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Remembering Darfur

Less than five months ago, in excess of 50,000 concerned Americans crowded the national lawn in Washington, DC, enthusiastically petitioning President Bush to lead the world in the cessation of genocide in Sudan. Speaker after speaker of household-name status, including Illinois Senator Barak Obama, former presidential hopeful Reverend Al Sharpton and actor George Clooney, addressed a highly energized audience. Buoyed by increasingly successful peace talks and the momentum of a near-constant presence of the Darfur cause in the national media, the April 30 rally was marked by a contagious optimism for the hope of lasting peace.

But it appears that little more than a stay of apocalypse was effected. Shortly after the DC rally, President Bashir’s Sudanese government, the main pro-government militia (including the fighters known as the Janjaweed), and two of the three main rebel groups brokered a shaky peace deal; as a result, the violence only slowed, and millions remain displaced. It now appears that deal is on the verge of collapse. Rape continues to be one of a number of horrifying weapons of war, and malnutrition still blends with a scarcity of medical resources to make killers of common illnesses.

Accounts from the region find less influence in the peace accords than in Mother Nature. It has been reported that locals find rain to be the most effective intermediary, as the region’s few decrepit roads give over to impassible mud. As rainfall limits the ability for the warring factions to carry out ranged attacks, civilians fear the coming of the sun.

Unimaginable as it may be, many fear that even worse conditions are rapidly approaching. The African Union, whose under-supplied and vastly outnumbered troops have done their best to keep the violence at a relative minimum, is running out of the money allocated to sponsor its peacekeeping efforts in the region. They announced they will withdraw at the end of the month if not supported by UN peacekeeping forces—and while the UN agreed to commit the requisite support, Khartoum refuses to admit their presence in Darfur. Instead, they pledged to send in their own troops, despite accusations that government forces have supplied arms and air support in Janjaweed raids on rebel-affiliated villages and civilians.

With the moment of crisis so close to hand, the Save Darfur Coalition—a group of more than 170 humanitarian advocacy groups known by the more common appellation—organized the “Global Day for Darfur” to coincide with the UN’s general assembly of world leaders in New York. Events were held throughout the US and across the world, and the day’s activities centered on the “Voices to Stop Genocide” rally in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Unlike its April DC counterpart, the tone of this gathering bordered on outright despair. The much smaller crowd (police estimated only 20,000 attendees) listened intently to a series of speakers fewer in number and less well-renowned. The event’s most notable speaker, former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, underscored the gravity of the situation in western Sudan: “The possibility exists that by this time next month there will be no more peacekeepers in Darfur…just killers and victims.” She praised previous efforts, but insisted upon the necessity of a UN intervention. “The A[frican] U[nion] deserves credit, but it needs help,” she stressed, adding, “We need to get the United Nations in there: What is it for?”

But the US media seems distracted from the Sudan genocide; the event generated little ink in major newspapers and apparently no coverage on the major cable networks, as Iraq apparently spirals further out of control, tensions mount between the US and Iran and wildfires rage through the West. There seems to be less and less room for the people of Darfur. And as the mid-term elections approach, nonpartisan issues that find consensus rather than divisiveness amongst the electorate—like Darfur—are scarcely on reporters’, pundits’ and politicians’ lips. Perhaps unknowingly, Albright identified what is most likely the greatest threat to the life of the Darfuris’ cause in the American medial landscape, noting that the crisis in Sudan “is not about politics, this is about people.”

But the rally served as a painful reminder that outside of the media, politics and people cannot be so easily divided. Familiarity with the real causes of the strife in Darfur demonstrates the threat that marginalization of large segments of a populace poses to real security. As a near-certain famine approaches western Sudan, even Khartoum has acknowledged the need to invest in key infrastructure, announcing a vision for revitalizing irrigation in the region. However real peace and stability will likely never be reached until political power is extended beyond the privileged tribal groups that make up only six percent of the nation’s population.

International politics holds people in the balance as well. Despite the Bush administration’s sincere efforts to quell the bloodshed, it appears that damaged credibility stemming from the Iraq war and questionable involvement in the recent Israeli-Lebanese conflict has limited their clout. Without sanctions on Sudan’s ability to export oil and import key consumer goods, it is unlikely Bashir will succumb to the UN’s demands that peacekeepers be allowed in Darfur.

Somber though it may have been, the rally was no less adamant than before. Speakers stressed the continued importance of grassroots activism, reminding its audience that increases in technology have afforded America’s citizens increased access to their representatives in Washington. Calling for text messages and emails to the White House and Congressional representatives, along with conventional letters and phone calls, Darfur’s advocates reminded their listeners that despite the distractions of an election year, elections are still contingent upon earning the votes of their constituents. Grassroots activism can seize upon the positive potential of the intersection of politics and people and may help save untold thousands of lives.