Darfur’s Smallest Witnesses
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JEFFREY BROWN: Much of the tragedy of Darfur– the killings, the destruction of villages– has taken place beyond the view of cameras, and the world has had to rely on eyewitness accounts. Now, new insight into the horrors of this area of western Sudan is coming from an unexpected source: The drawings of children.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: It actually looks as if it’s a picture of men dancing with women. But the men in the green are Sudanese soldiers taking the women away to be raped.
JEFFREY BROWN: The drawings were done by dozens of Darfur’s children, age eight to 17, now living in refugee camps along the Sudan-Chad border. They were collected by researchers from the group Human Rights Watch, including Dr. Annie Sparrow, a 36-year-old pediatrician from Australia who went to the camps to study sexual violence against refugees. As she often does while talking to adults, Sparrow gave drawing materials to children without telling them what to draw.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: And sometimes I had children climbing all over my lap just wanting to get involved. So, just handing out notebooks and pieces of paper and crayons and pens and everybody wants a pen or something to draw with. And I just let them go for it because that way they can just draw whatever they want to and the picture has all the integrity of literally expressing what is inside their head, that it’s their own visual vocabulary of war.
JEFFREY BROWN: The drawings have been collected into an exhibition called “The Smallest Witnesses: The Conflict in Darfur Through Children’s Eyes,” recently at New York University, soon to travel around the country.
Here, the visual vocabulary of war includes armed Arab militias called the Janjaweed mounted on camels and horseback, torched villages, tanks and planes, people fleeing for their lives.
Sparrow describe one particularly haunting picture done by an eight-year-old girl.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: There’s a green vehicle in the middle of the drawing. There’s a green man, and there’s what looks like an explosive pretty flower. And I said, “What is this?” And she said, “That’s my hut burning after it’s been hit by a bomb.” And I pointed to the man in green, and she said, “That’s a soldier from Sudan.” And I pointed to the green vehicle, and she said, “That’s a tank.” And then I pointed to this woman with a red face –
JEFFREY BROWN: It was upside down.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: It was upside down. And I said, “What is this?” And she said, “That’s a woman. She’s dead.” And I said, “Why does she have a red face?” And this little eight-year-old girl said, “Because she was shot in the face,” which was just so shocking.
JEFFREY BROWN: The United Nations estimates some 200,000 people have been killed or died from disease or starvation in Darfur since the fighting began in 2003. Another 2.5 million have been displaced from their homes.
Most of the violence has been carried out by marauding bands of Arab militias against African tribes. The Sudanese government has been accused of aiding the militias with military aircraft and other equipment. Sparrow says the drawings make the connection clear.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: They’re not just drawing pictures of the Janjaweed, but they’re also drawing pictures of the arsenal of war that the government used against the Africans. I can sit down with a military analyst and he would say, “This is a MiG-21. This is an FAO rifle. This is a Kalashnikov” — shows how well the children have become acquainted with the weapons of war.
JEFFREY BROWN: They were up close?
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: Very up close.
JEFFREY BROWN: Not every picture is so easy to read. Looking at the swirls in this drawing, Sparrow asked the nine- year-old artist what they represented.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: She pointed to the man at the bottom of the picture and she said, “That’s a Janjaweed. He’s running after us. They’re all running after us. And we’re holding on to each other and running and screaming.” The saddest bit for that was, she said, “even though we’re all hanging on to each other,” she said, “my daddy — my daddy was lost.”
And they don’t even know to this day whether he’s alive or not because they’re in Chad in a refugee camp and he could be anywhere.
JEFFREY BROWN: Among the terrible images, there are some that evoke a more peaceful time.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this looks like a nice scene.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: It’s a very beautiful bird. And they do draw these pictures of beautiful birds and their home life, and they also draw pictures of almost what they were wishing for.
JEFFREY BROWN: In this drawing, a girl has books floating over the head of her brother. She told Sparrow he desperately wants to go to school.
DR. ANNIE SPARROW: And they are in no position to grow up knowing any other way of life because they can’t even learn to play or, you know, they don’t have access to education or they don’t have access to their own identity. And a lot of the time, that’s what’s been stripped in this type of conflict where people are forced off their land and forced out of their livelihoods.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Sparrow says that for the children of Darfur, creating the drawings has a therapeutic effect. For the rest of us, the works offer a window into their troubled world.
JIM LEHRER: The exhibition is now at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles; it travels next to Toronto.