Detained reporter has shied from spotlight

August 28, 2006|By Evan Osnos and Matthew Walberg | Evan Osnos and Matthew Walberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

When Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek won his second Pulitzer Prize, he was not around to hear the applause in his newsroom.

He was en route that day in April 2001 from Sierra Leone to South Africa - another journey in a nomadic, illustrious career that has twice netted him the top prize in American journalism and ranked him among the nation's most intrepid writers.

Today, Salopek is in a Sudanese jail, three weeks after pro-government forces detained him while on freelance assignment for National Geographic. Along with his Chadian interpreter and driver, the 44-year-old has been charged with espionage and two other criminal counts, which he and his supporters strenuously deny.

To friends, family and colleagues, he is what years of clippings convey: an extraordinary journalist who spends weeks living and laboring alongside the people he chronicles, a man of rare talent and empathy who also has worked as a farm laborer and commercial fisherman. He became a journalist only by accident, when his motorcycle broke down in a New Mexico town whose newspaper happened to be looking for a police reporter.

"I can tell you lots of things about his ability as a journalist, as a writer as a reporter, but I think what's important now is who he is as a human being," said Marcus Walton, a longtime friend who worked with Salopek at the Albuquerque Journal. "If anyone can ... get out of a situation like this, it's Paul, because of who he is."

Since he arrived at the Tribune in January 1996, he has become one of a handful of U.S. newspaper writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for individual work. Quiet and unassuming, he shies from the spotlight and, until recently, his name drew little recognition beyond a corps of writers, photographers, and editors focused on the world's roughest corners.

He has covered wars across Africa, Central America, the Balkans and the Middle East. He has worked among Pygmies and Zulus, Texans and Alaskans, homeowners in Elgin, Ill., and Marxist tribesmen in Venezuela.

He has a reputation for doggedness and precision, bordering on obsession, with little regard for physical obstacles. He tends to go unusually long periods without food or sleep, according to those who have worked with him. He is a minimalist, known for arriving on assignment with little more than what he carries on his back.

To his editors, he is a meticulous writer who agonizes over every word in writing and editing, a largely self-guided process that Tribune projects editor George Papajohn admiringly calls "pathological revising."

"He's very, very intense," said Nancy Stone, a Tribune photographer who worked with Salopek in Africa in 1999. "He would sleep in the car as we were going from one place to another because he would be awake all night writing."

He has years of experience as a commercial fisherman and farmhand, and he often asks his subjects whether he can work in their fields or on their boats. For his most recent Tribune story, a study of America's addiction to oil, he worked as a clerk at a gas station in South Elgin.

Salopek is the youngest of five children from a Croatian-American family in Barstow, Calif. When he was 6 years old, his father retired early from his job as a portrait painter on a military base, sold the house and bought a van. The family moved to Mexico.

In Mexico, Salopek and his siblings attended Spanish-language schools, and he remains fluent in the language.

When the family returned to the U.S., Salopek was 12 and he spoke accented English. He had trouble readjusting, he said later. He dropped out at 16 and began a nomadic lifestyle.

He headed for Australia and Papua New Guinea. As he later told author Peter Han for the 2005 book Nobodies to Somebodies, a collection of extraordinary life stories, he harvested almonds and picked fruit, installed walk-in freezers, worked on shrimp boats and in a gold mine. He slept in Salvation Armys.

"I was basically trying to test my mettle and see what I could do with my hands and my head," he told Han.

After 18 months, he returned to California, earned a GED and enrolled in junior college. He continued on to University of California, Santa Barbara, where he excelled in the sciences

He planned to get a doctorate with a focus on rainforest ecosystems. But as he headed for a hitch shrimp fishing in the summer of 1985, his motorcycle expired in the town of Roswell, N.M. He had $60 to his name, he later recalled.

He found work cutting meat and, at night, at a doughnut shop, he told Han. He rented a room from a woman who had worked for The Saturday Evening Post. She noticed his appetite for reading and writing and urged him to apply for an opening at the local newspaper. After seven months, he moved to the weekly magazine of the Albuquerque Journal. He roamed, covered conflicts from Central America to island of New Guinea.

In October 1992, he passed a writing test to become a caption writer at National Geographic.

"It was clear to all that Paul was just an incredibly gifted, poetic writer," said Don Belt, a senior editor at the magazine who worked as Salopek's manager for three years.

In 1996, Salopek joined the Tribune. Within two years, he had won his first Pulitzer, for a series explaining the Human Genome Diversity Project. His 2001 Pulitzer for international reporting recognized his work in Africa, including his coverage of the civil war in Congo.

Since his detention Aug. 6, he has spoken by phone with his family and editors to emphasize that, whatever happens in his case, he is most concerned about the fate of his two Chadians colleagues, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, the interpreter, and Idriss Abdulraham Anu, the driver.

Evan Osnos and Matthew Walberg write for the Chicago Tribune

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