The flapping of wings is not usually something that instils fear. Unless you live in Darfur. There, when a flock of birds suddenly takes flight, it is usually a sign that an attack is coming.
Much has been written about the atrocities unfolding in this corner of western Sudan – the ethnic cleansing, the machete massacres, the gang rapes. No one mentions the birds. No one mentions how the grieving mothers and wives suffer the added indignity of not being able to wear their traditional white mourning robes because they make them more visible to the bombers. No one, that is, before Daoud Hari.
His debut book, The Translator, published in Britain today, is the first written about the Darfur crisis by one of its native sons. By infusing it with sketches of everyday life and moving beyond a simple catalogue of horrific tales, Hari hammers home the real tragedy of his people.
"It's different actually coming from Darfur," the softly spoken writer explained ahead of the book's launch. "I can talk about our culture, our daily life before the violence, before the world knew us, before people could point to Darfur on the map."
Memories from these pre-war days include Aunt Joyar, who dressed like a man and wrestled men for sport (she always won); his mother, who kept a pack of lions away from the family livestock for two days by banging two sticks together; and his beloved camel Kelgi, who walked the man who had stolen him around in circles, leading to the thief's capture.
These snippets, and Hari's eventful early life, serve as reminders that the thousands of Darfur refugees now languishing under tarpaulin in the desert had their own narratives before being cast as victims by the storytellers in the global media.
Hari, for example, was the brainbox among his siblings, chosen by his father as the one to be lifted out of the daily village grind and sent to school in the regional capital, El Fasher, where he feasted on Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Oliver Twist. His horizons duly expanded, he then set off for foreign climes, heading first to Libya, then to Egypt and then – illegally – to Israel, where he was promptly picked up by the immigration police and deported to a Cairo prison.
When Hari was freed in the summer of 2003 he was put on a plane back to western Sudan just as the war between the Khartoum government and the Darfur rebels was exploding. Even then, Hari finds humour in the bleak circumstances. Given that birds are famous for leaving a village before a battle and that his surname means eagle, he remarks on the irony that he is coming home to roost in the middle of a war. Within weeks he will have seen his brother murdered and his village destroyed as the Sudanese government's ethnic cleansing gets into full swing.
Fleeing across the border into Chad, he concentrates at first on helping the widowed women and orphaned children in the swelling refugee camps. "But my effort was a drop in the ocean," he recalls. "I wanted to get help for my people on a bigger scale, to get the story out about my country so the world would help." And that is how The Translator was born.
In the novel, his first assignment is accompanying the US investigators sent to establish whether what is happening in Darfur constitutes genocide. Parodying Stanley's approach to Livingstone, he extends a hand to his new American boss: "Dr John, I presume?" After that he teams up with an array of foreign correspondents, including those from Channel 4 and The New York Times. "If the genocide investigators were like angels from heaven, these reporters were like cowboys and cowgirls coming to clean up the land," Hari writes. "Also, they drank a lot."
On his journalistic forays jumping back and forth across the Chad/Sudan border, he will translate one father's horrifying account of seeing a soldier bayonet his daughter, "her blood coming down so fresh and red on this – what was he? a man? a devil?" He will relay the words of a 14-year-old drafted into the government's genocide efforts as he tries to explain why he slaughtered one-time friends.
And eventually, in the comically-titled chapter Some Boys Up Ahead With A Kalashnikov, he is arrested by rebels and turned over to government officials, the beginning of weeks of imprisonment, torture and several brushes with death. Everyone from Bono to the Pope petitions Khartoum for his release, prompting an aside that if the Sudanese President was a stamp collector, this would be a very good time for him. Eventually Hari is freed and gets asylum in the United States.
Despite this harrowing rollercoaster, Hari shuns any notion that the book acted as therapy for him. "This wasn't about me," he says, perched on a leather sofa in a central London hotel, his fingers rubbing the tribal scars at his temples that look like quotation marks. "My goal was to make Darfur a priority everywhere. It's disappeared from the world's radar and I want to correct that."
He wants more international peacekeepers to stop the bloodshed in his homeland; the West to take in more refugees; and for ordinary people to keep pressing their governments to do more to help the family, friends and countrymen he has left behind in Darfur.
So how does he find life in America? "They are very materialistic," Hari says after consideration. "All they talk about are gas prices and meat prices being high, but at same time they have a hamburger in one hand and are steering a 4x4 with the other."
'They tightened the ropes on our wrists for extra pain'
I was first. Three soldiers began pulling the rope, and I was turned upside down, hanging from the tree. I thought, 'Well, this is not so bad.' After a few minutes, however, it gets very bad. Your eyes feel like they are going to pop out. Your head throbs and you can't breathe.
They tightened the ropes on our wrists and ankles for extra pain. Then they tied the long ropes to the trunk of the tree and went away to smoke my own cigarettes as we dangled. The pain gets worse and worse until you finally cry out. I wouldn't have thought this would be so. Of course our injuries were making everything worse – especially for Ali. From time to time they would drop us down and ask us to talk some more.
I told them again and again that I was a translator for reporters, and that the reporters were not spies; I was not a spy, and Ali was just our driver. Ali would say he had been a simple soldier in Chad a long time ago but he was not a spy. He said he had a wife and a small son and daughter, and his only job was to drive people from village to village.
They would say they didn't believe us, and raise us upside down in the tree again. After hours of this you cannot talk or think. That is when they finally stopped. We were dropped in heaps on the ground.
At around 10pm I woke up in the darkness of the desert. Night insects were busy in our bloody cuts, and this tickling had wakened me.
'Ali. Look. We are alive.' I kicked him a little. 'It's not so bad.' In the faint light I saw his eyes move slightly.
'Yes, thank you, thank you,' he said, blowing a spider away from his bloodied nose. 'This is all very good. Thank you so much for this good trip.'
This is an extract from "The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur", by Daoud Hari, published by Penguin BooksReuse content