A couple of years ago Darfur was relatively unknown to many people in Africa and the west. As a graduate student in Washington D.C., Aisha Baines was interested in Africa and had traveled extensively for an average American student. During her research, she uncovered a budding crisis in northern Sudan, which was going on under the radar, unknown to even the mainstream media outlets.
With her passion for Africa and feeling a kinship to people in conflict areas, she is part Haitian, a country that has had its share of civil conflict, she made it her mission to inform American media organizations and policymakers of the ongoing tragedy.
“I started hearing horrifying stories about the situation in Darfur,” she says describing her first days researching the issue.
She established contacts with people on the ground in Darfur and they described to her ongoing “massacres…. bombings rapes and doctors who were overwhelmed by the overflow of victims.” She appealed to news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but at the time there was reservation from the media to report on such a new issue.
“Their attitude was that if it wasn't already in the news, it just was not news,” she says.
Still Aisha didn’t give up the fight and soon with her persistence, story broke in the U.S. and “all of a sudden Americans became aware of what was going on in Darfur.” She teamed up with Human Rights Watch and held a briefing on Capitol Hill.
"But still, the response was slow and it was driving me crazy,” she says.
Seeking further exposure for the issue required images from the ground, and after consulting a fellow student filmmaker Adam Shapiro, in late 2004, the team embarked on a journey to Darfur through Chad with a couple of hand-held cameras. She says that the movie was meant to give the Darfurians a voice.
“At the time, there were only internationals speaking on behalf of the people of Darfur…there were no Darfurian voices represented in the media,” she says.
The film team decided to give special focus to women and children.
“Women and children are often the most marginalized in conflicts…and we wanted to see the conflict through their eyes,” she says.
The product is Darfur Diaries: Message From Home, which analysts have called “a brutally honest inside look into the current tragedy befalling the Darfur region.”
Aisha says the film, which was released with a similarly-titled book, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival, “seeks to provide space for the marginalized victims of atrocities to speak and to engage with the world.”
The 55-minute-long movie is as graphic and powerful as it is informative. Recently, Amnesty International has used the film to educate the public about the situation in Darfur.
In the movie, Darfurians provide personal anecdotes, which paint a touching and atrocious picture. The desert landscape, wind-swept and littered with bomb fragments, is stark. But as Aisha Bains recounts her gruesome journey to document the Darfur story, she can't help but smile about some humorous interactions with local military as they tried to work through the communication problems.
“Those moments give you glimpses of humanity…that people still have to laugh when they cry…people have to live,” she says.
The movie brings to life the tragic story of Darfur where a government continues to use Janjaweed militias, to plunder, pillage, rape and other gross crimes against humanity. According to the United Nations, 400,000 people have died, and over two million have been displaced. Aisha says that if the world had done enough about Darfur as some claim,”we wouldn't be talking about the issue in the present tense…absolutely not.”