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Holocaust Museum's Committee on Conscience turns sights to Sudan

Washington Jewish Week
November 27, 2000

ROCKVILLE, Md.—A shattered shop window with a yellow star, a mountain of shoes, an arch with the grim irony "Arbeit Mach Frei" inscribed upon it: These images alone can summon up the historic nightmare of the Nazi Holocaust.

Today, a blood-spattered page of math drills, a desert camp for the starved and displaced, an armless child evoke a contemporary mass murder of awesome, but little-known proportions: Sudan.

If the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has its way, the public will know much more about the situation there.

At a Nov. 15 press briefing, the committee announced a genocide warning against Sudan, a signal that systematic violence is putting at risk the survival of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

"The memory of the past is violated if we do not address the future," said committee chair Jerome Shestack, a former president of the American Bar Association.

His words paraphrased those of Elie Wiesel, who as head of the 1979 President's Commission on the Holocaust, helped shape the museum's mission to include a "living memorial" to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity.

Now on display in the well of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Theater is the first exhibit at the museum to address a situation outside of Europe. It offers a collage of facts, quotes and photographs from the heart of the Sudanese civil war, which has raged since 1983.

"When we looked at 2 million dead, 4 million displaced, slavery it was not controversial," said Shestack of the new exhibit. "The only question was: Why didn't we do it sooner?"

One haunting photograph shows the emaciated corpses of young children side by side in the back of a truck that is about to dump them into a mass grave in Bahr el Ghazal, a southern province of Sudan.

They are but a few among the 60,000 people estimated by the U.N. Food Program to have died during a man-made famine in 1998. Government forces and allied militias looted cattle and burned sorghum in the area, then blocked U.N. food relief, explained committee staff director Jerry Fowler.

In another part of the exhibit, a one-armed girl stands in the foreground of a picture. She is just one casualty of a Feb. 8 bombing of a school in Kauda, in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, that killed four children and one teacher. Uncounted others died later of their injuries.

This incident, reported in detail by the BBC, exemplifies the bombing of civilian targets in central and southern areas of the country. The U.S. Committee for Refugees had counted 113 such attacks this year, as of early November.

An estimated 2 million people have perished during the past 17 years in Sudan, and another 4.5 to 5 million have been uprooted in the struggle, according to a panel of human rights experts at the briefing.

"That's more deaths than happened in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo combined," said Jeff Drumtra, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees, who charged that the media have overlooked the Sudanese genocide, despite its gruesome proportions.

"American journalism is guilty of criminal negligence," argued Drumtra.

Sudan's government has used violence against the Nuba minority of the country's central region as well as the Dinka and Nuer in the south. Christians and moderate Muslims have also been singled out for persecution.

"Here you have communities being erased and the international community is silent," said Lomole Simeon Mwonga, chancellor of the Episcopalian Diocese of Khartoum, the capital.

In remarks after the briefing, Mwonga stressed the incitement by state-owned television and radio, the only broadcast media in the country, against Christian Sudanese. The U.S. State Department has placed Sudan on a list of seven "countries of particular concern" with regard to religious freedom

Jemera Rone, a counsel for Human Rights Watch, detailed the wide scope of human rights violations in Sudan. The government of Omar al-Bashir, which took power in a 1989 coup d'etat, was responsible, she said, for "forced displacement, indiscriminate bombing, use of child soldiers, rape and sexual abuse of women, and summary executions."

Rebel forces, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), also use child soldiers and resort to summary executions, but government troops, Rone alleged, are to blame for most human rights violations.

Rone and other panelists noted that the drive to tap oil in the Sudan has exacerbated a conflict rooted in ethnicity and religion. Until last year, the country's major source of revenue was Nile River water sold to its populous northern neighbor, Egypt.

Now, the government is supplementing this income with petroleum discovered in the nation's southland.

Buoyed by rising world oil prices, this resource has enabled the government to buy new weapons to use against its own people.

The price of the new prosperity has been mass expulsions of Dinka and Nuer in the oil-rich areas.

Rone, who regularly conducts field research in Sudan, described a policy of scorched earth and forced displacement, creating a "cordon sanitaire" for petroleum exploration. The Canadian oil company Talisman Energy, along with the oil companies of China and Malaysia, is active in the area, she said.

William Lowrey, who served on Presbyterian mission staff in Sudan from 1991 to 1998, underscored the role of "oil development, which gives the means and motive ... for driving out masses of people. That becomes the motive for genocide."

As a result of this situation, noted Rone, a movement has arisen in Canada to divest pension funds and the like of Talisman Energy stock.

Drumtra acknowledged a "convergence of interest" in the Sudanese war among U.S. faith groups in the past two years, but lamented that "it's still a drop in the bucket."

Meanwhile, the Committee on Conscience hopes to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who stream through the Holocaust museum each year.

Shestack accented the underlying aim of the new display: "to arouse the national and international conscience toward the horrors of what is going on in Sudan."

His committee also plans a campaign of action that will include meetings with policy makers in Congress and image makers in the media, campus presentations, a traveling exhibit and education about those who benefit commercially from the crimes against humanity.

"Mostly, we want to be a moral voice," explained Shestack. " Never again' is a slogan that should apply to all genocides."

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission


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