Dire straits

The challenge of Sudan, according to Ruth Messinger, isn’t to separate the good news from the bad news. It’s to winnow the bad news from the worse news.

Messinger, the executive director of the American Jewish World Service, addressed a lunchtime crowd of nearly 100 last week on the ongoing genocide in Sudan and the Jewish community’s response.

Her dire prediction: You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees fortunate enough to escape wanton slaughter at the hands of Janjaweed tribesmen “have lost a growing cycle. They can’t grow more food so they’ll either be fed by the powers of the world or starve,” said Messinger, who visited Sudanese refugee camps in August and has spearheaded a relief drive that has, to date, amassed more than half a million dollars.

“Medical staffs find the death rates incredibly lucky. They anticipate more malnutrition, diarrhea and growing levels of depression.”

Conservative estimates place the death toll of African Muslims in the Darfur region of Sudan at more than 350,000 to date. Messinger noted that nearly all of the Darfur region’s 1.6 million inhabitants have been driven from their homes by the Janjaweed operating with air support from the Sudanese government.

In a Gordian knot of red tape, however, large numbers of Darfurians cannot be categorized as refugees by the United Nations, as they have not left Sudan. Roughly 200,000 have crossed the border into U.N.-overseen refugee camps in Chad. Yet the “displaced persons” within Sudan are not getting U.N. assistance.

While Messinger was careful to praise the efforts of the patchwork of agencies overseeing camps within Sudan, the conditions she witnessed firsthand and recalled to the audience were chilling. Whole families slowly expire from rampant diarrhea. Women leave camp to forage for elusive firewood and risk assault or death from marauding rapists.

When she recalled a Sudanese man presenting her with his written documentation of the rape and sexual abuse of more than 5,000 women, a visceral groan rolled through the audience at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation building.

Tragically, many women trek out on firewood expeditions simply to have something to do: The Darfurians are paralyzed with boredom and are succumbing to a malaise of depression. Even in the rare camp with rudimentary schooling for the children, kids are only occupied for about an hour a day.

Messinger believes that Jews, as victims of history’s worst genocidal attack, are under a higher obligation to ensure “never again” is more than just a catchphrase.

And while she chided the United States for its relatively paltry effort, she noted that other nations have done even less. France and China, both members of the U.N. Security Council, have oil deals with the complicit Sudanese government and have stood in the way of harsh measures.

When asked what everyday citizens can do to aid Darfurians, Messinger suggested visiting the AJWS Web site — www.ajws.org — where one can send online letters and petitions and research a trove of information about Sudan.

Beyond that, she suggested educational outreach in synagogues, or, even more ambitiously, across all religious lines.

“Why are people so inhumane? How can I understand these violations of basic human rights and deal with the realization that many people are going to die? I don’t have the answer to that,” she told the crowd.

“The adage or aphorism that has meant the most to me throughout my whole professional life is from Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘In a free society, terrible wrongs exist. Some are guilty, but all are responsible.’ I believe the Jewish community in America needs to take on this crisis.”

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.