Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Memoir of Darfur

By David Forsmark
Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Translator: A Memoir of Darfur
By Daoud Hari
Random House, $23, 204 pp.

Here's something actor George Clooney doesn't mention about his pet cause, the genocide in Darfur: It's the direct result of Arab Islamofascists imposing sharia law on traditional African peoples in remote western Sudan, most of whom are Muslims.

In fact, if you read a history of Darfur on the website of "Not on Our Watch," a charity founded by Clooney and half the cast of his Ocean's Eleven remake, the only people identified by religion are the two rebel groups who resisted Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir's brutal regime in 2003.

Likewise, you can watch CBS News reporter Scott Pelley's 13-minute Darfur feature on 60 Minutes , you'll never hear any reference to Islam.

But Daoud Hari's memoir, The Translator, is anything but a political book, it is the very personal story of an inimitable and courageous man who nevertheless pulls no punches in explaining the nature of the evil that has created this humanitarian disaster.

As Daoud explains, war has broken out twice in Sudan since a 1972 peace agreement that was supposed to establish a lasting, united government. Both times, the ruling Arab majority — first led by Ja'afar Nemeiri in 1983, then, by Ahmad al-Bashir in 1989—imposed sharia law on Sudan.
"This was a big shock to everyone," Daoud writes, "I was in high school at the time, and all of us wanted to fight it."

Daoud's father sent him to study in a northern city away from the fighting. Life in Darfur in the 1990s was hazardous, and Bashir's oppression provoked rebellions which were brutally put down — though nothing quite like the future genocide which was still years away.

Daoud fell in love with Western literature -- and Westerns. He decided to see the wider world. Unfortunately, he illegally crossed into Israel and was arrested.

"So I did get to Beersheba," he writes ruefully, "But only to the prison there. It was actually very nice with color television and free international calls. I would recommend it even over many hotels I have known."

This is a recurring theme with the steadfatstly moral Hari. While taking some note of the West's inaction in Darfur, he never resorts to moral equivalence. He urges all Muslims to remember America's generosity in taking in thousands of Sudanese orphans, and, later, he notes the sight of American military uniforms is a source of great relief at a time of grave danger. "This is the good America," he writes.

Israel would not deport Daoud to Sudan, where he would likely be killed, so he was booted to Egypt, where a long stay in a harsh Cairo prison that nearly did him in anyway. "You might have some idea of how bad a prison can be, with the filth and darkness and violence of it, but you would still have some ways to go," he notes in direct contrast to his time in Israeli incarceration.

Eventually, thanks to pleas from his tribal leaders and human rights organizations, Daoud barely avoided being extradited to Sudan,and survived Egyptian hospitality. But once again, he left a frying pan for the fire.

Many Americans think of Darfur as a vast refugee camp, unaware it is a region about the size of Texas. Daoud arrived home as Bashir's government unleashed its military might and equipped nomadic Arab horsemen -- known as the janjaweed -- with the sole purpose of exterminating Darfur's tribes.

Daoud reached his home village on the eve of its being targeted by the Sudanese government for extinction. He had barely settled in when Russia-supplied bombers, followed by helicopter gunships, struck the village from the air. They machine-gunned the populace in preparation for the janjaweed to attack on the ground.

Daoud's older brother, Ahmed, had the men organized into a defense force, and they provided enough cover for Daoud to lead some villagers into the hills. Ahmed was killed, but Daoud was able to make it to Chad and the refugee camps along with a group of refugees and others they had met on the way and helped.

It was here that Daoud discovered his mission. His travels and literary tastes had given him multilingual fluency, and he made himself useful first to aid workers, then to journalists and then to the investigators who came to decide if genocide was being perpetrated in Darfur.

The Translator treats us to scenes of unspeakable horror, from large-scale slaughter of villages to haunting individual acts of cruelty, such as a janjaweed thug bayoneting a toddler in front of her helpless father and leaving him to live with the horror of his memories because killing him would have been more merciful.

Even at the camps, women who go to gather firewood are routinely raped by the janjaweed. If the men go or resist, they are slaughtered.

Eventually, too many people became aware of Daoud's activities on both sides of the border. Along with American journalist Paul Slopek and a driver, Daoud was captured by government forces in a trap laid for him.

This marvelous passage contrasts the enemy and the man who refused to buckle to them:

"'We are going to kill you right now,' one of them said, 'We will show you who you are dealing with now.' They opened their cell phones and waved the screen image of their hero, Osama bin Laden, and the burning of the World Trade Center Towers in Paul's face.

"It is interesting to me that people bother to shout at you, or even to hurt you, when they are planning to kill you. What lesson will that teach you if you are going to be dead? It has always seemed like a waste of energy… So kill us, please do. But don't hurt our ears with your screaming or show us pictures on your cell phone. Just do what you have to do and leave our bodies in peace."

The harrowing account of the three men in the hands of their Arab captors is the stuff of thrillers, and their eventual escape is rousing reading.

Daoud Hari makes little of his own courage and heroism, recounting his own actions matter-of-factly. He saves the emotion in his narrative for describing the plight of the victims, the evil of their persecutors and his praise for the aid workers and journalists who travel to Darfur though it is not their fight.

Some 400 thousand people have been killed by Bashir's Islamofascist forces, and another 2.3 million are displaced in terrible conditions. Darfur has oddly become the cause celebre for some of Hollywood's most outspoken antiwar liberals, taking their typical stance that the only just war is the one America is not currently fighting.

Darfur stands as a testament to the impotence of the United Nations and the so-called "international community." But Hari's book is so much more than a collection of horror stories.

The Translator is a superb paen to human and moral courage, plus a valuable eyewitness record of incredible evil. Hari's unflagging decency and courage in the face of most dire situations and unspeakable horror is inspirational. Spending a couple of afternoons with Daoud Hari is essential nourishment for the soul. Don't miss this book.

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