May 2, 2006

Cornell Students Rally for Darfur

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On Sunday, 37 Cornell students joined more than 10,000 others at a giant rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., calling for increased American and international efforts to combat the genocide in the western Sudan region of Darfur. The Hillel-funded bus of Cornellians left Ithaca for the nation’s capitol Sunday at 5 a.m. and returned yesterday morning at 2 a.m.

“What was so inspiring about the rally was to see people of all different backgrounds together,” said Alex Haber ’08, president of the Holocaust and genocide awareness group STARS.

“On our bus alone, we had Jewish students, African-American students, Muslim students, Christian students…” he said.

According to most reliable estimates, over 400,000 of Darfur’s black African Muslim population have died, either in raids on their villages by the marauding Arab Janjawid militias or from subsequent starvation. Almost 3 million more have been driven from their homes – about 250,000 of whom have taken refuge in neighboring Chad, the rest remaining in the Darfur region as internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

The slaughter began after rebel groups from Darfur took up arms against the Sudan’s Arab-dominated Islamist government in February 2003, at which point the government in Khartoum is said to have given the government-proxy Janjawid free rein to cleanse the region of its black inhabitants. The current genocide follows a 10 year campaign by the same government-affiliated militias against black Christians in southern Sudan, which over a decade claimed roughly 2 million lives and forced thousands into slavery in the Arab north.

Sunday’s rally, organized by the Save Darfur coalition, aimed to press the Bush Administration for a more active role in ending the current slaughter. It coincides with the group’s Million Voices campaign, which hopes to have one million Americans sign postcards to President Bush urging greater action. They have already passed 700,000.

The rally featured notable speakers from all walks of life, including actor George Clooney, Sen. Barrack Obama (D-IL), member of Congress Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and “Hotel Rwanda” inspiration Paul Rusesabagina.

Clooney followed his father Nick at the podium:

“You’ve seen congressmen, you’ve seen senators, entertainers, victims, athletes, from all sides of the political spectrum,” said Clooney. “All of them are saying the same thing – that the U.S. policy, the U.N. and the world’s policy on Sudan is failing. World leaders will tell you that the policy will keep us from intervening. Well, fortunately this is not a dictatorship. You make the policy – all of you here. All of you here decide what is right and what is wrong.”

Clooney recently returned with his father from a trip to Darfur and neighboring Chad.

“We’re at the doorstep of something we thought was impossible to dream of in the 21st century,” he said. “If we turn our heads and look away and hope that it will all disappear, then they will – all of them, an entire generation of people – and we will have only history left to judge us.”

Obama, who has become somewhat of a congressional spokesman on Darfur, was similarly emphatic: “I know that if we care, the world will care. If we bear witness, then the world will know. If we act, then the world will follow. And in every corner of the globe, tyrants and terrorists, powers and principalities will know that a new day is dawning, and a righteous spirit is on the move, and that all of us together have joined hands to ensure that never again will these kinds of atrocities happen.”

“There were also lots of speakers from Sudan,” said Rafael Gonzalez ’08. “[Former basketball player Manute Bol], who still has family in Sudan, was there. And there were, of course, Darfuri refugees telling the most heart-wrenching stories … black women going out to get firewood and getting gang-raped by these Arab militias, which would then steal anything of value, shoot anybody in sight, burn the village, then move on to the next … government helicopters dropping bombs that shoot out nails to maim innocent villagers. It’s horrifying.”

Gonzalez and Haber said that the rally carries particular significance in light of the U.N. World Food Program’s decision yesterday to cut food rations for affected Darfuris to fewer than 1,000 calories a day per person in light of the failure of world governments to live up to their monetary pledges to the program.

In a possible sign of progress Sunday, the Sudanese government indicated its willingness to sign onto a peace agreement drafted by the African Union requiring it to disarm the Janjawid. The rebel groups, however, have balked at the deal, which they say does not provide for autonomy or appropriate representation in the Khartoum government. A Sunday deadline for the peace talks was extended 48 hours, though it looks unlikely that any compromise will be reached.

Until such an agreement is reached, Haber remains dedicated to influencing their representatives to make Darfur a priority:

“After the Rwandan genocide, many representatives admitted that had their constituents made a bigger fuss over what was happening, they might have acted sooner,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We need to stop this genocide now, not just commemorate it later.”

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Senior Writer