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Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, 'Darfur: A New History of a Long War', revised and updated edition

Zed Books, 2008, ISBN 978 1 842779 50 7; 320pp, £12.99

This book is not an easy read in any sense of the term and hardly anyone emerges from its pages with much credit. It lays bare, in great detail, the origins of the present conflict in Darfur and how it has unfolded in recent years. Needless to say, the true picture is considerably more complex than that presented by the mass media which, in any event, were somewhat late upon the scene.

“Until March 2004, Darfur’s crisis unfolded in the typical manner of African civil wars, unremarked in the world’s media, with horrific human suffering, barely mitigated by low-key diplomacy and uphill efforts to get a modest relief programme in gear” (p179).

When the international media and community did engage with the conflict, inevitably they sought to do so on their own terms and in pursuit of their own agendas.

One bizarre and worrying aspect of this was the extent to which certain interpretations of events took on a life of their own irrespective of what was actually happening on the ground. “Once the twin narrative themes of genocide and ‘things are getting worse’ were established, they could not be shifted” (p189).

When George Clooney addressed the UN Security Council in September 2006 “on behalf of the millions of people who will die”, the number of conflict-related deaths in Darfur was averaging around 200 a month: still far too many, but a massive reduction.

When, in August 2006, UN officials bemoaned the fact that many in Darfur were “beyond the reach of aid”, it did not occur to them that they might be able to manage without it. Some of the “no-go” areas for international agencies were places where people were “mending their societies… and patiently rebuilding their lives with the little that was left to them” (p189).

This is not to minimise the very real suffering that has characterised the recent and continuing crisis, but to put it into a more nuanced context.

Anyone wanting to find out more about Darfur should make this book priority reading.