A Dollar a Day

Those Sally Struthers Save the Children television ads always break down dollar-by-dollar how our donations work. Ten cents per day buys a starving child a meal. A quarter gets the child vaccines. Give a dollar and they put a roof over his or her head.

Funny thing is that our attention to humanitarian crises works the same way, incrementally: 100 people dead makes page 27; a few thousand die and some of us — aid workers, NGOs, diplomats — begin to mobilize; 100,000 lives at risk, and many of us might pull out a checkbook. When it gets to 1 million, we write our leaders, get upset, demand somebody do something. One-hundred-thousand here, 100,000 there, pretty soon you’re talking about real tragedy.

Welcome to Sudan.

For months now the good people at the American Jewish World Service and journalists like Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times have been trying to warn us that the situation in Darfur in western Sudan is hellish and getting worse. We should have listened much sooner.

Up to 80,000 African villagers are estimated to have perished, more than 1 million have been displaced. The tragedy unfolded when Sudanese government-backed militia, the Janjaweed, descended upon rebellious villagers and engaged in a campaign of slaughter, rape and wholesale destruction. The slaughter began 16 months ago. As information leaked out of the remote and immense region, it became apparent to anyone who cared to notice what was happening to these people. In a word — genocide.

Late last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum suspended its regular activities for the first time in its history to address the Darfur crisis and call for immediate intervention. In language that should be familiar to us all, the museum’s Committee on Conscience called the event, "Bearing Witness." As far back as January it had issued a "Genocide Warning" for Darfur. The villagers being slaughtered with the full awareness of the Arab Muslim government are in many cases also Muslim, though they are non-Arabs.

Sudan is a country with enormous potential wealth in land, water and oil. Much of that is in the south, which is poor and settled largely by black Africans. The north is home to the country’s Arab Muslim rulers, who have tried to control that wealth. A 20-year civil war between the two sides has claimed some 2 million lives. As that war has come to a tentative halt — and a thriving slave trade has been interrupted — the government unleashed Darfur.

"They are playing six games of shesh-besh at once," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told me by phone, using the Arabic word for backgammon. "But we need to speak in one voice."

Cooper spent 18 hours in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, three months ago, after Sudanese nationals here in Los Angeles opened channels for him to speak with leaders there. His meetings included an audience with President Omar el-Bashir — he did not visit Darfur itself — and I can only imagine the culture shock as the kippah-wearing rabbi, a leader of a Zionist human rights group, delivered his message.

"Getting rid of Al Qaeda is not enough to put you into our camp," he said, "The litmus test is human rights."

Cooper said he found the Sudanese have been receptive, not least because President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have intervened directly in the matter of slavery and Darfur. The Sudanese, he said, "do not want to do a regime change."

There are other positive signs. Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan flew to the region on June 30 to press Sudan to secure the situation. The United States sponsored a resolution last week to member nations of the U.N. Security Council calling for sanctions against the Janjaweed militias. Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), who served as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan in brokering the north-south treaty, was recently named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, promising the kind of continued focus on Sudan that has rarely been a feature of our foreign policy. The Senate voted a $95 million aid package for the people of the region.

But U.S. Agency for International Development officials have said that even as the international community steps in and begins to curtail the catastrophe, some 320,000 more people will die as a result of disease and starvation.

About now you might be wondering what you can do. What is your check against $92 million? If Powell is on the scene, who’s left to send?

I asked Cooper this, and his answer points to the hallmark of American foreign policy intervention. We need to keep our leaders focused on solving this crisis, he said. We need to write letters to make sure they see it through. The government in Khartoum can still "pull shtick," he said. Our job is to make Sudan a bipartisan issue, to make sure George Bush and John Kerry know it is an American priority, regardless of who is in the White House.

"It would be nice if this were one issue the administration and the Kerry campaign could present a united front on," he said.

So write letters. And send money. Visit ajws.org for more information. Ten cents a day really can feed a child. Imagine what $1 a day can do.