Museum, Google Zoom In on Darfur

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 14, 2007

When Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel conceived of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he envisioned a "living memorial" that would not only chronicle the crimes of the past but also take on issues of contemporary genocide, said Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the Washington museum.

"A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past," Bloomfield quoted Wiesel as saying.

To help fulfill that mission, the Holocaust Museum this week launched a multimedia initiative with Google Earth to highlight the genocide unfolding in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where government-backed militias and nomadic tribesmen have burned huts and villages to drive sedentary farmers from their homes.

Google Earth is a nearly two-year-old Web-based service that displays satellite photographs to give users the feeling they are flying around the world and zooming in on particular spots. The new enhancement adds extra features to aerial images of Darfur. Zooming in on red flames brings up a place that has been destroyed; yellow-and-red flames show a village only partially damaged. And accompanying video footage, photographs and eyewitness testimony explain what happened in each case.

Click on quotation marks, and Darfur survivors will tell their stories in their own words from villages such as Terbeba, where 265 structures out of 577 were destroyed. "In July, the military arrested several persons including Brahim Siddiq, a seven-year-old boy," reads one chilling account by the Masalit chief of Disa, who described women accompanying attacking tribesmen while singing songs and lashing out with racist slurs. "The blood of the Blacks runs like water, we take their goods and we chase them from our area and our cattle will be on our land," he quoted the women as telling some of the farmers under attack.

The multimedia project was the brainchild of Michael Graham, a former researcher at the museum who now coordinates its Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative.

This marriage of technology and goodwill grew out of an effort to overcome what museum officials and others call the credibility gap that Holocaust survivors once faced: how to provide concrete evidence that the most unspeakable atrocities are actually occurring.

Bloomfield recalled the story of Jan Karski, a young Pole who came to America in 1943 and attempted to describe to a skeptical Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew, what he had seen in the Warsaw ghetto and a Nazi death camp.

After asking technical questions, pacing back and forth and then quietly sitting down, the judge told the Pole, "I am unable to believe you." He was not the first person in an Allied country to react to Karski's atrocity stories with disbelief. "I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference," Frankfurter is reported to have said while trying to calm an indignant Polish ambassador accompanying Karski.

"When you look at the history, people had the information," Bloomfield said of reports about the Holocaust that were ignored. "We want to create a community of conscience. What would have happened had the Holocaust been seen? It happened before television, 24-hour newscasts and the Internet."

When Google Earth was launched, museum officials were pondering how best to share the information about Darfur coming from a multiplicity of sources -- human rights groups, the State Department, U.N. agencies and others. "That is when the 'Aha!' moment came," Graham said. "The viewer was so visual, so accessible, and provided a landscape for information," he said of the new program in an interview Wednesday. "It is a tool that can help them all collaborate together."

"We had all this data from Amnesty International, from State, from UNHCR, but this information did not live together," he said. "Satellite imagery was the added value. This puts an abstract 50-page report in the context of a larger picture."

But the real added value is a viewership of 200 million and growing -- the people who, according to the company, have downloaded Google Earth since its June 2005 launch.

"What is critical is using this new technology so we can be a catalyst for action," said John Heffernan, director of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative. "Darfur is far away, and this brings it into homes and offices. People can continue to go back to it because the content will be continuously updated."

"No one can any longer say they don't know. This tool will bring a spotlight to a very dark corner of the earth, a torch that will indirectly help protect the victims," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. "It is David versus Goliath, and Google Earth just gave David a stone for his slingshot."

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