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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.