6 Who've Cared About Darfur's Victims
Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures

6 Who've Cared About Darfur's Victims

Burkle Center Website, Oct. 30, 2007

Margaretta Soehendro Email MargarettaSoehendro

Complexities can't be an excuse for not taking action.

Stephen Rapp, former chief prosecutor for the United Nations-International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, UCLA History Chair Edward Alpers, UCLA graduate and activist Adam Sterling, and director Ted Braun discuss genocide and the film "Darfur Now" following a screening. Sterling is one of six people featured in the film.

"What can I do? I don't know. A lot more than nothing," says actor Don Cheadle in the new documentary film Darfur Now.

Cheadle is one of the film's producers and one of six people whose stories of making a difference in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region are told. Adam Sterling, a UCLA alumnus and director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, also appears in the movie.

About 250 people attended an advance screening at UCLA on Oct. 22, 2007, sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center along with the Center for American Progress, Warner Independent Pictures, the UCLA African Studies Center, the UCLA Darfur Action Committee and other off-campus organizations. A panel discussion afterward included Sterling; Stephen Rapp, former chief prosecutor for the United Nations–International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; Edward A. Alpers, chair of UCLA's history department; and Ted Braun, the film's writer and director and a professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Melody Barnes, executive vice president of policy at the Center for American Progress, moderated the panel. Rapp had delivered a public lecture on Sierra Leone's civil war earlier in the day for the Burkle Center.

The film showed that the actions of one person can make a difference in Darfur, and while the six people's motivations differ, their goal—ending the atrocities—is the same. According to the United Nations, violence by government-backed militias has killed an estimated 200,000 people there and displaced 2.2 million.

As Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) says to Cheadle in the film, "Once you see [the Darfur crisis], your soul is going to be touched and you're not going to be the same."

Cheadle, who starred in the movie Hotel Rwanda about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, saw the similarities between the atrocities in Rwanda and Sudan and knew he had to be involved. Sterling felt moved to action after learning about the crisis in a UCLA class; when he was growing up, his Jewish grandmother had told of relatives lost in the Holocaust.

The others featured in the film also had their reasons to help. Pablo Recalde, leader of the World Food Program team in Darfur, came from a family of development workers. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, knew justice could prevail even when the government bureaucracy is the one committing crimes. In his home country of Argentina, he was an assistant prosecutor in the trial against nine senior leaders of the military dictatorship who were charged with human rights abuses and murders from 1976 to 1983.

Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, a former builder and farmer from Darfur, took on the leadership role as sheik of the Hamadea camp after his village was no longer safe. Hejewa Adam, the only woman whose story was told, joined the rebel group Sudanese Liberation Army after janjaweed militias attacked her and killed her three-month-old son.

Water, Politics, Language

The movie attempts to be a "Darfur 101" lesson for those unaware of the complicated conflict, said Braun at the panel. One of the points the movie and panelists wanted to convey was that the conflict is not over religion. Accounting for slight differences in practice, the fighters and the victims are almost all Sunni Muslims.

The issue of race and ethnicity isn't straightforward either. As Alpers explained in an interview, the janjaweed militias committing the atrocities and the Africans in Darfur are not racially distinct; rather, they self-identify differently. Those who consider themselves Arab place great importance on their Middle Eastern ancestry and speak Arabic at home. Those who consider themselves African (and not Arab) also speak Arabic, the national language, but at home they speak a Nilo-Saharan language.

The two biggest sources of the conflict, said Alpers, are resource allocation and the long history of government neglect of the Darfur region, going back to the time of British rule. The ecologically fragile and resource-poor region is greatly and adversely affected by droughts. The famine of 1984-1985 aggravated trading relations between the mostly Arabic nomads and the mostly African farmers of Darfur. Without enough food, without enough schools, and without enough help, rebels in Darfur took up arms against the Sudan government to gain aid for the region.

Droughts caused by climate change, non-cohesive rebel groups, an armed militia backed by the government, a bureaucracy holding onto power, and international power plays can make the Darfur crisis seem overwhelming, but as Sterling said, "Complexities can't be an excuse for not taking action."

Darfur Now opens in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 2. It expands to more cities beginning Nov. 9.

Burkle Center for International Relations

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