Originally published in Satya Magazine, October 2005
The question sent chills down my spine: “Were they less human?” It was a question posed by Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire as he described the profound horror of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which left over 800,000 dead in a matter of weeks. Dallaire, leader of a small United Nations peace-keeping force, made a heroic attempt to warn of the impending massacre. Tragically, his plea went ignored. As was the case with the Holocaust, Cambodia and Bosnia, many have since apologized for not intervening and have forcefully proclaimed: “Never again.” Yet now, with the memory of Rwanda still fresh in our conscience, it is happening again—and the world continues to look away.
Over the past two and a half years, 400,000 Sudanese have been systematically slaughtered in attacks orchestrated by their own government in the Darfur region of Sudan. Three million more—many of them children—have been violently displaced and face the very real prospect of death from disease or starvation. The genocide began early in 2003 after African Muslim rebel groups cited marginalization and discrimination. They struck military installations, demanding fair representation in their region’s government and an equitable share of their country’s limited resources. The predominantly Arab Muslim government responded by arming a militia group, known as the Janjaweed, and coordinating an ongoing series of brutal attacks designed not only to quell the uprising, but eliminate any trace of the opposition.
The assaults are carried out with frightening precision—typically beginning with military air strikes followed by militia on horseback. Designated teams torture and kill the men of the village, while others gang-rape and mutilate the women. Before leaving, the village is set ablaze. Women and girls who survive risk further sexual assault whenever they leave their refugee camp in search of water or firewood.
The international community, including the U.S., have done close to nothing to stop this death and destruction. In fact, the UN and governments around the globe continue to debate the viability of sanctions and resolutions against the Sudan government, while arguing over the definition of genocide.
I recently spoke with Linda Mason, a Board member of Mercy Corps, who recently returned from the Sudan where she interviewed displaced women, who had, thus far, survived the genocide. I told her of a photograph I’d seen, years ago, of an African woman holding her severely malnourished child as they waited in line for food at a refugee camp. What I remembered most about the pictured woman was the dignity with which she carried herself. Mason echoed that very sentiment in relation to the women she’d met in Darfur. Silently, we both knew that this memorable quality, in and of itself, would not be enough to sustain them.
It is said that the end-stage of life is a time for self-evaluation, a search for meaning—a time when the truly important becomes simplified and clear. We often feel similarly when faced with the mortality of a loved one. Yet, we frequently distance ourselves from our responsibility to fellow citizens of the world. Our fragile psyche is often unable to contemplate our obligation to protect the innocent and the defenseless—for fear of failing. How tragic that we often choose to avoid our own emotional pain at the catastrophic expense of others.
My own feelings of despair and helplessness over Darfur began to evolve into determination and hope over the course of one weekend. On February 4, I attended a lecture by General Dallaire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. During his speech, Dallaire painfully recalled his discovery of a three year-old Rwandan boy—the sole survivor of a village destroyed. When he looked into his eyes, he saw the eyes of his own son and wondered how anyone could consider this child less human.
The following evening, I saw the film Hotel Rwanda, which was based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a common man, who through sheer will and determination saved the lives of 1,200 of his fellow countrymen during the Rwandan genocide. Never before had I witnessed the remarkable impact a single individual can have in the face of impossible odds.
Further inspiration came that spring, when I attended a reception honoring Sudanese women at the Capitol in Washington, DC. One of the speakers was Yar Kang, a Sudanese Christian from Southern Sudan. Ms. Kang had lost nearly three dozen relatives during her country’s decades-old North-South War. Many of those fighting for the government forces of the North had been from Darfur. Following the peace accord late last year between the North and the South, word of the Darfur genocide reached her pastor. He then asked Ms. Kang for help in organizing a church-sponsored relief mission. She responded by stating that she could not forgive those who had murdered her family and that her Muslim neighbors were not deserving of assistance. Her pastor encouraged her to pray with him, which she did. Today, Yar Kang has found a place in her heart for forgiveness and has dedicated herself to the relief efforts of Sudan Mercy, helping the people of Darfur.
It is impossible to know why some of us have been born into lives of relative safety and good fortune, while others suffer an unimaginable fate. What is most assured, however, is that we have an inherent duty to protect the most vulnerable from harm.
At the Holocaust Museum, General Dallaire stated that the deployment of 44,000 peace-keeping troops in Darfur—with a mandate to protect innocent civilians—could stop the cycle of violence and create the conditions necessary for a meaningful peace agreement. He went on to say that we have the collective capacity to exert our will and compel our government to take action, if only we would use that power.
General Dallaire, Paul Rusesabagina and Yar Kang courageously confronted the unspeakable. Now, it is our turn to do the same…
Take the Darfur Pledge
Would you make a single phone call if it could end the genocide in Darfur? Would you be willing to make that same phone call, every day, if necessary, until the killing stopped? If so, please make that commitment by taking the Darfur Pledge. All we ask, is for you to do the following:
• Call the White House once a day, Monday-Friday (202-456-1414), and leave the following message for President Bush: “Forty-four thousand Peacekeepers could end the genocide in Darfur. Please act immediately.” If you’re unable to get through or if this call poses a financial hardship, please send a daily email with the same message to: President@WhiteHouse.gov.
• Recruit one more person to do the same.
• Go to our website, www.DarfurPledge.org, and register that you’ve taken the pledge. By doing so, we’ll be able to verify the number of concerned individuals who have chosen to give a voice to their conscience.
The complexities of this crisis are many. But the fact remains that the economic, cultural, religious and political tensions in Darfur cannot be addressed, nor can humanitarian aid be effective, until the cycle of violence is stopped. So, please, join the more than 1,000 people who’ve taken the Darfur Pledge. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
John Morlino is President of the Essence of True Humanity Is Compassion (The ETHIC), a nonprofit organization promoting peace, nonviolence and compassion for all beings. For more information visit www.the-ethic.org. He is also founder of The ETHIC’s Darfur Pledge campaign, www.DarfurPledge.org.