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Overview: Darfur Diaries

Darfur Diaries - Overview written by Nicole Trecker

Disappointed by mainstream media’s insufficient coverage of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Darfur, three filmmakers set out in October 2004 to film a documentary in which Darfurians could share their thoughts, fears, and hopes about the current genocide. With members of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), they traveled through northwestern Darfur to film one destroyed village after another. They interviewed refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Teachers, students, parents, SLA soldiers, and other members of the community shared their stories. The filmmakers’ intent was not to tell the world what is happening in Darfur, but to provide an opportunity for Darfurians to do so using their own words. Upon their return to the U.S., the three spent the next year and a half sifting through their notes and film footage, creating this 260-page book and 57-minute documentary.

The Film – Darfur Diaries: Message from Home

The central component of this DVD is footage from the refugee camps of eastern Chad and the Zaghawa region of northern Darfur. A slideshow of drawings made by a Darfurian child depicting atrocities occurring in his homeland begins the film, followed by frames of text providing the basic geographic and ethnic demographics of Darfur. Amid these frames are video clips with glimpses of the people and terrain of Darfur.

The first village we tour is Muzbat, a village in northern Darfur that was previously home to 5,000 people, many of whom are now dead or in refugee camps. The former mayor of Muzbat, Abdullah Omdah, shares the story of how the Antonov planes bombed the village and the Janjaweed soldiers came in after them to continue the destruction. As he speaks, we view images of homes burnt to the ground and a village floor littered with mortar shells and shrapnel. Towards the end of the tour, we hear a drone overhead. Omdah explains that this is the sounds of an Antonov. The camera catches the few people left in the village scattering to find cover under a nearby tree or bush, so as not to become targets.

Numerous other villages that have met the same fate, such as Fara’wiya and Anka, are also shown throughout the film. As the camera documents the damages done, Darfurians who once called these villages home are interviewed. We hear the history of their villages and families, the character of life before the Antonovs and Janjaweed, of living through destruction and continuing to survive, and of their understanding of the current evolution of the conflict. For example, a young woman named Hawa shares what she remembers from that day Fara’wiya was bombed and her brothers were killed. She and a handful of other young women share the nightmares they continue to experience.

The filmmakers were able to provide fascinating footage of the SLA, documenting a history of the rebel movement in Darfur, the goals of the SLA, and the controversial involvement of young boys in the rebellion.

Images of the refugee camps in eastern Chad and the people who inhabit them reveal the challenges refugees went through to make it safely into Chad. Especially poignant are the interviews with those working to create education systems in the camps. Teachers share their struggle to set up schools in the refugee camps and begin again the process of education, as well as why they believe that providing these Darfurian children with an education is so vital.

Although the feature presentation of Darfur Diaries: Message from Home is its 57-minute documentary, there are numerous other features found on the main menu. Here is a list of these other valuable features, their length, and a brief description of what they include:

Director’s Notes (35 minutes)

Clips of the three film directors speaking about pre-production, during-production, and post-production issues, such as why they felt it was important to travel to Darfur, reactions to Darfurians they met, what they learned from their experience, and an update on the situation in Darfur since filming ended.

Slide Show (7 minutes)

Photographs of Darfurian landscape and people taken by the filmmakers during their time in eastern Chad and Darfur. Background music for the slideshow is a combination of various contemporary, popular American songs.

Context (24 minutes)

Background and context for the situation in Darfur which may aid in understanding the context from which the genocide in Darfur developed. Includes a mix of interviews with international figures, filmmakers, members of the SLA, and Darfurian people in order to convey contextual information about those involved in the conflict, motivations behind the conflict, a history of marginalization in Darfur, and the response of the international community to the genocide.

For the Educator

There are many parts of this film that could be used as resources in the classroom, particularly a social studies classroom. The main documentary and the “Context” feature would be especially appropriate for a class studying current international events, refugees, or genocide.

Showing Darfur Diaries in the classroom would help students gain a greater understanding of the genocide in Darfur from the first-hand perspective of those experiencing it. If time is a factor and you must limit viewing to about 20 minutes, you may consider showing only the first 23 minutes of the film. The portion of the film that occurs between 0:00 to 13:57 illustrates what is occurring inside of Darfur, while the time between 13:58 and 22:25 provides a glimpse of the life of Darfurian refugees.

It is important to note that because the 57-minute documentary does not provide significant background information on the conflict, teachers may want to provide additional context for the situation in Darfur in order to facilitate student understanding. The “Context” feature successfully provides this background information from the perspective of the Darfurians. Viewing this feature before watching the actual documentary may be beneficial.

Although this DVD deals with a sensitive topic, it does so in an extremely respectful way. All images shown are appropriate for viewers in middle or high school. Descriptions of fighting and destruction are not overly violent or graphic, and there is no questionable language used. It would be an excellent resource to use in a classroom setting.

The Book – Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival

Marlowe began documenting the entire process the three filmmakers went through to create the film. The book follows the three from Aisha Bain’s initial research into the emerging crisis in Darfur, through their return from Darfur and the challenging process of turning loose-leaf footage into a documentary. Most of the book relays the thoughts and experiences of the filmmakers during their adventure; however, a few sections share the stories of displaced Darfurians or SLA members. It serves as a great companion for the film, as it provides additional written accounts of the issues covered in the film.

The text begins with an author’s note, preface by Paul Rusesabagina, forward by Dr. Francis Mading Deng (former ambassador from Sudan to the U.S., current director of Sudan Peace Support Project in Washington, D.C.), and introduction by Aisha Bain. These four parts provide readers with background information on the conflict in Darfur and why the filmmakers decided to pursue this project.

Readers travel alongside Marlowe, Bain, and Shapiro as they embark on their journey from Washington, D.C. to eastern Chad. While much of the first third of the text is filled with entertaining travel stories and descriptions of bureaucratic hoops the three jumped through, interviews with members of different international and nongovernmental organizations provide insight into the humanitarian aid process. General observations of the refugee camps in eastern Chad and the Darfurians inhabiting them are provided. What is more, there is a focus on the role of education. Even in the difficult, overcrowded conditions of the refugee camps, education is a major priority.

Once in Darfur, members of the SLA serve as the filmmakers’ tour guides. While visiting a seemingly endless string of destroyed villages, Marlowe tells of the devastation done to homes and community areas, and the memories shared by those who still live in the area. Interview after interview reveals a similar pattern of destruction: government-operated Antonovs dropping bombs, followed by a parade of Janjaweed finishing the destruction. Villagers are forced to flee in all directions, blindly finding their way to the Chadian boarder or hiding out with other displaced villagers. Sometimes villagers are able to return to what remains of their home; however, the Antonovs continue to fly overhead searching for signs of life.

Marlowe’s chapter on the SLA provides powerful insight into Darfur’s main rebel army. Interviews provide a new perspective on the background of the conflict, the political situation in Sudan, past and present interaction between different ethnic and tribal groups and the reasons the SLA is fighting.

A chronicle of the year and a half process of translating, editing, and organizing hours upon hours of interview footage allow for an increased appreciation for the challenges of creating a documentary. Suggestions for what people can do to make a difference and an update on the situation in Darfur, as of May 2006, are also presented in the final pages.

For the Educator

According to the Fry Readability Formula, Darfur Diaries reads at a 6th-8th grade reading level. While these results indicate that the book is at an ideal reading level for middle school students, it can also be effective at the high school level. The writing style and content are such that most high school students should find it engaging and beneficial and should be able to read it independently.

While this book is especially well-suited for the content covered in a social studies classroom, it may also be useful in other content areas. Here are several examples of effective use of the text in a middle or high school classroom:

For classrooms studying the current genocide in Darfur, numerous passages in chapters two through nine provide great information about the destruction of villages from the perspective of Darfurians. For example:

Hussaniya described the attack on Anka…. ‘I was in the village when I heard a sound like a thunderstorm. I ran out and then just ran away. At least fifty of my goats were killed by machine guns from the ground, airplanes from above, and from Janjaweed who slaughtered them by slitting their throats. Their stomachs were opened and their organs taken. Janjaweed jumped into the pens where we kept the animals and killed all the animals from pen to pen until sunset. They stayed until after midnight, killing people.’… Without missing a beat, he [Hussaniya’s son-in-law] continued Hussaniya’s story, filling in specific details. ‘We heard information on the event of February 11 that the government troops and Janjaweed were moving toward Anka. We told the children and people to go out from the village because we didn’t know what would happen. On February 12, they reached Anka. They started firing shells from the west of the village. Then, they entered the village and stole every single thing. They killed forty-six people.’ (pp. 136-137)

Classroom teachers wishing to provide students with an understanding of the nature of the conflict may find pages 147-148 especially helpful. Here, a Darfurian shares his thoughts on the Arab people of Sudan, the role of the Sudanese government in the genocide, and why the situation in Darfur is not simply an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Africans. Another part of the text that provides a succinct overview of the conflict is on pages 110-117. Here, SLA members relay their understanding of the current situation in Darfur.

A study into the current situation in Darfur would be difficult for students to understand without a basic knowledge of modern Sudanese history. A short version of this history is found on pages 107-110, where various members of the SLA speak of what has happened in Sudan since the end of British colonial rule in 1956. They also speak of past interactions between the nomadic Arabs and Darfurian tribes.

Finally, this text would be a great resource for students studying humanitarian organizations or refugees. For example, pages 19-21 relay part of an interview with a worker from CARE (an international aid organization) who speaks about the situation in the refugee camps and the challenges faced by organizations such as his. Pages 27-28 detail a conversation between the filmmakers and the head of the UNICEF mission to Chad. Kareem, a man serving as a teacher in Iridimi refugee camp provides an account of what it is like to be a refugee:

‘We live with much anxiety. As if, upon becoming refugees, one does not know who he is, or where he lives. As if he had no head. People look at a refugee as if he is not human. What is the difference between a citizen and a refugee? The citizen is free and has ideas for development and work. But as refugees, our hands are tied. We don’t know where to go. If they were to cut off the food they give, we would be totally helpless. We don’t have independent sustenance.’ (pg. 45)


Bain, A., Marlowe, J., and Shapiro, A. (Directors and Producers). (2006). Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. [DVD]. New York: Cinema Libre Distribution.

Marlowe, J. with Bain, A. and Shapiro, A. (2006). Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. New York: Nation Books.