Darfur Chaos Discussed

Jake Spring

By Jake SpringThe Daily Northwestern

A man presents his hands, cracked and covered with blisters and sores. Next to him, a group of women cry over the body of a dead 13-year-old girl.

These strikingly graphic photos of the conflict in Darfur were part of a collection displayed in the McCormick Tribune Center during an anti-genocide conference last weekend.

The Great Lakes Regional Conference on Darfur hosted by STAND, a national student anti-genocide coalition, included two-and-a-half days of workshops, speeches and informational sessions to educate and train STAND chapters in the region. The Northwestern University Darfur Action Coalition assisted in coordinating the event.

NU has had an active group working to raise awareness about genocide since January 2005.

Susannah Cunningham, coordinator of Northwestern University Darfur Coalition, decided to begin advocating after studying abroad in Cairo in 2004, she said. She volunteered at a local community center tutoring southern Sudanese refugees who told her about the horrifying situations they escaped.

“We were talking as we did twice a week, and (a refugee) pulls up his arm and shows me a machete scar,” said Cunningham, a Communication senior. “He saw my reaction and took it as a provocation to show me more. He lifts up his shirt and shows me a machete wound on his side and explained how he was lucky to be alive.”

After hearing about the violence in Sudan, she began to research the situation. She is confident there will soon be more refugees in Cairo from Darfur, only worsening the widespread poverty in the city. Her experience prompted her to found the Northwestern University Darfur Action Coalition when she returned.

The group began with Cunningham only intending to organize one event but has led to broader activism on campus, including the recent conference.

The conference attracted about 100 students from 25 universities and was the first in a series that will take place in different regions around the country, said Erin Mazursky, executive director of STAND.

“The point of these conferences … is to create a forum for people in the region to network with each other,” said Mazursky, a senior at Georgetown University. “(The conference is) giving people the tools to become better advocates.”

Emily Roberts, who traveled from Indiana University to attend the event, found the conference to be more conducive to networking than national conferences, she said.

“There were so many people at the national conference,” said Roberts, a sophomore. “It was difficult to connect with people. It’s good to know we all have common challenges. At IU, when we come across a challenge, I’m more comfortable with contacting my regional outreach coordinator or anyone I’ve met at this conference.”

The goals of STAND and its chapters include fundraising for services for refugees and raising awareness about the conflict as a genocide. The ultimate goal is to influence national and international leaders to send in peacekeeping forces regardless of the consent of the Sudanese government, Mazursky said.

The main workshops focused on advocacy, divesting and gaining media attention, she said. The group primarily uses advocacy and lobbying to influence leaders to intervene.

“Activism isn’t protesting anymore – it’s protesting to get a meeting with a congressman,” Cunningham said. “Activism is a dead word, it’s all about advocacy.”

The conference emphasized divestment from foreign companies in the region that support the conflict indirectly. “Offending companies,” mostly oil, power and telecommunications companies, are taxed by the Sudanese government, which can use the money to buy weapons, said Daniel Millenson, president and co-founder of the Sudan Divestment Taskforce.

“Sudatel (a telecommunications company) shuts off cell phone service in advance of attacks so villagers can’t warn each other,” said Millenson, a sophomore at Brandeis University.

Millenson’s taskforce authored legislation that forced the California state government to divest from “offending companies” in Darfur. He led several workshops on how to achieve similar results in other states.

Many states with multiple universities in attendance began working together to come up with plans for lobbying their legislatures.

“Eastern Michigan was here as well,” said Rachel Kulasa, a junior at Michigan State. “We’re going to try to work with them … to get the state of Michigan to divest.”

Reach Jake Spring at [email protected]