By Nate Wright
I arrived to hear the Sudanese speaker as a favor to a friend. I didn’t think I would be compelled to act or would found an organization that would become a national movement. I certainly never imagined that less than a year later, I’d be traveling through the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad with an mtvU documentary crew, listening to victims of the first genocide of the new millennia. But that was exactly where I ended up in March 2005.
The refugee camps were a solemn, brutal, and unforgiving place. Distant laughter of children playing with a soccer ball we brought them gave the desert a strange atmosphere as we walked to the huts on the outskirts of the camp where rape victims were ostracized.
We met a young boy who drew us an image of his grandmother’s gruesome death from theJanjaweed and watched as his mother dissolved into tears. A woman wailed in shame when we asked her how she lost her clothes. I met a young mother holding her lifeless infant in her arms in the child malnutrition tent who looked into my camera as if she truly believed it could save her son’s life.
The first refugee we spoke to told us his tale through fits and tears, describing methodical attacks that claimed so many of his family and left his village in ashes. When he finished all we could do was sit in silence as he tried to regain his composure and conceal his pain. Finally, to break the silence, I asked him what gave him hope. He told us about American students who conducted a fast to feed his people. He told the story of STAND’s first event.
Eight months earlier, when I heard the Sudanese Speaker, Bishop Gassis, describe surviving a Christmas day bombing, I was outraged. In two decades, nearly two million people had lost their lives to conflict in Sudan, making it the second-bloodiest war since World War II. Now people in a new region were targeted for elimination and so few were reporting on it.
Working with Martha Heinemann Bixby and Ben Bixby, we arranged for a group of Georgetown students to attend an event at the Holocaust Museum on Darfur. After the lecture, we gathered in a nearby room to discuss what students could do to respond. Three months later we hosted STAND’s first event, STANDFast, asking students to give up alcohol on a Saturday night and donate the funds to humanitarian relief in Darfur.
The event didn’t raise much money, but the idea was unique enough to catch the attention of the Washington Post and later mtvU, who came to campus to film the event. Because of that event I was invited to join mtvU’s documentary and meet the refugee who listened to a recording of that same event on Voice of America. To hear him describe our insignificant event showed STAND’s work had reached beyond our imagination. But almost immediately, I was swallowed by a wave of guilt that stays with me to this day. I worried I had deceived him because he believed STAND’s minor event could end his suffering.
That is how I remember the people of Darfur—coming to grips with the worst crime humanity has named and holding onto the hope that others would save them. Eight years later, the memories remain vivid. The young mother’s gaze, the drawing of the little boy, or the hope in the man’s voice.
But I also cannot shake the awe that I had such a profound impact on their hope. As a movement we have to invest in the power of that imagination. Every elimination of severe injustice has required commitment and courage through a prolonged struggle. But the survivors were right to believe our generation is equal to the task.