Hell on earth

The Devil and Darfur
By JAMES PARKER  |  November 27, 2007

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EVIL CALCULUS: No genocide has ever revealed such global levels of indifference.

How does the Devil get his work done? With the greatest of ease, seems to be the answer. If you’re interested in the various cultural and political processes whereby the anti-genocide mantra “Never Again” became “Oh, Go On, Then — Just One More Time,” you might want to sit yourself down in front of HBO next Saturday (December 6 at 8 pm) and watch as much as you can bear of Sand and Sorrow. Director Paul Freedman’s 90-minute documentary is narrated by George Clooney, who also served as the film’s executive producer, and it pulls no punches: by the end of it the cremated villages of Darfur, the black and roofless stone huts with their bloodstained floors, have come to emblematize a different but simultaneous disaster — a kind of mutilation of the moral dimension, suffered not in Africa but here in the West.

The atrocities visited upon the non-Arabic tribespeople of Darfur by the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia are as old and familiar as the Earth. New York Times correspondent Nick Kristof describes for Freedman’s camera his first encounter with a group of refugees who have fled across the border into neighboring Chad and are now gathered helplessly in a stark, symbolic landscape: under one tree is a man with his jaw shot off, under the next a mother whose children have been killed and thrown down the village well, to poison it, under the next . . . And so on. Nothing new there. What is different about Darfur, what gives the word its special place in the rolls of infamy, is the fact that everybody knows about it: no genocide has ever been quite as diligently reported, in real time, as this one, with the result that no genocide has ever called us to account with such urgency, and revealed such global levels of indifference.

Its perpetrators seem to have grasped this from the beginning — the idea that no one, whatever they did, would lift a hand to stop them. And so their impunity has the quality of an insane vindication. Sweeping from village to village on horseback, the Janjaweed are like men possessed: “They didn’t ask questions,” recalls one survivor. The Bush Administration has other fish to fry — a peace deal in the endless Sudanese civil war, and access to the government’s files on Osama bin Laden — and the UN, hobbled by a China/Russia veto, is powerless. In Darfur the calculus of the world is laid bare: “People who do not represent a threat or a benefit,” says Sudan scholar Gerard Prunier, “do not count.”

Bumper-sticker compassion is easily scorned, and the slogan of the against-genocide-in-Darfur movement — “Not on Our Watch” — seems at first glance as useless or as effective as any other piece of advertising. But Freedman’s film performs the great public service of reminding us that such slogans enter mass consciousness as a result of extraordinary individual efforts. At a mass rally in the Washington mall, Samantha Power, Pulitzer-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, celebrates the turnout with fellow organizers: “It’s Sudanese, it’s Jews, it’s evangelicals, it’s people who have crushes on George Clooney, it’s Oprah watchers — it’s America!” Conveyed there by whatever complication of noble and less-than-noble motives, the people were present for Darfur, in force. Conscience has a voice, wrote John Donne, “but we do not hearken to it. We talk it out, we jest it out, we drink it out, we sleep it out. . . . ” Unless, he might have added, the voice belongs to George Clooney.

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