Opening a window in Vermont on the genocide in Sudan
At 10 o'clock Friday morning, August 20, in the Williston studios of Vermont Interactive Television, Matt Holland was waiting for his first face-to-face encounter with genocide. An engineer in the control room asked Holland to test his audio levels, so he recited a snippet from an Abraham Lincoln speech. In front of him, two TV monitors and a video camera would soon put us in the middle of a refugee camp in eastern Chad, just across the border from Darfur, Sudan.
Holland is an organizer with TrueMajority, which co-sponsored this live teleconference, along with the interfaith nonprofit group Faithful America. Both organizations are trying to get the United States government to focus on the world's most devastating and long-ignored humanitarian crisis. The American media, they contend, haven't devoted enough time or resources to covering the ongoing disaster in Sudan, where war has raged off and on for the last 35 years, claiming more than two million lives and displacing four million others.
In just the last year and a half, the government-sanctioned violence has escalated to genocidal proportions, with the current death toll estimated at more than 100,000. But while the international community has responded with meager and largely ineffectual gestures of protest -- a United Nations deadline for an end to the bloodshed came and went last weekend -- human rights groups on the ground report that the widespread and systematic killing, raping, burning and looting of innocent civilians continue on an almost unimaginable scale.
Desperate to ignite a more emphatic U.S. response, TrueMajority and Faithful America hastily raised $46,000 from their membership and sent a video crew into neighboring Chad -- a three-man team working for the educational outfit Global Nomads Group. Global Nomads sent back footage of the crisis and made it possible for American news agencies that can't afford to send their own reporters to Africa to conduct live interviews, for free, with genocide survivors and aid workers.
In addition, Global Nomads coordinated a live teleconference August 27 linking Sudanese refugees with some 20 schools around the United States, including three schools where students could directly question the refugees and aid workers. As Faithful America's co-director Ricken Patel puts it, the goal was to "close the moral distance between the suffering in Darfur and the people of the United States."
This teleconference was a departure from the usual projects of TrueMajority, the left-leaning advocacy group started by Ben & Jerry's founder Ben Cohen. In the past, the Internet-based nonprofit has focused primarily on domestic issues, such as getting out the vote and documenting the impacts of excessive military spending on social programs and public education. Similarly, Faithful America is an online community of progressive religious groups that emphasize social-justice issues. Faithful America's previous work has been more international in scope than TrueMajority's. For example, in June the group sponsored an ad on Arab television stations in the Middle East condemning the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people.
While we waited for a satellite link to be established, Holland recounted what he'd heard thus far from the crew in Chad. "The aid workers were adamant about this being worthwhile. They don't want to waste any time," Holland explained. "It's getting to be rainy season there, so disease is becoming a real problem. And there are tens of thousands of people crowding into the camp, so I don't know what to expect."
Suddenly, the face of a young, blond-haired man with a microphone appeared on the TV monitor. Seated on the ground beside him were four Sudanese men in white robes and a young African woman. Surrounding them, hundreds of Sudan-ese refugees stared back at us silently.
"Burlington, can you guys see me and hear me all right?" asked Mark von Spanek of Global Nomads Group.
"Loud and clear," said Holland. "Go ahead."
After the usual three-second satellite delay, von Spanek introduced himself and explained that they were inside Breidjing camp, the largest refugee camp on the Chad/Sudan border. "As I'm sure you can understand, there's a lot going on here, so time is limited. You can start by asking --"
Suddenly, the screen went blank. From the control room, Linda Brownell of Vermont Interactive Television let out a loud groan. "Oh, God!" she said. "We lost the connection."
It took another 20 minutes for the crew in Chad to reestablish the satellite link, but Brownell was already gushing with excitement. Usually, Vermont Interactive Television handles more routine tasks -- training seminars for plumbers and real-estate agents, continuing-ed classes for nurses, out-of-state depositions for attorneys and so forth. Brownell sees the Chad project as an ideal use of a relatively inexpensive technology -- bringing people together from remote corners of the globe.
"This is so cool!" Brownell said. "I've been to Paris and Germany, but I've never been to a refugee camp before. And you don't have to get any shots."
At 10:40, von Spanek and the refugees reappeared on the screen. He quickly introduced two international aid workers, Shruti Mehrotra of Oxfam International and Philippe Durriere of CARE. Durriere, Breidjing's camp manager, spoke in a thick, almost incomprehensible French accent, but there was no misunderstanding the scale of his responsibilities. Breidjing camp was built to accommodate 18,000 people, he explained, but is now burgeoning with more than 45,000. An additional 200 to 300 "spontaneous," or unexpected, refugees arrive there every day, most of them women and children. Only about 12,000 or so have been housed in tents -- the rest are living in makeshift shelters constructed from plastic sheeting. Another refugee camp is under construction nearby, but it could be another month before it's completed, Durriere said.
Next, Mehrotra told us how she and the other aid workers -- there are only a few dozen in the camp -- were racing to provide the new arrivals with even rudimentary supplies, such as food, water, clothing and cooking gear. Since most of the refugees were driven from their homes with little or no warning, many arrive with just the clothes on their backs, and some not even that. In total, more than 100,000 Sudanese have crossed the border into Chad this year. Oxfam predicts that two million people in this barren and usually sparsely populated region will need food aid in the coming months.
The timing of this crisis couldn't be worse, Mehrotra said. For one, the start of the rainy season has created a potentially deadly sanitation problem. When Oxfam first arrived, there were already 30,000 refugees in the camp but only 183 latrines. Oxfam is now trucking in emergency water supplies. "But that said, the sanitation system here is still a nightmare," Mehrotra said. "We have the possibility of a cholera epidemic and we're running like mad to make enough latrines to prevent a huge outbreak."
Compounding the problem, many of the refugees arrived already suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and diarrhea after spending weeks in the bush without food or water before crossing into Chad. A cholera outbreak in the densely populated camp, Mehrotra said, could utterly decimate the population.
While the aid workers described their predicament in blunt terms, the Chad-based video crew switched to a second camera that was panning the camp's interior. At one point, the pixilated image focused on a group of Sudanese women adorned in neon-hued dresses of pink, orange and green. The festive colors were a stark contrast to the trauma evident in their faces and the misery enshrouding them.
As the camera focused back on von Spanek, he explained that the two aid workers were just called away on an emergency. So he introduced Alhaj Abdallah Adam, an older African man dressed in a white turban and robe that appeared remarkably clean and bright, considering the circumstances. Through an Arabic translator, Adam explained that he is an elder from a village in Darfur called Toulouse, which until December was home to some 2400 people. In November, Toulouse was attacked and burned by the government-backed militia, the "Janjaweed." The colloquial Arabic term means "armed bandits on horseback," but is sometimes translated as "evil ones."
In Arabic, Adam frenetically recounted how in November the Janjaweed killed 16 of his neighbors, stole their animals and burned their homes. The villagers fled into the forest but returned once their assailants were gone. However, on December 10, the Janjaweed returned, killing 30 people and burning and looting their homes. This time, Adam and the other villagers fled across the border into Chad. It took them several weeks to reach the refugee camp. Of the 2400 residents of Toulouse, only about 100 made it to Breidjing camp. The rest are still unaccounted for, he said.
Next, von Spanek introduced a soft-spoken 15-year-old boy named Awadallah Oumer Abdalla. Reportedly, it's rare to see young men his age in the refugee camps, since most are either killed or forced into military service. Abdalla said that the Janjaweed killed his grandfather and both his parents. Then, typical of the Janjaweed's scorched-earth policy in Darfur, they uprooted the garden, cut down the fruit trees and destroyed the water supply.
Abdalla said he spent 60 days hiding in the forest before arriving, naked, in the refugee camp. When Holland asked what we can do to help him, he simply replied, "We want our rights."
After talking with Abdalla, we met Salima Yacoub Ahamed, a young woman dressed in an orange scarf and caftan. Her eyes were half-closed and she nervously looked away from the camera. A fly crawled across her face but she either didn't notice it or didn't care. Fielding questions from Holland, she talked about how life in her village was good until the Janjaweed killed her mother and grandfather. Although she was reunited with her father in the camp two months ago, her husband remains missing somewhere in Sudan.
Ahamed spoke in a tribal dialect, so her words had to be translated first into Arabic, and then into English. The interview was slow going, and at first it seemed that something was getting lost in the translation. Afterwards, von Spanek offered an explanation. Ahamed was surrounded by men and apparently was too embarrassed to answer some of our questions. Then the village elder began speaking:
"The government attack them and many of the children dead," he said through the Arabic translator. "The government, when attacking the village, they have very, very violation. Violation of the girls and the women." Despite the translator's broken English, the young woman's horror was unmistakable.
Von Spanek then informed us that we had to wrap up the interviews. It was after 5 p.m. in Chad and the aid workers and the video crew had to leave the camp and return to their secure compounds before nightfall. Why? "Imagine a situation where you have a lot of desperation," von Spanek explained. "One has to be careful."
On Wednesday, August 25, TrueMajority and Faithful America kicked off a "National Day of Conscience" on the Sudanese genocide by holding a telephone press conference for journalists from around the world. Among the featured speakers was Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He reminded reporters that this manmade catastrophe in Sudan didn't begin yesterday or even last year. It has been going on for decades, in plain sight of the world and with utter impunity. But even though President Bush has yet to mention the Sudanese crisis in a public speech, and the United Nations has not formally declared it genocide, Americans cannot sit idly by while the killing continues.
"Nothing is worse for the prisoner in his or her cell, for the forlorn child in the forest, for the hungry mother unable to feed her children, than to know that they are abandoned, that no one cares," Weisel said. "We feel compelled by our own humanity to sensitize others to our collective moral imperative, which is to tell the Sudanese victims, 'You are no longer alone.'"