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
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
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
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