Our Geographical Blindspot

The concept of progress is to be grounded in the Idea of the catastrophe. That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.

­ Walter Benjamin.

Scanning through the mainstream press and digesting the fairly erratic and mostly insipid news on the continuing murders in Sudan, one is gripped by the horrible thought that maybe it is true that nobody cares. After all Bush and his cronies–who were so quick to ignore the United Nations in their dealings with Iraq–now seem only too content to evoke the selfsame authority in order to legitimise their policy of enforced abandonment in regard to Sudan [1]. This selective disengagement seems to prove well enough that the people of Sudan are today’s “unworthy victims.”

Now, as I write these words, Sudan is facing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and to say that this situation has offered little pause for scrutiny is being way too charitable. Even the independent press seems gripped by the violence in Iraq–not to mention the Israeli effort to block all the daylight out of Palestine. In the midst of all this the people of Sudan are being raped, pillaged, and starved to death. The truly tragic in all of this is that these atrocities are not even tabled for serious discussion.

Since its independence from Britain in 1956 Africa’s largest state has been racked by violence and unrest. With the exception of 1972-82 the country has been embroiled in civil war stemming from the government’s hostile takeover of non-Arab regions to secure oil fields and control more land. In fact the current conflict in the southern region of Darfur follows on the heels of a 21 year civil war–which cost two million lives and created over four million refugees–between the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum and the largely African Christian and animist Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) [2].

The rebellion in Darfur broke out in February 2003 when the regions two Christian and animist opposition groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA)–not to be confused with the SPLA–and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched a rebellion against what they saw as the government’s wilful failure to protect Darfur from marauding Arab tribes as well as the region’s severe (and they feel deliberate) underdevelopment.

In response to such insolence the government dispatched its own lethal version of blitzkrieg: “ageing Russian Arnovs sweep over the remote Sudanese villages, dispatching their crude payload of barrel bombs [spent oil drums now packed with explosives and metal shards] next come the Janjaweed, a fearsome Arab militia [which the government insists on calling “soldiers”] mounted on camels and horses, and armed with AK-47 rifles and whips. They murder the men and boys of fighting age, gang-rape the women–sometimes in front of their families–and burn the houses” [3]. These are the words of reporter Declan Walsh and they correspond very closely to eyewitness reports. In August 2003 a villager told Amnesty International delegates about an attack on Murli, near al-Jeneina: “It was early in the morning, people were sleeping. About 400 armed people cordoned the village, with military uniforms, the same ones worn by the army, with vehicles and guns. A plane came later, to see if the operation was successful. At least 82 people were killed during the first attack. Some were shot and others, such as children and elderly, were burnt alive in their houses” [4]. Horror stories abound. At the Kounoungo refugee camp, Zenaba Ismail told a reporter how Janjaweed fighters burst into their home early one morning and shot her sister–who was then heavily pregnant–in the stomach. The shooting induced labour, and she died while giving birth. “He [the newborn infant] cries all the time, but I have no milk to give him,” she said [5].

Those not murdered on-sight are reported to have been sold into slavery. To date an estimated 30,000 people (primarily from the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribes) have been killed and further 1.5 million have been sent packing from their homes (mainly across the border into mine-strewn Chad where blood-thirsty militia men have been known to pursue them. As a result 31,000 Sudanese refugees have been moved deeper into eastern Chad) [6]. The Christian Science Monitor estimates that 350,000 will die before the end of this year and according to the International Crisis Group, Darfur represents the “potential horror story of 2004” [7]. However, these estimates could be on the conservative side. Andrew Natsios of the US Agency for International Development has warned that if relief is not forthcoming diseases like cholera, meningitis and polio will reach epidemic proportions and the death toll could be as high as one million by the end of this year. The July 5 issue of Newsweek carried appalling images of emaciated children, the innocent victims of the militias “scorched earth campaign” [8]. However, after his meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mustafa Osman Ismail (the Sudanese Foreign Minister) declared that while there were “problems” in Darfur “there is no Famine, no epidemic diseases” [9].

The recent visits by Colin Powell (the highest ranking US official to have visited Sudan since 1978) and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proved farcical. Powell was provided with satellite images of burning villages prior to his visit (these maps can be viewed on Amnesty International’s website); however when the US Secretary of State attempted to visit certain carefully selected refugee camps “whip wielding government soldiers” drove Darfur residents away from Powell’s entourage. In a similar run of events Mr. Annan was reported to be visibly annoyed when 1,000 residents of the squatter camp at Meshtel suddenly vanished. It seems that the evening prior to Mr. Annan’s proposed visit the government had “relocated” the wretched inhabitants [10]. (I am reminded here of Orwell’s angry critique of the politics of language and the numbing effect of euphemism: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of populations or rectification of frontiers.” “Relocation” is a similar linguistic smokescreen for crimes against humanity). Al Noor Muhammad, the Minister for Social Affairs in North Darfur, excused this cynical act saying: “We did not like seeing people living like that” which really meant that the government did not like the outside world seeing people living like that.

Unsurprisingly, government aides encouraged Mr. Annan to visit another settlement–Abushouk–widely known as a “tourist camp” because of its relatively good condition [11]. Such barefaced strategising and backhandedness has a worrying precedent. The Nazi’s used Theresienstadt–a showcase ghetto were “privileged” Jews were detained–to hoodwink representatives of the International Red Cross [12]. As we know their ploy worked. Today the cover-ups continue. During Mr. Annan’s same visit a group of university students attempted to deliver a petition on Darfur to the UN Secretary-General. They were rounded up and shot by government security forces in Khartoum.

The analogy with the Holocaust is neither casual nor superficial–especially by those who know something about these things. While members of the international community agonise over whether terms such as “genocide” and “ethnic-cleansing” (or the more self-congratulatory phrase “democide”) are suitable for the mass murders in Darfur, the Holocaust centres in London and Washington briefly closed in late June to indicate their solidarity with the victims [13]. “They say they don’t want to see black skin on this land again,” said Issa Bushara, whose brother and cousin were murdered in front of their families during an attack by the Janjaweed militia. [14]

We hardly need reminding that the history of genocide stretches well beyond Rwanda, the former Yugolslavia, and the “Final Solution” making a mockery of what we commonly call ‘progress.’ Indeed, Walter Benjamin understood this well when he stated that the great catastrophe of our age is that ‘things just go on.’ In an attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of Benjamin’s claim Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued that today a radical form of politics exists which concentrates on producing what he calls “bare life.” The term “bare life” in itself is not easily explained, but perhaps Hannah Arendt comes closest when she writes of “the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human” [15]. In other words, “bare life” is that life which is stripped of all its positive relations and hence a life which is expendable. “It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the every qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man,” observed Arendt [16]. The main point in all of this is that in order to exert power over life human beings are brought under the law at the same time they are excluded from its protection. Indeed, as Arendt explains a “condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to life was challenged” [17]. This is “not the loss of specific rights but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever [emphasis added]”–a catastrophe which has “befallen ever-increasing numbers of people” [18]. Genocide is an obvious case in point, but history is replete with other horrific examples: the slave worker, the concentration camp detainee, the refugee–these are the fateful figures of a modern expulsion from humanity that takes place from within the law in a relationship of “inclusive exclusion.” Agamben names these people homines sacri [19]

There is no mistaking that the victims of systematic violence in Sudan are also homines sacri. They crop up in our newspapers and magazines as emaciated bodies, in our political and legal system as slap-on-the-wrist sanctions, and on our TV sets as photo-ops for smirking politicians. Arendt was right to argue against Mao Tse-tung’s dictum “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” [20]. For surely today, the supreme exercise of power is to make human life (and all its horrific sufferings) completely visible and–at the very same moment–utterly expendable. The power to make exceptions the rule and catastrophes the norm is being played out to disastrous effect in Sudan.

In a press statement toward the end of his fly-by visit Colin Powell made this point absolutely explicit: “Unless we see more moves soon in all these areas, it may be necessary for the international community to begin considering other actions, to include UN Security Council action” [21]. The word “soon” here seems innocent enough, whereas in fact hundreds of thousands of lives hinge on its interpretation. As Hannah Arendt recognised: “It is no doubt possible to create conditions under which men are dehumanized–such as concentration camps, torture, famine under such conditions, not rage and violence, but their conspicuous absence is the clearest sign of dehumanization” [22]. Things ‘just go on’ in Sudan.

DAVID NALLY is working on his PhD in Geography at the University of British Columbia. He can be reached at: dpnally@yahoo.ie

1. Scott Stearns, “Bush Calls on Sudan to Respect Cease-Fire in Darfur” Voice of America 13 July 2004

2. For a good background to the conflict see, Dan Smith, “The Crisis in Sudan” Counterpunch 19/20 June 2004.

3. Declan Walsh, “Atrocities in Sudan” ZNet 27 April 2004

4. Amnesty International, “Sudan: The UN Security Council Should Stop Arms Transfers to Sudan and the Janjawid Militia” 2 July 2004 [AI Index: AFR 54/074/2004]

5. Alexander Zavis, “As World Focuses Elsewhere, a Systematic Slaughter Unfolds in Sudan” Canadian Press 10 July 2004

6. Walsh, op.cit.

7. Abbey Morrow, “Sudan’s Scorched-Earth Campaign” Insight on the News 6 July 2004

8. Tom Masland, The Living and the Dead” Newsweek 5 July 2004

9. Barbara Slavin, “Powell tells Sudan to aid afflicted region” USA Today 29 June 2004

10. Marc Lacey “Sudan Camp is Moved before UN Visit” New York Times 2 July 2004

11. Ibid.

12. Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Books: London) 1994 p. 82

13. Morrow, op. cit.

14. Zavis, op. cit.

15. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt: New York) 1976 p. 297

16. Ibid. p. 300.

17. Ibid. p. 296.

18. Ibid. p. 297.

19. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare life (Stanford University Press: Stanford) 1995

20. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (Harvest Book: New York) 1970.

21. Matthew Lee, “Powell delivers stern warning to Sudan on Darfur,” Middle East Online June 30 2004

22. Arendt, op. cit. p. 63.