Accessibility links

American Activism for Darfur Hits New York Stage

According to reports by news organizations and humanitarian groups, the slaughter continues in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, where since 2003, tens of thousands of people have been killed by government-backed militias. Millions more Darfuris await an uncertain fate in crowded refugee camps.

In the United States, activists are working to heighten public awareness of the humanitarian crisis, and to press government leaders to intervene. Some have used performing art to drive their point home.

In one forceful example, thousands of kilometers and many worlds away from Darfur, a grim scene plays out on a dimly lit stage at Manhattan's Public Theater: Arabic speaking militiamen known as Janjaweed, who have been attacking villages across the region, are beating a local woman at a field clinic they've just raided.

It is one of many painfully realistic moments in a play-in-progress called In Darfur.

Playwright Winter Miller, 32, says two disturbing reports about the crisis prompted her to visit the region, and to become an activist working to stop the killing.

"One was that when the Janjaweed came to a village, they would look at a mother carrying a baby," she says. "They would open the baby's diaper, check to see if it was a boy, and if it was a boy they would bayonet the baby and throw it to the ground. That was a clear attempt to commit genocide."

Miller says she also couldn't "look away" from reports "where 12-year-old girls were being raped as a means of warfare." She was moved to get involved. "And since I write plays, I thought well, 'I'll write a play about it.'"

The plot of In Darfur centers on a character named Helwa, a young Darfuri woman whose village has been attacked by Janjaweed. After witnessing the brutal murder of her husband and children, Helwa wanders, dazed, to a clinic run by a young American aid doctor. Against the doctor's advice, Helwa risks her life by telling a New York Times reporter named Heather about the atrocities she and her village have suffered.

This act of courage results in brutal torture later in the play at the hands of Sudanese soldiers sympathetic to the Janjaweed.

Winter Miller says that In Darfur was meant to do more than merely horrify audiences with the atrocities still being perpetrated in Darfur. She wants people to take action to stop the genocide.

At the end of the play, audience members are given postcards to mail to their friends and associates, urging them to withdraw any financial investments they have in companies doing business with Sudan, directly or indirectly. Activists have targeted U.S. companies such as Berkshire Hathaway and Fidelity Investments.

Winter says the card-writing campaign has been a success. "It sort of flies in the face of what people say theater cannot do," she says. "The intention was to galvanize people. And it's exciting to see people say 'Okay! I'm going to sign this postcard!' And to see them actually take action. Because as individuals we do have a certain amount of power!"

Action by governments and the United Nations is also a part of the solution, according to Mia Farrow. The actress-turned-activist, who has visited Darfur on four occasions in her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, led a discussion with the audience following the performance. Farrow says her focus now is to urge China, Sudan's biggest trading partner, to lead the way, by reining in two of its large oil companies: Petrochina and Sinopec.

"They are pouring billions of dollars into [Sudan's capital city] Khartoum," she says. "At least 60 percent and as much as 80 percent of those proceeds are going toward bombers, attack helicopters, small arms, and arming and training the Janjaweed. In other words, to attack the people of Darfur."

China is hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, and Farrow points out the irony in China's Olympic promotional slogan: "One World, One Dream." "We would say to China: there is also one nightmare that we cannot sweep under the rug," says Farrow. "And that nightmare is called Darfur. And you have the power now to stop the genocide."

Farrow and other Darfur activists believe they have brought new pressure to bear on the government of Sudan to end the killing. Yet the killing has not stopped.

Estimates of the death toll in Darfur over the past four years range widely, between 70,000 and 300,000 people. As many as two million people have been displaced. Janjaweed raids are still occurring. Darfuris continue to flee the region and settle in refugee camps in nearby Chad and elsewhere, and there is no certain end to the crisis in sight