Chris believed it was better to watch history being made than study it in a library (Image: Christopher Allen)

The life of a war reporter is inherently dangerous.

They fly all over the globe and are on the front lines, trying to bring home the human stories behind the propaganda and policy.

But if a journalist gets too close to the shelling, it could cost him his life.

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

Attracted like a moth to a flame, Chris believed it was better to watch history being made than to be in a library studying it.

However, his motives turned out to be fatal.

Chris was shot and killed on August 26, 2017 in South Sudan at the age of just 26.

Chris was just 26 when he was killed (Photo: Christopher Allen)

That year he became close to the SPLA-IO, a rebel faction trying to overthrow the government in Juba. Trying to truly understand the rebels, he lived as they did, sleeping next to them in mud huts, eating communal food and sharing water. Soon after he was shot, questions arose about Chris’s involvement.

Was he really there to report? Or did he get too close to the action?

Shortly after Chris’s death, his parents Joyce Cryan and John Allen were shocked to hear the Sudanese government refer to him as a “white rebel”.

His mother Joyce said: “The suggestion that he is not what he used to be is terrifying. He decided to testify. He decided to look steadily at what hurts and find humanity in it.”

The purpose of the podcast is to find out who Chris was and why he died (Photo: Christopher Allen)

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

Basia Cummings of Tortoise Media, who led the investigation, describes the case as “one of the most complicated and complex stories” she has ever reported.

As part of the investigation, Bassey was assisted by Jeremy Bliss, Chris’ cousin, who 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 efforts to adopt an objective perspective. He introduced her to Joyce and John in Maine.

Basia tells about the difficulties of investigating Chris, knowing that she would end up having to tell his parents that he was not who he claimed to be.

Jeremy Bliss, Chris’s cousin, who helped Bassa inform the inquiry, is pictured speaking to the UN Human Rights Council about the case (Image: Supplied)

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

“It felt like a huge responsibility. I feel like I carried them and them grief with me throughout the investigation.’

Chris’s parents opened up their lives to Bassey, showing her around their son’s house, allowing her to look through his personal belongings and read emails and magazines. She opened boxes with things that contained plane tickets, passports, dressing materials, notebooks, and a Ukrainian medical certificate. One of them contained an emergency note with instructions on who to notify in the event of his death.

In his 2014 notes, Basia was alarmed to find a description of Chris’s own involvement. He wrote: “Shooting from a mortar. What does that mean? nothing. everything. Like everyone here, I played my part. Maybe I killed a soldier. I may have killed a civilian. Maybe I didn’t hit anything. How complicit am I?

As James Brabazon, a filmmaker and journalist, tells Bassey and her producer Garry Marshall, “War is like cast iron for a moral compass, and it takes an extraordinary will to stay true.”

Were the rumors true? Was Chris a mercenary?

It was one of a number of disturbing moments in the investigation. Basia tells how she felt when she found out that Chris had been emailing her as a freelancer when she was foreign editor at the Guardian years ago.

She recalls: “It was quite a shocking moment. And I felt involved but also pushed because I saw that I was a part of this industry. And this story is important for journalism – and it’s an uncomfortable story about journalism.

Basia found a journal where Chris wrote about one dangerous mission that killed four people he was close to (Image: David Bebber)

“I felt bad about the exchange I was involved in with him.”

As a freelance journalist, Chris has written for several prominent publications. One piece was commissioned for the Guardian, but after a series of emails in which Basia received a copy, the article was eventually withdrawn.

“His article was delayed and delayed and then there was a surge, 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 parts of journalism that aren’t very appropriate for a freelancer trying to navigate that world.”

Freelance journalists in their own right; they have no salary, no benefits, no support. It can be a hard life; unthinkable when you’re reporting from a war zone.

Chris didn’t have a teacher. Instead, he had books. The walls of his family home in Maine were lined with bookshelves, many filled with books written by war reporters. Chris annotated some, including one by Anthony Lloyd, who he took on as a kind of unofficial guide.

Anthony spoke with Basia about what she calls “the myth and mystique of the war reporter and the demons that push them there and follow them home.”

The truth about what happened to Chris remains a mystery (Photo: Christopher Allen)

In the podcast, Anthony talks about the “incredible thrill” of experiencing real war and feeling machine and mortar fire in the air. He describes a common driver among war reporters; a sense of adventure, a “lonely impulse,” a kind of “longing of the soul.”

But there is also a disease of the profession. Trauma lingers and changes the witness forever. Chris wrote in his diary after one dangerous mission that killed four people he was close to.

He wrote: “I was overcome with a sense of sadness, not only for what I had seen and felt, but also for what I knew I had lost. Something that I knew would have an impact on me forever. It burns in the tongue, squeezes in the lungs. I feel tired and sad.’

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

Five years later, the truth about what happened to Christopher Allen remains a mystery. Basia explains how her research allowed her not only to travel around the world, but also to delve into the subject’s psyche.

“It started with such a simple question of who killed Christopher Allen and why,” she says, “but it was everywhere, from changing the nature of journalism and war to the seduction of the front line.”

You can count on cast iron here.

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Mystery still surrounds the death of journalist Chris Allen – but will the truth ever be known?