David Morse Interviews Jen Marlowe on Pacifica’s Sprouts

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This Production of Sprouts Features Connecticut Journalist David Morse interviewing Jen Marlowe on “Darfur Diaries, Message from Home.” January 2007

“A student group started right after that screening. A student stood up in the audience and said ‘I want to start a group here on campus to do something, anyone who is interested in working with me meet me in the corner of the room’. They started out some Darfur specific activism that came out of that screening.” Jen Marlowe

Today on Sprouts human rights activist Jen Marlowe speaks with journalist David Morse about the film, “Darfur Diaries, Message from Home”. David Morse is author of the book, The Iron Bridge, and writes for Salon, Alternet, TomDispatch and other online publications as well as Yes Magazine Les Temps, and Friends Journal. He visited Sudan in 2005 and has been writing about the conflict in Darfur for two years. He interviewed Jen Marlowe in December of 2006 about this important film which she created with Adam Shapiro and Aisha Bain.

Co-producer David Morse: The Film Darfur Diaries has been engaging audiences at college campuses, film festivals, churches, synagogues and high schools. It has won several human rights awards including Best of Fest at the Tri Continental Film Festival in South Africa. Through this film audiences all over the world have now met these survivors who tell their stories with eloquence and dignity. Here are a few exerpts.

Orphaned boy being interviewed about losing his mother and not knowing where his father is. He mentions the Janjaweed.

Human rights worker: When I started my job in the human rights office I took eighty of these children you have seen to Wahabi asking for the NGOs and the agencies, ‘who can take care of these’? Most of these, those who lost their parents, most of their families, the burned villages, and some of them fled out and they don’t know where are their parents. No one accepted them. 61-year-old human rights worker Suleiman Jamous. Jen Marlowe is heading up an emergency effort to gain his release from a Kordofan, Sudan hospital where he is being detained.

Darfur Man: We have two options. Either fight to survive or grab some hands and sit until you are killed. So we are fighting for survival here.

David Morse: The film opens with pictures drawn by children. The drawings are then briefly animated to reveal the horrors they have witnessed. Some of these children need immediate care. Most suffer from deep emotional distress. But we also find surprising tenderness and hope as we encounter a society torn by war but capable of rebuilding itself if given the chance.

The mainstream media typically present Darfur without context. Genocide. Brutal attacks by militias sponsored by the government of Sudan. Government planes bombing civilians. But the treatment is very two dimensional. Darfur in Western Sudan becomes just another conflagration in Africa, remote, impossible to solve and irrelevant to U.S. security.

Nothing could be further from the truth. World powers are involved in the region. China buys most of Sudan’s oil and is its biggest trading partner. And of course China is also America’s biggest trading partner. This has geopolitical and military implications.

Russia is selling arms to the Sudan government. And as the conflict widens into Chad to the West, displacing tens of thousands, we see that this crisis has meaning for the whole Horn of Africa. The Central African Republic to the south, Ethiopia, Somalia; negotiators from the UN and African Union (AU) are trying to get the warring parties back to the peace table, attempting to restart the peace process. Al Qaeda has made its presence known in Somalia. But we should not let the Bush administration get away with simply declaring the region another front in the war on terror.

We need to push the administration instead to engage the key players. The time is ripe for grass roots organizers to step up their efforts. “Darfur Diaries,” the book and the film, provide good organizing tools for those who wish to call attention to the humanity at stake and to let government and UN officials know that they want peace in the region.

I met with Jen Marlowe in New York City in one of the many borrowed apartments she relies on to do her work.

You and Aisha and Adam have made a wonderful film called, “Darfur Diaries,” and you have written a book about that. Where did the inception of that idea come from?

Jen Marlowe: It actually began with Aisha, who starting in the fall of 2003, was doing an internship with the Center for the Prevention of Genocide in Washington, D.C. as part of her graduate work. She was getting a Master’s at American University.

She was given a folder by her boss that said, “Darfur. We got some reports that something is going on there. Figure out what it is.” So she started investigating, based on just a few pieces of paper in this folder, really built a whole network of people. It took time to uncover but she gathered information from aid workers, from the few journalists that had trickled in, from Darfuris that she had met in Washington, D.C. and then Darfuris that they gave her contact to that were back home in Darfur or in refugee camps in Chad. And she really pieced together a horrific picture of what was happening there. And there was absolutely nothing in the mainstream media at that time that was reflecting these reports that she was uncovering.

Her first approach was then to try to launch a media advocacy campaign to try to push the media to cover this, and so she started off calling every mainstream media source imaginable, whether it was newspaper, magazine, T.V., radio; letting them know what was going on, giving them information and giving them contacts, offering to set them up so that they could do their own primary research and not have to listen to her second hand accounts. And she was repeatedly told “no”. People were not interested in covering it.

David Morse: What sorts of things did they say to her?

Jen Marlowe: Ranging from saying, ‘well we’ll get back to you, leave a message we’ll get back to you,’ and then not responding. Ranging from that to, ‘we just did a story about Uganda, the same continent, so therefore we can’t report anything right now coming out of Darfur. She was told, ‘if it’s not already in the news it must not be news’. So as long as the network next door is not covering it, then they don’t have to cover it. It’s not a big enough story if it is not already being covered.

So she started venting this frustration to Adam, who had recently gotten back from his first film that he made in Baghdad. And he was beginning to wrap his brain around this idea of how film could be used as a tool of activism. Not just as a tool of education, not just to educate people, but to really inspire people to be a part of an effort to create change. And so he said to Aisha, ‘I want to go’. And Aisha’s first response was, ‘Well there’s a media blackout, it’s being called genocide, the borders are closed, it’s a mess.’ And Adam said, ‘Look Aisha there’s always a way in.’ She said, ‘Yeah you’re right’.

They started making the plans to go and trying to raise the money, and it was at that time that I had lunch with Adam. Adam and I had worked in Jerusalem previously and he was telling me about what he and Aisha were planning on doing. This was May of 2004. He said, ‘We’re planning to go and film in Darfur,’ and I had never heard of Darfur until that moment. And what struck me particularly when he started to tell me what was happening there was not only the horrifying accounts that he was telling me, but also the fact that I didn’t know. And it was during the ten year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, that was the exact time that I was having lunch with Adam, and there was a lot of coverage of the ten year anniversary of what had happened in Rwanda.

I had been watching ceremonies, memorials, and speeches made by different dignitaries, ambassadors, who were reflecting on what had happened in Rwanda, and what hadn’t happened in terms of international intervention, and were making what sounded like very sincere speeches that ‘lessons had been learned and if the world were confronted again with a situation similar to Rwanda that this time the response would be different’. And I’m sitting and having this lunch with Adam and realizing that no one at any of these speeches were mentioning what was happening at that moment in Darfur about villages being burned to the ground, rape being used as a tool of war systematically against girls and women, mass murder of civilians, hundreds of thousands of refugees driven across the border to Chad and millions displaced inside Darfur, none of that was being acknowledged at the time that those speeches about Rwanda were being made. So I was shocked both about what Adam revealed to me was happening and about the fact that that was the first I had heard of it. And it was very soon after that that I asked Adam if they were looking for a third person and made the decision to go with them.

David Morse: You created this film, you were very early in the curve to have gone out there and done that, it’s been out for a few months not very long. Is it serving as an inspiration, is it doing some of the things that you want?

Jen Marlowe: I hope that it has and I believe that it has. We finished the film just over a year ago. It was officially released in terms of being released on DVD about two months ago. We had been screening different versions of it, actually, because we started screening it as soon as we had our first cut even before it was finished so we had been screening different versions of it for about a year and a half. And I think it has absolutely had an impact on people who have watched it. It’s an impact of people opening their eyes and seeing what’s going on and understanding the human impact of it.

For example, the debate about whether to use the word genocide, I think the focus that the media has on the numbers and on the statistics often is a way to mask the human impact of what is happening in Darfur and how that affects lives. They are showing people just in their victimization and they are showing refugees with a capital R or victims with a capital V as if that is their whole identity, which becomes its own form of dehumanization.

So I think one impact the film has had is helping people who watch the film understand that these are human beings whose lives and hopes and dreams are every bit as important as their own. Then you can extrapolate that about coverage in Africa in general but that unlike what you usually see on the media that yeah, people are articulate, they are intelligent, they have senses of humor, each one is a three dimensional human being that casts a shadow and we never get those kinds of images especially coming out of Africa.

I know it has inspired people to want to do something. I did a screening for example at the University of Minnesota and a student group started right after that screening. A student stood up in the audience and said, ‘I want to start a group here on campus to do something anyone who is interested in working with me meet me in the corner of the room when this event is finished.’ They started up some Darfur specific activism that came out of that screening and so there are examples like that.

I showed clips of the film at a high school in Seattle and in the discussion afterwards one student said, ‘well, why should I do work about Darfur when there’s problems going on in my own neighborhood. Shouldn’t I get involved and help my own neighborhood.’ And although I don’t agree that the problems in your own neighborhood are more or less important than the problems in other parts of the world my response to that was, ‘great, if seeing this film and being a part of this discussion has inspired you to get involved in what’s happening in your own backyard, to get involved, to get engaged in what’s happening around you, whether its your community or the world at large, then great, that’s fantastic.’

David Morse: That’s lovely and I think the film really does, because it reaches people’s humanity, I can imagine it transferring that way. And I realize – I just have to ask you about the guy who wanted to marry you. Can you tell that story?

Jen Marlowe: (Chuckles) Oh yeah, that’s not in the film, you got that one from the book.
We were in a village called, Muzbat it was actually our second time in that village, we had been there when we were first entering into Darfur and now we were on our way back out, back towards Chad. And we were having dinner at the compound where one of the SLA commanders was based and there was a young man who was one of the SLA fighters who showed up. He had a great sense of humor. He was laughing, he was joking around and at one point he turned to me and he had been joking so I was sure he was joking, and he said, ‘I’ll give you 200 camels to marry me.’

I said, ‘why me why not Aisha, Aisha is a very striking and beautiful person.’ And he said, ‘well, you’re short, I’m short, we could live side by side we could fight side by side.’ So I laughed because I was sure he was joking around and then more and more people started to come and everyone was singing, and Adam started filming, and it was going back and forth between songs that they were singing in Zagawa language because we were in the Dar Zagawa, the Zagawa tribal region.

It was going back and forth between songs of resistance and love songs and different people were singing and we thought isn’t this really fabulous? It’s so amazing to be part of this and then to have it on film.

Then months later when we were translating the footage someone who is a Zagawa tribe member of Darfur was helping us in Washington, D.C. and we were listening, it’s very fast paced, these songs were sort of rapid fire, probably the Zagawa version of a free style rap, and all of a sudden Musa looks at me and he says, ‘you know they are singing about you.’

I said, ‘what? Rewind that clip’. So we rewound a few seconds and he listened again and he looks at me and he says, ‘did you know that man wanted to marry you’? And I said what are you talking about, I thought he was joking, and so he translated all of the song lyrics and apparently he was waiting for my answer. And all of these people that had kept coming and joining us as the night continued and were continui9ng to sing were singing about me. One of the lyrics that I remember that they were saying were, ‘Ibrahim Jim wants to marry Jen, Jen is this white woman, she came to Muzbat, we all want to marry Jen but Ibrahim Jim is the lucky one the rest of us lost.’

So yeah that was one of the many things that we didn’t realize had happened until after we had gotten our footage translated.

David Morse: Tell one more surprise from the revisiting of that footage.

Jen Marlowe: Well there were a lot and they weren’t all as humorous as this one. I think one of the ones that still burns inside of me, actually it was the same night, that same night in Muzbat, we were invited to go to a wedding. There was a wedding that was happening and it was dark. There was no electricity. There were no generators in order to have any kind of light. There wasn’t even any oil for lamps. We were in a state of pitch darkness and we go to this wedding, and we were talking to the sister of the bride. And Aisha says to her that we are trying to make this film and we are trying to take these messages, to bring their messages to the world.

And a man named Musa was with us and helping translate and he translated her as saying that, ‘your talking is very good we appreciate what you are doing we appreciate your talking, please help yourself to the food.’ And there was this very scarce, you can’t even really call it a wedding feast, there were some pieces of fried dough and a few candies and we didn’t want to eat anything because we knew food was so scarce. But we also knew that the ethic of hospitality was so strong we certainly didn’t want to offend our host.

So she said, ‘please help yourself to the food.’ We each took a bite of the fried dough and said thank you very much this is delicious. –When we were translating the footage we found out that what she had said was actually in response to the fact that an Antonov airplane had flown over the village that day for the first time in several months. There had not been any Antonovs for several months, and the Antonov is the Sudanese Government’s bomber planes. So that had decimated the village previously.

David Morse: These bombers come from Russia?

Jen Marlowe: They are Russian planes, Russia is the largest arms supplier for the Sudanese Government. So what she had said was, ‘your talking is very good but what we really need is someone to stop the planes, can you please stop the planes.”

I’m sure that Mousa didn’t translate what she had said accurately because I think he didn’t want us to feel badly. He knew that we couldn’t stop the planes. And so I think he was trying to in some way protect us by not telling us what she was really asking us. But in retrospect when I think about that exchange, she says to us, ‘can you please stop the planes?’ and as a response we grab a piece of fried dough and bite it and say, “wow thanks for the food.’

When I first found that out I wanted to go right that moment back to Chad, sneak across the border, go back to Musbut Village, find this woman and just apologize because it was so horrifying that that had been our response to a very sincere plea that she was making.

David Morse: You’re listening to Sprouts, Radio from the Grassroots. I’m David Morse. Speaking with activists like Jen Marlowe can be a life clarifying experience. Her work is inspiring many individuals into action. The website DarfurDiaries.org is an international touchstone for activism. This is what Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, had to say about the film, “Darfur Diaries, Message from Home”, and the companion book “Darfur Diaries, Stories of Survival.”

In these hard times we must accept help from wherever we can find it. The dignity of the Darfurian people is such a help. It reminds us of who we are and what inner stability we might aspire to as humans no matter our circumstance. We must return this help to us by seeing Darfurians protected, safe, returned to their lands, their gardens, their animals, their wells and fields, their schools. Do not resist seeing and reading their story thinking it another violent assault on the heart. It is rather a gentle if persistent knock upon the door of every living human soul. Brother, sister, we’re still here holding a space for you, for humanity, are you still there? I left the book and the film feeling a great deal more hope for us all.

That’s Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”. In the second half of our interview I asked Jen Marlowe about the seeds of her passion in connection with Darfur.

Jen Marlowe: The seeds of my passion in Darfur, this is connected to the work that I do in human rights generally. For me it’s not just about Darfur. The people in Darfur are going through something horrific and need to have the world standing with them in solidarity. But for me that’s just as true as the people in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan. I think that what’s happening in Darfur is a horrendous situation. It’s certainly not an isolated situation, the people in Congo, the people right now in Somalia, are also facing very horrific situations.

David Morse: How do you keep from spreading yourself too thin? Many of us throw up our hands when we hear one more tragedy, one more awful cataclysm happening in the world. How do you find room for all of that?

Jen Marlowe: I’m not necessarily doing active work in all of the places that I just named. Some of them I am. But I recognize that as one human being I have limitations and its really a question of trying to do as much as I can, wherever I can, with the time I have, with the resources I have; I don’t mean financial resources but in terms of skill, knowledge, talents, capabilities, that kind of thing.

So arguably maybe I am spread too thin and I’m trying to do too much in too many places but like I said I feel like it’s all interconnected and we are all interconnected. For me it’s a question of trying to figure out how to do more and how to get more involved in more places, again given the limitations of time and of being one person.

David Morse: You don’t strike me as someone who is spread too thin so I guess I would feel, projecting, I would feel spread too thin. Darfur is in some ways safe. I don’t know whether to be ashamed to say this or not but I can say “no” to a lot of other things in order to stay focused on Darfur. I’m not particularly proud of that but it is a sort of survival mode. Obviously you are able to hold more, process more. Do you want to say anything to that?

Jen Marlowe: Thank you. That’s a kind observation. I guess I can’t see myself working in any area or any issue in isolation without recognizing its connections to the larger world and then once that’s recognize then its inevitable at least for me to feel some responsibility to getting involved.

David Morse: Is it sustainable? Do you get back as much as you give?

Jen Marlowe: That question could be looked at on different levels. Is it financially sustainable? This is one question. I’ve made it work so far in terms of sustaining energy and commitment and getting back as much as I give, absolutely, in fact, in terms of getting back I always feel that I receive much more than I give. And I feel that when I’m with Darfuries, I feel that when I’m with Palestinians, when I’m with people from Bosnia Herzegovina; I always feel, I hope, that I’m able to give something and contribute something, but I feel that what I get back in terms of education and in terms of inspiration far exceeds anything that I may have been able to give.

David Morse: How is it you life? Can you describe what you do? Ho w do you support this work?

Jen Marlowe: I’ve been earning money on other projects that I’ve done, we are starting now that the film is out and the book is out and we are going and speaking we are able to earn some money doing that which is very hopeful and welcome and we are also trying to donate a portion of that directly back to the people in Darfur by initiating the supporting of schools and the reestablishment of schools in the destroyed villages where we filmed. But I’ve made, and this is also true for my colleagues, for Adam and Aisha, we’ve all made lifestyle choices and life choices that have enabled us to do the kind of activism work that we want to dedicate ourselves to doing.

So for me, for example, I haven’t paid rent in over two years and I live as, I call myself a nomad, or more accurately probably a semi-nomad because I have a few different semi bases that I can parachute into when I need to but I have been able to avoid paying rent and I have extremely generous and kind friends and community that allow me to stay with them. There’s a lot of cities in this country and then a lot of other countries in the world where I can go and just spend months at a time staying with different people and that has enabled me –not paying rent not having car insurance, having the most minimal kind of health insurance. All of that has enabled me to be able to dedicate most of my time towards the activism and then use whatever resources I do have coming in towards furthering that work.

David Morse: Do you ever find your spirit flagging? Are there times when you feel weak or confused? And if so how do you get past those times?

Jen Marlowe: I don’t feel weak and I don’t feel confused. There are times that I feel incredibly frustrated at what’s happening in the world. There are times, well all time I wish that the impact could be greater, and not just the impact of my work alone but the impact of you know I consider myself to be part of a community of people that are trying to do good and meaningful work in the world and that’s in all different spheres and in all different ways. And yeah, all the time I wish that that impact could be greater but I also feel that part of the struggle itself is meaningful. So I don’t necessarily seek the meaning just in the end result although of course, yes, if we could put an end to some of these egregious abuses that are going on in the world that’s always the end goal. However, for me its also about the process of that and about the choices that we make every day and for me it’s the choice of which team to bowl on so to speak. Whether or not I know that the efforts I make go towards the result that I’m looking for it still won’t change the truth that I’m making because I know that at the end of the day that’s the team I want to bowl on. I don’t know if that makes sense but.

David Morse: Who are your inspirations?

Jen Marlowe: There are so many. Some of the ones that come to mind right now just because it’s part of the work that I’ve been doing, Cindy and Craig Corrie who are the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American activist that was killed in Palestine in the Gaza Strip. She was trying to prevent a pharmacist’s home from being bulldozed in the town of Rafa, in Gaza, and she was run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer.

I never met Rachel her spirit and her writings have been inspiring, but the work that her parents have continued since her death has been such an example in so many different ways to me. I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Walker’s writings lately and I’ve had some contact with her over the past couple of months. This is true of Alice Walker, this is true of Cindy and Craig Corrie, I mean people who are able to catching-the-conscience combine very clear positions on the state of things in the world, that are able to combine that with a great deal of human compassion. That’s a particularly unique combination. There’s a woman named Suheir Hammad she’s a Palestinian/American poet-spoken word artist, and I’ve actually spent the last week editing some of her material and editing the conversation that she had with Reggie Haynes in New York, and I’ve been kind of living in her words, both her poetry and then also her reflections and her thoughts for the past three or four days. So she’s someone else who stands out to me as an inspiration. Again, because both because of a very clear view of the world, a very clear stance on injustices, but the ability to combine that with human compassion.

Poem by Suheir Hammad on Democracy Now

David Morse: Jen Marlowe has done peace building work in the Balkans, South East Asia, Cyprus, and the Middle East. She helped found the group, Rachel’s Words, honoring Rachel Corrie killed in Gaza. You can learn more about the Darfur Diaries film and book at darfurdiaries.org.

A postscript to the film, Suliman Jamos, a 61-year-old man who appeared in the film is now stuck in a hospital in Kordufan, Sudan, where the Sudanese Government will not allow the UN to transport him to medical care. Jen Marlowe and others are organizing an emergency appeal for his freedom. You can email Jen Marlowe at jenmarlowe@hotmail.com for more information.

On January 8th Jan Egeland, former UN Human Rights Chief told the press that the situation in Darfur is worse than ever. Human rights organizations are starting to mobilize. Action alerts and information can be found at the local and regional chapters of the Save Darfur Coalition and STAND that’s Students Taking Action Now on Darfur, and their web page is timetoprotect.org.

That’s it for Sprouts. Independent journalist David Morse provided this week’s content. He interviewed Jen Marlowe for a book he is working on about Sudan. He’s been sharing his interviews with http://talknationradio.com/?p=60 Talk Nation Radio. Articles by David Morse have appeared in Dissent, the Nation, New York Times Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. His website with http://david-morse.com/darfur/links/ links on Darfur is http://david-morse.com/morse/ david-morse.com.

Sprouts is distributed and coordinated by Pacifica Radio Network. Thanks to Michael Yoshida at satellite operations. If you or someone at your station has a radio production that you wish to rebroadcast on Sprouts, to showcase it nationally, contact our air traffic controller, Ursula Ruedenberg, at Ursula@pacifica.org

This week’s show was produced at WHUS at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. I’m Dori Smith. See you next week on Sprouts.

To Download the Audio go to Audioport.org and select “public files” or use this url:

Some links on Darfur and Sudan

From David Morse’s web page

BBC report, Sudan’s shadowy Arab militia the Janjaweed

US AID villages in Darfur

More links, types of things students are working on around the country

Darfur Genocide is Rwanda in Slow Motion By David Morse, Yes Magazine, Winter 2006

David Morse on Darfur as a Resource War TomDispatch

Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide

One Response to “David Morse Interviews Jen Marlowe on Pacifica’s Sprouts”

  1. David Morse Interviews Jen Marlowe on Pacifica’s Sprouts