Most Jews active in Darfur cite parallels with the atrocities of the Holocaust, but Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition coordinator David Rosenberg sees another parallel: the doggedness required to keep an issue current over many years.
“We’re really going to make Darfur and South Sudan shine in the public eye,” Rosenberg said on Monday afternoon, standing on the steps of the City-County building Downtown before a crowd of students, activists, elected officials and Sudanese refugees holding signs bearing the names of villages in the Darfur region of Sudan destroyed over the past five years.
To the beat of West African drummers, the group held a “Solemn Walk” Downtown with banners proclaiming “Stop Destroying Darfur” and “Stop Genocide in Sudan.”
The march is the first in a string of events planned this month. Rosenberg said the efforts began piecemeal, but soon became focused around the G-20 summit on Sept. 24 and 25, when world leaders and thousands of journalists will focus their attention on Pittsburgh.
The coalition recently got permission from the city to exhibit 600 signs with the names of destroyed villages on Flagstaff Hill in Oakland from Sept. 22 through Sept. 25. The hillside park sits across from the Phipps Conservatory, where G-20 delegates will meet after arriving on Sept. 24.
The coalition also gave representatives of the western Pennsylvania congressional delegation more than 15,000 postcards and petition signatures addressed to President Barack Obama, asking him to “prioritize the crisis in Sudan.”
During the speeches at the City-County Building before the march, elected officials promised legislative action to address the issue as much as possible on the local level.
Pittsburgh Councilman Bill Peduto read a proclamation honoring 10 refugees from Darfur, Eritrea and southern Sudan who recently settled in Pittsburgh. The Council also issued a proclamation asking Obama to prioritize Darfur and southern Sudan, and asking the G-20 nations to make debt relief and other aide to Sudan contingent on implementing peace agreements in Darfur and between the northern and southern factions in the country.
The two proclamations both condemn “ethnic and regional discrimination [that] incites killing, rape, destruction of entire villages, displacement of many millions of individuals, and many other atrocities,” but neither uses the word “genocide” to describe the situation.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said the Pennsylvania General Assembly should pass House Bill 1821, which would divest state funds of companies that do business in Sudan.
“We have a role to play in this. … We need to make sure that my colleagues take action,” said Frankel, who is a co-sponsor of HB 1821. The bill is currently in committee.
Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson said the county had passed three resolutions related to Darfur and was preparing county level legislation similar to HB 1821.
Robinson noted that China wanted to do business in Allegheny County, particularly at the airport, and he wanted to use negotiations as an entry point for discussing Darfur.
“If we can get those good people to see the worthiness of our cause, our challenge is cut in half,” Robinson said, reiterating the importance of grabbing attention during the G-20.
Following the speeches, a group of around 100 people marched through Downtown, silent except for the West African drummers leading them. The march came around 1 p.m., near the end of the lunch break. People on the sidewalks took pictures of the crowd with cell phone cameras and leaned out of windows to see the source of the drumming.
The march ended in Mellon Park, where representatives of Darfur and southern Sudan issued a joint statement calling the killings in Darfur “genocide,” and claiming violations of a 2005 “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” between North and southern Sudan.
The statement made 11 requests of
G-20 nations, including a push to get humanitarian aide into Sudan, to address the broken peace agreement and to withhold debt relief.
The march came as a U.S. special envoy to Sudan made his fifth trip to the region, which some Darfur refugees take as a sign that the U.S. is not being strong enough on the issue.
“We are not about making trips. We want to see some peace and progress,” said Benedict Kilang, president of the Union of African Communities in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Jewish organizations and congregations have been active in the Darfur issue for years, seeing the promise to never let another Holocaust come to pass as a mandate for addressing the ethnic killings in Sudan. This recognition is mutual for Isaac Leju-Loding, a Sudanese refugee who came to the United States 20 years ago as a teenager.
Leju-Loding recalled visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
“It reminded me of what happened in South Sudan and Darfur,” he said.
Today, he sees parallels between his homeland and Israel.
“I love [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, because he’s tough when it comes to protecting his people,” Leju-Loding said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)