In advance of a historic referendum that could split Sudan in two, about 80 students, activists and refugees marched Downtown Wednesday calling for peace in the war-wracked country.
Nearly 4 million Sudanese have registered to vote in the referendum that starts Sunday, the culmination of decades of strife between the largely Muslim Arab north and the largely Christian and animist south.
The referendum is intended to decide whether the south should secede, creating a new nation; many expect it to pass overwhelmingly. Complicating the matter, the south has about 75 percent of the country's oil reserves, but the north controls the pipelines from the area. The future of an oil-rich borderland, Abyei, is disputed.
"You never know what can happen," said Kawthar Albe, 35, of Beechview, who came to the United States from southern Sudan five years ago as a refugee.
"There is a real fear that the country will slip back into full-scale north-south war," said Steve Paterno, 30, of Erie, also from southern Sudan.
The march was part of a "week of action" in Pittsburgh for Sudan and Darfur, the stage of a brutal conflict in the country's west.
Sunday, some of the south Sudanese natives who have settled in Pittsburgh will travel to Arlington, Va., to vote in the referendum.
"We need to try on our own to be a different country," said Ms. Albe, who has relatives in the north and south. "It's going to be a new state to us, and we are just praying. We ask everybody to pray for us."
Wednesday's marchers moved with police escorts from the City-County Building down Grant Street, turning at Liberty Avenue and ending in Market Square. Led by beating drums and flanked by curious onlookers, the participants held signs bearing the names of Sudanese villages that have been hit especially hard by violence.
In speeches and chants, they called for greater international attention to Sudan and for the United States to devote more diplomatic resources to the area.
"Everyone kind of focuses on Darfur, but what happens with this referendum is really important for stability," said Sarah Grill, 21, of New Jersey, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh.
State Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-Brookline, appeared at the rally, as did three Pittsburgh City Council members: Darlene Harris, Doug Shields and Bill Peduto.
"Where there's an injustice anywhere, there's an injustice for us," said Mr. Peduto, who read aloud a proclamation supporting the week of action.
The Rev. Kenneth White, associate pastor of Mt. Lebanon's Southminster Presbyterian Church, said it can be difficult for people to relate to a struggle so far away. "The world of Sudan seems very, very distant and remote from the life we live in Western Pennsylvania," he said.
But Rev. White, who has traveled to Sudan several times, said he is bound to the Sudanese people by a "common humanity."
"This is a turning point not only in Sudan, but Africa," said Molly Rush, 75, a longtime activist from Dormont.
"One has to be very careful and watch this whole process," Ms. Rush said. "Because we can't be sure what will happen."
Vivian Nereim: email@example.com or 412-263-1413.