I was in Juba, South Sudan, at the end of February after three long and intense weeks to examine the reintegration of refugees who are returning home, when an astonishing article from the Colombian paper El Tiempo popped up in my email inbox.
Am Nabak is a fine place for camels. It is rocky and dry, and getting drier. The water table can't support the current population of a few camels and around 17,000 refugees from the war in Darfur, so water is brought in overland by truck. The camp is situated scant 25 kilometers from the Darfur border. This is too close to the war zone by United Nations standards; it was only supposed to be a transit camp through which refugees passed on their way to more permanent and secure camps. But the refugees have settled in at Am Nabak and, despite the urging of the UN Refugee Agency, prefer to remain close to the border.
We were just stepping out of our vehicle in the far reaches of Hagadera, one of three camps that make up the sprawling Dadaab camp for Somali refugees in northeastern Kenya, when it became obvious that we had stumbled upon a pocket of misery. A man waved his arms, and starting shouting, "No water! No water!"
As we walked into the area, a group quickly gathered and started the rapid fire explanation of their plight, with passionate interruptions and people struggling to be heard, testing the patience and talent of our guide, himself a refugee who arrived in Dadaab in 1992. As visitors from the outside world, in our case from Washington, D.C. and Refugees International, we had to hear their story.
I find it kind of shocking that there is more attention to the poker tournaments I participate in than in the tragedy ongoing in Darfur. Since 2003, nearly 2.5 million people have been forced out of their homes, living in makeshift huts in large, sprawling camps in this western region of Sudan. Up to 400,000 people have been killed according to some estimates.
A few years ago, Don Cheadle and I were having lunch and started talking about the crisis in Darfur. He had just released his book "Not on Our Watch" and was actively campaigning for more attention and meaningful action on Darfur. I felt that what was happening in Darfur was so horrible, and just said, "Nobody knows what’s going on in this part of the world. We should do a poker event for them." At the time I thought it would raise around $25,000 or $50,000. This small idea turned into Ante Up for Africa -- a hugely successful celebrity-studded series of charity poker events that has raised $2.5 million since July 2007.
About one month ago, the ICC began trying former Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga, who is accused of forcing children to fight during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) war that ended in 2003. He is accused of abducting about 30,000 children under the age of 15 and as young as 9, training them to become soldiers and using them as porters and sex slaves. Today, the DRC continues to suffer from violent conflict and has been deemed by many as "the worst place to be a child."
On Wednesday, February 11, Save Darfur hosted a discussion on "Violence Against Women and the Darfur Genocide." While I was all too familiar with the systematic murder of civilians in the western part of Sudan since 2003, and well aware of the latest buzz surrounding the warrant issued for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s arrest, I was admittedly unaware of the vast use of rape as a weapon of war by the government-backed Janjaweed, especially in the early years of the war. Unfortunately, too many people continue to share my previous ignorance.
Last week I attended a remarkable conference in Khartoum called "The Millennium Development Goals: the position of women in the Sudanese laws." I was struck by the account given by a young woman from the Nuba Mountains about the lives of women in her community.
The Nuba Mountains area lies at the point where north and south Sudan meet. It experienced enormous suffering during the 21-year war between north and south Sudan, which was halted by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Nuba Mountains was not amongst the areas included in the agreement’s referendum provision, and today there is still no agreement between north and south Sudan about its future.
Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, knows first hand that peacemaking can be dangerous and difficult. He dedicated To End A War, his book on the negotiations that ended the war in the Balkans 15 years ago, to three colleagues who died in the early stages of that effort.
In announcing the appointment last week, President Obama said: “There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the Al Qaida and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”