The Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale

David Morse

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Author David Morse

David Morse

Two years ago I told everybody that I was giving up writing - or at least journalism - in order to return to the visual arts, which I had abandoned in my mid-twenties.

I built a studio for sculpting. began turning down assignments from editors, and then inexplicably found myself writing poetry. It seemed poems were to be my new bridge, to a new life. I liked the idea that poetry and sculpture share a common intensity

Then came Darfur.

The conflict had been going on for nearly two years before it really hit me as a realilzation, following the world's response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In Darfur, the parched westernmost region of Sudan, ethnic militias sponsored by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum were driving black African farmers from their land - killing the men, and raping women and girls. Unlike the tsunami, this disaster was largely invisible to the media. There was no outpouring of sympathy from the world. And, as in Rwanda a decade earlier, we were doing nothing to stop it.

In early February 2005 I applied for a visa with the intention of joining members of a Catholic Worker team from Hartford who were going to deliver food and water to a refugee camp in Darfur - one that was not recognized by the Sudanese authorities, and because it was not recognized, the authorities were preventing humanitarian aid workers from entering it. There are many such camps, in which aid is systematically denied - a tactic used earlier by Khartoum during the 21-year-long civil war, in which some two million South Sudanese were killed, mostly by starvation.

Our plan was simple: by delivering food to this camp, we would force a confrontation with Sudanese authorities, in the presence - we hoped - of international media, so that if we were arrested or deported it would call attention to the refugees' plight. I wrote about this effort in an article for Friends Journal, entitled "Facing Evil: Genocide in Darfur."

I never received a visa by the Sudanese embassy. One reason so little information comes out of Darfur, including images, is the ability of the Islamist dictatorship in Khartoum to restrict journalists' movements. When my fellow Connecticut journalist, photographer Brad Clift went in my place he was arrested, held for a traumatizing ten days on grounds of "treason," and threatened with his life. Later, two officials from Doctors Without Borders were arrested on similar charges of treason. Their crime was presenting a paper at an international convention in the Hague showing evidence that the Khartoum government was using rape as a weapon systematically against the civilian population - a charge that Khartoum continues to deny, but which thousands of victims confirm.

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The genocide continues. I have taken up the tools of journalism again, writing almost exclusively on Darfur, trying to provide the historical and economic context that is missing in so much reportage. I want us to understand that Africa's paralysis is fed by our paralysis. I want us to take responsibility - not for a land far away, but for ourselves.

I cannot pretend to be impartial. But then I have never believed that responsible journalism requires impartiality. The opposite is sometimes true. Nicholas Kristof, who has done more than any mainstream columnist to keep Darfur in the public eye, talks about leaning "way over the line" between journalism and activism. We can strive for accuracy in the service of truth. But to strive for impartiality in the face of genocide is to avoid the truth.

As I write, in August 2005, most of the villages of Darfur have been destroyed. Their occupants are prevented from returning. An estimated 300 to 400 civilians die every day from malnutrition and disease. Yet our government remains silent. The media are silent. The American people are silent. This conspiracy of silence allows the genocide to continue.

Oil is driving the genocide. In my article, "Blood, Ink and Oil: the Case of Darfur," I point out that new seismographic studies in April show that the country's estimated oil reserves have doubled, triggering a flurry of oil deals and drawing the interest of U.S. oil companies. In another article, "War of the Future," I make the case that oil is the reason the Bush administration is undercutting efforts in Congress to enact legislation toward ending the genocide, and is seeking closer ties with Khartoum - not because Sudanese officials are cooperating on the "war on terrorism," as our government claims, but because the oil companies behind George W. Bush are interested in Sudan's oil.

The administration's energy policy - crafted by Dick Cheney and the oil companies - does not reduce our growing dependence on foreign oil. The stupendously obvious consequence (this is not rocket science) is that there will be many such wars. At some level, we know all this - know our lifestyle is unsustainable, know we are approaching the end, know we are gassing up our SUVs with people's lives. So it is a silence of complicity.

Maggie Foster, the heroine of "The Iron Bridge", comes from a world devastated by a series of petroleum wars in the first two decades of the 21st century, by violent changes in the weather, loss of croplands, the irradiation of the Indian subcontinent, and so on. She can't fathom it. Two or three generations had known what they were destroying. She can't understand their paralysis. Can we?

My new studio stands idle for now. Someday I will fulfill my pursuit of visual art. Someday, too, perhaps, a novel about Darfur. But for now, the studio and the novel will have to wait.

Can we do more than complain? Can we understand our collective paralysis truthfully enough to shake it off? That's the big question. And right now it's hanging over Darfur.

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For a list of essays, articles, and poetry by David Morse, go to Publications.


Plans by RockWay Press to reissue The Iron Bridge in paper have fallen through. Interested publishers are invited to query the author.

Order "The Iron Bridge" on-line

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© copyright David Morse, 2003-2011