BOOKS AUGUST 27, 2008
The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur
By Brian Steidle and Gretchen Steidle Wallace
PublicAffairs, 237 pp., $14.95)
War in Darfur and the Search For Peace
Edited by Alex de Waal
Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University and Justice Africa, 431 pp., $24.95)
Darfur's Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide
By M.W. Daly
Cambridge University Press, 368 pp., $22.99)
Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster
By J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins
Markus Wiener Publishers, 340 pp., $28.95)
The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur
By Daoud Hari, as told to Dennis Michael Burke and Megan M. McKenna
(Random House, 204 pp., $23)
Heart of OF Darfur
By Lisa French Blaker
(Hodder & Stoughton, 348 pp., $37.51)
Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival
By Jen Marlowe with Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro
(Nation Books, 259 pp., $15.95)
Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond
By Don Cheadle and John Prendergast
(Hyperion, 252 pp., $14.95)
A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide
By Eric Reeves
(The Key Publishing House, 360 pp., $37.99)
A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity
By Jan Egeland
(Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $27)
In July 2004, a colleague beckoned Brian Steidle into his office and took out a laptop. "As he handed me his computer," writes Steidle in The Devil Came on Horseback, his memoir about Darfur, "a series of the most disturbing images I had ever seen came across the screen"—photographs of young girls who had been handcuffed and burned to death outside their school. Steidle, a former U.S. marine, was working as a peacekeeper in southern Sudan. His job was to monitor a cease-fire between the country's government and the rebels in the south—a cease-fire that had ended a decades-long civil war in which some two million people had died. But just as a tenuous peace was finally taking hold in the south, violence had broken out in Sudan's western corner—a dusty, impoverished region called Darfur. That was where the unbearable pictures had been taken. Steidle was stunned by what he saw on the laptop, and he assumed that others would be stunned, too. "If these photos were released to the public," he e-mailed home, "there would be troops in here in no time."
Four years later, the sentiment seems quaint. For we are awash in information about Darfur. Disturbing photos—now ubiquitous—of torture, death, and starvation are just the beginning of it. There are the regular dispatches of wire service reporters, the drumbeat of opinion columns, and the images beamed home by television cameras. There are more websites maintained by activists and human rights groups than anyone can count. And now there is something else, too: a substantial body of literature, academic and popular, about western Sudan. This was not always the case. Africa may be a continent full of forgotten corners, but until a few years ago not many were quite as forgotten as Darfur. I took an African history course in college, and when, in early 2006, I dug out my textbook (which carries the authoritative-sounding title Africans: The History of a Continent) and looked in the index, I found just four isolated mentions of Darfur. The region's colonial history merited less than a sentence: "Darfur in the Sudan and Ovamboland in northern Namibia were conquered during the First World War, the interior of British Somaliland in 1920." That was the extent of it.
I was, at the time, reading the first two books to trace the historical roots of the crisis—Gerard Prunier's Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide and Alex de Waal and Julie Flint's Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. Searching for something to which I might compare them, I visited the libraries of two large research universities. There I found many books about Sudan, but relatively few about Darfur. The Sudan books contained plenty of detail on the colonial-era exploits of British military men such as Charles Gordon and Horatio Kitchener, the political intrigue that had unfolded in Khartoum in the years since independence, and the decades of civil war between Sudan's northern and southern halves. But in many of those books, Darfur—which contains approximately 15 percent of Sudan's population and about 20 percent of its land mass—was mentioned only as an afterthought.
Today, by contrast, anybody going to a university library—or, for that matter, a Barnes & Noble—in search of information about Darfur would not have a hard time finding it. On the heels of those first two books has come an avalanche of published material about western Sudan—memoirs, journalistic accounts, histories. There is a book by a survivor of the genocide; memoirs by a nurse working for Doctors Without Borders, a top-ranking U.N. official, and an African Union peacekeeper; two collections of essays that narrate the events of the past few years—particularly the failed international effort to stop the killing—in painstaking detail; a book by three activists who snuck into Darfur in November 2004; an account that patiently traces the history of the region; a book that links the Darfur genocide to the decades-long war between Libya and Chad; and even a book—easily the oddest entry in this grim genre—co-authored by the actor Don Cheadle. (About his visit to a camp for Darfuri refugees, Cheadle writes: "Just then, I catch the eye of a little boy, no more than ten or eleven, staring at me tripping. I hope he didn't vibe my slippery state." As if evil will be defeated by cool.) And there are also the movies: documentaries that focus on the experiences of aid workers, activists, and of course the victims themselves—men and women whose faces and voices are captured in hour after hour of stomach-churning interviews, whose children have been murdered and communities destroyed, whose existence is now confined to squalid refugee camps from which they will probably never go home.
All this gives Darfur a morbid sort of distinction. No genocide has ever been so thoroughly documented while it was taking place. There were certainly no independent film-makers in Auschwitz in 1942, and the best-known Holocaust memoirs did not achieve a wide audience until years after the war. The world more or less looked the other way as genocide unfolded in Cambodia during the 1970s, and the slaughter in Rwanda happened so quickly—a mere hundred days—that by the time the public grasped the extent of the horror, the killing was done. But here is Darfur, whose torments are known to all. The sheer volume of historical, anthropological, and narrative detail available to the public about the genocide is staggering. In the case of the genocide in Darfur, ignorance has never been possible. But the genocide continues. We document what we do not stop. The truth does not set anybody free.
If these photos were released to the public, there would be troops in here in no time. That was Brian Steidle's hope—more, his expectation—in 2004. And his assumption—that if only Americans could see what was happening in Darfur, they would take the steps necessary to end the killing—was by no means a radical one. It is an assumption that is shared, in one form or another, by many who have commented on Darfur in recent years: by Daoud Hari, a refugee and translator from the persecuted Zaghawa tribe who, after fleeing his country, repeatedly took outlandish risks in order to shepherd Western writers back into the killing fields of Darfur, and who wrote a memoir of his experiences "because I know most people want others to have good lives, and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to steer the world back toward kindness"; by Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda, who, in his preface to one of the Darfur books, implores readers, "Now that you know, what do you plan to do?"; and by the victims themselves, who, in film after film, look into the camera and relay their horrific stories, clearly hoping that their honesty will shake the world from its slumber.
The assumption is really quite simple: that knowledge will beget action. It is hardly unique to Darfur. (It is, among other things, one of the moral foundations of journalism. War correspondents, high school reporters investigating unsanitary conditions in the school cafeteria, and everyone in between—all are acting on the idea that injustice will be remedied if only it is exposed.) But Darfur has tested this assumption in the realm of genocide; and the results, now conclusive, give grounds for a measure of despair. The first part of Brian Steidle's wish was granted—the photos were released—but not the second part. The troops did not arrive. Or, to be more precise, not the troops Steidle was hoping for—not the troops that would have been capable of stopping the killing.
In the years after Steidle first saw those photos, peacekeepers would gradually trickle into Darfur under different mandates—first African Union troops, then United Nations forces. But their ranks have yet to grow beyond a paltry 9,000, and they have made little progress in stopping the destruction, let alone in reversing it by allowing millions of displaced Darfuris to begin returning to the land that was stolen from them almost overnight. While the killing and the ethnic cleansing no longer take place at the feverish pace at which they once did, the genocide continues to this day. The Sudanese military periodically bombs towns belonging to non-Arab tribes, forcing villagers to flee. The Janjaweed—Arab militias unleashed by the government to terrorize civilians—have not been disarmed, and they continue to rape and to kill. In the camps to which they are confined, the displaced still die of malnutrition and disease.
All the information—the dispatches, the websites, the columns, the books, the films—have not roused anybody with the power to stop this tragedy actually to stop it. In the documentary movie that he made to go along with The Devil Came on Horseback—which is the best written of the Darfur memoirs and the most politically astute—Steidle comes to grips with this crushing fact: "I honestly thought, as I wrote in an email home, that if the people of America could see what I've seen, there'd be troops here in one week.... Man, I am so naive. Because that's not true at all. They've seen it now. And we've still done nothing."
Steidle's role in Darfur as an unarmed "observer" was in many ways a perfect metaphor for the world's response. As he reports in his memoir, after he saw the pictures of the murdered schoolgirls, he requested a transfer from southern Sudan to Darfur, where he worked for the African Union during some of the worst months of the killing. His job was to monitor violations of one of the bogus cease-fires that the Sudanese government signed during the early days of the conflict—cease-fires that the government had no intention of honoring, but that provided an effective diplomatic cover under which the work of ethnic cleansing could continue. After a village had been attacked, almost always by the government or the Janjaweed, Steidle and his team would investigate, interviewing victims and photographing the destruction. With the information they gathered, they would write reports, which were sent to African Union headquarters in Ethiopia and then to the countries that were funding the observer mission. Their role was only to document, never to protect.
Toward the end of his tenure in Darfur, Steidle speaks to a Janjaweed commander who alleges that rebels have kidnapped members of his tribe and stolen cattle, taking them to non-Arab villages: "He announced ... that he would attack each village, kill all inhabitants, and burn the towns to the ground." After consulting maps, Steidle concludes that a village called Hamada will be first. He reports this prediction to his team's commander, a callous African Union official known as Colonel Mohammed, who brushes the warning aside. One week later, Steidle's colleagues return from a patrol looking "aghast." "A massacre had taken place at Hamada," Steidle writes. "Of the 450 villagers, 107 had been brutally tortured and murdered. Bodies were strewn along blood-soaked village paths. Infants had been crushed. Toddlers had their faces smashed in with rifle butts, their bodies tossed into the dirt. Deep gashes in a bloody tire bore witness to its use as a chopping block; beside it was an axe."
Steidle had known the killing was coming. Indeed, the person who perpetrated the killing had told Steidle exactly what he was going to do. Yet all Steidle could do was observe. On another occasion he finds himself circling a burning village in a helicopter when, from the sky, he spots two vehicles speeding away with loot. "If we had a mandate to defend these people, and if I was looking through a scope instead of looking through the lens of my camera, these vehicles would be done," he says. "These people could return to their village, and they'd be safe. Well, I was taking pictures."
Like Brian Steidle, we are all observers now. For more than four years, we have known exactly what is going on in western Sudan, yet we have failed to halt (or even to impede) it. To be sure, Darfur is not the only man-made disaster that has unfolded in the world in recent years; far from it. In North Korea, Burma, and Zimbabwe, populations are also suffering the effects of political cruelty. What has taken place in Darfur may or may not be judged "worse" than such extreme repression—who could really judge whether Kim Jong Il is a crueler man than Omar Bashir?—but it is certainly different. Liberation is possible for victims of political repression, but the dead cannot be liberated. Tyranny is an outrage, but genocide is an outrage and an emergency.
And so Darfur merited a different response than other contemporary tragedies, a swift and effective response that we did not deliver. The genocide may not be over, but the verdict on the world's reaction is in: we have failed. We have been hypocrites and we have failed. How could this have happened? How could we have known so much and done so little? The story of how we acquiesced in the destruction of Darfur is not a simple one. But from the burgeoning literature on the subject, it is possible to begin piecing together some explanations.
For centuries the Fur were the most powerful group in Darfur, ruling the area through a dynasty of sultans that arose in the 1600s. The word "Dar" means homeland, so "Darfur" literally means "homeland of the Fur," although the area we today call Darfur has long been home to numerous tribes. Besides the Fur, the largest non-Arab (or African) groups are the Masalit and the Zaghawa; others include the Tunjur and the Daju. Darfur is home to numerous Arab tribes as well, including the Rizayqat, Habbaniyya, Ta'aisha, Bani Halba, Misiriyya, and Ma'alia. The divisions between African and Arab are not as clear-cut as one might imagine. For one thing, all Darfuris are Muslim. (Their brand of Islam draws substantially on local traditions and has historically been more liberal than versions practiced throughout much of the Middle East. In an essay included in the volume War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, edited by Alex de Waal, Ahmed Kamal El-Din calls it "a Sufi, tranquil, tolerant, and consequently popular Islam.") For another thing, intermarriage between the groups has blurred the ethnic distinctions over generations, and, at least to Western eyes, the Africans and Arabs of Darfur look similar.
In general, the African tribes are sedentary farmers, while the Arab tribes are nomadic herders, but this is not true across the board. The Zaghawa, for instance, are both Africans and herders. Moreover, while the violence of the past five years has generally consisted of Arab groups targeting African groups, the contours of the fighting have not always been so straightforward. Some Arab groups have stayed out of the conflict altogether. Meanwhile, the African groups have sometimes managed to unite in resisting the onslaught but have sometimes fought among themselves.
The genocide is partly a conflict among ethnic groups within Darfur for land. But, as Alex de Waal argues in the opening essay of War in Darfur, it is best understood as a conflict between Sudan's center and its periphery—a conflict in which the government in Khartoum has co-opted Arab Darfuris to help defeat rebels from the African population. "The hyper-dominance of the national capital is the single most important reality in Sudan today," de Waal observes.
The awkward co-existence between Darfur in the west and Khartoum in the east has deep historical roots. As with so many countries in Africa, Sudan's unwieldy borders were created at the whim of outside powers, and the historical justifications for Darfur's inclusion in Sudan are weak to say the least. Darfur was an independent entity until 1874, when an Arab slave trader named Al Zubayr Rahma Mansur amassed an army and set out to conquer the Fur sultanate. He succeeded, but not for long: sensing an opportunity to expand their reach, Egypt and the Turks, who had already conquered other parts of Sudan in 1821, moved westward into the region. In 1885, a charismatic Sudanese holy man known as the Mahdi evicted the Egyptians and Turks from Sudan. In 1898, his successor was in turn evicted by the British, who now assumed control of Khartoum. In the chaos that attended the British takeover, Ali Dinar, heir to the Fur sultanate, seized power in Darfur and reached a deal with the British under which Darfur would be independent once again.
That was how things remained until the outbreak of World War I, when England began to worry that Darfur, a Muslim state, might be inclined to support the Ottomans in the war. And so, according to the historian M.W. Daly, the British authorities in Khartoum resorted to a strategy for pursuing their interests in western Sudan that will sound quite familiar to us nearly a century later: they "began secretly to arm the Arab tribes of Darfur" against the Fur rule of Ali Dinar. In 1916, the British deposed Ali Dinar and made Darfur part of Sudan for good.
For the next forty years, the British and the Egyptians would share sovereignty over Sudan, though it was the British who held the true levers of power. For Darfur, this period was characterized by intentional neglect: the region remained poor and underdeveloped, even as the center of the country lurched fitfully toward the modern world. The colonial period in Darfur is chronicled in impressive detail in Daly's book, which is far and away the best of the historical works. His chapter on the colonial neglect of Darfur is full of telling quotations from British officials—like the one who, in arguing against expanding educational opportunities for Darfuri children, cautioned against developing a local elementary school "into something ... more than the district needed or deserved." By the time Sudan declared independence in 1956, Darfur lagged so far behind the country's center—in education, infrastructure, and wealth—that it might as well have been a separate nation.
And Sudan's new leaders had no intention of helping it catch up. Through decades' worth of twists and turns in Sudanese politics—a democratic government, followed by a military regime, followed by another democratic government, followed by another military regime, followed by a third democratic interlude that ended in 1989 with the rise of the National Islamic Front, the odious party that rules Sudan to this day—Khartoum's basic approach to governing Darfur was not so dissimilar from that of the British. Daly calls it "internal colonialism." Whatever it was, it ensured that Darfur remained underdeveloped and neglected, even when, as during periods of crushing famine in the 1970s and 1980s, the region desperately needed help from the government that was, in theory, responsible for it.
The ethnic makeup of Darfur and the historical tension between the center of Sudan and the outlying west are the two most obvious roots of the genocide—but they are just the beginning of the story. The third factor arrived on the scene in 1969, in the figure of a young Libyan colonel named Muammar Qaddafi. Today Qaddafi is largely viewed in the West as something of an irrelevant eccentric, popping up occasionally from his desert kingdom to issue odd pronouncements on geopolitics but more or less leaving the rest of the world alone. It is easy to forget the zeal with which the wild young radical set about destabilizing and terrorizing Africa during his first decades in power. Indeed, the portrait of Qaddafi that emerges from J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins's book (a detailed and dry account of the Chad-Libya relationship and its impact on Darfur) is that of a man who was in some way addicted to violence and intrigue.
Although Qaddafi claimed to be an opponent of imperialism, he was in fact Africa's foremost imperialist. As Burr and Collins write, his political philosophy resembled nothing so much as Mussolini's: a desire for the grandeur of empire combined with a belief that his own race was destined to rule over others. In his quest for empire, Qaddafi was constantly proposing "unions" with other countries, and constantly being disappointed when his offers were resisted. Immediately after taking power, Qaddafi surprised Nasser in Egypt with a request for union between the two nations, and he would later demand union with Sudan as well. But for twenty-five years his designs would focus mainly on Chad.
Chad, like Sudan, straddles the border between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, with a population made up of both African and Arab tribes. When Qaddafi came to power, Chad was ruled by Francois Tombalbaye, a Christian African from the south. This was unacceptable to Qaddafi, so he began funding the National Liberation Front of Chad (better known by its French acronym, FROLINAT), the northern Chadian rebels who were seeking to overthrow Tombalbaye. He also seized a piece of land in Chad called the Aozou Strip, claiming that it was historically part of Libya. As Chadian leaders came and went, as rebel leaders fell and rose, as ethnic alliances among Chad's rebel groups shifted, Qaddafi continued to seek control of the country to his south. In late 1980, he and his Chadian proxy forces succeeded in toppling Chad's government, leading the Libyan leader to declare the "complete unity" of the two countries. But this union was short-lived, as Chad's deposed president, Hissene Habre, soon regrouped and took back the capital. For a time, Libya controlled the northern half of the country and Habre ruled the southern half—the two parties separated by French troops. It was not until 1994 that Qaddafi, exhausted by decades of war, would finally leave Chad for good.
What did all this have to do with Darfur? First, there were the weapons. Throughout his long war with Chad, Qaddafi used Darfur as a base, sometimes with the acquiescence of Sudanese leaders. "The influx of arms into Darfur," write Burr and Collins, "was the most criminal act by Qaddafi in the thirty years' war for Chad." Second, there was the ideology. Qaddafi's brand of Arab supremacism trickled into Darfur along with his guns. Libya backed the formation of a Darfur-based group known as the Arab Gathering, an alliance of leaders that sought to promote the interests of Arab tribes. As Arab groups organized and armed, so did the Fur and Zaghawa. Small-scale wars began to break out among various groups. Suddenly the inhabitants of Darfur were more inclined than ever to conceive of their identities in starkly racial terms. And thanks in part to Qaddafi's long war in Chad, they had the weapons to act on their grievances.
Into this volatile situation, in 1989, stepped the National Islamic Front. Led by General Omar Bashir, the NIF overthrew the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al Mahdi and assumed power in Sudan. Though the NIF was not the first military government in Sudan's history, it represented a clear break with what had come before. As Burr and Collins explain, "Bashir imposed the most implacable authoritarian government in the history of the Sudan, ancient or modern, to the astonishment if not disbelief of the Sudanese." Daly describes the NIF as "totalitarian," and this is not a stretch. Ideologically, the NIF was a toxic brew of some of the worst traditions to come out of the Middle East and Africa over the previous half-century: it combined the austere devotion to radical Islam of the Saudi monarchs, the Arab supremacism of Qaddafi, and the cold pragmatism of the postcolonial African dictator whose main objective is to cling to power at all costs.
As tribal conflict mounted in Darfur—in addition to Qaddafi's weapons, environmental factors were exacerbating tensions, as drought and famine drove large numbers of Arabs and Zaghawa from Chad into Sudan, changing Darfur's ethnic balance at a time when the total amount of arable land was diminishing due to desertification—the NIF supported the Arab militias. It also reorganized the governance of Darfur, dividing the region into new districts in order to reduce the numerical dominance of the Fur. But even as the NIF introduced new problems into western Sudan, it maintained faith with at least one venerable Sudanese tradition: it kept Darfur, as a whole, underdeveloped and poor.
The deteriorating situation in Darfur in the 1990s did not elicit much notice from the world, in part because the news out of Sudan tended to focus on the civil war in the country's south. Unlike the conflict in Darfur, this war had religious dimensions—southern Sudanese, in contrast to Darfuris, are Christians and animists—but many of the dynamics that would characterize the Darfur genocide were in play here as well: Arabs fighting Africans; the central government using violence to maintain control of a poor, peripheral region with only tenuous historical links to the rest of the country; the arming by Khartoum of proxy forces with links to other countries in order to terrorize Sudanese civilians (in this case, the Lord's Resistance Army, a sadistic cult of Ugandans known for brainwashing children and amputating their victims' limbs). As would be the case in Darfur, the utter ruthlessness of the NIF—extreme even by the standards of third-world dictatorships—was on full display. For instance, the NIF denied food aid to civilians believed to be sympathetic to the rebels, resulting in upward of 500,000 deaths. (The depredations of this era are summarized in Not on Our Watch, the peculiar book by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. If you can get past the sections written in Cheadle's exceedingly bizarre and offensively digressive voice, the book contains some useful historical information.)
John Garang, the leader of the southern rebels, was no angel, and he was certainly responsible for his share of abuses. But Garang did represent a population with legitimate grievances. And the NIF chose to fight Garang essentially by committing genocide against the civilian population from which his soldiers came. The moral difference between Garang and the NIF was significant. This was a government that had no compunction about killing massive numbers of its own citizens. In the end, some two million people died in the south before the Bush administration—under pressure from American evangelicals, who had taken an interest in the plight of their fellow Christians in southern Sudan—finally helped to broker a peace deal, which, after more than two years of negotiations, was signed in early 2005.
It was around the time these negotiations started that Darfuri rebels took up arms. The timing was not a coincidence. Darfuris were worried that they would be further marginalized in the new Sudan that would emerge from an agreement between the south and the north. The south had fought for a stake in Sudan, for the right to be treated as more than an impoverished peripheral outpost, subservient to the central government. Darfuris had similar anxieties, and similar hopes. In April 2003, two groups made up of Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit—the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement—launched a successful attack on a military airfield in the region. The Darfur rebellion was under way.
Khartoum was caught by surprise, but by July of that year it had formulated a response. It would do what it had done in the south: crush the rebels by exterminating, or at least displacing, the African tribal groups from which the resistance had sprouted. To help accomplish this task, Khartoum turned to its longtime allies, the Arab tribes of Darfur. The historical competition for land between ethnic groups, now exacerbated by environmental factors; the longstanding tensions between the center of Sudan and its western edge; the infusion of weapons and Arab supremacism from Qaddafi in the north; the brutality of the men who ran the NIF to the east; the impending arrival of a peace deal in the south—all these factors had brought the African tribes of Darfur to a terrible moment in their history. And so the descent into genocide began.
The Darfur literature chronicles what happened next in two separate genres. The memoirs (as well as many of the documentaries) tell the awful story of what transpired on the ground—the individual tales of torture, rape, and brutality—while other books focus on the developments (or lack thereof) in Washington, at the United Nations, and in Khartoum. To read these accounts in tandem is a maddening experience, since they cover the same time periods but seem to take place in parallel worlds. In one world, those on the ground in Darfur witness unimaginable and systematic cruelties on a daily basis—crimes that call out for a strong and speedy response. In the other world, international leaders conduct peace talks, urge patience, contemplate sanctions, and wrangle with one another at the United Nations—actions that would never even come close to stopping the killing.
Other than Steidle's, the most powerful of the Darfur memoirs belongs to Daoud Hari, a survivor of the genocide. His story could scarcely be more harrowing. A Zaghawa raised in a North Darfur village, he is sent by his family to school in El Fasher, the region's largest city. There he learns English, reads Western literature, and develops an interest in the wider world. Next he immigrates to Libya; then, in pursuit of higher wages, he moves to Egypt; then he is caught trying to sneak into Israel, where he had hoped to find still better pay. He is extradited to prison in Egypt and eventually released to Chad. From there he heads back into Darfur to reunite with his family.
By this time, however, the genocide is under way, and as Hari travels home, he watches the disaster unfold. In one village, he learns that "junked appliances and other scrap metal had been packed around the huge bombs dropped by the Sudanese government, creating a million flying daggers with each explosion…. Most of those killed by the bombs were buried in several pieces." In another town, he notes that the residents' water sources have been bombed. Watching the young men of this village join up with the rebels, Hari observes that "no one in the boys' families would try to stop them. It was as if everybody had accepted that we were all going to die, and it was for each to decide how they wanted to go." He finally arrives in his own village just as it is about to be destroyed by the Sudanese Army and the Janjaweed in an assault that kills his older brother. Hari flees toward Chad with the survivors. Along the way he meets residents of other villages who are doing the same, all with their own horrible stories. He learns of a woman who has hanged herself from a tree after being raped by the Janjaweed. When Hari finds her, "two of her three children were dead. The third child died in our arms."
In Chad, Hari uses his command of English to work with NGOs and international officials. He sees more suffering and hears more stories: "So many villages were caught completely by surprise: surrounded, burned alive, massacred from helicopters above and Janjaweed below, with only a few escaping, or a few coming from other villages to find everyone dead and the bodies burned in heartbreaking positions; mothers died trying to protect their children and husbands died trying to protect their wives." The suffering is monumental in scale and excruciating in the particulars. Hari talks to a man whose four-year-old daughter was speared in the stomach by a Janjaweed fighter's bayonet. The soldier then lifted her dying body—still alive and bleeding—into the air and danced underneath it in celebration. The father, tied to a nearby tree, watched the entire episode. "It took a long time for her to die," the man tells Hari, "her blood coming down so fresh and red on this—what was he? a man? a devil? He was painted red with my little girl's blood and he was dancing. What was he?"
Next Hari begins serving as a translator for journalists, leading them in and out of Darfur. In one town he learns that "villagers escaping up a hillside were machine-gunned from helicopters" and sees "the hill still littered with at least thirty-five bodies—many of them children." Later, while translating for BBC reporters, he comes across a forested area on the outskirts of a village. "We walked through a strange world of occasionally falling human limbs and heads," he recalls. "A leg fell near me. A head thumped to the ground farther away." And then: "eighty-one men and boys fallen across one another, hacked and stabbed to death in that same attack." Hari's career as a translator ends when, during one of his forays into Darfur, he is captured by a rebel group aligned with the government. Turned over to the Sudanese military, he is tortured and then put on trial, before Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico—the home state of the National Geographic reporter with whom Hari had been traveling—arrives in Darfur to negotiate their freedom.
The other on-the-ground chronicles—Heart of Darfur and Darfur Diaries—are neither as well-written as Steidle's nor as gripping as Hari's. Still, the stories they relate add to the historical record. Heart of Darfur is written by a Doctors Without Borders nurse from New Zealand who traveled to Darfur in 2005 and 2006. Unlike the other writers, who are more interested in the politics of the situation, Lisa French Blaker writes from an almost exclusively humanitarian perspective: her role in Darfur was to save lives, not to reach political conclusions, and her book focuses on recounting tales of human suffering, not analyzing the causes of that suffering. "The politics of war are complicated, too complicated for a nurse like me," she demurs.
And yet Blaker's perspective as a nurse makes her story a useful historical document. Unlike many journalists and activists who were able to travel only in rebel-held territory, Blaker, because she worked for a humanitarian organization, went everywhere. And the differences between her descriptions of rebel territory and government territory are stark. In rebel territory, humanitarian workers generally seem welcome, whereas the government goes out of its way to obstruct medical workers operating in its territory, setting arbitrary limits on the amount of work they are able to do in vulnerable areas.
Blaker and her team make several visits to a town called El Wadi, which had been attacked by the Sudanese Liberation Army but was still held by the government. "The Zaghawa tribe, among others, were being treated badly and threatened because of their presumed support of the SLA attack," she writes. "But there were no outsiders to see what unfolded." Their trips to El Wadi require approval from a Sudanese military official named "Commander Ali," who allows them into town for short periods but seems bent on hampering their work by intimidating patients and limiting the lengths of their visits. ("I know who you are and we do not need your services," the commander initially tells the group. But "Steve negotiated and the commander gave a little.... We could have two hours to look at the sickest patients. Two hours in a village of 20,000 people, and again I was the only medical person.") On Blaker's final visit to El Wadi, Commander Ali abruptly evicts the team after learning that Blaker has treated two young children for gunshot wounds. He had forbidden the team to treat anyone with gunshot wounds, presumably because he regarded them as rebels—never mind that Blaker's patients were a seven-year-old boy and his little sister. Both had been shot in the legs by soldiers who were firing guns into homes in the hope of nabbing rebels.
Although Blaker does not say so, anecdotes like these make her book probably the most damning account to date of what many observers have termed "genocide by attrition"—the Sudanese government's policy of killing off African tribes not by marching them into gas chambers, but by disrupting their livelihoods and then systematically denying them access to the medical and humanitarian help they need to survive. What other explanation could there be for a commander enraged by the prospect of a seven-year-old boy and his little sister being treated for gunshot wounds?
The authors of Darfur Diaries—three young human rights activists—snuck into Darfur in November 2004 and toured a number of villages. They, too, add to the historical record with their stories of savagery—again, almost all at the hands of the government or the Janjaweed. After a while, reading all these books together, the tales become strikingly repetitive. Over and over, villages are bombed by government planes and swarmed by Janjaweed fighters; women are raped; survivors flee toward camps, with many dying along the way. These similarities point to something significant: they suggest the systematic nature of what has occurred in Darfur over the past several years. Taken together, the books show why the Darfur tragedy cannot be dismissed as just a series of bad things. At a certain point, the mountain of nearly identical anecdotes contained in the Darfur literature (not to mention the reports of human rights organizations and the dispatches of wire services) pile so high that they leave the realm of the anecdotal and become something more—a record of murderous collective malice that has to be regarded as greater, and more pre-meditated, than the sum of its individual parts.
Radical evil has become commonplace in Darfur. It is impossible to reach any other conclusion. There are simply too many government-sponsored men who show up in these narratives solely for the purpose of committing almost incomprehensible acts of cruelty. The sadism knows no bounds. Heart of Darfur describes the fate of a nineteen-year-old pregnant woman named Miriam whose husband had been killed six months before. One afternoon Janjaweed entered her home, and one of them tapped her pregnant belly. "What have you got in there?" he asked. "I think she's got money inside," said another. And so they "beat her with their guns, pushed her to the ground and kicked, punched and whipped her. They laughed as she rolled, made bets as they joked who would get the money, wondering how much she had inside. When they tired of their game some time later her baby was dead and Miriam went into labour."
Stories such as this one should disgust us, and they do. But one effect of the extraordinary amount of knowledge we have about Darfur is that these stories eventually run together and gradually lose their power to shock. Horrors become tropes; repetition eventually numbs the moral imagination. Consider how the sheik of the town of Shegeg Karo, interviewed in a typical passage in Darfur Diaries, explains what happened to his village: "The government came first, shooting and bombing. The people ran away to the mountains to hide. The janjaweed came after to finish. There has been nobody to protect us but Allah." If that is the first description you have heard of the destruction in Darfur, it sounds alarming. After four books of similar anecdotes—many of them far more gruesome—the tale of the sheik of Shegeg Karo starts to sound downright prosaic. It is a terrible thing to admit, but the more information we consume about Darfur, the less shocking each piece of new information seems. And surely that is a part of the problem. Ignorance is not the only ally of indifference; sometimes knowledge, too, blunts the heart and the will.
While all this was happening in Darfur, a parallel story was unfolding on the world stage. The most complete moment-by-moment account of the geopolitics surrounding the genocide is provided by Eric Reeves, an English professor turned Darfur activist who has published regular columns about Sudan on his website for years. Recently he collected many of these writings in A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide. (Reeves has written often for this magazine in recent years, and I have usually been his editor.) His book begins in late 2003 and proceeds more or less chronologically. Reeves never travels to Darfur to witness the genocide first-hand, but his book is a testament to the value of obsessively reading wire services and human rights reports that everyone else ignores. In December 2003, more than a month before The New York Times first mentioned the mounting catastrophe and many months before it would dawn on Americans that a genocide was under way, he cited a dispatch from the U.N. wire service IRIN, which relayed the following quote from a tribal leader: "I believe this is an elimination of the black race."
Reeves writes in a sustained rage, hurling invective at anyone and everyone who might act to rescue Darfur but does not do so. The titles of his columns say it all: "June 1, 2004—Acquiescing Before Unambiguous Genocide in Darfur: The United Nations, Europe, Canada, the Arab League, the African Union"; "July 1, 2004—Annan and Powell Visit Sudan—Mortality Figures Rise—No Sense of Urgency"; "December 6, 2004—Genocide in Darfur—No Humanitarian Intervention—Equivocation—Avoidance of Moral Responsibility." You get the idea. The columns are extremely repetitive, but that is precisely the point: again and again Reeves argues for the powers to send a substantial number of troops to Darfur; again and again, the powers opt for lesser measures. He repeats his arguments, they repeat what they do (or don't do), and the hell continues.
Reeves was not the only writer to narrate the international community's failed efforts to stop the genocide. A number of essays in War in Darfur do the same; and Jan Egeland, the former U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, devotes a chapter of his new memoir (a fairly flat chronicle of his years in international politics) to his coordination of relief efforts in Darfur—efforts that the Sudanese government, acting on its policy of genocide by attrition, often obstructed. Reading this material with the benefit of hindsight, a number of themes emerge. The first is the grossly inadequate nature of the responses contemplated by the international community at nearly every step along the way. In June 2004, for instance, after the genocide had been going on for almost a year, and at which point the death toll may already have reached 100,000, Reeves noted that Hilary Benn, Britain's international development secretary, had come out against humanitarian intervention. "I do not think it is a helpful suggestion," he said. "I think we should let the monitors do their work. I think they will make a difference." As Reeves points out, Benn was talking about ten African Union monitors who were being sent to Darfur. Ten monitors in response to the deaths of 100,000 people!
Three weeks later, Reeves cites an Associated Press report paraphrasing Colin Powell: "As a stick, Powell warned that the United States might take the issue to the UN Security Council if Sudan ignored the problem. He believes that got Bashir's attention because no government wants the stigma of Security Council sanctions." That was our idea of a stick capable of stopping the carnage: to threaten to report the murderer to the United Nations, where he might be hit with sanctions. In retrospect, this seems delusional. Around the same time, as Reeves notes, the United States ludicrously proposed placing an international travel ban on Janjaweed leaders—as if such a threat might really cause those bent on raping and looting to reconsider. All the while, as they settled for half-measures, international leaders counseled patience. Reeves notes that Robert Zoellick, Bush's deputy secretary of state, urged patience with the African Union while testifying before Congress in June 2005. Later that year, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer would tell a reporter that ending the genocide "is a long process."
The second theme is the international community's persistent faith that negotiations between the rebels and the government would somehow stop the killing. In fact, they probably ended up enabling it. War in Darfur contains several essays on the political negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. The first cease-fire agreement between the government and rebels came in September 2003. That cease-fire was extended in November 2003. Another cease-fire was signed in April 2004. Peace talks were held in July 2004. The peace talks continued in August 2004. Another round began in October 2004. The parties convened again in December 2004. In June 2005, the parties negotiated more. And again in September 2005. And again in late November, with this final round lasting five long months until early May 2006, when a deal was finally inked—a deal that did not end the genocide at all.
All told, the parties held seven rounds of peace talks over nearly two years, straight through some of the worst days of the genocide. Think of it this way: while the NIF was burning towns, raping huge numbers of women, and forcing Darfur's African tribes into camps, it was also sitting at a negotiating table and stalling for time—and being indulged in this farce by international mediators. Many of the authors in War in Darfur seem oblivious to how absurd this looks in retrospect. Dawit Toga, a member of the African Union team that mediated the talks, writes with a straight face that "although the parties were unable to agree on an agenda and on a concrete framework on how to proceed, the Addis Ababa meeting sensitized the mediators and allowed them to better understand the issues at stake." The negotiations to which Toga is referring took place in July 2004—the same month that Brian Steidle saw the pictures of the schoolgirls who had been burned alive.
The work of diplomats certainly has its place in international politics; but how could mere mediators, no matter how "sensitized," ever deliver peace when one of the negotiating parties was in the process of carrying out mass murder? A part of the problem with negotiating an end to genocide is that negotiations depend on the good faith of the participants. The parties cannot be liars, or people for whom a signature on a paper is just a tactical move. But throughout the Darfur conflict, the NIF has demonstrated a contempt for truth that, even by the standards of authoritarian propaganda, must count as brazen. (To this day, the government claims that only 10,000 people have died in Darfur. Estimates by reliable sources differ, but most news organizations put the number between 200,000 and 400,000.)
In the end, the Darfur Peace Agreement signed in May 2006 was stillborn, because it was signed by only one of the rebel factions. (The JEM did not sign, and by this point the SLA had split into two factions, only one of which signed.) But even if all the parties had accepted the agreement, is it really conceivable that the NIF would have stopped the killing, disarmed the Janjaweed, and allowed the millions of displaced people to go home? The NIF had spent the past several years killing hundreds of thousands of its own people while technically observing cease-fires. Who in their right mind would trust such a government to implement a peace agreement?
Eventually it did seem to dawn on the international community that only troops—and not peace negotiations—were going to stop the killing. And that led to the final misstep: the decision to work with the United Nations to get troops into Darfur. The United Nations plays many useful roles in the world; indeed, as Egeland argues in his memoir, it has often played a useful humanitarian role in Darfur itself, helping to coordinate the delivery of food, medicine, and water and thereby keeping millions alive in the camps. But while the United Nations was a perfectly good vehicle for delivering aid, it proved to be a terrible vehicle for delivering troops.
The first troops to go into Darfur were soldiers of the African Union. They were overmatched from the start. While their ranks eventually grew to 7,000, they never came close to controlling catastrophe. Indeed, their mandate explicitly prevented them from doing so. They were allowed only to observe the violence, not to stop it. "You are witnessing what happens, but you aren't helping," one Darfuri told a contingent of A.U. troops in October 2006, according to the Associated Press. This was a pretty fair summary of the A.U.'s role.
One sequence in Heart of Darfur revolves around a compound that the African Union set up on the edge of a village called Saleem. With Janjaweed intimidating the local population in town, many non-Arabs decided they had to leave. Some fled toward rebel-held territory, but others decided to set up an impromptu camp in what Blaker describes as "the barbed wire wasteland that circled the African Union's compound." Outside the compound, they hoped they would be safe. The problem was, they needed water. And the African Union at first refused to share its water, wanting the people to go away. Eventually Doctors Without Borders convinced the A.U. to start regularly filling two barrels of water for the civilians. Sometimes the A.U. followed through on its promise to supply the water; sometimes, in a bid to get the displaced to return to their homes—homes where they would likely be killed or raped—the A.U. withheld it. Predictably enough, disease and dehydration spread in the makeshift camp outside the compound, allowing the genocide to run its course.
None of this should have happened. A proper protection force would have gone into the town and evicted the Janjaweed. But the A.U. was not much of a protection force. By the middle of 2005, it was clear that the A.U. had to be replaced. When the Bush administration decided to work through the United Nations to make that happen, however, problems began to crop up. The name of the biggest problem was China. Since China, which purchases Sudanese oil and sells the country weapons, holds a veto on the Security Council, there was never a chance that the United Nations would authorize a non-consensual deployment of troops. This meant that no troops would enter Darfur without Khartoum's approval. And just like that, the international community found that it had essentially given those committing the genocide veto power over whether and when forces would be deployed to stop them.
Not surprisingly, Khartoum delayed and wrangled for two long years. It was January 2008 before U.N. troops—technically it was a U.N.—A.U. hybrid force—took over peacekeeping duties in Darfur. It is difficult to know exactly how many people died in the time between when the United States resolved to dispatch a U.N. force and when the deployment finally happened, but the number is undoubtedly substantial. Moreover, the U.N. force has not exactly stopped the killing. For one thing, it can do nothing to prevent the Sudanese Air Force from bombing villages, which Khartoum has done several times since the United Nations hit the ground. For another, seven months into the mission, only 9,000 of the promised 26,000 troops have deployed. This is nowhere near the manpower that is necessary to provide the security that would allow Darfuris to begin their return home. And so they remain huddled in camps, waiting for help that is probably never going to come.
What should we have done instead? There were drawbacks to every available option; but given that only international troops could provide the security Darfuris needed (and still need), and given that the United Nations has for many reasons proved a disastrous vehicle for supplying those troops, it seems clear in retrospect that a NATO coalition—acting, as it did in Kosovo, without authorization from either the United Nations or the killers themselves—would have had the best chance of ending the genocide in a reasonable timeframe. The Bush administration's hesitation to assemble a NATO coalition and enter Darfur without permission from Khartoum was somewhat understandable, given what was taking place in Iraq. When the final history of Darfur is written, Iraq will surely be judged to have been a central factor mitigating against action in Sudan. But let us not make too much of this dark irony. Would we have acted in Darfur if there had been no war in Iraq? Somehow I doubt it.
It is true that the American military was stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, but France and Germany have militaries numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Other allies could have contributed ground troops as well. At the same time, American fighter jets might have quickly convinced Khartoum to rein in its militias and stop bombing civilians—which was exactly what happened in Kosovo. But we never so much as threatened to use our airpower on behalf of Darfuris. Might this not have made a difference? Would it not at least have been worth exploring?
And if we had sent NATO troops to Darfur, how would they have been received? It is impossible to know for sure, but we do know that the victims of the genocide have repeatedly begged for international troops capable of protecting them—something U.N. troops will almost certainly never be able to accomplish . In a widely reported incident in 2006, displaced Darfuris gathered in a camp and chanted, "Welcome welcome USA, welcome welcome international force!" Some Sudanese evince a general, and surprising, faith in America and the West—a faith that, in the wake of our considerable failures in Iraq, we ourselves lack. It crops up repeatedly in the books and the documentaries.
After enduring weeks of torture at the hands of the Sudanese Army, Daoud Hari describes his elation to see American military personnel show up at the back of the Sudanese courtroom where he and an American journalist are being tried for spying: "My God, you have no idea what they looked like to us....The good America was in the room." In All About Darfur—which is the least slick of the Darfur movies and, in many ways, the most revealing—William Ezekiel, editor of the dissident Khartoum Monitor, expresses hope that Americans will somehow rescue Sudan, to which the film-maker replies incredulously, "Are they saints—angels that come to the rescue of the world, of the universe?" His response: "Americans? They are not angels. But they are keen enough to save the weak from the oppressors." In another film, Darfur Now, two rebel soldiers, surely aware of the camera's presence, conduct the following exchange: "Right now the black people are dying," says one. "The white people will help us," flatly asserts the other. "We are so happy that America is here to save us like you have done for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq," villagers whose town has recently been bombed by the government tell Brian Steidle in The Devil Came on Horseback—apparently mistaking the presence of a former U.S. soldier in Darfur for evidence that Western intervention is on the way.
It is true that Americans are not angels; and the Darfuri villagers who welcome Steidle seem to overstate the scale of our achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then again, if my village had just been bombed and my children and I were facing the prospect of likely death at the hands of marauding militias, I would not be picky about who came to rescue me. If a superpower happened to arrive instead of an angel, that would be just fine.
The final strand of the Darfur story has very little to do with Darfur itself, and everything to do with us. Darfur has spawned a remarkable movement of American activists, particularly among students and people in their twenties. This has been a wonderful thing. The activists have kept the issue at, or near, the forefront of political debate. They have forced numerous universities and states to divest their holdings from companies that do business with Sudan. They have created institutions such as the Genocide Intervention Network—founded by Swarthmore students and now based in Washington—that have exhibited an admirable impatience with the inaction of their own government. (This impatience has sometimes led in audacious directions. At one point, the Swarthmore students actually looked into obtaining an unmanned aerial vehicle and deploying it to Darfur themselves. The idea of a bunch of college students launching a rogue quasi-military operation in Darfur was not very sound, but the spirit was right.)
Perhaps most significantly, these activists have helped to rescue the concept of activism itself. As anyone who attended an anti-World Bank rally in the early part of this decade can tell you, by 2000 liberal activism had fallen into something of a self-parodying state. The activist worldview, if such a thing could be said to exist, was an odd mélange of hostility to capitalism, Israel, the American use of Vieques as a bombing range, and anyone who had played a role in the jailing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. No wonder most members of my generation kept their distance, preferring to view activism as a relic from their parents' youth. The Darfur activists, to their immense credit, have begun to change this. They have made a forceful and convincing case to young people that there are still causes worth marching for. And they have signaled that one of those causes—an efficacious humanitarianism—will be taken seriously by the next generation of liberal leaders.
But no movement is perfect. Understandably consumed by the work of trying to stop a genocide, the Save Darfur movement has not always had time for self-criticism. It has now been five years since the genocide began and four years since the movement started work in earnest, and while the activists can legitimately claim many successes, they cannot claim the one success that really matters: stopping the killing. Of course, even an activist movement that did everything right might not have been able to convince the Bush administration to end the genocide. It is the American president, not the American activists, whom history will judge most harshly. Still, the question seems worth asking: What might this admirable movement have done differently?
Several of the movies and books about Darfur spend considerable time on the activists. Watching and reading, it becomes apparent that the Darfur activists were much more comfortable with the descriptive than with the prescriptive. That is, they were very good at raising awareness about the genocide, but when it came to articulating what is needed to stop a genocide, they either faltered or coalesced around half-measures. The thesis of Don Cheadle and John Prendergast's book is that, in a democracy, the only way to ensure that the government will act in faraway places such as Darfur is to build a mass constituency of voters and activists who will demand that the government do so. This is correct, up to a point. It is not enough for that constituency to demand that the government act. It must be willing to demand that the government act in ways that will actually stop the killing. It must be willing to support the use of power. If it is not, then its righteous efforts will have been wasted.
And much of the activism surrounding Darfur never even reached the point of demanding half-measures; it settled instead for consciousness-raising, for rhetoric, for the gestural culture of protest. The cover of Cheadle and Prendergast's book advertises that it "Includes six ways you can help today." The first way? "Raise awareness." But awareness has already been raised, and Bashir is unmoved. Some of these pedagogical exercises have been more successful than others: the green "Save Darfur" banners and bracelets have become ubiquitous, but not Cheadle's anti-mass-murder shoes, whose soles leave an imprint on the ground that reads "Stomp Out Genocide." ("Activism and fashion needn't be mutually exclusive, and in fact, if sporting a phat boot with a strong message can attract more young people and bring them into the fray ... why not take this opportunity to create a righteous blend? Besides, I've always rocked Timberlands and relished any excuse to stuff another pair into my shoe-heavy closet." So style will stop the genocide!)
Beyond the awareness-raising, things got problematic. One of the most popular causes among Darfur activists was lobbying state governments and universities to divest from companies doing business with Sudan. With its echoes of the fight against apartheid in the 1980s, this idea had understandable appeal. It was not, in and of itself, a bad idea. But the notion that divestment alone would play a key role in ending the killing was too optimistic. The campaign against South African apartheid was a long-term struggle against a political system; the campaign to save Darfur, by contrast, is a short-term struggle against an ongoing emergency. Sending a message to Sudan that its behavior would have long-term economic consequences was certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but it was no substitute for putting troops on the ground in Darfur. Ideology and bigotry and the lust for power often inspire people to act against their economic interests. Sand and Sorrow—the glossiest of the Darfur movies, narrated virtuously by George Clooney—at one point shows an activist carrying a sign that reads, "The dollars stop the dying." History tells us that isn't true.
Another position taken by activists was to call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Like divestment, this was an admirable idea for the long run. Those who commit genocide should be punished, and it will be a wonderful day when Omar Bashir sits in the Hague like Slobodan Milosevic before him. But the long-term goal of bringing the genocidaires to justice is no substitute for the short-term work of stopping a genocide. Many seemed not to appreciate this distinction. Darfur Now chronicles the work of Luis Moreno Ocampo, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court charged with investigating crimes in Darfur. A few weeks ago, Ocampo issued an arrest warrant for Omar Bashir. Ocampo grew up in Argentina, and he explains that his country's "dirty war" helped to shape his faith in the power of the law. "The top generals were prosecuted for mass murders. And I was a deputy prosecutor, so it was a huge challenge. And I saw how the information we provide, the evidence we present, changed everything." The trouble with the analogy is that when Argentina's generals went on trial, the killing was already over. And that is when the Darfur trials should start: when the killing is over. For now, it seems unlikely that handing down indictments against Sudanese leaders will stop the next village from being destroyed or the next woman from being raped.
Genocide really is different from other foreign policy crises, in that it will not wait. Either you stop genocide immediately or you fail to stop it. And when it came to the question of troops, the Darfur activists were split. Many were uncomfortable with the use of force. Cheadle and Prendergast are candid about this: "Many of us peace and human rights advocates are rightly reluctant about the use of force. We need to get over it. There is such a thing as evil in this world, and sometimes the only way to confront evil is through the judicious use of military force." Amen, as long as "judicious" also means effective.
Eventually the movement coalesced around the idea that U.N. troops were the answer. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the idea of sending U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur represented for many activists a sort of safe compromise—troops would be put on the ground, but American power would not be wielded. It was military action that they could endorse without opening a dissonance in their worldview. Even Prendergast, one of the most hawkish Darfur activists (and one of the smartest), endorses the U.N. option in his book as the solution that makes the most sense. To be fair, he has also suggested elsewhere that the United States should keep other military options on the table; but this latter position certainly places him outside the mainstream of the Darfur activist community.
At least one shortcoming of the Save Darfur movement cannot really be blamed on the movement's members. While its existence has undoubtedly helped to focus the attention of politicians on Darfur, it may also, in a bizarre way, have provided an excuse for these same politicians to avoid the fundamental responsibility that leadership entails. There is no better example than the introduction to Cheadle and Prendergast's book, which was written by Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. "So what does it take to stop genocide?" they write. "What does it take to make the world listen and respond? It takes a number of important tools, including diplomacy, financial resources, and effective security forces. And in a world where these resources are finite, it often takes pressure—pressure from ordinary individuals standing together for an extraordinary cause—to mobilize these resources. In short, it takes you." Get it? Obama and Brownback are urging us to urge them to stop the genocide. And Obama repeats this weird formula in the movie version of The Devil Came on Horseback, remarking that "we need greater pressure from the American public to tell their senators this is something we are paying attention to, and we want you to prioritize it."
The circular nature of this logic is maddening, especially coming from Obama, who may soon be the most powerful man in the world. Such logic misunderstands the way a representative democracy works. The line that connects people to politicians is not a one-way street. In a democracy, leaders must be responsive to people's views—but people's views are also shaped by their leaders. The failure of leaders to act cannot be explained by the failure of the public to demand, or to demand more loudly, that they act, unless of course the leaders wish to be regarded merely as followers. Politicians have an obligation to do more than urge us to urge them to formulate solutions to problems, particularly when the problem is an emergency that requires swift action. Genocide will not be stopped by an ideas festival, in or out of government.
The Save Darfur movement, with its noble emphasis on the ability of average people to make a difference, has created a somewhat exaggerated sense that ultimate responsibility for preventing genocide lies with voters. In doing so, it may have given some of our leaders an excuse not to lead. This same flawed logic was on display in 2005, during some of the worst days of the genocide, when Congress authorized a National Weekend of Prayer and Reflection for Darfur. There is nothing wrong with praying for Darfur; but when we reach the point where our leaders are asking us to pray for them to act, something has gone very wrong.
The successes and the failures of the Save Darfur movement offer some clues to the central mystery of the shameful response to the Darfur genocide: how we could have known so much and done so little. But there may be another element in the explanation, and it has to do with the consequences of complexity. The more we learn about Darfur, the more complicated the situation seems. The one-sentence summary of the genocide that we first heard back in 2004—Arab tribes backed by the Sudanese government are trying to exterminate African ones—sounded straightforward enough, morally and strategically. Morally, it read like a simple narrative of victims and oppressors. And strategically, the simple version of the Darfur genocide made it appear to be a problem we could easily handle. While deploying troops to a conflict zone is never a simple matter, surely NATO, with its sophisticated weaponry, was up to the task of stopping men on horses and camels from attacking villages.
But then we started to learn more, and the situation began to seem less and less tractable. At the level of moral analysis, we learned that the killing was a response to a rebellion, and that the rebel groups had committed atrocities themselves. We learned that not all the Arab tribes were persecutors, and that some of the African tribes had been guilty of cruelties. We learned that one of the rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, was led by disgruntled former members of the government—and shared Khartoum's Islamist philosophy. We learned that the Chadian government was allied with the Darfuri rebels, and that the Sudanese government was aligned with Chadian rebels. And since the Chadian government was a nasty dictatorship, didn't this mean the good guys were allied with bad guys and the bad guys were allied with good guys? The closer we looked at Darfur, the more clarity seemed to recede.
It is important to point out that none of this is incorrect; there are plenty of moral complexities in Darfur. But acknowledging this cannot be the end of the discussion. For one thing, the recognition of complexity is not incompatible with the recognition of right and wrong. (We know this from our experience of many other excruciating policy problems, at home and abroad.) Killing innocents and raping women on a mass scale is wrong, even if the historical forces that cause a region to arrive at the moment of madness are tangled and thick. History is always complicated, isn't it? But the study of history must not make it impossible to see the victims and the oppressors clearly, as it did in the early years of American inaction against the genocide in Bosnia, where action seemed to have been rendered impossible, in the eyes of the president and his advisers, by the haunting and inextricable power of "Balkan ghosts." As Fouad Ajami wrote witheringly in these pages in 1994, "You cannot launch an air strike against the fourteenth century."
Too many in Washington have learned just enough about the history of Darfur to be inhibited by Sudanese ghosts. And so they throw up their hands, label the situation "complex," and accuse others of failing to see the shades of gray. In fact, if you spend enough time with the historical and journalistic material on Darfur—that is, if you look at the broad sweep of the conflict rather than trying to cherry-pick the dissonant notes for the purpose of forming an alibi—patterns begin to emerge out of the haze of complexities. One of those incontrovertible patterns concerns the government of Sudan and the rebels. Even when there are no good guys (or, rather, when the only good guys are the civilians caught up in a conflict—that is, the majority of Darfuris), some bad guys are worse than others; and when the difference can be measured in body counts in the hundreds of thousands, the distinction between bad and worse is worth taking seriously.
Consider the entirety of the NIF's record, from starving its own people in southern Sudan in the 1990s, to supporting the Lord's Resistance Army (arguably the most sadistic militia in Africa), to torturing dissidents and journalists, to espousing a mix of Arab supremacism and radical Islamism, to insisting that only 10,000 people have died in Darfur, to obstructing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations, to signing off on a policy of systematic rape and murder—consider all this, and it becomes hard to see a moral equivalence between the government and the Darfuri rebels, whatever the rebels' faults. It is telling that the writers who go into Darfur without political preconceptions generally come out enraged not by the rebels but by the government. Steidle and Blaker knew little about Sudan before they went to Darfur on essentially humanitarian missions. The vast majority of the abuses that they witnessed were the work of the government. Occasionally one of the authors will learn of rebels committing an atrocity or hijacking a truck or stealing livestock, but these anecdotes—as essential a part of the historical record as any other true report—never rise even close to the level at which they might be called systematic, let alone genocidal.
While many of the rebel leaders are far from sympathetic characters, it is at least possible to understand the motives of many of the rank-and-file Darfuris who have taken up arms with them. Consider the story of Hejewa Adam, a female soldier interviewed in Darfur Now. She recalls that her village, Shatia, was
a beautiful place with fresh air, orchards, and hills.... I was home cooking when I heard explosions. They hit us. Some kids lost their legs and mothers were separated from children. Boys under five were killed, and the girls were taken away. I remember my friends whose throats were slit in front of my eyes. I lived in my village for 15 years. And now my child is dead. My home is burned down and now I have nothing. The massacre in Shatia humiliated me and convinced me to join the rebel army.
The rebels are clearly part of the problem in Darfur, and they certainly have crimes to answer for. As Julie Flint makes clear in an essay on the rebels in War in Darfur (the best-written essay in the book), rebel leaders have frequently failed to exercise adequate control over their soldiers, and the results have been rape, kidnapping, and other abuses. And yet to find a moral equivalence between Hejewa Adam and the Sudanese government is to surrender to ignorance, not to sophistication.
Strategically, of course, the question of complexity in Darfur is a very different story. Establishing security in Darfur would clearly be a complicated task. But how complicated? This is where another pattern emerges from the Darfur literature, and it has to do with the interpretation of the genocide's root causes. Is the genocide primarily an ethnic conflict among the Arabs and the Africans of Darfur? Or is the conflict primarily a dispute between the Sudanese government and the region as a whole—a dispute in which the government has co-opted the services of certain Darfuri groups in order to pursue its overall strategy of clinging to power via terror? Both interpretations contain more than a grain of truth; and both (along with other factors, such as Qaddafi and environmental degradation) are necessary to explain how the path to genocide was paved.
And yet it is important to ask whether one of these elements has played a larger role than the other. After all, if the prime causes of the conflict are ancient ethnic disputes among Darfuris, then it probably is a situation so complex that outsiders would have no chance to solve it. There are too many tribes with too many agendas, too many grievances, too many leaders. But if the Sudanese government is the primary cause of the conflict, that changes things. It does not exactly make the genocide a simple affair, but it does render the complexities somewhat less bewildering, at least from the standpoint of intervention. It means, for one thing, that there is a single entity we can hold largely responsible for unleashing the violence—and whose behavior we might change through threats, coercion, or military power. It also means that if there were some way to insulate Darfur from the nefarious meddling of Khartoum, then some of the violence might start to subside. Again, it does not mean that solving the conflict would be easy. Nor does it guarantee that intervention would end well. But it does suggest that efforts to stop the genocide are not from the outset futile.
If there is anything the Darfur literature makes clear, it is that the prime cause of the genocide is the national government. Not ancient and immovable tribal hatreds among Darfuris, but a particular regime in Khartoum. The historical studies show that while Darfur has seen tribal tension for centuries, these conflicts were nothing like the one that is now taking place. This was partly because Darfur's tribes lacked modern weaponry, but it was also because they had systems in place for containing conflicts—protocols that called for negotiations between tribes and for payment of compensation to prevent disputes from escalating out of control. The vast majority of the Darfur scholars and writers seem to hold Khartoum, not the Arabs of Darfur, mainly responsible for initiating the slaughter.
And so do the Darfuris whom they cite. "We haven't any problem with Arabs. We have a problem with the policy of the government. Arabs are being used by the government to fight us," says one man in Darfur Diaries. "This is not a wise government who burns villages and kills civilians," says another Darfuri in the same book. "This is not a government that anyone can elect or support. In war, soldiers fight soldiers, but we never heard about soldiers fighting civilians." Writing in War in Darfur, Abdul-Jabbar Fadul and Victor Tanner quote a Fur leader saying that "Our problem is not with the Arabs, it is with the government. The government destroyed our area. Even if Arabs did take part, they are just poor people like us. The government is behind it." In the same chapter, a Masalit leader puts it this way: "The government says the problem is tribal. I say the problem is the government." Daoud Hari predicts that "when the government has removed or killed all the traditional non-Arabs, then it will get the traditional Arabs to fight one another so they too will disappear from valuable lands. This is already happening in areas where the removal of non-Arab Africans is nearly complete." Later in the book, he and Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times interview a Janjaweed fighter, about fourteen years old, who has been captured after participating in a failed attack on a non-Arab village. Why, they ask, did the Janjaweed attack? "We are from a village just over there," the boy responds. "We have always been friends with the people of this village." Then he explains what changed: "We were told by the government soldiers that these people were going to attack our village and kill our families if we did not attack them first. They would give us money if we did this."
In other words, government officials were the ones pulling the strings. Indeed, many Darfuris seem to hold Omar Bashir personally responsible for the violence. "After the English left, we were still okay, but at Bashir's time they came and separated Arab people and black people," says the sheik of Shegeg Karo in Darfur Diaries. In Heart of Darfur, Blaker and a colleague speak with a Darfuri woman who has been chased out of her village. "She wants us to write this down," the colleague translates. "She says that Bashir has thrown us into this fire and we are all dying." In Darfur Diaries, one refugee who has fled to Chad says that she and her husband, who is still in Darfur, "are separated by Omar Bashir."
To be sure, many observers believe that the conflict has grown far more labyrinthine in the past year or two, as Khartoum has lost control over the carnage that it initiated. The violence between tribes has acquired a momentum of its own, while the rebels have split into myriad different factions. Some rebels have declared allegiance to the government, then turned their guns on other rebels. All this is, first and foremost, an argument for why we should have intervened earlier. Had we sent troops in 2004 or even 2005, we would have encountered a much more tractable war than the one we face today—and hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. But it is also a cautionary note about the situation that awaits us in Darfur should we decide to intervene now.
Still, the fact that non-Arab Darfuris ultimately blame Khartoum for the genocide more than they blame their Arab neighbors must count as a sliver of hope for the region's future. It suggests, among other things, that if an intervention force could ever establish a modicum of peace in Darfur, such a peace might stand a reasonable chance of taking hold. For their part, not all Arabs in Darfur participated in the slaughter, and many are disgusted by what they have seen—so disgusted that, in 2006, Arab Darfuris actually launched a rebel group to oppose the government themselves. "It denounced the Janjawiid as 'a minority of mercenaries and hired individuals,'" Flint explains, "and pledged to fight the 'injustice' of Khartoum and the 'terrorizing' of civilians."
So the role of complexity in Darfur is, well, complicated. While some complexities undoubtedly make the genocide more difficult to stop, others might mitigate in favor of intervention. And some complexities are, upon close examination, less complex than they seem. What we can say for certain is that invoking "complexity" in order to dismiss the possibility of armed intervention has played right into the hands of the Sudanese government, which wanted the world to view Darfur as a hopelessly elaborate tribal conflict, and not as the campaign of government-orchestrated mass murder that it is. Reeves cites the following statement from 2005 by Robert Zoellick, who by that time had become Bush's point man on Darfur: "It's a tribal war. And frankly I don't think foreign forces want to get in the middle of a tribal war of Sudanese." The ghosts, again. If Omar Bashir knew of Zoellick's comment, then he would also have known that he would win in Darfur. And he has won.
When the definitive book about Darfur is someday written, I suspect it will treat the genocide as something that was both old and new. The story of Darfur is old in the context of Sudan, where similar mass atrocities unfolded in the south during the 1990s; old in the context of Africa, where Rwanda famously exploded in violence in 1994; and old in the context of the world—which, after a century filled with genocides, has yet to figure out how to answer the question posed by a displaced man early in the movie Darfur Now: "One by one, they are killing us like dogs. Where do you go to complain?"
Yet while genocide is an old phenomenon, our experience of the Darfur genocide has been in one way novel. Never before have we observed a genocide so diligently. We educated ourselves about the suffering. We watched movies, read books, and wore bracelets. Our politicians attended peace conferences, issued ultimatums, even dispatched an international force. And yet none of it has stopped the killing. What has gone wrong? Did we, over time, grow immune to the images and the testimonies? Did we give too much weight to what seemed like the conflict's complexities, and too little to the raw human suffering that was taking place before our eyes? Did we put too much faith in the United Nations and too little in ourselves? Did we allow our elected leaders to deflect responsibility back onto us—to seduce us with airy statements congratulating us on our passion, when they should have been consulting with generals about how to get soldiers onto the ground as quickly as possible? True, we were poorly served by a small-minded president and his bungling administration. But did liberals demand the right things of him? Did we push for what would really save the people of Darfur? Or did we get trapped by the inclinations of our worldview, and advocate for too little?
But it is too soon to succumb to a retrospective spirit, and to busy ourselves only with learning the right lessons for the next genocide, which will surely come. The suffering in Darfur is not yet yesterday's news.
Richard Just is the managing editor of The New Republic.