An Interview with Former BBC Foreign Correspondent for South Sudan, Peter Martell

Peter Martell grew up on a sheep farm in Northumberland and began working as a newspaper reporter in Scotland.  Since 2005, he has reported from more than a dozen countries across Africa and the Middle East.

peter martell
Peter Martell

‘Peter made up half of the international press corps as the last BBC reporter based in Eritrea, then ranked worst in the world for press freedom, and from where he was predictably expelled. Home has also included Yemen, Egypt and Kenya. He reported from South Sudan for over a decade, including as the BBC correspondent based in Juba for the three key years around independence. He later ran the East Africa bureau for the French news agency, AFP.

To his continuing surprise, he broke the Guinness World Record for playing the highest ever game of cricket, on the summit of Kilimanjaro. He is based mainly in East Africa, where he shares a cottage with a dog who adopted him in Juba.’ – petermartell.com

Since the Anglican International Development UK office is based in Newcastle, we are interested in your journey from a childhood on a Northumberland farm to the streets of Juba on independence day in July 2011. Could you give us a brief account of how that happened?

The North is always home: I grew up on a farm near Shotley Bridge, later studied in Edinburgh, and some of my very first stories I reported on as a journalist were in Newcastle for The Journal.

I live in East Africa, but home is always going to be Northumberland – and one of the reasons I felt I could go and live in places like South Sudan, that seemed so far from all that I knew, was because there was always home on the farm to go back to.

The more I see of people forced from their homes by war, in South Sudan – or in Somalia or DR Congo or Yemen or any number of other places I’ve reported from – the more I realise how special growing up in a place of peace and safety in Northumberland truly is in this world.

Seeing South Sudan become a new nation in July 2011 was an emotional experience I will never forget: I was extremely privileged to be there on the streets at the stroke of midnight as one country became two – and that was one of the reasons I felt driven to write the book First Raise a Flag, to explain what I saw to friends and family back home.

first raise a flag
Peter Martell / Hurst Publishers

Please tell us about your experiences as a journalist in South Sudan – why did you want to write the book?

I lived in South Sudan during an incredible, inspiring time, and I was lucky to be able to travel all across it: I took barges down the White Nile and drove my old motorbike far out in the countryside, camping in tents. Some of that which I witnessed, I wanted to share.

I have also been to the very heart of the some of the worst fighting in the past few years too. I witnessed some of the key events: the story of the book moves from the presidential palaces in Juba to Khartoum, to bloody battlefield frontlines, to peace talks in Ethiopia and to the sad refugee camps in Uganda today.

I wanted to tell the story of South Sudan from the very earliest beginnings to the troubles of today, but in a manner that is easily readable and engaging. I have heard so many fantastic, inspiring tales, but so often all one hears is stories of misery. If I have seen a glimmer of hope in documenting the long history of chaos, it is that terrible times have ended before.

Anglican International Development is a small organisation with an average annual income of about £200,000.  We are involved in microfinance, sanitation, agriculture with South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, healthcare training and theology training for pastors. Besides these areas, in your opinion, what is the most pressing need in South Sudan that could be addressed by small charities?

Those areas are all crucial to support in South Sudan. The needs that face South Sudan are so overwhelming, that any support would be welcomed.  The country was left in ruins by the decades of war that ended in 2005,  and billions of pounds were spent trying to rebuild even the most basic of infrastructure. Now much of those efforts have been wasted by the war that began in 2013.

The giant operations of the United Nations do so much work, but it is important not to overlook what smaller organisations such as yours can do. Every bit of help can make a difference, and often the support and solidarity you can show between local groups and your organisation can really make a change on the ground.

Support is not only about building roads, building hospitals, and flying in expensive tons of food aid.  It is also about supporting people and helping them help themselves.

Can you see a future where South Sudan enjoys peace and growth with President Kiir and his rival-cum-vice-president Machar remaining in power?

It is always possible, even if it is understandable that few would trust that peace will hold given the past histories of the two men,  who have fallen out, then made up, then fought again so many times. Yet the two men are not all-powerful but are rather representatives of the many factions who hold power in the country.  If they cannot make peace, then whoever will succeed them in time must learn how to do so. Both men still want power but both men and their supporters are also exhausted by war. At some point, there has to be peace – if people don’t give up hope and keep trying.

kiir machar

In your experience, what is the number one barrier to lasting peace and development in South Sudan?

So many peace deals have failed so quickly because they are not about the people on the ground, but about securing power, money, oil revenues and government positions for a narrow elite at the top. Until the political and military leaders on all sides decide they are working for the good of the people and not just for themselves then hopes for peace remain a faraway prospect.

The prominent South Sudanese peace activist and political advisor Peter Biar Ajak has been in prison without charges since 28th July.  What do you think it would take to ensure his release and that of others who are arbitrarily detained?

International pressure has limited impact on the government in Juba. There isn’t much one can do directly: what we can do is show that such detainees are not forgotten. Will it make a difference? Perhaps, perhaps not – but it is all we’ve got.

Do you think the Church in South Sudan can play any role in bringing about reconciliation and conflict resolution?

In the book, I finish by looking at some of those who offer hope for a more peaceful South Sudan. They include civil society activists, youth groups, and those trying to make a change for their new country. A key part of that is the church:  from bishops at the top offering guidance for political leaders, to church members at local levels. Throughout South Sudan, it is so often the church that leads efforts for health, education and other needs.  The church is a trusted organisation that stands outside the problems of rival politics.

 

south sudan praise
Manyiel Sudan Pentecostal Church / Samaritan’s Purse

You don’t need to be religious to see how important the churches are in building communities and peace in South Sudan. The war has affected every aspect of society and the people are forced to choose a side so often based on their ethnicity. One of the few organisations that has maintained the ability to speak out, to criticise and to lead without a political agenda for power, is the church.

In the past, church leaders have been the mediators between the big men fighting and they play the same role today.  The international community, including the UN, can all too easily be seen to be supporting one side or the other – even if they are in fact completely neutral. The church is important for standing outside the conflict and therefore offers a solution to bring communities back together.

Why do you think there is more or less complete radio silence across Western news outlets regarding the situation in South Sudan?

It can seem a very faraway place from events in Britain. There are so many terrible conflicts in the world already, that sometimes the newspapers focus on places that appear to have a more direct impact at home. Journalists are trying however. South Sudanese reporters risk their lives – and several have been killed or arrested – in doing their job. An American reporter, Christopher Allen, was also killed in fighting in 2017. The effort to tell the story of South Sudan, to make it understandable to people who have never visited, is what I’ve been working on for many years. I don’t believe it is because people are not interested;  it is about telling stories that can bring alive the incredible struggle of the people, so that all can relate.

Following the recent launch of your book First Raise A Flag in London, what is next for you?

I am now researching a second book based in East Africa,  that will, I hope, be a more optimistic story. I will let you know when that is further down the line! But I will maintain a strong interest in South Sudan, and hope to continue to keep visiting – and supporting those working for peace there anyway that I can.

If you would like to contact Peter, you can do so via his website: www.petermartell.com. His book, ‘First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace’, is available on Amazon or via the publishers Hurst:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/First-Raise-Flag-South-Longest/dp/1849049599

www.hurstpublishers.com/book/first-raise-flag/