While his parents and siblings were unwrapping Christmas presents halfway across the world, sophomore Jason Mojica woke up to the cry of gunshots ringing out across Ab?ch?, Chad.
Minutes later, members of the Sudanese Liberation Movement rebel group, armed with 50-caliber machine guns, arrived at his ramshackle motel room in a pick-up truck caked in mud to safely transport Mojica and his friends to the group’s compound.
Mojica, a 32-year-old student who spent his time between high school and college doing a variety of things from opening a cafe to starting a video store to working as a graphic designer, would normally spend his winter break in the bustling suburbs of Chicago. Instead, he chose to travel to the border between Chad and the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan to film “Christmas in Darfur,” a documentary examining the lives of humanitarian aid workers in the refugee camps of Sudanese fleeing genocide and violence.
The Darfur conflict, which started
in 2003, consists of civil strife between rebels and the Sudanese government-backed Arab militias known as the janjaweed. Both sides have committed atrocities and the fighting, where hundreds of thousands have been killed and a couple million displaced, is spreading across the border into Chad.
Two weeks before arriving, Ab?ch? – the fourth largest city in Chad – was captured by Chadian rebels who looted the World Food Program headquarters and stole United Nations vehicles there to help those suffering from civil war in the country. It would be this precarious city – brimming with humanitarian aid agencies, refugees and warring rebel factions – that would serve as the focal point of Mojica’s documentary.
Anticipating his departure to Africa, Mojica said he watched the violence in Ab?ch? unfold on Al-Jazeera and questioned his rationale for going to the region.
“I sat there watching this image, thinking ‘Dear god, what am I getting myself into?'” he said. “We wanted to do good, but we didn’t want to go on a suicide mission. But, the same reasons we were afraid to go were the same reasons that it was important for us to go. We just decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.”
But getting there was no easy task. Mojica and his partners, Jim Milak, 32, studying at the University of Maryland, and G. Ryan Faith, 32, a space policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, realized their project would be costly. The trio, who originally met in the early ’90s urban punk scene of Chicago, founded a non-profit organization, which they called the 77 International Foundation, to raise the necessary funds for this documentary and similar projects.
“This project would be the first like it to understand world affairs transmitted through popular culture, to communicate to the people of our generation, to express world affairs in a way that they might actually bother to pay attention to,” Mojica said.
Eventually, the group raised $20,000 through fundraisers in St. Louis, Chicago and Washington and from online contributions. Armed with a few first-aid kits, bulletproof vests and film equipment, Mojica stifled his trepidation and left behind the comfort of Christmas with his family for the danger and desolation of Darfur’s border.
The group would suffer one last setback before leaving, however. Only two weeks before their departure, Mojica’s two cameramen pulled out of the project. The three remaining crew members spent the 15-hour plane ride perusing camera and sound manuals to fill in for them.
After a few days of interviewing aid workers and refugees on the ground, however, the crew found that despite their initial reservations, people were trying to accomplish positive ends in the midst of a dark and prolonged conflict.
“We got there and saw a place that was vibrant, full of life and people trying to find normalcy in their day to day lives,” Mojica said. “People were just making do with a bad situation. What was most impressive was realizing the ability of people to get on with their lives; most of the people in that camp had been there for two years.”
Inside the compounds of non-governmental agencies like the International Medical Corps, Mojica found a variety of people from all corners of the world, each with different reasons for giving up their Christmas to help the people of Sudan. But despite their profound differences, he found one very strong commonality among all of them.
“What they had in common was a passion and a desire to be personally involved in making something better” Mojica said.
It was in the midst of his daily two-hour rides in guarded convoys through arid and sporadically combative rebel territory that Mojica began to fully comprehend the complexity of the violence which he said the Western media had reduced to clips and sound-bites.
He said he thought that the story was much deeper than the one being told about the genocide, that there were actually multiple intersecting stories at play about rebel groups in both Chad and Sudan, each with their own demands, each making the story of this war-torn region even more intricate.
And of the Sudanese Liberation Movement, the rebel group whose leaders transported Mojica and his crew to their compound, he found a group of people with life experiences just as varied as the aid workers he had met. Doctors, lawyers, teachers – people he never would have expected – had either given up or were forced out of their old lives, and were now cloaked the garb of a Sudanese rebel.
“They were some of the most media-savvy people; you could not get them off-message to save their life,” said Mojica, comparing the rebels to some of the most apt U.S. politicians.
Mojica, a self-identified member of the 9-11 generation, however, is far from an idealist. For him, this documentary was about trying to understand what three 32 year olds from Chicago could do – if anything – to stop an atrocity. He knows that he won’t change the world by himself, but that won’t prevent him from trying.
“None of us are superheroes who can fix this or solve all of the world’s problems, but it’s an additive effect that we’re going for,” Mojica said. “For years, people have said ‘never again,’ and what I have learned from watching Rwanda and Darfur is that what we have really meant is ‘never again, in my backyard – never again, as long as it involves our national interest.'”