The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Tracking Rape in Syria with Social Media

By Jackie Blachman-Forshay

“You’re using YouTube to track rape in Syria? And Twitter?”

I am asked this question on a frequent basis. As a student the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, I take classes to understand the methodological and statistical decisions that are involved in conducting rigorous scientific research. One thing that is not often taught – at least not yet – is how to use social media to do epidemiology. But, when the opportunity presented itself a year ago to begin working with the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project, I knew it was important to be a part of this initiative.

WMC’s Women Under Siege is using a crowd-sourced map to report sexualized violence related to the Syrian conflict—this is the first time this has ever been done. The work is a collaboration between the Women’s Media Center, Columbia University, the Syrian-American Medical Society, and Syrian activists and journalists. In past conflicts, such as Rwanda or Bosnia, attempts were made to report sexualized violence after the fact. This results in serious under-reporting, however: sexualized violence happens within the context of other war crimes—which may result in the victim’s death, seeking refuge in other countries, or silence due to shame and stigmatization. Tracking sexualized violence in Syria in real time allows us to not only gather stories that may otherwise be lost, but also gives us a better understanding of who is suffering so humanitarian efforts can know where to provide assistance.

Our documentation also has the potential to be used toward evidence gathering if there are ever going to be war crimes trials for atrocities being committed in Syria.

Since launching in March 2012, we have collected, mapped, and analyzed 162 reports of sexualized violence. An article published in The Atlantic last Wednesday lists the most recent statistics from our research: 80 percent of the reports specify female victims, and among those women, 85 percent report being raped. Forty percent of women are raped by multiple attackers, sometimes in cases where the Syrian army works together with shabiha – plainclothes militia forces – to rape the women. Women who survive their attack (almost 18 percent of the female victims in our reports are killed by their attackers or commit suicide after their rape) face additional consequences, including pregnancy (3 percent of reports), chronic physical disease (2 percent), and anxiety or PTSD (10 percent).

We are also showing that sexualized violence is also being perpetrated upon men. Among males in our reports, almost 47 percent report being raped, which is usually used as a form of torture within Syrian detention centers. In this report, a man describes how dozens of government soldiers invaded his home and forced him to watch as they gang-raped his wife and daughters before raping him. “The men were jeering and said, ‘Look at your father.’ They destroyed me,” he said.

As student-activists, we know the power of social media. It enables us to connect, share information, and create change. We are changing the way people are talking about rape in Syria, and we are showing that social media is an important tool in this research. Already, the White House, the U.S. State Department, the U.K. Foreign Office, and the United Nations have all asked to hear more about our research. We’ve seen our map covered in global media, from The Washington Post to CNN International to the BBC.

Getting the message out is a huge step toward showing women and men violated that we are bearing witness to their pain. That they are not forgotten. That the world cares about them. Not only that, but it provides a public accounting of otherwise unimaginable human rights violations.

As one woman from Homs, Syria, states in a video on YouTube after telling the terrible details of her rape, “I might not be the first one nor the last one who was treated in this way.”

Her message is clear:

“Let all the world hear what is happening to us.”

Making this the Generation to End Genocide

By Scott Warren, Student Director ’07-’08

When I became Student Director for STAND, in 2007, I immediately set to work on re-inspiring a movement that I saw losing some energy.  Along with our Managing Committee, we came up with a slogan that we thought would re-capture the momentum “Make This The Year To End Genocide.”   We were pumped.  At the National Conference that year, with 500 student attendees, we repeated the slogan over and over again.  To an extent, I think we thought we could actually do it.

Obviously, we were wrong.  I do think that we made a difference.  That year, divestment took off, we held several successful rallies tying China and the Olympics to Darfur, and even got on CNN for civil disobedience in front of the White House.  Additionally, my teammates, the college students working in the trenches, are now making a big difference in the world in all sorts of ways- teaching, running political campaigns, working in South Sudan, and engaging in online organizing.

But, obviously, we did not end genocide.  To this day, atrocities continue in Darfur.  Thousands of Syrians have died in attacks perpetrated by their government.  War in the Democratic Republic of Congo persists.  Zimbabweans are persecuted for their political affiliations.  And I’m sure that the next conflict is right around the corner.

This is the challenge that faces STAND today.  This battle, the one to end mass atrocities, is not one that takes a year.  It will take a long time.  At the same time, young people, and especially college students, are temperamental.  They like the next shiny object.  In our heyday, between 2005-08, STAND was the hottest student movement in the country.  Cosmopolitan Magazine even declared that the best way to meet a guy was at Darfur rallies.   But today, while STAND continues to be incredibly influential, it seems that the new shiny object for college students are issues like climate change and education reform.

So the challenge facing STAND today is difficult- how can we re-energize and sustain a movement that has such a long-game?  Part of this is incumbent on the alumni- I am slightly ashamed to say that when the going got tough, and the movement slowed, I disengaged.  My story is not unique.- I know many STAND alumni that have done the same.  To an extent, when we could not actually make 2007 the year to end genocide, we decided that it was too difficult.

It is difficult.  But I’d like this to be a challenge to STAND members, old and new- how can we re-energize this movement?  How can we recognize that we will not end genocide this year, or next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, but still energize young people in a movement that is incredibly necessary?  How can we once again make STAND the biggest, most powerful, most inspirational student movement in the country?  It will be harder- significantly harder than creating a catchy slogan.  It is, though, completely necessary.

Recent Violence Against Muslims in Central Burma

By Alex Colley-Hart, Burma Conflict Education Coordinator

Unfortunately, Burma is not new to interethnic violence following the country’s recent democratic reforms. The Myanmar military, which ruled the country prior to 2011, has participated in a number of internal conflicts against various ethnic nationalities including the Kachin, Karen, Shan, Lahu, and stateless Rohingya. However, the recent sectarian violence in Meikhtila was not fueled by interethnic tensions; rather, the primary motive was religion.

As discussed in last week’s news brief, 40 people have died and over 12,000 people have been displaced in central Burma. The violence began in the town of Meikhtila following an argument between a Muslim-owned gold shop and a Buddhist couple. The fight quickly escalated, spreading throughout the area to nearby towns and even the capital, Naypyidaw. Alarmingly, there have been reports of retaliation by violent mobs of Buddhists rampaging towns killing Muslims and destroying their homes, shops, and places of worship.

The majority of people in Burma, particularly in central Burma, are devoutly Buddhist. Young Burmese regularly spend time living as monks, learning self-control and what it means to be free from suffering. Monks live by receiving daily offerings of food from the public and are very much respected in Burma. They are meant to live free from politics, yet in recent years have become increasingly politically active. Most notably, monks were the primary force behind the 2007 anti-government protests known as the Saffron Revolution, which was violently suppressed by the then ruling military junta. Additionally, in late 2012, monks marched in support of expelling the stateless and predominantly Muslim Rohingya.

Moreover, anti-Muslim sentiments in Burma have further intensified due to recent clashes between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya. The Rohingya are regarded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh by the Myanmar government, despite living in the country’s west for several generations. The Rohingya have even been called the world’s most persecuted peoples by the United Nations. Beginning in June 2012, fighting between the Rohingya and predominantly Buddhist Rakhine has displaced more than 120,000 people with the situation remaining unresolved and tense. Although those killed in Meikhtila last week were not Rohingya, worryingly, it is fair to say that the hatred felt towards the Rohingya is widening to include Muslims in general throughout Burma.

In his first public comments on the violence in Meikhtila, Myanmar President Thein Sein said, “We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition.” To the contrary, President Sein, genocide is in no way a natural part of democratization. STAND, the student-led movement to end mass atrocities, will continue to closely monitor the situation in Burma and advocate on behalf religious freedoms wherever they are threatened. Burma must know the world is watching and, despite its recent progress, the world cannot tolerate genocide no matter how large or small.

When a Government Falls in the CAR, Do Analysts Hear a Sound?: A Narrative of Current Events

This piece, written by Danny Hirschel-Burns, from Swarthmore College STAND, originally appeared on his blog The Widening Lens.

As I sarcastically noted in the above tweet yesterday, the reaction from the foreign policy community to the news of rebels entering Bangui last night was quite underwhelming.  Though I’m about the furthest thing from a CAR expert, I’d like to do my part to fill the information gap about the collapse of Bozize’s regime by aggregating various news reports and producing a more coherent narrative.

Bozize’s (whose ascendancy to power seems to have started when he beat up a French officer) downfall began back in December, when a coalition of four rebel groups, Seleka (meaning “Alliance” in Sango) took up arms against CAR’s government.  The two most powerful groups that form Seleka, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) , both started as loosely-organized self-defense militias in northeastern CAR (and of the two, the UFDR is the most powerful).   While Bozize’s neglect of rural areas is surely a cause of the rebellion, in the New York Times, Louisa Lombard argues that a United Nations D.D.R. program that failed to understand how the CAR actually works (and seems to have even encouraged some rebels to take up arms) also shares some of the blame.

As Seleka advanced and looked as if they might well overthrow Bozize, the government took to the negotiating table.  Though the “talks”, held in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, were conducted with plenty of pomp by the four regional leaders present, they did not produce any strong comprises.  The hastily signed peace document simply rehashed previous talks from 2007 and 2008 which Bozize had failed to uphold.  Seleka itself, though present at the negotiations, was internally divided on whether or not to engage with the government, considering its then position of strength.

By mid-March, Bozize had still failed to uphold the peace agreement.  Seleka accused Bozize of not fulfilling the four main demands by the rebels that had appeared in the January talks: the release of political prisoners, an end to the curfew and road blocks, the withdrawal of foreign (primarily South African) troops from the country, and finally the integration of at least 2,000 rebel soldiers into the country’s security forces.  The accusation caused Bozize to appear on radio on March 15th and decree that his government respect the first and second demands.  However, his actions only partially placated dissenting voices.  Though Prime Minister  Nicolas Tiangaye (a Seleka representative who had been inducted in the newly formed unity government) had repeatedly encouraged Seleka to lay down its weapons and engage in dialogue with the government, on March 18th, Minister of Defense Michel Djotodia (also a newly inducted government member from Seleka) threatened to overthrow Bozize if the rebels demands were not met within 72 hours and fled Bangui to join with Seleka armed forces.  Bozize failed to meet the demands, Seleka advanced, taking Bangui and causing Bozize to flee across the river to the DRC on the 23rd.

Before I move into the nitty-gritty of what’s happened in the last three days, I’d like to ruminate on two reasons why Seleka was able to overthrow Bozize.  First, there seems to have been a strategic miscalculation on Bozize’s part.  While he had been able to maintain control after sham peace process in ’07 and ’08, it clearly didn’t work this time.  Surely, it should have been pretty clear that the rebels were both militarily strong enough to take Bangui (perhaps he was counting on international support that never materialized?) and that individuals like Djotodia could not be co-opted, even as members of the government.  One possibility is that Bozize himself was not the final power broker here.  Perhaps decision making power in his government was diffuse, meaning hardliners ultimately overruled and paralyzed Bozize, but considering the perfunctory nature of January’s peace talks, the first explanation, a pure political miscalculation, seems more likely.  Second, Bozize fell into a classic trap for dictators in weak states, “Observers say Mr Bozize kept the army weak because he was afraid of a military coup” (via BBC).  James Fearson wrote about this dilemma in the Monkey Cage, and indeed, it seems that dictators (ok, so Bozize won elections, but still had dictatorial tendencies) in weak states, even without ample resources, are unable to build strong security forces to safeguard their rule because of the threat of mutiny.

So what’s happening right now?  It sounds as if, at the time of writing, the skirmishes between Seleka and government forces have ended.  Despite the end of formal fighting, there seems to be widespread looting in Bangui, which may be being directed or prevented by Seleka, depending on the article you read.  Reports indicate that nine South African soldiers died defending Bozize’s governments.  Though it’s still unclear exactly why there were there in the first, the theories I’ve seen have postulated it was an attempt to extend SA’s continental influence and curry good favor with Bozize in order to access CAR’s mineral wealth.  France, which already has 250 soldiers stationed around Bangui’s airport, has deployed another 300 ostensibly to protect French citizens, and Francois Hollande has stated that he does not intend to interfere in internal CAR affairs.   This surge in fighting seems to have involved many child soldiers, and there are also unconfirmed reports of rape and torture perpetrated by the rebels.  While Djotodia has declared himself interim President (he surely has the shortest Wikipedia page of any world leader), Tiangaye was named Prime Minister, and elections are to be held in three year’s time.

The situation on the ground will inevitably change rapidly within the next few days, and in all likelihood, the full picture will become more clear with time.  Finally, I hope that this conflict will start to receive the attention it deserves.

Update 1 (12:15 am EST, 3/26/13)

News is still slow to make it’s way out of CAR.  Ban Ki-Moon has condemned Seleka’s seizure of power and expressed concern regarding reports of atrocities and the deteriorating humanitarian situation (especially in areas of the CAR where the LRA has had a presence).  Looting continues, but several regional armed forces are working with Seleka to restore order.  Seleka has pledged to name a power-sharing government, and has also suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.  Finally, the death toll for South African soldiers has been raised to 13.

Update 2 (12:30 pm EST, 3/26/13)

Djotodia issued the following statement, “I consider it necessary to suspend the November 27, 2004 constitution, to dissolve parliament as well as the government.  During this transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree.  We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord.”  This statement cites a recognition of the Libreville Accord, despite the fact that Seleka’s rejection of the legitimacy of this process was the main cause for taking up arms.  In light of the rebellion, The African Union has suspended the CAR and placed personal sanctions on Seleka leaders.  Water is in short supply throughout the CAR, and large parts of the country, including Bangui, are without electricity.  Ex-President Bozize, after a few days of unknown whereabouts, has popped up in Cameroon.  The US has weighed in on the issue, condemning Bozize’s ouster, but also failed to call for his re-instatement.  Finally, the BBC (surely responding to my statement on the short length of Michel Djotodia’s Wikipedia page) has published a profile of the world’s newest leader.

Valentine’s Day and Sexual Violence in the DRC: USC STAND Reflection

By Sophia Geanacopoulos, USC STAND

In preparation for Valentine’s Day 2013, members of the STAND chapter at the University of Southern California spent their afternoon making valentines with a slightly different message than that of the classic Hallmark card. Members created valentines for President Obama, urging him to support peace talks in Kampala and to stand in solidarity with Congolese women who have been victims of gender-based violence.

Thus far in the Congo, peace talks have been unsuccessful and are in danger of being abandoned if a neutral international body does not step up to facilitate. The valentine messages asked Obama to appoint a presidential envoy to assist with these peace talks and to help ensure that they remain productive and transparent, one of the necessary steps in resolving this conflict.

STAND members decorated valentines with hearts and emphasized key points such as the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Asking the President to open his heart, one member wrote, “The rape and terrorism that is taking place in the Congo is too great to be set aside. As our leader, please stand up for peace and freedom.”

In addition to creating colorful valentines with powerful messages, USC STAND did an action on campus in order to raise awareness among the student body of the atrocities occurring in the Congo. Students at USC often advertise events on a walkway surrounded by student residences by taping large block letters to the ground with information about the event. The night before Valentine’s Day, STAND members met outside to advertise their own message. Using a large role of pink tape, they constructed a giant heart with the message “STAND UP 4 CONGO” at the center. At the bottom of the heart, they wrote @cfcistudents so that students could look up the Conflict Free Campus Initiative’s Twitter account should they want more information on the ongoing conflict and the student campaign to alleviate it.

This semester, USC STAND’s focus is on educating the community and generating support for the campaign to make USC a conflict-free campus. STAND hopes to continue generating awareness about the conflict in the Congo as they begin to pressure the university administration to consider the institution’s role as a consumer and investor in this conflict.

Darfur at 10 Years: The Other Side of the Camera

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.

Genocide and Women’s Rights: Durham Academy STAND Hosts Hawaa Salih

By Amanda Jowell, Durham Academy STAND

While my classmates and I are generally preoccupied with receiving carnations and chocolates from our friends and loved ones on Valentine’s Day, this year we shifted gears to focus on something infinitely more valuable—genocide and women’s rights. On Valentine’s Day a few weeks ago, Durham Academy’s STAND chapter hosted Hawaa Salih, a Darfur refugee and genocide survivor, where she spent a 50 minute assembly sharing her powerful story with the Durham Academy community. Hawa described how she (along with nine other close siblings) was born in the Northern Darfur village of Tina to a loving mother and father and lived a relatively peaceful and normal life until 2003, when the Junjaweed militia attacked and destroyed her community. Stripped of their home, Hawa and her family moved to many IDP and refugee camps, spending the majority of her childhood in a camp in El Fasher, North Darfur. Inspired by the oppression and horrors of life in the camps, Hawa became a powerful and brave advocate for displaced persons, especially women and children. She worked closely with many NGOs throughout the region as well as with the United Nations in order to shed light on the sufferings of the thousands of innocent women and children. However, her advocacy work came with a price. She constantly feared for her life, yet she never stopped being the voice for her people. After her multiple arrests, she was ultimately kidnapped and given the death sentence for her activism. Just a mere 10 months ago, she fled to the Untied States, where she now lives in New Jersey. Her incredible work for the oppressed people of Darfur earned her the US State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award in 2012.

Our time with Hawa was unbelievably inspiring. Our chapter had a wonderful dinner with her the night before her presentation as we connected over simple Italian food, and she shared more intimate details of her life in Darfur. After the assembly the following day where Hawa discussed in further detail her story and the importance of gender equality (particularly focusing on how incredibly important it is that we do not remain silent and that we stand with the people of Sudan), each student wrote a ‘Valentine’s Day’ note in support of gender equality, which we are combining at our next meeting into a giant pink heart to display at our school. Overall, this was an amazing experience, and we are incredibly grateful that Hawa came to speak at Durham Academy and share her story with us. She not only was a kind, humble, and wonderful person to meet, but she also inspired us to always have a strong and unified voice with those sufferings from genocide and mass atrocities across the world.

Conflict and Bride Trafficking: The Sino-Burmese Border

This piece is by Laura Hackney, from Stanford STAND

With the end of the ceasefire in 2011 between the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and the national Burmese army*, fighting in the Kachin State has escalated across the vast province. Though peace talks have taken place recently in the Chinese border town of Ruili, the effects of this violence have destroyed lives and endangered the livelihoods of thousands of Kachin people living in the region. Additionally, the Palaung people in the Northeast Shan State of Burma have also suffered decades of fighting, increased food, education, and healthcare costs, as well as military seizures of land. The vulnerabilities of these minority groups (especially women) have intensified despite the political reforms coming from Naypyidaw.

Due to these various compounding factors, these states along the Sino-Burmese border have become a perfect breeding ground for the trafficking of women and girls into China’s Yunnan Province. Over the past 15 years, migration to China has increased as economic opportunities in towns such as Ruili have exploded. Once thought of as the “Wild West” of China, these border towns were the centers for the sex industry, drug trafficking, gambling, and a lucrative jade market. The local government has swiftly cracked down on these illicit activities (especially in Ruili) in the recent decade. However, there has emerged another lucrative market in the region, namely—women trafficked to become brides for Chinese men.

As with several other rapidly developing nations, China has experienced extraordinary demographic changes in the past three decades. In addition to an aging population, there exists in China an aggregate gender imbalance. This imbalance exists in various regional contexts, and has had its most extreme manifestations in rural areas. Due to land reform, the One Child Policy, the proliferation of ultra-sounds, and the overwhelming dependence on son to carry on the family name, the sex ratio at birth in some regions is greatly skewed (in some areas the imbalance is as high as 130 males per every 100 females). Traditional means of securing a bride is no longer available for some men, particularly those living in poor villages. Ruili’s location on the border between Yunnan and Burma acts as a gateway for women to be trafficked into Yunnan and then out to different provinces across the country.

Two Burmese NGOs, the Palaung Women’s Association and the Kachin Women’s Association, have been working in Thailand to document these cases of human trafficking. As with a large number of trafficking cases, traffickers are able to take advantage of the relative poverty of those victims who they wish to sell. Many young women living in the Palaung and Kachin areas of Burma are told that they will be able to find good jobs in prosperous China and send money home to their families. These women enter China, often without documentation, and are sold to Chinese families who need a wife and heir. Once in China, these women do not have access to many public services, can suffer abuse at the hands of their new husbands, or be forced to work without wages in various industries.

Both the Burmese and Chinese governments have established National Plans of Action against Trafficking of Women and Children; however, the root causes of this problem, especially in Burma, have yet to be addressed. The causes of trafficking can be complex, incorporating gender relations, conflict environments, economic resource allocation, globalization, proliferation of crime networks, and poverty–to name a few. In this light, human trafficking is an intolerable symptomatic of various forms of oppression. As a starting point, there must be awareness that a main factor pushing these women in the hands of traffickers is the lack of opportunities in their home cities or villages. An end to the fighting in the Kachin State and a focus on more equitable economic investment by foreign, private, and government entities should be the priority for those working for positive change in Burma.

*Note: “Burmese” here does not explicitly mean the Burmese ethnic group.