Part 1: French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on how 3 great ideas of the political left have backfired on the people of Darfur
The following Guernica program took place at PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, on April 29, 2008, at Flourence Gould Hall in New York City. This is the first of three parts. To listen to the program in its entirety. It runs about 90 minutes.
Dinaw Mengestu: The title of this conversation is Crisis Darfur, and I can’t quite give any better term to describe what’s going on in Darfur. And maybe the word “crisis” doesn’t quite encapsulate the complexity of the situation inside Sudan. The war, since its inception in 2003, has grown only more complicated. Darfur rebel groups have splintered and turned against each other. The neighboring countries of Chad and Central African Republic have become inextricably entwined with their own refugee crises and their own internally displaced populations. For those of us witnessing the tragedy of Darfur, we’re faced with our own moral and political crisis. How do we respond to what’s been called the first genocide of the 21st century? How do we mobilize international political outrage? And how do we best aid the citizens of Darfur in their search for a normal and peaceful life?
Tonight our first speaker is Bernard-Henri Lévy. Mr. Lévy is a French philosopher and author of more than 30 books. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville was a New York Times bestseller and his new book Left in Dark Times will be published this fall. Lévy has undertaken several diplomatic missions for the French government. He was appointed by French president Jacques Chirac to head a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan in 2002 in the wake of the war against the Taliban, a war that Lévy supported. He has traveled the world’s most troubled areas and followed the trail of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan to research [his book] Who Killed Daniel Pearl?. His War, Evil and the End of History took him to the world’s forgotten wars, from Colombia to Sri Lanka and his reportage and commentary on Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war appeared to wide acclaim in The New York Times Magazine. After an extensive clandestine visit to Darfur in 2007, he reported on ethnic cleansing and genocide there for Le Monde and in the United States for The New Republic. I present Mr. Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I was there as Dinaw Mengestu said, just one year ago nearly to the day, smuggling myself across the border with Chad, crossing 500, 600 kilometers of a devastated Darfur. And I must say what I saw then, what I experienced there never left my mind and my heart since. I was deeply shocked in the most intense sense of the word by this experience, even if I lived many others in my life since my youth in Bangladesh, in Pakistan. What I saw in Darfur in a way bypassed, overwhelmed a lot of things which I experienced before. So to speak about that again, one year later, is really for me very emotional.
Before the discussion with Mia and the discussion with you, I would like to sum up in a few remarks what I saw and what I concluded during this journey which I made in this very ill-informed area. We have very little information from this area where I was, with a photographer of the French agency Gamma. I would like to sum up the conclusion I did draw from this journey. My first conclusion was and still is that we should stop speaking of the crisis of Darfur or even the war in Darfur. It is not a crisis. It is not a war. A war presupposes of course a frontline, presupposes organized battles, and presupposes, even more, two real armies. It is not a war between two armies. It is a war by an army against civilian populations. It is not a civil war, it is a war against civilians.
Of course, you have in Darfur, and in the areas I visited, some guerillas. I could enter [Sudan], I could smuggle myself in thanks to them. But they are so poorly equipped, they are so poorly armed, that they cannot be called an army. Not at all. I saw one battalion, for example, composed of 200 men, young men, not children. They had 5 mortars, they had 3 rocket launchers—very few weapons. They had some cars, which they took from the army in France. These cars had so little fuel, too little fuel to go, so that when they tried to go to the battle, when a few days before my arrival they tried to repel an assault, they had to push the cars to the frontline because of the shortage of fuel. I also saw these guerillas trying however they could to protect what remains of the population of Darfur. I saw this guy with a machine gun and, around his neck, a big, impressive—I don’t know how you call that—a sort of cartouche we say in French.
When I went closer, what was in the cartouche, one out of four holes held a bullet. Three out of four were empty and filled with little papers like this one which were verses of the Quran [which] replaced the bullet. So please, not a civil war. A war against civilians, whom these guys try to protect with their poor equipment. My second conclusion, which I drew from this journey, is that we should get rid of at least … part of the myth of the Janjaweed. There are a lot of big stories about the Janjaweed, these horsemen of the devil, ill-equipped themselves, arriving in the villages burning the huts, spreading fear, like in the Middle Ages. What I saw is not exactly that. I saw huge holes in the ground, craters from bombs which were the result of a bombing. Not of a horseman, but a plane, which flew over the area a few days before my arrival. This is not Janjaweed. This is a real bomber. What everybody told me is that these Janjaweed when they arrive, generally in lorries, in trucks, they are commanded by people in uniforms or have uniforms that happen to belong to the Sudanese Army. I saw something also, this is something else, this is the vestige of a little house which was destroyed a few days before my arrival.
I saw a Sudanese-built lorry, from a factory near Khartoum [built] with some French and Chinese money. So Janjaweed, cavalier du diable, horsemen of the apocalypse, and so on, all this folklore—maybe. But also a real war, with real weapons, with real violence, not low-intensity violence. High-intensity violence. Equipped, directed by the army of the state, which is the state of Sudan. I saw that, I bear witness to that.
Does what happened in Darfur deserve, if I dare say, the name genocide or not? I know that there is a polemic on this point. Some say that it is a genocide, others say that it is not quite a genocide. There is a sort of discussion similar to the discussion of the sex of the angels in the Middle Ages. [laughter] What I saw, what I witnessed, what you can see in this photo, what you can see in this one, what you can see in this one, what you can see in this one, makes this sort of discussion completely absurd and frivolous.
First of all, as you know, the decision for genocide, the planned decision to eradicate, to exterminate a people is never known in real time. It is never announced on CBS News or in AFP. As you know, the conference of Wannsee, where the final solution against the Jews was decided, was only made known long afterwards. So I will not enter into that. What I must say, what I want to say today in this opening session of the PEN Festival is that I traveled five or six hundred kilometers and in that vast area I hardly found a trace of human life. Sometimes I did not even find a trace of human death; even the dead had been violated. The traces of these villages, which you see here, had been erased, a sort of scorched earth, a policy of scorched earth in huge dimensions, which I, frankly, never saw to this extent. I was in Burundi, I was in Rwanda, I was in Angola, in the worst areas of the war between the MPLA and the seven big groups; I was in South Sudan seven years ago with John Garang whom I interviewed for Le Monde (and The New Republic I think too). I went to the Nuba Mountains in the center of South Sudan. There, too, I saw some mass murders. But this extent, this burnt earth, this complete devastation, this will to eradicate even the [least] trace of human life, I must confess that I [haven’t] often seen it—maybe never.
Another thing which I never saw to this extent (and which makes the polemic about genocide completely outrageous and frivolous) is the impossibility of giving the real number of dead. Nobody knows if it is 200,000 dead, the number which has been given on and on for years, if it is, which is my evaluation, closer to 300,000 or 350,000; some human rights organizations—serious ones—say 400,000, maybe 500,000. From 200,000 to 500,000—nobody being able to decide which is the right figure? Which means that there might be in Darfur hundreds of thousands of children, women, men, raped, killed, burnt without any memory, without any inscription anywhere, without graves, without a face, without a name, without a number.
This impossibility of the number, this evidence of huge mass murders, the victims of which had not even the poor—I would not say consolation, of course, or solace—this poor little thing to have a place to rest, and a place in the memory of the survivors. This in the age of today is not so frequent. This huge mass murder [that’s] impossible to calculate, these hundreds of miniscule lives, tiny lives not even worthy of remembrance, or who their murderers rendered not even worthy of remembrance. There is a very famous American book of James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I would like tonight, and I have tried without stopping for one year, to praise, to try to praise, if I can, unfamous men, men without fame, men without names, murdered people without any trace in the memory of mankind. This is Darfur today. I don’t know if it is genocide or not, but it is a situation which is uncomparable to most of the killings which take place, and which are also horrible of course, in other places of the world. You have some places where you have some killings, you have some funerals, you have the possibility to cry, you have the possibility to [count] the number. Here, it is the reverse.
The question now is to know why. My last, or nearly last remark: why? And why is the international community so passive? For more than four years [facing] this situation, why this passivity? Why this inability to [make] decisions or, when they are made, to make them respected? Of course, there are some obvious reasons: the regime in Khartoum, the regime of murderers has some oil. And to have some oil in the modern world, in the world of today, gives you some rights which you don’t have if you don’t have oil. You have also the reason (which is true) that the Khartoum regime managed to make the Western countries, and especially America, believe that they had a card to play, they—Khartoum—in the war against terrorism. As you know, Osama Bin Laden lived in Khartoum before September 11th for a few years. He left a real documented part of his life there, and the Khartoum regime has gathered—I don’t know to what extent it is true, maybe it is true—has collected intelligence on bin Laden. This is probably another reason.
But the main reason of our indifference, for the impossibility of counting these uncounted dead, the real and deepest reason for our despair, Mia, myself, others, when we try to be a witness of all that, is not an economical one; it is an ideological one. In a few words—and maybe we will discuss this more deeply in the conversation later—we are here facing a sort of perverse effect of three great modern ideas. A sort of paradoxical and counter-effect of three great ideas, which are: anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and the fight against imperialism, three great ideas—among the best which have been produced in the 20th century. In this case, by a sort of ruse of history, they [have] produced a very strange effect.
Anti-racism: you have a huge part of the population in America and in Europe, who believe, as a sort of Pavlovian reflex, that these sort of murders, these sort of genocides, can only be committed by ugly, stupid, white men. As we did: white men in Auschwitz, in the Gulag, and so on, which is undoubtedly true. There is the idea that such mass murders committed by people who were themselves victims of racism [for] such a long time is a sort of contradiction in terms.
Anti-colonialism: we have been bred in the idea, in the conviction that colonialism—and it is true—is a crime, is something we have to get rid of; intervention in the affairs of a country of the third world is something we have to avoid absolutely because it produced such ill effects in the past, colonialism. This is true. And it produces the idea that when a country of the third world which was colonized (as was Sudan), commits such bloodbaths, commits such crimes, to stop this, to try to prevent this, to intervene in order to make it stop, could be an act of colonialism.
And in America and in France, you have a lot of people [of] the Left, to which I belong, [who believe that] we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of Sudan. Let’s be careful not to impose under the flag of human rights the old rule of Western superiority. The result of which is that we are abandoning to that [idea] the worst death, these unnumbered lots of people. And in the end: anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. We are prisoners of a scheme of thought in which, if you are a victim and if you don’t play a role, if you don’t have a part on the big stage, in the big history, in the big tale of the opposition of the evil empire and the good anti-imperialist forces, you don’t really deserve attention.
In past decades, in the 60s and 70s during the Cold War, if you were neither with the Soviets nor with the US, you had a pretty good chance of falling into the big hole of the ignored wars. If you didn’t have a real role in this big fight, which [was] supposed to be the fight of the poor against empire, you didn’t exist. These poor people, these women—the son of whom will die in a few hours—have nothing to do with the Big Story, which is the story of Mr. Chomsky, the story of Mr. Badiou in France, the story of people in England, the story of the fight against empire. So [they are] out of the frame, out of our visibility. Nonexistent.
So we see in Sudan, we face a sort of terrible counter-effect of these three great ideas, which remain great, but which have to be corrected by other principles, other values—such as, the idea that a dead man has no color, that you do not privilege murderers. And to end, what can we do facing that? Facing this devastation? Facing this uncomparable mass murder? First of all, of course to try to make it visible, as Mia Farrow tries to do much more than myself, since the beginning, going there again and again, bearing witness, as she will do in one minute again; first of all to make it visible, to force this wall of invisibility, which is the wall of the big story, of the big tale of today.
Number two: we can and we should, and it is possible, to ask for real sanctions on the state of Sudan, despite the oil. What we do with Uzbekistan, what we do with Zimbabwe, what we did with Sudan after 20 years of the war against the south (which worked), which is some sanctions on the perpetrators, some travel restrictions, the freezing of the money they have in secret, and in not so secret accounts that they have in some of our banks. This can be done. Real sanctions on the guilty people, the names of whom are perfectly well known.
And last but not least, there is one weapon which we have pleaded for, Mia Farrow in America and myself in Europe, for months and months. There is one actor in this terrible game, who has huge power, and can do a lot if it wants. This actor is China. China is the one [that] provides the weapons which I saw and which made these big craters from bombs. China provides the weapons. China buys a big portion of the oil. China protects the Sudanese regime in the Security Council of the United Nations. So the real pressure, the most efficient pressure should be and is still today the pressure on China. And we have a tool, as you know, on China. We have a real weapon, which would prove to be very efficient if we tried. It has been tried for a few days about Tibet. It has already given results: the resuming of the dialogue with the Dalai Lama. It should be implemented [against] the Darfur tragedy, [and it] is the weapon of a boycott of the Olympic Games. We cannot accept the very idea of Olympic Games—the Olympic ideal is supposed to be a peace ideal—in a country which is guilty of this disaster, which is guilty of these areas of villages where you have only the beasts left and the few people left being treated themselves as cattle.
If we accept going to Beijing for the games, it will be—like in Berlin in 1936—games of blood and shame. On the contrary, if we really—European and American, old and new Europe—if we join forces, in order to say to Beijing, “Stop the bloodbath, stop the murder, order your servant in the Khartoum regime to stop the bloodbath,” they can, they will, and then the Olympic Games will be able to take place. Sanctions on the persons, visibility of this horror, the threat to boycott the Olympic games, plus the last idea, which we will present to you at the end of the evening, Mia and me, which will be, I’ll let you discover it at the end… all this should prevent us from saying that we are impotent, unable, that there is nothing to do. There is a lot to do to save what is still savable in Darfur. Thank you very much.
(Part 2, Mia Farrow’s speech that followed the above at PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature on April 29, 2008, will be printed here next month. To listen to the entire program.)