Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Genocide in slow-motion

Genocide is unique among ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘mass atrocity crimes’ because it targets, in whole or in part, a specific racial, religious, national, or ethnic group
for extinction. According to the international convention, genocide can include any of the following five criteria targeted at the groups listed above:

• killing
• causing serious bodily or mental harm
• deliberately inflicting ‘conditions of life calculated
to bring about its physical destruction in whole or
in part’
• imposing measures to prevent births
• forcibly transferring children from a targeted

The perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda took 100 days to exterminate 800,000 lives. This was the fastest rate of targeted mass killing in human history, three times faster
than that of the Holocaust.

In mid-2004, one year into the fighting and six months before the trip Don and I took to Chad/Darfur, I went with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Samantha Power to the rebel areas in Darfur. Samantha was a journalist in Bosnia during the horrors of that war, and her frustration with the failure of the United States to lead a strong international response to the atrocities being committed compelled her to research and write a book about America’s response to genocides throughout the 20th century. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002), won the Pulitzer Prize. Samantha showed that time and again US leaders were aware that crimes against humanity were occurring but failed to take action. After she and I travelled to Darfur in 2004, Samantha wrote an article for the New Yorker magazine that won the National Magazine Award for reporting in 2005. At the same time, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting government-held areas in the region. But unlike Secretary Powell, Samantha and I went to the part of Sudan that the regime didn’t want anyone to see, and for very good reason.
Before the genocide, Darfur was one of the poorest regions of Sudan, and the Saharan climate made eking out a living an extreme challenge. But these difficulties only made Darfurians hardier and more self-reliant, mixing farming and livestock rearing in a complex strategy of survival that involved migration, inter-communal trade, and resource sharing.
It had been over a year since the genocide began, so Samantha and I expected certain evidence of mass destruction. And we were indeed witness to burned villages where livestock, homes, and grain stocks had been utterly destroyed, confirming stories we had heard from Darfurians at refugee camps in Chad.
Yet no amount of time in Sudan or work on genocide ever prepares anyone sufficiently for
what Samantha and I saw in a ravine deep in the Darfur desert—bodies of nearly two dozen youngn men lined up in ditches, eerily preserved by the 130-degree desert heat. One month before, they had been civilians, forced to walk up a hill to be executed by Sudanese government forces. Harrowingly, this scene was repeated throughout the targeted areas of Darfur.We heard more refugees in Chad describe family and friends being stuffed into wells by the Janjaweed in a twisted and successful attempt to poison the water supply. When we searched for these wells in Darfur, we found them in the exact locations described. The only difference was now these wells were covered in sand in an effort to cover the perpetrators’ bloody tracks. With each subsequent trip to Darfur, I have found the sands of the Saharan Desert slowly swallowing more of the evidence of the 21st century’s first genocide.

To us, Darfur has been Rwanda in slow motion. Perhaps 400,000 have died during three and a half years of slaughter, over 2.25 million have been rendered homeless, and, in a particularly gruesome subplot, thousands of women have been systematically raped. During 2006, the genocide began to metastasise, spreading across the border into Chad, where Chadian
villagers (and Darfurian refugees) have been butchered and even more women raped by marauding militias supported by the Sudanese government. Sadly, the international response has also unfolded in slow motion. With crimes against humanity like the genocide in Darfur, the caring world is inevitably in a deadly race with time to save and protect as many lives as possible.

In autumn 2004, after his visit to Sudan, Secretary Powell officially invoked the term ‘genocide’. He was followed shortly thereafter by President Bush.5 This represented the
first time an ongoing genocide was called its rightful name by a sitting US president. And yet in Darfur, as in most of these crises, the international community, including the United States, responded principally by calling for ceasefires and sending humanitarian aid. These are important gestures to be sure, but they do not stop the killing. We believe it is our collective responsibility to resanctify the sacred post-Holocaust phrase ‘Never Again’— to make it something meaningful and vital. Not just for the genocide that is unfolding today in Darfur, but also for the next attempted genocide or cases of mass atrocities. And there are other cases, to be sure. Right now, we need to do all we can for the people of northern Uganda, of Somalia, and of Congo. Though genocide is not being perpetrated in these countries, horrible abuses of human rights are occurring, in some ways comparable to those in Darfur. Militias are targeting civilians, rape is used as a tool of war, and life-saving aid is obstructed or stolen by warring parties. Furthermore, by the time you pick up this book, another part of the world could have caught on fire, and crimes against humanity may be being perpetrated. We need to do all we can to
organise ourselves to uphold international human rights law and to prevent these most heinous crimes from ever occurring.

That is our challenge!

John Prendergast & Don Cheadle

Authors of Not on Our Watch


Anonymous said...

Why is the media so cynical about celebrities using their influence for the greater good? - Kath

Anonymous said...

They just are. Its the way of the world. The middle classes don't like anyone who points out the truth to them. It forces them to confront issues they would rather forget about.