While “Darfur” has become a buzzword in current talks of genocide and human rights, few people truly understand the roots of the conflict in Sudan. Even fewer have seen it firsthand. Santa Fe photojournalist Lucian Niemeyer is one of the few. He has made a career of documenting foreign cultures and creating awareness for the suffering, travelling to Sudan in 2006 to visit both the wealthier North and the persecuted South.
Niemeyer’s newest book, Darfur—published May 1 by University of New Mexico Press—features his compelling photographs and narration of the historical roots of the conflict in Sudan, traced back to 3000 BC, as well as the story of his trip in 2006.
The simplest explanation of the genocide in Darfur is that the government of Sudan (GOS) has directly and indirectly killed black Muslims and farmers of the African Fur tribe in great numbers. There have been an estimated 300,000 deaths since 2003 (a figure that is strongly disputed by the Sudanese government; President Omar al-Bashir suggests a number closer to 9,000), and an additional 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homelands, having moved into refugee camps in Sudan, Kenya and Chad, including those near the cities of Nyala in Sudan and Jach in northern Kenya, which Niemeyer visited in 2006.
This is the simple explanation, but the history of the conflict is anything but easy to grasp.
For 5,000 years, Arabs and Africans have been at odds in the area that comprises present-day Sudan. But persecution of Africans—both Muslim and non-Muslim—took a turn for the worse in 1956, when the British government established the capital in Khartoum. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Southerners and African tribesmen in the Nuba Mountains banded together to form the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement to fight the conservative Muslim leaders in the North; the resulting genocide has since been known as the Second Sudanese Civil War.
The latest conflict was set off when Fur tribesmen rebelled against the GOS around 2003. The GOS employed mercenaries from Arabic-speaking nomadic tribes to put down the uprising. Instead of controlling the rebels, however, the mercenaries, known as the Janjaweed, took on a massive killing spree of southern Sudanese tribes. When the Janjaweed found themselves spread too thin, the GOS supplied troops, weapons and funds to get the job done. The resulting genocide has killed hundreds of thousands and has displaced millions.
Niemeyer’s first book on Africa, Africa: The Holocausts of Rwanda and Sudan, was highly critical of the Sudanese government, and Niemeyer didn’t think he would be able to enter Sudan in 2006. However, through his cousin Richard Niemeyer, a physician who has established numerous hospitals in Sudan, he managed to get a visa. What he found was a primitive country steeped in prejudice, but whose refugees remain resilient despite the meager conditions in which they live.
SFR: You mention briefly in your book that oil profits play a part in the conflict in Darfur. Can you expand on that?
LN: The oil is found in the South. There is probably more oil under Darfur than any place in the world. That’s what they say. The North knows that the reserves in the South are very strong, but the only pipeline goes through the North, up through the Nuba Mountains and to the Red Sea. So the idea was that there would be a sharing of profits, but that hasn’t happened.
China has been quite involved in the oil there, correct?
China has been very much involved. Because of this, they have found themselves having a source of oil, and they have used gunships and troops to fight against the Southern rebels, the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army], to keep them away from the oil fields…When my wife and I went into the oil field area, the [relief] plane was supposed to come one day and it didn’t come because they had been buzzed by Chinese jets. The Chinese were working very hard because, let’s face it, Sudan is a client of China. China’s been giving them grants, giving them money, putting buildings and infrastructure in, and so anytime [an incentive] comes in through the United Nations [against the Sudanese government], it gets vetoed by the Chinese.
So one veto can kill a bill in the UN?
Yes, in the Security Council. One vote creates a problem. For instance, on the other side of the coin, we are the vote that defends Israel. China traditionally vetoes anything having to do with Sudan.
You included many pictures of a school for girls in the New Sereif refugee camp near Nyala. What was your experience with the schools?
My heart! The whole thing broke my heart. The girls in the schools lifted you up. Human nature is amazing. It’s always resilient; it will always try to make the best out of the worst. It’s beautiful. When I saw those girls, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, answering the teacher with enthusiasm, learning—and they had never been to school, never had an opportunity—your heart soars. It’s very, very beautiful.
The camps basically exist because of a number of NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], but their existence in Sudan is in jeopardy.
Yes. [Sudanese President] al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of war crimes by the UN. He’s now waiting to be served. His generals have been indicted too, and none of them want to give up their authority. Al-Bashir was mad and he kicked out the NGOs—he’s kicked out 60 percent of people who are providing the help, and now he’s told the rest of them that they have till the end of the year. So what he’s done is he has left these refugee camps out in the cold. Totally. Eighty percent of the food going into Darfur is from the US. And it’s not just food coming in; you have to have a distribution net; you have to have trucks, people, honest people—prior to the faith-based organizations going in, most of the food didn’t even leave the ports, there was so much corruption. So I see real trouble.
When is the Sudanese government going to trial?
They’re not going to trial because they can’t be arrested. They’re going to stay in their country. They’re not going to give that up.
In the book, you paint a picture of the refugee camps as a haven for those who have been displaced from their farms.
Yes, but the problem is you can’t grow food. There’s no place to grow food. You have the wells for the camp, but they don’t have enough to raise goats, cattle, corn—that’s the bad part. The good part is that the refugees have a safe haven. When the women would leave the refugee camp to go out and find wood—because we didn’t provide wood—they would get raped; they would get killed. The only safe haven was the refugee camps.
What stops the Janjaweed from coming into the camps?
There’s so many people in the camps, and there are not that many Janjaweed, so they wouldn’t do that well against it. They’ll pick off on the outskirts.
With the action al-Bashir has taken against NGOs, will the safety of the camps be compromised?
Oh, absolutely. No doubt. The refugees won’t be able to live in the camps, but where are they going to go? In this kind of situation, even in the most dire circumstances, the NGOs provided a way for people to live. All of a sudden, when you remove that way, the refugees have no way to go back; the wells have been poisoned in their homelands; the Janjaweed would kill them anyway—there is no answer. Unless the world steps in, I don’t see an answer.
What were the Nyala markets like? I was amazed by your photographs of the car chassis being used as carts behind donkeys.
Those people with the chassis are very wealthy people. The markets are very primitive. Sanitation is very primitive. There are no such things as toilets. There are holes in the ground. They’re rough.
Branching off of that, you said you lost 30 pounds. What happened?
I had some bad food in Uganda. I ate some french fries that I believe were cooked in motor oil. Very bad oil. I got sick from that. Several other things happened: For instance, you must drink a lot when you go out in the sun. There’s no way to stay hydrated—it’s 115 degrees with no shade. Every time I go to Africa, I run into the same problem: I get dehydrated; I get sick. This time I was dehydrated because of the earlier food, but I also found out something else. I usually don’t get sick when I fly in airplanes. But when I fly in the airplanes that go up to 15,000 feet with no oxygen, no pressurization, I get sick. It was the trip I lost the most weight on.
You had previously published a book that was very critical of the Sudanese government. How did they treat you when you visited the North?
The government showed me things they wanted to show me, but I knew the history, so I knew what was going on. A good example is that, at the opening dinner they had for us—which was very nice—they wanted me to meet the archbishop of Sudan, who was Episcopalian. He and his wife came and sat next to me. But what had happened is that I had known beforehand that he had sold out to the government. But they had a whole résumé on me, and they knew I was Episcopalian, so they set it up the way they wanted. The reason they wanted us there was to see if we could help them get the sanctions off, so they could get supplies, parts for planes.
Aside from the health concerns, you mentioned the government is hostile toward the media. Did you ever fear for your personal safety?
No, not this time. That only happened when my wife came in. We were in the oil fields, and that was the front line. The next morning we woke up, and we heard all the booming going on of
cannons and firing. The commander came to us and said, ‘The North has attacked us, and if we lose the battle you have 10 minutes to flee into the wilderness.’ The fighting was about two, 2½ miles from us. It was noisy, loud and, at 2 o’clock, the commander told us he’d won. He said he lost 150 people. At 5 o’clock, all the women came carrying on their backs the straw mats with the wounded people. You’re on the front lines, and that’s why I’ve tried to tell the story.
Did you speak to any African Union troops while you were there? I noticed you took a photo from a distance.
No, the government wouldn’t let me speak to them. And you know, they wanted to take my camera away. So I was lucky to keep that—when they questioned me, I kind of acted dumb. I didn’t look like a photographer. When I go into the bush, I go very light. I don’t wear anything that’s different. I go very light so I’m not obtrusive. That’s what saved me in that situation.
In the pictures, there are many women with little babies. But the women look very aged. Did you get a sense of how old people actually were?
Yes. Basically, in northern Sudan, they say that the life expectancy in that area is well under 50, maybe 42, 43. In southern Sudan it’s 39. When we were doing work there, I asked villagers, ‘Who is your oldest man?’ and they pointed him out to me. So I went over there with an interpreter and I said, ‘I understand that you’re the oldest man in the village.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was born in 1943.’ And I said, ‘I was born in 1937.’ If I told people that I was 70, [there’s] no way they would believe me.
So these women were maybe in their 30s at the absolute oldest?
Yes. They die very early. There are no hospitals, there are no such things as antibiotics; there’s no such thing as birthing care. There’s nothing there. I witnessed a birthing right in a mud hut. The woman squats and she’s helped a little bit by people around her—but there’s nothing extraordinary.
Gov. Bill Richardson wrote forwards for three of your books, including this one. Can you talk about his role in the Darfur conflict?
The first time I met him, he pulled on my eyebrows and asked, ‘Are they real?’ He was the ambassador for the UN, and he did some work over in Sudan. He arranged to get [journalist Paul Salopek], who lived here in New Mexico, released from Sudan when [Salopek] went illegally through Chad. After the Africa book was released, the governor must have gotten a lot of praise on it because he wanted to do the forward for Darfur. He asked to do it. He went over to Sudan in 2007 to try to create peace for Darfur and was not successful. Al-Bashir can’t afford a peace there.
Does Richardson have enough rapport with al-Bashir that they could possibly talk again and get further along toward a peace?
They could speak, but I don’t think that Gov. Richardson would do it again because of the fact that he had no results. Al-Bashir said he would think about it, and nothing ever happened. I don’t think that there’s a vehicle there.
Do you see any possible solution?
You have to empower the NGOs again, and there has to be a UN mandate that just goes in there and does it. The African Union troops are worthless. They’re beholden to the government to exist, so they’re loyal to the government and not taking care of the people. They placate the government by not going out and not creating a problem. The troops’ morale goes down because they’re just sitting in their barracks and, when they do go out to fight the rebels, they get their butts handed to them.
It’s a difficult situation. People say, ‘Stop it in Darfur! Stop it in Darfur!’ but no one can get in or out. No one can stop it.
We keep saying, ‘Never again, never again’—they’re vacuous words because we never really get to the issue, whether it be religions or governments. It’s very nice to say ‘no more Darfur,’ but we’d better see that, when there’s that kind of separation of cultures, you have to somehow cement the gap. We don’t understand genocide, and we’re going to have them until we understand them. SFR