The situation in Darfur is as dire as ever. As the New York Times reported Wednesday, there has been a drying up of the aid money that has maintained refugee camps and critical medical services for over 2.5 million people who have been chased out of their villages and farms over the past three years. The conflict began when a 2003 separatist insurgency in the Darfur region was brutally suppressed by Khartoum and government-backed Arab militias, called Janjaweed, resulting in the deaths of at least 200,000 people, and perhaps as many as 450,000. The raping and pillaging has mostly ended, and now the problem is a humanitarian one, with hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfurians dying of malnutrition and disease.
This, in spite of the fact that a peace accord was signed earlier this month between the Sudanese government and the largest of the three Darfur rebel groups. It’s partly the recalcitrance of the other two rebel groups — and fighting between them — that has kept the refugees from seeing any real benefit from the accords or from being allowed to go back home.
The other day on the op-ed page of the New York Times one Allan J. Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas, argued that there is a reason why the remaining rebels won’t sign, why the conflict won’t come to any kind of resolution: it’s the fault of the bleeding hearts in West, the media included.
In his piece, provocatively titled, “Strategic Victimhood in Sudan,” Kuperman blames what he calls the “Save Darfur movement” for inadvertently prolonging the conflict by depicting the rebel groups opposing the Sudanese government as romantic “freedom fighters.” The support this has given the rebels makes it less likely that they will sue for peace. As long as they feel they have the Western media on their side, his logic goes, why should they settle for anything less than the full political autonomy and financial control they desire?
Kuperman writes that the government’s incredible atrocities against the Darfurians have caused us all to lose perspective and that, “Darfur was never the simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations.” His argument rests on the idea that the rebels, though not as bad as the Sudanese government and its death squads, are not exactly choirboys themselves, and are increasingly the source of the problem in Darfur. But they continue to be represented as heroic figures in the West, he claims, and this is making it difficult to bring the conflict and its ramifications to any kind of closure.
But is it true that the media is being soft on the rebels?
Certainly in a situation like genocide, where images of people dying overwhelm all the other complexities, it wouldn’t be surprising if the group claiming to defend the victims got a free pass. (This is what happened in Rwanda in1994 when the press largely glorified Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front.)
But a look at the Times’ own coverage of the rebels during the last month, mostly by the West Africa bureau chief Lydia Polgreen, shows that, if anything, the rebels have been painted in an increasingly negative light. Look, for example, at what Polgreen wrote on May 19 in an article headlined, “Violent Rebel Rift Adds Layer to Darfur’s Misery” (unfortunately this article and all those mentioned below are behind the pay wall): “The carnage in Darfur, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives, has often been described as a fight between Arabs and Africans, or a battle between herders and farmers. But neither characterization captures the complexity of the ethnic, social and economic tensions in the region that have fueled the new hostilities between the rebels.” She even went so far as to note that “the tactics of the rebels have grown so similar to those of their enemies that an attack on this dusty village on April 19 bore all the marks of the brutal assault that first forced its people to flee their homes three years ago. Soldiers in uniform, backed by men toting machine guns on camels, flooded the village, burning huts, shooting, looting and raping.”