Dying in Darfur

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been struck recently by the difference between the Olympic games and the genocide occurring only 1,600 miles south of Athens.

(Lange) When I’m using my e-mail, there’s a box on my screen – “Disconnect.” Pressing it has a symbolic significance.

Over sixty years ago, on Sunday mornings, we passed through a part of Albany called “Green Street.” The cobblestones were littered with bottles, clothing, and men and women foul with vomit. Less than a mile away, families named van Loon and ten Broeck dwelt in regal isolation behind husky doormen and darkened foyers. Another disconnect.

Over forty years ago my wife and I traveled on Sundays to the dying coal fields of eastern Ohio. The Presbyterian Church paid me to conduct worship services for struggling little congregations back in the hills. Overturned vehicles littered side yards. Streams ran orange. The slag on the mountainsides had caught fire, and sent sulfurous fumes drifting down the valley.

I warned my wife not to talk about any material things. So she asked one old woman how her garden was doing.

“Honey,” she answered, “I ain’t had the money for seeds.”

On the way home, we ate at a restaurant where Ohio burghers and their wives stopped for dinner. Buicks and Cadillacs filled the parking lot. Steeped in the aroma of pot roast, we marveled at the difference a few miles had made. Another disconnect.

Last month I watched the Olympics. Between events I gazed at the magnificent stadiums that had been erected, costing billions of dollars. Nothing had been spared to make the venues as magnificent as possible.

Only 1600 miles south of Athens, in a part of Sudan called Darfur, hundreds of thousands of Africans have been forced from their homes. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered, raped, disfigured, or enslaved. To their everlasting credit, private citizens and aid organizations have flocked to help with the immediate problems of starvation and disease. Meanwhile, the political repression and ethnic cleansing by a corrupt government is debated at the United Nations. Does this rise to a level requiring UN intervention?

Sudan is a complicated state, cobbled together by the British in 1916. Its situation is exacerbated by diminishing resources due to the relentless advance of the Sahara. Sudan’s government has lied and made promises it has no intention of keeping. The United Nations spends itself in debate and temporizing. The United States is otherwise engaged, a few hundred miles north, in an enterprise much like the British one in 1916. It had no qualms about tackling Iraq essentially alone. Bring it on! But Darfur? Well, it’s not as simple as it looks. Disconnect.

Actually, it is quite simple. If people are starving and you’ve got food, you feed them; if they’re sick, you try to heal them; if they’re in peril, you protect them from their oppressors. The mightiest of us – nations, institutions, individuals – will be judged ultimately by how well we took care of the weakest among us.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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