Connecting with Darfur

People often hear of the troubles besetting the population of Darfur, in western Sudan, but feel no personal connection. Compound that with the recent devastation in Haiti or Cuba caused by hurricanes, and the world’s troubles seem endless enough to cause us to shut down and say it’s too much to care about. We run out of compassion.

I’d like to point out three ways we remain intimately connected to Darfur, whether we realize it or not—ways that might help to reframe our thinking and overcome our inertia.

I’ll begin with a personal story. One night, a year ago last summer, I was in South Sudan and I found myself in a very peculiar position. A two-year-old Dinka boy was pointing a pistol at me—a pearl-handled automatic. He was with his father, a colonel in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

This happened in a dark crowded bar in the town of Kuajok, which is the capital of Warrap state in the western part of South Sudan. The bar was a narrow, makeshift affair, jury-rigged from poles and woven rush mats—like Kuajok itself, where everything is makeshift and very poor.

Warrap state is right next to South Darfur and has about 8,000 Darfuri refugees, who are technically Internally Displaced Persons—IDPs—who have taken refuge from the violence next door. So in essence this is a poor region of Sudan, impacted by another poor region of Sudan. South Sudan, still reeling from 22 years of civil war, is feeling the spillover from the violence in Darfur that is now entering its fifth year.

Anyway, this toddler is pointing the gun at my chest. And he says khawaja, which means white person. I’m in the bar trying to find something to eat. There are no actual restaurants in Kuajok.

The boy’s father grins and holds up the gun’s clip, to show me he’s removed the bullets. The boy is just playing.

"He’s a very intelligent child," the colonel says. "He points the gun at you because he thinks you’re Arab."

That incident made a deep impression on me. I don’t know which disturbed me more—the toddler’s behavior or the father’s explanation. It was okay for him to point the gun at me because "he thinks you’re Arab."

This is one of the dynamics at work in South Sudan, as in Darfur and most of Sudan: the deep distrust between black African tribes and Arabs. It’s partly a legacy of colonialism—not only in the early days of slave trading, but also more recently. In 1956, the Arabs were put in charge of this sprawling country by the English colonial administration as it was hastily leaving—much as other colonial occupiers did when forced to abandon their hold on Africa. In Rwanda, the departing Belgians put the Tutsis in charge of the Hutus. The colonial legacy has been a prescription for future conflict.

One reason Darfur and South Sudan are so poor is that the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, in the north, is siphoning off the revenues from the country’s oilfields, which lie mostly in the south. Most of that money stays in the city of Khartoum. A lot of it is used to purchase weapons to keep down the rebellion that has been brewing in Sudan since independence.

The conflict involves ancient enmities, exacerbated by drought and fueled in turn by oil. So that’s another way that we’re connected with Darfur, whether we’re aware of it or not. I’ll return to that later. For now, I want to linger on what I call the "heart" connection—our ability to empathize across the barriers of culture and past the cocoon of our own comfort and safety.

What happens when that two-year-old Dinka boy is old enough to carry a loaded gun?

How do you break the cycle of violence?

I was traveling as an independent journalist with three Lost Boys who were visiting their home villages for the first time in 20 years. They’d all been under the age of ten when Arab militias attacked their villages in the 1980s, and they had fled on foot to Ethiopia and then Kenya. They had survived the violence that killed 2.2 million people during Sudan’s protracted civil war, which fell most heavily on the south.

We didn’t know whether we would find their families and friends alive or dead. Although the war had officially ended, we encountered extreme poverty everywhere. And next to nothing in the way of infrastructure: roads, schools, clinics, clean water. Infant mortality, we were told, is about 60 percent.

Think about that. Infant mortality of 60 percent.

We talked to everyone. Women focused on children. Village elders, soldiers, nurses, aid workers, government officials all the way up to the president, Salva Kiir. (Under the power-sharing agreement, Kiir occupies the dual offices of vice president of Sudan and president of the semi-autonomous state of South Sudan.)

We watched people scratching out a living—planting sorghum and millet and okra on plots of land, some of them no larger than an average U.S. living room.

What happens to the more than two million people in neighboring Darfur who don’t even have that much—who were driven from their homes and are now wholly dependent on international aid? In Darfur the killings are not taking place at the pace they were three and four years ago, but these people can’t go home. Their land has been stolen.

The Darfuris remain at extreme risk. Food rations have been cut repeatedly from the 2,300 calories considered necessary for survival to about half that. So now it’s a genocide of attrition. And because Sudan is so fragile, a tinderbox, it’s also a genocide in waiting. It’s a genocide in pause mode.

So one basis for this heart connection is simple human decency. In a material sense, Sudan needs us. It needs our individual caring, it needs the attention and support of our government, and it needs our ability to rally international attention. The United States helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was signed in January 2005. It was one of the few foreign policy successes of the George W. Bush administration. We need to give it continuing bipartisan support.

This is not a one-way connection. In a moral sense, we need Sudan. Why? Because we in the industrial world owe our wealth to an industrial revolution that was driven, in large part, by colonialism. Our system was financed by the seizure of land and wealth and labor of indigenous peoples in the New World, Africa, and elsewhere.

Our Eurocentric claim to moral legitimacy is challenged by the events unfolding in Africa—most visibly for now in Darfur, but also in Congo, Uganda, and other places. The African continent remains "dark" to us because our mainstream media ignore its cultural richness and its political complexity.

I say "we," referring to all of us who make our lives within the world’s industrial societies, although individually we may be active in the pursuit of global equity. We include people of color, the colonized, and the oppressed. We include people struggling to pay medical bills. We include the homeless. But the likelihood is that few people reading these words went to bed hungry last night.

We are incredibly wealthy compared to the average African.

Forget about the iPods and the $40 billion we in the United States spend annually on nutritional supplements. Forget about the $12 billion we spend on Prozac and other antidepressant drugs. Just to be able to turn a tap and obtain pure water is a blessing that few Africans enjoy—and it’s one of the many blessings that we didn’t earn individually, through our own hard work.

Most of the abundance that we take for granted, we inherited.

Let’s acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of an aggressive industrialism that we as individuals did not ourselves create. That acknowledgment should challenge our sense of who we are, as the "haves" of the world, and our responsibilities in relation to the "have nots."

I suggest it’s time to give something back.

You may never get to Sudan, but I invite you to travel there in your imagination. Imagine what it would be like to be a nursing mother in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur and not have enough breast milk to feed your baby, to watch that baby wither and give up its will to live.

Imagine yourself in such a camp, caught in a terrible dilemma. The household needs firewood to cook its meager ration of sorghum or rice. The only firewood is outside the camp. If the woman goes out to forage for firewood, she will likely be raped by the Janjaweed militiamen who lurk outside—whose presence is a continuing part of the genocide. If the man goes, he will likely be killed.

Do you send your seven-year-old, hoping the child will be too young to attract the notice of the Janjaweed?

No parent should be forced to make that decision.

For four years, the international community has wrung its hands over the killing in Darfur, over the destruction of a people. The United Nations has passed resolution after resolution, but failed to muster the political will to do anything substantive.

We have abandoned the people of Darfur. And in abandoning them, we have abandoned belief in our collective selves.

There is hope, I think, and I’ll get to that. But it all starts with our hearts. Though I’ve focused on this first connection, or body of connections, I’d like to sketch two others.

The second connection is more intellectual. It’s the way Darfur connects to the bigger picture. We’re never going to solve the root causes of conflict in Darfur as long as we see Darfur in isolation— as the media portray it; as they portray all the difficult conundrums of our time.

In reality, Darfur can’t really be separated from South Sudan and the other marginalized regions of Sudan. The issues are somewhat different on the surface, but they’re fundamentally the same. At the core is poverty—a poverty that is created by the central government in Khartoum as it exploits Sudan’s mineral wealth and marginalizes the outlying regions, including Darfur in the west, but also in the north, east, and south.

We have to look at the still larger picture— which involves the geopolitical machinations of the United States and China, relations between Israel and Islam, and the extent to which the Iraq war has sucked the air out of U.S. foreign policy. But I would like to direct your attention for now to South Sudan, because frankly one of the best things we can do at this moment for Darfur is to support the very precarious peace in South Sudan.

We need to care as much about peace as we care about war. And we especially need to nurture the fragile peace in South Sudan, where a question looms larger every day: What happens two years from now, when, under the present Comprehensive Peace Agreement, South Sudan may vote in 2011 to break away from Khartoum?

Everywhere I traveled in South Sudan, people said the same thing: If the plebiscite were held today, the South would almost assuredly vote to secede, because so little of the oil revenues have reached the villages. And everyone agrees that secession would mean a return to war.

That’s why I support the efforts of my Dinka colleagues—the three Lost Boys I traveled with: Gabriel Bol Deng, Chris Koor Garang, and Samuel Garang Mayuol— and many others from the Sudanese Diaspora who have settled in the United States and Canada and are now taking an active role in nurturing the peace at a grassroots level.

They are doing practical things: drilling wells and bringing clean water to their villages; building clinics and schools; training teachers and nurses. These are small-scale projects, but there are many of them going on around South Sudan, and they will make a difference in people’s lives.

I also support the "Return of the Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan Act" (originally H.R. 3054), introduced last year by U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) "to assist Sudanese refuges in the United States known as the ‘Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan’ to voluntarily return to southern Sudan to assist in reconstruction efforts."

The third connection is simply this: We need to face the brutal fact that our addiction to fossil fuel is driving the conflict. Khartoum uses the proceeds from its oil sales in South Sudan to purchase the guns and helicopters used to kill people in Darfur.

As the world approaches peak oil, expediency rules. Competition for strategic oil and natural gas reserves trumps political stability, social justice, and long-term development. This is as true in Nigeria as it is in Iraq. It’s shaping the Western stance toward the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, in a looming struggle over the oil and natural gas in the Caspian basin. So we’ve got these three connections. We’ve got the simple bridge of empathy between ourselves and the people of Darfur—what I’ve called the heart connection.

We’ve got the connections between Darfur and the bigger picture, in South Sudan and the rest of the region. And we’ve got the connection between Darfur and the petroleum-based economies of the industrial nations—most prominently the U.S. and China.

Put these connections together and you’ve got the potential for an agenda. I invite you to research the various orgaJournalnizations and approaches and contribute in any way you can. One of the ways to personalize your effort is to make an actual change in the way you live. We in the United States constitute only 5 percent of the world’s population and yet we use more than a quarter of the fossil fuel.

To the extent that our emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, we exacerbate the drought in sub-Saharan Africa that is driving the conflict in Darfur and elsewhere.

We are incredibly wealthy. Our petroleum obesity wreaks havoc on the world. We are gassing up our SUVs with people’s lives.

So let’s ask ourselves: How can we use our material advantages to build energy bridges to a sustainable energy future that supports global peace?

I invite us all to find ways to help.

Learn more about Sudan. Use your material wealth and your political voice. Support programs and appropriate technologies aimed at alleviating suffering in Sudan. Make sure your pension funds are not invested in firms that contribute to the cycle of violence in Darfur. Work toward building the political consensus in the United States that is necessary to bring an international effort to end the conflict.

Consider changes in your own lifestyles to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels. Support local and regional programs aimed at reducing fuel use—everything from bicycle trails and public transport to tax incentives aimed at promoting alternative energy. Darfur may be thousands of miles across the globe, but these are ways of bringing it home.

And let’s work to get the United States out of Iraq. Nothing has crippled the U.S. potential for influencing the government in Khartoum more than the Bush administration’s costly adventurism in Iraq. Let’s bring all the pressure we can on the Barack Obama administration to wage peace—to shape an ethos of social justice that removes the occasion of war.

If we look at Darfur holistically, it’s not just a burden on our conscience; it’s a litmus test of our humanity and of wise policy in many spheres. It’s an opportunity to set things right.

David Morse

David Morse, a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting, traveled to South Sudan in 2005 with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He is currently writing a book about Darfur. He can be reached at his website,