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Time to Act in Sudan

Aram Harrow

You wouldn’t know it from the news, but the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis is occurring right now in Western Sudan. Furthermore, it threatens to get much worse unless we devote a lot more attention and resources to it. A small rebellion has sparked a genocidal campaign by government-backed Arab Janjaweed militias against black non-Arab Muslims that has killed at least 10,000 civilians and displaced over a million. Refugees who have escaped to Chad have told of entire villages being massacred, women being raped and then branded to stigmatize them forever, wells poisoned by dumping corpses in them, and homes burned down so that the villagers will never return. According to Human Rights Watch, an 18-year-old woman was assaulted by Janjaweed who inserted a knife in her vagina, saying, “You get this because you are black.”

The attacks cannot be brushed off as random collateral damage of a civil war; Janjaweed militia leaders are open about their ultimate goal of making Western Sudan “Zurga-free” (Zurga is a derogatory word for blacks). For example, they commonly steal livestock, the primary form of wealth there, and also destroy schools, wells, clinics, and irrigation pumps in order to permanently drive people away. These crimes are starting to become so widespread that we can only imagine them in terms of numbers and statistics. A U.N. news service reported a single attack in which “30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed, and over 200 girls and women raped -- some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted.”

Even worse, though seemingly more abstract, the fighting has disrupted what otherwise would have been very productive planting and harvest seasons. As a result, 1.2 million risk dying of starvation and disease if food assistance doesn’t reach them before the heavy rains start in June. The 110,000 refugees who have crossed the border into Chad are in camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the million or so internally displaced persons in Western Sudan are only now starting to be reached by relief agencies.

Fortunately, there is plenty we can do about this, even from MIT. There has been a tenuous ceasefire since April 8, and even though it has been repeatedly violated, aid agencies and human rights monitoring teams are now beginning to enter the region. They need our help, both financially and politically. The World Food Programme (WFP) has appealed for $98 million to feed 1.2 million people from now until December, when they will be able to harvest crops planted in May. The WFP appeal amounts to just over $80 per recipient. This opportunity to save lives so easily is one that we are not likely to see again for a long time. At MIT, we often feel isolated from political events and powerless to change anything, but this time things are different. If you have the financial power to buy, say, a $250 iPod Mini, then you have the power to save three human beings.

Human rights groups can also use our assistance in exposing crimes against humanity and pressuring governments around the world to take action. One lesson from the 1994 Rwandan genocide is that it often doesn’t take very much to stop genocide. For example, 30,000 Tutsi were protected in Rwanda’s capital by a handful of UN peacekeepers before they were withdrawn.

Human Rights Watch has appealed for a mere $300,000 to send a monitoring team to Western Sudan; their findings will then fuel an aggressive worldwide lobbying campaign so that no government will be able to plead ignorance. We can also lobby our own government to take stronger actions. President Bush is to be commended for calling the Sudanese president and asking him to restrain the militias, but this needs to be followed up by firmer pressure. Handwritten letters to your representative urging them to pass House Congressional Resolution 403 (described by Amnesty International as “a resolution condemning the violence in Darfur and calling for immediate action by the Sudanese government to end the violence, protect its citizens and facilitate the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance”) would be a good start.

Almost 60 years ago, the world’s solemn reaction to the Holocaust was “Never again.” Now the phrase is starting to become a cliche.

Ten years ago, 800,000 civilians were murdered in Rwanda while the world’s great powers did their best to look away. The killings started slowly while foreign troops were still present, as Hutu militias were still testing international will. The world’s response was unambiguous to both the killers and the victims: France withdrew troops; some U.N. peacekeepers were so eager to leave that their officers rushed onto the transport planes and left their troops behind; America airlifted out its civilians and sponsored a U.N. resolution to cut the number of peacekeepers to a token level. One memo even discouraged using the word “genocide” because lawyers at the State Department worried that a “genocide finding could commit [the US government] to actually ‘do something.’” Everyone in power at the time, from President Clinton on down, has since expressed shame and regret at their inaction; unfortunately it is easier to look back with regret than to take action at the time.

Ten years from now, how will we look back at this time in our lives? Will we remember the problem sets and the parties? Will we wonder how we, along with the rest of the world, managed again to look away from such easily preventable human suffering?

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Aram Harrow is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.