A number of years ago, on Christmas Eve, my children were tracking Santa on the NORAD website using Google Earth. We caught up with him (well, the little icon that represents him) just as he began to fly over western Africa. As he left Chad heading east, one of my daughters noticed a bunch of red and yellow flames on the map.
“Mom, what are those?” she asked.
As I zoomed the map in on western Sudan, I realized that the flames represented the genocide in Darfur.
“That is Darfur. There is a genocide happening there and many people are being killed and burned out of their homes.” I explained. In our somber conversation on Christmas Eve we barely touched on the deep horror of the genocide. I did not tell my daughters of the atrocities that Hamila Bashir lived and writes about in her memoir Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur. I could not find language that would answer their questions of why and how men could do such things to others, especially to children.
But somehow Bashir does. In language that is both understated and severe, Bashir begins by telling of her early life with her close-knit family in their Zaghawa village, where she plays with her brothers and tries to keep from getting in trouble with her strict grandma. Bashir’s family is wealthy, so she is able to go to boarding school—and becomes an excellent student. She is admitted to study medicine at the university. It is a highly coveted honor, and an education that she will use in ways she could never have imagined.
As she is finishing her studies, her country begins to fall into the darkness that will become genocide.
“Never, not even in my darkest, blackest nightmare, had I imagined that I would ever witness such horror” Bashir writes. She describes treating Aisha, a young girl raped by the Janjaweed: “As I gazed in horror at her limp form, a keening, empty wail kept coming from somewhere deep within her throat – over and over and over again. It was a sound like I had never heard before – a hollow cry of brutalized innocence, of innocence forever lost.”
Bashir too is brutalized. Her innocence is forever lost. But she has the strength to tell her story, to witness to the world. She has the strength to go on, to marry, to have a child. And despite the fact that the fires of Darfur burned for far too long, she ends her book on a note of hope, bouncing her baby on her lap, safe in her apartment in London. It brings some comfort that now that her baby is old enough to track Santa, those flames on Google Earth have been extinguished. We can only hope they never return.