Raising a Million Voices for Darfur

Christopher Hayes

Aerial photos from Darfur show the scope of devastation.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the Sudanese government’s genocide in Darfur are packed into camps along both sides of the border with Chad. Mortality rates inside the camps are already shockingly high, since the Sudanese government restricts the amount of food aid groups can bring in. Recent reports indicate that the Janjaweed – the Arab militias who have carried out much of the genocide in the region – are now crossing into Chad along with Sudanese troops to attack the camps and villages. All this comes despite the presence of 7,000 African Union troops and a putative ceasefire. 

As part of the Million Voices For Darfur campaign, ex-Marine Brian Stiedle is criss-crossing the United States talking to student groups, churches and nonprofits. Voices plans to send a million postcards to senators and congressmen urging them to support an international intervention to protect the people who have been herded off their land, watched their loved ones murdered and now wait for whatever comes next.

Stiedle first arrived in Sudan in 2003 as part of an E.U. mission to monitor the North-South ceasefire. After seven months he transferred to the Darfur region to join the African Union’s monitoring mission, and from September 2004 to February 2005 he watched the daily attacks on villages by Janjaweed, troops and helicopters. He created a stir last year when he released aerial photos documenting the destruction. (The photos can be viewed here.)

In between speaking engagements, Steidle spoke to In These Times by cell phone:

One of things that I think confuses people about Darfur is the origin of the conflict. Is this an attempt by the government to brutally punish a region with separatist aspirations, like Chechnya, or is it a campaign of ethnic cleansing similar to, say, Rwanda?

It’s a bit of both. The African population isn’t allowed to hold land or run businesses or become officers in the military. 

There’s a distinction between African and Arab?

It’s a perceived distinction. They’re all African – they all live in Africa – but tribes who come from an Arab background, who are mainly nomadic, consider themselves better than the African populations, who are mostly farmers. 

And there’s institutionalized, legally-sanctioned racism against the African” tribes. 

Exactly. For years African” rebel leaders organized resistance groups in Darfur, and finally launched attacks against the Sudanese government in 2003, taking control of an airport and destroying some Sudanese aircraft. Since then, the government has armed, trained and paid Arab militias called Janjaweed to rid Darfur of the African tribes. The Janjaweed come from nomadic Arab tribes, and also happen to be the natural enemy of the African tribes; they’ve competed over land and resources for thousands of years. 

Where would villagers go?

They’d flee from village to village to village until they would end up in a refugee camp. The Kalma camp outside of Nyala is the largest camp, with around 100,000 living in it. It’s a large city. People flock there because they feel safety in numbers. 

Remember, during this whole time there was supposedly a cease-fire, but it was a joke. The government knew exactly what it was doing. They were clearing roads, pushing rebel movements into certain areas where they could destroy them.

What did you and the Africa Union monitors do when you saw this happening?

We didn’t do anything but stand there and watch. That’s all we were allowed to do. We’d tell aid organizations where people went, what they needed in terms of food, water and medicine. Then we’d write a report and move onto the next one. We all hoped the reports would influence international policy to stop this from happening, but in the end they didn’t. We wrote close to 80 reports, and through official channels, I was told that only four of them even reached the U.S. embassy. The rest lay buried.

Why do you think that was?

The African Union operates in Sudan because the government allows them to be there. If the Sudanese government said tomorrow, Get out of our country,” the African Union doesn’t really have the capability to say, No, we’re staying here, and by the way, we’re going to have a peacekeeping mission to stop you from killing these people.” That’s why they got pretty upset when after I got back to the states, and I started releasing these photographs. They said, What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to jeopardize our entire mission.”

Just to put this in terms as stark as possible: Since 2003 the Sudanese government has carried out a strategic campaign to either destroy or herd the residents of the region into as compact an area as possible so they can be exterminated.

Absolutely. It’s not necessarily extermination through direct means. It’s a slow process of surrender or starve. They put them in refugee camps where they know diseases are rampant, where they know they’re not going to get enough aid or food, and then they restrict the aid organizations from them so they slowly, slowly die off. We’re seeing the majority of people dying in these camps where they can’t survive. I’ve heard reports that they were getting 1,000 calories a day in Kalma and last year they had to cut back to 800 calories per person, per day because they couldn’t bring in enough food aid for all of them. That’s not enough to survive.

I can only speculate on the amount of fear that these people live in: not knowing whether you are going to be killed at any moment; not knowing when you leave your camp to go get firewood if you’re going to be raped; not knowing if there’s going to be a helicopter gunship that’s going to swoop down over you at any time and mow you and your family down. They’re living crammed on top of each other in rinky-dink tents or grass mounds. A lot of them don’t even have tents. They have sticks that shield them from the wind, the sandstorms, the rain, the sun. 

Who’s administering the camps?

Each one is administered by a different organization. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees is heavily involved in the operations as well. But each camp is on Sudanese territory and is subject to the Sudanese government telling them what they can do.

If the NGOs speak out, they could be kicked out of the country and not able to provide aid to these individuals. 

So what has to be done to protect the refugees? 

I think we need international action. I think we need the United Nations to authorize a peacekeeping force, and while that’s being mobilized we need the United States and NATO to take the lead and put people on the ground to protect individuals as soon as possible.

How many peacekeeping troops would be necessary to ensure the safety of those currently in the refugee camps?

I think we need about 20,000 troops on the ground.

And that would require a Security Council resolution, right? Is that even possible? 

I actually think a U.N. resolution is possible. The Chinese and the Russians have said recently that they’re willing to support a U.N. intervention force as long as the African Union asks for it. I was hoping the African Union would ask for it at their most recent mission, but they’ve put it off for six months. They could still decide in September to ask the United Nations to take over the mission, in which case it would come in front of the Security Council, and if the passed it, we’d likely see NATO play a larger role in logistics, even putting some forces in there short-term until the United Nations can move in. 

I’m disappointed that the African Union put it off. We have some leverage, because the United States provides a lot of the budget of the African Union and we keep throwing money at them because they’re the only option. But we’re going to have create another option.

By that do you mean a NATO intervention?

Absolutely. I mean, even if the United Nations did approve a peacekeeping force it’s going to take six to nine months. We need something in the meantime. There’s the very real possibility of this expanding into a regional conflict if something’s not done soon.

At times it seems the United Sates has been on the right side of this issue, at other times not so much. What’s administration policy now?

We were the first country – and, to my knowledge, the only country thus far – that has called it a genocide. Bush just talked about the fact that NATO needs to take a larger role in this mission, and we need to get the United Nations involved. I think all that needs to be praised, but talking is only going so far. We need to take the next step. We need to introduce resolutions in the U.N. Security Council that call for a peacekeeping force on the ground, have Congress pass the supplemental funding budget that President Bush has put up that calls for $389 million for Darfur-specific problems. There’s a lot of talk, but we have to put it into action.

Right now you’re traveling around the country as part of the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign. How hopeful are you in the wake of Iraq that you can convince people this is the sort of thing we should be supporting? 

I’m very hopeful or I wouldn’t be out there doing it. First of all, this mission and the United States support that would go to this mission isn’t anything along the lines of Iraq. I’m not advocating U.S. troops on the ground even if NATO goes in there. But more than people’s trepidation about Iraq, the biggest obstacle, really, is just trying to convince people to do something that is good, something that is right, for nothing. People tend to want something out of it: cheap oil, security. But what you get out of it is being able to go to bed at night and think, I did something good today.” 

If out of an audience of 400 people, I can convince half or a third or a quarter of them to write a letter to their senator or congressman, or come to Washington on April 30 for the rally, I’ve done my job and I can move on to the next city. I’m the catalyst, but they’ve got to do the work. They’ve got to pass out postcards on campus, they’ve got to walk around with bright green T-shirts or green armbands. 

That’s why we have a democracy, so that we can influence the people we’ve elected to do what we want to see happen. If we can raise enough interest and get enough articles in newspapers, we can change policy in the United States. 

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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.
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