The Darfur deception

David Rieff is the author of many books, including "At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention" and "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

The Sept. 29 killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers in south Darfur by a splinter faction of one of the main anti-Sudanese government insurgent groups was shocking -- but especially so to those who have only followed the Darfur tragedy through the lens of activist, pro-interventionist groups such as Save Darfur or institutions such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which label the crisis a genocide.

It was shocking because it doesn’t fit with the simplistic, mostly-without-nuance view of the conflict in Darfur that such groups have been putting out for the last few years.

Why have these groups -- which, after all, are far more familiar with realities on the ground than all but a few specialists and Sudanese emigres living in the United States -- offered an incomplete picture of what’s happening? Because they know that in order to get people to care, they have to oversimplify. Even naming an organization Save Darfur is an oversimplification, in that it implies that there is an innocent victim (the Darfuris) and a group from whom they need to be saved (the Islamist government of Sudan and its murderous janjaweed militia).

From a practical standpoint, such oversimplification often seems not just unavoidable but essential. After all, to a regrettable extent, activism is a zero-sum game. When all is said and done, a group that is passionately committed to the plight of Darfur is competing for donations with groups that are equally passionately committed to curing Lou Gehrig’s disease or stopping global warming or combating homelessness. For each group, their own cause is preeminent. But, alas, there are only a finite number of contributions to go around.


To communicate a more complicated message may be more accurate but it is inevitably less compelling, and according to the conventional wisdom, campaigns need to be compelling if they are to have a hope of success.

In the case of Darfur, there is in fact considerable controversy about whether the government of Sudan and the janjaweed have committed genocide. Save Darfur, the Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Congress say they have; the European Union and many of the most important relief groups working on the ground in western Sudan say they have not. There is also a heated debate among statisticians, demographers and activists about how many people have been killed or displaced. Understandably, those who are campaigning for an international intervention to rescue the Darfuris tend to accept the higher figures; indeed, for many it is the brute number of dead that drew them to activism in the first place.

To suggest that things may be more complicated is in no sense to deprecate their commitment. But it is to say that if, proverbially, the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of activism is complexity. If Save Darfur had said, “Look, the situation in Darfur is very convoluted and, while the government of Sudan deserves the lion’s share of the blame, the rebels are no prize either,” how many contributions would the group have received, and how many volunteers would they have inspired?

Precious few, most likely. And yet -- although it probably was the case that in 2004, the conflict in Darfur could accurately be described as a campaign of terror and murder against Darfuri civilians orchestrated by the Khartoum government -- in 2007, the conflict has degenerated into one in which rebel factions are fighting one another while factions within the janjaweed are doing the same. In other words, it’s a war of all against all.


Activists are certainly within their rights to insist that had the African Union or the United Nations intervened in 2004, that intervention might have prevented the current chaos. But today, even many of the most ardent advocates of outside military intervention are qualifying their arguments -- at least privately -- now that the situation has grown so much more complex and murky. But these new anxieties have not changed the public rhetoric very much.

Small wonder, then, that the public is confused. For what the killing of the peacekeepers suggests is that the template for understanding present-day (rather than 2004) Darfur as a case of innocent Africans being preyed on by Islamist Arabs no longer conforms to reality. And even with the best intentions in the world, campaigners find themselves hoist on the petard of their own hyperbole.

None of this is to say that the crisis in Darfur is manufactured. It is all too real. But a crisis that involves innocent victims and evil victimizers is different from one in which there is evil enough to go around -- which, as the headlines demonstrate, is what is actually going on in Darfur.

What are humanitarian campaign groups -- or, for that matter, an international media corps that, in the electronic media at least, has to present complex political emergencies in hurried sound bites -- to do? Simplicity sells, complexity languishes. And yet no political crisis, or humanitarian calamity, is likely to remain a simple contest between good and evil -- at least not if it goes on long enough. And what may seem like a way of mobilizing people in a good cause may end up sowing more confusion than commitment.