Calling from the top of a rubbish dump in the earthquake-destroyed city in Muzaffarabad, I could connect by phone to Khartoum. And from the foothills of the Himalayas, overlooking the Vale of Kashmir and the Neelum and Jhelum rivers, I accepted a job in Darfur.
“Time to move,” I had been told by wiser heads. “Once the emergency phase is over the politics starts, development intervenes, and nothing happens.” During the earthquake, the mantra of relief workers was “Don’t make a catastrophe out of a crisis.” The real catastrophe was elsewhere – no matter how bad the destruction and loss of life in Pakistan, it was a different order of magnitude to the catastrophe of Darfur. All disasters and emergencies are to some degree “man-made”: in Pakistan, we saw complicity through poor construction standards and a sluggish government response.
In Darfur the decision had been taken by the country’s president and senior leaders to kill, rape and displace, systematically and indiscriminately, whole groups of people based on an increasingly racialised conception of ethnicity. Belatedly, and after the worst of the killing spree was over, the international community had turned its head towards Darfur.
From Islamabad I flew to Melbourne, wincing as the customs officer in Lahore stamped my passport with a red X and the words Do not readmit, and from Melbourne to London and then back again across the globe to Dubai, Amman and Khartoum. I sat next to young Americans mostly on this Middle Eastern leg – some naive and some sceptical, the fresh-faced and the haggard, mercenaries and Wilsonian internationalists. It was my reading matter that started the conversations on the plane – and ironic, perhaps, that George Orwell had become hallowed ground for these illiberal interventionists going to reshape the Middle East.
I flew on, transcending worlds and time while watching videos in my metal tube, until fifty hours after I started, dots of houses emerged from the expanse of desert tan, clinging tightly to the confluence of the White and Blue Niles. From the air Khartoum came into view – not the resonant place of my imagination conjured by the words Omdurman and dervish, the place of heroic imperial last stands, the literal and metaphorical “heart of Africa” – but a neat, modern city arranged in lines, perched precariously on the edge of vast waves of desert tending massively and irrevocably to the interior.
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Written by Tom Bamforth, Adjunct Researcher, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on Inside Story.