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Darfur Diaries: Filmmakers Return from Sudan to Bring Stories of Oppression and Survival

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The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour on Friday called for the disarming of government-backed militias in Darfur. We speak with three young filmmakers about their journey into Darfur, where they interviewed refugees living in camps in the harshest of conditions and produced the documentary, “Darfur Diaries.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Friday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned that unless the Sudanese government disarms militias operating in Darfur, there will be more attacks like those that occurred last month. Those attacks left over 50 people dead, including 27 children under the age of 12. Thousands more were displaced. The United Nations said in a report last week there are indications Sudan’s military participated in the attacks. It said witnesses identified the 300 to 500 attackers as Arabs riding on horseback, wearing green camouflage military uniforms and armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

More than 200,000 people have been killed, and 2.5 million displaced, in fighting between rebels and government-backed militias since early 2003. A 7,000-strong African Union contingent is conducting a peacekeeping mission in the region with logistic support from NATO. The U.N. Security Council voted in August to send over 20,000 peacekeepers to Darfur to replace the African Union force, but Sudan rejected the decision.

Our guests today traveled to the refugee camps in eastern Chad and in Darfur in October of 2004. They snuck across the border between Chad and Sudan and remained behind rebel lines. They interviewed refugees living in camps in the harshest conditions and produced the documentary, Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. In this clip from the film, a young boy is speaking inside a refugee camp.

MUBARAK: I can’t sleep all night long. I also can’t eat. I have bad nights. I’m always thinking about back home.

REFUGEE GIRL: All the kids dream at night and cry. You ask why, and they say, “The planes come.” Some of them wake up and run. When you stop them and ask them why, they say, “because the soldiers are coming to beat me!”

MUBARAK: When the Antonovs dropped bombs on us, we ran to hide under the trees. The ones who were not killed ran away. Antonovs killed my father. I saw many people killed. I saw it with my eyes. Many people were killed with him. The bombs severed people’s arms and legs, and the people fell. We were forced to leave by army, Janjaweed and Antonovs. Three days later, we came back and buried the dead. After the bombing, we came and dug many graves. We used tools and cut wood from the trees to dig the graves. After we buried the people, we left. Even after we left, the Janjaweed and army came and killed people.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Darfur Diaries: Message from Home, the film produced and directed by Jen Marlowe, Aisha Bain, who join me in New York; Adam Shapiro, on the phone with us in Washington, D.C. In addition to their documentary film, Jen, Aisha and Adam co-authored the book, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Can you tell us more about this boy, Aisha?

AISHA BAIN: Sure. He’s from an area not far from one of the villages that we went to outside of Musbat called Hangala. And he was just so striking in the way — and his composure of telling these stories about how he was attacked, how they dug graves with sticks, how the Janjaweed came and attacked them, even after they had dug the graves, and how he has been effected since his father was killed and he is in this camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to do this?

AISHA BAIN: I had been working at a small NGO, starting in my first year as a master’s student. This is 2003 in the fall, before it had even been picked up by the media. And we started hearing reports. I started calling Darfur, after I had found all these different numbers of people who were giving me reports, alarming reports of what was happening: people being killed, villages being bombed, villages being burned.

And we started a media campaign here, calling everyone — CNN, ABC, New York Times, Washington Post. And the message that we got was basically, if it wasn’t already being picked up by the media, it wasn’t an important enough story. And that really spurred me to continue to try and make someone aware of what was happening. And Adam Shapiro was a friend of mine. We kept talking about the issue. My small NGO closed down. We kept talking. We kept working, and he finally said, “You know, I think we should go there.” And I said, “You’re right.”

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Shapiro, you’re well known as being an activist on the West Bank. We just did a segment just now on Gaza. What caused you to go from talking about human rights in the Occupied Territories to going to Darfur?

ADAM SHAPIRO: Well, as Aisha mentioned, she had started talking to me about what was happening in Darfur, and I just really felt compelled to do something. And just looking around and seeing what I had been doing in the Occupied Territories, the recent film I had done in Iraq, I realized that if nobody else was going to do it, then it’s incumbent upon us as individuals to try to do whatever we could. And I thought we could take this opportunity, put some funds together and get out there. And bringing cameras and shooting a film seemed to me to be one of the first things that we could do as a way to shed more light on the subject.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Marlowe, how did you get involved? And talk about the journey.

JEN MARLOWE: I actually was having lunch with Adam, and he was telling me about the fact that he and Aisha were raising money and trying to make a plan to go to Darfur to make this film. And I guess he saw a blank look on my face, because I had never until that moment even heard the word “Darfur” before. And as he began to tell me what was going on, I was horrified and shocked, both at what he was telling me and the fact that I didn’t know, especially because this was right during the time of the 10-year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. So any time I was watching the news, I was seeing dignitaries from the U.N. or ambassadors talking about what had happened in Rwanda or what hadn’t happened in terms of meaningful international intervention. But no one was talking about Darfur.

And very soon after that, I wrote an email to Adam, and I asked him, “Are you looking for a third person on your team? Because I’d really like to be a part of telling this story.” So, we started our journey in eastern Chad — well, started in the capital of Chad, in N’Djamena, made our way out to eastern Chad to the refugee camps, talking to the refugees there. We didn’t have a visa from the Sudanese government to go into Sudan, so we had to make contact with rebel groups along the border area between Chad and Sudan, and they took us across the border, and we stayed behind rebel lines. And we spent about a month in the area, total, some of that in the refugee camps in eastern Chad and some of that inside Darfur.

AMY GOODMAN: You spent a lot of time talking to rebel leaders. Tell us who they are.

JEN MARLOWE: We talked to some of the leaders and some of the founders of the Sudan Liberation Army, which is one of the main groups that’s resisting the Sudanese government and resisting the Janjaweed. And one of the main people that we talked to, Suleiman Jamous, was the humanitarian coordinator for the SLA, and he was responsible for trying to protect and get care and aid for all the civilians that were displaced inside the rebel-held territories.

AMY GOODMAN: Aisha, can you talk about being in the refugee camps? For our radio listeners, you can go to our website to see some of the images, where — bringing people on the TV show from Darfur Diaries, that is now just being shown. But can you talk about getting in?

AISHA BAIN: Sure, we really have to thank UNHCR for their help in assisting us to get into the camps. They are managing what is one of the most difficult situations that they’ve really had to in one of the most barren areas in the world. And we were just really lucky that the people that we met were so welcoming and open. And I think when we set out to do this project and this film, we really wanted to represent their voices, because the media had largely — they had been absent completely actually — and it had been internationals speaking on behalf of Darfurians. And so we wanted to give them a voice.

But what we found, beyond anything we imagined, was just their dignity and their strength and their courage, that they had just come with nothing, that some local Chadians had helped them when they first arrived before UNHCR did. And then they had just, to the best of their ability, they were building their own schools from mud, from whatever they could put together. They were educating their children without any assistance first, before UNICEF came in and provided some help.

And even so, you talked to them about prospects for their future, and you could not possibly imagine their faces when you said, “Well, what will you do if you have to stay here longer?” To them, it was not a possibility. They were going home tomorrow; they were going home in a week. And they couldn’t fathom that now, three years, almost four years after the conflict, they’re still trapped.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen, the latest news headlines out of Darfur?

JEN MARLOWE: The latest news continue to grow more and more grim. I actually spoke just before coming to the studio to Suleiman Jamous, and he told me there was an attack today in the area of West Darfur, a little bit north of El Geneina, which is the capital of West Darfur. He doesn’t know how many people were killed, but the attack was a ground attack with government troops and Janjaweed. So it’s pretty clear that there was loss of civilian life.

And this is happening every day now. On a daily basis, the violence is rampaging. People’s access to aid is getting less and less, especially in the rebel-held territories. There’s 600,000 people that, within a few weeks, are going to face conditions of starvation if aid doesn’t get in there.

AMY GOODMAN: A Norwegian aid agency is closing down its operations in Darfur, citing government interference in its work. It’s the Norwegian Refugee Council, saying aiding some 300,000 people who have fled their homes, they are not going to be able to do it. They have suspended their operations five times. What do you feel needs to happen right now?

JEN MARLOWE: The thing I think that needs to happen, first of all, people need to have protection. And there’s been a lot of talk about needing to have peacekeeping troops on the ground, and certainly that’s an important thing to happen for people to be protected. But if the political process is not reinvigorated, then it will be sending troops into a quagmire, essentially.

There has been very little focus on the reason why the current crisis is where it is right now, and that’s because of the failure of the peace process that was going on in Abuja, Nigeria. On May 5th, this past spring, there was a peace agreement that was signed by the government and the leader of one of the rebel factions, happened to be the most abusive of the rebel leaders. No one else signed the agreement, both because they didn’t feel like the agreement sufficiently addressed their concerns and then also it became known as a peace between two criminals, because of the two signatories that did sign.

Since then, the political process has been all but ignored. And it’s only really in the last couple weeks that the African Union has really put some emphasis on trying to reinvigorate this process and those talks. There isn’t a military solution to what’s going on, either on the government side or on the international side. We have to get people around the table, not just the guys with guns, but the other community leaders, elders, stakeholders, displaced people, refugees, and support a political process.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Shapiro, what does the Sudanese government gain by these attacks?

ADAM SHAPIRO: Well, I think the Sudanese government at this point is, to some extent, perhaps even on its last legs. The agreement between the North, between the government and the SPLM, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or army, which was heralded a couple of years ago, indicated, I think, one, a sense of weakness by the government. It was forced by a lot of pressure from, especially the United States, but other countries in Africa to make peace.

And I think the government started realizing that it couldn’t maintain all this fighting with the South. And just when that was happening is exactly when, in Darfur, we started to see greater violence by the government, perhaps as a way of sort of lashing out and trying to send the message to other areas of the country, to let people know that this peace agreement between the North and the South shouldn’t be seen as the model for others, that it shouldn’t be seen that the government would be sharing power, which I think is a sign of weakness, that the only thing it has left to try to impose its will and authority on the people of Sudan is the military.

And I think increasingly we’re seeing people reject that, both in terms of raising arms against the government, but also more and more civil society groups and other groups inside the country are rejecting the government of Sudan. And we’re seeing a different kind of political leaders emerge, and even older political leaders like Hassan al-Turabi, who has formerly been known as a hard-line Islamist politician, is starting to come back with a different message this time, a much more moderate message and a message that seeks to unify Sudan rather than fragment it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Aisha, rape as a tool of war?

AISHA BAIN: It’s used often in war, and here it’s really been systematic to destroy the society and the culture, that the Janjaweed have been really empowered to go and have these gang rapes, sex slaves, in front of the men, in front of their whole entire families, children as young as five, even younger. It hasn’t all been documented, because of the shame involved.

Yet, it has been thousands and thousands of women. In the last few weeks, one area of North Darfur, from one camp, 21 women were raped. And that is just in the span of two weeks, and that was two weeks ago. It has been increasing. The war has spilled over into Chad. There are 63 internally displaced now in Chad. And the numbers continue to grow in Darfur. Women have been affected. It’s completely breaking down the society and the family structure.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Marlowe, you are showing this film tonight in New York and releasing the book?

JEN MARLOWE: Actually, we’re going to be showing a clip of the film, but we’re having — the book has just been published, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. And we’re having our book launch event in New York this evening at 7 p.m. at the Pomegranate Art Gallery, which is in Soho, 133 Greene Street. So we’d love if people could join us.

AMY GOODMAN: Jen Marlowe, Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro, thanks so much for being with us and bringing us the documentary, Darfur Diaries, and the book, as well.

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