By Mia MacDonald
Monday, 11 May 2009
It’s hard to believe it’s the third and final day of the conference. In a way, it seems like we just arrived. In another, it feels like we’ve been here for weeks, if not longer. We’ve come to expect conversations across meals and coffee breaks that span region, sector, discipline, and point of view. So, another morning in Antigua, Guatemala: Safaa, from Darfur in Sudan, is explaining to a small group of Americans and an Australian what’s next in terms of the political process, specifically the Sudanese national elections planned for February 2010. I join in, along with my breakfast plate: black beans (frijoles), plantains and a fried potato cake. I listen and then I ask a question, to which Safaa replies. “We are not going anywhere.”
I’d wondered whether, if the south of Sudan decides to become independent in 2011, Darfurians might want to join them. Safaa goes on to describe, briefly, the history of Sudan and the centrality of Darfurians to it. She reminds us that nearly everyone in Darfur is a Muslim, like those in the north of Sudan. Moreover, she continues, it’s the politicians who have made use of “tribal” identity, or Arab and African, as a means to divide people. At the local level, Safaa assures us, such distinctions don’t have weight. There, it’s not about tribes. “People at the local level can work out their issues,” Safaa says.
Meeting someone like Safaa turns prevailing and gendered images on their head. Yes, the suffering in Darfur has been immense, and yes, women’s rights and bodily integrity have been attacked relentlessly. Yes, most of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Sudan and Chad who’ve fled the conflict in Darfur are women and children. They are victims, but they are also leaders—exercising agency for themselves and many others. Safaa speaks with determination, force even. She’s tall; unbowed, one could say. Her organization is based in Khartoum, but her work is, she says, “on the ground in Darfur”.
We discuss a recently published book about Darfur and the Save Darfur Coalition by political scientist Mahmoud Mamdani, a Ugandan who teaches at Columbia University in New York. He views the conflict as having been simplified—Arab vs. African—in a way that has ultimately made the Western response at best unhelpful and at worst detrimental (devastatingly so) to a durable political solution.
I ask if the Sudanese government gave her trouble about traveling outside the country. Yes, she says, but that’s nothing new. She and her colleagues expect it now, but they proceed with their work in any case. In fact, Safaa’s just spent 10 days in Germany, working on constitutional issues related to Darfur in the context of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA). The Khartoum government sees Sudan as an Arab country, she says, as we walk to the morning plenary. But it isn’t, she continues, and won’t be. As we part, Safaa greets Lena, from Palestine, in fluent Arabic, on the terrace.