Tribesman-turned-translator risks his life to turn atrocities into headlines
April 20, 2008
In 2003, the Sudanese army and its allied Arab militias started attacking indigenous African tribal villages in the Darfur region of the country. Over five years, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 Darfurians have been killed, and more than 1 million have been forced into refugee camps in Chad and elsewhere. In Darfur, Zaghawa tribesman Daoud Hari witnessed the destruction of his village and the heroic death of his elder brother defending escaping villagers.
In his memoir, "The Translator," (Random House, $23), Hari recounts six perilous journeys he made back into Darfur in 2005 as a translator and fixer with Western journalists, who documented the genocide by the Sudanese army through its ongoing massacres of Darfurian civilians and the destruction of villages and livestock. In Darfur, the army kills through air strikes and its janjaweed paramilitaries, Arab men and boys on horseback who are paid to rape and murder.
"I had to call the attention of the international community to Darfur," said Hari in an interview at a New York City coffee shop. "We had to rescue the people of Darfur, to rescue the children of Darfur from death. I didn't have any other way than to work with journalists, to translate for them and to help them bring the atrocities of Darfur to the international community."
Hari's first experience as a translator was helping a U.N. fact-finding group collect information on the systematic massacres and rape of the indigenous African villagers in Darfur. He recounts horrific stories, such as the father whose life was saved when the janjaweed beating him instead decided to bayonet his young daughter to death for sport.
Hari brought New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof into Darfur, and they interviewed wounded villagers in a hamlet about to be overrun by janjaweed. Kristof's columns and the work of various British journalists put Darfur on the international radar.
Hari's work to publicize the Darfur genocide made him one of the most wanted men in Sudan. The Sudanese army wanted him dead. Some rebel groups thought he was a spy from neighboring Chad. Other rebel groups were prepared to sell him to the Sudanese.
In a darkly comic scene, Sudanese rebels were about to kill him when he was working for the British journalist Philip Cox.
"One rebel soldier had a gun to my head, and told me he was going to kill me," said Hari. "I still had to translate things for Philip. I said, 'Philip, these guys are going to shoot me. Could you go through the numbers in your phone?' He found the rebel commander's number and called him and he told his rebel not to shoot me."
Translating in the Darfurian war zones and killing fields is not something you learn in school. "When I went into Darfur, it was very dangerous," said Hari. "I didn't train for it. I learned from living it. Who are the journalists going to trust? I tell the journalists that you can trust me. The first thing I have to do is look out for their safety."
Why was Hari viewed as a dangerous figure? "I was a man who was helping to make noises against the Sudanese government," he said. "If I was not there as a translator, how would The New York Times find out that girls as young as 9 years old were being raped every time they went outside of refugee camps in Chad to gather firewood? If there was not a translator like me, how would journalists find out that 13- and 14-year-old Arab boys were being paid $200 to kill people, rape girls and burn villages in Darfur?"
In his sixth trip into Darfur, Hari was hired by a pompous, aggressive journalist from National Geographic who pushed forward with the trip even though conditions were extremely dangerous. In Darfur, they were soon stopped by corrupt rebels who sold them to the Sudanese. Hari, the journalist and the driver were beaten, tortured and threatened with execution multiple times over the course of a month.
"The worst moment of my life was when the rebel group turned me over to the Sudanese government," said Hari. "In that moment, I realized that these were the troops that had killed men, women and children and had destroyed more than 4,000 villages. To kill me would be no big deal. This was the end of my journey. I was prepared to die."
In a chilling scene, a high-level Sudanese intelligence officer, a colonel, takes Hari on a casual tour of the sterile torture chambers in Khartoum where Hari was to be horribly abused. Hari has the guts to face the man down, demanding a cigarette and tea.
Fortunately, the American military attaches in Khartoum intervened. After a show trial, Hari and the two others were released. Hari fled Africa and eventually settled in Baltimore.
Hari's book is part of his ongoing efforts to stop the mass killings of his people. Though the events in the memoir took place at least three years ago, the genocide in Darfur by the Sudanese army continues through the bombing of villages and unleashing the janjaweed to rape and murder while the world watches.
Hari is optimistic that the bloodshed can be stopped through an organized boycott of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Chinese government is the major weapons supplier to the Sudanese government.
"After five years, we can still stop the killings in Darfur," said Hari. "We have to boycott the Chinese Olympics. If American athletes saw what I saw the Chinese doing in Darfur, they would not be able to play sports at the Olympics. The Chinese give the Sudanese the weapons necessary to wipe out villages and kill children."
China's grim prize in Darfur is oil. "China needs the oil," said Hari, "and they see the Sudan as a 'land of treasure,' where they'll get the oil and diamonds after the Sudanese government cleans off the land of my people."