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Where Mercy Fails: Darfur's Struggle to Survive

Where Mercy Fails: Darfur's Struggle to Survive

by Paul Jeffrey, Chris Herlinger

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This new work provides a graphic and literal context for understanding the current tragedy in Darfur and describes a framework for how people of faith are responding to the crisis. Jeffrey’s photos depict daily life in the camps, showing both the challenges faced by the displaced, as well as their unguarded moments of joy and hope. The images show the people of


This new work provides a graphic and literal context for understanding the current tragedy in Darfur and describes a framework for how people of faith are responding to the crisis. Jeffrey’s photos depict daily life in the camps, showing both the challenges faced by the displaced, as well as their unguarded moments of joy and hope. The images show the people of Darfur as real, three-dimensional people, subjects of their history, not as objects or victims in an overly simplistic conflict.

The text by Herlinger makes clear that the crisis in Darfur cannot be explained easily, glibly, or in a simplistic fashion. It includes personal stories of those uprooted and currently living in the camps. Additional sections examine the debates surrounding Darfur, including concerns over genocide, the debate over “protection” and “responsibility” by the international community, and the role of activists and religious communities in the ecumenical humanitarian response.

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Darfur's Struggle to Survive
By Chris Herlinger

Seabury Books

Copyright © 2009 Chris Herlinger and Paul Jeffrey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59627-102-9

Chapter One

A Cry from Darfur

The blame is only against those who oppress men and wrong-doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice: for such there will be a penalty grievous. — The Holy Qur'an 42:42

During the dry, hot, sunny days of December, they looked longingly at the hills where they once farmed, raised families, and buried their kin. While recounting their experiences in camps they had grown to hate, they were surrounded by the very men who had driven them to the perdition the rest of the world now simply knows as Darfur. In villages not far from Garsila in West Darfur, the killings and shootings in October 2003 were drawn out over four agonizing hours. In one hamlet, sixty-eight people were murdered. A month later, in another nearby area, flame throwers and matches were the weapons of choice: some two hundred villagers were forced into blazing huts and burned alive. In the city of Um Kher, a conscience-stricken man lucky enough to have escaped brutalities himself, recalled his efforts to stop the bloodletting. Warned about a January 2004 attack on the village of Kanyou, he called local authorities to alert them to the violence that eventually left some one hundred dead. But he was crisply told it was outside their area of control and that the authorities would not respond. "We could hear it here," said the man, nearly a full year later, standing in the shadows of a deserted village square. "The Janjaweed surrounded the village and they shot anybody who tried to escape." He later realized the futility of his act. "They were sent to kill people, not to save people."

The stories—and there are many more like these—follow a nearly identical pattern: paramilitaries known as the Janjaweed arrived on camels and horses, working in tandem with Sudanese government troops in trucks and cars. They looted the hamlets, murdered the men, and raped the women. The attacks were often preceded by aerial bombardments by Russian-made Antonov aircraft.

For the survivors who recounted the atrocities, the stories are, in a sense, unfinished: those in the fetid camps find themselves being watched, policed, and bullied by the same authorities and surrounded by the same paramilitaries. The result is benumbing shock, fear, and trauma, a collective weariness of spirit and body. "The only thing they [the authorities] have done is grudgingly granted us permission to feed people," said one exasperated European aid worker. "But they still feel they have the right to harass and kill." More than 2 million people in Darfur and neighboring Chad are experiencing such debasement, spending their days in what amounts to concentration camps. Many burn with baleful, hateful memories and have no immediate hope of ever returning to life as it was. "The people in the camps," said a Norwegian humanitarian worker, "are stuck between a past they don't want to remember and a future they cannot see or even glimpse."

A Darfur Primer

What Are the Causes?

The immediate cause was the attack, in 2003, on government targets by a rebel group known as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA),and the resulting response by the Sudanese government. A second group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM),was allied with the SLA for a time, but the two groups have since split, in part because both groups have distinct ethnic identities. JEM has also embraced a distinct Islamic identity. Despite differences, however, both groups argue that the Khartoum government has systematically ignored Darfur, which means "land of the Fur" and is not a single province, but a region containing three states: North, South, and West Darfur. The rebel groups also allege that the government has favored the rights of nomadic Arab tribes over the rights of the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribes in such matters as land disputes.

What Toll Has the Conflict Taken?

More than 2.5 million people have fled from their homes and been forced into displacement or refugee camps by the attacks by Sudanese government troops and their allies, the Janjaweed militias. However, even approximate numbers of those who have died—either killed outright or perished from resulting food shortages and disease—remain in dispute. At the very least, two hundred and fifty thousand, and perhaps as many as four hundred thousand are believed to have perished. The four hundred thousand figure is contested, though in late 2008, the figure of three hundred thousand was being used by some UN officials.

Who Are the Janjaweed?

They are perhaps the most notorious symbol of the violence in Darfur. An older definition of Janjaweed was used for bandits who would "form,raid,and flee." Many believe that the new Janjaweed are, in fact, not only allied with the Sudanese government, but a creation of the Sudanese government. Musa Hilal, a key Janjaweed leader, has publicly declared that he and others have taken their orders from the Sudanese government. A Sudanese military official said in 2004 the Janjaweed were "recruited, equipped, and paid" by the Khartoum government because so many in the Sudanese armed forces are from Darfur and would not uproot or terrorize their own people.

What Is the Role of Ethnic Identity?

The role of ethnicity remains controversial. To those attacked by the Janjaweed militias, embracing an "African" identity is crucial. They believe they have been victimized because they are non-Arab. However, some experts, like author and researcher Alex de Waal argue that the "Arab-African dichotomy" is the result of political ideology—in part due to a growing ideology of Arab "supremacy" that spread across the region and was fostered by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s.

Another scholar, Francis Deng, has noted that "identity cuts across all the issues and is therefore the central strand in the web" of Sudan's recent history. He argues that Sudan's crisis of national identity "emanates from the fact that the politically dominant.... northern Sudanese Arabs, although the products of Arab-African genetic mixing and a minority in the country as a whole, see themselves as primarily Arab, deny the African element in them, and seek to impose their self-perceived identity throughout the country...." This ruling Arab minority, Deng argues, "seeks to define the national character along the lines of their self-perception, itself a distortion of their composite identity as a mixed Arab-African race in which the African element is more visible but actively denied."

Are There Differences between "Arab" and "Janjaweed"?

Yes. A January 2005 report of a UN inquiry on Darfur said: "The fact that the Janjaweed are described as Arab militias does not imply that all Arabs are fighting on the side of the Janjaweed." In fact, the UN report said many Arabs in Darfur are opposed to the Janjaweed, while some Arabs are even fighting with the Darfur rebels opposed to the Khartoum government. The report said: "At the same time, many non-Arabs are supporting the government and serving its army. Thus, the term Janjaweed referred to by victims in Darfur certainly does not mean 'Arabs' in general, but rather Arab militias raiding their villages and committing other violations."

What Is Muammar Gaddafi's Role in the Area?

Writing in the London-based Guardian newspaper in 2007, journalist Julian Borger said that the region's leaders "have sought to turn hardship to their advantage." That includes Gaddafi, who has tried to become a regional peacemaker. That is ironic, Borger notes, because during the 1980s Gaddafi formed an "Islamic Legion" from various ethnic groups, including nomads, and "used them to try to carve out an 'Arab belt'across Chad and into (Darfur and Sudan) under his sway." Though Gaddafi's forces, Borger writes, "were soundly beaten by the Chadian army in 1987 ... numbers of the legionnaires hung around the area—armed, trained, and imbued with ideas of Arab (supremacy), looking for the next fight. Many are now leading Janjaweed raiders into battle."

What Is the Role of the Environment?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared in 2007 that climate change was a possible cause of the Darfur conflict because the reduction in rainfall in western Sudan had caused nomadic groups to look for land elsewhere in Darfur. Some people have even gone so far as to say that Darfur is the world's first "climate change" war. "Those who were prepared to kill, rape, and pillage were drawn from the ranks of the desperate, ripped from their traditional way of life by a catastrophic change in the weather," Julian Borger wrote in 2007. "Global warming created the dry tinder. Khartoum supplied the match." A related issue is that of land disputes. Alex de Waal has written that "land rights are key to under-standing Darfur and the conflicts therein," adding, "The rapid using-up of free cultivable land and the degradation of the range meant that land disputes became more common and more bloody in the 1980s," laying a foundation for the present conflict.

How Does Genocide Figure into the Conflict?

In July 2008, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, asked that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir be arrested for ten counts of "genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes." The arrest warrant was requested because, Moreno-Ocampo charged, al-Bashir allegedly "masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity. His motives were largely political. His alibi was a 'counterinsurgency.' His intent was genocide."

The international legal definition of genocide is found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The articles are as follows:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III: The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.

United States officials have used the term genocide to describe events in Darfur, a term that Europeans have been reluctant to embrace. This, some have theorized, is because it is difficult for European countries to take a unified position on Darfur given their commitment to a European Union policy that pledges EU members to "speak with one voice" on foreign policy matters. Writing in The Washington Post as the Darfur crisis unfolded in 2004, Christian W. D. Bock, a former legal adviser to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and Leland R. Miller, a New York lawyer and member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said requiring such an "über-majority," in effect, "eliminates the possibility of collective armed intervention. By defect or design, this allows member states to voice their concerns—and then excuse their inaction as bowing to the judgment of the whole. In effect the European Union has fashioned a foreign policy mechanism by which inaction is virtually automatic—even in the face of genocide."

What Is the Sudanese Government's Position?

The Sudanese government has systematically denied the charges of genocide. President al-Bashir termed the request for his arrest "part of a neo-colonialist agenda to protect the interests of developed countries." (Sudan was once under British colonial rule.) Al-Bashir's government has used the same argument in opposing the deployment of UN troops in Darfur. The al-Bashir government has also denied a link with the Janjaweed. The government says the militias are no more than bandits who have long terrorized the Darfur countryside looking for bounty and that it has had no control over Janjaweed fighters. The government has also said it was within its right to battle an incipient insurgency that threatened the security of Darfur and the stability of Sudan.

What Are Other Theories about the Conflict?

In a 2004 interview, a Sudanese military official theorized, as have others, that forces within the government may not, at first, have had genocidal intent in Darfur but wanted to prevent the country from splintering. They "reacted out of fear" to events in Darfur, he said, at a time when the Khartoum government was engaged in sensitive negotiations over the conflict between northern and southern Sudan.

What Is the Nature of the North-South War?

A two-decades-long civil war—which pitted the northern Khartoum government against southern Sudan, a predominately animist and Christian region—resulted in the deaths of some 2 million people. Arguments about marginalization are common among both Darfuris and southerners, and the North-South war and resulting peace process served as a motivator for those in Darfur fighting the Khartoum government. A North-South peace agreement was signed in January 2005, and under the agreement, the northern government and former rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a group not connected to Darfur, share power. A degree of autonomy was also granted to the south. The role of the special envoy, former Senator John Danforth, was praised as a model for a successful U.S. role in Sudan.

What Is the Nature of U.S.-Sudanese Relations?

The Darfur crisis occurred just at a time when the Sudanese government was beginning to develop a better relationship with the United States. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made Sudan a strategic ally to counter the regional influence of Gaddafi. While the U.S.-Sudan relationship later deteriorated, it improved after the events of September 11, 2001, when the United States sought new allies. The U.S. stepped up its role in trying to resolve the North-South conflict, which had long been a concern to one of President George W. Bush's constituent bases—conservative evangelical Christians. Subsequent events in Darfur have caused serious tensions between the United States and Sudan, and there were disagreements within the Bush administration about how best to deal with Sudan. A particular concern was how closely the U.S. government should be allied with Sudan on matters of intelligence gathering.

What Is the Role of China in Sudan?

As part of its drive for markets for its goods and obtaining natural resources for its economic expansion, China has embarked on a policy of new alliances with African countries. One of them is Sudan. China exports military hardware to Sudan, and is the major buyer of Sudan's oil. China has been accused of contravening a UN arms embargo meant to prevent fueling further conflict in Darfur. One of the allegations, reported by the BBC in July 2008, is that China is actually training fighter pilots who use its A5 Fantan fighter jets in Darfur. China claims it has not violated any UN arms embargoes.

"Genocide by Force of Habit"

There are other themes and dimensions that will be tackled within these pages, but one bears special attention: the nature of political power in Sudan. Alex de Waal has suggested that what has happened in Darfur is "the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years of power.... It is a genocide by force of habit." How is that possible? Gérard Prunier, another Darfur analyst, has noted that Sudan has been no stranger to "permanent war." The Sudanese government's foundational philosophy and policy since coming to power in 1989, he argues, has "kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan.... The practice of genocide or quasi-genocide in Sudan has never been a deliberate well-thought out policy but rather a spontaneous tool used for keeping together a 'country' which is under minority Arab domination and which is in fact one of the last multi-national empires on the planet."


Excerpted from WHERE MERCY FAILS by Chris Herlinger Copyright © 2009 by Chris Herlinger and Paul Jeffrey. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary photojournalist. He lived in Latin America for two decades and has filed stories and images from more than 65 countries around the world. His work has appeared in media ranging from the Washington Post to National Geographic Explorer. He lives in Oregon.

CHRIS HERLINGER, a writer with Church World Service, is a freelance journalist whose reporting for Religion News Service has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. His reporting from Haiti has appeared in the Catholic News Service, Ecumenical News International, The Christian Century, and the National Catholic Reporter. He lives in New York City.

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