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Darfur Tragedy Captures Imaginations for Diverse Reasons


With conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region continuing to spill over to neighboring countries, high-profile negotiations between role players to end the crisis are ongoing. Thousands of people have been killed there and millions displaced since violence began in 2003. The Sudanese authorities this week agreed to allow UN troops into Darfur. Peace activists, though, are pessimistic, given that the government has on previous occasions made such pledges, only to refuse to allow the UN into Darfur in large numbers. Human rights groups say the government of Sudan, by means of various proxies, has orchestrated a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the black peoples of Darfur. In the final installment of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on why the issue has spawned the most powerful international activism since apartheid.

A recent international survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that, despite the low level of awareness in some parts of the world about what’s happening in Darfur, the issue has nevertheless captured the imaginations of millions of people around the world.

That’s especially true in the United States, where well-organized advocacy movements have formed to demand action from their government to end what the United Nations has described as the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”

According to human rights groups, more than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since a militia known as the janjaweed began attacking villages in Darfur four years ago. The government blames the conflict on rebels who refuse to sign a peace agreement, and says the violence has been “exaggerated” and that only 9,000 people have lost their lives.

Sudanese Deputy Ambassador to the US Salah Elguneid accuses well-funded anti-genocide campaigns in America of “inflaming emotions” and “telling lies” about Darfur.

“These people have lots of money, and they make big television and newspaper campaigns, where they falsely describe what is happening in Darfur as genocide. This causes many people in the world to believe their untruths about Sudan and Darfur,” Elguneid says.

Analysts say the Darfur issue has united a diverse range of international activists, whose member organizations are comprised of people of different religions, ethnic groups and ages. In the recent survey, for example, Jews from Israel agreed with Arabs from the Palestinian territories that the UN should take immediate and harsh action to bring an end to the crisis.

According to the UN charter, though, military action against a sovereign state can only be approved when agreed to by the five permanent members of the Security Council, and China and Russia have been unwilling to support harsh actions against Sudan in the case of Darfur.

Observers agree that Darfur has spawned the largest and most powerful international activist movement since apartheid in South Africa.

Gayle Smith, former special assistant to the US President on African affairs, says the “race element” and the introduction of the word “genocide” into the discourse surrounding Darfur has undoubtedly had a significant bearing upon support for the activists and widespread opposition to the al-Bashir government.

But, she says, the “high emotion” inspired by events in Darfur is the result of far more than mere semantics.

“On one level, Darfur is very complicated – if you look into a number of underlying reasons. But on another fundamental level, it’s really very simple. And I think the very stark descriptions – both in words and in photographs – of civilians being literally chased out of their homes and their villages destroyed and burned as they left – [were] so stark that no one could look at that and say that that’s explainable. It’s just simply a case of fundamental right and wrong,” Smith says.

Awareness of the tragedy continues to grow around the world, especially as a result of protest actions and lobbying undertaken by the Save Darfur Coalition, a network of international organizations based in Washington, D.C., and dedicated to ending the crisis. Coalition officials have visited Darfur regularly and have collected moving footage from the devastated area.

It recently invited the media – many of whom have been denied permission by Sudanese authorities to enter Darfur – to use its video gallery, which includes images of deteriorating conditions in aid camps and interviews with survivors telling stories of murder, rape and other atrocities.

Steven Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which has measured worldwide public opinion on Darfur, says there are “good reasons” for the issue eliciting strong feelings, especially in the US.

“When there’s a schema of conflict, of civil war, that’s something (where) Americans tend to [say], ‘Oh boy; should we get involved in that?’ (But) when there’s a schema of victimization, when one group is truly victimized and it’s civilians (who are suffering) that elicits support. When there’s a kind of racial dimension – thus bringing in the concept of genocide – that makes it even stronger.”

When political leaders ally themselves with the “narratives of victimization and genocide” – as has happened in the US – says Kull, “people tend to express their consent with taking action.”

Alex Meixner, the legislative coordinator of Save Darfur, says activists aren’t using the word “genocide” simply to stir up emotions and gain support for their cause: They’re using it “because it represents the truth of what’s happening in Darfur.”

“I think what makes Darfur different is that it is the first time in US history where our president and our Congress have officially declared something to be genocide while it’s happening,” Meixner explains. “If we look back at the Balkans, at Rwanda, at Cambodia, at the Holocaust – if they were named genocides at all, it was only after the fact, it was only after nothing more could be done to stop it.”

In the case of Darfur, says Meixner, the international community – and the US government in particular – has a responsibility to stop the killing before it’s too late, and the black ethnic groups of Darfur have either been “wiped out” or have been driven from their homeland.

“The fact that our government has come out and officially acknowledged it to be genocide compels some better reaction from our government than simply saying, ‘Yes, we realize that it is genocide and we realize lives are being lost but we’re not willing to actually do anything to end this crisis.’”

US officials point to Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte’s visit this week to Khartoum, during which he spoke with Sudanese authorities, as evidence of their efforts to gain resolution. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Sudan had accepted the deployment of 3,000 UN peacekeepers, and several UN helicopter gunships, in Darfur.

According to former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, semantics do have a big impact on the actions taken by political authorities regarding a particular conflict. She uses Iraq as an example, where the Bush administration has refused to brand the conflict in the Middle East a “civil war,” because it’s aware that use of the term will influence public perceptions about the “wisdom and effectiveness” of America’s presence in Iraq.

In a similar way, says Rice, the use of the word “genocide” with regard to Darfur impacts on levels of public and political support for ending the atrocities in Sudan.

Meixner agrees that “words have a great impact” on advocacy, but he maintains that people around the world are only “truly” spurred to action and demands for an end to the “horror of Darfur” when they see television footage and photographs of atrocities.

“These photos, these first hand stories, are incredibly effective and that’s why they’re so hard to come by. The Sudanese government knows they’re effective and they do whatever they can to limit access of the international media to these stories and to these photos.”

Elguneid denies that his government has blocked media access to Darfur, but says that “like with every other sovereign country in the world, including the US,” there are “certain procedures to be followed” in allowing journalists into “dangerous” areas.

He says he can only speculate as to why the Darfur issue inspires such powerful activism around the world.

“Maybe because of the huge media coverage of the crisis in Darfur. The other reason might be that Africa as a whole has been bedeviled by these (humanitarian) crises. But we think the situation in Darfur is by far calmer than what is the picture in the international media concerning the situation there.”

Meixner responds: “There is no need for exaggeration. The truth is more horrible than any fiction that we and the media are able to create.”

Observers, like Meixner, say the Darfur crisis has been “underplayed rather than overstated” and that rather than a saturation of coverage of the issue, there’s really a dearth of information about Darfur in the international media, which is why the advocacy movements are playing such a major role in attempts to secure peace in the region.

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