My mission to Darfur

Author: Brenna Cussen '03M.A.

On my last night in Darfur, Father Denima Emmanuel, a priest at Saint Joseph’s Church in Nyala, celebrated Mass with our Catholic Worker delegation to Sudan. In his homily he related our December 2004 trip to the meaning of Christmas. He explained that God became human to visit with us, to suffer with us, to be with us, adding “Now that you have come so far and have seen the camps, you can better understand why Jesus had to come down from heaven to be with the poor . . . for the closer we come to the poor, the better we know God.”

The mission of the Catholic Worker is to take personal responsibility for the poor and to respond to evil with active love. The horrors occurring in Darfur are certainly evil. In this region in Western Sudan, it is estimated that 400,000 people have died over the past two years as a result of systematic genocide by the Khartoum government. Another 2.5 million people have been displaced, and many are dying of hunger.

We felt obliged to do something about it. The four of us (Chris Allen Doucot of Hartford, Connecticut; Grace Ritter from Ithaca, New York; Scott Schaeffer-Duffy of Worcester, Massachusetts; and myself) were quite aware that we would not be able to end genocide. However, we believed it was our duty to respond to it—nonviolently and effectively.

Our peace team had three goals in traveling to Sudan. We wanted firsthand knowledge of the crisis in Darfur that we could share with our local communities. We also wanted to do what we could to assist those in need and to promote peace in any way possible. We had raised $17,000 to bring to Darfur, in addition to $10,000 provided by Martin Sheen, a longtime supporter of the Catholic Worker movement. This money was distributed in camps, where tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children, live in fear of returning to their villages, where they would face violence from rape to murder. We took pictures, asked questions and interviewed refugees to bring their stories home.

Our team was able to visit four IDP (internally displaced people) camps while in Nyala. The largest, Kalma Camp, was occupied by at least 60,000 people. It consisted of small huts that people had made themselves, with some help from non-government organizations, NGOs. The huts were so small that it was impossible to fully stand or recline in one of them.

We were told that Kalma Camp was one of the best-run camps in Darfur. As soon as our truck stopped there, we were surrounded by women and children begging for food and clothing. Scott went into one house to interview a family with the help of a translator. He spoke with a woman from Hatara who had to flee her village after an attack. A year earlier, her village was bombed by Sudanese government planes and attacked by ground troops and janjaweed. Janjaweed, translated as “devils on horseback,” is the name given to roving militias that have been used by the government for decades to kill men and take women, children and cattle.

The onslaught in Hatara left most of the men dead, many of the women raped and the village burned. Bodies were left unburied by the fleeing survivors. This woman had seven children. Her husband was killed in the bombing. During her three-day walk to reach Kalma, her 4-year-old daughter died of dehydration. An estimated 10,000 more die in Darfur every month.

Throughout our trip, we met many other women whose stories were painfully similar to hers. We left clothing, food and money with the families who spoke to us. Every time we ran out of aid at the camps, we were surrounded by children who were excited to see the hajawa—“the white people.” One of the mothers encouraged her child to sing us a song, and she did. Then another child did the same. Chris Doucot began to sing the “hokey pokey,” and the two of us put on a show. The kids loved it and soon joined in. After we had finished dancing, the children sang us a song in their own language. I was overwhelmed by their smiles and joy in the midst of their misery.

The other camps we visited were much smaller than Kalma—about 6,000 people in each. Because these camps were so close to the town of Nyala, the government told the people in them to leave. When they wouldn’t leave, Khartoum denied all humanitarian aid groups permission to serve the camps. As a result, the people have no access to food, water or medical care. We spoke with women who risk getting raped by janjaweed every time they leave to gather firewood to sell at the market for money. At this camp, we met a man named Mohammed who told us, “I have no voice. You will have to be my voice.”

This would be his story. In April 2003, the Islamic dictatorship of Sudan, which considers itself of Arab ethnicity, as opposed to the native African tribes, began to crack down on rebel groups in the West (Darfur) with overwhelming violence—killing men, raping women and children, and burning down villages—in order to maintain power in the country. Both Arabs and African peoples live in Darfur, and almost all of them are Muslims. In the past, they have lived together peacefully and have even intermarried. However, the government has used Arab militias—_janjaweed_ —to target African tribes in the area.

Part of the mission of our trip was to discover ways we could promote peace. We asked everybody with whom we met what would be the most effective way for four ordinary U.S. citizens to address the conflict. The overwhelming response was to urge the U.S. government to put pressure on the Khartoum government to stop the killing and to provide equal access to land and political power to those marginalized in the south and in the west. We asked if it would be helpful to protest in Khartoum.

“No,” the people said; we would be arrested and nobody would ever hear about it. But if we protested at the Sudanese Embassy in the United States, we were told, that might draw attention in America to the crisis. That would give the Sudanese people hope.

So on February 2, 2005, I was one of seven people arrested for blocking the entrance to the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. We held signs bearing enlarged pictures of Sudanese victims of their government’s campaign of genocide. Our message to the embassy was that, as representatives of the Khartoum government, they should express their outrage over the genocide rather than continuing to cover it up by publishing false information. When they ignored our requests, we felt it was our obligation to stop business as usual.

For our crime, we spent 27 hours in jail. Our holding cells were equipped with two stainless steel bunk beds and a stainless steel toilet. A water-fountain was attached to the toilet. My cellmate, Liz Fallon ‘04, and I didn’t drink the water. We used the fountain instead to wipe off the sticky red substance and crumbs that covered our bunks. We also used the last of our toilet paper to do this, and our requests for more were ignored.

Throughout the night, we were continually awoken by the guards —either when more women were taken into our corridor or when they would bark orders at us or ask the same question they had asked us two hours earlier. At 6:30 a.m. we were taken to the cell underneath the courthouse, after being offered our last chance at food for the day, a smushed bologna sandwich that we declined.

Jail was one of the closest things to hell I have ever experienced —except for the time I spent in IDP camps in Darfur, looking out over a sea of makeshift tents inhabited by women and children who had to flee their villages to escape the militias who had killed their husbands and fathers. It was because of them that I was able to survive jail; it is because of them that I am willing to go again if it comes to that.

Our February protest led to our trial date on May 25. The trial of the “Sudan Seven,” as we were referred to, was an incredible show of nonviolent witness.

Our defense was based upon the argument of necessity: Such a grievous harm was taking place that we were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in order to try to save lives. To secure a verdict of “not guilty,” we had to show that on February 2, 2005, there was an imminent harm occurring (genocide), that our actions would help to abate that harm, and that legal means had been tried and found ineffective, so that illegal means were the last resort.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Hampton, Massachusetts, and a world-renowned expert on the genocide in Darfur, testified to the fact that genocide indeed was taking place in Darfur.

Mark Lance, professor of peace studies at Georgetown University, and Barbara Wein, co-director of Peace Brigades International, testified to the fact that nonviolent civil disobedience has historically been an effective way to change policies, and that in the case of genocide in Darfur, legal means thus far have not been effective.

Mwiza Munthali of the TransAfrica Forum testified to the fact that protests at the South African Embassy in the 1980s contributed to the end of apartheid and that protests at the Sudanese Embassy last summer led the way to then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s declaration that genocide was taking place in Darfur.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton testified that nonviolent civil disobedience, coupled with prayer, cannot fail to be an effective way to bring about positive change.

Each of these witnesses, when asked whether it was reasonable to believe that the actions of the defendents on February 2, 2005, could abate the harm taking place in Darfur, answered with a resounding “Yes!”

The Honorable Judge Rufus King presided over the trial, which lasted all day. In the morning, he informed us that he would be interested only in the facts of our actions and would refuse to “politicize” his courtroom in order to hear about genocide in Darfur.

The district attorney did not argue much with our defense. He cross-examined all of the defendants, in each case asking whether we had contacted a member of congress, thus attempting to utilize legal means to stop the genocide. As most of us had done so, he questioned us on how many times and whether we had actually gone to Washington, D.C., to visit our representatives. Some of us had contacted representatives—Schaeffer-Duffy had done so 21 times—but the D.A. was not satisfied with the number of our attempts. We talked about how we had used legal means to go to Sudan and how we had asked the Sudanese people what they thought the most effective thing we could do to promote peace would be. It was the Sudanese people themselves who had told us to protest at the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C., we testified.

We talked about how members of our group had given talks and slide show presentations throughout our communities, sent letters and articles to various newspapers, put on a benefit concert for Darfur, had photo exhibitions of the refugees in Darfur, helped to organize a day-long educational symposium on Sudan, and had personally informed family and friends about the genocide. We did employ many legal means to end genocide, we said. But in the end, we had concluded that our legal means must be coupled with the more drastic means of putting our bodies on the line.

Judge King did not find our defense of necessity sufficient for an acquittal. He found each of the seven defendants guilty of the misdemeanor offense of unlawful assembly. He said there was no “imminent” harm to be averted and it was not reasonable to believe our action in front of the Sudanese Embassy could immediately abate the obviously greater evil of genocide.

However, he said, he respected that our actions were done in “good faith.” He sentenced three of the defendants who had no prior record to 2 days in jail (already served). The other four defendants, based on their prior convictions for other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, received suspended jail sentences and several months of unsupervised probation.

When I later told a friend that we did not win our case, she asked, “What is winning?”

No matter what the outcome, we had indeed won. For in the face of a grave evil, we did not sit by and watch. In the face of a grave evil, we have searched for nonviolent responses, for Christian responses.

Brenna Cussen lives and works at the Saint Peter Claver Catholic Worker community in South Bend. The Boston native has been involved with the Catholic Worker movement since 2000.