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Can digital cameras stop war criminals? This activist thinks so.

Ryan Boyette (center) shares a Nuba Reports video
Ryan Boyette (center) shares a Nuba Reports video
Nuba Reports

The brutal war being fought in Sudan's Nuba Mountains doesn't get much coverage in the international media. But when it does, it's usually because of the efforts of Ryan Boyette and his team at Nuba Reports.

Violence between government forces and rebel groups flared into open warfare in Sudan's South Kordofan state, where the Nuba Mountains are located, in June 2011. The Sudanese military suspected Nuba civilians of harboring and supporting the rebels, and began a systematic campaign of violence against them, forcing thousands to flee to refugee camps. Now, more than three years later, the war shows no sign of stopping, and civilians remain at risk.

Boyette, originally from Florida, started Nuba Reports with a small group of Sudanese colleagues in 2011, to cover the war and its effects on civilians. It began as a citizen journalism organization with no funding and one shared camera but has now grown to employ Boyette, four full-time Sudanese reporters, and two additional international staff.

Nuba Reports journalists travel by motorbike and use digital cameras, solar-powered laptops, and satellite phones to report and distribute their stories. That work is dangerous — in Boyette's words, their job is to "hear a bomb and go to where the bomb hit" — but their dedication has paid off. Their reporting has been featured in news outlets around the world and has been presented to policymakers in the UN and elsewhere.

I spoke over the phone with Boyette in October when he was in the United States to receive the Human Rights First Award, an annual prize that honors human rights defenders around the world, about his work and the future of Sudan.

Nuban women grain harvest

Women collect the grain harvest in the Nuba Mountains (Nuba Reports)

Amanda Taub: What made you decide to found a citizen journalism organization?

Ryan Boyette: I knew that if the Sudanese government thought that what they were doing would not be seen by international eyes, that would allow them basically to commit atrocities like they committed in the last war, without anyone knowing about it.

Knowing this, and also knowing that the atrocities would be happening to my friends and family, I decided that the biggest gap that I could fill would be in information and media.

AT: How did you start Nuba Reports? What did the organization look like at the beginning?

RB: We had high aspirations, but we didn't have any resources. We didn't have a single dollar to our name. I had one camera. We didn't have any salaries.

But I called together some friends of mine and told them my thoughts about trying to get information out. They wanted to be a part of this. All of them joined the team.

About a week or two after we started the organization, one guy from a Slovenian organization called Hope came into the region with some cameras that he was planning on giving out to people. He found we had established a team, and he gave us a couple of those cameras.

That was the beginning.

Reporters Ahmed Khatir and Yassin Hassan

Journalists Ahmed Khatir and Yassin Hassan work on a story (Nuba Reports)

AT: You mentioned that you started this with a team of your friends from the region. How many of you were there? Who were your colleagues at that stage?

RB: Four main guys that have stuck with us since the beginning. They are the rock stars of this organization: Azhari Joda, Ahmed Kahtir, Yassin Hassan, and Abdu Ibrahim.

We've now have some donors, through which we were able to get those guys motorbikes and fuel, and state of the art DSLR cameras with GPS tagging capabilities, and microphones — all the equipment they need to actually produce very good-quality video reports from the region.

AT: Do you and your team face a lot of risks in doing your work?

RB: Yeah. It's a large risk.

In 2012, right after we had a large release of video reports from the region, my wife and I were shown on the government-funded television news agency. This news agency said that my wife and I were working for the CIA, that we were working for the International Criminal Court.

Two weeks after that my house was bombed. An Antonov flew over my house. It circled a first time, and then as it circled the second time, it lined up on my house and dropped six bombs in a row.

I was with two of our reporters. We laid in the bomb shelter, and one of the bombs fell about 30 yards from us on one side of us, and the second bomb fell about 50 yards from us on the other side.

A third bomb fell 50 meters from our neighbor's house, where my wife was. A piece of shrapnel from the bomb ricocheted off of the rock that she was hiding behind and she was saved. She was six months pregnant with our son at the time.

Our computers have been hacked, and our web site has been shut down. We think it was done by the Sudanese government, but we don't have any way of proving that. We've received emails saying that if we don't stop our work, we will be killed.

And then there's just the issues of living in a war zone. When we report from the front lines, there's bullets flying, there's bombs falling. Our reporters are constantly under that threat.

Reporter Azhari Joda looks for Antonov bomber

Nuba Reports Journalist Azhari Joda scans the sky for Antonov bombers (Nuba Reports)

AT: What is day-to-day life like for your reporters as they go out to report these stories? What does that involve for them?

RB: Their daily lives involve going into the war zone just armed with cameras and a motorbike.

They'll hear a plane flying overhead, or they'll hear a bomb, and their job is to go to where those bombs hit and find out what happened.

Whether it's ground fighting, or a group of people are displaced because of a burned village, or someone escapes from being imprisoned by the Sudan government and runs back to the areas of rebel-controlled territory — these guys will report that news, and they'll tell the stories of the victims and the witnesses that experienced it.

AT: What audience is Nuba Reports trying to reach?

RB: As of now, our main audience is international media. If an international media organization that is much more well-known than we are uses one of our reports, it'll reach many more people than we can.

Another audience is NGOs and advocacy groups that can use our information as a source to find out what's happening in the region.

Finally, it's policymakers. It's people in the UN and different governments that have some stake in what's happening in Sudan.

Ahmed Khatir with SPLA soldiers

Reporter Ahmed Khatir speaks with SPLA-N rebel soldiers. (Nuba Reports)

AT: Has your work affected international policies towards Sudan?

RB: We just had a video that was shown at a side event at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As a result, that human rights council put a stronger mandate on Sudan for what they're expected to do to improve their human rights situation in the country.

We feel that our video had a big role in that.

AT: What other goals do you have for your coverage?

RB: One of our biggest goals is to get people within Sudan to understand what is happening in their own country. I'm a strong believer that if anything is going to change the situation in the Sudan, it's going to be the Sudanese people themselves, when they know the truth about what's happening.

The government is very good at blocking all kinds of information from getting out. The type of journalism that our reporters are doing is very different from other media in Sudan. If you turn on a Sudanese television channel that's showing the news, or you read an article that's talking about a news event, it's opinion almost all the time. It's usually just talking heads, very little fact.

If we can change that dynamic, I think it'll be a healthy change for Sudan, for people to read and watch and hear news that is based on fact and based on evidence.

AT: Will Nuba Reports expand its coverage to other parts of Sudan?

RB: Right now, we're Nuba Reports, but we want to be almost "Sudan Reports," because we want to cover the whole region.

This is not just a Nuba issue. It's the whole country, and I believe it's an issue for the whole region. What's happening in Sudan is making the whole region unstable. It's pulling South Sudan in. It's pulling in Chad and Ethiopia, which have refugees from Sudan.

Woman walks to her village in Nuba Mountains

A woman walks to her village in the Nuba Mountains (Nuba Reports)

AT: What are the challenges you'll have to overcome in order to be able to do that kind of expansion?

RB: Creating credible news sources is something the government doesn't want to happen. They're constantly shutting down news agencies. Security is an issue for anyone who works with us or for us.

Second is just logistics. It is unbelievably difficult to run a media organization inside a war zone. There's no mobile network to access the internet or mobile phone. Communications are slow and cumbersome.

Those kinds of logistical challenges make it very challenging to work in the region.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.