Sudan experts to talk today about Darfur

Although world interest wanes, problems persist

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For the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, 2011 was a thrilling year.

The group that formed in 2004 to help end the genocide occurring in Darfur, in western Sudan, watched as local supporters originally from southern Sudan voted in January to split from northern Sudan. In July, with the vote confirmed, it helped those same Sudanese immigrants celebrate their Independence Day and the creation of a new country.

Days later, the Pittsburgh group was credited with being part of the international push to free an activist in Darfur.

But now, half a year later, the fear is that along the way the public has forgotten what it was that galvanized so many people eight years ago: Darfur and the plight of its people, who remain largely displaced from their homelands, that is if they survived the attacks that drove them away.

"We've been concerned for a while," said David Rosenberg, a founder and coordinator of PDEC. "There's been an attention deficit operating in the advocacy movement for some time, but it has gotten worse in the last year."

At 5 this afternoon, at the Carnegie Library's Squirrel Hill branch, PDEC will try to help address that deficit, hosting a panel of five internationally recognized experts and local activists on Sudan entitled "Challenges for Sudan, Challenges for Advocates."

It's the second part of the group's 2011-12 speaker series; a national student activist, Daniel Solomon, was here in December, and the United State's senior adviser on Darfur, Dane Smith, comes next month, followed by author Rebecca Hamilton arrives in April. Entitled "It's Not Over for Darfur," the free series is designed to do both some cheerleading and idea-stirring.

The reason for that is based on the organization's experience locally. It has had a harder time getting people together and creating a conversation around Darfur, Mr. Rosenberg said.

"I have a mailing list with 350 people on it who have taken part in the past, and when I send out a mailing, I don't get much response," he said.

But the problem is anything but local. Nationally, some local groups originally created in the rage over atrocities in Darfur in 2003 and 2004 have disbanded altogether. And in a bow to the changing nature of the discussion, one national group that helped lead the charge, Save Darfur, last year changed its name to United to End Genocide, with a focus beyond Darfur and Sudan.

Mr. Smith, who was appointed to his post with the U.S. State Department in December 2010, has seen it, too.

"Some of that interest has dropped off, I'm afraid," he said. "I think it has something to do with there are other problem areas in Sudan now."

He said part of the reason he agreed to the group's request to come to Pittsburgh was because of the interest here.

"I think it's important to try to talk to people who are enthused about Sudan and Darfur in particular," he said.

Today's panel will revolve around what is happening on the ground in Darfur and Sudan now, how the attacks by the northern Sudan government have spread to other areas, and what people locally can do to help.

The five panel members are Mr. Rosenberg; Benedict Killang, a leader of the Sudanese community in Western Pennsylvania; Louis Picard, director of the Ford Institute for Human Security at the University of Pittsburgh; Abdalmageed Haroun, a Darfurian and activist who was jailed and tortured by the Sudanese government last year before emigrating to the United States and continuing his activist role from New York; and John Prendergast, America's most influential activist in Africa who is currently a visiting instructor for two weeks at the Ford Institute here.

Members of the panel acknowledge the difficultly currently in maintaining interest in Darfur and Sudan, though they all have a different view on what to do about it.

The lack of attention now "doesn't worry me; it ebbs and flows," said Mr. Prendergast, who is known for teaming up with celebrities like George Clooney to draw attention to the situation in Sudan and elsewhere. He and Mr. Clooney are returning to South Sudan for another visit in March.

He said he hopes groups like PDEC will expand their activism to other campaigns against people by the government of Sudan against people in the Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of the country.

"All the tactics are the same as they used in Darfur: The government goes in and bombs civilian targets and then uses food as a weapon," he said.

Mr. Picard, who has worked in the past throughout Africa in various capacities as an adviser to governments and organizations, believes part of the basic reason people don't seem as motivated now is that there just isn't as much news about Darfur and atrocities there.

"The Khartoum government [in north Sudan] has tamped it down a bit, enough to get it off the front page," he said. "We might not like the people running [Sudan] but they aren't dumb."

Mr. Haroun, now chairman of the Human Rights and Advocacy Network for Darfur, said his group is working for regime change in northern Sudan -- something he hopes groups like PDEC will help with.

"What we tell the people of South Sudan is, 'If you don't help us with regime change in north Sudan, you will never live in peace.' "

Mr. Rosenberg isn't sure that issue will galvanize people, though. Even the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for President Omar al-Bashir's arrest hasn't helped hold interest.

One question Mr. Rosenberg hopes all the discussions around the speakers' series will help answer is: Should PDEC do what Save Darfur has done and expand its focus and look beyond Darfur.

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579. First Published February 13, 2012 5:00 AM


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