Friday 17 June 2011

17 June 2011

The trumpets will sound; the drums will beat; the flags will flutter proudly. Remember those words? Of course you do: they’re the words with which I started my first newsletter of 2011 – and I was writing about Sudan.

I’m writing about Sudan again today – because with just over three weeks to go until the official birth of the new nation of South Sudan (trumpets, drums, etc.), there are ominous signs of a deal unravelling and a fragile peace giving way to renewed conflict. Just last night, President Obama expressed his “deep concern” about the growing violence.

Sudan is one of the most important countries on the African continent. It’s the biggest (two and a half million square kilometres, or nearly a million square miles); it has a population of around 40 million, and substantial oil reserves in which China has a major interest.

It’s also the only country in the world whose head of state is an indicted war criminal. A year ago, Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court in connection with offences allegedly committed during the war in the western region of Darfur, in which between 200,000 and 400,000 people are estimated to have died.

Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early 1990s, after he left Saudi Arabia and before he set up shop in Afghanistan. In 1998, the US launched a cruise missile attack against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that it said was linked to al Qaeda and might have been used for the production of chemical weapons.

In other words, we ignore Sudan at our peril. The conflict in Darfur was, for a time, the focus of widespread global concern – and it’s by no means impossible that it could be reignited if current tensions boil over.

The birth of the independent nation of South Sudan next month is meant to mark the end of a grim 20-year chapter of civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country. A referendum held in January saw something like 99 per cent of southerners vote for separation – but even after the votes had been counted, and after President Bashir had said he would respect the result, tensions remained.

For one thing, the exact demarcation line between the two entities hadn’t been finalised. In one region, Abyei, there was meant to be a separate referendum in which its residents could decide whether they wanted to be part of the north or the south. The referendum still hasn’t been held.

In another region, South Kordofan, which is on the northern side of the notional border, most people feel a greater loyalty to the south. Two days ago, the United Nartions reported that an estimated 60,000 people had fled from the region after bombing raids by the Sudanese air force.

One southern group accused Khartoum of pursuing a “genocidal campaign’ in the region, and the UN was reported to have referred in a confidential document to what it called a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by President Bashir.

So the omens aren’t looking good for South Sudan’s Independence Day on 9 July. At stake are vital reserves not only of oil, but also of water, on which the lives of millions of people depend. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the great misfortune of Abyei and South Kordofan to find themselves slap bang in the middle of some of the potentially most valuable Sudanese real estate.

President Bashir has shown himself over many years to be a master of saying one thing and doing another. There was a huge international sigh of relief when the independence referendum was held in January and the president responded with magnanimity.

But now, in the last few weeks before his country is formally split in two, the question is whether his actions will match his words, or whether he will seek to prevent the south seceding by returning to war.

By the way, if you’ve discovered the joys of Facebook and/or Twitter, you may like to know that The World Tonight now has its own presence on both. On Facebook, we have formed a World Tonight group – you’ll find us by searching for The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4 – and on Twitter we’re @bbcworldtonight. Happy hunting …

Friday 10 June 2011

10 June 2011

I wonder how you confident you feel that you know what’s going on in Syria. Me? I don’t feel at all confident.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I always feel much happier when there are journalists whom I trust on the ground, out there with their notebooks, recorders, and cameras – reporting back to me what they can see and what they can hear.

I’m even happier if I’m there myself – but in Syria, there are no independent journalists operating because none has been allowed in. Local reporters can’t work freely, because there are no free media.

And that’s why we rely on social network sites likes Facebook and Twitter. Throughout my working day, my computer screen flashes constantly with a never-ending stream of updates from people in Syria and elsewhere, telling me what’s going on where they are, now, this minute. It’s mesmerising – but it can also be deeply misleading.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may remember that six weeks ago I posted a link to a Syrian blogger who called herself “A Gay Girl in Damascus”. She wrote unusually vividly and movingly, especially about the day when armed men came to her home late at night to arrest her.

She described how her father stood up to the men, talked to them, lectured them, and shamed them until eventually they left without her. “As soon as the gate shut, I heard clapping; everyone in the house was awake now and had been watching from balconies and doorways and windows all around the courtyard ... and everyone was cheering ... my Dad had just defeated them! Not with weapons but with words ... and they had left ... I hugged him and kissed him. I literally owe him my life.”

Then, last Monday, a woman describing herself as the blogger’s cousin, wrote that Amina (the “gay girl in Damascus”) had been abducted while walking in the streets of the Syrian capital. A huge internet campaign swung into action, mobilising friends and supporters to press for her release.

But here’s the point. It quickly emerged that no one actually knew the blogger. No one in Damascus had actually met her, or knew anyone who had. Even her supposed girl-friend in Canada, whom we interviewed in all good faith on the programme on Monday, later admitted that she had neither met nor even spoken to her – their entire relationship had been conducted online, via email.

So who is Amina? Is she someone who is hiding behind a false identity, perhaps for her own security, or is she a work of fiction? Does she even exist? (The pictures of herself that she posted online turned out to be of someone else entirely.)

Does it matter if one blog among millions turns out to be a fake? Unfortunately, it does, especially in an environment where independent reporting is impossible, so that blogs and other online media become the only available substitute.

If Amina does not exist – if she isn’t who she says she is, or if the events she writes about didn’t happen – then we have learned an important lesson: that we must be doubly cautious when we use the information provided by bloggers and Tweeters as a basis for our reporting.

According to human rights groups in Syria, well over 1,000 people have been killed since the current wave of unrest exploded two months ago, and more than 10,000 people are believed to have been arrested.

Yesterday, more than 2,500 people were reported to have fled across the border into Turkey to escape an expected army onslaught on the town of Jisr al-Shughour, where, according to official media, 120 people were killed last weekend in what seems to have been a partial army mutiny.

I wrote eight weeks ago: “If you want to know what's really worrying Washington as officials anxiously survey the anger sweeping through the Arab world, it's not Libya you should be focusing on. Try Syria.” It was true then, and it’s even truer now.

More than ever, we need accurate information about what is happening there – and more than ever, accurate information is in scarce supply.