Prendergast spoke Tuesday night at Montana State University to about 300 students, professors and community members. He worked on African issues in the Clinton White House, wrote the bestselling “Not on Our Watch” on the killings in Darfur with actor Don Cheadle, and has been interviewed by “60 Minutes” and other major news organizations. His talk was sponsored by the University Studies program and Associated Students of MSU Leadership Institute.
To describe what he called the first genocide of the 21st century, Prendergast told the story of one villager, a mother of four, whom he met at a refugee camp on Sudan’s border with Chad.
The woman, who raised chickens and goats, was awakened one morning by bombs falling on her village, dropped by the Sudanese air force. Then she heard the terrifying sound of horse-riding Arab militiamen, called Janjaweed. She tried to flee to the hills with her four children. The horsemen grabbed her 5-year-old son and threw him into a burning hut, and shot her 7-year-old son before her eyes.
She escaped through the desert, marching seven days to the border refugee camp.
“She looked at me with fire in her eyes,” Prendergast said, “and said, ‘You, now that you know, you must do something.’”
Her village is one of 1,500 burned to the ground by the ruling clique that holds power in Sudan, “a small group of people who maintain power by any means necessary.”
It sounds bleak, but Prendergast said there are good reasons for hope that change is coming. The new International Criminal Court is likely to bring its first indictment for genocide next month against Sudan’s president. China, which has invested billions developing Sudan’s oil production, has seen its facilities attacked and so has a vested interest in peace.
And the U.S. election should make a difference, Prendergast said, because he has talked with both presidential candidates personally.
“Both want to do much, much more,” he said. They feel President Bush only “gave lip service” to genocide in Darfur. The next president could launch a “peace surge,” a diplomatic offensive that could be more effective and less costly than the billions we spend now on humanitarian aid to refugees and on peacekeeping forces, he said.
The biggest reason for hope, he said, is the power of ordinary people. For the first time since the word was invented, there is a movement of people determined to stop genocide.
“Together we have a chance to do something that’s never been done n create a political price for politicians who don’t take a meaningful stand,” Prendergast said.
He suggested five things ordinary people can do:
-- Join the anti-genocide movement, and get friends and family to join. He suggested the Save Darfur Coalition or STAND, Students Taking Action Now in Darfur, started by Georgetown University students, or his Enough Project.
-- Contact your senators and representatives. It sounds boring, but it can actually make a difference.
-- Call the White House directly and tell the president that stopping genocide in Darfur should be a high priority. Swarthmore College students started 1-800-GENOCIDE, which gives information and lets callers connect to the White House switchboard.
-- Write letters to the editor, to show people, including the media, that people care about the issue and want coverage.
-- Check the Web site (www.enoughproject.org) that will soon launch a sister schools project and let U.S. students connect directly to students in refugee camps.
Real change has occurred in America through large-scale people movements, Prendergast said, citing movements for women’s rights, civil rights, labor, the environment, and ending apartheid.
“These people movements have changed history, and now we have a chance,” he said, to end genocide.