The actions of activists a world away can have an impact on the crisis in Darfur, says Ruth W. Messinger, but as long as the genocide continues, no one is doing enough.
Messinger, president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, spoke to about 200 people at the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh on Feb. 21. She has spent time in the war-ravaged Texas-sized section of western Sudan, examining how best American Jews can help ease the suffering.
The conflict, raging since July 2003, has caused between 200,000 and 450,000 deaths, depending on which count is used. The government-funded Janjaweed militia is targeting specific ethnic groups, burning villages and killing, torturing and raping the inhabitants.
"You need to look at the faces of people who are victims of a genocidal horror," Messinger said, displaying photos taken by her and others of people in Darfur. She drew parallels between the Darfur crisis and the Holocaust: "As a Jewish community, we described Hitler as a madman. We have to face the fact that we don't understand this level of evil."
She told the story of a woman named Fatima, who was raising five sick children in a refugee camp after her village was burned. In order to cook the grain the United Nations World Food Program gives them, she and her sister have to leave the camp and roam farther and farther to find firewood, risking rape.
The most important thing Americans can do, Messinger said, is financial divesture -- not buying from companies that in any way do business with Sudan. Pittsburgh City Council passed a Sudan divestiture resolution in October. Messinger says citizens should also demand that the U.S. government apply financial pressure to Sudan, and shame China -- whose burgeoning economy depends on foreign oil and which buys much of it from Sudan -- into ceasing to do business with Sudan's government.
According to the AJWS, U.S.-imposed sanctions do not allow U.S. companies to do business with the Sudan. However, "many U.S. corporations, mutual funds and individuals are invested in foreign companies that operate there," according to the AJWS. Response to the financial divestiture program has been positive, thus far, the AJWS claims. Swiss Power Company ABB has decided to halt all non-humanitarian business, and the German company Siemens AG --which does have a strong U.S. presence -- has said it will leave the Sudan by July. (A Siemens subsidiary owns operations in Pittsburgh, including a power-generation business once operated by Westinghouse.)
U.S. companies currently the target of the AJWS divestment campaign are investment and insurance firm Berkshire Hathaway -- the country's 12th-largest company, according to Fortune magazine -- and Fidelity Investments, the country's largest mutual-fund company. Both companies invest in the Chinese oil company PetroChina, which currently does business with the Sudan.
"The government has heard from us and heard us," she said, noting that President George W. Bush mentioned the conflict in the State of the Union Address.
David Stanger, director of the American Jewish Museum, said the conflict is a "universal and humanitarian concern." Messinger's interactions with local activists are energizing and encouraging, he says, in the face of a horrible conflict on the other side of the world.
Twelve-year-old Jennifer Schwartz, a student at Shadyside Academy, first heard about the crisis at the talk, and has decided to incorporate activism surrounding the crisis into her bat mitzvah project.
Amitte Rosenfeld and Teddy Widom, a junior and senior at Allderdice, sold T-shirts and bracelets to raise funds for their school's chapter of STAND [Students Taking Action Now Darfur]. Widom said having the event at the JCC was a great form of outreach: "[C]ulturally speaking, in America, faith-based communities are very powerful."
Interfaith efforts were obvious: some in attendance, there to learn about a conflict involving the Muslim Janjaweed at a Jewish community center, wore smudges on their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday.
The Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition will march and rally on Sat., April 28. The march begins at Freedom Corner, in the Hill District, at 2 p.m. and proceeds to Market Square, where the rally begins at 3 p.m.