Sudan conflict’s youngest victims in focus By Nancy Sheehan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
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Sep 15, 2006 - 8:24:00 AM
Sudan conflict’s youngest victims in focus
The crash of enemy mortar jarred the young boy from sleep. In the darkness he could hear distant gunfire that was growing steadily louder. His mother and brothers were already up, racing about and grabbing what belongings they could. But there wasn’t much time. Most of what they owned would have to be left behind.
Emil Igwenagu was just 9 years old when he fled with his family into the Nigerian night. The rest of the people in his small village fled with them, carrying a few precious possessions in the way they had since ancient times — piled on top of their heads.
“People were streaming on the road with their belongings on their heads, with their bicycles and cars all heading in one direction,” said Igwenagu, now director of the Worcester African Cultural Center. They were going toward the marginal safety of a refugee camp during the height of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war. “It was very scary,” Igwenagu said. “There were old people walking, people falling, people dropping. When you’re in the camp, you see the air raids. People dig trenches and when the siren comes, everybody runs into the trenches and they lay down flat.” Afterward, life would go on in the camp amid the bodies of those who had been killed by the bombers.
That was in the late 1960s, and now another African civil war is raging, this time in Darfur in western Sudan. The ethnically driven conflict, often described as genocide, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. As in all wars, the most tragic victims are those least able to defend themselves — the children. The Darfur conflict, as seen through the eyes and hearts of refugee children, is powerfully depicted in an exhibition of drawings on display at the Worcester African Cultural Center, 33 Canterbury St., through Sept. 20.
The drawings show the emotional impact the war has on its smallest witnesses. There are armed figures in uniform shooting down unarmed civilians. They fire at close range. Bombers and fighter jets fill the sky, raining bombs on refugee camps. There are tukuls, the simple straw thatched huts the Sudanese typically live in, colored over with red-crayon scribbles. The scribbles signify fire. In some drawings, whole villages are burning.
Many fear the situation in Darfur is about to get even worse. There are dire warnings that millions of people face an imminent threat of genocide at the hands of the government-backed Janjaweed, the Arab militiamen who are attacking non-Arab people in the region. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has called the situation a catastrophe in the making, and the Sudanese government continues to resist a U.N. peacekeeping force.
“Lately there has been terrible news,” Igwenagu said. “There are a lot of political issues, and sometimes you think, ‘Leave it alone. Let the politicians deal with it.’ But my concern, having gone through the Biafran War, is that people don’t really understand how the militia operates, what life is like in a camp, how you have to camouflage yourselves from air raids and that, all of a sudden, you see the fighter bombers right there just killing people.”
The exhibit, presented in association with the African Cultural Festival at the center this weekend, was brought to Worcester by Lisa Weinberg, a refugee rights lawyer who lives in the city and has worked overseas, including recently in Egypt.
“I became aware of these pictures when I was asked to speak for a World Refugee Day at the Hartford Public Library,” she said. “I was so moved when I saw. I thought they were such a great educational tool to make people aware in a very real way of what’s happening in Sudan. I asked the organizer if we could have them next.”
Weinberg hopes the exhibition will spur people to action.
“It’s a terribly important thing right now because all the aid groups have pulled out of Sudan because it’s just too dangerous,” she said. “Humanitarian aid workers are being targeted by the government because they don’t want witnesses to the violence, so this (exhibit) is very important because these children are witnesses to what’s happening there.”
What can people do? Many activists are looking at divestiture. “This can’t happen without financial support,” Weinberg said. Several universities already have divested from Sudan, including Amherst College and Brown University. Weinberg suggested individuals check their personal investments for Sudanese ties, and she said some political leaders are advocating divestiture for public money, including state pension funds.
“We need to take a hard look at our own community and see if we are supporting this,” she said.
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