Yom Kippur in Chad: Fasting a Way of Life

I am sitting in Adam’s living room — a carpet on a dirt patio. On one side is a small tent for his five children, as well as two nephews and a niece who have been orphaned. On the other side is a small tent for Adam, his wife and all they could carry out of Darfur.

Around us, the Kounoungo refugee camp is filled with a shattering sound — silence. It is the sound of despair. It is the sound of genocide coming closer and the world turning away.

This year, I observed Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, in a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad. It is the day when Jews throughout the world abstain from food and drink to assess their lives and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings. In this tragic moment, I could think of nowhere more fitting to keep the Yom Kippur fast than among people who have fasted for days on end — only not as a ritual but as an agonizing condition of life.

Adam is the only refugee I met who spoke English. He belongs to the Fur tribe and provides me with his analysis of the Sudanese genocide. He speaks calmly and rationally. He tells of how his village was set on fire by the Janjaweed and of other villages that met the same fate.

In his view, the problem is quite simple: The fundamentalist Arab Muslim government in Khartoum intends to eviscerate the African Muslim and tribal people. Listening to him, I think of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other atrocities of the 20th century, where the conflict also boiled down to the ambition of one ethnic group to eradicate another.

Adam appreciates the noble humanitarian effort in the refugee camps but wonders why the international community is not doing more to stop this unfolding catastrophe.

I was in Kounoungo because of Adam — a human being I did not know existed, suffering a fate to which I cannot be indifferent. His condition as a human being is real, not reality television.

The enormity of the suffering — between 50,000 and 100,000 killed, nearly a million left homeless, over 200,000 refugees in Chad, hundreds of thousand more remaining in Darfur — tends to make us more numb than horrified. I find it hard to comprehend the numbers, but I do relate to Adam.

His desperate situation reminds me of the human capacity for cruelty. But his gentle humanity reminds me that kindness and decency are also possible.

Confronted by the misery of Kounoungo, I worry that I do not feel the shame, the embarrassment and even the disgust that I should. Many of us rationalize our indifference and inaction with the false notion that we cannot possibly make a difference. Overwhelmed by the complexity of human affairs, we forget about the human beings involved.

Yet I cannot forget the faces of the people I saw. As haggard and desperate as they are, they are no different than we — just immeasurably less fortunate. To turn away from them is to forget that we are one of them, all of us descended from the very first Adam.

In the Book of Genesis, God searches for Adam in the garden of Eden, asking, “Where are you?” In the Jewish tradition, this has always been understood as a moral question: Where is your conscience? Why are you hiding? Where do you stand?

The question hasn’t changed. What will be our answer?

Rabbi Lee Bycel is a board member of MAZON: A Jewish response to hunger and traveled to Chad under the auspices of the International Medical Corps. For more information, visit mazon.org or imcworldwide.org.