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|October 17, 2008|
The blog of the reporter who describes what it felt like to interview Omar Al-Bashir. Link to the TV interview posted belowIt was strangely nothing-y... I felt that I should have felt more, if you know what I mean, but he was such a blank space there was nothing to be felt. V weird.
Here's the blog:
08 10 14
When Mugabe walks into a room, he fills it. Likewise Museveni or Obasanjo. Malign or benign, these are the Big Men of Africa, men with a presence and stature. But when Omar al Bashir, President of Sudan, walked into the room where I was to interview him in Khartoum last week, nothing in the atmosphere changed. He scarcely filled his suit, let alone anything larger. Yet he has his place in history: the first serving head of state threatened with indictment by the International Criminal Court.
I had met him before. Back in 1989, when he seized power in a bloodless coup, I flew to Khartoum from Kenya where I was living and managed to secure the first interview with -- as he was then -- Brigadier Omar al Bashir. What he said seems unremarkable now, but I recall how he signalled that the interview was over -- he got up from behind his desk, went over to the television, turned it on, sat down and started to watch the cartoons. I was unimpressed. He'll never last, I thought.
Well, nineteen years later he's still in power, which makes his utter lack of charisma even more remarkable. He rarely talks to foreign journalists, and while in our first encounter he spoke English, these days he hides behind an interpreter. We had secured the interview through an American journalist, Christine Dolan, who had good contacts in Sudan dating back twenty years. Somehow, she had managed to persuade people close to the President that at this time, as he stands accused of "masterminding" genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, it would be good if he told his side of the story.
We were taken to a compound in central Khartoum where he apparently lives, and ushered into a receiving room full of oversized, overstuffed armchairs covered in white chinz patterned with rosebuds. His press secretary brought in a national flag, and positioned it next to the chair where the president would sit.
I've met many of the foot-soldiers of genocide, and interviewed several leaders accused of what's regarded as the worst of all crimes, including Radovan Karadzic of Republika Srpska, now awaiting trial in the Hague, and the former Prime Minister of Rwanda, Jean Kambanda, still serving a sentence for his role in the mass killings in 1994. On these occasions, I felt that frisson of fear which goes with the company of someone you know is responsible for more than murder.
But with Omar al Bashir-- nothing. A small, plump balding man, he seems less like a mastermind and more like a railway clerk. He smiled. He was not to be drawn. Mass rape in Darfur? It doesn't happen. Are the women who say they've been raped lying then? They're relatives of the rebels. What is his personal responsibility for the crimes and cruelty which have occurred? This is war, these things happen. I chipped away at the wall but couldn't even blister the paint. It was an unsatisfying encounter with a man who, at the very least, has presided over terrible atrocities, but refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong.
At the end, he agreed that we could travel to Darfur for a day to "see for ourselves." Well, I've seen for myself before and I knew that no government-organised trip would take us where we needed to go, to see what we needed to see and talk to those who would tell the truth. But I would go nonetheless.
The President eased himself out of his arm chair and stood up to leave.
"Life is very normal in Darfur," he said, and for a brief moment I felt a certain menace in his words.
INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, CHANNEL 4 NEWS
Here are the links to the blog and the video.
It's "the banality of evil" isn't it, as Hannah Arendt noted when she observed the trial of Eichmann.