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What to Do About Darfur

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Agence VU
Sudanese Liberation Army troops in South Darfur, 2006; photograph by Kadir van Lohuizen from Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan

For the entire Muslim and Arab world to remain silent when thousands of people in Darfur continue to be killed is shameful and hypocritical.

One of Mamdani’s objections is that journalists and humanitarians focus so intently on atrocities that they provide no plausible account of the setting in which they occur. He denounces Philip Gourevitch’s much-praised book on the Rwandan genocide— We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families —saying that it simplistically brands the Hutus as perpetrators and the Tutsis as victims. Then he issues a broader complaint:

This kind of journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators faces a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because the confrontation occurs outside history and context.

This is an objection that is often made about Darfur coverage, and it is true that there are many layers of complexity to Darfur that I am only beginning to uncover after ten visits to the region. For example, some of the Darfur rebel groups, from the “victim” tribes, have also engaged in atrocities; and many of the perpetrators busy killing blacks also look black to an American eye.

Yet every mass slaughter has had its complexities. Turks bitterly protest the designation of the 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide because the killings happened during a war and an uprising by Armenians. In the case of the Cambodian slaughter in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge targeted people on the basis of education, urban background, or whim, but not for their race, religion, or nationality, so by a strict definition the savagery of Pol Pot is not genocide. In short, complexities always abound, and yet the central truth that resonates through history is that governments have targeted groups of people and slaughtered them.

Is Darfur a case of genocide? Mamdani disputes it, but he makes an elementary mistake in definition on the very first page of his introduction: “It is killing with intent to eliminate an entire group—a race, for example—that is genocide.” On the contrary, neither the Genocide Convention of 1948 nor Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it to mean an attempt to eliminate an entire group. That was what the Nazis attempted to do to Jews, but the Turks were not determined to exterminate every last Armenian or the Serbs every last Bosnian. The Genocide Convention stipulates that it is enough if a group is targeted “in part.”

Legal scholars disagree about whether Darfur qualifies as genocide, with most of the dispute turning on the question of the “intent” of the Sudanese government. I believe it is genocide, but whether this is the case, it’s only one of several legitimate questions about Darfur. There are many reasonable criticisms one can make of some of the humanitarians and journalists involved. Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and author with Julie Flint of the excellent book Darfur: A New History of a Long War,1 has infuriated many Darfur advocates with his opposition to an ICC arrest warrant for President Bashir. But de Waal knows Sudan exceptionally well, and his blog and essays are read with respect as well as disagreement. Anybody who wants to get a well-informed critique of the Save Darfur movement would be better off reading de Waal than reading Mamdani’s error-filled polemic.

A far better book than Mamdani’s is Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, by John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond, scholars respectively at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They make excellent use of an important archive: interviews with more than one thousand Darfuris that were done as part of the study launched by the State Department in 2004. That archive provides a solid empirical basis for research, and the authors use it effectively to argue, for example, that racism against black Africans was more of a factor than many observers believe. They note that surveys found that between one quarter and one half of the tribes attacked heard racial epithets, including “This is the last day for blacks,” “Kill all the blacks,” “Kill all the slaves.”

Hagan and Rymond-Richmond also explore at length the issue of mortality. They estimate that about 400,000 Sudanese have been killed; they have no doubt that it is genocide. They quote Jan Pfundheller, who had previously studied genocide in the former Yugoslavia and then conducted interviews of Darfuris, as saying: “What happened in Kosovo was evil. This is more vast and equally evil.” The issue of the death toll is controversial, and Mamdani notes correctly that estimates differ widely. The truth is that we have no accurate idea how many people have died in Darfur, and we won’t know until the government allows a careful mortality study—and even then there will be doubts. Rwanda is at peace and available for researchers, but estimates of the genocide there in 1994 still range from 500,000 to one million.

Darfuris are seen as actual people in Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, in a way that they are not in Mamdani’s book, but they emerge most clearly in books by Darfuris themselves. Darfur is their story, and they are the ones best equipped to tell it. The first book of this genre is Daoud Hari’s powerful The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur, by an extraordinarily courageous (and, somehow, humorous!) young man who interpreted for a number of journalists, including me. The second is Halima Bashir’s Tears of the Desert, a luminous tale of growing up in rural Darfur, undergoing training to be a doctor amid a gathering storm of racism directed toward black people such as herself, and then trying to do her medical work even as the killings accelerate. Dr. Bashir’s book is a wonderful and moving African memoir that deserves far more attention than it has received.

Dr. Bashir recounts how the Sudanese-sponsored Janjaweed militia—the group believed to be responsible for many of the killings in Darfur—attacked a girls’ school in the remote village where she was posted at a rural clinic. She tried desperately to treat the dozens of girls who were raped, even though the only medicine she could offer them was half a pill each of acetaminophen. She writes:

At no stage in my years of study had I been taught how to deal with 8-year-old victims of gang rape in a rural clinic without enough sutures to go around.

Dr. Bashir disclosed the attack to United Nations investigators, so secret police kidnapped her, beat her, tortured her with knives, and gang-raped her. “Now you know what rape is, you black dog,” one of the policemen told her. After reading Mamdani’s heavily theoretical apologia, in which Darfuris barely make an appearance, Dr. Bashir’s memoir is a useful reminder of what’s at stake on the ground.

The attacks on Darfuri villages such as the one Dr. Bashir describes have subsided, partly because there are few black African villages left to attack; the rate of killings in Darfur has dropped. Moreover, France took action last year and led a European military force of 3,700 soldiers that moved into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. Sudan had previously dispatched fighters to raid both countries, so that in the past they were the scene of murders and rapes of people because of their race and tribe, just as in Darfur. The European force, which in March passed responsibility to a UN force, has stabilized that crisis and reduced the chance that Chad and the Central African Republic will collapse, so in some respects there is a lull right now. But it won’t last. The expulsion of aid workers, if it is not reversed, will lead to the deaths of countless displaced Darfuris from disease and malnutrition, and the war between north and south Sudan may well break out again in the next two years.

What then is to be done? That question has bedeviled and divided Darfur advocates for years, and there is no simple answer. Yet groups like Save Darfur, the Enough Project, and the Genocide Intervention Network have pointed to steps that will help. Here are six that I believe would increase the prospect of a solution:

• Bring together members of Darfuri civil society—doctors, educators, leaders, and businesspeople among them—to form a common negotiating platform, so that there can be constructive peace talks (since the most plausible path to a solution is a negotiated peace agreement). A prominent Sudanese tycoon and philanthropist, Mo Ibrahim, is now pushing this approach in a project called Mandate Darfur. Sudan’s government blocked the Mandate Darfur peace talks this spring, with barely a murmur of protest from around the world, and it’s crucial that international pressure be focused on Khartoum to allow this initiative to proceed. This may be Sudan’s best hope.

• Apply pressure on the Sudanese government to make concessions so that such a negotiated deal is more likely, while also putting pressure on Abdel Wahid and the rebels. One of the basic problems is that the international community hasn’t applied credible sticks or carrots to Khartoum. Carrots are difficult politically, but we can do more with sanctions (especially, going after the wealth of the Sudanese leaders in foreign banks), with international pressure from Arab countries (here Qatar has been helpful), and with military measures.

• These military measures can include a no-fly zone. This doesn’t mean shooting any planes out of the air. Rather, when a Sudanese military aircraft bombs civilians in defiance of the UN ban on offensive military flights, Western forces can destroy a Sudanese fighter plane or helicopter gunship on the ground a few days later. For this purpose, the US could use aircraft from its military base in Djibouti, and France could use aircraft at its base in Abeché, in Chad. In a classified memo to the White House last year, the special envoy for Sudan, Ambassador Richard Williamson, also outlined other possible military measures, including jamming all telephones, radio signals, and television signals in Khartoum.

• Nudge China into suspending arms deliveries to Sudan. This would terrify the Khartoum regime, at a time when it is arming for renewed war with the south, for China is its main arms supplier and trainer of its military pilots. China won’t suspend its oil purchases from Sudan, but it is conceivable that China would suspend military sales (which yield modest sums for China relative to the cost to its image).

• Encourage some elements in the official Sudanese leadership to overthrow President Bashir, by suggesting that if this happens and they take steps to end the violence in Darfur, the US will normalize relations with Sudan. The other leaders will not be indicted by the ICC, so if they remove Bashir they can remove the albatross from Sudan’s neck. These other leaders also have blood on their hands, but they are far better than Bashir.

• Give a signal that the US has no objection to its allies selling anti-aircraft missiles to south Sudan (that is easier than providing the missiles ourselves). This would deny Khartoum air control over the south, and thus reduce the chance that the north will attack the south and revive the north–south civil war.

Samantha Power, now a national security official, wrote a superb, Pulitzer Prize–winning history of genocide, noting that time and again the United States refused to intervene in genocides even though it knew more or less what was going on. She titled her book A Problem from Hell,2 and that’s what Darfur is. But there have been other problems from hell, including Kosovo and Bosnia, that have been, if not solved, at least hugely mitigated. The lesson from places like Kosovo is that the most urgent need is less for sophisticated technical solutions than for political will to face the problem squarely. It’s too early to know whether President Obama will do this, but at the moment I’m not optimistic.

To some extent, that’s a reflection on the Save Darfur movement and on scribblers like myself who took up the Darfuri cause. We have failed to foster the political will to bring about change. For all our efforts, the situation on the ground may soon become worse. A “Darfur fatigue” has set in, and the movement has lost its steam. And of course the movement was always compromised by its own shortcomings, from infighting to naiveté to the ubiquitous penchant of advocacy groups for exaggeration.

Yet another perspective is also possible. As I write, I’m on a plane flying back from Washington State, where I spoke to a university audience about human rights issues, including Darfur. For all the failures, there is something inspiring about how hundreds of thousands of university students around America have marched, fasted, and donated money on behalf of people of a different race and religion who live halfway around the world, in a land they had never heard of five years ago, and who rarely appear on their television screens. Moreover, the movement is far from a complete failure. Those protests and “Save Darfur” lawn signs prompted a vast relief effort that is keeping millions alive in Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic. The movement has also projected a spotlight that has restrained the Sudanese government from undertaking even harsher actions it itches for, such as dismantling the vast Kalma camp for displaced Darfuris. For all the failures, hundreds of thousands of people are alive today because of those students, those churches and synagogues, and that’s not a shabby legacy.

June 3, 2009

Letters

Dissent On Darfur August 13, 2009

  1. 1

    Zed Books, 2006; see my review in these pages, February 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Basic Books, 2002; reviewed by Brian Urquhart in these pages, April 25, 2002.

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