by A. Ivanhoe/The AS Review
Western students combated genocide last week with a series of events aiming to educate the Western community on human rights crises around the world.
The project, “This Week in Genocide,” was presented by the AS club STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition (WWU STAND), Western’s student chapter of a national organization Genocide Intervention Network (GI-NET) created in response to the Sudanese government’s slaughter of civilians in its Darfur region on the basis of their ethnicity.
“The whole idea of this week is to explain genocide and human rights issues, which are a really hard thing to comprehend,” sophomore Tyler Dixon, WWU STAND’s advocacy coordinator, said. “Even if you can understand, it’s thousands of miles away and you feel like there’s nothing you can really do about it. But there really is.”
According to sophomore Erica Olson, WWU STAND’s public relations coordinator, the motto for the week is “A human rights issue is everyone’s problem.”
The events included a discussion panel featuring Western professors Ray Wolpow, a Holocaust expert, and Kathleen Young, an expert on the 1993 genocide in Bosnia, as well as Seattle filmmaker Jen Marlowe, who spoke about Darfur and presented clips from her upcoming film “Rebuilding Hope: A Documentary Film About South Sudan.”
In a separate event, Carl Wilkens, one of the only Americans to remain in Rwanda during its 1994 genocide between warring Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities, discussed his personal experiences with genocide and his philosophy about the attitudes that either create or preempt the requisite conditions for ethnic warfare.
Wilkens, a former high school teacher, headed the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda when the conflict arose. In the years since his return, the demand for him to speak about his experiences increased, so he founded World Outside My Shoes in 2008 to devote himself full-time to speaking engagements, according to his Web site.
“Stories are our most powerful weapons,” Wilkens said. “Unlike other weapons, they have the potential to end a fight with two winners.”
Wilkens’s speech was followed by a screening of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” a dramatization of the Rwandan genocide from the point of view of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina.
WWU STAND also screened the award-winning documentary “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” chronicling the ongoing human rights crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The film, directed by Lisa F. Jackson, won the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
On Saturday, WWU STAND also held a “5K Fun Run for Women in Congo,” raising money for Women to Women International’s Congo program, an organization that helps Congolese rape victims rebuild their lives.
“In Rwanda, a bunch of Hutus fled into the Congo and a leader of the Tutsis has declared war on Hutus in Congo,” Olson said. “They are raping and killing people and Hutus are raping and killing people and the government of Congo is unofficially raping and killing people.”
According to Olson, the genocide is funded by Chinese cellular phone manufacturers, who purchase minerals originating in the Congo from Hutu and Tutsi rebel groups.
“Congo has all these minerals that go into your cell phone, but Congo doesn’t get the money from them because they’re smuggled into neighboring African countries and then sold to China,” she said. “American companies say they get cell phones from China,” and claim ignorance on the origin of the minerals contained in them, he said.
A fact sheet produced by STAND claims that 5.4 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out in 1998, and though the war nominally ended in 2003, cease fires have been ignored and “negligence by the international community … has created conditions for a status quo in which rape, killings, displacement and conflict-related deaths characterize everyday life.”
“Rape has been a tool of war,” WWU STAND Advocacy Coordinator Tyler Dixon said. “When you rape a woman, you destroy the social fabric of that village because women commonly get shunned by their husbands for fear they’ve been infected [with HIV].”
“Women just don’t say anything. They’re afraid to speak out. Sex is a taboo, so it’s not talked about,” he said. “Adding fuel to the fire is an extremely large majority are affected by HIV and AIDS.”
WWU STAND also put on a benefit comedy show called “Burma Comedy Night” featuring Western student comedians Jim Allan and Paul Beeman and the sketch comedy group the Dead Parrots Society. Between the laughs, WWU STAND members spoke about ethnic-based killing in Burma, the Southeast Asian nation known as Myanmar by its government. The military junta, which has retained power since a successful coup in 1962, deposed a democratically elected government, has targeted the Karen and other minority populations in eastern Burma for extermination, according to STAND.
“The government will randomly go into a village and burn it down and kill all the people who are trying to get away,” Olson said.
News of Burmese atrocities has come mostly from Karen refugees, who have fled into neighboring Thailand. Burma, which has made great pains to isolate itself from the rest of the world, does not allow international journalists to enter its country.
Burma is lately in the international spotlight because the junta has put Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on trail for violating the terms of her house arrest after allowing an American, who swam to her home, to stay overnight, according to the Associated Press (AP). Suu Kyi, who has been an outspoken advocate for democracy and peace, has been under house arrest for most of the time since her National League for Democracy won a 1990 parliamentary election in a landslide, taking over 80 percent of the seats, which the junta has refused to recognize. According to the AP, it is the only time Burma has held a national election since the junta assumed power.
WWU STAND also set up a mock refugee camp called “Camp Darfur” on the Humanities Building lawn to provide information about the Sudanese genocide in the context of other historical genocides. Students wrote uplifting messages of hope on the tents used in the camp, which will be sent to refugees in the central African nation of Chad, which shares a border with Sudan. Club members also promoted the Genocide Hotline, 1-800-GENOCIDE, a GI-NET program to connect people with their elected representatives to advocate for decisive action in countries that commit genocide and other human rights offenses based on ethnicity.
“The International Criminal Court (ICC) has put out an arrest warrant on Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, for crimes against humanity, so he forced a bunch of non-governmental [aid] organizations to leave Sudan,” Olson said. “But a few have recently been allowed back in by the Sudanese government. … One of the biggest problems is you have to get the government’s consent before you can go in and help the people.”
“The ICC indictment is a big step in the right direction to stopping this,” she said.
WWU STAND has been at Western for about three years, according to Olson. Different members of the club volunteer to research a particular region affected by ethnic violence. Their expertise is used to develop events to educate the Western community about genocide taking place around the world. The club also hosts an annual benefit concert, with proceeds going to organizations that help people affected by genocide.
“We send our money to the Genocide Intervention Network because they have projects on the ground in those countries but STAND does not,” Olson said. “Other times [we donate to] the organization that seems to be doing the most work, the most good on the ground.”
Last quarter’s benefit concert raised money for UNICEF Sudan, which sends food aid to refugee camps in Darfur, Olson said.
Another benefit concert is planned for next year, she said.