What does it really mean to bear witness? Having been here in the Iridimi refugee camp now for several days, it seems to me that “bearing witness” takes on new meaning. As we visit with these women and question them about their solar cooker training, their usage of the cooker, the results when the food is cooked, and the follow-up assistance if they have problems with the cooker, we have ended the interview with a question about their personal story… how they came to live in the refugee camp, to bear witness.
Of course we know from news reports of the atrocities being committed in Darfur over the past few years, but we are sitting now, face to face, asking the question. A few women chuckled nervously as they began their story, each telling of their village being bombed and the Janjaweed militia coming by truck and attacking their families, raping the women, stealing their belongings and burning their villages. Each told of family members being killed. One woman had six children; four were killed the first day during the bombings the other two children killed the following day. A man came outside of his tent as we walked by to tell us that he uses the solar cooker to cook his meals. He was the first man who talked of cooking. His wife and children were all killed in Darfur. He is alone now.
I woke up this morning and wrote the above entry but with no time, left it unfinished.
And now that we have just returned from the camp, I write with a heavier heart. We went to a different camp today, the Touloum camp, where the Solar Cooker Project has recently begun. JWW funded the construction of a manufacturing plant and storage room and are now funding the manufacturing of the cookers and the training for the women. After touring the camp, visiting the Doctors Without Borders compound, walking through the different zones, witnessing solar cooking taking place, taking photos of and with the kids (everyone loves having their pictures taken…), we came back to the solar cooker workshop to meet the women who work in the project and to talk with them. After the initial introductions and welcome, it seemed clear that this would be short conversation. The women expressed that what happened to them and their families was too painful to discuss. We said we understood and told them that our hearts are with them. We thought that would be the end of the conversation, that we would thank them for all their work to make the solar cooker project successful and give them all the t-shirts and bracelets that we brought for them as gifts. They thanked us for coming such a far distance to be with them. Then the subject of our long airplane ride came up.
Suddenly the topic of airplanes sparked horrific memories for the women. They began to speak of the bombings and the attacks. One woman, Zanuba, opened up and told us stories of torture and pain I would like to forget, but never will.
People have said it is our job to bear witness. We have spent days talking about the positive impact the Solar Cooker Project has had on the lives of these refugees. Now, hearing the stories of the women’s suffering in Darfur first hand, I feel that I have become a witness to their pain and must begin the work of telling their story.