By Deborah Scroggins
Darfur. Everyone is talking about it, from television reporters at CNN to the other mothers in the car-pool line. “How do you feel about Darfur?” they ask. And what I’m actually thinking is how strange it is to hear people at home speaking the name of this place that is charged with meaning for me but that I never thought anyone in Atlanta, with the exception of my husband, would notice, even on a map. But Darfur is not just a province in Sudan anymore, it’s a world crisis, one that Colin Powell has called genocide. Given an opportunity to go back, of course I have to take it. If I can help people learn about Sudan, I must do it; that’s part of the bargain I made with myself a long time ago. But part of me is fearful. Do I really want to return to a place where I saw so much suffering and unhappiness, where I was so unhappy myself? Can I stand to see Sudan engulfed in yet another catastrophe?
Flying into Khartoum I remember how frightened I was the first time I came here as a young newspaper reporter, in 1988, how I threw up on the plane, and how I was so ignorant of the world and myself that I didn’t even recognize fear when I felt it, wondering instead if I had the flu. Maybe I should be afraid now. Certainly my friends at home fear for me in a way they never did before they heard about Darfur, but actually I feel absurdly happy. I’m the only khawaja, as the Sudanese call us white foreigners, on this plane. The scent of sandalwood, deliciously redolent of so many Sudanese afternoons, wafts across the aisle from the woman wrapped up in a long black-and-gold veil; the handsome young engineer sitting next to me reminds me of an Islamic fundamentalist I used to know in Khartoum, and the half-flirtatious, half-angry arguments we used to have. The Blue Nile comes into view, and then the White Nile, and as I watch through the window, they join in what Arab poets call “history’s longest kiss.” This is Khartoum. We are going down.
It’s not often that life gives you such a clear turning point: when you know if you had not taken a particular path, everything would have been different. But that is what Darfur has meant to me. If, on that first visit, in 1988, I had not decided to chase rumors of war and famine to this, the wildest and most remote region of western Sudan; if I had not followed them right down to a forbidden outpost called Safaha, which means “wickedness” in Arabic; if I had not seen more wickedness than I had ever imagined; if I had not been arrested; if I had not caught typhoid there and been laid up in Darfur for weeks, I am certain I would be some other person, living some other life. Even at the time, it felt like falling. Every decision was like a door closing. Do this and you can never go back.
Nomads and farmers have doubtless been fighting over land and water in Sudan since the days of Cain and Abel. The current crisis in Darfur, a Texas-size region in the west of the country that straddles both north and south, flamed up within the last two years, but the southern part of Sudan has been in the grips of civil war since 1983. This in itself was the resumption of a conflict that started just after Sudan gained independence from Britain, in 1956, and the country’s Islamic-oriented government attempted to dominate the non-Muslim south. In turn many would argue even that war grew out of a much older history of conflict between the predominantly Arab, Islamic north and the African, pagan, and Christian south. It was the civil war that brought me here as a reporter and that I later wrote a book about, called Emma’s War. It has been one of the world’s most brutal confrontations, killing an estimated two million-mostly southern Sudanese-and driving some four million from their homes. Until recently there seemed little chance of ending it.
But in the last few years something seemed to give. Under pressure after 9/11 from a newly determined United States and Britain the hard-line Islamist government and the southern rebels signed a series of accords to share power and the country’s oil resources and to hold elections in three years and a referendum on secession for the south in six years. So many previous peace talks had gone nowhere that initially I paid little attention. But as one Sudanese friend after another told me they really believed this time the country was going to make it, I began to hope a little. An anthropologist I know started to set up an organization to rebuild schools in an area of the south where they’d been razed again and again; I got excited about the prospect of helping her. So positive was the mood that for a long time I pretty much disregarded the E-mails and alerts about Darfur that began trickling into my in box two years ago. But by spring 2003 the trickle had turned into a flood: Armed rebel groups had taken up the cause of Darfur’s more settled African tribes, claiming that the province was being marginalized and discriminated against by the government, and for a while they mounted a spectacularly successful rebellion. The military Islamist government responded by bombing African villages and by arming irregular militias composed largely of Arab nomads and ordering them to loot, rape, and murder people belonging to the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit tribes, who were accused of backing the rebellion. The results were catastrophic: In a matter of months 70,000 people were said to have been killed, thousands of women raped, and a million and a half driven from their homes, a tragedy glimpsed by the West in harrowing television news footage of refugee camps and of police attacking women and children. By the time I get there, I know that not just the peace agreement but the whole future of the country is in jeopardy.
At first Khartoum seems more jolly and relaxed than I’ve ever seen it; certainly the effect of the oil money that has come on line in the last few years is visible. The young women I see everywhere have given up the traditional Sudanese tobe for a new Islamist fashion: head scarves, button-up shirts, and long, slim skirts that are often downright slinky. There are so many old friends to see, so many shiny new buildings to marvel at, so many more couples and giggling schoolchildren on the streets than I remember from the last time I was here, seven years ago. But when I stop by the Acropole, the hotel beloved of aid workers and journalists, the Greek owner is subdued. “Yes, there are changes, but underneath it is the same,” he says. Later that day, soldiers armed with rocket-propelled grenades come out in the streets, setting up roadblocks and stopping cars to search for weapons. The next morning, the government says it has thwarted an attempted coup in the capital. That night, at dinner, my hosts tell us how terribly afraid everyone is that the fighting in Darfur will spread to Khartoum. “People don’t understand what could happen here,” a newspaper editor says. “You want genocide-we could have genocide and a half. We could have another Somalia here-worse than Somalia.”
The Sudanese have always been surprisingly willing to invoke the apocalyptic. It’s the khawajas who used to be afraid to say anything. When I first came to Sudan, the then government made a habit of expelling aid workers who spoke to foreign reporters about its policy of arming Arab tribal militias and setting them loose on the presumed supporters of the insurgency in the south. That is why the official who slipped me the report about starving people gathering in Safaha did so secretly. There were only two international aid groups working in south Darfur at the time, Oxfam and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), and neither would take me to Safaha unless I could get permission from the government. I went anyway with a drunken Sudanese guide who simply assumed that, as a foreigner, I knew what I was doing.
his time I’m traveling with Tim Carney, the last U.S. ambassador to Sudan before Washington closed the embassy in 1997. Flying the 500 miles from Khartoum to El Fasher, in central Darfur, I see that great patches of the province’s brown scrubland are covered with blue and white specks, each a piece of plastic sheeting under which a family is huddled for shelter in the camps the aid agencies have established for the newly homeless. If, as I’ve heard, what has happened in Darfur is essentially the sequence of insurgency, counterinsurgency, violence, and displacement that happened to the south in the 1980s and 1990s-except speeded up-then at least the international response seems to have speeded up as well.
El Fasher is a dirty, dusty little town swollen by crisis, with 60,000 refugees gathered in a camp at its edge. After a month of wrangling with visa officials, a week of planning, and another week of travel across three continents, I’m finally right where I want to be, and I jump out of the Land Rover filled with purpose. The pathetic twig huts of the people I’ve come to see stretch way into the distance. My translator and I set off walking, past the row of
Oxfam-built latrines, past the International Refugee Committee mother-and-child clinic, and out to where the new arrivals are said to be. A crowd quickly gathers, led by the dancing children who shout, “Khawaja!” “Khawaja!” just in case there is anyone left in the camp who still doesn’t know that a foreigner has arrived. I must choose somebody to interview before they get totally out of hand. A broad-faced woman in a brilliant sapphire-colored veil catches my eye. Acting with a decisiveness I don’t really feel, I make my way to her shelter, and we sit down together in the dirt.
The woman beside me betrays no surprise or curiosity. It is as if she had been expecting me all along. The arrival of the wealthy foreigner is a set scene I have participated in, from many different angles, many different times. I’ve done it myself, I’ve covered other people doing it, and yet I’ve never gotten over the essential strangeness of this encounter. A person from a world such as mine, a world in which war is something seen on television and children are tucked into soft beds, in which a day without food is a feat of willpower and not the wrath of God, comes to a hellhole like this, stinking of shit, boiling over with fury, and, with fifteen minutes to spare, says, “Tell me all about it.” “Why should I?” I’ve often almost wished some refugee would answer. But that’s never happened before, and it doesn’t happen now, because, fickle and remote space aliens that we are, we khawajas are often the last hope left for people like this woman. And so I begin the interview.
Her name is Kultum Abkhar Ragab. She is here with her seven children; they arrived from their village of Abu Dilake about 20 days ago. Nine months earlier, her husband and some other men who had been taking their animals to market were found dead on the road. She doesn’t know who killed them. It could have been the janjaweed (“devils on horseback”), as the refugees call the irregular Arab militias supported by the government. Or it could have been the rebels. A month ago army helicopters bombed and strafed Abu Dilake, and then the janjaweed swooped in on camels and horses to burn it. Kultum and the co-wife seated next to her took their fifteen children and ran until they got here. Why does she think the government attacked? “Because we are Zaghawa, and the government doesn’t like Zaghawa.” When will she go home? Not until it is safe again-which could be a long time. I ask a few more questions, then rise to go. The crowd presses round. They have so much more to tell me. The government has attacked them so many times! The second time ten people were killed! They can’t live in that area anymore! This woman has been shot from an airplane in her leg! I back out slowly, then climb into the Land Rover the driver has brought around. As he starts the engine the refugees press their imploring faces to the windows; their voices grow louder and louder, but we can no longer hear what they say.
In the days that follow, Tim and I travel around Darfur visiting one gigantic camp after another. Everyone has a story, most eerily similar to Ragab’s. I am here because my relatives are dead, my village is burned, and my animals are stolen. Who did it? The janjaweed. The Arabs. The government. When will you be able to go home again? Maybe never.
The last time I was here, the government had set tribe against tribe to fight the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army’s gains in the south. Then the favored ones were the Arab Rizeigat, who had been laying waste to the Dinka people next door in Bahr al-Ghazal province. This time it’s a militia drawn from different Arab tribes that has been goaded into looting and pillaging the Zaghawa, the Fur, and the Masalit. The names have changed, but the pattern is the same. I’m positive that if it weren’t for the UN and aid agencies like Oxfam working around the clock, and the public outcry that has forced the government to let them in last summer, hundreds of thousands would have died by now, as they did in the 1980s and the 1990s in the south. Even with the aid workers here, people are still dying. Among the new arrivals at Dalih camp, I soon spot a two-year-old boy and a thirteen-month-old girl in states of extreme emaciation. When I bring a Save the Children medical coordinator over to see them, he orders his staff to put them and their families on special rations. But privately he admits that there isn’t much chance of saving the children now.
Safaha in 1988 was the first place where I was confronted with these paper-light children with their stick legs and their unnaturally huge heads. It was a horrible shock to me, but what was even more shocking was that everyone around seemed to think it was perfectly normal. In Safaha I picked up one of those children, a tiny little boy called Atot from the Dinka tribe, and took him and his mother to an emergency feeding center where MSF doctors fed the sickest children hot milk around the clock. After his mother died, I fed Atot myself. I would have liked to stay on doing so, but a day or two later I was arrested and evicted from Safaha. Afterward I heard he had died, but I’ve never known for sure. My reports were published, and the government subsequently let Oxfam and MSF move the survivors at Safaha to a safer place near the town of Nyala, the capital of southern Darfur.
Rage is palpable in Darfur this time around, the feeling that people are spoiling for a fight. At the camp of Zam Zam, we notice a particular tension in the atmosphere. The children who usually run after us are all staying inside their huts; the adults outside have a grim, determined look. A man putting up a shelter donated by UNICEF tells me that some girls who went out looking for firewood the day before have not come back. Knowing that refugee women all over Darfur have accused soldiers and the janjaweed of raping and beating them when they leave the camps, I ask to meet their parents. Another man agrees to take me, but instead of finding the parents he sits me down with a young sheik and another group of women.
The sheik tells me a rambling tale about how these women were coming back from El Fasher when armed men set upon them. Then he asks if I’d like to talk to another girl who was stabbed. I’m not quite sure who is supposed to have stabbed her or when, but I agree. We find the girl, whose name is Samira, bent over the ground in a peach veil. A crowd pushes the two of us into a hut and pulls a piece of cloth over the opening. By the dim light inside, I can see that her eyes are filled with tears and her lips are trembling. Slowly she pulls up her skirt to reveal a bloody gash in her thigh. My notebook is out, but I can’t think of anything to say. I feel a miasma all too familiar from years past in Sudan, a sense of terrible things happening that one can barely understand, much less prevent.
I know very well rape has always been a feature of war in Sudan. On that journey to Safaha, my drunken guide tried to rape me (luckily I was able to fend him off with a heavy flashlight), and many southern women have told me about being raped in the war zone. But it’s new to hear Sudanese men demanding that attention be paid-perhaps because they know human rights groups in the West have come to focus more closely on rape as a war crime, and are more likely to pay attention.
Samira is taken to MSF clinic for an examination, but before the doctor can finish, a fracas develops. A mob of turbaned, chanting Zaghawa men begins waving spears, then throwing rocks at the police. Tim decides it is time for us to leave. As we drive slowly through the crowd, the men jump onto our Land Rover, beating their fists on the windows and the roof. “Give us your voice!” they cry. “Give us your voice!”
I think about my voice, about how often, in trying to tell people about Sudan, I’ve felt as if I were in one of those nightmares in which you try to scream but no sound comes out. I remember the time I came down with typhoid fever on the way back from Safaha to Nyala. The kind army major who was supposed to be taking me to jail instead dropped me off at a strange outpost of progress called Western Savannah Development Corporation, a multimillion-dollar, multiyear project outside Nyala started in the 1970s and funded by the World Bank, Saudi Arabia, and Britain. It failed in its promise to “make the desert bloom,” but the project’s engineers did succeed in building a miniature replica of a redbrick British housing development for themselves in the middle of the desert, complete with a club and swimming pool. I had been staying with one of the engineers there before I went to Safaha, and he took care of me while I was ill. In my fever, I kept trying to tell him about what I’d seen there, but I couldn’t seem to get him to listen-he was talking about his own problems, about how lonely he was and how he’d had an affair with a married woman in Malawi. I felt as if I would go mad there, and maybe I did for a while.
At a monster camp of 66,000 called Kalma that lies along the railroad tracks nine miles from Nyala, I think of the Dinka refugees I once interviewed who grabbed a train in the heat of a famous massacre at the nearby village of Ed Da’ein, drove it here, and then proceeded to wait-for what, I don’t know. The arrival of the cavalry? The end of the war? Whatever it was never happened, just disaster upon disaster. And, of course, the Dinka were arriving on the heels of the drought victims who poured into Nyala during the massive, widespread famine of 1984-85, the one that then pop star and Band Aid founder Bob Geldof witnessed in Sudan. Geldof is a rich man now, and I can’t complain myself, but in all these years we khawajas have been writing and speaking out, Sudan has gotten sicker and sicker.
Perhaps the fate of the Dinka holds some key to the resolution of this latest crisis. Retracing my steps, I set off in a taxi to see what has happened to them. I find them in exactly the same spot, in a little settlement of straw and cardboard huts not far from a Catholic church. They are mostly teenagers and children, startled to see me; they know the current Western spotlight is not meant for them. While they go off in search of a translator, I sit on another rope bed, smiling foolishly at the raggedy children come to gape in amazement. The English speaker they find is a catechumen named James. James tells me that after their fathers joined the southern rebellion in the 1980s the Rizeigat burned their villages and drove them north to Safaha. They were among the survivors-Atot could so easily have been one of them-whom Oxfam and MSF were finally allowed to move to Nyala in 1988. Now they live off what their mothers can make working as servants and laborers for wealthy Rizeigat landowners to the south.
I ask the taxi driver to take me to Western Savannah, a now abandoned project most people have forgotten. Nyala has grown so much that it seems to have swallowed up a settlement originally so remote that its founders called it “Moon Base III.” We are still surrounded by cattle and mud-walled huts when we suddenly come upon it. Stepping out of the cab I catch sight of the jebel behind the brick buildings. I had forgotten all about this bald mountain of rock, but now I remember lying in bed, staring out the window at it for hours.
The guard at the gate tells us Darfur’s minister of culture lives here now, but I am welcome to walk around. The usual cry goes up-”Khawaja!” “Khawaja!”-and a pair of young men with fine Arab faces comes out, one in jeans and the other in a long white galabiyah. They’re baffled but friendly. They say I can’t go in the houses where I had stayed; after all, people are living there now. But they agree to let me see the swimming pool. The sign I’d thought ridiculous even at the time was still on the door: kib club, wsdc senior staff-members only! Only now the sign seems too absurd to be real, and I begin to weep. The thatched roof of the “club” has caved in, the pool is cracked and broken. Only the huge old baobab tree beside it remains the same.
The men look on uncertainly, their beautiful brown eyes full of sympathy. “You are Rizeigat?” I ask. They nod proudly, brightening at the name of their tribe. “I think you have been here before,” one of them says. “I think you have very happy memories of this place!” I have to laugh at that.
When I arrived at the famine camp at Safaha that spring day seventeen years ago and saw the starving babies, the profiteering merchants, the wretched women, and the power-drunk soldiers who had erupted out of the civil war to the south of Darfur, I thought, I’ve found you, and I’m going to tell the whole world. But even then, on some level, I knew that it had found me, because try as I might, I was never going to be able to get Sudan entirely out of my head. I tell myself I should be free of this; Sudan doesn’t need me anymore; hundreds of people are writing about Darfur, and there probably isn’t anything I can add to it. But I’m not free. And where I once was struck by the tragedy, now all I can think about is the waste, the terrible waste of it all.
After I finally was well enough to leave Western Savannah in 1988 and after I managed to get on a plane out of Nyala to Khartoum and from Khartoum to Nairobi, my colleague on the famine project at our newspaper came to Nairobi to see me. Nobody in Atlanta had heard from me for weeks, and they were worried sick. He was in Ethiopia anyway, and it was easy for him to get there. He took one look at me and understood everything; I knew there weren’t many men like that. Five years later we were married.
Two days after I leave Khartoum, a plane deposits me in Atlanta, and a day after that I’m on a family vacation on Amelia Island, Florida. Everyone is tiptoeing around the topic of Darfur, but finally my mother asks me, How bad is it? I don’t really want to talk about it; I don’t know what to say; I’ve never known what to say. People here are discussing how the units going up next door are going to start at $2 million. How bad is it? Not as bad as I’ve seen it before but worse than it should ever, ever be and so bad that we should not be sitting here talking about spending $2 million for a condominium. Suddenly my face crumples into tears. My parents are shocked, silent, sorry. And I think, I cannot say this to them; I cannot share these thoughts; I must put them back in the box where they belong; I must go to bed. At 3:00 a.m., I wake up filled with anxiety. I turn over and look at my husband, sleeping in the darkness. My mind is racing. I’m thinking, We should never have gone there; we should never gotten mixed up with all of this; will I ever feel normal again? And then-I wish I could go back; I should never have left them there like that.
But since this is a trip I’ve taken before, I tell myself the feeling will soon pass. And in time, it does.