In A Remote Corner Of Sudan, An American Takes His Stand

Nov 3, 2014
Originally published on November 4, 2014 6:55 am

American Ryan Boyette knows there are many crises that compete for world's attention, but he's determined not to let a conflict in his adopted home of Sudan go unnoticed.

The young Florida man moved to the Nuba Mountains, a remote part of Sudan, in 2003, to join the Evangelical Christian aid group, Samaritan's Purse.

"I think that day was around 110 degrees," he says, joking that he wasn't sure what he was getting into. "The rest is history. I've been there ever since."

When conflict returned to the region in 2011, most aid groups left. Boyette stayed. He had married a local woman and wanted the world to know about the Sudanese government bombing raids, which he says are meant to terrorize local residents to turn them against a regional rebel movement.

With a $45,000 Kickstarter campaign, Boyette bought cameras and trained a few Sudanese as reporters to go out and get the stories.

"We got them DSLR cameras that can take GPS tagged photos and do pretty good video," he told NPR during a recent visit to Washington.

Boyette, 33, now runs the media website Nuba Reports. It partners with organizations like the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project, advocacy groups that campaign against genocide and have attracted celebrity support.

For example, actor George Clooney, through the Satellite Sentinel Project, has funded the use of commercial satellite imagery to shine a light on alleged crimes in Sudan.

"One of coolest things that we've been able to do is use the satellite technology that George Clooney's money pays for to get independent confirmation of the same reports that Ryan's team gets video and photo documentation of," says the Enough Project's Akshaya Kumar.

"Then we pair those two things together and it's a pretty unbeatable package," she says. "It is irrefutable in the face of government denials "

This is not easy in remote parts of Sudan, she adds.

"To be honest, we don't have that great of a network established in any other place in Sudan because we don't have someone like Ryan, who is so committed to not only telling the truth but also helping those who he lives with day in and day out and telling their truths," Kumar says.

The region where Boyette lives sided with rebels in southern Sudan in their long war with Sudan. South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but Boyette's community remains part of Sudan. The Sudanese government has frequently targeted the region in recent years.

Nuba Reports documents bombing raids, including an air strike last month that killed six children in the market area in the village of Heiban.

Boyette says his reporters are also trying something new, describing what life is like in a region that has Muslims and Christians living together.

"We recently did a story about a Muslim, who actually supported his brother in bible school," says Boyette, a devout Christian. "It shows the love between these two brothers, even though they have different beliefs."

Boyette says he and his team inevitably take risks. His house was bombed a couple of years ago and his reporters get threatening emails. None of that seems to deter him, however.

"If we stop what we are doing, then people will never hear about the constant bombardment," he says.

He wants his material to reach not only the halls of the United Nations or the State Department. Boyette also wants Sudanese to watch so that they will eventually hold their government to account.

Michele Kelemen is NPR's diplomatic correspondent. You can follow her @michelekelemen.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In today's complex, fast-changing world, it's easy to overlook long simmering conflicts. But one American living in a remote part of Sudan is trying to keep a spotlight on his adopted region near the border with South Sudan. It's had only a few years of respite from conflict in the past three decades. NPR's Michele Kelemen has this story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Ryan Boyette knows there are many crises that compete for the world's attention, but he doesn't give up easily. Just listen to how he describes the day he moved to the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. It was 2003, and he had just joined an evangelical Christian aid group, Samaritan's Purse.

RYAN BOYETTE: I think that day was around 110 degrees, and I thought, what am I getting myself into? (Laughter). But it - the rest is history. I've been there ever since.

KELEMEN: When conflict returned to the region in 2011, most aid groups left. Boyette stayed. He had married a local woman and wanted the world to know about the Sudanese bombing raids which he says are meant to terrorize locals to turn them away against a regional rebel movement. With a $45,000 Kickstarter campaign, Boyette bought cameras and trained a few locals as reporters to go out and get the stories.

BOYETTE: We got them to DSLR cameras that can take GPS tagged photos and do pretty good video. And so since we've done that, we've been able to prove ourselves and approach different foundations for support.

KELEMEN: At age 33, Boyette now runs the media website Nuba Reports and partners with activists like Akshaya Kumar. She's with the advocacy group called The Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide and has attracted celebrity support.

AKSHAYA KUMAR: One of the coolest things that we've been able to do is use the satellite technology that George Clooney's money pays for to get independent confirmation of the same reports that Ryan's team gets video and photo documentation of. And then we pair those two things together, and it's a pretty unbeatable package. It's irrefutable in the face of government denials.

KELEMEN: It's not easy to get that kind of evidence, Kumar says, especially in remote parts of Sudan.

KUMAR: To be honest, we don't have that great of a network established in any other place in Sudan because we don't have someone like Ryan who is so committed to not only telling the truth, but also helping those who he lives with day in and day out to tell their truths.

KELEMEN: For the most part, Nuba Reports documents bombing raids including recent airstrikes that hit internationally funded hospitals and killed six children at the Heiban market. But Ryan Boyette says his reporters are also trying something new - showing what life is like in a region that has Muslims and Christians living together.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Allahu Akbar.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Allahu Akbar.

BOYETTE: So we recently did a story about a Muslim who actually supported his brother in Bible school. It's showing a story of love between these two brothers even though they have different beliefs. And they're living together, and they respect one another.

KELEMEN: Speaking in the offices of Human Rights First, which just gave him an award, Boyette, a devout Christian, says he and his team do take risks. His house was bombed a couple of years ago, and his reporters get threatening e-mails.

BOYETTE: If we stop what we're doing, then people never hear about the constant bombardment - about these six children that died i Heiban. They'll never hear about the burning of villages that is taking place every time there is an assault by the Sudan government in the region. So we feel that it's important.

KELEMEN: Boyette hopes that this material isn't just reaching the halls of the UN or the State Department. He also wants Sudanese to watch so that eventually they will hold their government accountable. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.