TORONTO — We need to become global citizens and ensure that the genocide in Darfur does not continue, said Debbie Bodkin, a retired Waterloo Police sergeant.
She spoke to a roomful of people at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies last week.
Bodkin was working as a police sergeant when she became interested in conflicts overseas.
In 2004, she was asked to join the Coalition for Internal Justice in Chad to interview refugees and victims who had entered the country after fleeing war-torn Sudan. The purpose of the interviews was to provide evidence to the U.S. State Department that a genocide was occurring in Darfur.
In 1989, Gen. Omar Bashir seized control of Sudan by military coup. Bashir was part of an Arab tribe, and soon the government was mainly composed of Arab tribe members, unlike the majority of the Sudanese population who are from African tribes.
Then in 2003, two Darfuri rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms, accusing the government of oppressing black Africans in favour of Arabs, such as by sending the country’s oil only to the Arab tribes. The government responded by sending Arab militia, known as “Janjaweed” (devils on horseback), who attacked the African tribes. Since the genocide began, 400,000 people have been killed and more than two million people are now displaced.
“One of the victims said to me, ‘Life is nothing when you have no one left,’ and we quickly found that the stories we were going to hear were always the same, no matter who we interviewed… stories of rape and murder,” said Bodkin.
“There was one little guy named Mohammad, and he had a crush on me – I think he had never seen a white person. Before I left, his mother said to me, ‘Please take him back with you, because he may not live to see another day here.’ You know how much it would take for a mother to want to give away her son,” she said.
After returning from Chad, she was determined to do more global work. This time, she entered the conflict itself, travelling to Darfur with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Darfur in January 2005. “The stories were the same, the only thing that differed was the number of people they lost,” she said.
She said one man walked for three hours with his two young daughters to the camp where Bodkin was, so she could record their experiences. The two girls had been sent to get material to build a fire for their family and were sexually assaulted on the way and left to bleed in the middle of the desert. “They had no emotion left in them because of what they had been through,” she said.
She spent three months in Darfur interviewing victims, but since the government sent spies to follow her and her team, she never actually witnessed any crimes. “It was a fake peace wherever we went. Some people said as soon as we moved on to the next building, they would bomb ours,” she said.
A month after returning home, Bodkin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “As a police officer, when there’s a crime going on, it’s our job to stop it. But the problem is, I couldn’t stop it,” she said.
She now speaks to audiences across Canada about her experiences, which she says is therapeutic for her, and as a way to ensure that these stories are not lost.
“Simon Wiesenthal believed in the pursuit of justice and he spent his life hunting down Nazi war criminals,” said Nicole Betel, an education associate at the centre. “He believed that the history of man is the history of crimes, and crimes can repeat themselves, so information is our best defence.”
Bodkin hopes that her stories help others become “global citizens” and raise awareness of crimes against humanity.