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Ramzy Baroud: Darfur's War of Definitions

Darfur's War of Definitions

By Ramzy Baroud

Finally, the conflict in Darfur in western Sudan is a focal point in international diplomacy and media attention. This is the least to expect after months of bloody campaigns of murder, rape and dare I say, ethnic cleansing, starting as early as February 2003.

Almost all parties that have recently discovered the existence of Sudan's western region, an area that compares to the size of France, are engaged in a war of words, propaganda if you wish. Even Muslims and Arabs, who should be most concerned through the virtue of cultural, political and historic proximity, of the fate of the Sudanese, are partaking in this war of definitions.

One can justify – to an extent - why Arab sensibility is injured by the use of the word "Arab militias" when referring to the Janjaweed gangs that have murdered, raped and expelled thousands of innocents in Darfur. The term is unceremoniously used as if the intention is simply to implicate one group and vindicate another.

Of course referring to some Sudanese tribes as 'Arab' is not a media invention. Some African Sudanese are called 'Arab' for speaking a dialect derived, or, heavily influenced by the Arabic language. Moreover, the authenticity of the term was further validated by the fact that the Janjaweed have been consistently abated by Sudan's central government, which used the paramilitary to quell two major rebel groups, Sudan's Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The two groups claim that the Khartoum government has deliberately neglected Darfur's worsening plight.

And since the Sudanese government is trademarked 'Arab' – designated as such for the sake of striking another disturbing comparison with the rest of the non-Arab non-Muslim country - then Darfur emerges as a perfect manifestation of a perfect “us vs. them” type of conflict that can be touted by the media and exploited by politicians. (Those who remember the first few days of intense coverage of the Darfur crisis might recall how some journalists – who now lament the plight of the 'Africans' failed to recall basic information about the region, how to pronounce the name correctly or how to locate it on a map.)

Alex de Waal is not one of those journalists, but an author recognized in Western media circles as a leading authority on Sudan. He wrote in the Observer (July 25): "Characterizing the Darfur war as 'Arabs' versus 'Africans' obscures the reality. Darfur's Arabs are black, indigenous, African Muslims – just like Darfur's non-Arabs."

Unfortunately a story about African Muslims engaged in a conflict that is rooted in tribal contentions, between nomadic tribes that thrive on local conquest, is not newsworthy from a media point of a view – and not as exploitable from a politician's – and so an unspoken war of hidden definitions, rhetoric and sub-meanings had to be unleashed, of which 1.2 million Sudanese refugees are the least important component.

For a besieged and discredited US government, the civil strife at Darfur is a Godsend. It draws attention away from the US’s own indiscretions, and draws it back on the 'Arabs', who are brutalizing ‘Africans’ in a civil war that the House of Representatives unanimously dubbed in a resolution on July 22: 'genocide'.

That term has too introduced another battlefield of definitions and counter definitions: "What is happening in western Sudan is not the same as Kosovo or Rwanda, nor is it, strictly speaking a genocide," writes Adrian Hamilton in the Independent. "It is the kind of messy local, triblized tragedy bred on deprivation and lack of resources and fuelled by outside interference."

But for the US government, there is more to Sudan's misfortunes than a mere distraction from its own blunders and calamities. The US has for many years helped feed a civil war that ravaged the country beyond repair. In 1998, Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of Sudan's largest, if not only, pharmaceutical plant, alleging that it manufactured agents that can be used to produce WMD. It took only a few months of investigations before the claim was declared a farce.

Hence, the US government acted as it often does in such crises: it drafted, pushed for and passed a UN Security Council resolution on July 31 threatening sanctions and other 'punitive measures' if the Sudanese government failed to rein in the Janjaweed 'Arab' militias within thirty days. Those who recognize the complexity and entanglement of the Darfur conflict should also understand the resolution is an already served sentence to Sudan and perhaps an initial invitation of a military intervention in a country that is already swarmed with militants and deeply scarred by war.

If the crisis in Darfur escalates, then the only visible possibility that awaits Sudan is the slapping of sanctions, a senseless bombing campaign and further cultural animosity and division between those who gullibly identified with the ‘Africans’ and those who rashly sided with the 'Arabs'.

None of these likelihoods however, will help the 'abandoned, starved and desperate refugees' of Darfur, one of whom is Aziza Mahmoud, who had an encounter with one of the Janjaweed 'Arab' militias. Now she is in a refugee camp sheltered with her children in a five feet high tent made of twisted branches and leaves, torn clothes and cardboard.

She told Kim Sengutpa from the Independent, "My sister had dragged my children away. But I could not move. I was standing there crying when he turned and shot me. He did not say anything. He just fired. I dragged myself behind my home and lay there. My neighbors carried me away with my husbands' (dead) body. I have five children who have no father. I cannot work because if I just walk a little my foot hurts. I cannot even stand at the roadside begging for too long without hurting."

The late Palestinian professor Edward Said once wrote: human rights are not "cultural or grammatical things, and when they are violated, they are as real as anything we can encounter." His words ring true today in Darfur as they have in Palestine for generations. True, the burnt villages often vary in name, but in the final analysis, the definitions for anguish, brutality and indifference remain unchanged..


- Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist. A regular columnist in many English and Arabic publications, he is editor-in-chief of and head of Research & Studies Department at English

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