Messinger decries ‘dangers of silence’

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

The world, and Jews in particular, need to do more to stand up to stop the genocide in Darfur, the head of the American Jewish World Service told a St. Louis audience last week.

Ruth Messinger, president of the AJWS, an international development and emergency relief organization based in New York City, visited the embattled Darfur region of Sudan in August 2004, and refugee camps in the neighboring nation of Chad in 2005.

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“When you’re there on the ground, you hear from everybody about the dimensions of the genocide and about what happened to them and their families, and you see people living in just unimaginable circumstances in refugee camps,” Messinger said.

Messinger said over 450,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million people have become refugees as a result of the conflict, which has been carried out since 2003 by the Sudanese government and government-supported militias.

“When you go to these camps, every individual’s story is chilling. But what’s most chilling is that every story sounds almost the same,” Messinger said. She said refugees followed a consistent narrative: airplanes came to destroy the villages, and after villagers would run from their homes, the Janjaweed, or government-supported militiamen, would come and kill villagers and livestock, rape women, poison the wells with carcasses and then burn the village to the ground.

Complicating the humanitarian aid effort, Messinger said, is the fact that abductions of aid workers have forced the United Nations and international relief agen cies to pull out of the area, leaving 800,000 Darfuris in camps with no aid workers.

“Of course that means no health care, and no regular food deliveries, and no access to clean water,” she said.

“But what it mostly means is no witnesses,” Messinger said. “In any one of those areas at any moment, there could be a trumped up attack and a claim by the government that it needed to go in to quell a skirmish and another 10- or 40- or 60,000 people could be killed.”

Messinger said the only international patrol in the region is a 7,000-person force from 9 countries in the African Union.

“But 7,000 people can’t control an area the size of Texas with no training, no resources, and no mandate to protect civilians,” she said.

Messinger said that a first step to improving the situation in Darfur would require at least 22,000 troops. “There needs to be, at the very least, a robust multilateral peacekeeping force organized by the United Nations,” she said.

However, the last United Nations proposal to create such a force was derailed because it only allowed peacekeeping forces in if the Sudanese government invited them in.

“So it comes back to us,” Messinger told the audience, urging action to persuade lawmakers to apply more diplomatic pressure, particularly with China, a major buyer of oil from Sudan, to allow a peacekeeping force in Darfur.

“We as Jews are the community that knows better than anyone else the dangers of silence from the rest of the world. We emerged, those who were lucky enough to survive, from the era of the Holocaust, with a commitment to a fundamental principle, words that you and I repeat all the time. Words that became world slogans: ‘never again,'” she said.

“We need to recognize the truth of the Biblical observation not to stand silently by the blood of our neighbors. We need to recognize that these people are crying out to us as Jews cried out during the Holocaust,” Messinger said. “We of all people can not look away.”

Messinger’s talk was the Annual Rubin Feldman Memorial Lecture, held by Aish HaTorah St. Louis.

Feldman’s daughter, Cheryl, attended the talk with her mother, Gloria Feldman, and she introduced Messinger and the topic of the night’s talk.

“Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, so the situation in Darfur hits very close to home,” she said.

Mahmedein Mahmedein, one of the attendees at the event, is from Darfur, and has lived in St. Louis for the past two years. He thanked Messinger for her work advocating for action in the region, and working to provide humanitarian relief.

“In Darfur, the loudest sound right now is bullets. But here, the loudest sound is your voice,” he said.

Messinger’s appearance was the first of the annual Aish speakers series, which continues with talks in March, April and May.

The next event will be on Thursday, Mar. 22, when Rabbi Steve Baars will speak at the Annual Stuart I. Raskas Dessert Reception, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Clayton. After the dessert reception from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., Baars will deliver his talk, “Thrill Seminar — Getting the Most out of Life.”