'Not On Our Watch': A Mission to End Genocide

John Prendergast and Don Cheadle visit a refugee camp on the Darfur-Eastern Chad border. i i

hide captionJohn Prendergast (center) and Don Cheadle visit a refugee camp on the Darfur-Eastern Chad border.

Rick Wilkinson
John Prendergast and Don Cheadle visit a refugee camp on the Darfur-Eastern Chad border.

John Prendergast (center) and Don Cheadle visit a refugee camp on the Darfur-Eastern Chad border.

Rick Wilkinson

Book Excerpt

Actor Don Cheadle once took part in a conversation that could be seen as a commentary on today's news.

It was in the movie Hotel Rwanda, in which he portrayed Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered more than 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In the movie, Cheadle thanks a Western TV cameraman for sending footage of the killing to the West, saying it would prompt the international community to intervene.

The cameraman replies, "I think if people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners."

Now Cheadle is trying to prevent a similar reaction to what's been labeled genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

In 2005 he traveled to Sudan with John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who is now a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. They visited a refugee camp for people who had fled the violence in Darfur, and heard first-hand accounts of killings, rape, torture and forced evacuations.

Cheadle and Prendergast are urging ordinary citizens to speak out to end the suffering in Darfur.

They are co-authors of a new book, Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, which maintains that people can influence their governments to act.

"If U.S. citizens can make enough noise to press their government to do what's right, then we will have saved literally tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives in Darfur," Prendergast says.

Excerpt: 'Not On Our Watch'

Not On Our Watch Cover

Chapter One: Challenges and Choices

It was sometime round midnight in a little village in southern Sudan, and the only link to the rest of the world within a five-hundred-mile radius was one satellite phone, so when it rang it was a bit of a shock to everyone.

Don dispensed with the formalities. "My man, you are not easy to find."

"Obviously, hiding from you is not as easy as I thought," John countered.

Despite his attempt at a cool demeanor, John was excited. After Marlon Brando and Mickey Rourke (John is well aware that he has issues), Don was his favorite actor, and the fact that the two of them were about to go on a trip together to Chad and across the border into the western Sudanese region of Darfur was firing him up.

However, Don wasn't making a social call. He was concerned that the mission that we were going on with a bunch of members of Congress was only going to spend several hours in the refugee camps in Chad, and he wanted to stay longer. "You gotta rescue it," Don instructed John.

John looked around to see what tools he had at his disposal in that little southern Sudanese village, but all he could hear was the ribbit, rabbit of the Sudanese frogs. "I am in the middle of nowhere. Give me twelve hours."

A few hundred dollars of satellite phone calls later, a much more substantial and lengthy trip was planned. We also managed to get Paul Rusesabagina, whom Don had portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, and Rick Wilkinson, a veteran producer for ABC's Nightline, to come with us and help interpret and chronicle our first journey together.

Our trip to witness the ravages of genocide in Darfur was not the first brush with that heinous crime for either of us. Don had visited Rwanda post-filming, and John had been in Rwanda and the refugee camps in Congo immediately after the genocide.

As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might feel like to be hunted as a human being. These Darfurians had been targeted for extermination by the regime in Sudan on the basis of their ethnicity. Although well-meaning and thoughtful people may disagree on what to call it, for us the crisis in Darfur is one that constitutes genocide.

Enough is ENOUGH. We need to come together and press for action to end the violence in Darfur and prevent future crimes against humanity. Through simple acts and innovative collaborations, we can save hundreds of thousands of lives now.

That is our fervent hope, and our goal.

Darfur: A Slow-Motion Genocide

Genocide is unique among "crimes against humanity" or "mass atrocity crimes" because it targets, in whole or in part, a specific racial, religious, national, or ethnic group for extinction. According to the international convention, genocide can include any of the following five criteria targeted at the groups listed above:

-killing

-causing serious bodily or mental harm

-deliberately inflicting "conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part"

-imposing measures to prevent births

-forcibly transferring children from a targeted group.

The perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda took one hundred days to exterminate 800,000 lives. This was the fastest rate of targeted mass killing in human history, three times faster than that of the Holocaust.

JOHN:

In mid-2004, one year into the fighting and six months before the trip Don and I took to Chad/Darfur, I went with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Samantha Power to the rebel areas in Darfur. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting government-held areas in the region. But unlike Secretary Powell, Samantha and I went to the part of Sudan that the regime didn't want anyone to see, and for very good reason.

Before the genocide, Darfur was one of the poorest regions of Sudan, and the Saharan climate made eking out a living an extreme challenge. But these difficulties only made Darfurians hardier and more self-reliant, mixing farming and livestock rearing in a complex strategy of survival that involved migration, intercommunal trade, and resource sharing.

It had been over a year since the genocide began, so Samantha and I expected certain evidence of mass destruction. And we were indeed witness to burned villages where livestock, homes, and grain stocks had been utterly destroyed, confirming stories we had heard from Darfurians at refugee camps in Chad.

Yet no amount of time in Sudan or work on genocide ever prepares anyone sufficiently for what Samantha and I saw in a ravine deep in the Darfur desert — bodies of nearly two dozen young men lined up in ditches, eerily preserved by the 130-degree desert heat. One month before, they had been civilians, forced to walk up a hill to be executed by Sudanese government forces. Harrowingly, this scene was repeated throughout the targeted areas of Darfur.

We heard more refugees in Chad describe family and friends being stuffed into wells by the Janjaweed in a twisted and successful attempt to poison the water supply. When we searched for these wells in Darfur, we found them in the exact locations described. The only difference was now these wells were covered in sand in an effort to cover the perpetrators' bloody tracks. With each subsequent trip to Darfur, I have found the sands of the Saharan Desert slowly swallowing more of the evidence of the twenty-first century's first genocide.

To us, Darfur has been Rwanda in slow motion. Perhaps 400,000 have died during three and a half years of slaughter, over two and a quarter million have been rendered homeless, and, in a particularly gruesome subplot, thousands of women have been systematically raped. During 2006, the genocide began to metastasize, spreading across the border into Chad, where Chadian villagers (and Darfurian refugees) have been butchered and even more women raped by marauding militias supported by the Sudanese government.

Sadly, the international response has also unfolded in slow motion. With crimes against humanity like the genocide in Darfur, the caring world is inevitably in a deadly race with time to save and protect as many lives as possible. In the fall of 2004, after his visit to Sudan, Secretary Powell officially invoked the term "genocide." He was followed shortly thereafter by President Bush. This represented the first time an ongoing genocide was called its rightful name by a sitting U.S. president. And yet in Darfur, as in most of these crises, the international community, including the United States, responded principally by calling for cease-fires and sending humanitarian aid. These are important gestures to be sure, but they do not stop the killing.

We believe it is our collective responsibility to re-sanctify the sacred post-Holocaust phrase "Never Again" — to make it something meaningful and vital. Not just for the genocide that is unfolding today in Darfur, but also for the next attempted genocide or cases of mass atrocities.

And there are other cases, to be sure.

Right now, we need to do all we can for the people of northern Uganda, of Somalia, and of Congo. Though genocide is not being perpetrated in these countries, horrible abuses of human rights are occurring, in some ways comparable to those in Darfur. Militias are targeting civilians, rape is used as a tool of war, and life-saving aid is obstructed or stolen by warring parties. Furthermore, by the time you pick up this book, another part of the world could have caught on fire, and crimes against humanity may be being perpetrated. We need to do all we can to organize ourselves to uphold international human rights law and to prevent these most heinous crimes from ever occurring.

That is our challenge.

Raising the Political Will to Confront Crimes Against Humanity

Preventing genocide and other mass atrocities is a challenge made all the more difficult by a lack of public concern, media coverage, and effective response, especially to events in Africa. Crimes against humanity on that continent are largely ignored or treated as part of the continent's political inheritance, more so than in Asia or Europe. The genocide in Darfur is competing for international action with human rights emergencies in Congo, Somalia, and northern Uganda —conflicts that along with southern Sudan have left over 6 million dead — but the international response to these atrocities rarely goes beyond military observation missions and humanitarian relief efforts, which are insufficient Band-Aids.

Crises like these need the immediate attention of a new constituency focused on preventing and confronting genocide and other crimes against humanity. Of these four conflicts, only Darfur has generated sustained media and public attention. Images of innocent Darfurian civilians — men, women, and children — hounded from their homes by ravaging militia have triggered significant activism on the part of Americans and citizens around the world. But these public expressions have not, by the time of this writing, at the end of 2006, yielded a sufficient international response. The United States government has yet to take bold action to protect the victims, build a viable peace process, and hold those responsible for this genocide accountable.

There is some positive momentum building. At the United Nations World Summit in 2005, member nations agreed to a doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. R2P states that when a government is unable or unwilling, as is the case with Sudan, to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community must take that responsibility. We believe that this doctrine, developed by a high-level panel cochaired by Gareth Evans (the president of the International Crisis Group, where John works) and Mohamed Sahnoun (former Algerian diplomat and UN special advisor) commits us all, as individuals and nations, to do our part to fulfill that responsibility.

During our visit to Darfur and the Darfurian refugee camps in Chad, we heard story after story of mind-numbing violence perpetrated by the Sudanese government army and the Janjaweed militias they support. We heard of women being gang-raped, children being thrown into fires, villages and communities that had existed for centuries being burned to the ground in an effort to wipe out the livelihoods and even the history of those communities. We heard things that simply should not be happening in the twenty-first century.

In one of the refugee camps in Chad in 2005, we met Fatima, forty-two, who described how she had to escape her village of Girgira in western Darfur after her mother, husband, and five children were all killed by the Janjaweed militias. She said she feared the government would kill her as well. In desperation, she walked for seven days to a refugee camp. She couldn't walk during daytime hours because of the Janjaweed gangs. She hid under trees and plants. Despite all this, she wanted to return home, but she wanted to be sure it was safe. Having lost everything, she no longer trusted anyone, even the African Union troops deployed in Darfur.

Omda Yahya, a tribal leader we talked with from Tine, also saw all his children die in a violent raid on his town and in the subsequent escape to "safety." His town, he says, was attacked by men on horseback, planes dropping bombs, and armies on foot. He fled with many of his tribe, and after more than fifteen days of walking without food or drink, they arrived at a refugee camp. "We lost our village. They burned it. If we get all our possessions back, then after that we can go back. But now we don't think it is safe to go back."

How do we respond to these horrors?

What we've learned is that there are three pillars to fostering a real change in human rights and conflict resolution policy: field research to learn what is really happening in the conflict zones and what needs to be done, high-level advocacy to deliver the message to the people who determine policy, and domestic political pressure from a constituency that cares about these issues and takes them up with their elected officials.

This last one often goes missing. Sustained and robust campaigns by organized citizens are needed for maximum impact. Fostering these constituencies must be our focus.

Will the United States lead efforts to protect people when they are being systematically annihilated by predatory governments or militias? Will we punish the perpetrators of crimes against humanity? Will we promote peace processes with high-level envoys and other support? None of these options is beyond the realm of the possible; they are simply matters of political will. If U.S. citizens and therefore the government answer yes to these questions, millions of lives will be spared in the coming years.

The good news is that much of the suffering could come to an end. It is within our power. If the U.S. government takes a lead role during each crisis marked by crimes against humanity, our chances to prevent or end these crimes increases dramatically. If the U.S. government had taken a leading role in three areas of policy — peacemaking, protection, and punishment — these crimes could have been prevented or stopped. If U.S. citizens and their government increase their activism and work to build an international coalition to stop mass atrocities, major changes are possible.

Despite what you may see on the evening news, there are encouraging signs of progress. Indeed, sparse and sporadic news coverage of Africa focusing solely on crises there has led to a "conflict fatigue" associated with the continent as a whole. By ignoring the positive news, U.S. and European media risk fostering a dangerous tendency to dismiss the entire continent as hopeless. So when wars erupt and their attendant human rights abuses emerge, the response — if there even is one — is often tentative and muted, and conflict-ridden countries easily descend into a free-fall. We think these conflicts are not just an affront to humanity; they are the greatest threat to overall progress throughout the African continent.

Yet despite the many obstacles, there is good news coming out of Africa every day. There has been a move away from dictatorships toward democracy in many countries, and a commitment on the part of many African governments to fiscally responsible economic policies focused on alleviating poverty. Peace agreements have been forged in countries which only a few years earlier had been ripped apart by war and crimes against humanity. Witness the tragic tales of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Mozambique, southern Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi, all of which had horrific civil wars that came to an end, laying the groundwork for huge positive changes.

So that is the point. If we can prevent and resolve these wars that lead to such devastation, one of the biggest reasons for Africa's misery and dependence will be removed. By giving peace a chance, we give millions and millions of Africans a chance.

We have identified the Three Ps of ending genocide and other crimes against humanity: Protect the People, Punish the Perpetrators, and Promote the Peace. (We will describe these in detail in Chapter 9.) If the government of the world's sole superpower, the United States, motivated by the will of its citizens, takes the lead globally in doing these three things, crimes against humanity can come to an end.

The decisions we need to make to protect those who are suffering are clear, and the sooner we decide, the more lives will be saved.

That is our choice.

Overcoming Obstacles to Action

So if it is as easy as that, why don't we do it? Mostly it is what we call the Four Horsemen Enabling the Apocalypse: apathy, indifference, ignorance, and policy inertia. The U.S. government simply doesn't want to wade too deeply into the troubled waters of places like northern Uganda and Congo. We did once, in Somalia, and the resulting tragedy of Black Hawk Down — when eighteen American servicemen were killed in the streets of Mogadishu — made everyone nervous about recommitting any effort to African war zones we don't fully understand.

As we all know by now, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, American citizens — to the extent that they even heard about what was happening — largely averted their eyes, and as a result the U.S. government did nothing. Similar averting occurred during the 1975–1979 genocide in Cambodia, from 1992 to 1995 in Bosnia, and even during the Holocaust. As our friend Samantha Power documented in her book on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, this is the usual response to horrific crimes against humanity — disbelief in the totality of the horror and a genuine hope that the problem will go away.

Somalia's Black Hawk Down actually provides the wrong lesson. Instead of running away from these crisis zones, we could protect many lives, and do so much good, if we gave a little more of our time, energy, and resources, in ways that understand the local context. In most cases, we don't have to send 30,000 U.S. Marines every time there is a problem, though working with other countries to apply military force is sometimes necessary. Diplomatic leadership in support of the Three Ps (Protection, Punishment, Peacemaking) is what it takes to make a substantial difference.

Beyond indifference and the ghosts of Somalia, responding to Darfur has an additional obstacle. Sudanese government officials, who were close to Osama bin Laden when he lived in that country from 1991 until 1996, are now cooperating with American counterterrorism authorities. The regime in Khartoum rightly concluded that if they provided nuggets of information about al-Qaeda suspects and detainees to the Americans, the value of this information would outweigh outrage over their state-supported genocide. In other words, when U.S. counterterrorism objectives meet up with anti-genocide objectives, Sudanese officials had a hunch that counterterrorism would win every time. These officials have been right in their calculations so far. As of this writing, near the end of 2006, the United States had done little to seriously confront the Sudanese regime over its policies.

In order to win the peace in Sudan, we must first win an ideological battle at home. We must show that combating crimes against humanity is as important as combating terrorism. Often, as in the case of Sudan, the pursuit of both objectives doesn't have to be mutually exclusive. History has demonstrated that Sudanese government officials change their behavior when they face genuine international diplomatic and economic pressure. If we worked to build strong international consensus for targeted punishments of these officials to meet both counterterrorism and human rights objectives, they would comply.

The policy battle lines are clear. On the one hand are the forces of the status quo: officials from the United States, other governments, and the UN who are inclined to look the other way when the alarm bell sounds and simply send food and medicine to the victims. They believe that the American public and other citizens around the world do not care enough to create a political cost for their inaction. These officials are allowed to remain bystanders because of complicit citizens who know about what is happening but do not speak out, giving the officials an excuse to do nothing.

On the other hand are a growing group of Americans, a ragtag band of citizen activists all over the United States who want the phrase "Never Again" to mean something. They want the first genocide of the twenty-first century, Darfur, to be the last. Led principally by Jewish, Christian, African-American, and student groups, they have slowly begun to organize. Yet far more needs to be done to overcome the institutional inertia in U.S. policy circles. These groups are joined by an even smaller but determined core of citizen activists in other countries who are trying to build a global civil society alliance to confront crimes against humanity.

Who wins this battle will determine the fate of millions of people in Darfur and other killing fields.

That is our mission.

A Citizens' Movement to Confront Mass Atrocity Crimes

Our friend Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written about a "citizens' army fighting to save" millions of lives in Darfur. After describing some of the extraordinary efforts of ordinary citizens around the country, including fund-raising by young American kids, Nick wrote, "I don't know whether to be sad or inspired that we can turn for moral guidance to 12-year-olds."

Well, we are inspired.

Samantha Power has written about the "bystanders" who do nothing when genocide occurs and the "upstanders" who act or speak out in an effort to stop the atrocities from continuing. Her book highlights the "upstanders" and "bystanders" of the last century. We all have the capacity to be "upstanders." The more of us there are, the better the chances that these kinds of crimes will not be allowed to occur in the twenty-first century.

It is up to us.

For us, Don first got interested in these issues through the movie he made, then through connecting up with John, who had gone through his own process of growing awareness and discovering a whole universe of Americans who are getting involved and trying to make a difference. We want to show that it is possible to care enough to change things. We want to remove all excuses and impediments to individual action, because such actions — collectively — do make a difference.

Throughout American history, social movements have helped shape our government's policy on a variety of issues. Often in the beginning, their appearance was not widely recognized as much of a movement. We believe we are witnessing the birth of a small but significant grassroots movement to confront genocide and — we hope, over time — all crimes against humanity wherever they occur. A campaign like ENOUGH is but one manifestation of that effort, and we describe many others later in the book.

Student groups are forming on hundreds of college campuses (and hundreds more high schools) specifically to raise awareness and undertake activities in response to the genocide. Synagogues and churches are holding forums and starting letter-writing campaigns all over the country. National organizations — some faith-based, some African-American, some human rights-related — are running campaigns in every city. Celebrities are getting involved, taking trips and speaking out against the genocide. After all of the hollow pledges of "Never Again" dutifully made by politicians and pundits, networks of concerned Americans are taking matters into their own hands and demanding policy makers do more to end the crisis in Sudan.

One of the best things about this growing movement is that it is nonpartisan. So much of the venom that marks Washington these days — the red state/blue state divide — has been set aside. We always hear how politics makes strange bedfellows. How strange it must have been for some of the conservative evangelical members of Congress to find themselves agreeing with some of the most liberal members the Congress has ever seen!

How the world responds to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes represents one of the greatest moral tests of our lifetime. In the face of genocide halfway around the globe, can American citizens — acting individually and in groups — possibly aid in stopping these atrocities?

Absolutely!

We continue to be convinced that the growing chorus of outrage, from Florida to California, can stop war crimes and reduce the cries of agony in places such as Darfur. The U.S. government can take a leading role in stopping atrocities, in most cases without putting U.S. forces on the ground in large numbers. However, the only means by which U.S. policy can change, and thus the only way mass atrocity crimes can end, is if U.S. citizens raise their voices loud enough to get the attention of the White House and force our government to change its policy.

To encourage and embolden you, our readers, to join in this movement to bring an end to genocide around the world, we offer Six Strategies for Effective Change that you as an individual can employ to influence public policy and help save hundreds of thousands of lives:

-Raise awareness

-Raise funds

-Write letters

-Call for divestment

-Join an organization

-Lobby the government

Ultimately, this book is about giving meaning to Never again. In short, this is a handbook for everyone who thinks that one person cannot make a difference, for those who feel that what happens half a world away is not their responsibility, and for everyone who cares but doesn't know where to start making a positive difference.

We want to tell that story.

First, though, in the interest of full disclosure and since it is, after all, our book, we will tell you our stories....

Excerpted from Not On Our Watch by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. Copyright 2007 Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Books Featured In This Story

Not on Our Watch
Not on Our Watch

The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond

by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast

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