Turning to a PowerPoint map of the Texas-sized Darfur region of Western Sudan, Nathaniel H. Goetz, interim director of the Forced Migration Laboratory at UCSD's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, pointed out dark blots representing nearly 400 villages completely destroyed by heavily armed marauders, leading to the flight of nearly 1.4 million women and children desperately seeking refuge both in protected camps inside Sudan and in neighboring Chad.
Such grim statistics were commonplace last Wednesday evening, Oct. 13, in the Great Hall at UCSD's Eleanor Roosevelt College, where more than 100 students and concerned San Diegans gathered to hear a panel discussion, "Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur: Raising San Diego's Voices." In addition to the Forced Migration Laboratory, the program was presented by the UCSD International Affairs Group, the San Diego Coalition to Stop the Genocide in Sudan and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.
For more than 25 years, Darfur has seen conflict between Arab nomadic cattle and camel herders and the darker-skinned farmers, who identify themselves as African. After tensions simmered between the groups throughout the 1980s, violence erupted in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) took up arms against the Khartoum-based government, claiming that land and natural resources had unfairly been diverted to the Arabs. The Sudanese government responded with air strikes, and by supporting Arab militias known as Janjaweed (loosely translated from the Arabic as "devils on horseback"), who proceeded to ruthlessly attack Darfur villages-shooting, raping and terrorizing inhabitants and leaving scorched rubble in their wake.
To date, nearly 50,000 people are believed dead, with anywhere from 240 to 2,000 deaths estimated daily. According to some predictions, the death toll could reach as high as 1 million by next year. The Bush administration and the U.S. Congress have officially labeled the crisis a genocide, but Brian Israel, student coordinator of UCSD International Affairs Group, acknowledged that the Sudanese government adamantly maintains that no genocide has occurred, attributing deaths to the actions of rebel groups rather than a strategic campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Citing United Nation reports, Goetz revealed an unfolding nightmare of death and disease facing refugees: 60 percent are currently without clean water or basic sanitation, and more than half are without basic medical care. Moderator Dr. Joyce Neu, executive director of the Kroc Institute, ruefully noted that "most humanitarian disasters today come about as man-made disasters."
Bol Bulabek, director of the San Diego Sudanese Community Association, and a self-described refugee, described the crisis in Sudan as "a war of vision and a conflict of identities" and questioned U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's insistence that the Sudanese government should take responsibility for the safety of the people of Darfur.
"It doesn't make sense to ask the government doing the killing to protect," he said. Recognizing that 50,000 people have already died, Bulabek called for the immediate intervention of the international community.
Likewise, Jim DeHarpporte, western region director for Catholic Relief Services, stressed the "moral as well as legal responsibility" of the international community to respond to the crisis, and recounted hearing chilling tales of burned villages, poisoned wells and Janjaweed "shooting everything that moves." DeHarpporte shared the testimony of a Darfur woman forced to travel at night in a large group for five days after her village had been attacked. After reaching safety, the group decided to go back to the village, and they spent another four days in dangerous voyage. Upon their return to the gutted village, they found the remains of 120 loved ones, which they buried under the cloak of darkness in a grave just 1 meter deep.
According to DeHarpporte, protecting Darfurians from the Janjaweed is a primary concern, and he noted that aid workers are at risk for attack, with two workers having been killed the previous day by land mines. Neu also questioned if the stability of Chad has been threatened by the sudden and enormous influx of refugees, especially in light of the country's already-meager resources. Describing Chad as a "big-time desert," Bulabek asked the audience to imagine 200,000 people fighting for the same stack of firewood.
Abdullahi Aidid, a representative of San Diego's Horn of Africa, saw the conflict in a larger context. "The issue of forced migration is bigger than Darfur. It's the history of Africa," he said. Aidid, an ethnic Somali born in Ethiopia, blamed Africa's bloody modern history of ethnic conflict on European colonialism, which he claimed scattered families into different countries during land grabs. Aidid asserted that the Sudanese government-not outside negotiators-is the only party capable of stopping the "slaughter of innocents." DeHarpporte said that a permanent peace process would require examining the underlying reasons behind the conflict, such as the marginalization of Darfurians and the exhaustion of Sudan's natural resources.
Sudan's complicated history caused one confused student to ask, "Who's killing who, and for what reason?"
Neu acknowledged that the "longer a conflict goes on, it takes on more factions."
However, Francis Ring, a young Sudanese audience member, offered a more blunt appraisal, charging the Sudanese government with committing "a criminal act" against its own people, drawing comparisons to Nazi Germany and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
One audience member, Rebecca Booth of the United Nations Association of San Diego, questioned if Chinese and Russian interest in Sudanese oil fields has delayed international pressure on the Sudanese government.
Acknowledging the presidential debates that had concluded less than an hour prior to the event, Neu urged students to register to vote, and to pay close attention to where candidates stand on the Darfur crisis, as well as to follow the conflict on BBC and online Sudanese media outlets such as The Sudan Mirror rather than the U.S. national press.
Following the UCSD program, Zeke Rabkin, lead organizer of the San Diego Coalition to Stop the Genocide in Sudan, said he was cheered by seeing "so many young people with a desire to learn about what's happening in the rest of the world, especially on a night when so many people were preoccupied with the presidential debates." Still, says Rabkin, "it was very gratifying that in a previous debate, Kerry and Bush both spoke of the genocide."
Goetz says that the Forced Migration Laboratory will release a public report, including an edited transcript of the event this week, which will be available on the San Diego Coalition to Stop the Genocide in Sudan's website. He plans to distribute it directly to relief agencies and within San Diego's Sudanese community, which is estimated at 3,000 people. He also plans to continue supporting the San Diego Coalition and other groups leading the efforts to end the bloodshed.On the web: www.sandiegoactionforsudan.org.