On a recent mission to Darfurian refugee camps in Chad, two Human Rights Watch researchers gave children paper and crayons while their families were being interviewed. Unprompted, the children drew scenes of devastation: pictures of their villages being attacked by “Janjaweed,” bombings by Sudanese government forces, the shootings, the rapes, the burning of entire villages, and the flight to Chad. The children, from seven refugee camps, insisted the drawings be shared with the rest of the world.
In Smallest Witnesses: The Crisis in Darfur Through Children’s Eye, participants discussed the images created by the children, and the impact the crisis has had on its youngest victims. The program featured Jemera Rone, Sudan Researcher, Human Rights Watch; Olivier Bercault, Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch; Dr. Annie Sparrow, Third Millennium Fellow, Harvard University Researcher, Human Rights Watch; and moderator Jerry Fowler, Staff Director, Committee on Conscience, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
View a short video summary with Dr. Annie Sparrow’s commentary on some of the children’s drawings.
NARRATOR: The images are grim and all too familiar to those whose lives have been destabilized in the Sudanese region of Darfur. These are scenes of villages being burned, of murder, rape, and destruction, of thousands of people turned into refugees on the Sudan and Chad border. All are captured on crayon and paper by Darfur’s smallest witnesses, the children.
ANNIE SPARROW: It’s just so very graphic to be able to see the conflict through, literally through children’s eyes in a way that is so very different from our own reports, which are usually delivered to the United Nations, to donor governments, to policy makers.
NARRATOR: A pediatrician by vocation, Dr. Annie Sparrow traveled to the border of Chad and Sudan in February 2005 as an observer for the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch. As she prepared for her trip, Dr. Sparrow made a last-minute decision to include crayons and paper in her supplies.
ANNIE SPARROW: I had this idea a few days before I left, I thought maybe I’ll just take some materials with me and see, because I didn’t have any idea whether we would even be able to talk with children or engage with them. And I just thought, I’ll just see. The minute one arrives in these camps the children are just so eager to be involved and to see what’s happening. And to all intents and purposes they look like normal children, they appear pretty alert and lively and, you know, some of them are a bit scrawny. It’s not clear on the surface how scarred and how traumatized they have been. The idea is to just let them draw whatever they wanted to draw, and that way they reveal what is foremost in their minds, they just reveal what’s going on inside their heads, and what is really predominant for them. I never could have anticipated how eagerly they [paper and crayons] would be latched on to and the results they would produce.
NARRATOR: The children’s drawings have also helped show aspects of these crimes against humanity that have evaded photographers and television crews.
ANNIE SPARROW: These children would draw pictures of very sophisticated assault rifles, AK-47s, Kalishnikovs, and Fal rifles. Antonov aircraft, not just one type but a couple of different types, and the MiG planes, again a couple of different types. And it’s just astounding that they revealed the depths of the arsenal that have been used against them. Not only did they absolutely corroborate the testimony that we’d gathered, that Human Rights Watch and other agencies have documented in the last months, over the last year, of the adults, but they also give this enormous credibility to the complicity of the government of Sudan as the architects of this crisis.
JERRY FOWLER: When we learned about the Smallest Witnesses project that Human Rights Watch has, it was immediately obvious that the Museum was an appropriate venue to show these pictures. And I think what they underscore is the human cost of this genocide emergency. Sometimes when we talk about numbers, when we talk about places very far away, we forget that there are human beings and individuals, and especially children. The children suffer the most. Children are being killed, children are at risk, and as these pictures show, children are being traumatized by their exposure to the genocidal violence.
ANNIE SPARROW: This drawing was done by a little girl called Isma, she’s eight, and Olivier and I were talking to her family while she and her brothers and sisters were drawing. We came to the end of the discussion and we started looking at the pictures, because some of these pictures, they’re not immediately clear what they mean until the children actually explain them. So with this one, I pointed first to the sort of the bright, almost bursting flowerlike picture at the bottom, and I said, “What’s this?” She said, “It’s my hut. It’s just been hit by a bomb and it’s exploding.” I pointed to the man in green, and she said, “That’s a soldier from Sudan.” And then I pointed to the woman, and she is upside down, she has a blue dress on and a red face, and I said, “What happened to this woman?” And she said, “She’s dead.” And I said, “Why has she got a red face?” And she said, “Because she has been shot in the face.” And that just, it just, it really hurt my heart because this was an eight-year-old girl who has seen a woman be shot in the face, and that just is imagery which, my mind recoils and wants to reject because I can’t bear to think that she has actually seen that. But she has. And this reflects what we know of the shooting of civilians and how they’re left by the wayside.
NARRATOR: What has happened to the men, women, and children in Darfur may only now be getting the wider world attention it deserves. But Dr. Sparrow is hopeful that the human face the children have put on this tragedy through their drawings will spur more people and nations to act in preventing further atrocities and help save Darfurian lives.
ANNIE SPARROW: People are just incredibly moved and they say that time and time again, in the way that we were when we first saw the images, because they are such shocking images. So the hope is that it offers a new way to mobilize public opinion and the policymakers to increase the attention on Darfur. That is the ultimate aim, is to do whatever it takes to enable the reversal of ethnic cleansing, put in place adequate protection, and for people to be able to return and rebuild their lives.