THE MOST EMOTIONALLY SHATTERING MOMENT for me in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” came not when the mass bloodshed began. It was just before that, when the door closed on the bus of foreigners who were shipping out of the country as it was ready to explode.
When the bus pulled away from the hotel along with the U.N. peacekeepers, the camera showed the terrified faces of the mostly Tutsi Rwandans who were left behind. They knew they were trapped, cut off from the outside world like castaways on a distant island inhabited by monsters. And, just as important, it sent a clear message to the monsters that they could carry out their work without any worry of inteference.
That sense of abandonment must have been similar to one many eventual victims of the Holocaust felt in the late 1930s when most of the rest of the world turn its back on them. In addition to all those who physically did the Nazis’ violent bidding on the many killing fields across Europe, the other great act of complicity of that time occurred from a greater distance and even before Hitler’s mass murder machine was fully erected. Many countries –- notably the United States -– refused to take in additional refugees (and they took in precious few to begin with) from Europe, even as it became clearer by the day that the Nazis were stripping them of their rights and had something much more evil in mind for them.
The peak moment of complicity came in July 1938, when the dehumanization was beyond tolerable and the great nations of the world chose to hold a conference in the resort town of Evian, France, to sort out the refugee problem. It didn’t take long to see, though, that the conference had been engineered to fail. The U.S. sent a low-level representative, and most countries prevaricated about how they could not take more people. In the end, only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees above its current quotas.
The message was clear not only to the doomed themselves but to those who would soon be carrying out their genocide. The German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter reacted to Evian by gloating, “Nobody wants them [the Jews]. It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them….” Hitler had the green light he needed to proceed with his Final Solution (Kristallnacht, the government-sponsored night of arrests, beatings, destruction of hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses, took place only a few months later) and with his plan to invade more of Europe.
What’s at stake, then, in Darfur, the region of the Sudan where a genocide for the last two years has claimed more than 200,000 lives, is not just lives, though that is the first order of business. It is also about the signals we send to despots and about whether they feel they can continue to the next level of terror before anyone notices or makes an effort to to stop them. (Pictured left: A man who was shot in the back of his arm by a government soldier upon returning to his village. He did not know that his village had been attacked because he had been out farming during the time of the attack.)
The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday that I think sums up this thought. Entitled “The Age of Impunity,” it argues that we -– the part of the world community that seeks peace and freedom -– cannot stand by as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir figuratively holds his middle finger up and tells us it’s none of our business if he arms janjaweed militia to the teeth to kill and rape defenseless Darfuris. (And, as George Packer wrote in The New Yorker recently, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September Bashir called “reports of massacres to be ‘fictions’ perpetrated by greedy humanitarian groups and Zionist Jews.”) By the same token, the editorial points out, we must respond when North Korea rattles the saber of a nuclear bomb, when Iran threatens to wipe another country off the map (with its own nuclear device and the bands of terrorist groups it sponsors), and so on. The brazenness of these nations’ defiance is breathtaking. Perhaps, as the Times editorial suggests, because this is the age of impunity.
In the case of Darfur, there have been (particularly in the U.S. and Europe) numerous high-profile demonstrations in capitals around the globe; massive media coverage; statements by celebrities and great religious leaders; stirring ads for newspapers, magazines, Web sites and TV (Note: a sister ad agency to my firm has been responsible for the round of ads that have flooded the media recently on behalf of the Save Darfur Coalition, and you’re likely to see more them and other public actions in the coming weeks and months); U.N. resolutions and even a peace-keeping force of 7,000 soldiers from the African Union, which everyone agrees is ill-equipped to stop the janjaweed. Next step: send in a U.N. peacekeeping force with a mandate to truly disarm, not just to observe the death and destruction as they did in the Balkans and in Rwanda. (Bashir says he will not let them.) There has even been talk of sending NATO troops, but, so far, only talk.
Most of those who know more about this tragedy than I will say that the U.S. has acted fairly responsibly and responsively so far, though it has not yet exhausted all its options. The trouble is that the U.S. government’s clout is weaker than it used to be because it has expended so much of its political and military capital on the war on terror and because the its failures have caused many of the despots to ignore its threats. That means we’ll need the help of others. (Pictured above: Fifteen animals were stolen from the Janjaweed, so in return, the Janjaweed burned 15 villages. This is one of those villages.)
If, for example, the international community decides that military action against the Sudanese government is not feasible (either because of a fear of a “Blackhawk Down” scenario or because we are unable to assemble a force with sufficient teeth to really do anything), then perhaps there is the option of economic sanctions.
Sudan has an oil industry, which has been an important source of revenue for the government to carry out its terror. There are calls to freeze the assets of Sudan's leders. China, which reportedly has a 40 percent interest in Sudan’s oil industry, could be activated to take a stand and apply pressure. The trouble there is that China has, perhaps because it has a such a large commercial stake in Sudan, has not pressed. Indeed, some believe it has stood in the way of international intervention.
Russia, too, which could be a leader in this (and many other international crises), has been largely mute, and leaders from the Muslim and Arab lands have been less visible and vocal on Darfur than their counterparts in North America and Europe.
“No one can guarantee what will work with a regime as tough-minded and inscrutable as Sudan’s, but patient diplomacy and trust in Khartoum’s good faith has been a patent failure,” the International Crisis Group concluded in a report it released just yesterday about the crisis in Darfur. “The international community has accepted the responsibility to protect civilians from atrocity crimes when their own government is unable or unwilling to do so. This now requires tough new measures to concentrate minds and change policies in Khartoum.” (Pictured above: Refugees in Menawashi, Darfur. Approximately 7,000 came to Menawashi in just a few days.)
For those of us who watch this tragedy unfold, it is hard to know precisely how to respond individually to such strong recommendations. We wring our hands and ask, "What can we do?" I recommend clicking the “Take Action” area of the Save Darfur Coalition’s Web site and following its lead. The Coalition, which coordinates a vast assemblage of groups to keep the pressure on our own government and others, is a great source for up-to-date information about what’s going on and what you can do to help.
Unless we do help, we risk the sort of abandonment scenario we've seen in other places and at other times that have only emboldened the evildoers. This is why saving Darfuris matters and why it's important to find some way –- and there are no pat answers –- to tell Bashir he does not have a green light to kill. It may just stop him and his killers in their tracks, and it may just preempt the next great genocidal maniacs from trying the same thing.
Photos posted here were taken by Brian Steidle, and are made available via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.