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The Writing Life
In which a writer's work -- forged in the heat of chaos -- could actually save lives.

By Alex de Waal
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Some years ago in a rebel-held enclave of Sudan, I met a man whom I had reported as assassinated. He was chief Hussein Karbus, and I was introduced to him by the man I had said killed him, the liberation fighter Yousif Kuwa Mekki. Both of them thought my mistake -- made in a human rights report -- was hilarious.

In truth, Karbus had gone into hiding, and many feared he was dead. It's characteristic of Sudanese society not to let political differences -- even accusations of homicide -- get in the way of amicable social relations. It's also characteristic of Sudan that the worst will usually come to pass.

As if in anticipation of that premature obituary, my doctoral research in Sudan documented why almost a million people had not died in the Darfur famine of 1984. Like many other students in the social sciences, I was driven by the urge to help. At the time, the world's leading center of refugee studies was the University of Khartoum, so that's where I headed first. When I arrived in Darfur, I expected to find mass starvation apart from the few places aid had reached. But that wasn't the reality. The Darfurians were hardier and more resourceful than "disaster tourists" (mostly well-meaning volunteers) could imagine. The nutritional arithmetic -- the failed harvests, the late relief efforts -- said they should all be dead. They weren't.

I set myself the task of explaining why. I spoke to a young mother, Amina, in a village called Furawiya at the edge of the desert, who told me how she had survived. She had harvested just a few grains of millet from her withered crop and buried them to prevent her hungry children from eating them. Then she set off on an arduous trek, gathering wild grasses and berries, selling a sheep to buy bread, working as a day laborer for small amounts of money. Upon her return, she dug up her seeds and planted them, enduring four more months of hunger while she tended her field. Amina's story told me why the aid agencies' prediction of a million deaths from hunger in that famine was too high by a factor of 10.

It's hard doing research on extreme deprivation. I worried that dissecting the details of hunger might harden my heart, leave me immune to distress. I feared that describing the "coping strategies" of the poorest of the poor might cause humanitarians to stand aside, leaving the afflicted on their own. But I also hoped that understanding how people survive -- and why at times they don't -- might save lives. Aid agencies are learning, and the science of disaster relief has advanced. I'm happy to say that today's humanitarianism is more professional than it was 20 years ago.

Fresh from fieldwork, I joined Human Rights Watch as its Sudan researcher on July 1, 1989. By coincidence that same morning, Sudan awoke to find that a little-known brigadier, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, had seized power overnight. His was a craftily disguised coup. Bashir presented himself as a nationalist army officer and sent his mentor, the Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, to jail for a few months to convince the skeptics. The Sudanese weren't fooled for long. Bashir's security forces unleashed a reign of terror, crushing Sudan's political parties and civil society, and mobilized the army and militia for a jihad to destroy the rebellion in south Sudan. My job, as I saw it, was to strip away the deceit and expose Bashir and Turabi for what they were.

Writing a human rights report demands the prose of a prosecutor rather than an anthropologist. The classic report begins with the testimonies of victims. It moves on to describe the perpetrators' responsibility (although the accused are rarely asked to give their side of the story) and concludes with condemnation and exhortation. I wrote a lot of these over the years, each one ending with a list of pro forma recommendations to President Bashir -- to release prisoners, to stop torture and the like. I prodded the U.S. administration for more sanctions. If I made a mistake, as I did with Karbus, colleagues informally advised me not to call attention to it. Human rights groups' credibility on the big issues might suffer if we confessed even to small errors, or so some people thought. In 1992, I left Human Rights Watch but continued to work on war, famine and genocide in Africa.

The velvet ending of the Cold War was the greatest moment of triumph for American human rights organizations -- they had kept the flame of dissidence alive. The next goal for human rights was to bring democracy and peace to Africa. Driven by the same moral certitude, I demanded that Sudan's government submit to free and fair elections, no matter what. The whole system of government became my target.

But even as I delved into conspiracies at the heart of Sudan's government -- the "secret organization" of Muslim Brothers that controlled policy, the off-budget security agencies that organized Osama bin Laden's training camps -- reality changed. Turabi's vision of forging a new Sudanese identity in the heat of a jihadist revolution came crashing down, replaced with the politics of the marketplace. The shadowy mastermind was replaced by a mafia-like cartel.

As Turabi's revolution faded, Sudan became no longer a clear struggle of good against evil, but rather a murky power game fueled by money. Some liberation warriors and principled dissidents capitulated and sold their allegiance to the highest bidder, Khartoum's ruling cabal.

The bloodshed of Sudan's civil war is horrific; the deprivation of the camps for displaced persons is heartrending. It's easy to assume that only unmitigated evil could produce such atrocity. But moral absolutes cannot stand much contact with reality. One of the groups I investigated in Darfur was the "Arab Gathering," the ideologues of Arab supremacism behind the terrifying Janjaweed militia. I was passed two anonymous manifestos for an Arab takeover of Darfur -- evidence, it seemed, of a genocidal plan. But documents such as these often circulate in Sudan, some genuine, some forged, all of them used to sway the sympathies of outsiders. And when I met with Darfur's Arab tribal leaders, I found they had greeted the Arab Gathering with deceptive politeness.

"Yes, we received our nephews," said one venerable chief. "And then?" He was inviting me to examine what his tribe had actually done afterward -- and it had done nothing. The old sheikh had sent the urban militants on their way with his best wishes. Then, instead of joining the Janjaweed, he had resumed his efforts to keep cordial relations with his neighboring African tribes.

Sudanese politics is like the British weather: unpredictable from day to day but with a drearily consistent medium-term outlook. Each time I write about Sudan I sign off with a tremor of anxiety -- will tomorrow's events make me look like a fool, disprove my story? What if the U.N. mediator for the Darfur conflict pulls a deal out of his hat? What if the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court indicts President Bashir and there's a peaceful uprising in Khartoum that ushers in democracy? There are few happy endings in Sudan. It's a country of constant turbulence in which I have come to expect only slow and modest improvement. Sometimes I dream of being wrong. ยท

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