NEWTON, Mass. — Activists from throughout Massachusetts and New England gathered Sunday to discuss ways to help keep pressure on the world to take action against the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The conference, held at the Andover Newton Theological School-Hebrew College, was attended by activists from more than a dozen organizations — among them the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of `America (ANCA). The need for the groups to work toward a common goal was a common theme throughout, starting with the opening remarks by Rep. Michael Capuano (D-8th District).
“If we remain silent while something like the Darfur genocide goes on, we make ourselves less,” Capuano said. “As an American I think we have an obligation to go beyond any other country. Not because we’re stronger than anyone but because we’re freer than anyone else.”
Capuano cited the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a missed opportunity for the movement to unite in its mission to bring attention to the genocide. China is Sudan’s largest investor and has not acted to stop the president, Omar al-Bashir, who was charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with war crimes in March.
“The fact that we did not work together as a community to achieve a result — shame on us,” Capuano said. “Don’t let it happen again.”
An estimated 300,000 have been killed since 2004, when al-Bashir’s Janjaweed militia began attacking non-Arab populations in the region. Two and a half million have been displaced in the violence.
Voices from Sudan
The conference began with a panel discussion of Sudanese activists led by Sarah Rial, program director at My Sister’s Keeper, a group dedicated to helping women in Sudan.
Rial, who came to the US in 1999, told the audience of the treatment she endured while living in Khartoum, where she had been arrested three times.
“I’ve been able to stand up to a lot of my fears to tell you what happened in Sudan, and what happened to me personally,” Rial said.
Panelists included Niemat Ahmadi, Darfuri liason officer for the Save Darfur Coalition; Wunlang School Project
Executive Director Franco Majok; San Fransisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition Executive Committee member Mohamed Suleiman and president of the Portland, Maine-based Fur Cultural Revival, Mansour Ahmed.
Most shared stories that like Rial’s involved persecution and violence suffered at the hands of the al-Bashir’s regime. They noted, however, that the violence in Sudan has ebbed and flowed since the 1970s – with the genocide in Darfur only the latest chapter in a long history of conflict.
“You all know that the situation continues to deteriorate,” Ahmadi said. “Despite the genocides that happened — the Armenian, the Rwandan, the Holocaust — genocide continues.”
“Our mission is to preserve our culture,” Ahmed said of Fur Cultural Revival. “Those people in Sudan want everyone to be one identity. The government is ruled by elites. They want to kill anyone who isn’t a part.”
The discussion ranged from how the violence could be stopped to the humanitarian assistance that isn’t being received by refugees following al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid groups in the wake of his indictment.
Franco Majok, from southern Sudan, left Khartoum in 1997 as violence by the government increased. He returned following a peace treaty in 2005 to find “nothing had changed.” The lack of a school, he said, was one way the government tried to control the population — he started the Wunlang School Project to change the situation.
“That was one of [the government’s] tools, to keep us from opening our eyes,” he said.
Majok concluded that while the genocide continues to evolve, and that methods change depending on the situation, the underlying issues need to be addressed.
“I put it in one word. The problem in Sudan is identity,” he said. “That issue needs to be discussed and we need to find a way to solve it.”
‘Learning from History’
The bulk of the conference was focused on workshops highlighting both situation in Sudan and how activists can direct their efforts. Divided into two sections, attendees could learn about life in refugee camps or take “Darfur 101.” A second “action” session provided workshops such as “Art and Actvisim” and “Economic Tools of Protest.”
In between sections, Dikran Kaligian, board member of the ANCA Eastern Region and history professor at Regis College, prefaced the introduction of an art installation on the genocide in Darfur with a speech on how the lessons from the Armenian Genocide have yet to be learned.
“The lesson of this comes from President al-Bashir of Sudan. Guess where he was received officially a year ago? Turkey.”
Following Kaligian, Sudanese artist Khalid Kodi, who teaches at Boston College, introduced an installation that he said was intended to remind people that the genocide was more complicated than is often portrayed. Alongside an abstract painting running the length of one wall, the installation featured a military uniform and whips — which he said was meant to symbolize the similarities between the genocide in Darfur and past
instances of totalitarian governments.
“It’s more than Muslims riding on horses slaughtering people,” Kodi said. “It’s about fascism. We need to solve this problem once again and forever.