Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Simple, It Isn't

In the ebb and flow of Darfur coverage, it is beyond refreshing to see some real analysis instead of what too often is the ‘Hollywood’ version of the conflict- that is to say, simply Darfur versus the bad guys. This morning in the Washington Post, Alex de Waal and Julie Flint wrote a piece that gets at the heart of the issue: “Simple, it isn’t.”

In researching for a documentary about Sudan over a year ago, I realized quickly that most of my conceptions about Sudan were misconceptions, and that until I could better understand the issue, anything I said would likely do more harm than good. It was easy to see, for instance, that the people of Darfur were suffering, that the government in Khartoum was largely to blame, and that the world, perhaps because of China ,was unable to do anything about it. Alas, clearly there was a great deal more at work.

The most fundamental misconception I had, was that the conflict was two-sided, good versus evil, and that the main problem was that the world was not paying enough attention to the conflict.

As I quickly realized, the conflict in Darfur was but one piece in a deadly and complicated house of cards- one whose history goes back half a century (or far longer, depending).

For simplicity’s sake, I started to think about Sudan as North, South, East, and West, with each region having a handful of groups whose aims overlap, contradict, and often oppose one another, even when the overarching goal is the same. Each of these relationships and conflicts is integral to the solution and dissolution of the others. Furthermore, every side, including the rebels in Darfur and in the South have committed atrocities of their own.

And so Darfur, in other words, both aggravates, and is aggravated by, the situation in the rest of the country. This is extremely important to keep in mind- something the media rarely bothers to do.

Darfur, it seems, receives 92.7% of the coverage, but is only one small, albeit tragic, part of the overall conflict. The war(s) between the North and South have been going on and off for decades. The people of Southern Sudan have faced much of the same brutality and suffering, for decades, that Darfurians have felt acutely for 5-10 years.

Some time ago, the SPLM (Govt of the South) struck a peace deal (the CPA) with the Northern government in Khartoum. This fragile treaty, to varying degrees over time, has teetered on collapse. If it does collapse, then all of Sudan, perhaps most especially Darfur, is at risk of turning once again into a wholesale bloodbath. This, as I see it, should be the primary concern of the international media- not simply highlighting the current atrocities to the exclusion of everything else.

While Darfur is a tragedy of epic proportions, the media (and advocacy groups) must realize that the way they cover Sudan (and don’t cover Sudan) can have effects that are contrary to the goals of the humanitarian community.

The way most people on the ground see it, at least at the most basic level, is that the bad guys in Khartoum have used a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic, quite successfully, for years and years. There is one simple reason for this: they are comprised of a small elite- keeping the anti-government groups fighting amongst themselves is the only was to keep themselves in power. If the various groups, in Darfur, in the East, in the South, and indeed even parts of the marginalized North were to band together, the government would not stand a chance.

Why has this not happened? There are 600 reasons why. One or two of which, the media and advocacy groups have contributed to. The people of the South, who have been persecuted for decades (and face the constant threat of continued persecution), look at the attention the world has lavished on Darfur and say, “Wait a minute. We’ve been suffering for years. Thousands of us died trying to be free and nobody ever cared. Why is everybody all of a sudden paying attention to Darfur?”

Right or wrong, this has a divisive effect. Millions of people were killed over the course of decade plus- long civil wars. The suffering was immense and still holds today. Perhaps the best thing that can be done, and it may well be too late, is for the international community to start taking a holistic view of Sudan, because this is the most important thing for continued ‘peace’ in the country.

This is why I believe that the Washington Post piece this morning is so necessary. Sudan isn’t simple, and the media seem to neglect this. The most important question, and hands down the most difficult to answer, is ‘what the hell is going on?’ It certainly isn’t as simple as Darfur versus the bad guys versus the uncaring world, and yet, if you listen to the advocacy groups and the occasional Nicholas Kristof column (well intentioned though they clearly are), this is mostly what you get. I realized the extent of the problem very quickly. Whenever I would mention that I was making a documentary about Sudan, people would immediately say, "Oh, about Darfur? That's cool." The whole point of the documentary was to address everything outside of Darfur. The world already knows about Darfur. They do not yet know about Abyei.

The situation in Sudan is nearly impossible to comprehend, even on the ground. It shifts and changes daily, as alliances and feuds shift and change daily. And this is where the real work takes place. UN troops and envoys are important, but one must not confuse this with a solution, it merely buys time for a solution. It mitigates the damage from the conflict, it does not solve the conflict. We must remember that troops cannot be called ‘peace keepers’ when there is no real peace to keep.

Neglecting the realities on the ground, as say President Bush has done elsewhere, will yield disastrous results. The groups who chant, "Out of Iraq-Into Darfur!" are dangerously wrong. People’s lives are at stake. This is more important than you and I feeling like we’re doing something to help. If we don’t know what we’re doing, best not to demand a specific course of action; better to spend that time and energy reading and talking to people who do know, first.

If political reconciliation across Sudan cannot be reached and cannot be maintained, then the situation in Darfur, already horrific, will degenerate much, much further. With millions of lives hanging in the balance, we need to check our tendency toward sensationalism and stop aggravating the situation by failing to account for its many stakeholders. The most important thing, and it’s well overdue, is to try to observe, understand, and most importantly, respect the complexities at work...

My thanks to Alex de Waal, Julie Flint, and the Washington Post for doing just that.

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