Why Darfur is everyone’s favourite African war

Rob Crilly’s new book is a fine work of reportage, challenging the myths and misunderstandings that surround Darfur and exposing how celebrity campaigners intensified the conflict.

Philip Hammond

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‘I had come for an adventure’, says freelance foreign correspondent Rob Crilly of his time in Sudan. ‘Changing the world or saving Darfur were not part of my agenda.’ This characteristically frank and unpretentious comment captures the core strength of his book Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War: its honesty.

That honesty means that Crilly refuses to ignore awkward facts that don’t fit the accepted narrative about the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. His fair-minded efforts to understand the motivations of the various actors involved ultimately lead him to challenge head-on the over-simplifications and distortions perpetuated by many Western journalists and Save Darfur campaigners. ‘By focusing on criminalising a government and making military intervention the top priority’, he argues, ‘[the Save Darfur Coalition] has made peace more elusive and increased the suffering of ordinary Darfuris’. His challenge springs, not from having some axe of his own to grind, but from the good reporter’s desire to really nail the story.

Crilly conveys the excitement and glamour of the foreign correspondent’s work, sometimes in unpromising circumstances. His most animated account of pursuing elusive leads and racing to scoop his rivals concerns the apparently trivial story of Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher in a Khartoum school who was arrested in 2007 for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. When a snooty US colleague dismisses this light human-interest piece as a frivolous distraction from the serious stories needing to be told about Darfur, Crilly’s robust retort is: ‘I think you are talking bollocks.’ Insisting it is a ‘bloody great story’, Crilly recounts his ‘elation’ at being in the right place at the right time to reap fame and fortune from telling the tale. And, as he chases down the story, it turns out that this minor episode of cultural misunderstanding yields valuable insights into the workings of the Sudanese political system.

Gibbons was released after the intercession of two British Muslim peers, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Lord Nazir Ahmed: it was not lectures and threats that produced a result but ‘an appeal to common sense’, which offered President Omar al Bashir a face-saving way out instead of backing him in to a corner. Might this tell us something about the international approach to Sudan over Darfur, wonders Crilly – that shrill Western hectoring is actually counterproductive, making an already shaky regime feel even more threatened?

This is not to suggest that Crilly is in any way sympathetic to Bashir’s government. He frequently deplores its cruelty and vividly describes the suffering it has caused. What he does not do, however, is demonise it as an evil regime hell-bent on genocide. Instead, he suggests that Bashir has pursued a strategy of ‘counter-insurgency on the cheap’, in the words of Sudan scholar Alex de Waal. Crilly’s encounters with Sudanese soldiers reveal an unreliable military with doubtful loyalties – the army is full of Darfuris and also includes men from southern Sudan who until recently were themselves at war with the government. Recruiting proxy militia forces – the Janjaweed, or ‘devils on horseback’ – with promises of land and money, and giving them ‘the chance to loot and steal’, argues Crilly, ‘seemed to be the way a government with a thin grip on its vast country fought for survival’. Previous Sudanese presidents did much the same thing, he notes, and so did the British when they were Sudan’s imperial rulers.

Although this is a personal account, full of colourful anecdotes and wry asides, Crilly resists the temptation to put himself at the centre of the story. Since the early 1990s the fashion has been for Western journalists to use other people’s wars as a backdrop for their own existential voyages of moral self-discovery. Crilly’s more down-to-earth approach shuns the simplification and narcissism of that emotive and ‘attached’ style of journalism. Arriving in Sudan in September 2004, shortly after then US secretary of state Colin Powell had described the situation in Darfur as ‘genocide’, Crilly quickly finds that the war as understood in the West is ‘slipping out of focus’, as ‘black and white certainties’ start ‘mixing into grey’. Rather than seeking, as so many have done, to speak on behalf of the victims of conflict, Crilly’s aim is to ‘broadcast the real voices from the aid camps, the rebel villages and the Arab camel markets’.

Crilly meets the civilian victims of indiscriminate government bombing raids and brutal Janjaweed militiamen. But he also seeks out the voices of those who go ‘un-vox-popped’ in most reporting because they do not easily fit into reductionist accounts of a ‘genocide in Darfur’ perpetrated by ‘lighter-skinned Arabs’ against ‘black Africans’. He talks to the Arabic-speaking victims of rebel attacks, for example, and to former militia members who have defected to the rebels, discovering not an epic tale of Good versus Evil but a more prosaic and more complex story of shifting allegiances and ambiguous divisions. ‘Delving into context’, he finds, ‘showed that rational actors were at work, defending the interests of both sides’.

Equally, while he listens sympathetically to the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, he instinctively mistrusts their ‘glowing media profile’ and refuses to gloss over the rebels’ political fragmentation, their attacks on African Union peacekeepers, obstruction of humanitarian aid and recruitment of child soldiers. Unlike many of his colleagues, Crilly exercises proper journalistic scepticism when courted by media-savvy rebel groups who want to appeal to an international audience. Instead of simplifying the picture, his objective is to ‘tease out… loose ends, to complicate, and correct, the story of Darfur’.

Of course, complexity does not always go down well with newspapers eager for attention-grabbing headlines (Crilly wrote for The Times and the Daily Mail, among others). ‘Hmm, it’s a bit “Inside Baseball” isn’t it?’ was the response of editors who thought his attempts to present a more nuanced picture were too laden with esoteric detail. Sometimes they would even insert terms such as ‘black’ and ‘African’ into his articles in order to make them conform to the clear but misleading narrative that dominated news coverage. ‘[I]t was only after a couple of years covering the conflict that I began to object,’ he recalls, ‘pointing out that everyone in Darfur was black and African.’ While candid about his own mistakes, Crilly is highly critical of Western media coverage of Darfur – especially the simple-minded moralism of crusading journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.

The main focus of criticism, though, is the celebrity campaigners and human rights activists of the Save Darfur lobby – the target of the book’s ironic title. He pokes fun at some of their media-friendly stunts, such as the 2008 ‘Day for Darfur’ when celebrities smashed up toys to symbolise the suffering of Darfuri children – ‘Matt Damon took a baseball bat to a dolls’ house… Thandie Newton blowtorched a Barbie.’ But his criticism is deadly serious. It was the campaigners and ‘celebrity diplomats’ who did most to ‘[turn] Sudan’s desert conflict into the world’s favourite African war’, yet they did so only by simplifying and distorting it. In the process, Crilly concludes, far from ‘saving Darfur’ the campaigners have actually made things worse.

By exaggerating death tolls and depicting this ‘messy war’ as the ‘first genocide of the twenty-first century’, he argues, the activists and celebrities bear much of the responsibility for framing Darfur as a problem demanding drastic solutions – not quiet diplomacy but UN troops, not patient mediation but arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is a timely point. The book’s publication this month coincides with the ICC’s decision – welcomed by the Save Darfur Coalition – to re-examine the possibility of adding the charge of genocide to its indictment against President Bashir. Coming just ahead of elections in Sudan scheduled for this spring, the court’s move to further criminalise the country’s president is unlikely to improve the chances of a negotiated peace settlement.

Even though it was ‘the search for adventure’ that took Crilly to Darfur, he says that in the end it also became his ‘favourite African war’. After five years of trying to get inside the minds of the rebels, militiamen and refugees, they got under his skin too. Crilly was honest enough to admit that ‘the more I travelled through Darfur the more it seemed everything I knew about it was wrong’, and to reappraise his preconceptions in light of experience. Save Darfur campaigners should read his book and do the same.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War, by Rob Crilly, is published by Reportage Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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