Discussion focuses on Sudan violence

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It has been 25 years since Ismail Omar has seen his family.

In 1989, he was living on his family's farm in the Darfur region of Sudan when a militia attacked. The soldiers killed his father and sent the rest of the family fleeing.

After living in Iraq for 18 years, Mr. Omar made it to the United States five years ago. But his mother, sister and brothers still live in a refugee camp in Darfur. He has found success here -- two years ago, he started his own cleaning business. But he's waiting until Darfur is peaceful enough for him to return.

"If the peace comes back, I want to go back," Mr. Omar said. "It is my country."

On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Omar and about a dozen other Sudanese refugees attended a panel discussion about the violence that is ravaging that region in northern Africa. That includes the Darfur crisis, in which the government of Sudan has attacked non-Arab groups, causing about 200,000 deaths and turning 2 million people into refugees since 2003, according to the United Nations.

The speakers also talked about South Sudan, which declared its independence in 2011 and where the government is in battle with opposition groups. That conflict has displaced 900,000 people and left millions at risk of starvation.

Speakers at the panel, organized by the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, expressed frustration that the federal government isn't doing more about the conflicts. U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he was glad President Barack Obama signed an executive order last week barring Americans from doing business with anyone who has committed human rights abuses in South Sudan or who threatens the stability of the country. But that's not enough, he said.

"Every time we get together for this, we get together for the same reason -- to call for an end to the violence," Mr. Doyle said. "The violence has been going on for 10 years now."

Several of the speakers emphasized that the conflicts in Sudan are complicated, with dozens of factions involved. There's a danger in oversimplifying the conflict, they said. Jacqueline Burns, a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State, said the international community needs to address all the disputes behind the violence -- political grievances, income inequality, lingering hatred from past wars.

"There isn't a military solution to this conflict," Ms. Burns said. "It has to be political, and it has to be inclusive."

The American public doesn't give the conflicts in Sudan as much attention as it did a couple years ago, said David Rosenberg, coordinator at the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition. Some organizations founded to address the conflict are scheduling fewer events.

"I understand there are lots of other issues that are more important to people," Mr. Rosenberg said. "But I feel this is a test case for the anti-genocide movement."

Pittsburgh is home to about 300 refugees from Sudan and South Sudan, about 30 of them from Darfur. Many of them work in minimum-wage jobs at places like Giant Eagle, the Rivers Casino and UPMC medical facilities. They meet every couple weeks to chat about their families, their lives in Pittsburgh, and current events in Sudan. At their gatherings, they eat traditional Sudanese food -- or something close to it; American grocery stores don't sell the ingredients they need, so they go to Mexican markets, which have something close.

Mr. Omar is eager to return to his family, but he's skeptical of whether Darfur will ever be at peace. He doesn't see much determination in diplomats and politicians to solve the conflict.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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