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Messinger urges action in Darfur

John Tierney | Thursday, March 29, 2007

With compelling descriptions of the town massacres in Darfur and a call to social and moral consciousness, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) President Ruth Messinger urged her audience Wednesday at the Eck Center Auditorium to help stop the ongoing killings in the African region.

“There’s a genocide in Darfur,” she firmly told students in her lecture, “Bearing Witness: Crisis in Darfur.”

Messinger, a former Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City, encouraged action from all individuals in what she called, “the moral legacy we will leave to our children and grandchildren.”

She said the Janjaweed militia, a group funded and armed by the Sudanese government, has waged genocide against the inhabitants of the Darfur region in the eastern part of Sudan since February 2003 – although there are very few distinct ethnic or religious differences between the two sides of the conflict, Messinger said. Both the Darfurian residents and the Janjaweed militants, she said, are Muslim.

“You can go online and read the complete history of the genocide, but you simply can’t get it to make sense,” Messinger said.

The region’s Muslim identity, however, cannot be automatically treated as an explanation for the genocide, she said, cautioning students against faulting a religious identity for an act of human evil.

“Don’t make the mistake of assigning [the blame] to any one group of people,” she said. “Whatever it is that caused this is the same as it was in Germany and Cambodia.”

Messinger framed her speech as a “plea to a powerful university” to help stop the genocide in Darfur and prevent further massacres in the world. She urged Notre Dame and Indiana to divest from companies that buy or sell Sudanese oil, as 38 other colleges and universities across the nation have done already. She also said individuals should push private investing firms, such as Fidelity and Berkshire Hathaway, to follow that lead.

Messinger said each of the 2.5 million Darfur refugees has his or her own story – but all of these stories “are chillingly the same.”

When the Janjaweed attack a village, they start by bombing the town using Sudanese government planes painted white to look like humanitarian aid planes, she said. The Janjaweed militia then enters the village on horseback and trucks, brandishing knives, slaughtering the men, raping the women, killing the children and killing the livestock, whose carcasses they use to contaminate the well water, Messinger said.

“Rape is being used as a weapon of war in Darfur,” she said. “It is incomprehensible, but it is happening.”

Messinger described the refugee camps in Darfur and Chad as “appearing to stretch forever across the desert.”

In these camps, the women attempt to support themselves by gathering firewood, but they often must venture more than two kilometers outside the camps – at risk of attacked by the Janjaweed – to find any tree branches.

One woman, nonetheless, told Messinger she wouldn’t consider sending her husband or her son because she feared they would get killed if they were captured.

“I only get raped,” she said.

In light of the tragedies that are repeated every day in Darfur, the question of what needs to be done to stop the cycle naturally presents itself, she said.

While Messinger said she acknowledges no single individual can save the world, every bit of effort counts. She cited an old Hebrew teaching that says “It’s not our responsibility to complete the world, but we’re not allowed to refuse to participate.”

Individuals can participate by contacting local officials, especially at the state level, she said. After the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed Bill 1484 that mandated divestment from companies that give money to Sudan, the bill died Wednesday. The chairman of the committee that reviews House bills before they are presented to the state senate rejected the resolution – a disappointing event for Messinger.

Messinger urged individuals to become informed in these issues, call the White House comment line, write to local newspapers, raise awareness in the community and tell family and friends about the crisis. She told students to consider participating in the ongoing Africa Awareness Week on campus, as there will be a march Thursday outside Main Building to protest the genocide.

Messinger said people always question what they would have done had they been presented with the opportunity to save Jews during the Holocaust. But she said she does not believe this question is relevant, saying individuals should “question not what would you have done, but what are you doing.”

She termed her organization’s work in Darfur a “Holocaust memorial program,” inviting students to help stop the bloodshed before the tragedy reaches levels of atrocity akin to the Holocaust.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, and I hope that more of you will join us,” she said.

The AJWS also works with grassroot organizations to finance small businesses in Nicaragua or establish nursery schools in underprivileged South African villages.