Getting Darfur Wrong

Getting Darfur Wrong

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror
by Mahmood Mamdani
Pantheon, 2009 416 pp., $26.95

The Darfur Genocide has the perverse distinction of being the longest and most fully chronicled genocide of the last century. Our contemporaneous knowledge of what happened and what is happening comes from dozens of comprehensive human rights reports dating from 2003 and earlier, accounts from international humanitarian organizations, and detailed research by policy and advocacy groups such at the International Crisis Group and Refugees International. And there is extraordinary congruence in the accounts. Although some, such as Human Rights Watch, have found it difficult to come to consensus on the question of “genocidal intent,” there is broad agreement about the ethnically targeted nature of the crimes and the role of the Khartoum regime in orchestrating the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of some three million Darfuris, overwhelmingly from the non-Arab, African tribal populations of the region.

To be sure, there are disagreements: over mortality levels, the designation of “genocide,” and preeminently over the appropriate international policy responses. But the narrative of what has occurred is remarkably consistent, and collectively the accounts reflect thousands of interviews of Darfuris, both in Darfur and in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, as well as countless individual reports by on-the-ground observers. The fullness, consistency, and authority of the narrative has guided many of the Darfur advocacy efforts, both in the United States and Europe.

And yet there is a growing effort in some quarters to rewrite the “Darfur narrative,” an effort that entails a wholesale revision of key features of this vast catastrophe. There are corresponding efforts to excoriate the Darfur advocacy movement as a primary culprit in prolonging the crisis, to downplay the suffering and destruction that have occurred over the past seven years, and most notably to diminish the Khartoum regime’s responsibility for what has occurred. The most aggressive and pernicious of these efforts is Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I am the target of several pages of Mamdani’s account of mortality totals for the genocide, even as I would argue that this account is filled with error and incomprehension, demonstrating no familiarity with either the statistical or the demographic and epidemiological issues that I and others working on mortality totals must confront in the absence of comprehensive cluster sampling (something the Khartoum regime has long refused to allow).

But Mamdani’s harshest criticism is of what he refers to as the “Save Darfur movement.” Because there is an organization with the name “Save Darfur Coalition...

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