Anyone who knows anything about the decades of bloody conflict in Sudan knows that it is impossible to take religion out of the mix -- especially the conflicts between Muslims in the north and the Christians and animists of South Sudan. However, it is also crucial to know that ethnic and racial issues are also part of this tragedy. Religion is part of the picture, but not all of it. The fighting in Darfur lurched into headlines here in North America, in large part, because it perfectly illustrated this truth -- with the ruling elites of Sudan, Muslims of Arab descent, massacring Muslims in Darfur who spring from African tribal roots.
This is, in other words, hard terrain for reporters. You can't take out the religious component, but you have to clearly state that there is more to this than another clash between Islam and other religions in this part of Africa (often growing forms of Christianity).
It's easy to be critical, of course. So what does it look like when a journalist and his editors, for the most part, manages to do good work in this minefield? Click here and work your way through this New York Times piece by Jeffrey Gettleman, which just ran under the headline, "As Secession Nears, Sudan Steps Up Drive to Stop Rebels." Here is the top of the story:
The Sudanese Army and its allied militias have gone on an unsparing rampage to crush rebel fighters in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, bombing thatch-roofed villages, executing elders, burning churches and pitching another region of the country into crisis, according to United Nations officials and villagers who have escaped.
“The market was burning,” said Salah Kaka, a mother of four who trekked for days with thousands of others to a mushrooming refugee camp after her husband disappeared during an air raid. “I dug ditches in the ground and hid the children.”
Tens of thousands of rebel fighters have refused the government’s threat to disarm, digging into the craggy hillsides. They are demanding political reform and autonomy, a familiar refrain in Sudan’s marginalized hinterlands that has set off insurgencies in Darfur in the west, as well as eastern and southern Sudan.
A few paragraphs later, Gettleman simply has to pause and prepare readers for the complexities that are ahead in this story.
It seems that the Sudanese government, facing upheaval on several fronts, especially with the southern third of the country preparing to declare independence next month, is determined to suppress the rebels and prevent them from encouraging other restive areas to rise up. Even after the southerners secede, countless fault lines remain in northern Sudan. Non-Arab people in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile State, Kasala -- and all the way down the Nile to Egypt -- have long been chafing against an increasingly isolated government dominated by a small group of Arabs and led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a war crimes suspect indicted by the International Criminal Court. ...
United Nations officials in Southern Kordofan, the state that includes the Nuba Mountains, estimate that dozens have been killed in aerial bombings in the past two weeks and maybe dozens more in extrajudicial killings. Nuban officials put the civilian death toll in the hundreds.
Sudanese soldiers are planting land mines in several towns, United Nations officials said, and possibly digging mass graves. Many people in the mountains are Christian, and church officials say Christians have been attacked and churches burned.
As I said, it's impossible to avoid the role that religion is playing in this drama. Yet, there is more to it than that. At the heart of this matter is the word "Arab." And who is on the other side of the conflict?
This is hard material to write about in newspaper-length stories. Note the many layers of identity present in this long slice of the Times report:
Witnesses said government soldiers were shooting “the black people,” a reference to Nubans, who are often darker skinned than the Arab-dominated military. Human rights groups worry that this could begin a new round of ethnic cleansing, given the wholesale destruction of communities that has been part of how war is fought in Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands died in Darfur after the government razed villages and armed militias to throttle rebels there, leading to genocide charges against Mr. Bashir. Millions died in the decades of civil war between north and south, under many of the same tactics.
The same thing happened in Nuba. In the mid-1980s, southern rebels opened bases in the Nuba Mountains. Residents who had long felt discriminated against by the Arab rulers of Sudan joined the southerners in droves.
The rulers responded by arming Arab militias -- just as it would in Darfur -- and setting them loose on impoverished villagers. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and villagers were incarcerated in “peace camps,” forced to convert to Islam. Entire villages were wiped out.
There is more, of course. There is always much, much more.
The one thing that troubles me, in this story, is the way that the term "Arab" is used in what appears to be a strictly racial and ethnic manner -- it's the "Arabs" killing the "black people." Of course, there are Christian Arabs in Africa and the Middle East, as well. Arab does not mean "Muslim," yet religion is part of what must be communicated for the sake of accuracy.
Yet how does one accurately and crisply describe a conflict in which there are Arab Muslims oppressing Muslims who are black and these same Arab Muslims are also wiping out villages that are both black and Christian (or animist)? Can the word "Arab" be used in this context without some kind of religious adjective, or do we have to have the accurate adjective simply as a matter of clarity? I vote "yes."
Nevertheless, put yourself in the reporter's shoes. This is hard, hard terrain. In this case, the Times team -- in my opinion -- did a much better than average job of describing all of the religious and racial layers of this story, which covers an old conflict that remains hidden to so, so many readers in other parts of the world.
PHOTO: Huts in the Nuba Mountains, from the United Nations database on environmental issues in Sudan.