Shades of Grey

NAIROBI: Back home from my reporting trip to Sudan and a chance to reflect on what I’ve seen and heard in Darfur. Every time I visit Sudan or write about the conflict in Darfur, I am struck by the same feelings of inadequacy. By and large the crisis there is badly reported. It has become a deep, dark black hole for reporters – in part because of the problems caused by a government intent on preventing access and aid agencies who have to keep journalists at arm’s length for fear of being expelled (a subject I have already written about in Paranoia in Darfur).

The result is the overwhelming temptation to repeat the usual analysis. An  Arab government and the fearsome Janjwaweed militias are pitted against black, African farming tribes. This is a trap my own editor at The Christian Science Monitor has just fallen into, during a trip to the other side of the border in Chad.

Nevermind the fact that everyone in Darfur is black and African, and the term Arab is often used by tribes to signal that they are nomads and aspire to some sort of “higher” social status. If the rest of that analysis was true, it was maybe only true for a month or so in 2004. Things are very different now. “Arabs” have joined the rebels and the government has its own “black, Africans”.

And take what I learned on my latest visit. The Sudanese government has once again been bombing its own people, targeting rebel-held villages around Haskanita. But diplomats in Khartoum told me that the Government of Sudan (GoS) forces appeared to have changed their tactics, warning civilians to leave the area before it launched its offensive. The JEM and SLA-Unity forces involved had driven half way across North Darfur in order to “prove a point” by taking the villages in the first place. Could it be possible that in this case the rebels were trying to stage an audacious publicity stunt, while the government was acting as responsibly as possible?

I also met a former rebel commander in El Fasher. He had quit the movement two years earlier after becoming frustrated at the leadership’s preference for using civilian villages as bases. “They seemed to want to use civilian suffering caused by government and Janjaweed attacks in their PR campaign,” he told me in the offices of the human rights organisation where he now works.

Don’t worry, I’m not turning into an apologist for Khartoum. David Hoile is already doing that job with a breathtaking disregard for the facts. It’s just that there’s a danger in being sucked into believing that the conflict in Darfur is being fought in black and white. So while the government is undoubtedly responsible for war crimes, that’s not enough to assume the rebels aren’t also dishing out a kicking here and there, and milking their victimhood for all its worth.

Of course, the two positions are not morally equivalent. One side is a government with huge oil revenues, using Chinese and Russian-built bombers, while somehow holding down a seat at the United Nations. The rebels have a reasonable argument that their province has been marginalised for decades. My point is that there is more to a thinking, sensible, reasoned analysis than simply believing that it’s a case of good guys against bad guys.

But if that’s too much to deal with, you’ll enjoy my final vignette from Darfur. Part of my plan was to travel north from El Fasher up to Birmaza, one of the towns long considered a rebel stronghold and the sort of place where their leaders may meet in the run-up to next month’s peace talks in Tripoli. To do this, I needed a travel permit from the friendly chap at the Humanitarian Affairs Commission in El Fasher.

“Ah no,” he said, sitting back in the chair of his ramshackle caravan. “Not this week… maybe next week.”

This seemed strang, so I asked the obvious question:”Why? What’s happening there this week?”

He laughed and winked at me, but offered not explanation.

Two hours later I learned that an Antonov bomber was in the air over Birmaza. No wonder I wasn’t allowed to visit.

4 thoughts on “Shades of Grey

  1. This is probably the best piece I’ve read on Darfur recently. I wonder how your published, edited piece will fare..

    To be fair, this is probably why the Darfur PR machine has worked so well, because it is laid out in black and white. The situation in Eastern Congo is, and has been, far worse and going on for much longer, but it’s portrayed (when it is portrayed) as a ‘grey’ mess which makes it all seem pretty hopeless/not worth the effort.

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