In Alfred Taban’s humble office, I cannot get the clichéd metaphor out of my head: Alfred is the symbol of his country. His life so seamlessly mirrors the struggle, sacrifice, victory and then loss of South Sudan.
I know it’s also clichéd to focus on journalists but he is a hugely respected figure in the community and one with the bravery to speak out at a time when many journalists are being killed.
When the government jailed him last year, the campaign to free him gained traction quickly so they released him after 13 days. They were unimpressed with his column calling for the leadership of both sides of the civil war to step down.
Alfred is 60, but seems much older. Torture in Khartoum jails and a stroke have aged him. His leg shakes involuntarily as we talk and it’s clear his eyesight is going.
His charisma is still very much intact and Alfred speaks with such clarity and passion I use three quotes from him in one story alone.
“There was one time I was in detention in Khartoum for seven months. Half of that period in solitary confinement. A room half of what this room of ours [is],” he tells me, motioning to the room we are in—his tiny office with a ceiling fan and newspapers piled high on the desk. “And I was there alone. Ah, it was so hot, you know? And there was no fresh air coming so I became so hot and [there was] little air. The only air that was coming is from the door—like this one—so I would just kneel down and sip the air under there. And that’s how I survived.”
Then something happens that silences my cameraman and me both. We know each other is holding their breath. Alfred cries.
The heartache at watching his life’s work, his life’s great achievement of sacrificing to bring about an independent South Sudan, disintegrate, causing him desperate pain.
He is so angry at what the leadership of his country has done to it.
“These are fake strugglers. They were not struggling for their people,” he says, his voice rising in anger. “They were struggling for themselves. And this is why really the struggle of the people of South Sudan has been hijacked. From the very beginning it has become a struggle for position and wealth. Not a struggle for the betterment of the lives of the people of South Sudan.”
Alfred’s tiny newspaper has a circulation of 2000, and it is miraculous it holds out against the violent backlash journalists have felt here in recent years. Many have been murdered, arrested, tortured. He tells me he still has to give a rousing speech most mornings to his beat reporters to persuade them to stay. The economy has collapsed and with it the currency, rendering most paying jobs worthless. Risking your life when you are putting dinner on the table is one thing, but volunteering for such dangers is too much for most.
For Alfred however, this job of telling the truth about what is happening in South Sudan and campaigning for better government is his new struggle for independence. He clearly sees it as a calling.
“Being a believer in God and the Bible, I know I was not created for nothing. I was created to play a role,” he says. “To contribute something to my people. And until I do that I will not die. I will refuse to die. I refuse.”
His refusal to die is a protest in itself. In this country of famine and maniacal violence, to survive is indeed sometimes a radical act. But with powerful enemies, as I walk away from his tiny white-washed office, I worry that might be a struggle too far.