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Quick and Dirty

Genocidal Tendencies

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/22/2004

A group of people gathers around two laptop computers on a makeshift conference table on Dec. 13. A video clip shows on the screens with the sound slightly out of sync, giving the effect of a stadium echo in miniature. The group, gathered at Baltimore’s Progressive Action Center on Gorsuch Avenue, pays rapt attention to the man speaking on-screen. He wears a white headwrap, and he speaks from Darfur, Sudan. The camera pans over bomb craters, debris, the ruins of mud homes—and children playing in the dust. “So many problems,” says the man, Suleiman Djamos , a “humanitarian coordinator” with the Sudanese Liberation Army, speaking in English. “We have nowhere to go.”

The video, part of 50 hours of footage shot over four weeks in October and November, was a sneak preview of a documentary three videographer-activists hope to release by the end of January. Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro, both graduate students at American University, and Jen Marlowe, formerly executive director for the Israeli-Palestinian nonprofit called Seeds of Peace, raised about $20,000 last summer to make the trip. They hope their video will spur action in the United States and elsewhere to aid the 4 million people of Darfur, who are under attack by their government. Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the situation in Sudan a genocide.

Video from inside Darfur is rare, and the trio has heard from PBS, CNN, and other television networks interested in getting access to the footage. Aid workers, who have helped set up refugee camps for Darfur’s victims in nearby Chad, don’t cross the open border for fear of upsetting the Sudanese government. “They don’t want to get kicked out of the country,” says Bain, who has worked to bring attention to the crisis for years.

Under constant attack by the government and its allied “Janjaweed” paramilitary, most of the Darfur region’s 4 million people have left their villages to hide in the desert, making temporary shelters under trees so that government aircrafts can’t spot them and bomb them. Some 70,000 have died already, and the rest, stripped of their livestock and short of water, face impending famine. “They are grinding thorns or burrs from bushes for food,” Bain says.

Westerners see the conflict through a simplistic black-versus-Arab lens, says Shapiro, “and it’s much more complex than that.” He says the video project aims to take into account Darfurians’ social history, politics and economics in order to “complexify” the picture western policy-makers get.

Crossing the border with Sudanese Liberation Army rebels, the trio spent just one week in Darfur, and saw no direct fighting during the cease-fire, Shapiro says. But they also spent three weeks filming in the refugee camps in Chad. Children there were well-fed and wanted to play, says Marlowe, but were reluctant to talk about their war experiences. They drew pictures for the group: “airplanes coming and bombing their village,” Marlowe recounts. “Janjaweed on horseback.”

Says Shapiro: “This is a government intent on maintaining power at the expense of marginalized tribes around the nation.”

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