A Grim Milestone

This month we mark a milestone. The genocide in Darfur is now the longest modern genocide, ever. It is longer than the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide, the genocides against Bosnian Muslims and Rwandan Tutsis. And yes, it is longer than Holocaust.

February 2009 is the six year anniversary of genocide beginning in Darfur. And it’s still going on.

A realization that we are now marking six years of genocide, which have unfolded and will continue to unfold before our very eyes as we largely engage in business as usual, raises three questions: the first is what does this mean, the second, why should we care, and third, what can we do.

What does this mean?

When asked why the world didn’t stop the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis, now president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, answered without blinking, “They didn’t care.”

For six years we’ve been hit with images of Darfur’s murdered men, women and children, burned out villages and survivors clinging to life in camps. We pause, shake our heads in despair and, for the most part, move on. Could it be that Kagame was right – that then, and now, we just don’t care, or care enough, to stop genocide?

Sure, there are obstacles to us being able to prioritize ending genocide. Our economy is crumbling, bills have to be paid and homework has to be done. Genocide isn’t a priority. Not now, later – when we have the time and energy, maybe.

Also, Darfur’s location and victims are almost too unfamiliar for us to relate too. But on their recent trip to Sudan, our colleagues met some of Darfur’s 3 million-plus displaced persons and discovered that our differences are trumped by our similarities. They share in the hopes and dreams common to people around the world – of life, health and sustenance for themselves and their families.

Truthfully though, obstacle is a synonym for excuse. Darfur doesn’t have to take the backburner in light of other seemingly more immediate priorities; it doesn’t have to seem so far away. Those are choices we make, because they are easy. Kagame might’ve been right.

So why should we care?

No human act is worse than genocide. It is a deliberate attempt to eradicate a people from this world for no reason other than who they are. In international criminal law it is referred to as the crime of crimes. Committing genocide means exterminating human beings.

One of the more sobering things one can do in one’s life is walk through Auschwitz, Cambodia’s killing fields or any other piece of earth stained by genocide. When you stand in Auschwitz’s gas chamber, or face to face with the ovens that cremated its 1.1 million victims, it becomes crystal clear – the cruelty and insanity of what happened can never, ever happen again. But it is. So we have to care.

What can we do?

We can be heard, in Ottawa and Darfur. Karashi, who after his village was burned, walked for nine days through scorched desert to reach safety. He told our colleagues, “Darfur is a forgotten place. The government is killing us and nobody helps.”

As members of a global community, we have to remember Darfur. Thus, the burden falls to us, ordinary Canadians to demand from our elected officials that we live up to our commitment to a world without genocide. When the government is confronted by our chorus demanding a more productive and effective Canadian response to Darfur’s genocide, by engaging more with the diplomatic attempts to end the genocide and with humanitarian efforts to protect and provide for its victims, they will be forced to act.

Six years is too long. Until now Canada’s politicians haven’t gotten the message. Only we can change that and force them to confront pledges they’ve already made.

In the guestbook at the Auschwitz museum there is an inscription from visit on April 5, 2008: “Let us never forget these things and work always to prevent their repetition.” The visitor was Stephen Harper. For Karashi and the millions of others, time is running out for the Prime Minister to make good on that pledge. Batika, another displaced person, once a mother of eight, now a mother of six, told our colleagues that for her the reality of Darfur is simple: “To die because of war or to die because of hunger.”

We have a choice to make. A year from now, will Darfur mark another grim milestone?

Ben Fine is the founder and past Executive Director of Stand Canada and a student in the Faculty of Medicine at University of Toronto. Josh Scheinert, Stand’s past Advocacy Director, is a student at Osgoode Hall Law School.

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