Distorting Darfur: The international media and Sudan
2009-06-11, Issue 437
George Clooney, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Michael Caine, Claudia Schiffer, Bob Geldof, Hugh Grant, Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger and so many others have expressed their solidarity with the people of the oil-rich region of Darfur. A few weeks ago, Democrats John Lewis of Georgia, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Lynn Woolsey of California, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts were all arrested as they demonstrated against the Sudanese government. When Colin Powell used the word genocide in 2004, it kicked off a $1 billion-a-year international aid programme, much higher than that afforded Somalia or Congo.
In the past few months, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is appealing the setting aside of genocide charges, claiming that there is 'ongoing genocide' in Darfur. The Sudanese government has expelled some foreign aid groups, accusing them of espionage. They include Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières. According to the Save Darfur Campaign, it was the relief organisations that provided clean water, food and medical attention to roughly 1.5 million people. The Sudanese government claims these aid-agencies deliberately exclude Arab Darfuris in their ranks, exacerbating sectarian tensions.
And at the moment, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration is on a diplomatic tour, while Britain is sending $185 million in aid and $140 million in 'peacekeeping' money.
Collette Valentine, a TV producer visiting from the United Kingdom, and Ali Gunn, a British media consultant, last week returned from Darfur, where they attended the first 'International Conference on the Challenge Facing Women in Darfur' in Al-Fasher in the north. Valentine says that articles about Darfur in the international press make her feel as if she visited a completely different region, a completely different country. It all adds weight to the thesis of Columbia University’s Professor Mahmood Mamdani that there is something very murky about Western aid agencies’ insistence that there has been a genocide in Darfur, and that at the heart of the campaigns around Darfur is the culmination of a powerful, imperial desire to suppress citizenry from US high school classrooms to right across the developing world.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: Tell me about your visit and how your experience differed to the portrayal in the corporate media. I understand you went at the invitation of Rajaa Hassan Khalifa from the largest women’s union in conjunction with Bakri O.Saeed from Sudan International University.
COLLETTE VALENTINE: Ali Gunn and myself and a group of journalists were lucky enough to be invited to Sudan by the Sudanese Women General Union. The women’s union in Sudan has got 27,000 branches all over Sudan, including Darfur. They have representatives in all the rural villages, across all different communities consisting of around 80 tribes and clans. The women of Sudan are a real force. Historically, there have been female leaders. They are wives, mothers, farmers; they build, they grow the vegetables and basically run the communities and are respected by their men folk. A third of families in the camps are headed by women. In recent years, some members of the women’s union have been elected as ministers in the Sudanese government and a quarter of the seats in the Sudanese parliament are occupied by women.
They are all members of the union and they have direct links right down from the most educated academic women from the professional classes to grassroots people. This chain of open communication is active and alive from bottom to top and top to bottom. Because the women have such a strong role in the communities, the women themselves have decided to take action for peace and security in Darfur. They have seen the failure of external, international agencies and NGOs and they know that peace can only come from within their own communities via reconciliation talks.
The IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the refugee camps are people who have fled trouble in their own areas of Sudan. They didn’t want to leave, but had no option but to flee. Before the international NGOs got involved, the IDPs were provided with camps by al-Bashir’s government, provided with wells, administrators, bureaucratic structures, materials for shelter and local doctors, clinics, and health services paid for by the Sudanese government. When women fled their villages, active male rebels from every community that were fighting each other remained. Those conflicts rage on even as there is peace and stability in the camps. We saw no evidence of any genocide. We were not embedded by the government nor with any NGO. We had absolute freedom to talk with whomever we wished. And we randomly talked to as many men, women and children as we could.
One man, a village leader who led 4,000 of his community separated in two camps, said he had been there six years. His home was 50km away. We asked about genocide and he said that he wouldn’t have remained in the Sudanese government camps for six years if he hadn’t been looked after. When we asked about the issue of rape, he did not deny there wasn’t an issue. The women we spoke to said that unfortunately, rape exists everywhere in the world and some we spoke to quoted statistics about the prevalence of rape in the US and how in developed nations, women are too frightened to press charges. One woman told me that allegations of wide and systematic rape crimes against Darfur women constitute a type of war against Sudan. Historically, in areas of conflict, they maintained, cases of crime and rape are bound to increase. Rape is not a weapon of the government and women are being told to report instances of rape. But the ICC is using the prevalence of rape and giving it undue importance, helping NGOs fill their coffers.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: Were you concerned about safety in Darfur?
ALI GUNN: I understood the situation had settled and that there was quite a lot of fighting down south but that the situation in Darfur was more stable since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. However, I had been warned off by expert security consultants, who feared for my safety.
We went to two camps in Darfur and we saw people eking out a simple existence. No bullet holes, no tanks and no fighting. The only military vehicles belonged to the United Nations. We were given carte blanche to wander around the camps as we pleased and talk to anyone we liked. Many spoke English. I was appalled that so much reporting in our newspapers has no basis in reality. Cheap and lazy journalism at its worst.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: What about the United Nations’ presence on the ground?
COLLETTE VALENTINE: When we were actually in one of the two camps, we looked up and saw an American tank approaching, followed by a patrol of around 15 UN vans and two more tanks. They drove up, parked the cars outside the office of the administrator of the camp. We didn’t know what was happening.
We were told that three times day, this happens at the camp and that UN officials come to ask whether everything is alright. Women told us that the camps are peaceful places. While we played football with children in the camp at around 9am, men and women setting out market stalls selling tomatoes and oranges, and as the UN personnel talked to the administrator, the soldiers lined up with guns, five metres apart facing us and the rest of the people in the camps.
It was obvious that the soldiers were protecting UN bosses whilst we kicked a football with the children. It was extraordinary. Women were making yoghurt with goat’s milk even as the UN troops pointed their guns at us. I asked one of the women, Maha Feraigon, why guns were being aimed and whether they were scared that we might throw a tomato at them and she just laughed. As Ali says, quite a few people could speak English. Maha was first assistant to the secretary general of the Sudanese Women General Union, independent of the government. All the people we spoke to were furious about UN personnel arriving in this way and wanted the UN to leave. The UN personnel left their engines running and people resented how much that money for the UN was being wasted in front of their eyes. They asked about what they could be doing with the money. I was disgusted. They asked why these personnel were not in the villages where the fighting continues and their ‘dar’ or land was. People said that NGOs did not want the fighting to stop so that they can continue to be paid. None had seen any money from the Save Darfur campaign and they resented that money was being raised in their names.
ALI GUNN: At the conference, we spoke to opposition leaders and women at the conference. There was no sense of urgency about any 'genocide' in the camps themselves. Our concern for our trip was to look at the living conditions of the people in the camps and look at the future of Darfur and the future for families there. And there was very little evidence of external aid. Darfur is the size of France so we didn’t go to all the camps. We have photographic evidence of families and women making their own bricks. You would have to ask the aid agencies about where their money has been sent.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: What about how the Sudanese perceive outside, external forces?
COLLETTE VALENTINE: I was lucky enough to sit beside Maha on the flight from Khartoum to Darfur. I emphasise that she has no connection to any NGO or the government. She spoke very good English and explained the anger of the people. Her general feeling, having been all over Darfur, speaking to women at all levels from all communities throughout the region, was that they did not want foreign interference because they know that it is all about oil and water – the 'oil of tomorrow'.
She told me about how Sudan was sitting on the biggest underwater lake in Africa, giving rise to the best arable land. Despite the desertification, responsible for so many of the deaths in recent years, the lake holds great promise. She told me about how Chevron was thrown out of the country and how Chevron executives took all their drilling and exploration maps with them. They still believe that the NGOs in concert with the US are only involved because of water and oil. She pointed to Congo, Sierra Leone and other African countries, firmly believing that there were no good intentions when it comes to great power involvement on the continent.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: Not a day goes by without the word genocide being used when Darfur is in the corporate media.
ALI GUNN: The Western media has totally misrepresented the situation subsequent to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In Darfur, they are desperate for long-term measures to alleviate the cycle of non-delivery in Darfur. Some believed that there were a significant number of people who would never return to their homeland areas. Living conditions in the camps were spartan but clean and people were very aware of their personal space. There was a market with a butcher, vegetable-sellers, a makeshift restaurant … many different rows of shops. It was very much like a souk you would see in any country of this type, with domestic goods on sale. The people we saw were not starving and pretty healthy.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: Do you see money from oil being used for the benefit of the people?
COLLETTE VALENTINE: Oil is all-important for Sudan and is vital to the infrastructure-building plans of the country. They are planning schools and health centres. Free medical care is available to everybody, but not every village has a clinic so people have to travel to the next village. There is a lot of work to be done in Sudan. This is not a bed of roses, by any means but only oil money is going to be able to change things. I saw in Khartoum how development is beginning. They have big plans for the areas around the Blue Nile in Khartoum and it looks to me like Pudong in Shanghai where I made some documentaries when it was developing, a decade ago.
Maha told me that there was a rail system in Sudan that you could time your watch by, but US sanctions starting in the 1990s destroyed it as parts to fix trains and tracks dried up. Sanctions prevented people being able to travel. But, now the Sudanese government has done a deal with the Chinese, who they feel are completely different to the Americans. I was told that Chinese involvement was trusted where the US wasn’t. The Chinese are not interested in hegemonic power. I could see the development present in Khartoum. When I later met the president, he said that growth should be across Sudan and not just limited to an elite in Khartoum. The work is in progress and the president’s popularity has gone through the roof after the ICC indictments.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: What about signs of corruption?
ALI GUNN: People had told us the president was a humble and modest man and he certainly seemed like that in person. I was very wary of signs of corruption and wealth. The palace looked like any municipal building in a developing nation. The furniture was all very normal. We were told that he was a modest man who had come up the ranks of the army and as such was possibly less concerned about the ICC than about rebuilding his nation. He is much more popular after the ICC indictments.
There was a feeling that the country has been picked on in comparison to what has been happening in surrounding nations. I saw that people were being actively encouraged to vote. I mentioned that I work in the British parliament and stressed the need for people to register to vote and there was certainly no problem in people understanding the importance of voting.
Like people in Britain, many of the people we spoke to had a healthy scepticism about politicians per se. But they did believe that the next elections would be free and fair.
COLLETTE VALENTINE: The president knew that the conference was taking place but he had no knowledge of which camps we were visiting. The women were careful not to tell him because they were aware that we were looking for any signs that we were being embedded in any way.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: And the perception is that the ICC has aided the president of Sudan?
COLLETTE VALENTINE: On the night before we left, we met with President al-Bashir and his advisor, Dr Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani. Everything they said backed up what we heard on the ground. He admitted that the ICC has aided his re-election chances. He admitted that rape was present in Darfur but he blamed outside aid agencies for putting petrol on the fire and he highlighted the external supply of arms. He also blamed the classic British divide-and-rule tactics of colonialism for the roots of trouble in Sudan. Attabani said: 'Sudan is politically isolated and that when the ICC indictment was first raised 4 years ago the president offered to step aside, to abdicate – he said 16 years was too long. Our policy in that the National Congress Party [NCP] is that we don’t believe in "a president for life". They made him look like a villain but internally it boosted his popularity… Now the NCP can’t consider any other candidate.'
From my experience of seeing Western leaders in London, there is a cavalcade of security. Al-Bashir, when he goes from his house to local weddings, funerals and the mosque, seems to have no security at all. One of our delegates went to the mosque and was baffled by the lack of security on seeing him there.
AFSHIN RATTANSI: What about what the president of Sudan expects from the change of administration in Washington?
ALI GUNN: We were attacked about international media coverage of Darfur as the people saw the situation very different to how it is portrayed. They saw the West as patronising the Sudanese people. On Obama, President al-Bashir said: 'He’s much more pragmatic. The old guard from Clinton’s days are still around – in the 1990s they were hostile. They’ve not changed, but they have toned down their rhetoric … we believe that the US has been exploited by certain undercurrents.' I would suggest that people go and see for themselves what is happening.
COLLETTE VALENTINE: Dr Ghazi said that they are hopeful about Obama but they don’t trust the Clinton people, the Susan Rices and Samantha Powers. Continuation of the ICC path would be seen as vindictive and alien and could result in turning Darfur into a real conflict.
The women in the camps are focused on talking to their men, and they believe that the only hope for peace and reconciliation lies with their ability to encourage forgiveness. They believe no international organisations can persuade the men to reconcile with each other. Before this conflict happened, tribal elders would meet to settle conflicts between nomadic and peasant communities. Right across Darfur, women are campaigning on the ground for reconciliation talks. This was the first peace conference. All the women from all the communities are coming together to urge reconciliation talks, with women from each community given their time to speak. Security was on top of the agenda, as well as education and healthcare.
ALI GUNN: After we came back from the camps, we were both shocked about the disparity of what was happening on the ground and what was in the media.
* Afshin Rattansi has worked in journalism for more than two decades, including at the BBC Today programme, CNN International and Al Jazeera Arabic. Rattansi has published a quartet of novels entitled The Dream of the Decade: The London Novels.
* This article was originally published by CounterPunch.
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