Exasperated by lack of media interest in genocide, filmmakers headed to Darfur
Back on March 27th 1994, when Schindlers List won seven Academy Awards, it seemed that the film - giving an entire generation a glimpse of the full scale and horror of the holocaust - would help ensure such genocide would never happen again. Yet over the next three months, while the world and news media largely turned the other way, over 800,000 civilians were killed in Rwanda.
A decade later Terry George's brilliant Oscar-winning depiction of that genocide and Paul Rusesabagina's heroic struggle, Hotel Rwanda, was released and the subject finally got the mainstream recognition and the media coverage the subject had previously lacked. Yet the world and media seemed to be turning away again, this time from Darfur, Sudan where some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed since 2003.
Aisha Bain from the Center for the Prevention of Genocide in Washington began tracking alarming reports in October 2004 coming out the region and began to alert news agencies in the US about a possible new major genocide. She believed the fact the stories were not being covered was because the agencies were unaware of the issue. In fact, she was told, the story was not important enough to cover.
Refusing to give up or leave the issue unreported, Aisha, fellow activist filmmaker Adam Shapiro and peace-bukilder Jen Marlowe decided to raise money, buy equipment and head to the region themselves. The resulting film is Darfur Diaries.
Looking at the clip of the film on their website, one wonders what it will take for the media to report on - and the public to speak out against - state-sanctioned mass killing of civilians which dwarf any act of terrorism. Asides from Oscar night, of course.
Background to the project (from darfurdiaries.org)
After decades of oppression, marginalization and increasing violence at the hands of the Sudanese government, the Sudanese Liberation Army in Darfur (the western region of Sudan) took up arms in 2003. The government and allied militias, known as Janjaweed, answered the rebellion with large-scale murder of civilians, mass rapes of women and girls, and destruction of villages—resulting in one of the world’s largest current political and humanitarian crises.
- Up to 400,000 civilians have died since 2003
- Over 2 million people have been displaced inside Darfur or have become refugees outside Darfur
- Thousands of villages in Darfur have been burned to the ground
Bain was the Deputy Director at the Center for the Prevention of
Genocide in Washington, DC in the winter of 2004. There had been
alarming reports about thousands of refugees streaming across the
border from Sudan into eastern Chad, yet very little was known about
what was going on or why. She began a massive research campaign, making
contacts in Darfur to discover that villages were being attacked and
burned to the ground. Alarming information continued to flow in - there
were mass rapes of women, large scale murder of civilians, and reports
of bombing and torture. Civilians from certain tribes in Darfur seemed
to be targeted by members of other tribes. Some said these militias
were backed by the government of Sudan and the Sudanese military. She
continued her intensive research campaign to try to determine
reportable facts – names, numbers, places, dates, and confirmable
Aisha began calling news agencies to alert them to this critical news story. If media outlets weren’t covering this, it must be because they didn’t know what was going on, she thought. Again and again, she was told that it wasn’t important enough to cover. Aisha shared her mounting frustration with Adam Shapiro, a fellow graduate student and activist, who had recently returned from an independent documentary film project in Iraq. “Let’s cover the story ourselves,” Adam suggested. “If the media isn’t going to do it, we will. We can raise the money, buy the equipment…and go.”
“We’ll never get in,” Aisha said, “It’s a total mess in there, all the borders are closed…” She shook her head, trying to imagine how this could work.
Adam had some experience getting in and out of difficult places. “There’s always a way,” he said calmly.
Aisha looked at him, and then smiled. “Let’s do it,” she said.
Jen had lunch with Adam in May as he and Aisha were trying to raise funds and make plans. He told her about the project. Until then, she hadn’t even heard of Darfur. She was appalled; both because of the atrocities he described and that she hadn’t known about this travesty. She asked Adam if he and Aisha needed help. But their fundraising efforts were slow; too many other people had not heard of Darfur. Two weeks before leaving, with funding finally secured, Adam invited her to join the team. The plan was to document via film what no one else was covering: the conditions of the refugees in Chad and the displaced people in Darfur and the atrocities they had survived – not as statistics, but as the experiences and lives of people with a history and culture undergoing a great catastrophe.
In mid October 2004, Aisha, Adam and Jen traveled to the refugee camps in eastern Chad and the Zaghawa tribal region of northern Darfur. They snuck across the porous border between Chad and Sudan and remained behind rebel lines. They met refugees living in camps in the harshest of conditions, who built their own schools to educate their children although they had no resources whatsoever. They walked through the charred and broken remains of destroyed villages, trying to imagine the vibrant life that once was there. They were welcomed hospitably by displaced people as they tried to find a way to survive in Darfur. They spoke to leaders of the rebel movement resisting the Sudanese government. They conducted interviews with dozens of men, women and children whose strength and resilience in the face of horror was inspiring. They left Darfur and eastern Chad after almost a month with over 45 hours of footage and incredible stories, images and testimonies.
Screen the film