When journalist Anjan Sundaram travelled to Rwanda in 2009, he encountered a repressive government that targeted and imprisoned the journalists he worked with. His experience opened his eyes to the courage needed to report on the stories and people that can easily hide from the world’s collective consciousness. Sundaram offers his Brief but Spectacular take on covering the forgotten.
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I went to Congo when I was 22. I had just graduated from university.
I had read a little article in The New York Times in the middle page, bottom of the page, that said, four million people have died, there was famine, there was mass displacement. It just didn’t make any sense to me. How can this be at the bottom of the page in the middle of the newspaper, an event so large described in 100 or 200 word.
I went to Rwanda in 2009 to train a group of about a dozen journalists. I had very little sense that the country was repressive, but, very quickly, my journalist colleagues and students began to explain to me the conditions.
One of the journalists had been beaten into a coma because he brought up the harassment of the press in front of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame.
Another journalist with HIV had been imprisoned and dragged from room to room all night, so she could not sleep. It was physical and psychological abuse.
As I was teaching these journalists over the course of the next two years, they began one by one to be taken out by the government. One of the journalists was shot dead on the day he criticized the Rwandan president. Two young women were sent to prison for several years.
It was heartbreaking for me to see these journalists, who were so committed to their country’s future, so committed that they were willing to put themselves at immense risk, in order to build a society which the government was held accountable.
People would ask me, how does it feel to be in these places? Were you traumatized by going into villages that had just been attacked, seeing bodies?
Yes, it’s taken a toll on me. I guess I don’t often talk about the toll on myself, because what I have seen and the people I have worked with, what they have gone through is just unimaginable, and I have felt a tiny fraction of that. It just makes me admire their work, their courage, and the persistence that much more.
Many of these places lie outside the world’s collective consciousness. Places like Congo, a million people die, and we don’t even — and they are screaming, and we don’t even hear them. We don’t even see them. Our institutions don’t see them. Our press doesn’t see them.
At a global level, there are so many communities that we just do not see. And it is so stark that five million people can die, and it barely makes a footnote in world news.
My work is in some small way to put what’s happening on the record, to bring the experiences that I have back as experiences that I have felt on my skin, that I have seen, that hopefully people can relate to more than a tiny newspaper article or mere statistics in an encyclopedia.
My name is Anjan Sundaram, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on covering the forgotten.