The Shadow of Darfur

Few people would dare to question the motives of people that dedicate their lives to human interests. Whether self serving or selfless, it seems reasonable to find value in these services rather than condemn them because of hidden agendas. After all, would you scold someone who just saved your life just because CNN wanted to interview them after? In the book “That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity” the author, James Dawes, goes to war with many groups involved in speaking the unspeakable.  While Dawes provokes a great deal of thought and empathy, I find his dim view of humanitarian aid workers difficult to digest. For example, in chapter 2 of his book, Dawes criticizes the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) for their selection process regarding refugees who will be allowed to permanently relocate in various countries. Dawes feels, and understandably so, that it seems unfair to turn away thousands of people still in need of serious help. He continues by setting his sites on the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) belittling them for their “luxurious” accommodations and referring to them as “placid vacationers.”[1] Given the efforts by thousands to aid the shadow cast over Darfur, Dawes may have to reconsider his assertions. Dawes problem with aid workers includes poor results, unfit emotional attachment, and selfish pursuits. Although Dawes makes these claims with plenty of anecdotal evidence, he seems to miss the bigger picture by focusing too much on this circumstantial support. By using the tragic situation in as Darfur my main evidence, I intend to show that these brave men and women are to be commended for their efforts, not questioned by a man who offers more criticism than solution.

A Little Background

Darfur is a region in Sudan, Africa about the size of Texas. It is home to about six million inhabitants mostly composed racially mixed tribes of African farmers and Arab nomadic herders. Despite being a rich land of many natural resources, Darfur is one of the most impoverished places in the entire world.  Originally controlled by Britain in the early 1900’s the people of Darfur were faced with education limitations imposed by the British government for fear of an up rise. After gaining independence in 1956, natives struggled to close the economic gap left by the British. By the 21st century, things only worsened for the people as they fell further behind as the rest of the world made major technological leaps. In 1985, Libya came to the aid  of Sudan by delivering food and supplies , mostly to natives of Arab ethnicity.(2)

The following year Sadiq al-Mahdi was elected to lead Sudan. Al-Mahdi’s reign is mostly known for his desire to form an Arab Islamic union.(2) This series of events set the stage for what began as a rebellion in 2003 against the Khartoum government led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Frustrated by their poverty and neglect from their government, two African agriculturist groups violently rebelled killing hundreds of Khartoum troops. Eight years later, the ethnically “African” are still paying the ultimate price. The numbers are staggering, the pictures horrifying, and the people desperate. Since the attack in 2003, 400,000 innocent civilians are estimated to be dead, almost 3,000,000 displaced and 3,300 villages destroyed. To the right, you see a picture of two children at a refugee camp outside Darfur, likely in Chad. Malnutrition is immediately apparent of the girl standing in the door way. Secondly, you’ll notice the lack of other basic necessities, including clothes, for these two individuals. According to the photographer, Colin Findlay, these two individuals aren’t kin, just two refugees who arrived at the refugee camp with no remaining family. Looking closely, you notice both children are wearing white wristbands indicating that they were, at the time, receiving medical treatment.(3) Sadly, this is a very common sight, even with the immense about of human rights aid that has already been provided. The group that has been carrying out the attack, the Janaweed militia, has systematically destroyed village after village, complete with murdering of the men in the village and rape of both women and children. Starvation and malnutrition is rampant among the survivors, particularly infants and children. Despite the opposition by the Sudanese government, human interest groups have stepped up efforts to help a destitute people. As staggering as the pictures such as the one above are, imagine what they would like like without the help and resources of those willing to help.

Early Success

Imagine for a second, being put in a situation where the very decisions you make directly lead to who lives and who dies. Furthermore, you are forced to see those decisions played out in the lives of others and the negative (or positive) effects they can have. One criticism made by James Dawes in his afore mentioned book was that human rights workers typically only do such for the personal gratification. Often times, these workers were forced to refuse refugees to protect refugees they have already taken in. Limited resources and supplies forced medics to make difficult, unwanted decisions. This timeline provides a framework for how quickly the disaster in Darfur developed. March 2003 marks the beginning of the conflict as ethnically African rebels attacked the Khartoum government in response to their neglect. A mere nine months later, in December 2003, refugee camps established by human interest groups supported well over 100,000 refugees that fled to Chad, which is also in Sudan, directly adjacent to Darfur.

By March 2004, less than a year after the response by the Khartoum government to the rebel attacks, the UN declared Darfur the worst humanitarian situation in the world. Continuing in to June, UN officials say that one of every five children in Darfur is malnourished or may have one of several diseases. Pictured on the left, you see a mother clinging to her baby who is obviously a victim of malnutrition.  Although many groups pour millions of dollars of resources to help displaced victims, many still go without daily necessities. Further, notice the condition of the camps such as this. People gather in the enclosed walls with no real place to go, all while dealing with unsuitable living conditions. Less than a month later, aid organizations, overwhelmed with refugees, warn of deteriorating facilities due to poor weather and unsuitable conditions. Less than one month later, conditions had deteriorate so much that the World Health Organization suggests around 70,000 displaced have died, excluding anyone killed in the ongoing violence, and anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 were dying every month.(4) Its impossible to paint a picture describing the responsibilities of these human rights organizations without the context of the frequent problems they were faced with. Overcrowding, insufficient supplies, and difficult weather are only one aspect of the difficulties faced by several groups. Increased hostility began to lead to threats of violence towards aid workers from the Janjaweed. Dec 14th, 2004, 2 aid workers for Save the Children are killed when their Envoy comes under attack on the way to their camp.(5) As a result of the attack, Save the Children, a premier aid organization, was forced to withdrawal all support claiming that the area was becoming more unsettled than ever. March 2005, up to 350,000 are estimated dead strictly to malnutrition, again excluding deaths due to on going violence. (4) As the year continues, reports of violent outburst directed aid workers  force the UN to for the removal of several aid organizations until Darfur can be further settled. Below on the left you’ll see a map of the Sudan area describing locations of both IDP (internally displaced persons) and refugee camps and their relative size. For a link to this map, click here. Chad, as you can see from the map, is host to hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees with camps as large as 80,000 people. Pictured on the bottom, captured by Mike Knobil, is an aerial shot of an unspecified camp on March 29th 2005, during the height of the tensions.(6) Again, notice the quality of facilities these refugee camps offer. With little more than tents, a few medical supplies, and bags of food, thousands trust their life to what is too few aid workers. Finally, drawl your attention to the top right and you’ll see a medic from “Doctors without Borders” tending to an injured infant. It’s difficult to see, but looking closely, you’ll notice heavy bags under the eyes of the medic. Looking in the background of the picture, notice the mother with another small child. Another interesting piece of this picture is the equipment being used, or lack there of. Aid workers, just as the one pictured here, often must also deal with difficult conditions, little to no sleep, poor funding and many other issues. This picture was taken in March of 2009 during a meningitis outbreak that medics were attempting to treat. (7)

Angry Precedents

As the situation continued escalated in Darfur and national media attention continued to grow, so too did the scrutiny of many government entities. Below is a picture of the type of carnage cause of the Janjaweed militia.(8) This once standing town in Darfur has been reduced to little more than ash and bone. Several picture such as this remain as the only legacy of what was once the livelihood of thousands of families.

In 2004, the United States government under George W. Bush declared the acts by the Sudanese government to be genocidal. This marks the first time in history that a government body has declared acts of atrocity as genocide as the genocide was still being carried out. Several times from 2004-2009 have several parties tried to mediate the crisis in Darfur. Despite several sanctions from the United Nations beginning in 2004, Omar Hassan al-Bashir continually denies ties to the janjaweed militia. Despite increased financial support, many aid groups have been unable to provide proper support due to threats, violence, and false cease-fires. Countless stories have surfaced about aid workers being kidnappedkilled, and harassed. The linked CNN article suggests cases in which Sudanese government officials began collecting banking records, confiscating personal computers, and even vehicles. Tensions continued to build between the UN and Omar Hassan al-Bashir until March 4th, 2009 when the International Crimes Committee issued an arrest warrant for his crimes against humanity, although no further action has yet been taken. (9) This also represents the first time a seated official has been charged by the ICC while still maintaining office. Al-Bashir responded by ejecting an estimated 16 different agencies representing about 40% of the support being provided in Darfur. Despite pleads from groups such as UNICEF, the Sudanese government continues to limit the amount of support allowed both in Darfur and local refugee camps. The Human Right Watch states the potential implications of such a harsh decision by the Khartoum government.

Interest Groups get Creative

As I began on the difficult task of chronicling the tragic events in Darfur, I was overwhelmed with the amount of pictures, information, news stories, and effort that people poured in to improving the situation in Darfur. The frustration that many were feeling because of the limited access in Darfur was also very clear. As I began to think about that idea, and I began to search for pictures of the perpetrators, it also quickly became clear that these pictures were not as readily available as I had expected. After all, we live in an age where everything is instant and there is always someone watching. How then could it be, that finding more pictures of the Janjaweed was so difficult? I can only conclude first, that access to the helpless people in Darfur is every bit as bad as many stories suggest. Often times when aid workers arrive, so to do reports, journalists, certainly people with a vested interest in documenting the attacks of not only Darfur, but also the refugee camps in Chad. Secondly, I think it speaks to the poverty that was already a rampant issue in the area. This perfect storm of disaster has forced aid groups to be more creative then ever. As I continued my research, several projects caught my one. Eyes on Darfur is an interesting project started by Amnesty International. Via aerial shots, Eyes on Darfur shows before and after pictures of several villages that have been destroyed. Others show empty desert area that turn in to over croweded refugee camps over night. Similarly, the United States Holocaust Museum has partnered with Google Earth to further show the effect the Khartoum government has had on thousands of villages. “No one who sees these pictures can doubt that genocide is the only word for what is happening in Darfur-and that we have a moral obligation to stop it.”George W. Bush’s speech at the United States Holocaust Museum in 2007. Attention has spread so much it has even drawn the attention of several high profile people. George Clooney, a known human rights activist has visited Darfur several times in addition to founding Not on Our Watch, a human rights group dedicated to putting an end to mass atrocities. Clooney himself has been arrested as recently as 2011 for protesting the lack of progress in Darfur. Save Darfur is another organization that is well known for their action. On their website you can find links to donate, write to your local congressman expressing concerns, and much more. Many obstacles still stand in the way of ultimate peace, including China’s firm stance against allowing others, including the UN intervene as the situation demands.


Hindsight is always 20/20.  The ability to look in to the past and critique and create it is one thing that makes history so interesting.  Sometimes though, it can be difficult to understand without the proper context, which unfortunately can’t always be found. Historians, public, and scholars obsess over unlocking hidden mysteries of the past. Perhaps the most interesting thing about history though, is that is inevitability repeats itself. I always find it interesting when people scoff at past events and claim them as barbarism, ignorant of what is a sad reality in Darfur. What will the overwhelming amount of information, particularly photographic say about our generation? Fortunately, I think when the history books are written, and there is finally peace if Darfur, many positives will be remembered of the intense human effort that went in to preventing an even worse situation. Countries, organizations, and “ordinary people” have band together to make a difference in millions of people.  These pictures in particular tell a story of devastation, ruthlessness, and struggle. It also shows however, perhaps paradoxically, the human race and both its very worst and most despicable, yet very best.

  1. Dawes, James. That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.