In 2003, brutal ethic warfare in Darfur put the vast Sudanese desert region on most Americans' radar for the first time. It was the second half of George W. Bush's first term, the War on Terror was in full flight, and the US invasion of Iraq was still fresh—which made it that much more impressive for human rights activists and journalists to successfully convince large swaths of the American public to pay attention to war crimes in Africa. But convince they did—"Save Darfur" was among the first social-justice campaigns to truly go viral, if only briefly.
The stakes were high. From 2003 to 2008, Sudanese president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir's government allegedly collaborated with Arab militias in a genocidal campaign targeting the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa people, according to International Criminal Court prosecutors. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly moved, and an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives. Phil Cox, a British documentary filmmaker who teamed up with Zaghawa local Daoud Hari, was among the journalists who took enormous risks to document the suffering.
Last fall, as Donald Trump was on his way to becoming president in America and the world's attention moved onto the threat of ISIS and the refugee crisis in Syria, Cox decided to go back to Darfur. Hari, whom he discovered was now a cab driver in New York City, joined him once again. But this time, Cox and Hari themselves became the story, after discovering a bounty had been placed on Cox's head. After his phone was tracked, Cox said, he and Hari endured a lengthy period of captivity during which they were tortured extensively. We spoke to Cox by phone ahead of the release of his extraordinary new film about this harrowing experience, Captured in Sudan, for a sense of why he wanted to return to Darfur in 2016—and how it went so horribly wrong.
VICE: Before we get into the film, which is almost entirely about what happened to you this last time in the Sudan, I wanted to talk about what you were setting out to do here. I know that, as recently as a few weeks ago, the UN announced plans to pull additional peacekeepers from the area, and the United States was said to be considering the end of sanctions against Sudan. But you'd also done a lot of work there already. What did you hope going back in 2016 would really achieve?
Phil Cox: Well, my first [visit] was in 2004, at the beginning of the crisis. I hadn't been back there for around ten years. Darfur was a media hole nobody had been in for a number of years. A lot of things were developing quite fast politically—geopolitically. To bring Sudan back into the international fold, the European Union, Britain, and Germany [were] sending taxpayer money to Sudan to help with immigration. You had sanctions being lifted and sort of the topping off were strong allegations of chemical weapons use by the government against civilians in the mountains, which is where we were heading to [at the time of the incident].
So from the jump, what was the security situation getting into the country from Chad compared to a decade ago?
My first trip was when the Sudanese were bombing on the Chadian side, and the Chadian and Sudanese governments were in conflict. So the border was very porous. There were tens of thousands of refugees crossing. It was very chaotic. The rebel forces, the Sudanese Liberation Army—the SLA rebels—were fighting against the government. It was very difficult to cross a very large desert border. And that was very different from the situation now, where the Sudanese and Chadian government work in tandem, and generally people are not allowed anywhere on that border. It's really a field zone with both forces working in harmony.
Which is why at one point when you might have otherwise fled back to Chad, you couldn't?
That's right. When we realized the bounty [on me] was real, [one option was to] return to Chad, but then Daoud and I would shortly be arrested because the Chadian government had informed the Sudanese government. I also couldn't move north into southern Libya because there were notable divisions of militias roaming across that border.
How do you approach making a documentary about a long-term conflict like this differently than journalists might in other films set in, say, the domestic United States?
You sort of need to really approach it with a reportage rather than a character basis [and ask] specific questions. The questions were: Are there chemical weapons being dropped? And what are the voices and the testimony of the people of Darfur? Can you bring their testimony to a wider audience, so it's no longer a politician and diplomat or official institution speaking for them, but can you the journalist let people speak for themselves? Which means you need to be on the ground, and you need to be up close.
Obviously things can turn very different very quickly in this situation, and I realized that the story was becoming myself, and I wouldn't have the possibility to really reach out to find Darfuris on the ground—it was too dangerous for them and for myself. Besides that, I had a Sudanese Darfuri (Hari) [with me], so I started to let our story unfold in case that was the only one I could get. I realized that showing what that means and how far this new Sudanese government was willing to go to stop an independent journalist would somehow shed a light on what was really happening inside Darfur.
You expressed some surprise in the film—understandably, of course—after learning about the bounty on you. But given what you said just now and your experience there, was it really so shocking they would put a target on your back?
It was the bounty, but [also that they] even turned off the cell network to southern Darfur. That's like turning off the cell network for Texas for a single journalist. You're in a desert. It's quite hard to get much [reception] anyway. But the reaction from the Sudanese government—I didn't believe it at first. I really didn't believe it.
Even when you had seen so many horrors perpetrated, you were shocked they would go to such lengths to stop you?
Yes, to stop an independent journalist with a camera is just really—it shows the pivotal [reason] that Daoud and I saw when were there, which is still happening, which is the US and Sudanese sanctions are in the balance. That's right now. There is still a decision pending from the US on sanctions against Sudan. The Sudanese government is paying lobbying groups in the US. To have the possibility of Daoud and Phil Cox—a British citizen—potentially exposing chemical weapons abuse is something that they were not prepared to have.
You went in knowing that, to some extent, maybe more than films you've made in the past or more than some documentaries generally, that your very attempt to make the film was going to be a big part of the story, though, right?
I don't think so, no. Darfur is a huge place and the strength, the card we had, is that we were very small and very quiet. It was absolutely possible to reach those mountains [where chemical weapons use was alleged]. The problem was the new alliance between Chad and Sudan and being picked up. It's about sort of waking the sleeping dragon. What I hadn't estimated was the extent the sleeping dragon [would] go to once it was awoken. But just the ability to mobilize and the amount of money they put up, we couldn't trust anyone. We got close. We got to a few kilometers [from] those mountains, and then it was about trying to hide.
Was there a single moment when you realized you weren't going to reach those mountains, and you were not going to be able to make the film you set out to make—that you had become the subject?
There does come a moment where you realize your original story is up—you are in the hands of other people, and you've lost all power. [But] there was a moment on the first morning of our kidnap, which was Christmas Eve, I think, [when] I [wondered if] somehow, we could turn this around. I think I just didn't want to become a passive victim totally. I was always looking for a way to come back with a story.
And you found one by surreptitiously filming—pretending to teach your captors how to use the camera but actually recording.
[When you're freelance], there's great responsibility to the people who supported us—we have to get out alive. That's what motivated us to try and connect with our captors, connect with the kidnappers, and get through the prison time and that sort of thing.
Did you ever feel a pang of regret for bringing Hari back?
We talked a lot about it. I think my greatest fear was his capture and what they might do to him. Daoud was under no illusion. He was prepared to take a risk. He wanted to, I think—each man has to make his decision. Daoud knew what he was returning to. All our plans and prep plans were developed [for him to] be looked after best in case the worst happened—and we never thought anything would happen to me, being the British white guy. Both of us were fully aware of what we were getting into.
You were tortured with cattle prods, among others things—both alone but also in a sort of social way. You were in proximity to each other, right? You heard him cry out and recognized his voice?
We went through a set process of breaking down psychologically and physically. We were held together in a black site, and Daoud was beaten beside me. We took it very differently then. I shouted a lot, and he internalized it a lot.
You become very animalistic in your survival. If you find yourself showing fear and weakness, they enjoy that, and they stop beating you. Then you keep doing that as a way to survive that beating. There's no pride. You're just trying to survive basically.
Did it help to be in the same situation as someone you'd been there with before—in maintaining hope, psychologically?
The problem with our joint capture is that they were interrogated separately. The real problem was how our stories would differ, and they would torture based on that. Daoud had obviously been through it before, and I asked for advice, and he said: Just tell the truth, and if you hide things, try to keep it completely hidden. But try to tell the truth as much as possible. The problem is when the truth is not believed.
You concealed a memory card of footage in your anus throughout this process. Did you ever come close to giving it up?
No, because it became the one thing—I was still a filmmaker, and I still had all my troubles and my toil in my ass. It was like... it was something that I still managed to have that kept some degree of identity, of purpose beyond being a passive victim and something I felt like I held over them that they didn't realize. That was what kept me going. It was a great strength. It became a very important thing. I think if I had lost that, I would have felt a complete failure and loss of purpose. You sort of hang on to anything that can keep you having a sense of being and identity when you are in those situations because they are very good at breaking you down.
There were a few moments you seemed to come very close to being killed. But perhaps the closest seems to have been when they bound you and said they were going to throw you off the back of a plane.
That was the most terrifying moment I had. I was also blindfolded. When you're blindfolded, your imagination races. I just really suddenly thought they were going to throw me from the plane. I realized I had been hidden [from passersby] up until that point. That would've been convenient if I needed to disappear.
You were in mid-air at this point?
No, we were taxiing very fast. I was about to take off, but I was out on the ramp at the back.
You were at the rear cargo entrance of the plane.
The ramp has webbing, and I was being forced to lie on the webbing.
It seemed for a moment they would just take off and shove you out?
That's what they told me.
After terrifying minutes or even half an hour, they brought you into a seat, though, right?
I was actually begging for my life. The guy came down and told me to be a man. His words.
Was it your pleading that got through, or that they just never intended to kill you?
Now I look at it with hindsight, which is different. I didn't know they were taking me to interrogation. There was a lot they weren't telling me. I think I was a trophy. There was a lot I had done in 2004 and 2005 that had come to the attention of the United Nations. Being on 20 to 30 news channels, the UK Parliament, the EU parliament. It was all over the internet. They knew who I was.
Let's talk about the prison. I know you mentioned in the Guardian piece that one of the men in there was someone who had punched a general and stolen officials' vehicles. But were these, by and large, political prisoners? What united your fellow inmates and you?
They had a separate prison for what you call your average criminal. In the caged cells where we were, everyone was political or had some [special] reason that the security forces had them in there. They refused to collude with them. Many people didn't know why they were there. They were academics, businessmen. It was a political prison. What you saw is that none of us knew how long we would be there.
They took you under their wing, the other men?
In the beginning, it was just one man. He helped me unceremoniously. He told me to get out, brush my teeth, [practice] hygiene, and learn the path down to my cell.
Was there a moment when you realized to yourself, as awful as it must have felt, you were sick, stuck in prison, and didn't know when you would get out—but you had yourself a scoop, of sorts. Did you still have the journalistic rush, even then?
Absolutely. It was helping me navigate day to day. Here were men from all walks of life—this is the hidden Sudan. This is the place a journalist could never access. This is really the firsthand account of inside an oppressive state regime in a political prison. It was pretty gruesome. The town, the cities, the countryside. Young men, old men—men in their 80s. Young boys trying to organize a football league. This is the pivotal part of sharing what the government was doing to people. I realized that. I would always try to talk and hear each man's story as important.
Were you able to record anything?
No. Nothing was allowed. You just remember. Memories are very important things in Sudan. You remember each other's phone numbers, you remember each other's names, you remember each other's wives in case you get let out. You just remember.
Let's zoom out a little bit. How bad do you think what is going on now in Darfur is compared to, say, 14 years ago? Do you have any regrets at all about the extent to which you weren't able to shine a light on the story you set out to cover—alleged chemical weapons use? Does that still loom over you?
I think the government has won the war in Sudan, in Darfur. The Sudanese government has won the war against the rebels. They essentially control Darfur now, and that's the major difference from 2005 and 2004. Obviously, what I saw and say to people [is]: The government operates with complete impunity. There are still rapes. There are still killings. The case in point is Daoud's sister, Noi, [who] was killed two weeks ago by a member of the group who was hunting us, the Rapid Support Force militia.
I think my first mission failed. We didn't reach those mountains. But I think we had to be nimble enough to adjust ourselves to where we were then taken, which was in and of itself an interesting story. Being a white person who was tortured is not a label I relish at all. I find it humiliating in a certain way, but if it's a way to then open up discourse and get a wide audience and debate about reactions to the Sudanese government regime, then so be it. And if I came back with some testimony with people speaking about the mountains, maybe the story wouldn't have gotten as much attention that this one has. [So], yes, our mission failed, but then I think we also succeeded in some way of keeping our [duty] of being journalists and getting a story out, although it became a personal one, which is never what I thought it would be.
Captured in Sudan is directed by Phil Cox, Daoud Hari, and Giovanna Stopponi. The film is a production of Field of Vision and is co-produced with Channel 4.