Three years ago today, we suffered the most painful experience a family can endure. Our son Christopher Allen was murdered on the other side of the world, reporting on the civil conflict in South Sudan. A freelance journalist and dual US-UK citizen, Chris was only 26 years old and had a bright future ahead of him — a future that was taken from him, from us and from those whose stories he was so intent on telling the world.
On August 26, 2017, our lives changed irrevocably. Now, the pursuit of justice for Chris would become a central part of our existence. Our hearts were broken and, in addition to experiencing insurmountable grief, we found our family facing an uphill battle not only with the South Sudanese but also with Chris’ own governments in Washington and London, as well as with the United Nations.
These are the very democratic institutions that are meant to protect journalists and press freedom, that are meant to fight injustice and ensure accountability for unspeakable crimes. Yet they have failed to act meaningfully to support us or help secure justice for Chris’ killing. Everything that is meant to be set into motion when a tragedy like this occurs simply did not happen — at least not without a fight from our side. Now, three years on, there has still been no investigation and no justice. We still lack even basic answers about what happened to Chris.
Chris developed his craft as a journalist in Ukraine, where he lived and worked from April 2014 and from there embarked on a new challenge. In August 2017, he traveled to South Sudan to cover the country’s under-reported civil war, embedding with the SPLA-IO, a rebel faction attempting to overthrow the established government in Juba.
Chris had embedded with the soldiers for more than three weeks, listening to the stories of their lives, their losses, motivations and fears before being targeted by government forces during a battle in Kaya, near South Sudan’s border with Uganda. We spoke with Chris the night before he was killed. The company was moving out that evening to walk through miles of bush to capture munition supplies.
We urged Chris not to go, to write a piece that covered the embed to date, to share with his readers the pain the families of these men suffered at the hand of those in power. But he insisted that the story of preparing for battle was incomplete. Chris’ dedication to his journalism was absolute — he felt he must bear witness to the battle. He said to us that he “had to see it through.” Our son looked for the truth at all costs.
As his parents, it is daunting and painful to recount this. Just as Chris sought the truth of the tragedies and difficulties of others, we have been working to establish the truth of the circumstances of his killing every day for three full years. Yet the very governments and institutions whose duty it is to help us find the truth have failed to support us at every key juncture over the past three years.
Based on evidence uncovered through journalistic investigations in the absence of any official inquiry, we know that Chris was killed by a member of the South Sudanese armed forces and that his killing and the treatment of his body post-mortem are likely to constitute war crimes. With support from a legal team as well as campaigners at Reporters Without Borders, we have tenaciously sought an independent criminal investigation from the South Sudanese and US authorities.
We Must See This Through
In our deep desire to secure justice and accountability for the wrongful killing of our son, a civilian and journalist armed only with a camera, and to remind states that they cannot suppress press freedom by killing journalists with impunity, we will continue to demand a meaningful investigation and justice. Like Chris, we must see this through.
Despite our intense efforts, the US and UK governments and the United Nations have still failed to act meaningfully to help us find answers or justice, and in some cases have not responded at all. This is in sharp contrast to their publicly stated commitments to freedom of expression. The lesson we have learned over these past three painful years is that too often, these bodies cannot be taken at their word, and must very actively be held to account.
We persevere in our fight for justice not only for our son, but for all journalists taking tremendous risks to get out the truth from dangerous places around the world. Every case of impunity leaves the door open for further attacks on journalists and emboldens those who wish to use violence to silence public interest reporting. In contrast, every case in which justice is achieved sends a powerful signal that violence against journalists will not be tolerated anywhere and that those who commit such atrocious acts will pay the price. This, in turn, serves to deter violence and protect journalists everywhere.
We ask that a bright light be shed on the circumstance of Christopher’s killing. We call on governments and institutions to hold the South Sudanese military accountable for the wrongful death of our son. A transparent investigation is the first step. Accountability and justice for Chris must follow. By demanding accountability for our son’s killing, we hope to create a safer world for journalists and bolster press freedom everywhere.
We must see this through.
*[Joyce Krajian and John Allen are the parents of Christopher Allen.]
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