Students urged to help Darfur

Mark Dipaola

What if you were forced to choose between rescuing your small child from a burning hut and rushing your other three children to safety? What if you witnessed the fatal shooting of a loved one, or had to wander the Sahara desert for a week without food or water? What if one day your home, your possessions, and everything you’ve ever known were suddenly stripped from you?

This, unfortunately, is the grim reality for an estimated 2.5 million refugees from Sudan’s western region of Darfur, where the government has been waging a brutal genocide against the non-Arab population since 2003.

John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration State Department official and human rights activist, addressed a medium sized crowd in Alumni Hall on Thursday, March 6th, in order to highlight the crisis that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and call students to action.

“We know that genocide is occurring in Darfur,” Prendergast said. “We must do something.”

A co-chair of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide coalition, and a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group, Prendergast has worked extensively to establish peace in war torn nations, particularly those in Africa. He has traveled to numerous trouble spots and has written eight books, including “Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond,” which he co-wrote with actor Don Cheadle.

The Sudanese government uses the mass murder and displacement of non-Arabs to suppress a rebellion by insurgents who oppose the regime in Khartoum, said Prendergast. Civilians who have been known to support the rebels have become targets of government armed Janjaweed (Devil on horseback) militias. It is a tactic which Prendergast referred to as “draining the water to catch the fish.”

“It’s deliberate chaos,” he said. “It divides and destroys.”

Although in 2004 President Bush declared that the situation in Darfur is in fact genocide, there are a number of obstacles that are preventing the international community from stepping in, Prendergast said.

The Iraq war, which has diverted much attention and resources away from Sudan, is one factor, he said. The United State’s commitment to counter terrorism after the September 11 attacks has also played a role. During the 1990’s, Khartoum was a harbor for Islamic terrorists including Osama Bin Laden, who lived there for six years. Following September 11, Sudan was placed on a list of states that sponsor of terrorism, prompting the regime in Khartoum to cooperate with the CIA and offer information on Al Qaeda, Prendergast said.

China plays a significant role in blocking U.N. intervention in Darfur, Prendergast said. Because the nation is heavily invested in the Sudanese oil trade, China is economically tied to the government in Khartoum.

During his lecture, Prendergast disputed the media’s portrayal of Africa as a “hopeless” continent. The media tends to place emphasis on Africa’s problems, such as the AIDS epidemic and civil wars, while drawing little attention to improvements that have been made, he said.

“The capacity for Africa to transform itself is limitless,” Prendergast said. “Darfur is at its greatest need. Africa is not a continent of despair it is a continent of hope.”

Prendergast urged Quinnipiac students to take a stand against genocide by placing pressure on politicians and the news media, and participating in a divestment campaign. The organization QU STAND, along with the International Human Rights Law Society plans on meeting with President Lahey to discuss whether or not the university’s money goes to companies that are tied to Sudan.

Sixty universities and 22 states have successfully divested from companies that conduct business with the Sudanese government.

“We’re creating a cost for committing genocide,” Prendergast said.

An effective divestment campaign models itself after a successful predecessor, Prendergast said.

“Activists kind of feel the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Prendergast said in a pre-lecture reception in the Mancheski Seminar room at the School of Business. “But a lot of people are doing the same thing.”

The upcoming Olympics in Beijing are an opportunity for activists to levy pressure on the Chinese government, Prendergast said. The presidential elections should also give activists a chance to voice their opinion on the issue, he said.

“There’s plenty you can do if you raise your voice,” Prendergast said. “We must raise our voices for Darfur.”