Until I watched the PBS Frontline documentary On Our Watch, I had only a very general awareness of what people meant when they talked about the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. It is sobering and sad to know that that even with all of the news and pseudo-news I follow and the "think globally" circles I travel in, it's still possible to not really know the details of a genocide that has gone on since 2003, killing over 200,000 people and forcing the relocation or outright flight of another 2.5 million people.
If you're more apt to learn and benefit from an hour-long video than you are from 240 Kilobytes of text on Wikipedia, then I commend On Our Watch to you as a great overview of the issue - you can watch it for free online. It covers the origins of the conflict, the horribly lacking role of the United Nations, and the oil interests, global economic interdependencies, and cover-your-ass politics that have allowed other international players, including the U.S., to stand idly by.
Of course, once you've done that, you can take action to bring awareness of the genocide to others and encourage your congressional representatives to play a part. (Apparently, Mike Pence gets a "grade B" for his role, co-sponsoring and voting in favor of most Darfur leglistlation, but not being a champion of the cause. Richard Lugar gets an "A".) There's a Save Darfur action group in Oxford, Ohio, just down the road. You can make sure you don't have investments using firms like JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, Capital Group (American Funds), and Vanguard, which themselves invest in companies (especially PetroChina) that help fund the genocide. And so on.
Hmmmm. It's easy to write a blog entry with all these handy links. It's easy to encourage action in response to a humanitarian crisis. It's hard to know what to actually do that will make a difference. In recent years I've become even more skeptical of the notion that people in power will respond to even the most impassioned pleas from the citizenry. Whether it's a decision on a local level about moving the BMV branch office to a ridiculously inconvenient location, or a national decision to invade another country, or an international coalition of the unwilling when it comes to genocide in Africa, one has to wonder what it takes, how many voices have to be shouting for recognition day in and day out, before it really matters.
As a high ranking U.N. official noted in the documentary, when the world looked at what happened in Rwanda and Srebrenica and said, "never again," we actually only meant "we hope it never happens again," not "we will do whatever it takes to keep it from happening again." I suppose that's why it's all too easy to be ignorant of a "conflict" so far away, so not dependent on the decisions I make every day. The despair of "what can I do?" quickly becomes another layer in the cocoon that protects us from the horrors of the things we think we cannot change. And then we have the conversations in our heads like the one in a favorite scene from The Constant Gardener:
Justin: We can't involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa.
Justin: Be reasonable.
Tessa: There are millions of people. They all need help.
Justin: That's what the agencies are here for.
Tessa: Yeah, but these are three people that we can help.
All of the world's tragedies are played out through the hurt and death that affects each individual life involved. We can and do aggregate that hurt into statistics and documentaries and high-level overviews, but always to the detriment of the person sitting in a refugee camp or a prison or a gas chamber, asking how we could let this happen to them. I suppose that only when we find a way to relate to our fellow humans, even those most distant, in a way that does not lump their suffering into a larger narrative, will we be able to drop what we're doing and take action. But, it is also likely not even possible for most humans to let that dark awareness in, let alone live with it daily.
So, what does that world look like, where acting to help others out of an immediate sense of humanity and injustice is common and healthy, and how do we get there? When will be able to say "never again" and mean it?