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Students recount experience at Darfur rally

As their friends prepared to go out to parties the night of Saturday, September 16, Timi Abimbola and Megan Larcom, two first-year students, boarded a bus for the Big Apple. The trip resulted in a front-page photo in The New York Times.

Abimbola and Larcom traveled to New York City to participate in a demonstration that was part of the global “Day for Darfur.”

Abimbola, a student in political science, international relations, and French, said the journey to New York was a whirlwind adventure.

David Rosenberg of the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, a group with the Thomas Merton Center, organized two busloads of demonstrators from Pittsburgh. The group departed Pittsburgh late Saturday evening and returned early last Monday morning.

Abimbola and her roommate Larcom, a business student, marched in the demonstration with between 20,000 and 30,000 others in Central Park Sunday.

“Timi ended up pushing her way up to the front barrier,” Larcom said, noting that many of the demonstrators were from Darfur.

In all of the excitement of the rally, Abimbola and Larcom inadvertently got into position near a group of photographers standing near the barrier.

“[I realized] no one’s VIP here, so I just pushed my way to the front,” said Abimbola.

A photo of the two amid ralliers graced the September 18 front page of The New York Times.

The accompanying article noted some of the most recent developments in the crisis in Darfur, the western region of Sudan. Tens of thousands have been killed, the article stated, and more than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. Conflict in Darfur began in 2003, when rebels began fighting the government. The situation has been deemed the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis.

Currently, the only peacekeeping force in Sudan is a group of 7000 African Union troops whose mandate expires on September 30. Demonstrators around the world demanded a mandate for a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur and support for the poorly equipped African Union troops.

The United States has recognized the situation in Darfur as genocide, but many do not fully understand the term.

“A big misconception of genocide is there has to be a certain percentage of people killed before an event is considered a genocide,” said Jay Aronson, an assistant professor of history whose major fields of study are science, technology and society, and human rights.

The UN Genocide Treaty defines the term “genocide” as commission of any variety of acts with the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. By those terms, genocide may exist without anyone being killed.

Aronson also said that historically the government does not get involved in strictly humanitarian issues.
“[The United States] has no direct national interest [in Darfur], so we’re not doing anything. We’re standing by as Darfur continues to unfold,” he said. “If there was a genocide in Mexico or Canada, we would probably get involved because we’d see the refugees streaming across the border. Unless we’re directly involved, we tend not to intervene in genocide.”

Several speakers at the rally provided graphic details of what is happening in Darfur, Larcom said. Speakers included a former slave and a reporter who had been held hostage while working in the region. The rally in New York called for action.

“The world must act now and it must do so now because time is not on our side,” said former Secretary of State Madeline Albright at the New York rally.

Aronson offered a few solutions to the crisis. Among his ideas is creating a standing UN force which would participate in military action solely for humanitarian purposes. Though such a force would work toward positive humanitarian change, the UN is unlike to create a standing military force, he said.

“I think that sometime in the future there’s going to have to be a strong military reaction to genocide. At some time the international community is going to have to react extremely strongly and say that this won’t be tolerated,” he said.

Standing in the sun for several hours, Abimbola and Larcom were physically drained after the rally. But it was rewarding, they said.

“The rally was life-changing for me,” said Abimbola. “We were dead by the end of the day, but it was so worth it.”

Aronson was not sure.

“Activism is good, but we have to work towards fundamental political change,” he said. “These kinds of after-the-fact rallies are nice, and they make us feel better, but I’m not sure how much they do.”
But Larcom was convinced.

“I think the opportunity to collect so many voices in one particular place at one time strengthens the message that we’re sending.

“And it’s impacting the people in Darfur. They’re seeing that they do have support.”