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Intervention & the Politics of Solidarity in Darfur

Shane Bauer
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

In Darfur, many of the villages that I walked through had been transformed into moonscapes—collections of circular burned huts staining the desolate countryside. Blankets of ash and objects scattered across the ground hinted at the moment everything was torn asunder. The silence was penetrating. Mortar shells, bullets, and bombs were spread across the village floors and lone heat-deformed shoes suggested the panic with which people fled. I spent many of those hot summer days talking with the rebels, referred to by civilians as “the movement,” asking them what they were fighting for. At the forefront of the struggle against the genocidal Sudanese government, they were uncompromising in their fight for basic justice. In Chad, each refugee camp I visited last summer became more familiar than the last; the landscape, conditions, and my interactions with the people who lived there began to fit into a predictable pattern. With a camera dangling off my shoulder and a notepad and tape recorder bulging out of my pockets, I would walk unassumingly into a thicket of dusty white canvass tents and navigate my way through the pathways that were outlined by makeshift stick-fences. Before long a refugee would spot me, smile, and invite me into his living quarters. There I would usually find several men passing the hours over tea and cards or listening intently to the radio news. Then someone would begin to talk about his hardships, recount the events of the day he and his family were driven out of their village, and tell me how they ended up in Chad. When I would come to the question about possible solutions, I received countless, almost identical answers: that the Sudanese government meet the demands of the rebellion in Darfur and compensate refugees for what they’ve lost; and for international forces to intervene immediately to protect people from the government and disarm the Janjaweed. Genocide For Darfuris, intervention is a matter of life and death. Without a force strong enough to prevent the Sudanese government from continuing genocide, they say it’s only a matter of time before President Omar al-Bashir and his Janjaweed allies succeed in emptying Darfur of its Black Muslim population. After such up-close experience with revolution and genocide in Darfur, returning to the US and seeing how activists here deal with the issue has been disheartening. As soon as I arrived, the tragedy, passion, and dedication that I had witnessed in Darfur and Chad was reduced to simplistic liberal pseudo-solutions or jaded radical dogma that merely sees Darfur as an issue of US imperialism. While genocide continues on its third year in Darfur, with 200,000-400,000 dead and over 2.5 million displaced, activists in the US can only see the crisis though a US-centric political lens. Darfur’s complex situation has little to do with the US, though. The genocide started as a strategy of the Sudanese government to crush a popular revolution that rose up in 2002 led by two groups called the Justice and Equality Movement and the Darfur Liberation Front, later to become the Sudan Liberation Movement. They demanded all the things that were available in Central Sudan: schools, health care facilities, roads, clean water, electricity, and an end to the impunity of the Arab Supremacist Janjaweed militia. In response to the insurrection, the government used the Janjaweed to burn, rape, and kill civilians while it bombed villages from above. Their logic was simple: the most effective way to crush the rebellion was not to attack the insurgents directly, but to kill everyone they loved. Liberals and radicals Racist perceptions of Africa as a place of endless war and starvation pervade western approaches to Darfur. To engender the pity that they hope will translate into action, liberals paint a dehumanizing image of Darfuris as poor, passive victims. On the other hand, radicals today almost never recognize, let alone openly support, struggles in Africa. Mainstream Darfur advocacy groups, responsible to a large extent for educating the US public about Darfur, tend to sidestep the revolution entirely. In an attempt to appeal to the mainstream US conscience, they pay no attention to structural problems raised by the rebels like wealth and power sharing. They plea to the world, and the West in particular, to make up for all the genocides that have been allowed to happen since the Holocaust. Their rhetoric revolves almost solely and uncritically around intervention. Most concerning though is that while liberal circles have been uncritical in pushing for intervention, radicals have mostly remained silent. Most radicals that have given attention to Darfur use it as little more than an opportunity to bash the liberal establishment and figure out a way to blame the US government and its corporate interests. While liberals tread lightly around the revolution in Darfur, radicals sidestep the fact that, up against genocide, Black Darfuris want intervention. In a paradox of radical politics, our idealism sometimes takes priority over other people’s survival. While it’s doubtful that many radicals would say that the lack of international intervention during the Rwanda genocide was a good decision, many can’t step outside of their rigid paradigm of anti-interventionism to engage with the reality of Darfur on its own terms. Reluctant to admit that anything could be as bad as the US government’s actions in the world, the international solidarity movement becomes mired in US exceptionalism. ntervention? To be sure, people have good reason to be skeptical of intervention. The history of “humanitarian missions” on behalf of oppressed peoples has been marked by imperialist motives and empty promises, especially when led by major western powers. The UN already does not have the best track record in Darfur. In an effort to bring nominal stability, the UN backed a peace agreement signed in May that was popularly rejected by the majority of Black Darfuris for not addressing the core problems plaguing marginalized people in Sudan. Through take-it-or-leave-it coerciveness, the UN threatened sanctions against the rebel groups that refused to sign. Emboldened by the UN’s threats to the rebel groups and two years since the Sudanese government’s last bombing campaign, President Omar al-Bashir has returned to his strategy of dropping bombs on mud and straw huts in the name of counter-insurgency. Rebels and many Darfuri civilians call the Sudanese government the “new colonizers,” since it is mostly made up of a Northern elite put in power by the British and is only interested in appropriating resources for its own benefit. Ironically, al-Bashir has been trying to play the anti-imperialist ticket to gain international support in his refusal to allow in UN peacekeepers. The proposed 25,000-troop UN force wouldn’t be comprised of the dominant powers though. The majority would be made up of troops from other African and Muslim countries. A few Darfur advocacy groups propose NATO or US intervention as a way to strong-arm al-Bashir into submission. US intervention, or NATO intervention by extension, would only add fuel to an already raging fire, pitting the world’s two great evils—genocide and imperialism—against each other. While allowing the US to use another world tragedy to serve its own ends of hegemony in the Muslim world, US intervention would also give the Sudanese government an excuse to ramp up the genocide as a way to defy the global superpower. Direct US intervention isn’t likely though, since Sudan has been a strong US ally in the “war on terror.” Direct solidarity Ideally, the struggle in Darfur would have enough global support that Darfuris would be able to determine their own destiny without the help of intervention. Without that, the next best thing would be for a local force to intervene in Darfur. The African Union, the only local body available to respond to African crises, set up in Darfur over a year ago and has been unable to quell the violence. On top of losing total credibility after pushing the unpopular peace agreement, they have been severely under-funded and have only 7,000 troops to monitor a region the size of France. Unlike the African Union, the proposed UN mission would be mandated to use force. UN intervention is in no way an ultimate or ideal solution, but at the very least would stop the government from continuing to bomb civilians. Ultimately, real peace in Darfur can only come through the renegotiation of a political agreement that addresses the demands of all of the rebel groups. Despite uncritical advocacy of intervention, US-based liberals have succeeded in making Darfur a global issue. Instead of focusing only on the weaknesses of the liberal analysis of Darfur, radicals should take up where liberals have left off and stand firmly alongside the people struggling there. Radicals should take a stand on Darfur like they do with the Palestinian and Zapatista struggles through material support, direct collaboration with people on the ground, and making the voice of the Darfuri resistance be heard around the world. Being a double-edged sword of revolution and genocide, Darfur deserves our active solidarity.