Do you know what’s happening in Darfur right now? Because I definitely don’t—Darfur Diaries is about events from 2004, and in the 15 years that have elapsed, the situation has continued to change. So why read a book that is so out of date? Firstly, I bought this book somewhat less than recently—not in 2006, of course, but maybe 5 years ago. Secondly, the subject is still interesting and important enough to merit reading this book. Darfur and so many other regions in African countries is experiencing humanitarian crises that are the result of colonialism. It’s important we learn about and understand these situations so we can work towards decolonization.
This book is a behind-the-scenes account of a team of three Americans who visit Darfur to film a documentary about the situation. All three have experience related to international human rights issues, whether it’s filming, policy, etc. As they learn about the developing situation in Sudan and speak to Sudanese refugees and immigrants, they resolve to do something to make the American public more conscious of what’s happening there. The spectre of what happened in Rwanda hangs over them. The team travels into Darfur via Chad, entering the part of the region controlled by the Sudanese Liberation Army. They interview displaced people whose villages have been bombed and destroyed by the government and/or the Janjaweed militia backed by the government.
What Marlowe, Bain, and Shapiro try to convey is the deeply personal cost that these types of situations carry. They don’t interview officials. They interview people on the ground, ordinary people like you or me who were just trying to live their lives. People who have already put up with decades of civil war and instability. People who just want to get on with it.
As a teacher, I read about how in the refugee camps people with any teaching experience volunteer their days to try to teach children with inadequate resources. Here I am in Canada and complaining when my SMART board won’t work properly—I don’t just have it easy; I have it incredibly easy compared to these people. Yet they are so dedicated: time and again, from the youngest to the oldest, we hear them explain how keeping up with their children’s education is paramount.
This is emphasized when the team finally sits down with their guide, Dero. He’s a young man who walked to a nearby village as a child and stayed there for six months at a time, returning home only when he ran out of food, to sleep at a school and learn as best he could. For a time he organized and ran school in part of his village, until they were displaced again. He shares his aspirations to become a teacher, and then hopefully study further to become a doctor or some other occupation desperately needed by his people.
And he echoes what so many of the other interviewees say. That they bear no ill will to the soldiers who are committing these crimes. They don’t necessarily seek vengeance or retaliation (though a few do)—they want harmony, not strife. The filmmaking team always asks if their subjects have any message for American children back home. It’s usually the same: hello; we are the same as you; we hope you are well; we hope this does not happen to you.
“Heartbreaking” isn’t quite the right word here. It’s eye-opening in a tender, compelling way. Too often we see refugees depicted as these massive groups. Even in sympathetic portrayals, even when a few are interviewed, we reduce them to huddled masses. The individualized nature of these interviews is quite interesting. I also really enjoyed hearing, towards the end, how much the team realized they misunderstood or didn’t catch when they were present in Darfur, owing to the interpreters they used. And I have a lot of respect for how the team went into this crisis and worked hard to convey the voices of the people they interviewed, without editorializing. (Note: I haven’t watched the documentary itself. This is not a review of the documentary, just of this book.)
There are like two or three forewords/prefaces to Darfur DIaries. And while Marlowe explains why it was difficult to decide how much context to put into the documentary, I wish there had been more context in this book. I’m vaguely familiar with the colonial history, but not necessarily in that specific region of Africa, and we don’t want to make assumptions that every area of Africa has similar colonial experiences. One thing I learned is just how many different tribal nations call Darfur and nearby areas of Chad and Sudan their home—and indeed, where the name Darfur comes from.
Darfur Diaries is not mind-blowing. It offers no solutions or hope for the crisis as it unfolded in 2004. It doesn’t do much “new” for this genre of chronicling issues of genocide and displacement. Yet it serves its purpose well. It’s informative. It’s honest. It’s open and raw and sensitive without being sentimental or stereotypical.
It sounds like, from my cursory reading, that the situation in Darfur continues to be tragic and painful its inhabitants. Yet Darfur has largely fallen off our radar here in Canada and the West, as far as the news cycle goes. It’s impossible for us to care about everything all of the time, and we have a lot to care about right now, I know. I just wish that didn’t mean so many people losing their lives, livelihoods, and more.