Words, Photos Show Struggle In Darfur

April 09, 2009

By Linda Bloom*

April 8, 2009 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

As journalists who travel the world, Chris Herlinger and Paul Jeffrey know that once you finish telling a story, you have to move on to the next one.

But the complex and compelling crisis that enfolds the people of Darfur keeps drawing them back. "The trouble with Darfur is it's the one country you can't move on from - the tragedy there is so great," explains Jeffrey (below), a photojournalist and missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The result is "Where Mercy Fails: Darfur's Struggle to Survive," a book about the situation in Sudan, with more than 70 pages of Jeffrey's photographs and a text by Herlinger, a writer for Church World Service who also reports for Ecumenical News International and Religion News Service. The publisher is Seabury Books of New York.

During an interview before their April 6 book launch, the pair acknowledges that other books have been published recently on Darfur. But, "Where Mercy Fails" is "the only book that I've seen that really combines serious writing and serious photos," says Jeffrey, who is a clergy member of the United Methodist Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.

In his foreword, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, commends "Where Mercy Fails," noting that it lays out "the human dimensions of this crisis and the socio-economic and political difficulties in trying to address it, as well as the implications for people of faith."


The numbers behind this crisis, which began in 2003 after an attack on Sudanese government targets by a rebel group, include the displacement of more than 2.5 million people who have fled their homes and a death toll ranging from 250,000 to 400,000.

Beyond humanitarian need

Calling the book a glimpse of their experiences while on assignment for humanitarian groups in Darfur and Chad, Herlinger and Jeffrey admit to "a bias in favor of the victims of political violence and abuse" in their introduction and point to a crisis beyond humanitarian need in Sudan.

"Although it remains the largest humanitarian operation in the world, the massive exercise of organized mercy has failed to resolve the crisis, which is deeply economic, political, cultural and environmental in nature," they write.

Both journalists have traveled separately to Darfur twice in the past five years and together interviewed refugees from Darfur living in camps in eastern Chad, a country bordering Sudan, in May 2008.

There, they met Rahkia Ismael Khatir, who recalled the abundant garden plots and cattle in her North Darfur village of Kiyagnou. "While Darfur was, and remains, a poor place, to those who lived there it was not a place of deprivation," Herlinger writes. "Farming families like Khatir's could eke out a living in relative peace and with a degree of certainty."

Like many others, violence drove Khatir and her family from Darfur in 2004 when the Janjaweed -- bandits who some believe are attached to the Sudanese government -- attacked their village.

On the rebel side, the Sudan Liberation Army is comprised of young guerrilla fighters whose motives for starting the conflict remain unclear, Herlinger reports. The book includes a description of conversations that Herlinger and two colleagues had when encountering SLA members outside the city of Nyala.

In the past few years, according to Jeffrey, "the overall political/military situation has just devolved into chaos." The rebels themselves have split into various factions, he explains, and it seems that some people simply decided to become bandits. "That makes solutions much harder to come by."

Survivors of crisis

The survivors of the conflict are the ones in crisis. Herlinger recalls coming upon several displaced persons looking for safety, including a man with "the thinnest legs I have seen on an adult" and a 27-year-old woman with six children by her side. "A Scandinavian colleague and I had no food or medicine on us," he writes. "There was nothing we could marshal except tepid words of support. It was one of those discouraging moments when the work of a writer is often inadequate in the face of dire need."

His colleague, however, believed that the need for protection was even greater. That tension -- between those focused on humanitarian aid and those who believe human rights issues should be paramount -- is a factor that Herlinger (at left) and Jeffrey continue to see when it comes to the crisis in Darfur.

The same issue arises in other areas of conflict, such as Sri Lanka or Gaza, "but it's particularly acute in relation to Darfur," Herlinger says, adding that "Where Mercy Fails" does not take a position on which viewpoint is more important. "We can see both sides of it."

As he points out in the book, humanitarian workers must be careful because they have to "foster a working relationship with local authorities," while human rights workers try to shed light on abuses.

"To work in Darfur as a long-term humanitarian relief worker is a commitment," says Jeffrey, who explains that the Sudanese government makes the lives of relief workers there "almost impossible."

Nearly as impossible is trying to work as a photographer or journalist in Darfur. In the book's afterword, Jeffrey details the hoops he's had to jump through on visits there. "A lot of journalists spend weeks in Khartoum waiting for permits that never come," he said.

"The government makes it very difficult to come back with the story."

Faith-based activists

On the human rights side, faith-based organizations have been in the forefront of U.S. Darfur activism. One of those activists is Cory Smith, a United Methodist who is the faith outreach advisor of the ENOUGH Project. Smith believes that faith groups not only bring numbers to advocate for the cause but a sense of endurance. "When you face something intractable, faith can overcome the cynicism or fatigue that sets in after five years and the perception that the problem is just too overwhelming," he says in the book.

The failure of the international community to change the situation in Darfur contributes to the fatigue factor. "The book is good at lifting up some of the fault lines of the international system," Herlinger says.

In Jeffrey's opinion, the United Nations "has failed miserably to stop the violence in Darfur." While he believes President Bush "was genuinely concerned" about the situation, the political pressure was not strong enough to push the U.S. government to definitive action. The Obama Administration, he says, is starting by offering a "carrot" to the Sudanese government rather than a stick but he is unsure what type of response that will draw.

The weakness of political leadership in advocating for Darfur is evident, they say, when it takes a celebrity, such as George Clooney, to draw public attention to the crisis. "The celebrities have filled a void," Herlinger notes. "You can criticize, but George Clooney has brought attention to the problem."

Jeffrey hopes his photographs of the daily life of the refugees in Darfur also draw attention - to the strength of the survivors.

"Most human beings bear an enormous reserve of dignity, even when raped, robbed and chased from their homes and herded into camps where they have to depend on the compassion of others to survive," he writes in the afterword. "I hope the images in this book reflect in some way the strength of the women, men and children who are the survivors of the Darfur genocide."

Information on the book and where to purchase it can be found at www.wheremercyfails.com.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.