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Humanizing the Sudanese Victims of Genocide: The Effort to Raise Awareness about Darfur in Danish Society

When I say Darfur, what comes to your mind?  The answer to this question is wholly dependent on the context from which you view it.  If you are Danish, you are likely to know “that something bad is going on, but not exactly what is going on, or how bad it actually is,” according to Vibeke Brix Christensen, an advocate with Doctors without Borders.  We confirmed this perspective after interviewing a number of Danes in Copenhagen, as people who knew that a civil war was occurring did not refer to it as genocide.  In fact, quite a number of people had no knowledge of the conflict, with one individual confusing “Darfur” with the French dessert “petit four.”  These findings coincide with a survey by Gallup, which concluded that thirty-seven percent of Danes have never heard of Darfur.  We believe a higher level of awareness about the conflict and its severity is crucial to fostering the necessary public pressure for officials to take action to stop the genocide.

Awareness Is a Prerequisite for Action 

There are efforts underway by the NGO sector to raise the Danish population’s level of awareness about Darfur. Many NGOs have held fundraisers for Darfur, which serve the dual function of increasing awareness about the conflict and providing humanitarian aid for the victims.  The Danish Red Cross in the fall of 2004 held a joint fundraising campaign with many humanitarian NGOs, including Save the Children, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), UNICEF, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Caritas, ADRA, and DanChurchAid. It was quite successful, raising over ten million dkr.  Andreas Kamm, director of the DRC, described that his organization would “explain to people how much help they can buy,” and that a particular sum of money “can feed a family for a week.”  Moreover, an important element of the fundraiser was door-to-door campaigning, for which thousands of people were mobilized to raise the level of awareness in Danish society. 

Fundraising is a fairly standard NGO tactic to raise public awareness about a particular issue, though it still translates well to Darfur advocacy.  In addition to this approach, MSF, the Red Cross, the DRC, and Amnesty International have all attempted to reach the public by circulating newsletters to their respective networks and through information on their websites, with Amnesty posting satellite surveillance pictures of villages in Darfur that have been razed and burned to the ground.  Yet Amnesty International has also used unconventional methods that seem more specific to Darfur.  Amnesty, using the power of the image to raise awareness in Danish society, is sending around Denmark a photography exhibition of the carnage.  Amnesty also attached flyers with  information about the crisis in Darfur to tickets for the opening debut of Hotel Rwanda, using the film’s depiction of the genocide in Rwanda to stir debate about how the West can be shutting its eyes to genocide yet again.  

At the same time, MSF has concentrated on its media strategy, attempting to get stories about the humanitarian crisis into the newspapers.  Brix Christensen explains that “any report that comes in from the field is turned into a press release and a story,” including a report about sexual violence that came out in March.  Kamm echoes this sentiment, saying, “the main role of the NGO is to tell what we see.”  However, other NGOs focus less on press releases, for “they never get into the paper,” argues Helge Kvam, press chief of the Danish Red Cross.  

Both MSF and the DRC agree it is important that the media coverage creates the opportunity for personal identification.  Kamm believes it is essential to “create a picture of those who need our help and protection” in framing the story, while Brix Christensen emphasizes the need to “put a face to these people; to show that they have a name and a right to live.”  The Red Cross has chosen to accentuate t strategically he “Danish angle,” telling the story of a Dane who has gone to Darfur in order to get more stories about the conflict into the media.  Indeed, MSF has done the same in an attempt to raise the level of awareness about the conflict. The organization’s website provides the narratives of doctors who have returned from Darfur and highlights news of someone on the eve of departure.  Brix Christensen was able to publish in a Danish tabloid the diary she kept while she was in Darfur, hoping that the combination of the grisly details and her role in the story as a Dane would spark additional interest.  

Overcoming Obstacles: The Role of the Media

“There is a culture in Europe to speak of Africa as though it were one country, with a perception of hopelessness that makes it difficult to raise awareness about specific problems, as there are so many.”  Kamm’s assessment explains clearly the difficulties faced in calling attention to Darfur.  It is a challenge to obtain media coverage of the conflict because it does not have any immediate implications in Denmark: “refugees from Darfur are not coming here, and Danes do not go there for vacation; it is too far away for many people to relate,” observes Brix Christensen.  Michael Nielsen, the communications director of MSF, adds that “the more globalized we get, the more local people begin to think – they get lost in it and turn inwards.”  A recent study of Danish public service television news broadcasts revealed that only about 5 % of coverage extended to the non-Western world.   In addition, of the six mainstream Danish newspapers, only two have a correspondent to cover Africa, both of whom work part-time.  “That puts things in perspective,” asserts Brix Christensen, “that we think one person can cover all of Africa.”  

Yet stories about Africa that are reported in the media are often based on the classic fairytale model of Africans playing the role of victims and villains, with the West playing its assumed role of the benevolent hero swooping in to come to their aid (Nicolaisen, 2000; Løngreen, 1987).  Beyond the cultural divide, an explanation for this portrayal is that aid workers are often the ones providing information to the media, which, in turn, exalts them.  Another media tendency with regard to Africa is to seize the negative; African coverage is focused solely on the conflicts and problems there, stifling any positive news that may surface (Kabel, 2005; Severinsen, 2000; Larsen, 1987).  Taken together, this combination portraying the West as the saviour of anonymous African victims in perpetual conflict creates a dehumanizing effect.  NGOs have famously sought to utilize the impression of the heroic West and media images of African victims to create sympathy and bolster their fundraising efforts for humanitarian aid.  While initially successful, this approach inevitably leads to an inflation of sympathy, according to journalist Lars Bjerg.  Sympathy then turns to pessimism and a sense of powerlessness as people are confronted with uninterrupted negative media coverage of Africa.  Studies have shown that viewers are tired of all the “bad news” and feel a high degree of resignation toward conflict in Africa (Kabel, 2005).  This attitude had by and large been established before the conflict in Darfur began in 2003.  Yet it has certainly contributed to the view of many who see Darfur “as a war between tribes or an internal conflict,” as described by Brix Christensen.  The impact of the media’s seemingly permanent practice of negative African coverage can therefore be summed up with a Danish woman’s view that “there is a war here and then there.  There is always another war in Africa.”

Most of the NGOs believe that the conflict in Darfur has obtained a fair level of media attention.  However, MSF disagrees, as “it took 11/2 years and seventeen press releases to get a breakthrough into the Danish media,” according to Nielsen.  Kvam feels that “the media coverage of Darfur has been okay given what we can expect for a conflict in Africa, but not compared to the extent of the catastrophe.”  We decided to check for ourselves, and studied a database of Danish newspaper articles from the past 1/ 1/2 years, dating from January 1, 2004 through June 28, 2005.  In this time period, there were 1,639 articles on Darfur compared to 29,159 articles about the conflict in Iraq.  The stories on 

2004/2005 Articles on:

Darfur Darfur and “genocide”



BT 42 3 1,379

Ekstra Bladet 22 2 1,458

Mainstream Newspapers

Berlingske Tidende 236 31 4,178

Information 124 43 2,652

Jyllandsposten 195 24 4,013

Kristeligt Dagblad 154 10 913

Politiken 291 44 4,608

Darfur in both the tabloids and mainstream press has generally been presented in the last pages or secondary sections of the newspapers; only a fraction of the articles have been in-depth and analytical.  The conflict has been covered in small notices and one-paragraph Reuters telegrams, and has usually been mentioned in passing, such as in articles primarily devoted to the Asian tsunami.  Moreover, of the articles on Darfur, only 178 out of 1,639 articles have included the term “genocide.”  Many of the articles that have used the term were merely referring to the ongoing discussions on whether the conflict is genocide, rather than actually labelling Darfur as genocide.  

The few articles that do include an analysis of the conflict are primarily offering a Western or Danish perspective, such as the discussion of the role of NATO, whether to send Danish soldiers, the level of Danish aid, and the negotiations on Darfur within the United Nations.  Yet the perspective of the Darfurian is rarely presented; the most recent article to include this perspective is dated May 9, 2005  in Berlingske Tidende , but only incorporates it as an introduction to an article about aid and international military involvement. Since this article was published, 130 articles about the conflict have been printed in Danish newspapers solely from a Danish or International perspective.  Opposing this slant on the media coverage is Danish teacher Tina Stampe, who wishes to learn more “about the war from the perspective of the [Darfurian] population.”  In addition, Danes have explained that even after watching the news regularly, they still feel uninformed because the coverage lacks sufficient background information on the problems and conflicts presented (Kabel, 2005).  Overall, though there has been media coverage of Darfur, it has not contributed to a heightened level of awareness about what is actually happening there.  

What else Can We Do?

After examining the level of awareness about Darfur in the Danish population, we believe that the current NGO tactics and media coverage need to be altered in order to produce a broad understanding that genocide is occurring.  To this point, Danes have been unable to identify with the victims of Darfur; they cannot relate to the distance or the differences between the peoples, let alone the experience of genocide.  Therefore, we must humanize the Darfurians in order to view them as individual human beings, rather than anonymous victims.  Humanization is a higher plane of identification that transcends nationality, ethnicity, race and religion.  As it is so powerful, it is subsequently that much more difficult to achieve.  The genocide in Darfur can only continue as long as the death of a Darfurian is not the loss of a human life but the increase in a statistic.     

Humanization is dependent on the ability to identify with the Darfurian population.  In the campaign to raise awareness, it is crucial that the point of identification be from the Darfurian perspective rather than a reliance on the “Danish angle” focusing on the activities of Danish volunteers in Darfur.  The impact of this tactic has been to portray a Dane working in the midst of anonymous and passive victims.  Diaries of the volunteers in Darfur have become a popular approach to raising awareness, but their effect has often been to convey the distress of the volunteer rather than the trauma of the Darfurians.  The diaries will unfortunately soon be forgotten whereas reading a victim’s account would have more lasting and meaningful impact.  This occurred with The Diary of Anne Frank, which humanized the victims of the Holocaust in an unparalleled way. The Danish NGOs in Darfur therefore need to use their presence to give the Darfurians a voice.  The personal stories would enable Danes to see the Darfurians as individuals.  This facilitates identification, which is the foundation for an emotional link, empathy, and a moral obligation to act. 

Darfur is not just “another war in Africa,” as the Danish woman on the street suggested.  The conflict in Darfur is genocide.  This understanding needs to be advanced in Danish society.  Even after the President of United States and a number of Danish politicians have used the term “genocide,” to this point only a fraction of the articles in Danish newspapers have referred to Darfur as such.  At the same time, Danish NGOs have also been reluctant publicly to call the conflict in Darfur genocide.  Kvam explains that the Red Cross fears “terming the conflict ‘genocide’ can be seen as a political statement, which might jeopardize their neutrality and ability to operate in the conflict area.”  However, we believe that included in the intrinsic moral obligation to act when genocide occurs is the obligation to acknowledge openly that genocide is taking place and to call it by its name.  NGOs and the Danish media must therefore saturate the public with this term and the impact that it carries in order to force society to pay attention. 

Terming Darfur genocide should further be used to create a powerful association with The Holocaust.  This is crucial given the relevance and cultural familiarity of The Holocaust throughout Europe, which addresses the need to cultivate a conceptual understanding of genocide.  Making this connection is appropriate given that many of the human rights doctrines that are being breached in Darfur originated in the aftermath of The Holocaust.  Moreover, the identification that is inherent in associating the genocide in Darfur with The Holocaust would further contribute to humanizing the victims. 

The media has an obligation as society’s watchdog to present this depiction of the conflict in Darfur.  One cannot accept the excuse that the population has not demanded more Darfur coverage, as it is the media’s responsibility to stimulate interest when the issue is genocide.  “Editors believe people do not want to hear about Darfur, and they are the ones who decide what gets in the newspaper,” claims Nielsen.  However, the perceived disinterest is a myth.  A survey concluded that 45% of Danes believe that there should be greater media focus on Darfur; among the younger generation, the interest is even higher.   This view has been confirmed by our interviews with Danes.  Thomas Jørgensen, a Danish postal worker, believes that “there should be more stories on the background of the conflict in Darfur, why it started, why it continues, and why the politicians are not reacting to it.”  If the population does not have the background knowledge to understand the situation, they will become uninterested, concludes Lars Kabel in his study of Danish media coverage outside of the West (Kabel, 2005).

The lack of background information about the genocide in Darfur is symptomatic of the prevailing news criteria, the media’s rigid standards for what it considers to be newsworthy.  Kamm notes that “the media will always move on to new stories about new conflicts.”  This comes at the expense of stories focusing on historical background and ongoing developments while contributing to all of the negative coverage of Africa.  We believe that a greater exposure to positive stories about progress and development in Africa is necessary to humanizing Africans in general.  “We need to convey the message that Africa is not hopeless,” urges Kamm, so that people see that it is worth the effort to get involved.  Moreover, many Danes feel that there is real news value in covering distant societies and the everyday lives of the individuals there.  One viewer concluded, “when the media finally covers something normal, that is what you remember” (Kabel, 2005).    

However, the media is not solely responsible.  NGOs have to unite their efforts and better coordinate their Darfur advocacy.  The NGOs must agree on the priority of Darfur, placing it at the top of their respective agendas.  They have to lobby collectively so that the media will not have to choose which NGO’s viewpoint to represent.  In addition, NGOs must use their combined influence to change the angle of the news coverage toward a more humanizing perspective, and above all stress the urgency of recognizing the conflict as genocide.  Individual NGOs may not feel they have the authority to be the first to label the conflict genocide, but speaking out together gives them this authority as society’s conscience.  Furthermore, NGOs should apply a more systematic and targeted communications strategy to take advantage of insights generated by surveys measuring Danish knowledge of Darfur.  The previously mentioned Gallup survey indicates that young people are less aware of the conflict and that there is an educational and geographic divide in the population’s knowledge.  NGOs should consider this and target these groups specifically in their awareness campaigns.  Finally, NGOs must continue their efforts to appeal directly to the public by going around the media with unconventional strategies, expanding on methods such as Amnesty’s travelling photography exhibition and campaign to associate the genocide in Darfur with Hotel Rwanda.  One tactic could be enabling the Darfurians to communicate with the outside world through artwork.  We recognize that NGOs and volunteers are working very hard to raise awareness, but suggest that they focus their resources towards a new approach.  

While this analysis has specifically focused on the effort to raise the level of Danish awareness about the genocide in Darfur, it should be viewed as a microcosm for the struggle to do so throughout the West.  The suggestions made in this paper are pragmatic, realistic, and most importantly, urgent.  All parties must take responsibility for raising awareness about Darfur.  It starts with us.  Without humanizing the Darfurians, we risk that the West will shut its eyes to genocide yet again.  Coming to recognize our common humanity is the only way to realize lasting change in our collective attitude toward genocide.  Meanwhile, the number of deaths in Darfur is increasing today, tomorrow, next week, every day. 


Articles and Studies 

Bjerg, Lars (2005), “Lecture on 20 June 2005, HIA program.”

Gallup (2004), “Konflikten i Darfur,” 4 November 2004. Survey conducted for Danish Refugee Council. 

Kabel, Lars (2005), “Verden langt herfra – En analyse af nyheder og faktaprogrammer i dansk tv.” Report published 23 May 2005 by “Center for Journalistik og Efteruddannelse.” 

Lacey, Marc (2004), “Døden kommer ved daggry,” Berlingske Tidende 9 May  2005, section 1, page 10. Translation from New York Times by Lars Rosenkvist.

Larsen, Bjarke (1987), “Nøden i Afrika beskrevet i danske medier – en analyse af danske mediers dækning af hungerkatastrofen i Afrika med udgangspunkt i ‘Afrika Sulter’– indsamlingen i 1984.” Project Image of Africa, Forskningsrapport 3. Institut for Statskundskab, Århus Universitet. Summary published at www.cfje.dk. 

Løngreen, Hanne (1988), “Blændværk, brændvidde og mentale billeder. Visuel kommunikation om den tredje verden.” Working paper from Institute for Language and International Culture Studies, Aalborg University. Summary published at www.cfje.dk. 

Nicolaisen, Marie Lønstrup (2000), “Nærhed i nyheder – en analyse af tv-avisens udlandsindslag fra ‘fjerne lande’ i relation til den øgede fokusering på nærhed i nyhedsformidlingen.” Thesis Institute for Nordic Philology, Copenhagen University. Summary published at www.cfje.dk.

Reuters (2004), “Flygtninge truer med at Sultestrejke,” Berlingske 23 June 2005, section 1, page 14. 

Severinsen, Helle Løvstø (2000), “Afrika i danske tv-nyheder,” Module 2, Institute for Communication. Roskilde University. Summary published at www.cfje.dk.

Tullin, Lise-Lotte (2004), “Har medierne glemt ansvaret for Africa.” Journalisten no. 13/2004 by voluntary consultant for Doctors without Borders.

www.infomedia.dk. Survey of newspapers coverage of Darfur 2004/2005, emphasizing May/June 2005.



Danes in Copenhagen:

All interviews were conducted in Danish at Strøget, Copenhagen on Sunday, June 26, 4-8 pm.

  • Tina Stampe, primary school teacher
  • Krista Ekelund, healthcare assistant
  • Rebekka Paisley, McDonalds employee & Rune Maribo, IT-supporter
  • Rikke Møller Jensen, university student (Africa Studies)
  • Thomas Jørgensen, postal worker
  • Louise Elminge, university student (medicine)
  • Kirsten Sørensen, unemployed
  • Rene Pedersen, office assistant
  • Martin Saxer, university student (medicine)
  • Anonymous male

Non-Governmental Organizations

Amnesty International: 

  • Phone Interview with Mikkel Krogh, communications consultant – 27 June 2005

Danish Red Cross:

  • Phone Interview with Helge Kvam, press chief – 27 June 2005

Danish Refugee Council: 

  • Interview with Andreas Kamm, director – 27 June 2005 

Doctors without Borders: 

  • Interview with Vibeke Brix Christensen, doctor and witness in Darfur – 24 June 2005 
  • Interview with Michael G. Nielsen, head of communications – 24 June 2005

Indsamlingsorganisationernes Brancheorganisation (ISOBRO): 

  • Phone Interview with Mette Grovermann, media contact person – 27 June 2005
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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2005


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