she said. “I was angry and screaming.” He locked her in his house for a week, and then told her he would beat her until she stopped “being stubborn.” There was no way to divorce him without re-paying the price, 20 cows, and that was impossible. “My family have equated my life to 20 cows. But I insist my life is not equal to 20 cows,” she said.
Eleven years later, I found myself telling the same story in South Sudan and nothing much had changed. This time her name was Agnes Keji, age 19. Her prospective husband was 70. His offer was 30 cows. This time, her brother slashed her neck with a machete when she resisted, leaving an ugly protruding scar.
An email dropped into my in-box in February from Oxfam reported that the rate of forced early marriage in South Sudan has increased from 45% to 71% since the 2013 conflict began.
Going on clear, measurable results, perhaps the most solid thing I did in Africa was to pick up a dying man who lay bleeding from a machete wound to his head during Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. His attackers, armed with long blades hanging from slack arms, were young. Women were frantically loading rocks into sacks to ferry to their men, fighting a rival ethnic group a couple of hundred yards away. They screamed at the young men nearby to show their honor, to get to the front and fight.
The wounded man had just arrived from out of town and taken his usual route on foot to see family, not realizing that during that week of horrendous violence the neighborhood had been divided up by tribe. He had wandered into a no-go zone. Someone demanded his ID. His name gave away his ethnicity. They fell on him with iron bars and machetes moments before I walked by on my way back from looking at the fighting.
A chilly hush fell over the scene when I stopped to help him up. Then as I led him to my car, there were shouts. I did not understand the Swahili, but they were protesting that I should leave him to die. Don’t bring him here, the nurses at the nearest clinic screamed. As we drove on to the main hospital half an hour away he moaned that he was dying. “You’re not going to die,” I said firmly. Dishon Omondi – that was his name–still sends me thank you messages every year, so I do know that I saved one life. I know how that one turned out, unlike the stories of so many other people I left behind: one life saved, no harm done.
When Dateline magazine’s editors outlined the parameters of this article–stories you have written that had a positive impact–I admit I felt a twinge of anxiety. To be sure, other journalists had done it, but I had toppled no corrupt figures, brought no killers to justice, freed no slaves or prisoners, saved no children or women. Martha Yar would never get her 20 cows. She had no escape. I knew it when she told me her story. She knew it too.
What had I done over the years? I had channeled people’s outrage, pain or grief and typed it onto a page. In a shrieking hyperpartisan age, the importance of this job can be lost–just portraying reality, with no agenda, one story at a time. In China, where truth is choked off whenever it fails to serve power, Sui reminded me of that. If individual stories are quick to pass into history, their value is in their contribution to a greater canvas.
In the end the positive impact of my work has been less about how people have responded, than how I told the tale, unfurling stories of the complicated, flawed heroism of ordinary people and portraying them with all the nuanced texture I could manage. A Nigerian mechanic’s quiet affection for a young apprentice. An exhilarating “hit-and-run” political theater group in Zimbabwe that performed rapid-fire plays in the townships but kept the motor running to make a swift getaway when the ruling party thugs got wind of them. A refugee who carried an ultrasound machine in a box on his head out of a war-zone, knowing it would be of use. An impoverished mother to 11 children who picked up a plastic bag by the railway line and found a discarded baby within, then took him into her tiny oneroom home and cared for him.
And I did my best to do justice to the story of Sui Muqing, with his neat linen jacket, his squarerimmed glasses, his passion for the rule of law, his belief in the value of words and good sense and his belief in the truth, for its own sake.
Robyn Dixon has been Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times since June 2018. Before that she covered Sub-Saharan Africa for 15 years. From 1993-2003 she reported from Russia and central Asia, including Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.