Africans suffer while the world stands by

Despite the efforts of student activists, it’s hard to get Americans to care about death, rape, and disease in Sudan
By ALEXANDER PROVAN  |  June 7, 2006


HOLLOW WORDS: Although the UN in April reaffirmed the international responsibility to protect populations from genocide and crimes against humanity, the crisis in Darfur continues to fester.
Raised on a steady diet of “Never Again,” members of Brown University’s Darfur Action Network (DAN) found it infuriating to watch the international community stand idly by as murder and rape in Darfur continued unabated, even as the not-too-distant memories of Kosovo and Rwanda lingered. Lis Meyers, one of the leaders of the group, has a particular reason for taking offense: “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors.” So for her, “Saying ‘Never Again’ can be a way of connecting what people [in Darfur] are going through to what my grandparents went through, which makes it more real.”

Even without such a tangible link, scores of student activists across the nation have tapped a similar moral imperative in fueling efforts to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in the African nation of Sudan. Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), based at Georgetown University, is the crux of the national student movement, claiming more than 200 affiliates on campuses across the US and nearly 1000 members at the founding chapter. Pointing to widespread interest among students, STAND coordinator Patrick Schmitt says Darfur has “become a bipartisan cause, making it unusual in the field of student activism.”

Thanks to these efforts, Congress has passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which calls for additional support for embattled African Union peacekeepers and further sanctions on the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Bush administration has moved to block the assets of anyone accused of destabilizing the region, and it supported talks in Abuja, Nigeria, sponsored by the African Union, which resulted in a May 8 peace agreement. Three states and eight universities (including Brown) have divested from companies doing business with Khartoum, with more on the way. In April, Providence became the first US city to divest, and the General Assembly, prompted by the Darfur Action Network, is considering bills to mandate divestment by the state.

In April, student activists from Rhode Island were among the tens of thousands of people who gathered in Washington, DC, to lobby, demonstrate, and demand US intervention in Darfur — a scene unimaginable five months earlier. It was a shining moment for groups such as DAN, composed mostly of Brown students but also some from Providence College and the University of Rhode Island, which grew out of a three-day Darfur conference at Brown in May 2005.

Yet even as the protest helped push Darfur into the consciousnesses of Americans and onto the front pages of newspapers, efforts to better the situation on the ground — where between 200,000 and 450,000 people have died as a result of the conflict — continue to falter.

The promising Abuja peace accord has fallen apart in the wake of infighting among rebel groups. While the massacring of villagers by government-sponsored militias has abated, starvation and widespread pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, caused by dismal conditions in refugee camps, and the scarcity of international assistance are assuring Darfur’s position as what the United Nations calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

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