WASHINGTON — After months of inaction, Jewish organizations are stepping up their efforts to call attention to the rising threat of a government-backed genocide in Sudan and to raise money for the country’s massive population of non-Arab Muslim refugees.
The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella organization of 40 Jewish associations that meets on an ad hoc basis to address humanitarian crises worldwide, decided last week to create a new 11-agency coalition to focus exclusively on Sudan. Dubbed the Coalition for Sudan Relief, the new entity has began to lobby Congress and the Bush administration to put pressure on the Sudanese government to allow access for relief shipments and personnel to the western Sudanese province of Darfur.
“We are really in the initial phases of forming the coalition and making decisions on how we are going to act and get the word out,” said Will Recant, the coordinator of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief and assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Recant said that despite their slow response, members of the disaster coalition seem dedicated to preventing another African genocide. A decade ago, Jewish organizations were criticized for failing to do enough to stop the 1994 genocide that took place in Rwanda.
The driving force behind the stepped-up activism has been the American Jewish World Service, a Peace Corps-style aid group that is supplying assistance to the refugees. In an effort to alert the public, the organization is launching what insiders describe as its first-ever advertising campaign in the national media. The campaign will focus on the plight of Sudanese refugees.
According to the United Nations and international relief organizations, more than 1 million people have been displaced by the violence in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, where government-sponsored militias routed black Muslims in what United Nations observers have called a 14-month campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” Relief agencies are warning that if aid does not reach the refugees from Dafur soon, as many as 350,000 of them could die in the next few weeks and hundreds of thousands more may perish in subsequent weeks.
“What’s happening there is truly stunning,” said Jerry Fowler, director of the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Fowler made his remarks in an interview with the Forward, shortly after his return last week from a 10-day fact-finding mission to Chad, where 120,000 Sudanese refugees are living in what are widely reported to be squalid conditions. The Holocaust Museum issued a genocide alert two months ago and is now distributing an “alert sheet” to visitors. The museum attracts approximately 30,000 people a week.
“I spoke to a lot of refugees and their stories were remarkably consistent,” Fowler said. “They said they fled because of fear. They all talked about militia attacks on their villages. Men and boys being murdered. Homes being burned. Livestock being stolen. Sometimes it was the militia in conjunction with the Sudanese government and sometimes just the militia. Sometimes there were bombardments from the air.”
The refugees, Fowler said, fled with the bare necessities, and are threatened with famine, dehydration and disease. “There was this one woman sitting under a tree, with some blankets and a couple of water jugs,” Fowler said (pictured at left). “She crossed over two days earlier, and that’s all she had left in the world. Her donkey died, her goats died. She had nothing, in an extremely harsh desert environment.”
While access to Darfur has been almost completely cut off by the Sudanese government, reaching the refugee camps in Chad is arduous because of rough terrain, Fowler said. The journey is about to become even tougher in the next month, he added, when the rainy season starts and the valleys that crisscross the area become muddy. “One should keep in mind that this is an environment that does not allow for any margins of error,” Fowler said.
On Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement urging the Sudanese government to grant full access to “aid organizations, human rights investigators, and international monitors” and urged America to take all steps to avoid genocide.
The American Jewish World Service has been trying for weeks to focus Jewish public attention on Sudan, said the organization’s communications director, Ronni Strongin. Blaming what she described as a dearth of media coverage on the situation, Strongin added: “People just don’t know what’s going on.”
Strongin said that the best way to get American Jews to care about the crisis was to convince more Jewish organizations to take up the issue.
Strongin’s organization is joining in the efforts of American and international relief associations to supply food and water, medicines and sanitation facilities to refugees in Darfur and Chad. The president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger, briefed a group of Jewish activists last week on the efforts to aid Sudanese refugees. In a subsequent statement sent to the Forward, Messinger said: “As Jews who know firsthand the consequences of silence from the international community, we have an increased moral obligation to respond to crimes against humanity, regardless of the ethnicity or religion of the people being victimized. I believe that as the American people, and particularly the Jewish community, hear about the gruesome killings and inhumane detainments in Darfur, they will, they must respond.”