Tinea's Reviews > Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

Darfur by Julie Flint
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's review
Feb 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: colonialism-imperialism-war, place

In the predominantly Kobe village of Girgira close to the Chad border, local people said that Antonovs, gunships, troops, and militia from West Darfur killed 148 people in January 2004. [the quote relates the story of one woman who was held and raped for 7 days, whose handicapped brother was shot and his body tied to hers, and who was lit on fire. She eventually died of burns in a hospital after telling her story.] In Girgira, Cox [a journalist] found five freshly dug graves 3 meters long and 2 wide. Decomposing bodies were piled on top of each other, with loose earth tossed over them. Grain stores, the village school, and mosque had all been burned. Almost every mud hut was destroyed. Cox was struck by the attackers' 'attention to detail.' 'Many hundreds of cooking bowls and utensils were littered around-- they all had a bullet put through them, rendering them useless,' he said. 'This was not just a frenzy of murder. Time had been taken to target the things that would be needed for survival.' [p. 133-4]

This book surveys of the history and stakeholders at play and then provides in-depth coverage of the 2002-2007 or so height of the Darfur conflict. Darfur: A New History of a Long War is the most definitive political history of the recent Darfur conflict available, as far as I know.

I should have read this book with a large piece of paper and markers at hand, to create a visual of events and their corresponding feedback loops. Flint and De Waal include a timeline at the end of the book and a glossary of people, but those two references plus a map are not nearly enough to wrap ones head around the extreme complexity of the Darfur situation. At once and interacting, in Darfur there are at play physical and diplomatic wars between nations from the US to Eritrea; there are civil wars between North and South Sudan and the active Chad rebel movements' stronghold; there are Arab supremacist intellectual groups; there are UN troops, African Union troops, and of course Sudanese government troops who fight at times alongside & provide airstrikes for and at times directly combat the 'Janjawiid' local Arab militias; there are multiple Black African rebellion movements along political sectarian lines, ethnic lines, geographic lines, and various backdoor deals; and there are villages at times uniting across all of those lines to bring local peace as well as the dire, brutal resource wars between people of the same locales which seems to be the root and sustainer of everything.

The book is incredibly, exhaustively good for what it is, but it is only what it is-- a political history-- and there are also some huge perspectives of inquiry that the books ignores completely. Which is ok; what they do give is dense and succinct and masterful. But readers need to be conscious of what distinct part of the story they are getting. Flint and de Waal focus on leaders, politicians, and the military to narrate the sweeping, overarching events. While they record a few quotes from villagers who survived conflict, they do not adequately represent the voices or experiences of the targets of violence. Particularly absent is women. For a war in which rape and sexualized violence was used commonly and barbarically as a method of torture and a spoils of war, the absence of women and survivors' opinions, conclusions, and experiences is kind of glaring. A villager-centered, women-centered, and survivor-centered history (and peace process!) must exist (even if it doesn't yet...). This is not that story. But studying this book will help me understand some of the many dynamics at play when/if I find it.

Note that because of this marginalization of conflict victims, when the story does turn to them, it is incredibly jarring. Flint and de Waal will go dozens of pages discussing militia movements and political machinations when suddenly they'll drop a horrifying dose of casual torture mid-paragraph-- a child who was doused in boiling water in front of his mother, a group of women enslaved for sex and cooking and 'housework' for weeks, men hogtied and hung from trees, the impact of tactical starvation of particular regions and peoples. Because the authors focused on leaders and big figures who are mostly immune to the violence, the examples the authors do give feel out of context, inexplicable, and insane. I don't doubt that they are insane, but there's also a logic dictating the depth of brutality, and an explanation of that logic is another important absence in this book.

And finally, just a note that I picked this book up as a peripheral read while I interviewed for a post in South Sudan, and while I was reading it I was notified that I was being considered for a different post near Darfur. Neither panned out, but as I'm still pushing forward with this humanitarian aidwork job search process, it was pretty intense & important to read this at this time.

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