Oral History Interview with Mia Farrow

Archives & Special Collections
Thomas J. Dodd Research Center
University of Connecticut Libraries
Oral History Interview with
Mia Farrow
Interviewed by Valerie Love and Kerry Bystrom
Transcribed by Valerie Love
June 15, 2011
Bridgewater, Connecticut
Mia Farrow is an internationally acclaimed actress and humanitarian activist. Since becoming a
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in September 2000, Ms. Farrow has worked tirelessly to raise
awareness for children whose lives have been affected by violence, and since 2004 has focused
her advocacy efforts on refugees and internally displaced people from Darfur, Sudan. Ms.
Farrow has created a video project called the Darfur Archives to document the rich cultural
heritage of Darfur. The interview discusses her activism, and describes her travels to refugee
camps in Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and
Farrow |2
Interview with Mia Farrow by Valerie Love
June 15, 2011
Bridgewater, CT
VALERIE LOVE: This is Valerie Love, with Mia Farrow at her home in
Bridgewater, Connecticut, and we’re conducting an oral history for
the Sudan and Darfur Research Collections at the Archives & Special
Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of
Connecticut Libraries. Kerry Bystrom, Assistant Professor of English
and Associate Director of the Foundations of Humanitarianism
Research Initiative at the University of Connecticut, is also in
attendance. Since you’ve written extensively about your early life and
television and film career, this oral history will focus on your current
humanitarian work and activism, particularly regarding Sudan and
Darfur, but you’re free to talk about whatever you would like. My first
question is, could you talk about how and when you first became
involved in humanitarian work?
MIA FARROW: It’s difficult to identify a seminal moment, but I can tell
you how I first became aware of the Darfur conflict or issue, Darfur
itself. It was in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, and I presume to
say that the events in Rwanda had a profound effect on me, as it did
on plenty of people, too many people. But the fact that I didn’t know
about it in no way absolved me in my own sense of conscience. That
I as a citizen on this planet—I’m not sure what I would have done, but
that I did nothing—was the point. Not only did I do nothing, my
country did nothing, the United Nations did nothing. My church—
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I’m a catholic—did nothing. All the nations of the world did nothing.
And the profundity of this failure to act, which resulted in up to a
million people perishing in the worst possible way. I think that
rearranged me in some ways, so that on the 10th anniversary of the
Rwandan genocide, I read a piece in the New York Times by Samantha
Power. I was really looking at, reading a piece by Emmanuel Dongala,
who was writing about Congo, and this piece jumped out at me.
Samantha was saying that another genocide was unfolding in this
place I’d never heard of, the Darfur region of Sudan. And so it was
that—Rwanda, now Darfur—now what?
Now I’ve always told my own children that with knowledge
comes responsibility. So now I know that a genocide is unfolding.
What do I have in my arsenal to take up arms against this? I am, and I
was, a UNICEF Ambassador, and it was under those auspices that I
got myself to Darfur in 2004. And it was mayhem. And it was during
that time – of course—talk about a transformative experience.
Leaving that aside-- the events of Darfur 2004 for a moment—coming
back on the plane, I asked myself, “What is ‘with knowledge comes
responsibility’ now?” A knowing—an unforgettable knowing of
Darfur-- is now my lot. And what do I have to do about it? And I
could only conclude that I would have to do my utmost. And that has
led me to a variety of things—it certainly changed my life. And what
I needed to do with my day, every day. I didn’t know I could write
op-ed pieces. I called Samantha Power, and I said, “What are the
rules? What do you do?” And she gave me a simple thing—“It’s got
to go like an arrow. Everything that isn’t it, trim away no matter how
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interesting it is. You’ve got 700 words. They all have to make your
point.” And I began writing op-ed pieces, and then the photographs
that you now have-- I started showing them everywhere. And I went
on a sad circuit of advocates who were going from university to
university, to divestment hearing to divestment hearing, to try to tell
the world what was happening to Darfur’s people as it was happening.
VL: Can you talk about becoming a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and
how that came into being?
MF: I was having dinner when Kofi Anan—we have mutual friends-- Kofi
said to me, “You should do something. What is your interest?”
Because my children were getting older. And he said, “Children,
refugees, what?” And I said, “I think children.” And he said, “What
about UNICEF?” and I thought, “Yeah, maybe.” I didn’t really know
how to get that started. Next thing, I got a call from UNICEF saying,
would come on board on the initiative to eradicate polio? And I said
sure. And at first it was just a thing. A press thing, showing an iron
lung, which I had been in—they knew I had had polio—they knew I
have a son who is paraplegic as a result of polio, so it was a good fit.
And then my son, together with Kofi Anan, did the countdown. They
pushed a clock—it was supposed to be 5 years. It was believable and
possible that within 5 years, all polio could be eradicated from the
face of the earth. And I believe that could have happened had it not
been for Islamic extremism in Northern Nigeria. Almost all polio on
the planet has emanated from northern Nigeria. Now the extremists in
Northern Nigeria have come up with a vaccine that they find to be,
you know, Kosher, but they didn’t believe that we would be
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vaccinating. When I say we-- UNICEF, the Western World—was
coming with vaccinations that would be ok for their kids. Either they
didn’t believe it, or they were simply being extremely disruptive. On
that journey to Northern Nigeria, the Nigerian government provided
machine guns—guys with machine guns who called themselves,
“Batmen.” And how come we’ve got these machine gun guys, what’s
the deal? And nobody said, they just said the Nigerian government
requires it. I didn’t know what a hotbed Northern Nigeria was and is.
So it was me and my then 11 year old son Ronan speaking out about
polio, and how all mothers should be vaccinating their children at
least twice, probably three times, in this initiative. The initiative was
such a good thing. And I was vaccinating my son over and over with
these oral polio drops to show the mothers that it was ok. I guess he
got like 15 doses of polio vaccine. [laughs] And that was my first trip
And then after that trip, it was impossible only to talk about
polio. I said, “You do see the bigger problem here is HIV/AIDS,” and
they said, “We know.” And I said, “So, I don’t think I can only talk
about polio,” when at that time, the vaccine was not getting through
and people were just dying in huge numbers in Nigeria. So Ronan
became their youth spokesperson, and very focused on HIV/AIDS,
and has done lots of talking about that, even then. And then they
expanded my role to be not only their polio spokesperson, but an
actual Goodwill Ambassador. Our second trip was to Angola.
VL: And was that an HIV/AIDS trip?
Farrow |6
MF: Well, it was within weeks of the signing of a very fragile peace
agreement. I have to look up the actual date, but it was within weeks.
So recent was the peace agreement that most people didn’t know that
a peace agreement had in fact been signed. So flying into rural places
in Angola, we flew in a very, very high airplane which descends like a
corkscrew, and up again when you left like a corkscrew, because there
was so much gunfire all around. And one of the pictures that I’ve
given you was the town of Quito, where nothing was standing, a
completely bullet-riddled town, and somebody had written in spray
paint, “I love you.” And it just-- the incongruity of this “I love you,”
in the pockmarked rubble that had been the town of Quito. The other
remarkable thing in Quito—there were three, several things—lots of
people in Angola had been children and young adults, and adults with
limbs missing, because the place was littered with landmines. And
one saw the effects of proxy-warfare. We had the United States on
one side, and we had Russia and Cuba on the other side, and we were
all backing different forces, and of course the result was absolutely
catastrophic. There was no infrastructure in the country. Pockets of
people looking for people. And I met a man—he was pointing at my
son’s belt. And he said, said the translator, “I had had a belt like that
once. But I had to eat it.” And that was the man who ate his belt.
Now that rearranges you in some way, just having that level of
knowing. It never occurred to me that someone could, or would, eat a
belt. But it brought me to a certain kind of reality. I did not leave
Angola the same person. Nor did my son. Because by funding these
disparate groups—two distinct groups, as I said-- our country and
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Russia, using these two groups to kill each other. And even though
Kofi Anan put a ban on the diamond trade, they were getting money
from our separate countries. And the level of devastation and
hunger-- I never saw anything like that. The evil of proxy warfare.
The levels of hunger that I hadn’t seen. Levels of suffering that I
hadn’t seen. And, you know, I had to rethink a lot of things.
VL: When was your first trip to the Darfur region?
MF: The first trip to Darfur was in 2004, after reading that piece by
Samantha Power, and me saying to UNICEF, “I’ve got to go there.
I’ve got to go there.” My trip there was hugely helped by the fact that
Colin Powell came out of there saying genocide is unfolding. And
immediately followed that by saying, in effect, that doesn’t mean we
have to do anything about. Well, a lot of people didn’t feel that way
about it, fortunately.
VL: Can you describe what it was like going to Darfur for the first time?
MF: I’ll try. You go to Khartoum first, and even there in Khartoum, you’re
not sure you’re going to get into Darfur. Because there’s no
commercial flights in and out. You have go through UN airplanes and
you need a lot of visas, and you’ve got to go and meet with a lot of
people who you know are murderers. And I remember one of the
government people that I met, and he says, “You know, everyone is
exaggerating. We’re so bewildered. We’re so distressed. This Colin
Powell seems a very nice man and then he goes away and says terrible
things about us.” He said, “You will see—the camps are the very best
thing that’s ever happened to people. They are so happy there.
Farrow |8
They’re watching movies, and we are taking care of them in ways that
they’ve never been taken care of. You will see. They are very happy.
They are free to leave. And all of this, saying that we are so bad—
we’re extremely hurt by all of this.” And I’m like, “Ah, ok.” I totally
knew what I was doing—I wanted to get in. So it’s like, “Oh sure, I’ll
come to a barbecue at your house. We’ll cook a whole lamb.” And
then I get into Darfur. And the planes are still crossing the skies-bombers going about their business of bombing villages in Darfur.
People are sheltering under scraggy bushes, with maybe a piece of
clothing to be under. On their way, on the move. Everybody was on
the move. I don’t know how they knew where to go. And the camps
which had been hastily formed. There were trucks from NGOs
hauling what they called bladders of water—huge balloons on the
back of trucks to bring water to people. People were traumatized
beyond anything I can describe.
And I tell this story of this hijab, which is a protection amulet
given to me by a woman named Halima in 2004. And she was fleeing
with her family, about 10 people. And she said she had been wearing
it on the day her village was attacked. It was the morning skies.
Halima’s story is identical to that of – I’ve lost count-- hundreds and
hundreds and hundreds of women, who would tell me this story. And
always the morning skies it seems, filled with bombers and attack
helicopters. People in this rural setting, which is so, so quiet,
absolutely astonished and panicked by the sound. They didn’t even
have radios. They didn’t know why the skies suddenly filled with all
of these bomb ships, and raining bombs upon families, upon homes,
Farrow |9
which ignited immediately into fire, and people were wounded and
you can imagine the panic as people tried to gather their children and
run, but without any plan, without knowing which direction to run in
or why or any of it.
Halima had five children, and she was carrying her infant and
running with her children, when suddenly the village was surrounded
by what came to be known as janjaweed, or evil or devils on
horseback. But they came on camels and on horseback, and shouted
racial slurs. And before they raped her, they tore her infant from her
arms and bayoneted him before her eyes. Janjaweed, she said. They
cut them, and threw them in to the well. That was three of her five
children they did this to on that day, and her husband too. And she
clasped my hands and she said, “Tell people what is happening here.
Tell them we will all be slaughtered. Tell them we need help.” And I
promised her I would tell. [clasps hijab around her neck] And I
didn’t want to take anything from her—she had nothing. But she
absolutely insisted that I have this for my protection. And I thought,
well, the very least I can do is to try to do my utmost to bring
protection for Halima and the other people, defenseless—the millions
in Darfur. And that has been the guiding force in my life since that
Now, unfortunately, Halima’s story doesn’t stand alone-- it’s
absolutely identical to that of countless, countless stories I heard from
Darfur on that occasion, and from the refugees since in my now 13
trips into that region.
F a r r o w | 10
VL: Can you describe what it’s like visiting the camps? Maybe what a
typical day is like?
MF: In the camps, it depends what day. Because there’ll be food
distribution day, and that’s a whole day that is different from every
other day. And the family with the most children—they have cards.
The refugees have cards and the IDPs have cards. And they stand in
line all day for about three days while sorghum and sometimes there’ll
be soap, and sometimes there won’t be soap. Sometimes there’ll be
salt, and sometimes there won’t be salt. So when you go to the camps,
mostly they’re living in the present. So what the refugees want to talk
about is how they haven’t had soap for a year, say. Or they haven’t
had any salt for seven months. And how they hate the oil that’s being
given to them. Because as I now know from doing the archives, the
process of making oil from these very hard nuts and the oil is not only
something you can cook with and eat, but it’s something people use
for their skin, for their hair, multipurpose. So we give this crappy oil,
it’s USAID. They hate it. And then also, the sorghum, after years, a
lot of it is bad by the time they get it. There’s really no way of storing
it to keep the maggots out of it. So people are on a diet of just that all
the time. And in sometimes people in some camps try to grow onions
and sometimes tomatoes. But what they want to tell you first of all is
how hard it is for them there and how they want to go home. And this
litany of what I call the shitty sheeting problem. There was sheeting
handed out by UNHCR back in 2003 and 2004. Well it’s now 2011,
so the sheeting is gone. It’s just shredded by the sand and the wind,
and the sun and the rains, and they have no defense against the
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elements. And so there’s that—how to keep your children dry. How
to keep your food stocks dry. How do you build shelter when you’re
in the middle of nowhere?
And then the other thing is, some of the camps are attacked.
There’s attacks from within and there’s attacks from without. I mean,
one refugee camp that-- I wrote about this guy, the Unda of the camp
lead his people from Chad by night. He described the attacks similar
to the one I just described on the village. And that he gathered his
people who had survived. People were weeping, people were in
shock, you can imagine. And they didn’t want to leave wounded
people. They tried to carry wounded people and then they couldn’t.
And they had no water, they had no food. And they could only
move—it was after the rainy season he said, so that was where god
blessed them, he said. They had the tall grass to hide in. And by day
they hid in the tall grass. And they covered the mouths of the children.
Because they were being hunted by air, by camel, and by horseback.
They were being hunted down. And pockets of people—they would
hear a whole group of people being slaughtered. They would hide and
cover the mouths of their children, and would move by night. And
they came and they had heard there was a country called Chad. And
they came and they asked a shepherd along the way after walking 9
days, “Are we in Chad?” and the man said, “Yes, this is Chad.” And
then this Unda wrote a letter to the president of Chad, saying, “Your
Excellency, we are—I think it was 1,300 people—and we are at your
mercy. We have nowhere to go, but we’re asking for your hospitality
here in Chad.” And of course, you know, the shepherd had no way—
F a r r o w | 12
you know how far that border is from Injamena? Anyway, eventually
UNHCR found that group, and that was the beginning of that
particular camp. It’s the Goz Amir refugee camp. And then the camp
was attacked. And again janjaweed had come and they were shooting,
and the man said, we were sitting on the floor of our tent, and holding
our children, and we were thinking, No hopes for us, no hopes for us.
Just… Because he said, we couldn’t run. This isn’t our country, and
we don’t know where the water is, or where the trees might be. We
just sat there.
Now, he’s still there. And the people are there, and the children
are growing up in these conditions. And that’s the camp where I did a
lot of filming of the archives in. And I’ll always go back to that camp
because I have friends there. But a day in the camp is the everyday.
When you talk to people, part of me gathering the archives is to let
people talk about their day to day. And then they talk about, you
know, the day that changed their lives. And then, very respectfully,
you try to say, “Before that day, on an ordinary day, can you tell me
about the day before the planes came? How was that day? When you
woke up, what did you do?” And then I tried to lead people into
telling me about an ordinary day. In different seasons depending on
the planting and the ways of celebrating, as you’ve seen. Once a year
they would visit a neighboring village, and that was just a huge
festivity, and they would bring wine, and they would bring an animal
to kill, and there would be dancing all night. And you know, all of the
things in trying to archive the extraordinary ways that people
celebrate: marriage and death, and sickness. Sick people, you put
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them under a special tree—it’s God’s tree. And if god wants to heal
them, God will heal them. And if God doesn’t want to heal them,
they’ll die under that tree. I mean, there’s just so many things. And
things that were of a time long past. It seems so long. Because they
don’t have calendars. And women especially don’t count. I’ll say,
“Well how many people were in your village?” and they’ll say, “Oh,
ask the men. We don’t know numbers.” People were always vague on
the numbers. And they think it terms of planting seasons. So when
there is no planting season, they’ll mark the years by the rains, by the
rain season. So now it’s the 8th rainy season since they were, you
know, since they left their homes. And now there’s all talk too about
all the people who are occupying their lands—that’s the talk now.
That these other tribes have been invited in to take their land. So they
send spies back to go look and see how their land is, and could it be
safe to return, can they bring their families? One man will go out of a
group, and he said, “Others have our lands.”
VL: When you go to the camps, do you go on your own, or do you go with
MF: You have to get-- when I go, I’ll stay at one of the NGOs. I’ve stayed
at UNHCR. I’ve stayed at Oxfam, I’ve stayed at HIAS, I’ve stayed at
all different NGOs. I’ve stayed with UNICEF. You stay with whoever
is near the camp, and whoever is willing to put you up. And then you
go in when they go in for their day in the camp. And then you leave
when they have to leave. Because you can’t really, even though you
want to, you can’t really stay in the camp overnight. That’s against the
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rules. They won’t let you stay in the compound if you don’t observe
that one basic rule. So, um.
VL: Is that for safety reasons?
It is. That’s imposed upon them from their organization. You leave
the camp by dark. And then you travel in convoy. Well, it’s a
dangerous region and, you know, things go on at night, too. You’ve
probably heard, Physicians for Human Rights, they had done this
thing about one of the camps. And there’s a lot of violence in some of
the camps. Not so at the camp I was telling you about-- The Goz Amir
camp is very peaceful. They’ve organized it. People in the camps
live according to their tribe, so they have their language and their own
tribesman around them, and in different parts of the camp. Other
camps will be all one tribe. Like Oure Cassoni camp—that’s all
Zaghawa. And this camp where we were, it had only had 300
Zaghawa, but lots of Fur and lots of Masalit. And they get along in
most of the camps. But I think from what I understand from the
Physicians for Human Rights thing, that in one of the camps-- they
were only allowed to go in one of the camps—it was Susannah
Sirkin’s people, and there was a lot of violence from inside the camp.
Man against woman violence. But for sure, still female circumcision
goes on at night, all across Chad and in the camps, and there’s nothing
anyone can do about that. But I didn’t see any violence at all in Oure
Cassoni camp, or in Goz Amir camp.
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VL: You said that you stay with organizations that are working locally.
What kinds of food do you eat when you’re there? How do you take
care of yourself being there?
MF: Usually… Well, the NGOs don’t have a lot of variety. You might get
rice with your pasta. Things like that. When I was there for a whole
month, I would go to the marketplace. I would go to the Chadian
market, and I would buy whatever was available. There was garlic,
there were peanuts, there were onions. Personally, I stay clear of the
meat, just because. You can get really sick from the meat. [dog
barking—pause in interview until dog has finished] I don’t have
lunch. You go to camp in the early morning, you leave as early as
possible. Few of the NGOs are right next to the camps for security
reasons. If you’re travelling with UN, there’s always way more
security. So I like to travel with other NGOs because I just don’t want
to have a travelling convey. If I can borrow a car myself, I’m happy to
do that. Or smaller NGOs that aren’t tied by UN rules. In eastern
Chad, some of the UN rules say you have to be armed, right along the
border. And I don’t like to travel in a convoy. So.
But HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] was great—that’s a
Jewish organization, and they’re great, and I like to stay with them
because they minimize the fuss. So it really depends who you’re with.
And I’m grateful for anybody honestly who will put me up. And the
NGOs might have bread for breakfast, and they’ll put maybe Nutella
on it—that’s a chocolate paste—and they’ll have tea. Or they’ll have
powered coffee. And that’s the NGOs. And then you get to the
camps. And for me, when I was doing the Archive, I would go to the
F a r r o w | 16
market and just bring a huge thing of peanuts, and a huge bucket of
water, and a cup that people could take water and eat peanuts. And
also when I could get them, dates—people really liked that. And I
bought a mat to put on the ground so people could sit on a mat, cause
otherwise you’re just sitting on the sand. And I just skip lunch. And
people don’t generally have three meals there, really just one and one
small one. And then you go back to the NGOs for dinner, and dinner
will be usually pasta. And when I was there, as I said, for the whole
month, then I could go to the market myself, which is a really
interesting thing to do. Just to go and sit on the mat, and drink very,
very thick sweet tea, and buy whatever vegetables they’re growing,
which was usually onions and garlic and things. And tomatoes. And
you could make a sauce to put on your pasta. That’s what I did.
VL: And how did people respond to you being there?
MF: In the camps?
VL: Yeah.
MF: Well, I found the best way—if you’re going with UNICEF, it’s a
different thing, because they’ve already got the relationship in the
camp, and you follow their—but going alone, I like to ask for the
Unda, the leader, the camp leader. Or if it’s possible to get through to
the NGO beforehand you come to say, could I invite any camp leaders
to come and sit on the mat with me in front of your tent, at your NGO
headquarters there in the camp, and just be able to talk to people about
why I’ve come. If it’s about the archive, it took a lot of explaining to
people what is this for, what is this. Because it’s not a culture that is
F a r r o w | 17
one for preserving. So why are we preserving? We went into long
philosophical conversations about the value of preserving the past for
the future, for the children of the future. Yes, they’ve lost everything,
but they haven’t lost their real treasures in their memories. And it’s to
preserve those memories. That they can give that to their children.
The projected scenario—the children going back to land that’s been
occupied by others, and the children having no sense of what a rich
culture had once belonged to their families. So it was explaining that.
And explaining the video camera. They’d never seen anything like
that, and they didn’t understand how we would preserve it, and how it
would serve the future. Why bother. But once they got it, they came
and they brought everything. Look, here’s four coins—we used to
have these coins. This is how we made our shoes. As you know,
we’ve got 6 hours of making a drum. And all the things that they used
to do. And this same old skeptical Unda said, “Thank you for
reminding us to remember.” Because the present had just consumed
them. And that day that threw a curtain over the past—that traumatic
day when everything was on fire. For them, I think that among all
their losses, the idea of leaving their dead unburied behind them,
leaving wounded people—that’s something that they just can’t get
past because it’s something sacrilegious that they were forced to do.
So for sure when they go back, they’ll look for the bodies and try to
give them a decent burial.
VL: Have you or any of your travel companions ever come under attack
while you were in the area?
F a r r o w | 18
MF: Well, you know there’s been a lot of violence all around me. And it
just happened that I was in eastern Chad in 2006 when 60 villages
were attacked. And only UNHCR was going around because people
were everywhere, and villages were on fire everywhere. And that’s
how I have my janjaweed photographs, which are more increasingly
rare, because I see them in the documentaries. It was an accidental
encounter with a group of janjaweed who were leaving a village on
fire. And I did something that surprised even me later, I guess, that I
got out of the car. Because we just froze. We were three vehicles, and
we just froze. And I got out. I did a whole comedy routine, like, “Hi!”
And I had my camera. And I was taking pictures with one hand and
waving with another, and they thought I was some crazy white woman
who had probably flipped out. And a couple of them even started
laughing at me. And I got back in the car. And past us they just went.
And I was trying to take a picture from inside the car, as we took off
like 90 miles an hour, and I broke a rib on that trip-- 2006.
But I think the most upsetting—and it’s hard to even talk about.
I was in Kalma camp in 2004. And a group of women had gathered.
A group of young people had gathered to talk to my son, Ronan, who
was there as a UNICEF youth spokesperson, and a group of women
had gathered to talk to me. And we had been talking for about 40
minutes. And at that point, UN rules were such—and I can show you
the card and codes of what to do if captured—and we had to have our
walkie talkies on us at all times, and we could never be more than I
forget how many feet from the vehicles. So we got the red alert to get
in the vehicle right away. And all these women were sitting there.
F a r r o w | 19
And they had put a piece of material up, and they had it on sticks. And
we got in the car, as janjaweed came in the camp-- swept into the
camp, all swathed in black, and on camels and shouting. And we
were flying off at 90 miles an hour across the sand to a waiting
helicopter. And I don’t know what happened to the women who had
gathered there. And they had even written a sign, “Welcome
UNICEF.” You know? And the difference between having a passport
and not. The unfairness of them sitting there. And me, really, if they
had shoes, not fit to shine them. Because they had endured so much.
And there they had the courage to come and talk to me and the grace
to take care of their children, and try have some kind of life in this
awful Kalma camp, as you know, is one of the most turbulent of all of
the camps. And vast-- 90,000 people. More now. But leaving them
there, just leaving them there…. But you know, the head of Save the
Children was shot in the head. And they were in a convoy of three,
and I was just in a different location. So the violence is all around.
There was one time I was getting a beer. And you know, it’s a
Muslim area. But you can get beer—you just have to know who to go
to and that kind of thing. I came out and a man was beating a woman
in the street—really beating up on her. And I flung myself on the man
and just started whacking him as hard as I could. I separated the
woman, saying “run, get away, get away!” I was hitting the man as
hard as I could. And my friend who’s Australian got in the car, and
was pulling at me to get in the car, and I got in the car, and we drove
away, and she said, “Can you believe you just did that?” And I said,
“No, that’s really interesting! Now I know that that’s what I would
F a r r o w | 20
do. If someone is beating on somebody, now I know that I would do
that.” And she said, “Yeah, and what’s even more ridiculous is that
for a moment I felt safer being with you!” [laughs] Which of course
is absurd. Luckily the guy just didn’t knife me! But this was a telling
moment. It’s a very violent place. And I have to think now, having
visited so many violent places, that if you take out the traffic light,
and there’s no laws, you have impunity, that this is what we are. It
isn’t that it’s “them.” As long as we keep saying it’s them—it’s the
Nazis; it’s those Rwandans, it’s the Congolese, it’s the Cambodians,
its’ somebody else—then we’re missing the point. When we step up
and say this is us, and begin to own our own components, then maybe
we’ll make some progress.
VL: You’ve spent quite a bit of time in camps both in Sudan, and also in
Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) and some other areas.
Can you talk about the differences between the conditions in Chad vs.
Sudan and CAR?
MF: Well, CAR is different, because I was in North Kivu, and people were
on the run. So there, because the Hutu militia, the Tutsi militia,
there’s the Mai Mai army, and then there’s the actual army. And then
there’s just lawlessness. And the people are caught—civilians caught
in between all of these warring factions.
VL: Wait, I’m sorry, is this Central African Republic--MF: No, I’m sorry, this is Congo.
VL: Okay.
F a r r o w | 21
MF: Democratic Republic of the Congo.
VL: Okay.
MF: CAR is different entirely. Each has its own character. In North Kivu,
in the Congo, the camps can’t be there for very long, because soon
that’s the frontline. And then people are attacked. While I was there a
one year old was raped. Everybody was getting raped. You’ve heard
that it’s the rape capital of the world. And honestly, in one hospital in
Goma, they were doing fistula surgeries around the clock. All of
these little kids, and old people. And there was a level of brutality
that was hard to get my mind around. The women described, not only
were they raped in front of the children, but then with a bayonet. And
then their legs were pounded to a pulp. What is that? They could
never walk again. Their insides were ruined. And these women—I’m
on my knees that they could hold their head up and get through the
day, what they had endured. And the stigmatizing thing of A.) being
raped. B.) being now incontinent from those rapes. And C.) now you
have no wheelchair no legs, you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost
everything. So that is its own horror. And you can’t look at is as being
separate from the Rwandan genocide, because it was a direct
spillover. Nor can you look at it separately from the blood minerals
that are being taken out of there, and that fuel these groups, and that
we make use of. The plundering of those countries, so that’s another
really big issue to look at when you look at Congo. Look at the
cassiterite, the coltan, the stuff that’s coming out of the ground that
gets laundered in Uganda, and sold to the world. Very important that
F a r r o w | 22
we need to know what mine these things are taken from. And
diamonds, of course, and gold, and all of it.
In Central African Republic there weren’t even any camps.
People were just living. The regional director of UNICEF--- one
woman in a car, and me and a driver—and we drove for days and days
and didn’t see a single other car. And I remember, I had called Lydia
Polgreen, who wrote for the New York Times very magnificently
some pieces on the Central African Republic, and I was a big fan of
her writing. And I said I was going there. And she said, if you go to
the northwest, very, very desolate. And if you stop your car, and
people see you have no guns, no machine guns, or anything-- then
maybe they’ll come out because for sure they’re deep in the brush and
then maybe you’ll get to talk to them. And indeed we did just that—
Esther Guluma and I. We waited about half an hour, and then came
two, then ten, then 50, then several hundred people. Like specters
they came, out of the dust. Children dangling in their arms, people
with no clothes, or scarcely any clothes at all, and caked in dust, and
wanting news of what was happening. Just so, so traumatized,
haunted. And they needed pots. And I said what are you drinking, and
they said they were just sucking the swamp water, and the all the
children were getting so sick. And one of the kids there heard
something—I didn’t hear—and people just vanished. You just heard
the sound of bare feet on the hard clay ground and a shudder of
leaves, and there was nobody, nobody to be seen. And now it’s like
Lawrence of Arabia—Esther and I were scanning—we didn’t know
what was coming, what to look for. And it was another car all right—
F a r r o w | 23
and it was two guys from Human Rights Watch, who had come in on
the plane with us, but they were so secretive, they had gone about
their business in a different way, and we just happened to meet on that
roadside. And the people then came back when they saw us talking,
and they were shoving each other, as if saying in effect, “Silly us, it
wasn’t the murderers this time.”
And then Human Rights Watch introduced me to some rebel
groups that were controlling the area, and then went on from there.
But there weren’t any formed camps, and people were afraid to even
live too close to another, to build anything in the forest that resembled
a village because they knew they would be attacked again. So that’s
along the Chad border.
And then along the other border, the Northeast, you had people
being attacked from Sudan, described as Arab, but who knows. And
then up from that, near Chad, was Obo, which was LRA country, and
they attacked villages in Obo, and in one village, all the children were
gone, 300 children had been taken. So it’s a tormented country. I
wondered about Central African Republic because it was in the
neighborhood, but I wasn’t hearing anything about Central African
Republic then when I first went there. Nobody writes about it.
Nobody knows. It’s in effect a black hole. And people say, “Oh, it’s
the forgotten crisis,” but forgotten implies it was once remembered. I
don’t think anything is known. Planes are flying in and out of Central
African Republic on self-made airstrips, with diamonds—and I
photographed a diamond pick-up—bush meat, with Europeans going
to hunt elephants. The land is just being plundered for everything its
F a r r o w | 24
worth. And of course, the victims are the people. And that’s Central
African Republic. Of all the places I’ve been, that is the least
developed, I would say, and the most neglected, and in a way, the
most hopeless for people because there doesn’t seem to be anything
under way to help them. No doctors, nothing like that.
In Uganda, where the LRA had been… Well, actually
Uganda—I couldn’t believe how great it was. Kampala is a great city.
You can live very well in Uganda. And you go where the LRA had
been and people are beginning to be reabsorbed into the communities.
The LRA is gone from Uganda, and people are recovering. And I
didn’t see any level of violence in Uganda. Sudan and Chad I’ve
talked about. The Chadian camps are also for-- Chadians have also
been displaced in Eastern Chad. Again, Arab tribes going through
Eastern Chad, so the camps get attacked, and Chadian villages got
attacked so there’s lots of IDP camps. I think there are fewer now—
people are beginning to want to return home. A little less violence in
Eastern Chad—I don’t know why. That could be temporary, I just
don’t know. But it’s really interesting, if you look at the map and you
see where the capitol is, and you see this borderland, which somebody
drew a line there, but it’s the same tribes on both sides, on the Sudan
side of the border, which would be Darfur, and on the Chadian side of
the border. And some villages literally on both, like Tine, straddles.
It’s both Chadian and Sudanese. There is no border.
VL: In one of our phone conversations you had mentioned traveling to-- I
believe it was somewhere in Central African Republic-- where there
weren’t aid workers because it was deemed too dangerous, but you
F a r r o w | 25
still went there. And I was wondering if you could talk about what
motivates you to continue going to these places?
MF: Well, I mentioned I didn’t know anything about Central African
Republic, and I couldn’t find anyone who did. And I wanted to see
what UNICEF was doing, if anything. And we had nothing going in
Central African Republic, nothing that we could be proud of. I don’t
think the director then—that’s then—had ever left Bangui. And even
the president in Bangui probably has jurisdiction over maybe five city
blocks. There was an Italian organization, COOPI, [Cooperation
Internationale] with some nuns, who were there. And there was a very
small MSF unit, Doctors Without Borders. But after my first trip, and
before my second trip, one of the MSF, a French aid worker, was
killed. So it definitely is dangerous. But by the second trip—I wanted
to go because I wanted to know what the people were enduring there.
What is going on? And if you look at sort of a triangle of human
suffering, you want to know something about what is happening there.
And the more I looked into it, the more I realized that people were
completely neglected. I knew the LRA was there, and I knew it was
mayhem, maybe. But I thought UN aid agencies should be present
there. And since I’m with UNICEF, I thought UNICEF should be
there. So I really pushed and then I finally said, “Well, I’m just going
to go on my own.” And that always gets UNICEF, cause that’s how I
got to Chad. They said, no you can’t go to Eastern Chad, it’s too
dangerous. That was my 2006 trip to Chad, my first one. And I’m
like, “Ok, no problem, I’ll just go.” And they’re like, “What?!” I was
just going to go to Central African Republic and then figure out when
F a r r o w | 26
I got to Bangui how to get somewhere else. And hook up with
COOPI, see if I can go with them. I’ll figure it out. And then the head
of the Regional Directors, the head of all that part of Africa, a
wonderful woman that I mentioned, Esther Guluma, she said, “I’ll go
with you.” And we were appalled that people were being so
cowardly, and that people were living that way. Their teeth were
falling out of their head, because they were just eating leaves and
roots. And drinking swamp water. That we could do better, surely.
So Esther and I went to the UN and we talked about it, and gave
a presentation and called the press, a couple of press meetings. And
we tried to—Esther appointed an excellent head for that country who
was on fire to change things. And they did. And UNICEF had
outposts, the UN built a compound. And by the time I came back for
my second trip, there were twenty-two aid agencies living in a huge
new compound built by Swedish people. So it was very, very
different. You could just bring your toilet paper, and you carry your
gas in your car because there were only five gas stations in all of
Central African Republic, and they wouldn’t be anywhere near where
we were going. So it had changed from that time. And UNICEF
worked with COOPI to build bush schools, asking the people who are
traumatized and still living in the bush, “Where would you like us to
put a school?” And they would say someplace where they could all
reach it, but they were all hiding. And then their kids could go to
school in the bush, and that just meant poles, a tent, and logs for the
kids to sit on. But you needed a teacher. UNICEF had to find
someone who could teach them. And there was a blackboard. And
F a r r o w | 27
kids would come from out in the bush—and not to say that all kids
hiding in the bush had a school—but there were bush schools.
And I did visit also refugee camps because Sudanese—people
from Darfur—would come in. All half-dead by all accounts—their
village had been bombed, and they came. And that was in Sam
Ouandja, where I saw the diamond exchange. In a clear blue sky, this
plane lands, these people come out of the bushes with sacks and
things, there’s a flurry. This little girl steps out in a beautiful,
silvery/blue gown. All the little ragged children are looking at this
plane, looking at this beautiful little girl who’s holding a Caucasian
doll, with this flurry of activity behind her. I run and I get on the plane
and I’m talking to the French pilot like, “You come here often? Who
do you fly for?” And he’s like, “No, no no!” and he gets me off the
plane. The plane was on the ground maybe seven minutes. And then
into the sky it flew. With the nation’s wealth. And I gave the US
Embassy and the president of Central African Republic the
photographs of that plane, with the tail number and everything,
thinking well, if I was Nancy Drew, I’d be able to find out what
country had sent that plane and who was flying out with stuff. But I
had to just leave it with them.
VL: Have you met with any government officials in Sudan, and if so, what
was their reaction to your advocacy efforts?
MF: Well, in Khartoum, believe it or not, they let me in a second time, in
2006, and each time I met with government officials. And of course
[coughs] they’re very charming. The Sudanese people are very, very
F a r r o w | 28
charming. As murderers go, you just wouldn’t find more charming
people. They laughed at all my jokes, and they just couldn’t have
been more hospitable and nice. Nevertheless, they’ll never let me in
again as long as al-Bashir is president. And that’s for sure. But I
knew… I of course burned all my bridges. I couldn’t believe I got in
in 2004—I mean 2006. Cause I was not exactly quiet even then.
There must have been a slip, you know, that I got in. But after that,
you know, I’m probably an enemy of the state. But I go to South
Sudan. I love the people in Juba, and I know them all. Salva Kiir -- I
had dinner with him. I know that government, and they’re wonderful
VL: You once offered to trade places with Suleiman Jamous, who was the
humanitarian coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Army, who was at
the time in need of medical assistance, and unable to seek it for fear
being arrested. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that, and what
motivated you, and what the outcome was?
MF: He was in Kadugli, but he was imprisoned. They had put him in a
facility. It was a UN base or something, and he was not allowed to
leave. And he had been there, I don’t know how many months. A
long, long time. And they would have killed him had he left. And he
was invaluable. I first heard of him in 2004, and then in 2006 when
he was taken. He had been invaluable to UNICEF and to all the aid
organizations in providing access through very difficult terrain to the
populations. So it was just a question of—I mean, I knew the agony of
UNICEF, they felt the loss of this man, and it happened while I was in
Darfur in 2006. And I asked, “Well, who is this man, Suleiman
F a r r o w | 29
Jamous, and they listed all the things he had done for them, and that
night we all said a prayer for him. And there was a little hedgehog that
was picking up crumbs, and we named him Suleiman, and you know,
I just had him in my mind. And then I started hearing more and more
about him, and he was a friend of Julie Flint, who’s a friend of mine,
and a friend of Alex DeWaal, who is also a friend. And then I said to
Julie, Is this a crazy idea? What if I… Because we had already done
everything in our arsenal. My son Ronan had written a piece calling
him the Nelson Mandela of Darfur, basically, and there are few heroes
there, but he is one of them. And Julie said, I don’t think it is stupid.
Alex, what do you think? And Alex said, No, I think it[s a good idea. I
think we should do that.
And we wrote a letter to President al-Bashir. Really, they
constructed the letter, they knew how it should be more than I. And
yes, I offered to exchange my freedom for that of Jamous, because he
was of such value to the NGOs and to the human beings in Darfur. It
it’s a no-brainer, doing that. I suppose they wouldn’t want me there in
Kadugli, but I was willing. I was willing to do the swap. I mean, it
was unlikely that they would take me. But you have to be prepared if
they said yes. I was absolutely going to do it. I was outraged because I
thought that he would surely die.
VL: Did they respond to you?
MF: Mmm-mmm. [shakes head no] But they let him go. I have a picture
if you want to see. I’ll show you later.
F a r r o w | 30
VL: Sure. Sounds good. From some of the photographs from your trips, it
seems that you been able to visit some of the same people over and
over and return to the same places. And I’m curious how you find
them again in these massive camps, and if people seek you out, and
how word gets around of your visits?
MF: Well, the camps-- people are in certain areas of the camps. You know
where to go. And people can’t leave the camps, so it’s very likely that
you’ll find the same ones over and over. They’re not going anywhere,
unfortunately. So they’re easily found. And it’s a great pleasure to go
back and see children growing, and the fact that they’re glad to see me
and I’m so glad to see them. And they say, “Mia, Mia!” and they grab
my hand, and pull me into their shelter, and maybe their mom will
make me tea. And just to share the time—that’s one of the great joys
of seeing the same faces and catching up. Though, you know, at first
I thought how do I dare show my face after they looked at me with
such hope the first time, the second time, that I was going to be able to
change things, that I would be able to tell the leader of my village,
Bush, later president Obama, who would make things write for them.
And they know I’ve tried. Some of them know I’ve written things
about them. And they see me as a returning friend over so many years.
VL: How has the region changed since you first began traveling there?
MF: Well, I can’t get into Darfur as you know anymore, as you know. So
are we taking about Chad, Eastern Chad?
VL: Sure.
F a r r o w | 31
MF: Um, it’s hasn’t. It hasn’t changed at all. People come and go:
EUFOR, MINERCAT, different forces that were supposed to protect
people. And then now there’s nobody there to protect. And I haven’t
been there in a year, so I’ve got to get back. And then I can do more
of an update. But people talk about going home, but they can’t.
Especially since their lands are occupied. They can’t while there’s
this regime. I mean, a huge topic was when the ICC indictment came
down. They love Louis Moreno-Ocampo. Everybody knows the
word Ocampo. And they put a b, Ocambo, they’ve Africanized his
name. There are little babies named Ocambo. And when the
indictment came down, there were just huge celebrations. I wanted to
spend the night in the camps and just celebrate all night with them.
People were dancing and drumming. The first New York Times
announcement, was Neil MacFarquhar, just jumped the gun about a
week and announced that he was indicted. And people just went
crazy. And oops, it hasn’t actually happened yet, but everybody knew
that it would and then days later. So it was just a huge, felicitous
occasion in the camps. The people listen to the radio now. They’ll
listen to the BBC, they’ll listen to al-Jazeera. The BBC is their main
source of news. They really thought when the indictment happened
that somebody would come and arrest him. And he would be in the
docks, and they’d be free to go home. They didn’t really understand
that the ICC had no power to seize him.
VL: So they were listening to radio and getting news that way in the
camps. Is there electricity?
F a r r o w | 32
MF: No, there’s batteries. And then in the market place, there might be
some electricity. But no, it’s just radio. Have I seen electricity in the
camps? No I’ve never seen electricity.
VL: You’ve already talked a little bit about the Darfur Archives project,
where you’ve been filming traditions and gathering stories and trying
to preserve the cultural heritage. But could you maybe talk a little
more about what inspired that project?
MF: That project came out of my sense that everything is lost. That people
are not going to do anything to save the people, or return them to their
homeland safely. And that they could never reclaim what was taken—
their losses are too numerous to count and reclaim. And I felt such a
sense of sorrow that people so fine should have been treated like this.
It just broke my heart. And then I thought, of all that they are, I think
the life expectancy is somewhere between 37 and 42 in the camps.
And I thought about how much was being lost. And the little ones,
under five, they’re the first to die. But I thought about the older
ones—and everyone over 30 is old. But I thought, before they die,
well, who’s doing this. Even the practical stuff, the agricultural
methods. What about all that stuff? If they could get back, whose
teaching the kids how to farm what looks like sand to me, but people
have farmed that land for centuries. And then I thought all of it, when
I realized how much of their traditional life was tied to actually living
it. Planting and harvesting and visiting neighboring villages and
raising the roof. We still don’t have raising the roof, because nobody
had a roof. And making the shoes—we didn’t have the leather or the
wood. So we just have the cardboard. We got cardboard to show how
F a r r o w | 33
they make it. They have a different shoe in the rainy season from the
dry season. And all these things that no one will ever know. Soon no
one will ever know, and the sand will blow over all of it and all of it
will be lost. And maybe some children will be alive and they’ll care.
Who were we before we were refugees, they’ll probably ask. Or will
they be just working in some Chinese hotel like busboys and maids
without knowing what a proud people they are, their heritage.
So I asked around, “Is anybody doing this?” And when I found
out that no one was doing it, I tried to get people to do it. And then
everyone said, well, we don’t have the money, all of that. And this
guy Sean O’Fahey, who is wonderful, from back in the 60s, he didn’t
have any money but he said he didn’t have any money but he’d often
thought, what a wonderful idea. And it should be done. And Jerome
Tubiana, said, “Oh it will cost. We’ll need $150,000 to begin with.”
And I said, Oh, we’re never going to get that. But maybe if we could
get $15,000, that would be enough, the way I see it. I’m not seeing
this in the grand scheme as these other people. I just thought, we just
go there, and we do the best we can. And then if somebody can do it
better, they should go and do it better. But in the mean time, we can
do this. And it was just shocking to me that I should be the one doing
this. There’s so many better people with nothing to do that could have.
Universities and so forth. Why am I doing this? It is the great honor
of my life, I have to say. It’s been the great joy of my life, when the
people, these refugees would get together and in that moment, forget
al that had happened to them, and all they lost, and in that moment,
F a r r o w | 34
that, “Thank you for reminding us to remember. We forgot to
remember!” And it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
So, you know, I still hope somebody will do it. Where is
National Geographic? Where is the UN thing with culture for
threatened people? I called those people in London, SOAS, and
they’re like, we’re very interested in the language part of it, maybe
you could come for a course? And I’m like, I can’t go and do any of
these things! But you know, I’ll just go and do it. If we wait around
for everybody to do all that stuff, everybody will be dead. Including
me. And all the people that we’re talking about. So I just forged
ahead. Bought the camera. Figured out how to use it. Bought the
sounds equipment. Persuaded David Buchbinder from Human Rights
Watch—bless him. Not many people you can bring into that area,
because you don’t want them to get dead on you or scared or
anything. You’ve got to bring someone who’s got their ear to the
ground and who’s a little savvy. Most people say, “Oh, I’d love to
come,” and you’d think you’d love to come, but then you’re there and
you might have somebody crying or freaking out, or running away, or
not dealing with it as it needs to be dealt with. So you have to take
somebody that’s really hard core. And David Buchbinder is that.
Because that’s where I met him, in Chad. He was the Chad Human
Rights Watch guy.
VL: There are others who have been engaged in activism on Darfur and
Sudan, including other actors, people like George Clooney, and I’m
just curious if you’ve worked with anyone else or if you’ve forged
your own path?
F a r r o w | 35
MF: The latter. Forged my own path. And you know, I didn’t… At the
time when I first started my advocacy, there was Save Darfur
coalition, but it didn’t seem that they were much in the way of
advocacy. And I was then seeing China—that window of opportunity
and they just didn’t see it. They thought it was a tertiary connection,
they didn’t see it as an area to push. And I just found them to be
lagging. Well-intended, but bloated in a certain way. Lagging in that
cutting edge. I don’t know. There were too many of them, I don’t
know, too careful, they had too much money, they weren’t on top of
the game, not as advocates. I don’t know. They took out some good
ads, but I didn’t see them as being very useful.
But the people I connected with… nothing wrong with the
Save Darfur people. STAND people were better. Young people were
sharper, more ready. They got the China thing. They were much more
on the ball. And that was how I met John Prendergast, Samantha
Power, you know, some really excellent people along the way. I did
go there with Ruth Messinger on one trip, when we had Dream for
Darfur. That was all about just that 8 months—the run up to the
Olympic games. And then during the Olympic games, we were
broadcasting from the camps and sending out video blogs and what
not. And then the window closed. But I think it accomplished what
we set out for it to do. We didn’t really expect that China was going
to publicly say, “Oops! We better change our policy!” But we knew
that behind closed doors there were conversations. An envoy was
appointed all of a sudden. We – I had lots of meetings with the
Chinese ambassadors and so forth. And one of them said to me, “Mia,
F a r r o w | 36
you don’t talk about the good things we’re doing. We put a well in, in
Darfur.” And I’m like, “You know, in our country when our car
breaks down, we take it to the repair store. We don’t talk about
what’s right with our car, we talk about what’s wrong with our car!
We’re talking about what’s wrong here in Darfur, and where you’re
feeding into that. Thank you for the well, that’s grand. But what can
you do about stopping the bombardment, the janjaweed attacks, the
flux of arms. You’ve got much more muscle than the US. Yes, yes,
but look at the US in Iraq. And I’m like, “You won’t get any
argument from me about Iraq; let’s not even waste our time. Let’s
talk about Darfur and what you can do.” And we— Jill Savitt and I—
we went to all of these corporations that were hosting-- what do you
call that, they were putting all this money into the Olympic games, it
was everybody from Microsoft to Nike, to General Electric…
VL: Sponsors.
MF: Sponsors, yeah. And we were asking them, and we started giving
them a report card. It’s odd what you end up doing—I had no desire
to meet—I never thought I’d be meeting with big corporations and
handing out report cards… It was a little too showy for my taste. I like
writing the op-eds. But I realize it was about spectacle, at that point,
just to try to shame China for a moment. Let’s see the incongruity of
hosting the Olympic Games at home while underwriting genocide in
Sudan. And rendering toothless every single UN attempt at resolution
to provide adequate protection for Darfur’s people. Truly that was
China on the Security Council.
F a r r o w | 37
VL: So you were in the camps in Chad during the Olympics live-blogging.
Did people in the camps know about the Olympics and know about
the efforts that were going on surrounding that?
MF: They did. Yes, because now they all listen to the BBC. And in certain
camps especially, they know now me. That was a Zaghawa camp,
that was Oure Cassoni we were in. They love Sulemon Jamous, and
they loved that I had offered to exchange my freedom for his. So in
certain rebel territory, I can always move, I think. Sulemon, my
Sulemon. But they knew what we were trying to do, you know?
They couldn’t watch the Olympic games. But you know, the NGOs
were watching the Olympic games in the compound. And that’s what
I kept saying over and over. You’re with people who would have
loved to never mind attend the games, participate in them in any way,
but they can’t because they were stuck here. So I thought it was
appropriate to give them a voice during that time.
VL: So, um [clears throat] Excuse me.
MF: Let me just rephrase that. It’s not appropriate to give them a voice.
People always say giving them voice. They have a voice. And it’s
loud and clear. But it’s about giving their voice amplification, letting
their voice be heard. If ever I have a role at all, it isn’t the giving a
voice—they have a wonderful voice, and it’s over and over the same
thing—We need protection. So it’s about amplifying that and making
sure that the voice carries to the right ears to the extent that I can help.
VL: How have your friends and family responded to your advocacy?
F a r r o w | 38
MF: Well, I don’t really know. I think that—I don’t know. It’s hard to
read what they think. I have a daughter-in-law who’s really on board
with me. Some of my kids have worried about me on those journeys
and said so. But the way I feel about that is that I’ve set their life up.
I don’t have any little babies anymore. They’re all launched. And
that if anything happened to me at this point—you could be anywhere.
Maybe you’re one mammogram away from maybe a diagnosis that
you don’t like anyway. So there’s no guarantees, anyway. So with
that backdrop, I choose to do something that yes, could be dangerous.
But what I’m hoping I would leave my kids would be so much more
important than my actual presence, even at this point in life. What
can you leave your kids that could be better than to say to them that
there are some things worth living for, and even worth dying for?
And if you don’t hold that to be true, then I think you’re diminished in
some way. You’re not fully alive and responsive to your human
predicament. Hopefully we’re not going to be called upon as Miep
Gies was, to shelter the Anne Frank family. She was pregnant for
some of that time, seven or eight people in that attic. She did that. So
you have to use that as the measuring stick. The Raoul Wallenbergs,
the Schindlers, and the Miep Gieses. And on a small scale, if I go to
Darfur or Eastern Chad or dangerous places, it’s because I’m not
sight-seeing but I can bring back the messages. And yes, I maybe get
it in the Wall Street Journal, and get the photographs around the
world, and I’m hoping an exhibition in New York. And it’s about
amplifying the voices and using everything in my arsenal to do that,
and keeping UNICEF alive in those places as best I can as well. I
mean, I take those things seriously. So I don’t mean to be dramatic
F a r r o w | 39
about it, but if I was gone, my useful purpose as a mother might even
be more useful to say, whether I die or not while doing this, that you
need to be able to put your life where your words are. It’s that
important. Some things are that important. And millions of people
suffering is that important. And hundreds of thousands of people
perishing is that important. And even fewer people perishing is that
important in my book. So, you know, that’s just the way I feel.
VL: Are there any stories that particularly stand out in your mind from
your travels that you’d like to share? [dog barking]
MF: Which countries? I’ve got a million stories. I think the story of the
Unda who lead his people. [background, “Hi Mom”] Hi Quincy! I
don’t even know how to choose. We’d have to pick a person. I think
I told you Halima’s story, which is the story of so many, and to tell
you that man leading his people, and the agony of leaving people
behind. That’s something that everybody shares in all the camps.
Everybody in the camps has seen their village on fire. Everybody in
the camps has lost family members in the worst possible way. So
many women, I don’t even know the percentage, have been raped.
And when I say women, I mean, one friend of mine said in his
estimation—he works with an NGO in one of the camps in Darfur—
100% of females over the age of eight have been raped. And no one’s
even talking about that. So, I think the individual stories, they’re all
in the notes. We’d have to look at who and what. But I think too-most cases when I talk to kids and I say what do you hope to be? And
in most of the situations they want to be a doctor. Because they want
to help. And they know the value, if they’re in a situation where there
F a r r o w | 40
has been a doctor, that that doctor is next to god, the most important
thing imaginable, that it can help the people who need it most. The
amount of people that want to be doctors is extraordinary. Though I
have seen groups of people in Central African Republic, which is the
only place where I asked the children what do you want to be, and
they just stared at me. They didn’t even—they wanted just to wake up
the next day. They had not thought about being an adult. They hadn’t
considered that. And that’s the saddest I think of all. At least in the
refugee camps they’ll see planes—they could be a pilot. They see
NGOs, they see people working, they see cars. Now I’ve got it on my
archives, she didn’t believe that there were cars when she grew up in
Darfur. But she said, that someone said there was an iron animal that
could outrun the fastest man in her village. And she said, “It’s not
possible.” And she said she forgot about it. And several years later,
the most horrifying noise ever was coming near the village, and
everybody ran and hid. And this thing, this creature, iron animal,
came, and a human being got out of it, and the human being went and
the human being gave it some water. So the bravest men in the village
went and they approached it with some grass and tried to make peace
with it. And she said that was the first encounter they had with an
automobile. And that’s in the archives going back. And then she said
someone told her there were iron birds that could fly. And she made
her husband take her to Nyala, which is the capital, and they waited
for four months and then a plane came out of the sky, and people got
out of it, and she said, “Now I think anything can happen.” [laughs] I
didn’t want to tell her about the moon and everything. And rocket
ships. [laughs] I just didn’t even go there.
F a r r o w | 41
VL: What do you view as your greatest success from your advocacy
MF: I don’t see any success. I don’t see any. Personal success? None at
all. None at all. The only thing is—if anything could be said about
me—is that I keep trying. You know? But I don’t see anything
successful at all. It’s not about that. It’s really for me a personal level
that I couldn’t do otherwise. It would be lovely to say, well, because
there’s so much writing and advocacy and so forth, people are better
off in some way. The conflict in Darfur is abated. That’s no so. It’s
worse. It’s worse right now than it was in 2006. The bombing
continues in Darfur today, and as we now know, the borderline
between the north and south has become the new inferno. So no, I
don’t see anybody being successful at all. Except the worst people. If
their terms of success is body count, territory claim, whatever
damage. They’re the successful ones.
VL: What would you like to see happen?
MF: You mean for Darfur? I would like to see peace for Darfur, and
protection for people, so that people could return home and there
could be some sort of just compensation for their land. And a
government that would represent them fairly. And that lowest rung of
the economic ladder extended so that they could grasp it and begin the
climb out. It’s really protection and peace. First protection, and
without protection there can’t be anything. Kids can’t go to school.
People can’t ever move from fear into any kind of imagining. So
people are stuck in terror. Somewhere between boredom and despair
F a r r o w | 42
and terror in the camps. And in the villages, those that are left—well
90% are ashes, right? So those that are left, it’s all about fear. And
for the people who are running, if there’s a god, where is she? And
may god help them tonight. Because I know them. I’ve been with
them. And I know that level of fear. We don’t see that around here.
There’s a picture I have of children running away from a village on
fire. Children just screaming. And I just turned around and thought, I
have to take the picture. Because no one will believe this. And you
don’t see that kind of terror in McDonalds. And you know, if I could
lift the fear and reasons for fear, then what we’re talking about are
extraordinarily resilient people. They would grow their fields again.
They’d be free to become whatever they want to become. I gotta say,
the people from Darfur—even the Chadians go to the refugee camps
for the marketplace. It’s better than the Chadian marketplace. The
people are really, really resourceful. So, given half a chance, a little
peace, some protection. That’s what I would wish. I would wish of
course, while we’re wishing, while we’re dreaming, Omar al-Bashir to
be in jail. And a just government is what the people deserve. That’s a
no-brainer. And then in the global thing—well we all wish, you’re at
the Dodd Center—we wish for people to be brought up around the
world, thinking how to find peaceful resolutions to all conflicts. And
that begins at home. I should know, I have 14 children. Don’t leave
the table without a peaceful resolution to conflict, whatever it is. I
have seven sons, you know, and it’s really important that they grow
up to be seven gentle men, who are resourceful enough to find the
intellectual solution, rather than any kind of brutality ever. And it’s
got to begin—perhaps now is the time. Of course it is. Because now
F a r r o w | 43
we have all the social media, and we can get word out. All across
Africa. There was a gathering put together by UNICEF in Uganda, in
Kampala, and there were young people from 42 different countries,
representing-- two from every country. And all wanting the same
thing. They all want education. They all want representation in a just
government. Those two things. And economic opportunity. Across
the board. I think we can say that across the world. So we should
work with what we have in common. And if those things are there for
everybody, and if we could work together on that-- I sound very
1960s, but now is the moment.
VL: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked
MF: [Turning to Kerry Bystrom] What do you think?
KERRY BYSTROM: Can I ask a question?
VL: Please.
KB: Just to follow up, you were speaking about what you were hoping for
for Darfur, but I was hoping you could say a little bit about the
specific projects you’re doing now for South Sudan. I mean, it’s
obviously connected to Darfur, but if you could talk about your work
there specifically?
MF: Right. Well, as South Sudan explodes—the minute you’re gone, I’ve
already gotten an email from John Prendergast, “Did I want to write
an op-ed, or have I already written one?” Of course I want to write an
op-ed. And hopefully by the time the sun sets, we will have one and
F a r r o w | 44
we’ll submit it. And he has ideas, and as soon as you go, you know,
that’s what I’m going to be working on. And I really think it’s that—
it’s that we write, and that we speak out whenever we can, and these
seem ineffectual things. But if everybody keeps at it—and you don’t
have to be a celebrity to write—most op-eds in most of the
newspapers are written by just—they’re academics or people who
have… Honestly, if you found a new way to cut a poodle, you could
get that more easily in the New York Times than a piece on Darfur. I
see that. I’ve never had a piece printed in the New York Times. They
won’t print me. But then again, we have the wonderful Nicholas
Kristof, one of our great crusaders, writing for the New York Times.
But for South Sudan, I mean, I don’t know if I should go to Juba for
the celebrations of this brand new country. It was naïve to suppose
that Omar al-Bashir would really allow the south to secede peacefully.
All the south can go, except for the oil. The oil territory, that midland
territory, and that I don’t believe he’s going to let go at all. And if I
could right now, and I don’t know if it would do any good to go there,
but if we could get a tv crew to go there and be there, just be there,
and make the world look at what’s happening to people there. That’s
where George Clooney comes in. He can actually get people, a whole
tv crew to go there. And he has been absolutely great. And I don’t
know another celebrity who has done so much for Sudan as he has.
Using everything that he can use. But honestly, I don’t know what to
do about South Sudan. You, I mean, it’s not like I can do a whole lot
except write, and scream bloody murder, right. Did you have a
F a r r o w | 45
VL: That’s the end of the formal questions I had. So if there’s nothing else
you’d like to add, I think we’re all set.
MF: Yeah, I guess so. I can’t think of anything.
VL: Actually, if you wouldn’t mind, I had a bit of an off-topic question. I
know that you’ve practiced yoga and meditation, and I was wondering
if any of that influenced the work that you’ve done. I know that
you’ve participated in a hunger fast, and I was wondering if
meditation or something might have helped you through that?
MF: No. I think my mind is too bouncy to be an effective meditator. And
the harder I try—of course it’s the wrong—you’re not supposed to be
trying hard! [laughter] My sister Prudence is the great meditator, and
while we’re off-topic, the Beatles wrote the song Dear Prudence for
her. She’s the all time meditator, and my son-- she taught Ronan how
to meditate, and it is a very useful device. But I have found it’s really
made it hard for me, what I’ve seen, to absorb it all. And you can’t in
a context say it was really hard for me, given how hard it for the
people to whom this is happening. But even just to have been there
this long, and taken people so closely the way I have, and seeing as
much, and hearing as much, just even on my level. I can’t read
anymore. If I had to tell you about my whole life, I would tell you
what book I was reading during everything, every event in my life.
And now I can’t read. So no, the meditating. No, I just can’t do it.
The hunger thing was hard for me because there was the
boredom, apart from the hunger. I didn’t let myself come down from
the top floor where you were. So there would be no food. And I tried
F a r r o w | 46
to drink just as much water as I possibly could. And that was it. And
that was just determination. That came out of anger. Which is the
opposite of what you’re trying to do when you’re meditating. And I
think patience is not at all useful. So I think meditation would help
you to be patient and complacent. And I think in order to get anything
done you have to be outraged and impatient. So I think it would run
counter to being effective. My sense of distress and outrage are
galvanizing things for me. I don’t know that I can get rid of them
anyway. But when I try to meditate, I have a very hard time doing it. I
probably have ADHD.
VL: How do you take care of yourself when you’re constantly working on
such difficult topics?
MF: I don’t do anything. I try to remember to bring a vitamin pill when I
travel, because that really helps. Cause if you’re just going to eat, or
not, or eat junk, or if you’re having sorghum and nothing else for
many, many days. I try to bring fish oil, so that you get something like
that, and a multiple-vitamin. And sometimes I forget to use it, or the
fish oil melts anyway, but you try to use it for a time because you
want to keep healthy. And the last thing I want to be a burden on
anybody and get sick. And touch wood, I’ve never been sick while
I’m in the field. And I think that’s because I just won’t eat the goat.
KB: I’ve thought of one question, which is probably something you get a
lot. But in case I ever get to use this material with my students, I’m
wondering what you would say to students who are interested in
F a r r o w | 47
Darfur and South Sudan. What do you think is the most useful thing
that students can do?
MF: One thing everybody can do right now is call 1-800-GENOCIDE.
This is a number that we set up—Genocide Intervention Network,
which I am a representative of—and that will put you through to your- We in a democracy have a voice, fortunately, and with it, a
responsibility to use that voice. So I would say to all the students who
are listening, call 1-800-GENOCIDE. First get plugged into your
state senators, your Congressperson, and the White House itself. And
for free-- you dial this 1-800 number, and it will put you right
through, you just put your zip code in. And you don’t have to be an
expert. You can just say, “I don’t like that genocide is happening on
our watch. I’m finding it really hard to watch genocide unfolding in
Darfur, and now in South Sudan. And the words that are coming out
from our government are way too meek. And people need protecting.”
And then I think we need to work—and it really belongs to the young
to create a world that is more equitable and less turbulent. And it’s got
to be something better than the United Nations, where these people
come to serve themselves. They need to go spine shopping. They
come there, they come to the table to serve their own interests, rather
than for the people who are the most challenged people, the most
abandoned people. It’s become some sort of economic place. And I’d
love to see it go back to the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, go back to
the human rights documents, and hold those dear, otherwise there
won’t be a planet. Cause our weaponry has so exceeded our wisdom.
So there’s lots of reasons for students to be galvanized. Not everybody
F a r r o w | 48
– I mean it is a great privilege that I got to go to these places. And the
reason I am so extreme in every way is because of those journeys.
And that was because I was a celebrity. Though knowing me, I might
have gotten there anyway, maybe in an NGO. I might have been a
doctor. I wanted to be a pediatrician and work in Africa. So maybe I
would have been there anyway. Who knows, a path not trodden. But
the fact that I have a great privilege as a celebrity, I got to go with
UNICEF. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s got to go to Africa. But
it does mean that we can all do something. Not only about Darfur, but
the issues where people are in peril. Sudan. Congo. Everybody can do
something about Congo. Use that 1-800-GENOCIDE number. And
also, you can look at my website on what we can do.
[http://www.miafarrow.org] You can see the corporations that are
using cassiterite, coltan, and so forth. Everybody can call them. And
we want you to get your materials that I’m using in my cell phone
from a mine that is designated to be not run by rebels, and not fueling
atrocities against civilians. That we can all do. There’s stuff we can all
do as citizens.
And as for people who are thinking about doing more—I think
those people will find their way. The more they know about things,
they will either find themselves drawn to America’s inner cities, or to
Khartoum. You will find them there. And I don’t think there’s
anything I can say that’s going to change somebody’s course, all
though you never know. But I would say keep an open mind. Because
you can do lots of things in your life. You can be a pharmacist here, or
you can be a farmer here. You can be anything here, but you can also
F a r r o w | 49
be something else, and do something else in other places. And you see
people doing extraordinary things. And I say keep your mind open, be
courageous, and push the envelope. And somehow the money will
come, if it has to do with money. And if you don’t have any money,
get behind somebody that has the money and is doing something you
respect. And help them do it. And then you’ll find, hopefully when
you lay down to die, that you’ll say, “I did my best.” I think the
saddest thing in the world is the person who did nothing because they
could only do just a little so they said, “Oh I couldn’t do much, so I
didn’t do anything at all.” And you don’t want to be that person, so
you can jump in there and do things. And I think it’s a great time to be
young, because you do have all these tools to reach out. And the
information is there. You don’t have to go to a library or a bookstore,
you can have the information as it’s unfolding and you can get as
involved as you want to, right in cyberspace. So I think it’s a great
time to be young. It’s a great time to try to be an advocate. People can
be really, really powerful. Look at young people—we’ve seen
governments topple. Time to topple another couple of governments,
right? I’m hoping the people of Sudan will rise up and topple this one.
But it has to be successful though. Otherwise they’ll lose their heads
VL: Well, great, thank you so much.
MF: Thank you.