Seated on a rumbling eight-passenger plane approaching a desolate airstrip in Africa’s war-torn South Sudan, Jordan Campbell (Comm’91) couldn’t help but feel nervous.
As a seasoned mountaineer, writer and photographer, he had chronicled a long list of risky expeditions in the Himalayas and South America throughout his career. And as someone who had bounced back from a decade-long bout with a mysterious illness, he was no stranger to uncertainty. But as he looked down on the parched earth surrounding Duk Payuel, an impoverished village in the world’s newest country, he knew this trip would be like no other.
“It was stepping into the unknown,” recalls Campbell, 46.
During the next five days in December 2011, Campbell doubled as volunteer and scribe for a first-of-its kind medical mission to restore vision in an embattled corner of the world where blinding diseases are endemic and health care is nearly nonexistent. By the time the crew of 10 from the Utah-based Moran Eye Center left the country, 288 blind villagers could see again. And Campbell decided to take his career in a new direction by funding, producing and directing his first documentary film: Duk County: Peace Is in Sight in the New South Sudan. It premiered in May 2013 at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colo., and has since been showered with accolades and awards, including “Best Documentary” at the Boulder Adventure Film Festival.
“It is an incredible piece of storytelling,” says Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Brown (Geog’90) who won the 2013 George Norlin Award. “The circumstances they put themselves in and the risks they took paid off.”
Campbell’s day in the sun has been a long time coming.
He was born in Boulder, the son of Carolyn Evans Campbell (A&S’57), an accomplished poet and Russell Campbell (A&S’59), a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Campbell grew up traveling internationally and bagged his first Fourteener at age 9. By the time he graduated from CU-Boulder, he had earned a solid reputation in the mountaineering community and had a clear idea of what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a writer and photographer and I wanted to climb,” he says. “I had this idea of traveling the world and really studying the geopolitical touch points in the places I visited.”
Three months later he set out on a lofty three-month expedition to attempt the first ascent of the south face of Thalay Sagar — a 22,651-foot pinnacle in northern India’s Garhwal Himalaya. But a few weeks into the trip, a deep-seated paranoia set in, accompanied by what he calls “doomsday hallucinations.” While climbing, he envisioned his gear failing, pulling him to his death. At night in his tent, a “black-winged demon” taunted him. He didn’t reach the summit, and for years Campbell would suffer crushing fatigue, suicidal fantasies and high anxiety due to what he would ultimately learn was a severe neurotoxic reaction to the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine, also known as Lariam, that he took in India.
Dr. Geoff Tabin examines a woman after surgery in the clinic filled with patients and their families.
“I couldn’t walk around the block when I was 25, and I couldn’t work full-time for years,” recalls Campbell, who described his dark descent into illness in a poignant 2008 Climbing magazine feature. “My life was delayed, and I really had to fight to get it back.”
In 1998 Campbell took a job as an expedition manager for North Face, working with such mountaineering legends as Conrad Anker and the late Alex Lowe.
“I was behind the desk sponsoring their trips,” he says. “I was still too ill to go on any big expedition.”
As his symptoms subsided, he returned to serious mountaineering in 2000 with a trip to a 20,000-foot peak in Peru. Two years later he nearly climbed the challenging 22,900-foot Sepu Kangri in Eastern Tibet. In 2005 he stood atop the iconic 22,450-foot Ama Dablam in the Nepal Himalaya. He was back.
Campbell has since built a prosperous career as a full-time public relations director for Marmot, a global brand of outdoor clothing, working with print media, television and film, while penning his own stories for National Geographic, Climbing and other freelance clients.
In 2009 he received a call from acquaintance and mountaineer Dr. Geoff Tabin, a Utah-based eye surgeon at the Moran Eye Center and co-director of the Himalayan Cataract Project. Tabin was expanding his work into Africa. He asked Campbell if he was interested in joining him in South Sudan.
“This region has the highest rate of blindness in the world, but there is an incredible shortage of medical personnel there,” Tabin says.
Because of intense ultraviolet light, vitamin A deficiency and genetic predisposition, many locals suffer from cataracts, glaucoma and an infectious eye disease called trachoma. An estimated 3 percent of the population is blind. With blindness comes poverty and because of a protracted civil war that has killed and displaced millions in Sudan in recent decades, there are few doctors to treat those afflicted.
They planned to start with a five-day surgical strike, flying to the remote Duk Lost Boys Clinic, founded by John Dau, one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ who fled the village at age 14 to escape the northern Khartoum army. After years in the making, the eye camp was called off because of political instability and intertribal violence.
In July 2011 South Sudan declared its independence from the Muslim-dominated north. Peace looked hopeful. The trip was back on.
Campbell dropped everything, packed his notebook and hand-held video camera and bought a ticket to Africa, going primarily as a volunteer.
“I just felt like if I went, good things would happen,” he says.
Under a blazing 100-degree sky, he spent much of his time administering dilating eye drops to waiting villagers — some of whom had walked for days led by their children and grandchildren — to undergo surgery. Meanwhile, in a makeshift operating room with bats hovering overhead, Dr. Tabin carved out disease-clouded corneas and replaced them with synthetic ones. When the bandages came off, enabling villager after villager to see their loved ones for the first time, Campbell stood by with his camera rolling to capture the miraculous moments.
Jordan Campbell (Comm’91) leads one of the blind patients, “Lonnie,” into the Duk Lost Boys Clinic for his surgery on the first day of the medical mission. Lonnie was killed in intertribal violence days after Campbell left. Photography by Ace Kvale.
But Duk County is not just a simple feel-good story. Just days after the team left, intertribal violence ignited in the Jonglei state, killing 3,000 people, including one of the patients from the clinic.
“It became a moral imperative for me to tell the story,” Campbell says.
He spent nearly $10,000 out of his own pocket, plus worked nights and weekends putting the film together. When it debuted in Telluride last fall, Tabin was there.
“I am blown away,” Tabin says. “He did a phenomenal job. Jordan has fantastic empathy, and it really shows in the film.”
The Moran Eye Center returned to South Sudan in 2012 but had to cancel its third medical mission last December because of violence. At press time, Western governments were pulling diplomats out of South Sudan fearing another civil war.
Campbell says he’s not sure if he’ll ever return, but his time in South Sudan forever changed him. He plans to focus his journalistic career more on exposing the human condition in international conflict zones and spotlighting humanitarian organizations. In 2012 Campbell started Marmot’s first Ambassador Athlete Program, spotlighting global stewards who reach across borders and boundaries to positively impact the lives of others.
“I remember coming around the corner doing eye drops and I stumbled upon a blind man with a profound case of leprosy. It took my breath away,” he recalls, noting that a few days later that man reclaimed his sight. “It was a seminal moment for me. I said ‘I get this.’ I’m entering the next chapter of my life.”
This story originally appeared in the Coloradan. Lisa Marshall (Jour, PolSci’94) is a freelance journalist who lives in Lyons, Colo., and writes about medical science and outdoor adventure. Photography courtesy Jordan Campbell.