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August 26, 2004

Darfur's War of Definitions

by Ramzy Baroud

Finally, the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan is a focal point for diplomats and the media. This is the least one could expect after months of murder, rape and, dare I say, ethnic cleansing, starting as early as February 2003.

Almost all parties who have recently discovered the existence of Darfur, an area comparable to the size of France, are engaged in a war of words. Even Muslims and Arabs, who should be most concerned by virtue of cultural, political and historic proximity to the Sudanese, are taking part in this war of definitions.

One can understand why Arab sensibilities are injured by the use of the phrase "Arab militias" when referring to the Janjaweed gangs that have murdered, raped and expelled thousands of innocents in Darfur. The term is used as if the intention is simply to implicate one group and vindicate another.

Of course, referring to some Sudanese tribes as "Arab" is not a media invention. Some African Sudanese are called "Arab" for speaking a dialect derived from or heavily influenced by the Arabic language. Moreover, the use of the term was further validated by the fact that the Janjaweed have been consistently abetted by Sudan's central government, which used the paramilitary to quell two major rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The two groups claim that the Khartoum government has deliberately neglected Darfur's worsening plight.

And since the Sudanese government is trademarked "Arab" – designated as such for the sake of striking another disturbing comparison with the rest of the non-Arab, non-Muslim country – Darfur emerges as a perfect manifestation of an "us vs. them" that can be touted by the media and exploited by politicians. (Those who remember the first few days of intense coverage of the Darfur crisis might recall how some journalists – who now lament the plight of the "Africans" – failed to recall basic information about the region, such as how to pronounce its name or locate it on a map.)

Alex de Waal is not one of those journalists, but an author recognized in Western media circles as a leading authority on Sudan. He wrote in the Observer on July 25: "Characterizing the Darfur war as 'Arabs' versus 'Africans' obscures the reality. Darfur's Arabs are black, indigenous, African Muslims – just like Darfur's non-Arabs."

Unfortunately, a story about African Muslims engaged in a conflict between nomadic tribes that thrive on local conquest is not newsworthy from a journalist's point of view – and not as exploitable from a politician's. Thus, a war of definitions began, a war in which 1.2 million Sudanese refugees are the least important component.

For a besieged and discredited U.S. government, the strife in Darfur is a godsend. It draws attention away from the U.S.' own indiscretions and puts it back on the "Arabs" who are brutalizing "Africans" in a civil war that the House of Representatives unanimously dubbed genocide.

That term has also introduced another battlefield of definitions: "What is happening in western Sudan is not the same as Kosovo or Rwanda, nor is it, strictly speaking a genocide," writes Adrian Hamilton in the Independent. "It is the kind of messy local, tribalized tragedy bred on deprivation and lack of resources and fueled by outside interference."

But for the U.S. government, there is more to Sudan's misfortunes than a mere distraction from its own blunders and calamities. The U.S. has for many years helped feed a civil war that ravaged the country beyond repair. In 1998, Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of Sudan's largest, if not only, pharmaceutical plant, alleging that it manufactured agents that can be used to produce WMD. It took only a few months of investigations before the claim was declared a farce.

Hence, the U.S. government acted as it often does in such crises: it drafted, pushed for and passed a UN Security Council resolution on July 31 threatening sanctions and other "punitive measures" if the Sudanese government failed to rein in the Janjaweed "Arab" militias within thirty days. Those who recognize the complexity of the Darfur conflict should also understand that the resolution may be the start of a military intervention in a country that is already swarming with militants and deeply scarred by war.

If the crisis in Darfur escalates, then the only possibilities that await Sudan are sanctions, a senseless bombing campaign and further animosity and division between those who gullibly identified with the "Africans" and those who rashly sided with the "Arabs."

None of these likelihoods however, will help the "abandoned, starved and desperate refugees" of Darfur, such as Aziza Mahmoud, who had an encounter with one of the Janjaweed "Arab" militias. Now she is at a refugee camp with her children in a five-foot high tent made of twisted branches and leaves, torn clothes and cardboard.

She told Kim Sengupta from the Independent, "My sister had dragged my children away. But I could not move. I was standing there crying when he turned and shot me. He did not say anything. He just fired. I dragged myself behind my home and lay there. My neighbors carried me away with my husbands' [dead] body. I have five children who have no father. I cannot work because if I just walk a little my foot hurts. I cannot even stand at the roadside begging for too long without hurting."

The late Palestinian professor Edward Said once wrote: human rights are not "cultural or grammatical things, and when they are violated, they are as real as anything we can encounter." His words ring as true today in Darfur as they have in Palestine for generations. True, the burnt villages often vary in name, but in the final analysis, the definitions for anguish and brutality remain unchanged.

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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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