Though the major conflict has ceased in Darfur, in western Sudan, a recent U.N. report says those living in the region still suffer from major human rights abuses and a fundamental lack of freedoms. The continuing instability and ongoing attacks have been particularly harmful for Darfur's young people, as nearly half of those affected by the conflict are children.
Since 2003, when the fighting began between rebel groups and Sudanese government forces in Darfur, the U.N. estimates as many as 300,000 people have died. During this time, more than 2.7 million Darfuri people have also been displaced, forced into refugee camps in Sudan and Chad. A study released last month shows that more than 80 percent of the deaths during the conflict were the result of disease, not violence, suggesting that many people remain at risk even though the fighting has decreased. To make matters worse, last year the Sudanese government evicted many international humanitarian groups after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur; the government continues to expel foreign organizations.
The situation has been especially hard on the country's young people, as an estimated 1.8 million children have been affected by armed conflict, many exposed to health concerns, a disruption in education and other services and brutal violence. In Darfur, 700,000 children have grown up knowing nothing but the conflict and an estimated 4,500 children are believed to be associated with armed forces and groups. These young people, however, are not the majority, as youth both within and outside of Sudan have been vital in raising awareness and funds and trying to bring change to the region.
Over the past several years, Darfuri children's experiences during the conflict have been chronicled via their drawings. Some of these drawings are being used as evidence submitted to the International Criminal Court as part of the investigation of war crimes. In 2005, two Human Rights Watch researchers went to the Chad-Sudan border, during which time schoolchildren offered them hundreds of drawings. Many pictures showed bombings by Sudanese government forces, shootings, rapes and the burning of villages. Ethan Zuckerman, a co-founder of Global Voices Online, blogging on My Heart's In Accra, said the images were powerful:
“When I was at Human Rights Watch a week ago, there was a pile of these sketches on a conference room table, along side a pile of photographs from Janjawid militamen. What amazed me was how details in the children’s drawings echoed details from the photos – the stocks of the automatic rifles, the round shape of the houses, the posture of two gunmen riding on horseback. It was immediately clear to me that these drawings weren’t of weapons imagined by children, but eye witness accounts.”
A Waging Peace researcher collected similar drawings in 2007, some of which are shown in this video. Drawing is also being used as a way to help children heal, shown in this video, as are other forms of art. The documentary Darfur Plays shows a group of two dozen young people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, who are using street theater to spark discussion and increase awareness. Tambay, blogging on Shadow and Act, comments on the film:
Art makes a difference in Darfur, where a troupe of self-taught young actors take theatre into the streets and refugee camps.
Their medicine for ailing Darfur is theatre, drama, song and dance – a testament to the power of art to heal!”
Young people outside of Sudan are also working to raise awareness and improve conditions for Sudanese youth. In addition to a host of celebrities, youth in many Western countries have been drawn to the situation in Darfur. Youth initiatives over the years have varied greatly, from creating poetry and organizing rallies to podcasting student voices and finding fundraising programs.
And the initiatives continue. In Canada, the youth-led group STAND Canada has developed a campaign called ‘Stand For The Dead.’ Beginning this month, Canadians will be encouraged to wear t-shirts bearing one Darfuri victim’s name and the group will be showing a film called Darfur. Lori L. Tharps, blogging on My American Meltingpot, came across a different Darfur t-shirt-campaign years ago and at first questioned its effectiveness:
“Throughout the day in New York City, I kept seeing more and more teenagers with Darfur t-shirts on. Like it was a fashion statement. Like supporting Darfur was cool. At first I was amused, then a little perturbed, like ‘did these wealthy White kids have any clue what modern-day genocide really meant?” But then I reasoned, even if they didn't, they were increasing awareness with their simple black & white t-shirts…
…Black teens, White, Asian…I'm seeing a multicultural mix of young people up in arms for not only the victims of Darfur but for people around the world who are suffering, caught in the crossfire of violence. I stumbled onto the website Teens4Peace and was overjoyed to see that American teens have more to care about than MySpace, Ashlee Simpson and the latest iPod manifestation.”
“I received an email from a friend and activist in Nyala Darfur. He works with a group of youth who are trying hard to preserve and nurture Darfur’s musical and cultural heritage. The youth write and perform their own songs and develop theater pieces based on issues their communities care about the most. Some of the pieces are nostalgic and speak of life before armed militias violently displaced them, others are purely entertaining while others are calls for justice, freedom and peace. For war affected youth and their audiences this group is a great forum for expression, community building and healing. My friend asked us to help them start a mini orchestra…Our youth at Long Island City High School decided to support their effort and packed their school’s auditorium last Thursday for a Talent Show fundraiser. From Hip Hop dance performances to an impersonation of Lady Gaga, they put together a 30 act show that raised over $800.”
Other strategies are being used to engage even more youth. A few years ago, a free, online, student-developed video game called Darfur is Dying was released. In the game, players learn about the conflict and must keep their refugee camp functioning despite possible attacks. The game has led to at least 50,000 people taking action to help end the violence. Steve Rothman, blogging on The Social Media Soapbox, critiques the game:
“To play the game, you first select from one of several Darfurian avatars, but they are no more than cartoon figures. Perhaps if a fictional profile for each of the figures had been provided, it might have had that effect. I also wondered if transforming such things as foraging for water or hiding from the militia into game objectives could potentially backfire and desensitize people to the plight of Darfurians…
…Nobody will be spending hours playing Darfur is Dying in order to “keep their camp functioning,” the stated goal of the game. But of course that isn’t the point. I imagine the greatest value of this game, and others like it, will be to engage a mass audience of young people in social issues and causes — an audience that is less accessible through more traditional communications channels.”
Whatever the method, Emily Holland found that increased awareness is exactly what some youth in Darfur want. Blogging for the International Rescue Committee, she talked to about 50 young people in a refugee camp. When she asked them, “What is your message to young people your age around the world?,” they said:
“We want them to know about our activities and our problems.
We want them to support us. To understand that we need education and healthcare.
The individuals whom people from outside Darfur are exposed to are not always necessarily from the camps. We want youth from all over the world to see what life is like here. To hear the real story.”