If Darfur doesn’t suffer from international inattention, it certainly suffers from international neglect. Here we are, five years after the region became a household term and the grim statistics – at least three million displaced and 300,000 killed – only tick higher. For years, editorials have been written, campaigns launched, peacekeepers dispatched, but the violence simply escalates. In just the past few months, the Sudanese government has persisted in its bombing campaigns against villages, rebels have attacked Khartoum, and aid workers have come under increasing threat. More than 150,000 people have fled their homes in Darfur this year alone, and terrible stories of suffering continue to pour out of camps around the region.
More than a few such stories inhabit the pages of Daoud Hari’s The Translator. There is Hari’s account of the young mother, terrorised and raped by the janjaweed, who then abandon her in the desert far from any village. She walks for days with her children in tow, and when they die of starvation and thirst, she places them under a tree and hangs herself from the nearest branch. There is the slightly crazed man who pulls Hari aside at a Chadian refugee camp, desperate to share a terrible secret. When the janjaweed attacked his village, they tied him to a tree and began to beat him savagely. At the sight of the thrashing, the man’s four-year-old daughter ran out from her hiding place in a vain effort to protect her father. As she approached, one of the janjaweed fighters bayoneted her through her stomach and lifted her above his head, prancing around the tree as her blood rained down on him. “What was he?” her father asks Hari. “A man? A devil? . . .What is better torture than this?”
Telling just a few of Darfur’s stories is the humble premise of this slim and simply narrated memoir. Hari is hardly the first to send such wrenching accounts into the world, but his contribution to what we know about events on the ground in Sudan extends far beyond the pages of his own book. After a terrifying attack on his village in 2003, in which he lost his beloved elder brother, Hari and members of his family fled to Chad. Rather than pick up a gun, Hari risked life and limb by repeatedly returning to Darfur as a translator for journalists with the BBC, the New York Times and NBC News. If you have learned anything about Darfur from these sources, the chances are you have already encountered Hari’s work.
But Hari’s memoir is also unique in that it provides a window into life in Darfur before the region became synonymous with genocide. He offers us a portrait of village life, so that we can begin to understand the paramount importance of family and the extended bonds of tribe and kinship that are so necessary when forging an existence in a harsh environment. In clean, straightforward prose, he describes the marketplaces of nearby towns, the games that young children play to while away time, the travellers packed together in the Land Cruisers that connect the villages of Africa.
If only we weren’t aware that these brief snatches of routine are mere interludes in a horror story. Hari’s homecoming, after years spent working abroad illegally in Libya and Egypt (for which he served time in prison), is brief and sorrowful; hearing of the rising troubles, he makes it home just days before his own village is attacked and his family is scattered. While serving as a translator for aid workers in swelling camps along the Chad border, he meets untold numbers of young women for whom, Hari writes, “rape [is] now the going price of camp firewood”. He escorts a team of BBC reporters into Darfur, where they come upon a thickly forested area where human limbs and heads fall to earth around them; villagers had made a last stand in the trees. Nearby were the bodies of 81 men and boys killed in the same attack.
The misfortune described in The Translator is not always Hari’s to observe. On a trip into Darfur in August 2006, he was serving as guide and translator to the Chicago Tribune‘s Paul Salopek when he, Salopek and their driver were captured by rebels allied with the Sudanese government. Understandably, Khartoum does not look kindly on reporters (or their Sudanese translators). What followed was more than 30 days of detention, with harsh interrogations and severe beatings. Several times, guards from Hari’s tribe offered him the chance to escape, but he refused to leave the others behind. Only the intervention of high-level officials from the United States, and international appeals from people such as the Pope and Bono, secured their release. In the wake of the episode, Hari was granted political asylum in the US. From there, he continues to investigate the fates of his extended family members and awaits the day when he, like millions of others, can return home.