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Palpably horrific

A new HBO documentary, 'Sand and Sorrow,' is a powerful indictment of war and wickedness in Darfur.

December 06, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Near the start of "Sand and Sorrow," an HBO documentary about the slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan, scholar Gerard Prunier explains why the butchery has not roused the international community to action.

"People who do not represent either a threat or a benefit do not count," says Prunier, an Africa expert and author of "Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide."

It's a melancholic conclusion to a story of horror and savagery: an estimated 400,000 dead, 2.5 million refugees, countless women raped, rampant starvation and disease.

As other journalistic efforts have done, "Sand and Sorrow" lays blame on the Sudanese government, its army and the camel-riding Arab bandits called janjaweed.

Starting in 2003, the government in Khartoum used the janjaweed to launch a proxy campaign to crush the rebels in the Darfur province by attacking the civilian population. Having spent two decades fighting a rebellion in the south, Khartoum wanted to be rid of the Darfur rebels in the west more quickly.

The United Nations, rightfully ashamed of its inability to stop the Rwanda massacre of a decade earlier, passed resolutions condemning Khartoum. But China, a major buyer of Sudanese oil, blocked any direct action and was helped by Russia.

President Bush branded the killing a genocide and earlier this year called for new economic sanctions and a worldwide arms embargo against Sudan -- but the silence from most nations, including those in Africa, has been deafening.

"Sand and Sorrow," narrated by actor George Clooney and directed by Paul Freedman, is powerful stuff. The images of the dead and dying, the raped and the maimed, are horrifying.

So too is the complaint by a spokesman for the Sudanese government that his country is being treated unfairly and that the Darfur situation is being "blown out of proportion." The pictures give the lie to that assertion.

The thesis of "Sand and Sorrow" is that, while the U.N. was flummoxed by its internal politics and the Bush administration provided more rhetoric than action, a band of activists brought Darfur to center stage. Among those are Harvard professor Samantha Power and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

There's not much of a response from the Bush administration in "Sand and Sorrow." The allegation that the U.S. war in Iraq made African nations reluctant to help in Darfur could have used some response. An interview with an official in the State Department, past or present, might have provided balance.

The documentary also tends to be preachy and overly worshipful of the activists. It raises the question: What's the answer? Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is articulate about the need for the U.S. to do something, but the presidential candidate never says what he has in mind, and neither does anyone else.

The U.N., despite vows of "never again" after the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda, has failed, "Sand and Sorrow" argues. The Rwanda genocide took place in 100-plus days, but Darfur has taken years.

The janjaweed attack on horseback and camels. The Sudanese army uses helicopters and Russian warplanes. Aid convoys are attacked; janjaweed forces wait outside refugee camps to gang-rape women looking for firewood.

A U.N. commission bogs down in a four-month debate about the word "genocide." A peace conference between Khartoum and rebel groups ends up in failure and additional killing. An African force from Nigeria and Rwanda is sent to Darfur but lacks the authority and firepower to stop the janjaweed.

In frustration, an African military officer says the attacks on Darfur civilians are not war. "It's wickedness," he says.

Someday the international court may succeed in prosecuting some of those responsible for the savagery. But someday will be too late for tens of thousands in refugee camps in Darfur and Chad.

"In Sudan," one refugee explains, "human rights do not exist."


'Sand and Sorrow'

Where: HBO

When: 8 to 9:45 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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