Activists Call for a Renewed Sense of Engagement in Darfur Region

As news reports spread that the Sudanese government has once again embarked on a scorched-earth campaign in Darfur — one that echoes the aerial bombings and village burnings that touched off a genocidal rampage in the African nation nearly five years ago — a program organized by a local advocacy group urged Philadelphians to redouble their efforts on this paramount issue.

"As we have seen and as we have heard, the Darfurians have been devastated for five years now. But it's even more. These things have been going on in slow motion since the '80s," said Fatima Haroun.

The 40-year-old Sudanese native and anti-genocide advocate made these remarks during a March 2 speech at Germantown Jewish Centre.

Haroun, a mother of eight, has lived in the United States for 12 years now and has never experienced the government-sanctioned violence firsthand, though she has a number of relatives who still reside in Sudanese villages or have fled to nearby Chad.

Haroun works for the City of Philadelphia in the Department of Human Services.

'Benefit for Women'

The program, billed as a "Benefit for the Women of Darfur," was organized jointly by the synagogue's Social Action Committee and the Darfur Alert Coalition, a Philadelphia-based organization that works to mobilize people on the issue, as well as to assist Darfurian refugees who have settled in the area.

The speakers solicited donations for a group called Solar Cookers International, which is working to provide a simple tool to ease conditions for thousands of Sudanese females now living in refugee camps in Chad.

Solar cookers are aluminum devices used to heat food and water naturally, and cost about $25. What they do is allow women — many of whom have been subjected to rape and seen family members killed in their native Darfur — to prepare meals without having to search for firewood. That task put them at risk of attack by the Janjaweed militia, which have now even initiated cross-border raids.

Next week, the synagogue also plans to hold a clothing swap to raise funds to purchase such cooking devices.

Lou Ann Merkle, the founder of the Darfur Alert Coalition, urged the 40 or so people gathered at the synagogue last week to pressure their state representatives to support an effort in Harrisburg to target state divestment of foreign companies that do business with Sudan.

While estimates vary widely, most reports put the death toll in Darfur at somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people, mostly black African Muslims targeted by the Arab-dominated government and the Janjaweed militia. The number of displaced persons is often estimated at more than 2 million.

Haroun said that the 3 million people remaining in Sudan's western-most provence are still at risk of what many world leaders have called genocide.

A number of Jewish organizations, particularly the American Jewish World Service, have taken a leading role in urging the United States and the international community to pressure the government in Khartoum to reign in the violence.

Recently, Darfur has received some renewed attention in the media related to the upcoming Summer Olympics in China: As it turns out, Beijing is heavily invested in Sudan's oil sector. Just last month, filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser to the games, arguing that China has not done enough to pressure Khartoum to end its murderous campaign in Darfur.

Steve Tobias, a 63-year-old Germantown Jewish Centre congregant, said that the program, which included a film highlighting atrocities in Sudan, helped him to "shake off the anaesthesia" and woke him up to the urgency of the situation.

Tobias, who noted that he planned to purchase a number of solar cookers for the displaced women, also said that he's "very proud of the Jewish community" for being in the forefront of activism.



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