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‘Tell It as It Is’

Jérôme Tubiana, interviewed by Ratik Asokan

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In February Jérôme Tubiana and Joshua Craze wrote a report for the NYR Online about a series of massacres in Darfur, Sudan, where Arab forces are attacking the non-Arab Masalit community as part of a broader civil war between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Tubiana and Craze reflected on the tensions between the local and national dynamics of the conflict: 

The RSF’s assaults on cities in east, central, and south Darfur have all been defined by extreme violence, but none have remotely matched the levels of ethnic killing in El-Geneina…. After initial clashes, the SAF forces, led by officers from central Sudan, largely remained in their barracks, while the RSF, aided by Arab militias, attacked Masalit neighborhoods, reportedly with lists of members of the elite, such as lawyers and intellectuals. 

A narrative journalist and photographer, Tubiana has reported from the Horn of Africa and the Sahara for French and English publications for more than twenty-five years. His work regularly appears in the London Review of BooksForeign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. Seldom taking a bird’s-eye view, he prefers to focus on the travails of individual people. He has profiled, among many others, Mahamat Saleh, a young Chadian who briefly joined an al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi organization hoping to raise enough money to migrate to Europe; “Adam,” a teenage Eritrean aspiring marathoner who must practice within the confines of the refugee shelter where he’s trapped in Libya; and Mohammed el Gorani, one of the youngest detainees ever held at Guantánamo Bay. (In 2018 the el Gorani essay was adapted into an award-winning graphic novel, Guantánamo Kid.) 

I e-mailed Tubiana last week to ask him about his career, the geopolitics of migration, and the civil war in Sudan.


Ratik Asokan: You have reported from conflict zones across the Horn of Africa for decades. How did you get interested in the region? 

Jérôme Tubiana: From the 1950s to the 1990s, my parents worked as anthropologists in Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia. During my childhood I visited Chad, and I heard stories about other countries in the region from my parents and their friends. But in the late 1990s, when I was in journalism school, I did not particularly think about specializing in the Horn of Africa. I initially wanted to report on wildlife and environment—I was an avid birdwatcher. But back then climate change was hardly a popular beat. When a course on environmental issues was proposed at my school, I was the only student who registered; it was canceled. 

I graduated in 1998. The French press was still in a relatively healthy state at the time. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was lucky enough to be commissioned to travel to many places I wanted to visit: the Sahara and the Horn of Africa, but also the Arctic, Amazonia, Patagonia, and the Himalayan mountains. I remained focused on wildlife, both as a journalist and as a photographer. But everywhere I went it was clear that I would not learn anything about nature without getting to know the local people. Since many of the countries I reported from were suffering from wars or humanitarian crises, I began to cover those issues too. Still, I have never seen myself as a conflict reporter. 

I first visited Darfur in 2004, not long after the war broke out. I was among the few French journalists on the scene, but the two articles I filed were put on hold for a year or so, and one was never published. It was a sign that the French press was entering a state of crisis. There was less money, and as a result, less coverage of remote places. At the same time, various NGOs—humanitarian organizations as well as think tanks—were taking an interest in Darfur, and they needed researchers and analysts. I began to write reports for these organizations as a way to stay engaged in Darfur, while filing journalism on the side. 

What is your approach to your subjects, as a narrative journalist? 

Experts and investigative journalists can sometimes give readers the impression that they are being granted access to the ultimate truth. Often, too, they suggest that everything that happens in the Global South can be explained by the meddling of foreign powers. This can be misleading. One thing I’ve learned, reporting from the Horn of Africa, is that local players are rarely passive. On the contrary, it is they who often make the ultimate decisions on matters of war and peace. Narrative journalism is a way to give them a voice, in order to bring readers closer to a complex truth. 

In writing about mass violence in Darfur, I have tried to follow the model of the Libération journalist Jean Hatzfeld, who reported from Rwanda for many years. While other journalists who covered the 1994 genocide rushed from one sensational crime scene to the next and focused on uncovering foreign culpability, Hatzfeld seemed to prefer to sit at bars and drink beer with Rwandans and listen to them. Most importantly, he returned to the same places, the same people, again and again—he has now written six books on Rwanda.

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I have tried to take a similar approach in Darfur, but it’s been more difficult. Rwanda is a small country where, over a relatively short period, a terrible crime was committed. Furthermore, the perpetrators eventually lost the war, which made truth-telling and remembrance possible. By contrast, the violence in Darfur is spread over a very wide territory, has raged for decades, and the perpetrators are stronger than ever. Remembrance is less pressing than daily survival, and the time for truth-telling may never come. I suppose this is another reason to persist with in-depth reporting on Darfur—to tell the stories of the living as well as the dead.

In February 2023 you and the Libyan American poet Khaled Mattawa wrote a reflection for the NYR Online on the four weeks you spent together aboard a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) vessel. How has your advocacy work with MSF shaped your writing? 

MSF was founded by doctors and journalists, and I was pulled into the organization by a friend who moved back and forth between humanitarian work and writing. My older MSF colleagues dislike the word “advocacy,” as do I, because of its legal connotations and its association with political lobbies. Some of us dislike the words “testimony” and “witnessing,” too, for similar reasons, although they may get closer to defining what the organization does. One of MSF’s mottos—unusual in the aid industry—is to “tell it as it is.” This is particularly important when our members visit places that other observers are unable to, or witness violence that others cannot testify to. In other words, after an MSF mission, it is my duty to speak out, which is not so different from my duty as a journalist. 

The MSF vessel you were on was searching the Mediterranean Sea for African migrants making their way to Europe. What factors are driving large numbers of people from the continent to risk such a crossing? 

The people fleeing Africa today do so for the same reasons that people have always fled their homes—because their lives there have become unbearable. They are suffering under endless wars and dictatorships, acute social crises and hopeless poverty, and often all of these at the same time. Many of the migrants and refugees I’ve spoken to are unable to tell me precisely why they left; they believe their stories don’t really matter to others. Their sense of loneliness is aggravated by the border policies of European nations, which have subcontracted their security operations to violent forces like the Sudanese police or the Libyan coastguard, who try to block migrants from crossing, respectively, the Sahara and the Mediterranean. Yet this does not stop people from making the perilous journey.

Last year you also wrote for us about Nuba wrestling in Khartoum. What interests you about the sport? 

For more than ten years, I made sure to attend wrestling matches on every visit to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. It struck me that the sport had become an arena in which Arab communities and non-Arab communities—many from Sudan’s war-torn peripheries—were mixing. At the same time, it was also a theater in which opposing political and military forces were confronting each other. In early 2023, as the signs of an imminent civil war became clear, I decided to speak to the wrestlers. Once the war began, I saw many former wrestling friends divide along tribal lines, often with Arabs pitted against non-Arabs. Some even took up arms. You could say the sport is a metaphor for Sudan’s failure to develop a multicultural society. 

How do you compare racial relations in the US and Sudan? 

I am by no means an expert on racial relations in the US (what I know comes from reading books rather than experience), but I would hazard that there are many similarities between the two countries. The problem in Sudan is that the riverine elite look away from Africa and toward the Gulf, aspiring to an “Arab identity” that is supposed to be superior. The root of the discrimination probably lies in the legacy of Arab slavery. In any case, even today, in many Arab or Arabized countries (like Sudan), black people are commonly called slaves—the Arabic word is abd—as if this were their essential identity. Furthermore, discussions of slavery are almost a taboo, which is certainly not the case in the US.

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What has happened in Darfur since you and Joshua Craze published your report last month? 

The SAF and the RSF are still fighting. Peace is not in sight. The “international community” has largely turned a blind eye, not putting enough pressure on the belligerents or providing sufficient funding to humanitarian agencies. MSF is one of the very few organizations still active on the ground. Everyone worries a famine may be next.

The conflict in Darfur—and Sudan, more generally—tends to be overlooked by the Western press. Why is that? 

It is generally agreed that the war in Darfur began in early 2003. My friend Vic Tanner, who did some research on the issue, notes that “the word Darfur did not appear once in the pages of the New York Times in the whole of 2003.” In France, “Le Monde made three passing references to Darfur in 2003—once in an article on Marcel Proust.”*

As far as I can tell, the world woke up to the atrocities in Darfur only in March 2004, when, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsis, Mukesh Kapila, then a UN official in Sudan, called what was happening in Darfur a “genocide.” He said that “the only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved.”  The statements of Kapila and others led to a huge deployment of relief—it’s sometimes described as the largest aid operation since the Marshall Plan. But it was late and short-lived. 

In 2007, when the journalist Julie Flint and I roamed across rebel-held areas for a month, we didn’t see any humanitarian presence. Except for a brief period, Darfur has been forsaken by humanitarians. That’s still the case today. Sudanese friends often ask me why their country doesn’t make international headlines. They know the answer as well as I do: Sudan is at the bottom of the world’s priority list because it is black Africans who are being killed there. 

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