Ruth Messinger Interviewed about Genocide in Sudan


Ruth Messinger Interviewed about Genocide in Sudan

By Timothy Harris

Reprinted with permission from Real Change News, December 21, 2005. 

Ruth W. Messinger is the executive director of American Jewish World Service, a humanitarian organization providing support to grassroots social change projects throughout the world. She was recently in Seattle to speak about the relief effort in Darfur, Sudan, and to build political support for a more effective response to the violence. “The expression ‘Never again’,” Messinger has said, “cannot be reserved only for Jews.” She has traveled twice in the past two years to refugee camps in Darfur and Chad, and is a leader in the interfaith effort to end the genocide.

Real Change: Amnesty International has reported that over the last three years in Darfur, more than 400,000 people died from violence, disease and starvation. Another 2.5 million have been displaced. Those are really huge numbers. Can you try to tell us what they represent?

Ruth Messinger: These people were small subsistence farmers in villages of 200 to 800. The villages are straw thatch huts. People lived there, they grew food there — not easy to see how they grew much food, but they grew food — and they had a number of animals; they were food sufficient. They had tribal identities and they saw themselves as being in the home of their tribe. “Darfur” actually means “the home of the Fur tribe.”

No matter which of the camps you’re in, when you ask people to tell you what happened, they tell you almost the same story. They all describe coordinated attacks on their villages coming both from the air and from the Janjaweed militia.

The planes come first and they bomb the villages. Now, just so we’re all clear, nobody has airplanes except the government of Sudan. And bombing is not what you or I mean by bombing. It means dropping car chassis, old refrigerators, broken generators and air conditioners. Anything big enough to smash down buildings.

And then people see Janjaweed. Janjaweed is the name for the militia, and if you ask, it means either “men on horseback” or “evil men on horseback” in Arabic. Everybody describes the Janjaweed as yelling ethnic slogans on their way through these villages, routing people out. Killing a certain number of men and children. Killing their livestock and the farm animals. Raping and killing women.

In the early years, they would stuff carcasses in the wells to poison the water supply. And then, of course, everyone who’s still alive leaves the town. There’s no town left, and they’re terrified for their lives. They don’t have to kill everybody. They just have to convince people to leave. Then they usually burn the town down.

It’s a very, very bad situation, and it’s very distressing to have any of these elements that are saying “It’s a little less bad now.” One of the reasons that it’s “less bad” is that there aren’t any villages left to burn.

RC: What is the distinction between the rebel groups and the Janjaweed, and why is their government supporting this?

Messinger: The situation is, without any question, getting murkier and murkier. Because it’s not just one rebel group, there are two or three, and they’re all arguing with each other. Most of these farmers have absolutely nothing to do with the rebel groups that are in their territory, and nobody thinks that they do.

The question I can’t answer is, “What is the government motive here?” It’s hard to believe that they want the land. Sudanese law says that if the land is not occupied for a year it reverts to the government, and there’s some speculation that there’s oil. The people that I know tell me that they can’t imagine there’s any oil in west Darfur, but if there is, it’s poor grade and hard to extract.

So then you have to imagine that they — and this is guesswork — that they are using this to pursue a broader ethnic-based agenda. Everyone involved in this genocide is Muslim, but Janjaweed and the government are Arab-identified and increasingly Islamist. These six million Darfur residents are Muslim but think of themselves as African and tribal. And therefore their commitment to Islam is of a very different order.

RC: I’ve read that aid workers are in such danger that there’s a possibility that major agencies might begin to pull out.

Messinger: That’s the scariest thing. The government has, in several instances, captured aid workers and held them. They’ve allowed aid workers to be placed in jeopardy by various rebel groups. In a couple of instances, they’ve threatened major organizations with expulsion from the country.

The United Nations is so concerned about the increases in the violence that they have said that it should remove all non-essential staff from north Darfur. Other aid organizations might decide to remove their staffs from places where the UN has. If that happens, there won’t be enough food, clean water, or health care.

The saving grace is that in none of these camps has there, to date, been a major epidemic. But frankly, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be. At some point in the next year, the world is going to read that X hundred thousand children died in camps in Darfur.

RC: The military response by the African Union is something like 7,000 troops? Why isn’t the international community more directly involved?

Messinger: I wouldn’t call it a military response. Whether there should or shouldn’t be a military response is a good question. But this is a minimalist peacekeeping operation. The African union presence from the government of Sudan and the United Nations is only authorized to make the roads safe and protect the transmission of goods and the lives of the aid workers.

It’s totally inadequate because they don’t have a mandate to protect civilians, and there aren’t enough of them. They’re in an area the size of Texas. You need between 15 and 20,000 troops on the ground. People need to understand that only a larger peacekeeping force with a broader mandate could possibly be effective, as opposed to an actual military action.

RC: It’s been a year and a half since Colin Powell first used the “genocide” word to describe the conflict. Why have major powers been so reluctant to intervene?

Messinger: The good news is that this is the first genocide that the United States has called a genocide while it was going on. But how we can label something genocide and then just leave it on the “to do” list? What I would most like to see Bush do is say that this is the first genocide of the 21st century. Say we’re all committed to “never again.” And exert the level of leadership that will involve going to the United Nations and asking for a resolution similar to the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act.

RC: Tell me more about that.

Messinger: Well, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, like all legislation, used to be stronger. It was going be the “Darfur Genocide and Accountability Act,” and it was stronger and tougher on the sanctions. But there’s been serious organized effort both by bipartisan members of the House and the Senate to get this passed, and by the administration to stop it from getting passed. Because it would really put Congress on record as saying our government needs to call for more sanctions. It calls for a no-fly zone and for freezing of tax assets. It also includes increasing troop strength and expanding that way. So it passed the Senate just before the last budget vote, but then the House took out the $50 million that was appropriated for union troops.

We need to push our representatives in the House to support this. To put us on record would be pushing the White House to act on these principles. I want to give credit every place I go to Sam Brownback, a conservative right-wing senator from Kansas who’s the leader of the fight on Darfur. I was in the Deputy Secretary of State’s office with the national spokesperson for the Evangelical church. There were about 12 of us there talking about our groups and our positions and the change we want to see — he was by far the most eloquent. So I’m glad we have some bedfellows here that are helping to make a difference.

RC: What are two or three things people can do to take action?

Messinger: Well, I think the most important thing is for people to understand that almost anything they do — contributing money, going to a demonstration, writing or calling their congressperson, calling the White House — is increasing the pressure to end this genocide. So the first thing is, anything makes a difference. Don’t listen to the dimensions of the problem and decide there’s nothing you can do.

Nobody I know now is hugely optimistic about refugees and displaced persons returning home. I don’t want anybody to sort of imagine making two phone calls to the White House means two million people go back to their towns. Because their towns aren’t there.

The question is, are we going to just leave people in camps with inadequate services until they start dying? We all know exactly what’s going to happen: more and more people are going to die. They’re going to die from all sorts of consequences of violence. The only question is why we’re not doing anything.