Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 18 May 2014

Refusing to see Darfur’s agony


Myopic and lazy reporting, political expediency have left millions to suffer and die invisibly

By Eric Reeves

May 17, 2014 - While the news media in most of the world focus with relentless obsession on some three hundred girls kidnapped in Nigeria by the barbaric Boko Haram, stories of much greater human magnitude continue to unfold without so much as a glancing notice. It is hard not to feel the pain of these girls and their families; but it is dwarfed by the plight of so many girls, in so many places around the world. And yet, as if determined to attune U.S. foreign policy to the most telegenically compelling news stories from around the world, the Obama administration’s response has been absurdly out of proportion, given the reality of places like Darfur. There many tens of thousands of girls have been killed during what has become a grim genocide by attrition, now entering its second decade with almost complete invisibility. It is almost certain that tens of thousands of girls, many very young, have been raped—some brutally, even fatally gang-raped. These outrageously cruel assaults often occur in front of families in order to magnify the social stigma attached to rape. Thousands of non-Arab or African girls and women have been abducted to become sexual slaves of Arab militia groups, sometimes for extended periods of time.

Why do these massive atrocities receive no commensurate attention from either the news media or the Obama administration? To be sure, the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum grants no news-reporting access to Darfur, except for an occasional carefully controlled visit to one of the three capital cities of the region. The fact that Radio Dabanga so regularly and fully reports on developments in Darfur must also be discouraging of international news efforts, which at best could glean, even with Arabic speaking journalists, but a few telling facts from interviews in the limited time that Khartoum might allow them. Moreover, all signs are that the regime is cracking down yet harder on news media, both domestic and international. Without greater resourcefulness by journalists, Darfur will move even further into eclipse.

This, however, is no excuse for the Obama administration, which must be fully aware of what is occurring—if only because so reliably and consistently reported by Radio Dabanga. Also, humanitarian aid organizations and their staff can be confidentially de-briefed on returning from Darfur; satellite imagery can be readily produced; communication with various leaders and figures of importance in Darfuri civil society is also possible (including those in the diaspora). But the U.S. seems determined to ignore Darfur. Indeed, it was well over three years ago that the Obama administration explicitly "de-coupled" Darfur from the key issue of counter-terrorism cooperation between Khartoum and Washington (the word "de-coupled" was used by a "senior administration official," unnamed in the State Department transcript). But if nominally bearing only on counter-terrorism cooperation, the "de-coupling" of Darfur has in fact become complete, and the signs of this are everywhere in the administration of a president who did not hesitate to make bold use of the Darfur issue in 2008, deploying the strongest possible rhetoric in demonstrating his "Darfur credentials" to voters.

This suggests why senior officials of the Obama administration have waxed so indignant about the Boko Haram kidnappings, and "declared to Congress that freeing the schoolgirls abducted by the radical Islamist group last month has become one of the Obama administration’s top priorities" (Associated Press [Washington], May 15, 2014). This is a shameful pandering, and badly skews real priorities. Republicans have behaved in a manner just as appalling and self-serving, trying to politicize the issue by asking why then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2012. The narrowness of vision, the parochialism, the constant testing for the most visceral issue on the minds of voters—all this grotesquely distorts public understanding of the problems that really deserve to be "top priorities."

Why isn’t the terrible and much greater plight of hundreds of thousands of girls in Darfur a "top priority" for the Obama administration? The answer all too clearly is that the Darfur crisis is challenging and would require commitment of substantial resources; international consensus is thin; and responding meaningfully would endanger the counter-terrorism cooperation that defines U.S. Sudan policy in the Obama administration. There is, finally, no evidence that this administration is committed to ending the suffering, insecurity, and human destruction endured by millions of Darfuris.

As I’ve argued previously, the case of Syria has also provided occasion for hypocrisy on the part of the Obama administration. The administration response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, including hundreds of children, has created an expedient moral framework out ultimately in service of political goals. The implicit claim has been made repeatedly, most notably by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, that children’s deaths from chemical weapons are more "heinous" or "morally obscene” than all others. I believe this to be a dismayingly invidious comparison. The claim that a child who dies from a chemical attack dies a more horrible death than the child in Darfur who dies in agony—over many hours, having been eviscerated by the shrapnel exploding out a bomb dropped from a high-flying, grossly inaccurate Antonov cargo plane—is perversely expedient.

In fact, the Obama administration has a dismally weak record of condemning the many hundreds of aerial attacks on civilians in Darfur, as well as in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Certainly nothing that is said amounts to more than boilerplate, a fact not lost on the Khartoum regime. It’s hardly surprising that U.S. and international condemnation of such war crimes has been not only tepid but utterly inconsequential. Khartoum bombs civilians wherever and whenever it wishes, not deterred in the slightest by international statements. Indeed, every aerial attack in Darfur—whether it be of military or civilian targets—is a direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005). And although the UN/African Union "hybrid" peacekeeping force (UNAMID) is scandalous in its failures to report such attacks, a number of the UN Panels of Experts on Darfur—created to monitor compliance with the arms embargo and a ban on all military flights in Darfur—have reported in detailed fashion on numerous egregious violations of all terms of Resolution 1591. There have been no consequences, and Khartoum’s violations continue apace.

In effect, the international community—led by the U.S., the UN, the EU, and the African Union—has conceded Khartoum’s "victory" in Darfur. There has been no concerted effort to control the violence that has now spiraled out of control, imperiling all remaining humanitarian capacity. The more than 2 million internally displaced persons are more vulnerable than ever—from lack of food, water, and medicine, but also from attacks by the ever more brazen reincarnation of the Janjaweed known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Rape of girls and women, by the thousands, continues with complete impunity. Displaced persons camps are attacked more frequently and more violently. Land appropriated from African farmers by Arab pastoralists has permanently changed the demographics of Darfur, precisely the genocidal ambition announced in August 2004 by Musa Hilal, the most infamous of the Janjaweed leaders earlier in the conflict and still a cruel and potent force in the region:

The ultimate objective in Darfur is spelled out in an August 2004 directive from [Janjaweed paramount leader Musa] Hilal’s headquarters: "change the demography" of Darfur and "empty it of African tribes." Confirming the control of [Khartoum’s] Military Intelligence over the Darfur file, the directive is addressed to no fewer than three intelligence services—the Intelligence and Security Department, Military Intelligence and National Security, and the ultra-secret "Constructive Security," or Amn al Ijabi. (Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, Zed Books, 2005)

Accepting that this ambition continues to animate Khartoum’s actions in Darfur has proved too awkward for the Obama administration, despite the success of the strategy announced a decade ago. For of course the overwhelming number of displaced persons are African; those who have lost their lands and livelihoods are overwhelmingly African; and the some 500,000 people who have died from violence and its consequences in Darfur and eastern Chad (including violent displacement) are overwhelmingly African. The people bombed by Khartoum are overwhelmingly African; the girls and women raped, often while being forced to hear hateful racial epithets, are overwhelmingly African. The fact that Arab tribal groups have also begun to fight one another in much more serious fashion changes none of this.

And yet it is clear that the international community has essentially conceded victory to Khartoum’s génocidaires. Stopping the regime’s efforts, which now take a wide range of forms, including denial of humanitarian access to critically needy civilians, would require real effort. Building consensus among those with the power to threaten Khartoum economically is challenging. And the UN/AU force on the ground, while a terrible failure, at least provides the fig-leaf of protection in the region, however ineffective UNAMID is in preventing or reporting violence against civilians. When these challenges are coupled with the lack of news reporting and the absence of any credible human rights reporting presence, even public opinion—so strong in the years leading up to Obama’s election as president—is no longer a problem. Few still care about Darfur and even fewer have any real sense of what is happening.

In response to this last challenge I can do no more than organize the recent dispatches from Radio Dabanga, by date and the nature of events. But let us be clear that there is not a total absence of information. And the UN, which has performed erratically in Darfur over the years, has issued a statement through UNICEF that should put the kidnapped girls of Nigeria in at least statistical perspective:

The UN children’s rights and relief organisation, UNICEF, has warned that an entire generation in Darfur may be lost as a result of more than ten years of violence in the region."Life in the camps might produce a new generation without ambition," the UNICEF Representative in Sudan, Geert Cappelaere, said in a press statement issued on Saturday. In particular as about 60 percent of the displaced in Darfur are minors."He warned that the children growing up in the Darfur camps for the displaced may not be able to return to a normal life. Many are traumatised after having witnessed attacks against their families or being themselves subjected to violence, abduction, and other assaults.In addition, the malnutrition figures are very high. Cappelaere pointed to North Darfur which is listed first of the Darfur states suffering from an acute food crisis. "More than 80,000 children in North Darfur are severely malnourished. South Darfur State comes second in the list.""The world should not turn its back to the tragedy of the children in Darfur," the UNICEF official urged. (Radio Dabanga, May 12, 2014) ("Severe Acute Malnutrition" [SAM] is typically fatal in children under five if untreated with therapeutic feeding—ER)

Search engines suggest that only Radio Dabanga and Thomson Reuters Foundation (London) reported on this extraordinary announcement by UNICEF. A similar search for "Nigerian girls" + "Boko Haram" yields a figure measured in the millions.

Perhaps this is a moment in which news organizations might feel compelled to reflect on their journalistic choices. They may continue to report as they have, driven by what seem the "sexiest," most audience-drawing, most accessible stories of human tragedy. Or some may see that the obsession with Malaysian Flight 370 and the Boko Haram kidnappings permits consumers with a prurient love of spectacle to drive news content, indeed to define "news." Perhaps, just perhaps this may be a catalyst for re-committing to reporting news that is most consequential, in the broadest terms, for well-informed citizens of the world. A present, however, such commitment is nowhere in sight, so for Darfur at least we must rely on Radio Dabanga.

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