The Darkest Light
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
They were pictures from a genocide on a monumental scale: both the images and the horror.
The projected images were 40 feet square. The screen was the exterior of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum facing 15th Street. Last night the photographs flashed one after another like a savage, super-size slide show, beaming over sidewalks and commuter lanes to the Tidal Basin beyond.
The backdrop of the Holocaust Museum reminded passersby of one tragedy. But this was another. This was Darfur: burning villages, shrouded bodies, the rib cages of starving children and donkeys, the cracked lips of the old people, the thousand-yard stares of boys with their casually slung guns.
The images came three at a time on three different sections of wall, lingering a few seconds each. Keening, ethereal Sudanese music accompanied them.
A crowd of a few hundred gathered to inaugurate this new exhibit, called "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" After most of the audience went home, it was cold and lonely on the plaza. The images kept flashing in the night. They seemed to pose more questions: Who will see? Who will do something?
Darfur is the fire this time. After the Jews, the Cambodians, the Bosnians, the Rwandans, the people of Darfur are the victims of systematic rape, murder, pillage and displacement.
In a three-year-old war between ethnic African rebels and the Arab-led central government, more than 400,000 people have died. The Holocaust Museum was one of the first institutions in the world to call the Darfur tragedy "genocide." The U.S. government followed suit.
Leaders of the museum, who consider it part of their mission to address contemporary cases of genocide, deliberately picked the week of Thanksgiving to thrust Darfur in Washington's face. The display runs from 5:30 p.m. to midnight through Sunday.
"During Thanksgiving week, a time of reflection and gratitude, we are lending the museum's moral stature to alert the public to the urgency of stopping the human catastrophe in Darfur," said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council. The idea was that as commuters and pedestrians hurry by in a fog of preoccupation, they might be jolted to consider other dilemmas beyond free-range or Butterball? Mashed or sweet? Store-bought or baked?
If the pictures "stir some sort of curiosity in the average person as they go by and see it, then the job is done," said Omer Ismail, a refugee from Darfur who was on hand last night. "They will go out and ask, Why?"
This is the museum's participation in a traveling exhibit called "Darfur/Darfur" that will appear in about two dozen cities. In some venues, the photos are shown inside galleries; in others they are being projected outdoors. Several independent photojournalists made the pictures.
The genocide as presented by the Holocaust Museum has been somewhat sanitized. The most gruesome pictures from the traveling exhibit are not being projected. The museum didn't want the representation flashed into the Washington night to be "so, so graphic that it offends people," said John Heffernan, director of the museum's Genocide Prevention Initiative.