You sigh. A day’s worth of searching for firewood in the remote outskirts of Abyei slowly fades as the sun above you turns a starker, darker orange. It then sets and sets off the recurring fear voicing from within: it will get colder tonight.
But that fear is compounded with an even greater one. You hurry, your heart beating fast and faster, back to the camp, to the “safety” of the camp, because you know those men. You know what they do and what they did. Your friends have been raped. And they have been killed. And the risk you take to defend your family is the greatest risk of all. And so you run, empty-handed, because you don’t want to be buried the next time the sun turns a starker, brighter orange.
It began yesterday. In an unprecedented moment in our history, the people of Southern Sudan took to the polls to cast their vote on a referendum that could see their secession from the north and the subsequent birth of a new nation. This pivotal event was the intended culmination of a peace process between the north and the south, its timetable determined as part of the Naivasha Peace Agreement, signed in January 2005 between Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan. Independence is looming; decades of civil war, anguish, and genocidal crimes could soon come to an end.
Not so fast? The peace process could also well be undermined, as it has been undermined time and again by Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and his proxy-militia in Khartoum — nefarious violators of humanity whose own self-interest unleashed mass-atrocity crimes in Sudan’s region of Darfur for the past eight years, leaving more than 500,000 dead and more than 3 million displaced. He and his clowns have done so before. We needn’t look farther back than April of last year, when Al-Bashir, for whom an arrest warrant was issued in March 2008 by the International Criminal Court, conspicuously stole the election, gerrymandering his way to power via intimidation tactics and the instigation of unadulterated chaos – you know, typical behavior for a mass-murderer.
And so political turmoil has precedent. Violence has its stage set. The votes are being cast, and the world remains watching.
But what responsibility does the world have, anyway? Why does peace in Sudan matter so? Why does the international community have a responsibility to ensure that peace and stability endure after the creation of a new African state? To solve oil-revenue sharing squabbles? Secure post-referendum border demarcation? Speak, stand, stay?
Sixty-two years ago, delegates at the United Nations had a vision: that conscience should be able to stand up to power, and that the small countries of the world should not fall by the wayside as they submit willingly to the agendas of the big ones. Yes, this was the dream of Eleanor Roosevelt. A world rid of war. A world where the worth of a child in Nairobi was equal to that of a child in New York, and London, and wherever else. Sifting through the rubble and devastation of two world wars, she, together with the other idealists of her time, framed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first bill of rights to which all human beings are entitled. These were thirty independent articles, not dependent ones. Among them was the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to security. The right to a nationality and the right to work. The right to an education and the right to participate in community-life. In other words, the rights we “know” but never knew we had.
Eleanor Roosevelt understood something profound about the world. She dreamed because she understood- not only the moral imperative that lay in giving hope and purpose to people everywhere; to protecting innocent civilians from the failures of their own governments; to democracy; but what lies beyond: namely, the nature of our connectedness in a post-modern world. That the butterfly admired by one little girl somewhere is the same butterfly admired by any little girl anywhere. That the persecution of one people implies a threat to all people. And that the grass really is only green until it’s not.
The history of genocide teaches one thing: hate incubates. It festers. It grows. It multiplies exponentially until words become chants, lies becomes truths, and ideologies that once seemed ridiculous, well- are no longer. Incredulity dies. Rather, it dissipates, more quickly in a community environment than we realize. But what is community, after all? In Hitler’s world, perhaps it was Germany, perhaps it was Europe. Yet, had he been able to, is there any doubt in your mind that Hitler would have exterminated the Jews of America? The homosexuals of America? The disabled people of America? All of America? I have little doubt. And that’s for one very simple reason: in the so-called “logic” of Nazism, hatred of the Jew preceded the general hatred of mankind. The Pan-German idea excluded all who were deemed racially inferior. The blood stains of the 1940′s bear evidence to what was done, not what was intended.
“Community” today implies and implicates differently than it did in post-WWII Europe. Differently than it did on 9/11. Differently than it did when Barack Obama defeated John McCain. Globalization is globalizing. And imagine Hitler with the power of the internet. Just stop, just stop and imagine. Frightening, I know. But it underscores the fundamental point: social responsibility in today’s world has pretty big feet.
What matters there matters here. We cannot rest on our lawns, gazing at the stars, indifferent until tragedy knocks on our door, fainting with sadness when it does. We cannot remain diffident, blissfully ignorant, uninvolved, simply because the referendum (whatever that word means, anyway) is happening half-way across the world and not next door. We, at this historic crossroads, have a unique obligation to ensure that the world continues watching; that it does everything in its power to prevent future violence from unfolding in Sudan. Because peace is at stake there. Not only for them, but for us. And if we don’t speak for them, who, said Martin Niemoller, will be left to speak for us?
The people of Southern Sudan are ready and deserving. They don’t want self-governance. They want independence. They want the privileges we know, and those we often take for granted. They want to be able to protect their families and their children. To walk outside their towns and cities without the fear of being raped. To keep warm at night.
As we do, they want to be free.
Simon Goldberg is a student at Yeshiva University and the Founder and President of the Student Holocaust Education Movement, a student-based organization advocating the preservation and propagation of Holocaust memory. Simon is a contributor to Righteous Pictures.