Giles Fraser: The people cry out for action now

by
16 April 2008

The complexities of Darfur are no excuse for the West’s refusal to act, says Giles Fraser

I got to play proud Dad on Sunday, as one of my daughters was invited through the great black door of 10 Downing Street to give the Prime Minister one of her drawings. As a work of art, it was nothing unusual, just an A4 sheet with coloured words such as “family”, “house”, “friends”, “toys”, “school” — each accompanied by a pretty little picture. It is just the sort of thing millions of kids bring home every week.

The reasons for this high-level show-and-tell originate in a very different set of children’s drawings. An Antonov bomber swoops down to scatter bombs on fragile dwellings made of straw and branches; Janjaweed paramilitaries fire indiscriminately into villages; corpses and blood, rape and murder — this is what the schoolchildren of Darfur have been drawing. The contrast with the optimism and innocence of my little girl’s world-view is almost too painful to bear.

The reasons for this high-level show-and-tell originate in a very different set of children’s drawings. An Antonov bomber swoops down to scatter bombs on fragile dwellings made of straw and branches; Janjaweed paramilitaries fire indiscriminately into villages; corpses and blood, rape and murder — this is what the schoolchildren of Darfur have been drawing. The contrast with the optimism and innocence of my little girl’s world-view is almost too painful to bear.

The startling pictures on this page were produced in the refugee camps of Chad — those sprawling outposts of human misery that have become home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfurians, all seeking refuge from the violence of their government in Sudan. Mostly, the Sudanese government get thugs from the Janjaweed (literally: “men on horseback”) to do their dirty work for them, and there is little doubt that it is the government that is training, arming, and funding the Janjaweed.

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It has been five years this month since this crisis began. Since then, 2.5 million people have been driven from their villages, and somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people are dead. The US government has dubbed it “genocide”. The UN is more cautious about the word.

In anyone’s book, however, what is happening in Darfur is a mass abuse of human rights, and constitutes a crime against humanity. These children’s pictures have recently been accepted by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague as contextual evidence for a future prosecution (News, 1 February). But that day still seems a long way off. Five years on, the situation for the poor people of Darfur is hardly any closer to a conclusion.

Yes, there has been a great deal of talk and many meetings. There were supposed to be 26,000 international troops being sent to Darfur. It was all agreed. But barely 9000 are in situ — in an area the size of France. A fat lot of good that is going to do.

Women who venture out of their camps to collect wood are frequently captured and gang-raped. Children are machine-gunned for entertainment. These people cry out for the immediate action of the international community. But still we do next to nothing. Did we learn nothing from our inactivity during the genocide in Rwanda? Perhaps we will sleep through this one, too.

Some see the problem of Darfur as just too difficult. Years of ethnic rivalry have been easily exploited, and there is something in the view that this is a war between Arabs and darker-skinned Africans. During the 1970s and 1980s, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya pushed hard to create a sense of pan-Arab identity against the non-Arab Africans to the south. The war in Darfur is thus often characterised as ethnic cleansing by the Arab Janjaweed.

Some see the problem of Darfur as just too difficult. Years of ethnic rivalry have been easily exploited, and there is something in the view that this is a war between Arabs and darker-skinned Africans. During the 1970s and 1980s, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya pushed hard to create a sense of pan-Arab identity against the non-Arab Africans to the south. The war in Darfur is thus often characterised as ethnic cleansing by the Arab Janjaweed.

Yet that is only part of it. Climate change is also a contributory factor. Rainfall has decreased by about 40 per cent since the early 1980s. The desert in northern Sudan has grown southwards by 60 miles in the past 40 years. All this means that northern tribes have to push ever further south to find water and grazing. And this inevitably brings conflict over resources. It is a lethal brew of ethnic divisions and environmental crisis.

Another part of the jigsaw is the substantial trade agreements that China has with the Sudanese government to exploit its oil reserves. In turn, China (and Russia) sell them the planes and helicopters that the children show in many of their pictures. This is in contravention of Security Council resolution 1591.

So, yes, the situation is complicated. But that is no excuse for ignorance or indifference, especially for Christians who were taught a clear lesson by Christ that loving your neighbour does not mean loving the person who lives next door.

 

So, yes, the situation is complicated. But that is no excuse for ignorance or indifference, especially for Christians who were taught a clear lesson by Christ that loving your neighbour does not mean loving the person who lives next door.

 

What I find so unbelievably frustrating is the way the media is under-prioritising this tragedy on their news schedules, and is thus encouraging our ignorance. Thousands of people are dying in Darfur. Yet this is not enough of a story. Apparently it is not newsy enough. It is little wonder that the film star George Clooney has spoken of the children who did these drawings as “the only journalists getting the story out”.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney in south-west London.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney in south-west London.

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