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  • Marc Miquel Helsen

Darfur: A Forgotten Story — Part II

BY Marc Miquel Helsen

Special to the Epoch Times, Jan 29, 2006

When most of us look back at the biggest newsmakers of 2005, a number of human tragedies are likely to come to mind: Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan, and the recovery efforts following the Tsunami in southeast Asia. But few are likely to point to the continued government-backed slaughter and widespread rape of the Darfuri people in Western Sudan.

Since 2003, the predominantly Arab Sudanese government has been enlisting the help of Arab Muslim militias (dubbed the Janjaweed) to terrorize—and some would say to exterminate—the Africans of Darfur. The Janjaweed have destroyed hundreds of villages, slaughtering the men and raping the women in an effort to wipe out the African blood lines. Food and aid supply lines have been cut off. As estimated 2 million people have been displaced, and the United Nations puts the number of dead at roughly 70,000.

So why have the thousands of deaths in Darfur failed to evoke the spirit of generosity that inspired so many people to empty their wallets in support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina or last year's tsunami? Why this game of favourites with the world's downtrodden?

Abdel Babker, a 27-year-old Darfuri refugee now living in Windsor, says the media are to blame.

"When you compare the coverage of Darfur to that of the tsunami there is clearly not enough coverage by the media. Not more than two minutes of news on what's happening in Sudan."

Others argue that there are indeed reporters (like Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail or Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post) who write about Darfur.

Yet if the magnitude of a tragedy is measured by the number of lives it claims, then the media coverage of Darfur, as compared to that of the Asian tsunami, has been grossly unequal.

Arli Klassen, social worker and executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee in Kitchener, says there are a couple reasons Darfur has failed to captivate global audiences.

"Refugees and displaced people in the Darfur region are faceless and nameless. It takes months, if not years, for refugees from a specific situation, to make it to Canada – through the red tape process ….Our government's preference is that they can return home. So, they live in refugee camps and displaced peoples camps, while their future remains so uncertain."

Secondly, Klassen says Darfur lacks a sense of proximity for Canadians. Because of the ongoing crises in Sudan, few Canadians have visited the region of Darfur. Asia, by comparison, has been a holiday hot spot for years. When images of the tsunami were broadcast incessantly on TV, Westerners saw their own relatives caught, both literally and symbolically, in the tragedy.

"People give if they can imagine themselves in a situation and how horrifying it would be. With few images, and few contacts with people and their stories, and without white tourists there, like in the tsunami stuff, there are few handles for North Americans to personally identify with these suffering people."

Compared to the thunderous waves that extinguished thousands of lives in a matter of hours, the conflict in Darfur has been a "slow moving tragedy." As a result, Darfur takes a back seat to other more "news worthy" stories.

"In many ways, this tragedy has less importance for some than a baseball, hockey or basketball game," says Wendy Gichuru, of the United Church of Canada. Gichuru is area secretary of East & Central Africa and The Middle East in the justice, global and ecumenical relations unit.

Behind western apathy, she says, is an ugly truth.

"Undoubtedly, racism plays a very large part in the western world's inability to personally connect with the situation of Darfuris," says Gichuru, "They're black and poor."

If the media in general are guilty of being unable to evoke sympathy for suffering Darfuris, they are also guilty of perpetuating a belief that Africa is a forgotten continent – an area beyond repair; that with the current socio-economic system whereby the developed countries profit off the lesser developed, Africa's hopeless predicament is in fact a reality.

Klassen disagrees and does so strongly.

"No it's not," says Klassen, her voice wavering. "It's not reality. But it needs a political will, and the interest and the will of people to be able to help make a difference."

The problem is that people don't want to hear about Africa.

"I don't think that the general public is actually looking for that," she says with a heavy sigh.

As long as the international community stands still as millions die by violence and disease the difference between "forgotten" and "ignored" is merely a question of semantics.

"You might say it doesn't matter because it's the same result. Regardless of whether it's forgotten or ignored. The media will produce what people want to hear and people don't want to hear about Africa."

There is a double edged sword to media coverage of the crisis in Darfur.

Despite good intentions, many express sensitivity to the way global media, especially western media, portray African issues.

Arli Klassen says the message of Africa as a failed "state" is transferred through the media's continuous casting and recasting of African stories as tragedies and conflicts. As a result, audiences are given the image of a homogenous continent unified by the single thread of conflict.

"The world seems to have written off the possibility of change and hope in the African context," says Klassen. "Somehow, the world thinks that Africa is a "black hole", in many definitions of that term, and that it is not worth investing in African relief or development, because it won't make much of a difference."

Wendy Gichuru agrees.

"The perception of the general public of Africa and Africans is that of pathetic beggars, incapable of pulling themselves out of their "self-created" tragic circumstances without the help of the West, "says Gichuru.

"I realize this may not be the intention. However, that is exactly what is being done with people's lives, stories and images. The daily struggles and the terrible conflicts happening in various African countries are 'sold' to the public via the media in the most negative, demeaning and dehumanizing ways. "

The positive stories, the success stories, never seem to make it beyond a country's own borders.

Klassen, who lived in Lesotho for four years, has seen the "good stories" up close. And there are many of them, she says. If only the world would notice.

"I think (telling) more success stories, or stories of people who keep trying in spite of incredible challenges, or of communities that are working, would be helpful," says Klassen.

Many who sympathize with Darfur regret that little if no distinction is ever made between the continent's more than fifty countries, its myriad ethnicities, languages, cultures and histories.

Faced with this startling ignorance on a regular basis, Abdel Babker shrugs his shoulders and confronts it with a sense of irony. "It makes me laugh when people think of Africa as a single country," he says with a wry smile. "Am I in the wrong place?" he laughs and his cousin Hashim joins in.

Abdel says he feels fortunate for not having being turned away, as others have, when he came as a refugee to the Canadian border. Compared to the many other countries he's lived in during his transient exile, Abdel says it's easier to integrate into the Canadian community than it is in other countries. Among his travels abroad, however, Abdel has also developed his own theories about the phenomenon of ignorance.

"In Ukraine you might even find someone who knows your place even better than you," he says.

"When I came to Canada I realized that many people, that all they know, is how to pay the bills and about one or two (foreign) issues. And that's because the media don't get involved. Everybody knew about the tsunami because the media covered it really well."

Despite this, Abdel says foreign reporters must intensify their coverage of the events in Darfur. Shedding cultural biases toward an entire continent is not done overnight, but the decision to deploy troops is. A military presence, sanctioned by the UN and the world's civilians cannot wait any longer.

"The reality is that there is a war going on down there; people are being raped and murdered," says Abdel. "The situation is negative and you can't write something positive right now about what's going on in Darfur. If the international community does not get involved..." he sighs, trailing off.

"We don't want to see another Rwanda."

Throughout the duration of this conversation, Hashim has moved a few things from one room to the other. He's also taken time to make tea, cook lunch, and take part in the conversation.

Though Hashim is less talkative than his cousin he also shares his stories of hardship. But when he talks about Darfur, the Darfur he knows from childhood, his eyes light up and a wistful smile spreads across his face.

"Marra mountain is the most beautiful place in all of Sudan," he says fondly. Abdel joins in and they make jokes about the region. Their region. Their country.

"We played there with our friends when we were young. We had a lot of things – water, vegetables, fruits – in the mountain," says Hashim.

"I want to go back when I finish school."


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