Ending "the world's hottest war"

Can a citizens movement enlisting the likes of George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Don Cheadle finally stop the genocide in Darfur?

By Mathieu von Rohr
June 13, 2007 3:05PM (UTC)
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John Prendergast felt a familiar sense of outrage that morning, the same feeling of indignation that has driven him all these years and made him into the man who wants to save Darfur, the Congo, Uganda and, if possible, all of Africa. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Darfur in April, the same government officials were at it again, making vague comments, rambling on about a "plan B," and debating sanctions against Sudan that the United States could impose if the country continued to reject a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Darfur.

"They simply don't get it," Prendergast said afterward. "We need to hit this regime now. We must stop barking if we don't bite."


At 43, Prendergast is a tall, slim and athletic man, with long blond hair and a scruffy beard. As America's most prominent expert on Africa, he flies with Angelina Jolie to the Congo, does the talk show circuit, travels for weeks on end through the continent, and meets with rebels and top government officials.

Prendergast was the Africa expert on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton until George W. Bush replaced Clinton in 2001. He then joined the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, and became the man who explains Africa to Americans, starting with the crisis in Darfur.

His strategy paper, "The Answer to Darfur: How to Resolve the World's Hottest War," lies on the table in front of him. The contents are, of course, nothing new, says Prendergast. The problem is not that no one knew what to do in Darfur all these years. The problem is that no one did what needed to be done.


The Darfur conflict is one of today's most complicated and brutal wars. For many in the West, it is the typical African war -- remote, cruel and difficult to comprehend. And the questions facing policymakers are myriad. First and foremost is why the West should get involved, especially given the risks of any military intervention. It is likewise unclear how the United Nations can be expected to succeed where the world's superpowers have failed. Indeed, the international community has a long list of failures in Africa, including Congo, Somalia and, now, Darfur.

The Darfur region in western Sudan is roughly the size of France. Over the past four years, government-supported Arab militiamen, the Janjaweed, have fought African rebels and repeatedly attacked the civilian population. Mounted on horses and camels, the Janjaweed have systematically destroyed over a thousand villages, while killing and raping the inhabitants. More than 200,000 have died in the fighting while a further 2.5 million refugees have fled.

The international community condemned Sudan. It issued threats. It called for Sudan to disarm the Janjaweed. It passed resolutions and created a peacekeeping force. The United States even described the situation in Darfur as "genocide." Yet the international community has failed to stop the killings -- and the Darfur crisis has slowly become a symbol of its ineffectiveness.


That's why people need to take a stand, says Prendergast. Things will only improve if citizens around the world demand that their governments take action. It is those citizens that Prendergast now spends his time trying to mobilize.

Prendergast wears a zippered, wool sweater in his tiny office on the fifth floor of a gray building on Washington's K Street lobbying corridor. Cardboard boxes, loose papers and business cards are piled high on every available surface. "I've got a lot of junk here," he admits. "We moved into this office three years ago. I really don't know what's in all these boxes." He never had time to unpack.


He's been busy mastering the balancing act between policy wonk and liaison to entertainers-turned-activists. Prendergast has just returned from Rwanda, where he met with President Paul Kagame. His eighth and most recent book, "Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond" (Hyperion), which he co-wrote with "Hotel Rwanda" star Don Cheadle, features an introduction by two U.S. presidential hopefuls, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas. Prendergast's columns appear in theWashington Post and Foreign Affairs. He testifies at congressional hearings. And when George Clooney called for intervention in Darfur during a speech to the U.N. Security Council last September, it was Prendergast who helped make his appearance possible.

In short, he seeks to translate complicated politics into a language for the masses. He is an analyst and an activist in one.

Today's mobilization for the issue of Darfur is the largest citizens' movement since the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s, he says, and one of his jobs is to provide information and analysis to the public. "We need to do it in a way so they're not overwhelmed, so they don't think it's too far away, so they actually feel like they can be part of the policymaking process," Prendergast says. The days are over when a handful of politicians could determine foreign policy on their own, he adds. "We need a citizenry, large groups of citizens, who stand up and tell the governments: That needs to be done. We need citizens taking control of our foreign policy."


Now Prendergast has launched another campaign: "ENOUGH -- the project to abolish genocide and mass atrocities." It's an initiative that goes beyond just Darfur, looking also to northern Uganda and the eastern part of Congo, where militias are fighting over natural resources. "I killed a bunch of birds with one stone," he says of the initiative.

He wants to popularize ideas generated by the think tanks and believes they should be able "to consume more readily" what he and the others have worked out. Most important, though, is that they should act. Prendergast says it's all about citizens' stopping politicians from letting something like Darfur happen again in the future.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003, largely unnoticed by the general public. In southern Sudan, a civil war that had raged for 20 years was finally coming to an end -- a war that saw the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army fighting against the central government headquartered in the northern part of the country. It was a war that the West often characterized as a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, but in reality, the rebels wanted to take power and share in the southern region's rich oil reserves.


"The big mistake that was made," says Prendergast, "was in the north-south peace talks. The Darfurians were begging to be part of the process. They said, 'Look, our issues are the same.' But the U.S. didn't want to hear about it. They were like, 'It's a north-south war, and everything will fall into place if we solve it.' They were so fundamentally misled about what was the truth about Sudan. It's not a north-south war as we now know very well. Rather it's a center-periphery-conflict. A small group of people in the center are fighting against those people who are demanding their rights and their part of the pie. And so, the political opposition in Darfur ended up taking arms, because they felt the only way they could get into the negotiations was if they shot their way to the table."

For decades, there had been eruptions of violence between the ruling Arab elite and the non-Arab African population. But then it escalated. In the spring of 2003, African rebels attacked military bases of the Sudanese army. In response, the government provided arms to the Arab Janjaweed and deployed its air force in support.

The Janjaweed militias have systematically targeted the civilian population. Suddenly appearing on horses and camels, the militiamen frequently descend on undefended villages in an orgy of violence. The looting and pillaging, the raping of women and girls, the wanton burning of entire settlements -- all of their excesses have been well documented. Often, they have shot everyone unable to run away and have thrown children into the burning houses.

The West remained largely unaware of the atrocities until early 2004, when European media outlets began reporting on them. In a March interview, Mukesh Kapila, then the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, called Darfur the "world's greatest humanitarian crisis" and compared it to the genocide in Rwanda, sparking worldwide media coverage. In May 2006, the government and a rebel group signed a so-called peace agreement, but the crisis only got worse.


It is hard to understand why the international community has not been able to stop the Sudanese over the past three years. Prendergast sighs, buries his face in his hands, and says, "Everybody in the Security Council has a different reason." The Chinese have oil interests in Sudan and are siding with the regime in Khartoum. Prendergast criticizes the Europeans for failing to follow up on their threats. Some, he says, still believe that diplomacy can influence the Sudanese. Others are merely looking out for their own economic interests.

According to Prendergast, however, U.S. involvement is the key to resolving the conflict. "But the Americans are hesitant to take action because of the counterterrorism relationship they have with the Sudanese regime." For years, Sudan supported the al-Qaida terror network and even harbored Osama bin Laden. However, after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, the regime in Khartoum switched sides and began supplying U.S. intelligence agencies with information about its former friends. "Washington doesn't want to put this cooperation in danger," he says. "That is why we haven't stopped it."

Prendergast says that in Africa, the Bush administration is repeating the same mistakes made by Bush's predecessors during the Cold War. The U.S. currently depends on allies like Sudan for help in its war against terrorism and in exchange, Prendergast charges, the U.S. has given ally governments carte blanche to ignore or even support massacres within their own borders. In the meantime, the region -- and the entire Horn of Africa -- is going up in flames. The Sudanese government does whatever it wants, destabilizing the whole country. Ethiopia, another U.S. ally, apparently drove the Islamists out of Somalia recently, yet the country remains a failed state and heavy fighting continues. There are more than 9 million refugees fleeing crises in the region. The United States, says Prendergast, should actually be developing a peace initiative instead of giving in to the demands of its allies.

Prendergast stretches in his armchair and yawns. The phone rings nonstop; every few minutes, the computer announces new e-mail. He used to spend six months out of the year in Africa, traveling from country to country, eating only cereal bars out of fear of stomach troubles. "I've got no skills," he once said. "All I have is my mouth."


He has met with presidents, rebel groups and diplomats; some have called him the most informed American on the subject of Africa, and that probably still is the case. Recently, however, he has been spending less and less time on the continent while he focuses on his new role: Prendergast the activist, who informs Americans about Africa. Prendergast, trusted advisor to the Hollywood stars.

He knows "elitists" are critical of him but he says he's not interested in suggestions that certain celebrities don't really care about Africa. He has served as a panelist with actress and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow and eaten dinner with Angelina Jolie. "I've never picked up the phone, I never chased anybody," he says. "These people are really concerned about what's going on." It was Jolie who approached him after she spoke before Congress and said: "We have to go to the Congo together." That's how it all started.

People are crazy about celebrities, he says, and if a celebrity takes an interest in Africa, thousands of other people follow suit. "It's a great boon to our movement."

Public pressure on Darfur has made a difference. President Bush on Tuesday announced a new set of sanctions against Sudan, including measures targeting government-run companies involved in the country's oil industry. In April, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte traveled to Sudan and finally wrangled a minor concession from the country's rulers. Khartoum agreed to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force of no more than 3,000 troops and six helicopter gunships to support the African Union forces already on the ground. But the newly brokered deal is still a far cry from an effective solution.


"We are just trapped still in this kind of pre-action mode. Debate and discussion, back and forth, but no action" says Prendergast. "This is so contrary to what this administration usually does. It would be almost funny if it weren't so deadly." He says he's now full of hope, and the problems are not so difficult to solve: "We've got examples all over Africa that once the international community got serious, there was a solution. We've seen it." Sierra Leone and Burundi are good examples. He adds that Liberia was a nightmare 10 years ago. Now, Africa's only woman president is successfully governing the country.

Prendergast thinks that Sudan could have a similarly bright future -- and he has the blueprint of a plan that he thinks could work.

It consists of three components: promoting peace, protecting people, and punishing perpetrators. None of these can work in isolation, he says; the full package is necessary.

Promoting peace entails bringing rebel groups and the government to the negotiating table. Then, he suggests initiating a peace process that, together with international support, would lead to power sharing in Darfur.

To protect people, Prendergast suggests a larger, armed U.N. peacekeeping force that can protect civilians, as well as secure the borders to the neighboring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic, where the conflict is threatening to spread.

Third, Prendergast wants to punish perpetrators with immediate multilateral sanctions against the Sudanese government. He believes other countries should join the United States in applying economic sanctions against Sudan and proposes freezing the responsible parties' bank accounts and imposing travel bans. He would also prohibit Sudan from doing business with international banks. Furthermore, he wants the International Criminal Court to have access to intelligence on the role of the Sudanese regime in the atrocities.

Finally, he is calling for international citizens' initiatives to put the necessary pressure on governments around the world.

"If we did those things and did them effectively, I think we'd see a pretty rapid turnaround in Sudan's behavior," Prendergast says, grinning.

Africa is not a lost continent. "Africa is one of the brightest hopes on the face of the earth. But in Sudan, it's one of these crossroads situations." If the international community continues to stand by and do nothing, then he believes Sudan will go to the dogs. "But it could go the other way. It could become a model country for tolerance and reconciliation. We'll see what happens."

In the United States, Prendergast is the man most readily associated with the International Crisis Group. He was featured in a short film at the last Sundance Film Festival, he has his own agent in Hollywood, and he is now more famous than his boss, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.

Evans, who works out of the group's Brussels, Belgium, headquarters, said of Prendergast, "He is not exactly low maintenance, but he's very effective. Every organization should have someone like him. But perhaps one would be enough."

Prendergast winces when people remind him of it and says he actually doesn't want to be in the limelight. But somehow it happens again and again. Following his forced departure from the U.S. National Security Council, he attended a White House ceremony. Afterward, President Bush came to him, and they spoke at length. It was an interesting conversation, Prendergast says, though he was a bit surprised that the president wanted to talk to him. It wasn't until later that he found out why: Bush had mistaken him for Bono, the rock star.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

Mathieu von Rohr

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