Amy's Adventures in Darfur

I started this blog when I left for Darfur in June 2006. I was working as a midwife with MSF aka "Medecins Sans Frontiers" aka "Doctors without Borders" but this blog contains my own opinions and stories- not those of MSF. It is less political than I want it to be and I have been unable to post stories about certain topics due to the fact that this is on the internet and accessible to anyone. I wish I could tell you all of the stories but since I can't, I will tell you the ones that I can...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Global Day for Darfur

Today, Sunday April 13th, is the Global Day for Darfur and, oddly enough, I don't know how I feel about it. A part of me thinks “Great! Raise awareness, spread the word, remind people to keep involved... provide people with a 24 hour period where they really have no excuse not to do something”. Then another part of me thinks “Why? Why bother?” A few people will go to a pathetically unattended rally or fund-raiser. Some will sign a petition and then will spend the next 364 days of the year doing nothing. Many will think to themselves “Right! I really meant to sign that thing that someone forwarded me once, I'll totally do it later” and never will. Most people will think things like... there's so much need, where do I start, it's so overwhelming, I'm only one person, I give to charity, it's so depressing to even think about it, I have enough stress in my own life to deal with, why don't we focus on the problems in our own country, yes it's terrible but what can I do about it, and so on and so forth. And some people will honestly just not care because it doesn't affect their lives in any way. Yes, those people do exist. While I was in Darfur witnessing the genocide and sending endless stories home that forced everyone I knew to be as aware of it as I was, a friend of mine attended a party in Vancouver where she heard a psychiatrist say "Why should I care about the people dying in Africa?” In one of the Darfur facebook groups that I'm in, someone posted a note on the wall that included the sentence "well if the villagers are too stupid to defend themselves...". I pointed out that they had been disarmed by their government so they couldn't defend themselves (though I may have worded it more strongly than that), but this person still wasn’t particularly concerned. My best friend pointed out, in reply to that post, “I’d like to see YOU try to defend yourself from a Kalashnikov” (Kalashnikov’s being the assault rifles that are used on the civilians in Darfur, in case you were wondering), and that comment gave me an idea. Have any of you ever seen “Celebrity Deathmatch”? If not, here is how it’s described in Wikipedia...
“Celebrity Deathmatch is a claymation parody television show that pits celebrities against each other in a wrestling ring, almost always ending in the loser's gruesome death. It is known for the excessive amount of blood used in every match and exaggerated physical injuries (e.g., one person pulls off a participant's foot, living through decapitations, impalements, etc.)”.
This sounds like the perfect show. Here is my plan to secretly raise awareness by disguising education as entertainment... a special episode where we re-enact a typical fight scene in Darfur. First we take one young Darfuri villager (we can’t take grown men because, well, most of them are dead) and we match him up against 3-4 Sudanese soldiers and 10-15 Janjaweed (also known as the “devils on horseback”). The villager has no choice but to participate, the soldiers are paid to participate and the Janjaweed get to keep the wrestling ring and the arena if they participate (the stipulation being that they have to kill the villager and empty the ring in order to be allowed to keep it, of course). Then we give each participant a weapon. The young villager gets a stick, the soldiers get an Antonov aircraft and helicopter gun ships and the Janjaweed are each outfitted with a shiny new Kalashnikov. Now, before the match even starts we need to lay down some groundwork. Five years before the match begins, we will put the villager in the ring. He can bring some comforts from home, but only what he can carry. Maybe, just to make things exciting, we will toss in a small challenge. He can only bring what he can carry in one arm, because he’s going to have his little sister in his other arm. Oh and we’re going to make him watch us kill his parents and burn down his village just before we start. Alright, in to the ring. In the ring he will be allowed to build himself a small shelter with whatever supplies blow by. Now his food... the villager (and his sister) will be deprived of food for the second half of every month. They have no room in the ring to grow crops, so they will obviously be required to depend on aid and that aid will provide him with roughly half of the calories he needs as the World Food Program (one of our commercial sponsors) has had to once again cut the rations for the people living in the camps in half. In the five years before the match, our villager will live in the ring with his sister and they will do their best to survive. The rations they are given will need to be cooked to be consumed. To cook they need hot water. To boil water they need a fire. To build a fire they need wood. Nope, no trees in the ring. If they want to eat, they are going to have to leave the ring in search of wood. They are technically allowed to leave the ring any time they want. However, the 10-15 Janjaweed are also spending time in the arena during those five years and if they catch the villager out of the ring, they can do anything they want to him. This can range from simply a severe beating if he’s lucky, to outright murder. His sister faces an altogether different fate if she is caught outside of the ropes. What to do? Starve because your rations are inedible unless cooked or risk your life leaving the ring? The Janjaweed may be roaming right outside of the ring where he can see them, they may be hiding among the seats, or they may have gone to the concession stand for a hotdog and a beer. Unless he can actually see them, he will never know if they are there or not. Either the villager or his sister have to leave the ring if they want to live. He will die if he’s caught. She will be raped but probably won’t be killed. The choice is clear. Five years pass, they have survived and it’s time to start the match. Team “Government of Sudan” and their proud sponsors “Government of China” show up ready to do battle. They are well fed, well trained and well armed. Our villager, on the other hand, will be starting the match a) malnourished, b) ill, as most of the aid organizations have had to pull out of Darfur because it has become too dangerous to stay, c) psychologically scarred and d) probably borderline insane after 5 years of slowly starving to death while living in cramped quarters under extreme levels of stress. Fair match. So in one corner of the ring we have the villager. Surrounding the ring we have the Janjaweed. Flying across the ceiling of the arena we have the soldiers in their Antonov and their helicopter gun ship. In the audience (those in the seats and those watching it on TV) we have the world. There are so many people watching the match that they could easily band together and help the villager if they chose to. They astronomically outnumber the soldiers and the Janjaweed and all it would take is enough of them getting involved for the match not to happen. Most of the people in the audience don’t want to be there. Some of them don’t know what the match is about, nor do they care. They change the channel . Others don’t know what’s going on and would probably care if they did, but they have more pressing issues to tend to... like the football game. A lot of them are concerned about the match but don’t want to watch it for a plethora of reasons that tend to involve great concern about their own feelings and how it might make them feel. A lot of them WANT the match to be canceled but they don’t know how to go about making it happen so they sit silently in their seats waiting for someone else to do it. Some of those who want to help but know they need more people on their side go from seat to seat trying to convince people to get up and join them. They keep asking and asking, hoping that maybe this time people will be inspired to get out of their seats. They go to the ring-side seats, where the people who can get things done tend to sit, and they beg there. All it will take is ONE of those people in the ring-side seats to get involved and the match will stop immediately. Meanwhile, in the ring, the villager is watching all of this go on. He can see the cameras and that the seats are full of people. He knows that the fate of the match rests in their hands. Someone has told him that team “United Nations” is coming to tag him out and he keeps scanning the audience, wondering if they’re out there and when they’re going to arrive. The match is about to start... where are they? Too late. The bell rings. The match starts with the soldiers bombing the ring from their plane. The villager can try to get away if he chooses, but running a gauntlet of Janjaweed who are waiting outside the ring for you to run from the bombs so they can shoot you isn’t so appealing. We can’t have the villager die too quickly or people will want their money back. So he will stay in the ring and survive the first and second round of bombs and will still be there when the attack helicopters arrive to shoot his hut apart. He has probably lost an arm or a leg in the initial attack but he’s still soldiering on. As a special half-time event (Do they have half-time events in wrestling matches? Well they do in this one) the 10-15 Janjaweed will gang-rape the villager’s little sister. They won’t kill her though. They don’t want her to die- they want to humiliate and impregnate her. It’s called breeding the Darfuri’s out. Alright, half-time is over. The villager has survived both the bombing and the attack helicopters but now it’s time for the Janjaweed to enter the ring and finish off any male survivors. The villager can make a run for it or he can die when they search the ring and find him. He hides in his hut but is smoked out when they torch the roof. He runs out of his hut, his clothes in flames, and makes a break for the aisle. As he is going through the ropes the Janjaweed take aim and shoot him to pieces. And there you go. Another episode of Celebrity Deathmatch where there is an excessive amount of blood and the loser dies a gruesome death. What do you think?

Reading back over this, I’m aware of how cynical, sarcastic and bitter it sounds. I’m not going to apologize though. Regardless of the tone in which it was written, this is a very realistic portrayal of the life of a civilian in Darfur these days. The last time I sat down and wrote about Darfur (the rant I sent out when Amnesty International was only able to get 500,000 signatures on their petition to the White House) I got a lot of different reactions. Most people were able to take it as a wake-up call regarding their inaction, or as an inspiration to do more. A few people wrote back and defensively pointed out things they have done. And one person wrote to say something to the effect of how people ARE aware and ARE doing something (they’ve seen people wearing t-shirts) and how my being angry wasn’t going to help anything. My only response to that is to wonder how I can be anything BUT angry. Knowing that a people group is being systematically starved, raped and murdered by agents of their own government while the world looks on and does NOTHING is something that SHOULD make people angry. I’m not going to apologize for being angry- you should be apologizing for NOT being angry. Then again, maybe I can’t expect people to care as much as I do, or feel as strongly as I do, because none of you have been there and seen first-hand what’s happening. Maybe, without seeing it for yourselves, none of you can ever care to the level that I wish everyone cared. Maybe it’s unrealistic of me to expect that. And maybe you have all done everything that you can do to help. In that case, this anger isn’t directed towards you. If you can stand in front of the mirror, face yourself and truly know that you have done EVERYTHING within your power to try to end this atrocity (everything you would hope and pray others would do for you if it were you and the people you love being bombed, shot, burned alive, stabbed, beaten, raped (men, women and children), humiliated, starved) then I applaud you. More than that, I envy you. I have done a fairly significant amount of things to try to help the people of Darfur- spending the longest 5 months of my life on the front-lines there, risking my life and my sanity putting women and children back together again and watching the ones who were beyond our help die, writing stories that told people of the things that they weren’t going to hear about in the small newspaper article on page 17, giving presentations, writing articles, trying to keep people involved and inspired, encouraging people to write to (and call) newspapers, television stations, politicians, Oprah- and I STILL can’t look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I’ve done enough. And if I haven’t done enough, I’m pretty sure that none of you have either. I don’t think that anyone can say that they have done enough while this atrocity is still on-going- while little girls are daily sent out to gather firewood, knowing what awaits them yet having no choice but to go. You know what, forget facing yourself... if you had to sit across from the 6 year old girl whose vagina we had to sew back together my first week there, could you look HER in the eye and tell her that you did everything possible to keep that from ever happening to her again? I can’t. And that probably makes me the worst person in this situation. Because unlike all of you, I don’t have the luxury of not truly knowing. I had her face branded in my mind. I have the memory of the moment I looked between her legs and knew what they had done to her. I can, in a heartbeat, draw on the way it felt to pin her down while she screamed so I could inject her with a sedative so we could fix the damage that had been done. I’m not like the rest of the world who can easily never bring it to mind because it’s worlds away from their reality. I KNOW what a nightmare life there is. It takes actual effort for me to not let myself think about it... to force it from my consciousness so I can get through school or through the day. So while almost everyone in the world could, somewhat honestly, tell that little girl that they just didn’t realize, I can’t say that. I would have to sit there and admit “I made myself forget you. I had to”. I’m sure it would bring her great amounts of comfort to know that, while she suffers, I am plodding my way through medical school in order to one day be able to help even more. I’m sure that she understands that in order for that to happen, I can’t let myself think about what she’s going through, nor can I take the time and the mental energy to keep writing to the powers that be, demanding that something be done to save her. I’m sure.

Today I write this because it’s the “Global Day for Darfur” and I am forced to think about it whether I want to think about it or not (and I clearly prefer not). It is one of the rare times where I let myself remember. I wish I could take every person in the developed world to Darfur with me, to show them the things I saw and to force them to know, as I know, and feel as I feel. Since that is unrealistic, instead I write in an attempt to bring you there as much as possible. If nothing else, maybe I can motivate people to think today.

And since I know that I can and should be doing more, this email is directed more towards me than to anyone else. But that doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook. You aren’t. You are all still on the hook. We all are until we finish this.

My thoughts on Darfur (written in October 2007)

Today is United Nations Day and it is the day that Amnesty International is going to the White House to hand-deliver a petition signed by almost 500,000 people demanding that something be done to end the genocide in Darfur. that sounds like a lot of people to be signing one petition, but when you consider the fact that there are over 300 million people living in the U.S. (and another 33 million in Canada), it's actually a pretty pathetic number.
A couple of weeks ago some friends and I gave a presentation at my school about Darfur and the atrocities that are occurring there. i did it because whenever i wear my "Save Darfur" shirt, people ask me "Who is Darfur?" or "is that a band?" i did it because there are SO many people out there who have NO idea what is happening in Darfur but who could tell me who Tom Cruise is married to (seeing as how he got 29X more press coverage than Darfur did last year). i did it because 10 peace-keepers were killed in Darfur this month and i sat in class fighting back tears all day when i heard the news, but life around me went on as usual. i did it because the other day the government of Sudan sent troops and Janjaweed into another village where they slit the throats of the men praying in the mosque and shot a 5 year old boy in the back when he tried to run. and then the A.U., the supposed "peace-keepers" retracted their statement that it had been a government attack, despite the fact that an international agency was there and witnessed it all. i did it because the peace talks are scheduled to start in Libya any day now and the people of Darfur are once again being slaughtered as each opposing side tries to gain an advantage on the ground before the talks begin.

It wasn't easy to give the presentation. i thought i was going to be nervous about the public speaking part of it, but that wasn't the hardest part. the hardest part, by far, was re-opening the floodgates. when i came back from Darfur the only way i could start to function as a somewhat normal human being again was to not let myself think about it. in time the nightmares stopped and i pushed most of what i felt about it far enough into the back of my mind that it had almost come to feel like i had been there in a previous lifetime.
going through the pictures was the worst part. when i was home in august my mom had burned me a CD with all of the pictures i had saved on her computer. she had accidentally included all of my Darfur pictures on it and somehow they ended up mixed in throughout the other pictures i had saved from the last year of my life. i sat on my bed and flipped through them. a picture of Abdel-Rhazid, a malnourished, handicapped little boy we discovered in a hut one day. then pictures of me at the park in Vancouver with my healthy, strong young nephews running around playing hockey. a picture of Houda, one of my staff, a young woman who had been impregnated by rape and whose family threw her out. then pictures of my girlfriends and i sitting in the sun on a lawn in North Van, laughing, cuddling. a picture of Khartoum, whose smile never reached her eyes. pictures of my little sister lying down in our backyard, giggling as our new puppy jumped all over her. pictures of the under-weight children in our feeding program, many of whom have fathers who will always wonder if they are his. then about 100 pictures of my 2 year old nephew, a desperately wanted child who is the light of his father's life, with ice cream all over his face. and on and on it went. all i could do was look at them and think why? WHY? why did i get to leave? why did they all have to stay? why would the UN send their helicopters in to get me if we were attacked but not let any of our Darfuri staff get on board as well? WHY??? when my best friend was at the genocide conference in Montreal last week a Rwandan woman stood on stage and told the world that they had failed Rwanda. she had watched as the Europeans had been evacuated with their f***ing PETS, but wouldn't take her Rwandan little girl. another man spoke about seeing the aftermath in Rwanda and how the one image that most impacted him was going in to a church (where many people sought refuge and were subsequently killed) and seeing the remains of a child with a machete buried in his skull. he said that the world needs to see these images and i agree. so many times i wanted to take pictures of the things i saw in Darfur but i was afraid of 'exploiting' anyone. i wanted to preserve whatever shreds of dignity they had left. but now i realize that i was wrong. i should have taken pictures and i should have MADE the world look at them. i should have taken a picture of that 6 year old girls shredded vagina. look at that and tell me that you don't have 2 minutes to spare to sign a f***ing petition.

and my stories.... i was afraid to try to read them during the presentation because the last time i did that i started to cry in front of my class. so i asked Shraddha to do it. and she did. and still i cried, just hearing them. to everyone else they're just words. to me, they're memories. they are memories of a time when i had an idea of what it was like to go to bed every night grateful and surprised to still be alive. it was millions of miles away from my safe, beautiful life in Vancouver, Canada. it was reality. and i couldn't change the channel, turn off the radio or skip that article in the paper to magically make it go away or not be true. i saw it and i know it's real.
so now what do i do? i told myself after seeing "Hotel Rwanda" that i would never let something like that happen again without my doing something about it. so i went to Darfur and i took pictures and i wrote stories and i did everything that i could to tell the world that what you're hearing on the news isn't nearly as bad as it is in reality. it's worse than you can even imagine. and still only a paltry half million people took the time to sign the petition. i can't even COUNT how many bullshit forwards i have been sent about supposedly missing children (who, it usually turns out, aren't missing at all), or not putting plastic in the microwave, or how drinking cold water is going to give you cancer. THOSE topics are important enough to forward information about, but the rape and murder of an entire people group ISN'T? that petition should have made its way across the world and back thousands of times by now. and everyone who thinks they can't be bothered to sign it or forward it should get to go live in one of the IDP camps in Darfur for a little while, praying to God that they aren't murdered or raped when they leave the camp to forage for firewood. it's sure f***ing easy to be US, isn't it? do you see any of us being hunted down like animals and shot in the back as we run for our lives with our children, knowing that we had to leave the rest of our family to fend for themselves because we only have 2 arms? when is the last time someone in North America had to choose which of their children they could carry as they fled their village? how often do couples here debate who should have to go get the firewood, because the husband runs the risk of being killed whereas the wife will just be raped? how many families have been pared down to only those who could run or be carried? would you run and leave your elderly grandparents behind? or your brother who broke his leg as a child and can't walk properly? or your wife who is in labour? (fyi, burning down the hut that the labouring woman and her birth attendant are still in is definitely done). and, if this was happening in North America, would people be not be taking to the streets, SCREAMING for help, protection and justice? remember the outrage over the slow response to Hurricane Katrina? yeah, that response was days. the people of Darfur have been begging us for help for the last THREE YEARS. that whole bullshit slogan "Never Again"? it's bullshit. we don't get to read about the holocaust anymore and tell ourselves that it could never happen in this day and age. we don't get to think of Rwanda as our one failure and tell ourselves that we have learned from our mistakes. we haven't. it's happening again and everyone is sticking their heads back in the sand where it's quiet and comfortable.

i have hardly slept in the last two weeks. i want to publish my stories somewhere that people will have to read them. i want them to see the pictures that i DID take. i want to tell them all of the things that they don't want to hear. i want to have a fund-raiser to raise money and awareness about the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today. but it seems like people don't care all that much anymore. when i left Darfur i knew that once i stopped sending out my stories full of the horror that is life there people would let it fade into the background. people have their own causes and charities and there are times in the year when people are less likely to give etc etc etc. but i'm in school and i am only home so often, so it gets pushed back and back and back to the point where i know it will never happen.

and i wonder what it will take for the world to really care? will a caucasian aid worker have to die? is that what it will take to get Darfur on to the front page? because no one seemed to give a shit about the 13 aid workers that were killed while i was there and i'm pretty sure that's because they were African. well it's only a matter of time until a caucasian aid worker is killed. we found out we were targets in August of 2006. normally overseas we're seen as neutral, the third sex, somehow superior, or just not really there. international aid workers were spared in Rwanda as the Hutus murdered the Tutsis right in front of them. Monica, on my team in Darfur, told me that her friend had been there with MSF and that by the time it was over her hair had turned completely white. i asked her if that would happen to us and she shrugged and said they would either come in and kill just the Darfuris and leave us, or they would come in and kill all of us, or they would just kill us to make an international statement. no guarantee either way. but thus far they have managed to avoid killing a caucasian. instead, when they attack the aid workers, they rape the female aid workers. they aren't stupid. they know that if they kill her they will bring more international attention to Darfur. but if they rape her the organization will often just quietly pull out in order to ensure her privacy. they know what they're doing, these "gangs of reckless bandits" who the government has "nothing to do with".
and so it continues... and i can either lose my mind over the unbelievable injustice of it all or i can stuff it all back down and get back to "normal" life. and on that note... i have some exams to study for.