Are we going to let the genocide continue?
By Trudy Rubin
Can an individual do anything to stop a genocide?
Let's hope so, because governments certainly aren't doing much. Two years after Sudan began a genocidal slaughter in Darfur province, the killing of black African Muslims by black Arab Muslims continues. No government seems willing or able to force Sudan to stop.
The Bush administration calls this killing by its rightful name — genocide — but has yet to use the kind of political muscle that might stop it.
So it is left to ordinary individuals to act. Think you can't do anything? Then listen to the words of former Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, who thinks you must. He photographed Darfur's horrors, and the images are driving him crazy. He wants a million Americans to write to President Bush and urge him to ensure that a strong multinational force is sent to Darfur.
Steidle, 29, was one of three U.S. military observers assigned to the African Union, which has a toothless force of 7,000 monitors in Darfur. The monitors are permitted only to observe a nonexistent cease-fire. Steidle went to this killing field in September 2004 armed only with a pen, pad and camera; he took more than 1,000 photos.
"We saw villages leveled, burned bodies, babies that had been shot, and all we could do was write reports and take pictures," he recalls. "It's like what Romeo Dallaire went through in Rwanda," a reference to the U.N. general who watched helplessly as 800,000 were slaughtered in 1994. "It was extremely frustrating to watch these guys blatantly kill human beings and be able to do nothing."
The ex-Marine had no doubt who was to blame for the carnage, which has killed about 180,000 in the past three years and driven 2 million Darfurians from their homes. The Sudanese government, in an effort to crush Darfur rebels, sent in its army along with an Arab militia known as the janjaweed. Their goal: to "cleanse" Darfur of its ethnic African population.
But Steidle's reports to the AU disappeared down a black hole. So he quit in February 2005, went home, met the media, and found sympathetic legislators who displayed his photos. He even met senior Bush officials. "But I couldn't get the administration to listen," he says.
Bush officials talk tough and give lots of aid, but their words have had little impact on the killing. The scale of mayhem has gone down — though Steidle says 75 percent of south Darfur's villages have already been destroyed. Yet the janjaweed still kill, attack refugee camps, rape women and spread terror into neighboring Chad.
"For the last year, I've been banging my head against the wall," Steidle says. "It's like screaming in a dream, and no sound comes out." So he decided to approach the public directly. He wants you to lobby for a U.N. force that would protect civilians in Darfur.
He is touring 22 cities, in a campaign backed by Jewish, Armenian, mainstream Protestant, evangelical and other groups that will culminate in an anti-genocide demonstration April 30 in Washington. The goal: to get 1 million Americans to send this message to the White House:
"Dear President Bush: During your first year in the White House, you wrote in the margins of a report on the Rwandan genocide, 'Not on my watch.' I urge you to live up to those words by using the power of your office to support a stronger multinational force to protect the civilians of Darfur." (You can send the message via e-mail, or order preprinted postcards at www.savedarfur.org.)
This message couldn't be more timely. Two weeks ago, Bush finally called for doubling the number of international troops in Darfur and putting them under U.N. command. He also called for a bigger role for NATO. But he didn't spell out any plan.
The devil is in the details. No U.N. force can protect civilians unless it has the trained troops, weapons, communications, intelligence and helicopters to set up a no-fly zone to stop the Sudanese military from mowing down civilians with its choppers. The AU has none of the above.
To set up a robust force would require approval from the U.N. Security Council. The council would also have to authorize immediate help — perhaps from NATO — during the months it would take to set up a U.N. force.
But Sudan is lobbying the Security Council to block a U.N. force. China, which buys Sudanese oil, is opposed, as are Russia and Qatar, the current Arab representative on the council. Arab solidarity apparently trumps the protection of African Muslims.
Khartoum has also persuaded the AU to back off its earlier willingness to hand over command to the United Nations. African solidarity apparently trumps saving African lives.
Sudan claims that a U.N. force will mean a Western takeover of the country, which should be resisted by Muslims, and might inspire attacks from al-Qaida. Muslims who demonstrated violently over cartoons have yet to show the same passion about the murder of Darfurian Muslims.
Those who oppose genocide can't accept such cynicism. Nor can global hostility to Bush be used as an excuse to let additional thousands die in Darfur.
Steidle believes that a U.N. force can be achieved, but that "it would take a lot of leadership from the United States." The White House has yet to show that leadership, despite the president's fine words.
What's needed now is grass-roots pressure on the White House. One million postcards, and one million people in the capital April 30 might motivate the Bush team to lean harder on the AU, Sudan, China and Russia to approve a U.N. force.
Such pressure would also demonstrate that there are people who refuse to tolerate genocide, even if most of the world ignores it. Brian Steidle wants to show that one person can make a difference. But he can succeed only if, one by one, other Americans join in.