21 February 2012

South Kordofan is Not Darfur, Mr. Kristof

Nick Kristof is back in Sudan to sound the alarm over the situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States.  Situated on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the two states have experienced a steady amount of bombings and fighting between the government of Sudan and SPLA rebels since November. In fact, it stretches back further, but the intensity of fighting and attacks have increased over the past few months.

Kristof writes in his Sunday OpEd for the New York Times,
Bombings, ground attacks and sexual violence — part of Sudan’s scorched-earth counterinsurgency strategy — have driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in South Kordofan, the Sudanese state where the Nuba Mountains are located. In some ways, the brutality here feels like an echo of what Sudan did in Darfur, only now it is Nubans who are targets.
By comparing South Kordofan to Darfur, Kristof is attempting to help his readers have a frame of reference for the region. The similar tactic was used by Kristof and advocates when a genocide was being carried out in Darfur in 2003. They looked towards the genocide in Rwanda and likened the Darfur to the horrific 100 days in the East African nation.

In doing so, advocates muddled a complex situation. There were systematic killings being carried out, but rebel groups in Darfur were antagonistic to the Sudanese government well before 2003.  The nation was also on the verge of an agreement to create the independent South Sudan and the US government was largely focused on achieving that goal. Additionally, there were many more historic and political layers that contributed to the situation at hand and the way the international community responded.

A comparison to Rwanda missed the point because many changes took place in the 10 years between the two incidents. By looking at Darfur through the lens of Rwanda advocates misjudged the most effective way forward. They were successful in garnering attention and putting it on the plate of the US congress and President Bush. However, the United States lacked the ability to make unilateral attacks since the invasion in Iraq and there was the emergence of China who also happened to be a trade partner with Sudan.

All of these many factors made the situation on the ground in Darfur incredibly complex* and challenging.  Small victories were won, but the humanitarian crisis still remains unresolved. By likening Darfur and South Kordofan, Kristof makes the same mistake as he and others made in 2003. It may get more people to pay attention, but it could also lead to a skewed understanding as to what is really happening.

In the case of South Kordofan, there are the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) rebels who, among other things, recently kidnapped Chinese workers. As Laura Seay points out,
While I'm not one to defend the murderous Bashir regime, the Sudanese government does have a legitimate concern that aid coming into the region along that route will fall into the hands of the rebels rather than the people it is meant to help.
This concern partially motivates the government's drive to block the work of NGOs. This is a pretty important fact in terms of both understanding the attacks as well as the way that the Sudanese government is reacting to NGOs in the region.

I had the opportunity to participate in a UNDP Google+ Hangout with Judith Schuler who was in Asosa, Ethiopia. Over the past few months, some 26,000 refugees have entered Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State in western Ethiopia to escape the violence in Sudan.  Fortunately, the situation in the refugee camp is relatively stable and there are enough provisions for the time being, but WFP, other UN agencies and NGOs will be making various financial appeals in the near future to address the growing humanitarian situation.

Sudanese refugees loading the bus in Gemed, a small village at the border to Sudan. 180 refugees are being transferred to the Admazine camp on 1 February.
There is a very real problem and it needs to be reported.  However, it should be done so in a way that does not make an extremely complex situation seem too simple. Even my own summary of South Kordofan and Darfur is crude at best, but hopefully bring to light a few of the many elements at play. It is easy to link South Kordofan and Darfur, especially given the fact that the aggressor is the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

To explain the situation in South Kordofan in such terms ignores the many causes. In order to avoid over simplicity, it is best not to liken South Kordofan and Darfur too much. Better yet, let's not compare the two at all. It will help people better understand what is happening. Additionally, such reporting makes it harder for NGOs to do their work and for journalists to continue to report from the region. That will stifle the ability for the international community to both know what is taking place and how to appropriately respond.

Lessons can be learned from the mistakes made in Rwanda, Darfur and now in the DRC. In a recent paper, Séverine Autesserre of Barnard College examines the narrative that has been created for the DRC by journalists, advocates and other actors. She finds that the story has become focuses around conflict minerals and violence against women.  In doing so, the many layers that contribute to the terrible situation in the eastern DRC are largely ignored.
[B]y leading interveners to focus overwhelmingly on these issues, and to neglect other causes, consequences, and solutions, these narratives also have a number of perverse consequences. They obscure most interveners’ understanding of the multi-layered problems of the Congo. They orient the intervention toward a series of technical responses and hinder the search for a comprehensive solution. They lead interveners to privilege one category of victims over all the others. Even more disconcertingly, they reinforce the problems that their advocates want to address, notably by legitimizing state-building programmes that reinforce the harassment of the populations by state officials, and by turning sexual violence into an attractive tool for armed groups.
Though not the be-all-end-all, journalism does carry a significant weight when uncovering stories that would not be told otherwise. This is the opportunity to introduce the many facets of what is happening in South Kordofan so people can understand what is contributing to the violence and how it can be resolved.

Kristof says that he will report more from the Nuba mountains soon. Hopefully his columns reveal more information about what is happening in South Kordofan beyond stories of helpless Sudanese who are saved by foreign NGO workers.

*Read Bec Hamilton's book Fighting for Darfur to gain further insight and much more detail into the successes and failures of the Darfur advocacy movement based in the United States.