Dec 4, 2013
Can Drag Queens and Hired Guns Save Darfur?
Posted on Jun 28, 2007
Can Drag Queens and Hired Guns Save Darfur?
BANJUL, GAMBIA—Cpl. Buju Ceesay wants to meet the young men who gyrated in sequin ball gowns and stilettos for his sake. They worship at a synagogue in Minneapolis, Minn.; he prays at a mosque in Banjul, Gambia. They are high school activists; he’s a 27-year-old peacekeeper with the African Union in Darfur. But even across 5,000 miles and a yawning cultural chasm, Cpl. Ceesay is pleased to hear about the “Drag Ball for Darfur” held at Congregation Shir Tikvah in May. Dancing across the stage in outrageous costumes, the students raised more than $7,000 for the Genocide Intervention Network, which in turn finances firewood patrols like the ones Ceesay conducts for the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). “These patrols are the only way for us to protect women in the camps from rape and abduction as they venture out in search of sticks and twigs for their cooking,” the Gambian soldier explains. “But the African Union lacks the funds and morale to keep [the patrols] going, so we’ll take any help we can get ... including drag queens.”
The crisis facing peacekeepers in Darfur has never looked so bleak. As the international community stands by, they slog into their fourth year without the resources or mandate to end the violence that’s killed at least 200,000 civilians and displaced 2.5 million more before their eyes. “We feel like frauds,” explains Pvt. Alasana Minteh, who served in the Zalingei area. “We have no maps, [have] broken radios, and our translators are on strike. ... How can we protect the people of Darfur when we can barely protect ourselves?”
A glimmer of hope emerged two weeks ago when Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir yielded to international pressure and accepted a proposed influx of United Nations troops. But celebration would be woefully premature; it’s hard to trust a leader who signs peace agreements with one hand while arming proxy “Arab” militias—known as Janjaweed—to slaughter entire villages with the other. Already, al-Bashir is waffling on the June 12th agreement. Ceesay doubts that any blue helmets will arrive in Darfur for six to 12 months—if they come at all.
Brangelina Diplomacy: The Rise of Red Carpet Advocates
One obvious anxiety about celebrity activists is that pretty faces will eclipse complex policy debates. When it comes to a resource war as nuanced as Darfur’s—in which splintering rebel groups oppose a brutal counterinsurgency led by government-funded Janjaweed—it’s easy to imagine how celebrities might drag us into a one-dimensional morality tale of “Arabs killing blacks.” And yes, some of them have. But Michelle Malkin is wildly off-target when she rails against “hypocrites from the Hollywood hills who remain blind to the root causes of the Islamic-led blood bath in the Sudan. ...” According to many experts on the region, Angelina, Don and Mia have nailed the history and politics of Darfur with more discernment than your average politician. They’ve also provided a voice for regional concerns that the mainstream media has ignored—flying to neighboring Congo, where some 1,000 people die each day due to ongoing conflict, for instance, or visiting the bloated refugee camps in Chad where Darfur’s instability has increasingly spilled over.
Some may just scoff at celebrity activists (because, really, who doesn’t feel a tad resentful when sexpots steal the moral high ground?); it takes substantially more intellectual energy to consider what they can teach us about, say, the failures of our global crisis response mechanisms. In this vein, we might interpret “Brangelina diplomacy” as revealing a domestic moral vacuum that stems from two key sources. The first is the American leadership crisis created by the Bush cabal, and particularly the “Iraq syndrome”—another result of an intervention that has killed 3,555 U.S. soldiers and countless more civilians to date. The threat of regime change (however spurious) is now the favorite talking point of Sudan’s President al-Bashir. When reporter Ann Curry confronted him with a U.S. State Department map revealing thousands of pillaged Darfuri villages, he quickly retorted, “This picture is the same fabrication and the same picture as the ones Colin Powell presented about Iraq.” Such a claim is clearly outrageous, but it’s become the strategic template for Khartoum’s apologists, from China to the Arab League.
The second source of the vacuum is another byproduct of the war on terror: the myth that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” Sudan once was a prominent haven for al-Qaida terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Khartoum switched sides; the U.S. State Department now considers Sudan a “strong partner in the war on terror.” Because Islamic militants often travel through the Sunni Arab nation en route to Iraq and Pakistan, Sudan’s intelligence agents are able to penetrate networks that would be off limits to Americans. “Washington doesn’t want to put this cooperation in danger,” John Prendergast [Don Cheadle’s coauthor] lamented to Der Spiegel. “That’s why we haven’t stopped [the genocide].” A similar carte blanche holds for China, a major economic partner of the U.S. that also has extensive oil and business ties to Sudan; it feeds AK-47s to the Sudanese government while shielding Khartoum from U.N. Security Council measures.
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