Monday, May 08, 2006

My Chronicle Op-Ed Piece

Dangers in Darfur: County resident describes region’s suffering, experienced while living there for 11 years

By Scott Sutton
I want you to meet my friend, Ali. He is a young boy with a cheeky smile framing a set of pearly whites that contrast brightly with his dark ebony skin. His eyes light up with mischief as he runs down the sand-filled streets of his village in Chad, Africa.

He pushes in front of him a large, skinny circle made of twisted metal. Using a strip of sugar cane as a guide, he pushes this rolling ring — his only toy — around donkeys, through stacks of firewood, past women washing clothes, and joins a pick-up soccer game forming in the streets. He laughs, he waves and he sets out to play. This is Ali four years ago.

Growing up the son of a missionary doctor on the barren Chad-Sudan border in Africa, I had the privilege of living and playing with many kids like Ali. Their love of life was contagious and their ability to thrive against all odds inspired me. Sadly, things have changed.

This is Ali now: His once bright smile is hidden behind layers of deep sadness. His eyes are listless and cold — staring at nothing. His once-active legs lie motionless on the rocky ground beneath him. Strong, developing muscles are now no more than bone and stretched skin.

He hasn’t laughed in weeks, but more importantly, he hasn’t eaten in days.

His mother is dead. His father is dead. His sister is missing. He is a victim of the brutal genocide taking place today in Darfur. There are more than 3 million others just like him. All of these people — people like my friends — are on the brink of extinction.

The level of suffering and loss of human life at the hands of other humans in Darfur has reached a level not seen since the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. President Bush and Congress call it “genocide,” a legally and politically charged term reserved for the most atrocious crimes against humanity.

Since February 2003, when the Sudanese government authorized a “scorched earth” campaign against its own citizens, more than 400,000 people like Ali have died. More than 2.5 million people like him have been forced to flee into refugee camps.

If people around the world do not stand up for Darfur, then this crisis will not stop. Without pressure from the public, governments will not act. Without international help, the only trace left of an entire ethnic group will be wind-swept bones and charred villages.

For ordinary Americans to do nothing is a license for every other wanna-be dictator and torturer in the coming century to conduct similar campaigns of violence against women and children. We are watching suffering unfold on a massive scale, and history will judge us by our response.

The international community has been too slow to act. The African Union has sent 3,000 troops to secure an area as large as Texas. This is pitiful. Even 3,000 of the best-trained and equipped troops in the world could not provide security for an area this big. The United Nations’ reaction has been mediocre.

It has offered measly amounts of financial aid compared to the amount being spent in Iraq. Meanwhile, it politely asks for the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed — the rogue militias committing these human rights violations. Not surprisingly, the government has done nothing to stop the attacks and nothing to help the victims.

Hopefully, the tide is turning. Last weekend, thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear speeches from politicians from both parties. Celebrities, like George Clooney, urged the United States and the United Nations to increase their presence, their financial support and their pressure to save the lives of the innocent people living in Darfur. Congress is debating several bills and amendments that would increase aid money. President Bush has called the Sudanese president several times during recent peace negotiations. This is good, but not nearly enough.

The Janjaweed has destroyed entire villages, crops and herds of cattle. In a land that is only one bad rainy season away from a severe famine, this tactic is slow murder. Men are beaten and killed in front of their families and women are raped in groups.

The millions who have been forced to flee for their safety have flowed across the border into Chad. They flee to refugee camps that dot the dusty landscape like islands of fear and suffering.

The international community must act now to help the victims and prevent more victims.

Anatomy of a crisis

The crisis that is occurring daily in Darfur did not arrive overnight. In fact, it has been centuries in the making.

In the days before Europeans arrived, the 13 tribal groups of the Darfur region fought and enslaved each other. Then came the Arabs, who brought Islam, Arabic and a nomadic lifestyle to the land of indigenous farmers.

Over time, different people-groups adopted different versions of Islam, thus creating an intro-religious conflict that has its foundations in violence.

Recently, the Sudanese government has been completely controlled by Arab Muslims. The southern and western areas have been shut out of the political process and financially ignored. The black Africans in Darfur decided to organize and fight the government. The better-equipped government forces quickly repelled the rebels, but the Sudanese government did not stop there. In retaliation, it unleashed the Janjaweed on the civilians living in Darfur. They were authorized to rid the land of “unpatriotic” people. What started as a fight between armed combatants is now genocide against an entire race.

Because ethnic groups do not adhere to political borders, refugees are streaming into neighboring Chad for safety.

I remember clearly one tiny village named Farchana that lies alongside a desert “highway.” My family stopped there every trip that we took down that dusty, bumpy road. We pulled over for their fresh roast chicken — the African version of fast food.

Farchana was nothing more than a couple of lean-to shacks thrown up around a few campfires. Today, this location is home to a refugee camp that houses more than 50,000 men, women and children who rely on U.N. handouts to survive.

Genocide’s global impact

Genocide affects us all. We may be American citizens, but we are all members of the human race. To let evil run free and allow it to deny life to joyful, beautiful people is to deny the victims dignity, respect and the very right to live. It is worth repeating that we are watching genocide unfold before our eyes, and history will judge us by our response.

Everyone shakes their head and mumbles a few words about how horrible this situation is — but who is taking action? Women and men, conservatives and liberals, young and old, Muslim and Christian all have a vested interest in the outcome of this crisis and every one of us should be searching for ways to help.

You might not be able to personally hand out water in the desert or fight off the Janjaweed, but the United Nations can. Your role in this crisis can be to show the world that you care and to demand that victims are cared for and that more victims are prevented.

It will take your actions to keep the momentum going. What you do will give children, like Ali, a hope for a future that is free of fear and suffering.

Lecanto resident Scott Sutton lived in Africa’s Chad and Sudan region from 1990 to 2001. To learn more about the conflict in Darfur and how to help, go to www.savedarfur.org.

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