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June/July 2006
Darfur in Brooklyn

By Sangamithra Iyer



Most Monday nights of this year, I’ve spent with a committed group of concerned Brooklynites on the genocide in Darfur, as part of the Darfur Crisis Committee of Brooklyn Parents for Peace. Many of us got involved with this group after hearing Yahya Osman, a Brooklyn resident and native Darfurian, speak last fall about his recent fact-finding trip to the refugee camps in Chad. Osman, of the Darfur Rehabilitation Project based in Newark, NJ, conveyed the urgency of the situation on the ground with respect to immediate needs of security and food, but also expressed concerns of displaced Darfurians wanting access to education and the long-term revitalization of their homeland.

Osman is one of about 150 Darfurians who currently reside in Brooklyn, home to the Darfur People’s Association of New York (DPA). This community group has been collecting clothing and other supplies to send through innovative channels to communities in need in refugee camps back home. “Whatever a human being needs, they need it in Darfur,” is President Motassim Adam’s rally cry for this effort.

What happens in Darfur is definitely felt here in Brooklyn, and I realized that the first time I heard DPA’s secretary general introduce himself: “My name is Rahama Deffallah. I am from Darfur. I have lost 46 members of my family. Every week we hold a funeral service in Brooklyn for our family members back home.”

Hand in Fire
I recently saw the film All About Darfur by Tagreed Elsanhouri, a Sudanese woman living in England who returns to Sudan to explore the issues surrounding racial identity and conflict. She gathers a range of perspectives—from Teresa’s tea shop in Khartoum to an internally displaced people’s camp in Darfur. Teresa was quiet during most of the political discussions filmed in her café, but at one moment bursts out with tears in her eyes, “They killed my mother, and I never saw her body!” The violence in Darfur reminds her of raids on her village in southern Sudan. “You do not leave the place of your birth, if you haven’t tasted bitterness.”

In an IDP camp, Elsanhouri learns about young girls who were recently harassed and forced to remove their shirts sporting corporate logos donated by foreign charities. She meets people who fled and lost their farms. People who never had to take a hand-out in their lives are now struggling to make do with the aid they receive.

All About Darfur shows the diversity of Sudan and how there is respect and coexistence among the population, but discrimination and marginalization is present on the institutional level with no accountability. I asked Elsanhouri what gives her hope and she replied, “I honestly believe, and my experience on the ground confirms it, there is goodwill among the people of Sudan. Darfur is very complex and race is a factor among many others, but I believe community and inter-tribal kinship in Darfur has not been totally broken down by this crisis—it has been severely bruised and it is vital that there is rehabilitation and some sort of truth and reconciliation where perpetrators of atrocities are brought to justice.”

One of the things in the film that really hit me was a reference to an old Sudanese expression: “He who speaks with one hand in water is different than he who speaks with one hand in fire.” What has given me hope lately is those of us with our hands in water who are listening to those with their hands in fire.

A Partial Peace is No Peace
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC on April 30th for the Save Darfur Rally that coincided with the Abuja peace talks taking place in Nigeria. While politicians, religious leaders, genocide survivors, celebrities and athletes acknowledged the issue, it was the sympathies and support of the crowd of people from near and far, young and old, that rallied.

Immediately following the rally, the U.S. sent Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick as a representative to the negotiations in Abuja, between the government of Sudan and the rebel movements—two factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice Equality Movement (JEM). But what transpired in Abuja did not begin to address the conflict or its resolution in a meaningful way. What resulted was a document presented in a “take it or leave it” manner. After considerable pressure from the African Union and observers from the international community on the rebel groups, one faction of the SLM took it while the JEM and the other SLM faction left it.

Yahya Osman was in Nigeria during the negotiation period and I saw him shortly after he returned. I wondered if there were civilian groups present and what the role of women was in the negotiations. Osman replied that the government did not allow civilian groups to participate. There were a few women present from the rebel movements, but perhaps their voices were not heard as loudly as their cries on the ground. “The problem is a dictatorship who violates human rights and assassinates democracy.”

Despite a partial peace agreement, the situation on the ground is still dire. Ceasefires have been broken. Villages are still being burned, women still being raped and everyone is still armed. The violence continues to spread across the border to Chad, an aspect not addressed by the negotiations at all.

While immediate peace is crucial for the people of Darfur, a forcefully imposed quick-fix leaves room for long-term instability. Given that this document is proposed to be integrated into the Sudanese constitution, the aggressive fast track approach should give us pause. More pressure should be applied on the government of Sudan, and more ears should be listening to the people of Darfur.

The groups that refused to sign did so for a number of reasons. They felt the document was far too vague or lacking when it came to the issues of compensation, disarmament and accountability. Furthermore, they want a united Darfur—not a divided region imposed by the government of Sudan. The agreement not only infuriated the two rebel groups that walked out, it has also stirred protests at the universities and riots in the IDP camps. In short: a partial peace is no peace.

A Morning with a Rebel
After walking out of the Abuja talks, representatives from the different rebel movements came to the U.S. to attend a summit on conflict resolution in Darfur hosted by Kentucky State University and to meet with politicians, advocacy groups, and the Darfurian community in exile in several U.S. cities.

In between these meetings, I had a chance to spend a morning with Tadjadine Bechir Niame, the Deputy Secretary of Humanitarian Reconstruction and Permanent Representative to the African Union of the Justice and Equality Movement. We met at his brother-in-law’s home in Brooklyn. Tadjadine’s niece and nephew were running around and climbing up on him. His niece was flipping through past issues of Satya and came across a picture of a Darfurian woman in an IDP camp, asking if she was Grandma. She is slowly learning about the situation back home.

Mr. Niame was articulate and spoke with passion and reason. He was missing all the fingers of his left hand and used his right hand to emphasize his points. He went to great extents to explain to me why he was fighting and how the proposed peace agreement did not address the root causes of the conflict.

At one point in the conversation he showed me the infamous Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan authored by the “Seekers of Truth and Justice.” This revolutionary document gave a detailed statistical breakdown of political and economic power in Sudan over the past 50 years, meticulously demonstrating the concentration of power in the North and the extent to which the rest of the country had been marginalized. In the mid-1990s, it started being secretly distributed to political officials and the masses, while being denounced by government newspapers and confiscated by secret services. Photocopies flourished. Preparation and distribution of this book was the precursor to their armed struggle.

Niame also showed me a marked up copy of the proposed peace agreement and pointed out instances of vague and inadequate language—“There is no timetable, no modalities, no implementation mechanism, no guarantees. If you go over the whole thing, you will find every word is giving goodwill to the government. We are working with a government that doesn’t honor its commitments.” He commented on the intimidation they faced at the negotiations. But they are resolute and will not be bullied into a peace that does not allow the empowerment of their peoples.

According to Niame, their demands reflect power sharing, wealth sharing and compensation, justice and security. When I asked him his thoughts on bringing in troops, he replied that while he supports troops to protect civilians, “Peace itself is more important than sending troops.” We should be working to help create a peace that addresses the root cause of the conflict.

That resonated with me, because all too often, sympathizers want to throw money and troops at a problem, but finding a resolution is not just about managing the damage, it is about tipping the balance of power and ensuring human rights—something we need to strive for in Brooklyn and in Darfur.

To get involved with the Darfur Crisis Committee contact darfur@brooklynpeace.org. To find out more or support the Darfur Rehabilitation Project visit www.darfurrehab.org. To contact the Darfur People’s Association of New York email darfurny@yahoo.com.


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