Yesterday’s NYT had a fascinating piece of reporting (also here) by Jeffrey Gettleman, datelined from “Artala, Sudan”. As he makes clear, Artala is located in south-western Darfur– and the story is about a number of formerly displaced villagers from the area who have chosen to return to their home villages and rebuild rather than staying in the IDP camps to which they had earlier fled.
As I’ve written here a number of times before (e.g., here), providing the conditions in which Darfur’s villagers can return to their home areas and rebuild in security and peace is the best way to “Save Darfur”– though a vocal and extremely well-funded information campaign in the west has been trying to persuade us that other, much more hostile and polarizing actions like bringing prosecutions against Sudan’s leaders or finding other means to punish them, insisting on a forced entry of international troops into Darfur, or even (by some coalition members) urging “regime change” in Sudan itself, are the best way to “Save Darfur.”
Having seen, just back in July, the misery of Ugandan Acholis forced to live in “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDP) camps for ten years now, forcibly prevented from returning to their homes and from cultivating their crops, and thereby forced into an existence of dependency, displacement, and chronic mental distress, my conviction that enabling a peaceable return to the homestead is the best outcome for most such people has only been strengthened.
Gettleman’s story is therefore a modestly hopeful one.
Let me just quote a few paras from his lead:
- Omar Abdul Aziz Gader cupped his hand over his eyes and scanned a landscape of scorched fields and mud huts reduced to rings of ash.
Where others might have seen a wasteland, Mr. Gader saw home.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
As a displaced person from Darfur, Mr. Gader found his options were not great. He could have stayed in the packed, increasingly unruly camp where he had been living for the past two years, or he could have ventured back to Artala, his native village, which was burned to the ground by nomadic raiders.
He decided to go home in September after learning that his corner of southwestern Darfur was actually rather peaceful, a place where nomads and farmers had begun to take halting steps toward reconciliation.
Much of Darfur, a vast swath of territory in western Sudan, is still a battlefield, with vicious fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel forces, and masses of people fleeing their villages each day.
But there are other parts, lesser known, where people are heading the other way, going home.
It is a journey that is also difficult, with homecomings that may prove to be short-lived. But aid workers estimate that there are several thousand returnees like Mr. Gader — and many more on their way.
Mr. Gader says he is looking ahead, building a new hut and planting onions, though at times the past seizes him…
It looks like a great piece of reporting. Gettleman doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties returning farmers like Mr. Gader face as they return home. But neither does he seem to sugar-coat the difficulties of life in the IDP camps, either… Indeed, he refers to Mr. Gader having faced a degree of social pressure (or worse) in the camp, that sought to “persuade” him not to return home:
- Mr. Gader, 32, spoke in hushed tones of camp politics and how some of the displaced people had called him a traitor for even thinking of going home, because they said it bolstered the government’s claim that things were not so bad. Mr. Gader, who lived in a huge camp in southern Darfur called Kalma, with an estimated population of 100,000, said he, his wife and his two children had to leave in the middle of the night.
“We basically escaped,” he said.
Aid workers and camp dwellers say camp elders have a vested financial interest in keeping as many people as possible in the camp, because the elders can make money by siphoning food aid and selling it in local markets. But the returnees are learning that home is a complicated place, too.
This reminds me a little of the situation that developed in the IDP camps and cross-border refugee camps in and around Rwanda in late 1994, when forces loyal to Rwanda’s ousted government of anti-Tutsi génocidaires kept two million or more displaced Hutus forcibly within the camps that had developed there and fought hard to try to prevent them from returning peaceably to their homes.
Under these circumstances, I am delighted that there are parts of Darfur where the situation has been improving so much that people in the camps are prepared to brave the intimidatory tactics of “camp elders” and go back home.
If you are interested in Darfur at all, I urge you to go and read the whole of Gettleman’s article there. It has many telling vignettes. Above all, don’t imagine that the ideologically bowdlerized version of his story that has been put up on the website of the “Save Darfur” coalition gives anything like an accurate representation of the whole article.
… This coalition has meanwhile been spending massive amounts of money on large numbers of full-page ads in major US newspapers that are, essentially, a fairly exploitative form of “waving the bloody shirt” mobilization. One full-page ad in the NYT costs, I believe, $48,000. I must have seen a dozen such ads– between the NYT and the WaPo– in the past month or so, and I’m sure they’ve been running them in many other papers nationwide. Perhaps the members of this coalition would have done better by actual Darfuri women and men if instead of running these ads they had put that money into the kinds of programs Gettleman was writing about: programs that have already helped thousands of Darfuris return to their homes?
… People in comfortable life-situations in western countries like to talk a tremendous amount about “accountability”. But the form of “accountability” they talk about is nearly always: (a) backward-looking and (b) very selective. I am very concerned about accountability, too. But the kind I’m more concerned about is forward-looking accountability: the accountability that people should have to each other to end current oppressions and build a better, more equitable and life-affirming social order going forward. And quite frequently, when people are in crisis situations, attempts to establish western-style, backward-looking “accountability” can actively impede the chances of being able to build such a better order. (Think of, for example, the effects of the Saddam trial in Iraq, or Rwanda’s many attempts to establish its very selective– but also, very extensive– forms of “accountability” for the horrendous inter-group violence of 1994… )
It strikes me that the situation in Darfur is now giving us further examples of these (always difficult) kinds of decisions being faced…
But meanwhile, I have to say I was really delighted to learn from Gettleman’s article that there are parts of Darfur where rebuilding– including some non-trivial social rebuilding– is already taking place.