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September 30, 2007

Jihad ... jihad

The voice on the phone was cold and humourless. "Mr Andrew ..." it crackled down the line as the signal surged and faded. "Jihad ... jihad ... We will have your life at 8 O'Clock."

"What?" I croaked. All I could think of was Al Qaeda's latest call to arms in Sudan, the recent foiled bomb plot against the British embassy in Khartoum, the new American travel advice about terrorists and kidnappings.

"Hello," said the voice again. "Can you hear me? ... Jihad ... Jihad ... My name is jihad. Mr Jihad. We have booked the television studio for your live at 8 O'Clock."

Posted by aheavens at 8:47 PM

Arabs vs Africans

It is something that every serious commentator on Darfur has said again and again. Darfur is not a clash between 'Arab' militias and black 'African' villagers. It was never as simple as that. It certainly isn't as simple as that today, after more than four years of fragmenting rebel groups, broken peace deals and shifting alliances.

So why does the black/Arab line keep coming up?

Here is Saturday's Christian Science Monitor:

The climate is brutal. The situation is tense – the country is teetering on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.

For Germain Lubango Kabemba, this is just another day.

The Congolese humanitarian worker leads two other foreigners and more than 30 national staff for Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland in the market town of Kerfi, Chad, which is now home to thousands of refugees who fled nearby villages after Sudan's Darfur tragedy spread into Chad months ago.

His job is to provide basic healthcare and services to a population that has been cut off from all other international aid since the rainy season began here in July. He has also become skilled in the subtle diplomacy needed to help both the area's black tribes and Arabs whose tit-for-tat raids wrought havoc in the area and caused the current dilemma.

Rob Crilly comes up with a corrective:

Nevermind the fact that everyone in Darfur is black and African, and the term Arab is often used by tribes to signal that they are nomads and aspire to some sort of “higher” social status. If the rest of that analysis was true, it was maybe only true for a month or so in 2004. Things are very different now. “Arabs” have joined the rebels and the government has its own “black, Africans”.

Posted by aheavens at 8:04 PM

Wikipedia wars in Darfur

rubbish.JPGThere have been lots of stories recently about companies and individuals getting caught red-handed altering their entries on Wikipedia. (Just in case you don't know, Wikipedia is a free encyclopaedia, made up of millions of entries written and re-written by internet users across the globe. Anyone can go online at any time and tweak or completely re-write any entry.)

I was reading a story about one company which had been exposed for deleting some embarrassing paragraphs in its Wiki profile, when I suddenly thought 'Wouldn't it be a great story if I could catch someone trying to sabotage or censor Wikipedia's entry on the Darfur conflict'.

[This is what is known in the trade as blue-sky journalism. You lie back and think ‘Wouldn't it be a good story if X happened' then go out and try and prove that X happened. Sometimes it works (‘Bill Clinton was around in the 60s… Wouldn't it be a great story if we could get him to admit he smoked dope…'). Mostly it doesn't.]

So back to Darfur and Wikipedia.

There has been a huge propaganda battle running in the background of the Darfur conflict since soon after it began. Campaigners on all sides of the conflict have used every platform at their disposal to push their arguments on to the public. They have promoted different analytical algorithms to estimate the number of dead - anywhere from 9,000 to half a million depending on which study you believe. They have launched treatises and books and websites about definitions of genocide, about who started which battle, about who bombed who when, with whose military hardware. Google Earth got together with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to map attacks. Even the over-hyped virtual world Second Life joined in with its own virtual Camp Darfur.

So it wouldn't be beyond the bounds of reason, I thought, for one of these interested parties, perhaps on the pro-government side of the argument, to have used the world's largest interactive encyclopaedia to push its position. Wikipedia is widely read and respected and believed. Whoever controls its entries potentially controls a large slice of public opinion. All you would have to do would be to go to the site and anonymously edit the death count figures or change a few paragraphs.

So I tracked down the tool that was used to expose most of the corporate Wikipedia-editing scandals - WikiScanner - and set it going analysing the Darfur conflict entry in question.

And after many hours of checking Wikipedia edit records, I can now exclusively reveal that there have in fact been a series of concerted campaigns to sabotage the Wikipedia entry on the Darfur conflict. But, as far as I can tell, they haven't been mounted by the Sudanese government or the online arm of the Janjaweed.

According to data collected, the most persistent sabotage effort on the Darfur entry to date was mounted by the students of the Oakland Schools of Farmington, Michigan, U.S.A. Through February this year, and on one occasion last year, people logged on to their computer network made 18 changes to the Wikipedia entry on Darfur. They had great fun inserting the word "not" into sentences like "While a recent British Parliamentary Report estimates that over 300,000 people have already died" - changing it to "While a recent British Parliamentary Report estimates that over 300,000 people have not already died". Others enjoyed themselves spraying the entry with Wiki graffiti - "{{main|History of Darfur}} (chow has a very small penis)".

Close behind with 10 changes to the Darfur conflict entry were the young people of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. There they got creative with the passage that described the start of the conflict:

The conflict began in Lance's house when his father and mother rebeled against the school lunch ladies. The lunch ladies caught by surprise, had very few spoons in the region, and — since a large proportion of the Sudanese soldiers were of Darfur origin — distrusted many of its own units…

Another 10 edits were made by the computer users of Austin Independent School District (Austin, Texas, U.S.A). They used the tried and tested Wiki graffiti method - '''Genisis Maycheck smells like rotton seaweed'''

Yet another ten changes came from Broome - Tioga Boces (Binghamton, New York) - "This is a fake page. All information is false" - "So who really cares about all this? Seriously? Anybody? Didnt think so." Their edits were topped off with a quick re-spelling of ‘Janjaweed' as ‘Ganjaweed'.

And so on and on and on.

So what have we learned from this exercise - apart from the fact that most Wikipedia "editors" are infantile American teenagers with too much time on their hands? (And that blue-sky journalism really doesn't work.)

One thing I did learn, after a bit more digging, is that there actually is a decent article or study to be written about how the Darfur conflict has been recorded on Wikipedia.

Just look at the first ever entry on the conflict written in May 2004.

The Darfur Genocide is an ongoing, continual bombardment of the city of Darfur in Southern Sudan by the Janjaweed, the Sudanese government's armed militia.

After two groups (the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice & Equality Movement) accused the Sudanese government of favoritism toward Arabs, President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir dispatched the Janjaweed, which carried out massive ground and aerial attacks. More than 1 million civilians were uprooted from their homes, and thousands of civilians have been killed; however, this seemed to legitimatize the aforementioned groups' claims; Arabs were relatively unaffected.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently authorized force by the UN peacekeepers in Darfur, if any "imminent danger" is spotted toward civilians. The Janjaweed has committed many human rights violations, including murder, rape, and the UN states that the Janjaweed is systematically starving the refugees. In many ways, this genocide is similar to the Rwandan genocide that eventually killed over 800,000 Rwandan civilians, and led to a coup-d'état.

[Just so you know, Darfur isn't a city and it isn't in southern Sudan.]

And compare it to the current entry - 8,265 words long with 155 footnotes and 26 sub-sections.

[Obviously infinitely better - but not perfect. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to boil down Darfur to a fight between two "sides".]

Thanks to the openness of Wikipedia's system, you can track every step and edit from the first entry all the way though to the present day. The change logs are effectively a minutely detailed record of the shifts in the popular understanding of the conflict. Over time, the recorded death count figures have surged and plummeted, different academic sources have risen in prominence then sunk into oblivion. Different celebrities have emerged as leading spokespeople for the Save Darfur Coalition, then lost interest. Paragraphs, whole passages, sub-clauses, sentences and emotive adjectives have appeared, disappeared, shifted around and been re-interpreted. And no doubt, there has also been a bit of propaganda pushing going on in there somewhere.

Each of those changes could be mapped against real-time events on the ground and shifts in international attitudes and responses to the conflict. It would make a fascinating article stroke mini academic study.

If only I had the time to research and write it.

Posted by aheavens at 7:44 PM

September 26, 2007

Camembert and sour cherries in Darfur

Times/Irish Times reporter Rob Crilly is in Darfur at the moment. And he has found time on his trip to set up a blog - South of West: A journalist in Africa.

The latest post gives more background to his article in today's London Times about new fears of violence in the camps.

The first post he wrote gave a rare picture of life at the other end of the social scale in North Darfur's capital El Fasher.

While the camp dwellers of Abu Shouk, Zam Zam and Al Salaam find their wells have dried up, and wait for their food deliveries, the long-term town residents are making heaps of money running shops selling olive oil, Camembert (fabrique en France) and jars of sour cherries to the expats working for the African Union/United Nations/aid agencies. I'll be checking out the pizza restaurant later.

The social divide is going to get even wider later this year when the long-awaited 26,000 AU/UN peacekeepers start rolling into town, allegedly from next month. They are already having to send it truck-loads of bottled water for the current collection of less that 6,000 AU peacekeepers in Darfur. No one has worked out what they are going to do to satisfy the thirst of a force more than four time that size.

Just what Darfur needs - another cause for conflict, this time over who gets to drink.

Posted by aheavens at 3:19 PM

Beeping, flashing and miskin calls

Here's an example of a blog entry that grew into an article.

I would never have known that some Ethiopians call 'missed calls' 'miskin calls' if it hadn't been for the comments on this old entry.

Thanks to Jonathan Donner for giving me an early glimpse of his paper "The Rules of Beeping". See the full thing in the October issue of the online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.

Phone credit low? Africans go for "beeping"

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM, Sept 26 (Reuters) - If you are in Sudan it is a "missed call". In Ethiopia it is a "miskin" or a "pitiful" call. In other parts of Africa it is a case of "flashing", "beeping" or in French-speaking areas "bipage".

Wherever you are, it is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the continent's booming mobile telephone markets -- and it's a headache for mobile operators who are trying to figure out how to make some money out of it.

You beep someone when you call them up on their mobile phone -- setting its display screen briefly flashing -- then hang up half a second later, before they have had a chance to answer. Your friend -- you hope -- sees your name and number on their list of "Missed Calls" and calls you back at his or her expense.

It is a tactic born out of ingenuity and necessity, say analysts who have tracked an explosion in miskin calls by cash-strapped cellphone users from Cape Town to Cairo.

"Its roots are as a strategy to save money," said Jonathan Donner, an India-based researcher for Microsoft who is due to publish a paper on "The Rules of Beeping" in the high-brow online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in October.

Donner first came across beeping in Rwanda, then tracked it across the continent and beyond, to south and southeast Asia. Studies quoted in his paper estimate between 20 to more than 30 percent of the calls made in Africa are just split-second flashes -- empty appeals across the cellular network.

The beeping boom is being driven by a sharp rise in mobile phone use across the continent.

Africa had an estimated 192.5 million mobile phone users in 2006, up from just 25.3 million in 2001, according to figures from the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. Customers may have enough money for the one-off purchase of a handset, but very little ready cash to spend on phone cards for the prepaid accounts that dominate the market.

Africa's mobile phone companies say the practice has become so widespread they have had to step in to prevent their circuits being swamped by second-long calls.

"We have about 355 million calls across the whole network every day," said Faisal Ijaz Khan, chief marketing officer for the Sudanese arm of Kuwaiti mobile phone operator Zain (formerly MTC). "And then there are another 130 million missed calls every day. There are a lot of missed calls in Africa."


FACTBOX-Commandments of "beeping"

(Reuters) - "Beeping" -- calling a contact on their cellphone then quickly hanging up to prompt them to call you back and spare you the charge -- is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in Africa's booming mobile telephone markets.

The following rules for the practice are extracted by Reuters from a forthcoming paper on the subject by researcher Jonathan Donner:

1. "The richer guy pays." It is acceptable to beep someone if you are short of cash and they are flush with credit. Never beep someone poorer than you.

2. Do not beep too often. Two beeps in a row is just about acceptable if you want to request an urgent call back. Any more and you risk becoming a pest.

3. Maximise the efficiency of your beeping by prearranging shorthand codes with friends, family and contacts -- for example, two beeps to be picked up by a taxi driver, one to say you are coming home.

4. Never beep someone if you are trying to get in touch to ask a favor. You don't want to risk annoying the person you are trying to win over.

5. Never flash your girlfriend, unless you want to look cheap. One Rwandan interviewed for the paper said "No self-respecting man would dream of merely flashing his wife or girlfriend ... Never mind the fact that it was Sugar Daddy himself who bought the phone and regularly buys her units."

(Source: "The rules of beeping: Exchanging messages via intentional "missed calls" on mobile phones")

© Reuters

Posted by aheavens at 7:44 AM


cc.logo.circle.pngA quick service announcement. Most of the entries on this blog are published under a Creative Commons license which means they can be reused by anyone, as long as it is not for profit, the postings are not changed and I get a credit.

There's now one exception - when the article ends with a © symbol, usually next to the name of a news organisation like Reuters (see above).

Could the people who syndicate this stuff leave those articles out. Thanks.

Posted by aheavens at 7:28 AM

September 22, 2007

A Darfur rebel leader said ...

Another busy fortnight:

Qaeda urges attacks on Darfur force, talks questioned
KHARTOUM, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda urged Sudanese Muslims on Thursday to fight African Union and United Nations peacekeeping troops in Darfur as rebels cast doubt on whether peace talks to pave the way for the force could succeed.

Darfur rebel leader demands delay in peace talks
KHARTOUM, Sept 20 (Reuters/Washington Post) - A Darfur rebel leader called for a postponement of planned October peace talks with Sudan's government on Thursday, demanding a "few months of total calm" in the strife-torn region before negotiations start.

HRW urges sanctions on Sudan if attacks continue
KHARTOUM, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Security Council on Thursday to impose targeted sanctions on Sudan if it fails to stop attacks on civilians in Darfur or disrupts the work of a planned peacekeeping force.

Darfur battle kills 45 - rebel group
KHARTOUM, Sept 19 (Reuters) - A rebel leader from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region said his fighters defeated a government battalion on Wednesday in a three-hour battle that killed 45 people.

Sudan demands arrest of Amnesty chief - media
KHARTOUM, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Sudan has called for the arrest of the head of global rights watchdog Amnesty International, accusing it of spreading lies that several men accused of plotting a coup were tortured, state media reported.

U.N. says violence increasing in Darfur camps
KHARTOUM, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Violence is increasing in camps for displaced people in Darfur, where nearly a quarter million people have been displaced so far this year, a U.N. report said on Monday.

Darfur rebels call assembly ahead of peace talks
KHARTOUM, Sept 16 (Reuters) - A Darfur rebel group said on Sunday it was planning an assembly of fighters, supporters and displaced families to work out demands ahead of peace talks with Khartoum set for October.

Darfur rebel says Sudan escalating attacks before talks
KHARTOUM, Sept 12 (Reuters) - A senior Darfur rebel leader accused the Sudanese government on Wednesday of trying to grab land ahead of October peace talks, and threatened to pull out of the negotiations unless attacks stopped.

Violence threatens Darfur peace talks: UK minister
NYALA, Sudan, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Ongoing violence in Sudan's Darfur region threatens to undermine peace talks planned for October between Khartoum and rebel groups, a British minister said as he toured the war-torn area on Tuesday.

Posted by aheavens at 12:10 PM

September 18, 2007

Ultimate Survival in Addis and Khartoum

The Discovery Channel is touting a new show called Survivorman Ultimate Survival at the moment. The main premise seems to be letting its host loose in a number of extreme environments and watching how he fares.

The publicity slogan is something like "We exposed him to altitudes of more than 3,000 metres above sea-level...we exposed him to temperatures of 40 degrees..."

What a wimp! That is like a bog-standard week in high-altitude Addis Ababa (well, maybe Entoto) followed by a bog-standard week in Khartoum (currently 43 degrees outside and climbing).

And he's not even doing it while keeping to the current Ramadan fast - no food and more importantly no water from dawn to dusk. Now that would make a good show.

Posted by aheavens at 12:03 PM

September 12, 2007

Millennium or Menem yellum?

Happy Ethiopian New year everyone. Welcome to the year 2000, the new Ethiopian millennium.

Obviously it has all been a bit of an anti-climax here in Khartoum. How was it in Addis?

Posted by aheavens at 7:37 AM

September 11, 2007

Sudan: fast food nation #2

IMG_0064So we've had the Sudanese beef shawarma combo.

Now try the Khartoum Lucky Meal at Street One, Amarat.

Those Golden Arches get everywhere.

Today's news from Sudan was all about yet more violence in Darfur and raids on offices of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - the government's junior coalition partner - in downtown Khartoum.

Posted by aheavens at 6:55 PM

September 10, 2007

The phone rings...

...and it's another Darfur rebel on the line saying, 'Hi, we're being bombed'.

Sudan bombs north Darfur town: rebels

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese government planes bombed a rebel-controlled town in Darfur on Monday, an insurgent group said, hours after the government said it was investigating a bloody rebel raid on one of its bases last month.

Abu-Bakr Mohammed Kadu, a field commander in the Sudanese Liberation Army's Unity (SLA-Unity) faction, said government aircraft bombed Haskanita then ground forces entered the town in north Darfur.

"The clashes are still going on," he told Reuters just after 4.30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. EDT). He said Haskanita was predominantly a civilian area but could not give an estimate of casualties.

Posted by aheavens at 6:04 PM

“You will take pictures of the wall”

Great story in the Sudan Tribune about a mix-up between Sudanese protocol officers, the press and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at Khartoun airport.

UN chief's embarrassing moments at Khartoum airport

September 8, 2007 (KHARTOUM) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his entourage faced a chaotic situation at Khartoum airport during his visit to Sudan last week.

Salah Al-Maleeh, a reporter with the daily Al-Sudani newspaper, reported that before Ban Ki-Moon traveled to Juba, capital of South Sudan, he was due to hold a press conference at Khartoum airport upon his request, to brief reporters on his meeting with the Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.

Reporters and cameramen filled the area around the VIP lounge at the airport waiting for the UN chief to come out.

However Ali Karti, Sudanese Minister of State at the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, who was the ranking Sudanese official at the airport, asked the protocol officer to clear the area from reporters.

But the reporters supported by UN officers, refused to comply with Karti's orders. The protocol officer then notified Karti and came back to tell reporters that Ban Ki-Moon will be moved to a different lounge and will then proceed immediately to the plane.

“You will take pictures of the wall” the protocol officer said before locking the reporters up and closing the door leading to the VIP lounge. The UN Chief was seen through the glass walls walking along with Sudanese officials being escorted to a different lounge.

Posted by aheavens at 9:01 AM

September 9, 2007

Reports of Kiir's death are exaggerated

And I thought Ethiopia was the worst place in the world for baseless rumours.

People have been ringing each other all day in Khartoum asking whether it was true that Salva Kiir, President of Southern Sudan and Vice President of Sudan, had just died in a plane crash. When I phoned the Civil Air Authority to check, even they said they were looking into vague reports of an accident.

This was all news for the very alive Salva Kiir who has been sitting in church in Juba most of the afternoon, attending the baptism of one of his colleagues. At one point, one of his right-hand-men had to leave the service and sit outside with a mobile phone, issuing denial after denial. The story, he said, was "mere lies, a concoction put out by enemies of the CPA" (the faltering north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005).

Kiir's party, the SPLM, ended up reinforcing the denial with an announcement on national TV. After that, Kiir reportedly went on a slow car ride round Juba, windows open, to let everyone see that he was still breathing. Crowds cheered, women ululated.

Before the denial came out, most people who heard the story had one reaction - dumb terror.

Salva Kiir's predecessor John Garang really was killed in an air crash, just 21 days after being sworn in as vice President on July 30, 2005. The news sparked three days of rioting in Khartoum, leaving 84 dead. Earlier this afternoon, when the fake story was still spreading, we heard young men had started to gather downtown.

Posted by aheavens at 3:34 PM

Locusts, generators, the PDF and the SLA - a fortnight in Khartoum

Our new generatorBeen too busy to blog over the past two weeks. Here are some of the highlights of what has been going on. This fortnight, I have been mostly:

Posted by aheavens at 3:09 PM