Detained Writer a Lifelong Nomad

Chicago Tribune

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

He was en route that day in April 2001 from Sierra Leone to South Africa -- another journey in a nomadic 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 he was 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, Salopek 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."

Salopek is one of a handful of U.S. newspaper writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for individual work, but until recently, his name drew little recognition beyond a corps of journalists 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 once traveled 1,300 miles across Mexico with only a donkey as a companion. For another story, he rode a horse over the snow-covered Hindu Kush into war-torn Afghanistan to witness the Northern Alliance's final push to Kabul.

Salopek is the youngest of five children from a Croatian American family in Barstow, Calif. When he was 6, 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.

"I recall my mother and father sitting in the van at the border and my mother practicing Spanish," said his sister, Debra. "They had no idea where they were going, and they just headed south."

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, an urge he would later describe as "a terrible yearning to make sense of the world."

He headed for Australia and remote Papua New Guinea. After 18 months, he returned to California, eventually graduating from UC Santa Barbara, where he excelled in the sciences.

As he headed east for a shrimp-fishing job in the summer of 1985, his motorcycle broke down in the town of Roswell, N.M. He had $60 to his name, and took menial jobs, he later recalled. A landlady who noticed his passion for reading and writing steered him to the local newspaper, where he worked for seven months before moving to the weekly magazine of the Albuquerque Journal. He roamed, covering conflicts from Central America to New Guinea.

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 Chadian colleagues, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, the interpreter, and Idriss Abdulraham Anu, the driver.

That has not surprised those who know him.

"He has an intrinsically unmovable integrity and he always has," said his mother, Ruth.

His wife, Linda Lynch, says ensuring the well-being of his colleagues has kept his spirits up so far.

"It is crucial that he know they are being cared for," she said. "He is doing well. And I hope that continues."

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