Darfur: the ambiguous genocide
One of the little-noticed effects of the Asian tsunami of last December was that it ended the Darfur famine. A humanitarian crisis that had dominated print and broadcast media for most of that year suddenly evaporated from the face of the earth, at least the part of the earth that is on camera. We are talking media reality here, of course, not reality per se. But as Gérard Prunier observes towards the end of this excellent and authoritative analysis of the continuing Darfur catastrophe, we live in a time when things are not seen as they are, but “in their capacity to create brand images, to warrant a ‘big story’, to mobilise TV time high in rhetoric”. The media can only handle one emotion-laden story at a time, Prunier points out, and the tsunami was “much more politically correct” than the suffering of the people of Darfur. In other words, the tsunami tragedy was heavy on emotion and light on actual politics.
This year’s African horror story is, of course, unfolding in Niger: news of the famine there broke on television screens with awkward timing immediately after the Live8 concerts. Yet the very mention of the country that was last month suddenly “hit by hunger” illustrates how much we need books like Prunier’s. Niger is the latest (though already fading) African disaster story. It is a humanitarian crisis that demands a response and charities and donors have duly responded. But explanations of the causes of the crisis are thin on the ground, and not always convincing.
The media’s – and therefore the public’s – understanding of the Darfur catastrophe was marginally less rudimentary than its apparent understanding of the Niger crisis. Ethnic cleansing was going on in Darfur, certainly. People were being driven out of their villages, and they ended up in camps where they needed feeding. The people doing the “cleansing” saw themselves in some way as Arab, while the people who were “cleansed” were African rather than Arab. So there was a racial factor. The objective of the “cleansing” was difficult to discern as there was no evidence that the aggressors – who conducted their campaign on horseback, in the manner of conflicts in the American Wild West – ever settled the land from which they drove people. They laid waste villages, raped and murdered indiscriminately and that was that. There were strong suggestions that these militias were in the pay of the government in Khartoum, but why the Sudanese Government would want them to behave like this was again something of a mystery. They just did. It was Africa, after all.
The question of the role of the government in the killings, however, led directly to a whole set of further questions about whether what was happening could be categorised as genocide. Prunier, a research professor at the University of Paris who has also written books on the Rwandan genocide and on the Congolese conflict that followed it, addresses this issue head on, with refreshing clarity and with due recognition of its complexities. Part of the reason why the violence in Darfur reached genocidal proportions, he says, was the climate within the Sudanese Government, which was one of “complete contradiction and infighting” among its various cliques, as it responded to an insurgency whose causes reached back – as Prunier demonstrates in forensic detail – to the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium and before. The resulting impression of confusion was partly a deliberate ploy by the Sudanese Government: by issuing completely contradictory statements they could never be held to be in the wrong. “This is a factor”, writes Prunier, “which the international community finds very difficult to understand in its dealings with Khartoum.” For Europeans, he says, the extreme evil of genocide or ethnic cleansing is “a very serious business”. The fact that it could be carried out in haphazard conditions was “unthinkable” for the international community. “The grotesque is not part of its conceptual equipment,” he points out, “and only late in the day did foreigners begin to realise that the horror was far from coherent.” This book is worth reading for that insight alone.
The genocidal model for Europeans is of course the Nazi Holocaust, but this model does not transfer neatly to Africa. There was no Sudanese equivalent of the Wannsee Conference of 1942, in which the top brass of the Nazi regime sat down at a table and decided on the modalities of the Final Solution to the “Jewish question”. The question of intent in the Sudanese context is not so clearcut. Prunier, to his credit, deals brusquely with the semantics of death. The December 1948 International Convention on the prevention and Punishment of Crimes of Genocide defines genocide as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. By this definition, he writes, events in Darfur should certainly qualify as genocide. But Prunier employs another definition, the one that he previously used in his book on Rwanda, according to which genocide would require “a coordinated attempt to destroy a racially, religiously or politically predefined group in its entirety”. By this definition, he argues, the slaughter and deliberate starvation of the inhabitants of Darfur does not constitute genocide.
It is a measure of the jaded cynicism of our times, Prunier says, that killing 250,000 in a genocide is perceived to be more serious and a greater tragedy than killing 250,000 people in non-genocidal massacres. The media must take much of the blame: Prunier draws attention to this example of lazy journalists copying each other and reproducing obsolete data without verification –the routine repetition of a figure of 70,000 dead in Darfur in 2004. While he admits that it is difficult to be completely certain, he makes a convincing case for a figure of 280,000 to 310,000 dead by the beginning of 2005.
Others too come in for incisive criticism. The United Nations Special Envoy for Sudan, Tom Vraalsen, made statements of “almost surreal” optimism and credulousness, calling President Omar el-Beshir’s promise of “unimpeded access” for humanitarian aid a “breakthrough”. (Finally Vraalsen “sobers up”, pointing out that there is a “systematic” denial of access.) Manipulating aid was all part of the programme of destruction in Darfur. The Americans were preoccupied with extracting what information they could from Osama bin Laden’s former hosts in Khartoum, and then so obsessed with making sure the peace deal with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the South was finally signed, that the Khartoum Government could all too easily pull the strings to its own advantage. But the most poisonous role by far was that played by the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, whose furtherance of his Arabist fantasies by interference in neighbouring countries brought untold suffering to millions.
The first chapters of this book offer a detailed and dispassionate account of the history of Darfur. Prunier’s horrific facts speak for themselves and the tone is restrained. The later chapters are a searing indictment of those who must be held responsible for suffering and death on an unimaginable scale. And that means most of us. As long as tragedies such as these can unfold without anyone stopping them, then humanity itself is on trial.