Amnesty International recently reported that China and Russia are sending arms to Sudan, arms which will likely surface in the ravaged region of Darfur. Although countries have denied this, it is difficult to know whom to believe without good journalists on the spot. A special report from the Paris-based NGO Reporters without Borders says that journalists have to cover events from camps inside Chad because Sudanese authorities deny them access to Darfur. Paradoxically, they also acknowledge that 4,000 journalists were allowed into Sudan last year.
To know what is really going on in Sudan is made harder by poor infrastructure and obstruction from the Khartoum government. Even Reporters Without Borders admits that nothing is simple: "When reporting the worst atrocities, foreign journalists may sometimes offer a stereotyped image of Sudan focused solely on the suffering in Darfur, without taking account of the historical causes of the crisis or the solutions proposed by Sudanese civil society, whose very existence, diversity and commitment seem unknown to many of them. "
Two recent books go beyond the stereotypes. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, by Alex de Waal and Julie Flint, gives a comprehensive picture of Darfur's complex history. After independence an Arabisation process was enforced and the people were subjected to bureaucratic discrimination. It was the first attack of the janjaweed in February 2004, which, in three days of mayhem, changed the face of Darfur for ever.
Overseeing this operation was the militia leader Musa Hilal who, despite denying he was present, was recognised by many of the survivors. Hilal is also the leader of Tajamu al Arabi (Arab Gathering), which has roots in Libya and contact with intelligence and security leaders in other Arab countries. It claimed that the land between the Nile and Lake Chad must return to those who trace their lineage to the Prophet Mohamed; only they are the true custodians of Islam, and thus entitled to rule Muslim lands.
The same group, citing orders from the president of the republic, said in a communique: "You are informed that directives have been issued: …to change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes" through burning, looting and killing "of intellectuals and youths who may join the rebels in fighting." And with impunity. Through massacre, displacement and terror, and putting their own nominees in positions of authority over people and land, the Khartoum government has left a people who were once self-reliant into a dispossessed underclass, dependent on foreign charity and government diktat.
For the average Darfurian, this is worse than genocide. Based on a wide range of interviews and referring to many documents, the book has the ring of the authentic and believable.
The other book, I Am a Nuba, by Renato Sesana, a Comboni missionary and journalist, deals with an even more remote area of the Sudan, the Nuba mountains. The author travelled widely in the region, often at great risk, and spoke with Christians and Muslims, top brass of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and many survivors of what he terms as the genocide carried out there.
The Nuba have had a raw deal. In the 19th and early part of the 20th century they were favoured slave booty. In 1881, the recently canonised missionary Daniel Comboni himself went there, "to have a look at the Nuba people, ruined by slavery and 90 per cent destroyed", as he wrote shortly before he died. Geographically they are considered part of the North, but culturally they are southern blacks. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005 placed them in the North. This means they will not be allowed to vote whether to remain with the North or separate in 2011 — even though thousands of their men had given their lives to defend the rights of the South.
The Nuba region is also outside the limits agreed between the Khartoum government and the United Nations, where Operation Lifeline Sudan, a humanitarian organisation, can operate. Interesting bits of information like these are seldom picked up by the mainstream media.
Two journalists, writing for African Rights some years before the CPA, reported as follows: "If the Sudan government is allowed to apply its policies without being stopped for a year or two, the final balance will be thousands of Nuba killed… children separated from their parents and forced to change their identity… The survivors will not be identifiable as Nuba. Their culture will be annihilated."
A Nuba journalist, Stephen Amin Arrno, corroborates this. He explained that the Sudanese version of Islam, in its most intolerant form, clashes with African culture, does not respect it and wants to destroy it. This includes African Muslims, whom they consider too tolerant and unorthodox.
Comboni’s enthusiasm over the Nuba was shared by other missionaries of the time. Fatherr Carcereri reported that "their ruler is like the father of a family… He even earns his bread by working like everybody else. He does not impose taxes, has no court of law, no bodyguard and no standing army." Another missionary described them as genuine, particularly intelligent, hard-working, eager to teach others, sober, courageous, and with a strong sense of duty.
It is the personal stories that are the most memorable. Yousif Kuwa, the head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, who had invited the author to visit the Nuba, and his wife Fatuma, had four children, all of whom became Christians. Angelo, a Muslim, was thrown into prison by government forces who suspected that he was a Christian. He was not circumcised, and so was suspected of collaborating with the rebels. Owing to the kindness of the Christian prisoners who shared their food with him and helped him to escape, he went in search of a catechist the moment he was free.
One of the catechists in the book stands out: Gabriel. During a government commando raid to destroy crops and punish Christians, Gabriel was giving a class inside the church. He covered the flight of his catechumens and was captured. He acknowledged that he was a Christian. The soldiers tried binding him, to lock him inside the church and set it alight, but he was too strong for them. Fearing he might escape, they slit his throat and left his body on the ground outside the church. Gabriel is only one of many such heroes, whose names we may never know.
Whatever the number of those displaced, killed or starved to death, they are more than statistics; they are real people, with real stories. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War is somewhat detached. I Am A Nuba focuses on them as flesh and blood characters. But both fill in that tantalising gap left by the press reports and show Western readers what is really going on in Sudan.
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.