- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Chemical attack?

There was something curiously understated about the report of an apparent chemical attack on villagers in the Sudanese province of Darfur, which ran on Tuesday’s front page.

For one thing, the word “chemical” was never used by any of the villagers. They simply described in matter-of-fact terms how one day, instead of the usual bombs, the planes dropped plastic sacks filled with a flourlike substance that made them sick and killed their livestock.

“I came across the story just talking to the villagers in Shegek Karo about their experiences during the bombing,” reporter Levon Sevunts explained in a subsequent e-mail.

“They didn’t even realize what they were telling me was extremely important. For them, it was just another of many ways the Sudanese government had tried to kill them.”

Mr. Sevunt’s report was the first we had seen since the Darfur story broke into the headlines this year to suggest the Sudanese were using chemical weapons in the conflict.

That made it a big story, but also one on which we wanted to be very careful of our facts — especially because Mr. Sevunts, a freelance correspondent in the region for the Toronto Star, had filed to us only a couple of times before.

But the innocent quality of the villagers’ stories gave the story the ring of truth, and we were impressed by the fact that Mr. Sevunts had carefully avoided making any unsubstantiated charges. He simply recounted the stories the villagers had told him.

We had staff reporter David R. Sands in Washington make some additional phone calls.

He learned that the British Broadcasting Corp. had reported the use of chemical weapons in southern Darfur in 1999, and was told by a specialist at the International Crisis Group (ICG) that there had been unconfirmed reports of chemical-weapon use in Sudan for a decade.

The ICG specialist, John Prendergast, also called for an international investigation of all such charges. At that point, we felt we had not only solid grounds for the story, but perhaps even an obligation to run it.

Security concerns

One thing that troubled us: Mr. Sevunts, in his original story, said representatives of Human Rights Watch had been to the village and taken a sample of the powder to be analyzed. But when we called Human Rights Watch from Washington, their spokesman was not aware of the incident.

This might just be a case of poor communications between headquarters and the field, common enough in situations like this. When we queried Mr. Sevunts, he provided the name of the person who took the sample and suggested another explanation.

“I think the HRW are denying it for the same reasons I had to hold it for several days — security,” he wrote.

“But I couldn’t hold the story any more,” he said. On his way back, he had run into reporters from competing organizations traveling to the same village “and I wasn’t sure whether they got the story, too.”

“So I filed at the first opportunity I got to recharge batteries on my laptop and close enough to the Chadian border that I knew I could make a run for it if the Sudanese came after us.”

We also did a bit of research on Mr. Sevunts — an easy enough matter, thanks to Google. We knew he had worked several years for the well-regarded Montreal Gazette, but not much more.

The Google search showed that he was Russian-born, that he had lived in Armenia for a while, and that he had some remarkable adventures during the fighting in Afghanistan at the end of 2001.

Mr. Sevunts “was once a soldier in the former Soviet Union,” says a “blog” from that period by Kevin Sites, a freelance television reporter for NBC and CNN. “That is probably why he is alive today. He knows about war. Has been shot at before.”

That sounds like just the kind of guy we like to have reporting from a conflict zone.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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