The horrific stories murmured by the survivors hearken to a darker, more chaotic time.

Armed raiders, often mounted on horses or even camels, sweeping into villages with bloodcurdling screams, slaughtering the men and the livestock, raping the young women, hurling bloody corpses down the well to befoul the area’s water supply and banishing everyone left standing on pain of death.

But these are no stories. And this is not medieval times or 19th-century Russia but today, in Sudan, which is experiencing what the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this week declared a “genocide emergency.”

“We take a very conservative approach to the definition of genocide. We don’t use the term lightly. But the situation clearly has reached the point where the term is appropriate,” said Jerry Fowler, director of the museum’s Committee on Conscience, who visited refugee camps in Chad earlier this year.

“Are Jewish organizations doing enough? The reality we have to face is, in a situation like this, none of us can ever do enough.”

After roughly a year and a half of the systematic slaughter and expulsion of western Sudan’s black population at the hands of the ethnically Arab Khartoum government and its proxies, the events in the nation’s Darfur region have finally percolated into the mainstream media.

Government-backed Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, have been sacking and emptying black villages, often in coordination with Sudan’s uniformed soldiers or under cover of the air force. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 black Africans have been killed and more than 1 million have been displaced. Hunger and disease in the refugee camps could soon claim hundreds of thousands or millions more lives — and that’s only counting those lucky enough to reach the camps.

The “genocide emergency” was the first ever issued by the Holocaust museum. Citing the lessons of the Shoah, Jews and Jewish organizations are playing a significant role in the current call for aid and intervention in Sudan.

The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief — a consortium of Jewish service agencies that includes the American Jewish World Service, the Anti-Defamation League and dozens of others — has been raising funds, recently granting $10,000 to Doctors Without Borders to tend to the refugees. Last week, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council released a statement urging aid and U.N. intervention in the region.

“What we should have learned from the past is, there is a danger in remaining silent. The role of the Jewish community is to make sure people know what is going on,” said Abby Fleishman, the JCRC’s assistant director.

“Far too often, people remain silent about these things.”

On June 24, the Holocaust museum shut its normal operations and held a day of “Bearing Witness for Darfur.” Government officials, Holocaust survivors and Darfurian exiles attended the speeches and exhibitions.

“Suspending our normal operations says this is not business as usual,” said Fowler, who noted that a full-time Sudanese exhibit is in the works.

“An important function of memorializing the Holocaust is to be alert to contemporary genocide and speak out on it.”

While this is the museum’s first genocide emergency, it previously issued “genocide warnings” for southern Sudan in 2000, Rwanda in 1995 and Bosnia in 1993.

Arthur Berger, the museum’s communications director, admitted that the 1995 warning for Rwanda came a year too late.

“No one, including the museum, did anything in 1994. And that is the one great tragedy of our lifetime. There was an opportunity to stop a genocide and no one did anything” he said.

“Now we have the opportunity to do something as it’s unfolding and really save some lives.”

Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, also chalked up the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide as bitter lessons on the cost of inaction:

“The world looked away when 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In its shadow, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide developed a definition of the term ‘genocide’ and provided the world with a legal obligation to take action to both prevent and punish genocide. Yet, our government avoided using the term in Rwanda 10 years ago when 800,000 people of the Tutsi minority were slaughtered in 100 days by their government,” she wrote.

“The question we must now ask about Sudan is: Are we to repeat history or make it?

“As Jews who know firsthand the consequences of silence from the international community, we must do all that we can to prevent or stop deliberate attempts to annihilate any people.”

In recent weeks, calls for the U.S. government to ratchet up the pressure on Sudan have, in part, been taken up. On July 22, the House and Senate declared the campaign of slaughter to be genocide in a bipartisan bill.

A number of Americans have been arrested protesting in front of the Sudanese Embassy, including Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Ben Cohen, better known as the Ben of Ben & Jerry’s.

President Bush last month made available up to $34 million for special refugee needs in Sudan and neighboring Chad, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the Darfur region in early July, and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has made the ongoing genocide a campaign issue.

Fowler applauds all of the above, but insists more — much, much more — must be done.

“I think there needs to be an intense and escalating pressure on the government in Khartoum to provide security and disarm and neutralize the Janjaweed, to provide unimpeded humanitarian access and allow the Darfurians to go back to their homes in safety,” he said.

“There has to be pain inflicted on them greater than the benefits of supporting the Janjaweed. They should be made into an international pariah and not treated as a member in good standing of the U.N.”

Only with efforts like these will “Never again” be an expression with teeth, according to those involved in relief efforts.

“Having just observed the 10-year anniversary of the Rwanda tragedy, it’s a continuous test of whether or not the world has learned the lessons and consequences of standing idly by in the face of such an immense human tragedy,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC.

“There was a moral imperative to address it.”

To donate to the American Jewish World Service’s Sudan emergency appeal, go to or call (212) 736-2597. To donate to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief’s Sudan mailbox, visit or call (212) 885-0892.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.