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Can Drag Queens and Hired Guns Save Darfur?

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.

In the meantime, who will support the beleaguered AMIS, as well as the humanitarian workers and civilians whom it flounders to protect? The answer is every bit as surreal as a gender-bending political cabaret in a synagogue. It’s the story of how the international community betrayed its touted “responsibility to protect,” even as it marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide with the rally cry of “Never again!” But it’s also a cautionary tale about how Washington has outsourced its moral authority to three strange bedfellows: celebrity diplomats, citizen activists, and private military contractors. Meet the altered face of 21st century peacekeeping — in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Brangelina Diplomacy: The Rise of Red Carpet Advocates

Although Hollywood typically makes headlines with crotch shots and jail stints, a growing number of stars are bringing our minds up from the glitterati gutters. Enter “Darfur” into a Google News search, and the public figures who emerge are not politicians or diplomats but big-name celebs: George Clooney, Brad Pit, Oprah, Matt Damon. Leading the pack is Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees; when Jolie spoke publicly of her travels through the refugee camps in eastern Chad last summer, donations spiked by half a million dollars, and heads in the international community turned. Actor Don Cheadle ranks a close second. His handbook on the conflict, co-authored with analyst John Prendergast, soared to The New York Times bestseller list after two publishers dismissed it as unmarketable. And then there’s actress Mia Farrow. Farrow is headlining a campaign for targeted economic divestment from Sudan, and her efforts to brand the 2008 Beijing Games as the “Genocide Olympics” have done much to expose China’s collusion with the brutal regime in Khartoum.

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.
Of Drag Queens and Citizen Movements

Alongside celebrities, the second faction of the 21st century peacekeeping trio is grass-roots activists. From Omaha to Hartford, “everyday” people are the ones who’ve thrust Darfur onto the world stage, forming one of the most extensive social movements since the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s. This month alone, the Save Darfur Coalition offers opportunities to Bake for Darfur; Dance for Darfur; Dunk for Darfur; and Buy Adorable Purple Panties for Darfur. Previously, you could Stroll for Sudan in Beloit, Wis., or attend a Peace Jam in Fulton, Mo. In fact, one might easily wonder whether Americans are having a bit too much fun with a distant genocide — who knew you could earn Instant Karma by buying a “Save Darfur” musical compilation from Amazon.com? But the outcomes of all this labor speak for themselves: student and community groups now contribute more to the African Union Mission in Sudan — financially and politically — than most world superpowers.

Recall the teenage cross-dressers in Minneapolis. They’re just one spoke in the massive hub of the Genocide Intervention Network, a nonprofit started by fresh-faced Swarthmore grads in October 2004. The group has raised more than $350,000 to support AMIS civilian protection initiatives — with donors ranging from a Salt Lake City piano teacher (who donated two weeks’ earnings) to an eager philanthropist (who dashed off a check for $25,000). This spring, the group’s representatives traveled to Darfur to learn more about civilians’ needs firsthand; in one displacement camp, a local woman explained: “The AU is only for observation. They will watch us like cinema if we are attacked. They just write reports.” In response, GI-Net has begun working with community leaders, regional experts and women in the camps to enhance AMIS firewood patrols and other civilian security measures. Along with these efforts abroad, the group runs a hodgepodge of domestic programs: divestment initiatives, educational campaign and creative lobbying schemes such as the Darfur Scorecard.

And then there’s the wider citizens’ movement, which extends from Mongolia to Rwanda. It includes some 10,000 Sudanese aid workers, and also local Darfuri journalists like the remarkable 24-year-old Awatif Ahmed Isshag, known for her political newsletter that she posts on a tree outside her home in El Fasher (no, really). Sudanese students have risked much to join the outcry; according to several Gambian AMIS soldiers, government police unleashed tear gas and bullets on young protesters at El Fasher University when they rallied in favor of U.N. intervention last year, seriously wounding two. Activists throughout Sudan risk being blacklisted, arbitrarily arrested or even killed, and yet they continue to speak up.

But let’s be blunt: the root failures of the international community are not solved by the burgeoning anti-genocide movement so much as laid bare. Must AMIS really rely upon cross-dressing youth groups, piano teachers and endangered local journalists to support its civilian protection efforts? Ultimately, the trendiness of the “Save Darfur” movement in the U.S. must be understood as a warning call about the collapse of global governance. After all, celebrities and students aren’t the only ones who’ve stepped in to fill Washington’s moral vacuum on Darfur; the third member of America’s new “peacekeeping” gang is decidedly more ominous: private military contractors.

The Privatization Agenda: Hired Guns and Darfur

The U.S. under the Bush administration has served up more money for Darfur than any other country has to date. But when President Bush announces that he’s giving an impressive $10 million a month to AMIS, as he did in one of his innumerable Darfur press releases last year, where do all those greenbacks actually go? The answer may surprise readers who are unfamiliar with the modern cash cow of private security contracting. Much of it is channeled to Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE) — an L.A.-based subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor. Another significant portion goes to the L.A.-based DynCorp International, a name you may recognize from the child sex trafficking scandal in Bosnia, or the alleged beatings of journalists in Haiti, or the toxic crop-spraying in Colombia. No individual DynCorp employee has been prosecuted in any of these cases. To the contrary, DynCorp went on to win more lucrative contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan … and, yes, Darfur.

Whereas the lack of accountability for hired guns in America’s current wars has proved to be one of the major stories of the past few years (think Blackwater in Fallujah, or Titan at Abu Ghraib), there’s been hardly a peep about U.S. defense contractors on the ground in Darfur. When I asked a senior official from CARE — a major humanitarian group working throughout Sudan — about the phenomenon, she replied: “Our people are not aware of private contractors in Darfur. Some in Khartoum, but not Darfur.” This oversight is difficult to comprehend, given that the vast majority of AMIS projects in Darfur are managed by PAE and DynCorp employees, from the building of barracks to the provision of strategic transport.

It’s worth noting that the people who’ve been most vocal about private contractors hustling into Sudan are, well, enthusiastic private contractors. A massive mercenary trade organization known as the International Peace Operations Association — an Orwellian name if there ever was one — launched a loud and public bidding war to get its foot in the door of peacekeeping operations throughout the Horn of Africa. It has boasted of satellite-guided weapons, armored vehicles, helicopter gunships and more. “In the time that it takes to put an internationally recognized body unit on the ground,” Blackwater Vice President Chris Taylor asserted on NPR, “I can be there in a third of that time and I will be 60 percent cheaper.” The U.N. and NATO weren’t buying it. But the U.S. — in a scaled-down version — was: more than $40 million worth of “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” contracts with PAE and DynCorp. Although their employees in Darfur work primarily as construction supervisors, engineers, managers and military observers (rather than as armed fighters), numerous corporations are lobbying to extend involvement to more aggressive operations.

Analysts across the political spectrum warn against this approach. Contractors lack public accountability. They lack transparency. They answer to no chain of command and sign no oath of office. These structural flaws have worrisome implications for local civilians, but they’re also alarming for contracted employees themselves, who share few of the protections afforded to official participants in conflict zones. When two PAE drivers were fatally shot in southern Darfur by rebel insurgents, their deaths were met with silence. No front-page story; no government survivor benefits for the families left behind. As one U.S. Army captain told me from Iraq, “Contracting is a common way to mask the scope and cost of foreign wars,” including body bags.

But there’s another angle to the problem. Brian Steidel, a thoughtful ex-Marine who served in Darfur as a contracted military observer in 2004, doesn’t waste much time worrying about the morality of private defense contracting. He notes that corporations like PAE were the only ones to provide essential services to AMIS, including human rights documentation, while the international community dallied (and he’s right). Nor does he believe that shifting U.S. donations directly to the African Union would do much good, despite countless reports of the organization’s funding crisis; “Everyone in AMIS could be eating off of gold plates, and the problem still wouldn’t be solved — that’s just not the root of it,” he says. Steidel’s real concern is that no amount of military muscle, not even the world’s best army-for-hire, has the power to solve a complicated resource war with deep historical roots. An end to the violence will materialize only when effective global pressure is leveraged against Khartoum, he insists.

Steidel speaks from experience. He knows the urgency and complexity of the conflict because he traveled through the decimated villages of Labado and Um Ziefa. He heard what he thought was the buzz of a high-voltage power line outside Alliet, only to discover as he walked closer that it was actually the sound of flies descending on a village of dead people and animals. Soon thereafter, he decided to leave Darfur, convinced that he could be more effective not as a military observer but as a political witness — speaking publicly about the failures of international diplomacy to protect civilians from slow-motion atrocities. His recent documentary, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” is a painful reminder that private contractors may be making millions off far-away conflicts, but they will never be able to stop the bloodshed. That is the work of the negotiating table.

Diplomacy Needs a Makeover

June 25th was supposed to be a hopeful day for Darfur. Leaders from the U.S., China and France gathered in Paris for a two-day strategy session on the region, pledging to no longer pass the buck. The Save Darfur Coalition hoped for a policy breakthrough, deeming the talks an “unprecedented opportunity” to push China into a diplomatic troika to pressure Khartoum. But what resulted instead were more vague promises of “support” for peacekeeping efforts — and a few charming photo ops outside the twinkling Elysee Palace. “I do not think that the international community has really lived up to its responsibilities [on Darfur],” noted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “We really must redouble our efforts, and I think that that was the spirit of today’s conference.” But what if “our efforts” amount to a string of empty speeches and flimsy sanctions? In that case, the mere act of redoubling reminds me of the rug salesman in Morocco who once offered me a lovely summer carpet with — wink, wink — the reverse side for free.

To be fair, there is no quick fix for Darfur. As academic Mahmood Mamdani notes, it’s a conflict that bears an eerie resemblance to the insurgency/counterinsurgency in Iraq: In both instances, the killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military; in both instances, the victims are primarily identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. In this context, activists who marched in Washington chanting “Out of Iraq and Into Darfur” epitomized the progressive community’s unresolved tensions around the politics of humanitarian intervention. But three simple points remain clear on Darfur. Peace talks must be privileged over military muscle. The perpetrators of war crimes must be held legally accountable. And immediate efforts to protect civilians and aid workers — everything from firewood patrols to camp security — must receive the support they so desperately need.

In the interim, Americans should begin an honest public dialogue about our nation’s 21st century peacekeeping threesome: Hollywood stars with mega-watt visibility, citizen activists with chutzpah, and hired guns with profit motives. For too long, this de facto model for conflict resolution has picked up the slack for global diplomats as they’ve extracted various goodies from Khartoum (oil for China, arms sales for Russia and “counter-terrorism” intelligence for Washington). This blueprint has also encouraged the pop culture construction of “trendy” and “untrendy” atrocities; if your nation’s conflict isn’t accessible to Oprah or lucrative for Dyncorp, God help you. Consider the orphan cause of Congo. As Darfur gets adopted as “the worst humanitarian crisis of the century,” three times as many people die daily in the conflict next door; the body count exceeds 4 million since 1998, and yet the silence deafens.

The diplomatic community needs an extreme makeover. But in the meantime, Cpl. Buju Ceesay encourages the young people in the group in Minneapolis to keep jiggling their hips in red sequin gowns, and crosses his fingers that Angelina will sustain her mighty heart and mightier bank account. “Someday,” he wants to tell the displaced families he served in Darfur, “we will do better.”

Sarah Stillman
Contributor
Sarah Stillman, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the recipient of their inaugural Reporting Award. The Award took her to Iraq and Afghanistan to report an investigative…
Sarah Stillman

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