In Hell on Earth, a Brief Glimpse of Hope
Maps from antiquity used the Latin "hic sunt leones" to label the rough contours of the African continent: "Here are lions." Some centuries later, even those in polite society, if they mentioned it at all, referred to Africa as "the dark continent." Then, as now, the racial inference was an obvious one. But now, far more than then, with race having receded so much in the everyday calculus of so many around the world, "dark" conjures up more the sense of being out of sight and consciousness than of anything having to do with skin color. So it is that so much of the pain, squalor, and suffering that beset so many millions on the African continent regularly escapes the notice of so many millions of us in other places around the globe. AIDS, of course, remains on our radar screens. But of the tumult in places like Zimbabwe and Somalia--how many among us understand its causes, or care? Darfur occupies a special place in the continent's Dantean hell, and it has, only recently, managed to capture a flicker of the world's attention. For the record, it is a parched hell, in the far west of Sudan.
Even by the extraordinary metrics of African suffering--child soldiers, ritualized rape, genocide--Darfur remains a place of exquisite suffering. Some 200,000 people have been murdered, more than 2 million driven from their homes. The proponents of the violence are called janjaweed--"devils on horseback," though some killers have reliably been reported to attack, knives and guns at the ready, on the ruddy, humped backs of ambling camels.
The peace deal just signed between Sudan and its largest rebel group seems to hold some real promise of hope. But in a place where the exigencies of life are so much at the margins, and where the thread between life and death is so terribly attenuated, a piece of paper counts for little. For this brief moment, while it holds at least some of the world's attention, Darfur's best hope is for a United Nations force to make the promise of peace a reality--before the eyes of the world move on and this parched piece of hell slips back into the darkness again.
This story appears in the May 22, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.