The Darfur crisis in western Sudan, what is being called the first great genocide of the 21st century, has metastasized.
With porous desert borders, the neighbouring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic are now being dragged into it through waves of escaping Afro-Sudanese and Chadian refugees seeking resettlement, and direct military incursions by Sudanese forces in pursuit, or by local proxies of the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime.
Yet, unaccountably, in an age of instantaneous communications, few of us have a very clear idea of what is actually taking place there, and why.
The recent PEN World Voices Festival’s “Crisis Darfur” event in New York gave two distinguished media activists, actor Mia Farrow and French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, an opportunity to report on their continuing visits to Africa’s latest killing fields.
Lévy, author of more than 30 books, including the bestseller American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, made an extensive, clandestine visit to Darfur in 2007, when he reported for Le Monde and for the New Republic on the ethnic cleansing and evidence of genocide he witnessed.
Previously, Lévy had undertaken diplomatic missions for the French government to the Taliban war in Afghanistan and filed front-line reportage from battle areas in Pakistan, Bosnia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Israel.
Accompanying his presentation with projected photographs of bombed mud-brick huts in Darfur’s sub-Saharan region, Lévy expressed his profound shock at the intensity of what he witnessed there, contending: “We should stop speaking of the ”˜crisis’ or the ”˜war’ in Darfur.
This supposes a real war, two real armies. It is a war by an army against a civilian population. Of course, you have some guerrillas, but they are so poorly equipped and armed it cannot be called an army. They have very few weapons. So this is not raiding by the Janjaweed tribesmen; it is aerial bombing or Sudanese-officer led tribesmen coming in armed trucks and jeeps. It’s hard violence.”
The worst of the Darfur carnage is customarily attributed to the Janjaweed, a notorious pro-government militia comprising of northern, traditionally nomadic Muslim tribal soldiers. The government claims to be embarrassed by the killings, village burnings, rape, and persistent abduction of young women by these mobile jeep-equipped tribesmen, but it is difficult to account for the mechanized air assaults on Darfuri villages by “tribals”.
The victims of Janjaweed and government-sanctioned atrocities are predominantly darker-skinned “Afro” agricultural settlers. Males are routinely killed. The abduction of young females follows the hideous pattern established in the long civil war in southern Sudan in which almost two million Afro-Sudanese died and more than 200,000 females were kidnapped into slavery in the north. To date, 2.5 million Darfuris have been displaced by the violence.
It was the overpowering nullity of what has resulted that proved most shocking, Lévy said: “For 500 kilometres travelling one way, then 500 kilometres another—no human life. Complete devastation.”¦There’s a will to erase every trace of human life. I’ve never seen anything to this extent. There is no longer even a place in the memory of the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished, died—not even worthy of remembrance. Why? Why is the international community so passive about this?”
Lévy pointed to the regime in Khartoum that overtly backs the Janjaweed, and he minced no words in calling them murderers. What keeps it going, he explained, is that Sudan has oil. Another factor in why we haven’t called Khartoum to account is that the regime is viewed as having a card to play in the war on terrorism: Osama bin Laden once lived there.
But the main reason the West has held off—and one that gives those working for an end to the crisis what Lévy calls “the deepest reason for our despair”—is the West’s current intellectual ideology. Lévy asserted that prevailing antiracist sentiments have fostered the myth that mass racism and murder on the Darfur scale can only be exercised by white men. Compounding this is the anticolonialist view that because of the western world’s past sins, anything remotely approaching Euro/western cultural involvement is taboo.
“We’ve been taught that we cannot intervene. In France, a lot of people in the left camp—and I acknowledge that I am part of the left—say that we cannot intervene, but we are abandoning these people to their deaths. Ending the situation in Darfur has nothing to do with empire, with imperialism. The crisis has to be corrected by other principles: that a dead man has no colour.”
What can we do? Lévy advocates asking for real sanctions: “It’s what we do in Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe,” he noted. “Freeze Sudan’s not-so-secret monies; impose interdictions on travel; and last but not least, we can plead, because there is one big actor in this game: China. China is the one that provides the weapons. It buys a big part of the oil. It protects Sudan in the Security Council at the United Nations.”
Does it mean a boycott of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing? Lévy argues yes, otherwise “it will be like the Games in Berlin in 1936, the Games of blood and shame. Tell the Chinese to order the Sudanese to stop the bloodbath.”
Mia Farrow concurs. She has consistently used her celebrity—having appeared in more than 40 films—to bring attention to children’s rights, especially in Africa. A survivor of childhood polio, she is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and works extensively to draw attention to the fight to eliminate the disease. She has journeyed to the Darfur region eight times and has written on the holocaust there for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
Like Lévy, she showed photographs. Those from 2004 were taken from the ground and showed simple walled villages: family compounds built of mud and sticks, with goats and other domestic animals, a fruit tree or two; basic subsistence desert-village fare. “These villages are no more,” she related.
Those of the refugee camps were aerial and more recent. Vast patchworks of coloured tent material spread to the horizon on an anvil of parched earth without a scrap of shade. “There are camps of 90,000 people here now,” Farrow reported. “One, the largest refugee camp in the world, has 175,000 people. You can see what the conditions are like; there are no trees or bush.
"The camps are mostly women and children, and deforestation of the local scrub is widespread. The sorghum we send them as aid can take hours to cook, so the women have to walk up to 10 miles to find firewood. They have to walk alone or in small groups through open country or around the low hills, and this is where the Janjaweed ride up on them.
“Women are raped by 20 to 30 men, burned with fire sticks, their breasts scarred. These women—my sisters—they’ve been branded, their legs marked, mutilated so that they hobble after the rape. These women see their children—males—bayoneted before their mother’s eyes. One, Halima, when she was raped was told that now she would give birth to a lighter-skinned child.”
The women in the camps are sub-Saharan blacks, usually Christian or animist, but they may also be Muslim. The Sudanese regime in Khartoum is Arab and Muslim.
But it may be an oversimplification to see the complication in strictly ethnic terms, although this is impossible to ignore. International-relations specialists are calling Darfur the world’s first global-warming military catastrophe—an old-fashioned war over water holes and grazing territory.
If climatic insecurity is at the heart of the slaughter and rape, there are lingering antagonisms that reach back to the British colonial period and long before. Farrow explained that when the British left in 1956, they favoured the Arab government, and it has continued to hold an iron hand against the ethnically Afro south and west.
In 2005, the agreement concluding Sudan’s 30-year civil war with John Garang’s largely Christian and animist Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which defended the black south, called for oil revenues to be shared. However, Farrow suggested this has not been equitably done. The southern agreement calls for a referendum on independence in 2011. Meantime, the killing continues in Darfur.
“The attacks are always the same,” Farrow said. “Morning attacks. Helicopters and planes strafe and bomb the villages, then Janjaweed with machine guns shoot people within close distances of their homes. There are 13-year-olds defending their village with bows and arrows against machine guns. Then the rape”¦women in the camps die of humiliation and shame. And the only message we have sent is that these people are dispensable.
“After the Nazis, we said ”˜Never again,’ ” she stated flatly, “but Oxfam staff inform us that there are two million people from Darfur now out of reach of humanitarian access, and that they are being targeted for attack. We know that 200,000 to 300,000 people have died, yet the number might be as high as half a million people; we just don’t know the exact extent. That’s what is so disturbing: nobody knows. It’s genocide”¦it’s ethnic cleansing.”
Farrow, who speaks passionately and intelligently, makes a singular impression in recounting her many visits to Darfur’s refugee camps. It’s difficult not to be taken by her humility and compassion, and by her conviction on what the pressure point will be in taming the Sudanese regime.
“I cannot conclude without mentioning China,” she said. “Some 70 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues—$4 billion—is used to attack Darfur. The Beijing Olympics has offered us an opportunity to make a difference.
"How can China host the Olympic Games while underwriting the genocide in Darfur? Beijing has hired two major international public-relations firms to sanitize the coverage that China has been getting in the media since the torch relay over its abuse of human rights. For five years, our governments have failed to help Darfur, so individuals are stepping up to protect this agonized population. We can make a difference.”
Farrow invites those wanting to help make a difference to see “What We Can Do” on her Web site, www.miafarrow.org .