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Top Stories:Catalysts

STEPPING UP: AT KNIFE'S EDGE

On the ground in Darfur to raise
awareness of ethnic genocide
Winter Miller in the Gaga refugee camp, holding the baby of a woman
whose village was attacked by the Janjaweed militia.
Since 2004, playwright Winter Miller has helped New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof research his groundbreaking columns on how Sudan’s army and Arab Janjaweed militias are rampaging the Darfur region of Sudan to clear it of non-Arabs. Miller, wanting to do more to raise awareness, wrote a play about a Darfuri woman’s search for safety. At New York’s Public Theater last year, “In Darfur” raised $5,000 for Darfuri activists. In the region with Kristof and NBC News Anchor Ann Curry, “I saw stuff that nobody else was able to see,” Miller says. An edited version of her interview with CONTRIBUTE’s Marcia Stepanek follows. From the start of my work with Nick, Darfur was one of those issues that was absolutely gripping, something from which it was impossible to turn. So when Nick said he was taking a trip to the Chad-Sudan border, I asked him if I could go along. He wasn’t thrilled; he said it could be dangerous, a suicide mission, and he said no for a good long while. He knew why he was going, he said: he could write about it on the pages of the New York Times. But me? I didn’t have that chance. I was his researcher, not a Times columnist. But I wanted to write the best play that I could. Finally, he relented. We flew from New York to Paris and Paris to Chad, and when we arrived in N’Djamena in Chad, we took a small plane to Abéché and rented a car, a driver, and an interpreter — and that was that. Driving south along the Chad-Sudan border, it’s easy to be struck by the flat, desert barrenness of the landscape. I recall looking down from the plane and thinking, Have humans ever walked here? It was eerie to see villages of burned-out huts and broken teapots left by people who had to flee or who were burned out of their homes and slaughtered. Our car would often get stuck in the sand, but children would suddenly appear to help push us out. That’s how it is there. People would just appear out of nowhere, as if the whole population had learned to hide as suddenly as it would appear. On the ground in Darfur, the overwhelming emotion is not so much fear as it is a mix of sorrow, frustration, and disbelief that what is happening is not being stopped somehow. Six or eight months ago, it was more common to hear someone ask what Darfur was, or to have no idea. That seems to be growing less common, but it’s still pretty messy over there. Since African Muslim rebels took up arms in 2003, in protest against what they felt to be years of discrimination and neglect at the hands of the Arab Muslims in Khartoum (Sudan’s capital), some 300,000 civilians have been killed and two million more have been forced to flee their homes. The Africans have not been safe, even in the refugee camps. An Arab militia backed by Sudan’s government — known as the Janjaweed — has done most of the killing: it has been targeting three black African tribes, in particular, though some Arabs also have been attacked and some Africans have been spared. There was one time when I felt in significant danger. We had stopped at a village that had just been attacked, and met a man who had run from the Janjaweed with his wife and their baby. He told of how the Janjaweed had spotted his baby, checked to see if it was a boy and then, seeing that it was, bayoneted him. Then they shot his wife. The man was showing us where his child had been buried when he suddenly stopped talking and told us to leave. “They’re in the trees. They can see us,” he said through our interpreter. It didn’t occur to us that the Janjaweed were watching us so closely. The idea that we were in shooting range and that they knew precisely where we were was alarming. We got back in the car and drove away. In another village, we met two young girls who were, maybe, about 16 years old and who had been gang-raped just 48 hours before we met them. I was struck by how they weren’t doing this sort of American- style form of televised grieving, but just calmly retold how they’d been dragged away. It’s taboo to talk about rape, so women don’t always say what happens to them. Abortions, prohibited under Muslim law, are not offered; there are women who don’t want to hold their own babies. Two Darfuri sisters describe how they were captured and
gang-raped by the Janjaweed 48 hours earlier, then released.
In the Gaga and Farchana refugee camps, we saw rows and rows of U.N. tents and people waiting for hours in the hot sun to get inside. But once inside, there is fear. Women form teams to go out and get firewood, and the question that’s asked of them each time is, who can go out of the camp? If they send their sons, the sons will be killed, and if they send their daughters, they will be raped. It’s an unfortunate choice; often, mothers go and are attacked, raped, or killed. Another problem with the camps is that there is malnutrition. There is diarrhea. There is not enough potable water and no clean facilities, so people are getting sick. The fact of the genocide is that it isn’t just about the act of raping and murdering and burning and looting. It’s also about people inside the camps dying of malnutrition. Just before we left the region, we drove to a village called Koloy, in Chad, and met a man who was lying on the ground, a bullet wound to his shoulder. His two wives were fanning him, nearby. We spoke with two men who had been shot in their nearby village, who told us that all of the surrounding villages had been attacked and that the Janjaweed would be coming for them next. I remember taking a picture of all of their faces and wondering if those photographs would be the last documentation, the only proof that these people had ever lived. It felt awful to leave them there. They all wanted to be saved, they all deserved to be saved, and we weren’t going to be able to save them. What inspired my play was a column that Nick had written, about a Darfuri woman named Hawa, who had been raped and went to a medical clinic, where the doctor filed a report detailing what happened. Afterwards, the Sudanese police showed up and arrested her for adultery and handcuffed her to the bed. People who see my play tell me they didn’t realize the violence was so bad. I think that awareness is the first step in stopping it. I think that a lot of people, once they’re aware, don’t want to be bystanders anymore.

 

 

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