Try to picture it: over a ten year period, all of Greater Manchester is abandoned. Every adult and child is driven from their home, and the doors hang open in Stockport, Salford, Oldham. Broken windows and burnt out flats in Denton, Prestwich, and Hulme. Every single street empty, while the residents run for their lives.
This is roughly 2.7 million people I’m talking about, displaced. This is Darfur, right now.
The population of Darfur is just under nine million, which means almost one in three have been made homeless and are now living in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. All of Greater Manchester forced to run away from home, and that 2.7 million doesn’t include the war dead.
This was the backdrop of the recent conference ‘Darfur at the Crossroads’, an event hosted by the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be invited to read from my book and speak about writing fiction from fact, and as the only writer on stage that day I provided a somewhat gentle introduction to a day of political conversation.
As the conference was run under Chatham House Rules, meaning no direct attribution of comments to any one person, I will only talk generally about what was discussed, but I will start by saying it was a fascinating event.
Anyone who’s followed the situation in Darfur will be aware of the danger that many Sudanese and Darfurian people face in speaking out against the government. Here in the UK, many activists and opposition politicians live in exile, having fled threats of jail time and worse. During one of the breaks, one man tells me how he was smuggled to the airport disguised in his most ragged clothes, stolen away at night as the police went door to door, looking for him and other dissidents.
Some of the conference attendees are affiliated with rebel groups, and some are not. Civil society groups are represented, as well as researchers who’ve gathered data on the elements that feed the conflict, like water scarcity. Climate change is named as one of the biggest threats, and among talks about political structuring and negotiation, we hear about fossil water and the annual rainfall that shrinks each year.
Here in the UK, we are told that the war in Darfur is tribal – Arab versus non-Arab – and that story dovetails nicely with the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric that our leaders have used to describe and justify their own wars, but the thing is, it’s not true. Not really.
As well as environmental pressures, one speaker talks about the social construction of identity in Sudan. He explains the long tribal pedigrees that certain Sudanese groups use to trace their ancestry back to Saudi Arabia, looking to a history and lineage across the Red Sea. These pedigrees – that no serious historian would accept, the speaker adds – are politicised papers that are used to claim ownership of Sudanese identity, laying a mono-culture onto what is actually a deeply multicultural society.
There is talk of secularism and sharia law, of the fact that there is no consensus definition of sharia, and our speaker points out that sharia, in practice, in Sudan, has been used as a tool to suppress poor people.
Through all of this, one phrase keeps emerging: the Centre. No one names the capital, Khartoum, as the power base, or North Sudan – they say ‘the Centre’, again and again, and it is clear that at this event, people are speaking from the margins. During the afternoon, another question on marginalisation is raised: where are the Darfurian women? (I am the only woman on stage, and I’m white, British-Canadian.) From the audience, we hear from a Darfurian woman who runs a civil society organisation in the UK – we hear her ideas for representation, for future discussions. There are margins within margins.
‘What we need at our next event,’ one of the organisers says, ‘is a stage of Darfurian women speakers addressing women’s issues and women’s part in this struggle, and the men in the audience, listening.’
For more information on the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, as well as upcoming events, please visit http://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/research-centres/sudanese-programme
Nine days ago, the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) posted an opinion piece on their website about an ethical issue facing organisations like itself: at what point does the work of treating the wounds and injuries of war become complicity in that war?
On their work right now in Gaza, Jonathan Whittall writes:
An entire population is trapped in what is essentially an open-air prison. They can’t leave and only the most limited supplies – essential for basic survival – are allowed to enter. The population of the prison have elected representatives and organised social services. Some of the prisoners have organised into armed groups and resist their indefinite detention by firing rockets over the prison wall. However, the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.
At what point does MSF’s repeated medical action in an unacceptable situation become complicity to aggression and oppression?
While the blockade on Gaza remains firmly in place, MSF is continuing to work in an open-air prison to patch up prisoners in between their torture sessions.
Another MSF worker, Michaël Neuman, responds below Whittall’s piece, highlighting the crucial issue of consent, and I highly recommend that you read them both.
I don’t feel I can add anything to either of these excellent articles at this point, but reading them brought to mind another element of this, and its implications for humanitarian work: that of silence.
When I worked for a humanitarian relief agency in Darfur in 2005, not long after the peak of the violence that continues to this day, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I could not use the word ‘rape’ in any public communications. If we used that word in public, in relation to what was happening in Darfur, our international staff would be kicked out and our programme shut down. I was told this many times. This is what we had to do to maintain our neutrality, and thus, our ability to work in Darfur. As public communication wasn’t part of my job, this wasn’t something that particularly affected my ability to work day to day, but it was something that stuck.
We could never forget that we were able to provide life-saving interventions in Darfur only by permission of the Government of Sudan, and the array of permits and visas required were always at the government’s right of refusal. Always. One thing the government did not tolerate was any acknowledgement of the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.
Here in the U.K, rape carries one of the lowest conviction rates of any violent crime. I have no idea what the actual stats on rape convictions are in Sudan, but I do know that for a rape charge to be legally accepted, the victim needs to have three adult male witnesses to verify the rape, and THEN it can go to court where it may or may not result in conviction. I also remember reading a copy of the English language newspaper Sudan Vision in which a victim’s name, photograph and address were published as part of a story about her ‘alleged rape’ as they kept calling it – so I think it’s fair to assume based on these that the rate of conviction for rape in Sudan rounds very easily to zero.
All of the humanitarian workers in Darfur knew that sexual assault was one of the primary strategies of the janjaweed militias, the government-backed proxy troops that burnt and slaughtered their way through the Darfur states. It traumatised individuals, and destroyed communities - all part of the goal. Everyone we knew in the medical clinics talked about the numerous injuries they treated relating to sexual assault. One time, my colleague spoke to fifteen women in one camp about buckets and soap and sanitary towels, and every woman without exception told her that she had been raped. Another time, I was stopped in a camp by a woman who wanted to know if I could help her and her baby, because he had no father, because his father was janjaweed. The evidence was everywhere. Women and girls were often disowned by their families following an assault. Babies were born under horrific circumstances. School-aged boys and girls suddenly forgot how to talk, how to walk, how to control their bladders. It was everywhere.
But we couldn’t talk about it. We’d get kicked out, and the programme would be shut down. I’d go to meetings with government officials and listen to them tell me how we – the humanitarian agencies - were here as invited guests of the government, to help the government, all while the government was supplying logistical and military support to the janjaweed.
Remember: don’t say rape. They’ll kick us out, and if they kick us out, we can’t provide emergency assistance to those who need it. More people will die. Don’t say rape.
In March 2005, MSF published a report called ‘The Crushing Burden of Rape’, detailing the epidemic of sexual violence that was sweeping Darfur. It was drawn from a survey of their patient records at their clinics in Darfur, and was intended to highlight the epidemic.
At the end of May, the MSF head of mission in Sudan and the Darfur regional coordinator were charged with espionage, publishing false information, and undermining Sudanese society. Authorities demanded that they hand over identifying details of their anonymised sources, and when they refused, they were arrested.
After an outcry from the UN, the charges were dropped, and nine years later the whole incident is a footnote in a devastating war that still rolls on.
But I remember that report. I remember reading about it and the statement that the MSF Director made about how it was their duty as medics and as humans to speak up when they witnessed abuses. They spoke out. They said it.
Humanitarian relief – emergency relief in particular - can often require calculated choices about explicitly speaking out against injustice, or staying quietly ‘neutral’ in order to be able to continue helping those who desperately need it. I understand pragmatism and the thinking behind it, I do, but with silence comes the risk of complicity, and right now, I have nothing but absolute admiration for the doctors of MSF who are publicly asking hard questions of themselves and other humanitarian workers, and unwaveringly saying not only what they are witnessing, but what they may be part of.
As I write my way into the home stretch of this book, here's a sneaky peek at what will begin it.
Debrief is the shortest story in the collection and it looks at one of the effects of war, on an outsider. It is coming home and forgetting how to greet loved ones, forgetting social cues, dropping an apple in a supermarket and waiting for the roof to fall. It is the fractured crackle of PTSD and not knowing how to fit back into what came before.
The spiel that comes after the story does contain one inaccuracy: the book is clearly, now, not coming out in 2013. Blame CFS/ME for that one. (In fact, when I watch this video back I can see the illness on my face - but perhaps that is ok. It is what it is. Video goes places that I can't physically reach these days, and so here it is, evident fatigue and all!)
I am writing as fast as my body will allow, and am thrilled to say that I am approaching the edit stage. I won't be doing any live events until I've finished, as I need all available energy for writing, so until that time, let video-me tell you a story.
(My apologies for the lack of youtube window inside this post. For some unknown reason, my host doesn't want to load it, so you WILL have to click out on the link above. Never mind, all you've missed is a frightening still of my face, mid-sentence, where my eyes are neither opened nor closed.
Here - as consolation, have an old, obtuse punching-in clock from Victorian times, now part of the Jeremy Deller exhibition. This one looks lovely and antiquey, doesn't it? Now at the Amazon warehouse they're yellow and grey and strapped to the employee's wrist. Poor bastards. If you're in Manchester, please please go and see that exhibition. This Sunday's the last day, and then it's off to Nottingham. Manchester City Art Gallery, NOW, and the wheelchairs, as with the art, are free.)
With a few moments of screen time before I head off to run a workshop, I want to make a quick record. In a few hours I'll be running a writing workshop in a men's category B prison. Wikipedia tells me that category B holds those prisoners who are judged to not require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult.
The last time I was inside a prison was not long after returning from Sudan, from the compound in Darfur. It was a women's prison, one that had been in the news - it was famous. I remember the very high walls, the series of locking doors, the fingerprints, the barbed wire, the last minute changes that were part of prison life, part of the control. I remember the high walls, the barbed wire, the guards, there to keep the war out. The increasing heart rate when we passed through the gate - some little trace of compound life in Geneina. The two places blended a little, somewhere in my gut, even as my brain knew better.
In both places - the compound, the prison - I was the free person, the one who had chosen to be there and could choose to leave, and in both cases I was working with people who didn't have that choice to make. The inmates kept in, the IDPs forced out (and out and out). There is a thickness to the air in these places, stale like the back of a cupboard. I remember that. A tight throat, the flutter of claustrophobia, the urge to burst out, to run, even if it breaks curfew. I remember that too.
I prepare to go now, and these little memories creep up the hairs on my skin in anticipation of my first time behind a high wall since the last, since the desert and what came after. I wonder if the smell will be the same, and my gut will know the difference.
El Geneina 'The Garden', capital of West Darfur - [photo by UNEP]
So, after a long hiatus from blogging I've been coerced back into it by whipsmart funny lass Maria Roberts. She tagged me into The Next Big Thing, which entails me answering questions about the book I'm writing right now.
I will then tag five more writers who'll tell you about their 'next big thing' next Wednesday.
So here it is: blog post number one, on my forthcoming book of short stories, Jebel Marra.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
It came from 6 months of working for a humanitarian aid agency in West Darfur. I took the contract after having worked for said agency in the UK for years, and went to simply do my job, with no intention of connecting it to my writing. Needless to say, it was a long 6 months, and after about a year back in the UK I found myself with no interest in writing anything else. I wanted to write into some of the gaps and contradictions and complications and details of that particular conflict, of humanitarian relief more generally, and of life in a warzone.
What genre does your book fall under?
Short fiction is the form, and the genre is...I don't know. Lyrical short fiction, I think. I don't write with genre in mind but the short story form is really informing the shape of the collection as one that presents many different unresolved viewpoints. Over to the literary scholars and marketing folk for a more specific answer to that one!
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Two I can think of: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (played the terrifying Adebisi in tv show Oz) for one of the more chaotic characters, and Nicola Walker (Ruth from Spooks) as one particular aid worker because she's great at the supressed tension and understatement thing...and I have a crush.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Stories about local traders, aid workers, soldiers, politicians, parents and children all living in the middle of Darfur's civil war - what was called by the UN, way back in 2004, ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am incredibly happy to have this book coming out in 2013 with Comma Press - short story specialists and champions of the form.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The clock's still ticking. I've been writing it for a few years now and though I can see a little light way, way in the distance there's still a lot more to be done. I'm happy to say the story drafts are now in the double digits, and it will (it will!) be out next year. I'd love to be able to write quickly like some others I know, but I just can't, especially on this topic. I've been able to spend the time on this due to support from Arts Council England.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was commissioned: one of the Darfurian women I worked with in Geneina told me at the end of my contract to go home and tell people what was (is still) happening there. Before heading to Sudan I'd mostly done spoken word performance, so when I returned I started talking about it onstage - small autobiographical monologues I suppose. It wasn't enough, and wasn't permanent enough, so after a nudge (a few nudges) from Ra Page at Comma I began building short stories.
I've also been inspired by knowing that although I've forgotten the battle dates I was taught in school, the thing that has stayed with me has been the art that has followed conflicts: I watched M*A*S*H as a kid, later saw All Quiet On The Western Front, read The Pit and The Pendulum and Slaughterhouse 5 and all of these stuck with me, they impacted. These have all convinced me that fiction can be a powerful way into exploring and exposing the mean, stupid realities of war...the truths, the lies, all of it.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There is betrayal, there is drug use, there is sex and love and colliodal silver. There are normal, messy people with secrets and agendas. There is no forensic detailing of body parts, and no flag waving.
I'm also particularly interested in women and war, and so a lot of the narrators in the book are women. Despite being regularly written into the margins in a lot of writing, art and reportage on war (see my list of art inspirations above -- all male) women, like men, like kids, are very much touched by war, are part of it, and - yes - even complicit in it.
My five writers for next Wednesday are:
Rosie Garland, Martin De Mello, Maya Chowdhry, Dawn LaBarre and...one more who is still deciding.