Professor John Weiss has seen genocide first hand. Just over ten years ago, he was witness to the slaughter of an estimated 8,000 unarmed Muslims by Serb forces in eastern Bosnia in what is now known as the Srebrenica Massacre. Last summer, he took action to help stop an even deadlier genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where an estimated 400,000 people have been murdered and more than 2.5 million displaced since 2003 by the totalitarian Sudanese regime and their allies, the Janjaweed militia group.
Named the “Ride Against Genocide,” Weiss and a group of university students cycled almost 1,000 km from their home in Ithaca, New York to Ottawa, Canada over a 28-day period. He is hoping to raise awareness and build support to pressure western countries to strengthen peacekeeping efforts in the east African country. Weiss also took part in almost thirty speaking engagements along the way. Recently, he stopped in Oakville, Ontario to talk at an event organized by a local peace group.
“I have a prediction to make,” he begins, “sometime between now and the Fall, somebody in the American government will declare that the genocide is over, that everything is fine, so that it looks like some progress has been made.” A professor of history for more than twenty years, Weiss knows the issue well. He speaks straight for more than an hour about the conflict, without notes.
The violence in the region began four years ago with the suppression of non-Arabs by the Sudanese regime, based in the capital city of Khartoum. When two rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Army, began to fight back, the regime responded with brutal aerial bombardments of the Darfur region, while the government-backed Janjaweed committed major human rights abuses and war crimes, including the systematic burning of villages, looting, rape and mass murder of primarily Christians, Black African Muslims and other non-Arabs.
The United Nations estimates that up to 10,000 people are dying each month in Darfur, yet only 2,700 poorly equipped African Union peacekeepers are stationed in the area with a mandate to observe, but not protect. “How does this amount to protecting people from genocide?” Weiss says. “It doesn’t.”
There has been a stunning lack of attention on the issue by the mainstream media. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reports that over the month of June 2005, CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, ABC and CBS collectively ran 55 times as many stories about Michael Jackson as they did about the tragedy in Darfur. CBS Nightly News ran three minutes worth of coverage throughout all of 2004, “about a minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths,” added Kristof.
There are refugee camps located in Darfur and Chad, Sudan’s neighbour to the west, but many of them are surrounded by Janjaweed forces that block vital food, medicines and other aid from the international community.
Weiss asserts that his strong religious beliefs led him to join the struggle against genocide, wherever it may occur. “You have to realize that unless you’re a monk, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty,” he says. “I realized that ‘thou shall not kill’ also meant thou shall not let others kill. I made that decision long ago.”
Although the killings seem primarily ethnic based, there are some vital economic interests in the region for the Khartoum regime and the Janjaweed that Weiss says are preventing the international community from doing anything. Once again, as in other wars around the planet, oil is the key factor. “The UN Security Council will not act because China has interests to buy Sudanese oil and does not want to do anything to upset the Khartoum government,” he says. In addition, Russia sells bombers and fighter jets to the Sudanese regime.
Weiss believes that the United States also wants to maintain good relations with the Sudanese dictatorship since the Chevron Corporation has recently discovered oil deposits in eastern Chad that may extend into south-western Darfur. China, Russia and the U.S. can use their veto power in the Security Council to block any peacekeeping efforts by other member nations.
There was concern among some in attendance of the Oakville meeting that the petition organized by the “Ride Against Genocide” campaign calls far too heavily on NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) involvement. Concerning its 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo, some feared that their participation in Darfur would lead to even greater bloodshed. “I find it very difficult to believe that western countries should feel that they have some moral high ground to help other countries and respect their laws,” said Steven Dankowich, a local anti-war activist. Nonetheless, a majority of the event participants in attendance agreed that something had to be done – and fast.
Other cyclists have joined Weiss along the trek to Ottawa. One of his students, Elvir Camdzic, an organizer of the project and himself a Bosnian who grew up in a town only 45 km away from Srebrenica, rode with him from Ithaca to Niagara Falls, but couldn’t cross the border because he was unable to attain a guest visa from Canadian immigration officials.
At the end of the evening, Weiss pleaded with the audience. “I really am convinced,” he said, “that we have to act now to bring an end to this situation.” When reaching Ottawa, he presented Canadian Member of Parliament David Kilgour with the petition signed by hundreds of people he encountered throughout the tour.