Most children’s drawings share many idyllic similarities – the box-shaped house, the puppy in the front yard, mom and dad smiling broadly. Yet the pictures Jerry Ehrlich unveiled on Nov. 6 contained no white picket fences or smiling faces. There were houses on fire, airplanes ominously flying overhead and men on camels with swords, a harrowing reminder of the experiences of the children of Darfur.
The event, “Genocides of Today” was part of the Hillel/Jewish Student Union’s (JSU) Holocaust Remembrance Week. Ehrlich, a Cherry Hill, N.J., pediatrician, traveled to Darfur to work with Doctors without Borders, volunteering at Darfur’s largest displaced persons camp that at one point has held more than 100,000 people escaping the horrors of Darfur’s genocide.
Paul Winkler, executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, introduced Ehrlich with a few words on Darfur. “We have this saying about the Holocaust, ‘never again,’ but I have to say it has happened again and again,” he said.
Darfur, a western region in Sudan, has been home to conflict between various rebel groups and the Sudanese military since 2003. The Sudanese government recruited a militia group of camel-herding nomads called the Janjaweed, who are believed to have perpetrated much of the violence against civilians. No one is sure of the exact number of casualties, but the United Nations puts the number somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people dead due to disease and violence.
Ehrlich, who has also been to countries like Sri Lanka with Doctors Without Borders, was inspired to volunteer after reading an article about the group in 1991. He headed to Darfur in the summer of 2004, ill-prepared for the atrocities that would face him.
“The government propaganda says nothing is happening there, that the people are well-cared for . it’s nothing but a cruel joke,” Ehrlich said.
The Sudanese government forbids the taking of photographs in Darfur, but Ehrlich smuggled in a camera and snapped pictures around the camp whenever he could. He handed out paper and crayons to the camp’s children, hoping they would draw him a few pictures he could bring back to the United States.
“I thought they would bring me back five, six pictures. For these kids to survive from Monday to Tuesday was phenomenal, but they brought me back more than 150 drawings,” he said.
The pictures show disturbing images of huts being lit on fire, people lying on the ground as if dead and villagers fleeing from men on camels, meant to be the Janjaweed, whose name translates to “devil on a camel.” Many of the drawings were sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as some of the artwork shows soldiers wearing Sudanese military uniforms, indicating the culpability of the government in the genocide.
According to Ehrlich, several officials have already been indicted. “Maybe the drawings had something to do with it,” he said.
Ehrlich also showed many of the photographs he had taken of the camp, of children with sunken eyes and protruding ribs, of mothers with the vacant stare indicative of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“This is what we saw over and over again – severe malnutrition,” he said. “Once upon another lifetime he ran and laughed and chattered. Now he can barely move,” he said, pointing to a photo of a painfully thin 2-year-old boy.
Ehrlich saw up to 200 patients a day in huts with dirt floors, with limited medical supplies and less-than-sterile conditions, yet he saw nothing futile in his mission to bring some relief to the people of Darfur.
“People say, ‘Jerry, what the heck did you accomplish in Darfur?'” he said. “I say, he who saves a life saves the world.”