Beyond all the headlines on Darfur – hundred of thousands dead, millions displaced, militias terrorising civilians, African Union peacekeepers deployed (or not), United Nations mandates – here is the story of one man: Daoud Hari, from the Zaghawa tribe. He was outside Darfur when the massacres began, and decided to go back just as everyone else was running the other way.
An English-speaker, Hari could help foreign journalists and aid workers to explore the afflicted region, allowing them to take Darfur's stories to the outside world. Those stories told of mass slaughter and rape; the gunning down of mothers and children; the killing of men such as Hari's beloved older brother Ahmed, shot while defending the family's village from Janjaweed attack.
Hari knew the massive risks he would face by returning to Darfur. He negotiated an area not only seething with brutality but changing every day, with alliances switching, government deals with rebels coming together and coming apart, and nobody sure who was on whose side from one morning to the next. Of a number of saved-by-a-whisker escapes, this book concerns itself particularly with one sequence of events that sees Hari, the American journalist in his charge and their driver held for several weeks. They are handed from one rebel or government-controlled group to the next, beaten, accused of spying, questioned, tortured.
Recent events in Darfur have been grotesque in their scale and barbarity. But Hari's book is remarkable not for the near-unprecedented atrocities he describes, but the manner in which the story is told: The Translator is a warm, wise, often funny book. It is about strength in friendship and family, about trust, and doing whatever one can to make things better for others; a book without a shade of cynicism. It seeks to understand a crisis that has robbed Hari of his home, yet it is written without bitterness or anger. It is an extraordinary piece of writing, whose very simplicity can be beautiful, or devastating.
Hari writes to change Darfur, but also to make other such stories impossible in future. The shelters in the refugee camps in Chad were made with stitched-together bits of old canvas reused from Sierra Leone and Rwanda. His is a grim tale, but full of little miracles, too, leavened by charm (with delightful paeans to the greatness of camels), luck, heroism and generosity of spirit. The complexity of Darfur may be staggering, daunting to understand. But in The Translator, Hari shows himself the very best of guides.