The Messy Truth in Darfur

The truth about the conflict in Darfur, write Julie Flint and Alex de Waal in today’s Washington Post, no longer resembles the uncomplicated, good-vs-evil struggle depicted by many NGOs and activist groups. “In Darfur today, knowing who is on which side is not straightforward,” they write, continuing:

For the past three years, Darfur has been descending into this murky world of tribes-in-arms and warlords who serve the highest bidder, with some community leaders of integrity trying to carve out localities of tranquility. Many Arab militias are talking to the rebels; many erstwhile rebel leaders have struck bargains with the regime, receiving high-sounding positions and nice villas in return for providing an adornment to the government’s attempts to show a pluralistic facade.

While the script of many rights campaigners and activists has remained stuck in the groove of “genocide,” Darfur faces something that can be just as deadly in the long term: anarchy.

. . . The other big ongoing crisis, and the major cause of more than 100,000 people being displaced this year, is a multisided conflict in Southern Darfur involving warring Arab militias; rebel commanders from the Sudan Liberation Army who are now allied with the government, though other commanders are fighting it; a militia drawn from West African immigrants; and a rebel commander from the Justice and Equality Movement who answers to no one but himself. Simple, it isn’t.

Sound familiar? It’s not unlike what Kurt Pelda revealed in his “Among Darfur Rebels and Refugees: A Road Diary,” which we published in 21 installments beginning in July. Here’s an excerpt from Pelda’s epilogue to the diary:

Recently, there have been a whole series of militia members and Janjaweed commandeers who have defected to the rebel side. Some Janjaweed also complain that they are not paid enough by Khartoum. In the meanwhile, moreover, there has come into being a rebel group that is at least mostly comprised of “Arabs” and that has likewise taken up arms against Khartoum. Thereby the schematic picture of a struggle between “Arabs” and “Africans” — a picture that has never entirely corresponded to the reality — becomes even more misleading.

Later in the epilogue, Pelda responds to Darfur activists like Mia Farrow who strongly objected to his less-than-flattering portrayal from Day 16 of his diary of the rebel Suleiman Jamous, a man who many Western activists view, perhaps rightly, as a key to peace, but whom many also want to see as beyond moral reproach:

Jamous was a close collaborator of Minni Arkou Minnawi: an adventurer and war criminal, who used all possible means to grab power within the SLA. It is only when Minni signed the Darfur Peace Agreement that Jamous broke with him. As fate would have it, Jamous ended up himself becoming a victim of the monster that he had helped to rise to power. He was taken prisoner by Minni’s thugs and it is only thanks to the intervention of the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which had him flown to Kadugli in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan, that he is still alive. If Jamous is such a great “champion of human rights” as Mia Farrow claims, where was he, then, when as one of Minni’s collaborators he must have known that Minni was having dissidents, both within the SLA and outside it, brutally liquidated? For example: when Minni’s torturers tied the hands and feet of an inconvenient “King” of the Zaghawa to his back and hung him horizontally from a tree until his death finally put an end to the poor man’s sufferings? Minni’s people called this style of execution “plane takeoff.” The image of the “good rebels” who manage, despite the war, not to get their hands dirty is a naïve cliché that corresponds to Hollywood conceptions. But it has little to do with the bitter reality.

And yet it wasn’t just Farrow who objected to Pelda’s daring to characterize Jamous as anything other than a saint. Ironically, Alex de Wall and Julie Flint were among those who, in letters to World Politics Review, criticized Pelda’s airing of the messy reality in Darfur. Alex de Waal even implied that Pelda, a veteran Africa correspondent employed by one of Europe’s finest papers, was nothing more than a “disaster tourist.”

When doing the field research for my Ph.D. during the Darfur famine of 1984-5, I coined the term “disaster tourism” to describe the ways in which dignitaries, journalists and aid workers engaged with Darfur and other far-flung, rarely-[in-the]-news places, rarely taking the time and effort to understand what was really going on and jumping to conclusions that appeared plausible but were often wrong. It seems to me that in his [diary], Mr. Pelda has lived down to this stereotype.

And yet in their piece for the Post, Flint and de Waal come to uncannily similar conclusions about the necessity for activists and NGO employees to resist the urge to turn Darfur into a simple morality play. Here, for example, is what Pelda wrote on Day 18 of his diary:

Because more and more relief agencies follow the U.N. [risk analysis] guidelines, aid workers spend more and more time at their offices and homes and have less and less do with their surrounding environment. . . . Relief workers sometimes look at me in horror when I tell them that I traveled by car on such or such a route. Nonetheless, the aid workers’ lack of knowledge about the population in whose midst they are living can result in fatal miscalculations.

And here’s Flint in de Waal in their Post op-ed:

. . . if you are dispatched to Darfur as a peacekeeper, best to wise up quickly. Leave that fortified camp, step out of that armored car and ask the Darfurian people: “Just what the hell is going on here?”

Could it be that, having read Pelda’s cogent response to their letters in his epilogue, Flint and de Waal felt embarrassed to have found themselves in league with those whose idealism blinds them to reality? And was this op-ed meant as a kind of corrective? Whatever the reason, their belated endorsement of the kind of clear-eyed — and moral — realism that Pelda advocated in his diary is welcome.

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