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» What is the Royal Geographical Society for?

Worlds Apart
June 2009

What is the Royal Geographical Society for — exploration or ‘post-socialist urban identities’?

Time was when most educated people knew, more or less, what geography meant. Putting aside its Greek etymology (“earth description”), for people of a certain age it instantly evokes images of oxbow lakes, valley-scouring glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, alluvial fans, cloud formation and perhaps a bearded teacher.

Physical geography is the venerable descendant of the early investigative forays made by the ancient Greeks who took the first steps in this formal examination of our planet — men like Anaximander of Miletus, the sixth-century BC polymath credited with introducing the gnomon, an early sundial that helped determine solstices and equinoxes, to Greece.

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» The Royal Geographical Society’s next Expedition

The Royal Geographical Society is housed in a red-brick building just south of Hyde Park, at a junction of Kensington Gore and Exhibition Road that London cab drivers call “hot and cold corner”. Its façades are decorated, respectively, with statues of the most famous explorer of Africa, David Livingstone, and the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, hero of perhaps the greatest survival story of all time.

In 1998 when I was 27 and had just left the Financial Times after two years in the Philippines I was planning an ambitious 1,200-mile exploration by camel across the old slave routes of the little-travelled Libyan Sahara. Among my first ports of call was the RGS. I wanted to consult its unrivalled store of maps and charts of the world’s least hospitable places. Inside, it fairly hummed with potential expeditions, a stopping-off point for people about to set off to the remotest parts of the world. The walls of the society’s wonderful auditorium carry the names of great RGS-backed explorers of the past, including Sir Richard Burton, the great Victorian who, with John Speke, made two journeys into central Africa to locate the source of the Nile. And, of course, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose second expedition to the South Pole in 1912 ended in his death. Through their often heroic efforts the society advanced our understanding of the world.

On that first day I was there to study in the fusty grandeur of the panelled Map Room. I would politely ask the supervisor for what I needed and he would disappear, locate each map of the interminable desert wastes, and bring it to my desk. He might, I thought, have been there since Scott of the Antarctic set off across other, icier, wastelands.

Originally founded as a gentlemen’s dining club in 1830, within 30 years the RGS had established itself as the heart of what is now often described as the “heroic” age of expedition. As I explained what I was planning in Libya, an expedition to the historical centres of the Saharan slave trade, the RGS’s in-house expedition advisory centre put me in touch with some of the most notable desert explorers. They included Sir Wilfred Thesiger, then 88, and the charming octogenarian Rupert Harding-Newman, veteran of the Long Range Desert Group in the second world war. The latter was invaluable in helping me to learn the essentials of desert navigation.

Without this first encounter with the RGS, my Libyan journey (which I later wrote about in my first book, South From Barbary) might never have happened and I would probably never have become a fellow of the society. There are 10,500 fellows, all of whom have been nominated and approved for fellowship, and then have the right to vote on RGS resolutions.

That year – 1998 – was the last time that the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers, to give it its full title) organised, paid for, and launched one of its own expeditions, an extensive study of the marine environment in the south-west Indian Ocean, involving 200 scientists from 21 countries. The team generated huge quantities of scientific data and trained hundreds of local officials in marine education and management. Since 1998, the RGS has given money to many expeditions, but it hasn’t launched a major expedition in its own right.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. By 1998 the age of heroic exploration was long over – possibly the last great “expedition” was the RGS-assisted trans-Arctic expedition of 1967-69, described by then British prime minister Harold Wilson “as a feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history”. Three men and 40 dogs, carrying 32 tonnes of food and equipment, took more than 15 months to cross 3,800 miles of frozen wilderness. It was the longest sustained polar journey in history and almost certainly the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

The Earth has now been almost entirely charted (though we know little about its oceans). Yet there is still a world to be discovered by teams of geographers and scientists working together to improve our understanding of the fragile balance of life on our planet. As the distinguished environmental scientist James Lovelock laments in his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: “Observation in the real world and small-scale experiments on the Earth now take second place to expensive and ever-expanding theoretical models” of questionable reliability. “Our tank is near empty of data and we are running on theoretical vapour,” he argues. There is a compelling need for “more tiresome and prosaic confirmation by experiment and observation”.

The RGS has a record of mounting data-collecting expeditions of world-class importance. In 1987, for example, John Hemming, then its director, led a 200-strong expedition to the Maracá rain forest project in Brazilian Amazonia. At the invitation of the Brazilian government and in collaboration with the National Amazon Research Institute, researchers surveyed the rich forests of the riverine island of Maracá, together with four related programmes on forest regeneration, soils and hydrology, medical entomology and land development. The success of the project led to an accord between British and Brazilian scientists for long-term research in Amazonia. It represents, I believe, the RGS at its finest.

Yet the past decade has seen the society shift its focus towards academic geography, and away from exploration and field research. In 2006, for instance, the expedition advisory centre was re-branded “geography outdoors”. It was a move widely seen by fellows as a downgrading of expeditions and exploration within the society. It was, said the veteran explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, when I interviewed him for a newspaper, “mealy-mouthed”.

In May 2006 Alistair Carr, a Suffolk-based travel writer and desert explorer, went to the RGS archives and called up a copy of the society’s original, hand-written Royal Charter. He was looking for something that might back his hunch that the direction of the RGS had, in recent years, veered too far from exploration. Poring over the hard-to-read text, he found this: “The Royal Geographical Society, for the advancement of Geographical Science … has since its establishment sedulously pursued such its proposed object … by carrying out, at its own expense, various important Expeditions in every quarter of the Globe, and by assisting other Expeditions with grants of money and otherwise … ”

Carr realised that this could be a chance to change things. “I started talking to people all over the country – scientists, zoologists, entomologists, marine biologists, the British Antarctic Survey, the Natural History Museum and so on,” he says. “The more I spoke to these people, the more I realised there was this crying need for these multidisciplinary expeditions and that the society was losing this wonderful opportunity. With all those unknowns out there, in the oceans, rainforests, mountains and deserts, there’s so much more to be done. I felt the RGS should be leading the way.”

Over the next few months, he assembled a group of six like-minded RGS fellows, including myself, all in their thirties. Carr already knew Tim Bosworth, an environmental scientist, and the others were all keen to meet – so in April 2007 Carr, Bosworth, and I met up in London with Jo Vestey, an award-winning photographer, explorer and broadcaster Oliver Steeds and James Aldred, a rainforest veteran and specialist wildlife cameraman.

Over the past two years, we have exchanged numerous letters with the RGS leadership. We have sat down with the director and president and members of its council. Our request was that the RGS should return to launching its own multi-disciplinary scientific research projects and expeditions. The RGS itself says that over the past four years it has supported more than 250 projects involving 1,250 people in 118 countries with more than £600,000 in funding.

Our small group talked and the RGS listened. But, while we believe the society’s recent emphasis on geography and education is commendable, we feel that this must not come at the expense of its important core activity – running its own expeditions. So this month, our campaign, which we are calling the Beagle Campaign in honour of Charles Darwin’s 1831-1836 expedition – assisted by the RGS – to South America, went public.

Two days ago, a parcel was delivered to Lowther Lodge, the society’s home. It contained a special resolution, instigated by Carr and his five original signatories, calling for a return to the society’s own expeditions. The resolution calls on the RGS to honour its obligations as set out in its Royal Charter of 1859: in a word, to explore.

For a special resolution to be taken to a vote by the RGS, it has to be signed by six fellows and supported by at least 40 more. Our resolution has been co-signed by 80 of the most distinguished figures in the fields of exploration, geography, science, literature and travel. They include Sir Ranulph Fiennes; George Band, who was at 23 the youngest climber to scale Everest for the first time in 1953, along with his equally distinguished successors Sir Chris Bonington and Doug Scott; and the modern polar explorers Pen Hadow, who is currently in the Arctic, and Tom Avery, the youngest Briton to reach both poles.

Other supporters include Ian Swingland, a world expert on conservation and biodiversity, Andrew Mitchell, an authority on forest canopies and climate change, anthropologist Dr Audrey Colson and cave specialist Andrew Eavis.

The next step for the RGS would be to call a special general meeting and send out ballots to its 10,500 fellows. The wording of our resolution modifies its charter’s requirement for the RGS to fund expeditions “at its own expense”. It calls, instead, for a return to sponsored expeditions. (Major RGS expeditions from 1977-1998 include an impressive list of corporate backers: Shell, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Wimpey, Honda, Land Rover.)

In response to receiving the resolution this week, the society’s initial statement said: “The RGS-IBG would like to make it clear that the society’s objective, as set out in the royal charter of 1859, is the ‘advancement of geographical science’. The ways in which the society does this is a matter for the trustees at any particular time. The society continues to support exploration constantly.”

If it’s no longer mountain summits or poles we seek, so much as greater knowledge about climate change, growing urban populations, poor water supply, forced migrations and a host of other unknowns, our knowledge of species on the planet still has an enormous way to go. Marine biologists estimate that there may be up to 50m new species within the largely unexplored oceans, and up to 10m new species of insects, many of them in the world’s endangered tropical rainforests.

For a model of the sort of expedition that we hope will once again set out from South Kensington, look at Hadow’s latest Arctic expedition, an international venture funded by sponsors, including the insurance group Catlin, and bringing science and exploration together in an effort to answer one of the most critical environmental questions of our time: how long will the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover remain a permanent feature of our planet?

In 1980, the RGS celebrated its 150th anniversary with the publication of To the Farthest Ends of the Earth, a history of the society by Ian Cameron. In a foreword, RGS fellow Sir David Attenborough said the next 150 years would witness different sorts of RGS expeditions, “But the stimulus that sends its members on arduous journeys to remote places will surely remain the same; and the society, thankfully, will continue to serve them.”

The Beagle Campaign offers thousands of fellows and members – together with the public – the chance to make our voices heard. We welcome all support from anyone interested in this cause. If successful it will help ensure that the society, in addition to supporting research projects, starts to field its own major expeditions once again. The future of the planet deserves nothing less.

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» Never Say Never Again

December 2008

Just past midnight on 11 November, the Menin Gate of Ypres is quiet and still. Even the rain, a constant companion on any winter visit to Flanders, falls silently. The peace is disturbed only by an occasional passer-by trotting past, collar upturned against the weather, or a car slipping quickly through the gate, wipers working overtime.

The heart of the night is a good time to arrive at one of the greatest memorials of the Great War. In a few hours, it will be impossible to get close as the town commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.
Although officially this is a gate, it is so broad many visitors consider it a tunnel. The reason the Menin Gate is so deep is to accommodate the names of 54,896 missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the Ypres Salient, a Dantean hell of noise, mud, blood and slaughter from 1914-1918.

The missing men remembered here are a small fraction of the several hundred thousand killed in this corner of Belgium. They came from a very different Britain, from long-vanished regiments like the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, Lord Strathcona’s Horse and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, augmented by imperial forces from India such as the 35th Sikhs, 40th Pathans and the 9th Bhopal Infantry.

Flanders Fields Museum, a stone’s throw from the Menin Gate in the vast Grote Markt square, gives a disturbing picture of what it was like to live and fight in the Ypres Salient in this “war to end all wars”. Paul Nash, the English war artist, called it “one huge grave”: “unspeakable, godless, hopeless”. “I am a messenger who will bring back the word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever,” he wrote in 1917. “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

By mid-morning, the crowds are lining Meensestraat several deep to get a glimpse of the veterans’ parade and service beneath the Gate. Joining the townsfolk and the largely British visitors are the immaculately turned out veterans. Hundreds of bereted Brits, Belgians, Kiwis and Canadians, as well as Indians in yellow turbans. Medals glimmer and helmets shine in the oozing rain. Waxed moustaches bristle to attention. Those unable to get near the Gate gather under umbrellas in front of a giant screen in Grote Markt.

Benoît Mottrie is chairman of the Last Post Association, which organises the town’s daily honouring of the war dead. Every evening at 8 o’clock, the traffic is stopped beneath the Menin Gate to allow the buglers to sound their mournful tribute.

The clock sounds 11 o’clock. Mottrie gives a moving speech in which he rebuffs recent suggestions that with the Great War receding from personal experience into distant history, it may be time to review the daily act of remembrance. They have sounded the Last Post 27,569 times since 1928, he reminds the crowds. Were they to sound it for every life lost, they would be busy until 2610.

“It is only right and proper that sacrifice on this scale should be remembered,” he says. “Our debt of honour to the past has not yet been paid.” It will be properly discharged “only when people learn to resolve their differences peaceably”.

One by one, suited dignitaries lay wreaths in the heart of the memorial. The Gate is flanked by an expanse of sodden, scarlet poppies, a “Flanders Field” organised by the Royal British Legion. The famous lines from Laurence Binyon’s Ode to the Fallen – “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning / We will remember them” – are written on the petals, with messages of support on the back. “May we never forget your sacrifice and hope that men soon cease to wage war,” a typical one reads.

Back at the St George’s Church Hall, the British veterans are tucking into post-parade beers. The room is filled with a strong sense of British decency and dignity. Most veterans see remembrance at Ypres as an essential way of honouring both those who have served this country and those who serve in distant wars today. “To us as ex-servicemen, Ypres is where the whole tradition of remembrance begins,” says Eddie Hefferman, a trustee of the Royal British Legion.

Yet one can wonder where, if anywhere, remembrance takes us, beyond the simple honouring of the war dead. Siegfried Sassoon despised the Menin Gate and what it represented. “Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime / Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime,” he wrote.

Another veteran in the church hall admits he has “mixed feelings” about remembrance. “You see people laying wreaths while our soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We just never seem to learn. I don’t think we’re doing enough to frighten the younger generation away from war.”

Remembrance alone can never curb man’s instinct for war. It is as inherent as his need to defecate. Without memory, though, we would be even worse at restraining this primeval urge to fight. One takes away a sense of “never again” defiance, however futile, from the many memorials and oceans of white headstones in Flanders. Perhaps, as Benoît Mottrie suggests, collective remembrance becomes more, rather than less, important as those who fought in the Great War pass away.

Several miles north-east of Ypres, Tyne Cot Cemetery marks the final resting place of a further 35,000 British and New Zealand soldiers, most of them killed in the nightmarish Passchendaele Offensive around Ypres. One of the headstones is particularly striking. It belongs to Second-Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, killed on 16 August, 1917, at the age of 26. He was, says the inscription, “sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war”.

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» What history tells us when Greeks burn with rage

It is sad and strange to watch Greece go up in flames. Particularly from Baghdad, where Iraqis, daring to believe that the worst is finally over after five nightmarish years, struggle to understand why Greeks are setting their country alight.

“We don’t know why they are doing this,” my friend Hussam said while we were watching the news last night. “They have everything. They have democracy, human rights and a good economy, but still they are destroying their country.” Put aside for a moment the irony of an Iraqi commenting on civil strife and bloodshed in a Western democracy. Part of that analysis is spot on. For many onlookers from the developing world, Greece has it all. An admirable standard of living, a decent economy, a shipping industry that is the envy of the world, a sybaritic climate and celebrated cuisine, membership of the EU and precious few enemies.

One thing missing from the Iraqi analysis, however, is a sense of history. As is so often the case with events in Greece, we’ve been here before.

Athens first went up in smoke in 480BC, when the Persian army of Great King Xerxes, King of Kings, Lord of Light, fresh from what would prove a pyrrhic victory over King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, thundered south across the plains of Attica and put the city to the sword, then to the fire. The Acropolis was burnt, the 5th-centuryBC Greek historian Herodotus recording the damage to the defining symbol of Athens, “which the Persian fire had scorched”. As Tom Holland writes in his history of the Persian Wars: “The great storehouse of Athenian memories, accumulated over centuries – the city’s very past – was wiped out in a couple of hours.” Greek protesters are doing their best to wipe out a lot more this time. The thing about the Greeks – proud democrats that they are – is that they strike and take to the streets at the drop of a hat. Take the annual November 17 march, ostensibly in memory of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta of George Papadopoulos. Few outsiders recall that the confrontation, which led to more than 20 deaths, started with a strike. Only in Greece could students strike. With the self-dramatising flamboyance of youth, they called themselves the “Free Besieged”, in honour of the poem of the same name written by the 19th-century

Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos, a tribute to the Siege of Missolonghi, cornerstone of the Greek fight for independence.

The student strike rapidly grew into a tense stand-off until the tanks rolled in and bloodshed ensued. The confrontation set in motion a series of events that led, via the calamitous Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, to the collapse of the junta, the return of a former Prime Minister,

Constantine Karamanlis, and parliamentary elections later that year. Democracy was restored.

Karamanlis, incidentally, was the uncle of the current Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis. The political class likes to keep it in the family.

At times, Greek democracy appears to consist of little more than the Karamanlis and Mitsotakis dynasties taking it in turns to hold power.

This, together with the corruption that tends to follow in its wake, is one of the country’s enduring problems.

The November 17 march offers some powerful insights into the violence of the past week. Join the demonstration, as I did a couple of years ago, and it doesn’t take long to realise that it is just as much an anti-American, anti-capitalism protest as a commemoration of the student uprising. Surrounded by thugs with motorbike helmets under their arms and cudgels disguised as flags, we snaked through Athens until reaching the American Embassy when the rioters donned their helmets, hurled petrol bombs and charged the lines of riot police. Within moments the streets were full of teargas and broken glass. Anarchy is an essential component of Greek democracy.

Kostas Karamanlis might regard the protesters as “enemies of democracy”, but those on the streets consider it their fundamental democratic right to run amok.

Ask students why they march – and strike – today and they tell you that it’s for “bread, freedom and democracy”.

I remember one young woman telling me that Greek students were starving. The Government was forcing them to pay for their studies, and they now had to find work to support their studies. To say that they lacked a bit of get-upand-go was an understatement. Haven’t they heard of holiday jobs? The students had been on strike for months, occupying universities and refusing to let anyone in. High-school students caught the strike bug and joined in, too. It was a free-for-all for Greek lazies, not unlike the current student-led spectacle.

One aspect of my Iraqi friend’s analysis of the Greek riots is off the mark. It is no coincidence that the violence ripping across the world’s oldest democracy is happening at a time when the economy is in the doldrums and youth unemployment is extremely high. Instinctively anti- American as a nation, Greece has had little appetite for globalisation. A large number of Greeks are fundamentally anti-business, among them the hardcore of several hundred anarchists in Athens. The current confrontation can be viewed at one level as a contest between a deeply unpopular, reforming government and defenders of the status quo. In the flames and carnage convulsing the nation there are shades of the unrest that occurred in Britain when Margaret Thatcher took on the miners. Greek unions, for now at least, are strong.

One wonders what the astute Herodotus would have made of the mayhem. Perhaps he would have considered it as nemesis arising from the hubris of the political class. In which case, we must hope, just like the Ancient Greeks, that catharsis is just around the corner. 6 Justin Marozzi is author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, published by John Murray

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» The Italians know how to party in a war zone

Justin Marozzi finds time to salsa amid the sirens and window-rattling helicopters of Baghdad…

Plenty of interrupted nights in Baghdad this week. I’ve been startled out of sleep by early-morning prayers from a nearby mosque, wailing police sirens, window-rattling Black Hawk helicopters thundering overhead and volleys of gunfire from the shooting range. It could be worse. Last summer it was mortars, the one before that car bombs – one threw me out of bed – so on a sliding scale of violence things are definitely looking up. It also makes a change from waking up to Jim Naughtie on the Today programme.

*Having spent the past five years travelling around the ancient world with Herodotus, researching The Man Who Invented History, I have become slightly obsessive-compulsive about him, to the point where it is now difficult not to spot echoes of the great man everywhere, especially in Iraq. His warnings against imperial overstretch, the caution that hubris invariably leads to nemesis, his call to respect other people’s customs, traditions and religion, and the portrait of a clash of civilisations between East and West all have a powerful resonance here.

He even has something instructive to say about the financial crisis. “Often enough God gives man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.” Hedge-fund types take note.

*On Tuesday, switching from travel writer to security consultant, I nip into town to speak to some Baghdadi businessmen. The security situation has improved beyond recognition post-surge but it’s still a good adrenaline boost. The streets bristle with moustachioed policemen and soldiers, and checkpoints every few hundred yards. Traffic is often at a standstill and you can’t help wondering whether you’re going to be blown up. Amazing that many people here still refer to

the Red Zone. How about calling

it Iraq?

*Thursday night is Pizza Party at the Italian embassy. My Italian cousins lend a burst of colour and glamour to an otherwise drab world of concrete blast walls, khakis and beige cargo pants, sorry, trousers. Needless to say, they also have the best uniforms. Goateed carabinieri strut around in black summer kit with red piping (paramilitary chic, brought to you by Giorgio Armani), gazed at by hopelessly smitten young women from the State Department. The DJ plays thumping salsa. Then the Italian peacocks take their pick of the prettiest girls and hit the dance-floor. They may not be the most formidable soldiers in the world but the Italians know how to party in a war zone.

*Or should that be post-conflict environment? Assessing where Iraq is these days remains as intensely political as the decision to go to war. If you opposed the conflict, it’s all disaster – Iraq is doomed to a downward spiral of sectarian fighting and disintegration. If you were an ardent supporter, the surge has worked wonders and Iraq is now a bastion of freedom and the biggest commercial opportunity in the world.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’, published by
John Murray.

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» Panic at the Palace

It’s difficult to be a peacekeeping force when there’s no peace to keep. It’s difficult when the international community promises you 26,000 peacekeepers, then struggles to give you 10,000. It’s difficult to make much progress when the number of rebel movements involved in the conflict has risen from a handful to more than 30 in the space of two years. And it’s especially difficult to succeed when government militias take it upon themselves to start killing your peacekeepers.

These are the unenviable challenges facing Unamid, the joint United Nations-African Union force charged with bringing peace to Darfur. Created by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 a year ago, Unamid is somehow expected to end a conflict that has lasted almost as long as the Second World War, killed as many as 300,000, according to the UN (10,000 if you prefer the Sudanese government’s estimate), and displaced around 2.5m people, a third of Darfur’s population. Rarely have expectations and realistic possibilities been so ill-matched.

Under the leadership of Rodolphe Adada, former foreign minister of the Republic of Congo, and its Nigerian force commander General Martin Luther Agwai, Unamid is doing a manful job. I spent three months assisting the mission as a communications adviser this summer and saw at first hand the brave work being done in virtually impossible circumstances. With a force of only 10,000 and no armed helicopters it’s hard to protect six million people spread across an area the size of France. One of Unamid’s simplest yet most important tasks is conducting daily firewood patrols, during which peacekeepers escort Darfurian women gathering fuel to cook meals for their families. The patrols are needed to provide security to the women who are otherwise at the mercy of militiamen who rape them with impunity. Ask the Sudanese government about the use of rape as official policy and they’ll tell you it’s a Western invention unknown to Sudan.

Khartoum does a nice line in Doublespeak. On July 8, seven Unamid peacekeepers from Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana were killed in a vicious ambush, the mission’s worst loss of life in its six months. The attack bore the hallmarks of a well-organised Janjaweed attack. In New York, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN’s outgoing head of peacekeeping, pointed the finger at Khartoum. A couple of weeks later, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir suddenly popped up in El Fasher, Darfur. “We want to send this message to the world: we are the people of peace, we want peace . . . we are the only ones who can achieve peace in Darfur,” he told the usual rent-a-mob gathering.More empty words, you might reasonably think. The assurances of Khartoum, which has spent the past five years denying a hand in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur, do not count for much. Yet for the first time in several years, there is real hope in the air and it has nothing to do with Unamid.

On July 14, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, formally accused the Sudanese president of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Although the announcement had been widely anticipated, it still stunned the political establishment.

Few doubt that Moreno Ocampo has blown a gust of fresh air into the suffocating world of Sudanese politics. Many commentators fear the decision will wreck any chances of peace, failing to note that there is no peace process to spoil. With his back to the wall, there is no accounting what Bashir might do, they argue, ignoring the fact that he has had carte blanche to do what he likes in Darfur since 2003. In fact, although it is early days, the fallout from the ICC’s landmark move towards the indictment of Bashir looks positive. A friend with access to the highest levels of the regime reports unprecedented conversations at the presidential palace.

“The government’s in meltdown,” he reports. “They just didn’t think it would ever happen. They can’t believe it. The four or five people who run Sudan are now saying to Bashir, look where your policies have got us. They’re telling him, you can go to your rallies and demonstrations, you can shake your fist and rattle your walking stick, but you shut the hell up.” And strange to say, Bashir has been unusually quiet. The men in khaki are said to be furious with him. When the Darfur-based rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched a bold attack on Khartoum in May, the president initially refrained from using the heavily Darfurian army to defend the capital, preferring the supposedly more dependable state security agencies. JEM came closer than most realise to toppling the government until the army stepped in with tanks and the airforce.

Now a national cross-party committee has been created to address the Darfur issue and end the conflict. Bashir has suddenly rediscovered an interest in Darfur, promising security, schools, roads and water. Window-dressing while the ICC judges ponder Moreno Ocampo’s evidence? Quite possibly, but these are suddenly interesting times. “There’s going to be a real push now for peace,” my palace mole reports. “Bashir’s got nothing to lose.”

Far from emboldening the Sudanese president and destroying a peace process that doesn’t exist, in other words, the ICC’s potential indictment may have been the best news for Darfur in years. Sudan watchers wonder whether Khartoum will finally ditch the president, who came to power in a 1989 coup, noting that the regime dropped the Islamic ideologue Hassan al-Turabi in the late Nineties in a bid to end its international isolation. Turabi, they note, was a far more important figure to the ruling National Congress Party then than Bashir is today.

Unamid’s dangerous and daunting mission in Darfur will continue but the real chance for peace lies in Khartoum. If Bashir the alleged war criminal is unable or unwilling to take it, he may find his time in charge runs out sooner than he’d like.

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» Monty Python’s guide to the Darfur conflict

The genocide publicised by movie stars is over, says Justin Marozzi. What must now be resolved is a civil war with unlimited breakaway factions – and Hollywood cannot help…

It wasn’t the gleaming black helicopter parked on Second Avenue that raised eyebrows. New Yorkers barely blink at such a routine form of transport.

No, passersby were more taken by the improbable banner hanging from its tail: ‘SEND ME TO DARFUR’.

Last week’s publicity stunt in Manhattan, in which a Robinson R44 helicopter was symbolically presented to the United Nations, was organised by the Save Darfur Coalition, the organisation that has done more than any other to keep the issue of Darfur alive. The event marked the first anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1769, which created the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission Unamid, and coincided with a report revealing how the international community has betrayed it by failing to provide the manpower and materiel it needs.

The Darfur lobby has heavyweight support.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter and Graça Machel, among others, have all supported this latest report, endorsed by more than 30 human rights groups, think tanks and NGOs, including the ubiquitous Save Darfur Coalition.

George Clooney, the most bankable Hollywood star of his generation, is also big on Darfur. ‘Many governments have offered expressions of concern, but few have offered the most basic tools necessary to keep civilians safe and for peacekeepers to do their job, ‘ he says. ‘It is time for governments to put their helicopters where their mouths are.’ He’s quite right. Unamid needs helicopters, not to mention another 16,000 peacekeepers.

The failure of the international community to live up to its promises is shameful. The problem is, Darfur has become an emotive campaign in which awkward truths – not least that the genocide is over – have become hostage to a more superficially exciting story.

There are few causes more hip than Darfur these days. Darfur is to the Noughties what HIV was to the Eighties and rainforests were to the Nineties. Inevitably, Hollywood is in on the act, adding its inimitable mélange of glamour, outrage and oversimplification.

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg, having warned the Chinese president of his concern over the government of Sudan’s policy in Darfur ‘which is best described as genocide’, withdrew as an artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics. Apart from Clooney, other stars such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Bono and Mia Farrow have all made commendable efforts to draw the world’s attention to Darfur, publicising a stark and heart-rending narrative. The problem is, the narrative they are peddling is five years old.

The conflict has moved on.

The mass slaughter took place in 2003-2004, when the conflict was superficially explained as Arab nomad versus black African farmer, a fight for land and water. This was when we first heard about the Janjaweed, the governmentsupported assassins on horseback responsible for the killings, burnings and rapes. The UN has estimated that 300,000 Darfurians may have died as a result of the conflict. Khartoum claims an implausible 10,000.

The relative simplicity of those days has long gone. In 2006, there were two main rebel movements sitting at the negotiating table in Abuja: the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM). Today, in a development wearily familiar to Monty Python fans (think all-out fight between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front and the Romans), they have split into as many as 30.

Take your pick from SLM-Minni, SLMUnity, SLM-Mother, SLM-Free Will, SLMPeace, the United Revolutionary Front, JEM, JEM-Peace, JEM-Unity, to name only the better known. Apart from government versus rebels, the conflict now pits Arab versus Arab, African versus African, rebel versus rebel, bandits versus civilians and aid workers, Janjaweed versus peacekeepers, Sudan versus Chad. In short, the rebels have become a major part of the problem, but Hollywood and the Darfur lobby don’t seem to have caught on. Their story is a lot simpler: nasty government versus good-guy rebels.

Given that we live in an age when information has never been so readily and widely available, the level of misinformation about Darfur in 2008 is little short of extraordinary. When I met the correspondent of a highly respected American newspaper during a three-month stint in Khartoum and Darfur this summer, I was amazed when he told me his editor had asked him blithely to ‘Give us an update on how the genocide is going’. The Save Darfur Coalition homepage includes a button asking ‘Is your mutual fund funding genocide?’ The question is posed by Divest for Darfur, a campaign targeting ‘companies that help fund genocide in Darfur’. No one appears to have told any of these people that the genocide is over. What remains is a highly complicated, extremely brutal, low-intensity civil war.

It is arguable that rather than help end this hideous conflict, groups like the Save Darfur Coalition and GenocideInDarfur. net (‘Learn How YOU Can STOP the Violence Complete Anti-Genocide Directory’) have unwittingly helped prolong it.

The exclusive focus on bashing the government has emboldened the rebels, encouraging them to keep up the fight and shun the negotiating table. The peace process, as a result, has collapsed. Though uncontroversial among seasoned Sudan watchers, such a view is politically incorrect in the West, where the debate has been held in the shadows of a glossy campaign long on sentiment and outrage, short on measured analysis.

As Julie Flint, co-author of Darfur: A New History of a Long War, writes on the excellent blog Making Sense of Darfur, ‘In the current hyper-moralized debate over Sudan, anyone who questions Sudan’s critics risks being called an apologist for Khartoum.’ You don’t have to be a fan of Khartoum to ask whether Hollywood has got it wrong.

Personally, I think the government of President Omar al Bashir stinks. I watched a Sudanese official from the infamous Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) respond to charges that rape has been used as official policy by saying that rape was a Western concept. HAC falls under the brief of Ahmed Harun, minister of state for humanitarian affairs. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Harun on 42 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In June, I listened to the straight-faced governor of North Darfur tell a visiting Security Council delegation to Al Fasher that the humanitarian situation was ‘very stable’. Never mind about the additional 150,000 refugees created in the first four months of 2008. Forget the World Food Programme having to cut by 50 per cent its food distribution to refugees because of the deteriorating security situation. It was all a Western conspiracy against Sudan.

Although the Darfur lobby has run one of the slickest media campaigns of modern times, there is a chance, however slim, that the ICC prosecutor’s move last month to indict the Sudanese president for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide will succeed where several years of Hollywood-led advocacy has failed. Reports from Khartoum indicate that with his back to the wall, the president may throw himself into finding a solution to this intractable conflict to stave off a full-blown indictment. Weirdly, against all the odds, it may yet be Bashir, the would-be war criminal, who brings peace to Darfur.

Incidentally, the Robinson R44 helicopter would be completely useless in Darfur. Unamid needs gunships, not four-seater civilian runarounds, but don’t let the facts spoil a good Hollywood drama.

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