Encountering God: Peacebuilding in Darfur
BY DANE F. SMITH
Since January, I have worked as senior advisor to the U.S. government for bringing peace to Darfur, Sudan's western most region. (It is not part of South Sudan, which became an independent country July 9.)
In 2003 an armed revolt broke out in Darfur when some tribal leaders, mostly of African origin, decided that the central government in Khartoum, the capitol, had ignored and discriminated against the people for too long. To suppress the revolt, the Sudanese government recruited some members of Arab tribes in Darfur to fight on its side.
Darfur has experienced conflict for eight years, which has resulted in 300,000 deaths, 2 million people displaced from their homes into camps and 325,000 refugees in flight across Sudan's western border with Chad.
Darfuris and the international community have accused the government in Khartoum of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in conducting the war. The international community has attempted various measures to end it. A hybrid United Nations-African Union peace force has been in the region since 2007. The International Criminal Court has indicted three Sudanese for war crimes, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Much of peace-building is talking, which involves conversation with a great variety of people. In Sudan, I speak with government ministers, governors and senior advisors to the president. In the displaced persons camps, I speak with ordinary people and traditional tribal leaders – umdas, sheikhs, sometimes a sultan. I speak with human rights activists who take risks to meet me.
To the extent my limited Arabic permits, I try to speak in Arabic, the language of Sudan.
I start my conversations with "As-salaamu aleikum wa rahmatullah wa barakathu." It is the standard greeting with which Muslims start almost every public verbal interaction: "Peace, God's mercy and his blessings be with you all."
It does not matter that I am Christian and they are Muslim. We worship the same God, although in different ways. The saying is just as Christian as it is Muslim. To say that helps to put me on a positive footing with them.
Peacebuilding requires partners. I have spent a lot of time in the small oil-rich Gulf country of Qatar. It was the site of peace talks on Darfur between the Government of Sudan and two armed rebel movements. My major partner in Qatar has been Ahmed Bin Abdalla al-Mahmoud, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
For more than two years, he hosted peace talks, trying to encourage a half-dozen divided rebel movements to join together to negotiate with the Government of Sudan.
I have seen Mahmoud's peace-building skills on display. Qatar brought several hundred Darfuris from various walks of life to a conference to provide their views on the peace agreement being negotiated. A group of displaced persons from resettlement camps arrived very upset. They claimed the Government of Sudan had prevented some of their leaders from coming. They boycotted the opening session and milled about angrily outside the hall.
Mahmoud, a slight aristocratic figure in turban and immaculate white robe, walked straight into their midst. I thought there might be an angry confrontation. However, speaking confidently but humbly and drawing on Islamic religious language, Mahmoud promised to bring the missing people to Qatar by the next day. He defused the situation, and the boycotters entered the hall. A special flight brought the missing persons soon after.
But Mahmoud was frustrated by his inability to persuade some rebel leaders to come to Qatar. He spoke to me several times of his exasperation with one leader who spurned his pleas.
Hearing him out, I had a thought. I said to him, "Our prophet Issa – Jesus in Arabic – said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.'" An enormous warm smile lit up his face. And last month al-Mahmoud celebrated the signing of a peace accord with one rebel group, a significant step toward peace.
In 2 Corinthians 5:19, Paul offers a sweeping theological vision of God as peacebuilder. "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting the sins of the world, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." Achieving peace in Darfur requires the collaboration of Muslims, Christians, and secular people (even if they can't acknowledge it) in God's reconciling work.
Ambassador Dane Smith is Senior Advisor for Darfur in the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, a member of Chevy Chase UMC and a United Methodist lay preacher.