Approximately 25 Wesleyan students joined 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators for peace in Darfur in New York City’s Central Park on Saturday. The students represented WESTAND, the Wesleyan chapter of the national movement Students Taking Action Now for Darfur (STAND).
The demonstration was one of many global demonstrations held on Saturday as part of the Global Day for Darfur. The primary aim of the New York rally was to press the United Nations to send troops into Darfur.
“The rally was a big success,” said Liat Olenick 08, one of WESTAND’s leaders. “To get an article on the front page of the New York Times brought attention to the issue in our country. Rallies in other countries brought attention to the issue throughout the world.”
Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State for the Clinton administration, and Representative Christopher H. Smith, Republican from New Jersey, were among those who spoke in New York.
It was echoed throughout the day that the conflict in Darfur is not a partisan issue. Speakers expressed that the estimated 200,000 civilian deaths in Darfur and the two million displaced people should be a concern of every global citizen, regardless of political affiliations.
Other speakers at the rally included the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA Larry Cox, representatives from eleven national Darfuri organizations, and actress Mira Sorvino. Groups O.A.R. and Big & Rich were featured among the musical performers.
This week, WESTAND is organizing a call-in demonstration where there will be group members outside of the campus center, Mocon, Olin library and Wesshop at noon Tuesday through Friday soliciting students to leave a phone message about Darfur at the White House.
“Making your voice heard this week is especially crucial because the African Union’s peacekeeping forces are set to pull out of Darfur in late September,” Olenick said.
WESTAND was established two years ago after a group of University students attended a conference at which they learned about the goals of the movement. According to STAND’s national website, the mission of each STAND chapter is “to educate others on Darfur, raise relief funds, and advocate for political action.”
In the past, WESTAND has held advocacy campaigns, lobbied Congress to pass resolutions regarding the conflict in Darfur, and organized vigils and letter writing campaigns.
Historically, STAND has been committed to raising awareness of the crimes against humanity committed by Sudanese soldiers and the Janjaweed in Darfur.
Ben Ahles ’08, a founding member of WESTAND, explained that while the best solution for the crisis in Darfur is currently “actual intervention” in the form of military support, he hoped that STAND would continue fundraising for Save the Children. An independent organization, Save the Children has helped supply water filtration systems, food, and clothing to Darfuris in refugee camps.
Ahles said that as long as there are vast problems in Darfur, WESTAND members have no plans of giving up their cause in the near future. According to Ahles and current leader Olenick, doing nothing is much worse than struggling to make change.
“There’s so much to be accomplished even if it’s not in absolute terms,” Olenick said. “It’s so easy to feel helpless and not want to do anything, but it’s important to focus on what we can do, like raise money and raise awareness of the issue through campus activities.”
Gitanjali Prasad ’08, another WESTAND leader, agreed in saying that the conflicts in Darfur demand that people stay dedicated to their resolution.
“When WESTAND started two years ago, we thought the problem in Darfur would be resolved quickly, but now more than ever there is a need for immediate action,” Prasad said.
One problem in resolving the issue, according to WESTAND member Nikki Holtzman ’10, is that most people are not aware of the situation’s gravity.
“Many people know that Sudan is in Africa and that there is a genocide there, but they don’t understand the extent of the carnage,” Holtzman said.
The genocide in Darfur first drew worldwide attention in 2003. The Sudanese government employed the Janjaweed militia to respond to insurgency, resulting in the infamously brutal and inhumane campaign of ethnic cleansing against civilians in the region of western Sudan.
Attempts to provide military and humanitarian aid have been resisted by the Sudanese government, which plans to ask African Union peacekeepers to leave Darfur at the end of this month. Darfur’s future without peacekeeping forces is a critical concern for Darfur activists.