As Sudan’s Nuba Mountains descended back into war in 2011, Yassin Hassen prepared to flee his homeland a second time.
But he wound up canceling his plans – and now traverses the war zone with a motorbike and a camera, part of a fledgling news team hoping to prove that in today’s world, even civil wars deep in Africa no longer can be ignored.
Hassen, who’s 26, credits the example of the American aid worker who created the news team, Ryan Boyette, for his decision not to leave.
"When I saw him remaining here with us, I never (considered) going back," Hassen said, his adulation obvious. "I decided to stay."
In July 2011, a month after the most recent fighting erupted, Boyette summoned Hassen and about a dozen other Nuba with an idea: to show the world what was really happening here, one snapshot at a time.
"From the last war, you rarely see any pictures, rarely see any video footage. One of the reasons I came to Sudan was a tiny little article that I read in a magazine. It didn’t even have a picture," said Boyette, 31, who’s a native of Englewood, Fla., on the Gulf Coast.
"That frustrated me," he explained.
Hassen and the others responded enthusiastically to Boyette’s idea. Someone suggested calling their project "Eyes and Ears of God." Later, they softened the name to Eyes and Ears Nuba.
Boyette has lived here for 10 years, married into the community and built a house. To his surprise, his own refusal to evacuate the war zone launched him into the halls of power. Armed with rare eyewitness accounts from Sudan’s distant war, he’s testified before Congress, met with President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and escorted actor George Clooney through the war zone.
In a sign of a changing world, those experiences convinced him he could make more of an impact here, coordinating a news team.
Nothing was easy, however. Few in the Nuba region had a full education, let alone journalism or photography training. Boyette, too, was learning as he went. Starting with cheap Chinese cameras, they captured Sudanese bombing campaigns and heavy battles in pictures and grainy video.
Boyette fed his team’s reports directly to news organizations, but he quickly grew frustrated with the unsteady interest. So he expanded his vision and, with the help of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, raised money online to launch his own website, NubaReports.org.
Now his team is shooting high-definition video, packaged into short documentaries on the war for a growing online audience.
"Egypt and Syria and Libya and other places that had an uprising, it was set in motion by citizen journalists," Boyette said.
"We are the next level of citizen journalism. We are giving them the equipment and training necessary to do accurate and good-quality reporting from the ground," he said.
With the rise of social media, some commentators predict that news around the world increasingly will originate not from established news organizations but from so-called citizen journalists – armed with mobile technology, broadcasting through new online media tools.
Journalists increasingly lean on websites such as Twitter and YouTube for breaking news in difficult-to-cover places. Defenders of traditional journalism argue that these new tools have done little to supplement professional journalism’s most important task: long-term, in-depth, analytical reporting.
With a bit of funding, Boyette’s Nuba Reports team members hope to bridge that divide. They quickly discovered that the chasm was daunting, especially here.
The work – capturing hair-raising footage alongside rebels in combat – wasn’t for everybody. Boyette’s team of local reporters shrank to three, including Hassen, who doesn’t even talk to his family about his work for fear of word spreading to government spies.
It didn’t take long to realize that part-time commitments and amateur skill sets could carry the project only so far. The remaining reporters now receive stipends and, when possible, training.
In the tight interior of a small hut one recent afternoon, a volunteer American photojournalist huddled around a laptop with Boyette and his team. Images flowed across the screen. The lesson of the day was improving video storytelling with background video, known as B-roll, and multiple camera angles. For homework, the local reporters had watched a James Bond film; here, even movies are rare.
The session was crammed with suggestions. The Nuba reporters listened intently, trying to keep up.
"Before, we’d just go to a place and someone would tell us what happened. Now, we are told to record someone’s personal story. Are we supposed to do both?" reporter Ahmed Khatir asked in Arabic, eyebrows raised.
His team is improving rapidly, Boyette said, but operations are another matter.
"Logistics, that’s our biggest challenge. Trying to get people to where they need to be," Boyette said.
The roads – winding dirt paths through valley passes – are terrible, and they can be impassable for months at a time during rains. There’s no mobile network, so Boyette and his team have to communicate via satellite for phone and email. For electricity, they use solar equipment.
Often, something goes wrong.
"Ah, all the batteries are dead," Boyette exclaimed after one long day, exasperatedly checking the equipment. The interview his team was conducting abruptly ended.
News of bombings or fighting can take days to emerge from the bush. Getting there and back can take several more days.
Already, his team has exposed government forces torching Nuba villages as part of its counterinsurgency operation. The website also regularly reports on the humanitarian condition of the displaced here, including a persistent hunger crisis.
With the warring sides digging in for the long haul, Boyette said Nuba Reports’ work had barely begun.
Policymakers, Sudan observers and journalists already follow the site closely, Boyette said. This year, Nuba Reports will launch an Arabic website, to become more accessible to Sudanese and the wider Middle East, rather than just the West.
"We really believe that Sudanese are going to be the ones creating the change in the country," Boyette said.
By at least one indicator, Boyette’s work is getting noticed. Last year, a Sudanese warplane swooped over his house, dropping six bombs, two of which landed less than a football field away – which is what passes for accuracy in this war.
That did nothing to deter him. Still, he dislikes the notion that this is his project.
"In reality, I’m just running a support role. My team is the one going to the front lines, going to people’s homes," he said.
Hassen said the Nuba can never repay Boyette for his work and vision. For now, Hassen just continues hopping on his motorbike, weathering bombing raids and artillery fire, hoping that more and more people learn about his homeland’s troubles.
Someday, when the time is right, he said, he’ll finally get his university degree, which he postponed to join the news crew.
What will he study?
"Journalism." He grinned. "I really like it."