Three girls search for firewood near a displaced persons camp.
© Ron Haviv-VII / Courtesy of Darfur/Darfur.
On opening night of the photo exhibition "Darfur/Darfur," the crowd at the James Cohan Gallery is indistinguishable from the regulars who frequent Chelsea, Manhattan's chic art district.
But the projections of photos bathing the walls are a world away from the views of suburbia by Bill Owens or the kinetic sculptures of Roxy Paine typically shown here. Oversized images tell the grim tale of the carnage taking place in Darfur, Sudan: In an aerial shot, charcoal cross-hatches sweep to the right, ending in an orange inferno–the remains of what was once a village. A portrait shows a young man proudly grinning above an armature of an AK-47, 180 rounds of ammunition supplied by the government and a gasoline-filled bottle–a young recruit of the Janjaweed, the "devils on horseback," Arab-Muslim militia who storm into villages, looting and burning. They fight as much for themselves as for the government, which uses them as a paramilitary force to suppress non-Arab Africans. On another wall, Kalma, a camp sheltering more than 100,000 people displaced by the conflict, stretches across the horizon, a veritable subdivision of plastic tents. Here, in one five-week period, more than 200 women were sexually assaulted.
"Darfur/Darfur" exhibits the work of five photojournalists– Lynsey Addario, Mark Brecke, Hélène Caux, Ron Haviv and Paolo Pellegrin–and Brian Steidle, a former US Marine. Over the next two years, it will travel to several dozen cities, bringing into focus the ongoing tragedy that has, for the most part, been ignored by the major media, most politicians and the public. Leslie Thomas, a Chicago-based architect who pulled the show together with the help of other designers, says that she was inspired to take action after reading a story last spring, detailing the fallout of hostilities between the Sudanese government and rebels: More than 200,000 have died, mainly of disease and starvation, and 2.5 million made homeless. "I couldn't face the prospect of my child growing up and asking me, years later, what I had done, and having to say: 'Nothing.'"
In fact, the world has done little since February 2003, when the mostly non-Arab Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) spearheaded an insurgency in Darfur, a region as large as Texas or France, depending on your politics. The government and militias responded with force, and the ensuing rape, pillage and murder has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. In June 2005 President Bush called it "genocide," but only recently did he appoint Andrew Natsios to be special envoy to Sudan.
Reporting in Darfur is not easy. Journalists are not welcome: Paul Salopek of the Chicago Tribune was just released in September, after being held as a spy for more than a month by the Sudanese government. Jan Pronk, United Nations special envoy to Sudan, has just been kicked out for writing on his blog that army morale was sinking after recent defeats. When Darfur does make the headlines, as it recently did when United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the region was "on the brink of a catastrophic situation," mainstream media avoid the topic in favor of stories closer to home.