Darfur and the Question of Genocide

G. Pascal Zachary asks whether calling Darfur a “genocide” makes it harder to stop the killing, in Salon.

[D]oes the conflict in Darfur, however bloody, qualify as genocide? Or does the application of the word “genocide” to Darfur make it harder to understand this conflict in its awful peculiarity? Is it possible that applying a generic label to Darfurian violence makes the task of stopping it harder? Or is questioning the label simply insensitive, implying that whatever has happened in Darfur isn’t horrible enough to justify a claim on the world’s conscience, and thus invite inaction or even the dismissal of Darfur altogether?

These questions — and the paradoxical nature of the G-word — lie at the heart of a much-needed new book by Gerard Prunier, a scholar of African affairs. In “Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide,” Prunier, a professor at the University of Paris, casts aside labels and lays bare the anatomy of the Darfur crisis, drawing on a mixture of history and journalism to produce the most important book of the year on any African subject. Clearly and concisely, he describes a complex civil war, where “Arabs” and “Africans” are often indistinguishable from one another to outsiders. Members of both groups can be dark-skinned, Muslim, poor and neglected. Indeed, this last characteristic of Darfurians, the extent of their neglect by Sudan’s central government, may be the most significant for understanding the roots of today’s conflict. (Although racism cannot be discounted; racial bias exists in Sudan with some people demonizing blacks and holding them as slaves.) Prunier emphasizes the legacy of Darfur’s isolation, which began under Britain, colonial ruler of Sudan until its independence in 1955. In 1916, the British incorporated Darfur, which had been an independent country for centuries, into colonial Sudan and then pathetically left it to crumble (as late as the 1930s there was not a single high school student in Darfur, and only four primary schools for younger kids).