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Darfur: Never Again?

May 9, 2009 | by Ruth W. Messinger

As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action.

Since February 2003, a militia known as Janjaweed (men on horseback) has been engaging in a genocidal campaign to displace and wipe out communities of African tribal farmers in Darfur, Sudan. More than one and a half million people have been displaced, forced from their homes as their villages are torched, water supplies poisoned or destroyed, livestock stolen or killed, and people raped or murdered. Government air raids have frequently preceded or followed militia attacks. In September, the United States government labeled the crisis genocide, but the international community is barely responding.

The perpetrators, like their victims, are Muslim. Often, one could not tell the difference between the groups from the color of their skin. But the nomadic Janjaweed identify with the Arab leadership and the farmers cling to their African descent. The conflict is built on top of long standing land wars and increased scarcity of water, triggered dramatically in 2003 when the government armed the Janjaweed to help quell rebel actions in Darfur.

The brutal violence has resulted in 100,000 deaths and 2 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence in an effort by the Janjaweed to rid the area of their enemies and claim the barely fertile lands of the desert for themselves. The vast majority of these “enemies” are civilians, not rebels: women, the elderly, and children.

The brutal violence and displacement have resulted in at least 100,000 known deaths. Women and girls are systematically raped and branded. More than two million people are now directly affected by the conflict and are in need of humanitarian assistance, and this number only grows. Only about half of those displaced within Darfur are receiving the aid they need.

As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. Such lessons we learned only too well from the Holocaust, when six million suffered the consequences of silence from the international community. The world looked the other way then, and did again 10 years ago in Rwanda when 800,000 people of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered in 100 days by their government.

The phrase “never again” must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact Jews must be the guardians of this epithet, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people because they are somehow perceived as different. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum assumed this responsibility this summer when it issued its first ever genocide alert for Sudan.

I went to Darfur in August to bear witness, to assess humanitarian needs, and to ensure that funds provided by the American Jewish community are being and will be used effectively. I met many of the displaced farmers and listened to their chilling and all-too-similar stories. The government bombed their villages, and then men on camels or horses rode in, often yelling ethnic slurs and shooting wildly. They plundered the farm animals that were the lifeblood of these communities. They stole, they raped and they killed. They stuffed wells with dead bodies or carcasses and burned villages to the ground.

A 10-year-old boy, clinging to the leg of a medical assistant, saw his parents and two brothers shot dead.

I met Fatima; her five children are all ill with life-threatening diarrhea. I met a 10-year-old boy, clinging to the leg of a medical assistant, who saw his parents and two brothers shot dead. I met the mother of twins who gave birth to them the day the militia came to her village threatening to kill everyone. She saw her brother, aunt and uncle killed, but managed to escape with her family, her new-born babies tucked into a straw mat.

They and over a million others fled in terror with few possessions – on donkeys if they had them, on foot if they did not – carrying children, supporting the elderly, looking for safety. Some were on the road for months. They came gradually to camps being set up to receive them – now about 158 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of France) – tens of thousands of families packed into tent cities, fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom, and depression.

The militias did what was necessary to drive the residents out, and those same gunmen – in at least some areas – are still visible just outside the camps. Some have been outfitted by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women still disappear or are raped when they venture out to collect firewood to use for cooking or to sell to buy food.

People whose simple agricultural life had allowed them to remain self-sufficient, coping with drought as they had to, now have had that life, the only life they know, destroyed. Adults who were independent no longer have any means of support. Parents are certain it will never be safe to return to their homes, but their children cannot wait to go back to the lives they knew and loved; their body language and affect signal depression.

Schooling is available only a few hours a day and, as one of the teachers said, “How can we help children deal with trauma when we are traumatized ourselves?” There are threats of growing food shortages, constant health dangers, and no activities for children or adults at the camps.

Unfortunately, the situation is worsening. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, and there is already not enough food. Medical staff knows that there are too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea, that living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems, that mortality rates – already at about 10,000 a month – could rise suddenly.

To be in the camps, to meet the victims of this displacement, to hear their stories is to feel overwhelmed by what people can do to each other, to cry at the most visible evidence of these violations of basic human rights, at the realization that some of the children in the medical tents – perhaps Fatima's – will die from malnutrition and diarrhea. It is also to marvel at people's resilience, to wonder how people who have experienced terror, lack the resources for their survival, and have been robbed of their vision of the future are nevertheless making do, trying to care for each other, struggling to protect their loved ones and thanking strangers for their help.

Currently, the situation is deteriorating. Deadlines and weak resolutions by the United Nations Security Council to the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed militia and improve access to aid continue to be extended or rejected. Jan Pronk, the United Nations special envoy to Sudan, told the Security Council that the government in Khartoum has made little or no progress in stopping the violence in the region, and Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that security is declining and violence is on the upsurge.

In a reversal that demonstrates that international pressure can make a difference, the Sudanese government reluctantly agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to monitor the tenuous April ceasefire and escort aid convoys, but they have no mandate to protect civilians. The Sudanese army and police continue to attack camps and forcibly relocate internally displaced people.

Recent reports describe government forces burning shelters, smashing water pipes, beating and shooting people, and refusing access to aid agencies. On November 8, the Sudanese government signed a historical peace agreement with the two Darfurian rebel groups negotiated by the African Union in Nigeria, accepting a no fly zone over the region and promising to disarm the Janjaweed and improve access to aid. The next day more violence was reported in camps.

By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.

The United Nations is conducting an investigation to determine whether the crisis constitutes genocide. This marks the first time in the history of the Security Council that Article 8 of the Genocide Convention has been invoked, which is a most welcome occurrence, but it is not enough by itself. By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.

Confronted with the realities of a grimmer and grimmer future we must increase pressure on the international community to do what must be done to end the violence and suffering. Every effort must be exerted to restore safety to Darfur and every effort must be made to enforce the peace agreements. No one can stand silently by.

Sudan must be forced, first, to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must be sanctioned unless and until it stops its ongoing support for the Janjaweed militia and their genocidal campaign. The African Union troops in Sudan must be given an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect civilians. Should the no-fly zone over Darfur be violated, then enforcement by NATO forces must be authorized.

Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed – not only more food and clean water but teachers and recreation personnel, social workers and community health advocates. American Jewish World Service launched a Sudan Emergency Appeal in April to help meet these needs. To date, $500,000 has been raised to rehabilitate water sources, construct sanitation facilities and provide health care and essential humanitarian services, including therapeutic feeding centers to care for the thousands of malnourished children. I surveyed these programs in action when I was there and left overwhelmingly satisfied that we are saving lives.

As a result of my assessment, AJWS is also providing educational and recreational materials and programs for orphaned and vulnerable children, zinc treatment for children suffering from diarrhea, and because rape is being used as a strategic weapon against women and their families, we are providing feminine health care and addressing the consequences of sexual violence against women. Financial support for these ongoing efforts is critical.

The Jewish response is growing. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella coalition comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, created a Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief that has raised about $170,000. A number of Jewish organizations have joined us as members of the Save Darfur Coalition.

Until conditions are established that permit the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of those displaced by the conflict, and violators of human rights are held accountable, our diligence must not wane. Leviticus teaches, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Failure to act properly now will result in endless, preventable and meaningless human suffering.

In the words of Elie Wiesel who addressed the organizing Save Darfur Coalition at its first meeting, “How can anyone who remembers remain silent...How can we reproach the indifference of non-Jews to Jewish suffering if we remain indifferent to another people's plight?” In short, Jews have an obligation to act in the face of genocide whenever, wherever and to whomever it occurs.

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