On Our Watch: Why Media Attention Hasn’t Stopped the Genocide in Darfur

For a list of the books and films discussed in this article,click here

In July 2004 a colleague beckoned Brian Steidle into his office and took out a laptop. “As he handed me his computer,” writes Steidle in The Devil Came on Horseback, his memoir about Darfur, “a series of the most disturbing images I had ever seen came across the screen”–photos of young girls who had been handcuffed and burned to death outside their school.

Steidle, a former U.S. marine, was working as a peacekeeper in southern Sudan. His job was to monitor a cease-fire that ended a decades-long civil war in which some 2 million people died. But just as a tenuous peace was finally taking hold in the south, violence had broken out in Sudan’s western corner–a dusty, impoverished region called Darfur. That was where the unbearable pictures had been taken. “If these photos were released to the public,” he e-mailed home, “there would be troops in here in no time.”

Four years later, the sentiment seems quaint. For we are awash in information about Darfur. Disturbing photos of torture, death, and starvation are just the beginning of it. There are the regular dispatches of wire-service reporters, the drumbeat of opinion columns, and the images beamed home by television cameras. There are more websites maintained by activists and human rights groups than anyone can count.

And now there is something else, too: a substantial body of literature, academic and popular, about western Sudan. There is a book by a survivor of the genocide; memoirs by a nurse working for Doctors Without Borders, a top-ranking U.N. official, and an African Union peacekeeper; two collections of essays that narrate the events of the past few years–particularly the failed international effort to stop the killing–in painstaking detail; a book by three activists who snuck into Darfur in November 2004; an account that patiently traces the history of the region; a book that links the Darfur genocide to the decades-long war between Libya and Chad; and even a book coauthored by the actor Don Cheadle.

And there are also the movies: documentaries that focus on the experiences of aid workers, activists, and of course the victims themselves–men and women whose faces and voices are captured in hour after hour of stomach-churning interviews, whose children have been murdered and communities destroyed, whose existence is now confined to squalid refugee camps from which they will probably never go home.

All this gives Darfur a morbid sort of distinction. No genocide has ever been so thoroughly documented while it was taking place. There were certainly no independent filmmakers in Auschwitz, and the best-known Holocaust memoirs did not achieve a wide audience until years after the war. The world more or less looked the other way as genocide unfolded in Cambodia, and the slaughter in Rwanda happened so quickly–a mere hundred days–that by the time the public grasped the extent of the horror, the killing was done.

But here is Darfur, whose torments are known to all. The sheer volume of historical, anthropological, and narrative detail about the genocide that is available to the public is staggering. In the case of the genocide in Darfur, ignorance has never been possible. But the genocide continues. We document what we do not stop. The truth does not set anybody free.

Radical evil has become commonplace in Darfur. It is impossible to reach any other conclusion. There are simply too many government-sponsored men who show up in these narratives solely for the purpose of committing almost incomprehensible acts of cruelty. The sadism knows no bounds.

Heart of Darfur, Lisa French Blaker’s memoir of her time in the region as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, describes the fate of a 19-year-old pregnant woman named Miriam whose husband was killed six months before. One afternoon Janjaweed–Arab militias unleashed by the government to terrorize civilians–entered her home, and one of them tapped her pregnant belly. “What have you got in there?” he asked. “I think she’s got money inside,” said another. And so they “beat her with their guns, pushed her to the ground, and kicked, punched, and whipped her. They laughed as she rolled, made bets as they joked who would get the money, wondering how much she had inside. When they tired of their game some time later, her baby was dead and Miriam went into labor.”

Stories such as this one should disgust us, and they do. But one effect of the extraordinary amount of knowledge we have about Darfur is that these stories eventually run together and gradually lose their power to shock. Horrors become tropes; repetition numbs the moral imagination.

While genocide is an old phenomenon, our experience of the Darfur genocide has been in one way novel. Never before have we observed a genocide so diligently. We educated ourselves about the suffering. We watched movies, read books, and wore bracelets. Our politicians attended peace conferences, issued ultimatums, even dispatched an international force. And yet none of it has stopped the killing.

What has gone wrong? Did we, over time, grow immune to the images and the testimonies? Did we give too much weight to what seemed like the conflict’s complexities, and too little to the raw human suffering that was taking place before our eyes? Did we put too much faith in the United Nations and too little in ourselves? Did we allow our elected leaders to seduce us with airy statements congratulating us on our passion, when they should have been consulting with generals about how to get soldiers onto the ground as quickly as possible? True, we were poorly served by a small-minded president and his bungling administration. But did liberals demand the right things of him? Did we push for what would really save the people of Darfur? Or did we get trapped by the inclinations of our worldview, and advocate for too little?

But it is too soon to succumb to a retrospective spirit, and to busy ourselves only with learning the right lessons for the next genocide, which will surely come. The suffering in Darfur is not yet yesterday’s news.

Richard Just is managing editor of the New Republic, a magazine that rigorously examines U.S. politics, foreign policy, and culture. This article was excerpted from the August 27, 2008, issue; www.tnr.com.

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