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cc In an interview with British television producer Colette Valentine and media consultant Ali Gunn following their visit to Sudan, Afshin Rattansi discusses Western media distortions of actual conditions in the Darfur region. Emphasising that they saw no evidence of genocide and were free to talk to whomever they chose within government camps, Valentine and Gunn state that much of the media's reporting on Darfur is 'cheap and lazy'. The interviewees also report that the International Criminal Court's (ICC) indictment of President Omar al-Bashir has actually increased the president's popularity among the electorate, and that they themselves were confronted over the international media's portrayal of Darfur.

George Clooney, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Michael Caine, Claudia Schiffer, Bob Geldof, Hugh Grant, Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger and so many others have expressed their solidarity with the people of the oil-rich region of Darfur. A few weeks ago, Democrats John Lewis of Georgia, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Lynn Woolsey of California, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts were all arrested as they demonstrated against the Sudanese government. When Colin Powell used the word genocide in 2004, it kicked off a $1 billion-a-year international aid programme, much higher than that afforded Somalia or Congo.

But why?

In the past few months, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is appealing the setting aside of genocide charges, claiming that there is 'ongoing genocide' in Darfur. The Sudanese government has expelled some foreign aid groups, accusing them of espionage. They include Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières. According to the Save Darfur Campaign, it was the relief organisations that provided clean water, food and medical attention to roughly 1.5 million people. The Sudanese government claims these aid-agencies deliberately exclude Arab Darfuris in their ranks, exacerbating sectarian tensions.

And at the moment, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration is on a diplomatic tour, while Britain is sending $185 million in aid and $140 million in 'peacekeeping' money.

Collette Valentine, a TV producer visiting from the United Kingdom, and Ali Gunn, a British media consultant, last week returned from Darfur, where they attended the first 'International Conference on the Challenge Facing Women in Darfur' in Al-Fasher in the north. Valentine says that articles about Darfur in the international press make her feel as if she visited a completely different region, a completely different country. It all adds weight to the thesis of Columbia University’s

From my experience of seeing Western leaders in London, there is a cavalcade of security. Al-Bashir, when he goes from his house to local weddings, funerals and the mosque, seems to have no security at all. One of our delegates went to the mosque and was baffled by the lack of security on seeing him there.

AFSHIN RATTANSI: What about what the president of Sudan expects from the change of administration in Washington?

ALI GUNN: We were attacked about international media coverage of Darfur as the people saw the situation very different to how it is portrayed. They saw the West as patronising the Sudanese people. On Obama, President al-Bashir said: 'He’s much more pragmatic. The old guard from Clinton’s days are still around – in the 1990s they were hostile. They’ve not changed, but they have toned down their rhetoric … we believe that the US has been exploited by certain undercurrents.' I would suggest that people go and see for themselves what is happening.

COLLETTE VALENTINE: Dr Ghazi said that they are hopeful about Obama but they don’t trust the Clinton people, the Susan Rices and Samantha Powers. Continuation of the ICC path would be seen as vindictive and alien and could result in turning Darfur into a real conflict.

The women in the camps are focused on talking to their men, and they believe that the only hope for peace and reconciliation lies with their ability to encourage forgiveness. They believe no international organisations can persuade the men to reconcile with each other. Before this conflict happened, tribal elders would meet to settle conflicts between nomadic and peasant communities. Right across Darfur, women are campaigning on the ground for reconciliation talks. This was the first peace conference. All the women from all the communities are coming together to urge reconciliation talks, with women from each community given their time to speak. Security was on top of the agenda, as well as education and healthcare.

ALI GUNN: After we came back from the camps, we were both shocked about the disparity of what was happening on the ground and what was in the media.

* Afshin Rattansi has worked in journalism for more than two decades, including at the BBC Today programme, CNN International and Al Jazeera Arabic. Rattansi has published a quartet of novels entitled CounterPunch.
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