Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish Activist Hopes to Stir Pot on Darfur with Washington Protest

April 13, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Ruth Messinger has borne witness to some of the world’s most horrific tragedies. A tireless human rights activist, Messinger has walked through earthquake-devastated villages in Turkey, traveled to Thailand in the wake of a tsunami and visited Balkan refugee camps during Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

Still, the scenes she saw in Darfur during the summer of 2004 were “a great deal more depressing.

“The people there have no expectation that the world cares about their situation or that they’re going to be able to come home,” Messinger said, sitting in her New York City office last week. “The word I use for it when I speak most often is just, Chilling.”

The executive director of the American Jewish World Service, Messinger is leading the charge to restore hope to this ravaged community. Her approach is multi-pronged: form interfaith alliances through a Save Darfur Coalition, flood the White House with postcards and add to the AJWS’s $2.4 million humanitarian aid campaign.

Next on the agenda is an April 30 rally in Washington, where Messinger expects a large turnout, thanks, in part, to efforts by synagogues, Hillels, JCCs and other Jewish organizations across the country.

The message she trumpets is simple: The world needs to determine a “communal response to genocide” and apply it across the board.

Messinger says that Jews, of all people, should heed this call.

“We’re the people whose constant context and language since the Shoah has been, Never again,” Messinger said. “Do we mean what we said or not? And if we do, then are we going to respond for everybody, and not just wait til Jews are attacked again?”

For Messinger, the answer is an easy one. The Jewish call for tikkun olam, or repairing the world, mandates a response.

“It’s the Judaism I was raised on,” she explained. “Every person is made in the image of God. To save a single life is to save the world.”

A former elected official and Democratic mayoral candidate in New York City, Messinger, 65, has dedicated much of her career to this kind of public service.

Now she’s applying it to Darfur.

Messinger said the death toll there has grown to roughly 400,000 to 500,000 in the past three years. There are more than 2 million internally displaced persons in Darfur, she rattled off, and 300,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad.

Two trips to the region have shown Messinger the human face of these statistics.

It took an exhausting combination of planes, four-wheel vehicles and special visas for Messinger to even get to Darfur in 2004, which she toured as a guest of an international relief organization on the ground.

Guided by a local translator, Messinger spent four days talking to Darfuri men, women and children holed up in the desert.

Messinger said those she interviewed described a “tremendously similar” narrative. Most spoke of attacks by air, which, according to Messinger, are clearly coordinated by the Sudanese government.

“There are no tribes that have airplanes,” she said.

“Planes drop everything,” she continued. “They drop broken air conditioners, car chassis, anything you can put in an airplane that will kill the people it happens to hit. It’s just random strafing of the village.”

Then the Janjaweed, or “men on horseback,” descend.

“As people say, the militia shows up and just starts riding randomly through the village, yelling ethnic slurs, killing men, killing children, raping and branding children,” Messinger said. “The people become increasingly terrified and so they flee. And that’s the goal: for them to flee.”

Most told Messinger this exodus led them to either internally displaced camps in Sudan, or refugee outposts along the increasingly porous Chad-Sudan border.

But while all confirmed the same basic facts, each person Messinger spoke with offered his or her own individual tale.

A 10-year-old boy clung tightly to an international aid worker, who Messinger assumed to be his mother or aunt. No, the aid worker said, the boy, whose parents and two brothers had been slaughtered, had no family left.

Another woman said she fled her village the same day she gave birth to twins. After watching her aunt, uncle and brother get shot, the woman carried her two newborn babies out of town on a small, straw mat. She showed Messinger the mat.

These stories may not even represent the worst of it.

“There are always parts of the story that you do get, and parts that you don’t,” Messinger said. “Everybody will tell you about people who are raped by the Janjaweed. I’ve never met a woman who told me she was raped.”

Messinger said the Darfur people have dire, pressing needs. But while food, water and medical treatment are critical, a greater mobilization may still be paramount.

“This is not like something that has stopped and now we just have to worry about food, water, health care in the camps. As important as that is we also have to figure out how to take much more responsibility and do much more,” Messinger said. “They need some sense that somebody’s coming to their aid, that someplace in the world somebody’s going to take on this government which is continuing to support and arm the Janjaweed militia, and is still attacking villages.”

Messinger faulted the media, as well as political inaction, for what she called a slow international response.

“It’s like, it’s the to-do list and we just haven’t gotten to genocide yet,” Messinger said. “Of all things in the world, a genocide is something that requires a level of moral leadership and should come with a sense of obligation to act.”

While Messinger declined to spell out an exact formula for peace, she listed a number of strategies — allocating more money to the African Union, establishing a no-fly zone and enlisting more help from NATO countries — as viable options.

“There’s a million pieces of this puzzle,” she said. “Basically, right now,” the Bush administration is “not pursuing any of them.”

She did, however, praise some positive steps that have been taken. She commended congressional representatives who have spoken out on the issue, the work of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and key pieces of legislation, such as the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act.

More than anything, though, Messinger stressed empowerment at the individual level.

“We all need, every single one of us, to exercise this muscle that says take this responsibility, speak out,” she said. “Don’t let evil in the world move you into silence.”

Recommended from JTA