At sundown on June 30th, 2005, I began a hunger strike in solidarity with the 3.5 million civilians on the brink of starvation in Darfur, western Sudan. I will be stationed in front of the White House every day—except when I'm organizing, or sleeping, which is not allowed in Lafayette Park—until the world takes appropriate notice of what President Bush has now repeatedly called genocide. I will consume only water until steps are taken to stop this heinous crime. The approaching G8 summit presents world leaders with a tremendous opportunity to come together and take action.
The situation in Darfur is bleak: the whole countryside, farmland, and thousands of villages, have been depopulated, pillaged, and burned to the ground. Men and boys who don't escape to join the rebels are tortured (often castrated) and slaughtered. Women are also often killed, but more often they are beaten, tortured, and raped, sometimes for days on end. The survivors have been herded into refugee camps, often ringed by Arab janjaweed militiamen (the government's military proxy in Darfur) who rape women and girls when they leave in search of fire wood. Even some camps, which are basically tent cities, have been torched as Sudan pursues its policy of forcing Darfuri refugees into the desert to die (though they say they are forcing them back to their villages, which, coincidentally, were bombed by Sudanese military planes before being ransacked by janjaweed on camel and horseback; satellite images confirm this utter destruction). Starvation looms for the black African population of Darfur.
I have been stewing over this issue for almost two years now. For me, it is a simple question of morality. I am a Jew, and I was raised to believe that "Never Again" meant something. That faith was first shaken in 1994 when I was almost twelve years old and I began learning about the horrific four-month genocide in Rwanda. I had hoped Rwanda would prove to be an aberration. President Clinton and his cynical team were well aware of our nation's signature on the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, obligating us to intervene to stop any genocide, anywhere, so they avoided declaring the killings genocide. Of course, there is no punishment for ignoring the Genocide Convention, so Mr. Bush has used the word anyway, apparently without feeling obligated to act.
The International Criminal Court in the Hague has already indicted dozens of organizers and perpetrators of this genocide, all of whose names remain under seal, and some of whom are presumed to be high-ranking Sudanese government officials. These indictments are a positive first step towards bringing these criminals to justice, but they are a step backward if they are the pinnacle of the Free World's action. As of now, there is no indication that any criminal will ever be extradited, and there are no plans to seek arrests. Further, even if there were arrests, they would not guarantee an end to the genocide. Only boots on the ground can do that. As of now, the world has settled on turning our backs, closing our eyes, and plugging our ears.
There are a few troops in Darfur today, a force of less than 3000 representing the African Union, comprised of Nigerian and (ironically, though not surprisingly) Rwandan soldiers. But these AU soldiers are not mandated to protect civilians, they are ill-prepared and ill-equipped, and their force is not even a tenth of what is needed. International intervention must be swift, decisive, and truly cooperative. The whole free world can agree that atrocious crimes are being committed in Sudan, so the whole world should act in concert to stop them.
Many people have asked me why we haven't intervened already. That is obviously a complicated question, but there are many reasons. Some point to our armed forces' over-extension in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our other committments around the world. Others say simply, tragically, that these are black people being killed, and Americans just can't be brought to care about them. They point to Rwanda as proof. Some even argue that we have no proof it is even a genocide. But the real answer lies on the United Nations Security Council. China and Russia, both permanent members, have extensive economic ties to Sudan. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation even has a huge oil concession in Southern Darfur. If they are not careful they will soon be burning oil tainted with innocent blood. And as we stood by and let China support Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (which also led to mass murder), we are still standing by. Though now we ourselves have more ties to China than ever before.
We have waited far too long to act, but it is not too late to save lives, nor, indeed, to save an entire culture. Over the course of my hunger strike, thousands of innocent Darfuris will die by disease, violence, and starvation. Everyone can help: by writing letters, organizing protests, calling representatives and world leaders, boycotting companies that do business in Sudan, and even taking to the streets if need be. Search your conscience, your soul, and think about joining my protest, in DC or in your own city or country. One hunger striker is a start, but scores of us would be impossible to ignore. We must remind the President and the world just what starvation looks like. We must act now. There is no problem on earth more urgent.
Nathan I Kleinman