On April 30th, 2006, a hundred thousand people gathered on the sun-drenched Washington Mall to call for an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. “Never again” were words that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, had spoken before about Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. But time and again the international community failed to act. Would Darfur, the first genocide of the 21st century be different, he asked the crowd.
Several years earlier Mukesh Kapila, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, had raised alarm bells about the impending crisis in Sudan with high-ranking diplomats and elites at the United Nations. Rape was being used as a weapon of war. Villages were being razed by government militias. Hundreds of thousands were ethnically targeted and killed. Many thousands more were being forced from their homes, swelling refugee camps in Chad and across the region, Kapila warned. This was more than war, he argued: This was a genocide.
Kapila, an Indian born medical doctor in the UK turned diplomat, knew the difference between civil conflict and genocide. And like Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General whose pleas from the Rwandan capital for more peace-keeping troops and the authority to take action were ignored, Kapila’s pleas for intervention to the same diplomats who failed to act ten years earlier in Rwanda also went unanswered.
Jerry Fowler, then the head of the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, issued a warning about the genocide in Darfur after returning from a fact-finding mission to the region. His interview on National Public Radio thereafter was the spark that kindled a movement. Soon thereafter, a couple dozen activists held a meeting in New York where they launched the Save Darfur Coalition.
Six months later, with a few staff and a few thousand email addresses, the campaign to Save Darfur landed on my doorstep. I was asked to help lead the campaign meant to galvanize action for the cause and build political momentum for the deployment of blue helmeted UN Peace Keepers. We started by raising visibility, knowing that images and video footage of crimes against humanity are the only defense for the defenseless.
We had our own ammunition – in the form of former US Marine Captain, Brian Steidle. In 2004, Steidle served in Darfur as a representative to the African Union investigators assessing the never-honored 2004 ceasefire agreement between rebels and the Sudanese government. Steidle was armed with a camera.
We used his photographs to fill church basements, synagogue auditoriums, public libraries and on college campuses. We projected his photos on government buildings in the US and across the globe to tell the story of Darfur. Brian’s images were the jet fuel the movement needed to get media attention, populate advertisements and inspire activists to act.
Over a million petitions were signed imploring President George W. Bush to take action to end the genocide. Students successfully pressured college endowments and mutual funds to divest from oil companies whose trade financed the Sudanese military. We secured economic sanctions in the US and Europe. African Union leaders called for action. We used the leverage of the Olympics to pressure China to limit economic ties with Sudan. We secured a vote at the UN Security Council to deploy what was soon to become the world’s largest UN Peacekeeping mission.
From a base of a few thousand we built a following of over a million. Nearly 100 buses from as far away as Maine and the Midwest joined us on the Mall that April 30th.
Then Senator Barack Obama spoke as did refugees from Darfur. Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders added their voice along with student activists and many others. Actor George Clooney and his journalist father spoke of the refugee camps they witnessed in Chad following a recent trip.
In September of the same year we organized events in 41 countries in 57 cities, including a rally in Central Park to coincide with the UN General Assembly. We launched the Globe for Darfur movement that fall, and an aggressive media campaign in the US, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. President Barack Obama made Darfur a priority from day one, appointing an envoy and calling for quick action to end the crisis.
Did we ‘Save’ Darfur? The question looms large on the heels of Omar al-Bashir’s recent overthrow, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. The answer, sadly, is no. The movement lost steam as the global economy melted down and a tenuous peace initiative failed to take hold.
But there is hope. Sudanese activists stopped waiting for the international community to act. They got organized, took to the streets and demanded change themselves. They got it. While the future of Sudan is unwritten, the never again movement, lives on through their activism.