July 23, 2011

A decade ago the world largely turned its back as an estimated 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda. Today, genocide is occurring in Sudan's western region of Darfur. Here, student readings, questions for discussion and suggestions for student action.

Once again the nations of the world, including our own, are mostly standing by while genocide takes place in Africa. A decade ago the world largely turned its back as an estimated 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda. Today, the genocide is occurring in another African country—in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

True, the U.S. government is contributing money for humanitarian aid and deploring the situation, as are other governments. But there is no invocation of the United Nations Convention to prevent and punish genocide.

The materials here include two explanatory readings about the Darfur genocide followed by questions for discussion and suggestions for encouraging student's to act in solidarity with human beings they are never likely to see or meet—but who desperately need help.

Student Reading 1

Darfur: "A Manmade Disaster"

April 7, 2005. A band of 350 men riding horses and camels suddenly appear in the village of Khor Abeche. They rampage through the village "killing, burning and destroying everything in their paths and leaving in their wake total destruction with only the mosque and the school spared." (This according to a joint statement by the UN and African Union, BBC News, 4/9/05.) Outsiders don't know exactly how many men of Khor Abeche are killed, how many women raped, how many children burned to death.

Khor Abeche is in Darfur, in the western region of Sudan. Since February 2003 the black people of Darfur have lived and died in a reign of terror. Besides the killings, the rapes, and the burning of their homes, many have starved to death because their livestock has been slaughtered, their crops destroyed, and their drinking water contaminated. About 2.5 million people have been forced from their homes and villages. Most of those who survive live in misery in hastily assembled refugee camps or have become refugees in neighboring Chad.

More than a year later, on September 8, 2006. (Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 9/10/06, in a story about Darfur) "They call this place Rwanda. A year ago it was a collection of straw huts hastily thrown together in the aftermath of battle, hard by the razor-wire edge of a small African Union peacekeeper base.

"Today it is a tangle of sewage choked lanes snaking among thousands of squalid shacks, an endless sprawl that dwarfs the base at its heart. Pounding rainstorms gather fetid pools that swarm mosquitoes and flies spreading death in their filthy wake. All but one of the aid groups working here have pulled out...

"'What happened in Rwanda, it will happen here,' said Sheik Abdullah Muhammad Ali, who fled here from a nearby village seeking the safety that he hoped the presence of about 200 African Union peacekeepers would bring... 'If these soldiers leave,' Sheik Ali said, 'we will all be slaughtered.'"

"... Thousands of people in this squalid camp fear that their annihilation will be the final chapter in this brutal battle over land, identity, resources and power, which the Bush administration and many others has called genocide"


Most of Darfur's black African people live by farming, while the lighter-skinned Arab people of the region are often herders of cattle or camels. Both blacks and Arabs are generally Muslim. But this has not prevented a competition between the two groups over land that goes back many years.

Until the late 1980s, leaders of the two groups usually resolved differences peacefully. But then, as drought turned arable land to desert, competition intensified. The black farmers resented camel-riding Arabs who trampled their land looking for pasture. Arabs resented those blacks who herded cattle across their grazing land. Fighting began, people and cattle were killed, villages and nomad tents burned.

Leaders of a military coup in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, seized power just as a possible settlement of the land conflict seemed near. The new leaders favored the Arab groups, denying the black African farmers their share of political representation and the country's resources. Ethnic and racial hatred led to war, with a rebel black African army fighting Sudanese government troops. Unable to defeat the rebels, the Sudanese government hired Arab militiamen known as Janjaweed, who have repeatedly swooped down on unarmed villagers like those at Khor Abeche. These attacks have been supported at times by Sudanese helicopter gunships.

This deliberate killing of civilians, combined with the creation of huge numbers of refugees suffering from malnutrition and disease, has so far killed some 400,000 people in Darfur. Civilians in the region continue to die at the rate of 15,000 a month. (This according to; see below.) African Union peacekeeping troops have not been able to halt Janjaweed raids, to prevent them from stealing relief supplies or even to protect terrified women who must venture from refugee camps to gather wood for fires and are often assaulted and raped.

The Janjaweed also frequently attack convoys of humanitarian aid workers, who are trying to serve the area's 150 refugee camps. Some aid workers have been robbed, others arrested by local government officials ( Washington Post, 4/25/05).

The attacks on the Black Africans of Darfur by Janjaweed and Sudanese government forces are a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, international agreements that prohibit deliberate wartime attacks on civilians. The African Union's 2,200 peacekeeping troops are too few to make a major difference. A proposed troop increase to over 6,000 will be an improvement but still insufficient for a region about the size of Texas. The Sudanese government has repeatedly denied that it supports the Janjaweed. It claims it is only fighting African rebels, and not committing atrocities.

The attacks on the Black Africans of Darfur by Janjaweed and Sudanese government forces are a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, international agreements that prohibit deliberate wartime attacks on civilians. Sudanese President Hassan al-Bashir recently called reports of massacres in Darfur "fictions," despite overwhelming evidence that they are very real. The African Union's peacekeeping force has been increased several times but remains too small to prevent or stop them.

What is happening in Sudan is "a manmade disaster that is complicated by politics, religion, poverty, racism, breakdown of the rule of law, geographic isolation, lack of infrastructure, decades of conflict, and, not insignificantly, oil development," said Eric Reeves in an interview. ( Smith College Quarterly, April 2005). Reeves is a Smith College English professor who has for six years educated himself, and become an expert on, Sudan. He has traveled to the country, written and spoken regularly about the terrible events there, and established a website to share this knowledge with others ( Reeves advocates for international intervention to stop the continuing genocide that the nations of the world—including the United States—and the United Nations have done very little about.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading?

2. In what specific ways is the disaster in Darfur "manmade"?
3. The disaster in Darfur is far away and does not disturb our daily lives. So why do you suppose that Eric Reeves cares about it? Should we? Why or why not?


Student Reading 2

The Genocide Continues

In May 2006 the Sudanese government and the largest of the Darfur rebel groups—but not two of the smaller ones—signed a peace agreement. It called for a ceasefire, compensation for victims of attacks by the Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militia, complete disarmament of the Janjaweed by October, representation for Darfur rebel groups in the Sudanese government, and reconstruction of villages and help for people to return to their homes.

A refugee was skeptical that President Bashir would keep his word to uphold the peace agreement. He said, "We know Bashir. We have seen him make agreements and break them 10 minutes later." (Reuters, 5/6/06) The president did not keep his word and the Sudanese government and rebel groups that had not signed the peace agreement renewed their conflict. Rebel groups also fought one another.

President Bush promised that the US would strongly support the peace agreement and would "hold accountable" any group that violates it. So far the US has not.

The UN leadership under Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had called Darfur "little short of hell on earth" has not enforced the agreement. Member nations of the UN were unsupportive.

There was no ceasefire, no compensation, no disarmament of the Janjaweed, no representation for Darfur in the Sudanese government, and no help to enable millions of refugees to return to their homes.

On August 31, 2006, the Security Council of the UN approved Resolution 1706, which called for a UN peacekeeping force of 22,000 to replace the undermanned and overwhelmed African Union force of 7,200. But President al-Bashir rejected the resolution and warned the UN that he would regard acting on it as "a hostile act."
The Security Council has pressured Sudan with words only.

Critics call for acts: a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent government air attacks, targeting the assets of Sudanese officials to prevent them from siphoning off the country's oil wealth, freezing Sudan's assets abroad and blocking its oil exports.

In the meantime, Sudan has accepted a new agreement. This one calls for expansion of the African Union force to 11,000 and the inclusion of 200 UN peacekeepers and support staff.

"We may be all too sure that when international attention drifts from Darfur...the African Union will be obstructed, harassed and impeded as mercilessly as it has for more than two years," Eric Reeves wrote in "Paralysis in Darfur: Khartoum Achieves Final Diplomatic Success." (, 10/9/06). Unfortunately, Reeves is almost certainly right. Why?

One significant reason may be the 2005 discovery of oil in Northern Darfur. It promises to yield up to 500,000 barrels a day and double Sudan's oil reserves. Three members of the Security Council—China, Britain and France—have contracts to extract Sudanese oil. Russia, another Security Council member, and China sell weapons to the Sudanese government. These nations may be reluctant to alienate the Sudanese government by insisting on enforcing the UN resolution.

As for the US, the Sudanese government's "cooperation in the war on terror," the strong interest of at least two American companies in Sudan's oil, Sudan's potential mineral wealth, and Sudan's strategic geographic position all appear to have limited the American response to what President Bush called "genocide" at the UN. (Dave Morse, "Appeasement Driven by Oil,", 9/25/06)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What seem to be reasons for the UN failure to act decisively in Sudan? What conflicts of interest do Security Council members have?
3. What specific measures might the UN and NATO take to stop the genocide?

Student Reading 3

Where are the American people?

The word "genocide" was coined by Raphael Lemkin as a direct result of the Holocaust. It combines the Greek geno, meaning "race" or "tribe" with the Latin cide, from cadere, meaning "killing." More than any other individual, Lemkin was responsible for the creation and passage of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide, which was ratified by the General Assembly on December 9, 1948. Article 2 states:

"In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
a. Killing members of the group;
b. Causing seriously bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part... "

Unfortunately, the nations of the world, including the US, have repeatedly stood by and done little or nothing while genocide occurred. The US, and other nations, deplored but failed to prevent the genocide of Armenians during World War I and Jews during World War II, as it did genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, and genocide against Bosnians and Rwandans in the 1990s.

The same pattern is repeating itself in the new century.

In her book "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power explains why the US and other nations have done so little in the past to stop genocide (from the Armenian genocide of World War I through the Rwandan genocide of 1994). "The most common response is, 'We didn't know.' This is not true. To be sure, the information emanating from countries victimized by genocide was imperfect... But although US officials did not know all there was to know about the nature and scale of the violence, they knew a remarkable amount.

"A second response to the question of why the United States did so little is that it could not have done much to stop the horrors... [But] for all the talk of the likely futility of US involvement, in the rare instances that the United States did act, it made a difference... A Rwandan hotel owner credits a US diplomat's mere phone calls with helping convince militias not to attack the Tutsi inhabitants of his hotel during the genocide...

"The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply, put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it. The US policies crafted in response to each case of genocide examined in this book were not the accidental products of neglect. They were concrete choices made by this country's most influential decision-makers after unspoken and explicit weighing of costs and benefits."

Power charges a series of American presidents with failing to respond adequately to genocide: Woodrow Wilson (the Armenian genocide); Franklin Roosevelt (the Jewish genocide); Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (the Cambodian genocide); Ronald Reagan (the Kurdish genocide); George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton (the Bosnian genocide); Bill Clinton (the Rwandan genocide).

But these presidents and their administrations are not solely to blame. Where were the American people? And where are President George Bush and the American people today?

The United States ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in which Article 1 declares: "The contracting parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish."

Power concludes her study of genocide with the following words: "George Bernard Shaw once wrote, 'The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.' After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide, Americans must join and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable."

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Consider each of the three reasons Power gives for US inaction on genocide. What have been official US explanations for inaction? How does Power respond to these explanations?
3. What does Power conclude is "the real reason" for US inaction? Based on what you know, do you agree with her? Why or why not?
4. What do you think ordinary American citizens might do to get its government to act? (Example,, is no longer active.)


For Citizenship

There are a number of websites from which students can get much more information about the situation in Darfur and, more broadly, in Sudan. Among them are (no longer active) and Both offer a number of additional links. and other sites suggest actions such as the following:

  • Prepare and collect signatures for a petition to President Bush and to representatives and senators calling for the Darfur situation to be labeled "genocide" and for the US to act to stop it.
  • Organize a vigil at a local school or city hall.
  • Donate money for Darfur relief.
  • Hold a fundraiser or benefit to raise money—a bake sale, a car wash, a concert, a film.
  • Leaflet, preferably with permission from the theater manager, at the movie Hotel Rwanda. (Savedarfur.Org has suggestions about this as well as information flyers and other materials to distribute.)
  • Organize a fast and donate the money one would have spent for Darfur relief.
  • Invite speakers for a school assembly program.
  • Post flyers about the Darfur genocide.
  • Wear a green wristband or ribbon in solidarity with the African people of Darfur.
  • Write letters to public officials.
  • Organize a divestment campaign against companies whose projects support the Sudanese government. These companies include the following. (For additional company names, see "A Divestment Campaign to Stop Genocide in Darfur,", 12/15/04.)
    • Siemens AG of Germany: $180 million invested in Sudan's energy business
    • Tatneft, a Russian oil giant: Numerous exploration projects in Sudan
    • China National Petroleum: Two recent oil projects valued at $500 million

In addition, US public pension plans own over $91 billion in such companies as those noted above. The California Public Employees Retirement System and the New York State Common Retirement Fund are among those with Sudan investments.

College and university students can find out whether Sudan holdings are included in the investment portfolios of the institutions they are attending.

For Inquiry

  • Investigate one example of genocide in the 20th century (this might be genocides of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Kurds, Bosnians, or Rwandans) and the U.S.'s role in it.
  • Investigate the near-genocide in Kosovo (1999) and the U.S.'s role in it.

Additional Sources

Samantha Power, "Dying in Darfur," New Yorker , 8/30/04
John Ryle, "Disaster in Darfur," New York Review of Books, 8/12/04
Eric Reeves, "Sudan's Reign of Terror," Amnesty Now, Summer 2004



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: