The stories that emerge from genocidal societies are by definition incredible. That was the lesson the Holocaust should have taught us. In case after case of genocide, accounts that sounded far-fetched and that could not be independently verified repeatedly proved true. —Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
I bring the stories to you because I know most people want others to have good lives, and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to steer the world back toward kindness.—Daoud Hari, The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur
The stories told in Daoud Hari’s slim memoir, The Translator, are indeed incredible. So incredible that it’s impossible at times to imagine them. The rape and mutilation of thousands upon thousands of women. The butchering of children. The destruction of villages, lives, and ways of life. It’s easy to imagine, however, that you’ve heard them before. After some time, the atrocities we read about in the newspaper begin to blur. For Westerners, everything in Darfur seems so far away.
And with distance comes a softening of focus, a creeping indifference, and a casual forgetfulness. In A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide her excellent study of the American response to genocide in the 20th century, Samantha Power posits that one of the reasons the United States did so little to stop the slaughters in Turkey, Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda is “a reluctance to imagine the unimaginable because of the consequences.” Daoud Hari doesn’t leave much to the imagination in his descriptions of what continues to take place in Darfur; his refusal to turn away is what makes The Translator such an important book.
Hari was born in Darfur. He lived in a small village with his brothers and sisters and had a camel, Kelgi, as a pet. When he was 13, a detachment of the Sudanese Army came to his village looking for rebels. Understanding that it was no longer safe, his family sent him to the largest city in North Darfur, El Fasher, to finish school. There, and in his subsequent work in Libya and Egypt, Hari learned to speak the English and Arabic that allowed him to be a translator for the UN and US-backed effort to determine whether what was happening in Darfur could be classified as genocide.
As a Sudanese citizen who took reporters into the Darfur region, Hari was in constant danger of arrest, imprisonment, and execution for treason. Still, he returned again and again to show people what had happened to the land of his youth. “This part of the world, our world, was changing so quickly every day, falling deeper into the fires of cruelty. I wanted to wake up from it.” He describes how persistent drought conditions have made a hard land even harder. The reduction in resources allowed the Islamic government of the north to foment unrest among nomadic Arabs in the south, providing them with arms and encouraging them to wipe out the native tribespeople with whom they had lived in peace for generations. As a result of government pressure, Hari says, neighbors are massacring neighbors and villages are ravaged by brutality, fear, and death.
Often, he asks his readers to put themselves in his place. “Imagine if all the systems and rules that held your country together fell apart suddenly and your family members were all - every one of them - in a dangerous situation.” It’s a simple ploy and is amazingly effective. It’s as though Hari is right there trying to explain the unexplainable to someone he believes will understand if given enough information.
The unembellished prose throughout the book is also reminiscent of solid journalism. Hari tells the stories as they are told to (and through) him. He recalls his first days in a refugee camp in Chad, translating for the genocide investigators who wanted to interview those who made it out of Darfur, out of their villages, out of their lives, alive. “...the stories came pouring out, and often they were set before us slowly and quietly like tea. These slow stories were told with understatement that made my eyes and voice fill as I translated; for when people seem to have no emotion remaining for such stories, your own heart must supply it.” There are many times in Hari’s own account when the reader is called upon to do just that.
When the stories Hari tells are so terrible, so “incredible”, the language he uses becomes thinner and more transparent until it recedes into the background and allows the events to dominate the page. At these moments, the distance between reader and story collapses so dramatically that there is no escape. One cannot avoid being thrust into what, just moments before, was only a narrative. “The first day was very hard on everyone who told a story and everyone who listened… The coming days would be no easier.”
After the US declared the situation in Darfur a genocide, Hari continued to escort reporters (mostly from the UK and the US) into increasingly dangerous areas. He purchased a cell phone with the stipend he received for the translation work he did with the genocide investigators, and he prided himself on knowing which rebel groups were in control of which areas and who to call to ensure safe passage for himself and his charges. But as the border region grew increasingly chaotic, who was in charge became harder and harder to determine. One day, Hari, a National Geographic reporter named Paul, and Ali, their driver, were captured.
The last half of the book follows the three prisoners as they make the terrifying rounds of various commanders, child soldiers, and filthy prison cells. This Kafkaesque odyssey illuminates another aspect of the impossible situation in Darfur. Nobody knows who is in control; children tote Kalashnikovs and discuss torture, and people are killed for no reason other than the fact that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If anything, Darfur these past years has been the epitome of “the wrong place”, but as Hari maintains throughout the book, it wasn’t always this way. From a Western vantage point, the situation can appear hopeless, the parties intractable, and the violence both horrific and inscrutable. But Hari believes that his homeland can return to the peaceful, rational place it once was. And after reading his own story, this belief has an indescribable poignancy.
In A Problem From Hell, Power argues that the silence of the Western world was another reason that 20th century genocides were allowed to continue without international intervention. I finished The Translator with the feeling that I needed to do something but I still wasn’t sure what. “What can one person do?” Hari asks near the end of his story. He answers the rhetorical question in the same logical, hopeful (but not prescriptive) tone he somehow maintains throughout his journey. “You make friends, of course, and do what you can.” It is this strict focus on the personal that in the end makes Hari’s account of the hell that Darfur has become something more than just an exercise in despair.
Nobody agrees on exactly what to do, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. At the very least, Hari believes, we should educate ourselves about what is happening. At one point in the story, Hari and two American reporters are trying to escape a furious Janjaweed militia attack on a village. There is no room for error. Hari says of the man at the wheel, upon whom their survival depended, “He was too nervous to be driving, but he was in the driver’s seat.” That is the case with us all. We might not be fit to drive, but there’s no one else who can get us where we need to go.
The Translator is a short book. It is engagingly written. And it is absolutely essential reading if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century in the infancy of the 21st. If we all took an afternoon to read Daoud Hari’s account of what is happening in Darfur, no government would be able to ignore the ocean of voices that would rise up in protest. That would be a story worth telling.
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