Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Darfur - The Devil Came on Horseback

Tonight I went to the Jerusalem Film Festival and saw a very affecting film - The Devil Came on Horseback. It's about Brian Steidle, an American who went to Sudan in 2004 as an observer of the ceasefire between southern Sudan and the government in the north, and who ended up being a witness to the genocide that was just starting in Darfur. He worked for the African Union documenting the genocide, but because he had no power to intervene at all, he eventually quit and since then has been trying to get the word out about what's going on and trying to influence the U.S. government to act. The film showed harrowing photographs that he took of the results of the Janjaweed attacks on Darfur villages - entire villages completely burned down, bodies of people murdered in many different ways, including being burned alive by the Janjaweed. (The film is called "The Devil Came on Horseback" because the word Janjaweed refers to "devils on horseback" - the Arab militias which are trained, armed, and funded by the central government in order to ethnically cleanse Darfur).

Steidle and the film's producer were at the film tonight, as well as a man named Ismael - a Darfur refugee who has just entered Israel eight days ago with his family from Egypt. He spoke very eloquently about his situation - he and his family (wife and four children) have been in Egypt for four years after fleeing Sudan. He left Egypt because the Egyptian government has treated the Darfur (and other African refugees) very poorly (not a surprise, it treats its own citizens very badly).

Steidle said, in answer to a question from the audience, that about 90% of the villages in Darfur have been destroyed by the Janjaweed, about half a million people have been killed (don't believe the statistics you read in the newspapers that say 200,000 have been killed - that figure is very out of date), 2-4 million are refugees either in Chad, the Central African Republic, or internally in Sudan itself. About a million of the internal refugees are living in refugee camps where they are getting no aid whatsoever from relief agencies, because the Sudanese government refuses to let them enter. He said that what has gone on up to now is "Stage 1" of the genocide, and now "Stage 2" is beginning in these inaccessible refugee camps - at least 300 people a day are dying of starvation and illness, which means at the current rate of death over a 100,000 people will die in the next year in these camps.

For a couple of years African refugees from Darfur and elsewhere in Africa have been slipping into Israel over the border with Egypt, and there are currently around 1200 Darfur refugees here. The Israeli government has been shamefully incompetent in dealing with them (see also this article on government plans to deport African refugees back to Egypt) - the military, who finds them on the border, tries to pass them to the police, who then dump them in Beersheva, which doesn't have enough resources on its own to take care of them, and private individuals, kibbutzim, and businesses have ended up helping them. Some heroic students in Beersheva and elsewhere have also been helping them out. Tonight at the film screening a student named Tali was there, informing people about a group of the Darfur refugees who have been sent by the Beersheva municipality to Jerusalem in order to arouse the action of the national government. They are currently camping outside the Knesset in the Wohl Rose Garden. She came and told the audience that they need blankets and diapers for the children, and even more than that, pressure on the government to make it help these refugees.

Even though I love Israel, it is very disheartening to see how miserable this current government is - this is only the latest demonstration of its incompetence and hard-heartedness. (For another example - the government still has not managed to renovate the bomb shelters in the north after last year's war or in Sederot, which still suffers from ongoing Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza). Prime Minister Olmert, who should have resigned last summer after the catastrophic war with Hizbollah, is still hanging on. Every day when I open the newspaper or listen to the radio there is another disgusting scandal being revealed, or other repulsive government conduct. (Tonight, for example, I saw on the Mabat news at 9:00 that a lawyer who was in the Knesset today physically attacked an MK for something he had said). What gives one hope is to see that there are still people in this country who care and have the moral backbone to do something when they see injustice being committed in front of their eyes.

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