A Tragedy Straight Out of Shakespeare

By Eric Reeves
Sunday, June 3, 2007

In my decades teaching English literature, I've experienced nothing so painful as the final scene of "King Lear." Howling in bereavement, Shakespeare's profoundly humbled king enters holding his dead daughter, Cordelia, and subsequently dies of grief.

But in the arid regions of Darfur province in western Sudan, such agony as Lear's is common. It's recorded in only the tersest accounts from the bereaved, distinguished by neither poetry nor dramatic shape. The fiercest suffering is muffled within a vast and growing arena of violence.

Such voicelessness has seemed to me intolerable. Building on eight years of Sudan research and advocacy, I have made it my life's work to render Darfur's realities as fully as possible, reading virtually everything that emerges from news, human rights groups and humanitarian accounts. I speak with aid workers on the ground, with human rights researchers and with others who have firsthand knowledge from their travels in Darfur. I also speak with Darfurians, both in the region and abroad, and learn of the unspeakable horrors and unimaginable savagery they have endured.

Because chemotherapy has badly compromised my immune system, and because of the obvious security reasons, I've not been able to travel to Darfur, although I've spent time in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Yet as distant as Darfur is geographically, it could not be morally more proximate. As my own mission in life has gradually shifted from teaching Shakespeare to bearing witness to Darfur's torment, I've tried to convey what it is that leaves me haunted to the point of desperation, even terror.

I am often overwhelmed by glimpses of unfathomable anguish and unaccountable evil in Darfur. Lear's entrance, holding Cordelia's corpse, is so shockingly painful that the 18th-century critic Samuel Johnson could not bring himself to reread the play for years. But I don't have Johnson's luxury. I can't stop reading or listening; Darfur is too insistent. And so I encounter, again and again, moments of stabbing pain, which can be neither edited nor distanced.

I have two daughters, boundlessly beloved, both of whom have enjoyed good health and fine educational opportunities. On July 29, 2004, I learned that a group of schoolgirls were chained together in their classroom in the village of Suleia, in west Darfur. The Janjaweed, the notorious Arab militiamen who work as the proxies of the Khartoum regime, then burned the school to the ground. Family members heard the screams of the dying children; most of the relatives were also slaughtered. African Union investigators found the schoolgirls' bodies, charred together. I can report that this happened, but I dare not fully imagine such suffering. Like Johnson, I have my limits; some pain is not to be endured.

Consider what a young woman in South Darfur experienced in July 2004, according to a Knight Ridder report: "Kaltoma Idris, 23, was inside her hut when the Janjaweed arrived. Outside, her sister was boiling water on a small fire, her recently born twins next to her. 'The Janjaweed came and took the water and poured it over the babies,' recalled Idris, who stayed in the hut and kept silent. 'They tied my sister up.' Idris fled out the back. As she ran for cover, she said she saw children being thrown into flaming huts." Such barbarism has defined Darfur for four years, with no end in sight.

Here we should recall that at the same time as Kaltoma Idris's ordeal, more than 2 1/2 years ago, the radical Islamic regime in Khartoum -- the same men who used to harbor Osama bin Laden -- agreed to U.N. Security Council demands to disarm the Janjaweed. But Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has not complied; a U.N. panel of experts found last September that his regime was arming these vicious militias more heavily than ever, in concert with a renewed military offensive by Khartoum's regular army troops against rebel forces in Darfur.

Major insurgency began there in February 2003, following years of severe political and economic marginalization. The primary victims of attacks from the Janjaweed and Sudan's military (which often coordinate with each other) have come from Darfur's non-Arab or African tribal groups, which Bashir sees as the rebels' civilian support base. Their attackers have hurled hateful epithets: "Kill the abid [slaves]! Drive the zurga [dirty blacks] from their land so that we may claim it! Let's rape the female Nuba [another common racial epithet] to create Arab babies!" This is language that bestializes humanity.

Has the world responded to this genocide? Barely. Almost three years of obscene violence have passed since Khartoum promised to disarm the Janjaweed. The region has grown steadily more chaotic and violent since the signing of an expedient and ill-conceived peace agreement last May. The rebel groups fighting Bashir's government have fractured, unsure about how to engage with a regime that has consistently proved its bad faith and is determined to deny the people of Darfur a legitimate role in national affairs or meaningful autonomy. Most urgent, the rebel groups want international guarantors for any cease-fire or security arrangements.

As the regime has waged a steady war of attrition against the world's largest humanitarian-relief operation, the civilian population at risk has grown steadily. The United Nations estimates that a mind-numbing 4.5 million people in Darfur and eastern Chad now need assistance -- food, medicine, clean water, shelter. If the ongoing insecurity forces aid organizations to suspend their work, many tens of thousands of people could die every month. Camps for the displaced, housing about 2.5 million -- primarily women and children -- could become slaughterhouses.

Last September, the Security Council passed yet another resolution, this time authorizing the deployment of 22,500 troops and civilian police to protect civilians and boost humanitarian efforts. To date, approximately 200 technical personnel have been deployed -- because Khartoum refuses to accept a more robust U.N. force that might effectively supplement the hopelessly inadequate African Union force on the ground.

That's easy enough to understand. Khartoum hasn't finished its genocidal counterinsurgency war. And if it can't complete the task militarily, the regime has clearly resolved to do so by gradually starving the people of Darfur or letting them die of the diseases that stalk the camps. These killers see no point in ending their atrocities; if with less conscience, they feel, as Macbeth does, "I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

The international community -- including the United States, Europe and Africa -- has done nothing to change this most ruthless of calculations. So the only country that can now change the regime's logic is China, Khartoum's primary arms supplier, economic partner, oil importer and diplomatic protector. But China abstained on the Security Council vote to authorize a U.N. force for Darfur, and it has subsequently insisted that even a partial deployment of this force be contingent upon Khartoum's acceptance. This is all the encouragement Khartoum needs to persist in its defiance. The Bush administration and the Europeans are no more willing to confront Beijing than they are Khartoum. Unless China senses that Darfur has truly become a first-tier foreign policy issue for Western nations, it will continue to mouth meaningless words of concern even as it holds fast to a course of rapacious indifference.

As someone who has devoted a lifetime to literary study, to discerning in words and narratives the most powerful of human truths, I have over the past four years found in Darfur's agony an overwhelming reality, one that remorselessly forces the only questions that seem to matter. Will the world do anything except posture and bluff? Or will the denouement of Darfur's tragedy be catastrophe? "The weight of this sad time we must obey," Edgar in "King Lear" advises. "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."


Eric Reeves is professor of English language and literature at Smith College and the author of "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide." He blogs at www.sudanreeves.org.

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