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.


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