On 26 July 1985, The Times (of London) reporter Paul Vallely wrote a story about aid efforts in western Sudan entitled “Riding the Lifeline Lorry.” Here’s what Robert Kaplan has to say about it in his book, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage, 2003): “To my mind, it was the best single feature story I ever read about the famine. It’s too bad the U.S. public never got to see it.” And here’s Kaplan’s retelling of the story in his chapter entitled “Aid: Rolling the Rock of Sisyphus” (pp. 195-196).
For weeks the requests had been trickling into the old British garrison post of El Geneina, the furthermost town in the west of Sudan….
These particular requests came from the chief of police at Beida, through the cursive handwriting of the little border town’s scribe. At first they were for food. Then last week came a plea for shrouds.
“We have nothing in which to bury our dead, and 15 children died yesterday,” said the letter addressed to Peter Verney, the Save the Children (SCF) representative in Geneina.
As Vallely related the story, so little food was coming into Geneina from Khartoum on account of floods and other difficulties that there was not enough to send onward to Beida, about fifty miles south along Sudan’s western border with Chad. Those dying of starvation in Beida were all Chadian refugees, and the local Sudanese commissioner Sherife was not cooperating in the release of emergency grain. Finally, however, Verney managed to secure 150 sacks of food and seed. Then the head of the Sudanese haulage firm doubled and tripled the price. Verney did not have enough cash on hand to pay for the lorry and in desperation went to the local army brigadier in Geneina, Ibrahim Muhammad, who told Verney, “This is the situation everywhere. No food is reaching the extremities. It reaches the hands but not the fingers. Of course you can have one of my trucks.
Three hours after leaving Geneina for Beida, the food lorry got caught in a torrential rain. Vallely and the driver whom Verney had rented were stuck for nine hours in the mud; sixty peasants helped to dig the two men out.
It was two days before we reached Beida…. We were welcomed by Muhammad Ahmed Bashir, the local chief of police. Over sweet tea on the rafia mat before his office he was effusive in his thanks for the food.
“I will put it straight into the store with the other food.” The other food? “Yes, we already have 140 bags in store but we have had no authority from Sherife or his nephew Ali Mansour to release it.”
Because of Sudanese bureaucracy, Chadians were starving to death with food only a few feet away. The next day, Ali Mansour, the executive officer of the rural council, agreed to distribute the grain. “You will take my photograph,” he said to a news agency photographer with Vallely. “This will be good for me.”
The distribution caused a riot among the refugees. Sudanese soldiers responded by lashing at the crowd with whips in all directions. The news agency photographer started snapping away, even though editors had become bored with pictures of starving Africans. The photographer confided to Vallely that starving Africans being whipped had novelty value that would result in his pictures gaining wide distribution. Sure enough, the photos of the riots in Beida were picked up in Europe.
Nearly two decades later, we’re still “rolling the rock of Sisyphus.” The Washington Post editorialized on 3 April 2004:
ACCORDING TO THE United Nations, one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises now afflicts a Muslim people who face a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing driven by massacre, rape and looting. These horrors are unfolding not, as Arab governments and satellite channels might have it, in Iraq or the Palestinian territories, but in Sudan, a member of the Arab League. Maybe because there are no Westerners or Israelis to be blamed, the crisis in Darfur, in northwestern Sudan, has commanded hardly any international attention. Though it has been going on for 14 months, the U.N. Security Council acted on it for the first time yesterday, and then only by issuing a weak president’s statement. More intervention is needed, and urgently.
The victims of the ongoing war crimes are non-Arab African people who have lived in the Darfur region for centuries. In February 2003, as the Sudanese government began to negotiate a peace agreement with rebel movements representing the non-Arab peoples of the south, an insurgent movement appeared in Darfur demanding more government resources and power-sharing. The Khartoum-based government responded by sending troops and by enlisting Arab tribes in the region as allies. Early this year, after the breakdown of a cease-fire, it launched a scorched-earth offensive in the region that, according to the United Nations and human rights groups, has taken on the character of an ethnic war.
According to a report issued this week by Human Rights Watch, “the government of Sudan and allied Arab militia, called janjaweed, are implementing a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape and forcible displacement of civilians.” More than 750,000 people have been forced from their homes, and 100,000 more have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, an area of desperate poverty and little water. The dead number in the tens of thousands, though no one knows for sure how many: Humanitarian aid groups have had almost no access to the Darfur region.
For years Sudan’s government, a dictatorship headed by Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, waged a similarly ruthless campaign against the rebellious south. At last, under considerable international pressure — much of it from the Bush administration — it agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations that now inch toward a peace settlement. Some of the governments that pushed for that accord are concerned the deal may be disrupted if the international community also presses Mr. Bashir about Darfur. They should take a lesson from the 10th anniversary this month of the Rwandan genocide, which the United Nations failed to stop: Political and diplomatic calculations should never prevent the international community from intervening to stop mass murder.
As usual, the best coverage for this type of out-of-the-way story is not in the international media, but in blogs such as Head Heeb, who has been assiduous in covering Darfur: on 21 April, 18 April, 25 March, 19 March, 16 February, 10 February, 4 February, 30 January, 7 January, and elsewhere.
UPDATE: Foreign Dispatches offers a blistering assessment of the statement by the U.N. “Human Rights” Commission on this tragedy.
Absolutely incredible! Instead of condemning Sudanese actions, the UN “Human Rights” Commission actually decided on a message of solidarity with the Sudanese government! …
UPDATE: This VOA article entitled “Human Rights Commission Losing Credibility, NGOs Warn” is also worth reading; frankly, I’d say the Human Rights Commission and the parent UN lost their credibility a very long time ago, and only now are the NGOs belatedly waking up to that reality.
UPDATE, 4 May 2004: Sudan has just been re-elected to the UN “Human Rights” Commission. What purpose does this serve?