Jina Moore interviews fellow Pulitzer Center grantee Rebecca Hamilton for Guernica Magazine:
Last September, Rebecca Hamilton was finishing a street interview in Khartoum, Sudan, when she saw the local police rounding up a group of women. The police accused the women of brewing a local beer, illegal in the Sharia state, and carted them away. Belatedly, they noticed the white foreigner watching them. One of the men in the crowd she had been talking to “suggested I call my president in Washington to tell him I had been arrested,” she wrote later in The Atlantic.
Sure enough, Hamilton spent the next six hours detained in two different unmarked buildings, answering questions about her reporting trips to Darfur and her upcoming book. She was finally released late in the evening, along with the request that she promise never to speak to a southern Sudanese without a state security agent chaperone.
Since then, Hamilton has not been able to get a visa for northern Sudan—soon to be a separate country. The coming split is the final chapter in what was Africa’s longest-running civil war. For twenty-one years, southern liberation fighters battled for independence. It was a war seemingly about everything, including economic neglect and political disenfranchisement, a pattern that originated under the British colonial administration and that a weak and nervous new Islamic government, in the 1980s, perpetuated. Ultimately, the north-south civil war—like so much violence across Sudan—was about identity. “Strikingly consistent across all of the battles in Sudan’s history has been a fundamental conflict over what are and what are not seen as legitimate aspects of Sudanese identity,” Hamilton writes in her book, Fighting for Darfur.
It was Darfur, in fact, that captured international attention, thanks in part to an advocacy movement that is the subject of Hamilton’s book and in which she played a part. As a student at Harvard Law School, Hamilton co-founded the Harvard Divestment Movement in 2004, leading the university with the richest endowment in America to pull its investments in companies making profits from Sudan. The successful campaign catalyzed divestment movements across the country.
Hamilton, meanwhile, moved on to The Hague, where she worked after law school as a special assistant to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The court has indicted six Sudanese for war crimes, including the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir. In 2008, Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted for genocide. Hamilton left the court to write Fighting for Darfur.
Last year, Hamilton took several trips to Sudan, where she covered the referendum as a Washington Post special correspondent, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
This interview was conducted on June 17 in New York, following Hamilton’s most recent trip to the contested territory on the border between north and south Sudan.
—Jina Moore for Guernica
Guernica: South Sudan voted in January to secede from the country. The formal division is scheduled for July 9, but there’s been new violence the last few weeks in Abyei.
Rebecca Hamilton: And now in a place called South Kordofan.
Guernica: What has been happening there, and will it jeopardize the split?
Rebecca Hamilton: It’s best to think of these as two things—they’re related, but there’s different dynamics going on with each of them. A key difference is Abyei is contested territory. We still do not know whether Abyei is going to belong to the new country of South Sudan or effectively the new country of Sudan, the northern part. That was supposed to be decided by a referendum in January; that referendum never happened, so it was being dealt with through political negotiations. All of that went out of the window when government seized the territory on May 21.
Guernica: Why is Abyei so sought after?
Rebecca Hamilton: There’s a huge misconception that it’s all about the oil, and the truth is there’s actually not much oil left in Abyei. The misperception arose because when the peace agreement was signed in 2005, Abyei accounted for a quarter of Sudan’s oil production. Since then, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague defined major oil fields to lie outside Abyei. They’re in the north now, not even up for grabs, and they account for one percent of the oil in Sudan. The idea that it’s “oil-rich Abyei” is out of date.
The area is incredibly fertile and really important in terms of water. The permanent residents are the Ngok Dinka, who think Abyei should be southern. They’re more likely to be farmers. The Misseriya are a nomadic group that travels down from the north each year. There’s a river—the Ngok Dinka call it the Kiir, the Misseriya call it Bahr al-Arab—that’s a consistent source of water through the dry season. That river in Abyei is pretty crucial for their livelihoods. They feel if Abyei goes to the south, that they won’t be able to graze their livestock.
There have been promises by the south for grazing rights, but there is still so much mistrust between the two sides. During the civil war, the Sudanese government armed the Misseriya nomads as proxy. Even though both groups had coexisted quite well prior to the conflict, it all become much more difficult as a consequence.
The south really wants Abyei; they have a core constituency who reside in the area who believe that Abyei belongs to the south. There are a number of those sons of Abyei in high positions of government in South Sudan, so it’s pretty hard for South Sudan to just walk away. What’s been amazing over last few weeks is that the southern government hasn’t retaliated over Abyei, not because it hasn’t been debated fiercely, but because it seems like the greater good to hold on until July 9, get independence, be a sovereign state, and then be on more solid ground.
Guernica: That strategy implies the division will go forward no matter what?
Rebecca Hamilton: Absolutely. If South Sudan will become the world’s newest nation on July 9, for me, is not the question. The question is whether the fighting and the insecurity along the border areas is going to be so severe that it makes both the north and the south ultimately impossible to govern.
Guernica: Where does the violence in South Korodfan, which neighbors Abyei, fit into all this?
Rebecca Hamilton: Southern Kordofan is not a disputed territory. It is, and will remain, in the north, where the Nuba Mountains are. People believe there was a genocide there in 1990s. The Nuba, who are northerners, fought with the south in the north-south war. But they have their own individual interests, and they will remain in the north after the south splits. [Sudanese President Omar Hassan] Bashir said he wanted all of these former southern fighters to be disarmed by June, and when that didn’t happen, or when there was an effort at forced disarmament, we got into this situation.
There have been bombs dropping for ten days, humanitarian access has been barred, journalists who tried to get in [to Southern Kordofan] were beaten and turned away at checkpoints. In all the interviews I’ve been doing, the phone calls I’ve gotten at three in the morning, people are saying the Nuba are being systematically hunted down.
Guernica: Ethnic cleansing?
Rebecca Hamilton: Right.
Guernica: Why didn’t the disarmament happen?
Rebecca Hamilton: Because they don’t feel safe. They are terrified that when South Sudan separates, they are going to be again persecuted by the Sudanese government. And that seems to be playing out right now.
Guernica: So is this a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing?
Rebecca Hamilton: It’s really difficult to get good information, and there’s a reason for that. They’re not letting journalists in. Whenever something really bad is happening, we always are dealing with uncertain information. Certainly what is happening there is qualitatively different from what happening in Abyei. I did interviews with people who fled Abyei, and it was terrifying—tanks came, and pickup trucks, and people ran for five days in the bush with no food and water, and children died on the way. When they tell the story there’s no sense there’s the use of racial slurs or targeting civilians; they wanted to clear them out of the area. But every interview I’ve done so far with someone from the Nuba Mountans (and it’s all by telephone), this concept of the Nuba being targeted is really at the forefront.
Guernica: How is it all of this can happen in the presence of UN peacekeepers?
Rebecca Hamilton: I think fundamentally the bigger question is, what are we expecting peacekeepers to do? Are they actually, as the traditional conception would have it, keeping peace, in which case they’re not there to actively intervene and stop violence? When we send them into these places, do we expect they will respond forcefully?
More problematically, that’s what the population expects. Peacekeeping there is still just totally ineffective. The UN is now saying they are sending reinforcements in the area, but I have no particular reason to believe that they will be any stronger than the force there. In Southern Kordofan, it’s mostly an Egyptian battalion, and that’s really problematic because the population already doesn’t trust the Egyptians; they think they’re on payroll of the north. So we already have a force that is seen as compromised.
I spoke to a man today whose son told him that he saw civilians being shot literally outside the UN base in Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan. The UN evacuated international staff from SK, but couldn’t get permission from the government to take out Sudanese staff.
Guernica: What do you make of that?
Rebecca Hamilton: The staff just ran an open letter published in the New York Times saying they were being surrounded and under threat. What’s going on here is a campaign against the UN in general; the Sudanese government has said that they won’t accept the UN mission, the peacekeepers, in Sudan after July 9. It’s much like Darfur. If you’re going to be committing crimes, it’s better to have external eyes and ears out of that.
Guernica: What will Sudan—north Sudan—look like after the split? I know there have been many issues raised about throwing around generic labels in describing the country and its conflicts, but is the “new north” Muslim? Is it Arab?
Rebecca Hamilton: Every indication is that the Sudanese government will be defining it as an Arab, Muslim country. But there are also a lot of Christians and a lot of people, like the Nuba, who are not Arab. And that is why it is going to be problematic that Sudan will be defined in this way.
What’s really interesting, though, is that some people in the Messirya are starting to see Darfuri rebels—so non-Arab, [from the] Justice and Equality Movement—have moved over into Southern Kordofan, which is supposed to be a Messirya stronghold, and started recruiting Messirya to go and fight against the Khartoum government in Darfur. Just another example of how everything in Sudan is interlinked.
Guernica: After the split, will the current situation turn be an interstate conflict?
Rebecca Hamilton: I’m not sure it’s going to be quite that precise. In some ways it would be easier if you had two clear state commands. My biggest concern—my heart is in my throat twenty-four hours a day for what is happening in Southern Kordofan. The international community is about to have even less leverage than it already has over the Khartoum government. And those populations in the north, which don’t fit the model that the party wants to define Sudan along—a lot of people in the east, in the Nuba mountains, all around the periphery—they’re hugely, hugely vulnerable. And the international community is not going to have leverage.
Guernica: You wrote a book, Fighting for Darfur, about the Darfur advocacy movement’s attempts to create and wield leverage in U.S. politics and more broadly, say, on China with the “Genocide Olympics.” Does that movement still exist?
Rebecca Hamilton: No question that the spotlight on Darfur has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. And that’s deeply problematic, because it hasn’t disappeared because Darfur has been solved.
Guernica: Why has it, then?
Rebecca Hamilton: A mix of a few things. One is I think people felt like they did everything they had been told they should do to fix the problem, and it still wasn’t fixed. Then you have these other parts of Sudan, [which] in actual fact have been left on the back burner for way too long, so there was this scramble, probably a year ago now, to focus on the fact that this peace agreement was basically falling apart.
Everyone needed to have recognized that a couple years earlier. And I think some did, and they tried really hard to shift the conversation. But what they found is that when you are dealing with a mass movement, as opposed to a quote-unquote “elite,” you are talking to people who don’t have time to read long research papers. You have to communicate with them in sound bites, around every other thing they are doing. So it takes a long time to shift people from one message to the next, especially if your foundational narrative was, “The only one thing in the entire world you should be paying attention to is Darfur.”
There’s a bigger question again about how to do prevention. It’s not simply about putting out the early warning. The early warning was put out on Abyei; everybody knew that this was coming. This was intentional, and still it happened. So this idea that we fail to stop these things because there’s not awareness about them, or that we need better early warning information, I’m increasingly skeptical of. I think it’s about how you move that information into the policy process.
Guernica: What’s your verdict on Save Darfur? Have they changed their approach in response to your book?
Rebecca Hamilton: I’m not about to claim my book is that influential. But certainly the movement has matured over time. In my book I followed that evolution through the character of Sam Bell. He was a 21-year old college student when he first became a Darfur advocate. And he grew into one of the most thoughtful, self-reflective individuals I have ever met. Towards the end of the book he says, “Looking back I wish ‘2005 Sam’ was more inquisitive about all Sudan’s challenges and not just the ones called genocide.” He made that transition and brought a lot of others along with him. But I also think that there are dynamics that come with building and sustaining any mass movement, no matter how thoughtful their leadership, that create risks. You have to simplify—there is no other way to reach a mass audience. And you have to feed them evidence of their own success to keep them motivated. Both these things can have detrimental consequences on the situation. Those risks can be managed, of course. But they are ever present no matter how thoughtful your leadership is.
Guernica: Let’s talk briefly about the cover art on your book, which depicts the Darfuri landscape. Honestly, I’m surprised that you didn’t get strong-armed by the marketing department into using a picture of a desperate-looking refugee child.
Rebecca Hamilton: I had to fight very hard for that.
Guernica: The image you have is what?
Rebecca Hamilton: It’s this—some call it dignified, others call it boring—landscape. That was the cost of fighting against the stereotype.
Guernica: You’ve also been reporting from Sudan for the last year. How is what you see when you’re in Sudan different from what you see reflected in the news of Sudan when you get back to New York?
Rebecca Hamilton: Something I’ve learned over time, and trying to remind myself this week as I am back in New York and feeling pretty anxious, is that things always seem less dire when you’re in the country than when you’re outside. I don’t exactly know why it is, except that people just have to get on with their life, so they do. And you don’t have time to do anything other than keep going. For sure I see so much in Sudan that is wonderful, normal life—young entrepreneurs starting up NGO projects, kids mucking around and being kids. Everything else that happens in normal life in any part of the world, and we never get that in our media coverage. We only talk about Sudan once it’s in crisis, so we end up with a distorted sense of what daily life is like for a lot of people.
It’s not just a Sudan problem. It’s certainly an Africa problem. Maybe it’s just a news problem.
Guernica: How do you cover a place like Sudan from afar? How do you personally handle not being able to get into places like Southern Kordofan?
Rebecca Hamilton: Well, I try not to cover Sudan from afar. I feel really uncomfortable writing about Sudan when I’m not there. It always looks different. When you’re outside Sudan it’s easy to lose sight of how much of what happens is driven by local politics. And when you’re in America in particular, there’s this sense that what D.C. has to say is the only thing that counts. Unsurprisingly people in Sudan don’t feel the same way. But since I was detained by the Sudanese government last year I haven’t been able to get a visa back into the north. The latest update I got on that front today was they believe I have “spent too much time in Sudan” already. I’m still hoping they will change their minds. It feels awful not to be in Southern Kordofan right now. Verifiable information is so difficult to get at because everyone has been shut out, but what information I am able to get is making my heart sink. It is also strange to be between two worlds—getting woken up at 3 a.m. by phone calls with awful updates from the Nuba Mountains while being here in my very safe apartment. It’s hard to reconcile.