Darfur: Local Understandings of the Violence
Darfur and the Crime of Genocide is a terrific book, one that deserves praise for doing at least three important things. First, the authors, John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond make a clear, rigorous, effective argument that the mass violence in Darfur constitutes genocide. This is significant given that previously this argument has too often been made in a general manner (by politicians and activists) or in a somewhat ambiguous manner (by legal professionals and academics).
Second, in making their argument, Hagan and Rymond-Richmond creatively and methodically draw on the Atrocities Documentation Survey, carried out with Darfur refugees in the summer of 2004. This data set, which had languished in a State Department archive, enables the authors to map out key details about the pattern, intensity, motivations, leadership, and sequence of the violence. For this alone they deserve commendation. And, finally, Hagan and Rymond-Richmond illustrate how criminology, a field that, despite the obvious relevance, has long neglected the study of genocide, can enhance our understanding of this topic.
Having said that there are, as in all books, issues that need further development or explanation, particularly with regard to local understandings of the conflict.
First, the data set, which is one of the book’s great strengths, nevertheless has limitations. While the authors draw on speeches and interviews whenever possible, the bottom line is that much of their argument is based upon the reports of victims. There is nothing wrong with this since authors must use what data they have in hand. But we will have to wait until we have more primary documents and, especially, interviews with former perpetrators to have a more complete understanding of what transpired in Darfur and for what reasons.
This leads into my second point. At the same time I appreciate the way the authors develop their argument around “collective racial intent” and agree that this was no doubt a factor in the violence, I suspect there is more to the story. The Tora Bora idiom is a case in point. While the authors highlight this as a “polarized racial identification” (p. 206), Tora Bora is also clearly linked to issues of collective fear, threat, and danger. And this, in turn, hints that there are other motives in play that are not fully addressed in the volume.
More broadly, I would have liked to have seen a more complex account of perpetrator motivation. Sudanese leaders may have given racist speeches and racist epithets may have been used in the violence, but this does not mean that this is the only – let alone primary – motivation for the violence. “Landless, nomadic Arab groups” are not just “pawns” who can readily be imbued with a “collective racial intent to kill, rape, and destroy” – they are complex human beings like all of us who vary in their motives and beliefs. We may not have the data to explore this complexity, but it should at least be acknowledged. Moreover, even as the authors disavow primordialism, this sort of language seeps back in when, for example, they speak of the “fanatical fury and frenzy” (p. 221) of the perpetrators. Finally, on this point, I would have liked an explanation of the “racial difference” means in the context of Sudan. Does it, for example, have the biological connotations of the EuroAmerican concept? If not, what, exactly, does it mean in the context of Darfur?
Last, and briefly, I would have liked a bit more history and complication in the volume. I realize that that the authors have an important argument – that Darfur was a genocide – that they want to make. And they do so with admirable clarity and thoroughness. However, at times I felt as if some of the complexities of the situation were being pushed to the side to fit the argument (for example: how fluid are group identifications in Darfur? To what extent do members of groups switch sides? Is there any variation within the group categories? How has this varied historically and in terms of place?). On the other hand, the authors are well aware that much of this terrain has been covered by other books and perhaps felt it unnecessary.
Regardless of such questions, I appreciate John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond’s creative, well-written, and soundly argued volume. They have made an important contribution to our understanding of the Darfur situation, one that will be central to arguments about the pattern of the mass violence and whether or not it constitutes genocide.
Alex Hinton is a professor at Rutgers University.