Chronicles of Darfur
Jerome Tubiana. Chroniques du Darfour. Grenoble: Editions Glénat, in partnership with Amnesty International, 2010. ISBN978-2-7234-7831-1.
This is a unique contribution to the growing field of Dar Fur studies, which brings to bear on the war in Dar Fur the unique strengths and achievements of its author. Jerome Tubiana, the book’s back cover tells us, did a Ph.D. in African studies, trained as a journalist, and initially worked as a free-lance journalist and photographer. He then served as a consultant for organizations such as Action against Hunger, Doctors without Borders, USAID, and the AU-UN Joint Mediation Support Team for the Darfur Peace Process, and worked as a researcher for projects such as Small Arms Survey and Darfurian Voices. He is also the son of two well-known French anthropologists with a respected and extensive oeuvre on the people of northwest Dar Fur, especially (but not exclusively) the Zaghawa. All these legacies inform this insightful, artistically and journalistically superbly illustrated, and moving book.
Tubiana has written many perceptive shorter essays and commentaries about the changing situations in Western Dar Fur and Eastern Chad, for example in Dispatches and the London Review of Books. He also contributed a chapter on the land issue in Darfur (“Darfur: a conflict for land”) in War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, edited by Alex de Waal (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007). The strength of Tubiana’s work lies in his enormous knowledge of local conditions in Dar Fur and his connections with individuals and groups on many sides of this multi-sided conflict: traditional chiefs and rebel leaders; native speakers of Arabic as well as those with (other) African mother tongues; men and women; people who stayed in place as well as those displaced into camps, and common people as well as major political and military players. Chroniques du Darfour chronicles Tubiana’s many visits to different parts of Dar Fur — from the northwest to the southwest, south of Jebel Marra , and across the border to Dar Sila in southeastern Chad — between October 2004 and May 2009.
The book consists of eleven chapters, which take the readers back and forth in time, both between 2004 and 2009 and between the time of the author’s own visits and that of the fieldwork of his parents (Marie-José and Joseph Tubiana) from the 1960s to the 1980s. The book opens with a chapter called “Family Histories,” in which the author introduces Am Boru in northwest Dar Fur through the history of his parents’ contacts with the local chief; now, in very different circumstances, the sons meet and talk. Chapter Two is called “Genealogies of Conflict” and presents among other things testimonies by important local leaders (displaced in Khartoum and al-Fashir) about how the violence in their areas began. It is an important reminder of how local, regional, and national factors of many kinds began to converge and culminated in an all-out war. In this war the Sudanese government and its supporters (including militias drawn from many Arab groups) fought the anti-government rebels (including militias based on large sedentary groups such as the Fur). However, new divisions, realignments, and political fragmentation occurred on both sides, often leading to further violence.
Chapters Three to Five (“First visit to the rebel zone,” “Under the trees,” and “Lost children”) are accounts of Tubiana’s visits to rebel territory, where he interviewed those who took up arms against the government. As Paul Doornbos notes in his insightful review of Chroniques du Darfour on Amazon.fr,(1) Tubiana poses a number of basic questions to all those he interviews: when did the violence begin? Who attacked whom and in what circumstances? What were the group relationships before this happened? What did the group constructs of Arab and non-Arab mean before the violence, how did they change and change again to become what they are now? When did those interviewed first hear the term Janjawid? What was and is the role of the Sudanese government and Sudanese Armed Forces in the events they experienced and witnessed?
Chapter Six, entitled “God’s village,” recounts the author’s visit to Muzbat, one of the northernmost villages of Dar Fur. Endowed with uncommon rock formations, this is a place, the author tells us, where both Zaghawa and local Arab groups connected with the sacred and made animal sacrifices. In Chapter Seven (“The Arabs”), Tubiana chronicles his visits to some of Dar Fur’s nomadic and sedentarized “˜Arab’ groups, from Wakhain and Kutum in the north to Nyala in the south, and from Jebel Marra to Dar Sila across the border in southeast Chad. Here his informants talk to him about their conditions before the fighting started, especially their lack of access to land; how they, in many but not all cases, saw the Sudanese Government’s desire to arm and aid them militarily as an opportunity to solve their problems, and how they ended up feeling used. They insisted (correctly, as this book shows) that “˜Arabs’ and Janjawid are not equivalents but that these group constructs, reinforced through large-scale violence and atrocities, have become a formidable political force and an obstacle to peace.
In Chapter Eight, the author recounts visits and interviews with the rebel faction that did not sign the 2005 Dar Fur peace accords signed in Abuja. Chapters Nine and Ten take us to two specific regions, to Jebel Marra in the case of “In the shelter of the mountains” and to Dar Sila across the border in Chad in the case of “On the other side of the border.” The book ends with a chapter entitled “Letter to my father,” which, through specific examples rather than broad generalizations, draws out some of the contrasts between the 1960s, the time the author’s father did research in the area and the present. Tubiana shows that his father had been well aware of the increasingly scarce natural resources such as water and land in the area. However, this chapter suggests that, if western Dar Fur in many respects has become a totally different place, the memories of the past and the relationships between individuals and groups that existed then are often still very vivid and not irrelevant to hopes for peace.
Tubiana’s chronicles of his travels in Dar Fur and his extensive interviews with those he met and sought out there are the opposite of a “˜grand narrative,’ an authoritative account whose insights and conclusions can be neatly summarized and yield clear-cut conclusions, let alone simple solutions. This is indeed where this book’s significance lies, for it actively undermines totalizing narratives that confidently attribute blame and neatly sort the perpetrators and the victims into group categories. The author patiently chronicles how local histories of competition and collaboration became articulated with regional and national political and economic struggles and how these transformed each other in complex and not always linear ways. This does not mean that there are no perpetrators and victims – certainly the Sudanese Government is denounced by practically all Tubiana’s interlocutors””just that they do not fall into the neat and simple group categories of “Arabs” and “Africans.”
Tubiana mostly lets his informants speak. When he comments, it is often to point at two important findings. First, he gives evidence of increasing competition for natural resources in the context of environmental degradation and inadequate administrative attention and intervention by earlier Sudanese governments. Second, he keeps showing us that the group constructs of “˜Arab’ and “˜non-Arab’ (e.g. Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa) always had meaning but, until the war and the atrocities that accompanied it, not the meaning that they came to have at the height of, and after the violence. These new meanings were created and imposed through violence. In the escalation of the violence, the testimonies presented here suggest, the Government of Sudan played a central and transformative role. However, it also involved a wide range of local, regional, and national politico-military entrepreneurs and ideologues. This makes restoring peace and social reconstruction all the more challenging.
About 40% of the book consists of color photographs, interspersed with black and white images from the archives of the author’s parents. These photographs do not shy away from depicting scenes of violence and despair – skeletons by the wayside, ruined villages and wells, child soldiers and other heavily armed militia men, displaced elders hanging on to symbols of authority that, for the moment, have lost their significance, and so forth. However, they also show the resilience, dignity, and humanity of Darfurians in a wide range of locations in- and outside of their home areas. These photographs are an integral part of these Chronicles of Dar Fur between 2004 and 2009.
Readers for whom this book is their first introduction to the war in Dar Fur will be inoculated against the many superficial, simplistic, and at times purposefully manipulative accounts of this subject-matter. For readers with more knowledge and experience of Sudan and Dar Fur, this book brings into view places, offices, and families of great historical significance and fame, which, even though transformed and often damaged by the war, have somehow persisted.
This book is highly recommended.
Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College
(1) Paul Doornbos, “Quand entre-t-on en conflit?’ 10 octobre 2010; accessed January 16, 2011.