By Geoff Blackwell, Law & Policy, IJP
Humanity has a longstanding love-hate relationship with intractable conflicts—the more multifaceted, the better. Initially, the media covers the conflict from every angle, reporting whenever any aspect changes and fearing that the latest story will be missed. We listen to opinions from various players and those affected by the conflict for weeks and months, hoping a solution will present itself. Yet, oftentimes, no solution comes. The conflict settles into a status quo, and soon, the media and the international community move on. The crisis in Darfur presents itself as such an intractable problem.
President Omar al-Bashir (“Bashir”) has managed to maintain a 23-year stranglehold on power in Sudan with impunity, despite arrest warrants for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes issued against him by the International Criminal Court (“ICC”). While his people suffer terribly, President Bashir lives a free and privileged life without fear of accountability. The impunity continues, and the world stands by. Although the media has reported on the violence in Darfur and other regions of Sudan in the past and occasionally does so now, the number of media reports are few and far between compared to the number of incidents of violence and other suffering.
Events in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and South Sudan have garnered much of the world’s attention over the past year, leaving the ongoing violence in Darfur, the reignited violence in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, and the recent Sudan Revolts to develop largely outside the public eye. Although this may not come as a complete surprise to some because Bashir’s regime has taken notorious efforts to close the conflict regions to reporters and aid workers, there have been opportunities for the media to report on these events.
Even when the heartrending stories do emerge, they are sometimes met with disinterest. “Africa fatigue” is often the only rationale offered up, but this may not be an accurate assessment. Perhaps, it could involve a number of other mutually-reinforcing factors, such as Sudan’s lack of political heft on the world stage, failure by the media to report on Bashir’s regime and his depraved tactics, the complexity of the events in Sudan, and the sudden onset of other historic events in the region.
The Stories Not Told
Because of the lack of attention on Sudan and the media’s failure to sufficiently cover the events, hundreds of thousands of voices go unheard. These are stories that need to be told to demonstrate to the international community just how much is lost when nothing is done:
400 men—members of the Janjaweed militia, trained and funded by President Bashir’s government—attacked the village of Soura in Darfur. Gunships operated by the military had destroyed the cell towers in the area in anticipation of the attack, silencing any calls for help or warnings from neighboring villages. The killings began as soon as the men entered the town, firing from horseback or from truck-mounted heavy guns at anyone with the misfortune to be on the streets. They torched homes with families still inside.
Those who fled from the flames were picked off by gunmen; others were not so lucky and burned in the fire. One woman—far into her third trimester of pregnancy and unable to run—was grabbed by a few of the men. They cut open her belly, removed her unborn child, and stabbed the infant to death. Then, they killed her. Both bodies were tossed back into the burning home, quickly consumed by fire. All told, more than one hundred innocent civilians lost their lives in this attack.
The survivors—their homes destroyed and their livestock stolen—were abandoned and forced to find their way to safety on foot. But their attackers were not willing to let them go so easily. The tiny convoy of 25 was once again set upon by the forces of the Janjaweed and Sudanese military. Fifteen escaped the second attack with their lives; only nine with all their limbs.
Stories like the one above are not isolated incidents. The story plays out again and again, week in and week out, throughout Darfur for more than a decade. Conservative estimates place the death toll at 400,000, or 40,000 deaths for every year of the conflict. 110 people killed per day, every day, for ten years. Darfur and other marginalized regions are left to the ravages of continual government violence, economic inequality bred by oil wealth, and a lack of reliable sources of water, health care and humanitarian aid.
Even as the crisis in Darfur deteriorates once again, spreading into other regions and into the fledgling country of South Sudan, these stories remain unheard.
Chronic “Africa Fatigue” Syndrome
It’s unclear whether “Africa fatigue” is a fact of the media consumer or an unfortunate consequence of the way many journalists approach the region. What is clear is that, while the ongoing atrocities in Sudan have languished, a great deal of attention has been directed just over the border, toward Libya and Egypt, with no sign of fatigue.
Bashir remains largely unknown
Coverage of the recent uprisings has been qualitatively different than coverage of Sudan. Leaders like Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad have been heavily featured in news coverage, while Sudan’s President Bashir remains faceless for much of the world. Although Gaddafi was practically a self-caricature, Mubarak and Assad were largely unknown to the general population until the press called attention to their people’s suffering and calls for regime change. It was coverage of these leaders, depicting men indifferent to the concerns and suffering of their people and grossly hypocritical and dismissive in their statements, which helped galvanize international support for the movements to overthrow them. No such work has been done with Bashir, despite the ICC issuing two warrants for his arrest and despite his frequent and unfettered international travel.
Sudan lacks an easy narrative
Stories are easier to tell when the villain is already established. The nations of the Arab Spring are generally painted by the press as either a power in their own right (Egypt) or as proxies for major players on the world stage. Syria’s regime has significant support from Russia and China. Libya is an OPEC member state and its former president, Gaddafi, enjoyed political support from numerous Western powers, including the U.S. and France, largely due to his nation’s vast stores of oil and his potential as a source of counter-terror intelligence.
Sudan is not completely cut off from international support. It receives ammunition from China and aging helicopters from Russia and was also seen as a counter-terror intelligence source by the U.S., at least for a time. Nevertheless, it receives far less political support from outside its borders. Bashir’s regime had long supported itself on funds from oil exports, but the recent secession of South Sudan cut that particular revenue stream down to a trickle.
The last eighteen months have laid bare the fallacy that “Africa fatigue” has any real explanatory power. Sure, the story is not easy to tell, but it is a story that demands telling.
Calling for Action against the Syrian Regime, but What about Bashir’s Regime?
Unlike the unrest in Sudan, the story of Syria’s uprising may be easier to tell. The attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s military on the Syrian people fit naturally into the overarching narrative of the Arab Spring, and the Assad government’s ties with Iran and Russia add extra juice to the story. However, while the indiscriminate shelling of civilian towns undoubtedly warrants journalists’ attention, that attention should not be at the expense of those suffering in Sudan under an equally, if not more, brutal regime.
The disparities in media engagement between the widely-covered unrest in Syria and the battle for Sudan are rather bizarre considering the level of violence that has been sustained in Sudan. Conservative estimates indicate that the number of people killed in the Syrian uprising has risen past 15,000 since violence broke out 18 months ago, and 600,000 have been displaced. In contrast, the violence in Darfur alone has claimed, by conservative estimates, 400,000 lives and displaced more than 2,500,000 people. Even if extrapolated out to over a decade, the conflict will still have claimed more than four times the number of lives lost in Syria. The disparity is even greater once government attacks throughout the rest of Sudan are factored in. No one life is worth more than any other, but by failing to cover events in Sudan, journalists in the international media have fixed the value of a Sudanese life at precisely zero. Every mention of Assad shelling a town in Syria should run right alongside coverage of a Darfurian town bombed by helicopters and burned to the ground by the Janjaweed, of infants slaughtered in front of their families, of women raped and innocent civilians burned alive. People should be able to recognize Bashir’s face from a photo.
The Long Simmer in Sudan and the Recent Uprisings
Like most of the Arab Spring uprisings, direct involvement by the international community may carry more risks than benefits. What the movement will need from beyond Sudan’s borders is the interest and moral support of the world at large.
Unrest is nothing new under President Bashir, but austerity measures implemented following the secession of South Sudan (and its vast oil fields) have pushed simmering societal discontent to the tipping point. In addition to the ongoing student-led protests in Khartoum spreading into neighboring cities near the capital, Bashir’s cash-strapped military is stretched thin due to continued attacks by rebel forces in the Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions of the country.
Without the oil revenues he once depended on, President Bashir finds himself, and his government, in a precarious position. Protests have already prompted the government to expel reporters and block access to local newspapers. The major protest planned for the end of June reportedly drove the government to block internet access across the country, a move that could foment further unrest.
So far, the protests have remained small, rarely numbering more than 200 people, but as prices continue to rise and government retaliations increase, the size of the demonstrations may change. As the conflict continues to develop, the student-led movement will need to develop along with it. These protesters standing up for their basic human rights are counting on the media to get the world interested again.
The international community only seems to fall back in love with these intractable problems after the people directly involved take action on their own. What they need then is to know that people everywhere are rooting for them and that people care about the challenges they face. It is impossible to say where these new developments on the ground in Sudan will lead, but it is certain that the only way to galvanize the international community is to show the crisis in Sudan as it truly is, unvarnished and unedited.
Featured Photo Credit: Brian Steidle