On the Edge of Life
Three days after Yom Kippur, while most rabbis were recovering from the High Holy Days or building their sukkot, I was in the African nation of Chad, meeting with refugees who had survived the genocide across the border in the Darfur region of Sudan.
by Richard Jacobs

Three days after Yom Kippur, while most rabbis were recovering from the High Holy Days or building their sukkot, I was in the African nation of Chad, meeting with refugees who had survived the genocide across the border in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Before my trip, I honestly didn't know where Chad was. But a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, when Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, invited me to join her--along with Rabbis Lee Bycel, David Saperstein, David Stern, and John Fischel--on an urgent mission, I signed on.

At Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, where I serve as a spiritual leader, the extent of my response to the murder of 400,000 innocent civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan had been giving a few sermons, writing articles in our temple bulletin, and wearing a green bracelet--hardly an adequate response to the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. I wanted to do more.

A Muslim state in which Arabic and French are the official languages, Chad is one of the poorest countries on earth, with 80% of its population living on less than $1 dollar a day. It also has one of the most corrupt governments: Paul Wolfowitz of the World Bank is calling Chad's leaders to account for reneging on their commitment to use oil revenues to alleviate poverty. The Chad government did not give the people of Darfur formal approval to enter the country; the refugees simply fled across the border.

In 1988 Chad recognized the "State of Palestine," but Chad has never recognized the State of Israel. To journey safely we secured new passports with no evidence of travel to Israel.

On October 18, thirty-six hours after taking off from JFK International Airport, we landed in Eastern Chad, a vast desolate area bordering Darfur that is now home to some 300,000 Darfur survivors in twelve refugee camps.

At the sprawling Amnabak refugee camp, an expanse of flimsy huts, women in bright colored African dresses waited patiently in the hot sub-Saharan sun for their weekly rations of food: bags of dry cereal supplied by the UN's World Food Program. I thought about the commandment in Leviticus 23:42: "You shall dwell in booths for seven days." These refugees weren't observing Sukkot as we would have been had we been back in America, and yet they were living full time in what looked like harvest booths--four sticks holding up a simple thatched roof made of scrawny desert vegetation. On the first day of the festival we would recite "layshev Ba'sukkah," the blessing for sitting in the sukkah. Our hosts didn't need reminders about the fragility of life; we did.

Hardship was evident everywhere. UN tents served as makeshift health clinics. In the maternity tent, we saw a tiny baby only hours old lying with her mother. In other tents, health workers measured M.U.A.C., the middle upper arm circumference of the infants' arms, to determine whether they were malnourished. Next door, babies with IVs and feeding tubes lay in bare rooms on dilapidated cots described to us as a "hospital." At mealtime in this hospital, mothers went out back, gathered wood, and lit fires to cook gruel for their children. Outside their ward, in the oppressive heat, toddlers sat on a large rug playing with a few miniature houses and a couple of dolls.

Threatened by malaria, we wore mosquito-resistant clothing from head to toe; the refugees wore whatever modest clothes they could find. We distributed soccer balls and frisbees to dozens of friendly children, who invited us to join in their play. One of them, a tiny three-year-old boy whose name I would never learn, grasped my hand tightly. He would not let go.

For more than an hour, my young friend and I walked silently through the camp. I began to imagine bringing him home with me. Back in New York, he could share a room with one of my three children. I could tuck him in to bed each night knowing he would be safe and healthy. By the conclusion of our walk, I had resolved to adopt him. But after making some inquires, I learned he had relatives in the camp. Aid workers told me he'd be better off staying in Africa. I reminded myself that the point of our being in Chad was to figure out ways to help all of the people, not just one.

Yet it was hard saying good-bye, knowing I would soon head home, while he would likely spend his life trying to find his way home.

Our next stop was the hospital in Guereda, a Chad village about an hour from Amnabak with dirt streets and mud brick walls protecting the modest homes from passersby.

About fifty patients were confined to the Guereda hospital, most of them children in the therapeutic feeding center. When we arrived at the operating room, it was locked. It turned out that only a regional Chad official had the key, and he was nowhere to be found. The next morning we were shown the small, not-yet-sterile room where no surgery has as yet been performed. The operating table was a second-hand relic with a rusted base.

"What would it cost to make this operating room functional?" we asked.

"About twenty-five thousand dollars," an International Medical Corps (IMC) worker answered.

Where I live, it costs more than $25,000 to renovate a bathroom. I made a note to myself: Ask my congregation to contribute the funds and equip these people with the modest health facility they need.

Later that day, we were sitting on the dirt floor of a tent in the Kuonungo refugee camp, another sprawling sea of huts and tents. Kuonungo, about a half hour's drive from Guereda, is now home to some 11,000 refugees. Through an interpreter we listened to the chilling stories of Darfur survivors.

Yago Abdullah Omer, a man in his mid 40s with a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke beard, was dressed in a white turban and loose-fitting African clothes. He had been the principal of the school in his village in Northern Darfur. "It was early in the morning and I was at school with my students," Omer said through an interpreter. "First, the village was surrounded by the Janjaweed [Arab militia armed by the Sudanese government] on horseback. Then the Antonovs [Russian-manufactured warplanes operated by the Sudanese army] came and bombed the village. On the FM radio frequency I heard the pilots coordinating the attack with the horsemen on the ground." These were not the isolated actions of spontaneous desert marauders, but an act of state-sponsored genocide.

Yago told us that he walked for twelve days before reaching Chad. He is one of the few men we saw in the camps; most were either killed or are in Darfur battling the militia and the Sudanese army.

Next we heard from Adam Ishak Chalac, an older man whose face was covered in deep pock marks. Government cars had driven into his village in Northern Darfur. Guns blazing, they shouted racial epithets. Thirty-five of the 300 villagers were killed.

We assured Yago and Adam that we would share their horrifying experiences with as many people as possible. We hoped that their pain would help awaken the sleeping conscience of the world.

The aid workers we met are extraordinary. Dr. Adam Musa, a Sudanese physician from Darfur who showed us around the IMC health facilities, had received medical training in Kiev with a masters in public health from a Belgian university. His wife and infant twins live in Khartoum, Sudan while he ministers to the Darfur refugees. Marin Tomas, the IMC director in Chad who lived through ethnic cleansing in his native Kosovo, calmly meets the urgent needs of the refugees by procuring supplies and improvising with available equipment. The various humanitarian groups in the area--Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, and others--all work closely with one another. Hasson, our Chadian driver, made sure to stop at the times prescribed by Islam for prayer. Our visit coincided with Ramadan, so almost everyone we met was observing the holy month's fast in spite of the oppressive heat.

We also met a Palestinian couple from Gaza--a psychiatrist and a social worker--working as part of the International Medical Corps team. In their trauma counseling they use art to help the children express the unspeakable horrors they have witnessed. Almost all of the children's artwork depicts men on horseback wielding knives and helicopters firing on family and friends. Their nightmares won't go away. And yet, we told ourselves over and over again, these children are the lucky ones: they survived. And they're outside of Sudan.

Inside Sudan, over two million civilians in Darfur have been bombed out of their homes and now live as IDPs (internally displaced persons). Children, women, and men perish from starvation and illness every day, living in these "dens of death" under control of the very people who are the cause of their suffering. Many Non-Governmental Organizations have pulled their aid workers out of Darfur because the NGOs are unable to protect them. The 7,000 African Union peacekeepers cannot shield these aid workers and have no mandate to safeguard Darfur's civilian population.

The genocide in Darfur has strong and undeniable parallels to the Holocaust. Civilians are being murdered daily in Darfur by the government's Janjaweed militias, much like Hitler's Einsatzgruppen slaughtered more than a million Jews before the Nazis started using death camps with gas chambers.

On July 23, 2004, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution declaring the atrocities in Darfur "genocide" as defined under the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. On July 26, 2004, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience declared a "Genocide Emergency" in Darfur.

But the UN has been ineffective in Darfur. Today, Russia and China acquire much of Sudan's oil and in return supply most of Sudan's military hardware. As a result, China and Russia will almost certainly veto any initiatives to strengthen the UN's role in Darfur.

Our meetings in Chad with the U.S. ambassador, Mark Wall, and a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were not encouraging. Sitting in the American Embassy, behind many layers of security, we were briefed on the unstable, unpopular, and ineffective Chad government. As the situation in Darfur deteriorates, many more refugees are likely to come teeming into Chad. If Chadian rebels overthrew the government, Ambassador Wall speculated, the refugees could be in grave danger.

And yet, we didn't leave hopeless. Rather, we were struck by how little it would take to save lives. With just hundreds of thousands of dollars we could greatly reduce the mortality rate of the refugees.

In our last few hours in Chad, we stopped in the open market to buy some African fabric. I wanted to make a tallit out of a bright, multicolored cloth to remind me daily of our Darfurian brothers and sisters. I picked out a bright purple, gray, and silver African cloth. When I returned home, I tied the tzitzit onto the four corners. Each Shabbat since, I have worn that tallit. It reminds me--and everyone in my congregation--of our obligation to bring the four corners of the earth together in our hearts and deeds.

Since my return, I have not stopped showing my pictures and telling the story. I hope and pray I can rouse people from moral lethargy. From the halls of Congress to the Isaiah Wall of the UN to the mall in Washington, DC, our congregation has been laboring overtime so that the unthinkable won't happen again on our watch. We have organized our members into several working groups to build coalitions with local faith communities, raise funds, lobby Congress, and reach out to UN representatives. We also raised enough funds to upgrade the operating room in Guereda and much more. (To make a contribution, please access the URJ's Disaster Relief site at www.urj.org/relief or the American Jewish World Service's website, www.ajws.org.)

I am haunted by the question my grandchildren will one day ask me. "Grandpa, what did you know about the genocide in Darfur? And what did you do to stop it?" I cannot offer them lame excuses. The gravity of this crisis demands action. If we do nothing, then we forfeit our right to condemn the world's silence when our people faced hell on earth in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sits on sacred American soil, just a few yards from the White House and the Capitol. Underneath are two steel containers filled with soil and ashes from concentration camps. Just a few yards away, on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Before him, Rabbi Joachim Prinz addressed the crowd:

"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."

I can still feel that little hand in mine. His life and millions of other lives are in our hands.

Postscript: As this article went to press, the genocide in Darfur spilled over into Chad as Janjaweed militiamen invaded refugee camps, stealing food, burning crops, and turning what had been safe havens into killing fields. Humanitarian groups working in Eastern Chad have had to recall their workers. The Chadian military is unable to defend its long border with Sudan, leaving the refugees at the mercy of the invaders. International intervention is needed now more than ever.

Rabbi Richard Jacobs is spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.

You Can Make a Difference


Create a program, invite a speaker, or speak out from the pulpit about the crisis in Darfur. Access information through the Religious Action Center (RAC) at www.rac.org, the American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org), and the Save Darfur Coalition (www.savedarfur.org).

Distribute and wear "Not on My Watch" bracelets or hang "Save Darfur" banners, available at www.savedarfur.org.

Write e-mails to friends explaining why this situation moves you to action. (Access a sample e-mail message on the Save Darfur site.)

Screen a documentary on Darfur (consider films from Human Rights Watch at www.hrw.org/video/2004/sudan/index2.html), or host a viewing and discussion of Hotel Rwanda or Sometimes in April.


Donate funds to the Save Darfur Coalition (www.savedarfur.org).

Hold a benefit concert or other event to raise money for relief efforts.

Reach out to other faith and advocacy groups in your community by joining Communities United to Save Darfur. For more information, including resources on organizing interfaith services, vigils, and rallies, visit www.savedarfur.org.


Participate in the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign, which aims to generate one million hand-written and electronic postcards to President Bush demanding a stronger U.S. response to the genocide. For information, visit www.rac.org or www.savedarfur.org.

Contact your senators and representatives and urge them to pressure the U.S. administration to intervene in Darfur. For sample letters, talking points, and more visit www.rac.org.

Send letters to America's UN ambassador John Bolton urging him to insist on prompt action to ensure effective implementation of Security Council resolutions that will strengthen the African Union mandate in Darfur. For talking points on this issue visit www.rac.org.

Join the Dolls for Darfur national advocacy campaign created by Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, the Commission on Social Action, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Congregations will receive postcards and representational Darfur dolls, detailed instructions for communicating with elected leaders, curriculum ideas, and more. Visit www.dollsfordarfur.org.

--Sarah Burrows, RAC Legislative Assistant

Union for Reform Judaism.