When Mark McCarthy thinks of Darfur in western Sudan, he pictures more than the barren, desert images that have become fixed in the public mind since an internal war on civilians began there in 2003. He also sees mountains, green riverbeds and a landscape touched by beauty.
"Of course, when people are on the run, they are not in those beautiful places," adds McCarthy, who earned a master's degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1996 and now works for the United Nations' Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) in Darfur.
For the past five months, the 35-year-old, self-described "computer geek" has been working to fill information gaps relief workers face in helping the estimated 2 million people who've been displaced and brutalized by government-backed Janjaweed militias in Sudan. (Another 200,000 have been killed.) Mostly, that's meant mapping areas of the country where refugees are massing so that groups like The Red Cross, The Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders can get aid to where it's needed most.
In the early stages of a humanitarian crisis, McCarthy says the notion that information is power becomes a living, breathing reality. "Information is part of everything we do," he says. "In Darfur, there's been no significant mapping at all. There are an extraordinary number of people who've been displaced and we help find them. The non-governmental organizations need maps just to get around some of these refugee camps. As the emergency goes through different phases, the information needs change."
McCarthy is not new to working in politically charged situations. Before taking on his current job, he was an information technology consultant for the U.N. Population Fund in Rwanda. His wife works for the U.N.'s World Food Program in Khartoum. Still, he gently deflects questions about the rebellion in Sudan. Nor is he eager to discuss why the U.N. stopped short of defining killings of African civilians in Darfur by mostly Arab militias as genocide.
The most he'll say is that the crisis in western Sudan is "a consequence of how the government has responded to the rebellion." Instead of politics, McCarthy and his colleagues at HIC stay focused on their mission to connect aid workers with refugees so that further suffering can be avoided.
His background includes a stint with ibiblio, the online public library and archive founded by UNC and the Center for the Public Domain (www.ibiblio.org). So a speech last week at UNC was part homecoming. "It's funny what you miss," he says. "I was never a big fast food person but I really wanted to go to McDonald's."
In recent months, the tsunami in Asia has become the most popular destination for humanitarian donations and attention--which has meant less for Africa. When asked what people should be doing about the situation in Darfur, McCarthy stresses information. "People need to stay informed and keep up the concern," he says. "Keep this on the agenda."
For help in doing so, a panel discussion on Darfur will be held March 9 at Duke's Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. For details, contact Imam Abdul-hafeez Waheed, 225-1729. For more information on the United Nations' HIC, visit www.humanitarianinfo.org/darfur.