The Graves Of Sudan
With Thanksgiving here and Chanukah just around the corner, most of us are reflecting on all there is to be thankful for, embracing our freedom as Jews and Americans. As we share our thanks this year and celebrate the holidays, it is my hope that more American Jews will think of those who are denied what we have come to expect as basic human rights, particularly those who are suffering from genocidal campaigns in Darfur, Sudan.
In this remote region, more than 1.5 million African tribal farmers have been violently driven from their homes by the government of Sudan and the militias they armed, called Janjaweed (evil men on horseback). Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence that has taken at least 100,000 lives.
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing. The epithet “never again” must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact, Jews must be the guardians of this call for action, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people.
I went to Darfur in August to bear witness, to assess humanitarian needs and to ensure that funds provided by the American Jewish community are being and will be used effectively. I met many of the displaced farmers and listened to their chilling stories.
The government bombed their villages; men on horses rode in, often yelling ethnic slurs and shooting wildly. They stole; they raped; they killed. They stuffed wells with dead bodies or carcasses and burned villages to the ground.
I met Fatima; her five children were all ill with life-threatening diarrhea. I met a 10-year-old boy — clinging to the leg of a medical assistant — who saw his parents and two brothers shot dead.
I met the mother of twins who gave birth the day the militia came to her village. She saw her brother, aunt and uncle killed but managed to escape with her family, her newborn babies tucked into a straw mat.
They and over a million others fled in terror and came gradually to camps being set up to receive them — now about 158 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of California) containing tens of thousands of families packed into tent cities, fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom and depression. People whose simple agricultural life had allowed them to remain self-sufficient, now have no means of support.
Currently, the situation is deteriorating. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, and there is not enough food. There are too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea.
Living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems. Mortality rates — already at about 10,000 a month — could rise suddenly.
Some of the Janjaweed have been outfitted by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women still disappear or are raped when they venture out to collect firewood to use for cooking or to sell to buy food.
The U.S. Congress labeled the crisis genocide in July, and the Bush administration followed suit in September, but members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly Russia, China and Algeria, continue to block sanctions and other strong actions, creating deadlines and weak resolutions that are unenforceable and unheeded. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that security is declining and violence is on the upsurge.
In a reversal that demonstrates that international pressure can make a difference, the Sudanese government reluctantly agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to monitor the tenuous cease-fire and escort aid convoys, but they have no mandate to protect civilians. The Sudanese army and police continue to attack camps and forcibly relocate internally displaced people.
Recent reports describe government forces burning shelters, smashing water pipes, beating and shooting people and refusing access to aid agencies. On Nov. 8, the Sudanese government signed a historical peace agreement, accepting a no-fly zone over the region and promising to disarm the Janjaweed and improve access to aid. The next day, more violence was reported in camps.
The United Nations is conducting an investigation to determine whether the crisis constitutes genocide. This marks the first time in the history of the Security Council that Article 8 of the Genocide Convention has been invoked, which is a most welcome occurrence, but it is not enough by itself. By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.
Confronted with the realities of a grim future, we must increase pressure on the U.S. government and international community to persuade the Security Council to do what must be done to end the violence and suffering. Sudan must be forced to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must be sanctioned until the Janjaweed is disarmed and the region is secured.
The African Union troops must be given an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to protect civilians. Should the no-fly zone over Darfur be violated, enforcement by NATO forces must be authorized.
Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed. Governments must do their part to ensure that the U.N. humanitarian programs are functioning at full capacity and meeting the vast needs. Support from individuals to nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance is also essential.
American Jewish World Service (AJWS) launched a Sudan Emergency Appeal in April to help meet these needs. To date, $500,000 has been raised to rehabilitate water sources, construct sanitation facilities and provide therapeutic feeding centers to care for the thousands of malnourished children. I surveyed these programs when I was there and left overwhelmingly satisfied that lives are being saved.
As a result of my assessment, AJWS is also providing educational and recreational materials and programs for orphaned children, zinc treatment for children suffering from diarrhea and because rape is being used as a strategic weapon against women and their families, we are providing reproductive health care and addressing the consequences of sexual violence against women. Financial support for these ongoing efforts is critical.
The Jewish response is growing. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, created a Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief that has raised about $170,000, and the Reform movement has spearheaded its own campaign, raising about $120,000. A number of Jewish organizations have joined us as members of the Save Darfur Coalition, a broadly diverse group of more than 100 faith-based and humanitarian organizations advocating for the people of Darfur, and other Jewish organizations are responding with humanitarian aid.
Until conditions are established that permit the voluntary, safe and dignified return of those displaced by the conflict and violators of human rights are held accountable, our diligence must not wane.
Leviticus teaches, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This holiday season, let us celebrate with our loved ones, but let us also resolve to do all that we can to end human suffering and prevent genocide whenever, wherever and to whomever it occurs.
Ruth W. Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization. For more information, to make a donation or take action, visit
Quebec Leader Tours Firebombed School
Entering the room that once housed a children’s library, the premier of Quebec couldn’t help but scrunch up his nose against the burnt, toxic smell.
"It will actually leave a very strong impression," Jean Charest told reporters, following his April 8 visit to Montreal’s United Talmud Torah. "This sight and smell leaves a lasting impression of how violent a gesture this was."
Firebombed early on the morning of April 5, the school reeked of burned children’s books and plastic, making it nearly impossible to stay inside for more than a few minutes. A note left at the arson scene reportedly said the attack was in retribution for Israel’s recent killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and was just a taste of things to come.
Police have tightened security at local synagogues and mosques following the attack. The heightened security came as some parents of students at the school said the attack was reminiscent of book burnings in Nazi Germany.
"My sons are in shock, and so am I," said Joel Greenberg, a parent of one of the students. "I am very worried about their safety from here on in."
Politicians, community leaders and letters to the editor all condemned the attack.
The city’s Sun Youth community organization has offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of the perpetrators. Police reportedly had leads on the arsonists’ identities but said they don’t know the group that claimed responsibility in the note left at the school.
B’nai Brith Canada issued a statement on calling on the government to do more to protect Jewish sites.
"We acknowledge and appreciate the condemnation by politicians of all backgrounds," but "words are meaningless if not accompanied by action," said Frank Dimant, the group’s executive vice president.
The arson occurred a few weeks after a rash of anti-Semitic incidents, including graffiti spray-painted on homes in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto and after a report showed a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Canada.
Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Ottawa several weeks ago with members of major Jewish organizations, who expressed their concern about a growing tide of anti-Semitism in Canada. The groups included the Canadian Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith Canada, United Israel Appeal, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the leadership of several of Canada’s Jewish federations.
The government is finishing a plan to establish a hate crimes police force across the country and to establish initiatives to combat racist attitudes, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said. He described the plan as "an effective and comprehensive approach" that will help to "mobilize a constituency of conscience" in the country."
The heads of two leading Islamic organizations, Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal and Mohamed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress, condemned the attack. Elmasry called it a hate crime, adding that "the agony will be double if it was committed by a Muslim."
Charest’s visit to the school, which lasted slightly more than an hour, was intended primarily to reassure students, parents and faculty that his Liberal government was doing everything possible to ensure that such an attack would not happen again.
After seeing the ruined library, Charest spent about 20 minutes with a class of sixth-graders who had been gathered specially to meet him, although the school was closed at the time because of Passover. He answered questions from students and reassured them that they would receive "as much help as necessary" to get the library reopened.
School officials estimated that it will cost about $225,000 just to replace the damaged books. The provincial government will pick up part of the cost, Charest said.
He added, "We’re going to work with those who have the job of policing to be very vigilant in trying to prevent these events from happening again."
It was clear that the students had spent a lot of time pondering the broader ramifications of the attack.
"I feel like this will not become another Holocaust, because this time people understand what’s going on," a student named Jillian told Charest.
Charest praised the educational role of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, adding that during the Holocaust era, "people who were in a leadership position should have been less tolerant of what went on."
During a brief meeting with parents, Charest reiterated his pledge of tighter policing. In the meantime, while police are continuing the investigation, he said, "we will continue to be very vigilant. We will examine, in light of these incidents, what action will be taken to prevent them."