Issues of confidentiality take on a particular inflection when writing about a place like Sudan. For more than eleven years my own efforts have depended heavily on confidential sources, particularly in giving an account of the situation on the ground in Darfur. I take pride in not having blown a confidence in all those years, but I never forget how high the stakes are: one mistake might cost a career, a life, or result in the expulsion of a humanitarian organization. (My reporting on the oil war in southern Sudan in 2000 triggered a UN investigation, since I was clearly working from information available only to certain UN officials; my source resigned, for unrelated professional reasons, before the investigation got anywhere.) Moreover, if I make a mistake, my sources will largely disappear.
Presently, one of my primary concerns is the electronic intercept capability of the Khartoum regime’s ruthlessly efficient National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), as well as its Military Intelligence. This intercept capability has grown significantly in the past six years, and I no longer feel comfortable calling anywhere in Darfur on any kind of phone connection (including satellite phones, which are particularly easy to intercept). Email is also risky, though it is possible to set up shadow email accounts (a single account, shared by two people, in which emails are drafted but never sent, yet are available to both parties as long as they remain undeleted). But many of the communications I’ve received simply come out of the blue. Some are shocking in their import. Assessing authenticity and reliability may be challenging in a few cases, but the process is typically fairly straightforward, at least by the standards I’ve developed over the past eleven years.
Importantly, Darfuris on the ground regularly communicate among themselves and with those in the diaspora. And recently, Radio Dabanga has become an important clearing house for reports from individual villages and camps for the displaced. In aggregate they paint a much grimmer picture than can be gleaned from the sanitized information provided by the UN and the fear-enforced silence on the part of international nongovernmental organizations. Khartoum’s tight restriction on journalists—there are now virtually no datelines from Darfur, certainly not away from the main towns of el-Fasher and Nyala—and its complete denial of access to all human rights monitors, make for what is becoming a “black box genocide.” We simply have no way of knowing how many are dying or suffering from current violence or the consequences of antecedent ethnically-targeted destruction. We know malnutrition rates were going up significantly even before the current “hunger gap” (roughly May through early October)—the most food-insecure time of the year; but we don’t really know how bad the situation is because Khartoum has dramatically increased the obstruction of aid delivery and assessment this year and has again worked to suppress malnutrition data. The same is true in other humanitarian sectors, like clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and primary medical care.
In such a situation, what chances does one take in accepting particular accounts or assessments? If a distinguished Darfuri in the diaspora, with medical training and access to a great many people on the ground in Darfur, tells me that on the basis of what he’s learned he believes the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate in North Darfur state already exceeds 40 percent, what am I to do with this figure? In fact, I have cited it—though with only this very general identification of my source, who still has family in Sudan and can’t afford to risk their safety by identifying himself. But such a rate is extraordinary: 15 percent is the generally accepted threshold for declaring a humanitarian “emergency.” And yet no one is challenging this figure of 40 percent for North Darfur, which I’ve now widely promulgated. Many from the UN’s various humanitarian agencies are on my email distribution list, and I’ve actively solicited their views and any information they might provide. Silence.
On one occasion I learned all too well the accuracy of what was communicated to me confidentially. In March 2004 I received extraordinary information from two Darfuri sources (one was a former governor of Darfur who later allowed me to use his name) about a brutal concentration camp near Kailek, South Darfur. They said that Khartoum-backed Janjaweed militia were responsible for mass killings, imprisonment, staggering daily mortality from lack of food and water, and the systematic rape of women and girls. All of this was reported to me in the most compelling detail, so I wrote about Kailek at length in March 2004. A month later (April 25, 2004), a UN Inter-agency Mission issued a (then confidential) report on what they found at Kailek, confirming virtually all of what I had earlier reported. Their largest conclusion was shocking: “The stories that we have received from the survivors of the acts of mass murder [in Kailek] are very painful for us, and they remind us of the brutalities of the Rwanda genocide.” I’ll never know what role my reporting had in triggering this investigation, particularly since the UN had already provided general evidence of much violent destruction and displacement in the general Kass area of Darfur (Kailek is about sixty-five kilometers to the southwest). But it is difficult for me to believe that in this case, with the human stakes so very high, reporting on the basis of information from trusted confidential sources was anything but a moral obligation, even without further corroboration.
My work has made me a bte noir for the Khartoum regime, I’ve been told frequently by people who have spoken with officials there. So perhaps it’s understandable that I receive no information from UN agencies other than what is made publicly available. Equally unsurprising is the insistence on confidentiality made by both aid workers on the ground and the staff of humanitarian organizations who speak to me in the United States or from Europe. Following Khartoum’s expulsion of thirteen of these organizations in March 2009—and these among the most distinguished in the world—an overwhelming fear has settled over those organizations that remain. And lacking access to most of Darfur, they are no longer in a position to report on what is occurring in a great many locations or to assess the scale of human needs.
So I “blur” the sources in all the ways requested of me when I cite their information or assessments: no identification of organizations, no indication of their location in Darfur (which by itself might identify them), no indication of title when someone in the UN does communicate with me, no use of the actual language of internal reports, and so on. In a number of cases, careers are on the line; but it is the physical danger that governs my sense of how protective I must be. These are the ground rules, and I accept them fully. Most news services are not in a position to do so more than occasionally, and their vetting process can be paralyzing.
But the “black box genocide” is proceeding, despite denials from U.S. envoy Scott Gration, the African Union, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference—and silence from those in a position to say most.
Since I work independently—with no news organization or institutional backstop—it would be convenient and legitimating to name or identify sources more particularly; it is also impossibly risky, and so I’ll continue to stake my credibility on those sources, even if they remain fully anonymous.