Mia Farrow, actor and activist, shares her story of her ongoing work to draw attention to the conflict in Darfur.
“Who among us is not haunted by the genocide in Rwanda? Its components define us, condemn us, demand better of us, and pose profoundly wrenching questions. My country, my Church, the United Nations, and all the nations of the world did nothing to halt that 100-day rampage in which a million people were slaughtered. Collectively and individually, we must bear the burden of our abysmal failure. We failed to protect our brothers and sisters in their darkest hour, even as we failed our most essential selves.
“In that context, a 2004 New York Times op-ed piece by Samantha Power stopped me in my tracks. On the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Ms. Power wrote that another genocide was unfolding in a remote region of Sudan. This time it was an Arab government attempting to eliminate the non- Arab populations of the remote Darfur region.
“Now, I have always told my children that ‘with knowledge comes responsibility.’ This time, I thought, I could not stand by. And so I first went to Darfur in 2004. Sudanese government aircraft and their proxy militia, the Janjaweed, were busy. They were attacking village after village, raping, mutilating and murdering, stealing livestock, torching crops and food stocks, and poisoning wells with butchered corpses of people and animals. Traveling through Darfur I encountered dazed and terrified survivors, sheltering under scrawny trees or walking across the parched terrain in search of food, water, and safety.
“Aid workers were there too, struggling to sustain the massive numbers of people displaced since the killing began in 2003. Hundreds of camps had been hastily assembled throughout Darfur and across the border in neighboring Chad. They were hauling water bladders on the backs of trucks, setting up latrines, drilling bore holes, and distributing grain and plastic sheeting to more than 1 million traumatized desperate people, mostly women and children, and the number was swelling. It would eventually approach 3 million.
“The camps were, as they are today, deplorable places where the inhabitants are barely surviving. Food and water are minimal; medicines minimal; sanitation minimal to nonexistent; education minimal to nonexistent; hope minimal to nonexistent. And they offer little safety.
“In one such camp a woman named Halima told me about the day her village was attacked. It had been an ordinary morning. Halima was preparing breakfast for her family. Without warning, planes and helicopters filled the sky, raining bombs upon homes, upon people as they slept, as they prayed, as they scattered in all directions. Halima tried to gather her children, and holding her infant son, she ran for her life. But then militia swarmed the village. On camels and horseback they came, shouting racial slurs and shooting. They chased Halima, and before they raped her, they tore her baby from her arms and bayoneted him before her eyes. Three of her five children were similarly killed that day, and her husband too. ‘Janjaweed,’ she told me. ‘They cut them and threw them into the well.’ Halima clasped both of my hands saying, ‘Tell people what is happening here. Tell them we need help. Tell them we will all be slaughtered.’
“Darfur in 2004 was an inferno for which no words seemed adequate. On the plane trip home, I tried to process all I had seen and learned. With knowledge comes responsibility. An inescapable knowledge of Darfur was now mine. As a mother, an actor, and a citizen on this earth, I knew only that I must honor my promise to Halima and the other courageous people of Darfur. I would do my best to ‘tell the world what is happening’ there.
“I didn’t know then what my ‘utmost’ would mean. I couldn’t know that over the next five years I would return to the Darfur region and to refugee camps in eastern Chad 11 times. I would write scores of op-eds that appeared in publications around the world. My photographs too found their way into print in newspapers and magazines. I, who had shirked interviews all my life, would now do at least a thousand. I went on every TV or radio show that would have me. I would speak to students on countless campuses, to U.S. leaders at congressional and senate hearings. I set up my own website, (miafarrow.org) so that people could inform themselves and access the photos and articles as well as the links to the best Darfur-related sites I could find.
“On April 27, 2009, I began a fast of water only in solidarity with the people of Darfur and as a personal expression of outrage at a world that is somehow able to stand by and watch innocent men, women, and children needlessly die. My blood sugar dropped to dangerous levels after 13 days. But my fast was taken up by others, by members of Congress, celebrities, business tycoons, sports figures, and ordinary folks in 33 countries. And incredibly, it continued for four months, unbroken.
“I have begun my own project, the Darfur Archives. I am filming the traditional ceremonies, songs, dances, and stories of the tribes of Darfur. Their culture was a rich one. ‘But we don’t do the ceremonies anymore,’ the leader, or oumda, of one tribe told me. ‘We are suffering. We are in mourning.’ I promised the refugees that when peace comes, I will build a museum in Darfur, and this footage will be there for their children and their children’s children. It is for them. I just operate the equipment. And so in the thousands they came each day, and they brought forth their treasures. I filmed in the camps for four weeks. The task isn’t finished, but I’m on my way. I have some 40 hours of footage and a bonus: the refugees gave me almost 200 artifacts, everyday items they used before their lives were destroyed.
“Until we can have the museum in Darfur, I will be uploading their testimony on the Darfur Archives website. I believe seeing the ceremonies and hearing the stories will bring Darfur’s people into focus in a new way. Its primary importance is for the Darfuris in the future, but also, at this point in advocacy, it will serve as an important tool to show the world what extraordinary people we have been talking about and how rich and meaningful their customs and traditional way of life once were.
“I think this is how I will spend the rest of my life. As I write this, violence has torn apart traditional ways of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Central African Republic, in Somalia. I will continue to archive, to try to preserve the cultures and tell the stories of victims of genocide and mass atrocities.
“Did I actually make a difference for the people of Darfur? Maybe not. But I can help to preserve their culture. In that one sense, perhaps Darfur can be saved. And the old Oumda eventually rewarded me bountifully when he said, ‘Thank you for reminding us to remember.’”
This version of Mia Farrow's testimony was edited for brevity. Visit Mia Farrow's Celebrity Upstander page for a collection of multimedia by the actress.
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.