STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Our colleague Eyder Peralta is back from a visit to an East African jail. It was not a voluntary stay. Peralta was in South Sudan to cover its civil war. He met government officials to ask for press credentials.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: And about five to 10 soldiers came in with big guns. And that's when I sort of knew, oh, this is not good.
INSKEEP: This happened this spring. The soldiers placed Peralta on a truck bed soaked in gasoline. They drove the NPR correspondent to a jail where his four days in captivity revealed a lot about a country formed in 2011.
PERALTA: I was interrogated for about an hour before I was taken into the prison. And they kept insisting that I was a spy. One of the things that I never expected was having to explain my ethnicity in South Sudan (laughter) because, you know, they kept saying you're Arab. And I was like, no, you know, I'm Latin American.
And just a little bit of context, you know, South Sudan fought an incredibly bloody war with Sudan to gain independence in 2011. And this was led by the Arab Muslim north against the mostly Christian African south.
INSKEEP: So they profiled you, basically.
PERALTA: And - which is something I just never expected.
INSKEEP: Hadn't you been with a colleague?
PERALTA: I was. He was a fixer, which is like an assistant. And he was arrested along with me, too. We were put in two separate cells in solitary. They closed the door, and they said there's some water. And it was pitch dark.
You know, it's amazing what that does to you. And you know, I could hold my arms out, and I could touch the walls. There was nothing in there but concrete. I could still smell the gasoline on my clothes...
INSKEEP: From the truck.
PERALTA: ...From the truck. I kept thinking, like, should I drink this water? But I start touching the water bottles, and they're just full of crud. I mean, it feels like sand.
INSKEEP: And it's dark.
PERALTA: It's completely dark. But I can hear things. I can hear the other prisoners playing dominoes outside. And, like, that - I grew up in Miami, and that's a sound...
INSKEEP: Provocative sound.
PERALTA: ...You hear often. And my thought was three days - it takes three days to dehydrate and get really sick. And they probably would not let me get really sick. So, you know, I didn't drink the water.
I think at that moment you're thinking about what this military has done. This military has come into villages, and they have tied people and then thrown them into huts and set those on fire. This military has gone door to door. And if someone doesn't speak Dinka, they kill them.
INSKEEP: That's the language of the...
PERALTA: Of the ruling tribe there. And they will deny this. And I think that both main sides in this conflict - there's no doubt they've committed atrocities. But I think what has become clear is that the government is leading the charge.
INSKEEP: Is it possible for you to know how long you were in that dark cell?
PERALTA: I'm guessing about 15 hours because the sun came up, and I saw just a little sliver of light come in through a small hole at the top of it. And that's when my fellow inmates started coming to a little tiny window that's on the door. You know, they were asking, are you OK?
INSKEEP: How does one answer when you've been in an overheated dark cell for many hours without water and someone comes to the door and says, how you doing?
PERALTA: I said, I'm OK. I mean, you don't know who they are. You know, I kept asking them, are you national security - because I had to use the bathroom. It's a very simple sort of human thing, right? And what do you do? There is no bathroom in there. You know, I heard - that morning there was some prayer that I didn't understand. And I later learned it was the prisoners.
INSKEEP: It's a majority-Christian nation, right?
PERALTA: It's a majority-Christian nation, yeah. And there was a former Catholic priest in there who led them in a church service every morning. The Catholic priest came up to me once they had opened the door. And he said, look, you came to this country to explore what the government is doing to innocent people. He said, you can still do that.
INSKEEP: In the jail.
PERALTA: In the jail. The conditions are what you would expect in there, right? They do give people food. It's not very good food. There is water that is dirty. But I think the biggest cloud on this is just the uncertainty with which these prisoners live. There is no process. And I think that's really dispiriting.
INSKEEP: Were most of the people in there without formal criminal charges, without having been put on or convicted at trial?
PERALTA: All of them. I mean, there wasn't a single one that I met who said they had been charged. I mean, I was ultimately released without charges, told by the officer who took me to the airport to be deported that, you know, sorry, this was a big misunderstanding. You know, you're welcome in South Sudan again (laughter).
INSKEEP: He says as you're leaving South Sudan involuntarily. This is a country that was brought into existence with the support of the United States.
PERALTA: That's right. And, you know, I had this really interesting conversation with one of the military officers there. The consular officer from the U.S. Embassy would come, and they would take me to another building to meet with him. And every time I went there, this officer would pull me aside and just start screaming at me. And he was in a room full of weapons. He threatened to kill me and my family.
And in one of those walks, I was like, I need to do something. I need to connect with this guy. So I told him, look. You don't know who I am. I was a child of war. I fled during the Nicaraguan civil war. We were refugees in the United States, right? And I said the U.S. right now is funding more than 50 percent of the food that is being dropped to the famine-hit areas in the north of your country.
I saw a complete change in his face. He points out to this tarmacked road - tarmacked is what they call paved roads down there - and he said, that is the first paved road all of us have ever seen. He says, we are trying to build a country. And this fighting will allow us to emerge a much better country. I have no doubt he believes that. But the viciousness of the war, I think, to a lot of the people who have fled - and millions of people have fled - I'm pretty sure that sounds hollow.
INSKEEP: Eyder Peralta, thanks very much.
PERALTA: Thank you.
INSKEEP: The NPR correspondent says he hopes to take up the invitation to return. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.