- When Killers become Victims: Darfur in Context
Darfur. In 2002, the word meant nothing to most Americans, and little more to the country’s journalists, academics, and foreign policy makers. A scant seven years later, though, Darfur represents for many “a place where evil lived.”1 What happened in the intervening years is an interesting story of grassroots mobilization, in which hundreds of thousands of people learned cogent details about the crimes of Darfur, which they repeated to their friends and families and elected representatives. They explained first and foremost that the Sudanese government and its proxy militia, known as the janjaweed, were responsible for a large-scale campaign of death and destruction in western Sudan. Their stories highlighted the innocent civilians directly targeted by the government’s counterinsurgency operation against rebel movements in Darfur, and invariably listed the grim details of the hundreds of thousands dead, the millions internally displaced, and the facts surrounding the world’s largest emergency humanitarian operation. Urging a response from the United States government, many also highlighted how these ruthless attacks on specific ethnic groups and their villages constituted the twenty-first century’s first genocide.
Where did these Americans, and later many more around the world, acquire their information? At the beginning, the established human rights organizations—Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Crisis Group (ICG)—provided some of the only detailed reporting and advocacy on the emergency that erupted in Darfur in the spring of 2003. These organizations have continued to publish regular reports on the situation, just as humanitarian organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and CARE continue to issue urgent appeals to support critical relief operations on the ground. In [End Page 133] the summer of 2004, though, leaders from many human rights groups, a few humanitarian organizations, Sudanese in the diaspora, and other concerned organizations came together at a meeting coordinated by the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to discuss the situation in Darfur and how to build a more effective advocacy campaign in the United States. Out of this meeting, the Save Darfur Coalition was born—its purpose to help coordinate ongoing advocacy efforts and build a more effective campaign to raise awareness about the violence in Darfur, with the goal of urging the American government to respond.
While a number of groups signed the coalition’s unity statement that summer and over the course of the next year, Save Darfur as an organization grew slowly. Until mid-2005, the coalition’s staff consisted of a single coordinator with a limited human rights background, a handful of interns, and strategic assistance from a firm specializing in non-profit consulting. An advisory group for the coalition consisted of some individuals with knowledge of Sudanese politics and conflicts in this region of Africa, but the small staff itself lacked such experience. In that first year, though, Darfur as an issue began to emerge as a hot-button item, especially among American college students and those following international human rights crises. The Save Darfur Coalition’s efforts to engage grassroots activists contributed to this growing awareness, and overtime the coalition’s popularity and resources grew and beget greater popularity and resources. The moment of ‘take-off’ for Save Darfur probably occurred in April 2006 when its small staff, with the support of its member organizations, held a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. that attracted an estimated 50,000 people—as well as noteworthies like then-Senator Barack Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Six days after the rally, which garnered international headlines, one Darfuri rebel movement and the Sudanese government signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), thanks in large measure to the heavy pressure that was directly applied by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Equally important is the fact that many believed that the agreement would pave the way for a UN peacekeeping force to take over the beleaguered peacekeeping operations of the African Union.
In the days after the signing, some staff...