“On the Re-writing of the Darfur Narrative,” The Guardian, June 15, 2009
The historical narrative of the Darfur genocide is presently being re-written. Despite dozens of human rights reports that have established the basic realities of ethnically-targeted human destruction in Darfur and Eastern Chad over the past seven years, an effort is being made to minimise the scale of that destruction, elide the role of ethnicity in the conflict and downplay the responsibility of the Khartoum regime.
This large-scale revision has been taken up by those particularly on the left with an ideological aversion to humanitarian intervention. If the catastrophe can be portrayed as non-genocidal and essentially local in character, then advocacy efforts initially for humanitarian intervention and currently for robust support of a weak and ineffectual UN/African Union peace operation are misguided and misplaced.
The most conspicuous effort at re-writing history is Mahmood Mamdani’s “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror.” The book focuses on the purported misperceptions and distortions of the American-based Save Darfur Coalition, which Mamdani argues is an unwitting supporter of the “war on terror”. “Darfur [has become] not just an illustration of the grand narrative of the War on Terror but also a part of its justification,” Mamdani writes. He would have us believe that in turning the Darfur conflict into a moral rather than a political issue, Americans in SDC can “feel themselves to be what they are not in Iraq: powerful saviors.” “Darfur is a place of refuge. It is a surrogate shelter. It is a cause about which they can feel good.”
It is true that some advocacy efforts have been prone to oversimplification, navet and occasionally misguided policy initiatives. Some corrective is no doubt needed. But Mamdani’s points are tendentious and overstated, and should not distract from the substantial consensus about events that has been authoritatively established by human rights reporting, UN investigations and some excellent on-the-ground news reporting. Perversely, human rights reporting on Darfur is invisible in Mamdani’s text.
The most authoritative data for violent mortality in Darfur and Eastern Chad comes from a statistically rigorous study by the Coalition for International Justice in August/September 2004. Several studies using these and other data found that total mortality was approximately 400,000 people between February 2003 and mid-2006. This figure includes both violent mortality as well as mortality from conflict-related disease and malnutrition.
But Mamdani and others choose to rely on studies that exclude the CIJ data and underestimate the death toll. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, for example, estimated that just 118,142 people died from September 2003 through January 2005. This figure not only excludes many months of extreme violence and very substantial mortality, but has no adequate data for violent mortality in particular.
Current mortality is also understated. Relying on figures from the hapless UN/African Union force (UNAMID), the new narrative suggests monthly death tolls from violence in the scores. But UNAMID can’t begin to lay claim to a comprehensive survey of violence involving either civilians or combatants. Indeed, it often cannot reach the sites of violence or survey violently displaced populations. It is deeply misleading to offer UNAMID mortality numbers as representative of current violence against civilians or total mortality from all causes.
The new Darfur narrative also minimises the role of ethnicity in an effort to deny that genocide has occurred. Such assertions conveniently ignore the many reports of Arab villages being spared by Khartoum’s military and Janjaweed militia allies while neighbouring villages of the Fur, Massaleit, Zaghawa and other non-Arab (African) tribal groups are destroyed. The use of explicitly racial epithets during violent attacks and rapes also goes unremarked.
In turn, the role of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime is consistently understated, despite overwhelming evidence from the world’s most distinguished human rights organisations of a hand-in-glove relationship between the Janjaweed and the regime. This relationship includes Khartoum’s supply, recruitment and military coordination with the Janjaweed in attacks on purely civilian targets. Such attacks have occurred on a large scale as recently as February of this year.
Nor is the regime itself scrutinised in the new narrative. The roles of key figures in orchestrating the Darfur genocide, such as Ali Osman Taha, Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e, and Saleh Gosh, are completely unexamined. Indeed, neither Nafi’e nor Gosh appears in Mamdani’s index. And yet all that Mamdani and his fellow travellers proffer as a solution to the Darfur catastrophe is a glib urging of continued negotiations with these very men, despite their genocidal behaviour and demonstrated contempt for signed agreements and the diplomatic process generally. Mamdani suggests no meaningful solutions to the need for safe return by the millions of displaced persons, compensation for overwhelming losses, the rendering of justice for atrocity crimes, or disarming the Janjaweed. The assumption appears to be that re-writing the Darfur narrative, diminishing the nature and scale of human destruction, is solution enough.
But the massive crisis is expanding, particularly with Khartoum’s March expulsion of roughly half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur. Peace talks are going nowhere. Only concerted pressure on the regime, and those international actors supporting its brutal policies, will serve to augment humanitarian and protection capacity and produce meaningful negotiations. This was the case with the north/south Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and remains as true today. Acquiescence, continuation of the status quo will yield only genocide by attrition among the targeted populations.
It should hardly be surprising that this new narrative is unrecognisable to Darfuris themselves. It is not American advocacy efforts that distort the truths of recent history. Rather, betrayal of the truth comes most consequentially from those who have decided that the recent history of Darfur must be re-written if it is to comport with ideological fixations and pre-determined conclusions about humanitarian intervention in the face of genocide.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]