Dr. Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, is an accomplished heart and lung transplant surgeon who trained at Stanford University and was among those who pioneered heart transplants. A Tennessean, Dr. Frist opened the first transplant center in the South at Vanderbilt University. In 1994 he left medicine and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He promised to serve only two terms, so at the end of last year, after 12 years, Dr. Frist retired.
During the four years that he was majority leader, Dr. Frist continued his practice of going to Africa on medical missions, and he began to see that the power of healing can go a long way to improving America's reputation in the world and, more importantly, providing peace and stability in the region.
Dr. Frist is back in Africa, traveling with his wife, Karyn, and Franklin Graham, the president of Samaritan's Purse, and is blogging for FOXNews.com.
Feb. 12: Darfur Genocide
This week Karyn and I will see two faces of genocide: ongoing genocide in Darfur and genocide 13 years ago in Rwanda.
In July of 2005, just before the Senate’s August recess, I took a resolution to the Senate floor to proclaim the atrocities in Darfur to be “genocide.” The State Department was not particularly eager for us to do so at the time, but that soon changed; the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
In a few days I will be in Rwanda, where the Clinton administration failed to label ethnic cleansing of a million to be genocide until too late, so I was not about to let that happen as a leader in the Senate.
I was to go back into Sudan the next week to visit rebel (SPLA) leader and friend Dr. John Garang (which I did, joining him and his wife, Rebecca, at their home called New Site in southeastern Sudan).
I was waiting for the Sudanese government in Khartoum to grant me a visa. On all my previous trips I just entered the South directly on medical mission airplanes without a visa from the Government of Sudan.
They denied me the visa (by delaying consideration of it) I'm sure because of my action on the Senate floor and my numerous statements that “genocide” was being perpetuated by the GOS. So instead I went to Chad, just adjacent to the Darfur border, and visited several refugee camps there, and then on into southern Sudan.
I mention all this because on this current trip, I am making my first journey to Khartoum in the North, requesting a meeting with President Omar Bashir to explain why the U.S. calls the atrocities "genocide" and to encourage peace in Darfur.
I got the visa and approval to spend time in Darfur but was denied the meeting with Bashir. Franklin Graham, who has been outspoken in condemning Darfur activities, held the meeting with Bashir — sans Frist. In the meeting he received permission to operate Samaritan's Purse in the North.
I had other meetings in Khartoum and most of the spin was that Darfur is simply not a very big deal in the large scheme of things.
The government party line is to diminish the atrocities there, to blame everyone except the government and to adamantly criticize the national media for “overstating” and “exaggerating” the human suffering, numbers of deaths and numbers displaced from their homes. All U.N.-gathered statistics are said to be overblown.
A 500-mile flight southwest in the DC-3 took us to Nyala, Darfur (the capital of South Darfur), where we met with the Deputy Wali (or governor) of South Darfur. The meeting was cordial but I was dumbfounded by what I was hearing from this government official. I share with you a few of his statements just to give you a feel of the denial that is so obvious to the international community and independent observers.
He said about a million people in Darfur have been affected by the conflict; the U.N. tells us it is 4 million. His estimate of internally displaced people is 450,000; the actual figure is 2 million.
We were told the “humanitarian situation is stable,” although we had just been told by the U.N. that several weeks ago 18 humanitarian workers in Nyala had been arrested, some beaten and one sexually assaulted and that overall the humanitarian efforts because of insecurity are on the “brink of crisis” (more on this tomorrow).
The killing today is due to “tribal disputes,” the Wali said, adding that “we do not want the U.N. peacekeepers to come in.”
If the U.N. comes in, “we will see increased suffering of my people. Our tribes have a lot of arms and if the U.N. comes in, these arms will be directed against the U.N. The U.N. will complicate matters.”
All this when we know the 7,000 African Union troops simply are not and can not adequately accomplish the task; we were told that again and again by refugees and by humanitarian workers at Otash camp.
The international media is “making great exaggeration” of the conflict in Darfur and there is “over-reporting” of IDPs and attacks, he said. It is “media imagination.”
Well, you can see he was carrying the party line … consistent with what you hear in Khartoum. This is a far cry from what the reality is, according to what the NGOs, the international community, the U.N. and people on the ground in the camps tell us.
My message back to the Wali was to continue to implement the Darfur Peace Agreement and encourage further engagement with the rebels who have not signed it; allow the U.N. to come in as peacekeepers; and stop the killing.
As I mentioned, in 2005 I visited a series of refugee camps in Chad, along the border with Darfur. The camps had from 10,000 to 20,000 people. The stories told to us by the women were the same we heard this year in Otash Camp, 6 kilometers northwest of Nyala.
In Nyala, the largest ethnic groups are Zaghawa and Misseriya Jebel. The camp is large, dusty, hot and crowded with a population of over 35,000.
We visited the newly constructed medical facility staffed by the NGO Humedica. It consisted of thatched walls but a sturdy concrete floor and sheet metal ceiling. I met with the newly arrived German woman physician who described in great detail the new outbreak of acute jaundice (she believes hepatitis E) that is running rampant throughout the camp.
I learned that 84 percent of cases are concentrated in the new arrival section of Otash Camp, but she believes that it is spreading to more established sectors.
This requires a public health response and representatives from the water and sanitation coordination committee said they have responded with intensified chlorination, promotion of basic hygiene and expanded construction of household latrines. (Clean water and sanitation … that’s where globally the biggest impact in public health can be felt. We need to better coordinate our assistance in this area around the world.)
Most of the childhood illnesses and failure to thrive are secondary to diarrheal diseases associated with poor sanitation.
We toured an impressive women’s center, which served the entire camp. Women were trained in health practices, weaving and reading and writing.
One is struck by the dedication of staff from the participating NGOS. Throughout the camp, humanitarian services are provided by the World Food Program (over 70 percent of funding from the U.S. today); Action Contre la Faim; CARE International; Cooperative Housing Foundation; International Rescue Committee; World Vision; and Humedica.
Karyn met with the women separately in a dimly lit hut, where they discussed around a long wooded table the women’s perspective of their experiences and living conditions. She retold the stories to me that centered on the fear of the janjaweed, the insecurity of having no work.
The women gather the firewood every day, their fear of being raped outside the camps mentioned again and again. They told her they got the firewood because the risk of being raped for them was less than of their husbands being killed.
The janjaweed are the armed militia groups in Darfur that are aligned with the government. They are responsible for widespread attacks on civilians, killings, abductions and burning of villages.
They are comprised of fighters of Arab background mainly from the originally nomadic Baggara people. They are a principal actor in the Darfur conflict, formed by the government in response to attacks on government installations by the SPLA and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement).
They are pursuing a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing throughout Darfur, burning down non-Arab villages and driving out their inhabitants. Thus … genocide.
We are told the stories of attacks by the janjaweed with absolute destruction of villages, burned entirely to the ground. The story is repeated again and again and it is the same story that I heard a year and a half ago from the refugees.
A family in a remote village would be awakened by a gunship flying overhead, with firing on the village. Janjaweed militia would come storming in by camel or on foot. Men would be shot, women raped.
As many as possible would flee, sometimes alone, sometimes with babies in arms. The village would be burned to the ground — literally everything burned to ashes.
The satellite photos that you may have seen show the destruction in cold but objective terms. Over the past four years, scores and scores of villages prominent on photos from four years ago are missing, solid dark images representing villages replaced by little smudges that show only residue today, with 200,000 dead and 2 million people homeless, with families destroyed.
President Bashir says he believes that allowing U.N. peacekeepers in will lead to his being ousted. He believes that the U.S. wants to overthrow him with a regime change, and the way they will accomplish that is to have the U.N. peacekeepers come in … and possibly indict him for genocide-related activity.
What he doesn’t realize is the U.S. is committed to peace, and in large part due to the aid and influence of the Bush administration a 25-year civil war in his country has been ended.
Yes, Darfur atrocities have emerged, but the North-South civil war is ended. If Bashir would address Darfur with a goal of peace, rather than denial, all of Sudan would prosper with its rich resources, especially oil, and its potential to attract global investment realized.
Other Africa presidents have told me they have told him this repeatedly, but he doesn’t believe them. He should. We must get him to realize it.
Next time I will share what the humanitarian workers are telling me. We have got a problem … a big problem.