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Darfur: Where celebrities love to tread

Sudanese soldiers in Darfur (left - AP), Darfuri rebel (centre - AFP), Mia Farrow speaking to displaced women in Kalma camp in 2004 (Right - AFP)

By Lucy Fleming
BBC News

Celebrities like Mia Farrow and George Clooney may have done more to prolong the suffering of Darfur than resolve the crisis in Sudan's war-torn region, a new book argues.

"The Save Darfur movement with its celebrity supporters came down very clearly on one particular side of the debate," says Rob Crilly, author of Saving Darfur, Everyone's Favourite African War.

"This very simple straight-forward narrative which demanded our intervention was the only view being heard," he told the BBC.

Crilly arrived in East Africa as a foreign correspondent for the London-based Times newspaper in 2004, a year after the insurgency in Darfur began.

His brief was to cover all of the region's brutal conflicts - Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the end of the civil war in south Sudan.

'Sexy conflict'

"But it became very clear very quickly there was only one conflict that my editors wanted me to cover," he says.

"As soon as I arrived I was getting calls asking me to go to Darfur - there was something very different about Darfur, something that was sexy and people were interested in."

It was a very simple, clear war to understand - of good guys against bad guys.
Rob Crilly

Compared with other conflicts in Africa, Darfur seemed simple: In September 2004, then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell used the word "genocide".

Crilly says the conflict was portrayed as "An evil government intent on destroying the rebels and their supporters.

"They'd unleashed this fearsome Arab militia, the Janjaweed on a scorched-earth campaign against villagers who were supporting the rebels, so it was a very simple, clear war to understand - of good guys against bad guys.

"You compare that with Somalia, where there are countless warlords and Islamist militias all fighting against each other, or the Democratic Republic of Congo which has been rumbling on for 10 years and anyone who understands those wars frankly is just boasting."

But the longer he reported on the conflict, the more Crilly understood that there was nothing simple about Darfur and what he was witnessing was a tragic, complicated conflict, rather than a simplistic genocide.

Unsurprisingly, Mia Farrow says she disagrees with Crilly's analysis but does commend the book for providing "a solid journalistic account of his first-hand experiences in Darfur".

Aid boom

The book charts his understanding of the conflict's complexities from his arrival, learning from his resourceful fixer and driver al-Siir the patience to wait for travel permits over sweet glasses of tea, discovering Darfur has some green valleys and orange groves on the bony back of a donkey and learning the legacy of Khartoum's use of proxy armies when he comes face-to-face with Joseph Kony, the notorious Ugandan rebel leader who still terrorises areas of Southern Sudan.

map

He notes how Darfur changed over seven years - the region's cities now have booming economies on the back of UN and aid money and one can now pick up an iPod in el-Fasher market, but the circling Antonov bombers still bring fear to the countryside.

He meets rape victims and rebel leaders, Arab militia who have joined the rebels and Arab fighters who have lost trade routes, former librarians and oil workers who have have given up their careers to fight for what they see as the survival of their communities.

"The war is no longer a conventional war in the sense we'd understand - that there's one side against another," says Crilly.

"It's banditry, it's insecurity, it's fractures within the Arab tribes - they've turned on each other, there are issues of grazing routes, there are issues of water desertification," he says.

'Pointless'

It is these nuances that have been ignored by the Save Darfur lobbyists, Crilly says, and led to George Clooney's impassioned appeal to the UN Security Council in 2006 for the intervention of peacekeepers to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

"A line where peacekeepers could have intervened between two sides has completely broken down into a system of lawlessness resembling something almost like Somalia where the intervention of peacekeepers is pointless," says Crilly.

Book cover of Saving Darfur
Some of the rebel leaders were very much emboldened by the support of this lobby
Rob Crilly

Even many aid workers on the ground and diplomats disagree with the advocacy group's line.

"There were other organisations talking about other types of solutions but they were basically forced into silence because of their complex relationship with Khartoum."

But it is not the publicity that celebrities bring that is the problem, he says, rather their agenda.

"My concern is when they get too involved in proposing solutions and they become too wedded to one way of doing things.

"I think that's a lesson for future coalitions and future advocacy campaigns - we've already starting to see coalitions for Haiti.

"I think [it] is wonderful that people want to have concerts to raise awareness, raise money - but I think they shouldn't get too bogged down in policy prescriptions because they can run into trouble."

He blames the Save Darfur Coalition in part for the failure of the 2006 Darfur peace agreement, which only one of the many rebel factions signed up to.

"Some of the rebel leaders were very much emboldened by the support of this lobby and they still believe that the Save Darfur movement can deliver them much greater benefits."

The rebel groups, for example, want the International Criminal Court to indict Sudan's Omar al-Bashir on genocide charges - something a diplomat quoted in the book says "would be like arresting Martin McGuinness during the Good Friday negotiations" in Northern Ireland.

Too often the rebels are seen as the only player against Khartoum.

A gathering of all the different communities to discuss their grievances - while it may sound boring - would have the best hope of finding a solution, he says.

"If you understand it as a black and white war between rebels and the government then all these other players are left out of the negotiations and you can't really have peace in Darfur."



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