The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum held a special ceremony Thursday to highlight the mass killings in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Speakers said the Holocaust gave the world the word "genocide" 60 years ago during World War II, and that genocide is what the world is seeing now in Darfur.
For only the second time in its more than 10-year history, the Holocaust Memorial Museum halted its usual activities for a special program focusing on the situation in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
Clashes there between government-backed militias and rebel groups have already killed tens of thousands of black civilians and displaced one million others. The U.S. government says as many as 350,000 Sudanese Darfurians could die in coming months from starvation, disease and fighting.
Jerry Fowler, the director of the museum's Committee on Conscience, said the Holocaust led to the introduction of the word "genocide," which the United Nations defines as the intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Mr. Fowler said the term applied then, as the Nazis tried to wipe out Europe's Jews. But he added that "genocide" is also an apt description for the Hutu versus Tutsi massacres in Rwanda ten years ago, and now applies to the situation in Darfur, as government-backed Arab militias attack black African villagers.
"A Polish refugee created the word to describe what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe," he said. "The Holocaust ended, but the problem of genocide did not. In 1994, 10 years ago, in Rwanda, warnings were received and ignored. What is our responsibility when we receive those warnings?"
The answer to that question, Mr. Fowler said, is to prevent genocide and to not repeat historical mistakes.
"Too often in the past, as this museum starkly illustrates, warnings have been received and ignored, and the result has been death and suffering on a massive scale," he said. "It's time for us to stop saying, 'Never again,' and start saying, 'Not this time.'"
Technology during the Holocaust was not as advanced as it is now. Republican Senator Sam Brownback pointed to this as the main reason the world can no longer plead ignorance about the massacres in Darfur. "We can't say we don't know, when we have eyewitnesses, when we have satellite pictures, when we have people who have gone in and seen it. We can't say we really didn't know it was that bad," he said. "It is that bad? It is time to act, and we have the capacity to do so."
Democratic Senator Jon Corzine called for immediate international action to halt what he called the "genocidal campaign in Darfur." He blamed the Sudanese government for the killings, and he added that he wants to see Khartoum under international legal obligation to stop it.
"This should be the highest priority. It shouldn't be an option. And just because we [the United States] have a great deal on our plate, which the Sudanese government is taking for granted, doesn't mean we shouldn't be acting," he said. "We, the United States, need to stand firm and make sure that we have moral clarity."
A violent 16-month civil war in Darfur has pitted the so-called Janjaweed Arab militias against two black rebel groups. Amal Allagabo, a native of Darfur who lives outside the region, said her home used to be a relatively peaceful reflection of Sudan's diversity.
"Africans and Arab tribes lived for centuries together, with minor scuffling over water and grazing lands," he said. "But recently, the government-supported Janjaweed and other groups uprooted my people, my villages, my relatives. I left in despair. Burning, killing and raping women, with no mercy or observation of the norms of the Geneva Convention for human rights."
She also appealed to the several hundred people gathered at the Holocaust museum and the international community at large to see Darfur's plight as universal.
"My Darfurian family is just like your family. In my eyes and many peoples' eyes, they are still human beings," she said.
The Darfurian refugee said, if it's not stopped soon, the situation in her homeland is well on its way to becoming one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.