The six-hour drive from Abeche, in the middle of Chad, to Chad’s eastern border with Darfur is a "treacherous" one, says Rabbi Lee Bycel, who has made the trip three times in a caravan of all-terrain vehicles.
"You’re driving through the sub-Saharan desert," an area with no roads, but huge rocks, deep crevices and, at points, parts that are flooded out. The heat is intense, and the only things breaking up the monotony are small tribal villages and the occasional nomads, wandering through the desert with herds of sheep or cattle. Bandits are always a possibility.
But if all goes according to plan, Rabbi Bycel, a resident of Los Angeles, should be making that trip a third time on Friday: a ride that he says "shakes me to the core." He has done so each time to stay at a compound run by the International Medical Corps, a global-relief agency based in Los Angeles, and to spend Yom Kippur or Sukkot with some of the 40,000 Darfurian refugees aided by the compound.
The rabbi, a senior adviser to IMC, draws a parallel between the six-hour drive and the Day of Atonement, he said in a phone interview this week before leaving for Africa. The ride is "really just a physical manifestation of Yom Kippur," a sacred day that he believes ought to shake "our emotional, social and spiritual core so we can atone, empathize and move forward."
Beyond that, simply being with the refugees and the IMC staff (doctors and nurses who have made the commitment to living and working in harsh, Spartan conditions) "is the most profound way to spend Yom Kippur I can imagine," said Rabbi Bycel, 57. "It reminds me of the sanctity of life, of how extraordinary and dignified people can be in the worst of circumstances, and of how brutal people can be."
In each of the past two years, the rabbi, a former dean at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has spent the beginning of Yom Kippur in his nearly bare room at the IMC compound in Guereda, where he lights candles and discusses the holiday’s meaning to a small gathering of agency workers. He spends the day of Yom Kippur at one of the area’s three refugee camps, where he plays with children and tries to buoy the mood of staff members, letting them know that people elsewhere in the world care about the crisis.
Rabbi Bycel hopes to do the same beginning this Sunday, the eve of Yom Kippur 2006, but he may be unable even to enter eastern Chad, given the area’s tenuous security situation this year. It’s something he won’t learn until he arrives in Africa in midweek, when IMC’s global security manager evaluates the relative risk of such a trip.
What is clear, however, is that the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, which has already claimed as many as 400,000 lives and displaced an estimated 2.5 million civilians, has worsened in recent months, with no force in place capable of protecting the people of Darfur, a region of the western Sudan. Meanwhile, the conflict has spilled over into neighboring Chad, to which many of the refugees have fled, and hunger and disease are killing ever greater numbers of the displaced.
The rabbi has a backup plan in case he can’t reach eastern Chad: to spend Yom Kippur in Ethiopia’s Gondar region, where about 20,000 Jews still live, he said. Following about a week in Chad or Ethiopia, he plans to travel to one of the world’s worst slums, near the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where IMC operates an HIV/AIDS program. Rabbi Bycel will lead a small group of IMC supporters in Kenya, just as he has in Darfur and Chad.
The rabbi sees one of his most important tasks as simply "bearing witness" to the tragedy, which many have called genocide, and conveying what he has seen to other Americans. He also hopes that other Jews will reflect this season on the tragedy in Darfur and Chad and on what they can do to end the suffering.
"When I look at the liturgy [of the High Holidays], it’s all about how we live and what kind of world we live in," he said. "We look at ourselves, we look at the Jewish community, and we look at the whole of humanity."
For more information about IMC, visit www.imcworldwide.org.