Reverse Editing Darfur

I met Tusher Mohamed Mahdi in 2007. He was once a Janjaweed commander but had joined the Sudan Liberation Army by the time I met him

It’s 18 months since I decided to write a book. It had been in the idea form for a while. The more time I spent travelling back and forth to Sudan the more I realised that the story wasn’t being told properly. Each time I went to Darfur I stumbled across more inconsistencies in the grand narrative we had come to accept. There were Arabs fighting within the rebel ranks. There were rebels who had quit the movement because of human rights abuses. There were examples of the Khartoum government behaving in a pragmatic and reasonable way.

The more I looked at Darfur’s conflict, the more I realised the story that had developed in 2004 – of Arab Janjaweed unleashed by an evil government on African tribes which backed the rebels – was only a small part of the puzzle.

It was a conversation with Peter Eichstaedt in Bunia, Congo, that convinced me to put it all into a book. We were on our way back from an area close to the border with Southern Sudan where the thuggish Lord’s Resistance Army was up to its old tricks. For him, it was the final stages in writing a book about the LRA. For me it provided proof of how Khartoum’s tentacles spread through neighbouring countries and how International Criminal Court indictments had made a bad situation worse. If he could do it, so could I.

Then I just sat down and wrote a chapter. It was a sort of reverse editing process. I pieced together the stories I had written on a trip into the Jebel Mara and filled in the gaps. I put back in the details in my notebook that weren’t needed in the published stories. They were half conversations or inconvenient points that would have confused the issue in a 600-word news story.

That process eventually took me through 10 chapters and 90,000 words.

All journalists simplify and generalise. It’s what we do to make an issue immediate, relevant and readable. In the case of Darfur though we have failed to respond as the nature of the war changed. My book, Saving Darfur, is published next week and attempts to add back in the complicating factors until a different sort of picture emerges.


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