“Welcome to Barnes and Noble, can I help you?”
“Yes, thank you, I’d like any books you have on Darfur.”
“Who was that again?”
“Darfur. It’s in Sudan.”
“Can you spell it?”
“OK, travel books are over your shoulder and to your left.”
“I don’t want to go there. There’s a genocide taking place.”
“Oh, well, in that case, current events are to your right.”
This was the real conversation that led me to the two lonely titles about Darfur carried in my local Barnes and Noble in Lincoln, Neb., buried amidst piles of mindless political and economic nonsense in a section of the store that no person under 40, no matter how bored, would ever think to approach. As I blew dust from the cover of a book that was published in 2006, it occurred to me that this was a serious problem.
“Who is Darfur?” Many people in America fit into one of two stereotypes when it comes to the atrocities against humanity raging in the western region of the country of Sudan. They are either the ones who ask the question, or they are the ones who roll their eyes in disgust upon hearing it, loathing the very fiber of a global society that can allow for the sort of ignorance and indifference that cost thousands of human beings their life on a daily basis. I frequently have to remind myself that I learned about the genocide in Rwanda—an unspeakable event that took the lives of over 800,000 individual human beings—in 2004, 10 years after the killing had ended. At the time, I had just completed a university education at a reputable four-year institution. This helps me to remain calm when people who I otherwise respect profess their ignorance in regard to the genocide in Darfur. It isn’t solely their fault for being ignorant, but the fault of a society that begs for more and more reality television programs and memorizes baseball statistics while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear on the plight of those in the greatest need.
If you’re still reading, you’re most likely one of the eye-rollers, the latter of our two stereotypes. But what do you really know about Darfur? Many a concerned American can spit up outdated death tolls and amounts of displaced people, can name a few of the better-known displacement camps and regurgitate words like “Janjaweed” when called upon. But what do we really know about the atrocities that are taking place? For those who want to know more about Darfur, the following is an abbreviated review of some of the best available literature that has been written about the causes of the genocide in Darfur, the situation itself and possible solutions that could bring an end to the genocide. If you have the time to take a self-guided crash course, start by reading these books, glancing over the daily rag and carrying on thoughtful dialogue about Darfur at every opportunity. By raising our own personal awareness to these atrocities, we can help those around us to become more aware as well, and hopefully be that much closer to putting a stop to the genocide in Darfur.
To get started on Darfur, you have to realize that much of what is wrong in Sudan did not begin in 2003 with the genocide. Much has been written about the “lost boys” of Sudan and their journey out of Africa, and it is not at all inconceivable that you may have many such people living in your very midst, a part of your community. Often, though not always, they appreciate being sought out. Tact is the key in doing this, as what they have survived is often extremely painful for them to talk about. As for reading, many of my students have enjoyed They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky. This is a series of short essays that chronicles the journey of authors Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak from Sudan to the United States, where they eventually arrived in San Diego, Calif. Visit www.theypouredfire.com for more information.
For a thorough if rather dry crash course on the civil war in Sudan, as well as the issues leading up to it and that which allows it to continue today, Julie Flint and Alex de Waal have written Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. The 134-page book contains a timeline of Sudan, running from 1630 to the signing of the declaration of principles in Abuja in July of 2005. While the book, published in 2005, is slightly outdated, it offers a thorough understanding of the very core of the issues at the heart of the genocide in Sudan.
Perhaps the best book to date that has been written on Darfur is Darfur Diaries, by Jen Marlowe, Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro. Upon learning of the atrocities against human life that were taking place, the trio set out to shoot a documentary and write a book about their experiences in Darfur. The writing is passionate, pointed and thoughtful while the message remains clear: This is a genocide, it is unacceptable and it can be ended. Humorous at times, tragic at others, Darfur Diaries will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, searching for a way to take action. With a preface by Paul Rusesabagina, Darfur Diaries is the definitive work on the tragedies taking place in Darfur, and the companion documentary is a harsh and necessary bite of reality for all who view it. For more information, visit www.darfurdiaries.org.
Most recently, the canon has been added to in a most meaningful fashion. Actor-turned-activist Don Cheadle (who played Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda) and John Prendergast have channeled their significant efforts to end the genocide in Sudan by raising awareness with their book, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. Pulling few if any punches, the duo is quick to point out what is wrong with the American understanding of African issues, and even quicker to offer meaningful suggestions for change. For the reader seeking to take action, Not on Our Watch offers numerous suggestions for places to start and ways in which the average American can begin to make an impact in a land that seems too far away, and on a situation that seems, on the surface, to be hopeless. For more, visit www.enoughproject.org.
Part of the problem with Darfur is the length of this very article about the literature. If you go to Amazon.com, you can find another dozen or so books that are written about or related to the genocide taking place today. Some are better than others, but there is a limited amount of information available, and what is available is constantly becoming outdated. Staying up-to-date on Darfur requires careful monitoring of current events, via newspaper, Internet, National Public Radio and other sources. One of the best is the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Committee on Conscience. Complete with a link to Google Earth, the USHMM website offers an overview of major issues and a downloadable PDF file with five ideas for what you can do to make a difference.
Since you started reading, people have died. People who have been driven from their homes to reside in crowded displacement camps, people whose families have been murdered by the Janjaweed militias, people who are, when all is said and done, just like you and me. Action must be taken, and it must be taken now. Too much is at stake for us to sit back once again and be nothing more than indifferent observers of yet another genocide. Passive indifference is action on behalf of the killers, and apathy is unacceptable. Take action on behalf of those in need, and do it now. For some, there is no tomorrow.