Human Rights Reporting on Darfur: A Genre that Redefines Tragedy (2)
Activist and Apologist: Contrasts and Parallels
This section uses techniques of textual and discourse analysis to examine two leading books on the Darfur crisis, identifying the strategies employed by the respective writers. One is by Prof. Eric Reeves the leading anti-genocide campaigner and the other is a defense of the Sudanese government by David Hoile. This section analyzes the two books in the framework of the human rights genre, showing how an apologist for the Sudanese regime has adopted many elements of this same genre to mount his defense. It is a backhanded compliment to the human rights report that one of its most determined critic should decide to write his attempted refutations in the same vein.
For this analysis I focus on two books: Eric Reeves’ A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (New York, Key Publishing, 2007) and David Hoile’s Darfur in Perspective, (Second edition, London, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, 2006). The subject of both books is the Darfur crisis/genocide. The two together comprise a valuable case study in narrative technique and textual/discourse analysis. Both authors are gathering their facts in the same forest, sometimes drawing on the very same sources, but they are chasing different quarries. Reeves’s target is the Sudan government and its Janjaweed proxies and his book reads like a prosecutor’s brief. By contrast, Hoile is the defense team and his book is a rehearsal of the defense argument.
There is no moral comparison between the two. One is exposing atrocities and the other is trying to explain them away. It is tempting to rate them against one another. My purpose here is different: to show how the apologist for a perpetrator regime has adopted many of the techniques of his accuser, but also to analyze some of the methods he uses to parry or refute the critique. The fact that, despite all his handicaps, Hoile can land some blows on his adversary, serves to highlight important limitations of the human rights genre.
The reader of either of these texts immediately becomes aware that both are trying to prove a point. All the facts are fitted into a predetermined framework which is never subjected to any critical revision. They are both repetitive””Reeves’s becomes boring by the time the forced starvation at Kailak is presented for the fourth time to illustrate the same point. Reeves is aware of this problem and explains: “An inevitable feature of this compilation, from so many discrete analyses, is redundancy and repetition… But the terrible truth is that genocide, particularly as it unfolds in Darfur, is highly repetitive.” (p. 12)
Reeves also expresses a fear that his approach to writing poses “significant challenges to the reader in holding the elements of the larger narrative in mind.” He is conceding that he is foregrounding only selected strands of the account. As if to compensate for this, every one of his columns reminds the reader of his central moral and political contentions, usually colored with rich adverbs and adjectives such as the following, all used to describe Khartoum: “unspeakable evil,” “hateful animus,” “ghastly reprise [of the genocide in the south]”, “egregious and shockingly arrogant bit of mendacity,” “vicious mendacity,” and “unsurpassable horror.” He compares Darfur to Rwanda and calls Kailak the “African Auchswitz.” Neither does he spare from his wrath any international leader or agency who fails to describe Darfur as genocide and demand immediate and forcible intervention: “disingenuous,” “shameful,” “expedient,” and “obscenely disingenuous” (the last one to describe Condoleezza Rice).
One of the less obvious dimensions to the Manichean-duality approach of the human rights genre is that it leaves no alternative between “our” explanation and “their” explanation. Reeves often contrasts the facts he has obtained from his sources in Darfur with the official Sudanese government account, which is usually a shameless attempt to deny the atrocities and pretend that everything is normal. When his account of events is stood up next to that of the Khartoum regime, he wins hands down. Closer analysis suggests that this is a narrative device determined by the genre, which determines that there cannot be a third alternative explanation. Anyone, especially a diplomat or UN official, who disagrees with the human rights version is automatically branded as endorsing the Sudanese government’s version. The reader wearies of this quickly. Hoile does not do this, and this is one of the reasons why his book can beguile the reader.
The organization of Hoile’s book, thematically rather than chronologically, and covering the origins of the war, the peace process, the controversy over whether it is genocide, and the numbers of people who have been killed, is intended to disperse and deflect the moral fervor of the Save Darfur Coalition and others, such as Reeves, by sowing doubt and confusion. He reserves his own moral fervor for condemning the double standards of the campaigners, especially when they try to exculpate the rebels for their atrocities.
Both texts are built on selective citation to support a preordained position. Whether this style arises from pre-existing personal predilections or has been adopted in the service of pursuing a campaigning agenda is moot. Did each one adopt his writing style in order to prove a point about the Khartoum government or did his intellectual proclivity preordain him to a take a particular adversarial approach?
Reeves lectures in English at a liberal arts college. He was first alerted to Sudan by a senior official of Médecins Sans Frontií¨res who drew his attention to one of the world’s most forgotten crises, South Sudan. For ten years he has written regular columns, a fusion of reporting and opinion, on Sudan. In 2003 he turned his attention to Darfur, which is where A Long Day’s Dying begins, and his opening theme is that the atrocities of the Sudanese government are shifting westwards from South Sudan to Darfur. In the acknowledgements he describes his work habits as “isolating” and writes that he has never in fact visited Darfur though he has travelled in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Reeves describes himself as “independent.” Although Hoile disagrees, he does not allege that Reeves is in the pay of anybody. Reeves is a kind of latter-day E.D. Morel (the unpaid volunteer who mounted a personal campaign to expose the horrors of the Belgian king’s misrule in Congo, but never himself set foot in the country, and so relied on the letters and reports of others).
Hoile describes himself as public affairs consultant specializing in African affairs. Before turning to Sudan, his subject was Mozambique and in particular he worked as a public relations adviser to the rebel group Renamo. The publisher of Hoile’s book, ESPAC, is a pro-Sudanese government advocacy agency. Working on behalf of rebel guerrillas widely condemned as brutal and terroristic, and then for a government widely condemned for “Islamic fascism” (Reeves, p. 19) and genocide makes for a unique resumé. An online search finds no shortage of claims that Hoile is for hire and has a shady past as a rightwing extremist. Perhaps he chose defending unpopular causes as his vocation, just as some defense lawyers choose to defend murderers, on the principle that everyone has the right to legal counsel.
A simple indication of writing method is the proportion of text to supporting documentation. In Hoile’s case, there are 179 pages of text and 90 pages of appendices and footnotes (a total of 893 footnotes). In Reeves’s case the references are so prolific that they are included in the text of each page. There are approximately 600 references in the 325 pages of his book. On Reeves’s website, www.sudanreeves.org, these are hyperlinked, but the compilation does not extend to including these, perhaps because the book would have become too long. (The book is actually a selection of about 20 percent of Reeves’s prolific essays up to August 2006, selected by Ahmed Mohamedain Abdalla, a Canadian-Sudanese. Hoile’s acknowledgements do not credit any assistance he may have obtained perhaps from the Sudanese government.)
Both writers tend to extensive and selective quotation. Hoile is the clearer case of the two though Reeves also falls into this trap.
Hoile’s citations of Prunier, de Waal and Julie Flint are examples of selective mis-representation. All three are critics of the Sudan government, but Hoile quotes the first two extensively in support of his case and attacks the third as an unreconstructed opponent of the regime, in spite of Flint and de Waal having co-authored a book together on Darfur, its first edition published over a year before Hoile’s revised edition came out! Prunier is quoted as describing Darfur as “a poorly conceived counter-insurgency carried out with completely inadequate means.” (p. 114) This is a highly selective citation from a book that argues that the underlying motive of the Sudan government was racial and that counterinsurgency is an inadequate explanation for its actions. De Waal’s explanations of why the U.S. Administration succumbed to activist pressure and declared Darfur to be “genocide” are cited but not his views that the events in Darfur did amount to genocide, at least under some definitions. Flint’s views are dismissed as belonging to someone irreconcilably opposed to the government although she was the first to draw attention to the humanitarian plight of the Arabs.
This stratagem might escape the eye of the less-than-careful reader but on a couple of occasions Hoile lets his guard slip. He seems, unsurprisingly, to nurse a personal animus against Reeves, and relishes the chance to attack Reeves on the charge of double standards in human rights criticism. Hoile loses his cool over a Reeves column (December 17, 2004″”one not included in A Long Day’s Dying) which described a rebel attack on relief workers. (p. 206.) Hoile recounts and dismisses Reeves’ various attempts to explain away the killing, omitting to mention Reeves’s words “barbaric” and “outrage” to describe it. Hoile continues:
“Reeves attempted to downplay the murders by claiming that “˜the insurgents have shown inadequate discipline, even as they confront appalling provocation.’ Quite what “˜appalling provocation’ by aid workers helping to keep civilians in Darfur alive justifies cold-blooded murder is not made clear by Reeves.”
Manifestly, Reeves didn’t mean that the agencies were provoking the SLA and it is disingenuous to imply that this is what he intended.
Reeves for his part considered MSF as an authoritative source on Darfur, but when leading officials spoke out arguing against Darfur qualifying as genocide he wastes no time in condemning them for hypocrisy. Acknowledging their “superb” humanitarian work, he describes their decision not to designate Darfur as genocide as “extremely ill-considered,” “ignorant and presumptuous” and “tendentious.” (p. 187)
In defending an unpopular cause, Hoile is clever. In contrast to Reeves, Hoile tends to the dry and under-stated, trying to describe Darfur in a way that makes the problems there seem normal or unremarkable. Hoile’s big picture is that Darfur is complicated and the rebels are as much or more at fault as the government.
Hoile’s book is an extensive “not guilty” plea on behalf of the Sudanese government. It moves back and forth between arguments for innocence and for mitigating circumstances. His defense uses several stratagems. He tries to discredit the prosecution by drawing attention to its hyperbole, for example on the question of the statistics for the numbers of people who have died. He makes out that the prosecution has been duped, in this case falling for a propaganda campaign by Islamic fundamentalists in the Justice and Equality Movement and their allies in the Popular Congress Party to denigrate the Sudanese government. One of the most effective tactics he uses is to ask, “why?” For example, at a time when Sudan was coming in from the cold, and trying to normalize its relations with the United States, why would the government be so foolish as to mount a campaign that could expose it to charges of genocide? On this occasion, he chooses Prunier to make the point for him: the hypothesis of planned genocide “failed to explain why Khartoum would have picked such an obviously wrong moment.” (p. 8.) Hoile doesn’t cite the title of Prunier’s book in his text””Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide“”because he doesn’t want to recognize “genocide”.
In building his prosecution case, Reeves admits of no moral ambiguity. This is the Manicheanism of explanations: we are obliged either to subscribe to Reeves’s views or the Sudanese government’s, but nothing in between. There are no mixed motives or people capable of both good and bad. The Sudanese government is driven by “animating genocidal evil.” (p. 183) The killings, rapes and starvation that occur in the war are not in any way an outcome of the cruelty and fog of war, but are part of a deliberate and orchestrated plan. And anyone who fails to see this truth, so obvious to Reeves, is “disingenuous” or “expedient” or “shamefully ignorant.” The Sudanese government policies in the internally displaced persons camps, including both keeping the displaced Darfuris in the camps and trying to disperse the camps and send them home, are evidence for continuing “genocide by attrition.”
For both Hoile and Reeves, the written word carries huge importance. Both use the argument from authority liberally, making sure that the reader takes a quoted passage with the seriousness deemed necessary by introducing its author as an “authority.” Reeves is the owner of his language, while Hoile deploys others’ words. Reeves writes in superlatives, heavily freighted with moralizing adjectives and adverbs, and cannot allow a quoted passage to stand on its own without adding his own moral coloring. He seems to subscribe to the maxim that if he writes something enough times, cites an authority, and adds a strong ethical judgment, he will convince his reader. Hoile prefers to interrogate the texts of others, though from an angle that predetermines the answers. Hoile likes to use a quotation to provoke doubts, but conceals how his quotations are selective.
As he explains in his introduction, Reeves has not visited Darfur. This means he is reliant on text and testimony because he cannot use either personal rapportage or his own field investigations as source material. Reeves has no choice but to revere the text. Hoile has access to Sudan courtesy of the Sudanese government but he writes as though he has never been there. He could in principle write a personal account of his impressions or could carry out his own research, but instead uses the source-based method exclusively as a matter of choice. This is surely because his aim is not to present the facts or to convey a sense of the human reality of Darfur but to fend off the assaults of writers such as Reeves. Because he is defending the indefensible, Hoile has to use and misuse the words of others. Hoile wants to shift the contest to the texts, where he stands a chance of at least earning a tie.
Purely as writers, Reeves and Hoile are distorted mirror images of each other. Purely as text, Hoile’s defense matches Reeves’s accusations, but only because sowing doubts is an easier task than proving facts. Even though it does not take much research for even a non-specialist in Darfur to find the errors in Hoile’s presentation, his purpose is sadly served by the occasions where he does make a valid point. But the case should not be judged on the presentations alone. If Hoile had his way the atrocities in Darfur would never have been noticed by the outside world and the dying would have continued in silence. Reeves was one of the most prominent voices in drawing attention to the Darfur atrocities and he was one of the very first to call it “genocide” in December 2003. Hoile wrote because Reeves did so first.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Darfur and millions have been displaced. Reeves made noise about this and Hoile did not. A shrill writing style is more forgivable than staying silent over atrocities or denying them. We also should judge writings on whether they can save lives. The last word belongs to Reeves whose final pages are a call for strong international action to protect the people of Darfur in the face of ongoing Janjaweed attacks, including the burning of the Darfuri village of Amoodh Al-Akhdar in August 2006 (pp. 324-5). He quotes a UN report:
“Most of our people are hiding in the bushes. The only routes connecting inhabited villages pass through Janjaweed held areas, while other roads have been submersed by water because of the rain. There are injured and sick who were caught in the fighting. Many people have gone missing. People cannot leave the area without protection. We call for the international community to intervene immediately to help the civilians in the area.”
Reeves concludes in somber fashion: “The people of Amoodh Al-Akhdar call in vain.”