Confronting the Horror, Staying Alive

December 31, 2019

Eric Reeves at his lathe 



Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and President of Decision Research, kindly asked me to write a brief essay for the website Given Paul’s extraordinarily important academic and publishing career, I was honored to be asked. The following is, then, a second "Sudan valediction.”


My second book on Sudan and Darfur began with a dedication that might have seemed incongruous to readers. The dedication was to two people: the first was my friend and colleague Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Eisa, the former director of the Amal Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Survivors of Torture in Nyala, South Darfur. I said of him what many others would say of his magnificently brave work helping women and girls ls who had been victims of sexual violence in Darfur, and kept—at great risk—records that allowed for eventual publication of “Medical Evidence of Human Rights Violations against Non-Arabic-Speaking Civilians in Darfur: A Cross-Sectional Study,” PLoS Medicine (April 2012). “Dr. Mohamed,” as we referred to him, was the very embodiment of human courage, intelligence, and strength.


The second person to whom I dedicated my very long, detailed, finally archival book was “‘Ahmed’ of Kassab Camp,” a young boy who died anonymously in a flood near Kassab Internally Displaced Persons camp (North Darfur) during the floods of September 2010. I simply assigned him the common name “Ahmed,” and learned nothing more about him from the contemporaneous Radio Dabanga dispatch, or subsequently. I accompanied my dedication to him with the conclusion to Geoffrey Hill’s overpowering poetic invocation of the Holocaust, “September Song”:

“This is plenty. This is more than enough.”


The words bring to perfect closure a brief, supremely painful poem—and one that speaks of the singularity that is so often effaced in great human tragedies. Individuality is absorbed, finally overwhelmed by the numbers that understandably seek to give a sense of scale, historical dimension, and degree of loss and destruction,


I chose to dedicate a book that represented years of research and writing to the most anonymous of figures—precisely because he was so anonymous, because his brief suffering was reported in such terse fashion, rendered only accidentally, and as quickly as “Ahmed” must have drowned. “Ahmed” was the embodiment of the cruel anonymity, the statistical representation (and more often misrepresentation) of the Darfur genocide, the all but invisible loss that I wanted to throw into some sort of relief among the great numbers that have died at Kassab camp, and the more than 100 other IDP camps in Darfur. Millions of human beings have become displaced persons or turned into refugees; hundreds of thousands have died over the past 17 years of ethnically-targeted destruction of the non-Arab/African peoples of Darfur.


The very duration of the Darfur genocide has also been statistically numbing. It is now the longest, and in some sense the most successful genocide in over a century. It had been in high gear for six years at the beginning of the Obama administration in January 2009, and yet for all the high profile it had enjoyed internationally—especially in the U.S.—it essentially disappeared as a human rights cause célèbre. Not because the killing had stopped, or because the epidemic of sexual violence against girls and women had ended, or because the destruction of African villages had ended—but because U.S. priorities for Sudan policy had been begun to shift in emphasis during the Bush administration toward securing from the Khartoum regime of Omar al-Bashir counter-terrorism intelligence (arrest warrants charging al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur were issued by the International Criminal Court in 2009/2010 following a UN Security Council referral of atrocity crimes in Darfur to the ICC in 2005).


So powerfully did priorities shift under the Obama administration that a senior State Department official is recorded (without an attribution of a name) as declaring that Darfur—and continuing genocide—should be “de-coupled” from the major bilateral issues between Washington and Khartoum, centering on cooperation on terrorism (the word “de-couple” can be found in an official State Department transcript of this briefing). This was so despite candidate Obama’s declaring in the 2008 campaign that Darfur was a “stain on our souls,” and that if he were President, he would not stand by while such slaughter occurred.


In a grim irony, it was during the first year of Obama’s second term, 2013, that President al-Bashir created the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), quickly dubbed “the new Janjaweed.” I have recorded in very considerable detail the violence that followed from the creation of the RSF, and nothing belies Obama’s unctuous campaign words than the ongoing slaughter that followed with the loosing of the RSF, led by the unfathomably brutal Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as “Hemeti.”  Three human rights reports—in 2015 and 2016—by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—made clear how comprehensive the destruction of African groups was meant to be. Perhaps the most chilling moment in the Human Rights report given over specifically to the RSF was a deserting militiaman’s account of the instructions he received from Vice President Hassabo Mohamed Abdel Rahman (emphasis in bold added):

Ahmed, a 35-year-old officer in the Border Guards, spent two weeks at a military base in Guba in December 2014 before being sent to fight rebels around Fanga. Two senior RSF officials, the commanding officer, Alnour Guba, and Col. Badre ab-Creash were present on the Guba base. 

Ahmed said that a few days prior to leaving for East Jebel Marra, Sudanese Vice President Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman directly addressed several hundred army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers: 

“Hassabo told us to clear the area east of Jebel Marra. To kill any male. He said we want to clear the area of insects… He said East Jebel Marra is the kingdom of the rebels. We don’t want anyone there to be alive.”

            (December 2014)

Few read the Human Rights report; fewer yet accepted that Vice-President Hassabo’s words reflected the wishes of the al-Bashir regime. But in the years following the creation of the RSF in 2013, Hassabo’s instructions were followed with grim relentlessness. If the animus that generated the statistics I recorded is not recognized, the power of those statistics is too much diminished.

But if statistics can too easily betray with their enormity, it is often the case that this enormity is not sufficiently appreciated or even honestly represented—or because there is a fear of what might be revealed by a true rendering of that enormity. The last time the UN estimated the number of dead in the Darfur genocide, both from the direct and indirect effects of ethnically-targeted violence, was April 2008—over eleven years ago; the figure offered by the head of UN humanitarian operations was 300,000.  To be sure, mortality and morbidity data have been systematically suppressed by Khartoum, with an unforgiveable acquiescence from UN humanitarian agencies. But there are data, indeed very considerable data. Using all the data available, I calculated that by late 2010 the number was approximately 500,000 dead, and that the figure now exceeds 600,000. I have received no meaningful challenge to my conclusion, my methodology, or the character of the data I have aggregated. If I’m right, some quarter of a million people have had their deaths statistically elided in news reporting, which continues to cite the figure of 300,000 because the UN has offered no other.

Similarly, while no figure for the number of girls and women raped has been offered by any research group or organization, a systematic aggregation of data in two of my several monographs makes clear that the number must be many tens of thousands.  If we can’t know how many, that is because Khartoum is even more sensitive about data concerning sexual violence than about mortality. Accounts of sexual violence began with a report by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 2005. The Dutch national section that authored the report saw as the immediate consequence the arrest of its two most senior officials by the al-Bashir regime, charged with “crimes against the state”—only the most dramatic indication of how sensitive the regime was to what was in fact a fundamental weapon of war in Darfur.

But when I confront the quite imprecise figure of “many tens of thousands,” I find that I cannot go numb, or regard the figure as anything but a nightmarish extension of my encounter with every dispatch published by every news organization, every report…all of which I force myself to read. As the father of two daughters, I find that such insistent reading sustains in me both incandescent rage and profound incomprehension. “What can possess men and boys to gang-rape, perhaps fatally, a ten-year-old girl before her family and village?” “What cognitive and emotional world must one inhabit to participate in such unspeakable cruelty and destruction?” I have no answers to these questions, and never have had. But they stay with me, and force a singularity upon every new dispatch I read. It is not a habit I recommend, but it ensures against statistical numbing.

The figures for displacement and mortality do exceed my ability to fathom. But again, constantly reading about the nature of the appallingly attenuated lives of those in the IDP camps; reading about the almost daily killings—so often indiscriminate, fueled only by racial animus and the belief that African farmlands are there for the taking; forcing myself to stay as deeply engaged with news as it comes from Darfur—all have worked against statistical numbness.

But what can I say of my response to the horrors in Yemen? In Syria? In western China? What can I say of my response to the genocidal destruction of the Rohingya?  More and less, but my responses are never as intense as to what I know is occurring in Darfur. No one can engage as deeply as I have in Sudan for twenty-one years in every global horror, every engineered humanitarian crisis, every genocide. I am an above-average consumer of world news about the crises I’ve enumerated, but no expert, and am acutely susceptible to numbing, if more wary than many of my fellow “above average consumers of international news.”

Twenty-one years of work on Sudan, a strange singularity I’ll be the first to admit, gives me no real insight into the psychology of statistical numbing. What I can say is that I have seen in Sudan the ways in which international actors permit, even encourage statistical numbing—sometimes by resorting to mendacious statistical generalizations and distorted figures. National and regional interests and priorities have provided a powerful incentive for the UN, the U.S., the members of the EU, the African Union, the League of Arab States, and others to misrepresent realities that, if truthfully rendered, might actually exceed our capacity to become numb.

The truth may not set us free, and it certainly barely saved “Ahmed” from complete obscurity. But in the end, we must force ourselves—again and again and again—to understand that behind the most important statistics lie precious human realities.  There is no one time “inoculation” against numbness or indifference; there is only the will not to acquiesce in gratuitous suffering, even if quantified in the most abstract of forms. This I believe is the animating reality of human moral life. I say with Miranda of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,

“O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer!”  



Please reload

Share this post:

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon