Inside 'Darfur Now'

A new documentary about the conflict in Sudan follows six people working to bring humanitarian relief to the region. Adam Sterling is one of those featured in Darfur Now. Sterling's passion for the cause led him to form The Sudan Divestment Task Force.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

There's a new documentary about the conflict in the Sudan.

Unidentified Man: The Janjaweeds are basically an Arab militia. Some people say that they are the proxy force. That is much of Janjaweed's deed, enormous amount of tribal violence, which is getting the situation increasingly worse. I think it is the responsibility of the government of having opened this Pandora box that I don't think now they have the capacity to close, in order to bring peace to this area.

CHIDEYA: "Darfur Now" follows six people working to bring humanitarian relief and peace to the region.

Twenty-four-year-old Adam Sterling was a college Student in southern California, when he first learned about the situation in Darfur. He says he had to do something to help.

Mr. ADAM STERLING (Resident, California): I was e-mailed a story by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. He's been one of the most prolific writers on Sudan and Darfur in the last four or five years. And I just had happened to open this one e-mail, and I've read the story, and Nicholas Kristof was visiting one of the refugee camps.

And looking at the use of rape as a systematic tool in the genocide, and he was speaking to a young mother and he said to this mother, every time you send your daughter out to collect firewood, she's raped. Why don't you send your son? And the response from this mother was, if I send my son, he'll be killed. If I send my daughter, she'll only be raped. And it just blew me away that that type of decision is made in Darfur on a daily basis. And, you know, I thought back the decisions I had made and remembering college, I spent a week deciding whether to get an Xbox or a PlayStation. And it really kind of - I think that was my wake-up call.

CHIDEYA: You also talk about being someone who wasn't particularly into activism in college. What made the difference for you this time?

Mr. STERLING: I think I found a cause that I just I couldn't find an excuse not to get involved in. I mean, Darfur marks the first time in history that a genocide has been labeled the genocide while it's actually still happening. And, you know, I grew up learning about the holocaust and, you know, here we are repeating history again. And I just - I couldn't accept that. And, you know, it started small. A group of us from my class got together and, you know, we didn't wake up and say, we're going to start a global divestment campaign.

But, I remember our first meeting, there was four of us. And it was the four of us that started the group and our next goal was just to get more people to come to the meeting and kind of just - we would be successful on that and then it was what can we do next, and it's always been what can we do next for the last three years.

CHIDEYA: Explain what you mean by divestment and who you're trying to get to divest.

Mr. STERLING: Sure. So we, you know, looking at ways that we could kind of impact the situation in Sudan. We looked closely at kind of the Sudanese government and saw that they were really the kind of the ones arming the militias that were conducting the attacks in Darfur and ultimately the ones that were preventing peace and security in Darfur. So we thought, you know, what's the best way to leverage the Sudanese government. And looking at the situation in Sudan, we found that generally, it's a very poor country.

The average yearly income is around $600 a year. Yet, we found that the Sudanese government was bringing in billions of dollars a year in oil revenue and that money, unfortunately, wasn't going to debt relief. It wasn't going to development. It was going almost all to military spending. And we found that the Sudanese government itself didn't have the capacity or the capital to really take the country's vast oil reserves and turn them into revenues.

So they brought in all of these foreign oil companies, which then did that work for them. So we found the Sudanese government was incredibly relying on these companies and then we looked at our university investments, our state investments and found that we had millions of dollars invested in these companies.

So using our ownership in these companies, we basically said to the companies, hey, you've got influence over the Sudanese government, if you don't use that and change your behavior in Sudan, we're going to sell our shares in your company. And that's really kind of what the divestment campaign has been over the last three years.

CHIDEYA: How successful would you say that you've been in those three years? What have you accomplished?

Mr. STERLING: It's been really amazing. You know, our first campaign was at the University of California. We were successful there and then we're asked by a state legislator, who said, hey, this is a great idea, help me write a law. And in the last, now, two and half years, 21 states have passed Sudan Divestment Laws, so we're really excited about that.

CHIDEYA: Now, this is one of a series - "Darfur Now" is one the series of films and documentaries that has come out, putting Darfur front and center. Do you think that media, whether it's fiction, non-fiction, can really transform people who may not be that interested in this cause?

Mr. STERLING: Absolutely. I think one of the issues is if you're interested about Darfur, up until this point you've really had to seek it out. I remember, you know, I had to really go look for more information about Darfur. And hopefully, with films like "Darfur Now," kind of the information will be given to people and they'll then be faced with the decision to act. And with "Darfur Now," it really - it chose - it's inspirational in that it doesn't just show the genocide; it shows people responding to that.

CHIDEYA: Give me just a quick example of one of the most powerful moments where you thought, okay, I'm really making a difference and one of the moments where you just felt despair.

Mr. STERLING: You know, I think despair, early on in our campaign, as I said, our first campaign was at the University of California, where you've got UCLA, UC Berkley. There's ten schools and they've got a huge pension fund. When we really first got involved in the divestment campaign, one of our faculty advisers - and this was actually a supporter of us - of ours, took us a aside, a small group of us and said, hey, I think this is great, what you're doing. But, you know, I really - I want to warn you guys, I've been teaching here for many decades, and that the board of trustees they're very conservative and this is just not something they're going to go for.

Fortunately, we had thought we had spent too much time writing up a proposal so we kept going and we were successful. But that was a difficult moment, to keep going after that. And I think a high, more recently, we've been able to help draft a piece of federal legislation. It's the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, which pass the House of Representatives in July and is now making its way to the Senate floor.

CHIDEYA: Do you ever worry that your connection to Darfur is not close enough in terms of experience or engagement to really motivate other people? How does that relate to the work that you do?

Mr. STERLING: Well, I think, you know, if you kind of took that argument, then one could say, you know, unless you go to Darfur, you can't take action. And, you know, I would like to go someday, but I think there's people that do go and can make a bigger impact there than I can. And I think my impact has really been on the political situation here in the U.S. and showing people that, you know, you can take action. You don't have to, you know, go to Darfur. You don't have to necessarily be an expert.

I mean I wasn't until, you know, I really got involved. But I think, you know, anyone can take action. It really - there's a famous quote after Rwanda in 1994, the genocide there, a U.S. senator said, if we had received just 100 letters from our constituents telling us that this was important to them, the situation would have been different. There would have been a different result. So ultimately, I think, you know, we've been given the evidence about Darfur and everyone can act.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example of someone who you consider a hero in the fight to save Darfur?

Mr. STERLING: I think, you know, the first time I got to see "Darfur Now" at the premiere in Toronto, I was really blown away by Hejewa Adam who is one of the characters in the film. She's the young lady who lived in Darfur and her child was killed in one of the attacks. And she made the decision that, you know, her contribution to the crisis would be to kind of pick up arms and join one of the rebel movements and protect her people from these types of attacks.

And that really put into perspective all the sacrifices I've, you know, putting off grad school and moving to D.C., that I've made and really kind of had motivated me to keep pushing. So I didn't think I'd get a lot about the film, I've been exposed to this for so long now that it's - I'm almost desensitized. But really, I, you know, really enjoyed the film and it inspired me.

CHIDEYA: Well, Adam, thanks so much.

Mr. STERLING: Great. Thanks for covering this.

CHIDEYA: Adam Sterling is director and co-founder of the Sudan Divestment Task Force. He's also one of six people featured in the documentary, "Darfur Now." The film is currently in theaters nationwide. You can learn more at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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