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Black media delegation returns from Darfur

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: May 15, 2007 - 2:25:00 PM

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U.S., British interference complicates Sudan crisis

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The 32-member press delegation representing print and electronic media outlets, which included The Final Call, The Arab Journal, Philadelphia New Observer, The Jackson Advocate, Trumpet magazine, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Black Entertainment Television, TV One, and New Yorks 98.7 KISS-FM.
Photos: Jehron Muhammad
(FinalCall.com) - The truth concerning the atrocities and fighting in Sudan’s Darfur region—an area that is overwhelmingly Muslim and shares a border and tribal heritage with Chad—is more complex than the U.S. media would have you believe.

According to historian Douglas H. Johnson’s Civil War analogy, Darfur is a “mishmash of different forces—federal, Confederate, government, regular, state, county and irregular, diverse militia—together with ad hoc armed bands of raiders and criminal and semi-criminal gangs that produces the likes of the James and Younger brothers, all within a framework of national conflict, local grievances, and vendettas, the Missouri border wars provide some sort of an insight into the Darfur crisis.”

But even Mr. Johnson’s insight does not take into consideration the extra complications of considerable external involvement in Darfur. The external involvement includes the administrations of George W. Bush in America, Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Western press accusations that Sudan’s Arab population is pushing a campaign of ethnic cleansing of “Black Africans” and supporting the Janjaweed, Arab militias, to do its bidding.

What is actually happening in Darfur, and who are its perpetrators? These and other questions were raised in Sudan recently by a Black press delegation that included scholars and one Arab journalist. The group headed by Abdul Akbar Muhammad, president of Youth For Africa Foundation, wanted to get a “clear picture,” especially of what is happening in Darfur.

“If what they’re saying is true, we should say that and report it back to the American public. What they’re saying is there are some Arabs killing Black Africans trying to exterminate them, raping their women, killing their children, pushing Black Africans off their land. But if there is another side to it then we should report it,” said Mr. Muhammad.

The crisis in Darfur has raged for four years, fed by rebel attacks and government responses to armed struggle in its western region. An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting and 400,000 people have reportedly died.

The 32-member press delegation represented print and electronic media outlets, which included The Final Call, The Arab Journal, Philadelphia New Observer, The Jackson Advocate, Trumpet magazine, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Black Entertainment Television, TV One, and New York’s 98.7 KISS-FM.

During the press delegation’s many interactions with government officials, residents of Internally Displaced Persons camps (IDP) in Darfur, and average Sudanese citizens, two questions were always asked: What is the Janjaweed? And, why do the Sudanese call themselves Arabs?

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Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Darfur. The Western press calls them refugee camps. (insert) IDP camp resident Hawa Adam Muhammed and interpretor Yaya Abdulla.
Many said they called themselves “Arab” because Arabic is their first language. If an African language was their initial language, the Sudanese interviewed referred to either their tribe or described themselves as African. The other response from many Sudanese citizens: “Do I look like an Arab?”

The Junjaweed go back long before the Darfur crisis made headlines. They were called nomadic “bandits, opportunists and criminals.” At no time did anyone interviewed link the Janjaweed to the Sudanese government. One resident of a camp for Sudanese civilians caught in the war zone and displaced by the Janjaweed, blamed the government for not protecting him and his family from “the bandits.”

An analysis of the situation in Darfur has also been given by the UN media service: “The conflict pits farming communities against nomads who have aligned themselves with the militia groups—for whom the raids are a way of life—in stiff competition for land and resources. The militias, known as the Janjaweed, attack in large numbers on horseback and camels and are driving the farmers from their land, often pushing them toward town centers.”

During the group’s tour of a IDP camp in the Nyala Province of Southern Darfur, Nubia Wardford, an anthropologist/archeologist and associate registrar at the Museum of African American History in Detroit, had a clear belief about why anti-Sudan stories dominate the U.S. media.

“How many people are going to be able to travel to Sudan and see for themselves?” Ms. Wardford asked, and expressed outrage at camp conditions, which included flimsy housing, lack of water, filthy conditions, and no recreation or play areas for children.

“Instead of spending thousands of dollars purchasing ads in U.S. newspapers defaming the Sudanese government, why not take that money and formulate medical teams [and] go around to different places that would give food?...Obviously they’re not trying to do that,” she said, responding to ads purchased by “Save Darfur” organizations.

The objective should not be to defame the Sudanese government to achieve “whatever their hidden agenda is,” but to provide adequate healthcare, water, food, improve living conditions, and create appropriate educational and recreational facilities for displaced children, Ms. Wardford stated. “One elder came to me and pointed to her teeth and pointed to her eyes, she had noticeable cataracts over her eyes as well as rotten teeth in her mouth. She was trying to tell me that they needed help.”

The Northern Darfur camp toured by the press delegation was much better off than the southern camp because of aid received from relief agencies. Because of the assistance available, some Sudanese from surrounding areas have moved to the camps to take advantage of food assistance and shelter.

Speaking through an interpreter, camp residents not only voiced concerns about the camp’s limited resources, but also expressed desires to return to their village and fears of Janjaweed attacks.

“The government is here [and the camp is secure], but still the war is going on. We went back to our place; we started doing our farms and again they [Janjaweed] attacked us and we came back here,” said a male farmer, 40 years of age.

Sixty-year-old Hawa Adam Muhammed, a three-year camp resident, also left her village after being attacked by “the Janjaweed.”

Other issues raised by the press delegation included questions about the Sudanese government’s repeated insistence that the only ground force in Darfur be members of the African Union and with 3,000-member United Nations contingent only providing technical support.

Last August, a UN Security Council resolution was adopted that called for a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force. The 22,500-member force was to take over for an African Union force presently in the region, which has been unable to quell fighting. Though the Sudanese government conceded to peacekeepers on the ground, the specifics of where those troops should come from has been a sticking point.

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African Union Peacekeeping Force outside Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Darfur. (insert) Sudanese President Omar El Bashir and Akbar Muhammad Photo Insert: Monica Morgan
The Sudanese government has been accused of intransigence by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, whose visit to Sudan caused the delegation to make schedule adjustments. President Bush, using the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a backdrop, also threatened Sudan with “sanctions,” unless the country allows UN troops to come in.

During a very busy nine-day stay in Sudan, the African American press delegation met with and questioned President Omar El Bashir about the role of the African Union and United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Preceding a ceremony in President Bashir’s home village of Housh Banga, the head of the Sudanese government, said, “The forces on the ground are to be African forces related to the African Union. The leader of the forces is to be an African appointed by the AU. There is support from the UN represented with logistic support, financial support, technical support, with experts and technicians (and) funding is to be from the UN as well.”

The Sudanese government said an African force will be more culturally sensitive to the area. What they have not said is a UN force would automatically suspend existing laws that govern the land and make the UN, in effect, a kind of occupying force.

According to Mahdi Ibrahim Muhammed, former Sudanese ambassador to the United States and a member of the National Assembly, the “external involvement” of the U.S. and English governments in his country’s affairs is a major source of difficulties.

Western press reports that oversimplify Sudan’s problem as “good guys verses bad guys,” without looking at its history of foreign intervention and viewing Sudan as a microcosm of Africa, are problematic, said the former ambassador, during a two hour session that included legislators from all parts of the country. Such reporting fails to take in account the complexity faced by the government in Sudan and other governments in Africa, he said.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa and neighbors nine nations with shared ethnic groups and open borders. It has over 400 dialects and 573 ethnic groups practicing Islam, Christianity and African animist religions. “It is an enormous responsibility on any government to be able to deal with such a country with such diversity,” stressed Amb. Muhammed.

But Sudan’s problems go back long before Darfur became a headline. Sudan fought and won its independence on January 1, 1956. Since that time, the country has enjoyed only 10 years of stability. Many Sudanese say the current atmosphere in the country is connected to the rule of its former British colonial masters. The British sowed the seeds for today’s conflicts by developing certain regions in Sudan and designating others as “closed districts,” including the South, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile areas.

“Where they [the British] were able to fully control those areas in isolation from other parts of the country…ultimately they became time bombs to the country’s independence,” said Amb. Muhammed.

During the fact-finding tour, Jacque Reid provided daily updates via The Tom Joyner Morning Show and on Apr. 15, James Mtume, co-host of New York’s Open Line show on 98.7 KISS-FM, broadcast live from Sudan.

“On Sunday we gave our first historic broadcast from Khartoum,” said Mr. Mtume, whose weekly show reaches over 1.5 million listeners. When it comes to the Darfur crisis, he has heard from different sides. “The truth is always (somewhere) in the middle,” he said. Mr. Mtume, who helped coordinate the fact finding mission, is also the son of famed jazz musician Jimmy Heath.

“The fact is, Black media has never come to Sudan to check it out for ourselves. How can we claim a connection with Africa and not investigate the situation in Sudan for ourselves? CNN, ABC and NBC should not be the only vein through which our information is pumped. It is our responsibility as media people and politicians to go see and decide for ourselves,” he said.

(Richard Muhammad contributed to this article.)

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