The mystery that still surrounds the death of journalist Chris Allen

The life of a war reporter is an inherently dangerous one.

They fly all over the globe and embed themselves into the front line, in a bid to bring home the human stories behind the propaganda and politics. 

But when a journalist gets too close to the gunfire, it can cost them their life. 

This was the fate of Christopher Allen, a British American journalist and photographer who took himself to Ukraine and South Sudan to get to the heart of the story. 

Drawn like a moth to a flame, Chris believed it was better to witness history being made first hand than to be in the library studying it. 

However, his motivations proved to be fatal.

Chris was shot dead on 26 August 2017 in South Sudan, aged just 26. 

That year he had become close to the SPLA-IO, a rebel faction attempting to overthrow the government in Juba. In an attempt to truly understand the rebels, he lived as they did, slept alongside them in mud huts, ate community meals and shared their water. Not long after he was shot dead, questions emerged about Chris’ involvement. 

Was he really there to report? Or had he become too close to the action?

Shortly after Chris’ death, his parents Joyce Krajian and John Allen were devastated to hear him described as a ‘white rebel’ by the Sudanese Government. 

His mother Joyce said: ‘The suggestion that he is anything other than what he was is horrifying. He chose to bear witness. He chose to look unflinchingly at what was painful, and find the humanity in it.’

Chris’ life – and ultimately his fate – is the subject of newly-released seven-part podcast series Pig Iron, which tries to establish who the young man really was and why he died. 

Tortoise Media’s Basia Cummings, who led the investigation, describes the case as ‘one of the most complex and challenging stories’ she’s ever reported on.

As part of her investigation, Basia was helped by Jeremy Bliss, Chris’ cousin, who had made it his mission to clear his name. It was a delicate relationship, Basia reveals, as she navigated Jeremy’s fight for justice with her own effort to take an objective view. He introduced her to Joyce and John in Maine. 

Basia tells about the difficulties involved in investigating Chris, knowing that she may end up having to tell his parents he wasn’t all he claimed to be.

‘The first thing we did was go to meet Chris’ parents,’ she recalls. ‘It felt important to me that they were the first port of call and to understand the impact that the lack of answers has had on them. I wanted to learn what a lack of understanding does to grief and how it prolongs the grief and the nightmare.

‘It felt like an enormous responsibility. I feel like I’ve carried them and their grief with me throughout this entire investigation.’

Chris’ parents opened up their life to Basia, showing her their son’s home, letting her look through his personal things and read his emails and journals. She opened boxes of belongings containing plane tickets, passports, wound dressings, notebooks and a Ukrainian medical manual. In one of them was an emergency sheet of contacts listing who to inform in the case of his death. 

In his notes from 2014, Basia was unsettled to find descriptions of Chris’ own involvement. He wrote: ‘I fire a mortar. What does it mean? Nothing. Everything. Like each man here, I played a part. Maybe I killed a soldier. Maybe I killed a civilian. Maybe I hit nothing. How complicit am I?’ 

As James Brabazon, a filmmaker and journalist, tells Basia and her producer, Gary Marshall: ‘War is like pig iron to a moral compass, and it takes an extraordinary act of will to stay true.’

Were the rumours true? Was Chris a mercenary? 

It was one in a number of unnerving moments in the investigation. Basia explains how she felt when she realised Chris had emailed her as a freelancer when she was foreign editor at the Guardian years before. 

She remembers: ‘It was quite a shocking moment. And I felt implicated, but also spurred on, because I saw I’m a part of this industry. And this story matters to journalism – and it’s an uncomfortable story about journalism. 

‘I felt bad about the exchange that I was involved in with him.’ 

As a freelance journalist Chris had written for several well-known publications. One pitch to the Guardian had been commissioned but then after a series of emails, in which Basia was CC’d, the article was eventually dropped. 

‘His piece was delayed and delayed and then spiked and that happened to him many times, with many different publications,’ she says. ‘So the podcast is honest about who he was, but it’s also honest about the bits about journalism that are not great for a freelancer trying to navigate that world.’ 

Freelance journalists are on their own; they have no salary, no benefits and no support. It can be a tough life; unimaginably so when you’re reporting from a war zone. 

Chris had no mentor. Instead, he had books. The walls of his family home in Maine were lined with bookshelves, many filled with those authored by war reporters. Chris had annotated some, including one by Anthony Loyd, who he had taken on as a sort of unofficial guide.

Anthony spoke to Basia about what she terms ‘the myth and mystique of the war reporter, and the demons that push them there and follow them home’.

In the podcast, Anthony tells of the ‘incredible thrill’ of experiencing a real war and the sensations of machine and mortar fire in the air. He describes a common driver among war reporters; a sense of adventure, ‘the lonely impulse’, some ‘yearning of the soul’.

But there is also a sickness to the profession. The trauma lingers and leaves witnesses permanently altered. Chris wrote in his journal in the aftermath of one dangerous mission in which four figures he had been close to died. 

He wrote: ‘I was overcome by a sense of sadness, not just from what I’d seen and felt but from what I knew I’d lost. Something which I knew would have an affect on me forever. My tongue stings, my lungs are tight. I feel weary and sad.’ 

It was one of the many costs of an exciting career that took him all over the world.

Five years on, the truth about what happened to Christopher Allen remains a mystery. Basia explains how her investigation enabled her to travel not just globally, but deep into her subject’s psyche.

‘It started as such a simple question about who killed Christopher Allen and why,’ she says, ‘but it went everywhere, from the changing nature of journalism and war, to the seduction of the front line.’

You can listed to Pig Iron here.

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