After almost seven years of Darfur activism, what are we doing wrong? The people I first met in harsh refugee camps in 2005 are still there, in the camps. Actually, they have been joined by tens of thousands more, and hundreds of thousands more are now neighbors to the millions that already were living in the internal displacement camps.
Despite the failures, I cannot do nothing. We are committed, and there is the emotional connection to the many friends I have made over my ten visits to Eastern Chad. I know them. They know me. Our team and many more groups around the world have made a huge difference on the lives of the survivors, providing life-supporting aid, education, and good old fashioned hope. But, can we make the difference I thought we could make when I first became involved? Can we play a part in changing the internal dynamics of Darfur and all of Sudan, helping our friends to go back to a peaceful home?
Carne Ross recently posed that same question, but in a more concise and catchy way, in an article in guardian.co.uk., “What we can do to bring down dictators.” He’s not only thinking of Darfur. He’s posing it as a general question and looking to create a “menu of answers,” wisely acknowledging that there is not one answer that can fit for all situations. For the past seven years, I have been asking myself and my team that same question Ross asks. Given that Omar al-Bashir is still in power in Sudan and continues to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, we don’t have the answer, but we do have a couple of items for the menu.
I talk specifically about Darfur, since it’s the area we have the most experience with. It also happens to be one of the most difficult and extreme test-cases for Responsibility to Protect and the power of advocacy—inside and outside of the country. Darfur is as remote and isolated an area can be. The same can be said of its people. If the entire population of oppressed Darfuris rose up in the middle of the desert and peacefully demonstrated against the government in Khartoum, would they make a sound? After years of attacks on their lives and their way of life, the majority of this population is dependent for survival on outside aid. The aid is controlled by, as you can probably guess, the government in Khartoum. The government, as it has done repeatedly, can deny access to aid organizations, and any protest will not only not be seen or heard, but it will also slowly starve.
From the outside, what we must do is find ways to have the voice of the victims and survivors heard. This does not mean only the rebel group leaders, but the voice of civil society: the women, men, and children that take the brunt of the oppression.
My team has not been able to travel inside of Darfur, but we have visited the refugee camps right on the border with Chad. Even there, the refugees feel isolated and abandoned. On one of my recent trips, I asked a teacher what he would like the world to know about him and his people. He thought for a minute, and said, “I have been waiting for that question for seven years.” They want to be heard. They want to have a say in their own future. They want the world to know that they want justice, and that peace cannot come without justice.
In situations like Darfur, it is key to have civil society, displaced and internal, communicating with citizen activists on the outside. Technology has now allowed for this to happen in real time. My team, with over 90% of its members being volunteers, is making advocacy across continents something that becomes personal. Using technology, we are allowing for survivors and those in danger to become friends with those on the outside that are in a position to help. My teammates and I, and many activists that are now connected to refugee survivors, do not experience burnout because we know the people on the other side. They are our friends! Bringing down a dictator will not always happen overnight, so we have to be ready to act urgently and fast, like activist-sprinters, but also have endurance to stick it out for the long-haul, like activists-marathoners.
For Ross’ menu, I would like to add: the use of state of the art technology to create age-old person-to-person relationships—friendship!
One more for the menu, and this comes directly from the refugees, there needs to be support for international norms of justice. The United States is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court. It sounds very hypocritical for our country and its citizens to call for comprehensive justice in places like Sudan, when we are not a part of the international justice system that exists to address the crimes we so much condemn.
My initial question was, what are we doing wrong? To start, we must ask more questions, such as: What else do we need to do? What are we doing right, but we need more people doing? Like Ross says in his post, there cannot be one answer for all situations. In addition to that, there is not one answer that will solve one situation. We have to keep building and adding to the menu. What is clearly needed, and this is a need that will not change, is an active, energetic, and passionate group of people that is ready to take that menu, mixed it around, keep adding to it, and go out and act.