Darfur: On Listening
I have spent many hours in Darfur observing how outsiders ask questions and listen to the answers they are given. It is easy to end up with the answers they expect and want, often unconsciously putting words into people’s mouths. (Quite often, in a rush to record a definite answer or opinion, they literally put words into people’s mouths, demanding, “so you mean ‘X'” and taking polite assent to mean informed, voluntary and comprehensive agreement.)
This was the topic of my very first publication on Darfur, “On the perception of poverty and famines” (International Journal of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1987). Visitors to the region, typically from aid agencies, asked people about the value of the aid they were getting. People were enthusiastically thankful. The relief food was called “Reagan” after the man who had donated it, and aid officials were told that without “‘esh Reagan“ people would surely starve to death.
As soon as it started raining in June 1985, the people who had told us that they had nothing to live off except “Reagan” quietly slipped away from the relief camps, left the aid supplies, returned home, started planting, and resumed their normal lives. When I asked people how they actually survived the famine year, “‘esh Reagan“ was a pretty minor factor. The way to get to that conclusion was not to ask people what they thought about relief food (I didn’t find anyone who said it was a bad thing, or unimportant) but to observe what people actually did, or to let them tell their stories in their own words, at length.
If a foreigner asks Darfurians, “whom do you trust to deliver justice?” the answer is unsurprising. As Semhar Araia writes, most Darfurians “felt strongly that the ICC was the only body they could trust to bring justice to their lives.” If an outsider asks Darfurians, “who can provide peace?” or “who can provide security?” equally unsurprising answers will come.
It is like the U.S. public opinion survey in 2005 which found that most Americans supported UN intervention in Darfur “to stop genocide”””the phrasing of the question presumed the efficacy of the action which in turn determined the answer. (I owe this example to Steve Fake and Kevin Funk’s Scramble for Africa, page 265. They note that a still higher number were in favor of greater U.S. support to the AU mission in Darfur””a fact that didn’t seem to rank so highly with advocates and policymakers.)
I have attended a number of consultations in Darfur over the last two months, in IDP camps, villages and more formal meetings with civil society and community leaders. The consultations were convened by the African Union. I like to hang around on the fringes, chatting to people who are less directly involved in the formalities. Seeing a white person, some community leaders come to me to assure me, discreetly, that they trust me more than the African leaders, and that they support the ICC. Others, seeing me in the company of an African Union delegation, earnestly and quietly tell me the precise opposite. I have observed the same person say completely different things in different contexts. It’s not deceit or even contradiction: it’s that courtesy demands saying certain things, context constrains what can be said, and the ways in which questions are posed””or discussions left unfinished””means that only one part of a complicated picture emerges. In some cases, political instructions dictate that certain things are said in a formal exchange, and other messages passed when the proceedings have formally closed.
Switch from brief exchanges of views to long, informal and circuitous discussions, and different perspectives emerge. Switch from hypothetical questions about ideal outcomes, to practical accounts of what people are doing for themselves, and the story is very different. In many parts of Darfur, local leaders are solving the immediate problems they face, and in doing so, tackling complicated questions about accountability, reconciliation and rebuilding communities and livelihoods.
Questions about justice are among the most sensitive. In some fora, any mention of the ICC””except in the context of condemning it””is taboo. However, I was impressed by the extent to which the AU Panel succeeded in creating a space for genuinely open debates. Testament to this is that even in discussions held in the presence of government officials and NCP stalwarts, we heard many of the same opinions that were expressed in government-free zones such as militant IDP camps and areas held by the armed movements.
One vigorous and frank discussion about justice began with me asking the leaders of a Fur community how they had reconciled with their immediate Arab neighbours. This was a particularly pertinent question as two years ago they had insisted that reconciliation with these people””whom they then called “Janjawiid”””was impossible. Today they didn’t mention that, but rather said that the tribes had done dreadful things to each other, and it was necessary to live together as neighbours once again.
I asked about reconciliation with the slightly more distant Arab groups that had been much more active as militia during 2003-04 and had become integrated into the government’s military structure. The question focused on the tribal leader. “As sheikh of the tribe, we can reconcile with him. As military commander we demand that he faces justice,” was the answer””at first. When it came to politically-motivated crimes, as they saw it, the mechanisms for reconciliation were not up to the job. (As it turned out, they were equally bitter about executions carried out by rebel commanders as the atrocities of the Arab militia””and demanded justice for these too.)
But the specific reason why the people demanded accountability for the militia commander was “he was carrying out the instructions of the government.” What about those who stood behind the commander, giving him orders? “Definitely they should face justice.” Up to President Bashir? “Yes, up to President Bashir. He is the one who ordered that our people be uprooted.”
There then followed a long discussion among the community leaders, in which they discussed the pros and cons of prosecuting the tribal chief-cum-military commander, other government officials, and the president. I listened. There was no agreement among them about what prosecution might entail. The most senior wanted to arrive at a single and clear position to present to me, but I found their disagreement much more interesting than any formula that they hoped to fashion from their unresolved discussions. What was most important was that they didn’t have a single or clear position””and that the significance of anything they said depended on the context. They weren’t “for” or “against” the ICC in any simple way.
There were some points of agreement among the community leaders. For example they all agreed, without any prompting, that there could be no peace with the government if the president were to be prosecuted. The question was how to use the threat of prosecution to extract concessions, and what the concessions and guarantees should be. The question of “justice” was much broader than just criminal prosecution. Just as outsiders tend to project their assumptions about “justice” onto Darfurians, these Darfurians were assuming that the “justice” which the ICC would deliver would correspond to their needs and demands.
One man argued that when Bashir himself delivered justice, defined as reversing the uprooting of the displaced people, then the threat of prosecution should be lifted. In this discussion, they used the term ibada“”conventionally translated as “genocide”””to refer to mass forcible displacement. All present concurred that when the mass displacement was remedied, the people’s demands would be met and the president would then be allowed to go free (we didn’t discuss whether he should stay as president or not).
I didn’t ask many questions but I did ask if Bashir should pay for the crimes committed. The answer was a unanimous “yes.” Their understanding of “payment” was chiefly in terms of what his government should do””restitution, return, peace, development. Interestingly, cash compensation did not figure. There was no mention of a trial or jail term as “payment.” (I didn’t ask whether one man spending twenty years in prison in The Hague would be considered appropriate “payment” for the Sudan Government’s actions in Darfur.)
Be careful what you listen out for: you may hear what you expect. An essential skill of a good mediator is to listen for the unexpected or contrarian, to explore controversy rather than hastening towards consensus which may turn out to be a false one. I am encouraged by the fact that three former presidents who head the AU Panel have shown these skills.
I think that if Darfuri parents name thier children Ocampo this tells us all we need to know about what they really think.
It is correct that recently, Mia Farrow revealed that dozens of children born in refugee camps in Chad had been named after the Prosecutor of the ICC, â€œOkambo.â€
It reminded me of the BBC report that two thirds of the babies born in some towns in northern Nigeria in the months after September 11 were named â€œOsamaâ€.
Both episodes reveal much about the desperation that ordinary people feel in these deprived and powerless parts of the world. Neither act of naming should be read as a political manifesto.
Back in 1985, the relief food was called â€œReaganâ€ but the people who ate it werenâ€™t always well-informed about the donor: â€œWho is this Reagan?â€ asked one, â€œhe ought to be promoted!â€ Another suggested that Reagan was â€œKing of the Jews.â€ I was introduced to several infants called â€œReaganâ€ and was told there were many more. What happened to them? I have yet to find a 25-year-old Darfurian bearing the name.
Thanks for your article.
Just few comments to make before I rush to the conflict zone in the North of Sri Lanka.
1. I think that most of the interviews are conducted to give an impression of a fact finding process while the interviewers already had in mind the answers they want and the answers they are going to get. It is naive to assume that is an act of “not knowing the rules of interview”. Aid agencies has developed very sophisticated tools for rapid participatory appraisal that are meant to extract most accurate information with the least bias and external influence. However, as I guess, the intention wan not to find facts, rather than to manipulate facts to serve the interests of the interviewers.
2. Again, with regards to Esh Reagan, I happen to be in South kordofan at that time, and believe me, when people gave the names to their children after Reagan, that was not a simple act of desperation or ignorance or that they were mislead. Even if you can afford to buy food, still you may die of hunger since the issue was the lack of any supply of food. You can imagine what it meant to get the USAID food at that critical point of time to the families that were watching their kids starving to death while the government was continuing its denial and claims that it is a “food gap” and not a “famine”. With all my criticism to the politics of international aid, nonetheless, I think those who claim that Esh Reagan was small factor in saving the situation, are really suffering from a serious short memory issue, and I just do not want to imagine, what price in lives we could have paid to reach the rainy season without Esh Reagan. Let us just try not to undermine the intelligence of these people, and what it meant to them, when they give a name to their children. It is normal for the Sudanese sometimes to play ignorant to make fun of things and situations, this is of course notwithstanding the fact that some people might not have known who Reagan was at the initial stage of the relief operation.
3. With the same token, I don’t see any act of desperation when Darfurians give OKambo name to their children. The world is becoming a very small village. Even the IDPs have a good access to information from radio, political gossips and lots of other sources, and are quite aware of who is Okambo and what he represents for them. For me, it is an absolute act of gratitude to the person, and the institutions behind him, who is trying very hard to bring to justice the persons responsible for their current misery and sufferings. And Alex, how realistic is it to expect these people to talk to you about their own wishes to bring Beshir to Justice? that would be asking too much of them and they have already expressed that wish in their own indirect ways by supporting the ICC through giving Okambo name to their kids. There is a lot of intimidation and fear, and it justifies why they describe Beshir “payment” in that way.
It’s very well that the Darfuri people seek justice and accountability for the crimes that have been allegedly committed against them. However, it is important to note, where are they getting all these assertions that it was President Bashir who personally directed these attacks against their villages, is it based on facts or so called facts they receive from the NGOs and rebel elements who work there. When it came to the Iraq war, most people are bitter towards George Bush and want to see him face justice because he led America into a pointless war not because he personally directed military operations that devastated hundreds as the Prosecutor and some advocacy groups would espouse Bashir has done.
There’s a saying in most Arabic countries that that if you want to learn the truth about your country,listen to the BBC World Service on the radio. This clearly doesn’t apply anymore even to the general mainstream media due to their lack of objectivity and general journalistic laziness when it comes to the issue of Sudan. People in desperate situation believe irrational claims to quench their bitterness.
The Darfuri people need to take into account that this government (prior to this conflict) has done a lot to develop Darfur despite the sanctions, depleted economy and the horrific war in South. The majority of Sudanese Armed Forces consisted of those same Darfuri tribes the Prosecutor alleges President Bashir tried to exterminate from Sudan. It would’ve been insane therefore for President Bashir to exterminate their tribes during a time in which their men were still needed to fight in the South (2003 when the war started until of the North/South civil war)
I will not discuss the issue of the janjaweed as the main cause of violence because that term has been discussed thoroughly well in this blog.
Even though the main victims of this war have been Darfurians, the issue of justice should also be discussed amongst the Northern Sudanese, a group which has been completely ignored even relegated to a point where people do not know that they exist. What would be the implication if a Northern Sudanese is subjugated to what they believe would be falsified justice. I personally believe that the prosecution of President Bashir will force the Northern Sudanese public, to become more hostile towards the Darfurians and Southern Sudanese. Many people I’ve come across in Northern Sudan expressed a sense of elation at the prospect of the South seceding in 2011, they have felt that they have carried the back of much of the troubles in Sudan and it would be best if all went their separate ways even Darfur so that no longer will the “evil Arab, Jalaba or devil on horse back” would be blamed for their troubles.
Dear Alex. One more funny example to verify that the reaction of the common people to the foreign aids and donations has nothing to do with politics and expectations of donors and aid agencies. In 1985 being aided by USAID relief supplies, some villagers around my home town in Sudan prayed for the God to facilitate a Haj (pilgrimage) to Mekka for Reagan because he had helped them and save thier childern from starving. Such an example can’t be located in a political context or manipulated to carry any meaning that would speak for the purposes of the aid agencies.
Back to the issue of the ICC and its case against the Sudanese president which represents the peak of politicization and manipulation of the international justice and the abuse of the international institutions and bodies to realize the ambitions of the influencial global powers. The chief prosecutor of the court is now presenting his case not as a man of law aiming to achieve justice but as an advocate with political agenda. These movements and personal targeting by the prosecutor severely undermine the credibility and neutrality of the court before the world. As the court continue to be directed by persons like Ocampo, president Bashir continue to gain more regional and international support even from court signatories.
I wonder whether the time allocated for the three former presidents visit to Darfur is enough to enable them show their listening skills?
I think the way you portray the ‘Esh Reagan’ naming in South Kordofan is actually quite consistent with my story here. Desperation is not mindlessness, but it does lead to a particular angle on the issue…
The Panel has just given itself another two months, in order to conduct another round of discussions with all the stakeholders, to debate the recommendations. Perhaps not long enough. But so far the Panel has spent more time listening than any other high-level international figures.
the point you raise about the northern Sudanese is extremely important. The construction of the Sudanese conflicts as center versus periphery ignores the way in which authoritarian governments have abused the people of the geographical center as well. I was once confronted by a resident of Tutti Island, right in the very center of the center, pointing out the lack of basic services on his island, leading to the conclusion that the center is marginalized too…
By the way, there is a nice commentary on this posting on ‘Wronging Rights’.
I think this is a fascinating question and one that I have grappled with in my reporting from Darfur. In the run-up to the ICC issuing a warrant for the arrest of President Bashir I was conscious of Nick Kristof and George Clooney returning from the camps in Chad where refugees had apparently been demanding justice. It seemed to me that they had received the answer they were looking for.
I set out to prove them wrong. But over the border in Darfur it was very difficult to work out how supportive the IDPs were of the ICC. Govt threats and intimidation made it hard for people to speak freely. The best I could come up with was that people wanted to go home. It was tempting to interpret this as placing peace ahead of justice but this would have been placing words in their mouths.
I don’t have any answers about the best way to get around these problems but this post brilliantly flags up the difficulties.