In February 2005, Human Rights Watch sent researchers Dr. Annie Sparrow and Olivier Bercault to Chad to talk with refugees who’d fled from the bombings and Janjawid militia attacks in Darfur. A pediatrician, Dr. Sparrow usually gives crayons and paper to children to entertain them while she interviews their parents. When she gave crayons to children who’ve fled Darfur, the results were harrowing and powerful.
Without prompting, the children drew scenes of horse-mounted militiamen riding into villages, large airplanes dropping bombs, and gun-wielding men raping women. The children’s drawings are a visual record of the atrocities committed in Darfur that aren’t available through any other medium. Human rights workers have received extensive testimony about bombing of villages and rape as a weapon, but these drawings provide visual evidence that international media organizations have not been able to provide, as they’ve been blocked by the Sudanese government from travelling in Darfur.
Realizing the importance of these drawings, Sparrow and Bercault started collecting school notebooks from children in refugee camps. They found in many of them that class notes suddenly gave way to sketches of battlefield scenes, burning huts and the destruction of villages. The two began interviewing children about their drawings:
Leila, Age 9
Human Rights Watch: What is going on here?
Leila: My hut burning after being hit by a bomb.
Human Rights Watch: And here? [Pointing to the drawing of what looks like an upside-down woman]
Leila: It’s a woman. She is dead.
Human Rights Watch: Why is her face colored in red?
Leila: Oh, because she has been shot in the face.
Human Rights Watch: What is this vehicle? Who is this in green?
Leila: That is a tank. The man in green is a soldier.
The researchers brought hundreds of drawings back to their offices. When I was at Human Rights Watch a week ago, there was a pile of these sketches on a conference room table, along side a pile of photographs from Janjawid militamen. What amazed me was how details in the children’s drawings echoed details from the photos – the stocks of the automatic rifles, the round shape of the houses, the posture of two gunmen riding on horseback. It was immediately clear to me that these drawings weren’t of weapons imagined by children, but eye witness accounts.
The New York Times will be running some of these pictures in their Sunday magazine, and German television will be featuring the images on a broadcast this weekend. Perhaps these images will help the world pay attention to the ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity taking place in Darfur and the refugee camps in Chad.