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'I Saw Cruel Misery in Darfur'
[Interview] Rob Crilly, a freelance journalist says ICC warrant is more salt to deep injuries
Amin George Forji (amingeorge)     Print Article 
Published 2009-03-14 11:08 (KST)   
Rob Crilly
©2009 Rob Crilly
The recent arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court on Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity is first of its kind for a sitting president. No wonder, it has sparked unrivalled discussion on the subject.

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While there is universal consensus that we must no longer sit back and watch rogue governments brutalize, torture and /or massacre sections of its own populations; there is yet to be a deadlock on how to go about this. Although the ICC has been elevated to the status of a world court in humanitarian cases, there are still many who believe it is no more than a deterrence chamber.

I recently conducted an interview with Rob Crilly, a freelance journalist who has actually visited the Darfur conflict zone, with his latest assignment at the eve of the arrest warrant. He described the gravity of the humanitarian situation in the region, and although he asserted there is obviously a strong case against Omar Al-Bashir, he nevertheless expressed doubts whether the time is appropriate for the recent action.
I conducted the interview between March 11 and March 15, through exchange of emails.

You are a seasoned freelancer and blogger, specialised on Africa. Tell me your experiences and why you chose this trade in the first place.

I was always interested in news and current affairs, so a career in journalism was inevitable. There are few jobs as interesting, varied and exhillerating. Before coming to Africa I worked for a Scottish national newspaper at a time when journalism in Britain was more and more about sitting in front of a computer screen and relying on the telephone. In Africa you have to live, eat and breathe the job. There are no shortcuts. Days are spent bouncing around in the back of trucks, sleeping under the stars or riding donkeys. In short, it's a blast. It's not going to change the world, but it's an adventure.

The humanitarian situation in Darfur, Sudan has been one of your interests. You have even taken a step further by recently paying a trip to the region. How were you able to travel to Darfur, considering the bureaucracy and uncertain security conditions?

The first challenge is getting a visa. I've visited so many times now that the staff at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi generally look after me very well. I also applied well before we knew when the ICC announcement was coming. In the past couple of weeks my colleagues in Nairobi have been struggling to obtain an entry visa.

The next step, once in Khartoum, is to pick up a travel permit for Darfur. That generally takes a week so I always try to ensure I have some stories to do in the capital while I wait. Sometimes that permit never arrives so it can be a frustrating business.

The permit allows journalists to visit Darfur's regional capitals. Once there it is important to register with the Humanitarian Affairs Commission and National Security, and ask them for permission to visit camps or venture out of town. Again it's a case of being patient and doing everything - no matter how trivial - they ask. Forms have to be photocopied, translated into Arabic, you are sent from office to office seeking a missing stamp and so on.

It is generally difficult and time consuming. You need plenty of dollars while you wait in hotels and so on. But it is doable.

Briefly recount the gravity of the humanitarian condition in Darfur, as you saw it. What is the life of an ordinary Darfurian like right now?

More than four million people need aid. About two and a half million of those live in camps with no immediate prospect of returning home. Conditions are miserable. Security is a problem and most people feel like prisoners. Things have been difficult since the start of the conflict but one of the small success has been the humanitarian operation that kept many key indicators pointing in the right direction.

It is also worth noting that many Darfuris are profiting from the conflict. There are jobs with NGOs and the UN-AU peacekeeping force. The shops and markets are bustling in the main cities. And homeowners are generating huge rents.

How much do they rely on AID and the outside world? Is the Sudanese government of any kind of support to their lives?

The people in the camps rely almost entirely on aid. Provision of water and sanitation, food distributions and medicine are some of the roles played by international charities. That means the decision to expel 13 international NGOs is critical. The Sudanese government does have a role. It is nominally in charge of the aid operation and runs the camps. There are Sudanese NGOs that also have a part to play. However, the expertise of organizations such as Oxfam, Care and MSF cannot be replaced overnight - if at all.

Some UN agencies and the remaining NGOs can take over some of the tasks. But not very quickly and not all of them.

The ICC just issued an arrest warrant on the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir on Darfur, stirring much international conversation. What is your take on the ICC verdict?

I have no doubt that there is a strong case against President al-Bashir. His government has been responsible for crimes against civilians. But I don't believe that branding him a war criminal is the right road to go down.

Seeking justice is a proposition that gets more attractive the further you get from Sudan or Africa. This continent is full of messy, nasty wars that have been stopped with messy, nasty peace deals that have avoided notions of justice in favour of finding peace. Sure a just peace is the best type of peace, but I think we'll have to endure many, many more years of war before we find a perfect solution. Indicting Bashir backs him into a corner and risks undermining the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which brought peace to the south. So why not leave justice for the time being and try to focus on peace, opening dialogue, and getting the people in the camps home.

As someone who has actually visited Darfur, what do you predict would be the most likely consequences especially to the affected Darfurians if the verdict is enforced or not enforced?

Well I think the question doesn't hold enough waters because there is no way the ICC can arrest Bashir so it's really nothing other than a threat. The impact is already becoming clear though, and we are seeing what many opponents of the ICC and humanitarian agencies warned about. Bashir has reacted with spite and the conditions for many Darfuris are already much, much worse. I guess this might be acceptable if we could see some way out, but Bashir is going nowhere at the moment.

What are your present fears and hopes?

The fear is that things will still get worse. In a matter of weeks the camps could become seething cauldrons of unrest, lacking food, clean water and riddled with disease. The pressure on the international community to do something - anything - will intensify and we'll see some badly thought out responses. No-fly zones are already back on the agenda, even though most people with experience on the ground will tell you they won't work.

The worry is that the ICC move has ratcheted everything up and begun a series of escalations that cannot be stopped. Once again it will be the ordinary people of Darfur that will suffer.

Hopes? Not really.

Any other remarks?

One of the big problems is the polarisation of the debate about what's best for Darfur. Many organisations working on the ground in Darfur cannot speak publicly for risk of being accused by Khartoum of pursuing a political agenda. So the debate has been dominated by people outside, such as the Save Darfur coalition based in New York. These voices often take a rights-based, black and white approach to the problem.

This is not the way people here in Sudan - diplomats, aid workers and United Nations officials - see it. They tend to emphasise the complexity of the problem and are concerned that the public debate focuses on demonising Khartoum, backing the government into a corner.

But people who take this different, more nuanced view are often shouted down as "Khartoum sympathisers" if they object to the Save Darfur analysis.

The result has been an international approach that has focused on military intervention and the ICC and forgotten to push for peace talks and dialogue.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Amin George Forji

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