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A stomach-turning Olympic dinner with Mia Farrow

CHICAGO – My dinner with Mia Farrow Monday night was interrupted by passion, politics and a sizable helping of anger and despair.

Mia Farrow, right, is chairing a campaign called "Dream for Darfur."
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Mia Farrow, right, is chairing a campaign called “Dream for Darfur.”

CHICAGO – My dinner with Mia Farrow Monday night was interrupted by passion, politics and a sizable helping of anger and despair. Photos of mutilated women, malnourished children and scorched-earth villages scrubbed away the flavors of the fancy chicken and twice-baked potatoes at Chicago’s posh University Club.

Farrow is chairing the campaign called “Dream for Darfur,” which has placed the Chinese government and corporate sponsors of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in its sights and pushed both to a surprisingly vulnerable spot. Farrow’s dinner for a select group of U.S. Olympics journalists — MinnPost was the only Twin Cities news organization invited — was somewhat of an ambush. This week, the U.S. Olympic Committee is conducting its pre-Beijing Media Summit across the street at the Palmer House Hilton.

Joining Farrow — a person who wears her feelings and indignance on her sleeve — was a firebrand of a human rights activist named Jill Savitt, in whose way you do not want to get, whether you’re a frumpy sports writer from St. Paul or the prime minister of China. The New York Times detailed the Dream for Darfur effort a few weeks back.

Monday night, Farrow, 63, emotionally and theatrically connected the dots between the genocide in Darfur — the ravaged region of Sudan near the Chad border — and China, which will play host to the Summer Games, beginning Aug. 8. Neither Farrow, nor Savitt, is asking athletes or nations to boycott the Olympics. But Dream for Darfur is asking athletes to understand the horrors of the situation in Africa and is now asking the world’s leaders to “reject Opening Ceremonies” on Aug. 8 until United Nations’ resolution 1769 is observed.

That calls on the U.N. to deploy 26,000 peacekeepers to end the killing of men, raping of women and orphaning of children by the Janjaweed militias backed by the Khartoum government.

China is indisputably Sudan’s largest patron, buying oil and selling arms. Savitt said China is standing in the way of such deployment.

If 1769 were observed, Dream for Darfur would call off its campaign “in a minute,” Savitt said.

No compromise
But Farrow is not so forgiving. She’s no compromiser. There stood the actress, script in hand, a laptop at her fingertips, showing slides from her eight trips to refugee camps in Chad. There spoke Farrow, dressed in black, drama her gift, detailing what she’s seen and how people in Darfur live and die.

Her words were as if poetry.

“Firewood has become the currency in the camps,” she said, an aerial view of what was once a village of sheltered tents now deforested and rubble. “This is the largest [refugee] camp in the world, 175,000 people. When I took this picture there was not a single doctor in the camp . . . It is a Sophie’s choice who will get the firewood today, facing rape, mutilation, murder . . . More times than not I just cannot bring the camera to my eyes, the breasts burned, the tendons sliced…”

Photos of men with gouged eyes and children with bullet wounds filled her screen.

“And then there is China,” Farrow said. “China is underwriting the atrocities in Darfur. Genocide Sudanese style is expensive.”

China buys 70 percent of Sudan’s oil.

“But there seems there is now one thing that China holds more dear than its unfettered access to Sudanese oil and this is their successful staging of the 2008 Summer Olympics,” she said. “How can China host the Olympic Games at home while it underwrites genocide in Sudan?”

When she was finished with her 30-minute speech and slide show, Farrow seemed spent, even though she’d surely given the presentation dozens of times before, to members of the International Olympic Committee, U.S. Olympic Committee and a host of sponsors.

Athletes put on the spot

Earlier in the day across the street in the Palmer House, scores of athletes met with reporters from across the nation and world about their hopes and dreams for medals at the Beijing Games. Repeatedly, the issues of Darfur and Tibet, and the recent targeting of the symbolic Olympic Torch in San Francisco, were raised. Athletes were put on the spot.

“The agony of the athletes is clear,” said Farrow, who doesn’t support a boycott and who seems to mourn for the position in which athletes find themselves.

Athletes’ attitudes ran the gamut when asked about their attitude towards the Darfur issue and their responsibilities as Olympians. Six-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps was pollyannish.

“I think the Olympics are always the time where things get talked about more and more,” Phelps said. “For me, always growing up and watching the Olympics, I was always thinking what a positive event the Olympic Games are and seeing everyone come together as one . . . Everyone’s just happy to be there.”

U.S. soccer forward Heather O’Reilly was reflective.

“The USOC has over and over again told us how they want us to speak our minds and we have individual opinions and we should get them out there and let them be heard,” she said. “As athletes, we appreciate that. But we’re kind of in a tough spot. We are socially aware individuals. We understand why people are using this as a platform in the world . . .  We understand there are distractions now and we understand there are big problems out there. But as [the Olympics] approach, I think people will focus on the Games and the tradition.”

U.S. softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza, who is active in a group called Team Darfur, was outspoken.

“As athletes we have the visibility to be able to create awareness about positive issues,” she said. “Knowing what’s happening [in] Africa, with 400,000 people being killed and women being raped, as athletes we can be advocates for the awareness . . . However, going into the Olympic Games, our goal so much is to fight our battles on the field. As much as I want to create awareness about what is happening and make a huge difference, I’ll tell you what, when I step into that arena in Beijing I have nothing but wanting to win a gold medal on my mind.”

Farrow has more arrows in her quiver. Wednesday, Dream for Darfur will release a “Report Card” on the IOC, the group that runs the Olympics. Later this month, another Report Card on the response of Olympic corporate sponsors will be released. They have plans — unspecified — for actions in Beijing during the Games. Farrow plans to  broadcast live from refugee camps in Chad during the first week of the Olympics . . . those images, she hopes, will be beamed side-by-side along images of the pageantry in Beijing.

She sat at the dinner table next to me. I put my fork into the chocolate dessert. I asked her why — Hollywood star and all — she was so involved in this. She glared in frustration.

“I can’t believe you’re asking the question,” she said flatly, softly. “But OK…”

Mia Farrow on Darfur

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